‘Under your rough gob is concern’: re-reading Josephine Dickinson | Matthew Clegg

2001 was a year of deaths. It began with a foot-and-mouth outbreak across our island on an unprecedented scale. There was government bungling and mass culls of livestock and whole bloodlines were lost. Then came 9/11 and the bombing of Afghanistan. This brought the countless deaths of men, women and children. Once again the human individual was buried under a torrent of statistics. In a magazine article that appeared shortly after the publication of her second book, the poet Josephine Dickinson told the tale of how she redeemed a period of drug addiction through a relationship with a much older man. That this man happened to be a Cumbrian sheep farmer, and she deaf since childhood, makes the story even more compelling. This backdrop produced the remarkable farming poems of her first book, Scarberry Hill, published in the same year as foot-and-mouth and 9/11. Her second book, The Voice (2004), is dominated, almost overwhelmed, by the impact of those mass killings.

Of the first, she offers a powerful insight into how foot-and-mouth left a community and a landscape bereft of its morale and its animal life. How slaughter represented a clinical and muddled attempt to control what could not, and perhaps cannot, be controlled. Of the second, the event, and the community, were global, and the parallel is hard to avoid: namely, that the war on terror was, and is, an equally futile attempt to control. In the poem ‘Colours are Different Now’, a mother of 7 children killed in the October bombing of Kabul cries out, ‘look at their savageness… The whole world is responsible…’ It is an incredible collage of detail, voices, statistics and scenes, as is ‘On the Wind’, her long poem-diary of foot-and-mouth.

If Scarberry Hill portrayed life on the farm as a newfound land, all rain-fresh and soil-redolent, then The Voice deals with events that are likely to scar the mind and the landscape for years to come. The life and death experiences in Scarberry Hill feel like ‘innocence’ compared to those of the second book. If one book offers the timeless story of ‘living in the living seasons’, then the second reverberates with the shock waves of our modernity. But there is also affirmation. Perhaps one of the most remarkable accomplishments in Dickinson’s second book is ‘Your Way’, a poem of understanding and appreciation offered to her (late) sheep-farmer companion. It comprises a cleverly crafted, intimately voiced celebration of the man and his whole mode of being in the world.

“You often say ‘You go on’,
but often I say ‘No’. I like to walk slowly
with you, your way, more slowly than the elephant,
as a galaxy at the frozen end of time.”

Elsewhere, the book has given us a voice of anguish, conscience, and witness. Here the voice is one of wonder and love. Both modes are necessary and compelling.


Read more about Josephine Dickinson here.

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