The Shearsman Review

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Lila Matsumoto reviews Frances Presley

Frances Presley – halse for hazel 

(Shearsman Books, Bristol, 2014. Paperback, 105pp, £9.95. ISBN 9781848613409)

A halse is an embrace, from Old English, ‘halsian’: a falling upon the neck. Halse is also Exmoor dialect for the hazel tree, a derivation which Frances Presley discovered in the writings of Hazel Eardley-Wilmot, archaeologist and historian of the forests of Exmoor in West Somerset. Presley’s latest collection of poems holds Eardley-Wilmot’s conservation work of woods and words in close regard as both seed and strand. Presley notes in an essay on her website that ‘This question about the name “hazel” is, indirectly, about [Eardley-Wilmot’s] first name, and must have been of interest to her, as it is for me. My own experience of nominative determinism has to do with FP = footpaths.’ Presley’s trajectories take us on a compelling journey across overlooked landscapes and vocabularies, from Exmoor to Scotland and across the Atlantic.
The book is divided into four sections: ‘halse’, ‘col’, ‘hassell’, and ’Ribs and leaves’, a collaboration with Julia Cohen. Working with other poets and artists is a consistent feature of Presley’s work; recent examples include a children’s book An Alphabet for Alina with Peterjon Skelt (Five Seasons Press, 2012) and the multi-media collaboration Stone settings with Tilla Brading (Odyssey, 2010). The weaving together of her craft with others’, and forging links between various sources and materials, is sustained in halse for hazel. Interspersed through the book are images created by Irma Irsara, with whom Presley produced Automatic Cross Stitch (Other Press, 2000)), which include close-up and rendered photographs of leaves, bark, frozen ground, twigs, and exposed roots of trees. 
The focus on the textural and patterning qualities of natural objects, real or applied by Irsara’s hand, forms a deft parallel with Presley’s palimpsestic poetics. A landscape or object —indicated by the poem’s title, such as ’pine remnant’, ‘Flitton oak’, ‘Percevall wood’, ‘hesil nutt’ —is traced over with synchronic thought and memory provoked by the visual and tactile particularities of that terrain. The landscape is not so much a backdrop but an immediate presence, writ large by Presley’s hand. Interestingly, this kind of careful attention allows unexpected perspectives to emerge in regard to that environment, as well as seemingly unrelated ideas or events to converge with it. 
In the poem ‘tank practice’, for instance, phrases from Eardley-Wilmot’s Yesterday’s Exmoor (‘tanks ploughed out the bracken       ling dominates’*) are interworked with a dream about the March Against the Cuts (‘five hundred/ thousands of us marching against the cuts   funnelled/ between   the Ritz and       the Royal Academy’). Here, a lesser known aspect of Exmoor, that it was used as a military training ground during World War II, is considered in tandem with the 2011 demonstration in London against planned public spending. The struggle waged by the disenfranchised against institutions of power are everywhere visible:
nettled and dock            dashed pebbles
bee subterfuge               brambles
layer of brushwood                   green on white
mossed concrete
Despite being built over with concrete to accommodate tank manoeuvres, the flora and fauna of Exmoor have fought back with enraged weeds, emphatic pebbles, and calculating bee strategy. The eventual mossing over of the military road, and the return of the ling (recalling ‘linger’), holds out some hope for rejuvenation: ‘further down the track     white stubs of roe deer/ graze new grass and leaves.’
In a 2006 interview with Edmund Hardy for Intercapillary Review, Presley spoke of her practice of ‘blind writing’, borrowed from visual artists’ technique of keeping an eye on the landscape rather than on the page. In the poem ‘OBX’, the fleeting appearance of a bird on a twig is recorded:
a bird sits/
sat/                                 sits/
on a black white twig
wings                                     fan
The placement of words on the page is significant in halse for hazel: empty spaces between sections suggest a pause, and regularly grouped phrases evoke a certain reading rhythm. In the example above, the momentary transformations of the bird are sketched, as it flickers from presence to absence, prehistory to present time (pterodactyl to bird, perhaps), and from animal to metrical foot as it dives across the page. ‘Blind writing’ allows Presley to collate tenses and images into a unified space, and to infuse a generic event with the substance and poignancy of a particular moment. 
Etymology and place-names are rich areas of exploration, befitting Presley’s commitment to recording human geography and overlooked topographies. Of interest, too, is wordplay, and as in the works of poet Pam Rehm, the chain of anagrams and associations drawn out of a single word lend Presley’s poems wit as well as introspectiveness. The section ‘halse’ begins with an epigraph by Eardley-Wilmot, informing us that the place-names ‘driver’ and ‘dyre’ derive from the Indo-European word ‘dru’, meaning tree or more specifically the oak. These place-names ‘would imply woodland where none remains.’ The poem ‘dru’ begins:
          driver implies a wood
          driving the word home
              I was the driver
     who implied a word on the moor
                    no other
          cars on the ridge way
Considered here is the idea of a word carrying the memory of a past landscape, and how such a word, itself dead to our contemporary lexicon, feels to tongue and mind. As we may abstractly but keenly consider the texture of an object turned in the hand, the poem, and others in the collection, explore the associations that a word can trigger upon close and compulsive examination. Meaning is engendered through an embarked relationship; in this sense, the poem is a self-fulfilling exercise. A word may anchor the present to the past, but interpretation or value can only be arrived at through experiential expression. A driver means a wood, but to ‘drive at’ also means to imply. On the now treeless moor, the ancient word for wood is uttered, and becomes an incantation, an act on conjuration. The dual sense of past and present is effective here; it is a lone motorist (or golfer) who ‘drives the word home’ in the now paved scenery.
In a recent article in The Guardian, travel writer Robert Macfarlane advocated the preservation of the ‘particularised ways of describing place’ as they ‘have been vital to everyday practice and perception [for] crofters, fishermen, farmers, sailors, scientists, miners, climbers, soldiers, shepherds, poets, walkers and unrecorded others’. In reconnoitring and deploying words fading out of use, and placing them in the context of its native flora and fauna, Presley’s poems joyously answer Macfarlane’s wish of taking the ‘terrifically fine-grained vocabulary [and] releasing it back into imaginative circulation, as a way to rewild our language.’ halse for hazel is a footpath into the forgotten histories and landscapes remembered in names, and a poet’s personal engagement with concerns environmental and political. The poems are an affirmation that poetry can sustain and be part of the process of valuing a landscape. 
26 November 2015