Towton Field, Richard Morwood
Write Lines Press, 2020 £6.99
A poetry at once alien and relevant
‘Towton Field’ is an extraordinary long poem detailing the battle of Towton Field during the War of the Roses from the perspective of Jenett, a female archer caught up in the fighting. In many ways, the poem seems alien to our time — as if it were a medieval poem translated, rather than a recent creation.
The poem is narrated through a framing device. A modern-day listener, Martin, relays Jenett’s words. This adds a layer of surrealism. Hearing her through his headphones as he uses a metal detector on the battlefield, Martin at first assumes she is ‘damn local radio’ or ‘some wi-fi trick’. He finds, however, that he’s unable to switch her off.
I pull at the headset but it tightens
and my feet won’t work.
The use of Martin’s perspective lends the work an almost magical-realist edge.
This framing device is also a familiar technique of early English poetry. The Old English poem, ‘The Dream of the Rood’, for example, sees a human speaker narrate the words of the cross that crucified Christ. The speaker meets this cross in a dream or vision. The effect’s similar in ‘Towton Field’ and works to make the poem glitter with strangeness, as if unearthed from the battlefield.
Jenett herself is also a disconcerting figure. She speaks regularly of her ‘hate’, and seems cold in her reactions. When her husband dies in battle, she tells Martin, ‘I hated him then.’ When she finds her son horrifically injured, she simply says, ‘I move on, there is nothing to be done.’
Yet Towton Field, for all its strangeness, holds a compelling relevance. The framing device allows for a little of Martin’s story to come through. The reader learns how his wife left him and his son died:
One Christmas he wrapped
himself around an oak in his first car.
As well as being an estranging technique, then, Martin’s perspective allows for a little familiarity and humanity.
In its very violence — its setting and its choice of Jenett as a central character — the poem speaks with a chillingly contemporary relevance. As Martin puts it:
The Pale Rider
reaped a rich harvest at Towton, but still little
against what’s followed from bomb, gun, epidemic.