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Dry Land

by Nell 

Posted: 19 August 2004
Word Count: 222
Summary: I need to know how this comes across - all criticism welcome.

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Sometimes I leave the housework and
the vegetable garden, the cattle, the field
where the men are sowing, climb
the mountain and step back in time.

I have to stoop to enter by the
hole and inside itís cool and dark.
The body of white light does not
penetrate, only its fingers

touch the earthy floor, the straw,
to wake the warm smell of animals long
gone, reminding me of the time
before, when every day we scanned

that great expanse and wondered
if the food would last. So many mouths
to satisfy! Yet we could only do our best,
the outcome was not up to us.

If Iíd known then what I know
now would I have climbed the steps?
So many friends and neighbours left
behind to die, and children too Ė what right have I

to live instead of them?
Itís quiet here, although the air once
buzzed and sang and roared and squeaked. The
timbers split and creak with dryness now

theyíve served their purpose.
The men Ė they never make
the climb Ė theyíve forgotten how this was our only
home, quite literally our lifeline.

I suppose thatís what happens when youíre
old, when youíve outlived your use. You get
forgotten and left to rot. The old ship always
affects me like this. I shouldn't have come.

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Comments by other Members

olebut at 08:41 on 19 August 2004  Report this post
Wow Nell this has so much emotion, imagery and may I suggest awakens so many memories ( but then perhaps like me you often wonder if we have lived on this earth before or is it just deja vu)

I would make one or two slight amendments

verse 1 line 4 I think you should consider adding 'and' before step back in time think it scans better

in verse 3 line 2 did you mean wakes or wake ?

shalom my friend

david x

Nell at 08:46 on 19 August 2004  Report this post
David, that was quick! I'm not sure whether you saw 'wakes' or 'wake' - I'd uploaded it and was reading through again when I realized that since she was speaking about 'fingers' (plural) it had to be 'wake', so changed it. It's odd how you can read something twenty times and not notice a silly mistake until you read the uploaded version. I think you're right about the 'and', will move it pronto. Thanks,


olebut at 08:50 on 19 August 2004  Report this post

no problem I saw 'wakes' which I thought may have been deliberate and could see hwy it could have been but just thought wake worked better but I see rhyme in everything.

Yes I read through things I worte months ago and see odd words and think why the hell did i use that or how didn't I spot that of for a good proof reader

really loved this poem though

david x

MasterRevelation at 09:23 on 19 August 2004  Report this post
When I started to read this I was firstly confused by the way you had split the verses -- but realised that this very splitting actually forced me to read more slowly with comprehension to tease out the message from the words.

It is an evocative piece - may I share what I saw as I read it?

An old lady, dressed in simple working clothes - her scarf tied on her head - her face lined and leathery from years of working the fields from dawn til dusk. Her hands unmanicured ingrained with the stains of her labours - her family are grown (and perhaps flown) and she knows the her life too will soon be reaching its end. She makes a personal pilgrimage to the shack that once was her home - the place where she grew up in hard times. It has long since ceased to be habitable and now is crumbling from neglect.

She asks if this is just a metaphor for her life.

(Am I anywhere near understanding what you mean??)

James Graham at 10:37 on 19 August 2004  Report this post
Hi, Nell. Glad you found a space. I like this poem on first impression, have printed it out and will take a little time over it.



Zettel at 11:01 on 19 August 2004  Report this post

Dangerous to always assume a poem is entirely autobiographical. This is so heartfelt it encourages one to do so. But if my assumption of war-time is correct then chronology suggests some of this is recounted experience of another? If so you've done someone proud.

Sensitive area but the last verse does not shall we say, sound recounted? If so then any comment would sound patronising or platitudinous or both. (Won't accept it's true but so much suggests it is).

Hope I haven't got this completely wrong.

One to keep going back to. Thanks


Nell at 12:06 on 19 August 2004  Report this post
M.R., James and Zettel, thanks for reading. Your comments so far (and David's too) have answered a question I had about this one. I won't tell you what it is quite yet as I'd like to see if anyone penetrates it. I may have to make it clearer, either in the title or in the poem itself.


Zettel at 14:42 on 19 August 2004  Report this post
One can look a bit of a fool trying to unpack this kind of conundrum. But as it won't be the first time, or I suspect the last......

Setting: rural mountainous. Everything suggests the passage of a long period of time since the events 'recalled'.
The hole - a hiding place.Steps up suggest rocky terrain. Not room for everyone. Probably mostly women and children.
Forced periodically to spend long uncertain periods. Chronic food shortage.
V6 irresisitably to me suggests aerial attack.
WW2? Occupied territory?
"Vast expanse" the sea. Looking for sign of relief or rescue.
If any of this is right then the seige of Malta comes to mind. But your profile has you born post-war, hence my original comment.

Probably absolutely wrong. But if you hint why, you may give clues to others.

Like the poem - enjoyed the puzzle.


Nell at 15:17 on 19 August 2004  Report this post

I appreciate your coming back to read again. It just goes to show that what is totally transparent to the writer can be devilish obscure to the reader! I won't elucidate just yet - I'm wondering what James and maybe others will make of it.


Souchong at 16:30 on 19 August 2004  Report this post
Hi Nell, Just wondering .. is it after the flood? The woman is Noah's wife, or one of his sons' wives, and goes back to crouch in the Ark, now wedged up on Mount Ararat, to recall the time they all spent in there during the flood.The clues are all there. (Though natch I could be compeltely wrong)
It is a fab poem.
souchong (application for membership of the group in progress .. I hope)

Souchong at 16:37 on 19 August 2004  Report this post
re: (application for membership of the group in progress .. I hope)just realised - not this group, the seminar one. sorry - still new - and confused!!

Nell at 17:22 on 19 August 2004  Report this post
Hi Souchong,

Welcome to WriteWords and - YES!!! It's Mrs Noah! I'm glad it wasn't completely impenetrable, but I guess that as you're the first to realize, that still means that it needs another clue. If I called it 'After the Flood' it would be too obvious, so I'll have to think hard about what to do. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Re. the Poetry Seminar; we study work by poets traditional and contemporary, then if we feel inspired write our own poems based on the things they've (hopefully) taught us. Sometimes we take part in an exercise set by fevvers, but none of it is compulsory. Look forward to seeing you there!


engldolph at 19:11 on 19 August 2004  Report this post
Hi nell,

I liked the atmosphere of the piece and the metaphorical link between the historical event and the passing of personal value.

The strongest feeling for me was that of dramatic events that happen..then pass into history..forgotten as time moves on..just as the people who play such a central part in what at the time seems to be crucial and eternal are forgotten..the fragility of life, meaning, memory.

I liked the way you keep the pace, reflection, quiet dispair of the old voice. Not easy.

To be honest , there is nothing there really to link it to clearly to the flood/Noah. Not enough clues. If this is important to you , then I I think you need to change the title. I don't see why you are reluctant to just name it in a way to make it more obvious. The cryptic approach only makes sense if you are trying to universalize the meaning...so it could, as others have suggested apply to many other situations...my initial thought (until you changed the tile) was Bosnia. then with "dry land", I thought Africa.
I don't think you lose anything by making it clear. In fact I think you will deepen the reader's appreciation and enjoyment and be true to your primary intent.

Appreciated and enjoyed!

James Graham at 20:34 on 19 August 2004  Report this post
The first impression I had of this poem was of a very dignified, noble and sad voice, speaking in a language not overly 'poetic', i.e. not highly decorated with metaphor. The language is close to what we call 'everyday', but you invest it with a good deal of dignity. Clearly the woman herself has nobility of character, but I think the poem's language conveys that too.

Partly it's to do with the verse that 'ordinary' language becomes elevated. If this were written out as prose, it wouldn't lose everything but it would lose something. The verse divisions give the woman's monologue a stately, regular movement. Each verse introduces a new feeling, memory or observation. The second verse, for example, is in the present moment, the abandoned dwelling, its coolness, darkness, the light. Then the next verse is memory (that experience too, found to be true again and again by different people, that smell evokes memory better than any other sense) and memory continues into the fourth verse, but merges into food crisis and hunger. Through the verse divisions the poem is very finely paced so that, as I say, there's regular, stately progression to the woman's thoughts.

Line divisions too sometimes make an impact.

...what right have I

to live instead of them?
It's quiet here...

Here we have first of all a telling verse division, this time suggesting a pause before the speaker gives voice to a painful thought. Then the next line division shows her trying to put this thought away by returning to the present and the immediate surroundings, and then making herself recall happier memories, sounds of life. But the overriding sadness of her old age returns, managed subtly in the final verses, through the dry timbers that have 'served their purpose' reminding her that like them she has outlived her usefulness. Other line-breaks show up certain words very effectively, especially 'home', 'old', and 'forgotten' towards the end.

All these things help to elevate the woman's monologue so that in a sense it's expressed in ordinary language, but its shaping into verse raises it above the ordinary. I don't know how long you've been writing poetry, but I think as things are you've got a good grasp of some free verse techniques. This technique for example of dividing free verse into regular groups of four lines (or two, three, or five) is a very useful one, which allows a certain informality (appropriate where the poem is in a character's voice, but in all sorts of other contexts too) but gives the poem structure as well.

What still puzzles me about the poem, though, is its indeterminate time and place. At first reading I was asking When? Where? Different places and times suggested themselves. Somewhere in Africa, perhaps contemporary, more likely in the past. Some time in prehistory, a community of farmers/horticulturalists, almost anywhere in the world. Medieval Europe perhaps. Actually this is a quality I always admire in a poem - that it should be open to more than one possible reading, so that the reader can say it might be this place or that, this situation or that, it works for more than one. One place or situation can take 'centre stage' for a particular reader, while other interpretations still hover in the background. It's one way of producing that richness of meaning that's peculiar to poetry. All the same, I'm still a bit disconnected about the time/place setting of the poem. These people once, in the lifetime of the old woman, lived on the mountain, with their domestic animals. (I think the prehistoric is moving centre stage!) As time passed they were forced to abandon the hill-pastoral life and go down to the plain, where they began to grow crops. There have been hard times, a famine. The hilltop dwelling reminds me of Rough Tor in Cornwall, a place I know quite well, an Iron Age fort. People there would have kept their animals on the hillside, and might perhaps have abandoned the fort for various reasons - population increase meant they needed more land, they were in a time of relative peace and no longer needed a fortified place, etc. Am I anywhere near the setting you had in mind?

Maybe it doesn't matter. After all, whoever this woman is and wherever and whenever she lives, her feelings are universal. The deep sadness old people often feel - in the city too, in 2004 - not only about having outlived their use, but about changing times and lost times, comes across very strongly.


P.S. Since writing my comment, I see other ideas coming up as to when and where. Sorry, but Mrs Noah would never have occurred to me! But reading again I can see it. It almost seems a pity to tell the reader that's the intended time and place, because then all the other 'readings' would evaporate. Still, reading yet again, it really is the ark, Mount Ararat etc.

James Graham at 20:38 on 19 August 2004  Report this post
'...where the men are sowing, climb
Ararat, step back in time'.



Nell at 08:29 on 20 August 2004  Report this post
James, thanks so much for your careful reading and thoughtful comments. I've been scribbling most of my life, but only studying poetry seriously since joining the Poetry Seminar here some months ago. I see more clearly now how much actual craft is involved in the writing of poetry, and have been working my way through a series of exercises. This poem came from a number of 'location' words and words of abstract qualities, and a random selection of one from each pile. The two that came up were 'ship' and 'sadness'. The challenge was to put across the emotion in a concrete way, without using any abstractions. Mike (engldolph) asked how important it was to me that readers knew exactly who/what the poem was about, and I have to say that after the comments I've received I'm no longer sure! The exercise itself would have been unsuccessful if the ship hadn't appeared, but then the exercise is less important than the poem itself. Your comments on line beaks were really helpful; I tend to feel my way with them, acting instinctively rather than from any set of guidelines. I'm unsure about your suggestion for replacing 'the mountain' with 'Ararat' as I'd have liked the knowledge of location and who is speaking to occur later in the poem. Do you think it would be too explicit to change the penultimate line to: 'The old Ark always affects me like this.'? I wondered too about the final line, I wanted it to express all the pain and doubt and fear that is hopefully shown in the poem.

James, thanks again for your time, it is much appreciated.



typo alert: line beaks? line breaks. Perhaps I could write a poem about line beaks...

Nell at 08:36 on 20 August 2004  Report this post
Mike, (engldolph),

Thanks for reading and commenting. You asked how important it is to me that the time and place are known to the reader, and I have to say that after the comments received I'm not as sure as I was on that point. I'll let the poem rest a little and see what happens - sometimes one needs time to come to a resolution.

Thanks again,


Ticonderoga at 13:58 on 20 August 2004  Report this post
sorry! I've come to this far too late to have anything useful to add to the superb array ofcomments you've already received; there is huge potential here, and great swathes of it put me in mind of Thomas Hardy.



roovacrag at 14:05 on 20 August 2004  Report this post
Nell can only say what everyone else did.

Enjoyed reading it very much.

Well done.
xx Alice

Nell at 15:39 on 20 August 2004  Report this post
Mike, Alice, thank you both for reading and commenting. Mike - 'great swathes' and 'Thomas Hardy' all in the same sentence? Not sure I deserve such an accolade, but thanks, I feel quite lightheaded now!


roger at 14:12 on 21 August 2004  Report this post
Two by two they came to the ark
Rain clouds were forming, the sky was dark
Crushed tight together on one level in pairs
Cus silly old Noah hadnít thought about stairs

Well, Nell, if asked to write a poem about the great flood, thatís what Iíd have come up with. And that demonstrates the difference between you and me; that difference being that you have the ability to create the scene without mention of the componentsÖa great skill, whilst I havenít. I saw what it was (I know itís easy to say that now that Souchong has spilt the beans, but itís true), but not without thinking about it. And, surely, isnít that what good poetry should do? Make you think? So itís certainly not too impenetrable. I thought it was bang on, a lovely piece, put together beautifully. Great stuff.

James Graham at 18:12 on 21 August 2004  Report this post
Nell - Of course, the Flood fits the poem in every detail. I realise that I imposed the Iron Age woman on the poem because that kind of prehistoric scenario preoccupies me quite a lot, more than Old Testament mythology. So there's an example of subjective reading! I almost wish, though, that it could have been the Iron Age woman, because after you gave the 'solution' I went back and read the Flood story again in Genesis 6-9. I've always found it a cruel story (though undoubtedly powerful) and feel in that context perhaps the woman should speak as a survivor of genocide. Maybe in the poem she already does, and my sort of take on the Flood can be read into it.

Other myths of a Great Flood, the Greek or Mesopotamian or Indian versions, are somewhat (though not enormously) kinder than the OT version. I suppose they all derive from stories told through the generations, based on the rising sea-levels and massive floods that must have followed the end of the last Ice Age. Tales of global warming. But I can't help feeling that the OT story is an extraordinarily cruel one. Still, when I think about it, that doesn't mean the wife of Noah should be any less noble, or gentle, than she seems in your poem. It wasn't her fault that this tyrannical God decided to wipe out most of humanity - or that she had to suffer survivor's guilt.

The following is just a suggestion, of course. If it were my poem and I was revising it, I think I'd be satisfied with this ending:

...You get
forgotten and left to rot. The old ship always
affects me like this. I shouldn't have come.

I'd choose 'ship' rather than ark because it's less obvious. I think the poem does work like a puzzle or riddle, but you don't want it to be too much like that, open to too many way-out interpretations (such as mine). You want to give a vital clue near the end. But 'Ark' would be a gift to the reader, not allowing the reader any leeway to feel she she is working it out for herself, bringing her own imagination to it. 'Ship', on the other hand (and the Ark was a ship, after all) brings the reader's imagination into play just enough, while pretty much guaranteeing that the penny will drop. And 'ship', maybe a less pretentious word than 'ark', just the ordinary word for it, seems somehow in character with the Noah's wife of your poem.

If the penny drops at the end, the reader will have experienced a rather puzzled first reading, but will then read again and properly discover every line. An interesting way for a poem to work.

I think the poem can end at 'shouldn't have come', without its current last line. The 'Oh God' seems too explicit, because the speaker's words carry a lot of feeling anyway, and the reader, having just towards the end realised this is the aftermath of God's Flood, can probably supply the feeling contained in these words, not only from the poem's ending, but from re-reading. But again this is a subjective thing on my part, and you may not agree.

The quality of the free verse in this poem makes it well worth sorting out any problems. So I think on the whole it would be better to make it not too hard, but not too easy, for the reader to suss that it's Mrs Noah.


Nell at 18:57 on 21 August 2004  Report this post

Your poem made me smile, and that's a gift. Thanks for reading and for the kind words too.


Nell at 19:10 on 21 August 2004  Report this post

Thanks for coming back to this. I've always had a problem with the OT Flood story - even as a child - it just didn't fit with what we were told about a loving God. That problem persisted throughout childhood with other stories too. I wanted Mrs Noah's doubts to come across here - whether one believes in the literal truth of the story or not, I somehow feel that she would have had doubts even if Noah didn't. Your idea of using 'ship' at the end is the answer I think, and re. the ultimate line I've been told before that some poems would be better off without, so I'll go and fix immediately! I do like those poems that send the reader back to read again, as long as they're understandable on second or third reading, I'm not keen on those that remain completey obscure.
Thanks again for all your help,


James Graham at 20:24 on 21 August 2004  Report this post
On a lighter note, old Noah would be the one to insist on calling it The Ark. 'I was master of The Ark.' And yes, his wife would be the one to go through all the guilt and sadness.

I think this poem's well and truly fixed. I think if I were coming to it for the first time now, it would make a real impact. Even more so on the second reading.


James Graham at 20:36 on 21 August 2004  Report this post
I've printed out your revision. Would you mind if I read it aloud at my local poets' circle? It's in Ayr and it's called Poets and Pints. First Monday in September will be the next meeting.

Er, one more thing. Comma after 'do our best'?


Nell at 09:09 on 22 August 2004  Report this post
James, I'll be thrilled to imagine you reading this aloud on the first Monday in September! I'll go and add that comma now. Thanks again.


fireweed at 11:11 on 22 August 2004  Report this post
Nell, I've been away so have only just read this wonderful poem and the accompanying comments. I can only echo in agreement with the best that has already been said. I liked the gradual revelation of this woman's identity -like getting to know someone slowly. It enriches the bible story, to have a close-up of a character's experience like this. Mrs Noah is possibly over-shadowed by her husband so you have redressed the balance to some extent.


Nell at 11:31 on 22 August 2004  Report this post
Fireweed, thanks.

James Graham at 11:43 on 24 August 2004  Report this post
Sorry, I forgot I was going to be away at the beginning of September. But I should get to P&P in October.


Fearless at 19:43 on 25 August 2004  Report this post

I can't add to the multitude of comments this lyric has received. It evokes many images, sounds and smells; it also reminds me of those Alan Bennet monologues. Well done.

Write on, Fearless

engldolph at 22:36 on 25 August 2004  Report this post
Hi Nell,
I came across another great poem on the theme of Mrs. Noah.. Mrs. Noah Taken after the Flood by Jo Shapcott. Do you know it? I think you would like it.

Nell at 06:23 on 26 August 2004  Report this post
James, Woz and Mike.

James, I'll postphone my imagining.

Woz, Alan Bennett is a hero of mine, thanks for reading and commenting.


I haven't come across it - I'll have to seek it out. Thanks for that.


J1mbo at 15:38 on 07 February 2005  Report this post

I liked this poem. It has a lovely meloncholy voice, and it was nice to be transported to another time. I think it helps the reader to appreciate both what we have in modern times, and things we may be missing nowadays, more of a connection with our environment.

Nell at 17:39 on 07 February 2005  Report this post

Thanks for reading and for your thoughts.


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