Ecopoet Helen Moore reviews Her Whereabouts, a new collection from fellow poet Joanna Guthrie, whose accumulated acts of noticing and subtle inferences weave her mother’s debilitating strokes with ecological loss in the climate crisis into a poetic memoir.
1,130 words: estimated reading time = 4.5 minutes
In a striking second collection, Joanna Guthrie’s often filmic work forms a poetic memoir, chronicling the aftermath of two debilitating strokes suffered by her mother. In Her Whereabouts, there is a steady accumulation of precise acts of noticing, with images created as handholds to chart a terrain of deep uncertainty, as the poet comes to terms with the severe injuries sustained to her mother’s brain. This imagery frequently connects with the natural world, and through this a thread of concern about the climate crisis is woven.
In ‘The start of something going wrong’, the second poem in the book, we read of an occurrence which reminds us of the moments prior to the onset of a tsunami:
It rained fish. This was the herald.
They thumped down on the hillside like silver blades
or loose tongues sliding whole from heads.
Guthrie also fuses the language of storms, particularly of lightning strokes, with the “dry heat that was a whole new season / day out day in by your shrill bed” (‘Indian Summer’). Inside and outside become merged in a new location, where the family’s focus is the mother, who occupies the centre of a labyrinth in which husband and children struggle to orientate themselves. And to process the emotional fall-out.
Loss — the personal and the planetary
In ‘Gibbous, waning’ the moon is compared to “a wounded boat – / or else a balloon as it deflates”, which the poet comes to see as a mirror of her own experience: “it’s me who’s punctured, is the vessel on her side / the shrunk balloon.” Avoiding self-pity, Guthrie’s attention to detail delivers entirely unsentimental poems, which are nonetheless full of pathos. Her prose poem, ‘Synapse as muscle’, focuses on the habitual mothering patterns in her brain-damaged mother. While in the poem entitled ‘What aphasia said’, we read a series of non-sequiturs and neologisms, which result from ‘aphasia’, the language disorder caused by the strokes.
Her mother’s loss of language leads the poet to contemplate the role of the brain, which is brilliantly evoked as “a mothership / that grew itself in the dark”, and
A pinwheel emerging out of space
sprouting a tail
its grey tunnels knitted by you only
the cortex an intricate skullcap.
(‘Questions after the fact’)
Ultimately, this inspires a new sense of her mother’s presence, which is found primarily in her eyes. But in searching for ‘her whereabouts’, Guthrie touches into Buddhist philosophy through the concept of ‘pativedha’ — “seeing a thing in its true nature, without name and label” — which moves her contemplation into the realm of quantum physics, as she sees her mother as “a loose collection / of nature in flux.” And herself “unscrewed”, “part of myself this balloon / tethered to a roof.” (‘Tiramisu’)
Despite existing in states of flux and radical uncertainty, there is nevertheless a commitment born of love to walk the labyrinth with her mother, and to surrender to the process of being alongside all that’s unfolding. Inevitably, there are moments of despair, (‘Isn’t this the end’) and dissolution (‘Arctic ice wakes up as liquid’). These poems voice both personal and planetary dimensions, and through them a sense of the ecological self emerges, as the poet’s voice becomes one with the fragmenting ‘I’ voice of the Arctic ice:
I am leaving a am whole chunk of a was whole chunk of a
Acts of noticing – learning from the more-than-human
Prolonged periods of uncertainty and waiting also yield heightened states of communion with the more-than-human world. Rooks. A stuffed Victorian Baboon. Cuckoo. Deer. A Chestnut tree for whom love is tenderly expressed. Amidst these touching poems, the title poem ‘Her whereabouts’ may be read as both a charting of the loss of her mother and the poet’s grief at ecological loss.
The loss shoots right down
to the feet, through some central shaft
like a flare descends a well, illuminating
mossy sides …
The named storms, which offer titles to poems (‘Irma’, ‘Dennis’), indicate the extreme weather events resulting from the climate crisis. These Guthrie evokes as simultaneously relating to the family’s experience of a missing member:
soon a mouth will grin with missing teeth, its gap our gap and on she rails, no home to go to, wired, pulling out posts like pins from a new hem. (‘Irma’)
The dream image of a house on fire but “burning so slowly there was time / to rescue every cup” additionally suggests both the personal and planetary, while a poem entitled ‘The emergency’ touches specifically on the poet’s experience as a climate activist, and the collective struggle to find adequate words to express what’s occurring. Here the image of a Brushtail Possum waving a burnt paw to a camera, “like it was showing its passport / or like, Look what you did!” becomes the most poignant way to communicate what the reader assumes to be the catastrophic Australian bushfires that occurred between 2019-20, and in which I was personally caught up.
Might I have understood this without my direct experience? Impossible to say. But subtle inference is certainly a hallmark of this collection, the power of which is cumulatively built. As the book draws to a close, there is unsurprisingly no resolution — just an ongoing state of precarity, “teetering / like a bone china jug on a ledge” (‘The lintel’). With this, however, come fearless love and compassion, along with a willingness to help. In the penultimate poem, ‘Human, standing’ — the title itself a poignant image of survival — there is also a sense of learning from the more-than-human world, as the soil is evoked as “a sacred, slow master.”
Note: In writing my review of Joanna’s book, I have wanted to stay true to my own ecopoetic practice of giving capital letters to the names of more-than-human Beings.
Find out more
Helen Moore is a British ecopoet, socially engaged artist, writer, and Nature connector who lives in North Dorset. She offers an online mentoring programme, Wild Ways to Writing, and you can read about the inspiration and creative process behind her wild writing and the embodied awareness and resilience it nurtures in her post Wild Writing: Embracing Our Humanimal Nature. And she contributed a video performance of her poem ‘Earth Justice’ — inspired by attending a mock ecocide trial at the Supreme Court, London in 2011, and featuring collages of transcript material from the court proceedings — for the Environmental Justice thread in our series on Environmental Keywords.