Issue 26: Vera Fibisan reviews Lesley Harrison

Review of Lesley Harrison Disappearance: North Sea Poems (Shearsman Books, 2020)

Lesley Harrison’s Disappearance: North Sea Poems is a journey into the coastal landscape that borders the North Sea. Delving into this collection reveals several core elements: bird names and behaviours, place names, the movement of waters, and the key role of Northern areas in our understanding of the natural world through the language of poetry. The sense of isolation from urban environments experienced by the writer contributes to a deeper connection to place. One of the first questions that emerges is ‘Who or what disappears, and why?’.

The opening poem ‘Birds of The North Sea’ (p.9) foregrounds the crucial avian role in mapping these Northern landscapes. Harrison subtitles it with ‘An invocation, using birds’ names as they alter during passage or along migration routes between Orkney, Shetland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Svalbard’, accompanied by ‘To be read aloud’, reinforcing the performative element contained by the invocation.

Heeding the author’s instructions and voicing the pluri-lingual versions of the names listed creates similar sound patterns to birdsong. The names themselves travel through the dialects and languages of the people living on these birds’ migration routes - not understood by the birds themselves, only by the speakers of these particular languages allows for playfully decoding these names as sounds more akin to nonhuman speech rather than bearing a signifier-signified relationship. Harrison personifies these sounds repeatedly in the collection, identifying a venerable power in the call of ‘the gulls, their sharp words/ repeated and repeated/ the god of [her] childhood’ (p.11).

The process is reversed in the ‘Witch Hole’ section of the poem ‘Close’s Fishermen’s Chart. Section 2. The North Sea’, where the witches are ‘moaning like gulls’ (p.16); through their incantations, they change the weather, ‘boiling cloud out of/ a blue ordinary morning’ (p.16). Later, the process is expanded to plant life, as ‘birds whistle overhead,/ whole trees full of birds’ (p.29).

Harrison begins to drop clues as to the theme of disappearance early in the collection, informing the reader that ‘Those lost at sea come back as birds’ (p.17, p.64). The avian abundance encountered hints at the sheer number of people who set off on water, but never returned. In ‘Disappearance’ (p.65) more clues are given as to the vanishing act that occurs aboard Donald Crowhurst’s ship, as he attempts to circumnavigate the globe single-handedly, yet fails when the ship is found abandoned. Initially caught in a storm, he ominously sails towards the horizon, a mythical barrier, beyond which he will not find his way in this world.

In ‘Barnacle’ (p.10), this veil is referred to as the ‘blind margin of the ocean’, which brings with it an air of the unknown, presenting a challenge to both reader and writer. ‘Disappearance’ (p.73) ends with the liberation of the soul, ‘abstract, homeless/ and strangely at peace’, reinforcing the silence that contrasts with the sounds of birds. For Harrison, exploring the landscape brings with it ‘a sense of being on the edge of something much greater’ (2018, p.2). Her acknowledgement is transferred into the lyric through the heightened awareness of powerful ecological and hydrological forces that govern these coastlines.

Carved into these liminal landscapes are water channels whose levels rise and lower with the tide, both treacherous and inviting. The incoming water travels on ‘sea streets’ (p.44), colonising the flat sandbanks and marshlands of Grimsby’s flatlands on the north-east coast of England. Contrasting with the aqueous circulatory system of the landscape, mapped roads aid human land travel, superimposed onto much older routes of ancient journeys; the act of travelling is seen as a way of connecting to these landscapes on a deeper level and accessing ‘folk memory’ (2018, p.2), defined by Harrisons as ‘place names reflecting an orientation to looking outward to sea rather than looking inward to land’ (2018, p.3). The human body’s relational link to the sea is both historic and atemporal.

The stone cairn on the cover of the collection acts as a seamarker1 bordered by a stretch of ice, bringing forth the sea in its coldest most unwelcoming way, with slabs of loose ice floating in the distance, crushed beneath a steel overcast sky. The mapping properties of the stone cairn allow access into a past realm when navigating the landscape was dependant on topography, with the aid of such anthropogenic elements. Therefore, mapping plays a crucial role in this collection, not just in documenting the writer’s journeys, but also those of others who have travelled there before. The A9 and the B974 roads are both built upon and expand ancient roads dating back to the Roman period.

In ‘The Voyage of the ‘Fox’’ (p.32), Harrison documents Captain Francis L. McClintock’s journey as he leads the expedition on the ‘Fox’ steam yacht, in search of the lost Franklin Expedition, gone missing after setting off a few years earlier in 1845. Exploring extracts from McClintock’s journal and including passages from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1943), the themes of disappearance and mapping are prevalent:

I pass the time adding to our charts:

the thin grey headlands

scree and hollow

the blank

unenchanted islands

their tiny black rivers inked in.

My pen lifts them from the darkness. (pp.36-37)

The process is akin to that undertaken by the landscape poet, surroundings documented in the lyric. For Harrison, there is also an introspective mapping, journeying into the unknown allows opportunities for self-discovery. Simultaneously, there is an awareness of benthic mapping, where ‘the world that ends at the surface’ (p.14) cannot be easily documented, and remains for the most part, unknown, referred to in the collection as the ocean’s ‘continents of dark’ (p.28).

Above the surface of the water, birds contribute to the mapping process, in the ‘Birds of Angus’ (p.41), Harrison paralleling the birds’ binomial nomenclature with their common name. Strongly linked to migratory routes, this temporal transhumance is translated into ‘the old ship groaning/ like a tree’ (p.17), that is designed to allow human access across the water; the ship’s wood is strongly connected to its terrestrial past, the alive plant that gave rise to the material. The water itself is connected back to land, ‘sea to bay/ bay to lake/ lake to swamp// swamp to weak meadow/ the old seabed/ brought up to the air’ (p.20).

The aqueous networks that surround Harrison are mirrored in the water of her body, transcorporeality is highlighted in the passage ‘my river has become/ where it seeps into the sea/ and I dissolve’ (pp.26-27). The connection points outlined in this passage hint at borders - transcending them is a culminating point at the end of the collection, ‘a line where we hold hands, and step over’ (p.74).

Harrison’s playfulness during mapping the landscape and the poems emerges in the opening section of the ‘Close’s Fishermen’s Chart. Section 2. The North Sea’ poem (p.15), and later in the sequence of faded text poems ‘Orkney Road Trip with Samuel Beckett’ (p.23). In both instances the faded passages trigger the remaining text to form new poems, down to the detail of punctuation, displaying palimpsestic qualities. The additional full-stop in ‘The Croft Museum’ section of the latter poem is not random; it reinforces pause, the reader’s extra breath required to find their bearings in the landscape. It functions similarly to the full-stops in the ‘December, Skagaströnd’ (p.49) and ‘Crossing the Pentland’ (p.31) poems. In the latter, there is an imposed ‘[silence]’ at the end, counter-acted by the voicing of the poem.

Harrison’s playfulness is also noticeable in ‘The Sea Bed’ faded text poem (p.15), where mapping is achieved through repeated definite articles within a double-lined rectangular frame. These do not refer to any objects in particular but illustrate the ontological facet of the benthic space and the plurality of more-than-human life that resides there.

Harrison condenses the experience of place down the most startling observations, creating a phenomenological layer of primordial perception, engaged with historic, cultural, and environmental elements. Immersed in a realm of escapism that operates on multiple levels, the reader becomes comfortable with the motif of disappearance and is allowed instead to focus on what is discovered on this remarkable journey.


1. Lesley Harrison, a seamark image, Iluissat, Greenland.


Eliot, T. S. 1943. Four Quartets (Harcourt).

Harrison, Lesley. 2018. ‘Northness: Lesley Harrison in Conversation’, Poetry Foundation website, edited by Daniel Poppick.

Veronica Fibisan has recently completed a PhD at the University of Sheffield in English Literature and Creative Writing. She is Editor of the creative writing journal Route57, and ASLE-UKI Postgraduate and Early-Career Representative. She has notably published poetry in The Sheffield Anthology (Smith/Doorstop, 2012), CAST: The Poetry Business Book of New Contemporary Poets (Smith/Doorstop, 2014), Plumwood Mountain Journal (4.1), the Wretched Strangers Anthology (Boiler House Press, 2018), PAN (2019, 2020) and Voices for Change Anthology (2020).

Copyright © 2021 by Vera Fibisan, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.