My local poetry group, the Penistone Poets, are a small but dedicated band of writers. We used to meet once a week; lately it’s been a bit more sporadic, although we do hold a monthly open meeting as well. However, when one of the most dedicated members (and the one who has to travel furthest to get to the meetings) Sue Riley, scooped the £5,000 first prize in the Ginko poetry competition, you an imagine how excited we all were. The anthology containing her winning poem, A Polar Bear in Norilsk, can be downloaded for free here.
As their website explains, the Ginkgo Prize is a major international award for ecopoetry, funded by the Edward Goldsmith Foundation and organised by the Poetry School. Every year, the competition awards £8,000 in prize money, provides writers’ residencies for the winners, and supports the development of ecopoetry through a programme of…
“There’s a lovely lyrical completeness about your poems. So natural and full – they just float out. Something perfect about them. So wholehearted and affectionate. (So rare!)”
Ted Hughes [Letters of Ted Hughes. ed Reid. (Faber and Faber 2007. p734)]
I was at a poetry reading at the The Albert Poets on Thursday. It was a room full of people who loved Mark Hinchliffe. Mark had been in intensive care for days, surgeons fighting for his life after his liver transplant. At some point in the evening, his wife texted his close friend, Stephanie Bowgett, to say that mark had died. At the end of the evening, Steph gave us the news. We’d all lost someone important to us, and something irreplaceable. I’ve known Mark for six years or so, sharing so many Monday evening workshops, listening to yet another of his remarkable poems arrive in the world. I guess most of you won’t know his work. But Ted Hughes did. That’s recommendation enough, I think.
So here’s my tribute to a lovely man, which I first wrote a couple of years ago when he was finally persuaded to be published.
“Is there anyone in the English speaking world – teacher or student – who hasn’t come across Norman MacCaig’s An ordinary day? Who hasn’t enthused about it, or been invited to be enthused
I took my mind a walk
or my mind took me a walk –
whatever was the the truth of it
I met it first in one of Geoffrey Summerfield’s ‘Voices’ anthologies and insisted that several generations of my secondary school students took their minds a walk. We could all sign up for a recognisably post-romantic idea of poetry. It was about ‘observing’ and being surprised. I don’t think I ever stopped to consciously acknowledge that what MacCaig observed was light on water, gulls, cormorants, small flowers, bees, various ducks, a cow, weeds in clear water. Or at least, I never stopped to see the disconnect between MacCaig’s familiar, known place..the West Highland coast, I suppose… and what my students were familiar with. Urban or suburban landscapes. Edgeland places. I never stopped to think too hard about why they didn’t ‘get’ what MacCaig was up to. Or that they might not really want to take their minds a walk round a council estate in Leeds, or down Marton Road in Middlesbrough. Or if they did, it might have been better to start from poems with people and conversations …or bits of conversations .. in them. Water under the bridge. What’s at the back of my mind is the business of the poems we ‘get’ as opposed to the ones we don’t ‘get’.
As ever, I fall back on analogies with paintings. My partner is a painter. She’s taken me to look at Rothkos. She clearly ‘gets’ Rothko. And I don’t. I try; I listen to explanations of what it is I’m missing, but nothing clicks. There’s something missing in me that Rothko tries to talk to. It’s still a foreign language in which other people are fluent. My bad, as one of my granddaughters might say. I think that for all of us (some of us?) the same is true of poetry. There are poets we (I?) don’t get. I don’t ‘get’ a good deal of contemporary American voices. I don’t get minimalists, and concrete poets.
I don’t mean the poets who take us out of a comfort zone but to whom we still, at some deep level, respond. Those are the ones who don’t readily fall into a category. Basil Bunting. Geoffrey Hill. Those excite me, in the way that some painters puzzle and excite me, because I can’t put them in any sort of category, and I’m not quite sure what’s going on, but at some level I’m engaged and moved and bothered. And I think it comes down to the business of a particular voice. I fall back on Clive James to articulate what I can’t myself. I keep re-typing these assertions in these cobweb posts. This must be at least the third time. They’ve stuck:
“You hear the force of real poetry at first glance”
“Everything depended, and still depends, on the quality of the moment…..it’s the moment that gets you in”
and never forget the adage about the ‘well-separated poem’ that makes it ‘almost impossible to memorise what you can never quite forget’
Which is a very articulate way of saying something that can’t quite be articulated. I just have to say I know what he means, and you have to take my word for that, just as I know that my partner knows what Rothko means, and that she can’t be doing with this image that either says nothing much to her, or just gives her the creeps, and which fascinates me.
A detail from Richard Dadd’s The fairy feller’s masterstroke. Painted in a mental asylum. Obsessively realistic and accurately rendered and packed with small frightening or disturbing or saddening images and narratives. You can’t categorize it. It either speaks to you or it doesn’t and I can’t explain it. It’s like nothing else that I’m used to liking.
Which is, as ever, a very roundabout way of coming to the work of Mark Hinchliffe. I met him first at a Monday night poetry workshop at The Albert in Huddersfield. He brought a poem to work on that totally threw me, because I had no handle on it, I didn’t know what it was for, because it seemed strange and arbitrary. D H Lawrence was in there. And a fox. It was odd. And I couldn’t forget it even though I couldn’t quite remember why it was stuck in my mind. I’ve got to know him and his poems better since then, but he’s never brought one that didn’t disturb/surprise without ever being self-announcing. If I had to think of one word for their immediate quality , it would be ‘diffident’. Only to say the next impression is ‘not diffident at all’. Very Richard Dadd. And very magical, like Chagall…or, at least this phase of Chagall.
I think it’s an easy transition from this image to one of Mark’s poems.
A fox slowly swayed
down the middle of Cowlersley Lane,
eyes glassy and dazed.
People ran out of their houses
and you brought a bowl of milk.
Dressed in a pink tutu and purple glittery wig,
you knelt beside it as it lay down
in the gateway to a garden.
The people peered into
the darkness of its eyes
as if they looked into a stable
or a volcano slowly burning out,
holding up their hands
to catch the sparks
from its glowing tail.
I can’t explain why I think it works. I want to say: but that’s not my sort of poem, not my sort at all. And it just ignores me and goes on memorising itself.While you’re thinking about that, Mark will tell you about himself. I’ve italicised a couple of passages. It will be obvious why.
“My first taste of poetry was an ‘A’ level set text in 1976 (when I was 16), the anthology of Gunn and Hughes. Our English teacher played a record of Ted Hughes, one of his radio broadcasts-Capturing animals, where he read his poems and talked about writing. I never forgot his voice, and sought out his poetry, and then found out he was born in Mytholmroyd, and made a pilgrimage there. Over the next few years I found and read his poems, essays, stories, book reviews, all I could lay my hands on. I also started writing poems of my own just after hearing the record.
I have always seen poetry as a healing energy, and when my father died ( I was 17) I wrote about my feelings, I wrote another poem about him the other week.
I went to Birmingham University to read English, kept writing, and published poems in the University magazine. I also started to correspond with Ted Hughes, and later he asked me to send my poems to him, and he commented on them. My last card from him was a few weeks before he died.
I worked for 25years as a psychiatric nurse and used to write as a way of honouring the people I tried to help, and to help me make sense of the chaos that flourished within psychiatry.
I started going to The Albert Pub in Huddersfield, and read there for the first time in 1998. Later I was an organiser for the readings. I still love being involved with the Albert, and going to the workshops- they generate most of my poems.
I recently had a collection published by Calder Valley Press, edited by Bob Horne, and this has meant a great deal.
I love to see myself in a circle of poets, past and present, William Blake, Keats, Wordsworth, Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, Yeats, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Kathleen Jamie, Frances Horovitz, Carola Luther, Adrian Mitchell, Thom Gunn amongst others.
For me there is no experience that comes close to how I feel when I have written a poem, to see those words on the paper which I have charmed into being.
In recent years, I have been followed by a gang of spirits, clamouring to be written about, they are like musical themes, they are cats , hares, The Green Man, mermaids and foxes. They slip in through cracks in my mind. An old man, an archaeologist killed by fundamentalists is always behind me, tapping on my shoulder, and a boy who looks for aeroplanes on the moors is much in my mind.”
There’s a matter-of-factness about the way Mark says most things, so you almost miss them. The raven and the laughing head is his first pamphlet; this is not only someone who sent his poems to Ted Hughes, but corresponded with him over the years. There’s a special endorsement on the back cover of the pamphlet (this first pamphlet)
“There’s a lovely lyrical completeness about your poems. So natural and full – they just float out. Something perfect about them. So wholehearted and affectionate. (So rare!)”
Whatever it is that makes you read Mark Hinchliffe’s poems more than once, and which lodges them in your mind, be assured that Ted Hughes got there first. And, whatever you do, keep in mind the gang of spirits that slip in through the cracks. The boy who looks for aeroplanes on the moors keeps turning up on Monday nights in Huddersfield and bothers me as much as he does Mark.
At which point I shall say: here are two more poems. When you’ve read them, read them again and then close your eyes. Don’t analyse. Either you’ll get them or you won’t. It’s something that ultimately we can’t help.
When you stood up
from your chair
your skin peeled away,
raw red strips,
the flesh stuck,
and you took the wolverine skin,
laid it on your neck,
placed the otter skin on your shoulder,
the jaguar on your chest,
and the leopard on your back.
His spots pricked into your skin
The wild boar covered your legs,
the wolf lay around your ankles.
And you ran,
you sprang through the window
into the garden,
the apple trees shook their heads,
the blossom danced,
and under the grass
your bull stirred, bellowed,
his ring shimmering like the moon,
like a buried hoard.
(actually, I want to say….’that ring, shimmering, that round moonlike glimmering ring’..I can’t keep quiet about it. Let’s see if I can be more disciplined about the next one)
Billy the Kid plays croquet
with his gang.
Frank and Jesse James
play tennis doubles
against the Earp brothers.
John Wesley Harding races cars.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
blow peas through a hole in the wall.
Guests from abroad,
Ned Kelly plays blind man’s buff,
Robin Hood climbs trees, and
Little John plays basketball.
But the Oglala Sioux
led by Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Black Elk, and Red Cloud
take all the gold medals
back to Dakota.
They keep the sun in the sky
for seven weeks,
they talk to the eagles,
they dance on the earth,
green shoots spring up.
This is what another of the Albert Poets, Carola Luther, wrote about Mark’s work. She puts it better than I can.
“Mark Hinchcliffe writes love poems, praise poems and poems of lamentation and devotion…these are not ironic poems. They weave myth into both the dark and the everyday with a seriousness and attention that could be prayer”
The phrase that really nails it for me is these are not ironic poems. Nor are they naive or innocent or playful, though they might be any or all of these things. I said at the start there are things I just don’t ‘get’ and I should end by saying there things I think I ‘get’ but can’t explain. I just know that I keep re-reading these poems because they keep puzzling me.
I find it unbelievable that there will be no more of them. But those cats , those hares, The Green Man, the mermaids and foxes are out there, now, and always will be. A boy who looks for aeroplanes on the moors is out there too. You may meet him out on the cottongrass millstone Pennines. Give him good day.”
It features my favourite David Constantine poem, and it focuses on the largely ignored wives and daughters and widows of The Fallen. It’s a plea for them to be remembered, the ones who were left to pick up the pieces of their lives, smashed to smithereens.
While I was writing it, for some reason I found myself thinking of my German brother-in-law, Frank Rupp. His father was sent to fight on the Eastern Front; Frank, and his mother, never saw him again until 1947 when he was finally released from a Russian prison camp. I remembered that when Fank and my sister-in-law came to spend Christmasses with us in the mid-1960s how disturbed…maybe horrified is the right word…by Christmas television in England. The schedules were full of WW2 movies. You know the kind of thing. The great escape. Where eagles dare. Heroes of Telemark. It wasn’t just that the Germans were uniformly presented as either idiots or sadists. It was the fact that this was considered family entertainment at Christmas. He simple couldn’t grasp the idea that it was tolerated. And he was right.
Fifty years on there’s a channel called Yesterday. As far as I can tell, about half its scheduling is devoted to WW2, and about half of that to Hitler. It’s appalling. Who watches it? Why? I’m 76 and I grew out of that stuff by the age of 12 or so….I had my fill of The dam busters, The Colditz Story and all the rest of it. Something else struck me; all my Remembrance posts are about WW1 and my grandparents’ part in it. Why? Maybe it was being brought up on a diet of WW1 poetry. But it’s not good enough.
So, for this Remembrance Sunday I want to remember the ones I knew who came through WW2 and hardly ever talked about it. My father-in-law, Stan Rogers, who spent the war in India and Burma, in recon. behind Japanese lines. The forgotten army, they called themselves. The history teacher I worked with who survived the fiasco of Arnhem. The supply teacher, shot through the throat by a random bullet fired off by a Stuka over Scarborough while he was shaving in his attic digs. Another Stan who was at Anzio, fought up the Italian peninsula, sent to India, where he still was just before partition and had his skull bashed in by a rock in a religious riot. The uncle who was at the liberation of Belsen, and remained in a black depression for years. None of them ever understood the absurd glorification of war, mainly by men who never experienced it. They kept their counsel.
So remember them, too. The quiet ones.
Short back and sides
It’s fine, Stan’s hair. His wife, Vera, says:
“He gets it from his mother.
They were all fine haired, her side.”
He’s soft-skinned, too. Big hands
with liver spots. They tremble, agitate
an invisible test tube, like a chemist.
Big ears, lobes like small ox-tongues.
He likes his hair cut short.
Curious to be holding his head still,
gentling the clippers in the back of his neck,
hearing the buzz, feeling light hairs fall.
I’ve eaten snake, he says. A python.
He could butcher anything the lads brought in.
He’ll not eat curry. When you smell that
you know you’re closing on a village.
On Recon. they’d take the headman’s son.
Shackle him on the bonnet of the Jeep.
See, if no one made a fuss we’d know
no Japs was up the trail. Drive him for a bit
then let him off. The skin of his scalp is fragile,
scissors cold on the pink of the skull.
His goalkeeper’s hands beat a soft
tattoo against his knee, When he remembers
he clasps them like a handshake, or a prayer.
In jungle once, he came upon a pal
pinioned to a tree, opened up from throat to groin,
his piled entrails at his feet, a black buzz of flies.
I’ve never told our Vera that. I tidy round his neck.
I’ll shake the teatowel outside on the step,
watch the hair blow, like dandelion clocks.
His hand have freed themselves.
He has forgotten them.
According to their cloth
I knew one man made a forced march in a column,
full pack and rifle; heat and scrub, humidity, thick dust;
forty miles in a single day and never knew a battle plan.
One man who fell from a plane
in a night full of parachutes,
the wind white silk ; the dark sound of planes
dwindling up into the night and him falling into fiasco;
This article is reblogged from my post in The Wider Web, published on the Write out Loud website
The other day, I came across an interview with the poet Kim Moore in which she says in response to the question: What does poetry mean to you?
“This is a hard question! I’ve just had a baby, so my relationship with poetry has changed a little, in that it has been squashed into the edges of my life at the moment. But I guess poetry is my way of making sense of the world, of finding out what I really think, a way of making connections and these are all things I couldn’t live without doing. Poetry to me is those solitary moments of writing, when there is nobody to see or care whether it is any good or not, but it is also those solitary moments of reading, when you read a poem and put the book down because the poem is so good, because it has articulated something you didn’t know you felt.”
I’ll leave that with you for a while.
When I started to write a poetry blog I thought about how I wanted it to work. I thought it needed to have a reliable style/structure. What did that mean? For instance, I could rely on Roy Marshall’s poetry blog offering advice on the business of writing and compiling; I expected that Kim Moore would tell me what she’d been doing the previous week, before sharing a poem from someone she was currently excited about. Anthony Wilson would share a ‘lifesaving poem’ by doing a close reading in the context of its place in the narrative of his own life. And so on. So I couldn’t be doing any of that. It was already being done, and better than I could aspire to.
Instead of looking at blogs, I looked to journalism, and settled on the late AA Gill’s restaurant reviews in The Times colour magazine. What I always liked about Gill, apart from his acerbic prose, was the way he would come at the actual review obliquely, (say, musing on the manners of the English, or the hairstyles of Peckham, or whatever). I realised that for me it would also be a way of getting into the writing, so that by the time I got to the poetry I wanted to share, I’d have found some sort of rhythm, and a hook or a theme that put the poetry in context. I grew up with radio journalism/storytelling. Sometimes it works. But the plain fact is that I can’t just get straight into the poetry … I have to think my way towards it. You’ve been warned.
I grew up (or older) with radio, which had its own version of blogging in the form of, say, Alistair Cooke’s weekly Letter from America; perfectly constructed, 15-minute pieces as elegant and apparently effortless as Fred Astaire’s dancing. He would approach his topic obliquely, too. As would the wonderful Garrison Keillor who would invariably begin It has been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon. It’s got to start the same way. As he says in my favourite episode you can’t disappoint them, but you have to surprise them. Once upon a time there was a poor woodcutter/three brothers …The expected has got to spring a surprise. But the bottom line is the expected.
“It has been a quiet week here in Lake Wobegon. It snowed three feet on Tuesday …” That’s how my favourite episode begins, in which we learn that a three-foot snowfall isn’t anything to write home about; this takes us to legendary snowfalls that have their own stories and thus to the tellers of the stories. And to Kenny, who’s “a chubby guy” who lives in a beat-up house on the outskirts. We can see him through his window (because we’ve taken a walk through town in the snowy night), and he’s telling a story to his kids. It’s Hansel and Gretel, and he’s vaguely uncomfortable about telling this story, and more about getting it wrong. We get to learn a lot about Kenny, his wife, the father he is alienated from and who is at this moment dying ; and also about the rules and uses of narrative. There’s a letter on the table which Kenny hasn’t opened. It’s from his dad who is trying to explain what cannot be explained. Kenny’s wife Joanne is on her way home from choir practice. The kids should be in bed. The house is in a mess. Whatever will she say when she sees it?
It has been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon. And here the governance of the nation is in chaos; the President of the United States has casually signed a death warrant on tens of thousands of Kurds (who unaccountably weren’t at Omaha Beach); our elected politicians are, at enormous expense and with our money, subverting the very purposes of language; and the streets of London have been brought to a standstill by young people and Extinction Rebellion.
It’s worth remembering that there have been five major extinctions in the long history of the Earth, the least catastrophic of which destroyed 75% of all living organisms, and the worst which accounted for 95%. Some happened relatively fast, like the one caused by a gigantic meteor strike. Some happened slowly over millennia, from an excess of carbon dioxide, from a scarcity of the same, from too much oxygen, or from not enough. The fossil record tells us all this. We are probably at the beginning of a sixth which is being accelerated by human agency. It’s little comfort to note that the Earth adjusted (though it’s tempting to say ‘recovered from’) to the last five and that it will probably do so again. It’s just that we’re unlikely to be around afterwards though other things will be. To put in perspective, today, extinctions are occurring hundreds of times faster than they would naturally. If all species currently designated as critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable go extinct in the next century, and if that rate of extinction continues without slowing down, we could approach the level of a mass extinction in as soon as 240 to 540 years. The astonishing, wonderful, accidental concatenation of what we call life on earth doesn’t care for us at all. Which is no reason for us not to care for it, and for ourselves.
And finally, this brings us in roundabout ways to Jane Lovell’s remarkable pamphlet, This Tilting Earth, a pamphlet lit by her fascination with the fossil record and also with historical ones, and by biophilia (the title of one of the poems). I didn’t know the word. It means the urge to affiliate with other forms of life. I’m glad to have learned it. I took a chance on ‘reviewing’ this pamphlet, responding to a plea on Facebook. I’m so glad that I did. I read it first on the Supertram in Sheffield on my way to a Poetry Business Writing Day. It’s a good job the tram was almost empty. I found myself punching the air, and saying (under my breath, I hope, but I can’t be sure) YES!! YES!! I go on about Clive James’ dictum about ‘the moment that gets you in’. This slim pamphlet is packed with them. It does what Kim Moore said in that interview about “those solitary moments of reading, when you read a poem and put the book down because the poem is so good, because it has articulated something you didn’t know you felt”.
Let me tell you about all the things that hauled me in, and then I’ll share a couple of the poems before insisting that you go out, at once, and buy the book.
First thing: the title. This Tilting Earth. I suppose this is personal. I seem to have been fascinated by the fact of the Earth’s tilted axis, without which we would have no seasons, for decades. I think it started with Ted Hughes:
Brought to bare trees, to spike and shard
browned by cold, our birds
breast a homing departure; on wings press
to correct earth’s sure tilt into darkness
‘Nicholas Ferrer’ (Lupercal)
I spent a couple of hours yesterday trying to track it down. I’ve not consciously read this poem in 30 years. Why did that phrase stick? Why does it keep on popping up in poems as I write them? It comes uninvited, as in this from a poem of mine called ‘Viewpoint’.
Here, punctually, the earth rim tips up;
the sun’s disc eclipsed,
A moon is strange as it comes
beyond the dark weight of hills
and it is not rising
but the huge world is toppling
O so slow towards the moon
in the dark ocean of the sky
For me it’s become an emblem of the accidents of our place in space and time, and simpler to hold in my mind than those that create our ideas of constellations like Orion or the Plough. The stability of that tilt relies on the gravity of the moon, which comes close and grows distant over huge spans of time. Our balance is so fragile. This tilting Earth; that word tilt is so exact, so layered. It seemed to me the perfect title.
What next: it was the range, archaeological, geographical, historical, of the poem’s titles that sent me googling. These poems will takes you to the mammoth burial sites of Siberia and North America ..the Laplev Sea, Lugoskoe, Waco; to the bay of Mont Saint-Michel and estuary of La Sélune; to the salt pans of Sečovlje in Slovenia; to the Hebridean ghost-crofts of Hirta; to Sithylemenkat Lake in the bowl of a gigantic meteor strike in the Yukon, and to Beringia that was the land bridge between Russia and America. You have no need to worry about the ‘facts’ behind the places. The poems tell you all you need to know about small significant extinctions; the thing is that they are precisely located, and this is important.
So much for names and titles. What about the moments that memorise themselves as you read? The collection is packed with them. As a whistlestop tour will show. How about the painted horses of the Lascaux caves, threatened by the very breath of visitors? “They watch us with their oilbloom eyes. / We breathe and they may disappear.” Jane Lovell does brilliant opening lines, too, like these:
They all ended up the same way, of course,
deep in the silt and swirl of the Thames,
I love the insouciance of this, the crafty pronoun that starts it. And this, too: “He remembers, briefly, plummeting,/ tilting slowly like a tree.”
Think about the way those two verbs apparently work against each other until you visualise a man falling from a height, and realise how exact it really is.
She has a wonderful eye for the moment, for the image, as in that of the carts in the salt pans “with their drapery of halite”. Drapery. Precise and true, as is her observation of
quiet pans of algae, gypsum, clay
where egrets pick their way
through cubes of sky
The moments aren’t just visual. There’s a memorable line in the salt pan poem that captures the idea that the suspension of sound is so profound that the salt worker “is listening to the voice / of the salt, the tinkering of the sea”.
“Tinkering”. One of those moments when I said ‘YES’ on the tram. One of the delights of these poems is her easy use of a huge vocabulary that’s always being used for its rightness. And not just for their rightness, but for their textures: grume, squirl, laggy, skilly, candlenut, cinnabar. These are poems that demand to be read aloud and tasted. There are poets whose knowledge and erudition become exclusive. Jane Lovell’s not one of them. There may be arcane bits of information but the meaning’s always supplied by the context. Every living thing in these poems is brought to mind , enchanted, in Macfarlane’s sense, with a concrete textured clarity that becomes a praise poem for living things, and a reminder that like Blake she fervently believes that everything that lives is holy.I’m tempted to go on and on quoting. My review copy’s studded with underlinings and post-its. But you should have got the picture by now. I’d like to work my way through the poems. But one of the bits of advice I was given about doing a reading was that you should ‘leave them wanting more’. This Tilting Earth does precisely that, and so will I. I’ll provide this link to another review which throws some light on more poems, and then finish up with a couple of poems and a bit of commentary.Here’s the link first
It’s not easy to pick just two poems that foreground the qualities of this lovely pamphlet. I could pick the narrative swagger of ‘The last leap of Sam Patch’ or the pathos/drama of creatures and people drowning like the young mammoths, or the 16th century drayman whose cart overturns into the Thames (unlike Robert Frost’s ending of the world , it’s not fire or ice, but water that threatens); equally the poems commemorating a flayed saint or a flayed horse (there are a lot of horses as well birds and water in the collection). But I’ve chosen two quieter, more intimate ones.
The first homes in on one apparently inconsiderable outcome of the depopulation of a Hebridean isalnd. When the last St Kildans were evacuated in 1930, the St Kilda house mouse (Mus musculus muralis) very quickly became extinct. The St Kilda field mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus hirtensis) is still present.
We remain cautious, haunting crannies in low walls
scabbed with moss and lichen,
sloughed roofs smouldering soot and mildew.
Without bread or grain, we grow thin.
Our litters fail.
Drawn to roar of sea and shingle,
we skeddle down past sallow blooms of roseroot, sorrel,
skirt the last remaining footprints brimming sky;
alert for skirl of skua, hook-clawed kestrel,
seek out sprat and crab between the rocks and kelp,
tats of shell at cliff foot caught in gravel, lifting, falling.
We have an instinct for water,
Our bellies rimpled films of skin,
bones hollow flutes funnelling the winds.
We grow thin; our litters fail.
Stiff with salt, the waves wash us away.
There are no footnotes in the pamphlet, and reading the poem without knowing who the ‘we’ of the first line might be draws the reader in. Who remains cautious? Why? It makes the reader work, but you should pick up on the curious opposition of ‘leaving’ and ‘remain’ between the title and the first line, and then recognise that the stress in the first line falls on ‘we’.
You understand that the crofters left, so who or what remains? What relies on grain? What lives in crannies? What fears the skua and the kestrel? What’s small enough to skirt a footprint, and what moves so quick under the sky? I love that word “skeddles”. All this is played out to the soundtrack of breaking surf, and the riddled scratch of shell fragments. This small extinction is contained in one understated and beautifully observed sequence. What struck me was its filmic quality.
I was delighted to learn the factual backstory that reminds us of the reflexive relationships in ecosystems. Animals, some animals, need us as much as we need them.
The next one is more mysterious. The narrator of this poem is clearly at home with a process that is both mundane and numinous. It’s a routine and a ritual the purposes of which (it seems to me) are so normal as to be implicit, and need no explanation, despite the apparent horror of the opening image.
Her eyes bleach the colour
of milk, head coming up blind
Once the fat is risen
we syphon the cooling tallow
into flagons, set them in line,
add beeswax and lye,
stand back from its boiling and hissing,
do not breathe until it stills.
I pour the soap into moulds,
scatter over cranesbill, nibs of lavender
wrap the cooled cakes
in scraps of vellum, stack them
in the drystore.
It’s warm there
and dark enough for owls.
Above shelves of pickled fruit
and bottled juice,
cowls of gut hang like vines.
It is light tonight, cloudless.
We carry her flesh to fire, break bread,
sing her name.
Tomorrow the women will roast the bones,
use the crushed chalk to make buttons
No one speaks of the old days.
We light candles but no one prays.
Each moon has its feast.
She was our chosen one, our beauty.
Some creature, or someone, has been rendered down to soap. It’s all domestic and simple and normal. It’s done with care and something approaching reverence. In the manner of the native Americans, nothing will be wasted: “Tomorrow the women will roast the bones, / use the crushed chalk to make buttons / and beads.”
As a reader, I’m fascinated to be put in the position of a stranger, someone stumbling upon a lost way of life, to be given a guide who explains a routine without ever explaining it, without telling us why No one speaks of the old days.
She’s an artful poet, Jane Lovell; one who engages all your senses and sympathies. What a great collection this is.
Jane Lovell is the Poetry Society Stanza rep for Mid Kent. She has had work published in Agenda, Earthlines, Poetry Wales, Magma, The North, the Honest Ulsterman, Dark Mountain, The Lonely Crowd, Ink Sweat & Tears, Zoomorphic and Elementum, and in various anthologies including One for the Road from Smith Doorstop.She was awarded the Flambard prize in 2015, and has won the South Downs poetry competition 2017 and the Wealden literary festival 2018 writing competition. In 2018 she won the Wigtown poetry competition, and was also joint winner of the Coast to Coast to Coast pamphlet competition.