A Review of Anna Selby’s Field Notes
Saskia McCracken is a writer and editorial advisor at Osmosis Press. She is completing her doctoral research, on Virginia Woolf’s Darwinian animal tropes, at the University of Glasgow. She is interested in environmental and generically unstable writing. Saskia’s debut pamphlet, Imperative Utopia, is forthcoming (-algia press) and she is currently working on a poetry collection about botanist and photography innovator Anna Atkins. Her work has appeared in Amberflora, Datableed, Zarf, Spam, and others, and she is a member of 12 collective.
Content warning: rape, abortion
Anna Selby’s work is immersive, literally. Her poetry collection Field Notes (2020) ‘was written on waterproof notebooks in pencil, in and under the Atlantic Ocean whilst free diving, scuba diving and snorkelling.’ The result is dazzling attention to the natural world (she is a naturalist as well as a poet) that is invites the reader to dive in with her.
The flora and fauna of the sea, and the ocean itself, are not simply figures for human concerns. They are the matter that matters here. This is not to say that human emotion is absent. Some poems suggest that the ocean is a vital space for the speaker to process trauma and grief. Here, animals (and apparently sea cucumbers are animals not vegetables) invite simile and metaphor. Consider this excerpt from the opening poem, ‘Sea Cucumbers’:
Through a blur of spit on my goggles
I study leopard-spotted sea cucumbers
fat, thick, huge as porno cocks in the greasy water.
I see one pour itself into a rock
observing this beautiful punk
unchaining its skin
liquefying. When I surface, the men
spill over the harbour wall.
I recall a film I saw
accidentally when I was eight
where a woman gets gang-raped
on a pin-ball machine.
The harbour men
flick their cigarettes, staring
starting down the steps.
Disco lights pucker, slip.
Everything is inconsistent.
In ‘Arrowhead Hummock,’ Selby explores the impulse to metaphorize animals. She writes:
I don’t want to talk
about our species
But each species that appears in the following lines – ‘nest-building’ fish, an osprey’s ‘grief nest,’ aphrodils ‘spitting each egg’ – seem to be metaphors about ‘the abortion.’ Language helps us to understand other animals but also brings us back to ourselves and to language itself. In fact, language is often considered the ultimate human faculty, one which divides us from animals. But Selby reminds us that sea creatures communicate too, in ways we can observe, but cannot comprehend. This is part of the reason they fascinate us. In ‘Sublittoral Zone’ she writes:
Lime urchins. No one knows how
they communicate with each other to aggregate.
Light sensitive. Moves out of shadow! Poison spines.
And in ‘La Tejita’ fish almost seem to write with light and colour:
Lots of night fishes out tonight. Their lights are
changing colour and leave tails/mazes/intestine/
shapes in water/serpents
Other poems, particularly in the ‘Notes from the Water’ section of the collection, push back against the impulse to anthropomorphic figuration, and explore more blurred, unstable (and perhaps zoomorphic) observations, similes and metaphors. They remind me of George Levine’s claim that Darwin’s natural history re-enchants the environment and its inhabitants. The attention to animal and vegetable life is both about that life and about the wonder of experiencing such alterity. Selby’s ‘Los Abrigos I’, is an example of her (re)enchanting naturalism:
Families of wrasse. Damselfish, all different sizes.
The sand tiger looked prehistoric and unhelpful.
Trumpetfish, Aulostomus strigosus. Half my height. Elusive.
Party drifter. Frills. Crab-orange. Salmon eye.
Fascinating. I could follow you endlessly through
And she does follow these creatures, her Field Notes taking us to the depths of oceans and language, experimenting with writing in response to submerged worlds, underwater logic.
Her collection is not just concerned with natural subject matter, but is produced using natural materials: vegetable-based inks and recycled paper. This ties in with the ethos of Hazel Press, which Daphne Astor established in 2020 as an independent publisher ‘with a focus on the environment, the realities of climate change, feminism and the arts.’ The press website features a quote from environmental poet Jeffrey Yang: ‘good poetry, like nature, requires constant renewal and regeneration.’ Selby’s work does just this. Her Field Notes enact the renewal and regeneration evident all around her in the oceans in which she immerses herself, and us.