Parallel Lines | Brian LewisPosted: June 14, 2017
In the act of falling forward, we instinctively recover. The body tilts, then vaults the grounded limb, the head holds itself level, one foot corrects the other. In walking, we find equilibrium, a rhythm that keeps the mind in step with the body, the same rhythm that, at times, enables the ‘trance-like suspension of [the] normal habits of thought’ (Robert Graves). The centuries-old path that it prepares for poetry, trodden by ‘walking poets’ such as Bashõ and Wordsworth, is accessed by a kind of meditative movement, detached and immersed, rarefied and regular. One of the peculiarities of the contemporary urban environment, with its perceived obstacles to reflective states and untrammelled passage, is its capacity for making (and remaking) the conditions in which ‘moving with thought’ can occur. That these conditions exist in our towns and cities is largely accidental, and incidental to the decisions of urban planners and developers. They arise from the street’s flux and spate, its variable frequencies of jumble and drift, the unexpected visual, auditory and other stimuli that sustain and renew the ‘trance’ of ambulant reverie. With each step, the body rights itself, the mind adjusts its balance, there is contrast, the near and the peripheral, the familiar and the unfamiliar, there is juxtaposition and flow.
For nearly 10 years, I’ve been exploring these ideas with the poets of Longbarrow Press, through a series of public walks in predominantly urban landscapes. The first of these was devised by Matthew Clegg, who, seeking a creative alternative to the conventional ‘pub launch’, invited a small audience to accompany him on a four-hour meander through north Sheffield to mark the publication of his sequence Edgelands (2008). It was midsummer, yet the light levels were set to late autumn, the heat close to zero. Damp ground, dismal skies, soaking us from Owlerton to Oughtibridge. By the time we reached the Birley Stone, a medieval marker on an inland cliff, the Edgelands script had reverted to pulp. None of this mattered. The weather was an atmospheric filter for the poems, the acoustic changing at each reading stop, Clegg’s images and rhythms nuanced by dense air and dripping leaves. It also seemed to draw our small group closer together, moved by a sense of common endeavour, some of us sharing ideas and observations, others walking in companionable silence. We parted with new understandings, of the poems, the landscapes, and ourselves: as participants and contributors, crafting an experience through a collective act of heightened attention.
Since then, we’ve led more than a dozen walks in Sheffield (and further afield), including Moving with Thought (2012), a workshop disguised as an open-ended exploration of the varied terrain between Shalesmoor and Parkwood Springs. It was here that Clegg introduced the concept of ‘juxtaposition and flow’, as a means of reading and navigating the city – its cross-currents of sounds and scents, its clash of textual and pictorial signs – and as a compositional method, with many attendees incorporating their ‘found material’ (site safety directives, advertisements, graffiti) into poems asking questions of the built environment. Other walks have traced the lines laid down by water (notably Fay Musselwhite’s Contraflow series (2014-2016), in which she narrated the lives of the Rivelin, a former ‘working river’, from birth to post-industrial recovery) and history (the first of these, a six-hour winter hike led by Rob Hindle, reconstructed the route taken by the Luftwaffe on the first night of the Sheffield Blitz, the walk coinciding with its 70th anniversary). The path isn’t always linear, though. When Longbarrow Press was invited to propose an event for the 2017 South Yorkshire Poetry Festival, we saw an opportunity to refresh and refocus our approach, to start with a blank page, to improvise from scratch. For ‘Vanishing Point’, led by Angelina D’Roza and Pete Green, we began with a single physical feature – the Cholera Monument, a hillside memorial just east of Sheffield city centre – the end point of a journey for which we had no route map, no origin. What we did have was a working knowledge of the city’s intersections, its rivers and bridges, tram lines and termini, and their role in reframing our perspective: the sightlines shifting where the axes meet. In the weeks leading up to the walk, we reshuffled poems, sounded the locations where the readings might take place, and settled on a point of departure. In the last few days, we made further cuts to the script, shedding several poems and their stops, sensing a need to create more space for movement, reflection, and, implicitly, chance; the unplanned, unexpected moments that allow these events to breathe, the fleeting counterpoint of the street.
It’s just after 11am on Sunday 28 May. I’m standing on the west side of Lady’s Bridge, looking upstream, checking names and faces against the details on my list. Two people booked on the walk haven’t turned up. Two people who haven’t booked appear in their place. We take a call from someone who has surfaced in Kelham Island, half a mile north-west, and needs directions. ‘Follow the river’, we tell her. I welcome the audience, numbering 20 or so, and introduce Angelina and Pete. I sketch the route we’ll be taking, our gradual ascent of the city, offering a glimpse of our conceptual framework, the plots, planes and parallel lines of public infrastructure, a horizontal and vertical mesh. It’s enough. The audience will join the dots, make their own connections, find their own vanishing points. I close by remarking that we’re on the oldest bridge over the River Don, a survivor of the 1864 and 2007 floods, linking Waingate to the Wicker. As we’re about to set off, we’re joined by our lost companion, who’s raced the water from Kelham Island. We round a corner, file along Nursery Street, and step down to the river. Our venue for the first reading is a pocket park, a tilted ellipsis of grass and concrete that meets the bank in a small, tiered semicircle. Pete descends to the edge, his back to the water, and opens with a discussion of the area’s historical and modern juxtapositions, perhaps traceable to the bridging of the Don (which formerly divided the town’s wealthy and poor districts). Since the demolition of Castle Market, the contrast is even more striking; low-rise budget stores and pawnbrokers dwarfed by the crown court, the magistrates court and the police station, overlooked, in turn, by the glass towers of Irwin Mitchell and other law firms. Against this institutional backdrop – part of which is reflected in the water, red brick facades rippled by passing ducks – Pete reads the first of several extracts from his Sheffield Almanac, in which the layering of social class and the rebranding of the city in its ‘Year of Making’ are absorbed into a multifaceted, MacNeiceian meditation on the personal and political currents that determine where we end up. Angelina responds with three river-themed poems from her collection Envies the Birds, including ‘Ball Street Bridge’, a moonlit, sepia-toned ode to the ‘unshifting’ mallards that ‘perch the weir’, as seen from the vantage of the eponymous span, half a mile upstream. She also reads ‘Fairytale No. 13’, which subtly introduces the motifs of flight and falling that will recur and swell in the closing stages of the walk. After the third poem (a version of Montale’s ‘Cuttlefish Bones’), we rise from the riverbank, and double back to Lady’s Bridge. As we make our second crossing, one of our number talks of how, after two decades of walking the city, she is still discovering it. We thread along a thin, uriniferous corridor, the riverside passage to Blonk Street that lies parallel to Castlegate, terminating in the shadow of a sixteen-storey residential block. I point out the junction of the two roads, and, just below this, the junction of two rivers: the Sheaf, crawling out of a brick culvert, and the Don, swallowing its dark tributary. The confluence used to form part of the boundary of Sheffield Castle; the Sheaf, like the castle, has all but vanished from the landscape (the only other point at which it surfaces in the city centre is at Pond Hill, in a 100-foot gap between rail and road infrastructure).
We switch pavements at Blonk Street, the road bridging the river as it widens and turns, and we turn with it, into a feeder lane for a hotel car park, the Don spreading out below, sweeping north-east. At the halfway point, we halt, and consider the unpavemented road, yellow lines flush to the low stone wall. As Angelina prepares to read, we attempt and abandon a linear formation, then a ragged crescent; divided, after the first stanza of ‘Stone Walls and Snowgates’, by the passage of a silver Mazda. We regroup, sharp as a sickle, and Angelina starts over:
An angler wades in teetering like a goose
slips on loose silt
churned by the Don.
It’s an apposite choice, and not only for its theme and setting (the poem closes with a vision of ‘the ore-brown walls of Tommy Wards’, just around the next bend, the next weir): like ‘The Bench’, which follows it this morning, displacements and gaps are integral to its design, white space and ‘tinny crash’, autumnal and crisp. On this summer’s day, the gaps are tested by cars, bristling and slow, chafing the edge of the group. We don’t budge. The poems absorb the bustle. Not for the first time, I think of brittle readings in hushed rooms, the listeners not enrapt, but twitchy, the thread unpicked by the least interruption: latecomers, coughs, creaking chairs. Out here, the engine noise is part of the texture, and the river’s wash is part of the texture, and the voice focuses our attention: it does not exhaust it. One touch of nature / makes the whole world kin. A week before, I’d stood here with Pete, thinking and talking through the route, numbering the path. We gazed at the Don for a few minutes, remarking on the depthless waters, the flat islands of weed and sediment, and the strange vertical outcrops of brick, around four feet in height, making little breaks in the flow. I wondered if they might be remnants of industry, the last links to some long-gone works, but they seemed too fresh, too idiosyncratic. A few hours later, I returned, alone, and encountered their maker, in knee-high boots, wading out to the middle of the river. This was Dan of the Don, who, it turned out, has been visiting this stretch of water for a year or so, scavenging the shallows to make his free-standing sculptures. I listened as he chatted with passers-by on the north bank. A low-lying stone and brick circle, made in 2016, was reclaimed by the Don over the winter months, sinking back to the riverbed as the waters rose. The new works were part of an ongoing cycle of reclamation, a seasonal remaking. Later that evening, I share my discovery with Pete; a few days later, he sends me a new poem hymning the ‘relic stacks’, which he reads in sight of the sculptures. Dan isn’t here today, but we picture him as he calibrates
the precarious weight
of all we inherit,
expresses the lot in teetering
stanzas of brick.
As the group disperses, my eyes refocus, zooming in to a wall above the water, overlooking the north bank. I recall how, ten years ago, Chris Jones was commissioned to write a sequence of poems for this wall, marking the Don’s cultural renewal, signalling the start of a river path to Meadowhall. The poems were to be etched in sandstone, the commission funded as part of the newbuild development. The financial crises of 2008 halted the project indefinitely: the buildings were completed, but the poems were never installed. Chris read the haiku and tanka there anyway, as part of a city walk in late 2008, framed against blank, buff stone. The wall is now coated with graffiti. For a moment, I entertain a vision of the wall, and the building it supports, crumbling into the Don, to be reassembled by Dan before the current takes it apart. And I think of the intersecting lines of the last ten years’ walks, criss-crossing the long loop of Castlegate, Lady’s Bridge, the Wicker, the needle’s eye to our invisible thread.
We leave the river, and make the two-minute journey to the canal basin, the start of a four-mile navigation that runs parallel to the Don, before joining it at Tinsley. Five years earlier, Matthew Clegg led a different audience through the locks; the towpath isn’t part of today’s itinerary, but we glimpse its origins as it passes under road and rail. Our readings at Victoria Quays are split by the water, with Pete assigned a position on the north side, halfway between the Straddle Warehouse and the pedestrian swing bridge. The stone arches that frame the basin are a reminder of another lost terminus: Sheffield Victoria, formerly the main railway station, which, like the cargo port, was ideally placed to serve the city’s markets. Both the port and the station closed in the early 1970s. After a period of neglect, the site and many of the buildings were redeveloped for business and leisure, with the latter especially prominent on the broad north quay, a chain hotel’s familiar bulk rising above the arches, open-fronted cafés and bars softening the proposition. The regeneration and ‘repurposing’ of space is addressed in the third part of Sheffield Almanac, which Pete reads at the quayside, acknowledging the clashes and contradictions, the moments of vision and the short-sighted demolitions, the sense
That a growth and reinvention mostly
Built on shabby chic emporia, animation studios,
Coffee shops, won’t ever exorcise the ghostly
Whirr and scrape of lathes that inheres in the joists.
Crossing the swing bridge, we touch down on the south quay, the basin lined with narrowboats, asleep in their moorings. Slowing as we near the Straddle, we take note of the clump of offices to our left, a redoubt of corporate lawyers and tax advisers. It’s midday on a Sunday, but the windows show a handful of workers at their desks. Angelina sets up at the edge of the basin, and introduces ‘About the Human Voice’, a ruminative prose poem that opens a channel between slower, older forms of communication and the technologized present, revisiting themes of distance and memory, words and music, sound and its mediation. Communion, then confession, ‘in the corner of some backstreet cathedral, tealight bidding prayers blowing in the sanctified cross-breeze.’ As Angelina speaks, the air is coloured with struck bells, the sound blowing in from an unseen tower, east or west, hillside or town, none of us can place or name it. As she stops, it stops. We step out of the quays, drifting from cobbles to tarmac, and make our first ascent of the city.
A footbridge winds around the parkway, lifting us over the roundabout, drawing level with the middle storeys of Exchange Place, car parks, offices, hotels, and, further off, an older world, aslant in the gaps. We climb to Park Square, a green island floating above several lanes of traffic, junction and plateau. As we near the centre, the engine noise falls away, filtered by the trees. The path skews to a grass bank, where Angelina stands, a short distance, a slight elevation, the canted decks of Park Hill rising behind her, every panel coloured in, a chequered skyline. She reads ‘Fairytale No. 17’, one of several new poems we’ll hear today, testing the idea that the city is preserved in the act of leaving it, each erasure undone by an internal equilibrium of absence and recall: ‘Because I am no longer there, the market still stands…’ Park Hill is there, ‘the brutalist flats that have been bought and sold with a marriage proposal’, and it is not quite there, the story of it almost lost, an advertisement for itself. We rejoin the path, the incline, and scan a trackbed spanned by lateral wires: Park Square is an overground junction, too, the tramway splitting the island into sectors, west, south and east. As the three lines intersect and divide, so do we, darting between passing trams, blue route, yellow route, half the audience cut off. Once we’ve regathered, south of the tracks, we tune ourselves to Pete, adjusting our focus, trams rattling behind him, and a long, low thread tapering east: the overhead cables to Meadowhall, withering from sight, converging at some distant point. The poem is ‘To a Person Employed to Stand on the University Roundabout at the Evening Rush Hour Holding a Large Advertisement for Domino’s Pizza’, a vision of Sheffield, self-consuming and consumptive, that complements Angelina’s questioning of our ‘bought and sold’ futures and pasts, the elective, the involuntary: ‘We are one with you / and you with us: ingesting the city…’
We leave the island by the southern exit, crossing to a narrow footway at the edge of the tramway, curving as it uncouples from the junction, then, as the footway switches sides, straightening for the quarter-mile walk to the train station, South Street to our east, Sheaf Street to our west, one above, one below, each measuring the other. The unrehabilitated remainder of the Park Hill estate is softened, then screened, by tall trees, an incomplete pattern, the hill broken up. Beneath the footway, a short drop from a graffitied wall, we see the tracks spilling out from the railway bridge, meeting and parting, narrowing, spreading, seeking a platform. We are two abreast, overtaking, falling back, caught in overlapping dialogue. At the station bridge, we turn from the city, and take the metalled steps to South Street Park, an open, rounded green with terraced seating, a viewpoint cut into the hill. Whereas the last few stops were divided by infrastructure, the amphitheatre invites a single, central point of convergence: the audience in a semicircle, the poets at the circle’s origin, Pete, then Angelina, speaking of optimism, youth, shifting horizons. The height shelters the voice, cupped and crisp in the park’s disc, it softens the rail and road noise below. As we listen, we pick out landmarks, the town’s chock and jostle, its towers, cranes and spires, pins on a lateral plane.
Our path rucks, steepens, winding us in to Clay Wood Bank, a last road crossing, our final ascent, the terminal ground. Over 400 victims of the 1832 cholera epidemic are buried near this ancient woodland; a memorial, built in 1835, stands at the edge of the public gardens. We gather at the base of the stone marker, some of us squinting at its neo-Gothic pinnacle, others staring back at the city, drawing breath after the climb. I mention that I’m partly drawn to the monument for what it isn’t: it doesn’t commemorate military conflict, honour the crown or nobility, or elevate the wealthy. Financed by the Board of Health, it is, perhaps, a reminder of municipal failure, arising from poor sanitation in the town’s industrial quarters, close to the River Don. For Angelina, the Cholera Monument and the surrounding woodland are a place of imaginative refuge and flight, and the point from which her last, extended reading departs, taking in ‘Fairytale No. 9’, ‘Winter Beds’ ‘Marginalia’ and ‘Cuttlefish Bones’ (all from Envies the Birds), and three new poems of displacement, transit, borders, three letters home. She delivers these from the steps of the monument, facing west, ‘the city shrunk to a manageable size’, one prospect conjuring another, the distant monolith of the Hallamshire Hospital:
What I saw in this view,
in the off-white, sterile distance
those years I worked here, I don’t know.
At the edge of our hearing, birdsong, sent down from treetops either side of the memorial, feathering each poem. It continues as Pete beckons us for the final reading, which he gives a few feet from an information board, obliging us to turn from the monument, and look out to the city. It’s a suitably panoramic backdrop to the concluding part of Sheffield Almanac, its themes of disaster and renewal, community and hope, a remembered future ‘unfolding / Like a map veined dense with second chances / To find yourself’. As the Almanac nears its end, and the personal, political and topographical threads converge, two people wander into the frame, unseen by Pete, then another two, surveying the board, surveying the town, quietly, respectfully, and we follow their gaze, leaning forward, looking back at where we’ve come from.
Angelina D’Roza’s debut collection Envies the Birds is out now from Longbarrow Press. Click here for more information about the book. Her recent contribution to the Longbarrow Blog, ‘About the Human Voice’, appears here.
Pete Green’s Sheffield Almanac is now available from Longbarrow Press; click here to order the pamphlet. A recent essay by Green addresses issues of civic identity and civic pride, and examines Sheffield’s status as a ‘City of Making’. Click here to read ‘Model City’.
Matthew Clegg and Brian Lewis lead a walk through RSPB Adwick Washland on Saturday 1 July (National Meadows Day) as part of the 2017 Ted Hughes Festival. Click here for more information and to book tickets.
A special thanks to all who attended the ‘Vanishing Point’ walk, and to those who contributed the photographs that accompany this essay.