Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Dorset Gramarye: Elisabeth Bletsoe's 'Landscape from a Dream' and the lyrics of PJ Harvey

There is no end to the things I don’t read enough of, but poetry is among them. For some time I’ve been haunted by the memory of a particular slim, self-published book of poetry by a Dorset writer I read in my mid-teens and one of whose lyrics has stayed with me ever since. I used to have it written out, but those notes are long since gone and I no longer know the name of the author. I had the library in West Howe, where I found it all those years ago, chasing it up for me, but they couldn’t identify it.

I decided to source some more Dorset poetry and ordered a series of books. I already knew that very probably the most remarkable of them would be Elisabeth Bletsoe’s Landscape from a Dream, a small 2008 collection which, from the extracts I found online, promised to be excitingly dense and interesting. And so it was: Ms Bletsoe has an intense, firm, allusive style that reminds me of my favourite poet of all, Geoffrey Hill, whose work I always admire even if I don’t entirely understand everything. Hill’s English is a language at war, but Bletsoe’s is even more militant: as opposed to his Classical, elegiac formality, her restless dissatisfaction with what English can currently do compels her to bend words out of shape, to scour dictionaries for weaponry, and sometimes to invent her own out of verbal fragments. I find myself having to read her poems with a dictionary at one hand to machete my way through the often botanical, anatomical and scientific terms: one small excerpt, ‘Interlude/The White Room’ furnishes sulcus, nephological, aquarelle, pruinate, and sintering. I sort-of guessed all this. But Elisabeth Bletsoe had a surprise in store for me.

Landscape is a brutal journey through a bloody but jewel-like visionary Dorset, with poems hung off that baleful figure, the Ooser; the illustrations of birds in the medieval Sherborne Missal; and Thomas Hardy’s heroines, among others. The final two poems in the book, ‘Cross-in-Hand’ and ‘Rainbarrows’ are both in that last category: they take elements of the Dorset landscape, and re-imagine the experiences of, respectively, Tess Durbeyfield and Eustacia Vye, two Hardyan women who both end their novels dead, victims of the society against which they have had the temerity to assert their own identities. The Cross-in-Hand, an unexplained pillar which sits by the roadside at the top of Batcombe Down looking over the Blackmore Vale, is where Tess swears never to ‘tempt’ Alec D’Urberville again – a lot of good that will do her. The Rainbarrows at Puddletown are the site of a November bonfire and squat on the heart of the great heath that Eustacia Vye both hates and is captivated by. Here, Elisabeth Bletsoe’s allusions and references are pressed into service to examine the fatal self-assertion of both women. What allusions they are, too: from Milton to Mishima to Hellraiser (the ‘lament configuration’) to Lady Gregory’s ‘Donal Og’ to Gustav Holst, to an essay by Florence Nightingale.

And there is also pop. Partly, the function of several song lyrics rifled for the verse is to provide images which clearly occurred to Bletsoe and which she couldn’t better: so we have Echo & the Bunnymen’s ‘killing moon’ and ‘your port in my heavy storm/harbours the blackest wave’. There’s also Bjork’s lovely androgynous line ‘Venus as a boy’ which expresses something about Eustacia Vye in a way Hardy could never have put. And then – and we now approach my point – there’s the way at the start of ‘Cross-in-Hand’ that Tess calls attention to her own ‘work-strong arms’.

PJ Harvey fans will have been brought up with a little start at this point. As we all know, ‘Sheela-na-gig’ begins

I’ve been trying to show you, over and over:
Look at these, my child-bearing hips
Look at these, my ruby-red ruby lips
Look at these, my work-strong arms, and
You’ve got to see my bottleful of charms …

Well; the phrase, you might think, is short and not completely outré, so you might dismiss it as a coincidence, until you spot in ‘Rainbarrows’ the line ‘O to be your stunning/Guide’ which can only be a borrowing from Harvey’s ‘Hair’ (the original line is ‘O to be your stunning bride’); that’s supported by Eustacia Vye’s ringing cry ‘I will call my ship VICTRIX’ – of course in the novel she dies by drowning – which by now must recall PJ’s parallel line ‘take a ship, I’d christen her Victory’. Finally, back in the poem ‘Cross-in-Hand’, Tess reaches Evershot, where in the novel she finally rejects any hope of a reconciliation with Angel Clare, and says

Swallows shuttle mandorlas of sound, dreamnets diverting my prayers for a softening, a break in fixation. Waiting defines me. Also a deliberate turning away before the goal is reached. Reinventing myself. Flowering myself inside out. A hedge of floating calices: bride-wort and wound-wort.

‘Fruit flower myself inside out’, Harvey keens in ‘Happy and Bleeding’, the subtlest and most heartbreaking song on her first album. And opening from the Harveyan text, Tess sets her face towards death: her own and others’.

This is more than set-dressing, showing off, or a felicitous phrase borrowed from a lyric: this is taking someone else’s words and using them to prise open a completely separate narrative, slamming them together and seeing what happens. ‘Sheela-na-Gig’’s presentation of a woman rejected by a man who scorns her physicality and messiness could, despite its uneasy humour, be a modern gloss on Tess: Bletsoe takes that idea and turns it back on Hardy’s novel. ‘Happy and Bleeding’ (in so far as it’s ‘about’ anything) is an ambiguous, conflicted account of the aftermath of sex in which the whole sexual history of the human race seems to bear down on the narrator: whatever PJH meant by that line (written, after all, when she was in her very early twenties), it’s a suitable one for Tess to appropriate and misuse to express a new sense of self-assertion.

You will note that all these tender thefts are from one album, Dry. This was the recording that Polly spent a lot of time denying was ‘feminist’ in intention, a statement (or set of statements, given how she repeated it) that’s given rise to some controversy. I’m not getting into that discussion here, because to a certain extent it doesn’t matter. Merely to insist on the validity of certain sorts of experience has a revolutionary effect, and these poems show how PJ’s texts can be taken and related to other texts in a way that functions feministically, no matter what she may have intended in 1991. This is clearly where Bletsoe is coming from, in any case.

And of course the fact that these are all borrowings from a Dorset singer adds another front to the warfare Bletsoe is engaged in. Unlike some of PJ’s texts, Dry doesn’t have anything clearly to do with the county: imaginatively it’s rooted somewhere else. But Bletsoe shoots its lines like fecund arrows into the Dorset landscape where they bury, root, bud and bloom like Aaron’s rod: they belong there, it seems.

Music and novel are made to converse, and pronounce together a new argument. It’s not far from the kind of textual alchemy PJH herself would one day engage in for Let England Shake. A sort of witchery it is, and Elisabeth Bletsoe has something of a witchy Kate Bush about her, if you could be more witchy than La Bush already is. I may well have to call in at Sherborne Museum one day, see if she’s on duty, and congratulate her. 

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