Poetry is not a mass market – perhaps thanks to its reputation for being stylistically obscure and frequently focused on nebulous and intangible subjects or messages. Happily, readers who choose to delve beyond this often find it to be false – and Emily Hasler’s diverse debut collection, The Built Environment, is no exception, deftly combining the notion of architecture with a sense of discovery. This is not, as some might suspect, limited to buildings: natural ‘architecture’, such as mountains, is also explored as part of what is ‘built’ by the world and its weather.
Hasler jumps from items of human invention – such as the folding machine, in the first instance – to the natural world, and back again, to create a collection that is clear and cohesive in its style and vision. Her writing is highly literary, thanks to her use especially of personification, paradox and allusion; however, it is by no means inaccessible, presenting a range of ideas that are relevant to everyday life, including how we regularly ‘edit’ the history of a place by building, demolishing and updating.
This sense of ongoing creation is particularly highlighted in the alchemical and sensuous poem ‘Katana’, which fuses the elegant and brutal, as many of Hasler’s poems do (‘The Egyptologist’ implies that the environment is created as much by plundering as by what we leave behind). This directness is replicated in her skilful rendering of Hansel and Gretel, which has something evocative of Carol Ann Duffy about it. This, and other possible influences (such as George Saunders in ‘Notes: A Monumental Brass’ and Sylvia Plath in ‘Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne’), are clearly present without obfuscating Hasler’s original voice or making the collection feel imitative.
Throughout the collection, Hasler encapsulates transience and imagination while counteracting idealism. She considers sociological and feminist implications in ‘Notes: A Monumental Brass’ without this feeling heavy: all of the poems, in fact, are sufficiently concise and rich that each one is a pleasure to savour. One especial favourite lies in ‘Wish You Were Here’, which considers layers of architecture, from ‘a vacant bench’ and ‘doorless openings’ to the inspiration of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian.
While sweeping in its ambition, there is also a humility to the collection, culminating in its final poems, ‘In Praise of Pollen’ and ‘Four Seasons, St Giles Cripplegate’, which touch upon the butterfly effect and give a sacred, quiet end to the volume that, as with ‘Tammasmass E’en’, give a prehistoric sense of us feeling small while contributing to a wider story. Even nameless places contribute to the environment that we build through memory (as Hasler indirectly points out in ‘Othona’); in ‘Potpourri’, we are also reminded that we build environments when we redecorate or remake a new home to make it ours.
As such, Hasler intimates that the built environment is created by both interiors and exteriors, and that we also choose to build our environment with what we choose to put in it, such as books (and, less tangibly, how we build a cultural environment – with, for example, stories, or even words themselves), as explored in poems such as ‘Cambridge Primitive’, ‘Daphnia; or, The Water Flea’, and ‘On Reading the Meaning of “Falchion” in an Encyclopaedia’). These ambiguities and multiple layers of meaning leave us wondering if the animals are real, or just recreated in zoetrope or zoo, as is seen with her poem ‘The Animal in Motion’. Consequently, we are left to ask what kind of environment is created there, and furthermore, if we are happy with it.
This all demonstrates that Hasler is acutely aware of the complex relationships between objects and space, whether from moralistic or mathematical standpoints, such as when maps are created in ‘Cartography for Beginners’, making them both constructors and representatives of the environment. In ‘Grasmere Lake’, naming plays a similar role and touches upon timeless themes that are also evoked by culturally significant plays such as Brian Friel’s ‘Translations’.
This is not to say that there are no criticisms. ‘Sub-architecture’ would have been enhanced by the removal of the reference to Google Earth (it being a personal opinion that the use of brand names often just limits the reader’s visualisation), and some poems such as ‘The Valley of the Stour’ play deliberately fast and loose with punctuation – which is of course ‘allowed’ in poetry (and, some would argue, perhaps even ‘expected’), but which may not be appreciated by all readers. Sequencing-wise, some readers may also prefer the poems to segue more seamlessly into each other by way of subject matter. However, these are minor points in the face of a work which takes us on a journey through the important question of how and why things are built (so important, in fact, that in ‘Lecture’, the locals ‘cannot touch’ the globes which represent scale, space and distance).
The poems beautifully unite mathematics, art and emotion, giving the reader a sense of an environment that slowly shifts under all of our influence, animals and rain included, whether or not we are witting builders of that environment. The Built Environment illuminates this credibly – making it canonical thanks to its successful fusion of curiosity and clarity.
BY BIANCA PELLET
Published by Liverpool University Press, 2018.