Part one of a seven part series from Sarah Leavesley that will appear over the coming week. Becoming a wing-thru explores self-identity and environmental concerns through the unusual combination of two personal passions: poetry and cycling.
Phew! After nearly 25 miles cycling in August afternoon sun, I’m glistening with exertion. I’m hot, but also happy, despite it having been a hard year. I pause on a bridge over the main road near to where I live in Droitwich, England. A country lane and Worcestershire farmland stretch away behind me, the town sprawls in front. Below me, the main road is perpendicular to the one I’m on. Together, they almost form a crossroad, except this lane into the countryside is raised above the town bypass. Cars whizz under me, but I’m at a distance. From here, my world of quieter cycling cuts through them, rather than the other way around.
When I first escape by bike, I’m badly depressed and questioning what my life is about. Forty-year-old me still feels 27, but my children will soon be leaving home; I’ve no career as such and paid work is intermittent. I don’t know what I want from the rest of my life, except happiness. Yet happiness seems more ghostlike than ever without hopes or dreams to focus me.
My friends and family don’t have the answer to this; I don’t expect them to. At a friend’s suggestion, I take time out and get on my bike. After a few weeks re-adjusting to my body’s balance on my cycle, the road and canal tow path’s twists and turns become part of me, even in harsh weather. In fact, I soon find that rain, sleet and snow often bring an extra sense of aliveness. There’s something too about the physical nature of cycling that’s akin both to circling (yet moving onwards) thought patterns and also some rhythms of poetry.
I haven’t tallied up many miles before I find myself thinking of Lorine Niedecker’s work. I’m a British poet writing now, she was a Wisconsin poet writing nearly fifty to 100 years ago. But there’s a power in her pared lines that reaches beyond time and distance. Her spare bare-bones’ concentration and the space this creates are a perfect counterpoise to a twenty-first century society that is overwhelmed by words, noise and demands on time and energy.
[From Lorine Niedecker’s ‘My Life by Water’]
I feel these lines whirr through the spokes of my wheels as I pick up speed. As they whirr through the wheels, they whirr through me; they also whirr onto the wind and into the landscape. And I think this is how life experiences and poetry could be – part of us transcribed into everything around us.
Repeatedly cycling two Worcestershire routes in all weathers, all seasons, I begin to notice the land’s changes throughout the year. I also register changes in me and my reaction to the world that come from somewhere beyond my habitual understanding. I become aware that I’m part of something much bigger than my own life. Hundreds of years of lives and stories are hidden beneath and written across the landscape, if I’m careful enough to look, listen and find them.
As I cycle, I feel the expansive blue above me, air rushing across my cheeks, the rain’s soft or hard touch on my skin. Sometimes, I raise my face to the sky like a child and try to drink this. Or I lift my feet from the pedals and freewheel downhill as if the released motion will never stop…
In a way, the recurring precipitation cycle captures an essence of how being outdoors changes me, and how I want to pass that on. Rainfall > onto river/ sea/land, with temporary integration and use by humans/animals/plants > evaporation to cloud > rainfall. This means that the water molecules in our mouths will have passed through countless bodies, organic matter and inorganic substances. It happens not only across the billions of years of the planet’s lifetime before our individual existences but also across the globe as I write. The water I use to make my morning coffee may not long ago have been brewed as an evening cup of jasmine tea in China. My legs, the bike pedals, the cells in my body, thoughts, words and water – everything is in constant flow and change. And I worry, as well as wonder, how this continual metamorphosis will develop as the world changes around me, and sometimes because of me.
At the current time and state of the world, my concerns are particularly concentrated on protecting the planet I live on. But my observations are also very applicable to writing poetry. As poets, we reuse and reinterpret words, recycle styles and forms, build on what has gone before in everything new that we write. Everything we read and everything we experience filters into our writing in one way or another. Wondering what if and metamorphosis are a big part of my writing process, as well as considering the weight of the poems produced. Whatever my reasons for writing any particular individual poem, I try to challenge myself with the question: Could this add anything to the world, however small, be it beauty, understanding, campaigning or something else? A different way to phrase this might be does the poem have a purpose or part to play in the world, and work to fulfil that purpose and its part in the world – the same kind of question that I also ask myself as both a person and a writer in these eco-challenged times.
Bibliography – Part One
Niedecker, Lorine, ‘My Life by Water’, Lorine Niedecker Collected Works (University of California Press, 2002), ed. by Jenny Penberthy, p. 238.
Some of the photo-poems in these articles were previously published in: ‘photo syn thesis: an eco exploration of future light earth water’ on Molly Bloom (https://mollybloom17.weebly.com/sarah-james.html, Sept 2018).