If writing is an act of preservation, it is a flawed one. Words change their meanings, books rot, papers burn, whole libraries are lost to time. The longevity of a text is therefore as much a result of material history – and chance – as it is of any inherent truth or beauty. Nonetheless, the written word lingers on and the past comes to us in fragments of what remains: old words, old stories, old beliefs.
This is the territory explored by Reliquiae, an annual journal of poetry, short fiction, non-fiction, translations and visual art, edited by Autumn Richardson and Richard Skelton and published by Corbel Stone Press. Volume III is released in November and a new digital supplement has been announced for 2016. So far the series has included a broad range of writings and artwork – from Manx tales to Inuit stories, Finnish mythology to Victorian poetry. Mark Brennan’s paintings of Canadian lakes sit alongside Chippewa medicinal receipts or Hebridean aphorisms. Most are linked by a shared interest in landscape and in the ethics of humanity’s relationship with the natural world. Don Domanski argues for an inherent connection between poetry and the sacred; a passage from Thoreau describes the relationship between art and nature; and Noor de Winter posits the idea that landscape may be the origin of music.
Wolves, as a symbol of wildness, make sporadic appearances. Charles Hamilton Smith cites a story from French naturalist Georges Cuvier that tells of the affection of a wolf for a human. A poem by Autumn Richardson, drawn from the journals of Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen, cites the polar wolf as evidence of life in even the most desolate of places. Mark Valentine notes another link between wolves and Danes, via the death of St Edmund. Valentine is on a quest for the last wolf in England in both folklore and fiction. Over time, scarcity, it seems, has bred appreciation. The wolf, he writes, “once hated and hunted down, has become a figure of romance and glamour in English myth”.
What is especially noteworthy about Reliquiae is the sensitivity with which the texts have been woven together.
Trees too are a repeated presence, although often it seems to be their passing that is most memorable. Gilbert White laments the loss of an oak tree – home to a nest of ravens. Mary Russell Mitford likens the destruction of a grove of oaks to “a field of battle” and then a “scene of murder”. Gerard Manley Hopkins describes a “great pang” of pain at the felling of an ash: “I wished to die,” he writes, “and not to see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more.” Perhaps it is this concern that has led Corbel Stone Press to launch the journal’s digital supplement…
What is especially noteworthy about Reliquiae is not only the beauty and intelligence of much of the writing, but the subtle sensitivity with which the texts have been woven together. Readers should dip in and out as they see fit, but much is also gained from reading each publication through in order. Time and again, the positioning of one text affects the reading of the next. John Hutchinson’s account of Sufism, for example, follows straight on from Mark Valentine’s observation that “the old gods can drive us mad”. An interview between Richard Skelton and his father, a Nottinghamshire farmer, notes how trackside flowers have outlasted the trains; Edward Thomas then reads them as a precursor to a civilisation overrun by nature. A cull of hawks in WB Yeats’ tale Wisdom of the King is seen in the harsh light of species extinction due to Skelton’s earlier piece on the hunting of the grey fox. It is through such links that new thoughts emerge from the gathering of old texts.
Myth and loss, writing and digging: all feature powerfully throughout the Reliquiae volumes. As the journal’s title suggests, there is a repeated return to the idea of the relic. The relic is that which is left behind, not only in the sense of abandoned or forgotten but also as surviving trace, evidence of what once was. The relic is both remainder and reminder. It is lost and it is found again. Yeats may celebrate the “unbounded and immortal things” of the oral tradition. Autumn Richardson may reclaim for herself “someone else’s worn, little song”. But writing exists as a material in time. A fascination with the relic is therefore hardly surprising, for writing is itself a relic.
The relic is that which is left behind, not only in the sense of abandoned or forgotten but also as surviving trace, evidence of what once was.
Like the fragment from Romanticism to Postmodernism, the relic points to a lost whole. But not only does the relic allow us to imagine what once was, it also reminds us that it will never return in its totality again. The relic always points to something out of reach. In The Combe, Edward Thomas examines what is hidden in the landscape, what is uncovered, and, crucially, what remains unfound. Rasmussen sees skeletons in the landscape, but can find nothing to eat. Skelton mourns the loss of the grey fox (or greyhound fox) as a tragedy. But it is also told as a mystery: did the fox ever really exist? How could we ever know for sure?
“whilst there is an undeniable pathos attached to a creature endlessly pursued, perhaps the greyhound can lead us to acknowledge the futility of the hunt. It reminds us that there are some things which cannot be contained or kept chained. That despite capture – and extinction – essence always escapes, eludes, confounds.”
This exploration of the relic is especially pronounced in the writings of Mark Valentine. In For She Will have Her Harvest, he narrates the discovery of a Roman mosaic and wonders what happens to the body of a poet after death. In The Other Salt, he tells of a man in search of something buried, who finds it not in the land but in its people. In his discussion of the wolf in literature, he writes of one such legend: “no word seems to have survived”. Literary critic J Hillis Miller once wrote that “literature keeps its secrets”. Likewise, for Valentine, “It may be that the last true wolf will keep its secrets forever.”
In words that might stand for the very process of reading the Reliquiae journals, for their sustained working over of the lost and the found, Skelton’s essay on the greyhound fox ends with the following, sad, hopeful words:
“All that remains in the hands is residue. A scent. A reminder. Specimens and taxidermical curios; lists of words, epithets, characteristics; tables of dates and figures.
All signifying something that is gone, that has disappeared beyond reach.”