Jul 27 2023
Poetry review – LOCAL INTEREST: Pamela Johnson examines a collection in which Emily Hasler immerses herself and the reader in a landscape and its history
Local journalists often have a ‘patch’ to investigate and report on. Emily Hasler brings a similar sense of investigation to her patch, an area of Suffolk, including the coast, and the border with Essex. Here, in paying attention to landscape, flora and forna she also reveals much that is personal, political and historical.
The poems often find the narrator situated – body, mind and imagination – in particular features or processes of landscape. In ‘Flooded Field,’ images and sounds evoke water taking over:
unmaking more and more with each tide gulping … Faint pock, pock, of air escaping full ebb,
At other locations, layers through time emerge. ‘At Cobbold Point,’ a prose piece, is particularly effective, more so because it starts with the narrator in the water: “I swim between imported Norwegian rocks which pin the shore in place and think for the most part the coast is accreting rather than eroding.” What is accreting are thoughts on the Anglo-Dutch war that saw, “Two thousand Dutch marines marching up the prom…” and of the Roman castle that is “submerged one mile out, but I feel it between my toes.”
‘Gloss’ sees a more personal connection to a small patch of ground, “before the playing fields were sold off.” The field may no longer accessible but the visceral memory it remains:
… just a bunch of girls testing every side of themselves against every side of the ground until the foxy mud was slick enough to coat our dry-shaved legs, … Was that portion of the earth ours?
That sense of the narrator immersed in a specific place, forensically examining its associations, held my attention until ‘Here be Dragons,’ a poem that focuses on an unusual feature – the kettle hole that is Wormingford Mere. At first, I pictured the narrator there, observing, ready to make imaginative leaps as it begins: “Wormingford Mere, formed/like a pearl around a stubborn/block of Ipswichian ice.” These well-chosen images take me to something I can see and they also speak of its ancient formation. But the rest of the poem reads like prose, stanzas are justified like paragraphs of newspaper text and they list facts, both historical and geological. So intrigued by the information, I used Google to learn more, but was disappointed to find the facts listed in the poem were pretty much as reported in the Wikipedia entry for Wormingford Mere. Of course all writers use the Internet for research but usually to find facts for imaginative transformation. Then I wondered, is a Wiki poem a ‘Thing’ now? Is this meant to be a found poem? The dragons of the title do appear in the final stanza as the narrator tells us the lake is now private with a fence around it: “… blocking the entrance/to the spirit world. But the/maps shows the shape – lymnocryptes minimus. A Jack/snipe, little dragon crouched/between earth and flight.”
By contrast, ‘Teneral,’ which investigates an event of local history – an RAF plane crash in 1942 – wears its research lightly. The language economically evokes layers of handed-on eye-witness accounts, dramatising facts into a memorable lyric.
Doggerland – that area which once joined our east coast to the Netherlands as recently as 6000 years ago – has proved fertile ground for several writers. In ‘Doggerlander’ Halser takes the reader up close to a vividly imagined inhabitant from that time. The specifics of the girl’s felt experience bring place to life:
They’re there in Doggerland. We cannot see them for the murk of the North Sea and millennia … … We cannot know the girl who sits beside what we will call the Shotton River
The omniscient narrator then zooms in to the girl, who:
… feels the wings of something pass close to her face and with a fingernail works a thorn from where it has embedded itself under the skin of her palm.
Hasler explores a range of forms across this collection of over 60 poems. There is wit, a wry humour notably in the several poems related to birders, as in ‘Black Tern’
A washout. Through the rain, through the bins, each tern was black then grey, then black, then probably a Common, or an Arctic …
Local Interest is a timely reminder of the value of paying close attention to what lies around our own, local patch.
Pamela Johnson is novelist & poet. Her poems appear in magazines, many anthologies and in Stories & Lies, Blue Door Press, 2018. Her sequence, Tidelines, was featured at Poetry In Aldeburgh, 2017. Her third novel, Taking In Water, (Blue Door Press, 2016, https://bluedoorpress.co.uk/books/book-1/) was supported by an Arts Council Writers’ Award. She taught fiction on the MA in Creative & Life Writing, Goldsmiths, 2002-2018