Review article: 'Our bodies, grieving with nature'

Lure – Alison Lock (Calder Valley Poetry, 2020

The mountaineering writer Jim Perrin once likened our explorations of the natural to existing in a hand’s breadth between disaster and joy. Such is the confidence with which we move amongst nature, revere its aesthetics, that we easily forget the speed with which our conceptual grasp on the world can vanish, as surely as a thin grit stone hold crumble under a reaching hand, or a boot slip on an innocuous muddy path. To those of us who live to write of the spiritual connection between the ephemeral human and the eternal physicality of rock, root, and river, the prospect of nature striking back in its raw indifference might be regarded as akin to a loss of faith. Drivers crash and never get in a car again, climbers fall and gratefully take the lines of least resistance, but what is a nature writer to do when wounded by that which they love?

Lure tells the story of Alison Lock’s near-death experience whilst out walking her dog one chilly April morning near her home in Meltham, West Yorkshire. A slip breaks her spine, nearly drowning her in the waters of an unremarkable millpond, from which she crawls chilled and covered in weed and sediment for an eternity, until she is found, taken to hospital and the much longer journey of psychological survival starts, as her frame begins to knit itself back together, assisted by technologies with probable origins in the same Pennine hills an evolutionary blink away. It is this primal deep ecological relationship that this remarkable work of poetic self-healing seeks to convey. It speaks to those who have known trauma, to those who fear the loss of connection to the natural world and to those who shudder at what we are doing to her as a civilization. Above all, it speaks to those who believe that what revitalises the human spirit in nature is how we negotiate and learn from its unforgiving realities as part of a greater personal and societal transformation.

To date Lock’s work has mostly fallen into clearly defined forms – collections of short poems, anthologies of mixed length verse, short stories, novellas – with occasional excursions into artistic collaboration with Huddersfield musician Robin Bowles. Lure is very different in form, being an amalgam of many modes of delivery, each homologous to the sentiments which it wants to convey: the medical lens with which we see her body through the eyes of the consultants; her first faltering syllables scratched into hospital papyrus as life writes itself back into the world; the homely warmth of a clay cup as others draw the cloak of friendship tightly around her. These many parts offer different angles on the whole, just as the dawn light surprises and gives hope: ‘a new day breaks like a leaking strip/seeping on an exposed corner of my bed’. The language is similarly flexible: always it is beautiful, but sometimes we are beyond the comfort of a bluebell wood and into the sublime – where the medical world itself is equally transient in the inescapable horror of being reduced to ‘the snail on the garden path/the fragile shell of me is crushed/as my antenna explore/the hidden caves of night’. 

This is not just a technical duality – of how to write about the tendrils in the water which have become more than heathery impediments – but how the author chooses to respond to an environment once loved now hated in its minutiae. The world may be full of books of survival, but the poetic form demands a special kind of discipline – the precise distillation of the essence of a moment or observation. There are no ghost writers, no metaphor copy editors, no agent approved formula for cathartic verse. Heart-warming stories of battling against the odds may be the product of a more emotionally literate feminine culture – our better civilizational selves perhaps – but being able to summon up the actual words to do justice to those experiences is often a discursive bridge too far. Even for an established poet, the sense of doubt that the pain will somehow dull the creative edge is evident here; can the words be found to recapture the love of nature, or have they become trapped in the memories of the silt and weed, the spirit extinguished?

Lure finds them, uncertainly at first, revisiting the place of trauma, flitting between past and present – a cycle of reflection to match the seasons which have carried on without her – before we begin the journey itself, re-entering the dark pain-filled waters. As with any survivor breaking down a journey into manageable distances, Lock’s descriptive world shrinks to the next handhold, or a slight incline, adopts that snail’s eye view of the detritus of industry and consumerism - coming face to face with a dead shrew on the path: ‘I see every hair on its back, smoothed, even its single eye, upturned, is open, shocked as if it saw the indentations of a tread’.

For those who know her work, there is a continuity of theme and tone, as she reminds us with a recollection of lines written about the same places thirty years before when the brickworks in the clough spewed out toxic clouds into the neighbourhood. Many of Alison Lock’s poems express a fascination with how the declining industrial infrastructure has yielded to Nature’s permanent revolution – notably ‘Where the cinnabar moth’ from the Slither of Air collection (Indigo Dreams, 2011) her signature poem at readings for several years. There she also talked of mills impaling the landscape – shattering its structures but still providing homes to extraordinary ecosystems. This time the identification is too deep, so personal that the mind has to push further; to conjure spirits to revitalize the damage, to renegotiate terms with a self suddenly out of love with nature.

One reviewer once talked of Lock’s ability to take the reader’s breath away, to make you tremble at the turn of a phrase. It is here in that evocation of the ethereal, calling for creative guidance from Brigantia ‘goddess of myth’, ‘protector of waterways’; to hear her voice in ‘the rumble of rock, the breath of the wind on the moor’, ‘the essence within each stem, branch, clod of earth’. Or feel the presence of the patron saint of poets: ‘She, Brighid, I believe, held me in that moment when I fell’. It’s in such a moving life-affirming evocation of being, as contrasted with her imagined doppelgänger – Ophelia floating in John Everett Millais’ painting of a female body frozen between life and death – that the new words come.

These flow delightfully once she is back on her feet rediscovering the healing herbs and scents in the section ‘A New Season’, marvelling at the bounties only a few painful steps away from home: ‘spatterings of broom’, rashes of orange hawkweed, the ‘littering of granny’s bonnets, with ‘even the ground I have come to know so well’ transformed by seeds and ‘the crushed leaves of herb robert’. Other phrases are jarring – creative responses to the long periods of silence punctuated by doors slamming, machines whirring in opioid haze, lying still wondering about the naming of objects in the world. There’s even a surreal moment of furious humour as she recollects the role of a maddening folk song flitting through the brain – a gift from the subconscious to buy a few moments to keep going. It reminded me of Touching the Void climber Joe Simpson crawling miles down Siula Grande in the Andes unable to dislodge ‘Brown girl in the ring’ as he tried to focus on covering the distance to the next rock, trailing his broken leg, driven by the terror of the prospect of dying alone.

This is a tough read. Anyone who has had any kind of accident, a moment of vulnerability in the wild, a bruising at the hands of the medical profession, will find themselves back in those moments of weakness, yet looking to the Earth to provide healing if not sanctuary. Reading this in summer 2020 when nature and poetry have galvanized a public confined by the Covid-19 pandemic and provided perspective upon the wider ecological crisis, Lure takes on much more universal themes than just a personal tale of survival and renewal. It was there in Alison Lock’s previous collection with Calder Valley Poetry – Revealing the Odour of Earth – memorably as we walked out with her on snowy paths under dripping beech trees on ‘November 9th 2016’, written after the results of the US election to which the poem pays no attention, or being the mother remembering the joy of swimming with a child in mountain lakes as she tries to keep their head above the waves as a refugee boat sinks in the heart-breaking ‘Lullaby’. The best nature poetry is always about bearing witness to the human impact on the world, reaching out with a hand or a phrase to express empathy with our fellow travellers, whether our canine companions or the deep time pterodactyl flap of a heron’s wings shadowing us overhead (an image that closes Lure). 

I read Lure in one sitting, the same day as watching a documentary about the fell runner Jasmin Paris who had traversed the same Pennine spine non-stop and mostly in the dark beating her male rivals, and the course record by twelve hours, even though she had to stop to express milk for a baby daughter – aware of her responsibilities as much as her love of the wild terrain she found peace in. How we take care of nature and ourselves are interconnected and our collective journeys require the same kind of creative and spiritual stamina and humility in the remaking of our world that runs through Lure and in the courage of all those who seek to enhance our understanding of ourselves in nature through verse.


(C) J. Purkis August 2020