Books

Orlam by PJ Harvey review: Singer-songwriter's poetry book is a rich and unwieldy epic

The English singer-songwriter has created a book of poetry that defies conventional interpretation.

Image: Dave Mitchell (Plastic Jesus) CC BY-SA 2.0

PJ Harvey, the much beloved British musician and songwriter, presents a rich and unwieldy epic with her novel in verse, Orlam. This is poetry thick with slime and greening, narrated by a lamb’s eyeball, and populated with thrusting farmers. It’s about as deliciously Polly Jean as you could muster. The narrative follows nine-year-old Ira-Abel, one of many hyphenated characters, trailing through childhood, forest and farm in the imagined village of Underwhelem. She seeks love and comfort in the form of Wyman-Elvis, the ghost of a rebellious soldier.  

Harvey’s verse refuses straightforward interpretation; she traces both the magical and the sinister transitions of growing up in the countryside. This book invites the reader to navigate its pages on their own terms. The main poem is written in the Dorset dialect, and on a parallel page is a shadow text, figured in plain English, the font coloured dark or translucent, depending on the depth of translation undertaken. There are also plentiful footnotes. 

Orlam by PJ Harvey is out now (Picador)

Some readers might find this interplay overwhelming, but I relished the array of words writhing on the page: ‘slommock’, ‘goocoo’, and ‘farterous’, to name a few beauties. In Orlam, Harvey is offering new life to a dialect that has been in decline, recording folklore, wildlife and ritual through language that will not be forgotten.

Annie Hayter is a writer and poet

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