Tuesday 8 February 2022

History and place, Judi Sutherland's Following Teisa

As Judi Sutherland mentions in the introduction to her new book-length, beautifully illustrated poem, Following Teisa (The Book Mill Press, 2021), rivers have long played an important role in U.K. poetry. From Wordsworth to Oswald, water in general is perhaps more present and prevalent as a symbol, an image, a leitmotif or even a theme in itself than in other countries. This might well because the poets in question are living on an island or in a dodgy climate, of course. However, leaving aside attempts at cod psychology, the fact remains that Sutherland is acknowledging and tapping into a rich seam.

History and the significance of place are both important cornerstones of this collection. The title itself, for instance, references an 18th Century long poem about the River Tees which was titled Teisa, Sutherland explores our relationship with the evolving role of our surroundings. In doing so, her perspective is also crucial, as explained in the following extract from the introduction:

…I moved to Teesdale in 2014 and felt dreadfully homesick for my previous village near the Thames. I started walking by the Tees as a way of getting to know and love my new environment and decided to repeat Anne Wilson’s poetic journey for a different generation…

In other words, Sutherland engages as an outsider. There’s no forced attempt at vernacular, for instance. Instead, she invites us along on her own exploration of the River Tees, portraying it in language that’s both rich yet deft, as is indicated by the opening lines to the poem itself:

How it wells up from nowhere to chase
gravity downhill, becomes a rill,
a rickle of old stones, then hurtles rocks,
purls and pools in reed…

There’s huge skill present here, not just in the assonance, alliteration and internal rhyme, but in the precise way it’s all patterned and  interlinked, one device starting before the previous one has come to an end: downhill-rill/rill-rickle/rickle-hurtle/hurtle-purls/purls-pools. The effect is to mirror the onrushing movement of water.

In thematic terms, the poem also evokes tensions between manmade features and the natural world. Here’s one such instance:

…Below the concrete dam, a dry spillway,
while the river is re-birthed – an indignity
of outfall – with barely time to find its feet before
tumbling at forty-five degrees, a whitewater
staircase with a grand balustrade of columned rock.

Those tensions are then placed in historical context, starting from the point of departure of the allusive title and stretching throughout the book. Some references are closer to the present day…

…Once, a whole wartime platoon
of lowland men was washed away,
with their bridge pontoons, at Barne…

Others, meanwhile, engage with a more distant past:

...Above the town, a stand of pines on a barrow,
Bronze Age elders whose watchful eyes
follow. Turn around, you’ll swear they’ve shifted
in their rootball, their wooden footfall
silent on the hill. In comes the Lune
from its lonely dale, escaping the broad dams
of Selset and Grassholme...

Throughout Following Teisa, Judi Sutherland portrays the interaction of the River Tess with people over the course of history. Her achievement in this poem lies in her ability to carry us along and immerse us in her psychogeographic exploration, inviting us to reassess our own surrounding and their own significance in our lives, all this on top of bringing us a book that’s a gorgeous object in itself. Thoroughly recommended! 

1 comment:

  1. A fabulous review - thoroughly agree with everything you say.