In All Weathers


Teach Yourself Mapmaking, Jane Routh
[64pp, 7.95, Smith/Doorstop Books]


Jane Routh understands weathers and 'the slow pulse of the seasons/lending a little glow of predictability', as she says in 'Night and Day'. As someone who farms and manages woodlands and a flock of geese in the Forest of Bowland in North Lancashire and someone who goes out sailing, she needs to. What to many (now that most of us are townies) is strange, half-known or buried in the deepest recesses of our memories, both individual and collective, is here shared as intimate knowledge. Many of the poems are like walks through fields or woods or along beaches in the company of someone who knows and makes you see things with a more careful and considerate eye.  For example in 'The Half', a poem about fishing which can stand up beside Elizabeth Bishop's celebrated 'The Fish' and Ted Hughes's 'Pike', Routh confides in us as if we were sitting there in the boat with her:

     It was a flat sea, an idle sea: none of the tide-rise
     and rollers we were used to up north. Blue
     I'll grant, but slicked all over with chrome.
     It was an empty sea: no boats, no coast
     but a thousand foot rock called Redonda out west.
     Or east - the sun was unreadable, shadows were wrong.

     I felt like a bird on migration must feel
     if the map in its head goes blank.

Landscapes and seascapes and their counterpart in the details of maps and charts are mostly what this book is about. Maps are not always as reliable as we would trust them to be. They go out of date and, of course, say nothing of weather. In 'Her First Flight in a Microlight' we are asked to

     See how wrong the maps are now:
     the river's slow curve has changed direction
     and what's happened to the road beyond the scrub?
     That sudden brilliance must be a pond.

But maps
are historical documents and do provide inroads into the history of places - as do the physical traces left on landscape by generations of others, along with their handed-down knowledge and their stories. In our walks with Jane Routh we pause to hear stories of saints, mysterious poachers (one Skirrow who, like Heathcliff and Cathy, still haunts the landscape) then shown 'a place above the river I'd go/when I was sad', where

     my half-bucketful of sorrows disappeared
     in a landslip with the oak, and nowhere left
     to stand and say
This was where.
     And that's alright too, as if the landscape
     timed it to accompany my life.
           [from 'Landscape with Figures'] 

This is a very rich and intensely rewarding collection. Like R.S. Thomas's Wales, the natural scene is never sentimentalised but rather acknowledged for what it is, something lived and lived in. In a comic piece called 'Wavelengths', Routh patiently deals with a man from the radio sent to interview her. The poem ends

     The man from the radio
                                            slips, but I catch him:
     he's come to no harm; it's only mud.

What I've said so far is only part of the story, part of the extraordinary range of pleasures afforded by this book. The journey we accompany Routh on takes us to various parts of the country - the Fens, the Humber Bridge, the west coast of Scotland - all the time in search sometimes of the moment ('this sea, here, this hull, this moment/we are here'), sometimes of 'knowledge of what' is 'harboured underneath', sometimes a contentment with the ordinariness of the everyday, 'the washing-up bowl, the settee,/grey days, no wind, and especially fog'. There are tender poems too exploring the weathers of the heart in which the poet shares intimate details of family history with us. In the deeply moving 'Hearts', we watch her caring for and about someone seriously ill:

     He wasn't under water, he was
     under sedation and maybe that was
     like water to him: I watched his heart
     earth-tremor under his skin
     and always so long before the next
     no matter how hard I willed it.

This is Jane Routh's second collection; it confirms the high regard with which her first,
Circumnavigation, was received. Teach Yourself Mapmaking is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, deservedly so. Its range is impressive, its vivid language recreates the physical sensation of what is being described, ranging from the gritty and muscular to the tender and deeply thoughtful. Smith/Doorstop have a star on their list.

          Matt Simpson 2006