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Meridian by Nancy Gaffield (Longbarrow Press)

Meridian by Nancy Gaffield (Longbarrow Press)

“The idea was to walk the line from Peacehaven to the Humber. I had devised the notion that the physical act of walking would help me to locate what was lost”.

We are immediately presented with a topographical focus and I can feel myself wanting to reach for Edward Thomas’s The Icknield Way in which he opened his 1913 walk with the words

“Much has been written of travel, far less of the road. Writers have treated the road as a passive means to an end, and honoured it most when it has been an obstacle; they leave the impression that a road is a connection between two points which only exists when the traveller is upon it.”

However, it very quickly becomes clear that Nancy Gaffield’s 270 mile walk, the Greenwich Meridian Trail from Peacehaven to Sand le Mere, is immersed in far more than topography. Her opening epigraph is taken from Charles Olson’s study of Herman Melville, Call Me Ishmael, and it is neatly adapted to her venture of discovery, a venture which prompts her forward whilst reawakening the past: “SPACE” is the “central fact to [wo]man born in America” and Gaffield’s movement through space is guided by Robert Moor’s exploration of trails:

“The key difference between a trail and a path is directional: paths extend forward, whereas trails extend backward”.

The reference to Olson at the very start of the book’s journey is by no means accidental and in the opening poem ‘ORDNANCE SURVEY MAP 122: BRIGHTON & HOVE’ we read of “Disturbances within the threshold / of hearing are sampled in time” and those disturbances have a lyrical echo down the years. This is a person who is “six years old again / learning to read / the landscape”. The musical echoes of wisps of language become

“The song that the rigging makes,
Port of Gloucester. The acoustics
of the sea. Here / there”

If we can hear Olson in that reference then when, extending backward, we look at the trail that got us moving we can also hear T.S. Eliot and the Gloucester poet’s “space of enunciation” traces a landscape that contains a reference to the last section of Bostonian ‘Preludes’ which itself looks backwards to the Whitman who sings the body electric “out on the vacant lot at sundown after work”.
In the generous section of Acknowledgements at the end of this book’s adventure Nancy Gaffield expresses her gratitude for those who accompanied her on the walk (Kat Peddie) and those who were there “in spirit”: Helen Adam, John Clare and Paul Celan. And here lies a major point about this autobiographical expression of how path and trail belong within the same covers: we carry our reading, our influences, with us as they have formed the person who we are. Some of these influences lie buried and do not obtrude themselves as landmarks on the pathway and in this way Edward Thomas’s ‘Lob’ emerges as

“The man in the street says: “I’ve
lived here all my life. I’m telling
you there’s no road in or out. You
could slip into a ditch. No one
would ever find you.””

Thomas gives us an old man who has a “land face, sea-blue eyed” who says

“….Nobody can’t stop ’ee. It’s
A footpath right enough. You see those bits
Of mounds – that’s where they opened up the barrows
Sixty years since, while I was scaring sparrows.
They thought as there was something to find there,
But couldn’t find it, by digging, anywhere.”

Nancy Gaffield is following the Greenwich Meridian Trail as a path, walking forward in a northerly direction “recalling snippets from books, scenes from films, or events… following a trail backwards”.
Meridian is no mere scrap-book of reminiscences but instead is a carefully wrought accumulation of reflections. The notes offered at the end of each poem are helpful and they echo the very movement of the poetry itself. In the second poem which deals with Greenwich and Gravesend we are confronted with a reference to a notorious pub, The Grapes, in which strangers to the area were known to have disappeared before turning up on the dissecting table. Dickens had presented us with that pub now disguised as The Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters in his mid-1860s novel Our Mutual Friend and Gaffield offers us a quotation from the early pages which includes the reference to being able to “trace little forests” on the surface of an old corner cupboard. This is no chance quotation and the paragraph had earlier included the suggestion that the pub seemed in its old age to also look back at its youth: both trail and path. The little forests, where the very word conjures up the world of the fairy-tale, are part of the “gnarled and riven appearance of old trees” where the past “seemed to twist itself into some likeness of boughs”. In Nancy Gaffield’s “migrant” language she contemplates being at the “forest’s fringe” and the whole sequence of poems becomes as Jeremy Prynne suggested about Olson’s Maximus IV, V, VI “a lingual and temporal syncretism”.

Ian Brinton 3rd March 2019

Meridian by Nancy Gaffield (Oystercatcher Press)

Meridian by Nancy Gaffield (Oystercatcher Press)

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
Cowstock Wood
Down Wood
Enholm’s Wood
High Wood
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
brownfield sites
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

Sonofabook 1 edited by Charles Boyle

Sonofabook 1 edited by Charles Boyle

This is a beautifully produced, intelligent and forward looking new magazine; it deserves our FULL SUPPORT.

Charles Boyle’s ‘Preamble’ minces no words:

A word on independent bookshops, whose quarter-page adverts in this issue were offered free. Without good small bookshops it is very hard for small publishers to get their books out into the physical world. In February 2014 the Booksellers Association reported that the number of independent bookshops in the UK had fallen below 1,000, following on a year-on-year decline over the previous decade. This massacre is in part the consequence of ebooks and online buying, but a key moment was the abolition of the Net Book Agreement in 1997. The ending of the NBA—which required retailers to sell books at the cover price—led to aggressive discounting (which actually forces up the cover price of books, as publishers struggle to maintain their margins); concentrated bookselling in the hands of chainstores, supermarkets and Amazon; and forced the closure of hundreds of bookshops. The literary culture of the UK was changed overnight; but while France and Germany legislate to restrict discounting and offer good breaks to independent bookshops, none of the political parties in the UK cares a damn, this not being a vote-winning issue.

This issue of Sonofabook is worth buying immediately and it is clearly going to be worth subscribing to such a brave venture. Two delights for me in this first issue are:

1. ‘Springtime in the Rockies’: fourteen sonnets by Nancy Gaffield which have echoes of the world of Gary Snyder and Ed Dorn

Boulder sees first measurable snowfall
of the season, but sunny skies set to return.
Another year on or forty pass & we’re still

2. A translation of Francis Ponge’s 1947-48 essay ‘My Creative Method’. Translated by Beverley Bie Brahic this is a central Ponge document which does not often find its way into English. The introduction to this delightful piece is clear and to the point:

In 1947, during a trip to Algeria, Francis Ponge wrote ‘My Creative Effort’ at the invitation of Trivium, a Swiss magazine. Five years had passed since the publication of Le Parti pris des choses (The Defence of Things), his now classic collection of prose poems. Sartre had made the book a springboard for reflections about poetics and philosophy; painters like Braque admired Ponge’s close-ups of such prosaic objects and phenomena as a pebble or rain pinging into a courtyard. Although some of his poems, or description-definitions as he calls them in ‘My Creative Method’ (the title is in English in the original), prove on closer reading to be metaphors for the processes of language itself…

When Jeremy Prynne wrote his first two letters to Charles Olson in November 1961 he referred to Pokorny’s 1923 etymological dictionary as ‘sitting on my shelf like a bomb, ready to explode at a touch with the most intricately powerful forces caged up inside, a storehouse of vectors’:

Things are nouns, and particular substantives of this word order are store-houses of potential energy, hoard up the world’s available motions.

To subscribe to this new magazine go to http://www.cbeditions.com

Ian Brinton St. Botolph’s Day 2015

From Fossils to Fibonacci: Nancy Gaffield’s Be-Hind-Sight Zyxt (Oystercatcher Press)

From Fossils to Fibonacci: Nancy Gaffield’s Be-Hind-Sight Zyxt (Oystercatcher Press)

As Nancy Gaffield’s new chapbook of poems tells us ‘each poem is an exploration / of language in place’. The phrase is followed by a reference to Gaston Bachelard’s influential 1958 volume The Poetics of Space in which he asserted that ‘Inhabited space transcends geometrical space.’ Early on in the book Bachelard quotes from Rilke:

‘House, patch of meadow, oh evening light
Suddenly you acquire an almost human face
You are very near us, embracing and embraced.’

And when I looked at this it was with a leap of recognition that I thought of Robert Duncan’s opening lines to ‘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…’

Combining the Fibonacci accumulation of numbers seen as space on the page, alongside a floor-plan of what appears as a horizontal cathedral, Nancy Gaffield offers the reader an Olsonian journey and provides us with a ‘presence of place to / share words and deeds’. As she says, ‘this is polis’.
Bachelard asserts that a house constitutes a body of images ‘that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability’ and goes on to suggest that, as a building, a house is imagined as ‘a vertical being’ which rises upwards differentiating itself in terms of its verticality. Nancy Gaffield’s poems are constructions which link our presence to our past:

‘Like
poems
ammonites
build their shells around
principles of geometry
the fossil in this stone lived seventy million years
ago by turning in on itself this is slow life in a fortress town
that passes
its days dreaming from within its walls until the last
catastrophe petrifies them
in their stone coffins
a far cry
from the
sea’

Like a mathematical accretion from the thirteenth century the poem builds up before reaching the turning point of ‘passes’ prompting the lines to withdraw to the stone coffin of the printed page and its resonant echo that sounds so far from its original source. These poems are not merely skilful; they possess a haunting beauty that allows history to breathe. The advantage Herodotus has over Thucydides, according to Olson, is that the father of History says the voice is greater than the eye:

‘If you shout—if you tell your story—he listens to you. He doesn’t give you that nod and finger which destroys you, wagging, and saying, look, you ain’t there. He says, you say so? OK, I believe you. Truth is what is said, not what is seen. Your own report is good enough for him. You say you lived here? OK. You did. These things happened to you? OK. Sign here’

These new poems may concentrate upon what can be seen, sight, but their echo is what lasts with me, an ‘undercroft’, a ghost that lives in language, a fluid movement into which I can dive in order to experience the vertigo of the matter-of-fact ‘colliding with memory’. They are built to last!

Ian Brinton February 21st 2015

Continental Drift by Nancy Gaffield (Shearsman Books)

Continental Drift by Nancy Gaffield (Shearsman Books)

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

 

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