(REVIEW) ‘Germ Songs’ by Will Burns and Jess White

In this review, Maria Sledmere explores the arboreal and rhizomatic understories of Will Burns and Jess White’s new pamphlet, Germ Songs (Rough Trade Books x William Morris Gallery, 2019), asking what lyric poetry can do in a time of dieback, scarcity and precarious land.


> ‘What are we aiming for anyway?’ Will Burns asks in opening poem, ‘Ash’. To aim is to point, direct, focus, train. ‘Anyway’ indicates something will probably happen, in spite of something else. Is a poem a kind of aiming? What about a song? Germ Songs, a pamphlet fresh as its lime-green cover and published by Rough Trade Books, is part of a quartet of slender volumes: The William Morris Gallery Series. With Jess White’s gorgeous, intricate illustrations set alongside Burns’ neat and curious lyrics, Germ Songs embodies William Morris’ association with etching, aesthetics and ornament alongside a Blakean dialectic of print and song. You will be struck by the lively neon cover, a kind of nu-rave ~ ~ nNature~ ~, but find something decorative, arboreal and Romantic in the typeface, the whorls and notches of line and lyric. This is a book that holds between thin pages a rhizomatic undersong of multiple times, while its canopy gleams for a modern reader.


> Although the decorative intensity of Germ Songs would normally invite a more reposed and formal register, there is a conversational lightness to some of the poems. A frank admission of vagueness, a hedging of the representational ‘real’. Trochaic and anapaestic beginnings feel like a shoot and release, seedlings spun from the branches of trees: ‘Somebody, somewhere’, ‘counsels all this’, ‘Delays at all points’, ‘Decay, and worse’. The spondaeic emphasis of ‘all this’ swells with the everything that haunts the book. I have been reading Germ Songs as a lighter companion text to Richard Powers’ arboreal epic The Overstory (2018), a novel of interwoven tales relating to trees: tales of activism, game design, human intimacy, science, rebirth, environmental justice, illness and injury, violence and song. In Powers’ novel, there is this sense of a self-rejuvenating Nature — ‘trees lap at the low, wet sky, the clouds they themselves have helped to seed’ — a kind of agential, four-dimensional thicket of enmeshed relations. Fiction being this ecomimetic device to conjure the high-definition sensory realm of the forest we are losing, the forest-as-such. In Germ Songs, there is a different kind of toggling between stories, scales, maps and voices.


> In these short poems, Burns navigates the thickening histories and frictive material realities of the anthropocene, gesturing towards something like a vernacular of endangered beauty. There are questions around the ethics of making beautiful work about something on the brink of loss. Are we celebrating or pre-emptively elegising the environment that previous generations could enjoy in varying naiveties of plenitude? Or is something else going on, a kind of pressing awareness that blows upon those who move through the forest of language, a stirring breeze, a heat? The book’s blurb reads:


These poems and drawings take their shape from the land, utilising both artists’ interest in the natural world and the questions that close observation ask of us as human beings living through the landscape and flora that surround us.


The blurb also notes the pamphlet’s thematising of questions around ‘access to these spaces, about property, ownership, boundaries and how these ideas have played out through history’. We read William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789) within the context of land enclosures and human construction and domination of green spaces; equally we might read Germ Songs as a lyric conversation with the more-than-human world understood in the context of capital, growth and decay, loss, ‘domestic grief’, fires and the enflamed, complex affects of contemporary politics. Even the titles bear these slippages: ‘Heartwood’ for instance, a quick google reveals, is at once a Stirling-based tree surgeon, a Dulux colour shade, an investment management company and a herbal medicine education service. Such brand appropriations reveal the metaphoric density at work in a word which otherwise refers to the central, dead wood of trees. Also called duramen, heartwood is resistant to decay and ripe with aromatic tannins that darken and flavour its cells. Yet the poem ‘Heartwood’ reveals a complex, fraught resilience; what is starkly presented is ‘The empty, burned-out house / at the bottom of Hale Farm Lane’. An image of stability and pastoral timelessness, the farmhouse, becomes an extinguished symbol of upheaval, transposed into ‘A useless piece of property— / willed against heavy skies’. As though you could hedge a failed infrastructure against the coming storm. As though we could trade our increasing vulnerability for some inheritable protection: a will that somehow defies what is phenomenologically there in the poem, the ‘heavy skies’ that indicate the end, period, a possible violent return. Outbursts of fire and water; skies weighted with smoke or rain.


> There is something crying in the trees: ‘I laid me down upon a bank, Where Love lay sleeping; / I heard among the rushes dank / Weeping, weeping’ (Blake, ‘The Garden of Love’). Are not the trees supposed to sing? These ‘Germ Songs’ are billed as songs, and yet there is often an imagist simplicity to their presented scenes. What if Ezra Pound’s Imagist manifesto was a kind of anthropocene tract of material scarcity: ‘to employ the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word’. Defiantly, Germ Songs nevertheless flirts with the decorative. Whether her illustrated scenes are of rich mycelia, plates of specimen seeds, crying or pensive birds, undergrowth, varieties of mushroom, fronds of lichen and moss, branch and cell, Jess White situates the forest of Germ Songs as quietly teeming. These are the painted yet tangible scenes we must continue to long for, support and sustain. I learn from The Overstory: ‘Deforestation: a bigger changer of climate than all of transportation put together. Twice as much carbon in the falling forests than in all the atmosphere’. Forests thrive on ‘older, rotting trees’, which feed the beetles, the fungus, the chorus of those species that farm decay to further life. In writing about the thinning of forests under late-capitalism (‘everything just / cheap protein, cheap motive, cheap material’) alongside the ornamental closeups of ecological treasure, you might say Germ Songs enacts the poetry of this transformation. Composting language, lyric and story as necessary to survival, openness, living on as multitudes.


> There is a sense that we are starved by overfeeding, that our calories are abundant but empty. There is a violent history to this, as described in ‘Cheap’:


the frontier itself, built on the violence of sugar and grain-calories, the groundwork of horses, cattle, dogs, that made things cheap as we need them to be—cheap enough to travel.


As Robert Macfarlane and others have asked, does this play out in the increasing austerity of our diet of language? These are poems presented quite plainly, often with a plodding rhythm (though the verse is free), stripped of Latin names or excessive description; I think again of Pound’s insistence on ‘the language of common speech’. It is as though the poem dares you to burrow into that space between ‘the nearly-exact’ imminence of lyric utterance and the maximalist sprawl of illustration — drawings you quite simply want to enter into. That sometimes seem to hold a warmth, a depth; even as their adjoining lines are cooler, clipped and precise. This is not to say the poems are written in the style of timber: stripped, smoothed and felled from a monocrop generality. Rather, the holding back allows Burns to occasionally sweep us into a line of quiet devastation, ‘empty of birds / but for kite calls that grieve the great songs of sparrows’. I think of Robert Frost’s choice of metaphoric paths against the existential and material gravitas of the decisions we make now regarding our traversal and use of the land:


We have miles to cover to get back on the potholed road west. Which is how we will have to leave the town and feel its bearing forever, overgrown into dog days.


                                                                              (‘Mid-Point’)


There is a twist of New Weird Britain within these lines, an eerie kind of emptiness in plenitude — something not quite placed. I think of the fable-like evocation of ‘The dark village’ which ‘sits on the crooked hill’ in Rachael Allen’s recent collection Kingdomland (Faber and Faber, 2019). Panning out, I think more widely of a generalised ‘west’: a beckoning frontier, a lawless district, a California wildfire raging, a stark apocalypse sunset. There are places we might fall on the road, when we are forced ‘to leave the town’ with the heartwood of that perilous scene inside us. The poem as microcosm for grander dramas. Dog days can mean both the hottest period of the year and one of inactivity or decline. There is a burning pressure of something which blooms too hard and enters stasis; the excess in capital, production, growth becomes something torpid and awful: ‘Though all weather is fell weather / there is only one meaning to heat / that swells so late’ (‘Spruce’), ‘These corrupted seasons—months of rain / then a high summer of fire—’ (‘Ash’). We know this is because of our carbon, our cars and planes, our human decisions. There is bound to be another fall, or perhaps the falling is happening already.


> To name a poem for a tree, after a tree. Does the poem come before or after? ‘Exhausted and exhausting, under the ash / —selfhood as dieback’ (‘Ash’). As in the poems of Emily Dickinson, the em-dash functions as a kind of hinge — or better still, a connecting branch, a stretching stem, a tilting trunk — gesturing towards those interpretations which are not quite fixed in language, semantics or time. As Richard Stacey recently argued in a recent undergraduate lecture at the University of Glasgow, Dickinson’s dash performs an invitation to look inside the occluded openings or splits in a poem, while also providing a cover (we might say canopy) against ‘prurient speculation’. So the poems reveal and conceal, like bristling leaves letting in, shading or blocking the light. The ‘dieback’ of ‘selfhood’ follows, somehow, the push and pull process of the ‘Exhausted and exhausting’, the held noun and flicker between adjective and verb; but it also suggests some hidden space in the poem, the dash itself as dieback, which is itself a progressive dying from the tip backwards. The dashes seduce you deeper into the thicket of lines that are carefully sung or drawn between life and death, presence and absence. They are units of ecology itself as ‘a branch’ of science that deals in the relations of organisms and environments.  


> And what is meant by a germ? Germ: ‘An initial stage or state from which something may develop; a source, a beginning. Also: a small constituent or quantity’; ‘To produce new buds or shoots; to germinate’ (OED, 2019). The poems and drawings are germinations, surely, invitations to a budding consciousness about what’s going on in the understory of the land and trees. The fragments of narrative in these poems hold human distance and tensions (‘We were hundreds of miles apart’) alongside the detritus and trace of what we become: ‘The unit of violence in these hills / is no longer the disused MOD site / but the bloody mess of people—’ (‘Bastard Service’). Our plastic litter, our packaging, our ‘stuff’ of capitalism’s fallout. How to move through this. The precision of a sentence held enjambed across lines, every punctuation deliberate, aimed, held. In their short sentences, there’s a sense of every expression bearing a thicker weight, a whole trunk of meaning. Transient shortcuts tracing deeper histories. In the ‘bloody mess’ of what we have already left, what does it mean to write a poem?


> ‘Bastard Service’, the pamphlet’s final poem, ends with ‘the phrase—“leave no trace, leave no trace”’. To say it twice, as if to say, to yoke repetition to ritual, to evoke — and this being the ‘point’ of lyric. ‘What are we aiming for anyway?’: maybe this anyway, its conditions of possibility, its frustrated in spite of, indifferent production, is the actual stuff of Burns’ lyric. For the insistence against traces belies the actual work of lyric in forging musical phrases that beg to be ‘thought over and over’, leaving synaptic traces as much as physical marks on a page. A poem, Buddy Willard derisively claims in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963), ‘is a piece of dust’. But what if it were more like a germ? A trace of the living and dying and dead; something to mull over, let dwell inside us; spread to a blurry future as lyric persistence among an ‘air so thick it had killed birdsong’ (‘Wild Service’).


Germ Song is available now, via Rough Trade Books.


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Text: Maria Sledmere


Published: 2/2/20



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