Notes about Letter From A Far Country – (Poem is not on website)
‘Letter’ was written for radio as a 30 minute programme first broadcast in the early 1970s. The poem was written for one voice, illustrated by sound effects.
The poem is an imagined day in the life of one, fictional woman. It begins at 8am when her husband and children leave for school and work, and ends when the children return at 4pm. The woman is based on all the women I knew, and the poem is set in two real places melted into one place. The farmhouse, the parish and the landscape are where I live now, but the scenes by the sea are where my grandmother’s farm was.
Storytellers and novelists use a mixture of people to make their characters, a mixture of places to set their stories, and their own experience to enrich it. So, why shouldn’t a poet do so too. The woman is like many mothers I met in antenatal and baby clinics when my children were little – she is fed up with housework and the family taking her for granted, and she feels like running away. She has a little dream that she’ll tidy the house, leave notes and lists everywhere to help the family to survive, then set off on an adventure to a far country.
The ‘far country’ of the title has many meanings. It is childhood, it’s the past and the future, it’s places far from the powerful cities, it’s being a woman in a world that is still, 30 years after the writing, run almost entirely for and by men, and by the macho spirit of competition, aggression and war, rather than co-operation, conciliation and the common good.
In a way it’s a political poem written from a feminist, socialist viewpoint, but absolutely without bitterness. Anger got me writing, but love and humour helped me finish it. (There is more on this in my Introduction to the poems in Six Women Poets) As soon as I began to describe the washing, the clean sheets, the wine and jam making, I was back in my childhood, and the women who made our lives so good, tucking us up at night, reading us bedtime stories, loving us, spoiling us, making delicious food. So a poem that began in frustration continued as a poem praising women’s work. Epic poems were all about war. I wanted to write an epic poem about housework, and thousands of years of carers and nurturers.
So what’s happening in the poem, and how did I build it? It’s a day-in-the-life of a woman who meditates as she works. It’s made of lists. The housework is epic and fantasised, real in its parts, but impossible to achieve on one day. She takes pleasure in it and lists her achievements with satisfaction despite her frustrations. Her mind wanders. She thinks of the dream landscape where she was a child by the sea. She thinks about the nonconformist chapel that governed her grandmother’s life. She remembers reading about boys in storybooks off on adventures with their clothes in a cotton bundle. One thought leads to another. She thinks of the sea, the seals, the cormorant who pops up out of the sea like a question mark on a blank page. She is haunted by doubt – will she really run away and leave them? She thinks of the things that scared her as a child, some real, some in books. She remembers her grandmother, her happy childhood.
Every now and then she sticks a note on a cupboard – these notes or pieces of advice are in brackets. The landscape is sometimes real (‘soon they’ll be planting the barley’) and sometimes remembered: e.g. lines 188-209.
The history of the parish is drawn from the 1870 census and parish records of the place where I live. People’s names, their cottages and farms, the work they did are all true. Stories about real people are recorded just as I heard them. It is striking that all those named as ‘pauper’ in the census or parish records were unsupported women or old men.
In the end she stays. She doesn’t finish her letter to all men, past and present. She knows there is unfinished work to be done, children to be reared, commitments to honour. The poem begins in anger and ends in celebration. That was 1970. For most women in the world little has changed.
PS. I want to comment on the 3 verses in italics at the end of the poem. A-level students have challenged me that these verses are a cop-out, letting the side down, giving in to male domination. That’s not what I intended. This separate ‘poem’ was written as a nursery rhyme, like something that plays in our heads whether we like it or no, a bit like ‘Stand by your man’. It’s a song (it has a tune, as you’ll know if you heard my cassette) and was written to be sung or hummed during the radio broadcast, like a subliminal message that’s hard to escape.