the other side of silence

“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.


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


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

9 thoughts on “the other side of silence

  1. Enjoyed your post. You raise important questions about things that I wonder, & sometimes worry, about too – and give good examples. And yes, that’s a fine quote from Middlemarch.


    1. Thanks, Elly…..I think I put it less accurately than I’d have liked. I’m going to try to untangle it a bit more next week. It needs some thinking on. But you made me feel that it’ll be woth it. Thanks again x


  2. Hi John – just sitting down to do my end of year blog. Thanks for the mentions and your lovely words. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on physicality in poetry and, although I don’t agree that your poetry has something missing, I think that hunger that you have to improve your writing will produce some interesting stuff in 2015.


    1. Generous as ever, Kim. Ididn’t put it as clearly as I wanted, or I lost the focus of where I had an inkling I was heading. I’ll get to the bottom of it, though. And then get back to work. Nothing new for two weeks. That’s Christmas for you. All angels and card making. Keep on inspiring and being inspired xx


      1. Hi John I think you articulated it really well, the feeling we all get when we read something fantastic by somebody else and wonder whether we will ever write something as good. Or maybe it’s not about good but more ‘will I write something half as true?’ But I got that feeling a lot when I read some of your poems in Larach…I don’t think we ever get that feeling about our own work thank goodness. x


  3. You just gave me the keyword for the thread of thinking that I let slip. Probably when I wandered off to cook something, or have a smoke or brush the cat. TRUE. That’s the core of it. Good is neither here nor there. Just a matter of taste or opinion. But TRUE is unanswerable. You are a treasure.


  4. Another great blog John and one that reminds me of the journey I’ve had this year. Like a lot of people I have always wanted to write, but for one reason or another it never happened. However February this year I decided to join Gaia’s weekly workshop and it has transformed my life. And I consider yourself one of the amazing people I have met on my very short writing journey. I know you are an inspiration to many people John, as a poet and as the host of Puzzle Hall Poets, which is always a pleasure to attend and perform at. Just a thought, have you tried writing a poem from all your notes about the Puzzle Hall Poets?


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