Little Blue Hut: Nancy Charley, Smokestack

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In 2011 Nancy Charley, who is an archivist for the Royal Asiatic Society, spent six weeks in a little blue beach hut on Tankerton Slopes, near Whitstable, on the Kent coast, recording the changing tides and shifting moods of the shingle beach. This somewhat unusual residency was made possible for her courtesy of Creative Canterbury which forms a part of Canterbury city council. The poems in Little Blue Hut celebrate that residency in book form. The publisher, Smokestack Books, describes the book as being “about weather and water, bladderwrack and gutweed, swimmers, dog walkers and sea anglers, cormorants and blackheaded gulls, ‘resident birds’ and ‘transient people’. And always the horizon where sky merges with sea.”

This collection, which opens and closes with an invocation and a blessing, contains some 30 poems including one long poem from which the book takes its title. One of the strengths of this book is the way in which Charley chooses to convey to us the sights and sounds that she sees before her through the use of vocabulary, alliteration, onomatopoeia and song. In ‘Fey’ she writes:

 

     I retreat inside,

                 stare out at the scene –

     flocculent clouds

                 spatter the sky

     and a bistre-bice sea

                 flows liltingly,

     whoosh-soothe, whoosh-

                 soothe, whoosh-soothe.

 

How better to describe the sound of waves rippling on to, and receding off, a shingle beach? A variation on this sound is caught up in ‘Animation’ where the lilting songs of a woman wading into the sea an hour before sundown crescendo with “the whoosh-shirr of percussion, the peace as she ended”.

After 45 days of standing watch, beginning at the full moon and ending at a new one, she knows the sea is a chameleon. She feels that she has even become like it. ‘October New Moon’s Eve’ ends with these lines:

 

     Though I was sent as sentinel

     it is apprentice I’ve become

     to weed and shingle, wind and sun,

     to clouds and birds, tide and moon

     but most of all shade and hue.

 

It is this “shade and hue” that she paints so well in words. The shifting focus of every colour is  demonstrated with careful precision at every stage.

In the long poem that concludes the book a woman is summoned by the three female genii of the coast – Luna, Marina and Hertha – which I take to be representations of the moon, the sea and the earth. Helped by the birds, she embarks on a journey of self-discovery living in the safety of the Little Blue Hut. On one level the story is a magical rendition of Charley’s own journey – the residency in the Little Blue Hut; on another it is a story of how we can all enter into the world of the imagination to experience and be inspired by the wonder of the world in which we live.

The ‘Blessing’ at the close is a finely-wrought piece of writing that does not veer for a single moment from its single, striking, image and is all the more powerful because of it:

 

     May the road you walk be edged with scallops.

     May you be kept from poverty’s pincers.

     May you winkle out from stormy waters,

     all your whelks heal without a scar.

     And until we meet again

     may God grow your grit within an oyster shell.

 

Neil Leadbeater

 

Nancy Charley, Little Blue Hut, Smokestack Books, £7.99

 

 

 

◄ Stephen Sexton wins £5,000 National Poetry Competition

Hollie McNish's poetic memoir about motherhood wins Ted Hughes award ►

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