Interchange is a poem by John Wedgwood Clarke in response to the film installation, Inheritors, by the artist duo Webb-Ellis commissioned by Siobhan Davies Dance in 2018. Set on the motorways of Britain, Europe and North America, the film takes this ubiquitous landscape as a space from which to question deeply held myths relating to human-beings and evolution.
They knew in their bodies that something was wrong,
yet the word had been spoken.
The Inheritors, William Golding
Two pieces of [Neanderthal] flint unearthed at motorway works
in Dartford, Kent, have now been dated to 110,000 years ago.
A horse in a field all night coincides
with us at the gate. In its breath,
our breath, our hands warmed at its lips.
Heavy bone under hair—its eye (all time)
rears in its socket, head jerking back
at a siren on the motorway.
Frost on the grass and bunched wet-wipes,
the parcelled nappies of summer
revealed in hedgerows
anywhere in the past hundred miles.
In the horse’s breath, in the rookery,
circulating terror—breathe its listening—
And down in the bright circulation of traffic
a girl dreams into a woman,
loaded at birth in just-in-time logistics
delivering solutions, embowered
by glowing horizons of Farm-Fresh freight.
She’s carried asleep, a girl on a bed
in the shell of a coach, her altar of things
a resistant arrangement of time:
a computer fan swings from a red cotton thread,
wings of a roadkill bird in a bowl.
Candle-wax figures reach into a mirror.
She sleeps so deeply hurtling over
cats eyes, tyre shreds, turbulent air,
the white curtains billowing empty dawn.
And in the dark cabs angels
pull past exposed and oblivious at the wheel.
The camera (who is driving
this damned thing?) points back through
the body of the vehicle,
the road unspooling the present
still present, even in the distance,
& opens a line to trees again
in local breezes, turbulent
eddy covariances, time here
& there in late season gnats
imagined among birches,
beyond the rhythms of barriers—
She stands in the travelling window,
her marker pen gathering
from the currency of disappearance
a figure reaching through
to touch her drawing awake on the glass.
Mother, neanderthal mother, I glimpse you
on the footbridge gazing,
in the motorway plantation listening to us swarm,
as if approaching a god.
The shape of you on the window passes over
drivers entranced by arrival.
There is no arrival, only the pen’s confluence
of pylons nesting & un-nesting,
bridge shadows like wings, & you
in my wrist, your knowledge
snowing between high twigs,
at our mercy in arrangements of bones,
us at our own mercy who once cut you away, mother,
bent your knees, stooped your back,
excised your body from ours—
all the death you have eaten to get me here.
Daughter I can only give you
these unmarked things
a stone lined with quartz
the stream over gravel
beak and berry and bark
the say and light opening
Listen to the cry in the stone.
It rests in your hand
as in mine—it amazed & drained
& felled me. His gift,
destruction, and you came
from it—slaughter in the forests.
I don’t want this. You must!
Hold it to the light. Listen to it
open fear in your wrist
weigh the absence of my hand,
a weapon, bright pebble.
Their superb vision suggested
by enlarged eye sockets.
Look through me you look through me.
She squeezes the stone in her hand.
Light ripples along traffic cones.
Junctions are beautiful at night, slow curves
in my belly like maybe giving birth.
Mother, orphaned mother, mother me
in the dark camps, your face in my hands,
in the forest, in the city, in the cave,
touch my wrist our rivers drowning
in this slip & feeder, thickets of light,
mother of motorways, mother of forests.
A vehicle’s shed its load, the unidentified contents
causing significant delays. A festival
of artificial shadowless ghost-light
at the services. Two men climb down from
velvet, tasseled bowers and wrestle between trucks
over grit built up by tyres. Touch me
don’t touch me into my shoulder,
armlock into headlock, slipping the knot
of internal wrangling, I want you in me
only this far—the low punch of a kiss
lands & I let go, landed here. You are
striking into my chest animal grunts between trucks—
Two fluorescent-clad angels wrestling
out of heaven out of tachographs & beyond GPS.
Piss now. Let us squat
and piss together
our brief hot streams,
shit our shared turds,
the common gut
of our voices hosting
words covered in
Go now. Go. Go,
they are coming,
you are coming, go. Now.
Now, before there is
only you. We drive blind into
the sun, vision flailing.
Who is behind the camera watching?
You are, she is, I am. Step out into
the stricken land, terror in the forest.
Who am I but words blossoming
into roots and clouds & deadly.
Snow held their footprints. Then blank scarps.
The vehicle reverses, & unable to,
he gesticulates through the windscreen.
Where have we not been, where not
wrenched every part of this moor,
the forests burnt, recovered, felled,
speaking our way in stones & acid?
Night now coming-on and in the valley
a glittering system authorises itself.
Rich & costly blue darkens towards
demand-spike stars accumulating
frost on shattered windscreen glass,
the power station smokestack illuminated.
John Wedgwood Clarke has published two poetry collections Ghost Pot (2013) and Landfill (2017) both with Valley Press. He regularly collaborates with scientists and other artists on cross-disciplinary projects, and lectures in creative writing at the University of Exeter. John is about to begin an eighteen month Art and Humanities Research Council fellowship focusing on the Red River in West Cornwall. Find out more about his work here.
Image credits: film stills by Webb-Ellis, from Inheritors.