Book review: Under The Rock: The Poetry Of A Place, by Benjamin Myers

Benjamin Myers PIC: Adelle Stripe
Benjamin Myers PIC: Adelle Stripe
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The absence of rabbits. Urban flight. Ted Hughes. The persistence of foxes – that totem in Hughes’ own work. Seventeenth century anarchists. Asbestos. The Yorkshire Ripper. Myalgic encephalomyelitis. The nature of rubbish tips. How water changes landscapes. Floods. Wild swimming. A communist postman. Jimmy Savile. Starfish sites. Daniel Defoe. The peculiarity of echoes. Benjamin Myers is nothing if not compendious in this exceptionally engaging and curious work. What unites it all is Scout Rock, above Mytholmroyd in Calderdale, West Yorkshire, where Hughes grew up. Having left the metropolis for the rural, Myers – a novelist, music journalist and poet – finds a new kind of looking. The book encompasses reportage, observation, natural history, poetry and basically anything he glances upon.

Myers is slightly slighting about what – alas – we must call the “New Nature Writing”. There’s a little dig at the “emerging ‘edgelands’ of recent cliché” (presumably a reference to Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts) and a diatribe against the “beautifully written, but over-precious” works that fail to tackle the “more insidious side of the landscape – the blood and guts of it”. Yet his work conforms to the contours of everything this new genre seems to do. It has a kind of grief in it – the eclogue as elegy – that will be familiar to readers of Helen Macdonald’s H Is For Hawk, Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun or Katharine Norbury’s The Fish Ladder. Despite his remarks, there have been many works that look at the way in which humans impact on landscape. The days of the kind of wilderness enthusiasm of, for example, the Scottish poet and writer Kenneth White are long gone. As such it joins such works as Nick Papadimitriou’s Scarp and Kathleen Jamie’s Findings. These more georgic texts often look at how nature is both tamed and resilient, breaking out in urban spaces, enclosed and plundered in the country.

The book’s style is unusual. Although it loops around the year, it was clearly written over different years. Myers acquires a dog – almost a staple of nature writing from Tarka The Otter onwards, an interface between the human and the not-human – and as he coaxes a bat back to life, Cliff the dog is busy beheading rabbits. Maybe we are more different than our animal cousins. Stylistically, it is very reliant on alliteration and assonance. Take, as a snippet, “valley or village, mountain or major city – will not remain as we know them now; their names will change with the altering terrain, gradually chiselled and chipped away by time and even re-sculpted in the changing shapes of our mouths, teeth and tongues”. Personally, I find the baroque craft of this writing quite beguiling – and it links Myers’ book to the old Anglo-Saxon verse forms and the work of the Gawain Poet – but I can understand that other readers might find it rather mannered. Other parts rely on a kind of hypnotic iteration, as in “man’s endless sculpting, shaping, colonising, divining, drifting, digging, mining, building, taming, quarrying and grazing”. In a way that little canticle summarises the entire book.

The book is interspersed with poetry, or, as he himself describes the works, “Field Notes”. He also describes them as “lists lifted from the landscape, narrative screen-grabs of a microcosmic world” and “missives from the mulch… postcards from the hedge”. They have a kind of haiku quality which is not to my taste in poetry: “I saw this. It made me think that. That’s enough (Ed.)” sort of thing. It is striking that the prose seems so much more layered and nuanced than these fleeting pieces of poetry. Given the book almost flaunts its encyclopaedic nature, I can see why they are here; but I would rather have spent more time with Myers himself.

The virtuoso section is on the flooding around Calderdale last year. This is formidably good journalism, linking the way in which Scout Rock has been manipulated to a sort of divine vengeance. It is also where Myers appears with less lassitude and more fortitude. The prose becomes as relentless as the rain and the rivers, and there is a genuine empathy and bewilderment.

Hughes looms as large as Scout Rock itself. Although Myers evokes him with all the Heathcliff-style machismo and brooding – and I think Myers relies too much on the problematic biography by Jonathan Bate – what he does evoke is a more vulnerable and innocent Hughes. Hughes himself wrote prose about the Calder Valley, and, as with his Birthday Letters, they are more revealing that the pyrotechnics of works like Crow. This is a startling, unclassifiable book. Perhaps my favourite moment is when Myers is returning home and sees in the dusk “a shape up ahead”. Thinking it a minatory crow, which “does not take fright in flight”, guarding the hill, there is a sublime bathos when he discovers it is “neither bone nor crow but a scrap of plastic, snagged, an empty bag. Flapping with laughter”. The merging of the industrial, the supernatural and the bucolic is what marks this book out as a new step in the “New Nature Writing”.

Under The Rock: The Poetry Of A Place, by Benjamin Myers, Elliot & Thompson, £16.99