Sep 15 2023
Poetry review – CALDER: D A Prince follows Emily Oldfield on a poetic exploration of Yorkshire landscape
Calder is Emily Oldfield’s second pamphlet, continuing the exploration of Yorkshire’s landscapes of rock, stone, and water started in her debut pamphlet Grit (Poetry Salzburg, 2020). She pins the geography to place names from the Upper Calder Valley: three-quarters of the titles of these poems are place names — ‘Kirkstall’, ‘Ingleborough’, ‘Gauxholme’, ‘Mytholmroyd’, for example. You can track the course of these poems on a map although that would lose much of the sounds that work within and through the poems. Names, words, language, rhythm: these are the tools poets work with and Oldfield uses them to create a sense of place beyond the merely geographical.
The roots of language reinforce her sense of being personally rooted to the place, part of something much older than the twenty-first century. Sometimes it’s the names of ruined farms — ‘…Thornsgreese,/ Potovens, Dyches, Brownroads’ (from ‘Inchfield’) — sometimes it’s further back in time, with the language of invaders. She merges sound and etymology, In ‘Gauxholme’ she writes
The translated trill of a pheasant that guttural click as you start with Gaux. A place word that puckers the mouth to a kiss. […] Old Norse Gaukr speaks here of cuckoo, plumage-dark trees dredge the valley slopes.
The suggestions of human relationship — here in ‘kiss’ and elsewhere with ‘love’ — are never fully explored but stay on the edge, a part of her connection to the landscape but not given further explanation. The erotic is evoked but never quite realised in the context of a sexual relationship, as in ‘Nutclough’
The night is female animal a flex of fingers at cold panes from hands that once tightened cords of wool and pushed back passions in a weight.
This poem brings clothing, mill work, the lives of female workers to confront verbal passion and suggestions of vigorous sexual activity. It’s short, intense and allusive and, somehow, captures the energy of water driving mills, the unceasing activity that is both man-made and natural, part of the landscape.
Oldfield is striving for the essence of this precise part of the Yorkshire landscape through sensory impressions. She listens to how the weather plays across landscape and walkers: thus, some of her poems are best heard rather than read silently. Reading her work aloud, listening to the irregularities and the variety in pitch, brings out the gusty air and stubbornness of the land. It’s there in the opening poem, ‘Jack Stone and Nan Moor’, set on the gritstone outcrop on Bridestones Moor and linked to local legend – in this case two lovers who were supposedly guardians of the stones.
It’s here these lovers swore to watch over the stones and where each of us walks with the wind at our clothes. But who helps the wind as it moves over moor? Lifting words to wrong ears then stumbling raw
The full rhyme — swore/moor/raw — has tried for regularity but, like the wind, can only come at the reader with the irregularity of a buffeting moorland wind, and the poem then avoids full rhyme. The long vowels of ‘stone’ and ‘clothes’ have the wind’s moaning note within them. Half-rhymes slide through Oldfield’s poems and this sits well with a landscape that has no tidy regularity. Once your ear is tuned to this the poems start to speak of the spirit of the land, both surface and depth. This poem is set when ‘… Imbolc approaches // and its black acid warmth’’: St Brigid’s Day, the first of February, the traditional Gaelic festival for the beginning of spring. There’s more than a hint in the language that this won’t be the soft, southern spring but something much tougher, more ancient.
The sounds of the local language, grown from Norse, echo across the collection through the place names. In ‘Ramsden’, a poem about finding (human and geographical) in a moorland of meltwater and mud, Oldfield draws attention to the effect of sound in the human body
Here Dean, Clough, Royd seeded deep in the chest the rough of local tongue in this wood-panelled throat grow to the timbre of midnight rain
In a quieter voice — but no less physical — she visits a ruined Cistercian abbey, ‘Kirkstall’: there is a ‘nave-made mouth’ and ‘ribcaged vaults’. It’s a tainted landscape, however, where ‘… pylons push through foul-furred grasses’ and the history of dissolution is in the air.
Among the poems of stone, water, wind, mud there is one in a different register. ‘Flowers from Halifax’ is about the unnamed florist — so, an urban setting — and her daily work. The language is simpler, the sentence structure clearer (not impressionistic) and focussed entirely on this woman and her concentration on the task before her.
It is her job to write the notes for the bunches of flowers she barely sees. Cellophaned in their death wrap — a handwritten tag like a bubble of speech. Three hours a day she puts to the task; translating the so-often left unsaid.
I’m unsure whether this poem is a survivor from earlier writing or one that points the way forward to new explorations — the modern economy and workers, perhaps? Sometimes, towards the end of a collection, a poem indicates in some way what route the poet might take in future writing. Whatever Oldfield’s plans, the unruly landscape and its troubled spirit offer plenty to work with.