Too many things I want to say all at once.
First of all: promises. I once promised a Scots friend of mine (and a great folk singer and mandolin player) that I’d write him a song about Culloden, to the tune (and stanza structure) of ‘The tinkerman’s daughter’. And I did, but he had to wait ten years. It’s not been quite as long as that, but it’s been at least 18 months since I said, in a car on the way to the Poetry Business Saturday Workshop: ‘ if no-one else seems to be doing it,I’ll write a review of your poems, Julia.’
Second: I’ve never yet written a published review, and when I first tried to write this one, I made the mistake of checking out how it might be done, by reading reviews in various poetry magazines. And my heart sank. It’s taken me 50 years to shake off the faux-intellectual, disengaged, footnoted and referenced essay style I simulated in order to cheat my way to a good 2:1. And a lot of these reviews seemed just too much like that. Too much of the ‘one’ and the ‘we’ and not enough of the ‘I’ and the ‘me’ for me to feel comfortable. I just want to warn you that this isn’t a review. It’s a personal, partial (in both senses) reading of Julia Deakin’s poetry via a limited number of poems.
Third: a declaration of interest. I’ve known Julia since I interviewed her for her first teaching post – 1979 that was. I went to her wedding reception. Me and my partner Flo have been on holiday with Julia and her partner, Steve. And that is partly why it’s taken so much time to wind myself up to write this…..who wants to risk a friendship? It’s a sensitive thing, this poetry business.
Fourth: (it’s getting a bit like ‘what did the Romans ever do for us?’ is this. Sorry. But stay with me). I’m going to make oblique references to Carel Weight and Polly Morgan. They are artists you may not know. The cover picture is by Carel Weight. But if you want to check out the analogies I plan to draw, you might like a trip to Google Image first.
Fifth: Julia is one of my inspirations. Ever since she gave me a copy of her first pamphlet – ‘Picasso’s Child’ – to read, I was hooked on the idea that one day I’d do that. And I’ve watched lots of her poems emerge at the Poetry Business, in that trademark, precisely provisional pencil, with minute, exact annotations, and the neatest crossings-out the imagination can deal with. And then later seen them in her two collections. I wanted to be like that, too. In collections, that is. Not in pencil. And certainly not provisional.
Sixth: I’ve started an occasional series of posts on Undiscovered gems. Well this is exactly the opposite. Julia has two collections under her belt (details at the end. Assuming this will end) and a third in production. She’s been read on ‘Poetry Please’. She’s been published all over the place. She is a serial competition winner: Poetry Business Pamphlet (2008), Yorkshire Open (2010), Torriano, LIPPFest, and Elmet (2011), Bare hands and Lightship International (2012). For all I know she’s got a Nobel Prize since then…I bet I wouldn’t find out from her. So I’m at a disadvantage; that’s the trouble with inspirations.
But enough of preambles that could turn out to be longer than the main event. Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.
Dark watcher? why? I think (but I’m not checking – it’s not a proper review) that I came across this haunting phrase sometime in the 70s; I think it was in an article by Geoff Fox in Children’s literature in education…maybe about A wizard of Earthsea. It’s phrase that a 12 year old girl used to describe herself as a reader …. a sort of hidden, secret eavesdropper on, and fascinated observer of, other lives. Not sinister, but, simultaneously, emotionally involved and moved and engaged, and distanced and disengaged. It makes me think of Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden who observes because she’s basically left out, curiously detached, rueful, and occasionally cross. That’s how I see Julia as a poet. A dark watcher. Not always dark, but often. I’m going to use one poem as a touchstone. It’s a poem that I’ve found heartbreaking, and I think it’s right at the emotional core of her poetry. It’s Presence. It begins with her father, the absorbed maker of presents that he thought his children should want (I’ve been that, I realise with a shudder)…things like a wooden sledge….so heavy it just sank in the snow. It’s the next stanza that brings me up short, breathless:
We were unimpressed. They never matched the bought things
we’d had in mind. After bed I’d hear you talking through design points
with mum, and sometimes, on cold afternoons, I’d come into the shed
and peer deep into the paraffin heater, loving its ring of flame
and purple fumes. Hoping for nothing, but that you would turn round.
It’s this image of the child longing to come in from the cold of withheld affection, of love, into the embrace of that ring of flame, that I find intensely moving.
The poem that follows it,The rainy day book begins What do you owe your parents? It can’t be any kind of accident that it’s placed right there….she’s too punctilious a writer and editor for that. I think the answer precedes the question, but it’s also objectified, or reified, in the second poem. What do you owe your parents?……
Learning how not to complain but wait patiently,
not always knowing what the wait was for.
And this is conflated with occasional accounts of pointless material frugality – let me use a single instance from J’accuse.
In ‘the raffish low-slung Triumph Herald’ which quickly rusted as
‘it dragged us through our childhood………..We sat
in the back on clammy coffee-coloured seats
that stank and stuck your bare legs to them,
fishing cornflakes out of shallow tupperware……….
Glimpsed from here,
the swinging 60’s passed us by.’
That image of cornflakes that I imagine to be dry make me wince. But I do think that these particular and precise details go a long way to helping me to understand a thread that runs through both collections, which is that of the (rueful) observer on the outside looking in, or in the case of the Triumph Herald, on the inside looking longingly out. The curious envy of more rackety, ramshackle, free-and-easy, vulgar lives. Like in Gone (which is placed right next to J’accuse) there’s the friend with whom she shares ‘a secret knowledge of Bewitched / and other stuff on ITV / we weren’t supposed to watch at home.’ and how
‘I watched your bleach-blonde mum
in her space age kitchen spin dry all my clothes
which I carried, ironed, and smelling of Tide, notOmo
home like the world cup in a paper bag’.
Ah, the allure of the working classes who have no scruples about watching ITV and its adverts. This is exactly the emotion I felt as a kid, lusting after Butlins (whatever that was) and amusement arcades, and being hauled around Wharfedale instead. I’m glad I learned about Wharfedale, but I didn’t see the point of not having both. And there’s the strange magic of her neighbour’s house in ‘Behind The Turnip harvest’ …’ I took it all in, eating a lemon puff.’ and in Voltage here’s Blackpool, that old goat, where ‘the pier in bling/ and heels throws her secrets to the sea, which bites its lip.’
So far I think I’ve managed to give an impression of a glum old vision. It’s not like that. It’s not like that at all. Let me show you why. There’s a group of poems that move out of the family, and which bring a hard-earned empathy to all sorts of overlooked, near-invisible and possibly unloved folk. When you buy Julia’s collections…as you must before you leave this post. I know where you live……. make sure to spend time with Personal Effects, Unattributed Sampler and Queen of the Inch. These are tender poems; there’s a lot of tender poems in the collections. In the first, the dark watcher reads the life of servants in a grand house from the clues that
‘the apprentice, the pot-boy, the pale governess,
the world-weary valet, the tense paying guest
left behind wainscots, wedged in pews, fallen through floorboard cracks. This is like the world in which Carel Weight reads vaguely unsettling subtexts, and puzzling uncontextualised stories. Unattributed sampler is a beautifully crafted piece of work, which imagines its way into the mind and life of the child who becomes a woman, stitching away at the successive deaths in the family. There’s real gentleness in this poem. Just linger on this stanza, and its interplay between the words of the sampler, the stitcher, and her grandmother
I was just five but could already read THEY WILL BE MISST A VACANT PLACE
AT TABLE AND AT TIME OF PRAYER. ‘What shall we put up there I asked in the big space?
Lord knows, my love – God will decide, she said, then smiled. Me, probably.
Maybe my favourite (because of an implied landscape that I love) is Queen of the inch, telling the imagined story of the princess for whom this stone kist with its chiselled rebated lid was fashioned
As if the chiselled secret of the tomb meant
their child might one day choose to be reborn,
As if, when the time came, they too might walk free,
as easily as opening a door
There’s so much craft and care in these poems…I’ll set up another analogy. If you can find it on your iplayer, see if you can track down a BBC 4 occasional series: What do artists do all day? I’ve watched the programme about Polly Morgan again and again. She’s an artist who creates work out of taxidermy; she rummages about in freezer chests looking for exactly the right size of mynah bird, and then sits with infinite patience, teasing off the skin ( and therefore the plumage) in one undamaged piece; she uses incredibly sharp scalpels and focussed concentration. There’s something reverential in the attention she pays to the bird in her hands, and something very gentle and steely about the way she puts it back together, stitching minutely, stroking back the plumage. And musing at the same time about her awareness of her hands’ fragility, her imagining the structure beneath her own skin. I’m not going to tease out the analogy. I’ll just leave you to think about it, and I’ll also leave the Sampler extract to somehow try to take responsibility for imagining the craftsmanship of all of Julia’s poems.
I did mean to talk about the wistfulness and restraint of love poems like Meanwhile, and her honeymoon night, where,
Later, in bed, holding our new rings to the filtered lemon light
we thought about our future and agreed that somehow – weatherwise at least
we had been blessed.
but I think I may be stretching the patience of Sunday night readers, who already have a million poetry blogposts to wade through. I’ll pick up the pace a bit.
I chose this image to remind myself how different from, and how more disciplined, Julia’s writing is to mine, which is full of sensory overload and landscape paintings. I think her poems remind me of Jane Austen, with their foregrounding of reflectiveness against the the most shadowy of backgrounds. Like Lowry’s Salford figures on those luminous gessos, it’s the people who matter, and stories he wants to tell of their lives, with that concern for the inner world that is Jane Austen’s. Mind you, if that’s all there was, I might admire, but not feel much engagement, and wander off looking for a change of rhythm. At which point she hits this reader with poems fashioned from tumultuous lists that explode with such energy you might miss the fact the every single item is patiently selected and placed. There’s the furious rhetorical energy of Checkpoint, a prose poem jammed with the privations of immigrants to the New world like their hoarded bundles. And there’s my favourite, which is a must for anyone who spent windy afternoons with freezing fingers, beachcombing for bits of seaglass. Where else but from the wreck of The glass ship.. a galleon whose grey-green sails are translucent in the sun as are its futtock shrouds, struts and mainmast, topgallant mast and topmast stays….its ratlines, spankers, binnacles, hawsers strops and lanyards…and how it sings, how much forward energy and dance of rhythm. And one more thing.
There’s some waspish wit in the two collections but there’s also fun. I’ve always enjoyed (and envied) her ability to shine an unforgiving light on the vagaries of the poetry world, as in The wrong room which deftly skewers the more reductive sort of workshop session. In this case it’s Einstein’s irreducible (you would think) e=mc (squared….I don’t know how to keyboard that in). And I have to smile at the way the playful poems in the second collection are gently shepherded in to a final section subtitled Play…safely tucked away towards the end, like a sweetie reward for eating your greens.
I’m running out of steam, and I have pizzas to fashion and a case to pack. This has been a labour of love and it goes with a fervent prayer that the labour’s not lost. Go and buy Julia Deakin’s pamphlet and her two collections which are as follows:
The half-mile high club . Smith/Doorstop Books (2008)….available from the Poetry Business, Sheffield (I hope) £4.00
Without a dog. Graft Poetry (2008) £5.95
Eleven Wonders . Graft Poetry (2012) £7.95
Julia will sell you stuff direct according to her website, last time I looked. Google it. Don’t mix her up with the TV actress of the same name. Buy the books. Remember. I know where you live.
You’ve been fantastically attentive. I shall try to think of a treat for next week. OK. Put the chairs away…Quietly…and off you go
5 thoughts on “Dark watcher: Julia Deakin’s poems”
yes John. Thanks for articulating so precisely why I love Julias work. AS you know Ive used one of her poems in a funeral I conducted so I think anecdotal evidence suggests Im the first person to say ‘Fuck’ out loud at the Harrogate crematorium. I love most of all a poem I shamefully cant recall the titleof (not living at home at the moment) about a photo of a great aunt of JUlias and the observer reflects upon how it captures a time before all those grief provoking events of life. By the way my Julia loved that Polly Morgan poem and sees similarities in her own work
Thanks for that, Nick..yes, I like the one about the great aunt. Always liked Carel Weight after my A levelart teacher dissed him, and I learned was irrelevant, passe, pointless. Forget the craft snd vision. Abstrct expressionism. That’s the thing
I am enjoying reading this so much, John. I have shared it as well and hope others will respond.
Thank you both. I am deeply touched by this attention, and a review worth waiting six years for.
When I get the Nobel Prize I promise I will mention it.
Really enjoyed reading this, John. I must go back to re-read the poems