My Grandmother was a Pink-footed Goose
I squint north –
clouds like the sails
of a goosewinging boat.
I blow on my fists,
feel the scrunched membrane
meshing index to thumb.
Nails press like quills,
as if each finger
could sprout a pinion
and my thumb could end
in a bastard wing.
Where are the flocks?
My Mémé was bird-bone hollow, all ribstrakes and flapping bald elbows, flesh slouched over a V of sternum. Shallow breath-râles, knuckly birdleg fingers. Her English evaporated as her mind nested the tumor. The remains: ‘J’ai ces … hallucinations’ of pools and oceans, my father webbing through air, his hands in outspread sheaves of primaries.
Plume-cinder ash when we burned Mémé. The south-easterly hush-hushed it north.
I don’t usually start with a poem, but the thing is, I’ve been rereading the poems that our guest for today sent me in June 2015. And realising that I hadn’t read them properly at all. Or perhaps it’s that after five days of intensive reading and writing on a residential writing course, I’m just that bit more fine-tuned to really, really listen to what a poem intends me to hear.
What we make of a poem is what we bring to it, all our memory that shapes the poem we reinvent from the text on the page. I suppose what I brought to it, among other things, was my relationship with the story of Icarus, of a boy whose wings failed him, and a father complicit in his death. Also, thirty years of responsiblities for increasingly old and frail relatives – my mother, my mother and father-in law. Also a day in June one year when I took my mother’s ashes to a waterfall in a quiet Dales valley. Also my father, the birdwatcher, and the cold northern hills and seas and skies where I think I belong. And all that baggage can get in the way of what’s there, if we listen. I didn’t attend properly to the voice of this poem…or perhaps the voices which overlap…..and what they are telling me and discovering for themselves. So what triggered a re-understanding (which may well still be wide of the mark)?
I’ve asked all the returning guests if they’d like to reflect on one or more of the poems that I put on the cobweb on their first visit. Yvonne chose to write a short commentary on two. It was when I read what she wrote about My Grandmother was a Pink-footed Goose that I was brought up short; the first part about her grandmother is fascinating:
‘My Grandmother was a Pink-Footed Goose’ was inspired by a decomposed pigeon that flopped from the roof of the block of flats where I live! No-one else cleared it up, so I rolled up my sleeves and held my nose … It was an interesting intimation of mortality. I’d been wanting to elegise my Swiss grandmother for a long while, and I used images of keelbones, quills and ribs to evoke a body racked with illness. She was the last native speaker of French in our family, but she was also a real polyglot: she spoke excellent English, good German and some Romansh. I wanted to honour her heritage as a migrant, and to end my poem with an image of renewal and return.
I’d been intrigued by the imagery of keelbones, quills and ribs, and it’s always nice to be let into the thinking and feeling that went into it. But in a later comment, when Yvonne is bringing me up to date on what she’s been up to, is something that stopped me dead.
My collection in progress is about mountaineering in the Highlands and Alps. It elegises my father, who died in the Grey Corries
The Grey Corries in the Nevis range are one of those landscapes I can only dream of, and read of. They’re too big, too hard, too altogether intimidating. I don’t have the strength, or the limbs, or the confidence to go into those high and unrelenting places. And I had a son who died in a fall from a high place. So I read that sentence, and then went back and READ
my father webbing through air, his hands in outspread sheaves of primaries.
I have no notion whether I’m reading truly, but I know I’ll no longer read that line and think ‘what a wonderfully nailed down image of a great bird in flight’. Instead, I’ll remember watching a friend of mine fall off a pitch on a face in Borrowdale, and every account I’ve read of fatal falls on mountains will blur together, and mesh with that one word ‘webbing’. And, I suppose, I’ll be faced once more with the complicated business of the relation of the poem which is out there on its own terms, and the knowledge we have, or haven’t, about the writer, her biography, her intentions. And we’d better, at the same time, acknowledge that she may not have known what her intentions were, and that she may still not know what, or how, she feels about the process. All I know is that when I’ve written about Daedalus, or Hephaestus, or Mallory, or, indeed, Lucifer, I never knew what was going on, and was regularly unnerved and surprised. Thank you, Yvonne Reddick, for making me see that more clearly, whether you meant to or not. And if I’m totally off track with the whole business, the question of what a poem means, and what it can be made to mean, will still be there, insistent and demanding our attention.
Right. To the main event. Time to introduce our guest properly. Yvonne Reddick grew up between Glasgow, Berkshire, Kuwait City and France. She is a dual citizen of Britain and Switzerland. When she moved to Preston, she found that the North of England had the world’s best tea, humour and hillwalking, so she decided to stay. Last time she was here,she had published two pamphlets of poetry, LandForms; and Deerhart [Knives, Forks and Spoons Press 2016]; she also co-edited The Apple Anthology for Nine Arches Press. Educated at Cambridge and the Warwick Writing Programme, she works as an academic researcher and lecturer in Creative Writing.
She chose to write about both the poems on the cobweb last year. The first was this:
I’m called shinbone flute-singer, lyre-stringer,
August dry bird, jar fly.
My body is soundbox, drumskin, motor,
I tap my timbal – a ratcheting vibraslap
revving to a tom-tom.
I brace against the branch; wings and voice strain open –
when I amp it up to a whirring howl
my ballad could burst your eardrum.
My chirring fills woodlands, porches,
your sleepless house!
On windscreens, in gardens,
my kind lie in drifts,
lyric cicadas exhausted from calling.
‘Dry Bird’: I’d written this piece about the lyric cicada, Tibicen lyricen lyricen, and the first line plays on the English translation of its Latin name. I enjoy performing this one, and when I read it I get to play with volume and speed. Much as I love celebratory nature-poems, I feel that this one could be more multi-layered. I’d have liked to have given it more of a sting in the tail. I might rewrite it as a piece about climate change or extinction.
I said at the time that I always enjoy Yvonne’s relish for performing her poems…actually, ‘performing’ misses the mark. ‘Enacting’ is closer. I love the textures, the consonantal qualities of this piece. And it’s good to be reminded about the wider issues of ecology, and to be unnerved by the resonance of one awful word: extinction. I remember, too, that in that first post I used the image of a cabinet of curiosities to highlight the exuberant eclecticism, and arcane sholarship, that I enjoy and wonder at in her poems. This too:
“Her research has seen her trying to decipher Ted Hughes’s notebooks on horoscopes and necromancy, reading David Livingstone’s beautiful copperplate writing in Zambia, and translating previously unanalysed Congolese writers from French.”
See what I mean? Anyway, here she is bringing us up to date:
“I’m now (slowly) working towards a first collection, with the support of a Northern Writer’s Award. I was surprised and delighted to win the award, and would encourage all of my writer friends in the North to apply: New Writing North offers amazing talent development opportunities, workshops and advice to writers working in all genres.
My collection in progress is about mountaineering in the Highlands and Alps. It elegises my father, who died in the Grey Corries, and explores the life of my French great-great-great grandfather, who collected minerals in the Alps. A selection of these poems won the Mslexia pamphlet competition, and will be published by Seren in 2017″.
Don’t you just love understatement? I’m looking forward to that collection, enormously. Congratulations on that Northern Writers Award, Yvonne! And thank you for the poem that we’ll finish with, one that brings together all the qualities I’ve tried to talk about today. I think it’s stunning. Read it aloud, taste it.
V. Resteau, Geologist Manqué
His treasures: eyeflash of tourmaline
in a matrix of white,
wink of gwindel crystals
their shade a warlock’s smokescreen,
an iron rose, the weight
of angular petals,
the blood-lustre garnet
a dark vein between us.
I turn them between my fingers
and see a man with my eyes
make the slow climb from Göschenen to Airolo
across the divide between rivers,
the watershed of languages.
He sips a Ticino red at the Ospizio –
nerves steadier, he hauls on
boots and rubberised Mackintosh,
the miner’s lamp still quavering in one hand.
The cristallier unfurls the rope ladder
and my great-grandmother’s grandfather
shins down to the blind-end fissure –
squirms his head and shoulders
into the cavity of mineral fangs.
An hour later, he emerges,
whiskers thick with dust,
face beaming. In his hand,
a dusty lump of spikes.
He returns to Evian
with the worst torticollis
his doctor has ever seen
and du quartz fumé magnifique.
His peeling specimen-label reads
St Gotthard, 1859.
Still, his careful hand
beckons in sepia ink, to the keyhole pass.
Next week will be a tribute of sorts to the ones who maintain small poetry publishing concerns, and to two in particular. If you ever wonder how and why it’s done, you’ll need to join us. So let’s say thank you to our guest, Yvonne Reddick, pre-order the collection from Seren as soon as they let you, and agree to meet again. Same time, same place, next Sunday