Bright star: remembering Gordon Hodgeon

The Great Fogginzo's Cobweb

Yesterday I heard that my friend Gordon Hodgeon had died in the early hours. He was one of the loveliest people I ever met. I wrote this appreciation of  him (and his poetry) over a year ago.


In 1982 I was invited to be a visiting tutor on a weekend residential  course, in Goathland, for Teesside teachers of English. Talented teachers working in their own time, because they were excited by the possibilities of what children could learn and do. It happened quite a lot in those days. One of my newly-acquired enthusiasms then was for developing writing through the retelling of myth and fable. The books that inspired me were Betty Rosen’s And none of it was nonsense, Alan Garner’s The stone book, and a remarkable piece of work by Penelope Farmer:  Beginnings. Spare prose outlines of creation myths from around the world.

On one of the…

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A midweek special. Alice, Lewis Carroll, and Mr Ruskin

Monday night is Albert Poets workshop night…unless it’s the first Monday of the month, in which case it’s Puzzle Poets at the Blind Pig…. and one of the delights is that you never know what will turn up. Last week, Stephanie Bowgett, (who is one of the Albert’s founder members, who will ere long be published by Calder Valley Poetry, and shortly after that will be A Polished Gem on the cobweb, and who invariably brings poems that surprise and stick in the mind) brought along a poem that was too long to workshop. So she read it, and I instantly wanted to share it with everyone I knew. There’s a lot of things in ‘Alice in wonderland’ and ‘Through the looking glass’ that unnerve and disturb, and even more in the story of Alice Liddell. Which I think this poem captures in the imagined voice of both Alices. And here it is.

QUEEN peter blake



It’s a poor kind of memory that only works backwards


I wake exhausted. I’ve painted

the whole night, painted

out the mistakes with rose-red paint;

a hundred wet kisses, my face, my tummy,

that brazen promise of breasts

all disappear under the brush.

This quadrille is red, red as a lobster.

Will you, won’t you-  will you won’t you-

w-won’t you join the dance?


Mr Ruskin took tea with me

one January day. Papa and the Red Queen

were dining out.  I’d sent him a note

(what a forward minx I was!) We were

toasting muffins before the fire when

they returned early; unexpected

snowfall had blocked their route.

In his journal, Mr Ruskin recorded it thus:

 a sudden sense

 of some stars having been

 blown out in the wind.

I have always thought Mr Ruskin

handsomer than the Dodo.


We wait on the shingle, the Dodo and I.

There he is with his Gladstone bag,

his crooked smile. I’ve taken off

my black button shoes, the straps cut

into my ankles so; my white lisle stockings

are in his pocket. He stutters

a stream of sand over my legs.

Abracadabra! From his bag

a safety pin. He always carries pins

to hitch the skirts of little girls

up out of the spray. I paddle.

He watches with his uneven eyes.


The books discover me. The Red Queen

Sweeps in one morning, demands

the Dodo’s letters. And those photos he took

the day he fashioned a mouse

from my handkerchief: a mouse

with a long and sad tale, lace ears.


I ride my blue skirt,

tumble slowly

through thick air, sour

smell of worms. Broken

finger nails scrabble;

passing roots clutch

at my hair – it is grown long

and yellow as fever.

alice 4




If you fall asleep in the noonday sun

you must expect nothing

will be as it was

when you wake again.


I woke on the riverbank

reinvented. Bleached, banded,

I was everyone’s favourite blonde;

zebra ankles crossed

with the syntax of an Oxford don.

Curiouser and curioser


Someone hangs his grin in a tree.

alice 6



I hold up my hands.

I can’t pass a bottle

without taking a swig. The cards

are stacked against me.


And if I hold up the glass

the words will all

go the right way again.

 (I sing)

alice 7


In the glass

I see me


in freckles.

I try lemon juice

but I am peeling.

Pearly flakes

come away

in my hands

like honesty.






( A note: I’ve had problems with the lineation, and the only way I could stop this being all left-justified was to faff about with a snipping tool to turn bits of text into jpegs that I could set where I wanted. It should all be in one font. Forgive me. I should read Josephine Corcoran’s blog posts more assiduously)










Our Islands’ Stories and a Polished Gem: Stephanie Conn

island 4

Maybe this is where it all started, the business of islands and their stories, and, eventually, by circuitous routes to the revisionist histories of writers like E.P.Thompson, Hobbsbaum, John Prebble; books like The long march of everyman; Charles Parker’s Radio ballads, and poets like Tony Harrison, and then all the way back to broadsheet ballads and the skewed histories of folksong.

But it started here, at the age of 8, when I saved and saved the prince’s ransom of 8s6d, and bought my copy of H E Marshall’s history of England (and subsequently, Scotland’s Story). The book ends with The Great War of which Marshall writes :I shall not write much at all. And doesn’t. The Victorian Age is occupied by the Crimean War, the sieges of Delhi and Lucknow, Lord Franklin, the Boer war, the settlement of Australia and new Zealand. Of the Industrial Revolution that created the streets I grew up in there is not a whisper.

This worried me not at all, because I lost interest round about the tale of Flora Macdonald and George the First…when kings stopped looking and behaving like this.

island 3

or like this


Our island’s story was the story of kings who were glamorous and bellicose, who burned cakes, and who made fields of cloths of gold and beat the Spanish and the French and went to their deaths on the scaffold with becoming dignity and gravitas. Above all, they were colourful and dramatic, and you could spend hours copying the colour plates that were the real joy of Marshall’s book. Who’d want to copy a picture of a man in a suit? For all that, the idea that islands and stories were indissolubly wedded was formed here, and reinforced forever by Robinson Crusoe, and The Swiss family Robinson and Treasure island.

Keen-eyed followers of the cobweb will have spotted straight away that this is the third post in a row (indeed, in 9 days)  ‘about’ islands, or an island. These things happen.Last week’s guest, Gaia Holmes’ poems were set in the Orkneys, and a couple of days before that, three of my own about Skye. It wasn’t love at first sight with Skye, where I went for the first time about 30 years ago. In fact, I thought I didn’t like it. It took too long to get there. Everything seemed to be brown unwalkable moorland and rain, and any shop was miles and miles away. But something must have stuck. Maybe it was the one clear October day when we drove along the stretch of road from Ord to Achnacloich and there was the amazing panorama of the whole of the Cuillin with snow on the tops, and a sea as blue as flowers.

Whatever. Somehow I was lost. We kept going back, and I learned, by walking, more and more of the south of the island. How to learn to use deer and sheep tracks. How to see the weather before it reached you, how to walk in boggy land. How to deeply distrust all Scots walkers’ guide book for their terse understatements, the way they say things like: the footpath peters out after a mile or so but the way ahead is never in doubt. Leaving you lost in a corrie 2000 feet up.

I started to collect the literature and poetry of small islands, the histories of dispossession and uprooting; writers like Kathleen Jamie, Robert Macfarlane and Adam Nicholson. Also, painters of wild shorelines like Len Tabner and the wonderful Norman Ackroyd.

I started to learn the stories of abandoned settlements, and of individual ruined crofts, say, at Inverdalavil, or Boreraig, or Suishnish, or Leitr Fura. How some were cleared by forced eviction, and some by sheer poverty and emigrations, or by the need to live where the children could go to school. I started to read about it, and eventually learned that I was romanticising it all – no less than the National Trust/ Clan Donald guides at Dunvegan Castle with their kilts and tartan and Flora Macdonald – and knew less than nothing. I went looking for ghosts among the stones, when what I needed to do was to ask questions and listen to the people who actually lived there. I learned that when I was telling my friend Effie how we’d walked to Dalavil, how we’d sheltered from a storm in a ruin of a croft near the shore.

” Ah yes. Well, Lachlan that was my uncle.

He was born in there. Yon house. Says Effie.

Oh, but it was years ago.”


And that put me in my place. In more ways than one. Islands, abandonment, the misappropriations of history. The business of putting the record straight.

island 5

That’s the stuff of today’s cobweb strand. And one more thing. Our last two guest poets (as opposed to gems revisited) have been Irish poets. From the North. Which brings us to today and a poet from Northern Ireland who writes about islands that once were populated and now are not. So, without further ado, it’s my delight and pleasure to introduce Stephanie Conn. Actually, she’ll introduce herself:

“Well, here I am approaching forty and embracing that old favourite Life begins…!

Thirty-nine has been good to me. I launched my debut collection, ‘The Woman on the Other Side’ with Doire Press in March 2016 and in an unexpected turn of events, having been selected by Billy Collins (what a thrill!) as one of the winners of the Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition, three months later I launched my pamphlet, ‘Copeland’s Daughter’.

Now that I’ve told you my age, I can admit to being born in 1976, in the market town of Newtownards in Northern Ireland. After school I attended Stranmillis Teacher Training College, Belfast and studied English Literature as my main subject. Following graduation I started my teaching career in 1999.

My twenties were spent teaching, developing the literacy programme Passport to Poetry,facilitating creative writing workshops in schools and being mum to two daughters. In my early thirties I began writing more regularly. I tried carving out writing time, joined a writers’ group and began submitting poems to journals and magazines. I received encouragement and decided to apply to the Masters Programme at the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University, Belfast. Between 2010 and 2013, I completed a part-time MA in Creative Writing under the tuition of Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian, Leontia Flynn and Sinead Morrissey.

During this period, my poems were being published more regularly and I submitted work to poetry competitions. In 2012, I was shortlisted for the Patrick Kavanagh Award and highly commended in the Doire Press Poetry Chapbook and Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet competitions. It was extremely encouraging to learn that the work was connecting with others. The following year I was selected for Poetry Ireland’s Introductions Series.

I was hooked but by the time I completed my MA, I was back teaching four days a week and due to return to a full-time position in the next academic year. My writing was going to have to take a back seat for a while – or so I thought. I became ill, was unable to teach and spent the following year having assessments, tests and scans in a bid to determine what was causing my symptoms. I was eventually diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. Medication helped but the life I had known was gone and I felt stripped of my identity. There were so many things I could no longer do but I could still write and now I had the chance to commit fully to it.

I started working on new poems and began to arrange a full manuscript. I then submitted ‘The Woman on the Other Side’ to Doire Press and was thrilled when they accepted the collection. In 2015, as well as being highly commended in the Gregory O’Donoghue Poetry Competition and coming third in the Dromineer Poetry Competition, I won the Yeovil Poetry Prize, the Funeral Services NI Poetry Prize and the inaugural Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing.

By the time Doire Press had decided to publish ‘The Woman on the Other Side’, I was already busy with new work. I received an Artists Career Enhancement Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to research and begin writing my second collection, inspired by my ancestors who lived on a small island in the Irish Sea. I submitted a selection of these new poems to the Poetry Business competition.

The last few months have been spent giving readings and facilitating workshops, and I’m looking forward to taking part in a few local literary festivals, before heading to the other side of the world for the Tasmania Poetry Festival in the autumn.

island 6

There’s a c.v. to make you sit up!  I met Stephanie for the first time in Grasmere a month or so ago, at the Worsworth Trust… the prize-giving ceremony for the Poetry Business Pamphlet competition winners. She read from her pamphlet Copeland’s daughter, and blew me away. The Copelands are a small group of islands of the coast of Northern Ireland, and the poems tell tell the story of her ancestors who lived and farmed and fished there, until they were forced to leave, like so many who have struggled on poor land and in hard weathers, like the ones forced from Mingulay, from the Blasketts, the Shiants, St Kilda. So many. But you can see how these poems ticked so many boxes for me. And she reads with a passion, and a clarity. I was sold from the very first poem: The first lighthouse…Cross Island 1714.   A lighthouse in ‘these twenty acres’ that ‘never did attract the sun’

‘three storeys of island-quarried stone, picked

and carried on the convicts’ backs.

They built the wall two metres thick’

Billy Collins wrote of this poem: “The First Lighthouse” should be read in every classroom. I know what he means. It has the same kind of heft that I love in Christy Ducker’s work…coincidentally, in Skipper,  the core of which is a sequence about poems about small islands , The Farnes, and the story of their lighthouse, and of Grace Darling.

Of Stephanie’s writing Collins says  :

Precise description rendered in physical language lifts these poems off the page and into the sensory ken of the reader.

Well. Yes! And there we are, language that places the reader in this place of punitive hard graft, unrelenting weathers and unyielding material.

And a place, as you see from the photograph, capable of great beauty, which Stephanie celebrates in this lovely collection. She sent me two poems that will give you a taste for it. Promise.



We are cut off from the mainland again;

a pile of unopened letters sits in Donaghadee;

there is flour and salt and treacle in the grocer’s,

bags of coal and paraffin to fill the empty tins,

but the boat keeps close to the harbour wall.


Tide in, tide out and the beam of light,

and a distant moon – waxing and waning.


Still, the bread is baked and the butter churned,

the blocken cured and the rabbits trapped,

mussels are plucked from the island pools

and pickled in jars on larder shelves.

The firewood and driftwood is stacked.


Tide in, tide out and the beam of light,

and a distant moon – waxing and waning.


Inside the lamps are lit and curtains pulled,

while out at sea, the wind and waves confront

each other in torrents of eddies and pools

and the gulls circling above the spume

could be vultures in the thick sea-mist.


Tide in, tide out and the beam of light,

and a distant moon – waxing and waning.


But we know what the darkness brings;

it drags us from sleep into nightmare, lost in fog

we’ll be struck by ship after floundering ship;

forced into the driving rain, where muffled voices call

from their wreck. We’ll run to the shore to save all we can.


Tide in, tide out and the beam of light,

and a distant moon – waxing and waning.


In a place such as this, we are used to the ghosts,

but not to their dying; never to the bodies of young men

washed up on the shore, with their puffed up faces

and gaping sockets where the eyes should be; or the tiny crab

emerging from a silenced mouth to scurry, ever sideways.


What I really like about this is the side-by-side-ness of the routine management of household comforts, the self-sufficiencies when the boat can’t come from the mainland, the security of a storm bound house….and the way the ghosts of the drowned will find their way in, one way or another. For me, the poem turns on one plain observation that make me re-evaluate everything I’ve just read.

In a place such as this, we are used to the ghosts,

but not to their dying

It has such resonance. I understand those kinds of ghost, how we are rooted in our pasts and histories. That’s the first poem of the pamphlet, and this one is the last.

August 25th


A good day for starting out, or so it seemed

to the Royal Society who sent Cook sailing


off into the Atlantic, round Cape Horn, journeying

westwards to Tahiti to record the Transit of Venus.


And Webb agreed; diving off Admiralty Pier,

smeared in porpoise oil, to swim the Channel;


keeping his stroke steady, despite the jellyfish stings,

the churning currents off Cap Gris Nez, to Calais.


A bride’s dress rests below the collar bone,

covers pale skin, tightens at the waist.


The gladioli stems are wrapped in green satin

to draw out the glint of peridot at her neck.


A gold band placed on her steady finger

is loose enough to pass over the knuckle.


She will search out the star-maiden in the sky,

follow a small black disc across the moon’s face.


Gallileo offers up his newly ground lenses.

The lawmakers ascend the city belltowers,


lift the telescope to their eyes to see the sails

of distant ships, distinct and impossibly close.


Voyager 2 draws as close as it has ever been

to Saturn’s rings of ice-particles and dust,


ammonia crystals create a pale yellow glow

in the dark space where sixty-two moons orbit.


Her great-grandchild wears crushed silk,

exposing sun-blushed skin, thin wrists.


The gaping heads of lilac poppies

lie against her trussed up breasts.


There is an exchange of white-gold rings.

Her body is cloaked in sweat and trembling.


The black sky shines with a thousand 

stars that burned out years ago.   


As you read through the pamphlet (and you really must), you live through the   day-to-day histories of Stephanie’s people, the generations who worked the Copelands, apparently contained in a small tight world. But all the sea and sky are beyond, and this poem explodes outwards into a barely charted universe that offers no answers or direction. The bride is a voyager. I think it’s stunning .

So thank you, Stephanie Conn, for being our guest today. Go well and be well. Tasmania! Half a world away. Read them this last poem. I think that would be fitting.

Next week brings no islands, and indeed, no Irish poets. But we’ll be revisiting one of my very first guests, and I’m really looking forward to it. In the meantime, get your chequebooks out, or head to the Paypal icon. You really have to buy these two books.

books and prices








Alchemies and islands. And a gem revisited : Gaia Holmes


I suspect that when people think (or, in my case, dream) of Scottish islands they have in mind extravagantly sheer cliffs, loud with gannets and fulmars, out in the wild Atlantic. Or the Gothic fretted ridge of the Cuillin. A dusting of snow on Jura. I know less than nothing about the islands of the North East, and of Orkney, unless its an image of the angular stones of Callanish. I just know they’re not my place, without mountains, low-lying. There’d be no place to hide from the weather, from the implacable winds, from yourself, or your neighbours. Places like Shapinsay.

shaping up2

Shapinsay is where Gaia Holmes has been travelling to in the last year or so. You can probably get to Australia more quickly than you can get to Shapinsay from Halifax.She wrote this about it. It needs no commentary from me.

December: Shapinsay, Orkney

 Now the nights

are thick and heavy.

They leave their indentations

on our thinning days.


With no trees

to chaperone the darkness

they are wild, brutal,

seething with stars.


They bruise the windows

and kerb-stones of Balfour,

do not knock

before they enter

our houses,

outstay the welcome

of our winter fires.


Gaia’s dad died recently. Gaia, her mother, her brothers, would travel there to care for him in his last months. Her dad was a potter, a man who worked with fire and clay and glazes to create magic raku pieces. A man who lived in a great barn of a place.


Impossible to warm I should have thought, no matter how often he fired a kiln. When Gaia was our guest on the cobweb last year she was dealing with the business of cold, of distance and the absolutes of dying. At the time, I wrote this about her :

“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, his 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.”

I wrote about:

“poems that keep going off in your head…. like those fireworks that explode like a huge dandelion clock, then keep going with crackles and little furnace sparks and bits of windscreen glass and buttons and pins”

I could add: I also like the strange alchemical changes of raku pots, and the way they go on changing, enriching themselves. I know of one raku potter who fires  pieces that he will put in a steep-cut stream bed for a year or more; pieces with metals, glass and resins in the clay. They are made by the magic of water and fire.


Over ten years ago, Gaia wrote this poem for her dad. Only the dedication’s changed. That seems very poignant to me. It’s a strange thing to write that valedictory dedication for one you love. Believe me.


The Alchemist

In memory of David Holmes



Curved over the wheel

chunks of clay changed

to delicate brown lilies

and grew out of the coil

of his hands;

blunt fingers coaxed

stalks into vases.


Bowls went into the kiln

coated in coarse white paste

and came out glowing;

he left them crackling

and cooling on the lawn.

In the morning

they had turned into jewels

gleaming like huge beetles

against the shaved grass.


He was always pale

and ghosted with clay;

smelling of wood-smoke and porcelain,

beads of white china

hardened and hung like pearls

in his ginger beard.


Sometimes I’d play

whilst he spun and molded;

make earthenware cakes,

slice them like fudge

with the cheese wire

and when I’d finished

he’d shape his hands into a bowl

I’d rinse my fists in them

until the water turned to milk

and dripped through his fingers.


At Christmas

his gifts come to me

packed in gold curls of sawdust;

wisps of Raku smoke

cling to dishes

glazed with ox-blood-red

and lapis-lazuli.


And as the urban breeze

stalks and rattles my street,

his wheel hums and whirrs

over the roar of Shapinsay winds.

He baptizes fire

with brine.


From Dr James Graham’s Celestial Bed (Comma Press, 2006)


‘Huge beetles’  Think of the irridescence of the carapace of a beetle, those liquid metallic blues and greens. Raku glazes. I love this poem and the love in it. The exact rightness of ‘fudge’…which has weight and the texture and tactility of clay, and a child’s understanding of what she likes. try this poem on the tongue, listen to it and linger on the ‘moment’ when fire’s baptized with brine. It’s a treasure house is this poem. She does that.

(It occurs to me that if this is your visit to the cobweb I would be remiss if I didn’t introduce you. Mea culpa. Have a read of this, and then, if you wish, check out more of Gaia’s work in a post from September 2015:

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’

iogniting the spark

(There are many poets around Calderdale who’ll testify to the richness of these workshops, including my publisher Bob Horne, who’s just produced his own debut pamphlet ‘Knowing my place’, and the hugely talented Natalie Rees among them.) Her  first full length collection, Dr James Graham’s Celestial Bed in 2006. and her second Lifting the piano with one hand in 2013 [both publ. by The Comma Press]. Joan Jobe Smith has called her ‘my favourite contemporary female poet’. She’s not alone in that.

She said in an interview  : I think that when writing Dr James Graham’s Celestial Bed I was less conscious of an audience and destination for the poems. I wrote the poems without thinking about who might read them and where they might end up. They were plump things crammed full of imagery, a bit wild and a bit naughty and they didn’t care………… Sometimes I miss the old-style-Gaia-poems for their excess

But if what she writes at the moment is more pared-down, more Giacommetti than Rubens, it’s no less rich and resonant, and, above all, moving. Poems that speak direct to the heart and the blood. I’ll leave you with these that Gaia’s been generous enough to share. So much is coming from those long journeys to a bleak low place in the eye of the wind. There’s the business of learning the language of this weather that has different meanings from the one you know. And I think these two poems set them side by side and tell each other what they understand. It turns out we don’t even understand the one we thought was familiar

Normal rain

A cold November morning

and I sit on my mother’s doorstep,

slip into the scent of rain.

I wear it like a fleecy dressing gown-

each little stitch in its seams,

a memory of something better,

a thread of time

before this gridlock, this limbo,

when milk soured

and apples ripened.

Before the sink holes and the gaps

and the words we could not say,

before my cups and my plates

became cross-hatched

with hairline cracks

and everything

was liquid, but stable

and the world’s bones

were too young for breaking

and no one stubbed their toes


We understand even less the unchanging climate of a hospital. Outside is the uncontained and unimaginable.


The Weather


You’re not used to this:

warmth on a dial,

double glazing,

this airless locked-in




by the hum and tick

and bleep

of monitors, machinery

and the sticky

hush and kiss

of the nurses shoes

in the corridor

outside your tepid room.


In here

nothing flutters.

Your unread papers sleep

still and deep

whilst December

mimes a storm

outside your window


and I want to bring

the weather in.

I want to let the wind

run around you

like a rabid dog.


I want the wild rain

to lash

your thin fevered limbs

and shock you

into living.


In the interview I mentioned earlier,Gaia said: A friend once said ‘You have to write from the throat of the wolf’. I like that idea but do sometimes worry that, with this heightened awareness of ‘the reader’, I’m playing it too safe and ‘writing from the throat of the Labrador’ . There’s no playing safe in these new poems, I think. Let’s finish with this one, and then be quiet.


hygge (n): A Danish word which, roughly translated, means, the art of building sanctuary and community, of inviting closeness and paying attention to what makes us feel open hearted and alive. To create well-being, connection and warmth. A feeling of belonging to the moment and to each other.


Tonight, with you calm, clean,

smelling of lavender in your new pyjamas

and the fire I’ve been trying to kindle for hours

finally settling itself down to blaze

and crackle and glow,

I light all the candles I can find,

put Tallis on the stereo, sit holding your hand.


Tonight the sea will be too wanton

to carry a ferry.

No one will come and no one will go

and in the morning there will be

no fresh bread or milk

on the shelves of the village shop.


Tonight we will keep the cats in.


Tonight, we will be landlocked and cosy

as rain pelts the windows like little pearls

and bolshy wind rocks the caravan.


Tonight I will feel your knots unravelling,

our bond thickening

as love and thin motets chase the cold

from the corners of the room,

and I will almost forget

that you are dying.









scully r.i.p 001

Our cat, Scully, lived an amazing twenty three years, and a year ago I had to have her put to sleep, and then bring her home. And she really did simply seem to be asleep. I cleared a piece of the garden where I buried her and then planted it out.


I wrote a poem for her, too. Not straight away. You have to wait for them to be written, and so it was February this year in St Ives following a writing prompt from Kim Moore before it got written.


(for Scully.1992-2015)


You have gone from slow. There was a shift in things

as though the air was panes of glass that slid and puzzled

and then there was the still

of nothing at all and weightlessness

listening to small stones scrape  on the steel of a spade


You remember how cold,  and how the weight of the ground

sank around you, how it settled,

how you fit, like an egg, or an ammonite.


Months now you have leached and leached.

Hair lasts beyond flesh, beyond muscle.

There are things here

that go about their patient business

unpicking, worming through

appointed places. You settle for that.


It will take time, you understand,

to be perfect bone, fossil-neat,

curled and comfortable,

each vertebra exactly so.

There is only one way for a cat.


This summer….this not-much-of-a-summer…… I got round to finishing the job off. It’ll be a good place where we can sit and remember what company she was.

scully anniversary 001


On deja vu. And a Polished Gem: Jim Caruth

1501 Early morning mist_1

I’ve been thinking that it’s becoming harder and harder to write a weekly blog without repeating myself. In fact, it’s harder and and harder and harder to write anything without repeating myself.

I see that in my increasingly desperate and intemperant rants on Facebook I keep on churning out the same old tropes about the Welfare State, about 1945, about betrayed democracy, about privileged public schoolboys and their unforgivable assumptions of entitlement, about the intransigent a priori stupidities of successive education ministers….see what I mean? Stream of consciousness anger. It does no one any good. It does me no good.

And now I’m editing and tweaking my first full poetry collection, and discovering the unnerving truth that I endlessly repeat myself. You don’t really notice till you put all the poems alongside each other that the same words and images pop up like pals at a party who’ve had a couple too many. There are an alarming number of birds. Dead ones. Cold. Sky. Rain. Huge. Dark. Lucid. Ash. Wind. Many high places. A lot of falling. Flowers. Rocks. Sea. (No urban landscapes, no interiors….nothing, really, of my day to day realities and their physical presence. Why?)

So it doesn’t surprise me at all when I look at my notes for today’s post and find with a sort of sinking feeling of deja vu that we’re back in the world of poetry workshops, and ones in Sheffield in particular. I’m very happy every time I find myself there, or remembering myself there. It’s just that I expect you won’t necessarily share my enthusiasm. ‘Here he goes again’ I hear you say as you exit your screen and go out to look at clouds with their dark promise of rain, and wind, and cold, edging across the huge lucid skies above your back gardens. But stay with me. It’ll be worth your while.

Because the deja vu moment will last just long enough to introduce my guest today: Jim Caruth. Who I met, and continue to meet, as I meet so many, at the Poetry Business Writing Days in Sheffield. Some people make an impression straight away. It may be a poem about a train ride and drowning sheep. It might be a striking notebook (Martin Malone did that) or a hairstyle that involves a bright pink streak (she knows who she is). It could be so many things.

With Jim Caruth it was the voice that commanded the attention and then the poem that justified it. I’ll not take up your time with my thing about the unfair advantages of the Irish [North and South] when it comes to poetry. The dramas of their history and its terrible deprivations, the strangeness of their mythologies and folktales, the iconography of Catholicism and the transgressive disciplines of priests and nuns….and the voice, the accents. Enough to say that Jim has a voice, like Heaney, that you simply want to listen to, and that you go on hearing in his poetry when you lift it off the page. Think of Heaney and you’ll not go far wrong.

Anyway, the first poem I remember him workshopping, at the Premier Inn, in a room with several microclimates, was Pigeon Lofts, Penistone Road. It’s in his winning pamphlet The death of narrative , which I’ll give you the details of later.

pigeon lofts

It might have been because it described a rather melancholy bit of hillside that I would drive past on my way into, and out of Sheffield, and which always intrigued me. But when I think about it,it was precisely because it seemed to be so true to the place, so right, that it stayed with me, nailed down in one particular line

No one hears the wind / shake the perches free of bloodlines,

It still makes me shiver. And on another afternoon, in Bank Street, he workshopped Lethe, also in the collection, which elides a mythic Underworld with a salmon that leaps from a silver pool, and the entry into Hades of a shell-shocked, flustered woman with a harmless life of small sins of omission, who cannot remember the name of the Ferryman,

her face pale as a clock / her wide eyes emptying

It brings me close to tears, does that. I’ve known him a good while now, and I’ve been wanting him to be a guest on the cobweb for almost as long. So I’m delighted to introduce James Caruth. He was born in Belfast but has lived in Sheffield for the last 30 years. His first collection –  A Stones Throw was published in 2007 by Staple followed by a long sequence – Dark Peak, published by Longbarrow in 2008 and a pamphlet – Marking the Lambs, from Smith Doorstop in 2012.


His poem from this collection – The Deposition won the Sheffield Poetry Prize in 2011. His work has also been included in The Sheffield Anthology (Poems from the City Imagined), Smith Doorstop 2012 and The Footing, Longbarrow Press 2013 which includes a sequence of poems Tithes, based around the village of Stannington in South Yorkshire where he lives.

His pamphlet The Death of Narrative was a winner of the Poetry Business Competition 2014


It was judged by Carol Ann Duffy who said –

James Caruth’s poems tell stories that draw the reader in. His voice is warm and moving, and there is music to his writing which is completely captivating. This is an outstanding collection.

It isn’t all she said. She said this as well:

James Caruth’s remarkable poems are unlike anyone else’s. They are knowing and disingenuous at the same time, clear-eyed and romantic.

Well she’s woman who ought to know what she’s talking about, and I’m not about to argue. But you can make up your own minds. Jim has sent me three poems, and I think they not only show you the emotional and verbal range of the poetry, but also explain what I mean about the culture of the Irish and their diaspora, and why Irish poetry continues in such a rich contemporary vein.

The first poem I like in the same way as I like Lethe. There’s a precise lyricism in play that takes a very sure touch.


Your last days realised

in that small painting in the hallway,

a thin ditch stippled

across a stubble field.


Debussy’s Preludes

from the old upright in the back-room,

over and over and over again

until you got it right.


That evening driving home

my head still full of you,

when out of the gloom, a fox,

your eyes alive in the headlights.


I was struck by the startling moment of metamorphosis in the last line. Struck later, by the fact that there are no finite verbs. That these stanzas are not sentences but moments.

The next poem I liked instantly when I first heard it read. It meets that criterion of Clive James about the image, the moment that makes the poem. And when I was reading around, doing a bit of background for the post, I came across this documentary photograph. Do you see what I mean about ‘the moment’?

girders 3

Play the harp backwards

Who taught them to sling bridges from wires,

to walk straight-backed as convent girls,

along the narrow girders of high towers,

backs to the wind, never daring to look down.


Clustered in the tenements of Brooklyn

and the Lower East Side, like raucous gulls

lining the white hem of a small island

whose name comes in a half-remembered tongue.


At nights you’d find them in the bars

along the waterfront, reciting a catechism

of names as they listened to the old songs,

while outside snow fell on the desolate streets

and the Hudson heaved like a wounded animal.


When the money ran out, they fingered

the dust in their pockets, staggered home

to small rooms, to dream of a mail-boat

rounding the Head, a town shivering

in the yellow glow of street-lamps.


There’s not a foot put wrong, is there?  It’s a poem as deft and confident as the high-wire scaffolders and rivetters who built Manhattan. The images that nail it down:

straight-backed as convent girls;      

like raucous gulls / lining the white hem of a small island;     

the Hudson heaved like a wounded animal.

There’s the history of a place and of a people caught in a moment in time. I wish I could do that.

Since Lethe is the place where we depart from the known and familiar to the strange beyond the water, I guess it’s right to finish with this poem that, I think, needs no explanation or commentary. Listen to it.

The emigrant’s farewell

 I have come as far as I can.


To this point of the bay

where a granite edge and the sea meet

and retreat and the horizon’s

a purlin that holds up a red sky.

Something like grief is at my back,

a cold breath stirring the tide-line

of burger wrappers and empty cans

along the harbour wall. At times

when the wind comes at a certain slant

over the Head, you’ll hear them calling

their farewells to the faces lining the stern rail.

Some missed their mark, sailed out beyond

hearing into the vague and indeterminate.

Somewhere out there is a language of loss


but I have no words for this.

My head is full of easy metaphors,

sea, sky, failing light

and a voice that is saying –

go, but take nothing with you.


So, thank you, Jim Caruth for finally being a guest on the cobweb.It was worth the wait.

And remember…you can buy his books. So you should.

There’s more Irish poetry coming up before too long, but next week will be a return visit from another one of my favourite poets and one of my favourite people. Joan Jobe Smith is a big fan. You’ll need to be here early to make sure of a seat. Splash on some patchouli, break out the crushed velvet. Light a joss stick.


A Tuesday treat: a poem from Stephanie Blythe


I love this image; I love John Waterhouse’s work. I love The Lady of Shalott. So I was ever so happy last night when Stephanie Blythe, a regular performer on the open mic. at Puzzle Poets, stole the show with her pastiche/parody which places the Lady firmly in Happy Valley territory. I asked if I could share it on the cobweb, and she said yes. Here it is. Thankyou, Stephanie xxx

The Lady of Shalott – a parody


On benches by the river lie

Old tramps that barely meet your eye,

Dressed in warm rags and getting by;

And through their field the road runs by

To many-towered Camelot;

And up and down the people go,

With bags from Aldi or Tesco,

Passing an island there below; the island of Shalott.


Front doors slam and curtains quiver

Dog walkers complain and shiver;

Bloody cold and wet November

By the island in the river,

Flowing down to Camelot.

Four gray walls, and four gray towers,

Lager cans and sleet and showers,

And the silent isle embowers the Lady of Shalott.


By the bus stop, heavy-veiled

Wait the local ladies trailed

By slow children; and unhailed

The bus drove straight past and has failed

To take them down to Camelot:

But who has seen her wave her hand?

Or fiddle with a rubber band?

Or is she known in all the land, the Lady of Shalott?


Only dustmen, driving early

Round Queens Road and on to Warley,

Hear a song that echoes queerly

From the river winding clearly,

Down to towered Camelot:

And by the moon the Copper weary,

Watching locals acting scary,

Listening, whispers “‘It’s the fairy Lady of Shalott.”




There she surfs by night and day

The World Wide Web in colours gay.

She has heard a whisper say,

A curse is on her if one day,

She looks down to Camelot.

She knows not what the curse may be,

And so she browses steadily,

And little other care has she, the lady of Shalott.


And looking at an I-pad dear

She bought from PC world last year,

Shadows of the world appear.

There she sees the highway near,

Winding down to Camelot:

There the roaring traffic whirls,

She sees the surly village-girls,

The England flag furls and unfurls from windows in Shalott.


But in the web she still delights

To look at Google’s magic sights,

And often through the silent nights

A You Tube video with lights

And music, comes from Camelot:

Or when the moon was overhead,

Came two young lovers lately wed;

“They really piss me off,” she said, the Lady of Shalott.




A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,

He chucked up in the fallen leaves,

It’s raining on him as he heaves,

He’s had a bit too much and grieves,

does bold Sir Lancelot.

A magpie looked down as it wheeled

Above him, he who couldn’t shield

what sparkled on the playing field,  beside remote Shalott.


He rode a bike that he’d got free,

From Freecycle – too small, but see,

He didn’t need much luxury.

The cycle-bell rang merrily

As he weaved in and out a lot:

And from his sporty backpack slung

Behind, a silver tankard hung,

And as he rode it clanged and clung, beside remote Shalott.


All in the gloomy cloudy weather

Thick dew shone from the saddle-leather,

His cycle helmet had a feather

He looked a picture altogether,

As he rode down to Camelot.

From the bank and from the river

He flashed into her bathroom mirror,

“Tirra lirra,” by the river, sang Sir Lancelot.


She set a download to “resume”,

She took three paces thro’ the room,

She saw the water-lily bloom,

She saw the helmet and the plume,

She looked down to Camelot.

Black went the screen, the Ipad died;

The mirror cracked from side to side;

“I’ve got an effing virus,” cried the Lady of Shalott.




In the stormy east-wind straining,

The pale-yellow street lights waning,

The poor girl in distress complaining,

Heavily the low sky raining

Over towered Camelot;

Down she came and found a bloke

And asked him if he’d take a note

To Launcelot; her love she wrote – the Lady of Shalott.


And down the river’s dim expanse –

Like some youngster in a trance,

Having had too long a dance –

With a glassy countenance

She did look to Camelot.

And at the closing of the day

She wondered what she’d have to pay

To get the Ipad back in play,  the Lady of Shalott.


Launcelot was turning right

When the bloke puffed into sight

Come to shout the lady’s plight

Through the noises of the night,that floated up from Camelot:

And as he cycled on and on

And up the hill, humming a song

The bloke told him to get along to the Lady of Shalott.


He cycled back, he cycled near

Surprised the lady from the rear

Continuing to poke and peer

At the sodding Ipad dear,

That she’d bought in Camelot:

But Lancelot mused a little space;

He said, “She has a lovely face;

I’d like to move into her place, the Lady of Shalott.”


Stephanie Blythe

A gem revisited : Yvie Holder


I’m awash with poems and poets and poetry. Saturday and today : Poetry at the Parsonage. A two day poetry festival in Haworth; two stages, and more poets than you could shake a stick at. I’ve never been to a poetry festival before, let alone being asked to read at one. It reminded me of all the small folk festivals I’ve been to, with much less instruments and infinitely less alcohol. In fact , not like a folk festival at all, except in one important way. This is an entirely personal thing. In both cases there’s usually too much choice, a bit like when you’re just finishing your meal at an Indian restaurant and see someone on another table about to tuck into something that, quite unreasonably, seems more inviting than what you’ve just had.

To be honest, I’m exactly the same about art exhibitions. I can only hold so much in my mind before it starts to turn into visual noise. I guess the ultimate expression of this is the RA Summer Exhibition.

RA Exhibition

It’s the way one image will push away another, or jostle for attention, when what every image deserves is space and time. A surrounding quietness. The same goes for poems, with me. I’m too easily distracted by people wandering in and out of a performance space, or by the worry that something’s overrunning, and I’ll miss something else.

So today I had to miss readings by Clare Shaw, and by Anthony Costello, and Steve Pottinger, and… on and so on.Now, before this sounds miserablist, let me get something straight.In the time I was there, yesterday and today, I got to read with Patrick Lodge. I partnered him on Helen Mort’s lovely ‘Leads to Leeds’ project, writing poems in response to his without ever having met him or talked to him. All by email until we actual met yesterday. Briefly, but we met. So thanks for the project, Helen Mort which brought 10 pairs of poets onto the stage inside just over an hour. More than 30 poems about Leeds, in one way or another!  (by the way, if you haven’t come across the project, give yourself a treat and follow this link  )

I got to hear Alison Lock, whose textured work I like a lot; there was Wendy Pratt, and Carole Bromley. There was Gaia Holmes whose poems can move from exuberant near-fantasy, to lines that can break your heart. I’m looking forward to having some of her new ‘Orkney poems’ sequence on the cobweb before too long. I got to see three great comperes at work. Three different styles, but all able to juggle plates and keep smiling, and know everything about the performers with apparent ease and aplomb. Thank you, Geveieve Walsh, Winston Plowes and Mark Connors. In fact thanks to everyone who assembled and stocked this cornucopia of talents. It’s none of your fault that I can’t take it all in.

Tomorrow I’ll be running the open mic. at The Puzzle Poets Live at the Blind Pig, in Sowerby Bridge. Our guest will be Greg Freeman, who will take time out from publicicising poetry via the estimable ‘Write out Loud’ to actually performing. And I’m really looking forward to that. And Tuesday will be the launch of Bob Horne’s first pamphlet [thanks to Simon Zonenblick’s Caterpillar Poetry] following the launch of four pamphlets by other people this year via Bob’s own Calder Valley Publishing venture.

bobs launch

I’ll be supporting him, along with Gaia Holmes and Vicky Gatehouse, whose work you’ve been able to read on the cobweb already. Anyway, it would be lovely to see you. Brighouse Library, 7.30pm. Tuesday July 5th. Poetry four days in a row. I know this is normality for some of my friends. Where do they get the stamina? I envy them. But right now, I’m putting up my feet and handing over to my revisited gem, Yvie Holder, who was one of my very first guests, in June 2014.

I wrote then about the business of reunions and friendship, about how I came to know Yvie, and she let me have a couple of her poems. This was one of them.

I liked the quirky, unnerving invention of ‘Cracked’ which reminds me of the way Guillermo del Toro scares me in ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’.


Don’t step on the cracks. You might

slip. Lie flat across pavements,


peer in, one-eyed: you’ll see us,

broken, like crumbs, packed into


an ill-fitting darkness, lost,

straining up to the greylight.


Some of us once spanned the sky

between the dawn and dusk, lolled


in the space between telegraph

wires, between words; wove love-talk


around hushed voices, formed air

between leaves and breezes;


we dappled green through branches,

we rode the blue among stars.


Fault lines opened, or, we slipped.

How to return to you up there,


you, the sure-footed who

never need to lok down? Will


we stay forever between

cracks, trying to recall


the idea of firm ground

and how broad the daylight is?


So, what’s she been up to? Over to Yvie.She’s even given it a title. I call that service.

Getting back to ourselves in time                                 

This slightly-later-than-planned contribution to Fogs’ series of blogs on ‘gems revisited’ had to give way to the flowers I grew for a friend’s daughter’s late-May wedding. Plants remind me of teenagers, at times. ‘You know that wedding you wanted us to be ready for? We slept late. Is it still on? Oh, it was two weeks ago? So we’re not going in a bouquet then?’ Poems, similarly: ‘You know that deadline you were trying to meet, for that comp? Well, I’m ready now. Oh. That was last month?’


Writing has taken hold in the past few years, often squeezed in around life’s dramas, and, sometimes, reflecting them. For me, nature, gardens and landscape tend to be a refuge from an unsettling world. Some poems, fortunately, have been ready ‘in time’ and are out there in publications, online (and, gratifyingly, in people’s memories). They’re on Carole Bromley’s YorkMix blog; on Nutshells and Nuggets, waiting to appear in Poems in the Waiting Room; in The Friargate Anthology; in Poems for Nepal: Hardship and Hope (which meant reading with Carole, Antony Dunn and Zaffar Kunial at a very moving evening in York  hosted by York Explore); longlisted (darnn!) two years’ running in the York Literature Festival Poetry Competition; and published in Opening a Different Window: a poetry and illness anthology, (Poetry Business, now an e-book), which arose from a project looking at whether, and how, poetry comes into play in the experience of chronic illness.


Since I’m interested in dementia, this was a valuable project in all kinds of ways. I’m writing a series of pieces which reflect the grief(s) and the occasional, unexpected delights of that condition, and they’re emerging both as poems and as prose. I’m still working on a memoir, honouring and exploring the experience of my father, who had that illness, and that of the generation of immigrants who arrived, strived and contributed to an ambivalent UK of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, and who are passing away without their stories, and those of their families, being written.

I’ve been hugely encouraged during various courses, in particular for the memoir by Andrea Stuart and Julie Wheelwright and a fab group of students with amazing stories to tell; and on poetry, by Mimi Khalvati and Daljit Nagra (with another fantastic group. Lucky me). Both those were at Arvon’s The Hurst. Last summer, an Inscribe course, with Dorothea Smartt, Khadija Sesay and Jackie Kay, shortly before Jackie was announced as Scotland’s Makar, also reached dizzying heights, of hilarity and inspiration.


Input was also welcome from the University of York’s Advanced Creative Writing Course (tutored by Carole Bromley), which has now, sadly, ended, and the Rural Yorkshire Stanza, facilitated by Pat Borthwick.


I love collaborating. With Leeds-based Jenny Zobel (JZ), we’ve created poetry and prose gigs for York’s International Women’s Festival since 2014. Drawing on our Caribbean, African, American, UK and European connections, we’ve explored themes of migration, freedom, identity, love, loss and celebration; we read our own pieces, as well as sharing the thoughts of those who’ve inspired and sustained us over many decades, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Grace Nichols, Wole Soyinka and Joseph Zobel, among many others. The last session, in March this year, was full to capacity.


It’s been a joy developing a new initiative in East Yorkshire, the Words on the Water Poetry Cafés, with another local writer, Clara Challoner-Walker. You know how it goes – an idea over coffee…next month, it’s on (though ‘next month’ was a big ask!). We’ve run three so far, with audiences of between 20 and 40 in village halls, and raised over £1000 for local charities, thanks to fantastic support from a wide range of regional poets, and the volunteers doing a great job of providing everyone with tapas, wine (optional) and raffle tickets (compulsory!).


Those Poetry Cafés have provided a platform for 18 poets, a mixture of unpublished and published, and some local musicians. People said they enjoyed being able to go to a poetry gig on their doorstep; they made all kinds of unexpected connections with each other, and comments such as ‘I didn’t think I liked poetry, but I enjoyed this,’ were common. We’re having a break at the moment and hope to do more when life’s dramas give us some breathing space.


Thanks to those of you who bought my pamphlet, Abolition Blues and Other Poems, which sold quickly…oh and somewhere amongst all this, songs have begun creeping into my writing. So, if you’re at one of my readings, you may well find yourself joining in. Be warned.


There have been several pauses while I was writing this, as mid-June’s awful events have been unfolding.


Here’s a poem with a bit of hope in it, which arose out of a radio piece about a care home.





I can’t help

this: all my life

the early song,

first one ringing,

piercing the near-light,

cracking my night-shell,

then another, almost an echo,

like a chuckle, then a love-call

and more and more, scooping me up

out of sleep into life, out to the scent of dew-damp earth

and the clinking rhythms of glass and crate, out into my secret bliss,

my own street chorus, the swirl and the whoop of it –

every dawn my rebirth.


Here, no-one remembers the way things were, no-one knows who I am:

as soon as I wake to the music, the calling, they’re swishing around

in plastic aprons, smothering me at four in the morning,

flushing away my crimson dawns, weighting my limbs

with sleeping-pills. I’m gagged, bound

and buried inside

their antiseptic




I can’t help

this: straining

to break the muzzle in my head,

to breathe, to stretch and touch the pristine air,

sense its pinch on my cheeks, gulp its moist breath, be airborne

among warbling eaves and aerial-staves and silhouette-quavers

on whispering wires, riding the breeze in the morning streets, ascending

to my invisible choirs, my madrigal joy.




Postscript. July 2nd 2016

I was writing before the referendum and the current turmoil. ‘Mid-June’s awful events’ referred to the assassination of Jo Cox. We were trying to hold on to the values of #moreincommon

Today, as we stumble on ground that seems to be shifting so quickly beneath us, when it’s as though we’ve woken up among attitudes from that Britain of fifty, sixty or even seventy years ago, (which broad-minded and forward-thinking people rejected as outdated even then), as though all that work has been for nothing – I’m reminded of Maya Angelou, of the resonances in the title of her collection I Shall Not Be Moved, published in 1999; and of the last lines of her poem Human Family: We are more alike, my friends / Than we are unalike. At her sell-out performance at Hay Festival in 2002[1], Benjamin Zephaniah, introducing her, summarised her view that her work was meant to say ‘you may encounter defeats, but you must never be defeated.’

How we need our ancestors, our forbears, literary and otherwise, to help us take the long view; to renew our resolve and refresh our creativity; to nudge us towards common ground; but above all, to bring us back to ourselves, remind us who we can be.


Yvie…you couldn’t have come visiting at a better time. Thanks for coming. Thanks for the update. Thanks for the hope and the milkman. xxx

Next week, it’s a guest I’ve been wanting for a very long time. ‘ll say no more, other than that he’s Irish, and he’s been a winner of the Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition. Maybe that’s given the secret away. See you next week, if not sooner.