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Lines of Sight
116 pp. Shearsman. Paper. 9781848610392 paper. £9.95.
‘There will always be a straight line between two points’ someone (a male voice) declares, tetchily, near the end of a poem titled ‘Brer’ in the first section of Presley’s latest book — continuing an argument in prose about imposing geometry on a landscape. ‘[I]t can’t be Euclidean geometry except by accident and without understanding the angles’, he says, and ‘they would not have had lines of sight. They could not have known’.
Then, bouncily, making sheep noises, the poem bursts into lines of verse:
out of the briar patch
out of the bare earth
an angle (p. 18)
The emergence of that angle, the relationship of sidelines and sightlines, a process of addition to the linear (as in other images in the poems — the central fifth dot of quincunx designs, or the apex of a triangle, for example) is a key issue in Frances Presley’s third collection. Some of her richest, most satisfying work is found here: an amended and substantially expanded version of the ‘Stone settings’ series (from which the quotation above is taken), earlier published in Myne (2006), now complemented by a sequence on Exmoor longstones, and also poems on female figures, often as shown in stone statuary, and long poems based on dictionaries and primers in Dutch, her mother’s mother-tongue.
The book is full of side-steps, multiplied viewpoints. Changes in position make the sharp edges and fine distinctions made by linguists and archaeologists appear in double and triplicate, as if someone is saying, ‘But look at it / hear it from this point. And from here, and here’ — in never-resolved stereoscope. We hover on the edges of these landscapes and language worlds, half-in and half-out, struggling with weather, fading light and reference tools that are never quite as precise as they seem. Nor does experience make straight: ‘Withypool tracks’, for instance, shows how a field expedition gets lost, ending, plaintively, ‘Isn’t that the path we’ve just come up? / We came across that way. / I don’t think we were really on a path’ (p. 27).
The Neolithic ‘stone settings’ at Withypool and elsewhere on Exmoor, the subject of the first sequence in the book, are both hard to find — minute in scale (‘if the heather had been high I might not have found it at all’ — p.19), in danger of being ‘Land Rovered’ by mechanised herding (p. 13) and inherently mysterious. Unique to Exmoor, their purpose has never been satisfactorily explained. Presley’s process in examining them is a kind of psycho-archaeology (to coin a term); spreading wide the contextual net (paths, maps, reference books, weather, the state of vegetation) and laying out her tools and method, while holding firm to the stones’ resistance to signification.
almost regular pattern needs another
stone perceptible just under turf
in drought a patch of starved grass will betray it
in wet weather feel it through soles (p. 13)
Her interest is in what’s missing and what nearly makes up the pattern: in ‘outliers’ and the process of moving from twos and fours to threes and fives. Paying attention to what’s off-balance as a gesture towards pattern’s promise.
Not surprisingly, language itself is a rich source of repetition and duplication, doubling back like someone trying to follow a little-used track in poor conditions. The ‘hare path’, for example, ‘never used by hares’ (p. 48), is a good occasion for ‘linguistic confusion’ (to quote from the title of a poem in the ‘Longstones’ series). Hare is a dialect word for ‘she’ or ‘her’, as in ‘How do hare tare along’, glossed as ‘how doth she go on, or make her way in the world? How doth her diligence and assiduity succeed?’ (p. 55). But of course ‘the hare path’ is open to other kinds of meanings and identifications: ‘I thought she said the “herr” path, but it wasn’t the men’s path exactly; it was the “heer” path, the group path, the army path, the hurrying unheavenly host’ (p. 48). Looked at this way, the linearity of a path extends sideways into ‘rec tangles’ (p. 13) of tracks
As suggested in this excerpt, pathfinding has a public aspect too, strongly implicated in military activities and surveillance. ‘From the Air’ notes the wartime activities of the Denkmalschutzkommando, using aerial photography ‘for archaeological rather than military purposes’ (p. 25), while GPS (‘which could be used for peaceful as well as military purposes’ (p. 48)) has made trig points redundant, since now ‘Everyone can be found in any place at all’; using ‘everyone’ instead of ‘anyone’ here increases the sense of vulnerability. Meantime, as described in ‘Operation Mountain Thrust’ (p. 49), ‘pathfinder units’ dropped into southern Afghanistan confound land-based means of access. Pathfinding has become globalized, while the particularity of an ancient stone monument remains resistant both to interpretation and to mapping systems; Presley notes with a nice irony that the ‘pathfinder’ map series has been discontinued by Ordnance Survey, though in fact even these were not at a scale sufficient for ‘accurate’ plotting.
Lines and points are especially significant, Presley seems to suggest, both as material objects in a landscape and insofar as they help to construct two- and three-dimensional spaces — extending below the surface of the earth (finding hard stone surfaces under slippery mud, as in the quotation from page 13, shown earlier here) and up above it, into the realms travelled by aeroplanes and satellites. In the same spirit, she resists the dichotomies of centre and margins found so often in discourse on landscapes: a walk to Triscombe stone alongside a beech hedge takes place somewhere that ‘is not the outskirts, hem or fringe of a habitation, and I will not be travelling back into the city. This hedge is not even a threshold or a liminal zone, but its own border, as a life should be’ (p. 51). A line, in other words, becomes a life.
How this might happen can be seen in the final and most biographical section of the book. ‘The first book of her life’ continues themes of repetition, redundancy and doubling, clustered around ideas of belatedness: the child who declares in a dream that she is ‘an afterthought to the war’, a mother’s memoir, also ‘an afterthought’, ‘written so long after the war that her thoughts have almost hardened into cliché’ (91). The title comes from a poem about this memoir, a brief account of the mother’s experiences in a Japanese camp in wartime Java, written shortly before her death: ‘there the first book of my life and my youth ended / and [Presley comments on her mother’s writing] she means not this brief account but the life itself, a book / unwritten’ (p. 96). Like the rocks of ‘Stone settings’, the mother’s handwritten pages mainly point to what isn’t there, not only the things that will not happen any more, but the things that did happen, and of which no record survives.
The next poem in this series, titled ‘Afterthoughts’, places that word in the centre of a matrix constructed from associated words in German, moving from the false friend Nachdenken, which actually means ‘think, reflect, muse, ponder’, through Nachdichtung (‘an adaptation, free version or rendering’), Nachtrag (‘supplement, addendum or appendix’) to Nachtragen (‘to add, append, or post up in a book; book (omitted items)’) (p. 97). Whereas searching for stones involved deploying ideas of supplementarity in space, here it is invoked in time.
Other poems in this sequence play with language through the doubled columns of dictionaries and wordlists, additionally doubled by these books’ co-publication in the metropole (in this case, Holland) and colonized Indonesia (p. 103). Presley’s ‘playful misreadings or re-readings’ (103) thus become double Dutch (meaning ‘nonsense, incomprehensible’ in British English) in various senses. Again, the moves are sideways, establishing lines / rows and then going beyond them to create a ‘new language’ that’s also a space of encounter, a space where early experiences of language in childhood and aspects of the mother’s experience come ‘seeping in’.
Wordlists provide opportunities for what the non-Dutch-speaking reader will guess are literal translations, teasingly close, teasingly imprecise: ‘revise, here see / revive, here live / revolt, get down from the table’ (p. 100). The poem ‘Learning letters’, where ‘lezen leren’ slides from ‘to read, gather, glean’ to ‘lazy learner graze’ (p. 104), is especially playful, layering sound and orthography — in particular, changes over time in the use of doubled vowels in the written language in Dutch, the vocabulary used for teaching language to children, the bright colours used in the printing — to generate the elements of a kind of surrealist game. Monkey (aap), uncle (oom), for example, refuse to be confined to singular meanings:
the uncle’s cane is pointing to his name
hanging from hooks in the shop window
and what’s an ape doing here?
the ape is also pointing to its name
he thought I said arp or harp, not ape
the problem of sound
the monkey is a pointer
will take the cane
become the cane
oo . oom . aa . aap (p. 105)
One meaning literally points to another, and in doing so, monkey-like, escapes the strictures of spelling and sound, the didactic purposes of the primer.
But it would be a mistake to see these deferrals as content-lite and merely playful, either here or in the more ‘academic’ antiquarian texts on stone monuments. In the midst of writing done at Culbone, for example, ‘in half-light’, a note tells, us, ‘allowing language to form and reform’, is Walter Wolfgang’s ‘one word… too much’, for which he’d been ejected from the Labour Party conference the previous day (p.33). Insistence on ‘too much’, even it is only an excess of one, has drastic consequences. And opening the text so radically to multiple meanings, a process of ‘ship-lap’ (‘just the common name for over / lapping / slates and plates’ as Presley describes it (p. 63)) lets in bad things as well as good. The sequence of poems on the ‘Naked Boys’ stones, for instance, includes a richly etymological poem, ‘Naked boy as linguistic confusion’, that would seem to demonstrate conclusively that the name has nothing to do with vulnerable young human males but rather is a Saxon Anglicization of a term meaning hill of cattle, ‘Knackyboy’ (p. 61), but then this is placed alongside accounts of the stones’ use in ritual beatings at boundary markers in the poem ‘Naked boys beaten’ — itself undermined by a sensible-sounding voice in ‘her foot note’ dismissing the idea: ‘obvious white boulder / separates ordinary parishes / false analogy no / local evidence supports his / fantasy’ (59). Meantime, Presley’s lineation here, producing a double negative (‘false analogy no’) produces another undermining, another layer of doubt.
Applying sight-lines to statues, as in the central section of the book gives another kind of play on identifications, responding, Presley tells us, to a photographic project by Jena Osman. The subjects here are English public figures, all of them female. Presley suggests that these monumental statues ‘can also be seen as a modern version of Neolithic longstones’ (88); for me the similarity is in her treatment of them, as objects within and giving access to various fields of vision.
‘Julian’s view’, for example, lets us wonder what the vista is for the new statue of Mother Julian on the west front of Norwich cathedral. Presley’s answer is a barrage / collage of official notices (where health and safety communications provide occasion for corporate brand-placement: ‘Morgan Ashurst welcomes you to the Hostry project. / Whatever your reason for being here, we aim to make your visit as safe and enjoyable as possible’ —p.72) and the sound of children’s games. Accompanying poems collage Julian’s own writings, in particular, in ‘Inclosyd’, a beautifully cadenced piece whose quiet expansiveness undercuts the noise of the Upper Close.
Similar treatment is given to a statue of Queen Anne in Minehead, with the viewpoint raying outwards in a documentary-style treatment of townscape and its signage:
an almost young couple and a red Routemaster advertise a new production of SUMMER HOLIDAY. The board stands in front of a bright municipal begonia bed and a large, spreading lime tree: the one allowable tree. . . . Anne would have seen the Plume of Feathers coaching inn, which survived the fire of 1791, but it was demolished in the 1960s, and now she is looking at a white retail box.
LINENS brand names at discount prices
& so much more (p. 79)
The ‘more’ extends to reported conversations both comic and sad, verging on the bathetic: ‘here’s a list of the church coffee morning. I only remember the women who sits on my left and talks about pink rabbits occasionally’ (p. 80). These visual and sonic additions to ‘Anne’s view’ are complemented by textual ones — collages from Pope, and from the correspondence between Anne and Sarah Churchill, as well as an antiquarian look (back?) at the statue as material object: its history, materials and surrounding inscriptions.
Three poems about statues of Margaret Thatcher are presented more directly, as a kind of frozen personal encounter. There is no ‘Margaret’s view’ here; rather, a narrator reports, ‘I think I am being watched // she is safe behind glass / I am reflected / head height to her waist’ (p. 82). (The reason for the glass case is a violent attack on this figure, the subject of one of the poems.) There is more doubling here: as Presley comments, there are already two official statues of Thatcher, ‘both intended for the House of Commons, although normally statues are commissioned after a minister’s death’ (p. 88): another kind of excess? Another ‘one too many’?
The issue of ‘more’ is given a stronger emotional tone in the last-but-one poem in the book, articulated once again with ‘what’s left out’:
oh, uncle, me too. me too.
not to be left
this is the girls’ favourite story
me too! me too! me too!
louder on each succeeding page (p. 109)
Is ik ook (‘I, too’ in English) — another stone for the pattern? And the kinships are interesting here; again, side-wise: girls, brothers, uncles in this poem — not the direct patriarchal line — and getting noisier and noisier as the turned pages and their repeats pile up in almost archaeological layers. In this book, Presley’s on-going project on Exmoor monuments now seems almost complete. Maybe its parallel, investigating the languages of childhood, is only just beginning here, with plenty more to come? Let us hope so.
Anna Reckin lives and works in Norwich, England, where she follows her
research interests in landscape and experimental Anglophone poetry and
teaches creative writing. Her poetry has appeared in magazines in the UK and
the US, including Shearsman, How2 and Chain. Her first book, Broder, an
artist’s book collaboration with photographer and book artist Paulette
Myers-Rich, won a Minnesota Book Award; a short selection of her work will
appear in Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by UK Women Poets (edited by
Carrie Etter) in March 2010.