"language […] did not come from the libraries; it came from the fields, from the sea, from rivers, from night, from the dawn."
Jorge Luis Borges, This Craft of Verse, p.81
Picture this: a pot-holed track for a mile or so down past fields populated with sheep, cows, oak trees. You pause at the end of the track: you can hear a stream rushing through the woods on the other side of the valley and a pair of buzzards wheel in the sky above. If you were here in March, you'd be surprised by an abundance of wild daffodils. On the hill to your right there's a washing line strung between two poplar trees. Tucked in behind this is a garden where wind-ravaged rosemary, camellia and thyme struggle to survive, unlike the large bay that's busy clambering towards the sun. It is a light eater: it has to be tamed, cut back. You go through the gate and knock on the door of a small cottage. The door will not be locked, it is rare to lock doors here but you are not to know this yet. I come down from my study and welcome you to my home.
From 2006 - 2009 I lived just outside the village of Hartland in North Devon with my partner Sam. I was studying for a practice-based PhD that involved writing a new book of poems as well as 40,000 words of research into geographical intimacy. Since I was a child I have had a strong sense of place, and it always seemed natural to me to be close trees, animals, the wind, rocks and stones. The impetus to explore this in my PhD came from the belief that our health (that of the planet's and our own) depends upon being able to meet, accept and respect our environments as places that are inseparable from us and we from them. Living, in this sense, becomes a process of continual exchange. Instead of seeing an earth that is lived upon by human beings and animals, we begin to know life itself as something that we make together.
The current environmental crisis has given rise to plenty of talk about connecting with the land, plenty of conferences and summits, proselytising and bar charts, but not much information about how to do this or what it actually means. In my PhD, I wanted to see if it was possible to identify the key features needed for a person to establish an intimate relationship with the land, in the same way that we have already identified what is needed for intimacy to grow between human beings. Instinctively, I felt that our focus upon polar bears and melting ice-caps was misplaced and unhelpful in this respect, as was any notion of being able to save the world. This planet will be here long after humans have gone but there is something in us that likes to think we are in control, that we can write the script and stop the things we do not like. Whilst I know that we are endlessly resourceful, we are also endlessly deluded. We like to rise above the natural world and see ourselves as saviours of the endangered; conveniently forgetting that it is our behaviour that endangers ourselves and just about every other living thing.
The umbilical cord that connects a poet to Earth is forged in the cauldron of imagination. We are inseparable, enmeshed, entwined, and I do not believe that it is possible for us to be facing a crisis in what we think of as the external world without also facing one in the inner world of the human being. Connection is, in the first instance, about being honest with ourselves, coming to know our bodies, our inward geographies, the nature reserves of our souls. It is about flesh, disease, breath, it is concerned with death and love, evolution and the endless cycles of life.
The Village, Devon
A young man died last night
and this morning is not the same
as any other.
The rain that falls early,
the weight of a roof on a house,
the curtained windows - nothing the same.
One bedroom is too empty.
One mother so far from herself
she no longer recognises the kettle
in her own kitchen.
My research began with my body: I used my eyes and ears, lungs, nose and tongue, feet, brain and spirit as tools of investigation. I wrote poems every day, many of them with my left hand as a way of tunnelling deeper into my unconscious. I wanted my language, like my landscape, to be,
an open, receptive, stretchable, tolerant, intelligent language, capable of
hearing the voices of the other in its own body.
(Hélène Cixous, Coming to Writing and Other Essays, p.5)
I walked every day, by the coast or through the woods. I walked at night too, I walked in the rain, in the sunshine, best of all I walked in thick fog when all the familiar landmarks disappeared and the earth was quiet and strange. I walked without knowing my destination, my feet entering into conversation with the earth and sky, body magnetised to the left or the right by a stripe of sun, an interesting shadow. In the summer I swam every day with friends (we called ourselves the Ladies Number One Swimming Club) or else I snuck out on my own, often at dawn, to swim naked at the Quay. Here, the cliffs loom towards the sky. Centuries of strata are exposed, pushed vertical and near-vertical by ancient tectonic movement. The belly of the earth is bared, the story of its formation spelled out in stone and cave, avalanche and elements.
Hartland Quay Cliffs
I arrive and the arms of the cliffs encircle me.
Night stars netted in strata,
a million bell-like waves sunk
in their fabric of stone.
I swim out to sea and they watch me.
Hidden eyes blinking through faults,
hidden hearts beating an avalanche
of rocks to the beach.
I sleep on sand and they dream me.
Cast skeletons in my feet,
carve gills in my neck,
chisel fins from my spine.
I sing and they orchestrate me.
Language deserts the word
and we revert to howl, croak, hiss.
Cliffs kiss and adore me with their old stone lips.
Although I was primarily exploring the relationships between a poet, poetry and place, much of my research involved looking at work from other disciplines. This included the letters of Van Gogh, the physics of David Peat and David Bohm, articles on astrophysics, geology, geography, the work of anthropologist Tim Ingold, the essays of John Berger and Susan Sontag, the innovative writings of the performance group Goat Island. There were all the unnamed teachers too: skies drenched with stars, the insistent growth of thrift and vernal squill, the lambs who dedicated themselves to escaping from their fenced-in fields. These instructors taught me tenacity, the strength needed to keep going through the long, dark days and nights of intense and immersive work.
Living in Hartland was very different to the experience of living in a city and then visiting the coast for day trips and holidays. The intimacy was ongoing, unavoidable, difficult. True, I had fallen in love with this place, but the love had to incorporate as many things that I didn't like as things that I did. The commitment to being here meant living through unbearably long, cold winters as well as bright spring days, it meant putting up with the stink of silage, the arrival of plus-foured gentlemen who shot hundreds of pheasants that were not eaten but buried in a hole. It meant living with gossip, small-mindedness, poverty, a scarcity of jobs and nearly all of them paid on the level of the minimum wage. It meant that geographical intimacy ceased to be an idea of loveliness: instead it became inevitable, necessary and complex.
Over the years, I found that my sensitivities to just about everything increased and previously acceptable boundaries between inside and outside, private and public, what I called myself and other became less rigid and more like the shoreline itself: fluid, porous, unflinchingly alive. There was a new understanding of inclusivity in my life which brought me closer to the poetry of Octavio Paz and the old Welsh bard Taliesin. Both of these poets write in a way that knows no bounds, where time - past, present and future - fleas, oceans, libraries, turbines, inner and outer are indivisible from one another. This resonated with Neruda's plea for an 'impure' poetry,
impure as the clothing we wear, or our bodies, soup-stained, soiled with our shameful behavior, our wrinkles and vigils and dreams, observations and prophecies, declarations of loathing and love, idyls and beasts [...].
Pablo Neruda, The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, p.39
Rimbaud's idea of 'de-schooling the senses' is also pertinent here. He argued that gentility, politeness and inhibition warped our senses and resulted in a disconnection with our instincts. In order to heal this rift, there was a need to unlearn the things we had been taught in favour of a way of seeing that was more raw and honest, something that he called an 'unwounded perception'. This is key to being able to create an honest relationship where both human nature and environmental nature can be cared for.
As I came to the end of writing up my PhD I realised that my research was suggesting that intimacy can only be sourced in love, a love that is generous enough to embrace death, impurity, beauty, fertilisers, worms, sewage farms, oceans, people. This intimacy is necessarily founded upon mutual exchange and interfusion: a terrain that is so unbounded it is no longer possible to speak of external locations as places that are outside of us. Instead, we come to understand that we cannot situate the human being in relation to their environment - because they are that environment. In this way, we achieve a geographical intimacy that is all encompassing. If we are in accord with this then we can return to Borges' assertion that language comes from the fields and rivers, night and dawn and taste of the earth in our mouths when we speak, feel of the earth in our fingers when we write. Our words can now be 'keys to the universe, to the dual universe of the Cosmos and the depths of the human spirit' (Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, p. xxiii).
A Worker's Song
As a leaf falls from a tree
my work comes to me
as a bud grows on a tree
my work comes to me
as a bud breaks on a tree
my work comes to me
my roots sleep in the ferment of earth,
moon dreamers desirous of birth
my attic shoulders birds
my girth a thousand wedding rings
the singing you have heard
is a rock, a heron, a vein of sap
lullabies from the dead
that I carry on my back.
© Alyson Hallett
Article first published in Lapidus online journal, 2011.
'The Village, Devon' and 'Hartland Quay Cliffs' were previously published in Poetry Salzburg Review and Agenda respectively.
Many thanks to Fiona Hamilton for her invaluable help.
Thanks also to Matthew Barton.