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Janet Sutherland: On Process

The poems included in LPM most recently (Issue Twenty Seven | Spring 2022 : from THE MESSENGER HOUSE – At Home 2020) are part of a much bigger project I have been working on since 2013, just published as The Messenger House (Shearsman Books, April 2023) a hybrid book containing, amongst much other material, the journals of my great-great-grandfather, George Davies, who set off on a journey to Serbia with his Queen’s messenger friend, Mr Gutch, in 1846 and again in 1847. Those journals form the heart of The Messenger House and were the starting point for the book which, during ten years of research, became more and more multi-layered. The more I researched and played with the material, the more I found the messages I wanted to bring to the fore, and that I wanted to do this by placing different strands of texts next to each other highlighting points of equivalence or difference.  

Some of the messages relating to the At Home sequence were about simple similarities:

– the plague quarantines, at the borders of the Austrian and Ottoman Empires, which figure prominently in George’s journals seemed to resonate with our own recent experiences of Covid.

– our human condition, our frailty, and how we live with impermanence lies at the forefront of George’s experience, Mr Gutch’s, and, of course, our own.

– how stuff just happens, then as now, out of the blue; I had planned go on a second trip from London to Hungary mirroring George’s journey but on the day we were due to depart I was booked in for a biopsy and we were corralled by Covid.

Some were about simple dissimilarities:

–all the other journeys in the book are about travelling, but this strand is about not being able to travel.

When Covid came along in 2020 I was diagnosed that April with lung cancer in the Covid part of Brighton Hospital A&E. I saw links with the material I had been working on in George’s journals, but I had doubts about writing about my cancer and treatment; it seemed too personal, too exposing and also meant I needed to look it full in the face. I wrote nothing in the year I was ill – an operation followed by chemotherapy made of me a grey TV watching ghost – the writing came a year and a half later when I was feeling much better and while the treatment was still fresh in my mind but had lost some of its immediacy.

Since The Messenger House is a book composed of journals (and poems and letters and photographs and other testimony, actual and imagined) I conceived of the sequence about my treatment as another kind of journal, a poem sequence journal, at once about my illness but also was about the constraints we were all living under during Covid. So, I called the sequence At Home, because we were all at home due to Covid, unlike my intrepid ancestor, and I numbered the poems from 1 to 14, detailing the time between diagnosis and a letter which arrived pronouncing ‘no recurrence noted’ after one of my CT surveillance scans. At Home also reflects on the love and care I received from my wife and son during one of the most taxing periods of my life. Some of the poems are directly concerned with the cancer – diagnosis, treatment etc, and those also reference what it was like to be ill during Covid (my taxi driver on the way to Guy’s Hospital for surgery, for example, had strung cling film like a saggy window between me and him); and I was alone during all of the treatments as visitors were not allowed. Some are about walks we took on the industrial estate in Lewes so as to avoid other people, my immunity lowered by chemotherapy; some were simply about walking in nature, and one was about patience. Having given myself permission to write what is essentially a journal about a particular life experience, the sequence was written relatively quickly, and poems seemed to take their own diverse forms which ranged from structured to unstructured (structured by pauses for breath).

At Home 2020/ 4: White Poplar

there is time to lie down/ those trees by the river/ platinum when the wind blows/ flip-side wind driven/ deep green/ / look/ listen/ a raft/one side of a packing case/ drifting/ and creak of oars/ dog in the gunwale/ / a cormorant / tied low to the curves of the river/ flapping like crazy /gains height where trees lean over/ where a telephone wire crosses the water 

In LPM these poems are printed together as a sequence; in The Messenger House, their current home, the sequence is spread out and individual poems from it are placed next to other texts where they seemed, to me, to belong. Of course, it can be read, still, as one piece – the placement of pieces changes how they are experienced, and how we look at what they are placed next to.

I think of the At Home sequence as unfinished, as part of a longer work-in-progress meditating on cancer, treatment and recovery which I hope will be explorative and positive.

Long Poem Magazine allows those of us who write longer pieces or sequences the possibility of having them homed together and read as a single entity. Alone among magazines it allows the long poem space to simply be itself.  

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