Haggards: Elizabeth Rimmer, Red Squirrel Press
Elizabeth Rimmer is the author of two previous collections of poetry from Red Squirrel Press, Wherever We Live Now (2011) and The Territory of Rain (2015). In 2016 she was the Makar for the Federation of Writers (Scotland) and edited their anthology Landfall.
The word haggard is derived from the Old English ‘hæg-gearđ’ meaning ‘hay-yard’. Centuries later it came to be associated with a patch of land too small for cultivation where Irish peasants could grow crops for themselves. It is still used today to describe an area of land that has been left to run wild.
This collection of 36 poems is divided into three distinct sections of which the first, Wild-Crafted, is perhaps the most varied in terms of subject matter. This section opens with the title poem ‘Haggards’, where Rimmer writes of “the places in between” that are “too small for the rich to care for” but “where things grow stronger for neglect”. The section continues with poems dedicated to the poet Cora Greenhill and the writer, photographer and environmental ethicist Ginny Battson. There is a poem dedicated to the Federation of Writers (Scotland) and also one dedicated to her daughter describing a journey through ‘The Meadows’ (Edinburgh) to the Maternity Pavilion on the day that she was born. Sounds of nature come through in ‘Maquis’ – where the shrill, droning sound of a cicada is described as a “metal-grinding electrical / racket, louder than traffic,/ and constant”. In ‘A Poem Is’ Rimmer offers a number of definitions, including the striking lines “a poem is a doctor’s letter / a diagnosis, an appointment with honesty” and concluding with the line “a poem is whatever we will allow it to be.”
A seminal poem for me in this section is ‘Stand in the Light’ with its positive final stanza:
Stand in the light. Be still.
Light is what we need. Let it glow,
let it shine into the furthest dark
to find the lost forgotten hopes
and warm them to new life.
Allow it to grow and touch the ruined
homes and hearts and show us
what’s to mend. Stand in the light.
Be still. Become the light.
The second section, Materia Medica, comprises a sequence of 17 poems about trees, plants and herbs, some of which are noted for their powers of healing. These are much more than mere description. The plants are often used as a vehicle for conveying a whole variety of thoughts and emotions that we can identify with, and not only reveal the extent of the poet’s imaginative powers but also her depth of perception about the human condition. For this section, Rimmer references such authorities as Gerard and Culpepper with some direct quotations from their works.
As someone who knows what it is like to do battle with mare’s tail, which constantly threatens to take over the garden, I was particularly drawn to ‘The Curse of Horsetails’ (its other name) – which
… remind us by their
dull persistence that they were here,
with ferns and moss, before the trees
and dinosaurs. They will not succumb
to hoes and competition.
They mean to outlive us all.
In 2017, Rimmer’s translation of the Old English Lacnunga Nine Herbs Charm no doubt acted as the catalyst for ‘A Charm of Nine Haggard Herbs’, even though most of the herbs here differ from the ones in the Old English version.
The final section, The Wren in the Ash Tree, is a sequence of nine poems in which an ever present wren (Shakespeare’s ‘diminutive bird’) sings out as the folkloric bringer of insight, being one of the birds that brought fire to the earth. Here, concern for the environment and the effects of climate change together with global injustice produce a powerful sequence that references the work of valiant women “whose signals rang / through poetry and politics, songs / and planted forests”. These are the environmental activists, “women whose voices / cried out for the poor, for democracy, / for the life of women, for the earth.” They are women like Elizabeth Warren, Dorothy Stang, Berta de Caceres and Malala Yousafzai. It is a testimony to the power of women who speak out and change our world for the better.
Credit should go to Olga Korneeva for the cover art, to Gerry Cambridge for the design and typeset and to the staff of Red Squirrel Press for this beautifully produced book. This volume will appeal to all who are deeply engaged with the natural world and our global environment.