‘Once barefoot…’: Poetry Jukebox’s climate themed edition

Stephen Sexton on a new poetry installation launching this week in Paris and Belfast

Poetry Jukebox co-curator Maria McManus

The beauty of nature, the triumph of creation, the delicacy and wonder of tulips and sycamores, their petals and boughs, pretty songbirds of every tune and feather, postcard images of pastoral landscapes: these were not the kinds of poems Maria McManus and I found ourselves listening for in curating Poetry Jukebox’s climate themed edition.

In most cases, beauty is associated with the transitory: what is beautiful can’t be forever. Now more than ever, we should be wary of idealising anything, and as the planet demonstrates its vulnerability to catastrophe in its shrinking polar ice caps, rising sea levels, and devastating wild fires, it is incumbent upon us to personally examine our relationships with the natural world.

Historically – for many of us – our relationship with the natural world has been one of a crucial distance. It’s a distance that suggests we are separate to nature, or that we live adjacent or parallel to it rather than being a part of it, responsible for influencing and disrupting its cycles, and crucially, affecting the climate.

Poetry Jukebox is an increasingly familiar on-street audio installation that makes contemporary poetry freely available at the push of a button. Now, Irish poets will be heard on the streets of Paris in addition to Belfast and Dublin. The poems selected for this edition, “Once barefoot…” are on the theme of “climate, the environment and our relationship with the ‘blue planet’ we call home”.


Centre Culturel Irlandais is enhancing its programme and facilities with a permanent installation of a jukebox. Once barefoot…, the debut edition of poems and the first of many, will run concurrently with its Belfast-based sister installation at the newly refurbished Tropical Ravine at the city’s Botanic Gardens.

Previous editions commemorated 20 years of the Good Friday Agreement; another, Hour by Hour, highlighted the work of LGBTQ poets; Hungering, poems specially commissioned to reflect on themes of migration and hunger, is still available at EPIC, The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin.

The title of this curation, Once barefoot, is taken from Paula Meehan’s poem, Death of a Field, whose speaker wants “to know the field / Through the soles of my feet to hear / The myriad leaf lives green and singing / The million million cycles of being in wing”. Her contribution to the Jukebox, though, is the poem The Solace of Artemis, which begins:

I read that every polar bear alive has mitochondrial DNA
from a common mother, an Irish brown bear who once
roved out across the last ice age, and I am comforted.

The poem is concerned with memory and the different manifestations of memory: the poet-record-keeper, the microchip, mitochondrial DNA. The poem is also concerned with the world and our place in it; the glacier or ice sheet which was once there and is no longer. Metaphorically, the poem is about a kind of global connectedness; how our influence in the present might be felt and understood in unimaginable ways in the decades and centuries that follow; that one act might have unfathomable consequences, such as an Irish brown bear roving out across the ice.

The 20 poems of this curation, by poets from around the world, appraise, celebrate and query the human relationship with the natural world and the environment.

In his elegy for WB Yeats, WH Auden famously stated: “Poetry makes nothing happen”. It’s true that poetry doesn’t legislate, but it does allow for moments of empathy, and – as a store of memory – it can contain and preserve all kinds of thoughts and images, places, flora and fauna, not merely as totems of beauty but as facts; things that existed once and, if we’re lucky, still exist.

On the other hand, the late Australian poet Les Murray has said: “It’s almost a great thing that a poem doesn’t make things happen – it may prevent things from happening. It’s a place where something is finally crystallised which loose might be more dangerous.”

It may be the case that the best we can hope for is that our actions are mitigatory: some climate scientists suggest we may have passed a tipping point in the intensification of global warming. Indeed, two of the poems we’ve selected for the Poetry Jukebox, Bushfire by Stephanie Conn and Their Silent Hooves by Thérèse Kieran, concern the alarming fires in Australia.

We’re very pleased to include two sections from Sinéad Morrissey’s poem Whitelessness, inspired by Daniel Dencik’s documentary Expedition to the End of the World. In the film, scientists and artists explore fjords made accessible by melting sea ice in Greenland. These excerpts are in the voices of The Geologist and The Archaeologist. The poem reflects on the human relationship with the planet and observes: If it’s life / that controls the geological machinery / of the planet, rather than the other way round, / we are neither new, nor tragic.

Another poem of the land, from another continent, Nigerian poet Ojo Taiye’s The Children of Barkin Ladi is an accumulation of phrases in which a landscape remembers or seems to retain its traumas: “this land is a century that fell down at my door / this land is my hand washed in a brew of cardamom & clove / this land is a woman cradling her intestines”.

In Oana Sanziãna Marian’s wonderful poem in dedication to orienteering champion Carol McNeill, Wild Camping, the land is evoked vividly: “Elegy of torqued stumps, sedge and heath in the old claim of trees”.

Many poems here concern the animals with whom we share the planet: Nessa O’Mahony’s The Dreaming Octopus depicts the eponymous creature’s colour-changing capacity: “She colours as images form in her three hearts”; in Matthew Rice’s The Singable Black, “The humpback looms like Monday”. In Glen Wilson’s Tipping Point, “Perching on the partly submerged shopping trolley / an egret stares down the length of the shallow canal”.

The Paris Agreement of 2015 aims to decrease global warming by holding the global average temperature below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. Last November, the US confirmed its intention to withdraw from the agreement. As the world’s second largest producer of greenhouse gases, this is significant. As well as making nothing happen, Auden says of poetry that “it survives, / a way of happening, a mouth”. The poems of this curation survive the mouths of their composers; they’re spoken back into the world of they’ve come from, returning and refracting its damage and its aspiration.

Maureen Boyle’s poem is poignant and elegiac, and one whose question might sharpen our senses in the coming months, as the cycles of renewal and regeneration continue, and we do our best to support our neighbours so impacted and devastated. Perhaps this is the poem that prevents things from happening:

If this was the last spring of the world
Would we realise it, would the world know
it is blooming only once more?

Once Barefoot… will be available at Centre Culturel Irlandais, Paris and the Tropical Ravine, Belfast Botanic Gardens from January 23rd. This project is supported by Arts Council of Northern Ireland, The British Council, Poetry Ireland and Belfast City Council.
The full list of contributors is: Paula Meehan, Sinéad Morrissey, Matthew Rice, Nessa O’Mahony, Celia de Fréine, Kathleen Jamie, Jessica Traynor, Stephen Sexton, Sarah Westcott, Jane Robinson, Glen Wilson, Paul McCarrick, Ojo Taiye, Michelle Penn, Thérèse Kieran, Susannah Dickey, Taylor Bell, Oana Sanziãna Marian, Stephanie Conn, Maureen Boyle.
The poetry jukebox project is led by Belfast-based poet Maria McManus and can be contacted via Twitter @poetryjukebox.