A serious business, and a polished gem :Jennifer Copley


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Two things have stuck in my mind as the hook(s) I’ll hang this week’s post on.

I remember Ian McMillan saying, in a short film he made with Martin Wiley, something to the effect that ‘funny’ poetry is regarded as less important than ‘serious poetry’. When he said this I think he actually pronounced it as Serious Poetry, and I believe I knew what he meant, even though I also knew that what we mean by ‘funny’ is a lot more complicated than it might seem on the surface.

I thought of this when I saw in a Facebook post an image of faces crafted from toilet roll tubes. My first reaction was to laugh out loud. My second reaction was to see them as sinister and unsettling. They’re like the faces you might find in Breughel, or maybe in Bosch, and perhaps in some of Lautrec’s more grotesque sketches, and Boz’s illustrations for Dickens. They hover somewhere between caricature and realism. Unsettling is the word I’ll settle on.

The other thing was that for some reason I chose to take ‘funny’ poems to read on the open mic. at The Puzzle Poets Live monthly do this week. I particularly chose some of Rory Motion’s poems as well as a couple of my own. Now, it may be that you have never heard of Rory Motion, but you should. I’ve written before about how I started to do open mic poetry in folk clubs. What goes down well in folkclubs is poems that rhyme, and poems that are funny, and, preferably, poems that do both. I built up a list of ones that went down well, by people who wrote the kind of poems I still can’t write myself.

I built up a big file of stuff that wouldn’t let me down. Poets like Matt Harvey and Les Barker. I used a lot of Marriott Edgar. And I came to respect what Pam Ayres did. She’s a crafty, clever writer despite her TV persona. I’m very fond of ‘Clive the fearless birdman‘. I learned a lot from watching Ian Macmillan’s live performances in libraries and other small venues…especially when he worked with Circus of Poets. And I think Roger McGough is frequently brilliant.

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But the one who I came to enjoy and respect most was Rory Motion. You can find out about him via this link.  http://www.rorymotion.com/

He honed his stage skills on the stand-up comedy circuit in the late 80’s and early 90’s, being described by Time Out as a “a post-Hippie comic”, which by way of cheerful response is how he described Time Out. Finding the increasingly gladiatorial nature of the stand-up world too limiting, he decided in 1992, following a successful national tour with Frank Skinner, to move to Bwlch y Cibau, a small village in Powys.

A regular contributor to national radio, he has appeared on comedy shows, the literature panel game ‘Booked’ with Roger McGough and Miles Kington, and written and presented his own programmes on Radios 4 and 5. In 2001, Rory and fellow poet Matt Harvey created a series of programmes called ‘One Night Stanza’ which, in a victory for poetry lovers everywhere, made the coveted 6:30 Radio 4 comedy slot. In the same year Cassells published Rory’s collection of poems, ‘Neither is the Horse’. It’s still available, and remarkable value at £7.50 for a pocket-sized hardback of 125 pp of poems.





He performed at every Glastonbury Festival from 1989 up until 2008. ( He also paints landscapes, interiors and text-pieces, and in 2007 exhibited at the Peter Pears gallery in Aldeburgh, in conjunction with a reading at the Aldeburgh poetry festival).
Rory is a huge fan of the late Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band (which tells you a good deal) and in 2013 and 2014 supported them at the York Duchess. In 2015, at the Ilkley Literature festival, Rory gave an entertaining, and apparently very successful, practical tutorial on the mysteries of solving cryptic crosswords.

Why he’s not better known, I cannot fathom. But if you hunt down his flash fictions like Mid Wales (a darkly brilliant precis of Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill) or Spear of destiny (which item is for sale at a carboot sale in Totnes) or poems like  Mrs Donkersley’s Chutney (an extravagant rhapsody enacted on a bus between Pocklington and York) you’ll encounter a poet of real craft and imaginative engagement with the rich oddity of the world. It’s simply not possible to pigeon-hole or categorise him, but if I think of the company he might keep it would be poets like John Cooper Clark, and, particularly, Ivor Cutler (who regularly entertained, puzzled and unsettled me when I heard him on the radio…the Home Service as it was…in the late 1950s). Surreal, surprising, artful and impeccably crafted work. Funny, serious, and, yes, unsettling.




Which brings me to today’s guest, and a long-delayed post that I’ve been wanting to write for weeks, ever since I was invited to read at A poem and a pint in Ulverston, and where     I heard her read two poems that simply stuck in my mind like burrs and would not let me go…..because they were funny, spare, beautifully written, and, well, unsettling.

Time to introduce Jennifer Copley who lives in Barrow-in-Furness with her cat, dog, husband and a vast quantity of Victorian furniture inherited from her grandmother. She enjoys polishing and often gets ideas for poems while rubbing up the sideboard. 

You may have come across her work via Kim Moore’s The Sunday Poem but because I think she’s one of those talented poets who tend to fly under the radar, you may not know that she’s published four pamphlets including Ice (Smith Doorstop 2002) and House by the Sea (2003) and three full-length collections Unsafe Monuments (2006), Beans in Snow (Smokestack 2009) and Sisters also by Smokestack in 2013.

Sisters sprang from a photograph of two unknown girls she saw on a post-mortem website. The poems in the first half of the book imagine the lives of these two motherless girls brought up in a strict Victorian household. The second half explores the nature of sisterhood, the predicaments that siblings face, in life and in death. A new pamphlet is due shortly from Happenstance on whose website you’ll find the endorsement many of us would give several limbs for:

U.A. Fanthorpe has described [Jennifer Copley’s] work as ‘urgent, visceral, written out of a fierce commitment to truth’ and Carol Rumens finds ‘a Chagall-like, magical-realist quality to Copley’s delicate shape-shifting’.

She has been published by The Rialto, The North, Stand and PN Review, also twice in the Forward Prize Anthology. She was 2nd in the Cardiff International  and 3rd in the Bridport Poetry Prizes and although she was shortlisted for the Strokestown Prize twice and flogged all the way to County Roscommon, she didn’t win any money. I’m also gratified to learn (via Google) that for the last few years her poems have been used in Poetry Unseen Revision Papers for GCSE students.

In other words, she’s a serious poet; the whole nine yards, the full monty. And she writes poems not unlike the images I started the post with, poems that make you smile, or laugh, and then quickly reassess what just happened. I’d like to say they’re edgy, but they’re more subtle than that. Frequently, they’ll be as tender, lyrical but always clear-eyed, as these images from

Ten Places Where I See My Mother

Mondays, in the kitchen, her arms all suds.

I peer through steam but she’s disappeared


Later she’ll be upstairs, taking off her wet blue dress


In the dark she’s in different places:

the end of my bed, the space by the wardrobe,


Her footprints glow for ages after she’s gone.


Sundays, I see her under the earth,

peacefully asleep, her mouth slightly open,

but she comes to when I start arranging flowers.


What I love about this the matter-of-fact tone, the way this mother will never die and sees nothing remarkable about it. It makes me think of the ‘normalities’ of folk-tale and the narrow boundaries between the mundane and the wonderful. Although Jennifer Copley has something to say about them, too.

They’re only fairy tales, say our mothers,
who serve us porridge that’s far too hot;
and who are they that we should trust them
when they prick their fingers,        (from ‘Fairy Tales’)

I love the way she brings the reader up short in this line: ‘who are they that we should trust them’, the way it wryly and sardonically subverts my expectations of ‘our mothers’. Subversive..that’s the word; and that’s what the last line of The robin does..it subverts.

The Robin

– was dead but no one knew who’d killed him.
–Snow in the wind, said the sparrow.
–Ice in the water butt, said the wren.
–Frost on the five-barred gate, said the blackbird.
–A poisoned snail, said the thrush.
–God, said the canary who had no respect.
–Then they all turned on each other, shrieking and accusing, although
no one had liked the robin since he’d bullied the goldfinch children to death.

What makes very tiny children laugh is surprise (which may be frightening) followed by relief. Everyone who ever played ‘Boo!’ with child in a cot or a pram knows this. And Jenny Copley’s poems know this too. She herself says ‘I must tell stories. Stories about people (or animals) in improbable situations. I’m interested in how they react and how they resolve (or don’t) the things they face.’

So here we are with the two poems she sent me to share with you all, both, as it happens set in cellars of the kind you might finding Chris Van Allsberg’s wonderful book The mysteries of Harris Burdick. If you were looking for visual equivalents of the images that Jennifer Copley creates, you could do a lot worse than start there. Basement starts in a cellar in 1940, which sets up a set of expectations that’s immediately put in question by that flat but they feel safe here. 


1940, but they feel safe here,

between the ping-pong table

and the bottled fruit.

Light from a tiny barred window

spills down dust-motes.

There’s a birdcage

he always knocks his head on,

a cupboard that creaks.


Today it’s hot.

They remove more clothes than usual.

Her buttons roll into mouse-holes.

His braces, hurriedly unsnapped,

fly into a corner where they stay

for fifty years.

Upstairs, pans clatter.

Where’s Lizzy? Someone shouts

but with his tongue in her ear,

Lizzy doesn’t cotton on.


Not knowing the way war will turn,

all their arrangements,

love tokens,

sweat from their bodies,

moons from their fingers,



lie in scuffs on the floor.

I like the story-teller’s ‘they’ that demands you have to find out who ‘they’ are, between the deliberately comic ping-pong table and the bottled fruit, lit dimly by what comes through a window that’s ‘barred’. Which should make you think twice. Whoever they are, they come often because ‘there’s a birdcage / he always knocks his head on’. And yes, it’s comic, until it’s unsettling. Because they take off more clothes ‘than usual’ in a fumble of snapped-off buttons and unsnapped braces. A poem of desperate love in a time of war that’s not comic at all but as serious as salt and moons and semen. I love it.


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The second poem, Cellar was the one that made me sit up and take notice at Ulverston. It has that quirkiness that makes me think of Ivor Cutler, and that disingenuous matter-of-fact quality that is so unsettlingly at odds with the story.


Here’s where we live,

buried under ground,

our hats in our hands.

We came down in 1963

to fill up the scuttle

and the door slammed shut.


The light knocked off in 1984

so we live in the dark, bowed over

like the hulls of two old boats.

You say ‘tomato’ and I say ‘tom-ate-o’.

Apart from that we get on well enough.


Our children call down the coal hole

occasionally. They almost try the door

but their hearts aren’t in it.

After all, what would they say to us,

it’s been so long since we

kept a grip on things, on them.


Understated, memorable and unnerving.  I wish I could do work like that, so economically and apparently without effort. Thank you Jennifer Copley for the poems and waiting so patiently for me to write about them.

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And now I’m going to check all my lists for the umpteenth time, and double-check my packing, because first thing tomorrow I’m off over to Greater Manchester to collect two poets and then we’re heading off to St Ives for a week of poetry reading and writing. There may not be a post next Sunday, but I reckon you can put up with that, and I’ll see you when I see you. Thank you for reading.











Well-found. A review of James Caruth’s “Narrow water”

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Are you tired of winter? I am. Bone tired. Someone said yesterday that it’s been going on for five months. He was quite upbeat about this, being a climber….there’s still deep snow on the Scottish mountains, and big ice-climbs still viable on the Nevis. But I’m tired of rain and greyness. And possibly just tired. I’m feeling stale, my brain’s clogged, I can’t think fast enough. Hungover with poetry and poetry travelling. Three weeks ago I was in the snow of Upper Wensleydale on a poetry residential that took me into some dark places…very introspective and uncomfortable. When I look now at what I wrote, it seems a lot more upbeat than it felt at the time, but it was, well, tiring. And then I was off to read in Cork at Ó Bhéal…it’s a great place to read in is The Long Valley, and I loved doing it; Cork is a lovely looking city, but it takes it out of a chap. Train cancelled, flight delayed, late night, and so on. I’ve been down to Sheffield for a poetry night (thanks for a great reading, Roy Marshall) and again for a Writing Day. And also to the outskirts of Penistone  for a launch event for today’s guest poet, James Caruth. At the start of this week it was a two day journey for the funeral of one of my best friends; a funeral in the pouring rain of Northampton. Over-travelled and emotionally drained.

Enough of the self-pity. I’d rather celebrate being alive and surrounded by so many good things, and the poetry of Jim  Caruth in particular. Promises to keep; this was due to be written last week, but better late than never.

I’ll start with notes I wrote in the back of Jim’s new pamphlet Narrow Water.

March 23. near Penistone. The Methodists are dark and closed. No-one’s here but me. Later the Penistone Poets arrive and now there are six of us. Eventually someone turns up to lat us in and there is light and warmth. Jim arrives…he is unwell; his face is badly swollen, but he’s here and up for it, and we have poets and poems. Julie Mellor and Jim. Doll’s houses and Bukowski, Friday nights after school, waterskiing in a disused gravel pit, and changing out of wetsuits in a changing room improvised from curtaining, in that hour that was solitary, those unwinding sentences. Jim does landscapes of stone and gorse, small unroofed churches, one like an upturned boat in a bitter wind, the pigeon crees of Penistone Road. Everyone in the audience buys a book. Every one. This is something that should catch on. In his second set we meet the men and women of his family, the landscapes of their history, Donegal and Slieve Foy. It’s a lovely evening. I have a head full of images and music.

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It seemed then, and it seems now exactly right that Julie Mellor would introduce Jim’s reading, and provide the support. They are both winners of the Poetry Business Pamphlet competition, and the title poem of Julie’s pamphlet,  Breathing through our bones ends like this:

Here in these towns where everyone

is someone’s cousin twice removed,

we are all breathing through our bones.

and it’s just right, because it evokes, for me,  the kinds of buttoned up small communities that provide the landscapes of many of the poems in Jim’s new collection Narrow water, where

The women of my childhood

are practiced in silence…………

hide their hair in tight knots……….

are deep buttoned chairs…………..

know lost words for love.


I wrote about Jim’s poetry a couple of years ago, and I’ll be recycling elements of that post, but if you don’t know his work already I’ll introduce him properly.

James Caruth was born in Belfast but has lived in Sheffield for the last 30 years. His first collection –  A Stones Throw was published in 2007 by Staple followed by a long sequence – Dark Peak, published by Longbarrow in 2008 and a pamphlet – Marking the Lambs, from Smith Doorstop in 2012.

His poem from this collection – The Deposition won the Sheffield Poetry Prize in 2011. His work has also been included in The Sheffield Anthology (Poems from the City Imagined), Smith Doorstop 2012 and The Footing, Longbarrow Press 2013 which includes a sequence of poems Tithes, based around the village of Stannington in South Yorkshire where he lives.

His pamphlet The Death of Narrative was a winner of the Poetry Business Competition 2014 It was judged by Carol Ann Duffy who said –

James Caruth’s poems tell stories that draw the reader in. His voice is warm and moving, and there is music to his writing which is completely captivating. This is an outstanding collection.

She said this as well:

James Caruth’s remarkable poems are unlike anyone else’s. They are knowing and disingenuous at the same time, clear-eyed and romantic.

One of the poems from that collection is Lethe. It’s poem that has always stuck like a burr in my mind,  eliding a mythic Underworld with a salmon that leaps from a silver pool, and the entry into Hades of a shell-shocked, flustered woman with a harmless life of small sins of omission, who cannot remember the name of the Ferryman

her face pale as a clock / her wide eyes emptying.

It makes a strong connection for me with Narrow Water, a collection  whose monochrome palette is that of Don McCullin’s photographs and Norman Ackroyd’s etchings, and with the same accuracy of vision. In its landscapes of stone and water and cold wind one trope is constant, and it’s that of separations as narrow as those between the dead and the living, the present and the past. There’s a haunting phrase…a book title in fact. it’s Conrad’s…… that comes to mind. The shadow line. It makes me think of Rothko’s shimmering canvasses. And also of the space of cold silver between the solid land and the fluid shifting water that you see when you look across a big sea loch, or at a headland. It’s that intangible narrow separation that comes to mind.

As Jim Caruth says in Rain God:


On days like this the slippage of a soul

might go unnoticed and I can’t summon

the faithfulness to live in the future tense.

Along with poetry in my pocket,

I carry a little hope.


I’ll come back to this note of something that I can only think of as a deeply spiritual agnosticism. But to get to the heart of the collection I go to the title poem, and all its complex layers. The Narrow Water of the poem is is the lough below Slieve Foy, separating it from the Mournes of Ulster, its

skyline bleeding like a bad engraving

It’s a place of deep division

from the first scour of ice

this place has known violence

and also a shore where the poet remembers holidays, the rows of caravans, and being

mesmerised by this narrow strip of water ,  where he asks the unnerving question:

Was this our Styx where we passed over.

The subtitle of the poem should alert the reader:

i.m. 27th August 1979.

To look across the narrow water is to look across to a different world, from Ulster to Eire, at the beginning of ‘the Troubles’. This place has known violence, going back to the Viking longboats rounding the point. Every name is redolent with dark histories

Warrenpoint, Rosetrevor, Kilkeel.

Little towns comfortable in their anonymity

where momentous events go unrecorded.

I still imagine the small front parlours,

teacups rattling on china plates,

the sudden screel of a bird

an ancient echoing

Warrenpoint was the place of the IRA ambush that killed more British soldiers than any other single attack. Two RUC men were shot dead in their patrol car at Rosetrevor. Kilkeel has a long history of violent sectarian division. The poet says

given time, water alters everything


we dig our past out of a drowned bog,

read runes in bones washed up on the tide

but as I read, I suspect that the little towns comfortable in their anonymity/ where momentous events go unrecorded stay buttoned up, like the men and women of his childhood, the men particularly, who kept words locked away…./….hide in small rooms.

These people are soothsayers, says Jim Caruth in  Latitudes;  doom-merchants, conjuringold slights in a hurl of words

I’ll say straight off that it’s not ‘the Troubles’ that are at the heart of Narrow Water, but the separations of which the ‘Troubles’ are only one. I’d say too that though the landscapes are predominantly those of Northern Island, the collection has a much wider range, emotionally and geographically, and follows its emigrants across a much wider water in a group of poems centred on New York. I chose to print  one in full because it illustrates very beautifully what Carole Ann Duffy wrote about Jim’s poetry: knowing and disingenuous at the same time, clear-eyed and romantic. ‘Clear-eyed’ is the phrase I seize on. It’s the eye for the moment and its textures.

Play the harp backwards meets that criterion of Clive James about the image, the moment that makes the poem. When I was reading  background for the post, I came across this documentary photograph. It’s as exact, as balanced and true as the poem

Play the harp backwards

Who taught them to sling bridges from wires,

to walk straight-backed as convent girls,

along the narrow girders of high towers,

backs to the wind, never daring to look down.


Clustered in the tenements of Brooklyn

and the Lower East Side, like raucous gulls

lining the white hem of a small island

whose name comes in a half-remembered tongue.


At nights you’d find them in the bars

along the waterfront, reciting a catechism

of names as they listened to the old songs,

while outside snow fell on the desolate streets

and the Hudson heaved like a wounded animal.


When the money ran out, they fingered

the dust in their pockets, staggered home

to small rooms, to dream of a mail-boat

rounding the Head, a town shivering

in the yellow glow of street-lamps.


There’s not a foot put wrong.  It’s a poem as deft and confident as the high-wire scaffolders and rivetters who built Manhattan. The images  nail it down:

straight-backed as convent girls;      

like raucous gulls / lining the white hem of a small island;     

the Hudson heaved like a wounded animal.

Here’s the history of a place and of a people caught in a moment in time, on the white hem of a small island, on the edge of narrow waters, unable to leave the past they are spiritually and emotionally bound to. There’s a phrase in another poem, The emigrant’s farewell, that catches this mood exactly:

Somewhere out there is a language of loss

but I have no words for this. 

There’s a paradox to savour! Because this collection is written with a deftness and confidence of language that marks it as special and memorable. In Latitudes,  the observation is as sure as MacCaig’s, and as accurate

The coast road is sleek with kelp.

On the seafront, pastel coloured

lightbulbs sag on a wire


In Apostle, which is a hymn to an old man brought down by dementia there’s this beautifully textured image of the wife gently washing his back at the kitchen sink, as (I suppose) a grandchild watches

she bathed the white flesh

of his back. a ripple of ribs

showing through like a frost

on the roof of a coal shed

That combination of texture (a ripple of ribs) , lovely fragility (frost) and the solidly mundane ( the coal shed’s corrugated iron roof) is beautifully and apparently effortlessly achieved.

In those last weeks he never offered

a single word to anyone but God

The poet remembers him again in the Prado, as

 Ribera’s St Andrew, half naked

and lost in thoughts of heaven.


There’s a great tenderness in these poems, where you may encounter James Joyce, and Munch and Tom Eliot among the people who live by the narrow waters, and where there could just be a bridge where  hope spans the narrows /wind sings in the cables. The note of rigorously honest and spiritual agnosticism.

One more thing. With Jim Caruth it’s a voice that commands the attention and then the poem that justifies it. I’ll not take up your time with my thing about the unfair advantages of the Irish [North and South] when it comes to poetry. The dramas of their history and its terrible deprivations, the strangeness of their mythologies and folktales, the iconography of Catholicism and the transgressive disciplines of priests and nuns….and the voice, the accents. Enough to say that Jim has a voice, like Heaney, that you simply want to listen to, and that you go on hearing in his poetry when you lift it off the page. Think of Heaney and you’ll not go far wrong.


“Jim Caruth’s writing balances risk against hope and hope against experience. The place names and landmarks of Northern Ireland dot a collection where deep time and deep water are often close at hand. This is a gentle, humane and philosophical account of a life lived thoughtfully.” Jo Bell

Narrow water : Poetry Salzburg  [Pamphlet Series 24. 2017]