Sometime, in a Churchyard

SOMETIME, IN A CHURCHYARD: Pat Edwards finds that the past is brought to life by a combination of Louise Warren’s poetry and Charlotte Harker’s drawings

Sometime, in a Churchyard
Louise Warren  Images by Charlotte Harker
Paekakariki Press 
ISBN 9781908133489 

This fascinating collaboration between artist and poet centres around the Old St Pancras Churchyard in London. Of course, churches and churchyards have long been places of interest and surprise, holding, as they do, aspects of local history – if we are prepared to explore and research the clues they offer up. The churchyard is also a natural habitat for wildlife, sometimes the only green space for miles, once the urban has closed in.

I feel it is important, in reading this pamphlet, to know that St Pancras Old Church has close associations with Mary Wollstonecraft, writer and advocate for women’s rights, and her daughter Mary Shelley, novelist. Before her marriage to Percy Bysshe Shelley, the daughter’s maiden name was Mary Godwin. Mary Wollstonecraft died of septicaemia a few days after giving birth to her daughter.

These facts are significant because the book opens with a woman (who may be the poet or the unmarried Mary Godwin) walking around the churchyard. This intriguing re-imagining and merging of the women’s lives and their mourning for dead mothers is handled with unflinching language and vivid imagery. The slippery leaves in the churchyard are ‘masked assassins’, and the poet looks ahead to how Mary will go on to write Frankenstein, ‘distant years flicker like electricity between her fingers’. If that isn’t super-charged enough, the poet invites us to imagine Percy Bysshe Shelley taking ‘Mary’s virginity on top of a gravestone.’ The encounter is urgent, sexy, visceral:

She feels the electric pulse of him inside her, beating.
The shovel of him in the dark earth, digging.

Here again we find hints of Frankenstein, ‘the life and death of him.’ Amidst the memories of Mary and her mother, the sexual encounter, the women’s writing, we find ‘wetness, hair, birth blood, breast milk,/ life, death, silver clasped.’ This is vibrant writing, electrifying even. Warren counters this with beautiful lines about birds and crocuses, about railings and stones. And every double page carries Harker’s fine line drawings of these very things, stark and monochrome, reminding us that these scenes are played out in a real, wild place, amongst what remains of old buildings and walls.

For a moment the poetry takes us to an imagined house, where ‘Mary brushes her hair/into an electrical storm’. It’s as if the poet can feel the DNA of mother and daughter caught in the entangled hair. The poet also presents us with the adjacent Coroner’s Court and creates a scene where a woman arranges leaflets on a table, ‘fanning them out like flowers.’ Suddenly there is religious iconography, the virgin (deliberately lower case?) and the Baby Jesus. The poet plays with the imagery of motherhood, and Harker gives us a wonderful illustration of Mother and Child held within the rays of sun and moon. Poet and artist complement one another so well and it’s a real treat to find them together page after page.

The theme of the poetry turns more domestic in the latter part of the pamphlet, and as one might expect in the sacred ground of a graveyard, ghosts abound like ‘a congregation of bees, mourning.’ Warren mixes past and present, pointing out ‘a rough sleeper behind the mausoleum’ and leaving us with ‘the cold perfume of bones.’

I think this work deserves a wide readership as both poet and artist show immense skill and sensitivity in presenting words and images gathered over time and seasons. The artist Harker keeps us rooted in reality with her drawings of what actually exists, allowing the poet Warren freedom to take flight and indulge her imagination. I was aware, throughout the book, not so much of threads but of electric currents. Just as you can’t see electricity unless there are sparks, the writing chooses its moments to light up the page with flashes of brilliance. Whether it is a wedding ring ‘glinting between the bare branches’, or ‘the stale electric smell’ of a room, ‘a cross/charged with power’ or ‘deep depressions, our electric storms’, Mary lives, she really lives.