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A White Year by Anna Lewis (Maquette Press)

A White Year by Anna Lewis (Maquette Press)

As the blurb on the back cover of this important small collection of poems tells us, the chapbook follows a year in the life of one young inhabitant of a Late Iron Age lake village at Glastonbury. In a world not entirely dissimilar to that explored by Emmanuel Le Roi Ladurie in his monumental recreation of the life of the Cathars in the area of South West France, Montaillou, Anna Lewis has based her poems on excavation reports especially those of the nineteenth-century local archaeologist, Arthur Bulleid.
The sixteen-page poem is divided into four sections and it focuses upon the ending of a way of life as the tribe is compelled to move away in reaction to a shift in climate conditions. This is not an angry or ecologically strident tale which we are being told; it is a convincingly aware reaction to changes in the outside world. It is a migrant’s tale:

“Raindrops collect like blossom on the boughs,
hang in the light an hour, and fall. By now
the grass should be dry to the root,

ants raising forts beside the paths;
as it is, rain flays the tender shoots,
the stone tracks sink into the marsh.”

There is a visual simplicity to this awareness of things not being right. The comparison between rain and blossom dangles a sense of future before us but the underlying menace cannot be ignored as the “By now” ends a line and the awareness of time lost is emphasized by what seems to be enormous distance. After all, the grass should by this time “be dry to the root”: there, after all, would be security and repetition for a future. The invasion of flood is registered by the ants “raising” what can only in effect be a temporary rearguard action, “forts beside the paths”. More disturbingly, the stone tracks sink into the marsh.
How is truth registered? In a world before the internet one could presumably only wait for news and in this sharply conceived realization of village life news is dependent upon the relied-upon return of the traveler.

“The boats are days late, with no word
from the men. When, behind our mother’s back
dark prints surge across the flags,

her face turns grey-white as the morning sky”

I take the dark prints to suggest the seeping dampness of water that is coming in and the use of the term for writing (“prints”) has an ominous feel of that which might have appeared from nowhere upon a wall during a feast.
The narrative which threads its way through this momentous year of change is firmly linked to the narrator’s small sister and the rain which is going to change for ever a way of life finds its counterpart in the “cloud” which “gathered weight inside her lungs”

“and as the brushwood shifted on the mere,
she sank from us.”

As populations move in response to environmental change they leave behind those traces that are unearthed by later excavations. In this case, as the information on the cover tells us, “One of the more enigmatic finds from the site was a lump of strange ‘bread’ consisting of un-broken wheat grains bound with a mysterious substance, possibly honey.”

“An exceptionally fine sheet bronze bowl was recovered from outside the palisade, where it had been discarded, or perhaps placed deliberately: the deposition of material into both wet and dry locations was a common Iron Age votive practice.”

As the sequence of poems ends the reader is left like the narrator:

“I sit quiet in the moss,
watch rain widen on the lake”

The lack of a final full-stop leaves us contemplating the migrant’s future. This is a terrific poem for these times and I suggest that if there any of the 100 copies left that were published towards the end of last year as Maquette # 8 then you could do no better than to get hold of one. The sequence makes a very fine complement to the Comma Press Refugee Tales.

Maquette Press,
7 Grove Terrace,
Teignmouth,
Devon
TQ14 9HT

I am pleased to be able to leave this little review as my last word before taking off for two weeks in Skiathos!

Ian Brinton, 9th July, 2018

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