Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Roadkill on very flat roads and Poetry

Yesterday I was driving through the farthest flung reaches of the fens* as I am wont to do in the course of work. It was glorious, the sun was shining, the wind for once wasn’t bustling in from the Urals in its Dr Zhivago overcoat and the odd cock pheasant was wandering purposefully across the road. Why does a pheasant cross the road? To give himself an adrenalin rush, for the sense of being on the wrong side of the track, the closest he can get to pretending to be a night club transvestite chicken, who knows? Out in the flatlands I have seen enough equally flat wildlife to make a rich deep textural chapbook of residual fur and feathered poems. I have cause to know that a few fen people do not flinch or slow in the face of passing wildlife, but actively speed up. This makes for rich pickings for a poet as we are often drawn to dead wildlife. The image is irresistible, something squashed by the inexorable wheel of mechanised humanity that demands the search for a new way of saying ‘dull-eyed’ or ‘the final tremor of stilled wings’.
Don Patterson in a recent article for Blinking-Eye wrote that, after reading three hundred poems as the judge of a competition, he was strangely drawn towards a poem entitled "To My Dog Benjy, Killed by a Landrover Outside My House" (it carried the footnote: "Benjy was a cocker spaniel"). He did, however he continues, change his mind after a decent night’s sleep. Another poet I know has written a poem in which there is a stanza about a whole group of poets being lured to their death by one dead rabbit during a Ted Hughes Workshop. At readings fellow poets in the audience always laugh heartily, perhaps because it is rather close to the bone or at least the bleached femur of some mangled badger. A flat-packed roadside bunny could be the default setting to which we poets return when all other creative synaptic pathways are blocked. A Norwegian work colleague once told me that she had hit an enormous elk that had wandered onto a night road outside Trondheim. Fortunately she was fine, as was the temporarily stunned elk but the car was damaged beyond repair. When she told me this story I admit to being somewhat envious of Norwegian poets; so much larger wildlife to cross the road, more exciting roadside events to ponder over and totalled Saabs to eulogise.

* For any reader unfamiliar with the geography of the United Kingdom, The fens I am referring to are in East Anglia ( just inside the backside of mainland Britain as you contemplate the map and view it as someone sitting down and clutching a non-existent steering wheel). It is flat here, not given to woodland or sweet thatched cottages clustered around a village green. In fact many fen villages are long and thin as the houses straggle along the old sheep tracks that offer some vestige of solid foundations. The fens produce extraordinary sugar beet, carrots and celery plus men, who if they are from old local families, have evolved to have short legs and long arms, so helpful in the picking of such root crops.Historically it was a wet marshland where the locals caught eels , hunted ducks and generally caught the ague and malaria.Hereward the Wake had great fun leading the poncy French Normans who did not like getting their feet wet into these marshes and losing them, literally. In the seventeenth century some rich capitalist types with connections in all the right places who could get all the right permits (does that sound universally familiar ?)were allowed to keep any land they drained.Much digging of huge dykes ensued, mostly by Scottish prisoners of war and later Dutch prisoners of war which must have pissed them off no end as it was the Dutch engineers who were busy helping afore mentioned capitalists design the drainage system. The locals known as Fen Tigers pulled down the dyke walls and the windmills at night as fast as they could be built during the day but they were fighting a losing battle.Money talks, money gets you land, money permanently alters the total ecology of a significant area of the countryside ( hmmmm again does that sound familiar ). However it could be that the acres of rich black soil stretching out to the horizon and the proliferation of polytunnels, Peculiar and Strict Baptist Chapels in the middle of nowhere and drive-in MacDonalds next to cinemas with ten screens is indeed progress and may be better than eating jellied eels, the need to sleep under a mosquito net whilst taking mind bending anti-malaria products and the killing of ducks (I seem to have come full circle here to slaughtered wildlife)

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