Tipping the scales: Polished gem [13]….Hilary Elfick

I read this passage today in Roy Marshall’s poetry blog. It gave me the hook I need to start today’s cobweb strand:

“My new poem also owes a debt to those who have helped me develop my craft.  In a list that might read a little like an Oscar acceptance speech, I can think of writing workshop facilitators, writing partners, friends, mentors, editors. All have added something to my understanding, or helped me look at what I have written and see it in a different way.  Disagreeing with feedback and learning to stick to your guns can make you more sure of your work, and being able to explain why you don’t want to change a poem, at least to yourself, is as useful as realizing that maybe you could make suggested changes”
Here’s the link to the full article.    https://roymarshall.wordpress.com/2015/11/11/poetry-ego-success-rejection-a-few-thoughts-and-reminders-to-self/

Writing trip May 2013 128 (2)

So, here we go. Not quite an Oscar acceptance speech. A tribute. Lucky thirteen. Lucky for me. I’ve written about my inspirations before, but until now I’ve not said thank you, publicly, to the one who tipped the scales between my feeling sort of inspired, and actually putting in the graft, taking the whole business of writing seriously. Why the picture? Because you can’t always put a possibly-life-changing moment in a specific location AND a specific time AND reach into the magic cabinet of a virtual library, and lift out a photograph, and say: it was here. But I can. It was on a Thursday afternoon in June 2013, on the terrace of this blue house in Relleu. This is where Hilary Elfick sat me down and told me, very firmly, that I was to put together a bunch of poems and send them to a publisher. It was there she said she I had a recognisable ‘voice’ and that I would, come hell or high water, have a collection out, one day. I still haven’t. But I still believe I shall, because Hilary made me believe it. Other people have said it, and it’s nice, but believing is different. So if this week’s cobweb strand is a bit fulsome, forgive me. I lack objectivity when it comes Hilary Elfick.

She’s one of the few poetry friends I have who are actually my age or older. She’s not much older than me in years; she’s incorrigibly young-spirited; in terms of lived lives she’s one of those people who makes me feel incorrigibly inexperienced. It’s a feeling I am not unhappy about. I first met her that week in June 2013. Within what felt like moments she was showing me images on her i.pad. I’d never seen one before. She enthused about the way she could be swapping edits with a collaborator in Australia at the click of a cursor, she had me marvelling at a crystal clear image the head of venomous and frighteningly beautiful snake. What was exciting her..and then me…was that in the dark centre of the snake’s eye was a pin sharp image of the photographer, taking a photograph of a snake that was equally focussed on him. It had the same unnerving stillness and endlessness of the image you create by standing between two parallel mirrors. It was the first time I’d ever met someone slap in the middle of writing a new collection. Not curating existing poems. Actually in the middle of writing them, responding to images sent half-way round the world from an international prize-winning photographer. I thought it was a bit like wandering into a conversation between Ted Hughes and Fay Godwin. I told you I lack objectivity. Bear with me.


About a year ago I wrote a review for The North (my first review, ever). On the edge…a collaboration with David Head. I wanted to find a way of describing or defining Hilary’s poetry, and the way that for me the cumulative effect of the poems was more telling than individual poems. I think I got close-ish with this:

Hilary Elfick was, in one of her many lives, a BBC producer, and I fancy this book is in the spirit of the BBC of Charles Parker’s radio ballads. It has that blend of empathy, artistic form and documentary that grows from years of attentive listening to the voices of others. It reminds me, too,of the documentary writing of Tony Parker who set out to recue the voices of ‘the dumb [who]go down in history and disappear’.

What’s missing from this is the encyclopaedic quality of her work. She reminds me of one of those doughty Victorian women explorers, who had probably met Darwin, or stowed away on The Beagle, or documented the growth of rare lichens in Iceland. Within minutes of meeting her, it seemed, I’d been introduced to a rare and dangerous snake, learned about her collaboration with David Malikoff (internationally renowned photographer: look him up), about the Strangler Fig, about the migrations of birds of the southern hemisphere, about Norfolk reed beds, about tectonic plates, about an Australian bee-keeper who is reclaiming a swathe of raw land. And she was making me laugh. And then she did something unnerving. She gave me a draft of a new poem, and asked me for feedback. (Bear in mind I was already out of my depth among published writers and the widely travelled). And then she changed bits of it; she took me that seriously; she trusted me. Who wouldn’t fall in love with that. here’s part of it, from her long sequence, Red Hill

The Sydney merchants in their disrespect
gave this name to a river gum so charged with grace.
She’s in a grown-up city; let us call her by
her grown up name: Syzigium Francisii.
And see how they have wrapped her round with spikes
to stop the cockies and the starlings resting, nesting.
Alone on her small island she shouts for all of us
against sterility: how they will edit out our baggage
if we let them. The microscopic creatures in my skin,
my nails, my hair belong to me, and if sometimes
I need to cough or shout, excrete or weep
or scratch then so I shall.

This has the quality I was trying to pin down, to find a phrase for. Lyrical documentary. Or Documentary lyricism. Hilary’s poems almost always tell stories, they educate, they inform. They are wide ranging. When you know more about her, you understand why. Here’s her Poetry Society profile.

When and where were you born? Warwickshire, England, 1940
Can you say a bit about where you live (and work)? I live and work in Cambridge, UK, and Whangaparaoa, New Zealand, spending about 5 months a year in each. The rest of the time I am in Australia or Spain.
Who or what made you interested in poetry and why? I won a school poetry competition when I was 7, but it was Byron’s Ride on a Wild Horse (from Mazeppa) that turned me on. Plus Robert Louis Stevenson, read to me from an early age.
Which poems or poets would you recommend to other members?  Charles Causley, RS Thomas, George Mackay Brown can still move me. Today’s poets – John F Deane, Michael Longley, Paul Farley all make me ache to write like that.
Have you ever been to a poetry performance/reading? Too often to remember. I have been going to the Aldeburgh Festival almost every year.
Have you written and/or published any poems? My 15th book is just being published. I appear in anthologies, and magazines such as THE SHOp, as well as newspapers such as the Sydney Morning Herald and The Herald Sun (Australia)
Are you part of a poetry community? Many of my friends are poets – all over the world. I have performed my work in several countries and one book is published in Romanian.
What might people be surprised to know about you? That I have flown above the Alps in a hot air balloon and encountered at closest range, unprotected, the largest Eastern Brown snake ever recorded in Australia – one of the ten most deadly.

Well, there you go. And this says nothing about her work in radio, her ocean sailing, her nature reserve guiding, her work in the Maori community, her teaching…I reckon the only things I know more about than her are Rugby league and the visual arts. But it still leaves me feeling like like one of my grandchildren who knows far more than I about Thomas the Tank Engine. It’s no surprise that her poetry is so wide-ranging, as though the world might be inexhaustible, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from trying to exhaust it. So let’s sample some of it. It won’t do her justice, but there’ll be a book list at the end.

There’s a motif that runs right through Hilary’s work, and it’s her passionate concern for ecology coupled with her abiding love of ornithology. Last summer she couldn’t wait to tell me about the orioles and how they didn’t show up at the house of Dutch photographer, Ton Out. She has a weakness for photographers. Here’s an extract from the poem that followed.

Ton’s house in June

Let us sit back on your terrace shaded by the white planks of your roof

And let us sip Rosado while it lasts and half-close our eyes
against the glare of limestone terraces far older than the sea

Let us smile, breathe deep and turn our thoughts to orioles, the way they call,
the way they just appear out of these implacable dry hills

to steal your grapes, juice matting the soft down of their whiskers

….we shift our seats while you tell me about Afghanistan in the eighties
and how the Japanese are hard to comprehend,

Refill our glasses with the grapes the oriels spared last summer
and peer out into these bleached hills sprigged with sage and thyme

For bee-eater and eagle owl, stretching out our arms to marvel at the span
and find it is, on such a day as this, too hot even for them…

almaserra )ct 2013 072

She can do quiet moments of reflective recollection. Like this.


All summers rolled into that one.
The trucks on the embankment behind the chestnuts
and the blackcurrants we stripped with forks,
how we packed them deep with sugar
and you brought out the bowl of yellow crumble
to blanket them.
I don’t remember the garden table,
nor what the dishes looked like
nor what any of us was wearing;
I only remember the sound of the low stream
and the shunting trucks, and the scrape
of our spoons against the last ring of crust
stained with purple, in sight of the bushes
where we’d been sent two hours before,
and you there, you red-faced from the Aga
in your wide apron, us browning in that Summer
which became for me all summers since.

What I particularly like in this is a sense of time and space that is, and is not, precise, where time rolls like shunting trucks. The particularity of blackcurrants ‘stripped with forks’ in the shadows of railway embankment chestnuts, and the elided memories of a day long ago that becomes ‘all summers since’. Just in case you should think that what you can expect is pastoral and faintly nostalgic, you can soon be brought up short. Like this.

At the Edge

If the world were never torn apart

if rocks never burst the air
cracks never opened and old cracks fused

if seas never heaved up to crash and consume
and toss and overwhelm and drown

if the world were smooth as a child’s featherbed
water would lie everywhere
four kilometres deep.

If the ice which topples a bird from its branch
never ground rock to glorious loam,
never chiselled out freshwater lakes
trout streams and salmon runs

if unendurable heat never set small nations
loose from from their moorings
pressing continents to drift like leaves in a pond

(Kazakhstan from Norway,
London from New York at a fingernail’s growth)

then ours would not be the blue planet,
the spinner of tectonic plates, with
Winter, Summer, Springtide, Harvest,
leaf fall and leaf unfurl.

We exist on the edge;
because of the edge we exist.

I’ve always liked. the way this poem celebrates survival and fragility, the impossible balancing act of things, how easy it is to fall out of kilter. I thought of it particularly, and more seriously, tonight, in the aftermath of senseless killings, in the migration of the terrified, of small nations set loose from their moorings, the shifting tectonic plates of humanity. It takes tenacity and love to go on existing, and my friend has both in spades. At the start of the year she was in a boating accident in which she was trapped between the propellors of her boat; she might have drowned. As she’s been recuperating, she’s been to Spain, and written the poem about orioles, she’s been to Orta to pick up a poetry prize, she’s been on her annual pilgrimage to Aldeburgh, she’s collaborating in a mixed arts project, she’s off the Middle East, and then back to NZ. I’ll be seeing her again in June and being blown away and overwhelmed by the sheer energy of the stories. And the expectation that I shall make something of myself. I shall feel 14 again. I’m delighted she’s been my thirteenth guest. I doubt I’ve done her justice, but those who know her will let me know. And I can always rewrite any bits that I have wrong. In the meantime, here’s one final poem from my ‘best of’ selection. It’s one I think of when I read the poems she’s written about the beekeeper and the tender of figs.

Prospero on Caliban

And yet despite myself I watched him covertly.
He’d take his canoe up the flood tide, keep our food store packed
with sprat and gurnard from the shallow sea,
while I kept his ovens burning, burning with the wood he’d gathered there.
He knew the rock ledge in the lagoon where crayfish gather.
He would stand on flat rocks watching them,
or lie there in the shallow water, waiting.
And then he‘d drive his outrigger far beyond the reef to catch
our barracuda, stingray, kingfish, even conger eel.
I watched him paddle, dip and steer, play fishing like a game of patience.

He had his tools of course, those that his mother left him –
his arrows, darts, his sling, his bow, his noose, even the wooden chisel
he clenched between his teeth, diving in the sea.

He found wild turnip, cabbage, berry, seed, sweet scented grass,
mushroom, even fernroot. That was our staple then.

And yet each meal that made me strong served only
to refresh my mind, restore to me my studies.

from An Ordinary Storm [University of Otago Press and Oversteps Press]

This verse play used paintings by Alan O’Cain, the composer Richard Morris, actors from three
countries, instrumentalists and solo contralto, and students from the University

Next week I’m hoping we’ll be exploring the ins and outs and ups and downs of ekphrastic poetry. Yes, I’m worried, too. But it depends on the availabilty of Polished Gem Number 14, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed. In the meantime you can Google ‘ekphrasis’ and confuse yourselves. More profitably, you can read more of Hilary Elfick. Here’s your reading list. Jawdropping. And you can preview her latest collaboration; it’s a stunner. Here’s the link


red hill

Books by Hilary Elfick

Folk and Vision, Hart-Davis 1971
The Horse Might Sing, Envoi 1990
Unexpected Spring, Envoi 1992
Going Places, Envoi 1994
Bush Track, Guildford Poets Press 1999
Harpoon the Breeze, Guildford Poets Press 1999
The Sleeping Warrior (novel) Cromwell 1999
Let Time Hold Its Breath (The Wedding Poem) Saint Publishing 2003 (New Zealand)
Attending to the Fact (Elfick and Head) Jessica Kingsley 2004
An Ordinary Storm, University of Otago New Zealand, 2007
(ditto, abridged, in Oversteps Press, UK)
The Third Mile, Guildford Poets Press 2008
On the Edge (Elfick and Head) Pennings Partnership Press 2013
Water Colour, Grey Hen Run 2014
Red Hill – a Dreaming (Elfick and Malikoff) 2015

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