Carl Tomlinson reviews Space Baby by Suzannah Evans (Nine Arches, 2022)
There’s always room for more fun in contemporary poetry. It’s true that we live in a time of domestic challenges and global horrors, and that poetry has a role in recording, and responding to, its time. It need not follow from this that poetry has to be a sandwich-boarded doom-monger haranguing passers-by like a latter-day Ancient Mariner. The press release for Space Baby promises “sci-fi infused humour”, and Isabel Galleymore’s cover endorsement tells us that Evans is “companionable and delusion-shattering” (my emphasis). I hadn’t read either of these encomia when I agreed to review Space Baby, but I had seen a pdf of the poems from the editor of the Friday Poem. They looked like fun.
Reading the poems we find that Evans’ humour takes different forms. There are wry gags like:
The teacher of A Course in Miracles
says consuming food is not essential
but a human experience we’ve grown used to –
while polishing off the last forkfuls
of a tuna jacket.
(from ‘ A Course in Miracles’)
There’s gentle mockery of others, and herself, in ‘Be The Change’.
We’d met at a yoga class I infrequently attended
You should wear more colour she said
throwing on a geometric tunic dress
over her galaxy-print leggings.
If we’re heading to hell in a handcart she sounds like the sort of fellow passenger you’d be happy to sit opposite. But she doesn’t stint on the delusion shattering either.
The book opens with its title poem, a breathless account of the birth and early life of “the first child schooled entirely in space”. The repeated capitalising of the title, and the sustained use of exclamation marks give the narrative an evangelical thrust. We are propelled along like “the 61st shuttle / off planet Earth” in which our heroine is “midwifed / into the unknown”, and then we are pulled up short by this child being described as “the first step towards homo whatevernext”. By the end of the poem it’s clear that whatevernext is going to be more of the same. Our response to Earth’s “ailing systems” has been to find somewhere else to keep doing the same things, rather than to do something different here.
If we’re heading to hell in a handcart Evans sounds like the sort of fellow passenger you’d be happy to sit opposite
One of those same things is human reproduction. In ‘Timeline of the Far Future’ immediate concerns about a ticking body clock share the page with events that are hundreds of millions years off. In this reading of our relationship with the wider universe perhaps it doesn’t matter if “one day your mistakes / could hurt someone”. Conversely ‘The Passenger Pigeon’ presents humans as careless vandals. The subtitle tells us the poem is A re-enactment in which rampaging children “commemorate those swollen flocks” of now extinct birds. I found uneasy echoes of The Pied Piper in the poem’s “drums and bells”, and in the archaism “townspeople”. The children “come, ceaseless, / always with their eyes on the future” but there’s no comfort here that they will be the guardians of that future as they:
spit on the ground, smash windows
piss on the rosebushes
then move on
Elsewhere an ailing parent’s love for a distracted son who’s “always losing his wallet” and puts the wrong fuel in his car is explored through the threat of nuclear accidents (in ‘The Atomic Priesthood’), and even the overwhelming nature of parental love can’t banish concerns about looming extinction and intensive farming practices from a mother’s mind (in ‘That smile is yours’).
Human love, and its offspring, crowd out other species. These facts collide in ‘Lonely Hearts, Endlings’ in which the last examples of five species break our hearts as they look for mates who no longer exist. In clumsier – or lazier – hands this could end up an indulgent exercise in anthropomorphic slush. Here, Evans’ research, careful form and technique, and finely tuned parodies of lonely hearts ads all put in a shift to keep this poem honest. I’m marginally less convinced by the idea that ‘The Voice of Nature’ “laughs when rhinos fart”, or “loves and reveres all its creatures” unless the voice is that of David Attenborough “reverent and familiar from nature documentaries.” Which it might be.
This collection is one of a number of recently published eco-poetry books, a couple of which I’ve reviewed here. What makes it distinctive is its range of perspective, from the galactic and infinite, to the here and now. When we’re not rocketing off to pastures (and planets) new, we’re invited to contemplate ‘The Mist on the Top of the Forest’ as:
it rolls back soft as felt
reveals the reservoir
the frozen masts of dinghies
that attend the sailing club.
This poem is as simple and sustained a study of a natural phenomenon as one would wish to read. It reveals a capacity for prolonged attention and imaginative engagement that we might fail to notice in some of the more surreal poems. Here the simplicity and familiarity of the subject matter foreground the technique, which allows us to experience mist as simultaneously ethereal and embodied. ‘How We Miss Them’ reverses the gaze as trees mourn extinct humans, and feed off what’s left of us.
What makes Space Baby distinctive is its range of perspective, from the galactic and infinite, to the here and now
Close to the end of the book is ‘Cassini Love Poem’. This holds much of what is best about this the book. It’s poignant and witty, unflinchingly imaginative and well crafted. Human ingenuity and our urge to sprawl across the space we occupy hurl a probe towards Saturn. Evans gives the probe a voice. In the first four couplets, it is adoring and a little controlling:
I like you best as pure geometry –
orb and slender circles.
Then it begins to entreat:
I like to think you look back at me
that you watch me in your orbit
enslaved as I am by gravity
Next it becomes surreally humorous:
been jealous of your other satellites
whose names I can’t remember.
The poem leaves the probe “having never quite got what [it] wanted”, and human endeavour as unfulfilled as unrequited love.
A fascination with machines also appears in ‘Internet of Things’ where the appliances of a connected home keep vigil for their absent owner, and in ‘The Control Room’ where these reversed roles are restored. In ‘This Robot Will Cuddle You to Sleep’ Evans explores ground covered in Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me with another dash of that wry humour:
Although he has five settings
and the highest is unstoppable
by ten thirty we’re quiet
in our nest of pillows
The robot’s slightly off-key utterances might fail the Turing test and he “doesn’t dream of anything”, but he does appear to have a capacity for making his companion feel safe which her fellow humans lack. This is a tragic paradox wrapped up in a love poem. At the heart of the book there’s a tension between deep delight in our world and despair in the fate we are preparing for ourselves. It’s poems like this, and that tension, which make the collection rewarding – and fun – to read.
Evans does occasionally don the sandwich board. We don’t need to be told, in ‘The Passenger Pigeon’, that:
they’re not bad people, just hungry
lonely, or lazy, or lacking in foresight
because Evans is almost never unkind about other individual humans in the book. That’s how she manages to remain companionable. But the real point of this book seems to be that while Evans would be great company in the handcart to hell, she’d quite like us to pull the emergency cord and alight.
Carl Tomlinson lives on a smallholding in Oxfordshire. He works as a business coach and virtual finance director. His work been published online, in anthologies, and in Orbis, South, The Hope Valley Journal and The Alchemy Spoon. Carl Tomlinson’s debut pamphlet was published in 2021 by Fair Acre Press.