Prac Crit

Durham Cathedral

by Katrina Porteous


by Jenny Holden

Out of the dark
          Came heat and light.

How far, how deep
          Are the workings that made us?

          As deep as remembering.
          As far as tomorrow.

                                      [‘Out of the Dark’]
Since moving to County Durham two years ago, I have been gathering dialect words to me in my own North-East collage. A colleague at work exclaimed at the spelk in her finger; another mentions preparing her daughter’s bait for school. (In other mining communities, in Yorkshire for example, lunch—or dinner; these words aren’t stable either—is snap, or piece). In Durham there is a café named after the local word for the alleyway on which it sits. I know ginnel, jitty, snicket (from my own East-Midlands upbringing), and now add vennel to my collection. A friend calls another friend a cow’s tail – the last one to get something done – though it turns out that’s Shakespeare. But in seeking out these curious words I should have started here, with Katrina Porteous’s Two Countries; I could have saved myself a lot of time.

Flicking to the back of the book, you find a hefty glossary of Northumbrian/Scots Borders dialect words, which Porteous explains she has gathered from farming and fishing communities, as well as the ‘Pitmatic’ language of Northumbrian coal-mining. There are many names for coastal birds, including the spuggie who flew between the windows of Bede’s mead-hall, from darkness briefly into light and then back out into the void – before appearing in the epigraph to Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts. (Darkness and light, soft and hard, rivers and roads: these are all important to Porteous.) In her poems each unfamiliar word glistens like a wet stone catching the sun. When I flick to the back and then return to the verse, the sheen may be dulled but there is something else in its place: a small, new token of knowledge.

Porteous is faithful to the dialect – even to the ‘anapestic’ triple-timed rhythm – of her region – of the working-classes. She understands this language as shifting, winding, pliable – and also endangered. A series of poems about the coble, a Northumbrian fishing vessel, commemorates what has been lost. Her research, her fieldwork, has clearly been exhaustive – out there in the wet and cold with binoculars and wellies, catching the rhythm of everyday conversation, and assembling it, here, in this remarkable book.

She writes in her introduction that she does not seek to represent the whole of the North-East. Instead, she hopes that the poems will ‘resonate beyond the local’ – that her own ‘collage of scraps and fragments’ will get across her deep engagement with people and the landscape in which they live. To this end, she has assembled a various and lively mixture of phrases, voices, chants, descriptions; she has taped and spliced them, not afraid to show the seams. It strikes me that metaphor is less important to her – with one exception, perhaps, the striking description of ‘The Pitman’s Boot’ which is ‘curled like a cod’s lip’ – than the words themselves; their original meanings. These need to be held onto, understood, passed on. I am reminded of the sparse precision of another writer imbedded in their landscape – George Mackay Brown – in which words such as star, stone, cradle, are transfigured. Porteous’s poems are meant to be read aloud – many were commissioned for performance on the radio. There is no set order, and through the book certain words and themes repeat and re-align. As she writes in ‘Alnmouth’: ‘What matters // Is sunk, uncovered / And sunk.’

Things being buried, built over, exposed again – this is what ‘Durham Cathedral’ is about. The lines of sediment, the debris of our industrial heritage, the reminders of where we came from – and the place to which we will eventually return.

Is a cold document.

Our lives, too,
A line of sediment.

                        [‘On Seaham Headland’]

Durham Cathedral, that crazily hewn assemblage of rock, is such a document. The poem imagines that it has fallen, the cathedral ‘towers / toppled’. How could such a thing happen? Arriving in Durham by train, coming over the viaduct, another arch-spanned marvel of engineering, the cathedral tower rises up to welcome you, the city huddled around it – the river looping to enclose the lot. Walking towards the building you have the impression of crossing into unknown territory, the mature trees shielding everything but the tower – as though you entered a pre-historic settlement. If Ely Cathedral is the ship of the fens, then Durham Cathedral is another such way-marker; without it, how could I now call this city my home?

I wonder where this feeling came from, which I share with friends and family from other places. My partner’s mother, a Sri Lankan Tamil, is almost moved to tears in that cool hush and feels her own mother watching over her there. A childhood friend describes it as the most beautiful church she has ever been inside. I am not a believer, but Durham Cathedral is a place in which I doubt my doubt, and where it seems to me that we might be surprised into a changed understanding of the things we thought we knew. It has something to do with those high, impossibly high, Norman arches, the columns with their zig-zags and waves, a finger reaching out to trace those cold, dusty indentations and from that imagining the mason who worked the stone. Ruskin and Golding have written of the cathedral builders and their capacity for seeing into a future in which you will no longer exist. Their capacity for wonder. We look to science, now, for such a sense of the mysterious, where once we looked to religion and to art. (Willa Cather has a wonderful novel, The Professor’s House, in which the protagonist struggles in such a world.) But Porteous imagines that future has been and gone, she has remembered and now looks for tomorrow. She launches herself out into the cold blue air, hoping that the idea will press back against her to meet her, support her there, just as the Holy Island Arch, in the poem on the facing page to ‘Durham Cathedral’, relies on an equal pressure exerted against itself to exist.

The cathedral has crumbled, then, leaving only a ‘spot-lit arch.’ The opening of the poem has a heavy, end-weighted rhythm, with each phrase seemingly in two halves around a central fissure, and the last word heavier, splitting the structure.

Imagine it a ruin.
A spot-lit arch. Its towers
Toppled. The river
Kerving a jud

In the fading light
At the thin end of the year.

I hear, most strongly, ruin, arch, toppled, jud: as though each word were one of those toppled cathedral stones. ‘Kerving a jud’ is, the glossary tells me, to undercut a coalface. The River Wear’s loop, a horseshoe containing the old town (the Bailey if you’re a student here, the peninsular to others) is recast as a mining process – which cuts away at the land on which the cathedral perches, undermining the rock on which the rock sits. Those crumbled towers – did they fall into the Wear’s black glistening waters, one cold winter’s evening? Over the winter, or many years, or millennia; how did the cathedral come down? ‘The Dark Passages’: ‘There are rocks and there are rivers / But at last / All rocks are rivers.

The river has brought the stone down, eroded the bank and changed the landscape forever. Now the windows of the toppled cathedral are ‘countless sockets’ holding ‘a darkness – ours’; I think of eye-sockets in a skull, but also of a pigeon coop emptied of its birds. In her introduction, Porteous writes: ‘I was struck by the contrast between the darkness and violence of coal extraction and the softness and beauty of the visible Durham landscape, the pre-industrial past which surrounded the pit villages. It is easy to understand why miners loved their gardens and pigeons.’ That same darkness now spreads through the town, ‘In Elvet, North Bailey, / Cobbled Owengate’, it is as ‘coal smoke on the breath’, from ‘a blacker seam.’ That would be both the coal-seam in a mine, and the Wear. When we first moved to Durham, I’d watch the river (or the wedge of it visible between buildings) from our balcony, at night. The water sparkled with white zigs, like those on the columns of the cathedral; and over it was the orange lamp glare of the car park opposite. One night a student drowned in the Wear. It took a week to find the body, and the man who did was a local who, seeing the news reports, travelled back from Scotland to dive for it. He was certain that he knew the tricks and turns of the river better than anyone. Sure enough, he pulled out the boy right where they started looking, right where everyone in the town felt sure he must have fallen.

Following this event, the council were pressured to do something about the riverbanks, the lighting of the footpaths. Last winter, weeks of rain had the Wear slapping at its banks, edging higher and higher. The Lumiere festival went some way to reclaiming the city, the night, the river: an outpouring of light, a bringing together of people in the place in which they live, to discover new sights and sounds and see those old stones transformed. On Durham Cathedral was projected the creation of the universe; a light show with Bach chorales, swirling nebulae, and the ‘knotwork on vellum / Keel, scroll, laced / Branches’ of the Lindisfarne Gospels which Porteous describes. The vaulted ceiling wore pulsing lights responsive to the movement of people below and rippling and shifting in webs like light on water. A whale projected on the mist leapt from and crashed back into the river while we huddled on Elvet Bridge, agog.

‘Durham Cathedral’ was written for the Lumiere, too, a previous one – which goes some way to explaining the light in it, the recasting of the familiar into something different. The riverbank becomes a coalface, the towers Ozymandian reminders. I can see why Porteous has been involved in the event, for her own juxtapositions of different voices; the sea; birds, and stones – re-imagining her landscape so inventively, in poems performed, often, to a diverse musical range – shares its ethos.

On the face of the cathedral which looks onto Owengate, you may observe a woman leading a cow, carved in stone. This is the Dun Cow, which led those pilgrims carrying Cuthbert’s body from Lindisfarne to Durham. The woman had lost the animal, and came across the pilgrims just when the saint’s body seemed heaviest. They followed her and the cow to Durham (trailing behind, like a cow’s tail?) and when they reached it the body would not move any further. This story is written on an information board in the cathedral and I always feel obligated to repeat it to visiting friends. Last time I fudged the details and went to look at the board and couldn’t find it. Things that matter sunk, uncovered and sunk… The woman and her holy cow do appear on the Lego cathedral being built, a pound a brick, in the refectory. When we first arrived in Durham it was without walls, without towers. A couple of years on, the two sections of roof have almost reached across to meet one another, and each column is decorated in little customised Lego zags. You can go right up to it and peer in the sockets, look in on a staircase within a tower. I feel tense, imagining all of the many ways I could lunge into it, dislodge a whole wall, put a foot through the rose window… But perhaps that is the point. To live in a house, or to worship in a cathedral, you must first be aware of the many parts that made it, and that could unmake it. The money from the Lego cathedral will fund renovation. From our new house on cobbled Crossgate we see the grey cladding appearing around the tower to cover the scaffolds.

‘Durham Cathedral’ is unusual in a book of long poems for being compact and formally assembled of squat four line stanzas. Yet within it there is still room for return, transformation – as elsewhere in Two Countries, words repeat, alter, surface and dip under. Something besides that single remaining arch is illuminated at the end of the poem: ‘The old words loom, / High, mysterious, / Lit up from within.’ Again, I think of Bede’s hall – but here, unlike the spot-lit arches, fragile not just to the elements but to our own perception of them, the words generate their own light, their own meaning. Porteous describes her poem as digging ‘down beneath the geological strata of Durham’s culture, to the illuminations of the Lindisfarne Gospels and words from local speech, with their Anglo-Saxon roots.’ Coal-mining and manuscripts: ‘Hyeven, Hinny, Hyem.’ (My aforementioned colleague has set up a cake-decorating company named for her mother’s well-worn phrase: ‘get your pinny, hinny!’) Those words, with their soft, stretching vowels, have made it. They have reached a point in the future where the cathedral no longer holds sway, and surpassed even the efforts of its masons, and the millions of people for whom that building has meant so many things, provoking so many specific and difficult-but-possible-to-communicate emotions. How can a building stand under such a weight of importance? In the Midlands, a woman is a duck; more than that, she is a meduck. That extra syllable can be a cause for offence, but, more generously, it may speak of belonging, being enclosed in a place, as the river encloses the city and its cathedral. Being addressed thus is to be reached out to; the speaker attempts to define you in relation to me. Up here, a woman is a hen. Those old words: haven, hen, home.

Durham Cathedral

by Katrina Porteous

Imagine it a ruin.
A spot-lit arch. Its towers
Toppled. The river
Kerving a jud

In the fading light
At the thin end of the year.
Though its countless sockets
Hold a darkness – ours –

In Elvet, North Bailey,
Cobbled Owengate,
Rising, fugitive
As coal smoke on the breath,

From knotwork on vellum,
Keel, scroll, laced
Branches or, beneath,
From a blacker seam –

Hyeven, Hinny, Hyem
The old words loom,
High, mysterious,
Lit up from within.

From Two Countries (Bloodaxe, 2014). Reproduced with permission of the author.

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