Sallow continues a sequence of poems about the languages of trees, especially those used by or for women, Halse for hazel (Shearsman, 2014). Sallow is both a species of willow and dull skin: its dual meaning is found in the title poem, where ‘sally’ is dialect for sallow and a girl’s name. As well as local dialect, I use the languages of forestry and botany, analysing and reassembling them. I benefited once again from the guidance of botanist and poet Libby Houston.
Halsefor hazel began on the hills of Exmoor and in Sallow I wanted to explore trees in low lying, wetland areas, such as willow and alder. The sequence maps political and environmental pressures, as well as recent catastrophic flooding: ‘willow’ was written on a train in the Somerset Levels when the surrounding fields were an inland sea. Many of the poems were written on site which can be hazardous, as it was in swamp carr at Ranworth Broad, but the trees have their own agency, and need to be experienced close up, whether in the wild or the urban edgelands of ‘grey willow’.
The reinvention of language and form is often shaped by the inventiveness of wild trees. Sallow explores the visual patterns we use for trees in the design of the text and visual poetics. ‘Crack willow’ is from a walk with Harriet Tarlo near her home in Yorkshire. I sent her my text, she interleaved a response, and our two versions are printed on facing pages.
The Somerset poems were part of a collaborative performance with Robert Minhinnick which gave them a sharp linguistic and political focus.
Sallow, like Halse for hazel, has been a dialogue with the work of artist Irma Irsara, my friend and long time collaborator.
One December night in 2008 I was staying with Tilla Brading in her seventeenth century home on Minehead harbour. Unable to sleep, I began to read an essay by Hazel Eardley-Wilmot on Exmoor place names which are derived from trees:
‘Exmoor was such a wild wind-swept waste that a single tree was a notable landmark; and on the old commons outside the royal game-preserve… tree names still recall lost woodlands and old ways of life’.
In ‘Oak, ash and thorn’ Eardley-Wilmot explores the origin of tree names as far back as Sanskrit, in ways which are both scholarly and speculative. She derives from place names such as Driver the Indo-European word ‘dru’: ‘Driver, Dryslade…Dyre were named in prehistoric times from an Indo-European word dru, which first meant any tree and specifically an oak. It would imply woodland where none remains’.
A farmer from Driver carves curios from bog-oak he has uncovered and prehistoric pieces of timber have been found near Dry Hill and the valley of Dryslade, ‘so Drye may have been a large oak-wood, two or three thousand years ago’. She couldn’t resist the imaginative resonance of tree place names, which, as in her investigation of the word ‘dru’, sometimes took her further than philology would allow.
Most of the tree place names on Exmoor are Saxon, and she gives various examples from the trees in her title, such as Oakford for oak and Ashway for ash. When she writes about hazel the text becomes more problematic and takes on a new significance: ‘What of the hazel, though? That has been here from time immemorial and has left no obvious names – no Haslemere or Haseley or Hesleden’. This question about the name ‘hazel’ is, indirectly, about the author’s first name, and must have been of interest to her, as it is for me. My own experience of nominative determinism has to do with FP = footpaths.
Eardley-Wilmot also considers how dialect changes the morphology of hazel: ‘a clue appears in dialect, in the reversal of sounds, so prevalent in the south-west – haps for hasp, crips for crisp. Halse for hazel is one of these … This would explain Halscombe Farm … and Halscombe allotment’. James Knight Jenningsin The Dialect of the West of England particularly Somersetshire (1869) makes a similar observation: ‘Another remarkable fact is the disposition to invert the order of some consonants in some words’, as in the ‘p’ and ‘s’ of ‘haps’ for ‘hasp’. Jennings thinks that this order of sounds may be ‘the original order in which they existed in our language, and that our more polished mode of expressing them is a new and perhaps corrupt enunciation’. He is keen to demonstrate that western dialect is closer to Anglo-Saxon – a ‘purer’ form of it. I was born in Derbyshire and taught by my father that the short northern vowels were the ‘pure’ sounds, but I have learnt to love both dialects.
Vowels ‘a’ and ‘e’ are sounded differently too: the ‘a’ sound is almost always ‘sounded open’, as in ‘father’. There is a ‘love of vowel sound, and opening out monosyllables of our polished dialect into two or more syllables’. This ‘opening out’ of sounds will be familiar to anyone who has spent time on Exmoor – it is an opening out of both time and space.
The importance of dialect as a means of protecting and valuing landscape is discussed by Robert Macfarlane in his essay ‘A Counter-desecration phrasebook’. He is also interested in how poetry can be part of this process. He refers to the important role of poets in renewing the language: a language that is ‘galvanized against inertia’ (Marianne Moore). Testimony or bearing witness is enabled by metaphor: ‘as well as thinking about landscape we think with it, and, more radically still, that we are thought by it’.
That same December night I was reading another book from Tilla’s library –Through the Words of Others: Susan Howe and anarcho-scholasticism, by Stephen Collins. I was reminded of the ‘scattering of phonemes’ throughout Singularities, in which words are paired unexpectedly. One of those pairs is ‘words/ woods’, derived from Howe’s reading of Emily Dickinson: ‘Dickinson’s decision (in Howe’s reading) to bestow sovereignty upon the woods is a radical abdication – a throwing of agency and power out into the wilderness – out beyond the enclosure’s exploiting reach… The woods are words too’. I had already made use of the ‘woods/ words’ pairing in my collaboration with Elizabeth James Neither the One nor the Other in 1999, after hearing a talk by Dell Olsen on ‘How(e) to write woods, words: mark-making and topography in Susan Howe’.
Now it had a new context, out in the woods of Exmoor.
In 2002 Owain Jones (with Paul Cloke) published the book Tree Cultures and since then has kept up a series of conversations with academics, artists and professionals about ‘aboriculture’. Recently, Owain has been in conversation with the poet Frances Presley who became aware of his work on trees through the book. Frances writes poetry and prose on landscape, language, nature and history. Her current Arts Council funded project involves engaging with individual trees in particular landscape settings. In late October, Owain and Frances spent a day visiting trees sites in Bristol and also met with the botanist Libby Houston who is an expert on the rare whitebeam trees that grow in Avon Gorge Bristol. Below is an extract of their conversation and some pictures of the day…
24 October 2013, Arnos Vale cemetery, Bristol.
FP: I am very conscious of the difference between urban space and somewhere like Exmoor, especially the context and extent of it. As an artist you could take a close up of a leaf or a tree and it could be anywhere, but it isn’t. As a writer in London I am conscious all the time of the thinness of it…
FP: The thinness of the experience in terms of the tree and where it is situated – the fragility of nature before you get back into the urban. It is a completely different experience to having that almost infinite reach you get in wild landscapes. I think trees behave in different ways in the city – as well as people.
OJ: How definable is that?
FP: I think it happens in the work. Using language you draw in more aspects of the landscape and the people who live there, the whole area.
OJ: Some aspects of that must be unconscious.
FP: Yes, there is a richness and density of experience on the moor which makes itself felt in the writing.
OJ: Which is the opposite to thinness I suppose.
FP: But the thinness is also interesting, almost more interesting at times. There are violent juxtapositions, such as the trees and the graffiti on the Parkland Walk in London – a disused railway line. Trees are stressed in the city, even sometimes graffitied, as if they were another brick wall.