Keeping on: my kind of poetry. Martin Zarrop

What are days for?

Days are where we live.   

They come, they wake us   

Time and time over.

They are to be happy in:   


Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question

Brings the priest and the doctor   

In their long coats

Running over the fields.

       (Philip Larkin: The Whitsun Weddings)

I’ve never liked Sundays very much. In my childhood and into my teens it was a routine of Sunday School and Chapel, and in between, a day of tense silences between my mum and dad who were not made for days of inaction or each others’ unmediated company. 

In those days all the shops were closed on Sundays. As were cinemas. There was no TV. Later, in my decades of teaching, my Sundays were often the days in the shadow of Mondays, days when marking had to be done, was often put off and off and off until it was all ploughed through in an unsatisfactory way, late on a Sunday night.

I sometimes remember that inability to knuckle down to what needs doing;  like now, when for one reason and another I’ve put off writing a post I really do want to write, but tell myself I can’t find the hook, or the way in, or whatever. Mainly I think, it’s because I suspect I’ll make a pig’s ear of it.


I suppose the idea of Sundays has bothered me, too, because the idea of days has lost its resonance. Days in my past used to have significance. Mondays were washing days (why?). Tuesdays, Early Closing…shops shut at round about 1.00pm, and that was it if you forgot to buy the bread. Round our way, there was a day when housewifes (there were housewifes, then) queued to buy tripe. Fridays were fish (and chip) days. Saturdays, fathers were at home, and the afternoons were for the match. Saturday nights were cinema nights, and dance hall nights. And then there was Sunday.

Everything changed, I think, in the early 80s, when the Sunday opening laws changed; everything was now open 24/7; after the 60’s most households needed two wage earners, and so on. Though we clung to the notion of the ‘weekend’, days no longer identified themselves in quite the same way. And then, a year ago, we finally accepted that, like the rest of the world, we were part of a pandemic.  And for millions of us, all the days became the same.

Which is, I suppose, a very roundabout way of writing my way into this post, which will be about, among other things, the passage of time, the erosions of memory and history, about loss and, I hope, about hope and salvation. When days are much the same we can lose track of time. I got a letter from the NHS this week; it advises me that I am vulnerable, at risk, and that I am strongly advised to ‘shield’ until March 31. 

It was a bit of a shock to realise that I’d had one of these letters before. A year ago, to be precise. 

I’ve been shielding and self-isolating for a year. It’s my Covid-versary. At the start, you don’t mark the date. I just remember thinking that it would be sorted by the end of April, and I’d go to St Ives to write. And then April became September, except it didn’t. And so on. Can you remember what day its anymore? 

If someone told you a year ago you’ll be isolated for a year you’d probably say but I can’t do that. Much in the style of folk who post on social media that they can’t wait for X or Y or whatever. meaning that they don’t want to. I can’t do that. I’m reminded of Kim Moore’s glorious Trumpet Teacher’s curse


a curse on the teacher who says I’m rubbish at music
in a loud enough voice for the whole class to hear

I can’t do that. We believe we can’t cope. We lose someone we love. We lose an occupation. How will we survive? It turns out that you can, that you have to, that you do. I had another anniversary in January. Eight years ago I joined an inspirational fellowship and gave up alcohol. I thought I couldn’t do it, but it turned out I could. The remarkable thing is that, as a direct result, I started to write seriously, and joined another inspirational fellowship of people who write poems. I’ve had a book published every year since. I started to write a poetry blog, and about 750,000 words later, I’m still writing it. It turns out I could do it after all. As can we all, mostly. 

 Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question

Brings the priest and the doctor   

In their long coats

Running over the fields.

To Larkin’s priest and doctor, let me add Mathematician and Scientist, and so finally get round to the real point of this post which is to share my enthusiasm for the work of Martin Zarrop, one of that inspirational fellowship of people who write poems. And I’ll start with a poem which I think is at the heart of his first two books : No theory of everything and Moving Pictures

Moving Pictures 

 May 1945, Clock Cinema, Leeds

They search for the stars

through tobacco haze, follow

each washed out image 

on the screen. Sweaty-necked 

rows of utility suits, 

tiredness slumped against

faded seats. Soldiers march 

as powdered dolls parade

to music, to victory. Dust

dances in the flicker

of the projector’s light.

I want something.

She rummages through her bag, 

tells the boy there’s nothing left.


Then give me something else.

A killer’s eye, perhaps, 

or the floating nightmare 

of Donovan’s Brain, conjuring

bubble spells out of a glass jar,

turning men into monsters.

They shall not pass; Gary Cooper  

will meet The End, armed 

with his righteous gun while Mrs Miniver

survives her clapboard blitz

on the Hollywood back lot.

Now, through cracks in an adult wall 

he sees the cock crow its news, hears 

the clipped voice as cameras pan


slow as ice across an open pit

of broken extras, jumbled 

contortions of skin and bone, stick

origami folded by bulldozers.

In black and white a woman weeps,

men stare, stone-grey

into the winter soil. 


There is no hero, no lipstick.

His head is pulled down 

into mother’s lap.  They wait

for the main feature, the

safe return in glorious Technicolor

of the real world,

Ronald Colman to Shangri-La.


I started reading and annotating the two collections some time last November. I would take them with me to hospital when I went for check ups, for consultations, scans, and, latterly, for chemotherapy. This poem is the one that stopped me in my tracks. I remember the shock of those newsreels, too, but the thing is that I only saw them for the first time in the late 1950s, in my teens. They came at the end of a long series on TV: All our yesterdays. These lines brought back the nightmare that wouldn’t leave.

                           an open pit

of broken extras, jumbled 

contortions of skin and bone, stick

origami folded by bulldozers.

The disjunction of that phrase ‘stick origami’, its obscene oxymoron of brittleness and foldings, nailed the sense of sick incredulity it generated. I was in the comfort of our house, watching with my dad. I didn’t know at the time that one of my dad’s brothers was at the liberation of Belsen..though when I finally knew, I began to understand the darkness that seemed to hang about him. Unlike Martin, I wasn’t Jewish, I wasn’t in a strange town, I wasn’t 8 years old. 

The poem beautifully evokes the exhaustion at the end of the war, the tiredness of the audience, the offer of an escape from a grey, utilitarian world as they search for the stars /through tobacco haze. You sense that the cinema is a treat for the mother, and the child needs to be pacified with something else. Which, appallingly, turns out to be something he maybe shouldn’t see, through cracks in an adult wall. Shangri La will never be the same again.

In Moving Pictures, this poem is one of a sequence of thirteen, each set in 1945. Martin explains that  

“the key to the 1945 poems is the title poem ‘Moving Pictures’. It’s the only poem of the sequence to relate to a personal experience. In 1945 I was 8 years old and living in Leeds with my mother who wouldn’t let me be evacuated alone so we left London and rented a house (now demolished) in Banstead Terrace. We went to the cinema regularly and she would take a bag of goodies to keep me quiet. I remember the Pathe News and the concentration camp images but I think it was my mother’s reaction that etched them in my memory. The Clock Cinema building is impressive and still in existence but has now some other function. I keep having to remind myself that ‘the war’ is 75 years into history for young people but it still fascinates me and visiting each month of 1945 seemed a fruitful way of touching on it and the various political issues that are still with us today.”

The sequence includes the execution of the son of Max Planck, the failed Hitler assassination plot, the Dresden firestorm, Hiroshima, the completion of the first supercomputer and the foundation of the United Nations. It’s worth pointing this out, because Martin Zarrop’s poetry, like his conversation, is wide ranging. He’s a polymath and polyhistor, and at the heart of it all, human and vulnerable.  Martin summarises his background as follows:

“I spent my working life as an academic applied mathematician although I gave up physics and chemistry in the 4th form  and graduated with a BA (not BSc) in Maths. My only period working outside academia was during my Trotskyite period (1964-71) at the end of which I worked for just over a year as a journalist until I burned out and ‘defected’. These events have impacted some of my poems. I suppose I was looking for mathematical certainty even in politics! It was ‘all or nothing’; just to do ‘something’ would be a betrayal. In the end, I do nothing politically except occasionally expressing an opinion and getting angry but, of course, I can afford that luxury!

My absence of scientific qualifications (and my non-practical essence!) has never blunted my interest in science, particularly physics, AI, cosmology and the philosophical questions they raise. I keep a close eye on New Scientist as a source of poetry and a tentative title for my next collection is ‘To Boldly Go’. I’m not certain where Covid should raise its head in a new collection. “

This should explain why you’ll come across a fascination with Artificial Intelligence, the Turing Test, the Uncertainty Principle and Schrodinger’s cat amongst many other things in his four collections. However, it’s the more explicitly human/vulnerable/personal poems I want to share with you right now. First, this poem about his father, which reminds me powerfully of Tony Harrison’s Bookends.. the business of how the 11+ and scholarship separated so many of us working class boys, and girls, from their neighbours and parents. What finally separates us, of course, is death. As Martin says in The Father-Thing, another poem about his dad : I would talk to him now/but the language is lost



I never wanted it

that life of sweatshops,

the taste of dust and steam,

the clatter of machines.


There my father was at home,

alive among his workmates,

thimble, needle in motion.

Schmutters: that was his trade.


I envied the skill in his fingers,

the blur of metal on chalk

piercing raw cloth

in a rhythm that never slowed


over fifty years. I still see him,

hands moving over garments,

Woodbine dangling from lip,

the yellow stain on his shirt.


We never talked about work,

never talked about anything.

His ambition for me was cutter-designer,

the Everest I refused to climb.


My hands move over white paper

etching the symbols of our separation.


Martin explains that “ my father was absent during my early childhood. He was already 29 when war was declared and didn’t reappear until 1946. He came from a large Jewish East End family and his parents were from Poland. His family was pretty noisy and lively and my mother (I felt) rather looked down on them, particularly as they loved gambling (horses, dogs, cards) and couldn’t hold onto money. My father was a ladies tailor, tried unsuccessfully on a couple of occasions to go into business with his father and siblings and couldn’t resist gambling. This was the cause of many parental rows and my mother ended up doling out weekly pocket money to him. He was always asking for a fiver (‘don’t tell mum’) when I visited later in life and this image (‘don’t be like your father’) is deeply embedded in my brain. It was impossible ever to have a proper conversation with him because of these background issues (see ‘The Father Thing’). There are still poems to be written about my parents.”

 Amen to that I say.

Separation is a theme that runs through Martin’s poetry. He’s in his 80’s (though you wouldn’t think so) and of an age like me when  ‘the loss of friends is devastating, particularly when they have been soul mates and walking companions’.  His wife died in 2005, and she’s a constant presence, too. She’s implicit in the rituals of loneliness and loss that he evokes in  ‘Moving pictures’….solitary cooking with a man who hasn’t ever quite embraced cookery. The ‘comfort of a Tesco fry-up’ that is no comfort at all. 

The poem I asked for that illuminates this element of his writing comes at the subject obliquely, delicately, beautifully. It’s about displacement strategies among other things, I think. I’ll let it speak for itself.

Ghost Sonata

I teach piano on a Sunday

to girls who’ve passed 

away before they’ve made the grade.


I find it therapeutic, sitting in my chair,

savouring the touch of vanished fingers,

coaxing airs from tarnished keys.


We don’t speak much. I listen carefully

and stare through shimmer to a score

that must be strictly followed


as my wife insisted. No cutting

corners for a pretty face, she said.

And even though she’s absent


and they’re dead, 

I maintain standards.


And finally, from his newest collection Is anyone there? a poem that made me cheer and then laugh out loud. It made me think that this is why I like poetry. Because, ultimately, it’s life-affirming. It’s a collection that’s dedicated to lost friends and loves

    ‘black holes, you become invisible / but you still bend space and time’

It’s a collection that teases away at the idea of consciousness, of intelligence, the intellectual puzzles of the Turing Test, Searle’s ‘Chinese Room’.

It’s a collection colored by the question of its title: is anyone there? A collection full of ghosts, or about ghosts, about what it means to be alive, and how to live when  a loved one has died.

To My Nineties

You’d better get your skates on

or at least your boots

and get out there, old dribbler,

before it’s too late.


I may not meet you in the hills

struggling through Kinder peat.

Thirteen miles, fifteen? 

No problem!


Or so I thought as hair thinned

and Christmas followed Easter

as if in a time machine

that ate old friends for breakfast.


You stand patient near the finish line

as I pull myself up for the final sprint.

Nothing lasts forever, not hips

not brain cells. I need a project.


I’ll make you my project.

Wait for me.


I really would have liked to say so much more, about the poems about hill-walking, say; but sometimes less is more.

I’ll finish with an extract from  ‘So many prayers’ (in Moving Pictures). I fancy I find here a metaphor for poetry, like Eliot’s fragments shored against our ruins. A prayer to push between the interstices of the ancient sunbaked Western Wall in Jerusalem


I have scribbled

Peace and Socialism

not much to ask.

The wall towers above me


Thanks, Martin Zarrop for being our guest and sharing your poems. The pleasure’s been all ours.

Martin’s Books:

No theory of everything: Cinnamon Press     [2015] £4.99

Moving pictures:             Cinnamon Press     [2016] £8.99

Making Waves:                V.Press                [2019]  £6.50

Is anyone there:               The High Window [2020] £10.00


Martin Zarrop is a retired mathematician who wanted certainty but found life more interesting and fulfilling by not getting it. He started writing poetry in 2006 and has been published in various magazines and anthologies.
His pamphlet ‘No Theory of Everything’ (2015) was one of the winners of the 2014 Cinnamon Press pamphlet competition and his first full collection ‘Moving Pictures’ was published by Cinnamon in 2016. His pamphlet ‘Making Waves’ on the life and science of Albert Einstein was published by V.Press in 2019. His second collection ‘Is Anyone There?’ was published by High Window Press in March 2020.

***** If you like, you can buy a copy of Is Anyone There direct from Martin for the bargain price of £9.00 incl. P&P. ***** email him at ****

Busy being born

………….he not busy being born is busy dying  : 

It’s alright, Ma.(I’m only bleeding). Bob Dylan …………….

“It has been a quiet week, here on Lake Wobegon. It  snowed twelve inches on Tuesday”. 

So begins my favourite Garrison Keillor radio story. I’ve written about it before, in another context, because it’s a story about stories, about storytelling and storytellers, and the covenant between audience and author/performer. About expectations and surprises, about truth and falsehood. Which is more important now than at any time in my life, as we stumble through the sleep of reason in which monsters are born.

I suspect there will be a lot of quotations in this post which I’ve been struggling to start for about two months. Ready-to-wear ideas may well be what you get, instead of the bespoke ones that are, more often than not, eluding me. I can envy Keillor, who, whatever his doubts about what came next, always knew what the first sentence was going to be. And that what followed would be about ‘the quiet week’.

It’s been a horrible year here in the UK. It snowed on Wednesday. Things went on getting worse. 

Who wants more? Thought not.

Six weeks ago I started a programme of chemotherapy. I wasn’t prepared for the lethargy or the mental tiredness. I thought I was already mentally tired by the unchanging circumstances of ten months of shielding/lockdowns/self-isolation. Though I suppose it was some kind of practice. It would be so easy to catalogue the frustrations of 2020 and would serve little purpose. Everyone else has been there. I’ve grown spiritually and physically agarophobic as the world has consistently shrunk.

I dream of going out to an actual shop and buying things with physical money. I’d like to have trips out to places that aren’t hospitals or surgeries….though every now and them they’re the highlight of the week, because they involve meeting people I don’t know, and having conversations, and, often, a laugh.

Which reminds me that two poetry residentials I’ve booked and paid for have been cancelled (and the hotels that would have hosted them have just gone into administration; my heart goes out to the staff); our annual trip to Skye has been indefinitely postponed. I miss the sea, the hills, and the creative buzz of it all. Poor me.

How to switch this around?

I have one friend, a singer/songwriter/performer/teacher/artist in his early 80s. He’s started these days to talk about not having much time left. Another friend, not quite 80, just emailed me and his post included the phrase ‘in the months that remain to us’.

I’ve been reading recent work by David Constantine, and by Martin Zarrop in which, quite co-incidentally, they share a trope. The business of hill walks you could once manage but know now that these days you can’t. And also the business of walks you you used to do with close trusted friends who are now dead and gone.

Then there was the Christmas card list. I realised that so many friends have died and so many addresses are dead-letter boxes that I need to start again with a new address book. A real book. Which brings me to the first quotation

………….he not busy being born is busy dying  

In my early 20s I suspect I didn’t hear the ambiguity of it, any more than I did in The Who’s lyric ‘hope I die before I get old’. To which I now say a fervent ‘amen’. Because I understand, now, that getting old isn’t the same thing as the passage of time, and that dying is about not being born, every possible minute. For years my partner and I cared for elderly parents, one way and another, and I watched as their worlds shrank, physically, as did their curiosity. Slowly and inevitably they stopped taking any notice, stopped listening, stopped reading, being interested, talking. They were just busy dying. 

I’ve decided I want none of it. I can learn from Solzhenitsyn and his take on Epicureanism, especially in One day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch. The idea that happiness lies, at least in part, in taking inventory of the day and identifying how it could have been much worse if X or Y had not happened or didn’t exist. And then focussing on X or Y. Things that made life better. An extra bowl of kasha. A bit of hacksaw blade. Building a wall. 

What did I do in 2020? I have a house, I have a garden, a field beyond the garden, a view beyond the field. I have a garage full of bits of timber and power tools. In February three days of incessant horizontal rain worked through the gable end and round the kitchen window and poured in. So when the rain stopped, I got out the gear and repointed all the damage, and replastered and painted inside. I enjoyed it. Most of it. 

The weather was nice this summer. I repained a lot of the outside woodwork; when it rained I decorated indoors or resprayed picture frames.

On a whim, via the cobweb and Facebook I invited folk to send me poems inspired by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s wonderful, artful poem Swineherd. Scores of people sent me poems, and then Bob Horne of Calder Valley Poetry suggested that we make a book of them, which involved asking Kim Moore to select the 26 best ones in an alphabet of occupations we’d leave When all this is over.  

It’s only just struck me that probably every single submission involved a future of being left alone. You’d have thought that lockdown might have inspired dreams of crowds, of festivals of concerts. What most folk seemed to dream of was travelling alone, and almost invariably, in wild places or on the sea. Yes. My dreams too, I realise. But there you are. A book out.

I missed physical poetry courses, but I’ve been, virtually, to Garsdale Head with Kim Moore, to Sneaton Castle with the Poetry Business; I’ve joined in Joe Bell’s project To heal the mutilated world …and that was terrific…as well as Winston Plowes’ and Gaia Holmes’ Muse-li courses. And every Monday night, via Zoom, there was the Albert Poets’ Workshop. What else…oh yes. Tom Weir and I will be zoom-workshopping together, hopefully right through 2021. A lot of extra bowls of Kasha.

Then there was the field. It’s been fallow most of the time for the last 50 years. Next doors’ started to reclaim a patch in 2019. Dug out decades of crap (including substantial car parts), tons of bindweed and bramble and nettle, constructed raised beds, planted veg.

I was less ambitious and elected for wild flower meadow patches. We really should have asked the farmer, but no one has done anything with the field for half a century, and anyway……this year I decided to start another patch.

One August afternoon this year, Freda, the field’s owner decided to clear it all out. No idea why, but one morning there was a JCB scraping off decades of tangled briar, and we were rumbled. In the end I put into a poem which conflates events over two summers, but which made me happy when I made myself do it last November

It turns out

she’s been watching from her bedroom window

on the gable end side of the house which, officially,

does not exist. It turns out it was the smoke.

That and the red tee shirt in her field. Her husband,

himself a burner of fields, was keen on trespassers.


Its her field now, fallow fifty years, a seething sea

of bramble, bindweed, cowparsley, twitch and dock.

Every seven years, her husband (much older and now dead)

would assert his right of way, sometimes by burning,

one time with a greatbladed JCB that scraped it bare.

But now he’s dead, his rights of way have lapsed.


Next doors’ dug out a fair sized patch of field,

put raised beds in, planted spuds and onions and kale.

I cleared out my own; dug out miles of poplar roots,

asbestos sheets, old nettles, briars, furnace bricks,

rusted car parts, chicken wire, dug and raked,

ordered wildflower seed: rattle, corncockle, poppy.


Let mounds of dead leaf, root and thorn dry out,

and had a day of fires. Which is is when she saw me

from her bedroom window. The blue smoke, red shirt.

Came round to our front door with her nephew, 

Kev, a big lad with earrings, hair like Johnny Cash 

and letters on his knuckles. She said 

she’d been watching from her bedroom window

That’s my field you’re burning. What’s going on?


I could have taken her round to look, but

her seeing Tony’s vegetable garden 

didn’t bear thinking of. I’m seeding wildflowers.

I should have thought to ask. I meant no harm.

I bought her the packets to see. 

Kev got back in the van. I’m Freda, by the way

she said. Freda Parkin. Would you like to do the field?


There we are. Busy being born. As to dying before you get old. I think they may be the same thing. It’s taken me two months to write this. I feel outrageously happy to have done it. Happy enough to end with two quotations, both from Tony harrison.

Articulation is the tongue-tied’s fighting


The tongueless man gets his land took.

When all this is over, I think I’ll have one of these tattooed on my arm. And maybe another on the other.

David Constantine: Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry 2020

I was utterly delighted to read this press release from Bloodaxe first thing this morning:

We are thrilled and honoured that David Constantine, one of the first poets to be published by Bloodaxe, has been named winner of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry 2020. He was recommended by the Poetry Medal Committee on the basis of his eleven books of poetry, in particular his 2004 Collected Poems. His 11th collection, Belongings, was published in October.

Let me add to the celebrations by reposting a piece I wrote first in early 2019, for my  blog on Write out Loud :The Wider Web

“I was barely aware of David Constantine until about four years ago. It seems to me now like being unaware of, say, Geoffrey Hill or Tony Harrison. How did it happen?….perhaps because despite being a much-acclaimed translator, the co-editor of Modern Poetry in Translation, and author of the stunning Bloodaxe Collected Poems, he attracts no controversy, his work is crafted, elegant, and educated (as well as passionate, humane, and given to wearing its heart on its sleeve). In short, he is not fashionable. For me, he sits alongside Harrison, Fanthorpe, Causley and MacCaig; but apart from Kim Moore in one of her blog posts, no one had ever said to me have you read x or y by David Constantine?  So I’m taking a punt on some of you out there, like me, not knowing, and I’m hoping that after you’ve read this, you, like me, will want to rush out and buy his Collected Poems.

I met him by accident at a reading/party for the 30thbirthday of The Poetry Business at Dean Clough in Halifax. I was reading from my new first collection and David was top of the bill. 

It was wonderful. He reads apparently effortlessly, he reads the meaning of the words, so it sounds like unrehearsed speech until you become aware of the patterning of rhythm, of rhyme, the lovely craftedness of it. I bought his Collected Poems (more than embarassed to find it was £12 and my collection was £9.95. Jeepers) and once I’d finished a year of reading Fanthorpe, I spent a year of reading David’s poems, three or four every morning, listening to the work of words, the deft management of unobtrusive rhyme and assonance, relishing the huge range of reference, the lightly-worn scholarship, the management of voices. I heard him reading again quite recently, and took a punt on asking him to be a guest on The Wider Web. He said yes. He’s a generous man. I like this introduction to him..I’ve managed to lose the source, for which mea culpa..but it says what I’d like to have said myself.

He was born in 1944 in Salford, Lancashire, an urban landscape of factories, red brick terraces and mizzle-grey skies, the Lowry backdrop to his childhood with a nimbus of “visionary dreariness” quite particular to that part of England. Some of his poems home in on this familiar prehistory and its memorable characters, while others range across the mysterious mythical world of faraway Greece, inspired by epiphanies beneath the clanging skies above the Aegean. ..Constantine fuses the compressed stoical grit of the one with the lyrical flexibility of the other to create an intense poetic voice…He is a maker of poems, a craftsman as well as messenger … [whose] poems arrive freighted with authority.

I also latched on to another description of his work that draws attention to the way that he seems to fly under the fashionable radar.

David Constantine, a scholar-poet whose considerable poetic achievement mysteriously wants the wider appreciation it deserves, considering its emotional range, its mastery of formal and linguistic variety, its lyrical intensity and disarming confessional intimacy, these all finely attuned by a keenly attentive ear. It is contemporary poetry which unfashionably, and unexpectedly perhaps, makes frequent use of forms, ideas and associations buried deep in a grand European poetic tradition.

Some readers, startlingly, don’t get it. As in this extract from Laurie Smith’s review of David Constantine’s Collected Poems in Magma 31

David Constantine’s Collected is not complete, comprising the poems from his seven previous Bloodaxe collections which he wishes to keep in print together with the poems in two limited editions and some new poems. Reading the 350 pages, I am struck, first, by how few poems deal centrally with other people, that is people in the present world, not in myth or history, who are determinably separate from the poet. A series of early poems describes people and their ends with decided lack of sympathy: Milburn Margaret, Mrs who 

               on a Friday in the public view

            Lodged on the weir as logs do.

Who is this reviewer who seems to inhabit a different universe from mine? Someone, it seems, incapable of reading what’s there in plain sight. Let me show you how astonishingly wrong he was. Let’s start with a poem from one of his earliest collections, A brightness to cast shadows [1980]. ]. I chose this to show his lyricism, and the way he can stop a moment like a held breath.

But most you are like 

But most you are like 

The helpless singing of birds

To whom the light happens

On whom it falls

And at whose purity of voice

The skies weep and there is a pause

In all the world before beginning

And before the ending

Some of the moments he stops in time are accurately bleak, looking unwaveringly at the space between life and death, and between the dark and the light..the space where the poetry goes.


A lamb lay under the thorn, the black

Thorn bending by the last broken wall

And grasping what it can.


The dead lamb picketed a ewe.

She cropped round, bleating

And chewing in that machinal way of sheep.

And although she backed to a safe distance,

When I climbed down towards her lamb

Through a gap in the wall,

It was as if painfully paying out the fastening cord.


The crow was there, also

At a safe distance, waiting for the ewe to finish;

And sidled off a further yard or so 

Waiting until I too should have finished.


For me, it spins round that unnerving observation The dead lamb picketed a ewe. There’s a double-take when you suddenly see the umbilical cord that links the living to the dead, and then the camera pulls back, and there’s the crow, waiting. I love the clarity of it all, the exactness of the line breaks, and the way the capitalised lines slow you down, make you pay attention to the heft of each line. I actually queried his preference for what I carelessly called ‘an older tradition’, this business of capitalisation. He put me right on that:

About initial capitals – what you call ‘the old tradition’ – I’ve always set my lines like that and I think the (in practice very fast) reappraising of the syntax from line to line is a good thing. Lineation plays a critical part in causing the mind to (however briefly) pause in its grasping after sense, in which pause it entertains possibilities, which is a good thing. The capitalization is a marker or gentle enforcer of that process.

So I’ll ask you to keep that in mind as you work your way through the rest of the poems and extracts. Read them aloud is my advice.

When I began to read the Collected Poems, though there were so many of those ‘moments that draw you in’ I was brought up short by a sequence which is essentially a praise poem to his Grandma, widowed in WW1. Light and dark is a leitmotif through so many of the poems, and memorably so in the notion that the dead ‘glimmer for a generation’ and unless we constantly attend to them they will lose their (lovely word) luminance.

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from In Memoriam 8571 Private J.W.Gleave

who was at Montauban, Trônes Wood, and Guillemot


There are some dead we see and even see by;

They glimmer for a generation, our looking

Lends them more luminance.


We saw a similar light dawn on the woman

Who had been a widow more than fifty years.

She lingered in the doorway of the living room

  Impelled as people leaving are to say

Some word more than goodnight


The women stood by, they followed the post like crows:


So the news came from Guillemot to Salford 5

After lapse of weeks during which time

She had known no better than to believe herself a wife.


But by November the congregation of widows

  Being told it was a reasonable sacrifice

Their men had made saw mutilated trees bedecked

  With bloody tatters and being nonetheless

Promised a resurrection of the body

  They saw God making their men anew out of

The very clay. These women having heard from soldiers

  However little from the battlefield

Towards All Saints gathered black gouts from the elder

  Among their children stared at the holy tree

And envied Christ his hurts fit to appear in.


There being no grave, there being not even one

Ranked among millions somewhere in France,

Her grief went without where to lay its head.


Constantine returns to the business of his Grandma in his collection The pelt of wasps in 1998, with this poem. Angry and tender at once; a memorial for all those women his grandma represents, the ones who were left, like my own grandma, to bring up their their children, to count the pennies, to soldier on.

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Soldiering on

We need another monument. Everywhere

Has Tommy Atkins with his head bowed down

For all his pals, the alphabetical dead,

And that is sweet and right and every year

We freshen the whited cenotaph with red


But no one seems to have thought of her standing her

In all the parishes in bronze or stone

With bags, with heavy bags, with bags of spuds

And flour and tins of peas and clinging kids

Lending the bags their bit of extra weight –


Flat-chested little woman in a hat,

Thin as a rake, tough as old boots, with feet

That ache, ache, ache. I’ve read

He staggered into battle carrying sixty pounds

Of things for killing with. She looked after the pence,


She made ends meet, she had her ports of call

For things that keep body and soul together

Like sugar, tea, a loaf, spare ribs and lard,

And things the big ship brings that light the ends

Of years, like oranges. On maps of France


I’ve trailed him down the chalky roads to where

They end and her on the oldeast A to Z

Down streets, thin as a wraith, year in, year out

Bidding the youngest put her best foot forward, 

Lugging the rations past the war memorial.


It reads so easily, it’s so instantly accessible and memorable, you hardly notice the craft of it, its rhetorical ease, those half rymes and internal rhymes, and what you remember is the tenderness, the anger. David Constantine will take you from familiar urban landscapes to worlds of myth and legend, those strange distant landscapes which, you discover with a sort of shock, still penetrate our uncomfortable present

“This was a pleasant place.

This was a green hill outside the city.

Who would believe it now? Unthink

The blood if you can, the pocks and scabs,

The tendrils of wire. Imagine an apple tree

Where that thing stands embedded.


“The flat earth is felloed with death. 

At every world’s end, in some visited city,

Diminished steps go down into the river of death.”

From: Mappa Mundi [1987]

See that amazing conflation of myth, religion, history, all time present in the vulnerable ‘now’. The apple trees of the Hesperides and of Eden, Golgotha and barbed wire. The whole world deserving of an inundation. David Constantine is drawn to cataclysmic flood, to Atlantean myths, and conflagration; I thought about this when I read one critic querying what Hiroshima had to do with Pompeii. David’s a year younger than I. We were at grammar school when the first H Bomb was exploded; in Liverpool, in Manchester, in London and elsewhere you could walk through bombed ladscapes still. This was the 1950s. I had no doubt that I would never see 21. If you grow up in a shadow, you’re always conscious that lights can go out.  I love this next poem, not least because of that.

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The quick and the dead at Pompeii

I cannot stop thinking about the dead at Pompeii.

It was in the Nagasaki and Hiroshima month.

They did not know they were living under a volcano.

The augurers watched a desperate flight of birds

And wondered about it in the ensuing silence.


There was sixty feet of ash over Pompeii.

It was seventeen centuries before they found the place.

Nobody woke when the sun began again,

Nobody danced. The dead had left their shapes.

The mud was honeycombed with the deserted forms of people.


Fiorelli recovered them with a method the ancients

Inveted for statuary. When he cast their bodies

And cracked the crust of mud they were born again

Exactly as they had died. Many were struck

Recumbent, tripped, wincing away, the clothing


Rolled up their backs. They were interrupted:

A visting woman was compromised for ever,

A beggar hugs his sack, two prisoners are in chains.

Everyone died as they were. A leprous man and wife

Are lying quietly with their children between them.


The works of art at Pompeii were a different matter.

Their statues rose out of mephitic holes bright-eyed.

The fresco people had continued courting and feasting

And playing mythological parts: they had the hues

Of Hermione when Leontes is forgiven.


What do I take from this?…the nakedness of the human condition, a people without defence. And, I suppose, the echo of Larkin’s ‘what will survive of us is love’. Like the quietness of the leprous man and wife.

In another poem in the sequence the figures of Demeter and Persephone are uncovered having ‘survived a bombardment of hot stones’

Nobody loved the earth better than Demeter did

Who trailed it miserably

Calling after her child and nobody’s gifts 

Withheld were more pined after.


Mother and daughter passed north

From prince to prince and latterly

Survived the fire in Dresden. How Pompeii

Seen from the air resembles sites of ours:


Roofless, crusty. Look where Persephone

Wound in rags

Leads blinded Demeter by the hand

Seeking an entrance to preferable Hades.

from: Mother and daughter

There it is again, that insistence on the connections of myth, of history, Demeter’s agony and the death of growing things in the landscapes of Dresden , and I suppose, of his own Salford. 

Now, from cataclysmic fire to cataclysmic water. David lives in the Scillies, a drowned landscape off the ria coast of Cornwall, where Atlantis seems entirely possible if not actally present.

From Atlantis

It dies hard, the notion of a just people;

  The wish that there should have been once mutual aid

Dies very hard. Through fire and ghastly ash and any

  Smothering weight of water still we imagine

A life courteous and joyful; see them lightly clad

  Loving the sun, the vine and the grey olive.

Over the water from trading, they come home winged

  With sails, their guide and harbinger the white dove.


The sea suddenly stood up vertical, sky-high

Bristling with the planks of their peaceful ships.

The first line is one I can’t forget, and never want to, living as we do in a world that seems suddenly willing to destroy everything that approaches the respect and love of what we casually call ‘community’. David  will take you memorably into the not too distant past, and the present, too, as in his poems about the days in the Scillies, after storm and shipwreck when the islanders gathered whatever flotsam was brought to their shore, and when  ‘the harvests were golden’   

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Mother has linen from the Minnechaha,

I bought the ship’s bell for half a sovereign

From Stanley, our dumb man. 

Everyone has something, a chair, a bit of brass


And nobody wakes hearing a wind blow

Who does not hope there’ll be things come in

Worth having, but today

Was a quiet morning after a quiet night.


The bay was coloured in

With bobbing oranges. What silence

Till we we pitched into it

Knee-deep the women holding out their skirts


And the men thrashing in boats

We made an easy killing

We took off multitudes

And mounded them in the cold sun.


When Matty halved one with his jack-knife

It was good right through, as red

As garnet, he gave the halves

His girls who sucked them out.


The beams we owe the seas

Are restless tonight but every home

Is lit with oranges. They were close,

She says, or else the salt


Would have eaten them. Whose popping eyes, 

I wonder, say them leave, 

Roaring like meteors

When the ship in a quiet night


Bled them, and they climbed

Faster than rats in furious shining shoals

In firm bubbles and what

Will tumble in our broken bay tomorrow?


I could go on and on and on, but I see this is a longer post than usual. I need to stop. I hope you’re converted if you weren’t already. Last word from David

“Poetry now, every bit as much as in the Romantic age, is a utopian demonstration, by aesthetic means, of what true freedom would be like. It engages us to imagine something better than what at present we are afflicted with; it helps keep hope alive; it incites us to make more radical demands. And poetry does that out of the enjoyment of its own autonomy, which it is duty-bound not to forfeit.”  

In October this year, David arranged for me to have a copy of his lastest collection: Belongings. [Bloodaxe £10.99]  In a normal world I’d have already posted an enthusiastic and utterly biased review. In 2021 I promise it will be done.  But here’s a spoiler: it’s great. Go and buy it for Xmas. Treat yourself.

December 13th. St Lucie’s day

St Lucie’s Day 


Wrung like a cheese,

a day for the choice of the tallest, 

the wisest, the one most foolish,

the one with a limp, the one who casts

runes, the one with the no-coloured eye.

One of them.


Him we will beat ,with hammer and anvil,

into the likeness of kings.

We shall crown him with green holly

till blood runs in his beard,

and him we shall dress in the plumes

of the crow, of the tern, of the wren;

we shall stitch him with quills. He will fly into flames.


O this dark St Lucie’s day. You’d wish 

you were the Fool of the World . You’d wish

for his flying ship, you’d wish you could fly

to the cities, to the edges of things, to the sea.

You’d wish for a flicker of flame in the spruce.

You’d wish for a crossroads, for three wishes

to foil the old witch and her hen’s-leg house.

Old witch of layers, old doll of a year

and December her small heart.

(From Advice to a traveller. Indigo Dreams 2018)

[ps. I’ll happily sell you a copy . It’s only a PayPal click away via My Books ….. in the Menu at the top of the page}

My kind of poetry: Steve Ely’s: I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heauen

I started making annotations and sticking Post-its in Steve Ely’s pamphlet about nine months ago. It was a week before the first lock-down, and I was sitting in a dentist’s waiting room in Ossett. I used to take novels to read in surgeries and hospitals. More recently it’s been poetry that’s replaced Solzhenitsyn’s “Cancer Ward”. More often than not, it’ll be U A Fanthorpe’s ‘Tyndale in Darkness’. Whatever, it will probably feature the themes of suffering, endurance and redemption through faith of one kind or another. It’s a kind of epicureanism, I suppose. I beheld Satan as an angel… was, and is, different, because throughout it challenges the whole notion of the possibility of redemption. I’ve kept trying to write about why it seems to matter so much to me, and failing to nail it, falling short of what I think I mean. There are critical reviews that make an effort to appear objective; I never believed that such a thing is possible. When I read a poem I read it through a glass darkly, through the refracting lens of my preoccupations and memories, and subsequently, the poem ‘reads me’ if it’s any good at all. Afterwards, I see differently, and the poem becomes different. This is a sequence about falling from grace and about the death of a son, about the guilt for the death of a son. One of my sons took his own life by jumping from a tall building. It speaks to me in ways that it can’t speak to everyone. 

Sooner or later, though, you simply have to follow the advice of the old Nike slogan, and Just Do It. So, here goes.

The precis on the back cover pulls no punches.

“This sequence is about falling and fallen-ness, thrown-ness and being thrown. It begins in lust and it ends in death, taking in abortion, miscarriage and murder. It excoriates evil, embraces guilt and denies the possibility of absolution…it tries not to flinch, but it does, because it cannot bear the absence of reassurance”

Kim Moore’s endorsement talks of ‘[Steve Ely’s] trademark visceral and multi-layered language…these poems are blistering in their honesty..resting on multiple layers of allusion’

Quite simply, it’s disturbing, uncomfortable, upsetting; it’s as well to know that before you start. And if you don’t know Steve Ely’s work, you probably need some context. If you have the time and inclination you could follow these two links to earlier posts about my enthusiasm for his poetry:


If you haven’t the time, let me identify three or four things that may give you pause. 

The first thing may be the voice, its language.It’s packed with archaisms and archaic spellings, with a sometimes violent vernacular, with scatalogical slang (jamrags and johnnies),with disruptive lexis and (sometimes) syntax, and what I think of as a kind of medieval lyricism. Sheenagh Pugh, in an interview, said:

‘You’re very unafraid of words. That sounds an odd thing to say of a poet, but I’ve read so many reviewers, in particular, who seem downright terrified of any vocabulary vaguely out of the ordinary. …….One of the things I like best about your work is how you cheerfully expect your readers to cope with liturgical language, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, umpteen bird and plant names, lovely obscure words ….’

Steve’s answer is uncompromising: 

Words are my business, and as such, every word, in every language — past, present and future — belongs to me. I’ll use them as I see fit.

Secondly, there’s the business of Biblical reference, because often it’s a Bible you don’t recognise, that no-one ever told you about. If you went to Sunday School, as I did, you grew up with the winsome Infant Samuel. I remember a course  when Steve Ely introduced me to the older Samuel. Here he is commanding Saul :

Now therefore go thou, and slay Amalek, and destroy thou all his things; spare thou not him, nor covet thou anything of his things; but slay thou from man unto woman, and little child, and sucking, ox, and sheep, and camel, and ass.

But Saul and the people spared Agag, and they left of the sheep and of the oxen and fat things and the lambs and all that was good, and would not destroy them.

How does Samuel react? In fury he denounces Saul as apostate. Saul tries to make amends. At Samuel’s request he delivers up Agag.

And Samuel said, As thy sword hath made women without free children, so thy mother shall be without free children among women. And Samuel hewed Agag into gobbets before the Lord in Gilgal.

You might think ‘well, this is Old Testament.’

But Ely’s pamphlet takes its title from the New Testament’s Luke 10. You may not recognize the Jesus of these verses. You know all about the twelve disciples. Did you know of the 72 who Jesus sent out to spread the gospel, with these words ringing in their ears

Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.’ 

I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.

   “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! ……. it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for     you.  And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades.

   “Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me.”


The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.”

He replied,  I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 

I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.

Gentle Jesus meek and mild? Not remotely.

As a ‘youngish mature student’ Steve Ely took a degree in Biblical Studies after travelling around the Middle East and Europe, working as a fork-lift driver, and being involved in various ways with political activism. A degree in Divinity and growing up in a different, less imbricated, landscape might have generated a different, more emollient, more consoling range of reference. 

Two more things. 

Be ready for a range of allusion and reference that takes in the Southern Gothic of True Detective, Biblical exegisis, gnosticism, arcana, 20thC child murderers and paedophiles, the biochemistry of sexual reproduction, Near-Death experience, genocidal massacre and the business of designer polo shirts and trainers. Be ready to find that all epigraphs and references appear to carry the same weight, despite the widely varied provenance.

Finally. The key event, the starting point is a miscarriage.  It’s easy to see this as the whole point, and it isn’t. Steve said this in a email conversation I had with him:

A lot of people have called it a ‘male take on miscarriage’ ….. ‘it’s not really about that – it’s about what we’re capable of, and ultimately becomes a gnostic speculation on the possibilities of life after death’.

For me it’s a sequence of poems about spiritual despair in a world of great moral and physical violence; it’s about damnation and redemption. There you are. Colours nailed to the mast. 

I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heauen begins with five poems which return and return like nightmare to this core moment. 

‘Kids 5 and 2, 

the third in the womb three months that March 

stopped moving after I shattered your joy 

                        by suggesting you have an abortion: 


you know and I’ve always known—I wished him dead 

and he fled from Herod into Egypt’s plummeting dark’ 


The joy of annunciation is donkey-kicked into oblivion; a life that begins in a careless act of drunken sex, and threatens the comfortable security of a house and two affordable kids is snuffed out. Marie’s joy is blighted, and all this wretched Joseph can offer is the recognition that

The glamour of Tyre and Sidon, the exaltation 

of Capernaum—fitted kitchen, custom bookshelves, 

things and social life—he died for me

and freed us for those things.

                                                                               [The mother of Naim]


He will always remember and be haunted by the moment:


And there I was, stumbling burdened 

from the stuttering car, bushwhacked by the dazzle of your joy


But here I am with my life among the living, 

my fleets of ivory, apes and peacocks.  A worm in my heart 

and a snake beneath my tongue.


This, as I said is the starting point. A probably doomed attempt at ‘confession without self-justification’; an act of contrition without hope of any kind of absolution. But from the very start, the hope it denies will not be suppressed. The second poem, The feather of Ma’at makes this absolutely plain, whatever doubts and disclaimers follow. The image from Egyptian myth is of the heart of the dead being weighed against a feather. The pure heart is lighter and is saved. Salvation in Ely’s elision of multiple beliefs is to be reunited with the single flame of the universal spirit or godhead; to be no longer separate and cast out.

Surely perfect love is felt there, which comes 

from perfect understanding.  Where sinnes unfetter 

and leap to meet annihilating grace: a wretch like I,

scum of the sphynxy earth.  

          Dissolved, they weep 

with joy together, the boy, his mother, his sister

and brother: the father freed from outer darkenesse, 

still wailing and gnashing his teeth.


There’s no salvation or self-forgiveness here, is there? 


Assoone as the voice of thy salutation sounded 

in mine eares, the babe leapt in my wombe for ioy.

[ From: Luke 1:41. The Magnificat]


To wish someone dead and not kill them 

is cowardice and bad faith. Therefore we must be murderers.  

The sin is to stay the knife. 

                                  The boy that lit the linnet’s nest, 

then blubbered over the fledglings as they writhed 

and gaped in crackling death?  There’s no forgiveness. 

The act can never be undone.  

                                                          [Ego te absolvo]

The poet/narrator wanders an appalling dysfunctional world of financial collapse, massacres, terrorist attacks, assassinations..ugly death on a global scale…and, in Goe, and doe thou likewise through a hideous Edgelands despoiled landscape that could have been invented by David Peace:

‘ditch-litter of nonces, 

wrists cable-tied behind their backs, eyes popped 

from broken sockets.  Thirty brace of dumped pheasants, 

a gargoyled fox in a Tesco bag-for-life.  


Ditch litter of blood-soaked Tattershall shirts 

and torched Izuzu Troopers’

Like Peace’s Red Riding novels it’s spiritually and emotionally exhausting. When the wanderer appears before the Peacock throne making his lame excuses he gets the short thrift that you may have begun to think he deserves.

‘I had saved a toad’s life, formed the committee 

that rescued the Common and given one-hundred-

and-fifty pounds to Smile Train.  And as for the other things, 

I was always heartily sorry.  


                                   And He said, 

Your merits are more contemptible than your sins

and your sorrow is self-pity.

                                    The angels lowered

their carbines.  

              But He stayed their hand, saying,

                        I will not be complicit in the contagion of his darkness.  

Examine your heart and know what you are:

a beast and a murderer.  You cannot be redeemed.  

Embrace the blackness and kill yourself.

In the instant of death, you’ll know you’ve done 

the one right thing—let that be your consolation.


I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heauen is a short pamphlet of 14 poems. You can see that as as a narrative sequence it could have ended right here. Embrace the darkness and kill yourself. And because of my own personal history I would not be telling you that here’s a collection you need to read. It would have been too bleak to bear. Remember the precis I quoted at the very beginning. This collection:

  ‘excoriates evil, embraces guilt and denies the possibility of absolution…it tries not to flinch, but it does,  because it cannot bear the absence of reassurance.’

If your sin outweighs the feather of Ma’at, what hope is there? I think it lies in the last poem that begins in a landscape the early Christians would have recognised. The black rocks of, say, Sula Sgeirr or Rona to where they sailed their frail boats in a search for God.

Hæc nox est

Fireflies illumined the darkness, and lightning flashed

 on the horizon.  But there was no thunder.  A weird circular

 light glowed in the sky for a few moments and then suddenly

 plummeted toward the horizon, a crimson tail behind it.


I stepped from the cliff into ocean’s buffeting 

up-thrust, and plummeted in the darkness,  

face strafed with salt-shot, breath torn-off 

by up-flung bolts of foam.  Clap-rattling gannets 

leapt from the crag and circled their crosses.  

Auks dropped from their cracks and exploded.  

Fulmars squirting vomit.  I flapped and flailed 

like an oily eagle, and fell. 

Below, the black and heaving sea, 

its ghostly freight of fallen stars and shoals 

of glittering sturgeon.  Above, the all-enveloping night, 

the pulsar static of the buffering empyrean.  

They say the shock of the fall alone 

will stun the head and stop the beaten heart; 

else splat on the glass of the marbled sea, 

and nothing in that instant.  But I just kept falling, 

a rope-less bucket, dropped in a bottomless well.  

And I thought, perhaps this is it, 

the way DMT seeks to ease our deaths 

in the moment of transition, that we fall forever, 

and forever are spared the shattering shock of impact.  

Not like those nights we hit the rocks

and scream erect in freezing sweat, thank God— 

it’s all a dream.

            It is no dream.  The cormorant’s embrace 

awaits, this flick-book life of a thousand torn-off 

guillemot wings, each plucked from the body 

and cast into the mantling dark, where now he falls 

and continues to fall, a feather of flame now falling 

beside him, a small cool flare of feathery flame 

lighting his darkness and feathering his falling, 

and now he himself transfigured to flame, falling 

beside the spark that found him, and together they fall, 

a flaming man and a flaming child, with angels, 

falling, feathers of flame flaring from the darkness, 

like sparks from a rocket or the tail of a comet,

falling together and joining the fallen, the sobbing father 

and weeping mother and all their gathered children:

and now they are falling as a single flame, 

a tear of feathery fire, warming the world

like the flame of a beeswax candle, bringing light 

to the salt and whistling night, before settling 

on the heave like a lotus, or a burning swan, 

drifting out on the darkness and sinking.


To ‘embrace the darkness and kill yourself’ was the instruction. To throw yourself into the dark, in a blizzard of torn-off wings. It brings to me the image of the gannet hunters that Robert Macfarlane describes in The Old ways

“The birds are plucked, singed, seared. Then their wings are chopped off, they’re scrubbed again, split open and emptied of their innards, and their evacuated bodies are placed on ‘the Pile’ – a great altar-cairn of guga corpses. So it proceeds. On the middle Sabbath comes rest, prayer and song. If summer storms blow in, the men sit them out in the bothies, for there’s no working the Rock in big wind or big waves. Once the effort is over, they sail south again for Lewis. …..The guga that survive the harvest will, eventually, stagger down the cliff ledges until they fall off and splash into the sea. They are water-bound for a couple of weeks, riding the waves and fasting, until they are light enough to take flight and make their maiden voyages: winging down the west coast of Britain, the north-west peninsulas of France, through the Bay of Biscay, along the Atlantic facade, following their own sea roads – their migration paths – until at last they reach their winter home off West Africa.”

I’ve quoted all of this, not just for the detail of the wings torn from the bodies of gannets, but for the image of the survivors, falling exhausted on to the sea, and amazingly, miraculously, generation by generation, flying thousands of miles, coming home. I think that Steve Ely, a passionate watcher of birds, might appreciate this connection.  I love the physicality, the noise and space and texture of the opening, the primaeval star-studded black sky, the salt-shot, and then the way it transmutes into the weightlessness of a dream, that turns out not to be a dream. I like the echo of Thomas Wyatt (who was a master of emotional ambivalence): It was no dream: I lay broad waking: 

 Above all I love the long twenty-line sentence in its circling, lyrical recreation of falling and falling , flame-light, feather light, gathering into ‘a single flame’, settling on the heave of the sea like ‘a lotus’, or astonishingly, a ‘burning swan’. It reminds me of the final moments of Beethoven’s 6th, that long diminuendo, that leaves you quiet after a great storm.

Thank you Steve Ely, for letting me share all this. I doubt I’ve done justice to its complexity and craft. But it’s as good as I can manage.

I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heauen: [New walk Editions 2019] £5.00

for details of Steve Ely’s other books use the links to earlier posts (above)

Try to Praise the Mutilated World – locked in, together

Try to Praise the Mutilated World – locked in, together

Something to lift your spirits. It’s already lifted mine.

The Bell Jar

Welcome to Try to Praise the Mutilated World – a poetry writing project which will last for the duration of the current English lockdown, which is expected to be one month. The name is both a summary of what we’re doing, and a manifesto. It comes from this poem by Adam Zagajewski.

This is an absolutely unique time, and a fat lot of good that is to us. I’ve always said ‘it’s not pain, it’s raw material’ but I hadn’t reckoned on quite this much pain – for everyone, everywhere, and all at once. Still – it is a deep reservoir of raw material. We can dive into it time and again – sometimes looking for monsters, sometimes for pearls.

In the past months, we’ve all learned more about working and living online. Even the technophobic have now been introduced to Zoom meetings or online booking systems. We can now…

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Backtrack: On sequences, with Steve Ely and Pascale Petit

At our house, we’ve just completed eight months of a combination of shielding, enforced lockdown, and self-isolation. Most of it was, well, bearable. We had months of good weather to work on the garden, and reclaim another bit of the neighbouring farmer’s field for a wild flower patch. When the weather was bad I had picture framing, decorating…and in between showers, repointing various walls and gable ends. I had the ‘When all this is over’ project to keep my my brain ticking over in May and June. The annual trip to St Ives for a poetry residential was cancelled, but I managed a consolation in the form of a Garsdale Zoom course tutored by Kim Moore.

But right now I’m stalled. If you’re from my part of the West Riding the resonance of this will be understood. When my mum or my grandma said ‘I’m stalled’ they meant they were stuck, depressed, bored, fed-up, frustrated and generally out of sorts. I’ve finally become unable to shut out the appalling state of the country and its wilful mismanagement. I can’t think straight or clearly. I had an email from the poet Steve Ely (who will feature in a moment) in which he said he was ‘******* stir crazy’. He said he could go to the gym, and go for walks but (and this is the kicker) “there’s no joy in it” . Not a fashionable word joy. But I know exactly what he meant. Where’s the joy? It’s compounded by the fact that I’ll spend Thursday in Pontefract Hospital for minor surgery. I wouldn’t think twice about it in the normal run of things. But nothing’s normal, and for the first time in my life I’m assailed by anxiety, timidity. Today was set aside for writing an enthusiastic appreciation of Steve Ely’s latest pamphlet I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heauen. But my head’s like a washing machine, and I can’t do it justice. Apologies for that, but to keep the cobweb ticking over, here’s an edited version of a post I wrote almost exactly three years ago.

For the last four years I’ve been more or less bogged down, stalled, stymied – call it what you like- with a project that won’t let me be. It started with a reading I heard at the Red Shed in Wakefield, a group performance by the Sandal Writers. It was a compilation, something on the lines of a radio ballad, about a pit disaster at Lofthouse Colliery near Wakefield in 1972. I can’t explain why it stuck, why it bothered me, why it generated random images and narratives. I just know that I wanted to/had to write about it. Which is when the the problem of The Sequence wandered into my head and won’t wander out. I keep thinking I’ve cracked it. I’ve got one poem that I thought would open the door. It’s published, in the estimable Pennine Platform (2020) so maybe we’re finally getting there. Fingers crossed.

Wound up. 

Last shift, winding up

Half a million years a metre,

faster than light they come

out of the sparkling dust

of ancient ferns, of seeds, of crinoids

pressed thin as frostleaves in the seam;

out of an ancient England,

a polar world of icecaps rising,

falling; a tropic land under a moon

come close and huge;

an England slipping north

on the shift of continents.

up through compacted tailings

of the silt and grit of worn-down ranges,

winding up into light,

into the sky of England now.


Time travellers, they come blinking

at exploding flowers of flashbulb fire;

minstrel-eyed, with red wet mouths,

black faces estuaried with sweat.

They walk heavily like warriors.

Slab-muscled, in filthy orange vests,

steel booted, in buckled metal greaves,

webbing belts, and battery packs

and helmets, here they come.

They could have fought

at Towton, Adwalton Moor, Orgreave.


They check in their brass tokens

for the last time; officially they are alive.

They will check in their gear,

sit in the hot rain of the shower,

and if they weep, no one will see.

They will not say much.

They have been wound up out of history

into this moment. Into England now.

Of the future they can say nothing at all.


(At Kellingley, the last deep coal mine in England,

  the last shift clocked off in December 18, 2015)

I’m not even sure what I mean by ‘a sequence’ beyond the feeling that I want to write about a particular something and that one poem won’t do…and possibly not six or ten. How many poems does it have to be before it’s ‘a sequence’? When I published my first pamphlet it was simply a case of organising poems I’d written into some kind of order, with a suggestion of a beginning, a middle and an end. Subsequently I found I’d written sequences by accident, the unintended consequence of undeclared passion or obsession. My second pamphlet, Backtracks is a back to front narrative, Poems that tell the story of me, my parents and grandparents. Anyone can do that. It’s a given.

And then there were the problematic ones…the deliberately conceived sequences. For instance, when I was half-heartedly doing an MA in Creative Writing I determined to write a sequence about the Highland Clearances as they affected the Isle of Skye. I read a lot, and I went on a good many walks to clearance sites like Suishnish and Boreraig (including another kind of dereliction in the remains of an abandoned marble quarry). But the places didn’t fit my preconceived emotional narrative. I went looking for ghosts and found none. I wrote a handful of poems, but not the ‘sequence’ I thought was there, somewhere.


Then there was the late 19th C painter John Waterhouse…I’ve always liked that late-post-pre-Raphaelite sort of painting based on poems and myths and fables. I was fascinated by the fact that one face turns up in painting after painting. There’s no conclusive proof, but it’s supposed the model was a Miss Muriel Foster. I spent nearly two years reading all I could find about it all. I was intrigued by the idea of a triangular relationship between the artist, his model and his wife (who was also a painter). In the end I wrote four poems, and realised that it needed a novel and that either A S Byatt or Jill Dawson or Hilary Mantel should have written it. I think that what it comes down to is something Helen Mort said to me…something on the lines that you can MAKE a poem be, but it won’t be any good. Pretty much what Keats said about poetry needing to come as naturally as leaves to the tree’. And I guess that applies to ‘sequences’, too.

Anthony Gormley's Terracotta Figures Return To Their Birthplace

And then there were the sculptures. I worked for a few years in a college in the grounds of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and every day I’d pass Elizabeth Frink’s ‘Seated man‘ and Michael Ayrton’s Minotaur. I got in the habit of passing the time of day with the seated man, and conceived the notion that these great sculptures contained the souls of the famously transgressive and of fallen angels. Bit by bit, mainly because I really wanted to experiment with ‘voices’, I wrote enough fallen angel poems to fill a pamphlet.  I enjoyed that, and it became a book, but I still wonder if it’s the real deal. I know I like performing them, and I know that the idea of the narrative voice was the key that opened the door. But when it comes the seven men killed in the Lofthouse Disaster (six never recovered) the key is elusive.

I’ve asked various poets for advice. One was frankly dismissive, another was amazingly helpful. And one more thing that helped enormously was to bite the bullet and find the chutzpah to ask poets I admire if they’d share their experience. Particularly, I asked two poets who write recognizable and wonderful sequences…..especially I asked them this

I’ve been struggling with a writing project. I’ve got shedloads of material…I’ve been assembling that for well over a year. What I can’t manage at the moment is to find a place to stand and say: we start here. I’m convinced that could come about in a trice. A phrase, an idea for a holding form, a structure, a phrase, a refrain. It doesn’t matter how.

I’m particularly interested in the fact that each of you have done substantial amounts of research into a reality that absorbs and excites and energises you. It may be a blind roadmaker, your forebears who you trace to the banks of the Tyne, Amazonia, or medieval priests and criminals,

At some point you had to make a decision, or one was made for you. Where do I start? What’s the language, the structure, the voice of the teller….there comes a moment, as I found in writing about, say fallen angels, when you see a way through.

Would you be prepared to share some thoughts about the experience? A paragraph would do…or maybe it wouldn’t. It’ll make its own mind up, won’t it?

So, here they are, each one identifying a different way into, a way of shaping, what they urgently wanted to say. I’ve learned a remarkable amout from them, and I hope you will too.

Steve Ely : on voice and persona…who tells the story?


Hi John

I organised my third book of poems, Incendium Amoris, around the figure of Richard Rolle, the 14th century hermit and mystic.  Rolle suited my purposes because he was associated with the Cistercian Priory of Hampole, which is located in my natal Barnsdale landscape, which remains an enduring obsession.  My previous two books had written public, political poetry out of that landscape.  I wanted my third book to reflect a more personal, autobiographical engagement.  Further, Rolle’s mystical writings are charged with an earthy carnality – his relationships, with God, women and the created order are often erotic in both the technical and popular senses of that word.  That suited me as well – my earliest concept of the book was that it was going to be about ‘shagging down the fields’.  I suppose I reinvented Richard to suit my purposes (and partially in my image) and used his life, writings and landscape to unify, inform and perhaps soften the guerilla-pastoral idiom that wouldn’t be suppressed and broke out anyway.


Pascale Petit : On sequence and motif in Mama Amazonica 

My books grow organically, and Mama Amazonica grew very much like the Amazon rainforest it explores. But I can say that there was a single poem that set it all off, though I didn’t know it at the time, and this title poem ‘Mama Amazonica’ was slow and painful to write, laborious even. But there seemed to be an energy in it that was new, so I persisted, even though it felt like one of those experiments that will probably not work. I showed an early draft to my husband, who is my first reader, and he encouraged me, and suggested I could expand it. He was excited by it and this made me more confidant. At the heart of the poem, and indeed the whole book, is the central image of the poem, of a huge waterlily in a slow Amazonian backwater, the water still and sluggish, the drama unfolding of the lily’s sex life, which involves pollination by beetles. I compulsively watched every time-lapse video of this extraordinary process. The lily is my mother and she is in a psychiatric ward undergoing deep sleep therapy, remembering meeting my father.

To write the rest of the book – all 112 pages (and there were many more poems I discarded) – I would concentrate on the lily in that backwater, like a trance. I didn’t yet know why, but by the time I had written eight more poems I began to see that for once in my life I was writing about my mother tenderly. The poems express love, as well as terror of her and of what she suffered. It astonishes me that I have created a book in which I love my mother. I did not love her and she did not love me. This felt important, to have an artefact in which our relationship was transformed.

So I suppose what I’m saying is that the whole sequence grew out of one powerful feeling, trancelike, filmic, a moving image of a flower in time-lapse motion that is apart from ordinary life and ordinary time. I did not think the book through analytically or consciously even, just let the images grow, and the feelings that are also colours and sensations and pictures. Because the book records what happened to her when she met my father, the tragedy unfolds chronologically, and that’s roughly how the book is ordered, like a story told in pictures and sculptures.

I hope this helps? I suspect we all have different ways of compiling a sequential collection, but I try to do what what Rilke advises, to search within myself  to find my way, “Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write”.


Sometimes life gives you riches just for the asking. I feel a bit like one of those naive characters (usually girls…the male equivalents are often ‘fools’ or guizers) in folk tales  who set off into the forests and thickets and are given things of power that help them to survive and flourish. The possible keys to the kingdom. Form. Voice. Image/motif. I’m glad it’s three, if only for the sake of narrative convention.

I’ve looked back over some recent posts and find I’ve been teasing this strand out for some time. A reminder, then, of other ‘keys’ to sequences that I’ve considered. Kim Moore’s work in progress ‘All the men I never married’ tells you that the key could actually be a title! (and there’s her sequence at the heart of The Art of falling where the key is the mythic narratives of metamorphosis). Ruth Valentine and Christy Ducker show you that alpabetical order can be a key. Jane Kite uses the timeline of an imagined family as a key. The answer for you might be to find a narrator or to build a chronology. And how about objects. I’m attracted by the title of a book on my shelf as I look up: A history of the world in twelve maps. And also by Uncommon ground which is a list sequence of dialect names for landscape page for each and an accompanying photo, organised geographically from the SW to the very far North.

Whatever, the basic problem will be that an interest became an enthusiam or an obsession, that involved research, that eventually needed to be given some sort of poetic shape. If I think a sequence is anything, I think it’s something that involved you in research. Or maybe not.

Thanks for reading all the way through. Thanks and ever thanks to Steve Ely and Pascale Petit for their time and amazing generosity. The least you can do is buy their books. If by a miracle you’ve not read their work before, a bibliography follows.

Pascale Petit’s Poetry

Icefall Climbing pamphlet (Smith Doorstop, 1994)

Heart of a Deer (Enitharmon, 1998)

Tying the Song Co-editor with Mimi Khalvati (Enitharmon, 2000)

The Zoo Father (Seren, 2001)

El Padre Zoológico/The Zoo Father (El Tucan, Mexico City, 2004)

The Huntress (Seren, 2005)

The Wounded Deer: Fourteen poems after Frida Kahlo pamphlet (Smith Doorstop, 2005)

The Treekeeper’s Tale (Seren, 2008)

What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo (Seren, UK, 2010, Black Lawrence Press, US, 2011)

Poetry from Art at Tate Modern editor, pamphlet (Tate Publications, 2010)

Fauverie (Seren, 2014)

Mama Amazonica (Bloodaxe, 2017)

Tiger Girl (Bloodaxe 2020)

Steve Ely’s Poetry

Oswald’s Book of Hours (Smokestack Books, 2013).

Englaland (Smokestack Books, 2015)

Werewolf (Calder valley Poetry 2016)

Incendium Amoris (Smokestack 2017)

Jubilate Messi (Shearsman Books 2018)

I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heauen (New Walk. 2019)

My kind of poetry: Jenny Hockey’s “Going to bed with the moon”

After 400+ posts on the cobweb, I’m bound to repeat myself, I suppose. But I still have to remind myself that when I started it, it was simply to share my enthusiasm for poets who I called undiscovered gems…or (un)discovered gems. It depended on whether they’d already been recognised by a publisher and had work ‘out there’.

Over time I got distracted by what seemed like the need to sound off about the business of poetry in general, and on occasions, like last week, to have a bit of a strop. Mea culpa. I’m determined to get back to basics, albeit not on a weekly basis.

So here we go, with a poet I’m very fond of; I’ve enjoyed listening to her at Poetry Business Saturday workshops, and I’m delighted to have a guest who, among other things, has been active in the campaign to save Sheffield’s street trees and was arrested for the first time at the age of 70.

Jenny has a background in Anthropology and had a career in Sociology. If I’d only read her poems, I’d have guessed at Archaeology..I think a lot of her poems are like careful excavations. Jenny has written that her aim has been: 

to notice the everyday and give it due weight.  And that’s what I write about mostly, my lived or remembered everyday.  I want to hold or recover the moment and gently scrutinize it

I think this illuminates all her work. It chimes with MacCaig’s lines in An ordinary day

‘how ordinary
Extraordinary things are or

How extraordinary ordinary
Things are, like the nature of the mind
And the process of observing.’

Jenny writes about memories of childhood and family (and the memorials of them enshrined in documents and objects, the work of their hands). The response to this might be a world-weary doesn’t everyone? The family anecdote, the familiar, the quotidian are staples of our memories. But poems that we remember. that seem to memorise themselves as we read take us beyond that. They surprise. They illuminate our own experiences. They will involve what Clive James calls ‘the moment that draws you in’ and what Jane Draycott calls ‘the point of ignition’. Let me share some of the moments that drew me in, and then Jenny will tell you a bit about herself before I share some of the poems with minimum interruption. 

I was born dwarfed by the dead and/all their impedimenta , she says. And that last unexpected, accurate word lifts the idea out of the ordinary.

She sleeps , (as we all do, without thinking about it ) under a bedroom ceiling, the other side of which is the dustbound side of everyday. 

Which is how, from now on I will have to think of lofts and attics. Which may, or may not, store memories, and which she searches out:

to a high shelf..[she says]….. to a legacy of albums and attaché cases /I take my ignorance 

Of a painter- Grandfather she writes about how she comes to take possession of his 

sunlit room, and something up there

laid out above his wardrobe

under the pall of a dustsheet’s folds

Here, the past is probably unnerving, and tantalisingly out of reach, or possibly forbidden. These images stick. Her observation is acute, too, as in the cleaning of a fish and its stamp-hinge scales. Love that one. I like the bit of grit that jams the Dyson, a bit of grit that comes out of Deep Time; grit  the oyster turns to pearl in a later poem.

I love the house of (I think) an elderly relative, up a 

fern-choked clough….a nudge of pasture at her kitchen window. 

So far, so Laurie Lee. But then there’s a line that stops me dead in my tracks: Cute as a grave/ here’s her garden. 

There are poems about birds and animals that remind me of MacCaig (again). A mouse in the house has battery-powered whiskers; birds in the garden trees are perched like saints or green men. 

I could go on. But I think you get the point. Enough. Here’s Jenny to introduce herself, and then some poems she’s shared.

“I am a poet and until recently an active academic. Then I gave up the day job to find more time for poetry. I wanted to feel, think and hear through poetic language, as well as the academic words I had written in their many thousands. Memory, loss and the objects that survive us have been longstanding research interests  and they remain an important inspiration for writing poetry.

Ed. : Why poetry, why poems? I ask

Rupert Bear Annuals were a feature of my early childhood.  My grown-ups only read me the text under the pictures and I now discover it’s all end-rhyme couplets. Did that set my ear?  There was little spare cash after my mother divided the housekeeping into her five labeled tobacco tins in the kitchen drawer,  but she bought me Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’ one Christmas, and I adored it. I wish I could recapture what its simple language evoked for me, so skillfully written from a child’s point of view: the child in its bed; the child watching from the window; the child re-imagining  its garden as a battleground.  I never wrote anything myself but I did read and re-read and re-read A.S.Collins ‘Treasury of English Verse, New and Old’given to  my mother by my father  ‘with my very deepest love, for Christmas 1946’, an inscription I could never marry with my parents’ apparently boring lives.  I was six months old that Christmas. Did Mum find time to read it, with a new baby and no washing machine or fridge?  And with ‘duty before pleasure’ as her mantra. 

Me reading aloud A.S.Collins ‘Treasury in bed on long light evenings makes me smile at myself now.  As a parent (and grandparent) I think it might unsettle me to hear a child intoning poems for what I remember as hours.   What did I actually read?   Wordsworth’s ‘Westminster Bridge’, Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’ and Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’, almost all of Keats and Tennyson, Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’, Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’ , almost all of De la Mare and then Masefield’s ‘Sea-Fever’  

Ed.: which I find impressive and unnerving in equal measure

As a young parent I wrote little, but kept the faith. Two of the four poems I eventually produced in the early 1980s were included in The Raving Beauties’ No Holds Barred (The Women’s Press, 1985). That set me off, with regular Arvon courses and The Mutiny Poets group in Hull. In 2013 I received a New Poets Bursary Award from New Writing North ( and, after magazine and anthology publications, my debut collection, Going to Bed with the Moon, is now available from Oversteps Books.

I’ve written as a member of Cora Greenhill’s inspiring poetry workshop for women, ‘Living Line’; I’m also a member of Tuesday Poets, a workshopping group, and of The Poetry Room, a group that reads poetry collections as well as workshopping its own poems.  I also relish The Poetry Business’s  Saturday writing days and absolutely value its presence here in Sheffield. where I live with Bob, my partner, in a house sandwiched between two parks. I continue to write about loss, but also the tree- and bird-filled landscape that surrounds me. And along with my leaning towards the downbeat, I am always inspired by the quirky, surreal and laugh-out-loud hilarious nature of everyday life.

When my debut collection, Going to bed with the moon came out with Oversteps in 2019, I introduced myself at the launch as ‘a recovering academic’.  

Ed.: you can find out what that involved by following this link; it’s impressive..

I’ll still put lots of words into long complicated sentences when I write poetry.  Or still assume too much on the part of the reader.  But being trained as an anthropologist did sharpen my capacity to notice the everyday and give it due weight.  …….. I’ve never visited Mars or Atlanta in a poem, never taken on the persona of a historical figure or inhabited a painting by Breughel.   But there’s still time.”

Ed.: To which I add: oh  yes there is

So. As everyone says. For no reason at all. The poems. First from Going to bed with the moon, which the editor descibed as a collection which moves from the beginning to the end of the day, and from the familiar world of home to unknown travel destinations and their imagined challenges.

There are a lot of poems about remembered tactile love in the collection, bound up very often with memories of foreign travel, a touch of glamour. I chose this one because of its compression, its absolute assuredness, because of the image of layers, an idea that quietly and unobtrusively runs through the book. I think its a stunner

Concrete and Clay

We lay there a long time, really

chilling to the draught which blew beneath the door.

We were like statues, weren’t we,

one above the other like folded rocks,

massive in our contentment.

It mattered to us then

if you remember.

Jenny says : I’ll still put lots of words into long complicated sentences when I write poetry. I’m not sure if the next poem is the kind of thing she had in mind, but what grabbed me was the way the matter -of -fact, decidedly prosaic language of the ‘memoir’ is suddenly transformed into something quite other in the second stanza. Maybe the pivot is that ‘cut throat razor’, but Grandfather’s suddenly not a comfortable old buffer. There’s something of the folk tale about growing longer than the alcove, and sonething decidedly insettling about the line 

and I came intopossession of his bed

And as I said before, the last four line absolutely nail it.

Meredith Charles Watling


was an acknowledged East Anglian

painter, I read in the 1955 obituary

that fluttered from the unlocked leaves

of my mother’s diary. He filled our house

with the scent of linseed and St Bruno

pinched from a flat Bakelite pouch

with a screw-off inset lid; pared his nails

with a knife, stropped a cut-throat razor.


When I grew longer than the alcove

in my parents’ room, they moved me

downstairs by Grandad’s easel and paint

— until Addenbrookes took him one night

and I came into possession of his bed,

his sunlit room and something up there,

laid out above his wardrobe,

under the pall of a dustsheet’s folds.


One more from the collection; this is the last poem in the book, and exactly where it needs to be

The Party’s Over


Oily scraps of veg, drabs of bread

and napkin shreds,

red wine, salt and cigar butts

and I’m drink-dazed for sleep,

drained with the weight

of my own unspoken words.


And in the small room where three flames burn

on the green fish candlestick

that I cycled seven French miles to choose for myself

at the cost of several hundred francs,

I spit on my finger and thumb

and draw down the darkness.


I like this for its filmic quality, the way the camera moves slowly, the way it lingers, the way it takes us through the house to the last room. I love the assuredness of the narrator, the conjuring of the darkness. I love the way the screen goes black.

And now, to finish, the bonus of two new poems, a bit edgier, a bit more swagger. And that trademark thing of the unwritten subplot…as well as another attic.

Jesus with Guinea Pigs 

There’s always something to be done in our house. 

But in between, my mum gets out her paints, completes

another Jesus and props his wet radiance on the easel,


his wounded body hanging there as I walk in from school, 

fists clutching roadside grass grubbed up for Ginger 

and Bobby Charlton squeaking their heads off in the shed. 


Always that quiet conversation going on — something about 

The Other Side, evidence of uncles who have crossed over. 

Mum and Mr Sperring, the worry of his gifts.



Easter and I’m crossing the Cleveland Hills,

Losing My Religion full on through the sun roof 


as you stow the relics of a dead husband 

in your attic, filling a tall house 

with withered climbing gear, 


a grounded kayak I later help you free.  

Picture us down at the quayside, posing

by the whale bones, the Abbey’s silhouette.


Thirty years on and you’re not 

anymore, I’m losing my religion.


 Jenny Hockey, you may be losing your religion, but you’re not losing your touch. Thank you for being a guest on the cobweb, and for sharing so many poems.

Right.I think everyone should now follow this link, and buy the book

What am I saying?

What am I saying?  

In a normal world with the company of friends (and strangers, and acquaintances), in the normal world of to- and -fro conversations, and chats, and arguments, at some point someone’s bound to say ‘So, what you’re saying is…..’ and you’ll say, ‘no, that’s not it at all; what I’m saying is….’ and so it goes.

In my current world, where we’re now in our eighth month of 99% lockdown, where I’ve been shielding, and then (officially) not shielding, and puzzled to know whether I am, or I should be; when face-to-face conversation is a brief chat over the garden wall to our lovely neighbour who nips up to Lidl for us every few days, or a visit to the surgery or the hospital, gloved and masked, for an injection, or a CT scan or to see a consultant -when the conversation is not-exactly to-and-fro; when this morning I was suddenly impelled to get in the car and just drive for 30 minutes, just to see something slightly different…..

What am I saying? No-one’s said, what are you on about, or jeez…..just get to the point. No-one’s around to keep me on track or up to scratch, and the only feedback I’ll get is that of one of the several versions of me that live in my head, like disgruntled squatters who are clamouring for better conditions, or room service.

The other thing is that the various changes to my programme of meds have come with the advice that side-effects may include low-level anxiety, mild depression, loss of concentration and joint pain. What that actually means in practice is tetchiness, irritability, intolerance and a tendency to swear even more. On Facebook, this manifests itself as a kind of keyboard Tourettes. So bear that in mind as this post progresses.

Over the last couple of years of poetry workshops and small-group critiquing sessions, I’m becoming increasingly conscious of a trend/fashion/fad for poems that can look not unlike a collage of ineptly curated poetry fridge magnets ( That’s excessive. What am I saying? I told you I was tetchy).

Let’s have a bit of context. At one time I wanted to get away from what seemed to be my default ‘voice’ which was, and probably still is, iambic. Also Iwanted to push myself to write about, and for, people as opposed to the other default of landscape….a poetry equivalent of Sunday watercolourists’ pretty daubs. I was very much in thrall to the venriloquisms of AS Byatt’s Possession, and I was equally fascinated by the sculptures I passed every day on my way in to work at Bretton Hall via the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Three in particular: Michael Ayrton’s Minotaur, Elizabeth Frink’s Seated Man, and Igor Mitoraj’s Light of the moon. I wondered how it would be if they could speak, and why, and decided they imprisoned the souls of the deliberately or unwittingly transgressive, reduced to immobility and made dumb. 

The voices would have to be distinct, and this is how I eventually wrote a set of dramatic monologues, which became a sequence Outlaws and fallen angels. Finding a voice for the angel of the North seemed simple enough. It would have to be Milton. An aged tragic Mary Magdelene turned out to have a Tennessee accent. And so on. 

The one that gave me the most difficulty was Queen Victoria, or the version of her in Manchester’s Picadilly. The young Victoria was flirty and funny, and here she is frumpy and cross, entombed in a monumental masonry crinoline. It’s horrible.

Her diaries are often girlish and sentimental; she can gush, often it’s butterfly prose.  She is good company. When I settled on a voice for her it was because of the one AS Byatt chose for her fictional Victorian poet, Christabel la Motte. Which is, in turn, a pastiche of Emily Dickinson…or at least a lyric, stanzaic verse that uses a lot of dashes.

This is the authentic Emily Dickinson:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –


And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –

And sore must be the storm –

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm –


They’re very seductive, those dashes if you don’t stop too long to ask what they say about her voice, about the pace of her thinking. As though she pauses, minutely to think, to linger; or maybe she stops to think what comes next (no…I know). But it struck me that the young Victoria could be seduced by it, or it might be a bit like her slightly scatterbrained diaries. So I borrowed it.

Queen Victoria in  Piccadilly Square


We are Set-  here on this Monument

not like – Patience 

but old and  looking Cross

the epitome  –  of Discontent.


A pencil Study –I drew

my own  Likeness – and delicate

I think it does not – Flatter me

I thought –  I made it True.


Enthroned ten feet high

Twice life-size  – Cold

Victoria regina – Empress

of half the Earth – I  Solidify


O my True love – my only Albert.

he had my Image – made – a Keepsake 

in his Dressing-room – all Loose my Hair

my white Shoulders Bare


Here I am – made Squat – a Toad

these Tons of stone – Drapery                                                                                

a small and silly – Crown

Years and – Dirt – bear down on me

There’s more. But the thing is I was just, I realise, borrowing a ‘trick’, the use of Capitals and – Dashes, but without any essential understanding of what Emily Dickinson was up to. It’s a pastiche. A game. It’s not, when we come down to it, an authentic poem.

What am I saying? Basically that I’m a bit distrustful of more and more poems turning up that are either the dense text of what may, or may not be, authentic prosepoems, or scattergrams of poems that may use the black Sharpie blockings-out of ‘redacted’ texts, or fridge magnet collages of cut and paste phrases, or white-space sprawling text which does without Emily Dickinson’s Dashes and uses spaces instead. This is my problem. It’s the problem I have with much of contemporary art. How do I tell the real deal from the superficial bit of pastiche?

I’m interested in the craft of writing, as in the craft of any art. I’m interested in line breaks and punctuation and single spaces and double spaces, and rhyme schemes and rhythms, and I think, (because my Art teacher drummed it into me) if you’re going to break the rules or subvert the conventions, you really need to know what they are, and be able to use them. I worry about the kind of contemporary art (conceptual or otherwise) that comes with a catalogue of impenetrable abstractions mashed together in gruesome prose. I am deeply suspicious of any art that comes with an instruction manual about how to understand it. It puts me in mind of Vernon Scannell who wrote in 1993 

At a time when contemporary poetry seems to be written for specialist exegetists in universties, in order that they may practise their skills in deconstruction, I have, as Wordsworth said ‘wished to keep the reader in the company of flesh and blood, persuaded that, by doing so, I shall interest him’

and also what he called

“genuine poems; that is to say poems that have been written from a sense of compulsion, a real need to explore and articulate”

I know. It’s easy to dismiss him as dated and just a bit pompous, but the thing is, he was a craftsman who wrote powerful, memorable poems. And at the moment, he chimes with the way I’m feeling.

And then, of course, there’s Clive James, who I am always happy to listen to, and his own tetchiness about

“slim volumes by the thousand…full of poetry…but few…with even a single real poem in them”

as we live in a time

“when almost everyone writes poetry, but scarcely anyone can write a poem’

and of the would-be poets

“who want to keep technique out of it, because they don’t have any” 

What am I saying? I’m saying that there are lots of writers about who have been seduced by, say, Sharon Olds (who I have come to appreciate, to admire, to want to learn from). It’s as though they see a passage like this

As for the
condition of being beaten, what
was it like: going into a barn, the animals
not in stalls, but biting, and shitting, and
parts of them on fire? 

and see that she does odd things with line breaks, and ends lines with words like what, the, and …and feel empowered to do exactly the same thing themselves without actually having the voice that powered those breaks or the passionate involvement in the experiences that powered the poem in the first place.

Like I’ve said, I can learn or copy what seem to be easy tricks or devices from poets who can actually do pretty well anything, technically, but who choose to push the boundaries, one way or another. But if I’m just pulling tricks, it’ll never be the real deal. Maybe I feel a bit like John Cage who recounted a conversation with Schoenberg:

After I had been studying with him for two years, Schoenberg said, “In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony.” I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, “In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall.”

The thing is, when Cage created 4.33 he knew exactly what he was doing. He made a silence in a very particular space, with an audience who probably came with educated expectations. He knew what he was leaving out and he knew why. But if I charged people to watch me sit at a piano, I’d be pelted by people wanting their money back, and quite right too.

Modigliani is famous for his frail attenuated skeletal sculptures. What you don’t see are the maquettes he pared down and down until they collapsed in bits and dust, and that’s how he learned the exact point of tension when you have to stop.

What am I saying? Not much. I just want us all to to be bothered to work with the constraints of rule and convention before we decide to break or subvert them. I want us to know what we’re doing.

What am I saying. Nothing. Nothing happened.

[That, by the way, is a quotation, but the poem hasn’t appeared in a book yet. Though it will.]

Enough. When I started this poetry blog it was with the firm purpose of sharing the work of poets you might not have encountered, or were flying under the fashionable radar. Time I got back on track. No more tetchy irritable stuff. Just poets I like. See you soon.

A labour of love. Ian Parks and C P Cavafy

Miles to to go, and promises to keep. It’s not the first time I’ve promised to write about the work of someone I owe a debt of inspiration to. For one reason and another, it took me months to bite the bullet and write a review of Yvonne Reddick’s work on Ted Hughes as an eco-poet. And equally, to sit and write about Ian Parks’ translations of Cavafy : Body Remember [Calder Valley Press: 2019]. As headline poet, he introduced it at The Puzzle Poets Live in the Navigation Inn in Sowerby Bridge. August 2019. And I said I’d write about it. Over a year has passed. Covid has been a distraction, but no excuse. Mainly, it’s been down to a diffuse terror that I’d not do him justice. It won’t do. Because the voice of these poems is one we desperately need in in the sleep of reason we’re currently living through. Bugger it. Here goes. 

If you are a follower of the cobweb, you’ll have encountered my enthusiasm for Ian Parks’ work before. If not, then you might like to fill in the background by following this link, which will give you a flavour of his voice, and also a detailed bibliography

You might also have come across other things I’ve written about my feeling of temerity when it comes to approaching or evaluating someone’s translations of other poets’ work. I wrote a revirew of Peter Sirrs’ Sway, his translations of troubadour poems from 12thC Occitan. I bothered for ages about the business of translation/homage/retelling/inhabiting. As a life-long monoglot, I bothered about the problems of the business of affect and connotation. A good friend, the Spanish poet Alicia Fernandez explained for me what this might mean even to a fluently bilingual professional translator and gifted poet.

“Behind the things we write about, and the way we write about them, there is a heavily-loaded layer of meaning guiding our choices for words. I believe these choices are based on how our own life events have allowed us to delve in the many nuances clustered in those words. For example, when I describe something as green in English, my experience of the colour is not the same as if I resorted to the word verde when writing in Spanish – verde is the colour of the olive groves amongst which I grew up, and it makes my heart skip a beat with homesickness as I picture my grandfather hitting the branches with a wooden rod during harvest season; verde is also the colour Lorca used to represent death in poems such as ‘Romance Sonámbulo’, and having read his poetry since my adolescence, I cannot detach all those implications from the word.”

If I don’t live inside a language, how can I know the exact and complex resonances of a key word for the writer. Equally, how can I understand the music of it if I’m not even sure of how it should sound. And so on.

In the end, it was Peter Sirrs who offered two answers, one explicit and one that wasn’t even a conscious answer.

The first was a kind of response to something I read in a scholarly essay about translation (I can’t remember whose):

The translation-maker’s duty is to the original, yes; but his primary duty is to the new poem which, through the process of translation, “becomes” the translator’s poem and not just a transliteration of the original poet’s work. In this view, the translator is active and not passive; an originator and not a transporter; a transformer and creator and not just some drudge who, dictionary in hand, roots for and writes down linguistic equivalents.

Sirrs makes it even simpler in his Afterword to Sway:

“These are not, it should be said, scholarly translations…I played fast and loose with form and image.”…….. Translation is never fixed or finished; it answers a contemporary need to engage with and remake in the language we have available to us whatever calls out to us from the past”.

and finally in the key he gave me to approach the work: 

It’s just one line in one of the poems:  “oh I was the quare one”. I think this was the moment that I realised that one way to listen to these poems was to imagine an Irish voice; that dialect and accent were probably the key to imagining these 900 year old voices, written before the idea of French (and Standard English and R.P.) existed

I think it turned out to be as simple as that. Just listen. Listen properly. Which is what I set out to do when it came to Ian Parks’ Body Remember , the third of the trio of his tributes to, and celebrations of, Cavafy. Because, at the end of all, I firmly believe that what matters is the authenticity of the voice. And, because the loss of lives and love in time is something I think Ian Parks has particularly tuned into, I also hang on to this observation by Daniel Mendelsohn, 

“The common approach to interpreting Cavafy for many, many years now is that he has two subjects: history, the Greek past from classical times to Byzantium, and then as if it were an entirely different subject, desire…. 

And I don’t see it that way………. I make a case for thinking about Cavafy as a poet who was only interested really in one subject, which is time and the passage of time, and how it affects how you see the past, whether that past is a Byzantine emperor’s failed attempts to restore the empire or one’s own love affair with a beautiful boy in Alexandria in 1892. It doesn’t matter to Cavafy. What he’s interested in is a relation to what has already happened. “

When I asked Ian about his long love affair with Cavafy, and about the business of translating from early 20th Greek, he wrote me this:

“I first came across Cavafy through W H Auden’s brilliant essay on him in Forewords and Afterwards. Auden was keen to point out that while Cavafy possessed ‘a unique tone of voice’ his poetry also ‘survived translation’. 

I thought that was a fascinating concept and set about trying to prove to myself whether it was true. I’d be in my twenties at the time and I found, by and large that it was – in that the existing translations (particularly those by Keeley and Sherrard) conveyed something of the essence of this poets enigmatic and philosophical work. However, I became increasingly aware of how these translations were literal – that they provided a word for word, line by line, and stanza by stanza rendition of Cavafy’s poems into English. 

While that provided the reader with a clear idea of the content of the poems it did little (in my mind) to convey either the musicality of this poet’s work, his undoubted lyric gift, or the subtlety of his poetic thought. And so it was that I set about to teach myself modern Greek in order to put myself in a position where i could read these remarkable poems in the original language. It took me ten years to reach a level of basic proficiency – just enough to understand the drift of the poem, much as a dog might catch the drift of human conversation through level, intonation, and tone. 

My method is to transcribe a version from the original, line by line, and then to treat it in much the same way as I’d treat a first draft of my own and take it through a process by which clarity gradually becomes apparent. This way i can visualise the whole poem from above rather than allowing myself to get entangled in the detail.  When in doubt I’ll compare my results with other translations in order to see what nuances emerge – but i very rarely adhere to them. My intention is always to be true to the spirit and integrity of the poem and to convey something of the atmosphere and flavour of the originals. I wanted to refract rather than reproduce, to refine rather than to define. :”

Don’t you love that line: much as a dog might catch the drift of human conversation through level, intonation, and tone. 

And this after ten years of patiently teaching yourself Greek. There’s a labour of love. Love, as it happens, turns out to be another key idea in understanding what Ian does with his translations. A love which he combines with the patient task of literal translation, and the idiom, the rhythm of his own, familiar idiomatic language. 

To see how this works it’s useful to have a look at other peoople’s versions of the title poem of the pamphlet: Body Remember. I’ve not found a way of setting poems side by side for WordPress, so it may feel a bit laborious. Bear with me.


Body, remember not only how much you were loved,
not only the beds you lay on,
but also those desires that glowed openly
in eyes that looked at you,
trembled for you in the voices—
only some chance obstacle frustrated them.
Now that it’s all finally in the past,
it seems almost as if you gave yourself
to those desires too—how they glowed,
remember, in eyes that looked at you,
remember, body, how they trembled for you in those voices. 

[Reprinted from C. P. CAVAFY: Collected Poems Revised Edition, 

translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard,…probably the touchstone translation]


Body, remember not only how much you were loved,
not only the beds on which you lay,
but also those desires for you
that glowed plainly in the eyes,
and trembled in the voice—and some
chance obstacle made futile.
Now that all of them belong to the past,
it almost seems as if you had yielded
to those desires—how they glowed,
remember, in the eyes gazing at you;
how they trembled in the voice, for you, remember, body.

[Trans. Aliki Barnstone]


Body, remember not just how much you were loved,

not simply those beds on which you have lain,

but also the desire for you that shone

plainly in the eyes that gazed at you,

and quavered in the voice for you, though

by some chance obstacle was finally forestalled.

Now that everything is finally in the past,

it seems as though you did yield to those desires –

how they shone, remember, in the eyes that gazed at you,

how they quivered in the voice for you – body, remember

Trans. Stratis Haviaris 

You read them aloud, and you can start to ask what difference is made by the choices of  ‘lay on’/ ‘on which you lay’/’on which you have lain’  to the tone and feel of the well as its rhythm, its music. Whether a slightly archaic syntax is the right thing. And so on. What about ‘tremble’ versus ‘quavered’?

And what about 

only some chance obstacle frustrated them.

as opposed to

some chance obstacle made futile.


by some chance obstacle was finally forestalled.

As you work through them, line by line, considering the choices, I think that, like me, you’ll become conscious of bum notes, little snags.

Now try a different tack. What’s Cavafy writing about here, in his later years? What’s he asking for…not for what can’t be brought back, but what is in danger of being physically forgotten. We take for granted that the body has the wonderful facility for not being able to remember pain. The circumstances yes, but the actual pain, not at all. But what if the body forgets sensual, tactile, auditory pleasure, the loveliness of it all. 

Now, here’s Ian Parks’ version.

Body Remember

Body, remember how much love you drew –

not just the beds, the hot illicit rooms

but how that love so fiercely burned

deep in the eyes of those that gazed on you:

how voices trembled even though

some random moment always intervened

to stop the dream from coming true.

Now everything is contained in the past

it feels as if, in fact, you gave in to

all those desires that fiercely burned;

remember, through the eyes of those that gazed on you,

or the voices trembling. Body, remember.

I love the tenderness of this, its authenticity of voice. The way you forget that this is Poetry in the way that the other three translations are constantly reminding you of, if only because they don’t quite get it right. A reviewer for The Times Literary Supplement put it better.

Parks captures the measured graceful voice and quiet humour on which so much of Cavafy’s poetry depends in a way that makes us feel we are reading it properly for the first time, This, you feel, is exactly what they would sound like if they had been written in English.

I’m struggling to choose another from the pamphlet, because I want to choose them all. I could choose any of the ones that celebrate craftsmen..jewellers, for instance…and painters and poets who quietly observe themselves making art. But I think I’ll settle for this, about Caesar’s son, who is called to an imagined life as the light fades in the poet’s room.


My intention was to check the facts,

to pass a quiet hour or two

among the names and places of the past.

The volume that I chose contained

a history of the Ptolemies.

The praise becomes monotononous:

the men are just, magnificent and bold,

the women upright, beautiful.


Just as I was about to close the book

and place it on the shelf

I came across the briefest mention of

Kaisarion – Little Caesar, Caesar’s son.

I was drawn to it inexplicably.


You stood there full of praise and charm.

Because the record is so sparse

I filled the sketch out in my mind,

made you sensitive and shy – 

a dreaming far-off face

despite the name they gave you, King of Kings.


So vivid did I conjure you

that as the lamplight dimmed

you came into my darkened room. came close and stood in front of me

weraing the expression that you wore

in fallen Alexandria,

imploring them to pity you –

Octavian’s henchmen, those murderers

who said One Caesar is enough

I suppose at this point I could share more poems from the pamphlet. But I won’t. Just go and buy it*, discover its range and its many voices as it travels between the worlds of classical/historical Greece and of the early 20th C. 


Instead, Ian has sent two more , as yet unpublished, versions of Cavafy poems. There’s a bonus.

The Horses of Achilles

after Cavafy

The horses of Achilles wept

when they saw brave Patroklos dead.

Immortal, they were stricken by the sight –

the unforgiving handiwork of death.

They drummed the ground, shook out their manes

and reared their wild, magnificent heads.

They mourned Patroklos, mangled, killed,

his precious life force fled

into the great void of nothingness.


Zeus saw them weeping and he said

I now regret the wedding gift I gave

to Peleus on that day. Better had there been no gift

than for you to suffer in the world of men.

You’ll never sicken, age, or die

and yet you weep like this to see

how men have brought about such misery.

It was not merely for Patroklos

but for the universal certitude of death

that those noble horses’ tears were shed.

Very Seldom

after Cavafy 

Stooped with age, the poet makes his way

along the narrow street that takes him home.

Affliced by time and the excesses of his life

he hides his crippled body from the light,

his mind reliving how things used to be.


And now his poems are all the rage:

their lustre burns whenever they are read.

His sensual verses come alive

in the eyes and lips of these young men.


It’s possible, of course that one of ‘these young men’ is Ian Parks.. Thanks for being my guest, Ian, and sharing this labour of love.