-Reviewed by Hayden Westfield-Bell–
I tried not to think too much about Ground Work as it slipped from its protective envelope and landed comfortably in my hand. Not only did it look pretty, it felt pretty. It had real weight to it, felt sturdy, well made, and the interior was of similar quality: the binding was tight, the pages an attractive cream and thick enough to stop ink from spreading. The artwork (for Ground Work is a collaborative effort between a poet and painter) appears similarly defined; monochrome shades are clear and crystal sharp.
I didn’t want to be impressed by it, but I was. Gripping it in both hands I hoped the words and art contained within were every bit as good as the physical presentation. It was clear that Attwooll, Walton, and those at Black Poplar had been passionate about the project… and that passion had helped them to create what they considered to be a high quality collection of poems and artwork. But what if the poems were awful? What if the artwork failed to relate to the poem, or if the themes explored in either works didn’t relate? I was also worried that the quality of the publication would in some way sway my analysis of the content, but if anything it actually encouraged me to read more acutely. That afternoon I moved very quickly from the hand axe to the scalpel.
I shouldn’t have worried so much. The content is wonderful.
The inset explains that Ground Work is ‘the product of monthly walks through the course of a year in Port Meadow and Wolvecote Common, an area of uncultivated floodplain bordering Oxford and the Thames. It is the product of a collaborative project between poet (David Attwooll) and painter (Andrew Walton) that draws on the history of the locations they walk through, the conversations they have and overhear, their memories, and their experience of other factors such as the weather, seasonal changes, light and chance events. The publication therefore leans comfortably on the disciplines of psychogeography and deep topography, and shares similarities with the works of Nick Papadimitriou and Will Self (though I’d resist the temptation to compare Ground Work with these other authors as it adopts a more pastoral, rural tone, more in keeping with the Romantic poets than the gritty shine of Modernist prose).
We’re made aware of this in the opening poem, ‘Port Meadow’ which begins with a topographical description; ‘long, low and flat landscape’ occupied by parties of ‘January skaters’ who, in ‘whistling along / with hands neatly folded behind their backs’ recall Hendrick Avercamp’s frozen landscapes. We return to natural images: ‘flora and fauna here are in a pared-down palette / of greys, browns, and sludge green’ and the scene is wild with animals. Families picnic on small beaches, and two images often kept separate – nature, and of the societal – come together playfully as a friend plays ‘a farting // sousaphone, lyrically, to curious cows’. The scene is vivid, intensely communal, and this togetherness is suggestive of the poem’s (and the collection’s) inception; the ‘red smudge’, ‘pared-down palette’ and ‘filmy overlays’ remind us that these poems are the result of a collaborative effort. This painterly vocabulary is not subtle – purposefully so – and is brushed thickly on the page in keeping with the playful tone of the poem. ‘Port Meadow’ closes brilliantly; ‘instead there was a long sigh as the land fell away.’
There are twelve more poems in the collection – one for each month/walk – and we move our way through the text as Attwooll and Walton must have wandered through the English countryside. In ‘Topography’ we accompany them through a wintery water meadow ‘veiled in mist and frost’ which appears as ‘a screen for time / stuck between clicks deleting and loading data’. This digital reinterpretation of the winter landscape is very effective and negotiates a common difficulty faced by modern poets: how to make pastoral scenes new when the ground is so well-trodden? This movement into the digital is refreshing, revitalizing, and progresses smartly beyond the technological/natural dichotomy we find generally in the arts. Through lines such as ‘Fog buffers the turf’, and we ‘clock these coded lines / drawn on a primed canvas by cattle’, nature emerges as a very modern experience that the contemporary reader can’t help but enjoy.
Most of the poems in the collection are in free verse, though a few follow strict rhyming patterns. ‘Nightwalking’, for example, follows the sonnet structure for the month of July and describes the ‘moon in jive-ass slippers’ dancing ‘close / to offer back neglected things we lost’ during ‘two weeks of heatwave and the hottest day / for seven years unpacked by warm fat rain’ (one of my favourite lines in the book). The structure is very steady, but takes from Charles Mingus (to whom the poem is dedicated, along with Philip Sidney) and plays with the rhythm in latter lines, dropping full stops to break the beat and nudging out an extra syllable every so often to keep the reader attentive. ‘Allotments’ opens with a familiar ABABC DEDEF rhyming pattern that dissolves in the third stanza and recovers in the fourth. Quite why the pattern alters in this way I cannot say, and I believe it would have benefitted from maintaining the same structure throughout. The heavy rhythm and repeating rhymes keep this stanza tight however; ‘put’, ‘plots’, ‘lots’, and ‘foot’ keeping everything steady. The poem is one of the more historically informed poems, ‘seventy years ago, wartime put / this turned-over Island of rectangular plots / smack in the bullseye of soggy pasture.’
My favourite poem has to be ‘Shift Key’, the January poem in which Attwooll and Walton wander through a snow-blanketed landscape. The poem is so polished, each word so well placed it’s as if Attwooll had picked them up from the page and weighed them in their hands before placing them – very carefully – back on the page in an optimum location. Mixed combinations like ‘human heaviness’ weigh threateningly on fragile lines, all the while indicating the gradual, powerful accumulation of white settling beneath our authors’ feet. We’re muffled as the ‘snow consoles the asthma fret / of traffic’ and ‘fingers / each syllable of land’. The tone is meditative and unhurried, and in this way the poem mimics the slow descent of a snowflake. It’s a fantastic poem, one I will turn back to for years to come.
Attwooll explores many other forms; ‘Line’ is a longer more narrative driven poem, ‘The Museum of Everything’ includes extracts from R.J.C. Atkinson’s Archaeological Site on Port Meadow and benefits from the conflicts (and likenesses) that arise from weaving the two texts together. ‘Godstow’, which opens with the tremendous ‘it feels close inside a meniscus of sky’, explores the history of Godstow Abbey through free verse, and ‘Isis’ as a curious poem – featuring stanzas alongside one another that seem to read well both horizontally and vertically. Whether this is the intention I’m not sure, but Isis is certainly the ‘locked door’ poem of the collection, the imagery is similarly illusive:
grained as a wood-knot
writhes to be free
dreams of a black pier
a raincloud of starlings
Walton’s illustrations are a great accompaniment to the poems. I’m no art critic, but I found the structure of a number of the images quite revealing. By blending more apparent natural images with strong lines indicative of footsteps, trees, or structures (depending on the poem) Walton synchronises with Attwooll’s digitisation of the natural environment. These blocky images repeat and echo; suggestive of bar codes or the repetitive lines of programming language. Other illustrations are more playful – such as those featured in ‘The Museum of Everything’ or ‘Godstow’. I found the artwork for ‘Prelude’ particularly impressive: it’s simple, very effective at conveying the message of the poem beside it, but could also stand strong independent of the poem. The art work for Ground Work was recently on show at the Art Jericho gallery in Oxford, images of which can be found here.
Ground Work by David Attwooll and Andrew Walton is an excellent chapbook of lovingly crafted, precisely executed poetry that’s not afraid of a bit of structural experimentation combined with rich visual artwork that work in relation to the poems but also stand proud by themselves. I come back to it daily (‘Shift Key’ is just such a beautiful poem, I can’t get enough of it) and despite having read it numerous times in order to write this review I intend to have another read through, beginning tomorrow! What more could you want from a collection? Fantastic.