REVIEW by Maria Apichella

NWR Issue r29

Words the Turtle Taught Me

This, Susan Richardson’s fourth collection was written while she was poet-in-residence with the Marine Conservation Society (MCS). She wrote thirty poems, each about an endangered sea creature on the Red List, including nine varieties of shark. The Red List categorises species at risk of global extinction under the following headings: Least Concern, Data Deficient, Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered, and Critically Endangered. Richardson uses these categories as an organising structure. Words the Turtle Taught Me opens with poems about dolphins, seals and seahorses, all who are of ‘least concern’. It then builds up to those which may soon be extinct due to plastic filled seas and mass fishing. This approach creates a slow burning intensity. The Atlantic Puffin and the Bottlenose Dolphin are well known and easy to capture in poetry. But Richardson admits that writing about sharks and lesser-known species such as the Eunicella verrucosa, a type of coral otherwise known as a Pink Sea Fan, is more challenging: ‘I’ve got the task of making cold-blooded creatures, about whom people might not instinctively feel enthused, more accessible.’ Yet Richardson is the perfect poet to do this. She is an environmental activist and nature writer but also a thoughtful communicator with a keen sense of the surreal and an amazing gift for metaphor.

Aware that didacticism will alienate most readers, many of Richardson’s poems are questioning rather than finger-wagging. She draws on metaphor to make the strange familiar. In ‘Hound,’ Richardson compares the Spiny dogfish shark to a dog, not only because of the associative name, but because this breed is known for its playfulness. Sadly, it is endangered because it is hunted for Shark Fin Soup and sold as Huss or ‘Rock Salmon’ in Fish and Chip shops. Being able to successfully tie ‘man’s best friend’ together with a shark is no mean feat. Richardson is adept at mixing wit with sorrow as we see in the opening stanzas of ‘Hound.’

If we train her to Wait!, might she fail
to migrate and evade
all slathering trawlers?

Can we teach her to retrieve the past,
which used to bouncewhen we threw it,
before the deepest
in her numbers?

Richardson never includes the names of the creatures in layman’s terms. Rather, their scientific names are included in Latin as subheadings. At first, I had no idea the poem ‘Fluke: Tursiops truncates’ was about dolphins. Because of this, many of the poems seemed like riddles and I regretted my lack of a classical education. However, it forced me to look the names up, and therefore start learning about the species. I am sure this was Richardson’s intention. Alongside many poems are black and white illustrations by the Welsh artist Pat Gregory. Most of Gregory’s pictures are realistic, but some are abstract, focusing on patterns and shapes. Richardson also uses patterns in her poems. For example, the layout of the text in ‘Purse’ mimics the undulating motion of the Raja undulata, a flat fish that burrows close to the muddy seabed. Both poet and artist agree that creating beauty through artistic endeavours is an act of defiance against ‘the ugliness of human-induced extinction.’ I could not agree more.

The book ends with a chatty essay called ‘Thirty Ways of Looking at the Sea’, in which Richardson gives her book a backstory. I really enjoyed the essay, but it tried to cover too much ground. It could have benefited from more structure, such as thirty sections dedicated to each poem. The topics were jarringly wide-ranging and shifted back and forth. Despite this, the mix of memoir and discussion of ocean debris and cloning were all fascinating. I especially enjoyed the accounts of how Richardson’s poems came into being. One particular story describes how she went to Skomer Island to see the puffins. A friendly German tourist said ‘lovely views,’ but Richardson initially though he said ‘Loony Tunes.’ This led her to write a poem using cartoonish imagery, again mixing humour and poignancy to make a point. The essay piqued my curiosity and gave me a better understanding of some of the more puzzling poems. Not only is this book about sea-life, it is also a useful text for writers, both novice and expert, who are curious about how poets write for commission. Richardson is wonderfully generous in explaining her struggles and breakthroughs. Words The Turtle Taught Me is a clarion call on behalf of the ocean and its creatures. It will appeal to those who are involved with marine conservation, but also others, like me, who are new to the subject.

Maria Apichella’s collection, Psalmody, was shortlisted for a Forward prize for Best First Collection and, in manuscript form, won the Melita Hume Poetry Prize.


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previous review: Shards of Light
next review: Departure Lounge


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