Poetry Review: The Hill by Angela France

Poetry Collection - The Hill by Angela FranceIn writing The Hill, Angela France has created a lyrical memorial, breathing life into old ground and resurrecting the characters of Leckhampton Hill over decades. The poems flit between past and present, nature and humanity, centred around the great battle for freedom that took place in 1902, when the local landowner tried to enclose the area, stopping locals from walking the paths they had used for centuries.   

The collection begins with ‘Voices found on the hill’, a fragmented poem which reflects the nature of the whole book, as people and creatures from past and present compete in a cacophony of sound, each having their own say. France has used a variety of forms, from the straightforward structured lyric to the compact prose poem, with a few winding verses which focus on the natural environment. The more you read, the more you realise that each form signifies a different kind of voice.

It is the human voices that stand out, such as that of the poet herself, finding her own connection with the people who walked on the hill before her:

they named the paths but saw no need to plot
on paper. They went where generations did, obeyed
the curves and lines of the hill. I should drop

the need to get it right, call where I tread the way.

She conjures up a number of witnesses from the past who seem to clash with each other, and with the strange new landscape they encounter. One of the most poignant images is that of a ‘Miss Beale’ who sent out the ladies from her college ‘to tramp’ and ‘trespass’, removing the landowner’s pianos from her school in protest:

Hymns at morning assemblies stuttered
and staggered through the melody, slipped
sharp, then as flat as the baby-grand-shaped
space on the stage.

There are a number of prose poems which are arranged at the bottom of the page, made to look like newspaper cuttings, revealing the actions of the landowner and protestors. They give a sense of unfolding drama, as if we’re peering into the past, and I loved the use of what I assume are quotes from the original newspaper clippings (‘the press are fustian and flapdoodle‘). However, they did feel more like narrative than poetry at times, and I wondered if the whole project might have been more effective as a historical novel.

Other poems are more unconventional, giving voice to the creatures of the hill, such as Nadder (the old word for adder), Brock (badger) and Hauke (hawk). The old-fashioned language seems odd at first but, once you encounter several of these poems, they begin to build up a picture of nature as entrenched in the landscape, unmovable, yet also vulnerable:

Poem - Nadder

I particularly enjoyed the deceptively simple ‘Shroud’ which describes the effect of moss on the environment:

Poem - Shorud

There is a subtle sense of humour and irony which runs through the collection, as it reveals the ‘change encoded in every seed and speck of earth’, and I loved the very modern problem encountered in ‘Trails and Ways VIII’, as the poet is warned not to venture across bike trails, but decides to ‘go on up’ anyway.

This is a fascinating collection, rooted firmly in the locale of Leckhampton Hill, exploring the nooks and crannies of its past. But there is a sense of detachment here too, which I couldn’t quite put my finger on, as if the poet has unearthed a mere corner of all that lies buried under the layers of history. It certainly reminded me of my own familiar childhood landscape, and is clear in revealing the importance of the ‘right to roam’, and the need to preserve our environment for future generations.

The Hill by Angela France is published by Nine Arches Press.

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Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the publishers.

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