(Shearsman Books, 2019);pbk, £14.95
Don Paterson makes a deliciously subversive point, describing the ‘post-reading vivisection’ of a poem. We all use that scalpel (Paterson included), but there are times when a forensic examination of verse is especially unreliable. Faced with work made on the move, as we might encounter in work by fell runner Helen Mort and others, and when that propulsion is inherent to the structure, spacing and energy, dissecting the corpse misses the point altogether. In Harriet Tarlo’s tenth collection, Gathering Grounds, we have poems of great movement and level-of-word detail; these are a hiker’s poems, made fully-booted, textured with underfoot conditions and precise observation. They and the reader rouse and rest with the narrator, being as much pace-based as place-based.
If the devil is in the detail at the level of word, then Tarlo is unafraid to repeat the ordinary, and her usually Anglo-Saxon sources, until, like the omnipresent ‘stone’, the word becomes a motif and extraordinary in its significance. A fellow walker will recognise the footholds, the relentless, necessary attention to the terrain and the minutiae of where you step, but nonetheless big vistas are present, as if by stealth. Typography and layout express the topography, in a way which is almost geological, an underlying structure supporting the step by step detail.
where the light takes, where the light
falls over late morning this time
of year, starting to see the land’s skeleton
(September: Reap Hill)
This is a handsome volume, illustrated generously by Tarlo’s regular collaborator, painter Juliet Tucker. I was initially wary, wondering if it was a more joint enterprise, but Gathering Grounds is indeed primarily a poetry collection. However, the images contribute greatly and give much-needed space.
Essentially this is the outcome of ‘three collaborative projects […] in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire’, much of it in journal form; in Jim Hunter’s fine phrase ‘an archive of the feet’. In that deep mapping of the local, there is also the chiming with the global both environmentally and historically. The dedication of ‘December: Blackpool Bridge’ to ‘the Dakota people of Bdote’ frames more than an observed confluence.
The typographical devices are far from tricks and relate not only to pausing, but pick up, quite literally, signs of the times:
bench sunk back in sand does not see high rook-chimney
NO THROUGH ROAD] hips hung red in sparse november yellow
apples holding to low branches [PEDESTRIAN ACCESS TO BEACH ONLY
(Dunes and Backs)
That level of inspection recalls somewhat the Boyle Family’s Journey to the Surface of the Earth. A full stop is rare in the flow of these poems, though the interruption of often unpaired square brackets, colons and commas and a splash of not-quite Dickenson em and en dashes flash throughout, all well-earned in meandering places. When humans arrive more explicitly later, in poems sourced from interviews, huts and habitations, become more regular in the block-like formalities of stanzaic structure, or in still more visually dense prose poetry.
As the collection progresses through increasingly peopled lands, shapes turn increasingly canal or road-like, more compacted on the page. Unsurprising, perhaps that that section finishes on:
A series of sonnets, followed by the prose poem reportage of ‘Louth Stories, 2016-2018’ close intensely-marked engagements.
Gathering Grounds fascinates, and challenges in its observations and its remarkable use of form delivers. I would like to hear Tarlo read, and experience this in collaborative, intermedial forms. Walker though I am, there were times in the more wandering poems that I felt bogged down, slightly confined by my guide, and wanted to push on. Much as I wished to love this wholeheartedly, I’d have enjoyed the space of a little less on offer being allowed to be rather more. Then again, that’s likely lockdown walker’s envy and the shortcomings of one not intimate with the poet’s landscapes. Certainly, a collection to work with and to revisit.