Strata Smith and the Anthropocene by John Freeman
Published by The Knives Forks and Spoons Press 2017.
ISBN: 978-1-909443-85-3 £6.
Review by Mandy Pannett
Now here’s an intriguing title to conjure with – who is this Strata Smith with the dare-devil name that makes me think of Indiana Jones or Crocodile Dundee? What is this weighty-sounding Leviathan of an Anthropocene? What kind of a book is this?
Superficially, it is a slim booklet of thirty-seven pages divided into thirteen passages each one concerned with an aspect of geology. William Smith and his famous map of 1815 forefronts the narrative as the dilemmas and questions induced by the Anthropocene, (the human-influenced epoch of present geological time), provide a constant background. This is the apparent content but, if one digs deeper as if into layers of rock, there is more. Much more.
My immediate pleasure in Strata Smith comes from the multi-faceted writing which moves in and out of the subject connecting threads and thoughts. We have biography interspersed with personal anecdote, poetry, philosophical questions, fascinating information on fossils and rocks, digressions into social history, quotes from writers ranging from Shelley to Bill Bryson – a huge variety of style and subject matter in a short space.
‘Green is the colour William Smith chose to represent chalk on his 1815 map, ’ says John Freeman at the beginning of the first section Smith Honoured. To me it feels as if this mention of green with all its political and literary connotations provides the keynote for the thirteen passages. There is springtime in this era that man is creating, a growth of catkins, celandines, daisies; colours of red and green are vivid on trees and there is an ‘intensifying light’ in life itself that is determined to survive, that will outlive ‘us, and all our sources of pollution’. (Springtime in the Anthropocene’). Yet there is always menace and ignorance, an earth that is ‘bruised’ with a ‘cut lip, swollen cheek’, the dread of being wiped out so that today’s geological time will be just one more ‘layer’ marking ‘the sixth mass extinction’.
The ‘horizon of the Anthropocene’ is grim and John Freeman makes no pretence of hiding the grimness. But this is an author who knows his craft exceptionally well, can treat a heavy subject with lightness, is able to make the abstract vivid and detailed. What I particularly like is the awareness that there are no simple answers and we are ‘a collective too numerous for any definitive narrative.’ (Mapping the Collective). I love the metaphor that is used of interactive maps in Paris Metro stations where the pattern of direction may be changed with the touch of a button. In the same way opinions and viewpoints change, says John Freeman, and ‘the trouble is there are so many’.
Strata Smith and the Anthropocene is profound and thought-provoking but also a joy to read in the way it touches on interactions, small significances, understandings that grow ‘from inklings to hunches, to theories to be tested, to almost complete certainties by stages.’ (Smith Obstructed).
I highly recommend it.
John Freeman’s new collection, What Possessed Me, was published by Worple Press in September, 2016. It is his first verse collection since A Suite for Summer (also from Worple), in 2007. White Wings: New and Selected Prose Poems was published by Contraband Books in 2013. Earlier collections include The Light Is Of Love, I Think: New and Selected Poems (Stride Editions), and Landscape with Portraits (Redbeck). Recent magazine appearances include The Rialto, London Grip and Tears in the Fence, which also recently printed his essay on the poetry of Jim Burns.
An interview with John Freeman in which he discusses ‘Strata Smith and the Anthropocene’ may be read here http://sentinelquarterly.com/2016/05/john-freeman-interviewed-by-mandy-pannett/