Poetry, place and identity: Elisabeth Sennitt Clough

entry picture

Some politicians are inescapably linked to things they said, often without thinking, or because they were poorly advised. Or plain stupid. JFK could never shake off the ‘ich bin ein Berliner’ thing, however well-meant it was that he thought he was saying. Margaret Thatcher was famously ‘not for turning’ even though she delivered the line as if discovering English for the first time. Her ‘no such thing as Society’ is more problematic since you could probably find a Marxist linguistics buff pointing out that she might well have been aware of the business of reification and false consciousness. Personally, I doubt it, but there you go.

The one I’ll go with, however, is our current PM’s shrill and unpleasantly jingoistic assertion that ‘a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere’. It’s a narrow and parochial thing to hang your hat on, isn’t it? On the other hand, it raises questions of how our identity, our sense of self, may be tied to the landscapes, the places we think of as ‘home’. Which is, as with most important things, more complicated and troublesome that we might like to think.

A month or so ago I was writing about my own uncertainty about what it means to ‘belong’, to feel part of a culture, to inhabit its language and ways of seeing. I wrote, then,

“that for the last 30 years I’ve been living in a small town less than 10 miles from where I was born and grew up. More or less in the same valley. And I still don’t know the street names, which tells me that somehow, unconsciously, all this time I’ve been thinking of it as temporary. So if I’m from ‘a place’ I think that place is ‘North’ and my thinking and imagery is ‘North’ … I find myself speculating on ways in which language (and therefore, our writing) is shaped and informed by the landscapes where we feel we belong. How we come to feel secure in one landscape or another … Place isn’t just topography. It’s story, and where you place yourself in the narrative.”

Which is why, when I was doing some background reading to help me introduce today’s guest poet, I was drawn to an extract from an interview she gave to Paul Stephenson for his blog (here’s the link for the full piece; it’s well worth a read). A bit of background is useful at this point,.especially in relation to that ‘citizen of the world’ bit.

embedded image from entry 89310 Elisabeth Sennitt Clough is a dual-nationality British/American poet who grew up in the Fenlands of Cambridge. In 1998, she studied English and sociology at Anglia Ruskin University (formerly APU) for her BA. In 2001, she went on to complete an MA at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. She obtained her PhD from the Open University in 2010. In 2013, she returned to study, undertaking an MA in creative writing with teaching at Manchester Metropolitan University. She has lived and worked in Jakarta, Indonesia; Panama City, Florida; Fresno, California; Reykjavik, Iceland; and Maastricht, Netherlands. Now living in Norfolk with her husband and three children, Elisabeth is a member of a local writing group and regularly attends poetry readings and launches. She runs long distances (which seems to be de rigeur for what I think of as younger poets) and co-edits The Fenland Reed (of which more later). Paul asked her about place, about growing up in the Fens and its influence on her poetry. She replied:

“I’ve heard that living at or below sea level can have an effect on a person’s physical/mental state. I don’t know how true that statement is, but it interests me, as does the fact that the Fens were once underwater. Growing up, I didn’t even question why there were so many freshwater snail shells in the soil. 

I have travelled a lot, since my late teens with my own work and later with my husband’s job. I wanted to escape the Fens (all teenagers do), but I kept returning. I was once away for four years though without coming back to the UK and it started to affect me ... Perhaps I was homesick? When I did return, I found that I had ‘re-membered’ a lot of the places in my mind; they looked entirely different and I’d only been away for four years!" 

embedded image from entry 89309 That interested me, the idea of growing up in Graham Swift’s Waterland, its big skies, dark soils, its low horizons. Totally alien to a valley dweller like me. The other thing I took from the interview was its reference to the darkness you’ll find in some of Elisabeth’s poems. It was highlighted in a comment on her Paper Swans pamphlet Glass; its “unflinching look at a world of darkness, violence and unhappiness. The repeated use of water and glass invites the poems’ speakers to reflect on their past, to recount the cruelty they have experienced in precise and straightforward detail; they loosen the glass collar and find a way to speak."

Talking about her poem ‘Boy’ she said: This is an uncomfortable poem. As a child, I didn’t want to be female because I’d been conditioned into thinking girls and women were weak/lesser beings by my stepfather (who beat and humiliated my mother).  My stepfather passed away a long time ago and has no living relations. Even so, there were times when I felt uncomfortable, that what I was writing was wrong, but I resisted the urge to silence myself, having often been too scared to speak during my childhood."

embedded image from entry 89308 If that doesn’t draw you in, that three-part tug of conflicted, ambiguous and troubling  relationships with place, family and gender, nothing will. One more thing, before the poems; Elisabeth Sennitt Clough seems (to me) to have arrived suddenly, fully formed on the contemporary poetry scene. Just think about what she’s achieved in the last two/three years: an alumna of the Arvon/Jerwood Mentorship scheme 2016 and Toast Poets 2017, she was also a Ledbury Emerging Poet 2017. Her debut pamphlet, Glass, was a winner in the Paper Swans inaugural pamphlet competition in 2016. It went on to win Best Pamphlet at the Saboteur awards 2017. Her debut collection, Sightings, published by Pindrop Press in 2016, won the Michael Schmidt Prize for Best Portfolio. A poem from that collection was highly commended in the Forward prize and published in the Forward Book of Poetry 2018. Her second full collection At or Below Sea Level is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. 

As you can imagine, when I finally met her at a Poetry Writing weekend last December, I was already daunted by this, a bit tentative in approaching her. And as is so often the case, she was not daunting at all, and much to my delight said she’d be a guest for The Wider Web. So here she is. Of the first poem she says: “ 'Herding the Northern Lights' is from The Cold Store, the collection I'm working on at the moment; it was published in Mslexia, so it missed 50% of the poetry audience!”

 

     Herding the Northern Lights

 

     After Oded Wagenstein’s photo-essay

     about elderly female reindeer herders

     in Siberia who are now living in retirement

 

     I’ve turned my back on the glamour of snow

     and glaciers, though I once lost myself to their bite.

     The days hatch and faucets crack: nothing flows

     when all that’s left to herd are the lights.

 

     Beneath the pines, the bear and wolf collide

     and in my ears, the tundra winds still blow

     and ripple the skins of sleds until twilight.

     I’ve turned my back on the glamour of snow.

 

     Yet sometimes I want to return to the tow

     of a migrating journey, but my body has no fight:

     it’s become a slow creature. Each fibre bellows

     loud as glaciers – how I once lost myself to their bite.

 

     When my daughters return, they chase away the night

     with stories and rituals I told them decades ago.

     They fill my eyes with scenes I put in their sight.

     The days hatch and faucets crack: nothing flows,

 

     until I hear the hooves of reindeer echo

     like Siberian lullabies across the night

     and then I dance like melt-water flow,

     but all that’s left to herd are the lights.

 

     My life has become a segment of white

     that my family fold neatly and stow –

     all clasps on the trunk snapped tight.

     And I tell them, I’m happy. I don’t miss the snow.

     I’ve turned my back.

 

Just two things to say about a poem that speaks richly for itself: first off, it demands to be read aloud; you need to hear the repetitions of the rondeau redouble, its assonance and consonance, and not be distracted by how it looks on the page. The second thing, for me, is the business of belonging, the tug of distance and of the rhythms of migration. The fear of stasis. I love the clinching snap of that triplet

 

     My life has become a segment of white

     that my family fold neatly and stow –

     all clasps on the trunk snapped tight

 

The next poems are from At or Below Sea Level.  The first follows neatly from the last

 

     Matryoshka

 

     Maybe I do want to be a doll some days,

     but never that painted thing 

     you often shuck in two –

     where, in every wooden shell, 

     there’s a diminutive version,

     as you work your way down

     to the final fingertip me:

     that tiny bloodless woman,

     miniature lips erased

     by the heat from your palm.

 

It’s this business of identity and self again, and how each can be defined by family, by lovers, by place, and how this simplifies and constricts and denies. I like the compression and clarity of it. The last poem is more expansive, in every way.

 

     The Butterfly and the Stone

 

      i

 

     his body is a tomb formed of glacial till & houses centuries of ice

 

     she rests on the large grey boulder of him

     her wings appear as if they’ve been dipped in the earth

     & their tips are the smudges of frost moons

     her legs quiver like hairs in the breeze

 

     he wakes to something brushing the back of his neck

 

     the butterfly does not mistake him for a flower

     she’s just looking for somewhere safe to land in the breeze

     her colours pulsate against the grey backdrop of him

     the boulder stirs as the butterfly drums her feet

 

     his shoulder is hinged with a fleck of colour

 

     the boulder does not think the butterfly beautiful

     the boulder does not think the butterfly delicate

     the boulder does not think the butterfly graceful

     the boulder is not capable of thought

 

     with time the mouths of rocks break open

 

     the butterfly becomes stuck to his granular surface

     she beats her wings until they grow tired & wither

     after a day the butterfly slips from the boulder

     & submits to a large hole on the boulder’s far side

 

     his throat becomes a corridor of shudders

 

     ii

 

     while he sleeps my wings open to night

     they break apart & shed their decades

     of marital dust onto the bedroom floor

     the breeze licks clean my back           

     & my face    

     is no longer pressed into stone

 

     as he stirs my wings beat against his dark 

     curtains & try to source the air beyond

                 but i fall between furniture

                                                                 & my body bristles

     against the rough-textured oak  

     for a moment

     my strength is that of a dozen winged creatures

     yet his touch transforms me

     into iciness as he leans across

     reseals the thin envelope of my body

 

     his mouth twitches as if in prayer

     when he closes me with his tongue

 

     iii

 

     the season is stripped of colour

     each petal withered on the stone path

     & slashed like a dead butterfly’s wings

 

     he tells me that wounds are openings

     through which we lose small parts of ourselves

 

     by the roadside the damask roses  

     shake their blown heads

           

     i have a jar he says to preserve

     each piece of you

 

 

I loved this, its sensuousness, its texture, its drama. It’s packed with those moments that draw you in. I have a favourite. This is it:. I love the way it spins around that one word: envelope

 

     yet his touch transforms me

     into iciness as he leans across

     reseals the thin envelope of my body

 

     his mouth twitches as if in prayer

     when he closes me with his tongue.

 

embedded image from entry 89311 So there we are. Another labour of love. I hope you enjoy the poems as much as I do. I hope they’ll send you off to buy more (details below). Thank you Elisabeth Sennitt Clough for being today’s guest. You were great.

 

Glass, Paper Swans Press [2016] £5

Sightings, Pindrop Press [2017] £10

At or below sea level, Paper Swans [2019] £9.99

 

PS I nearly forgot I’d promised to say something about the magazine that Elisabeth jointly edits. The Fenland Reed is published twice yearly, with one themed and one unthemed issue each year. It’s a handsome journal. If you haven’t come across it yet, then take a look at what’s on offer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

◄ Today's my turn to hold the joy, hers the sorrow

I Meet Myself Returning: John Darwin, Flapjack Press ►

Comments

Profile image

M.C. Newberry

Sun 7th Apr 2019 17:51

Politics and poetry certainly have one thing in common - the fluidity
of meaning, intended or otherwise. Each must be aware of being
taken at face value or being misunderstood in any exposition that
is intended for public consumption. But both can fall back on the
default position of what was actually meant when criticised or
challenged.
As for "identity" - what about that word "community" we are now
hearing so often here in these islands? Once upon a time it referred
to a village in the England of my childhood. Now it has adopted a
far wider meaning and association in a rapidly increasing population. Irony is never far away in this life.

If you wish to post a comment you must login.

This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse, you are agreeing to our use of cookies.

Find out more Hide this message