‘Handling’ by poet in residence, Jack Thacker

A guest post ahead of the launch of his first book

Written by Jack Thacker. Jack’s first book, ‘Handling’, is a gathering of poems based on personal experience and arising from time spent this year as poet-in-residence at The MERL.

For nearly a decade now I’ve been writing poems about my experiences growing up on a small farm in Herefordshire. More recently, I’ve been exploring the complicated and ancient relationship between poetry and agriculture (it goes deeper than you might think) in an academic context. It was during my studies that I first encountered the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading. By the time I had departed the museum on the day of that first visit, the idea of a poetry residency–which would eventually lead to this book – was already firmly in place.

As it happens, the MERL is the perfect place in which to indulge in the twin passions of research and writing–not to mention a passion for rural life itself. In its very layout, the building encourages intellectual discovery and hands-on experience in equal measure. Its archives contain countless treasures, among them the remarkable diary of Peter Pownall. It was in the museum’s reading room that I would learn about eighteenth-century beekeeping practices, which seem cruel by modern standards. It was there that I would also read about how Pownall would thatch his beehives (‘skeps’) to protect them from the weather.

An extract entitled 'Skep'
from ‘Museum Pieces’

The proximity of the archives to the galleries, as well as the accessibility of the museum’s open stores, meant that all I had to do to get a better sense of these objects was talk to curator Ollie Douglas and I was able to handle examples of them myself.

Poet Jack Thacker examining skeps

If the reading room was where I was able to cultivate a deeper under- standing of rural history, the galleries prompted me to contemplate my own. I’ll never forget walking around them for the very first time and recognising so many objects that were familiar to me from our family farm as it exists today. Except in this case (and in each glass case) the trappings and tools of a way of life I knew so well were on display to the public, in a kind of stasis. The shock of this made me think: was my own farm a living museum? On numerous occasions I’ve found myself performing a double take at the mannequins featured in certain displays, for sometimes I could have sworn I caught a glimpse of my parents.

The poems in part I of Handling are taken from a larger body of work based on personal experience. Part II was written over the period of the six-month residency and each poem relates to a specific object from the galleries or an item (or film footage) from the archives. The final poem is an account of the uncanny experience of exploring the galleries themselves.

Book launch

Join us to celebrate the launch of Jack’s debut gathering ‘Handling’ published by Two Rivers Press in July. The launch event, with readings by Jack, will take place on Wednesday 25th July. For details and tickets visit the event listing.

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