When David Herd wrote that Nancy Gaffield’s poetry ‘speaks directly and beautifully to the contours of our contemporary moment’ he touched upon something very important indeed. Not only do these delightful pieces of writing resonate with a contemporary sound but also the contours of their language and focus take us into an imaginative world which breathes that salt-laden fragmentary lyricism to be found in Sappho.
The first of two epigraphs placed by the poet at the opening of this fine volume is a quotation from James Schuyler’s ‘Salute’ in which he asserts that the ‘Past / is past’
I salute that various field.
That salute to the field, that greeting to the long gone, brings to my mind the opening lines of Robert Duncan’s ‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow’
as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,
that is not mine, but is a made place,
that is mine, it is so near to the heart,
an eternal pasture folded in all thought
so that there is a hall therein
that is a made place, created by light
wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.
I have written more about this Duncan poem some ten years ago in Tears in the Fence 44. That field to which Schuyler refers is ‘various’ as he thinks of the ‘clover / daisy, paintbrush that / grew in that field / the cabin stood in…’ and his poem is haunted by the inability to make a past stand still. As Nancy Gaffield recognises in this, her second collection of poems (Tokaido Road won the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize three years ago) the world is in constant flux and the title, Continental Drift, bears a suggestion of both seismic trauma and reflective eyes cast back on a world now gone. I am reminded here of Walter Benjamin’s extraordinarily fine essay on ‘The Task of the Translator, published in Illuminations where he sees the translator not in the centre of the language forest but on the outside facing the wooded ridge. Translation, like bringing the past into a present, calls into that forest aiming at the single spot where the echo is able to give, in its own language, the reverberation of the work in the alien one. The sounds of such movement can be heard in Continental Drift and as the short prose piece which closes this delightful volume makes clear
Something happens when you dislodge the outward aspect of the familiar. A border has been crossed. You become a world-builder. Place-making means multiple acts of remembering. Pas à pas imagination slides between the frames of reference. Not opposition, but apposition. We go by side roads.
In his monumental novel Les Misérables Victor Hugo tells us that the past is like a ghostly voyager who, like his main character Jean Valjean, convict and outcast, always travels with a false passport. But as Nancy Gaffield tells us ‘you cannot / wipe the slate clean / language gets used / over and over again / re-coupling / letting see / what has been hidden / beneath’
Ian Brinton 25th May 2014