When I stepped off the plane in Puerto Maldonado, I thought the extreme heat pressing toward me came from the plane’s engines; the sweet-humid air suddenly surrounding me took me back to the controlled hot houses in Kew Gardens. My first few days in the Tambopata Reserve were punctuated by these perceptual mistakes. Coming from the UK, I kept finding myself comparing Western derivatives of tropical life to the real thing. Inhaling the saccharine scent of a flower that had fallen to the forest floor had me thinking of artificial air fresheners. Mortifying. But of course as I was confronted day after day with the scale and complexity of the rainforest, this way of looking at the rainforest soon wore off. The giant trees and their vein-work of creepers; the quietness of a two-toed sloth bathing in the last of the afternoon sunlight; macaws scattering over the dawn sky like flying rainbows; the monster sounds and smells of the peccaries; all these served to stretch my senses until “The New World”, the name given to the Americas by early sixteenth-century explorers, came to the fore.
My poems focus upon the natural world and how its complicated relationships might shed light upon our own human relationships. I knew a month in one of the world’s most biodiverse rainforests would introduce me to a whole new range of species and relations based on mutualism, parasitism and commensalism. A couple of weeks into my residency, I happened across a very hairy caterpillar overtaken by what must have been up to a hundred wasp eggs. The caterpillar was still alive on the tree trunk, but zombied by such a burden.
What astounded me about the environment I was seeing was not only these details, but the sheer physical matter of what was around me: the thickness of the leaves underfoot and the thickness of the leaves overhead; the huge vines loosely stitching everything together. Whilst I was curious about the small and intricate relations of species, I could not help but notice the atmosphere in which they took place: a place in which sex and threat dominate. This might just as easily be called “life and death” but such a phrase seems far too black and white in light of the rainforest’s incredibly colourful show in which pigment, form and movement might suggest a mating ritual just as it might suggest venom, poison, danger. Given it was the beginning of the rainy season, even the ladybirds (which I thought looked more like halved watermelons) were mating. Their rendezvous just metres from another discovery: a plant with leaves covered in thorns.
For a poet looking for a license to write about such exotic creatures, I had not expected how the rainforest would force me to confront the form of my writing – the very basics of stringing a sentence together. Common orders of grammar no longer seemed to apply. At first I thought this was because my own human voice was diminished: cicadas, frogs, macaws and howler monkeys (amongst others) spoke over all human noise at the lodge and on the trails. However, as I continued to write I started to wonder about the value and meaning of imposing literary rules and culture on such wildness. The rainforest’s prolific growth appeared antithetical to a full stop. What was the point of a stanza break or a comma when the subject of my writing suddenly flies away or I find it tangled inextricably around another plant? Returning to the UK with these thoughts, notes and poems feels like I am returning with riches.
A huge thank you to Nina Rodin and Abi Box and to all involved at Rainforest Expeditions. A special thanks goes to Laura Macedo, Emmaleen Tomalin and, for forcing me to practice my Spanish, Sabino Jaen.