Before I start, an apology to all the folk who responded in one way and another to my post about young male suicides. It certainly touched a nerve. I hoped to write to all of them individually, but I just ran out of time and opportunity. So here’s a thank you to all who shared your stories. I was moved and touched by all of them. Thank you.
And now it feels good to be back in a routine. When I started this business of writing a Sunday post it was because I wanted to share my enthusiasm for poets I’d recently read or heard…particularly those who you may not have heard of, poets who were just starting out, poets who hadn’t been published, or not much published. Undiscovered gems. That’s becoming more difficult given just how many poetry blogs there are around and (what seems to me) the phenomenal increase in the publication of pamphlets and chapbooks and first collections. Which is, by any measure, A Good Thing. Hence the series of posts of ‘gems revisited’. And here we are with one I’m very happy to be writing.
I’m often looking for a slightly left field introduction to a guest poet. Today’s is is slightly daft. It’s just that the first time I saw Tom Weir read on an open mic I was struck by the fact that he stands very still…or almost. He does something with his right knee that I’d seen before in a performer who also works in bubble of concentration. The aunt of Justin Townes Earle. The sister of Steve Earle. It’s Stacey Earle who performs with her partner Mark Stuart. If you get the chance, go and see her. See what she does with her knee. I’m sure she doesn’t know she’s doing it. There you are. Told you it was daft.
With that out of the way, please give a big cobweb welcome to today’s guest, Tom Weir,who I first met at a reading by Kim Moore and Helen Mort at the excellent Chemic Tavern in Leeds ( by the way; one thing that’s striking about the Tavern is that they let the customers bring in fish suppers from the nearby chip shop; poetry readings among the smell of fish and chips! And compered by the excellent Mark Connors. Another of the young ones…and also a runner.) Tom did a couple of poems on the open mic. and I was bowled over by his delivery (as well as his knee). Dry. Almost deadpan. Ironic. Funny. Even more bowled over when he told me he’d been at Kim’s launch of ‘The art of falling‘ in Leeds, and had liked my reading. We did a bookswap on the spot…his lovely collection ‘All that falling’ for my chapbook Larach. I got a bargain there that I still feel guilty about.
The poem that really stuck in my mind on that evening was one that stays and stays, two years on, the poem that told me that Tom Weir’s the real deal.
Day Trippin’ for Thomas
‘I’d ride horses if they’d let me’— Will Oldham
We talked all morning about the horse
that, if we’re honest, none of us actually knew existed
but it seemed worth it just to get you into the car,
to stop shouting. We mentioned it so often
you began to repeat it from your child-seat
like a mantra, and you’ll never know the relief,
having arrived and not been able to see a stable,
having stalled you with an ice-cream which you wore
like a glove as it melted over your hand,
of finding the woman who showed us where
the horse rides took place, where you waited
so quietly in line, where I stood and watched
as you approached the man with a five pound note
scrunched up in your tiny hand. You spent
the rest of the day repeating the words too little
like a radio breaking bad news every hour on the hour.
We took you down to the lake and watched
you throw stones at the water, watched clouds fall apart
and mend as rowing boats left the harbour and you
sat still, refusing to join another queue.
What I like so much about this poem is its clear-eyed objectivity. It could so easily have been sentimental. Instead it’s close to heart-breaking. I love the way the anxieties of adults and small children are equally weighted, as are their disappointments, and the guilt of parents for which there is no atonement, and for which nothing can be done. Everything is managed through images that are utterly memorable and true….the way the parents make a mantra for the child that’s replaced by the mantra of ‘too little’ , like a radio breaking bad news every hour on the hour; the ice cream
which you wore / like a glove as it melted over your hand,
the clouds falling apart and mending, as reflections do, quite indifferent. I can imagine this poem being endlessly anthologised. I think it should be. Tom Weir’s poetry will do that to you, catch you aslant, unawares, tip you into a world where things like love and joy and security are fragile at best, where we are vulnerable. He makes me think of Larkin’s line that ‘what will survive of us is love’, although Tom Weir’s poetry is more unequivocal than Larkin’s on that. Every time I read it I see that quality of Tom’s poetry, the way you see a scene through a glass that suddenly shifts or cracks and refracts the significance of the moment into a different dimension that memorises itself as you hear it.
Of his debut pamphlet Christopher James wrote:
Tom Weir is an exciting new voice; candid and assured, with enough in the way of light and shadow to fully intrigue. The cover of his pamphlet, The Outsider, published by the ever-excellent Templar Poetry, is a statement of intent with its arresting image of a barnacled man staring out to sea. It has the ghostliness of an Anthony Gormley. If the figure is looking to foreign lands, then it is well chosen. Weir’s poems range from corners of English fields to hotel rooms in Hanoi and the psycho dramas that play out are as dramatic and finely judged as the language chosen to tell them.
It’s a real pleasure to welcome him back, just as he’s launching his new collection.
Tom’s poetry has been Highly Commended in both The Forward Prize and The National Poetry Competition and he was the winner of the 2017/18 Magma Editor’s Choice Prize. His first full collection All That Fallingwas brought out by Templar in 2015 and his second collection, Ruin, for which he is grateful to the Arts Council for the writing time to complete, was published in September this year. Poems from his latest collection have appeared in Strix, The North, Poetry Saltzburg and The Scores, among others.
Away from poetry he is an avid follower of AFC Wimbledon and awaits the call to become their first ever poet laureate so he can quit his job as a primary school teacher. So much so one of his poems in Ruin is centred around a dire 0-0 away at Darlington which he hopes will act as a calling card to its many members.
What I’m sure about is that the new poems he’s sent me will act as a calling card to any of you who haven’t encountered his work before. And here they are.
You used to say there was magic in these stairs—
pistons turning, hammers getting to work,
springs being fixed onto the wings of birds.
I used to tiptoe because, under my feet,
there were clouds about to burst
and one night I dreamt I stamped so hard
rain fell and buried the village like Pompeii.
I still remember the step that kept
all the loose bits of storm, the one where trams
and buses went to be repaired
and the one that held curfews like ice about to break.
You used to say if we opened them up
we’d see men throwing wood onto the sun,
find out where waterfalls began,
but this chill has nothing to do with water.
Why did you never tell me about the one
that hid black ice? Or this one that sinks
under me now like a landmine, leaves me frozen
while everyone else carries on up to your room
to say goodbye and I cannot move?
Part of the magic of this poem, for me, is the way it understands how children imagine, how they are formed by chance encounters and stories whose tellers never imagined the impact they might have, and how our childhood is carried in us, and how we can be startled back into it, and in some ways become as powerless as a child. The framing narrative is kept implicit..you used to say …. these stairs …everyone else…..your room. The detail is kept for the stories of each tread, the fabulous tales told to a child who will never forget them. And then there’s the power of the image of one rooted to the foot of a staircase and its narrowing closed off perspective. I love the way poem pivots on that one line . why did you never tell me? In its control and contained love and grief it does everything I want in a poem. Lovely.
I do it because I want to know how waterfalls feel,
to remember the way our old Fiat Strada used to slow
as it clawed up hills no factory worker in Milan
had prepared it for.
I do it because I want to think of that Catherine wheel
freeing itself in that field outside Church Stretton
down the road from your parents’ old house,
because I want to see it again,
cartwheeling like a 1980’s Soviet gymnast,
towards the crowd of farmers in checked shirts
and wellies and kids so puffed up with clothes
I wanted to take them to an edge of something
and push them off, watch them bounce around
so for once I could imagine the world was made
for soft landings. I do it for the moment of stillness
at both ends, because the sudden release
reminds me of the crabbers in Whitby,
their woven boxes slapping onto the cold sea.
I do it because I want to smell your perfume
mixed with salt-water, feel the warmth of the sun
that burned in the smokery where I bought kippers
and had them sent to London in a sheet of brown paper
with your address scrawled in felt-tip pen.
I do it because, when I fall, my breath hangs on the air
like the fog above the chimneys on the edge of the M16.
I do it because I like the uncertainty of it,
the way my movement is held in their chains—
how they shake when they should remain completely still.
Proustian swings, these, aren’t they? It’s the first line that hauls you in, the image or imagined sensation of things on the cusp of changing, the stilled nanosecond between one state and another, that held breath. And after that a succession of crafted two-liners that sustain the moments that draw you in and stick like burrs. The moment before we leave our breath hanging in the air as we fall away from it, for instance. And I think that the next poem actually says exactly what I’m clumsily trying to pin down.
The Art of Standing Still
The Argentinian striker Batistuta had it,
and so did Zidane, and the Bulgarian midfielder
Hristo Stoichkov and, depending who
you speak to, even Gazza for a while.
It’s not movement, it’s knowing how not to move—
when to gently apply the brakes, root to the spot,
opt out of the chaos and wait
so by the time they notice it’s too late—
the coin-clatter of ball striking net,
the keeper looking round, the defenders
scattered like stunned cattle on the ground.
I should have known you’d have it too—
a lifetime of small clues, how you always
had a feel for things that couldn’t be felt,
how you could sense rain before the sky,
how like the sea you could absorb
your grandson’s lightning bolt of rage.
Even now I cannot recall the exact moment
you stopped, left the rest of us flailing
while you stayed still—
your spirit wheeling away, arm held aloft,
index finger pointing to the gods.
I wonder if the you who stopped, who stayed still, whose spirit is wheeling away is the you that made a flight ion stairs magical. Surely it is. There’s a lot of celebration of fathers and of (I think) grandparents in the new collection, and we’ll finish with one of them.
The size of them
the roughness of their skin
the thrill of their words
that don’t come as often
or as easily
the way they know so little
about the subtle art
of holding hands
whether the palms
should remain flat
if the fingers should intertwine
how they know every pressure point
in your body
how they know about graft
how you can count
the number of baths
they’ve had on one hand
the way they slope off
find most comfort
in unoccupied rooms
how theirs is the only place
at the table that never changes
how they never sit down
at the bar
how their pranks
are a kind of currency
how no matter the price of the thing
they always have the exact change.
Exact. That’s the word. Thank you, Tom Weir for sharing your poems. I guess that a lot more folk will be wanting to buy them, so here’s the detail.
The Outsider [Templar Poetry 2014] £5.00
All that falling [Templar Poetry 2015] £10.00
Ruin [Templar Poetry 2018] £10.00
And if you live anywhere within reach of Leeds you can hear him read on November 18th, 3.30-5.30 at Wharf Chambers, Wharf Street, Leeds LS2 7EQ. Watch out for the knee.