Between 2011 and 2014, critically acclaimed musician PJ Harvey and her friend, photographer and film-maker Seamus Murphy, set out on a series of journeys together to Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Washington DC.
Harvey describes the modus operandi of her collaboration with Murphy: ‘I would collect words, he would collect pictures, following our instincts on where we should go’. The place names alone intimate the subject matter of the book to a global citizen familiar with a news cycle: wars, wars, wars. But it is the ordinary person that the pair is interested in, the landscape and the streets, human faces, as well as distant horizons: ‘I wanted to smell the air, feel the soil and meet the people of the countries I was fascinated with’.
Harvey’s poems have the spare directness and vividness of song lyrics. In the first section, Kosovo, we meet an old woman living in an abandoned village in Chain of Keys: ‘Fifteen gardens overgrown. / Fifteen houses falling down. / … Now all I do is wait, she says.‘ In On a Dirt Road, reproduced below, the landscape is bruised by conflict, like the fallen plums bruising the ground. ‘Where have they gone?’, Harvey asks in The Railway Station. ‘Nobody knows’, she answers. The sense of loss Harvey perceives suffuses everything. Continuity is therefore a poignant symbol in this section where the old woman in Zagorka ‘talks of a circle which is broken’: a man dancing with a water glass on his head passes the glass to his eldest son; an amusement ride ‘revolving wheel… squeals in the heat’ in Where It Begins.
In Afghanistan, the sense of being an alien is especially strong. There is the naïve opening, ‘I took a plane to a foreign land / and said I’ll write down what I find‘ (The Orange Monkey), the halting, ‘I hope we know when to leave’ (The Guest Room), and the overwhelmed feeling-of-not-belonging, ‘I listened, but did not belong / so let my voice into the air / to see if it was welcome there. / The veiled mountain towered above. / A girl in red walked by and stared’.’ (Adhan). Boys say, ‘Follow me‘ in The Boy and ‘Dollar Dollar’ in The Glass, but unlike the Kosovo section, we get the sights and sounds but we don’t get any extensive translation. The book’s title comes from The Hand: ‘In the hollow of the hand / is a folded square / of paper, / but nobody looks twice at the white paper’, suggesting the begging, bereft hand may itself have something to offer that is overlooked. Still, the veil, like the brilliant blue burqas in Murphy’s photographs, never quite lifts here.
Washington DC is presented as a place of power and entrapment: in the photographs, a caterer rests his head on a bench beside a covered pile of dough; a pair of women inspect a sea of white crosses; a sea of suited people, mostly men, gather around a table for an important-looking convocation. Washington DC, perhaps more familiar in cultural currency to some Australians than our own, dear Canberra, is made alien in Harvey’s poems, particularly by conjuring back and evoking the place’s elemental, ephemeral nature. At 3 am in a circle of homeless people, who let Harvey in to stand with them: ‘you smell the fire and peat / as the mock-Greek architecture / sinks back into marshland / … as cedars replace the mall / and Spanish moss the sidewalk / and all that’s left of the Capitol / is a quartzite rock / three hundred million years old.’ Empires fall, and the epicentre of the free world is a farce,–‘people are jus’ paid and shit an’ bought an’ shit’–as per the collected words of the guy in The Guy Who Knows What the Fuck’s Going On.
I am interested by Harvey’s use of the word ‘words’, both in her poetry, for example, a woman in Zagorka shows Harvey a river where ‘I follow her and wait / for words to be translated.’, and in the press notes released with the reviewer copy of the book, where Harvey says she sets out her intention on these journeys to ‘collect words’. It renders words as disparate, collectible trinkets, ironically devoid of much meaning. Words are words, obviously, but their collection in any coherent sense depends on patterns of meaning and semantics. Words without a scaffold holding each other together are rather cold and useless; a translator translates the meaning of what is said rather than a word-by-word transcription.
There is the impression that by collecting words, we are collecting something that has been separated down to its smallest divisible part and by doing so, we will get to the closest, most pure experience. The collection of words, however, creates a haltingness, a wall where words cannot reconcile the experience of self and other in a foreign land.
But yet words are what we have. The most successful moments for this reviewer are when Harvey gives herself over to poetry, away from reportage, where she feels liberated, it seems, to use her own words. For example, in The Railway Station: ‘A thin line of daisies runs / through a crack in platform one’, is poetry that is simultaneously neat, outspoken and sad.
The photos are striking photo-journalistic treats taken over two decades as well as during Murphy’s travels with Harvey. The presentation in non-chronological order results in a slightly disorientating sense of time, however, especially in the Kosovo section where conflict and post-conflict photos are intermingled. This, combined with the bare-bones nature of poetry, which does not directly refer to the photographs, leads to a somewhat unsatisfying experience. As reviewer Kate Kellaway comments in The Guardian, ‘every picture tells a thousand words, but sometimes a story-teller is needed’.
Still, browsing this book is an interesting and expansive experience, not to mention a noble pursuit. Smelling the air, feeling the soil and meeting the people of the places we are fascinated with are certainly things that should not be sniffed at. Being interested in the stranger is a wonderful thing.
On a dirt road
we drove up the mountain
turned off the engine
climbed through a barricade
and walked toward the village
through a thousand fallen plums
the purple-black flesh
pushing out of their open skins
darkening the road.