by Isobel Dixon
The Debris Field: Salvaging the Titanic in Word, Sound & Image is a poetry performance, fused and suffused with music and film, and born from a shared fascination with the story of RMS Titanic. Chris McCabe, Simon Barraclough and I had worked together on several poetry projects previously and a conversation about the tragic ship (and the centenary that was then approaching) sparked off the idea of writing a new multi-media piece. We asked film-maker Jack Wake-Walker and composer Oli Barrett to join us, all met once to share source texts and ideas, then went off to research and write separately. The work, when shared, was alive with intriguing confluences and cross-currents.
From the joint text we wove together, Jack and Oli began to work on images and music. Our aim was to be evocative rather than simply narrative, to draw on striking nuggets of fact, but also ideas of labour and ambition, poverty and wealth, bravery and loss, brotherhood and love and nature’s power. We all felt haunted by the thought of that open ocean, the iceberg, the canopy of stars the survivors described. We wanted the audience, in 45 minutes, to feel as immersed in the ideas as we had been, for over a year.
Creased magnolia, grubby lace,the merging lily-pads of pancake ice,cold slur on the sea’s still face.
For months I was obsessed with ice in every form, watching many documentaries, not just about the Titanic. One of my favourite images in the film for The Debris Field is a Titanic-shaped ice-cube (from an ice-tray I found in a novelty shop) as it melts, losing its form, eventually disappearing entirely.
But it was the immense and fatal mass of ice that I returned to in my mind most often – the looming berg, which seemed at first sight to Quartermaster George Rowe ‘like a windjammer with sails set’, and which Lookout Frederick Fleet only spotted when it was already too late. I deliberately stayed away from reading Thomas Hardy’s ‘Convergence of the Twain’ while writing, but my notes and drafts had several sections on the idea of that distant glacier shouldering its way down to the sea, the huge shards breaking off, transient islands of ice moving towards the luxurious ship, a small island of sorts itself.
I imagined the silence of these buoyant giants, their individual, gradually shifting shapes. I read about the smell of icebergs, their colours. Though in the end I jettisoned most of my iceberg sections (including the two out-takes here) for the final joint text, those icy islands of the mind float on...
Serene, she floatsupon the glossy meltingof her skirts.The balance shifts – giddy, she tips, flashing her folds of turquoise petticoat.
The Debris Field premiered at the British Film Institute on the centenary of the sinking, 14 April 2012, to a full house; the show has been performed since in Ledbury and Liverpool, and has evolved along the way. It will return to London (along with a first half of new multi-media work by all five participants) on 21 February, at the Rich Mix. Sidekick Books have published the text of The Debris Field and a further edition will follow, along with a DVD of the film, music and voices.
The excerpts here are snippets from my own work for the show, but I believe The Debris Field works its effects most powerfully in the mingling of the different voices, the fragmentary and allusive bumping up against each other, light flashing from different facets, the striking of sparks. I am proud and grateful to have worked with such a talented crew.
The Debris Field
Excerpts by Isobel Dixon
Watch how the rivet catcher runs
to reach the hull before his hot plug cools.
He is the furnace messenger,
climbing a cliff of steel
with fiery iron in his tongs.
Three million times. Three million times,
he and the lads, the rivet catchers, run.
The godalmighty clang of it
would echo in my ears all night,
I couldn’t hear my daughters
or my wife, for all the endless hammering.
A banging hell of metal noise,
I’d long for peace at any price.
But then I think of silence, and the ice.
Rivet counter Robert Murphy,
a most useful man and careful,
walked a risky plank,
and followed his son down.
No need to go to sea to drown,
stay home and get a Belfast funeral.
Home’s where they know you at the wake.
A clerk fills out the Injury Log in slanting copper-plate.
Neat columns: Fatal, Severe and Slight.
The bugler calls:
‘The Roast Beef of Old England’ beckoning.
Conversation ebbs and flows
above the starched white linen.
The chink of glasses, civil clink of cutlery.
A tinkling teaspoon falls.
On the table, spring-fresh flare
of yellow daffodils.
And a wine-dark carpet will further emphasise
the delicacy and refinement
of the panelling and act as a foil
to the ladies’ light attire.
Smoke belching from the funnels,
genteelly puffed from a cigar –
this royal-lookalike Captain
is the darling of the millionaires.
His new-made table missed the boat:
good wood to knock on, that.
How She Came By Her Hurt
a dull thump
a slight shock
a slight jar
like going over a thousand marbles
like tearing a strip of calico
as though some giant hand was playing bowls
a car keyed, a long, deep score
a slight jar
a slight shock
a dull thump
And the men said they could smell
the ice about that night
before Lookout Frederick Fleet
saw a wall of it, too late.
A ton of fragments clattered
to the deck. Unthreaded chandeliers,
the disappearing close-shave souvenir.
A little iceberg for your highball, Sir?
Isobel Dixon’s collections The Tempest Prognosticator and A Fold in the Map are published in the UK by Salt. Her work is featured in Birdbook I:Towns, Parks, Gardens & Woodland, Coin Opera II and Psycho Poetica (all published by Sidekick), Penguin’s Poems for Love and Salt’s Best of British Poetry 2011. She co-wrote and performed in The Debris Field: Salvaging the Titanic in Word, Sound & Image, and The Debris Field text is available in February from Sidekick Books.