Poppy Kleiser on Liz Berry and Alison Brackenbury

Poetry and Place: Where We Are

This year, the Arts Council funded Places of Poetry, a project curated by Paul Farley and Andrew McRae, inspired by the 17th century Poly-Olbion, an epic 15,000-line poetic journey through England and Wales by Michael Drayton. The 2019 idea aims to ‘use creative writing to prompt reflection on national and cultural identities in England and Wales, celebrating the diversity, heritage and personalities of place’. 

This pre-occupation with place seems to have continued a trend which began particularly with mainstream non-fiction. Walk into Waterstones now and you will see The Salt PathThe Yorkshire ShepherdessNotes from Walnut Tree Farm. Lucy Lippard quotes Majoza in her study The Lure of the Local: “The challenge is for the artist is to search for the good and make it matter, to map the terrain of the outside world through confrontation with the inner territory of the soul – the earth that, in fact, we are.”

In short; we are one; part of the world’s ecosystem, not rulers of it. In a world of jet-plane travel and job-centred migration, we seem to have lost the security that, according to Lippard, is “latitudinal and longitudinal within the map of a person’s life.” The focus seems to be not only on place, but on rural place or place that has industry characteristic of a bygone era. As we have lost our sense of belonging we too are losing our connection to the natural world; almost certainly this is one and the same. It is evident, then, that this return to an individual sense of place is accompanied by a yearning for nature; an idea coined by literary critics as Green Studies, or Ecoliterature. Reading Thoreau, an inspiration to any eco-literary study, one associates a closeness with nature to that of truth –

‘Who nailed words to their primitive senses, as farmers drive down the stakes in the Spring, which the frost has heaved; who derived his words as often as he used them – transplanting them to his page with earth adhering to their roots.’

Liz Berry is a poet whose homeland is the title of her 2014 collection Black Country, and features as a predominant theme throughout much of her work. Despite the industrialism of the area, Berry still deals with local tradition, the old ways and its relationship with the countryside, describing the place in her title poem as ‘A gift from the underworld, hauling the past/ from the dead earth’ – and there is something gothic here about man’s supernatural relationship with nature. In her poem ‘Tipton-On-Cut’, Berry combines archaic colloquialisms with endearing realism. The opening line ‘Come wi’ me, bab, wum to Tipton-On-Cut’ introduces the vigorous Black Country dialect, alive with voices and flowing as a veg. market conversation. Regional words such as ‘guttling’, ‘kaylighed’, and ‘bostin’ delight in their onomatopoeia: we hear the ‘oss’ chomp down their food; we sway down the road with the ‘kaylighed’ pair. Distinction is given to a language that is very much their own; there is no pretension here, only strength and revelry in their activities. It very much adheres to the ‘primitive senses’ described by Thoreau, her words being ‘true and fresh and natural’ to the district that shaped her, despite its industrialism. Accented words – ‘oss’, ‘bonk’, ‘ower’ – create a distinct and characteristic voice, so the whole poem has the rhythmically lyrical appeal of a folk song. It is not all archaic, however: Berry brings in contemporary imagery with ‘call centres and factories’, ‘baltis’ as well as ‘batters’ and the ‘mosque gemmed up gold and fairylit.’ This effectively counters any sense of sentimental nostalgia, and brings the local dialect (fast turning into a feature of the past) into the now.

This year, Alison Brackenbury released Gallop, a collection of poems that follows her published years and proves her worth as one of the most significant poets of our time when talking about place: her childhood in rural Lincolnshire envelopes much of her work. One of the later poems in the collection, ‘Down Unwin’s Track’ reflects on the passing of time with Romantic descriptions of pastoral activity. ‘The sky spun past the hills’ flush of winter corn’ sets a scene of rural sublimity, and there is a sadness as she continues ‘the mare strode out as though still young.’ It seems at first as if the speaker is merely an observer, detached from the natural world rather than part of its growth. As the poem continues, however, a nostalgia develops. The implication that the mare is not ‘young’, and that the speaker ‘last year’ saw ‘a hare run with her young/ just past the broken wall, just here’ reveals the comparison between the cycle of life in nature and humanity’s transience. There is a duality here – the implied constancy of the ‘broken wall’ being there ‘last year’ suggests there is a security in this recognisable place; a constancy of the countryside in a world of ever changing relationships. It is reminiscent of an idea Laurence Coupe describes in The Green Studies Reader: “Green studies reminds us that place matters as much as time, geography as much as history, being as much as becoming, permanence as much as change.” Thus, the earth; nature, which is what we are, is constantly changing. We must capture it; write about it; paint it, before it disappears.

Poppy Kleiser is a poet based in the Cambridgeshire Fens. Fenland Poet Laureate for 2014, Poppy has performed and been published widely as well as editing Poems for Peace, an anthology of poets all over the country with a foreword by Benjamin Zephaniah.

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