Well, there’s serendipity. I was looking for an image of a lapstraked boat and up comes this one, on the shore of possibly my favourite place in the world. This is on the shore at Armadale, just by the pier where the Skye ferry from Mallaig docks. In the background, on the left, is the Gaelic college on its headland. And across the Sound is Knoydart, and beyond it, miles of roadless wilderness. Lovely.
Lapstrake. It sounds old and Norse. According to my dictionaries it only turned up in the 18thC…which is something of a surprise. It means the same thing as ‘clinker-built’, made of overlapping strips. This one at Armadale is what Viking boats looked like, utterly beautiful, perfectly designed. I heard the word first when today’s guest, Wendy Pratt, read at the Puzzle Hall Poets Live, and it resonated and stuck. It’s the title of her third collection (details at the end). I liked it so much that I had to put it in my poem ‘Bheinn na Caillich’. It’s a poem about the Norsemen and the boats that took them to Miklagard, to Greenland and Iceland, and the western seaboard of the Americas…the Vinland and beyond.
because nothing could gainsay
a well-caulked, lapstraked boat
with a flare at the bow that perfectly
fit a space the water would make for it:
their oceans were swanspaths and whaleroads
So here we go: a big thankyou to Wendy for a word that makes a line sing. I’m not the only one to sing her praises. Before I knew her, she’d been a guest on Kim Moore’s Sunday Poem blog, where Kim wrote:
“Today’s Sunday Poem is by Wendy Pratt, who I read with a couple of months ago in Leeds at the Poetry By Heart reading series in the Heart Cafe in Headingley. Wendy read from her pamphlet ‘Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare’. The title poem to this pamphlet is fantastic – I loved it as soon as I heard it.
From the first line Wendy establishes the character of Nan with that colloquial, confiding ‘I will tell you how it was’, so it feels as if the poem is being whispered in the readers ear. I love how the balance of power is explored in this poem – you can see this in the line ‘so I could settle myself like a child within her’ – the hare is the place of safety and Nan is a child – but then later on ‘An odd feeling this,/to hold another’s soul in the mouth like an egg’ so by this line it seems that Nan is in charge again. Another favourite line is the description of the mind of the hare ‘Her mind/was simple, full of open space and weather’. I read that and thought, well yes, of course, what else could a hare’s mind be full of? I would really recommend buying the pamphlet – it is a moving collection of poems exploring loss and transformation.”
It is indeed. I wrote about it in an earlier post, and also reviewed it with great enthusiasm.
“One of my fictional heroes is Esther Summerson in ‘Bleak House’. Most of the students I’ve ‘taught’ on A level and on degree courses disliked her or dismissed her as wetly pious. I argued long and hard for her courage, her moral strength; I always believed in her genuine humility rooted in a sense of her own worthlessness. It takes a lot for her to believe that she can truly be loved, as opposed to being relied on. I’m not sure if this is germane to this week’s cobweb strand. Who knows where we’ll end up. But, like Esther, ‘I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I am not very clever.’ She adds: ‘I always knew that’. I wish I could, hand on heart, say that. And let me clear up what I mean by clever here. I’m not talking about smart arse clever (I always knew that) or clever-clogs clever. What I have in mind is ‘knowing’; the knowledge of the heart and the imagination, and the knowledge of the physical self.. I first tried to clarify it in The other side of silence, a post on 28/12/2014. This what I wrote about poems by Fiona Benson:
‘There’s a physicality about these poems that’s unanswerable, and a synthesis of the solid worlds of absolutely imagined birds and wild creatures, of weathers and the leaching of soils and the decay of rocks with the intensely particular personal life of the poet that makes this collection so wonderful and distressing. She [Fiona Benson] reminds me of Wendy Pratt, not just because of the coincident experience, but their way of somehow living on level terms with it, and their way with words. Like this from ‘Nan Harwicke turns into a hare‘
I will tell you how it was. I slipped
into the hare like a nude foot
into a glorious slipper. Pushing her bones
to one side to make room for my shape
so I could settle myself like a child within her.
In the dark I groped for her freedom…..
There’s that physicality, that sensuality, again, and again infused by the unspeakable loss of a child that has to be spoken and spoken for.’
What I hung back from was that it’s not an accident that some of the poems that have moved me most of late are written by women. It’s not an accident, either, that I’ve been absorbed in stories of metamorphosis, particularly in retellings of Ovid. What has been consistent in this is the feeling that women have access to knowledge that men can’t have. The feeling that women are metamorphic and tidal, that they go through changes that a man can’t imagine, and that this makes them capable of different modes of imagining. It doesn’t mean that all of them can articulate it, or are necessarily consciously aware of it. But, when they are, the results are powerful and unnerving. When I re-read Ted Hughes’ retellings of Ovid, and even Robin Robertson [in ‘Swithering’] I think they are external. Powerful, but externally dramatised. I’m struggling to articulate it. What I find in, say, Fiona Benson, and in the passage from Wendy Pratt’s poem I just quoted is a kind of emotional fluidity and in Hughes and Robertson a sort of epic stiffness, like renaissance paintings.
Kim writes about poems exploring loss and transformation. Exactly. Wendy Pratt finds ways of writing about the unsayable, the desperation of the loss of a child, the agonising uncertainties of fertility/infertility, and the way that may draw you as a writer towards the analogies of myth. I understand that.
But it’s time Wendy took over. I asked her to revist a poem, to tell us what she’s been up to since her last appearance on the cobweb, and also to bring us a new poem. So here she is Big round of applause for Wendy Pratt.
“Here’s my revisited poem:
You wear your death like dance slippers,
taking them out of their coffin-box
at the barre, while you arabesque and plié,
allegro lightly round the room, touch the mirror,
turn, feel your feet bleed into the blocks,
assemble on your own edge, bitter
and full of remorse. The dance becomes a quick-step,
a flamenco, a stream of soft tap, a fox-trot.
The slippers lead. But you are no black swan.
Someone needs to stop you, pull you back, help,
I’ve chosen to go back to this one because at the time that I was writing this I was very much proving to myself that I could work in fairly complex forms. This is a curtailed sonnet, though not the strictest form of one. It has 11 and a half lines, and an ABCABC DBBDB Which isn’t exactly correct according to the form examples that I have read about, but is exactly what I wanted to do with it. The idea was to start the poem off following the form and then start to disrupt it until the half line where the ‘sonnet’ falls off, uncompleted. I’d been working on Lapstrake, when I wrote Danse Macabre and had delved into some very complex forms throughout it, it was almost like I couldn’t stop solving puzzles. I haven’t been as fixated on form since then. I must have proved to myself that I could do it. Why did I need to prove it to myself? Because I didn’t feel like a ‘proper’ poet until I knew the rules well enough to break them, which is a total cliche, but a true one. I’ve written a couple of sonnets and I often write Haiku as they’re like little photographs of moments, and I like that. But mostly I am writing free verse now. ”
“So, what have I been doing since? Well, Lapstrake was published and did very well, I’m still very proud of it, and I have a second full collection with a new publisher that I am waiting to hear about. I also finally finished my Selkie pamphlet which I have been writing for about three years now; that is now at the polishing stage, ready to go out to competitions and publishers. I am working on another full sized collection about infertility and body image, which sounds dark and heavy, but is actually proving to be a celebration, and acceptance of the physical. My husband and I have recently decided to not have any more IVF after five rounds, so that is a bit of a catalyst for re-examining how I feel about myself. The poems in the collection are an examination and questioning of ownership, particularly in regards to pregnancy and fertility. I think most women will recognise the themes. I’m also now at Hull University, doing a practice-led poetry PhD. It’s based around the use of language, how poetry works, what poetry IS, using the sea as a model. The whole thing is sea based, and the concept of aquariums as containers similar to how we contain with words is key to it. I had my first PhD poem published recently, which eased my imposter syndrome somewhat.
At the beginning of this year I decided that my new year’s resolution was to take my work seriously. I guess I wanted to take myself seriously too, but it feels weird to say that, I’m not sure why. I have changed my writing practice accordingly. I now say that I am a writer and small business owner, rather than a small business owner who also writes. I am heading towards the end of the year feeling like I have accomplished this, to a certain degree. I am now applying for residencies, awards, positions, teaching and workshopping work, and just like when I first started submitting my poems and I used to cringe at the idea (me? Sending poems out? People will laugh!) I felt the same about applying for work. I still end up doing quite a lot of free stuff, but I am much better at saying no.
I just heard that I won second place in a competition with a poem I am proud of. I’m proud because the other two competitions I won, last year, were with poems about my daughter, who died in 2010. I have a lot of poems about her, and I still write about her. But I’d started to feel that I was only writing about her, and those were the poems that people wanted to see, and I felt defined by the loss. I made a pact with myself to write about other stuff and found myself writing other stuff. I worried I wasn’t good enough, but this poem, The Sound of Geese, it is like confirmation that I can do this.”
Anyway, my new (ish) poem. Not unpublished, it first appeared in The Dawn Treader and is in the new collection.
When it comes; thick and soft
as the pelt of an animal,
I am grounded, brought down
to calm in the smell of damp earth.
We wait like the wet starlings,
under tree cover, their song-work
undone in the shallow hiss
of leaves and rain. I am paused,
smelling the green of the grass,
the hung heads of daffodils,
watching the plough furrows
fill with water. A dog barks
somewhere, on one of the farms,
the spaniel lifts his wet head, waits
as I wait, we are communed,
marooned, standing peacefully,
watching the water make mud
out of soil, movement out of stillness.
I love the texture of this, the apparent plainness of words enriched by the wet sibilant sounds of falling rain, the deftness of the rythm and line breaks, the healing quiet of it all. Should you ask about the final image…well, it’s because Wendy posts many images of her beachwalk landscapes, the shore at Filey, the slumped boulder clay cliffs, the patterning of waveshaped sand.
It’s been a treat having her. If you haven’t already bought her books then the details follow. Next week we have a poet whose first pamphlet will be launched at the Albert Poets next Thursday, and we’ve got plans for the cobweb to move to new and elegant premises. It all depends of the IT savvy/magic of my son Michael, but if all goes well there’ll be a new book of mine that can be yours by the wonder of Paypal. Fingers crossed, and thankyou again, Wendy Pratt for being our guest and doing so much work for me xx
Nan Hardwicke turns in to a hare : (with a preface by Alison Brackenbury) Prolebooks [2011.] £4.50
Museum Pieces (with a foreword by Abegail Morley) Prolebooks  £6.50
Lapstrake (Flarestack Poets) £5.50