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Gathering Grounds 2011-2019 by Harriet Tarlo images by Judith Tucker (Shearsman Books)

Gathering Grounds 2011-2019 by Harriet Tarlo images by Judith Tucker (Shearsman Books)

In her introduction to The Ground Aslant, An Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry (Shearsman Books, 2011), Harriet Tarlo had suggested that the word “landscape” was itself a compound of both the land and its scape, its shaping. The importance of this note was in its acknowledgement of the interventionist human engagement with land. The title of her new collection of poems, accompanied by the powerful evocations of place contained within the drawings of Judith Tucker, contains a similar acknowledgement. “Grounds” are themselves the foundations upon which something is built up, suggesting an underlying principle of growth, and it is entirely appropriate that the opening section of some fifty pages (poems written between 2011 and 2014) should be titled ‘Tributaries’, those streams of water which lead into larger rivers. In his copy of A.N. Whitehead’s Process and Reality Charles Olson made a note alongside the philosopher’s statement that “the term many presupposes the term one, and the term one presupposes the term many” registering his awareness of what the cook at Black Mountain College, Cornelia Williams, had meant in 1953 when she said “All my life I’ve heard / one makes many”. The statement became the epigraph for The Maximus Poems and Olson called it “the dominating paradox on which Max complete ought to stand.”
Tarlo’s opening poem is dedicated to Judith Tucker and it stands in stark black lines on the white page:

“in place, drawing
where things
start, where to
cut landscape off
seam or folded
. lead
turning at an
imagined centre, it
begins with a
line in space

Almost in echo of Zoe Skoulding’s poem ‘In the forest where they fell’ where “Time spirals out of seed” and “Specific histories / don’t fade but circle in a constant outward movement”, the opening poem to ‘Tributaries’ begins with “place…begins with a / line in space.” As Harriet Tarlo had also pointed out in her introduction to that other handsome volume from Shearsman Books, that anthology of radical landscape poetry:

“These diverse poems speak to each other across the space, allowing readers to enter the poem and speculate over their relationship to each other.”

The tributaries that lead to the larger more recognisable movements of water contain a world of submerged etymologies and the first record of this image is in Cymbeline in 1611 where the “poor tributary rivers” provide “sweet fish”. Printed lines on a white page, the lines of drawing “where things / start”, confront us with a language in which the relationship between ourselves and the world around us can come alive, human engagement. As Hopkins’s stones ring “in roundy wells” Tarlo’s opening poem turns “at an / imagined centre” and one might think about Thomas Nagel’s conception of reality as “a set of concentric spheres, progressively revealed as we detach gradually from the contingencies of self.” Or one might also bring to mind Wordsworth’s Fenwick note to his early poem ‘An Evening Walk’ in which the seventy-three year old poet recalled that moment from his youth when he had become aware of “the infinite variety of natural appearances.”
Judith Tucker’s drawing that sits on its own page alongside that first poem of ‘Tributaries’ may of course begin “with a / line in space” but it is to the eye a complex and beautifully dense account of a wood beside a stream and it suggests that whereas the act of expression may well have to commence with a line it soon interweaves into a complexity of thought. As if in decided rejection of that Whitehead/Olson dictat Harriet Tarlo goes on to write that “there isn’t a way / there isn’t a way to go / off-path, counter-path”. In ‘March: Wessenden Head Moor to Reap Hill Clough’ she recognises that “working up to where / they spring, unseen / their several sources / not anything comes from / one.”

This is a remarkable book of poems and drawings and by following those tributary streams one will arrive at Tetney Lock Bridge, the first of the ‘Past Winter’s Sonnets’ sequence from 2017-2018:

“….turnstone flies over flood
gates, under pipe siphoning sweet oil from sea line,
then out & out all gathered rivers, becks & drains
under winter-flocking geese, swirling starlings
through whimbrel marshes into wide tide mouth.”

Ian Brinton 30th March 2020

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