Poet Nancy Campbell reviews Nick Drake’s new collection, Out of Range: poems celebrating proximity and distance (spatial, temporal, emotional) to remark on the state we’re in, taking us on a journey through known worlds into unknown ones.
1,950 words: estimated reading time 8 minutes
Nick Drake has established a reputation for profound engagement with that trickiest of cultural endeavours, formulating a creative response to the climate crisis. Last summer saw the premier by London Symphonietta of Cave, an opera in which Drake’s libretto and Tansy Davies’ score relate a grieving father’s search for survival in a world devastated by climate change. Back in 2010 Drake was among the group of artists and scientists selected for the Cape Farewell voyage around the Svalbard archipelago; the resulting book-length poem, The Farewell Glacier bears witness to the effects of climate change on the polar ice. Increasingly, as the imminent consequences of sea level rise and species extinction become clear (not to mention human culpability) it is implausible to write of the natural world in isolation. Drake’s poems consider human nature, its ingenuity and artifice, our capacity for enacting violence on other humans as well as on the biosphere, whether actively or by omission. One of these works was enshrined in a permanent public art installation about Alan Turing, one of the pioneers of Artificial Intelligence, beneath a bridge in London’s Paddington Basin: Message from the Unseen World.
I imagine the cycle courier — the dazzling, zig-zagging star of Through the red light, the first poem in Drake’s new collection, “appearing from the primordial chaos / of the underpass … / not giving a flying fuck about red lights” — might have recently swung past Message from the Unseen World, heedless in his haste to the work’s continually shifting texts, its own unpredictable, algorithmic dynamics. The courier is destined to become a text too: it’s the poet who captures him, not a speed camera, before — like many other urban demi-gods in this electrifying collection — he passes ‘out of range’. Drake celebrates his outmanoeuvring of heavy gas-guzzling vehicles, his transgressive speed, before leading the reader on a book-long journey through known worlds and into unknown ones.
There is a devastating trio of Arctic poems (the polar ice, once seen, is not easily forgotten), but on the whole Drake turns his scrutiny on regions closer to home, from Achiltibue in the Highlands of Scotland to London’s East End. These may be familiar places, but Drake reveals afresh their ‘magic, mystery and wonder’, those qualities which the Romantic poet, mystic and mineralogist Novalis (1772-1801) once defined as the goal of the Romantic movement. In these poems Drake seems to share Novalis’s desire to awaken the reader: “to educate the senses, to see the ordinary as extraordinary, the familiar as strange, the mundane as sacred, the finite as infinite.” It is our everyday actions which need scrutiny in these times, being those which will destroy us.
Drake’s poems take a close and compassionate look at ordinary, sometimes disposable, objects that are too often taken for granted or scorned. Many have been created, cultivated or traded by humans — incandescent lightbulbs, a fatberg in the city’s sewers, peaches:
sunset red in their soft blue cardboard beds
that safeguarded their journey from the trees …
via the cargo belly of a 747
– Peaches for the Solstice.
The elegy for the fatberg (which is so graphic it is hard to read without gagging) is titled Stranger Thing, calling to mind Rilke’s Dinggedichte (‘thing poems’), quiet works which W.H. Auden described in the New Republic as expressing ideas with “physical rather than intellectual symbols”. Auden continued: “While Shakespeare, for example, thought of the non-human world in terms of the human, Rilke thinks of the human in terms of the non-human, of what he calls Things (Dinge).” In Drake’s work there is scarcely a filament, a “hair’s breadth” between these dualities. This approach has interesting ramifications at the present moment, when material culture threatens to overwhelm us.
In Still Life: Plastic Water Bottle (used), the now-ubiquitous shape of the bottle takes over the poem. It is as if plastic particles have made their way into the poem, as insidiously as they have the waters of the world. The layout of the text emphasises how impossible the physical object is to destroy. The water bottle speaks, asks: “Why did you / make us in / your image?” The reader gathers that, in the bottle’s worldview, humans are gods — but gods who find their creation turning against them. There are hints of the exiled duke and sorcerer Prospero, who governs the seas and creates storms, in echoes of lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Yet Drake’s poem is most reminiscent of the work of another Romantic poet, John Keats, whose Ode on a Grecian Urn considered human achievement in creating a vessel that outlasted ages, that told a story of its times. Whereas Keats hymned eternal Beauty — “When old age shall this generation waste, / Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe / Than ours, a friend to man” — Drake predicts eternal waste (unless an alternative ‘skin’ to plastic can be found?). Whereas Keats addressed the urn, it is Drake’s water bottle that addresses the reader, depriving the human of any voice or agency within the poem. In both poems, however, the enduring nature of the vessel becomes a means to meditate on human temporality.
The most haunting example of ‘the familiar as strange, the mundane as sacred’ in this collection comes in Ollamalloni, a poem which describes the experience of a common Aztec ball game from the perspective of a priest who believes he is witnessing a religious ritual. (Written for the London Olympics 2012, it indirectly celebrates the capital on a cultural high, before the 2016 Referendum.) Throughout the collection, without anger or agenda, a picture of the city and a febrile wider world emerges. London’s various pleasures include dancing in gay clubs until 3 a.m., the comforting fluorescent glow of all-night stores, and people-watching in cafes at weekends — it’s a place in which, despite many inequalities, people at least have the right to love who they choose. But encounters between humans are rarely satisfying. The poet is more likely to interact with the whorl of hair at the back of stranger’s head, scrutinised while sitting on the top deck of a bus, than look into their eyes. The script of the street is a tragic monologue: the ‘raving statue’ of a begger (Maenad); a homeless man, venting his rage on being taken short and finding the public toilets closed (London Fields). In Night Bus, a man who is ‘keening’ and incomprehensible:
lamentations to the empty street —
What words in what languages is he yelling
across time zones and distances?
While some poems present uninhibited diatribes, others consider barriers to communication. In The Dancing Satyr, a bronze statue at the Royal Academy has been dredged up from the sea — a poignant forerunner of the plastic water bottle, perhaps. It is “resuscitated but refusing to answer our interrogations” and, like a warped digital device, “uttering a modem feedback / at a pitch too extreme for human ears to hear”.
Out of range
Communication across distance is a preoccupation — whether through the fine arts of the past or the obdurate and brilliant promise of technology. In the title poem, a mobile phone no longer works ‘out of range’. Failing to get a signal, Drake retreats to the “windowed coffin” of what might be “the last phone box on earth”. He speaks past the dead spiders in the handset, into an unseen place 5,000 miles distant, tapping into “rush-hour babble”. The ability to communicate at the vast range of a globalised society is necessary to facilitate our closest relationships — and the future.
The phone box might also be a Tardis, of course, although Drake is too subtle to say so — and this ambitious book doesn’t stop at the Earth’s atmosphere but takes the reader into outer space. The roads along which the cycle courier swoops are supplanted by a more vertiginous course. The furthest range in the collection is saved for the Voyager I spacecraft:
with the immortal gold LP
fixed on your side,
coded for ancient technology, our message
of the sounds of life on earth, all that we are
or wish to seem –
– Life on Earth.
Voyager I carries a message that will have aged by the time it reaches its destination: “44,000 nightfall years / to the next star”. As Stephen Hawking wrote in his posthumous book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, for the optimist there are two options for humanity’s future: “First, the exploration of space for alternative planets on which to live, and second, the positive use of artificial intelligence to improve our world.” The irony is that the technologies that characterise the Anthropocene, dependent on fossil fuels and rare earth minerals, have condemned human life, but also that — in the eyes of some thinkers — these same inventions now have the potential to save us too.
Technology facilitates connections between those who share a city (or planet, or solar system), between lovers, partners, friends, strangers, and those unknown generations who may inhabit a future world. They are present as a “delayed echo” (Out of Range). This convincing instinct for — not to put too fine a point upon it — love, mitigates grief at what is being lost. One poem, Send, returns to that by-now familiar anxiety about communication. The reader is relieved to discover that sending a text message will be less troublesome than the titular phone call. Initially, this gives every appearance of being a traditional sonnet, a love poem across time zones, with echoes of Shakespearean doubling in the lover’s observation of time differences: “my summer day’s your night”. In the fourteenth line — which in a sonnet would be the last — the narrator claims to hear voices in the cloud: “I know they say we love what we must lose.” But Drake does not permit such a mournful conclusion: “this poem will not have that ending”. Another quatrain follows, and no full stop.
Send, and other poems in this collection, aspires to connectivity rather than catharsis. Can our everyday actions rewrite the formal structures which surround us, Drake asks. Can we wrench fate around, and tell a different story to that which the satyr screams, as it dances “to Earth’s lost songs / in the radiant silence of the boundless dark”?
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Nancy Campbell is a writer and poet whose most recent book, The Library of Ice: Readings from a Cold Climate, (published by Scribner UK, 2018) was reviewed for ClimateCultures by Sally Moss. Nancy’s previous posts for ClimateCultures are The Polar Tombola and A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #7.
Out of Range is Nick Drake‘s fourth collection, and is published by Bloodaxe Books (2018). In these poems, he explores the signs, wonders and alarms of the shock and impact of ‘Generation Anthropocene’ on Earth’s climate and ecology. Nick’s previous collections include The Farewell Glacier (Bloodaxe 2012), which grew out of a Cape Farewell voyage around the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard to study climate change.
You can read three of Nick’s poems from Out of Range in full as part of his own contribution to the ClimateCultures series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects: Chronicle of the Incandescent Lightbulb; Still life: Plastic water bottle (used); and Stranger Thing. (And, in the first post in that series, you can also find my own reflections on the record attached to the Voyager 1 spacecraft that is the subject of Nick’s title poem, Out of Range).
You can watch a Royal Academy video showing The Dancing Satyr and discussing its discovery in the seas off Sicily in the 1990s.