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Review: ‘FIELD’ by Harriet Tarlo

The central premise in these 60 pages of spare, open verse is that a single field is important – culturally, historically, environmentally, poetically – and what is exciting about this collection is how Tarlo brings the reader into relationship both with a field and with the concept of field.

During a regular train journey, Tarlo (or the speaker) observes a field from the train window:

 

it’s the Huddersfield side

of Penistone which is

the spectacular one

(10 Oct 08)

that field

— patch of scrub

tree clump

in the middle —

(31 Oct 08)

 

And at once desire (that of the speaker and ours) for the field is established.  During the next journey, the speaker’s ‘heart raises/head to sight it, winter / sun crossing / it, wanting to / walk it diagonal’ (28 Nov 08) and desire is sustained. Sometimes we miss the field, sometimes it’s in shadow or mist (‘today the mist / is such, there is / no field as such’ – 8 Oct 10); or we anticipate the field: ‘waiting for the field / come  ̶  and – gone’ (7 Dec 08). Desire becomes a game of perception: sometimes it is the train that sees, or the viaduct, and sometimes the train, the viaduct, the field become a complete experience of vision and movement:

 

field’s slide down

light depth of sky’s

blue white             it is something

is it

 

 

shifting slightly every second

the field line crossing the

sky diagonal horizontals

across a dizzy moment

of slide

as we surf the rails

swallow skim over crop cover

yellow sprinkle

cushion crop billow lines

(15 June 11)

 

When we cannot see, the field is imagined, pointed to, it becomes a concept, it stands in for ‘nature’.  Nature here is also culture, in the form of agriculture, and agriculture is time-specific, thus each poem is headed with a date, like diary entries, but grouped by season, so that winter, for example, includes entries from October 08 to March 10 rather than being presented purely chronologically. The poet introduces comments from the farmer of the field and information from local histories of the area (Penistone in Yorkshire). Her inquiry is thorough and yet spacious, leaving room for feeling. The I appears in some of the poems; it never intrudes, yet along with desire, one apprehends tenderness: ‘field still barely / green // how it drops away / down   — almost a kite’ (12 March 10) or boredom (‘field much the same as the / other day, really / much the same’) followed by renewed delight (‘loving it again, the field / pink streak of sunrise above / snow scaling down’ – 10 Dec 10) – and I am struck by just how emotionally engaged I felt when reading these poems.

In her editorial for the latest The Poetry Review*, Emily Berry says she is ‘drawn to poems that make me feel as if I’m holding a feeling and I don’t know whose it is. Poems that make me feel vulnerable and responsible.’ That is the sensation (or similar) that I get from Tarlo’s contemplation of her subject.  The question of ‘whose feeling’ is enhanced by Tarlo’s inclusion (or, intervention) of lines from other poets (Frances Presley, Leslie Scalapino and Robert Duncan) and from artists, and other railway passengers, as well as the quotations from the farmer and the historians:

 

purple earth between

green gradations

buttercup ridge, different

yellow

scale and

white (stitchwort?) stretches

away on far bank

 

                       it’s all go in

                                     illumined grassland, LS

 

(13 May 10)

 

This intertextuality is grounding; it gives a sense of universality. Mainly, the poems float in the present, so that the introduction of the past is always a surprise: ‘Now one, this field was six small parcels after / The Peniston Inclosure Act 1819 / Awards thereunder dated 28th Jan., 1826 / Allotments here awarded under the Penistone Inclosure Act in lieu of tythes.’ […] (JD, 1906).[1] This is a distinct part of Tarlo’s poetics: to emphasize – in Frances Presley’s words – the ‘plurality and the commonality of experience, as well as its transience.’[2]

Harriet Tarlo is a modernist poet, long concerned with gender, with our relationship to land, and with experimental or avant garde writing. Alongside an extensive range of poetic and critical works, she edited The Ground Aslant: An Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry (Shearsman, 2011), and includes in her list of influences H.D., Gertrude Stein, Basil Bunting, Wendy Mulford, Maggie O’Sullivan, Frances Presley, Rachel Blau Du Plessis and Lorine Niedecker, citing Niedecker to be a strongly influential on her (Tarlo’s) early ‘very short lyrics, edited almost to vanishing point’[3].

For Tarlo and other ‘radical landscape’ poets, the materiality, or object-form, of language is paramount; the smallest nuances of sound and spatial arrangement are significant. The interruption of linguistic conventions, ambiguity, the validity of un-knowing and the un-finished – all are asserted in a critique of a pastoral or unproblematised relationship to the natural world. The use of open form, often unpunctuated, the use of space used as direction or weight –  these devices encourage the body to speak and hear:

 

morning

                   sun

    does field exist in

heart as a necessary

    high (point) to

journey       or the way mind

shapes a structure

from the allocated

hour

[…]

(27 April 10)

 

In this remarkable collection, the separation between subject and object is collapsed – the field is never separate, but is, rather, continually imagined and re-imagined, seen, lost, forgotten, longed for, walked, discovered, measured, breathed. The poems, delicately insistent, ask – not just ‘what is a field’ but ‘what is it to perceive a field?’.

 

“my field”                        that is not mine…

 

that is mine, it is so near to the heart, RD

 

stand up to see

the field — working out

a line

it’s planted

up  — couldn’t cross it

anyway

maybe

(29 March 09)

[1] John N. Dransfield, A History of the Parish of Penistone. Penistone:  James H. Wood, The Don Press, 1906

[2] Frances Presley (c.2007), ‘Common Pink Metaphor: From The Landscape Room to Somerset Letters’, in HOW2 [on line] https://www.asu.edu/pipercwcenter/how2journal/vol_3_no_2/ecopoetics/essays/presley.html

[3] Carrie Etter (ed), Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by UK Women Poets, Shearsman, 2010:115)

 

 

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Andy Rothwell