If You Go Down in the Woods Today: Clare Pollard’s “Changeling”

Changeling by Clare Pollard

The legend of the changeling reaches back into British folk history and imagines fairies or elves abducting babies to the Elf Hills, substituting them for changelings. The tale is, perhaps, increasingly forgotten but still haunting, and it is this and other parts of deep British folklore that form the basis of Clare Pollard’s Changeling, full of poems that feel, explicitly or implicitly, on a knife edge—between the wild and the city, between North and South, between ‘good’ and ‘evil’.

There is a tense, uneasy liminality from the excellent opening poem, ‘Tam Lin’s Wife’, which starts with a couple receiving some bad medical news, but quickly turns as the wife desperately hangs onto her (werewolf?) husband as he shape-shifts in her arms. A more enticing version of this transformative tension appears in two poems influenced by the Pendle Witches, the infamous story of ten people hanged for witchcraft in Pollard’s native Lancashire in 1612. ‘Pendle’ gigs into the accuser’s mind with a refrain that insistently repeats “then someone is to blame”, underlining humanity’s need to look for scapegoats, rather than accepting responsibility and one’s misfortunes: “When your children curdle like milk & turn one by one to clay dolls, / & your husband’s fledgling-weak & you’re a good Christian woman, / then someone is to blame.” The following poem, the ballad ‘The Confession of Alizon Device’, tells of a girl who—seemingly for the hell of it—has sex with the Devil, makes a pedlar lame and concludes with: “And you ask me, do I feel shame? / Well no, sir, that’s what creatures do. / It was the moment of my life / to hurt things too.” Taken together, both are morally difficult and feel tabloid-sensation contemporary, even though they are rooted in a 400-year-old history.

Even in less dramatic poems, whether it’s the unease of being an outsider or in danger, something bubbles away beneath the surface: the Lancashire girl escaped to London “spurning your lips and lads / for libraries and la-di-dah”;  a poet and putative gang member passing each other on an East London street but really in different cities with different geographies; or the girl who has forgotten flower names to replace them with names for styles of shoe and consumer culture with its guilt and its “not enough”.

The poems often ask “who am I?” but offer no solutions. I often felt there was a yearning for a more innocent age, but it is the poems with influences from folklore, ballads, the Arthur legend or Ovid, that are the least comforting, the most violent (often sexually) and most of all, the stuff of nightmares.

What makes Changeling so enjoyable, though, is Pollard’s talent for simile and metaphor: sunflowers “lean against the wall, / like lads behind a bike-shed for a smoke”; “Whirlpools of gulls [that] whip over the harbour” in Whitby, which is, if you’ve ever been there, exactly what it’s like; and Pollard identifies “that Esperanto of want and need: / Selfridges, mojitos, latte, weed”. My favourite metaphor, though, describes a caravan you maybe can’t afford on the Yorkshire moors with “the chill wind blasting away our mortgage”. It encapsulates the collection, as the pressure to conform and be conventional confronts nature’s promise of excitement and escape. But nature is not benign in Changeling: it menaces, it threatens, and can do permanent damage.

Clare PollardChangeling, Bloodaxe 2011

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