Reading allowed or The Company you keep

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In 1952 I was given a book for my 8th birthday. It became one of my favourite stories. I’ve still got it, though I’ve had to rebind. It’s had some hard wear. It’s The wind in the willows which starts, as well you know, with the Mole, doing his spring cleaning and feeling the pull of Spring even in “his dark and lowly little house” which it penetrates “with its spirit of divine discontent and longing”. Amazingly, even at 8 I instinctively ignored the Edwardian whimsy and turned the page to find the Mole dancing for the sheer joy of being outside. Two pages later he’s standing at the boundary between his quotidian locked-down world and the world of story where anything can happen. And then does.

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Over a week ago I knew just how he felt. Like too many others I’ve been (as I keep on saying in this blog) shut in and shielded for two years and more. I’ve grown nervous of the company of strangers. Timid is as close as I can get to describing it. How I’ve missed the buzz! I tried to write about it…the nearest I got was this.

31|01|2021

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Last day of January

In the last days all days are the same;

we have no way of recognising endings.

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Somewhere it’s the last day 

of someone’s sentence, let out

in a world locked down, hedged

with prohibitions that no-one 

can explain. 

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                  Daffodils don’t care,

push up bruise-blue in the field

that’s waterlogged and frozen.

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The apple tree’s still full of fruit,

blackbirds hollow out the fallen.

Up in the hawthorn a thumbprint

of feathers is filling the sky

with a song so complex you could weep.

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A blackbird triggers his alarm.

That big white cat’s out in the field.

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Somewhere out of sight the sun

is setting beyond the windfarm

on the whaleback moor.

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Last day of January. You have run out 

of timber. You want to fettle everything.

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What the small bird wants

is extraordinarily complicated.

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That blackbird built his first nest

last year and sang himself to silence.

You hope he’ll try again.

You can wait the year out.

You’ve done it before.

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Well, I was really chuffed when this was published in The North .67 and finally in my new collection Pressed for time. Which brings me back to May 3rd when we had a live launch for the collection in the lovely venue which is Brighouse Library and Art Gallery . For a week before, I was awake nights wondering if it was true, and if, because I’d done it before I could still do it. I was absurdly nervous about the whole thing, apart from the usual business of wondering whether anyone would turn up. I was nervous enough to write a script for my bits of the reading. These days I’m usually in bed by 9.00pm. Would I have the energy? I haven’t read aloud to a live audience for two years and more…….and so on. 

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[Photo courtesy of Kim Moore]

What actually happened was that twelve Calder Valley Poets rocked up to do support readings; former students and ex-colleagues from the 1970s (Northern Counties College) and 1980s (Boston Spa Comp) turned up out of the blue; poets and friends I’ve not seen in yonks came along; eldest son, daughter in law and grandson came along (and filmed it all); we sold a shed-load of books. It all went like clockwork thanks to my editor Bob Horne’s careful planning. To top it all, my friend, mentor and inspiration Kim Moore arrived (a five hour round trip from Barrow!) and read three of my poems from the collection, so I heard them as if I’d never encountered them before. Wow!

Nervous? The script went out of the window. I’d forgotten what a live audience can do. I’d forgotten how it feels, the buzz, to be flying. There’s an electricity that energises you, that overrides two years of lockdown and chemo, and I thank my stars for it. I was reading a Facebook post today from Gill Lambert, the Leeds/Airedale poet who launched her new collection A small goodbye at dawn in Haworth. She’s flying, too. Suddenly there are launches everywhere. We’ve been let out. We know how the Mole felt. We’re learning the synergy and language of company again, the sound of voices. 

Which brings me to the second part of the post. There’s a phrase that’s stuck in my head since the early 80s when I heard a lecture by an American “Real Books” educationist. I can’t remember his name. Mea culpa. It was a catchphrase taken up by the English ‘Real books’ enthusiast, the Literacy lecturer Geoff Hynds.

                                 You learn from the company you keep 

Oversimplified and politicised by the eduation Right Wing, this came to be villified as the idea that children would learn to read if they were left unhindered with lots of books. A bit like claiming you could learn retail theory by being left in a shop, or dietetics by eating a lot. No-one ever advocated anything of the kind, of course. But core truth is that you learn best and longest from the company you keep. It’s not necessarily a good thing, as demonstrated by our PM, but true nevertheless. You learn to perform poems by performing, but you need responsive audiences. And you learn to write poetry blogs by keeping company with people who do it better. I’ve become introspective in the last two years, and needed the good old kick up the pants reminder of why I started this blog in the first place…to share my enthusiasm for poets who excited me. Well, I got that last week when a friend sent me a link to The Friday Poem  ( https://the fridaypoem.com ) and an article by poet Regina Weinert (who has been a cobweb guest before now)

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It’s an appreciation of a poet I didn’t know about  and now want to know more of. William Bonar was born in Greenock and grew up in the neighbouring shipbuilding town of Port Glasgow. He graduated from the Universities of Edinburgh and Strathclyde and gained a distinction on the MLitt in Creative Writing at Glasgow University in 2008. After working in education for 30 years he retired to become a full-time writer, becoming a founder member of St Mungo’s Mirrorball, Glasgow’s network of poets and readers of poetry, and was a participant on Mirrorball’s Clydebuilt mentoring scheme (2009-10) under the tutelage of Liz Lochhead. His sequence, ‘Visiting Winter: a Johannesburg quintet’, originally published in Gutter 06, was chosen for the Scottish Poetry Library’s online anthology Best Scottish Poems 2012 and he was shortlisted for a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award in 2015. He published two pamphlets: Frostburn Steel (Dreadful Night Press, 2004) and Offering (Red Squirrel, 2015) which won the James Kirkup Memorial Poetry Prize for 2014.

Billy died in September 2021 and the William Bonar Pamphlet Prize, supported by St Mungo’s Mirrorball and Red Squirrel Press, was founded in his memory.

A collection of poems The Stuff of the Earth was published in 2021.

Regina’s appreciation of a poet who was a friend and inspiration is everything I want in writing about poets and poetry. Jim Carruth has written on Offering that  

            “You cannot help but trust a poet who treasures the briefest moments in his journey, 

              and works them back to the very essence that will keep them bright always.”

It might be the bleak moment that draws you in, and takes you though bleakness and out the other side.

Regina provides part of the backstory:

“Four poems deal directly with William Bonar’s own experience of illness and near-death. It was important to him to be open around this and he contributed poems to the anthology Living our Dying. The poems are unsparing, almost clinical, yet also calm and not without humour. In ‘Awake’ he wonders whether it was the “two-tone hooting of owls” that woke him, “penetrating my ear like a bolus of ice-water”, or whether it was the full moon, “whatever”:

I must face that brilliant eye     endure
its lunatic indifference

Once you hear that, you can’t forget it for its utter clarity. And clarity is what Regina Weinert gives you. She’s taught me how to properly read ‘spaced’ poems, which are all the go, and to understand the difference between playing around and the real deal. Here’s an extract to explain what I mean:

“[This poem] illustrates many features of William Bonar’s work. It situates the person and the poet subtly and firmly, foreclosing nothing. It has his signature spacing, which never becomes a mannerism, as it is always in step with sound, rhythm, image and content. It also shows his skill in inserting concepts that anchor a poem.

The Early Days of a Better Nation

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once     the weather suiting
the architecture     I caught
The Modern     crystalline

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as pure water     it must have been
June     pupils gone
I walked a glass-walled corridor

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a man in a movie     alone
geometry and sky
at home with possibility

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The poem directs the reading pace. Line breaks perch on the edge of things. The speaker pauses, deliberates; chooses the appropriate expression, the right time, the fitting comparison. 

[and] 

despite the grand scheme, we still have this one man who is maybe just looking forward to the holidays and a bright day is making him feel optimistic. “

That’s how she writes, how she deftly directs your attention to where it belongs. I want to write as clearly as that. And another thing. It struck me as I read the article, and as I checked out more of William Bonar’s work, that his friendship and his poems had an impact on Regina’s own (apparently) cool and spare poems. I asked her about it. Here’s what she said:

“It’s interesting about influences and how they work, at a slant. Billy and I share a preference for writing short or condensed poems. I got his poems, or rather his poems got me, instantly. It is how I wrote before I knew his work , but now I go back to his poems to try and up my craft. It’s not a direct route. It’s more to do with trying to widen and deepen a poem, to reach the essence, whatever that is – to be better at listening, is maybe what I’m saying. MacCaig was the first poet I read where I thought, that’s how poems can be! I felt such a lift. Decades before I ever wrote a poem. “

Like I say. We learn from the company we keep, and my words, haven’t I missed that face to face, in-the-flesh company, these last two years. 

Thank you, Regina for teaching me about listening properly.

PS.

I’ve posted six trailers and teasers from Pressed for time. Here’s one more – it’ll be the last . One for a cool wet April and May, perhaps.

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A Furious Drench

The erth was voyde and emptie and darcknesse was vpon the depe

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There was rain in the ancient woods

of Inverdalavil; birds stopped 

singing, rain hushing leaf and branch;

the way small burns bunched and muscled up, 

the sound of big stones on their beds, 

the way a big old ash came spinning

and dipping on a peat-thick foamy wave,

racing down the valley and out to sea,

to grow waterlogged, and drown.

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Than sayd God to Noe….behold I wil bringe in a floude 

of water apon the erthe to destroy all flesh from under heauen

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There was rain that fell in one great lump

on dried-up cottongrass moors, ran off 

in bright sheets down the flanks

of small tight valleys, gathered pace,

scoured through the estates and streets

of Mixenden and Illingworth, sluiced

in a shining wall off the stilted road

above Dean Clough on to the old road

where a man in the pub below stepped 

out to see what all the roaring was,

saw a car float past and another and then

he was up to his knees and off his feet,

tumbled in the mad waters, down

into the beck in its cold, boiling canyon,

into its culverts and tunnels with litter bins

and broken things.

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In the seconde moneth … were all the founteynes of the depe 

broken up and the wyndowes of heauen were opened

There is rain that ghosts of flood 

remember where they mutter in the branches 

of alder and willow – fertiliser sacks,

black binbags, sodden clots of leaf,

slick and sour as asphalt, morning-after breath;

skips of rancid sofas, leaking fridges,

laminate and lino. Rain inexhaustible

on sopping land that can take no more,

fattening rising rivers, filling cellars,

downstairs rooms, creeping up and up;

fat brown rivers easing out of bounds,

floodplain, estuary, and at the last, the sea,

the whole world become wave and waste. 

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and the spirite of God moved vpon the water

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One last thing about the book. I planned to sell it P&Pfree until May14. That’s now extended to the end of June. Get yours now while copies last. Just go to My Books at the top of the post

See you again before too long. I’ll be writing about other poets. I’ve had enough of introspection.

Pressed for time……….

A short post this week. Three tantalising teasers before the launch next Tuesday of Pressed for Time (Calder Valley Poetry). Shortly there should be a link via the Menu (top of the page)to My Books which will hopefully take you to the PayPal facility. Once it’s up, check out the special offer, available up to may 14th. In the meantime, here are three more poems which I hope will balance the bleakness of some of the work………..If you’re one of those who understand the urge to collect fragments which we shore against our imagined ruins, then this brick is for you.

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By the Tide of Humber

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Here’s the brick I fetched

from the grit of a beach so hot

my feet were blistered

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that day at Spurn where sometimes

clouds of goldcrest blown off-course

make landfall, exhausted, too weak to move,

are picked off by rats and gulls.

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This brick, more pig-iron than clay,

a small cylinder block. Little pebbles  

wedged in four of its six holes,

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picked up the day two dolphins came

rollercoasting up the muddy Humber   

while container ships sat top-heavy 

on the tightrope horizon, waiting for the tide.

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Brittle marran, dusty thrift, rusted beer cans,

bits of glass at the end of the walked world.

Two dolphins, distant as birds

and blithe as birds. This brick.

The second poem is the title poem, and at the centre of a sequence exploring the astonishing processes of earthbuilding needed to take a man’s life in the underground of deep time. I don’t think WordPress will cope with the format, so I’ve had to use a screen grab.

And finally, out into the air, in a poem for my Dad and all the working people who knew how to see what the world had to offer if only you learned to look

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Something Going On

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Brick gable ends, gardens of dock and dandelion,

Privet, trodden clay and rusting prams. 

A beck that ran hot, ran yellow, red and indigo. 

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The park and its ornamental lake

and fountains choked with mast and mulch,

and the ancient peacock clattering

the brittle sticks of its fan.

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My father took himself to sewage beds,

marsh, canal banks. Dipper. Moorhen. Heron.

Gritstone moors, old quarries soft

with Yorkshire mist; curlew, lapwing, wagtails

were his familiars. Old woodlands; 

coal tits, blue tits, yellowhammers,

chaffinch, robin, wren. 

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A poet in Hessle watched a man who pushed

a lawnmower down the cobbled street,

and wished him grass. He saw how a roofer’s trowel

makes diamonds of a slanting sun. Everywhere, 

they told me, there’s a view. Something going on.

……………………………………………………………………….

Something definitely going on next Tuesday 7.00-9.00pm at Brighouse Library. Launch of Pressed for Time with a supporting cast of Calder Valley Poetry poets. It’ll be lovely, and I’d love to see you there. If you’re not sure how to get there, here’s a link.

https://www.calderdale.gov.uk/v2/residents/leisure-and-culture/libraries/your-local-library/brighouse-library

See you then.

Words of love

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Words of love.

I’ve been remiss. I’ve not written anything for too long. I’ve been trying to write this ever since Flo, my partner of 36 years, and I got married just over two weeks ago, on a day of alternating snow squalls and clear blue skies. It was a day like one years ago on Skye,  a day of snow and sun. We were hiking back from the Point of Sleat, in a sudden whiteout, and blundered into a herd of Highland cattle and one big Highland bull, pressed into the side of the hill, moodily waiting out the snow. And, snuffling and mooing, they made way for us. That was another special day. Days are where we live.

I wanted to write about writing about being in love. I thought I could write something grateful and insightful and intelligent. It turns out I can’t. In the end you simply have to sit down and do it and let it be what it will. This I learn from the to and fro of Kim Moore and Clare Shaw egging each other on to stick to their NaPoRiMo challenge via Facebook. They are each distracted by children or by work or by tiredness and still they do it. A couple of days ago each of them posted a piece for which the prompt was the challenge to write a love poem.

Kim wrote one for her three year-old which had a section that I’ll not forget in a hurry:

My nearly-three-year old 

says when I’m not with her

she hears my voice 

inside her head saying 

‘I’ll be back soon.’

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sometimes it feels 

as if I’m talking 

to a strange bird 

who repeats

whatever it hears

or an old soul 

come to teach me everything

It took me back decades to the lurch of that possessive, utterly-enveloping feeling, watching my tiny daughter running down the road to greet me, oblivious to everything but me coming to meet her. That kind of love.

Clare’s was different; a reminder that when love goes it goes absolutely and leaves you in a different place. A lost love.

To hear a knock on the door 

and no-one there. 

To be empty, to be filled by a memory. 

To hear footsteps, to be suddenly cold. 

This took me straight back to Thomas Wyatt, who might well have written this in the Tower when he was in imminent danger of execution for loving the object of the poem. It was a dangerous business, falling in love with the wife of a king.

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change

So many songs, so many poems that we call love songs and love poems. The ones you share. Then the ones you hug to yourself when you sing along to the Everleys…When will I be loved? The ones you would dance to:  I saw her standing there /I wanna hold your hand/ I love you, Peggy Sue/Then he kissed me/Heartbeat, why do you miss/ I’m in love with you……………………… And so on. There’ll be the songs that played along to your heartbreaks. Brian Ferry singing You are my sunshine. Prince’s Purple Rain.And the ones when you fell in love again. Steve Forbert: I’m in love with you. You can write the soundtrack to your life with them. Love is all you need.

And it’s a matter of life and death. Faith, Hope and Charity or Faith Hope and Love. The greatest of these is Love. Or Charity. In 16th Century England you could be strangled and burned for choosing the politically wrong one. Like Tyndale who was concerned with the love of God who  so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. [John. KJV]. 

Agape, eros, desire, absorption and infatuation. We talk about love of country (whatever that means); we love our children, our parents and our partners, and sometimes I think we never feel love more vividly than when we find we’ve lost it.

I got to thinking about the poems I’ve written that I could call love poems, though I didn’t think of many of them as such when I wrote them. Poems for my parents and grandparents, poems for my children. When it came to poems for a lover, a partner, a wife, I was never confident enough. Love letters I could write. But poems, not so much. I think I thought that if you couldn’t do it like John Donne…say in The Good Morrow..then you shouldn’t try, that you’d just be writing sentiment

And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an every where.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world; each hath one, and is one.

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest

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Clever, confident, laconic, grown-up, sexy. No wonder I thought that was the way to do it when I was a teenager, and why I never quite got over it. Until I learned to listen to more understated voices. Like Ursula Fanthorpe’s.

Atlas

There is a kind of love called maintenance
Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it;

……………………………..which keeps
My suspect edifice upright in air,
As Atlas did the sky.

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It taught me, that poem, that a celebration of patient and enduring love of the kind we call living together could be so wonderfully memorable. 

I was thinking about that when Flo and I decided (after 36 years) that we needed to get married to safeguard each other legally. It’s a shock to discover that there’s no such thing as Common Law marriage. Not really. Living together and sharing everything for 36 years gives you no rights at all in law. It turned out that it made us happy to get married. We had a lovely day of it. I didn’t write a poem for it or because of it. I realise that over the years the love poems I’ve written have been oblique…apart from ones not for sharing, publicly. But a couple of years ago I wrote a poem that says what I want to say about all this. UA Fanthorpe gave me permission. This is for me and Flo. Self-indulgent, possibly. But who’s to stop me? 

Hyacinth Girl

But that was years ago. In Bakewell there were beasts 

with clotted flanks in the cattle market’s clanging mazes, 

on a day of rain, the showground waterlogged,

pubs warm and dark and full of farmers in damp coats,

farmers drinking big mugs of hot dark tea,

screwing red faces round slabby bacon baps;

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and at the junk stall in the market down the street

I bought you this small warm mahogany box

with a broken lock. And some dished brass discs,

and two brass rods. I had no idea what use they were,

only that you would like them. And that was the year

I made you paper hyacinths in a paper box

painted with hyacinths , and a poem for its lid.

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I suppose I was thinking of cruel months

and hyacinth girls, and unexpected rains.

I was thinking of surprises. I was not thinking at all.

I was in love, and in various ways I am, still,

and thinking how we have assembled things around us

and cannot bring ourselves to throw away anything.

These cards, those bits of ribbon, these fragments.

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PS. It’s a self-indulgent post is this. So while I’m on a roll, let me advertise the launch of my new collection, Pressed for Time published by Calder Valley Press

It’s on Tuesday May 3rd in the lovey and airy art gallery of Brighouse Library, in whose grounds you can park for free. It’s an early start, 7.00-9.00pm. (ish). This is partly because that’s the hours they offer, and partly because these days I get very tired very easily. It’s the first live reading I’ll have done for over two years, mainly because of the combination of lockdowns and shielding. I realise I’m absurdly anxious…not on health and safety grounds, but because I’m terrified no one will turn up. So, If you can make it I’ll love you all for ever. And if you can’t, you’ll be able to buy the book, after May 3rd, all 104 pages of it, either via this blog (there’ll shortly be a Paypal Button in the My Books link at the top of the page) or direct from Calder Valley Poetry.

My kind of poetry: Anthony Wilson’s “The Afterlife”

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(Photo courtesy of Jenny Foggin}

I planned to start this post by reflecting on Anthony Wilson’s enthusiasm for/love of the poems of Thomas Tranströmer for one, and of James Schuyler for another. Schuyler particularly…you can sometimes hear Schuyler in Anthony’s poems in the way that Tony Harrison, and later, Norman MacCaig could, every now and then, make me sound like them, their rhythms and phrasing. 

I’m thinking, for instance of a sequence from The four of us, a poem from The Afterlife. 

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From three gardens away

a lawnmower begins its drone

carving stripes we’ll never see.

A woodpigeon clatters above.

The great time we’re having

(or had) is not what’s really there.

Beyond the silent tripod we have

no idea what lies ahead of us –

futures of wild promise, snapshots of our own children

under this very willow.

We cannot grasp what we have

been given, or can give back

However, I was not very well for a couple of days and I missed my self-imposed deadline of Sunday, and then Monday. And on Monday, Anthony posted a poem on his blog which saved me a lot of trouble. Because he says it much better that I could. Here’s the link.

.https://anthonywilsonpoetry.com/2022/03/28/lifesaving-lines-the-bluet-by-james-schuyler/

Before that though, I’ve been turning over in my mind what it is I mean by ‘my kind of poetry’. Because there was a time when I wouldn’t have thought that today’s guest was ‘my kind of poet’. Indeed, there was a time, not all that long ago when I would have been puzzled by the idea that poems could be ‘life-saving. Bear with me.

For years and years poetry was always on the periphery for me. There were exceptions. When I was 16 it was the Metaphysicals….sardonic, clever, witty, sexy. Everything I wanted to be and wasn’t. At 18 the Augustans spoke to me. Clever, cool and witty. And I like the craft of couplets. At 20, briefly, it was Hopkins. What they all had in common was visible craft. At 22 I heard Robert Speaight’s recording of The Wasteland’ and it opened my ears and mind to TS Eliot. You can listen to it via YouTube in all its melancholy thespian RP musicality. It jars in a way that it didn’t, 57 years ago. Our ears become accustomed to different vowels and stresses. It occurs to me that it also opened my ears to Shakespeare, for which I shall be eternally grateful. Try it. Here’s another link. 

.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3VoBtk0-xIs

And so it went. As a teacher I liked the textures and evident emotion of Hughes and Heaney, but as  a reader it was mainly documentary and revisionist history that spoke to me: ballads and broadsheets, social realism. The 19thC Novel, Orwell. When I was asked to read Robert Lowell I fought it. I wasn’t interested in introspective, reflective late Romanticism (as I saw it). It wasn’t for me. I thought it was self-indulgent. Which is ironic, now I come to think. Anthony notes something in his post that chimes : 

      “I have also been reminded of Seamus Heaney’s dictum in The Government of the Tongue 

       that ‘no lyric ever stopped a tank”.

I used to think that was an unanswerable argument to a question I never fully worked out. But now I say of course it can’t. And your point?  No tank ever made me happy or illuminated a mystery. A wren landed on the window sill earlier today, and just for a second it stopped my heart. So it goes. The thing was, what I wanted in poetry was stuff that could fill a room, like Shakespeare, that was memorisable and memorable. Most poetry was never ‘lifesaving’, and what I wanted was unlikely to be understated and quiet. We didn’t match. I didn’t miss it. I just didn’t get it..or it didn’t get me.

Something changed, about 15 years ago. Something shifted and if you wonder about ‘my kind of poetry’ it’s what the great fogginzo’s cobweb has been sharing for the last eight years. What strikes me is that while I’ll never have the apparently encyclopaedic knowledge of/familiarity with contemporary and 20thC that Anthony Wilson shares with you in his wonderful book Life-saving poems I’ve gradually being made more open to voices that one time I’d have dismissed. Life changes us.

Anthony and I share more things than the things that ‘separate us’ (he’s not a fan of the 19thC Novel, for instance): teaching English to Post-Grad teacher trainees, writing about the teaching of poetry in Primary schools, an enthusiasm for a particular Garrison Keillor Lake Woebegon story, which is a story that begins with stories about snowfall, and a story about a man (who does not know that his father has died but whose story we shall learn something of)) telling the story of Hansel and Gretel to his children, and about how an author can, like god, change the events of a story to save his characters pain.

It occurred to me that I could begin with a story. Let me take you back to 1960. St Catherine’s College Cambridge. 17 years old and up for interview for an Open Scholarship in English. Everything was foreign, from the fact that there was no railway station, so you had to get a bus from March to the otherness of gated colleges and the bustle of insouciant young men in gowns who threw breadrolls at each other in the dining hall. The other candidates wore grey flannel suits and had partings. I had grey winkle-pickers, an Italian suit and a Tony Curtis hairdo. They had elegant drawls and asked me what I thought about Kierkegaard, and had I been to Heffers. I was interviewed by Tom Henn who wrote The apple and the spectroscope (no, I’ve never read it), who had an oar hanging on his study wall, and asked me my opinion of the prevalence of bee imagery in Shakespeare. I knew it wasn’t for me, or I wasn’t for it. I didn’t feel resentful or stupid. I was just in the wrong place. Later I went to Durham where I felt comfortable simply because it was in the north, was hilly and had my favourite cathedral. That’s how a lot of poetry has felt to me in the last few years. 

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But you learn from the company you keep, and it changes you so you can understand its language. That’s how I feel about Anthony Wilson, whose Life-saving Poems (along with Clive James’ Poetry Notebooks) have introduced me to new ways of thinking and new familiarities.

That’s a more than usually lengthy preamble…be thankful it’s not longer. Time for our guest. Who probably needs no introduction but still….

 Anthony Wilson is a poet, writing tutor and lecturer at the University of Exeter. His books of poetry are The Afterlife (Worple Press, 2019), Riddance (Worple Press, 2012), Full Stretch: Poems 1996-2006 (Worple Press, 2006), Nowhere Better Than This (Worple Press, 2002) and How Far From Here is Home? (Stride, 1996). 

The Wind and the Rain is forthcoming from Blue Diode Press in 2023. 

In 2015 Bloodaxe Books published his bestselling anthology Lifesaving Poems after his blog of the same name.

He is also the author of Deck Shoes (Impress Books, 2019), a collection of essays, and Love for Now (Impress Books, 2012), a memoir detailing his experience of cancer. 

Anthony has held writing residencies at The Poetry Society, The Times Educational Supplement, The Poetry Trust and Tate Britain. He has judged the Manchester Cathedral Poetry Competition, The Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize and The Impress Prize for New Writers.

He is editor of Creativity in Primary Education (Sage, 2015), and is co-editor of Making Poetry Matter (Bloomsbury, 2013), Making Poetry Happen (Bloomsbury, 2015) and The Poetry Book for Primary Schools (Poetry Society, 1998).

He blogs at www.anthonywilsonpoetry.com.

To put it in perspective, last time I looked, the blog had about 10,000 followers. This one has about 450. I’m in awe of it all. A few years ago I wrote about the poetry blogs that have influenced me and my writing, and here’s part of what Anthony said about how he started on Lifesaving poems

  “ since I began it in July 2009 I have been copying out poems into a plain Moleskine notebook, one at a time, in inky longhand, when the mood took me. Allowing myself no more than one poem per poet, I wanted to see how many poems I could honour with the label ‘lifesaving’. 

My criteria were extremely basic.  Was the poem one I could recall having had an immediate experience with from the first moment I read it? In short, did I feel the poem was one I could not do without?

Copying them out into my book has not always been fun, but now that I am finished, I am in possession of a deeply satisfactory feeling of having learnt more about myself and about each poem that I copied.

Over the next weeks and months I am going to be blogging here about the stories behind the choices I made, the influences upon them, and what I learnt in the process”. 

I commented:

And what follows is a list of about 180 poems by 180 poets. That’s more than three years’ worth of blogposts sorted, at one fell swoop. Bloggers’ Nirvana. Shangri La. Provided, of course you know at least 180 poets, and you know their work well enough to choose one poem from each of which you can say, hand-on-heart: ‘this is lifesaving’. What I love about reading Anthony Wilson is the effortless erudition that is never exclusive or scholarly. It’s what great teachers do…like Bronowsky in ‘The ascent of man‘, or John Berger in ‘Ways of seeing‘ (and not remotely like Kenneth Clarke in ‘Civilisation’). It’s like the introduction to poetry you get if you regularly go to Poetry Business workshops. I’d not heard of half the poets Anthony chose. But I have now. 

Of course, Anthony’s Lifesaving poems are not unconnected to another theme of his blog which was essentially a shared journal of his experience of the diagnosis, and subsequent treatment for a particular cancer which was, at the time, life-threatening. I’ve been treated for two kinds of cancer, and I’m currently being treated for a third, which is also life-threatening, so it’s going to resonate. “

And then I wrote: 

But I doubt I’d have that kind of courage to share the experience

Well, since then as the treatments for cancer have become more radical, and suffer from the law of diminishing returns, it turns out that I can write about that kind of experience, obliquely more often than not,  and the fact that I can write about personal mortality is at least in part down to Anthony, and lately in particular, to his book The Afterlife. It turns out that I can write introspectively and reflectively, so this post will be a thank-you as well as an appreciation.

The Afterlife hasn’t garnered the reviews or the attention it should have in 2019. A lot of good work’s gone missing in action during the pandemic. What’s the book ‘about’ ? Let me borrow from the publisher’s blurb: 

…”the poems explore the borderline territory between grief and laughter, memory and forgetting, illness and health. His central subject is the way we live within family and community, questioning the roles we construct, both alone and with others. The Afterlife explores central themes: mortality, mental health, the relation between body and soul, and how to live fully in the present moment”.

.

I like that last phrase particularly, not least because I guess that’s what the best poems are doing at the moment when we read them. I’d add that they have a quality for me that chimes with the Serenity Prayer..the way we achieve cceptance of the things we cannot change in order the better to live with them. It’s not easy or comfortable. As Fiona Benson wrote in her endorsement:

“Anthony Wilson’s poems are often meditative and always very, very readable, but don’t be fooled; the avuncular voice belies a restless interrogation of faith, love and loss, and Wilson moves from moments of everyday comedy to a wounded reckoning with the afterlife of cancer survival (my italics) and poems of intense anger and grief.”

To which I’d add that believing you are going to die and coming to terms of a sort with that, and then learning that you are going to live, and coming to terms with that, is going to make anyone into a dark watcher. The opening lines of The editing suite (which will make you sit up and pay attention) describes it perfectly:

We turn back the film of our lives 

            and edit the past in rooms 

 where no one goes

.

Between two kinds of existence, not quite of this world. Liminal. This is my take on it, anyway. And now to the poems, and particularly to noticing that Anthony’s poems can seem plain and understated, which means that you can be ambushed by the moments that draw you in, the moments that mark language as ‘poetry’. Moments like these, which are often the openings of poems.

There are days  I lose to knowing  / it has come back

I have not felt desired by you / in years

I am telling my hands / to be still. They do not want /to be still

Now I am no longer any use to you /…..

and these lines in the middle of one that’s utterly unexpected 

               Death shelf, you said. You need a death shelf

In other words, for all the apparently plain language of many of the poems, walk carefully, and listen. Read them aloud. See if you can nail the ‘voice’. Especially in the apparent matter-of-factness of everything in the opening poem of the collection

Teaching Writing Theory

.           

On Tuesday I discovered if my cancer

had returned. Later I discussed teaching writing

to six-year-olds. We spun our arms

like windmills, then made chopstick-motions

with our fingers mirroring the motor control

functions we daily take for granted

even less think about as we stare at the page.

We looked at motivational theory. Taxonomies

and heuristics jammed the white-board,

a cacophony of formulations we all wanted 

to witness taking flight. During self-study,

I watched students tap-tapping at mobiles

and tablets, all the while sustaining complex

discussions about pedagogy, and dress codes

for their forthcoming Christmas parties.

If they were nervous of the outcome 

of their assignments, none of them showed it.

.

           I keep reading this, recognising how the ‘if’ in the first line undermines the matter-of-factness of ‘On Tuesday’ and the apparent confidence of “I discovered’. What follows is a flurry of polysyllables, of distracting activity and pretence of understanding. It keeps on giving, and I love it. The business of distraction is probably why I asked for the opening sequence from Part Three..a 14 page, not-quite-blank verse, sort-of-stream of consciousness poem called To a notebook which includes, among many other things, references to the poet’s love affair with particular kinds of pen and ink and paper, as well as a troubled relationship with Facebook. Above all though, I think it’s a poem about displacement strategies which have to do with dealing with intimations of mortality and also the urge to write. In the end I think it’s Cartesian. Scribo ergo sum. These fragments I have shored against my ruins. Just enjoy it.

from To a Notebook (page 1 and a bit)

All summer long the lorries have passed

My window taking earth from one end

Of the street to the other, an eternal quest

For silence and rest.    Now Joe brings

His radio and sets up shop right outside,

All the hits I used to know and now resent

For filling this moment with noise

I did not ask for.    The house that took till

October to build is now taking till December.

I sat for so long listening to trucks beeping-

Reversing I no longer hear them (not true).

It’s amazing I go to church: for a non-joiner

Like me, a miracle.    I’m there to have my

Edges knocked off, plus knock those I slowly

Learn to love. After a week of people, 

Silence.   The breeze finding its voice

Like rain on apple leaves but without rain,

So prolific with windfalls this year, 

We hear them thud and roll from the house, 

The territorial robin that has sung all summer

Suddenly clearer than thought while I make

Lists for eggs and books I want to have read,

This paper, scratchy yet smooth, is the best –

Since when? – France, probably (maybe 

All the answers are France).    The worst part

Is starting, but then you know that already.

Twitter can’t keep up with me, nor I

With it: help me, someone, understand

Why I need to applaud your cake.

The delicious loneliness of staying 

In a town where no one speaks English,

The rain never more alive than when 

I lay awake listening to dawn inch closer

Through the fizzing traffic.    Only a week ago

Automated hosepipes like cicadas sprayed

In sunshine (‘The Cathedral is not a happy place,’

Said -not telling). Then blue tits invaded

The apple tree after a summer away, 

A silent V of geese arrows across

Ochre-orange clouds, my heart a shipwreck

To follow their progress.    I sleep badly 

And make others do the same. I try 

To sleep in the day, but no. 

.

Two more poems that particularly moved me, because of their clear-eyed dealings with the dying and the dead. Poems that make their peace with both, and need no commentary from me

The Last Time I Saw Mary

.

The last time I saw Mary

was in her kitchen, September sunlight, the door open to her garden.

.

She gave me a tutorial

on my book, warning me not to be meretricious.

.

Your faith, she said, don’t be afraid

of it. It is who you are.

.

She was skinny by then, her grey hair

in a bob, like a girl’s.

.

Shuffling in her slippers she made coffee

and brought waffles.

.

The Dutch balance these on their cups

and watch them deliquesce

.

into the hot liquid, she said. So sweet.

To an English person, their name is unpronounceable.

.

I said, I think you can buy them in Lidl now.

They cost nothing.

.

Sitting With Your Body

.

When the others had gone

we sat with your body for a while

and watched you pass over 

from person to body, watched you

become blue, then grey, then ivory,

then grey again, the cave of your ribs

no longer heaving, and Tatty stroked

your shoulder as if comforting 

a poorly child who hasn’t slept,

all the while watching your stillness,

finally you were still and ours,

then we kissed your ice forehead

and found our coats and walked 

across the common to eat with the others.

.

Both of these poems bring me a sort of peace, and it’s a rare thing in these days of the sleep of reason. What can I say. The Afterlife was published in 2019, and it’s been overlooked. Go and buy it. In the meantime, thank you Anthony Wilson for being our guest, for your blog, for your Life-saving poems, and for The Afterlife [Worple Press. £10]

.


Pressed for time: more teasers and trailers

Another milestone passed. The MS is off to the printer on Monday.

Today I did the last of many proof-reads, and effectively signed off on the manuscript of my new collection. We’ve scratched our heads over how to persuade Word to make prosepoems symmetrical and now it’s up to the printer. It’s all out of my hands, and I’m at the stage of staring at the text and wondering what it’s all about. It’s the stage painters know, which has gone beyond the stage of finishing a painting you’re already tired of, but has to be finished, because…well, it does. The stage of looking at what you’ve made and not quite recognising it as yours. Not exactly regretting it, but wishing it had said what it was meant to, and then accepting that ‘meaning’ is largely out of your hands once you start something, because it makes up its rules as it goes along until how it ends is inevitable, regardless of what you intended.

When I taught drama, I recall we lived by a kind of mantra. We learned to believe that the best you can achieve in creative arts, (and, indeed, in theoretical science) is an approximation to a resolution. Which is just as well, because otherwise you’d make one perfect thing, and stop. The answers are always approximate, because, partly, we never quite get the hang of asking the right question(s). It’s never good enough.

I’ve found myself apologising to the lovely poets who wrote endorsements for the collection. “Look,” I’ve been saying; ” I think what I asked you to read was less of a collection and more a loose amalgamation of pamphlets that I never quite got the hang of or brought to a resolution (approximate or otherwise)”

There are sequences about mortality, about hospitals, about paintings, about mining disasters, about childhood and about ageing. Why do I keep thinking it’s not quite what a collection ought to be? Maybe it’s because I’m thinking of the collections I’ve written about in the last months. Helen Ivory, Martin Malone, Kim Moore, Carola Luther, Ruth Valentine, Marion Oxley…all their books seem to have a coherence. Maybe it’s because the poems are clearly about shapeshifting and identity, or about witches, or about setting the record straight about the poetry of WWI, or about all the men who were never married. Or maybe it’s about a singleness of voice and vision. Whatever it is, they all have it.

And here’s the thing…..I think like this every single time I finish a book. It’s not what I thought it would be. And it’s not good enough. I have to kick myself. Of course it isn’t. It never is and never will be. I have to remind myself of something I wrote before, probably in a similar state of mind.

Every now and then I puzzle about why the last 2 or 3 years has been full of the need to write, and especially, the drive to write poems. This morning I started reading Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Landmarks’ and early got brought up short by this:

‘To defend what we love we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know’

So that’s why.”

We’re all after the ‘particularizing language’. Gradually, with luck, it will develop a personality, a particular idiom and lexis, a rhythm and accent. It will be distinctly your own, your voice. If anything makes this new book ‘coherent’ it will be that. A way of looking and thinking that comes with its own language. I’m intrigued as I trawl through the poems looking for glitches and syntactic slurs and spelling errors and sloppy punctuation, to become aware that poem after poem is asking questions, and full of conditionality. Maybe. Perhaps. What if. Why.

I suspect that what this collection is mainly about is puzzlement, written by someone on the outside, looking in, listening to a language he recognises but doesn’t quite understand, like your reflection in a train window that may just be your alter ego, looking in, wondering about you. Or like looking at a painting and wondering about the mystery that’s looking back. Or looking at moments in your own childhood and wondering if they were actually yours. No wonder that every now and again I’ll settle for looking at a bit of landscape that’s simply what it is and lets you walk about in it.

Until the book comes out I’ll post a couple of poems every now and again, and maybe you and I will see what I mean. There I go again. Maybe.

Here’s a poem that turned up, out of the blue, at an Arvon Course, when the tutor dished out a load of postcards and asked us to respond to one. I got “Vanitas’ . I’m still puzzled about where the inspector came from.. apart from wondering who would own stuff like this, and why.

.The Inspector’s Room   
 
(Jan Lievens: Vanitas)
 . 
Whispers come down the road before him;
nothing can be hidden; there will be reckonings.
His ledgers are compendia, they say,
of the absolutes of birth and death,
the accidents of name and ownership.
 .
His books are more at home in saddlebags,
odorous with dried horse-sweat, their bindings
flaccid, sprawled like half-flayed Marsyas.
 .
He has come far to be here in his good boots, soft gloves.
He’d have you understand he is a frugal man;
he will have no clock, has all the time he needs.
He wants no candle, nor yet fire.
He has light enough for a plain meal,
and light enough to read. And write.
Will no one bring him ink and pen and knife?
For this is now the Inspector’s Room.
 .
We shall be glad to see him gone,
him and his books, and boots and gloves;
to throw away the unbroken bread,
to scour the glass, the plate his hands have touched;
to light candles, bring in coals.

.
I very rarely travel on trains these day. In my childhood we always went on holiday by train. There was a magic about being woken up to look out of the early morning window on the stretch from Exmouth through Dawlish, and the business of crossing the Tamar Bridge. There were the single track train rides to places like Lostwithiel and St Ives. I always loved the transpennine trains, too, the tunnels and the sudden valleys, and the long viaducts. The last time I was on a train was coming back from Manchester on a winter night after doing a reading in Cork. It was dark outside and crowded inside. It wasn’t what I hoped for. Just me, looking back.


 

.

Last Night I Saw You on a Train

Just your face in the window,

indistinct, an underwater face   

a blur in the hurling night,

.

coming and lost in the suddenness

of street lights and motorways,

small stations’ neon rush,

.

the walls of warehouses, IKEA, B&Q,

and lorry parks; then back and clearer

in long tunnels of dripping dark.

.

I thought you looked like me, a bit. 

I would have liked to talk, to ask

how things are with you.

.

But it wouldn’t do. The train

was full, people swaying in the aisles,

their faces blue with smartphone light,

.

and all of them talking and talking

to someone, somewhere,

texting, and texting.

.

What can we do? There you are

in a train beyond the streaming glass

and here am I. We raise our hands.

We nod. And you’ve gone.

………………………………………………….

(however, I’ll be back, sometime next week, either with a guest or just ego-tripping. Thanks for being here)

Pressed for time….

.

This sunny Sunday, I’m taking time off musing and writing about poetry by other folk to do a bit of self-publicity. I’m delighted that my second collection Pressed for time will be published by Calder Valley Press in the next couple of weeks or so. We’re currently trying to figure out how to organise a launch, given that I’m officially immuno-supressed and chronically under the weather. Yonderly, my mother would have called it. Nobbut middlin’. We’ll think of something, but a bit of advance publicity should forward the cause. It’s the squeaking hinge that gets the oil. In theory. So this week and next I’ll post some tantalising tasters.

It may be a bit perverse, but one that didn’t make the cut seems suddenly timely. So I’ll start with that.

.

Minding their own business

Photos of chirpy milkmen 

in the Blitz: ciggy in the corner of the mouth, 

stripy apron, delivering pints; 

.

photos of the children of Aleppo

and all the other cities under the sun,

the sound of planes high up, the crumpling

of exploding shells a distance off, where people

go about their business among broken stones

in the footings of lost civilisations

.

and somewhere in a corner 

there will be rugs and carpets,

tented blanket walls, and women

who tend small fires, shape flatbreads, patting 

soft discs of dough from palm to palm,

and somewhere there is a call to prayer,

and always small boys intent on a football.

In repetition of small things

is our salvation,

of all the vulnerable ones in tents,

of orderly routines and rules

forbidding tripping or picking up the ball,

or ensuring that the clean hand

will hold the folded bread and scoop the rice,

that hands will tell beads, mouths will form

the words of prayer, of supplication

at the appointed and appropriate times,

.

the milkman will leave a pint

on the doorstep of a roofless house.

.

The next one did make the cut. It seems horribly relevant.

In the Museum of Everything

There were so many rooms. 

There was a room for everything under heaven.

.

One was a room of streamers, flags, 

of bannerets and pennants.

Some were frail as cobweb, grey as mist, vulnerable as dust

and some were brown and stiff with old blood

and one was a saltire of paper on a lolly-stick 

that filled the sky of a child 

whose cheek was pricked with wet sand

and one was made from plumes and smoke

and thistle-heads whose threads could barely hold

another was a coarse square of red on a handle

black bright with lanolin, and smelling of coal and iron

and there were black flags rip-rapping

from the antennae of clattering jeeps

in the hot grit of a desert wind

and heavy crusted cloths stitched all in gold

and draped on ugly coffins

and quartered banners, red and silver, stitched

with lions, dragons couchant, daffodils and scrolls

and roses, chevrons, and sounding

of guns and drums and trumpets 

and the whinnying of reined-in horses

and there were white bed-sheets hung from balconies

of shell-shocked cities all saying stop

let it stop, let us be, drive past

and there were little flags put in the hands

of dead children in streets of frozen processions.

.

I asked the room: what room is this?

No one said: this is the room of flags.

All the dead regiments and all the dead cities

and all the dead children were silent.

.

[In the Museum of Everything:  Commended in the 23rd Ware Poets Competition 2021]

.

Two more taster poems next week.

Pressed for time. provisionally to be published April 2022. CalderValley Poetry. 104pp £12.00

My kind of poetry: Marion Oxley’s “In the taxidermist’s house”

.

Not so long ago I came across this comment about In the taxidermist’s house in  the Wombwell Rainbow poetry blog : 

“An ecopoetic and zoopoetic powerhouse of a 28 poem collection. Her final poem “journey of the light travellers” is an empathic devastating critique of wind farms. “Woodlice” is from the insects point of view and, for me, captures it perfectly.

A lot of the poems enact transformation, metamorphosis “They come/the seekers of freedom/shedding the skin of crowds//Emerge/displaced and solitary/haunters of canal paths/” 

Metamorphosis, transformation, shaeshifting.  I simply had to have a copy.

But let me tell you about the image of a freezer full of stiff birds 

If you can find it on your i.player, see if you can track down a BBC 4 occasional series: What do artists do all day  And if not, here’s a link to a YouTube extract. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5PxZbqjlcE

I’ve watched the programme about Polly Morgan again and again.  In it she says that people send her roadkill she might use;  someone rang her to say 

saw a dead fox today and thought of you.

She’s an artist who creates work out of taxidermy; she rummages about in freezer chests looking for exactly the right size of mynah bird, and then sits with infinite patience, teasing off  the skin ( and therefore the plumage) in one undamaged piece; she uses incredibly sharp scalpels and focussed concentration. There’s something reverential in the attention she pays to the bird in her hands, and something very gentle and steely about the way she puts it back together, stitching minutely, stroking back the plumage. And musing at the same time about her awareness of her hands’ fragility; ‘sometimes’ she says,’ I can’t stop wondering what’s beneath the skin’.

The images haunted me; I had to put them into a poem: 

Much possessed

She keeps mynah birds and fledgling sparrows

in the freezer. Knows just how feathers lie

in a wing…………………..

Sometimes she looks at the backs of her hands,

imagines the bones she has never seen…

And, in part, that’s also how I came across the debut collection by today’s guest, Marion Oxley. The opening poem of the pamphlet is Still life [after Polly Morgan]. There a stanza in there that made me punch the air.

             Hands tie up hair, pin back despair,

             pack loneliness into the shoulders

             of a raven.

I knew Marion Oxley before this, because she’s been (when it was still alive and well) a regular supporter of the Puzzle Poets Live open nights, a member of the poet Gaia Holmes’ occasional writing group Igniting the spark, and every now and then getting up to the mic. with one of her poems. She’s not one to seek the limelight, which is why I’m especially pleased to share her work. She writes powerfully and memorably, like this

A fortune telling squirrel dressed in bling
peers into a crystal ball; the murky waters
of the Leeds Liverpool canal slowly part.

.

Jake the ten foot Burmese python
squeezed into a freezer;
lies coiled like a giant black pudding
waiting for the thaw.

From: A taxidermist regenerates Blackurn.

..which is a title to win a place in any competition shortlist. She’s good at titles that draw you in; The girl who became a zebra, A crocodile in Neverland, A chameleon goes to Butlins. You see what I mean?

 Anyway, time for introductions. Marion Oxley was born in Manchester and spent her early years in Salford. She’s worked in a variety of paid and voluntary jobs including the NHS, youth services, Manchester City Council’s Equal Opportunities Unit, Women’s Aid, drug and alcohol services, postal services, psychiatric nursing, community occupational therapy and adult services care management. She has a BA(Hons)Fine Art.

She came to poetry by chance whilst learning to play the fiddle. Inspired by the tradition of story telling in folk ballads. This lead to a desire to experience the landscape of contemporary pieces, especially those that explored the inter-weaving of geography, archaeology, myth and folk-lore. She is a regular visitor to the Orkney islands.

She currently lives amongst the flood plains of the Calder Valley with her boisterous Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Alice. She has family in the Republic of Ireland and volunteers at the local foodbank.

She’s told me:  I don’t really feel I’m on the poetry ‘scene’. I mostly write alone though currently doing a Wendy Pratt short course along with some excellent poets who are so much better than me, so are an inspiration. 

She may be underselling herself; her poems have been published widely in magazines and anthologies. Most recently in The Blue Nib, The Fenland Journal, ArtemisThe Alchemy Spoon, The Bangor Literary Journal, Geography is Irrelevant (Stairwell Press), Bloody Amazing (Beautiful Dragons/Yaffle). She’s had poems shortlisted or placed in many competitions, recently being runner up in The Trim Poetry Competition and Second Light Competition.

What draws a reader’s attention, apart from the titles, are her concerns and her craft:

 Myra Schneider identifies an imaginative engagement with “the relationship between birth, life and death” and also her writing which is “…. in deft and sinuous language, deconstructs and reconstructs our relationship with nature and mortality.”

James Nash focusses on the way  “She reflects and pays homage to the work of other artists, and shares her very own particular vision, in poetry that is fiercely intelligent, celebratory and beautiful. “

And after that, you’ll be wanting to read the poems. The ones I asked for all illustrate three qualites Myra Schneider highlights…language that is intense, tactile and energetic. Let me add that its often uncomfortable, too.

The first poem is about shapeshifting, and it’s unsettling because it’s constantly fluid. I was never sure who was telling me the story. There was a time some time  ago when the selkie was a fashionable feminist trope in poetry. But none of the poems seemed be as deliberately ambiguous and ambivalent as this one.

Skin Trade

Once hands turned her soapstone smooth

          ran thumbs over flesh and fur, took measure.

.

Wrapped mother and child in pelted warmth.

Eyeless skin stretched keeless boats 

          slipped silent passages through frozen seas.

.

The soft pulse of ferries shivers skin,

          a quicken of gannets slick as flick knives, slit the sea.

 .             

The torn fishnets had rankled 

          caused an underwater roar, falling on her deaf ears. 

 .

The last ferry slides like a birthday cake, 

          candles burning, off the plated sea.  

He comes with the twitchers, the hikers, 

          occasional bikers. The divers of dreams in neoprene.

 .

After a skinful, pissed on myth and mist, 

          he gives her the present; a seal skin. 

 .

Water-marked, mottled, in the corner a faint blue stain,

          half-formed letters, clear as a fingerprint.  

 .

She rides her past in a blast of black sea squall. 

 .       

On the wet quayside they are gathered, bodies shimmering. 

.

She watches the totter, the flop across the bonnet. Hears a clink of glass,

          bottle rolling, head lolling, hands flapping. 

 .

Watches the bend in, taking of a lighted cigarette. Hears the unzipping

          of black, skin-tight jacket. 

 .

There on pale skin, a heart, three faded blue letters; Mum.

 .

Liquid eyes turn towards her. Strands of damp hair flick back 

          like seaweed rolling off slim shoulders of rock. 

 .

She remembers her fourteen years old stepping out of the bath

          patting dry the new tattoo. She hands her the sealskin.

.. 

I come away asking whose hands turned ‘her’ soapstone smooth even as I relish the texture of the phrase.

I’m bothered by the abrupt shift from a protective warmth to the skin of a boat in icy seas, which morph into a harbour where the last ferry  pulses and slides like a birthday cake off the plated sea. Every one of the phrases rings true, but belong in different places in space and history. I can make connections with the typical folk-tale of a man who steals a female selkie’s skin, finds her naked on the sea shore, and compels her to become his wife, and how the wife will spend her time in captivity longing for the sea, her true home,.  She may bear several children by her human husband, but once she discovers her skin, she will immediately return to the sea and abandon the children she loved. But then I have connect that with what well may be an Orkney harbour, a CalMac ferry, the shimmering bodies, the skintight suit that may (or may not) be a diver’s wet suit. Everything is real and baffling. And everything is precisely placed, filmic. I love it. Just don’t ask me to explain it. I keep coming up with different answers.

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I asked for the next poem not only for its passionate concern for the balance in things which is challenged (as in so many other ways) by the impact on the migratory cycles of one beautiful northern bird, but also for the texture of language, and it’s cinematic eye. This one insists on being read aloud.

Journey of the light travellers                                                                            

‘Red-throated diver sees off consortium of energy firms, as wind farm plan axed.’  

This is the treeless land you moved through, 

         were born to, left and returned to. 

The land where you stared into the midnight sun,

         peered through a green glass sky.   

                                   Where sun dogs pant at sea ice melting. 

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Where an Arctic fox crouches, blurs, dissolves, 

         white as sea salt sinking. 

This is where your North is turning 

         ice needle sharp, towards the sun. 

                                   In the twilight of the thaw you are waiting.

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This is a land where darkness stalks you 

         will snap your wings, if you leave too late. 

They found you on a broken Northern shore. 

                                   Twenty three years old.

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Claimed you were old, for your kind.

         Scraped a body, red-eyed and grey, 

pinstriped, a triangle at your throat 

                                   the colour of blood or was it wine?

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Hunched over as if you had just fallen from the sky 

         or pulled the earth up from the bottom of the sea

or seized a titanium flag glinting like a speared fish 

                                   from under a water sky. 

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Your slender body slathered in black gold 

         and the ring; a travel journal of your life

tucked beneath a wing. Your haunting wail; 

                                   a tarred and feathered ghost.  Lame duck, loon.

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Your kind arrived in winter, stumbling onto our shore. 

         Hungry, pale faced migrants. 

Light travellers.   Gavia Stellata.

                                  Your backpacks stitched with stars.

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Bewildered by an array of verticals;

         a sea-forest of white arms rising in unison.

And then the fall like dense bones diving

         the sky dragged down through mist and cloud, 

                                   a search for light in dark waters.  A slow rise. 

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On the shore they counted the numbers, 

         decided no more.       Heads held high, 

                                    bills like glinting sailmaker’s awls.  

                                                           You’re sailing close to the wind.

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The first two stanzas set up a rhythm that might be a hymn to a place 

      This is where your North is turning 

         ice needle sharp, towards the sun. 

There are three points of colour- green glass, blood and gold- in a monochrome landscape in which everything is at risk and vulnerable. The fox dissolves, the ice is melting, the dark will snap your wings/if you leave too late. The birds are refugees rather than seasonal migrants in the face of change; stitched with stars and also tarred and feathered.  We are all sailing close to the wind, not just these birds, warns the last line of a poem that insists we acknowledge the loveliness of endangered birds whose bills glint ‘like sailmakers’ awls’.

One more poem to end with…and another bird. If it is a bird. Whose is this ‘last quickening’? I keep asking questions like this as I read Marion Oxley’s poems. Always, it seems, there’s some shapeshifting going on. 

Death of a Humming Bird

Is this how it will be 

the last quickening?

A chest full of flight, 

wings beating backwards.

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Your tiny body hovering 

just out of reach.

Pale petalled hands grown old 

withered in the waiting.

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The darting in and out of memory 

sweet rush of longing 

withdrawn on a tongue 

sticky with lies.

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A torpor of hope 

weighing less than a feather

balanced on a finger 

stroking a cheek 

soft and damp as moss. 

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Lips crusted in sea salt 

speaking only of the past.

The air between us hanging 

white as a sheet ready 

to be pegged out. 

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A flapping, slapping space  

a nest full of bones,  

skin pulled tight as a lampshade 

stitched around a glow.

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Racing over waves, tides revolving, 

flumes of feathered plumes

sparkling and dipping. 

And there you are sipping 

from an Angel’s Trumpet.

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When Clive James wrote about a poem declaring itself a poem by the moments that draw you in I think he had in mind images like this:

The air between us hanging 

white as a sheet ready 

to be pegged out. 

It’s such a packed image that synthesises all those ideas of separation, of being unable to communicate, of being blind to another, of ‘pegging out’…and at the same time of a shared task, like two people folding or unfolding a white sheet. It’s the washing day of my childhood and also an image that takes me to rooms I’ve known where someone is dying and at least one of us is wanting it to come soon and gentle. Someone with a cheek /soft and damp as moss, with Pale petalled hands grown old , and Lips crusted in sea salt . 

I’m pretty sure that I’m pulling the poem out of shape, making it fit me. I think I need to accept it as a poem that understands our ambivalence about death, and especially that of someone we are close to. And while I’m typing this, I realise I’ve never written a blog post which so frequently confesses to puzzlement about poems I know that I like very much.

Maybe I’ve been trying too hard. And I realise that I’ve not shared any of the poems specifically about taxidermy. I’ll just say that I like everything in this pamphlet. It’s a remarkable debut. What can I say? Thank you Marion Oxley for being our guest, and if I failed to do you justice, please forgive me.

At least I can remember to tell everyone to instantly rush out, virtually or otherwise, and buy the book.

In the taxidermist’s house: Publ. 4Word Press 2021 £5.99

My kind of poetry: Jean Atkin’s “The bicycles of ice and salt”

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Here’s a thing. I’ve just checked, and found that since early November last year I’ve written only two appreciations/reviews of other poeple’s poetry.

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How on earth did I end up like this?After all, I started the great fogginzo’s cobweb precisely to share and celebrate work I’d just come across and couldn’t wait to tell you about. Part of the answer to this is obvious..like many others I’ve been locked out of the everyday world of trips and visits and chance encounters. And in this context, particularly I’ve not been able to go on retreats or to readings or to open mics for over two years. I’ve not been well for most those two years, and I’ve not heard new poems being performed. I’ve not bought books at a reading because of the poems I heard, and brought them home, and reread them, and got to know them as friends .

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Let’s throw into the mix that, apart from misssing the frisson, the buzz of company and of new experiences, I’ve been putting a collection together and trying to lay some nagging half-written poems to rest. I’ve been turned inwards. It might work for some, but it’s never worked for me, because, for me, poetry is performative, feeding on the to and fro of people’s reaction. For months now I’ve not been able to hear the poem on the page; its meaning drifts away in a jumble of words. 

I thought it was all coming back when I wrote about Kim Moore and Carola Luther, but then I lost track of it again. You’ll be familiar with the idea of Writer’s Block. I never imagined that there could be such a thing as Reader’s Block, and it’s truly alarming to be in the middle of it.

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Anyway. Maybe it’s something to do with the early onset of spring, the urgency in the air and at the tips and edges of things, but the buzz and excitement is coming back, bit by bit. I’m reading poems aloud to myself again, relishing the texture and brush of another mind. The words are coming alive off the page for the first time in ages and ages. I found myself absorbed in other folk’s poems, and hearing them rather than just looking, nose pressed to the window. Loved re-reading Samantha Wynne-Rydderch’s Banjo. Ditto MacCaig favourites, and David Constantine……never thought it would come back, that music.

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[I’ve just been deflected by rain coming in round the kitchen window frame. It did the same thing in identical weather two years ago. Bugger. I spent a lot of time up a ladder with cement and trowel. Clearly, it’s not been fixed. Job for what a relation of ours calls ‘a Proper Man’. Local builder hunt starts tomorrow. Back to the script]

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Where was I? Ah yes. The music. I’m hearing it in two pamphlets [published in 2021] which I bought and didn’t properly attend to. I couldn’t hear them. Now I think I can. Jean Atkin’s The bicycles of ice and salt (Indigo Dreams £6.50), and Marion Oxley’s The taxidermist’s house (4Word. £5.99). I thought I might write about both in one post, and then decided each deserves its own . This week, it’s Jean Atkin, and next week, Marion Oxley. Put it in your diary.

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I’ve always been a sucker for well-told travellers’ tales. Never having been a strong walker or adequate climber, and never having much enjoyed long-distance travel, I compensate with the books of those who are and do. Long distance walks, particularly. John Hillaby’s Journey through Britain was the first (and still the best, I think). For a time I was hooked on the books of Ffyona Campbell, the ultra-long-distance walker (Feet of clay, et al) and Nicholas Crane’s account of walking from the west coast of Spain to Istanbul via the mountain watersheds of Europe (Clear water rising). They can all write. They know how to illuminate a place via an anecdote or an image. They let you visualize what and who they see. They are good companions whose conversation I relish. When it’s done well it feels effortless. 

When it isn’t it’s dull and sometimes boring. At its very worst, it can be like being trapped by someone with a fat photo album of indifferent snaps, and a commentary that might include ‘this waiter we met who was real character…you can’t see him in this shot, but…..’

It’s possible to write good clear prose and still not pull it off. I’ve just read a well-reviewed climbing autobiography that seems to stay on the same note, where none of the places or people quite come to life. I hated not liking it, because it clearly meant a lot to the writer. It aims to take you into the Cairngorm (say) but Nan Shepherd, or Robert Macfarlane it isn’t. It’s a hard act to pull off, to make people feel as though they’ve travelled with you.

Which, after many stops and side-turnings, brings us to today’s guest, Jean Atkin, and her pamphlet The bicycles of ice and salt. who is exactly that kind of good companionThe last two years have not been kind to poets, inasmuch as when you publish a pamphlet you hope for live readings where you can sell copies, and the word of mouth that follows; when the readings aren’t possible, you’re reliant on the lottery of reviews, and ‘likes’ in social media. Greg Freeman has written a generous review (See link at the end) but as far as I can see, that’s been it since early December. However, there’s a launch event in a couple of weeks. You can be there via Eventbrite, and once more the link is at the end. Let’s hope Greg’s review and this post persuade you to rock up and enjoy it. Right. Welcome, Jean Atkin, who introduces herself like this:

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“Jean Atkin grew up in Cumbria, with Shetland ancestry.  Her most recent publications are ‘The Bicycles of Ice and Salt’ (IDP), about two long journeys by bicycle, ‘Fan-peckled’ (Fair Acre Press) in 2021 which is based on lost Shropshire words, and her second collection ‘How Time is in Fields’ (IDP).  Her poetry has won competitions, been anthologised and was commissioned and featured on BBC Radio 4. She has been Troubadour of the Hills for Ledbury Poetry Festival, and was BBC National Poetry Day Poet for Shropshire in 2019. She works as a poet in education and community. ” 

I’ll add that she’s championed by Ursula Fanthrope’s former companion, RV Bailey, who writes ‘Atkin is one of the most original and rewarding poets that we have in the literary landscape at the moment’. There you go.

Jean explains that “I wrote the poems over the last seven years or so, but they’re based on diaries which cover two long journeys I made by bicycle in the 1980s. The first journey was with my friend Shona from October 1980 – August 1981, in which we pedalled into winter, with hardly any money, down the east side of France, later across Italy and back up the west and north of France to Boulogne – nearly 5000 miles. A very slow and eccentric Tour de France.  
Seven years later I persuaded my partner Paul to set off by bicycle, into winter, with hardly any money, south through France then around the coastlines of Spain and Portugal, returning to Britain from Santander in March 1988 – again, nearly 5000 miles.

When writing the poems so many years later, I had diaries and photographs to work from, including detailed lists of expenditure that demonstrate just how very cash-strapped both these journeys were…

Of course, despite that, they were magical, and life-changing.”

What drew me into these poems at once was the way that after a gap of years and hindsight Jean Atkin manages to realise the innocence and naievete of that first journey. The experiences come fresh minted. 

     We bought nothing that explained

     how to travel through the world of men.

     We weren’t streetwise. We had to learn

     hot to look competent, avoid their eye,

     how and when to lie.

                                                      (‘Valuables’)

These are songs of innocence which is never judged, although it’s obviously and lovingly understood,by the voice of experience.. Everything is vivid and present.

Eve in Autun 

Young and shivering I stand in front of Eve

who’s any age, and beautiful, in stone.

Her naked body’s sinuous as trees.  This

is about the flesh, and not the bone. 

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The nave’s deep cold threads through 

my clothes.  I breathe the longings in its walls.

I’m half in love with this woman made 

of stone, not lewd, about to fall.

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She lies in the Garden, in the leaves, one hand

to her soft cheek as she whispers to Adam. 

Her breasts hang round as fruits.  I watch her reach back,

without looking, for the apple and her whoredom.

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I chose this poem to start with especially because it embodies that double vision that I like so much in the collection. Here’s the poet standing by, observing her young self who’s transfixed by this sculpture of the naked Eve in a cold church where everyone’s breath is white. Eve is caught by the sculptor at the transformative moment when the future balanced the point of her choice. Her vulnerabilty, naked in the winter cold of stone and mythology, is echoed in that of the shivering young self, and her insight that 

                              This is about the flesh, and not the bone. 

I really love the ambiguity of 

                  I watch her reach back, /without looking, for the apple and her whoredom.

Who’s the “I” that watches ‘her’ ? It’s the older and younger self, surely. The book is ‘transformative’ writes Matthew Stewart, and here’s the turning point. It’s beautifully crafted in three rhyming quatrains. It has a simple formality, this poem in which the poet looks back in some wonder at who she was. It has the stylised quality of an illustration in a Book of Hours, where so often the image is of a woman…Eve, the Virgin Mary..at a moment of epiphany. It’s beautiful. I chose it to start with because it shows clearly how this slim pamphlet which potentially had enough narrative potential for a thick book tells that story by moments that draw you in. A stunning photograph album that almost needs no commentary.

The physicality of these moments is something that sticks in my mind. Nearly every poem is a moment of arrest in a journey that totals ten thousand miles, and can only be hinted at in the briefest of references to place..Auxerre, Laon, Montpazier, Aton, Soissons, Ponte de Lima, Barcelona…often off the beaten track, a landscape of out of season/closed down pensions, campsites, road verges and farmers’ fields. What the pamphlet does is gently remind you of the physical effort. We bought machines built for men, say the 18 year olds whose bikes grow icicles on their chains. I chose the next poem to stand for the months of effort, since I know nothing more physically draining than riding a bike in a a big wind.

Leaf night 

The spokes are going round so slowly I can count them. 

The wind bangs like pans in my head.   

Leaves cartwheel down the lane towards us.  

The frost has licked it clean.  

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Tonight I know each rattling leaf, spun

from the plane trees of every village square.    

Like sails they lift, they scrape and flap.

I can’t hear your voice above the gale.    

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Gusts slam my eyelids so I don’t see it start. 

A thousand leaves rise up like bolts of cloth.

They rustle as they come for us.  I call out your name

just once before they close my mouth.   

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The long first line nails it for me, and I’m hooked.It’s such a simple image,but you understand the sheer effort of pushing down and down on the pedals that barely keep the bike moving. Read it aloud and let the end-stopped lines,the short sentences tell you about the stalled rhythms of it all.

And treasure that stunning image: 

                   A thousand leaves rise up like bolts of cloth

You see how the road ripples. It’s like CGI. And then it’s engulfing. 

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I thought of finishing with one of the poems in which a rider walks a bike across the sand and pushes the front wheel into the edge of the ocean.  But that’s not how the pamphlet works, with a neat image of journey’s end. It’s as though the journey will never be over, and all the better for that. Instead, I chose this one for the way it encapsulates the business of being off the beaten track where strangers are an unexpected sight, in landscapes that might be beautiful in summer but are actually workplaces, and where the work is not especially well-paid.

El Vilosell

An old man and a boy are mending a moped.  

Beside them, a loaded donkey droops.

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Bon Dia, I say, and keep both hands on the bars

because the bike is weaving on the rutted track.

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They look up, and the man hasn’t shaved

and I think they’re both too surprised to speak.

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For five minutes the hamlet is a maze we wander, 

repetitions of pantiles, propped doors and smoke

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and then for an hour we climb through terraces of olives.    

Lean men beat the trees with sticks, and fruits rain

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into nets through the mesh of their shouts.  Cliffs are hawks

rising.  We kiss on the brink, and feel, as much as see

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the thousand soundless feet of air

falling from here to the Rio Monsant.  

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I thought it would be nice to stop there, with a kiss on the brink, and just for a moment feeling as though we can fly. So there you are. I hope you’ll want to order the book…direct from Jean is as good any way. Use Google. And then book yourself a place at the Eventbrite launch in March.

Jean Atkin, thanks for being a guest on the Cobweb. It’s been a pleasure.

Eventbrite Link: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-bicycles-of-ice-salt-jean-atkin-tickets-262978063467

Greg Freeman Review: https://www.writeoutloud.net/public/blogentry.php?blogentryid=119331

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Watching the river flow…..

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…… if I had wings and I could fly
I know where I would go
But until that day, I’m gonna sit right here
And watch the river flow  (Bob Dylan)

I’ve read two things in the last couple of days that set me thinking. One is a book and the other a poetry blog post. 

I just rediscovered the book in my Kindle Library.  Outpost: a journey to the wild ends of the earth by Dan Richards [Canongate. 2019] It sits happily with Nan Shepherd, Robert Macfarlane, Roger Deakin et al. Another of those books that persuade me I compensate for not being able to be physically ‘out there’ in wild places. A bit like dieting by eating tons of meusli.

There’s a chapter in which he takes himself off to a Bauhaus-inspired writing retreat in Switzerland. It sounds like my worst nightmare: minimalist rectangular naked spaces entirely made of plywood.  In no time at all, he’s writing that the real essentials are a chair and a table of good height, a pencil, some paper, a door that locks and a comfortable bed. Despite having all that to hand, before you can say Roald Dahl, he’s riffing on being in Roger Deakin’s cluttered comfy hut, full of distracting sound and texture and interest. He faffs and fidgets. He writes I think Deakin cherished distractions. 

Me too. I can’t write in silence …the nearest I get to a silence which actually works for me is in a writing workshop where everyone is writing for five minutes or so, and I’m vaguely aware of their sighing or shifting or the scratching of pens and pencils or the creak and shuffle of a chair, but unable to break off and wander about. It’s like being in an exam, and that suits me fine.

What the book made me consider is what actually makes me get down to writing when I’m the only one to make me. Or, if you like, what stops me from just cracking on. And why do I do it anyway?

The second thing was one of Robin Houghton’s excellent poetry blog posts. (there’s a link to follow at the end)

These are the bits that stuck in my mind. 

” *How easily do poem titles come to you? How about book/pamphlet titles? And what about collection titles? 

*But now I’m working on a full collection, I’m coming up against two issues. The first is not having a collection title. None of the individual poem titles feel substantial enough to carry the whole book. And yet without at least a decent working title, it’s hard to refer to it and even think of it as an (almost) fully-fledged collection.

*My second issue is that I have the urge to change quite a few of the poem titles, mostly because I think that will help them to ‘speak’ to each other in the context of the book. I suppose that illustrates how unwedded I am to my first choices of titles. Perhaps I will change them temporarily, to help with the ordering and also to help me have an idea of the book’s themes firmly in my mind (which will help with selling it/talking about it). And maybe the new titles will stick, maybe not.”

…………………………………………………

The thing is, I don’t have a problem with titles. What I do have a problem with is the business of working on a full collection. Because (I think) I’ve just finished one. I realise that it’s the first time I’ve admitted in print that I was putting a collection together. It’s the first one that I’ve done that wasn’t the result of winning a competition or of putting stuff together to submit for a competition (or the one that I had to do for an MA that I hated doing). Quite simply, it arose from the realisation that I’m running out time, and the accompanying sense that I’d like to tie up loose ends and leave everything neat and orderly. It’s the kind of urge that had me stripping my classroom at the end of each term, cleaning, sweeping, ready for a new term and new ideas. Or, if I was leaving, a new occupant. It’s a collection that includes a sequence that’s taken me at least five years to fettle. Whether it works or not, I can’t say, but the book and the blog I shared at the beginning made me think I’d like to reflect on why it took so long. Here we go.

Nearly six years ago I wrote a post called “Please, Miss, I don’t know what to write. “

I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now, a lot less sure of myself.  I said, brusquely enough, that if you can’t write right now, if you’re blocked, or whatever, it’s because there’s nothing you urgently need to say, and you’d be better off going out into the world and collecting memories and experiences.

I need to rethink this, because as often as not the problem is not having nothing to write about, but having too much. At some point in that post in the long ago I riffed on the business of the business of assembling stuff to be written about… research, if you like. I wrote:

“I’ve scribbled a list of the stuff that was hanging about waiting to be read, or re-read. The stuff with post-it notelets stuck in it. William Tyndale, British mining disasters, a journey through the English moorlands, A sky full of birds by Matt Merritt, Antarctica (including the remastered films: South(Shackleton) and Scott of the Antarctic, David Wilson’s new pamphlet: Slope [smith/doorstop 2016].Tectonic plates. Coal measures and the Jurassic. The building of the Himalaya.

…………………..

“I know that at least a bit of that ( the mining disasters, the Jurassic) comes from a poetry reading at the Red Shed in a distant past when the Agbrigg Poets performed a sequence about the 1972 Lofthouse Colliery disaster …which happened only a couple of miles from where I live, but might as well have been on the moon. I know that as a result of that, I’ve been finding out about Oshibana. And I can’t make myself write about any of it. It needs to settle into my thinking, become something I don’t know that I know, and wait for it to be surprised into a shape I can share. 

……………………..

” I noted something that I just had to write down after a conversation with the poet, Helen Mort.

Helen said:    I can make poems to be written, and they might be OK, but that’s all “

……….

That was over five years ago, and ever since I’ve been in the business of trying to deal with the problem of making sense of why the story of the Lofthouse Disaster bothers me. The nub of the story is that in working on a new coal seam 750 feet down,  the men at the face broke through into a disused 19th C shaft which had gradually filled with 3 million gallons of foul water. The men were overwhelmed by the flood. Seven were killed, and the body of only one could be recovered.

What’s haunted me is the sense of an infinite regression of causes. Why did these men die?  Before anyone could cut galleries and cut into the seams wherever they led, shafts had to be sunk. Three miles from Lofthouse, a shaft at Low Laithes had to be abandoned and forgotten. Before any of that, there had to be coal seams deep in the earth. So there had to be huge swamps millions of years earlier, as parts of the earth’s crust travelled infinitely slowly northwards. There had to be a crust, a mantle, a core. There had to be a primaeval cloud of gas; there had to be something coming from nothing, and maybe there had to be a god. 

And so I overloaded my head with stuff, I went on trying to make poems be written, and peddled the idea of a sequence of poems around various courses and workshops.

One famous poet told me it wouldn’t do as poetry because it was a narrative and full of information.  Another may have been closer to the truth when suggesting that perhaps it could be a radio ballad.

A kind of salvation was offered by another who showed me how to make a diagrammatic web of possibilities and suggested that I could interleave a sequence with short(er) poems about different mining disasters…..this gradually coalesced into a notion of four poems : four elements -earth, air, fire, water- and four events.

I suppose, too, that there are images which stay when everything else goes vague. There’s the Tollund Man that haunted Heaney’s imagination, a man apparently at peace and perfectly preserved. And there are the impressions of leaves in split coal that, as a child, I found marvellous. I began to think of the tens of thousands of miners who died underground, becoming as much part of the earth as ammonites and archeopteryx.

I tinkered with verse forms that could handle the business of balancing necessary documentary information and the need for compression, memorabilty, the moments that draw a reader in. And so it went, for five years. A week or so ago I think I finally laid it to rest.  For better or worse, I’ve knocked a collection together. I’ve tidied my classroom.  Thanks to Bob Horne of Calder Valley Poetry, it’ll be out in a month or so. It will be called Pressed for time. Originally I thought it would be called Where the masons went but I guess that although it was a line in one of the poems, it was altogether too  cryptic. Titles were never the problem. 

It occurs to me that I should say that coalminers, the cosmos and the Big Bang are only part of the collection which wanders around museums, hospitals, seashores, art galleries, Primary Schools, a Greek mountain, a Spanish village, scaffolds and a railway station, among other stuff. I have been much taken by the practice of Helen Ivory, a poet I like very much. You may have noticed that on Facebook she will post poems from her last collection as teasers and trailers. It worked for me. She also writes, tantalisingly, about what’s coming next. There will be witches.

So here goes with the first of an occasional series of teasers and amuses bouches from Pressed for time. Pretentious? Moi? 

Seismic

I’d like to be out there, where the masons went

when the last blocks were cut and laid. 

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Not the obvious places; 

not tavernas in the evening, 

the lapping of blue/pink/silver waters.

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I’d like to sit up there, the ridge, in that moment

with the quail and her dustball chicks

on the old pack-trail from Sella to Relleu,

limestone hot, and Benidorm winking in the distance.

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A little family of quail in the dust and shade

of a fin of stone, stratum of an ancient seabed

crumpled, folded, cracked, pushed up into the sky

by Africa grinding north, an infinitely slow

collision of continents sliding on molten seas

deep below the crust. 

                       All this cataclysmic silence

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and the anxieties of small birds, scuttling

past a makeshift shrine: a blackened plaster Jesus

lacking forearms and one leg, wreathed

in dried grasses, flowers, tied to the fingerpost

that points one way to Relleu, one to Sella

and the bulk of Puigcampo, head in cloud,

feet in a tectonic train-smash – the Triassic, the Jurassic.

Constant

That day in Edale: a straight white plume

from the tall chimney in the green hills,

grey walls walking up and over the tops,

a castle in a cleft, a boy sealed in the shaft

he could not be moved from; a river running out.

The slumped scar of Mam Tor, the axe-split

pass of Winatts. Snow in the air.

.

Stone steps cut wet and steep into the heart

of the fell; slick mud, the air not quite chill,

a long crawl beneath a tombstone slab,

and maybe this is what burial is like.

Resurrection is a widening chamber,

the held breath of water running,

sour odours: limestone, gritstone, marl.

.

What a thing, to let the voices of children

and their glow-worm helmet lamps dwindle

and snuff out in darkness beyond the squeeze

of a fat clay gut. Strange to sit in perfect dark,

to come to know it fits perfectly as skin;

to know silence, to settle into it.

..

For now, I guess I’ll just settle down, wait for the collection to ‘come out’, and watch the river flow.

.

[Link to Robin’s poetry blog. The post I reference was on 16/01/2022]

.https://robinhoughtonpoetry.co.uk

Birthday stocking-fillers

I seem to remember observing in a post some time ago (probably Christmas 2020) that as I get older, going through a traditional address book is becoming sadder and sadder. You go through your ‘Christmas card list’ (well, I do) and then find you need to delete yet more addresses of friends who have passed on/over.

It’s not just the old address book, either. Facebook goes on reminding me that ‘It’s X or Y’s Birthday today. Send them a message’. Recently it was the birthday of the lovely and talented Shirley McClure who died far too young, in 2016.

You can follow this link to an earlier post if you want to know just how good a poet she was.

.https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2016/09/25/another-star-fallen-shirley-mcclure/

Yesterday, my birthday, Facebook suggested that I send a birthday message to Nick Neale who was, in another life, my second in department at Boston Spa Comp in the 80s. A funny, witty, creative man. I sent him a birthday message, Jan 8th, 2021. He’d died in March 2020. Maybe Facebook can find a way of sparing us this. Or maybe we should learn to be more carefully attentive.

Anyway, it was my birthday yesterday. It was a special day. My daughter and her family arrived out of the blue from Broughty Ferry…a 650 mile round trip; that had been a carefully guarded secret! Two eldest sons arrived bearing cakes. It was lovely.

January 8th is a date I share with Elvis, Stephen Hawking, David Bowie, Shirley Bassey….and Nick Neale. Capricorns. Happy birthday to them all, and a couple of stocking-fillers in lieu of cards that would be sent to dead-letter boxes. I’ve been told that one of them contains a phrase people will find offensive. You’ll spot it readily enough. I know. I find it offensive, too. And that’s the point.

.

January 8th

……….the day Mick Bromley and me were born, 

two hours apart in the Maternity Home 

near the bus station in Batley.

.

The year before, it was one who would write

a history of time, grow twisted as a caul.

David Bowie won’t arrive for four more years.

.

Elvis is eight years old. 

It’s Shirley Bassey’s birthday too. 

She is seven. 

Poor white trash.

Tiger Bay nigger.

.

I’ll light candles for us all.

.

I guess there’d be no cake

or candles for little Aaron Elvis.

I’ll light a candle for him.

Maybe put on a record.

Love me tender. His ma will like that.

And Blue Suede Shoes

for a boy with no shoes.

.

Watch him hunch his shoulders, 

watch his small boy’s hips,

see his forelock twitch.

.

Play Blue Moon of Kentucky.

Blue moon of Kentucky, keep on shinin’, shinin’.

See Elvis and his ma, watch them dance together,

see them dream. Try not to think

of how he blew all his candles out.

.

.Star signs
 
I don’t set much store by horoscopes;
And yet. Being born in January
makes me a Capricorn. A sign
I think congenial. It’s jaunty,
comes with a tang of salt and cold flung spray;
rumbustious, randy and ebullient;
mad and golden-eyed in racing tumbled surf;
cloven footed moonlight dancer.
All in all, to be a musky Sea-goat’s fine,
and better far than being a sidling Crab,
than being a Water-carrier, and certainly
preferable to being a Ram (too obviously
destined for the sacrificial knife, or desert,
weighed down with others’ ragbag guilt).
Better than unbedded Maid,or ho-hum Scales.
New year. Mid-winter. Good time to be born.
David Bowie, Stephen Hawking
Shirley Bassey, Elvis, me – your standard Capricorn.