In each issue we ask a contemporary poet for a poem which draws inspiration from another poet’s work. Here, Caroline Bird responds to filmmaker Rebecca E Marshall’s feature Fever of the Light. Co-editor Cheryl Moskowitz met them to discuss their process.
Rebecca E Marshall’s Fever of the Light, exhibited from February to April 2018 at the innovative blackShed Gallery in Robertsbridge, East Sussex, is a filmic letter to the future, addressed to the filmmaker’s son in 2033, when he will turn eighteen – the moment when the first manned mission to Mars is planned.
The film is presented as a moving image triptych, visually unfolding thoughts about the perception of time and timelessness in a rapidly changing world. Three screens simultaneously weave three parallel stories: the first tells of Agafya Lykova, a 71-year- old woman living in isolation in the heart of Siberia’s vast forest. The second story follows the first months of Marshall’s baby son’s life mixed with Marshall’s own memories and vignettes of everyday life from the preceding decade; and the third follows six astronaut-scientists, living in confined conditions simulating a year’s life on Mars.
Blending fragments of urban daily routine with otherworldly scenes from Agafya’s hermitic existence shot on location in Siberia with futuristic images from the isolated pod of the astronaut- scientists in Hawaii, Fever of the Light highlights the smallest and greatest needs and desires common to human experience.
I spoke to Rebecca about her process and was fascinated in particular by the choices she made in matching up the three separate narratives so that they could run concurrently on the three screens. Rebecca explained that a lot of what she had consciously intended to be in each of the three parts of the film had to be let go in favour of the more accidental collisions and synchronicity that started to occur in the process of editing. Unexpected pairings of images and meanings emerged which meant that the making of the film was a constant process of discovery. Certainly Rebecca’s film, like the best kind of poetry, rewards exponentially on successive viewing, all the more so with three different screens on which to focus each time.
Rebecca is clear that her film cannot be classified as purely documentary or autobiography although it contains elements of both:
‘We’re all storytellers, and it’s all about perception, what we choose to show and how we show it.’
Living alone for over 35 years in the Siberian forest, Agafya refers to the angels who co-exist with her there: They come to me in dreams… Rebecca says:
‘As messengers we are each other’s angels choosing what we show/say to one another. Bearing witness to each other, and ourselves. The moments captured in all three narratives are both real and hyper real – all coming out of very ordinary parts of a day. We can choose how we interpret these moments. We can see them as transcendental, a trick of the camera, and like a poet, we can dream possibilities; dream our way into each other’s lives.’
As soon as I had been introduced to Fever of the Light by my friend, screenwriter Margaret Glover (who was Rebecca’s tutor at the London Film School), I knew I wanted to ask the poet Caroline Bird to respond. Both women are artists who manage to make the ordinary extraordinary and share a comic sensibility as well as a deep commitment to exploring seriously the vastness of human experience and the world we live in. And both evidently know first-hand something of what it is to be fragile and alone within it.
When she emailed me her finished poem, Caroline added a postscript to the email: Please print it out before reading. Poems speak better on real paper. Interestingly Rebecca produced a paper product to accompany her film – a beautiful three-part art book containing stills and images from Fever of the Light. Both are asking that their work be held in some way.
In sending the poem, Caroline also included the following notes as a preface:
‘I could write an entire collection of poetry in response to Rebecca’s film… it is so huge and so profound that one single poem can’t possibly respond to the entire piece, so I have chosen a few strands to pull out. One thing that struck me deeply when watching Rebecca’s piece was the profoundly personal aspect. It’s an act of love – a letter to her son, and so it felt right that my poem also be an act of love and it is a letter to my family.
I wanted to reflect the ‘three screens’ form in the poem, and the way that images echo and call to each other… and I have done this by loosely using chiasmus throughout the poem… words echoing and calling to each other. Rebecca’s piece deals with the biggest questions we have. But it’s also alarming, startlingly simple and direct, there’s a pureness to it and a searching generosity. It’s a film about what we don’t know. I wanted to explore somewhere unknown, to try to capture something that is impossible to capture… like trying to clasp a bubble.
My aunt died of cancer last week and even as an atheist my first thought was where is she now?
One quote from Agafya kept going round and round my head – ‘They come to me in dreams… we were sitting somewhere, not in the hut but somewhere, sitting on something.
After reading the poem that Caroline had produced, Rebecca responded:
‘The everyday moments seen in Fever of the Light can be recognised in different ways by everyone, and I’m deeply moved and appreciative of Caroline’s poem and its personal story so beautifully told, reflected back in response to my work. It has drawn out entirely new ways of seeing the film’s images and interpreting the words. There’s real communication happening here. Thank you.’
You can read Caroline Bird’s poem in Magma 71
Caroline Bird has five collections of poetry published by Carcanet. Her most recent collection, In These Days of Prohibition, was shortlisted for the 2017 TS Eliot Prize and the Ted Hughes Award. A two time winner of the Foyles Young Poets Award, her first collection Looking Through Letterboxes was published in 2002 when she was 15. She won a major Eric Gregory Award in 2002 and was shortlisted for the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize in 2001 and the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2008 and 2010. She was one of the five official poets at the 2012 London Olympics.
Rebecca E Marshall is a film director, filmmaker and a ‘contemplative film-poet’. She is co-founding director of The Electric Palace Cinema, a 52 seat independent venue in Hastings which opened in 2002 and is listed in The Guardian as one of the UK’s top three boutique cinemas. She received her MA with distinction in 2012 from the London Film School as director and the same year was awarded a scholarship for a PhD in Film by Practice with Exeter University and The London Film School, which commenced in September 2013.