Caught by the River

The Built Environment

Will Burns | 11th May 2018

Will Burns reviews ‘The Built Environment’, the debut poetry collection from Emily Hasler

At the bottom of a long track you turn left, eastward, into a beech wood. At this time of year there are bluebells, birdsong. You can identify a few, others are beyond your knowledge, or playing tricks with their songs. They don’t quite come correctly to you out of your books, perhaps. You walk down into the gulch between two hills. Slowly the beeches give way to conifers. At some point on the path, because of course the way through the wood is its path, you see a sign. Wendover Woods is being transformed – sorry about the mess. The path leads you slowly, gently uphill, past the sign, and eventually to the highest point in these hills in which you are walking. The point is marked with a stone. Nearby there is a carpark, a cafe, a popular adventure area involving ropes and pulleys and swings and bridges erected high up in the trees. And there is also, now, metal fencing that runs the length of the carpark to the north, behind which you can see felled trees, piles of earth, diggers and tractors, high-vis vests, large piles of stone, brick, more earth, sand. This is still the wood. You can still feel its coolness, see the light flecked on the forest floor through the canopy. But you are also witness to construction and destruction, human assemblages and small acts of (re)encroachment by the plants and birds and animals. So where, exactly, do you think you are? ‘Things, after all,/are in the habit of changing.’

Emily Hasler has built a collection full of these kinds of folds of ideas, a book that put me in mind of Thor’s adventure with the giant Utgarda-Loki, where everything (including that name of course) is almost but not quite what it seems. Where the world and its forces are confused, shifting, tricky. But it is relationships rather than oppositions that Hasler’s language suggests, much like the forms of Utgarda-Loki’s trickery. In the poem Cambridge Primitive, the speaker describes ‘a crude picture of happiness—/as simple as a shell, as a harbour/with houses in green and pink,’ and we might feel justified in asking which of these things (dwellings, buildings) is truly simple. Perhaps a ‘sword is a sword is a sword’ after all, but these poems assert the right of words to mean as much as we may imagine them to. In the poem quoted here, On Reading the Meaning of ‘Falchion’ in an Encyclopaeia, this stanza plays ‘sword’ against ‘word’, ‘sort’ and ‘wound’ to load the meaning of each with the heft of the others.

As the poet says in the title poem, ‘things stand in for each other’, and so create this sphere of connections, intimacies and inversions as observed, accurately and always beautifully, throughout the collection. A world where the ‘middle of nowhere is an exact place’ and ‘metal turns to wood, wood/to bone, ruins to wrack’ is surely a world with less division than we often believe between its ‘society of parts’. The human and the non-human are always here complicatedly and originally linked. A book, then, for the anthropocene—for an earth fundamentally changed by one species and beyond what we might call repair, and yet which remains the only earth, the only environment, we have, the one we have built, and the one through which we must live with its bridges, art, buildings, ‘beery rivers’ and ‘bogged banks, banked boats.’ It is a book primed with wonder at this world and its histories and geographies and cultures, a wonder which suggests a way to live through it more fully, a way to accurately assess its makings, and its makings of us—

                                                                                  The Half Moon, a pub in
this same town, or close enough, an adjoining village.

We can’t tell between the truly connected and contiguous.
We see the half and believe… in time—the fullness of it.

We see the moon and it gives us the sun, a memory of

And yet it is also a deeply-felt book, clear-eyed and honest in its sadnesses, subtly resisting its own technical or purely intellectual readings. In Difference, the tone is effortlessly elegiac—

All winter the river was one creature.
It shrank and  expanded, but maintainedits borders.
I saw to the bottom. Firm sinew.

Clear curve. I swam in it as long as I could bear.

The weight falling on that ‘bear’ to end the line is pitch-perfect and un-showy, and as the punctuation disintegrates in the poem, along with the riverbed itself, we do indeed find ourselves ‘beyond reach’—bodies both thought and unthought, blurring into the flow of river. The next poem, too, finds a startling opening few lines with which to arrest our emotional attention, ‘After all, I could find no way to speak to myself/that was not crudely structural. Crazed, as if paving.’ These lines almost give answer to the speaker of the previous poem, positing a mode of rebuilding the self, as imperfect and inevitable as that may be—‘Purely structural. No way.’

The poet of this brilliant, smart debut truly knows ‘how lucky we are to see ourselves in everything’ and wears that considerable wisdom lightly. We are drawn in with and by her, exposed and comported and instructed. She is full of as much belief as knowledge, as much ‘sweet zeer’ as heartbreak, and always, one feels, a profound love for the ‘wonderful things’ that she acknowledges the dead must leave to the living but, hopefully, singing as they go.


The Built Environment, published by Liverpool University Press, is out now and available here.

Emily Hasler joins us at this year’s Port Eliot Festival. See our full stage lineup here.