My kind of poetry: Steve Ely’s: I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heauen

I started making annotations and sticking Post-its in Steve Ely’s pamphlet about nine months ago. It was a week before the first lock-down, and I was sitting in a dentist’s waiting room in Ossett. I used to take novels to read in surgeries and hospitals. More recently it’s been poetry that’s replaced Solzhenitsyn’s “Cancer Ward”. More often than not, it’ll be U A Fanthorpe’s ‘Tyndale in Darkness’. Whatever, it will probably feature the themes of suffering, endurance and redemption through faith of one kind or another. It’s a kind of epicureanism, I suppose. I beheld Satan as an angel… was, and is, different, because throughout it challenges the whole notion of the possibility of redemption. I’ve kept trying to write about why it seems to matter so much to me, and failing to nail it, falling short of what I think I mean. There are critical reviews that make an effort to appear objective; I never believed that such a thing is possible. When I read a poem I read it through a glass darkly, through the refracting lens of my preoccupations and memories, and subsequently, the poem ‘reads me’ if it’s any good at all. Afterwards, I see differently, and the poem becomes different. This is a sequence about falling from grace and about the death of a son, about the guilt for the death of a son. One of my sons took his own life by jumping from a tall building. It speaks to me in ways that it can’t speak to everyone. 

Sooner or later, though, you simply have to follow the advice of the old Nike slogan, and Just Do It. So, here goes.

The precis on the back cover pulls no punches.

“This sequence is about falling and fallen-ness, thrown-ness and being thrown. It begins in lust and it ends in death, taking in abortion, miscarriage and murder. It excoriates evil, embraces guilt and denies the possibility of absolution…it tries not to flinch, but it does, because it cannot bear the absence of reassurance”

Kim Moore’s endorsement talks of ‘[Steve Ely’s] trademark visceral and multi-layered language…these poems are blistering in their honesty..resting on multiple layers of allusion’

Quite simply, it’s disturbing, uncomfortable, upsetting; it’s as well to know that before you start. And if you don’t know Steve Ely’s work, you probably need some context. If you have the time and inclination you could follow these two links to earlier posts about my enthusiasm for his poetry:

https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2015/08/30/knowing-your-place-a-polished-gem-8-steve-ely/

and

https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2017/03/19/on-sequences-and-a-gem-revisited-steve-ely/

If you haven’t the time, let me identify three or four things that may give you pause. 

The first thing may be the voice, its language.It’s packed with archaisms and archaic spellings, with a sometimes violent vernacular, with scatalogical slang (jamrags and johnnies),with disruptive lexis and (sometimes) syntax, and what I think of as a kind of medieval lyricism. Sheenagh Pugh, in an interview, said:

‘You’re very unafraid of words. That sounds an odd thing to say of a poet, but I’ve read so many reviewers, in particular, who seem downright terrified of any vocabulary vaguely out of the ordinary. …….One of the things I like best about your work is how you cheerfully expect your readers to cope with liturgical language, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, umpteen bird and plant names, lovely obscure words ….’

Steve’s answer is uncompromising: 

Words are my business, and as such, every word, in every language — past, present and future — belongs to me. I’ll use them as I see fit.

Secondly, there’s the business of Biblical reference, because often it’s a Bible you don’t recognise, that no-one ever told you about. If you went to Sunday School, as I did, you grew up with the winsome Infant Samuel. I remember a course  when Steve Ely introduced me to the older Samuel. Here he is commanding Saul :

Now therefore go thou, and slay Amalek, and destroy thou all his things; spare thou not him, nor covet thou anything of his things; but slay thou from man unto woman, and little child, and sucking, ox, and sheep, and camel, and ass.

But Saul and the people spared Agag, and they left of the sheep and of the oxen and fat things and the lambs and all that was good, and would not destroy them.

How does Samuel react? In fury he denounces Saul as apostate. Saul tries to make amends. At Samuel’s request he delivers up Agag.

And Samuel said, As thy sword hath made women without free children, so thy mother shall be without free children among women. And Samuel hewed Agag into gobbets before the Lord in Gilgal.

You might think ‘well, this is Old Testament.’

But Ely’s pamphlet takes its title from the New Testament’s Luke 10. You may not recognize the Jesus of these verses. You know all about the twelve disciples. Did you know of the 72 who Jesus sent out to spread the gospel, with these words ringing in their ears

Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.’ 

I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.

   “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! ……. it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for     you.  And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades.

   “Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me.”

     ………..

The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.”

He replied,  I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 

I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.

Gentle Jesus meek and mild? Not remotely.

As a ‘youngish mature student’ Steve Ely took a degree in Biblical Studies after travelling around the Middle East and Europe, working as a fork-lift driver, and being involved in various ways with political activism. A degree in Divinity and growing up in a different, less imbricated, landscape might have generated a different, more emollient, more consoling range of reference. 

Two more things. 

Be ready for a range of allusion and reference that takes in the Southern Gothic of True Detective, Biblical exegisis, gnosticism, arcana, 20thC child murderers and paedophiles, the biochemistry of sexual reproduction, Near-Death experience, genocidal massacre and the business of designer polo shirts and trainers. Be ready to find that all epigraphs and references appear to carry the same weight, despite the widely varied provenance.

Finally. The key event, the starting point is a miscarriage.  It’s easy to see this as the whole point, and it isn’t. Steve said this in a email conversation I had with him:

A lot of people have called it a ‘male take on miscarriage’ ….. ‘it’s not really about that – it’s about what we’re capable of, and ultimately becomes a gnostic speculation on the possibilities of life after death’.

For me it’s a sequence of poems about spiritual despair in a world of great moral and physical violence; it’s about damnation and redemption. There you are. Colours nailed to the mast. 

I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heauen begins with five poems which return and return like nightmare to this core moment. 

‘Kids 5 and 2, 

the third in the womb three months that March 

stopped moving after I shattered your joy 

                        by suggesting you have an abortion: 

                            ……

you know and I’ve always known—I wished him dead 

and he fled from Herod into Egypt’s plummeting dark’ 

                                                                                                                Exsultet

The joy of annunciation is donkey-kicked into oblivion; a life that begins in a careless act of drunken sex, and threatens the comfortable security of a house and two affordable kids is snuffed out. Marie’s joy is blighted, and all this wretched Joseph can offer is the recognition that

The glamour of Tyre and Sidon, the exaltation 

of Capernaum—fitted kitchen, custom bookshelves, 

things and social life—he died for me

and freed us for those things.

                                                                               [The mother of Naim]

.

He will always remember and be haunted by the moment:

.

And there I was, stumbling burdened 

from the stuttering car, bushwhacked by the dazzle of your joy

                   .

But here I am with my life among the living, 

my fleets of ivory, apes and peacocks.  A worm in my heart 

and a snake beneath my tongue.

                                                                          [Tarshish]

This, as I said is the starting point. A probably doomed attempt at ‘confession without self-justification’; an act of contrition without hope of any kind of absolution. But from the very start, the hope it denies will not be suppressed. The second poem, The feather of Ma’at makes this absolutely plain, whatever doubts and disclaimers follow. The image from Egyptian myth is of the heart of the dead being weighed against a feather. The pure heart is lighter and is saved. Salvation in Ely’s elision of multiple beliefs is to be reunited with the single flame of the universal spirit or godhead; to be no longer separate and cast out.

Surely perfect love is felt there, which comes 

from perfect understanding.  Where sinnes unfetter 

and leap to meet annihilating grace: a wretch like I,

scum of the sphynxy earth.  

          Dissolved, they weep 

with joy together, the boy, his mother, his sister

and brother: the father freed from outer darkenesse, 

still wailing and gnashing his teeth.

……..

There’s no salvation or self-forgiveness here, is there? 

.

Assoone as the voice of thy salutation sounded 

in mine eares, the babe leapt in my wombe for ioy.

[ From: Luke 1:41. The Magnificat]

             .       

To wish someone dead and not kill them 

is cowardice and bad faith. Therefore we must be murderers.  

The sin is to stay the knife. 

                                  The boy that lit the linnet’s nest, 

then blubbered over the fledglings as they writhed 

and gaped in crackling death?  There’s no forgiveness. 

The act can never be undone.  

                                                          [Ego te absolvo]

The poet/narrator wanders an appalling dysfunctional world of financial collapse, massacres, terrorist attacks, assassinations..ugly death on a global scale…and, in Goe, and doe thou likewise through a hideous Edgelands despoiled landscape that could have been invented by David Peace:

‘ditch-litter of nonces, 

wrists cable-tied behind their backs, eyes popped 

from broken sockets.  Thirty brace of dumped pheasants, 

a gargoyled fox in a Tesco bag-for-life.  

…………………      

Ditch litter of blood-soaked Tattershall shirts 

and torched Izuzu Troopers’

Like Peace’s Red Riding novels it’s spiritually and emotionally exhausting. When the wanderer appears before the Peacock throne making his lame excuses he gets the short thrift that you may have begun to think he deserves.

‘I had saved a toad’s life, formed the committee 

that rescued the Common and given one-hundred-

and-fifty pounds to Smile Train.  And as for the other things, 

I was always heartily sorry.  

.

                                   And He said, 

Your merits are more contemptible than your sins

and your sorrow is self-pity.

                                    The angels lowered

their carbines.  

              But He stayed their hand, saying,

                        I will not be complicit in the contagion of his darkness.  

Examine your heart and know what you are:

a beast and a murderer.  You cannot be redeemed.  

Embrace the blackness and kill yourself.

In the instant of death, you’ll know you’ve done 

the one right thing—let that be your consolation.

…………

I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heauen is a short pamphlet of 14 poems. You can see that as as a narrative sequence it could have ended right here. Embrace the darkness and kill yourself. And because of my own personal history I would not be telling you that here’s a collection you need to read. It would have been too bleak to bear. Remember the precis I quoted at the very beginning. This collection:

  ‘excoriates evil, embraces guilt and denies the possibility of absolution…it tries not to flinch, but it does,  because it cannot bear the absence of reassurance.’

If your sin outweighs the feather of Ma’at, what hope is there? I think it lies in the last poem that begins in a landscape the early Christians would have recognised. The black rocks of, say, Sula Sgeirr or Rona to where they sailed their frail boats in a search for God.

Hæc nox est

Fireflies illumined the darkness, and lightning flashed

 on the horizon.  But there was no thunder.  A weird circular

 light glowed in the sky for a few moments and then suddenly

 plummeted toward the horizon, a crimson tail behind it.

.

I stepped from the cliff into ocean’s buffeting 

up-thrust, and plummeted in the darkness,  

face strafed with salt-shot, breath torn-off 

by up-flung bolts of foam.  Clap-rattling gannets 

leapt from the crag and circled their crosses.  

Auks dropped from their cracks and exploded.  

Fulmars squirting vomit.  I flapped and flailed 

like an oily eagle, and fell. 

Below, the black and heaving sea, 

its ghostly freight of fallen stars and shoals 

of glittering sturgeon.  Above, the all-enveloping night, 

the pulsar static of the buffering empyrean.  

They say the shock of the fall alone 

will stun the head and stop the beaten heart; 

else splat on the glass of the marbled sea, 

and nothing in that instant.  But I just kept falling, 

a rope-less bucket, dropped in a bottomless well.  

And I thought, perhaps this is it, 

the way DMT seeks to ease our deaths 

in the moment of transition, that we fall forever, 

and forever are spared the shattering shock of impact.  

Not like those nights we hit the rocks

and scream erect in freezing sweat, thank God— 

it’s all a dream.

            It is no dream.  The cormorant’s embrace 

awaits, this flick-book life of a thousand torn-off 

guillemot wings, each plucked from the body 

and cast into the mantling dark, where now he falls 

and continues to fall, a feather of flame now falling 

beside him, a small cool flare of feathery flame 

lighting his darkness and feathering his falling, 

and now he himself transfigured to flame, falling 

beside the spark that found him, and together they fall, 

a flaming man and a flaming child, with angels, 

falling, feathers of flame flaring from the darkness, 

like sparks from a rocket or the tail of a comet,

falling together and joining the fallen, the sobbing father 

and weeping mother and all their gathered children:

and now they are falling as a single flame, 

a tear of feathery fire, warming the world

like the flame of a beeswax candle, bringing light 

to the salt and whistling night, before settling 

on the heave like a lotus, or a burning swan, 

drifting out on the darkness and sinking.

.

To ‘embrace the darkness and kill yourself’ was the instruction. To throw yourself into the dark, in a blizzard of torn-off wings. It brings to me the image of the gannet hunters that Robert Macfarlane describes in The Old ways

“The birds are plucked, singed, seared. Then their wings are chopped off, they’re scrubbed again, split open and emptied of their innards, and their evacuated bodies are placed on ‘the Pile’ – a great altar-cairn of guga corpses. So it proceeds. On the middle Sabbath comes rest, prayer and song. If summer storms blow in, the men sit them out in the bothies, for there’s no working the Rock in big wind or big waves. Once the effort is over, they sail south again for Lewis. …..The guga that survive the harvest will, eventually, stagger down the cliff ledges until they fall off and splash into the sea. They are water-bound for a couple of weeks, riding the waves and fasting, until they are light enough to take flight and make their maiden voyages: winging down the west coast of Britain, the north-west peninsulas of France, through the Bay of Biscay, along the Atlantic facade, following their own sea roads – their migration paths – until at last they reach their winter home off West Africa.”

I’ve quoted all of this, not just for the detail of the wings torn from the bodies of gannets, but for the image of the survivors, falling exhausted on to the sea, and amazingly, miraculously, generation by generation, flying thousands of miles, coming home. I think that Steve Ely, a passionate watcher of birds, might appreciate this connection.  I love the physicality, the noise and space and texture of the opening, the primaeval star-studded black sky, the salt-shot, and then the way it transmutes into the weightlessness of a dream, that turns out not to be a dream. I like the echo of Thomas Wyatt (who was a master of emotional ambivalence): It was no dream: I lay broad waking: 

 Above all I love the long twenty-line sentence in its circling, lyrical recreation of falling and falling , flame-light, feather light, gathering into ‘a single flame’, settling on the heave of the sea like ‘a lotus’, or astonishingly, a ‘burning swan’. It reminds me of the final moments of Beethoven’s 6th, that long diminuendo, that leaves you quiet after a great storm.

Thank you Steve Ely, for letting me share all this. I doubt I’ve done justice to its complexity and craft. But it’s as good as I can manage.

I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heauen: [New walk Editions 2019] £5.00

for details of Steve Ely’s other books use the links to earlier posts (above)

Try to Praise the Mutilated World – locked in, together

Try to Praise the Mutilated World – locked in, together

Something to lift your spirits. It’s already lifted mine.

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

Welcome to Try to Praise the Mutilated World – a poetry writing project which will last for the duration of the current English lockdown, which is expected to be one month. The name is both a summary of what we’re doing, and a manifesto. It comes from this poem by Adam Zagajewski.

This is an absolutely unique time, and a fat lot of good that is to us. I’ve always said ‘it’s not pain, it’s raw material’ but I hadn’t reckoned on quite this much pain – for everyone, everywhere, and all at once. Still – it is a deep reservoir of raw material. We can dive into it time and again – sometimes looking for monsters, sometimes for pearls.

In the past months, we’ve all learned more about working and living online. Even the technophobic have now been introduced to Zoom meetings or online booking systems. We can now…

View original post 1,542 more words

Backtrack: On sequences, with Steve Ely and Pascale Petit

At our house, we’ve just completed eight months of a combination of shielding, enforced lockdown, and self-isolation. Most of it was, well, bearable. We had months of good weather to work on the garden, and reclaim another bit of the neighbouring farmer’s field for a wild flower patch. When the weather was bad I had picture framing, decorating…and in between showers, repointing various walls and gable ends. I had the ‘When all this is over’ project to keep my my brain ticking over in May and June. The annual trip to St Ives for a poetry residential was cancelled, but I managed a consolation in the form of a Garsdale Zoom course tutored by Kim Moore.

But right now I’m stalled. If you’re from my part of the West Riding the resonance of this will be understood. When my mum or my grandma said ‘I’m stalled’ they meant they were stuck, depressed, bored, fed-up, frustrated and generally out of sorts. I’ve finally become unable to shut out the appalling state of the country and its wilful mismanagement. I can’t think straight or clearly. I had an email from the poet Steve Ely (who will feature in a moment) in which he said he was ‘******* stir crazy’. He said he could go to the gym, and go for walks but (and this is the kicker) “there’s no joy in it” . Not a fashionable word joy. But I know exactly what he meant. Where’s the joy? It’s compounded by the fact that I’ll spend Thursday in Pontefract Hospital for minor surgery. I wouldn’t think twice about it in the normal run of things. But nothing’s normal, and for the first time in my life I’m assailed by anxiety, timidity. Today was set aside for writing an enthusiastic appreciation of Steve Ely’s latest pamphlet I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heauen. But my head’s like a washing machine, and I can’t do it justice. Apologies for that, but to keep the cobweb ticking over, here’s an edited version of a post I wrote almost exactly three years ago.

For the last four years I’ve been more or less bogged down, stalled, stymied – call it what you like- with a project that won’t let me be. It started with a reading I heard at the Red Shed in Wakefield, a group performance by the Sandal Writers. It was a compilation, something on the lines of a radio ballad, about a pit disaster at Lofthouse Colliery near Wakefield in 1972. I can’t explain why it stuck, why it bothered me, why it generated random images and narratives. I just know that I wanted to/had to write about it. Which is when the the problem of The Sequence wandered into my head and won’t wander out. I keep thinking I’ve cracked it. I’ve got one poem that I thought would open the door. It’s published, in the estimable Pennine Platform (2020) so maybe we’re finally getting there. Fingers crossed.

Wound up. 

Last shift, winding up

Half a million years a metre,

faster than light they come

out of the sparkling dust

of ancient ferns, of seeds, of crinoids

pressed thin as frostleaves in the seam;

out of an ancient England,

a polar world of icecaps rising,

falling; a tropic land under a moon

come close and huge;

an England slipping north

on the shift of continents.

up through compacted tailings

of the silt and grit of worn-down ranges,

winding up into light,

into the sky of England now.

.

Time travellers, they come blinking

at exploding flowers of flashbulb fire;

minstrel-eyed, with red wet mouths,

black faces estuaried with sweat.

They walk heavily like warriors.

Slab-muscled, in filthy orange vests,

steel booted, in buckled metal greaves,

webbing belts, and battery packs

and helmets, here they come.

They could have fought

at Towton, Adwalton Moor, Orgreave.

.

They check in their brass tokens

for the last time; officially they are alive.

They will check in their gear,

sit in the hot rain of the shower,

and if they weep, no one will see.

They will not say much.

They have been wound up out of history

into this moment. Into England now.

Of the future they can say nothing at all.

.

(At Kellingley, the last deep coal mine in England,

  the last shift clocked off in December 18, 2015)

I’m not even sure what I mean by ‘a sequence’ beyond the feeling that I want to write about a particular something and that one poem won’t do…and possibly not six or ten. How many poems does it have to be before it’s ‘a sequence’? When I published my first pamphlet it was simply a case of organising poems I’d written into some kind of order, with a suggestion of a beginning, a middle and an end. Subsequently I found I’d written sequences by accident, the unintended consequence of undeclared passion or obsession. My second pamphlet, Backtracks is a back to front narrative, Poems that tell the story of me, my parents and grandparents. Anyone can do that. It’s a given.

And then there were the problematic ones…the deliberately conceived sequences. For instance, when I was half-heartedly doing an MA in Creative Writing I determined to write a sequence about the Highland Clearances as they affected the Isle of Skye. I read a lot, and I went on a good many walks to clearance sites like Suishnish and Boreraig (including another kind of dereliction in the remains of an abandoned marble quarry). But the places didn’t fit my preconceived emotional narrative. I went looking for ghosts and found none. I wrote a handful of poems, but not the ‘sequence’ I thought was there, somewhere.

John_William_Waterhouse_-_La_Belle_Dame_sans_Merci_(1893)

Then there was the late 19th C painter John Waterhouse…I’ve always liked that late-post-pre-Raphaelite sort of painting based on poems and myths and fables. I was fascinated by the fact that one face turns up in painting after painting. There’s no conclusive proof, but it’s supposed the model was a Miss Muriel Foster. I spent nearly two years reading all I could find about it all. I was intrigued by the idea of a triangular relationship between the artist, his model and his wife (who was also a painter). In the end I wrote four poems, and realised that it needed a novel and that either A S Byatt or Jill Dawson or Hilary Mantel should have written it. I think that what it comes down to is something Helen Mort said to me…something on the lines that you can MAKE a poem be, but it won’t be any good. Pretty much what Keats said about poetry needing to come as naturally as leaves to the tree’. And I guess that applies to ‘sequences’, too.

Anthony Gormley's Terracotta Figures Return To Their Birthplace

And then there were the sculptures. I worked for a few years in a college in the grounds of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and every day I’d pass Elizabeth Frink’s ‘Seated man‘ and Michael Ayrton’s Minotaur. I got in the habit of passing the time of day with the seated man, and conceived the notion that these great sculptures contained the souls of the famously transgressive and of fallen angels. Bit by bit, mainly because I really wanted to experiment with ‘voices’, I wrote enough fallen angel poems to fill a pamphlet.  I enjoyed that, and it became a book, but I still wonder if it’s the real deal. I know I like performing them, and I know that the idea of the narrative voice was the key that opened the door. But when it comes the seven men killed in the Lofthouse Disaster (six never recovered) the key is elusive.

I’ve asked various poets for advice. One was frankly dismissive, another was amazingly helpful. And one more thing that helped enormously was to bite the bullet and find the chutzpah to ask poets I admire if they’d share their experience. Particularly, I asked two poets who write recognizable and wonderful sequences…..especially I asked them this

I’ve been struggling with a writing project. I’ve got shedloads of material…I’ve been assembling that for well over a year. What I can’t manage at the moment is to find a place to stand and say: we start here. I’m convinced that could come about in a trice. A phrase, an idea for a holding form, a structure, a phrase, a refrain. It doesn’t matter how.

I’m particularly interested in the fact that each of you have done substantial amounts of research into a reality that absorbs and excites and energises you. It may be a blind roadmaker, your forebears who you trace to the banks of the Tyne, Amazonia, or medieval priests and criminals,

At some point you had to make a decision, or one was made for you. Where do I start? What’s the language, the structure, the voice of the teller….there comes a moment, as I found in writing about, say fallen angels, when you see a way through.

Would you be prepared to share some thoughts about the experience? A paragraph would do…or maybe it wouldn’t. It’ll make its own mind up, won’t it?

So, here they are, each one identifying a different way into, a way of shaping, what they urgently wanted to say. I’ve learned a remarkable amout from them, and I hope you will too.

Steve Ely : on voice and persona…who tells the story?

51rK-I9rNrL._SX326_BO1204203200_

Hi John

I organised my third book of poems, Incendium Amoris, around the figure of Richard Rolle, the 14th century hermit and mystic.  Rolle suited my purposes because he was associated with the Cistercian Priory of Hampole, which is located in my natal Barnsdale landscape, which remains an enduring obsession.  My previous two books had written public, political poetry out of that landscape.  I wanted my third book to reflect a more personal, autobiographical engagement.  Further, Rolle’s mystical writings are charged with an earthy carnality – his relationships, with God, women and the created order are often erotic in both the technical and popular senses of that word.  That suited me as well – my earliest concept of the book was that it was going to be about ‘shagging down the fields’.  I suppose I reinvented Richard to suit my purposes (and partially in my image) and used his life, writings and landscape to unify, inform and perhaps soften the guerilla-pastoral idiom that wouldn’t be suppressed and broke out anyway.

Mama-Amazonica-cover-with-PBS-Choice-192x300

Pascale Petit : On sequence and motif in Mama Amazonica 

My books grow organically, and Mama Amazonica grew very much like the Amazon rainforest it explores. But I can say that there was a single poem that set it all off, though I didn’t know it at the time, and this title poem ‘Mama Amazonica’ was slow and painful to write, laborious even. But there seemed to be an energy in it that was new, so I persisted, even though it felt like one of those experiments that will probably not work. I showed an early draft to my husband, who is my first reader, and he encouraged me, and suggested I could expand it. He was excited by it and this made me more confidant. At the heart of the poem, and indeed the whole book, is the central image of the poem, of a huge waterlily in a slow Amazonian backwater, the water still and sluggish, the drama unfolding of the lily’s sex life, which involves pollination by beetles. I compulsively watched every time-lapse video of this extraordinary process. The lily is my mother and she is in a psychiatric ward undergoing deep sleep therapy, remembering meeting my father.

To write the rest of the book – all 112 pages (and there were many more poems I discarded) – I would concentrate on the lily in that backwater, like a trance. I didn’t yet know why, but by the time I had written eight more poems I began to see that for once in my life I was writing about my mother tenderly. The poems express love, as well as terror of her and of what she suffered. It astonishes me that I have created a book in which I love my mother. I did not love her and she did not love me. This felt important, to have an artefact in which our relationship was transformed.

So I suppose what I’m saying is that the whole sequence grew out of one powerful feeling, trancelike, filmic, a moving image of a flower in time-lapse motion that is apart from ordinary life and ordinary time. I did not think the book through analytically or consciously even, just let the images grow, and the feelings that are also colours and sensations and pictures. Because the book records what happened to her when she met my father, the tragedy unfolds chronologically, and that’s roughly how the book is ordered, like a story told in pictures and sculptures.

I hope this helps? I suspect we all have different ways of compiling a sequential collection, but I try to do what what Rilke advises, to search within myself  to find my way, “Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write”.

………………………………………..

Sometimes life gives you riches just for the asking. I feel a bit like one of those naive characters (usually girls…the male equivalents are often ‘fools’ or guizers) in folk tales  who set off into the forests and thickets and are given things of power that help them to survive and flourish. The possible keys to the kingdom. Form. Voice. Image/motif. I’m glad it’s three, if only for the sake of narrative convention.

I’ve looked back over some recent posts and find I’ve been teasing this strand out for some time. A reminder, then, of other ‘keys’ to sequences that I’ve considered. Kim Moore’s work in progress ‘All the men I never married’ tells you that the key could actually be a title! (and there’s her sequence at the heart of The Art of falling where the key is the mythic narratives of metamorphosis). Ruth Valentine and Christy Ducker show you that alpabetical order can be a key. Jane Kite uses the timeline of an imagined family as a key. The answer for you might be to find a narrator or to build a chronology. And how about objects. I’m attracted by the title of a book on my shelf as I look up: A history of the world in twelve maps. And also by Uncommon ground which is a list sequence of dialect names for landscape features..one page for each and an accompanying photo, organised geographically from the SW to the very far North.

Whatever, the basic problem will be that an interest became an enthusiam or an obsession, that involved research, that eventually needed to be given some sort of poetic shape. If I think a sequence is anything, I think it’s something that involved you in research. Or maybe not.

Thanks for reading all the way through. Thanks and ever thanks to Steve Ely and Pascale Petit for their time and amazing generosity. The least you can do is buy their books. If by a miracle you’ve not read their work before, a bibliography follows.

Pascale Petit’s Poetry

Icefall Climbing pamphlet (Smith Doorstop, 1994)

Heart of a Deer (Enitharmon, 1998)

Tying the Song Co-editor with Mimi Khalvati (Enitharmon, 2000)

The Zoo Father (Seren, 2001)

El Padre Zoológico/The Zoo Father (El Tucan, Mexico City, 2004)

The Huntress (Seren, 2005)

The Wounded Deer: Fourteen poems after Frida Kahlo pamphlet (Smith Doorstop, 2005)

The Treekeeper’s Tale (Seren, 2008)

What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo (Seren, UK, 2010, Black Lawrence Press, US, 2011)

Poetry from Art at Tate Modern editor, pamphlet (Tate Publications, 2010)

Fauverie (Seren, 2014)

Mama Amazonica (Bloodaxe, 2017)

Tiger Girl (Bloodaxe 2020)

Steve Ely’s Poetry

Oswald’s Book of Hours (Smokestack Books, 2013).

Englaland (Smokestack Books, 2015)

Werewolf (Calder valley Poetry 2016)

Incendium Amoris (Smokestack 2017)

Jubilate Messi (Shearsman Books 2018)

I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heauen (New Walk. 2019)