We’ve been on Skye, as we have for 30 years at the end of October (and in a good year, the end of March). The first time I went I made no sense of it. It was too big, too extreme, too wild, too wet. Too much. Over the years it’s changed…by which I mean that I’ve changed. I’ve learned to look, to let it be.
As you learn to look, it all rapidly becomes not featureless at all. You rely on a rock outcrop to give you a rough line on where you’re going. You learn to avoid the bright green bits. And faced with a quarter of a mile of what looks like wet, boggy land that you can’t go round, you learn to see that sheep (and deer) being intelligent and helpful creatures, as well as creatures of habit, have made paths through the tussocky, reedy stuff. If the sun’s in your eyes, you can’t see them easily, but otherwise they’re clear. I’ve learned to love sheep tracks, not only for showing me the way across flat wet stuff, but over becks and burns in deep cut gullies and ghylls. Look for the bruise in the bracken, or the shine of small stones, and sooner or later you’ll find that they’ll take you to the spot where it’s easiest to cross running water, and the way up the other side. And they’ll take you to sheltered spots, too. Stands of silver birch and rowan, with a bit of turf to sit on. Desire paths. That’s what sheep make.
What I’ve never noticed (or acknowledged) till this year is the sensory overload. My partner, Flo, who’s a painter, can be thrown by the prodigality of the light, its changeableness, but at least she’s working in the right medium. I’ve realised that despite taking all my notebooks and all my good intentions, I can’t write poems for toffee when I’m there. It’s as though the visual cortex takes over, trying to deal with the extravagance of scale and texture and distance…the sheer excitement of everything you look at, the speed at which images change, and the shifts of perspective and composition for every 10 or 20 metres you make up a hillside. The way you can be stopped in your tracks by coming across red deer in a stand of birches, or the line of a gull’s flight on the wind over Loch Eishort, or a sudden blaze of light coming aslant across Bla Bheinn, or……
The thing is, at the time, there’s no room for words, and later, too much that you decide has already been said, especially by Norman MacCaig and Sorley McLean. The bit of my brain that deals with words has turned to mush, and the rest of it is concentrated on weather and route finding, and trying to ignore the fact that one ankle has equally turned to mush, and that I can’t walk as far as I could or as far as I’d like. I can’t get enough of Skye, and at any given moment it will always be too much. That’s how it is, and to be honest, I wouldn’t change a scintilla of it. Because it surprises, always. Take the odd image at the top of the page. I’ve passed it scores of times, but a big squall off the loch stopped me by it and I looked for the first time. It’s the skeleton of something piscine that apparently would come inshore to browse on whelks. Sometime in the 19thC this one got itself stranded. I don’t want to do anything about it. I’m just glad I actually saw it. Just as it’s lovely to be not quite sure of where you are, and to come over a moor top and find a familiar road shining like a silver river.
Which, one way or another, bring us to today’s guest, because here’s a poet who reminds me that there’s clarity and quiet and precision to be had in poetry. You just need to learn to wait. And learn a craft.
I met Judith Willson for the first time at one of the Monday night workshop session at the Albert Poets in Huddersfield (regular readers may become fed up of reading this particular line, but it’s unavoidable) and was immediately taken by two things. One was the precision she brings to her writing. There is a precise craft that is also fluent, never stiff or artificial. It’s that kind. The other thing was the sensory quality..texture, light, shape, space. Painterly and musical. I think the first poem I remember workshopping with her was this one that appeared in The Rialto later….it was the title and the first stanza that nailed it.
Julie’s boat is in the field behind my house
A gale’s punched the sheets on the line all day, now they’re fighting out of my arms
to get back to the brawl and there’s Julie’s boat on the crest of the field
goose-winging into the slap of rain, prow sheering high
over a hawthorn reef.
There’s a detailed critique of the whole poem that does more justice to the writing than I think I can. Here’s the link.
At which point you might leave the cobweb and forget to come back. Of course, if you do, you’ll be missing more lovely writing. Let’s meet Judith, shall we?
Judith was born in London and grew up in Manchester. She now lives in a village near Hebden Bridge. She spent some years as an English teacher, but most of her career has been spent in book and journal publishing, initially as a freelance copyeditor, then in a series of in-house editorial and production roles.
She’s been very generous with her time and work, and I like the synergy of my coming home with my mind full of blurred edges and morphing sensory images to what Judith says about her writing:
“I am interested in blurred edges and porous borders: the illusory doubleness of reflections and repetitions; estuaries that are both / neither land and sea. Places where boundaries between past and present are thin and unstable, their meanings constantly remade. Short-sighted since early childhood, I have always been fascinated by optical tricks and illusions, the slipperiness of what we think we see. You can make the world wobble like stage scenery if you tilt your glasses; a new lens prescription will make a startling difference to how you perceive contours and distances in the short interval before your eyes adapt. Much of what I write seems to return to ‘seeing’ as transformation and interpretation.
And then there’s language. I don’t have any special linguistic skills, but in hindsight I think one of the most useful steps I ever took towards becoming a writer was to slog away for two years trying to learn Arabic. Sadly, I hardly remember any of it now, but what has stayed with me is the impact of entering a language whose fabric was so radically unlike any European language I was familiar with. It was a new lens. I like poems that have the textures of other languages in them, and the unsettling effect that a translated poem can have when nothing in the language feels inevitable. I occasionally try translating poems, usually when I don’t feel I have much to write about. It’s the best way I know of refocusing my attention on language and form.
I’m fascinated by borders in a quite literal way, too. The wonderful poet Roy Fisher wrote ‘Birmingham’s what I think with.’ I have never written from that sort of identification with a place, although I admire many poets who do. I am drawn to write about places that aren’t ‘home’: transits, places where languages and cultures rub against each other. Border cities, ports, outposts. Or lost places made strange by memory, imprinted with the layered traces of what has passed across them.
These are ideas that I think I will be exploring further. At the moment I’m drifting in post-book slack water. Two sequences are at a very tentative, doodling stage. One has a working title ‘Translations of the word after from languages I do not speak’. I’m beginning to think about how to write a kind of irrecoverable narrative full of traces, glimpses and fragments. It could just evaporate (appropriately enough) or develop into something else.
The alchemy of circumstance and chemistry in five photographs
Tacita Dean’s ‘Blind Pan’
[Exile, no sun]
This is a photograph of twenty years. There are no people
in it, and no shadows. He carries this famine
on his back; he carries his country in his mouth
and it has no word in it for home, no proverb of forgetting.
[Antigone leading, dark clouds]
Walking under rain. Who was your father? Gunfire in villages,
dogs at the gates. What does her voice look like?
Like the weight of her coat. Like bread. Like Take my hand,
walk in my footsteps. No. Who was your father? Like rain.
[Furies, ‘your steps are dark’]
Forests run howling for water; air shredded, wingbeats.
She cannot look into the burning, curls under herself
as if she were unborn. Walk in my footsteps. Her hand.
He leads her over the border, into dark, out of sight.
[Colonus, just out of frame]
Halting. Halt where a spring overflowing a basin
returns his face to him in silver and sunlight slipping over the brim
through wet, open hands. He sees the place when he knows it.
No one can look directly at the sun.
[Light. End here]
It begins, no way back, in a dark room, something taking
the imprint of light. In this photograph are constellations,
musics, scribbled maps; our chancy travel across peopled time.
And there is no exposure long enough to make this visible.
‘The alchemy of circumstance and chemistry in five photographs’ is a response to a set of five photographs that make up Tacita Dean’s ‘Blind Pan’. Dean’s title alludes to a panning shot, to the blindness of Oedipus, perhaps to the fact that the photographs seem almost empty of content – just five black and white photographs of a featureless moorland. Dean has over-written the photographs with instructions, as if the photographs were a storyboard for a film about Oedipus and his daughter, in exile, travelling across the landscape to Oedipus’ death. The viewer, looking from left to right across the five frames, creates the imagined journey. The poem’s form and language echo the five stills of the artwork. I wanted to create spaces a reader could move through without a context being over-specified. In each stanza there is a blind place, a negation, an invisibility but also, I hope, a dark room where images take shape.
We cross the garden: late sun, evening’s slack tide.
He is remembering woods below San Pietro, the ragged end of a war.
Soldier and red-cloaked shepherd meeting on the road,
the old man calling his dog, waiting in the white road.
He watches how it goes on happening, the time it takes
to wade knee-deep in dazzle
towards the soft chalk curve between the trees.
The red cloak burned in his eyes. His hand, unsure.
He says, If a person walking raises his hand
he sees the shadow of each finger doubled.
Trees slide down to lap us, attentive to our solitudes
until the hollow dark is filled with memory of light –
fluorescence, phosphor glow, poppies’ slow burn.
Ghostlights to guide our double-going.
‘Noctilucent’ is a scientific term meaning ‘night-shining’, used of flowers, for example, that glow in the dark. The poem evolved very slowly. I first drafted it as a retelling of an incident that had been told to me. It wasn’t a story that had any point or consequence; it was just a meeting that lasted minutes, which had been remembered for sixty years. Early drafts struggled with this. I couldn’t see how the poem could go anywhere. I invented and padded, then did too much research. Many drafts in, I realised that the centre of the poem wasn’t the incident itself, but the memory of it. There was something mythic to me, archetypal, in the meeting of soldier and shepherd: the poem found its form as a sonnet. I have broken open the formal structure at the point where the memory breaks off at a slant.”
What can I say to or about all this? Well there’s a hint, isn’t there, about the point where memory breaks off at a slant. I get the sense that you need to immerse yourself and, probably, over-learn, before the moment arrives when a slant light reveals a shape you need, or an image or an idea that anchors a poem or a sequence. In the meantime I can savour the moments that draw you in, the moments that seem to be memorising themselves as you see them for the first time. Moments like these:
a spring overflowing a basin
returns his face to him in silver and sunlight
I love the way this elides a precisely photographic image with the slightly out of focus memories of myth, the half-remembered story of Narcissus which may or may not be intended.
he sees the place when he knows it
that’s how I want feel about last week. Why does it stop me, bring me up short? Because of that quietly understated reversal that you hardly notice, but which demands your attention by puzzling you.
And then I like this line that drops me back where I was at one point last week, in a birchwood where I’d just seen two young red deer, and remembering how it felt
to wade knee-deep in dazzle.
Finally, these two lines for their enormous resonance in a world of the displaced and abused millions …and also for the gap between the meanings we sometimes think we want to make, but cannot make at this moment, right now.
he carries his country in his mouth
and it has no word in it for home, no proverb of forgetting.
Judith Willson: thank you for not only sharing your poems but showing us ways of reading them. The least we can do is to buy the collection that she refers to when she wrote: At the moment I’m drifting in post-book slack water. This is it. Buy it.
Carcanet Press, Limited, 26 Oct 2017 – 80 pages £9.99
Praise for Judith Willson: ‘Judith Willson’s poetry takes us, in a dazzling flow of images, to lives which have the solidity of Central European fairytale with all the frightening reality of history behind them. Richly inventive in form and precise in tone, this is an amazingly assured debut collection.’
While you’re waiting for the book to arrive in the post, if you live anywhere near Calderdale, you can hear Judith reading her work…she’s the guest poet for November at the Puzzle Poets Live in Sowerby Bridge. Nov. 6th, 8.00pm at The Shepherd’s Rest. There’s a great open mic, too.