The great Birmingham-Irish grassroots songwriter Paul Murphy—the late lead singer of The Destroyers, whose anarchic megafolk opened the city’s Commonwealth Games this year (and the author of Ariel Takes the Rocky Road, a book worthy of a place on your shelf)—once wrote that, in a song, the melody and the lyric should be like the sea and the sky on a coastal summer’s day: separate, but only just. At first glance you might intuit the difference between the music and the words, but, if you stare at the horizon long enough, the distance between those blues becomes insignificant. This vision of song yokes the libretto to the tune, positing the two as inextricable. Perhaps this is why, when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, the critic Edna Longley derided the jury’s decision as “an insult to real poets”: in one worldview, the songwriter’s art is different to the poet’s since their words do not stand alone—their achievement is therefore lesser.
This is, though, a definitional view of the lyricist’s art that is difficult to sustain. In Dylan’s case, Christopher Ricks has more or less successfully treated his songbook as poetry in Dylan’s Visions of Sin (2004), and Richard F. Thomas has productively compared him with Ovid in Why Dylan Matters (2017). But the refutation of song-based snobbery has a deeper and more storied background: like so much of contemporary poetry, we can find a root in the Romantics, who found much to mimic in the song-form (that is, in the lyrical ballad); but their forebears the Elizabethans, too, expressed enthusiasm for music and poetry, which reached an apogee in the works of Robert Southwell and John Dowland—lyrics being, after all, simply poetry performed to the lyre.
Dowland is of particular interest to students of English folksong, since he and his contemporaries were among the first to commit the words—and music—of this form to print. On the page, of course, the notation of the melody and the transcription of the lyric emphasise their separateness—and yet rare is it that a reader only of the words cannot feel the rhythm and the lilt of the tune in the arrangement of letters on the page. In this sense, and particularly in the work of certain writers, music is inherent to poetry—it exists not as the sky above its sea but as the air that oxygenates the water. This is certainly true of Orlam, the second book of verse by the English songwriter P. J. Harvey. I refrain from terming it a “poetry collection” because this would entirely obscure what is more properly a novel parcelled out in poems, or a lyric-sheet for a putative musical, or a themed anthology that revolves around the early life experiences of a nine-year-old girl, Ira-Abel Rawles.
If this seems to imply that Orlam is an odd sort of book, then you catch my drift exactly. It is a kind of folk-horror of rural childhood, and shares much with a recent spate of similar stories told in prose: Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing (2013), Fiona Mozley’s Elmet (2017), Evie Wyld’s All The Birds, Singing (2013). In that last book, “the sheep [are] motionless on the hillside. Like ghosts” (p. 54), and a sense of the otherworldliness of the hard-scrabble countryside—and of all that haunts it—suffuses Orlam, too. Sheep also feature heavily: Ira’s favourite lamb, Sonny-Mallory, is eaten by rooks at the age of just forty days and her eyeball finds its way to the local Gore Woods, where it somehow becomes—somehow always was—the earthly embodiment of the eponymous folk-god, a vaguely vengeful, obscurely benevolent entity who chooses to look out for—geddit?—Ira. In Gore Woods, too, lies the spectral remains of Wyman-Elvis, a fallen soldier from the English Civil War who still bleeds from a wound in his throat, and the ghostly host of the Ransham Dead, a collection of ghouls who inhabit the woods in which they were massacred at the hands of the landowners they once sought to overthrow.
The unquiet past is always immanent in Orlam, then, but the present, too, is a trial. The poems are set sometime in the 1970s, and are written in the dialect of Harvey’s native West Country. In a trick familiar to readers of Harry Josephine Giles’s Clarke Award-winning Deep Wheel Orcadia (2021; the two novels share a publisher), on the page facing each West Country poem a modern English translation appears. In a lovely twist to the format here, the translations are printed in varying shades of grey—proceeding to deepest black where they are most radical (or, to put it another way, where the dialect is most impenetrable). In all honesty, this felt less necessary in Orlam than it did in Deep Wheel Orcadia: that latter book’s Orkney dialect is far more removed from contemporary English than Harvey’s idiom, and for the most part I read Orlam happily in its untranslated pages. Other readers’ mileage may vary, of course—but for me the music of these poems lies in their original form.
And what music. Harvey peppers the text with explicit references to songs: one poem is expressly to be sung to the tune of “My Favourite Things,” while “Love Me Tender” recurs throughout, and the American folksong “All the Pretty Horses” offers a regular refrain. But these poems aren’t mere students of the songbooks; they are themselves entries. Blank verse is not Harvey’s favoured metre—she prefers all the internal alliteration and assonance, structure and scheme that makes a pop song buzz. Here she is in “Wevvet” (“Cobweb”), a poem about Ira’s childhood home:
See a hand reach from a cot
In a one-time butcher’s shop
Wake and weep,
Count to sleep
A parlour-sky of meece’s feet.
Now she crawls across the flags.
Hark a single chattermag.
Up she grows,
Noon she’ll hear the cockerel crow. (p. 103)
This goes on for thirteen stanzas—really, songwriters would call them verses—and the regular metre, those central indented lines, and heavy rhyming scheme take on a chant-like insistence that reminds one intensely of Harvey’s songwriting. She is the only artist ever to win the Mercury Music Prize twice, and in both Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea (2000) and Let England Shake (2011) she appears in just this form: incantatory shaman, intoning our fates like a wind-swept hermit wrapped in a Lick My Legs T-shirt.
But Harvey is not moonlighting here: Orlam may not snobbishly eschew the techniques of lyric, but it is nevertheless the work of a dedicated poet. In particular, the poems are alert to the effect of words on a page. Note that West Country word “chattermag” above: its English translation is “magpie’s call,” but do we need to know that? Sung in a second, the word may sound like nonsense filler, but on the page, where we can linger on it but also observe its orthographical appearance, does it not already suggest cackling birdsong in one way or another? Other words throughout are more obscure, to be sure, but they all similarly serve to texturise the page, bringing forth a sense of the mulch and moss of the deep countryside that forms so important a part of not just Orlam’s atmosphere but also its very matter. Here’s the opening of “Mercy on Mallory,” a poem about the death of Ira’s pet lamb:
Unlucky lad –
your tender gaze
eased my days.
you I raised,
Called your name
till the rooks ripped down
February’s dawn –
I found your brains
by some roofing iron
and a pleck of thorns (p. 39)
There are a number of words here—“pleck” for “pen,” “blatch” for “black”—which aren’t exactly transparent in their meaning but look and sound similar enough that they add a parsable uneasiness rather than a knotted obscurity to the text. Nesseltripe, though—meaning “poor runt”—is entirely opaque, but in a way that grants an other-worldliness to the lamb that is somehow rooted in, or evocative of, the mess and soil of the field. Appearing alone at the opening of a stanza, independent of its meaning it attracts attention to itself and its own darkness; there is more at work here than a few songs written on the page.
Indeed, Orlam’s fascination for the weirdness, the dread, of the truly rural is familiar from Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under (2018), another novel of isolated poverty and childhood trauma which also features strange beings that embody the ineffable and are brought into being by some interaction between the land and thought. In that novel, one character believes in the Bonak:
Last summer it was this stupid dog that was so hungry Sarah said it would bite. But ages ago it was a storm that nearly wrecked the boat and another time it was a fire that burned a lot of the forest and that we thought would burn us too. This winter it’s something else. Sarah says maybe it’s the worst Bonak there has ever been but we don’t know yet. (p. 148)
The arbitrary cruelty of the landscape—and of humans—is similarly, and also liminally, embodied in Harvey’s work by Orlam, “One eye high in The Ultimate Elm; / Protector of Ira-Abel, / And oracle of UNDERWHELEM” (p. 9). Underwhelem is the village—hamlet, really—in which the action of the novel takes place (when it is not being weirded in Gore Woods). The name is Peakeian in its knowing gothic resonance, and the village’s inhabitants, too, are by and large grotesques. Some of this is because we see events through either the unhuman eye of Orlam or the double-vision of Ira, who is at home in both village and wood: both simultaneously judge and wonder at the strangeness of the human beings who struggle and strive amid the landscape. Orlam deliberately—although perhaps not always wisely—eschews a sense of time; many of these characters could persist in a historical novel by that other bard of the West Country, hoary old Thomas Hardy. Sometimes this timelessness can flatten Ira’s particular experience, but its purpose is to emphasise the deep time—and the terror—of the unyielding ground. When the modern world makes itself most clearly known—an elastrator, an electric fence—it is usually to emphasise what might euphemistically be termed husbandry: the depredations heaped on sheep by men, on the natural by the unnatural.
As Orlam observes, however, humans almost inevitably do harm to each other, too. He focuses on Ira because he predicts, or foresees, her trauma: sexual assault at the hands of Emerson Bowditch, a man with whose family village children are often left while their parents are working the fields. Orlam is structured by month—its events proceed across a narrative year, like a farmer’s almanac or a ritual calendar. Ira’s abuse occurs at its very centre, at the end of May, in a poem entitled “Bumping in the Red Shed.” Significantly, this poem’s translation has one of the deepest-black typefaces in the book: whether because dialect is often used in these poems to express the ugly or horrific, or because Ira wishes to obscure the events to herself, or because the perpetrator is an old man who belongs to a grimmer age is unclear—perhaps all are true. Certainly the effect is to make the scene harder to read:
Emerson and gawly gurrel
are here to stroke the veäres.
Emerson in hand-leathers
wi’ thumbles poking clear.
He croppies on a milking stool,
Pulls gurrel on his lap,
And shoos a sort of nursy song
From panking little gap.
Ride away, ride away,
Johnny shall ride …
Ride away, ride away
Johnny’s inside … (p. 145)
Nowhere in these poems—and indeed in her songs—does Harvey shy away from the explicit. In another, earlier, moment, Ira’s childhood has already been eroded in a poem not dissimilar from Carol Ann Duffy’s harrowing “Stafford Afternoons” (1993), in which a local man, John Forsey, exposes himself to Ira in a field: “Forsey in the clearing, watching me / with an axe, his corduroys below his knees / his lank hand kneading at his groin / his Ooser-Rod throbbing” (pp. 84-5, and note again the dialect’s role in both emphasising and obscuring violation). In “Bumping in the Red Shed,” Ira’s assault is sickeningly conjured, and with the destruction of her childhood at the age of nine. “Once she was a bandy-rhyme” we read, “and every free to roam, / but now she’s cold-at-supper-time / and’ll nevermore go hwome” (p. 147). That last word—“hwome”—evokes both the isolated vernacular that defines Ira’s mileu, but also the child-like sing-song voice of the innocent girl Ira no longer is. This is poetry of a very high order.
What I might not have quite made the case for, though, is this book being SFF of similar quality or degree. There’s a reason for this: its fantastical elements are sunken, and can sometimes be seen almost as conceit or concept rather than active force in Ira’s world. This is not to say she does not build a strong relationship with Orlam—she ends the novel in his domain, praying to the ghost of Wyman-Elvis (“am I worthy … speak your worldle to me” [p. 281])—but it is to say that the poems are not quite interested in reality or unreality in the way that SFF—with all its worldbuilding and speculation—counter-intuitively tends to be. Despite its name, fantasy must be grounded, must accept magic as fact; Orlam feels more like faerie, its speculation more translucent, less knowable. I was often reminded of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent (2016) in this—another novel which places its monster in the title but withholds knowledge of it in the text. In one of twelve poems entitled “Twiddicks”—or “Twigs,” those scraps of tree which cannot, when collected, ever be built back into the whole—we read, “The more you scratch [write] / The less you know” (p. 27). Harvey takes this as a mission statement.
What is certain is that Gore Woods—which gives its name to a series of poems from Ira’s perspective, entitled “What I Found in Gore Woods”—is a world separate and entire for Ira. Late in the novel, we read that, “I never feel more right / Vokket in the Gorey night” (p. 273, where “vokket” is translated as “gadding,” a word which might also be considered not entirely modern ). Orlam, meanwhile, is clear that his goal is to “keep her from the Forsey-Ooser jism, […] / from The-Red-Shed-sexer Dogger-Emerson” (p. 97). In this he objectively fails—but his kingdom offers an escape nonetheless, a sort of epistemic haven from the ubiquity of abuse in Underwhelem, where “farm boys were mad / to shag anything, rubbed themselves / on sleepers, salt licks and the old hog oiler” (p. 203). Here Orlam adopts the Janus-face of Shakespeare’s Oberon (though, ominously, it’s Macbeth and not Midsummer Night’s Dream that is routinely referenced here), sinisterly positing the ghostly Wyman-Elvis as Ira’s true “bride-groom”: “Undress I for him,” Ira narrates in translation late in the book, “slip from my childhood skin” (p. 274, “Unray I for en, / slip from my childhood skin”). What price does the boatman, too, demand? Orlam’s faerie emerges as much threatening as it is escapist, offering only an alternative darkness.
These poems, then, leave the reader not under- but overwhelmed: with claustrophobia, certainly, but also with a sense of Harvey’s talent for evoking dread. Intensely intertextual, these verses evoke the very best poets of the Atlantic Archipelago’s natural world: “Wyman Elvis,” for instance, recalls nothing if not Seamus Heaney’s bog poems, most obviously “The Tollund Man” (1972):
On a bed
Kneel before him,
The throat-cut man. (p. 81)
The lyric survives the comparison. Orlam—obscure and evocative, hallucinatory and clarifying—is a significant work of poetry, not the work of a dilettante.
Time for a declaration of interest: I recently performed some of my own songs at a poetry festival, and in the course of the performance offered some admittedly self-effacing thoughts on the superiority—or otherwise—of poets to mere songsmiths. One of the scratchers who performed that night, Chris Hemingway, noted afterwards that a friend of his—far from questioning the right of songwriters to commit verse—instead calls poems “half-finished songs.” I shall not comment, for fear of Edna Longley; but I’ll suggest that—in its emotive depiction of abuse and its impacts, and its mulchy creation of a half-dreamt world of queasy egress—Orlam, at least, is fully formed … and fully itself.
 The translation can be somewhat eccentric. Sometimes, at its palest, it turns out in fact to be working with some of the densest dialect. “Tree-tears vall” (p. 207) is translated, neatly when you think of it, to “The leaves fall”—but that meaning may not necessarily have been plain at first read. Elsewhere, the translation seems as opaque as the original: in one egregious case, “wether on the nether-edge” becomes … well, “wether on the nether-edge” (p. 220). It’s not always clear why these choices have been made; but perhaps that’s part of the mystery of the poems. [return]