Caught by the River


11th July 2020

GE Stevens reviews the final collection in Tim Cresswell’s Earthworks trilogy.

Plastiglomerate, the third of a poetry trilogy that explores our impact on Earth, is a term  — helpfully listed in Cresswell’s notes — that refers to a rock that forms when plastic is melded with shells, sand and other sedimentary material by fire. Basically it’s a kind of plastic stone left on beaches.  For Cresswell it is also a marker of our Anthropocene age because within it lies the molten evidence of our habits and neglect: ‘the toothbrush Esme shared before she spat / foam into the breakers’, or ‘the chewed blue cap of the one-buck biro / that leaked in the heat of the forest fire’. 

Despite his extensive research and experience as a geographer, Cresswell’s tone is not hot on condemnation. Instead his voice resonates with a detached matter-of-factness — redolent of a doctor imparting bad test results, Cresswell’s diagnosis is serious, specific and humane.  ‘The cod have long gone / but now there’s oil’ he tells us as he observes this new place where ‘everything’s different, or the same  / just five degrees askew.’  There’s a sluggish realism about his tone, a wider understanding that though one place might seem intact, another shore, not that far away, will be strewn with the monstrous rocks of  plastic debris. 

Travel and place are a key concern of Cresswell’s (he is a visiting professor at the Centre for Place Writing at the Manchester Met) and he takes us with him, from littered beaches to Amazonian fires to the troposphere, where ‘atoms swerve, winds diverge’. He’s at his best here, ranging between scopics and diverse landscapes with confident erudition. Cresswell is preoccupied with place, travel and environmental responsibility and the way he deals with the conflicting pulls of estrangement (as a poet) and engagement (as a geographer). In ‘Legend’, the poem closes with the speaker travelling, ‘north, far north of you and I’ towards another ecological disaster:

And north, far north of you and I, 
on some icy island beach
are whalebones, brittle, bleached
under magnetic Arctic skies. 

Behind the collection’s shifting landscapes is a speaker bewildered by how this reality has come to pass  – a writer who looks at the world and who looks at his poems ‘wondering what in the world did I do’. This existential exhaustion shows itself most effectively in the form of the poems, in particular the use of lists. Plastiglomerate’s central poem, ‘The Two Magicians’ is a recycling of the British folk ballad, ‘The Twa Magicians’. Cresswell takes its central theme of transformation and turns it into an ecological protest, whereby each fragmented section lists a new state of becoming: birds become hares, hares become greyhounds ‘sinews straining’, queen bees become ‘monoculture’  and so on. The second half of this extended poem is made up of lists Cresswell has collected, lists of the actual objects found inside the stomach of a dead 36 foot dead whale: ‘plastic – Misc bag material / plastic – Capri Sun juice pack / plastic – grocery bag’,  lists of oil fields, of names of winds, forms of gas, coal and oil, lists of chemical names, lists that roll down the page sometimes not even asking to be read, but to be acknowledged as a catalogue of damage.

Threaded through the collection are a handful of arrestingly beautiful lyrical moments. Particularly memorable is the ending of ‘In Brookline, Massachusetts, I learn a new route’ where, after describing the goings on in the Brookline, Cresswell writes: ‘This morning my son, Sam, / wore a lumberjacket shirt and blue nail polish. / His new friends call him Alice.’ It is a striking image because it is not a geographer noticing the world changing, but a father noticing his son’s transformation, both of which lie largely beyond his influence and control. It is made all the more moving by Cresswell’s unvarnished tone as he presents the scene but does not judge it or try to unpack it significance.  We meet Alice again, later in the collection, still with her ‘painted nails’,

fingers splayed fingers down
each one a flag that means 
something to her…………this one
transgender……that one asexual 
and one rainbow even I understand

Here again, there is a tenderness that is compelling, and so simply put. The language is uncomplicated, the syntax as you’d expect,  but the  vulnerable stalling broken lines, and the self-deprecating ‘dad’ quip at the end work to offset beautifully some of the more declarative poems in the collection. And Cresswell is aware of this, that he has two ways of seeing and saying things, one for his work, and one for those whom he loves — an acknowledgement captured elegantly in the poem ‘What I said was’ which begins: 

There are new islands forming off Iceland 
And worms a mile deep with teeth. 

What I meant to say was 

………….you can still sit 
………….in amongst the bluebell 
………….haze of woods in May

Plastiglomerate is a cursory reminder of the state we are in, that all places are in, told with a knowing, precise but also a deeply compassionate voice. Cresswell’s integrity is carried by the truthfulness of what he names, the events that are mentioned, the debris that are listed, but also by the concern he has for the natural world and for those closest to him. It’s a collection that is both protest and celebration and at times an amusing mixture of both. In ‘Beached’ Cresswell describes the locals’ reaction to the overpowering stink left by a beached whale on their shores. The librarian in the town decides to name the smells: ‘The librarian carefully catalogues references. Rancid bacon grease, rotten fish, eggs, cat pee, concentrated cow-farts. It might become bearable, she thinks, with the right words.’ Perhaps Cresswell, in this collection and in the two previous, has a similar plight; to choose ‘the right words’ in order to make the suffering of the planet, and his own in the face of it, bearable.


Plastiglomerate is out now, published by Penned in the Margins, and is available to purchase here, priced £7.99.

GE Stevens is studying for a PhD in poetry at Royal Holloway University. She is working on her first collection.