Seeing a swan holed below the waterline by a crossbow bolt on my stretch of river, I ran for the phone. The RSPCA were at the scene with the alacrity of an emergency service but I never found out what happened to the bird. In South Oxford, the river rubs shoulders with one of the city’s tougher areas and, every once in a while, someone would dump motor oil from the bridge, cut a boat from its mooring, or train a crossbow on a swan. Perhaps I started to feed swans from my boat’s kitchen window as a reaction to this barbarism. At first, they drifted nonchalantly, as if above my handouts, consuming them on sufferance but, soon enough, their necks reached for my sink.
Then the menaces started.
Hissing, beaks agape, ancient dinosaur DNA asserted itself. The creatures straining through were terrible lizards. No traces of beauty or serenity were left and I slid the window shut but they’d scope the river, awaiting my return from work, or the supermarket and, by the time I’d clambered down the mooring and aboard, I was a schoolboy fearing the circling bullies.
Olivia Byard’s The Wilding Eye: New and Selected Poems opens in trademark style with Homo Erectus, a vision of our progenitors gathered around the hearth 1 million years ago. ‘I see you crowd around, mouths full, / upright rumps near leaping flame – / and wonder who is jostled first / outwards towards the cave mouth, / where freezing draughts roar in / to sting and ancient predators / pace.’ The scientific classification of the Latin title invites us to view ourselves as enlightened. Furthermore, seen as a metaphor, Erectus implies moral stature. However, this is a crowd already enjoying ‘mouths full,’ suggesting their behaviour is darker than necessity demands and, despite the poem’s Latin title, ‘rumps’ also invites us to view these humans as animals… as cuts of meat. And so, as one mouth is filled, another is emptied, as the superfluous are ejected from the cave and repurposed as an offering to the ‘ancient predators.’ Byard’s Morlockian dystopia reaches its nadir as the group finally turn on ‘one / who slowed this morning almost / to a dawdle – watched a bird / an early linnet, say, weave and dive / through pitching branches’ and, as a teacher, I’m reminded of the intrinsic evil which Golding suggests resides at mankind’s heart in Lord of the Flies, and of the government’s blinkered STEM agenda, which chooses to forget the boundless, playful creativity of the great scientists as it denigrates the arts – for what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?
Over the page, Lone revels in uncanny effects: ‘On a festively-cold afternoon, you / skim an ice-rink square alone – swish / across its unpocked skin, attuned / to silence and criss-crossing tracks // You’re fleeing the clink of bottle / and glass – the alien brittle all-season din.’ The speaker addresses the second person, yet the instinctive, untamed fear of humanity suggests an animal. This uncertainty allows the poem the no man’s land between nature and humanity, pointing again, perhaps, to the beast within us, a beast keen to demonize a fearful and shy nature as rapacious in Homo Erectus.
Byard takes an ambivalent view of stoicism. Sisyphus, like Lone, is presented without punctuation, suggesting the timeless, cyclical quality of his punishment. The burden is carried ‘Over and over, the falling / the disgrace – the never-learned / the same mistakes.’ Perhaps we’re inclined to view the repetition optimistically, choosing to see Sisyphus returning to his feet to carry the burden once more. However, Byard’s present continuous ‘the falling’ does not, I feel, afford us the luxury of a return to our feet – Erectus once more – and her present continuous fall enacts in grammar the ‘simple torture’ of ‘those ancient gods.’ (The uncanny effects of Lone, the ‘ancient predators’ of Homo Erectus and the ‘ancient gods’ of Sisyphus present Nature – and perhaps our natures – as disturbed, disturbing and untamed).
At the same time, there’s balance. In Jam Jar, the first in the sequence Roadside Shrines, the fragile memorial is soon reclaimed, ‘except this jam jar, shattered / on its side – shards dimmed among / the nettles’ spider-eyes’ yet, in Jonquils, ‘Some kind heart / in a planting crew last spring / must have thought to help / – plastic tributes too feeble / by themselves – / so dug in tiny bulbs.’ In The Corset, we’re offered a Granny, ‘beached / in her whale-boned corset / high above the shimmering shoreline’ as ‘the thermometer nudged ninety’ and, in turn, nudging the woman out of her stays as ‘she trimmed herself up / to full four feet nine inches, / and breeze belling her loose blouse / sailed,’ as the air blows freely through Byard’s diphthongs.
These poems are often unsettling and uncanny and occupy those contested spaces beyond our domestic thresholds. Remember the last time the animal in you stirred in fear or anger and you will feel the power of Byard’s Wilding Eye.
In addition to the Wilding Eye, Byard’s new book contains selections from 2011’s Strange Horses and 1997’s From a Benediction – shortlisted for the 1997 Forward Prize for Best First Collection.