Not long ago, I stumbled into a website that sported an article titled ‘What Marketing Can Learn from Conmen.’ [i] There was something brazen about it that carried the stink of our times – this stage of capitalism that some people refer to as ‘late’. I was working on a poetry sequence about the confessions and self-justifications of a small-time conman, and had been looking for examples of how the psychology of manipulation is hard-wired into our culture. As I once heard someone remark: we all work in sales, now. Only the other day, I spotted an article published on The Guardian’s Academics Anonymous website that touched on the kind of false premises some universities can employ to lure students into postgraduate study. When far more people are graduating from PhD programs than the academy will ever employ, is an institution speaking in bad faith when it implies the qualification is ‘vocational’? Presumably, one lesson that marketing can learn from conmen is about the relationship between deception and self-deception. Find out what someone wants to believe. Find out how they are inclined to deceive themselves, and that’s where you will have leverage. It’s a simple and powerful principle. Even intelligent people can deceive themselves. Coleridge said: ‘men’s intellectual errors consist chiefly in denying.’ [ii] He knew.
The state of happiness we call a fool’s paradise is based on a person’s not knowing or denying the existence of potential trouble. It’s possible to view our deregulated global economy as one of the most spectacular fool’s paradises ever staged. In 2005 I remember sitting in a pub with an intelligent friend who was telling me how the new economics had defeated the cycle of boom and bust. Three years later, proliferating interest-only mortgages had collapsed the global markets, and Gordon Brown was bailing out the banks with public money. In The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, Michael Lewis ascribes this to a combination of stupidity and something verging on institutional fraud: stupidity because investors fooled themselves into believing the winning streak could never end, and fraud because institutions did not accurately or transparently price the risk of their financial innovations. We are often reminded how important it is for society to be built on hope, but it seems we must also be reminded that ‘hope [can] be hope for the wrong thing’. [iii] In Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Gordon Gecko defines insanity as the repeated pursuit of a goal that you know is doomed to fail. In the face of this, scepticism is clearly called for. Joseph Conrad called it ‘the tonic of minds, the tonic of life, the agent of truth – the way of art and salvation.’ [iv] Are we still not getting enough?
My interest in conmen is partly personal. When I was 16 or 17 my mother met a man who lured her into marriage with the promise of a better life. After investing her divorce settlement and her savings into his property development business, she was eventually left responsible for his debts when he absconded. Just before the end, she had glimpsed his mental instability, and intuited his darker intentions. She had tried to warn the bank against loaning him any more money, but they proceeded anyway. She tried to warn his business partner against further investment too, but he had already gone too far to contemplate turning back. This was the first conspiracy of denial I’d witnessed up close. My mother was declared bankrupt, evicted from her home, and thinking she had nowhere left to go, resorted to desperate measures. A year before these events, and on the brink of their separation, I remember sitting in the passenger seat of his Jaguar Saloon as he told me he would always look after my mother’s interests, and that everything would be OK. I wanted to believe him, so I did. Afterwards, I felt like I’d followed my mother up the Congo. Nostromo, Conrad’s epic of the corrupting power of material interests, became my favourite novel.
2016 was a fruitful year for anyone combing world events for material to create a cast of Shakespearean villains. Certainly, the news presented us with a gallery of public grotesques that art would struggle to rival. It was a good year for the ‘crooks and tarts’ of political manipulation. Just before Trump’s election, and our own Brexit Circus, I had been reading about the 19th century conman, Gregor MacGregor, a man Roger Cook refers to as the greatest conman of all time. As The Guardian reported in October 1823:
‘Some months ago Sir Gregor MacGregor, a person of whom we do not choose to say all that we think, induced a number of persons, chiefly Scotch, to emigrate to a settlement which he gave them to understand was formed, and in a flourishing condition, on the Mosquito Coast of Honduras. The most deceptive statements were published respecting the country for which these poor people were thus induced to relinquish their homes: it was described as a land flowing with milk and honey, abounding with all the good things of life to such a degree that a man was sure to make his fortune in a very short time.’
MacGregor was a military veteran and adventurer – a stylish and glamorous figure, wishing himself to be known as ‘His Highness, the Cazique of Poyais’. Once exposed in Britain, he claimed to have been the victim of fraud and embezzlement himself. He travelled to France and attempted to repeat the scam – very nearly succeeding in sending another ship of colonists to ‘Poyais’.
The ‘Cazique’ of my own sequence is a much smaller figure – if not always in his own mind. He is somewhere between American Hustle’s Irving Rosenfeld, and my mother’s second husband. The latter, if he is to be believed, was also the damaged survivor of a deprived childhood. His mother suffered mental illness, and his father absconded, never to re-appear. He even claimed to have been abused in a military prison, after he went AWOL from the Royal Navy. When I first met him, I thought his eyes had a sad, mesmeric quality, and I was impressed by how carefully he appeared to choose his words. He passed onto me his love of rock music’s transformer artists – especially David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust pomp, and Lou Reed in the early 70s. The character I’ve tried to create also shares this love, and I’ve added to it a fascination with Milton’s Satan, and Shakespeare’s Iago and Edmund the Bastard. My ‘Cazique’ is part anti-hero, part trickster, and part fallen angel. A genie of deception and self-deception, he recognises how our own world is in thrall to ideals of truth, but still unable to live entirely by its strictures. He speaks honestly about deception, and sometimes spins deceit out of his truth. He appeals to be saved or reformed, but cannot entirely overcome his addiction to seductive facades, or quite abandon the pleasures of the chase. What else does he have?
Some years ago I found a documentary about the great Australian comedian Barry Humphries. It focused on his relationship with one of his own character creations: Sir Les Patterson. This particular grotesque had origins both inside and outside the mind of Humphries. On the one hand, Patterson is a composite of various Australian political figures – vain, chauvinistic and crass – and on the other, he is a cutting taken from Humphries’ own psyche: everything that his creator tries to suppress in himself – the smoking, the drinking, the shameless promiscuity. Creative practice proceeds from both the outside in, and from the inside out. I confess that when my creating writing students assert that their character creations are entirely separate and external to themselves, I worry that they are speaking like those who fear social rejection, should their psyches be exposed in any way to judgement. If so, perhaps they are wise. We live in a period of growing political polarization. In Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion [v], the psychologist Jonathan Haidt has pointed out how this threatens to descend into dysfunctional tribalism. He warns us against our tendency to use our reason more in the manner of a lawyer trying to prosecute or defend a case, and less like someone impartially seeking understanding. In this kind of climate, we can be too quick to judge. My ‘Cazique’ is certainly a composite of external figures, but he also taps into the devils that sit in conference inside my own mind – waiting for when I am weak or desperate enough to listen. Since I have been infected with Joseph Conrad’s tonic scepticism, I find it hard to believe that any writer is not occasionally tempted by demons of seduction or manipulation. I’m with Baudelaire: there’s a whole menagerie inside our skulls!
I thought long and hard about the spirit in which I should approach this sequence. I’ve studied two masters: Peter Reading’s career-long panoply of found voices – voices ‘observed’ and pasted from our flawed social fabric; and Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms, created from mutilations of his own personality – alter egos generated by the cracked prism of his hidden psyche. Reading is the clinical observer of social phenomena, and Pessoa is the occult medium conversing with the internal world. The Taoist in me wishes to walk a path between the lure of both – just as I wish to walk a path between scepticism and compassion. I am moved by Albert Camus’ ‘Create Dangerously’ [vi], a speech urging the modern writer to proceed in the spirit of understanding: ‘Instead of being a judge, he is a justifier. He is the perpetual advocate of the living creature, because he is alive.’ No doubt this is the spirit that Camus employed to present his anti-hero in The Outsider. In trying to understand the psyche of my ‘Cazique’ – his gamut from victimhood to villainy, riches to regret – I’ve also tried to find a means to structure and dramatize the life of a living creature – not just another straw man for the judgement bonfire.
Logos: Speeches for Two Occasions
That’s the f*ckin’ art of becoming somebody who people can pin their beliefs and their dreams on.
– Irving, American Hustle
Are the games we play really so different?
What would you do in the name of survival?
Dress above budget to make an impression?
Amp up the grades of those exams you bungled?
File off the burr of your whatever accent?
Doctor your interests, the place of your schooling?
Miss out the fact that you dropped out of uni?
Claim as your glory the work of a colleague?
Inflate your status by name-dropping others?
It seems to me, now, we serve the same mistress –
and this is the code we have to adhere to:
you need to get creative if you want to level the field.
You can’t make a sum unless you invest one.
If your bait is too big, no-one will trust it.
It has to be small enough to believe in,
but just ripe and round to make the mouth water.
Whatever it is, you have to present it,
and make sure it doesn’t blow up or spiral.
Ideally don’t play with more than one target;
take your time choosing, and learn to spot someone
who needs you to help them push for promotion
to a league just above their natural level.
If you follow these rules, things will run smoothly:
the more cautionary noises you sham, the more they’ll want to play.
[i] This has since been taken down.
[ii] S.T. Coleridge, Anima Poetae, 1895
[iii] T.S. Eliot, ‘East Coker III’, from Four Quartets, 1943
[iv] Letter to John Galsworthy, 1901
[v] Penguin, 2013
[vi] Create Dangerously, Penguin Modern: 17, 2018
Cazique will be published by Longbarrow Press in autumn 2018. Matthew Clegg’s first two collections, West North East and The Navigators, are still available from Longbarrow Press; click here and here for extracts, essays and audio recordings.
Gently disintegrate me
Said nothing at all.
‘Enter a Cloud’, W.S. Graham
Outbound, a flight to the Continent, a short haul at low cost. We climb, level, and cruise, the conditions are optimal, full occupancy, fuel efficiency, no turbulence. I have a small window on the north of England, the reservoirs of the Derwent Valley, all of it shrinking, scaled to print, an island and its souvenirs. A few minutes later, a thin white filament mists the view, blanketing the shires and the passing of the shires. The connection is lost. I try to shake out the cramp in my shoulders and thighs. I resettle in my seat and pick up a book. I do not open it, but stare at the foredge, the pages rippling from head to tail, a wave that wasn’t there before, is it cabin pressure, I think, is it altitude. I look out of the window, and see gaps in the cotton, the stitches trailing off, Lincolnshire or Norfolk, stretching to a coast. At the land’s edge, rapid shifts of colour, then the blue, the first few turbines, blade over blade, their whiteness cresting as they wheel, the mudflats dark, another blue, another wind farm, 88 rotors in a rhomboid grid, the clean lines of Sheringham Shoal, a long lease in the territorial sea. Then the blue alone, the empty lanes of the German Ocean, the international cumulus, and a book drifting from my fingers. Offshore, offline. I slide in and out of Europe and the slow descent. When I come around, we are level with the landing strip. Dry air. A standstill, then sounds of dispersal, thirst, all the devices waking up.
Increasingly, our experience of connectivity is predicated on networks, systems and processes that we seldom grasp or see. While this is not an entirely new phenomenon – the dots and dashes encoded by Samuel Morse in the early years of electrical telegraphy were rapidly taken up by long-distance transmission lines, first overland, then undersea – the scale, ubiquity and complexity of our communications infrastructure has grown in inverse proportion to its visibility. If I think of connectivity, I’m likely to be thinking of glitches, of delays: the streaming media that buffers or skips; the email service that slows before a message is sent. I’m unlikely to be thinking of a data centre in Iowa or Oregon, a million square feet of client storage in a monochrome shed, or the thousands of miles that my email might travel, server to server, to complete a journey of a few seconds. Speed erases distance and the thought of distance. Our transactions, our memories, are everywhere and nowhere – at home, at work, on the move – enabled by technology that is everywhere and nowhere; the bundles of optical fibres beneath our streets, the unmarked mobile phone masts we scarcely notice at the roadside, the GPS satellites in semi-synchronous orbits. It’s embedded in the ground, in the sea, in the air, and, like most of our infrastructure, we only shift our attention to it when something goes awry.
J.R. Carpenter’s The Gathering Cloud (Uniformbooks 2017) develops this theme and, in many ways, develops from it. The project appears to have been seeded by a ‘prolonged spell’ of ‘catastrophic’ weather; the winter storms that swept through south-west England in early 2014, resulting in the inundation of the Somerset Levels, widespread power cuts and evacuations, and considerable disruption to transport, notably the breaching of the railway line at Dawlish by a coastal surge, washing away the sea wall and track ballast, leaving the rail suspended in mid-air. Further storms and cliff falls delayed the track repairs, to the extent that the link to Plymouth and Cornwall was broken for two months; during this period of closure, the vulnerability of the Riviera Line was frequently discussed in both local and national media. Carpenter tracks the reports, and is ‘struck by the paradox’ apparent in the effort to conjure ‘invisible forces such as / wind and rising temperatures’ – which can only be inferred from their effects – ‘through the material / of language’. The work that follows might be described as a journey to the heart of this paradox. Through a series of ‘modifications’ – textual fragments ranging from classical antiquity to the present day, arranged in hendecasyllabic verses – a record of theological, philosophical, scientific and cultural theories and observations about the weather unfolds. On each page, we are oriented by an idea of the cloud, the gradual refinement or expansion of its symbolic and taxonomic values, and the sense that something has been added to our store of knowledge. Despite the broadly chronological movement, in which the atmospheric hypotheses of Aristotle and Lucretius are abandoned in favour of the ‘divine’ skies of Christian mysticism, then overwritten by the meteorological studies of the Enlightenment, overtaken by the white steam of the Industrial Revolution, and overshadowed by the dark plumes of modern warfare, this is not a straightforward journey from obscurity to lucidity.
For most of human history the heavens
have served as a source of legitimacy,
providing meaning and orientation.
The sky is compass, calendar, map, and clock.
The ‘new methodological nomenclature’ devised in 1802 by the amateur meteorologist Luke Howard, which introduced the tropospheric terms that we still use today (cirrus, cumulus, stratus), enriches our descriptive vocabulary but does not dispel metaphysical doubt. ‘Clouds resist ontology.’ Weather is a process. Our attempts to grasp or represent this process through language are, inevitably, frustrated by the fact that it is, by definition, changeable. While the legacy of Howard’s On the Modifications of Clouds is foundational to our understanding of the skies, atmospheric terms are, even now, more commonly invoked as symbols of incognisance; Carpenter pauses to reflect on the origins of ‘the cloud of unknowing’ (the medieval text of this name also gives us ‘the cloud of darkness’ and ‘the cloud of forgetting’) and the ‘fog of uncertainty’ (or ‘fog of war’). We encounter the German philosopher Martin Heidegger in 1918, serving as ‘a weatherman on the western front’, ‘scanning the sky’ for propitious data, his observations determining ‘the deployment / of artillery, aircraft, and poison gas.’ From these wartime experiences, he distils a rhetoric of ‘vigilance / as a paramount ethical duty’; the discord is amplified by his later evasions and denials regarding his apparently compliant involvement with the Nazi Party. It’s a pivotal episode in the complex enquiry pursued throughout the first half of the book, which might be summarised as a subtle, sustained exploration of cognitive dissonance: in particular, the conflicts between language and comprehension, objects and their representation, data and its use. This enquiry becomes more urgent and explicit in the title sequence of The Gathering Cloud, in which the terminology of the skies is radically reframed for an age of networked computing and virtual storage. We enter The Cloud, a discreet, diffuse ecosystem with its roots in weather forecasting and wireless decryption, the scale of which is now influencing the weather itself.
The Cloud is an airily deceptive name
connoting a floating world far removed from
the physical realities of data.
The Gathering Cloud began life as a digital project, evolving through performances and online. The web-based version is animated by a series of interactive collages, in which the engravings of cirrus and stratus that accompanied Howard’s On the Modifications of Clouds are gradually recast or obscured by images of nature and consumer technology ‘appropriated from publicly accessible cloud storage services’. These hybrid ‘plates’ are reproduced in the book, albeit emptied of colour and movement, which endows the print version with a different complexion and an unmistakable pathos. Similarly, the hyperlinks that ‘thread’ the verses of the six screen collages are dead on the page, their lost functionality denoted in ghostly grey (the 56 ‘keywords’ orphaned by this transition – from ‘aerosol’ to ‘wind’ – are listed as ‘An Index of Objects’, which lies somewhere between preface, found poem, and incantation). The effect of this presentation is twofold: it is both an intimation of a fading or failing connection to our ‘physical realities’, and an invitation to make our own connections between (and beyond) the texts. Howard’s ‘painterly’ descriptions of clouded skies (‘shrouded in a gloomy distance’) are juxtaposed with data about data:
Data centres worldwide use thirty billion
watts of electricity annually.
Most of that is spent on avoiding downtime.
Guarding against the event of grid failure
banks of generators emit diesel exhaust.
Throughout the sequence, the production and consumption of data is weighed, counted and measured in terms borrowed from the world that the expansion of The Cloud endangers; we surmise its proportions, indirectly, from the millions of snapshots of cats and sunsets uploaded and shared daily or ‘stored forever in Cloud formations’. Virtual specimens are ‘captured and tagged’ in a global image bank that runs on fossil fuel. Ironically, the habitat and species decline to which the maintenance and growth of the ‘power-hungry’ server farms contributes is partly driven by the fear of loss; much of the personal data that we hoard in The Cloud is ‘archaic, obsolete’, but we cannot bear to let it go. ‘We have saved too many memories to lose.’ One of the reasons why The Cloud’s users – ‘ordinary consumers’ – are unable (or unwilling) to recognize that ‘data is physical’ is that ‘the scale of the cloud’ is hard to depict, and hard to imagine. While it may be true that its ‘infrastructures / are successfully hiding in plain sight’, we cannot see The Cloud (except, perhaps, at its edges), or step back from it; like weather, it is both intimate and vast (towards the end of the sequence, we learn that ‘vastness’ shares its etymology with ‘waste’). However, as Carpenter frequently reminds us, clouds are not weightless, and neither are they ‘pure’: think of an early steam train, ‘engulfed in a cloud of its own making’, the air loaded with particulates. Think of the clouds we ‘exhale on a cold day’, dense, dispersing, then gone.
The Cloud is an increasingly essential
element of infrastructure powering
industry, government, finance and commerce,
as fundamental to us as plumbing and roads.
What makes The Gathering Cloud such an interesting, rewarding and valuable book is its skilful and creative reading of the cultural, environmental, and technological patterns that have given rise to the digital cloud, and which it now shapes in turn. The ‘waste’ and ‘vastness’ that define this phenomenon are illustrative of its vulnerability to crisis; it is difficult to map the contours of an artificial cloud ‘that constructs itself through pure fluctuation’, but it is not hard to conceive of a point at which its mass becomes unsupportable. Infrastructure is made visible in the moment of its failure. The book’s timelines are twice interrupted by undated sequences of photographs of the Dawlish coast, marking the occasions (in 1859 and 2014) when the water ‘broke through the line’, overwhelming the seawall and railway. Thirty-two images, high contrast, low contrast. We don’t see the catastrophe, only the shifts of light and perspective, the horizon scrolling between sea and sky, the distance sharpened or softened by cloud.
Images: 1. Cloud study by Luke Howard, c.1803-1811; 2. The Gathering Cloud by J.R. Carpenter (Uniformbooks); 3. The Gathering Cloud by J.R. Carpenter (web-based version).
A related essay on J.R. Carpenter’s Ocean of Static will appear on this site in the near future.
Glen Arnisdale & Gleann Dubh Lochain, March 2018
[…] without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.
After days of snowy & iced ground, after abrupt ups and steep downs, we turn from the mountains’ tops … and so we now walk along, we walk a longa gentler un dulating ground down in the glen. The sting of fast-thrust snow specks in the face is already from some other story. Down here in this nestling Glen Arnisdale spring suddenly begins. Sunshine unfurls its newest of oldest gestures. Our rucksacks are smaller, and our boots not so big. We need no crampons nor axes. It is like a well-earned holiday, this warm day, after the early starts for high cold tops. And holy it is as some unidentified bird pours her or his or its voice through and across the loveliness of Glen Arnisdale. This song is nearly thrush, but it is not thrush. And when we see the bird flit from tree to tree … its jizz, its gestures, its motion is not of a bird I know. I then, at that moment, or probably another moment I made or make from memory, at that some moment I remembered – I remember – how a poet called Peter Riley wrote, writes, will write … that he felt (feels) something about a place named Alstonefield mattered, mattered so very much …
Such inexplicable matter, and mattering happens for some version of me – here or there – in a Glen Arnisdale …
Behind us, as we walk east, is Loch Hourn’s mouth, open to The Sound of Sleat. (And beyond the south shore of that slot of sealoch, and its sprung expression of mixed waters – fresh & salt – stands the almost fabled Rough Bounds of Knoydart, tops snow-glossed and east flanks silvered.) In front of us, to east, Glen Arnisdale’s wide pasture ends in a tight throat where River Arnisdale is squeezed between rock-knolled hill-ground. And through this throat-gate we pass into Glenn Dubh Lochain, with its two damned reservoirs, its two black lochans, set prettily and smoothly in some newly revealed scape of tangled textures. Spring’s sunlight shatters glee gorgeously sad across these dark foils. We try to stalk otters along these lochans’ frilly banks, but we see nothing, no signs at all, but I notice how I hope I am watched …
And further on, and where this hidden glen t-junctions, and where burns merge, and where little pylons carrying power-lines pass, their frames’ movements through this place defined by their actually staying still within it … here, at this juncture, there are some ruins. The larger house has been sky-opened, and young rowans grow on the battlements of its crumbling. And the much smaller equally sky-seen & sky-tortured roofless one-roomed cottage to the north-west of the bigger wreck, this residency is occupied by a plant-being, an old thick-trunked rowan … and all four walls of the raw open interior are peopled by glistening green ferns …
I never arrived at this place as much as I never left. The little pylons, and they are little, they are children pylons in comparison to the ones I know in Leicestershire, but they are also mountaineer pylons, their smallness their fury, these beautiful pylons delicate as birches … and the mature rowan growing ever older boxed in its sky-roofed cottage …. well, my self’s (or an other’s) really having existed and not existed here or else where is as …
of pylons whilst
a stoic rowan plays
that dance’s tune
with its buds
Photographs by Nikki Clayton and Boz Morris. Mark Goodwin’s publications include All Space Away and In (Shearsman, 2017) and Rock as Gloss (out from Longbarrow Press later this year). His fourth poetry collection, Steps (Longbarrow Press, 2014), explores themes of climbing, walking and balancing. Click here to visit the Steps microsite for extracts, essays and audio recordings. You can also order the hardback via PayPal below:
Midway between Barnsley and Doncaster, in a shallow pocket of the Dearne Valley, the soil is cleared for shelter, the ditches sluiced and scraped, excavation, engineering, seeding grass, drawing water, the levels rising inch by inch. Acres of new space, clawed out of old space. Adwick Washlands is a recent addition to the RSPB’s landscape portfolio: the site is so new that Google Maps has yet to catch up with it, the aerial view still showing a collection of arable fields. One of several satellite reserves clustered around the RSPB’s Old Moor wetland hub, it’s an ‘open’ site: no lockable gates or visitor centres, no hides or screens, and a permissive footpath that runs through the centre of the wetland, linking Bolton-upon-Dearne to the village of Harlington. It’s not so much a destination as a place of transit, for local residents exercising their dogs, and for migrant birds, including lapwings, redshanks and little egrets.
When Matthew Clegg and I were invited to lead a poetry walk through Adwick Washlands on National Meadows Day (as part of the 2017 Ted Hughes Poetry Festival), the basis for a dialogue – with the landscape, and with each other – was far from clear. Previous walks for Longbarrow Press had developed from an existing relationship with, and knowledge of, a particular locale and its routes. Neither of us had visited the Dearne Valley reserve, or even heard of it (though Matthew had grazed its southern boundary – albeit unwittingly – while living in nearby Mexborough). Early in 2017, I made two attempts to familiarise myself with the site. On the first of these, I walked for three miles in the wrong direction, only glimpsing the wetland in the moments before my train pulled into the station; on the second, the reserve was the terminal stage of a 25-mile trudge in chilly, damp weather, and I lacked the resources to see or think or feel my way around it. Over the months that followed, however, the washlands absorbed more and more of my time, until I began to see this ‘new space’ as an extension (or a displacement) of my own parish.
On paper, it’s initially tempting to think of it as an ‘intentional edgeland’: however, edgelands arise by default, not design, and are usually indicators of neglect, or decline, rather than care and renewal. Adwick Washlands is a thoughtfully planned, developed, and managed space. One of the features that I was keen to reflect in the design of the event was the porosity of the site: the soft borders with the neighbouring estates and farmland, and, within the reserve itself, the movable frontiers of land and water, constantly renegotiated as the levels in the washlands rise and fall. There are, too, fewer boundaries between people and wildlife than one might expect in a RSPB reserve: in an illuminating email, Heather, the site warden, emphasized the ‘close encounters’ with nature that the openness of Adwick makes possible, with birds regularly feeding next to the paths. Hopeful of a few encounters – or, at least, sightings – on our walk, we took care to plot informal halts along the route, before and after the scheduled readings, leaving enough slack for the audience to pause, should they wish: to question, converse, listen, or observe. A breathing space.
It’s Saturday 1 July, and I’m tracking the movement of people and vehicles through a narrow car park off Furlong Road, south-west of Harlington. As I pace a hundred feet of tarmac to the meandering Dearne and back, it occurs to me that most of our poetry walks have taken river or canal bridges as their starting points. If pushed, I’d say that each rendezvous had something to do with expedience, the elevated crossing as urban landmark; pushed further, I might reflect on how the bridging of water creates a (literal) suspension of the commonplace, and how the intersection of two elements (earth and water) can amplify our attention to chance, and change, as it passes through a third element (air). This morning, the air is unremarkable, unmoved by wind, rain or sun; above it, a taut film of white cloud that flattens the perspective, muting our assembly, a company without shadow. Dominic Somers, the festival producer, arrives and unpacks the colour from the boot of his car; a pair of orange aprons, and four orange flags on long sticks. These are not field signs, or battle standards, and we are not a formation, but the pigment sets me wondering. After distributing the flags to their bearers, Dominic introduces himself, the ethos of the programme, and this, the final event of the festival, before handing over to me. I recount some recent expeditions to the edges of the valley, including ‘A Navigation’, a canal walk led by Matthew Clegg and songwriter Ray Hearne, and Helen Mort’s ‘poetic wander’ from Denaby Ings to Sprotbrough, ending or beginning, like today’s excursion, within sight of the Dearne. This presents Steve Ely, the festival director, with an opportunity to share the first report of the day: the flight call of a kingfisher, overheard near the bridge, a reminder of Ted Hughes’s belief that human actions invoke, or summon, energies or spirits. Matthew closes – or opens up – the preambles with a short extract from Thomas A. Clark’s aphoristic prose poem ‘In Praise of Walking’, a set of variable clauses or ‘steps’, central to which is the proposition that ‘a walk is its own measure, complete at every point along the way’. After a minute or two of these, we’re tuned, calibrated, keen to depart, to step into this ‘mobile form of waiting’.
The path to Adwick Washlands runs parallel to the road for 800 metres, the routes partitioned by a dense screen of trees; then a sharp turn west, the trees darkening, a white horse, a small, orderly stables, the pastures falling back in long, thin strips, a copse, losing form and restraint, until, after seven minutes, the roughness gives way to clean edges, and the outline of the wetland fills the view. I step onto a large, flat stone at the path’s edge, and, as I wait for the audience to compose itself, survey a yarn of pylons to the west, a scattering of poppies, a silage pile. Within this field, I try to visualize another: the open cast colliery that once occupied, and exhausted, the land to the north. Several decades ago, it was restored, and drainage was put in for agriculture. Using its powers of compulsory purchase, the Environment Agency took over the site, based on the contour lines – the line to which the water would naturally fill – and it became an active washland once more, one of several flood plains throughout the Dearne Valley. The RSPB now leases the land from the Environment Agency, and manages it as a wildlife reserve.
Old space, new space. In a site like this, the changes of use and of appearance aren’t always apparent: there’s little here to suggest that this was, until recently, a ‘working landscape’, the grassland and wetland concealing the scars of industry. We can, however, detect a few clues that this is a ‘new space’, in which the ratio of wildness to regulation, and leisure to utility, is still being worked out. I mention how, on an earlier visit, I’d paused to read the signs in the wood our group has just passed through, stating that the grazing of livestock is prohibited; it wasn’t clear who had put them up, though. I close with a few words on the history of English land law, and a few short poems:
The map and ruler,
carving the common for none
but the tithe-owners.
I abdicate the stone to Matthew, who sets against these straight edges a vision of ‘mucky sandy boys’, roaming the valley in defiance of prohibitions, their ‘fat treads’ ploughing up footpaths and fields. On the page, ‘Mexborough Quad Bandits’ is, in part, an exploration of ‘open form’, its lines short and irregularly indented, a shifting pattern of refusal, swerving and skidding, scuffing up the white space. Out here, the ‘rude’ rhythms are cranked and revving, a ‘swarm’ that chokes the air, then vacates it, leaving a ragged trail of exhaust:
cuts into revs
that bite and hurl
The whiff of ferality lingers over the next reading, which takes place a few hundred feet along the track, at the edge of a small, roughly disc-shaped pond. To enter this space, which is split by a boundary ditch, we must cross a tiny bridge; as we reassemble on the other side, the land in a small declivity, there’s an undeniable sense of separateness, and an adjustment of scale. Matthew addresses our ragged crescent, half of us standing, the other half seated on large blocks of quarried stone. He speaks of folklore, of familiars, of the wodwo, first glimpsed in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and (almost) fleshed out, centuries later, in an eponymous poem by Ted Hughes. A wodwo is a ‘marginal wild man’, and, as Matthew emphasises in his introduction to Hughes’s poem, a ‘creature of the provisional’; the path he takes, ‘nosing’ after ‘a faint stain on the air’, is jumbled and erratic, but his absorption in (and by) the natural world, framed by unanswerable questions (‘I seem to have been given the freedom / of this place what am I then?’), allows him to revise his perspectives. Resisting conclusions, he resolves only to ‘go on looking’. I take up the theme of landscape as an imaginative resource, and consider its changing status as a physical resource. In the space of several decades, drift and open cast mining depleted this area. The search for energy is now changing direction, with renewables tapping into sources above ground: solar and wind. I gesture to the north, near Barnburgh, a cluster of blades skimming the hillside. I share my impressions of the Isle of Axholme, 20 miles north-east of here; the site of England’s largest onshore wind farm, with 34 turbines rising from the flatlands. However, the turbines are just one part of the resource infrastructure. The poems that have developed from my recent visits also reflect on other changes in the use, and appearance, of the land, including the growth of biofuels, and the consequences for biodiversity:
Yellow on yellow.
Every field has resistance
to spray, spoil and stress.
Let go. The monoculture
will raise the monoculture.
Accompanying us on today’s walk is the conservationist and writer Laurence Rose, who, along with Steve Ely, ventures some thoughts on the design of the pond; its rounded shape, and central stand of reeds, suggest that it is intended for great crested newts, who are known for their circular mating rituals. It provides a backdrop for the final three poems at this site, drawn, like ‘Mexborough Quad Bandits’, from The Navigators, Matthew’s second collection. Each of these short poems explores a different modality of water – flowing, standing, and stagnant – and the life that exists in, on, or through them – weeds, leeches, bacteria. The last of these is ‘Dunn Street: Abandoned Lock’:
of bile-green algae –
We recross the bridge, the path drawing us further into the wetland, a subtle weave of shrubs and trees that gradually breaks down as we approach the centre of the reserve, the hedges losing height, the gaps closing in. The first lake, sketchy at its eastern edges, lengthens into a complete view, the water levels considerably lower than on earlier visits. Laurence identifies an unusual coot with signs of albinism. Steve spots a handful of avocets, and charts the recovery of a species that was, until the middle of the last century, extinct in the UK; even a few decades ago, they were rarely sighted outside of Havergate Island, a marshy RSPB site in Suffolk. Today, they’re almost commonplace, the health of the Adwick population assisted, in part, by the recent installation of a four kilometre anti-predator fence throughout the reserve. While the wetland has been successful in encouraging breeding, many of the fledglings have been predated; a consequence of this being an ‘open’ site. Since this line of defence was created, the young birds appear to be surviving. The ‘internal border’ runs the length of the narrow track that branches from the main path, terminating in a semi-circular stone wall, where we gather for the third reading. This wall is the reserve’s central viewpoint: a soft curve, framing and focusing the wet grassland and wading pools, inviting us to take in the washland in a single, slow sweep. Given the extent to which this area has been transformed over the last five years, it’s odd that a wall should strike me as the most conspicuous intervention, but perhaps I’m responding to the symbolic value of the structure: a reminder that this is also a human habitat. The ideas of movement and stillness that anchored Matthew’s last reading inform the next selection, in which I revisit the Isle of Axholme, adjusting the angle to meet the ‘dynamic’ array of a wind farm at full speed:
Amcotts is moving,
a bladed wetland, curving
fibre and resin.
My stance shifts, the pattern torn,
tiny cuts in the distance.
As I’m reading the last few poems, my voice starts to dip; a lapse of projection, a loss of altitude. I’ve been half-listening to something else, and, in the few seconds between my voice falling silent and the answering applause, I hear it, we hear it, in full: high above us, circling the grassland, an exultation of skylarks (some weeks later, I discover that male skylarks sing at higher frequencies near wind farms, due to turbine noise). Steve remarks on their volume, their number, how these sounds and sights have been shrinking in areas where pesticides are used. Matthew ruminates on migration, before introducing his version of King Hoopoe’s speech from The Birds. In Aristophanes’s play, Hoopoe summons a council of birds – a global assembly, with representatives from field, tree, marsh and sea – to discuss the problem of ‘destructive’ mankind. Matthew’s version updates the speech for an era of corporate power (or ‘corporatocracy’), exhorting the ‘raiders of the farmer’s furrows / liberating seeds and barley’ to ‘picket all the corporate glaciers’ and ‘join the V, the flying delta, / sing my song of featherlution’. The second poem constructs a quieter, more intimate space, in a setting which, like our viewpoint, has contemplation written into the design. ‘Brigand’ is narrated by a member of the eponymous South Yorkshire motorcycle club (Matthew makes an interesting distinction between a club and a gang, and their respective codes; unlike the ‘Mexborough Quad Bandits’ we met earlier, the Brigands observe rules, on and off the road). We encounter him as he is taking a break from the ‘revs’ and ‘white lines’, making the short journey on foot ‘to a hide at Denaby Ings’ (another Dearne Valley wetland, managed by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, two miles south-east of here). As ‘a lush trawl of sound’ filters from the lake to the slatted shelter, it becomes apparent that this act of listening is also an act of dismantling (the coots, doves and ducks preparing a path to ‘two minutes’ silence’) and of disarming (once an aid to hunting, the hide is now a means of avoiding disturbance to wildlife, and has a similarly calming effect on its visitors). The porosity of the structure is integral to these processes, emboldening a jay to ‘flit’ a ‘toy windmill’ in and out of the hide, and harbouring the sound of ‘gnats / teasing at the edge of buzz’, while
the clatter and creak
is me donning my helmet
and wrapping this up.
Before we leave the viewpoint, Steve crouches to the wall, inviting us to look closer: while the top rows of stone are bonded with cement, the lower layers are perforated with holes and crevices, allowing insects and small animals a passage through the viewpoint. We straighten up, thread back along the narrow track, single file, conversation breaking out, the gaps between us widening, then narrowing, the wetland tilting in and out of sight.
We rejoin the main path, west for 500 metres, the river wall rising in the south, a reminder that this site is part of a larger system. It’s a little after 12.30pm. The white cloud that stretched across the morning is now looser and thinner, the light comes and goes, printing and erasing our shadows on the path. As we near the western edge of the washland, I bear left, and guide the group along a rough, grassy track that seems at odds with the well-kept arable land to either side. On our right, a corrugated silo collapses into itself, the roof long since weathered to air; fifty metres ahead, a handful of small, grey structures lie in an ellipsis, the track fissuring and fading as we close in. This was a heavy anti-aircraft gun site, established in 1942, in response to the Sheffield Blitz of 1940-41; it was built to protect the city’s industries, and the local colliery, and was part of a network of defences including Old Moor (now a 250-acre RSPB reserve). I don’t mention any of this, not yet; it seems better for each of us to encounter the site for ourselves, to spend a little time exploring it without direction or discussion. After several minutes, we assemble in the centre of the third emplacement, the easternmost point of Station H17. Dominic fishes a carton of Tunnock’s caramel wafers from his rucksack; the box is raided and emptied. As Matthew is shuffling his script, Steve emerges from a concrete and breezeblock chamber, and announces a find: a swallow’s nest in the rear shelter. We adjust our positions, and keep our distance from the entrance. Matthew opens with some thoughts on the importance of maintaining a connection with fertile ground; for him, this includes the derelict or disowned spaces that nurtured his curiosity and creativity as a teenager, and that find an echo in the space in which we’re now standing. The poem that exemplifies this connection is set on the edge of East Leeds, within earshot of the former Vickers factory, where Challenger tanks rolled off a mile-long production line until the 1990s. ‘Because I was Nobody’ is also an affirmation of the value of anonymity in a world that, increasingly, insists on status and visibility:
Once, I stumbled down a mound
into a herd of cows. The heat of them
was like a drug. All I wanted was to stand
feeling their breath all night. They let me try
because they knew I had nothing. Was nobody.
The introduction to the next poem develops the links between self-discovery and outward exploration, with an emphasis on how children can inhabit and transform a landscape with their imagination. In Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns, Matthew intuits a similar process at work; the poems (or ‘versets’) conflate the persona of Offa, the Anglo-Saxon King of Mercia, with that of the young Hill, and, in turn, sieve half-forgotten cultural legacies through personal mythologies, each layer excavated through the other. ‘Hymn VII’ recalls ‘the day of the lost / fighter: a biplane, already obsolete and irreplaceable, two inches of / heavy snub silver.’ The near past, in the child’s eye, is as unreachable, and yet apprehensible, as the England that vanished with Offa.
Slowly, we adjust our orientation within the gun site, until we’re facing east, looking back at the field lines we started out from. I give a brief account of the station’s history, and the defensive positions to the west, noting that this chain of anti-aircraft sites is now an open corridor of nature reserves; we reflect on the remaking of a landscape, once shielded by barrage balloons and batteries, into a protected habitat for migrant birds. Around the time that the regeneration of the Dearne Valley was gaining ground, Station H17 was registered as a Scheduled Ancient Monument, which, perhaps, lends some perspective to our ideas of the ‘near past’. There are gaps in its history, leading to some conjecture about what happened here and when. We don’t know exactly when it was built, or when it was armed. A book of signatures records that it was staffed by women (operating radar, communications systems, and other support roles) and men (operating guns). As far as we know, not a single shot was fired from the battery.
Above us, the E-shaped command post, half-buried in higher ground, is flooded, seams of debris and dross beneath the surface. Further down the track, the Nissen hut, used as an ammunition store, is split and sinking, open to the sky. It may be listed as a monument, but what we encounter on the ground is an almost feral waste. We’ve ‘strayed’ from the ‘official’ path to reach this site. The track and the station are not maintained in any formal sense; it’s not clear who owns this space, or if there is any right of public access; yet there is clear evidence of recent human activity. We can see how this might offer a retreat or refuge for youngsters from nearby estates; it’s walkable, but unsupervised; defended, but porous; if you needed to hide, or make a quick getaway from any part of the site, you could do so.
Standing up, we take in the new houses to the west, the infrastructure, the surrounding fields; sitting down, against the emplacements, the estates disappear from view, and the site becomes a microhabitat, a portal into the near – or distant – past, a palimpsestic space for actual and imagined story and incident, a theatre for improvised play. I read a short sequence of poems that explore these ambiguities (‘The field is a front / standing in for another / we will never see’), followed by some passages from East Wind, an account of a night-time ‘manoeuvre’ on the east coast that is also a fragmentary memoir of collective walking, led by Malcolm, a Wiltshire farmer and adventure support officer:
Malcolm would have sent us cross-country, the woods and contours had specific values, a knowledge that we moved through. I pretended to use the compass in my pocket, black arrow, red needle. In time it became a pretend compass. I learned to read a map by fixing a position and rotating the map around me. I made everything the north.
The prose extract runs out on the approach to Withernsea, trailing half-remembered scraps of the Chivalric Code. At the eastern edge of the emplacement, a drift of birdsong, a ripple of wind. A brief pause, then a final poem:
No cross, no colour.
The fields marked and abandoned
by flag and flower.
On the way to our last stop, I talk with Tracy, who spent her childhood in this area, and has recently returned; earlier in the walk, she’d made some helpful, timely corrections to my geographical overviews (in which I discovered that the colliery was not where I thought it was), and is now filling in the few blanks in her own knowledge, piecing the landscape together. 300 metres north of the gun site, at the junction of wetland, track and farmland, we reach a set of cattle gates, on which we prop the orange flags that have fluttered above our heads for the last few hours. A brown hare, spotted by Steve, darts between the gates and disappears. We look back at the wetland, the fields to the north, Goldthorpe to the north-west, the pylons, the turbines, the edge of the Lowfield estate. I mention my interest in post-war urban planning, and some of the housing projects that have appeared in the last few decades. The last few poems that I read allude to a development on a flood plain in west Swindon, a short distance from my childhood home, a patchwork of ‘new space’ that was paused (and only recently restarted) after the 2008 financial crash:
The new settlement
starts without us. We won’t live
to see it finished.
Our presence has been noted by the resident cows, who wander over from the water’s edge to eavesdrop on our readings. Laurence points out that the livestock are part of the management; these highland cattle thrive in fenland, and help to graze the watery landscapes. A concern with ecology, ecosystems, and species decline informs Matthew’s commentary on the work of Peter Reading, a keen birder whose poem ‘Afflatious’ is both a catalogue and a celebration of several decades of sightings, taking a leisurely route from recent observations in America and Australia to the site of a formative experience:
And I’d say (if I entertained
such mawkish conceits) that on each
of these afflatious encounters
my soul ascended like that
Skylark I watched as I lay
and dreamed through a summer morning
in a sweet pasture in Shropshire
on an upland when I was younger.
And, high above us, circling the grassland, an exultation of skylarks.
Matthew closes the event with a final axiom from Thomas A. Clark – ‘A day, from dawn to dusk, is the natural span of a walk’ – which serves as a preface to a poem from his sequence Edgelands, a record of a simple moment of unforced attention:
Pink dusk. Along this B-road
starlings have colonised
20 yards of power-line.
Their song is a kind of current,
the current, a kind of song.
Poems featured in the walk (and this essay) can be found in the following collections (click the titles for further excerpts or details): ‘Because I was Nobody’ and ‘Edgelands’ appear in West North East by Matthew Clegg; ‘Brigand’, ‘Dunn Street: Abandoned Lock’, ‘Hoopoe’s Cuckoo Song’, ‘In the 70s’, ‘Long Weeds’ and ‘Mexborough Quad Bandits’ are taken from The Navigators by Matthew Clegg; the poems and prose extracts by Brian Lewis appear in his pamphlets East Wind and White Thorns.
An earlier essay and recording, ‘The Hide’, documents a visit by Matthew Clegg and Brian Lewis to the Denaby Ings hide referenced in the poem ‘Brigand’.
Thanks to all who attended the walk on 1 July 2017. A special thanks to Emma Bolland, Matthew Clegg, Steve Ely, Laurence Rose, Dominic Somers, and the RSPB.
‘Snow White / Rose Red’, Emma Bolland
6.53pm. We fold into the New Barrack Tavern, first Emma, then me, the double doors closing on the dark. In the second half of the 19th century, an earlier incarnation of the Tavern bustled with soldiery, the line infantries of Warwickshire, Rutlandshire, Bedfordshire, quartered at Hillsborough, a few streets away. It survived the closure of the barracks in the 1930s, and was one of the few pubs left standing after Penistone Road was converted into a dual carriageway in the 1980s. These days, much of its trade comes from Sheffield Wednesday fans, visitors to the greyhound stadium, and regular music and comedy nights. Tonight, though, it’s barely breathing. Perhaps it’s the early hour, or the early January slump, or the wind and rain that’s been racketing through Sheffield since the weekend. I think back to the last time I sat in one of the city’s pubs, an evening in The Blake, three days before Christmas, the end of a year of starts and stops, a year without flow. A small table, the poets, and me, we talk, I express a desire to work quickly, to work quietly, we talk, an event in January, perhaps, ahead of the cultural seasons, outside of the festival circuits. A night walk. We’ve spoken of this before, but it’s taken ten years of slow journeying through South Yorkshire – the itinerary always new, the poets and participants always changing with the landscape, the path always naturally lit – to see it as a possibility. The factors that discouraged us in the past – the uncertainties, the risks – are the factors that are now pushing us forward. Before we can talk ourselves out of it, we set a date, sketch a potential route, and renew our vow. Three weeks and six days later, at the end of an afternoon’s anxious weather-watching, our group reconvenes in the Tavern, accompanied by a dozen people who have signed up to the walk: we are 3, then 4, then 7, then 11, then 18. Having spent the last 40 minutes slowly filling the lounge area, we take our leave, and spill into the night.
In this country, the culture and literature of urban walking has, for many years, been monopolized by London and the solitary white male; after dark, these terms are almost synonymous, the archetypal ‘night city’ re-walked and rewritten by those at liberty to do so, from Charles Dickens to Bradley Garrett. In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit remarks on the absence of women from the histories of walking, observing that ‘most public places at most times’ have not afforded them the same privileges of anonymity, of detachment, of drift; this inequality is, of course, magnified by night, as are its potential and actual consequences. Collective walking practices can offer some respite from self-policing, clearing a path for exploration, exercise, and recreation, though we might also question the balance of freedom and circumscription in group activity. As a practical solution to the problem of male dominance, harassment and violence in public space, it’s limited and imperfect; as a creative response, it is, arguably, helping to change the narrative of the street (and, indeed, the ‘wild spaces’ which are similarly ‘off-limits’). In the UK, contemporary women artists and writers who have used night walking as part of their practice include Clare Qualmann, co-founder of the Walking Artists Network (and, with Amy Sharrocks, co-curator of Walking Women, a series of walks, talks and events that took place in London and Edinburgh in 2016), who co-led the participatory ‘live art’ project walkwalkwalk (2006-2010, with Gail Burton and Serena Korda) which included a series of midsummer and midwinter night walks through East London; Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre, whose work with the residents of Southwark estates in 2008 and 2009 encompassed night walks, ‘night salons’, and night rides with cyclists; and Emma Bolland, whose collaborative research project MilkyWayYouWillHearMeCall (2012-2013, with Judit Bodor and Tom Rodgers) revisited and re-examined sites in Leeds made notorious in the 1970s and 1980s by Peter Sutcliffe, the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’. The site visits, undertaken in both daylight and darkness, prompted a series of reflective essays and presentations by Bolland, in which she recounts her own experiences of walking these locations in the early 1980s, at night, alone, ‘shitfaced on spirits and speed’. She speaks of Ripper-era Leeds as ‘a battleground for the reclamation of territory’, with incompetent and prejudiced police and media on one side (advising women to avoid the city’s streets after dark, and distinguishing Sutcliffe’s ‘innocent’ victims from those defined by their work as prostitutes) and campaigning feminist organisations on the other (notably the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group, who organised the UK-wide Reclaim the Night women’s marches held on 12 November 1977 in response to the police’s suggestion of a voluntary curfew). Emma is with us tonight, documenting our departure from the pub, its brick island receding as we drift north, then east, passing car dealerships, blade manufacturers, fencing specialists, a soft rain starting up, the casino etched in red, the lamp lights counting down, three, two, one, here is the bridge, a view of the river, and slowly we find each other in the dark, copper wires hissing overhead, thinning out between breakers yard and graveyard.
7.51pm. Wardsend Cemetery is the only burial ground in Britain with an active railway line running through it, ferrying scrap and finished steel to and from the works at Stocksbridge, six miles north-west. The trackbed is laid parallel to the River Don as it passes through north Sheffield, and also runs close to Club Mill Road, a rough, potholed lane that forms a corridor between the railway and the river, and on which we’ll be walking for the next hour. With the light almost gone, I gesture at the other path, the stone steps at my back, the hillside memorials. For years, Wardsend was a byword for neglect; that the site has recovered is largely due to the efforts of the Friends of Wardsend Cemetery, a historical society and conservation group. One of its members is here tonight. I attempt to introduce him, but the company is in blackout, the bodies without contrast, and I cannot read his position. I attempt to introduce the four poets – Angelina D’Roza, Pete Green, Chris Jones, Fay Musselwhite – who are somewhere in this blind assembly. I step back and let them, and the night, do their work, lighting the scripts with a torch. Angelina’s is the first voice we hear, her ‘Song of Silence’ reminding us that ‘there is no / such thing as silence’, only an almost-silence and an almost-darkness circling each other, neither separable nor ever quite meeting. ‘The Storm Lamp’, a tale of fire and flight, is next; taken from a longer work-in-progress, Chris’s vision of civil unrest and survivalism, set in a Sheffield of the near future, defamiliarises the city by degrees, and, perhaps, finds an echo in the decentred dark. Before we leave Wardsend, Fay reads ‘Not thistledown’, a refusal of the customs of death (‘Don’t […] sing me to the flame’) that also touches on the process at work in parts of the cemetery, its headstones displaced by trees, ‘bone-work in oak root’s way’. With ‘the rinse of rain’ reflected in the torchlight, we file past a clump of boulders and through the vehicle gate.
8.13pm. From Wardsend, the Don flows on a south-easterly turn for 400 metres, the lane at its side, before pulling away, a humming on the west bank, strobe and glare, the power station on the curve, the college and its floodlit fields. The lane straightens out, due south, smaller paths forking east and west. We gather at one of these forks, looking up at the railway embankment, the morning’s snow still clinging to the ridge, then down at our boots, the puckered ground, part gravel, part water. Fay’s ‘Boulder’ (‘pulled from the river’s bed’) leads into a longer reading from Angelina, including two new poems (‘Shore’ and ‘Lullaby’) that speak of the light before dawn, rootlessness, seas, and rivers, and ‘Fairytale No. 13’, which seems to anticipate the expansion of these themes, faithful to the small hours, their tonal shifts, ‘the rush of the weir / after rain’. At this point, it’s difficult to tell the current in the overhead wires from the drizzle speckling our jackets and hoods. We shuffle on, the hum tailing off, the rain picking up.
8.28pm. We stop again, a few metres short of the metal barrier that marks the northern boundary of an industrial estate. I scan the shadows for Pete, call him forward, then realise he is standing next to me. He introduces an excerpt from Sheffield Almanac, ‘a poem in four chapters about rivers, rain, relocation, and regeneration’, a seasonally-themed survey of a city at a crossroads between a steel-plated past and a post-industrial future. Chapter Three of the Almanac brings the relationship of Sheffield’s waterways to the growth of its manufacturing base into sharp focus, noting that the ‘five rivers forever outspan’ the achievements of the industrial age, the Don, the Loxley and the Rivelin still ‘driving down through limestone, carving grit’, while the waterwheels and millstones they once fed now moulder (or, conversely, are restored and reframed as tokens of heritage). The torch passes from hand to hand. Fay recounts her own creative exploration of the Rivelin (in the long poem ‘Memoir of a Working River’) and the Loxley (in ‘Flood Triptych’, on which her next two readings draw). ‘Long Fallow’ picks through the ‘wattle-growth’ of an idle backwater of the Loxley, vehicular debris intermingled with ‘oxalis, sycamore and dandelion’, the remnants of a forge still visible in ‘the under-dank’. It invites us to contemplate ‘a scarf, a shoe, a sock’, ‘clothes / like and not like those washed out from grinders’ homes.’ On the night of 11 March 1864, the Loxley Valley was flooded by the water from the newly built Dale Dyke Dam, which collapsed while it was being filled; after wrecking Loxley Village, Malin Bridge and Hillsborough, the flood continued into the centre of Sheffield, and on to Rotherham. We’re standing some 30 metres east of the Don, perhaps 300 metres north of its confluence with the Loxley, ninety degrees of impact, destruction and debris to the south and west. We cram through the metal barrier, a lane through the industries, there are lights, there are sounds, the work going on, shot blasting, steel fabrication, auto repairs, a radio sings to an open window, metal on metal, remake / remodel. The pace slows, the group breaks into smaller groups. Emma takes more photographs. There are rubber speed ramps, a vehicle gate that splits the lane in half, another ridge of rubber speed ramps. The units and yards flatten out. As we reach the last barrier the light abandons the lane. Almost darkness, almost silence.
8.44pm. We gather in the space between the asphalt road and a derelict, railed-off building, trees outgrowing the sagging brick. This is the site of a former silver mill, which one of our party dates to the 18th century. Although we can’t see it, we’ve also drawn level with the junction of the Loxley and the Don; in 1864, the silver mill would have stood directly in the path of the flood. Fay picks up where she left off, with ‘Factory’, the second poem in her ‘Flood Triptych’, which speaks of ‘the silted scuffle of industry unravelled’, a site disowned by the money that made it, the ‘ruptured brickwork’ since retaken by birds, buddleia and bees. Angelina steps forward to read ‘Magnolia’, her third new poem: six lines, ‘two trees’, each the other’s measure, ‘one is distance / one displacement’, the home and its wild state, a window fractured by a branch. The reading concludes with ‘Post-Industrial’, a poem from Chris’s sequence ‘At the End of the Road, a River’, which developed from a series of walks that Chris took along several miles of the Don, from Middlewood to Meadowhall, in 2005. The poem is set in the east of the city, but conjures a similar landscape of riverside trade, of ‘pallets’ and ‘bay-loading gates’; we glimpse the ‘last man’s shadow slip[ping] the fence / as machines break into silence’. The road ahead, like the crumbling plot, is curtained by a low metal fence, holding back the disorderly copse. As the copse peters out, so does the fence, the river surprising us, sidelong and dark.
9.02pm. 300 metres south, Club Mill Road meets Sandbed Road, the latter climbing uphill, west, while our road meets another line of boulders, and sodden debris fly-tipped on the turn. Against this backdrop, Chris opens with ‘Drift’, a poem written over 12 years ago, in response to this location. At that time, the junk was being tipped into the Don – ‘a typewriter scrolling water’ – and while the health of the river has since improved, the bankside clutter persists, cast-off cushions and mattresses, ‘the wasted attempts at home’. As Chris gives way to Pete, the waters seem to draw close, swollen by three days of rain, sleet and snow. Six months previously, Angelina and Pete had led 20 people over Sheffield’s bridges, high above a wide, shallow Don, a city at ease in t-shirts and shades. Pete reads a poem that he read on that summer’s day, an affirmation of resourcefulness and persistence in the face of precarity and impermanence, a tribute to a ‘waterboatman-sculptor’ whose riverbed works we’d encountered on an earlier walk along the route. ‘Dan of the Don’ also gives us decline and renewal (and decline) in microcosm: Dan’s ‘relic stacks’, the art assembled from ‘the / lapsed pomp of / manufacture and shipment’, will be dismantled by a rising river during the winter months, after which the materials will be recovered, new ‘stanzas of brick’ will emerge, and the cycle will repeat. With Fay’s ‘Flight from Cuthbert Bank’, we turn from the Don to the incline of Sandbed Road, pared, in the dark, to a simple slope, all ascent and descent. The poem recounts a slow, indirect pilgrimage to the site of the former pigeon lofts of Cuthbert Bank, a few streets west of the corner on which we’re standing, the pigeons’ flights gradually fading from the ‘memory maps’ that linked hillside to hillside, the districts of Upperthorpe and Parkwood now divided by ‘the six-lane race’ of a dual carriageway. From these derelict ledges, the poem restores their release and return, recolours the valley and the sky above, imagines a flock
of men released by work clocks, to rise above
day’s end, the valley’s din, legacies of grind,
to hold the small bulk, feel its heat
pulse through feathers in cupped hands,
and send those tiny hearts and lungs
to claim their reach of sky.
9.15pm. The end of Club Mill Road, and the end of our road, the short span of Hillfoot bridging the river. We edge into the light, the glare from Penistone Road, a single lamp for the long-dead Farfield Inn. Fay reads ‘Road’, the last journey of a companion animal, the ‘dark dog days’ on ‘the old steel road’; Chris follows with ‘Otter Cliff’, reaching back into apocryphal etymology (the Sheffield district of Attercliffe supposedly deriving its name from the otters that once dwelled on the banks of the Don), and looking forward (since the poem was written, sightings of otters on the Don have steadily increased). Like ‘Otter Cliff’, Angelina’s ‘Ball Street Bridge’ is set further downstream (by half a mile or so), extending our view of the river, summoning mallards and gudgeon, an ‘ore-heavy stream’ glinting as the moon rises. The moon tonight is new, though we don’t see it; the night is colder and wetter than when we started, my hands numb with the shuffling of torch, umbrella and sound recorder. I introduce Pete, who, after thanking everyone present, introduces the final poem: ‘Night Walk by the River Don’, part dream, part drift, peopled by ‘hostelry ghosts / of the Farfield Inn’ (which, we learn, has apparently been sold in recent weeks), and the river, with us to the end, ‘still flow[ing] / when nobody is there’. Apart from us, the streets are empty; another storm is closing in. We turn, for the last time, to
a lane flanked dense with thickets,
the freakish Don below, a carriageway
of bustling currents.
Longbarrow Press is planning further night walks for 2018; details will be posted on our Events page in the coming weeks.
The following publications are currently available from Longbarrow Press (click the titles for further details): Angelina D’Roza’s debut collection Envies the Birds, Pete Green’s pamphlet Sheffield Almanac, Chris Jones’s second collection Skin, and Fay Musselwhite’s Contraflow.
Emma Bolland: ‘Snow White / Rose Red’ (2012), ‘Lines of Desire’ (2012), ‘Trespassing Knowledge’ (2014) (two essays and a presentation reflecting, inter alia, on themes of trespass, darkness and night walking in the MilkyWayYouWillHearMeCall project)
Brian Lewis: ‘The Cut’ (on the landscapes of Owlerton), ‘Haunts’ (on Andrew Hirst’s Three Night Walks), and ‘Parallel Lines’ (on Angelina D’Roza and Pete Green’s ‘Vanishing Point’ city walk)
Rebecca Solnit: ‘Walking After Midnight’ (from Wanderlust: A History of Walking)
Friends of Wardsend Cemetery
Chris Jones: At the End of the Road, a River (interactive map of the River Don project, with poems and recordings)
The Night Walk Project (with a recent interview with Brian Lewis)
The following Twitter accounts are recommended: @thelrm (run by Morag Rose, who organises regular collective psychogeographical drifts in Manchester); @wildernessflash (Lone Women in Flashes of Wilderness, a collaborative project by Clare Archibald exploring women’s thoughts on & experiences of aloneness, darkness & wilderness); @ClareQualmann
A special thanks to all who attended the walk on 17 January 2018, and to Emma Bolland for taking the photographs that accompany this essay.
One of the things that I came to appreciate as I started to read poetry in my early teens was how much poems were in conversation with other poems, and as a kind of variation of this theme, it dawned on me that poets were going about their business by ‘talking’ to each other. Never mind that the poet being responded to had been dead for three years or three centuries: this reflection on and negotiation with previous practice – whether it be through assimilating long-established poetic forms (e.g. the sonnet) or mining a well-used trope through the echo of allusion, or perhaps even through adopting creative plagiarisms – this was all part of a grand tradition of writing. It’s one of the fundamental, underpinning (and unwritten) tenets of poetry that makes it so difficult for students and casual readers coming to the genre to make sense of the sometimes rarefied, often codified language placed in front of them. It’s still one of the main stumbling blocks that makes it difficult for me to read, absorb and unravel poems.
To show how this long-standing ‘dialogue’ develops and mutates over time, I’ll use my own poem ‘An Invitation’ as a starting point for discussion. The piece is a fictionalised response to a meeting I had with the poet Thom Gunn back in the mid-1990s in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco. It was my rather clumsy attempt to interview a very fine and inspirational writer about his career (he was in his mid-60s at the time of my calling). I had just written a thesis on Gunn and wanted to put a full stop at the end of the project by meeting my subject, the great man, himself. I decided, eventually, to write the poem that reflected on our afternoon together (after a sixteen year gap or so) in iambic tetrameter rhyming couplets. One of the reasons why I wanted to write in rhyming couplets (which could be viewed as quite an anachronistic form of address) was that this poetic form gave a strong nod in the direction of one of Gunn’s own formally idiosyncratic pieces: ‘An Invitation: from San Francisco to my brother‘. Whereas I use the term ‘invitation’ in a more generalised sense of already being invited somewhere, turning up, and going away again, Gunn is channelling a more classical sense of the term and seeing his own poem as a kind of epistolary call to his brother halfway across the world: it’s proleptic in its concerns – brother, if you come to visit we can do this, and this, and this. Gunn’s own rhyming couplets (he mixes up pentameter and tetrameter lines throughout) are themselves floating on a pool of allusions: he has based the structure and tone of his work on Ben Jonson’s poem ‘Inviting a Friend to Supper’. Because Gunn was so widely read, a catholic consumer of poetry, he realised one ‘template’ he could use when writing his own piece of bidding was to imitate (this being a favourite theme of Gunn’s) and adapt a previous model fashioned by this Elizabethan/Jacobean poet. Jonson’s form de jour here is the heroic couplet (rhyming iambic pentameter lines): he is sending out a ‘formal’ invitation to his patron, William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, to come to a seemingly elaborate feast in the private space of the poet’s house.
We can go even further back than this. Jonson wrote ‘Inviting a Friend to Supper’ as part of a series of epigrams: concise, witty, often satirical pieces that commented on (and often mocked) social airs and conventions. Jonson was schooled in the languages of Latin and Greek. He would have written this piece knowing that a good number of his audience could pick up on the Classical antecedents that the work is drawing on. In particular, Jonson is echoing some of thematic strategies of the Roman poet Martial. See, for instance, Martial’s poem that begins: ‘You will dine nicely, Julius Cerialis, at my house’ (11.52) or poem 5.78: ‘If you are troubled by the prospect of a cheerless dinner at home, Toranius, you may fare modestly with me.’
We need not necessarily go this far back as time-travellers to trace a ‘family tree’ of models, connections, allusions. Indeed, we could put to one side this notion of poets responding to each other and adopt a much more standard (and prevalent) critical paradigm where a reader focuses on analysing how a poet’s own oeuvre develops from book to book, in essence testing how his or her work matures by charting the central arguments, tensions, debates that the poet has engaged in over the span of a career. This approach is particularly illuminating when we examine the interconnected schemata/motifs prevalent in the work of the Irish poet Michael Longley. His poems are so much in conversation with themselves that I regard these (often) short, discrete pieces like the fractals that contribute to a larger patterned picture, or like petals that make up a huge vibrant flowerhead. Something of this idea of movement/progression and recapitulation can be found in Longley’s own maxim: ‘If prose is a river, poetry is a fountain.’
I can show how this self-sustaining debate has evolved in Longley’s work by quoting from a recent poem, ‘Marigolds, 1960’, published in The Stairwell (2014). Here Longley is remembering one of his last meetings with his father. The poet is about to return to university in Dublin to continue his studies after the summer break. He has just had his first poem published which his father thinks is ‘[n]ot worth the paper it’s printed on.’ This rather pat critique is followed by a little contextualising statement and fragment of speech:
You are dying. ‘They’ve cut out my
Wheest – I have to sit down
To wheest – like a woman.’
Longtime readers of Longley’s work will know that his father reappears as a key witness of historical trauma, having fought in the First World War with the Ulster Division. The father is both a central character in Longley’s focus on autobiography, contingency and personal tragedy and also a kind of Everyman soldier, a put-upon Tommy who could equally be pictured outside the gates of Troy with Odysseus as he might be charging across the blasted fields of the Somme. The emasculating consequences of war that come to literal effect in ‘Marigolds, 1960’ have already been foregrounded in Longley’s earlier work. In a poem from Longley’s first collection (No Continuing City, 1969) we first learn of his father’s debilitating wounds:
Between the corpses and the soup canteens
You swooned away, watching your future spill.
But, as it was, your proper funeral urn
Had mercifully smashed into smithereens,
To shrapnel shards that sliced your testicle.
That instant, I your most unlikely son,
In No Man’s Land was surely left for dead,
Blotted out from your far horizon.
You can see that Longley is still working toward a mature voice here. He has a rather mannered way of phrasing his lines. ‘[Y]our proper funeral urn / Had mercifully smashed into smithereens’ seems to focus on rather ornate poeticisms for the fragments of the shell that went off in the vicinity of his father. He will go on to refine this balancing act so that his full-blown style is based on making poems out of rather poised and elegant long sentences. He jettisons the full end-rhymes we see here soon after publishing his first collection, cultivating a robust and supple free verse style. But it is this image of the shrapnel shards slicing the testicle, the enervation of the soldier’s strength from that palpable sense of castration, that he returns to in his poetry. Here’s a later poem, ‘The Choughs’, from the collection The Weather in Japan (2000) that shows how his stylistic approach has changed:
The choughs’ red claws recall my father
Telling me how the raw recruits would clutch
Their ‘courting tackle’ under heavy fire:
Choughs at play are the souls of young soldiers
Lifting their testicles into the sky.
Longley is making surreal connections between watching birds ‘rolling and soaring’ about the cliffs on the West Coast of Ireland and this mediated memory of his father’s that returns to focusing on the male sexual organs as a signifier of vulnerability and mortality. His father’s delicate euphemism (‘courting tackle’) seems at odds with the apparent violence of the situation he found himself in, but is in keeping with his own sense of decorum elsewhere (see his use of the word ‘wheest’ in ‘Marigolds, 1960’, for instance). Longley is almost trying to reclaim the shocking earthiness of his father’s plight by pushing this defamiliarising metaphor of the dead soldiers ‘lifting their testicles into the sky.’
It’s worth noting that in the poem ‘The Butchers’ (from Gorse Fires, 1991), one of Longley’s many translations of Homer that he uses as a way to reflect on contemporary violence (in this case sectarian killings), one of the acts that Odysseus perpetrates on his rival Melanthios’s ‘corpse’ is to ‘cut off his nose and ears and cock and balls.’
In ‘Marigolds, 1960’, Longley is coming full circle when he writes after his own father’s cock and balls. You feel that Longley is making that connection between potency and writing here. After all, the father is denied his penis just as the son begins to find success publishing his work. Perhaps more tellingly, Longley is offering us one way of reading this ongoing dialogue he has cultivated across his books with his dead father. Rather than dwelling on his father’s opprobrium (with poems that are ‘Not worth the paper [they are] printed on’), he writes, and continues to write because he wants his shade-of-a-father’s respect and understanding. Here’s another poem printed in The Weather in Japan:
12 January, 1996
He would have been a hundred today, my father,
So I write to him in the trenches and describe
How he lifts with tongs from the brazier an ember
And in its glow reads my words and sets them aside.
Sometimes, once in a while, I read a poem that makes me see another piece in a whole new light. It’s as if the succeeding poem works as a skeleton key that can open a secret compartment in the other text’s structure, revealing a whole new layer of meaning. Usually, this involves the poet creatively re-interpreting another poet’s work through his or her own understanding of the text. They usually do this through allusion or reconfiguring a particular word or phrase found in the original poem. When I read Michael Longley’s collection The Stairwell, I noticed that Longley uses as his epigraph for the first part of the book a quotation from the poet W S Graham: ‘Hap the blanket round me / And tuck in a flower.’ I knew I had read this extract before in a Graham poem and flicked through my copy of the Scot’s Selected Poems (1996) to see if I could find where this petitioning couplet had been taken from. My homing instincts were right – pretty soon I had found the late Graham poem ‘To My Wife At Midnight’ as the source for this perhaps emboldening, perhaps plaintive request. This piece rounds off the Selected Poems – it is a rather fragile, beautiful sequence that contemplates love, companionship and old age as Graham and his wife (Nessie) prepare to ‘say goodnight… / sleeping alone together.’
While I was reading through the Graham poem again it dawned on me that Longley was echoing and subtly playing with the Scottish poet’s trove of language, teasing apart and ‘redressing’ a particular word that is shared in both books. Here’s the final section of ‘To My Wife At Midnight’ in full:
Nessie Dunsmuir, I say
Wheest, wheest to myself
To help me now to go
Under into somewhere
In the redcoat rain.
Buckle me for the war.
Are you to say goodnight
And kiss me and fasten
My drowsy armour tight?
My dear camp-follower,
Hap the blanket round me
And tuck in a flower.
Maybe from my sleep
In the stoure at Culloden
I’ll see you here asleep
In your lonely place.
I always thought the narrator of this poem is talking to himself for solace, a spell to calm his unsettled mind down. If we read the notes at the back of Graham’s New Collected Poems (edited by Matthew Francis and published in 2004), we find that ‘wheest’ is a Scots dialect word for ‘hush’. There are various examples of the use of this dialect word in poems that explore the Scots vernacular. Given the tone and direction of the poem – towards sleep and separation – this self-administration of comfort seems like the obvious route to take through the sequence. However, if we read the text through the prism of Longley’s ‘Marigolds, 1960′, we find another poem floating just beneath the surface. Certainly, if we take on board Graham’s own sense of artistic contingency – as he articulates in his manifesto-driven ‘Proem’ (‘It is now left just as an object by me / to be encountered by somebody else’) – we might go back to the beginning of the poem and take a different path through its architectural planes.
So, rather than the narrator in ‘To My Wife At Midnight’ saying ‘hush, hush’ to himself, perhaps, like Longley’s father, he understands that the word ‘wheest’ carries another load within it. Graham perhaps is saying ‘cock, cock’ to himself, to ‘help [himself] now to go / Under into somewhere / in the redcoat rain.’ Actually, thinking about this emphasis more and more I don’t see it as a great leap of the imagination to read the culmination of the piece to be addressing obliquely the intimacies of sex. After all, the poem begins: ‘Are you to say goodnight / And turn away under / The blanket of your delight?’ The alternative to that ‘turn[ing] away’ is surely the act of love. There are wide open spaces between the lines of this poem for physical union to take place.
I’m sure Longley is aware of this alternative reading he’s providing room for through nailing on the quotation from ‘To My Wife At Midnight’ at the beginning of The Stairwell and then echoing Graham’s usage of ‘wheest’ in his poem ‘Marigolds, 1960’. Perhaps too there is a double bind in this quoted epigraph, ‘Hap the blanket round me / And tuck in a flower’ – that of attentive, love-worn survivors, old man and wife (Longley was celebrating his marriage of fifty years in his last poetry collection, Angel Hill) – while also evoking the old soldier who has survived the war, who has returned, and who Longley wants to give flowers, marigolds perhaps, and hopes they are not rejected this time around.
Chris Jones’s second full-length collection Skin is out now from Longbarrow Press, and includes the poem ‘An Invitation’. Visit the Skin microsite for more details about the book, or click on the relevant PayPal option below to order:
I walk forward turning round, like the pilgrim
who carries a mask on his back.
Tokaido Road, Nancy Gaffield
The Greek polymath Eratosthenes (276 – c.194 BC) was nicknamed ‘Beta’ by his peers: for all his erudition and accomplishment in mathematics, astronomy, geography, poetry and philosophy, he never ranked first in any one field. Despite this, he became the first person to calculate the earth’s circumference. He also devised a 365-day calendar, and invented the leap day; estimated the distance from the earth to the sun; and created the first map of the known world based on parallels and meridians. This imaginary grid of intersecting lines, dividing the earth’s surface into climate zones and political regions, was a breakthrough in the field of cartography, and is now regarded as the cornerstone of geography. It introduced the concepts of latitude and longitude that would be refined over the next two millennia, via chronometers, telegraphy, radio, and GPS: a global system for measuring and organising distance, direction, and time itself. Many of these refinements took place in the 19th century, a period of unprecedented – and rapid – technological change, in which the pace of life accelerated with each discovery or invention. In Motion Studies: Time, Space and Eadweard Muybridge, Rebecca Solnit highlights two innovations that, in very different ways, altered our perception of landscape through their grasp of speed, and laid the foundations for the century to come. One of these was the passenger railroad; the other was photography.
Eadweard Muybridge was born Edward Muggeridge in Kingston-upon-Thames on 9 April 1830, several months before the Liverpool and Manchester Railway conveyed its first passengers, and several years before the first daguerrotypes appeared. Solnit’s book opens in a different time and place: four decades later, four thousand miles west, the scene of a photographic experiment with a galloping horse. The horse, named Occident, belonged to Leland Stanford, president of the Southern Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies (and, in his last years, co-founder of Stanford University). Stanford had commissioned Muybridge to make a series of photographic studies that would settle the question of whether all four hooves of a running horse left the ground at the same time – a question that could not be answered by the human eye. Whereas earlier, slower exposures preserved only the blur of motion, Muybridge’s new technique, combining faster shutter speeds with quicker emulsions, captured movement as a sequence of still images. These ‘motion studies’, launched in California in 1872, would preoccupy him for the rest of his working life, and lead to the development of cinematography. In the closing stages of a century-long campaign to ‘annihilate time and space’ (as the technological imperative was dubbed by the first railroad passengers), Muybridge emerges as ‘the man who split the second, as dramatic and far-reaching an action as the splitting of the atom’. As Solnit notes, however, the impulse behind the industrialisation of images and the acceleration of transport, splitting moments and shrinking distances, did not remove humanity as fast or as far from the past as we might think.
Before Muybridge embarked on his motion studies, he was an accomplished landscape photographer, documenting the American West, and Yosemite Valley in particular (after the mid-century gold rush, and before the completion of the transcontinental railroad). His stereoscopic prints of the Yosemite wilderness, which responded and contributed to an increase in tourism in the area, enact a physical distillation of time, in both process and subject: the long exposures on glass plates, and the ‘deep time’ of the park’s geology. Geology was a relatively new science, its discoveries partly stimulated by the rail and mining industries on both sides of the Atlantic, with cuttings and tunnels exposing sections of rock and fossils. The scale and remoteness of Yosemite, and other hitherto ‘inaccessible’ terrain, was now intimate and attainable, via the portals opened by shutter and steel. Muybridge and the railroad companies were manufacturing ‘new’ yet ‘timeless’ landscapes for a European American audience. The railroads, and the privileged views they offered, had been achieved at the expense of the Native Americans who lived and worked in the lands that the rails sliced and reordered. Their time, and its traces, would be purged from the mainstream accounts of this Edenic West and its pioneers (Muybridge, however, was almost unique among his contemporaries in depicting Yosemite as an inhabited place, and the figures in his landscapes are often Native Americans). Amid the turmoil and haste at the technological and territorial frontiers, the standardisation of time that swept east and west with the railroads (radiating from the UK, where Greenwich Mean Time was adopted as ‘railway time’ in 1847, with American and Canadian railroads embracing a meridian-based system in 1883, and Europe thereafter), and the irregular physical and temporal fractures that convulsed this newly joined-up world, the Victorians were stealing backward glances at an ‘ideal landscape … formed of a wholeness that was no longer theirs’. These landscapes were not so much encountered as contemplated; glimpsed from a train carriage, or revisited as framed images. The glass in the frame is both window and mirror.
Between the dawn of the passenger railway and the drying of the first daguerrotypes, the Japanese ukiyo-e artist Andō Hiroshige was printing The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido. Ukiyo-e (or ‘pictures of the Floating World’) was a genre in which portraits and urban scenes (popular with the nouveau riche merchant class) had predominated since the 17th century. Towards the end of the Edo period (1603-1868), the focus had shifted to landscape, and Hiroshige’s work in this field (along with that of Hokusai) is one of the reasons why Japanese art engaged and influenced Western critics and artists later in the 19th century. The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido is a series of woodcut prints made by Hiroshige after travelling on the Tokaido road in 1832. Established at the beginning of the Edo period, the Tokaido (or ‘Eastern Sea Road’) was a coastal route linking Edo (now Tokyo) in the east with the imperial capital of Kyoto in the west. Most of the journeys along its 319 miles were made on foot; women were not permitted to travel alone. Among those who walked the Tokaido was the poet Basho, whose experiences on the road led him to develop the new form of haibun, combining haiku with prose in a series of reflective accounts (starting with Nozarashi Kikō, or Travelogue of Weather-Beaten Bones, in 1684, and culminating ten years later in Oku no Hosomichi, or The Narrow Road to the Interior). While Hiroshige’s landscape prints are similarly faithful to the slow time of the Tokaido, they also highlight some recent cultural changes: the influence of Western perspective, notably the horizontal picture plane, and the popularity of meisho (‘named places’, or ‘famous views’), linked to a steady growth in domestic tourism. Each of the 55 prints in the Hōeidō edition (1833-34) is named for one of 53 government post stations (the ‘stations’ of the title) and the road’s eastern and western terminals; the post stations, arranged along the length of the Tokaido, offered respite to officials and travellers. We encounter these figures in Hiroshige’s prints, and in Nancy Gaffield’s Tokaido Road (2011), a sequence of poems that both inhabit and depart from the ‘floating world’ mapped out by the artist.
Tokaido Road’s 55 poems are titled and arranged in parallel with the itinerary of ‘named places’ that we trace through the woodcuts. The engagement with Hiroshige’s work is maintained and developed, print by print, from embarkation to arrival; on one level, the book is an ekphrastic expedition, the poems guiding us through a Tokaido of the mind, the landscapes composing themselves anew. Gaffield’s achievement, however, is to absorb and distil the spirit of each print, and the spirit of each place, rather than simply recreating the series in a different medium. This act of distillation makes space for other perspectives, tones and voices, but leaves the coordinates intact. The first poem (‘Nihonbashi’) invites us to consider our bearings: ‘All places exist in relation to Nihonbashi. Everything / begins here.’ We are on the middle of Tokyo’s central bridge, or ‘kilometre zero’: the start of the Tokaido, and the point from which all distances in Japan are traditionally measured. It is a bridge of meetings and partings; birds fly south, rats descend to the river, and ‘sandaled carriers’ reluctantly lead the journey to the west. Although our course is set, we become aware, in these first few poems, of the role of chance (signalled by a hand of cards), and of that other companion, change:
Change comes. First the earthquake,
then B29s. These hills
lopped for landfill. He tips the boatman
and wishes he’d stayed home.
We are moving through scenes from Hiroshige’s ‘floating world’, the use of the simple present tense (in almost every ‘frame’) endowing each prospect with clarity, freshness and continuity. One way in which our encounters with the landscapes of the poems differ from our experience of the prints is in the layering of space: it is simultaneous (or non-linear) in the picture plane, and sequential (and consequential) on the printed page, each line expanding into the space opened by its antecedent. To speak of the layering of time, however – in both the poems and the prints – is to acknowledge uncertainty and complication. We might consider Hiroshige’s woodcut of Kawasaki, for example, and ponder the width of the river crossing in the lower third of the print, before contemplating Fuji to the east, a white peak on the far horizon. The thought of distance (how far is it to Fuji?), the thought of duration (how long before Fuji passes from view?). In the poems of Tokaido Road, we are, ostensibly, passing through Hiroshige’s time, the days before photography, before railroads, before ‘standard time’. Yet we are also – in the same moment, the same stride – passing through the time of ‘the earthquake’ (undated, but possibly the Ansei-Tokai quake of 1854), ‘B29s’ (the ‘Superfortress’ that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki towards the end of World War II), and the postwar proliferation of ‘landfill’ around Tokyo Bay, levelling hills, erasing views. We do not accelerate through these moments of ‘change’, do not apprehend them with anticipatory or retrospective detachment: the time, and pace, of the poem is that of Hiro’s slow river crossing, with which it closes. These moments are not anachronistic; they are simply part of the composition. Elsewhere in the collection, we find occasional references to bus stops, railways, photographs and telephone numbers; brief, subtle, but unmistakeable. The effect is not so much a shift in linear time as a shift in perspective, which softens the distinction between time and space, and, in turn, suggests that the passage from east to west is not merely a one-way journey:
Travellers on the Tokaido
centuries. Fuji doesn’t change.
Perspectives shift throughout the book in other ways. Whereas Hiroshige’s visions of the Tokaido are restricted to a fixed landscape orientation (in the Hōeidō edition), Gaffield employs a range of forms, including sonnets, haibun, and prose poems (and, frequently, unrhymed tercets and couplets that are, to varying degrees, kin to haiku, Imagism and lyric poetry). This approach, allied to an equally varied cast of personae, constantly refreshes our contact with the road, setting up discrete ‘views’ at each station that keep the hills, lakes, trees and rivers in sight; the crossings that mark the stages of the Tokaido. It also permits us to accompany the travellers, albeit briefly, on their interior journeys, to share the contemplative moments that are forged in, yet distinct from, the time through which they pass:
I am almost never here
in these old prints, but look harder,
closer, and I’m everywhere.
Gaffield’s ‘reframing’ of each scene enacts a peculiarly immersive intertemporality (itself a form of intertextuality): we are part of the moment (we are present), and part of its layering (amongst other moments). A significant factor in this immersion and layering is that the images are apprehended by touch, taste, smell and hearing as much as they are by sight. The picture frame dissolves as we enter a ‘summer evening / succulent with crickets and the peonies’ / perfume.’ Our passage through these sensory fields is periodically attended by an unnamed ‘I’: sometimes the voice of the river, sometimes, perhaps, that of the artist, and, walking the faintest, thinnest line ‘between memory and imagination’, the poet, or a version of the poet. It is the latter who appears, at times, to invite us to step out of Hiroshige’s picture, to consider how it ‘divides neatly in two’, to see the pine trunk as a compositional detail, ‘draw[ing] a line / down the middle of the print, / halfway mark between Edo and Kyoto.’ In ‘Totsuka’, we step back further still, to witness the stages of the woodcut: the drawing, the cutting, the inking, and the pressure that delivers ‘a mirror image’. The prints journey through time – as souvenirs of travel, as worthless postwar ‘wadding’, as recovered artefacts – and we journey through them, and into another time. The time of the Tokaido is intact, even if its landscapes are not: obscured, broken or diminished by development (with most of the old road lost to railways, expressways and other infrastructure), haunted by events outside the frame:
I lie back and try not to think
of August 6, 1945,
rather observe the pine plumes,
the blue hills of Kyoto.
Gaffield’s second full-length collection, Continental Drift (2014), is, in part, a meditation on these events, and their consequences for ‘place’ (as habitat, resource, homeland, spirit). Outwardly, the book is a different kind of project (and object) to Tokaido Road, one that employs different methods and structures. It’s arranged in four sections, three of which comprise discrete (but related) poems, with a greater openness of form than its predecessor. In each section, themes of migration and displacement (voluntary and involuntary, human and nonhuman) and our vulnerability to ruin (quiet and slow, sudden and terrible) occur and recur. There is a concern with the processes of ‘landscaping’ (particularly in the American West) and, more obliquely, with the ‘wear’ of time. ‘Vor Langen Jahren’, placed in the middle of the first section (Crossing the Water), hints at the geocultural shifts taking place:
Crossings and starting over.
to cheap and fertile
Here, and elsewhere in the collection, the movement is westward. ‘Vor Langen Jahren’ is one of several poems that allude to the European colonisation of the Americas (and its legacy), the erasure and re-inscription of ‘someone else’s’ landscape through language: ‘When they got to the new world / they called each place by the old names.’ There is a deepening sense of ancestral loss, of site and speech undone by persistent, unpredictable change, of larger forces outpacing the human heart. In ‘Adam Laments’, we glimpse the wastage and its wake:
Tableaux of ravage continuing
past hope and tearing
train from the track,
sphere slips from its axis.
The poem’s title suggests a double image: a vision of the Edenic West, and the loss of this vision. A partial recovery is effected with the simple iteration of the body’s measures (‘The palm is the width of…’), but the tone is unmistakeably elegiac. The lament is taken up in Crossing the Water’s final poem, ‘Stabat’, where it is offered to ‘those who go down / into the sea.’ Even here, the borders are shifting or effaced, as the water ‘covers the earth’, and the unnamed, unnumbered dead are displaced in its ‘vortex’. The poem draws much of its power from a withholding of particulars: we might think of the losses borne by low-lying coastal communities, the recent casualties of storm surges and tsunamis, but recall, too, the victims of the Atlantic slave trade, the dead and dying dragged from below deck and thrown overboard.
The sea is also a central presence in the first few poems of Inclusions, the second section of Continental Drift. It is itself (‘The sea is self-sufficient’) and an index of distance, passage, inheritance, its light ‘silver’ by day and ‘flashing’ by night, signalling comfort and warning, continuity and instability. This duality is reflected in the poems that follow, which hinge on images of mirrors, portals and thresholds (‘a foot / inside the door’, ‘an aperture to the exterior / world’). Even on ‘solid’ ground, ‘objects, persons, places’ are brought to the edge of ‘quagmire’, of disappearance and forgetting. Among the few constants in these landscapes of ‘trauma’ and flux is the shadow (of language, of self, of history), which, as we draw inland, to known and named locations, seems to darken and lengthen. The last five poems of Inclusions make a sweep of the American interior, with ‘Things the mind already knows’ and ‘Mappa Mundi’ navigating by the stars (and stripes) of two notable 1950s artworks (respectively, ‘White Flag’ by Jasper Johns, and The Americans by Robert Frank). A thick, portentious ‘storm cloud’ billows at the edge of Johns’ ‘open field’, before dissolving into ‘a plume / of smoke’; in the second poem, the speaker contemplates the simple geometric lines of a ‘T and O map’ (into which the three continents of the known world were divided in medieval times), before tracing its curves and angles through the postwar highways and cityscapes of New Mexico and New Jersey, a journey that ends with time and space slipping out of joint, and a wish to ‘get back to 1959, / get our bearings.’
As we near the end of Inclusions, the settings are pared back, the tone becoming more urgent: prairie, sand, and dust disturbed by talk of ‘Manifest Destiny’ and ‘MAD’ (the ‘mutually assured destruction’ theory of nuclear deterrence). The wind picks up. We attune to its ‘vortices’, its ‘directional forces’, to the sound it makes, to all that it carries, unseen. At the heart of it all, nuclei, orbited by electrons. Motes and rain. The image of ‘a stable structure’ flashes up, then the outlook dims:
nothing stays in its proper place
unsettled landscape nuclear
if you don’t
want to know
look away now
The arc of Inclusions has brought us to a critical point, the last words of its last poem (‘Dust’) preparing the ground for the third (and longest) section, Po-wa-ha. A single, 24-page poem, Po-wa-ha (the flow of ‘wind-water-breath’ in Pueblo cosmology) opens in the arid plains of New Mexico, during the Mexican-American war of 1846-1848 (a war that would test the limits of ‘manifest destiny’), in the traces of a journey made by Susan Magoffin, a diarist and trader’s wife who took to the Sante Fe trail in the wake of the invading U.S. army. After witnessing the postnatal cleansing ritual of a Native American woman, she gradually fades from the desert landscape, which remains the poem’s epicentre: we see the Navajo passing through, the ‘overlanders’ following, hefting firearms, spreading tuberculosis, depleting the resources of ‘the High Plains’. Increasingly, we are aware of the layering of time in this ‘peripheral, / incandescent’ place, and the hastening of events, as Whitman’s credo (‘For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you’) cedes to the prayers offered to ‘an atomic god’. The U.S. military has cleared the European settlers from ‘the Valley of the Shadow’, absorbed its shifting, unstable ground into the sprawling White Sands Missile Range, and designated it the Trinity Site, where the first nuclear weapon is detonated on 16 July 1945. A ‘new form of energy’, a new technological frontier, unveiled against the backdrop of ‘the Rio Grande rift, geologically young and dynamic’. The deep time of this depositional terrain is being used up by the heat and ‘searing light’ of the Manhattan Project (‘sand thereabouts turns to glass earth trembles’). Local time is brought to a standstill:
Later no one sniffing the trace of air
. who you were only
the thud of the stopped
The naming of Trinity is attributed to the project’s chief architect, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who, on being asked about its origins by General Leslie Groves some years later, cited a few lines from ‘Hymn to God, My God, In My Sickness’ by John Donne: ‘As west and east / In all flatt maps - and I am one - are one, / So death doth touch the resurrection.’ In Donne’s sonnet, the oneness of ‘west’ and ‘east’ is explained by the fact that the world is round, and that its extremes touch the same longitude: his final, westward journey (‘by these straits to die’) will terminate in the east. Gaffield’s poem makes use of another Holy Sonnet by Donne (‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God’), also in Oppenheimer’s mind when naming the test site, in which the speaker beseeches his God ‘to break, blow, burn, and make me new.’
After the clock stalls at Trinity, we are shown not so much a sequence of discrete events as a dark continuum, intermittently lit by infernos, in which we glimpse the ‘piston-driven locomotion / cavorting with historical residue’. The poem ramifies like a cloud, drifting east of the test site, ‘going back / to connect the dots’, to China, to the Nanjing Massacre of 1937-1938, its cold suspension, where ‘time stands still’, then further back, to the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, east and west, the frontier shifting, to August 1945, a ‘kindly breeze’ propelling it to the ‘kindled’ cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ‘burning / like autumn leaves’, the cloud become ‘tornado’, a vortex of wind and flame. At ground level, in the cities of ‘paper’, we see human shadows, burned into pavements and walls, the images exposed in a moment of radiation. Printed ghosts. Heat, ‘travelling at the speed of light’, has stopped time for these cities. Slowly, Po-wa-ha drifts back to the New Mexico plains, its ‘old river’, its ‘old trails’, its dead, the ‘red rain’ mingling with ‘red dirt’: ‘you are in the desert / and it is in you’.
The fourth and final section of Continental Drift comprises six short poems that ruminate on the work of ‘place-making’, recovery, and repair. The Lay of the Land begins with ‘Unconsolidated debris’, a ‘dream’ of a moraine landscape that could be North American, but which, in its vision of ‘a land destroyed / by water’, also evokes the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima in early 2011; the section, and the book, ends with ‘[Es]cape’, a prose poem reflecting on the loaned and recollected ‘landscape[s] of childhood’, in and from which language is learned, and to which a ‘farewell’ is now offered. Between these terminals, we pass through the stages of shakkei, or ‘borrowed scenery’, a Japanese garden design concept with four categories: ‘distant borrowing’ (which, in the poem ‘Disharmonic folds’, ‘takes in / the mountains / the foothills’), ‘adjacent borrowing’ (‘the woods and the fields’ nearby), ‘upward borrowing’ (of skies, which bear the ‘occluded front’ of ‘Grey zone’, a poem in which we also glimpse the Tokaido or ‘Eastern Sea Road’, and the ‘weather’ of surface-to-air missiles), and ‘downward borrowing’ (‘of mosses and lichens, fallen masonry’). ‘Place-making’ draws on this borrowing: it is expressed through ‘multiple acts of remembering’, near and far, above and below, always working with ‘the lay of the land’. In a ‘palimpsest’ of damaged, disappearing or endangered landscapes, ‘there is never a complete return’; yet it is to the memory of these places that we must ‘return borrowed things’. In its crossing of borders, its leave-taking and letting-go, ‘[Es]cape’ recalls the closing poem of Tokaido Road:
There is no clear boundary
between memory and imagination,
memory carries a trace
of place, giving us presence
in absence. Imagination
mends the holes.
I let you go, my blue
familiars, cross the bridge
Gaffield’s most recent publication, Meridian (2016), also pursues the theme of departure and return, and is itself a departure. Like the earlier Zyxt (2015), which uses the Fibonacci mathematical sequence as a syllabic constraint (with interesting, and varied, consequences for the sound, shape and pace of the poems), it showcases the pamphlet’s potential as a space for experiment, a working-out of new paths. Both pamphlets take south-east England as their starting point, their respective openings also framed by similar ideas of direction or place: ‘Blown / in this / far north’ (Zyzt), ‘Everywhere there are signs / of the North’ (Meridian). While Zyxt is reconciled to its Canterbury setting (albeit released into a sense of historical excursion and circular pilgrimage in its ‘journey of a thousand years’), Meridian sets (and declares) an outbound course: it charts the Greenwich Meridian Trail from East Sussex to the reference line’s historic origin at the Royal Observatory (while this journey ends in Greenwich, the pamphlet appears to be the first instalment of a larger work-in-progress, which will regain the trail at the Thames, and follow it to the Humber).
We start from an unidentified square of ‘Ordnance Survey Map 122’, on the outskirts of Peacehaven, where the meridian enters the English Channel, and where the trail itself begins. We are ‘walking in/walking out’, every ‘turn’ a step towards, and a step away, ‘looking / for the gap / in the hedge’, attentive to ‘thresholds’ and ‘apertures’, the changeable porosity of land:
in the season of absolute light
. before harvest
. prefaces the closing down
While the line of longitude is straight, the trail, like any footpath, is not. Meridian is in constant motion, and much of its vigour and surprise is traceable to an ongoing negotiation between the grid and the ground, the ‘mental map’ and ‘physical topography’, the abstract and the particular, the past and the future. Presence and absence. This is apparent in the design of the poem, which unfolds, page by page, like a scale map of perception, the events and thoughts coterminous (and lateral), testing the sheet’s dimensions:
What is a line
. the trace of
. a moving point
. a procedure
. framed in astragals
. beaded glass
The expanded ‘field’ of the long poem (arguably, Meridian lies somewhere between a long poem and a sequence, but seems closer to the former, in tone and structure) allows the work its heterogeneous sweep: it takes in fragments of song, the poetry of Niedecker, Whitman and Pasternak, snatches of TV dialogue, film flashbacks, the public texts of memorial, monument and museum, ‘the roll call of the dead’, all of it gathered or recovered through the act of walking, the continuous present. There is always a voice within earshot, a familiar refrain, a new prospect; and there is always, in this northward ‘thinking forward’, a keen awareness of elsewhere, of distance, of separation and convergence:
I imagine the lines of longitude as
twin ropes of a swing
in the left hand is Sussex
in the right the 105th Meridian West
UTC-07:00 Mountain Time North
Two meridians, ‘Two Continents’. We hold the ‘ropes’ of both for a little while, the 105th passing through New Mexico and Colorado, before ‘cut[ting] free’, the ‘night terrors’ close behind:
don’t look back through black glass
. or you will plunge
. into terrae incognitae
Unlike the Tokaido, the Greenwich Meridian Trail is a new path (albeit one that is animated by an ancient concept), and one that, in part, makes use of recent technology to enable an older, slower way of travelling. The secular pilgrimage of Meridian closes with a handful of scenes from the Royal Observatory, its historic chambers, its antique clocks and telescopes, the tourists ‘with one foot in the east / another in the west’, the ‘walnut-panelled’ Star Room and its ‘ever expanding universe’, and questions, urgent, unanswerable questions:
and if I’m not at sea
. what is this
And the meridian, now 102 metres east of its marking strip, the universe still expanding.
Nancy Gaffield’s Tokaido Road (CB Editions) is available here; Continental Drift (Shearsman) is available here. Click here to read three poems from Continental Drift. Gaffield’s Oystercatcher Press pamphlets (Zyxt and Meridian) are available here and here.
Click here to view a gallery of Hiroshige’s prints for The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido.
You can read a selection of extracts from Rebecca Solnit’s Motion Studies: Time, Space and Eadweard Muybridge (2003, published in the U.S. as River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West) here.