It is only in relatively recent years that Lydia Fulleylove’s work has started to get the recognition it deserves. She has achieved high placings in several major poetry competitions, including being shortlisted for the Forward Poetry Prize (best single poem category) in 2010. Her first collection of poems, “Notes on Sea and Land” was published by HappenStance Press in 2011.
A teacher until 1997, Lydia Fulleylove now works as a leader/facilitator on combined arts projects with community groups, including young people and mental health patients. For seven years she has been a writer in residence at Her Majesty’s Prison Isle of Wight. The island has been Lydia’s home for most of her adult life, and where she has become an “outdoor” person with a passion for the sea and wildlife.
“The Prison and the Sea” brings together the two very different worlds of “inside” and “outside”. Three short stanzas describe the experience of two prisoners who are taking part in a writers’ workshop, although the reader might assume that they are on the seashore, as opposed to looking at objects that have been brought to them.
Tom reached for the oarweed, which still
glistened. He pressed it to his face.
He could smell the sea. “The sea,”
he was saying, “the sea”.
The reader cannot know who Tom is without the clue given in the poem’s title, but that is enough to make it clear that this is someone who has not seen the sea, or seaweed (oarweed is a variety of seaweed that grows in long brown strips), for a very long time. It is somewhat ironic that people can live on an island, so close to the sea, but never get to see it. That is, of course, what happens to people in prison. The experience is an ecstatic one, as if the contact with the sea, if only by proxy, is by itself a gaining of freedom.
The experience told in the second stanza is similar:
David hooked his finger through
a frail cleft of driftwood , kept
cradling it, as if he wanted
never to let it go.
This experience is similar to that related in the first stanza, as both men feel a need to touch and to hold the things they have been given to look at. This is something that might be expected more of children than of adults, who are usually content merely to look, but the two prisoners must have direct contact with these symbols of the outside world, as if they need to re-establish a relationship with that world.
It is clear from the third stanza that David cannot bear to be parted from the thing he has been given and to which he now imparts ownership:
At the end, he said, “Would you mind – could I
keep it?” And knowing I should not
and seeing how his hands turned it
over and over, I said, “Yes”.
This final stanza brings the poet into the scene, which had up until now belonged entirely to the two men. It is David who asks the question, daring to hope that he might be allowed to keep hold of the piece of wood that, for him, has had the same effect as Tom’s oarweed.
The writer seems to be taken aback by the response of the two men. She had presumably brought them these objects with a view to inspiring them to be creative, but had not expected quite such a reaction. However, the childlike grasping of oarweed and driftwood, and the emotional release that this has engendered, makes her see that, whatever the rules might say, it would be cruel to say No to David’s request. The answer seems to come after an internal debate (“knowing” versus “seeing”), but what other answer could there be?
The power of the physical
The reader is struck by Tom and David’s need for close physical contact with the oarweed and the driftwood. Tom does not just pick up the slimy seaweed but he presses it to his face so that he can smell it as well as feel it. David pushes a finger into the wood and “cradles” it. The seaweed and the wood become more than inanimate objects thrown up by the sea, they become living things to be caressed and, in David’s case, to be kept close at hand for as long as possible. These are sensual experiences that are symbolic of the human contact that the men have missed.
Anyone who is incarcerated, for whatever reason, has a pervading “idée fixe” that never leaves them, namely the prospect of freedom. Some take the risk of trying to escape, but for the vast majority the gaining of freedom must take other forms. As the Writers in Prison Network states: “Writing and the Arts are the only legitimate forms of escape”. In the cases of Tom and David, escape comes through the imagination and the writing inspired by these objects.
The contrast between the land and the sea, as encapsulated in the title of Lydia Fulleylove’s poetry collection, is a powerful one, especially as the sea is also a symbol of freedom. Anyone who lives on an island, be it relatively small like the Isle of Wight or somewhat larger like the mainland of Great Britain, knows that the sea is both a prison warder and a means of escape, if you have a boat or are a strong enough swimmer! In theory, the sea can take you anywhere you want to go on Planet Earth that has a coastline. The sea is also wild and untamed, with a thousand moods of its own. The sea is therefore both free in itself and the means of gaining freedom.
This is a very simple poem, presented in a minimalist way that tells its story with great economy in just twelve short lines, but it packs quite a punch. The reader is able to get inside the heads of all three people involved and to realise that, had they been any one of the three, their reaction would probably have been exactly the same. A good poet can say a lot with a little, and that is precisely what Lydia Fulleylove does here.
© John Welford