My enormous thanks to Alison Menzies for sending me a copy of The Heeding by Rob Cowen with illustrations by Nick Hayes in return for an honest review. I’m thrilled to share that review today.
The Heeding will be published on 17th June by Elliott and Thompson and is available for pre-order here.
The world changed in 2020. Gradually at first, then quickly and irreversibly, the patterns by which we once lived altered completely.
The Heeding paints a picture of a year caught in the grip of history, yet filled with revelatory perspectives close at hand: a sparrowhawk hunting in a back street; the moon over a town with a loved-one’s hand held tight; butterflies massing in a high-summer yard – the everyday wonders and memories that shape a life and help us recall our own.
Across four seasons and thirty-five luminous poems and illustrations, Rob Cowen and Nick Hayes lead us on a journey that takes its markers and signs from nature and a world filled with fear and pain but beauty and wonder too. Collecting birds, animals, trees and people together, The Heeding is a profound meditation to a time no-one will forget.
At its heart, this is a book that helps us look again, to heed: to be attentive to this world we share and this history we’re living through, to be aware of how valuable and fragile we are, to grieve what’s lost and to hope for a better and brighter tomorrow.
My Review of The Heeding
A collection of thirty-five poems with illustrations.
I’m slightly at a loss to know how to review The Heeding. I found it such an affecting book that I’m unsure any review I might attempt can do it justice.
Redolent of great literary traditions, Rob Cowen’s poems made me think of such luminaries as Gerard Manley Hopkins (especially The Windhover) of Thomas Hardy’s The Darkling Thrush, of Seamus Heaney, and of John Donne’s For Whom the Bell Tolls because the quality of the writing is so superb. And yet Rob Cowen builds on those literary traditions, techniques and allusions, and makes them fresh, modern and absolutely perfect for the year 2020 he is describing, through a richness of language that is breath-taking. There is nothing derivative here, but rather an absolutely personal, and simultaneously universal, exploration of our modern world. There’s no shying away from the events of 2020 with references, for example, to the Black Lives Matter movement, through social distancing and the national interest in gardening, to the impact of the pandemic on South Asian people. I thought The Heeding was exceptional because reading it helped me make sense of the year we’ve lived through.
There are so many images and motifs of death whether they occur through Covid, war, nature or accident that The Heeding ought to be a depressing collection but it is far from it. Rob Cowen explores death’s effect by ultimately uplifting the reader, reminding them of human connection, of nature’s fortitude and of how we can endure even in the most difficult of times. His poetry illustrates how we can heed the world around us in the three ways outlined at the beginning of the collection; by observation, by taking care and by protecting. The Heeding isn’t simply a collection of wonderfully evocative poems, but it is a guide to readers on how to reconnect with the natural world, with our emotions and to be more mindful and observant. I felt that in reading The Heeding I’d been given the gift of relearning simply how to be, that I had lost over 2020.
A whole gamut of emotion underpins every single syllable so that each poem in The Heeding is an affecting reading experience. Rob Cowen presents rage, anger, relief, grief, despair, joy and hope in a beautifully written maelstrom I found mesmerising. For example, the last line of The Lovers made me chuckle aloud and the final line of Last Breaths made me weep but I was totally undone by Pharmacy Cake. Ironically, because each of those poems has humans at its heart, it was the iterative motif of nature in so many of the other poems that I found so effective. I loved the innovative compound adjectives such as those in Starling. I loved the sometimes tricky punctuation that exemplified the poet’s problematic feelings. I loved the italicised speech that made me hear the voices. The Heeding rewards rereading time after time because so much thought has gone in to the selection of each beautifully crafted phrase that there is new meaning to be found each time. Quite frankly I am astounded by Rob Cowen’s writing.
Aside from the incredible quality of Rob Cowen’s writing, Nick Hayes’ stark impactful black and white illustrations bring the whole collection in The Heeding into sharp focus. The images enhance the reader’s understanding and deepen the enjoyment in, and appreciation of, the poems. Because the pictures have a traditional woodcut appearance they also deepen the sense of value in this collection, giving the impression that life and skill can persist even in the darkest of times. The pictures manage to be both brooding and dramatic whilst also feeling sensitive and tender.
Searing, profound and visceral, The Heeding is an important, raw and moving collection I won’t forget or be parted from. I absolutely adored it. It’s one of my books of the year.
Alison Menzies at Elliott and Thompson kindly gave me one of the fabulous illustrations to share too:
About Rob Cowen
Rob Cowen is an award-winning writer, hailed as one of the UK’s most original voices on nature and place. His book, Common Ground (PRH; 2015) was shortlisted for the Portico, Richard Jefferies Society and Wainwright Prizes and voted one of the nation’s favourite nature books on BBC Winterwatch. His poems have featured on Caught By The River and in Letters to the Earth (Harper Collins). He lives in North Yorkshire.
About Nick Hayes
Nick Hayes is a writer, illustrator and print-maker. He is the author of the Sunday Times bestseller, The Book of Trespass (Bloomsbury; 2020). He has published graphic novels with Jonathan Cape and worked for many renowned titles. He has exhibited across the country, including at the Hayward Gallery. He lives on the Kennet and Avon canal.