This week I have the pleasure of welcoming poet Victoria Field to my blog to talk about her new collection, A Speech of Birds (available: Francis Boutle Publishers). I first met Victoria through Lapidus – the home for those interested in words and wellbeing. She is a trained poetry therapist and described by ‘Poetry Review’ as one of the UK’s pioneers in writing and healing, having co-edited three books on therapeutic writing (https://thepoetrypractice.co.uk/home/about/).
She has also had three previous collections of poetry published, the most recent receiving the Holyer and Gof Award for Poetry and Drama. However, I have to admit to having a particular partiality for her memoir of pilgrimage, marriage and loss Baggage: A Book of Leavings (published in 2016): https://www.amazon.co.uk/Victoria-Field/e/B0034P81Z4.
A Speech of Birds brings together poems which evoke place and the turning of the seasons. They gently unpeel on the page. They draw the reader in, bringing forth emotions of loss and joy and everything in between, but most of all inducing a moment of stillness and reflection.
I chose one poem from the collection, ‘For Destruction, Water, Boscastle, 2004’, to be reproduced here and asked Victoria to give the reader some ideas about the roots of the piece and the writing of it.
Not Boscastle, but the Lake District. Photo by Mark Vesey.
For Destruction, Water
The day our love was over, seventy cars
were swept into the harbour, a helicopter
lifted six stricken children from a drowning roof.
When she moved into our bed, there was only an inch
of air below the ceiling as the woman, gasping,
crossed her lounge and swam up the stairs.
It was unexpected, even though a tourist,
I don’t know from Adam, photographed
a black wall of cloud shadowing Crackington sands.
No one cares about the cars
but I can’t forget the puzzled eyes of our dog
in the rear window’s crazy slide-by.
At first, it was a bit of a laugh,
getting drenched in a downpour showing
no signs of ending – sometimes we want things
to be other than they are – sea-spray to come vertically,
a river where once was a road – to see ourselves afresh
through another’s eyes. A skidding bus,
raindrops big as sweets make us feel more alive.
I kept going to church, mumbling the words
like that farmer stuck at the top of a tree,
reciting prayers he didn’t know he knew.
I packed box after box
and you wept at the sight of the van
while all the shoes from Clovelly Clothing
and a Coke machine for good measure,
washed up useless on beaches in Westward Ho!
Summer visitors took shelter in the Wellington Hotel
where a local recalled the other river, sixth-sensed
its hurtle and dash down the village street,
shouted Everyone out! It was a miracle nobody died
when mud filled every crevice of the deserted bar.
Now it’s all been rebuilt – some say improved.
No, no one actually died.
A Speech of Birds, my latest collection, includes, as well as recent work, some poems first drafted more than fifteen years ago.
Poems sometimes arrive like ‘morbid secretions’ (Housman), or more happily, burst out like ‘brief musical cries of the spirit’ (used of Jane Kenyon). Others emerge slowly and need to be wrestled with for years before they feel ready for sending out for publication. For Destruction, Water is one of the latter kinds.
Boscastle in North Cornwall is a place I’ve visited many dozens of times. Like a favourite poem, it is always fresh and capable of revealing new depths. I first went there in the mid 90s with a man I later married. I was new to that part of the world and could hardly believe such beauty existed. It was a time of personal upheaval when I was about to exchange a globe-trotting job for rootedness in a small town in Cornwall. There are only small towns in Cornwall.
Since then, I have walked the cliff path in both directions, in all seasons. I’ve been up and down the Valency Valley, alone and with friends, on days trips and combined with overnights in the haunted Wellington Hotel or the refurbished youth hostel. For six months I lived nearby on Bodmin Moor.
Bostcastle is where a dear friend from Devon and I met regularly for years, to walk, talk and catch up over lunch.
It’s a place where I feel porous. Boscastle has entered me. I’ve left traces of my past selves there. I’ve done so literally when swimming in the rivers or sweating on the cliff tops and transpersonally, in an out-of-time way. I’m connected to Boscastle through my own memories and also the novels and poems of Thomas Hardy (Beeney Cliff, A Pair of Blue Eyes), poems by Charles Causley and contemporary Cornish poets.
So when my marriage finally collapsed in the same week as the village was destroyed by floods, I conflated the two events. Perhaps it’s a case of the pathetic fallacy writ large, or else a way of seeing personal grief in the context of wider public events. Probably both.
Poems are always ongoing conversations with other poets. I love Robert Frost and his poem Fire and Ice is a touchstone for me. It’s one of those short rhyming, perfectly-formed diamonds of a poem, easily carried in the head and the heart.
My title, For Destruction, Water is a homage to Fire and Ice, and came first, before I wrote the rest of it. In the mid-noughties, I attended a Poetry School class with Penelope Shuttle in Falmouth and I remember working on the poem then.
I’ve found a draft on my computer dated March 2007 and around 30 subsequent revised versions. It’s been longer, shorter, funnier, sadder, whinier and more and less personal.
I sent it out from time to time and eventually it was published in Raceme in 2015. Then I included it in my memoir, Baggage, published in 2016. The umbilical cord was cut, the poem was out in the world and I stopped revising it.
Putting together A Speech of Birds meant revisiting all my poems to decide what to include. I wondered whether For Destruction, Water was too old, too worked. But to quote Faulkner, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’. Revisiting places, events, poems and experiences can always lead to new insights.
Boscastle isn’t the same after the floods of sixteen years ago, but then it was never the same. Nor am I.
Footnote: some readers have contacted me concerned about the reference to ‘our dog’ in the poem. I made that bit up – our dog stayed happily in the former marital home and died at a great age. According to the internet, in spite of an estimated two billion litres of water flowing through the village, miraculously no companion animals were reported missing.