When Andrea Brady wrote a comment for the back cover of Andrew Spragg and Beth Hopkins’s Dogtown, an ambitious new publication from Litmus Press, she referred to the ‘uneasy labour of embroidery’ and the ‘arterial drawings’ which are assembled into a book of ‘unsettling beauty’. Derived from the Old French, embroder, the common recognition of embroidery is needlework ornamentation upon cloth and it has a figurative use as a form of making something splendid. There is, however, another ironic association which links the word to James Shirley’s 1649 play The Country Captain and the arrival in London of folk ‘in our torne gowns, embroidered with Strand dirt.’ This embroidery is closer to the outlaw world of Cormac McCarthy where folk ‘sleep that night on the cold plains of a foreign land, forty-six men wrapped in their blankets under the selfsame stars, the prairie wolves so like in their yammering, yet all about so changed and strange’. In Andrew Spragg’s Dogtown the words, embroidered on dark cloth, echo with isolation, movement and awareness of an alternative polis:
‘poetics of disused railyards
gone for rot
Andrew Spragg’s embroidery weaves for the reader ‘a book that moves / to a centre / where dogtown / is vacated’. This is a world where the ‘spirit has / already migrated’.
Charles Olson’s Dogtown, forming part of the geographical background to the Maximus Poems, is an uncultivated section of Gloucester (Mass.) strewn with glacial deposits in the central part of Cape Ann: ‘a deserted village, said to have its name from the dogs kept for protection by widows and elderly women who lived there during the latter part of the eighteenth century’ (Butterick’s Guide to the Maximus Poems). It is an area that looks druidic according to the painter Marsden Hartley who wrote about his 1931 visit to Dogtown: ‘It gives a feeling that any ancient race might turn up at any moment and review an ageless rite there…’. Andrew Spragg’s visit, ‘On coming to dogtown’, is a spiritual journey as well as a physical one and on the outskirts of the domain
‘…we destroyed all
our remaining resources, set fires
as a point of pride. This was the last
of our unspecified hours and it was
marked with a feast of cold meat.’
Fires are set for more than one purpose. They may devour all the accumulation of a past on which the travelers are turning their backs but they may also act as torches in the wilderness, lit with a sense of combative pride. The sketches of Beth Hopkins stalk their spidery way through these pages and the broken twigs make us aware of the fragility of a ‘pattern / of derelicts, a presence / of dust and peace and / stillness’.
Sitting along with the comments made by Andrea Brady on the back cover we read Verity Spott’s acute suggestion that these poems ‘feel like rituals for entry, towards new worlds whilst trailing the flotsam of subjective pain and recovery’.
Reading these poems by Andrew Spragg and looking at the artwork by Beth Hopkins I wish to suggest a way forward for readers. The next stop might be Harding, the nearly deserted town that the old guys find when they leave the commercialism of the East Coast to head westwards in Douglas Woolf’s 1959 novel, Fade Out. As one of the citizens of this new/old polis tells them:
‘Meantime a man can live for sixty-seventy dollars a month. Food is high, but rents are cheap. The climate’s nice, and we’ve got our shelters ready-dug all through this hill. That’s the hospital up there on top, they’ll open that again someday. That was the high school, the grammar school, the church, the theater there, the mortuary, the barbershop—they’ll open that someday too.’
But the last word should be given to Andrew Spragg whose Dogtown gives us ‘a stitching town an embroidered / point haunted by this flight or / all our layers at once.’
Litmus Publishing, edited by Dorothy Lehane and Elinor Cleghorn, runs both a Press and a Magazine and it explores the interaction between poetry and science. My next review will look at another of its recent publications, Felicity Allen’s Psycho-Neurological Poem in 3 Parts & A Clean Heart and a Cheerful Spirit.
Ian Brinton 5th April 2019