‘Caught Between Stations’: Orlam by PJ Harvey – review

friends to the rooks
redstarts and hawk-moth
friends to the phantoms
caught between stations

‘Ash’, extract from Orlam by PJ Harvey

This is the 2nd collection by twice-Mercury Prize winner musician PJ Harvey, and it astonishes, disturbs, provokes, and exhilarates as much as her impressive back-catalogue. Drawing upon her own Dorset childhood, ‘especially its landscape and folklore’, this verse-novel set over a year tells the story of the 9-year old Ira-Abel Rawles and her dark miseducation amid a cast of sinister and comical grotesques, not least her own family and her monstrous father. Seeking solace in the local Gore Woods, she develops a strange relationship with a Christ-like ghost soldier called Twyman-Elvis. The work is steeped in local folklore and is written in the Dorset dialect, which offers a pungent word-hoard, e.g. ‘button-crawler’ (wood-louse); ‘chattermag’ (magpie); ‘chawly-whist’ (ashamed); ‘dungy’ (downcast, dull); ‘farterous’ (father-like); and ‘red bread’ (vagina) to give but a few examples. By adopting this approach Harvey picks up the baton left by Dorset’s unofficial laureate, the 19th Century polymath Willam Barnes, and carries it into the modern era. The ecolect is enervated by its juxtaposition to the grubby remnants of contemporaneity: abandoned cars, condoms, ‘a car battery/ a jerry-can/the electric fence’.  This is poetry of the Anthropocene by way of Radiohead’s ‘green plastic watering can.’

Yet here the fossil record is the protagonist’s own embodied memory box, unearthed and picked through. It is as though Harvey herself is showing us the mulch of her imaginarium. Although she emphasises this is a ’work of the imagination’ it is hard not to see the development of her darkly distinctive style as a songwriter, singer and musician in these (possibly) analogous experiences. How much autoethnographical material the poet draws upon, only she and her closest friends and family could say – but there is a sense of a coded confessional here.

Yet such a reading risks intentional fallacy; and the calendrical sequence can be savoured for its own literary merits. It is a heady, often disturbing brew – a deep dive into the psychogeography of Dorset, which shows how the hills and dells shaped the lives of those who live among them. Avoiding nostalgia and the pastoral, Harvey seems at pains to deconstruct any hoary notion of a rural idyll: there is abuse, bestiality, violence, madness, sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll – Harvey’s own musical chops now doubt informing the latter. Pop culture references intermingle with the folkloric, the Biblical, and the literary. Everything is entangled, as though one has come a-cropper down a Dorset Holloway.

And yet the poems themselves are disciplined, without an ounce of fat upon them. Pared back, at times brutally so, the reader is left to interpret the negative space of what isn’t said. Harvey obfuscates and occludes, but this makes their magic more potent: many have the lexical energy of spells and charms (as do some of her songs), and at times they are reminiscent of the loricas and incantations of Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gaedelica.  

Yet here in the West Country is something as numinous and destabilising of consensus reality as anything from the rarefied fastness of the Highlands: a secret commonwealth of sooneres (ghosts), bedraggled angels (wet sheep) and veäries (fairies). The supernatural element is pervasive. All is watched over the titular ‘Orlam’ – the all-seeing eye of a dead lamb, Mallory-Sonny. Miscarriages, premature births, afterbirths, the still-born, and ‘ash-wraiths’ of lost children haunt the woods of Ira-Abel’s world. Along with the more-than-human, this crowded ecology evokes an animistic paradigm informed by an indigeneity perhaps stretching back, like Laurie Lee’s Slad, to the end of the Ice Age.

Certain there is a strong sense of vertiginous deep place; and yet also something atemporal and beyond the material, as in Dylan Thomas’ dream-town of Llareggub. And the way Harvey ranges between lives and voices evokes Under Milk Wood. At times Orlam‘s heteroglossia feels like a spirit-radio. Out of the crackle and hiss of white noise, the ‘noiseless noise’, emerge the lost voices of the marginalized. And this echoes the liminal status of its viewpoint character who straddles the perilous terrain between girlhood and womanhood – and at its heart Orlam is a bildungsroman about her coming-of-age. Which codes and signals should she heed, and which should she ignore? The whispers in the static – the voices of the dead, the earth – often come through the loudest; whileas the living cast become shadowy presences whose baleful influences, like a Hardyesque heroine, she struggles to escape.

The uncompromising use of dialect (counter-balanced by the translations by Don Paterson, Harvey’s poetry mentor) creates a similar effect to Russel Hoban’s Riddley Walker; or the dark speech of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake. And yet this remarkable tour-de-force is 100% PJ Harvey – it shows the sui generis workings of an arrestingly original voice. It is a sequence worth delving back into again and again to find riches – echoing the biodiversity one can find in a quiet Dorset backlane where beauty and ugliness, death and the maiden, and the sacred and profane can rub shoulders on any day of the year.

Kevan Manwaring, 13 May 2022

Orlam is published by Picador

A Dorset ‘holway’ (Dorset dialect: holloway) – Kevan Manwaring 2022
PJ Harvey in the Dorset archives

Know you every tree-tear
in these woods, every place
of good and not-good,

‘tween sleep and wake
and bellyache, each path
unhealed and stumpied.

‘A Noiseless Noise’, extract from Orlam by PJ Harvey

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