I’m a bit late sitting down to this post, but I have to say, I couldn’t be happier. I’ve been looking forward to our guest today….and I can see that you have too. You all look ever so smart and well-turned out. You’re a credit to yourselves. I’ll not make you wait too long to listen to her poems, but you know I like to do a bit of scene setting and set-dressing . Here we go.
There was a time when I wasn’t all that keen on Jane Austen. I came at her the wrong way. I thought she wasn’t that interesting because, as Raymond Williams once wrote, she sees the world through a filtering mesh beyond which 90% of the world is invisible. I blamed her for what she wasn’t doing rather than seeing what she did. And so I went on mining the fertile seams of literature that engaged more obviously with the tensions of social and economic change. I preferred to read ‘Mary Barton’ and ‘Hard Times’ and Cobbett’s ‘Rural Rides’. If it wasn’t evidently political, it didn’t seem important.
But came the day when I had to teach ‘Emma’ to an extremely bright ‘A’ level group. It might have included Jill Dawson..it was in the late 1970s, any way. I gritted my teeth, and settled down to give it the benefit of the doubt, and read it without a sociological pair of specs on. What swung it was reading a critic (I can’t for the life of me remember who) who said something that rocked me on my heels. It was to the effect that Jane Austen turned an unwavering eye on the difficult moral obligations of personal relations in an enclosed society. One where you can’t avoid the same people, a world of mutual dependencies and apparently small disturbances, where the businesses of property and marriage are inextricably tied together in a net of fine distinctions and expectations. What it said to me was that the human condition could be explored just as significantly within these narrow bounds as on the huge canvas of a ‘Nostromo’. Well. It was probably obvious to you, but it was a bombshell to me.’ Emma’ is still one of my favourite novels. Not quite up there with ‘Middlemarch’ but Premiership all the way.
And your point? I can hear you thinking. Get on with it. You said you wouldn’t do this. I take your point. Here’s mine. Jane Austen is one of those dark watchers I wrote about ages ago when I shared my huge enthusiasm for Julia Deakin’s poetry. This is what I wrote then:
Dark watcher? why? I think (but I’m not checking – it’s not a proper review) that I came across this haunting phrase sometime in the 70s; I think it was in an article by Geoff Fox in Children’s literature in education…maybe about ‘A wizard of Earthsea’. It’s phrase that a 12 year old girl used to describe herself as a reader …. a sort of hidden, secret eavesdropper on, and fascinated observer of, other lives. Not sinister, but, simultaneously, emotionally involved and moved and engaged, and distanced and disengaged. It makes me think of Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden who observes because she’s basically left out, curiously detached, rueful, and occasionally cross.
Degrees of separation. About a year ago I was jointly editing an anthology…‘The garden’ [Otley Word Feast Press] and working my way through loads and loads of anonymous submissions, and one just leapt off the page.. Beningborough Hall..I knew it had to be in the anthology, but here’s the thing. I was sure I’d recognised a Julia Deakin poem. I hadn’t. It was a Carole Bromley poem. It was the last stanza that did it.
In the walled garden, where catnip and lady’s mantle
tumble under arches of espaliered pear, girls in long frocks
and boys in peaked caps play hoop and ball,
the laundry clock strikes one, even the rhubarb knows its place.
You might think, in an off-moment, that you’re wandering through an Antiques Roadshow world, but Carole Bromley, throughout this poem, is on the side of the servants…and the rhubarb. It’s a quietly subversive affair (see where the Jane Austen echoes come in?). It’s unsentimental, wry and ironic. And crafted. Every word weighed and in its right place doing its right job. Like the rhubarb. The proletarian crop of the West Riding. And the only word, as Tony Harrison pointed out, allowed to the extras in a play. The one who are given no lines. It’s got its own voice alright..it’s the tone and the precision that made me think: Julia Deakin. They work in the same sort of territory very often. And sometimes, like Mary Lennox, they can be rueful and terribly vulnerable. Here’s a clip from Julia.
I’d come into the shed
and peer deep into the paraffin heater, loving its ring of flame
and purple fumes. Hoping for nothing, but that you would turn round.
and then this poem that Carole has sent me to share.
There wasn’t a lot of it in our house.
We learned to live without
though I do remember one time
when my friend, Rosemary, died
and, on the same day, my boyfriend
told someone to tell me we were through
which was a shame since he
was one of the first people
in my whole life to touch me
and I loved it. That night my father
asked me to come down from my room
and watch the news with them.
Three and a half inches of snow
had fallen that day in Alamo.
I lay on the sofa while dad stroked my hair
like an awkward teenager
and, a quarter of a million miles away,
the Russians made the first soft landing on the moon.
You can see why I was thrown. Well, I can. But enough. Time to introduce Carole Bromley, whose poems I return to, over and again.
They have been widely published in magazines including Poetry Review, Poetry News, The North, Magma, The Rialto and Smiths Knoll and she has twice (TWICE !!!) been a winner in the Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition. She has two pamphlets, Unscheduled Halt (2004) and Skylight (2009) and two collections, A Guided Tour of the Ice House (2011) and The Stonegate Devil (October, 2015) with Smith/Doorstop Books, Sheffield.
Individual poems have won a number of first prizes, including the Bridport, the Yorkshire Open, Torbay and the Bronte Society Literary Prize. .She has performed at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival and run workshops at Aldeburgh and at the Bridlington Poetry Festival.
For many years an English teacher in her home town of York, she moved on to teach Creative Writing at York University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning.
Carole writes a regular poetry blog for the digital magazine YorkMix and is the judge for the York Literature Festival/YorkMix Poetry Competition. She is also the Poetry Society’s Stanza rep for York and a large group of poets from a wide area meet at her home every month to share their work. I’ve been a guest of her Stanza group, and it’s a splendid workshop..just one of so many things that she does so painstakingly and so well. I’ve also been on residential courses where we have been…what’s the right word?… students….as well as loads of Writing days with the Poetry Business. I look forward to Carole’s poems, her acute critical ear and her dry humour. We laugh a lot. I suppose that since we have 22 grandchildren between us, laughing is something we do. Right. time for the poems.
First up is one that makes me laugh out loud; it makes open mic audiences laugh too. They rarely see the line about ‘getting the shit kicked out of you’ coming if they’ve tuned in to some of the more Jane Austen-y settings. She can be gleefully anecdotal, and it’s great.
My hairdresser doesn’t really get poetry;
he’s into Thai boxing, but he does ask about it.
We have these weird conversations
while we pretend there’s a point
in even talking about a new style.
He tells me about his broken nose,
how the A&E consultant lost patience
when he went straight out and got it broken again
and I tell him about stuff that’s alien
like doing readings to ten people
and spending more on a course
than I earn in a a year. He’s given up
trying to understand why I write
and I’ve given up trying to understand
the appeal of getting the shit kicked out of you.
I suggest the two activities are not so different;
he suggests a little layering at the sides.
She has great timing, and that last line is a beautifully sardonic sign-off. The vulnerability I mentioned will surface in her poems exploring family relationships, and what I read as the kind of guilt I would feel, the sort of ‘not living up to expectations’ unhappiness, that kept me awake of nights through my mothers’s last years.
You’d walk again
if they’d let you go home.
They say Maybe.
Not yet. Now your foot
won’t stay put under
the sheet and when I try
to lift it the skin’s dry
and cold like it says
on page eight of the leaflet.
I can’t meet your eye
for the guilt of not
making it happen.
I talk to your foot,
hold it, stroke it,
say sorry to it.
So thin, so white,
the foot of the girl
in the photo, laughing
and running full
pelt towards the sea.
I like this poem so much for it’s spareness, even as I find the unsparingness of the writer towards herself hard to bear. I like the way we know whose voice is whose in the poem, the impossibility of dispersuading the mother from the firm belief she’d be alright if they only let her go home, the responsibility condensed into those short lines: I can’t meet your eye/ for the guilt of not/making it happen. …..the awkwardness of their syntax. For me, the clinching detail is the one about page eight of the leaflet. The way we know how punctiliousy, and ultimately helplessly, the writer has done her best to read up on the condition, to follow the instructions in those NHS booklets we take away from consultations. Don’t you want, like me, to take her by the hand and run full pelt towards the sea?
Let’s finish with the title poem of Carole’s second collection. Here’s another side to her poetry, because I always think there’s a researcher’s side to her, especially when it comes to York and its people and its long history. There’s no sentimentality in this one, that’s fully awake to the Saturday night York of scrapping drunks from outlying villages, as well as to its more violent histories. Here’s a rumbustious blockbuster of a poem that elides the present and the past, that is shrewdly observant, and that turns your expectaions upside down in the last satnza…that sends you back to re-examine what you think you read. There’s a dark seam running through the psyche of the Stonegate devil’s city.
The Stonegate Devil
He’s seen it all: mummers, buskers,
guildsmen pulling carts with wobbling tableaux
of flood, famine, crucifixion;
a couple choosing a ring in Walker and Preston’s,
a man hurrying another man’s wife
down the alley to Ye Olde Starre Inne,
drunks vomiting in the snickelway,
the purple cyclist on his purple bike,
The devil’s crouched on that ledge
since Coffee Yard was Langton Lane
and Stonegate the Street of the Printers.
He doesn’t need the gear in Old Guys Rule,
wears a black chain and a pair of horns,
his skin boiled lobster,
those hands on his knees a man’s hands,
his feet the feet of a goat
and, though you can see his ribs,
he has no appetite for the eggs
in Bettys display, the chocolate otter,
the hare or the candy daffodils,
does not thirst for the spirits
in the window of Evil Eye
or the barrels in Trembling Madness
where the missing student on the poster
Megan, we would love to hear from you
smiles her pretty smile.
So there we are.You’ll be wanting to queue up, buy The Stonegate Devil and A guided tour of the ice house [both from Smith/Doorstop Books] and ask Mrs Bromley to sign them. And say thank you very much for letting us share her poems.
And there’s still time to enter the competition she has judged for the last four years. It’s become a major competition in that time. Send your best ones in. Deadline is February 14th. And here’s the link.
Next week? Ah. There you have me. How does that Anthony Wilson do it? How does that Kim Moore and that Josephine Corcoran keep it up? Let’s say I’ll be winging it, and hope for the best.