News/ 12 July 2019
Week of the Festival: Ledbury Poetry Festival, Ledbury, UK
Memories, Moments & Mingled Space
How French philosopher Gaston Bachelard influenced Margaret Adkins’ pamphlet Mingled Space, and the mingled spaces of Ledbury Poetry Festival.
How often we scrutinise an image immortalised in an old photograph, and then try to clip a date to that moment in time. Dates punctuate our past, and provide reference points for recounting a situation. Nevertheless, according to French philosopher Gaston Bachelard (1884–1962), to keep a memory sound, rather than locking it in time, we should fix it in the space we remember. Intimate exchanges define our experiences of inhabited space. The image of a meat and potato pie, for example, being lifted from the oven, or the touch of bark at the top of the apple tree, or the click of a latch, or striations of sunlight on a carpet…each takes us back to a space of intimacy. Such spaces tell us far more about our inner selves and our relationships with home than they do about our chronology.
I discovered Bachelard’s iconic text The Poetics of Space (first published in English for Penguin in 1964) during research for my recent BA degree at the University of Worcester. Charmed by his poetic re-imagining of the house as a metaphor for the human psyche, and his presentation of dwellings as epiphanous beings, I began to incorporate some of his ideas into my debut poetry pamphlet, Mingled Space (V. Press 2019), which features in a ‘20 Minutes with…’ event at this year’s Ledbury Poetry Festival.
Bachelard’s discussion on the location of light in the poetry of the house, I found particularly alluring. The notion that a lit house has human-like eyes at night is tantalising. Electric light allows anyone positioned outside the house to see inside, but for the occupant, outside appears black in the absence of streetlight. From this perspective, Bachelard considers a lamp to be vigilant when it is placed at the window; in other words, the lamp is like a watchman for occupants unable to see out. I adopted this image in my poem ‘It Watches for my Return’. It features a widow returning to an empty house. While still outside, she considers the emblematic lamp waiting for her, and reflects on her home’s changed character. Ruth Stacey’s illustration of the lamp on the pamphlet cover situates the reader on the outside, looking in to a lit ‘house’ of poems.
When Bachelard refers to the notion that ‘all that glows sees’, and gives us his image of the lamp keeping vigil, he conjures in my mind Rainer Maria Rilke’s lamps in his poem ‘The Vast Night’. The speaker is also positioned outside, and is clearly visible beneath a streetlamp gazing into a lit room until the occupants notice and close the shutters. In the hidden room, a baby cries, triggering a memory housed in the speaker’s childhood. His response is revelatory: he says, ‘I knew what the mothers / all around, in the houses were capable of–,’ and he intimates that he understands the origin of ‘inconsolable tears’ (The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell, Picador Classics, 1987). In the shuttered room, a watchful lamp can no longer ‘watch’, and the outside observer can no longer observe the intimate family scene. The poem speaks of interiority.
A hidden room signifies privacy: an interior space free from outside interrogation. Likewise, cameras cannot reach our interior being. The shuttered or draped window signifies home; it is a universal image. The hidden interior of home is the perfect space for understanding Bachelard’s view that ‘for a knowledge of intimacy, localization in the spaces of our intimacy is more urgent than determination of dates’. In other words, if we salt an intimate memory with the specifics of the space in which it happened, that snapshot (the entirety of what happened) becomes infused with the place and provides us with a deeper understanding of our history.
Inhabited space is the theme of Mingled Space. It focuses on real and imagined memories of interior and exterior spaces, and evolves in the way conversations evolve through listening to the stories of other people. Although the poems may at first appear disparate, they are designed to hang together like a conversation between strangers at a social gathering, where connections are made via pattern repeats across different experiences. To highlight this, within Mingled Space some motifs repeat, and a few words, phrases and images recur in different poems. My aim is to create a space where readers feel they are listening to various voices recounting individual experiences, and that they are dipping in and out of conversations: hence the title.
Bachelard encourages us to listen to images. In moments of active listening, we see, and have the capacity to not just make sense of the past and present, but to anticipate the future. Naturally, figurative language helps the listener to interpret and form enduring memories. The act of listening transfers images across space and across generations. How relevant this is to Ledbury Poetry Festival. Poets share imagery and lovers of poetry share spaces with many past and future ghosts who belong to the historic town.
Audiences who listen to poets in Burgage Hall, originally designed as a Congregational Chapel, occupy the space named after burgage plots: medieval strips of land on which modern Ledbury stands. Traces of tenures and sermons meld with contemporary poems. Fragments of old conflicts and faith form invisible layers in between modern performances.
In the centre of the town, the Master’s House was built in the fifteenth century as the residence for the Master of St. Katherine’s Hospital (founded in 1231). The hospital is long gone, yet modern audiences walking to the Master’s House move through spaces where the sick would have been carried to receive care, and where shrouded victims of the Black Death, awaited burial. Also, where the poor of ancient Ledbury would have received alms.
St Katherine’s Almshouses, rebuilt in the nineteenth century, stand within the medieval site. Pedestrians walk alongside this row of homes, where all the windows are constructed of several tiny panes set in lead. These windows have looked out onto the street for over one hundred and fifty years. The many panes of glass watch. They will have reflected sun on the day women of Ledbury walked arm-in-arm to vote for the first time. The same panes, suddenly bright in the small hours, will have signalled many sorrows. Inside, a lamp gives light to reread a letter, or to boil a kettle for reheating a hot water bottle, or to sip a cup of tea alone, beside a cherished photograph. These imaginings happen over and over worldwide: repetitions of human experiences occurring in the same spaces.
At Ledbury Poetry Festival, new, vibrant poems from across the globe mingle among relics that remind of a bygone age. If we consider Bachelard and regard bygone spaces instead of a bygone time, we imagine past people and past poets and notice moments of collision when their stories mingle with contemporary images of our current world. Images become localised in a room, in a small corner of a rural town accommodating a common desire to share, to create, to listen, to remember and to perceive. Needless to say, within the intimacy of any performance, no listener sits statically in a repository for spoken words, instead each becomes enmeshed as poetry concertinas the space.
Governance continually shape-shifts. Grand narratives persist. Space is perpetual. And so, although we might chamfer the space we inhabit, all that has gone before returns, and therefore remains, and all that is to come hovers in the doorway. Poetry is a lamp at the window of our mingled space. Poetry watches. Poetry foresees. When we are in the street, we must position ourselves to be able to see inside, to see what is lit behind the lamp.
Margaret Adkins ’ poetry appears in several anthologies, online zines and poetry magazines, most recently Prole and Under the Radar. In 2018 she was placed second in the Christabel Hopesmith Poetry Competition, marking 70 years of the NHS. Once a nurse and midwife, she graduated last year from Worcester University with a BA (Hons) in Creative Writing & English Literature. Mingled Space is her debut poetry pamphlet, based on her university portfolio that won the inaugural V. Press Poetry Prize.