From the back catalogue (2)

Whose life is it anyway?

a guest blog post on Anthony Wilson’s Lifesaving poems  [September 2015]glenkiln_lh350_4

A few weeks ago I was writing about the way I had found myself conflicted about learning things about my granddad’s life that that didn’t fit with poems I’d written about him; how I was feeling uneasy about the truths of documentary records, and the truths of poems and poetry. I think it bothered me particularly, because it took me a long time to put people in my poems at all…ten years ago, pretty much all my poems were like my photographs: unpopulated landscapes.

I tried deliberately to break out of the straitjacket of endlessly writing pretty/atmospheric/repetitive (inevitably) evocations of places like Skye and the Pennine Moors. I took my cue from Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘The world’s wife’, because I saw that I could try ventriloquism, learn the way of other people’s voices. I wrote monologues for all sorts of famous statues, like The Angel of the North, and for an artist who had fascinated me, and for his wife, and his model.  But never about real, living people…or, at least, about people who I knew, and might get to read the poems.

I suppose the first breakthrough of sorts came in the guilty relief and release –for both of us, I want to believe – that came when my mother died in her 90s . She spent the last fifteen years of her life in a nursing home following a  severe stroke. She fought against every moment of it. She resented and hated it. I took her ashes to the Valley of Desolation, her favourite place in Wharfedale, and soon after, wrote a poem about it as a sort of atonement or prayer for absolution. Then I felt guilty that I’d not written for my dad, so I wrote about his birdwatching, his shoe mending, his singing; and then I had to balance it up with more about my mum. It’s a strange thing, guilt, but the outcome was that over about three years I’d written a handful of poems, and more about my grandparents, and it seemed to come more easily with each one. I didn’t feel as if they were looking over my shoulder, tutting.  Or not as often, or not as loudly.

But I can pinpoint the big breakthrough to specific dates. In October 2013 I was on a writing course at Almaserra Vella in Spain, and the tutor was Jane Draycott. She gave us a quick writing exercise…first impressions, get-it-down-fast responses to a randomly chosen postcard, which happened to be a Penguin book cover that had images of flame on it.

2018-02-26 15.10.01

And I wrote about our friend Julie who we’d visited in her flat in Whitby a couple of weeks before. Julie was dying of an incurable cancer; she’d confounded the specialists by outliving their predictions by over a year.

Flames. The most tenuous of connections. But a flame burned fiercely in Julie, and in the underlit smokestacks of the Boulby mine just up the coast. Maybe that was it. I typed it up with very few changes the week after. When she died a couple of weeks later, I nerved myself up to give the poem to her brother at her funeral. I was genuinely frightened. But he liked it, shared it. Gave me a permission I realised I needed: to write honestly about and for real living people. That poem Julie won first prize in the 2013 Plough Competition. Andrew Motion had liked it! I used some of the prize money to put together and print my first two pamphlets.

Julie

According to the specialists you died six months ago

and I like sitting with you, proving there’s an afterlife

as we roll cigarettes, you perched like a wire bird

up on your kitchen top beside the angel

that I made for you before I knew you weren’t alive.

 

Your fridge’s crusted like a wreck, with magnets

and pictures of BobDylan, and you show me

that programme that Patti Smith had signed, for you,

not knowing you’d been applauding from the Underworld.

You make me laugh each time you tell the phone

it can get stuffed because it’s your mad mother

who will not believe that you’re not with us any more.

 

Your eyes grow bright in your dead woman’s face,

then sink, then glow like cigarettes, like the ironworks

up the coast, or the small lights on the cobles

tied up and tilted on the mud; like the strange flares

from the stack high up on Boulby Cliff, where the shaft

goes down a whole dark mile of ammonites, and heads off

far away beneath the weight of oil rigs, and sunken ships,

and shoals of cod, and all the grey North sea.

 

Which is where it gets just a little more complicated. We’ve been going to the Isle of Skye for twenty-odd years, renting a bungalow from Norman and Effie Macpherson in the crofting valley of Achnacloich on the Sleat peninsula. Norman was a shepherd all his working life, on Ben Lomond, on Ben Nevis, and finally, till his death four years ago, back on his home island. Every now and then I’d try to write about them, but always felt conscious of what I imagined would be their wry, dry take on the whole sorry impertinent business. What did I know? Even so, when I put my first pamphlet together I wanted them in: a seven-poem sequence titled Crofters.

Achnalcloich

If anyone else had given me permission for that, it was MacCaig, who I read and re-read, trying to nail down just how he did it; that apparently simple thing of writing about the people and hills of Assynt that he loved and knew better than I’d ever know Skye, or Effie and Norman. Anyway, that’s the thing I was after. The way Norman would hide behind the barn to smoke, the quiet pauses of Effie’s speech. Here’s Norman

He’s laid up in the house:

joint pains, congested lungs,

bladder like a bag of knives,

and maybe sheep-dip’s to blame.

and Effie, the first year after he died, feeding the sheep that come running

like threads to a spool,

and milling like a boil of beans –

ignore the black and white dog,

the woman in the pilled grey fleece,

her hair that breezes cannot ruffle.

It was an expensive dog, that one. Norman went down to Tyndrum to buy it. A serious business, buying a working dog.

I still didn’t feel right about publishing the poems. In a diffuse sort of way, a way that says: well, they’re not going to see these poems. No-one’s going to buy them after all.  That sort of thing. And then I wrote some more, and sent some in for competitions. A poem called Norman came 2nd in a York Literature festival competition this year. I wrote from memory and feeling. Some things I know are factually true and some as though they ought to be.

Norman

 could birth a lamb in the lee of a dike,

smit a skittish ewe in a squall,

pin down a ram and not give a jot 

for its yellow stare, the black slot of its sideways eye,

wear a two-year Herdwick like a scarf over three miles of bog,

make good a tumbled fence with a twist of twine,

strip out an axle on a Subaru,

stand half a summer to his waist in the slop of the dip

haul a whole flock through and still tell a tale 

over the clamouring misery of bleat.

He could walk all day in a pelt of rain and a sack for a coat.

 

To put down a runt or one with a goitre 

or one with a sprain or a maggoty arse – 

that was beyond him quite.

 

The days for the slaughterman’s truck 

he was away over the moor.

 

He knew where the first primrose showed.

I knew all about the Subaru, but the Herdwick was there for the heft of the word. It would more likely have been one of the blackfaced sheep. I don’t know the proper name. A Cheviot? What I was after was the mix of Norman’s durability and the sentimental side he could show.

He once told me he knew a secret place in the woods beyond the headland. He’d take Effie there to show her the first primroses. They can’t be got at now, because of the deer fences. He was cross about them, because now there are no deer to keep down more competitive plants.

The man at the garage in Armadale told me that all the neighbours were pretty sure that years of exposure to organo-phosphates in the sheep dip played a part in his illness. That had to find a way in.

That’s Norman who I didn’t know all that well; but it’s the Norman I remember. I worried about whether Effie would recognize him. Or think me obtrusive. An incomer.

Tarskavaig

The business was finally settled for me when Liz Lochhead picked a poem as the winner of the 2014 Plough Competition. It pivots on something Effie happened to say when I told her about an odd meeting in the rain down in Tarskavaig. This is it.

Tinkers

Washed up on a rucked-rug  shoreline,

floats, fish-boxes, rubber gloves,

fertiliser sacks, kelp, clots of wool,

and the cockle –pickers, peat-pickled 

bog-creatures, leathery, with ruined teeth,

long, dirty nails, eyes as dark as iodine.

 

They tinkers. Och. says Effie. You’d do well

to look to the barns, and count the spades,

and what did they ask you for,

the leather women, old coats belted with rope,

rubber boots patched with gaffer tape,

hair like seaweed, when they tapped

on the windscreen, brown as selkies.

 

For a light only, the bright ember,

blue smoke blown on the wind, the spit

of rain off the sea, and thanks we’re away 

down the road and done with the day,

with turning stones, with lifting kelp,

browsing the hard shore for a knuckly net

of cockles, iron, amber,cobalt, rust.

 

What’s to be done with the Tarskavaig tinkers

who come up out of the peat or the sea?

And when the light goes, where do they turn?

We’d had a laugh over that. Not ‘PC’ that ‘tinkers’. ‘But they’re tinkers just the same’, said Effie. And I cut her some cake. Well, it takes more than a slice of cake to say ‘thank you’ for putting someone out there in public, when you never said ‘please’ in the first place. I had sleepless nights over it all,  then said the serenity prayer. The bit about asking for courage to change the things we can. I made a neat parcel of my three pamphlets, and wrote a letter that took me more redrafts than most poems, all explanation, mea culpa and apology, and posted it all off to Achnacloich on the Sleat peninsula of Skye.

Then I waited. And nothing happened. I thought maybe she’d gone to visit her cousin, or gone over to Ireland for a holiday, or…….. I thought over and over, what if she’s upset, or worse. Last week I bit the bullet and telephoned. O, hello, she said. I was meaning to ring you…I feel guilty now, you know how things get put off, it’s been a terrible summer, och, the worst I remember, dreich days, and grass poor, we’re taking supplements up to sheep; yes I got your books. We liked them. Norma says I’ll be famous now. Och, no, of course I’m not cross.

For two days I walked on air, and in November I’ll be able to go and see her, and all will be well. Whose lives are they anyway, when we write? I have no idea. But I know we’re responsible for them, and the truth of them. Whatever that is.

 

A 2018 Postscript: Since I first wrote this post, I’ve had two pamphlets, a collection, and a jointly-authored collection published. The tinkers and Effie and Norman finally went properly public in 2016 when they appeared my first collection, Much Possessed [smith|doorstop. £9.95]. And in  more poems that may or may not be published one day. There’s a moral here. Stay with your instincts. Anyway, as a bonus track, here’s Norman from “Much possessed”

Blended

That would be the time I saw the White-tailed eagle,
the time Norman says Well, yes, I’ll take another,
the time he came up to the cottage, which is a thing
he rarely does;it would be Effie, usually,
who’d have a cup of tea, a slice of Dundee cake,
but Norman says cake’s not his thing, and coughs,
thoughtfully, because sheep dip will do that
over the years, it’ll get to the lungs, so then
we settle on the whisky; not a single malt –
the Isle of Skye that’s blended in the South,
in pawky Edinburgh, but like Angus
at the Post Office by the ferry always says:
it’s a wee bit smoky-peaty, and och it’s no
to everybody’s taste
, but it turns out
it tastes just fine, which is how it comes to be
that Norman takes a generous third glass
and spreads himself a little and says
that last year, driving back from Armadale,
just where the road comes over the moor
above Loch Dughail, just before it twists
down the three miles through the birches,
just there, and was it June? Och, summer, anyway
and right there above the loch, and it was a day
so still, there was a White-tailed eagle, sailing
in off Slapin, and not a wingbeat to it now,
and there it was, and there it was reflected
in the loch, and you know, that was a lovely thing,
the eagle in the wind and on the water.
And I know that though I never saw the eagle
ride the wind to Rhum, I know I saw it then
with Norman, comfy in the armchair,
with that third glass of smoky-peaty
blended Isle of Skye.

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I’ll be back

arnie

Finally having a break from trying to keep up with new posts for the cobweb. A month should do it, by which time I’ll have managed to line up new guests, and, who knows, something interesting will have cropped up in this bubble of poetry we inhabit.

In the meantime I’ll be reposting some older posts that might stand an airing. And thank you for following and reading. Makes it all worthwhile.

 

Originally published on Roy Marshall’s poetry blog : August 2015

“Taking stock”

About 12 years ago I finished an MA course in Creative Writing that I was ill-advised to have started. I don’t know what my motive was, but my heart wasn’t in it. I duly got my MA, but the writing didn’t start in any meaningful way until I started going to the Poetry Business Writing Days on a regular basis a couple of years later. Even then, between 2007 and 20012 I averaged about twelve new poems a year.

Something strange (or, rather, wonderful) happened in 2013; it was like a dam bursting. I’ve written ceaselessly since. 272 new poems. I cannot account for it, but I’m happy to count my blessings. And I can now look back and see a curious process and progress.

In one of the essays I wrote for my MA I see that even then I had an idea about where I wanted to be. I wrote that my imagination was:

‘visual ,excited by landscape, particularly the landscape of hills, fells, sky, sea and weather’. but that I wanted to be more: concerned with explorations of people in landscape, and the meaning of their histories.’

Basically, all my poems were like the photograph of the shore at Achnacloich. Empty of people. Which leads me to a shift, of sorts. Back then, even before I started on an MA, I went up to Skye for a week on my own TO WRITE. I would write about Clearance sites. I would read John Prebble. I would take poets with me. I would be serious about it.

Not much came of it except this one poem that eventually was accepted by ‘The North’. I didn’t know that was a big deal. I know better now. The backstory is that I was getting myself lost as usual up on the moor, following, and losing, deer tracks, and looking out towards Rhum, and back to the Cuillin, and realising that I couldn’t see any of it straight. It was all coming through the lens of Ted Hughes and his stags, and his stones and his horizons. And it was that frustration that I wrote about. I wouldn’t have thought anything of it, but when I came home to radio and newspapers, I discovered that had been the day that Ted Hughes had died, and I thought that made the poem worth keeping. Here it is.

                       Achnacloich: October 1998

As the heron creaked clear
of the wet alders by the brown burn,
taking a line from the curve of the fell
where the eagle had mantled
and flown lazy and sure to the far edge of things,
you were watching, old hawk, among the crofts,
the sheep staring mad-eyed
at your insurance man’s suit
shiny at cuff and collar, creased at knee,at elbow.
You watched and talked all that wet day,
your gritstone vowels, your cadences
open as the sky; falling for ever.

You were there on the shoreline,
rooting through the blueprint bones
of sheep, those scattered vertebrae,
this relic jawbone clamped on silence
among the stones, the hiddle of baling wire,
mired iron sheeting, rust.
Across the green and sopping parks
sheep huddled in the lithe of the long wall,
and beyond, on the bareblown hill
the deer were waiting for you and me;
alert and wary, then, pouring easy as light
up the tumbled slopes and out of sight,
in those gulleys gouged in the cold hills.

Heaven poured down on Rhum,
fans and blades of honey, silver-gilt.
As we walked and watched that day
in Achnacloich; old hawk, you saw
the pressed dry grass where the deer lie,
a single slot in a cup of peat;
the buttresses of turf, of heather, tangled whin,
and, always the horizons calling
until, far below and far away,
the wood was a struggle
a scattering foil of birch and bloodbead ash.

There we stood in the high place
where rock was kneeling, clean and dry and bright
and all the earth was a stage
for the performance of heaven.
The tumbling outcrops fell away;
away, away beyond the foundering islands,
beyond the damascened sea.

The stones, the light, the rain,
all fixed in the reflex of your hawk’s eye.
Wherever I walked in Achnacloich,
The Field of Stones, that day your words,
joined with earth and engraved in rock
were under my feet. That day.

    (Ted Hughes d. October 28 1998)

I realise now it more than just a bit of landscape painting, and that I was enjoying collaging lines of Hughes’ poems into my own, and I was actually writing about something personal. But I didn’t stay with it.

It was another 5 years before I started again, and I made a big effort to populate my poetry. I took my cue from The world’s wife and worked away at ventriloqual monologues spoken by fallen angels. I like some of them, but no-one else seems to. I wrote about John Waterhouse, the painter, and his wife, and his favourite model. More dramatic monologues that didn’t go anywhere very much. And then a long hiatus, though I started going regularly to The Poetry Business Writing Days, and they slowly worked their magic. Tentatively, I started to write about real people, but very self-consciously and awkwardly until 2013 when I was on a writing residential and I wrote this poem that changed everything.

Julie

According to the specialists you died six months ago
and I like sitting with you, proving there’s an afterlife
as we roll cigarettes, you perched like a wire bird
up on your kitchen top beside the angel
that I made for you before I knew you weren’t alive.
Your fridge’s crusted like a wreck, with magnets
and pictures of Bob Dylan, and you show me
that programme that Patti Smith had signed, for you,
not knowing you’d been applauding from the Underworld.
You make me laugh each time you tell the phone
it can get stuffed because it’s your mad mother
who will not believe that you’re not with us any more.
Your eyes grow bright in your dead woman’s face,
then sink, then glow like cigarettes, like the ironworks
up the coast, or the small lights on the cobles
tied up and tilted on the mud; like the strange flares
from the stack high up on Boulby Cliff, where the shaft
goes down a whole dark mile of ammonites, and heads off
away beneath the weight of oil rigs, and sunken ships,
and shoals of cod, and all the grey North sea.

This poem, about someone I was very fond of, only happened because of the pressure of a fast writing task that ambushed me into knowing an emotion I didn’t know I felt. Thank you for that ‘write from a postcard’ task, Jane Draycott. I plucked up the courage to give a copy to Julie’s brother at her funeral. He liked it. He shared it with people, and I sent it off for the Plough Poetry Competition, where Andrew motion liked it and gave it the first prize. That’s what changed everything. It gave me permission to think I could write, along with the encouragement of Kim Moore (who put one of my poems on her Sunday Poem blog), and Gaia Holmes, who gave me a guest slot at the Puzzle Hall Poets. That was it. The dam broke.

Years of reading and teaching, and having a family and a history were stacked up, waiting to be dealt with and voiced. It took 70 years, but I finally got going. More fallen angels, poems for my parents and for my grandparents, and my children, and long-ago girlfriends, and finally, folktale and myth that became imaginatively real and relevant for the first time in my life. Daedalus let me write about the death of my son. Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Garfield and Blishen’s The god beneath the sea reminded me why I loved Prometheus and Hephaestus, and why I loathed most of the Greek Pantheon. Norman MacCaig taught me it was possible to write about gods and heroes with the ease of familiarity. Which is what lies behind this poem that I chose to put into my chapbook Larach (along with John Keats’ urn and Orpheus and the rest). It’s nice to feel comfortable enough to be angry in a poem.

True stories

Violent and vulgar as the Krays comes Zeus,
a white bull, miasmic with testosterone,
or a shower of gold, or a flurry of wings
and swansdown.
The whole pale mortal world
just asking for it.
A bit of blood and bruising.
No harm done.

No wonder Cronos had no stomach
for Olympus and its thuggish brood.

Roman Ovid knew blood clogs scabbards,
stiffens nets; the blue-white shine of bone;
the gristly wet noise of a boy
spitted on a hunting spear;

Years and reverence
bleached Greek myths white and silent,
censored severed hands and torn-out tongue;
the loud incontinent reek of death.

As if hyacinths, pale anenomes,
the silvery liquid song of nightingales
would atone, somehow.
Birds and flowers, and cold bright stars –
archers,hunters, bear and plough.

Surely simpler, and more godlike,
to prick holes in the fabric of the night,
let bits of heaven shine through.

I suspect all my pent-up frustrations about arrogant Old Etonians and their sense of entitlement, and their palpable contempt for the rest of us has fed into this. Whether it’s healthy or not, I don’t know. But I enjoyed writing it. I like doing it at open mic. events, too.

The last year has brought new breakthroughs that I’ve recognised in the moments where they happened. I’ve reached a point where I can write with what feels like real emotional/imaginative truth about the things that matter to me more than anything. It’s a long business, learning not to shy away from hard truths. Kim Moore has taught me that in her poems that deal with domestic violence in her lovely collection, The art of falling. And then, in March this year, in a residential she ran, she somehow ambushed me into writing a poem about my son’s suicide, direct, unmediated through games with myth and personae. It’s the poem I’ve waited all my life to write.

 A weak force

there’s sometimes a loss you can’t imagine;
the lives never lived by your children;
the one who simply stopped
in the time it takes
to fall to the ground
from the top of a tower block.

No time at all.

They say gravity is a weak force.
I say the moon will draw a trillion tons
of salt sea from its shore.
I say a mountain range will pull a snowmelt
puddle out of shape.
I say gravity can draw a boy
through a window
and into the air.

There is loss no one can imagine

in the no time between
falling and not falling
you learned the art of not falling

beneath you burned
the lights of Sheepscar, Harehills,
Briggate, Vicar Lane,
lights shone in the glass arcades,
on the tiles, on the gantries of tall cranes,
on the motorway tail lights trailed ribbons of red,
and you were far beyond falling.

Because you shut your eyes
because you always shut your eyes
you closed them tight as cockleshells
because when you did that the world
would go away the world
would not see you.

I remember how you ran like a dream.
I remember how you laughed when I swore
I would catch you.

Then you flared you went out
you flared like a moth and you blew
away over the lights over the canal
the river the sour moors the cottongrass
the mills of the plain
and over the sea and over the sea
and the bright west
and sank like the sun.

Thanks for inviting me, Roy Marshall. It’s been good to take stock.

next week: Whose life is it, anyway ?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clare Shaw’s “Flood”

clare 23

About 18 months ago, Clare did something I find unnerving even now. She sent me the manuscript of the new collection she’d been putting together (it was provisionally called Floodtown)and asked me to give her (detailed) feedback on it. And here we are in 2018, and here’s the new collection, and it’s very different from that early draft. Richer; artfully sequenced and structured. I read it, straight through, while I was waiting for a bone scan in the Oncology Dept of St James Infirmary in Leeds…waiting to be suffused, flooded, if you like, with molecular energies. I read it as a powerful narrative of survival and its celebration. It came with its own life-enhancing, optimistic energy and force.

In popular belief, we are 90% water; this is untrue…in fact, we’re about 65% water. We cannot live without it; we cannot breathe or live in it. The sea is where we came from, and we cannot quite leave it behind. The idea of flood is in our collective unconscious, a great cataclysmic flood that every culture recognises in its myths. Genesis, Gilgamesh, the Greek’s Deucalion. Flood as divine punishment, a great scourging and cleansing that spares only the pure in heart. The Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime reverses the idea in the story of Tiddalik the Frog who drinks up all the waters of the earth so that nothing can grow, and can only be got to release them by being made to laugh.

No wonder that the idea of flood permeates the language, breeds metaphor.Flood as release and healing. We can be flooded with relief and with love; counter-intuitively, with heat and passion. Flood as invasion: a constant trope in the whipping up of fear of immigration. Newspapers may be inundated with complaints, that come ‘pouring in’, and charities with offers of help, always with the sense of being overwhelmed, which may be welcome or unwelcome. Language is ambivalent about flood. We can see it as absolution or cleansing (as D H Lawrence was prone to see it); we tend to discount or forget the aftermath of flood…the detritus, the filth, the stink of drowned things under the sun. In one way or another you’ll find all these in Flood which is constantly aware of it contradictions and paradoxes. But I see that I’m in danger of doing something I tried to avoid by writing five introductory posts about flood and floods. Time to write about Clare Shaw and her collection, which testifies, as it says on its back cover: to the forces that destroy and save us…flood runs through the book in different forms – bereavement and trauma, the Savile scandal, life in an asylum..ultimately, a story of one life as it is unravelled and rebuilt.

clare 1

Clare first:

When I first heard her read to a less than full house at The Albert Poets in Huddersfield a couple of years ago, I was bowled over. I’d been roped in to compere-ing duties at the last minute; as far as I remember I described her set as a rivetting combination of Patti Smith/Bukowski/ Dylan/ Morrisey and John Cooper Clark if they had that accent of the Lancashire Pennines where they rhyme ‘hair’ with ‘fur’. She reads with a rare intensity and poise; her poems have you unwaveringly in their sights. They’re felt and physical, urgent and full of love. And they demand to be heard.

She says in an interview:  ‘I revel in the texture and echo of words; I love their dance. There’s something about the physicality of the spoken word that delights me. For me it feels like the meeting place of human and landscape; a sort of landscape of mouth and air and page. I enjoy the physicality of my own language; and I’m drawn to poems that foreground the dance and swoop of conversation, as well as the music of form and rhythm; alongside meaning and content.

In another interview she said: I spent most of my twenties on Liverpool psychiatric wards and units. It was grim. Conditions were terrible, staff were often burnt out, disengaged or hostile. Those who weren’t, were nonetheless generally stymied by a medical model of mental illness which stripped the personal and social meaning from our distress and reduced it to an issue of biology, medication and management. 

Life had been difficult; I was distressed when I entered the system; what I experienced there made it worse. When I see things that are wrong, I want to change them. I entered into campaigning as a matter of necessity. It’s a passion for me. And of course, I write. 

One of the reasons I ended up in mental health services is because I didn’t have the language for what I felt and what I needed. I tried to manage on my own; and I communicated my feelings and needs through my behaviour – through self-injury. Finding the right language has been a crucial part of my “recovery”. Mental health calls for a language of nuance and extremity; which can hold intense, complex and sometimes contradictory emotion and experience. Poetry is where I found this language.

Let’s foreground some key words and phrases before we go any further

the texture and echo of words….. their dance. …… the physicality of the spoken word … the dance and swoop……the music of form and rhythm…. a language of nuance and extremity intense, complex and sometimes contradictory 

Think of that as you listen to the poems. Don’t look at them, say them. They’re so often incantatory; listen for the rhymes and slant rhymes, the assonance, the urgent rhythm that may or may not grow out of repetition. And also keep in mind one more thing. If you follow Twitter or Facebook you’ll be aware that that Clare’s writing explodes into your message feeds via NaPoWriMo, and if you check carefully you’ll find that a lot of the poems in the collection came in that flood, or gush, or geyser of 30 days of writing. You have to assume that all these themes and ideas and phrases and verses have been hanging around, have been toyed with, inchoate, and then suddenly respond to pressure, which give it form. (She does nothing by halves, she does things passionately…like wild swimming in a different body of water every day for a month. Which turns out to be the coldest January in years).

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I can’t do justice to the complexity and richness of nearly 50 poems, so I’ll settle for sharing three poems from the collection, for trying to give you the quality and flavour three main threads or strands in Flood. 

( a hiatus. Me and and posts about Clare Shaw have history on WordPress. Which has just lost about 500 words which I’ll now do my best to remember and reproduce. AAAAAgh!!!! Here we go.)

The first thread is the core story of the Calder Valley floods of 2015 which ruined Clare’s adopted home of Hebden Bridge ; it has a role in reconciling her struggles with identity, it gave her a place to stand, and to be; she celebrates it in Who knows what it’s like  :

I grew up outnumbered, one hundred to one /I found my own people. My kin. 

(just in passing, I love the way she ends on a couplet with its near rhyme, the assonance of one / kin ). She gives thanks for that kinship in Measures of goodness, for:

Those swilling for others.

Those who form armies of buckets and brushes;

those bailing water from fast-filling cellars.

Those making cuppas for neighbours and strangers: 

those who would see no one cold.

 

Just listen to the the rhythm and dance she talked about in the interview, the dance that’s made by swilling /bailing/fast-filling/making and cuppas / armies / buckets / brushes / neighbours / strangers.  It’s a rhythm that comes from speech, so it seems effortless for all its artfulness.

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The second thread is that of the dark current of child- and sexual abuse which she frames in the context of folk tales, of orphans and forests and wolfy predators, in poems like Grim, Who said and Telling tales. But notice how their darkness is set against the light and tenderness of poems about her mother and father and grandmother. It’s a beautifully organised / curated collection, Flood.

The third thread, that of survival whether in psychiatric wards or in difficult relationships, uses  flood and harsh weather as a metaphor for separation in poems which explore the difficulties of love, and the breakdown of a relationship…. particularly in this poem where flood brings no cleansing or absolution, and where the width of a bed is impassable as a river in spate.

Weather warning 

 

The weather’s all wrong

and nothing can right it. Wherever I am,

there’s a sound in the background

like threat. The wind knows

all of my secrets.

It hates that it cannot speak.

 

All night, it rages. The garden is battered,

the small path is lost to mud.

Slates have slipped. There’s damp in the bricks

and the floors are dirty.

No matter how high the heating,

I cannot get warm.

 

When I sleep, I dream in yellow;

sun pouring down me

like rain. Then I’m naked

and everything I touch is hot.

Sky glares; flowers are open.

Bushes are loaded with fruit. I’m a shit.

 

Morning. You’re on the bed’s far side.

The room smells of something hidden.

The river is angry with rain.

Roads are blocked and the lines are down.

I stretch out my arm

but can’t reach you. I cannot reach you at all.  

 

In this breakdown of communication, all roads are blocked and the lines are down. There are no emergency services. Dreams of sun and warmth are yellow, and warmth is a feverish heat. Waking is awful. It’s a stunner of a poem. They stick in the mind, those moments that draw you in. The wind knows all your secrets.

Two more poems. The biblical flood is unavoidable, isn’t it? In this version though, the survival is that of the wife and mother, and the survival is that of her self. Mrs Noah can say at the end : this is my voice. And it’s been hard-won. (I should say in passing that I like the device of using the stages of developing flood as described in a kind of Beaufort scale of inundation as titles for poems; I like the way that this one conflates and elides her personal story with the story of the valley, and its flood with those of myth).

Low lying regions inundated. Large objects begin to float

 

My man was not blameless but he knew his own mind.
He loved his sons, his God, his goats.
We were solid as wood, as steady as bread.
It was not perfect: it was what I had.
I brought up boys in a time of war.
I loved them. I had no choice.

 

And this is my voice:

you would not believe the violence;
how the ground was covered in minutes;
how quickly our valley was Nile.

 

When the river came with a sound like battle
and when all the waters were one

then we knew how angry we’d made him
and it was too late to run.

When I tell you I feared for my life

for my children – you cannot imagine.
When I say, I saw people drown,
they looked in my face and I could not help them –
ours was the only boat on that ocean;

a boat the size of a zoo, a mansion;
a sea the size of the world.

I lived to see what I loved destroyed
and all my world was unmade.

Forty days. The boredom and stink
and the darkness. No wonder

the birds pulled out their feathers
and the bear banged his head on the wall.
And when the rain stopped,

then the silence.

The mountains a dream in the waters beneath us.
I think, that day, there was sun.

 

When floods recede,
they don’t leave a world made shiny

and bright. For years, I’ll be cleaning up shit.
No bird nor branch can make this right.
No trick of the light. No I’ll-never-do-it

again. No god or man.

 

I loved him. I had no choice.
And this is my voice:
it takes more than a dove
and I will not forgive.

 

That note of defiance, truculence, even, sounds like a trumpet. It’s the voice of a survivor. Which brings us to the last poem I asked for. This featured in a previous post when Clare was the guest, but WordPress corrupted all the line breaks, and I wanted it in all its pristine glory.

I came back

to the sound of birds in the morning,
to heavy rain falling. Back to the holding of hands.
I came back from the storm
to shelter. Though they said
there was no way back
I came back in a taxi, by darkness
and no-one could see my face.

I came back from the brink,

from Broadoak. There was screaming

inside my ears. I came back running,

back from not speaking.
I made the same noise for years.

I came back by grafting, back

with my arms open wide and laughing.

 

I was brought back by daisies.
I was brought back by doctors.
Saved by a surplus of air
because somebody needed to breathe it;
I came back to the feeling of mud, I forgot
I forgot how to cross the road.

I was not brought back by love.
I was brought back by stone
and by falling. I was brought back
by hitting the floor. I was wrapped in a blanket,
brought back by hurting,
by the sight of my own insides
and I did not like it and I could not stop it
but back is the way I came.

I was brought back by words
though I didn’t believe them,
I came back to a yard in the sun.
I was brought back by pain that I could not escape.
When they stitched me, I could not run

I was sweating. I will never forget them.

I came back to my mother’s eyes

and the sound of the telly left on.

I came back the long way round
and I did not mind about distance.
I was brought back by violence, my own.
I came back for vodka, I came back for fire,
for your animal breath in my ear.
For the colour of leaves in the darkness.
I came back for your eyes in the darkness;

to houses that did not care.
For tracing the flames with my fingers,
how you parted my knees with your hands
and when the fires had all lost their voices
I came back from the page’s blank stare.
I was brought back to words: moon,
falling. I was right I was right all along.

I came back.
I lived through thunder.
And I did not come back for the sun.

 

Clare wrote this about it at the time:

“Gregory Orr’s book “Poetry As Survival” was a happy discovery I made recently after agreeing to tutor the Poetry School course. I won’t try to précis the book: suffice to say, it’s like someone cut me open and read what was inside me. Here are two line from it, which seem very relevant this month: “Trauma, either on an intimate or collective  scale, has the power to annihilate the self and shred the web of meaning that support is existence. Yet the evidence of lyric poetry is equally clear – deep in the recesses of the human spirit, there is some instinct to rebuild the web of meanings with the same quiet determination we witness in the garden spider as it repairs the threads wind and weather have torn”. Here’s a poem which pretty much summarises how I feel.  I wrote the first draft of it on the last day of NaPoWriMo 2015: and it’s a kind of thank you letter to Kim Moore and to all the other writers who brought me back. PS. I finished the collection today. Thanks.”

There you are.. When you buy the book, please read I came back and then Woz here just to savour the defiance it takes to survive, the resilience. And then go on to savour the dance and the images, the moments..

yes I saw the river rising / but I did not see this coming

the river is a story / that can’t be believed

nobody intended this story / but I have written it on my arms

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And then finish with this one

Rescue effort

Look.

 

It has stopped.

You lifted your sea on blocks.

You saved some stock.

You did whatever you could.

 

You worked hard.Your daughter was never afraid.

 

Now look.

The sun has come back,

hedges are heavy with light.

Fields shine

 

and though sheep are still waiting

for rescue,

they will be saved.

As will you.

 

If I were to devise a coat of arms for Clare Shaw, the motto would not be in Latin…..it would be a line from Larkin. What will survive of us is love

 

Check out earlier posts featuring Clare Shaw via these links. Oh, and buy all her books

https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2017/06/11/what-survives-and-a-gem-revisited-clare-shaw/

https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2015/05/24/not-believing-in-silence-a-polished-gem-4-clare-shaw/

Straight ahead: [Bloodaxe 2006] £7.95

Head on           : [Bloodaxe 2012] £8.95

Flood                : [Bloodaxe 2018] £9.95

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flood alert (5)

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire

[Robert Frost: Fire and ice]

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A kind of enchantment

 

Anything to make a spark; the heat of frictions, say

a fire-drill stich to spin in its cup of wood,

a small drift of smoke, the glow and the catch

of teased wisps, dry-leaf skeletons. Or

the splinter of struck flint that falls on kindling,

that’s blown to a tender leaf of flame.

How you have to crouch and concentrate,

how still you need to stay, everthing focussed

like a burning-glass, how still you make yourself

by the slow brown river, huge with silt,

turbid with the twist of snags and boils. And

you know the hand is everything,

its finger pads, the plump muscle of its palm,

the way the wrist bones flex, that leverage.

You don’t consider this at all, thinking only

of fire,  of its heat, its light, how fragile it is,

how it must be nursed, and after, fed,

how it must be checked and pruned

lest it overgrow itself and bolt. You breathe

its incense, rub your eyes. The river goes  its way.

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Water

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes

……….

[Philip Larkin The Whitsun Weddings]

 

And there you have it. Five short posts to get you in the mood to celebrate Clare Shaw’s new collection Flood. Which we’ll be looking at on Sunday, and saying: Wow!!

 

Flood alert (4)

 

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Waterlines

 

Cast-iron plaques, and chiselled arrows

on the sides of bridges,

under the eaves of houses.

Lest we forget

 

wide-eyed children plucked

from trees like fruit,

in shivering downdrafts

and a clatter of helicopters.

 

Kitchen units oozing slurry,

skips of rancid sofas, leaking fridges,

curling laminate and lino,

mossy shagpile rugs.

 

Who remembers the silence of flood,

the pulse of fat brown rivers

quiet as elephants, bloated with swallowed fields,

with diesel rainbows, slowly spinning trees?

 

Who remembers silence by gossipy streams

full of the small-talk of stones?

[Unpublished…apart from now]

 

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Flood alert [3]

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By early light I am asleep
in a nightmare about drowning in the Flood,”

Billy Collins

 

“There was an ocean above us, held in by a thin sac that might rupture and let down a flood at any second.”

Stephen King

 

“If you speak, that is rain; if you speak too much, that is flood

Mehmet Murat ildan

“I noticed that volcanoes, earthquakes and floods, though are not good events, they are better than the silence of good people when bad people take the podium. The latter are to an extent uncontrollable, but the former can be stopped.”

Israel Ayevor

“Suppose it never stops?” she whispered.
“The gyptian man didn’t say it’d do that. Just that there was going to be a flood.”
“It feels as if it’s going on forever.”
“There isn’t enough water in all the world to do that. Eventually it’ll stop and the sun’ll come out. Every flood stops in the end and goes down.”

Philip Pullman

 

“The story of how He created the world aroused their interests immediately, even though they received no answer to the question of why He had to do it; but they found it difficult to understand sin, or the manner of its entry into the world, for it was a complete mystery to them why the woman should have had such a passionate desire for an apple when they had no idea of the seductive properties of apples and thought they were some sort of potatoes. But less intelligible still was the flood that was caused by forty days’ rain, and forty nights’. For here on the moors there were some years when it rained for two hundred days and two hundred nights, almost without fairing; but there was never any Flood.”

Haldor Laxness: Independent People

 

There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.

William Shakespeare

 

What is the appropriate behavior for a man or a woman in the midst of this world, where each person is clinging to his piece of debris? What’s the proper salutation between people as they pass each other in this flood?

Buddha

In 1975, the collapse of a cascade of Chinese dams during a flood killed a hundred and seventy-one thousand people, but the event is rarely discussed, and the names of the victims are largely unrecorded today.

Source unknown

 

from:  Genesis

8 Farthermore God spake vnto Noe and to hys sonnes wyth hym saynge:

9 see I make my bonde wyth you and youre seed after you

10 and wyth all lyvynge thinge that is wyth you: both foule and catell and all maner beste of the erth that is wyth yow of all that commeth out of the arke what soeuer beste of the erth it be.

11 I make my bonde wyth yow that hence forth all flesh shall not be destroyed wyth yt waters of any floud ad yt hence forth there shall not be a floud to destroy the erth.

12 And God sayd. This is the token of my bode which I make betwene me and yow ad betwene all lyvynge thyng that is with yow for ever:

13 I wyll sette my bowe in the cloudes and it shall be a sygne of the appoyntment made betwene me and the erth:

14 So that when I brynge in cloudes vpo ye erth the bowe shall appere in ye cloudes.

15 And than wyll I thynke vppon my testament which I haue made betwene me and yow and all that lyveth what soeuer flesh it be. So that henceforth there shall be no more waters to make a floud to destroy all flesh.

16 The bowe shal be in the cloudes and I wyll loke vpon it to remembre the euerlastynge testament betwene God and all that lyveth vppon the erth what soeuer flesh it be.

Tyndale translation

 

And really, it wasn’t much good having anything exciting like floods, if you couldn’t share them with somebody.

A A Milne

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Flood alert (2)

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Filipo Palizzi [1818-99]

Gen.9

[11]In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.
[12] And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights.
[13] In the selfsame day entered Noah, and Shem, and Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah, and Noah’s wife, and the three wives of his sons with them, into the ark;
[14] They, and every beast after his kind, and all the cattle after their kind, and every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind, and every fowl after his kind, every bird of every sort.
[15] And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein is the breath of life.
[16] And they that went in, went in male and female of all flesh, as God had commanded him: and the LORD shut him in.
[17] And the flood was forty days upon the earth; and the waters increased, and bare up the ark, and it was lift up above the earth.
[18] And the waters prevailed, and were increased greatly upon the earth; and the ark went upon the face of the waters.
[19] And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered.
[20] Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered.
[21] And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man:
[22] All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died.
[23] And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.
[24] And the waters prevailed upon the earth an hundred and fifty days.

Gen.8

[1] And God remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the cattle that was with him in the ark: and God made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters asswaged;
[2] The fountains also of the deep and the windows of heaven were stopped, and the rain from heaven was restrained;
[3] And the waters returned from off the earth continually: and after the end of the hundred and fifty days the waters were abated.
[4] And the ark rested in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, upon the mountains of Ararat.
[5] And the waters decreased continually until the tenth month: in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, were the tops of the mountains seen.
[6] And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made:
[7] And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth.
[8] Also he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground;
[9] But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him into the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth: then he put forth his hand, and took her, and pulled her in unto him into the ark.
[10] And he stayed yet other seven days; and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark;
[11] And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf pluckt off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.
[12] And he stayed yet other seven days; and sent forth the dove; which returned not again unto him any more.
[13] And it came to pass in the six hundredth and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from off the earth

[The Book of Genesis. King James Bible]

 

When the keel grated

we paid it not much heed.

In those miserable days and nights

it would happen, now and then.

But it groaned, and there was splintering

and a lurch when everything pitched sideways.

We waited for the boat to right itself,

all the ‘tween decks a slurry of shit and hay,

and tusks and wings and fur and legs

and scales and beaks . Bedlam.

But it stayed canted.

Not easy to get up on top

but the view was staggering.

Waters streaming into boiling gullies,

geysers, great silver gouts and belches,

and everywhere stinking. Mud, gravel,

pebbles, dead men bloating, black clots of leaf,

gasping fish.The sun. So huge. And white.

Steam.

Animals got themselves out, fighting, rutting.

Some fell down waterfalls. Some stuck in mud

or sank and suffocated. What could we do.

Maybe we should have prayed.

Or lit a fire. Wondered at the great arc

of brilliant colour;

the two polished tablets

of clean dry stone

We were past caring. Just glad to be off that boat.

To follow the ebb, all the way down.

And not look back.

 

[Much Possessed : smith|doorstop 2016]