– Reviewed by Katy Lewis Hood –
Otmoor traces a history of engagement with and within a particular place, combining art and poetry to make a patchwork of intersecting fields. Echoing the Oxfordshire floodplains of its title, this pamphlet tests out a fluid, protean aesthetic within forms of enclosure. These forms range from medieval lyric to sestina to haiku in David Attwooll’s poems, and from aerial photography to geological stratigraphy in Andrew Walton’s line drawings. The combination of these forms allows them to be re-read in conversation with each other, creating conditions for new ways of seeing and being in a place. In Otmoor, site-specificity does not preclude multiplicity.
Attwooll and Walton are keen observers, but the pamphlet’s strength lies in the suggestion of Otmoor’s own capacity to look back:
Still, the land’s scope returns an immersive gaze,
gleams and then shimmers away.
(‘From Beckley Hill’)
With ‘scope’ rather than ‘scape’, Otmoor is a shifting land turned inside out by the tides, even, as the title poem suggests, ‘here in the country’s navel / a hundred miles from the sea’. In this poem in particular, Otmoor’s embedment in change is replicated linguistically and syntactically, as
the landscape inverts
seeps into language (‘Otmoor’)
Without a single, definite poetic ‘I’ to voice observations, the collection invites different ways of making sense. Walton’s lines and cross-hatched shapes can be interpreted on a range of scales, from a range of angles, becoming roads and fields, rock strata and sound waves, borderlines that are continually rewritten with the turning of the pages.
While the first half of the collection plays with myth and history – including May Day rituals and the Otmoor Riots against enclosure in 1830 – the second half introduces more contemporary vocabularies, connecting Otmoor to now:
Dark webs encode surprise: the tip of a system’s
critical transitions, poised, then instantly
transformed, as filings magnetise, or continents fold
and drift, framing new maps, possible worlds.
These ‘dark webs’ and ‘new maps’ gesture towards virtual worlds encoded into the land. This kind of thinking is extended in the prose poem ‘Dirty Typography’, in which crowded lines of paratactic clauses create a ‘dense meander’ through a ‘force field that tangles the eye’. It is in these more experimental recesses of Otmoor, in which ‘all matter vibrates’, that Attwooll and Walton most clearly advocate paying closer attention to the minute processes that make up a whole.
A standout poem from the collection, in both its skill and its strangeness, is ‘The Painted Floor’, which ‘refracts’ text from John Buchan’s 1931 novel The Blanket of the Dark. The ten four-line stanzas form a kind of ‘mosaic’, inviting multiple trajectories as the narrative unfolds. Superstition and dream collide in a synesthetic ‘dazzle’, in which:
eye loses detail
no wandering vapour
its scents and its silence
on dark tesserae
(‘The Painted Floor’)
Strong aural rhythms drive the poem forward as a chant or a spell made by the ‘wild and bewildering’ girl who dances on the Painted Floor. However, this magical quality is tempered by the unembellished, grid-like patterns of Walton’s illustration, as well as the emptiness of the Painted Floor at the end of Buchan’s original text. These different verbal and visual sources, both on and off the page, allow folkloric and material aspects of place to be woven together. As a ‘dense meander’, Otmoor serves as a primer for the varied terrain being explored in contemporary landscape poetry. Instead of offering new directions, it suggests the value of revisiting.