The following essay first appeared in The Poetry Review, Volume 104, No 4 (Winter 2014).
I’ve never paused to review where my poetry is physically located. I know that houses are a dominant feature of my imaginative landscape, but I was surprised to find that over a quarter of the poems I’ve written are situated in, or in the grounds of, real houses. My poetic inventory of homes comprises many of my actual addresses: there are eleven houses plus a hostel (where I lived with my mother and brothers for a short time in the aftermath of my parents’ separation). No single house dominates, and the house-centred poems are fairly evenly spread across three books.
Given the amount of times I have moved, it’s perhaps unsurprising that, unlike Seamus Heaney’s Mossbawn farm, my personal ‘omphalos’ doesn’t have a fixed location in the physical world. It is a composite, a patchwork. I think of it as a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of houses: a jerry-built creature made up of disparate house-parts – a windowsill from here, a table or doorway from there; a sense of home around which various physical houses, complete with their fixtures and fittings, coalesce. All the same, it is a single entity.
The earliest source for my patchwork house is a white, bay-windowed semi called Normanhurst, where I lived from the ages of three to six with my parents and two brothers; where weekday mornings began with my father leaving for work on the floating bridge that ferried him over the River Itchen, and sweets grew in the flowerbeds overnight on each of our birthdays. At the bottom of that long, narrow garden, in the unremarkable suburb of Woolston near Southampton, trains rumbled by, one an hour. Heaney’s omphalos acoustic could easily become the rhythmic music of their passing.
A poem from my latest book is set in one of the downstairs rooms at Normanhurst. In it, a young girl is standing with her brothers on a certain rug (an habitual assembly point in a playful family tradition) when she realises that there will come a moment when the three of them are there together for the final time. The idea fills her with panic and she wills them all to stay put – though of course nothing she does can prevent the fact of their departure. In the closing lines she stands, stock-still,
with both knees locked, my fists and eyes
squeezed, clenched, so that nothing exists
but brothers and me and the orange rug,
round as a spotlight, round as a sun,
and the hum of its solar wind unspent inside it.
The helpless speaker in that poem is a relative of the unheard falconer in Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” Like the omphalos or navel itself, the essence of things (the widening gyre, the orange rug) is always round. The poet knows this instinctively – but then so does everyone. Our perception of essence or importance is bound up with a sense of circularity. We talk about a sphere of influence, an inner circle of advisers; about things coming within one’s orbit, and so on.
Seneca said that Nusquam est qui ubique est: the person who is everywhere is nowhere. He was talking about focus (a word which itself once meant a hearth – the centre, or heart, of the house). Having lived, so far, at eighteen different addresses, the difficulty I have in identifying a geographic focus in the physical world is understandable. I think that difficulty (combined with the fact that I come from what is termed, with unsettling aptness, a “broken home”) manifests itself in many of my poems as a desire to freeze time; to keep the centre held. But the heart of my imaginative world is altogether more intact. I attribute this to my habit of mental hoarding: when I leave a place, I take with me the rooms, staircases, landings, garden gates – even bits and pieces of the furniture.
There is nothing very unusual in this. After all, if we live inside our houses, they also live inside us – and go on doing so long after we’ve left them. In his semi-autobiographical The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rilke describes a house he had lived in many years before as “quite dissolved and distributed inside me; here one room, there another, and here a bit of corridor. […] Thus the whole thing is scattered about inside me: the rooms, the stairs that descended with such ceremonious slowness; others, narrow cages that mounted in a spiral movement, in the darkness of which we advanced like the blood in our veins.”
One corridor of my piecemeal home leads to a breakfast room and a “deal table / with the late September sun stretched on its back” in the rundown Wealden manor house where I lived for six years with friends from uni, and met my future husband. Elsewhere, a door opens out onto the driveway of the boxy, detached house where I spent my teenage years. In summer its garden smelt of TCP because of the phenol produced at the enormous chemical factory at the end of the road. Directly opposite the house was the small electroplating factory that appears in ‘An Easy Passage’. In that poem, two young, bikini-clad friends find privacy and refuge (from the monotony of their suburban neighbourhood) in the cool of the locked house, after one of the girls breaks in through an upstairs window.
The heart of my imaginative world, then, is a jerry-built, composite structure. And if not quite that, then it is a palimpsest of houses – an image that may ring true for many people today. Peel away the layers and there you are: there I am, like the tiny person in Norman MacCaig’s ‘Summer Farm’, one of the first ‘modern’ poems I ever read: “Self under self, a pile of selves I stand / Threaded on time, and with metaphysic hand / Lift the farm like a lid and see / Farm within farm, and in the centre, me.”