Magic toyshops…..a polished gem (9) Gaia Holmes


“Comparison is the thief of joy”

–Teddy Roosevelt

“You wake up one morning. You check in with Facebook. Skim the latest updates. And there it is: another writer announcing their latest prize-winning success, followed by several hundred ‘likes’ and congratulatory comments. You add your own, with a smiley or two.”    ( you can feel a ‘but‘ straining at its leash, can’t you?).

Thus Robin Houghton in her excellent guest post for Anthony Wilson’s blog recently ….I’ll leave the link at the end, because it’s well worth a read.

It certainly chimed with me. Robin’s post takes a cool look at the business of envying the success of others. Two things go through my mind. One is an acknowledgement of the ‘why not me?’ feeling. The other is the memory of the pleasure other people’s success has given me. Kim Moore, Jane Clarke, Keith Hutson, Pam Thompson, Wendy Pratt…their pleasure has made my life richer. And, I think, envy is on a spectrum that, at its other end, contains rich and positive feelings and emotions. I might ‘envy’ a writer who can do things that I can’t…but then I can qualify that. I can believe: ‘I can’t do that YET’. We learn from the company we keep. Simon Armitage said something at a workshop he ran a couple of weeks ago and it has stuck. He says that the only piece of advice he’ll give his students without reservation is : READ. How are you going to get better at your trade unless you spend time in the company of people who are better than you? Certainly, in the company of people who are different from you, who can do things that you know you can’t do. YET. I guess it comes down to the difference between ‘I wish that was me instead of you’ at one end of the spectrum and ‘what will I have to do to join you?’ at the other.

Here’s an example. One of my mentors, Hilary Elfick, told me once that all my poems are silent films, full of visual imagery and without sound. That brought me up short. I was reminded of it this week at the open mic. I compere at The Puzzle Hall Inn in Sowerby Bridge; one of my favourite Calderdale poets, Tom Cleary [(un)discovered gem No.5, 30/11/2014] was reading, and I was struck by the way sound matters in his poetry. There was a train ‘snaredrumming over the points’; there were the RUC, looking to split scalps, ‘the tap and slap of truncheons on their palms’. I thought: ‘I wish I could do that’. He does first lines, too. The kind that defy you not to read on…’her first husband fell into a machine at work’ or ‘since the scream he hasn’t moved’. And I thought. ‘I wish I could do that’. The answer to which is: well, work at it if you want it. Otherwise stop feeling sorry for yourself.

And thus, after much procrastination and delay, we come to my guest for today. I’m going to use a lot of analogies to explain what her work does for me. I hope they work.

QUEEN peter blake

Whenever I read Gaia Holmes’ poems, or hear her read, I’m put in mind of the world and work of Peter Blake. To nail my colours to the mast, this image of Alice is how I’d picture Gaia’s narrative voice. Not quite other-worldly, but knowing things I have no immediate access to, and aware that the world is strange and lovely and that it can make us vulnerable. It’s a voice that makes me think of the doughty, unworldly, resourceful, compassionate clear-eyed heroines of folk tales. The ones who have no expectation of the kindness of  stepmothers and stepfathers and spiteful siblings, who are stoic about their work among the ashes, who undertake unnerving journeys through forests to the hen’s leg houses of cruel aunts, who understand that everything you are given is a gift to be used for the betterment of the world….all that.

The Toy Shop 1962 Peter Blake born 1932 Purchased 1970

I just realised that I’ve been enthusiastically banging on about this and that, and altogether forgetting the magic toyshop analogy.  I saw the Granada film version before I read the book.. It starred the unnerving Tom Bell. It’s completely unavailable anywhere in any format as far as I can make out. Why? It was great. As is the book. I love the arbtrariness of it all…the arbitrariness of the folk-tale. Once upon a time there was a sister and two brothers; their mother and father went on a journey and never came back because they died suddenly. So the children came down in the world and went to live in a toyshop. C.S.Lewis’s siblings have to learn swordplay and archery and war, and then become kings and queens. Carter’s have to play at puppetry, and at Leda and the swan. Carter’s tale has a terrible erotic charge among the feathers and the wedding satins and the dancing red-haired aunt. I think of toyshops and orphan girls when I read Gaia Holmes poems. Not all of them. But enough. Let’s meet her, shall we.

Gaia Holmes is a Luddenden-born poet whose work digs beneath the surface of mundane, urban life to reveal a remarkable seam of exoticism. Her carnival of characters – bingo callers, burger sellers, critical theorists – are all cast from the least expected places. She is a graduate of Huddersfield University’s English with Creative Writing BA, and has previously made a living as a busker, a cleaner, a gallery attendant,an oral historian, a lollypop lady , a poet in residence at Bradford Library, a free lance writer and Creative writing lecturer.
As well as being a familiar face on the local poetry scene, Gaia Holmes is also known nationally. She has read at literary festivals throughout Britain and beyond. Her poem ‘Claustrophobia’ was highly commended in the ‘best individual poem’ category of the Forward Poetry Prize, 2007 and ‘A homesick truckie In The Algarve’ was the featured poem in Frieda Hughes’ weekly literary column in ‘The Times’ (May 2007). Currently she runs the Halifax-based writing workshop ‘Igniting the spark’, and hosts Themes For Dreamers’, a fortnightly show (sundays 4-6pm) on Phoenix FM (Calderdale’s community radio station) along with William Thirsk Gaskill and Dave Higginson and featuring a flavorsome blend of music, poetry and other literary things. ‘Often we give away prizes; broken kettles, muses and poetry books. Often we press the wrong buttons or say the wrong things.’ she says. And they do. Being a guest is a rare and wonderful experience. Take it from me.

[The narrator exits stage left (because that’s where his sympathies lie) and returns two days later]

You should be reading this on Sunday night. At this rate you’ll be lucky if it arrives on Monday, and even if it does, it could be more incoherent than usual. How do these young poets manage to travel and travel and still seem lucid? I’ve only driven 500 miles and my head is now full of warm damp wool. Still, if anything will wake me up it’s the poems of Gaia Holmes; here we go.

First of all, I always misremember Gaia’s poems. When I remember them, I remember something like a magic toyshop, something slightly ramshackle and magical, full of awkward corners and odd surprises and surreal pilings on of impossible detail, the wacky inventiveness of one who would clear her life of the tidemarks and dullings of old lovers with Cillit-Bang, and the crazy imaginings of the salacious neighbour who thinks the poet ‘snorts cocaine, sleeps in a coffin,  /  eats dead kittens drowned in gin’ . I  invariably ‘remember’ feather and patchouli, and saffron lampshades, and the interiors of the cover of her first collection. This one:


And here’s a thing. If you want to buy it via Amazon the cheapest will cost you £15.00 + p&p. The most expensive is currently about £65.00, which, ironically, means that since the first print run is finished, Gaia probably can’t afford to replace her own copy when she loses it, or when it falls to pieces, or when she loses it, or when someone steals it. Whichever is first.

But as soon as I open up her her poems and read, rather than rely on this memory then before long I’ll be chilled and close to tears. There’s a lot of ice; there’s even an Ice Hotel. There’s the cold of loneliness and love gone wrong, and broken things that might be hearts or dreams that make you think twice about walking in bare feet. There’s the orphan voice of a narrator who sees things that no-one seems to notice her seeing. Like this.

The Allure Of Frost
Boxing day.
No fire in the grate and unopened presents
stacked around the base of the tree and fairy lights muted,
switched off, and the brandy that swells the fruit starting to eat
the cake in its tin and all the mirrors doused with tea towels
and your raw-eyed mother keening into a pillow in her bedroom
and too many men in black whispering and nodding
and I don’t know what the rosary is and whether to curtsey
to the priests when I hand them their tea
and the phrase ‘fruits of thy womb’ seem too ripe and too rich
for this and, Mary mother of God, I don’t know
how to cross myself and fear I’m invoking the devil
and the scent of death’s so thick
that it’s tainted the water and it’s heavy in the curtains
making them bend the rail
and your lips taste of the oils that grease your dead sister
and when I kiss you, you push me away and I want to spit
and weep and slap the corpse where she lies in her coffin
all done-up with hair grips and lipstick,
her sunken cheeks plumped out with wads of cotton wool
and the rictus of sin softened
by the crust of Rimmel Natural Beige powdering her face
and it’s so hot in here
that the cheese is sweating and the butter is liquid.
The chocolate coins are dripping from the tree.
Your Aunt’s un-bitten sandwiches
are curling upwards on her plate
and the lilies are wilting and stinking in their vases
and the cat stands quivering and retching
against the cold crack beneath the back door.
Outside the frost, not knowing any difference,
continues to sparkle. And I’d like to go out there.
I’d like to stand in it until my feet turn blue.

I think this poem has everything in it that I think of as ‘Gaia’s poems’. The piling on and on of sensory detail, the Alice in Wonderland, or folktale, sense that the logic of things is wrong, the wistfulness, the vulnerablity, and the pluck of a girl who will stand in a sparkling frost till her feet turn blue and the world becomes real again. Lovely. It makes me think of Richard Dadd’s fairy feller. I’m not sure why, but indulge me. I do like a picture every so often.


And then there’s a more worldly voice. I’m struggling to make up my mind about which poem to choose next, because I’ve been so many to choose from, and her newer poems are quite hefty (which I like) and I think that three is probably enough to make you want to go and pay £65.00 for that first collection. However, I plump for this one.


You reach a certain stage in your life
when you seem to spend a lot of time
holding other people’s babies.

At parties, the bottles of M & S berry crushes
on the kitchen table
outnumber the bottles of wine
and it seems you’re the only one drinking.

Tonight you’re nursing your second glass of Chianti,
warming it against your chest
as the other guests sip Mocktails
and talk of teething rings and Farley’s rusks
and you’re trying to find a way in, but failing

and one of the kids is doing that cute thing again
with his hat pulled down to his nose
and everyone starts taking photos
and clucking and cooing and you take one too
just to fit in, even though you know
that you’ll delete it later
in favour of a landscape
or something you can understand
or something you can have

and you want a cigarette but no one’s smoking
so you go and stand outside the front door in the sleet
to smoke a roll-up but it gets wet
and you’re sucking on nothing

so you go back in. You cut through the branny fug
of milk and nappies with your reek of smoke
and they look at you cow-eyed with pity
and you know they’ve been talking about you
and one of them says “It’s not too late at forty”

and you mumble something and walk into the kitchen
to pour yourself another bigger glass of wine
and you sit there for a while listening to them talking
and think about the things they have:
the husbands, the high chairs, the family-sized toasters,
the pairs of tiny red wellies lined up by the door,
the huge American fridges
covered with glitter-crusted playschool pictures
and you think about your lack.

You think about your cat that moved next door,
your scrawny Basil plants withering on the windowsill,
the bread you bake always turning black

and you go back into the lounge,
move mounds of small, pale woollen things off a chair
and sit down wishing you had some ballast in your pockets,
wishing you were not made of straw and dry things,
wishing you were not quite so old and flammable
because they’re all looking at you
and it seems you’ve turned into
the hollow witch levitating in the corner,
that lonely, awful thing
that they could have become.

The first time I heard this, a couple of months ago, it took me aback and took off in new directions. It’s a great poem to read aloud, working the breathing-through of long, burgeoning sentences, which I’m currently addicted to. But a second reading picks out the trademark observation, those sensory images that are always surprisingly right…that branny fug, for instance, and the incredibly frustrating business of sucking on a wet roll-up, sucking on nothing, surrounded by Farley’s rusks and Milton, and milky babies, and mounds of small, pale woollen things. So far so ‘Guardian’ till the poem takes a tilt into something darker, and it’s the darkness of the folktale and the fairy godmother who may have things in her heart that you don’t want to know about, wishing she were not made of straw and dry things  /  the hollow witch levitating. Don’t tell me that last verb didn’t catch you out.

I’ve come to sudden decision. I’m going to stop explaining, or trying to explain,I’m going to stop reviewing and evaluating and being teacherish. I’m still jet-lagged, or whatever the word is that decribes the brainscramble of driving too fast for too long. So, with no more ado, I’m simply going to share two more poems with you.

Rain Charm For Stirling Street

Oh, the itch and nag of it-
this rainless month
when sapless slugs
fruit our yards like prunes
and the lawns
in the salubrious parts of town
are brown whispers.

Even inside
red roses yellow
and spill their petals
before they’ve had time to bloom.
Hard green mangoes
rot before they’ve ripened
and in the fridge
milk thickens and clots
in the necks of bottles,
the cheese gets louder and louder
until it roars.

And lately, we have had
restless nights too hot to touch,
deserts between us in our beds,
Sirocco winds blistering our dreams,
our waking bodies
black with fruit flies.

All you sun-junkies,
you lovers of deck chairs
and Ambre Solaire, forgive me.
I am taking action.
I am standing behind the kitchen door
wobbling a cross hatch saw
to make the sound of thunder.
I am cooking lightning
in the microwave.
I am pouring rice on to a saucer
to make the sound of rain.
I am summoning a storm.

You know what? I believe Gaia Holmes can make rain. I know that cheeses can roar. I take that as the West Riding dialect word for ‘weeping’. ‘Give ovver roaring or I’ll give you summat to roar ovver’ my Gran would say. In a kindly, apple-cheeked way. Gaia Holmes can write bittersweet, tender love poems, too. And does. They make me want to gather ‘her’ up, whoever is the her of these poems, whoever is the ‘I’; I want the world to set itself right and more kindly.

Inspired by the paintings of Andrea Kowch

My life is full of gaps.
The barbed wire fell away
from our fences
leaving rotten posts.
Wind shucked the glass
from the greenhouse frame
and rabbits gnawed our apple trees
to stumps.

The turnips and beetroot we planted
are soft and rotten beneath the dirt
and the dry-teated cows
can give us nothing.

We sell what we can: rare eggs with no yolk,
scant scrapes of honey, the last plump fish
from our dying lake.

and there’s not enough love
in my wrists
to make bread.

In bed at night
my husband’s hands
fall through me.

When I read these poems I have to remind myself of the subversive truths of the folktales, of the resilience of folk, and that, somewhere and somehow, the innocent and the loving will endure and triumph. I believe that, as Gaia writes in another poem, in lines I hope she’ll forgive me for taking out of context:

Tomorrow I’ll be out at dawn
shovelling sunlight into sacks,
siphoning it into jars and bottles
I will pipe the edges of his world
with gold.

I think it will be the gold of the sky in Peter Blake’s Alice;  the cold house of the toyshop will be hot with flames and we will all run over the ridge tiles in the night with not an idea where it’ll all end. I hope you enjoyed this as much as I have. I think I have an idea for next Sunday’s post, but I can’t be sure. Still, you all looked very smart today, and I’m proud of you all, and next week, as a treat, we’ll have a no-uniform day. Let’s say ‘Thankyou, Miss Holmes’, and then off you go. If you want to buy her books she only has one at the moment. Maybe you can save up for the other. Here’s the detail.

Dr James Graham’s Celestial Bed  [Comma press 2006]  via Amazon: anything from £15 – £65

Lifting the piano with one hand      [Comma Press 2013]  £7.99

Oh….and you can follow Gaia and read more of her poems and other things via this link.

oops…nearly forgot. You can read the full text of Robin Houghton’s ‘On Literary Envy’ from July 19th this year, via Anthony Wilsons’s wonderful poetry blog at


6 thoughts on “Magic toyshops…..a polished gem (9) Gaia Holmes

  1. Gaia’s poems are stunning. The ‘Ballast’ poem is a little world of its own and I love phrases like ‘cow-eyed with pity.’ I’ll be looking out for more. Thanks for sharing, John! x


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