Emma Must

On Writing The Ballad of Yellow Wednesday

Emma Must

Share Via:

Emma Must is a poet living in Belfast. Formerly a full-time environmental campaigner, in 2021 she completed a PhD in English (Creative Writing) at Queen’s University Belfast, focusing on ecopoetry and ecocriticism. Her first full-length poetry collection, The Ballad of Yellow Wednesday, was published by Valley Press in December 2022. Her poem ‘Toll’ won the Environmental Defenders Prize in the 2019 Ginkgo Prize for Ecopoetry; her debut poetry pamphlet, Notes on the Use of the Austrian Scythe (2015), won the Templar Portfolio Award. In 1995 she was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for Europe, for her efforts towards land protection.

The second poem in The Ballad of Yellow Wednesday – my first full-length poetry collection, published by Valley Press on 8 December 2022 and launched that evening at No Alibis bookstore in Belfast – begins: ‘It has taken coming here to start / going back.’ The ‘here’ of the poem is a small wood on the Isle of Wight, which provides its title: Bloodstone Copse. I noted down fragments of lines during my first walk there, in 2006. The way the vistas of the landscape unfolded as I walked jolted something in me. At last, I was beginning to write my poems about the traumatic events that had occurred in the early 1990s at another place – Twyford Down in Hampshire – when the Department of Transport attempted to bulldoze the ‘missing link’ of the M3 motorway through the ‘theoretically protected’ chalk downland of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a few miles from where I grew up. The Dantesque terza rima of ‘Bloodstone Copse’ reflects the hellish nature of what happened at Twyford Down.

     But if it took going to the Isle of Wight to take the first tentative steps towards writing my poetry collection about a chalk hill in Hampshire, it took coming here – to Belfast, in 2011 – to settle down and do it. Finally, after many years studying and practising the craft of poetry, I felt I had the skills to do justice to the material. And, as I was becoming embedded in the rich literary landscape we are so lucky to have here in Northern Ireland, I also had both the stimulation and stability of a place in which to write.

     I had a clear sense from early on, as I began properly to write the book, that Yellow Wednesday was a pivotal moment. This was Wednesday 9 December 1992, when – after years of public inquiries, legal action and campaigning – dozens of security guards wearing fluorescent yellow jackets moved onto Twyford Down, followed by bulldozers, to enable the Department of Transport to begin the main phase of construction work. They were met with resistance by the Dongas Tribe, a small group of young people camped on the hill, who took their name from the ancient trackways on which they lived.

     This key narrative episode featured a battle and a tribe. I soon realised that the events needed to be written about in the form of a ballad, and that this would give my collection of poetry its title. I searched for English models, but nothing seemed quite right. Then I found Federico García Lorca’s ‘Romance de la Guardia Civil Española’ (‘Ballad of the Spanish Civil Guard’), which had all the elements I needed, not least the oppressive forces of the state, festivities, and the moon: on the night of Yellow Wednesday there was a total eclipse of the moon and a party inside the workers’ compound, once the razor wire had been trampled. Hence, my title poem is a line by line version of Lorca’s poem, translated from the Spanish, incorporating press reports, recollections by people present on Yellow Wednesday, and my own memories.

     Having completed the title poem, what about the rest of the book? In many ways, The Ballad of Yellow Wednesday is a book about chalk. I examined this up close by looking at photos of chalk under a microscope, which informed what would ultimately become the book’s opening poem, ‘Chalk, with Flints’. The poem starts with a list of some of the things that coccoliths, one of the main constituents of chalk, reminded me of. One of these images was cameo brooches. In fact, the late poet Professor Ciaran Carson, who kindly supervised my project at the Seamus Heaney Centre for a period up until his death in October 2019, felt that my phrase ‘a shingle of cameos’ was the key to understanding the various components of my collection as a whole.

     As I searched for ways of capturing what had happened at Twyford Down, I reached down not only into the language of geology but also archaeology. The road demolished two Scheduled Ancient Monuments – archaeological sites of national importance: an area of Iron Age/Romano-British occupation and agricultural activity; and the series of inter-connecting hollow-ways, known locally as the Dongas, after which the Dongas Tribe protesters took their name. What’s more, it cut straight through the ring of a Bronze Age barrow (burial mound). I devoured the monograph of the archaeological investigations which took place on the Down before the road was built. I stuck Post-it notes all over it. Words and phrases from the report, as well as the visual shapes of found objects, swam up to its surface and lodged in my brain. These would, ultimately, become bedded down again in different ways in the poems of my book, sometimes combined with another kind of ‘showing up’: protest actions. Some of the objects – especially the Bronze Age amber beads unearthed from a grave in the barrow – are revealing themselves to me within their poems in new ways still. They resist settling and keep turning as they try to catch the light. Indeed, Professor Sinéad Morrissey, who I was fortunate enough to have as my initial creative supervisor on this project, told me recently that she feels the collection is about ‘words themselves as a kind of latch or pin (like in a brooch) . . . It’s a search, not so much for what is gone . . . but for a language to try and catch it in.’

     Two poems in my collection are directly inspired by two (eco)poetic antecedents from Northern Ireland: Seamus Heaney (‘Human Chain’) and Michael Longley (‘Native Species’). My ‘Human Chain’ poem, one of several ekphrastic responses in my book to contemporaneous photos of the protests, contemplates an image of protesters passing blocks of chalk from hand to hand in a symbolic attempt to rebuild Twyford Down. ‘Native Species’ includes a list of the names of wild flowers found on the Down before the construction of the motorway, paying homage to Longley’s much-loved poem ‘The Ice-cream Man’.

     Other poems are formed from the prose material of court proceedings as we were prosecuted for breaking an injunction which attempted to stop us walking on Twyford Down. A corona of sonnets titled ‘Holloway Letters (The Martyr’s Crown)’ draws on my memories, prison diary and the several hundred letters that my fellow protester Becca Lush and I received whilst incarcerated in Holloway Prison in the summer of 1993. The thirteen sonnets of the corona mirror the thirteen days of our imprisonment.

     Near the end of my collection is the long poem ‘Ground Truth’, written as I returned to Twyford Down on 9 December 2017, the twenty-fifth anniversary of Yellow Wednesday. Its title is a term used in various fields, including the earth sciences, to refer to information provided by direct observation (‘on the ground’) as opposed to information derived by inference. I wrote my poem in my field notebook at intervals across the course of the day as I travelled from Belfast to Winchester by plane then train, then walked from the town along the River Itchen to the former site of Twyford Down. My walk, incidentally, followed much of the route of the daily walks taken by John Keats during his stay in Winchester in 1819, which provided inspiration for his ode ‘To Autumn’. In the poem I write, ‘It has taken going back to stop coming / here, in nightmare and in memory.’ Sometimes the act of returning can take a very long time indeed, and take us via wholly unexpected routes.

The Ballad of Yellow Wednesday can be purchased here: https://www.valleypressuk.com/shop/p/yellow-wednesday