A review of We are the Walrus by Pete Mullineaux

Reviewed by Thriveni C Mysore

We are the Walrus
by Pete Mullineaux
Salmon Poetry
ISBN 978-1-915022-23-3, Oct 2022, Paperback

The poet in dedication page has said ‘for all creatures, great and small’. “All creatures, great and small” receive Pete Mullineaux’s collection of poems, We are the Walrus, with happiness, gratitude, and applause. From the first poem, ‘A pangolin goes into a bar’, in which the poet enters a bar with a pangolin, to the last poem, ‘Interdependence Day’, the reader finds themselves drawn to the poet’s thoughts and play of words.

‘A pangolin goes into a bar’ has myriad things to say about global warming, obscure human tendencies, and a trick to survival by lying low, unseen by humankind:

barman, ‘you must’ve travelled some distance’.
‘yes, quite a journey,’ replies the stranger, ‘the
traffic was crazy, lucky to be still in one piece.’
‘well, aren’t we all globetrotters, I guess you’re
related to those Armadillos?’ The pangolin yawns,
glances around, ‘I like the relaxed ambience here,
any chance of a room? I need a place to lie low.’ (11)

The damage done by humankind towards Nature is revealed in the poem, ‘Summer Time’.

The poet asks,
Do we need a little darkness?

Spinning the wheel further ahead to our day of reckoning –
dire forecasts confirmed: ice gone, sea lapping at throats…
looking back and asking, did we gain or lose that hour? (13)

The nuisance of digital living is well exposed in the poem ‘Verified’:

My computer tells me it’s cloudy, raining,
I look out the window…and gosh, so it is…(14)

These lines send the reader’s senses into a tizzy by showing our dependency on the digital world and the unrealistic living standards that rarely give time to take stock of the natural world around us. It also showcases a new type of neurological disorder that confirms how humans have lost touch with Mother Nature. We need a weather app to know the changes in the sea and seasons. We cannot ‘tell’ the weather as our ancestors did by looking up at the sky! No, not even time.

Harbinger as noun means a person or thing that announces or signals the approach of another. A walrus on the shore thousands of miles from its Arctic home is not a good signal, it announces massive disturbance to nature and natural habitat caused by human activity. In search of safe harbor also announces that nothing is ‘safe’ when it comes under human gaze. Hence the opening lines of the poem ‘We are the Walrus’ captures the danger of human activity to nature provoking a train of thoughts.

Harbinger or in search of safe harbor –
a young pup fetches up on our shores
thousands of miles from its Arctic home; (15)

The poet in page 74, under Notes and Thanks has said that ‘We are the Walrus’ relates to the story of an Arctic walrus that turned up in Ireland in 2021, quickly acquiring the nickname ‘Wally’… Wally again as said in page 74 gathered a sizeable fan-base while continuing a roundabout tour of Wales, France, and Spain, before eventually returning to its natural home in 2022. He – Wally is sending a message to humankind on behalf of all other beautiful creations that our actions are causing irreparable distress.

Wally is thus not the wandering Walrus but a messenger (of all things other than human) with a ‘SOS’ message to humankind. Climate change is not just the defining issue or ‘talk of the town’ of the present but is a game changer for the future existence of life. The poet writes that the insensitive avaricious human child is swept off-course destroying the trail and track:

love and loss, foreboding – perhaps one
about a human child in a seal-like skin,
its world swept off-course – searching 
the rocks for pattern and meaning in
heaps of tusks, untouched oysters…(15)

And later in the poem:

The poet’s joy in sighting migrating owls as in ‘Long-eared’:
Now it’s four in the morning and I can’t sleep –
heartbeat, breath – wind in the trees; on quieter
nights I hear their wheezing as dawn approaches,
a sound they make before setting off to hunt –
building like an engine…(17)

A similar delight is shared in sighting the charming Earthstar fungus which the poet twins with the insensitive nature of human existence in ‘Earthstars’:

Stars of wonder, stars of darkness!
feeling our dull tread on their ceiling
how they must pity
these poor relations
stumbling above them
blinded by light (19)

The reader worries now as to who is blinded by light, the fungus below the earth or ‘humans’that deadly force above the earth. Although the keen observation of human habitats is the poet’s forte. In another poem, ‘Boarders’, the poet writes of badgers:

I feel honoured, does this mean
they’ll be staying: cousins to 
otter, mink, pine martin, worlverine!
I’ve heard they trample flowers,
will make a golf course of the lawn
rooting for grubs. Perhaps if I learn
their language we can set up a dialogue,
find a compromise over right of way,
borders – discover some natural 
accommodation. (20)

If a badger has made a golf course of the lawn while rooting for grubs, humans who sieve the Earth with all their digging, mining, and leveling for ugly benefits, suggests that finding a compromise over right of way, as the poet writes, is challenging. In another poem, ‘Bovine Heaven’, the poet writes:

In the living fields,
three cow generations: calf
mother, grandmother. (22)

The poet aptly observes a ‘Bovine Heaven’. However, it also subtly indicates that such peaceful living is impossible for human beings, be it from a sociological or ecological perspective. It also sets off a train of thought where Earth is not left the same from one generation to the next. The same plaintiveness is felt in ‘Game Pheasant’:

I hear you sometimes at night –
that anguished call announcing yourself
in the safety of the dark, saying
how you are game but not game.
Oh foolish pheasant, oh foolish heart…(27)

‘Interference’ shows the poet’s ideological depth & response to Nature:

Two caterpillars crossing the road…
I use a leaf to pick them up, just as
a car arrives, is forced to slow – faces
through a wet windscreen look unsure
whether to mock or applaud, perhaps
they’ll argue over it later? I carry my
vessel carefully to the verge, continue
walking, mulling over what happened,
this random event, my moment playing
God; might I have disturbed a delicate
balance in our journeys (think butterfly
wings), a couple discovering they aren’t
well-suited, caterpillars carrying a sense
of dislocation in how they got from there
to here…(28)

A well-informed poet is committed to writing. The reader is by now emotionally aware of innumerable lives surrounding that were hitherto unnoticed, deliberately unnoticed. The poem articulates and provokes the reader to look around with a better sense of non-human life.

Poetic observations during and about the pandemic are delicate and agonizing like scratching a fresh wound, be it ‘Covid Conversation’, ‘Uplift’, or ‘Hairdressing’. Other poems, such as ‘Matryoshka’, ‘Dissenter’, ‘A Future Nature Lover Reflects’, and ‘Interdependence Day’ speak to the dangers of climate change. Music, teaching poetry, and the ugliness of politics also find its way into the collection. Some factors that blend artistically in the poetry collection are intense explorations of values and cultural experience, immense respect for human relations, yearnings for music, rhythm, and humor. What charms the reader is the poet’s ability to expose the ugly side of human existence with respect for Mother Nature.  

Poetic tradition is the record of a large number of important choices made by individual experiences and respect for freedom of thought. This open liberty makes literature appealing and invites the readers’ participation. The poem, ‘Interdependence Day’, is a capsule of many things: humankind, worthiness and unworthiness, Nature human activities with ugly tendencies, the urgency for behavioral change, the need for changing thought patterns, need of the hour, addressing issues of  climate change, saving everything threatened, teaching co-existence, hope and kindness:

………………… Return from 
hubris to humus, forgo the pesticides –
agri-genocide, flinch at each plastic spoon,
cruel harpoon – say no more dead whales,
powdered rhino horns, pangolin scales…
Show our visitors we understand the urgency,
that we’ll emerge from this emergency with
competence and empathy –(71)

‘Interdependence Day’ gives hope to readers that mindfulness is the need of the hour. It is not a new fact; it is a newly observed fact that drives home with aplomb.
The climate crisis looms large before us, urging serious action. This is displayed well through the cover page of We are the Walrus. Walrus is looming large on the cover page. There is a little space just enough to write the title and name of poet. Habitat of Walrus is as suffocating as indicated. Nature too is in cramped condition.

Salmon Poetry deserves kudos for powerful cover photography, for the drawing on title page, cover design & typesetting. They are all embellishing the already natural beauty of the poet’s thoughts before bringing it on literary stage. 

About the reviewer: Thriveni C Mysore is a science teacher from Karnataka, India. She is locally acknowledged for her critical essays and articles on Philosophy and Education. Her books in Kannada on Philosophy and Science have won State awards. Being actively involved in Environmental Awareness Programs, she holds lectures and presentations for students. Amidst life’s complexities, she finds divine-solace in reading Nature poems.