Jennie Osborne’s ‘Signals from the Other’

A timely new book for 2023 for you to consider.

Signals from the Other is award-winning poet, Jennie Osborne’s third full collection and is published by Dempsey & Windle’s Vole Imprint. This is a courageous and powerful exploration of the natural world signalling its vulnerability during the ongoing ecological crisis. These are virtuoso poems of warning, urging us to respond to the signals that are all around us, ‘listening to everything we don’t want to hear’ (Kindling).  This book’s task is to make us fully realise that humans have all but destroyed this beautiful planet.  Her wonderful choice of cover seems to illustrate the interweaving and connectedness of all things.

And yet despite the ecological lament, Osborne marvellously depicts all this beauty with such a fine ear for striking each coup de grace.Her sophisticated poetic skills lift our spirits in poems that draw our elemental selves out into the landscapes of moor, forest and seashore. In Rebellion her words joyously tumble over themselves because even in cities:

… in orchards and gardens beyond,

the healing herbs, berry bushes,

and peartrees sending their fruit –

in every open space, every town centre

they’re flowering in solidarity,

clematis clinging on, geraniums

making a statement, even

under the hedges, a host

of violets quietly clicking send.

In What’s Wrong with Spring? the poet starts

I held to spring like a lifebelt

each primrose  each snowdrop

a necessary message from the future

that I would come through

And compares this idyll with how things are because now we have shrinking woodlands   fields going down / under armies of houses

Osborne has sometimes used paintings as inspiration and A Morrigan for our Times is based on a painting by Josie Gould. Mythical and raw this short poem imagines an angry war goddess standing astride a landscape knowing she can only fail… as the soil under her soles/crumbles into mad-eyed ocean.  The poem’s power is compressed and tense just as it transforms the paint on the paper into poetry.   

Wateriness and weather are also the focus of Saltmarsh, lyrically evoked:

no place for maps            the marsh re-writes itself

with every season           every wash of tide

nothing stays long           banks shift          the river rises   year

on year this is a place in transit

going                   gone

The lack of punctuation and the white spaces deftly reflect the insecure boggy groundlessness, line endings deliberately hesitate, words echo one another conjuring the fragile changeability, the two words of the last line introducing an emphatic and different note.  

Adept at using scientific terms, Osborne mixes this vocabulary with her musical and alliterative

lyricism. In Gaia No Longer Remembers Herself she writes:

Now breath is clot and stoppered

her every surface slimed

with unliving

She can’t remember the light

the dance of photosynthesis and transpiration

Almost  she has gone under  

These poems both frighten and hypnotise, bearing witness to the ongoing ecological crisis through the lives of an otter tail hinting at eel/forepaws suggesting fins…. eyes peat-dark/pools; the tender curve of a stag’s throat; a dormouse guarding no nut called spring in my imaginings/ no hope it might sprout/unblighted;  a displaced sparrow is bustled by hustle/trollied and clanged/tangled in jangle , a performing dolphin is condemned to swim round and round in dead water.  These creatures are realised in tightly drawn sketches, the detail adding deeply- felt colour to the collection. 

This is a poet that energetically inhabits other beings, gives a voice to the voiceless and thus resurrects a sunken forest that once stood on a shoreline. In Once We Were Forests the (long-dead) trees sing their own unpunctuated elegy, the words appearing to ripple under the lapping water:

and we were communities

              our bodies insect highways

….

and we were one in many            many in one

look at the sand

              see where a tide has left our image in sepia relief

Osborne even brings an imaginary granddaughter to life so that we, too, visualise this child in this tender and vivid portrait.  She speaks affectionately to the child, asks her to imagine your pet cat (you’ll have one of you can I’m sure) and for whom she’d like to paint those buzzing engines of pollination we called bees.  (I note that telling use of past tense.)   Subverting our expectations Granddaughter ends:

I’m glad you won’t be here, on this trashed world

to sweat as it heats up, as friendly air runs out.  

The book ends with How It Will Be an epic, almost biblical prophecy of doom delivered in a spare, unpunctuated poem of short lines that unashamedly shows us images of the consequences of mankind’s unfettered greed and grime:

this demented sun

smearing the tired

gasp of a smothered sea

You can hear Jennie Osborne reading her poems here on West Wilts Radio

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About Rebecca Gethin

Rebecca Gethin is a poet and a novelist. Cinnamon Press published her third collection, All the Time in the World in 2017. Another pamphlet is forthcoming with Three Drops Press. Her second novel, What the horses heard, was published by Cinnamon Press in May 2014. Her second poetry collection - A Handful of Water - was published by Cinnamon in 2013. Her first - River is the Plural of Rain - was published by Oversteps Books in 2009. Her novel Liar Dice won the Cinnamon Press Novel Writing Award in 2010 and was published in 2011. She lives on Dartmoor and writes occasional pieces about wildlife and nature. Her poems appear in a variety of poetry magazines and in several anthologies.
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