The knock reverberated in the central hallway. Which door? Front or back? We couldn’t tell. It was a 50/50 chance so Ryan chose the closer back door. No one there. He made a 180 degree turn when the next set of metal on metal insistent knocks came from the deduced front door.
A package! For me. My fortnightly giddiness when the ‘London Review of Books’ arrives should offer some type of scale to my rural acuteness. This postal present from Elaine Ewart, though expected, produced a fury of ripping… and a smile. Painted whooper swans and lapwings adorned the book’s cover in cool greens and blues. The swans’ bills, orange and black, contrast with the watery scene as lapwings march in the background. A welcoming jacket, full of expectations for Words for Wide Skies: A Poetry Anthology.
From horizon and field to the nose of a mole, this gathering of poetry routs out the stigma of the plain landscape normally attributed to the Fens. The anthology bursts through its cover with slippery eels, death-defying ladybirds, ‘dagger beaked’ kingfishers, ‘leaf-littered’ natterjacks, and ‘one thousand lapwings’. Like its inspiration, the pages may be flat, but imagination turns it into a pop-up.
I have twenty-one new reasons to walk back into the watery lands of East Anglia with only one, ‘Aquatic Arachnids’, to keep me out! (Give me hares and toads, but please keep the eight legged monsters away.) From Miriam Brown’s vision of a moment in ‘Lapwings’ to Elaine Ewart’s eel farming narrative ‘Slippery Customers’, each poem’s scale of time, place and space vary though they hold true to the hyper-local edgelands between the fens and the sea. The rich imagery in colour, texture and mood show off the land’s fecundity. This is in comparison to ‘other’s daydreams’ in J.S. Watt’s ‘Landscape’, which dismisses the Fens for aspiring to ‘dinner plate flat and domesticated like a table cloth’ bowling green lawn. The anthology lifts up that tablecloth and finds the mystery held within its boggy world. The Fens hold secrets of missing people, though their ‘hand is evident’ in Melinda Appleby’s ‘Fenland Farm’. Waterlogged fields hold a ‘raw, persistent truth’ in Leanne Moden’s ‘Perspective’, which leaves its reader near seasick as they walk over ‘each straightened plough line’ like waves lapping the field edge.
This small booklet of poems holds exceptional talent and potential. I caught myself singing along with Lou Hart’s lyrical ‘Othona’ and recalling, now humorous, flights from fleeing pigeons whilst reading Mike Alderson’s walk ‘full of beer and blues’ in his ‘Ghosts’ poem. However, the self-deprecating tone of J.S. Watt’s ‘Landscape With Water’, where the author calls the ‘me’ in the poem ‘[the] sole fault in this perfect world of blue’, perpetuates the notion that people do not belong in nature or the landscape. This slight on humans is an unfortunate addition to an otherwise holistic consanguinity, including its positive and negative consequences. In ‘Punt Gun’, Cardinal Cox describes the unsettling ‘Thunder on the fen’ resulting in a ‘mangle of lead’-filled birds in the stern of a skiff. Though I hope this sacrifice will sustain a family dinner and not just an addition to the fireplace mantle, Cox’s tone only hints at judgement: ‘feathered corpses…broken’. The hunter and wildfowl exist in the scene together, unapologetically. Watts and her ‘watery [sister’s]’ going will disturb ‘this world of blue’ just as every death has in the history of the world: atom to atom and dust to dust.
As Chris Todd’s poem states, ‘[f]ar-off fields/Fall into their own great depth’, each of these poems hold layers of import and symbolism which might require a quick internet search for the unlearned but helps to preserve what Cox names a ‘Fen Thing’, the flavour of the fens ‘[b]orn of mud and straw’. For a frequent visitor, these poems hold precious memories and for the uninitiated, a calling out onto Ewart’s ‘The Drowned Lands’, to taste ‘the burning reeds and smothering swamp.’