Episode 9

Metamorphosis 

by Dom Bury

 

Dom Bury reads ‘Metamorphosis’ and discusses the poem with Mark McGuinness.

This poem is from:

Rite of Passage by Dom Bury

Rite of Passage book cover

Available from:

The Publisher: Bloodaxe Books

Bookshop.org: UK | US

Amazon: UK | US

Metamorphosis

by Dom Bury

                                      1

Plough — anvil — loom. As yet few
noticeable tremors. As yet nothing is lost
permanently, merely transformed into something useable.
Old wood becomes ships that still answer
to foul weather. Old stone, resurrected
becomes shelter, temple, raised effigy.
Though not yet to a God that would eat the heart
right out of you but one that still fears
rising water, black marks over the sun,
sudden — uncontrollable — fever.

                                      2

Wilderness as echo. Wilderness as porn, wildness
as something repressed so that what was once felt
ravine deep in the body calcifies
into harder gods. God of iron, steel, God of smoke
without fire — God sold to empty the country
into the city’s gaping mouth—
human wreckage — human kindling —
anything to keep the forges burning eyeball white.

                                      3

Yet still, for now only minor visible ructions —
fish upturned in rivers, cattle refusing
to ovulate, tuberculosis, cholera, rain
still something still to be dashed through.
For now autumn moves into winter as smoothly as a row
of emperor penguins sliding into the sea.
For now the geese, moving high up through
the cold clean air still find their way home again.

                                      4

New signs come — depression — cancer —
whole races turning their knives in on each other,
whole peoples cut away from the sky and the stars
and the damn soft soil that birthed them,
that is them, their flesh, their bones, their bodies
no longer wondered at as earth, as everything,
but seen solely as vehicles to carry them,
us, everyone to our next blunt fix.

                                      5

The alarm bells of the planet reach fever pitch —
Covid — collective existential crisis — collapse,
our cities no longer able to withstand foul weather,
our nations on fire, the earth attempting to kill
what is killing it, to avoid the canvas
of this green miraculous earth disintegrating,
thread by thread, thrush by thrush,
human body by human body.

                                      6

This was the only way it could have been —
our own extinction held up to offer
a small window shaken ajar at midnight,
for us to witness these charred fields
and begin to feel, something,
anything again,
to understand how each cut into the earth
is a cut into our own soft skin.

                                      7

In the compressed heat of this late age,
the soul of the world begins to emerge again,
timid at first after ten thousand years of crucifixion,
of being burnt alive for the simple crime
of sounding the raw wild note of love
over and over, for daring to say, look,
between the ash and the wide open cosmos
there is still magic here!

                                      8

So the world breaks apart
to break us open
to the subtle miracle of living,
to come back to the mystery of these hands
folding over themselves,
to feel the wild tingling in us
and the last woods whispering —
soon there will be glades, great elk, grace again.

                                      9

Old things awaken far out on the permafrost.
New fires, hidden in the high woods
flare on one by one again to warm a little meagre food.
And slowly, we begin to recall what we had forgotten,
to sense, in the marrow of the earth God again,
though God not as this far off deity
sat on his golden throne
but God as life, as you, as me, as everything.

                                      10

All of this. All of this! To finally remember
the deep dark of the earth alive in us again,
the thrumming tuning fork
of our bodies ecstatic as wave spray,
sudden phosphorescence, to remember
how the stars and the moon move us —
hung in the sky over the still lake,
below a mountain filled with fresh snow.


 

Interview transcript

Mark: Dom, where did this poem come from?

Dom: This poem, Mark, was a poem that was written over two parts, two very distinct parts. And the first part of the poem, that’s a 10-part poem, and the first three parts came about five years before the second seven parts. And I wrote this, yeah, the first three parts and I, kind of, was feeling it moving in, it wanted to almost be like this register of destruction in many ways of where we are right now and what’s happening. And something wouldn’t allow me to move past writing those third parts.

And only I came back to it just by coincidence. I literally put it in my drawer, or in my file on my laptop, and it wasn’t going to be in the collection, like no part of this was going to be in the collection until one month before the deadline of the collection. And I was just scrolling through my… yeah, like the bits, you know when you write bits and bobs of poems, but they haven’t really come to fruition. And I just paused over this file, I was like, ‘Ah, I remember this one.’ And I clicked into it, and I read through it, and then it was just so clear. Yeah, I’d had to have gone through the life experience I’d gone through over the last four years of my life to actually then bring this poem into its fruition.

So then I sat with the first three parts of the poem. And yeah, like within that month, literally, I wrote I think the last section of number 10 about two days before sending off to Bloodaxe. So this was literally the last poem in the book, and it came after, I think in many ways my own metamorphosis with where the world is right now that really… Then it takes us on that journey, right? It takes us on that journey into facing the initiation, in many ways, of living right now in this moment planetarily and environmentally. And also then reflecting my own initiation many ways of how where I’ve come to now, which is, I guess, holding those two things in the balance, holding what is happening right now on one hand, and the potential death, and the environmental degradation, and ecosystem collapse, and also holding another story in my palms at the same time, and having another truth to be created there, of that we’ve had to come to this moment in time, we’ve had to come to face what we’re facing in order to actually shift, in order for us to change how we live on this earth.

Mark: Well, you know, I must admit, when I read this… because I saw the manuscript before the book came out, and obviously this wasn’t in that version. And then, of course, you’ve got COVID, I was thinking, ‘He must have been fairly up close to his deadline to… ‘

Dom: Yeah, it was. Yeah.

Mark: And it’s interesting, you say it was written in two parts, because one of the questions I had was, you know, from where it starts, I’m expecting the ending to be pretty dark. And yet, you certainly don’t flinch from the darkness here or in many other places in the collection, but you actually end up in a place that is far more uplifting, even hopeful, not to mention beautiful than I would have guessed from that beginning. So it’s really interesting that you say that it was written in two halves. What was that process of discovering that new direction of the poem like for you given where you’d started from?

Dom: Sure. Yeah, in many ways, it was obvious, right? In many ways, you know, when these things… it’d be tempting to give like a very ‘poetry’ answer in terms of, ‘Well, you know how this came about…’ but I don’t feel like I’d necessarily be being truthful to the poem. And, yeah, I think the process was very obvious, and that the first half was, yeah, this piece of me personally in the darkness, me personally, looking at the darkness, but also looking at how we got to this place in the first place, right?

So, it’s like the poem starts pre where we are now. It starts, you know, maybe like talking about, yeah, in the first passage maybe like 200, 300 years ago to 400 years ago with the Industrial Revolution. Then if you look at the second part around ‘God of iron, steel… God sold to empty the country / into the city’s gaping mouth’. So that was really going back and thinking and feeling the transition that we’d have to come through in order to get to this point of crisis, right?

Mark: Yeah, and, I mean, even further back than that, I mean, you’ve got this wonderfully bold opening, ‘Plough. Anvil. Loom.’ I mean, that’s going back, thousands of years. And it’s…

Dom: Yeah, it is. Yeah, I know.

Mark: …all of human history in three words. And I think as readers, we need… It took Yuval Noah Harari about 600 pages, to do it in Sapiens! But you’re actually saying, I think, to the reader at that point, ‘Are you nimble enough to come with me on this?’ And there’s a wonderful economy throughout the whole poem that to me that was summed up by that. So sorry, you were saying about from the industrial revolution to where we’ve got now.

Dom: But I think, thank you for actually taking me back to that place because it is this, it’s like from the origins, right? If you’re talking about Sapiens, we’re going back to the origins now of civilization, right? And I think that is a really important place to start from with a poem like ‘Metamorphosis’ because you need that trajectory, you need to feel the train of where we’ve come from in order to understand where we’re going to, and also understand like how things are, yeah, how things have become to where we are right now, but to feel them, to actually feel the linear chronological time of this part.

Yeah, and I guess then the third part wrote in a way of yeah, we’re still here now, there’s still minor visible eruptions in many ways. And then that’s maybe you know, 30, 40 years ago, and now we’re coming to, you know, 30 years ago, new signs comes depression, cancer, whole races turning their knives on each other. And then the complete dislocation from the earth, which we’ve experienced more and moreover the last 40, 50 years. And then, really now, what’s happening right now, like the alarm bells of the planet reaching fever pitch, like this is where we are in this moment right now. Like, the planet is ringing as a whole note, like fuck, like things are in danger.

And yeah, and COVID for me is a real example of that. And then it’s what next? Okay, so we’ve come like there’s no going back now, right? We can’t go back from this place. Like, history has run us, we run with history to this moment, this single period in our existence on this earth collectively and individually. And now it’s ‘Okay, so where do we go from here?’ And that really is… that’s a stepping-off point for me and hence this is the only way it could have been. Because if you look at human history and how it evolves, you need crises which are bigger than outside of ourselves in order for actual change to take place. You need something which shakes us from our daily existence to unite in a way, and with love and with at the core of what is human, and only for what I’m really seeing now is only this crisis would have the potential to unite and manage humanity. Only this thing, like the whole of the planet being threatened.

And I think that if we can tell that story, and we can tell that, then I think we’re in a much better place for solutions and creative solutions to where we are to actually come to the fore than if we’re still in a place of, yeah, like both facing the darkness, but also understanding this caveat to it as well. And then, yeah, I guess the last parts of the poem came as an offering, like just a simple offering of the possibility of yes, and this is still possible. Like, this is possible that, yeah, this emerges now, the core of us emerges because of this, not in spite of this moment, because of it.

Mark: And, you know that word ‘still’, you’ve used it quite a lot on the interview, and it kind of rings throughout the poem, and it shifts its sense a bit. Because you start off, particularly in the first part, you’ve got a real sense of the clock ticking, and it’s like it seems to start ticking faster and faster and, you know, the mood music is getting darker. You’ve got ‘as yet’, ‘not yet’, ‘yet still’, ‘for now’, and ‘this late age’, but later on, you say, ‘There is still magic here’. And it feels like that journey through time, that history comes through and yet, and we could easily see this trajectory going to a very dark place, and maybe we will do. But I think the fundamental impression I came away with is that there’s still magic here, there’s still beauty here, there’s still… How would you describe it? You say, ‘God is life, as you, as me, as everything’. So there’s this wonderful, kind of, pantheistic, almost Romantic relationship with nature.

Dom: I mean, we may edit this bit out, but I just want to share this anyway. Yeah, I think how do you move beyond Romanticism in connection with nature, but still maintain that love for the natural world, right? So if you look at the Romantics, and you look at, especially in poetry, our relationship with the natural world, it’s really informed by that Romantic sense of nature, right? But yeah, we’ve come now to an edge, which is an edge around we can no longer see nature really in that light anymore because of what’s happening, okay? So there needs to be a cut-off point, but at the same time, we need to fall in love with the world again, right? We need to fall in love with the earth.

You know, it’s like someone like Joanna Macy I think, that’s her main practice is falling in love with the earth on a daily basis of what is here now, and the beauty that’s here now, and the magic that is here right now on the earth. And actually, that then engenders a response of actually deep care for the earth, deep care for the planet.

Mark: And for listeners who aren’t familiar with Joanna Macy, could you give us the brief introduction?

Dom: Sure. So, Joanna Macy, she’s like a thought leader on ecology, deep ecology, grief, so ecological grief, and also how do we live in the face of planetary emergency, and the environmental crisis which we currently face? So her thinking is, and I really subscribe by it, and I think it’s the tension between the two, right, is you can’t just go in often too Romantic, like, ‘Ah, nature’s so beautiful. Yes, I love the earth. Amazing!’. But you also can’t go into, ‘Everything is going to die. We’re all done. We’re all doomed!’ because that doesn’t allow actually… yeah, it doesn’t allow for response.

And so for me, I think what this poem and what the book wants to do is it wants readers to bring them to the edge of different possibilities, right? Of the possibility of collapse, and yes, this is one possibility of the darkest hour. And yet, there is also another possibility that this moment will allow us to fall in love with the earth again collectively. And to understand that we are the earth, and to then begin to want and desire to become more in synchronicity as part of an ecosystem of the earth, which is then sustainable.

Mark: So these are big themes Dom. And, you know, I applaud you for engaging with them and doing so in a way that… Because, I mean, there’s several ways this kind of poetry can go wrong as we know! What do you see as the role of the poet, or what is the potential of poetry at a time like this?

Dom: It’s a very good question. I’m actually holding a panel in September called The Role of Poetry in Response to Planetary Emergency. So you couldn’t have set me up better for that about us, thanks very much, Mark! And that’ll be with Writers Rebel.

What is the role of poets in response to planetary emergency? For me, it is allowing people an access point beyond rhetoric, beyond the mainstream narratives that we currently have in media, and the polarities between is climate change happening, isn’t climate change happening? Like, are we all going to die, are we going to be fine? And really allowing them an access point to feeling, to experiencing what it means, what it feels like to be alive right now, in this human moment, right? Because I think that’s ultimately what it comes down to is when with a lot of… Also, eco-poetry, which I’ve struggled to stomach actually, and when I say struggle to stomach it, I mean because it disassociates the crises happening from the self. It’s always putting something, always talking about something which is far away, or isn’t going to impact the personal self, or is trying to be right on, or is trying to like speak around plastic or the rhetorical devices which we’ve been given as a mainstream narrative in the media.

Which is all great in terms of raising awareness, but poetry, they know poetry has this quality to it when it’s magic, when the spell is cast of a poem, that it really allows you to enter a world, right? And so, if a poet has that ability to allow someone for that 30, 40, 50 seconds, three minutes to enter this world, you know, that’s when actually someone can be transformed, right? The reader, the consciousness of the reader, the body of the reader can actually be moved and can be shifted. So I think that’s really the role that poets have to play in this is giving people that access point to the feeling, to experiencing themselves in this moment, in response to where we are. Yeah, and also giving them the fullness of that, you know, not just one narrative, not just another narrative, but giving them the whole truth.

Mark: And I guess that’s the answer to my question earlier on about the two possible endings that you’re holding both realities in a space that we can experience imaginatively and emotionally, not just intellectually or politically, or electronically on social media.

Dom: And that’s key, right? That’s really key. That’s really core.

Mark: Yeah. Okay, and then in terms of maybe zooming in on the poem itself a little more, I mean, as soon as you title it ‘Metamorphosis’ it makes me think of Ovid and Metamorphoses. And also, you know, the big global themes. Was that in your mind at all or was that coincidental?

Dom: I think that’s coincidental. Yeah, I mean, I’ve read some of Metamorphoses, but I think, for me, this was… The metamorphosis came really because the poem is at a point of the book, right, where we’ve come through one possibility, and we’ve come to the edge of acceptance really of that possibility. You know, in poems like ‘Extinction,’ poems like ‘I Lay Down on the Ground to Make Peace with the Fire Jumping the Valley Towards Me.’ And then you come to this section of the book, which is like what happens afterwards? And then ‘Letter From My Daughters’ around speaking back another possibility, another world. And so really the title of the poem really came, I think, in relation to the collection itself, and where we were in the collection, as well as the standalone poem itself which does the metamorphosis through the act of the single poem.

Mark: Okay, and I think it’s a good point that this is situated within a whole collection, a wonderful book, Rite of Passage. And I guess, as you’re saying that, it struck me that in a way this poem is a bit like the experience with the book in microcosm, even though it’s fairly expansive itself because you’ve got… It’s 10 sections, and you can hear Dom pause between each section. They’re all quite short, when you look at the page, it’s beautifully laid out, you’ve got this little square of text on a wide expanse. There’s a real sense of compression and economy, but also expansiveness in the poem. And clearly, there are gaps for us to fill in the spaces in our imagination between the different sections. And I think that’s very much the experience of reading the whole collection, that you have a lot of poems, you know, it’s not just a collection, it’s more like reading a whole sequence.

So how did you arrive at this form of having these little square sections, was that there from the beginning in the first three pieces and you just continued it, or… ?

Dom: Sure I can definitely say more about that. So my initial… So actually, one of the main inspirations for this poem was a poem by Don Paterson. And the poem is I think in Rain, and it goes… It has this section which is like very matter of fact, like this happens, then this happens, then this happens, then this happens. That’s around, I think there’s some element of crisis around it. And so that was kind of the, I think if it was responding to any poem, it was probably responding most to that poem, but it’s kind of moved on so far from there since then. But that was the initial impulse, and it was really having these pockets, right, these pockets of compressed image in many ways.

So there’s these images which were standalone pockets, and I felt, you know, in order to get the sequence to work, it needed to be on individual pages so you could actually experience those windows, right? So they are windows in many ways, like individual windows in time. And I think that was then what each cell, let’s call them the cell of the organism of the poem wanted to then compress into.

Mark: And in terms of the process, did it come fairly fully formed like this? Did it go through several versions? I guess you didn’t have all that much time before the deadline, did you?

Dom: Well, with these things, with these poems, they kind of… you know, this is a poem which was written over about five years, right? So, maybe part of the… In the first one, two, three, sections were almost set in my subconscious for five years, like waiting for the right material to then just put into the form, right? I think that often happens as, you know, you come back to a poem and then suddenly the materials are you know, ‘Ah-ha, of course. Okay. Da, da, da, da. Da, da, da, da.’ And, yeah, I think I really wanted to… So, I think, I know that apart from one of them, I think all the sections are eight lines, apart from maybe… yeah, I think eight lines long apart from I think the first one. And I think I wanted to keep the… to find compression in that as well. And I think, you know, I’m a real fan of the form and how, you know, playing with these, the… yeah, keeping to a particular line length, or keeping to that actually compresses you to think more imaginatively and to be more clever, not clever in terms of trickstery, but like imaginatively, like they’re a compression mechanism for how the poem works.

Mark: Yeah. Well, Dom, I think you have compressed superbly and made absolutely wonderful use of the space that you gave yourself, the space around the text. So maybe it’d be good for us all to hear the poem again.

Dom: Okay, let’s do that.


 

Metamorphosis

by Dom Bury

                                      1

Plough — anvil — loom. As yet few
noticeable tremors. As yet nothing is lost
permanently, merely transformed into something useable.
Old wood becomes ships that still answer
to foul weather. Old stone, resurrected
becomes shelter, temple, raised effigy.
Though not yet to a God that would eat the heart
right out of you but one that still fears
rising water, black marks over the sun,
sudden — uncontrollable — fever.

                                      2

Wilderness as echo. Wilderness as porn, wildness
as something repressed so that what was once felt
ravine deep in the body calcifies
into harder gods. God of iron, steel, God of smoke
without fire — God sold to empty the country
into the city’s gaping mouth—
human wreckage — human kindling —
anything to keep the forges burning eyeball white.

                                      3

Yet still, for now only minor visible ructions —
fish upturned in rivers, cattle refusing
to ovulate, tuberculosis, cholera, rain
still something still to be dashed through.
For now autumn moves into winter as smoothly as a row
of emperor penguins sliding into the sea.
For now the geese, moving high up through
the cold clean air still find their way home again.

                                      4

New signs come — depression — cancer —
whole races turning their knives in on each other,
whole peoples cut away from the sky and the stars
and the damn soft soil that birthed them,
that is them, their flesh, their bones, their bodies
no longer wondered at as earth, as everything,
but seen solely as vehicles to carry them,
us, everyone to our next blunt fix.

                                      5

The alarm bells of the planet reach fever pitch —
Covid — collective existential crisis — collapse,
our cities no longer able to withstand foul weather,
our nations on fire, the earth attempting to kill
what is killing it, to avoid the canvas
of this green miraculous earth disintegrating,
thread by thread, thrush by thrush,
human body by human body.

                                      6

This was the only way it could have been —
our own extinction held up to offer
a small window shaken ajar at midnight,
for us to witness these charred fields
and begin to feel, something,
anything again,
to understand how each cut into the earth
is a cut into our own soft skin.

                                      7

In the compressed heat of this late age,
the soul of the world begins to emerge again,
timid at first after ten thousand years of crucifixion,
of being burnt alive for the simple crime
of sounding the raw wild note of love
over and over, for daring to say, look,
between the ash and the wide open cosmos
there is still magic here!

                                      8

So the world breaks apart
to break us open
to the subtle miracle of living,
to come back to the mystery of these hands
folding over themselves,
to feel the wild tingling in us
and the last woods whispering —
soon there will be glades, great elk, grace again.

                                      9

Old things awaken far out on the permafrost.
New fires, hidden in the high woods
flare on one by one again to warm a little meagre food.
And slowly, we begin to recall what we had forgotten,
to sense, in the marrow of the earth God again,
though God not as this far off deity
sat on his golden throne
but God as life, as you, as me, as everything.

                                      10

All of this. All of this! To finally remember
the deep dark of the earth alive in us again,
the thrumming tuning fork
of our bodies ecstatic as wave spray,
sudden phosphorescence, to remember
how the stars and the moon move us —
hung in the sky over the still lake,
below a mountain filled with fresh snow.


 

Rite of Passage

Rite of Passage by Dom Bury is published by Bloodaxe Books.

Rite of Passage book cover

Rite of Passage is available from:

The Publisher: Bloodaxe Books

Bookshop.org: UK | US

Amazon: UK | US

Dom Bury

Dom Bury portrait photo

Dom Bury is a devotee to this miraculous earth in this time of planetary transfiguration.

He has won a number of national and international prizes and awards for his work including The 2017 National Poetry Competition, The 2014 Magma Poetry Prize, 2nd Prize in The 2017 Resurgence Ecopoetry Competition and has also received an Eric Gregory Award and a Jerwood/Arvon Mentorship.

He has been published in magazines and anthologies including: Poetry Review, Poetry LondonPoetry Ireland, Poetry Wales, Magma, Best British Poetry, Staying Human: new poems for Staying Alive (Bloodaxe Books, 2020), and 100 Poems to Save The World (Seren 2021).

DomBury.com

 

A Mouthful of Air – the podcast

This is a transcript of an episode of A Mouthful of Air – a poetry podcast hosted by Mark McGuinness. New episodes are released every other Tuesday.

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The music and soundscapes for the show are created by Javier Weyler. Sound production is by Breaking Waves and visual identity by Irene Hoffman.

A Mouthful of Air is produced by The 21st Century Creative, with support from Arts Council England via a National Lottery Project Grant.

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