Aug 7 2022
Poetry Review – THE KNUCKLEBONE FLOOR: Stuart Henson explores the many elements in Linda France’s new collection
The Knucklebone Floor opens with a poem that puts the biographical elements of the book firmly into their feminist context. “A Hundred Ways to Know Our Place” takes the fashionable form of a ‘list’ of numbered sentences:
… 10 Come, let’s play hide-and-seek, solitaire, charades. 11 According to Clippity-Clop-Schopenhauer, we are child- ish, frivolous, short-sighted, by our very nature meant to obey. 12 We stand on the brink of light, brink of dark, dizzy with atmospheres colliding. 13 Taught to be good, we wake up with someone else’s voice in our ears. 14 We are brittle with longing and fury. …
Many of its statements drip with irony. The poem’s epigraph is taken from Hannah More’s, Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799) which suggests that far from trailing innocence and clouds of glory, children ‘bring into the world a corrupt nature and evil dispositions, which it should be the great end of education to rectify’. Clearly, we weren’t all singing from the same hymn-sheet at the turn of the nineteenth century.
The date is significant, since The Knucklebone Floor is ‘partly’ a verse biography of Susan Davidson (1796-1877) who spent thirty years landscaping and developing the grounds of Allen Banks near Ridley Hall in Northumberland. It needs to be understood from the outset that the little word ‘partly’ shouldn’t be overlooked, since Davidson and Davidson’s experiences are made to stand for those of women at large—and in time right up to the present. The argument of the book works through a kind of reciprocity in which France and an un-named companion explore Davidson’s legacy, themselves sometimes becoming the women who worked among Allen Banks’ ferns and mosses, their cliffs and steeps. Davidson is a pioneering sister: her aspirations and the forces that constrain them are written into the landscape itself.
Time present and time past coalesce early in the book in “We, the Dead”, where landscape and mindscape are teasingly intermingled. The perspective seems, at least initially, to be that of the women who lie buried in the past, as they become aware of the arrival of their modern counterparts, or perhaps even of mourners at a graveside. Yet—and the readings are not mutually exclusive—as the poem progresses the approaching women appear increasingly to be the revenants:
Seeing them approach, the tall one is crying, the other is listening. We await their arrival. … As they draw close, everything bleeds into something else. The two women lose their edges.
The imagery becomes filmic, as outlines blur and the camera-eye swings…
Dizzy, we sway – lured by the flare of their beauty. They show us who we are.
By this stage of the poem, it’s harder to distinguish exactly who the beautiful, brave ones are. The latter-day sisters who’ve broken through to a freedom the dead might only dream of? Or the pioneers themselves setting out the pathways for future generations?
One of us stands on her own – hands loose, earth slipping through her fingers, mouth open, as if about to speak.
The ending is pitch-perfect, with its cliff-edge poise and its ghostly ambiguity. Is it Davidson, perhaps, who stands apart, unable to speak, her voice choked by the falling earth—or maybe it’s France herself, or any one of the women who’ve passed that way in the years between? It’s likely, of course, that for the author, there’s a far less ambiguous through-line to the poem, yet this osmotic mingling of time-experience does seem to me to be at least a part of its achievement.
Davidson’s role as proto-feminist is seen most directly in “Matrimony”, another cunningly-constructed piece that makes use of historical elements in service of the bigger picture. The key to this one is the use of pronouns. The protagonist’s husband, John Davidson, is always referenced by the singular pronoun—He, his, him. ‘He writes letters in haste, forgets to finish them’. Susan Davidson speaks with the plurals—We, our, us. ‘What we do we do for him.’ This has multiple implications. ‘We’ indicates feminist solidarity—the communality and the similarity of the experience of ‘wives’. It might also imply the plurality that perennially associates women with the responsibilities of child-rearing, as in the phrases ‘women and children’ and ‘wife and family’. There’s another possible intention, too: this poem sits opposite the short “White Birch & Blackthorn”.
We tell ourselves we’re not alone. Tell us we’re not alone.
By itself, this tiny poem is a riddle. The juxtaposition of birch and the hedgerow blackthorn is not one that occurs broadly in nature. Several species of birch and its hybrids have white bark of course, but I’m guessing the title’s main purpose is to unite the natural world with other worlds of activism. Anyone who struggles against oppression is not alone. Furthermore, tucked in in brackets at the foot of the page between the two poems is a Norse proverb, ‘cross-stitched on linen’:
In every woman there is a queen. Speak to the queen and the queen will answer.
The plural then, is also the royal ‘We’, prerogative of the matriarchy.
“Matrimony” is rich with suggestion: ‘He does not always come home at nights. / He never uses the word barren.’ And it ends—as we suspected, since it begins with Davidson bundling up ‘his’ letters and labelling them, in an act of curatorship and possibly devotion—with her husband’s death:
One night after dinner, he dies in our arms. Widow, a key that opens the heaviest doors. He is everywhere we look.
The key, the heavy doors, the continuation of his influence beyond death… Again the imagery succeeds perfectly in conveying the woman’s position, her loss and her social diminution (or elevation) as ‘widow’. It would be pleasing, though maybe rather hopeful, to think that the ‘in our arms’ indicates this was a marriage that was—at least in one direction—built on love.
The inclusive ‘we’ is directly associated with the voice of militant feminism later, in “Revolution”, which speaks, once more in a time-travelling voice, of tree-rings, crinolines, calendar, bracelet… ‘those spheres assigned us / we submitted to or ached to escape from’. It’s also the pronoun-as-last-word in the final poem of the collection, “Botanical Emblem | Black-Eyed Susan”, which triumphantly self-praises the word and the flower—in capitals, illuminated, and through one of its gardener’s names: Gloriosa.
There’s artifice in the construction of The Knucklebone Floor. The seasons cycle through its five sections. In each there’s a prose-poem that reflects on time-present and whose title roots itself in the pattern of the Gaelic festivals—“October: Samhain”, “February: Imbolc”, “May Beltane”, “August: Lughnasa”—and/or a prose poem at the solstice or the equinox. This has the effect of suggesting a timeless continuity set apart from those Christian celebrations that might well have dominated Davidson’s era. The section titles themselves link into the biographical/feminist narrative: “PROPERTY”; “HER CONSTANT PLEASURE TO ADORN AND BEAUTIFY…” And as you might expect in the history of a garden-maker, horticultural elements form another bright thread. Each section ends with a Botanical Emblem. “Emblem”, as we’re reminded, being ‘a picture representing to the mind something different from itself’. Interestingly, the flowers selected are largely wild or semi-wild species, and ones with a bit of attitude or a point to make. ‘They will not be divided, resist / being bedded and gardened’ (“Mountain Pansy”). The Throatwort is ‘cast from such underthings / as womany linen worn thin / and suggestible with their monthly laundering…’ In the latter, France suggests that ‘if this flower were a maiden’ her bell would be chimed by ‘a gobbet of flies, longhorns and bees who couldn’t get enough, / scouring crown, then waist, then mouth / to soft white silence.’ If the silence visited on the flower is analogous to the silencing of women’s voices then the flower’s reproductive process very successfully represents to the mind the feminist argument. It’s charming and persuasive, though maybe a bit unfair on the insects whose place in our eco-system is a largely benign and vital one.
The emblems are not the only flower-poems in the collection. The sequences “Allen Banks Flora” and “Morralee Wood” help ground the book in real as well as emblematic soil, the former made up of snappy eleven-liners that speak for stitchwort, wood-sorrel, spurge and toadflax. It’s not a particular novelty to use the lens of language to look closely at flowers (Lawrence, Jon Silkin, Alice Oswald, spring to mind) but France endows her subjects with an attractive energy—they’re inclined to use their own folk-names as indications of their dispositions: ’snapcrackers’, ‘poor-man’s buttonhole’—and they possess a novel sense of humour:
In autumn, we’ll crack like rifles scattering seed – a method borrowed by Miss Gertrude Jekyll.
Nature, it would appear, was always going to get there first when it comes to setting the right plant in the right place. There’s a scattering of individual botanical poems, too, like “Wild Teasel” which weaves human and plant life-cycles cleverly together, and the equally witty “Pressed Flowers” which uses girls given names from Victorian censuses and burial registers to make the petals and sepals of a concrete ‘pressed flower’, with family names making up the stem.
The collection opens out in its penultimate section to consider some of the wider implications of land ownership and stewardship—and the ways in which a hierarchical class system exploits those at the bottom of the ladder of wealth.
We are stuff, but decorative, extras in a play, the anonymous populace telling our storykins – plus sound effects (cartwheel rattle) or smells (cowshit, soot).
The ‘we’, here in “Staffage”, is no longer the voice of woman only, though it returns to its representation of female experience in the superb “Seedlip Girls” which follows. This is the sestet of what might be a loose sonnet:
Pray we don’t sow the seeds of our own trouble, swinging between hollow and stone in our bellies, and fields unbroken beyond our ken. Even asleep, still sowing, dreaming our arms lift and fall. Flightless wings. Earth at our feet. Ribbed brown rows that don’t belong to us.
It would be nice to think that visitors to Allen Banks & Staward Gorge might find this attractive book on sale in the National Trust shop—that they could take it with them as they explore the pathways through the woodland up to The Cedar Hut and Morralee Tarn. France is always alert to what words do as they rub together: ‘tears (as in pairs), tearing and being / torn – rough edges, sodden, accidental’… ‘Let these tears (as in years) make a tarn’… Her alertness to the histories to be read in the landscape is exemplary. It would be a pity, though, if the male half of her potential readership felt somehow excluded. Not much that’s male gets a good press in The Knucklebone Floor—but once, up at the high vantage point of the tarn, there’s something to suggest a lesson in nature:
As high as we can go, a young duck and drake make a water- borne promenade the length of the tarn,dipping and swallowing as they glide. Sometimes he leads and she follows; when she changes direction, he’s not far behind. They forage on the margins and on dry land stop to groom themselves, keeping a polite distance; their necks elastic. After sharing a few low croaks, they lift their wings and speed down the watery runway – in perfect tandem, take flight.