Review: Orlam and I Inside The Old Year Dying by PJ Harvey

Polly Jean Harvey (2022) Orlam. London: Picador.
Harvey, PJ. (2023) I Inside The Old Year Dying. Partisan Records

.Orlam is a novel in verse by PJ Harvey that represents the first full-length book written in the Dorset dialect in over a century, though parallel translations into “book-English” can be found on facing pages, and there are also footnotes and a glossary, so that the reader does not need to be well-versed in Wessex English to be able to understand it. Her vocabulary draws upon the work of William Barnes, but while Barnes favoured plain meanings and everyday subjects, Harvey’s verse is dense, allusive and rich in symbolism, closer to the work of William Blake.

Like Barnes’s poetry, Orlam reflects the timeless nature of the Dorset countryside, though references to Gateway carrier bags and Jim’ll Fix It locate it temporally in the 1970s or early 1980s. There is nothing twee or romanticised about the portrayal of the countryside here. Death and decay are everywhere, and the album ends with the sound of buzzing air-vlees (flies).

‌The book tells the story of 9-year-old Ira-Abel Rawles, from the imaginary village of UNDERWHELEM (always written in ALL CAPS); and her ghostly (imaginary?) Christ figure Wyman-Elvis, a soldier killed in the Ransham rebellion, a fictional revolt against the English crown seemingly modelled on the Western and Pitchfork rebellions. Seeing all is the titular Orlam, the eye of a dead lamb (the Lamb of God?) that had been saved from the crows.

Harvey subsequently chose to set some of the poems to music in the album I Inside The Old Year Dying. She instinctively understands the difference between a poem and a song lyric, so the poems are often substantially rearranged. The works can be experienced independently of each other, but are best taken as a piece. The music is eerie and evocative, and rather delightfully, Harvey sings the songs in an understated Dorset accent, though without going full Wurzel. The sounds of nature, such as birdsong, fade in and out, evoking the rural setting.

Orlam and I Inside The Old Year Dying are highly recommended to readers of this blog. They carry on the legacy of Barnes and Hardy while feeling contemporary. They show that a Wessex identity need not just be a relic of the past, but can be dynamic and capable of reinventing itself. Which is what Wessex Society has been saying all along.

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