Written by Flora Pick: GHT Volunteer
As God’s Head Tower was undergoing a transformation, playwright and poet Deborah Gearing sat and watched. The Turnkey’s Wife, a collection of poetry she produced during her tenure as artist in residence, is an exercise in finding the gaps, cracking open our remembered history to search for what we may have missed. As old bricks are lifted, it becomes difficult to ignore the reality of the people, individuals with lives, that occupied these rooms before us. In her work Gearing seeks to highlight these hauntings via the possibilities of imagined lives.
Gearing’s poems speculate on words left unsaid, couldn’t be said, on voices that were silenced. Her tales of women and children that walked in the tower walls are titled with names that fail to reveal all that much, sometimes supplemented with a date, sometimes a postscript that explains less than it does obscure the rich life hinted at with cold historical fact. ‘Mary Rowsell’ provides an increasingly panicked first-person-perspective from a desperate woman following a miscarriage; the hurt reverberates across the centuries and becomes something intimately real. The sterile reassurance that ‘Mary Rowsell was not convicted for the murder of her child’ soothes less than it may. The brilliance of Deborah Gearing’s identification of these gaps, these moments without shading, in the historical record is that it suggests just as much as it displays. It points outwards to many more unexamined lives that may have, until now, been little more than a bureaucratic footnote.
While there is an unavoidable danger in ventriloquising those unable to speak, Gearing’s work arrives so clearly from a position of empathy that she is proves able to demonstrate the required delicacy of touch. Some readers may find aspects of her characterisations to be ahistorical, but this flattening of time produces a worthwhile route to relatability. The Turnkey’s Wife’s best asset is its humanisation of a past all-too easily cast with inhuman stock figures.
The fragmentary, negating style is an apt reflection of lives only remembered in obscured pieces. Her collection of poetry is impressively economic in its ability to imply far more beyond the pamphlet leaves. Well past the point of reading, the poet forces a shift in mindset, asking one to reassess the tangibility of names that crop up only to disappear into the ether of time. Gearing manages to conjure sincere emotion from the mere suggestion of lives happening very far away, in another time and place.