Missing the point
Cooing through the ether in your nursery-rhyme voice,
you describe the view from the upstairs window of
your new apartment; tell them how on certain days
when the pollution levels allow, you can make out
– across the water – strange, impossible mountains
smeared with snow, so distant-looking to you that the
slow parabola of the Earth ought to prevent it somehow.
But not every day. What it means is that, as usual, you
won’t be noticing what’s at your feet, tripping you up.
That the knives and forks of sea air are guzzling on
the fatted steel of your car, turning it to useless pumice.
Your front door will need painting. You haven’t managed
to ignore away the flat, crushing ache in your lower back.
And you miss them. And they wish you would come home.
first published in Verdad Magazine, 2017
The Clearing is a fascinating and beautiful online journal published by Little Toller Books that “offers writers and artists a dedicated space in which to explore and celebrate the landscapes we live in”. I’m really delighted to have just had one of my poems – “Spit” – posted in the journal, alongside fine pieces by three other poets, Garry Mackenzie, Mark Howarth Booth and Oliver Southall.
You can read all four poems here.
If horses – as per the title of Alice Walker’s poetry collection – make a landscape look more beautiful, then perhaps islands do the same for seascapes. Or mountains do. Or islands with mountains. You get the idea, I hope.
Sifting and resifting through the photographs I took back in May when visiting RSPB Campfield Marsh and the Solway Estuary, I’m struck by two things.
The first is how many of the images are looking outwards from the land towards the estuary, with its rivers emptying out into the Irish Sea. And so – inevitably – across to the coast of Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland. And how few were taken facing back towards the land. Because the tide is out, the sea itself, its water, is largely absent, invisible, but nonetheless I find myself looking for it.
This is reflected in my memories of the day. I remember spending far more of it gazing out at and thinking about the sea. I’d travelled for almost two hours across land to get to the coast, so maybe it’s inevitable to focus on what you’ve been heading towards, rather than what you’ve passed through. It makes me wonder whether the experience of arriving somewhere over water leads the traveller to turn their back instinctively on that which has been crossed, and instead focus landwards? (I will make a mental note next time I arrive at the sea to check back and look behind me more carefully).
The second thing to strike me is the effect that the horizon can have on the watcher looking out to sea. Looming faintly on the skyline in most of the images is Criffel; neither the tallest by any means, nor the shapeliest of Scotland’s mountains, it still draws the eye.
This is not to suggest at all that without the mountain there, there’s be no point looking out to sea. But it does make me realise how easy it can be to observe something without adequately considering the frame, the context, the accompaniment that completes the image. And how sometimes we can – even when we think we’re paying attention – need a second look to fully appreciate what is going on.
Niggling away amongst the thoughts and notes I collected recently up at the Solway estuary – in addition to those about careful observation, and where poetry comes from – have been some insights into what I choose to write about. And what I’ve realised is that no matter where I am, whatever I’m looking at, the thing I’m interested in is people.
This might seem like an obvious conclusion to reach, but wouldn’t always have been. I can recall a time – back when I first began writing “seriously” – when I was more interested in reflecting on what I would’ve considered “nature”, meaning land- and seascape where human beings were either absent, ignored or unwanted. I was always trying to look beyond people and lose myself in these places, or feel inspired by them with my ego at arm’s length, if possible (reliably not).
I find people and what we do far too fascinating now. I’m one of those irritating creatures you see in art galleries who – after about twenty minutes of wandering around – occupies the most advantageous seat in the biggest room and spends their time looking at what everyone else is doing. It’s not that I don’t like art. It’s just that I find our interactions with art and public spaces more intriguing. Admittedly, art is a human business anyway, but the ways people interact with and imprint themselves into landscape is of equal interest to me.
I live in a relatively crowded country, where it’s pretty much impossible to find yourself in a landscape that hasn’t been engineered to some degree by humans. The Solway estuary is a beautiful place, but people have been living here for thousands of years – farming, fishing, mining, extracting whatever we need – and helping to shape it, for better or for worse. These days I’m far more likely to be drawn by traces and consequences of these activities, and find inspiration for writing there.