the other side of silence

grass in wind

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary life it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well-wadded with stupidity”  George Eliot. ‘Middlemarch’

Working in various warehouses I always liked a tidy-up, a bit of stocktaking, giving a bit of shape and order to the accumulated muddle and inconvenience of things. Or, at least, the illusion of order and meaning. And even though I always think that the Sunday Supplement and TV reviews of the the year that’s about to end smack of lazy journalism, and easy programming, I realise that this is exactly what I’m heading into. Starting with a poem that’s now over a year old, and which seems like someone else’s. As they do.

When all’s said and done

after the eulogy

after the hymns no longer sung

with gusto or familiarity

after the

awkward pause

and remembering the casket

isn’t going to move

after the queue

to find the door

after the flare of lighters

the sucked-in smoke

the conversations half in bits

after all that

there’s the buffet and the drinks

the loosening of ties

the unacknowledged complicity

of being alive while someone else is not.

 

I have been to funerals this year, and learn I am grateful for being alive. There’s been a lot to be grateful for this year, especially things done for the very first time.

Like this wordpress poetry cobweb, which has kept me on my toes and anxious and sort-of-productive for about thirty five consecutive Sundays. It has made me reflect, and think and read and research. It has made me read other blogs much more attentively. So thank you Kim Moore and Anthony Wilson and Josephine Corcoran for teaching me so much. It has let me repay debts and keep promises. It let me try my hand at reviewing a poet’s work (thank you, Julia Deakin for putting the notion in my head), and it has made me much more aware of writers who come lateish to writing, as I have. It has let me choose poems by Bob Horne, Liz Venn, Yvie Holder, Andy Blackford, Simon Zonenblick and Tom Cleary. It has let me posture and theorise without interruption (much like being a lecturer again, I suppose). I have used it unashamedly as a platform for my own poems, and no one has told me to stop. Yet. So, thank you, WordPress for letting me make the great fogginzo’s cobweb.

Like winning competitions, one of which let me pay for the printing of my first pamphlet: Running out of Space, and one that gave me the prize of being properly published by a proper publisher. So, for Larach, thank you Camden/Lumen, and Sir Andrew Motion, and Adele Ward and WardWood Publishing. And also for my very first book launch.

Like submitting poems to various magazines and online sites, and finding out that having more rejections than acceptances is good for you. So thank you to the ones like Magma that are generous in their rejections, and for the care of the ones who take you on board, like  Brett Evans at Prole, and the Sansoms at The North, and Martin Malone at The interpreter’s house.

Like being the compere at The Puzzle Hall Poets (at the Puzzle Hall Inn in Sowerby Bridge), and being handed a microphone. Which panders to my enjoyment of performing, but more usefully makes me attend closely to all the poets on the open mic. so I can say something that shows their poems have been listened to; it means I have to take notes, and I end up with something like a commonplace book of lines that stood out. I look forward to the first Monday of each month; I enjoy putting the publicity together for Facebook. I really like working with Bob Horne and Freda Davies, deciding who to invite to do guest slots. I like all the friends I’ve made. So thankyou, Puzzle Hall Poets, and thankyou Gaia Holmes for inviting me to guest there in the first place. Which leads me to another first…..being a guest on Gaia’s Phoenix Radio show : Themes for dreamers, which she co-hosts with William Thirsk Gaskell. Last Sunday I got to read my poems and talk about them and choose records to play. I can’t recommend the experience too highly.

Like being invited to join an editorial panel for the OWF Press anthology The garden, and having the experience of trying to choose about 65 poems from well over 200 submissions. Humbling, that. But it’s a cracking collection and a worthy follow up to the successful Wheels anthology from the same press. (I’ll put the details at the end of the post). Equally humbling was getting a review accepted by The North…never done one before, and terrified of upsetting four poets who I like. As it happens I didn’t. But I’d no idea how stressful it was going to be. Much rather let someone review mine.

What else? Last but not least, a poem-week-year has finally come to an end. This was the idea of Andy Blackford, whose poems appeared in the cobweb earlier this year. We’d met again after a gap of of about 40 years; Andy reckoned that since Bunuel and an artist friend used to meet to exchange and critique a piece of art on a given day each week, there was no reason why we shouldn’t. And there wasn’t. We now have to decide what to do about the 104 poems we’ve written. Got a title. Gap year.

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So, you might well ask, after all that…………….. the silence and the stupidity and the funerals? What’s all that about? And Paula Rego? Come on!

I think it all comes down to Kim Moore’s Sunday Poem last week. Pascale Petit  was her chosen poet, and Pascale Petit, for me, is the poetry equivalent of Paula Rego. She has that urgency, that passion, that edge. It’s a feeling that both know pain very well, and are up to all its wiles. Or else their art does;  I don’t know. I’m not putting this very well. I can’t find the words. They are both unflinching, aren’t they? Take these lines from the poem that Kim Moore chose: How to handfeed sparrows.-

‘Let the sun burn the top of your head

as if it’s a candle, a whole day

for it to ignite. And when

a sparrow lands keep stock-still

even thought the flame is lit

and your scalp is melting

…………………

they are hungry, and you

have only one hour of that wick

in the centre of your being.

Let it burn down to the soles of your feet.

There’s something purgatorial and Catholic about the burning, the candle, the sparrows, and something so intensely felt and personal it makes me shiver. It makes me think: I never feel in that way, to that degree. Or maybe I’m thinking after the event, because Kim  happened to write in passing that she’d been reading Fiona Benson’s first collection, Bright travellers, and on a whim I downloaded it to my Kindle, read it through that night. It stopped me dead in my tracks. And again the next morning in a doctor’s waiting room, waiting for a routine taking of blood. Two extracts to show you what staggered me. The first is the whole of ‘Prayer’

I saw you like a hare, stripped and jugged

in your own blood, your tail a rudder

steering you through burgundy and juniper,

your eyes gummed shut. Tadpole,

 

stripling, elver, don’t let the dragtides

pull you under, but root in, bed down,

tucked behind my pelvic bone,

rocked in the emptying stoup of my womb.

 

It has the particular power, I think, that excited me in Ted Hughes when I first read him..but without the sort-of macho-bravado. This is textured and tender and strong. It’s beyond me. I went and reread Slyvia Plath’s ‘You’re’ and knew this was a different, stranger, more wonderful thing entirely. And so is the raw open-eyedness of ‘Repairs’ , a midwife’s stitches

It must be the gas

that has me see her

holding pins

between her tightened lips

 

as she works

with both hands

round the wound

to stitch me back in.

 

Just listen to this, and its precision of sound, the consonantal snag of that ‘stitch’. Do you see why I might think again of Paula Rego….maybe one image in particular?Paula Rego.2 jpg

There’s a physicality about these poems that’s unanswerable, and a synthesis of the solid worlds of absolutely imagined birds and wild creatures, of weathers and the leaching of soils and the decay of rocks with the intensely particular personal lifeof the poet that makes this collection so wonderful and distressing. She reminds me of Wendy Pratt, not just because of the coincident experience, but their way of somehow living on level terms with it, and their way with words. Like this from ‘Nan Harwicke turns into a hare’

I will tell you how it was. I slipped

into the hare like a nude foot

into a glorious slipper. Pushing her bones

to one side to make room for my shape

so I could settle myself like a child within her.

In the dark I groped for her freedom…..

 

There’s that physicality, that sensuality, again, and again infused by the unspeakable loss of a child that has to be spoken and spoken for. That controlled  intensity that has the lines shivering with energy. Just one more now. Kim Moore, this time,one who has dealt with abusive assault, or has come to deal with it. ‘If we could speak like wolves’.

(Hares, rabbits, sheep, wolves, hunters and hunted, and the ones who run under the moon. I may be witched. Anyway, this from Kim) :

 

if I could rub my scent along your shins to make

you mine, if a mistake could be followed

by instant retribution and end with you

rolling over to expose the stubble and grace

of your throat, if it could be forgotten

 

the monent the wind changed, if my eyes

could sharpen to yellow……………………..

 

And there’s that energy again, that physicality that’s nailed in two words: stubble  sharpen. And so it starts with The Sunday Poem. Or at least, that’s a catalyst. I read these poems, and then I read what I’ve written in the last two years and I see what isn’t there, and I wonder if I have access to what’s missing. Just to explain why I chose that opening quotation from George Eliot; for the last 18 months or so I have grown gradually more deaf. It’s something that can be dealt with, and will be, but at the moment I hear the world through a soft sieve. I miss the point of conversations and questions if I’m not attending. It’s like listening to French. I recognise songs on the radio by the bass lines and drum patterns but I can’t hear the whole tune. And now these poets. It’s as though they’ve shown me emotional registers and harmonies that I can’t hear or feel for myself, as though, in George Eliot’s word I’m ‘well-wadded’. I’m writing rhetoric and well-observed landscapes, and anecdotes, but I’m not accessing the whole picture. It won’t be forced, but it must be possible. I wonder how.

I think that next week I might go on thinking about this, and about learning a new language, or a bigger one. So there we are. One year finishing, and whole new bunch of stuff to be fighting through. Hope your coming year will be exciting and happy in equal measure.

 

Wendy Pratt ; Nan Hardwicke turns into a hare [Prolebooks. 2011] £4.50

Fiona Benson; Bright travellers                                  [Cape poetry 2014] £10.00

Kim Moore;  If we could speak like wolves              [Smith/doorstop 2012] £5.00

       and

The garden : poems that will grow on you             [Otley Word feast Press 2014] £8.00

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday Poem by Pascale Petit

Out of a goodly number of great posts, this is the pick of the crop. Stunning.

Kim Moore

Evening all – this will be my last blog post before Christmas Day unless something immensely exciting happens between now and then and I can’t keep it to myself.

I’ve already had one very exciting thing happen to me this week though, so it seems unlikely that anything else will happen.  A couple of months ago, I was invited by Ledbury Poetry Festival to take part in a EU funded project they are running in conjunction with 8 or 9 European Poetry Festivals.  I think it is a kind of exchange program – Ledbury have chosen 5 young/emerging poets to take part.  I had to send poems, biography etc to Ledbury and they pass all this on to the other festivals and there is the possibility that we might get an invitation to read.  I say possibility because it was made clear there was no guarantee – and because of…

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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 there 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 a Scott, or a Shackleton. 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 two 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.

Then, it’s said that stones, or wolves

or trees, or owls can speak.

 

Or toys piled pell-mell in boxes

kept in lofts, in attic cupboards;

also things that hang in Christmas trees,

like fairies, snowmen, angels,

and wind-up clockwork toys.

 

What is it, do you think, they say

just once a year, just for one day,

or week. This is the truth of it.

The dark that lasts all year,

the silent dust that settles

bit by bit, grows coarse and gritty.

 

It clogs their tongues.

Listen. They’re as mad as stones

and deaf as owls. They’re let to speak;

have forgotten how, and what, to say.

Stay silent till the twelfth night.

And then they’re put away.

 

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.

 

 

Nine days wonders and season songs

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Nine days ago I was in Camden for the launch of my chapbook ‘Larach’ …..you can see what it looks like if you click on My Books at the top of the page; if you want to buy it, I’ll be delighted. Of course, if you do, you should probably buy Josephine Corcoran’s new pamphlet, and Liz Berry’s Black Country and pre order Kim Moore’s Art of falling, and, well, it’s Xmas. You get the picture…..but, anyway, Camden High Street was all Friday night bustle and junk and tattooists (I was much taken by the the chaps standing at intervals with boards that advertised tattoos, piercings. And tatto removal. It didn’t strike me as a smart sales pitch) and many young people all full of life and purpose; and it was cold. Proper cold. Winter cold. It was like being twenty again, out in a frosty city, all scarves and duffel coats, and up for it. Whatever that was.

And then I got to read at the Trinity Reform Church venue. And meet my editor, Adele Ward, and the Camden/Lumen organiser Ruth O’Callaghan for the very first time. And to see my book for the first time. It is truly lovely. Thank you, WardWood Publishing. All sorts of friends turned up, one I hadn’t seen for about 50 years. He was in the very first class and form group I had in my first teaching job in 1965. Thank you for coming, Steve Lewis. Andy Blackford, also from Middlesbrough High School and one of this year’s (un)discovered gems. Sally and Emma..my best friend’s daughters. Anthony Costello from Todmorden’s Kava poetry venue. Greg from ‘Write out loud’ (thanks for the write-up, Greg. Brilliant!). And then there were the Commended poets. That’s when it gets humbling. I couldn’t, can’t, see why my poem should have won and why theirs didn’t. Light a candle for all the commendeds and highly commendeds, the nearly-but-not-quites. If you’re reading this, thank you for your poems and your readings. Then I drove to Northampton with my lovely friends, Dave and Heather, and the next day drove home, and packed notebooks and boots and pens and the next day drove to Whitby with poetry friends Keith Hutson (who I hope will be an (un)discovered gem ere long) and Maggie How…and the Poetry Business world-famous writing workshop.

It’s the second year running for me to marvel at the endless inventiveness of the wonderful Sansoms, and at their sheer stamina. I get knackered by the end of a single Saturday in Sheffield. Whitby is five Poetry business writing days end-on, with extra poetry readings every night. Sixteen talented writers, totally focussed day after day.And of course, Whitby. Whitby in December. Wind off the sea. Another episode of extended deja vu. Remember the 50’s and 60’s? When did you last wake up and find your fingers were cold? Like being twenty again, or even younger. Amazing sunrises, and home-made biscuits of rare beauty, in this residential centre that used to be a girls’ boarding school attached to St Hilda’s priory. Sneaton Castle. You should try it. Because you couldn’t make it, the rest of this cobweb strand will be a ‘wish you’d been there’ packet of postcards…and a very fast piece of writing out of a single workshop task. Notations of a wander round Whitby.

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careful hikers close the footpath gate and snib the catch

right by the five-barred gate where someone’s daubed

in tin-end paint : trespasers will be shot

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trees all lean inland

away from viking wind

its knives and hard words

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laminate town, levels and layers

climbing out of the fisherman’s river

like the wash from a big dropped stone

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ginnels, snickets, steep narrow cobbled ways;

a place of roofs and corrugations, terracotta,

pantiled screes, oxblood, orange, leafdrift

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a stone stair via dolorosa , penitential,

cruel and unusual punishment, this ascent for the blameless

seaside donkeys, and steelwork sinners out for the day

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headland gravestones, pitted with salt and years,

congregate and crowd, incline towards the church

and all the dead in the way of the wind from the sea

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one single sculpted stone fends off the whole north sea;

it throws an arm around the round river at the tide’s mouth.

It says. Hush. Shh. Sh

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I don’t know if I’ll manage a post next Sunday. Just in case, a happy christmas, and thankyou for staying with me through all these Sundays since early this year. May  next year bring you everything you’d wish for yourselves. xx