Julian Bishop, We Saw It All Happen (Fly on the Wall Press, 2023)
Seeing is ambiguous. Less active than ‘watching’ or ‘looking’, it nevertheless involves some level of engagement with the world around us. A witness might proudly declare “I saw it all” when giving testimony; God (in various guises) is often described as all-seeing; when flicking through Twitter, we often see things we can’t help but click. Whether informants, deities or doom-scrollers, we are all seeing the Earth weep.
Some see with open eyes; others with a shifty sideways glance. Many are peeking through the gaps between their fingers. And too many are trying to keep their eyes shut. We are seeing one third of Pakistan submerged by floodwater. We are seeing more than 8 million tons of plastic end up in oceans every year. And we are seeing insect populations plunge, threatening 40% of species with extinction within decades.
Different types of observer fill the pages of Julian Bishop’s We Saw It All Happen. There are angry seers. Sad gazers. And detached viewers, who watch on, Gogglebox-style, as though the burning world were only on TV. At times, readers might themselves feel uncomfortably implicated: in a climate emergency, should we even be reading poetry?
The only riposte to such (legitimate) doubts about poetry’s utility comes from poetry itself. In one of the collection’s best, the poet alludes to ‘Four Forms of Denial’: ‘[idle]’, ‘[CARNIVORE]’, ‘[personal]’ and ‘[PRESIDENTIAL]’. In the final section, the deranged voice bellows,
YOU | DON’T NEED MONEY TO FIGHT WILD FIRES | WHAT YOU SEE AND READ IS NOT WHAT’S HAPPENING
With (wilful) climate change denial still staggeringly prevalent, the step from apathy to authoritarianism is dangerously narrow. Bishop’s catalogue of catastrophe is the perfect counterweight to the Orwellian ‘greenwashing’ (and outright lies) of Big Oil and the Meat Lobby. When ‘The Party’ tells us to reject the evidence of our eyes and ears – ‘their final, most essential command’ – more voices are needed to remind us that what we saw really did happen.
The starting point for We Saw It All Happen, as is often true of the most powerful poetry, is personal experience. Bishop, a former Environment Reporter for BBC Wales, uses poetry to turn the lens on himself. Reflecting on his career in the ‘Preface’, he writes that he used to hope that,
my reports might go some small way to change hearts and minds. I think it’s fair to say I failed which might explain some of the frustration and sadness expressed in many of the poems
Frustration permeates the whole collection. Humans are pirates, who ‘keelhauled the lot to give us more space’. In ‘Highlights of Mining for Gold in Indonesia’, the consumer is squarely held as culpable for the devastating effects of deforestation. ‘Look inside the lovely ring, at a gold chain, your piercing…’ the poet urges, and you will see ‘a gold vein threading | together diminishing jungle but an inconvenient gorilla | to the two men with chainsaws’.
From Cinnabar moths to dung beetles, the collection plays host to hundreds of tiny creatures that are too often overlooked. When you can’t see something, you can’t see that it is disappearing. ‘Strange that catastrophe should announce itself |on such small feet’ the poet muses.
In drawing attention to the extraordinary biodiversity that ‘make[s] the world go round’, the poet advocates for a new way of seeing: photographers fawning over tigers neglect the beetle in the same way that people, so wrapped up in the pursuit of personal goals, forget to nourish the Earth that ensures their survival.
To reinforce this need for visibility, the beautifully produced collection – published by (the aptly named) Fly on the Wall Press – features an illustrated flip book of beetles. Seeing is believing, which makes foregrounding something that is usually invisible a powerful act. Flipping the beetles away serves as a vivid visual reminder of the extinction that humans are inflicting upon the insect world.
Indeed, poetry itself encourages a different kind of seeing. Different perspectives compete; different voices compel attentive listening. Bishop’s collection is a graveyard of humanity’s errors. This graveyard is so huge and overwhelming that the best way to (try to) understand it is on the personal level. That is poetry’s place.
‘To All the Insects I Ever Squished’ is a deceptively poignant elegy to the vast range of insects the poet has killed – deliberately or otherwise. His apology to wasps (‘for prizing a sandwich more than your lives’) is especially telling. It is hard to read this poem without feeling a tidal wave of despair but its ending is too glibly defeatist. Pleading that the deaths were the result of a ‘congenital human urge to eliminate’ leaves no hope for redemption – and, more importantly, it undermines the sincerity of the poet’s apology. We can help it. We need to help. However hopeless the battle might seem, we cannot simply throw in the towel. Having made this mess, we owe it to every squished insect to at least try to clean up.
Bishop is right to focus on the worst perpetrators. Fossil fuel, meat and dairy, mining and aviation companies hold the keys to a liveable future for all. To Big Oil, he says, ‘You barrelled across the Earth like you owned it | and to a degree or two you did’. He satirises the politicians complicit in these ruinous activities in ‘Eton Mess’. His recipe involves mixing ‘No deep thought or application’ with a sprinkling of Latin, a perfect summary of the last decade of British politics. Naturally, the finishing touch is to ‘Dust conservatively with icing sugar (or cocaine)’.
When addressing Starbucks (proxy for big, immoral business), the consumer is also to blame: ‘we cradle the stain | of a disposable cup in our hands’. Indeed, amid the hopelessness of stopping the wealthy from taking short-haul domestic private jet jaunts, we need some reminders that individuals are not innocent bystanders.
This is most apparent in the title poem. The walrus scene in Our Planet is a tragic visualisation of the effects of climate change. Ice-free waters are forcing walruses to return to land to rest; exhausted and overcrowded, they then topple to their deaths. The poet uses this horrifying image – and the walruses’ helpless wails – to mirror humanity’s guilt and shame at having caused such suffering. The twin images of a family eating a fish feast on the sofa and the walruses plunging to their deaths create an excruciating echo:
now we’re all wailing
kill the sound
In a book centred on the power of sight, it is sound that has the most enduring effect. The poet heightens his message through exceptional command of white space. The page becomes a scene of failure, the meeting point of cause and effect, a space for the slow-motion playing out of something that could have been avoided.
The repetition of ‘I’ve got the zapper in my hand’, so rich with meaning, is a refrain for the age. We have the power to change the channel and pretend it isn’t happening; or we can stare in horror for a few long minutes, then go back to eating our takeaway. Or we can turn up the volume, take responsibility for our mistakes and do something to correct them. We Saw It All Happen is essential reading for the poetry world – and anyone who still cares and hopes. In ‘Ash’, the closing poem, Bishop makes clear that he does,
A desperate last gasp to save the planet,
I want the world to warm to my plan.
Julian Bishop, We Saw It All Happen (Fly on the Wall Press, 2023). Available here: https://www.flyonthewallpress.co.uk/product-page/we-saw-it-all-happen-by-julian-bishop