Jane Routh remembers Jean Harrison – poet, novelist, teacher, and founder of Settle Sessions.
Was it Jean who introduced me to The Poetry Business I wonder now, looking back to the end of the 1990s? Certainly our friendship was rooted in poetry: we both made that tortuous Saturday morning trip across to Huddersfield for the workshops. In her first book, Terrain, Jean acknowledged The Poetry Business Writing School ‘invaluable’.
Jean was a sharp critic in workshops, and of her own work too. I think of her writing as characterised by an extraordinary inventiveness and intense, detailed observation. They’re there in ‘Woman on the Moon’, a poem first published in The North (and later in her second book Junction Road) which was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for the Best Single Poem 2004. They’re there in her two novels also published by Cinnamon Press – On a Wandering Planet invents a dystopian future in which social dislocation uncannily prefigures much of our present situation. Jean’s last publication was a Wayleave Press pamphlet, The Tilt – poems which span half a lifetime of teaching in Ghana, rich in detail and subtle in their critique of colonialism.
She was also a founder of Settle Sessions, intent on bringing good readings to her adopted home town, but ones which also engaged a wider community than her poet friends.
Jean died on 5th April. No, it wasn’t coronovirus; she’d been in and out of hospital for a few months, making determined and surprising recoveries. She was at home in Settle for the last weeks of her life, cared for by a good friend with the help of palliative care nurses. By then her friends were no longer able to visit, nor were we able to be at the green burial ground for her funeral. We made do with reading her poems.
Her family plans to hold a celebration of her life and poetry in a year’s time, in Settle.
Here’s her Forward shortlisted poem:
Woman on the Moon
This is the longest night I’ve ever faced. I’m putting it off while I write to you watching blues creep up. The earth has been huge in our sky all day and as it sank, I felt I could reach out and touch you, but all the time indigo was seeping into the valley. Now it’s flooded and the hills are like shadowed snow. An hour ago we spoke by satellite. You told me all you’d been doing. I said I’d being X-raying moonrock and you went quiet; that I’d been walking and my footsteps would lie there always, that there’s no wind and you said, ‘There must be.’ I said, ‘The light that comes here from earth is blue and I’m losing it. Nights here are as long as fourteen days on earth,’ and you said, ‘That doesn’t make sense.’’ It should soon be time for your father to give you your supper and afterwards both of you will go into the garden but I’ll be on the side of the moon that’s turning towards space.
This next poem opens The Tilt, with the young woman in Jean we didn’t know at the beginning of adulthood.
We were the ones
The cockerel shouts, The dawn comes because of me. In those glorious years when the world had turned its back on war, we swarmed through a city’s streets striped scarves flying, piled bikes three deep against its railings, strolled in and out of lecture rooms and weighty colleges, chattered and laughed, still at heart those kids who’d flown clear of the earth on the VE day chairoplanes. We’d taken exams while Europe was rebuilding, heard on the wireless the Viceroy had saluted as new flags broke into the winds of India and Pakistan, a generation convinced that in our time and with our help other colonies still waiting now would gain their independence. We talked and talked, assured our parents’ world had gone – for there were clothes to buy without coupons, cakes without coupons, crocuses were flowering under the lime trees, we could make toast in our rooms.
The third poem is one Jean chose at the other end of her life for the Settle Sessions website.
Settle to Sheffield – that’s far enough, I’ll no longer try to blow my mind by running round, though I still picture TRAVEL AND SEE, proclaimed on mini-buses, from bush villages, faces staring out at traffic lights, government buildings the way I stared at surf-boats, palms, a woman skinning an orange with a cutlass, and thought, them and me, new here and out there, more mountains, seas, forests, cities, countries, languages, skills – learn, understand, be amazed by. Today I want to sit, or kneel, in a small place – back garden will do – hold a magnifying glass close to pock marks on stones, see the hooks in a bee’s tongue how long it is, how the insect thrusts it down its feet on a petal, record nothing, sit and look, and this will be the way I’ll journey into praise.