New Welsh Review
We Have to Leave the Earth
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Award-winning poet, academic and editor Carolyn Jess-Cooke explores climate change, parenthood and feminist activism in her new collection, We Have to Leave the Earth. ‘Now’ sets the tone of her third book of poetry before the reader journeys through Songs from the Arctic and the dying world her children will inherit. As Isobel Roach writes, ‘With an eye to the next generation and duty of care we owe them, We Have to Leave the Earth is a collection that speaks for the fate of the world through the lens of womanhood.’ The three following sections explore more personal family matters, the story of Josephine Butler, who helped repeal the Contagious Diseases Act of 1869, plus our own and the universe’s ephemeral nature.
Jess-Cooke’s poems are often well-crafted and visually intriguing. She is at her most spatially experimental in Songs of the Arctic. I particularly enjoyed the Viking motif throughout this part. ‘Edge of the Known World’ and ‘Ode to a Tardigrade’ are some of the stand-outs of this section for me. Jess-Cooke connects how our ancestors navigated the ‘cold, […] / dark’ north with ‘what hunger / will drive us yet’ in today’s troubled world in the former poem. Her ecological poems are fertile ground for fascinating ecocritical analysis, especially the depiction of the Earth as ‘our mother’ in ‘Hymn to be Sung Underwater’. Indeed, why must we leave the Earth?
However, other critics have yet to mention the glaring issues in some of Jess-Cooke’s poems about an autistic child from the perspective of an evidently allistic parent. Or, at the very least, a parent who, in the temporal context of poems like ‘Pool’, appears to know very little about autism and is afraid of the unknown, as I demonstrate below. As an autistic writer and poet, it is part of my mission to combat the negativity and misinformation surrounding autism in any way I can. It is not evident that Jess-Cooke used a sensitivity reader from my reading of poems such as ‘Pool’.
‘Pool’ depicts a parent’s mourning of the ‘early months’ before their child’s diagnosis – before they could no longer interact with their child in a neurotypical way. The speaker expresses an urge ‘to pin the cause’ of their child’s autism on themself. This insinuates that the child’s autism is a tragedy – a negative thing. But it’s not. ‘[G]enetics or environment’ do not cause autism, but rather, a combination of both (ie epigenetics) with a strong genetic component.
The speaker’s self-blaming impulse implies they feel regret and that they’ve wronged their child, which only adds to the pre-existing negative discourse about autism. It signifies a fear of the unknown that feeds into the speaker’s desire to ‘grasp autism’s root’ and, as inferred here, to pull it out – as if it’s something rotten. Make the child neurotypical, even. While the fears the poem expresses are valid, Jess-Cooke does nothing in ‘Pool’ to combat the speaker’s insidious misconception of autism as a horrible disease-like thing that should be cured. This poem depicts a parent’s struggle to accept their child’s autism and that they can’t interact with them on neurotypical terms. This may be interpreted that the speaker’s love for their child is not unconditional, because otherwise they wouldn’t have such an issue with their autism. The speaker is mournful and resentful of the distance between them and their child: ‘anchored to you’.
Everyone reacts to things differently. Since I am not a parent, I spoke to one who has two autistic children. Autism is ‘very difficult to deal with and manage as a parent,’ she says, ‘[…] People are people. If [the speaker] wants to consider autism a problem, then that lies with them. They are the problem, not autism.’
‘Pool’ would be improved if it were to depict the speaker’s journey from self-blame and fear of the unknown to enlightenment, acceptance and celebration. It would be interesting to explore what else the speaker finds difficult about raising an autistic child, besides their struggle to accept her autism and readjust their expectations.
Of course, every autistic person has a unique set of strengths and challenges. The negativity towards autistic people displayed in ‘Pool’ is somewhat balanced by the charm of ‘Willow’s Leelo and Dave’ and ‘At Sports Day’. The former depicts how the speaker’s child starts an ‘imaginary’ fish ‘craze’ at school, while the latter is a sweet, nostalgic scene that reminds me a little of my own sports days. Here, the speaker is lovingly supportive of their child: ‘when [the speaker] cheer[s,] she drinks it up.’ However, I am concerned about the effect of ‘Pool’ on an impressionable and less knowledgeable reader. This may be taking the comparison to an extreme, but, for me, the speaker’s autism-as-a-disease mentality in ‘Pool’ is somewhat akin to the kind of thinking that has led to some parents forcing bleach on their autistic kids in a disgusting, misguided attempt to ‘cure’ them. There is no cure, and we do not wish for one, either. (Side note: why aren’t the pages listed in the Notes section in chronological order? That makes no sense to me.)
While We Have to Leave the Earth is an enjoyable and interesting poetry collection, the blatant ableism most critics have failed to scrutinise overshadows Jess-Cooke’s hard work in the second half of the book. Speaking as a fellow writer and poet, I highly recommend hiring a sensitivity reader before publishing works that include depictions of autistic people and/or other marginalised groups. Poems like ‘Pool’ and ‘Line Up’ (‘all the hope I held back in the diagnostic meeting fell / down /down / down’) are unsettling to me as an autistic person. An autistic child is not a tragedy. They just have a neurological difference that enables them to experience the world in a way neurotypicals cannot.
T. K. Quentin is an English Literature and Creative Writing graduate from Aberystwyth University and a current reviewer-in-residence at New Welsh Review.