Poetry book of the month: The Lost Book of Barkynge by Ruth Wiggins

Poetry book review The Lost Book of Barkynge by Ruth Wiggins - Getty Images
Poetry book review The Lost Book of Barkynge by Ruth Wiggins - Getty Images

The Venerable Bede wrote excitedly about a “libellus” (or “little book”) of Barking Abbey, relating its miracles and the extraordinary lives of its abbesses, nuns and saints. That book is long since lost. As for the abbey, its ruins lie in a small park in Essex, between an Asda and a Tesco.

But here comes another “little book”; one that revives those nuns and rebuilds Barking in the mind’s eye, brick by brick. Actually, “little” is a little misleading. Ruth Wiggins’s The Lost Book of Barkynge is a poetry collection of rare ambition and scope, as made clear from its shiver-inducing opening: “And so begins nine hundred winters.”

Wiggins takes us all the way from the abbey’s foundation in AD666 (a hellish-sounding year of omens, sickness, “a great palsy among the geese”, etc) to its dissolution in 1539. In between, the abbey faces fire, flood, famine and plague, yet keeps finding ways to flourish.

By the standards of the debut poet’s usual “slim vol”, this is a great cathedral of a thing, its hundred-plus pages buttressed by the architecture of serious research. We get two pages of maps, three of dramatis personae, five of bibliography, and 14 of “extensive notes that I recommend to the reader as integral to the text”, as Wiggins warns us in the introduction. The correct way to read these poems might be one at a time, making sure to eat your greens first: ie chew over the relevant endnotes (often surprisingly juicy), then return to tackle the verse once you’re certain you won’t mix up King Cnut’s two wives (both called Ælfgifu).

Or you could do what I did: binge straight through the poems, forgetting the notes exist till the end. I relished the small details – watching passing ships, as “their long beaks jostle and leer/ along the strand” – and was caught up in the characters’ Wolf Hall-ish politicking, despite frequently losing track of who was who as half-recalled names from 1066 And All That whizzed past. I’m still not wholly certain if Æthelthryth is an abbess or the sound made by a snake with a lisp.

For all its epic sweep, this is an intimate, personal book. Each poem is a dramatic monologue, with the speaker named in the title; it’s usually the abbess of the time (all drawn from historic record), but occasionally an invented figure, or a collective voice - the local washerwomen, say, or the abbey choir. The ventriloquism only falters when Wiggins tries for the ecstasy of miraculous revelation; to the non-devout reader, a ghostly vision of an abbess “in a white robe/ drawn up [,] up/ on golden cords of virtue/ brighter than the moon” can’t help sounding a bit kitsch.

Words are scattered across the page in a way that feels natural, the blank space deftly controlling timing. Each poem is preceded by what Wiggins calls a “hic”: a kind of medieval news bulletin, short fragments laid out in a block of justified text, mixing fact, gossip and lyrical scene-setting: “Aethelred has married Normandy/ and gift-slain all the Danes in England”; “These bloody days of war, England a hog's back bristling with iron”.

These “hics” create a sharp contrast between characters’ largely gentle lives and the brutal world they inhabit. In one poem, a Maud de Leveland meets England’s most exotic new arrival – an elephant: “All London out to see the horned moons of his teeth. He is like a fond uncle, his soft pink tongue and grin. He is kept well on wine and beef.” It’s sweet. But the “hic” of the next poem leaps forward in time, harrowingly informing us that in the tower where the elephant was once kept, there are now “Six hundred Jews imprisoned”.

In later poems the personalities blur, the voices becoming less effectively delineated. But the early characters leap from the page. Abbess Wulfhild speaks with iron resolve (“This abbey of terrible ash, I will raise it from the ground”), while gossipy Abbess Hildelith slips between French and English: “And hound’s teeth! I’ve had it with Berngith/  that trick avec les œufs and her blue teeth/ Lord but she is/ funny”.

One thing these women all share is a love of books, revering the written word for the way it keeps names alive. A woman scribbles “Wolfruna me fecit” (“Wolfruna (me) made it”) on a bit of stolen parchment in a bid for immortality. It’s a world where books work wonders: “Little curls are scraped from holy books... given in water to assuage an ague.” And The Lost Book of Barkynge achieves its own minor miracle; Wiggins, like Wulfhild, has raised a lost abbey out of the terrible ashes.

The Lost Book of Barkynge is published by Shearsman at £12.95