Whilst reading Rod Mengham’s Grimspound and Inhabiting Art I was strangely reminded of John Wyndham’s famous science-fiction novel, The Day of the Triffids (1951). Bill Mason, Wyndham’s protagonist, lies in hospital with his face covered in bandages and when he removes them, he finds himself not plunged into a world of human warfare, but one where humans are fighting against deadly and autonomous plants. Mengham’s collection of essays and poetry on Grimspound – a Bronze Age site on Dartmoor – and other spaces, might be considered polarised from what might be a work of genre, but both of them open in environments where vegetation has taken over and sound is the predominant sense maker. Mason remember, ‘listened hard and suspiciously’ with the sound of the clock making him realise that it is a different world to the one that he entered hospital in. Similarly, the first sensual experience Mengham records is stepping away from his car and listening before noting a series of noises culminating as a ‘sound falling into itself over and over again’.
This sound falling ‘into itself’ doesn’t seem to raise a question then of what the sound is, but where the sound is going and where it belongs. You’ll realise this isn’t a collection of nature writing and is instead a more sceptical reflection on how the land in which we write about, influences how we write about it. Grimspound for instance, seems full of inherent danger. The sudden rain can cause ‘booby traps’ and if this land once housed a settlement of humans what does the ‘life’ that is here now represent? He writes:
‘Much of the site is now feral. Bundles of reeds are thriving within many hut circles, perhaps descended from spores dropped from shaken-out bedding. Roughly a quarter of the reeds sport mossy outgrowths halfway down the stem. There are several dimensions of growth here. Many of the feather domes are flattened and snapped in parts, the middle stopped up with moss, while mimic heathers, of a softer fabric and a brighter green, colonise the surface of larger bushes.’
Although these certainly aren’t Triffids one might suspect an ulterior nature to Grimspound. Verbs like ‘colonise’ and ‘thriving’ litter the description, whilst the image of ‘spores’ and ‘mossy outgrowths’ is hardly an image of bountiful nature, but rather an impeding, revengeful entity like Wyndham warned us of.
Sound though remains Mengham’s main concern and as we move into his ‘wild analysis’ of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, Mengham chooses the moment Watson explores the cave that Watson is still unaware (as is the reader) is the temporary home of Sherlock. Upon Watson finding the ‘tinned tongue’ set on a ‘table of sorts’, Mengham asks:
‘What does it mean to preserve a tongue, detached from its body, in a book that is full of disembodied, dislocated voices, voices out of place in the wrong place at the wrong time?’
Or rather, what does it mean to listen to a sound when we don’t know where it’s coming from? There is a real anxiety in Grimspound and Inhabiting Art about this disembodied voice and there’s a sense that the abyssal properties of the lake, the sound falling into over itself, over and over again, is not just reserved to that lake.
From this it’s significant that Mengham chooses to close the first section on Grimspound with his poem based on the Nostratic dictionary, a fictional language devised by the palaeolinguist, Aharon Dolgopolsky. What Mengham does here is conjure a voice that is rooted, not in history, but speculation. We read as a family, or clan, ‘cook with stones’ whilst the father hunts for food creating a narrative for the kind of family we expect to have lived on Grimspound whilst toying with this expectation. We are dislocated from the actual historical moment and a lack of syntax accentuates, what feels like, an ethereal voice, yet there’s a continual irony impacted by its sense of being conjured and based on a fiction. Mengham then writes, ‘the clan is not even a rumour/now our tongue has shriveled up’. Time, indicated by that effectively redundant moniker ‘now’, is implacable because we’ve no idea of what ‘now’ could be possibly be and although we’re led to believe by Mengham that time, for this clan, has closed, why does its voice exist as we read it and where is it reaching from?
As we enter the series of essays written, notably, at different points over fourteen years up until 2017, this anxiety of sound and its source and being in the historical moment, does not disband. In ‘Their Masters Voice’ as Mengham writes about the megaphones of Prague and relics from its totalitarian era, he remarks how Prague is a place ‘dominated’ by ‘alleys, hideaways and dark labyrinths’; a place where it ultimately feels difficult to inhabit. He then writes how the powers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire:
‘…took possession of the city of the alchemists and seized the right to speak for it, with a disembodied voice that is the ultimate expression of power whose interests are dislocated from those it claims to represent…’
His fascination with the Sherlock Holmes tale was manifested in the detached tongue, which he wonders what it means to be preserved when it is removed from the body which it speaks: here, we have another image representing that quandary. What appears to be a common factor in them is that when he is writing about these places, as well as withholding a scepticism of the idea of habitation he rebuts it against a desire for them to be habitable. Whether this desire is something ‘innate’ or not, is brought into a greater light in his essay on Doris Salcedo’s ‘un-furniture’:
‘The phenomenology that centres on these objects: the attitude of a seated body towards a table; the sequence of muscular actions we undergo to sit and then lie on a bed; the slight resistance of an opening door; none of this has altered very much in thousands of years.’
Discussing the body and how it situates itself in these positions as if it is a natural, evolutionary habit reminded me of the family from the poem that could have been reaching back to a time when furniture was like Holmes’ cave – ‘of sorts’. And in finding this place for habitation Mengham appears to be locked in a battle between listening to the voice that tells us it is so, whilst rejecting it, suspicious of its comforting message. Indeed, when we think of somebody referred to as ‘part of the furniture’ isn’t that when we imply somebody is part of the family, the clan? Mengham’s great worry is what we might lose in that process.
Any Cop?: It seems at a crucial time in humanity and nature’s history, Mengham is suggesting we are locked in a moment where trying to find comfort is damagingly overriding our need to listen to its dire warnings. If not, we might end up wandering like Bill, lost among the blind: or perhaps we already are.