May 30, 2021, North Yorkshire
Authors of the Week: United Kingdom
I wake up at 'the snuffle hour' on my first night in the shed, when some terrifying creature is leafing through the gravel — a tiny hedgehog, most likely, but my mind, sticky with sleep, latches reassuringly onto the lock. It's just before 'the fox hour' when the field is aflame, after which the bird song tangles in the trees.
Sleeping in the garden shed is borne of cautious necessity during a 10-day Covid-19 quarantine, but embraced with an eagerness to shun, however slightly, the shackles of social media, time and technology. With net curtains, nice carpet and numerous cacti, plus a cat to keep me company in the fold-up bed, it's nothing extraordinary — the picket fences by the strawberry patch still flaunt their shop floor labels, barcodes scanned by sunlight at each new dawn. I can still hear the hum of television, thrumming from the blaze of the house, too.
But lately, these bones have been galloping at such a speed that it's difficult to keep up — I feel like I have forgotten my skin on a train seat more than once. And so, rooting myself in the shed, however briefly, I skew relievedly towards a state of timelessness — tussling with the weeds at ‘the sun hour’ then sleeping in their shadows at ‘the ink hour’ (or at least the land they planned to conquer) detussles the thistles from my brain; finally creating space for poems and thought to grow.
This slower pace of living brings me to reflect upon the relation between poem and earth, and my fascination for the French writer Roland Barthes’s ideas around ‘le feuilleté de la signifiance’ (‘the leaf-like layering of meaning’, where ‘feuille’ means 'leaf'). A deepening curiosity leads me to relate this vegetal topsoil imagery of 'feuilles' (‘leaves’) to the deeper geological aspect of 'stratigraphy', a field of study concerned with the nature of rock layers (strata) and layering (stratification). It’s on this journey that a foraging approach to the extraction of poetic meaning, studded between various textual layers, leafs into focus. I linger on the word ‘foraging’ to evoke the unpredictable yet nourishing process of excavating meaning from layers of text: re-conceptualising its linear arrangement as strata, in a way that reminds me of the immersed nature of human subjectivity. I hope to reconfigure the reading, interpretation and composition of poetry as an ecological act itself — not least because my living room is now a patch of strawberries, with blueberry, raspberry, potatoes, garlic and onions as pleasantly gentle companions.
Placing the frantically scrolling finger of social media on furlough in favour of focusing my eyes on the simple beauty around the shed, I notice how the process of scanning through poetic text in order to nourish my imagination returns me, however slightly, to a prehistoric, pre-linguistic mindset when my ancestors were foragers — reconnecting me with the earth in a way that is urgently required in the Anthropocene. I rarely have the mental space to read for pleasure, usually, without a highlighter in hand and review commission to complete, and so the experience of poetic reflection, especially in the shed, becomes therapeutic in a way that Barthes captures well, not only with his ‘feuille’ concept, but also with his comparison between language and palm trees. Barthes notes that ‘Les arbres sont des alphabets’ (trees are alphabets) and that ‘De l'écriture, profuse et distincte comme le jet de ses palmes, il possède l'effet majeur : la retombée’ (writing, profuse and distinct as the burst of its fronds [...] possesses the major effect: falling back). I understand with a clear sky of calmness how the bending palm leaves and the backwards motion of ‘la retombée’ (falling back) alludes to the restorative potential of language and the promise of inner peace, something poets know all too well.
In the specific case of ecopoetry, nudged into focus by news of a major new poetry anthology published this July with Valley Press, Out of Time: Poetry from the Climate Emergency, selected as the Poetry Book Society Autumn Special Commendation — I reflect on the ‘psychosomatic’ effects in the embodied, traumatic, and painful process of entering its poems. Suddenly the framework of the poem rises up as a portal not only to the past or present but also to the future, evoking the traumas our planet will continue to suffer in the interim of positive change.
Midway through my stay in the shed, I read an essay by Mona Arshi aptly titled Waking up language(s); translating birdsong/poetic alchemy in Cley, taking a screenshot of the line "Writers of colour have a complicated relationship with landscape" to cherish in the gallery of my phone (my day job at The Times requires me to break the no-technology rule briefly). Arshi’s comment reminds me of the pilgrimage I am embarking on through the history of the alphabet, a sequence of which appeared in Carcanet’s New Poetries VIII, examining the impact of colonial language, how it is tamed to suit people’s purposes but does not suit everyone’s equally. Revisiting in the context of reconnecting to self and to surrounding in this shed, I realise how closely the research roots back full cycle to the idea of poem as ecological terreau.
If we start with the letter “A”, we learn its shape first reared its ox-head around 1800 BC in ancient Semitic, sprouting two horns when turned to its side. Ploughing sense to the surface of the mind’s muddy fields as an ‘ox’, the link between letters and land is clear as the sky wiped clean above the shed. Leading us nicely to shelter, the scaffolding for “B” was first assembled around 4,000 years ago in Egypt as a hieroglyph signifying “home”, which can be visualised by flipping the letter on its side, and pressing a nose to the two windows. The link between letter and land here is solid, too — each time I pick up the pen, I pitch a tent upon the page and crawl inside for shelter, peg down the punctuation, gather flint to make a fire, then wait for our language to light.
The first “C”, meanwhile, was carved in Phoenician and stood for a “hunter’s stick”; the letter “D” first opened around 800 BC as a tent door flapping wildly in the wind; skip a few and the sturdy infrastructure of “H” was first erected in Egyptian hieroglyphics as a “fence” or “barrier”; “I”, that totem pole of lyric authority, was called “yodh” in 1000 BC and grew from the Egyptian hieroglyph for an “arm” or “hand” — the forager’s most precious tool. Fast forward to the finale, and we reach "Z". Three-thousand years ago the Phoenicians carved out the sharp double-edged tool of “Z” in the name of “zayin” meaning “axe”, another tool to work the land. As body and language, hand and hieroglyph, root and re-route into each other, it’s a silent painful love-affair that reminds me of how disconnected I am from the land I live upon, but how grateful I am to have poetry and poets to steer me back home.