Lines of Sight.
Shearsman Books: Exeter UK, 2009.
In his history of archaeology,
William H. Stiebing, Jr. suggests that the science can be traced back
to “Renaissance humanism, interest in biblical history, the emergence
of a scientific understanding of the world and its universe, early ethnographic
and ethno logical studies, and art appreciation, among others”
(Stiebing, Jr. 1993, 22)
Archaeologist, Christopher Tilley, adds, “This sense of the past,
cumulatively building on itself since the Renaissance, marks a new consciousness
in which humanity becomes both object and subject of knowledge.”
While, as a “hard”
science, archaeology begins with seventeenth-century English geologist
Robert Hooke, and Italian physician Nicholas Steno, both of who identified
fossils as the remnants of once-living creatures, as opposed to remnants
of a biblical flood, I would trace archaeology’s roots back to
the modulated voices of ancient bards who sang of civilizations older
than theirs, such as Homer’s Iliad, the epic tale of the destruction
Lindsey Clarke, a modern bard,
tells of the hero Odysseus and his men leveling the walls of Troy. Finding
a “vacant skull” in the rubble, “overwhelmed by a
black sense of the futility of human endeavour,” Odysseus thinks:
“Who could now tell how
much wit and love and courage might have flourished inside that cup
of bone before its owner came to fight and die beneath the walls of
Troy? And the Troy at which he had fought was older than Priam’s
Troy, probably older than Leomedon’s too. So how many wars must
have been fought hereabouts over how many centuries? And must another
Troy rise one day above the rubble of these walls only to be destroyed
in turn as some new army raised its might against the city? Did nothing
Although modern archaeologists
zeroed in on measuring and carefully documenting the past, “listing
the attributes of a house, a pot, an axe or a grave does not allow one
to arrive back at these things. The textual embodiment of material cultural
is always partial, a reduction of complexity. It also goes substantially
beyond the pot, etc., because it transports it into an entirely different
medium, a medium which then sets to work on it.” (Tilley,
In this her sixth book, Frances
Presley finds inspiration from women archaeologists like Dina Portway-Dobson,
but especially Hazel Eardley-Wilmot, who worked on “Exmoor’s
special puzzle.” (Eardley-Wilmot,
1983). Presley explains:
“For those who don't
know, what is unique about the stone settings is that they are not
the familiar stone circles, longstones or stone rows, but they are
a variety of roughly geometric shapes, and sometimes even apparently
random. These characteristics make them particularly appealing to
a contemporary poet and the curiosity of these strange configurations
is part of the pleasure of being puzzled. The puzzle of the Neolithic
stone settings is only one of the puzzles which I explore in the
sequence, and it is the framework which opens out a whole series
of associated concerns, which form the layers of debris and complication,
both on site and in the archaeological texts.” (Presley,
For this review I will exemplify
Presley’s more conservatively designed poems, such as “Stones
smallest in front
Words as unworked stones, what
Japanese Shinto calls “true rocks,” which “must not
be retouched by human hands…for (their) purpose is to express
the world just as it is, and its very essence.” (Berthier.
2000, 44) Placed mainly in the Britain’s Early Bronze
Age,(2100-750 BCE), these lines and circles of stones are “small
explosions on a calm surface,” (Presley. 2006)
that “became the image and symbol of being.” (Eliade.
1962. 44) With language that’s spare and green as Exmoor’s
countryside of “heather and bracken, slopes and valleys, dangerous
bogs…but quiet moorland, not jagged, almost somnolent” (Burl.
1993, 88), the poet literally sets out, “with the sheer
physical pleasure, or discomfort, of exploring the layout of the stones,
not to mention the sheer frustration of not finding them.” (Presley,
She visits Porlock Circle on a
blustery Spring day:
blown over with
declension of fractals
finding its lake in the dipping stone
Dark clouds scudding across the
sky, cold rainwater fills and spills over the stones’ shallow
this natural geological
Here stones torque into a linguistic
turn. Is her thought of how an escalator's steps swallow each other
in a recombinatory illusion?
As I ponder this,
wind heave lifts
lifts plates throws rain
scatter across the page (23)
There is the problem of holding a poem together, especially on a windy
day, and the temptation to let it fly. She continues—
across the page
and that may be the problem (23)
Concrete Poetry, or “shaped
poems,” were made famous in modern times by French poet, Guillaume
Apollinaire. Although in several poems, such as “Stone settings”
(13) and “Stone
settings x 3,” (15), Presley parses and “scatters”
words “across the page,” they aren’t shaped, as are
many concrete poems, but remain linear.
After an obscure pun, Presley
concentrates on what’s at hand—
hold pad down with
follow sheep into the hollow
of bog reed bottom (23)
Presley alternates between cognitive
flights and pragmatic notations, all of which are interesting in her
development of an archaeologically-driven poetry. As Christine A. Finn
says, “there are problems for the pragmatist applying scientific
rigors to reach one conclusion or interpretation, but increasingly less
so for archaeologists open to the suggestion that the interpretative
process is active and contingent.” (Finn.
Even when she is less than original, obviously imitative and
incorrigibly playful, with her erudition breaking out like hives, her
feet may be planted in boggy ground, but they also rise to run at the
sun’s shadows. Or is it the upright stones themselves? In fact,
what makes Presley not just a good poet, but an important one, is her
picking up a thread dropped after the Romantic Period (1770-1830), when
“many of the poets were intensely interested in science, and many
of the scientists in poetry.” (Dyson. 2009, n.p.)
But Lines of Sight is more than
just a book on the stones of England’s Exmoor (whose name is a
coincidentia oppositorum; that is, more of what has expired, a name
suited to the practice of archaeology!), it also contains a section
titled, “Female Figures,” based on “the rare presence
of female figurative statues in public spaces and their significance.
They can also be seen as a modern version of Neolithic longstones.”(88)
They can also be seen as political statements. So, Presley has
two poems in this section on England’s former Prime Minister,
Margaret Thatcher: “Thatcher at the Guildhall”—
your pupils are
between the eyebrows
lost in a nostril
tucked under the coiff.
And, “Thatcher in the House,”
on which Presley notes, “There are two statues of Margaret Thatcher,
both intended for the House of Commons, although normally statues are
commissioned after a minister’s death.”(88)
Although Presley is inspired by
women archaeologists, her work doesn’t fall into the postmodern
category of Feminist Archaeology, which, according to Marie Louise Strig
Sørensen, means “that the process of generating knowledge,
and how gender plays into this and is actively utilized and incorporated
into that process, is seen as just as significant as any knowledge claim
that may result from it.” (Sørensen.
Of course, as a poet, she would ply her own course, splitting words
as if sledging rocks, honing stones to their cloudy roots.
I will end where the author ends,
with a poem titled “Two Flames.” It was inspired by Julian
of Norwich, an anchoress and author who lived from 1342 until sometime
after 1416. We don’t know much about her life, only that her cell
was attached to the parish church of St. Julian, from which she took
her ordination name, somewhat like Chinese Zen Masters took their name
from the mountain they “opened.” (Heine,
2001). “The cell,” wrote Frudo Okulam, “which
the anchoress entered upon enclosure was a small house attached to a
church, chapel, hospital, or monastery. Usually it had two rooms, a
bedroom and a parlor, and two windows, one looking into the church and
one toward the outside.” (Okulam. 1998,16)
Presley’s poem is dedicated,
“for Alina who is one.” In Greek, Alina means “beautiful.”
I will begin in the middle, where—
the plot begins
before the Madonna and child
before plot lifting
or shop lifting
it begins with thinking
what is she thinking? (112)
Julian was one of several mystics
of the Middle Ages who saw “the motherhood of God.” Indeed,
according to Caroline Walker Bynum—
“The idea of God as
mother is part of a widespread use, in twelfth-century spiritual
writing, of woman, mother, characteristics agreed to be ‘feminine,’
and the sexual union of male and female as images to express spiritual
truths; the most familiar manifestation of this interest in the
‘female’ is the new emphasis on the Virgin in doctrinal
discussions and especially spirituality.” (Bynum.
Two flames, then, can be two sexes?
two flames twins
one strong and tall
the other smaller and reflex
mine the pushing sucking
Two sexes self-contained. Julian
of Norwich lived when, in the words of Thomas L. Long, “medieval
discourse allowed the trope of a female gender God paradoxically at
the moment when misogynist discourse and practice were becoming more
severe, a repressive practice based in part on hierarchical distinctions
of nature.” (Long,
1995) So, Presley looks back to when “gender fluidity”
in the Christian tradition; indeed, in Monotheism itself, had a little
more room to breathe. But who is Alina? I remain puzzled.
Built of stones, the walls of Julian’s
cell return us to Exmoor and its extraordinary stones, such as Culbone,
Triscombe, Caratacus, et al., that Presley set to verse, brings us to
another question: If someday Exmoor’s stones disappear, would
Presley’s poems allow us to see them again,
as Homer rebuilt the walls of Troy in our imagination?
“A work can be ‘psychological’
or ‘visionary’ in either recording the collective conscious
of its age, or by being profoundly traced by archetypal, sublime influences.”
(Rowland. 2005, 209) However, deeply thought out poems such
as Presley’s seem to be both psychological and visionary, as they
contain the fluidity of their age, yet can’t escape the stony
weight of their archetypal implications.
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