Fox & Bloodhound

Fox & Bloodhound

Every now and then there’s a poetry blog post that stops you in your tracks. One that lets you access the excitement, the awe if you like, of being inhabited by a poem as you write it, and then inhabits its readers.Thanks for this, Helen Mort

Freefall

On Friday last week, I was lucky enough to be part of an event at Leeds University to celebrate the remarkable life and career of poet Ken Smith who died in 2003. A new volume of his Collected Poems have been published by Bloodaxe. I’m sharing a piece written for ‘Stand’ magazine about Ken’s influence on my own poetry.

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Fox and Bloodhound

fox

As a teenager falling in love with poetry, I thought of Fox as the bold, definite creature that slunk into Ted Hughes’ poem ‘The Thought Fox’ with a ‘hot stink’, printing the page in its wake. Fox was smouldering, certain and momentary. Brought up on books like Hawk Roosting, I could imagine no other kind of poetic animal. When I eventually wrote my own poem ‘Fox Miles’, it seemed almost sacrilegious to have created a personal version of this archetype, a creature who ran beside me…

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Guilt chests, a sideways look and a polished gem:Pauline Yarwood

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Ah yes…the guilt chest. I have a chronic habit, driven by thoughtlessness and good intentions, of spontaneously offering to do things without thinking through the consequences. Amongst other things, this means that I currently have a backlog of things to do that keep me awake at night or wake me up feeling uneasy.

Sometimes they’re things that I decide on the spur of the moment will be A Good Idea. Which explains why there are six 1920s dining chairs in the garage which are halfway through being refurbished to go on eBay. They’ve been halfway done for about four months. However, since they’ve sat gathering dust in the garage loft for about two years, it doesn’t matter to anyone but me when they get done.

And then there are the jobs that come under the heading of Promises To Keep (and miles to go before I sleep). Currently they include critiquing draft collections that friends have sent me, a review of a significant book about Ted Hughes that I started on in July, of which I’ve written and scrapped four drafts, because I’m terrified of being wrong; a review for the cobweb of a beautiful collection by someone I love; two polished gems on the stocks and two more coming in….and then there are the unwritten poems, and the one that has to be sorted out in time for tomorrow night’s workshop in Huddersfield.

I keep putting them off, and do displacement things. And to be fair, some of these are things I love doing. Like reading at Gill Lambert’s Shaken in Sheeptown poetry night in Skipton on Thursday night. I got to be a guest poet with the wonderful Clare Shaw. Who wouldn’t jump at that! And the Puzzle Poets last Monday, where guest poet Emma Storr was a revelation. Two more readings coming upon in the next ten days, and then there’s that Kim Moore reading in Hebden Bridge as well. It’s too easy to defer and procrastinate when you’re doing the things that come easy.  But sooner or later, you knuckle down, and do what needs doing. With the curious result that when you do it you can’t understand why you didn’t do it sooner. So in the last two days I’ve bitten the bullet, written an application I was dreading, written a careful critique of a bunch of poems and sent it off; last Sunday I finally got round once more to the real business of sharing the work of ‘polished gems’. Next week I’ll write that review, feedback on a collection and write a long post about a new collection. There. That’s out there in public. No way back. Phew.

So after much delay I’m delighted to welcome today’s guest poet and polished gem, Pauline Yarwood. Pauline is a poet and ceramic artist living in Cumbria.    In 2013 she was mentored by Judy Brown (a Polished gem in April 2017)  at the Wordsworth Trust, and collaborated with artist Kate Bentley to write a short series of poems for her exhibition Skyline.   She is co-director, with Kim Moore, of the Kendal Poetry Festival,  and runs Kendal Brewery Poets (which was where I met her and invited her to be a guest) .Her first pamphlet  Image Junkie  was published by Wayleave in 2017.

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But, of course, she can introduce herself. Here she is.

“I was born in Cumbria, brought up in Manchester. I’m notoriously bad at sending stuff out – I always find an excuse. (me too, Pauline. me too) . I’ve been published by Fire Crane (Mick North from New Writing Cumbria (which doesn’t exist any more) Mick was the first person to publish my poems which was a huge encouragement).  The Interpreter’s House and The North. Most recently I have two poems in the new book of Cumbrian poets:  This Place I Know  (published in Oct. 2018) by Handstand Press).

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I had mixed feelings about poetry at school.   I hated Walter de la Mare and especially William Henry Davies’ ‘Leisure’ – the ‘if we have no time to stand and stare’ one.Loved the sentiment, hated the poem! Strangely, like lots of other kids of the time, I loved Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Tennyson’s The Lotus Eaters.

I was dreading having to get to grips with poetry when doing my teacher training, thinking that it was too difficult and I wouldn’t understand it. But, I was wrong. It was Gerard Manley Hopkins that set me off with Inversnaid, and that last line about wilderness, obviously playing into my attraction to the Ancient Mariner and The Lotus Eaters. Then Louis MacNeice and Dylan Thomas drew me right in, and when I discovered that there were political/apocalyptic poems – Alan Brownjohn’s To See the Rabbit,Edwin Brock’s Five Ways to Kill a Man, Norman Nicholson’s Windscale, Peter Porter’s Your Attention Please and Edwin Muir’s The Horses, I was drawn in for ever.

I used those poems regularly when teaching, and the kids loved them too.  Gradually, women poets moved into sight – Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Stevie Smith, Plath, Duffy and I discovered a whole new kind of writing.Along the way I became a potter, too, and taught ceramics in an Oxfordshire comprehensive for a while .I did an MA in Women’s Studies at Lancaster in 1998 – my dissertation was on gendered subjectivity in the art of the four contemporary women artists.

I followed some literature seminars also and gradually began to think about the process of writing and I included a short series of self-reflective poems in my dissertation.They really came out of no-where, apart from how difficult it is to write, but I was completely hooked by this time, and have written poetry ever since.”

I don’t know about you, but I really recognise and respond to the seeming randomness of this, the accidents that bring some of us to poetry and eventually find us writing poems. Which is, ultimately what this Sunday post routine is about. Oh. Yes. A sideways look. What’s that about? Sometimes I stick a post title in the drafts and then forget why it seemed a good idea at the time. I suppose it came from a phrase in the first poem that’s coming shortly.

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.

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Being Eight

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.

The next poem comes into the category of the image seen on the edge of vision that turns into something much more serious; an awareness that what we don’t notice is maybe something we really should. That shift (signalled by the ruptured centre which reminds us that the centre cannot hold) from the web to the fell to the alienated young of the streets is an admonition that we owe it to ourselves to notice things. Which is, I suppose, what poetry is ultimately for.

Across the door frame                                                                                                                                                                              

caught by slantwise sun

a rainbow cobweb stretched from

corner to corner

a single thread holding

the ruptured centre

 

up on the fell

the mewing of a young buzzard

and the sound of a single gun shot

 

in our cities the young,

restless.

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Pauline Yarwood’s poems never seem to stand still, constantly change the viewpoint and the landscape. Here we are in the cosmetics dept of Harvey Nicks, being judged against standards no one has troubled to explain, pitched back into the sideways looks of childhood.

Applying lipstick in Harvey Nicks

 The doorman is stone-faced and mirthless,

eyes me up and down,

sees that I don’t look like I flash the cash,

but lets me through, straight into cosmetics.

 

Try red I say, and climb onto a high stool.

I feel childlike, as though someone

is going to put a plaster on my knee

or pour gripe water into my mouth,

but the sleek assistant selects a lipstick,

twists the barrel and fills a brush with ruby red.

 

Part your lips.

 

I hold my mouth unnaturally open,

and she outlines the edges,

intimate and invasive as an unwanted kiss.

She outlines, fills in, blots.

 

Smile, she says, hands me a mirror,

I’m nervous, expecting transformation,

but not this:

The Joker looks back,

the grotesque killer-clown who leaves his victims

with a permanent post-mortem grin.

 

I decide to go back to the doorman,

give him something to smile about.

 

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Revenge being a dish best served cold, you wouldn’t want to be that doorman, top hat or no. Well, would you? And finally there’s a poem that  teachers everywhere will respond to. You hear that note again…the sense that one way or another we’re being judged, tested.

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Demonstration

 

It takes some courage to cone

a lump of clay with sixteen year olds.

You know and they know,

or guess if they don’t,

how your hands feel against the clay,

the initial give, the softness of the gradual rise,

the flow of movement, the firming,

the forming of something different.

 

They stand in a close group,

two at the back hold hands,

some touch shoulders

they’re eager, ready,

there’s a strange intimacy.

 

The class heart-throb shifts,

folds his arms, grins,  

done this before, Miss?

 

I worked with a young art teacher who said that the problem with throwing pots is that, if your thinking runs that way, a pot can only be either a phallus or a vagina. Which pretty well sums up the preoccupations of savvy 16 year old boys. I imagine that, as with the Harvey Nicks doorman, the poet gave the class heart-throb something to smile about. This poem certainly made me smile.

So there we are. How Pauline Yarwood manages to teach, throw pots and co-organise the Kendall Poetry Festival and write poems of this quality is a wonder. Thank you, Pauline, for being this Sunday’s guest. Please come again.

Image Junkie : Wayleave Press [2017] £5.00

This place I know: Kerry Darbishire, Kim Moore and Liz Nuttal [ed]

Handstand Press [2018] £10.00

 

Centenary

 

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100 years since the end of WW1. My granddad, Alfred, was a sergeant in the Kings Own Yorkshire Life Infantry. He joined as a territorial some years before the war, working as a journeyman housepainter. For some time, on Armistice day I’ve posted a poem I wrote for him, and also for my grandma, Ethel.  I never knew her.

Everyone dutifully remembers the men who died in uniform, and that is right and proper. I wish we would publicly remember their wives and mothers, the ones left behind to bring up big families; there was no social security for them. They were left to fend, and those working class women often struggled to make ends meet. They often had big families. Alfred never saw active service. He wanted to, but instead of going off with the lads he called his comrades, he he was admitted to hospital and died in 2016 of Hodgkinson’s lymphoma.

Ethel managed to bring up my mum, my two aunts and my uncle. She gradually grew profoundly deaf. The isolation fed depression and in the 1930s she took her own life. Remember the women left behind. Remember them.

Alfred

 

There he is. Grinning and unsoldierly,

the despair of the RSM. The joker in the trench.

Except, I’ve no way of knowing if he ever was.

 

Ypres and Mons and Passchendale

meant no more to him than Chapel hymn tune names –

O dass ich tausand zungen haite.  Armageddon.

 

But all the same, a bit of a lad. No more than a lad,

father of four, and husband of (I think)

a small girl, left all alone to scrat and fend.

 

My grandma, Ethel, who went deaf, who sat

with her head in the swelling horn

of the wind-up gramophone.

 

Listened to the scratchy tinnitus

of brittle shellac  records until

they hissed like the sea on a shingly shore.

 

Who drowned herself, a poor Ophelia,

in the beck that ran hot from dyehouses,

than ran blue and plum and crimson red.

 

Who died (I think) wreathed in bindweed,

those wide white silky flowers,

and the pink of balsam, sour as a sink

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Normal service resumed: a polished gem revisited – Tom Weir

Before I start, an apology to all the folk who responded in one way and another to my post about young male suicides. It certainly touched a nerve. I hoped to write to all of them individually, but I just ran out of time and opportunity. So here’s a thank you to all who shared your stories. I was moved and touched by all of them. Thank you.

And now it feels good to be back in a routine. When I started this business of writing a Sunday post it was because I wanted to share my enthusiasm for poets I’d recently read or heard…particularly those who you may not have heard of, poets who were just starting out, poets who hadn’t been published, or not much published. Undiscovered gems. That’s becoming more difficult given just how many poetry blogs there are around and (what seems to me) the phenomenal increase in the publication of pamphlets and chapbooks and first collections. Which is, by any measure, A Good Thing. Hence the series of posts of ‘gems revisited’. And here we are with one I’m very happy to be writing.

Stacey's knee

I’m often looking for a slightly left field introduction to a guest poet. Today’s is is slightly daft. It’s just that the first time I saw Tom Weir read on an open mic  I was struck by the fact that he stands very still…or almost. He does something with his right knee that I’d seen before in a performer who also works in bubble of concentration. The aunt of Justin Townes Earle. The sister of Steve Earle. It’s Stacey Earle who performs with her partner Mark Stuart. If you get the chance, go and see her. See what she does with her knee. I’m sure she doesn’t know she’s doing it. There you are. Told you it was daft.

With that out of the way, please give a big cobweb welcome to today’s guest, Tom Weir,who I first met at a reading by Kim Moore and Helen Mort at the excellent Chemic Tavern in Leeds ( by the way; one thing that’s striking about the Tavern is that they let the customers bring in fish suppers from the nearby chip shop; poetry readings among the smell of fish and chips! And compered by the excellent Mark Connors. Another of the young ones…and also a runner.) Tom did a couple of poems on the open mic. and I was bowled over by his delivery (as well as his knee). Dry. Almost deadpan. Ironic. Funny. Even more bowled over when he told me he’d been at Kim’s launch of ‘The art of falling‘ in Leeds, and had liked my reading. We did a bookswap on the spot…his lovely collection ‘All that falling’  for my chapbook Larach. I got a bargain there that I still feel guilty about.

The poem that really stuck in my mind on that evening was one that stays and stays, two years on, the poem that told me that Tom Weir’s the real deal.

Day Trippin’ for Thomas

‘I’d ride horses if they’d let me’— Will Oldham

We talked all morning about the horse
that, if we’re honest, none of us actually knew existed

but it seemed worth it just to get you into the car,
to stop shouting. We mentioned it so often

you began to repeat it from your child-seat
like a mantra, and you’ll never know the relief,

having arrived and not been able to see a stable,
having stalled you with an ice-cream which you wore

like a glove as it melted over your hand,
of finding the woman who showed us where

the horse rides took place, where you waited
so quietly in line, where I stood and watched

as you approached the man with a five pound note
scrunched up in your tiny hand. You spent

the rest of the day repeating the words too little
like a radio breaking bad news every hour on the hour.

We took you down to the lake and watched
you throw stones at the water, watched clouds fall apart

and mend as rowing boats left the harbour and you
sat still, refusing to join another queue.

 

What I like so much about this poem is its clear-eyed objectivity. It could so easily have been sentimental. Instead it’s close to heart-breaking. I love the way the anxieties of adults and small children are equally weighted, as are their disappointments, and the guilt of parents for which there is no atonement, and for which nothing can be done. Everything is managed through images that are utterly memorable and true….the way the parents make a mantra for the child that’s replaced by the mantra of ‘too little’ , like a radio breaking bad news every hour on the hour; the ice cream

which you wore / like a glove as it melted over your hand,

the clouds falling apart and mending, as reflections do, quite indifferent. I can imagine this poem being endlessly anthologised. I think it should be. Tom Weir’s poetry will do that to you, catch you aslant, unawares, tip you into a world where things like love and joy and security are fragile at best, where we are vulnerable. He makes me think of Larkin’s line that ‘what will survive of us is love’, although Tom Weir’s poetry is more unequivocal than Larkin’s on that. Every time I read it I see that quality of Tom’s poetry, the way you see a scene through a glass that suddenly shifts or cracks and refracts the significance of the moment into a different dimension that memorises itself as you hear it.

Of his debut pamphlet  Christopher James wrote:

Tom Weir is an exciting new voice; candid and assured, with enough in the way of light and shadow to fully intrigue. The cover of his pamphlet, The Outsiderpublished by the ever-excellent Templar Poetry, is a statement of intent with its arresting image of a barnacled man staring out to sea. It has the ghostliness of an Anthony Gormley. If the figure is looking to foreign lands, then it is well chosen. Weir’s poems range from corners of English fields to hotel rooms in Hanoi and the psycho dramas that play out are as dramatic and finely judged as the language chosen to tell them.

It’s a real pleasure to welcome him back, just as he’s launching his new collection.

Tom’s poetry has been Highly Commended in both The Forward Prize and The National Poetry Competition and he was the winner of the 2017/18 Magma Editor’s Choice Prize. His first full collection All That Fallingwas brought out by Templar in 2015 and his second collection, Ruin, for which he is grateful to the Arts Council for the writing time to complete, was published in September this year. Poems from his latest collection have appeared in Strix, The North, Poetry Saltzburg and The Scores, among others.

Away from poetry he is an avid follower of AFC Wimbledon and awaits the call to become their first ever poet laureate so he can quit his job as a primary school teacher. So much so one of his poems in Ruin is centred around a dire 0-0 away at Darlington which he hopes will act as a calling card to its many members.

What I’m sure about is that the new poems he’s sent me will act as a calling card to any of you who haven’t encountered his work before. And here they are.

Tom Weir 2

 

Magic

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.

Tom Weir 4

 

Swings

 

I do it because I want to know how waterfalls feel,

to remember the way our old Fiat Strada used to slow

 

as it clawed up hills no factory worker in Milan

had prepared it for.

 

I do it because I want to think of that Catherine wheel

freeing itself in that field outside Church Stretton

 

down the road from your parents’ old house,

because I want to see it again,

 

cartwheeling like a 1980’s Soviet gymnast,

towards the crowd of farmers in checked shirts

 

and wellies and kids so puffed up with clothes

I wanted to take them to an edge of something

 

and push them off, watch them bounce around

so for once I could imagine the world was made

 

for soft landings. I do it for the moment of stillness

at both ends, because the sudden release

 

reminds me of the crabbers in Whitby,

their woven boxes slapping onto the cold sea.

 

I do it because I want to smell your perfume

mixed with salt-water, feel the warmth of the sun

 

that burned in the smokery where I bought kippers

and had them sent to London in a sheet of brown paper

 

with your address scrawled in felt-tip pen.

I do it because, when I fall, my breath hangs on the air

 

like the fog above the chimneys on the edge of the M16.

I do it because I like the uncertainty of it,

 

the way my movement is held in their chains—

how they shake when they should remain completely still.

 

Proustian swings, these, aren’t they? It’s the first line that hauls you in, the image or imagined sensation of things on the cusp of changing, the stilled nanosecond between one state and another, that held breath. And after that a succession of crafted two-liners that sustain the moments that draw you in and stick like burrs. The moment before we leave our breath hanging in the air as we fall away from it, for instance. And I think that the next poem actually says exactly what I’m clumsily trying to pin down.

The Art of Standing Still

The Argentinian striker Batistuta had it,

and so did Zidane, and the Bulgarian midfielder

Hristo Stoichkov and, depending who

you speak to, even Gazza for a while.

 

It’s not movement, it’s knowing how not to move—

when to gently apply the brakes, root to the spot,

opt out of the chaos and wait

so by the time they notice it’s too late—

 

the coin-clatter of ball striking net,

the keeper looking round, the defenders

scattered like stunned cattle on the ground.

I should have known you’d have it too—

 

a lifetime of small clues, how you always

had a feel for things that couldn’t be felt,

how you could sense rain before the sky,

how like the sea you could absorb

 

your grandson’s lightning bolt of rage.

Even now I cannot recall the exact moment

you stopped, left the rest of us flailing

while you stayed still—

 

your spirit wheeling away, arm held aloft,

index finger pointing to the gods.

 

I wonder if the you who stopped, who stayed still, whose spirit is wheeling away is the you  that made a flight ion stairs magical.  Surely it is. There’s a lot of celebration of fathers and of (I think) grandparents in the new collection, and we’ll finish with one of them.

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Fathers

The size of them

the roughness of their skin

the thrill of their words

that don’t come as often

or as easily

the way they know so little

about the subtle art

of holding hands

whether the palms

should remain flat

if the fingers should intertwine

how they know every pressure point

in your body

how they know about graft

how you can count

the number of baths

they’ve had on one hand

the way they slope off

in company

find most comfort

in unoccupied rooms

how theirs is the only place

at the table that never changes

how they never sit down

at the bar

how their pranks

are a kind of currency

how no matter the price of the thing

they always have the exact change.

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Exact. That’s the word. Thank you, Tom Weir for sharing your poems. I guess that a lot more folk will be wanting to buy them, so here’s the detail.

The Outsider [Templar Poetry 2014] £5.00

All that falling [Templar Poetry 2015] £10.00

Ruin [Templar Poetry 2018] £10.00

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And if you live anywhere within reach of Leeds you can hear him read on November 18th, 3.30-5.30 at Wharf Chambers, Wharf Street, Leeds LS2 7EQ. Watch out for the knee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes from a small island

 

If tonight’s post is unusually incoherent, it’s because I still haven’t got over driving back from Skye yesterday.  440miles, ten hours. There was  snow down to road level in Glen Shiel and it looked wonderful; so did Glen Cluanie. There was a Mordor sunset beyond Fort William. Rannoch was just a long dark punctuated by headlights, and it’s pretty much downhill all the way after that, and after Glasgow  the grim non – welcome for travellers on the M73 on a Saturday night. Bothwell, squalid. Cairn Lodge, shut. Annadale water, near deserted, cold, and everything shut but the coffee machine in W H Smith ….and a MacDonald’s. It’s a tribute to my desperation that I bought a double-cheeseburger, and ate it. If it had been cooked I might even have enjoyed it.

It never feels like this on the way up, because every mile gets more wonderful, and after Glen Shiel there’s the sight of the Skye Bridge and the Red Cuillin beyond, and then it’s the last twenty-odd miles of brown moorland, the first sight of the Black Cuillin, and whatever the weather’s doing is fine with us.

As it happened, it mainly rained this year. As it did last year. Mizzling rain a lot of the time. Which gave me more time than usual to watch the shoreline of Suishnish and Boreraig come and go across the loch.

 

It’s an important bit of coast, for me. The first time I came to Skye on my own was to Write. The capital letter is deliberate. I’d signed up for an MA in Creative Writing. As I’ve said before, it was rubbish, but that was at least in part because I was, too. Suishnish, on the left, and Boreraig are sites of 19thC. Clearances, and I was going to Write Poems about them having read everything John Prebble could tell me about the business. Anyway, I hiked over the moor to Boreraig, and on another day, tramped up the metalled track to Suishnish, where there’s a house that was inhabited until relatively recently, and also big fank…a sheep station barn. There are only ruined walls at Boreraig. The crofters were driven to subsist on the poorer land on the opposite shore, or shipped off to Canada. Or they just died.

That was over 12 years ago, and the past is another country. I wrote poems about it all, but as Helen Mort said to me ” You can make a poem be, but it won’t be any good”. They weren’t. However. There’s a circular walk of 12 miles or so that starts on the other side of that Boreraig skyline. It starts from a the ruined church of Kin Criosdh on the Elgol road, and can be walked clockwise, passing the doomed marble quarries to go over to Boreraig and then along the shore below the cliffs, up a cliff path and on to the Suishnish headland and track..it’s a bit of a plod along the road back to Kil Criosdh. I had always wanted to walk it, and when I hit 65 I had both hips replaced and six months later I did the walk, counterclockwise. The following yearI did it again, clockwise. For my money, counter- clockwise is best…it gets the road and the lorries from the Torrin quarries out of the way while you’re fresh, and after that, you may see no one for the rest of the trip. If it’s pissing down they’ll let you shelter in the fank if they’re working that day. Golden eagles haunt the cliff above the track, and there’s often the sight of one being harassed  by crows.

I’m conflicted by that bit of coast in so many ways. I want to walk it again, but my ankle’s useless, and I can forget it. I regret the whole business of the MA and the ill-considered writing. And every year, there they are, Suishnish and Boreraig, the first thing I see in a morning for a week in the year. Or don’t see.

 

They are shapeshifters. They vanish in a scrim of wet muslin. They shine in the sun. They are scoured by squalls of snow. Sometimes, after a snowfall one of the Red Cuillin peaks rises like a moon, and Bla Bheinn towers beyond the headland. I love them and miss them. Anyway, last week, unable to get any sense out of my laptop, and unable to make it let me log in to WordPress, I had to give up trying to write two proper guest poet posts. And it rained, so longish walks were just too wet. I decided to have one last go at the stuff I’ve written and rewritten over the years about what those two Clearance sites mean to me. I thought I could try stripping them back…they were long rambling things originally. And then stripping back some more. And a bit more. I thought I could stitch in some of one about the defunct marble quarry I mentioned earlier. Child murderers found their way in and I let them stay. The only bit of backstory you need is that abandoned buildings frighten me. Always have done. As did the kids who who would haunt them when I was a kid. Old bits of terrace houses. Air raid shelters. Shut-down builders yards. Old mills. Edgeland places. That’s what the croft at Suishish is like, for me. So here they are. Final version. Whether they work or not, I’ve done with them. I’m not going back.

Follow

the factor’s men who came in snow,

over the watershed, bearing iron and fire;

 

the hasty steps of the quarrymen,

the steps of disappointed creditors;

 

the track of the engines that broke the bank,

a straight track through bluebruise upcasts;

 

a winding track through weeping peat,

dour hymns on the wind;

 

the smell of men in Sabbath black,

of wet worsted, old dogs;

 

ghosts who go through slough, over stone

to take Christ’s blood and flesh

 

at Kil Criosod’s roofless shell

among its slanting headstones.

 

Where they quarried star-white marble

for graveyards and fine houses

 

bright new fences are shining

and a pair of crows are calling.

 

Boreraig.

 

‘The earth has no melancholy

and the land no ghosts

except what we bring with us.’ [John Prebble]

 

Go to Boreraig, head full of history,

of the nailing of doors, the burning of rooftrees,

of milk thrown to douse a burning thatch;

of an old woman dragged on a hurdle

to die in the lee of the wall;

of snow flurries in the bitter smoke.

 

There’s a standing stone, tumbled field walls,

amber bracken in the shells of houses, brittle reeds.

 

These crofts turn their backs on the setting sun;

the crofters all went long ago, over the ocean,

and the veils that blow in from the islands

are only skirts and skeins of rain.

 

Craft webs of handwove shawls if you like,

webs of weeping, but no ghosts come here,

no grey shades from out of the west;

 

there’s no return from Tir nan Og

for the dead, for the dispossessed

 

 

 

Suishnish.: Croft

 

 

It shifts, the land; won’t be fixed

by maps sealed and signed

with thumbprint contours.

 

One day rowan, birch and ash

will turn the clock back to an age

before the blackfaced sheep

that potter and nibble

between the polished stones

on the shore at Camas Malag.

 

 

The metalled road crumbles

on this green headland,

runs out at a grim croft,

sinking in a moat of hoof-pocked mud,

set about with trees brittle as bones.

 

Someone had thought to make a go of it;

put on a bright tin roof, hung doors, lit fires;

brought in a bed, a stove, a table, chairs.

Then, one day, just upped sticks , cleared off.

 

The fire’s out; the roof’s rust; the stove’s cracked;

two rolls of barbed wire in the iron bed frame.

 

Sheep fank at Suishnish

 

Clean grey steel in a a green park,

rain hissing on the roof like static,

a constant note behind the pock and tick

of neat hooves on packed ground;

four hundred sheep and lambs;

hooves and rain, the scrape of shifted hurdles,

the shepherds’ necessary talk,

moving the beasts through metal mazes,

and the great shed quietly emptying,

till, there’s just a residue

penned in with bedframe fencing;

mad-eyed as sheep are anywhere:

the rickety, the runts, the lame, the goitred,

the ones not fit to sell.

What won’t pay’s out of mind,  off the map,

 

coda

 

Stories come and go like the wind and rain.

 

There’s a story of the seasons’ rhythm;

the certainties of dour religion,

accommodation to thin land,

hard weather, quarter days;

weddings, christenings, funerals.

 

In some others, bad dreams come.

Wire, rust; the creeping clones

of Brady, Hindley, Thompson,

Venables. Mary Bell. Here be monsters.

The caution at the edges of old maps.

fank

Next week, proper poems from a proper poet. See you then xxx

 

 

 

                                                         

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A loss you can’t imagine: young men and suicide

1992. Only a few weeks after his twenty-first birthday, our sonDavid died in a fall from the top floor of a high-rise block of flats behind the Merrion Centre in Leeds. I  see it every time I drive to Leeds .

World Suicide Prevention Day was last month, Sept 10. As ever, I’m out of synch with the rest of the world, but it can’t ever be too late to write this post. Just over five years ago, two people I love found their son dead in their living room. He was about the same age as mine was when he killed himself. I remember I wrote to them and said something like: people will tell you they can imagine what you’re going through. They are wrong. More thoughtful people will tell you they can’t imagine what you’re going through. They are nearly right. The fact is, you can’t imagine what you’re going through.

Three good friends of mine, all the same age as me or thereabouts, have died in the last 18 months. Two, apparently fighting fit and well, died of sudden catastrophic heart attacks. One died after a long and painful illness. We grieve for them, but we understand our grief. Their deaths are sad, they diminish us, but we understand this natural process. It doesn’t accuse us. But when someone you love takes his own life, when it comes without warning, it’s inexplicable, bewildering, devastating. It makes no sense. The world makes no sense. You are made helpless with guilt; you believe you are to blame, that you could have prevented it if only…..

This happens to tens of thousands of people every year. The statistics are terrifying. The websites you can visit will tell you:

Suicide is the single biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK. In 2015, 75% of all UK suicides were male.

Men and boys are often more vulnerable to taking their own lives because:

  • They feel a pressure to be a winner and can more easily feel like the opposite.
  • They feel a pressure to look strong and feel ashamed of showing any signs of weakness.
  • They feel a pressure to appear in control of themselves and their lives at all times.

Most suicidal people don’t actually want to die, they just want to remove themselves from an unbearable situation, and for the pain to stop.

There’s a lot of support and advice available for people who are worried that someone they know may be a suicide risk. Advice like this:

So how will you know? 

You ask. It sounds scary, but the best thing to do is talk about it.

 

Saying something is safer than saying nothing. Trust your gut and start the conversation

 

What to say

Not too much. Above all, LISTEN

 

For me, and for my family, it was all too late. Because we had no idea, because there was no warning sign we could pick up on. There was just the immutable fact that our David had killed himself. We are tight as a family, we comforted each other, but we go on living with the bewilderment and loss and overwhelming guilt. It never quite goes away. So I’ll dedicate this post to all the families who have lost a child, a sibling, a parent, a partner to suicide, and I’ll talk about the long long process of finding the serenity to accept what cannot be changed. I’ll tell you our David’s story.

Two of my five children were adopted, and our David was one of them. Against all the rules, we met his birth mother, who would have been no more than eighteen. She wanted a say in who would adopt him, and a wise social worker thought she had that right. That young girl trusted him to to a couple not that much older than her. She will be in her sixties, now.

our david c 2 copy.jpg

It’s a complicated story, but the core of it is that we were at yet another stage of the usually ponderous adoption process, which suddenly accelerated quite wonderfully and frighteningly, and we found ourselves sitting in the small living room of a foster-mum, and our David, who wasn’t yet Our David, four months old and surrounded by love, was having his bath. He wasn’t called David, either. He was Conrad Hamilton Gervaise Irving (no surname), and just Conrad, for convenience. When you adopt a child you’re not supposed to keep his or her given names. Since the truth is that the amazing and enlightened social worker short-circuited every due process that evening, and that we drove home up the M1 with Our David in a carry-cot on the backseat of a Ford Anglia, it didn’t seem so transgressive to keep Conrad as his middle name. David Conrad Foggin.

This much
I remember:
the small neat creases, the crook of each elbow,
the crook of each knee, the soft place
between your neck and your shoulder,
and the tight whorls of dark hair
tattooing your skull, and the delight,
the wide pink of your open mouth
as you came shedding light and bright water
out of your bath, how you sank
in the fleece of a fat white towel,
and you lay on your back on her knee
and you danced,
how you pedalled and trod on the air,
and how pale the soles of your feet.
You were mangoes, grapes, you were apricots,
all your round warm limbs, your eyes.
How your name made you smile;
how we said it over and over, your name;
how we wanted to make that smile.
And I remember
how we would take you away,
and why your name could not come,
why we must leave it behind,
and how we feared for your smile.

 

When his face would cloud over, or when he seemed to turn inwards (as happens with all your children) it troubled us. And then it would be OK, and we’d forget.

 

 

 

Later, when he was nine or ten years old, he drew endlessly; meticulous battle scenes, some times on rolls of lining paper, so they stretched out like eclectic Bayeaux tapestries. I wrote a poem about them, years ago, and keep revisiting it, and rewriting it.

Untitled copy

 

Our David’s Pictures

In tracing the anatomy of war

our david’s concentration’s absolute.

He kneels in peace, head bowed. An acolyte.

His pictures conjure tiny armies on the floor.

 

All history’s invited to this fight:

Martello tower, pele, and launching pad,

heaps of Roman, Norman, Saxon, Panzer dead.

Drawn up, his minute cohorts. Black and white.

 

Each man’s accoutred – breastplate, chainmail, greaves.

Crusaders squint down Gatling sights,

or brandish spears with blades as big as axes,

and quivers jammed with arrows, bunched in sheaves.

 

Every shield’s a wicked chevron

or a bossed and studded disc;

the sky is bristling with a stiff cheval de frise

of arrows and everyman’s vulnerable, at risk.

 

There’s Agincourts of arrows, flight on flight.

The sky’s cross-hatched, and somedays almost black.

The sun’s crossed out. Eclipsed. Our David’s arrows –

they fly miles, out of day and into night,

 

they shift the whole perspective. What is it

he celebrates? Pattern? Power?

The living or the dead. I’ll never know,

his last bow drawn, and loosed, an age ago.

 

I wrote this when he was still alive, puzzled and perhaps mildly worried about the obsessive quality of the drawings. But mainly delighted. When he died, I changed the ending, and it was read at his funeral. We had a Bob Marley track in the service. Stop that train. It was an extraordinary service. There were dozens and dozens of young people who I’d never seen before, who I didn’t know, but who had clearly loved our David. For some reason he either never knew, or if he knew, he didn’t believe it.

It was a long time between being told of his death and his funeral. My wife and I had separated seven years earlier. We weren’t asked identify his body and I was too numb to wonder why I wasn’t notified of the inquest, and I was too numb to protest. The morning the police told my ex-wife of a death behind the Merrion Centre, the morning she drove from Leeds to tell me, the morning we went to the police station in Chapeltown was the morning I started to learn about the lovely boy I realised I didn’t really know. That he’d been smoking dope, that this may have triggered a suspected schizophrenia, that some time earlier he’d served a short prison sentence for a trivial non-violent offence, that he was being looked after by NACOS, that he was training as a painter and decorator (like his great-granddad). I know I could have known all this, and I should have, but I was too busy, too tied up with a new job, a new relationship, and deep down, because I was scared to ask. Most of those young folk at the funeral were young offenders on schemes like the one our David was apparently enjoying. Nothing made sense.

It was a morning like this

 

a Sunday morning. The sun shone.

It was July. It was a morning like this,

your ex-wife at the back door,

and why would she tell you

your son was dead, or had died,

or had been in an accident

on a morning like this still

not fully woken, a morning of sun

to drive into Chapeltown to drive

to a police station that’s called

The Old Police Station now, that’s

a bijou gastropub but then was just

a police station full of Sunday morning

sadness, and a morning something

like this and two young coppers

who thought we’d need somewhere

quiet at the back which turned out

to smell of smoke, that had a pool table

and coffee rings, and no-one knew

how to start or what to ask but

it was a morning much like this

they asked if we knew a tower block

behind the Merrion Centre or if

we had a connection to a tower block

and a ring with a skull and a brown

leather case and did we know if

our son had friends in a tower block

behind the Merrion Centre and

we might as well have been asked

about tree rings or chaos theory

or fractals on a July morning and

one young copper saying that

he didn’t think it made sense

for cannabis to be illegal and

what harm did it do really and

how it wasted everybody’s time

and I don’t know why I’d remember

that except it was a morning like this

I learned what waste might mean.

A couple of weeks after David’s funeral my good friend Bob Hogarth, the Art Adviser said: why don’t you do a painting of him? Why don’t you paint his life? I set out on a collage of maps of the city, photographs of his childhood, images of a small attache case and a strange ugly ring that he’d left on the top floor of that block of flats behind the Merrion Centre, an old atlas open at a map of Africa. Buddleia. Hydrangeas. I worked on it for a week or so. And then stopped. Just a layer of collage and thinned down acrylics. Every couple of years I’ll have a look at it, and resolve to finish it. But I don’t think I want to. I suspect I understand why. It took a long time…more than twenty years…to find out that for me the answer lay in writing. Maybe it started with a friend of a friend buying me Jackie Kay’s Adoption Papers, and then started again with being told about Carrie Etter’s Imagined Sons. 

It started with rediscovering Greek myths, and particularly the story of Icarus. It was discovering, through the process of retelling the story, that the character no one pays enough attention to is Daedalus, or points out that if Daedalus had used his amazing gifts well, he would never have needed to build a labyrinth, would not have given away its secret, would not have been imprisoned in a tower with his son, would never have needed to conceive of making wings. I understood, through this that if you make wings for your children, it’s not enough to just watch them fly. Whether they fly into the sun or the heart of darkness, if they fall, then are you responsible, and how will you live with that.

Tony Harrison wrote that in the silence that surrounds all poetry

articulation is the tongue-tied’s fighting’  .

I believe articulation is healing, a way to atonement and to being able to forgive yourself. The serenity to accept the things you cannot change. Articulation can be confessional, too. You can’t change the past; ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’ simply make you spiritually ill. We know this, rationally, consciously, but living by it needs help. Two poets have given me that help. Clare Shaw’s credo “I do not believe in silence” and her unwavering frank gaze at her history of self-harm, and psychological disturbance gave me courage. As did Kim Moore’s decision to use poetry to deal with her experience of domestic abuse. And, finally, one moment in a writing class that Kim was running that somehow unlocked suppressed and unarticulated belief, guilt, knowledge. I remember I wept silently all the time I was writing. It only lasted five minutes, that task. But an insight, an acknowledgement takes only a moment no matter how long the process that leads up to it. This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine says Prospero at the end. I think I understand the release he must have felt in that split second.

A weak force

 

there’s sometimes a loss you can’t imagine;

the lives never lived by your children, or

by the one who simply stopped

in the time it takes

to fall to the ground

from the top of a tower block.

 

They say gravity is a weak force.

I say the moon will tug a trillion tons

of salt sea from its shore.

I say a mountain range will pull a snowmelt

puddle out of shape.

I say gravity can draw a boy

through a window

and into the air.

 

There is loss no one can imagine.

 

In the no time between

falling and not falling

you learned the art of not falling;

 

beneath you burned

the lights of Sheepscar, Harehills,

Briggate, Vicar Lane;

 

lights shone in the glass arcades,

on the tiles, on the gantries of tall cranes;

motorway lights trailed ribbons of red,

and you were far beyond falling.

 

Because you shut your eyes

because you always shut your eyes

you closed them tight as cockleshells

because when you did that the world

would go away the world

would not see you.

 

I remember how you ran like a dream.

I remember how you laughed when I swore

I would catch you.

 

Then you flared you went out

you flared like a moth and you blew

away over the lights over the canal

the river the sour moors the cottongrass

the mills of the plain

and over the sea and over the sea

and the bright west

and you sank like the sun.

 

our david 1 001 copy.jpg

 

I count myself lucky. Lucky to have had our son for 21 years. Lucky to have learned to live with the loss of him and to have learned how to make amends to myself and to his memory. Lucky to be able to articulate it.

This week we learn we now have a Minister for Suicide. She has no budget, no staff, no office, no brief.  A disproportionate number of young men will take their own lives in the coming year. Some of them will have been made desperate by being stripped of benefits, being made homeless; some will have been denied the recognition and appropriate treatment the desperately need for their mental health issues. Whatever their circumstances, there will be parents, siblings, partners, children, friends who will be numb, full of unassuageable guilt. There is loss no one can imagine.

The return of Polished Gems Revisited : with Laura Potts

flo's ditch

It’s October. It was summer last time I looked. Then:

 

The world tilted , the sun shone slant,

showed up every crack and canker,

made the million cobwebs shine.

There was dew and people thought of fires.

Children went back to school.

This year everything would be better,

a clean book, new pens, a blazer

to grow into.

 

Where was I? Ah, yes….looking back at a post in which I was musing on those periods of curious flatness that overtake you from time to time. And for some reason, here’s another. Maybe there’s been so much going on that when it stops you’re mildly disorientated. That must be it. I remind myself of the episode in John Hillaby’s book Journey through Britain. In the early sixties he walked from Land’s End to John o’ Groats, using, as far as was feasible, only footpaths and drovers’ roads and bridleways. Arriving in Bristol tired and jaded he seeks the advice of a boxing trainer who examines his legs, looks up, and says: what you need, sir, is exercise. Which turns out to be sound advice. When in doubt, just do it. So I shall.

I have no excuse; last Monday was a day I’d looked forward to for months. The guest poets at Puzzle Poets Live were two of my inspirations. Kim Moore and Clare Shaw. What a double bill! Poets whose reading makes you more alive, who electrify and excite you. One of the folk in the audience was David Spencer (cobweb guest in July) who had cycled from Huddersfield to Sowerby Bridge to be there. Valley to valley over a big Pennine hill with the M62 at its top. And then had to cycle back. That’s how good they are. It was a brilliant night. Along with their new work, Kim read Train from Barrow to Sheffield and In that year ; Clare read This baby and I do not believe in silence, and I could not have been happier. This week I found a warm review of my pamphlet Advice to a traveller in Indigo Dreams’ Reach Poetry 241 (thank you, Lynn Woollacott, and then…..

I’ve had a summer of doing stuff, pretty well non-stop; brickwork, woodwork, paintwork, garden work. I looked forward to it all being done, and then it was and suddenly I’d nothing to do. Except that I have…a review that should have been sent off months ago and which I keep rewriting and scrapping; feedback on lots of poems for two special friends. Why don’t I just do it? I’ve a horror of not being busy. I always have. It’s that Conradian thing, the need to work and work to avoid reality, or something. I dreaded retirement …and it was destabilising when it came, that lack of imposed obligations. What I’m not so good at is dealing with self-imposed obligations. A bit like the feeling that most teachers know, the Sunday afternoon feeling, the knowledge that there’s a pile of marking that must be done for Monday, that’s grown because you didn’t do it when you could have done, because you’ve put it off.

What saved me was finding poetry and writing. I have a fear of unemployment and silence. Like Clare Shaw, I do not believe in silence. I cannot sit still. I cannot be quiet. So when today’s guest sent me her review of what she’s been up to since she was a guest two years ago, what she wrote resonated very powerfully. She writes about how she is saved by words. Yes, I say, yes. And here she is.

‘Laura Potts is twenty-two years old and lives in West Yorkshire. Twice-recipient of the Foyle Young Poets Award, her work has appeared in Agenda, Acumen and Poetry Salzburg Review. Having worked at The Dylan Thomas Birthplace in Swansea, Laura was last year listed in The Oxford Brookes International Poetry Prize and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She also became one of The Poetry Business’ New Poets and a BBC New Voice for 2017. Laura’s first BBC radio drama aired at Christmas, and she received a commendation from The Poetry Society in 2018’.

This is her reflection on the last two years since she decided not to finish her degree and make a life in writing.

“Two years have passed, and as another season leaves I think of last time I was here. Two years and a world away. And I do not recognise the words I wrote. The syntax strange; the sentences too academic, too composed. I do not like the way they kept my life so guarded, so controlled. They do not sound like me.

Life – and living – has changed since then. I am older and younger at heart by the day. More attuned not to needs but desires of the mind, and my light glows brighter for it. And my most drastic change was in education. I didn’t complete my degree. I didn’t stand on a stage with a scroll in my hand and feel like that was the height of my worth. I dropped  formal, regulayed education, and instead I started to learn.

The promise I made to myself that day will always remain. I promised to live for myself. Nobody else would tell me; no media would push me; no guilt would force me to live without a love for my life. I started to write. Perhaps, at a time of both great hope and vulnerability, it was my Freudian throwback to childhood: those hours at home, as a very young girl, reading by firelight; or the gravel of my grandmother’s voice, reading Chaucer and Keats; or writing my own tales of Peter Rabbit because, like Beatrix, I too thought he was better than any friend. So when I sat at the desk to establish this new, epic plan for my life the answer was already there: I was writing, and that was enough.

Others seemed to think so too. My words were ample; were adequate; were ‘bountiful and bound to become’, as one editor wrote. Looking back, in those early days of sudden freedom I wrote to compensate for the absence that lived where friends and noise had always been. I found comfort in an imagination which can dream up any person on a page, and have lived very well without the white noise of the world ever since.

In those early six months, my poems sat in the hands of editors and sang themselves off the page. Solid journals like Prole and Poetry Salzburg accepted them; Ezra Pound’s Agenda spotlighted them; The Yorkshire Post reviewed them; a reading club in New Zealand even printed them on shirts. I had never felt so estranged from and connected with the wider world, which seems to be the paradox of writing. And this, among others, would be one ethical point I discussed in my BBC New Voices interview soon after.

Last year, of all the years in my young life, was by far the most academic. Far surpassing my school years (in which learning was only for passing exams and never for joy alone), I gave myself an education. I led myself not towards examinations but outwards:out to schools of thought and further I’d been before. I chose to write, for BBC Radio, a set of poems based on the lives of those who had lost loved ones to war. It was a project which turned the singular act of writing into a connective one, and brought catharsis with it. The poems, featuring Carnegie-Medal winner Berlie Doherty, were broadcast alongside Carol Ann Duffy on The Christmas Verb last year and have since been archived by The Imperial War Museum.

And who knows what comes next? The writing alone is enough for me. If I had words but no world, that would still be enough. My inner heart is still, as ever, the same. I may have since been a Pushcart Prize nominee; I may have received an award from The Poetry Society; I may now be writing for The King’s Chapel in London, but I will always return to a book in my hand at the end of the day, as I always have. It is a love of words; a belief that in the beginning is the word alone; and no end of shouting and spitting and stamping on stage will ever be a match for that.

Remember. Poetry is alive and well, and that’s good enough.”

That’s a manifesto to stir us all. I try to imagine having the courage to say that over 50 years ago. I can’t, but I can try to live by it. Right. Time for poems.

grimshaw-john-atkinson-silver-moonlight.-fine-art-print-poster.-sizes-a4-a3-a2-a1-003230--6554-p

Alma Mater

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. It’s worth quoting something she wrote for her first guest post.

My earliest memory of writing is of a seven-year-old me in my grandmother’s old armchair back home. She would read Kipling’s ‘If’ to me over and over again, and to this day I can still recite it. She wasn’t well-known in the writing world, but she’d had a few poems published in her time and was a great lover of words. I used to sit on her knee and she’d read in her great gravelly voice verses of Tennyson and Chaucer for hours. Of course, I didn’t understand it back then, but something about her vocal lilt made the words alive to me even when I was young. I often think of those times. That’s how it started. I owe my own love of writing to her.

You don’t have to listen too hard to pick up elements of an older poetry, and elements of Dylan Thomas, too; another who was unafraid of  language like

Outside, to the bone

I shook and swung, the darkened seas that were my eyes done

and gone at the sight of myself.

There’s an echo of The Tempest there, too. You might not like it, but I do. I think of artists like Picasso, and Hockney who understand that you need to work with older forms and rules and make them easily your own before you know how to break them. You need to know your craft before you can do without it. Enough. Promise me you’ll read the next poem aloud; get the rhythm of it, all the repeated rhymes and internal rhymes that drive it along, and then let the last two lines expand in your mind. Don’t try to rationalise it. Not yet. Let it work.

Yesterday’s Child

 

The sun slit a knife through the womb-wet night

and bled like an egg, like a budburst head:

in the swell of the sweat on the belly of the bed,

broken-throated then and red, you said

the clench of winter let the roses grow instead.

 

But time has fled with jenny wren and left

the meadow dead. And overhead a mouth of moon

has called the mourning on this room, and soon

an ever-bloom of moss will clot the loss of you.

For the years between us are wide as a child;

 

and the tears as wet as a wound.

Laura post 2

The last poem moves outwards to larger stories and histories.

The Nightwatchmen

 

Forever as the shepherd’s hook pulled up the dusk and ever-dark,

when far-off foxes coughed the frost and laughed that more must be,

beneath the dropping eyes of stars that fought that winter to the last

was always you and me. The storm departed from the sea; the war from we

 

whenever through the cold-bone blue of mist came you, chin uplifted on

the winds in wedding lanes we never knew. Until in this the airfield age,

with planes that screamed the world awake, we felt again the fist of truth:

sleeping in that infant rain stood one more crooked tooth. These the graves

 

that ever grew to guard the isle at night, the bones beneath them ballroom-bright

that fight the thunder and the tide, and bend and beg surrender to decline

their ebbing heads. And with the herrings overhead, remember this instead:

that somewhere as the embers fled, a minister took to his bed and only ever dreamt

 

the dead. Oh never will the waiting world forget the winters, blue-of-birth, that

never wake the sleepers here: ever in their slumbers at the first snow of the year.

 

I keep re-reading this poem, still not sure what to make of it, not quite sure of the landscape I’m in. It elides folk ballads, 18thC pastoral, derelict Lincolnshire airfields; I puzzle over the you and me, and the minister who took to his bed. It might be a dreamscape if it wasn’t so cold and concrete. It puzzle and challenges with its tone of fierce purpose, and its music holds me. It does what Clive James asks of a real poem. It announces itself as a poem and is laced with the moments that draw you in.

You’ll have realised that I’m an unashamed fan. I cannot understand why we’re still waiting for a publisher to snap her up. It won’t be long. Thank you, Laura Potts for being our guest and sharing your poems. Thank you for reminding me that I don’t believe in silence. Please come again

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I hope you all enjoyed this as much as I did. A special thank you to my partner Joan Foye for letting me use two of her edgeland landscapes. For those who like to know this kind of thing they’re pastels, and 2’X2’…and stunning.

Looking ahead: upcoming guests include Tom Weir, Pauline Yarwood and Peter Riley. There’s also a review of Gaia Holmes’ third collection Where the road runs out on the stocks. I’m very happy.