From Hill To Sea by the Fife Psychogeographical Collective: A Review

From Hill To Sea by the Fife Psychogeographical Collective (Murdo Eason), Bread and Circuses 2015, ISBN-13: 978-1625178879, £11.99

 

There can be a tendency to think of hill to seapsychogeography as an essentially urban activity, the province of Baudelairean flâneurs and Situationist revolutionaries wandering the streets of Paris and London ley-line hunters, while non-urban walking is thought of as being more focused, more directed at a specific end, its politics associated with claiming rights of way rather than rites of passage. On his Fife Psychogeographical Collective blog, From Hill To Sea, Murdo Eason has been steadily expanding the range of the dérive to take in the ‘Kingdom of Fife and beyond’ in an astute blend of text and photographs. The ‘beyond’ does include cities; Edinburgh, Glasgow, Amsterdam, Berlin, Newcastle, Huddersfield and, yes, even Paris are explored, but the heart of the blog is in the towns, villages, fields and coasts of the old kingdom. The writing is as varied as the locations, and the range of genres wide: poem essays, photo essays, walking notes, essay poems, photo poems, travelogue are all here, in any kind of combination you care to think of.

And now there’s a book that brings much of the best of the blog together in a large, nicely readable format. It’s an exceptionally happy transfer from digital to print; apart from a couple of stray ‘click heres’ and a visual presentation that perhaps too closely imitates the online incarnation, From Hill To Sea works remarkably coherently as a book. This is, perhaps, due to the unifying central preoccupations that run through Eason’s work, which might be summarised as a concern with what places can tell us if we observe them with sufficient patience and an understanding that ‘a landscape view is never neutral’, an insight that holds true for the urban as much as the rural environment.

One of the more fascinating aspects of Eason’s explorations is the connections he unearths. Take the case of William Gear, the Fife-born miner’s son turned painter whose abstract works regularly reflect the skeletal pithead architecture of his family background. Gear was one of only two British members of the CoBrA art movement, an number of whose members were founders of Situationism. This link, naturally, takes us to Amsterdam in search of the CoBrA museum and to the Haute-Loire (on paper, at least) in search of Guy Debord’s rural other life. There’s a passage in the CoBrA manifesto that could equally be applied to Eason’s approach to writing: ‘A living art makes no distinction between beautiful and ugly because it sets no aesthetic norms. The ugly which in the art of past centuries has come to supplement the beautiful is a permanent complaint against the unnatural class society and its aesthetic of virtuosity; it is a demonstration of the retarding and limiting influence of this aesthetic on the natural urge to create.’ This refusal of the conventionally ‘aesthetic’ allows Eason to bring motorway bridges and graffiti into his work on the same terms as woodland and art installations.

Reading any psychogeographical work will bring the reader to a contemplation of certain words and concepts: edgelands, the interzone, dérive, and, above all else, liminality. The word liminal is in such common currency that it bears explicit teasing out every now and then just to clarify what it is we mean by it. Liminal derives from the Latin limen, meaning threshold, and was first introduced into English by psychologists towards the end of the 19th century. In 1906, the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep began to us it to describe the middle stage of rituals where the initiate is in the space between their old and new selves, a state in which they exist between two worlds, idir eatortha as we say in Irish.  In the 1960s, Gennep’s ideas were expanded by another anthropologist, Victor Turner. Turner initially focused on rites of passage, which, following Gennep, he saw as being guided liminality, where an expert/teacher/shaman moved the subject to the threshold of a socially approved new state. Later, he began to apply the term to more spontaneous threshold states (his favourite examples being the Beats and Hippies) where uncontrolled disruption of the social order with no agreed desirable outcomes emerge. Since Turner, this idea of liminality as an unpredictable disruption of social norms and behaviours has become perhaps the most widely recognised use of the word.

Eason explores this sense of outsider liminality in his meditations on physical and temporal threshold states: his bridges, beaches, graffiti art, coffin roads (the splendidly named Windylaw – am I alone in hearing a ‘ley’ there?) [I am, of course, wrong. Harry Gilonis informs me ‘The path passes over a tump, or law, from Anglo-Saxon law, low (from Welsh llaw: a mound). No immediate connection with ley (Anglo-Saxon, a clearing in a wood).’], ghosts (neither living nor dead) and so on are classic liminal exemplars, as are the repeated visits  to abandoned mineheads, which represent both the physical line between the upper and lower worlds and the disruption of an entire way of life as an industry was abandoned with no thought to where its displaced workers might end up. Again, when he writes about the condition of Dalgety Bay, an area of radioactive contamination caused by the dumping of materials by the UK Ministry of Defence, he is discussing what happens when an entire landscape is rendered liminal by a complete disregard for the environment and for all our futures. Equally, the temporal space between two concerts becomes an opportunity to stroll along the banks of a Huddersfield canal, another sign of a lost way of life.

Of course, no word exists in a vacuum. In Latin, limen is cognate with limes, the fortified boundaries of empire, like Hadrian’s Wall, part of which is buried under one of Eason’s sites of interest in Newcastle. In English, its cognates include: limit, eliminate, subliminal and, possible, oblique and sublime. It would need a book-length study to fully relate these words to liminal writing and art; another day’s work entirely.

Another member of the family is limen, or liminal point, the usage in psychology that originally predates the anthropological sense. The liminal point is the limit below which a stimulus is no longer perceptible, the minimum level of nerve response required to produce a reaction. In this sense, the liminal can be seen to relate to an aesthetics of penury, an art that favours a kind of poverty of means as its basis. This would imply an art of place that declines the grand Wordsworthian gesture in favour of the small, neglected, discarded and ignored features of the world we move through. Eason, building his meditations on some blades of grass growing through a pavement, the shadow of a leaf, tagging on a dull concrete wall, transforms the everyday through this kind of attention.

It is impossible to do justice to From Hill To Sea in twelve hundred words; it’s too rich in detail, too wide in range, to do anything other than indicate why it’s worth reading and how it might be read. It is a book that raises an interesting question; in instances of spontaneous liminality resulting in social disruption, can the artist play a role in reintegration? Turner wrote that “the subject of passage ritual is, in the liminal period, structurally, if not physically, ‘invisible’”. Perhaps the psychogeographer’s role is to render them visible again. It’s a role that Eason seems eminently qualified to fill. And the book really doesn’t end on the last page, but carries on as the blog continues to grow, possibly assembling materials for a second volume. What to say? Buy it, read it, ponder it. It’s a delight. Oh, and here’s a video taster to whet your appetite:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KozGcZqLo4U

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Memorious Earth by Autumn Richardson and Richard Skelton: A Review

me-edition-1Memorious Earth: A Longitudinal Study by Autumn Richardson & Richard Skelton. Corbel Stone Press, 2015, ISBN 978-0-9572121-7-6, £15.00 (for the standard edition).

Cumbria has a long association with writers and poets, from Wordsworth and Coleridge to Arthur Ransome, Beatrix Potter and Norman Nicholson. Some were born there, others, attracted by the remoteness of the landscape, spent much of their lives in the lakes and mountains. Their writings about the area range from the uppercase Romantic pantheism of the ‘Lake Poets’ to Nicholson’s intimate observations of a society and landscape in the throes of a dying industrialisation.

Richardson and Skelton (or AR, as they are collectively called) are among the most recent additions to this line of Cumbrian writing and the texts and images in this book represent the fruits of a decade and a half’s engagement with the landscape, history and mythology of the Lake District. As the title implies, the core idea that runs through this work is the concept of the earth as a storehouse of memory. Memorious Earth is both a celebration of the beauty of the Lake District environment and a mourning of what has been lost, what continues to be lost, as a result of exploitative human intervention.

The images are photographs from an exhibition of the same name which was held in Lakeland Arts in January of this year and include Cumbrian landscapes and plant specimens displayed in corked glass bottles, like particularly aesthetically pleasing scientific samples. The third aspect of the project is a set of musical compositions, about three hours total play time, that circle around the concerns of the writing. The music seems to sit in the European tradition of Minimalism, with echoes of Gavin Bryars and Arvo Pärt being evident, to my ears at least, and serves as an illuminating soundtrack to a reading of the texts.

These, for the most part, play out variants on the list poem. In the first section, ‘Wolf Notes’ and a later reworking of the same materials, ‘Wolfhou’, these take the form of simple lists of variant spellings of local place names, with the dates of their first recording interspersed with more lyrical passages, which are often collage-like in their use of source texts. In ‘A List of Probable Fauna’, the list hinges on a central spine or stem, a vertical line down the centre of the page with plant names on either side. ‘Relics’ is a compilation of current or past Cumbrian tree species, each page a set of concentric word circles, a dendrochronological chart of the etymology of the tree names, from a Proto-Indo-European core to a Modern English outer ring.

In ‘Of the Elm Decline’, the lists morph into charts and graphs, the whole resembling the figures appended to a scientific paper. Indeed, the carefully documented source materials that AR draw upon tend towards the scientific. These include, amongst others, standard works on the flora of the district, glossaries and word lists, and academic papers on pollen records. These interests are reflected in the book’s subtitle; it is, in a sense, a kind of work of science-based creation, albeit one that also ranges across myth, local history and aspects of comparative linguistics.

And yet there is a kind of tension at play, a wariness of the Victorian mania for classification that went hand-in-hand with a wanton destruction of the ecosphere. This tension is at the heart of much of what one might call ecopoetic practice across the arts. In some respects, it recalls Wordsworth’s admiration of Newton and his parallel rejection of Newtonian science as reductive and mechanical. There is however, a qualitative difference between the careful observation of natural processes in Memorious Earth in lines like:

The rowan seed, cased
in cold soil, stirs; a tiny
fist unfurls – muscles
upwards – piercing crust.
A translucent filament seeks
the sun. Sips from melting drifts.

and, say, Wordsworth’s infamous daffodils. AR see the seedling as an objective reality, examining its development with the eyes of the scientifically informed artist, whereas Wordsworth ultimately sees only himself, an Idealist solipsism at work. For any art that wishes to engage on the level of ecological imperatives, its’s a crucial distinction

There is no question that the abuse of science is at the heart of the current ecological crisis. And yet it is important to remember that science is a tool to be used for good or ill, not an independent force in and of itself. Indeed, it is the only tool that can lead us to that fuller understanding of the nature of nature that is vital if we are to begin to reverse our destructive relationship with our planet home.

It is the attempt to work out this tension, to find an aesthetic that can incorporate science and myth, poetry and data, which, for this reader, lends real interest to this book. By focusing on a particular place, AR have created a body of work that serves to both invite and enable the reader to look at their own environment with new eyes. In the final, fugal section, ‘The Medicine Earth’, they move away from the list form to a more cohesive, lyrical meditation, a poem in which the strands of the work are integrated in a cautiously optimistic vision of a future in which ‘the patient will be whole/again’. For that to be the case, the work of recalling, understanding and reclaiming that Memorious Earth undertakes is a vital precondition.

The Book of the Green Man, by Ronald Johnson A Review

bgmcoverThe Book of the Green Man, by Ronald Johnson, Uniformbooks 2015, ISBN 978 1 910010 04 4, £9.50.

In the autumn of 1962, two American poets arrived in the UK to begin an extended visit. They spent that winter in the Lake District, in the footsteps of William and Dorothy Wordsworth. Their spring included a trip up the Wye valley, again retracing one made by the journal writer and her poet brother. Later they spent some considerable time in Blake’s London, getting to know many of the capital’s younger artists and writers in the process. They also met many of the country’s surviving Modernist writers, including Basil Bunting, Hugh MacDiarmid, Ian Hamilton Finlay and Geoffrey Grigson, whose writings were to be a strong influence on Johnson. The visit also included trips to Samuel Palmer’s Shoreham and to Southwell Minster to view the Green Man carvings.

The poets were Ronald Johnson and Jonathan Williams, and The Book of the Green Man was the fruit of their travels. The poem, Johnson’s attempt ‘to make new the traditional British long seasonal poem’, follows the solar year, beginning in winter and ending in autumn, and circles around themes of fertility and renewal, both natural and cultural. Johnson balances tradition, as represented in a quote from Thoreau in his notes to the effect that ‘[d]ecayed literature makes the richest of all soils’ with a distinctly Poundian approach to making it new.

In an interesting Afterward to this edition, Ross Hair points up parallels with two other 20th century long poems, Eliot’s The Waste Land and Bunting’s Briggflatts. Like Eliot, Johnson is concerned with fertility, but his is a more optimistic vision than the older poet’s. Like Bunting, Johnson builds his poem around the yearly cycle, but where Bunting is concerned with an individual life, with the passing of the year representing his own youth and age, Johnson’s annual passage is less personal, more universal, an eternal recurrence.

The winter section opens to the song of the river Rothay, just as Briggflatts begins with that of the Rawthey, a remarkable if probably fortuitous echo. Johnson borrows William Wordsworth’s image of the hills around Grassmere as a wheel, seeding his poem in ‘this soil, once/Wordsworth’. And despite the season, the soil, but actual and literary, is not dead but latent with life, vivid words:

I entered the architecture of

bees – the gold of

their mossed bodies

linked in warmth.

I followed

the patterns of waters

within earth,

& saw the whorls of buried

shells.

I followed the mottled lizard into

scrolls of leaves

& traced the plover to its

nest.

Johnson talks of two ways of seeing, William’s visionary mode:

who could not see

daffodils

only

And Dorothy’s particular eye for the detail of:

lichens & cushions of

moss,

who saw

these lakes

in all their weathers—

As the poem unfolds, it is clear that Johnson’s own eye is closer to Dorothy’s than her brother’s.

Spring opens with an evocation of the Green Man himself, with Johnson weaving fragments from or allusions to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Robert Herrick’s Corinna’s going a-Maying, Harlein MSS 5900 and various other texts in an exemplary instance of Johnson’s use of the Poundian ideographic method.

`Rise, and put on your foliage’.

Come, as the Green Knight to Gawain at the beginning
of the new year. . .

out of his oaken crevice:
lhude sing cuccu!

Move with a spring & vegetable swiftness,
seed-case & burr & tremulous grasses, a grove. . .vocal in the wind. . .

(`the rustling of the leaves and
the songs of birds denoting his presence there’)

cuckoo!

(`at thes day we in ye
sign call them Green Men, covered with green bones’)

cuckoo!

(`I have listened to the cuckoo in the ivy-tree,
I have listened to the note of the birds

in the crest of the rustling oak,
loud cuckoo’)

cuckoo!
cuckoo!

Rise as the sun: antlered. . .
bearded with greenery. . .the leaf-vein pulsing

in your throat. Budded all over with small flame, & motley
with birds in your hair & arms. Rise,

& put on your foliage!

The Green Man is an image of fertility and the natural cycle of unknown origins, whose iconographic representation is typically a disembodied head from whose mouth flows foliage and verbiage. Johnson, correctly in my view, traces him back to the Gawain poem, and it is likely that he is older still, with roots in the myths that lie behind the head of Bran in the Mabinogion and the beheading ritual in the Irish Fled Bricrenn. On one level, The Book of the Green Man is an early example of the ecological British counter-culture of the late 60s and early 70s rediscovery of ‘green’ folklore and myth. The Incredible String Band’s 1971 film and album Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending is one example. Another, later, instance is The Book of Herne by Eric Mottram, one of the younger British writers that Johnson got to know on his trip.

pgreenmanThe remainder of the spring section, describing the poets’ trip up the Wye, is rich in imagery of fertility, with even the river itself being predominantly green. As well as evoking William Wordsworth’s visit to Tintern, Johnson draws on a range of other writers: Kilvert, Whitman, Gerald of Wales and Edith Sitwell amongst others.With the summer section, the narrative thrust of the previous seasons gives way to a more meditative mode, a sequence of moments of attention to the green world in all its summer glory. At its heart are the Green Man carvings at Southwell:

a kind of greening speech comes from those mouths

all but winged – each leaf
cleft & articulate.

Autumn sees the poem move to Shoreham and the pictorial world of Samuel Palmer, with more than a passing nod to Blake and Kit Smart. Found text extracts on William Stukeley’s living ‘Stonehenge’ and Pope’s topiary become concrete poems, a reminder of Guy Davenport’s remark that ‘[i]f a poem has ever occurred to Mr. Johnson, he has never written it’. Johnson made poetry out of language wherever he found it, with no concern for the niceties of the lyric ‘I’.

Fittingly, the poem turns full circle. Palmer’s visionary paintings reflect William’s way of seeing, but his eye for detail, for moss on a cottage roof, for instance, is Dorothy’s. As the poem draws to a close, birdsong echoes the Rothay and Johnson’s extemporising on A WHITE CLOUD, a Palmer painting, recalls the winter daffodils and a poem that was, in effect, a collaboration between the Wordsworth siblings.

The Book of the Green Man is an important poem, a major long poem of the 1960s that has been out of print for far too long. Colin Sackett’s Uniformbooks are to be commended for bringing it back into circulation in a format that is both handsome and serviceable. It’s impossible to do justice to a work of such richness in a short review. Really, there’s only one thing to say. Read it.

LANDscape UL • Place, performance and imagination research seminar – all welcome

LANDscape UL • Place, performance and imagination.

Place, performance and imagination

Wednesday, 28 January 2015, 4-5.30pm,

Tower Theatre, Irish World Academy of Music & Dance

LANDscape research seminar – all welcom

Speakers:

Dr. Niall Keegan, Irish World Academy of Music and Dance

‘Mapping the Linguistic Turn – language, space and place in Irish traditional music’

Billy Mills, poet and critic.

‘Words for Music; Music for Words’

Niall Keegan is a traditional Irish flute player and an ethnomusicologist. His PhD, The Art of Juncture – Transformations of Irish Traditional Music, focused on the language-based structures used by traditional musicians to account for and shape their performance practices. His research also engages the diasporic experience of traditional music, particularly in the UK. He has performed extensively throughout the world with musicians such as Sandra Joyce, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin and Clive Carroll.

Billy Mills is a poet, editor, literary journalist at guardian.co.uk. Mills was born Dublin in 1954. After some years spent in Spain and the UK, he currently lives in Limerick. He is co-editor (with Catherine Walsh) of hardpressed Poetry. His Lares/Manes: Collected Poems was published by Shearsman in 2009, and Imaginary Gardens and Loop Walks by hardPressed poetry in 2012 and 2013 respectively.

Getting to the Academy:

http://www.irishworldacademy.ie/venue/map-directions/

Global Oracle by Alec Finlay: A Review

Global Oracle by Alec Finlay, morning star 2014. £7.50 Sterling.Front_Cover

Bees: they pollinate our food and most of the flowers in the world, provide us with honey, inhabit our mythology and in many cultures are associated with poetic inspiration. They are also central to Global Oracle and to the artwork it was written to accompany, an installation by Finlay commissioned by the University of Warwick Art Collection that comprises five straw bees’ nests in the form of NAVSTAR-style satellites. This conflating of bee and satellite is central to the work; if bees were global oracles, they have been supplanted by modern communications systems.

This weaving of the bee into human culture is the starting point of the poem, with Finlay working fragments of early myth and apian science into his verses. As the poem says:

Superstitions & observations

form our store

of founding facts

There is an arc of development, almost a narrative, which unfolds across the six books that make up the poem. Book I, Star-Fallen Honey, is a catalogue of such small facts, adumbrated in a set of stanzas, most of which begin ‘bees are/will’. The book closes with a meditation of the relationship between bees and humans, as seen from a cosmic perspective in which both they and we have no purpose other than ‘amusing the darkness’.

The second book, The Bee, focuses on the insects themselves, both as workers and as navigators and communicators. Their use of the sun to fix their position is given a kind of Neoplatonic significance:

All life orients

to the light

from which

life comes

 

bee-dances orient

to the sun

In Book III, Finlay returns to the role of bee as oracle, specifically the Oracle at Delphi. Again there is a sequence of stanzas beginning with the same clause, this time ‘Prophecy is’. The stanzas are carefully ambiguous and can be read either as referring to Delphic utterances or the outputs from a fixed-orbit satellite; ‘Prophecy is code’.

The book ends, however, with an unashamedly lyric section on Delphi and its honey-driven priestesses who:

hummed & swarmed

in huddled confusion

The fourth and fifth sections returns to bee communication and social organisation and the parallels with modern information technology are made ever more explicit, as is our dependency on bee activity:

We share the bees’

disastrous forecast

The text’s focus moves to the ubiquity of microwave-borne data and the concomitant threats to privacy; if GPS means that ‘I know where I am’, it also means that ‘We know where you are’, that those who control the systems effectively control their users. Although the parallel is not made explicit in the poem, the reality is, of course, that those who controlled Delphi were in a similar situation. Information is power; power is the problem.

Book VI is a short lyric coda, an apparent bucolic turning away from technology and return to the world of the bee. And yet when the gaze is turned skyward:

A bead of light
sails on       spacing

our celestial rhythm

in an enclosing ring

*

Fascinating as this all is, and it is, even the most interesting of content can’t make a poem by itself, and the real interest of Global Oracle as a poem lies in the ways in which Finlay organises his materials. Much of the book consists of mosaic-like collages of quotes and references to writers as diverse as Pliny the Elder and Karl Von Frisch. The pages so constructed bear the names of the writers referenced at the bottom, and in Finlay’s reading of the book these names become part of the text itself.

Inevitably this mode of composition means that the text is rich with a range of technical vocabularies and stylistic tics, and it is tribute to his skill as a poet that Finlay manages to absorb them into a unified, meditative tone.

Of course, that doesn’t happen by accident; the poem is a carefully crafted piece of work. I’ve already mentioned the use of anaphora as one element of this crafting. Finlay also uses typographical devices throughout, with small blocks of both upper-case and italicised font being deployed to change rhythm and done at crucial points in the poem.

The metric structure is narrow, but with just enough variety to sustain the music of the verse. The lines are short, with one to three stresses, but unlike most short lines, these are intended to be read slowly and deliberately. Within this framework, assonance and alliteration form patterns of sound that make information quietly sing:

We observe the hive

which seems in turn

to survey us

from another world

*

The other aspect of this book that should be mentioned are the illustrations, by Finlay and Hanna Tuulikki. In these bees and satellites morph into each other, satellites become beehives, as does the stone omphalos at Delphi. The drawings are not mere illustration, but integrate themselves into the text and become part of its rhythm.

Global Oracle is a cleanly designed but handsome perfect-bound paperback. Printed on high-quality paper it’s a book to hold in your hands and savour. It will also make you think about what it is to live in the world as we have made it.