Dig the Abbey – Part Three

With just two sessions left there is a sense of being on the home straight now. On the one hand the site is now quite familiar, on the other there always seems to be something new to write about or explore. One aspect of the Dig had been troubling me – how to convey the length of history which has been associated with the place. The Abbey itself dates from 827AD, the settlement predating that. A dress pin dating from the 8th century was discovered last week . Thinking about all the things which had not happened when it was first made, and worn, stretches and defies the imagination. Trying to write a poem which reflects that, taking in some one thousand three hundred years, concisely, is no easy task. I made a number of attempts, but all were swamped by the scale of time I was trying to encompass. Then good fortune intervened.

A poet whom I have met, and rate, Kim Moore, mentioned that she had met Julia Copus who had created a specific poetic form, the specular, which requires that from the mid -point of the poem every word contained up to that point must be used in the reverse order, although the punctuation may be varied in order for the structure to make sense. It is a hybrid of the musical concept of the cancrizan, but in literary form. Its ability to start at a point, go backwards, or forwards, and then return back to the start had obvious potential when it came to writing about an archaeological find which inevitably takes you back in time, but demands to be considered in a contemporary context.

My first attempt involved devoting a single line to every century that had passed between when the pin was made, and had then been found again, each line representing a line of historical strata. The result was satisfactory but suffered a few drawbacks. Firstly it became a list poem, secondly, as a consequence it was a bit dry and boring. My solution was to produce rhyming couplets which offered some specific advantages. The rhyming couplets became more interesting, and became linked, as time and events are linked. They also offered a sense of pace and rhythm. Last but not least it creates a brand new form of its own – the rhyming specular!

By common consent the specular is not an easy form to write in, so finding a subject for which it offered a device solution was most welcome. It works.I suspect it also has potential for dealing retrospectively with relationships, but that is for another day. For now, here is the world’s first rhyming specular:

Upon the Exhumation of an 8th Century Dress Pin .

A bronze dress pin appears in the ground
Two World Wars resound
Queen Victoria’s Empire gains pre-eminence
American War of Independence
Guy Fawkes fails and pays the price
Leonardo Da Vinci dies
Christopher Columbus discovers the New world
Chaucer ‘s Canterbury Tales are unfurled
Genghis Khan’s Mongols rise again
Notre Dame dominates the river Seine
The walls of the Tower of London soar
Bears in Britain are now no more
The end comes for Alfred the Great
Vikings storm Lindisfarne to pillage and take
Osanna’s nunnery kissed by the waterside
The Anker’s flow slips and slides

The Anker’s flow slips and slides
Osanna’s nunnery kissed by the waterside
The Vikings storm Lindisfarne to pillage and take
The end comes for Alfred the Great
Bears in Britain are now no more
The walls of the Tower of London soar
Notre Dame dominates the River Seine
Genghis Khan’s Mongols rise again
Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales unfurled
Christopher Columbus discovers the New World
Leonardo Da Vinci dies
Guy Fawkes fails and pays the price
American War of Independence
Queen Victoria’s Empire gains pre-eminence
Two World Wars resound
A bronze dress pin appears in the ground.

The Abbey itself positively oozes stories, some tantalisingly hinted at. A highly polished bronze plaque commemorates Lieutenant W. R Hill who died in World War One in 1918, but on the sixth of November, just five days before the end of the war, in Straslund prisoner of war camp, on Danholm island in the Baltic. How, and of what, is not clear. He also was the holder of the Military Cross, with bar, but again the circumstances are unknown. He attended Oakham School and won an exhibition to Corpus Christi college in Cambridge, so he came from a wealthy family was clever and brave. Intrigue and mystery is not exclusive to turned ground.

Day six was led by novelist Maeve Clarke, and for the first time we were given a guided tour of the gatehouse . The porters lodge was both cramped and cosy, his sense of power, determining who gained admission to the Abbey grounds, and who did not, was palpable.

Maeve tapped intot he spirit of story by asking us to create a back story to some of the items found in the “finds” box. Charlie Jordan and I were fortunate to have a partially damaged floor tile, and soon our imaginations ran wild:

Tile

It was discarded fractured
Now merely evidence with
Unseen fingerprints clinging
To crumbling mortar
The heat of raging palm long gone

It smells of nothing
No trace of the stench of revenge
Disfigured, the broken image of a cross
Rests uncertainly
Flaking edges eroding its purpose

Only one workshop remains, that of poet and archaeologist Jo Bell. It promises much.

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