The current exhibition at CCA features one of my poems ‘John Clare sees the early crops, 2018’, which is an erasure of the Clare poem ‘The Flood’. You can read it here. Clare is witnessing and describing the seasonal flooding in winter from the vantage point of a bridge. The violence of the movement of the partially-frozen water is such that it shakes the bridge as it passes through, and strips the ‘new ploughed lands’ of its topsoil, creating ‘white foam brown crested’ waves.
Reading the poem makes me feel like I’ve been thrown in the sea. Although I have never seen anything quite like it in my corner of the Fens, I can picture it through Clare’s words. It was part of the seasonal experience of the Fens, and is to a certain degree in some places, brought home to me by the walk at Sutton Gault, in the video above. This is a walk we took in winter, when the flood plains stretched away endlessly, and we walked out on a ridge in the midst of it.
This Clare poem brought into focus the conflict I sense about what the Fens most authentic manifestation is. We connect with, and describe landscape, through familiar topographical markers: this field, that row of hedges, these beasts that graze here. The distinction between land and water is the most basic differentiation we can describe. And yet the boundary between these two elements is constantly negotiated in this part of the country. It isn’t just the wetlands, and the seasonal flooding. It’s the way in which, after rain, groundwater breaks the surface of a ploughed field, as if it wants to take the land back underwater. Or the way the ground is constantly being eroded by the floods but more frequently, the wind. The body that lay before John Clare is now peeled back to reveal its inner organs, like those early modern anatomy illustrations, in which the corpse demurely holds open its flap of skin to display what is beneath.
I think I might be getting carried away.
To go back to the Clare poem, one of the ways I see the landscape I am seeing, is through his eyes. I can feel like I am trying to see all the different expressions of the landscape before my eyes; flooded, dry, prehistoric. Clare was doing a bit of this himself as he evoked the Fens of his childhood, or the Fens before enclosures. Imagining a different version of the Fens is at the heart of persuading us to the value of, say, the Great Fen project. It is tempting to describe an historical moment as encapsulating the true nature of the Fens. In my poem, I wanted to bring John Clare to see the modern Fens, to witness, in particular, the Fens-as-ocean which is the early crops protected by rippling sheets of white plastic. I hope you can get a sense of it in the below video.
That is one of the reasons why, in my erasure, I couldn’t black out Clare’s words entirely. His articulation of the Fens is still there. The other reason is just that I love the poem. I hope I have an opportunity to read ‘The Flood’ on Thursday night.