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Review of ‘Earthworks’ by Stewart Carswell

One of the pleasures of regularly writing reviews is the opportunity to read closely the work of some of today’s finest, young writers. Over the last two years I have been stunned by the quality of writing that some of these writers are producing. Stewart Carswell is a young writer to add to that group.

Carswell poem, To the source, provides us with an insight into the concerns of his debut collection, Earthworks (Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2021). A river prompts him to reflect on the notion of beginnings. He writes, ‘Everyone is aware of endings/ but a start is hard to find’.  Earthworks sees Carswell appealing to familiar landscapes to help him make sense of the world around him: to find reasons for the way life is and to explain the nature and significance of relationships. Life, however, he finds defies easy explanations: it’s a puzzle that at times confounds him. In Together as he looks up at the sky with his son in his arms, he declares, ‘I can’t tell/ where one piece ends and the next begins.’ As a consequence we find in his poems a number of unresolved questions, such as: ‘Knowing the ending, would you recognise/ the source? Which drop of rain/ was the trigger that set the river running?’  (To the Source); ‘What brought you here?’ (Earthworks: Sutton Hoo); ‘When does a river have sufficient salt/ to clean wounds?’ and ‘With which mark/ did I decide that this was enough’ (From the estuary). Perhaps, it’s because there are no definitive answers to his questions and perhaps it’s because understanding, as he says in another poem, evolves and is an aggregation of answers which change over time: ‘the limit of understanding/ shifts slowly’ (Watercourse).

Difficult though it may be to find answers to his questions, Carswell is drawn to the past to see what can be learned. This endeavour is captured in A map of stars in which he describes how reflecting on distant relationships can help guide him in the future. He compares the outcome of his reflections on the past to a map of constellations, which he can draw upon to face the future: ‘when I look back I think of my friends/ as constellations and see patterns in those distant lights,// connecting together the faint memories from youth/ to create a set of stories to navigate by’. In many of his poems, particularly the eponymously named poems, Earthworks, he is drawn to the landscape because it he feels it puts him in touch with our collective past, a source of answers. The barrows, forests and ruins he describes are portrayed as recording the actions of our forebears. Take for example, his poem, Mast year. It tells a period in the history of the Forest of Dean; of how its trees and its inhabitants served the country’s war effort (‘The trunk supports the crown’). Humankind is portrayed as destructive, ravaging the abundance of the forest for its deadly ends: sawing, felling each unique tree, ‘ingrained with history’. The narrator is ‘eager/ for conflict’ in pursuit of ‘glory’. However, Carswell exposes his questionable purpose with the wish, ‘God I hope we’re right’ and concludes the poem with a chilling thought ‘it’s too late/ to change course and turn around’. Humankind is hell-bent on conflict and destruction. No wonder the poet concludes his collection with the ecological reminder: ‘Let a man walk he earth/ and know that this is the last earth’.

Whilst Carswell tackles such big issues, many of the poems are also more intimate, as he reflects upon relationships. Again the natural landscape provides the insights. Locked pools is a cry for compassion. He uses the symbol of frozen ponds to make the point that ‘if there is still no warmth/ there will be no thaw’. In Changes he sees in the landscape’s seasonal changes the way time changes the nature of love. Yet such changes do not reflect any diminishing of the strength of the feeling: ‘Our love adapts too but it is the same love/ that holds us to each other; each time I go/ it is the same love that draws me back to you’. This love still has capacity to pull the speaker back towards its object. In Outlines, as he observes the shapes of the shoreline, he makes the direct, unequivocal statement: ‘I never learnt to love/ until it was too late/ to know how late it was./ So: love now/ Love completely.// The future won’t care:/ love cannot be preserved/ like an outline can./ Love is malleable;/ death is form.’  We must seize the opportunities that love presents us with, before it is too late, for death is life’s only certainty.

On reflection, perhaps there are two types of love Carswell that emerge from his poems: there’s love between two human beings, but there is also the love for the natural environment. The manner in which Carswell describes those landscapes conveys his passion for them. Though he does not minimise the harshness of nature, the lasting impressions of his descriptions are of abundance and of great beauty. Take for example this passage from Mast year: ‘a sway of snowdrops/             blooms with the thaw/       and leaves/               white petals across the forest floor// an acorn cracks its shell/            and shoots/         through to light,/ rising through a chorus/      of song thrush/    and wood warbler/ to reach the height of the canopy collage’. Such compelling descriptions makes Carswell’s warning of the possibility of ‘humanity’ collapsing ‘into extinction’ (Extinction on the tenant farmer’s holding) even more tragic and telling.

There is no doubt in my mind that Earthworks by Stewart Carswell is one of the significant collections of 2021 not only for what it has to say to us about human consciousness and about the world in which we live, but also because it marks the arrival of a writer who is destined to make a unique contribution to the poetry world. Make a note of the name. Undoubtedly, we will hear more from him in the future.

Stewart Carswell grew up and went to school in the Forest of Dean and currently lives in Cambridgeshire, where he pilots the Fen Speak open mic night. He studied Physics at Southampton University, and has a PhD from the University of Bristol. His poems have recently been published in magazines including Under the Radar, Envoi, Ink Sweat & Tears, and The Fenland Reed. He has a pamphlet Knots and branches (Eyewear Publishing, 2016), and his debut full-length collection is Earthworks (Indigo Dreams, 2021). Both of these are available via his online shop


Nigel Kent’s collection of ekphrastic poems, Unmuted (Hedgehog Poetry Press), is inspired by a gallery of famous works by artists from the present and the past. Each artwork acts as a frame in a storyboard which he unfreezes and unmutes to reveal the narrative he imagines lies behind it. Even for those who have no interest in art these direct, accessible and moving poems will stand alone and promise to engage with issues that truly matter. Visit the signed copies/ebook page for details of purchase.

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