I very recently received a pleasing email from Jack Cornish of Britain’s walking charity The Ramblers, related to their Don’t Lose Your Way campaign. It began:
Our records show that you’ve been busy mapping lots of squares – thank you for helping to uncover and save generations of lost paths and hidden ways. Together we’ve mapped over 50% of England and Wales.
I of course informed Ordrey, and she agreed that someone called Jack Cornish is perfectly named to announce that Cornwall is currently amongst the top three counties (along with Hampshire & Derbyshire) which can clearly be seen on this map of completed squares.
The said map (that you, dear reader, cannot at this moment – reading this – actually see) clearly and very satisfyingly shows how very many of Wales’ & England’s kilometre-squares have – by various volunteers across the lands – already been coloured in. Have been checked. Have been scoured for paths & ways of right that have slipped off our present tongues of ground. And Ordrey is invigorated to find that fresh old secrets will now – hopefully – grow back through her skin.
Jack Cornwall went on to congratulate me: You’re among our top mappers, and with your support we can tick these areas off in no time.
It is me who should be thanking Jack & The Ramblers. For the into-a-future opportunity to imagine mythical wanderings across a double map of present/past. And for the future possibility of a few more slivers of free ways for us to walk … more threads for us to tread among England’s pastures private. Anyway, I’m in danger of diverging from my original direction …
All this avid mapping activity on-line is not because I’m a political activist, you understand. It is simply because I’m someone (or even various ones) who(m(e)) really really like(s) to walk without being hindered. And also someone who can stare for hours-on-end-@ Ordnance Survey maps. So when the Ramblers very kindly gave me this opportunity to pore over contemporary & historical Ordnance Survey maps on-line, and to trace lost footpaths, and to tick off kilometre-squares in a deliciously satisfying colouring-in way … well …
… Ordrey yet again took me by the mind and led me along the streets of Tombland. Oh, yes – by the way – she calls it Tombland because so very much more is buried there than has ever been uncovered …
Click here for details of The Ramblers’ Don’t Lose Your Way project.
Sign the ‘Don’t criminalise trespass’ petition here.
A recent tweet-poem by Mark Goodwin illustrating the absurdity of criminalising the movements of virtually … everybody
Mark Goodwin‘s publications include All Space Away and In (Shearsman, 2017), Steps (Longbarrow Press, 2014), and a new collection, Rock as Gloss (Longbarrow Press, 2019), acclaimed by Andy Clarke in Climber magazine as ‘An exhilarating journey through the glorious variety of UK rock, including mountain rhyolite, eastern grit, Llanberis slate… a fascinating and rewarding collection that amply repays backtracking and re-reading.’ Click here to visit the Rock as Gloss microsite for extracts, essays and audio recordings. You can also order the hardback via PayPal below:
rise and taste
‘Mexborough, Water-Fronted Properties Released’, Matthew Clegg, The Navigators (Longbarrow Press, 2015)
Back in 2013, Ruth and I had moved to Mexborough in South Yorkshire. We were both working part-time – meaning, we wanted to earn enough money to pay our way, but we also wanted enough free time to maintain our creative projects. Someone had told us that rents in Mexborough were the lowest in the country. It took us completely by surprise when we discovered that Mexborough also had a budding poetry festival, organised under the umbrella of the Ted Hughes Project. I was enough of a Hughesian to know that the poet had once lived in a newsagent’s shop at 75 Main Street – roughly from the age of 8 to 18. I was also aware that he’d attended Mexborough Grammar School, where his poetic talents had been nurtured by Pauline Mayne and John Fisher. This is something of a hidden chapter of the Hughes biography – less mythologised by the man himself, and often completely omitted from high-profile documentaries about the poet. Perhaps Mexborough lacks the Brontean glamour of the Pennines; the mystique of Cambridge; or the pagan magic of Devon. It’s the poor relation in this family of places, and possibly the location claiming least credit for the role it played in making Hughes the kind of poet he went on to become. Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire by Steve Ely tells the tale.
The first Mexborough event that caught my eye was ‘Ted Hughes School Days’ (2016). It featured a discussion panel made up of men and women who attended Mexborough Grammar School when Hughes was a pupil. Memories shared were good-humoured and humorous, and the event was warm and surprisingly hospitable. Perhaps this South Yorkshire community feel was what affected me most. Back then, the prominent organisers were Steve Ely and Dominic Somers. Steve brought a scholar’s knowledge of Hughes in Mexborough, and a poet’s feel for the anarchic energies of the place. Dominic had a free-spirited approach to community engagement – and plenty of creative flair. If Steve brought deep respect for the Hughes legacy, Dominic added just enough irreverence to prevent literary rigor mortis from setting in. I decided to join the ranks. One year later I would volunteer at several festival events: some were conventional readings, some not.
the fly doesn’t care
Stanford M. Forrester, Haiku in English (W.W. Norton & Company, 2013)
I’d like to focus on one of the least conventional. Democracy of Words (or DOW) began as a participatory spoken word event in Mexborough High Street, on the Saturday of the Festival. Dominic Somers and Ray Hearne are the creative engines behind this, and Ray describes it as a ‘pop-up open-mic-cum-stand-up stunt in the open air. The idea is to move beyond familiar gestures of tokenism, and form an alliance of kindred minds, spirits and attitudes to devise some practical ways of inviting those with a commitment to the area, residents, partisans or passers-through, to dip their toes for an hour or two in the lapping waters of poetry, in all its choppiness.’ In short, the event offers a platform for poets and bystanders to perform in the street and to the street. Democracy of Words has opened its arms to page poets, spoken-word poets, singers, and the occasional beatboxer. It has welcomed performers not quite in their teens, and performers well past retirement.
Ray Hearne takes on the task of emceeing, and it’s hard to do justice to the skill and spirit he brings to the role. Ray is a poet and songwriter who cut his teeth as a floor singer in folk clubs. He has wit, warmth and the gift of the gab. Ray will usually begin by broadcasting the ethos of DOW to the street, before breaking the ice with the first performance. Volunteers will keep the momentum going, and this will build throughout the early afternoon. There is also a corolla of other activities: haiku are drawn on the pavement in chalk, volunteers will ascend to the carpark above Poundland and recite stanzas of poems through a megaphone to the startled street below. I have seen respected poets like Vahni Capildeo and Yvonne Reddick recruited to do this, and it has been interesting to witness fragments of Crow being floated from above, arresting the attention of grocers and Jehovah’s Witnesses alike.
One year, a worker on her break strolled out of B&M and told the world that she didn’t understand poetry. Immediately, Ray responded, coaxing an impromptu poem from her words. A further challenge was laid down for anyone to improvise poems about objects on sale. For Ray, Democracy of Words ‘offers a ground-level stage on which to perform, in permanent expectation of heckles or the possibility of passing abuse or brickbats – so the incentive is to be unpretentious though never patronising or supercilious.’ Ray manages this without strain or awkwardness. Poetry climbs down from its pedestal. Parts of the street step into poetry. Happenstance keeps everyone alert. The open interaction is an artform in itself.
The tall chimney
is cool now; the workshops
fill with art.
In October 2019 Democracy of Words took flight from Mexborough and migrated to three new locations: Elsecar Heritage Centre, Doncaster Market, and outside Rotherham Market Hall. Elsecar was a softer environment in which to pilot this new phase of the project. The space was semi-enclosed: cradled between bars, craft shops, art studios and industrial heritage. The weather was good and the atmosphere easy-going. A steady stream of poets and writers came along to support the event. As Ray says, ‘if poetry is robust enough to look after itself, human beings are not; all good teachers know that confidence is all, and any willing individual can be coaxed, nurtured and developed from the lowest of bases towards an appreciation of their own potential agency as a crafter or turner or manipulator of words. DOWists are amongst those trying to model by example.’ I talked to Tracey Dawson, who, in mid-life, had found her way into poetry through Ian Parks’ long-running Read to Write initiative in Mexborough. Ian had encouraged her to write and memorise poetry, and this led to one of the most unforgettable moments of the day: 25 lines from Beowulf, recited from memory – and in the original Old English. This from someone not involved in poetry for much longer than two years. It was stirring to hear those eerie vowels from the roots of our culture filling the space between stone buildings, under a clear October sky with Autumn changes threatening. Drinkers sat and listened outside the Maison Du Biere, smiling and perplexed. Later in the day I was chalking a haiku on the pavement slabs. It was by the Japanese poet Issa. An elderly bloke walked up to me: ‘In my day, you’d’ve been caned for doing that…’ The humorous old haiku master would have smiled. I composed a reply:
In Issa’s day
he’d be doing this
By the time we pitched up outside Doncaster Market, the sky was turning. But Saturday is still Saturday, whatever the season. Here the liveliness was turned up a notch. We were competing against the hurly-burly of weekend trade. There were busy ranks of market stalls, and simply more people scrumming around and passing through. The great thing about where we were pitched was the broad acreage of pavement. This meant plenty of space for chalking haiku, couplets, aphorisms and lines of poems. I’d just mangled a couplet from Tony Harrison’s ‘A Kumquat for John Keats’ on the slabs:
‘[Life’s] one part sweet and one part tart:
say where the sweetness or the sourness start.’
A couple of guys in their twenties bounced over and one of them asked me what the lines said. I assumed I was in the way, and stood back so he could see them better. ‘No, mate, I can’t read!’ He seemed unabashed, so I recited the couplet for him. He gave me the thumbs up and walked off, smiling. If I had Tony Harrison’s email, I’d write to him. It was like a scene out of a gentler, better-humoured ‘V’. Later in the afternoon a pensioner walked up to me to chat. He said, ‘my wife has a beautiful reading voice. She can recite the whole of ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ from memory’. Ray tried calling her over to perform, but she was too shy, or distracted. Her husband told me, ‘her talents are wasted on this life…’ I wrote the phrase down, and watched them stroll away, wishing them a world ‘where the Bong-Tree grows.’
A busker blows tunes
for the rain to fall through.
The puddles applaud.
Rotherham was where we earned our Red Badge of Commitment. The trains were scuppered by floods. It rained flat-out all day. We pitched our stall by the entrance of the indoor market, trying to take a little shelter from the deluge. Water dripped from the concrete above and slid down the back of my neck, giving me the shivers Emily Dickinson claimed were the sign of true poetry. Eventually, the market manager came out and told us we were creating a hazard, so could we please move. I wanted to test the authenticity of this charge, so I walked around to another entrance, where I discovered ten large men huddling around the doorway, smoking old-fashioned cigarettes. Three DOWists were a hazard, ten large men sucking on fags were not. We took it in our stride and moved a little further out into the rain. We battled on, reading against the rain, incorporating the rain into our poems, breathing and thinking pure rain, spitting out rain. The market manager returned. ‘I’m sorry’, he said, ‘but you have no right to be here. You have to move on.’ Ray had clearly been in this situation before. He was calm but firm: ‘We’ve got permission from the council. We’re being paid to be here. Here’s the gaffer’s number. You can ring her if you want.’ It was half comical, half edgy, a real cowboy standoff – poetry against health and safety, verse versus commerce. Less committed artists than Ray would have surrendered. Dominic intervened, taking Ray out of the firing line, or the market manager out of Ray’s. He bargained with the bloke for twenty minutes, and achieved a compromise. A gazebo was erected for us to stand under. People slowly joined us under there. They read protest poems from the 1980s. They read surrealist poems. They read nonsense poems. They read survivor poems. They read poems of unknown categories. The afternoon ended with Dominic’s young daughters reading Ted Hughes in their clear Yorkshire voices. We had the full hawk, pike and otter banquet. Poetry held its line against the rain. The day was won.
In last week’s press, X
reviewed Y: One of the best
poets now writing.
In this week’s press, Y
reviews X: One of the best
poets writing now.
‘Nips’, Peter Reading, Collected Poems: 1 (Bloodaxe Books, 1995)
There are many reasons to feel excited about the contemporary poetry scene. There are also reasons why a person might become jaded. Poets often feel marginalised, or ignored. Not everyone can find a way into the cliques and factions, or feel at home in them once they have. It can be hard to keep up with trends. There are also the sensitive matters of standing and prestige to be processed, and many poets have a tale about feeling snubbed or patronised. I’ve been practising the art for 30 years, and there are still moments when I feel I am standing outside looking in, like Larkin ambivalently watching the dancers in ‘Reasons for Attendance’. Working alongside Ray and Dominic has been a re-fresh experience. There is nothing precious about Democracy of Words; but plenty to be valued. There is the pleasure of working with a supportive, non-judgemental group. There is the buzz of being in the street, watching happenstance splash against the day’s canvas. There are the moments of genuine interaction, when you encounter unlikely people with a private passion for poems. There is an energy that comes from other performers when they overcome their nerves or inhibitions, and share something authentic. Some of us need to return to street level, and test the power of language in the most direct and immediate fashion – where ego or elitism cannot shield us. As Ray puts it, Democracy of Words provides an opportunity ‘where some of those who purport to live by the word might test their resolve, read, perform, or offer some utterance to the passing world’. That passing world is as impartial a jury as you will find. There are few spoken word venues more inclusive.
After Elsecar, Ray and me sat outside the Maison Du Biere. I wanted to learn more about how Ray found the path he walks now. I heard a rumour that he’d abandoned a PhD in the 80s, so he could devote his energies to community art. He may not have those three letters after his name, but he does have a presence and a reputation in South Yorkshire that should carry as much weight. There won’t be a Ted Hughes Festival in 2020. Instead, the project will return to grassroots events. We have a new creative producer – Dan Ryder – and a refreshed desire to take the power of words outside the usual factions and structures, and back into the topsoil. An anthology of football poetry is forthcoming by our associate publishers (Wild West Press), and readings are planned in sporting venues across South Yorkshire. I’m hoping we can broaden the remit, and celebrate bowling greens, cricket pitches, and all the other grassy spaces where people escape their stresses and strains. As Ray reminds us: ‘the DOWist is always a guest on somebody else’s turf and is there to share pleasantries even when artfully provocative. The DOWist approach might be viewed by some as a kind of aesthetic rewilding, but it is simply reintroducing poetry back to its natural environment…’ I’m rolling that phrase up in my kit bag when I next leave the house. Thanks, Ray!
Matthew Clegg’s collections – West North East, The Navigators, and Cazique – are available now from Longbarrow Press. Click on the links embedded in the titles above for extracts, essays and audio recordings.
Photo credits: 1 & 3 by Dominic Somers; 2 courtesy of the Rotherham Reader.
I used to dream of a university. I used to look at the older men queuing in the bus shelter in Mersey Square Stockport in the 1950s and see each one as a lecturer and imagine a subject for them: that one’s Chemistry, that one’s History, etc. They were middle-aged workers going home. I had to ignore their clothes but their faces offered no resistance to this exercise. Now I dream of there not being a university. — Peter Riley 
On 25 November 2019, members of the University and College Union (UCU) at sixty universities across the UK began an eight-day strike. In Sheffield, we stood in the cold and rain, and talked of what the reality of ‘university’ had become, and of the possibilities of what ‘university’ could be. Several weeks before, I had booked an upstairs room at The Rutland Arms (a pub long frequented by students and staff of the art school) for the second launch of a book I had edited: the Dostoyevsky Wannabe Cities Sheffield anthology.  In putting the book together, I had thought of ‘city’ as a concept to be contested, complicated, as an idea to be kept in flux, not least in the idea of city as anthology. In the introduction to the Sheffield anthology I wrote: ‘How do you write a city? How do you read it? What is the space of it inside the boundaries of the page? […] The texts produced are not the sum of it. Nor are they all of its parts. 
On 26 November 2019, the contributors performing at The Rutland were Linda Kemp, Rachel Smith, Brian Lewis, Pete Green, and Sharon Kivland. The evening was charged. Some of us—both readers and audience—had been on the picket line that day (at both of the cities’ Universities), and a battered, soggy placard, eroded by a day of relentless rain, had been pinned to the wall. Some of us were mourning the loss of the poet and activist Sean Bonney, who had died just earlier that month.  The readings were all extraordinary. Linda Kemp—dedicating her reading to Sean’s memory—read her long poem ‘…ideas become dangerous again…’ in which ‘Politics is writing / and there is no like about it,,’ and there is ‘the desire to construct a passionate everyday life’. 
That day, on the picket line, I had become aware of the conceptual space of ‘university’ as contested as if for the first time. Or rather, aware not just in an intellectual, neutral way, but in a visceral, passionate way. Aged 57, I had only a few weeks before taken possession of my first ever staff card, first ever staff email (both temporary, fragile, conditional). After an adult life spent on the fringes of academia—a lifetime of unpredictable and recurrent madness had kept a younger me in and out of different kinds of institutions, unable to get ‘proper work’—I had previously been ‘reduced’ to visiting, speaking, appearing, ‘passing’ as an academic. People were often surprised to find I was not a proper one, making assumptions based on—what? A stern face? An intellectual turn? The night before the strike I was terrified, crying. Just two weeks after starting some proper, longed-for teaching I would be on the picket line, a visible ingrate. But to not be—to cross that line—would be inconceivable. To stand on the picket line, to experience the disappointment of having (some) colleagues, managers, students walk into the building—some without a backwards glance, some with discomfort and shame written on their faces—was to consider the stripping away of passion, the wearing down of hope experienced by the tenured, long-term staff who now stood firm on the line, to consider that the decision that they took to strike was a much harder one than mine. The university that they had joined had changed. The space for enquiry, for thoughtful, discursive, reciprocal pedagogy, had been engineered into a space where workloads crushed them, took them away from their students, and where the students were seen by management merely as units by which income was accrued. At my university the dispute was about just this: working conditions that were destroying any meaningful manifestation of teaching and learning, coupled with the Sisyphean toil of REF, TEF, and other punitive acronyms. What was the space we now stood outside of? What was it we were fighting for? What was the space of our protest? In his contribution to the Sheffield anthology, an account of the rescuing of the contents of a library, Brian Lewis writes that
The spaces of the city are always coming into use, or falling out of use. [I think of] the new work made possible by and in those spaces, what did we do without them, what will we do when they’re gone. The links are broken, the histories wiped. It must be acknowledged, there must be a record. The spaces of the city did not appear or disappear by themselves, they did not find or lose their mark on the map without a fight. It was not for nothing. 
The picket line, cold and wet as it was, was also a space for hope, for noting not just those colleagues and students who crossed it, but also those who stood strong, all across the university. It was a space for friendship: I met not just academics from my department to whom I had not before spoken, but also those from other departments and disciplines: biosciences, languages, the business school. It was a space for transformative pedagogy, speaking to twenty-year-old students who had never experienced a picket line, didn’t know what an industrial dispute even was, didn’t know that their lecturers were paid for only twenty minutes to mark a three-thousand word essay, didn’t know that lecturers often worked fifty- and sixty-hour weeks, giving up their evenings and weekends to try and stay on top of their workloads, hearing those students say they supported us, and to see some of them join us on the line. To explain to casual and zero-hours staff that yes, they could join the union, that for them membership was free, and that yes, they could strike, and be supported: to have them take the card from your hand. It was a space for celebration: to wave at the bus drivers, taxi drivers, postal workers who beeped their horns in support. To stand up to those jeering ‘greedy lazy commies’ from across the street, and realise how quickly one is seen as ‘other’ when one stands up, placard in hand, to smile with renewed determination. To thank the passers-by who, unbidden, dropped giant bags of sweets into the strike fund bucket, brought hot drinks, bacon sandwiches. To thank the café over the road who let us use their loos and warm up (big up to Hygge, who were endlessly welcoming, and who also offer a free piece of fruit with every drink purchased). It was a space where there was possibility.
All these considerations persisted into the evening, both in the performances, and into the discussions that continued until closing time. Ideas of labour, ideas of education, ideas of community, resistance, and comradeship. As the university is destroyed, where might the spaces of meaningful pedagogy and enquiry be? Rachel Smith’s performance of ‘Lines that Echo’—reading and drawing into the text as she read—proposed that ‘still the library remains a stopping point on any line’,  and Pete Green’s ‘Pulp’ imagines a future city in which the people repurposed their communal spaces after all the public libraries have been closed, in which a pub is also a transformative space.
Bar staff go among the tables, set down pencils,
notepaper. The lights fall low.
Walls revolve, reveal banks of bookcases unseen
since the joint converted. Deprived
eyes fall on spines and titles, lap up possibilities.
A tenor sax fugues jazz.
Thirsting for print, the guests make for the shelves,
furtiveness half forgotten, seizing
on samizdat anthologies, a transgressive history
of needlecraft, the atlases
they only heard rumours of… 
We sat in the top room of The Rutland Arms, performances over, and talked of labour, of how our withdrawal thereof had suddenly made it visible (whatever the outcome of the strike) to management, to students. Sharon Kivland had travelled from London that day, and had got up at three o’clock in the morning to get the night bus to St Pancras station. She spoke of her fellow passengers on that bus, of the labour that is hidden from us, the night workers, largely people of colour, largely immigrants, exploited, paid peanuts, without whom the daytime world could not exist. We talked of what a university might be. What if it could be free again? What if anyone could go, regardless of prior qualifications? What if students could move freely between disciplines, study for as long or as short as they wanted? What if there were no grades, no awards? What if the purpose of learning was learning and life? Sharon had ended the performances (after an earlier reading of her contribution ‘Reisemalheurs’ which considers, via Freud, the anxieties of travelling between cities),  with a reading from Sean Bonney’s recent collection Our Death.  I can’t now remember the poem, only the feeling with which her reading filled the room: the feeling that even though something had died, we would, somehow, carry on. Later, when we were drunk with alcohol and with comradeship, she reminded us that for centuries people had come together as we had done in cities all over the world, gathering in small rooms just like the one at The Rutland, talking about what could be, about a struggle towards.
Onwards, comrades. Emma Bolland, 2020, X.
The Sheffield anthology, edited by Emma Bolland, was published in 2019 as part of Dostoyevsky Wannabe’s ‘Cities’ series, which includes titles from Bristol, Manchester, Santiago, and Paris, with Pittsburgh, Boston, Birmingham and Amsterdam due in 2020. The contributors to Sheffield are: Helen Blejerman, Angelina D’Roza, Daniel Eltringham, Tim Etchells, Louise Finney, Rachel Genn, Pete Green, Linda Kemp, Sharon Kivland, Joanne Lee, Elise Legal, Brian Lewis, A. B. G. Murray, and Rachel Smith. You can buy the book here: https://www.dostoyevskywannabe.com/cities/sheffield
Emma Bolland is an artist and writer who works experimentally with literatures, translations, script and screenwriting, performance, drawing, and the moving image. This includes an investigation of the problematics and ambiguities of an expanded understanding of translation—between languages and language codes, and between modes of writing, reading and speaking. She is a co-editor at Gordian Projects, a small press operating at the intersection of artist’s book, art writing, and archive, and a Specialist Visiting Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University for the MFA/MA/BA Fine Art.
- Peter Riley, ‘Untitled’, in XIV PIECES, Sheffield: Longbarrow Press, 2012.
- Emma Bolland (ed.), Sheffield, Manchester: Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2019. The first launch of the book was held as part of the Off the Shelf literary festival in October 2019, with readings from Helen Blejerman, Angelina D’Roza, Louise Finney, Rachel Genn, Pete Green, Joanne Lee, and Brian Lewis.
- Emma Bolland, ‘FOREWORD; or, an Incomplete A-Z of Sheffield’, in Sheffield, Manchester: Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2019, pp. 9–11.
- Sean Bonney (1969–2019) was a poet and activist who performed his work at protests, in occupations, in seminar rooms, on picket lines, in the back rooms of pubs and at international poetry festivals. His poetry has been translated into several languages.
- Linda Kemp, ‘…ideas become dangerous again…’, in Sheffield, pp. 131–40.
- Brian Lewis, ‘Local Distribution’, in Sheffield, pp. 185–95.
- Rachel Smith, ‘Lines that Echo’, in Sheffield, pp. 223–33.
- Pete Green, ‘Pulp’, in Sheffield, pp. 113–28.
- Sharon Kivland ‘Reisemalheurs’, in Sheffield, pp. 143–157.
- Sean Bonney, Our Death, Oakland, CA: Commune Editions, 2019.
My latest book with Longbarrow Press – Rock as Gloss – is full of various characters, some made of geology’s processes and others made of meat-&-bone, some wild animals & others animals of culture, and some of them entirely fictioned, and others drawn from the actual human world. At the very end of last August my partner Nikki & I enjoyed some time with one of the actual humans that Rock as Gloss engages with. The following is an expression of an afternoon of being with large pebbles (or little boulders) & Johnny Dawes (click on the images to view the caption to each photograph). Before we begin though, I will give you the note from Rock as Gloss’s Gloss of Rockery, that refers to Johnny:
Johnny Dawes is often described as a legend of British climbing. During the 1980s he produced the first rock-climbs to be graded E8 & E9 (the E standing for extreme). Dawes is an artist of sorts – a unique visionary & practitioner of movement-&-adhesion. He is also a profoundly gifted poetic climber-writer.
If You Go Up To Higger Today
Johnny is wearing a bright yellow t-shirt, a white golf cap, shorts, red socks, and also a pair of jaggedly-patterned-sportily-branded trail-running shoes. Sunshine sings off Johnny’s torso. The sky is wearing a bright blue sharp suit … uniform … but because of Johnny’s clownish brilliance, this precise sky is now all-ready relaxing … and laughing too … now our sky today wears a few white chiffon ruffles, and is even this very now suddenly waving gentle cloud-hankies … all sporting! … all so over the top, and leaving itself wide … wide open … open to be accused of being some kind of fop … way … way up … up its own farce … But this collaborating sky also makes a clean late August breeze hiss across Higger’s top, and gently weesh in Higger’s grasses, and then rub Higger’s grit with a blunter sound of air. And this is just simply beautiful, and utterly present. An invisible scurrying is a circling transparent cat settling on its cushion …
Johnny wonders if what we are doing today could be called ‘pebble-wrestling’, or perhaps ‘frictioneering’. He talks of the little helicopter that must land on each toe-tip step to show the places we can or must land our bodies’ intentions (but not our minds’!). The dark pellets of sheep-droppings, haphazardly spread in the grit-dust or presentation-placed on brillo-pad tufts, are part of a fairytale trail out of the maze, or better, deeper into it … into a place in which place is digested. And the mass of flying ants in the air, and some of them that grapple with my arm-hairs, these lusty specks are all taking part in Johnny Python’s Pebble Circus. And yes, of course, there is something irreverent and Englishly rude about this clown … but also he is hugely generous … his way of drawing passers-by into having a go at handless climbing … see the performer handing out gifts of precision standing, walking, running, and leaping … and all on un-cliffs, on nothing higher than his yellow-t-shirted chest. And none of the passers-by have a clue of just who the grit-wizard is … and the wizard loves that fact …
Often, over the years, I’ve walked across this top above Higger, the small boulders laid out like a colony of utterly still beings hunkered into deep time. And I have stood on some of them and also jumped from one to t’other. But today we get to see the stone’s secret textures. (And we realise that we could act ually believe that these stones were always wai ting for us.) Johnny is moving his head side-to-side, Bollywood-dancer-owl-style – he is showing Nikki how to see the rugosities rise and fall, and how footholds dance with what Johnny has understood as a particular kind of parallax, special to one who wishes to connect her-his-its-their mineral frame to that of the Earth’s … limitless genders …
Johnny is now gently plugged, by his feet, into a small tor that is fractal-exactly the same shape of the little cloud six or so thousand feet up in the blue and some nineteen miles north-north west of this gritty here. Stanage is way off at the back, a line of knuckles on a keyboard of geology, and just across the way opposite us Burbage is arranging absolute stillness at an incredible speed. Both edges partaking of and freely giving out the sweet silent sounds of what Johnny calls foot-notes. And here we are miniaturised amongst this thisness, focusing in on the grains of grit, and the most primitive of human gestures: that one where your throat wobbles to make … a gurgle sound that is hard to explain … yes, Higger is laughing with infinities of grit, and we are laughing with it … her … him … them …
This piece is massively informed by the insights & concepts of Johnny Dawes, who, over the last couple of decades, has been working extremely hard to condense and clarify his special understanding of stone & movement into artistic expression … but also into a series of clear instructions that can be shared with a variety of others …
Mark Goodwin‘s publications include All Space Away and In (Shearsman, 2017), Steps (Longbarrow Press, 2014), and a new collection, Rock as Gloss (Longbarrow Press, 2019), a category finalist for the 2019 Banff Mountain Book Competition. Click here to visit the Rock as Gloss microsite for extracts, essays and audio recordings. You can also order the hardback via PayPal below:
I finished walking last month, and now the writing’s done. In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau claims that the act of “walking is a space of enunciation”. The word “enunciation” means declaration, assertion, elucidation, a setting forth. Meridian is all these things. Charles Olson’s spatial poetics—“I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America”—both grounds and alienates me. I will insert myself.
Most of what I write is written through research, and Meridian is no exception. Part I opens with an epigraph from Robert Moor’s book, On Trails: An Exploration: “The key difference between a trail and a path is directional: paths extend forward, whereas trails extend backward.” This helps establish the context in terms of presence and absence, of moving forward whilst remembering backward.
My first book, Tokaido Road, was informed by ekphrasis and research into Japanese woodblock print art, and particularly the artist Hiroshige. Continental Drift includes the long poem “Po-wa-ha”, which was informed by Susan Magoffin’s Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico, as well as Essays in Landscape Theory, The Untold Story of the Making of the Atomic Bomb, and books on New Mexico’s history and geology.
During the writing of Part II of Meridian, I discovered For the Time Being, a book of poetic journals edited by Tyler Doherty and Tom Morgan. As these authors define it, a poetic journal literally means “a making from the day” or “a day’s making”. Poetic journals are not reportage, but embodied experience, comprising descriptions of the environment (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches) along with gazelle leaps and associative connections in sound or sense. Journal writing can consist of poetry, fiction, non-fiction. Weather, season and time of day are essential elements—as are place names. Procedurally, it is documentary in both senses of the word: it documents first-hand experience in a specific place at a specific time, but it also incorporates and manipulates found text. It’s meditative and reflective, in the same way that walking is. It doesn’t know where it’s going or how it’s going to get there. It is a physical, emotional and intellectual engagement with the day. Meridian arises from the poetic journal.
I chose to write Meridian as a long poem. Various forms are employed: the epistolary poem, the acrostic, the prose poem, but mainly, an open field poetics predominates. In a similar way to Tokaido Road, the poem is arranged in the sequence of named places along the pathways and trails that are situated along the Greenwich Meridian line from Peacehaven to Sand le Mere. But unlike Tokaido, which was a journey of the imagination, this work is based on an actual journey where I walked sometimes a day at a time, sometimes two, and sometimes four. The movement was not east to west, but south to north. I chose a four-part structure, based on the series of guidebooks I used to map the walk, and within each part, the poem is subdivided by an Ordnance Survey Map. The work as a whole contains fragments of song and poetry alongside snatches of TV dialogue, information from guide books, film flashbacks, all gathered together through the act of walking. While I planned each walk, I never planned the content of the poem, which always emerged from the walk itself. Along the way, I made notes, took photographs, recorded sounds including my own voice and footsteps, collected information from churches, museums, local newspapers, the people I met. After each walk, I would assemble this information and begin to write up the day. This would normally take about a week. I started in July 2015, and finished in August 2017. The shortest walk was about 7 miles; the longest 21. I walked 21 miles on two consecutive days in Lincolnshire, where the countryside was so vast, and the distances so great, that I would walk for 6 hours without seeing another person or even a road. I walked in blazing sun, freezing fog, ice, hail storms, rain. Mostly I walked alone, with two exceptions. Kat Peddie accompanied me through part of Epping Forest. And at Waltham Abbey, I actually met, entirely by accident, Graham and Hilda Heap, the authors of the guide book I was using. They walked with me a couple of miles that day. At the end of each day’s walk, I would return home (when I was near enough to do so), but when I got too far away, I would spend the night with a friend or in rooms above a pub or a B&B (in Lincolnshire). I have walked on blisters that bled, and I lost five toenails.
Writers such as Zoe Skoulding (in her book Contemporary Women’s Poetry & Urban Space) and Donna Stonecipher (Prose Poetry and the City) consider the city as a space of experiment for women writers, but there has not been much attention paid to rural space. This relates to another aspect of psychogeography that remains critical to my work: the desire to raise awareness of the natural, ecological and cultural environment around the walker, and thus the act of walking is enunciation/declaration as political and critical response to the status quo.
Part III begins in winter. It’s titled “Hardwick to Boston” and is located in the Fens. The poem begins with December 5: “the day of fracture / time & everything / is out of joint”. It starts with a walk through the Fens in fog so thick that, in the absence of any visible landmark, I had to use a compass to find my way, and it ends in the spring with a hailstorm. The reading which lends this section cohesion is Paul Celan’s The Meridian essay, which I discovered at Christmastime. This is a complex and elusive text which is Celan’s manifesto on what poetry is after the holocaust. It was delivered on the occasion of his receiving the Büchner Prize in Literature (1960). Pierre Joris recently undertook the mammoth job of translating its four parallel versions from German to English. There are so many things to think about in this essay; you cannot exhaust it. For example, it seems to say that the poem lies in the future of remembering, where remembering occurs across specific coordinates of time and place. Thus, Part III is a haunted text. It ends with an ode to Celan’s Meridian and juxtaposes some of the phrases from his essay into my poem and its thinking about poetry in time and place. So Part III is both a walking poem and a statement of poetics.
As I was walking and writing Part IV (Boston to Sand le Mere) I discovered two more remarkable books. Tim Ingold’s Lines: A Brief History is a fascinating meditation on the multiple meanings of the word ‘line’ which takes in everything from forest tracks to genealogies. I preface Part IV with a sentence from his book: “The line, like life, has no end.” The other writer, Rebecca Solnit, I had known about, but had not read A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Both of these writers took me back to the start of the project, which was motivated, in part, by a fascination with lines.
In the beginning the poem originated out of the fear of getting lost. Solnit helped me to view this from a different perspective: “One does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography.” She illustrates this quality with reference to the Pit River Indians who refer to a certain man as “wandering”. Under certain conditions of mental stress, when someone finds their life too much to bear, they will start to wander around the country aimlessly. She compares this to Virginia Woolf, who also knew despair, and it led her to fill her pockets with rocks and walk into the River Ouse. “It’s not about being lost but trying to lose your self.” Wheels within wheels. In Tokaido Road, there is a poem about Woolf. It is poem 50: Tsuchiyama. The River Ouse passes through Sussex; I walked along it during Part I. There is another, different River Ouse in Cambridgeshire; and yet another that empties into the Humber Estuary. This word “Ouse” derives from Celtic and means “water”. From now on, my pathways would be watery ones, leading me to the Humber Estuary, where several rivers flow, draining one-fifth of England. At the time I was walking, several disturbing events were happening, and these were weighing heavily as I walked, and so Part IV opens with a lament.
The trouble with ending a project like this is the reluctance to let it go. As I neared the end of the walk, I could hardly bear to finish it and both literally and figuratively kept dragging my feet. Should it find a publisher, that will be a final kind of letting go.
N.B.: this essay was first drafted in October 2017 (at the close of the Meridian project). Meridian was published by Longbarrow Press in February 2019 (see below for further details). ‘The First Cut’, a recent post for the Longbarrow Blog, reflects on the early stages of the project’s development; you can read it here.
Meridian, the third full-length collection by Nancy Gaffield, is available now from Longbarrow Press. You can read an excerpt from Part II here and a poem from Part IV here. Visit the Meridian site for further details and to order the collection; you can also order the book by clicking on the relevant PayPal link below.
Meridian: £12.99 (hardback)
Nancy Gaffield’s first collection of poetry, Tokaido Road (CB editions 2011) was nominated for the Forward Best First Collection Prize and was awarded the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize that year. Her second collection, Owhere (Templar 2012) won a Templar Poetry Pamphlet Award that year. Subsequent poetry publications include Continental Drift (Shearsman 2014), the chapbooks Zyxt (Oystercatcher 2015) and Meridian (Oystercatcher 2016), and a libretto, Tokaido Road: A Journey after Hiroshige (Shearsman 2014). Meridian is her first collection with Longbarrow Press.
Click here to read ‘Mirror Image’, Brian Lewis‘s recent survey of the poetry of Nancy Gaffield (by way of Eratosthenes, Solnit, Muybridge and Hiroshige) for the Longbarrow Blog.
What does the word sublime mean to you? For many, it connotes the grandeur of certain natural landscapes – rugged, mountainous vistas with the potential to inspire awe, and perhaps a sort of departure from the everyday. We inherit this understanding from the Romantics, for whom magnificent scenery offers a kind of transformative power which heightens the poet’s perception.
This power typically reveals connections between the poet, the natural world, human society, and sometimes a deity or immanent creative force. These connections are often profound and esoteric, and inaccessible except through this kind of sublime revelation. When the poet comes to mediate this experience into verse, their tone is typically one of wonder, their language ‘elevated’ far above the everyday.
In Wordsworth’s case the kind of scenery that offers an experience of the sublime is found in the Cumberland fells. Other Romantic poets look further afield – Shelley, for example, to Mont Blanc in the Alps.
This experience of the sublime might have been a long way removed from the everyday lives of most people in Wordsworth’s time. But this was at least a time when those lives were largely connected quite intimately with the natural environment. After two hundred years of urbanisation in the developed world, we find ourselves profoundly estranged from that natural environment and the Romantic sublime is less accessible to most of us than ever.
True, we can take walks in the countryside. We can visit the Lake District or (if we can afford it) the Alps. On those occasions when we are permitted to ‘connect with nature’, though, our potential experience of the Romantic sublime has been pre-empted by visual media. We’ve seen those places a thousand times in photographs, film and television. We can never perceive those landscapes in the same way as our forebears in the era before mass communication.
As a reader or a writer of poetry in 2019, then, you might be tempted to discard any notion of the sublime as an experience of place. Instead I would suggest looking somewhere different.
Wordsworth’s contemporary John Clare was born into the agricultural labouring classes and spent his life in the pleasant but unspectacular landscape of rural Northamptonshire. He found glimpses of the sublime not in majestic scenery but in the smaller details: the motion of a robin, or the sounds of thawing ice and snow.
Clare demonstrates how the sublime might be reconfigured in terms of both scale and location – from the grandiose to the humble, and from the notable to the obscure. In doing this he offers us some cues towards an understanding of how we might find a kind of transcendence in poetry (and perhaps other art forms) today.
When I come across this characteristic in new poetry, I think of it as a sort of ‘provincial sublime’. It’s typically located in scenes that are ostensibly mundane or inconsequential, often marginal in some sense, often where the natural and the built environment interact. They are obscure places. They may embody some kind of social, economic or environmental dysfunction. A sort of transcendence is attained in these locations through a particular gaze, which might narrow down to those small details or expand outward into an imagined or remembered wider landscape.
If you are watching a Boeing Dreamliner taking off from Heathrow for Singapore, there is no Romantic sublime to be encountered in the humdrum periphery of west London. But you might think about the hundreds of passengers on board, and conjure some riff on the grand sweep of humanity. You might consider the many intertwined processes – technical, industrial, financial, political and personal – that have combined to lift and propel this 250-tonne mass of glass, kerosene, titanium, and human flesh and bone over your head. You might reflect that these processes can also move backwards, and when Concorde served the route the same journey could have been made 40 years ago in half the time.
Or you might focus on the gentle swaying of the rosebay willowherb at the airport fence below.
Here are two poems, with very different tones but some similarities of form, which seem to me to relate to this notion of the provincial sublime. The first is from Natalie Burdett.
you’re blossoming new curves. A warm glow skims
them, ribbons out across your city roofs
from Selfridges’ bright aluminium discs
to flick around the library’s gold hoops.
At night a colder, more fluorescent sheen
accentuates your skyline’s harder-edged
old towers. Polished steel casts well-built beams
of light which flash back from wet tarmac beds.
Inside the markets people claim a space.
Chermoula chicken couscous in deep bowls
steams up the glass; revives, illuminates
the dust-grey faces, highlights natural tones.
Outside, down low where nothing shines at all,
a sycamore seed sprouts against a wall. 
Burdett’s Birmingham is a scene not of decline and dysfunction but of renewal. The distinctive “new curves” of the library and the Selfridges building are both 21st-century additions to the landscape. Although the expansive, rooftop-roaming gaze of the first two stanzas narrows down to a human level in the third, the celebratory tone remains, and the focus remains on the built environment rather than the natural. Neither prepare the reader for the quietly astonishing final couplet.
And that, in fact, is the point. The understated power of this closure derives precisely from its reversal of expectations. The richness and gleam of the regenerated cityscape, together with the convention of the sonnet form, invite the reader to anticipate an even grander, further-reaching finale. But the gaze becomes narrower still and, in a wonderfully surprising twist, shifts abruptly from the built environment to the tiny interloping organism from the natural world.
The bathos here is profound enough to prompt a reappraisal of what has gone before. Is the city’s much-heralded revamp somehow all in vain? Will human endeavour forever be overtaken by the natural environment that preceded it? Regeneration has been practised by urban planners only in the few decades of the post-industrial era – but nature has been doing it for countless millennia.
Matthew Clegg’s poem ‘Open to the Sky’ is rooted not in a city but an unnamed location, recognisably neither urban nor rural. There is no sign here of any form of regeneration, just glimpses of an inaccessible otherness.
Open to the Sky
England – my England – amounts to this:
a Hull-bound train stalling by a landfill;
gulls and crows scatter from the rubbish
and delay evolves into total standstill.
This is no more than I deserve, no less.
If I ever dream, the place is unable
to deliver. The big guy opposite
sucks on his Coke, bites deep in his burger.
He unwraps The Matrix DVD box set.
His balding fleece is endorsed by NASA.
We live on what we find. Like crows. Like gulls.
The sun ebbs and the landfill loses colour.
Lacking anything else, two teenage girls
take photo after photo of each other. 
If western society in the 20th century was characterised by social and technological advances in tandem, then perhaps the defining feature of the 21st is the way technology has continued to race ahead while social and perhaps cultural progress – like the train in Clegg’s poem – has stalled. Advances in technology are no longer driven predominantly by the need to solve a problem or improve society: some items and services seem to be developed and marketed simply because they can be.
It’s this disconnect between possibility and reality – “If I ever dream, the place is unable//to deliver” – that defines ‘Open to the Sky’ and sets its tone of matter-of-fact desolation. The girls’ cameraphone and the mention of NASA remind us what miracles can be achieved by human ingenuity, but the concept of space exploration makes for a sharply ironic contrast with this rickety, paralysed locomotive and the predicament of its stranded passengers.
In the end, while the adjacent landfill stands replete with rubbish, the stalled train comes to emblematise another kind of waste. Instead of merely salvaging scraps, how much more could all these passengers be doing now, had a functional railway already taken them to their destination, or a functional society delivered on their dreams? The image of the girls photographing each other just for something to do is not a reversal, in the style of Burdett’s closing couplet, but is equally arresting, even as it completes the sense of malaise. Outside of war poetry, it’s perhaps as complete and devastating a symbol of futility as you will ever find.
If we insist upon the notion of sublime that developed two centuries ago, in an utterly different world, then we’ll not find it in the poetry being written today in Yorkshire or Birmingham, or any other post-industrial setting. If, on the other hand, we understand the sublime to be defined by a sort of transcendence from one’s immediate surroundings – rather than necessarily by beautiful or majestic settings, and a tone of great wonder – then it is there for our taking.
‘Birmingham’ toys delightfully with our expectations, skipping adeptly between scales and scopes, and snatches us away from human vanity to point out the timeless endurance of nature. ‘Open to the Sky’ hints at a magnificence or redemption that is insurmountably elsewhere, offering a bitterly ironic kind of transcendence. In their different ways, in similar forms, both poems represent a model of the sublime that is perfectly attuned to our times.
 The “dust-grey faces” of the market people here reprise the “sleep-stupid faces” of factory workers in another study of the second city, by Louis MacNeice, dating from the 1930s and also entitled ‘Birmingham’.
 When cameraphones first became available, owners typically lacked ideas for their everyday use. For the technology to acquire a widely perceived purpose, a culture shift was also necessary; this followed later, when social media lifted some of the stigma around narcissism, as seen in the normalisation of the selfie.
 Regular users of Northern Rail, which serves the Hull region, will need no reminder that its fleet still comprises many obsolete Pacer units, built in the mid-1980s with an anticipated lifespan of 20 years.
Images by Pete Green. An earlier version of this essay was presented at Modern Nature, a two-day symposium (organised by The University of Sheffield) at The Hepworth, Wakefield, 25-26 April 2019.
Pete Green’s Sheffield Almanac is available from Longbarrow Press; click here to order the pamphlet. An earlier 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’.
Pete Green and Anders Hanson lead a walk through Sheffield’s Kelham Island district on Wednesday 3 July (as part of From Brooklyn Works to Brooklynism, a programme of exhibitions and free events). Click here for more information and to book tickets.
a poet as rock – an attempt to gloss
Andrei Tarkovsky identified the specific material with which art-cinema works – time. He said that it’s obvious a musical composer works with sound, and that a writer’s material is words, a painter’s is colour, and a potter’s clay … Tarkovsky realised that the artist film-maker sculpts in time. A material of memory!
‘Where will they put [time]?’
‘They won’t put it anywhere. Time isn’t a thing,
it’s an idea. It’ll die out in the mind.’
I feel enlightened by and confident in Tarkovsky’s explaining that cinema is made out of time (or rather, perhaps that should be ‘from’ time?). And I’m comfortable that obviously a sculptor’s material could be marble, and that a musician’s is sound. But I’m not so sure about a writer’s material … or rather I’m not so sure about Tarkovsky being right about the material a poet works with. And in turn this starts to make me doubt whether a poet is actually a writer … because writers do … of course, of a matter of course … work with words …
But to say a poet works with words, that is, perhaps, like saying a rock-climber works with stone. Of cause [sic], a writer works with words, in the same way that a map-maker works with symbols that represent geometry that represent ground … that …
… But what is it that a rock-climber works with? What is a rock-climber’s material? Am I being foolish, to assume that a rock-climber makes something, that a climber is a maker? Yes, perhaps being a fool is the point, or a point … in time … or out … of time …
A person has one body,
Singleton, all on its own,
The soul has had more than enough
Of being cooped up inside
A casing with ears and eyes
The size of a five-penny piece
And skin – just scar after scar –
Covering a structure of bone.
A map-maker works on paper (or at least they used to!). A climber moves on … (or is that with?) … rock. If we are to believe, remembering that just like the word ‘fool’, ‘belief’ is a vital word for human-ness … if we are to believe, or rather if I am to believe … that a climber is a maker, that a climber in the act of climbing creates some ‘thing’ … then what is it that they make? The produce of the map-maker is their (or our?) map, made out of symbols of measurements. The produce of the/a writer is an/the … essay … prose … a novel … a story … a narrative … fiction … journalism … The Tweet! Where does a poem happen? When? What is it made of? Where from? Does it happen on the rock’s surface, or start deep down amongst strata, way back in deep time … or is it only now held in (the) memory, that sensation of fingers pressing against gritstone, or toes jammed into a sharp slate crack? The particular layout of holds … and textures on the rock’s surface … did the first climber to find that pattern, or put that pattern together … make the holds? And what of the climbers who follow after that first ascent? What do they make of it? What did they make of it? What will … ?
The road is mirrored in your tearful eyes
Like bushes in a flooded field at dusk,
I love … and I think that is the right word … I love to see light change the expressions of stone. How Stanage Edge is made of light and not rock, or at least it is made of light if I just watch … but … it is with … out any doubt in … my body … when I touch … it … made … of gritstone (and perhaps ‘from’ that substance too) … and when I remember my moving on the rock (or with the rock?), and I recall the resonance of other climbers having moved there also, and remember that others will also move in tune with the stone(’s) pattern(s) … at the ‘same’ point in space … but … long after I’m gone … then this memory feels …
… like a gleam, a glossy trembling, a smoothness just … vibrating over the rock’s rough surface …
In answer to each step you take
The earth rings in your ears.
First quote: from The Possessed, Fyodor Dostoevsky,
quoted by Andrei Tarkovsky in ‘Imprinted Time’
(chapter 3 of Sculpting in Time).
Second quote: the first stanza of Eurydice,
by Arseniy Tarkovsky (Andrei’s father),
(translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair). This poem
is spoken in Tarkovsky’s film Mirror.
Third quote: first two lines of the second stanza
of Ignatievo Forest, by Arseniy Tarkovsky
(translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair).
This poem is also heard in Mirror.
Fourth quote: the last two lines
of Eurydice, by Arseniy Tarkovsky.
Image: Hen Cloud by Paul Evans (click here to view his paintings, drawings and poems for the Seven Wonders project). Mark Goodwin’s publications include All Space Away and In (Shearsman, 2017), Steps (Longbarrow Press, 2014), and a new collection, Rock as Gloss (Longbarrow Press, 2019). Click here to visit the Rock as Gloss microsite for extracts, essays and audio recordings. You can also order the hardback via PayPal below:
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. 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?
 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). Click here to read ‘The Last Step’, a further reflection on the walking and writing of Meridian.
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)
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.
On the ninth of November 2018, climbers Paul Evans & Mark Goodwin performed together at the Kendal Mountain Literature Festival.
The following cycle of seven
poem-photo-combinations is drawn
from that experience.
All photos are by Nikki Clayton.
to say a
to tear an
caught in a
edy or trag
as a bran
dow light as
our own I
and even as won
even as now a
est reflected gest
tence has lit
Artist Paul Evans has collaborated with a number of Longbarrow Press poets in recent years; click here to view the paintings, drawings and poems for the Seven Wonders project. His main website can be found here.
Mark Goodwin’s publications include All Space Away and In (Shearsman, 2017) and Rock as Gloss (out from Longbarrow Press in late January 2019). His fourth poetry collection, Steps (Longbarrow Press, 2014), explores themes of climbing, walking and balancing. These themes are developed in his new collection, Rock as Gloss. Click here to visit the Rock as Gloss microsite for extracts, essays and audio recordings. You can also order the hardback via PayPal below:
Out in the Channel, the dead water
shines like melted wax. Behind in the dark
is England; ahead in the dark, France
and everything untold.
A raw winter’s afternoon. A track peters out into stones and earth, a slight slump in the middle of fields. Pylons step across the dun-grey landscape. We can see maybe two miles in each direction, a horizon of copses, hamlets, farms.
This is – more or less – where my great-grandfather Albert Brown was killed. We don’t know exactly: he wasn’t an officer, so the diary entry has only a few details, including the pencilled word ‘killed’, at the end of the brief record for the 26th February 1917. He was 37 and had been in France about six weeks; he left Annie to bring up six children.
His body wasn’t found. The buzzing pylon and surrounding scrub don’t feel like markers: we’ve just run out of track. We stand freezing for a few seconds, my dad and me; then we go back to the car.
The villages are ancient and they aren’t. Aerial photographs from 1918 show nothing but dark weals; yet here are hedgerows, huge trees, honey-stoned cottages and walls. Graveyards cluster along the lanes, the same stone cut into trim slabs and lined up, almost touching. Everything is small and close: 100 graves in a garden plot; six villages in a ten-minute drive. A dozen fields run down to the Ancre. I look at the maps from 1914, 1916, 1917. The villages disappeared but the red lines were more or less the same. Men came up that road, year after year, and were killed. When it was finished people came back, rebuilt their houses, planted trees, ploughed the land again.
Around Ypres, over the border in Belgium, farmers call it the Iron Harvest. Each year their ploughs uncover munitions, barbed wire, remnants of rifles. Sometimes the flotsam of older conflicts turns up – lead and iron from the Napoleonic Wars (known, until 1918, as the ‘Great War’) and the Hundred Years’ War.
Digging down takes me through horrors in the cultural strata. Wilfred Owen (who fought in the same fields as Albert) and David Jones; Napoleonic Frankenstein and his monstrous progeny, Goya and his; the macabre paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, who lived in the shadow of the Hundred Years’ War (three million killed); and Thomas Malory, knight, possible veteran of France, probable career criminal. Here is a rough-stitched portmanteau of French romances and Celtic myth, spun with Christian morality and nationalism for the domestic market; and at its core, capacious and contradictory, the heroic, doomed quest of a fading empire. Bones jut out of the earth: men sent to fight someone else’s battles. Those returning tell horror stories, or stay silent.
In his introduction to Malory’s Works, Eugène Vinaver is confident that Thomas Malory fought, not only in the Hundred Years’ War but later (on the losing Lancastrian side) in the Wars of the Roses. These events, along with the long list of indictments and imprisonments, make him something of a Falstaffian figure. In this context, the Tale of the Sankgreal appears to occupy the same political ground as Shakespeare’s Histories: an attempt to curry (or, in Malory’s case, rekindle) political favour in turbulent times.
The narrative, unwieldy as it often seems (ellipses and non-sequiturs abound), can be summarised around a basic theme: the attempt to resurrect national unity of a once-great polity in the face of fading influence and factionalism. The Shakespearean seed-sowing in the first pages makes it clear not only that something is rotten, but that we are invited to anticipate a tragic arc. Gawain, as Arthur’s nephew (and first champion), feels duty bound to announce the quest to find the Holy Grail with which the maimed king can be healed and the waste land made whole again. There are signs and wonders but also personal and political intrigues, centred round Launcelot (the current beste knight of the worlde) and his illegitimate son Galahad, newly arrived at court and stirring difficult emotions in his lover Guinevere. Arthur fears the worst – his grete sorowe lies in his reckoning that
my trew felyshyp shall never mete here more agayne.
A doomed adventure, then – but one in the course of which the destiny of the nation is played out through the lives and reckonings of individuals. A mask of confusion is sustained through a range of contemporary literary conventions (dream visions, ‘miracles’, and predestined occurrences) – as well as events and moods which for a modern audience bring to mind Gothic (revivalist) novels, grand guignol theatre, Bergman backlighting (school of Malory’s near-contemporary Brueghel), or the ketchup and screams of Hammer films. Whether following the dismal trails of the knights over heaths and through forests, entering the ghost ship with Percivale (where his dead sister lies, having sacrificed herself to the Grail’s thirst for blood), or witnessing the ‘elevation’ of the berserker Galahad, we are consumed by a dreadful trajectory. The achievement of the Grail by the pure means death; failure means a return to a home that is unchanged – and yet which is now estranged by the experience of those that undertook the quest. When Launcelot and Bors embrace in the final scene, we see them with a modern sensibility – as survivors of trauma.
Europe was full of wanderers
and sickness: men who’d tracked
the Grail roads and found only wastes
and dark versions of themselves.
A picture on the cover of a book, Forgotten Voices of the Great War. The book is full of personal accounts; but it was the cover, hand-coloured, that got me. Three injured soldiers walking towards us through a wrecked landscape, their faces bearing witness to horrors we can never know. They could be the ‘champions’ of Malory’s Quest who return, damaged but alive, to tell their tales of prowess, ultimately to fall quiet, broken, perhaps, by survivors’ guilt. In that story it is those who don’t return – Galahad and Percivale in particular – who are most celebrated: pure, heroic, ‘whole’ men whose sacrifice is the ultimate, ennobling destiny.
The soldiers in the photograph – two British, one French – walk in step, arms linked in fellowship. What binds them – the shared experience of war – won’t help them in their return to the everyday. The felyship of the Round Table, that necessary prerequisite to soldiery, cannot ultimately make a kingdom whole:
And ye have sene that they have loste hir fadirs and
hir modirs and all hir kynne, and hir wyves and hir
chyldren, for to be of youre felyship.
Albert signed up in 1915, before the slaughter of the Somme brought in conscription. It’s easy to imagine how a community can persuade its lads to go to war (or at least, ensure that any act of objection is made in the face of wholesale disapproval, even disgust): but a working, family man in his thirties? The 2/5th wasn’t a Pals battalion; nor was it likely, at the time of his enlistment (it was a Territorial battalion), to involve front-line service. The initial optimism of 1914 had begun to harden into a grimmer view: the sense was growing that the war would be long-lasting and attritional. In all likelihood, it was with a more general sense of ‘doing his bit’ that Albert joined up. No longer an adventure, it was still a just cause: in fact, as the casualties continued to mount, men still at home would have felt an increasing responsibility to play their part.
At home he dreamed of this:
his brothers’ bodies cast
on the mud, piled like logs
for the earth’s winter.
Edward Thomas was the same age as Albert when he was killed at Arras a few weeks after him – and he enlisted at a similar time. He had prevaricated, his conscience wrestling with a sense of, if not duty, then fellowship: an identification with his fellow countrymen and the physical connection with territory which is central to his poetry – and which provides a deep and enduring bond between him and his ‘tribe’. Most Englishmen in the early twentieth century had not travelled abroad, and had no sense of shared identity with ‘foreigners’. If the chain of events which led to war was political, it was nationhood, an emotional concept based on a sense of belonging – and, necessarily, not belonging – which provided an army. Though much is made of the power of community coercion – the Pals, the white feathers – millions of men joined up voluntarily in 1914–15 to protect their own against the ‘other’.
It is argued that the period of the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) saw the emergence of the idea of English national identity and the nation state, exemplified by the spread of vernacular English as an expression of national confidence. Though this view centres on the second half of the fourteenth century, focusing on the writing of Chaucer and Langland, it reached its fulfilment with Caxton’s printing of Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur in 1485. Although the conflation of vernacularity and national identity can be seen as simplistic, Malory’s overtly nationalistic schema – the ‘matter of Britain’ identified as a heroic quest to restore a broken realm – is persuasive.
Those three wounded comrades emerging out of the waste land trigger, then, an identification across five hundred years of nationalist politics which draws its soldiery from an idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’. It goes on. The current rise of populist demagoguery and vicious nationalism across the West is but another, depressingly familiar tide, made possible by the limitations of human memory: those with direct experience of Western war grow old or are dead – so we are stirred by bugles more than we are appalled by horror, or feel it as physical fear.
In 2014 the Telegraph published a remarkable series of photographs by Thom Atkinson. Inventories of War: Soldiers’ Kit from 1066 to 2014 showed how little had changed in what British infantry took with them into battle – until the development of automatic weapons in the early 20th century. The similarities of both arms and personal items provided further correspondence, for me, between the wars in Malory’s fifteenth century (and by extension, how he considered the experience of Arthur’s knights) and the First World War. I have interleaved the sections of The Grail Roads with short comparisons as a way of maintaining a sense of identification between the conflicts.
We drive down to the river, follow it through villages and hamlets: Miraumont, Baillescourt, Beaucourt. The road turns uphill at the station towards Beaumont Hamel, where Albert camped the night before his death (and where those of his fellows whose bodies were recovered are buried). We are banked below the open fields to our right, formerly cut by the tangle of trenches, climbing gently to the pylons at the front line. A green lane tracks along to our left. It is quieter and warmer here. The regimental diary reports the advance of Albert’s regiment on 25th February down this road ‘and thence to Front Line… Shelling of Battalion Sector by evening normal.’ The same continues the following day, with ‘Shelling of ‘B’ Co’s Sector’.
CASUALTIES: KILLED, 4885 Pte A. Brown, ‘B’ Coy, 3475 L.Cpl J.W. Pearson, ‘D’ Coy […]. WOUNDED, 3363 Pte W. Hope, ‘B’ Coy, 3703 Pte H. Hastelow.
The Grail Roads is the third full-length poetry collection by Rob Hindle. A beautifully produced 144-page hardback, it is available from Longbarrow Press for £12.99. You can order the book securely by clicking on the relevant PayPal button below.
The Grail Roads: £12.99 (hardback)
Rob Hindle is the author of several collections of poetry, including Some Histories of the Sheffield Flood 1864 (2006), Neurosurgery in Iraq (2008), The Purging of Spence Broughton, a Highwayman (2009) and Yoke and Arrows (2014). Five long poems and sequences, collectively titled Flights and Traverses, appear in the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing (2013). The Grail Roads is his first full collection with Longbarrow Press. Click here for further details and to read poems from the book.
an introduction to Doorways Gather
I lived a childhood in a typical old Leicestershire red-brick farmhouse. So to go to, and to go inside another old typical red-brick farmhouse – that had been deserted many years before – was bound to rebuild various rural childhoods and cause an array of layers of childhoods … and squeeze them through various degrees of haunts’ angles. One haunt’s interference can boost another haunt’s signals, or it can cancel. It all depends upon aligning care-filled angles made by corners & the oblongs of doors & ways. And it so very much depends on the angle with which we hold one haunting up to the light, as we bring another haunting in front of it, or behind it. And haunt-waves – which we call sound – are always dependent, utterly dependent, on whether the air that transmits them is being breathed or not …
And as we snap from one place to another – as we change dimensionally – we may or may not notice our existence’s transiting judder(s) …
Not long ago I went down into the cellar of my parents’ old Leicestershire red-brick farmhouse to make a field-recording. I tapped various bottles and also blew into their necks. I dabbled my fingers into the little puddle that is always there at the bottom of the stairs, where-water-has-settled-in-a-dip-where the quarry tiles have slumped ( a change to the cellar’s physical substance, a transformation that probably finalised its position decades before I was born ). My son’s Collie god, that so reminds me of one of the gods of my childhood, heard my underground percussion via the cellar’s sky-light and so, as gods do, replied to my noise as if hearing a prayer. That field-recording of that place in that time has been laid beside another-that video recording of another that-place in another that-time, and so those-layers have now bled out unfathomable times … that have somehow wept … together … and merged into some organised kind …
And many years before the field-recording I made of my mum’s & dad’s cellar – in one part of a Leicestershire – and before the video that artist Martyn took from the light that had been kept in that deserted farmhouse – in an other part of a Leicestershire – I had made a poem in a large barn in the Morvan of France, just to the west of the Côte d’Or escarpment …
And that House At Out poem – its text once barned in a book – has recently passed through my voice’s sound to be placed beside – and yet also so very much within – the fields of a video & an audio recording at
[To experience the full sonically-detailed jaunt please wear headphones.]
Martyn Blundell is an artist and film-maker. His other film-collaborations with Mark Goodwin can be viewed here. Mark Goodwin’s publications include All Space Away and In (Shearsman, 2017) and Rock as Gloss (out from Longbarrow Press later this year). His fourth poetry collection, Steps (Longbarrow Press, 2014), explores themes of climbing, walking and balancing. Click here to visit the Steps microsite for extracts, essays and audio recordings. You can also order the hardback via PayPal below:
Not long ago, I stumbled into a website that sported an article titled ‘What Marketing Can Learn from Conmen.’ [i] There was something brazen about it that carried the stink of our times – this stage of capitalism that some people refer to as ‘late’. I was working on a poetry sequence about the confessions and self-justifications of a small-time conman, and had been looking for examples of how the psychology of manipulation is hard-wired into our culture. As I once heard someone remark: we all work in sales, now. Only the other day, I spotted an article published on The Guardian’s Academics Anonymous website that touched on the kind of false premises some universities can employ to lure students into postgraduate study. When far more people are graduating from PhD programs than the academy will ever employ, is an institution speaking in bad faith when it implies the qualification is ‘vocational’? Presumably, one lesson that marketing can learn from conmen is about the relationship between deception and self-deception. Find out what someone wants to believe. Find out how they are inclined to deceive themselves, and that’s where you will have leverage. It’s a simple and powerful principle. Even intelligent people can deceive themselves. Coleridge said: ‘men’s intellectual errors consist chiefly in denying.’ [ii] He knew.
The state of happiness we call a fool’s paradise is based on a person’s not knowing or denying the existence of potential trouble. It’s possible to view our deregulated global economy as one of the most spectacular fool’s paradises ever staged. In 2005 I remember sitting in a pub with an intelligent friend who was telling me how the new economics had defeated the cycle of boom and bust. Three years later, proliferating interest-only mortgages had collapsed the global markets, and Gordon Brown was bailing out the banks with public money. In The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, Michael Lewis ascribes this to a combination of stupidity and something verging on institutional fraud: stupidity because investors fooled themselves into believing the winning streak could never end, and fraud because institutions did not accurately or transparently price the risk of their financial innovations. We are often reminded how important it is for society to be built on hope, but it seems we must also be reminded that ‘hope [can] be hope for the wrong thing’. [iii] In Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Gordon Gecko defines insanity as the repeated pursuit of a goal that you know is doomed to fail. In the face of this, scepticism is clearly called for. Joseph Conrad called it ‘the tonic of minds, the tonic of life, the agent of truth – the way of art and salvation.’ [iv] Are we still not getting enough?
My interest in conmen is partly personal. When I was 16 or 17 my mother met a man who lured her into marriage with the promise of a better life. After investing her divorce settlement and her savings into his property development business, she was eventually left responsible for his debts when he absconded. Just before the end, she had glimpsed his mental instability, and intuited his darker intentions. She had tried to warn the bank against loaning him any more money, but they proceeded anyway. She tried to warn his business partner against further investment too, but he had already gone too far to contemplate turning back. This was the first conspiracy of denial I’d witnessed up close. My mother was declared bankrupt, evicted from her home, and thinking she had nowhere left to go, resorted to desperate measures. A year before these events, and on the brink of their separation, I remember sitting in the passenger seat of his Jaguar Saloon as he told me he would always look after my mother’s interests, and that everything would be OK. I wanted to believe him, so I did. Afterwards, I felt like I’d followed my mother up the Congo. Nostromo, Conrad’s epic of the corrupting power of material interests, became my favourite novel.
2016 was a fruitful year for anyone combing world events for material to create a cast of Shakespearean villains. Certainly, the news presented us with a gallery of public grotesques that art would struggle to rival. It was a good year for the ‘crooks and tarts’ of political manipulation. Just before Trump’s election, and our own Brexit Circus, I had been reading about the 19th century conman, Gregor MacGregor, a man Roger Cook refers to as the greatest conman of all time. As The Guardian reported in October 1823:
‘Some months ago Sir Gregor MacGregor, a person of whom we do not choose to say all that we think, induced a number of persons, chiefly Scotch, to emigrate to a settlement which he gave them to understand was formed, and in a flourishing condition, on the Mosquito Coast of Honduras. The most deceptive statements were published respecting the country for which these poor people were thus induced to relinquish their homes: it was described as a land flowing with milk and honey, abounding with all the good things of life to such a degree that a man was sure to make his fortune in a very short time.’
MacGregor was a military veteran and adventurer – a stylish and glamorous figure, wishing himself to be known as ‘His Highness, the Cazique of Poyais’. Once exposed in Britain, he claimed to have been the victim of fraud and embezzlement himself. He travelled to France and attempted to repeat the scam – very nearly succeeding in sending another ship of colonists to ‘Poyais’.
The ‘Cazique’ of my own sequence is a much smaller figure – if not always in his own mind. He is somewhere between American Hustle’s Irving Rosenfeld, and my mother’s second husband. The latter, if he is to be believed, was also the damaged survivor of a deprived childhood. His mother suffered mental illness, and his father absconded, never to re-appear. He even claimed to have been abused in a military prison, after he went AWOL from the Royal Navy. When I first met him, I thought his eyes had a sad, mesmeric quality, and I was impressed by how carefully he appeared to choose his words. He passed onto me his love of rock music’s transformer artists – especially David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust pomp, and Lou Reed in the early 70s. The character I’ve tried to create also shares this love, and I’ve added to it a fascination with Milton’s Satan, and Shakespeare’s Iago and Edmund the Bastard. My ‘Cazique’ is part anti-hero, part trickster, and part fallen angel. A genie of deception and self-deception, he recognises how our own world is in thrall to ideals of truth, but still unable to live entirely by its strictures. He speaks honestly about deception, and sometimes spins deceit out of his truth. He appeals to be saved or reformed, but cannot entirely overcome his addiction to seductive facades, or quite abandon the pleasures of the chase. What else does he have?
Some years ago I found a documentary about the great Australian comedian Barry Humphries. It focused on his relationship with one of his own character creations: Sir Les Patterson. This particular grotesque had origins both inside and outside the mind of Humphries. On the one hand, Patterson is a composite of various Australian political figures – vain, chauvinistic and crass – and on the other, he is a cutting taken from Humphries’ own psyche: everything that his creator tries to suppress in himself – the smoking, the drinking, the shameless promiscuity. Creative practice proceeds from both the outside in, and from the inside out. I confess that when my creating writing students assert that their character creations are entirely separate and external to themselves, I worry that they are speaking like those who fear social rejection, should their psyches be exposed in any way to judgement. If so, perhaps they are wise. We live in a period of growing political polarization. In Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion [v], the psychologist Jonathan Haidt has pointed out how this threatens to descend into dysfunctional tribalism. He warns us against our tendency to use our reason more in the manner of a lawyer trying to prosecute or defend a case, and less like someone impartially seeking understanding. In this kind of climate, we can be too quick to judge. My ‘Cazique’ is certainly a composite of external figures, but he also taps into the devils that sit in conference inside my own mind – waiting for when I am weak or desperate enough to listen. Since I have been infected with Joseph Conrad’s tonic scepticism, I find it hard to believe that any writer is not occasionally tempted by demons of seduction or manipulation. I’m with Baudelaire: there’s a whole menagerie inside our skulls!
I thought long and hard about the spirit in which I should approach this sequence. I’ve studied two masters: Peter Reading’s career-long panoply of found voices – voices ‘observed’ and pasted from our flawed social fabric; and Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms, created from mutilations of his own personality – alter egos generated by the cracked prism of his hidden psyche. Reading is the clinical observer of social phenomena, and Pessoa is the occult medium conversing with the internal world. The Taoist in me wishes to walk a path between the lure of both – just as I wish to walk a path between scepticism and compassion. I am moved by Albert Camus’ ‘Create Dangerously’ [vi], a speech urging the modern writer to proceed in the spirit of understanding: ‘Instead of being a judge, he is a justifier. He is the perpetual advocate of the living creature, because he is alive.’ No doubt this is the spirit that Camus employed to present his anti-hero in The Outsider. In trying to understand the psyche of my ‘Cazique’ – his gamut from victimhood to villainy, riches to regret – I’ve also tried to find a means to structure and dramatize the life of a living creature – not just another straw man for the judgement bonfire.
Logos: Speeches for Two Occasions
That’s the f*ckin’ art of becoming somebody who people can pin their beliefs and their dreams on.
– Irving, American Hustle
Are the games we play really so different?
What would you do in the name of survival?
Dress above budget to make an impression?
Amp up the grades of those exams you bungled?
File off the burr of your whatever accent?
Doctor your interests, the place of your schooling?
Miss out the fact that you dropped out of uni?
Claim as your glory the work of a colleague?
Inflate your status by name-dropping others?
It seems to me, now, we serve the same mistress –
and this is the code we have to adhere to:
you need to get creative if you want to level the field.
You can’t make a sum unless you invest one.
If your bait is too big, no-one will trust it.
It has to be small enough to believe in,
but just ripe and round to make the mouth water.
Whatever it is, you have to present it,
and make sure it doesn’t blow up or spiral.
Ideally don’t play with more than one target;
take your time choosing, and learn to spot someone
who needs you to help them push for promotion
to a league just above their natural level.
If you follow these rules, things will run smoothly:
the more cautionary noises you sham, the more they’ll want to play.
[i] This has since been taken down.
[ii] S.T. Coleridge, Anima Poetae, 1895
[iii] T.S. Eliot, ‘East Coker III’, from Four Quartets, 1943
[iv] Letter to John Galsworthy, 1901
[v] Penguin, 2013
[vi] Create Dangerously, Penguin Modern: 17, 2018
Cazique is the third full-length poetry collection by Matthew Clegg. A beautifully produced 96-page hardback, it is available from Longbarrow Press for £12.99 (+ P&P). You can order the book securely by clicking on the relevant PayPal button below.
Cazique: £12.99 (hardback)
Gently disintegrate me
Said nothing at all.
‘Enter a Cloud’, W.S. Graham
Outbound, a flight to the Continent, a short haul at low cost. We climb, level, and cruise, the conditions are optimal, full occupancy, fuel efficiency, no turbulence. I have a small window on the north of England, the reservoirs of the Derwent Valley, all of it shrinking, scaled to print, an island and its souvenirs. A few minutes later, a thin white filament mists the view, blanketing the shires and the passing of the shires. The connection is lost. I try to shake out the cramp in my shoulders and thighs. I resettle in my seat and pick up a book. I do not open it, but stare at the foredge, the pages rippling from head to tail, a wave that wasn’t there before, is it cabin pressure, I think, is it altitude. I look out of the window, and see gaps in the cotton, the stitches trailing off, Lincolnshire or Norfolk, stretching to a coast. At the land’s edge, rapid shifts of colour, then the blue, the first few turbines, blade over blade, their whiteness cresting as they wheel, the mudflats dark, another blue, another wind farm, 88 rotors in a rhomboid grid, the clean lines of Sheringham Shoal, a long lease in the territorial sea. Then the blue alone, the empty lanes of the German Ocean, the international cumulus, and a book drifting from my fingers. Offshore, offline. I slide in and out of Europe and the slow descent. When I come around, we are level with the landing strip. Dry air. A standstill, then sounds of dispersal, thirst, all the devices waking up.
Increasingly, our experience of connectivity is predicated on networks, systems and processes that we seldom grasp or see. While this is not an entirely new phenomenon – the dots and dashes encoded by Samuel Morse in the early years of electrical telegraphy were rapidly taken up by long-distance transmission lines, first overland, then undersea – the scale, ubiquity and complexity of our communications infrastructure has grown in inverse proportion to its visibility. If I think of connectivity, I’m likely to be thinking of glitches, of delays: the streaming media that buffers or skips; the email service that slows before a message is sent. I’m unlikely to be thinking of a data centre in Iowa or Oregon, a million square feet of client storage in a monochrome shed, or the thousands of miles that my email might travel, server to server, to complete a journey of a few seconds. Speed erases distance and the thought of distance. Our transactions, our memories, are everywhere and nowhere – at home, at work, on the move – enabled by technology that is everywhere and nowhere; the bundles of optical fibres beneath our streets, the unmarked mobile phone masts we scarcely notice at the roadside, the GPS satellites in semi-synchronous orbits. It’s embedded in the ground, in the sea, in the air, and, like most of our infrastructure, we only shift our attention to it when something goes awry.
J.R. Carpenter’s The Gathering Cloud (Uniformbooks 2017) develops this theme and, in many ways, develops from it. The project appears to have been seeded by a ‘prolonged spell’ of ‘catastrophic’ weather; the winter storms that swept through south-west England in early 2014, resulting in the inundation of the Somerset Levels, widespread power cuts and evacuations, and considerable disruption to transport, notably the breaching of the railway line at Dawlish by a coastal surge, washing away the sea wall and track ballast, leaving the rail suspended in mid-air. Further storms and cliff falls delayed the track repairs, to the extent that the link to Plymouth and Cornwall was broken for two months; during this period of closure, the vulnerability of the Riviera Line was frequently discussed in both local and national media. Carpenter tracks the reports, and is ‘struck by the paradox’ apparent in the effort to conjure ‘invisible forces such as / wind and rising temperatures’ – which can only be inferred from their effects – ‘through the material / of language’. The work that follows might be described as a journey to the heart of this paradox. Through a series of ‘modifications’ – textual fragments ranging from classical antiquity to the present day, arranged in hendecasyllabic verses – a record of theological, philosophical, scientific and cultural theories and observations about the weather unfolds. On each page, we are oriented by an idea of the cloud, the gradual refinement or expansion of its symbolic and taxonomic values, and the sense that something has been added to our store of knowledge. Despite the broadly chronological movement, in which the atmospheric hypotheses of Aristotle and Lucretius are abandoned in favour of the ‘divine’ skies of Christian mysticism, then overwritten by the meteorological studies of the Enlightenment, overtaken by the white steam of the Industrial Revolution, and overshadowed by the dark plumes of modern warfare, this is not a straightforward journey from obscurity to lucidity.
For most of human history the heavens
have served as a source of legitimacy,
providing meaning and orientation.
The sky is compass, calendar, map, and clock.
The ‘new methodological nomenclature’ devised in 1802 by the amateur meteorologist Luke Howard, which introduced the tropospheric terms that we still use today (cirrus, cumulus, stratus), enriches our descriptive vocabulary but does not dispel metaphysical doubt. ‘Clouds resist ontology.’ Weather is a process. Our attempts to grasp or represent this process through language are, inevitably, frustrated by the fact that it is, by definition, changeable. While the legacy of Howard’s On the Modifications of Clouds is foundational to our understanding of the skies, atmospheric terms are, even now, more commonly invoked as symbols of incognisance; Carpenter pauses to reflect on the origins of ‘the cloud of unknowing’ (the medieval text of this name also gives us ‘the cloud of darkness’ and ‘the cloud of forgetting’) and the ‘fog of uncertainty’ (or ‘fog of war’). We encounter the German philosopher Martin Heidegger in 1918, serving as ‘a weatherman on the western front’, ‘scanning the sky’ for propitious data, his observations determining ‘the deployment / of artillery, aircraft, and poison gas.’ From these wartime experiences, he distils a rhetoric of ‘vigilance / as a paramount ethical duty’; the discord is amplified by his later evasions and denials regarding his apparently compliant involvement with the Nazi Party. It’s a pivotal episode in the complex enquiry pursued throughout the first half of the book, which might be summarised as a subtle, sustained exploration of cognitive dissonance: in particular, the conflicts between language and comprehension, objects and their representation, data and its use. This enquiry becomes more urgent and explicit in the title sequence of The Gathering Cloud, in which the terminology of the skies is radically reframed for an age of networked computing and virtual storage. We enter The Cloud, a discreet, diffuse ecosystem with its roots in weather forecasting and wireless decryption, the scale of which is now influencing the weather itself.
The Cloud is an airily deceptive name
connoting a floating world far removed from
the physical realities of data.
The Gathering Cloud began life as a digital project, evolving through performances and online. The web-based version is animated by a series of interactive collages, in which the engravings of cirrus and stratus that accompanied Howard’s On the Modifications of Clouds are gradually recast or obscured by images of nature and consumer technology ‘appropriated from publicly accessible cloud storage services’. These hybrid ‘plates’ are reproduced in the book, albeit emptied of colour and movement, which endows the print version with a different complexion and an unmistakable pathos. Similarly, the hyperlinks that ‘thread’ the verses of the six screen collages are dead on the page, their lost functionality denoted in ghostly grey (the 56 ‘keywords’ orphaned by this transition – from ‘aerosol’ to ‘wind’ – are listed as ‘An Index of Objects’, which lies somewhere between preface, found poem, and incantation). The effect of this presentation is twofold: it is both an intimation of a fading or failing connection to our ‘physical realities’, and an invitation to make our own connections between (and beyond) the texts. Howard’s ‘painterly’ descriptions of clouded skies (‘shrouded in a gloomy distance’) are juxtaposed with data about data:
Data centres worldwide use thirty billion
watts of electricity annually.
Most of that is spent on avoiding downtime.
Guarding against the event of grid failure
banks of generators emit diesel exhaust.
Throughout the sequence, the production and consumption of data is weighed, counted and measured in terms borrowed from the world that the expansion of The Cloud endangers; we surmise its proportions, indirectly, from the millions of snapshots of cats and sunsets uploaded and shared daily or ‘stored forever in Cloud formations’. Virtual specimens are ‘captured and tagged’ in a global image bank that runs on fossil fuel. Ironically, the habitat and species decline to which the maintenance and growth of the ‘power-hungry’ server farms contributes is partly driven by the fear of loss; much of the personal data that we hoard in The Cloud is ‘archaic, obsolete’, but we cannot bear to let it go. ‘We have saved too many memories to lose.’ One of the reasons why The Cloud’s users – ‘ordinary consumers’ – are unable (or unwilling) to recognize that ‘data is physical’ is that ‘the scale of the cloud’ is hard to depict, and hard to imagine. While it may be true that its ‘infrastructures / are successfully hiding in plain sight’, we cannot see The Cloud (except, perhaps, at its edges), or step back from it; like weather, it is both intimate and vast (towards the end of the sequence, we learn that ‘vastness’ shares its etymology with ‘waste’). However, as Carpenter frequently reminds us, clouds are not weightless, and neither are they ‘pure’: think of an early steam train, ‘engulfed in a cloud of its own making’, the air loaded with particulates. Think of the clouds we ‘exhale on a cold day’, dense, dispersing, then gone.
The Cloud is an increasingly essential
element of infrastructure powering
industry, government, finance and commerce,
as fundamental to us as plumbing and roads.
What makes The Gathering Cloud such an interesting, rewarding and valuable book is its skilful and creative reading of the cultural, environmental, and technological patterns that have given rise to the digital cloud, and which it now shapes in turn. The ‘waste’ and ‘vastness’ that define this phenomenon are illustrative of its vulnerability to crisis; it is difficult to map the contours of an artificial cloud ‘that constructs itself through pure fluctuation’, but it is not hard to conceive of a point at which its mass becomes unsupportable. Infrastructure is made visible in the moment of its failure. The book’s timelines are twice interrupted by undated sequences of photographs of the Dawlish coast, marking the occasions (in 1859 and 2014) when the water ‘broke through the line’, overwhelming the seawall and railway. Thirty-two images, high contrast, low contrast. We don’t see the catastrophe, only the shifts of light and perspective, the horizon scrolling between sea and sky, the distance sharpened or softened by cloud.
Images: 1. Cloud study by Luke Howard, c.1803-1811; 2. The Gathering Cloud by J.R. Carpenter (Uniformbooks); 3. The Gathering Cloud by J.R. Carpenter (web-based version).
A related essay on J.R. Carpenter’s Ocean of Static will appear on this site in the near future.
Glen Arnisdale & Gleann Dubh Lochain, March 2018
[…] without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.
After days of snowy & iced ground, after abrupt ups and steep downs, we turn from the mountains’ tops … and so we now walk along, we walk a longa gentler un dulating ground down in the glen. The sting of fast-thrust snow specks in the face is already from some other story. Down here in this nestling Glen Arnisdale spring suddenly begins. Sunshine unfurls its newest of oldest gestures. Our rucksacks are smaller, and our boots not so big. We need no crampons nor axes. It is like a well-earned holiday, this warm day, after the early starts for high cold tops. And holy it is as some unidentified bird pours her or his or its voice through and across the loveliness of Glen Arnisdale. This song is nearly thrush, but it is not thrush. And when we see the bird flit from tree to tree … its jizz, its gestures, its motion is not of a bird I know. I then, at that moment, or probably another moment I made or make from memory, at that some moment I remembered – I remember – how a poet called Peter Riley wrote, writes, will write … that he felt (feels) something about a place named Alstonefield mattered, mattered so very much …
Such inexplicable matter, and mattering happens for some version of me – here or there – in a Glen Arnisdale …
Behind us, as we walk east, is Loch Hourn’s mouth, open to The Sound of Sleat. (And beyond the south shore of that slot of sealoch, and its sprung expression of mixed waters – fresh & salt – stands the almost fabled Rough Bounds of Knoydart, tops snow-glossed and east flanks silvered.) In front of us, to east, Glen Arnisdale’s wide pasture ends in a tight throat where River Arnisdale is squeezed between rock-knolled hill-ground. And through this throat-gate we pass into Glenn Dubh Lochain, with its two damned reservoirs, its two black lochans, set prettily and smoothly in some newly revealed scape of tangled textures. Spring’s sunlight shatters glee gorgeously sad across these dark foils. We try to stalk otters along these lochans’ frilly banks, but we see nothing, no signs at all, but I notice how I hope I am watched …
And further on, and where this hidden glen t-junctions, and where burns merge, and where little pylons carrying power-lines pass, their frames’ movements through this place defined by their actually staying still within it … here, at this juncture, there are some ruins. The larger house has been sky-opened, and young rowans grow on the battlements of its crumbling. And the much smaller equally sky-seen & sky-tortured roofless one-roomed cottage to the north-west of the bigger wreck, this residency is occupied by a plant-being, an old thick-trunked rowan … and all four walls of the raw open interior are peopled by glistening green ferns …
I never arrived at this place as much as I never left. The little pylons, and they are little, they are children pylons in comparison to the ones I know in Leicestershire, but they are also mountaineer pylons, their smallness their fury, these beautiful pylons delicate as birches … and the mature rowan growing ever older boxed in its sky-roofed cottage …. well, my self’s (or an other’s) really having existed and not existed here or else where is as …
of pylons whilst
a stoic rowan plays
that dance’s tune
with its buds
Photographs by Nikki Clayton and Boz Morris. Mark Goodwin’s publications include All Space Away and In (Shearsman, 2017) and Rock as Gloss (out from Longbarrow Press later this year). His fourth poetry collection, Steps (Longbarrow Press, 2014), explores themes of climbing, walking and balancing. Click here to visit the Steps microsite for extracts, essays and audio recordings. You can also order the hardback via PayPal below:
Midway between Barnsley and Doncaster, in a shallow pocket of the Dearne Valley, the soil is cleared for shelter, the ditches sluiced and scraped, excavation, engineering, seeding grass, drawing water, the levels rising inch by inch. Acres of new space, clawed out of old space. Adwick Washlands is a recent addition to the RSPB’s landscape portfolio: the site is so new that Google Maps has yet to catch up with it, the aerial view still showing a collection of arable fields. One of several satellite reserves clustered around the RSPB’s Old Moor wetland hub, it’s an ‘open’ site: no lockable gates or visitor centres, no hides or screens, and a permissive footpath that runs through the centre of the wetland, linking Bolton-upon-Dearne to the village of Harlington. It’s not so much a destination as a place of transit, for local residents exercising their dogs, and for migrant birds, including lapwings, redshanks and little egrets.
When Matthew Clegg and I were invited to lead a poetry walk through Adwick Washlands on National Meadows Day (as part of the 2017 Ted Hughes Poetry Festival), the basis for a dialogue – with the landscape, and with each other – was far from clear. Previous walks for Longbarrow Press had developed from an existing relationship with, and knowledge of, a particular locale and its routes. Neither of us had visited the Dearne Valley reserve, or even heard of it (though Matthew had grazed its southern boundary – albeit unwittingly – while living in nearby Mexborough). Early in 2017, I made two attempts to familiarise myself with the site. On the first of these, I walked for three miles in the wrong direction, only glimpsing the wetland in the moments before my train pulled into the station; on the second, the reserve was the terminal stage of a 25-mile trudge in chilly, damp weather, and I lacked the resources to see or think or feel my way around it. Over the months that followed, however, the washlands absorbed more and more of my time, until I began to see this ‘new space’ as an extension (or a displacement) of my own parish.
On paper, it’s initially tempting to think of it as an ‘intentional edgeland’: however, edgelands arise by default, not design, and are usually indicators of neglect, or decline, rather than care and renewal. Adwick Washlands is a thoughtfully planned, developed, and managed space. One of the features that I was keen to reflect in the design of the event was the porosity of the site: the soft borders with the neighbouring estates and farmland, and, within the reserve itself, the movable frontiers of land and water, constantly renegotiated as the levels in the washlands rise and fall. There are, too, fewer boundaries between people and wildlife than one might expect in a RSPB reserve: in an illuminating email, Heather, the site warden, emphasized the ‘close encounters’ with nature that the openness of Adwick makes possible, with birds regularly feeding next to the paths. Hopeful of a few encounters – or, at least, sightings – on our walk, we took care to plot informal halts along the route, before and after the scheduled readings, leaving enough slack for the audience to pause, should they wish: to question, converse, listen, or observe. A breathing space.
It’s Saturday 1 July, and I’m tracking the movement of people and vehicles through a narrow car park off Furlong Road, south-west of Harlington. As I pace a hundred feet of tarmac to the meandering Dearne and back, it occurs to me that most of our poetry walks have taken river or canal bridges as their starting points. If pushed, I’d say that each rendezvous had something to do with expedience, the elevated crossing as urban landmark; pushed further, I might reflect on how the bridging of water creates a (literal) suspension of the commonplace, and how the intersection of two elements (earth and water) can amplify our attention to chance, and change, as it passes through a third element (air). This morning, the air is unremarkable, unmoved by wind, rain or sun; above it, a taut film of white cloud that flattens the perspective, muting our assembly, a company without shadow. Dominic Somers, the festival producer, arrives and unpacks the colour from the boot of his car; a pair of orange aprons, and four orange flags on long sticks. These are not field signs, or battle standards, and we are not a formation, but the pigment sets me wondering. After distributing the flags to their bearers, Dominic introduces himself, the ethos of the programme, and this, the final event of the festival, before handing over to me. I recount some recent expeditions to the edges of the valley, including ‘A Navigation’, a canal walk led by Matthew Clegg and songwriter Ray Hearne, and Helen Mort’s ‘poetic wander’ from Denaby Ings to Sprotbrough, ending or beginning, like today’s excursion, within sight of the Dearne. This presents Steve Ely, the festival director, with an opportunity to share the first report of the day: the flight call of a kingfisher, overheard near the bridge, a reminder of Ted Hughes’s belief that human actions invoke, or summon, energies or spirits. Matthew closes – or opens up – the preambles with a short extract from Thomas A. Clark’s aphoristic prose poem ‘In Praise of Walking’, a set of variable clauses or ‘steps’, central to which is the proposition that ‘a walk is its own measure, complete at every point along the way’. After a minute or two of these, we’re tuned, calibrated, keen to depart, to step into this ‘mobile form of waiting’.
The path to Adwick Washlands runs parallel to the road for 800 metres, the routes partitioned by a dense screen of trees; then a sharp turn west, the trees darkening, a white horse, a small, orderly stables, the pastures falling back in long, thin strips, a copse, losing form and restraint, until, after seven minutes, the roughness gives way to clean edges, and the outline of the wetland fills the view. I step onto a large, flat stone at the path’s edge, and, as I wait for the audience to compose itself, survey a yarn of pylons to the west, a scattering of poppies, a silage pile. Within this field, I try to visualize another: the open cast colliery that once occupied, and exhausted, the land to the north. Several decades ago, it was restored, and drainage was put in for agriculture. Using its powers of compulsory purchase, the Environment Agency took over the site, based on the contour lines – the line to which the water would naturally fill – and it became an active washland once more, one of several flood plains throughout the Dearne Valley. The RSPB now leases the land from the Environment Agency, and manages it as a wildlife reserve.
Old space, new space. In a site like this, the changes of use and of appearance aren’t always apparent: there’s little here to suggest that this was, until recently, a ‘working landscape’, the grassland and wetland concealing the scars of industry. We can, however, detect a few clues that this is a ‘new space’, in which the ratio of wildness to regulation, and leisure to utility, is still being worked out. I mention how, on an earlier visit, I’d paused to read the signs in the wood our group has just passed through, stating that the grazing of livestock is prohibited; it wasn’t clear who had put them up, though. I close with a few words on the history of English land law, and a few short poems:
The map and ruler,
carving the common for none
but the tithe-owners.
I abdicate the stone to Matthew, who sets against these straight edges a vision of ‘mucky sandy boys’, roaming the valley in defiance of prohibitions, their ‘fat treads’ ploughing up footpaths and fields. On the page, ‘Mexborough Quad Bandits’ is, in part, an exploration of ‘open form’, its lines short and irregularly indented, a shifting pattern of refusal, swerving and skidding, scuffing up the white space. Out here, the ‘rude’ rhythms are cranked and revving, a ‘swarm’ that chokes the air, then vacates it, leaving a ragged trail of exhaust:
cuts into revs
that bite and hurl
The whiff of ferality lingers over the next reading, which takes place a few hundred feet along the track, at the edge of a small, roughly disc-shaped pond. To enter this space, which is split by a boundary ditch, we must cross a tiny bridge; as we reassemble on the other side, the land in a small declivity, there’s an undeniable sense of separateness, and an adjustment of scale. Matthew addresses our ragged crescent, half of us standing, the other half seated on large blocks of quarried stone. He speaks of folklore, of familiars, of the wodwo, first glimpsed in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and (almost) fleshed out, centuries later, in an eponymous poem by Ted Hughes. A wodwo is a ‘marginal wild man’, and, as Matthew emphasises in his introduction to Hughes’s poem, a ‘creature of the provisional’; the path he takes, ‘nosing’ after ‘a faint stain on the air’, is jumbled and erratic, but his absorption in (and by) the natural world, framed by unanswerable questions (‘I seem to have been given the freedom / of this place what am I then?’), allows him to revise his perspectives. Resisting conclusions, he resolves only to ‘go on looking’. I take up the theme of landscape as an imaginative resource, and consider its changing status as a physical resource. In the space of several decades, drift and open cast mining depleted this area. The search for energy is now changing direction, with renewables tapping into sources above ground: solar and wind. I gesture to the north, near Barnburgh, a cluster of blades skimming the hillside. I share my impressions of the Isle of Axholme, 20 miles north-east of here; the site of England’s largest onshore wind farm, with 34 turbines rising from the flatlands. However, the turbines are just one part of the resource infrastructure. The poems that have developed from my recent visits also reflect on other changes in the use, and appearance, of the land, including the growth of biofuels, and the consequences for biodiversity:
Yellow on yellow.
Every field has resistance
to spray, spoil and stress.
Let go. The monoculture
will raise the monoculture.
Accompanying us on today’s walk is the conservationist and writer Laurence Rose, who, along with Steve Ely, ventures some thoughts on the design of the pond; its rounded shape, and central stand of reeds, suggest that it is intended for great crested newts, who are known for their circular mating rituals. It provides a backdrop for the final three poems at this site, drawn, like ‘Mexborough Quad Bandits’, from The Navigators, Matthew’s second collection. Each of these short poems explores a different modality of water – flowing, standing, and stagnant – and the life that exists in, on, or through them – weeds, leeches, bacteria. The last of these is ‘Dunn Street: Abandoned Lock’:
of bile-green algae –
We recross the bridge, the path drawing us further into the wetland, a subtle weave of shrubs and trees that gradually breaks down as we approach the centre of the reserve, the hedges losing height, the gaps closing in. The first lake, sketchy at its eastern edges, lengthens into a complete view, the water levels considerably lower than on earlier visits. Laurence identifies an unusual coot with signs of albinism. Steve spots a handful of avocets, and charts the recovery of a species that was, until the middle of the last century, extinct in the UK; even a few decades ago, they were rarely sighted outside of Havergate Island, a marshy RSPB site in Suffolk. Today, they’re almost commonplace, the health of the Adwick population assisted, in part, by the recent installation of a four kilometre anti-predator fence throughout the reserve. While the wetland has been successful in encouraging breeding, many of the fledglings have been predated; a consequence of this being an ‘open’ site. Since this line of defence was created, the young birds appear to be surviving. The ‘internal border’ runs the length of the narrow track that branches from the main path, terminating in a semi-circular stone wall, where we gather for the third reading. This wall is the reserve’s central viewpoint: a soft curve, framing and focusing the wet grassland and wading pools, inviting us to take in the washland in a single, slow sweep. Given the extent to which this area has been transformed over the last five years, it’s odd that a wall should strike me as the most conspicuous intervention, but perhaps I’m responding to the symbolic value of the structure: a reminder that this is also a human habitat. The ideas of movement and stillness that anchored Matthew’s last reading inform the next selection, in which I revisit the Isle of Axholme, adjusting the angle to meet the ‘dynamic’ array of a wind farm at full speed:
Amcotts is moving,
a bladed wetland, curving
fibre and resin.
My stance shifts, the pattern torn,
tiny cuts in the distance.
As I’m reading the last few poems, my voice starts to dip; a lapse of projection, a loss of altitude. I’ve been half-listening to something else, and, in the few seconds between my voice falling silent and the answering applause, I hear it, we hear it, in full: high above us, circling the grassland, an exultation of skylarks (some weeks later, I discover that male skylarks sing at higher frequencies near wind farms, due to turbine noise). Steve remarks on their volume, their number, how these sounds and sights have been shrinking in areas where pesticides are used. Matthew ruminates on migration, before introducing his version of King Hoopoe’s speech from The Birds. In Aristophanes’s play, Hoopoe summons a council of birds – a global assembly, with representatives from field, tree, marsh and sea – to discuss the problem of ‘destructive’ mankind. Matthew’s version updates the speech for an era of corporate power (or ‘corporatocracy’), exhorting the ‘raiders of the farmer’s furrows / liberating seeds and barley’ to ‘picket all the corporate glaciers’ and ‘join the V, the flying delta, / sing my song of featherlution’. The second poem constructs a quieter, more intimate space, in a setting which, like our viewpoint, has contemplation written into the design. ‘Brigand’ is narrated by a member of the eponymous South Yorkshire motorcycle club (Matthew makes an interesting distinction between a club and a gang, and their respective codes; unlike the ‘Mexborough Quad Bandits’ we met earlier, the Brigands observe rules, on and off the road). We encounter him as he is taking a break from the ‘revs’ and ‘white lines’, making the short journey on foot ‘to a hide at Denaby Ings’ (another Dearne Valley wetland, managed by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, two miles south-east of here). As ‘a lush trawl of sound’ filters from the lake to the slatted shelter, it becomes apparent that this act of listening is also an act of dismantling (the coots, doves and ducks preparing a path to ‘two minutes’ silence’) and of disarming (once an aid to hunting, the hide is now a means of avoiding disturbance to wildlife, and has a similarly calming effect on its visitors). The porosity of the structure is integral to these processes, emboldening a jay to ‘flit’ a ‘toy windmill’ in and out of the hide, and harbouring the sound of ‘gnats / teasing at the edge of buzz’, while
the clatter and creak
is me donning my helmet
and wrapping this up.
Before we leave the viewpoint, Steve crouches to the wall, inviting us to look closer: while the top rows of stone are bonded with cement, the lower layers are perforated with holes and crevices, allowing insects and small animals a passage through the viewpoint. We straighten up, thread back along the narrow track, single file, conversation breaking out, the gaps between us widening, then narrowing, the wetland tilting in and out of sight.
We rejoin the main path, west for 500 metres, the river wall rising in the south, a reminder that this site is part of a larger system. It’s a little after 12.30pm. The white cloud that stretched across the morning is now looser and thinner, the light comes and goes, printing and erasing our shadows on the path. As we near the western edge of the washland, I bear left, and guide the group along a rough, grassy track that seems at odds with the well-kept arable land to either side. On our right, a corrugated silo collapses into itself, the roof long since weathered to air; fifty metres ahead, a handful of small, grey structures lie in an ellipsis, the track fissuring and fading as we close in. This was a heavy anti-aircraft gun site, established in 1942, in response to the Sheffield Blitz of 1940-41; it was built to protect the city’s industries, and the local colliery, and was part of a network of defences including Old Moor (now a 250-acre RSPB reserve). I don’t mention any of this, not yet; it seems better for each of us to encounter the site for ourselves, to spend a little time exploring it without direction or discussion. After several minutes, we assemble in the centre of the third emplacement, the easternmost point of Station H17. Dominic fishes a carton of Tunnock’s caramel wafers from his rucksack; the box is raided and emptied. As Matthew is shuffling his script, Steve emerges from a concrete and breezeblock chamber, and announces a find: a swallow’s nest in the rear shelter. We adjust our positions, and keep our distance from the entrance. Matthew opens with some thoughts on the importance of maintaining a connection with fertile ground; for him, this includes the derelict or disowned spaces that nurtured his curiosity and creativity as a teenager, and that find an echo in the space in which we’re now standing. The poem that exemplifies this connection is set on the edge of East Leeds, within earshot of the former Vickers factory, where Challenger tanks rolled off a mile-long production line until the 1990s. ‘Because I was Nobody’ is also an affirmation of the value of anonymity in a world that, increasingly, insists on status and visibility:
Once, I stumbled down a mound
into a herd of cows. The heat of them
was like a drug. All I wanted was to stand
feeling their breath all night. They let me try
because they knew I had nothing. Was nobody.
The introduction to the next poem develops the links between self-discovery and outward exploration, with an emphasis on how children can inhabit and transform a landscape with their imagination. In Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns, Matthew intuits a similar process at work; the poems (or ‘versets’) conflate the persona of Offa, the Anglo-Saxon King of Mercia, with that of the young Hill, and, in turn, sieve half-forgotten cultural legacies through personal mythologies, each layer excavated through the other. ‘Hymn VII’ recalls ‘the day of the lost / fighter: a biplane, already obsolete and irreplaceable, two inches of / heavy snub silver.’ The near past, in the child’s eye, is as unreachable, and yet apprehensible, as the England that vanished with Offa.
Slowly, we adjust our orientation within the gun site, until we’re facing east, looking back at the field lines we started out from. I give a brief account of the station’s history, and the defensive positions to the west, noting that this chain of anti-aircraft sites is now an open corridor of nature reserves; we reflect on the remaking of a landscape, once shielded by barrage balloons and batteries, into a protected habitat for migrant birds. Around the time that the regeneration of the Dearne Valley was gaining ground, Station H17 was registered as a Scheduled Ancient Monument, which, perhaps, lends some perspective to our ideas of the ‘near past’. There are gaps in its history, leading to some conjecture about what happened here and when. We don’t know exactly when it was built, or when it was armed. A book of signatures records that it was staffed by women (operating radar, communications systems, and other support roles) and men (operating guns). As far as we know, not a single shot was fired from the battery.
Above us, the E-shaped command post, half-buried in higher ground, is flooded, seams of debris and dross beneath the surface. Further down the track, the Nissen hut, used as an ammunition store, is split and sinking, open to the sky. It may be listed as a monument, but what we encounter on the ground is an almost feral waste. We’ve ‘strayed’ from the ‘official’ path to reach this site. The track and the station are not maintained in any formal sense; it’s not clear who owns this space, or if there is any right of public access; yet there is clear evidence of recent human activity. We can see how this might offer a retreat or refuge for youngsters from nearby estates; it’s walkable, but unsupervised; defended, but porous; if you needed to hide, or make a quick getaway from any part of the site, you could do so.
Standing up, we take in the new houses to the west, the infrastructure, the surrounding fields; sitting down, against the emplacements, the estates disappear from view, and the site becomes a microhabitat, a portal into the near – or distant – past, a palimpsestic space for actual and imagined story and incident, a theatre for improvised play. I read a short sequence of poems that explore these ambiguities (‘The field is a front / standing in for another / we will never see’), followed by some passages from East Wind, an account of a night-time ‘manoeuvre’ on the east coast that is also a fragmentary memoir of collective walking, led by Malcolm, a Wiltshire farmer and adventure support officer:
Malcolm would have sent us cross-country, the woods and contours had specific values, a knowledge that we moved through. I pretended to use the compass in my pocket, black arrow, red needle. In time it became a pretend compass. I learned to read a map by fixing a position and rotating the map around me. I made everything the north.
The prose extract runs out on the approach to Withernsea, trailing half-remembered scraps of the Chivalric Code. At the eastern edge of the emplacement, a drift of birdsong, a ripple of wind. A brief pause, then a final poem:
No cross, no colour.
The fields marked and abandoned
by flag and flower.
On the way to our last stop, I talk with Tracy, who spent her childhood in this area, and has recently returned; earlier in the walk, she’d made some helpful, timely corrections to my geographical overviews (in which I discovered that the colliery was not where I thought it was), and is now filling in the few blanks in her own knowledge, piecing the landscape together. 300 metres north of the gun site, at the junction of wetland, track and farmland, we reach a set of cattle gates, on which we prop the orange flags that have fluttered above our heads for the last few hours. A brown hare, spotted by Steve, darts between the gates and disappears. We look back at the wetland, the fields to the north, Goldthorpe to the north-west, the pylons, the turbines, the edge of the Lowfield estate. I mention my interest in post-war urban planning, and some of the housing projects that have appeared in the last few decades. The last few poems that I read allude to a development on a flood plain in west Swindon, a short distance from my childhood home, a patchwork of ‘new space’ that was paused (and only recently restarted) after the 2008 financial crash:
The new settlement
starts without us. We won’t live
to see it finished.
Our presence has been noted by the resident cows, who wander over from the water’s edge to eavesdrop on our readings. Laurence points out that the livestock are part of the management; these highland cattle thrive in fenland, and help to graze the watery landscapes. A concern with ecology, ecosystems, and species decline informs Matthew’s commentary on the work of Peter Reading, a keen birder whose poem ‘Afflatious’ is both a catalogue and a celebration of several decades of sightings, taking a leisurely route from recent observations in America and Australia to the site of a formative experience:
And I’d say (if I entertained
such mawkish conceits) that on each
of these afflatious encounters
my soul ascended like that
Skylark I watched as I lay
and dreamed through a summer morning
in a sweet pasture in Shropshire
on an upland when I was younger.
And, high above us, circling the grassland, an exultation of skylarks.
Matthew closes the event with a final axiom from Thomas A. Clark – ‘A day, from dawn to dusk, is the natural span of a walk’ – which serves as a preface to a poem from his sequence Edgelands, a record of a simple moment of unforced attention:
Pink dusk. Along this B-road
starlings have colonised
20 yards of power-line.
Their song is a kind of current,
the current, a kind of song.
Poems featured in the walk (and this essay) can be found in the following collections (click the titles for further excerpts or details): ‘Because I was Nobody’ and ‘Edgelands’ appear in West North East by Matthew Clegg; ‘Brigand’, ‘Dunn Street: Abandoned Lock’, ‘Hoopoe’s Cuckoo Song’, ‘In the 70s’, ‘Long Weeds’ and ‘Mexborough Quad Bandits’ are taken from The Navigators by Matthew Clegg; the poems and prose extracts by Brian Lewis appear in his pamphlets East Wind and White Thorns.
An earlier essay and recording, ‘The Hide’, documents a visit by Matthew Clegg and Brian Lewis to the Denaby Ings hide referenced in the poem ‘Brigand’.
Thanks to all who attended the walk on 1 July 2017. A special thanks to Emma Bolland, Matthew Clegg, Steve Ely, Laurence Rose, Dominic Somers, and the RSPB.
‘Snow White / Rose Red’, Emma Bolland
6.53pm. We fold into the New Barrack Tavern, first Emma, then me, the double doors closing on the dark. In the second half of the 19th century, an earlier incarnation of the Tavern bustled with soldiery, the line infantries of Warwickshire, Rutlandshire, Bedfordshire, quartered at Hillsborough, a few streets away. It survived the closure of the barracks in the 1930s, and was one of the few pubs left standing after Penistone Road was converted into a dual carriageway in the 1980s. These days, much of its trade comes from Sheffield Wednesday fans, visitors to the greyhound stadium, and regular music and comedy nights. Tonight, though, it’s barely breathing. Perhaps it’s the early hour, or the early January slump, or the wind and rain that’s been racketing through Sheffield since the weekend. I think back to the last time I sat in one of the city’s pubs, an evening in The Blake, three days before Christmas, the end of a year of starts and stops, a year without flow. A small table, the poets, and me, we talk, I express a desire to work quickly, to work quietly, we talk, an event in January, perhaps, ahead of the cultural seasons, outside of the festival circuits. A night walk. We’ve spoken of this before, but it’s taken ten years of slow journeying through South Yorkshire – the itinerary always new, the poets and participants always changing with the landscape, the path always naturally lit – to see it as a possibility. The factors that discouraged us in the past – the uncertainties, the risks – are the factors that are now pushing us forward. Before we can talk ourselves out of it, we set a date, sketch a potential route, and renew our vow. Three weeks and six days later, at the end of an afternoon’s anxious weather-watching, our group reconvenes in the Tavern, accompanied by a dozen people who have signed up to the walk: we are 3, then 4, then 7, then 11, then 18. Having spent the last 40 minutes slowly filling the lounge area, we take our leave, and spill into the night.
In this country, the culture and literature of urban walking has, for many years, been monopolized by London and the solitary white male; after dark, these terms are almost synonymous, the archetypal ‘night city’ re-walked and rewritten by those at liberty to do so, from Charles Dickens to Bradley Garrett. In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit remarks on the absence of women from the histories of walking, observing that ‘most public places at most times’ have not afforded them the same privileges of anonymity, of detachment, of drift; this inequality is, of course, magnified by night, as are its potential and actual consequences. Collective walking practices can offer some respite from self-policing, clearing a path for exploration, exercise, and recreation, though we might also question the balance of freedom and circumscription in group activity. As a practical solution to the problem of male dominance, harassment and violence in public space, it’s limited and imperfect; as a creative response, it is, arguably, helping to change the narrative of the street (and, indeed, the ‘wild spaces’ which are similarly ‘off-limits’). In the UK, contemporary women artists and writers who have used night walking as part of their practice include Clare Qualmann, co-founder of the Walking Artists Network (and, with Amy Sharrocks, co-curator of Walking Women, a series of walks, talks and events that took place in London and Edinburgh in 2016), who co-led the participatory ‘live art’ project walkwalkwalk (2006-2010, with Gail Burton and Serena Korda) which included a series of midsummer and midwinter night walks through East London; Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre, whose work with the residents of Southwark estates in 2008 and 2009 encompassed night walks, ‘night salons’, and night rides with cyclists; and Emma Bolland, whose collaborative research project MilkyWayYouWillHearMeCall (2012-2013, with Judit Bodor and Tom Rodgers) revisited and re-examined sites in Leeds made notorious in the 1970s and 1980s by Peter Sutcliffe, the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’. The site visits, undertaken in both daylight and darkness, prompted a series of reflective essays and presentations by Bolland, in which she recounts her own experiences of walking these locations in the early 1980s, at night, alone, ‘shitfaced on spirits and speed’. She speaks of Ripper-era Leeds as ‘a battleground for the reclamation of territory’, with incompetent and prejudiced police and media on one side (advising women to avoid the city’s streets after dark, and distinguishing Sutcliffe’s ‘innocent’ victims from those defined by their work as prostitutes) and campaigning feminist organisations on the other (notably the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group, who organised the UK-wide Reclaim the Night women’s marches held on 12 November 1977 in response to the police’s suggestion of a voluntary curfew). Emma is with us tonight, documenting our departure from the pub, its brick island receding as we drift north, then east, passing car dealerships, blade manufacturers, fencing specialists, a soft rain starting up, the casino etched in red, the lamp lights counting down, three, two, one, here is the bridge, a view of the river, and slowly we find each other in the dark, copper wires hissing overhead, thinning out between breakers yard and graveyard.
7.51pm. Wardsend Cemetery is the only burial ground in Britain with an active railway line running through it, ferrying scrap and finished steel to and from the works at Stocksbridge, six miles north-west. The trackbed is laid parallel to the River Don as it passes through north Sheffield, and also runs close to Club Mill Road, a rough, potholed lane that forms a corridor between the railway and the river, and on which we’ll be walking for the next hour. With the light almost gone, I gesture at the other path, the stone steps at my back, the hillside memorials. For years, Wardsend was a byword for neglect; that the site has recovered is largely due to the efforts of the Friends of Wardsend Cemetery, a historical society and conservation group. One of its members is here tonight. I attempt to introduce him, but the company is in blackout, the bodies without contrast, and I cannot read his position. I attempt to introduce the four poets – Angelina D’Roza, Pete Green, Chris Jones, Fay Musselwhite – who are somewhere in this blind assembly. I step back and let them, and the night, do their work, lighting the scripts with a torch. Angelina’s is the first voice we hear, her ‘Song of Silence’ reminding us that ‘there is no / such thing as silence’, only an almost-silence and an almost-darkness circling each other, neither separable nor ever quite meeting. ‘The Storm Lamp’, a tale of fire and flight, is next; taken from a longer work-in-progress, Chris’s vision of civil unrest and survivalism, set in a Sheffield of the near future, defamiliarises the city by degrees, and, perhaps, finds an echo in the decentred dark. Before we leave Wardsend, Fay reads ‘Not thistledown’, a refusal of the customs of death (‘Don’t […] sing me to the flame’) that also touches on the process at work in parts of the cemetery, its headstones displaced by trees, ‘bone-work in oak root’s way’. With ‘the rinse of rain’ reflected in the torchlight, we file past a clump of boulders and through the vehicle gate.
8.13pm. From Wardsend, the Don flows on a south-easterly turn for 400 metres, the lane at its side, before pulling away, a humming on the west bank, strobe and glare, the power station on the curve, the college and its floodlit fields. The lane straightens out, due south, smaller paths forking east and west. We gather at one of these forks, looking up at the railway embankment, the morning’s snow still clinging to the ridge, then down at our boots, the puckered ground, part gravel, part water. Fay’s ‘Boulder’ (‘pulled from the river’s bed’) leads into a longer reading from Angelina, including two new poems (‘Shore’ and ‘Lullaby’) that speak of the light before dawn, rootlessness, seas, and rivers, and ‘Fairytale No. 13’, which seems to anticipate the expansion of these themes, faithful to the small hours, their tonal shifts, ‘the rush of the weir / after rain’. At this point, it’s difficult to tell the current in the overhead wires from the drizzle speckling our jackets and hoods. We shuffle on, the hum tailing off, the rain picking up.
8.28pm. We stop again, a few metres short of the metal barrier that marks the northern boundary of an industrial estate. I scan the shadows for Pete, call him forward, then realise he is standing next to me. He introduces an excerpt from Sheffield Almanac, ‘a poem in four chapters about rivers, rain, relocation, and regeneration’, a seasonally-themed survey of a city at a crossroads between a steel-plated past and a post-industrial future. Chapter Three of the Almanac brings the relationship of Sheffield’s waterways to the growth of its manufacturing base into sharp focus, noting that the ‘five rivers forever outspan’ the achievements of the industrial age, the Don, the Loxley and the Rivelin still ‘driving down through limestone, carving grit’, while the waterwheels and millstones they once fed now moulder (or, conversely, are restored and reframed as tokens of heritage). The torch passes from hand to hand. Fay recounts her own creative exploration of the Rivelin (in the long poem ‘Memoir of a Working River’) and the Loxley (in ‘Flood Triptych’, on which her next two readings draw). ‘Long Fallow’ picks through the ‘wattle-growth’ of an idle backwater of the Loxley, vehicular debris intermingled with ‘oxalis, sycamore and dandelion’, the remnants of a forge still visible in ‘the under-dank’. It invites us to contemplate ‘a scarf, a shoe, a sock’, ‘clothes / like and not like those washed out from grinders’ homes.’ On the night of 11 March 1864, the Loxley Valley was flooded by the water from the newly built Dale Dyke Dam, which collapsed while it was being filled; after wrecking Loxley Village, Malin Bridge and Hillsborough, the flood continued into the centre of Sheffield, and on to Rotherham. We’re standing some 30 metres east of the Don, perhaps 300 metres north of its confluence with the Loxley, ninety degrees of impact, destruction and debris to the south and west. We cram through the metal barrier, a lane through the industries, there are lights, there are sounds, the work going on, shot blasting, steel fabrication, auto repairs, a radio sings to an open window, metal on metal, remake / remodel. The pace slows, the group breaks into smaller groups. Emma takes more photographs. There are rubber speed ramps, a vehicle gate that splits the lane in half, another ridge of rubber speed ramps. The units and yards flatten out. As we reach the last barrier the light abandons the lane. Almost darkness, almost silence.
8.44pm. We gather in the space between the asphalt road and a derelict, railed-off building, trees outgrowing the sagging brick. This is the site of a former silver mill, which one of our party dates to the 18th century. Although we can’t see it, we’ve also drawn level with the junction of the Loxley and the Don; in 1864, the silver mill would have stood directly in the path of the flood. Fay picks up where she left off, with ‘Factory’, the second poem in her ‘Flood Triptych’, which speaks of ‘the silted scuffle of industry unravelled’, a site disowned by the money that made it, the ‘ruptured brickwork’ since retaken by birds, buddleia and bees. Angelina steps forward to read ‘Magnolia’, her third new poem: six lines, ‘two trees’, each the other’s measure, ‘one is distance / one displacement’, the home and its wild state, a window fractured by a branch. The reading concludes with ‘Post-Industrial’, a poem from Chris’s sequence ‘At the End of the Road, a River’, which developed from a series of walks that Chris took along several miles of the Don, from Middlewood to Meadowhall, in 2005. The poem is set in the east of the city, but conjures a similar landscape of riverside trade, of ‘pallets’ and ‘bay-loading gates’; we glimpse the ‘last man’s shadow slip[ping] the fence / as machines break into silence’. The road ahead, like the crumbling plot, is curtained by a low metal fence, holding back the disorderly copse. As the copse peters out, so does the fence, the river surprising us, sidelong and dark.
9.02pm. 300 metres south, Club Mill Road meets Sandbed Road, the latter climbing uphill, west, while our road meets another line of boulders, and sodden debris fly-tipped on the turn. Against this backdrop, Chris opens with ‘Drift’, a poem written over 12 years ago, in response to this location. At that time, the junk was being tipped into the Don – ‘a typewriter scrolling water’ – and while the health of the river has since improved, the bankside clutter persists, cast-off cushions and mattresses, ‘the wasted attempts at home’. As Chris gives way to Pete, the waters seem to draw close, swollen by three days of rain, sleet and snow. Six months previously, Angelina and Pete had led 20 people over Sheffield’s bridges, high above a wide, shallow Don, a city at ease in t-shirts and shades. Pete reads a poem that he read on that summer’s day, an affirmation of resourcefulness and persistence in the face of precarity and impermanence, a tribute to a ‘waterboatman-sculptor’ whose riverbed works we’d encountered on an earlier walk along the route. ‘Dan of the Don’ also gives us decline and renewal (and decline) in microcosm: Dan’s ‘relic stacks’, the art assembled from ‘the / lapsed pomp of / manufacture and shipment’, will be dismantled by a rising river during the winter months, after which the materials will be recovered, new ‘stanzas of brick’ will emerge, and the cycle will repeat. With Fay’s ‘Flight from Cuthbert Bank’, we turn from the Don to the incline of Sandbed Road, pared, in the dark, to a simple slope, all ascent and descent. The poem recounts a slow, indirect pilgrimage to the site of the former pigeon lofts of Cuthbert Bank, a few streets west of the corner on which we’re standing, the pigeons’ flights gradually fading from the ‘memory maps’ that linked hillside to hillside, the districts of Upperthorpe and Parkwood now divided by ‘the six-lane race’ of a dual carriageway. From these derelict ledges, the poem restores their release and return, recolours the valley and the sky above, imagines a flock
of men released by work clocks, to rise above
day’s end, the valley’s din, legacies of grind,
to hold the small bulk, feel its heat
pulse through feathers in cupped hands,
and send those tiny hearts and lungs
to claim their reach of sky.
9.15pm. The end of Club Mill Road, and the end of our road, the short span of Hillfoot bridging the river. We edge into the light, the glare from Penistone Road, a single lamp for the long-dead Farfield Inn. Fay reads ‘Road’, the last journey of a companion animal, the ‘dark dog days’ on ‘the old steel road’; Chris follows with ‘Otter Cliff’, reaching back into apocryphal etymology (the Sheffield district of Attercliffe supposedly deriving its name from the otters that once dwelled on the banks of the Don), and looking forward (since the poem was written, sightings of otters on the Don have steadily increased). Like ‘Otter Cliff’, Angelina’s ‘Ball Street Bridge’ is set further downstream (by half a mile or so), extending our view of the river, summoning mallards and gudgeon, an ‘ore-heavy stream’ glinting as the moon rises. The moon tonight is new, though we don’t see it; the night is colder and wetter than when we started, my hands numb with the shuffling of torch, umbrella and sound recorder. I introduce Pete, who, after thanking everyone present, introduces the final poem: ‘Night Walk by the River Don’, part dream, part drift, peopled by ‘hostelry ghosts / of the Farfield Inn’ (which, we learn, has apparently been sold in recent weeks), and the river, with us to the end, ‘still flow[ing] / when nobody is there’. Apart from us, the streets are empty; another storm is closing in. We turn, for the last time, to
a lane flanked dense with thickets,
the freakish Don below, a carriageway
of bustling currents.
Longbarrow Press is planning further night walks for 2018; details will be posted on our Events page in the coming weeks.
The following publications are currently available from Longbarrow Press (click the titles for further details): Angelina D’Roza’s debut collection Envies the Birds, Pete Green’s pamphlet Sheffield Almanac, Chris Jones’s second collection Skin, and Fay Musselwhite’s Contraflow.
Emma Bolland: ‘Snow White / Rose Red’ (2012), ‘Lines of Desire’ (2012), ‘Trespassing Knowledge’ (2014) (two essays and a presentation reflecting, inter alia, on themes of trespass, darkness and night walking in the MilkyWayYouWillHearMeCall project)
Brian Lewis: ‘The Cut’ (on the landscapes of Owlerton), ‘Haunts’ (on Andrew Hirst’s Three Night Walks), and ‘Parallel Lines’ (on Angelina D’Roza and Pete Green’s ‘Vanishing Point’ city walk)
Rebecca Solnit: ‘Walking After Midnight’ (from Wanderlust: A History of Walking)
Friends of Wardsend Cemetery
Chris Jones: At the End of the Road, a River (interactive map of the River Don project, with poems and recordings)
The Night Walk Project (with a recent interview with Brian Lewis)
The following Twitter accounts are recommended: @thelrm (run by Morag Rose, who organises regular collective psychogeographical drifts in Manchester); @wildernessflash (Lone Women in Flashes of Wilderness, a collaborative project by Clare Archibald exploring women’s thoughts on & experiences of aloneness, darkness & wilderness); @ClareQualmann
A special thanks to all who attended the walk on 17 January 2018, and to Emma Bolland for taking the photographs that accompany this essay.
One of the things that I came to appreciate as I started to read poetry in my early teens was how much poems were in conversation with other poems, and as a kind of variation of this theme, it dawned on me that poets were going about their business by ‘talking’ to each other. Never mind that the poet being responded to had been dead for three years or three centuries: this reflection on and negotiation with previous practice – whether it be through assimilating long-established poetic forms (e.g. the sonnet) or mining a well-used trope through the echo of allusion, or perhaps even through adopting creative plagiarisms – this was all part of a grand tradition of writing. It’s one of the fundamental, underpinning (and unwritten) tenets of poetry that makes it so difficult for students and casual readers coming to the genre to make sense of the sometimes rarefied, often codified language placed in front of them. It’s still one of the main stumbling blocks that makes it difficult for me to read, absorb and unravel poems.
To show how this long-standing ‘dialogue’ develops and mutates over time, I’ll use my own poem ‘An Invitation’ as a starting point for discussion. The piece is a fictionalised response to a meeting I had with the poet Thom Gunn back in the mid-1990s in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco. It was my rather clumsy attempt to interview a very fine and inspirational writer about his career (he was in his mid-60s at the time of my calling). I had just written a thesis on Gunn and wanted to put a full stop at the end of the project by meeting my subject, the great man, himself. I decided, eventually, to write the poem that reflected on our afternoon together (after a sixteen year gap or so) in iambic tetrameter rhyming couplets. One of the reasons why I wanted to write in rhyming couplets (which could be viewed as quite an anachronistic form of address) was that this poetic form gave a strong nod in the direction of one of Gunn’s own formally idiosyncratic pieces: ‘An Invitation: from San Francisco to my brother‘. Whereas I use the term ‘invitation’ in a more generalised sense of already being invited somewhere, turning up, and going away again, Gunn is channelling a more classical sense of the term and seeing his own poem as a kind of epistolary call to his brother halfway across the world: it’s proleptic in its concerns – brother, if you come to visit we can do this, and this, and this. Gunn’s own rhyming couplets (he mixes up pentameter and tetrameter lines throughout) are themselves floating on a pool of allusions: he has based the structure and tone of his work on Ben Jonson’s poem ‘Inviting a Friend to Supper’. Because Gunn was so widely read, a catholic consumer of poetry, he realised one ‘template’ he could use when writing his own piece of bidding was to imitate (this being a favourite theme of Gunn’s) and adapt a previous model fashioned by this Elizabethan/Jacobean poet. Jonson’s form de jour here is the heroic couplet (rhyming iambic pentameter lines): he is sending out a ‘formal’ invitation to his patron, William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, to come to a seemingly elaborate feast in the private space of the poet’s house.
We can go even further back than this. Jonson wrote ‘Inviting a Friend to Supper’ as part of a series of epigrams: concise, witty, often satirical pieces that commented on (and often mocked) social airs and conventions. Jonson was schooled in the languages of Latin and Greek. He would have written this piece knowing that a good number of his audience could pick up on the Classical antecedents that the work is drawing on. In particular, Jonson is echoing some of thematic strategies of the Roman poet Martial. See, for instance, Martial’s poem that begins: ‘You will dine nicely, Julius Cerialis, at my house’ (11.52) or poem 5.78: ‘If you are troubled by the prospect of a cheerless dinner at home, Toranius, you may fare modestly with me.’
We need not necessarily go this far back as time-travellers to trace a ‘family tree’ of models, connections, allusions. Indeed, we could put to one side this notion of poets responding to each other and adopt a much more standard (and prevalent) critical paradigm where a reader focuses on analysing how a poet’s own oeuvre develops from book to book, in essence testing how his or her work matures by charting the central arguments, tensions, debates that the poet has engaged in over the span of a career. This approach is particularly illuminating when we examine the interconnected schemata/motifs prevalent in the work of the Irish poet Michael Longley. His poems are so much in conversation with themselves that I regard these (often) short, discrete pieces like the fractals that contribute to a larger patterned picture, or like petals that make up a huge vibrant flowerhead. Something of this idea of movement/progression and recapitulation can be found in Longley’s own maxim: ‘If prose is a river, poetry is a fountain.’
I can show how this self-sustaining debate has evolved in Longley’s work by quoting from a recent poem, ‘Marigolds, 1960’, published in The Stairwell (2014). Here Longley is remembering one of his last meetings with his father. The poet is about to return to university in Dublin to continue his studies after the summer break. He has just had his first poem published which his father thinks is ‘[n]ot worth the paper it’s printed on.’ This rather pat critique is followed by a little contextualising statement and fragment of speech:
You are dying. ‘They’ve cut out my
Wheest – I have to sit down
To wheest – like a woman.’
Longtime readers of Longley’s work will know that his father reappears as a key witness of historical trauma, having fought in the First World War with the Ulster Division. The father is both a central character in Longley’s focus on autobiography, contingency and personal tragedy and also a kind of Everyman soldier, a put-upon Tommy who could equally be pictured outside the gates of Troy with Odysseus as he might be charging across the blasted fields of the Somme. The emasculating consequences of war that come to literal effect in ‘Marigolds, 1960’ have already been foregrounded in Longley’s earlier work. In a poem from Longley’s first collection (No Continuing City, 1969) we first learn of his father’s debilitating wounds:
Between the corpses and the soup canteens
You swooned away, watching your future spill.
But, as it was, your proper funeral urn
Had mercifully smashed into smithereens,
To shrapnel shards that sliced your testicle.
That instant, I your most unlikely son,
In No Man’s Land was surely left for dead,
Blotted out from your far horizon.
You can see that Longley is still working toward a mature voice here. He has a rather mannered way of phrasing his lines. ‘[Y]our proper funeral urn / Had mercifully smashed into smithereens’ seems to focus on rather ornate poeticisms for the fragments of the shell that went off in the vicinity of his father. He will go on to refine this balancing act so that his full-blown style is based on making poems out of rather poised and elegant long sentences. He jettisons the full end-rhymes we see here soon after publishing his first collection, cultivating a robust and supple free verse style. But it is this image of the shrapnel shards slicing the testicle, the enervation of the soldier’s strength from that palpable sense of castration, that he returns to in his poetry. Here’s a later poem, ‘The Choughs’, from the collection The Weather in Japan (2000) that shows how his stylistic approach has changed:
The choughs’ red claws recall my father
Telling me how the raw recruits would clutch
Their ‘courting tackle’ under heavy fire:
Choughs at play are the souls of young soldiers
Lifting their testicles into the sky.
Longley is making surreal connections between watching birds ‘rolling and soaring’ about the cliffs on the West Coast of Ireland and this mediated memory of his father’s that returns to focusing on the male sexual organs as a signifier of vulnerability and mortality. His father’s delicate euphemism (‘courting tackle’) seems at odds with the apparent violence of the situation he found himself in, but is in keeping with his own sense of decorum elsewhere (see his use of the word ‘wheest’ in ‘Marigolds, 1960’, for instance). Longley is almost trying to reclaim the shocking earthiness of his father’s plight by pushing this defamiliarising metaphor of the dead soldiers ‘lifting their testicles into the sky.’
It’s worth noting that in the poem ‘The Butchers’ (from Gorse Fires, 1991), one of Longley’s many translations of Homer that he uses as a way to reflect on contemporary violence (in this case sectarian killings), one of the acts that Odysseus perpetrates on his rival Melanthios’s ‘corpse’ is to ‘cut off his nose and ears and cock and balls.’
In ‘Marigolds, 1960’, Longley is coming full circle when he writes after his own father’s cock and balls. You feel that Longley is making that connection between potency and writing here. After all, the father is denied his penis just as the son begins to find success publishing his work. Perhaps more tellingly, Longley is offering us one way of reading this ongoing dialogue he has cultivated across his books with his dead father. Rather than dwelling on his father’s opprobrium (with poems that are ‘Not worth the paper [they are] printed on’), he writes, and continues to write because he wants his shade-of-a-father’s respect and understanding. Here’s another poem printed in The Weather in Japan:
12 January, 1996
He would have been a hundred today, my father,
So I write to him in the trenches and describe
How he lifts with tongs from the brazier an ember
And in its glow reads my words and sets them aside.
Sometimes, once in a while, I read a poem that makes me see another piece in a whole new light. It’s as if the succeeding poem works as a skeleton key that can open a secret compartment in the other text’s structure, revealing a whole new layer of meaning. Usually, this involves the poet creatively re-interpreting another poet’s work through his or her own understanding of the text. They usually do this through allusion or reconfiguring a particular word or phrase found in the original poem. When I read Michael Longley’s collection The Stairwell, I noticed that Longley uses as his epigraph for the first part of the book a quotation from the poet W S Graham: ‘Hap the blanket round me / And tuck in a flower.’ I knew I had read this extract before in a Graham poem and flicked through my copy of the Scot’s Selected Poems (1996) to see if I could find where this petitioning couplet had been taken from. My homing instincts were right – pretty soon I had found the late Graham poem ‘To My Wife At Midnight’ as the source for this perhaps emboldening, perhaps plaintive request. This piece rounds off the Selected Poems – it is a rather fragile, beautiful sequence that contemplates love, companionship and old age as Graham and his wife (Nessie) prepare to ‘say goodnight… / sleeping alone together.’
While I was reading through the Graham poem again it dawned on me that Longley was echoing and subtly playing with the Scottish poet’s trove of language, teasing apart and ‘redressing’ a particular word that is shared in both books. Here’s the final section of ‘To My Wife At Midnight’ in full:
Nessie Dunsmuir, I say
Wheest, wheest to myself
To help me now to go
Under into somewhere
In the redcoat rain.
Buckle me for the war.
Are you to say goodnight
And kiss me and fasten
My drowsy armour tight?
My dear camp-follower,
Hap the blanket round me
And tuck in a flower.
Maybe from my sleep
In the stoure at Culloden
I’ll see you here asleep
In your lonely place.
I always thought the narrator of this poem is talking to himself for solace, a spell to calm his unsettled mind down. If we read the notes at the back of Graham’s New Collected Poems (edited by Matthew Francis and published in 2004), we find that ‘wheest’ is a Scots dialect word for ‘hush’. There are various examples of the use of this dialect word in poems that explore the Scots vernacular. Given the tone and direction of the poem – towards sleep and separation – this self-administration of comfort seems like the obvious route to take through the sequence. However, if we read the text through the prism of Longley’s ‘Marigolds, 1960′, we find another poem floating just beneath the surface. Certainly, if we take on board Graham’s own sense of artistic contingency – as he articulates in his manifesto-driven ‘Proem’ (‘It is now left just as an object by me / to be encountered by somebody else’) – we might go back to the beginning of the poem and take a different path through its architectural planes.
So, rather than the narrator in ‘To My Wife At Midnight’ saying ‘hush, hush’ to himself, perhaps, like Longley’s father, he understands that the word ‘wheest’ carries another load within it. Graham perhaps is saying ‘cock, cock’ to himself, to ‘help [himself] now to go / Under into somewhere / in the redcoat rain.’ Actually, thinking about this emphasis more and more I don’t see it as a great leap of the imagination to read the culmination of the piece to be addressing obliquely the intimacies of sex. After all, the poem begins: ‘Are you to say goodnight / And turn away under / The blanket of your delight?’ The alternative to that ‘turn[ing] away’ is surely the act of love. There are wide open spaces between the lines of this poem for physical union to take place.
I’m sure Longley is aware of this alternative reading he’s providing room for through nailing on the quotation from ‘To My Wife At Midnight’ at the beginning of The Stairwell and then echoing Graham’s usage of ‘wheest’ in his poem ‘Marigolds, 1960’. Perhaps too there is a double bind in this quoted epigraph, ‘Hap the blanket round me / And tuck in a flower’ – that of attentive, love-worn survivors, old man and wife (Longley was celebrating his marriage of fifty years in his last poetry collection, Angel Hill) – while also evoking the old soldier who has survived the war, who has returned, and who Longley wants to give flowers, marigolds perhaps, and hopes they are not rejected this time around.
Chris Jones’s second full-length collection Skin is out now from Longbarrow Press, and includes the poem ‘An Invitation’. Visit the Skin microsite for more details about the book, or click on the relevant PayPal option below to order:
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. Zyxt (Oystercatcher Press) is available here.
Update (February 2019): the full-length version of Meridian is published by Longbarrow Press on 8 February 2019. Click here for further details.
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.
an introduction to a received transmission categorised as Quarry Some
As a child I was fascinated by paintings of alien landscapes containing wrecked spacecraft. One particular sci-fi coffee-table book, called Spacewreck: Ghostships and Derelicts of Space, still stays embedded in the canyon remnants of my child brain. Such huge hulks of corroding technology, each dropped to ground like some giant letter from some lost god’s alphabet. These still moulder in my mind, cold with distance and yet hot with some kind of strange glad angst …
And I now know that such projected ghostly derelicts of super-technologies have played an important part in setting my mind towards the present pull of dereliction. Tarkovsky’s Stalker has also pulled me from one dimension into another and back out again. And so I have always been drawn to The Zone, by the forbidden fenced elsewhere, by the contained broken analogues of our breaking worlds …
A few years back I had the honour of actually travelling to some other world with a team of Quarrynauts. Together we rode over an abandoned civilisation’s traces … we held our craft fast, hitched a ride … or we passed our craft from one to the other … a baton of co(s)mic trajectories … its imagination-impetus, its creating-eye, pulled us through …
My son, a one-time technician of useful-deceptions, and a forever-improviser, had empowered a telescopic-pole with a photon-coagulator. Or to use today’s Earth language: my son had, using a strap of tractor-tyre inner-tube, mounted a digital eye to the end of an extendable aluminium pole. This pole saw the way, and its vibrant visions danced our hands as we carried it and ran … puppets we were of vision’s touch … all of us … a team of fathers & sons on the run … the run to … as well as the run from …
How we dreamed … the aluminium pole had an intelligence – aluminium intelligence – crystalline, light and strong …
But our dream also boiled with poetry fragmented into comedic fibres & jostling alien components & the frail muffled tragedies of objects’ disintegrating messages. There is no clearly discernible speech recorded in our document of our voyage, but perhaps I remember how at one point in space we discussed a mysterious murder on the far-off & ancient Benny Hill of Old Earth. We wrestled with the legal rights & moral wrongs of that murder, and the reincarnation of granite, and the filling in and filling up of outer & inner space with mineral density. Forever some corner of a universe is a corner of Earth, for a quarry is a corner of ground, and the stone dreams dug from it remain spaceless but fluid and awake eternally … and thus, to disagree ever so slightly with Gaston Bachelard, and to be much inspired by child Alice’s bold mischief, our team’s odyssey motto was: How we take flight, through a corner of a universe …
What you are about to see and hear should not be tried at home … it is only for those who wish their dwelling to be a corridor of motion, a tube of going towards gone, a carrying of nowhere from nowhere to nowhere, an event of bearing an horizon of aluminium rod … through the active radio of space … space … where no one can hear … your poetry cry …
This text introduces Quarry Some, a one-take collaborative film by Louis Goodwin, Mark Goodwin, and others:
Mark Goodwin’s fourth poetry collection, Steps (Longbarrow Press, 2014), explores themes of climbing, walking and balancing. Click here to visit the Steps microsite for extracts, essays and audio recordings.
I was brought up on a farm in South Leicestershire, and since my childhood, some of the outbuildings have always ‘housed’, each summer, a certain kind of dweller, or rather I suppose, a certain kind of traveller. These beings made the dustbin shed a dangerous place to enter, or at least it seemed dangerous … because, more often than not as you opened the bottom half of the stable-door, the top half of which was always kept open, suddenly you would need to duck as a blurred
dark wing-edged missile
skimming your crown …
It is just like that now – the swallows are still there at Lodge Farm, in the summer. And I, like many others, have come to know swallows as being the chirrups-&-clicks and flitting flow-visions of a particular summer place …
An intimacy of sorts. Swallows zooming the corners of the cobbled yard and then banking up into the wide summer blues above. You could never get near them – all speed & agility – and yet that fast distance they carry or project … that was, and still is, a kind of unique nearness, a bringing in of the far …
And as a child I could only vaguely imagine far-off South Africa, and how it might feel to fly and weather the long sky-hours crossing continents to that unknown ‘there’ … and then again to fly the vast space back … up Africa … across the deadly Sahara … Morocco … Spain … the high Pyrenees … France … across The Channel to England … and then up to Leicestershire again, and again to a particular rafter, in a farm’s outbuilding. And as an adult, I think I can imagine this no better. And yet, the swallows – settled in the dustbin shed – each year they bring this intercontinental distance close. Even though, swallows, flyers that they are, can never be touched …
Yes, swallows in my life, so far, have been near, but utterly impossible to touch. That cup of mud tucked into the rafters? Well … even as a small child I knew and felt just how forbidden it is to put a hand into that nest of peek-a-booing chicks. And in all the years of my growing up at Lodge Farm, and since, not one swallow chick has fallen from the nest. Or at least, I believe it to be that way …
Swallows. The impossible to touch. So, it is such a beautiful but strange surprise to me then, that my growing-up children, who are both now moving out and into the far world, should one day bring a touchable swallow to the place where I grew up …
My daughter, Tess, is a vet student, and she was recently doing some work experience at a stud farm in Shropshire. One of the other students had found a fallen swallow nestling, but was unable to carry on hand-rearing the bird, because her time at the stud farm had come to an end. She managed to persuade Tess to carry on with the rearing … and then Tess, as her work-experience came to an end, brought the swallow back home with her …
And so, that is what she, and my son, Louis, are now doing – they are hand-rearing a swallow. Or at least trying to …
Swallows grow fast, very fast. The grip of tiny claws on your finger. The strength of the grip. The fanning of wings, and the swish of air on your skin as flight is felt by the bird, but … flight not yet made, at least for now. The sudden little crinkled squawk-&-wide-open-yellow-maw as a tweezered wriggling mealy worm is offered … then gulped down. The sharp frightening hunter gaze and already skilled precise rotating head-movements as a passing fly is scanned avidly. This little creature is a terror! A hawk of a kind – a gnat harrier. So fast its ancient instincts are making its form & drive come into the world. This little creature is immensely beautiful …
Tess is trying very hard, as a vet student, as a scientist no less, NOT to get attached to this little being. She is failing, of course, but not enough to try at all to keep the creature. I’m sure part of her does not want this bird to fly, yet I know she mostly wants the creature to go, and to be free … yes! that is certainly what she wants most …
And as we talked about this, with the swallow on her hand, in the garden at my parents’ farm … suddenly the fledgling took flight … was up … and instantly bigger versions of itself boomeranged out of thin air and swooped close through the confines of the garden … and then the little swallow and the bigger ones that had joined it were beyond the beech hedge and in the big sky … Were they friendly, these big blade-shapes cavorting with the fledgling? …
The concern on my daughter’s face was as clear as the streak
of a swallow’s cry …
And then the wee bird landed on her hand again.
And my daughter, the scientist, knew, so very well, that the bird had returned only because of hunger & thirst, and nothing else. And yet, human that she is, my daughter declared her ‘love’ for the beauty of this driven beast …
Last night, Tess took the fledgling back to Lodge Farm, which is abundant with swallows, skimming flies off the farm’s lake …
Before last night, the little bird had already made a flight with the wild adult birds, of about twenty minutes or so. I was there, at Lodge Farm, and saw how the bigger swallows curved close and jostled the fledgling. Were the ‘wiser’ birds teaching? Or were the wild creatures bullying a stranger? We couldn’t really tell. We suspect they were actually helping, but we don’t have enough knowledge of swallows to be certain of what we were looking at, other than a smaller bird circling and swooping … and being … pursued by larger beings of its kind. And when the nestless fledgling returned to my daughter’s hand, its beak was ajar: the fledgling was panting, and obviously very tired. The sudden open sky and the action of flight had taken a lot of energy …
Late last night, Louis told me that the little swallow had been flying again at Lodge Farm, and this time for over two hours … and that Tess was about to leave, suspecting she would see no more of the bird, when suddenly it landed on her head …
… I texted Tess this morning: ‘I hear, on the wing 4 over 2hrs yester eve! Lv d’ Her reply: ‘Yes but he’s not in a good way 😦 he came back absolutely exhausted and hasn’t tweeted since, and this morning I noticed a slight bloody patch on his under belly so he’s going 2 the vet today. Lv T.’
It is likely that the juvenile driven flyer, un-guided by parent swallows, simply flew and flew in circles until exhaustion … and then made a bad crash landing causing injury …
Such an immensely beautiful & driven little beast. And yet so fragile and dependent on a particular pattern of existence, a particular unfurling of events, a set of steps in a deep old precise process … that cannot be easily interrupted …
The attrition rate for juvenile swallows whilst making their first migration is so very high – only the strongest flyers stand any chance of making the journey their instincts demand of them …
It is sad, this loss. But only for us people. The swallow cares not …
Photographs by Nikki Clayton. Mark Goodwin’s publications include All Space Away and In (Shearsman, 2017) and Rock as Gloss (out from Longbarrow Press this autumn). His fourth poetry collection, Steps (Longbarrow Press, 2014), explores themes of climbing, walking and balancing. Click here to visit the Steps microsite for extracts, essays and audio recordings. You can also order the hardback via PayPal below: