Caught by the River

If You Put Out Your Hand

Adam Scovell | 20th June 2016

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 11.47.12 If You Put Out Your Hand by Sharron Kraus & Helen Tookey
(Wounded Wolf Press, 36-page paperback plus CD. Limited to an edition of 250 and available to purchase here.)

Review by Adam Scovell

Allowing music and spoken word to coalesce has been a recently popular form on the periphery of landscape-based records. Whether through mixture with pure, psychogeographical prose as in Iain Sinclair and Standard Planet’s collaboration, Overground, or with the esoteric, rural poetry of Justin Hopper on I Made Some Low Inquiries, the use of words in symbiosis with music is becoming a popular method to address various different aspects of landscape and the memories which surround it. Sharron Kraus’ latest project, in collaboration with the poet Helen Tookey, If You Put Out Your Hand, is another strong example of this relationship; building links between words and melodies to embody a number of questions regarding how we interact with place. Kraus’ last few projects, ranging from the Welsh valleys-inspired Pilgrim Chants & Pastoral Trails to the Mabinogi-inflected Friends And Enemies; Lovers And Strangers, have exhibited a general, spacial zone to their themes, yet Hand is far more travelled thanks to the adherence to Tookey’s poetry; darting about between differing places, spaces and landscapes within each fragment.

The ideas were sparked when the pair performed some work under the Tudor beams of Bishop’s House in Sheffield, finding more resonance and potential in each other’s work than could be contained within one performance alone. Hand is a continuation of the interweaving of Tookey’s words and Kraus’ multi-instrumental textures, as poems which re-establish a connectivity with the perceptive world (through an excavation of the concept of home) are woven through melodies of acoustic guitar, flutes and voice. Though less specific in its relationship to a single place, the poems do map out a topographical and, clearly personal, set of memories which Kraus responds to with delicacy and astuteness. Though the process of conception appears to be one of the music responding to the words, both parts feel equal in the final product, whereby each aspect brings out the other’s characteristics; the words reflecting the melodies of the music, the music reflecting the rhythms of the words. In the booklet that comes alongside the release, Kraus describes the process as being far more intuitive than simply fulfilling the role of scoring the words, instead unconsciously reacting and creating natural palettes to the miniature moments of the poems. She writes that “the process seems natural and unconscious and seems to bypass self-conscious, conceptual thought: it just comes.” This comes across concisely in the music. The weave between word and melody is largely unnoticeable, and as organic as the places many of the poems explore.

Tookey’s poetry is more tangible as an opening to Hand‘s themes, perhaps because of the obvious immanence that language has in comparison to music. In her notes on the project, she relates the influence of Rainer Maria Rilke and his own perceived distance between humanity and nature; our outwardness versus the inwardness that all other life appears to take comfort in. Perhaps because of this, the strongest poems on the release are those that walk the line between recreation of place and the personal inflection of that said place. For memories of interaction with a landscape often hold the key to becoming more aware of its detail. Mow Cop, for example, recounts the journey up to the monument on the edge of Cheshire, but is framed by a mixture of the view afforded by its steep hill and a momentary connection to somewhere much further away. Whereas Alan Garner, in his novel Red Shift (1973), saw the monument as a fixed aleph in temporal flux, held in position by astral means, Tookey connects it to another distant realm, a similar hill overlooking an encampment from Hiroshige’s painting, The City Flourishing (1857). From Cheshire to Japan, and all through the perceptive history of one person: “Yesterday at last we climbed the cop, stood on the close-cropped turf and saw the world spread out below…”

Elsewhere, this sense of disconnect from the reality of topographical perception manifests more darkly. In Katherine, Tookey’s words seem, in part, like a mantra designed to overcome the grief caused by the death in the poem. The death’s repetition isolates the poem from the others, confining the words to one room; a stark opposition to the hills and gardens of other tracks around it such as In The Rose Garden and Sudley Field. Yet the repetition doesn’t seem to work as an expulsion of grief. In fact, it becomes possessive, the walls of the room it describes enclosing, as the compulsion to repeat is symptomatic of an inability to accept the cyclical nature of life. This grief very earnestly turns to a haunting, manifesting feelings of envy: “I was jealous of her writing, the only writing I have been jealous of”. Such mimetic trappings are further enhanced by Kraus and the ritualistic nature of the music that trills and builds alongside the gradually revealed memories.

With music and poetry so effectively responding to each other, there is a temptation to give in to such readings, of place, emotion and happening. But the natural form of music – one defiant of purely immanent description – means that, even when exploring walks up hillsides with “Yellow gorse and young green bracken”, there’s little necessity to read as much into what is being said (and perhaps, just as importantly, why it is being said) as this article does. This is especially highlighted by the fact that Kraus’ standalone musical pieces still carry the trace of Tookey’s writing once listened to together (the release provides versions both with and without the poems.) The places of If You Put Out Your Hand are not merely a representation, but an impression: of times we can recognise from our own experiences but rarely relate through mere communication. As Tookey aptly suggests of Rilke’s creative impetuous, “It is out of our sense of the fleetingness of life , and of the difficulty of expressing how things are, that we make art.”

Adam Scovell on Caught by the River