Apocalypse Soon (Maybe), a review of Uninterrupted by Gillian Harding-Russell | Louise Carson


Ekstasis Editions 2020

ISBN 978-1-77171-410-5
150 pages
6 x 9

     Going right to the heart of this book, I’m beginning with the title poem, which is also the title of the second section of the book.

     Divided into four sections (the poem, not the book – it has seven), each is headed by a single italicized line. Here they are:

          Sky reaches an arm over the sleeping hills.

          Walk closer and you may see

          A symphony of small sounds and scents

          An amazement of strands of long grasses

     Long grasses, the essence of the prairie landscape Harding-Russel loves. Note the simple language used when describing undisturbed nature.

     There are also dinosaur bones, lists of plants and birds. “From a crystal apex, a meadowlark’s notes / pluck the brain with sound fingers to fill the cerebrum / with intense blue while a hawk circles above // the field in a dark-shouldered shrug.” Simple but lush. About a gopher: “my brief breaking / into his world of uninterrupted land and sky foreshadows / his tiny heritage being wrested away.”

     The poet is also foreshadowing where this book goes and what she begs for: a less rapacious human presence in the world, or, maybe, none at all, if that is what it takes to restore balance. Just the titles of the other poems in this section – ‘Adaptations,’ Revising nature,’ ‘Bypass project,’ ‘Creek surgery,’ and ‘Nostalgia lake’ – say it all. We are too noisy, dangerous, rough and dirty.

     In ‘Lightning strikes in fairest weather’ Harding-Russell uses the repetition of three crops – wheat, canola, flax – with a few cows and derricks thrown into the landscape, to show the monoculture that is a pale shadow of the wild world. “Lightning strikes / in fairest weather, a stroke // or thunderbolt – apocalypse, / a temporal earth or / a human lobe.” All seems serene, but

     Going back to Part 1, there are a lot of bears. Bears as a danger to humans; humans as a danger to bears. Then the poet climbs mountains, contrasting her slow careful pace with the surer and more dare-devilish doings of mountain goats and young rock climbers. She gazes at a waterfall and ponders mortality in ‘Look up at that cascade!’ “the waterfall’s rush a white line / down the rock-slide-frozen- / in-time, its movement / invisible from the moment of / one’s birth to the // moment of one’s death – / but, looking back, wasn’t it all / rather short, mapped out in the crease / of the mountain’s making?”

     Except for bears, shot or dead on the highway, this first section is softer than what is coming.

     The third part of the book is called Strange Weather, and one poem – ‘There is a rat’ – stood out for me. (Spoiler alert: guess who the rat is?)

          I’m certain I’ve heard it in the attic

          of continuing anxieties

          or maybe it’s in the basement

          of postponed thought, but so

          pervasive is this rodent

          that is eating us out of home

          and planet,

     You get the gist. The poet writes “There is a Rat in my head that won’t leave me be / satisfied,” and “we’ve all become one Rat.”

     If Part 2 of the book – Uninterrupted – was its heart, Part 4 – Terra Poems – brings the meat, so to speak. And it’s not easy reading. If you make it too ugly, one of my editors has recently advised me, people turn away. Fortunately, Harding-Russell’s gorgeous language is the candy-coating on the pill.

     ‘The earth hangs askew’ gives a terrifying look at what might happen if or when both ice caps melt.

heft of ice calving

          off Greenland, weft of placenta

          watery sliding off Antarctica


          and the north pole will do

          an Olympic dive down

          to become the

                              south pole

          magnetic fields reversing

          and the sun’s bare

          eye exposed in the glare

          of UV rays.

          (Will we die?)

     It’s the plaintive last line of that verse that gets me.

     In ‘A terrestrial history of war’ Harding-Russell compares dinosaurs fighting each other to human warfare, past then present. “not bone / nor horn, not metal nor alloy, but instead // a combustive, technology-reinforced Sapiens” fighting each other. Here’s some apocalyptic language for you:

          when, with margin of accumulating

          error snowballing, another veil (carboniferous

          combusting fossils and complicated

          by forest fires following continental

          drought after global heating and glacial

          ice-fields evaporating sulphurous gaping


                            rose over the sun.

     “another veil…rose over the sun.” Summer of 2023? This way to the apocalypse.

     At the end of the Terra Poems, there’s one more terrifying image in the poem ‘Archeologist on Terra.’

rust-pocked in lacy holes, skeleton

                                        of 21st century Sapiens sits at a steering wheel, gazes out

                                      at underwater scenery, his right arm bent up

                                    the window slimed in phosphorescent run-off

                                  and in the back seat, bones of canis canis, muzzle propped out

                                              the broken rear window

                                                                      between flanks of a previous century.

    Unfortunately you can’t see it here – this webpage removes the spacing – but the verse looks like the windshield of a car, or maybe a car viewed from one side. End of Part 4.

     Whew, glad that’s over! But, of course, it’s just beginning.

     Part 5 is Missions, Then and Now, and in the poem which titles this section, harks back to the doomed Franklin expedition (something Harding-Russell wrote extensively about in her book In Another Air, which I reviewed for the League of Canadian Poets in 2020). “Hunger huge / in the face of extinction”…”a man that steps forward, with decapitating jaws / to eat what’s left of the increasing white patches / of one’s mind, becoming part of / the landscape.” In the same poem, she jumps to the present and future, referencing the thinning ice and polar oil drilling. “And so we invent / the foundation for another nightmare.”

     In the next few poems, birds feature, most of them doomed. Her language simplifies, becomes gentle; she saves her most gothic imagery for describing us, our wastage of space. She refers to us as “Homo sap.”

     Part 6 – Meditations on Diverse Species – might be dedicated to the insects, most of them feared and killed by us, not excepting the poet, who admits to doing likewise, though in one – ‘Meditation on a compost beetle’ – the hero of the poem is thanked for its hard work. We all by now know that it follows if no insects, then no birds, no pollination, no crops, no food, no us – don’t we? One poem – ‘Neonicked field’ – really brought this home. (And made me run to Wiki for a definition of neonics. “a class of neuro-active insecticides chemically similar to nicotine.”

     In humans, nicotine shuts down the emotions, acts as a mild sedative, and (we think) gives us endurance. In bees, it messes with their sense of direction. So instead of “a golden dream / inside wax, inborn thought in-shaping outward / hive shape”…”careful intelligence / threading scents of clover and alfalfa into / the sweetness of a personal ambrosia,” we get:

          One stray bee swooping in a lazy loop

                       of wandering zigzag

                                                     thought, neurotransmitters

                       for memory of hive and



     Again, in the above poem and the next, when describing the natural world, Harding Russell’s language slows down and simplifies, as though her heartrate and breathing have also slowed. From ‘Wanderer’ about monarchs:

                                                  fanning wings

                           over the long-skirted grasses

                     waving censers of anthers and stamens               before my wondering eyes

     I’m crying as I near the end of this book.

     The final section’s poems – Closing Earth Songs – can be read not as warnings but as elegies; songs to sing as the earth closes down. The fresh and salt waters sick; many creatures dying out; us, squabbling or trying to ignore our mess.

     Cheer up! (And this is me, not the poet.) Maybe Gaia is going through one of her periodic cleansings. Some living things will die, maybe us. But there may yet be new ones waiting to be born.

     In the meantime, maybe try to live with a little less plastic, a little less oil.

Louise Carson has published three collections of poetry: The Truck Driver Treated for Shock, Yarrow Press, 2024; Dog Poems, Aeolus House, 2020; and A Clearing, Signature Editions, 2015. She also writes mysteries and historical fiction. Her most recent books in those genres are The Cat Looked Back, Signature Editions, 2023; and Third Circle, land/sea press, 2022. Louise lives in the countryside near Montreal where she writes, runs and gardens