WMDs among the Heather: Radical Nature Poetry Finds its Voice
Gerry Loose, Fault Line (Vagabond Voices, 2014)
by Laurie Donaldson
This timely new work by Gerry Loose is not really a collection but rather a single poem stretched across the landscape of the book. And although purportedly about the Gare Loch and its most infamous inhabitant – the Faslane submarine base, home to the UK’s nuclear arsenal – that is just the focus, or its muse. What you realise from reading this marvellous extended poem is that the poet is using the absurdity of having destructive weapons situated among such natural beauty as a conduit for exploring our relationship with the natural world, and the fences we build around it and ourselves.
The use of Faslane, and its neighbouring base at Coulport on Loch Long, as the site of the UK’s nuclear deterrent has long been a source of controversy. From its commandeering in the late 1960s for the Polaris missile system, to the latter-day anti-Trident demonstrations in the shadow of the Referendum and the 2015 general election, the place stirs strong feelings. However, long before the latest WMDs came along, this was always a wild but picturesque place, skirting as it does the eastern end of the jagged Argyll coastline, sculpted by a madman with crimping shears. An area of much ancient learning and history, teeming with characters who work with, rather than try to circumvent, its odd geography, it’s a hinterland, cut off enough from the big cities and towns for it to feel like a separate place – this sometimes invites a sense of parochialism, but its seclusion also allows for things to be hidden from view.
The fault line of the title points, of course, to the divisive issue of Faslane, a difference of opinion. Thus, Loose could not have chosen anything more topical in this, his fifth book of poetry. He has travelled much, and his work usually encapsulates landscape and the uses we can bring to it. He tends to combine poetry with horticulture, and designs and makes gardens, produces inscriptions for installations sited in the environment, and has worked as a poet-in-residence at the Botanic Gardens in Glasgow as well as the Jardin des Plantes in Montpellier, France. Now in his 60s, he offers experience, and an ability to use sparse placing of words and meanings to bring insight (“the hills scoured / an intrusive morphology”). However, this is also a long meditative piece that shows his learning, both about nature and alternatives to war, but which is never confrontational.
His obvious milieu, then, is nature poetry, which he uses here as the foundation for a sublime exploration of the incongruity of landscape and nuclear weapons. So, we have snippets of poetic field notes, but the images of lochside beauty are abruptly juxtaposed with the potential for mass killing, and life spent in the purlieu of potential extinction. This is effective, as it throws the mundane into perspective (“sweet coils / woodbine razorwire”). Loose has obviously spent time around the base, on the hillside, along the security-conscious perimeter fencing, teasing meaning out of the jarring of opposites. This drives his musings towards a new kind of radical nature poetry that contains echoes of Shelley and Burns, but clears its own path and identity right up to that razorwire to gaze at the leashed horror within.
That Loose has achieved this so well is due to the clear focus on the poetic. It would have been much easier to offer us polemic or rhetoric. That he ignores the obvious route, and draws you into his meditations, on nature, on existence, but with the base as a muse, an unwelcome mantra, separates Fault Line from the parochial. Each short verse is a moment about the loch – a collection of thoughts, drifting ideas, organised cadences – with lapping rhythms that feel like waves on the Gare shore. It then continually points up the collision of opposites:
see the water
see the bow wave move
or, as in another poem:
by plants’ dormancy
by submarine winches
5 of them
It is therefore anti-war (“we forgive children anything / sometimes they become men / in marching boots”, and “bombs spawn here / salmon no longer”), but the poem nevertheless benefits from being unequivocally personal – the military hardware amongst us is felt emotionally. We hear about digging for pignuts, making tea, hunting for mushrooms, living a life on the loch that provides a backdrop, filtered through an obvious love and knowledge of wildlife (“chaffinch crowd / at fallen rowan berries”), and reaping the landscape for dinner, a meal that Loose calls “plundered” to contrast with the hulking machines through the trees:
3 bowls on the unlit
green-red snow white apples
from the tree at the shore
From the first line – “about right for these parts” – by which Loose means birch, oak and hind, he immediately highlights contradictions, signifying what should not be there, the presence of an entity foreign to the landscape. Despite the lyrical descriptions of the wildlife, we know where he stands – that the land has become toxic due to the presence of such weaponry (“halogen lights / safely do away / with night & day / abolish the moon”), and that the base to him is unwanted, “fencing in rosebay willow herb / & warheads”.
From the recurring white hind as a spectral presence, a conscience for mankind that looms out of the landscape, to snatches of outdoors life (“while an owl / edits my sleep”), Fault Line never tires of highlighting the setting, but does so with humour: he asks that the trees “report anything suspicious / oak / birch / fern / hazel / be vigilant”, or describes the base workers waking up to
toast & mobiles
meaning not mountains
not Beinn Chaorach
Although there are occasional examples of outright polemic, lines such as “Colquhouns displacing Gregors / Campbells once more / selling stolen waters / to conquering navies / for their fleets” are compelling, driven by a history of dispossession, a Scottish priority and birthright, while the references to “the President” and geopolitical decision-making are purely contextual. And Loose soon returns to knowing and appreciating nature, suggesting he would be an excellent companion on a nature walk: “in blackness / of a black round moon / there below trees / in head redness throbbing / swans lay their eggs”, and
that sun rising
they broke the news
curlew & redshank
The poet on the shores of the loch with a lover may seem a romantic trope (“paired crows / in the bare ash / tree”), but the knowledge of the countryside is always mediated through an awareness that not all is as it seems – that there are mergansers diving under the bow waves of million pound submarines, while “a gannet collapses herself / falls to ocean brim / rheumeyed age plunging / back upwards / officers on deck”. The descriptions and glimpses of beauty (“one time / log on riverflow / against tide / modulation / an otter”) are unaware of their destructive neighbour, an unconscionable companion, while the romance of the setting is leavened by an oblique approach, as “herons attend / the naval base / raven sits on the fence”. Sometimes the observations are just for their own sake, conjuring images of beauty, seeming to describe our world, a world the like of which has never existed before: “this morning’s transecting flights / two silkwinged swans / above a platefat mallard / below a seaplane”.
There is a more nuanced point to be made here, prompted by lines like “that side of steel mesh / sanitised annihilation / this side / language seed” and “petals fallen on concrete”. They point towards a more expansive meaning – that it is not just one intrusion, an inexorable base plonked down among the whin and sheep, but that humanity’s overarching imperial ground rule of possession is suspect. All is pushed back, all boundaries are our decision, and these boundaries, all over the world, are not just about keeping what can be dangerous safe from attack, as at Faslane, but about hemming in nature, making us safe from it. The language, the code of life (“cracking / broom seed pods”) held within the natural world pre-dates us and shames us, and we avoid its look. Daily extinctions and the compression of the natural environment seem an inevitable loss, a consequence of our species expansion. However, the poetic modus operandi of the book argues strongly that, although this encroachment on nature is undesirable, positioning weapons of such violence right in the middle of it is an unnecessary abhorrence.