TEXT review

The entanglement of matter and meaning

review by Toni Walsh



Philip Nielsen
Wildlife of Berlin

UWA Publishing, Crawley WA 2018
ISBN: 9781742589619
Pb 108pp AUD 22.99


Feminist scholar and quantum physicist Karen Barad talks about the entanglement between matter and meaning:

To be entangled is not simply to be intertwined with another, as in the joining of separate entities, but to lack an independent, self-contained existence. Existence is not an individual affair. Individuals do not preexist their interactions; rather, individuals emerge through and as part of their entangled intra-relating. Which is not to say that emergence happens once and for all, as an event or as a process that takes place according to some external measure of space and of time, but rather that time and space, like matter and meaning, come into existence, are iteratively reconfigured through each intra-action, thereby making it impossible to differentiate in any absolute sense between creation and renewal, beginning and returning, continuity and discontinuity, here and there, past and future. (Barad 2007: ix)

Little by little, we as humans are becoming re-awakened to our entanglement with the world beyond us, and the implications of this. This re-awakening is apparent in Nielsen’s sixth collection of poems, Wildlife of Berlin.Each poem in the collection captures a moment in which all that was and all that will be manifests itself, and though at times it feels as though Nielsen presents these moments like specimens for the reader’s examination, they are not static – rather, they feel fluid and ephemeral, which I believe is due to Nielsen’s deft handling of Time, which is conveyed as not a linear nor chronological construct, but a nebulous and shifting one; as a landscape rather than a line. In such a space, the poet’s gestures towards the Second World War early in the collection, which recall humanity’s betrayal of itself, creates an intertextuality that unites some of the darkest days of recent history with the current ecological and social reality of the Anthropocene.

By blurring the perceived boundaries between spaces and times, Nielsen illuminates the interconnected nature of all things, material and otherwise. The discordant juxtapositions and contradictions of the collection’s first poem, ‘Marienplatz – Munich’ (12-13), anticipate the inherently restless character of the poems to follow. Meanwhile, recurring scopic motifs belie a sense of distance between the observer and the observed, reflecting a sense of the poet’s own positioning within the landscape, on the borders between things: European and Australian, whatever that may be, a colonial inheritance and a post-colonial perspective.

This awareness of our fraught yet irrevocable interconnectedness forms a pervasive undercurrent which unites the poems, which, despite a wide range of topics, sit contentedly enough together; a taxonomy of ideas suggesting a world-view that is ecologically aware and wryly post-postcolonial.

In Nielsen's poems, things are at once, and oscillate between, Same and Other, a paradox that captures a sense of some illusory and frustrating distance between the poet and nature, one that underlies the collection despite the prominence of both Australian and European flora, fauna and landscapes. Yet despite this inherently restless character, the poet constantly returns to the understanding that, despite the illusion of ruptures and distances, everything is connected, as in a web:

a nervous system spread among the grass roots

feeds on water, insect, mushroom

to make a sacrifice more epic and strange

than any lie of mass suicide (31)

While at the heart of Nielsen’s collection is this awareness of humanity’s interdependent relationship with the natural world, it is accompanied by an underlying sense of foreboding – for of course, trauma connects us too. Nielsen shows how nature is riddled with omens of our impending demise. The adaptive behaviour of the pied currawong, ‘the poster bird for evolution’, is presented as a portent:

Now the glass is gone, a flotilla of plastic
breeds and defecates on the ocean,
the birds learn new tricks

having foreseen our absence (35)

In ‘Auspices’ it seems that the poet begins to embrace the role of observer and witness, while reflecting on humanity’s self-imposed ostracisation from nature. He muses:

If only a million wings could filter
the sun, cool the ocean currents,
soothe the space dome,
that mad cracked cap (32)

Finally, in ‘The Dead Are Bored’, the poet’s voice rings its caution clear, driven home by the force of a rhyming couplet:

Listen, there is no magic in this prophecy:
When the rhino is gone
and clumsy birds mop the plains
you will see there your own remains. (94)

The poems are similarly interconnected, threaded together by recurring motifs and colours as ideas are picked up and played with again and again. Yet it cannot be said that the collection feels repetitive. Rather, experienced in sequence Nielsen’s sixty-eight poems form a wider contemplation on the nature of Nature, and of Time. The design of the contents page, which omits the section breaks between the collection’s five parts, acknowledges the possibility of a chronological approach to reading. The blank spreads that distinguish the five parts from one another then come as moments of stillness, a reprieve, an exhale and inhale, a moment to digest. Each poem, each part, and the collection itself all feel whole in their own right, and yet make up a whole themselves. They are entangled.

Nielsen’s poems prompt us to consider the marks we make on the earth, and in time. ‘In the House’ (75), filled with nostalgia and grief, reflects on life’s brevity, and again contrasts the vast with the intimate. We are drawn in to witness a person’s memory being stripped back like layers of wallpaper and paint, the original foundations revealing themselves. Nielsen does not deny the pain of this:

As this speck of a universe
slides into tyrannical dark
and all the planets dance like fleas,
what plausible warmth can come
from talk of scones and tea? (75)

The poems in this collection are surreal configurations of literary figures, ancient and contemporary Western history and mythology, folklore and nature. Wry and ironic, leaning sometimes to the sardonic as in ‘A University Bureaucrat Plans a Garden’ (46) and ‘The University Makes a Poem’ (58); and with sudden lashes of vitriol, as in ‘My Enemy Has Asked to be Friended on Facebook’ (96) and ‘Testimonial’ (73), the poems simultaneously combine and juxtapose organic and artificial, human and animal, vast and intimate. Internal and external landscapes are overlapped and images shift as familiar literary and historical figures stroll into view to be layered in like swathes of paint on a canvas, the boundaries between things blended, and rendered arbitrary.

At times cynical, at times whimsical, always attentive and deftly wrought, Nielsen’s sixth collection is timely, possessing all the understated sophistication one would expect of a writer with his experience.


Works cited



Toni Fay Walsh is a PhD (Communication) candidate at the University of South Australia’s School of Creative Industries. Her creative and critical work explores the interconnectedness between matter and meaning, and the role of language and narrative in mediating experiences. With a particular interest in multimodal printed literature, her thesis analyses graphic memoirs about grief and loss in considering how experiences of the ineffable may be expressed through form.


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Vol 23 No 1 April 2019
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker