Emily Hasler’s latest collection ‘Local Interest’ was published last month by Pavilion Poetry. It’s humbling to be reminded of our space within the wider ecosystem, writes Jess Mc Kinney.
Local Interest is the second collection from Emily Hasler, published with Pavilion Poetry in April 2023. The earthy poems enclosed follow in the stream worn through by her acclaimed debut collection The Built Environment (2018).
A partner of Liverpool University Press, Pavillion are in their ninth year of championing contemporary poetry from both emerging and established writers. I first became aware of their work when Bhanu Kapil’s How to Wash a Heart crossed my desk several years ago, and since then have been keenly delighted; keeping an eye out for their identifiable pantone-esque covers, and enjoying their habitual tendency to publish in threes. Hasler’s new book is a gift brought forth in their latest wave, situated alongside fresh work from Jodie Hollander and Katie Farris.
The collection starts and ends, quite literally, with the earth. The opening poem ‘Mud’ explores the idea of soil anthropomorphised, ‘a singular creature / of variable size / with a great many mouths’. This playful opening, with a carefully considered concept communicated in the same breath, sets the tone for the rest of the book. Amid the commingling elements awash on the page, Hasler explores the notion of symbiosis, how components of the living breathing world work together and depend on each other. She speaks of the earth as if it were an animal or person: ‘it adores a Water / and they mingle parts / twice daily’. In this way Hasler puts forth her intention, taking cues from the land that surrounds her, considering the impact from both human and environmental factors.
Notably the poet resides on the River Stour, living and writing between south Suffolk and north Essex. Poised on the seam which divides two counties ‘at the point where salt and freshwater meet’, this accounts for the poet’s interest in borders. She questions the presence of boundaries and their permeability. Within this geographical division of land, sits the idea of locality, belonging and identity. Hasler asks of herself, the reader, other locals and visitors to the landscape, why we draw these lines in the land, what is their function, and what have they come to represent.
In a recent interview with Melissa Thomas, Hasler acknowledges the title’s origin: taken from the section of the library in which she conducts research, expertly balancing factual sources and creative flow. She admits that ‘the collection started out as an excuse to revel’ in source texts, evident from the giddy energy which embodies the poems. A familiar feeling to any creative who finds joy in the informational. To me, this echoes the sentiment proposed by Julia Cameron, that our ‘capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention’. These poems remind us that there is joy to be found through tuning into the world around us, taking stock of the smallest details, ‘O to be so charmed by the existence of things’. Hasler’s work has sent this reader down countless fascinating research rabbit holes, and that is part of the gift she imparts.
These poems conduct experiments, through working within self-imposed parameters, of poetic form, geographical tallies, historical records and information — adding further weight to the idea that constraints can indeed augment the possibilities of artistic perception, and ultimately expand our conceptual scope. By challenging herself to create within this framework, Hasler enables herself and the reader to consider a greater range of possibilities and ideas.
This playful and experimental approach feeds into Hasler’s panoramic consideration of her creative subjects, allowing her to seamlessly shift between ideas, perspectives, timelines, landscapes and rivers. Her musings on familiar configurations and local sites carry universal reflections. Darting between micro and macro points of view, she encourages the reader to ‘look harder’ and look again.
The relationship between the individual and larger environment is navigated deftly, portrayed not only through the permeation of borders, but as an echo of the symbiosis at work. ‘Cobbold Point’, the first poem in which the poetic ‘I’ is present, describes ‘the breakwater like a curved spine / my curved spine breaking the water’. The speaker has been absorbed by the body of water, the membrane between the two all but dissolved. Thoughts appear in italics, recurring like waves; ‘the coast, for the most part, is thinking’ as the speaker’s internality informs outward movement. This device is employed throughout the collection, and further displays Hasler’s ability to navigate boundaries between the natural and man-made, human and non-human.
Subject matter stems from research like tributaries, exploring shifting landscapes, disappearing landmarks, habitats impacted, changing natural cycles and patterns. Language ebbs and flows, transforming and disappearing in parts, echoing the larger geographical movement and abrasion at work, as seen in ‘Erosion and Deposition’. The hybridity of Hasler’s prose is one of the defining elements of the collection, a sensual patchwork composed of informational texts, polyphonic voices, thoughts, memories, borrowed terms and observations. She explores the space between sign and signifier in poems like ‘Starfish’, showcasing her capacity to occupy multiple points of view ‘like fire thinking / of itself seen from / the sky’.
Hasler is concerned with the roots of language, attempting to define and redefine what she encounters, propelled by accuracy. We never lose the sense of a mind grasping for knowledge. Beliefs and opinions shift with each wave of discovery, evolving over time ‘A breach exists: field is flooded / is not field’. Despite placing her faith in the factual, she reminds us that what we know is changeable, and doesn’t close herself off to surprise and wonder.
It’s humbling, to be reminded of our space within the wider ecosystem. It is not about ownership, Hasler cautions, but the importance of bearing witness. We are powerless against the larger forces at work, ‘the water here has always colluded with the earth’, and as such, we are compelled to support and work in harmony with their cycles. This harks back to a more traditional approach, when time was measured, knowledge and language derived, from interactions with the land. Collaborating and existing alongside these powers however require the acceptance of a certain immeasurable element — ‘the months must happen in their allotted order, while the seasons do as they please’.
The beliefs established in this symbiotic way of life are preserved and communicated through folklore, oral histories and myth. Examples of which can be found in ‘The Age of a Coastal Sail’, ‘Deaths’ and ‘Here Be Dragons’, where language is ‘swollen out of shape with meaning’. While we benefit from working in harmony with the earth, taking cues from its cycles and seasons, there will always be an aspect of mystery that goes beyond our understanding. Historically, communities relied on superstitions, talismans and rituals as a means of protection against the unknowable, which Hasler acknowledges in ‘Superstant’ — a poem about ‘Telling the Bees’, a ritual in which beekeepers notify their hives of a death in the family, supposedly to help shepherd their soul into the afterlife.
Working within these recurring natural cycles also creates a sense of reliability and renewal, as seen in ‘It’s Not Over Yet’, where the speaker is hopeful, anticipating the change in season: ‘here I am in springtime, wishing for the brink of autumn, because I see it coming’. On the whole this is a well versed theme in the world of eco-poetry, but carries out important work here. Reminding the reader to keep faith, that life finds a way, written at a time when whole communities were confined to their locality and unsure of the future. Hasler points to local growth and the gradual changes at hand to remind us that ‘things are still happening’. Cycles continue, changed or otherwise, in the face of uncertainty, Covid-19 and climate catastrophe alike.
By the close of the book, Hasler encourages readers to be mindful of how they view themselves in relation to the planet and environment. The poems remind us that while the natural world can be a source of wonder, we are privileged to be privy to it. In today’s world, we need to continually negotiate that perspective, not just admiring but working alongside the environment, its local wonders and cycles, that we are ultimately responsible for.
‘Local Interest’ is out now and available here (£10.44).
Jess Mc Kinney is a poet from Inishowen, Donegal. Her poetry has appeared in The Moth, The Stinging Fly, Banshee, SAND Journal, Channel Magazine, Abridged, The Poetry Jukebox and the New Island anthology The New Frontier: Writing from the Irish Border. Her debut pamphlet ‘Weeding’ was published with Hazel Press in September 2021, and was shortlisted for the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award.