Peter Riley’s comment on the back of this new Oystercatcher delight from Nancy Gaffield points us in the right direction:
‘Each book by Nancy Gaffield seems a new venture—not a new poet, for there is considerable continuity of her way with words, but rather a new way of projecting the text, a new ancestry, and a new form of engagement with the reader’.
1. ‘A new venture’
An aphetic version from late Middle-English of ‘adventure’: a risky undertaking, a journey the conclusion to which is unknown. Nancy Gaffield’s ‘new venture’ starts with both literature and geography, the self and the place. The opening section offers a quotation from Lorine Niedecker’s ‘North Central’. This short piece of aphoristic poetry looks outward as the opening of both writing and a journey: ‘For best work / you ought to put forth / some effort / to stand / in north woods / among birch’. First published in Cid Corman’s Third Series of Origin (July 1966) the American tone is immediately set for this discovery of a British meridian: the Niedecker quotation is closely followed by a reference to Ordnance Survey Map 122 and a title ‘Peacehaven to Lewes’.
‘Everywhere there are signs / of the North / sudden turns / in weather / a fierceness / of light / trace landscapes / vacant lots / a pivotal place’
The poetry is placed on the page in the three-ply line so loved of Carlos Williams and I only don’t produce it like that on account of the fear that it will not appear correctly when placed on-line. Niedecker, Williams; and I recall writing about Gaffield’s Zyxt (Oystercatcher) last year and referring to Robert Duncan and Charles Olson.
2. ‘considerable continuity’
The continuity referred to by Peter Riley can be traced back to that previous Oystercatcher publication in which Gaffield said that ‘each poem is an exploration / of language in place’ following it with a reference to Gaston Bachelard’s assertion that ‘Inhabited space transcends geometrical space’. This new journey along a meridian takes the reader through those inhabited spaces: ‘vacant lots’, pivotal places, churchyards, epitaphs and fields which ‘lie fallow / waiting for the sun / waiting for the yoke.’ There is perhaps a new voice here as well, that of R.F. Langley whose early poem ‘Matthew Glover’ explored the ideas inherited from both Black Mountain College on the one hand and Carl Sauer on the other. Getting the outside world in has echoes of the advice offered by Olson to his Black Mountain student, Edward Dorn, to follow the model of history set down by Herodotus: ‘istorin, to find out for oneself; to absorb himself intensely and entirely in his subject, “to dig one thing” in a “saturation job” that might require a “lifetime of assiduity”. Carl Sauer was an example here: “to dig one thing or place or man” until the subject was exhausted, as Sauer had done with his early studies of the land and culture of the prairie, was to be “in forever”’. In Nancy Gaffield’s digging
‘Reliable markers include: long barrows, cairns, dolmens, ponds, springs,
wells, castles, churches, hill-forts, quarries, notches in hills, cross-roads. This
is a spatial practice.’
In Mircea Eliade’s 1959 book, The Sacred and the Profane the author suggests that a sacred place has a unique existential value for religious man, whereas for non-religious man space is neutral:
‘A universe comes to birth from its centre; it spreads from a central point that is, as it were, its navel…just as the universe unfolds from a centre and stretches out towards the four cardinal points, the village comes into existence around an intersection. In Bali…when a new village is to be built, the people look for a natural intersection, where two roads cross at right angles. A square constructed from a central point in an imago mundi. The division of the village into four sections…corresponds to the division of the universe into four horizons. A space is often left empty in the middle of the village; there the ceremonial house will later be built, with its roof symbolically representing heaven. At the other end of the same perpendicular axis lies the world of the dead.’
Along Nancy Gaffield’s meridian that human sense of place is sharply caught: it is there. Knowledge accumulates and ‘Landscape remembers’:
‘Danehill Anglo Saxon for swine pasture on the hill
is surrounded by woods
Withy Wood Sedge Wood
“thick and inaccessible” (the Venerable Bede)
Itineration a form of salvage’
3. ‘a new ancestry’
Nancy Gaffield is a reader of poetry as well as a walker of the landscape and one’s reading becomes a part of who one is. In this new volume we meet Helen Adam and John Clare, Walt Whitman and, perhaps, Philip Larkin’s sharp eye for the wreckage of the suburban:
‘The edges of arable land give way
to housing estates wasteland
this part of town
isn’t meant to be gawked at
newly-built business parks
abut abandoned warehouses
ripe for development
in the distance the yelp of a dog’
It seems so entirely appropriate that the blurb for this excellent new Oystercatcher should have been written by Peter Riley whose own poem ‘From Romney Marsh’ recollected ‘my track across the land’.
Ian Brinton, 29th February 2016