On 15 June 1878 the East London Observer reported the case of one Eliza S–, whose infant children had been taken into care. She blamed her husband, who was by then deceased. He had been an Italian who made bird cages, and had had difficulties with debt. Eliza survived her conviction to die an old woman in a workhouse. From this story, Judith Willson has woven an extraordinary poetic meditation, Fleet, named after the river which fed into the Thames. Much of the book takes place up and down the Thames, a confluence of exotic birds, migrants and washed up detritus in the mud and marshes, and towards the end of the book, the gaze broadens out to Ancona, the home of the Italian dealer in ‘foreign birds and curiosities.’
The collection includes a series of children’s songs, acute and oblique views of life, but in playground rhythms, which have such deep roots. It also reflects on the technological capture of the past or of distance – the first recording, early photographs, maps, archives, telescopes. The collection is pervaded by a profound sense of the unknowability of the past, but its vitality nonetheless
‘Time is a process of coming into being’
not a memorial stone a story
neither remembered nor imagined
a saltwater creek its vagaries
silt-water silk-mud mirror-mud
Eliza’s circumstances are largely unrecoverable, except by a process of imagination shaped by the fragments of the past. She slips away, even her grave is not preserved:
‘she left nothing not even her death.’
In one of the most haunting moments Willson imagines the court scene, recorded in the papers:
The prisoner said
the only words she spoke in her life
that anyone recorded,
pressed into lead.
What moves through her
is invisible, silent
as the dark between the stars.
Yet for all that Eliza is elusive, missing, unknowable, she is also an amazingly vibrant presence, imagined at the laundry, warming her hands, listening to the songbirds, ‘a breath exhaled between numbers,’ a presence half glimpsed, finding her independence in her ungraspable particularity, finding her place in the water, ‘riding the tideway into the eye of the wind.’
There are many ways to read this wonderful book; one is as framing what the work is that history does. From the tiniest scraps of archives, a newspaper, court records, a cross for a signature, the map of where a grave once was, we get a partial vision of something which happened, which can be analysed but which is still elusive. These fragments are like the scraps Willson finds on the foreshore by Rotherhithe
Neck of a bottle
plump as a song thrush
Chunk of fogged glass
moulded nubs and trails
unreadable under my fingertips
But the challenge of unreadability, the act of translation and transmutation that goes on in imagining and performing, the capture of the glimpse of voices and faces is the work of history:
each of us walking through our muddled days
muttering in our own dialect
twisting it into shapes to hold some wild flapping creature
in all its improbable colours
What is missed too often in debates over culture and history at present is that polyphony is at the very heart of history. History is fundamentally aggregative, connective; like water it flows into gaps and seeks out new channels. If history does not flow, become renewed by new approaches and voices, it becomes stagnant. The addition of Eliza’s voice, the bird cage maker of Ancona, the history of the docks and implication in empire, the slaughter of birds for a market in feathered trinkets, the broken debris, the migrant and the prisoner – and the poet joining them up over time – is the work of history. The more voices we hear, the richer our histories, and our shared lives.
It is inconceivable to me that the addition of voices should be understood as the replacement or cancelling of voices. History that has just one note is nothing but a dessicated voiceless bird in a cage.
I am writing this a mile or so away from where Eliza and her Italian husband lived in a shop, perhaps crammed with sailers’ curios and exotic birds, watching the Thames flow.
There is a moment when Willson is looking at the same part of the Thames and writes
Impossible to believe
we never touch anything
We make it all up out of particles
a shimmer at the boundary a story
that travels on the tides
But make it up we do, and must; our humanity depends on finding ways to imagine the connections between us, and that is why arts and humanities as disciplines have such a critical place in our world. We mend, we sing, we tell stories so that our aloneness joins that of others to make sense in the flow of time. Our disciplines find their greatest strength and relevance in their openness to helping voices be heard.
 On mending and singing, see my previous blogs https://anatomiesofpower.wordpress.com/2021/03/28/magic-and-the-mastery-of-non-mastery/ and https://anatomiesofpower.wordpress.com/2021/03/08/breaking-fixing-wondering/.