I was alone at the well.
I was doused in shadow and in deed.
My yoke lay on the ground, waiting.
I cannot say what I mean.
I was come upon.
I was going to carry the water to my espoused man,
Joseph, of the house of David.
Gillian Allnutt, from How the Bicycle Shone: New And Selected Poems, Bloodaxe, 2007.
My local poetry group, the Penistone Poets, are a small but dedicated band of writers. We used to meet once a week; lately it’s been a bit more sporadic, although we do hold a monthly open meeting as well. However, when one of the most dedicated members (and the one who has to travel furthest to get to the meetings) Sue Riley, scooped the £5,000 first prize in the Ginko poetry competition, you an imagine how excited we all were. The anthology containing her winning poem, A Polar Bear in Norilsk, can be downloaded for free here.
As their website explains, the Ginkgo Prize is a major international award for ecopoetry, funded by the Edward Goldsmith Foundation and organised by the Poetry School. Every year, the competition awards £8,000 in prize money, provides writers’ residencies for the winners, and supports the development of ecopoetry through a programme of…
“There’s a lovely lyrical completeness about your poems. So natural and full – they just float out. Something perfect about them. So wholehearted and affectionate. (So rare!)”
Ted Hughes [Letters of Ted Hughes. ed Reid. (Faber and Faber 2007. p734)]
I was at a poetry reading at the The Albert Poets on Thursday. It was a room full of people who loved Mark Hinchliffe. Mark had been in intensive care for days, surgeons fighting for his life after his liver transplant. At some point in the evening, his wife texted his close friend, Stephanie Bowgett, to say that mark had died. At the end of the evening, Steph gave us the news. We’d all lost someone important to us, and something irreplaceable. I’ve known Mark for six years or so, sharing so many Monday evening workshops, listening to yet another of his remarkable poems arrive in the world. I guess most of you won’t know his work. But Ted Hughes did. That’s recommendation enough, I think.
So here’s my tribute to a lovely man, which I first wrote a couple of years ago when he was finally persuaded to be published.
“Is there anyone in the English speaking world – teacher or student – who hasn’t come across Norman MacCaig’s An ordinary day? Who hasn’t enthused about it, or been invited to be enthused
I took my mind a walk
or my mind took me a walk –
whatever was the the truth of it
I met it first in one of Geoffrey Summerfield’s ‘Voices’ anthologies and insisted that several generations of my secondary school students took their minds a walk. We could all sign up for a recognisably post-romantic idea of poetry. It was about ‘observing’ and being surprised. I don’t think I ever stopped to consciously acknowledge that what MacCaig observed was light on water, gulls, cormorants, small flowers, bees, various ducks, a cow, weeds in clear water. Or at least, I never stopped to see the disconnect between MacCaig’s familiar, known place..the West Highland coast, I suppose… and what my students were familiar with. Urban or suburban landscapes. Edgeland places. I never stopped to think too hard about why they didn’t ‘get’ what MacCaig was up to. Or that they might not really want to take their minds a walk round a council estate in Leeds, or down Marton Road in Middlesbrough. Or if they did, it might have been better to start from poems with people and conversations …or bits of conversations .. in them. Water under the bridge. What’s at the back of my mind is the business of the poems we ‘get’ as opposed to the ones we don’t ‘get’.
As ever, I fall back on analogies with paintings. My partner is a painter. She’s taken me to look at Rothkos. She clearly ‘gets’ Rothko. And I don’t. I try; I listen to explanations of what it is I’m missing, but nothing clicks. There’s something missing in me that Rothko tries to talk to. It’s still a foreign language in which other people are fluent. My bad, as one of my granddaughters might say. I think that for all of us (some of us?) the same is true of poetry. There are poets we (I?) don’t get. I don’t ‘get’ a good deal of contemporary American voices. I don’t get minimalists, and concrete poets.
I don’t mean the poets who take us out of a comfort zone but to whom we still, at some deep level, respond. Those are the ones who don’t readily fall into a category. Basil Bunting. Geoffrey Hill. Those excite me, in the way that some painters puzzle and excite me, because I can’t put them in any sort of category, and I’m not quite sure what’s going on, but at some level I’m engaged and moved and bothered. And I think it comes down to the business of a particular voice. I fall back on Clive James to articulate what I can’t myself. I keep re-typing these assertions in these cobweb posts. This must be at least the third time. They’ve stuck:
“You hear the force of real poetry at first glance”
“Everything depended, and still depends, on the quality of the moment…..it’s the moment that gets you in”
and never forget the adage about the ‘well-separated poem’ that makes it ‘almost impossible to memorise what you can never quite forget’
Which is a very articulate way of saying something that can’t quite be articulated. I just have to say I know what he means, and you have to take my word for that, just as I know that my partner knows what Rothko means, and that she can’t be doing with this image that either says nothing much to her, or just gives her the creeps, and which fascinates me.
A detail from Richard Dadd’s The fairy feller’s masterstroke. Painted in a mental asylum. Obsessively realistic and accurately rendered and packed with small frightening or disturbing or saddening images and narratives. You can’t categorize it. It either speaks to you or it doesn’t and I can’t explain it. It’s like nothing else that I’m used to liking.
Which is, as ever, a very roundabout way of coming to the work of Mark Hinchliffe. I met him first at a Monday night poetry workshop at The Albert in Huddersfield. He brought a poem to work on that totally threw me, because I had no handle on it, I didn’t know what it was for, because it seemed strange and arbitrary. D H Lawrence was in there. And a fox. It was odd. And I couldn’t forget it even though I couldn’t quite remember why it was stuck in my mind. I’ve got to know him and his poems better since then, but he’s never brought one that didn’t disturb/surprise without ever being self-announcing. If I had to think of one word for their immediate quality , it would be ‘diffident’. Only to say the next impression is ‘not diffident at all’. Very Richard Dadd. And very magical, like Chagall…or, at least this phase of Chagall.
I think it’s an easy transition from this image to one of Mark’s poems.
A fox slowly swayed
down the middle of Cowlersley Lane,
eyes glassy and dazed.
People ran out of their houses
and you brought a bowl of milk.
Dressed in a pink tutu and purple glittery wig,
you knelt beside it as it lay down
in the gateway to a garden.
The people peered into
the darkness of its eyes
as if they looked into a stable
or a volcano slowly burning out,
holding up their hands
to catch the sparks
from its glowing tail.
I can’t explain why I think it works. I want to say: but that’s not my sort of poem, not my sort at all. And it just ignores me and goes on memorising itself.While you’re thinking about that, Mark will tell you about himself. I’ve italicised a couple of passages. It will be obvious why.
“My first taste of poetry was an ‘A’ level set text in 1976 (when I was 16), the anthology of Gunn and Hughes. Our English teacher played a record of Ted Hughes, one of his radio broadcasts-Capturing animals, where he read his poems and talked about writing. I never forgot his voice, and sought out his poetry, and then found out he was born in Mytholmroyd, and made a pilgrimage there. Over the next few years I found and read his poems, essays, stories, book reviews, all I could lay my hands on. I also started writing poems of my own just after hearing the record.
I have always seen poetry as a healing energy, and when my father died ( I was 17) I wrote about my feelings, I wrote another poem about him the other week.
I went to Birmingham University to read English, kept writing, and published poems in the University magazine. I also started to correspond with Ted Hughes, and later he asked me to send my poems to him, and he commented on them. My last card from him was a few weeks before he died.
I worked for 25years as a psychiatric nurse and used to write as a way of honouring the people I tried to help, and to help me make sense of the chaos that flourished within psychiatry.
I started going to The Albert Pub in Huddersfield, and read there for the first time in 1998. Later I was an organiser for the readings. I still love being involved with the Albert, and going to the workshops- they generate most of my poems.
I recently had a collection published by Calder Valley Press, edited by Bob Horne, and this has meant a great deal.
I love to see myself in a circle of poets, past and present, William Blake, Keats, Wordsworth, Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, Yeats, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Kathleen Jamie, Frances Horovitz, Carola Luther, Adrian Mitchell, Thom Gunn amongst others.
For me there is no experience that comes close to how I feel when I have written a poem, to see those words on the paper which I have charmed into being.
In recent years, I have been followed by a gang of spirits, clamouring to be written about, they are like musical themes, they are cats , hares, The Green Man, mermaids and foxes. They slip in through cracks in my mind. An old man, an archaeologist killed by fundamentalists is always behind me, tapping on my shoulder, and a boy who looks for aeroplanes on the moors is much in my mind.”
There’s a matter-of-factness about the way Mark says most things, so you almost miss them. The raven and the laughing head is his first pamphlet; this is not only someone who sent his poems to Ted Hughes, but corresponded with him over the years. There’s a special endorsement on the back cover of the pamphlet (this first pamphlet)
“There’s a lovely lyrical completeness about your poems. So natural and full – they just float out. Something perfect about them. So wholehearted and affectionate. (So rare!)”
Whatever it is that makes you read Mark Hinchliffe’s poems more than once, and which lodges them in your mind, be assured that Ted Hughes got there first. And, whatever you do, keep in mind the gang of spirits that slip in through the cracks. The boy who looks for aeroplanes on the moors keeps turning up on Monday nights in Huddersfield and bothers me as much as he does Mark.
At which point I shall say: here are two more poems. When you’ve read them, read them again and then close your eyes. Don’t analyse. Either you’ll get them or you won’t. It’s something that ultimately we can’t help.
When you stood up
from your chair
your skin peeled away,
raw red strips,
the flesh stuck,
and you took the wolverine skin,
laid it on your neck,
placed the otter skin on your shoulder,
the jaguar on your chest,
and the leopard on your back.
His spots pricked into your skin
The wild boar covered your legs,
the wolf lay around your ankles.
And you ran,
you sprang through the window
into the garden,
the apple trees shook their heads,
the blossom danced,
and under the grass
your bull stirred, bellowed,
his ring shimmering like the moon,
like a buried hoard.
(actually, I want to say….’that ring, shimmering, that round moonlike glimmering ring’..I can’t keep quiet about it. Let’s see if I can be more disciplined about the next one)
Billy the Kid plays croquet
with his gang.
Frank and Jesse James
play tennis doubles
against the Earp brothers.
John Wesley Harding races cars.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
blow peas through a hole in the wall.
Guests from abroad,
Ned Kelly plays blind man’s buff,
Robin Hood climbs trees, and
Little John plays basketball.
But the Oglala Sioux
led by Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Black Elk, and Red Cloud
take all the gold medals
back to Dakota.
They keep the sun in the sky
for seven weeks,
they talk to the eagles,
they dance on the earth,
green shoots spring up.
This is what another of the Albert Poets, Carola Luther, wrote about Mark’s work. She puts it better than I can.
“Mark Hinchcliffe writes love poems, praise poems and poems of lamentation and devotion…these are not ironic poems. They weave myth into both the dark and the everyday with a seriousness and attention that could be prayer”
The phrase that really nails it for me is these are not ironic poems. Nor are they naive or innocent or playful, though they might be any or all of these things. I said at the start there are things I just don’t ‘get’ and I should end by saying there things I think I ‘get’ but can’t explain. I just know that I keep re-reading these poems because they keep puzzling me.
I find it unbelievable that there will be no more of them. But those cats , those hares, The Green Man, the mermaids and foxes are out there, now, and always will be. A boy who looks for aeroplanes on the moors is out there too. You may meet him out on the cottongrass millstone Pennines. Give him good day.”
It features my favourite David Constantine poem, and it focuses on the largely ignored wives and daughters and widows of The Fallen. It’s a plea for them to be remembered, the ones who were left to pick up the pieces of their lives, smashed to smithereens.
While I was writing it, for some reason I found myself thinking of my German brother-in-law, Frank Rupp. His father was sent to fight on the Eastern Front; Frank, and his mother, never saw him again until 1947 when he was finally released from a Russian prison camp. I remembered that when Fank and my sister-in-law came to spend Christmasses with us in the mid-1960s how disturbed…maybe horrified is the right word…by Christmas television in England. The schedules were full of WW2 movies. You know the kind of thing. The great escape. Where eagles dare. Heroes of Telemark. It wasn’t just that the Germans were uniformly presented as either idiots or sadists. It was the fact that this was considered family entertainment at Christmas. He simple couldn’t grasp the idea that it was tolerated. And he was right.
Fifty years on there’s a channel called Yesterday. As far as I can tell, about half its scheduling is devoted to WW2, and about half of that to Hitler. It’s appalling. Who watches it? Why? I’m 76 and I grew out of that stuff by the age of 12 or so….I had my fill of The dam busters, The Colditz Story and all the rest of it. Something else struck me; all my Remembrance posts are about WW1 and my grandparents’ part in it. Why? Maybe it was being brought up on a diet of WW1 poetry. But it’s not good enough.
So, for this Remembrance Sunday I want to remember the ones I knew who came through WW2 and hardly ever talked about it. My father-in-law, Stan Rogers, who spent the war in India and Burma, in recon. behind Japanese lines. The forgotten army, they called themselves. The history teacher I worked with who survived the fiasco of Arnhem. The supply teacher, shot through the throat by a random bullet fired off by a Stuka over Scarborough while he was shaving in his attic digs. Another Stan who was at Anzio, fought up the Italian peninsula, sent to India, where he still was just before partition and had his skull bashed in by a rock in a religious riot. The uncle who was at the liberation of Belsen, and remained in a black depression for years. None of them ever understood the absurd glorification of war, mainly by men who never experienced it. They kept their counsel.
So remember them, too. The quiet ones.
Short back and sides
It’s fine, Stan’s hair. His wife, Vera, says:
“He gets it from his mother.
They were all fine haired, her side.”
He’s soft-skinned, too. Big hands
with liver spots. They tremble, agitate
an invisible test tube, like a chemist.
Big ears, lobes like small ox-tongues.
He likes his hair cut short.
Curious to be holding his head still,
gentling the clippers in the back of his neck,
hearing the buzz, feeling light hairs fall.
I’ve eaten snake, he says. A python.
He could butcher anything the lads brought in.
He’ll not eat curry. When you smell that
you know you’re closing on a village.
On Recon. they’d take the headman’s son.
Shackle him on the bonnet of the Jeep.
See, if no one made a fuss we’d know
no Japs was up the trail. Drive him for a bit
then let him off. The skin of his scalp is fragile,
scissors cold on the pink of the skull.
His goalkeeper’s hands beat a soft
tattoo against his knee, When he remembers
he clasps them like a handshake, or a prayer.
In jungle once, he came upon a pal
pinioned to a tree, opened up from throat to groin,
his piled entrails at his feet, a black buzz of flies.
I’ve never told our Vera that. I tidy round his neck.
I’ll shake the teatowel outside on the step,
watch the hair blow, like dandelion clocks.
His hand have freed themselves.
He has forgotten them.
According to their cloth
I knew one man made a forced march in a column,
full pack and rifle; heat and scrub, humidity, thick dust;
forty miles in a single day and never knew a battle plan.
One man who fell from a plane
in a night full of parachutes,
the wind white silk ; the dark sound of planes
dwindling up into the night and him falling into fiasco;
This article is reblogged from my post in The Wider Web, published on the Write out Loud website
The other day, I came across an interview with the poet Kim Moore in which she says in response to the question: What does poetry mean to you?
“This is a hard question! I’ve just had a baby, so my relationship with poetry has changed a little, in that it has been squashed into the edges of my life at the moment. But I guess poetry is my way of making sense of the world, of finding out what I really think, a way of making connections and these are all things I couldn’t live without doing. Poetry to me is those solitary moments of writing, when there is nobody to see or care whether it is any good or not, but it is also those solitary moments of reading, when you read a poem and put the book down because the poem is so good, because it has articulated something you didn’t know you felt.”
I’ll leave that with you for a while.
When I started to write a poetry blog I thought about how I wanted it to work. I thought it needed to have a reliable style/structure. What did that mean? For instance, I could rely on Roy Marshall’s poetry blog offering advice on the business of writing and compiling; I expected that Kim Moore would tell me what she’d been doing the previous week, before sharing a poem from someone she was currently excited about. Anthony Wilson would share a ‘lifesaving poem’ by doing a close reading in the context of its place in the narrative of his own life. And so on. So I couldn’t be doing any of that. It was already being done, and better than I could aspire to.
Instead of looking at blogs, I looked to journalism, and settled on the late AA Gill’s restaurant reviews in The Times colour magazine. What I always liked about Gill, apart from his acerbic prose, was the way he would come at the actual review obliquely, (say, musing on the manners of the English, or the hairstyles of Peckham, or whatever). I realised that for me it would also be a way of getting into the writing, so that by the time I got to the poetry I wanted to share, I’d have found some sort of rhythm, and a hook or a theme that put the poetry in context. I grew up with radio journalism/storytelling. Sometimes it works. But the plain fact is that I can’t just get straight into the poetry … I have to think my way towards it. You’ve been warned.
I grew up (or older) with radio, which had its own version of blogging in the form of, say, Alistair Cooke’s weekly Letter from America; perfectly constructed, 15-minute pieces as elegant and apparently effortless as Fred Astaire’s dancing. He would approach his topic obliquely, too. As would the wonderful Garrison Keillor who would invariably begin It has been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon. It’s got to start the same way. As he says in my favourite episode you can’t disappoint them, but you have to surprise them. Once upon a time there was a poor woodcutter/three brothers …The expected has got to spring a surprise. But the bottom line is the expected.
“It has been a quiet week here in Lake Wobegon. It snowed three feet on Tuesday …” That’s how my favourite episode begins, in which we learn that a three-foot snowfall isn’t anything to write home about; this takes us to legendary snowfalls that have their own stories and thus to the tellers of the stories. And to Kenny, who’s “a chubby guy” who lives in a beat-up house on the outskirts. We can see him through his window (because we’ve taken a walk through town in the snowy night), and he’s telling a story to his kids. It’s Hansel and Gretel, and he’s vaguely uncomfortable about telling this story, and more about getting it wrong. We get to learn a lot about Kenny, his wife, the father he is alienated from and who is at this moment dying ; and also about the rules and uses of narrative. There’s a letter on the table which Kenny hasn’t opened. It’s from his dad who is trying to explain what cannot be explained. Kenny’s wife Joanne is on her way home from choir practice. The kids should be in bed. The house is in a mess. Whatever will she say when she sees it?
It has been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon. And here the governance of the nation is in chaos; the President of the United States has casually signed a death warrant on tens of thousands of Kurds (who unaccountably weren’t at Omaha Beach); our elected politicians are, at enormous expense and with our money, subverting the very purposes of language; and the streets of London have been brought to a standstill by young people and Extinction Rebellion.
It’s worth remembering that there have been five major extinctions in the long history of the Earth, the least catastrophic of which destroyed 75% of all living organisms, and the worst which accounted for 95%. Some happened relatively fast, like the one caused by a gigantic meteor strike. Some happened slowly over millennia, from an excess of carbon dioxide, from a scarcity of the same, from too much oxygen, or from not enough. The fossil record tells us all this. We are probably at the beginning of a sixth which is being accelerated by human agency. It’s little comfort to note that the Earth adjusted (though it’s tempting to say ‘recovered from’) to the last five and that it will probably do so again. It’s just that we’re unlikely to be around afterwards though other things will be. To put in perspective, today, extinctions are occurring hundreds of times faster than they would naturally. If all species currently designated as critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable go extinct in the next century, and if that rate of extinction continues without slowing down, we could approach the level of a mass extinction in as soon as 240 to 540 years. The astonishing, wonderful, accidental concatenation of what we call life on earth doesn’t care for us at all. Which is no reason for us not to care for it, and for ourselves.
And finally, this brings us in roundabout ways to Jane Lovell’s remarkable pamphlet, This Tilting Earth, a pamphlet lit by her fascination with the fossil record and also with historical ones, and by biophilia (the title of one of the poems). I didn’t know the word. It means the urge to affiliate with other forms of life. I’m glad to have learned it. I took a chance on ‘reviewing’ this pamphlet, responding to a plea on Facebook. I’m so glad that I did. I read it first on the Supertram in Sheffield on my way to a Poetry Business Writing Day. It’s a good job the tram was almost empty. I found myself punching the air, and saying (under my breath, I hope, but I can’t be sure) YES!! YES!! I go on about Clive James’ dictum about ‘the moment that gets you in’. This slim pamphlet is packed with them. It does what Kim Moore said in that interview about “those solitary moments of reading, when you read a poem and put the book down because the poem is so good, because it has articulated something you didn’t know you felt”.
Let me tell you about all the things that hauled me in, and then I’ll share a couple of the poems before insisting that you go out, at once, and buy the book.
First thing: the title. This Tilting Earth. I suppose this is personal. I seem to have been fascinated by the fact of the Earth’s tilted axis, without which we would have no seasons, for decades. I think it started with Ted Hughes:
Brought to bare trees, to spike and shard
browned by cold, our birds
breast a homing departure; on wings press
to correct earth’s sure tilt into darkness
‘Nicholas Ferrer’ (Lupercal)
I spent a couple of hours yesterday trying to track it down. I’ve not consciously read this poem in 30 years. Why did that phrase stick? Why does it keep on popping up in poems as I write them? It comes uninvited, as in this from a poem of mine called ‘Viewpoint’.
Here, punctually, the earth rim tips up;
the sun’s disc eclipsed,
A moon is strange as it comes
beyond the dark weight of hills
and it is not rising
but the huge world is toppling
O so slow towards the moon
in the dark ocean of the sky
For me it’s become an emblem of the accidents of our place in space and time, and simpler to hold in my mind than those that create our ideas of constellations like Orion or the Plough. The stability of that tilt relies on the gravity of the moon, which comes close and grows distant over huge spans of time. Our balance is so fragile. This tilting Earth; that word tilt is so exact, so layered. It seemed to me the perfect title.
What next: it was the range, archaeological, geographical, historical, of the poem’s titles that sent me googling. These poems will takes you to the mammoth burial sites of Siberia and North America ..the Laplev Sea, Lugoskoe, Waco; to the bay of Mont Saint-Michel and estuary of La Sélune; to the salt pans of Sečovlje in Slovenia; to the Hebridean ghost-crofts of Hirta; to Sithylemenkat Lake in the bowl of a gigantic meteor strike in the Yukon, and to Beringia that was the land bridge between Russia and America. You have no need to worry about the ‘facts’ behind the places. The poems tell you all you need to know about small significant extinctions; the thing is that they are precisely located, and this is important.
So much for names and titles. What about the moments that memorise themselves as you read? The collection is packed with them. As a whistlestop tour will show. How about the painted horses of the Lascaux caves, threatened by the very breath of visitors? “They watch us with their oilbloom eyes. / We breathe and they may disappear.” Jane Lovell does brilliant opening lines, too, like these:
They all ended up the same way, of course,
deep in the silt and swirl of the Thames,
I love the insouciance of this, the crafty pronoun that starts it. And this, too: “He remembers, briefly, plummeting,/ tilting slowly like a tree.”
Think about the way those two verbs apparently work against each other until you visualise a man falling from a height, and realise how exact it really is.
She has a wonderful eye for the moment, for the image, as in that of the carts in the salt pans “with their drapery of halite”. Drapery. Precise and true, as is her observation of
quiet pans of algae, gypsum, clay
where egrets pick their way
through cubes of sky
The moments aren’t just visual. There’s a memorable line in the salt pan poem that captures the idea that the suspension of sound is so profound that the salt worker “is listening to the voice / of the salt, the tinkering of the sea”.
“Tinkering”. One of those moments when I said ‘YES’ on the tram. One of the delights of these poems is her easy use of a huge vocabulary that’s always being used for its rightness. And not just for their rightness, but for their textures: grume, squirl, laggy, skilly, candlenut, cinnabar. These are poems that demand to be read aloud and tasted. There are poets whose knowledge and erudition become exclusive. Jane Lovell’s not one of them. There may be arcane bits of information but the meaning’s always supplied by the context. Every living thing in these poems is brought to mind , enchanted, in Macfarlane’s sense, with a concrete textured clarity that becomes a praise poem for living things, and a reminder that like Blake she fervently believes that everything that lives is holy.I’m tempted to go on and on quoting. My review copy’s studded with underlinings and post-its. But you should have got the picture by now. I’d like to work my way through the poems. But one of the bits of advice I was given about doing a reading was that you should ‘leave them wanting more’. This Tilting Earth does precisely that, and so will I. I’ll provide this link to another review which throws some light on more poems, and then finish up with a couple of poems and a bit of commentary.Here’s the link first
It’s not easy to pick just two poems that foreground the qualities of this lovely pamphlet. I could pick the narrative swagger of ‘The last leap of Sam Patch’ or the pathos/drama of creatures and people drowning like the young mammoths, or the 16th century drayman whose cart overturns into the Thames (unlike Robert Frost’s ending of the world , it’s not fire or ice, but water that threatens); equally the poems commemorating a flayed saint or a flayed horse (there are a lot of horses as well birds and water in the collection). But I’ve chosen two quieter, more intimate ones.
The first homes in on one apparently inconsiderable outcome of the depopulation of a Hebridean isalnd. When the last St Kildans were evacuated in 1930, the St Kilda house mouse (Mus musculus muralis) very quickly became extinct. The St Kilda field mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus hirtensis) is still present.
We remain cautious, haunting crannies in low walls
scabbed with moss and lichen,
sloughed roofs smouldering soot and mildew.
Without bread or grain, we grow thin.
Our litters fail.
Drawn to roar of sea and shingle,
we skeddle down past sallow blooms of roseroot, sorrel,
skirt the last remaining footprints brimming sky;
alert for skirl of skua, hook-clawed kestrel,
seek out sprat and crab between the rocks and kelp,
tats of shell at cliff foot caught in gravel, lifting, falling.
We have an instinct for water,
Our bellies rimpled films of skin,
bones hollow flutes funnelling the winds.
We grow thin; our litters fail.
Stiff with salt, the waves wash us away.
There are no footnotes in the pamphlet, and reading the poem without knowing who the ‘we’ of the first line might be draws the reader in. Who remains cautious? Why? It makes the reader work, but you should pick up on the curious opposition of ‘leaving’ and ‘remain’ between the title and the first line, and then recognise that the stress in the first line falls on ‘we’.
You understand that the crofters left, so who or what remains? What relies on grain? What lives in crannies? What fears the skua and the kestrel? What’s small enough to skirt a footprint, and what moves so quick under the sky? I love that word “skeddles”. All this is played out to the soundtrack of breaking surf, and the riddled scratch of shell fragments. This small extinction is contained in one understated and beautifully observed sequence. What struck me was its filmic quality.
I was delighted to learn the factual backstory that reminds us of the reflexive relationships in ecosystems. Animals, some animals, need us as much as we need them.
The next one is more mysterious. The narrator of this poem is clearly at home with a process that is both mundane and numinous. It’s a routine and a ritual the purposes of which (it seems to me) are so normal as to be implicit, and need no explanation, despite the apparent horror of the opening image.
Her eyes bleach the colour
of milk, head coming up blind
Once the fat is risen
we syphon the cooling tallow
into flagons, set them in line,
add beeswax and lye,
stand back from its boiling and hissing,
do not breathe until it stills.
I pour the soap into moulds,
scatter over cranesbill, nibs of lavender
wrap the cooled cakes
in scraps of vellum, stack them
in the drystore.
It’s warm there
and dark enough for owls.
Above shelves of pickled fruit
and bottled juice,
cowls of gut hang like vines.
It is light tonight, cloudless.
We carry her flesh to fire, break bread,
sing her name.
Tomorrow the women will roast the bones,
use the crushed chalk to make buttons
No one speaks of the old days.
We light candles but no one prays.
Each moon has its feast.
She was our chosen one, our beauty.
Some creature, or someone, has been rendered down to soap. It’s all domestic and simple and normal. It’s done with care and something approaching reverence. In the manner of the native Americans, nothing will be wasted: “Tomorrow the women will roast the bones, / use the crushed chalk to make buttons / and beads.”
As a reader, I’m fascinated to be put in the position of a stranger, someone stumbling upon a lost way of life, to be given a guide who explains a routine without ever explaining it, without telling us why No one speaks of the old days.
She’s an artful poet, Jane Lovell; one who engages all your senses and sympathies. What a great collection this is.
Jane Lovell is the Poetry Society Stanza rep for Mid Kent. She has had work published in Agenda, Earthlines, Poetry Wales, Magma, The North, the Honest Ulsterman, Dark Mountain, The Lonely Crowd, Ink Sweat & Tears, Zoomorphic and Elementum, and in various anthologies including One for the Road from Smith Doorstop.She was awarded the Flambard prize in 2015, and has won the South Downs poetry competition 2017 and the Wealden literary festival 2018 writing competition. In 2018 she won the Wigtown poetry competition, and was also joint winner of the Coast to Coast to Coast pamphlet competition.
[This post was originally published on the Write Out Loud website in September]
I read this on Julie Mellor’s poetry blog last week: “I aim to post something once a week on my blog but last weekend I skipped it. Maybe I didn’t have anything to say. Maybe I didn’t have the energy or drive to write it. Anyway, I thought I’d better get on with it today before another weekend slipped by.”
Me too, I thought. Me too.
And then I read this in Anthony Wilson’s Lifesaving Poems: “If you write poetry (and I assume that if you do, you are also actively engaged in reading it), sooner or later Poetry Exhaustion is going to happen to you. By Poetry Exhaustion I mean the complete lack of that shock of recognition you’ve always been able to count on from a favourite unputdownable book of poems. Or the sudden knowledge that the poems you have been working on for the last two months are certainly not your best work and actually not even worth keeping (though you do, in case).”
It sums up exactly the kind of ennui, mental blankness that’s stopped me writing posts and reviews and poems. It happens. You just have to hunker down and wait for something to change you. Like a poem, you can’t just will it into existence.
Last week, out of the blue, I decide to re-read Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways. And suddenly, phrases come jumping off the page, .moments that get you in. Phrases like these:
The cold like a wire in the nose.
Snow caused everything to exceed itself
starlings…feathers sleekly black as sheaves of photographic negatives
big gulls…monitoring us with lackadaisical, violent eyes
a dolphin….a sliding bump beneath the water..like a tongue moving under a cheek
star patterns..the grandiose slosh of the Milky Way
gannets bursting up out of the sea…like white flowers unfurling…avian origami
[and, after a hard long hike] … feet puffy as rising dough
It was lovely. Language well-wrought can galvanise you like that. I’ve had a review waiting to be written for months. Macfarlane let me know that it was time I got on with it.
When I started my first poetry blog, the great fogginzo’s cobweb, I wanted, among other things, to publicise the writing of poets who fly under the radar … the ones without a ‘book’. I quickly learned that most of them were not ‘undiscovered’ at all. They just weren’t self-publicicising. They had been published in respectable and reputable magazines. They had won prizes. They just didn’t go on about it. They didn’t have a collection. They didn’t particularly do open mics, or get guest reader slots. But they couldn’t half write. At least as well, and often, I thought, a good deal better, than some published poets. And such are today’s poets, Vicky Gatehouse and John Paul Burns, both of whom I keep meeting at the Poetry Business, or, by accident, at open mics and readings.
I should add something else. You go to writing and critiquing workshops and you become aware that you’re hearing a poem and a poet, in the process of becoming: Kim Moore, before she won anything, before she had her first pamphlet, trying out the first draft of her ‘Train ride from Barrow to Sheffield’; ditto Roy Marshall with a draft that had echoes of Heaney; Julie Mellor, also, with a mole on the neck that marks you for hanging; Keith Hutson and a suicidal, drunken pantomime dame. It’s like seeing a musician before s/he becomes a star. Like seeing a 16-year-old Ginger Baker drumming for Terry Lightfoot’s band in Bradford. Which I did. Or Dylan going on the open mic for the first time in Greenwich Village. Which I didn’t. I’ve added today’s poets to the list. They couldn’t be more different voices.
Kim Moore writes of John-Paul Burns’ poems in The minute & the train that “the speakers in these poems are often out of sight, looking outward at landscape, objects or people while using clear-eyed and precise descriptions … leaving the reader with the realisation that looking out can also be a way of looking in”.
I think of Isherwood’s “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.” I think of a kind of attentive detachment, a sort of separateness, like Stephen Daedalus’ willed secrecy/invisiblity. I also think of the Larkin of Mr Bleaney. It’s like being in a land where we are in the shoes of a traveller, and outsider. There’s a shared anonymity, that of the observed and observer. It’s no accident, I think, that John-Paul’s first degree is in film, that the films he references include silent classics, and that the jazz he references is ‘cool’. It’s not accidental that the poems are monochrome, and mainly silent when they’re not quiet.
A first fast reading through the pamphlet left me with the impression of particular times: night, twilight, sunrise; of bedsits, and shared houses, (like Mr Bleaney muttering to his younger self); urban places, the corner shop, the old factory, a lot of reflecting rain, almost unpopulated landscapes, gravestones, rags, odds and ends fragments, exhaustions:
My hair is brown, dark to the point
of black when rained on. It blocks the drain
as everything does (‘Drinking Songs’)
It also left me trying to figure out the fact of apparently random or wilful line breaks, indentations, capitalisations. I’m still not reconciled to those, but repeated readings override the initial sense of alienation in distressed places. Something much more committed, engaged and human, and sometimes funny, is going on. The most obvious is that though much of the work is studiously monochrome, it can explode into an unexpected and startling colour.
you’re all belly aren’t you
everything is patches really
intimate as waxwork
A suggestion of planet in the pool.
of orange moon. (‘A tangerine being drawn’)
or in a later poem, the moon again “as it meanders from orange to pink”. There is “ruby ale, lovely blue grass”, and in ‘Cricket club scene, Oldham’ a flood of colour: “a deep yellow hour. / The red ball, a deep ochre red; / pale violet rooftops /orange-green parakeets”. Considered and precisely Technicolor colours, that have the impact of the Tecnicolor sequence in that 1949 film The Secret Garden. Here’s a poet who knows just what he’s up to.
In her review in The High Window online quarterly poetry magazine recently, Carole Bromley wrote: “As far as subject matter goes, Burns is particularly good at capturing the world of bedsits, shared flats and houses. I get the feeling that the poet in him longs for solitude, while the young man with a sense of humour can enjoy company, parties, drunkenness.” She adds that he is also “an observer with a gift for capturing landscapes, objects and people. A pear “waits for the hand/that will hold it, give it/its pear shape, bite into/its sweet and dripping self”, a tangerine “will be torn without violence/ Your oils will mist a fresh sweat into the air/ You will disappear and you will remain”, at a cricket club “The track curves in the grass/ with no-one running. They play/ just out of earshot, a deep yellow hour.”
What I’d add to this is that his urban and rural/coastal landscapes, both interior and exterior, can be sinister and disturbing in the way of Expressionist cinema, as in the decidedly unsettling ‘Knott End-on-Sea’ which incidentally also illustrates what I think is an arbitrary use of capitals and indents without punctuation. I can be open to persuasion on this.
The footprints trail off out of sight
The sand stays in the morning
A pale blue dusk sitting above it
And Jimbo the dog is missing
Out beyond the soft horizon
The man in the footprints exhales
The narrator is apparently looking out of the window of a cafe on a nondescript bit of shallow coast, making notes, or planning a storyboard of something Hitchcockian, and with the relish for the suggestion of menace in its ambiguities, the questions it asks, that infuses that one word “exhales” with something troubling.
I want to finish, though, on what I said earlier about the engaged, the warm, the human that runs through the studied stance of ‘attentive detachment’. Take this, for example:
A bundle in the mist
When I think of the arctic terns
they come in pairs from years ago
flirting over the stones in the wide teal
of Shetland air.
Let me have them as they seem.
Allow their blurriness too, swerving up
from the name Shetland with faint high knells.
There were no bells, but further in
Say the word and the birds come, chiming.
I could live for a while in one spark like this
I love the wholehearted openness of it, the undefended credo that ends this sequence; it’s epiphanic, like Stephen Daedalus standing on the shore, every nerve singing to the joyous otherness of things.
And finally, a poem that Carole Bromley also highlighted:
Two views of Whitby Harbour
One by day, bright for October
and calm. I say it’s strange really
and you laugh: the giant Doric column
bitten by the salt wind
that is absent today. Cormorants
line the Eastern Pier
crooked, athletic and shy.
The sky is a flat sky blue
Another by night, sharp
and calm, though the wind
picks at the black ocean skin.
A creaking hinge; the night-
fishermen cast in silence.
Vague white seabirds hover
dashing at the air;
there is no horizon.
I like this for the way it evokes an unforced, easy companionship, a happiness. The ‘I’ and ‘you’ are abstract but still seem specific as the moment is specific, and the cormorants are memorably recorded: “crooked, athletic, shy”. Surprising and true. A moment that gets you in. I like the wry humour of “The sky is a flat sky blue.” I like the creaking hinge that is sort-of-lifted from Robin Robertson. I like the way the birds are vague and sudden at the same time, batting at the mist to simply stay still. It’s a poem that’s worth the entrance money on its own, in this genuinely interesting first collection that will stick in your mind for a long time.
And so to Vicky Gatehouse and The Mechanics of Love. I said they were strikingly different voices. Other reviewers have made much about the fact that Vicky trained as a scientist, but I’m not sure they quite nail down what it means for the poems. I may not, either, but we’ll see. Gaia Holmes identifies what I think of as the exuberance of the collection which is full to the brim with “love locks, 1980s perfume ads, cross dressers, owl pellets, pearl divers, Premier Inn hotel rooms, the visceral trials of a lab technician, lost tennis balls, spiders’ webs, the delightful idiolectic ‘Shunkley’ and the speakers’ ‘magpie need for bling’. ”
Vicky Gatehouse is pretty much always the actual voice of the poems, which are more often than not autobiographical. These are poems populated by identifiable people: mothers, grandmas, husbands, younger selves, biology teachers, and abattoir man in a bloodstained apron, mum’s friend Sylvia; like the cross-dresser in Lenton Boulevard, they live in identifiable places like the Premier Inn or the Pont des Arts, and are surrounded by artefacts and goods with resonant names: Aartex, Midget Gems, Poison, Fortune-telling Fish.
Gaia also identifies what she calls “the muscular language of the heart”. Vicky Gatehouse’s poems involve physical as well as emotional engagement, and her imaginative memory is tactile as well as visual. She is as concerned and slightly anxious for her earlier adolescent self as a mother. I would be inclined to say that that is normal enough, and possibly not enough to lift the poems out of the run of enjoyable, competent poems we write about ourselves. What makes the difference, I think, is the science, the combination of exact and intuitive knowledge of how the world works, its structures, its mechanisms. The whole pamphlet challenges the popular elision/confusion of mechanism and mechanistic with its secondary connotations of dehumanisation and the binary opposition of mind and body. What I like (and hope to demonstrate) is the understanding in the poems that knowing how things work doesn’t take away their wonder, but actually intensifies it.
When I think of ‘the mechanics of love’ I think of UA Fanthorpe’s ‘Atlas’, the kind of love called maintenance that knows where the WD40 is. I think of mechanics as a set of abstract principles, and also as people who mend and put things to rights. Doctors, for instance. And mothers and fathers, and lovers.
I’m inclined, therefore, to disagree with Mat Riches’ review in Sphinxwhen he writes that “Starting with the perfumery of ‘Poison, 1986’, and the ‘Sixth Form Science Technician’ being sent out to collect supplies for student experiments, science leaps out of many of the poems…”, that “as a result of having a day job in medical research – these poems take a microscopic look at love and life as though they’ve been carefully sampled on a slide and Gatehouse is noting the beauty and fragility of the findings.”
I don’t think they’re as calculated or as forensic as this suggests, but rather that scientific language and thinking comes naturally as part of her ideolect and way of experiencing things. I had much the same take on Emma Storr’s Heart Murmurs [Calder Valley Press 2019], a poet who naturally thinks like a doctor because she is one. This makes it different, I think, from the way poets like the Metaphysicals and some modern poets bring in ’science’ as it were from the outside. Indeed, Vicky makes the point herself in ‘Fortune telling fish’ when she says
A scientist now, you could explain that whisper-thin strip as hygroscopic – swelling or receding with the level of moisture in the skin
She’s pointing out that this doesn’t explain the fact, signalled by a “but” that “you’ll find yourself wanting to show” you’re passionate, or independent or whatever, and science won’t explain that. Not at all. I wrote in another poetry blog about her poem
This is her time – birds dark-stitching telegraph wires,
the woods blue-shadowed, crackling with dusk.
The moon untethers her, she pitches from fence to wall
to leaf, would hurl herself for miles, such is her faith
and you think of how she gorged on hawthorn and thyme, spun
herself a mantle, hung tight inside the blackout
of her own skin before the breakdown, the forcing
of all that remained through the veins of her wings,
this lit-bulb junkie, wrecking herself on your porch light.
(Ink, Sweat and Tears, 2015)
I really get a buzz from the controlled energy of this, and the way images imprint themselves (“how she gorged / on hawthorn and thyme.”) “Gorged” is absolutely spot on and surprising. And “the blackout of her own skin” is rich and layered. Blackout curtains, fustian and dusty; blackout unconsciousness …a binge-drinker’s blackout that springs the trap for the ambush of “this light-bulb junkie”. You can read and re-read this and it keeps on giving. I’ll go on highlighting the fact of energy, the accurate richness,of her language. This new collection is packed with the moments that ‘get you in’, often in opening lines like these
The biology teacher wanted blood
I remember kitten heels clipping tarmac
It ticks me to sleep,
the titanium valve in your heart
On the fifth day I find it in your cot
There’s a specific narrative in each of these which I immediately want to hear, to have explained. And the poems never let me down. For instance, what we find in the cot is the shrivelling umbilical cord that had
… pulsed between us, blue-white
vigorous, the best I had to give – stem-cell, lymphocytes, streaming
down the line they had to cut off.
There it is. The physical immediacy as intimately known as what the cord actually did, when it pulsed, blue-white. I like that word pulse. That’s what so many of these poems do, as she explores her memories of adolescence, the mysteries and excitements of burgeoning sexuality; also the memories of becoming and being a mother, a wife and a lover, a daughter. She finds an emblem for all this textured experience in the opening poem, ‘Inosculation’:
And this will be no perfect union
but one born of abrasion: two trees
grown close enough to graze, to chafe
as they shift in the wind, their bark worn thin
The title is a label for a process, but the poem in its crafted consonality enacts the process itself. It’s not an idea but a felt experience. And it’s lovely. Gaia Holme’s endorsement should give you a taste for the tumbled richness of things in The Mechanics of Love. I’ll finish with a poem that might seem a surprising choice, but which, I think, tells you what’s at the heart of Vicky Gatehouse’s collection. On one level it’s simply a beautifully observed set of moments that come like “talons trailing the tips of the wheat, to the tooth-hole ruin of that barn”, (THAT barn, notice); on another you might call it Birth of a Naturalist. It’s the moment you go back to, again and again, it’s a rite of passage. It’s as exact as the “dark, neat parcels of feathers and fur,/ the pale curve of bone”.
This is the hour when she thinks of the field,
the unsteady embrace of drystone walls,
end-of-summer grasses, whispering
their untidy truths, the tooth-hole ruin
of that barn where she first found the pellets –
dark, neat parcels of feathers and fur,
the pale curve of bone within, each one
packaged up like a gift so she had no choice
but to return every evening, at owl light
and wait for that change in the air, the weight
that comes on silent wings, talons trailing
the tips of the wheat, a half-lifetime ago
and still the bleeding, unseen beneath the gold,
the skeletons in her pockets, carried home
It’s also unnerving; a poem about a compulsion that remains after half a life time, where whatever else has happened, there is “still the bleeding, unseen beneath the gold, /the skeletons in her pockets, carried home”.
There we are. Two pamphlets that couldn’t be more different, and which both will hold your attention and fix themselves in your minds.
[First published on the Write Out Loud website in September]
It’s been hard to concentrate, these last few days. It’s hard to think about poetry when you’re consumed with rage and frustration in a world where truth is an endangered species, and the management of the body politic has become a kind of game for the ones who have tickets, and the rest of us are shut out. It’s 80 years since Auden wrote September 1939, four years before I was born into a world that had been at war for all of them.
I sit in one of the dives On Fifty-second Street Uncertain and afraid As the clever hopes expire Of a low dishonest decade: Waves of anger and fear Circulate over the bright And darkened lands of the earth, Obsessing our private lives; The unmentionable odour of death Offends the September night.
A low dishonest decade: there’s an epitaph for the last ten years in this country that I used to think was mine, and which I now hardly recognise. We’ve been used to muddling along (or compromising) and on the whole got on with each other. Not any more. Politicians who were born into a world of entitlement, and who will never come face to face with it have validated ignorance, intolerance, racism; it’s fashionable to be xenophobic and be contemptuous of expert evidence, of the qualified, of experience and nuance. A world in which a phrase like ‘fake news’ has traction, the purposes of language itself are threatened.
And curiously, it’s why poetry (and all well-wrought language) seems more important than ever. I’m reminded that, as I wrote last week, when I met Gráinne Tobin for the first time nearly 40 years ago, it was in a city divided by religious hatred. I’ll not ever forget the barbed wire and barricades of the Crumlim and the Shankhill Roads. That was Gráinne’s world; she lived through it and wrote through it, and that gives me some hope even now. What will survive of us is love. That’s what lies at the heart of the poetry I treasure, and I’m delighted to be introducing Gráinne for a second week, and to bring you up to date with what she’s been up to since 2010 where last week’s post sort of terminated.
She retired from the day job then (as an English teacher), and says she wondered why I wasn’t writing all day every day. But as I should have known, it doesn’t work like that at all. Whatever…she ‘s been kept busy, accepting all offers connected with poetry in that first year, including travelling scores of miles on buses in heavy snow to a mass book-signing by 70 authors in Galway to celebrate 70 years of Kennys’ bookshop, and finding herself standing beside President Michael D Higgins, who is even shorter than I am and a person I seriously admire.
She went by ferry and train to Blackpool, to read her shortlisted poem in the libraries’ Wordpool competition, but they didn’t know she was there. She says: I didn’t know I should be pushy about declaring myself, so I sat awkwardly in the audience waiting to be called on, and someone else read it. Let that be a lesson to me. (I like that story very much. We learn against the grain to be pushy. )
She applied for an Arts Council of Northern Ireland Single Individual Artist Award; the ACNI grant was for mentoring, so she had a chance to talk in detail about her manuscript with Penelope Shuttle, who advised her to start entering competitions, and it gathered momentum.
She won competitions, was invited to send poems to anthologies and to lead creative writing workshops for adults, teenagers, and children. She’s had three poetry residencies, in the Tin Jug Studio in Birr, Co Offaly, and in Sumburgh Head Lighthouse, Shetland, and in Cill Rialaig, Co Kerry.
Her writing group, Word of Mouth, published its Russian-English parallel text, When the Neva Rushes Backwardsin 2014 with Lagan Press. It was the product of working on these pieces by St Petersburg women poets for years , a huge group effort with expert help from Russian speakers. Some of of the English versions of the poems were in Modern Poetry in Translation.
The Word of Mouth Poetry Collective, which had been her main support in writing poetry, voted to dissolve itself in 2016 after 25 years of meeting monthly in the historic Linen Hall Library in Belfast: we felt that our work was more or less done, except for the Of Mouth reading series which we wanted to continue.
And here we are now : her third poetry collection, The Uses of Silk, is from Arlen House and you can get it online, or in good bookshops such as No Alibisin Belfast. Or order it by post from the publisher Alan Hayes, at Arlen House, 42 Grange Abbey Road, Baldoyle, Dublin 13, if you want it posted to the Republic of Ireland. Or direct from her by sending a Facebook message with your address.
The cover image is by the painter Jim Manley who lives in Killough, on the Co Down coast. She says: The picture has our house in it as one of the tiny lights of Newcastle, just visible if you wish hard enough, across Dundrum Bay, beyond the path of moonlight on the sea. There is a temptation to X our spot on the left edge of the page.”
Right. All up to date, and time for the poems.
Damian Smyth has commented on the qualities of the work in this collection:- subtlety, cleverness, a succinct wisdom, exhilarating formal dexterity–The dramatis personae are varied and unexpected; the emotional range expansive enough to run from elegy to slapstick; the diction charged, ingenious,
and Penny Shuttle tells us that:
“Gráinne Tobin casts a steely sceptic eye over the Ireland of her childhood but her view is mediated by gentler memories of family tenderness surviving amid the fervour and craziness of 1950s religiosity. Here is a poet employing a nimble wit, seeing behind facades, moving in the slipstream of savage histories in and beyond Ireland.”
I think you’ll find all this confirmed by the poems in last week’s Part One, and should you need convincing, here are three more, each with an introduction by Gráinne. Sit back and enjoy the ride.
An Irishwoman Reads Dodo with Keith Douglascame from a week’s writing break alone in Alicante , in a state of solitary absorption, wandering round a foreign city talking to myself about this young man who I only knew from his writing. As someone who has lived through the disturbing presence of soldiers on the streets of Northern Ireland, it was good to bring him to mind both as a strange military youngster and also as one of us poets. He died too early, at 24, and I admire his work very much. I feel a tenderness towards him, though I imagine we might not have hit it off in real life.
An Irishwoman Reads Dodo with Keith Douglas
In spite of his photographed moustache and his few years of manliness, he is excited by tinned rations jazzed-up for squadron dinners. An acceptable hot porridge can be made of hammered biscuits, boiled and laced with jam.
Any dusty tent can be made beautiful with flowers and books in a cut-out petrol can, such as the tank-men fill with desert sand as bricks to make small houses for latrines.
He’s careful of the whiskey. He must stay fit to note the fear that pushes at his belly, just where the shell would enter, and his useless pity for the burnt corpse of one who’d laid a towel over his wounds against tormenting flies.
In hospital after the land-mine, the lieutenant needs the book they bring – he reads it twice – Dodo, Edwardian comfort to draw his poet’s eye away from the wreckage of flesh and the ends of bone.
I find it on my Kindle, and I read Dodotoo at bedtime in his honour, by its faded glow, saving his Zem Zemfor sensible daylight – the boy learned how to kill and soon was dead as a doornail, blown to glory, joined the majority.
I loved learning that Keith Douglas used pulp fiction…tripe, if you like…as a comfort blanket; I like the unforced allusions, the echoes.
the fear that pushes at his belly, just where the shell would enter
takes me back to Vergissmeinicht , the poem that became a touchstone for me about the importance of the image, of accurate seeing, and economy of means.
she would weep today to see
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye,
the burst stomach like a cave
I like, too, that line break in the last stanza, the matter-of-factness, like Tony Harrison’s your life’s been blown to smithereens, and the black irony of glory.
the boy learned how to kill and soon was dead as a doornail, blown to glory,
Junction Box is about a magic bit of practical gadgetry or street furniture beside the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast. Every time I pass it, I stop to put my ear to it, and it always has sound coming out. It has an emotional charge for me and possibly for other passers-by. I can’t help being romantic about communal experience: the junction box seems to have an invisible choir of diverse voices celebrating our fragile peacetime. (We are only began to get incomers from other places when the Troubles ended, as before that, few people would have wanted to join us here.) I fretted about referring to the Spanish Catalan painter Tápies because it might be an obstacle for some readers – I only know of him by chance, and allusions can be really daunting – but then decided that anyone who was bothered could always google him, and the comparison with his work is exactly what I mean, so I didn’t want to give that up.
Upper Crescent, Belfast
Something is singing
among cracked-up flagstones
under the young leaves
of a lime tree where the park’s square edges
nudge the railings of a sooty church,
grey rubble-stone still smudged
from the city’s smoking past,
and there it is,
shoulder-high, an arm-span wide, a big black box
in painted steel with a rutted crust,
the under-paper from posters that you can’t pick off,
stained and overlapped so in the end
it looks deliberate, distressed graffiti-chic,
or like an artwork by Tapies that marks the times
in dirty layers,
and this is where
it’s coming from – the sound –
a sitar-accordion drone,
an old song echoing, an imperfect note,
single yet multiple, voices plaited together
in a chord with no pause, chanting day and night
beside the parking meter and the litter bin.
I read this and thought of Penny Shuttle’s endorsement of a poet employing a nimble wit, seeing behind facades. Exactly so..what I like is that it’s a poem to read aloud, to follow the twists and turns of the landscape through the twists and turns of a poem that’s a single sentence that weaves like a chant or a harmony. It’s lovely.
The third poem is in The Uses of Silk and came from my preoccupation with the 1916 rising and its effects on the later history of Ireland, and on my family. My parents were born into moderate anti-Treaty families, around the time of Partition. They were babies during the Civil War, as children attended the monster 1932 Catholic jamboree in Dublin that sealed the reconciliation between the former revolutionaries, now in government, and their church, and as young adults they moved north of the border during ‘the Emergency’ i.e. WW2, to find teaching jobs, ending up having a family of wee northerners, and being politically active (in the SDLP, at first a bit pinko, later more nationalist) during the Troubles. The epigraph is a family joke, one of those parental sayings you grow up with and later trace to a quotation.
Where Were You in 1916?
Where were you in 1916? I wasn’t born. Excuses, always excuses!
– Brendan Behan
Of course I wasn’t yet born, but I was included
with a quarter of the country’s population
at the Eucharistic Congress of 1932,
latent in a pair of ten-year-olds who were yet to meet.
An ovum in her reserves, the boast of Catholic Ireland,
I hid inside my mother, who wore her good coat
on the excursion train from Portarlington
in fine weather, said to be God’s answer
to thirty-seven thousand spiritual acts of self-denial
undertaken by the new and ancient nation
and placed on record in the archbishop’s office.
The child who grew up to be my father
wore the lanyard and badges of a Limerick troop
of the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland,
one of fourteen hundred plucky little fellows
encamped with trench latrines on a boarding-school lawn
and tireless in fifteen acres of the Phoenix Park,
directing a million pilgrims, holding lines and fetching water.
Where are their two faces in the crowd
that knelt with its shriven leaders in the grass?
The hungry streets, a supernatural toyshop
of angelic toy theatres, as by night
the Post Office roof beamed sky-writing,
GLORIFICAMUS. And I hear the last
of the ornate urinals made for the Congress
was bought in the seventies by a student of art.
I did a lot of research for this poem and then tried not to overload the poem and to keep most of it out of the way while writing. It still fascinates me. I read as much as I could about the 1932 Eucharistic Congress. The details were much, much more surreal than I can bear to describe in the poem. Processions of girls in white First Communion dresses who were called ‘the boast of Catholic Ireland’ – creepy – and international bishops in full campery of purple silk robes and handmade lace. It came across as rather earnest, but with an unpleasant tinge of 1930s Nuremberg rally about the whole thing. GK Chesterton was the newspaper reporter who mentioned the pathos of the ‘supernatural toyshop of angelic toy theatres’in the poorest streets. This national pop-festival of piety presaged the tight Church-state partnership that led to the mother and baby homes and their aftermath.
Final word from Gráinne: for now.
“The next thing I’d like to do now, apart from keeping on working on poems, is to get on with sending letters out, asking festivals if they would like to book two poet friends and me for readings. It’s an odd thing to advertise oneself but how else is anyone going to know we are available as a package? And then I want to make my work more traceable by sorting out an online poetry presence that doesn’t make me want to hide in the wardrobe and deny everything. Perhaps a modest and sober webpage? I have nothing to lose except my ancient convent conditioning”.
And from me:
That last comment makes me want to devote a whole post to the business of making yourself visible as a poet. I can do my bit to make other poets visible, but what about self-promotion? It’s not why I write poems, but the thing is, I have a lot of unsold books in boxes just behind me. They won’t sell themselves. Hmmm.
Still, the main thing now is to thank Gráinne Tobin for her generosity and for her poems. And a personal thankyou for initially distracting me from the Brexit nightmare, and then, through these poems, reminding me that people have come through worse.
Next week, some thoughts about poetry pamphlets and and a Northumberland poet. See you then.