Inspiration

One of the reasons I keep this blog is as a Commonplace Book.  Writing posts about my jaunts with photos helps me to remember in detail where I've been, and if I'm lucky enough to come home with a poem in my pocket, it's an invaluable tool for writing it, especially since a fair bit of time can elapse before the poem is ready to be shaped.  

With this in mind, I thought I might occasionally post finished poems with their associated photos, and a brief description about how they came about.




William Wyrcestre Dreams of Bryggestow


Much of  old Bristol that survived the slum clearances of the Victorian era and post World War I was either obliterated in the blitz in 1940-41 or subsequently demolished by a council intent on building a wholly 20th century city.  But down by the Church of St John the Baptist, the last remaining stretch of the ancient city wall, the city remembers itself in the shapes of the lanes that echo the walls and the River Frome, now culverted and buried under tons of concrete.   

I've known these lanes all my life.  For many years, my mother worked as a legal secretary in nearby Albion Chambers. My father would pick me and my sister up from our grandmother's house in Bishopston on a Saturday lunchtime and we would drive to town to meet her from work, before stopping at the chippy to pick up dinner. 

He would park in Small Street outside the tobacconist and confectioners and point out things to me like the old stone step into the Chambers, worn by the feet of countless Bristolians over centuries - and since replaced, probably for reasons of Health and Safety.  

Years later, I also worked in the area, in an office in St Lawrence House (now fashionably graffitied and converted into student accommodation), the windows of which looked out directly onto the tower and clock of St John's.  












However, despite being in thrall to them since earliest days, it was only when I went on A Guided Walk Around Mediaeval Bristol a few years ago that I really started to get a feel for their history.  On that walk I was introduced to the 15th century topographer, William Wyrcestre, and learnt that back in 1480, Nelson Street was known as Gropecunt Lane; that in the middle of the crossroads that marked the centre of the settlement, where the High Cross stood in Wyrcestre's day, there was once a waymark hawthorn tree (now a traffic bollard);  that a ship with an oak mast and a stripy sail was found buried in mud under the tower of St Stephen's Church during 15th century renovation work, thus indicating the original course of either the Frome or one of its subsidiary streams in the marshy delta that existed before wholesale drainage and re-routing of the river took place;  that the concrete car park off  Bell Lane was the site of the Jewish Temple prior to King Edward I's Edict of Explusion in 1290.  (Almost 200 years later, Wyrcestre, a man of learning, was so ignorant of Judaism that he repeated a rumour he'd heard, namely that Jews worshipped an idol named Apollo.)
Here are some photos showing the shape of the now lost city walls.

Leonard Lane


John Street

Because its contours are, like the Frome, buried under layers of rubble, concrete and tarmac, it can be quite a surprise to discover how significant the hillock upon which the city was originally founded actually is.  This becomes most evident on Leonard Lane, where a doorway will suddenly take you down 22 steep steps to the next street, St Stephen's Street. 
Yesterday, while I was maundering about in town, I also decided to find the site of an etching by Charles Bird I recently bought, the same one that hung on my grandmother's wall when I was small. I remember being fascinated then to discover that this romantic (romanticised) scene was of somewhere in Bristol, now long vanished.  It says on the back that it is the Frome ... but where is the bridge?  
Oh, look ... could it be? ... Fairfax Street with Union Street above it?
Of course, when I got home, I looked online and someone else had already beaten me to it, and in colour. Even so, unearthing buried rivers under buried roads is what I want to do next.

Here's my poem about walking around Bristol in the company of William Wyrcestre.  It's from my collection, Map Reading For Beginners, published by Indigo Dreams.


William Wyrcestre Dreams Of Bryggestowe

Ditchers, digging through silt
to strengthen foundations, discover a relic.

‘A boat,’ William tells us in Latin,
‘with sails of striped canvas,
a main mast lofty as a tree.’

His Bristoll’s a modern-day port,
yet the names of its streets
conjure mudflats and creeks,
long after its rivers were tamed
and rewritten in mortar and brick.

William’s a wanderer like me
though topography, not stories, is his passion.

He’s obsessed with measuring space,
pacing quays and sizing buildings,
plumbing drops with knotted rope.
He fathoms every well and drain,
reveals the length of Gropecunt Lane,
not what goes on there.

When my attention wanders too,
he stops at the crossroads and relents.

‘Dynt the Pumpmaker,’ he says, ‘heard tell
how once a hawthorn flourished
where now stands this splendid Cross.’

But all I see’s a traffic bollard,
yards of tarmac, withered grass.

‘And here,’ he adds by a concrete car park,
‘in deep vaults beneath these walls
the Jewry made a heathen temple
to exalt their tin-pot Lord, his name
Apollo, folk do say, or some such idol.’


©Deborah Harvey 2014





*****



 Map Reading For Beginners


 The bulk of the title poem of my second collection, Map Reading for Beginners, was inspired in the first instance by this picture of the remote Church of St Ishow at Partrishow, high on a hill above the Grwyne Fawr valley in Powys.  As soon as I saw it, in January 2013, I asked the artist, Dru Marland, if we could go there and she agreed we could.  

I came back from our jaunt that day knowing I had to write about the place.  My starting point was a pair of ravens we'd heard chatting in the empty sky a fair while before we'd seen them rolling overhead - a happy encounter for me as they also inspired a sequence of three poems called Speaking Raven (also the same collection).  Before long the fox and hare from Dru's picture had made their way in too, as did the holy well below the Church, which has miraculous tales of healing attached to it.  


But then images from other places which evoke similar feelings in me came crowding in.  The sat nav relegated to the boot is a  reference to a trip I made from Taunton with another friend, back in 2008, following our noses with no idea of where we were headed until we ran out of land at Porlock, and drove along the coast to Watchet.   The tunnelling lanes are therefore those of Somerset, and also Devon, both my ancestral home 'where the story first began'. 

The snake is also from Devon, the pregnant she-adder I encountered on Meldon Hill on Dartmoor in 2009, who also inspired a poem (Ophidiophobia) in the same collection ... 

... or maybe it was the snakelet I spotted with my partner near Scorhill Stone Circle, on our first trip to the moor together in 2013, which turns up in yet another poem, The Seventh Sign.

Meanwhile, the fractal dreams carved by beetles date from another, earlier jaunt, this one in my home city, Bristol. I'd gone up to the Downs, again with Dru, for an afternoon stroll and a glimpse of the newly installed goats in the Avon Gorge, only to find myself clambering down the steep side to the Portway at the bottom in her wake ... and surviving!


All these elements were drawn together into the poem and subsequently the cover of the collection, drawn by DruAs in the poem, the buried Saint Ishow has become a poet with wild strawberries (a nod to the poem of the same name) and primroses growing from her hair.  Best of all, the flowering garlic in the shape of The Plough. Just gorgeous. 

Here's the poem:

 
Map Reading For Beginners
Put the sat nav in the boot
Follow your own arterial route


the tunnelling lanes that take you down
to where the stories first began,

where fox and hare listen in bracken,
ravens chat across the silence of the sky.

In the moss-dark holy well
a nadder bites its stripy tail,

completes the circle.
Your turquoise tracery of veins

espaliered branches
mapping skin,

a buried poet
with a fruit tree growing through her,

whose fractal dreams are carved
by beetles under bark.




©Deborah Harvey 2014





*****



Prawle Point

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.  



Prawle Point

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




*****


The Poet And The Boatman


I was recently approached by Neil Howell, who keeps a blog called Teignmouth in Verse. He'd come across my poem The Poet And The Boatman, about John Keats' stay in South Devon during 1818.  I gave permission for him to post it, found myself explaining to ex-pat actor and Romantics aficionado Ian Frost how I came to write it, and decided the story might make another post in my Inspiration series.  

My immediate family's connection with Teignmouth and Shaldon on the South Devon coast goes back many years.  My parents first 'discovered' Shaldon the year before I was born. My father said he walked onto the beach and had the sensation he had 'come home' - quite odd, really, since he is not at all given to airy-fairiness, as he would doubtless regard it.  They returned year after year with my elder sister and me. 




At first we stayed in Chez Nous B&B on The Strand with Mr and Mrs Cordon and their Jack Russell terrier, Jo-Jo.  (The house is now a bastion of UKIP, alas.)  And sometimes we stayed in the shabby grandeur of Manor House, two doors along, or the flat above the Clipper cafe or, more often, one of the caravans or chalets at the site by the bridge which now has mock-Georgian cottages built on it. When I was about 11 my parents bought a caravan at Smugglers Caravan Park in Holcombe and there we have holidayed ever since. (Obviously not still with my mum and dad - I grew up and had kids of my own, and now it's mainly just me and my partner and my border collie, Ted.) 

When I was about seven, I remember my father pointing out a yellowy house across the estuary in Teignmouth,  'That's Keats' House,' he said. 'Who's Keats?' I asked. 'A poet who stayed here,' my father answered cryptically.  


Any mention of poets, authors or artists filled me with great excitement as a child and I would walk very slowly past the house whenever I saw it, in case I glimpsed a shadow or a ghost in a billowing white shirt.  Although once back in Bristol, I would have trouble remembering who exactly had lived there - was it Keats or Yeats? Both, I knew, were poets, but apart from being dead, I knew nothing about them and had no idea what distinguished one from the other.  Eventually the idea of Keats coalesced in my mind and when, as a teenager, I first read 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci', it was with the sense that we somehow had a connection.

Anyhow, about 20 years ago, my aunt who is married to one of my mother's many brothers but is actually a blood relative of my father (we'm a bit like that in Bristol, mind) received some documents from a cousin of hers who is into genealogy, and she forwarded to my father the information pertaining to the Harveys. In it we discovered that my great-great-great grandfather, James Harvey, a Somerset man from Weston-Super-Mare, worked as a boatman all around the peninsula in the 1820s and 1830s, marrying a woman from St Marychurch on the way and settling for a couple of years in Teignmouth, where two of their children were born.  It was, indeed, 'home'. I was wildly pleased by this, partly because of my love for Devon in general and the River Teign from source to sea in particular, but also because of the Keats connection.  I harboured a brief fantasy that James Harvey might have rowed John across the river to Shaldon or maybe my great-great-great grandmother laundered his shirts or served him a beer in a pub or even just greeted him in the street one morning.  Of course I soon discovered that this could never have happened as they didn't coincide in time, Keats having left Teignmouth in 1818, perhaps when it was clear that the sea air was not benefitting his brother, Tom, who was to die of tuberculosis just a few months later. 

I had it in mind to write a poem about this missed meeting - between Keats, James Harvey the boatman, and me - for some years.  When I finally found my way in, I decided not to be explicit about who the boatman was, mainly because his exact identity is really only of interest to me. In fact, people tend to think he might be Charon, which never occurred to me when I wrote it, fixed as I was on my ancestor. 

As for the poet, I didn't want it to be immediately obvious who he was either, although most people with an interest in poetry could guess within the first two lines.  Teignmouth has the reputation of being a rather stolid town - certainly Keats' skinny-dipping met with considerable disapproval - and it doesn't have a huge number of literary associations.  And even if you haven't rumbled who he is by then, well, the foreshadowing in the references to blood and drowning soon make it clear.  


The Poet And The Boatman

Tidal here and salt
the final turn of Teign
before its fretful merging with the sea
creates a harbour in the lee of land,
this curved blood-coloured beach.

Through mist that lifts like linen wraiths
I glimpse the poet stripping off
his white ballooning shirt and britches,
bathing in a manner
far from gentlemanly

the water’s cold, he’ll catch a chill

while over here a boatman’s sanding smooth
a newly mended hull. 
He’ll check the caulk is watertight
before he ventures out to rescue souls
condemned to watery death.

Both men are bright-faced,
close in age,
yet they’ll never share a jar
for by the time the boatman’s posted here,
John Keats is twelve years dead.

no one could have saved the poet
from drowning in his blood

Instead the boatman heads for breakfast,
and John is gone with a flap of his red-stained shirt
to flirt with the sleep-soft girls
stirring in their beds
above the bonnet shop.


© Deborah Harvey 2014


'The Poet And The Boatman' is published in my 2014 collection, Map Reading for Beginners, published by Indigo Dreams. 




*****


Winterset

One of my favourite beaches is Berrow, on the Somerset coast.  Park near the church at the west end of the village, cross the churchyard, wind your way through the dunes and you'll soon reach the fantastic beach.  A large part of its appeal for me is that it's dog-friendly all year round.  It's also less frequented than the neighbouring beaches of Burnham, Brean and Weston, and it even has a shipwreck.  Of course, this being the Bristol Channel, it also has the world's third highest tidal rise and fall, so you can miss seeing the sea altogether, but the light reflecting off the mud has its own beauty.   


I last visited Berrow on Boxing Day 2013.  It was the brightest of days, made more so by the knowledge that the dark would start seeping up from the ground as early as 2pm and by 4pm the light would be all but gone.  I came home with a series of photographs that were  - to my eye, at least - quite startling in their brilliance.


 


Back at home, the following photo interested me the most.  It was taken through an ancient plain glass window in the church, and it was like seeing all the colours and shapes of nature outside refracted through water.  It made me want to write a poem that refracted the landscape I'd seen, within the parameters of the (almost) shortest day.


So I started to think about how I could achieve this, and it was immediately clear that I had to adopt a different approach from usual.  The majority of my poems are about more than their ostensible subject, but this one needed to be simple - a straightforward record rather than a piece of writing filtered through something else.  This meant form would be important, as it would compensate for possible lack of depth.  

Because it is out of routine, the time between Christmas and New Year feels somehow out of time to me, and I wanted to reflect this in my poem.  I also wanted my poem to mirror the length of days by being short, and by beginning with daybreak and ending with night.  A circular poem, then, and that needs a circular shape. I started to think about poems that begin and end with the same image, and remembered Ted Hughes' poem, Amulet.  This beautiful piece of writing makes use of 'anaphora' - a type of parallel structure generated by the repetition of certain words or groups of words at the beginning of each line.  This is an ancient technique which is used in both religious and folk poetry and which creates the effect of a litany.  

By now, the word 'between' was becoming an obsession. Mentally, I went back to the landscape - between land and sea, between sky and mud - and the notion of 'time between' - between one great feast and another, between sunrise and sunset.  The whole experience became suspended in my mind like a brilliant bauble. It could have happened thirty years earlier, not just a few days - in fact, I wasn't sure I could remember a time before it was part of my experience.  Which meant I needed to write something that could have been written at any time, that was timeless - something that could even be part of our folk tradition.

Next, I made a list of images including:

sun and sand dunes 
the wreck of SS Nornen
worm casts and shells 

ripples  
sand trees and sea flowers  
a treeful of magpies
Next, the hard work. It's a truism that the most artless poems are the ones most effort has gone into to make them appear that way.  My main problem was that I had one or two beautiful images I badly wanted to use that were too complex to fit the rhythm of my poem - because when you're relying on form and repetition to create an effect, you can't then cram in something that doesn't fit.  So they were duly put to the sword (or rather, set aside for possible use in the future).

I walked the poem for the best part of a month.  I was sure it fitted together. I left it for a month.  I found it didn't fit as well as I thought it did. I tweaked a little more.  Finally it was done.

The last thing I had to do was find a title. In the end, I settled on 'Winterset' - a pun on the location of the poem, which harked back to mediaeval tradition and suited the feeling of timelessness I'd tried to engender. 



Winterset

Between dark and dawn, the sleep-smudged sun
Between sun and moon, the scavenger flood
Between flood and flux, the blackening wreck
Between wreck and sky, the covetous mud
Between mud and sand, the glyph of worms
Between worm and beak, the runes of gulls
Between gull and pebble, the butterfly shell
Between shell and ripple, the ebb-tide flower
Between flower and scrub, the crouching dune
Between dune and reeds, the glancing marsh
Between marsh and tower, the magpie's eye
Between eye and blink, the plummeting dark


© Deborah Harvey 2014


There - all over in a blink!

'Winterset' is published in my 2014 collection, Map Reading for Beginners, published by Indigo Dreams.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing your many-layered process of creating poems. I truly enjoyed and appreciated such work, beautiful photos -- and the history & thought behind your words is fascinating.

    ReplyDelete