I’ve wanted to have Ruth Valentine as a guest on the cobweb ever since I heard her read at the Albert Poets some months ago. Sometimes at readings, I find my attention slipping. Sometimes it’s because of a poet’s style of delivery, sometimes because I can’t find a foothold in the subject matter, no matter how good the delivery is, sometimes because there are none of those moments that Clive James writes about, bemoaning the state of poetry:
” Slim volumes by the thousand…full of poetry…but few….with even a single poem in them”
I do rather bang on about this, but I hang on to what he says about ‘a poem’ being something that we hear at first glance, something with a moment that memorizes itself for you, something you cannot remember precisely but which you can never forget.
“…whatever kind of poem it is, it’s the moment that gets you in “
Here’s the first of those moments in Ruth Valentine’s reading that had me sitting up and attending, all those months ago, and that continues to memorise itself:
“The dead are out reconfiguring the maps
on the Transport for London website. They’re joy-riding…”
from Scatter -Tube. [Downpour 2015]
I’ll come back to this before long. I’m taking a day off from a succession of posts about hospitals, and it strikes me as a bit of synergy that while those posts started by chance simply because of an incautious query on Facebook, I never raised the question of what happens to those who go into hospitals and don’t come out. I tend to steer clear of the business of death (as opposed to dying, which as Bob Dylan pointed out, we’re all busily doing). Almost, that is. I’m of an age when I’m more likely to be going to funerals rather than christenings or weddings. I’ve written more eulogies than wedding speeches. And I’ve written poems about crematoria and the aftermath…the various catered gatherings where we dry our tears, relax into stories of the departed, and feel more alive than we felt earlier that morning. We being the ones still alive and more aware of it. But what about those for whom the business of tidying up the dead is a profession and a daily task? Well, we tend not to talk about them, any more than we are particularly conscious of all those necessary people who tidy up our waste and make our lives more comfortable and pleasant. (I’m suddenly reminded of U A Fanthorpe’s hospital and office cleaners….but who speaks for the binmen, the sewer workers, and those in abbatoirs, the sweepers of streets…..? That may be for another post). Now, there’s much much more to the poetry of Ruth Valentine as we’ll see.
The Smokestack introduction to her collection Downpour is a good place to start:
Ruth Valentine has worked as an undertaker and as a celebrant at secular funerals. In Downpour she draws on her experiences to compose an extended meditation on dying and death, its emotional grammar and its painful but necessary rituals. Bleak and brave, serious and sad, Downpour is an unflinching study of the physical realities of dying. Bodies are prepared for burial, coffin lids are closed, and scattered ashes sail downriver. An old man’s coffin enters the furnace, his memories becoming part of the wider world. The invisible dead joy-ride through London at night and the disinterred dead stir in Bosnia and Baghdad. Ruth Valentine explores the geography of death – hospital corridors and waiting rooms, winter tides, tearful winds and rain-swept cemeteries – and considers the strangers – doctors, mortuary assistants and undertakers – who must escort us towards oblivion, conscious of ‘their own death and your death, / the death of the planet and the death of hope’.
I think that sounds dreadfully bleak, but what struck me when I heard her read was poetry that was crafted, tender, reverential, funny…a celebration of life.
Let me go back to the joy-riding dead on the London Underground. Ruth told the backstory of how one night she finds herself with big carrier bags full of the departed. That is, of a number of cardboard cylinders of ashes that need to be returned to the living. I guess many of us have darkly comic anecdotes that involve the disposal of the ashes of loved ones. One of mine involve the ashes being reverentially tipped off one of the Derbyshire Edges where the deceased liked to walk and climb. They were promptly seized by the updraft and returned in a gritty cloud to the bereaved who had to wash that man right out of their hair. That kind of story. Ruth’s poems are richer and infinitely more moving than that. When you buy Downpour (as you must), start with Part 2. Let these moments memorize themselves,fix themselves in your eye and your mind
“She has thrown her head back
as if snoring, as if
stargazing, lying star-shaped in a field,
with birdsfoot trefoil, speedwell, small bright things”
“This woman so short of breath no longer needs it,
like someone who was always short of money
but wins the lottery…”
[The fiery furnace]
“Then in that moment everything he’s seen
in eighty-five years spills out from his eyes
into the winter air, like snow falling
steadily out of nothing…”
But don’t fail to notice the living who we leave to deal with the practical business of the dead.
You go out the back for a cigarette. The rain’s let up.
And this : OK, Maureen we say, and lift the beech lid of the coffin, lower it over the calico and her face”
And linger on ‘The dead (who) have discovered a new way of getting home /from the mock-Gothic chapel on the South Circular,/ in a bluebell-printedcardboard cylinder”
That’s the kind of thing I meant when I said her poetry is crafted, tender, reverential, funny…a celebration of life.
What else do we need to know before we share some more poems?
Ruth grew up in Sussex, but has lived most of her adult life in London. She has been a teacher, advice worker, voluntary sector manager and consultant. Currently, as well as writing, she conducts secular funerals. She began writing seriously at the age of forty. In 1992 she was one of the Society’s New Poets. Her poems have won prizes and been included in a number of anthologies; Variations on a Theme of Chardin appeared on the DART railway in Dublin. In 2000, looking for a new direction in her writing, she enrolled on the MA Writing at Sheffield Hallam University. Her novel, The Jeweller’s Skin, was the somewhat unexpected result.She has also published a history of Horton Hospital (Asylum, Hospital, Haven, Riverside Mental Health Trust, 1996), and two books on welfare issues for schools. Her prose piece, Stalking the Tiger, based on her research at Horton, is included in Iain Sinclair’s London, City of Disappearances (Hamish Hamilton 2006).
In her website (http://ruthvalentine.co.uk/index.php/about/) she writes. “I write poetry, novels and short stories, and non-fiction. You can find details here of my published work, and sample poems and extracts. Go to the poetry page for details of my latest books, Downpour and Rubaiyat for the Martyrs of Two Wars. To this we can add A Grenfell Alphabet .
Right. More poetry. Ruth sent me several poems, but I’ll choose this one particularly because I love the effortless down-to-earthness, its easily worn and unobtrusive cosmopolitanism, so different from the kind that seems designed to belittle my awkward provincialism. I’ll not comment on it, except to say I love that line:
the number one station for dying in must be..
Just enjoy it for the craft of it. There’s a lot more to Ruth Valentine than funeral parlours.
Not in hospital; nobody wants that.
Nor the pale-blue rooms and communal eating-spaces
of the hospice, however kindly. Not alone
on an industrial estate in Switzerland,
being filmed stating Yes I understand
if I drink this liquid… Not even in bed at home
surrounded by sobbing family, Victorian
fantasy of reunion and forgiveness.
Since it’s going to happen and won’t be dignified,
you could do a lot worse than a railway station
waiting room. Say Barnham, where after class
with the boys from the boys’ school we dawdled for the connection:
coal fire, view of the station pub, a playground,
mourners hurrying up from the underpass.
I’ve certainly known some beautiful railway stations.
St Pancras before it became a shopping-mall
and they hid the trains: wood-panelled ticket-office,
six empty tracks leading the mind north
past the gasometers to an improbable
state of grace; or Milan with its Day Hotel,
where you could have a shower and a change of clothes
in time for your Last Supper with Leonardo.
But the number one station for dying in
must be Ljubljana: the driving snow, the boys
off to art college in Venice, the gun-metal
socialist-realist trains, their sides announcing
the life beyond: Budapest, Bucharest,
Prague, Skopje, Thessaloniki, Athens.
You’re not taking this seriously. It’s not about
childhood or tourism or the early years
of your marriage. You are deciding where to die,
assuming you have a choice and aren’t knocked down
by a single-decker bus at Turnpike Lane,
or a heart attack in the Parkway ladies’ toilets.
It’s losing control of your body, shamefully,
and your mind, which will stop writing poetry forever.
So what you need is less the architecture
(though a final view of a vaulted wrought-iron roof
would do for transcendence) than the sound of trains
leaving for cities you can dream about
in the final minutes, and busy humanity
with its suitcases and phones and sudden weeping.
I’m going to finish with what I think has become the unexpected purpose of this post. Ruth has just published A Grenfell Alphabet. The money from every copy sold will go to the disaster fund. That’s one reason why you should buy it. The other reason is that it’s beautiful. Regular readers will know of my enthusiasm for Christy Ducker’s sequence Grace Darling’s ABC [Skipper. smith|doorstop]…it’s such a simple and apparently artless way of organising a sequence, of listing what we should love and what we cannot replace. Ruth writes a poem for each floor of the Grenfell Tower, its imagined occupants, their small private concerns, the stuff of their everyday lives. Like these
In the burning high-rise hive there are alphabets,
Arabic Tamil Ge’ez, there are apricots
brought from the market
today for their flame soft skin, and animals,
real animals, a jerbil, a terrapin
its tank-water heating up
don’t think of that.
Think instead about birthday-cards, a shelf
with a whole year of good wishes, and books of course,
school-books, novels, encyclopaedias
left by a grandfather, Haynes manuals,
gardening books for the allotment farmers,
books printed in faraway alphabets,
Hindi Cyrillic Chinese, yes, lots of books.
That phrase Don’t think of that is a repeated admonition through the sequence, and it gathers layers of significance as it’s repeated. Reverential, loving, desperately angry, cleareyed, it’s a pamphlet and a eulogythat reminds us of our common humanity, the vandalism of our fragile social contract in the last decade. Every British politician should be forced to read it over and over until the enormity of their sleep of reason sinks in. Please buy this book. Buy lots. Buy them for your friends. You can buy it via PayPal. Find a way to pay more than £5.00 a copy. Why not £10…..
follow this link. https://www.facebook.com/A-Grenfell-Alphabet-167564637148776/
And then hit that PayPal button.
Ruth Valentine…thank you for being our guest and for sharing your poetry. xxxx
PS. You can help to spread the word by Sharing and re-blogging this post. I’ll be grateful.