Lucy Newlyn’s latest poetry collection is, as she puts it in “Not Ours”, “scholar quiet, cerebral”. Earth’s Almanac is a journey both through the seasons and through grief, attempting to find “a grammar of loss – a way of grasping / the shape and structure of desolation” (“Wreck”). The poems cohere around the death of Newlyn’s sister, and a sequence dedicated to her memory occupies the mid-point through the journey, or “The Year’s Midnight”.
In “Morning” we grasp the collection’s particular significance. The poem marks the immediate aftermath of the loss; Newlyn measures the hours by her sister’s “missing heartbeat”, buying
tulips for her bedside.
Their tight pointed heads shine
clear as a torch against the blankness.
For Newlyn, this blankness, this sense of absence can only be counterbalanced by the presentness of nature – the tight, shining tulip heads providing a material anchor from which to know “I am now, and here” (“Autumn”). In some ways, however, it is death itself that opens her perception onto the material world’s immediacy, negating the difference between human and non-human:
From the outer surfaces of things
and from the edges of thoughts and feelings
a membrane has been softened
and quietly, violently, removed. (‘Membrane’)
At times, though, her grief forces a retreat from nature. In “The Intruder”, for example, she is “baffled” by “darkness” and “close[s] the garden gate”. But the spaces of this collection make a gradual transition from kitchen and garden, and the introspective quads of Oxford University where Newlyn works, to the expanses of Cumbria and Cornwall, where she finds some solace.
Yet the knell of church bells in “The Road to Veryan”, whilst “healing”, marks the site of another grief: moving in to a house in “Veryan Green”, Newlyn has “Coleridge’s ‘sweet birthplace’ running through / [her] mind, again and again”, revealing something of what Harold Bloom called the anxiety of influence. Even the Cumbrian hills themselves “sink in reflections”, under the weight of their own poetic history, in “Derwentwater”. A scholar of Romantic literature, the absence of Newlyn’s sister is compounded by the absence of her poetic forbears. Her visit to Keats’s house in Rome is as much a release of her own “useless tears” as it is “A Romantic Pilgrimage”; she is both “reverent” pilgrim and “mourner”, “numbed by the absence coldly written there”.
Indeed for Newlyn, what is written is precisely what is absent. The “mottled”, “ivy-trailed” graves that list the “names of the dead” echo Jean-François Lyotard’s famous lament that “the object must first be constituted as lost for it to have to be signified”. But the names “fade on / mildewed marble”, and Newlyn’s poetic hold on her sister is fraught with the possibility of the failure of communication. In “Cherry Tree”, Newlyn’s distress is clear: “None of this speaks of her / none of it signifies”. “If I could tell you”, she writes, “there’d be no need of elegies”.
The fear expressed here is unfounded, however; the collection speaks of her sister with palpable emotion, evoking a real woman for whom we also grieve. It remembers fellow academics Susan Hurley and Graham Midgley with evident tenderness. But it does more than simply eulogise. The final section is formally experimental and environmentally radical in tone. The cellophane-wrapped flowers in “Anniversary” are “corpses fed on water and aspirin”. “High Tide in October” engages with petro-cultural discourse and “Remedies” “cherishes’” the “wisdom” of Rachel Carson. Recycling becomes an act of remembering we are impelled to practice: “You’d have to be made of stone / not to regret, not to look back”. Like the poets she cites, Newlyn explores the relationship between the presence of nature and the emptiness of loss. Earth’s Almanac asks, “what is it you miss, what is it you are missing?” at the same time as it offers the consolatory image of “unlooked for spring” in “mid-September”.