“Another speaker-as-weather-station is to be found in Michael McKimm’s Fossil Sunshine, but here the ‘weather’ is Earth itself. That is not to say, however, that the human element is missing. It could hardly be so, suggests McKimm, since humans have played such a significant role in the ever-sharpening knife-edge that is the world’s ecological condition. McKimm works in the Library of the Geological Society of London and Fossil Sunshine is the result of a year-long collaboration with earth scientists, including fieldwork. The collection looks back in order to look forward, examining geological history to evaluate the characteristics of our current global warming: “the poems are neither didactic nor doom-laden,” says the note on the back cover, and this is certainly true.
McKimm divides his history into different lengths. In ‘Holderness Boulder Clay’, for example, the speaker returns to the site throughout a year, observing depredations but also astonished at how, with some help from the weather, the earth can so casually yield its secrets:
January. Midnight buffetings reveal
Baltic amber, black flintz, quartz…
In other months, however, the weather’s impact is a matter for concern rather than marvel:
Soaked July, the channels fill with rain,
Then scorching August, creaking
In the air, a good half metre crumbles
With a Scafell thud
Even before December, “two full metres” have gone from the cliff-face, thanks to an especially bellicose wintry sea. This Holderness site dramatizes in miniature the onslaught and abrasions suffered by the whole planet.
Elsewhere, McKimm describes how feats of human engineering can become protean, seeming to take on natural properties while they challenge nature. ‘Pipeline’ offers what seems like night-vision film-footage of an oil-pipeline as it feeds down from Hardisy, Alberta, to the Pakota Terminal in Illinois. McKimm’s speaker show it as a living thing, apparently making its own way unaided, breaking ground beneath the “fields flaring yellow” in Saskatchewan, managing “a little pick up in speed” south of Lake Manitoba and then (in a beautiful phrase) “kissing the cleft / of the Mississippi” before heading out of Missouri to west Illinois. Since this reviewer spent many formative years in that part of the world (and remembers numerous clashes over pipeline routes, often involving Native Americans), this picture of unfettered movement is especially striking. A virus might make similar progress through software (or the human body).
Fossil Sunshine contains a sub-collection of poems, in the form of conference abstracts. Like the pipeline, they pass through every so often. ‘Abstract from a conference 4’ is a poem of lists: at left, the type of ground; in the middle, what has been done to it; at right, the specific nature of the work. To read any of the lists from top to bottom is to understand the history of people’s busyness on earth. At left, “worked ground” becomes “made ground” becomes “infilled ground” becomes “landscaped ground.” The list at right moves from “canal cutting” to “mine waste tip (colliery)” via “flood defence embankment” and “road embankment”. The effect is of a lightening-artist’s sketch of human traces from wattle-and-daub to decking – and this is without the poem’s sub-list, where the categories mesh, as in “infilled ground: worked ground (undivided) filled by mine waste tip (colliery).”
Restrained in tone, carefully mixing the scientific and the lyrical, the poems of Fossil Sunshine remind the reader that the relationship between humanity and nature mainly proceeds not in dramatic leaps but in small steps – like the new sections of pipework that, even now, might be snaking along yards below our feet.
Michael Thomas, Under the Radar. Purchase Fossil Sunshine
“In the cautious yet constant dialogue between poets and scientists, it is in the field of geology, perhaps, where practitioners of the two disciplines find greatest accord and inspiration. From ‘The Botanic Garden’ of Erasmus Darwin and ‘Giant’s Causeway’ by Drummond of Hawthornden, to ‘Eagle Mountain Glacier’ from the great nineteenth-century Icelandic poet-scientist Jónas Hallgrímsson and the poems of the Cornish miner-poet John Harris, from Tennyson and Shelley, the lure of geology for poets continues through to modern-day figures such as W H Auden, Ted Hughes, Peter Redgrove, Anne Stevenson, Ann Cluysenaar, Forrest Gander, and the ‘geological sublime’ of J H Prynne, among many others.
This tradition continues in the work of Michael McKimm. Here are the mineral dramas of rock and stone, in conversation and conflict with time.
The language employed by this poet is powerfully tactile. These are strong and in every sense grounded poems which are also capable of transformative action and insight into the bedrock of our life experience. For what lies under the soles of our shoes and the foundations of our houses but bedrock? Be his subject a calendar year depicting erosions or a landslide or a prose poem about a fossil sea sponge, the reader is engaged and enthralled by the range and consideration that gives each poem its specific and enthralling individuality.”