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This report is taken from PN Review 265, Volume 48 Number 5, May - June 2022.

From Angel Hill
Part 1: Translucent Launceston
Vahni Capildeo
Arriving at the top of Angel Hill at dusk in March, you are perched above a street as narrow and steep as one of those 1970s metal slides from which children pitched off, died, and thereafter haunted playgrounds canopied by history-heavy, unpruned trees. To the left you are faced with a stony bank softened by ferns and, even at nightfall, bright with chubby pennywort. To the right, grassier land shelves upwards. Daffodils wave higher than your head, and over the height of shrubby trees. There are also buildings. These seem to have grown according to need and habit. Partway down the hill are three late nineteenth-century cottages in a mini-terrace. They stand together, as planned.

You open the door to the one with a blue plaque on the outer wall, and step down two slabby stone stairs, pausing next to a stand with walking-sticks. If you can open the door, step down, and enter through the next set of doors, you are at a series of thresholds. A sitting-room with knickknacks and a comfortable armchair welcomes you, like someone friendly who was waiting, though not for you. This row of cottages is built into a hill that slopes sideways as well as down, precipitous like a 1950s beauty’s shoulder. If you go through to the back, you will continue down slate steps; down and down, past more daffodils, and tulips in raised boxes. But perhaps you are not let in.

As poet in residence, for a month I had the keys to Cyprus Well, the cottage where the poet Charles Causley and his mother Laura lived. Charles died in 2003, but the cottage does not feel as if he left this world. When I return, as I do in dreams, somehow I know that when I return in life, as I shall, someone else will have the keys. I shall walk down the hill, traveller-eyed, knock, and perhaps not be let in. No-one might be at home, except the traces of the two who lived there most; the one who wrote no memoir because his town’s life was in his poems; who played the piano, ate and drank and sang. Many people know vaguely of Charles Causley as ‘Ted Hughes’s friend’ or a ‘balladeer’. They do not know the man who red-pencilled dynamics onto songs for schoolchildren and left a piano-stool full of Noel Coward and Edith Piaf and the other showstoppers he knew well, as the pianist in a band.

Causley’s ghostliness has nothing spectral about it. Anecdotally, most people asked to name their favourite Causley poem choose ‘Eden Rock’. In ‘Eden Rock’ (1988), the adult speaker’s parents, impossibly appearing in their mid-twenties on the other side of a stream, encourage him to cross the water to them. In classic children’s books of the 1970s – a time that coincides with schoolteacher Causley’s late middle age – authors like Pamela Sykes and Nina Beachcroft had presented the threat of being pulled into other dimensions as deathly, a loss of self or substance, entrapment into mist, mirrors, fragmentation. On the contrary, in Causley’s own writing, whether for children, or his more complex work, water is wet; his ghosts wear ordinary holiday dress – tweed and ribbons –  and invite him to a picnic complete with Thermos flask.

The invitation is to be with your people, steadily in place, despite and – not across, but steeply, almost vertically, through – time. ‘I had not thought that it would be like this’, the poem concludes. The other side does not wear demonic flummery or celestial finery. Causley’s poetics of ghosts are a poetics of home, in multifaceted simplicity, like a clean stream. A photograph of Heaney, Causley, and Hughes, sitting together, intent and relaxed, as only friends and equals can be, hangs in Charles’s study. As a reader, I experience the poet Causley as more like Heaney than his friend Hughes.

Whether for Odysseus or the medieval ‘Pearl’ poet, the beloved dead are on the other side of the river. Having not only read Causley’s poem but physically walked his solid stone bridge amidst placid ducks, I would be equally frustrated with readings that reduced his profound precision with locality to the symbolical-mythological or the spiritual-ecological.  Towards the end of this piece, I shall offer a different, fourfold reading method. First, however, I shall consider approaches I prefer not to take, but cannot help recalling; and try to recall finding my own way.

In literary non-fiction, and (I am told) in theology, there is talk of ‘thin places’. How often these are inaccessible, pristine, or ‘lost’ places! A thin place: a nostalgia-ridden ‘wilderness’. A thin place: somewhere you don’t know habitually but feel you know well. A thin place: somewhere sought out in desperation or visited at leisure. A thin place: where we are exempt from knowing anything, from responsibility to anybody, because we can yield to a ‘spiritual’ dimension, and feel more, other, better, of-this-world-and-not. That is a cynical reading. Yet I reached for the phrase ‘thin places’ in Charles Causley’s town of Launceston.

Sometimes it seemed like a flayed place, not a thin one. Launceston is Cornwall’s former capital, the castle reinforcing a river border with grim stone. It is a town where families go into the army or the navy; live in idyllic cottages, in impoverished postcodes. Sometimes it seemed translucent, but not thin. Past and present were – not thick with each other – but quiveringly visible. The atmosphere of Launceston reminded me of the fern girl in the folktale from elsewhere. The fern girl’s yellow-green garments showed her thin-skinned limbs through to her pearling bones and the filaments of her nerves and marrow. She was a picture of sensitive depth.

Speaking to people at random, in Launceston’s streets, shops, and churchyards, I found a shared sense of their personal stories being part of the long story of their home. These, of course, are not mine to share. Quietly, they looked both inwards to memory, sometimes to horrors, and out again, taking joy. At St Thomas’s church, people check the graves, with the air of calling on their families. I was shown an incredibly ancient carving of the town crier on one side of the church entrance; a carving of a lamb on the other (I patted its stubby tail). It was remembered that news used to be announced from that post. Wild strawberries grew under yew trees. Nobody ‘foraged’ them. A wild variety of birds sang from all sides.

Perhaps it was waking for a month in the surround sound of birdsong that made me think of applying a fourfold reading technique to Causley’s poetry, among others. This technique is adapted from lectio divina, a monastic practice. In my non-authoritative adaptation, I read, or listen to the poem being read, out loud. I am paying attention just to a single word, phrase, or image that stands out. I am not looking for an examination-worthy meaning, or a deconstructible pattern. What matters is pace: the reading is slow, the response quick and simple, without justifications or opinions. If what stands out is the word ‘and’, then ‘and’ is what I take and offer. In a group setting, this shakes the poem into a set of initial responses, plain and surprising. In the second reading, we listen for something significant; something that seems to have a deeper meaning. Again, we share observations, without elaborating too much. The third reading involves you in the scene. What would you say to one of the people or creatures in the text? What would you ask, or tell them? Sometimes I want to speak to what hasn’t been named but must be there: a bird, a Norman or Quaker ghost… The final reading is least like monastic lectio divina; I ‘listen’ for a point of resonance with my life, or an ‘action point’ for my creative practice.

A following piece for PN Review will look, fourfold, at Charles Causley’s poem ‘Angel Hill’, alongside other writings. If a few people try a fourfold reading together, and are willing to play honestly, what emerges is different from the ‘close reading’ which stares at a text in the void. I keep outlining, or delving into, approaches to ‘slow reading’, because it is so productively shareable. It is situated amongst readers, including presence as part of the critical process. The poem becomes known as something shared by echoes and gleams. The words are a place to be alive.

This report is taken from PN Review 265, Volume 48 Number 5, May - June 2022.

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