‘Refuge from the Ravens’ — a 21st Century book-and-exhibition remix of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s ‘Lyrical Ballads’, with contributions from over 100 people affected by homelessness — offers a powerful and timely poetic commentary on the state of people, nature and society, writes Anna Fleming.
Illustration by Kieron Smol
In 1798 William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote the Lyrical Ballads, a groundbreaking collection of poetry featuring the stories of ordinary people walking the roads of a country in turmoil. In writing about flowers, trees, rocks and stones – as well as beggars, discharged soldiers and women stealing firewood from hedgerows – the poets sparked a literary revolution. Their poems, written in everyday language told of those living on the margins of society, giving a voice to people never previously considered in poetry.
Over 2022, artists Philip Davenport, Julia Grime and Scott Thurston revisited the seminal poems with over 100 people affected by homelessness in north-west England. A 21st Century remix, Refuge from the Ravens is a response to Lyrical Ballads which offers a powerful and timely poetic commentary on the state of people, nature and society.
Walking sleeping bag just wants to tell her story.
So starts the opening poem ‘Dead Bird (Caucasian)’, which reimagines Coleridge’s classic Rhime of the Ancient Mariner. Two hundred years on, the mariner is still desperate to find an audience for their troubled story, but now the albatross hanging around her neck – and the anthology as a whole – is human. A young woman found dead in her sleeping bag.
Death haunts this collection. Losses accrue on and off the page. Reading these works, the statistics become devastatingly real. The average age of death for men experiencing homelessness is forty-six. For women, it is forty-two. Immersing yourself in these pages is painful and frightening. We meet tragedy after tragedy; the verse divulging the raw emotion, vulnerability and exposure of life for too many people.
‘Their Graves are Green’ opens, ‘I have some sad news – Simon has died.’ The poem composed by Debbie, Jac, Madhuri, Marion, Peter, Phil and Steve pays tribute to their lost friend. (Simon was not yet 40.) ‘On the old stone wall of Kendal Castle’, we see Simon through their eyes, a figure out in the open –
Open to the elements
Open to all things
Your grave is green.
Turning the page, we find ‘Lines in Spring’, composed by Simon himself. He writes of ‘the nature of poetry’ and ‘the poetry of nature’; exploring the circle of life observed through farm-work that he began aged 13. It is at once ordinary and extraordinary, a dichotomy that gets to the heart of the strange magic of this work. Here, a dead man speaks. In these pages, the voices of invisible people are captured and held on the page, resisting the awful ephemerality of street life.
There are poems from parents who lost children (‘I had a baby, but I gave her up when She was four. That’s my demon.’); poems describing violence, addiction and PTSD from military service. The view is harrowing but the poetry lifts the heavy matter for each poem contains a line from Lyrical Ballads, establishing a Romantic resonance across the collection. Thus the words ‘brook’ and ‘tranquillity’ appear in the same verse as ‘meth’ and ‘smack’. The technique creates a dialogue across time, building a curious aesthetic of layering, combining urban and rural; past and present; at once timeless and painfully of our moment.
Like the Wordsworths’ before them, many of the poems capture people on the move, wandering with restless minds and bodies. In ‘The Foster Mother’s Tale’ the poet-speaker moves through a sensuous landscape of rain, blackbirds and trams. This is walking literature but the rambling is not a leisure activity pursued for escape, health or inspiration. These poems are composed by people who have lived too much ‘under the cradle of the sky’; out in the wind, the wet and the cold. Walking is a necessity and nature is exposure.
No choice but she’s sick of this
Can barely feel the fingertips
Of cold dead hands
Yet there are moments of tenderness. Moving out of the ‘Industrial buzz’, the foster-mother finds comfort in trees:
The leaves a melody, branches cracking
The tree is speaking, you are not alone.
She is holding you.
Weary of the rain, retreat under.
The tender touch also comes through the illustrations that accompany the verse. Birds, eyes, faces and feathers sketched out in black ink show the craft of many human hands and eyes, which draw people and nature together in this beautifully rough vision of hard life experience.
The exhibition at Wordsworth Grasmere includes an experimental film made by Harry Wheeler. Shots of green woodland from one of Wordsworth’s Grasmere walks are overlaid with scenes of concrete, brick and metal shutters from home-less related sites in Manchester, Lancaster and Morcambe. The film has a psychedelic quality – watching the mesmerising scenes, one senses how mental health and environment interact. In this immersive space, my mind wanders back to the original poets, remembering how, like those living on the streets today and many of the people captured in their poetry, Wordsworth, Dorothy and Coleridge had their own experiences of addiction, grief, anxiety and depression.
The exhibition displays manuscripts and illustrations from Refuge from the Ravens in cabinets where they share a space with Dorothy’s original Grasmere journal, early hand-written drafts of Wordsworth’s poems and first editions of Lyrical Ballads. Curatorially speaking, this is an act of radical democracy, for it places the words and stories of some of the poorest people in present-day Britain in the company of priceless national treasures. Across both sets of texts, we see scribbling, smudged ink and crossings out, meeting the thought, craft and labour of fevered minds across time. Kind, thoughtful and deeply humbling, Refuge from the Ravens is a disquieting work of art, reflecting life at the margins told by those at the margins.
The Refuge from the Ravens exhibition runs at Wordsworth Grasmere, Cumbria, until 31st December. More information and tickets here.
Published by Oystercatcher Press, the accompanying book is out now and available here (£7.99).