Bloodlines by Sarah Wimbush reviewed by Rennie Halstead

Seren Booksbloodlineds
ISBN-13: 9781781725948

Winner Myslexia Pamphlet Competition 2020

Sarah Wimbush’s award winning pamphlet is a rich reflection on the history of Gypsy travellers.

Wimbush details simple episodes from a travelling life, reflecting most effectively on the episodes where a traveller’s experience intersects with the life of the rest of us non-Gypsy gorgios.

In Carroty Kate we meet Kate, with “hair the colour of a thousand foxy hawkweeds” who “owns one red skirt and a navvy’s tongue”. Kate makes something of a living telling fortunes, a “kissi belt strapped tight / to my left thigh.” and muses on the way gypsies were treated in earlier times when she might have been:

slapped […] in irons
dragged me to York Tyburn in a hay cart sat on my coffin,
where I’d be dropped
from the Three-legged Mare –
just for being.

I can see Sandbeck Hall recalls a visit to a country house, receiving cast-offs from the “lady housekeeper” in a poem that shows how Gypsies were seen as outsiders, in a scene reminiscent of a 1950’s county house drama:

onion sacks filled with steel pans, rabbit skins, cast-offs,
and the two wide skirts belonging to old Lady Scarborough.

[… ] Daddy doffs his trilby, grease stains round the rim,
like a posh mush in his best gorgio: thank you dear Madam.

The Bittern takes us through the travellers’ autumn and winter and shows us the close link between seasonal work and the Gypsy way of life. The harshness of life on the road drives the family to spend winter in a two-up two-down cottage, whilst their vardo is parked at Big Frank’s place. Autumn has finished:

After the glut of soft fruits,
and oat cakes toasting on the griddle,
and the deluge of Cox’s.

it’s the wintering-over
in a two-up two-down cottage

Winter brings different treasure:

a squall of pheasant and quail
bartered for a tail-end of hogget,
mother schooling us by the range:

The children learn:

how to baste the skins to gold,
how to skim the fat for rushlights
and axels, how to eke the meat out

Wimbush remembers the memorable sound of the bittern as winter turns into:

the hardness of spring.
Bitterns nesting in reed beds,
sweeter than heron —

the male’s deep whoohu-whoohu
like a breath blown over a bottle.
On a still day, I feel that call for miles

Grai describes the death of a horse and it’s recovery from the bog that trapped it. The poet shows us the scene in a matter-of-fact, documentary style that is devoid of sentimentality:

the mare watches you
watching without blinking,
the shire horse dragging her away
like a bundle of rags.

the horse is shot:

[…] the knackers placed the muzzle
behind the dark pool of her eye

a new thought blown
across her vision.

Wimbush describes the attempted rescue:

[…] the shouting                    the shouting
as they had tossed the rope’s hoopla

over the royal sweep of the neck –
the peculiarity of those whinnies


down at the hawthorn’s groin
where the field unearthed a bog

The Ring, my favourite poem in the pamphlet, takes us through the colourful, varied life of the poet’s grandmother on an annual round of fruit picking, horse fairs, selling daffodils and rabbit skins. Wimbush reflects on the change in the way of life for gypsies over two generations:

Imagine. Her hands snatching necks.
Shushi skins pinned into borrowed earth.

How she scrubs the gubbins from her garnet setting,
flogs the pelts to furriers for a bob or two.

We watch her journey:

through fields, lanes, cobbled brooks:
posting rag bills, hawking daffodils

We witness a runaway marriage:

how she grips her lad’s hand as they do a runner
to wed at Tinsley Church. And always that sense
of moving as one.

This is a hard life:

No half-dead frills only her histories
and the seasons: the earlies, the hoe, wheat stooks,
mother’s calling basket, wintering over

Wimbush sees much of Gypsy history in the ring, and through it, her own place in the family tradition:

Imagine this ring – my grandmother’s ring.
Its Gypsy setting. Its golden eye burnished
with all the jib and ancients it has worn thin.
See, here on my finger. How it fits.

Bloodlines is a proud retelling of a family chronicle, a Gypsy way of life that appears rooted in a more agricultural past, with the circle of seasons and farm work shaping a family life that is always on the move. Wimbush takes us into this world with great skill, and without sentimentality.


poetry shed

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