You can all but see the grin on Richard Skelton’s face, even by email. You have asked for an electronic copy of Reliquiae #1, and he replies: “We’re a little behind the curve in making electronic editions.” He might have gone on to say, This book was made for paper, not a computer file. Make it your own. Take it outside and let the contents wrinkle with humidity. Stress the binding, dog-ear the pages, take notes in its margins, spill coffee on it. After the “gradual surrender/to stones, dirt and grasses,” recycle it, and let the pulp serve another publisher.
Before we examine the book any further, we should raise a key point about U.S. readers. Those of us on the morning side of the Atlantic do not share the European taste for site-specific art. Our reviews at times mention the strong sense of place, but we use the term descriptively, not in praise or criticism: an unjudging adjective similar to citing ISBN numbers and page lengths. We prefer art to be malleable and without totem. For proof of this, look to the focus-group fairlyland schmaltz of The Walt Disney Corporation, or the four-decade dominance of the Star Wars franchise, to say nothing of the recent merging of the two. Our bookshelves are staffed by perennially bestselling authors Dan Brown, James Patterson and Dr. Seuss, whose escapist prose could be set anywhere. Perhaps overdevelopment has stripped us of our anchoring spaces altogether, or perhaps daily life is far too tangible: our commutes too long, our vocations too hectic, our social time too sparse, and with too little return. This way, when we decide to check out, we check all the way out.
Imagine, then, our reaction upon reading Noor de Winter’s essay “Landscape as the Origin of Music.” Its thesis is clear: “The artist is…someone through whom a vision of something else can be transported, translated transformed. This requires restraint and sensitivity to place.” Reliquiae may be great reading for you, but it is therapeutic for us.
Even the titles tell a clear story. The collection begins with “Salt” and ends with “The Other Salt.” Between these bookends are “The Other World” and “Where There is Nothing, There is God,” among many others. Some of the material is previously unpublished, or reprinted from limited first editions. Other content is more than a century old; as the cover promises, “I sing a little song, someone else’s worn, little song, but I sing it as my own.” The press release states that volume one is the first of “an annual journal of poetry, short fiction, non-fiction, translations and visual art,” but it is much more, inevitably. Fluid Radio newcomers can hardly spend an afternoon here without reading some mention of, some comparison to Richard Skelton; his tireless cello experiments, his handcrafted packaging, his forays into prose and publishing, and yes, his personal life. You cannot help but expect Reliquiae to be a three-way balance between thematic diligence, curious wandering and the microscopic detail of a poet. You wouldn’t be far off: two creation myths stand alongside a dirge for an extinct fox. A long account of hawks in flight prefaces what might be the most original ghost story in a generation.
We approached Skelton about reviewing one book and he sent us two, the other being Field Notes #1. Anthologizing four out-of-print chapbooks, Field Notes finds Skelton and Autumn Richardson writing together and separately while visiting Tentsmuir, Anglezarke, Ballyconry, and other destinations. For those looking for assurances of the strong sense of place, this is it. Notes begins with “Typography of the Shore,” which contrasts the infinity of the coast and the finiteness of the printed word. “Revenants/on the fossil shore” touch the reader’s hand with salt and mussel (go ahead and taste your fingers after handling the book: that’s the point, or at least one of them). The two writers use that word exactly twice, revenants, and for those keeping score they use autumn only once: “Do [the gulls] sense the downward cycle too? The turn away from the sun/The descent into autumn.” It is impossible that either is coincidence. What were we just saying about aesthetic detail?
The finest piece here is the last and longest–“The Flowering Rock,” co-written over the course of seven months in 2010–but do not overlook the shorter ones. Richardson absolutely dazzles with “Induviae,” written in St. Helen’s Wood in 2008. It is easy to disregard how much the fragrance of rot constitutes our forest experiences; easy, that is, without passages such as “waters bruise through ribs of soil/cough up leaves of oak and/beech, torn stalks of bracken.” Skelton also summons bracken with his 2010 notes of The West Pennine Moors, titled “Into the Bare Moorland” (“let the moorland/go to bracken/and others/will follow”). But the 22-page closing piece is just astonishing, following the coastal “blooming minutiae” along their lifespans in “The physic garden/four centuries derelict.” Three times Skelton and Richardson list groups of ten species–fauna and flora–alongside their Irish names. The plants are born in shifting ocean colors and of course die that way, while the animals “cannot endure on memory and repulsion alone.” Skelton and Richardson conclude: “If the liver has a sound/it will be this sound/the drag and suck of waves/waters filtering through the weed/through sand…turning grit to glass.” This is not the vanity project of a well-known composer looking to capitalize on name recognition. It is stark, important verse set to the music of blackthorn winds.
Skelton and Richardson are every bit the editors that they are writers and naturalists. Reliquiae takes the enduring prose of W.B. Yeats, Sophia Morrison and Knud Rasmussen, and presents them with Richardson’s translations, Mark Valentine’s contemporary fiction, Mark Brennan’s oil paintings, and Skelton’s own essay “With His Coat So Gray.” So many short works by such diverse talent–and spanning twelve decades–should never deliver the way Reliquiae does. But the birch trees and birch groves, the sodden woods and dank loams hitch us for day trips to Inuit myths, Finnish legends, and poems about competing ravens. U.S. readers will be duly set straight by Noor de Winter’s essay “Landscape as the Origin of Music,” and its sudden gambit: “Inspiration is not the moment where the artist has an idea…it is permanent: just as landscape is always there, always available.” I love the conclusion, too: “It is perhaps the lot of the artist-as-listener to acknowledge the deficiency of any particular realisation of their theme. There are always more notes than their system of tuning will allow.” The tuning pegs de Winters has in mind could be cello, guitar, vocal, percussive, clay, oil, typewriter, intellectual, intangible, multimedia.
Many of the works span only a page or two. Morrison’s “The Cormorant and the Bat” (1911) briefly recounts a Manx tale of ambition in the face of nature. Francis Ledwidge’s “The Herons” (1919) ends sharply, visually. Each of the “Four Inuit Songs” (1930) reads quickly and absorbs slowly: “I had feared my eyes/would be too weak/too weak/to see all of the beauty.” Of the longer works, Mark Valentine closes Reliquiae with a weird, desolate and wholly unforgettable piece about the search for a lost compound, which has become all but immaterial with time. Yet it’s not clear what to make of Valentine’s other contribution “For She Will Have Her Harvest,” another search that haunts expertly until its final sentence: an abrupt question mark, literally and otherwise. Moreover, any compilation is at risk of crashing against individual preferences. Readers who value fewer, longer works over more and shorter ones will feel unmoored, which may not be accidental.
Yet taken as a whole, the first volume of Reliquiae is an inspired, grounded, and persistent anthology. “A blurring between human and place occurs.”