London Grip Poetry Review – Janet Sutherland



Poetry review – THE MESSENGER HOUSE: Kate Ashton is intrigued by Janet Sutherland’s poetic correspondence between travellers more than a century apart


The Messenger House
Correspondence between now and then
Janet Sutherland
Shearsman Books
ISBN 9781848618824
264pp   £16.95

In this intricately constructed ‘collection’ — part travelogue, part memoir, part family history — the poet Janet Sutherland collapses time and space to reveal the delicate correlations that connect us with our ancestry, their world and our own. In the process we are invited not simply to witness revivified history, but to allow its emotional and spiritual power to enrich our present.

As a small child, Sutherland loved her maternal grandparents’ home, two adjacent thatched cottages in the small Somerset village of Cranmore, a few miles from Shepton Mallet. One of the cottages was kept as an outhouse where her grandfather, a GP who took up farming after he retired, kept his tools and artist’s materials; the next-door one-up-one-down former dwelling was the grandparent’s cosy home.

In the cottage sitting room stood the ‘Chinese Cabinet’, the contents of which the visiting children rushed to rediscover the moment they arrived. Its many treasures included a wizened lime, dating from the First World War; a little solid piece of rock called a ‘meteorite’, letters on flimsy, almost transparent paper; an autograph book of her mother’s, full of wartime signatures and messages; fans of all descriptions; handmade dolls; a pair of pointed oriental slippers, and a mysterious ‘Measuring Wheel’. Sutherland was particularly drawn to the letters, and the immediacy of her new collection must owe something to the deep impression these made on the poet’s young mind.

Her book is based on and illustrated with handwritten diary entries and letters relaying details of daily life recorded by her maternal great-great-grandfather George Sidney Davies, who travelled across Europe in the nineteenth century in the company of a Mr Gutch, Queen’s Messenger for the Foreign Office. These writings present an altogether more perilous and focused version of The Grand Tour generally enjoyed by privileged young people of the time. Queen’s Messengers needed to be in robust health, and only young men under the age of 35 qualified for the role. Nineteenth-century travel was demanding in ways hardly imaginable now. The freshly invented railway was far from everywhere available. Ground was covered in hours of carriage riding over rutted, flooded, frozen and precipitous routes; mountain passes at night were pitch-black, and there were robbers with pistols and knives and little compassion for the foreigner. Especially one carrying gold. Diplomatic dispatches were often urgent and always confidential. It was normal to ‘post’ for up to twelve hours a day, then find food and a bed in an inn of varying comfort and cleanliness. Across Europe outbreaks of plague and cholera were contained by strict quarantine measures at frontiers.

George Davies’ diaries are echoed by those of his modern great-great-granddaughter, who in 2018 retraced his steps down through Europe to the Balkans. Having transcribed all George’s diaries and written some poems in response, Sutherland worked with Serbian poet Ivanka Radmanovic on translations to accompany a planned series of readings in Serbia. On 9th September 2018 she travelled with her wife to Belgrade, where she was to read her work at the 55th International Belgrade International Writers Assembly between 19th to 23rd September that year. They returned to England on 2nd October. A second recollective trip to Hungary planned to begin on 15th May 2020 had to be cancelled, as on that very day Sutherland underwent biopsy preparatory to further medical intervention. Covid then descended upon the world, and so the book came to comprise an old travel diary threaded through with a single modern retracing of steps, the whole interwoven with poems and quietly reflective recollections of cancer treatment: “Killing Strays – August to November 2020…”

an odd metallic taste in my mouth
I am the grey woman
who desires sauerkraut
sharp clean and strong  

Sutherland flies to Budapest on her way to Serbia, and then uses local public transport. Modest B&B accommodation is found, simple food bought in supermarkets. There is a lot of exploring on foot, punctuated by an exhausting programme of readings and much making contact, in all languages or none, with local people. Everywhere she is sensitised to the repercussions on them and on their cities of the Balkans War of 1991-99, and NATO bombings of Serbia; a not altogether comfortable history of which to be reminded. The trip is demanding in its own twenty-first-century way, and there are strange resonances with that earlier one. Sutherland is coughing, unwell and sleepless, just as Mr Gutch was worried about his wife at home, in less than good health himself and often unwilling to accompany George on his frequent wild riding and hunting expeditions in the hills. A hare escapes her great-great-grandfather’s gun, and Sutherland is not sorry:

Shy brown hare
tucked into earth

by blackthorn

where trembling
grasses surge

to startled g | race 

Many a travelogue is a following in footsteps, but The Messenger House is a far more than usually subtle and intriguing cabinet of curiosities. The slow and gentle narrative building of one enigmatic event and coincidence upon another allows natural synchronicity to produce a hypnotic effect. One lyrical voice echoes the other, moving from great-great-grandfather to his modern descendent as joys and difficulties overcome them both. They must each tackle practicalities on the road; find the next meal, the next transport, another way to communicate with a foreign language. Amazed at the beauty, wildness, and wildlife in this unfamiliar landscape, they both express a special love of mountains:

He wonders why the mountains look blue –
not until 1861 will it become clear
that complex equations govern the colour

Until then it will seem that the mountains fade 
like fabric worn for too many winters
like ink on paper which confines the heart…

Balkan forests are recorded by both great-great-grandfather and Sutherland with equal joy and lyricism, and “Old Stone Mountains” evoke questions that compress history: ‘distance still lays down/complicated hues//you might ask//if anything alters/is it us…’ She muses, ‘A journey is not a journey without boredom, those days of waiting for dispatches, those brief entries in which nothing much happens – that is a journey’. Time and space for grief, homesickness, ennui, daydreaming, these universal responses to being away from home. And two juxtaposed sketches of the primitive old and the graciously new Messenger’s House at Alexnitza in November 1847 seem to epitomise the way modernity arrived in southern Europe at about this time, as well as these British, estranged from it.

Close companionship tests relationships and teaches us about ourselves. While George bemoans his companion’s lassitude, Mr Gutch the Messenger, a former surgeon, worries about his wife’s health, enjoys catching butterflies and takes a bad fall from his horse. Both wait for letters; both are lonely and homesick. Sutherland is constantly confronted with changing attitudes, often arrested by social mores that prevailed in 1847 and are now discarded and disgraced. And all through the parallel chronicles she, a farmer’s daughter, places fragments from ‘found’ poems, pieces on botany or livestock, or tiny excerpts from the 1847 writings of J.F and C.W.J Burke, British Husbandry: exhibiting the farming practice in various parts of the United Kingdom which nudge her reader into recognition, nostalgia, memory; disorientate, or trigger some extraordinary associative sense of synchrony within the narrative. For wherever the land has been ravaged by war, it is the farmer who must bring it back to life again: ‘Threshers will be/constantly/at work.’

The cumulative effect of all this is wonder at the displacement and uncertainties shared by the two writers. We shall never know what the diplomatic messages contained, what great or smaller world events were shaped by them. It is hard and frightening to imagine how the world is mediated now, in a rushed age of rushed messaging, the way we all live largely in ignorance of what shapes our public and private lives, what awaits us on the road, and what will bring us safely home. The Messenger House is an extraordinarily radical and moving collection; one which entirely resets the concept. Meticulously researched and realised, exquisite in its poetics, it connects us with a particular peopled past to reveal the universal unchanging nature of our human predicament.