After being invited to produce flood poems in conjunction with the Cheltenham Literature Festival in 2007, poet Brenda Read-Brown gathered stories from victims of the 2007 floods to perform at the festival and latterly at the Ledbury Poetry Festival 2008. Many of her poems are narratives of stories that didn’t hit the news headlines. She spoke to different people within society, from musicians, emergency services and micro-communities, to collate the wider events before, during and after the flood.
As stated by the poet during her Ledbury performance (see below), the poems “aren’t works of great art, but what I have tried to do is to capture the different voices of the people involved”. Her poems focus directly on people’s flood stories, giving them centre stage instead of indirectly communicating them like much of literature and poems do, requiring a great deal of interpretation.
Each poem narrates a different story which she collated during her research. In all, there are ten stories that have been formed into poems. Many of the stories reflect themes similar to those of previous blog posts and interviews. These include:
Realisation of the weather
At first, standing outside, it seemed quite funny,
To get wetter, and wetter and still wetter,
But then the penny dropped:
The weather wasn’t getting better.
Poem 1 – The Violins Played On
Power of the water and watery sense of place
But then came the two-point attack!
As if the hills had tipped their load –
A wall of water crossed the road;
Poem 2 – Salvage
Community spirit and resilience
When the power went off in Priors Park
The dark was defeated by candles that glimmered
On people all seated at tables outside, drinking wine,
While under the water the car roofs shimmered.
Poem 4 – Priors Park
And everyone, all different, landed
Together by chance, stayed cheerful, didn’t complain.
Poem 5 – Blitzed
The process of recovery
Back in business; trading;
With nothing but a watermark six feet high
And twenty thousand books, marinading
Poem 2 – Salvage
And I put my memories in a skip,
As if my life was washed away;
All the little things I knew so well
Poem 9 – Flushed Away
Lesson from memories
And if the waters come again next year?
Well, now we will know just what to expect.
We’ve learned – from life, not books – to pay nature due respect.
Poem 2 – Salvage
Looking at floods in a wider context
I must be grateful, though – I can escape,
Walk up an alley, get away from here,
Whenever it really gets me down.
In Bangladesh it happens every year,
And people drown.
Poem 9 – Washed Away
The poems also tell of something not yet covered on this blog: the stories of the emergency services. For example, one thing that is raised in poems 7 and 10 is the willingness to continue rescuing people despite feeling exhausted, with many of these emergency services personnel running on just adrenaline:
And said I’d had a little sleep;
When, with the water six feet deep,
I spent eight days in an undrugged high,
Buzzing with adrenaline, getting by
With nothing but nerves and colleagues for support
Poem 7 – Unbelievable
During the flood there was little time to take stock and gather memories; looking back on the event itself the emergency service personnel have vivid memories:
Other memories abound:
In exhilarating action, not just desk-bound;
Challenged by the need for ever-changing plans;
Humbled by the gratitude of every man
And woman that I met;
I won’t forget
The backdrop beat and thump of generators;
Rescue vessels sliding up town streets
Like alligators in a mangrove swamp;
The aerial view: not what we knew – instead
It was the Gloucestershire Delta, Terry said.
Poem 10 – Instead
The poems go further and describe the shear effort, not just from Gloucestershire personnel, but from emergency services further afield. Poem 10 is set at the M5 Strensham Services, and describes an emergency service HQ and even an ‘emergency service community’. This shows that communities are formed in many guises and for different time-frames, but these communities have similarities to a ‘victim’s community’; resilience, spirit and help.
Poems are another way for memories to be maintained and remembered as they are fixed memories in books and online. Much like ‘The Caravan’ these memories are now conceptualised in art and accessible to everyone. On top of this, with the themes described above future readers will see the full scope of living through a flood event and not just the narrow view the media portrayed.
Furthermore, do examples like poetry just analysed have the potential to educate people, especially children, through geography? This is discussed by Eleanor Rawling in the Teaching Geography Journal, in which she describes three poets and their ‘sense of place’ along the River Severn. Rawling argues in her article ‘The Severn was brown and the Severn was blue’ – A place for poetry in school geography?, that as geography is becoming more about ‘sense of place’ poetry can help students realise their own ‘sense of place’. She suggest that previously, geography
“has not done enough to help young people reflect on the way their own lives are intertwined with the places and landscapes they inhabit, or to introduce them to more personal responses to place.”
(Rawling, 2010: 93)
Rawling argues that the poems she quotes in her article are not only geographically correct but also show the poets’ interconnection with the river. These poems are an example of the reviving of a phenomenological approach to place. This as approach, Rawling suggests, would improve the students’ awareness of and connection with the natural environment. In mainstream geography teaching, the students are constantly discouraged from emotive engagement with the topics on the curriculum. Recent theory developments in geography, however, indicate that emotions are a central to understanding much of what geography is about, including landscape, spatial behaviour, and attitudes towards the environment.
Rawling sees Philip Gross’ Betweenland poems as summarising:
“the intense mystery of the river environment, complete with geographically accurate observations and poetic definitions of well-known features – the estuary is like ‘a battered pewter hearing trumpet amplifying distance’; the catchment is ‘a sort of shelf’, ‘a notional line within which nothing is alien to the river’.”