Catching up and trying to catch my breath. Literally. I planned to write this last Sunday, instead of which I spent the afternoon at A&E in Pinderfields Hospital, Wakefield, because I’d developed symptoms of what I remembered about the pneumonia that almost did for me when I was 19.
The NHS is an astonishing institution. Triaged, ECG, chest X-ray, blood test, a succession of inputs from two technicians, two nurses and a doctor (twice). Diagnosed with acute chest infection, cleared of any possibility of blood clots, prescribed mega doses of antibiotics, and a nurse went down to the pharmacy to collect my prescription. The whole thing in slightly under two hours in an extremely busy A&E.
Since then I’ve been in bed more than not. Tired out from coughing, but now pretty well clear. Debilitated, though. That’s the word. I hope I can do justice to Alison Lock, our guest today, and to her pamphlet “Lure”.
If you follow the Cobweb regularly, you’ll know that Alison has been a guest before , but I’d better introduce her anyway. Alison is a poet and writer of short fiction whose work has appeared in anthologies and journals in the UK and internationally. She is the author of three poetry collections, two short story collections, and a fantasy novella. Her previous collection of poetry, Revealing the Odour of Earth, Calder Valley Poetry (2017), is an observation of life as seen through the natural environment: ‘landscape made language’ (Bob Horne). She finds inspiration in the moorlands and the natural environment of the South Pennines, which is often reflected in her writing, but she is also influenced by her childhood home of the West Country. More about her writing can be found at http://www.alisonlock.com
I really like that phrase of Bob Horne’s…‘landscape made language’. It chimes with Macfarlane’s ‘landmarks’. Unconsciously, I hyphenate it. landscape-made-language. And also language-made-landscape. So much of Alison’s poetry is a poetry of place. A topological poetry if you like. Her landscape is particularly that of the watershed lands between the old textile towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire ; sour moorland tops, incut valleys full of canals and railway lines, and bridges. Old mills and dyeworks in small valleys, sometimes slightly sinister, gradually falling into dissolution; millponds and leats. Valley sides thick with sycamore and balsam.A layered, imbricated landscape, and one she knows intimately, about which she writes with what is often a tectured precision. I’m thinking of moments like this from Nov. 9th 2016
a broken ribcage of stone
hefts under a thin white fleece. Potholes
along the track are milky white slip covers
Here’s a Pennine trackway after snow in all its contradictory physicality. And it’s full of traps for the unwary under its disguuise of snow, the milkiness of ice. A similar note’s struck in Lifelines
we are standing on a bridge glued with ancient lichen /but there are cracks opening
It’s an old landscape that can barely hold together. It could swallow you. Alison captures this in the first poem of her pamphlet:
Stilled water holds our secrets in silt,
a language of sand, leaf, root,
words lost below the surface.
Tales of those who walked
along the ponds and lakes
are in the voices that echo
from bank to bank: lives of creatures, times
of change, tints of season, incidents, accidents
– all steeped in the earthy sides,
muddy banks, the depths of the reach.
In our dreams, time sleeps.
Which brings us to the tale of one who walked among the ponds and lakes and accidents. Four years ago, her partner, Ian wrote on Facebook:
“Alison had a terrible fall and was not found for around 90 minutes. We now know she has seven fractured vertabrae. The good news is that there is no nerve damage and she is due to have a brace fitted and come home. Also the pain is under control and she is so much brighter.”
Four years ago, while walking her dog in a familiar place, she slipped, broke her spine, almost drowned in a millpond, from which she somehow managed to drag herself, until she was found.
Most of my life I’ve been fascinated by narratives of survival, from Robinson Crusoe to Matt Damon’s Martian, by tales of polar explorers and reckless adventurers, but most of all by survival in high mountains. Which is why, when I first read Lure I immediately made a link with Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void, and his purgatorial three day crawl from a crevasse thousands of feet up in the Andes. The scale may be different, but in dealing with pain and terror there is only the absolute ‘now’. What snagged my attention was the business of realising, remembering, recreating and understanding event like these in words. The business of poetry, and of memoir and journal. At the end of the epilogue to his book, Simpson writes:
……however painful readers may think our experiences were, for me this book falls short
of articulating just how dreadful were some of those lonely days. I simply could not find
the words to express the utter desolation of the experience.
It’s a problem Alison keeps returning to at various points in the sequence; she can not remember falling. Only being in pain and in cold deep water, and not understanding any of it.
Four years on, Alison wrote of Ian’s post that:
This is one of those posts you do not wish to be reminded of, but it does remind me that it was the beginning of an important process, one that I began in the hospital. I started to write what became Lure, a long poetic sequence about my journey from accident to recovery. I already knew the power of journalling and life writing from my days tutoring on a Life Writing course. Now it was my turn to write long and deep and really learn for myself the power of writing. I began to understand my place, my tiny place, in the world around us, and the power of the natural world to heal.
So. To the poems. Because the sequence is organic, because it’s at times a stream of consciousness, and at others post hoc reflection, and always in pursuit of memories that may be illuory, and are always illusive it’s hard to do it justice. I’ll settle for edited extracts, and hope I can give you a sense of the flavour, the quality of the whole. On the way, I’ll share some of my own responses
I swore I would never return, but here I am.
Another winter has passed, a turning,
a transitory tumble of season.
[ …………… ]
This is the place. I know you well.
We are intimates, yet you have changed.
Beyond the slip-strip of a mud path
there is new growth: fern, plantain,
vetch, shepherd’s purse, and the bank
is a fall-away, an edge, a single foot’s width.
On that day, I prayed, if it was prayer at all.
To Brighid, patron saint of poets,
goddess of the hearth, the spirit
we celebrate at Imbulc
when we bring in the Spring,
wear the mask of the fox,
juggle with fire, as we blaze
through the snow-clad hills
to defy the wintering.
She, Brighid, I believe, held me
in that moment when I fell.
I’ve kept coming back to this moment, understanding Alison’s deep involvement not only in ecology, but in its associated myth and folk lore. It still surprises me, but it works wonderfully, this concatenation of earth, air, fire and water. Fire and ice and rebirth. The next sequence spins round a memorable phrase: It was early one morning in April when I entered her waters . I love the way this nails down a kind of transmutation, an otherly altered state, almost like an out of body experience. She falls in a flash of a kingfisher’s stripe /I might never have seen. Was it a real kingfisher, a trick of the light? I read it as real, but in any event, a moment of inattention. A lure, in fact. A trap for the unwary, with allure of false promises. It coloured the way I imagined the pond, overshadowed (though it’s early April, and unleafed) and if I thought of naiads (as Alison does in the poem) they were quickly replaced the grindylow, Jenny Greenteeth, or the Mari-morgans that drown men when they are distracted.
There is the mark
on the place where broken rocks
are my bones, cold meltwater my blood.
Earth, air, water, spirit.
It was early one morning in April
when I entered her waters
in a flash of a kingfisher’s stripe
I might never have seen.
I do not remember. The falling.
I stare down at the rocks.
A strip of shore, barely a beach
for a shrew, a slight edge.
But, I know it. Now. Too well.
It is the place where I fell.
Shallow (it looks from here)
all silt and weed – those duplicitous bedfellows.
I stare at the stones, the rocks
that caught the fall of me:
but in catching me, they broke me.
Do rocks have memory?
After all, they have travelled so far,
forced from the hills by the rumbling
ways of earth, of rolling weather,
split in their falling
an age ago when these valleys
formed in the icy retreat.
There is no movement in this millpond,
no flow of water over the surface of the rocks,
but below, there is a life that changes, mutates, shifts.
I can hear the thunder.
I look into you, and I see me.
But then, I am back to that moment,
as if my reflection has slipped, sideways
and I am falling into the unretrievable.
And as I fall through your cold glass surface,
I see, as if for the first time,
roots, stems, leaflets; all the delicates
wavering their palms on tiny hands,
fine capillaries, the detailed maps
of the bindings of life.
I push upwards as if propelled until
I gasp, grasp, at the air,
but I am pulled back down
(what I find utterly memorable in this sequence..apart from its wholeness… is this I see, as if for the first time/
roots, stems, leaflets; all the delicates / wavering their palms on tiny hands. “All the delicates” Isn’t that exactly right! The hallucinatory precision of what is noticed, and the evocation of another world, its indifferent otherness.
A naiad watches her curiously/incuriously, and maybe Brigantia gives her strength as she struggles somehow out of the water, and somehow finds an anchored loop of heather root that gives her purchase and helps her start a purgatorial crawl up and out and on to the mud path where she encounters life and death in very particular ways, and which remind me of Walter Bonatti making an epic solo ascent, and encountering, below black overhangs, a butterfly)
I am a wolf, snarling into another life, circling wider and wider.
I must get to the next boulder,
pass through stone gaps. I know this path
so well but from an upright eyeline,
not from the height of a fox with face down-strained.
I have never been so close to ground:
its elements of metal, earth, stone, trash, shit.
Epigeal, unnatural, desperate, I am willing
someone to hear me, to find me.
But there is no one. Just me. Alone.
There’s a dead shrew, flattened
on the path. Its pressed body is dry,
paper-thin as if drawn in outline on the earth.
A perfect pointed nose.
I see each hair on its back, smoothed,
even its single eye, upturned,
is open, shocked, as if it saw the indentations of a tread.
Hands, knees, reaching, inching.
I am at the widening side
where the spilled earth
has been lifted, tipped into a pyramid
of brick, a rubble of razing.
I sink, I can go no further,
on, in, pain, dark.
Too cold, too cold, I am too cold.
With words, I state my being in the world,
and however softly uttered, even whispered,
they are caught on the breeze, slight feathers
to bed the nests, plumage to vane the flight,
to fletch the arrows, fly the fishing lure.
(I chose this sequence, partly because of how it shifts the narrative, this move from water to earth, but particularly for the perspective, the absolute ground level view of a small animal under the skies, where cracks are gullies and a tyre tread a mountain range. And for the shrew, its single eye, that reminds me of an image in Keith Douglas’ Vergissmeinicht. Or you might have found it in Remains of Elmet. It’s that good. It’s as if , like the shrew, she’s reached a point at which nothing remains, no more is possible, and the ords at the end that are feathers are her giving up the ghost. Everything is drawn together in that stanza which brings the the first section of the pamphlet to a close. The next section begins : Feet press around my ear, my shoulder, my head. / How do they know my name? She’s found, rescued, hospitalized and a different kind of struggle begins with the salve of routine mantras; in repetition is our survival. These are our psalms.
They speak my name.
Why do they chant this psalm
as if it is a balm, the sounding
of the word that is the moniker
attached to what there is of me:
my date of birth, again, what is your date of birth?
I think about a death, the one
that might have been this date,
my exit through that watery place.
I’ll choose just one poem from the second section, the story of her slow recovery, vignettes about hospitals, about doctors, about helplessness. This comes at the end, a celebration of healing, and of understanding the double-edgedness of things.
A New Season
So beautiful is the danger that comes with summer.
Ragwort, the poisoner, waves gaily from the fields,
fit only for the caterpillars of the cinnabar moth
who absorb cyanide, letting the birds know
of peril by a code of stripes: orange and black.
Poppies disperse their seed,
Foxgloves, mauve or purple, a seldom droop
of white, the digitalis of the easing heart,
in a deadly shade of night, peal
purple bells; a yellow clapper rings the knell.
Henbane, belladonna, mandrake.
Each day, I learn the walk of pain along this track,
as click-click by sticks I return to the site.
I am welcomed by a littering of granny’s bonnets,
rabbit’s ears, the orange. The yellow spatterings
of broom are like the gorse of my childhood cliffs.
I collect the healing herbs of the wayside:
shining cranesbill, orange hawkweed, its rash
of colour from dark stamen to sunset petals.
Herb robert, black Medic, feverfew.
And when I finally venture back to
the pond, by its sides are the sproutings
of new growth, plants brought by birds
in their droppings, seed fallen from the heels
of ramblers, amblers, shed from the soles.
Here in this ground I have come to know
so well, the dirt fosters tiny plants, scenting it
with the crushed leaves of herb robert.
A scattering of purple heads. Self heal.
Potent with the power to heal. I am healing.
I am the perennial grass. I am a single strand.
It is the end of the bright season.
Rains shelve the ground, puddling,
winds scatter the remnants, seeds
are blown both dry and wet, or taken
prisoner, impounded by the land.
Damp air feeds the aches, inflames
the joints, insinuates. Leaves turn
yellow, brown, on trees before descent.
Brambles deplete of fruit and colour.
The edge of the pond is slippery again.
Only the heather blushes mauve and purple
as roots delve into the banking, securing
their future, giving the fallen a handle on life.
I like very much the last line that returns to the loop of heather root that saved her life, that draws everything satisfyingly together.
So now I have the words, I have darkness, and I have hope.
These are not the final words of the pamphlet…there’s an epitaph to follow… but they could be.
So thank you Alison Lock, for letting me share Lure with Cobweb followers, and being patient as I have so slowly been ‘catching up’. I hope I’ve done you justice.
There’s one extra bit of news to share, though, and I was desperate to get this post out in time. Alison reminds me that “Lure has now become an audio script and along with some amazing artists: a composer, musicians, sound technician/artist, and a wonderful producer who believed in my work, it will be broadcast on April 25th on Radio 3 on the Between the Ears programme. “
Here’s your link on BBC i Player.
In the next post we’ll be catching up with Helen Ivory and the brilliant Anatomical Venus. See you then. Sooner rather than later.
-  https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2019/01/27/green-thoughts-and-a-polished-gem-alison-lock/
-  For a better description of what I mean, you could try Benjamin Myers’ Under the rock (Eliot and Thompson 2018)…about life in the shadow of Scout Rock: Ted Hughes’ ‘spiritual midwife’.