‘Wealden’, Nancy Gaffield – Five Reasons to Read…

I am so late with this (it came out last year)…

As I’ve written before, I have given up the idea of ‘reviewing’ poetry – because my knowledge never seems up to the job. This means I start a review and then can’t publish it for The Fear. So, instead, I’m just going to regularly post ‘Five Reasons to Read’. In each there will be five simple reasons why you should own a new (or old) book of poetry. Next up: Nancy Gaffield’s Wealden (Longbarrow Press). Go right ahead and order it here: https://longbarrowpress.com/current-publications/nancy-gaffield/,

Reason 1: use of the page. Across the three longer poems in the set (‘Inscape’, ‘Rumenea’ and ‘Song of the Shingle’) different ways of using the page and using white space are played with. In ‘Inscape’ a repeated stanzaic pattern is used, whereas in the following two poems lines move left to right across the page to form micro stanzas that allow the caesuras in a line such as ‘the sheer quantity of absence the sixth/ extinction’ (from the second page of ‘Rumenea’) allow for the reader’s eye to weight that pause differently to the line break pause – and differently to the way that the first word of a line has its own weight. I would say that this is mastery of form, if I was the kind of person that had any right to say that. You can render line breaks in prose with a / (and it’s become a fad to put them on poetry as well), but you could not render Gaffield’s poems onto the page with destroying the delicate, musical balance of the post-industrial, and historical, fragments that are woven together (see Reason 4) with observation.

Reason 2: resonance of actions present and actions completed pulsing through the post-industrial landscape. Take this example from part 4 of ‘Inscape’: ‘the rhythms/of the natural world/ distilled in the nightjar’s/ eerie mechanical whirrrrrr‘. How could you not love a set of lines like that?’ The natural translated to our ears as the mechanics of a machine – not because the nightjar is a machine, but because it is the only way we, as humans, can process the sound. In fact, I’m not sure if I can express how well Gaffield weaves sound in to give the reader the sense of looking at the ruin of historical land management, but being able to hear (unseen) life around you: that eerie sense that specific landscapes have of an open sense for other creatures and consciousnesses, but an enclosed one for a persona/reader who is all too limited by time and the site of our own perception. Plus, there’s the best frog onomatopoeia this side of Ovid. Whilst we’re on sound, there’s also a great moment (in ‘Rumenea’) in which a flash dialogue illuminates the whole poem, whilst also giving a humanity to what is being described.

Reason 3: a poet’s rules of punctuation. Now. I realise this isn’t for everyone. However, I really like it when a poet sets out their own rules of punctuation and fragmentation. I am not bewildered, because I can process the idea of variations of pause, of space, of clause. You know when you can trust the poet’s sense of music. It’s here.

Reason 4: ways of looking. I have written about Brian Lewis’ work (here: https://andyhopkinspoet.wordpress.com/2019/10/25/white-thorns-brian-lewis/) and some of what I said there is worth reiterating. I think it was Oscar Wilde who said of Wordsworth that he found under every rock in the Lake District what he had put there in the first place. If we are honest about the layers of human occupation that we see in every place, it is clear that there is a densely pressed record of human endeavour, exploitation, abandonment and reoccupation in every site. Even today in the news I read that the body of a Roman slave was found when a conservatory was being built. That juxtaposition is a powerful reminder of something. So it is in Wealden, ‘where women/ once spun flax for linen/ the path is muddy’ (from part 7 of ‘Inscape’). Bucolic-seeming descriptions might be intercut with the detail of ‘rotting leaves’ and ‘there amongst the trees some/ thing destined for a downfall’. A simile in ‘Inscape’ that follows the downfall mentioned is (I think) instructive of the way of looking – the ‘some/thing’ ‘approaches like a river’. Now, given that Hopkins (not me, the G.M. one) thought that ‘inscape’ was a dynamic identity, this means that a poetic ‘now’ is not a going-for-a-walk-in-the-rain-and-feeling-a-but-sad, but a process of seeing places throughout time. I feel like I want to use the word diachronic, but you surely will have a better word. Poetry is an articulation of presence – Gaffield’s three poems in the book read to me as balancing the presences that exist in a place: people, objects, capital, by-product and so on. It is all present – sometimes stratified, sometimes ordered (never neutrally if it is ordered, never aleatory if it is ordered). However, it is also sometimes in other entropic forms: demonstrating a range of possible orders. This leads you to a way of looking.

Reason 5: voices. Gaffield blends in a range of sources and voices in the second and third sections of the book – attributed in the back of the book. These sometimes are used for their strict interjection of formality and tone, to rub abrasively against other registers. So, in ‘Song of the Shingle’, a line that ends ‘widdershins’ is followed by an italicised borrowed line ‘new plant & animal forms followed by extinction events‘. These voices weave up close to each other, I think, to do similar things with people and human knowledge as Reason 4 (above). However, there are also moments of tonal echo – like how (from the first two pages of the same poem) ‘a tourist attraction’ ends one line, to be followed by ‘take nobody’s word for it‘. These borrowed texts, and their implied voices (you don’t have to look them up from the end notes) add the precision of cold science at time; at other times they add the weight of historical process (‘from stone to bronze to iron’). They add at other times a faux authorial comment which, as it comes in italics, gives the layering up of creators of the text – or perhaps creators of the message. We walk with – or perhaps we are hectored by – Henry David Thoreau. We are led to hold up details of Gaffield’s (Wealden) focus up to Thoreau’s (Walden) eye; we can’t think that he’d smile to look on ‘bulldozers moving stone/ to save the powerstation’. But it works the other way, too. I think it’s hard not to question being a card carrying transcendentalist, or living simply, whilst walking metaphorically amongst the ‘concrete failures’. And yet both texts come to rest alongside each other when considering progress – the neat constant oppressive sounds (hums and whirs and thrumings) in Wealden leave us in no doubt that the changers of landscape and environment do not have our human collective interests at heart. But history (and ancient history) have been full of people that have. And these people don’t care about you.

And I haven’t time to mention the CD that comes with the book – you will need to discover this for yourself. And I haven’t got time to mention the ‘notes’ that accompany each of the parts of the first poem in the book. Or the subtle repetitions across the three poems, and within each. Or the subtle humour (for example, using excerpts from texts about the plague alongside accounts of farms and farming. Or the use of arrows (no, really).

Buy Nancy Gaffield’s Wealden here: https://longbarrowpress.com/current-publications/nancy-gaffield/, .

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