Birthday stocking-fillers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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January 8th

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

two hours apart in the Maternity Home 

near the bus station in Batley.

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The year before, it was one who would write

a history of time, grow twisted as a caul.

David Bowie won’t arrive for four more years.

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Elvis is eight years old. 

It’s Shirley Bassey’s birthday too. 

She is seven. 

Poor white trash.

Tiger Bay nigger.

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I’ll light candles for us all.

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I guess there’d be no cake

or candles for little Aaron Elvis.

I’ll light a candle for him.

Maybe put on a record.

Love me tender. His ma will like that.

And Blue Suede Shoes

for a boy with no shoes.

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Watch him hunch his shoulders, 

watch his small boy’s hips,

see his forelock twitch.

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Play Blue Moon of Kentucky.

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

See Elvis and his ma, watch them dance together,

see them dream. Try not to think

of how he blew all his candles out.

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

2021: That was the year that was

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In those days

In those days we didn’t know we were in those days

only in the day to day, in the moment when

we might say in those days and mean the days

of our mothers whose fathers were ploughed under

the fields of France or died of lead poisoning

or carcinogens in the fumes of hot poured asphalt

and when our mothers said in those days they meant

the days of our grandmothers who went to work

at six years old and lived above a rich man’s stables,

who married travelling asphalters, or journeymen

painters and decorators, and if they ever thought

of people in those days perhaps they thought 

of their grandmothers who never learned to read 

or write, or did and dressed in crinolines and wore

longsleeved gloves, because in those days everything

was golden or everything was ash, but when 

we say in those days we tell ourselves it was golden.

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In June this year I see that I wrote:

Hey, you guys, you gotta wear ties on the weekend! : Eddie Cochran

We had Weekends when I first started this poetry blog, and Sundays were for writing poetry blog posts. I didn’t always want to, but the routine was the thing. A bit like Saturday night being all right for fighting. Or the way that Saturday nights before television were for going to the cinema or the Mecca. 

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Something has happened to time, to weeks and weekends in the last 14 months. Isolation, shielding and lockdowns effectively meant there were no trips out, no holidays, no shopping. Shopping was something a neighbour did for us, or, more alarmingly, what I did late at night via Google, so that Amazon kept delivering stuff I couldn’t quite remember ordering. In theory I could have got up and gone to bed at any time, since all times were much the same…..but the sun rises and sets and there is some kind of rhythm to hang on to. It’s just that the names of days don’t signify. There have been weeks when for three days in a row I might say things like I keep thinking it’s Friday. The routines slip. 

It was hard to keep going, some weeks. But as I said, courtesy of Dylan, last January

                      he not busy being born is busy dying  : 

January

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. 

…and that was pretty well it. One post. Reflective, introspective and pretty depressing, now I look back. Mea culpa

February

Not much change, apparently

“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

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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.

March

I made a promise in March. It turns out that I kept it.

“I’m a fan of Terry Pratchett – that wise, witty, inventive, humane man. I have 30+ of his audio books on a flash drive, and I listen to them over and over in the car. I love his characters, not least Tiffany Aching, the witch and keeper of sheep. She has a great love of words that she experiences in a kind of synaesthesia. They are mobile, tactile, visual, aural, all at onceLike this:

Susurrus . . . according to her grandmother’s dictionary, it meant ‘a low soft sound, as of whispering or muttering’. Tiffany liked the taste of the word. It made her think of mysterious people in long cloaks whispering important secrets behind a door: susurrususssurrusss … (The Wee Free Men)

There’s one that’s stuck in my head of late. Desultory. Limp-wristed, indolent, dilatory. That’s me. That’s twelve months of self-isolating and procrastination. It’s what happens when days fail to have meaning as events or sequences, when deadlines seem like irrelevances. Time to do something about it. Time to catch up.

It’s what we say when we haven’t seen someone for a long time…”let’s get together and do some catching up”. Of course there is the obverse …as in “playing catch up” which is when a team will rush things, and forget the plan and take risks, and generally lose the plot on the way to losing. I’ll keep that in mind. The thing is, poets go on writing, and even through a year of Covid, books are published and I buy them, and I mean to tell folk about the ones I liked. And then I go all desultory. So here’s the plan. I’m going to do some catching up; I resolve to get back to a proper routine of regular cobweb posts and tell you about the books that have made me happier in the last year. “

And I actually did!!!! 

Martin Zarrop, John Duffy, Alison Lock, Mike Farren, Helen Ivory, Mike di Placido, Maria Taylor, Ruth Valentine, Martin Malone, Carola Luther and Kim Moore…..thank you for being our guests, thank you for your poems.

April

 I started April with low immunity and a dose of pneumonia that left me, as I reported:

“catching up and trying to catch my breath. Literally. I planned to write this last Sunday, instead of which I spent the afternoon at A&E in Pinderfields Hospital, Wakefield, because I’d developed symptoms of what I remembered about the pneumonia that almost did for me when I was 19.

The NHS is an astonishing institution. Triaged, ECG, chest X-ray, blood test, a succession of inputs from two technicians, two nurses and a doctor (twice). Diagnosed with acute chest infection, cleared of any possibility of blood clots, prescribed mega doses of antibiotics, and a nurse went down to the pharmacy to collect my prescription. The whole thing in slightly under two hours in an extremely busy A&E.

Since then I’ve been in bed more than not. Tired out from coughing, but now pretty well clear. Debilitated, though. That’s the word. I hope I can do justice to Alison Lock, our guest today and her collection Lure [Calder Valley Poetry]…an unnerving and beautifully observed sequence about her near-death experience of a fall, and her subsequent recovery.”

As it turned out, I think I did. If you missed it, check it out.

May

I noted that I was still 

“catching up….but slowly, me. Trying to get to grips with ending a course of chemothrapy which involved maintaining the daily intake of steroids that I’ve been taking for about two and a half years; all part of the cancer treatment. Feeling decidedly off-it for the last couple of weeks as the steroid intake tapers off. I looked up the possible side effects. I appear to be able to tick off lots of them, particularly tiredness, recurrent anxiety, loss of stamina and poor concentration. None of them are in any way severe, but they do slow me down and slow my thinking down. They screw up the rhythm that I think we all need when we write.”

I went on catching up, and was utterly delighted to write about  Helen Ivory’s The Anatomical Venus , which let me share this poem and tell you why I love it.

Scold’s bridle

Such a bridle for the tongue, as not only quite deprives [women] of speech but brings shame for the transgression and humility thereupon

drive your iron tongue into my mouth

fell me of my speaking

ride me through the streets dumb beast

this carnival of spitting, pissing

you think it makes a manful man of you?

the root of me is driven down to silence

to some dark earth

anchoress

my tongue is pricked and raw

god’s words are kindling in my throat

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If I ever have a tattoo, it will be a quotation from Tony Harrison. “The tongueless man gets his land took”. Or “articulation is the tongue-tied’s fighting” . It was Tony Harrison who coined that phrase ‘the branks of condescension’…..the condescension, say, of his English teacher who derided his Beeston accent, and tried to silence it with the muffling blanket of RP.. A branks is another name for the scold’s bridle that might be used to publicly humiliate a ‘nagging woman’. 

I like everything about this poem. I’m a sucker for the well-made dramatic monologue, and this is exceptionally well-made. I like the defiance of it that struggles past the iron restrain of the pricking gag. I like the way the shape enacts the struggle . I like the sheer surprise of that verb ‘fell’, and the way ‘anchoress’ brings me up short to haver between anchorite and anchor. Here’s a sybil who won’t be silenced though her tongue bleeds. The last line is a martyr’s banner. Stunning.

June.

I was obviously running out of invention, and started to post what I called Stocking Fillers…mainly to keep the blog ticking over. 

But then the world changed. Just a bit. I was let out of self-isolating. 

“ For a week now I’ve been relishing the heady excitements of getting in the car and driving to shops, of mooching round Wickes and B&Q, of buying gravel. Taking in the novelty and odd normality of sanitising stations at the doors of Sainsbury’s and the Tesco garage; the arrows and two-metre space markers on the floors. In odd ways, beyond the  news headlines, this is not my country, not exactly. I don’t speak the language, or at least, not fluently. I’ve lost my tongue. I stutter.” 

Still, some kind of normality returned. I caught up with TWO collections. First there was Mike di Placido’s Alpha, which I introduced thus:

“How many established poets can you name who are equally good at writing funny poems, and poems that are, for the want of a better word, serious? I can name lots of poets who are very good at writing funny poems, but who lapse into sentimentality or worse when they aim at ‘seriousness’. I think Pam Ayres is one, and Les Barker another. There are serious poets who sometimes aim at ‘funny’ and miss by a mile. The ones who do both well are few and far between. Carol Ann Duffy managed both in The World’s Wife. Roger McGough has always managed it, and so has Ian McMillan. In fact, I think our guest poet today occupies the same kind of emotional and topographical territory as McMillan; I think, when you’ve read some of the poems, you’ll agree.”

And then there was Maria Taylor’s splendid second collection: Dressing for the afterlife about which I  said:

Dressing for the afterlife is one of those rare books that does pretty much what it says on the tin (or on the back cover) :

 a diamond-tough and tender second collection of poems and how we adapt to the passage of time.. these poems shimmy and glimmer bittersweet with humour and brio. 

The poems in Melanchrini were about personal and cultural identity, always asking ‘where do I fit?’ These poems are surer about the answer. In She ran, (which tangentially reminds me of Dylan’s what did you see my blueyed son?) whether running away or towards doesn’t get the narrator what she wants or what she thinks she wants. By the end of the collection she’s grown out of or beyond the glitzy masks and personae she’s tried on:

‘I’d like to be the woman next door /with a walk that says I know where I’m going’   

This collection says loud and clear that she does.

July

I see that I was still not feeling too well. Every post so far last year seemed to start the same way. It’s embarrassing. 

“For so many reasons I’m struggling to get going. I am collecting fragments to shore against the ruins of good intentions. 

For instance: 

I’m thinking of something I read about Norman MacCaig (I think it may have been in Andrew Greig’s At the loch of the Green Corrie). Apparently he tried to stop smoking and his writing completely dried up until he went down to the corner shop, bought twenty Senior Service, and promptly wrote a sheaf of winners. I stopped smoking three months ago. 

For instance:

If you say you’re going to write a post featuring a guest on a certain day, then you should. I said I’d write this last Sunday. What can I say? 

For instance:

I’m not feeling too chipper; one of the after effects of the chemo I had at the start of the year is joint pain; it distracts and makes it hard to concentrate. Ideas come and go, I jot some down and when I go back to them they make no sense. Everything gets clogged up and tired, and I wait to be bestirred, for the old log in the river to twist and release in a release and a rush.”

But I managed to catch up with two more collections that I liked a lot; work that bestirred and excited and entertained, and stuck in the mind. Natalie Rees’  Low Tide, and Di Slaney’s quirky and jampacked Herd Queen.  For both of those, much thanks, Natalie and Di.

August

August was all stocking-fillers and obituaries. Much possessed, like Webster, with death. But I’ll come back to one moment in August at the end of this post.

September

September looked as though things were picking up. I never reflected on being tired or ill or wallowing in uncreative self-pity. I finally managed to write about Martin Malone’s uncompromising and brilliant unpicking of the iconographies of WW1 in The Unreturning:

It’s a collection that draws on painstaking and passionate research. It’s technically varied and accomplished. It wears its heart on its sleeve. As I said:

“I realised a long long time ago I’d not do justice to the complexities and variety of this collection– lyrical, satitirical, rhetorical, polemical, extensively researched, and technically accomplished. Put all that together and you realise that it doesn’t add up to something you might recognize as currently fashionable. But do go and buy it. You’ll not be disappointed and you’ll certainly be educated. And you can dream that Michael Gove and his satraps could be forced to learn this poem by heart.”

October

I was delighted to share my enthusiasm for Ruth Valentine’s If you want thunder [Smokestack] and to finish the post with this poem…tender, tough, sharp, ironic, bleak, worldly, desperate,funny. Like the whole collection

Sonnet Written With a Pink Pen

My tiny hand is frozen, having cleaned

mould out of the fridge.  I’ve scoured the loo,

made chicken soup, altered a pair of jeans,

addressed a meeting.  It’s what women do.

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I’ve dressed a dead man in his football shirt

and laid him in his coffin; known the stench

we all may melt to; comforted the hurt

partners and enemies.  I didn’t flinch,

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or not in public.  For thirty years I’ve written

poems of death and exile, sex and grief,

Pinochet, Kosovo, London riots, love.

Now that I’ve got this pen, though, I can prove

my feminine vocation: violets, kittens,

cupcakes and curls.  Imagine my relief.

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In October I was also able to celebrate the fact that Anthony Wilson had returned to the poetry blogging routine, with a series of Life-saving lines. There was something that resonated.

“Of late I’ve been taking some comfort from the fact that Anthony Wilson has revived his poetry blog, and I look forward to each new post, partly because there’s sometimes a wistful quality about them that chimes with me for complex reasons I’ll not be sharing. His latest one struck a chord. Particularly because he’s writing not just about struggling to write poetry, but also with the idea of putting it ‘out there’. I just want to share this extract in which he ponders on the ins and outs of keeping away from ‘social media’ …. which he elected to do for the sake of his spiritual/mental well-being; I understand that, totally.

“On another level altogether, it (ie, this deliberate withdrawal) just feels  lonely. I have been battering away at some stuff for a while now, which, thanks to the help of some very kind people, might one day see the light. Some of it is emerging, slowly and cautiously. But it still feels lonely. My instinct is to hide, both the poems and me. Yet out it must. I wish there was another way.

Anyway, while I, like Anthony, am tentatively working on new stuff that may or may not turn out to be the real deal, and while I am less and less confident about sending stuff ‘out there’, whether as submississions or competition entries, I’m re-engaging with new poetry from other folk. I can’t cope with writing appreciations of new collections every week…there’s a bucket list that I’ll deal with as and when. 

November

November brought us face to face with a collection (along with December’s guest) that will go down as one of the best of 2021. This is what I said:

Today’s (returning) guest is someone I first met about eight years ago at the Monday night workshops of The Albert Poets in Huddersfield. Like another poet at these workshops, the much-missed Mark Hinchcliffe, she has a unique voice, and one that I didn’t quite tune into until I heard her do a full guest reading a year or so later. You may have had moments like this, when you suddenly hear what you’ve been missing, when you hear the tune that brings the meaning and the passion along with it. She’s a poet who has the quality of what Keats called negative capability, that ability to en-chant a place or a moment that bypasses the writer’s personality. It’s a voice that takes you on walks into, along and out of the imbricated valleys of the West Yorkshire Pennine, and along moorland tops; on walks at the edge of things by seashores and dunescapes; on walks through the thin places of the world, across thresholds. It’s the kind of quality that’s hinted at by the layered, ambiguous title of her latest cornucopia of a collection On the way to Jerusalem Farm.

When I last wrote about our guest, I said 

“there are those who I can only think of as poets, albeit some may have been priests or librarians, or hospital receptionists or teachers. It seems they were always poets first and the other things were incidental. Men and women with astonishing imaginative/empathic reach allied to the (apparently effortless) control of words, of the capabilities of language, syntax, rhythm, form. Men and women who are artists with verbal language in the way that, say, Hockney, lays down a mark, or Picasso makes a pure line. They seem to have been born that way, regardless of the phenomenal effort they put into assembling their craft.

I think, if I’m lucky, that might happen to me once or twice before I die, but I can see the same quality of ‘not being able to help yourself’ flare up in the contemporary poems that have excited me..ones by Christy Ducker, by Fiona Benson, by Pascale Petit, Kim Moore, Steve Ely. Ones who do it often enough for me to think of them as poets rather than people who write poems. Forget the hierarchies, the rankings, the ‘who’s better than who’ nonsense. Some have done more than others, and some have had more success in terms of public recognition than others, but whatever it is, they have it, and they are poets. They are passionately moved by what they see and feel around then..it’s a quiet passion, but passion it undoubtedly is.”

December

It was an utter joy to end December and to end 2021 with a shameless roar of approval for the long-awaited second collection from my friend, hero and mentor…Kim Moore’s All the men I never married. I’ve nothing left to say about it. But here’s the prologue.

We are coming under cover of darkness,
with our strawberry marks, our familiars,
our third nipples, our ill-mannered bodies, 
our childhoods spent hobbled like horses

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where we were told to keep our legs closed, 
where we sat in the light of a window and posed
and waited for the makers of the world 
to tell us again how a woman is made.

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We are arriving from the narrow places, 
from the spaces we were given, with our curses
and our spells and our solitude, with our potions
we swallow to shrink us small as insects

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or stretch us into giants, for yes, there are giants
amongst us, we must warn you. There will be riots,
we’re carrying all that we know about silence
as we return from the forests and towers,

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unmaking ourselves, stepping from the pages
of books, from the eye of the camera, from the cages
we built for each other, the frames of paintings,
from every place we were lost and afraid in.

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We stand at the base of our own spines 
and watch tree turn to bone and climb 
each vertebra to crawl back into our minds,
we’ve been out of our minds all this time,

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our bodies saying no, we were not born for this,
dragging the snare and the wire behind us. 

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So, there we are. A year of recycled poems, stocking fillers, stand-ups, long-delayed appreciations and reviews, and far too much about being unwell and sorry for myself. And let’s be fair. In the world ‘out there’ it was a truly horrible year, a sleep of reason beginning with a failed putsch by morons led by a moron in the USA, and ending with tsunamis of incompetence, criminality and sleaze in what passes for government. What keeps me sane? You do. You and the poets whose work makes the world a better place. Go well. Stay well.

Postscript.

In August me and my partner Flo had a day out. We went to the seaside. 

“The first trip anywhere beyond the homes of close family for 18 months. A drive to the coast with my partner Flo, to meet up with a former student and great friend, Andy Blackford .

Unnervingly, as we drove over Fylingdales Moor and caught our first sight of the sea, we found ourselves in tears. It caught me on the raw, that feeling that something we’d taken for granted for years should feel extraordinary because it was unchanged. I think, too, it was unnerving to drive through an entirely normal Sandsend, of families picnicking on the beach, children paddling, hardy souls swimming. And I still felt shut off from it all, isolated in a self-imposed bubble, not quite sure if I spoke the language of ‘out there’ any more.

We had a fine day with Andy and Sandra, looking out over the harbour at Staithes, watching small boats coming in trailing clouds of gulls, and catching up….though gradually noticing that what we were catching up on was films we’d watched and books we’d read, because they’d largely replaced the accidents of normal life, the business of going places and bumping into people. Stuff we take for granted, like the first sight of the sea from Fylingdales.”

This is what it looks like, looking out of Andy’s sitting room window in Staithes. This is why I go on writing, to stop the world vanishing.

Staithe

(O.N. stodh = a harbour, wharf or jetty)

A jut. A tilt at the water, for the hopeful,

for the end of the tether. A boy with a crabline,

a lowtide dog sandscrabbling, worrying kelp.

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Stolid lads in yellow rubberboots, whose business

is setting-out, smelling the wind, appraising the light,

the cast of the sky. And also the affair of boats

and their stowage; the coiling of ropes, the neat

and practised stacking of blue plastic boxes, 

fishcrates, creels and woven traps.

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They come pottering home on the tide

in a haze of gulls and diesel. 

                   .    

They tie up at the staithe, string half a dozen

mackerel through the gills, carry them home. 

A bundle of bluesteel  and stripe, 

a bouquet of redmouthed protest.

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A raft of gulls lifts itself and its trailing yellow feet

off the fattening tide. Then pirouette and shuffle

back on the water, sit on rainbows and tension,

shiver their wings and tuck themselves in.

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Somewhere beyond that buttress of a shaly cliff,

rackety with cross birds forever falling

in and out, the sun is quietly shutting up the day.

[from Gap Year. John Foggin and Andy Blackford .(Sentinel )]

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Christmas stocking fillers

Maybe I should apologise in advance, but I’m going to recycle a couple of old posts…one from the early days of the Cobweb, December 2014, and a slightly later one. Each is right for today, in its own way.

First there’s one for a day whose date is often disputed. But today is a particularly dreich and dreary Sunday of cold and clinging fog.

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St Lucie’s day

St Lucie’s Day 

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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.

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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.

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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]

and now for something infinitely more optimistic……………

a christmas story revisited

suncard

‘Every year, the toys were brought down from the attic and placed under the tree hung with angels and lights and smelling of the pine woods. Every evening the toys performed, and every day the tree shed more needles on the floor until Christmas was gone. Then the tree was thrown out and the toys were packed off to the attic where they lay jumbled in a box together…..through the long days and nights they listened to the rain on the roof and the wind in the trees, but the sound of the clock striking midnight never reached them; they never had permission to speak at all, and they lay in silence until another year passed and they stood once more beneath the tree………’

And thus starts one of the great stories of the 20th century, by one of its great storytellers.

mouseandchild

And you know, sure as eggs is eggs (because you understand how stories work) that something is going to change. And you also know that for all of the lights of the tree and the warm of christmas fires that there’s a darkness out there somewhere, and that nothing will be simple. Hoban does that. He does it with ‘The Marzipan Pig’, which is one of the oddest stories (ostensibly) for children I know. It begins, ‘there was nothing to be done for the Marzipan Pig. He fell behind the sofa and that was that’…..three pages into the tale he is eaten by a mouse, which, in turn is eaten by an owl who falls in love with a parking meter. It’s near impossible to second-guess what’s going on, and yet it’s never silly or arbitrary. I love Russell Hoban, not least for his unwavering acknowledgement of a Darwinian universe that’s red in tooth and claw, and his equally unwavering belief, in these two stories, and in the wonderful ‘Riddley Walker, of the resilience of the human spirit and the power of love and faith and idealism. I also love the fact that when I met him at a Children’s Literature conference in Exeter in the 70’s, we shared a breakfast table. He ate All Bran. At the same time, he handrolled cigarettes. Old Holborn is almost identical to All Bran, at least when they accidentally mix. He would get animated about the teachers on his workshop who wanted breaks…for chrissakes…breaks….they come here to write….it’s hard work, writing…breaks!….and he scattered more strands of Old Holborn about the table. It was a great start to anyone’s day.

The Mouse and his Child are wind-up clockwork toys, broken by a cat, thrown in the bin, mended -sort of – by a tramp, and set down on the highway to seek whatever befalls them – which comes in the shape of Manny Rat – and recruited into a hapless band of wind-up bank-robbers. I’ll tell you no more, other than that, along the way, the Child determines on an unwavering quest for self-winding status and for a family, and that Manny Rat becomes his nemesis. They pass through wildernesses; they endure.

6burns

It’s like the journey of Shackleton, or, closer in time, there are episodes I was reminded of when I read Joe Simpson’s epic ‘Touching the void’. Maybe I’ll say too that in the summer when my dad died, we took my mother away for a holiday. I was reading ‘The Mouse and his Child’ on the beach on the Isle of Wight. When I came back from a swim, my mum was reading it. She would not hand it back till the next day when she’d finished it. All she said was: that made me happy.

toys r us

I have to say I’m a total sucker for soft toys and dolls. Especially dolls like the one my daughter Julie had as a child, the one she gave me, the one who always looks so wistful that I provide her with the company of a dapper fox and and a perky decorator. She remains wistful, does that doll. And, also, since 1987 me and my partner Flo have bought each other wind-up toys at Christmas. They now fill three boxes. None have become self-winding, and I have never heard any of them speak. The Mouse and his Child, of course, can speak, and indeed are not bound by the rules of clockwork and the strokes of midnight. I wasn’t really aware, though, how much of the language of the book had seeped into mine until, inevitably there was a writing task at the Poetry Business, and out of ‘nowhere’ came this poem.

A prohibition….

….lifted on the stroke of midnight

on some special Eve, Midsummer, say, or Christmas.

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Then, it’s said that stones, or trees, or owls can speak.

Or toys piled pell-mell in boxes kept in lofts, in attic cupboards;

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and also things that hang in Christmas trees,

like fairies, snowmen, angels, and wind-up clockwork toys.

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What is it, do you think, they say, just once a year, just for one day,

This is the truth of it. The dark that lasts all year, the silent dust

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that settles bit by bit, grows coarse and gritty, will clog their tongues.

Listen. They’re as mad as stones and deaf as owls. They’re let to speak,

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have forgotten how, and what, to say. Stay silent

till the twelfth night. And then they’re put away.

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To be honest, ours have their own very jolly boxes, which never go into the dark. And if ‘The Mouse and his Child’ had been as dark as my poem, then my Mum wouldn’t have been happy. Have your own Happy Christmas, and light a candle for clockwork wind-ups wherever they may be.

Stocking fillers.. stuff gone missing in 2021

Much the same sort of stuff as in 2020, I suppose, but felt more keenly in a combination of recovering from chemo, lockdown, sheltering….. as well as no longer having a passport. I loved my EU passport, and can’t bear to shell out money for a Little England version.

So here’s one thing I’ve missed. Foreign lands. I’ve missed the mountainous limestone bits of Alicante, and the Escher streets and alleys of Relleu. So here’s one for that.

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Women are laying leaves in the street

Geckos print themselves on the hot walls.

In a haze of smoke and garlic, martins hurl 

round and around the square, calling and calling

above the tables where matrons study their cards

and fan themselves, and children climb from lap to lap.

The young ones in the town band giggle, polish cornets

and a crowd comes from the church to a long table

laid specially for them. Down the street that narrows

to a view of dusky mountains, all doors are open.

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The women of the Carre de Madre de Deu de las Miracles

are setting out small tables on their steps, 

with printed cloths and crucifixes, gilt framed Madonnas 

and plastic dolls that stand in for Jesus. They bring out pots 

of fern and cistus, break off fronds and petals,

tapestry the granite setts. Children are shooed away. 

It’s not for them and not for men.

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Later, the band will play slow and solemn, stepping down

the narrow street that smells of trodden leaves,

the priest in lawn and linen will walk before the band 

and its slow sad music, blessing every doorstep.

The town follows quietly after, believing in miracles.

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Equally heartfelt (though the pain will not be readily understood by everyone) I’ve missed shopping in places whose languages I have yet to master, and especially the hardware/DIY stores. Small ones in Greece; the local traditional ironmonger in the Gironde. Most of all, maybe, the joy of the French DIY superstore. This one, on the outskirts of Royan, in particular.

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M. Bricolage

It’s odd because you’re wearing shorts and flip-flops 

and the sun is hot outside, but you could stay

in there all day. French nails and screws are different.

Taps (they call them robinets) have working parts

you can’t guess the purpose of, and you don’t know

how to ask for plywood (it’s called contreplaque,

but you don’t know that at the time) 

or for a mole wrench,or a plane. 

But that’s nice, because you get to go down

every aisle, and you find patent clips for keeping

plastic tablecloths in place on pavement cafe

tables, which is such a neat idea  you buy a packet

to take home, and in a gloomy alcove they stock

huge electric-powered gates ( they sell them 

on the travelling markets too, next to Moroccans

stirring bags of frozen prawns and squid

into paella pans the size of circus rings,

so there must be spates of burglaries

or terrorists, or worse, and they’re not as pricy

as you’d think) and meanwhile you can dream

because you just might want to build that barbecue

that could double as foundry, and you can’t believe

how cheap they’re selling hammer drills and routers,

woodburning stoves, log-splitters, awnings, decking,

terracotta bricks and strange long-handled

shovels with blades like the ace of spades.

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You settle for a multipack of cross-head screws.

And two packs of tricky clips, because, who knows,

you might just open up a bistro. And two checked

plastic tablecloths. For the clips.

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Finally, something seasonal.

I don’t know about you, but I can never quite figure out the business of the round-robin Christmas message that tells you in immense detail how various nephews and nieces and grandchildren (they all have names like Peregrine, and Beatrice, and Barnaby, and Allegra, and Dominic) had a topping gap year in Peru before starting their degree at Balliol or St Andrews, and Gran is chugging along after her triple bypass and new hips, and Will or Charles has finally been promoted and so on.

So for years in our house we’ve looked forward to a Christmas card from one of my oldest friends who I met when he was doing Classics at our university and then followed in his father’s footsteps as an HGV driver for the next 40+ years. Like the rest of us, he knows that families are complicated and occasionally dysfunctional, and bear little resemblance to to the colour supplement accounts of the round-robin writers.Any way, his card arrived today with an apology for not writing his roundup of the year. He says it’ll make him too angry. So. Here’s my tribute to him, and to all “normal” families everywhere…a pastiche and compendium of his cards over the years.

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It has not been the best year 

The campervan broke down in the Cheviot.

I have sourced a gearbox from a scrappers 

up in Tamworth but he says I’ll have to get it out 

myself. As I wrote last Xmas, the eldest has moved

to Blyth, but her daughter’s still a handful

and glassed a para in a bar in Guisborough where

her boyfriend just got done for dealing. Apparently

it was a row about the jukebox. I know. Don’t ask.

I’ve lost touch with Anthony’s boy, who, we think,

has moved to Essex. The chap whose house 

he worked on got arrested. Turns out he torched

this dealer’s house outside Sunderland. Forgot

to check if it was empty first, so he’s up 

for manslaughter, and Anthony’s Wayne

has had to do a runner, since the dealer’s mates

are serious lads from Hartlepool who think our Wayne’s

the one who bought the parafin, and maybe he did.

What can you do? On the love front, the widow

I wrote you about last Xmas, the millionaire,

well, she wasn’t up for naturism, so I had to

kick her into touch. A shame. The back continues

playing up, but 50 years of HGVs, well

what can you expect. I miss the reading though.

Last thing I read , a Life  of Palmerstone.

Left it in a tranner up the Edgeware Road.

Never finished it. The home brew keeps me busy.

That, and the veggie patch. My best regards 

to your beautiful wife. Will write again 

next Christmas and hope to have better news.

Keep your chin up.

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I’m hoping to write about a couple of collections that have excited me lately. Before Christmas would be good. See you then.

My kind of poetry: Kim Moore’s “All the men I never married”

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“Now I’ve written one, I love sequences”

Kim Moore wrote this in a post for Anthony Wilson’s Life-saving poems in July 2015 after the publication of her first collection with Seren: The art of falling. Just to save you time, there’s the link at the end , and also to the rest of the sequence of posts featuring Kim as the most frequent guest poet on the great fogginzo’s cobweb. If you check them out you’ll understand just how much her poetry and friendship have meant to me and why I’ll find it so hard to do justice to her new collection (also with Seren) All the men I never married.

I met Kim for the first time at a Poetry Business workshop in Sheffield, I think it was in 2010 or 2011. She’d set off from Barrow at the crack of dawn, arrived a bit late and out of breath, and shortly after wrote the draft of a poem that stuck in my mind, that I asked her for a copy of, and that had me signed up forever in the fan club she never asked me to join. Train journey: Barrow to Sheffield was published in her Poetry Business winning Pamphlet If we could speak like wolves. [2012]. I wrote about the impact of the poem in one of the blog posts:

Unstoppable as the train, a poem of only two sentences, one of them six stanzas, thirty lines long. It’s a delight to read aloud. It insists on being read aloud, just do it, and you find, like a piece of music, it tells you exactly where to breathe, check, pick up pace. It never wrong-foots you. It just lines you up to arrive exactly on the moment when ‘This morning the sun came up in Bolton and all / the sky was red’,  exactly as it should be and inevitably as it must. What you have is a technically stunning poem that hides is technique, where every moment is true, and necessary. And I love the quality that I can’t find a name for that doesn’t sound condescending…but it’s a kind of innocence or naivete, where thing are seen in a clear childlike way. Actually I think in retrospect I CAN find a word for it. The word is ‘wonder’. There’s scarcely a word in the poem that announces itself as ‘poetry’ and yet the syntax could only be that of a poem. It fits James’ dictum that ‘declaring itself to be a poem is one of the the main things a poem does.’ I love the way the poem expands out beyond the dark window of the train to encompass the whole estuary, the ways of sheep, the heartbreak and history of the drowning saltflats. And then comes back to a different earth where we waken out of a dream of Tolkien. Wow!”

I’ve quoted this because there’s something in there that defines the quality of her work for me, and which is also germane to the growing strength of her work ever since. It’s this:

I love the quality that I can’t find a name for that doesn’t sound condescending…but it’s a kind of innocence or naivete, where thing are seen in a clear childlike way. Actually I think in retrospect I CAN find a word for it. The word is ‘wonder’.

Kim guested on Woman’s Hour last week ( there’s another link at the end. Her spot starts 24 minutes in). She was introduced as ‘exploring the contradictions and complexities of desire…your own and other peoples’, to which she said that, in a lull/blank space following the publication of her first collection it started as a joke.. However, a poem which is a list of remembered former boyfriends turns out to be not exactly a joke at all, but the beginning of something which is both playful and seriously important. And here it is.

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1.

There was the boy I met on the park
who tasted of humbugs
and wore a mustard-yellow jumper

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                        and the kickboxer with beautiful long brown hair 
                                    that he tied with a band at the nape of his neck

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and the one who had a constant ear infection
            so I always sat on his left

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                        and the guy who worked in an office
                                    and could only afford to fill up his car
                                    with two pounds worth of petrol

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and the trumpet player I loved 
from the moment I saw him 
            dancing to the Rolling Stones

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                        and the guy who smoked weed
                        and got more and more paranoid
                        whose fingers flickered and danced 
                        when he talked

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and the one whose eyes were two pieces
of winter sky

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and a music producer
long-legged and full of opinions

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                        and more trumpet players 
                                    one who was too short and not him
                                    one who was too thin and not him 

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are you judging me yet, are you surprised?

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Let me tell you of the ones I never kissed
            or who never kissed me

.

the trombonist I went drinking with 
how we lay twice a week in each other’s beds
            like two unlit candles

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we were not for each other and in this we were wise
we were only moving through the world together for a time 

.

there was a double bassist who stood behind me 
and angled the body of his bass into mine
and shadowed my hands on its neck

.

and all I could feel 
was heat from his skin 
            and the lightest breath 
                        and even this might have been imagined 

.

I want to say to them now 
            though all we are to each other is ghosts
once you were all that I thought of

.

when I whisper your names
it isn’t a curse or a spell or a blessing 
            I’m not mourning your passing or calling you here

.

this is something harder 
like walking alone 
in the dusk and the leaves 

.

            this is the naming of trees
                        this is a series of flames
                                    this is watching you all disappear.

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I remember hearing her reading it for the first time at The Chemic in Leeds, I remember the way this phrase stopped me in my tracks and stayed with me ever since

how we lay twice a week in each other’s beds
            like two unlit candles

and I remember also the impact of the growing seriousness of the poem’s long incantation, as though the poet were realising something for the first time, learning something essential, or, at least, knowing she had to find out what it meant. Over time I heard her read more and more of the poems at various venues, becoming also aware of the way she was understanding how they challenged her audience even as she challenged herself from the moment it all turned on that one phrase

are you judging me yet?

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When she finally sent me a draft of the collection to look at it confirmed what I’d slowly come to understand. That it was a sequence that was her own version of The Prelude; that it charted a growing awareness, socially and politically, which never displaces the wonder in favour of rhetoric, but placed her own experience of male violence and more generalised unconscious misogyny in a wider social and historical debate. It’s a process that started with the ‘domestic violence’ sequence in The Art of Falling, and which she developed through her PhD course of which she’s written:

My PhD project is to write poetry which explores and represents experiences of sexism and I’m particularly interested in whether poetry can play a part in changing the way we talk about sexism, or even who talks about it.  A member of the audience at a reading came up to me a couple of weeks ago and said they  hadn’t even thought about the fact that they hadn’t read any women writers during their degree, until they’d heard me read poetry about sexism.  For me, this proves that poetry can be part of a conversation that will hopefully change the way we think and discuss sexism.  I know that writing poetry about my own experiences of sexism has changed the way I think about those experiences  – so poetry becomes a way of investigating, a way of knowing about not-knowing.  

The PhD has given me the time and space to think about the type of poet I want to be, and the type of poetry I want to write, and what I think poetry is for.  I don’t know all the answers to those questions yet, but I feel like I’m getting closer.  In 2015, I mentioned a sequence I was working on – ‘All The Men I Never Married’.  Who knew that this would grow into a fully-fledged PhD? Not me!

Well, it’s taken six years, at least, and it’s been road-tested every inch of the way. And now it’s getting the attention I thought her last collection deserved, but which at least provided the ignition point for this one. I seem to have spent a lot of time in its company, and for that I feel privileged and blessed. And, just to make a point about the attention it deserved, I notice that when this post went out on Twitter it harvested nearly 500 responses. My usual strike rate is single figures. More importantly, I forgot to add the image below. All the men I never married is in Amazon’s top twenty poetry list at the moment. Hang out the bunting!!!!!

Right.Back to the poems. It was about three years ago that I heard the next poem for the first time, and it made a particular impact because it was presented as a draft in a residential workshop session of which all the group members but me were women, and I was…… I don’t know….. baffled? disturbed? by one of the group questioning the motivation for the poem. What I know now, and which was reinforced in the Woman’s Own interview, is that it’s a powerful and unnervingly honest account of something that questions those contradictions and complexities of desire…your own and other people’s. It bothers people, especially men, and if that was all it did it would be important. But it’s also a beautifully constructed, utterly honest poem that keeps echoing that question are you judging me yet? Go on. Ask yourself what it was like to respond to the invitation of the first line, knowing that it’s exactly what the poet has set herself to do.

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7.

Imagine you’re me, you’re fifteen, the summer of ’95, 
and you’re following your sister onto the log flume,
where you’ll sit between the legs of a stranger.
At the bottom of the drop when you’ve screamed 
and been splashed by the water, when you’re about 
to stand up, clamber out, the man behind 
reaches forward, and with the back of his knuckle
brushes a drop of water from your thigh.

.

To be touched like that, for the first time. 
And you are not innocent, you’re fifteen, 
something in you likes that you were chosen.
It feels like power, though you were only 
the one who was touched, who was acted upon.
To realise that someone can touch you 
without asking, without speaking, without knowing
your name. Without anybody seeing. 

.

You pretend that nothing has happened, 
you turn it to nothing, you learn that nothing 
is necessary armour you must carry with you, 
it was nothing, you must have imagined it.
To be touched – and your parents waiting at the exit
and smiling as you come out of the dark
and the moment being hardly worth telling.
What am I saying? You’re fifteen and he is a man.

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Imagine being him on that rare day of summer,
the bulge of car keys makes it difficult to sit 
so he gives them to a bored attendant 
who chucks them in a box marked PROPERTY. 
A girl balanced in the boat with hair to her waist 
and he’s close enough to smell the cream
lifting in waves from her skin, her legs stretched out, 
and why should he tell himself no, hold himself back?

.

He reaches forward, brushes her thigh with a knuckle,
then gets up to go, rocking the boat as he leaves. 
You don’t remember his face or his clothes, 
just the drop of water, perfectly formed on your thigh, 
before it’s lifted up and away by his finger. 
You remember this lesson your whole life, 
that sliver/shiver of time, that moment in the sun. 
What am I saying? Nothing. Nothing happened.

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I could have asked for so many poems from this important piece of work, like the one about the night club punter who assaulted Kim’s twin sister, or the assault in the bedroom of a teenage party, or the sexually threatening taxi driver in Cork, or the predator in a hotel an an unnamed country.

And I would say of each that the thing that disturbs is the poet/speaker in each questioning her own feelings of potential complicity. If there’s a more powerful way dramatising the insidious effects of societal gender conditioning, I can’t imagine it.

However,I can’t resist sharing this next one in its entirety, because it shares the same kind of space as Tony Harrison’s Them and Uz, and Jim Carruth’s account of the tutor who told him narrative is dead.

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48.

When he told me not to tell the story 
of my mother’s hair, I was obedient 
for many years, until I saw the video 
of wild horses in Patagonia,
tamed by increments over many days,
the gaucho calm and still when the horse
met his gaze, then shooing it 
as it looks away, and so the horse learns
that only when it gives its whole attention
to this man will it ever feel peace again.

.

And of course my mother is not a horse,
she would never be fooled by such a trick,
but maybe the man who told me not to tell
is the gaucho, maybe once I was a horse,
to spend all these years listening to his voice.
He told me this was women’s business,
that the world was not interested in such things.
He said listen to me read Eliot until you fall asleep 
or until the red wine runs out, and so we did,
all of us who had gathered there to learn. 

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He stood in front of the curved window.
The bats criss-crossed the lawn. 
He did not hold a book, or open his eyes
to see if we were there. The room took 
his voice and gave it back to every corner.
It felt as if he whispered in my ear. 

.

I have held my tongue for years.
My mother’s hair. I did as I was told. 
She sat for hours between my legs
as if she was the child, and I the mother.
I straightened her hair, every curl and kink, 
dividing it into smaller and smaller sections. 
The hiss of steam. The TV in the background. 
My father elsewhere, and part of me still there,
part of me in the library with the man
who told me not to speak about such things.
The lawn. The drifting dusk. The bats.
My mother’s hair. My hands. That house.
The shudder of a horse’s flank.

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It’s a lesson to all creative writing tutors. What’s clear, though, is that in the process of researching and creating this stunning book the poet has made for herself a language which lets her analyse the situation, and that empowers and defends her against the assumption that it’s OK to brush a shining droplet of water off the thigh of a teenage girl.

Let me end by sharing the one that begins the collection (which I think is a very clever thing to do). It says, gleefully enough,

this is who I am now, or who I know myself to be. Let me tell you how I got there.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

We are coming under cover of darkness,
with our strawberry marks, our familiars,
our third nipples, our ill-mannered bodies, 
our childhoods spent hobbled like horses

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where we were told to keep our legs closed, 
where we sat in the light of a window and posed
and waited for the makers of the world 
to tell us again how a woman is made.

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We are arriving from the narrow places, 
from the spaces we were given, with our curses
and our spells and our solitude, with our potions
we swallow to shrink us small as insects

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or stretch us into giants, for yes, there are giants
amongst us, we must warn you. There will be riots,
we’re carrying all that we know about silence
as we return from the forests and towers,

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unmaking ourselves, stepping from the pages
of books, from the eye of the camera, from the cages
we built for each other, the frames of paintings,
from every place we were lost and afraid in.

.

We stand at the base of our own spines 
and watch tree turn to bone and climb 
each vertebra to crawl back into our minds,
we’ve been out of our minds all this time,

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our bodies saying no, we were not born for this,
dragging the snare and the wire behind us. 

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Kim Moore, thank you for being our guest. Thank you for the poems. I’ve not done them justice. But other people will do better jobs xxx

Here’s the link for Woman’s Hour on BBC i.player.

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https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m00127ck

Breaking the rules…harder than it looks

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In March 2018 I was at a poetry course in Garsdale Head , on a day with snow, much like today, and the course tutor, Kim Moore, finished a workshop session asking us to respond (if we could ) to the work of Daniil Kharms.

Kharms was a  Russian Absurdist, Surrealist, and under Stalin, decidedly antisocial

23 August 1941 at the beginning of the seige of Leningrad, Kharms was arrested for spreading “libellous and defeatist mood”. 

To avoid execution, Kharms simulated insanity; the military tribunal ordered him to be kept in the psychiatric ward of the ‘Kresty’ prison due to the severity of the crime. Daniil Kharms died of starvation 2 February 1942 during the siege ,

His wife was informed that he was deported to Novosibirsk. Only on 25 July 1960, at the request of Kharms’ sister, E.I. Gritsina, Prosecutor General’s Office found him not guilty and he was exonerated.

His “adult” works were not published during his lifetime with the sole exception of two early poems. His notebooks were saved from destruction in the war by loyal friends and hidden until the 1960s, when his children’s writing became widely published and scholars began the job of recovering his manuscripts and publishing them in the west and in samizdat.

His reputation in the 20th century in Russia was largely based on his popular work for children. His other writings (a vast assortment of stories, miniatures, plays, poems, and pseudo-scientific, philosophical investigations) were virtually unknown until the 1970s, and not published officially in Russia until glasnost

His manuscripts were preserved by his sister and, most notably, by his friend Yakov Druskin, a notable music theorist and amateur theologist and philosopher, who dragged a suitcase full of Kharms’s and Vvedensky’s writings out of Kharms’s apartment during the blockade of Leningrad and kept it hidden throughout difficult times.

In Russia, Kharms’ works were widely published only from the late 1980s.

Kharms’ world is unpredictable and disordered; characters repeat the same actions many times in succession or otherwise behave irrationally; linear stories start to develop but are interrupted in midstream by inexplicable catastrophes that send them in completely different directions.

Here’s a taste of his work that Kim Moore offered us.

The Plummeting Old Women

A certain old woman, out of excessive curiosity, fell out of a window, plummeted to the ground, and was smashed to pieces.
.
Another old woman leaned out of the window and began looking at the remains of the first one, but she also, out of excessive curiosity, fell out of the window, plummeted to the ground and was smashed to pieces.
.
Then a third old woman plummeted from the window, then a fourth, then a fifth.
.
By the time a sixth old woman had plummeted down, I was fed up
watching them, and went off to Mal’tseviskiy Market where, it was said, a knitted shawl had been given to a certain blind man.

The red haired man

What do you make of this world? Equally, how did he make it? Just how does he break the rukes? Because like all rule-breakers, he’s rule-governed, isn’t he? I just can’t figure out how. On the other hand, it gets in your head, and sticks. These are moments that draw you in.

I’ve been intrigued of late by the increased incidence in magazines, and also in workshops, of prosepoems (which is sometimes indistinguishable from flash fiction), and also the business of playing with white space, breaking up lines, making apparently abitrary line-breaks. I’m happy to accept that rules are there to be tested and stretched and broken, if only to see ‘what happens’, though less happy to see an accompanying tendency to view regularity, orderliness, evident craft and form as a bit passé. I guess my ‘rule’ is simply to ask: does it work? I’m spectacularly conscious that at the moment a lot of what I’m trying to write doesn’t work. I didn’t set out to do it, but a lot of what I write has ditched the word play, the allusiveness, the obvious rhythms and the imagery that I used to enjoy. It’s gone more reflective/introspective/personal/conversational but that’s a lot harder to do than the complicated stuff. It always was.

Whatever. I’m a regular reader of Julie Mellor’s poetry blog, and also of Anthony Wilson’s latest Life-saving lines after his welcome return to blogging. I learn a lot from their willingness to share their struggles to find new directions and forms, whether it’s haiku or finding a language that will share the experience of depression. It’s humbling.

So let me use my struggles to get my head round the way Kharms’ anti-narrative work as illustrative. Here are the three that I wrote, very fast, in Garsdale

Three tales to little purpose

1

There was poor forester who had three children. 

He sent them into the world to seek their fortune.

In turn each of them met a wise woman at a crossroad,

The woman asked each of them for bread and they threw stones at her.

One was pursued by dogs and got lost.

One fell into a river and was swept away. Maybe he drowned

One would have married a king but no longer knew the right words.

2

There was a remarkably clever cat.

He was so clever that people came to him for advice.

He knew, they said, what to do when a crop failed,

or a chimney would not draw or a baby was fevered.

Some said he should be made headman of the village.

Another cat came to the village.

Shortly after, I left the village. 

I don’t know what happened after that.

3

In the time of hunger a man and his wife found in the forest an iron porridge pot.

All that was needed was to ask for food and it was full. They took it to their cottage.

Afraid that folk would hear of it and take it from them they shut themselves in.

Afraid that folk would know they were there, they dowsed the fire.

Afraid that folk would smell the porridge, they never asked for any. They starved to death.

One day folk broke in the cottage and found them. 

They set fire to the cottage, thinking it cursed.The pot broke in the heat .

The time of hunger was a hundred years. Everyone died.

.

I’m on record as saying that as a writer I can’t invent…which is obviously something Kharms can. He invents people and situations, but somehow deprives them of his imaginative engagement, and, I think, narrative curiosity. Somehow he’s able to suspend it/them in the way you can in a dream. Me, I fall back on the folk tale formulae and try to subvert them, but morality (or the urge to find a moral meaning in people’s actions) simply comes in and refuses to leave. It’s not easy, breaking rules in a way that works.

On the other hand, playing around, trying to find out what Kharms was up to, and whether you can use it, might lead you to do things you didn’t expect. Which what I think happened with another workshop task. This one was simply introduced with the invitation to write about other people’s dreams. The rule of three is obviously stronger than any effort I might make to override it.

Other people’s dreams

1

One dreamed he saw a ladder into the heavens,

angels and archangels, seraphim, and every lesser rank

ascending and descending. The light

was astonishing. He dreamed it was numinous.

Effulgent, too, and inaccessible. Polysyllabic light. 

When he woke he’d forgotten all of it. 

2

One dreamed that angels spoke to her.

When she woke up, she could still hear them.

They refused to shut up. She told the priest,

who told her she was mistaken. She told another.

And another. They locked her up until

she learned sense. She never got out.

3

One dreamed he was on a high place and saw,

shining on the plain, a rich and fertile land

of placid rivers, deep and loamy soil,

and cypresses. He dreamed a voice said

this was a land for him, for his kin.

When he woke, he went there with his flocks,

his family. The folk who lived there

chased him off with stones and pitchforks.

When he kept coming back they killed him.

His family gathered up the flocks, went back

where they came from.

..

Well, there we are. Make of this what you will. You may decide I’ve just done it to keep the Cobweb ticking over. You’re probably not far off the truth. However, next week we’ll be back with a Proper Post and a Stellar Guest. I hope you’ll join me.

Armistice Day

.

Alfred

There he is. Grinning and unsoldierly,

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

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

.

Maybe, Ypres and Mons and Passchendale

meant no more to him than Chapel hymn tune names –

O dass ich tausand zungen haite.  Armageddon.

.

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

father of four, and husband of (I think)

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

.

My grandma, Ethel, who went deaf, who sat

with her head in the swelling horn 

of the wind-up gramophone.

.

Listened to the scratchy tinnitus 

of brittle shellac  records until

they hissed like the sea on a shingly shore.

.

Who drowned herself, a poor Ophelia,

inthe beck that ran hot from dyehouses, 

than ran blue and plum and crimson red.

.

Who died (I think) wreathed in bindweed,

those wide white silky flowers,

and the pink of balsam, sour as a sink

.

I post this most years for Armistice day, though over time, as I learn more about my family …sometimes from strangers, who know more about them than I do…I realise that when I wrote this poem I was writing about a false memory. I believed, at one time, that my Grand-dad Alfred had died after being invalided back from France. I now know that he served in the Territorials as an enthusiastic volunteer…he had been made Sergeant, after all..and would have been off to France with his pals had he not being sent back from the camp, suffering from Hodgkinson’s Lymphoma. He died soon after, in hospital in Chapel Allerton. All the rest of the story is as true as I can tell. While we remember The Fallen, let’s always remember the ones left behind, those women like my Grandma who went on paying the price of war long after it was over. Who always go on paying the price.

Postscript.

This year let me add an extra poem. There are thousands of statues dedicated to “The unknown soldier’. How many are there dedicated to the Unknown Mother/Wife/Sister/Daughter ? This is for them.

.

A love not much regarded 

Who in Eden sewed vine leaves,

imagined thread and needle

in  green stems, and thorns?

.

Who saw that leaving Paradise 

empty-handed would be foolish?

Who conceived of  a sack or a satchel,

and thought to skin a kid

in the innocent garden,

and with what kind of knife?

.

Who cut a stave, understanding

snakes must now be pinned, and broken?

Who saw fire in a flash, in  the crack of a flint,

who knew to walk in single file,

to walk behind, to carry

all things needful?

.

Who knew that blame weighed

almost nothing if it didn’t come with guilt?

.

Who would sleep light;

who would see to children?

Who would listen.

My kind of poetry: Carola Luther’s “On the way to Jerusalem Farm”

.

Today’s (returning) guest is someone I first met about eight years ago at the Monday night workshops of The Albert Poets in Huddersfield. Like another poet at these workshops, the much-missed Mark Hinchcliffe, she has a unique voice, and one that I didn’t quite tune into until I heard her do a full guest reading a year or so later. You may have had moments like this, when you suddenly hear what you’ve been missing, when you hear the tune that brings the meaning and the passion along with it. She’s a poet who has the quality of what Keats called negative capability, that ability to en-chant a place or a moment that bypasses the writer’s personality. It’s a voice that takes you on walks into, along and out of the imbricated valleys of the West Yorkshire Pennine, and along moorland tops; on walks at the edge of things by seashores and dunescapes; on walks through the thin places of the world, across thresholds. It’s the kind of quality that’s hinted at by the layered, ambiguous title of her latest cornucopia of a collection On the way to Jerusalem Farm.

When I last wrote about our guest, I said 

“there are those who I can only think of as poets, albeit some may have been priests or librarians, or hospital receptionists or teachers. It seems they were always poets first and the other things were incidental. Men and women with astonishing imaginative/empathic reach allied to the (apparently effortless) control of words, of the capabilities of language, syntax, rhythm, form. Men and women who are artists with verbal language in the way that, say, Hockney, lays down a mark, or Picasso makes a pure line. They seem to have been born that way, regardless of the phenomenal effort they put into assembling their craft.

I think, if I’m lucky, that might happen to me once or twice before I die, but I can see the same quality of ‘not being able to help yourself’ flare up in the contemporary poems that have excited me..ones by Christy Ducker, by Fiona Benson, by Pascale Petit, Kim Moore, Steve Ely. Ones who do it often enough for me to think of them as poets rather than people who write poems. Forget the hierarchies, the rankings, the ‘who’s better than who’ nonsense. Some have done more than others, and some have had more success in terms of public recognition than others, but whatever it is, they have it, and they are poets. They are passionately moved by what they see and feel around then..it’s a quiet passion, but passion it undoubtedly is.”

So, let’s welcome again Carola Luther.  Let’s start with what pretentious restaurants call amuses bouches , like this taste of the way she she can pin down the texture , the physical reality of things encountered on those walks, the business (or busy-ness) of the world out there :

.

The woodpecker grinds open its gate and the evening rituals begin:

the deer lips the earth, the mallard dips, birds call and chunter

 .

as if before doorways of shops, squirrels running along branches

doing chores like the branches are streets

                      from Theft  (from Herd. Wordsworth Trust 2012)

.

and then this which stops you short as you realise you have walked through one of the thin places into a different but flatly unignorable reality

.

The man who thought he was alone in my tree

croons a song of comfort. A tenor.

He sings to the beasts in a tongue I don’t know

but it could be Hebrew. Perhaps he’s a cantor.

 .

He reminds me of my mother so I join in quietly

in Levantine Arabic, her home language.

I’m godless and tone-deaf but harmonise

as well as I can.

                                                 From The Rising (first publ. The Compass Review 2016)

The Carcanet blurb for On the way to Jerusalem Farm gives you a clear sense of the the range of landscapes and narratives you can expect in its hugely generous 150 pages:

Carola Luther’s new book On the Way to Jerusalem Farm explores the complexities of living in a damaged world. How, it asks, does such a world live in us, and we in it?

At the centre of the collection are three sequences, ‘Letters to Rasool’, ‘Birthday at Emily Court’ and ‘The Escape’. On the Way to Jerusalem Farm moves through the world, seeking and finding not answers, but sometimes, a means of continuing. The speaker in ‘Letters to Rasool’ travels onward through scarred and depleted landscapes, and searches for a lost beloved. The ageing residents of Emily Court celebrate a birthday and dance. Spring of a kind still comes. And in ‘The Escape’ there are colours to be found in the distant sea: ‘A whole translucent geology, / cross-sections of light and water’.

Poetry for Luther is a way of finding a way, of making connections and sharing our complex lives in an interdependent present. The roles of lover and beloved become – almost – interchangeable in these richly visualised poems.

So much for the range. As to the voice,Kim Moore wrote in one of her Sunday Poem blogposts that that a lot of Carola’s work has the quality of a ‘a prayer or a benediction’

The Carcanet publicity for another of Carola’s collections  Arguing with Malarchysays something similar, and much better than I’ve managed so far

full of voices: tender, sinister or angry, the glimpsed depths of their stories, the distances they have travelled. Carola Luther’s poems are alert to the ways a life can be briefly snared in the turn of a phrase – or in the moment when language fails. She explores silence, absences, the unspoken communication between animals and human beings, the pauses and boundaries between what is remembered, forgotten or invented, the living and the dead.

Basically, both of these pick out what I think is a numinous quality in Carola’s work…’a prayer or a benediction’; ‘the glimpsed depths’; the way they are alert to ‘the moment when language fails’…and thereby rescues it through language. It’s this quality of being alive to the moment that makes me think of Carola Luther as something more than ‘someone who writes poems’. Let’s meet her.

Carola was born in South Africa, from where she moved in the early 1980s.

Her  first poetry collection, Walking the Animals was published by Carcanet Press in 2004 and shortlisted that year for the Forward Prize for First Collection.

Her second collectionArguing with Malarchywas published by Carcanet Press in 2011.

She was Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust in 2012. Herd, a pamphlet of poems written in that year, was published in by The Wordsworth Trust (2012).

She has also written texts for theatre and mixed media performances including the libretto for Lilith, (composer, Dimitar Bodurov) a piece commissioned and conceived by soprano Claron McFadden. 

Recently she wrote about herself and her new collection for the Carcanet blog about what a friend called her ‘doubled vision’

I suspect ‘a doubled vision’ is something that will be shared by many people who have moved from the country of their birth. I have not experienced the trauma of forced migration so of course I cannot talk to that. But for me, after arriving here in Britain as a willing immigrant and living here for decades, I still see the country through a stranger’s eyes at times, as well as through the eyes of a lucky inhabitant. Perhaps this is what my friend meant – seeing from both close and far. And close sometimes feeling more ‘home’ than far, and far sometimes feeling more ‘home’, than close could ever be.  

My partner and I are currently moving house from the Ryburn valley to the Calder valley. It feels like a big deal, despite the fact that our new place is only seven miles away, and the landscape and communities, not so very different.

Strangely, I had the opposite sense when I first came to the area. Arriving for the first time in the Pennines, I had an unexpected sense of recognition, almost of déjà vu. I felt I ‘knew’ the shape of the landscape somehow – not of any specific place, but rather, its ghost geography, an imaginal sense of the moors, the weathers, the valleys, the creatures. Without knowing why, I felt oddly at home. And so I came back. And I stayed. 

It struck me later with a little sense of shock, that this feeling of recognition may have come from the poems of Ted Hughes.



Having grown up in rural South Africa, I think I may also have recognised something else. This was how Hughes seemed to experience the natural world as intrinsically powerful, and bigger than us. His creatures and landscapes were magnificent. Whether calm or violent, his animals and the elements were potent.

So much has changed since then. Ecosystems everywhere feel critically depleted and fragile, and the health of the earth highly dependent on how human beings go forward. This reversal of my childhood understanding may also inform any ‘doubled vision’ in this collection. In some poems I notice bewilderment and hardly-understood sorrow for the natural world around me. But there are also I hope, poems celebrating what remains beautiful and vital – connection, friendship and the small, brave things that help us keep going.

And so to the poems. Acknowledgements and thanks, first to Carcanet for granting permissions to use substantial chunks of the work…if you read the previous post about Carola, you’ll see that that see writes long poems. And that they are packed. That there’s no slack in them. Which makes it hard to choose a selection that does justice to a 150 page collection. 

Too start, I’ve chosen part of the very first poem of hers I heard (and, at first, didn’t quite get) at one of those workshops in The Albert.

deersuddenly

.

deersuddenly

there

.

two / no / three launching 

to get away hsh 

hsh  hsh 

.

leapline interrupted 

by trees beech / no / birch 

between us and light  

stammering 

like shutters / no / film clips  

clp

.

deersuddenly 

stopped  

.

in the pixilation 

and confusion of brush 

they pretend to be memories 

.

images intuited 

in black and white 

passengers on a platform 

silent with suitcases

portmanteaux

valises

no / suitcases and trunks 

there they go / vaulting 

landscape / no / let them be           

landscape / no / 

carriages of trains 

flickering behind landscape / no /

trees / behind trees 

clp

[……………………]

deergone 

.

deergone 

.

nnn 

nnn 

nnn the wind 

its empty coat hung 

in the trees

.

Back then I was stalled by the look of the poem on the page, not sure what to make of the elisions/compressions/slashes/pnonic invention. Later I learned to hear it. It’s a script for a performance of what could be an optical illusion, a trick of the light, the flickerbook images seen through trainwindows. What I hear now is the heartlift of catching sight of what may be deer, and the letdown of their vanishing. I think it’s lovely

Form the deer I’m moving to a character, Rasool, who’s never fully explained and haunts a sequence of poems that are almost, but never explicitly, set in the uprooted landscapes of the disposessed and displaced, the victims of war and poverty.

On Finding the way

.

Now I’ve turned the corner

I can see her Rasool  

            the architect of sands gazing at her small city

            It looks Moroccan 

            and not just because it’s the colour of lions

.

This beach might be my longing 

or yours      but this morning I woke on it  

face down                          

            The tide had receded 

            and the sand beneath me was cold and hard 

.

Standing        I saw no dog         no bird         

            no woman or man                           

and from the flat sea which could have been mercury                   

nothing breached

            no rock or whale-spout or hoop 

            of dolphin           not even a fibreglass boat

.

I recalled no-one had seen fish for decades

.

I miss you Rasool 

[…..]

And I remembered how shorebirds 

used to run between waves

            and on their way in 

            and on their way out 

the waves did not always 

wash away imprints

.

three wire toes                arrow 

            after arrow                   pointing 

to where the bird had run from

                        where I should go

.

Who would not weep Rasool

.           

I followed directions and turned back            walked east               

     around the headlands

            And now I can see her             

            her white shirt flapping 

            in the crook of the bay 

.

She is crouching down     

brown hands at work on her next suburb

            I imagine small arched windows 

            walls bleached pale 

                        almost pink        

                                    like shells

                         or salt-pan camels

.

Is it a dream, this apocalyptic shorescape? It certainly has the precise physical detail of dreams and also their disjunct narratives. All I know is the way it’s anchored by that image of

                                 the architect of sands gazing at her small city

That moment that draws you in, and holds you, along with the narrator’s unassuageable sadness. Magic.

.

The next extract works the same kind of spell, though in a landscape that’s ostensibly closer, geographically to the ‘home’ of West Yorkshire moorlands. It’s a poem that understand that skylines and and the shift from night to day are thin placesin which anything may happen, and when we see things as if for the first time.

.

Dawn on Nab Scar

I wait in the dark, as if on one foot, tense with the balance of almost

falling, other foot held above the ground. In the minutes before dawn

.

we are always waiting, stretched between two momentous things. Interminable,

and never arriving, the weight of proof has suddenly come, and I realise

.

I have missed the moment of change – there’s already more powder of light

than darkness in the air. Dawn hauls its pale mirror

.

up through Rydal Water; there are clouds today so I watch the clouds

whitening the lake’s surface. Mist in tufts rises like grasses.

.

Below the house on the farm, a pinkness used to stain the morning mist

above the Broederstroom. Tall grasses in the muddy dam.

.

On this day, years ago, sixty-nine people murdered at Sharpeville.

Was I implicated? No, yes, where does it begin, and end? 

[……] 

                                                                         Above me, a whole town

wakes: the woodpecker begins its morning routine, opening and closing

.

the door to its castle, creak, creak, again and again; the little birds whistle

in their swept-clean market place as if no more conflict can ever come,

.

no bombs, no divided Jerusalem; just there in the distance, spring brightening

the greygreen, green, maroon trees reflected in the water. Two narrow deer

.

see me and stand, as if they too are reflections of trees with their mossy horns

and legs like the limbs of birches, and they stare, and I stare,

.

and we slip in and swim, we are lake-ideas, our eyes 

pools of brightening water: there is the past and also the future,

.

something oracular about eyes and water, and if I close my deer-touched eyes,

this road below me could be the road to Woodbush, not a lane on Nab Scar

.

between White Moss and Grasmere, a lane I’ll walk down when I return

for breakfast, and hear on the radio news of another massacre, this time in Syria.

.

Why am I thinking of T S Eliot’s ‘we had the experience but missed the meaning’. I think this poem might just enact something like it’s opposite, as we begin on tenterhooks, barely balanced, straining. The magic happens, and somehow we’ve missed it. I chose this poem, I think, not just for its numinous quality, but also for the element of autobiography, the authentic voice of the poet as opposed to a persona. It’s a shock, that connection between an old home (which contains massacres) and a new one which shows you plainly that there are massacres wherever you go. It’s a poems that brings so many themes together. And the elusiveness of deer, too.

.

Two more…just a short extract from one:

I chose this because as I heard Carola read it in The Albert pub, I ‘heard’ her voice properly for the first time. I loved the glee of this visions of moorland pylons metaphormosing into vengeful witches flying widdershins over unsuspecting Halifax.

Midnight, Beltane, Soyland Moor 

Ruche after ruche night is gathering, cloud piled 

over the moor, dim scone

for a moon, flat pallor lidding Huddersfield, Halifax 

Manchester. 

.

Up here it’s cold. Dead sheep, winter –

keeps dragging back 

to unfinished December

out of kilter. On the skyline, pylons. Skeletal    

goddesses they hum 

as if a sun-surge has come and gone 

or something huge and clandestine is passing down lines 

and they listen in 

O soldiers of ruins make preparation 

                                                       Beltane, 

and fields remain empty. Where do we go? 

The sea-starved sea. These days, screens 

are our lamps, yet tonight I want oceans, 

oracles stinking of goats 

in the dark, ribald women 

who fly. 

.

On the skyline, pylons. Tension

a kind of desire. Ambiguous 

as they are, for a moment I imagine 

they could show us how: Elbow. Knee. Elbow. Hah! 

Akimbo sisters! 

Give birth. Show your steel 

farthingales, Hoist skirts. Pant. Point

your six arms downwards, 

wake the earth. Hoist! 

Hoist! 

Cavort! 

.

Let’s finish with one complete poem that I first met when the Monday Workshops became virtual, and we became inured to seeing ourselves in celebrity squares. This one I choose because of the way it shows Carola at her job of rescuing the significant and magical from the wasteful flow of minute by minute and the rush of things moving on. It’s a poem that challenges the notion that the world is completely reliable. Tractors and ploughland furrows seem resolutely solid, and smiles and waves reassure us of out connection,

but here the physical world is tilt and slivery and fluid. The tractor becomes a foundered boat, and it’s driver has vanished. Crows flock in their hundreds, in this short unnerving film of a poem.

.

Balance

.

Walking away from the town, 

I passed a half-ploughed field, 

furrows turning inside out and black 

behind a new tractor. The driver smiled, 

waved, and I waved back 

.

watching him tilt 

the balance of light. In the unharrowed part

sun rilled between bleached-out oat-stalks, 

its silvery influx running like water. 

Crows were landing to feed there. 

.

On the way back from my walk, 

the tractor was stuck on the field’s far side, 

marooned in the dusk. As if it had foundered, 

was a wrecked boat leaning

under the weight of birds 

.

hundreds of them now, 

crows mostly, flowing over

the tractor’s cabin, or hovering above it 

waiting to land, occupying the green 

metal wheel-guards 

.

while other birds ransacked 

islands of unploughed ground. 

I called out. I couldn’t see the driver 

anywhere. Calm yourself I thought. 

Home-time, that’s all

.

So I too made my way home, and left the crows 

trawling for seeds in their ragged lines, 

while smaller birds bobbed 

between the great, sunk wheels, 

shrieking Corvus! Corvus!

.

What can I say? There’s no way I can do justice to 150 pages of poems, all as good as each other. It’s a bargain at £11.99, direct from Caracanet. 

Go to their website at https://www.carcanet.co.uk/

…think about it. That’s at least four pamphlets!

While you’re waiting for it to arrive you can also hear Carola talking about the collection via this link

Thank you, Carola Luther being being our guest; thank you, Caracanet, for letting me share these poems; and finally, thank all of you for turning up. See you next week.

Happy Anniversary

Mum and Dad’s wedding day 1941

Guy Fawkes Night, 80 years ago. Dad born 1905. Mum born 1911.

With the passing years they become more and mysterious to me. The past is another country. You can’t go back there.

.

Startled by parents

the things about them that they never hid, 

just left quietly unsaid.

.

There was one who’d filleted a python,

and who launched a stuffed crocodile

on a Norfolk mere one summer’s night.

.

These are the stories we go on telling,

that gather detail, year on year.

Turn mythic.

.

Not in the same world as the one

in which my mother learned

to drive a car.

.

Not in the one where someone told me 

my father liked a bet, followed the form,

was familiar with racetracks.

.

I can’t imagine them at all,

or, if I did, I’d get them wrong,

my mother young

.

and long before me, with a chap

whose name I never knew;

white shoes, maybe,

.

a Morris with a running board;

my mother who learned 

to double de-clutch,

.

to manage sparks and chokes,

to rattle with insousiance

down country lanes

.

in a velours hat that never once

blew off, laughing with a man

I cannot picture.

.

My dad at Aintree, or Pontefract,

a jacket with a nipped-in waist,

a tie pin, natty trilby;

.

binoculars, fivers in a roll,

an eye for a winner,

an eye out for spivs.

.

They were glamorous,

louche and chancy

and I never knew them at all .

.

[By which I mean there is so much I never knew, and wish I did. I miss them.]

Stocking fillers [11] Song and dance acts

.

It’s been an up and down sort of week. Showers and bright periods. Whole days of sub-aqueous gloom, afternoons of sunlit autumn colour that made bits of our garden look like a Kaffe Fassett jumper. Flu jabs and boosters, and Boris the Gladiator on the front page of the Sunday Express today. And then there’s the actual exrement pumped into or rivers and onto our beaches by companies siphoning billions out of the system. The sun’s out now. This morning the rain was torrential and some of it was making its way through a bedroom ceiling. The most recently decorated one, natch.

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It’s hard work getting into that particular loft space. There’s a patch of sodden insulation, but not a sign of any slates missing, no wet patches in the brickwork, no crumbling mortar, no torn roofing felt. As near as I can tell, because the rain and wind were coming from an unlikely direction, it’s blown hard under the solar panels and managed to set up some capillary action, siphoning (gosh..siphoning, again) rain water down the cabling. It’s remarkable how much water can get shifted like that.

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What’s a boy to do. Apart from going out and breaking windows. What did Jimminy Cricket say? Give a little whistle. When in doubt, let’s have a laugh. Of sorts. Three stocking fillers, increasingly bittersweet.

The first one stems from when I taught in a huge Comprehensive school in the 70s. I would sometimes wind up some of my stroppier 15 yr old girls by telling them straightfaced that the Bay City Rollers were (like The Archies) a made-up group, that they only existed on film. I can’t remember the prompt that dredged it up from my memory. But here we go.

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Not many people know this, but

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I’m not thinking about Theresa May lying about wheatfields,

or the one about Jacob Rees-Mogg once being a rent boy 

in Winchester, who would sing, for senescent clerics,

in a pure treble As long as he needs me; and not the one

about Margaret Thatcher liking latex underwear, or the one

about Donald Trump’s secret friend. The secret’s the friend’s idea.

He’s terrified the truth will come out, and that’s him finished

at the snooker club. No. I’m thinking of the Bay City Rollers

not being an actual band, (unlike The Archies, who were

but just looked like Hanna-Barbera cartoon figures);

the truth is they were all Action Men 

and if you look closely at archive film you can just make out

the metal screw and bearing that joined the gripping hands

to the thin wrists, because sometimes the tartan scarf would slip.

The Bay City Rollers could not be seen with real screaming fans

because they were only six inches high and thiose teenage girls

would have looked bigger than King Kong. So all the fans 

were Action Men as well, and then there was the problem

of the theatres and the cinemas where they played, and the hotels

where they stayed, and then you had the streets where the hotels

were supposed to be, and the cars and buses, and taxis 

and here’s the problem with lying, you have to keep on lying

till it gets too complicated. Which is why you suddenly

didn’t hear any more of the Bay City Rollers. It was easier

to set fire to the model sets and all those tartan Action Men,

and then put out a press release to say The Rollers had retired

the act and would be concentrating on their individual careers.

So tell me the name of a single song that any of them recorded.

There you are then.

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I blame Peter Sansom for this. I’ve just tracked it down in a notebook. Whitby. 2017. The past is another country. Which may just be a segue for the next poem, which I wrote for a band that used to play support for Tom Russell in various venues around Castleford, back in the day. The last time I saw them live was in The Lupsett pub in Wakefield. That shut down this year, which makes this poem just that little bit more poignant.

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Tribute 

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The Collier/Dixon Line has only changed

its lineup once in thirty years. Last year

Dennis sacked his lead guitar. ‘Fancied

taking new directions. Couldn’t be doing 

with that.’ They played cruise ships all along

the coasts of Scandinavia, sang Johnny Cash

to rivers throwing themselves off mile-high cliffs.

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They don’t do upstairs rooms these days. ‘Sorry,

pal,’ says Dennis (though he’s not), ‘we don’t do steps.’

In gigs in estate pubs and Working men’s

they have a faithful following. Wives 

and friends of wives who have danced together

since they were at school. They can do it

with their eyes shut. So they do. The spins,

the checks, the turns still glamorous in dreams

of stocking-tops,  layers of paper nylon underskirts,

beehives brittle and scratchy with spray, 

and pearlised mouths that lipsynch every song.

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Bye bye love

Bye bye happiness

Bye bye sweet caress

I think I’m gonna die.

Bye bye, my love, bye bye

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Apologies for the sentimental slant of today’s cobweb. The clocks went back last night, and suddenly it’s dark at teatime. Just one more and then I promise to spend at least part of next week planning a post about a new collection by someone whose poetry I like a lot.

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A captive audience

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the recumbent elderly, stuffed like bolsters

into Parker Knoll wing chairs, hard

of hearing, rheumy-eyed, incontinent,

medicated to docility. 

Neurones flickering  on and off;

there are no spare batteries. 

This is how it ends. 

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And here they come,

the ones with smiles sincere as rictus,

the ones with Casio keyboards,

with tinny snare drum tracks,

chivvying the old and unprotected

into faltering songs of bicycles made for two,

white cliffs, lilacs, sweethearts.

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Songs their mothers (Dot and Doris,

Ruby, Gladys, Edith) may have sung.

Their memory’s not what it was.

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You wonder if they’ll still be at it,

the entertainers, when the chairs are full 

of Kimberleys, Courtneys, Shannons, Chardonnays.

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Today, they’re Marys, Lindas, Donnas,

Debbies, Paulas. Every once in a while, a Keith. 

No-one turns up with a Fender Strat,

no-one gets them singing

Is that Jimmy’s ring you’re wearing?

No-one chops out Summertime Blues,

or Cut across Shorty, or even Three steps

to Heaven. And no-one turns the lights

down low; no one sings, just for them,

Don’t forget who’s taking you home.

Save the last dance for me.

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