The male gaze (3)…how does your garden grow?

mary 6

I knew I was going to feature one particular poem this week. Imagine my delight when this image popped up on my Facebook page, posted by Mary Gauthier. I was especially grateful for what she wrote underneath it:

“Ok, a day late .. but here it is. My #oldheadshot I don’t remember being that person. I don’t even know where we took this picture. But.. there it is. The shoot was for the release of my Drag Queens In Limousines record. 1998.”

I’ll come back to Drag Queens In Limousines later, but what I lit on was the phrase

                               I don’t remember being that person. 

Someone made that image of her. For a split second it stood for her, represented her, said who she was. Or, at least, someone’s idea of who she was. Now she can’t remember where she was, or who the image belongs to.  We read that image, whether we acknowledge it or not. I might suppose I’m looking at someone  who’s tired, who’s vulnerable and wary. Or maybe at someone who knows exactly who she is, and isn’t about to take shit from anyone. I might read that as a ‘who you looking at look?’. And so on. And I’d be bound to be wrong in one degree or another.

But that’s how it is, isn’t it. We deconstruct and reconstruct, and tell ourselves stories about the people we look at. The moment we see them is a memory instantaneously. Everything shifts. I actually think that that’s a joyous thing, just as it can be dangerous when we make moral judgements and form opinions about who we look at. We can’t help it. It’s the way we’re made. Just so long as we acknowledge this and take responsibility for it. I have another image of Mary G. hanging on the wall in the room where I’m writing.

mary 7

There she is between one of my grandfathers (about whom I wrote a poem that was spectacularly wrong about him and essential part of his biography), multiple Michael Caines, and one of my great aunts. It’s an image she chose to tour with, so I guess it’s one she was happy with, believing that it told the truth about who she was, or wanted to be seen as. Then.

Maybe you’re not into Americana, and  you’ve not heard of her. Well, now you have. Mary Gauthier is one of those who make me optimistic whenever I’m feeling down about where the writing is going, or if it’s worth the effort. I first heard her sing at The Pheasant Inn in Sheffield. It’s a place that in the 90’s used to host many of the Americana musicians like Steve Forbert and the Be Good Tanyas. It wasn’t the most salubrious or glamorous place. I remember queuing outside in late Autumn gloom and drizzle, and then walking through to the concert room via a taproom with a carpet that sucked at your feet, and between young mums who sat with toddlers in prams, and fed them crisps and bright pink drinks. The overall colour scheme was brown in all its variations, the lighting was perfunctory, and the stage was cramped, and too high. And then on comes Mary G. and lights up my night.

One woman with a guitar and a mission. I’ve seen her since in a church in Leeds, in a church hall somewhere in rural Leicestershire with a backdrop painted by the Scouts for a pantomime (where we bought the poster on my wall); above a wine bar in Wakefield. Man, does she work. To my absolute delight she’s battled and battled and worked and worked and now she needn’t work crap bars filled with people who don’t listen.

These days, she’s on radio shows; she plays festivals all over the States and in Europe; she seems to be booked up for every day, forever. And she’s played The Grand Ol’ Opry. Isn’t that something for an artist who’s gay, who’s battled drug addiction, who wrote a song for Karla Faye – executed in Texas to the applause of George Bush, who’s protested that Woody Guthrie never got inducted into the Country Hall Of Fame. She’s brought out a succession of critically acclaimed albums. I guess that helps.

The first album I knew of hers was Drag Queens in Limousines (1999). The first track is the most explicitly autobiographical.

“I stole momma’s car on a Sunday and lit out for good

moved in with some friends in the city in a bad neighbourhood”.

She was born in New Orleans. Born to a mother she never knew, and left in St Vincent’s Women and Infants Asylum, Gauthier was adopted when she was a year old by an Italian Catholic couple from Thibodeaux, Louisiana. At age 15, she ran away from home, and spent the next several years in drug rehab, halfway houses, and living with friends; she spent her 18th birthday in a jail cell. She enrolled in university as a philosophy major, dropping out during her senior year. She opened a Cajun restaurant in Boston’s Back Bay’s neighborhood, Dixie Kitchen, which she ran, and cooked at,  for eleven years. She was arrested for drunk driving in July 12, 1990, and has been sober ever since. After achieving sobriety, she was driven to dedicate herself full-time to songwriting, and embarked upon a career in music. She wrote her first song at age 35.She sold her share in the restaurant to finance her second album, Drag Queens in Limousines, in 1998. (thanks to Wikipedia for the summary)

It was at a gig in Wakefield a few years ago when I heard her tell for the first time the story of her search for her birth mother, and how it led her to St Vincent’s Women and Infants Asylum in New Orleans, which was now a brothel. The bit that I could never get out of my mind was her telling us that the year photographs of the orphans were still on the walls of the quadrangle. Sometimes an image will lodge itself and demand, sooner or later, to be dealt with. It’s also important to know that that a strong thread of Roman Catholic imagery runs through her songs; often and often it centres on concepts of grace and of mercy. I finally sat down to write a poem that would end up in a pamphlet which grew out of the urge to find voices for iconic sculptures …the conceit is that they imprison the souls of fallen angels, and of the transgressive. In this case the story is told by Mary Magdalene as imagined by Donatello. As it happens, this Mary is ruefully aware of more sentimental versions of herself. And she has what I imagine to be a Louisiana accent…that is, I think she sounds like Mary Gauthier. I probably get it wrong.


Mary Magdelene and the orphans

Mary, Mary, quite contrary;  how does your garden grow?


Right here in this courtyard, there’s a girl

come lookin’ for her childhood. In this house

in New Orleans. May ‘s  well be  the Rising Sun.

Started out an Orphan Home..St Vincent’ Paul


With silver bells, and cockle shells


It’s a hot-sheet motel now, where girls pull tricks.

And round these courtyard walls –

ain’t no-one thought to have ‘em taken down –

the Orphans’ photos; go back more’n fifty years.


and pretty maids all in row


She’ll be there, in one of ‘em, this troubled child

whose mother give her up, so long ago.

They stare down, the Orphans, all of them

conceived in love that righteous men call sin.


wallflowers, wallflowers, growing up so high


Give a girl a bad name and it sticks.

I weren’t no working girl. No sir. No saint,

neither. Maybe I talked too loud. Only

one man saw me as I truly am. Lord, O lord.


Them cracker preachers hung him up. Called me

a whore.  Him, I’d a followed till the end

of time. I washed his wounded feet, his hands,

with tears and spikenard and myrhh,

drew the thorns  from out his brow. I closed his eyes.

I dried his lovely body with my hair.


we’re all pretty maidens, we’re all set to die


There’s a magdalena here. A little worse for wear.

Them pretty golden clothes get tarnished. Still.

Won’t hurt to light a candle, say a prayer

for this lost child, for working girls. For me.

For Mary Magdalena everywhere.

U – biq – uit – ous.  My lord,

ain’t that a word!  I’m stretched so thin. Wore out.


 all these fallen souls, these angels, come  to me,

lookin’ for the grace from which they fell.


I can’t do nothin’ for them. And it breaks my heart


(From Outlaws and fallen angels. [Calder Valley Poetry 2016. £7.00]


There’s so much going on in my mind, now.  The pamphlet’s introduced by a quotation from Mary G’s song Camelot Motel. Cheaters, liars, outlaws and fallen angels /come looking’ for the grace from which they fell. The poem is a thank you for her sharing her story. At the time I thought my motive was simple, but on reflection its a lot more complicated and conflicted. I don’t think I quite acknowledged it at the time, but part of her story is that when she finally found her birth mother, her mother wasn’t willing to meet her. Now, as I’ve written before, I had an adopted son who took his own life when he was 21. The day we met him and took him home was also the day we met his birth mother. What would she feel now if she tried to find out what happened to him. What would it do to her? Here I am, writing about a woman who I can’t be said to know, in the voice of a woman whose story I can only guess at, but who has been dreadfully misrepresented down the centuries. And then appropriating an accent that that I only know by listening to Mary Gauthier telling stories between songs. Do I have the right?

There’s a verse in one of her songs, which happens to be a song of amends and atonement. I fell into the space between us / and that’s a long way to fall


I’ll leave the question hanging, and equally the question: what kind of gaze is this? Maybe someone will tell me.

In the meantime, go and buy Mary Gauthier’s records.


  • Dixie Kitchen(1997)
  • Drag Queens in Limousines(1999)
  • Filth and Fire(2002)
  • Mercy Now(2005)
  • Between Daylight and Dark(2007)
  • Genesis (The Early Years)( 2008) – 15 track compilation from the 1st three albums
  • The Foundling(2010)
  • The Foundling Alone(2011) Acoustic Demo’s of songs in development, from The Foundling
  • Live at Blue Rock(2012) 11 mixed new and old tracks plus a hidden Mercy Now
  • Trouble and Love(2014)
  • Rifles and rosary beads (2018)




“The male gaze” , or just “a gaze” (2)

I said in my last post that I’d be posting a sequence of my own poems, each of which assumes (I think that may be exactly the right word) a female persona. It may be deliberately ventriloquial …a dramatic monologue, I suppose….or more oblique and ambiguously written in the second person. Of the latter I’m never quite sure whether it’s A Good Thing, because it lends the narrator a degree of distance, or a Cop-Out..unwilling to put its money where its mouth is. The question I’m asking is this:

do you recognise this as ‘the male gaze’ or is it more simply a human gaze?

I thought it would be appropriate to start with a couple of poems which try to understood two women who have, it seems to me, been reified by history, by photography, by journalism, documentary and by art. Myra Hindley and Winnie Johnson. Winnie who died a couple of years ago never gave up her search for her son Keith Bennett, assumed murdered by Brady and Hindley, and whose body has never been recovered. Someone asked me why I’ve not written about Brady. I think it’s because he is simply not interesting, in the sense that it’s impossible to make any human or imaginative connection with him; because in some way he’s not human. Just a thing.

Three things bothered me about Myra…or “Myra”, if I think of her as a character I intend to play. One is that over time she has gradually been reduced to that strange, unsettling staring face. The second is the portrait/installation by Marcus Harvey; an image collaged from thousands of photographs of children, and an image I say is unremittingly judgemental and objectifying. Which may be right. The third thing, the thing that’s always bothered me is Myra’s claim to have discovered a saving Christian faith. I think they all feed this poem, though I was thinking of none of them at the time. It was written very fast in a workshop, and not much changed afterwards.


You look at me

and I know
what you think
you think that I know
where the dead are buried.
and I tell you what
I dream
I dream of cottongrass
its million white heads
its tender flowers
streaming white
like the blood of Jesus
like the love and mercy of Jesus
white as forgiveness
white as the rainy wind
and there are no bodies
if there ever were
they are gone in the whin
in the bracken
ground small
between millstones
and you think I know
where the bodies are buried
but I know I can look                                                                                                                          in this mirror of steel
and I do not know for a second
the woman who stares back at me

Winnie is a poem that has taken much much longer; it started maybe 10 years ago after an especially gruelling TV documentary about Winnie.  A singer/songwriter friend wrote a song afterwards. Dark skies. The key image is of a white sliding moon in the dark skies over Saddleworth Moor. It’s a haunting song. It must have been in my head at a Writing Day in Huddersfield, when a very rough draft appeared and then got forgotten for ages. It’s one of a handful of poems that really took me a long time to write, and I’m inclined to distrust them. Still. The issue is similar to that of Myra. Winnie had been photographed so often in all weathers, with those dark moors in the background, it’s hard to think of her indoors, with the curtains drawn. The images from TV at the time, of searches of peat-hag gritstone moorland in sopping vile winter weather are simply unforgettable. When I tried to write Winnie in the 1st person, and it simply felt crass, intrusive, wrong. Why this should not also apply to Myra is beyond me.



You dream of cottongrass

of threaded ghosts of baby’s hair,

white water spilled on blackstone grit.


You know that you will never know

where your boy is, has been

this forty year and more;


you know this as you know

the iron and salt of hot rare meat

the smell of his skull, his skin.


Thin winds pick among the rags

and bones of brittle heather,

sunken jaggers’ roads;


trouble dammed black waters,

the sour weeping of turned turfs

that won’t give up what’s held


where men in raincoats walk

in ragged lines with long white rods

testing the depth and smell


of the peat the way a shepherd

probes drifted Pennine snow

for buried sheep that eat their own fleece


You knew such things could be,

breathed vowels. Air.

Now you know nothing else —


the texture of a house

this pale moth-knowing

in a shadowed room,


ringed by black moors, dark humps:

tumbled cairns that mock

the lost, that will not show the way


[Both poems from Much Possessed . smith|doorstop 2016]


So there you go. Male gaze or just “gaze” ? More poems coming up.






Here’s looking at you: the male gaze


Here’s a thing; it’s Sunday afternoon,  and Sunday’s a Rugby League day,  yet I’m here, because there’s something that’s been nagging and nagging, and if I don’t write about it I shall go on waking up in the night worrying at it. Sometimes I wish poetry didn’t have such a hold on me. Nevertheless.

Some time in the early 1970s I was trying to get to grips with sociolinguistics, and, especially, with the notion of gendered language. One of my colleagues at the College of Ed. where I was a lecturer played his students (and me) an audiotape of pairs of people talking on a train. What they were talking about was pretty much gender-neutral. Simplistically, not about fashion or football. The conversations sounded slightly odd, out of kilter but we couldn’t put our collective finger on why.

This is how it worked. The researchers made transcriptions of the taped conversations, which were those of pairs of women and pairs of men. They then had men reading the dialogues of the women, and vice versa. Simply, the idioms, the structures, the dynamic, the interactions didn’t fit. It seemed that the problem went much deeper than gendered lexis. I leave that for your consideration.

At the time, my view of the world had been radically challenged by two bombshell texts: John Berger’s Ways of seeing, and Dale Spender’s Man-made language. Interestingly and paradoxically, Berger’s presentation includes statements like

The invention of the camera changed the way men saw


all images are man made.

Which pretty well made Spender’s point.Lots of things have happened since then, but they continue to be just as important to me now as they were 40 years ago.

Why am I telling you this? I’m still buzzing from a week in St Ives with poetry inspirations and tutors Kim Moore and Helen Mort, and from the impact of the poems they brought into the workshops. Poems which simultaneously raised issues of the negative, of silence, of contradiction and of how women are written about and how women write about themselves. Let’s chuck into the mix the fact that Kim Moore suggested I watch a You Tube clip of a lecture on “the female gaze” by Jill Soloway. Here’s the link.You might want to watch it before you read on.

Did that link work? welcome back, in any case.

What she says isn’t new, but in essence she says that the male gaze is characterised by being predatory, objectifying and commodifying, particularly when the gaze is turned on women. Think, say, of Durer who created an image of the ‘ideal woman’ by assembling it from bits of other images, like a kit. It’s tied up with ‘ownership’ and the power of defining the limits of another identity. This is essentially no different from Berger’s thesis, which in turn draws on earlier writers, though his conciseness is all his own:

“a woman…. is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself”

which, he argues is constructed from centuries of images of woman made essentially passive, looking back at the active and proprietorial observer.

Soloway asks what constitutes ‘the female gaze’ and make the obvious point that it’s not the simple reverse of the male gaze, substituting women observers for male observers, but maintaining the assymetric power relationship. Whether she manages to explain what the female gaze is, I’ll leave to you to decide. What I can’t leave in the air is when Soloway says, blithely enough, the male gaze is pretty well everything. Because if the male gaze is necessarily predatory and reifying  then the semantic and rhetorical books are well and truly cooked, and I might as well stop right now. It’s not that simple, because life never is. The core of it is pretty well indisputable; Western art and literature are dominated by men and their gaze well into the 19th C. Think about all the countless paintings of madonnas (by men) and then paintings of mothers and children by women. Check out Berthe Morrisot and you’ll see what I mean. Now we live in more relativist cultures, with all their contradictions and ambiguities. Have look at these female nudes. Two are contemporary. One is more than 20,000 years old. One is painted by a woman. One by a man. One we know nothing about. Where’s the male or female gaze? I don’t know, and I’m not out to win any arguments. I’m just asking myself questions.


Let me ask some more. Let’s shift the ground to poetry…it is a poetry blog after all. Think about Browning’s My last duchess. There’s a poem about the predatory male gaze if ever there was one. But whose gaze is turned on the Duke, and whose on the the woman whose portrait the Duke is showing off. What is the poet assuming about the duchess? Or think about Philip Larkin’s The less deceived and how he imagines (gazes on) the little street girl abducted and taken into fulfilment’s desolate attic. At every turn I feel the ground slipping away from under my feet.

At this point, I’m going to go back to an earlier post, (December 204) in which I was equally uncertain of what I was arguing about or why. I started with a quotation from George Eliot…who had to assume a male persona to get published.

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary life it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well-wadded with stupidity”

I went on to write about my response to work by Pascale Petit, Kim Moore, Fiona Benson and Wendy Pratt, and to wonder whether I could access their experience of the world via their poems. I wrote:

“I read these poems, and then I read what I’ve written in the last two years and I see what isn’t there, and I wonder if I have access to what’s missing. Just to explain why I chose that opening quotation from George Eliot; for the last 18 months or so I have grown gradually more deaf. It’s something that can be dealt with, and will be, but at the moment I hear the world through a soft sieve. I miss the point of conversations and questions if I’m not attending. It’s like listening to French. I recognise songs on the radio by the bass lines and drum patterns but I can’t hear the whole tune. And now these poets. It’s as though they’ve shown me emotional registers and harmonies that I can’t hear or feel for myself, as though, in George Eliot’s word I’m ‘well-wadded’. I’m writing rhetoric and well-observed landscapes, and anecdotes, but I’m not accessing the whole picture.”

I was reminded of this last week when I read one of Clare Shaw’s remarkable poems from her annual foray into the world of NaPoRiMo. Here’s a bit of it (thanks for the permission, Clare)

I was told not to write about wombs

but mine writes itself
in capitals. It is prolific,
I cannot forget it.

It reminds me
of all its hard work,
how patient and kind

it has been;
what it gave me. It boasts
it is further inside me

than the maps would suggest.
It says has swallowed small men
and some creatures.

How once it was sea and sky,
and a star floated there,
and its world was endless.


I pick out one phrase that all my conflicted and muddled feelings spin on: it is further inside me / than the maps would suggest. It’s that internal understanding, that knowledge that seem beyond me. And at this point I’m going to pass the buck. Over the last few years I’ve written poems in the voices of so many women…which is to say, I’ve made the attempt. Myra Hindley, Keith Bennett’s mother Winnie, Mary Magdalene, Joan of Arc’s mother, a cunning woman, one of the Three Graces, Ophelia and so on. And I’ve turned my gaze on other women without appropriating their imagined voices. My week in St Ives, and a week spent reading about ‘the male gaze’ and ‘the female gaze’ have left me uncertain of what I’ve been engaged in. What I’ll do is post of some of these poems, one at a time, and see what you make of them. Male gaze or not? And what tells us?

The first is new, though the subject is one that’s dear to me. A little Toulouse Lautrec drawing, on a bit of torn card (which reproductions crop out),tucked away in a corner of the Alte Pinakotech in Munich. You come upon it after huge galleries , like celestial butchers’ cold rooms, full of enormous Rubens nudes


After the Rubens

Just your head, just your slumped shoulders.

They’ve tucked you away, low down

in a corner by the door, with the woman

tugging a stubborn goat over the chalk.

I guess you’ll settle for this, no one

staring, this small space to yourself,

no one to bother.  Do you mind

that all he had was chalks,

a torn off bit of pasteboard.

Do you mind that your hair’s come

unpinned and he’s noticed that,

and how grey is your skin, do you mind

that scribble of pistacchio smudged in

to make you hair catch fire.I don’t know

your name and for this I am sorry.

It’s just that you look so tired that I stare.

Do you mind.And if I don’t stare, if

I look away, where will we be then.




Red Shed Poetry Competition – closes 28 April 2018

A great competition. Small but beautifully formed.

Abegail Morley

Red Shed Poetry Competition 2018
Sole adjudicator: Maria Isakova Bennett
Closing date: Saturday 28th April, 2018
Prizes: 1st— £100, 2nd—£50
​Short listed poems – £10

Wakefield Postcode prize—£25 

Generously sponsored by Mocca Moocho café


About the Judge

The amazingly creative Maria Isakova Bennett is one of the founders of Coast-to-Coast-to-Coast, the beautiful hand-stitched poetry journals you’ll have heard about. Maria lives in Liverpool and holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. She won a Northern Writers’ Award for poetry in June 2017, and has won and has been placed and commended in many poetry competitions.

Find out more and enter here.

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A serious business, and a polished gem :Jennifer Copley


toilet roll crop

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.

bubble compilation 1

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

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 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.


cellar crop

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.

St Ives 2017 014


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”

james caruth 7

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.

james caruth 3

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]