Hunting for truth, and an (un)discovered gem: Zetta Bear

river

It’s been a busy old week…three poetry nights: the New Beehive Inn and the Beehive Poets in Bradford on Monday; Wordplay at Square Chapel in Halifax on Wednesday..a night of smith|doorstop poets; The Albert Poets on Thursday with Steve Ely, Ian Croft and Ian Parks.

One of the readers on Wednesday, Ed Reiss…whose dry, wry, oddly surreal poems deserve a post of their own…read one poem that muses about why there seem to be more funerals than weddings; it’s possibly because people marry as a pair, but die as individuals (there’s a ‘but’, but I’ll leave that hanging). It’s a handy hook to hang the introduction to our guest today, however. Like a recent guest, Ruth Valentine, Zetta Bear works as a celebrant (among other things). That is, she works with the living who are trying to understand death. I think this is an idea I’d like you to hold on to.

However, for a change, rather than rabbiting on about whatever bee happens to be in my bonnet, which is the usual thing, we’ll start with a poem.

 

Stalker

The man who thinks to woo me by explaining

how to shoot a deer strips by the fire

peeling clothes off his blue patterned skin

in his kitchen with the back door wide open

to the windy night he’s come in from

wet through after standing for hours

waiting for his doe to show herself

waiting for the heart shot.

 

While in his shed ten grey rabbits hang from a pole

one hind leg slotted neatly through the other,

his muddy graft hangs from a hook,

and the doe he has shot and gralloched,

turns and cools, waiting quietly for him

to return and undress her.

 

I heard this for the first time a couple of years ago at a prizegiving on the Isle of Arran. Simon Armitage had chosen it as a Highly Commended poem in the McClellan Competition for 2015, and he said he was initially nonplussed by it, unsure about the conflict you might feel between your reaction to the surface rawness of the subject, its powerful sexual/sensual energy, and the evident crafted tenderness of the poem. And I suspect, lots of the audience were slightly uncomfortable about the matter-of-fact way it deals with the hunting and dressing of animals. (By which we mean their undressing).  I suppose, too, about the way the poet feels comfortable, rather than threatened, by the elision of seduction and stalking. When Zetta sent me her poems, she wondered ” if my poems will cause a reaction – hunting is provocative “.

Well, I certainly hope any poem worth its keep will cause a reaction, but since Zetta hunts to eat rather than for fun (though she is clear that she also hunts for the sheer pleasure of it), I think I’ll spend just a short while exploring the topic. Let’s be clear that if I didn’t eat meat, I think I might have a different take on the subject. But I do, and I’m not about to make a distinction between meat that’s been butchered somewhere I never see, and then neatly parcelled up for a supermarket shelf, and meat that you actually catch for yourself. I wondered for quite a time whether I should raise the subject at all, but I was at a reading where some of the audience found Zetta’s poems ‘offensive’. That bothered me. I find adultery and casual sex ‘offensive’ in the sense that I disapprove of the harm they cause. But not poems about them. I’ll let that stand. Poems either justify themselves or they don’t. I might also chuck into the mix that I’m interested by the fact that folk seem less bothered about fishing, especially when the fisherman is Ted Hughes. As Keith Sagar pointed out

It had occurred to Hughes that writing poems was also a form of fishing

“The special kind of excitement, the slightly mesmerized and quite involuntary concentration with which you make out the stirrings of a new poem in your mind, then the outline, the mass and colour and clean final form of it, the unique living reality of it in the midst of the general formlessness.”                                       [Poetry in the Making, p.17]

Maybe I’m worrying needlessly. Why don’t I let our guest introduce herself. Ladies and gentlemen, Zetta Bear:

“When I was invited to be a guest on the blog, I started by having a look at what other people had said about themselves, and then stopped before I despaired. I don’t think of myself as a poet (I’m not published apart from one poem in Smith’s Knoll) although sometimes I feel compelled to write a poem. I don’t write many poems, either. I try to write well when I do, although as you’ll see from what I’ve sent, they’re mostly better read aloud than seen on the page. (I think they work beautifully both ways.)

Here, at random, are some of the thoughts I’ve had whilst wondering what on earth to say:

I recently read some of Kate Atkinson’s ‘A God In Ruins’ (I got bored and annoyed and didn’t finish it) but somewhere in there Teddy says he wants to live a life of the senses, and write about it, and I thought ‘yes, that’s it.’ I’ve never thought to articulate it before, but that, I think, is what I’m up to. What takes priority is being out there and doing stuff. Every now and then, a poem seems to grow out of that, and then I write it down and if people let me, I inflict it on them, with the greatest of pleasure. I love doing readings and always accept invitations!

I’m interested in direct, raw experience. I’m interested in being human and non-human and crossing boundaries. I like to feel, and I like poems and experiences which provoke feelings. I go on feeling above most other things. I’m not a particularly intellectual person, not especially mentally-identified. So I wonder, when I write things like this, if I will end up saying things that look ridiculous and ignorant to people in the know. (No. You don’t)

If there’s a purpose or consistency to what I write, its to try to both record, and also to communicate, the experience of being immersed in the beautiful, profound, demanding experience of hunting, the joy of putting meat on your own table and the shared rapture of hunter and dog in the pursuit of game. I’m heartbroken by the remorseless attack on rural life by an ignorant urban elite. I’ll stop now to avoid a rant, which is where these things almost always land up. In poems, I try to convey it with love, which, in my experience, is the only hope we have of communicating across substantial difference.

(and then she adds this…which I think is at the heart of the matter)

I seem only to be able to write love poems.

However, my poems aren’t excerpts from my diary. They start from people or places or beasts that I know, and they may sometimes include actual events (although probably less frequently than people imagine) but I feel frustrated when people think all I’m doing is writing the equivalent of ‘what I did today’ with line breaks. After one reading, someone commented that all my poems were about a particular person. Well no, they weren’t.”

So, what were they about? Let’s see.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

John The Baptist

 

Once I went to Lincolnshire

with a Born Again Christian

Gun Maker I’d met on the internet.

 

He picked me up in the Co-op car park.

I climbed into his clapped out four by four

his gun dog and my terrier in the back.

 

He steered us there with his thighs

hands busy making roll ups. Veering

to aim at squirrels at the side of the road.

 

We turned off into tracks at the edge

of Tetris fields, scouting game for later.

Every living thing in that Landy wanted to kill something.

 

In the flat dark nowhere we stopped by a barn.

He rolled the wide door open to a caravan.

We all got out. The dogs went hunting.

 

Me and John sat down to tea. Cheese and raw onions.

He opened two bottles of wine and slapped

one by my plate, one by his. We drank the lot.

 

After, we drove round the fields, leathered,

shooting out of the windows down the headlights.

Charlie! He yelled, Quick, shoot the fucker!

 

This is not the way it’s done, but it is also the way

it’s done. He talked non stop, about his thousand

acres of permission, about knowing Kenzey Thorpe,

 

the Famous Fucking Chancer, about his boyhood

and the strange man who came to the door

and turned out to be his father, armed

 

with the key to all his mother’s secrets.

And now, his sister a doctor,

his brother in prison for murder, and him,

 

the Gun Maker. The beautiful

carved gun he planned to shoot

wild geese with in the morning.

 

In the morning I made him

bacon sandwiches and Irish coffee.

Then I took my terrier out among the crop

 

where she killed a rat and put up a deer

we watched bound out of reach

across the cabbages into grey sky

 

and I missed my old lurcher who’d died

and broken my heart which is why

I was here with a man who likely didn’t remember

 

my name. But that afternoon, he said I’ll take you

somewhere you’ll like and drove, to a river cut

deep into the mud, a fast deep

 

dangerous channel that poured with the force

of the tidal bore out to sea twice a day,

too fierce to resist, taking everything out

 

to disperse among the clean

white geese, to be washed away.

And I walked hard along its treacherous banks,

 

slipping, following it to the shore to watch it surge

into the bay and he didn’t tell me to be careful or catch

my arm. He watched me go, trailed

 

at safe distance until I sat down,

breathless, furious, heart sore and

happy, in the cold bare open land.

 

……………………………………………………………………………

 

That first stanza had me hooked, right at first hearing, and it’s great to have the written version to tell me why. It’s the way that prosaic first line is immediately subverted by the utterly surprising.   A Born Again Christian // Gun Maker. That line break is beautifully judged….it’s a feature of this poem and of Zetta’s ear and eye for guiding her reader, as in a later stanza, where we’ve been primed by a narrative of guns:…

his father, armed

with the key to all his mother’s secrets.

And the casual last line of the stanza is another twist. There’s at least two opening chapters of a novel here; the unwise dangerous journey into  a flat dark nowhere.
Unemphatic narrative voice is sustained right through the poem, full of the elision ofbeauty and potential violence. And danger.. which is what the Born-Again Christian Gun-Maker seem to understand the narrator wants:

I’ll take you

somewhere you’ll like

Which turns out to be the treacherous banks of a tidal river

too fierce to resist, taking everything out

 

to disperse among the clean

white geese, to be washed away.

The phrase ‘the clean // white geese’ with its artful linebreak nails it for me as the poem quietly expands outwards in the last stanza, like a sigh. I love it. Indeed, ‘love’ is probably the core of Zetta’s poems. It may not be a conventional notion of ‘love’, but it’s utterly authentic. As is the next poem, which is also a love poem.

zetta 4

The Hunter In My Heart

 

In the moment between thinking

I’ll call, and calling

he comes to me.

He uses old fashioned language

how can I serve thee mistress

although I’m not his mistress –

he chooses to please me

because it’s beautiful.

The curve of him floating

above the heath after a hare

is more glorious than

any handsome man.

He’s both bow and arrow

as sprung, as straight

as pure in his design.

Sometimes he presses

his forehead to mine

and we imagine his thick pelt

lying against the inside of my skin.

 

 

I’m not a dog person. But you don’t need to be to take in this one. There are elements of medieval verse in this address to a lover/loved one floating // above the heath after a hare, the dog

both bow and arrow

as sprung, as straight

as pure in his design.

And I’m slightly wrongfooted (in a good way) by the sudden elision of purpose and identity in:  and we imagine. That one word ‘we’ is what does the trick. Right; one more poem, which I’ll leave to speak for itself.

Winter Wedding

 

These past weeks I find I’m wanting

to say yes to what I’m asked.

Do I want a pot of strong tea?

Yes.

 

After, shall I wade through deep snow

to the moor top where the dogs hunt,

come down with a white wind-dancer

still warm in my poacher’s pocket

thinking of meat and fur mittens?

Yes. Yes please.

 

Shall I eat stew, slow cooked with oats

by the range in my dark kitchen

from an oak bowl with an oak spoon?

Yes, I shall.

 

And when that meat is gone, will you

come to my front door with your nets,

polecat hob in hand, to take me

to the old hedgerows that you know?

Yes, come.

 

Will we walk home swinging coneys,

lay them on the flags by my door?

That we will.

 

Do I want you to take my hand

kiss my muddy knuckles, my nails

rimmed with blood and then turning

place a kiss on my open palm?

Oh yes, say I. Oh yes I say.

I do.

 

Did I say I’d leave it to speak for itself? But I’m still going to say how I love the echo of Molly Bloom, and also that ‘white wind-dancer’. I hope I’ve persuaded you that Zetta Bear writes poems that do what poems should do, that memorise themselves as you hear them.

At this point I normally tell you all to go and buy the books. Right now there are none to buy. But I think it’s high time there were. There must be publishers reading this who can see what I’m getting at. In the meantime, let’s say thank you to our guest and hope to be reading her first pamphlet/chapbook/collection soon.

See you all next Sunday, when we’ll be having another splendid guest. xx

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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