Review - "Field" by Harriet Tarlo

Aled Ganobcsik-Williams

"Field" by  Harriet Tarlo,   pub. Shearsman Books   (72 pages)

Harriet Tarlo’s Field is a collection of 54 brief, or very brief poems on a single field near Penistone, as viewed by a commuter from the window of a train as the train travels along the 29 arch viaduct that crosses the river Don in the direction of Huddersfield. The genre is that of a ‘diary’: each poem occupies a separate page and is dated by way of a ‘title’ in slightly larger, bold typeface. Interspersed among, but distinguished from the poems in not being dated, are six pages that contain brief prose pieces, most but not all of which are the words of the farmer/field owner (identified as AH) interviewed by Tarlo, though there are also a couple of brief extracts from local histories of the area as well as unattributed pieces that might justly be considered ‘poetic’ compositions. It may be pedantic to insist on the distinction between the ‘poems’ and the ‘prose’—though the emphatic use of dates indicates some kind of distinction—since the collection is best read as a ‘sequence’ or ‘series’ of poems. Many of the poems would not stand alone as separate compositions--though some would do so—but the collection is more substantial than the sum of its parts (1).

With the preliminaries out of the way, here are the first two poems (each accorded a page to itself):

     10 Oct 08

      it’s the Huddersfield side

     of Penistone which is

     the spectacular one


     31 Oct 08

     that field

     --patch of scrub

          tree clump

     in the middle—

                    murmuring in train, shift after

                         Penistone folk           get on

The first ‘poem’ barely deserves to be called such and requires that we read on in order to grasp the justification for such an unpromising, even unpoetic beginning. The field described in the second poem counters the claim about the scenery made in the first poem. That field is identified in much the same way throughout the collection: ‘marshy scrub’, ‘swamp field’, ‘scrubby patch’ and so on. In a culture characterised by ‘the quick erosion of all that is /distinguishing’, what draws the speaker to the field is the fact that it can be distinguished from other fields from the distance of the train on the viaduct. That field stubbornly resists the imposition of human order, such as conventional vocabularies of landscape appreciation or efficient farming practices. It is ‘that lump of swamp in the middle you have to plough round’ (AH); or
     21 June 2010


          unploughed swamp patch

     ring about it

          full of buttercups

Throughout the book, attention focuses on the way the perceived landscape has been shaped and is still being shaped by human actions, such as acts of enclosure and other agricultural ‘efficiencies’:

     23 April 10

     it turns into planes of light and

     shadow abstracted, that old enclosed

     pattern of field parcels, land

      handed out for


               walls on walls making

      this “landscape” little

     rectangles right over the

     West Riding (240, 239, 246, 247

               We keep finding old wall bottoms

The landscape is shaped, too, by the act of perception itself. Thus, the ‘field’ of the title refers not only to the existent field but also the speaker’s ‘field of vision’, which is most frequently ‘framed’ by the window of the moving train. Some of the most impressive poems describe the way the light projects the shadow of the train on to the landscape below: ‘train shadow rolls through/field’.  The land is ‘caught’ by the moving shadows of the train windows, an image suggesting the limits of the speaker’s fleeting vision, governed by speed, distance and perspective:

                train ladder across

     one window on hidden field systems

               one on faded steel works, foundries


                a moment when [ . . .]

Here and elsewhere the poems in the collection remind us of the contingency of the human-made order through which nature is ‘seen’. Another poem records the failure of literal vision-- ‘today the mist/ is such, there is/no field as such’—while another remark on the failure of the poet’s visioning—‘field much the same as the/other day, really/ much the same’. Other poems tell of ordinary distractions and lapses in attention:

     1 Oct 2010

     2 years on, look up

          I’ve missed the field

                     it’s gone: there’s Pen station

Such commonplace lapses in attentiveness bring on a note regret at the physical limitations of human perception: ‘does this happen/ everyday and I/ not see it?’ (2)

The poem sequence has been ‘made’ (apparently) by transcribing—how faithfully we cannot know—the discontinuous diary notes of a regular train traveller. The diary entries span two and a half years, beginning on 10 October 2008, the date of the first poem. However, while the final poem is dated 8 February 2011, six poems postdate that entry, the latest entry being 15 June 2011 (a poem that is placed towards the middle of the collection). The first half (more or less) of the book is a series of entries from October 2008 to November 2009, in which chronological sequence is interrupted with entries inserted from 2010 and 2011. (These interpolations are still ordered by days of the month, so that chronological arrangement may give way to the grouping of poems by calendar month or by season). The poems in the second half of the book, from November 2009 to February 2011, follow chronologically without interruption, though the reader will be aware that the sequence is ‘incomplete’ since some dated entries have inserted at various points in the first half of the book. In the poem, placed near the middle of the book, with which Field makes a transition from a non-consecutive to a consecutive order of dates (25 Nov 2009), the speaker says ‘leaves blow back past/as we go’, a remark that takes in both the outward blustery scene and the poet’s act of composition in which pages (leaves) of the diary are moved back in time. There may be other principles of combination contributing to the final shape of the collection—the poet’s sense of thematic resonance, for example--of which this reader is unaware but that additional readings might reveal. It is difficult to account for all the decisions that have been made in shaping the collection (why has this poem been moved rather than that one?), but again the overall effect is that the order we make or invent will not coincide exactly with the order of nature, whatever that may mean.

Many of the poems preserve the ‘notation’ form of a diary entry, by absence of initial capitalisation and terminal punctuation, by the use of dashes and of typographical spacing, and by juxtaposition of sometimes syntactically incomplete units of text. (3) Individual poems are often arranged as lines or single words dispersed across the space of the page, contributing to the sense that the poem are formed of passing impressions rapidly jotted down in present tense. In the following poem, the speaker travelling at night attends less to the outward scene and more to the sensation of travel, in which a feeling of something like vertigo is compounded knowledge of some historic accident.

     27 April 10


                    lurching over –

                         beneath us


                    can’t see the edge of

                    what we are on                                without

                    craning over      suspended



     at night                 feel it under       see

          carriages flex twist         slowing, would fall

                         to field


                                                         once it did

The ‘open’ form works to good effect here. The spacing controls the pace in which the lines are read (slowing) and focuses attention on mimetic line endings and line breaks.(4)

The prominence of white space on the page in these poems provide a pause between words and groupings of words, and offers the reader a contrast—a respite even--to the reduction of space in the represented landscape. For one theme that emerges from the collection as a whole is that the observed scene is part of a landscape under siege--by ‘new build’ and other symptoms of the economic imperative determining land use. In particular, there are two poems in which the speaker records a journey to the see the field up close, by walking to it. In both poems, the attempt to close in on the object of desire end in frustration rather than fulfilment. The second of these two poems is four pages long, making it by some distance the longest poem in the book (no other individual poems exceeds a page). What the speaker encounters is the way private or corporate land use restricts access to the land, and reminds her of the manner in which economic arrangements are altering her relationship to place. The signs of assault are everywhere:

     nearside, stones subsiding,

     patched with stake fencing

     wire rolled behind

                    conservative billboard

                    fixed to fence


     far side, post and wire

     barbed over, trails

     down to hedging

                                   hawthorn, elder

     [ . . .]

     White Hall Lane, the house fenced off

     from new build, its barns now

     little cottages     [PRIVATE]

     behind gates

It is not too much of a stretch to see this description as a modern version of an epic descent to the underworld. Despite the barriers, however, the speaker catches a glimpse of the lost Eden:

     walk into the park: white spirea

     cow parlsey patched with blue

     pimpernel, forget-me-knot; frost

     beneath carved conifers

     cherry blossom scent

     and birdsong

The simple listing of flora is moving because of the speaker’s awareness of their vulnerability. Moments of lyricism are made the more intense by the speaker’s knowledge of fragility of access to the experience which provides an occasion for them. The poems are on the whole very sparse, so the collection gains from these moments of lyric uplift. Though the predominant mood is pessimism, the last dated entry (though it is not the last poem in the sequence) describes an experience of rapturous unity between the outward scene and mood of the perceiver, in a poem held together by intricate sonal patterns. The poem is ‘buried’ in the middle of the collection so that it does not stand as an optimistic resolution to the collection; nevertheless it is perhaps the most memorable poem in the sequence:

     15 June 11

                    field’s slide line down

                              light depth of sky’s

                    blue white                 it is something

               is it

     shifting slightly every second

     the field line crossing the

     sky diagonal horizontals

     across a dizzy moment

     of slide

     as we surf the rails

                    swallow skim over crop cover

                              yellow sprinkle

                    cushion crop billow lines

Field is by turns exhilarating and puzzling, never less than absorbing. I keep returning to re-read this book or parts of it, in a way that I would not go back to read a more transparent narrative or lyric sequence. Each time I find more to remark on and each time I find more to admire.



1. I use the terms sequence’ and ‘series’ interchangeably here, though the discrimination may be useful. Joseph Conte’s elegant description of the ‘poetic series’ is applicable to Tarlo’s collection: ‘The series describes the complicated and desultory manner in which one thing follows another. Its modular form – in which individual elements are both discontinuous and capable of recombination -- distinguishes it from the thematic development or narrative progression that characterizes other types of long poem. The series resists a systematic or determinate ordering of its materials, preferring constant change and even accident, a protean shape and an aleatory method’ (Joseph Conte, ‘Seriality and the Contemporary Long Poem’ in Sagetrieb 11 (Spring and Fall 1992): 35-45, page 36).

2. The ‘I’ is used only rarely in these poems. The pronoun ‘we’ is used more frequently, perhaps as a recognition of the public context in which the speaker’s observations occur. The use of ‘found’ text is another way the poems undermine the reader’s sense of a single perspective. Nevertheless, while the poems are not centred on the ‘self, the diary form of the collection does strongly support the fiction of a stable speaker—a particular traveller with an interest in recording what she notices.

3. This is not always the case: for example, the syntax in the slightly anomalous first poem—quoted above—is almost pedantically correct and the voice does not seem to be that of the speaker, but perhaps an quoted snippet of overheard conversation to which the succeeding poems then respond.

4. The visual lay-out gesture towards Charles Olson’s notion of ‘open field’ composition--another possible reference of the ‘field’ of the title. Olson’s friend and Black Mountain colleague, Robert Duncan, is an acknowledged influence on Field.

Copyright © Aled Ganobcsik-Williams, 2018