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This report is taken from PN Review 277, Volume 50 Number 5, May - June 2024.

Fragments on Fragments
Letter from a Northern Town
Anthony Vahni Capildeo
Green glass lines up on the edge of the kitchen sink. The ridged bottles were poison bottles, my poet-housemate Clare Shaw. cheerfully tells me. Perfumes, poisons and pharmaceuticals: so often, these are interchangeable. Absinthe, the Green Fairy, intoxicant beloved of decadent poets, is a potent neurotoxin. The chemical name for this bitterness: thujone. Absinthe is derived from wormwood, an artemisia. Southernwood, a silvery-blue wormwood, intermixed with tall English lavender in planting, can be part of a traditional herbaceous border. Certainly, dried and hung in wardrobes, they help to keep off insects. Many familiar plants of humble growth also deter insects, but are of greater sweetness, which, chemically, arises from coumarin. Some of the bottles remain stoppered. Did they contain spirits? Some retain a sticky residue.

Clare has been mudlarking. You will know the activity: picking up bits of things from the edge of a river or sea – what my great-aunt, who told me off for ‘gardening’ as a child, might have condemned as ‘playing in the dirt’. Cutting up materials or finding fragments and sticking them together is one, brilliantly defiant way of making something new, in our age of momentous rubbish. Mudlarking, however, is less papery than collage poetics. Although the activity is as old as our curious, liminal species, the word ‘mudlark’ is recorded as a noun only as recently as the eighteenth century, when (apparently) boys and men (or at least the activity has been masculinized in the interpretation of records) scavenged for items, in that age of terrible globalization. Britain was sending out new monsters ...


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