Art by Isabel Walter
Marianne Doherty reviews Serena Alagappan’s Sensitive to Temperature (2023, New Poets List)
This summer I start moping, and my friend texts me “NO WALLOWING ON A DYING PLANET”. How true! That’s one response to the climate crisis. Another is Serena Alagappan’s debut pamphlet, Sensitive to Temperature. It is an attempt at the poetics of collective death and collective denial. Its world is populated by slugs, mushrooms, the Aurora Borealis (Rory), native plants and flowers, and two mysterious characters called “me” and “you”. The only other human subjects of poems are “the wife”, in the accomplished shop local, and a Prometheus figure (“the man”) in Forest Fire from Far Away.
As we read through Sensitive to Temperature, it becomes clear that the relationships therein are indeed sensitive to temperature. In Clockwork, a summer romance (“We like each other’s eyes”) gives way to two descriptions of “recalibration” (of the eyes, and of the earth). There’s something that’s been elided here: the optional “recalibration” of the relationship has been allegorised as the inevitable recalibration of natural phenomena. Alagappan writes, “recalibration [is][…] as certain as the globe / warming”. In the title poem, 'Sensitive to Temperature,' the description of frozen spires and icicles on earth and on Jupiter leads to a final reflection: “[the formations live] in me and you, sensitive to temperature, / frozen in numb rupture.” The formations are not historically sensitive to temperature: they are beginning to thaw because of global warming.
The association between the spiritual and the phenomenal world continues in Let’s Catch Up Soon where “[w]aiting for fruits to soften / is waiting for a friend /with whom it’s been a long / time since you’ve spoken”. Which of these—the fruits or the friend—is the true point of the metaphor? At the end of Slugs in a Storm, Alagappan “tornados can come / soft too: one hungry kiss, your chances stacked” is it the earlier “you” of the poem, the “you” of “Me, on the bed, you/ on the floor” who kisses, or the tornado, which in one “hungry kiss” destroys? That is the kind of world the poems in Sensitive to Temperature invoke: one where natural phenomena are in the same system as emotional ones.
This is a Petrarchan conceit— where both love and death are signified by storms—stress-tested in the context of ever-increasing death by climate events. The three become one: one is not sure if Alagappan is writing about personal love or death by climate change. Indeed, Alagappan is fascinated by the truthfulness of metaphor and allegory: again in Clockwork she writes that “[a] placebo is basically a metaphor: / still rigorous and true for the body.” The faint rhyme of “metaphor” and “true for” touches on the fundamental strangeness of the metaphor: its insistence that things which are unlike one another have secret, shared properties. “Metaphors,” Alagappan writes of a speaker’s failure to properly devise one “aren’t always so neat.”
Even in poems where there is no obvious climate disruption, Alagappan reminds us that the end is near. She goes out to see the source of the Thames, and notes the “record unusual warmth / for a February morning.” Later, looking at the point where the dribble turns to a stream, she thinks that “[n]othing /reminds you of ending more than recalling another /beginning.” Whether the “you” is general or specific, the “ending” recalled by this small river is obvious. The Thames hasn’t met the polluting city yet. Alagappan thinks, “Isn’t it nice to think she won’t […]?”
Alagappan is an impressive observer: as she says in Clockwork she is always “Just looking: sideways at a brick wall, /across the street at a bus, down at the / grass and its fruit flies, toward the floor, pretending to be shy.” In one of my favourite images of hers, she notices, in a paddock, “rolls of soil like dirt waves, a soft /pony pausing to chew as it wobbled.” She puts this trait to good use in one of her stand-out poems, the eponymous The Body Keeps the Score. It is dedicated to Bessel van der Kolk, psychiatrist, specialist in post-traumatic stress disorder and author of the original book. It’s one of Alagappan’s dreamlike triumphs: the poem describes sailing rocks, which move, seemingly autonomously, across the desert floor of Death Valley.
In reality, the rocks move on “[t]hin floating ice panels” which form overnight around the rocks then “break up / on sunny days” and carry them on the wind. That is ostensibly what Alagappan is talking about, but you can’t shake the feeling that there is something more human at play. The rocks leave “wound[s]” and tear trails; the body, even if its behaviours seem inexplicable, “keeps the score” of past traumas. In one sequence which seems particularly indebted to Eliot, Alagappan shows us fear in a handful of dust. She asks us to “[s]tick a fist in the / earth and find dust on your palms.” “The past you / can’t remember,” she continues “is the future you / can’t imagine: filth and crisis.” For a rock, neither past nor future are really perceptible (remembered and unimaginable). For a person with post-traumatic stress disorder, the past they often cannot remember is also a (hopefully) unimaginable future. But within the context of Alagappan’s poetics of climate change, the past of “filth and crisis” which we, collectively, cannot remember is also the unimaginable future coming our way. Here, too, climate breakdown casts a long shadow.
This is an accomplished debut: certain lines don’t click, certain images don’t hold, but the nineteen poems are each immersive little worlds with, impressively, things to say about each other as well as themselves. In her charming first poem, slipface, Alagappan’s speaker asks a sand dune to “make/ time for me”. “Time” is the thing we need to slow climate change, the thing that Alagappan’s poems distill, and the thing her debut deserves from us.
Sensitive to Temperature is available from poetrybusiness.co.uk
MARIANNE DOHERTY is from Dublin and reads English at Oxford University.