Book review: The Last Days of Petrol, by Bridget Khursheed

The sensual, vivid and at times heartbreaking poetry of Bridget Khursheed presents the natural world as something now permanently under pressure from human activities, writes Joyce McMillan

Bridget Khursheed PIC: Rob McDougall
Bridget Khursheed PIC: Rob McDougall

The cover of this new collection by award-winning Borders-based poet Bridget Khursheed features her own image of Selkirk swimming pool in rain – an almost abstract blur of dark bubbles, with a band of pale blue light and human flesh – and a quote from the author, describing her interest in “ecopoetry, and the teetering intersections between landscape, nature and population.”

It’s a vivid introduction to a slim but powerful 70-page volume, full of nature poetry that is nonetheless charged with a sense of nature as something now permanently under pressure from human activities, which have to be observed alongside it and intertwined with it, if we are to make any sense of a world on the edge of crisis. It’s a bold strategy, and one that challenges the traditional role of the natural world in literature, as a kind of unchanging template against which human activity can be measured; but at its most powerful, it produces brave, brilliant and chilling poetry, which almost forces a recognition of the new precarity of human life on earth, through the sheer texture and truthfulness of its language and verse.

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It’s not that all of Bridget Khursheed’s poems are focused on the Borders landscape in which she now lives. Some of the poems have urban settings, notably Easter Road in Edinburgh; some hint at personal experience, loves won and lost, children raised, bereavement suffered. There is an immensely moving poem about the shock of bereavement, set in the little rooftop garden at the National Museum of Scotland in Chambers Street; another, breathtakingly sensual and vivid, about a museum exhibit featuring the cannonball that killed a solider at Culloden, and the half-eaten oatcake, wrapped in cloth, that was found in his pocket. And always, there is the backbeat of a 21st century Borders life shaped by the need to drive and keep driving, even through “the last days of petrol” – from home to school to playdate, and supermarket after supermarket.

The Last Days of Petrol, by Bridget Khursheed
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Yet it’s often in the driving, and its paradoxes, that Khursheed finds some of her most powerful “intersections” between the human-made and natural worlds; the dismantling of an old oak tree to make way for new flats, glimpsed while she waits at a traffic light, or – memorably – her brief fantasy of taking up residence in the liminal space of a scrubby traffic island on the A1 near Fort Kinnaird.

Khursheed describes herself as a poet and geek, and is an expert in global agile software documentation, as well as a writer; and there are brief moments, in this collection, when her world seems to shimmer from the real into the virtual, as if it might one day only exist as data in some cosmic archive. At other times, it takes on a tinge of visionary science fiction, with visions of floods, or of a great draining away of waters.

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Always, though, there is a sense of a poetry rooted in Khursheed’s intense knowledge of the physical world of which we form part; the dozens of species of birds and mammals, insects, plants, seeds and moulds, that now cohabit with the plastics and tarmacs of our urban world, and are changed by them. The syntax of her work is bold, and often difficult to disentangle, the ends of lines often breaking and disrupting thoughts, or seeming to rearrange them.

In the end, though, the boldness, the occasional obscurity, and the sense of disruption, seems mind-breakingly and heartbreakingly right, for a collection of poetry that can plunge into the most breathtaking detail of an encounter with a single dragonfly on a doorpost; but that never, for more than a second, allows us to relax into the illusion that he and his kind will not be threatened or changed, by the fate that we humans ultimately inflict on ourselves.

The Last Days of Petrol, by Brudget Khursheed, Shearsman Books, 70pp, £10.95

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