Meridian: The Last Step | Nancy GaffieldPosted: August 2, 2019
I finished walking last month, and now the writing’s done. In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau claims that the act of “walking is a space of enunciation”. The word “enunciation” means declaration, assertion, elucidation, a setting forth. Meridian is all these things. Charles Olson’s spatial poetics—“I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America”—both grounds and alienates me. I will insert myself.
Most of what I write is written through research, and Meridian is no exception. Part I opens with an epigraph from Robert Moor’s book, On Trails: An Exploration: “The key difference between a trail and a path is directional: paths extend forward, whereas trails extend backward.” This helps establish the context in terms of presence and absence, of moving forward whilst remembering backward.
My first book, Tokaido Road, was informed by ekphrasis and research into Japanese woodblock print art, and particularly the artist Hiroshige. Continental Drift includes the long poem “Po-wa-ha”, which was informed by Susan Magoffin’s Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico, as well as Essays in Landscape Theory, The Untold Story of the Making of the Atomic Bomb, and books on New Mexico’s history and geology.
During the writing of Part II of Meridian, I discovered For the Time Being, a book of poetic journals edited by Tyler Doherty and Tom Morgan. As these authors define it, a poetic journal literally means “a making from the day” or “a day’s making”. Poetic journals are not reportage, but embodied experience, comprising descriptions of the environment (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches) along with gazelle leaps and associative connections in sound or sense. Journal writing can consist of poetry, fiction, non-fiction. Weather, season and time of day are essential elements—as are place names. Procedurally, it is documentary in both senses of the word: it documents first-hand experience in a specific place at a specific time, but it also incorporates and manipulates found text. It’s meditative and reflective, in the same way that walking is. It doesn’t know where it’s going or how it’s going to get there. It is a physical, emotional and intellectual engagement with the day. Meridian arises from the poetic journal.
I chose to write Meridian as a long poem. Various forms are employed: the epistolary poem, the acrostic, the prose poem, but mainly, an open field poetics predominates. In a similar way to Tokaido Road, the poem is arranged in the sequence of named places along the pathways and trails that are situated along the Greenwich Meridian line from Peacehaven to Sand le Mere. But unlike Tokaido, which was a journey of the imagination, this work is based on an actual journey where I walked sometimes a day at a time, sometimes two, and sometimes four. The movement was not east to west, but south to north. I chose a four-part structure, based on the series of guidebooks I used to map the walk, and within each part, the poem is subdivided by an Ordnance Survey Map. The work as a whole contains fragments of song and poetry alongside snatches of TV dialogue, information from guide books, film flashbacks, all gathered together through the act of walking. While I planned each walk, I never planned the content of the poem, which always emerged from the walk itself. Along the way, I made notes, took photographs, recorded sounds including my own voice and footsteps, collected information from churches, museums, local newspapers, the people I met. After each walk, I would assemble this information and begin to write up the day. This would normally take about a week. I started in July 2015, and finished in August 2017. The shortest walk was about 7 miles; the longest 21. I walked 21 miles on two consecutive days in Lincolnshire, where the countryside was so vast, and the distances so great, that I would walk for 6 hours without seeing another person or even a road. I walked in blazing sun, freezing fog, ice, hail storms, rain. Mostly I walked alone, with two exceptions. Kat Peddie accompanied me through part of Epping Forest. And at Waltham Abbey, I actually met, entirely by accident, Graham and Hilda Heap, the authors of the guide book I was using. They walked with me a couple of miles that day. At the end of each day’s walk, I would return home (when I was near enough to do so), but when I got too far away, I would spend the night with a friend or in rooms above a pub or a B&B (in Lincolnshire). I have walked on blisters that bled, and I lost five toenails.
Writers such as Zoe Skoulding (in her book Contemporary Women’s Poetry & Urban Space) and Donna Stonecipher (Prose Poetry and the City) consider the city as a space of experiment for women writers, but there has not been much attention paid to rural space. This relates to another aspect of psychogeography that remains critical to my work: the desire to raise awareness of the natural, ecological and cultural environment around the walker, and thus the act of walking is enunciation/declaration as political and critical response to the status quo.
Part III begins in winter. It’s titled “Hardwick to Boston” and is located in the Fens. The poem begins with December 5: “the day of fracture / time & everything / is out of joint”. It starts with a walk through the Fens in fog so thick that, in the absence of any visible landmark, I had to use a compass to find my way, and it ends in the spring with a hailstorm. The reading which lends this section cohesion is Paul Celan’s The Meridian essay, which I discovered at Christmastime. This is a complex and elusive text which is Celan’s manifesto on what poetry is after the holocaust. It was delivered on the occasion of his receiving the Büchner Prize in Literature (1960). Pierre Joris recently undertook the mammoth job of translating its four parallel versions from German to English. There are so many things to think about in this essay; you cannot exhaust it. For example, it seems to say that the poem lies in the future of remembering, where remembering occurs across specific coordinates of time and place. Thus, Part III is a haunted text. It ends with an ode to Celan’s Meridian and juxtaposes some of the phrases from his essay into my poem and its thinking about poetry in time and place. So Part III is both a walking poem and a statement of poetics.
As I was walking and writing Part IV (Boston to Sand le Mere) I discovered two more remarkable books. Tim Ingold’s Lines: A Brief History is a fascinating meditation on the multiple meanings of the word ‘line’ which takes in everything from forest tracks to genealogies. I preface Part IV with a sentence from his book: “The line, like life, has no end.” The other writer, Rebecca Solnit, I had known about, but had not read A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Both of these writers took me back to the start of the project, which was motivated, in part, by a fascination with lines.
In the beginning the poem originated out of the fear of getting lost. Solnit helped me to view this from a different perspective: “One does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography.” She illustrates this quality with reference to the Pit River Indians who refer to a certain man as “wandering”. Under certain conditions of mental stress, when someone finds their life too much to bear, they will start to wander around the country aimlessly. She compares this to Virginia Woolf, who also knew despair, and it led her to fill her pockets with rocks and walk into the River Ouse. “It’s not about being lost but trying to lose your self.” Wheels within wheels. In Tokaido Road, there is a poem about Woolf. It is poem 50: Tsuchiyama. The River Ouse passes through Sussex; I walked along it during Part I. There is another, different River Ouse in Cambridgeshire; and yet another that empties into the Humber Estuary. This word “Ouse” derives from Celtic and means “water”. From now on, my pathways would be watery ones, leading me to the Humber Estuary, where several rivers flow, draining one-fifth of England. At the time I was walking, several disturbing events were happening, and these were weighing heavily as I walked, and so Part IV opens with a lament.
The trouble with ending a project like this is the reluctance to let it go. As I neared the end of the walk, I could hardly bear to finish it and both literally and figuratively kept dragging my feet. Should it find a publisher, that will be a final kind of letting go.
N.B.: this essay was first drafted in October 2017 (at the close of the Meridian project). Meridian was published by Longbarrow Press in February 2019 (see below for further details). ‘The First Cut’, a recent post for the Longbarrow Blog, reflects on the early stages of the project’s development; you can read it here.
Meridian, the third full-length collection by Nancy Gaffield, is available now from Longbarrow Press. You can read an excerpt from Part II here and a poem from Part IV here. Visit the Meridian site for further details and to order the collection; you can also order the book by clicking on the relevant PayPal link below.
Meridian: £12.99 (hardback)
Nancy Gaffield’s first collection of poetry, Tokaido Road (CB editions 2011) was nominated for the Forward Best First Collection Prize and was awarded the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize that year. Her second collection, Owhere (Templar 2012) won a Templar Poetry Pamphlet Award that year. Subsequent poetry publications include Continental Drift (Shearsman 2014), the chapbooks Zyxt (Oystercatcher 2015) and Meridian (Oystercatcher 2016), and a libretto, Tokaido Road: A Journey after Hiroshige (Shearsman 2014). Meridian is her first collection with Longbarrow Press.
Click here to read ‘Mirror Image’, Brian Lewis‘s recent survey of the poetry of Nancy Gaffield (by way of Eratosthenes, Solnit, Muybridge and Hiroshige) for the Longbarrow Blog.