I’m going back in the archive for a chunk of something I wrote that seems entirely appropriate as an introduction to today’s special guest, the prolific and indefatigable John Duffy.
“A long time ago I wrote a retelling of a Finnish fire myth, from the Kalevala. In the original, at the making of stars by the god Ukko, fire falls to earth through the inattention of one of the anonymous star maidens . The spark is finally captured by the hero Vainemoinen; he’s the one who gets the credit. But you never know where a retelling will take you. In my version, though I never intended it, the gift of fire becomes an act of rebellion by the star maiden, who pities the creatures of the earth in their blood-chilling winters. She becomes Promethean, a bright star, and the god Ukko just another divine and appalling tyrant.
I’d forgotten all about it till one morning, when I was waiting for a man to change two rear car tyres for ones that wouldn’t readily blow out on a motorway, and I was reading Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Landmarks’. There’s a chapter marvellously called The tunnel of stones and axes. Just like that, I was reunited with Vainemoinen. The hero has been set to find the Lost-Words. For want of the names he cannot build his ship right. Without the thousand Lost-Words he cannot name the world to make it real.
‘Synonyms are of no use,’ writes Macfarlane. ‘ The power of each name is specific to its form.’
To understand this is to understand enchantment; we grow accustomed to the story of the enchanted castle, spellstruck, sleepstruck, drowning in thorn and briar, and to its cold, enchanted sarcophagus princess, white as marble. To be enchanted is to be made helpless and probably immobile. Macfarlane urges a truer meaning. To en-chant. To call into being. To summon by chanting, when only the true Lost-Words will do.”
So here we are. Enchantment. The power of truly chosen words to conjure, to tell truly.
And here’s the cover of John Duffy’s new pamphlet…yes, it’s another from the the prolific Calder Valley Poetry. It’s the fifth title this year. Should you want to know more about them and ,indeed, order some, you can do no better than follow this link:
Werewolves, Pennine Tales, ravens, fallen angels, and now Glamourie. You don’t need to look it up. It’s a Scots word. It means ‘enchantment’, and it’s an enchanting collection of poems from a man who loves words and the craft of words. .You may be aware that it’s not the first time you’ve seen the word. Kathleen Jamie‘s already used it as the title of a poem that relives a moment of bewitchment in an everyday wood, of feeling a sudden loss, of a search for a lost one. Here’s a flavour of it. It explains ‘glamourie’ better than I ever could
“It was hardly the Wildwood,
just some auld fairmer’s
shelter belt, but red haws
reached out to me,
…………………………. I tried
calling out, or think
I did, but your name
shrivelled on my tongue”
Well, we know full well that the words rarely shrivel on Kathleen Jamie’s tongue, and neither do they on John Duffy’s. Time for an introduction. John writes of himself that he:
” was born in Glasgow seventy years ago, and has lived in Huddersfield since 1984. He has worked as a social and community worker in Glasgow, London, Huddersfield and Bradford, and as a bibliotherapist in Batley.He has run writing workshops mainly with community and mental health groups since the mid 1990s, and is one of the founders of Huddersfield’s Albert Poets, still going after 25 years.
He gave up employment in the 1980s to look after the house and children (not in that order), while Cathy qualified as a midwife (he calls this the practice of husbandry). When he moved to Huddersfield he made good use of Kirklees Council’s Writing in the Community workshops, and met the other Albert poets.
He likes reading, baking bread and making soup
walking and singing, and is much given to utopian speculation.”
He’s too modest to tell you what scores of poets around the West Riding (and beyond) will happily tell you…that there are scores of poets who owe him a huge debt for his quiet encouragement and support, for his enthusiasm, for his sustained stewardship of the Albert Poets in Huddersfield, along with Stephanie Bowgett, (who will ere long be published by Calder Valley Poetry, and appear on the cobweb as a guest, and not for the first time). No surprise to see Geoff Hattersley turn up for the launch of Glamourie, just over a week ago. Nor that Julia Deakin was there to read along with John. Steph and John have run the the Albert Poets for years. Norman MacCaig’s been there among others, and for 11 months of the year, on the second Thursday of each, you can treat yourself to a wealth of contemporary poetry. They also run a weekly Monday evening writers’ workshop, where I’ve grown accustomed to John Duffy’s shrewd editorial ear and eye. I’ve never taken a draft to a Monday night session without coming home with something tighter, righter, better. A labour of love for me, this post. As is obvious.
Right. Time for the poems.
Gravity and the bairn
” I didna ken whaur I was, or what I was daein,
nae mair nor a soukin bairn. H. Hunter, Edinburgh. 1894″
Gravity grips the moses basket,
pins the baby to the sheet –
holds us to the Earth,
cradles Sun and planets.
Brick, stone, cement and wood
shelter this flight of stairs, this room;
stand tensed against that weightiness
and the baby, who knows none
of the words for gravity,
waves arms in the air, kicks off
the quilt, lets the hand teach –
reaches, grasps a toy, lifts and squints:
inside the skull, sparks leap
from lobe to lobe; beneath the skin
nerves, sinews, veins churn,
roots in a springtime meadow.
One day she’ll stand, this bairn,
speak and sing and cry and laugh;
rattle the bars; put down the mighty.
What I love about this is its passionate tenderness; it’s full of love, but it’s a deep-rooted love, one that finds its anchor in the sheer reliable physicality of the world, and the universe it turns in. It’s a poem that declares that we all have our place in a world that’s there for us to celebrate and shape. I’d love you to be able to listen to John’s reading- always quiet, precisely valuing the warmth of vowels, the structure of consonants. Every bit of it works. Imagine West Scots; a softened Glasgow accent, listen to the music of what may just be a prayer.
The next poem is darker; it invokes a world of conflict, of opposition; one where babies are born into a world that won’t guarantee to unconditional love of the first poem.
An event’s a cloud
overhead, a shapeless thing
sliding beyond your hopes,
disappearing into blue
as you watch
its leading edge, or
intimate as the breeze
from a wasp’s wing
cool on the skin
on the back of your hand
before the slight tickle
of feet as it lands.
A baby gulps
for sobs, frets
from itch, stinks,
squirms from rage
of thirst; the mother,
tired and tethered,
looks to the other woman,
tired and sweating
from her strapload
of explosives. It balances
the baby draws breath.
Every word is doing a job here. It’s such a sure-footed poem. The title’s exact isn’t it…that business of the teetering awkward balance of things. It’s a fragile thing, balance. Balance is something that informs the next poem. And there’s a crow in it. There are a lot of birds in John’s poetry that ranges widely through many landscapes, though the ones he sent me are, I think are abstract or urban.
bodily into the air
in mid-air the crow
in the bare treetop
cocked its head and
with a tweak
of its neck
two feet or so
with the weight
with the heft
of the stick
gripped in its beak
two men canted
from their trolley
onto the camber
in one fluid
into the back
of the van
took the strain
This one demands to be read aloud, to be heard. A poem of careful and exact consonants. A poem of balanced forces. A poem of en-chantment. There’s a poem in the collection called The Strength of It which starts:
I have tethered the moon .
It’s a poem of huge distances, mountains, oceans. The poets says
I could play it like a trout in a burn
that needs to wheedled,
coaxed from the brown bur
school it like a horse in a pen,
wheel it, twitch the reins
moor it like a ship ….The Moon –
its lunatic cargo rocks
in its hold.
He feels the tug of the moon like the throb in the breast / of a thrush in the hand
and ends with a resolution:
I’ll see if I can best it.
How’s that for a poet’s manifesto, and a commitment to a craft? Magic. That’s what galamourie is. Not the overgrown sleepstruck edifice. True naming, that’s what it’s about. That’s what John Duffy does. Head on down to Calder Valley Poetry, and buy the collection. You won’t be disappointed.
Next week I’m going to ramble about pamphlets and collections. You may need to make notes. In the meantime, thank you, John Duffy, for being this week’s brilliant guest.