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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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)