Two pamphlets: Victoria Gatehouse and John-Paul Burns

[This post was originally published on the Write Out Loud website in September]

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I read this on Julie Mellor’s poetry blog last week: “I aim to post something once a week on my blog but last weekend I skipped it. Maybe I didn’t have anything to say. Maybe I didn’t have the energy or drive to write it. Anyway, I thought I’d better get on with it today before another weekend slipped by.” 

Me too, I thought. Me too.

And then I read this in Anthony Wilson’s Lifesaving Poems: “If you write poetry (and I assume that if you do, you are also actively engaged in reading it), sooner or later Poetry Exhaustion is going to happen to you. By Poetry Exhaustion I mean the complete lack of that shock of recognition you’ve always been able to count on from a favourite unputdownable book of poems. Or the sudden knowledge that the poems you have been working on for the last two months are certainly not your best work and actually not  even worth keeping (though you do, in case).”

It sums up exactly the kind of ennui, mental blankness that’s stopped me writing posts and reviews and poems. It happens. You just have to hunker down and wait for something to change you. Like a poem, you can’t just will it into existence.

Last week, out of the blue, I decide to re-read Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways. And suddenly, phrases come jumping off the page, .moments that get you in. Phrases like these:

The cold like a wire in the nose.

Snow caused everything to exceed itself

starlings…feathers sleekly black as sheaves of photographic negatives

big gulls…monitoring us with lackadaisical, violent eyes

a dolphin….a sliding bump beneath the water..like a tongue moving under a cheek

star patterns..the grandiose slosh of the Milky Way

gannets bursting up out of the sea…like white flowers unfurling…avian origami

[and, after a hard long hike] … feet puffy as rising dough

It was lovely. Language well-wrought can galvanise you like that. I’ve had a review waiting to be written for months. Macfarlane let me know that it was time I got on with it.

When I started my first poetry blog, the great fogginzo’s cobweb,  I wanted, among other things, to publicise the writing of poets who fly under the radar … the ones without a ‘book’. I quickly learned that most of them were not ‘undiscovered’ at all. They just weren’t self-publicicising. They had been published in respectable and reputable magazines. They had won prizes. They just didn’t go on about it. They didn’t have a collection. They didn’t particularly do open mics, or get guest reader slots. But they couldn’t half write. At least as well, and often, I thought, a good deal better, than some published poets. And such are today’s poets, Vicky Gatehouse and John Paul Burns, both of whom I keep meeting at the Poetry Business, or, by accident, at open mics and readings.

I should add something else. You go to writing and critiquing workshops and you become aware that you’re hearing a poem and a poet, in the process of becoming: Kim Moore, before she won anything, before she had her first pamphlet, trying out the first draft of her ‘Train ride from Barrow to Sheffield’; ditto Roy Marshall with a draft that had echoes of Heaney; Julie Mellor, also, with a mole on the neck that marks you for hanging; Keith Hutson and a suicidal, drunken pantomime dame. It’s like seeing a musician before s/he becomes a star. Like seeing a 16-year-old Ginger Baker drumming for Terry Lightfoot’s band in Bradford. Which I did. Or Dylan going on the open mic for the first time in Greenwich Village. Which I didn’t. I’ve added today’s poets to the list. They couldn’t be more different voices.

John-Paul Burns

Kim Moore writes of John-Paul Burns’ poems in The minute & the train that “the speakers in these poems are often out of sight, looking outward at landscape, objects or people while using clear-eyed and precise descriptions … leaving the reader with the realisation that looking out can also be a way of looking in”.

I think of Isherwood’s “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.” I think of a kind of attentive detachment, a sort of separateness, like Stephen Daedalus’ willed secrecy/invisiblity. I also think of the Larkin of Mr BleaneyIt’s like being in a land where we are in the shoes of a traveller, and outsider. There’s a shared anonymity, that of the observed and observer. It’s no accident, I think, that John-Paul’s first degree is in film, that the films he references include silent classics, and that the jazz he references is ‘cool’. It’s not accidental that the poems are monochrome, and mainly silent when they’re not quiet.

A first fast reading through the pamphlet left me with the impression of particular times: night, twilight, sunrise; of bedsits, and shared houses, (like Mr Bleaney muttering to his younger self); urban places, the corner shop, the old factory, a lot of reflecting rain, almost unpopulated landscapes, gravestones, rags, odds and ends fragments, exhaustions:

             My hair is brown, dark to the point

     of black when rained on. It blocks the drain

             as everything does     (‘Drinking Songs’)

It also left me trying to figure out the fact of apparently random or wilful line breaks, indentations, capitalisations. I’m still not reconciled to those, but repeated readings override the initial sense of alienation in distressed places. Something much more committed, engaged and human, and sometimes funny, is going on. The most obvious is that though much of the work is studiously monochrome, it can explode into an unexpected and startling colour.

     you’re all belly aren’t you       

     everything is patches really

              intimate as waxwork

     A suggestion of planet in the pool.          

            of orange moon.   (‘A tangerine being drawn’)

or in a later poem, the moon again “as it meanders from orange to pink”. There is “ruby ale, lovely blue grass”and in ‘Cricket club scene, Oldham’  a flood of colour: “a deep yellow hour. / The red ball, a deep ochre red; / pale violet rooftops /orange-green parakeets”. Considered and precisely Technicolor colours, that have the impact of the Tecnicolor sequence in that 1949 film The Secret GardenHere’s a poet who knows just what he’s up to.

In her review in The High Window online quarterly poetry magazine recently, Carole Bromley wrote: “As far as subject matter goes, Burns is particularly good at capturing the world of bedsits, shared flats and houses. I get the feeling that the poet in him longs for solitude, while the young man with a sense of humour can enjoy company, parties, drunkenness.” She adds that he is also “an observer with a gift for capturing landscapes, objects and people. A pear “waits for the hand/that will hold it, give it/its pear shape, bite into/its sweet and dripping self”, a tangerine “will be torn without violence/ Your oils will mist a fresh sweat into the air/ You will disappear and you will remain”, at a cricket club “The track curves in the grass/ with no-one running. They play/ just out of earshot, a deep yellow hour.”

What I’d add to this is that his urban and rural/coastal landscapes, both interior and exterior, can be sinister and disturbing in the way of Expressionist cinema, as in the decidedly unsettling ‘Knott End-on-Sea’ which incidentally also illustrates what I think is an arbitrary use of capitals and indents without punctuation. I can be open to persuasion on this.

     The footprints trail off out of sight

          The sand stays in the morning

     A pale blue dusk sitting above it

          And Jimbo the dog is missing

     Out beyond the soft horizon

         The man in the footprints exhales

The narrator is apparently looking out of the window of a cafe on a nondescript bit of shallow coast, making notes, or planning a storyboard of something Hitchcockian, and with the relish for the suggestion of menace in its ambiguities, the questions it asks, that infuses that one word “exhales” with something troubling.

I want to finish, though, on what I said earlier about the engaged, the warm, the human that runs through the studied stance of ‘attentive detachment’. Take this, for example:

     A bundle in the mist

     When I think of the arctic terns

     they come in pairs from years ago

     flirting over the stones in the wide teal

                of Shetland air.

     Let me have them as they seem.

     Allow their blurriness too, swerving up

     from the name Shetland with faint high knells.

     There were no bells, but further in

                  there are.

     Say the word and the birds come, chiming.

     I could live for a while in one spark like this

I love the wholehearted openness of it, the undefended credo that ends this sequence; it’s epiphanic, like Stephen Daedalus standing on the shore, every nerve singing to the joyous otherness of things.

And finally, a poem that Carole Bromley also highlighted:

     Two views of Whitby Harbour

     One by day, bright for October

          and calm. I say it’s strange really

     and you laugh: the giant Doric column

         bitten by the salt wind

     that is absent today. Cormorants

         line the Eastern Pier

     crooked, athletic and shy.

        The sky is a flat sky blue

     Another by night, sharp

        and calm, though the wind

     picks at the black ocean skin.

        A creaking hinge; the night-

     fishermen cast in silence.

        Vague white seabirds hover

     dashing at the air;

       there is no horizon.

I like this for the way it evokes an unforced, easy companionship, a happiness. The ‘I’ and ‘you’ are abstract but still seem specific as the moment is specific, and the cormorants are memorably recorded: “crooked, athletic, shy”. Surprising and true. A moment that gets you in. I like the wry humour of “The sky is a flat sky blue.” I like the creaking hinge that is sort-of-lifted from Robin Robertson. I like the way the birds are vague and sudden at the same time, batting at the mist to simply stay still. It’s a poem that’s worth the entrance money on its own, in this genuinely interesting first collection that will stick in your mind for a long time.

 Victoria Gatehouse

And so to Vicky Gatehouse and The Mechanics of LoveI said they were strikingly different voices. Other reviewers have made much about the fact that Vicky trained as a scientist, but I’m not sure they quite nail down what it means for the poems. I may not, either, but we’ll see. Gaia Holmes identifies what I think of as the exuberance of the collection which is full to the brim with “love locks, 1980s perfume ads, cross dressers, owl pellets, pearl divers, Premier Inn hotel rooms, the visceral trials of a lab technician, lost tennis balls, spiders’ webs, the delightful idiolectic ‘Shunkley’ and the speakers’ ‘magpie need for bling’. ”

Vicky Gatehouse is pretty much always the actual voice of the poems, which are more often than not autobiographical. These are poems populated by identifiable people:  mothers, grandmas, husbands, younger selves, biology teachers, and abattoir man in a bloodstained apron, mum’s friend Sylvia; like the cross-dresser in Lenton Boulevard, they live in identifiable places like the Premier Inn or the Pont des Arts, and are surrounded by artefacts and goods with resonant names: Aartex, Midget Gems, Poison, Fortune-telling Fish.  

Gaia also identifies what she calls “the muscular language of the heart”. Vicky Gatehouse’s poems involve physical as well as emotional engagement, and her imaginative memory is tactile as well as visual. She is as concerned and slightly anxious for her earlier adolescent self as a mother. I would be inclined to say that that is normal enough, and possibly not enough to lift the poems out of the run of enjoyable, competent poems we write about ourselves. What makes the difference, I think, is the science, the combination of exact and intuitive knowledge of how the world works, its structures, its mechanisms. The whole pamphlet challenges the popular elision/confusion of mechanism and mechanistic with its secondary connotations of dehumanisation and the binary opposition of mind and body. What I like (and hope to demonstrate) is the understanding in the poems that knowing how things work doesn’t take away their wonder, but actually intensifies it.

When I think of ‘the mechanics of love’ I think of UA Fanthorpe’s ‘Atlas’the kind of love called maintenance that knows where the WD40 is. I think of mechanics as a set of abstract principles, and also as people who mend and put things to rights. Doctors, for instance. And mothers and fathers, and lovers.

I’m inclined, therefore, to disagree with Mat Riches’ review in Sphinxwhen he writes that “Starting with the perfumery of ‘Poison, 1986’, and the ‘Sixth Form Science Technician’ being sent out to collect supplies for student experiments, science leaps out of many of the poems…”, that “as a result of having a day job in medical research – these poems take a microscopic look at love and life as though they’ve been carefully sampled on a slide and Gatehouse is noting the beauty and fragility of the findings.”

I don’t think they’re as calculated or as forensic as this suggests, but rather that scientific language and thinking comes naturally as part of her ideolect and way of experiencing things. I had much the same take on Emma Storr’s Heart Murmurs  [Calder Valley Press 2019], a poet who naturally thinks like a doctor because she is one. This makes it different, I think, from the way poets like the Metaphysicals and some modern poets bring in ’science’ as it were from the outside.  Indeed, Vicky makes the point herself in ‘Fortune telling fish’ when she says

     A scientist now, you could explain
     that whisper-thin strip as hygroscopic –
     swelling or receding with the level
     of moisture in the skin

She’s pointing out that this doesn’t explain the fact, signalled by a “but” that “you’ll find yourself wanting to show” you’re passionate, or independent or whatever, and science won’t explain that. Not at all. I wrote in another poetry blog about her poem

     The moth

     This is her time –
     birds dark-stitching telegraph wires,

     the woods blue-shadowed,
     crackling with dusk.

     The moon untethers her,
     she pitches from fence to wall

     to leaf, would hurl herself
     for miles, such is her faith

     and you think of how she gorged
     on hawthorn and thyme, spun

     herself a mantle, hung tight
     inside the blackout

     of her own skin
     before the breakdown, the forcing

     of all that remained
     through the veins of her wings,

     this lit-bulb junkie,
     wrecking herself on your porch light.

     (Ink, Sweat and Tears, 2015)

I really get a buzz from the controlled energy of this, and the way images imprint themselves (“how she gorged / on hawthorn and thyme.”) “Gorged” is absolutely spot on and surprising. And “the blackout of her own skin is rich and layered. Blackout curtains, fustian and dusty; blackout unconsciousness …a binge-drinker’s blackout that springs the trap for the ambush of “this light-bulb junkie”. You can read and re-read this and it keeps on giving. I’ll go on highlighting the fact of energy, the accurate richness,of her language. This new collection is packed with the moments that ‘get you in’, often in opening lines like these

     The biology teacher wanted blood

     I remember kitten heels clipping tarmac

     It ticks me to sleep,

     the titanium valve in your heart

     On the fifth day I find it in your cot

There’s a specific narrative in each of these which I immediately want to hear, to have explained. And the poems never let me down. For instance, what we find in the cot is the shrivelling umbilical cord that had

     … pulsed between us, blue-white

     vigorous, the best I had to give –
     stem-cell, lymphocytes, streaming

     down the line they had to cut off.

There it is. The physical immediacy as intimately known as what the cord actually did, when it pulsed, blue-white. I like that word pulse. That’s what so many of these poems do, as she explores her memories of adolescence, the mysteries and excitements of burgeoning sexuality; also the memories of becoming and being a mother, a wife and a lover, a daughter. She finds an emblem for all this textured experience in the opening poem, ‘Inosculation’:

     And this will be no perfect union

     but one born of abrasion: two trees

     grown close enough to graze, to chafe

     as they shift in the wind, their bark worn thin

The title is a label for a process, but the poem in its crafted consonality enacts the process itself. It’s not an idea but a felt experience. And it’s lovely. Gaia Holme’s endorsement should give you a taste for the tumbled richness of things in The Mechanics of LoveI’ll finish with a poem that might seem a surprising choice, but which, I think, tells you what’s at the heart of Vicky Gatehouse’s collection. On one level it’s simply a beautifully observed set of moments that come like “talons trailing the tips of the wheat, to the tooth-hole ruin of that barn”, (THAT barn, notice); on another you might call it Birth of a Naturalist. It’s the moment you go back to, again and again, it’s a rite of passage.  It’s as exact as the “dark, neat parcels of feathers and fur,/ the pale curve of bone”

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Pellets

     This is the hour when she thinks of the field,

     the unsteady embrace of drystone walls,

     end-of-summer grasses, whispering

     their untidy truths, the tooth-hole ruin

     of that barn where she first found the pellets –

     dark, neat parcels of feathers and fur,

     the pale curve of bone within, each one

     packaged up like a gift so she had no choice

     but to return every evening, at owl light

     and wait for that change in the air, the weight

     that comes on silent wings, talons trailing

     the tips of the wheat, a half-lifetime ago

     and still the bleeding, unseen beneath the gold,

     the skeletons in her pockets, carried home

It’s also unnerving; a poem about a compulsion that remains after half a life time, where whatever else has happened, there is “still the bleeding, unseen beneath the gold, /the skeletons in her pockets, carried home”.

There we are. Two pamphlets that couldn’t be more different, and which both will hold your attention and fix themselves in your minds.

John-Paul Burns, The minute & the trainPoetry Salzburg, £6

Vicky Gatehouse, The Mechanics of love: a Laureate’s ChoiceSmith|Doorstop, £7.50

The past, and other countries: Gráinne Tobin (2)

[First published on the Write Out Loud website in September]

It’s been hard to concentrate, these last few days. It’s hard to think about poetry when you’re consumed with rage and frustration in a world where truth is an endangered species, and the management of the body politic has become a kind of game for the ones who have tickets, and the rest of us are shut out. It’s 80 years since Auden wrote September 1939,  four years before I was born into a world that had been at war for all of them.

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

A low dishonest decade:  there’s an epitaph for the last ten years in this country that I used to think was mine, and which I now hardly recognise. We’ve been used to muddling along (or compromising) and on the whole got on with each other. Not any more. Politicians who were born into a world of entitlement, and who will never come face to face with it have validated ignorance, intolerance, racism; it’s fashionable to be xenophobic and be contemptuous of expert evidence, of the qualified, of experience and nuance. A world in which a phrase like ‘fake news’ has traction, the purposes of language itself are threatened.

And curiously, it’s why poetry (and all well-wrought language) seems more important than ever. I’m reminded that, as I wrote last week, when I met Gráinne Tobin for the first time nearly 40 years ago, it was in a city divided by religious hatred. I’ll not ever forget the barbed wire and barricades of the Crumlim and the Shankhill Roads. That was Gráinne’s world; she lived through it and wrote through it, and that gives me some hope even now. What will survive of us is love. That’s what lies at the heart of the poetry I treasure, and I’m delighted to be introducing Gráinne for a second week, and to bring you up to date with what she’s been up to since 2010 where last week’s post sort of terminated.

She retired from the day job then (as an English teacher), and says she wondered why I wasn’t writing all day every day. But as I should have known, it doesn’t work like that at all. Whatever…she ‘s been kept busy, accepting all offers connected with poetry in that first year, including travelling scores of miles on buses in heavy snow to a mass book-signing by 70 authors in Galway to celebrate 70 years of Kennys’ bookshop, and finding herself standing beside President Michael D Higgins, who is even shorter than I am and a person I seriously admire.

She went by ferry and train to Blackpool, to read her shortlisted poem in the libraries’ Wordpool competition, but they didn’t know she was there. She says: I didn’t know I should be pushy about declaring myself, so I sat awkwardly in the audience waiting to be called on, and someone else read it. Let that be a lesson to me. (I like that story very much. We learn against the grain to be pushy. )

She applied for an Arts Council of Northern Ireland Single Individual Artist Award; the ACNI grant was for mentoring, so she had a chance to talk in detail about her manuscript with Penelope Shuttle, who advised her to start entering competitions, and it gathered momentum. 

She won competitions, was invited to send poems to anthologies and to lead creative writing workshops for adults, teenagers, and children. She’s had three poetry residencies, in the Tin Jug Studio in Birr, Co Offaly, and in Sumburgh Head Lighthouse, Shetland, and in Cill Rialaig, Co Kerry. 

Her writing group, Word of Mouth, published its Russian-English parallel text, When the Neva Rushes Backwardsin 2014 with Lagan Press. It was the product of working on these pieces by St Petersburg women poets for years , a huge group effort with expert help from Russian speakers. Some of of the English versions of the poems were in Modern Poetry in Translation.

The Word of Mouth Poetry Collective, which had been her main support in writing poetry, voted to dissolve itself in 2016 after 25 years of meeting monthly in the historic Linen Hall Library in Belfast:  we felt that our work was more or less done, except for the Of Mouth reading series which we  wanted to continue.

And here we are now : her third poetry collection, The Uses of Silk, is from Arlen House[2018] and you can get it online, or in good bookshops such as No Alibisin Belfast. Or order it  by post from the publisher Alan Hayes, at Arlen House, 42 Grange Abbey Road, Baldoyle, Dublin 13, if you want it posted to  the Republic of Ireland. Or direct from her by sending a Facebook message with your address.  

The cover image is by the painter Jim Manley who lives in Killough, on the Co Down coast. She says: The picture has our house in it as one of the tiny lights of Newcastle, just visible if you wish hard enough, across Dundrum Bay, beyond the path of moonlight on the sea. There is a temptation to X our spot on the left edge of the page.”

……………………………..

Right. All up to date, and time for the poems.

Damian Smyth has commented on the qualities of the work in this collection:- subtlety, cleverness, a succinct wisdom, exhilarating formal dexterityThe dramatis personae are varied and unexpected; the emotional range expansive enough to run from elegy to slapstick; the diction charged, ingenious,

and Penny Shuttle tells us that:

“Gráinne Tobin casts a steely sceptic eye over the Ireland of her childhood but her view is mediated by gentler memories of family tenderness surviving amid the fervour and craziness of 1950s religiosity.  Here is a poet employing a nimble wit, seeing behind facades, moving in the slipstream of savage histories in and beyond Ireland.”

I think you’ll find all this confirmed by the poems in last week’s Part One, and should you need convincing, here are three more, each with an introduction by Gráinne. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

An Irishwoman Reads Dodo with Keith Douglascame from a week’s writing break alone in Alicante , in a state of solitary absorption, wandering round a foreign city talking to myself about this young man who I only knew from his writing. As someone who has lived through the disturbing presence of soldiers on the streets of Northern Ireland, it was good to bring him to mind both as a strange military youngster and also as one of us poets. He died too early, at 24, and I admire his work very much. I feel a tenderness towards him, though I imagine we might not have hit it off in real life.

An Irishwoman Reads Dodo with Keith Douglas 


In spite of his photographed moustache 
and his few years of manliness, he is excited 
by tinned rations jazzed-up for squadron dinners.
An acceptable hot porridge can be made 
of hammered biscuits, boiled and laced with jam.

Any dusty tent can be made beautiful 
with flowers and books in a cut-out petrol can, 
such as the tank-men fill with desert sand 
as bricks to make small houses for latrines.

He’s careful of the whiskey. He must stay fit 
to note the fear that pushes at his belly, just 
where the shell would enter, and his useless pity 
for the burnt corpse of one who’d laid a towel
over his wounds against tormenting flies.

In hospital after the land-mine, the lieutenant
needs the book they bring – he reads it twice – 
Dodo, Edwardian comfort to draw his poet’s eye 
away from the wreckage of flesh and the ends of bone.

I find it on my Kindle, and I read Dodotoo
at bedtime in his honour, by its faded glow,
saving his Zem Zemfor sensible daylight –
the boy learned how to kill and soon was dead 
as a doornail, blown to glory, joined the majority.

I loved learning that Keith Douglas used pulp fiction…tripe, if you like…as a comfort blanket; I like the unforced allusions, the echoes. 

the fear that pushes at his belly, just 
where the shell would enter

takes me back to Vergissmeinicht , the poem that became a touchstone for me about the importance of the image, of accurate seeing, and economy of means.

  she would weep today to see

  how on his skin the swart flies move;

 the dust upon the paper eye,

 the burst stomach like a cave

I like, too, that line break in the last stanza, the matter-of-factness, like Tony Harrison’s your life’s been blown to smithereens, and the black irony of glory.

the boy learned how to kill and soon was dead 
as a doornail, blown to glory,

Junction Box is about a magic bit of practical gadgetry or street furniture beside the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast. Every time I pass it, I stop to put my ear to it, and it always has sound coming out.  It has an emotional charge for me and possibly for other passers-by. I can’t help being romantic about communal experience: the junction box seems to have an invisible choir of diverse voices celebrating our fragile peacetime. (We are only began to get incomers from other places when the Troubles ended, as before that, few people would have wanted to join us here.) I fretted about referring to the Spanish Catalan painter Tápies because it might be an obstacle for some readers – I only know of him by chance, and allusions can be really daunting – but then decided that anyone who was bothered could always google him, and the comparison with his work is exactly what I mean, so I didn’t want to give that up. 

Junction Box 

Upper Crescent, Belfast

Something is singing 

among cracked-up flagstones 

under the young leaves

of a lime tree where the park’s square edges

nudge the railings of a sooty church,

grey rubble-stone still smudged

from the city’s smoking past, 

            and there it is,

shoulder-high, an arm-span wide, a big black box

in painted steel with a rutted crust,

the under-paper from posters that you can’t pick off,

stained and overlapped so in the end

it looks deliberate, distressed graffiti-chic,

or like an artwork by Tapies that marks the times

in dirty layers, 

            and this is where

it’s coming from – the sound –

 a sitar-accordion drone,

an old song echoing, an imperfect note, 

single yet multiple, voices plaited together

in a chord with no pause, chanting day and night

beside the parking meter and the litter bin.

I read this and thought of Penny Shuttle’s endorsement of  a poet employing a nimble wit, seeing behind facades. Exactly so..what I like is that it’s a poem to read aloud, to follow the twists and turns of the landscape through the twists and turns of a poem that’s a single sentence that weaves like a chant or a harmony. It’s lovely.

The third poem is in The Uses of Silk and came from my preoccupation with the 1916 rising and its effects on the later history of Ireland, and on my family. My parents were born  into moderate anti-Treaty families, around the time of Partition. They were babies during  the Civil War, as children attended the monster 1932 Catholic jamboree in Dublin that sealed the reconciliation between the former revolutionaries, now in government, and their church, and as young adults they moved north of the border during ‘the Emergency’  i.e. WW2, to find teaching jobs, ending up having a family of wee northerners, and being politically active (in the SDLP, at first a bit pinko, later more nationalist) during the Troubles. The epigraph is a family joke, one of those parental sayings you grow up with and later trace to a quotation. 

Where Were You in 1916? 

Where were you in 1916? I wasn’t born. Excuses, always excuses! 

– Brendan Behan

Of course I wasn’t yet born, but I was included  

with a quarter of the country’s population

at the Eucharistic Congress of 1932,

latent in a pair of ten-year-olds who were yet to meet.

An ovum in her reserves, the boast of Catholic Ireland,

I hid inside my mother, who wore her good coat 

on the excursion train from Portarlington

in fine weather, said to be God’s answer 

to thirty-seven thousand spiritual acts of self-denial

undertaken by the new and ancient nation

and placed on record in the archbishop’s office.

The child who grew up to be my father

wore the lanyard and badges of a Limerick troop 

of the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland,

one of fourteen hundred plucky little fellows

encamped with trench latrines on a boarding-school lawn

and tireless in fifteen acres of the Phoenix Park,

directing a million pilgrims, holding lines and fetching water.

Where are their two faces in the crowd

that knelt with its shriven leaders in the grass? 

The hungry streets, a supernatural toyshop

of angelic toy theatres, as by night

the Post Office roof beamed sky-writing, 

GLORIFICAMUS. And I hear the last

of the ornate urinals made for the Congress

was bought in the seventies by a student of art.

I did a lot of research for this poem and then tried not to overload the poem and to keep most of it out of the way while writing. It still fascinates me. I read as much as I could about the 1932 Eucharistic Congress. The details were much, much more surreal than I can bear to describe in the poem. Processions of girls in white First Communion dresses who were called ‘the boast of Catholic Ireland’ – creepy – and international bishops in full campery of purple silk robes and handmade lace. It came across as rather earnest, but with an unpleasant tinge of 1930s Nuremberg rally about the whole thing. GK Chesterton was the newspaper reporter who mentioned the pathos of the ‘supernatural toyshop of angelic toy theatres’in the poorest streets. This national pop-festival of piety presaged the tight Church-state partnership that led to the mother and baby homes and their aftermath.

Final word from Gráinne: for now.

“The next thing I’d like to do now, apart from keeping on working on poems, is to get on with sending letters out, asking festivals if they would like to book two poet friends and me for readings. It’s an odd thing to advertise oneself but how else is anyone going to know we are available as a package?  And then I want to make my work more traceable by sorting out an online poetry presence that doesn’t make me want to hide in the wardrobe and deny everything.  Perhaps a modest and sober webpage? I have nothing to lose except my ancient convent conditioning”. 

And from me:

That last comment makes me want to devote a whole post to the business of making yourself visible as a poet. I can do my bit to make other poets visible, but what about self-promotion? It’s not why I write poems, but the thing is, I have a lot of unsold books in boxes just behind me. They won’t sell themselves. Hmmm.

Still, the main thing now is to thank Gráinne Tobin for her generosity and for her poems. And a personal thankyou for initially distracting me from the Brexit nightmare, and then, through these poems, reminding me that people have come through worse.

Next week, some thoughts about poetry pamphlets and and a Northumberland poet. See you then.