Meridian: The Last Step | Nancy Gaffield

October 2017

I finished walking last month, and now the writing’s done. In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau claims that the act of “walking is a space of enunciation”. The word “enunciation” means declaration, assertion, elucidation, a setting forth. Meridian is all these things. Charles Olson’s spatial poetics—“I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America”—both grounds and alienates me. I will insert myself.

Most of what I write is written through research, and Meridian is no exception. Part I opens with an epigraph from Robert Moor’s book, On Trails: An Exploration: “The key difference between a trail and a path is directional: paths extend forward, whereas trails extend backward.” This helps establish the context in terms of presence and absence, of moving forward whilst remembering backward.

My first book, Tokaido Road, was informed by ekphrasis and research into Japanese woodblock print art, and particularly the artist Hiroshige. Continental Drift includes the long poem “Po-wa-ha”, which was informed by Susan Magoffin’s Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico, as well as Essays in Landscape Theory, The Untold Story of the Making of the Atomic Bomb, and books on New Mexico’s history and geology.

During the writing of Part II of Meridian, I discovered For the Time Being, a book of poetic journals edited by Tyler Doherty and Tom Morgan. As these authors define it, a poetic journal literally means “a making from the day” or “a day’s making”. Poetic journals are not reportage, but embodied experience, comprising descriptions of the environment (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches) along with gazelle leaps and associative connections in sound or sense. Journal writing can consist of poetry, fiction, non-fiction. Weather, season and time of day are essential elements—as are place names. Procedurally, it is documentary in both senses of the word: it documents first-hand experience in a specific place at a specific time, but it also incorporates and manipulates found text. It’s meditative and reflective, in the same way that walking is. It doesn’t know where it’s going or how it’s going to get there. It is a physical, emotional and intellectual engagement with the day. Meridian arises from the poetic journal.

I chose to write Meridian as a long poem. Various forms are employed: the epistolary poem, the acrostic, the prose poem, but mainly, an open field poetics predominates. In a similar way to Tokaido Road, the poem is arranged in the sequence of named places along the pathways and trails that are situated along the Greenwich Meridian line from Peacehaven to Sand le Mere. But unlike Tokaido, which was a journey of the imagination, this work is based on an actual journey where I walked sometimes a day at a time, sometimes two, and sometimes four. The movement was not east to west, but south to north. I chose a four-part structure, based on the series of guidebooks I used to map the walk, and within each part, the poem is subdivided by an Ordnance Survey Map. The work as a whole contains fragments of song and poetry alongside snatches of TV dialogue, information from guide books, film flashbacks, all gathered together through the act of walking. While I planned each walk, I never planned the content of the poem, which always emerged from the walk itself. Along the way, I made notes, took photographs, recorded sounds including my own voice and footsteps, collected information from churches, museums, local newspapers, the people I met. After each walk, I would assemble this information and begin to write up the day. This would normally take about a week. I started in July 2015, and finished in August 2017. The shortest walk was about 7 miles; the longest 21. I walked 21 miles on two consecutive days in Lincolnshire, where the countryside was so vast, and the distances so great, that I would walk for 6 hours without seeing another person or even a road. I walked in blazing sun, freezing fog, ice, hail storms, rain. Mostly I walked alone, with two exceptions. Kat Peddie accompanied me through part of Epping Forest. And at Waltham Abbey, I actually met, entirely by accident, Graham and Hilda Heap, the authors of the guide book I was using. They walked with me a couple of miles that day. At the end of each day’s walk, I would return home (when I was near enough to do so), but when I got too far away, I would spend the night with a friend or in rooms above a pub or a B&B (in Lincolnshire). I have walked on blisters that bled, and I lost five toenails.

Writers such as Zoe Skoulding (in her book Contemporary Women’s Poetry & Urban Space) and Donna Stonecipher (Prose Poetry and the City) consider the city as a space of experiment for women writers, but there has not been much attention paid to rural space. This relates to another aspect of psychogeography that remains critical to my work: the desire to raise awareness of the natural, ecological and cultural environment around the walker, and thus the act of walking is enunciation/declaration as political and critical response to the status quo.

Part III begins in winter. It’s titled “Hardwick to Boston” and is located in the Fens. The poem begins with December 5: “the day of fracture / time & everything / is out of joint”. It starts with a walk through the Fens in fog so thick that, in the absence of any visible landmark, I had to use a compass to find my way, and it ends in the spring with a hailstorm. The reading which lends this section cohesion is Paul Celan’s The Meridian essay, which I discovered at Christmastime. This is a complex and elusive text which is Celan’s manifesto on what poetry is after the holocaust. It was delivered on the occasion of his receiving the Büchner Prize in Literature (1960). Pierre Joris recently undertook the mammoth job of translating its four parallel versions from German to English. There are so many things to think about in this essay; you cannot exhaust it. For example, it seems to say that the poem lies in the future of remembering, where remembering occurs across specific coordinates of time and place. Thus, Part III is a haunted text. It ends with an ode to Celan’s Meridian and juxtaposes some of the phrases from his essay into my poem and its thinking about poetry in time and place. So Part III is both a walking poem and a statement of poetics.

As I was walking and writing Part IV (Boston to Sand le Mere) I discovered two more remarkable books. Tim Ingold’s Lines: A Brief History is a fascinating meditation on the multiple meanings of the word ‘line’ which takes in everything from forest tracks to genealogies. I preface Part IV with a sentence from his book: “The line, like life, has no end.” The other writer, Rebecca Solnit, I had known about, but had not read A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Both of these writers took me back to the start of the project, which was motivated, in part, by a fascination with lines.

In the beginning the poem originated out of the fear of getting lost. Solnit helped me to view this from a different perspective: “One does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography.” She illustrates this quality with reference to the Pit River Indians who refer to a certain man as “wandering”. Under certain conditions of mental stress, when someone finds their life too much to bear, they will start to wander around the country aimlessly. She compares this to Virginia Woolf, who also knew despair, and it led her to fill her pockets with rocks and walk into the River Ouse. “It’s not about being lost but trying to lose your self.” Wheels within wheels. In Tokaido Road, there is a poem about Woolf. It is poem 50: Tsuchiyama. The River Ouse passes through Sussex; I walked along it during Part I. There is another, different River Ouse in Cambridgeshire; and yet another that empties into the Humber Estuary. This word “Ouse” derives from Celtic and means “water”. From now on, my pathways would be watery ones, leading me to the Humber Estuary, where several rivers flow, draining one-fifth of England. At the time I was walking, several disturbing events were happening, and these were weighing heavily as I walked, and so Part IV opens with a lament.

The trouble with ending a project like this is the reluctance to let it go. As I neared the end of the walk, I could hardly bear to finish it and both literally and figuratively kept dragging my feet. Should it find a publisher, that will be a final kind of letting go.


N.B.: this essay was first drafted in October 2017 (at the close of the Meridian project). Meridian was published by Longbarrow Press in February 2019 (see below for further details). ‘The First Cut’, a recent post for the Longbarrow Blog, reflects on the early stages of the project’s development; you can read it here.

Meridian, the third full-length collection by Nancy Gaffield, is available now from Longbarrow Press. You can read an excerpt from Part II here and a poem from Part IV here. Visit the Meridian site for further details and to order the collection; you can also order the book by clicking on the relevant PayPal link below.

Meridian: £12.99 (hardback)

UK orders (+ £1.70 postage)

Europe orders (+ £5 postage)

Rest of World orders (+ £7 postage)

Nancy Gaffield’s first collection of poetry, Tokaido Road (CB editions 2011) was nominated for the Forward Best First Collection Prize and was awarded the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize that year. Her second collection, Owhere (Templar 2012) won a Templar Poetry Pamphlet Award that year. Subsequent poetry publications include Continental Drift (Shearsman 2014), the chapbooks Zyxt (Oystercatcher 2015) and Meridian (Oystercatcher 2016), and a libretto, Tokaido Road: A Journey after Hiroshige (Shearsman 2014). Meridian is her first collection with Longbarrow Press.

Click here to read ‘Mirror Image’, Brian Lewis‘s recent survey of the poetry of Nancy Gaffield (by way of Eratosthenes, Solnit, Muybridge and Hiroshige) for the Longbarrow Blog.


Meridian: The First Cut | Nancy Gaffield

February 2016

In her long poem Drift, Caroline Bergvall says, “Eventually one comes to a point where being lost can signal a starting point.” She refers to this process as “to north oneself”. This statement is an accurate description of my own long poem, Meridian. I am following the Greenwich Meridian line along public footpaths and bridleways from Peacehaven to the Humber in order to investigate the way that landscapes are disturbed and reordered by history and memory. Meridian is a long poem about time, walking and lines: lines, both real and imaginary, in all their forms. It is also a walking practice, walking in the Wordsworthian sense of “a mode not of travelling, but of being”—a process that implicates both mind and body on equal terms. I want the shape of the poem to be determined by the rhythm of walking—the measure of the step to shore up the measure of the line, alternating long Whitmanesque lines with the shorter, stepped lines of William Carlos Williams, undulating like the contours on the Ordnance Survey maps. On my walk I am in dialogue with a number of companion poets: Lorine Niedecker, Helen Adam, John Clare, Iain Sinclair—to name but a few.

I chose to write Meridian as a long poem. Charles Altieri defines the long poem as one which desires “to achieve epic breadth by relying on structural principles inherent in lyric rather than narrative modes.” To do this, the long poem incorporates other texts, voices, political speech, bits of memory whilst foregrounding the writer’s role in making her way through such often-resistant material. Indeed, the process of writing of such a text is often part of the material—it is self-reflexive. The long poem itself is a challenge—both for reader and writer, for example: how to maintain a sense of momentum and coherence, how/when to end it; choosing the most effective form. On the other hand, it offers greater space to develop ideas; it can be an ongoing work that you do alongside other projects; it offers the potential for panoramic treatment of a thing; it can bring in other registers, discourses, genres. Since the early 20th century, experiments in innovative, language-based long poems, often disjunctive in form, have been gathering momentum. In particular, I’m interested in long poems by women: Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, Rosmarie Waldrop’s The Reproduction of Profiles; Susan Howe’s The Europe of Trusts, Sharon Doubiago’s Hard Country, Lynn Hejinian’s A Border Comedy, not to mention very long poems like Rachel Blau duPlessis’ Drafts. These poems often recover political, philosophical or historical material, and pay close attention to the way language, especially its rhythms, silences, gaps, conventions and expectations, engages with the reader.

In 2015 I was beginning to think about what my next full collection would be, and I knew I wanted the work to be informed by the ideas, concepts and methods of psychogeography. Around that time I was reading books like Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks, Roger Deakin’s Wildwood, Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, Peter Davidson’s Distance and Memory—so I knew landscape/geography would once again feature in whatever I was to write, but ratcheting it up a notch by incorporating psychogeographic ideas.

As Guy Debord accurately said, psychogeography is a concept with “a rather pleasing vagueness.” His Lettrist International Group in the 1950s were investigating urban space through desire rather than habit. To do this, they explored different ways of getting lost: for example, by hiking through the Harz region in Germany using a London map as a guide. However, in general, psychogeography studies the affects and effects of the built environment on the emotions and actions of individuals. It embraces chance and coincidence, concurrent with an alertness to patterns and repetitions arising from the collision between the chaos of the urban environment and the personal history of the individual. It involves a range of activities that raise awareness of the natural and cultural environment around the walker; the walker is attentive to senses and emotions as they relate to the environment; it is serious but fun; it is often political and critical of the status quo. One of the key concepts within psychogeography is that of the dérive, an informed or aware wandering through a varied environment using continuous observation. Dérive = drift, aimless wandering through a place, guided by whim and the awareness of how different spaces both attract and repel. The walker attempts an interpretive reading of the city and its architecture by engaging in a playful reconstruction. This turning around (détournment) is key to the situationist agenda; it is a dialectical tool useful to expose hidden ideology.[1]  The psychogeographer is seeking new ways of apprehending the environment, excavating the past and recording it with the present, revealing the nature of what lies beneath.

My own engagement arose initially out of a particular challenge: finding my way. I can’t read a map, or a compass—and, as a result, am always lost. Not only is this a huge frustration, when lost, I am susceptible to panic attacks, so I thought I could learn the rudimentary skills of navigation whilst writing my poem. I also wanted it to have a Kentish connection, so I gradually came to the idea of the Greenwich Meridian as a way to organise the walk in time/place. (Greenwich was part of the County of Kent until 1889.) Happily, then, I discovered the series of guidebooks written by Graham and Hilda Heap, which take the walker primarily on footpaths and bridleways along the Greenwich Meridian from Peacehaven in East Sussex to Sand le Mere in East Yorkshire—total length 275 miles. Around this time, Iain Sinclair came to Kent as a Visiting Professor. I started to read London Orbital and had the opportunity to speak with him about that as well as what I was doing. His process, he explained, always seemed to happen in four parts. There is a statement of place before a stepping out into a quest/journey. That is followed by a dark night of the soul moment that tries to undo the simplicity of the journey and takes you somewhere you didn’t expect to be, then a moving away from what you created and/or segueing into the next section/project. Could this structure then be helpful to me in the way I would move forward? Certainly, there was a synergy: the trail is divided into four books, so I am using each book as a device to section the collection. Part I is Peacehaven to Greenwich; Part II is Greenwich to Hardwick; Part III is Hardwick to Boston; and Part IV is Boston to the Humber. Each Part will consist of approximately 20 pages of poetry, subdivided by the Ordnance Survey Map number which pertains to that part of the walk.

So far I have walked to Epping Forest and I intend to walk the rest of the route this summer. While walking, I record observations and events in real time; these appear on the page using indentations to indicate voice or breath change and emphasis. Before each walk, I do some basic research into the places en route, but I do not plan the content. It is very important that the poem leads me. I stop to take notes as I walk, sometimes record things into a recording app on my phone and take photographs. At the end of the day, I write up the day—and finish the section related to each walk within five days. Inevitably, I engage in “soul-wandering”, so associative leaps and digressions are made, including sensory description, bits of narrative and lived experience, mainly relating to whatever is preoccupying me at the time, the passage of time, what I am reading around that journey, and conversations—both real and imaginary.

Part II has a section called “The First Cut”. This is composed by using the cut-up method. I took every tenth sentence from “The First Walk” in Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territory. I cut the sentences up into individual words and phrases, and collaged these into the poem along with my notes and observations of the day’s walk.

And this is where I am now, about to enter Epping Forest, which I’ve been putting off because of all the stories I’ve heard of the woods’ dark reputation. I wonder what will happen further ahead, through Forest and into the Fens? And Lincolnshire?

[1] If there is an application of this concept to Meridian it is that I am trying to break through the paternalistic and geocentric relationships inherent in the L[l]ine.

N.B.: this essay was first drafted in February 2016 (at the outset of the Meridian project). The walk was completed in autumn 2017; the resulting work was published by Longbarrow Press in February 2019 (see below for further details).

Meridian, the third full-length collection by Nancy Gaffield, is available now from Longbarrow Press. You can read an excerpt from Part II here; visit the Meridian site here; and order the book by clicking on the relevant PayPal link below.

Meridian: £12.99 (hardback)

UK orders (+ £1.70 postage)

Europe orders (+ £5 postage)

Rest of World orders (+ £7 postage)

Nancy Gaffield’s first collection of poetry, Tokaido Road (CB editions 2011) was nominated for the Forward Best First Collection Prize and was awarded the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize that year. Her second collection, Owhere (Templar 2012) won a Templar Poetry Pamphlet Award that year. Subsequent poetry publications include Continental Drift (Shearsman 2014), the chapbooks Zyxt (Oystercatcher 2015) and Meridian (Oystercatcher 2016), and a libretto, Tokaido Road: A Journey after Hiroshige (Shearsman 2014). Meridian is her first collection with Longbarrow Press.

Click here to read ‘Mirror Image’, Brian Lewis‘s recent survey of the poetry of Nancy Gaffield (by way of Eratosthenes, Solnit, Muybridge and Hiroshige) for the Longbarrow Blog.