I committed myself to ‘catching up’….particularly and especially to catching up with work I liked by poets that I like. At one time I used to do this pretty much on a weekly basis (I had a role model called Kim Moore). Still do, but I simply can’t keep up. But I do want to keep the great fogginzo’s cobweb ticking over.
How many of you remember The Interlude on television, when there was only one (b/w) channel and a 17” screen was regarded as excessive, and potentially damaging to eyesight unless you lived in a huge house? Programme sequences were interrupted intermittently by the interlude. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was because the programmers had all grown up with the notion that visual entertainment like the theatre and the cinema traditionally had interval breaks when you could in one case go to the bar, and in another, buy an ice cream from a lady with a tray. Or maybe they thought that television posed too great a challenge to the concentration and/or eyesight, and that viewers needed a break for reasons of health and safety.
Whatever the reason,there would be a break that may feature a gently turning windmill or the hands of a person you never saw working at a potter’s wheel. It’s only just now struck me that they both involved turning wheels. Why? Are wheels soothing? If you use Google, you’ll find there was also one with a lady working a spinning wheel, but every now and then, a kitten playing with a ball of wool, and one of teams of horse drawn ploughs.
So I thought that if it was good enough for the BBC in its pomp, it was good enough for me. One reason why I write poems, and about poems, is that some years ago I used to go to folk clubs which were essentially sing-/play-arounds. The organiser would point to me and say “are you performing” and I’d say no and that would be it, until one night the organiser said ‘can’t you do a poem or something’. That’s how it started. At first I’d perform other people’s poems…Pam Ayres, Roger McGough, Mike Harding and so on. Because poems in folk clubs basically, need to be funny, probably need to rhyme, and need a punch line. They need to be compact and robust. Which is what much oral poetry was, originally. I discovered that writing your own stuff is a lot harder than you’d think, and I think I learned a fair amount about the trade from trying. Sometimes I’d try what I thought of as ‘real poems’, but they didn’t work, and once I decided I wanted an audience for them, I shifted my allegiance to poetry open mics. Bit by bit I assembled a folder that I called ‘Stand-ups and stocking fillers’. Sometimes I’d use some of them to finish a set at a reading, just to leave the audience with a laugh, or sometimes to relieve what may have been a bleak sequence. One or two have been published. Very often, writing workshops would set a task that prompted what I’d think of as a stocking filler.
And now I see that I have a use for them again, in the absence of open mics and readings in the real world. The poetry equivalent of the potter’s wheel and the kitten with the ball of wool. So here we go with the very first interlude, the very first stocking filler, while I get on with planning the next Catching Up post.
Two poems tonight. Each comes from a workshop task. One where you’re given an obscure word from the OED (thanks for this one, Ann Sansom) and do something like writing a definition, or treating it as an object in a display case, or being taken on a guided tour of it. The second (thank you Carola Luther) is to be given a list of odd sounding/unusual place names and writing someting like a travel brochure entry for it..or, again, giving a guided tour. I think that at the time I’d been reading a book by Jonathan Raban about the abandoned settlements of the American prairies. Something of the sort. I sort of believe they’re real now. Here we go. Interlude time.
Sprung up damn near overnight
when the railroad come through. 1878.
Nuthin’ here but saltbush flats,
buncha tumbleweed, willows out by the creek.
Hard to tell. But this here’s Main street.
There’d a been the First National Bank,
grainstore, hardware, general store,
haberdashers, three saloons, a whorehouse
(course, they wouldna called it that).
Later, gas station, J C Penney’s, soda fountain,
Episcopalians, the Baptists, and the Coloured church,
Picture Palace, auto wrecker’s, stockyards.
Interstate went right on by, what,
twenty years gone now. Nuthin here
but saltbush flats, a buncha tumbleweed,
the creek run dry.
Them rusted-up gaspumps there.
Boanthropy. Sounds kinda fine.
Aint worth spit.
(To save you looking it up: boanthropy: a mental condition in which the sufferer believes he is an ox. OED)
Dead Women Crossing Bridge
Weren’t always a bridge, just a slackwater place,
sandspits, yellow bluffs, just a slow turn
on the river, willows on the edges.
Dead Women Crossing.
You might go there, one day.
Come off the Interstate. Ain’t no sign.
But come off by the Mobil place.
Been shut down twenty years or more.
Rusted to hell.
Blacktop ain’t too good.
Keep goin west. Just mesquite, prairie scrub.
Big red silo. Lundquist’s place.
Keep on past there. ‘Bout an hour near enough.
Used to be they had a store.
Baptist church still goin’.
Shotgun motel. And the bridge.
Over that you’re out the other side.
Goin’ nowhere pretty much.
That’s it. Dead Women Crossing.
Why they call it Dead Women Crossin’?
Maybe sometime back they was some women went and died there.
Next time, we’ll be doing some catching up. See you then.
Hey, you guys, you gotta wear ties on the weekend! : Eddie Cochran
We had Weekends when I first started this poetry blog, and Sundays were for writing poetry blog posts. I didn’t always want to, but the routine was the thing. A bit like Saturday night being all right for fighting. Or the way that Saturday nights before television were for going to the cinema or the Mecca.
Something has happened to time, to weeks and weekends in the last 14 months. Isolation, shielding and lockdowns effectively meant there were no trips out, no holidays, no shopping. Shopping was something a neighbour did for us, or, more alarmingly, what I did late at night via Google, so that Amazon kept delivering stuff I couldn’t quite remember ordering. In theory I could have got up and gone to bed at any time, since all times were much the same…..but the sun rises and sets and there is some kind of rhythm to hang on to. It’s just that the names of days don’t signify. There have been weeks when for three days in a row I might say things like I keep thinking it’s Friday. The routines slip.
Shortly, there will be no excuse. For a week now I’ve been relishing the heady excitements of getting in the car and driving to shops, of mooching round Wickes and B&Q, of buying gravel. Taking in the novelty and odd normality of sanitising stations at the doors of Sainsbury’s and the Tesco garage; the arrows and two-metre space markers on the floors. In odd ways, beyond the news headlines, this is not my country, not exactly. I don’t speak the language, or at least, not fluently. I’ve lost my tongue. I stutter.
So here I am, writing this on Bank Holiday Monday, which actually feels like a Sunday. Somehow I’m a week behind, again. One day I’ll know what day it is, and what I need to do on it. One day, maybe, I’ll really catch up. In the meantime let me say how pleased I am that Maria Taylor is today’s guest. I haven’t seen her since January 2020, in the far off days when writing workshops were in places like the Millenium Gallery in Sheffield, on frosty mornings. I’m mentioning this for a bit of serendipity…the poem she took to workshop in the afternoon was I began ther twenty-twenties as a silent film goddess is now the second poem in her second collection which was published last year, and which I will share with you all today.
[and now today is Tuesday. Lordy lordy. Not sure what happened there……it’s an odd business, coming down from chemo and coming off steroids. I was tired. Simple as that. Fingers crossed I get the job finished today.]
What I was about to say, yesterday, is that I remember two things about the afternoon workshop. One: it was in part of the art gallery, and there weren’t quite enough chairs to start with, and people kept peering in to see what we were up to. Two: I was knocked out by Maria’s poem and I said so, and afterwards managed to tell her that it felt like she was stepping up a gear, pushing the envelope, writing more boldly. I didn’t mean this in the way that one reviewer did.
In a “Litter” review, Alan Baker talks about an impressive achievement in which the poet’s move towards a language-driven poetics bears fruit in apparently simple poems about immediate experience which are woven effectively with more adventurous poetic structures.
There are certainly poems like Everything is is a fight between winter and spring (which is left- and right- justified), and And there she was in the shrunken apatrment… (which is right-justified) and Moon in Gemini which is right-justified and which, fashionably, uses forward slashes to break the lines.
But what I meant had nothing to do with form/poetics, and games with shape, but more about what John McCullough meant in his back cover endorsement: Maria Taylor’s new collection is exhilaratingly bold…[the poems] are constantly surprising. It also had something to do with what Kathy Pimlott calls her extravagantly vagrant thought paths (though I didn’t know that at the time ).You’ll see what they meant, shortly.
Maria was a guest poet for the cobweb back in 2015. There’s a link at the end of the post if you want to know more. At the time, I’d written a review of her first collection for The North, in which I said
‘Maria Taylor’s Melanchrini, whose title I take as the touchstone for the whole collection – melanchrini – ‘the dark-featured young woman’ , it seems, is, and isn’t Maria herself. An alter ego, a persona, that gives her license to watch and comment. Born in England of Greek/Cypriot parents, she and many of her personae inhabit the edgelands of overlapping, and sometimes antagonistic, cultures where a sense of identity and belonging sometimes feels hard to come by.’
I also said: ‘Maria Taylor can come across as edgily hip and sardonic. In 99/2000, as bells toll the end of the millenium: ……
somewhere around the eight we finished the last hilarious fuck of the twentieth century
but the toughness and urban savvy isn’t exactly as it seems. Our love was still a secret..because mum and dad haven’t been told. Why is that? And there’s something hugely wistful about the last stanza, when she goes back alone to pick up her parents from her aunt’s house.
On the mantlepiece a calendar, with a Byzantine icon of St Michael, his stiff painted wings trying to open, my mum and dad wondering how long they’d keep hold, me saying ‘Happy New Year, I’m here, let’s go home
Where exactly IS home? her poems ask, again and again. Her dad doesn’t know; he’s a stranger in his own village, and her mum is too busy at the Singer to answer. We’re not excluded, quite. But we’re on the edges, neither one place or another.’
When I went back to this earlier post, I think I nailed what I’d meant when I said that the new poems were ‘stepping up a gear’. I think I meant that this poet in 2020 is surer of who she is, and who knows exactly what she’s up to when she inhabits all manner of edgier personae. The wistfulness is nore likely to be replaced by a hard-won confidence and swagger. Maybe Matthew Stewart puts it better, more accurately:
‘Throughout Dressing for the Afterlife, the reader is witness to the unfurling of a poet whose comfort in her own skin is attained by acute self-awareness. This enables her to explore issues without the need to resolve them. One such theme is that of her national identity, always approached obliquely as in the following extract from ‘She Ran’:
‘I ran through my mother’s village and flew past
armed soldiers at the checkpoint. I ran past
my grandparents’ and Bappou’s mangy goats
with their mad eyes and scaled yellow teeth
I ran straight through Oxford and Cambridge
It begs (he says) the question: where does she/the poet/the narrator belong? When I read and re-read this collection, I’m more and more convinced that she knows the answers, now, in a way she didn’t, six or seven years ago. The distance travelled is measured beautifully in the first and last poems in Dressing for the afterlife. Both are about running.
The first, She ran opens on a note of what, defiance?
‘ I took up running when I turned forty
I opened my front door and and started running’
and ends: ‘I couldn’t get as far as I wanted’ .
In the final poem of the collection, in Woman running alone, she has become ‘a woman who follows her own trail’. It’s a poem that ends with a wonderful affirmation:
‘The rhythm fills her with flight – and her wings,
what wings she has –’.
To which I say Amen. Time for the poems, I think. The poems I asked for are not, I suppose the obvious ones, the ones that inhabit glamorous personae. But each in its own way has stuck. The first one because of its ..that word again..swagger. But also for the ending, its surefootedness. It was first published in what feels like the prototype of this collection, a pamphlet from Happenstance.Instructions for making me
Poem in Which I Lick Motherhood
I have several children, all perfect, with tongues made of soap and PVA glue running through their veins. My boys and girls benefit from eating the rainbow. I iron children twice daily. Creases are the devil’s hoof print. I am constructed from sticky-back tape, pipe cleaners and clothes pegs. There are instructions for making me. Look at the appropriate shelves in reputable stores. I am fascinated by bunk beds, headlice and cupcakes. You will only leave the table when I have given you clear instructions. So far I have not. The school-run is my red carpet. Yes, you’re right, how do I manage it? Though, I didn’t ask you. Dreaming is permitted from 7:40 to 8:20 am on Saturdays and Bank Holidays. My children’s reward charts are full of glittery stars. I am the Milky Way. Crying is dirty. One housepoint! Two if you eat up all your peas. I always go off half an hour before my alarm. In the morning I speak a language of bleeps and bell tones. Chew with your mouth closed. No. Don’t chew at all. Admire the presentation. Underneath my ribs is a complex weather system of sunshine and showers. Heat rises from me and blows across the gulf stream of my carefully controlled temper.
Sometimes I am mist.’
I loved this one, straight off. I read Facebook posts by mothers who have all in one way or another been persuaded by a child’s tantrum that that they are doing it wrong, that they don’t know the rules, that they are a Bad Parent. It always seemed to me as a very young father (equally guilty of being a Bad Parent but not made to feel like it) that there was a closed shop of Mothers Who Know but that any individual mother is not allowed to belong to it and is frowned upon for not knowing the rules. Here’s a poem for them. The last line, almost an afterthought, tells you what it takes out of you…the effort, the bravado. The last line nails it. Lovely.
The next one comes as a surprise in the collection. I wanted it for its craft, the accuracy of language, for its precision, its pin-sharp images.
We duly found an inscription under the base,
believed to be in Sir Vauncey’s hand… We could
make out its name, ‘the bee bird’… ‘died 1895.’
notes taken at Calke Abbey
In his cabinets of wasted wings
a heron’s beak clasps a fish,
its convex eyes a jet prison.
Bell-jars of hoarded birds
stuffed with their master’s tedium:
faded goldfinches and redpolls,
a frozen kestrel, wings unstretched
for impossible flight.
I imagine his birds reborn,
darting through his stuffy rooms,
a chaos of feathers in his Lady’s boudoir
across the airless library.
Unhatched eggs crack open.
Chicks beg, hungry for more
than sawdust and rags.
And there at his sash window
a yellow and black canary,
tiny and alive – singing, singing.
It needs no commentary, really. It speaks beautifully for itself, this poem about defiant resilience, about song. And maybe, too, about poetry.
Finally a poem about love; it adds to the list which includes the kind of love called maintenance, and to what will survive of us. Particularly it was good to learn about
loving the self. Not so easy. For others
who dive into pools of themselves
too easy. Be your own best friend.
I wondered when I read it again , and then again, if this was not the core message of the whole collection, written by someone who understands just how and why it’s notso easy.
Learning to love in Greek
They said beware eros, though many
begin with madness. Learn to fall
in love with dancing – this is ludic,
the love you felt for skipping ropes
or bikes. If eros and ludus combine
you may suffer mania, the white blood
of the moon that petrifies. Grow phillia,
the love of football fans on terraces.
Chant together. Fight with the same heart.
If you have children or a puppy
you’ll know storgi, it rhymes with be.
It sits at kitchen tables, magnetises
crayon drawings to fridges. If you don’t
have these, you may feel storgi
from an old aunt, a mate. A lover
might see the child hiding in you
from a cowlick of grey that won’t
be brushed straight. Then philautia,
loving the self. Not so easy. For others
who dive into pools of themselves
too easy. Be your own best friend.
When love moves into a house
with a mortgage and enough space
for the future, this is pragma.
To stand in love comes after falling.
Pray you’ll land on your feet.
Above all, agapè – when you forget
who you are and take someone’s hand.
Dressing for the afterlife is one of those rare books that does pretty much what it says on the tin (or on the back cover) :
a diamond-tough and tender second collection of poems and how we adapt to the passage of time.. these poems shimmy and glimmer bittersweet with humour and brio.
The poems in Melanchrini were about personal and cultural identity, always asking ‘where do I fit?’ These poems are surer about the answer. In She ran, (which tangentially reminds me of Dylan’s what did you see my blueyed son?) whether running away or towards doesn’t get the narrator what she wants or waht she thinks she wants. By the end of the collection she’s grown out of or beyond the glitzy masks and personae she’s tried on:
‘I’d like to be the woman next door
with a walk that says I know where I’m going
or inWearing red, like wearing purple, it’s not a disguise.
In Woman running alone she is
‘neither running away
nor running towards anyone, wind-sifted
letting the weather sing through her,
she who is different to her brothers.
The rhythm fills her with flight –
and her wings
what wings she has –
Isn’t that satisfying! That’s what I meant by the poems having stepped up a gear. Thank you for letting me share youe poems Maria Taylor. I’m sorry it’s taken so long.
…right, my lovely readers. Off you go and buy the book.
Dressing for the Afterlife: Nine Arches Press [£9.99]