• Alison Scott

(REVIEW) This is a Picture of Wind by JR Carpenter

Alison Scott embarks on a journey of discovery into weather histories and archives that JR Carpenter's This is a Picture of Wind (Longbarrow Press, 2020) interacts with, situating the collection both in the personal, and within broader global and socio-economic contexts: What is the relation between time and weather? What of embodiment, of the implications of text-generated weather that exists between the covers of the codex? What does textual interaction with the weather tell us about the broader climates in, and for which, they are produced?

This book has been following me around: I’ve been struggling to read it, to find the right kind of time. I learnt that ‘time’ in French is the same word used for weather. Temps. Perhaps (indulge me here) I can try out temps as an abbreviation for both, to invoke both at once. It’s been tough temps. Hard temps. In the usual (English) abbreviation, the temp. at the time of starting this writing is 10 degrees Celsius, wind speed reaching a high of 34 miles per hour. It’s October 31st, 2020, in Glasgow, Scotland. This book has been ruffling its lush viridescent leaves at me through summer, and they fall open to me only now into autumn as the wind picks up. Temps, they are a-changing: we’re coming into a/w, a season where the wind exerts itself and attempts to make itself as visible it can be. Hair begins to whirl about increasingly wildly, and weather maps gain ominous swathes of colourful spirals. This weekend saw the arrival of Storm Aiden in Scotland, while Storm Eta heads west to the Caribbean, making 2020 equal 2005 for the record number of named storms in the Atlantic.

This is a Picture of Wind by JR Carpenter is a discrete volume, self-contained in hardback with pistachio endpapers and a subtle isobar design on the cover. It also has a more unruly, earlier form as a website, where Carpenter’s descriptions of weather experienced in 2014 (as winter storms hit the South West of England) are cross-fed by weather data giving a ‘live wind report’ for the area, resulting in a complex work that is responsive to its digital context — the live and the lived colliding, a space appearing between sensing and knowing. The dynamic webpage shows a few fixed entries for each month of the year in a calendar diagram and flickering, changeable weather behind. The rhythm here is akin to the ‘daily grind’, the repeated effect of wind and rain on bodies, flora and fauna, pushing phenomenological experience to the fore.

The website, this unbound aspect of the project, is not clearly pointed to in the book until the acknowledgements page at the back — though Carpenter often makes hybrid and digital ecopoetic nature writing, so perhaps I should have realised the two were connected. In her comprehensive and expansive introduction, Johanna Drucker — who is likely best known for her work on and in digital poetics and linguistic aesthetics — sets up a reading of the book that is clearly drawn from her experience of the website. This led to slightly puzzling references to screens, grids. So to be up-front for you, online SPAM reader, here is the link to the website. For the very online among you, there is also a twitter bot that expels excerpts periodically. And perhaps I can help you picture the book here, which has been caringly published by the small, Sheffield-based, Longbarrow Press.

My slight confusion doesn’t really matter, though it led me to an idea of the book being something static, while you’re missing the action online — a neatly designed ‘download as PDF to print’ version of the website — though, of course it is more than that. If This is a Picture of Wind is a crystallisation or indeed a picture, it is the wind momentarily held solid, drawn. The book offers a compact, enclosed space: some strictures and confines to give the nebulous topic of wind and weather some walls. It has the look of a guidebook. I can imagine a reader sheltering in its pages while holed up in a storm, carrying it in a rain-soaked backpack, or even in the map pocket of a waterproof, taken out occasionally to flutter in the wind. I haven’t done any of this, deciding the book was too pristine to be handled in such a picturesque way, and subjecting it to (my) weather would be an overly affected act — a deliberate wearing-in, like when as a teenager I would try to make white trainers look more authentic by scuffing them along the road. Now, the book and the temps have caught up to me, I’ve thumbed these pages from inside, looking out the rain-streaked window of my Glasgow tenement flat.

Re-situating myself within the book itself, it’s possible to observe the weather of a year in Tottenham (after Luke Howard), Sissinghurst (after Vita Sackville-West), and Sharpham (presumably poems drawing on Carpenter’s own diary entries): places I have never been otherwise, all in deepest England, and so temps not experienced by me. The weather though, if nothing else, is relatable and enduring: this is a book for returning to old weather in new seasons. There’s something that can feel mildly revolutionary about reading yesterday’s weather rather than today’s or tomorrow’s, much as there is something similar that comes with relying on the senses — becoming your own amateur weather station — rather than the instant, centralised, big-business weather corporations. The book is a bit of a vocabulary lesson: a deluge of language used to tell of conditions sensed with eyes, ears, skin — technologies intimate, prosaic and developed. This language, always grappling with inadequacy, by abundance and concentration is forced to its visible edges, stretched, blown open — forming what Johanna Drucker calls in Carpenter’s work ‘a thick adjectival field of terms’. If not a fog, then a seductive, heavy breath: bodily, haptic. How to write wind, how to write volume, scale, impact? Addressing this in The Beaufort Poems, Carpenter uses font size to escalate descriptions of wind over several pages from still to broken; quiet to violence; flat to ruinous; a lull to a torment. This is a glossary of the wind, according to (Rear Admiral Sir) Francis Beaufort, who famously wrote a scale of wind force based on the wind’s effects on the sails of a Royal Navy frigate.

In This is a Picture of Wind there is an extreme intimacy with source material: archives and found language surface in new arrangements, alongside the author’s own accounts of the weather. Short phrases and joyfully awkward combinations hint that there is a rather direct logic of gleaning found text. Here, the ‘weather data’ rifled through encompasses relatively recent and historical appearances of the weather in writing and diaries such as Luke Howard’s and Vita Sackville West’s. The poem after Luke Howard shows the weather through the locus of sea-travel: ‘Impediments presented to navigation. A succession of heavy gales. Forty sail of vessels lying in wait’.

Luke Howard is sometimes known as ‘The Godfather of Clouds’ — an amateur meteorologist and chemist whose work ‘On the Modification of Clouds’ followed the 1800’s thirst for categorisation and classification into the realm of clouds. Another case of weather study embedded within the colonial exploits of the Enlightenment era, I wonder where these vessels were headed, what they carried: the ‘wait’ having the weight of ominous anticipation. And the body of the man emerges, in comical performance: ‘On placing a wet finger on an iron railing, it adhered strongly’. Beaufort and Howard are just two of many well-known sailer-cum-meteorologists — (Vice-Admiral) Robert Fitzroy, the founder of the MET office and famous captain of Darwin’s HMS Beagle being another — who developed technologies and enabled visualisations of the weather as a system, which in turn enabled increased safety: primarily with the aim of the smooth sailing of colonial ships, avoiding shipwreck and storms, their work leading toward contemporary forecasting and disaster prevention. If Carpenter is not overtly sympathetic nor critical toward these figures, there is a discomforting, creeping sense of whimsy. Perhaps this is inevitable given the material being so prone to cliché and gentle humour in its guise of banality and mundanity — notions that aid empathetic feeling and intimacy between proximate bodies through the page. Such moments can be both alluring and unsettling as commonality is drawn between the writer, the archive, and the self of the reader. Wind is the soft or harsh touch of weather, the breath of the dead. With the weather-reportage in the book being presented so frankly, the reader coming to it untethered from a broader context is willed to summon their own — however potted — pre-existing critical and embodied understanding: between sensing and knowing of climate and history, the space of elaboration is left to the reader.

The relentlessness shown by the historical diary entries of everyday weather, particularly that of Britain, is a shroud: generally mild, generally benign. I am reminded of a passage in Satin Island by Tom McCarthy (2015) and the thought: seeing an oil spill is not in itself the scariest bit of climate disaster; the scary bit is the smooth, ongoing, day-to-day, where nothing seems horribly wrong or terribly dangerous. In This is a Picture of Wind, the fatality, violence, chaos, and subjective crises of the weather are under the surface, somewhat muted and undramatic as they become just another November. Some of the political and historical context of the weather — and its enduring attachment to death and violence — does seep through subtly, however ‘boring’ or bland the subject might appear to be. This is a dynamic that also happens in another text drawing on weather reports: Kenneth Goldsmith’s The Weather (2005) where systematic transcription of weather reports begin to reveal a subtext to the artists’ temporal location, New York in 2005:

Oh we are looking at, uh, weather, uh, across, uh Iraq obviously here for the next several days, uh, we have, uh actually some good, good weather is expected. They did have a sandstorm here earlier, uh, over the last twelve to twenty-four hours those winds have subsided and will actually continue to subside. [1]

This kind of constructed ‘chanciness’ of the structure gives away some of the broader ‘climate’ around the writer, but the presentational mode — the endless ‘now’ — obscures much of the writer's position in its lack of expression, leaving the reader to seek small evidence of subjecthood and criticality in the editing and the very parameters that are made. Such restraint — eschewing metaphor along with description — in the context of weather perhaps enables the author to side-step romanticism: using the distance of appropriation to disconnect with tired metaphors and nineteenth century notions of the sublime. Such parameters as those employed by Carpenter are elsewhere described by Johanna Drucker as following ‘the un-creative impulse’, with Drucker drawing on terminology used by Goldsmith.[2]. As Drucker evokes, such use of found text is indeed not novel [3] but shows ‘conviction’ in its ‘striking gesture’, ‘[n]ot by being ‘new’ but by being a current, self-aware, focused on what is happening now...’

The found weather and the tone of This is a Picture... feels to me unrelentingly polite, with ‘current’ located-ness here having the feeling of a seemingly pleasant ‘Englishness’ that covers a darker or more complicated undercurrent. Poems following the weather-language from (Lady) Vita Sackville West’s diaries are centred around her famous garden: a must read for the aspiring gentile gardener. Fans of Sackville-West might keenly look out for mentions of particular plants, ‘Violet’ (one of her lovers), or hints of her more characteristically fiery love letters; others will delight with insight, knowing what she planted and when, imagining the sights, smells, touches; revelling in minor reveals of personhood that Carpenter’s phrasing draws out:

Herbs. Being great spreaders. Must be kept in check. Japanese anemones manage. In late summer. To suggest. Lightness. Breathless. I try. I fail. To plant Madonna lilies. Most dislike the movement of air.

Meanwhile, Carpenter’s own plentiful almanac-like references to sloe and bramble picking in A Year at Sharpham escape the walls of the private garden. They make me think of the popularity of wild garlic picking in April during lockdown, though presumably those foragers have now moved on to mushrooms, and bramble season is at its squidgy, shrivelled end. The lure of the almanac has hints of a bourgeois longing for some rural idyll: notions of the ‘true’ seasons in the ‘natural world’, and being ‘in tune’ with them. Balking at this is perhaps a sign of my own semi-detached attitude, or my discomfort with living in what can often still feel like an Enid Blyton state. Still, this section and the The Month Arrays — phrases for each month written with quote marks but without references — serve as ever necessary reminders to go outside, look at the sky, employ all my senses, and notice other things that sense, change, and ground. It is a call for radical locality. Carpenter applies the attentiveness of the historic accounts to her own focussed note-taking — a sort of haptic, quiet journalism — putting herself in dialogue with them and with the wind. I read of geese arriving: ‘A greater-than sign in the sky’, and superimpose an arrow in the grey sky above the tenements. I learn a trick to crack open a walnut: alas I have no walnuts to try it out on. Many people I know have told me they’ve noticed the quiet drama of the incoming autumn more this year, as meeting in parks and outdoor spaces becomes ubiquitous — especially in a generation unlikely to own a garden, never mind one like Sackville West’s. We all become phenologists, weathered bodies, studying the seasons to mark time passing: I hear on the radio, and in the park from passers by, and from my mum, that the bright leaves are due to a sunny September. [4]

Across these poems, the weather appears as a figure: a character in itself, viewed through shifting lenses. The weather is extracted from the lives it shapes, with some elements of the records resisting abstraction — tell-tale hints of tone and reference points — their motivations and broader activities glanced at, while the weather moves from background to the fore. The restraints of the book leave me wondering how fandom and critical research might conjoin, interplaying to spark the deliberate, specific choice of found text that have left me to question: why have these people in particular been singled out? This is the weather according to whom, and where is their enthusiasm placed? These are not really ‘ordinary’ people, however amateur and however familiar their weather may be. Someone has found reason for their archives to be stored, preserved, and access allowed. I have felt the tug of the weather archive, felt something of the relationships it sets up, and I sense that here: its draw, its capaciousness bound by the limits of the time you have, what you have access to, and what it yields. One wet slushy day last winter, I negotiated an unfamiliar system to access the National Archive on Princes Street in Edinburgh, glimpsed some of the personal weather diaries held within the Scottish MET office’s archive. I flicked through records in varying states of standardisation, each with their idiosyncrasies, and found myself drawn to two particular diaries: one, a weather diary of an amateur beekeeper living in Polwarth, Edinburgh during WW1, and two, a volume of notes by observers posted at the weather station on the summit of Ben Nevis between 1883 and 1894. The allure here, I think, rather than that of celebrity, comes from knowing these places, and seeing the effects of the types of weather I ‘know’ in the weather diaries, which themselves become artefacts of weather. Imagining snowflakes melting on the page while a hand wrote down figures, exposing the paper to light and moisture, to then be dried, sealed and preserved as though on ice: the empirical data inscribed with additional evidence that it witnessed that weather and time, temps, and is there to be read, to melt in the hand and seep back into the living.

There is an important question here in terms of witnessing, beyond questions of raising climate-consciousness and beyond personal voyeuristic interest in particular places and people. What happens when subjective, incomplete weather diaries are extracted into useful data by climate scientists and atmospheric researchers? I think of the seventeenth century paintings by Jacob van Ruisdaelin that have been analysed as accurate representations of the clouds of their time, by the Cabauw Experimental Site for Atmospheric Research, interviewed as part of Atmospheric Feedback Loops (2016) (see also). Similarly, in recent news Turner’s paintings have been found to evidence pollution from both the wake of the catastrophic 1815 eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia and the industrial smog that characterises his work. Where the perimeters of ‘data collection’ do not follow usual bounds, or use set instruments, or where description reigns, still might written diaries have something to contribute to an accurate picture of a changing climate, or might they offer more insightful reading in terms understanding their cultural and political ‘climate’?

Whose weather would you choose to follow, as a companion to your own? Is the archive there or not? And what would weather diaries kept by you or I reveal of us, our temps? What archive could they join? Here is a joy of Carpenter’s work: the archive being something to take forward and build upon, to re-mediate: to add to and extract from in an ultimately cumulative, pluralist endeavour. The rational, constrained locality of This is a Picture of Wind, however sense-ational, left me wanting something more of a wider world view, to escape the dream of Britain as a polite, wet and windy country — though perhaps facing this quiet storm front-on was the intent, the smothering feeling of Britain in 2020. In the realm of art and writing, this wider aspect might be found in the bodily sordidness of self-described ‘storm squatter’ George Kuchar’s Weather Diaries (1977-2011), video works made in Reno, Oklahoma in hurricane season; and I dream of the camaraderie of shared weather in Joan Jonas’ Wind, filmed on New York’s coldest day of the year in 1968, brought to mind by Carpenter’s ‘Jacket off wind. Jacket on sweat. Jacket off rain’. I might seek the clarity of Christina Sharpe’s critique of weather experienced as the wake of slavery in The Weather (2001), or the expansive lyricism of Lisa Robertson’s The Weather (2001). Something of the interconnectivity of the global system of weather and how its effects are felt beyond the local: the media that tells me that Storm Eta has now hit, with death and destruction in the Caribbean. Vahni Capildeo’s afterword ‘Where It Listeth’ is a breath of fresh air: another language comes into play, and the page must be turned on its side to read print that runs bottom to top — text full of movement and personality, arrows that point and pace. In reading This is a Picture of Wind, I wish for a departure: something that is live and breathing air, scatalogical and blowing its confines. Probably time to go outside, perform my own picture of the wind.

This is a Picture of Wind is out now and available to order from Longbarrow Press.


Text: Alison Scott

Published: 08/01/2021