Exile and the Kingdom, whose launch coincides with the Bloomsbury festival, is my fourth collection of poems. In five different sequences, it explores pilgrimage in all its facets: spiritual, physical, emotional, psychological.
The origins of some of these poems go back decades in my own life and centuries in time. ‘Rhine Fugue’, conceived long before the Brexit vote but completed shortly before it, emerged from my love for and experience of Germany over many years. My other career, pursued in parallel with my writing, is as a teacher of German and French: the Rhineland is a home from home for me, the scene of deep friendships and profound meditations upon the rôle of that great river in shaping Europe’s destiny, for good and ill. To write this sequence, I researched the astonishing richness of early medieval Jewish culture in the imperial city of Worms; the epic night crossing of the Rhine by Blücher’s army on his way to defeat Napoleon at Waterloo; and the printing of William Tyndale’s revolutionary translations of the New Testament and their clandestine shipment down the Rhine to England, hidden in bales of wool.
But the pilgrimage is also personal: ‘In the Valley of the Lot’ traces the journey my husband, the poet Sebastian Barker, and I made when he was suddenly diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 2013. It charts love, loss, grief, pain, and redemption from death in a way which I hope many will recognize. ‘Songs from the Lea Valley’ sing of a homeland, the homeland which this little-known part of East London where I live has represented for so many communities, cultures, faiths and languages even since before historical records began.
Finally, pilgrimage is again evoked in ‘Across Country’ which is what the word originally in fact means. These poems and those which give the book its title, ‘Exile and the Kingdom’ both chart the complexities, miracles and hardships of the road towards faith in a world which so often denies the possibility of the spiritual life.
Hilary will be taking part in What Lies Beneath The Verse at our literature festival Between the Lines, taking place at Goodenough College on Sunday 23 October. More info.