Fearless Creating by Eric Maisel (Tarcher Putnam 1995)
At the Poetry Business Writing Day yesterday I was talking to the wonderfully talented Laura Potts about how, when we don’t have the opportunity to write, our anxiety levels soar. I thought back to Eric Maisel’s book, Fearless Creating (above). It’s a while since I’ve read it, but he’s very insightful on the tension between working and not working. I’ve just dug out the book from my very disordered bookshelf, opened it at random and found this:
Is it honourable to say ‘no’ to the work? Yes! Is it vital to say ‘no’ to the work? Yes! Is it permitted to sit in the sun and sip a soda and not feel guilty about not working? Yes! Is it right to say ‘no’ to the work when you hear your child crying, when your loved one wants a hug, when your day…
Growing deaf is hard to explain. Harder than explaining failing eyesight, which you can demonstrate, with a picture. I’m reminded, too, that some eye conditions might account for the spectacular success of some painters. There’s a fascinating book by the ophthalmologist Patrick Trevor-Roper: The world through blunted sight ; first published in 1970, it presents a fascinating study of the work of painters, sculptors, poets and prose writers throughout history. Was Impressionism born of a generation of short-sighted artists? Was Constable’s fondness for autumnal tints due to colour blindness? Did Modigliani actually see his nudes as unnaturally elongated through distorted sight? Leonardo, Rembrandt and Titian all suffered from increasing long-sightedness in old age – is this the cause of the loss of detail in their later paintings?
And so on. I get that, but I’ve never understood how Beethoven coped with being deaf.
Having lost about 50% of my hearing, even with hearing aids, there’s a lot of music I can’t listen to because I’ve lost all the top end (which makes the sublime Everley Brothers sound as though they’re singing flat), and being in a pub for a reading can produce a sound effect in which all the individual sounds claim equal value and lose their relative depths and distances…the sound equivalent, I suppose, of an out of focus image, which can be quite pretty until the image you’re looking at is print.
Where’s this all going? In December, I was on a writing weekend, with readings from extremely gifted poets in the evenings. It may have had something to do with the room, which was very large, but I found I could hear them only in the way I can see that grey image that I think may be about multiple choices. I heard them, but couldn’t listen to them, because listening implies you’re making sense of what you hear.
Now, where was I? There’s been a three hour interval while I loaded a futon mattress into the car, got the firewood in and went to a cold rugby match. All of which I enjoyed. A chap can lose track. Ah, yes..hearing (listening later, that was it).I’ve been to several readings since the start of December, and what I especially liked about them was that I could hear the poems. It was nothing to do with the mic being set right. It was all about the the readers and their delivery, which was so clean and clear I could do without hearing aids. One reader was Julia Deakin, who is always accurate, distinct. One was Tom Weir (twice) who read quietly, but always with that concern for the heft and texture of the words, who, like Julia, tastes the consonants that matter, and also, like her, reads with a rhythm that falls on the key words, so sound never displaces meaning, never over-rides the syntax and the sense, and lets the words have their surrounding silent space, which is the aural equivalent of white space on the page. And one poet was today’s guest, Emma Storr, who I’d never heard reading before and who was a revelation. We all know poets, some of them famous, who simply can’t read like that. I wish they’d make the effort. It’s not about theatricality, or volume or elocution. It’s about diction and a concentration on the meaning of the words they say. Thank you Tom and Julia for letting me hear the poems, and thanks to both of them for respectively guesting at the last session of The Puzzle Poets Live (at The Shepherds Rest) and at the first of a new venue which we hope will now be our permanent home..The Navigation in Sowerby Bridge. And so to our guest.
Emma is a member of Leeds Writers Circle and has a background in medicine and teaching but is now turning her attention to poetry. She recently completed an MPhil in Writing from the University of South Wales. Her poems have been published in The Hippocrates Prize Anthologies of 2016 and 2018 and Strix Nos. 2, 3 & 4. Emma is currently putting together a collection that celebrates the extraordinary workings of the body. It will be published before very long by the estimable Calder Valley Poetry. Look out for it. She enjoys the challenge of using her scientific knowledge and medical experience in lyrical ways to create different voices and styles.
I remember saying at her reading that all doctors would benefit from a thorough immersion in poetry, in writing it, in developing the empathy, the imaginative reach for the other that it demands. I guess that’s because I’ve occasionally encountered the opposite…like the surgeon who breezed past my hospital bed one Monday morning, saying airily, en passant, good, good, everything normal. I was guilty of losing my rag. ‘Normal! Normal? It’s not ****ing normal’. He was torn between being haughtily cross and being taken aback. The junior doctors all looked shocked/worried. I told him that it might be a normal day for him, and that I respected his professional skill, but I’d be grateful if he respected mine. My specialism was language and communication, I told him, and when you have been sliced open from groin to sternum and then put back together with 30 staples, and you haven’t had any solid food for over a week, and you are in some pain ‘normal’ didn’t do it. And so on. To be fair, we got on pretty well subsequently, but it was partly why my heart sang when Emma read this first poem.
What struck me was the calm objectivity of the voice, the way the poet/doctor dissected her own response to the shock that the first line delivers in its matter-of-fact way. There’s something particularly unnerving about the phrase ‘half her face’. It’s a phantom of the opera moment, except that it ‘opened a warm cavern in her head’. That ‘warm’ is beautifully juxtaposed with the the only previous reference point of
‘those rigid plastic models / we’d studied in anatomy
and having no resource but to pretend this is ‘normal’, to say ‘all seemed well’, to ask ‘how do you feel?’. It’s a poem about the falling short of language and of emotional resource. I thought it was special. It illustrates the difference between hearing and listening, and the way the latter means you not only have to imagine who you’re talking to but to imagine who you are at the same time. I love its emotional honesty and the way it’s contained in those calm-seeming couplets. People aren’t customers or clients. They aren’t diagrams. No wonder her poems have appeared in the Hippocrates Prize anthologies.
Which brings us neatly to the next two poems. (I should say that I’ve been driven nuts by WordPress’ way with lineation, and have, in desperation, overcome it by taking screenshots of the word documents. It keeps the shape and loses the clarity. We’ll get there in the end. bear with me. It was unavoidable with these two that rely totally on the way the words sit on the page.)
I’m not normally a fan of poems that play about with shape, but sometimes it’s exactly the right thing to do, as in this loving engagement with someone known who is being changed by (I take it) dementia. I like the fracture of ‘fractions’. the lengthening of ‘long division’ , the unnerving reversal of east and west, that loss of spatial compass, and the heartbreak of home hiding round corners.. I like the next poem, too
I like the visual trick that gives the text the shape of a helix, and how that tells me the rightness of the business of cell division and destruction. I like the way it steps down the page, and I like the way it made me look at and see the back of my hand (which we’re supposed to know absolutely better than anything) in a different light.
Just one more poem, that might usefully be handed out to every new doctor in training. One of my grandsons is just coming to the end of his seven years’ hard of exams and hospital placements..I think I’ll send it to him and see what he thinks.
It’s one of those poems when I want to say to the poet: don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s all very well to point fingers and say Physician, heal thyself..But if you make a mistake, how do you live with it and yourself. This poem catches, in its looping repetitions, that failure to get a sense of shame or guiltiness out of your mind, how it circles and repeats I didn’t think when I told you.
In its plainness it refuses to make excuses. It seems so baldly simple, because that’s what the truth is. So there we are. Thank you Emma Storr for the honesty and accuracy of these poems you’ve shared that tell us all we need to listen better. I’m looking forward to the collection. Please come again.
Here we are with the first guest poet of 2019, and I’m hunting for a hook. Which turns out to be the business of the hopefulness at the start of any new year. I suppose for a lot of us who write poetry it’s the firm intention to write better this year, to send out all those poems we’ve been sitting on and humming and hawing about, and, if you’re like me, checking out the plethora of competitions that seem to come swarming around now. You might be lighting a candle for the ones you sent in for the National (which is the poetry equivalent of the Lottery double roll-over; spare a thought for Kim Moore lying on her sofa…she notes in her latest blog post that she has 9,500 poems to read through before sending in her choices for the long-list). Or you may, like me, be checking out Poets and Players or the Kent and Sussex, or Prole or York Mix……the list stretches out like Macbeth’s line of taunting kings. As regular readers know, I’m a sucker for competitions. I like the tingle. And I’ve been lucky, but it’s worth recording one illusion I was under at one time. I thought if I won a big competition, the world of poetry would beat a path to my door. It doesn’t. Basically, if you want to make a mark (which significantly, I haven’t) you have to keep on writing and working and submitting and begging for readings, and networking like crazy. The company you keep is important, but no-one owes you a living. You get the days of euphoria, and then it’s back to earth.
On the other hand, if I’d never entered and won a competition I’d never have met today’s guest who was a joint winner in 2016 of the Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition. And if I hadn’t, my life would have been the poorer. And after the most contrived hook/intro in the history of the cobweb, let’s welcome Stephanie Conn.
Stephanie launched her debut collection, ‘The Woman on the Other Side’ with Doire Press in March 2016 and, having been selected by Billy Collins as one of the winners of the Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition, three months later she launched her pamphlet, ‘Copeland’s Daughter’.
Between 2010 and 2013, she completed a part-time MA in Creative Writing under the tuition of Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian, Leontia Flynn and Sinead Morrissey.
During this period, her poems were being published more regularly and in 2012, she was shortlisted for the Patrick Kavanagh Award and highly commended in the Doire Press Poetry Chapbook and Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet competitions. The following year she was selected for Poetry Ireland’s Introductions Series.
Diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, she says she felt stripped of her identity. There were so many things she could no longer do but she could still write and now had the chance to commit fully to it.
She began to arrange a full manuscript, submitted ‘The Woman on the Other Side’ to Doire Press and was thrilled when they accepted the collection. In 2015, as well as being highly commended in the Gregory O’Donoghue Poetry Competition and coming third in the Dromineer Poetry Competition, she won the Yeovil Poetry Prize, the Funeral Services NI Poetry Prize and the inaugural Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing.
By the time Doire Press had decided to publish ‘The Woman on the Other Side’, she was already busy with new work. She received an Artists Career Enhancement Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to research and begin writing her second collection, Copelands Daughter inspired by her ancestors who lived on a small island in the Irish Sea. It was a selection of these new poems that became a joint winner of the Poetry Business Pamphlet competition, after which she was giving readings and facilitating workshops, and then heading to the other side of the world for the Tasmania Poetry Festival .
There’s a c.v. to make you sit up! As I’ve said,I met Stephanie for the first time in Grasmere at the Wordsworth Trust… the prize-giving ceremony for the Poetry Business Pamphlet competition winners. She read from her pamphlet Copeland’s daughter, and blew me away. The Copelands are a small group of islands of the coast of Northern Ireland, and the poems tell tell the story of her ancestors who lived and farmed and fished there, until they were forced to leave, like so many who have struggled on poor land and in hard weathers, like the ones forced from Mingulay, from the Blasketts, the Shiants, St Kilda. So many. These poems ticked so many boxes for me. And she read with a passion, and a clarity.
I was sold from the very first poem:
The first lighthouse…Cross Island 1714.
A lighthouse in ‘these twenty acres’ that ‘never did attract the sun’
‘three storeys of island-quarried stone, picked
and carried on the convicts’ backs.
They built the wall two metres thick’
Billy Collins wrote of this poem: “The First Lighthouse” should be read in every classroom. I know what he means. It has the same kind of heft that I love in Christy Ducker’s work…coincidentally, in Skipper, the core of which is a sequence about poems about small islands , The Farnes, and the story of their lighthouse, and of Grace Darling.
Of Stephanie’s writing Collins says :
Precise description rendered in physical language lifts these poems off the page and into the sensory ken of the reader.
This, the first poem of Copelands Daughter, shows you just what he meant
We are cut off from the mainland again;
a pile of unopened letters sits in Donaghadee;
there is flour and salt and treacle in the grocer’s,
bags of coal and paraffin to fill the empty tins,
but the boat keeps close to the harbour wall.
Tide in, tide out and the beam of light,
and a distant moon – waxing and waning.
Still, the bread is baked and the butter churned,
the blocken cured and the rabbits trapped,
mussels are plucked from the island pools
and pickled in jars on larder shelves.
The firewood and driftwood is stacked.
Tide in, tide out and the beam of light,
and a distant moon – waxing and waning.
Inside the lamps are lit and curtains pulled,
while out at sea, the wind and waves confront
each other in torrents of eddies and pools
and the gulls circling above the spume
could be vultures in the thick sea-mist.
Tide in, tide out and the beam of light,
and a distant moon – waxing and waning.
But we know what the darkness brings;
it drags us from sleep into nightmare, lost in fog
we’ll be struck by ship after floundering ship;
forced into the driving rain, where muffled voices call
from their wreck. We’ll run to the shore to save all we can.
Tide in, tide out and the beam of light,
and a distant moon – waxing and waning.
In a place such as this, we are used to the ghosts,
but not to their dying; never to the bodies of young men
washed up on the shore, with their puffed up faces
and gaping sockets where the eyes should be; or the tiny crab
emerging from a silenced mouth to scurry, ever sideways.
What I really like about this is the side-by-side-ness of the routine management of household comforts, the self-sufficiencies when the boat can’t come from the mainland, the security of a storm bound house….and the way the ghosts of the drowned will find their way in, one way or another. For me, the poem turns on one plain observation that make me re-evaluate everything I’ve just read.
In a place such as this, we are used to the ghosts,
but not to their dying
Well, that was in July 2016; now it’s time for her to bring us up to date. Here she is:
“Once I returned home from Tasmania it was back to the work of writing. The research and writing on the Copeland Island built and it soon became obvious that a full collection would need to follow the pamphlet – there was more to say!
When you’re busy writing away and developing new work in isolation it is wonderful to get a little boost along the way. It helps keep you buoyant. So, it was wonderful to learn that my first collection ‘The Woman on the Other Side’ had made the shortlist of three for the Best First Collection in Ireland’s Shine/Strong Award 2016.
‘Island’ builds on and includes some of the poems from Copeland’s Daughter but moves beyond the tiny island of my ancestor’s to Ireland’s coasts – north and south. It was published by Doire Press in March 2018 and launched in Belfast in April.
In the lead up to the launch, I was busy with promotional work and interviews, and afterwards hit the road with fellow Doire-Press author, Rosemary Jenkinson, for a cross-border reading tour ‘Island Secrets, Urban Lies’ which was great fun. Most recently, we made the journey to Clare Island off the West Coast of Ireland as part of the Westport Literary Festival.
There are lots of photos of our travels on the ‘Events’ section of my website.
So much of a writer’s life is spent hidden away that it is always a delight to work with other poets and have the opportunity to contribute to anthologies and get involved in collaborations such as the Beautiful Dragons Collaboration, Metamorphic: 21st Century Poets Respond to Ovid and most recently, the Aldeburgh Collaborative, alongside other ‘Coast to Coast’ writers.
I continue to send work out to poetry journals and this year I’ve had new poems published in Poetry Ireland Review, The North, Iota, Southword, The Open Ear, Banshee, Bangor Literary Journal, Honest Ulsterman, Ofi Press, Poetry Salzburg Review, The Tangerine, Coast to Coast, Stony Thursday Book, Interpreters House and The Pickled Body.
In September, I started a full-time PhD by practice in Creative Writing at the University of Ulster. I’m working on a new poetry collection inspired by my own experiences of living with an invisible, chronic illness, as well as looking at the experiences and work of other creatives and public figures. This creative works sits alongside a critical examination of contemporary poetry of illness. That will keep me busy for the next three years, at least!
I love that….knowing where you are and where you’re heading. I’ll keep that like a small lamp to light my way into 2019. Right. Time for the poems.
And also, of course, because it illustrates what Billy Collins said about her poetry: Precise description rendered in physical language lifts these poems off the page and into the sensory ken of the reader.
She sits by the split cottage door knitting
a navy sweater on five thin needles –
seamless, to resist salt water, biting
winds, the neck tight enough to make ears bleed,
no swell wild enough to strip it from skin.
She knows the pattern by heart, each bobble
stitch is a prayer, each basket weave a hymn
to the deep. She ignores the new grumble
from her swollen belly, thinks of the dropped
stitch above the waist, a small gap in wool
to identify the man she loved – loves.
His worn boat has not been seen for days, caught,
perhaps, on some other island’s rocks. Still
time to return before the next storm hits.
You have to remember that a fisherman’s jumper needed a code knitted into the pattern; a fisherman gone over the side in a big sea or a sudden swing of a sail might not be recovered for days, carried miles by currents and tides, preyed on by fish and crabs. That jumper would identify the body, say where he came from. So every stitch becomes a naming and a prayer. What I like especially about this poem, apart from its empathy, its imaginative engagement, is the textures, and especially, the craft of the line endings. Exact and sure-footed. Lovely
I chose the next poem because it puzzles me and bothers me, because I can’t quite work out who’s talking to me. It’s magical; it asks for a sort of leap of faith. (it also asks for something WordPress is steadfastly refusing to do, which is to recognise stanza breaks. You’ll have to visualise them in this poem of five 4-line stanzas. My apologies)
The Saline Scent of Home
They said it was here; buried before my birth.
I had no reason to doubt them. Besides, I loved belief.
That, and myth. I could almost see it through their lens,
their open window, doorway frames, the rusted locks
but this door never did lead to the beach, not once,
and the marram grass I feel scratch at my soles
never did take root. I am both fish and toad, and neither,
turquoise and aquamarine, gills flapping, mouth closed.
I must hold my breath long enough to descend
to that air-pocket place of half-dream, and blink twice,
must look myself in the eye for the second time,
note the tint of iris, grown strange, the pupil’s pulse.
My eyes are clear, like the sea, and blue is an illusion.
The mirror’s frame is tarnished gold, layers of nacre
glint in curved drops, collapse distance. The folds
of my dress gather at my feet as liquid charcoal.
I hear an underwater echo of wood on water,
the flat slap of paddle and the time rushing in,
knowing I have not captured the moment on film,
knowing there is no time lapse of woman becoming shell.
The puzzle starts in the first line. They said it was here What is it, this it? It does a lot of work, that small pronoun. And who are they who I had no reason to doubt? Everything in this poem is dubious, the door never did lead to the beach, things are almost seen at best. Everything is fluid, everything shape shifts, the mirror distorts. It’s a dreamworld of illusion, with the strange clarity and reality of dreams. That last line is a shock, because despite the layers of nacre that shell is unexpected and unexplained. The whole poem is a moment that draws you in and keeps you there. Wherever ‘in’ might be.
One more poem to end with. Another abandoned place but more obviously rooted in a physical place I imagine I could visit, though without this poem I would not know its meaning or its histories. The voice of it reminds me of the poems I tried to write about Clearance villages on Skye, the way I wanted them to be something they may not have been. I longed, like the poet, to feel gothic. (by the way, there are no stanza breaks to imagine)
May flowers are still in bloom by the hazel wood.
You stay to breathe in their bruised sweetness;
I walk away to all that remains of the walled
garden, rest my back against quarried stone.
All this belongs to us now. The grand house
is gone, its slender turrets forgotten –
nothing could be done. I’d love to see
its empty rooms, stripped floorboards,
an open door, but there is only fern and moss,
a rectangle of cut grass. I long to feel gothic.
Scrabo Hill rises behind me. We have strolled
the tree-sheltered track, looked back over
the patchwork slide of farmed land, kissed
at the summit. You once turned a leaf
to reveal three types of caterpillar: Grayling,
Barred Umber, Nut-tree Tussock. I wondered
if we’d see them morph into butterflies.
Today there are none. We are too far
from bark and the magic’s wearing thin.
I never wished for wings, prefer the certainty
of black dolerite, sandstone, agglomerate.
This is the only thing I cannot bear to lose.
I steady myself. Prepare to break it.
So there we are. What a great way to start 2019. Thank you Stephanie Conn. May the next three years be as productive as the last.
Is there a book that you’d run into a burning house to save? I think this might just be the one I’d choose. If I could have more, along with Middlemarch I’d probably choose Riddley Walker.
I go on writing short posts about this time of year, because Russell Hoban changed the way I think about the world. It started when I met him at a NATE Conference some time in the 1970s. Breakfast. He was smoking roll-ups, Old Holborn, and eating All-Bran, was Mr Hoban. He was fulminating about the teachers in his writers workshop who had asked if they could have a coffee break. “What do they think writing’s about…a leisure pursuit?”…I’m paraphrasing. He was wonderful company.
Will Self wrote a tribute to him in 2011, the year he died, the 25th anniversary of the publication of Riddley Walker, which I go on arguing is one of the great novels of the 20th C.
A few years ago, charged with writing a new introduction to a 25th-anniversary edition of Riddley Walker, I called the author, Russell Hoban, at his behest. A frail-sounding voice answered the phone, and when I explained who I was, Hoban fluted: “Would you mind calling back in half an hour or so? My wife and I are about to watch Sex and the City.” I put the receiver down chastened: here was a man in his 80s who had more joie de vivre than I could muster in hale middle age.
After I met him, I discovered The Mouse and his Child. I’ve read it dozens of times, often when life feels unbearably bleak. It never fails to relight your faith in the human condition and the power of hope combined with love and endurance. It’s a story of a quest for self-winding, undertaken by a clockwork mouse and his child. You’d think it would be twee and sentimental. It isn’t. It’s profound, layered. Magic realism doesn’t do it justice. It sits very comfortably (or uncomfortably) alongside Angela Carter’s The magic toyshop. Saved by a tramp from the dustbin (where they’ve been thrown after being broken by a cat) they’re sort-of-mended and wound up, set down on the road and left to find their destiny. Just buy it and read it. Your life will be better.
You may even find yourself, as we did, collecting wind-up toys and bringing them out every Christmas. You might even find yourself making special boxes for them. And writing poems. So here we are, taking down the Christmas tree and the angels and lights and tinsels, and maybe lighting a candle for Russell Hoban and for the Mouse and his Child. Happy New Year
lifted on the stroke of midnight
on some special Eve,
midsummer, say, or Christmas.
Then, it’s said that stones, or foxes,
trees, or owls can speak.
Or toys piled pell-mell in boxes
kept in lofts, in attic cupboards,
and things that hang in Christmas trees,
like fairies, snowmen, angels,
and wind-up clockwork toys.
What is it, do you think, they say
just once a year, just for one day?
The dark that lasts all year,
the silent dust that settlesclogs their tongues.
In truth, they’re mad as stones
and deaf as owls. They’re let to speak.
Have forgotten how, and what, to say;
stay silent till Twelfth Night
and then, once more, are put away.
(But actually, I do believe they are articulate, fluent, funny, wise and occasionally as cross as Russell Hoban could be. I believe they will become self-winding and live rich and loving lives)
(and once more, WordPress defeats me. The poem is in couplets. Visualise it in couplets, hear the line breaks)
You used to say there was magic in these stairs—
pistons turning, hammers getting to work,
springs being fixed onto the wings of birds.
I used to tiptoe because, under my feet,
there were clouds about to burst
and one night I dreamt I stamped so hard
rain fell and buried the village like Pompeii.
I still remember the step that kept
all the loose bits of storm, the one where trams
and buses went to be repaired
and the one that held curfews like ice about to break.
You used to say if we opened them up
we’d see men throwing wood onto the sun,
find out where waterfalls began,
but this chill has nothing to do with water.
Why did you never tell me about the one
that hid black ice? Or this one that sinks
under me now like a landmine, leaves me frozen
while everyone else carries on up to your room
to say goodbye and I cannot move?
Part of the magic of this poem, for me, is the way it understands how children imagine, how they are formed by chance encounters and stories whose tellers never imagined the impact they might have, and how our childhood is carried in us, and how we can be startled back into it, and in some ways become as powerless as a child. The framing narrative is kept implicit..you used to say …. these stairs …everyone else…..your room.The detail is kept for the stories of each tread, the fabulous tales told to a child who will never forget them. And then there’s the power of the image of one rooted to the foot of a staircase and its narrowing closed off perspective. I love the way poem pivots on that one line .why did you never tell me? In its control and contained love and grief it does everything I want in a poem. Lovely
Finally, a poem about friendship to finish what, out there, in what politicianns like to call “the real world” , has been a horrible year. Thank you to all the poets who have been guests on the cobweb this year, and constantly reminded me that what survives of us is love.
The Night Surveyor: Dartington Gardens
(For Ben Okri)
After the farewell party we grabbed a bottle
and, on your suggestion, headed into the gardens,
pitch dark, rustling leaves, I don’t know how many came.
Giggling, without a torch we found the Tiltyard,
above us Cassiopeia, a slumped Great Bear.
Now be our night surveyor you said.
I declared to the six (or were there seven?):
‘The Cypress is twenty metres from the twelfth Apostle;
the fountain, two chains, fifteen eleven
Starlit dunes of Devon fields gleamed above trees
as we crossed silvered lawns and I announced:
we are four hundred feet above the sea
then led them up endless steps, finding risers with gentle kicks.
There’s this place of seven echoessomeone whispered
someone counter-whispered: No there’s only six.
Full fathom five.. I shouted from the bastion.
No please not that one surveyor you murmured,
O trees of dark coral made? – ‘No try something else.
Some bow or brooch or braid or brace, lace, latch or catch…
No echo but a leaden voice climbed inside my ear.
Over Staverton, or Berry Pomeroy’s lowly thatch
hung Jupiter, no Venus, or was it Mars?
One shouted: I embrace the universal me,
voice cracked and small beneath shades and stars.
Two melted into trees: We remaining passed round wine.
The town below lolled in sodium as if bathing
and you yawned Get us back surveyor, I think it’s time.
I counted steps. Shadows rose and fell in bands.
Feeling for damp and stone, plotting silhouettes
and shadows, gradually we became a chain of hands.
I really like the filmic quality of this, a film by Peter Greenaway…the draughtsman’s contract. The story of the bunch of tipsy chums stumbling around in the dark under a huge starlit sky, stumbling over silvered lawns, declaiming of bits of Shakespeare, the absurdity of it that gradually comes to its senses, and back to earth as The town below lolled in sodium. I love the way the declaiming poet comes back to the role of the measuring and sensible surveyor and the group of friends who became a chain of hands. The whole thing is witty, elegantly constructed, and ultimately life-affirming, lyrical and loving.
So there we are. Thank you to all the cobweb guest poets of 2018. I hope you all have a happy and successful 2019.
Why not make a start by submitting your poems about food, or food related poems, or poems with taste and flavour and possibly a recipe for a better world to The Fenland Reed. It’s a handsome journal edited by lovely folk. Go on. You know you should.
There’s a lot of ice (and also stars, and milk and fire) in Gaia’s poems ; there’s even an Ice Hotel in one collection. There’s the cold of loneliness and love gone wrong, and broken things that might be hearts or dreams which make you think twice about walking in bare feet. There’s the orphan voice of a narrator who sees things that no-one seems to notice her seeing. So I think this poem is a perfect choice for Boxing Day 2018.
The Allure Of Frost Boxing day. No fire in the grate and unopened presents stacked around the base of the tree and fairy lights muted, switched off, and the brandy that swells the fruit starting to eat the cake in its tin and all the mirrors doused with tea towels and your raw-eyed mother keening into a pillow in her bedroom and too many men in black whispering and nodding and I don’t know what the rosary is and whether to curtsey to the priests when I hand them their tea and the phrase ‘fruits of thy womb’ seem too ripe and too rich for this and, Mary mother of God, I don’t know how to cross myself and fear I’m invoking the devil and the scent of death’s so thick that it’s tainted the water and it’s heavy in the curtains making them bend the rail and your lips taste of the oils that grease your dead sister and when I kiss you, you push me away and I want to spit and weep and slap the corpse where she lies in her coffin all done-up with hair grips and lipstick, her sunken cheeks plumped out with wads of cotton wool and the rictus of sin softened by the crust of Rimmel Natural Beige powdering her face and it’s so hot in here that the cheese is sweating and the butter is liquid. The chocolate coins are dripping from the tree. Your Aunt’s un-bitten sandwiches are curling upwards on her plate and the lilies are wilting and stinking in their vases and the cat stands quivering and retching against the cold crack beneath the back door. Outside the frost, not knowing any difference, continues to sparkle. And I’d like to go out there. I’d like to stand in it until my feet turn blue.
I think this has everything in it that I think of as a Gaia Holmes poem. The piling on and on of sensory detail, the Alice in Wonderland sense that the logic of things is wrong; the wistfulness, the vulnerablity, and the pluck of a girl who will stand in a sparkling frost till her feet turn blue and the world becomes real again. It also has the undertow of of a diffuse guilt about religious uncertainty (which resurfaces in The Lord’s Prayer, a poem with a sting in its tail)
and I don’t know what the rosary is ……..and, Mary mother of God, I don’t know how to cross myself
(apologies, in advance. Pauline’s poem is in four line stanzas. WordPress is defying all my efforts at keeping the double spaces. Forgive me)
the slippery-slidey look you almost saw,
One of those things that just stick, and seemed to me to catch a quality that I like in Pauline’s writing. A sideways look can be suspicious. It can be cautious or secretive. It’s the quality of noticing that seems to come with a withheld comment. And it also suggests to me the things accidentally seen, that come without the filter of expectation, as though seen for the first time. Think of walking through a city street and suddenly seeing your reflection in a shop window, that elderly/dishevelled/comic/clumsy/ill-dressed you who can’t possibly be you, that isn’t you looking as you imagine you’re seen, but as you actually are in that split second. The you a dark watcher would see, and withhold judgement, but be thinking it anyway. A sideways look sees something on the periphery, and brings it to the centre.
I wanted out of childhood,
away from unexplained asides,
the slippery-slidey look you almost saw,
the put that lip away you, now.
It seemed to me that film stars had it sussed,
always smiling satisfied, grown-up smiles.
I wondered how they did it, how they fixed that grin.
My plan was to look like that, and so I thought
if I wedged my pillows high behind me,
tightened the sheet over the blanket,
sat bolt upright, hands good-girl folded,
and fell asleep with a smile as wide as the sea
then my smile would last forever,
fixed in perpetuity.
You can take that look off your face
But, no, I can’t. I can’t.
I like the sure-footedness of this poem, its clarity, the iambic ease of it. It never misses a beat. And I especially like the ambiguity…or do I mean ambivalence? I like the observation of the way that children find adults puzzling, hard to read, but suspecting that somehow they have spotted a transgression that was never intended in a look you almost saw. The strategy of sitting bolt upright with a fixed smile that will ‘stay’ and make a film star of you is beautifully surprising, and I love the doubleness of the italicised ending, which may declare a ruefulness or a defiance. Maybe that I can’t is really an I can’t, because it isn’t in me. Nailed it.
Widow-black and winter, evening took me south into
lamps burning blue in the dusk. Out and over my hometown musk
lay the hinterland hills breathing low in the dark. Still,
frostspark sharp on the city streets, holy rain sweet
in the winter and the wet, with no evening stars ahead I let
the pavement take me home. Through the town nocturnal, gloam
and grey, my chimney throat coughing its smoke, I saw aslope
on the city’s slow spine those old black gates, the summer of my days
inside. Grief cracked my face. Those navy girls and me, a pace
always ahead. But in the pale stairwell light the ghost of my girlhood dead
in its fresh green spring and gone. From roadside wet I looked on
at this child of light, her afterglow bright, her ashes of life
already black. The cold breath of loss on my face. At my back
a schoolbell cracked at the evening air. I saw Death at my table there
tipping his hat, and the years in my face that sank as I sat
at that desk at the back of the class. I remember that. And last,
on an old December evening, down hallways dark the wilting hymns
of girls turned ghosts before their time, I saw their eyes
like candles cold, like lights no longer leading home. Outside, to the bone
I shook and swung, the darkened seas that were my eyes done
and gone at the sight of myself. Each girl ringing her own passing bell.
Well, in that mist and half-dark morning, my face a clenching fist
in pavement pools, I saw that septic, terminal school for what it was.
I never went back, of course. I tipped my compass north.
The first time I heard this poem, I wanted to see it on the page. You need to hear it first, and then you need to have it in front of you, so you can read it aloud and try its syntax and rich texture on the tongue. I love the way it starts, in a landscape realised like an Atkinson Grimshaw painting (which is why I chose one). I love the persona of the narrator, a dark watcher who puts me in mind of others, like Jane Eyre, Mary Lennox, and of Stephen Dedalus, the ones who examine their isolation, or alienation, and square their shoulders, and become resolute. As she watches her own ghost with a mixture of pity and a huge sense of loss, of being cast adrift, the clenched fist of a face fighting back tears becomes the clenched fist of defiance. That last sentence nails it.
I tipped my compass north.
I really like that stripped back line after the rich language that comes before. And I like that rich language too. Laura kicks the fashion of the day.