One-sided walls: revisiting ‘The Frome Primer’ | Brian LewisPosted: June 15, 2015
A few months ago, I went into a corner of the southwestern English town where I used to live to see if it looked any different. The depots and forecourts hadn’t moved; some of the road junctions had been redesigned; a bit more of the horizon was gone. I wanted to know if the wire and concrete fence I’d photographed ten years ago was still there. The fence was still there, and the gate in the fence was still there, and I walked through it and stopped where I had stood. The scene was much as I’d left it, bare branches climbing the gate, its axis extended, the yard emptying out: yet it wasn’t what I’d flattened to a frame. It didn’t fit. The parts hadn’t changed; the relationship between them had.
In 2004, the poet Andrew Hirst invited me to work with him on a sequence of poems and photographs that we titled The Frome Primer. Andy was based in Sheffield; I was living and working in Swindon. Neither of us had access to email, text messaging, or digital cameras. We would meet to discuss the collaboration every month or so, but most of the work was developed through the Royal Mail, with me posting half-a-dozen prints per week, without commentary or description, and Andy’s poems arriving almost by return. None of the poems referenced the photographs; few of the photographs seemed to inhabit the territory of the poems. The motifs, tones and rhythms that developed over the three years of collaboration were, I think, a result of the texts and images indirectly working on each other, the ‘common ground’ of the sequence belonging to neither.
In the early stages of the project, Andy referred to The Frome Primer as ‘a view of the south from the north’. The view was obscured, not just by the dearth of situational or geographical clues in the photographs, but by what had happened to the photographs. The images I was sending north, the images used in the published and exhibited versions of The Frome Primer, were black-and-white photocopies of colour prints, desaturated and degraded. This process stripped the prints of pigment and lustre and depth. It also had the effect of detemporalising them: between the bleached skies and the blotted shadows, it was hard to fix a time of day or time of year. What remained were tight lines and empty vaults. These few particulars, the land pared to its levels, linked the low counties of Essex and Kent (where many of the photographs were taken) to the low-rise, self-contained parks and estates that proliferated in the shallow bed of west Swindon. The prints may have been taken out of time, but they had not lost their place.
As the photographs sank into the crisp folds and outskirts of the southern English townscape, its flat-stacked horizons, the poems became increasingly, and explicitly, concerned with the fate of the northern English city. The Frome Primer is caught between the new space on the edges of our settlements, and the old spaces at their heart; between erasure and exile, drift and displacement. In one poem, we find the speaker contemplating ‘cavities where the old city / walls have collapsed’; in another, the ‘surrendered’ city’s solace is a stand of ponderosa pine, another ‘displaced’ species, ‘swaying in monumental agonies / of light and shade, light and dust’. The erosion of civic space in The Frome Primer is insidious and inexorable, obliquely marked in the passing of ‘an older world’; the new space offers little purchase, seems less than solid, and our sight of it is fragmentary, fleeting. Both the poems and the photographs draw their energies from these states of contradiction and change. The city expands outward while contracting inward. The walls collapse and are rebuilt. The distance fractures and is filled in.
Versions of The Frome Primer were exhibited in Sheffield and north-east Lincolnshire in 2008 and 2009. These earlier displays pushed the linear and literal aspects or tendencies of the work to the fore; each coupling of poem and photograph was intentional (the decisions made some months after the parts had settled) and the sequence was first arranged as a grid (two double rows of poems and photographs) and then as a continuous line. The order of poems and photographs was unchanged between displays. When the opportunity came to remake the work for Bank Street Arts, my initial expectation was that the patterning and sequencing would change a little, but not greatly. The order of the poems – not titled, but numbered, I-XXIV – couldn’t be disturbed, and many of the photographs had settled around these fixed points. I arrived at Gallery 2 for the installation and unpacked the work. I made a start on the walls, lining and spacing the first few pieces, the same pairs falling into place. It wasn’t working. I’d remembered the last display as a chain of taut horizons; this was a weakened line, jerking and sagging. The parts hadn’t changed, but the fit was gone, the movement was gone. I took a few steps back and looked around the room, its fixtures and joins, fractures and fillings. Then I returned to the photographs and arranged them in new groups of two, three and four, led by tone, contrast and rhythm. I didn’t look at the poems as I did this. Slowly, each wall took its clusters and fragments of Frome, texts following images into the gaps; slowly, the surprise of the work came back to me.
I’d edited and published two selections of poems from The Frome Primer in 2007 and 2008, two pamphlets in dark brown covers, the poems printed in the order I was now repeating. The poems aren’t new; the walls renewed them. Their multiple personae are more defeated and more defiant. The rhetoric is somehow plainer and more oblique. The pain of familial and municipal estrangement, the bruise in each lament and parable, is sharper and darker. Threads that seemed peripheral in earlier readings have now shifted into focus: the speakers’ preoccupation with grain, roots and yields (seemingly at odds with the urban terrain they are speaking of and from) prepares us for one of the few instances of a named landscape in The Frome Primer, that of a field near Boston, to which the ‘rootless’ have been displaced, ‘the itinerant labour gang, in transit, dispersed.’ The means by which the city is sustained and rebuilt – low-paid agricultural work, low-paid industrial work – are distanced or concealed from us, as are the workers’ conditions. The effects of displacement and dispersal are, perhaps, more evident in the city itself, a centre become a margin, its inhabitants clinging to temporary islands, the residual, diminished spaces of ‘an older world’ cut off by walled estates, gated flats, fenced wastelands.
Walls, gates, fences: frontiers that rise and fall throughout The Frome Primer, and which seem even more prominent in this sparse new arrangement. If these long, low barriers are the horizontal axis of the photographs, then perhaps trees are its vertical axis, sometimes interrupting a boundary line, sometimes marking it. In the poems, they often hint at pasts and futures beyond the speaker’s reach (bare willows, dark asters, the rowan trees ‘we’ll all come back as’). And sometimes these pasts and futures are collapsed into a single frame, as in the photograph of the wire and concrete fence, bare branches climbing the gate, on which the sequence once closed, and with which it now opens.
The Frome Primer was exhibited at Bank Street Arts, Sheffield, 19 – 30 May 2015. This is a revised and extended version of a post (‘Frome Revisited’) that appeared on the South Yorkshire Poetry Festival website in May 2015. Brian Lewis is the editor and publisher at Longbarrow Press; other writings appear on his website. Andrew Hirst’s poems for The Frome Primer are available from Longbarrow Press in a limited edition package comprising two pamphlets and two postcards; click here for further details. You can read Marlow Jones’s review of the pamphlets here. Andrew Hirst’s photographic work (as Karl Hurst) is available to view and order here. Listen to Andrew Hirst reading ‘Frome XIX’: