On 31 August 2021, Charlotte Wetton communed with Irish poet Ellen Taylor, alongside Geneviève L. Walsh who resurrected US Beat poet Diane di Prima, at an online event [Not] in Halifax. You can watch the whole event back here, and read Charlotte's resurrection and poems in response to Taylor below.
Ellen Taylor published her only book of verse in Dublin, in 1792. It was, in fact, published without her knowledge or consent, as a fundraiser for her. What little we know about her life we gain from the introduction to this book. She came from a very poor, rural family in Queen’s County (now County Laois). After the death of her parents and brother she took work as a servant to a wealthy family. We know that Taylor did get hold of books, reading Milton, Young and Thomson, and her work also contains classical references. Despite her lowly social and financial position - apparently with little chance of improvement - Taylor’s work sings with the assertion of her own emotional and intellectual self, rising above bereavement, financial precarity and servitude.
My poem is inspired by ‘Written by the Barrow Side, Where She Was Sent to Wash Linen’, which you can read below and here. It’s such an authoritative, beautiful declaration of an artist’s spirit, trapped in the wrong job, struggling for survival. To have such a piece from a servant-woman, from over 200 years ago, is an incredible insight. It’s a voice and a sentiment so rarely heard. Working-class women poets have been systematically written out of the literary canon; they are even harder to find in anthologies and educational syllabi than upper-class women of the period like Anne Finch and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. But, of course, their work is of comparable quality. Not only should it be studied critically in its own right, but it can offer us a fresh perspective on a literary period and society which has been defined by male, upper-class viewpoints.
In my commissioned piece I have explored Taylor’s underlying metaphor of the river as free-flowing thought and used this to articulate the understated violence of our social and financial systems. I was so affected by her personal poem that I found myself addressing her directly in my piece. Her concerns are as vital and urgent for poets today as they were then - how to keep your artistic and intellectual flame burning in harsh economic times.
Taylor's work is inaccessible to anyone without university library access so if you're interested in learning more about her, get in touch on Twitter @CharPoetry or via email at charlotte.wetton[AT]postgrad.manchester.ac.uk.
The River Lethe/Barrow/Calder
by Charlotte Wetton
Cou’d cold insensibility through my whole frame take place…
I perform an experiment for Ellen Taylor with my left foot,
sitting on a convenient rock in the sunshine
I submerse my foot in the River Calder and wait
the cold lips of the water round my calf
a bearable discomfort
I notice two bricks at the bottom of the river
I notice tansy and green alkanet
now, strangely, my skin feels warmer
wearing a boot of stone
I hear ducklings in the reeds
it’s not the skin that’s cold, but inside
red and white strands and planes
abstractions invisible inside
the red hidden heat of me
not pain, slower and softer than pain
filling my mind
mind circling back
to this near-dead
the urge to pluck it out is strong
yet the muscles inside reluctant to move
even to flex
Ellen is right, I can think of nothing else
drawing back into myself
wholly present in my own foot
hard to thought-flow
I yank my foot out and touch it
cold as metal
like someone else’s
Under the water
the paved stones of the weir
dug out, cut
loads hauled heaved
burdens worked in cold mud and water
dug and sunk
levered, jammed into place
packed down, massed heft hammered,
sunk in base river mud
just rows of set stones
pressed under weight of water.
Ellen, can you not slip under the surface
your whole frame
fit the angle of your shoulder
against this squarish rock
linen unfurling through the water
it is possible to breathe
with only your nose and mouth above water
if you align yourself to the current
your thighs like two logs washed down
in the peat-tainted water
pebble-spine swaying fluid
Is it not possible to enjoy a river from underneath?
Ellen: whose thoughts alight like wag-tails
in flash-scatterings & foam specks
in burbling rills and runnlets
gurgling rucklings downstream
ripple dimple in the river
shimmy round rocks
silver fish quick flip
& twirl-away twigs
gnats change tack
every new idea
doodling a dance on the
light glance glint
of the peat-rich river
tiny brown boat of a sycamore leaf
furled and crisp
carries away Ellen with her river-weed hair
else why my soul enchant…
dirty linen basket forgotten on the bank.
Two logs forced down by the current
sodden stubbed trunks
driven over the weir, rammed against the bank
bend or break
ceaseless dulcet violence
tansy and green alkanet on the banks
slower and softer than pain
ducklings in the reeds
subdued blood gelid
the river rolling your skull
to a small round pebble
stone-sunk body settling into silt.
This creative response was commissioned as part of Charlotte Wetton's resurrection of Ellen Taylor for a séance [Not] in Halifax on 31 August 2021, on the Dead [Women] Poets Society national tour 2019-21. At the same séance, Geneviève L. Walsh communed with US Beat poet Diane di Prima - find a feature and three new poems in response to di Prima here, and watch an edited recording of the event below.
This project is supported by Arts Council England. Illustrations by Lily Arnold.
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