Unfinished business

David 2

Who knows where the time goes? A year ago I wrote about ‘Our David’s Pictures’. Tomorrow, it’s our David’s birthday again; he’d be forty four. I’ve found myself writing about him again during this year, particularly about how he died. But a month ago we were redecorating, and I had to move a big old wardrobe. Behind it, neatly wrapped up, I re-found this painting. It’s four feet by two, so it shouldn’t slip in and out of my mind as it does over the years.

A couple of weeks after David’s funeral my good friend Bob Hogarth, the Art Adviser said: why don’t you do a painting of him? Why don’t you paint his life? I set out on a collage of maps of the city, photographs of his childhood, images of a small attache case and a strange ugly ring that he’d left on the top floor of that block of flats behind the Merrion Centre, an old atlas open at a map of Africa. Buddleia. Hydrangeas. I worked on it for a week or so. And then stopped. Just a layer of collage and thinned down acrylics. Every couple of years I’ll have a look at it, and resolve to finish it. But I don’t think I want to. I suspect I understand why.

Anyway, for his birthday, I don’t want to think about endings and finishings. Let me share a beginning with you. It’s a complicated story, but the core of it is that we were at yet another stage of the usually ponderous adoption process, which suddenly accelerated quite wonderfully and frighteningly, and we found ourselves sitting in the small living room of a foster-mum, and our David, who wasn’t yet Our David, four months old and surrounded by love, was having his bath. He wasn’t called David, either. He was Conrad Hamilton Gervaise Irving (no surname), and just Conrad, for convenience. When you adopt a child you’re not supposed to keep his or her given names. Since the truth is that the amazing and enlightened social worker short-circuited every due process that evening, and that we drove home up the M1 with Our David in a carry-cot on the backseat of a Ford Anglia, it didn’t seem so transgressive to keep Conrad as his middle name. David Conrad Foggin. Here’s one more poem. Happy birthday.

This much
I remember:
the small neat creases, the crook of each elbow,
the crook of each knee, the soft place
between your neck and your shoulder,
and the tight whorls of dark hair
tattooing your skull, and the delight,
the wide pink of your open mouth
as you came shedding light and bright water
out of your bath, how you sank
in the fleece of a fat white towel,
and you lay on your back on her knee
and you danced,
how you pedalled and trod on the air,
and how pale the soles of your feet.
You were mangoes, grapes, you were apricots,
all your round warm limbs, your eyes.
How your name made you smile;
how we said it over and over, your name;
how we wanted to make that smile.
And I remember
how we would take you away,
and why your name could not come,
why we must leave it behind,
and how we feared for your smile.

A cabinet of curiosities…an (un)discovered gem [8]: Yvonne Reddick

I feel like Bleak House’s Esther Summerson this morning. I have a great deal of difficulty beginning my portion of these pages. Maybe because here we are, at the solstice, the skies are grey, there’s a cold wind, our lovely cat died on Friday, I woke up too soon after going to sleep too late, I want some sunshine, I want to eat breakfast outside, I’m feeling sorry for myself………..Well, we flag, from time to time, I guess. And then I think of today’s special guest, and my spirits soar. I should be playing Johnny Nash. I can see clearly now, I can see all obstacles in my way. The ideas begin to dance. Phew. (Does everyone do this, write absolutely anything just to get started, no matter what? Does anyone then not delete/cross it out?)

Anyway, to the point.

Cabinet_of_Curiosities

The last time I saw my guest for today, Yvonne Reddick, she was reading her highly commended and totally commendable poem about Roman soldiers in the streets, or what would be the streets, of 1st Century York. She read with beautiful precision and control, every consonant given its due weight, every pause and check falling exactly right. She always does. None of your dying falls and melancholy poeticism for Yvonne. So that’s one thing I like her for.

The first time I met her was (regular readers, you can now roll your eyes and get it over with) at a Poetry Business Writing Day. After all, that’s where I get all my new poetry and poets.I may be wrong, but I think that was the one where she brought a distinctly eccentric poem to workshop. The title gives you due warning: Holocene Extinction Memorial. Nineteen irregular stanzas, each of which might be an idiosyncratic label in a room full of unnervingly strange exhibits.

‘The Indefatigable Galapagos Mouse from Indefatigable Island wants to be invincible’

‘The Hacaath of Vancouver struggle with smallpox’

‘The quagga hopes Burchell’s zebra remembers her’

I have no idea if she made some of them up, or all, or none; I could Google them but I have no desire to find out. The thing is, she read with such emphatic conviction that I had no choice but to be convinced. I have no idea if anyone else was as taken as I, or even if it was ‘a Good Poem’. All I know is  it was unexpected, and memorable, and that’s not the case with everything you hear in a workshop. It was like the poem equvalent of the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford before it was tidied up and curated into rationality. Like the cabinets of curiosities beloved of the incumbents of Victorian rectories.

pitt-rivers-museum

We can get used to all sorts of fashions and default settings in poetry, getting comfortable with psalms, and sestinas, and free verse, and minimalism, and stanzaic bits of ekphrasis and sonnets, and narratives. Which reminds me of a writing course I went on where elegant lyricim and exquisitely crafted velleities were the name of the game, and, en passant, one lady of letters remarked, languidly enough: ‘The anecdotal, the bus-stop conversation, has its own charm.’ by which I understood that it has no place in serious poetry at all. This set me to think of my own predeliction for narrative in poetry, and my inability to engage with, or be engaged by, self-referential stylistic games with fleeting moments, and the fragility of, say, a lemon. It also made me think of what does engage me. Emotional and intellectual surprise and challenge, That grabs me. I like novels like ‘The name of the rose’, and ‘Tristram Shandy’. I like MacCaig’s outrageous similes. I like the Metaphysicals. I like early Tony Harrison. I like ‘The Waste land’. I like to be out of my comfort zone, put slightly off -balance; I like creative disturbance. And so I came to like Yvonne Reddick’s idiosyncratic take on the world and its multifariousness.

Sometimes we ask of a poet we can’t pigeonhole:  ‘Where’s she coming from?’ Well, how about starting with her biography. Yvonne  grew up between Glasgow, Aberdeen, Kuwait City and Berkshire. She is an academic and writer, currently based in Preston, where she is Research Fellow in Modern English and World Literatures at the Institute for Black Atlantic Research at the University of Central Lancashire. She’s also Visiting Fellow, at the Centre for the Study of International Slavery, University of Liverpool. After reading English at Cambridge, she studied for her PhD and began her academic career at the University of Warwick, where she also published her first pamphlet of poetry., LandForms, which was published by Seapressed in 2012.

One reviewer was clearly taken with the challenge of dealing with what I see as an intriguing erudition. The violence he does to syntax and semantics is a joy worth sharing. Yvonne says she didn’t understand it. Me neither. But it is enjoyable.

‘The binary is itself the uncomfortable site of negotiation, laying waste to and galvanizing its own division and divination
‘ Mostly by stanza, these lines betray navigational lyric, resplendent with lean overtures of isle:’

Well, there you go; decipher as you will. Yvonne’s research has seen her trying to decipher Ted Hughes’s notebooks on horoscopes and necromancy, reading David Livingstone’s beautiful copperplate writing in Zambia, and translating previously unanalysed Congolese writers from French. Deerhart, her next poetry pamphlet, will be published by Knives, Forks and Spoons Press in 2016. You can see now why you should be prepared to be, with me, happily just outside your comfort zone. You should also understand that this is no cut and paste anthologiser of the strange, cryptic and bizarre. Like another favourite poet of mine – Julie Mellor – here’s a researcher who brings an imaginative sensitivity and a careful craftsmanship to her work. And it’s time that was given its chance to persuade you to share my enthusiasm. Here goes.

Dry Bird

I’m called shinbone flute-singer, lyre-stringer,
August dry bird, jar fly.

My body is soundbox, drumskin, motor,
I tap my timbal – a ratcheting vibraslap
revving to a tom-tom.
I brace against the branch; wings and voice strain open –
when I amp it up to a whirring howl
my ballad could burst your eardrum.
My chirring fills woodlands, porches,
your sleepless house!

On windscreens, in gardens,
my kind lie in drifts,
lyric cicadas exhausted from calling.

This one drew me in, first with its sounds and textures -it’s great to read aloud – but also for the recognition of the shock of the NOISE of cicadas on a hot day in a steep sided valley. ‘Exhausted from calling’. Yes. For me this poems nails the sheer senselessness of that daylong racket. This next one takes me into a different climate, and a different voice.

My Grandmother Was A Pink-Footed Goose

I

I squint north –
clouds like the sails
of a goosewinging boat.

I blow on my fists,
feel the scrunched membrane
meshing index to thumb.
Nails press like quills,
as if each finger
could sprout a pinion
and my thumb could end
in a bastard wing.

Where are the flocks?

II

My Mémé was bird-bone hollow, all ribstrakes and flapping bald elbows, flesh slouched over a V of sternum. Shallow breath-râles, knuckly birdleg fingers. Her English evaporated as her mind nested the tumor. The remains: ‘J’ai ces … hallucinations’ of pools and oceans, my father webbing through air, his hands in outspread sheaves of primaries.

Plume-cinder ash when we burned Mémé. The south-easterly hush-hushed it north.
III

A horizon speck
sharpens into focus
as a wishbone V.
Flying at altitude,
geese pant each second,
their heartbeats must blur –
how do they snatch breath to call?

The names of their nest-sites
freeze air as I voice them:
Spitsbergen. Hvannalindir.

Touchdown of lipgloss feet
on saurian legs.
Parched beaks dapping
in algal-green pools.
The mere pours
off watermarked necks.

I wondered if anything could return
from those altitudes –

here are pink-footed geese
crying hark hark.

I think that’s a good place to stop on this undecided equinoctal afternoon, the mere pouring off the watermarked necks, the lipgloss feet, clouds like goosewinging boats, and the glad relief of the pink-footed geese crying ‘hark hark’.

geese

I hope you enjoyed these as much as me. I hope you’re happily just out of your comfort zone.  Yvonne Reddick…..thank you for being my guest.

Next week there’ll be a small informal ceremony. You’re all more than welcome.

In praise of cats

scully r.i.p 001

Our twenty three year old Scully’s final sleep. Looks like all the other she’s had. They don’t know how to look anything else but comfortable with their own bodies, cats. For several years she shared the house with two other cats, but saw them out with apparent equanimity.

All her life she shared the garden with the many birds that come to it; ate a good number of them, too. We were cross when it was a robin or a wren or a greenfinch or a great tit. Once we thought she’d caught a woodpecker, but it turned out it had immolated itself by flying into the bedroom window, and thus she was forgiven, though I never forgave her for the time she idly plucked a wren out of the air on its way to feed its fledglings, and we lost a generation of wrens. They’re nesting again, and now will be undisturbed.

She had a symbiotic relationship with the numerous pigeons and collared doves that nest in the holly. The pigeons have been promiscuous and profligate over the years, often apparently too fat and aldermanic to take off after landing, and meeting their quietus in an exlosion of feathers, but the rest just carrying on breeding more generations for her to snack on. I fear that next year they’ll mass umolested on the lawn, and the holly will collapse under their weight.

Scully, for all your increasingly taxing dietary demands over the years, for all your insistence on us waking early and inappropriately, for all the accidents that left marks on our posh landing carpet, we’ll miss you rotten. Here’s a poem for you. I imagine you looking quizzical and condescending and puzzled all at once. Like that cat in the Eddie Izzard sketch, regarding the change of cat food. ‘And this is? New and improved? Is it really. Is it really. Anyway. I’m going out.’

Everyone writes at least one poem about cats
Cats don’t care one way or the other.
You cannot teach cats tricks;
what cannot be taught
cannot be put to work.
They teach us to open doors,
and tins, the importance of fire,
and where to sit.
Cats are elastic, stretch for ever,
curl into a perfect ball,
smile like dolphins in their sleep.
Cats spend their first weeks
in a manic blur, do everything
but fly. Then learn to do not much.
They can sleep eighteen hours in a day.
And do. Never seem lazy
or inelegant, though they will play
with food. If it’s still alive.
Cats spend half an hour a day
in eating, five minutes at a time.
Hours getting comfortable,
more time simply wandering about,
sussing things, beating the bounds.
Some time being private
covering their tracks, and stuff.
A very short time killing food –
– pigeons, blackbirds, rabbits, rats –
and longer crouching by it,
growling. Their wide yawn
is the red dream that shivers
all quick small things.

Night night, Scully. Sleep well.