The voices that will not be drowned

A late posting, after spending the better part of the last two weeks in Suffolk. There is something about that odd bleak coast that gets to you after a while, particularly as autumn shifts to winter, and the trees become ghosts of themselves (some so windbattered they morph into lanky-haired witches turned to wood by some conjurer’s spell). My last post came from that most mysterious and haunted of locations, Orford Ness, and as poems begin to appear in my inbox from the Mendham group, the echoes of that excursion remain.

It was perhaps appropriate then that those echoes were picked up for me at the opening event of the Aldeburgh Poetry festival, which paired the poet Jackie Kay and the artist Maggie Hambling in conversation. Both poet and artist have been influenced extensively by place, Kay by the Glasgow of her childhood, and more recently, by the Nigeria of her birth father. But it’s Hambling’s fascination with the Suffolk coast, which I am just beginning to feel might be my coast too (having traded in the Atlantic coast of my childhood), and what she had to say about her process as an artist that extended the conversation I had with my fellow poets out on the Ness.

Hambling has been working with the wave as an image for some time, and she explained that she begins her working day with a walk by the sea (or by the Thames when she is in London). Although her wave paintings don’t always resonate for me, I think they are part of a larger project, which is about finding continuity. Hambling said that the purpose of art is to make people stop for a moment (she mentioned the poem’s ability to halt us as well). And maybe those wave paintings are her way of trying to halt the sea, to capture it in different moods and seasons, a sequence of waves, all distinct but from the same source. In relation to this, she talked about the limitations of photography: ‘a photograph can only ever be the record of something – a painting is a live thing’. Her waves work best for me in unison, each singing its moment, like a motet.

Hambling talked about the artists she values, who ‘speak in paint’: Rothko, Twombly, Titian, Rembrandt, and why we revisit certain paintings and artists again and again (as we do certain poems), because they are living, because they carry on a dialogue with their viewers, tell us different things at different times. And that’s why we engage with certain places, keep returning. The Suffolk coast has become one of those places for me, familiar enough now, but still new.

Which brings me to the scallop, Hambling’s monument to one of Aldeburgh’s greatest sons, Benjamin Britten. It is a work of public art which has divided opinion vehemently, so its opponents and supporters might be locked in a bitter political election or a religious war. It comes down not so much to Hambling’s sculpture (which is certainly more effective than her ‘sculptural bench’ dedicated to Oscar Wilde outside Charing Cross station) but its position. On the side of the detractors, there is this articulate response (as opposed to some of the other responses) from Humphrey Burton, which was published in the Guardian when the sculpture was first unveiled:

I am on the side of the supporters (and plucked up the courage to say so to the famously-irascible Hambling herself as she was leaving the talk last week). I disagree with Burton about what he describes as ‘casual violation’. The scallop is firstly not ‘casual’, in that it has been very carefully designed to be seen from many angles and distances, to have an impact from afar as well as up-close. It has become well-worn by the countless children who climb on it (and public art that doubles-up as climbing frame can be no bad thing – the fact that it is not cordoned off or prohibited from being touched is the very thing that makes it truly democratic, truly ‘public’). It is neither purely figurative, nor completely abstract, but somewhere in between, which should appeal to many, and also somehow captures Britten himself, whose music occupied the middle of the twentieth century, and brought together the traditional and the experimental. The scallop’s edge is inscribed with a line from the libretto of Britten’s most famous opera, the one which is most situated in Aldeburgh, Peter Grimes: I hear those voices that will not be drowned. In that way, it is also a tribute to that older generation who made their living from the sea, and to Aldeburgh’s other great son, the poet George Crabbe, in whose work The Borough the tragic Grimes first appears.

As to violation, well, this is more of an issue. As one of my fellow poets asked as we approached it, following our trip to the Ness, ‘it comes down to this: who owns the beach?’ A number of long-time residents, including Burton, somehow felt the beach had been ‘spoiled’ by the scallop. Burton suggests the sculpture could be moved inland, which would somehow make both its subject and the inscription invalid. It was designed to face the thing that obsessed Crabbe, and Britten, and Hambling equally: the sea. It could be nowhere else. I can understand that it upsets those true Suffolkers who like their flat surfaces flat and their big skies uninterrupted. Perhaps I am not a good judge, coming from an urban location, where views are changed all the time by what’s erected, what’s torn down. But this is not just a piece of public art, happily freed from the four walls of the gallery, it is a celebration of the sea, those who thought and wrote and sang and captured it in various ways. And so it needs to face its subject, to make us stop for a moment, and really observe the way the sea moves and changes.

I’m very late to this debate, started as it was in 2004. But in my short time in Suffolk, the scallop has become one of my favourite landmarks. That’s what it is, a landmark. Here’s the full quote from Montague Slater’s libretto:

But dreaming builds what dreaming can disown.
Dead fingers stretch themselves to tear it down.
I hear those voices that will not be drowned
Calling, there is no stone
In earth’s thickness to make a home
That you can build with and remain alone.

Carving mountains

We arrived in the village of Aubeterre on a Monday afternoon, the place pretty much empty, even of tourists. Aubeterre is one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, which is a not a value judgment so much as a brand, with strict regulations the local Town Council must adhere to. To be considered for this esteemed title, the population of a village must not exceed 2000 inhabitants, and it must have at least two protected areas (picturesque or legendary sites, or sites of scientific, artistic or historic interest). Apart from its cobbled streets, its restored public lavoir, its pristine white houses and hanging baskets of flowers, it boasts one of the most remarkable churches I have ever seen. The monolithic Église Saint Jean was carved out the limestone hills that surround the village. It dates to the twelfth century, on the site of an earlier burial chamber. You enter the church along a wooden gangplank which brings you into the nave, a cave-like chamber 20 meters high, and then ascend along a spiral staircase to a horseshoe-shaped walkway along its upper ridge (for someone who is prone to vertigo, like me, the walk along the top is spectacular but terrifying). The floor of the nave is honeycombed with tombs, like an elaborate maze. Pilgrims would stop here (and still do) en route to Santiago de Compostela – walls throughout the village are studded with scallop shells, the symbol of the pilgrimage. It is an austere and imposing place, in odd contrast to the bright and postcard-perfect village.

It was my first visit to the Dordogne, and although I was assured that the region is heaving in peak season, it seemed sleepy, cut off. An ideal place to spend a week writing – as readers of Invective will know, I’ve made a recent decision to revisit the novel I started last summer. Although writing prose is a slow business for me, my new setting perhaps enabled a sort of release. I found myself typing quickly to keep up with my pace of thought. I sat on the terrace, under a vine humming with wasps and hornets, overlooking the field beyond the house, where a kestrel hovered, wings fluttering. The air was still – warm, but with that slight edge that signals shorter days, long cool evenings. Everything felt suspended, including my usual life back in London. Place has always had a profound effect on my writing, and so it might have been expected that the landscape would enter my narrative. But I found that I was reaching back, writing about an entirely different place – the manicured lawns and strip malls of my childhood.

I have a difficult relationship with the place where I grew up, which is perhaps reflected in the novel I’m writing. I have chosen to live in another country, thousands of miles away. I feel at home in my adopted city in a way I could never now feel at home in the place I left. How was I able to conjure that place so vividly while situated in a place so vastly and wholly different? Perhaps that difference, that alien quality, was what freed me; a place that has no associations can act as neutral ground. It takes me a long time to assimilate a new landscape; I have only recently starting writing poems set in Suffolk although I’ve been spending extended time there for the past seven years. So perhaps my poem set in the Dordogne will arrive in about seven years …

I was pleased not only that I could reconstruct that landscape from memory, but that it felt, for once, relatively easy. There are lots of analogies for the process of writing, often borrowing metaphors from hard labour; I like Seamus Heaney’s comparison of writing to digging, the ‘squat pen’ like a spade, the earth yielding words (and of course Heaney found all those early poems through archaeological excavations, resurrecting bog men and their ancient tongue). And that makes me go back to that monolithic church, the sheer impossibility of the feat, overcome perhaps through the devotion to complete it. I am lazy, I don’t have that sort of faith, and I punish myself for my various shortcomings constantly. I have no stamina, no staying power; that’s what I tell myself each time I pick up and then put down something I have not succeeded in finishing. But I have come back feeling quite positive; in my small way I’ve set myself a task, a little space that I must not so much ‘carve’ out as ‘fill’.

The skull in the study

I’m sitting at my desk in Suffolk, away from the usual sirens and shouts of south London. Since I’m not often sitting at this desk, I’m concentrating on the things that I’ve placed on it to inspire me. Although proper countryside is not far from my window, I still seem to have imported objects from the natural world: a ceramic dish of small chalk-white snail shells gathered on a walk in Spain; a larger wooden bowl filled with a variety of shells of all colours and patterns (from a Victorian collection that was, until I freed them, packed away in a little leather briefcase – some of the shells still have their Latin names inscribed in a neat hand on tiny labels); and a sheep’s skull discovered on the beach at Mersehead in Scotland.

The skull is the size of my hand, so it is almost certainly a lamb’s; the lamb probably became separated from its mother and ended up on the wrong side of the fence. When I found the skull, there was no trace of the rest of the lamb; it was already stripped, bleached, already another sort of form than the frame for the animal’s head it carried. It still has a perfect row of teeth in its upper jaw, two evenly round sockets where its eyes once were.

I think it’s beautiful. That’s why I have placed it here, because it’s beautiful. Why do I think it’s beautiful, this symbol of death? Why do we put things on our desks to remind us of death, when the birds are outside the window and people are getting on with the business of living?

I remember seeing Masaccio’s amazing Holy Trinity fresco for Santa Maria Novella in Florence when I was 19 or 20. What was striking about it was not the depiction of the crucifixion, although the lessons of perspective and the Golden Section were fresh in my head from Dr Forte’s art history class, but the painted cadaver tomb below, made to look as if it was part of the fabric of the church (just another one of Masaccio’s perspective tricks) with the skeleton lying not in the tomb, but on top of it, with an epigram which translates: ‘I was once what you are, and what I am you will become’.

That epigraph has stayed with me, and perhaps has formed me in some way. It’s my belief that most people who create art have an unhealthy preoccupation with death. We have such a short time to make a statement. Ars longa, vita brevis. What you bring into the world, what you make, lives after you, as Billy Collins says at the beginning of his poem, Momento Mori (by way of explaining why he doesn’t have a skull on his desk):

There is no need for me to keep a skull on my desk,
to stand with one foot up on the ruins of Rome,
or wear a locket with the sliver of a saint’s bone.

It is enough to realize that every common object
in this sunny little room will outlive me—
the carpet, radio, bookstand and rocker.

Strangely, there is something comforting in that (maybe it’s the addition of the word ‘sunny’), and something life-affirming about my little lamb’s skull, a symbol of our own mortality, but hard, durable, enduring, and yes, beautiful.

I’ll end on these lines, the first stanza of Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Small Female Skull

With some surprise, I balance my small female skull in my hands.
What is it like? An ocarina? Blow in its eye.
It cannot cry, holds its breath only as long as I exhale,
mildly alarmed now, into the hole where the nose was,
press my ear to its grin. A vanishing sigh.


Here is a poem from my last collection, which I hope captures the strange, stilled atmosphere of this season. Some things come to a halt and other things start anew. I’ve been looking at the last line again, and wondering if it rings true (at least for me this year there is quite a bit happening over the next few months). I’m trying to remember how I felt when I wrote the poem, how I came to that conclusion. I remember that my poem was triggered by an early poem of Wendy Mulford’s called ‘Kingfisher’, which I was reading at the time. Wendy’s poem is also set in January; she imagines ‘a whole year of waiting’. Both our poems are set in the part of Suffolk we share in common, that flat land of large skies. I think Wendy’s poem is partly about writing, about waiting for poems to occur, because it ends with the lines ‘speaking the voices / out of our heads / I only write it down.’ So maybe my ‘nothing’ really is ‘something’ after all – that light tug that suggests something has fired the imagination …


Sometimes he appears
near the little bridge, Titian blue, wings
like the silks of emperors, sharp
against the grey.

Not today. Today nothing moves.
You focus your binoculars
on a patch of pure white.

You have to be quick
to see him. Ready for anything.

But the sky is thick with cold;
we are slow in our layers of black,
words halt on our breath.

The high sound of choirs
as we drive by the church.
The month for funerals.

We write lists of things to do,
resolutions, lose them
in the great pile of accumulations.

A covering of frost on the trees.
A vast hibernation. We raise ourselves
from sleep, we are ready
for nothing to happen.

After apple picking


It was one of those perfect autumn weekends, when you think warm days will never cease, to quote Keats. Light and sunny, but with a sharpness to the air, an early frost on the grass. And yes, mists over the river. We had gathered at Mendham Mill, on the border of Suffolk and Norfolk, to talk about the theme of harvest in poetry, and the apple as metaphor for all sorts of things …

There is sin, of course (‘the sacred fruit forbidden’, as Milton had it) and desire: the apple being likened to the breasts in Tasso and Spenser, in early 20th century American slang, to a woman’s sex. There is good health: (‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’) many legends feature apples which guarantee immortality; one of Hercules’s labours was to steal the golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides, in Norse mythology, Loki nicks the apples which are meant to keep the Gods young and the Gods immediately wither and age. There is beauty: the Anglo-Saxon word “aeppel” meant both “eye” and “apple”, both the beholder and what is beheld. There is this world and the next: the roundness of the apple like a globe, high on a branch pointing ‘toward heaven still’.

So we talked, and tasted. The Tydeman’s Late Orange had a sweetness that stuck to the teeth like cotton candy, but the Worcester Pearmain had a tarter finish. The Suffolk Pink was light and fresh, the Laxton Superb had very white flesh. We tried them with cheese that crumbled in our fingers, and washed it all down with Aspall’s cider. And we walked; through the village of Metfield, into the fields beyond, obeying Thoreau’s dictum on the best way to enjoy wild apples:

“These apples have hung in the wind and frost and rain till they have absorbed the qualities of the weather or season, and thus are highly seasoned, and they pierce and sting and permeate us with their spirit. They must be eaten in season, accordingly,–that is, out-of-doors … To appreciate the wild and sharp flavors of these October fruits, it is necessary that you be breathing the sharp October or November air. The out-door air and exercise which the walker gets give a different tone to his palate, and he craves a fruit which the sedentary would call harsh and crabbed. They must be eaten in the fields, when your system is all aglow with exercise, when the frosty weather nips your fingers, the wind rattles the bare boughs or rustles the few remaining leaves, and the jay is heard screaming around. What is sour in the house a bracing walk makes sweet. Some of these apples might be labelled, ‘To be eaten in the wind’.”

We ended up on Wakelyn’s Farm, where we found ancient varieties, as if we’d stumbled onto a garden out of another time: the Leathercoat Russett, around since 1500; Shakespeare might have bitten into one when he was writing ‘How like Eve’s apple doth thy beauty grow’ (although probably not; it’s twisted and brown, certainly too ugly for the shelves of Tesco’s). Or the Coeur De Boeuf, blood-red, nearly black on the tree, and first cultivated in 1200. The apple of the Troubadours.

And we read poems. The one that stays with me is Frost’s, so beautiful and strange. The orchard as a ladder to heaven, and dream:


But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.

Photo courtesy of Rachel Kellett. Her account of the Apple Walk here:

And thanks to Rochelle Scholar: