Hilary Menos reviews The Red House by Sharon Black (Drunk Muse Press, 2022)
Love of language underpins this new collection from Sharon Black, evident from the start with a poem about being shown round La Maison Rouge, the last silk spinning mill in France, now a museum of Cévenol life, which gives the title to Black’s book. ‘Maison Rouge’ opens with, “Sylvie’s sorry for her rusty English”. Sylvie, the French guide, goes on to mispronounce “spinning” as “spining”, provoking thoughts of “crooked spines and broken vertebrae, / dowager’s humps, battered coccyxes, fused discs”, thoughts only dispelled when she guides the poet into a hall full of silkworms, bobbins, and a model of a young female mill worker washing silk in a basin, whose voice lifts “like a ribbon, singing / in the Occitan banned at school”.
Black has lived in the Vallée Borgne, a remote valley of the Cévennes in Southern France, since 2001. Poems about her experience as an incomer are interwoven with poems about the history of the spinning industry in the Cévennes – an industry which peaked there in the 1850s and ended in 1965 – and poems about the lives, trades and culture of her French neighbours – “goat herders, smallholders, odd jobbers, restaurateurs, hunters, foresters”.
I have lived in the Tarn, a quiet region of South West France, since 2016, and there’s much in this collection that resonates with me – the clang of the hunting dogs’ bells, the plane trees which give shade all summer then are “docked in winter to green-grey fists”, the hairy and dangerous processionary caterpillars inching “nose to tail / across the tarmac”, the hornets fuddling over fermenting grapes, the gravel pétanque pitches in every village square.
Love of language underpins this new collection from Sharon Black
Less familiar to me, but no less lovely, is her beehive, an item in the Maison Rouge museum (archive no. 95.404.4) and subject of the poem ‘Beehive’. The beehives in the fields around our village, Le Verdier, are square boxes made out of any old wood, and painted any old colour, so a row of beehives nestling along the edge of a field can look like a higgledy piggledy line of small, squat beach huts, red, yellow, blue, anything. Black’s beehive, however, is a thing of age and beauty, a hollowed trunk of chestnut “so scorched and weathered that the bole is shattered / to chips of charcoal, amber, orange, red”. Black refers to the universal superstition that you must tell the bees of a death, in this quiet but beautifully turned poem:
Years from now, his son will stand
to announce their keeper’s death, will vow
to serve them as his father did,
will drape a black silk square
over this first hive […]
Life in the Tarn is perhaps a bit less wild, a bit more sedate, than in the Cévennes, but even here the old patterns of living are still important. For the older people, life to some extent still revolves around la chasse, (the hunt), mushroom or hedgerow foraging, local festivals – for chestnuts, in the Cévennes; mostly for wine in the Tarn (hic!) – and the yearly observances that make up the annual calendar of agriculturalists everywhere. Black’s ’Song for the Cévennes’ revels in these old customs and practices and in particular the trades of the Cévenols – the harvester, the baker, the sharpener, the hunter, the goatherd, the old women growing vegetables in their potagers, even the choirmaster – she dedicates her song, and effectively the whole book, to them and their stories, which are:
evident in every patch of levelled land –
terrace layered on terrace as far as the eye can see –
of those who built these mountains from schist and quartz and
sparks of mica, who raise the sky with their bare hands.
Food, of course, is fundamental, and Black enjoys using the French terms for mushrooms – “cèpes, bolets, chanterelles, morelles, / pieds de mouton, trompettes de mort” – for game – “sangliers, biches, chevreuils” – and, of course, this being France, for bread – the baker makes loaves of “céréales, seigle, son and spongy grey campagne, his olive fougasse and his tourte”. But she – like anyone working in both English and French – is clearly also aware of the usefulness of a bit of Anglo Saxon, as she describes the mason “swivelling schist on schist, with chocks and copes” or the sharpener “on his whetstone pedal-seat, working through / a bright bouquet for gutting, paring, carving, cleaving, hunting”.
‘Patois’ again references both the local Cévenol dialect and also the meteorological phenomenon known as Épisodes Cévenois, the violent and highly localised storms accompanied by torrential rain, often causing flooding. The poem opens:
lauze – flat schist roof tile,
clapàs – pile of stones,
bancel – strip of terraced land,
béal – shallow ditch for irrigation.
Don’t ask me where I heard them first –
they run through conversation like
the streams that foam down calades
after rain […]
and goes on to identify these “fast-tongued tributaries” of the river when swollen with rain with the people of the area – “storming the seuil – / sill, doorstep, threshold – / swarthy and teeming with questions.” The following poem opens, “You can tell it’s coming / by the metal panels slotted into doorways” and describes an Épisode Cévenol, right down to remembering the year “the Pont du Ners collapsed and the river / swept the mill boss to his death” – a true story.
I like the way Black has thought hard about the placement of poems. A poem about foraging precedes one about ceps; ‘Viewpoint’ opens “From here, the village is a snake” and comes before ‘Grass snake’; and a poem which references Robert Louis Stevenson’s donkey Modestine leads on to a poem about the poet’s own two donkeys, one jack and one jenny. More subtle still, the poem ‘Pépé Dalle’, about a clog maker, is followed by a poem called ‘Sabotage’, about how the workers at the mill withheld their labour (i.e. sabotaged the work) when their wages, but not their hours, were cut. Of course the French for clog is ‘sabot’, which is neat enough in itself, but sabot also translates as hoof, which makes the first stanza even more satisfying:
We know when a shift is through –
our men’s footsteps echo
on the road like mules’ hooves.
If this wasn’t enough, the poem ends with a reference to waxed leather brogues of the bosses, which points us in the direction of the next poem, ‘Haute Couture’ about silk seamstresses.
Black treats this patch of Cévennes mountainside, and the people who populate it, with great care and tenderness
Poems about local people thread through the collection. Simone Bourgade’s parents sheltered Jews in the war, her brother was sent to a German camp, and her family has “one hundred and seventy descendants, / most still in these hills”. Bernard Cabannes, a forester, planted twenty thousand trees and mourns the falling of one cedar; “I lost a friend” he says. And Fire Healer Dominique Maurel has the “power to harvest heat”. These are woven together with poems about museum objects on show at the Maison Rouge, including a Walnut Oil Reliquary (archive no. 95.020.0001), a baptism dress (archive no. 00.019.0001) and a mirror of “chamfered walnut four inches wide, / reddened with madder, waxed until the grain relaxes” (archive no: 93.022.0003) which, when flipped over reveals:
[…] a bible
cradled in a hollow, held firm with string
like a mother’s arm strapped around her child
to stop the world from falling.
But the poem I return to, again and again, is ‘Viewpoint, Vallon de Nogaret’, which looks at the village from a bird’s eye view. “Homesteads dot the slopes, […] The river can’t be seen // but can be traced between the rows / of potagers, between the auberge / with its roadside menu du jour, the post office”. Black treats this patch of Cévennes mountainside, and the people who populate it, with great care and tenderness. It’s not a romantic or rose-tinted view – the gendarmerie is tatty, there’s a queue outside the butcher, half the village is “up for sale or second-homes or almost-ruins” – but her feeling of community with this place, and the sense we get of people in communion with the land, is almost tangible. ‘Viewpoint’ ends with a snake skin, “papery, translucent”, sloughed off because too tight. What is this? Black’s former life? The endless renewal inherent in rural life? Whatever, Black turns it into something transcendent.
[…] The discarded pellicle
is inside-out, a single piece,
open-mouthed, eye scales intact,
filled with light and almost weightless.
Hilary Menos is editor of The Friday Poem. Her first collection, Berg (Seren, 2009), won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2010. Her second collection is Red Devon (Seren, 2013). Her pamphlet, Human Tissue (Smith|Doorstop, 2020), was a winner in The Poetry Business Book & Pamphlet Competition 2019/20. Her most recent pamphlet, Fear of Forks, is out with HappenStance Press.