Reliquiæ is an annual little magazine of poetry, short fiction, non-fiction, translations and visual art.Volume Two’s deep-green cover asks the reader to connect the book with “A tree, a rock, an embedded boulder, a ruin, a body, a hand, a passage” before opening it. These are not clearly linked objects: you can enter a ruin, hold a hand, or climb a tree, but the actions are not interchangeable. Are we to group these together, to create a landscape, and then journey across it? There is no need: this has been done for us, in this expertly curated anthology of writings on the natural world, folklore, and botanical sciences.
From the twenty-three articles, a number of strands emerge. The significance of wolves in British mythology, particularly sightings of the “last wolf” in Britain, is discussed in Mark Valentine’s survey of the topic. Although primarily factual, it offers wonderful poetic moments – the reader encounters “Jock of Batsaddle, who killed the last wolf in England”, and is introduced to a variety of now-forgotten authors, including Kerruish, who wrote the 1922 werewolf novel, The Undying Monster. Additional lupine content is provided by Charles Hamilton Smith’s article on wolves and affection.
Intriguing inclusions are several ‘snippets’ from larger works, or incidental notes. Gerard Manley Hopkin’s “On Trees” contains a passage of feverish transcendence wherein the boundaries between botanical and human become undone: “Lobes of the trees. Cups of the eyes… Bows of the eyelids…Eyelids like leaves, petals, caps, tufted hats.” The architectural elision of the prominent sensory receptors in the human body with features common to trees is extremely strange; more so the fragmented sentences, which hover between observation and incantation. Reliquiæ is a journal invested in recording the incantatory and divine.
Peter O’Leary provides an extraordinary translation from the Kalevala, the 19th Century Finnish epic-poem by Elias Lönnrot. The translated fragment begins: “Where does the music come from? Here’s where: from an oak tree/ compound a balm. For fastening together wood, stories, wind.” What are we encountering: ritual, rite, or story? It often seems these distinctions are resisted, to conjure a sense of the magical and mystical.
Don Domanski, the Canadian poet, in his essay “Poetry and the Sacred”, examines this mystic power – a connection “so intense that [he] can’t really separate them out”. He defines the sacred in opposition to the religious or spiritual, as nebulously being “the fundamental experience one has with time and space, with the seemingly endless corporeality that flows into our consciousness”. This wooliness around the definition of terms, with academic precision replaced by an emotive insistence on perception through feeling, is a sentiment that runs throughout this anthology, and forms its single weak point.
Writing about the natural world often receives bad press for being conservative in values and nostalgic for periods before “progress” ruined the natural world, both nebulous concepts. Although some content attempts to contest this narrative tendency (contributions from Thomas A. Clark and Julia McCarthy are notable in this regard), on the whole its contributors are fairly reactionary. Some of this is down to selection of passages from 18th and 19th century naturalists faced with industrial change: Mary Russell Mitford writes of the ‘murder’ of trees, declaring that “even the heavens seem to sympathize with the devastation”. W.H. Hudson, the late-19th century botanist, refers to city-dwellers as “little funguses cultivated in heated cellars”. Whilst these pieces have historic interest, there is perhaps too much of the “relic” here, as these historic pieces can sit awkwardly alongside modern inclusions. But this is perhaps all part of Reliquiæ’s aim. The back cover gives us instructions as to what to do with the items on the cover: “Thus/ you will construe/ a sanctuary/ for the lost”. What is being lost, or preserved, in the sanctuary? Is it forgotten nature writing, nature itself, or Domanski’s state of the ‘sacred’ that sits between? “Little funguses” or not, venturing to this “sanctuary” and staying a while with its contents is a wonderful experience.