Ellie Rees discusses her two poems in Issue Ten of The Lonely Crowd.
What happens to a poem when you take it out of its context, when it loses the support of the poems that lead up to it, and the reflective glow of those that come after?
In The Natural History of Selborne, first published in 1789, the pioneering English naturalist, Gilbert White, argued that every place should have its very own specialist observer and scribe: ‘Men that undertake only one district are much more likely to advance natural knowledge than those that grasp at more than they can possibly be acquainted with: every kingdom, every province, should have its own monographer.’
When I embarked on my PhD in Creative writing at Swansea University, I didn’t set out in Gilbert White’s terms ‘to advance natural knowledge’, I was simply prompted to record my experience of living and walking in a small coastal strip of Wales. The area to be ‘mapped’ was the two-and-a-half mile stretch of coastline between Llantwit Major and St. Donats in the vale of Glamorgan. In my original proposal I focused on the cliffs that back the local shoreline. These cliffs are formed of sedimentary layers of Blue Lias limestone and mudstones and it was the idea of ‘layers’ I wished to explore, the physical and the metaphorical. I wanted to unpeel the layers of this small piece of Wales and explore them through the medium of poetry. I never intended to focus only on the natural world. I wrote poems about buildings and ruins, stone masons and metal detectorists, suicides and surfers and even ghosts. At the time I thought I had no agenda, political or environmentalist.
‘Deep mapping’ appeared the best way to describe my work, as the term evoked my preoccupation with the layered nature of this place, its history and geography, archaeology and wild life. Pearson and Shanks have described deep mapping as an attempt ‘to record and represent the grain and patina of place… through the conflation of oral testimony, anthology, memoir, biography, natural history and everything you might want to say about a place’. Further, in Deep Maps and Spatial Narratives, Warf asserts that deep maps ‘are not confined to the tangible or material, but include the discursive and ideological dimensions of place, the dreams, hopes, imaginations, and fears of residents’.
For me, poetry seemed the obvious vehicle to capture the intangible as well as the material manifestations of deep mapping, though at the time it did not occur to me that I was also a ‘resident’ with my own ‘dreams, hopes, imaginations and fears’.
The collection, called Ticking, now consists of fifty poems and while they were all written as separate and complete poems in their own right, together they ‘map’ a familiar walk: through the garden, over the meadow, across the field to the top of the cliffs and down onto the beach. Most of the poems in the first section are situated firmly indoors. These poems are introspective and often claustrophobic, but the poem, ‘Birdwatching’, is the first one to raise its head and look outwards, through a window. The remaining poems in this section all contain windows though the narrator stays on the inside, looking out. I placed the poem, ‘All Saints Day’ in a later part of the sequence where it is one of several others that map the initial stage of a metaphorical journey towards the cliffs and the sea. Taking these two poems out of their narrative context turns them into slightly different creatures.
Looking at my early notes when starting to ‘deep map’ this small stretch of the South Wales coastline I can see that most of them consist of what I called ‘observations’. They are not yet poetry but nor are they polished prose. They are shorthand – impressionistic attempts at capturing the moment. Several of them are about birds:
Crows have attitude!
Like a pair of gunslingers
they strut into town.
But from behind they waddle –
wiggle their backsides,
like girls on a night out
Larks in winter:
clockwork toys wound down
they seem to sip sound through a straw.
Bright green haze on Samson’s field, rapeseed gone, field ploughed and
seeded. A squat for 200 young seagulls who all point west. They eye
me with north-facing eye – glassily.
The two poems, published in The Lonely Crowd, are based on my observations of the countryside and bird life around my house. The main difference between them is that in ‘Birdwatching’ the observer becomes a protagonist whereas ‘All Saints Day’ moves from sunrise to sunset without any intervention from the observers. Both poems are descriptive rather than having a narrative or point of view and their narrators betray little overt emotion, though the act of ‘rescuing’ a fledgling and picking it up, ‘so gently’, in ‘Birdwatching’ is more personal.
‘All Saints Day’ is the result of many drafts and each one had a different title. ‘Halloween’ was the first, and only a working title, as I had not yet decided what the poem’s focus was to be. Worried that the poem wasn’t actually about anything in particular, I changed the title to ‘Indecision’ and added some carrots picked from the garden… These were left in a bowl on the kitchen windowsill, glowing in the autumn sun. The kitchen radio was also playing. However I soon suspected the carrots were derivative – I had been reading a lot of Robert Hass’s poetry at the time – so I returned them to the garden and turned the radio off. By so doing I deleted the active presence of a poetic narrator. It felt a lot better!
Another phrase from the poem, ‘Surprised by light’, seemed to work well as a title, focusing on the more abstract ‘meaning’ of the poem. However it drew too much attention to what had been meant as just a quiet nod in the direction of C S Lewis. Finally two other names for the day being described in the poem were left: ‘All Hallows Day’ and ‘All Saints Day’, (Halloween had too many associations) and ‘All Hallows Day’ seemed a little fey. The blandness of this final title suggests that I was no longer anxious about the poem’s lack of ‘meaning’, instead I felt free to simply observe. I was driven to think carefully about the form these observations should take: the white space of the page needed to be decorated, to reflect the beauty of the day. The observation that ‘nasturtiums clamber through purple cosmos’ gave me the idea for the intertwining pattern of indentations at the beginning of the lines.
My conscious focus while writing this poem was the search for exactly the right words to capture the sense impressions of this time of year. I concentrated on the ‘shining’ colours but I see now that moisture is everywhere. There’s a ‘watery silence’, the trees are like ‘rusty shipwrecks’, geese splash through the fallen leaves and a wren makes ripples in the stillness. Even the mist ‘sinks’ like dust.
‘Birdwatching’ is also based on several observations but this time the observer is present and identifies herself immediately:
This is what old people do:
birds come to them, show
their ordinary mysteries.
We have time to watch them,
share their consequence.
There is nothing ‘pretty’ or decorative about the layout of this poem. The stanza breaks are uneven and this staccato effect isolates the different episodes being described and also echoes the randomness of the swallows’ survival.
A single pane of glass separates the placid, elderly observer and the turbulent movement of the birds in the wind. Her view of the swallows is a privileged one: the fledglings have made their maiden flight to the balcony outside her upstairs window and are now being lured to fly further by the adults. The birds are only a few feet away from her; oblivious to her presence, but it is a fledgling that ‘breaks the fourth wall’ by blundering into the house. Now the woman has to take a role in the drama and ‘throw(s) a tea towel over it’. The precarious situation of the birds, while hinted at before as they ‘teetered on the railing’ now becomes real. It is not clear whether the ‘shrieking swallow’ is the same as the rescued one though the stanza break after ‘It rides the wind over the roof’ allows the reader to hope. The final three lines can also be read as an ironic comment on the poem’s opening. When the speaker in the poem says that birds come to old people and show their mysteries, she was perhaps not thinking of the time
A sparrowhawk flies straight at me,
its feet clasping a shrieking swallow –
like a mother running with a child in a pushchair.
Poems evolve and mutate as you write them, they wriggle in different and strange directions, while your fingers on the keyboard tap on unaware. The writing of this essay, which takes these two poems out of their sequence and places them abruptly side by side, has led me to ‘read’ them with new eyes. They are different poems now, though not a line has been altered.
Ellie Rees has had her work published in: New Welsh Review, Poetry Wales, Roundyhouse, Poetic Republic, The Cabinet of Heed and The Swansea Review. She is the proud owner of Longlisteds, Shortlisteds, Highly Commendeds and Special Mentions. Ellie lived and worked at Atlantic College (UWC Atlantic) in St Donats for many years where she was the Head of Languages and since retiring, has gained an MA and PhD in Creative Writing from Swansea University. She is currently looking for a publisher for her poetry collection, Ticking.
Words © Ellie Rees, 2018. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2018.