Listen, I have heard many old tales…

Last week, I was lucky enough to visit the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library, curated by Claire Breay. I was invited to see the exhibition, along with two other fabulous Sheffield poets (Joe Kriss and Otis Mensah) as part of the British Library/ Poet in the City commission. The idea of the project is to tell the story of British Library exhibitions all over the country, and our job is to bring the stories of this exhibition to Sheffield. The London part of the exhibition finishes in a couple of weeks, so go and see it soon if you can!

I have to confess that, at first, I wondered how I would connect with the exhibition, knowing relatively little about the period, and even less about the battles that it is renowned for. However, on entering the wonderfully curated dark spaces of the exhibition, I was immediately struck by the richness of the stories it contains. I was especially interested in the evidence of everyday lives embedded in its objects: inscriptions on jewellery and urns; the script of a woman’s will; remedies and incantations captured on leaves of parchment. The story of Queen Emma – wife of two kings and mother of children to these different kings – was fascinating and left me wanting to know more. I mainly found myself looking, though, for what – or rather who – was absent, and searching, not unlike the researcher in Amitav Ghosh’s In An Antique Land, for the records and traces left by people who don’t appear in the gilt and ink of the parchments: the mothers, the slaves, the workers, the dispossessed, the illiterate.

The enticing words – “Listen, I have heard many old tales” – were printed in large white letters against the black walls, just above the unique Beowulf manuscript. I found myself wanting to hear these tales: to listen to what is passed on.

As the project develops, I hope to work with local people in Sheffield and think more about what we pass on, especially what women pass on – stories, papers, jewellery, wisdom. What kinds of unwritten histories do we inherit, and how does this link us to people in the past and future? How does the intricate metalwork in the British Library exhibition link to the rich history of metal in Sheffield, especially to women’s involvement? How can we use our imaginations to recuperate histories that are not contained in the official exhibitions and history books? I look forward to sharing more as the project develops!

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