Between the lines:
We meant to walk the wilder ways
Where footpath gave to fetid marsh
And skittering scree marked scraped palms
Up and out the gutted gorge to grassy fields beyond
That stretched for miles, mild, to Wenlock, marked
By stone walls that fell from styles moss-slick,
And littered with the bleached bones of last year’s lambs
Whose mothers stood and stared at our approach,
Lapwings took flight as our feet found
The smooth grooves of the holloway -
We crossed the border some days later, Wales
Winding on through dusk-dewed, jewelled hills,
Down lanes that looped through wet-grass fields,
Ducking through the hawthorn-hedges on the downey dens,
Stopped short by that soft sweet beauty
Of golden glinting light on flies, rising,
And filtering through those tall grasses whose
Meadow-spilt seeds clung slick to trouser legs,
Left trails damp and lush with pollen -
We sleep under sloped canvas soaked
By morning’s pearly light, now pure
The first beams loose through leaves
There is coffee, and the clip of cups,
The hiss of gas and the grateful first gulp,
The tight-face, just-awake, the light on the lake,
The tumbling out into day’s tawny beauty, early
And our own peace among the trees - now we go
Over hills vast as skies, valleys veering off below
Grass cropped and tufted, tousled by this
The whistling wind that hits us like
The palm of some great hand,
How small we are, slips of things soaked,
Somehow here, outraged by the vastness,
The possibility of these great naked hills -
Already on the train home this has faded all to legend,
Hwaet! How we touched the sea in Cardigan Bay, finally
Metal eats up miles that took us blistered days
Like they are nothing
We fly over them like they do not exist,
As the train cuts through like the thrust of some hot spear.
Analysis by Lydia Aldridge
The Marches is an abundantly evocative poem, profuse in rich scenic description and the motifs of transience, history and the traveller. Hannah Green takes us on a pilgrimage of sorts, spanning further than simply from A to B. The topography of the piece compasses both past and present, the traveller and the traversed, the expanse of the landscape is both widened and condensed in five stanzas. The title itself flits between meaning, both the physical act of ‘marching’ and the geographical position of the Welsh Marches, a term originally used in the Middle Ages, to denote the marches which lie between the borders of England and Wales; Green greets us with notions of movement, place and past – ideas which will fervently, yet calmly, flow through the poem as a whole.
We begin with a choice already made for us, the choice to walk the ‘wilder ways.’ What this entails exactly, is revealed line by line, step by step. The verb ‘meant’ itself implies a conscious decision to break away from what can be assumed as more conventional, modern routes, at once the connotations of ‘wilder’ signal to the past and the stream of archaism begins. We do not dawdle; alliteration aplenty drives us forward through the rhythms and music of the wilder side. The drawn-out meandering of walking the ‘wilder ways’ is then quickened to hurried small steps trying to outpace the ‘skittering scree’, and then all at once the great expanse of the ‘miles, mild’ brings an awe full deceleration once more. The movement created by Green’s delightful and dedicated alliterative prowess is so natural it almost evades notice – the ‘peewit’ call of the lapwing is almost overshadowed. There’s such a naturalness to the sound of ‘valleys veering’ and slumbering under a ‘sloped canvas soaked’, it’s rare to find such perfect description, to be able to visualise the scenery through sound.
Halcyon is the term that first came to mind when reading this poem through, the almost cinematic re-imagining of a perfect summer now captured forever in time is akin to that of Old English poetry. Indeed, there is a connection to the natural world that is almost archaic, similar to Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist, especially seen in the description of ‘bleached bones’ and the Anglo-Saxon relic of the ‘holloway.’ Though the final stanza lurches us towards the present, there’s the sense of walking through the past, inexplicably tied with the here and now. ‘Hwaet!’ the greatly disputed Old English phrase signals to the infamous opening of Beowulf, ‘how we touched the sea in Cardigan Bay’ is a direct nod to one of the most famous opening lines in English literature. Once again, this theme of the past intertwined with the present, the mingling of the ‘might of kings’ with the great expanse of Cardigan Bay is surprisingly fitting. This final allusion to what has come before also marks our traveller’s return to the here and now, days spent trekking through the body of the countryside are now eaten up by the ‘thrust’ of the train. The military imagery of ‘hot spear’ once again alludes to Old English texts of triumph and battle, casting modernity as the victor. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire also comes to mind once we come to the end of the poem, the sentiment of innovation and industry becoming the demise of the old traditions.
The topography of The Marches is boundless, not only do we travel countless days to reach Cardigan Bay, we touch upon old relics over tentative morning dew; Hannah allows us to journey along and experience those sacred moments spent in a realm where time is suspended. Perhaps without meaning to be, this poem is a gorgeous revival of the pastoral mode, its palette and orchestral qualities convey such a sense of reverence, we are gently reminded ‘how small we are’ and it is truly a comfort.
My own work is self-labelled as documentary photography, out of a lack of a better title. By carrying a camera daily, I aim to embody the spirit of the Brownie in making the means to photography ready to me at every moment, without obstruction – by doing so, I can take a photograph of anything that captures my eye and interests me enough to preserve. Any of us can do this these days, with a camera readily available in our pockets around the clock – and many of us do so without even thinking about it. Next time you take your phone out to take a photograph, whether it is of your friends or of something that caught your eye, think about how you are participating in the act of documenting your life through photography. Make prints of your favourites, display them on your walls, share them with your friends and family. Follow the tradition of those who came before you and took their own snapshots documenting their lives. Everyone is a documentary photographer today, and this is a good thing.