Tuesday Poem: Judi Sutherland - The Ship Owner's House

I live in a galleon on an inland sea
cresting the swell of the topmost river-terrace.
Sometimes I sit at this sterncastle window
watching the rain-shrouded Pennines ebb

and flow, heaving with the Helm Wind's bluster,
the low clouds massing over Great Shunner Fell
travelling toward me in flocks of weather;
and the small birds rising against the gale.

This is foreign England; the storm front edge
of nowhere; a fierce, untethered town
riding the wide moors, where Atlantic storms
squall in, ransacking the heather.

The high rooms of this house are filled like sails.
Its element is air. It's all heave and yaw;
the compass of our greenfield voyage spins,
our blank charts all terra incognita.

© Judi Sutherland
From The Ship Owner’s House, published by Vane Women Press

I was very taken by the cover of this small collection - the derelict house stranded on a spit of rock surrounded by sea - a cover that echoes the themes of the poetry set out in the blurb: “The Ship Owner’s House is built on sands of displacement. . .”  The poet writes of her own journeys, and of the dislocation of her life:

. . . I had become work’s gypsy,
like a wind-blown leaf, it journeyed me
wherever it would go; and every time
what was left behind was love and settlement.

And though she claims to have been ‘naturalised’ and come to love ‘my new north’, there’s regret for what has been left behind and a restlessness in the lines. In the last poem there’s an acknowledgement that ‘the place I thought was home turned out to be / somewhere we were passing through’. The poems are honest and direct and tell stories about what it is like to be alive today, where so many people are refugees, or ‘work gypsies’, at a time when the sense of belonging is something many long for but can’t achieve. We can all trace our ancestry back to that first exodus from Africa, where our journeys began.  Most of us, in the end, are economic migrants. Belonging is a luxury. When the poet writes ‘I can no longer tell you where my heart is’, she speaks for a lot of us.

The subjects, the several ‘I’s who voice the poems, are diverse. Lutyens, a Blind Girl in Pimlico, Nell Gwynne, a Birdsmith. The imagery is restrained, but very visual, the language lyrical and exact. There’s a spareness to it that I like.

. . . I’ve studied
flight feathers - the remiges - for thrust and lift,
the primaries, secondaries, tertials. I’ve collected
everything necessary; a sackful of gull feathers
pewter, white and black; a harness
of buckled leather straps; a slab of wax.

Judi Sutherland is good at noticing the details. She writes in a blog that "in many ways, poets are always outsiders. It’s easy to notice things when you are observing them rather than being involved. It’s easier to notice the uniqueness of places and people and attitudes when you come from a different place." Again and again she returns to the emotional geography that is life – the destinations, the journeys, the liminal places you’re forced to inhabit, the leave-takings.  The writer Katherine Mansfield, who travelled Europe looking for a cure for her tuberculosis, wrote that wherever you go you leave little shreds of yourself behind, like fragments of cloth on barbed wire.

One poem in particular caught my eye. Back to the Six Bells captures the way our journeys embed themselves in our minds and bodies. It talks about hopes and dreams and disillusion.

Sometimes I dream of England as a map
that I run my fingers over, feeling the hum
of motorways like the ribs of flat-felled seams,
the velour of fields and sequinned towns
that catch beneath my finger nails. I feel
the textured border separating Sussex
and Kent, felted with hop bines and apple trees.
We’re going to live . . . here, I say, among pantiles
where the stately homes hold plant sales
and vintage cars thread meadowsweet lanes,
near the place where you and I first went walking.
You, in a cowfield in a red T shirt.  You, at the pub
where cricketers and Morris Men wove
through a village soft with sunshine. When we still had
all of England spread out in front of us.

© Judi Sutherland

Judi is still writing about place.  "Teesdale, where I am living now, and lots of places from my past. Since moving north five years ago I’ve noticed the huge difference between the way that poets in the Thames Valley talk about their home towns and the way Teesside poets talk about theirs. I’m a bit obsessed, right now, with what makes England, and what makes the English. That’s just a reflection of the times we live in."

The Ship Owner’s House is published by Vane Women Press

You can read Judi's blog at  http://judisutherland.com/the-world-is-too-much-with-us/
And you can buy copies of the book from the Vane Women Press here http://www.vanewomen.co.uk/press.php


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