Anne M Carson reviews outfalls and neverends by Harriet Tarlo and Judith Tucker

Harriet Tarlo and Judith Tucker, outfalls: poems and drawings. Leeds: Wild Pansy Press, 2018.

Harriet Tarlo and Judith Tucker. neverends: poems and paintings. Leeds: Wild Pansy Press, 2018.

 

Anne M Carson

 

Both of these innovative, beautiful works combine text and image-based ecopoetics to probe the intersection between humans and non-humans, built and natural environments. The works began as exhibitions, blending the work of long-term artistic collaborators – Harriet Tarlo (poetry) and Judith Tucker (drawings/paintings). This material genesis is obvious in the works’ designs, and crafting; exquisite concertina books with thick black covers and quality leaves inside. Opened out, you can see each work as a whole, as you would in the original exhibitions. They both also have page-turning capacity, allowing focus on single- or double-page spreads. The books are two-sided, portable, miniaturised versions of the exhibitions, cleverly lodged between two covers.

Silver titles, in lowercase, are embossed on the covers of both books. The silver against the black is immediately arresting and the pressed titles invite tactility – you want to feel the contours of the embossing with fingertips, feel the texture of the card cover, open the pages out. I read these elements as an invitation to engagement. As the books were produced for Arts Council funded shows – the beauty of the works, and the range of voices – ensure they will appeal to a broad constituency. In this sense the books are community arts projects.

These artists’ books are creative responses to two places in North Lincolnshire. outfalls responds to the Louth Navigation and River Ludd – two neglected UK waterways, and neverends responds to the Humberston Fitties, a Heritage-protected area of beach-side holiday chalets outside Cleethorpes. The artists have built relationships with both environments, and the communities involved. In both works the combination of text and image work synergistically to create works which although simple, have considerable aesthetic and documentary impact.

In neverends Tucker has painted twenty Heritage-protected chalets in various stages of dis/repair. The predominantly muted blue/green palette in her paintings (with one yellow-toned exception), and the soft lines invite a soft eye – nothing sharp and jagged snags our attention. Even the broken windows, bowed roof and fallen walls are represented gently. These are not grand or ostentatious dwellings and they are shown in humility, sitting comfortably in the environment, settled on their haunches. The buildings are in dialogue with their surroundings and the non-human creatures they share the space with – the fox in the window, the pigeons and midges. Humans are present by inference in some neatly cultivated gardens, the illumination inside dwellings showing at windows and doors, and in one actual figure, Uncle Tom, who is waving from the roof he is repairing. Although Heritage-protected, many of the buildings are undergoing a process of un-becoming, and Tucker’s success is to endear these buildings to us in all their vulnerability, and even on occasion, shabbiness.

The final three paintings on side 1 of neverends particularly engage my attention (13,15,16) – they are the most ramshackle buildings, fallen furtherest into disrepair. Vegetation is encroaching, window-glass is broken. Even these Tucker has made endearing – her soft eye transforms them for the viewer. They are no longer capable of providing human shelter in any conventional way, although no doubt they still provide nooks and crannies for creatures. But her rendition of them makes me care about them.

Tarlo’s words perfectly compliment Tucker’s images; similarly unimposing and unostentatious. Her first lyric observation sets the tone for the work, “crow craw over/marram grasses” (1), asserting the natural environment in which these dwellings exist and underscoring the absence of human inhabitants during non-holiday seasons. But when they are in residence, the residents are close to each other, close enough to “walk around in dressing gowns, help with building, always a cuppa” (28).

Tarlo’s poetic forms eschew capitalisation (other than the ‘I’) and this simple device creates an informality and welcome similar to and fitting with Tucker’s approach. Tarlo’s poetics flow naturally out of her material – sometimes she writes in stanzas, at other times the work is more like prose poetry. In both projects, Tarlo juxtaposes her own lyric reflections with prose pieces; alongside the role of poet, she is also curator of the words of others, generously sharing space with them and emphasising the community nature of these projects. By privileging what appear to be found text, reminiscence, interviews, Tarlo lets the owners of the chalets speak their own words. Clever, affectionate and cheesy names are often a feature of holiday dwellings, and in neverends she includes four-line stanzas of the names residents have given their dwellings – “Chalet Amethyst”, “Anchordown”, and “Seachelles” (5 & 6) are a few.

The first side of the book finishes with Tarlo’s evocative words “Round the back … once was/ holiday – shelljar, bucket,/ small crockery stacked in/ furniture in miniature china/ boy and barrow still stood on a slim shelf watching” (16). There is no full stop at the end of the poem, in keeping with the neverends title, and stressing the ongoing nature of community.

The outfalls book comes out of a project to explore Tarlo and Tucker’s artistic responses to the environment and peoples of Louth Navigation and River Ludd – both described in the publicity as ‘neglected’ waterways. It is not spelt out how exactly the neglect manifests but this is an area which has witnessed the decline of industry – granaries, kilns and bone-mills, Tarlo tells us. I imagine industry has polluted these waterways like it has polluted waterways world-wide before stricter environmental control came to be exerted. But this is possible backstory – Tucker and Tarlo are more explicit elsewhere[i] about their ecological orientation, concerned with issues related to climate change. What we see here in the images and read in the words is a celebration of the environments themselves and local communities who live on and by the river, adapting to its condition.

Tarlo’s words evoke the life lived by fisherfolk, agricultural and barge workers, skaters, children at play. Their lives happen alongside and within the river and canals. They also share the space with creatures – mink and moles were trapped for their skins in the 1940s and fish, otter and eels have also been seen in the river – although it’s not clear if this is current. Like neverends, outfalls is an eloquent meditation on ‘natural’ and ‘human’ – where the boundaries between are not stark but blurred, creating the sense of mutual embeddedness – which is characteristic of ecopoetry.

Tarlo also combines different voices in outfalls – quotes, and a memorial which may have been taken from a gravestone. outfalls is perhaps more lyric than neverends, and the poet’s voice is more in evidence in arresting descriptions of the environment such as this, “sun falls on far-side/over swan-feather/edge”(12). The following is an example of her deft use of consonance – “blackbird goes/blithe between gardens/gathering, dips/drinks at …” (6) Again, her poetics are not intrusive, serving the project, and the communities involved.

Tucker’s illustrations in outfalls are black and white, and although this could be stark, she uses a range of drawing techniques to achieve varied textures. Many drawings employ a soft stippling which creates blurred impressionistic views of river, bridges and foliage reminiscent of Monet. She has drawn fifteen vistas of the river and adjacent riparian spaces. One of my favourite images is Tucker’s drawing of a bridge and huge industrial screw – both are blunted by the artist’s pencil so the screw blurs into the landscape, apparently as much at home as the grasses and tree trunks. All the other images are of river and riverbank – many festooned with profuse vegetation – on first glance abundant nature, but perhaps also, shaped by past pollution, representing the rampant growth of weeds.

Tucker and Tarlo bring a shared poetic vision to their artistic undertaking, which flows through each dimension of their project and is visible in the created artefact – books of rare and vibrant beauty which, precious themselves, emphasise the preciousness – and worthiness of protection – of these environments and the communities who care about them. They will appeal not just to these local communities but to others interested in ecopoetic artists’ books.

 


[i] See, for example, Judith Tucker and Harriet Tarlo, “Excavations and Estuaries”, video (vimeo).

 

Anne M Carson’s poetry has been published internationally, and widely in Australia. Recent publications include Massaging Himmler: A Poetic Biography of Dr Felix Kersten (Hybrid, 2019), and Two Green Parrots (Ginninderra Press, 2019). She has initiated a number of poetry-led social justice projects, and is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at RMIT.

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