The Manchester Review

Jemma Borg | Wilder | reviewed by Jack McKenna

Jemma Borg | Wilder | Pavillion Poetry: £9.99

In Wilder, Jemma Borg tackles existential pressures with a series of subtle and flexible eco-poetic experiments that display a range of impressive results.

The opening poem is devoted to the sharp, spiny ‘Marsh thistle’. In asking ‘What part of a human soul is this thistle?’, the collection roots itself in the thicket of ‘purple clusters’, ‘green swords’, and a ‘nectar-rich candelabra rampant with bees’. There is little room for the ‘human soul’ when diving into this ‘unpalatable’ flora, instead, the poem uncovers the plant’s ‘deep rooting / and thistle-intent’. The downward motion of scanning the earth excludes any metaphysical questions to assert, as a line break powerfully highlights, ‘This is’. From this simple recognition and appreciation, ‘upwardness begins again’.

Nature’s wildness reframes our perception. The sea ‘erases borders / between sea and sky’ in ‘Shadows and warriors’ and the ‘roar’ of burning sage leaves makes ‘you want to follow its roar … to the old, dead stars’ in ‘A song of hunger’. Borg is challenging the rigid boundaries of a man­-nature dynamic. With a background in genetics, she demonstrates how evolution is not just gaining features but losing those no longer essential: in stepping into the sea, ‘the tyranny of the self / is shed’. Long sentences filled with clauses cascade ideas like scientific prose. Borg uses poems like ‘Shadows and warriors’ to join the mythical, lyrical, and natural into an open series of questions and reflections. These poems are sharp:

                                        Tell me, do you also think

           when you hear the goats crying like children,
           that mind is not ours alone,
                      but belongs to everything?

In ‘Peacock butterfly, late’, the insect is ‘busy / and overdue’, and eventually ‘Necessity sets her to her task’. Though the title defines the butterfly by its lateness in the season, the fragile beauty of its flight grabs attention, imploring you to:

           the articulate lightness and, little more
           than the weight of a dance, the soundless doors
                                                                                of her wings breathing –

Carried by assonance and careful line breaks, the pressure to act before change highlights the subtlety of flapping wings. Like the marsh thistle’s upwards-downwards movement, the wings work between ‘two states’ that ‘flicker in thesis and antithesis’.

This dialectic is one way of understanding what Borg means by ‘wilder’. If to ‘bewilder’ is to confuse and to ‘wilder’ is to ‘lose one’s way’, then one method to fulfil those verbs is to ‘flicker’ in contradiction. This uncertain and dynamic state suggests a Keatsian Negative Capability, to accept and embrace truths beyond reason. Exhibiting this is the trees in ‘Broadwater warren’ that were ‘not wild in their birth’, meaning planted by humans for profit, and have been ‘left to their own company’. Over time, ‘didn’t they sway beyond the force of intention?’. Created for a brief economic purpose, they have continued to grow from an essential life force. As a result, ‘this is what they were: themselves, and self-willed’. Wildness is a process and a way of being. Despite the contradictions of the tree’s existence or the butterfly’s movements, they live.

Gradually the collection includes more humans as its subjects. For these poems, the adjustment is awkward and the imagery less precise. ‘An anecdote for September’ depicts a fragmentary conversation that moves through various allusions and the speaker’s desires towards life-defining decisions of ‘raising twins’ or ‘moving house’. Anxious in its frantic movements, it perhaps embodies what an earlier poem concluded: ‘To be alive was absurd’. The ‘he’ of the poem curbs the questioning by suggesting ‘let’s drink some wine’; the short, punchy sentences relax into one long, final acceptance of ‘each other’. It was, after all, a ‘positive unravelling’. The turn from anxious questioning to soothing wine is to accept bewilderment and stop resisting the absurdity.

‘Ultrasound’ recontextualises all the preceding poems with a maternal aspect. The butterfly’s lateness, for example, takes on a new definition when the speaker finds ‘you / are barely more than a sound … a two-valved butterfly-engine’. Converting the earlier poem’s insect into a symbol of motherhood and continuity, it enables the speaker to reflect that ‘motion is life / and nothing grows if it cannot move’. This is empowering, then, when they ‘hear the river rushing’ on the ultrasound, because it is ‘the river of all our bloods’.

This re-contextualisation points to how rewarding re-reading the collection is. Certain poems can shift your focus into new approaches, such as how the ekphrastic ‘Les Pyramids de Port-Coton, Rough Sea’ uses Monet and points towards the collection’s numerous translations and allusions, how ‘The engineer’ dramatises Chernobyl to hint at the latent sense of climate crisis, and how ‘Aphids’ reflects on nouns and what is inherited through language. You get lost in the wilderness of this collection. Following different turns rewards you with new paths.

Wildness ties such wanderings together with a perspective that connects and comforts. ‘Verticality’ and ‘The tall, gaping mouth of the redwood’ use trees as models for being. The first ‘follows light, not time’ and its ‘standing life … is a long becoming’. Meanwhile, the second stands tall as a forest fire is ‘animating’ its ‘seeds’. The fire creates an opportunity for ‘rekindling’. Destruction, in nature’s dialectics, can mean creation. These later poems unify the collection’s experiments in adopting nature’s contradictory perspective as a response to the existential challenge pregnancy causes. The death of an old self makes way for the birth of a new life.

‘Wilder’ and ‘San Pedro and the bee’ are the collection’s finest. By making you turn the book on its side, ‘Wilder’ uses long lines and wide gaps to formally embrace this new approach. It is a neat summary of the collection’s impulse to:

                                                              get lost
                       in the woods, be wilder

‘San Pedro’ depicts a psychedelic ritual as a final experiment in immersing the self in wildness. Ultimately, it is an excavation into what is essential ‘below the decorative order of our lives’. The less said on these poems the better, they are satisfying conclusions to a fulfilling collection.

Wilder experiments with nature to find a better perspective. Like any scientific enterprise, not all of them are successful. The successes, however, outweigh any failures and offer open reflections on climate-anxious selfhood in sharp verse.


by Jack McKenna

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