Catching up: Mike Farren’s “Smithereens”

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Catching up….but slowly, me. Trying to get to grips with ending a course of chemothrapy which involved maintaining the daily intake of steroids that I’ve been taking for about two and a half years; all part of the cancer treatment. Feeling decidedly off-it for the last couple of weeks as the steroid intake tapers off. I looked up the possible side effects. I appear to be able to tick off lots of them, particularly tiredness, recurrent anxiety, loss of stamina and poor concentration. None of them are in any way severe, but they do slow me down and slow my thinking down. They screw up the rhythm that I think we all need when we write. 

So apologies for the week’s delay in getting this post done, and apologies in advance for any muddled prose.

I’m really pleased to be writing about Mike Farren’s Smithereens for all sorts of reasons that will become clear as we go along. But I have to say that the first one was its title, which is, I think, only the second use of the word in a poem since Tony Harrison’s Bookends in the 70s. The poet and his father are sitting in a morose silence, either side of the gas fire, sitting out the night of the day Harrison’s mother dropped dead. It’s one of many poems that explores the business of articulacy, of education, the way they separate families that should be close, make them inarticulate and awkward in each other’s company. Like Dylan says we never did too much talking anyway, but as he didn’t say, it’s not all right. Not at all.

A night you need my company to pass

and she not here to tell us we’re alike!

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Your life’s all shattered into smithereens

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Back in our silences and sullen looks

for all the Scotch we drink, what’s still between’s

not the thirty or so years, but books, books, books

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It’s not just the title ‘Smithereens’ that resonates but the obduracy.. the stupidity, if you like.. of the men and their silence. As Harrison says in the poem, his mother’s not there to break it. It’s a theme I keep coming back to, as I did in the last post on the cobweb, where I wrote this:

From time to time I try to write about the notion that women experience the world differently from me, from men. I sometimes use a quotation from one of my favourite novelists to shine a light on what I mean. She’s writing about the human condition; I narrow the focus for the sake of argument:

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary life it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well-wadded with stupidity”  George Eliot. ‘Middlemarch’

I’m thinking of the kind of stupidity that stops some of us from ‘keeping in touch’, from asking the right questions at the right time, from saying what ought to be said, from telling each other what the other needs to know. It cropped up again, obliquely, in a recent post of Anthony Wilson’s, which caught me just as I happened to be thinking about how to write this appreciation of Mike Farren’s collection. 

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  “I had bumped into a friend at the cash machine. We greeted each other, as we always do, with a handshake, then set about putting the world to rights. My work, his work; my family, his. ……..As you do.

And then something that I was not prepared for. It turned out that he had been ill, briefly and seriously, and that I had known nothing about it. Profuse apologies followed, batted off with a wave as though I had merely missed a dinner party. Think nothing of it. How could you have known? We told no one. And with speed we moved on to other things, something lighter, the rise of Islamic State perhaps, to break the tension.

As you do.” [A day he won’t have. Lifesaving poems. 9/5/2021]

“As you do”. Exactly. Awkwardness ‘batted away’. The women in my life would never have let that happen. They would have known, they would have told each other. They would have the imagination to know that their friend would need to know about them, if only to avoid this kind of uncomfortable awkardness. It’s part of the same attention to others that remembers people’s birthdays, and keeps in touch, that has long telephone conversations. Whereas men like me, who are ‘stupid’ don’t tell their children that they need chemotherapy, and then are surprised when their children are angry/upset to find out by accident. As you do.

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There’s another thing, too. The poems in Smithereens tell the story of a friendship which lasted more than 40 years, beginning at school before either party was a teenager, and ending with the untimely death of A from alcohol related causes. Mike writes in his introduction to the collection that 

“I prefer not to name ..but to memorialisethe life of a brilliant, eccentric, self-contradictory individual. I miss him terribly”. 

He also writes in one of the poems about the things/ we hadn’t need to say/for forty odd years. Although, of course, the irony of the collection is that, yes, they had need to, but didn’t.

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And one more thing. For 40 years Mike and met only intermittently, and rarely contacted each other. lived and worked in the US, mainly in the days before we had Facebook or email to give us no excuses for not being regularly in touch. Another stab of conscience in that. My two closest friends moved abroad twenty years ago or more. And, being stupid, I didn’t/don’t keep regularly in touch. My oldest friend, my schoolmate/soul mate, who lived in Spain, and who I only talked to intermittently , died eight years ago, before I got round to telling him how much I’d needed his friendship. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. I stayed for a few  days with him in Spain before I went to my first poetry residential in Alicante, and four months before he died. He was baffled by the fact that I didn’t drink any more. He didn’t quite know what to make of me. Hey ho. So it goes. But you’ll see why Smithereens spoke so directly to my own experience before I began to take in the quality of the writing..which is beautifully summed up in Kim Moore’s endorsement of poems:

shot through with real tenderness and love, [that] tell the story of a friendship between two men which stretches across a lifetime and around the world. The pamphlet’s narrative is as compelling as a novel, and each individual poem is that rare thing – a true moment of musicality and lyricism. (Kim Moore)

So now you know why I want to share the poems with you, it’s high time that I did. Mike can introduce himself.

“I was born and raised in Bradford, where I returned after spells in the South and the East Midlands. Having won a grammar school scholarship (with heavy prompting from my father, who had been unable to take up the one he won in the 30s), I found myself studying English Literature at university without a clue what to do with it. 

After a depressing couple of years as an accountant, I ended up working in IT for nearly thirty years.

I knew I wanted to write and even tried an MA at Sheffield Hallam, which I nearly failed on the back of some terrible short stories, but I didn’t really take up poetry until my 50s, around the time I was able to take a step back from full-time working. I joined Beehive Poets in Bradford and Wharfedale Poets in Ilkley and had a big break when I won publication of a pamphlet by Templar in 2017.

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I have since gone on to have two more pamphlets published – All of the Moons (Yaffle), which was set to music by Keely Hodgson, and Smithereens (4Word). I was a solo publisher of anthologies before I joined Gill Lambert, Mark Connors and Lorna Faye Dunsire to start Yaffle Press, and I have been one of the hosts of Rhubarb open mic for the last couple of years.

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I first met Mike via poetry nights at the Beehive and poetry events in Otley and Ilkley…and more recently, until Covid stopped us in our tracks, at Poetry Business days in Sheffield. It was there that heard Mike workshop some of his poems, and knew I wanted to share some on the cobweb. So here they are.

Fewston

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These days are as calm, serene and infinite
as the early autumn sky reflected in
the unruffled water of the reservoir.

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Almost every story I can tell her
she hasn’t heard before and almost all 
their narratives point toward a happy end

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and, as if there aren’t enough already, 
we steal fragments of sentences we hear 
from strangers in the instant they pass by

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and make them meaningful by making them
ours – smooth out the tensions they express
or magnify their little happiness.

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And I talk about you: the friend she hasn’t met
and won’t, for years, because you are so far 
away – about the gilded summer night

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we sat here, just us two, with cans of beer
and planned the legends of our future lives,
not thinking to factor in the world’s resistance

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to plans, and everything that could go wrong
and will – but hasn’t yet, for me and her,
on a day so calm, serene and infinite.

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Mike tells me that “Fewston was one of the last to be written and means a lot to me but I almost hesitated to put it in, given that it’s more about Tricia, my (now) wife than about A.” I’m not sure that I agree, because although I love the unalloyed happiness of the poem, its quietness beside unruffled waters, there’s a shadow in the second stanza which is the presence of the narrative told by the whole collection.

Almost every story I can tell her
she hasn’t heard before and almost all 
their narratives point toward a happy end

The repetition of ‘almost’ is something you might not notice at first, but you’ll almost certainly have had your attention snagged by the slightly odd syntax of the first two lines. The poem may have come late, but it could almost have been the first poem in the book. It has the quality of a Garrison Keillor story that signs off : Stories are true. Anything can happen.  Bittersweet.

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The second poem I chose for the contrast, both of mood and of style. Because this is a collection full of variety in its handling of language and form.

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Angry

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at a lifetime of never showing anger / always taking it all on the chin / being strong & stoical // we belonged to a generation of englishmen / of human beings / long gone now or maybe always a fiction / because everyone I meet is angry as fuck / why should I be any different 

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at them for being so angry that they make the same mistakes you could have warned them about / from two thousand odd years of knowledge // how some big dick personality drags a country down / so easily // how empires rot on their own complacency / their assumption some gods / & their natural superiority / always keep them on top // how repression & resentment bubble away for centuries // how game shows & reality tv are modern bread & circuses

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at how the world you thought you made your own / closed ranks // kept you the outsider / after thirty years proving how you fitted in // how everyone knew what you were looking for // let you go on & on & never / ever / find it

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& with you / like I was never capable of being angry before // not just anger / at waste of talent / at waste of life // but that you left me / to find my way / to navigate this / angry  /  fucking   /   world    /    all     /     by      /      my       /       self

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The rawness of this is something that sticks, as is the honest admission of resentment and, if you like, self-pity. How could you do this to me ??? If I had to think of a visual analogy, it might be the estate agent’s window in St Malo 1980.. about their first trip abroad together, the faked insouciance of the 17 yr old who sits

 on the ledge / of the closed immobilier, /[you] lean on the plate glass window- shatter / everything to smithereens

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I couldn’t make up my mind which of two poems to end with. Unable to choose, here are both, one from the beginning of the collection and the second from the end. What you need to do, of course, is to buy the book and then you’ll understand the irony of the the second.

Afterwards

Afterwards, there’s no need to be anxious.

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Afterwards, your lack of health
insurance doesn’t matter.

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Afterwards, there’s no reason 
to numb the pain: 
there is no pain.

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Afterwards, the idiocy, 
political illiteracy 
and failure to learn 
are not your problem.

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Afterwards, your ghost 
lives on on social media, 
in letters never sent to me – 
your birthday I can’t bring myself 
to strike out from my calendar… 

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Afterwards, things fall apart, 
as if you’d been the cornerstone 
that held our world 
unwittingly together.

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Afterwards, your daughter finds you
when there is no longer 
any you for her to find – 

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afterwards she takes her chance
with all the rest of us you left behind.

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And afterwards, I raise a glass to you.

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It’s a reminder that death is no problem for the one who died. It’s the ones left behind who have to deal with the what-ifs,the muddle, and, very often, the guilt. 

Thank you, Mike Farren for being our guest and sharing Smithereens.  You didn’t just write a poem. You wrote two life stories.

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I wrote you a poem

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it didn’t say the things
we hadn’t needed to say 
for forty-odd years;

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it talked about coming home,
when I’m not sure where
it was you saw as home;

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it never mentioned 
your daughter or told you
where you might find her;

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it talked about talking with ghosts,
when I didn’t realise you’d be
a ghost before you could read it;

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it talked of holiday 
and drinking together,
while you were drinking alone 

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day after day after day.

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  [To buy a copy of Smithereens, see https://www.4word.org/titles/]

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