Poetry Review | 'Fan-Peckled': Twelve Old Shropshire Words in Poems & Pictures J. Atkin & K. Alston
'Fan-Peckled' is a pamphlet of twelve poems by Jean Atkin, each illustrated by Katy Alston. An intuitive collaboration between poet and illustrator, it explores idiomatic language of historic Shropshire.
Fan-Peckled: Twelve Old Shropshire Words in Poems and Pictures. Jean Atkin & Katy Alston. Published by Fair Acre Press (2021)
The pamphlet is inspired by:
The Shropshire Word-Book, A Glossary of Archaic and Provincial Words, Etc., Used in the County. Georgina F. Jackson. First published by Adnitt & Naunton Shrewsbury (1879).
The title of each poem is a selected word from this glossary and is followed by an epigraph to define it.
The poems are written in the third person, skilfully placing the reader in the margin that both divides and glues archaic and contemporary times. Written in traditional form, they are founded on a loose rural narrative and many contain named individuals.
Although the focus is on the historical lexicon of a specific west midlands region, it is clear that the words we choose, consciously or unconsciously, play a role in the way we perceive the world.
For example, in the opening poem, ‘Buts and Feerings’ John ‘ploughs a small farm on two brinks / and neither will make him fat.’ The poem immediately appears balanced on the page due to the symmetry of couplets arranged either side two septets. In the first septet, the reader learns that when John is behind a plough on dry soil known as ‘feerings’, he ‘watches soil blow away behind prints of big hooves.’ In the second he ploughs wet lands known as ‘buts’, where ‘the horses will sweat with the weight / and the clay clart up their feather.’
John views life as ‘all buts and feerings.’ This is a completely different perspective to that gained from imagining ‘peaks and troughs’, frequently heard in modern parlance to describe hard times. To be in a trough is to be surrounded by high land, meaning there is no view. Equally, to stand on the peak is to be unaware of what is happening at the base. There is no suggestion of balance in these contrasting levels. There is just a promise of positive change with a shift in circumstances. Although it is used optimistically, the phrase can disillusion if the next 'peak' seems forever in the distance, or the climb too much to bear. The metaphorical ‘buts and feerings’ however, show that the speaker has no blind spot. Even when situations change, the unchanging character of the landscape requires acceptance.
Using ‘buts and feerings’ figuratively, Atkin portrays Shropshire farmers working the land pre mechanisation as stoics, and by implication, also refers to those within the community who might have used the metaphor to describe an adverse situation. Alston endorses this frame of mind by focusing on the horses in her illustration and erasing the farmer from the scene. A tea caddy on a sill with a teaspoon and a wet ring where a mug has been picked up is a nod to him and his wife, Milly. The horses are harnessed for work; John, resigned to the task ahead, finds sustenance in the proverbial hot drink that comforts.
The poem, ‘Barley Child’ is based on a term to describe ‘a child born in wedlock, but which makes its advent within six months of marriage; as barley is six months between sowing and harvesting’. The gentleness of this term opposes the violence in the well-known nineteenth century phrase ‘shotgun wedding’ that originated in America, and implies restoration of honour for a family ashamed of a pregnant, unmarried daughter. The vowels are hard and hone determined discrimination. The Shropshire communities that used the prosaic, quick-growing barley as a metaphor for a baby conceived out of wedlock, ignore any ‘shame’ attached to the conception and lay the child close to the Shropshire earth and all that nourishes.
The fatalistic speaker in ‘Barley Child’ observes that ‘things happen, in the countryside, and in the town, / down Dark Lane and down Lover’s Lane’ and notes that ‘when the baby comes, it’s all made right, it’s like / a pact.’ Alston illustrates this piece softly with an image of lovers in a car in a moonlit barley field and includes the ‘overhead messages /passing in the wires, telegraph post to post.’ Both artists convey the timelessness of romance in their twentieth century image that defines an archaic term.
Atkin closes 'Barley Child' with a line loaded with subtext, intimating that attitudes are first and foremost shaped by language used and values held within the boundaries of home.
The repetitive ‘k’ sound in the title poem, 'Fan-Peckled' is very satisfying, particularly when read aloud. The word simply means ‘freckled’. The alliterative stanzas draw the reader into the superstitious world of ‘Kath’s youngest daughter’ who enjoys nature in minutiae and the comforts of home, such as ‘the freckled flesh / of wrinkled Bramley’s in the pan, / small-chopped and pickled.’ What works so beautifully between poet and illustrator here, is the evocation of a bygone time. Alston uses her dip pen to create a hazy surround to a central image in focus of foxgloves, ladybirds and oak leaves. It illustrates memory: a microscopic look at remembered detail at the centre of a blurred past.
Perhaps my favourite poem is the more abstract, ‘ShallIgonaked’, which is ‘a term applied to a jacket…made of light, thin, flimsy material.’ Today, when flesh is exposed without being shocking, it is hard to imagine the desired effect, when the term was used to deride a person deemed not appropriately clothed for the weather. This is a beautiful, transformative lyric. The woman at the heart of the poem ‘was /not flowers but owl. Her neck rotated and / her gaze was hooked and fierce’ as she stalks ‘Red Grouse.’ The term ‘ShallIgonaked’ does not appear - it does not need to. An environment of harsh, cold exposure is all too apparent, ably demonstrated by the image accompanying it.
This is not a romanticised collection. Readers encounter flooding, an abused work horse and a labourer needing to transfer skills in a time of changing economics. It is a collection of acute, tender observations and a reminder that although the years pass, what matters remai and people's sensibilities continue as before, regardless. We note worn pickets and hear the same ‘clicket’ if we fasten the old gate, now covered with lichen and repaired again and again with bits to hand. We may not hear a red kite being called a ‘glid’ anymore, but we watch as one ‘lifts out of the wood / like a loaf rising’ just as our predecessors would have.
The archaic vocabulary was once modern, current and in common use.
Clearly the glossary has been carefully researched by both poet and illustrator. History has been scrutinised to make an authentic record and to imagine old Shropshire through a dozen obsolete words. The archaic vocabulary was once modern, current and in common use. It identified the locals from the outsiders. Today, more geographically mobile than previous generations, our language is less regional and more generic. Although each double page of Fan-Peckled is looking back, when I reached the end, I found I was looking forwards and wondering who might research contemporary vernacular, and what future conclusions will be made regarding the modern culture of today, based on what will become archaic idioms such as: bucket list, baby brain, digital divide, global search, dark web…
Jean Atkin has published two full collections:
'Not Lost Since Last Time' (Oversteps 2013), 'How Time is in Fields (Indigo Dreams Publishing 2019)
Katy Alston illustrates artist's books, maps and makes natural history illustrations.
Links for Margaret Adkins Writing:
Margaret Adkins started writing when her nursing and midwifery career came to an end in 2015. She become a full-time student at the University of Worcester. She gained a BA (Hons) in Creative Writing & English Literature and an MRes in Theatre & Performance. Winner of the inaugural University of Worcester V. Press Prize, her debut poetry pamphlet Mingled Space is published by V. Press (2019).