Not believing in silence…..Directors cut, remastered. While I was writing this cobweb strand on Sunday, I managed to lose the last section; simply couldn’t recover it and its elegant rhetoric from cyber-oblivion. Could have been worse. There may be a virus going round. Kim Moore (she of the world-famous Sunday Poem poetry blog…. http://kimmoorepoet.wordpress.com/ ) somehow managed to lose the entirety of her post. Or maybe we were both just a bit tired and in a rush. Anyway, this is my second and last re-edit, and it’s as close to the original may have been as I can remember. I hope it does my guest credit.
May is a hectic month. Suddenly the garden’s fat with flower and blossom and where did all that come from. And the weeks are suddenly packed with poets and poetry. Nothing happens for weeks and then everything comes at once. Like wisteria. Or buses. What it is, I’ve driven to Sheffield on three consecutive days, for readings and workshops, and I don’t do late nights, or I do but I don’t do them well. I’ve had a ridiculously long lie-in this morning, but though I don’t drink, I feel vaguely hungover. So today’s cobweb strand may be unsteadily spun and brittle. The images I chose for it may make no sense in the cold light of day. I sincerely hope otherwise. I’ve been planning it for weeks. Here’s why.
I first saw Clare Shaw read to a less than full house at The Albert Poets in Huddersfield about a year ago. Striking,beautiful, tall, with an athlete’s poise and grace, and in black, like a gunslinger. I was bowled over. I’d been roped in to compering duties at the last minute; as far as I remember I described her set as a rivetting combination of Patti Smith/Bukowski/ Dylan/ Morrisey and John Cooper Clark if they had that accent of the Lancashire Pennines where they rhyme ‘hair’ with ‘fur’. She reads with a rare intensity and poise. Gunslinger. Her poems have you unwaveringly in their sights. They’re urgent and full of love. I find it hard to separate the poems I hear at a reading, but this time one stuck in my brain. I wanted to hear it again and again.
This baby is a hurricane –
it’s the thunder of an underground train.
You can hear it coming from miles away.
You can feel it in the walls, the floor.
It’s the roar beneath the city street;
the earthquake that wakes you,
shaking beds, breaking plates.
This baby dislodges slates –
felled a steeple in Dudley.
This baby could kill.
This baby is news, big news.
This baby makes you huge.
Makes you Africa and Russia,
proud. A high hot-air balloon fat-filled with fire.
You could explode with it.
Stand clear! This woman could blow any minute.
This quick blood-bloom of certain cell
could grow to anything –
snowflakes forming like a wildflower,
a sly-eyed gull; a dinosaur;
a deep bellyful of weed.
This baby is a fallen seed.
The thin grass blade that ruptures the road.
It could open you up –
your stomach, the shape of a book not yet written;
the curve of the first word
of the book you wake speaking,
It’s like that, this baby –
the light of a star that no-one can see
travelling ten thousand light years
to catch you unaware
knelt as you are in the slow Autumn rain,
heaving with dreams
and your body a poem
on the theme of ‘This Baby’.
Think of a name.
[from Straight Ahead]
Hard to say how much I enjoyed inexpertly typing this poem, feeling it reveal itself letter by letter, typos and corrections and all, hearing the craft of it that I’d missed in the rush of hearing it read. The universality and particularity of THIS baby, the surprise of the rhymes, the lovely juxtapositions of gulls and wildflowers, the immanence of THIS baby. I love, too, the way it makes me think of Sylvia Plath’s ‘high-riser /my little loaf’ ….but THIS baby’s ‘proud’ way beyond the proud of flesh or a risen loaf, a small insidious force that will grow to an earthquake, ‘the thin grass that ruptures the road.’ Everything is exact and crafted and thunderous with energy. It had me in its sights, alright. I wanted to read more. So I did.
Landscapes, first, although that might not be the first thing that you’d attend to. I’ve been a great fan of ‘Edgelands‘ for a good while, but it occurs to me that its rich observations are those of edgeland tourists, whereas many of Clare Shaw’s poems (like those of Steve Ely’s ‘Englaland‘) are those of one of its inhabitants. I’m thinking of the inbetween landscapes of council estates on the edge of Pennine moors, between the dirty glamour of the Lancashire plain and its cities, and the high sour cottongrass and peat and gritstone, and the small towns of the Calder valley, the Ribble valley, the mix of rundown mills, steep slopes, small farms.
They’re evoked to locate and realise a particular childhood in a hot summer when
‘………Miss Snell walked in circles
and the girl with Downs from off the estate
came up with her mother.
In our back yard, Action Men fell and died’
[‘The year Dad left.’ in Straight ahead]
Just let the resonance of the title work on you; just consider the careful particularities of the detail of that stanza. See how just one ‘extra’ word can tune you in to the dialect and the accent you should hear it in : ‘ the girl with Downs from off the estate’. And I want to highlight the way another landscape places the desperate tensions of love affairs. Everything happens somewhere, but these somewheres seem to me absolutely true and right. Like this from ‘About the arguments we had last year‘
‘It would have been so easily ended
the three hour arguments
that left us shaking,
the urgent late night drive,
two other cars on the road,
between here and North Yorkshire,
the yellow-green hedgrows,
the sudden open page
of an owl lifting’
and another haunting memory with its haunting half-rhymes, from the title poem ‘Straight ahead’
‘I can still see her
how she pulls up the car at night on the moor
just to hear
those big white windmills slicing the air’
I love the way the physical facts of these landscapes, their textures and scents and creatures, inform urgent poems of motherhood, its visceral tug.. I keep re-reading ‘Ewe’ from Head on– this animal who ‘is losing it, losing it. The lamb-leap and skip -all her fastness, / back from the day when touch came / pink, milk dripping’ , this ewe with her ‘hedge-heavy fleece’ because that’s how they are, those grubby gritstone sheep. And again and again I’ll read ‘Ewe in several parts’ whose first line has you and won’t let go. The heartclench of ‘I lost my baby. / I left her outside for a moment…’ The sheep have taken her, this child of a Pennine Persephone. There’s a poem of Fiona Benson’s that has this same heartstopping moment, but in a harvest field. The sheep moors are closer to the storytelling forests of folk tale, where children are innocent and nature is quite amoral. This baby
‘must have liked it
her hands tangled deep in the sheep’s deep wool
where the moss and the small twigs snag.
She must have liked it
the way she likes dogs,
her hands to its mouth and stamping
like she does when she’s pleased’.
There’s always texture and physicality in Clare Shaw’s poems. It strikes me, because I’m told often enough that my own poems are almost always visual, that there’s touch and not just touch in these poems. They’re sometimes olfactory (is that the word?). There’s the damp reek of a place where a girl is abused: ‘In the film she is in a subway. / The viewer imagines the smell: / concrete and dirt; sour fruit‘… unnervingly, textures have scent; the grit, the soft brown fruit. Grass may smell yellow. Surface can be dangerous, unkind. ‘the angry sand / the shattered glass of pine and bracken’ at a seaside campsite. Sweat in a hot tent has a ‘stale leather smell’. A drunken girlfriend after a night on the lash ‘smelt of compost heap, hot weather’. The narrator nurses a hangover on a train ; ‘the woman in front / smells sweet of fruit, /a red smell you could climb into / and never get out; a great, wet / nest of a smell’ .
Felt and physical, Clare Shaw’s poems. And you see we’ve shifted landscapes and into a more disturbing, damaged world, and one that’s central, along with the theme of motherhood (or, if you prefer it, the business of being a mother) to both of her collections. Clare Shaw champions the damaged and abused, particularly abused and damaged girls, with a rare fierce love and urgency, and her poems speak for them quite unforgettably. I don’t want to go on about the details of her life. Her poems are her way of telling her story and that’ll do for me.
As a way of introducing the next bit, here’s an extract from an interview Clare did and the source of which I’ve unforgiveably lost. So when she tells me off after she’s read this, I’ll acknowledge the source.
‘I revel in the texture and echo of words; I love their dance. There’s something about the physicality of the spoken word that delights me. For me it feels like the meeting place of human and landscape; a sort of landscape of mouth and air and page. I enjoy the physicality of my own language; and I’m drawn to poems that foreground the dance and swoop of conversation, as well as the music of form and rhythm; alongside meaning and content.
There’s nothing more political or urgent than how we give shape to our feelings, our experiences; and how we understand and respond to each other’s struggles and sufferings. Psychiatry gives a language of medicine and illness to distress; it tells us that we suffer because our brain chemistries are disrupted. The impact of social causes – like poverty, injustice, social exclusion – are sidelined or completely disregarded. There is no definitive evidence for the biological basis of mental illness. That poverty, isolation, abuse and violence cause distress is an irrefutable fact. I’m wedded to the task of helping people to give their experiences and feelings a more meaningful shape than illness or disorder; I think art, literature and poetry offer us more powerful possibilities.’
So they do, and so she does. There’s so much I could tell you about in the two collections, but I’ll let two poems stand for the others. They are ‘This isn’t’ (from Head On) and ‘Poem about Dee Dee’ (from Straight Ahead).
(Here’s where I try to recall what I wrote about four hours ago, and which for some reasons was not saved. Fingers crossed)
The first poem acheives its power from its unexpected perspective.This is the aftermath of physical and sexual abuse; a cold and impersonal forensic abuse, and there is more than one victim.
what mothers are meant to do.
They’re not meant to stand in the corner
of a white room
while their daughters are led, bewildered
to a white couch covered in paper.’
It’s unflinching and it’s fiercely tender. It’s heart-breaking, the belittlement of the one who knows her role is to protect, but who is made to ‘stand in the corner’ ( and just think on the rightness of that line-break). It’s clear-eyed, and dry eyed, and utterly committed. ‘Bewildered’ is a wonderful choice of word. It has the full force of its old roots. This child is be-wildered, led astray and lost. Mothers, says the poet, without sentimentality or condescension, ‘should be at home / with bags full of knitting ; / a kiss.’ There should be the comfort and consolation of pattern, and softness and warmth and wool, and the blessing of a kiss; not this antiseptic cold white nakedness.
The second poem is really a sequence of four poems that start in a psychiatric unit where
‘Dee Dee is out on the hospital roof.
From here, Liverpool is a story
she can read from beginning to end.’
I have suffered from vertigo. I don’t think anyone has come as close as Clare does to describing it:
‘the slow slide of of your stomach
into a corner of itself……
the milk – white explosion
of a moment that could last forever’
There’s that dreadful temptation of falling, ‘and the sound of the cheer is your big day out’. But two guards and three nurses ungently bring her down. Later, in the crazy blue light, Dee Dee and a narrator who has had no sleep for weeks:
‘watch TV in the small hours,
We know all the tunes to Ceefax,
baiting the glaze-eyed agency staff
with high-risk jokes…..
Dee Dee and me are having a laugh
dreaming plans for O.T. —
for the deeply depressed.
A barebacked parachute jump.’
You may be institutionalised, restrained with your cheek pushed into the grit of a concrete roof, your arms forced up your back, a knee between your shoulders, and your breath ‘a necklace of tiny red gasps’ ;and then how will you fight back? How will you reclaim your sanity? Through the black humour of the beleaguered, of the trenches. One flew over the cuckoo’s nest. Survivors’ dark jokes. ‘In there / you could die laughing’. Unsparing and caring. And I flinch. This is what it can take to stay alive. This is the poetry of resilience. I don’t know anyone else who does it so well, with such care and craft and love.
She tells why, too; it’s not comfortable to be told. Poetry shouldn’t be comfortable, should it. It’s
‘because that one afternoon
when I nailed my own voice to the air
and because there was no-one listening
and through it all
and the sound of cars passing
I do not believe in silence.’
I’m just going to say thank you to Clare for sending me one new poem, which she says, reprises an earlier one. It came very close to me did this poem. It made me cry. And then it stood me up and brushed me down and sent me on my way. Like mothers do. Here it is.
Not baby, nor boy.
Love cheered you back
but could not save you.
That was a hard thing to learn.
I don’t know when
you re-learned to walk;
when the words you had lost
returned. But I know from the start,
there was something about you –
hope had you marked –
and if I could paint,
then I might stand a chance
at your eyes.
Who needs monkey bars,
or playing the drums
One hand has guided the other.
Your body has been its own brother;
boy with a face like the shore, oh
the question mark of your arm!
I guess time will tell
whether obstacles make a boy
fall. Or leap higher.
Oh boy full of wonder.
Oh head full of thunder.
You’ve a right to your anger –
but you’ve more of a right
to those eyes.
Like she’s written earlier. ‘What I’m really saying is – / our ability to care for each other, / to stand with each other, / it’s all we have / in the end‘. And so it is.
One thing before we go. As of now, I believe, Clare Shaw is a Fellow of the Royal Literary Society. This means she is charged to help university students to think and write clearly; to rid them of circumlocution, pedantry and verbosity; to enrich their lexis and streamline their syntax; to see and say plainly. Lucky students, I say.
You’ll be wanting to buy her collections. Please make a note of them before you go. I don’t do handouts. See you next week. Without breaking down in the middle. Fingers crossed.
Straight ahead: [Bloodaxe 2006] £7.95
Head on : [Bloodaxe 2012] £8.95
If you have any cash left, you could do much worse than buy
Englaland : Steve Ely [Smokestack 2015] £8.95
Edgelands : Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts [Jonathan Cape 2011]