One of my favourite spots is Prawle Point at the southernmost tip of Devon. It's quite a remote place, and for me it combines the wild beauty of somewhere like Dartmoor with the pull of the sea - truly, a winning situation. It also gave me a poem the last time I was there.
It might seem odd, then, that this 'last time I was there' was as long ago as the last day of May in 2001, during the foot-and-mouth outbreak. (The stretch of the coast path was one of the few parts of the countryside that was still open to the public, and even then we had to walk through troughs of disinfectant before we could access it.) If I love it so much, why haven't I been back?
Well, it was only a fortnight after the funeral of my 22 year old cousin who had hanged himself, and his death is so tied up with my memory of the place that it makes returning - even nearly 15 years later - a daunting prospect.
The walk we followed that day is from my treasured Jarrold Pathfinder Guide 1. We headed along the coast path as far as Gammon Head before turning inland, stopping in the village of East Prawle for ice cream outside the pub (we had young children at the time). It was a glorious day and the lanes were stuffed with flowers. We continued as far as Woodcombe, where we followed the footpath down to the sea.
As the name implies, Woodcombe is a valley of low trees and for much of the way it was impossible to see the nearby sea. I remember there were cows in the woods, which was somewhat startling, and where the trees ended at the cliff edge, a hawthorn bush thick with may blossom, presumably later than elsewhere because of the wind-blasted nature of the coast. In the dazzle of sun and sea, I did indeed momentarily conflate the sight of a cormorant with its wings semi-folded with the sort of sculpture of a funeral urn you might see on a Victorian grave, and this was the trigger for the poem I knew I would write, addressed to my cousin.
Don’t imagine for a moment
that I didn’t think of you
just because the sun spilt honey
and the tumbling lanes drowsed,
mesmerised by flowers.
True, my memory tripped
like wind through wheat fields,
chasing Chinese whispers, wild rumours,
only to eddy on itself
as we stumbled down the blinded combe
towards your crucible of fleet, elusive dreams,
where, beyond a crest of hawthorn,
a cormorant kept the look-out
from its lonely pedestal.
Basalt angel? Reliquary urn?
My eyelid flickered in the glare.
Fifteen days ago we launched
your narrow, wooden boat.
Flags flapped low, taut wires and lines
against high masts tolled your passing.
And one black cardigan, forgotten,
lifted from a railing on the breeze,
as hapless – hopeless – as the sail
of the Athenians’ homebound ship.
© Deborah Harvey 2011
'Prawle Point' took a long time to see the light of day, mainly because I stopped writing poems altogether after my cousin's death. Suddenly poetry seemed too dangerous a place to go. I successfully masked this feeling by deciding I was no good at it, and I wrote my historical novel, Dart, instead. I only began to write poetry again in 2007.
When I did send it out, it was highly commended in the 2009 Yeovil Literary Prize (judged by Carol Ann Duffy). It was subsequently published in my 2011 collection, Communion, and is now also on the When Death Comes website, along with other poems that form part of a creative conversation in poetry and art about death and living.
Here's some more detail about the project:
When death comes is an art space and series of events where people can come together to think about, talk about, and create their own work about dying and living.
We don’t have enough spaces to talk about death and the profound effects it has on our lives. And we don’t have many spaces to respond creatively to these stories – producing work that can help us in our own lives as well as inspire and connect with others.
Join us in Bristol from 16 September to 11 October 2015 for a season of creative activities and events. Contribute things that have inspired or helped you think about death and dying, or work that you’ve created in response to your own experiences of grief and loss. And join us for a range of thought-provoking, inspiring and life-affirming events.
Together we will make an evolving, vibrant and creative space that celebrates life as well as death’s role in shaping it. We hope to see you there.
Photograph of cormorant ©Tony Pratt