PJ Harvey: Dark World of Orlam Comes To Life At Leeds Assembly House
“I see myself as a maker. I’m somebody who creates things.”
This is how PJ Harvey describes herself to poet Ian Dunhig and the audience at the Assembly House, where she finds herself on night two of her book tour. The groundbreaking two-time Mercury prize winning musician released her poetry
collection 'Orlam’ earlier this year- a fantastical and dark quasi-mystical narrative which she performs readings from and discusses in depth during the hour-long show.
Whilst this is not Harvey’s first foray into poetry, it is certainly her most ambitious and realised written project to date. As she outlines the premise of ‘Orlam’ for those who may not have read it yet, we get a sense of an
astoundingly detailed world-building in the descriptions of the land and creatures of Gore Woods and Underwhelm. With the story encased in a twelve-month structure, the magnitude of depth and breadth involved in this project is admirable. How did she achieve such a thing, one wonders?
Six years of work is the answer.
Harvey is nothing if not driven and invested. Discussing the origins of the project, she takes us all the way back to the beginning of her tutelage in the poetic form, outlining the various courses, mentorships, and schoolings she
undertook (including the Faber Academy). Her literary inspirations stretch from Geoffrey Hill to William Blake, whose talent she gushes over, expressing a hungered desire to unlock that skill within herself. Although she describes a project as coming to her ‘like a calling’, it is clear that this is no flight of fancy on some sudden inspiration. When she ran with it, she ran devotedly. We are left in no denial of how much caring and careful work she invests into her creations.
One of those areas of great attentiveness, and one of the most distinctive stylistic elements of ‘Orlam’, is her use of the Dorset dialect. She speaks with great passion about learning the vernacular, and moreover, the importance of
keeping the old local tongue alive. When performing her pieces, the translation into everyday English is cast behind her, helping the audience to understand words like twanketen (melancholy) and drisk (rain-mist). Yet as she reads from
the original provincial version, it feels as if the casted translations fall flat compared to the vivacity and character of the dialectical poetry.
Perhaps it is her performance of these pieces that allows this character to truly shine. As expected from such a famously energetic live act, Harvey throws herself whole-heartedly into every role, manipulating her voice with
bewitching ease. She screeches, wails, whispers, sings, and broadens her accent into a burr so natural-sounding that you almost forget it isn’t her voice. These readings are accompanied by a soundtrack of atmospheric noises, from the creaking of floorboards to the ominous murmur of woodland winds. The effect is spell-binding, with the audience hanging onto her every word like little children desperate for the bedtime stories to never end.
Both sets of readings that book-end the evening showcase her strong range, allowing us to hear a handful of pieces from every month in the collection’s calendar. There’s a devilish humour to her crude rewriting of the Lord’s Prayer
and the tongue-in-cheek ‘Slommocky Vess’y’, whilst the Love Me Tender motif carried through the collection brings chills in a mixture of fear and sadness each time it reappears. It’s clear that Harvey shouldn’t be pigeon-holed as ‘just’ anything, whether that’s in voice or medium.
The upcoming hardback edition of ‘Orlam’ is set to include artworks by Harvey, images of which float by on-screen as she talks with Dunhig. When asked about the drawings, she tells Dunhig “I never knew which art I was going to go into, drawing or writing or singing … I just knew that creating was the best way to express myself’. Dunhig asks why she never showed her art until now, and she explains that she’s only just at an age where she feels comfortable not being incredible at something. ‘I realised I didn’t have to be the best artist in the world to show people my drawings’ she says. It’s a simple but profound musing on artistic vulnerability – a message to go forth and create, no matter if it’s good or bad, and no matter what people think.
Polly-Jean leaves the stage to raptures of applause, having held the room in the palm of her hand from the minute she entered. All leave enchanted, bubbling with the twinkle-eyed tease Harvey offers of potential music and even – fingers
crossed, she says – on-screen adaptations to come. It’s an evening that even more concretely affirms Harvey’s position as one of the country’s most interesting and individual creative forces.
Words: Jasmine Gibbs
Image credit: Steve Gullick