When Ruth Wiggins’ debut poetry collection The Lost Book of Barkynge came out, about the medieval abbey of Barking and its extraordinary sisterhood, it was an immediate critical success, chosen by the Telegraph as the book of the month and described by Tristram Fane Saunders as “a collection of rare ambition and scope”. Here she evocatively charts her writer’s journey to recovering these lost voices of the sacred feminine.
WHEN I FIRST started work on the poems that would later become The Lost Book of Barkynge, I was engaged on a very different project. Chasing the ghost of my father’s childhood, I had conceived the idea of walking the length of the river he grew up on. It’s not an uncommon observation among poets that walking is an intrinsic part of their practice, and this is no less true of mine. There is something about the metric of footfall, the mapping of route to terrain, that is like the pen across a page. Then there is the fact that the natural architecture of the outdoors can be such a profoundly meditative space. And sometimes there is the discovery of the unexpected trail, the poem that shows up out of the blue, insists you take this route instead …
Ruth Wiggins – Image: Caleb Waterman
So it was, that having walked and written about large stretches of the River Roding, gradually working my way south from its source, I found myself standing among the ruins of Barking Abbey. On the churchyard gate was a sign reading ‘By-laws apply in these pleasure grounds.’ These pleasure grounds amounted to suspiciously neatly turfed vacancies. Picked out in brick, like the chalk outline of a body now missing, were suggestions of a church, a chapter house, a cloister, all scattered with barbecue charcoal, chickweed, and sunbathers. A poster for the Barking Folk Festival: ‘Abbey Ruins Live’.
These ruins are on the left bank of the Roding, just before it briefly becomes Barking Creek, before issuing into the Thames. Barking is a watery town, and the signs of the abbey are everywhere mixed in with Barking’s other heritage: fishing and boat building. The words ‘ghost fishing fleets’ are carved into stone by the wharf; nuns, nets, and fishermen die-cut into street light fixtures. A couple I meet sheltering from the sun in the ruins say you cannot escape Barking without crossing water. They talk of pubs long gone, The Three Lamps and The Fishing Smack, how you used to be able to hear the fog horns on the river at night. They tell me the layout of the ruins is in fact a reconstruction: the wall bases aren’t original, nor are they in the correct location. The pleasure grounds are an approximation, and yet are resonant with voices, calling out to be heard.
The project about my dad was informed by ideas around memory, its failure, and the need to look at someone’s life in its entirety. This gave rise to an interesting parallel. It feels as though there has been a failure in the broader cultural memory to remember the women of Barking Abbey, and this in turn suggested a need to return to the year the abbey was founded and to trace its course through history. Revoicing the lives of the women, both secular and religious, who lived there throughout the nine centuries of its existence.
The last time I had been in Barking before discovering the ruins, was when I had given birth to my first child, at the old maternity hospital there. A breaking of waters and the helpful firmness of a very old-school midwife. A sense of embodied female wisdom, its transmission through history, in a bright room of young, uncertain mothers. The abbey itself was a site of embodied wisdom, and as it attracted and absorbed women of significant families, it accrued wealth and clout and grew into a devout but also profoundly learned institution. It had a considerable library and, uniquely, its novices were referred to as scholars. This was of course a time when education was not an opportunity afforded to many, still less many women. The Benedictines placed huge emphasis on reading, but it was still an elite privilege. I was a very bookish child, and still dream of the circular library that I haunted in my youth. The idea of not having had access to it, or of perhaps never having handled a book at all, makes me shiver.
My childhood library is still there today, in its circle of cement cobbles, ringed by rowans, those trees planted to protect sites of knowledge. With its green-scalloped roof and high clerestory windows, Fulwell Cross Library was my church. This little library was designed by Frederick Gibberd, whose remarkable cathedral in Liverpool was built at about the same time. And like its bigger sister, Fullwell Cross Library definitely has its sights set firmly on the ecstatic. During later research, I would be delighted to discover that my church was on land that would have been part of the original abbey estate, as was the house I grew up in, the park I played in, and my infant school. It was as though the abbey had been quietly holding me, just waiting for me to notice. History’s lively green weeds breaking through the concrete of a London suburb.
But these thoughts were to come later, in the disembodied days of lockdown research. By contrast, my June trip to Barking was all about the clay and the water … ghosts. The ‘strange state of temporal dislocation’ (Mark Fisher) that walking in ruins tips one into. It was the beginning of a collaboration with place and time, a one-foot-in-the-past/one-in-the-present-ness. A sense of things shifting in and out, fed by the river, which at Barking is still tidal.
Then came the ruin of Covid. With the first lockdown rumoured likely, I marked what would prove to be the last weekend of free movement in the UK by visiting the hospital chapel at Ilford. A little north of the abbey upstream on the Roding, this old leper hospital was established by a Barking abbess in the 12th century and is one of only three Barking structures to have escaped the destruction of the Dissolution. I seemed to be the only visitor that day and a guide told me that before entering the gates of the chapel, lepers would have said goodbye to the world in a ritual akin to the last rites. With the world teetering on the edge of pandemic, it seemed an apt place to be.
As Lockdown went into full swing, my mind naturally turned to ideas around enclosure. What would the seclusion of the nuns’ lives have been like? There are gifts and privations associated with solitude, and at a time when we were all learning to live virtually, it was compelling to imagine them on their own virtual pilgrimages (as was common at the time) to Jerusalem and other stations of worship. These were days in which we learnt to hold each other in ways less embodied. Some ached for touch, some relished its falling away. I was fortunate to be enclosed with people I love, but able to retreat into a virtual library, one I couldn’t physically walk the length of, but which held so much accessible learning, as research portals opened their virtual gates for free. Could those centuries of nuns have ever imagined the wealth of scholarship open to us now, I wondered as I went into free fall through essays on early stained-glass windows; the role of friendship and female community in Anglo-Saxon England; religious discourses on blood and sweat; the link between auroras and rhetoric; plague, intercession, patronage; fishing and tidal surges in the Thames …
In an attempt to embody the sisters, I tried to visualise the space they moved in, turned my ear to try and catch them singing, their pens scratching, the swish of the habit. But while reading everything I could, desperate to furnish these lives with accuracy and depth, there was still the overwhelming need to convey their spiritual reality. Where my instinct was to listen in on their reading and writing practices, I wondered what it must have been like to sit with a single, precious book for months on end, meditating on its religious symbols and stories, in a community of like-minded readers, at that specific time in history. The slow accretion of detail, a language of signs, days filled with meaningful comets and visions. What did it mean to lick dust off a chapel floor in some rite of communion? Was the transgressive sewing into their habits of gold thread, intended for altar frontals, an affectation or something more ritually nuanced?
Looking back my notebooks start to become peppered with phrases like practice a quiet, empty mind. Scraps of Anglo-Saxon start creeping in. There is a note for August 2020: the inability to look away impacting on everything. How impossible I must have been to live with! I start thinking about Anne Carson’s thoughts on epitaph: No genre of verse is more profoundly concerned with seeing what is not there, and not seeing what is … Too long to be inscribed on a tomb, these poems are no epitaph, but are certainly an exercise in trying to see what is not there. A summoning of the dead into the present. Derrida’s ghosts that can’t properly be said to belong to the past.
At some point I hit a wall, write: Nuns … complete and utter stall … I have been writing chronologically, and the shift from the time of saints and visions into days more pragmatic (around the period of the Norman invasion) for some reason throws me. Something about historical accuracy smudging the field of vision. The need to channel each nun convincingly is sending me slowly mad. But then I have a revelation, devise what I will eventually call the ‘hics’: lyric captions that set time and place, and which release the poems themselves from factual clunking. Each one operating in a temporal as well as geographical sense. ‘Here’ as in this point in history, this land, this notional/mutable ‘country’, this spot. The ‘hic hic hic’ of the wolf calling attention to St Edmund’s decapitated head in the undergrowth. The genius loci.
The lockdown restrictions on how far we were allowed to wander, compounded by two broken toes (my habit of walking about in the dark, barefoot), meant I no longer had access to the metric of walking, that generative activity that also allows the mind to wander. The impossibility of field notes was maddening. Life became an echo chamber, and I craved a different sort of isolation, would set off on virtual journeys of my own. I started drawing maps: maps of the whole Roding, maps of the stretch around the Abbey, a map with the Roding church cluster, including St Edmunds at Abbess Roding; maps which still hang sun-bleached in the window by which I write. I have always been compelled by the symbolic language of cartography, the fact that a line on a map is kept alive by the simple act of walking it. The encoding of our geo-psychic spaces.
At this time, my growing sense of the sheer scale of the abbey’s presence in medieval London and Essex, which in fact went far beyond my own simple reference points of a birth, a library, a home, impressed on me that my fantasy of the abbey, as simply that space at Abbey Green, was in fact sustained by the broader land grabs of the church, tithes and taxes, something which gave me pause. I am by inclination repulsed by centralised power and wealth, but by spirit moved by the serenity and beauty of such spaces, their … suggestiveness.
A break in lockdown restrictions found me on a beach in Norfolk staring at a flat oyster shell, shape reminiscent of a nun. The curve of the shell, like a sea billow or habit of un-dyed wool. I start to draw oyster shells in my notebooks, am excited to discover the tantalising detail that an oyster switches backwards and forwards, male to female throughout its life. That they are gregarious and settle on older oysters, creating the haven of a reef. Chaucer wrote about cloisters being built by men on a diet of oysters, London likewise built on them. I know that a shell scratched with a date was set into the wall of St Margaret’s at Barking. The sound of sister … oyster … sister, swooshes in my head. The poet HD’s words, Are we psychic coral-polyps? Do we build on one another? Ideas of deep community ferment.
“… the sound of sister… oyster… sister, swooshes in my head…”
Although I do not share the faith of the sisters of Barking, I believe in the authenticity of their lives, and I want my poems to speak to that lived experience, to notions of community, silence, contemplation. But also, the madness of seclusion. To interrogate both the damage and the healing inherent to abstraction. The metaphors of faith that can connect us to the non-immediate, that allow us to embrace notions of world, community, uninvested kindness, but which can also feed philosophies that other and exclude. Thinking about the haven of the oyster reef, makes me reflect on the networks and strategies we can call upon, particularly as women, in our creative work: companionship, but also the need for solitude, a place to freely think and feel.
I should probably mention here that I have never believed in a deity. I grew up on a diet of Greek and Roman myth: that panoply of supernatural entities, who embody both the human and the non-human. Together with other pre-Christian beliefs, particularly those that respond to the tangible seasonal world, these stories helped hardwire my brain for awe in nature and helped me find the sacred in the ordinary. But being a member of a school choir, I also spent a lot of time singing in churches, and the symbols of Christianity are part of my brain’s architecture too. We live in an energetic and perplexing universe, and God, for want of a word, is a powerful emptiness in me, that space which floods with awe and wonder, darkness, terror, the no-knowing about the world. The god-shaped hole. Perhaps it is all semantics, but what did it mean to immerse myself in this Christian mythos so deeply? What were the dangers, the consequences? Going all in, would I fall, I joked to myself, lose my humanist credentials? We poets love to talk about risk. I certainly fell in love with some of the nuns of Barking, and their insistent ghosts have shifted something in me.
Gods are too frequently enlisted in the service of human ill intent, but I recognise their ability to articulate the ineffable; they are a good receptacle for mystery. Metaphor is, after all, the mind’s opposable thumb. It helps us to grip the ephemeral, to open the recalcitrant jar that is the world, to get at meaning. Humans seem hardwired to reach for elegant proofs, singularities, to reduce complexity to one graspable thing. But we can also be moved too easily by the simplistic: the snappy, metrical slogan on a placard. Belief is a mindset that labours against the unknowable, offering a reductive beauty: a way of holding the perplexing myriad-ness of life. Something which is at its most effective when it appears succinct, transparent, inevitable. Prayer and poetry. A simple glyph.
Sometimes a poem can feel like it comes as a gift from the universe, but it no doubt has its origin in the wild circuitry of the brain. One synapse getting a jolt from another, a negotiation between competing or adjacent nerves. We have a natural felicity for creation, but better conditions for luring it out can be sought. Techniques for turning off the forebrain until such time as you need it. John Keats talked of ‘negative capability’, words which to me have always suggested an ability to sit and wait, without the ego flooding in. Attention, openness, a willingness to trust, to be hijacked. To be a clear glass to hold water in. If there is one piece in the collection that speaks to this transparent nothingness, it’s the tiny poem Morsel, which takes as its background the famine that ravaged Europe in the 14th century, and which explores how ritual and a total immersion in ecstatic imagery can allow the transient and physical to fall away, making way for the transcendent.
When Sophie Lévy Burton first invited me to write about my experience of writing this book, she framed it as something that might touch on ‘my soul’s journey’. This was an interesting proposition, perhaps chiefly because I have always felt awkward around concepts of soul. Lacking religious belief or any sense of an afterlife, I have nonetheless always been drawn, almost promiscuously, to any version of the sacred that might give a shape to my sense of awe in the universe. Having spent three years immersed in the life of Barking Abbey and the iconography of Christianity, my poems inevitably became (amongst other things) inflected by the idea of the body as spiritual sustenance. This is something which finds its apotheosis in the idea of the Eucharist, but also in the body-based expressions of female worship that were such a feature of the medieval period: blood, milk, saliva …
So, it is perhaps no wonder that, on finding myself recently in the crypt of All Hallows-by-the-Tower (Barking), in front of the aumbry that holds the holy bread of the Sacrament, I experienced an incredible rush of … well, something. This surge of feeling was unprecedented and seemed to have something to do with notions of nourishment and the terrible pathos of existence, but I needed more than thought to unpick its meaning. It was, after all, just a wafer behind an unassuming curtain in an ordinary wall. Was it the pressure of the low, barrel-vaulted roof, some affect of sacred geometry? In that moment, I could well imagine how a life’s immersion in the iconography of the church might imprint on the supple plasticity of the mind. I may not share the conclusions the nuns of Barking drew, the specific fusion of ideas and imagery that framed their view of the cosmos, but I profoundly recognise and wish to celebrate their need for a contemplative space and their willingness to protect it. I also recognise their instinct for awe and for praise, the way these can nurture something akin to a poetics or mythopoesis. I simply choose to worship in a different space.
Holy nothing, round as a mirror
I am nothing
blasted to nothing
thin as a panel beaten till the light
my shoulders lit
light in my fingers
I’ll eat nothing but the Eucharist
feast on spirit
glow with the winnowing
this little crisp that sits
in the pool of my tongue
it fills me
how the saliva rushes to meet it
to dissolve into honey
my body is meat
a loaf to be crumbled
do not summon me with that old name
I am honey and I am grain
a nameless feast
to fall famished from love
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