While the idea of a post-humanist age is a recent concept, the relationship between the human and the natural world that emphasises the enormity, endurance and the significance of the latter isn’t. In Continental Drift, Nancy Gaffield explores the finite and the infinite, with humans beings in the former category and land belonging to the latter This collection is Gaffield’s second and is a positive advance on her first collection, Tokaido Road. Her writing now flows more smoothly, possibly due to her gaining more confidence. Whilst this new poetry collection urges us to seize the day, it also serves as a harsh reminder of the limits of human life. On first reading, I wondered whether Gaffield’s verse would present the idea of life’s finality in a way that might make us fear death. Happily, the collection explores both the sombre and the joyous aspects of the shared experiences of life and death.
The sequence of poems in Continental Drift is divided into four main parts, all of which are related to beaches and the sea, perhaps a reminder that land and water are connected. By splitting the collection into segments –“Crossing the Water”, “Inclusions”, “Po-Wa-ha” and “The Lay of the land” – we see a clear progression in the collection’s overall meaning.
Drawing her inspiration from a wide range of sources, from Emily Dickinson to cosmology to Japanese ideology, Gaffield is able to present ideas about the endurance of the land in both optimistic and pessimistic light. The Japanese ideologies and phrases she invokes are ones she has already employed in her previous collection, Tokaido Road. This is particularly evident in the last poem “[Es]cape” where Gaffield discusses landscape using the four different types of “borrowing landscape” that exist in Japanese culture. This relates back to the collection’s central conceit: while land is forever, our lives are not. Thus inspired, and making careful use of stanzaic forms and onomatopoeia, Gaffield is able to present a clear and concise argument in Continental Drift.
In one of her opening poems “De Profundis”, named after Psalm 130, emotional states of despair, conveyed through metaphors of oceanic depth and darkness, are moored to the offered hope of redemption:
inside. Broken glass. The wind
Bellows, curtain billows.
The poem is centred spatially, and laid out in a series of varying line lengths that might be likened to waves ebbing and flowing. Harsh sounds and short, sharp sentences depict the tough and almost unforgiving nature of the sea, a rhythm akin to the lapping of waves. Gaffield describes the ocean as dark and immense as life itself so often is.
However, the collection also presents these ideas in more hopeful ways. Consider the poem, “Sea in Winter”, which demonstrates the ocean’s calm in a stormless season, devoid too of human interventions. Just as in “De Profundis”, the poem is laid out as a series of waves, but this time they are gentle and, lap the land:
today. Shoals of fish spin
In a shaft of silver.
That same gentleness is also evident in Gaffield’s use of alliteration: her reassuring watery sibilance created by the several soft “s” sounds in the stanza. Again, we are presented with land as continuing and enduring, although this time it comes with great hope and with a sense of peace.
These poems offer a celebration of how we can live life to the fullest and also appreciate the land. This is the essence of Gaffield’s message, for unlike the ocean and the landscape we will not be around forever.