Today I welcome fellow Swansea University alumnus, Ellie Rees, to reflect upon a poem from her fabulous new collection Ticking (Hedgehog Poetry Press, 2022).
The poems contained in Ticking were written in response to separate stimuli; what linked them in my imagination as I wrote was my desire to capture the spirit of a place, an attempt at a deep mapping through the medium of verse.
The poems in Ticking deep map a beautiful but apparently empty strip of the South Wales coastline that looks across the Bristol Channel to Exmoor. The collection could be classed as Nature Writing, though the term, deep mapping is a more accurate description of the eclectic subject matter: there are ghosts, suicides and ruins as well as dung spiders, stone masons and insect apprehension. Many of the poems focus on the history and geography, archaeology and wild life of a two-mile stretch of the Welsh coastline. However the mapping in Ticking is not confined to the tangible, it includes the dreams and hopes, imaginations and fears of its residents, both in the past and in the present. The whole collection is a slow movement from ‘inside’ to outside. It starts in the warm heart of the house and then follows a familiar walk: through the garden, over the meadow, across the field to the top of the cliff then down onto the beach.
The poem I have chosen is Items found in Samson’s Field. It is just over half way through the sequence and I came to see it as pivotal, though I had no thought of this when I wrote it as I had yet to arrange the poems in their final order.
I had long been fascinated by examples of pareidolia, the mind’s ability to see faces in random patterns. The marble-tiled floor in my bathroom has provided me with a rich alternative reality where, for example a Native American in a full-feathered headdress bows his head in subjugation before an elderly European; or where Othello stares at me in confusion from the corner of another tile. Years ago, I tried to capture some of this but couldn’t take it seriously.
There are faces in my bathroom floor and they don’t always stay the same. Hidden amongst the familiar curls of an Augustan, Roman lady there emerged yesterday with a fine jaw-line a young girl of amazing beauty. At which point a leaf, in the wreath in the hair of the aforementioned Roman lady, was revealed as a tiger, lurking behind her and today she has quite disappeared from view.
Then there’s Othello, who wears a white turban, its folds containing my mother’s face but only the top half and wearing her hair, I don’t mean to laugh, in a style that is quite suburban.
A horse-headed shepherd with a donkey on his lap sits alongside George Clooney. George’s hair is streaked with white and the sheep he holds has an erotic mouth that looks like Greta Garbo’s, I must admit quite provocative for a ewe of a certain age. (2014)
A deep map records as much hidden or apparently insignificant detail as possible. I knew that I wanted mine to reference the metal detectorists who had visited Samson’s field on several occasions. Thinking about it now, I can see that they too were deep mapping as they discovered objects from different strata of time. I knew the local detectorists had uncovered objects from as early as the Bronze Age and so I found their website and copied a list of what they had found in Samson’s field. At some point I realised that this list could give me the excuse I wanted to make use of my experiences of pareidolia. I selected one of my bathroom tiles and with the aid of imagination, ‘buried’ it in the field along with the Bronze Age axe heads and the silver Tudor groats.
What surprised me when I came to revise the poem was the threatening nature of the images I conjured inside this broken tile. (I wonder why I ‘broke’ it?) Indeed, nearly all of the subsequent poems have something of a sinister colour, quite unlike most of what had gone before. There is something a little surreal about the remaining poems in this section: trees that grow red sores; ghosts that germinate; spiders nurtured by manure; a troop of toads that might be leaves or a tongue-tied stranger with a gun.
In the final section of the collection things become even darker. The opening poem, Limestone Cliffs safely distances the cliffs from the personal, though the danger of a cliff fall is visualised. The second poem, Disinterred with its focus on the human remains exposed by a cliff fall, also introduces a mood of uncertainty: the speaker too, is ‘all in pieces, all coherence gone’ once she discovers the prosaic truth about the bones. Just as the body exposed by the winter storms has disintegrated, her persona begins to unravel in several of the following poems. She takes on the role of such disparate characters as the wicked fairy in Wedding Gift, the elderly Nan the Lanes, and even Spiderwoman, in the poem On Edge. I purposely avoided any narrative consistency in the order in which I placed the poems in this section. The mood changes from optimism to nihilism at a whim. At some point I deleted the two concluding poems, one of which was humorous (in a dark sort of way) as I felt a hopeful or optimistic ending would be contrived.
I have to consider the possibility that inadvertently Items found in Samson’s Field is a metaphor for my development of the whole sequence. On a conscious level I had been writing about place, unpeeling its layers, deep mapping its history, and its natural history. However I had unconsciously projected my own recent experience of serious illness and the ensuing anxiety onto the tile and then onto the whole of the landscape. This is particularly evident in the final section, CLIFFS. The cliffs in my imagination became threatening, associated with age and death.
Atlantic College ran a lifeboat station until very recently and occasionally the boat could be called out to collect a body from the foot of the cliffs. My own sons were lifeboat crew when students, and my husband was the station’s operation manager for several years. However anyone who stands on the edge of the cliffs will have felt the truth of Horatio’s comment to Hamlet:
Another thought: Every other poem in this anthology is based on something concrete, a real experience or something recorded. The items dropped or buried in the field over the millennia have been waiting for someone to uncover them, they each have their story but just not ones I have chosen to explore in this particular poem. However, an owl really did fly into my window and a sparrow hawk really did fly straight at me, clutching a shrieking swallow. There were fox paths in my meadow and that feather did cruise past me as ‘ponderous as a whale’ one sunny October day. Peggy really did say she was bringing ‘mashed taters and skimmed milk’ for Billy’s dinner on a cold day a hundred and fifty years ago. I have recorded Dai the stonemason’s actual words and I really did meet that man with a gun. In a way, Items found is a cheat as I think it is the only poem, which is based on an imaginary occurrence though After Emily maybe a sole exception. I’m not sure if this is significant or not.
Next week read my review of Ellie Rees’ Ticking.
Catch Up on Poets Previously Featured
Gathering Light: A Cramond Causeway by David Bleiman (Dempsey and Windle, 2021) is set in a place where the River Almond runs down to the Firth of Forth, a liminal wash of sea and sky, which enjoys its own suburban tidal island. An uplifting celebration of history, landscape and people, with all author proceeds going to support Cramond Commemorates, for the planting of trees to remember all that has been lost to Covid.
John Glenday: “The perfect antidote to the dark times we have just endured.”
To purchase a copy at £5 click here.
Unmuted, the latest collection by Nigel Kent is available NOW for £7 + P&P (£1.90) UK only, for more details, including how to order, click here and message him using the contact form.