Essay

Distances

PJ Harvey publishes her first book of poetry, a collaboration with photographer Seamus Murphy.

The year 2015 turned out nearly enough books by female rock stars to form a supergroup: Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band, Chrissie Hynde’s Reckless, Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, and Patti Smith’s M Train. Now comes English singer-songwriter PJ Harvey with a different approach: a poetry collection based on her travels to Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Washington, DC.

The Hollow of the Hand is a collaboration with the photographer Seamus Murphy, whose photos of the three locations taken over the course of 19 years are reproduced within. Murphy has shot in such volatile places as Syria and Libya and has covered the Ebola outbreak and the Mexican drug war. Although his focus on documenting war-torn and hard-hit areas might not seem the likeliest of pairings with poetry, Murphy sees a natural connection between writing and his own work. “I think poetry and photography are so well suited,” he said recently. “They both have this economy, they both capture a frozen moment.” In 2012, he traveled to Afghanistan with the poet Eliza Griswold to collaborate on a project for Poetry magazine about landays, a couplet form that thrives among Pashtun women along the border with Pakistan.

PJ Harvey Seamus Murphy

                                                            PJ Harvey & Seamus Murphy. Image courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing.

 

Harvey and Murphy first worked together on a series of 12 music videos for Harvey’s acclaimed 2011 album Let England Shake. At the time, Harvey listed T.S. Eliot, Ted Hughes, W.B. Yeats, and the poetry of Harold Pinter among her influences, but Murphy says she was only just beginning to be serious about writing her own poetry. Harvey had selected him for that project based on his work in Afghanistan, including his 2008 book, A Darkness Visible.

Harvey also had a long-time fascination with Kosovo, and as they worked together on the music videos for Let England Shake, Murphy began sending her his work taken there in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 2011, the pair was invited to present their videos at a film festival in Kosovo, and it seemed like a convenient opportunity to start working on a new project together. They spent several days in the territory, with Harvey taking notes and writing.

The next year, Murphy was working in Afghanistan again and invited Harvey to join him. They spent about a week strolling through markets, visiting musicians and mosques, and discussing their experiences together in the evenings. “I just sensed that the things that would interest me would interest Polly,” Murphy said. “At heart I’m a documentary photographer, and I think Polly saw what she was doing as reporting as much as being a poet.”

The book, which is composed of 34 poems and 97 photographs, does not pair poems with specific images; the poems about each location are presented all in a row before the photographs. As Murphy explains, they didn’t want the poems to read as if they refer to specific people in specific pictures or for the juxtaposition to serve as a “spot the difference” game. But Harvey’s and Murphy’s work still delivers as a conversation of sorts, even if it is an elliptical and subtle one. Murphy’s 2003 photograph of the former Ministry of Defense building in Kabul—a location they revisited together—has apparently migrated into the song-writing process for her next album, for example. In another case, Murphy’s 2004 photograph of a Sufi ceremony in Kabul and the pair’s joint visit to a similar ceremony inspired a Harvey poem titled “The Initiation,” which begins

In a cave in the side of a mountain
forty men are kneeling in a ring

chanting a song
of a single word

And what about Washington, seemingly a world away in terms of both geography and political history? “‘Why the hell DC?’ is what everyone says,” Murphy conceded with a chuckle. “It’s the capital of the most powerful country in the West, if not the world.” It is also a scene of real poverty, and they were interested in the contrast: the light as well as the dark. When they traveled to the city together last year, they lingered in the struggling southeast neighborhood of Anacostia, where Murphy captured vivid images of daily life, from a child getting a buzz cut in a barbershop to teenagers congregating on the street. And Harvey’s brief tercet “Anacostia” wound up being the last poem in the book:

a tiny red sun
like a tail light
down the overpass

 

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Originally Published: October 20th, 2015

Ruth Graham is a journalist in New Hampshire.

  1. November 20, 2015
     Mark

    Let England Shake is an amazing album with lyrics that are pure
    poetry. Thank you for this article. I'm looking forward to the new book
    of poetry and photography.