In a few weeks I’ll be back in the blue house in the middle of the picture. Almaserra Vella, in the village of Relleu in Alicante. I’m not sure I need an excuse for posting it, but I do have one. Because it’s the house where I met today’s guest poet..a year ago, on a writing week tutored by Ann Sansom. She’s not the first guest from that week. We’ve met Jane Clarke and Martin Reed, and equally, another guest who I wouldn’t have met but for the Old Olive Press…my friend Hilary Elfick. I’m not sure why it took me so long to ask Shirley McClure to share her work with us. However. Better late than never, and I’m delighted to see you all looking so smart and keen. You’re a credit to yourselves.
By way of introduction, then, a story I thought twice about sharing, and then decided it was too good not to. You know how it is at a writing workshop. Deep concentration, silence, the susurrus of paper, the scratch of pens. Sighs. The creak of a chair. And the task. It wasn’t one I associate with Ann Sansom…she’d given each of us a postcard of a portrait. The task was to adopt the voice of a character in the picture, or to create a stream of consciousness sort of thing. I got the equivalent of a ‘Hello’ photoshoot of three languid landed sisters by John Singer Sargent. Shirley McClure, it turned out, had been given one by John Waterhouse ….one of my favourite painters…..of his favourite model, in the guise of a nymph or a mermaid or a minor deity or a dryad. He did a lot of those. Anyway, it was one of those spells in a morning’s writing when I sort of drift off, my mind elsewhere, and folk were reading their drafts, and suddenly I was startled by this sardonic, no-messing Irish voice saying ‘John; I know you want to ride me…..’
Since then I’ve read Stone dress, and found myself brought up short, and sometimes close to tears, by the poems about mastectomy, about the relentless business of cancer and its treatments, by lines like these from A marriage: ‘At home we made delicate love /watchful of bandages’, or from Photoshoot ‘ Nurses rave about the handiwork, / scars are praised…..yours is the best we’ve taken……there is more than one way to find fame.’
Bloodaxe poet, Katie Donovan describes that voice for me when she writes of Shirley’s recitations of deadpan lust. That’s the word I wanted: deadpan
But that was the first time I heard Shirley McClure reading. I’ve said before that it’s the voice that sells me the poem, and I’ve also said, more than once, that the Irish have an unfair advantage when it comes to voice. Not all the Irish, I suppose I should say. Not the Irish of the Falls Road and the Shankhill, where every vowel sounds like a grudge or a grievance . But it’s that drily sardonic Irish voice that I hear when I read so many of Shirley’s poems, and I love it. I like the drawl, the vowel song.
And now it’s time to introduce her. Born in Waterford in 1962, Shirley lives in Bray, Co. Wicklow.She studied English Literature and Spanish at Trinity College Dublin and undertook a Master’s degree in Latin-American Studies at Liverpool University. She went on to do a variety of jobs including volunteering in a mens’ hostel in Liverpool; teaching English as a foreign language in Reading, Dublin, Vigo and Quito; tutoring in literacy and creative writing at the Dublin Institute of Adult Education and Tosach, an AnCo centre in Dublin’s inner city; project work in Focus Point (now Focus ireland) which included drama, literacy and counselling; teaching English to Vietnamese refugees in Dublin. Since 1992 she has been a natural health practitioner and teacher. She practices shiatsu and aromatherapy (see http://www.shirleymcclure.com) and works with a number of community and holistic organisations, teaching and facilitating groups. She also teaches creative writing with a particular interest in writing and health.
Shirley’s collection, Stone Dress (Arlen House) and her CD Spanish Affair, with her own poems plus poetry and music from invited guests, both came out in 2015. All proceeds from the CD go to Arklow Cancer Support Group, where Shirley facilitates a writers’ group. Her first poetry collection, Who’s Counting? (Bradshaw Books) won Cork Literary Review’s Manuscript Competition 2009. She won Listowel Writers’ Week Originals Poetry Competition 2014, and the title poem of her new collection, ‘Stone Dress’, won the Penfro Poetry Competition. And now you’ll be wanting to know why she’s a prize-winner. Time for the poems. She’s sent me a slack handful from Stone dress, and I couldn’t be more pleased.
The first one is typical of her clear-eyed unflinching gaze, and the diction that tells you exactly how to listen to the poem.
Nurse dresses the wound,
we talk hormones, oestrogen,
how the levels will drop
like water in a summer pool
that yields only a dry ring,
a glaze of salt.
She says I can swim in salt
water, now that the wound
is healing; she says to ring
if there’s a problem. Oestrogen
used to be my friend. The pool
is out of bounds, but I can drop
down into the waves, swim till I drop,
crawl out covered in salt.
Sea water gathers in a pool
at my feet, and even the wound
shines. Sunbathers beam oestrogen,
and I stand, hopeless in a ring
of bare-breasted women. Can’t ring
any nurse about this. Can’t drop
out of the world because of oestrogen.
I change in our room, taste salt.
My sun-dress won’t cover the wound,
I pull on an old t-shirt, curl up by the pool.
You find me at the pool.
Still not used to your ring –
the ring came before the wound,
before the floor dropped
out of the world, before salt
baths and the war against oestrogen.
– Was it the oestrogen
you fell for, or the reflecting pool,
or my image conserved in salt?
Would you rather I gave back the ring,
would you rather we dropped
the whole plan? I wound
you with questions, wound with oestrogen,
the drops I have left, run from the pool,
your ring glued to my finger with salt.
It was Kim Moore who made me try to write a sestina, and it was Kim Moore who explained that what a sestina is ideally suited for is the exploration of an obsessional idea. Which is exactly why this poem grips and grips and won’t let go. That, and its echoes of the mythic, of women turned to salt, of the iconography of rings, of the lost, like naiads by pools in legendary clearings. So many layers, and always, always, rooted in the here and now, the unavoidable. Stunning. By contrast, the next one is in what feels like more familiar territory, and what makes me think of Heaney…and, indeed, of Jane Clarke. A poem full of love. And, I think, the only poem I know about table tennis.
Best Of Three
When it first came in, they’d use cigar box lids
for bats, a champagne cork for a ball.
They played it after dinner, as a parlour game,
the fathers back from India keeping score,
the uncles in their uniforms shaking hands.
Our dad taught us how to hold the blade,
coached us on how the sleight of hand required
to spin the ball depended on your stance,
your handshake grip, the flick of wood and rubber,
showed the three of us the chop, the loop, the kill.
Jack Frost was outside but we were holed up
round the table in the echoing house, and sweating.
Everyone played, even Uncle Arthur, whose hands
big as mill wheels dizzied and spun the spectators,
each grateful for the pipe-smoke lightness of the ball.
Last night in the Parochial Lodge, my hands shook
as the ball danced away from me. New rules,
faster, up to eleven only and two serves each.
Slowly I corrected my footing as though
my father still stood by the net, score-keeping.
I’m hooked right from the first line; if this was to turn up in a bunch of submissions for a competition I was judging, it would go straight into the ‘probables’ pile, just for that first line. Ah, the power of the pronoun, that artful ‘it’. And then, like Heaney’s father, digging: my father……….scorekeeping. Lovely. As is the next poem.
Katie Donovan says of Shirley McClure’s work in Who’s counting: “Quirky and wise, studded with razor-sharp double entendres and droll fantasies, these poems introduce a refreshing new voice in Irish poetry. Fuelled by a combative curiosity about the underbelly of human relationships, this is a poetry of candour and folly, and ultimately of discovery. Themes include sexual jealousy, bereavement, and how a woman regards her physical self. …….. Here is a poet sure of her craft, ready to share incantations of desire and domesticity with poise and elan. From recitations of deadpan lust to the sensitivities of one who is flying on the margins of mortality, the poems in Who’s Counting? become friends whom we cannot resist revisiting.”
I hear the voice that I heard a year ago in Spain whenever I read this poem.
I could have been
a better student – learned Lorca
from the library stacks,
on the shag rug
in the lecturer’s flat.
I half-listened to his Verde,
que te quiero verde,
knowing he would kiss me later;
half-believing that his tongue –
its twist and roll
around my own –
would transmit linguistics,
It’s the laconic bit about the shagpile rug in the lecturer’s flat, and its guiltless trangressiveness that makes me laugh, and then feel slightly guilty about. My bad. As one of my granddaughters says. But she writes sexy poems as well as harrowing ones does Shirley McClure. I’d like to share the whole collection ( all these poems are from Stone Dress)…but then you wouldn’t need to buy it, and you really, really must. So, just one more. I wanted to share one about hoovering, but wordpress can’t cope with the formatting of a shaped poem, but I’m just as happy to share this one instead.
The Amorous Cat
The Amorous Cat bookshop in Aigburth
closes its door for final time
– Liverpool Echo, 2012
Do you ever take a walk in Sefton Park,
browse in the bookshop on Lark Lane?
Is there still a bookshop on Lark Lane,
are any lefties left in Sefton Park?
Do you ever have occasion to remark
to Fabiana, Donna or Lorraine
how much you miss la lucha, the campaigns,
the prisoners’ letters, every Saturday a march?
Or could it be you never settled down,
that when you said don’t ever contact me
because I can’t forget you, that you meant it,
mean it still; oh, but I hope your Liverpool’s a town
grumbling with bookshops – that you’ve forgotten me,
just as I’ve kept my promise – written this, not sent it.
Actually, it’s nice to finish with a love letter, however bittersweet, rather than falling down a flight of stairs with a hoover. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself this afternoon, and I can see that you have. If you want to know more about Shirley McClure’s work you can check out her webpage here
If you line up nicely, she will sign her book and sell you one. And if you forgot the money, then here’s where you can buy them once you get home.
Who’s Counting? from Amazon’s Book Store. … Paperback: 63 pages; Publisher: Bradshaw Books £9.00
Stone dress [Arlen House 2015] from Kenny’s bookstore: http://www.kennys.ie/ €13.00
Next week we’ll be doing something slightly different, inspired by ‘Grand designs’.