Rhizodont: by Katrina Porteous (1979)

Rhizodont book cover

330 million years ago what is now the rocky shore close to Katrina Porteous’s Northumberland home was a tropical swamp inhabited by three-metre long predatory fish with huge tusk-like teeth. They belonged to a family of lobe-finned fishes which evolved to move on land as well as swim, and which are the ancestors of all four-limbed vertebrates, including humans. The fossil fish found in Northumberland is called the ‘rhizodont’.

Porteous’s new collection begins with a lovingly-observed contemporary journey through these ancient landscapes, from the former coal-mining communities of the Durham coast, where the coal-bearing Carboniferous strata are overlain with younger rocks, to the Northumberland shores where the rhizodont’s remains were found. Against a backdrop of vast geological time and recent fossil-fuel burning history, these poems address current issues of social and environmental change. They are followed by two sequences about aspects of the latest technological revolution – autonomous systems and AI, and the remote-sensing techniques used to explore the most inaccessible reaches of our planet, Antarctica, to measure Earth’s changing climate.

The poems unfold from England’s North-East coast into global questions of evolution, survival and extinction – in communities and languages, and throughout the natural world, where hope resides in Life’s astonishing powers of reinvention.

Rhizodont is Katrina Porteous’s fourth poetry collection from Bloodaxe, and extends territory explored in her three previous books. It combines scientific themes from Edge (2019) with the ecological localism of Two Countries (2014) and The Lost Music (1996), both of which were concerned with the landscapes and communities of North-East England.