Richie McCaffery admires a remarkable hybrid of journal and autobiography by M R Peacocke
I first met M. R. Peacocke in person at Hawthornden Castle in 2011 before I’d even read a line of her poetry but I was so taken by her quietly spoken gravitas and love and knowledge of the outdoors that I vowed to round up all of her poetry collections on my return to normal life after a month’s residency in the castle. I’ve never regretted those purchases; her work was and continues to be for me an education. Peacocke’s time at the castle helped her to finish the 2011 collection Caliban Dancing (also from Shoestring Press) and I see that Broken Ground too was written during a residency, at Hospitalfield in Arbroath.
I’ve corresponded by letter with Peacocke, but since I moved to Belgium the letters have become much scarcer, and I hadn’t heard any word in over a year. Peacocke’s most recent letters to me were about the difficulty of writing poems good enough to keep, and enough of those to make another book. So it was quite a surprise to hear that Helena Nelson of HappenStance Press was putting out a ‘New and Selected’ pamphlet of poems from Peacocke under the title Honeycomb. This elegant pamphlet is a jewel and is bound to secure Peacocke more readers; but what’s more is that she has gone from complaining of creative dearth to a bumper crop in 2018. However, Helena Nelson also referred to a new book called Broken Ground which I assumed wrongly was Peacocke’s latest collection.
Instead, Broken Ground is all about departure and arrival – a triumphant foray into poetic prose, or arguably prose-poems accompanied by strikingly evocative black and white images by Lucy Saggers. Taken together, it is a hybrid of a journal, an autobiography and even a bildungsroman. Peacocke herself is reluctant to label this book an autobiography, as she considers herself an unreliable narrator, that ‘[m]emories can invent themselves or settle into legend’. That said, I want to label Broken Ground a poetic bildungsroman because it deals beautifully, luminously and sometimes starkly with Peacocke’s second life, the life where she left behind the city in her mid-50s and decided to take a tremendous leap of faith into the Cumbrian countryside, where she had bought a small farm-steading:
I had known for a long time that I must change my life […] Almost by chance I found the farm
and that was the turning point. I couldn’t think about the implications of abandoning what I
had known for so long […] I had to risk all that. Earning a living, too, seemed secondary – I
would manage it somehow.
Peacocke does not just ‘manage’, she thrives although the pages of Broken Ground are peppered with anecdotes both entertaining and upsetting about her tribulations along the way: ‘I was free […] I had nothing to do except live. My sense was of power and powerlessness exactly balanced.’ There is also a sense that Peacocke’s life or at least identity as a poet begins here too, when a poem suddenly presents itself to her as if already fully formed while she is out working on the farm in ‘Learning’. Once we are introduced to the writer, her new surroundings and her motives for moving, the book settles into a very winning pattern where each ‘chapter’ or piece deals with a separate aspect of farm life, the livestock, the characters, the locals that all combines together into the whole lived and earned experience. We learn that Peacocke loves trees and would like nothing more for her epitaph than simply “She grew some trees”. Pieces like ‘Walls’ operate strongly like a poem, are jewelled with poetic lines and end on such resonant high-notes. When Peacocke talks about agrarian crafts like drystone dyking, she is also talking on another plane about the pride of producing lasting poems. Consider the very last sentence here:
A well-constructed wall, built of good freestone, is a pleasure to see. Above the village of
Brough there are miles of walls known to be the work of one craftsman, built more than a
hundred years ago, still all but perfect. I think of their maker […]. I wonder if he sang.
There is an almost Aristotelian sense of balance to these pieces, of emotions being in equal measure. Peacocke’s prose abounds with gratitude for simple things, such as the nocturnal visit of an owl that returns her call: ‘I feel deeply fortunate and long for it to happen again, but some things are given only once’. But there is also contrition, for causing any distress to the life-forms around her on the farm, such as the tree killed by binder twine: ‘the binder twine had strangled it. Then I felt ashamed’ (‘Making Do’). Peacocke is under no illusions that this is a place where ‘blood rages after blood’ (‘Stoats and Weasels’) but that does not mean that she does not feel a personal duty to treat her surroundings with great respect.
Of particular interest is how Peacocke also meditates on aspects of belonging and alienation. In ‘Offcomers’ we hear about the local wariness towards a single woman in the 50s coming to the area suddenly to farm. We also hear about that parochial affliction: xenophobia, but Peacocke shows us that we are all ‘offcomers’ of a sort. Peacocke’s strength is to see the universal application and relevance of all things she experiences through the prism of her farm and the countryside surrounding it. That said, she is also prepared to attach more significance to the miraculous happenings in the countryside than the global news stories: ‘Why remember these things and not the family events of the time, the crucial elections, the scandals, the achievements in science, the wars?’ The answer is that these big events may define our times, but they do not necessarily define us as individuals.
Broken Ground is certainly an individualistic account and it celebrates a different way of life, reminding us that there are other forms of wealth than merely the fiscal. Peacocke is never in any way didactic in her writing, she recognises that the modern human condition and way of life is a largely sick one, but she is not the one to diagnose all of its ills and tag pat morals to all of her writings. In ‘Losing’ we are shown that Peacocke has deliberately opted for and celebrates modesty, the small scale, the difficult and the irregular:
Too much tidying, simplifying, rationalising, organising, ‘improving’, that threatening word, a
euphemism for considering of inadequate value and therefore an excuse for exploitation […]
Too much is sacrificed in favour of notions of efficiency, profit and human ease. […] Fortunately,
a fair bit of land in this area is too awkward to exploit on a modern scale, and so it flourishes almost secretly, harbouring the plants and the creatures whose ancestral home it is.
Peacocke is not in any way affecting rustic airs in Broken Ground, and this extraordinary book is not a wistful swansong for some dying or forgotten way of life. This is exactly how Peacocke lived until very recently and her poetry is not Wordsworthian in its celebration of the bucolic. She is not, like Wordsworth in Lyrical Ballads trying to emulate the patterns of pastoral simplicity of utterance, but rather speaking to us clearly, and never patronising. If she uses a regional term – and the book is filled with them – it is because these are the words in daily use where she lives and no others will suffice, it is not out of literary affectation. We all dabble as human beings in all of our respective fields of endeavour in the sense that ‘We scratch about a little on the surface of a planet we hardly know’ (‘Broken Ground’). Now in the ‘November’ of her life (‘In Between’) and with an awareness that ‘in the midst of life, we are in death’ (‘Pets’) Peacocke is torn between an acceptance of the ineluctability of aging and a desire to go on discovering and writing:
I have walked by myself and looked at things in bloom since I was a small child and it’s
impossible to imagine an end to that. But there it is, I’m wearing out […] There may still
be writing. So I set about departure. (‘Colour’).
On the evidence of this remarkable book, I’d say that Peacocke has much more to say and time to say it in and I hope she does. If I could only pick one book that has spoken to me in a deep, lasting and meaningful way from 2018 then it would be Broken Ground, without a moment’s hesitation. I can well see it become a new genre-defining book and a classic of its kind.