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.
In the act of falling forward, we instinctively recover: the tilting mass 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.
North of the railway line that links the East Leeds suburb of Crossgates to the commuter village of Garforth, a ripple of flags and fixtures, spotless signs, developers’ colours, staked in rolls of turf: the joined-up housing, tipping from the west, leaking into the low-rise, light industrial district of Barnbow. To each gap, each leftover lot, a phased release, an orderly settlement. New homes, new streets, a woman’s name in every lane and avenue, Ethel Jackson, Amelia Stewart, Olive Yeates, neat lawns and driveways, there are no roads east of Maggie Barker. Screened from The Limes, parallel to the railway, a thin, grey park: in the park, a grey shed, its vaulted frame stretching to one-third of a mile, the bulk receding, then vanishing.
It was said of the factory at Barnbow that the parts would go in at one end and come out the other as tanks. Between 1983 and 1990, the Challenger 1 was built here, then, from 1993, the Challenger 2, after the site was acquired by Vickers Defence Systems in 1986, who designed and constructed a new plant for its production. For nearly fifty years before its privatisation and sale to Vickers, the Barnbow complex was operated as a Royal Ordnance Factory, one of a number of state-owned ROFs established as part of the late 1930s rearmament programme. ROF Leeds wasn’t the first munitions factory in Barnbow, though; the government had built one at the outset of the first world war. Officially known as National Filling Factory No. 1, it absorbed 313 acres of the Gascoigne estate, an area criss-crossed by defunct coal pits, the main site lying north and east of the railway sidings that, decades later, would make way for ROF Leeds. Within a few months of becoming operational, Barnbow’s output had increased to 6000 shells per day, making it the most productive British shell factory of the war. This was achieved with a 24-hour, three-shift system and, by October 1916, a workforce of 16,000, 93% of whom were women and girls. Conditions at Barnbow were difficult and dangerous, especially for those who handled explosives, the workers sheathed in smocks and caps, their skin yellowing from exposure to cordite. At 10pm on 5 December 1916, several hundred women had just started their shift, including 170 working in one of the fusing rooms. At 10.27pm, an explosion levelled the room, leaving 35 women dead, and many more injured and maimed. The details of the accident were withheld from the public until 1924, when the land was returned to Colonel Gascoigne, who sought, and received, compensation for the requisitioning of his estate. By now, most of the filling factory had been demolished; a new, short-lived colliery was constructed, reusing some of the factory buildings, and several parcels of land, described as ‘waste’, were later put up for auction by the colonel. Over time, the railway spurs, the filling sheds, and the pit workings were dismantled or abandoned, spikes and shafts now dents and hollows, rough ground softening to the gaze, plantation and grass, arable lots, the works effaced by landscape.
The word landscape arrived in England with the Anglo-Saxons (as landscipe or landscaef), and, in its earliest sense, referred to a system of manmade spaces, or the ‘shaping’ of land to which people belonged. From the late sixteenth century, it is increasingly identified with the usage borrowed from Dutch painters, landschap, a term descriptive of ‘natural’ scenery, and suggestive of framed pastorals. The idea of the picturesque begins to inform the making of the landscape itself, and is a significant factor in the rise of the ‘English garden’ a hundred years later; planned idylls, commissioned by wealthy patrons, laid out in the grounds of private estates. While the excesses of the Romantic period have largely fallen away – the grottos, rotundas and mock ruins that proliferated in eighteenth-century parks and gardens – our attachment to an idealised, ‘painterly’ view persists. The eye is drawn to a simple arrangement of lake, grove, and gentle slope. It is nature, it is ‘naturalistic’, and the labour that made and maintains it is absent or discreet. We overlook (or, perhaps, applaud) the settled artifice: without it, there is no ‘view’. Conversely, the working landscape – in its industrialised, technologized, contemporary form – is seldom recognised as landscape, but, rather, as a disturbance of soil, a distortion of perspective, each visible modification and intervention an act against landscape. Environmental objections to new ‘works’ are often linked to aesthetic concerns; occasionally, the latter predominate, as can be observed in public opposition to the siting of pylons and wind turbines (with an emphasis on visual impact apparent in many campaigns). Sightlines are interrupted by wires and blades. The ‘idyll’, if it exists, is endangered by infrastructure projects. And yet, for all our discord and unease, the working landscape belongs to us, and we to it; its history is part of our history. The narrative of a single site, its changes of use, is recounted through generations, passing into folk memory, local lore. What happens to these sites, and their stories, when the labour and the landscape have exhausted each other?
Karl Hurst’s photographs of the former collieries of South Yorkshire (and other parts of the county shaped by its heavy industry) explore this state of ambivalence: the undeclared thesis of the project is that the terrain itself is caught between renunciation, remembering, and renewal. The images in the series (collectively titled Recovered Landscapes) are presented without locational or situational information, or, indeed, any details that might help us to understand what kind of work took place on these sites before they were deindustrialised (and, to all appearances, depopulated). This is, I think, intentional, the suspension of context an echo of the process that Hurst is documenting: the decoupling of the coalfields from the communities that the collieries made viable. Whether fenced or unguarded, disused or reclaimed, we are to infer that these places no longer belong to the people. A recent essay by Hurst offers some clues to his thinking; he visits the site of the former coking plant at Orgreave, 100 acres of which has been redeveloped as a technology park, and a further 300 acres designated as ‘the Waverley Community’, a mixed residential / commercial estate with lakeside views (and an annual ‘service charge’ of £150 per household). He searches the area, its signage and maps, for some ‘official acknowledgement’ of the Battle of Orgreave, a decisive moment in the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, and, arguably, the event with which the name of the parish is most closely identified. He finds nothing, no murals or monuments, and concludes that the development is a deliberate act of cultural erasure, of which the renaming, or rebranding, from Orgreave to Waverley is the most troubling symptom. The name is the legacy; without it, the link to the landscape is broken.
Displacement, estrangement, and the weakening of the bonds of work, class, and community have been prominent themes in Hurst’s work for some years, and comprise the burden of his poem cycle The Frome Primer (2007). The title, suggestive of geographical specificity, is a riddle, a bluff; while the project was initially sketched as ‘a view of the south from the north’, there is nothing of southern England in these poems. Like the images of Recovered Landscapes, the poems are untitled, the locations unidentified. Here, too, the effect is a loss of particularity, a sense of attachments (to people, places) worn thin, wearing out. The ‘older world’ to which the speaker (or speakers) belonged has declined, and is being dismantled, the surviving fragments (‘the backs of weavers’ houses’, ‘the abandoned giant works’) suddenly out of place. The lineage of skilled manual work, of which he is part, is tapering and fraying, its blunt lessons (‘it’s no good knocking / even the straightest nail / into a crooked wall / with a crooked hammer’) now passing, obliquely, into parable or fable. This world, its work, cannot be handed down. The world that replaces it is defined by precarity, ‘scavenging’, the austere resourcefulness of its new arrivals, sustaining themselves by ‘tak[ing] hems up / and rak[ing] coiled leaves out / of drains’, or ‘smoking […] black tobacco / and sourcing the cheapest cuts’. This precarity and rupture is not unique to the ‘surrendered’ city, as the seventh poem makes plain. It is one of only two poems in The Frome Primer to depart from the first person, and the only poem in which the focus shifts to the land itself (a ‘working landscape’ in South Lincolnshire, the cycle’s sole concession to topographical orientation). The flat farmland is evoked in unusually lyrical terms:
In the blue bean rows near Boston
Chou Li bends to a black stork.
Low mists veil the fields, Chou Li
straightening to the horizon, caught
in transparency. Imagine Emperor Huizong
at work here, hinting at willow with delicate
calligraphy and rendering a quiet nobility
from the work, white persimmon
hanging in the cool morning.
Glance again now after this clarity,
like grief, grey fluke blooms on the beans,
the itinerant labour gang, in transit, dispersed.
In times of scarcity and uncertainty, our relationship to landscape, as a resource, is often reframed, impelled by the makeshift and the fugitive. Fay Musselwhite’s sequence ‘Adventures in Procurement’ (in her 2016 collection Contraflow) opens with ‘Firewood’, in which the darkened edges of an unnamed ‘southern city’ are scouted and foraged by a small, shadowy group, raiding newbuild sprawl and rebuilt townhouses for scrap wood, rummaging through skips for discarded pallets and planks, gathering ‘armfuls’ of timber to feed their squat’s hearth. This is work that subsists on the byproducts of work, sustaining itself through the surplus and waste of land and labour. The poem and the sequence are set against the backdrop of England in the late 1980s, a period in which industrial relations were deteriorating, and home ownership was increasing. ‘Firewood’ contrasts distant reports from the ‘battlegrounds’ and ‘barricades’ further north – the news aflame with ‘licks and lashes [that] make light of a community exposed’ – with eyewitness accounts of neighbourhood gentrification:
[…] streets colonised by stair shifters, roof raisers,
bay window chasers, home owners performing
their open house surgery, bedrooms waiting
in polythene wings.
The land is divided, carved up by legislators, developers and speculators, the era’s combustible politics and economic imbalances leaving parts of it a no-man’s-land. Stepping into this breach are the protagonists of ‘Adventures in Procurement’: predatory slum landlords, small-time traders, itinerant musicians and crafters, each of them testing the market for its gaps, its weaknesses, exhausting the seams and cracks, then moving on. The line between legal revenue and illicit trade is repeatedly – perhaps deliberately – blurred in ‘Smokeless Zone’ and ‘Wearing the Trousers’, the ‘pulse of merchandise’ racing from ‘storefront harbour’ to ‘laid-up trailers’, before slowing at the ‘spy-holes’ of flats frequented by dealers and users, in which we find the eponymous anti-heroes of the last poems in the sequence, ‘Tales from Min’s’ and ‘Leon’; their territory shrinking to a handful of cornered rooms, raided and wrecked, in turn, by police and gangland enforcers. It’s a strain of precarity – debt and disquiet – that drags the individual ever inward, obliging a withdrawal from the street, from its contested ‘turf’, from the land itself. The recollected misadventures of ‘Leon’ are framed by two vignettes in which he appears to have escaped – or has been extracted from – the ‘splintered wreckage’ of his old life. We find him in the woods, stirring broth over an open fire, adjusting to the rhythms of a self-sufficient ‘forest settlement’, the nearest road vibrating ‘at the edge of sound’. Here, too, he is outside of the formal economy, rethinking and remaking the relationship between hand and tool, recognising it in ‘each tenderness / of muscle’, grateful for the ‘echo of toil that melds him to the land’.
This idea – that labour engenders a uniquely intimate bond with one’s environment – is realised, freely and fully, in ‘Memoir of a Working River’, the 18-page centrepiece of Contraflow. The poem reimagines the industrial growth, decline and eventual restoration of the Rivelin Valley, a woodland vale in north-west Sheffield, and the fast-flowing river that carved it out, made it fit for work, and gave it its name. Its human and nonhuman elements – the mills, forges and dams that harness the water, the men who maintain the riverside industries, the valley’s ecology – are absorbed into a single, fluid narrative, the story of an ‘old man’, half-river, half-human, tracking the Rivelin’s physical and historical journey from its moorland source to the city’s edge, slipping between mortal and riverine states along the way, each shift marking a change of fortune. The landscape is undone and remade, the young river’s slow, persistent scratch first giving it form and direction; as it matures, the water is ‘yoked’ to the wheels that drive the expanding industries, contributing to the city’s prosperity, and, in turn, depleting the health of the valley and the men who work there; then, as ‘retreating trade’ gives way to returning trees, the old man ‘detoxes’, his ‘scarring’ and ‘choking’ relieved by dredging and conservation, the residues of work – ‘slathered wheel-gape, spindle, stray grindstone’ – preserved and assimilated to the river path, the valley now a site of heritage and leisure. Perhaps the most salient aspect of the poem is its vision of embodied labour, the levelling of human and natural resources, the worker and the water put to the same wheel and, as a consequence, being consumed alike, losing their discrete identities, their ‘nature’, their unlikeness. Iron particulates flake from the grindstones, catching in throats, weakening lungs: downstream from a ‘spark-shed’, the old man encounters a grinder, ‘doubled over racked in rasp-spasms’, who
tells how he offers blunt steel to grit
till it’s flayed by resistance to its leanest edge
how each day he enters the valley
more of it enters him.
In the 1970s, the UK became the world’s first post-industrial society. The transition from an economy defined by the primary and secondary sectors (agriculture, mining, manufacturing) to one increasingly reliant on the emerging tertiary (or ‘service’) sector was reflected in the changing appearance of the country’s landscape, with fewer people employed on the land or in heavy industry, and more offices, distribution centres and retail parks appearing at the edges of towns and cities. The new sector’s complex variables (both economic and cultural) meant that a flexible labour market was essential, and employment agencies became instrumental in placing people in this new space, and in new (and often short-lived) roles. For some, this offered a path out of difficult, dangerous (and now declining) work, with opportunities for career development. For others, the path seemed to lead nowhere. Matthew Clegg’s Lost Between Stations (2000, revised 2011) chronicles ten years of displacement and indirection at the end of the millennium, ‘a period of dead-end jobs, intermittent unemployment, and employment training schemes’. Structured as ‘a poem in 7 fragments’, we first encounter its speaker in a call centre in metropolitan Leeds, ‘all at sea’ in an open-plan office, floundering in telemarketing. With each ‘fragment’, we drift further from the centre – the supposed promise and purpose of the city’s business district – and into the social and geographical margins: the graffitied estates of Hyde Park and Burley, the gleaming villages (or exurbs) of Scholes and Barwick. One of the motors of this picaresque narrative is the influence of Homer and Derek Walcott; Clegg draws on the energy and imagery of The Odyssey and Omeros to navigate the systems and circuits of the built environment, a landlocked voyage in which ‘the kerb is a jetty / And the ship a bus, stopping and starting, / Twisting and turning across this city.’ The ‘matrix of buses and trains’ is not so much a means of proceeding to a (known) destination as a device for chance exploration and encounters, disrupting routine and expectation, allowing ‘the drift / Of conversations’ and ‘coincidence’ to nudge the traveller ‘at every change’. This is how the city’s landscapes enter the poem, glimpsed in the gaps between low-status, casual jobs, between ‘the University’s ghetto / Of loans and potential’ and the run-down ‘precincts and tower blocks’ of the outer suburbs, and between the ‘stations’ of class and community. It’s the moments of dislocation that reconnect the speaker to his surroundings: a night walk along the Kirkstall Road, where a retired mariner revives his consciousness with stories and songs from the other side of the world; a summer staffing the itinerant portal of an ice-cream van, the prospect shifting from pitch to pitch; and two confrontations with the police, one damaging, the other disquieting. In each episode, the problem of work is shadowed by the problem of worklessness. The latter predicament informs Clegg’s sequence Edgelands (2008), which shifts the focus to the varied terrain of north-west Sheffield, and slows the movement to walking pace. Whether by compulsion or choice, the protagonist finds himself making circuits of his locale, its rivers and woods, car parks and public parks, industrial estates and residential estates, his observations coloured by a recent, and painful, separation. We are to infer that ‘the far edges’ to which ‘something is pushing him’ are not only cultural and geographical, but also psychological and financial; his straitened circumstances are reflected in the neglect and impoverishment of much of the terrain that he walks, its roads ‘cruelly scarred with welts / and divots’, the verges littered with hubcaps, windshields, cans and bottles. The texture of the working landscape seems brittle with age, the ground exhausted and inert, the human traces fading out:
These desolate gravel roads
connecting landfills, factories,
are bleached white by midsummer.
Bin bags under sun-kilned mud
clench, obdurate as fossils.
South of the railway line that links the East Leeds suburb of Crossgates to the commuter village of Garforth, a patchwork of irregular fields, uneven pasture interrupted by sparse hedges, stands of trees, rough tracks, the shaved square of Crossgates Cricket Club marking the railway’s intersection with Austhorpe Lane. Rumoured to be the site of coal mining in the 19th century, much of the area is now ‘scraggy grazing land’, the setting of Matthew Clegg’s poem ‘Because I Was Nobody’, in which the teenage speaker finds respite from ‘job club’ and the pressures of life on the estate. To the north-east, five hundred yards above the railway line, the former National Filling Factory No. 1, its ‘foundations, earthworks, and demolished and buried remains’ designated as a scheduled monument in 2016, one hundred years after the explosion at Barnbow. To the north, the former Vickers tank factory – inactive since 1999, and, since then, intermittently used as a storage depot for retail goods and cars – now approved for demolition, the extraction of a 150,000 tonne seam of coal beneath the site a precondition for any subsequent redevelopment. To the north-west, the new Limes estate, most of its houses detached from their neighbours, the blank streets in memory, a handful of munitions workers, named twice over, Ethel Jackson, Amelia Stewart, Olive Yeates, Maggie Barker.
Karl Hurst’s photographs of the South Yorkshire coalfields can be viewed as part of Hurst’s Flickr photoset. Details of his publications with Longbarrow Press (writing as Andrew Hirst) are available here.
Click here for details of Fay Musselwhite’s debut collection Contraflow.
Matthew Clegg’s publications include Lost Between Stations, West North East and The Navigators. The short film for his poem ‘Because I was Nobody’, filmed on location in East Leeds, can be viewed below:
The third West North East audio podcast, recorded on location in Crossgates, East Leeds on one afternoon in May 2014, focuses on the poems ‘Because I was Nobody’, ‘Blood and Ice Cream’ and ‘The Last Workday Before Christmas’, each of which marks a specific location in the suburb: a cow field, the car park of the former Vickers tank factory, and platform 2 of the railway station.
The city-states of ancient Greece had a name for their artistic, political and spiritual centre: the agora, an open, expansive ‘gathering place’, in which the polis would assemble for military duty and listen to consular speeches. Over time, the political function of the agora was moderated by its use as a marketplace, with merchants setting up their stalls between colonnades. The later Greek verbs agorázō (“I shop”) and agoreúō (“I speak in public”) reflect the dual life of the agora as a commercial and civic space, and, perhaps, embody an idea (or ideal) of interdependency. It’s an idea that I’d like to explore, and affirm, while also paying tribute to some of the people and collectives whose inspiration and support has been invaluable to me (and to Longbarrow Press) this year. In England (if not the UK), the cultural and political narrative is, all too frequently, one of mute, impersonal, frictionless transactions; disconnection, dispossession, division; a retreat into echo chambers and virtual exclaves. There’s a case to be made for this, of course, and the claims that our public discourse has been cheapened, that our civic spaces have been eroded. It’s not the only story, though.
Longbarrow Press was founded in 2006, and was initially funded with some of the income from my job as a financial services administrator. When I left the security of a full-time (albeit poorly-remunerated) employed position in 2012, to relocate from Swindon to Sheffield and to give my full attention to Longbarrow’s development, I’d barely addressed the question of the press’s economic survival (or my own). My savings wouldn’t last forever, and the prospect of working entirely from home, with little of the routine association with which I’d become familiar in an open-plan office, was faintly alarming. Slowly, I began to make contact with people in my new surroundings, and further afield, picking up bits and pieces of freelance work. Among the first of these projects was Place & Memory, a creative professional development programme devised and mentored by Judit Bodor, Emma Bolland and Tom Rodgers (aka Gordian Projects), taking eight Leeds-based artists into the city for sessions of collective site research, documented through a range of media (photography, film, audio, drawing, found objects, poetry and prose. Some of this material appears in a book). I was recruited as a sound recordist for the project, and found myself spending more and more time at Inkwell Arts in Chapel Allerton, north Leeds, where the group was headquartered. Inkwell is a community-focused arts space, cafe and studio complex on the site of a former pub, renovated and adapted over several years, offering structured support for creative individuals as part of their recovery from mental health issues. The cafe and gallery is the hub, a bright, open, accessible room, enabling conversation between friends and strangers, planned and unplanned encounters. After the project drew to a close in summer 2014, I found that I missed the artists, the staff, the space. Fortunately, I was invited back at the start of this year, working with a new intake of artists to develop websites showcasing their creative CVs and works-in-progress. Most of the sessions were 1-1 tutorials, with space for discussion, application, and growth, the focus and pace varying from one hour to the next. Invariably, I’d be asked at least one question to which I didn’t have an immediate answer, and we’d work out a solution together. There was a sense of shared discovery in each of these encounters: listening, looking, learning. The mentoring programme spanned three months, time enough to rethink my ideas about dialogue, project development and workspace.
A week or so after leaving Inkwell, I returned to Leeds for the opening of Shoddy, a group exhibition organised and curated by disability rights activist Gill Crawshaw. The exhibition was both a collective exploration of reused textiles (alluding to the original meaning of ‘shoddy’: new cloth made from woollen waste, a process patented in West Yorkshire) and a creative challenge (or rebuke) to the government’s ‘shoddy’ treatment of disabled people. Fittingly, the venue was the former premises of an Italian clothing wholesaler, now ‘repurposed’ by Live Art Bistro, a Leeds-based, artist-led organisation. The preview was packed, and, unlike some that I’ve attended, the work on display was central, not peripheral, to the occasion. And it was fresh, the thinking and the making, shaped from recycled materials, installed in a secondhand space. Felt. Cloth. Polythene. Paper. Yarn. Natalia Sauvignon’s ‘Beautiful but Deadly’, a sculpture utilising woollen remnants, plastic plants, seashells from the east coast, human hair. ‘Shoddy Samplers’, a duo of embroidered textiles by Faye Waple, juxtaposing the early and later usages of ‘shoddy’ (as noun and adjective). A collaborative, multi-sensory wall hanging by Pyramid of Arts, incorporating marks, stitches and woven parts from each of its members. All the leftovers from the marketplace, the scraps and offcuts, gifts passing from hand to hand. A few months after the first Shoddy exhibition, Gill hatched another, to be held at Inkwell in August. She had a small budget for a print publication, drawing on texts and photographs from the first show, and asked me if I’d be interested in taking on the design and editing work. I said yes, and we met to discuss the brochure spec. We agreed that the Shoddy booklet should aim to meet the accessibility criteria of the exhibitions. Translated into print, this meant taking care to ensure that the page layouts were interesting, without presenting obstacles for readers with visual or cognitive impairments. We settled on Futura, a clean, modern sans serif typeface, for the headline and body text (the latter in 12pt throughout); paragraphs flush left; black body text with blue titling; wide margins; minimal italicisation. Although I’d spent several years refining my approach to design with many of these questions in mind, it was the first time I’d asked them in the interests of something other than my own aesthetic. A printed page, like a public place, should invite us in, without clutter or impediment; once inside, it should enable us to navigate, to apprehend each part and to make connections, to read the space between columns. Gill, assisted by volunteers at Inkwell, arranged the Shoddy display with good sightlines, texts and labels at a height accessible to wheelchair users, and a clear, inventive visual narrative from wall to wall. As with the first show, it developed from a sense of community, affirmed and renewed by the audience at the opening night at Inkwell, and in the days that followed. People gathering, talking, drinking coffee, tea, taking in the work.
I picked up the Shoddy assignment the day after Hillsfest, an ambitious arts weekender for North Sheffield, conceived and directed by Karen Sherwood (founder of Sheffield’s Cupola Gallery) and staged in my own community of Hillsborough. I’ve reflected on my part in the festival (as curator and MC of the spoken word programme) in an earlier blog post, but I’d like to restate my appreciation for Karen, and acknowledge the extent to which her ethos (as a gallery owner, arts entrepreneur and community organiser) has influenced my own. Sheffield is, by common consent, a welcoming city; Cupola has always been among its most welcoming spaces. Visitors are greeted with free coffee (and, if they’re new to the gallery, a brief tour) and immediately put at ease. The work on display is as varied, challenging and thoughtfully presented as you’ll find in any contemporary art space, and it’s framed by warmth, not cool detachment. Karen, it must be said, is a resourceful, effective salesperson (a key factor in the survival and growth of Cupola over the last 25 years), but she has no appetite for persuading customers to buy things that they don’t need. People trust her judgment, and, in turn, learn to trust their own. At first, I wasn’t convinced that I had all the skills required for the Hillsfest role, but Karen believed that I was equal to the task, so I came to believe this too. It helped that the festival team felt like a small community, working for the benefit of a larger community, one nested inside the other. It’s important to me and, I think, to others, that these principles of openness and interdependency should be to the fore in every Longbarrow event, shared within the collective and with the audience. Our long-running series of poetry walks (the most recent of which took place in the Rivelin Valley a few months ago, led by Karl Hurst and Fay Musselwhite) is, among other things, a space for conversation, conviviality, companionship. The landscape invites us to listen, to catch fragments of observational detail, musings on ecology and history, anecdote and conjecture. We all learn, even (or especially) those of us who have been walking these paths for years, we all gain. I don’t think of ‘the local’ as something to be fetishised, monetised, or, for that matter, disparaged. I don’t understand the recent use of ‘community’ as a pejorative term, a prefix that limits or weakens a project or initiative. It tells me that there’s something at stake. A few months ago, I took part in the Small Publishers Fair at London’s Conway Hall, organised by Helen Mitchell. It was the second year that Longbarrow Press had taken a stall at SPF (sharing, once again, with Gordian Projects); as in 2015, I was struck by the sense of common endeavour, mutual interest and support that prevailed throughout (which some might find unusual in what is, ostensibly, a marketplace). We might attribute this to several factors (none of them predominant): the character of the artists and publishers, selected by Helen; her calm, friendly, positive influence, sincere engagement and focused direction; the volunteer teams; the audiences, some of whom I’d encountered at previous events, who brought their conversations to our tables, and made the exchanges reciprocal, not transactional; and the Conway Hall itself, built in 1929 by nonconformists (the Conway Hall Ethical Society now advocates secular humanism), and still an important gathering place for political and cultural events. It was Helen who made me aware of the hall’s history as a meeting place for collective walks; the society’s members would congregate at 25 Red Lion Square, then set out for Bloomsbury and Clerkenwell. In the heart of the city, yet altogether local. A community in itself, and a place for communities to gather, from near and far.
It was the spirit of the Small Publishers Fair that had called me back for a second year, and which I now sought to muster in Sheffield. On the last Saturday of November, I presented an Independent Publishers Book Fair at Bank Street Arts, in the city’s Cathedral Quarter, with the support of Tom and Andrew at BSA and Emma Bolland (who was also staffing the Gordian Projects stall at the fair, and curating a programme of talks, readings and projections in the evening). I’d participated in two previous book fairs at Bank Street Arts, and wondered if a one-day event, along similar lines, might be viable; Tom and Andrew were immediately receptive to the idea, and put their creative and technical resources at our disposal. The opportunity to invite presses whose work I admired was a privilege; happily, almost everyone I contacted was able to take part. The line-up comprised mostly Sheffield-based (or Sheffield-affiliated) publishers and artists – And Other Stories, enjoy your homes, Gordian Projects, Joanne Lee, Longbarrow Press, The Poetry Business, Tilted Axis Press, West House Books – with others from further afield: Bradical (Bradford), Comma Press (Manchester), Jean McEwan (West Yorkshire), Peepal Tree Press (Leeds). This was the balance I’d hoped we might achieve: artists’ books, poetry, fiction, art writing, literary criticism, zines; a showcase for some of the work being published in Sheffield, while making (or renewing) connections with fellow practitioners in the north of England. As well as being a one-day ‘marketplace’, I wanted the fair to offer an opportunity for creative exchanges, unhurried conversations, surprise and reciprocity. I knew that everyone I’d invited would have something to contribute, and I was especially pleased that Jean McEwan and Bradical (who shared a table on the day) were able to take part. Jean is a collage artist, a maker of zines and ‘altered postcards’, and founder of Wur Bradford, an art and social space in a stall in Kirkgate Market, central Bradford. The stall hosts printmaking and zine-making workshops, art parties, community dialogues, informal education sessions, artists’ talks, and more. Bradical (who I first met at a Wur Bradford event) have been an important part of this development, challenging Islamophobia and stereotyping through pointed and playful zines and actions, and sharing Jean’s DIY ethic and strategies for engagement. Jean has invited me to speak at a couple of Wur Bradford events in the past few years, and I’m always humbled and inspired by the creativity, generosity, and energy in the room. On Saturday 26 November, these forces were at work at Bank Street Arts, in the dialogues and discoveries, the acts of friendship and solidarity. Jean said something about the inherent value of being in a room with people, of simply talking with them, and I remembered something else that she’d said, that validation was nothing to do with status, or sales, that it is something that happens in the act of exchange. I thought of my mother, now in her late 70s, staffing the Lawn Community Centre Christmas Bazaar that same day, in Swindon, many miles south. The community centre was a group sketch in the 1970s, and was eventually realised in 1999, on the site of an extinct pub. The intervening decades were spent fundraising, campaigning, organising, and challenging indifferent councillors (who maintained that the project was futile, then declared it a success shortly after it opened). Through it all, the community association kept their nerve, their humour, their belief. I watched them, a child of the estate, helping out with jumble sales and recycling drives, I saw what they could do, working together, supporting each other.
Finally, I’d like to thank someone whose support and creative stimulus has been invaluable throughout 2016, as it has been for several years; the artist and writer Emma Bolland, without whom many of the people, places and projects mentioned in this piece would almost certainly be unknown to me. There is no debt, only reciprocity, and work continuing.
Brian Lewis is the editor and publisher of Longbarrow Press. He tweets (as The Halt) here. The second edition of East Wind, a pamphlet comprising three prose sequences and one haiku sequence, is available now from Gordian Projects; click here for further details.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theory of Colours (1810)
A public park, a Sunday, a late July afternoon. I am standing at the edge of a path with Angelina D’Roza, a Roland R-05 recorder in my hand, a fourteen-line script in hers. We have been standing here for several minutes, listening and waiting, for the air to level, the wind to soften and fall, so that we might record her poem, ‘This Sea the Colour’. We can’t direct the wind, nor shelter from it; the tall trees that line the path seem only to amplify the gusts. Nor can anything be done with the voices trailing through the park, human, animal, they start, we stop, we start, they start. The poem is a desert poem. There are no children or dogs in the sonnet, no grass, no trees. No purples, no greens. If there is wind, it is not this wind that banks and twists between script and stereo microphone, chipping the tones, I watch the waveforms buckling, the white peaks. The park is not the desert. It is full – of sound, of weather – and we cannot empty it. We’ve nowhere else to go, and we’re running out of time. Think of a colour. We start again, title, first line, then the next, an orange thread paid out to the end of its spool, wound in, and out again, two takes, two tries. The thread is a measure, it is finite, it marks each difference in weight and tone, the poem’s elsewhere and its end. Somehow, in this managed, peopled place, a clipped corner of south-west Sheffield, we close in on the sonnet’s colour space, cadmium orange, soaking blue light, salt, sand and snow, a world of flakes and grains. It is ‘nearer and farther’, a speck made smaller, blown into air, land and sea. We listen to the fade.
The path lies within the Porter Valley Parkway, a sequence of green spaces laid out along the line of the Porter Brook, six miles of woods and water linking the Peak District to Sheffield city centre. We’re somewhere in the middle of this course, perhaps 50 metres from Shepherd Wheel, an ancient dam and grinding workshop, looking west towards Whiteley Woods. I’ve been here before, the thought comes, four summers back, four Julys ago, living on Cherry Street, close to the Porter and its confluence with the River Sheaf, the iron-rich brook trickling into brick conduits, a dark river made darker still. Four summers back, late evening, putting the house in order, the city behind me, finding the river at Pear Street, an embankment, a drop, the water hardly tinting the stones, and the walled greens of the General Cemetery to the south, railed offices and care homes to the north, then a schoolyard, a blank, grey quad and four sprayed walls, high contrast, purple overwriting red, yellow buffing into blue. Spent cans, squeezed tubes. The path climbing to Sharrow Vale Road, the Porter low, a brownout in culverts and bridges, everywhere and nowhere, the dry bright overground mix, residential and commercial, Porter Cottage, Porter Pizza, Porter Pets, the name spelled out in every colour, the lightless river. At the turning circle of Hunters Bar, the course untangles, a clear profile, the water making its own way through Endcliffe Park, close to the entrance, and I go to it, my west to its east. As the park narrows, the river widens, then straightens: a reflective strip, two streets out, bits of broken lamplight, I am reading it backwards. I run out of green, and into another roundabout, spinning off to Whiteley Woods, the next link in the municipal chain. Within a few hundred metres, the sides steepen, the tall trees close in, the streets and their electrics fall away. The park desaturates. If there is a moon, I don’t see it. I raise my right hand before me, but can’t place it. I have hearing, and touch, and I know that I am still with the path, and that the river is still with me. The word that comes is pitch, the wrong word, I know that this cannot be pitch, solid black in a suburban park, I know that the eyes can make adjustments. I pause, not quite stopping, and spin slowly. I wait for a reference tone, a stimulus, one bead of light, absolute threshold. The adjustments don’t happen. No shadow, no movement, no form. Not a speck. Only my spinning, which I stop. I take a few moments to find my bearings from the sound of water. I expect to feel fear, but there is nothing to feed it, the mind is flat, the dark is not disturbed. I stare straight ahead. There is no line, no plane, no vanishing point. I walk into it, the body aware, I realise that the arms are projecting, perhaps for balance, I find that I am disinclined to run. I walk, sounding each step, a thread spooling at my back, until the trees break down, and bits of orange sodium get in. The measures return, the bounds return. Sounds of a road in the south, interrupting the park, then the road itself, yellow on yellow. The mood turns. The park continues, the darkness is restored, and something snaps in the thin corridor, a thread, a thought, and I turn back, at the edge of Hallam Moors, near the Derbyshire border, a mile or so from Rud Hill, where the Porter rises from blanket bog, Redmires to the north, White Stones to the west.
In 1915, the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich exhibited Black Square at Marsovo Pole, Petrograd, as part of The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10. It was the first of four identically titled oil paintings that Malevich would produce; the subsequent versions, executed between 1923 and 1930, vary in size, but all recreate the arrangement of the original, a square of black pigment in an off-white border. Malevich conceived the first Black Square as a foundation stone of Suprematism, a short-lived art movement with an emphasis on basic geometric forms and a restricted palette; a ‘grammar’ in the service of ‘pure feeling’, and in stated opposition to the language of objects, objectivity, and representation. On encountering the work today, what is immediately apparent is that none of the versions are geometrically perfect. All four squares are lopsided, skewing into the borders. The present condition of the 1915 Black Square helps to explain why Malevich remade the piece for later exhibitions: even in reproduction, we see the acute deterioration of the flat plane (a process that was reportedly observed within a few years of the Petrograd exhibition, and exacerbated by decades of neglect by the Soviet authorities, decaying in archival darkness), oxidized, flaking, a distressed surface. Light and air have got to the oil, weakening the bond, the white ground exposed by the cracks. Recent X-rays of the painting show not one, but two, earlier compositions; the first of these is Cubo-Futurist, while the second, directly below the Black Square, is proto-Suprematist. Both of the overpainted works display rich, variegated tones, a field that now rises from the darkness, a field into which the Black Square decomposes. What was black is now midnight blue. The object is unstable, in both a physical and a phenomenological sense; the work that exists is no longer the work that was intended, and invites a form of cognitive dissonance when we attempt to reconcile the painting with its title. Malevich declared both the 1915 painting and the Suprematist movement as the birth of ‘a liberated nothing’, an achromatic ‘zero of form’ (though he would make use of colour in contemporary and later works, it’s interesting to consider this statement from 1920: ‘I regard white and black as excluded from the colour spectrum.’). This ‘zero’ is, in Malevich’s view, both empty and full, a ‘desert’ (to which he also likens the painting on several occasions) in which ‘nothing is real except feeling’. It is, perhaps, the idea of the black square that outlives its moment, an idea that persists through the later variations, an idea that, above all, is preserved in the title itself.
Black does not feature among the colours matched to the four temperaments in Goethe and Schiller’s diagram of 1798, though it is present in the four humours of Hippocratic medicine (as black bile, or melaina chole) from which their Rose of Temperaments is distantly derived (and is that dark, irregular blot at the centre of the colour wheel, the shade of dried blood, edging towards blackness?). It is also present, as a trace, in the poems by Chris Jones, Alistair Noon, Geraldine Monk and Helen Mort that comprise two-thirds of our new Rose of Temperaments (the first two poems, by Angelina D’Roza and A.B. Jackson, are discussed here). Each of the four sonnets is flecked with ‘black’ or ‘dark’. In Chris Jones‘s ‘Green’, it is the human eye, the organ of light perception and colour differentiation, in which the eponymous hue is located: a ‘pale green’, ‘born of black and yellow melanin’ (melanin, unsurprisingly, shares a root with melancholia: melas, ‘black, dark’). The apparent simplicity and certitude of the poem’s opening lines, which offer pigment as proof of heritage (‘pincered out to mark the Irish in him’), gives way to the speaker’s preoccupation with a greater exactitude, the iris distilled from mineral and vegetal shades, always between one green and the next, the light shifting with each refocusing. Here, many of the objects that mediate an idea of green are on the threshold of diffuse (rough) and specular (smooth) reflection: ‘oxidised copper’, ‘heavy bottle glass’, the ‘greenish blue’ of rippling water, a ‘jade porcelain’ bowl. They refine and refract. Alistair Noon‘s reworking of the sonnet foregrounds the dubiety of colour perception from the outset: firstly, by adopting a rhetorical strategy that calls into question the premise of the original poem (‘Sure? I thought they were brown, his eyes’); and secondly, in unpicking its light green stitching and introducing a darker thread. The shade ‘born of black and yellow’ is now ‘greenish brown’, a ‘muddier’ pigment that nudges the sonnet, by some degrees, towards red, the province of Noon’s own Rose of Temperaments poem. In ‘[red]‘, it ramifies outward, a season (summer) and a continent (Europe) taking the colour; and, at the edge of its range, a human subject, ‘lips and gums’ sensitized and ‘enstrawberized’, contemplating each sweep of the ‘radar-hard Med’. Chris Jones’s response to the poem takes the form of an indirect intervention, a parallel text; the body of the sonnet is left intact, but is tagged with footnotes, in which each reference to red is challenged or critiqued, a fourteen-point argument for ‘a greener tinge’ in every line (‘Surely ‘radar’s emerald’?’). As with Noon’s version of Jones’s poem, the opposition of the two colours is both dialectical and literal, to the extent that they threaten to negate or absorb each other. One is a viridescent portrait darkened by a crimson wash; the other is a red canvas in a green frame.
In some respects, red and purple are close neighbours. However, purple was not among the colours of the rainbow identified by Newton, or, for that matter, among those named in Goethe and Schiller’s Rose of Temperaments. It is a composite of red and blue (unlike violet, which is also between red and blue, but occupies its own wavelength of light, and is thus designated a ‘spectral colour’). In her ‘Purple’ sonnet, Helen Mort assigns it a complex value: it speaks of intimacy and estrangement, presence and absence, and of deferred, displaced pain (‘although you’re sure you never fell’), spreading and darkening through the poem, a memory that bruises from lilac to black. The effect is that of an eerie suspension, between unreflecting, abyssal wells (‘too deep and never deep enough’) and the still, shallow irises that stare out from the cover of a children’s book. The irises are violet, a symptom of ocular albinism, in which a lack of pigment in the pupil causes the iris to become translucent and reflect light back. The poem ends with a vision of these eyes: eyes that can only be ‘met’ in the act of closing one’s own, in darkness, in dreams. Geraldine Monk, representing purple (or violet)’s ‘complementary’ hue, restricts its influence to three lines of the octave in her version of Mort’s poem, in which the skin takes the burden: here, the bruise is ‘yellowing’, the epidermis ‘jaundiced’. The yellow of bruising and jaundice is attributable to an excess of bilirubin, which, in turn, refers us to the ‘yellow bile’, or choleric imbalance, hypothesised in the four humours, and which survives in Goethe and Schiller’s Rose of Temperaments. Their colour wheel places yellow on the cusp of the choleric and the sanguine, a state of division that Monk’s ‘Yellow’ acknowledges, ‘harmony and warning / wrapped into one everlasting opposition.’ The poem itself is, appropriately, between states: it is an eighteen-line sonnet, a form that dates to the 16th century (John Donne’s ‘The Token’ is an early example). Monk departs from the alternative rhymed quatrains usually found in the ‘heroic sonnet’, but retains its heroic couplet, by which the poem is summarized and concluded:
Whatever binds this colour to our eyes and hearts
we cannot part its salve and sting of ambivalence.
In Goethe and Schiller’s diagram, the traits and occupations associated with choleric and sanguine temperaments are, respectively, ‘tyrants, heroes and adventurers’ and ‘hedonists, lovers and poets’. Well-marked characters, in other words, demanding attention, as does this colour, above all others: ‘we pick you out yelling the origin of your name’. Etymologically, ‘yellow’ has the same root as ‘gold’ and ‘yell’: gleaming, crying out. Monk alludes to the status of yellow in ancient Egypt, and the belief that the skin and bones of the gods were made of gold. In this setting, they are ‘yellowing with eternity’: an ‘undying dying’. She also considers more recent (and notorious) cultural significations; in particular, the mandatory ‘badges of persecution’ that marked out the Jewish populations of Nazi Europe (a practice first introduced in the early Islamic world, and perpetuated through medieval and early modern Europe). This, the brightest of colours, the shade of ‘springtime sunbeams’, is steeped in sickness, too, and is always tilting towards opacity; as Goethe reminds us, it is ‘a light which has been dampened by darkness’.
A hotel lounge, a Thursday, a late September afternoon. I am sitting at a low table with Geraldine Monk, a Roland R-05 recorder in my hand, an eighteen-line script in hers. After some minutes surveying and testing the acoustics of the reception spaces of the Mercure Sheffield – the lobby, the long corridor parallel to the administration wing, the waiting area adjacent to the spa – we have settled into a padded nook, and are preparing to record her ‘Yellow’ poem. Sounds from the cafe terrace pass through the open doors: squeaking pushchairs, rattling china, and, under it all, the cascades of the Peace Gardens, embodying Sheffield’s rivers and molten steel, encircling the fountain, the white point. We make a first take, of which we are uncertain. We make another. Five lines into the sonnet, the town hall clock sounds its bells, a chime that travels to the end of the poem. We listen to the fade, then look up, for a moment, and look down again, at the small table, its black square, the small vase, its yellow flowers.
The development of The Rose of Temperaments, and the sonnets by Angelina D’Roza and A.B. Jackson, are discussed in ‘White Point’, an earlier blog post. Click here to access the index of all six sonnets commissioned for The Rose of Temperaments. Listen to Geraldine Monk reading her ‘Yellow’ poem at the Mercure Sheffield:
Brian Lewis is the editor and publisher of Longbarrow Press. He tweets (as The Halt) here. The second edition of East Wind, a pamphlet comprising three prose sequences and one haiku sequence, is available now from Gordian Projects; click here for further details.
Josef Albers, Interaction of Colour (1975)
I’m staring through the compact square of my office window at the brick wall of a neighbouring property. The double glazing has failed, misting the edges, blurring the foreground, but the brick fills half the frame, and the sun’s light hits the wall, and I say that the brick is red, the wall is red. Beyond the wall, a seam of cloud-strained blues, thinning as the afternoon frets at its tethers, the slow fade of a late English summer. I look again at the wall. It is not red, the brick is dull orange, rust brown, flame and soot. Each brick is unlike the next, each course unpicks the pattern, heat falling and rising, a stain, a bruise, a burn. The lower third is indistinct: fogged glass, coral smears. It is still a wall, a brick wall, but I can’t think of a colour. I google ‘brick red’, to find out what it means, and the image search sends back a gallery of sliced tones, taking in pastel pinks, chocolate browns, flat burgundies, dusty rose. Some of these are commercial paint, wallpaper and vinyl samples rendered as digital previews; some are tagged and coded RGB swatches aimed at web developers; and there are proprietary colour spaces, owned by Pantone and other corporations, in which tints and tones are assigned secure positions in a universal system, each colour a value, each value a constant, expressed in paint, plastics, fabrics and print. The Pantone Smart Swatch designates Brick Red as 19-1543 TCX. This is not, of course, the value that I see when I look out of my window, where the memory of clay has gone soft; nor can I match the neighbour’s wall to any of the search results, all of which claim, or have been claimed for, the authority of ‘brick red’, which now seems no more stable than the clouded blue or the misted glass. Perhaps the idea of ‘brick red’ is an idea only, a shade in the mind. Perhaps it can only exist in the space between two unlike things. Dull orange. Rust brown.
The six sonnets that comprise The Rose of Temperaments, a project conceived by artist Paul Evans and co-curated by Evans and myself, are, in essence, six responses to an invitation to think about colour, or, rather, a specific colour, arbitrarily assigned to each poet earlier this year: red (Alistair Noon), purple (Helen Mort), blue (A.B. Jackson), green (Chris Jones), yellow (Geraldine Monk) and orange (Angelina D’Roza). The original Rose of Temperaments was a colour wheel, devised by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller at the close of the 18th century, in which the spectrum was divided into four quarters and aligned with the traditional temperaments and their respective occupations (among them tyrants, teachers and philosophers). Goethe and Schiller’s annotations nudge the colour wheel beyond the realm of the abstract and the illustrative, linking hues to ancient humoral theory, developed by Hippocrates (460 – 370 BC), who believed that human behaviours and moods were caused by a surfeit or lack of blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. The Greek physician Galen (129 – c.200 AD) adopted and adapted the Hippocratic system for his typology of temperament, the categories deriving their names from the four humours: sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic. Galen also hypothesised the complementary pairing of ‘opposed’ temperaments, a ‘mix’ in which we might find balance or imbalance; these binaries are also implicit in Goethe and Schiller’s diagram, where the choleric (red/orange/yellow) is ‘opposed’ to the phlegmatic (cyan/blue/violet), for example. In Goethe’s Theory of Colours (1810), the symmetric arrangement of colours on the wheel reflects the ‘natural order’: ‘…the colours diametrically opposed to each other… are those which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye. Thus, yellow demands violet; orange [demands] blue; purple [demands] green…’
The question of how much orange might be ‘demanded’ by blue (and vice-versa) is particularly relevant to this project. Having allocated the six colours to the six poets, Evans then arranged them in reciprocal pairs (orange/blue, green/red, yellow/purple), in the spirit of Goethe’s Theory, and invited the ‘paired’ poets to ‘recolour’ a few lines of each other’s completed sonnets. In one such pairing, Geraldine Monk was tasked with adding a yellow tint to Helen Mort’s poem; Helen, in turn, might introduce a dash of purple to Geraldine’s sonnet. Both versions of each poem – the ‘original’ and the ‘recoloured’ sonnet – would be posted on the Rose of Temperaments website. It’s interesting to consider the status of these ‘recolourings’, especially in the light of the fact that Evans, whose previous collaborations with poets have emphasised his work as a visual artist (including the ongoing series The Seven Wonders, a ‘mediation’ of the Peak District focusing on new poems by ten writers, with drawings and paintings by Evans), has elected not to provide any images for the project. Arguably, the absence of illustrations serves to heighten each poem’s visual attributes and impacts, enabling post hoc ‘collaborations’ between the primary poet and the recolouring writer in the second versions of these poems; and, of course, between all six (or twelve) sonnets and their readers, the red of the poem and the red in my mind (or another red in another mind), the anticipation of the incoming green (too little? too much?). The act of reading becomes a (passing, unrepeatable) act of collaboration, the poem’s colour balance shifting in our minds with each encounter. When we contemplate a contemporary colour wheel, we see that there are no hard boundaries on the spectrum: one colour shades into another, with innumerable gradations between red and orange. Goethe and Schiller’s segmented Die Temperamentrose both simplifies and complicates the model: it is both a diagram of affective determinism, in which we find that red is for introverted rulers, and of indeterminacy, as we consider the influence of contiguous colours, and, in particular, ‘the colours diametrically opposed’. Our course (or temperament) may be set, but our position is always relative. The uncertainty of colour is, in many ways, the uncertainty of language.
The Rose of Temperaments unfolded over six weeks in August and September 2016 (coinciding with Sheffield’s Year of Making and the University of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind, for which the project was commissioned), a ‘primary’ sonnet appearing online every Thursday (with the ‘recoloured’ version following a few days later). The first of the poems to be made public was ‘This Sea the Colour‘, Angelina D’Roza’s ‘orange’ sonnet. It is prefaced with a tone borrowed from another poet (Tony Hoagland): ‘…this orange / and tender light // taking a position inside of me’. One more colour, a trace of which persists as the poem enacts its own shifts, toward the light of the shoreline, a promise of ‘distance’ and diminution (‘ a tiny blemish on a peach’), intimacy and absence. A moving border, on which nothing settles for long, and from which we consider the passing of seasons (the ‘pale orange snow’ and the ‘tan lines’). With only a few locational or directional cues (the land is a desert, the movement is northward), the gradations of orange become the contours of a place. The ’empty space’ is coloured in. In A.B. Jackson’s reworking, the salt shore is lightly mapped, its waters now ‘Persian-impossible’, and the last word is given not to orange, but to ‘blue’. It is hard not to think of ‘the blue of distance’ examined and explored by Rebecca Solnit in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, the second section of which starts from the limits of the visible: ‘The world is blue at its edges and in its depths.’ It is blue that ‘disperses’ in air, ‘scatters in water’, and ‘does not travel the whole distance…’ The blue of distance is ‘the colour of an emotion, the colour of solitude and of desire, the colour of there seen from here, the colour of where you are not.’ This blue, that speaks to us of elsewheres, of longings, shades into A.B. Jackson’s own poem (‘The Blue‘), which opens on a different shore: that of ‘Low Point, Nova Scotia’, a named north, an island’s edge (Cape Breton, in the east of the province). The maritime setting is the pale blue to the ‘outlandish’ indigo of a lobster that surprises a ‘fishing boat crew’; its rarity (the deep blue resulting from a uncommon gene mutation) an omen of good fortune, the colour and the luck both preserved by the decision not to cook the creature (which releases the lobster’s red pigment). Angelina D’Roza’s ‘recolouring‘ of this poem is restricted to a single line, but one which also relocates the fishing crew 1500 miles south-west to ‘Orange Beach, Alabama’, on the Gulf Coast; another blue, another distance. The poem’s preoccupation with accident and augury takes on a darker tone when we remember that Orange Beach was on the edge of the Gulf area contaminated in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in 2010, the ocean basin bruising to black. Both versions invoke a hope, or plea, for ‘good hauls offshore / no fires below’: the thought of flame, its orange flash, returns us to Angelina’s ‘This Sea the Colour’ (‘of fire / and light’), to another shore, another Gulf.
Often, when I think of a colour wheel, I find that I am also thinking of a compass rose; the diametric opposition of colour and direction, the common centrifuge, the white point in the dead centre. Gradation and division. Is there, perhaps, a relationship between direction and colour? Since Newton’s original colour disc (circa 1670), there have been many circular diagrams, but no consensus regarding the orientation of the spectrum, no cardinal directions. Where might we find our north? Is it red? Green? Yellow? Or further off, somewhere between blue and orange?
Click here to access the index of all six sonnets commissioned for The Rose of Temperaments. Further reflections on the project will be posted on the Longbarrow Blog in the near future.
Brian Lewis is the editor and publisher of Longbarrow Press. He tweets (as The Halt) here. The second edition of East Wind, a pamphlet comprising three prose sequences and one haiku sequence, is available now from Gordian Projects; click here for further details.
After the storm the concrete pathways
through Hillsborough Park gleam like channels
easing their way through wide estuaries
of silt and sand ferrying moonlight.
‘Moving with Thought’, Matthew Clegg
Friday 24 June 2016, mid-afternoon. It’s Midsummer Day, I’m told, though parts of the internet dispute this. The air is, by turns, vacant, oppressive, turbid and flat. I’ve been awake since 3am, taking in and not taking in the result of the EU referendum, and its fallout: the Prime Minister’s resignation, the sinking pound, the waves of judgment and misjudgment. Dust rises and resettles. The news feeds are choked and refreshed. I slump to the screen, the browser idling, Twitter, Facebook, icons and tabs, thumbnails and microstates. The apparent collapse of certainties at a national level, the sense of a blank prospectus, seems to have emboldened some voices, entrenched others, and silenced many more. I trawl the timelines, picking out bits of mood with which I might agree or disagree, like or unlike. There are short, intemperate verdicts; denunciations and lamentations; feverish petitions; and questions, some rhetorical, some not. None of us, in our chambers and clouds, has any answers. We don’t expect them. What we hope for is contact, connection, the suspension of our unbelonging. What we find is a numbness, the blunt aggregates of reaction, sub-reaction and counter-reaction. Nigel Farage is not nice. Boris Johnson is a buffoon. I skim the bubbles, the pattern repeating, then mutating, a curdling froth at the edges. I have nothing to add, no contribution to make. The network slows and reloads. An interruption from another network finally breaks the cycle; a text message from a friend, reminding me of the Ted Hughes Poetry Festival launch in Mexborough this evening, inviting me to join them, to share the journey from Sheffield. I find that I have limited enthusiasm for company and travel, but even less for solitude and stasis, and so I accept.
The Ted Hughes Poetry Festival is now in its second year, thanks to the continuing efforts of Steve Ely, Dominic Somers, Ian Parks and a team of energetic volunteers. As in 2015, the festival hub is the Mexborough Business Centre, formerly the town’s grammar school, which Hughes attended in the 1940s. The atmosphere in the centre is relaxed, informal, welcoming. People gather in small, open groups, or drift from wall to wall, chatting amiably, greeting newcomers, setting up the bar and bookstall. In one corner stands Ian McMillan, who’ll be joined by two fellow Ians (Parks and Clayton) for this evening’s performance; he’s talking with photographer Karl Hurst, the two men exchanging thoughts on the legacies of the South Yorkshire coalfields, with a dozen of Hurst’s prints of these ‘recovered landscapes’ arranged on the wall behind them. I wander from fringe to fringe, picking up loose threads of conversation, eventually settling at a table with good sightlines, stage left. In all the overheard talk, there is scant mention of Brexit, though it can’t be far from the surface. One theme that does recur throughout the evening – onstage and offstage – is community: not in an abstract sense, or in worthy, dutiful proclamations, but as a lived and living thing, shared and particular, the point from which many of tonight’s poems, tales and songs begin. No-one exemplifies this more than Ray Hearne, a poet, musician and songwriter raised in Parkgate, a few miles south-west of Mexborough, who closes the Friday evening with a set largely drawn from his new album Umpteen. I’ve seen Ray perform in some varied settings over the last few years (including a walk along the South Yorkshire Navigation with Longbarrow poet Matthew Clegg, which Hearne and Clegg have reprised as part of this festival). His work always travels well, always connects, its geographical specificity a portal, and not an impediment, to feeling and understanding, its heritage a common heritage, if only we care to look for it. Ray invites us to add our voices to the choruses of several songs, and the songs add to us; although it’s late, the hall feels fuller at the end, more human. We make ready to leave, and I’m asked if I’d like to come back tomorrow, to help out with a few things; I say yes.
Saturday 25 June 2016, 10am. A small group has assembled near the foyer of the Mexborough Business Centre. Some of us have been issued with yellow aprons, bearing the festival logo, and canvas bags with shoulder straps, bags that I last used when I had a paper round in the 1980s. These bags are not filled with copies of the Daily Mail, but with poetry pamphlets. We are instructed to advance on Mexborough town centre and distribute as much poetry as we can carry to as many people as we can find. Duly laden, we march down a twisting bank in light drizzle, halting at our rendezvous, a bollard in the middle of the pedestrianised High Street. The bollard has been adopted by Bud, a laconic Milwaukeean now resident in Mexborough, who, it transpires, has been waiting for us for nearly an hour. Bud has volunteered to declaim Hughes poems via a portable PA system while the rest of us scatter the pamphlets. Unfortunately, his pitch is adjacent to several market stalls, and the traders have no need of amplification. He must battle it out with the fruit criers. Those of us in aprons disperse along the length of the street. We don’t know how the Saturday shoppers will read us, or the fistfuls of verse, but most of the people we speak to are receptive and friendly, and are happy to take a pamphlet; the few that decline are civil and cheerful. The stock runs down, sooner than expected. I notice that Clegg has disappeared, and decide to make a search of the side streets, to no avail. Minutes later, he reappears in the sky above Poundland, at the edge of the car park roof. Clegg, who is wielding a loudhailer, is joined by Karl Hurst, cradling a camera. The two men calibrate their equipment and train it on the street below. Something that might be an excerpt from Crow bounces off the stalls and shopfronts. A few people look up, trying to get a fix on the sound. More poems spill from the roof, in a loose, distant dialogue with Bud’s ground-level recitation. It’s hard to know what passers-by are taking from this, but it does seem to be changing the space, opening it out, making it a temporary theatre. As midday approaches, the performance winds down, and we regather ourselves for the walk back, pausing to chat with the youth teams at the cricket club opposite the business centre. The centre itself is now beginning to fill with the audience for the festival’s afternoon programme, encompassing readings, discussions and talks on Hughes; it’s at capacity for the evening performance, which features Cathy Galvin, Mick Jenkinson, Helen Mort and Frieda Hughes, the latter, it seems, making her first visit to her father’s old school, calmly conducting a passage through her work while absorbing the spirit of the place. There are some among us who can read this building from back to front: Ted Hughes’s former schoolfriends, involved in this project from the beginning, and who are now in their late 80s. I’m struck by the warmth in the hall, how the organisers, volunteers, poets and audience have used their wits to create a resonant space for speaking and listening. It’s a thought that I try to bear, intact, to Hillsborough, North Sheffield, where I’ll be coordinating a two-day programme of poetry, music and performance in less than two weeks.
Saturday 9 July 2016, 12 noon. I am frowning wordlessly at a frozen laptop and a faulty projector. Earlier in the year, I was asked by Karen Sherwood, founder and director of Sheffield’s Cupola Gallery, to curate the spoken word zone at HillsFest, a wide-ranging, ambitious weekend of art and music planned for Hillsborough Park. Karen visualised the festival as an opportunity to give something back to the communities – the residents, the local businesses – that have supported the gallery throughout its 25 years of existence. Most of the activities, installations and performances will take place in the sprawling, sloping park itself, some in tents and domes, others – like the chainsaw carving – on open ground. For the spoken word programme, we’ve been given the loan of the Bowling Green Pavilion, a modern, rectangular building that nestles in the park’s north-western quarter. Our performance area is the wood-panelled community room, with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the green banks and pitches. I want to make the best possible use of this space, this opportunity (deadlines and budgets permitting). To this end, I spend several weeks assembling a programme of poetry readings, live music, ensemble performances and illustrated talks. Both days are loosely organised around themes of cultural memory and heritage, with the accent on Hillsborough and the neighbouring districts. I don’t want to overdetermine the narrative, though; I want to leave enough space for the audiences to make their own connections between the constituent parts. In some respects, this task is made easier by the fact that a handful of speakers and performers were booked before I took on the role of lead programmer, none of whom I know. Apart from what I can glean from their technical requirements, I’ve only the least inklings of how their sets will look and sound. I like this. It adds an element of uncontrol; it also forestalls the possibility of the weekend becoming an extended Longbarrow showcase. By early June, the line-up is in place, leaving me to focus on the practical issues; working out how many microphones we’ll need, measuring the stage area, compiling details of the musicians’ PA inputs, anticipating the intervals between sets. The weeks pass in a blur of publicity, planning, panic. The weekend of the festival arrives, as does some decidedly mixed weather. This doesn’t affect the work in the pavilion, but it’s an obstacle for the artists, technicians, traders and volunteers setting up in the park. Artboat, a Hillsborough-based creative duo, have been working with several local schools on a series of ‘fantastical birds’, built to mythic scale and ‘flown’ into the park (with the help of the children) the day before. As I’m returning from an errand at the east entrance, I encounter Soo and Charlie from Artboat, working hard to secure the last of the birds against the approaching rain and wind. Wings fixed, we leave; I realise I’m walking in the wrong direction, so I double back, to see a mother and her young daughter paused before the giant bird, both lost in wonder and delight. It’s an image I’ll revisit over the weekend, a reminder of why we’re doing this. Reminders are useful when the rain soaks the park and everything in it, when the pavilion’s club members dispute our room booking, and when the laptop and projector I’m using for the talks develop irreconcilable differences less than an hour before showtime. I reboot and reconnect and get nothing but bleached, flipped and strobing frames, a perished lantern. I’m preparing to flee the scene when my partner Emma arrives with her laptop. Within a few minutes, we have perfect projection, rescuing the event, and me. The rain has stopped. We have the makings of an audience. I take the stage and introduce the first reader.
The first reader is Chris Jones, followed by another Sheffield poet, Shelley Roche-Jacques. Both are on fine form, but I’m tense and distracted, hunched over scraps of paper and bits of kit. I’m worried about overruns and glitches, and I’m anxious about the next performer, Stan Skinny. I know little of his act, other than that it is ‘wrestling-themed’, and that his costume and persona will be suitably brash. Stan has requested a small, square table for his performance, which I’ve promised to supply from the pavilion store cupboard; upturned, the table will convey the effect of a pretend wrestling ring. On the day of Stan’s appearance, however, the pavilion’s stock of square tables has mysteriously shrunk from 4 to 0. The cupboard is bare. Shelley leaves the stage, and I explain the situation to Stan. Together, we rummage through dusty shelves and dark corners; our search yields a metal panel, a handful of sticks, and a length of coloured rope. I pass a roll of gaffa tape to Stan, who does his best with the materials, improvising a wobbly, gnome-sized paddock before disappearing into the changing room. I place the flimsy compound on the stage and wait for him to reappear. After several long minutes, I’m given my cue to start the recorded fanfare, and a cartoon grappler with false features bounds into view: pacing the room, vaulting the chair-backs, baiting the audience and, as the music fades, executing a perfect leap onstage, into the dead centre of the tiny ring. Over the next half-hour, Stan’s character wears down the physical boundaries of the hall, and of the audience, a shouty moustache hell-bent on submission. The act has no connection to anything preceding or following it. What it does do is change the dynamics, for the speakers and the listeners, opening out the space and adding to the sense of possibilities. As ‘disruptive’ as the performance is, it’s effected a process of depolarisation, a rebalancing; there’s less resistance in the room. The audience seems more attuned, or retuned, perhaps.
Stepping into the aftermath is Amanda Crawley Jackson, presenting the first of today’s illustrated talks, which focuses on her work as director of Furnace Park, a derelict industrial site in Shalesmoor that Amanda and a cohort of volunteers have transformed into an outdoor community space; a wasteland seeding new projects, a workshop without a building. The talk introduces ideas of cultural salvage and renewal that will be developed in two further presentations this afternoon: Karl Hurst’s exploration of ‘abandoned space’ and collective amnesia in his photographic practice, which takes the industrial landscapes of his own childhood as a starting point (including Orgreave, a site that, in Hurst’s view, has been depleted, contested, abolished and forgotten); and a lecture by Dr Alexy Karenowska of the Institute of Physics, unpacking the pioneering work of digital archaeology, which enables not only the virtual reconstruction of long-vanished sites of cultural importance, but also the ‘resurrection’ of antiquities recently destroyed by ISIL, such as the Monumental Arch of Palmyra in Syria. The arch, dynamited in 2015, was recreated in Egyptian marble earlier this year, each age-old flaw captured by 3D modelling; the life-size replica was unveiled in Trafalgar Square in April, then sent on a tour of world capitals, before coming to rest in Palmyra itself. It’s a portable echo, a defiance of erasure, a testament of and to collective memory (the 3D model was compiled from hundreds of pre-2015 photographs of the arch, sourced from the Institute of Digital Archaeology’s Million Image Database). In all this, it’s the ideas that persist; the idea of a building that crosses borders, the idea of a small, local community supported by a larger, international community. The resilience of communities and cultures, their capacity to absorb change and welcome newcomers, is a theme taken up in readings by Suzannah Evans and River Wolton (the latter reflecting on Sheffield’s recently-designated status as the UK’s first City of Sanctuary for asylum seekers and refugees), and in a gutsy, moving performance by Ray Hearne. Saturday evening closes with a remarkable set by Sieben (aka Sheffield-based musician Matt Howden): a hour of looped, layered violin, both trancelike and visceral, Howden striking his instrument to create beats, scraping his stubble against the strings, ritual and mass straining through the PA, the energy spilling out of the pavilion. The house lights come up. I scan the room, recognising no-one, this is not the audience we started with. In and out.
Sunday 10 July 2016, 1pm. A clear, still day, and I’ve somehow caught up with my sleep, a full five hours. Easing into my role, I mention the activities in Hillsborough Park, including some that aren’t real, like fossil weaving and sponge racing. No-one seems to notice. Our first speaker, James Caruth, reads a poem for the pigeon lofts of the Penistone Road embankment, a mile south of the park: ‘abandoned crofts / of an island community’. Many of today’s performances and talks will orbit this territory, literally and figuratively. The same dilapidated, contingent structures appear in Fay Musselwhite’s poem ‘Flight from Cuthbert Bank’, the last poem of her afternoon set, in which an encounter with their ‘flaking roof terraces’ conjures a vision of ‘a flock / of men released by work clocks’, called, like the pigeons, ‘to claim their reach of sky’. As Fay notes, the walk that inspired the poem was led by Mark Doyle and Emilie Taylor in 2013, as part of their Unregistered project, a series of walks and workshops focusing on the ‘forgotten spaces’ between Wardsend and Parkwood Springs. Fay’s reading is preceded by a presentation from Mark, who recounts the aims and development of the project, shading in the ‘memory maps’ of North Sheffield with excerpts from interviews with former residents of Parkwood, the oral histories and short films effecting the partial recovery of a world many of them had left decades earlier. Haunting the same landscapes, though reaching further back in time, are Stewart Quayle and Ghosts of the North, with a suite of poems, ballads and tales that illuminates the lives (and deaths) of the people of Wardsend, encompassing the Great Flood of 1864 (which swept through the district) and the Great War, a flight from which many did not return. Visions of the Flood recur in Rob Hindle’s reading (and in Fay Musselwhite’s set, the two poets reimagining the devastation on the rivers Don and Loxley respectively); as the waters recede, we find ourselves in the Hillsborough of the 1930s, Hindle tracing the journey to the Middlewood Asylum made by his great-uncle, another one-way flight, the narrative slowing to walking pace.
It’s now early evening, and we’ve also taken in a reading by Elizabeth Barrett, the words and electronica of Michael Harding and Linda Lee Welch, and a set by Pete Green that links poems and songs on a northward trajectory. As we rearrange the stage for the next performance, I look out at the park, dimly aware of the exchanges and encounters in the grounds below, a faint chainsaw buzz at the north end, a slow, thudding blues to the south. A few people have gathered at the threshold of the pavilion, taking the air, refreshed by a brief, unexpected shower. One by one, I call them in. The next performance brings together two sequences by Matthew Clegg, in which the park and its environs feature heavily: Edgelands and Chinese Lanterns. Edgelands, which has evolved through numerous iterations in performance and on the page, is presented as forty tanka (read by Clegg and Karl Hurst) prefaced by a dictaphone recording of children and scooters at the edge of Hillsborough Park, made in September 2007, shortly after the sequence was written. The taped sounds seem to swell from, then die back into, the chainsaw drone. Chinese Lanterns moves further into the park itself, lifting our eyes to the ‘liquorice clouds’ rising from the nearby Bassett’s factory, lowering the gaze to the rain-glossed ‘concrete pathways’ that now ‘gleam like channels’, before coming to rest in a climbing hammock, ‘the sky a reservoir of darkest blue’. I recall how, in 2013, we’d discussed the possibility of hiring the pavilion for the launch of Clegg’s first collection, West North East, in which these sequences appear. This feels more appropriate, somehow; it’s both a homecoming for the poems, and the occasion of a transformation in the work, the porosity of the sequences echoed by our surroundings, the pavilion doors and windows open to the breeze and its music.
For the last two sets, the room sheds more layers, and gains in intimacy. The PA is scaled back; the blackout material (shielding the projections) is removed from the windows; the performers forgo the stage and set up a few feet from the audience. Sally Goldsmith appears first, threads of song and story running through and beyond her poems, shuffling hats, accompanying herself on squeezebox, a one-woman theatre. There’s a natural warmth and rugged humour at play, and an invigorating conviction, too, the spirited defence of common causes, common land. The final performance of the festival is given by Rommi Smith and Jenni Molloy, a collaboration-in-progress drawing on material from Smith’s Poems from Mornings & Midnights, reworking it as a dialogue for voice and double bass. It’s spellbinding, from the first note to the last, Rommi’s meditations on the hidden histories of jazz and blues women enmeshed with Jenni’s sublime improvisations. As we near the end of the set, Rommi falls silent, and the burden is carried by bass alone; in the spaces between the notes, we hear birds, their evening songs drifting through the open windows, Hillsborough Park at dusk. Although it’s almost nightfall, there seems to be more light in the room than when we started. There is applause, conversation, a moment of farewell. I walk with Rommi and Jenni to their car, and see Karen’s hi-vis tabard in the gloom, emerging from HillsFest’s makeshift control centre. That the festival happened at all is due to the skill, persistence, craft and unglamorous hard work of dozens of people, but Karen is the one who started it all, who kept it going, and who saw it through, however the odds were stacked. Her courage encouraged others. Whether the festival will happen again is a question for another day. For now, it’s enough to take in this last view of the site: the people dawdling towards the exits, the fantastical birds suspended beneath the trees, the smaller birds still singing from them, the sharing of labour and laughter, the pavilion at the park’s edge.
Thanks to the following people for their support for the HillsFest spoken word programme: Adrian Friedli and Steve Manthorpe (for their successful funding bid and initial steering); Mesters Events (for their excellent technical support); Emma Bolland (for staffing the bookstall, rescuing the projector, and countless interventions); Matthew Clegg, Chris Jones and Fay Musselwhite (for staffing the bookstall); all the performers and speakers; all the volunteers; and, in particular, Karen Sherwood, for making it happen.