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REVIEW: Joanna Lilley’s ‘Endlings’

By: Josh Brown

A beautiful, moving examination of our destructive cruelty

The pleasure of Portsmouth Poetry is that we get to meet, to know and to work with talented writers and artists to play a small part in their development and the increasing awareness of their work. One such is Joanna Lilley, a poet and novelist from the Yukon in Canada. Author of a collection of stories, a novel and two collections of poetry, her third collection, “Endlings”, was published in March by Turnstone Press and is available in the UK from April 15th.

The release of this collection in the midst of a world pandemic known to have originated in part from the trade in endangered species, is chillingly apposite. Yet to be recognised by the OED, the word ‘Endling’ refers to the last individual of a species facing or having become extinct. As she says in the opening pages, “It is probably only a matter of time” before the word is included; it is painfully relevant to the time in which we live.

Copiously researched, Endlings is a collection of poems outlining the fate of 63 animals lost to our benighted world. From the Woolly Mammoth, past the Dodo, to the Yukon Horse, the Tasmanian Tiger, the Falklands Island Wolf and the St Helena Earwig!

“You are not the only ones
who need tools, who,
without them, would be
as obliterated as me.”    
                   [Flightless Bird of Mauritius – Dodo]

Powerful, controversial topics like the environmental crisis easily become polemical, uncomfortably moralistic or cliched. The poet may be politically driven and angry (so many of the greats have) but the soul of poetry requires the tender subtlety of approach witnessed in, for example, Wilfred Owen’s approach to war to find a way to enable us to ‘feel’ the issues explored and to experience them through the eyes of those they touch. This is what Joanna has done with this remarkable collection of poems. These are not simple diatribes against stupidity and destruction, they enable us to experience the tragedy and to understand the loss. So much so that, in the end, it is ourselves we understand too; our callous disregard for the world we co-habit and the tragedy we heap upon ourselves. As the Canadian environmentalist and science broadcaster David Suzuki says

“This book is a reminder of what we have lost within human memory”.

Reading these tender, beautiful poems were to leave you feeling frustrated and righteously indignant they would have been timely and worthwhile. If they moved you to re-examine your own interface with the rest of our vast planet that would be success. But they do more than that. They produce a sadness that had me both tearful and ashamed.

There is a carefully structured anger and empathy in these poems as when Joanna lays out the psychopathic cruelty of the Lepidopterist

“The man will carry me in his jar as far
from shore as his collection.
He’ll pinch my middle with his thumb
and forefinger to stun me
stop me
from flapping, damaging myself
so that he can
relax me to death”

No slight achievement to let you feel the terror of an insect and empathise its fate!

These poems examine not just the callousness of our kind but the incomprehensible stupidity that often attended the loss of these creatures and continues to do so.

“But all we know for certain is that cave bears are extinct    
 and too many soldiers die in wars and Germans plunde                                
the caves because they needed phosphate so they could                                
blow more people up.”

A few days ago, there were bees and terracotta butterflies in my garden, blackbirds and little birds in the thorn tree singing. Such commonplace beauty. So needed in viral isolation imposed to fight a killer that our continuing abuse created. You will probably, need to read this collection in sections. The tragedy they bring the reader to feel, the anger, sadness and guilt they induce would be overwhelming if you read the complete collection in one go. But read it you should. When we finally emerge from our current crisis we will need to question everything about how we have lived and find new routes to our own happiness and security. “Endlings” should be essential reading in that desperate rethinking of ourselves. We should be glad this poet had the sensitivity to examine the world of the Carrier Pidgeon or an earwig!

Joanna grew up in England and has lived in the Yukon, Canada since 2006. She has an MLitt in creative writing from the universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde, is a Humber School for Writers graduate and helped to set up the Yukon Writers’ Collective. Her first poetry collection, ‘The Fleece Era’, was nominated for the Fred Cogswell Award for Excellence in Poetry. Her novel, ‘Worry Stones’, was longlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award. Her poems and stories have been published in Canada, the US and the UK.

“Endlings” is published by Turnstone Press and is available in print and Kindle Edition Her previous books are also available.

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