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Tracing an Occult Language

Updated: Feb 26, 2023

Review of Beyond the Fell Wall by Richard Skelton

Beyond the Fell Wall by Richard Skelton is a small book with grand ambitions. Essentially a long poem divided into thirty-one sections, some in prose, others in blank or concrete verse, the scope is apparent from the start both visually – the front cover features a dynamic linocut by Michael Kirkman of a jumble of boundary stones, embedded in which is a sheep’s skull – and in the opening lines:

to put down words

about this landscape

as if they were stones

to make a wall

cairn or small enclosure

the act cannot accomplish

much beyond mere ornament

cannot make clear

the occult language

of hill and meadow

The territory, then, is this ‘occult language of hill and meadow’; the accent, apprehensions and partial comprehensions of the deeper currents that run beneath the surface of the land; the means of exploration, words. But in Skelton’s world words are also stones, the two magically fused together in the crucible of landscape. ‘But how to read those hermetic marks?’ he asks. The work of the poet here is almost that of the translator, decoding each ‘primal utterance’ the wall, and its constituent stones makes, via a feral, unearthly archaeology.

From the off, we are in liminal terrain. The wall is a sanctuary for the deep channels of life which Skelton invites us to explore, to look with him at how human and non-human realms are intertwined with stones and fields and trees, and how these physical objects link communities of the living with communities of the dead, mediating between the two. It is an excursion into the boundary, in a literal sense as well as a metaphysical one.

Unknown forces are at work in this world. ‘The wall is living, and lived in’ begins part XXIII, ‘Within its recessed chambers are nests, beyond the hand’s reach … As you pass the wall eyes are upon you, ears are listening, from within’. If the wall hides and protects life, it also hides offerings and charms to protect life – it is a repository for apotropaic objects, devices intended to ward-off evil, ‘signifiers of a strange and curious faith’. The wall links the known and the unknown, the living and the non-living together.

Reading this I was reminded of another poet whose work attempts to track a similar ‘multi-dimensional continuum’ in land and seascapes – Kenneth White. When White ponders, as he does at the beginning of Walking the Coast (in The Bird Path),

for the question is always


out of all the chances and changes

to select

the features of real significance

so as to make

of the welter

a world that will last

I suspect that Skelton is skirting a similar question. ‘There are certain places’, he writes in part VIII, ‘conjunctions of line and contour, where thoughts settle and cohere, and equally there are other places in which the same ideas come undone and fall apart … Nothing can gain tenure for long’. In both writers there is a sense of the discovery of a language found in the gaps between the human and the non-human worlds. By focussing upon just one of these gaps or interventions – the wall – Skelton’s poem draws our attention to how an ordinary act, the creation of a boundary, can, in conjunction with time and nature, be transformed into something extraordinary and super-natural. Thresholds are all about transformation, or the possibility of transformation, and in Skelton’s hand the wall wears this ancient role much as it wears the bracken ‘clamouring’ to ‘find a way in’.

The invitation of death is scattered throughout this memento mori landscape: ‘Nothing flourishes long. The soil is rotting’. But death is held in balance. The wall breaks and begins again, a new dwelling is ‘planted’ among the ruins of an older one, the sheep skull is picked up and placed into the ‘living’ wall, ‘fleshed by ferns, nettles and mosses’. The wall becomes a poignant meditation upon love and death. And here, language is more than just a consolation but the means by which the world can be renewed again and again, for after all, ‘Death, the wind mutters, you cannot endure forever’.

‘The wall begins somewhere. Strays, drifts, meanders. Mark where the wall goes and follow’. Sound advice, and in following it Skelton has claimed from the stones a mesmerizing, immediate and powerful piece of work.

Beyond the Fell Wall by Richard Skelton is available from Little Toller Books here.

(This review was originally posted on 22nd November 2015 on my previous blog).

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