Just a reminder about why I thought I’d start this occasional series of ‘poems I’d never dream of sending out to magazines or journals’.
“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. ……. 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. After a bit, I started to write my own, rather than (or as well as) freeload off other poets. 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. When I think about it, most of them started life like this. I don’t think I ever sat down unprompted, thinking, you know what? I think I’ll write something funny…a stand-up poem.
The first two “stocking fillers”, posted a couple of weeks ago, were written in response to invitations to write about imaginary/invented places.
Today I thought I’d share two about real places. The first in response to a prompt to write about somewhere you’ve never been, but as though you know all about it. It’s an invitation to plunder your favourite films and novels, when you come to think about it. If you’re ever stuck for something to do, why not try it?
There’s a fat wet slap of paddles, the gambling boats
on Pontcharrain; damp lawn and cotton, sweet lavender,
limp dogs in the streets, dancing girls and their laughter,
a slow slow blues playing somewhere, and high-yellow girls
in first floor windows, the slow swing of a silky leg
from a fretwork iron balcony, a shiver of hibiscus,
pale bougainvillia, a yellow playbill in the lazy breeze
of a dusty street, the tilt of a tight-brimmed bowler hat,
a flash of white teeth, and a reek of skillet oil,
of cornbread frying, the iodine of fresh-shucked oysters,
tobacco juice, the moonlight tang of smoke from lit cheroots,
a boardwalk castanet of heels, the alarm of mockingbirds,
a slur of Cajun French and all the icing sugar saloons
and bars, bordellos, gambling joints, and the river
huge and brown and slow, its towheads, boils and rips,
shoals of punched shell by the button factories. Spanish moss.
Never been there.
Read about it, some.
The second one was a response to an invitation to write about something someone said. It could be something odd and out of character; it could be something they often say, something quite peculiar to them..like a malapropism. My first wife’s great aunt used to tell neighbours I worked in ‘one of them apprehensive schools’. I sometimes think about writing a poem describing the curriculum.
This however is about something said by the poet and all-round good chap, Christopher North, and said in a real place. In the real place we were scrambling up a steep place below a cliff, looking for Iberian pottery shards. In the real place, he slipped and ripped the backside out of his trousers.
we’re climbing this hill,
a shaly slope ,a broken spine of stone,
all levels and layers , silicas, sandstones,
muds, and coral flowers, when he says :
from here we have to bushwack .
Cue long shot :
winding canyon, mesquite, stallions, bitter dust, rawhide quirts, and stetsons, cactus, creek and willow, mineshaft tailings, clapboard stables, saloon and whorehouse, Colt repeaters, pianola, mirrors, scrolled mahogany, sleeve bands, tight black bowler hats, tooled leather, spit, unshaven desperadoes, shifty mexicans and crooked sheriff, dark Apache , in his birdbone breastplate, three crow feathers pushed into his blueblack hair, wired- up Commanche on a piebald horse, contempt like a scalp on the tip of a lance, Black Hills Sioux, with eagle bonnet, the softest buckskin fringe, plumes of smoke in the lodge by the oxbow’s quiet shadows, and thin dogs doing nothing in particular, the hero carefully turned out, the rancher’s daughters prim as prayerbooks , careless dancehall girls, their knees and tucked up skirts, their buttoned boots and ribbons, ah, so many ribbons, the double door that swings both ways, a silhouette, a shadow bringing conversations to a stuttering halt, that exact moment that the piano stops midtune, a pause like a burial plot, just waiting on its allotment of words.
And from here, he says, we have to bushwack.
Whatever that is.
Right. I’m off for a hearing test; 8.00am tomorrow I’m having a CT Scan. I’ve booked a telephone appointment with the doctor to find why, after chemo, I’ve got chronic joint pain and permanent fatigue. My dad used to have a joke he’d trot out in these circumstances, the punch line being. Does it hurt? Only when I laugh. Exactly. Where would I be without you all?
I’ve got a great guest poet coming up for the next Catching Up post…hopefully this Sunday. See you then. Crossed fingers xx
It strikes me from time to time that while I have loads of photographs of my mum before she met my dad, there are none of him. I have no images of him as a child, or as a young man (apart from one in a group photo of the Salvation Army Band, in which he played cornet or trumpet as required).
I know loads of stories about my mum and her brother and her sisters, about their childhood. I know them because she told me. None at all about my dad, because he didn’t, and neither did his mum, the only grandparent alive after I was barely six months old.
I know one story about my dad as a young man. It’s hardly a story. Just something one of his fellow bird watchers said in a passing comment…one that I never followed up. “He liked a bet, your dad.” It has no context, this remark, and he certainly showed no interest in the horses or the football pools in all the time I knew him.
So it’s fair to say, there’s always been that sense of a mystery about him, something he kept to himself, in the place where he kept the dreams and ambitions he never talked about. So this is a memory of that part of him I wish I could have asked him about.
It wasn’t that he thought of a previous life,
but rather of a might-have-been one,
the one he was due. You saw it
in the the set of the shoulder, his eyes,
and most of all you saw it in his clothes.
He could never resist a nice suit length.
Three piece, double vent, hand-stitched.
He liked a worsted, a fine herringbone.
He dressed like a gent, trimmed his ‘tache
accordingly. I really think he thought
himself a changeling.
Gypsies or elves,
were involved, and careless nursemaids.
The heir to something better. That was him.
Though gentlemen don’t test the worsted
in a pattern book the way he did, don’t
take their suit-lengths to little shops
in small dark streets off City Square,
to dapper men with bandleader’s hair.
Maybe that was what lay behind the rebel in him, that showed itself in small ways, and in unexpected contexts. Like the Yorkshire Naturalists. The birdwatchers in the mould of the Kinder protestors. Here they are, the revolutionaries at one of their Christmas do’s in a cafe in Otley. My dad’s the piratical one with the pipe.
Drawn to Mam Tor, to Kinder Downfall,
Simon’s Seat, Grass Woods, The Strid;
they came by steam train, on the bus,
away from mill and pit and forge,
an England dark with smoke;
passing crumbled slums, grand
neo-classic terraces, iron-railinged
parks, until the cities petered out
on the edges of high moors, big skies;
they came to the quiet of neat fields,
of drystone walls.
They walked miles,
wore caps or trilbies, belted macs,
flapping turn-up trousers, ordinary shoes.
They knew the habitats of birds and flowers;
they knew shortcuts and hidden waterfalls,
would pull aside wired gates,
push over ‘Private: Keep Out’ boards,
would not be kept from bluebell woods.
At school we had to pray they’d be forgiven,
those trespassers, who rambled viking fells,
ghylls and cloughs, sour gritstone moors
and green lanes cropped by mourning sheep.
They knew the land they walked should not be owned,
A day late. This is becoming habitual and worrying. Mea culpa. Again. However, it’s Monday morning..sleeves rolled up, best intentions tidily laid out where I can see them, and a poet I like a lot to be introduced. Here we go.
And here’s a question. How many established poets can you name who are equally good at writing funny poems, and poems that are, for the want of a better word, serious? I can name lots of poets who are very good at writing funny poems, but who lapse into sentimentality or worse when they aim at ‘seriousness’. I think Pam Ayres is one, and Les Barker another. There are serious poets who sometimes aim at ‘funny’ and miss by a mile. The ones who do both well are few and far between. Carol Ann Duffy managed both in The World’s Wife. Roger McGough has always managed it, and so has Ian McMillan. In fact, I think our guest poet today occupies the same kind of emotional and topographical territory as McMillan; I think, when you’ve read some of the poems, you’ll agree.
I first heard him before I heard of him…at the Albert Poets in Huddersfield, one of four poets that included Kim Moore. And, like Kim, I was a fan straight off. He’s got a stand-up comedian’s dry delivery and sense of timing. He knows how to deliver a line. Low-key and quick on his feet. There are poets who do a lot of self-publicising. Mike Di Placido isn’t one of them..all light under bushels and low profile. So, if he won’t blow his own trumpet, I’ll blow one for him. Because how many ex-international footballers do you know who write poetry? How many poets do you know who’ve been shortlisted four times in the PB Pamphlet Competition?
Mike lives in the village of Seamer, near Scarborough, North Yorkshire. He is an ex-professional footballer and England Youth International – although that time seems to be, increasingly, like some previous incarnation. His debut pamphlet, Theatre of Dreams (Smith/Doorstop: 2009), takes its title from his trial with Manchester United in the early seventies, recorded in snapshots of Busby, Stiles, Law and, not least, his fourth person of The Trinity, George Best. After peddling his soccer wares from York City to Australia and New Zealand in the mid-seventies, Mike returned to study, eventually taking an MA in Poetry at Huddersfield University, in 2000, while working as a househusband His second collection, A Sixty Watt Las Vegas (Valley Press 2013), features poems in celebration of his home town of Scarborough, North Yorkshire. His third collection, Crow flight across the sun (Calder Valley Poetry 2017) is Mike’s tribute to Ted Hughes and also a thank you to Keith Sagar who read his early poems and encouraged him to keep writing. His poetry has appeared in magazines such as Pennine Platform, The Rialto and his spiritual home The North; and also in Poetry Anthologies by Templar Poetry, Poetrypf and Valley Press. His poems have been shortlisted four times in The Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition [!!]and once for The Bridport Prize (2012). He says he also still harbours a lifelong ambition to be a Frank Sinatra impersonator on a cruise ship. Which brings us neatly to Alpha, his latest collection [Poetry Salzburg 2020]. Another question. If you lived, however briefly, in a land of giants how would it be to return to the world of the everyday?
Steve Ely (I’ll rely on him a lot in this post) put it better when he wrote that :Theatre of Dreams and Crow Flight across the Sun are characterised by a gently self-deprecating tone in which the author adopts the persona of an unexceptional everyman figure, doomed to fall short of the unattainable standards of his heroes. Theatre of Dreams contains a poem in which a speaker resigned to his quotidian life nevertheless wishes he could be more like Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood
I think this is what colours all the poems in Alpha, and the rueful (and wry, and sardonic, and comic) voice of its final poem
I’d like to be
an alpha male – but do you think
the others would mind?
When it comes to the stellar and the alpha the collection is multifariously wide ranging. Steve Ely again , from his cover endorsement of Alpha:
Themed around an impossibly wide-ranging array of alpha male heroes, anti-heroes and celebrities (Al Pacino, Harald Hardrada, Paul McCartney, Barry Bucknell, Muhammad Ali, and Nostradmus to name but a few), the poems are written from the perspective of …..a never-quite-made-it, beta male persona looking wistfully and sometimes enviously at their achievements.
Di Placido’s perennial heroes – George Best, Lionel Messi, Ted Hughes, Frank Sinatra – make their appearances too. But alongside these are other literary heroes – John Ashbery, John Keats, R. S. Thomas, Simon Armitage and John Masefield, and all of them approached in a range of forms all handled with impressive technical dexterity. Ann and Peter Sansom sum the whole thing up thus:
“Such a pleasure, Mike Di Placido’s poems, funny, often moving and completely unlike anyone else’s. Full of story too and told in such a distinctive voice it’s like an audiobook.”
I’ve though hard and long about this post…certainly for too long…not least about how to select poems that will give you a sense of its range. I chose four, eventually. The first is one I’ve heard Mike read almost like a throwaway line between poems, much in the way an AngloSaxon scop would give you a big list of a king’s virtues while he mentally rehearsed the next bit of the narrative.
He wouldn’t live with me
down the back lane from the chippie
to our ’ouse .
I’d leave him for dead over
the first ten yards, for a start,
and he’d never dodge the wheelie bin
outside no 13
or know to jump that hole in the tarmac
near our hedge.
I’d be waving bye-bye
on the right-hand camber
down the path to our door.
And when he came in –
panting and sheepish to the kitchen –
the kettle’d already be on.
I’ve always liked the cheek of it, the insousiance and the casually dismissive ‘hmphh’. The pace of it all, the detail, and the way it stage manages its own performance is lovely. I leave you to imagine the timing of the last two lines….it’s an oral poem. You have to do it aloud.
The next one, like another about Tiresias, assumes a camaraderie with an iconic figure, and an assumption that his lot is pretty awful much in the way of a king who can touch nothing he loves because it will turn, uselessly, to gold.
He couldn’t have enjoyed his gift. Imagine:
loving the one who’ll give you herpes
(or worse); that over there’s the burger bar
that’s going to leave you heaving for a week!
And you couldn’t put a bet on or go fishing:
winning all the time would bore you rigid
and what to do between the expected
bites and nibbles on your line?
You’d be a nervous wreck, expecting
toothaches, dead legs, bashing funny bones…
paranoid too: called a prat behind your back
then smiled at – and that’s from your mates!
Then the big stuff: plagues, earthquakes, eclipses,
the Antichrist arriving by taxi. He didn’t need it!
Got pissed off, being the high priest of prescience,
nights waking up in a cold sweat because
some prince or pope’s about to croak it.
So he decided enough was enough: retired
to a place in the country where he cultivated
amnesia. Settled for the obvious:
full moons, sunrises, sunsets,
winters unlocking into summers;
took himself off the hook, grew cabbages,
changed his name.
When I read this I can imagine that when he changed his name it might just well be di Placido, and has retreated with the poet into his shed, settling for the wonderful obvious, the daily, seasonal miracles. This is one of those that reminds me of his kinship with Ian McMillan, the sense of fun combined with an essential emotional seriousness.
Next up, I wanted a poem from Mike’s own landscape and its history. I’m intrigued by the sympathy the narrator seems to have for Hardrada, who in 1066 landed with a force of 10,000 warriors and 250 longships, maurauded down the the Northumbrian and Cleveland coast, allegedly burned down the town of Scarborough, and was finally killed in a berserk state at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Harald, the embodiment of everyone’s idea of a Viking warrior, I guess. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that if the forces of Harold of Wessex had not had to make forced marches to oppose Hardrada and then to move at speed all the way down to Hastings, the Normans may not have won, and England would be a different nation. However, the narrator has the same sympathetic, if qualified respect for Hardrada as some of us feel for Richard, at Bosworth, say.
Hardrada in Scarborough Bay
The North Bay, at anchor
rocking on a full swell.
The smell on board’s a crew-full
of men – but you’re used to that –
and anyway, the brine in the wind
and the water sorts that out,
as you stare into the offing
and the looming scar of rock ahead,
weighing the level of resistance, if any,
when the prows of your dragonships
bite the beach.
You know what it’s like
to bide your time in a bay,
to wait for the moment, the right moment,
before you’re off and in –
but this is different:
because you’re Hardrada, Harold
Hardrada (the Ruthless), to be exact;
and those dreams you’ve been having,
and those dragons in the night skies
are giving even you pause for thought –
you, who have never admitted to fear
and who, now, as then, can tell no one.
But how could you know of the force
that will butcher you and your men just
days from now, or how they, in turn,
will be slaughtered shortly after?
And so you stare into sea flint,
then up into the boiling welkin
and the wrath of the gods, wrestling
in vain with these strange runes,
then do what you’ve always done –
act: marshal the fear to work for you,
push on into hell.
Finally, a poem that is my favourite in the whole collection. Everything about it is tender, assured. It never puts a foot wrong.
To R.S. Thomas
If poetry can’t cope with what God means in the late twentieth century, then it doesn’t
deserve to be regarded as a major art form.
R.S. Thomas. The Independent, Saturday 27th February 1993
I was wondering if, towards the end,
faith’s compass had failed you?
Whether its bleak north proved illusory
(the needle going haywire
in some terrible
re-configuration). I hope not.
I hope it stayed true to its promise
(though trembling as those needles do);
that what you met there vindicated utterly
the journey towards that
which you’d divined on your peninsula
(as near to heaven as could be without touching)
or in your verse: those chiselled, austere,
persistent attempts to explain the unexplainable;
views now deemed, at best, ‘old hat’,
precisely because of that.
Perhaps, though, you’d found it all along –
the journey (not the destination) being the point.
In perfecting your art, you perfected yourself,
that that little is more than enough.
It’s what I mean about Mike di Placido’s ability to be funny and to be serious, and in this case, reverential. I love the use of those tentative parentheses, the qualifications of hope, and the way it turns on the core image of the compass needle, and God as true (if bleak) north
I hope it stayed true to its promise
(though trembling as those needles do)
It’s taken me far too long to catch up with Mike di Placido and Alpha. I find myself finishing with another quotation from Steve Ely.
Alpha is quite a tour-de-force, a delight on every level – these poems are vivid, pro-found, compassionate – and often laugh-out-loud funny.”
Except that I’d change the order of that sentence. I say:
“these poems are often laugh-out-loud funny. They are also vivid, pro-found, and above all, compassionate.”
Like I said at the beginning, there aren’t that many poets who are both.
PS. I’d just finished when this stop press piece arrived in my email inbox. So now you have a post like a DVD or a CD, with outtakes and Director’s thoughts. Which is nice
“I’ve written lots and lots of Alpha-type poems over the years (as well as those in my previous three collections) and, at some point, I had the idea that I could not only lump a lot of them together, but also, through the title poem, set a prism, of sorts, through which the poems could be viewed and notions of Alpha-ness celebrated and, where appropriate, deconstructed and challenged. It seemed incongruently topical, too, in the light of a more questioning time in gender politics – although this was never a main aim, as such, just something which occurred as the book took shape. Also, many pieces which I’ve always had a feeling for and which, for some reason, had never been published or placed anywhere, could have a home at last. Pleasingly, I can also report that some of these pieces – many written at the very start of my writing career, for want of a better word/description – have registered the most positive responses amongst readers, and many of those readers are writers whose work I admire and respect. (The sequence on Wilfred Owen has been accepted by The Wilfred Owen Society, for instance, and will be appearing in one of the Society’s journals later this year.)
Ok, so not a staggering ‘How to’ account of putting a collection together, I grant you, but there you go! Sometimes – most times – I’d say, simplicity can be the key. Interestingly, too, the project seems to have continued since the completion of the book. Those natural bedfellows – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Francis Bacon, Albert Einstein, Norman MacCaig, John Cooper Clark, Kevin McCloud from TV’s Grand Designs and Dick Strawbridge from Escape to the Chateau are all pushing for a place in the second edition of Alpha, which will surely be forthcoming as sales go through the roof…..
Well, I’m nothing if not an unreconstructed optimist! “
If you want to know more about Mike, then try his website. It’s very handsome. Here’s the link
Crow flight across the sun [Calder Valley Poetry] £8.70 incl.p&p
Alpha [Poetry Salzburg] £10.00 +£2.00 p&p
Acknowledgement: The image accompanying Harald Hardrada is by the wonderful Len Tabner. It’s actually a painting done further up the coast. But it’s the right coast, and, I think, exactly the right light.
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]