REVIEW by Lydia Fulleylove (text), Colin Riches (images)

NWR Issue 106


Like the fluctuating boundaries of the estuary itself, this book is a shape-shifter, flowing between poetry and prose, words and images. It’s an artistic response to the River Yar estuary in the west of the Isle of Wight, and takes the form of poems and diary entries by Fulleylove, and eight colour plates of artwork by Riches, who uses natural materials in the creation of his sensual, evocative images, from moss and sheep dung to blackberry juice and estuary mud.

The Yar estuary is both a wildlife sanctuary and a working mixed farm and Fulleylove’s words trace the passage of a year, detailing not just the shifting water and landscapes, but also the farming year. She makes space for other voices too, splicing the farmworkers’ words into her diary entries. There is no idealisation of rural life here and no sense that the natural world offers any straightforward consolation to harried human lives. Much of the farm material is concerned with the sale and slaughter of cattle and the troubled feelings that are provoked by the process of caring for animals that are ultimately going to be killed. Initially the poet is given permission to watch the departure of the herd, which will be loaded onto two giant articulated lorries and taken by ferry to the mainland. However her poem ‘The day they went’ begins with the lines ‘Better if no strangers are here, / bound to be a bit emotional.’

The book is haunted by the sense that the presence of humans means death and destruction for other species. In ‘Two views of a hare on roads to the Yar’, the poet watches a running hare with a sense of awe at its ‘slant flared ears, powerful haunches, speed of swerves.’ Later that same day she finds it by the side of the road, ‘eyes clotted with blood, its back gashed, smashed.’

Some of her poems feel like loosely shaped notes and tentative explorations of ideas and feelings rather than finely wrought final drafts, but they have an ebb and flow that makes them of a piece with both the diary entries and the protean subject matter. It’s in the diary entries that Fulleylove seems to put most pressure on language, such as her description of the curlew’s cry as the ‘sound-mark of the estuary’, or the estuary as ‘a twisting, many legged lizard’.

Fulleylove works as a writer in prisons, and some of the most poignant ideas in this collection come from her experiences with prisoners. She takes some dried leaves in to the prison hospital: ‘What the men most want to do with the leaves is smell them.’ One man has recently had a leg amputated, and he reminisces about ‘how different kinds of leaves have different sounds as you shuffle through them.’ The natural world may not offer easy consolation, but there’s something about it that we crave. Many of us yearn to be among other species than our own, to feel the wind on our faces and the silky touch of river water on our limbs.

Another preoccupation in Estuary is with naming, both in terms of the local flora and fauna, and also parts of the landscape itself. Each field has its own name which makes reference to some small piece of history or human association: ‘Peter’s Field, Orchard Field, Home Ground and Barn Field’. Fulleylove writes of ‘Names that memory the land’, but these associations could be under threat, since big businesses are buying up farmland: ‘They may know nothing about farming and everything about money.’ What would be lost hardly needs spelling out. To be to be able to care for and protect the land beneath our feet and the water flowing around us, we must know and understand it: ‘What would it be like to live there by a tidal river? You would watch the continual uncovering, recovering. You would begin to know the river by heart.’

Vicky MacKenzie writes for New Welsh Review both in print and online, lives in Scotland, and is writing a novel about John Ruskin.


previous review: Red Love: The Story of an East German Family
next review: Local Therapy: Stories & Parables from Algeria and Ham & Jam and A Pearl


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