Catching up: Di Slaney’s “Herd Queen”

Spoiler alert. If you follow the cobweb regularly you’ll be aware that I’m very slow at getting over a course of chemo that ended in April. One of the side effects of coming off the steroids that accompany the chemotherapy is increased joint pain due to inflammation. Pretty well everything hurts in varying degrees and in different places during the day. It’s not severe, but it’s debilitating, and at the moment, my hands are particularly arthritic. My keyboard skills have never amounted to much, but I’m more clumsy than usual, and there are likely to be more typos that usual. I religiously proofread before I publish, but invariably miss stuff. So, apologies in advance.

So. Here we go. Over the last few months I’ve become addicted to the TV series The Repair Shop. In a world that appears committed to trashing anything that works, including language itself, here’s a programme that celebrates a group of men and women who patiently mend and restore anything that’s brought to them…defunct harmoniums and accordions, broken porcelain and earthen ware, desiccated leather purses, saddles, torn and sagging easy chairs, clocks, watches, bicycles, gas lamps, vintage calculators, telescopes……for every job there’s an expertise, an arcane array of tools, and beyond all that, patience, attention to detail, imagination and love. All this quiet work of regeneration and resurrection goes in an ancient brick-floored barn, in a thatched lean-to, in an ancient smithy, and all of it cradled in a downland valley where patient Clydesdales crop the greenest grass, clouds of gulls follow a tractor, and small birds perch photogenically . It’s William Morris’s utopian vision of a might-be England. It’s down-to earth and idyllic in equal measure, in the way of Our Yorkshire Farm. And also, I realise, of at least one element of the work of today’s guest. Because while The Repair Shop mends things, Di Slaney’s animal sanctuary…I’m tempted to say ‘hospice’…mends damaged creatures. Since 2005, she has been filling her ancient Nottinghamshire farmhouse and its land with more livestock than is sensible: Manor Farm Charitable Trust is home to over 170 animals at the last count, many of them with special physical or behavioural needs. 

Some of them are celebrated in the opening cluster of poems in Herd Queen , but this isn’t a collection of poems about animals, damaged or otherwise. It’s more like an anthology of poems that all happen to be written by a single author. A rumbustiously, whole-hearted rattle bag of technically varied and accomplished poems. When Di Slaney was a last a guest of the cobweb I wrote of her collection

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“Let me tell you what I like about Reward for winter. One thing surprised me; I’m not an animal lover, or, I’m not someone who is comfortable around animals, apart from cats, who don’t give a toss anyway. But I’m drawn in by Di Slaney’s poems about animals because of their knowledgeableness, like Ted Hughes’ poems in What is the truth

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I like poems that grow out of absorbed research. I love the way the language of research seeps into the fabric of the poetry and fast-dyes it 

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What else? I like writing that grows out of specific, realised places. I think that it probably started with Akenfield, to stories that evolve through generations lived in a single place. The Rainbow,and Alan Garner’s wonderful Stone Book Quartet.

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Apart from all this, Di Slaney writes what Jonathan Edwards has described as ‘sophisticated and dexterous poems…..beautifully crafted and very moving’.There are terza rimas,  every conceivable variant on the sonnet (and faux-sonnet) with crafty and elegant rhyme schemes. The poems have a sure-footedness that lets you know just where you are, and how to hear them; there’s a precise ear for line breaks, for diction, for rhythm, and so much richness of rhyme; slant rhymes, internal rhymes. So much music.”

[you might like to catch up on the rest of this 2016 post. Here’s the link. https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2016/05/14/knowing-your-place-di-slaneys-reward-for-winter/%5D

Every one who has reviewed or endorsed Herd Queen seems to say much the same sort of things, as Di acknowledges when she brought me up to date on what she’s been doing since 2016. I asked:

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“…..if you could write me a bit about what’s happened since May 2016, not least how you came to to put “Herd Queen’ together. I suppose I’m partly asking, because Herd Queen bucks the trend (it seems to me) of the thematically organised collection. What I like about yours is that chunks of it could be freestanding pamphlets, and in any case it’s wide-ranging in its range of characters, voices, forms, moods, landscapes…..it is, in fact, refreshing, as most endorsers and reviewers seem to agree. And I bet it’s the only collection I’ve read to be briefly reviewed in The Countryman!

A few big ‘life stage’ things have happened to me since May 2016 – I became sole owner of Candlestick Press in that year, then in 2017 our private animal sanctuary here on the smallholding became a registered charity specialising in disabled and special needs livestock – see www.manorfarmcharitabletrust.org. And then in June 2019 I was diagnosed with a brain tumour.  The latter two events definitely fed into the development of Herd Queen – understanding the real focus of our animal care work and what a difference we can make to the welfare of those creatures in our care, and then finding strength in their situation for my own health issues. These experiences have surprisingly made me more light-hearted and joyful as a writer, and more determined to share light and shade in my writing – there are some dark pieces in Herd Queen but I wanted there to be humour and solace as well, from unexpected sources.  Life throws us these curve balls but it’s up to us what we make of them – if we’re adaptive and resourceful like the animals, then we carry on living for the day and making the best of what we have, or at least try to.

And you’re very right to comment on the thematically miscellaneous nature of the collection!  It was pieced together out of several wholes – where there was a short sequence of work in one particular direction at one time – but what I’ve tried to do is unite it all under one concept, that of the vigorous and challenging caprine Herd Queen who will zig and zag all over the hillside to protect her territory and her companions, covering plenty of ground in the process.  Someone once said that my writing is muscular in style and I took that as a compliment (maybe it wasn’t intended that way!) so these different forms and voices and moods are flexes of those muscles.  I do hope it isn’t a messy read, and that it doesn’t cause too much head-scratching for the reader – the first section is intended to be an extension of the land and animals themes of Reward for Winter, the second section an exploration of human and family relationships from a variety of sources and then the third is the naughty section… 

It does mean of course that the book can pop up in unexpected places like Knitting or Yours magazine or The Countryman, as well as reviewed in literary journals like London Grip or Raceme. “

Paula Meehan wrote that

“All that is animate has Di Slaney’s attention…….. Her poems are robust and earthy, subtle and direct by turn, her insight often witty and sometimes wicked. …..She covers an impressive amount of ground in these warm, well-crafted poems, and she does it with considerable energy and style.”

Jonathan Edwards says that

as a poet, she can do everything, from intricate sestina to energetic monologue, from musical lyric to vibrant prose poem. But even more important are the ends to which she employs her technical gifts……. Slaney’s animal poems remind us of Hughes and of Liz Berry in their forging of a new language to describe that experience…… her poems about people give us everything from a cobbler great grandfather to Frankie Goes to Hollywood, ‘tongue and spittle snogs’ to Shirley Bassey.

All this only reminds me of the difficulty I’ve had in deciding how to present my ideas about Herd Queen , its clusters of poems about wounded animals, about family photographs, about Saudi evacuees , about forgotten histories from meticulously researched local histories. Add to that the range of form and structure..ballads, prose poems, sonnets, dramatic monologues (in stanzas), lots of complex rhyme schemes…including the absurdly complicated Welsh gwawdodyn (no, I’d not come across it, either). How will I do it all justice? The answer’s simple enough. I can’t. I’ll simply share some of my favourites . Off we go.

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Meeting Geraldine

‘Big goat left to die in snow’ was all that I 

was told, and that she was old, so promised

I would go along to meet her, see how her

ordeal had left her and if there were no 

major complications, nothing more

they could do, I’d bring her here. Fear

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penned her nosefirst in that stable corner, fear

so strong the reek of it sank me to my knees. I 

softtouched her coat and bones, promised

I would do the best I could, would give her

all the food she needed to be well. She made no 

sound, didn’t move or flinch, had more

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sorespots than I’d first noticed, more

dirt than grey in thinwhitecoat. The fear

kept her silent that first week when all I 

did was strawsit with her, promising

she could have a friend, that her

hollowrumen hungeraches would end, no 

.

one would hurt her here. There was no 

clue she’d heard or understood, it was more

that she put up with me. Yearslearnt fear

still flickered in her eyes each time I 

tugged the stable door, the promise

I’d be back offering no comfort, her

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nostrils alarmwide with whiff of me. But her

appetite was good and she had no 

trouble eating, brokenmouthed with more

teeth missing than remained. One day, fear

seemed to hover above the haypile and I 

breathstopped while she cudded, promising

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myself patience would pay, promising

her the moon if only she’d respond. Then her

blackovals set in gold met startledmine, no 

hesitation now with ears uppricked, more

curious with nose cleanpink and wet. Fear

evaporated like milkspurt on warm grass and I 

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kept my word every day after, although we only had

her for a year. She died in May whitesunshine while

I stroked her beard, promised her no more fear. 

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There’s a lot to like in this poem, not least the way it treads carefully around the edges of sentimentality without actually falling in; I’m thinking of what Di said about the possibilities of reciprocal healing, the:

difference we can make to the welfare of those creatures in our care, and then finding strength in their situation for my own health issues.

I like the way the opening stanza is very close to prose-with-line-breaks; the poem begins with a business-like transaction, the voice that says, ‘well, I’ll come round and have a look, but I’m making no promises’. retrospectively, you realise that a lot of rhymes and pararhymes have been set up, and that they’re sustained right through. They’re all monosyllabic, from linked stanza to stanza. There’s an edginess about them, which has to work alongside the strongly textured reality of the animal, and its fear that requires new-minted kennings for its description. I didn’t expect to like this poem, and then found that I did, not least because of the turning point that depends on two different kinds of eyes making a connection.

blackovals set in gold met startledmine

Texture is especially what you notice in the next poem, which is self-evidently written by someone who knows a thing or two about wool. (The first time I met Di Slaney was at an Interpreter’s House launch in Leeds; it was also the first time I met a poet who brought wool from her own sheep to sell as well as books.) A handy note in the collection explains that

Witches cannot resist wool, & this Mazey Ball from The Museum of Witchcraft in #Cornwall is so filled. It was believed “no witch could cast an evil eye on the owner until she had counted every bit of wool in the house.”  Aberdeen Press & Journal, 17th Nov 1932. 

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Mazey ball

She watched him gather tufts from fences 

along the field, as he’d watched her finger wool 

in the village yarn shop, her gaze low and dark, small 

brown hands lingering over skeins still fresh

from early shearing. That night he switched off all 

the lights and kept squat candles burning on the hearth, 

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their flicker pointing beams and cracks in ancient brickwork.

His thickweave cushions, driftwood hangings and peg

loom rugs brought the flock indoors, while by the fire 

raw fleece sacks breathed their sweetness across

the room towards the porch. Single storeyed, the cottage

eased itself to darkness as he doused his mug goodnight

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and padded to the bed, cablesocks three quarters high 

on tanned and knotted calves, tired legs. The ball twined 

above the kitchen stove where a skillet used to drop, 

anchored by aran ply to a thumbed black squab.

Candlelight caught cream, a flash of white, then grey 

as the ball twisted first this way, then that. He lay on one

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hundred quilted crochet squares, felt each deadwifestitch 

pressing into skin like penance, but resolute he still listened; 

breathsure, heartloose. When the front latch snagged at two, 

he smiled and reached beneath the bed, shepherded silence 

along the flags to find her backwards in the shadows, ball in hand, 

bloodblack hair flowing down a feltstiff gown above her knees. 

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Skin glistened, and she seemed to halo pale fawn fibre 

that curled towards him, her bare feet pointed in two cleaves 

of hoof, and soft noise escaped her lips like new lambs bleating 

in barn sunlight. She never shifted from the ball, kept 

mumblecounting little threads, so he gently snaked his crook 

around her neck like every ewe he’d ever landed, and snared his witch.

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I chose this one because it’s such a beautifully told tale, and one which actually relishes its own narrative tricks. The question of who is watching who, and who will be the catcher and who the caught is set up so deftly in those first two lines, as is the ambiguity of time and place. The title says ‘once upon a time’, but the ‘village wool shop’ says ‘now’, as does his switching off the lights. It’s a very satisfying piece of storytelling ending, too. He ‘snared his witch’. What her nature is and why he should snare her is unresolved. I love it and all its imagery, its filmic moments, the slowly turning ball anchored by aran ply to a thumbed black squab, that satisfying solidity.

I want to share three more poems, but with minimal commentary. The next two are monologues /ventriloqual but could not be more different in tone and style.

The first is Di’s take on a piece of research about her neighbourhood of Bilsthorpe . Dame Elizabeth Broughton was the widow of Sir Brian Broughton who counted Bilsthorpe as part of his estate.  On the 15th April 1727, she defended herself in court against a bill of complaint brought by William Hodgson.  The gist of the matter appears to be that Sir Brian promised an annuity to his mistress Anne Carter, which Dame Elizabeth has defaulted on. During further research, it appeared that Dame Elizabeth had been previously accused of causing the death of Anne Carter in a fire, and her relations are now retrospectively claiming the annuity as it was passed to them after her death. In transcripts of the court record, Dame Elizabeth defends herself vigorously, claiming that she is ‘entirely a stranger’ to all allegations and claims. 

All I’ll say is that you might like to decide whether Dame Elizabeth is as innocent/naive as she appears to make out, or whether she’s being at least disingenuous.

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Dame Elizabeth Broughton answers the court

15th April 1727 

Sir, I am entirely a stranger to proceedings here. 

You must forgive a poor widow’s lack of grasp,         

for in all such matters prior, my dear late husband 

Sir Brian Broughton would stand. Since his demise 

all must forgive my widow’s grasp, my lack of

certainty. I have not slept, the thought of how 

Sir Brian would not stand for this and his demise

weighs heavy on my mind, for I am growing more

.

certain, despite not sleeping, that the thought of

Anne Carter and her claims for full annuity would

weigh too heavy on his mind, of this I am more sure.

She was a scandal and a scold, beg pardon the court,

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the name Anne Carter and her canny claims would

have ruined a lesser man, but not my husband. 

He pardoned her the scandal, I begged and scolded

him to end his visits to her, but he courted disaster

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like a lesser man, was briefly not at all my husband.

Those boys she had, he hoped them his, would only

end his visits when he saw William Hodgson courted

her, how quickly she came undone, how hot she flushed.

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Those boys she had were never his, his only hope of

siring heirs lost years before when his horse tipped him,

but the way she flushed and came undone, the heat 

of her convinced him for a time that he had it in him

to sire heirs. I lost our boy when his horse tipped him

and they told me he was crushed, unlike to live.

He convinced me for a time he still had it in him      

to recover, do his duty for the parish, but I knew

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our hopes were crushed even as I learned to live.

Sir, I wander and you are right to rally me to task.

I am recovered, will state my duty for the parish but

I will not cede on the amount. Her boys have no right

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to wander into our affairs and rally your support.

When Mistress Carter died in last year’s fire, her

boys amounted to naught and I will not cede my rights.

What, sir, the fire?  I know naught of how it started.

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Anne Carter died and that’s all I knew of it last year.

In such matters, my late husband would know best.

I had no part in that fire. May the court forgive me

for I feel entirely strange, sir. Proceed without me here.

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You might like to read the opening three lines and and then the last three, and listen to the echoes, and ask yourself if it’s not that bit too artful, too ‘rehearsed’. For contrast, then, here’s the second poem from the sequence ,The Songs of Saudi , developed in collaboration with composer Omar Shahryar, and based on recorded interviews with his mother, father and brother about their evacuation from Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War of 1990.  The first poem in the sequence ‘Shona’s Song’ became the lyrics to a performance piece for the 2017 Leeds Lieder Festival, with music composed by Omar sung by mezzo-soprano Emily Hodkinson. Side by side, you might think they were the work of two different poets, which is a tribute to the range of what you discover in this unclassifiable collection.

.Songs of Saudi 
 
ii. Suheil’s song
Dhahran, October 1990
 
 
I am the man in the bathtub, calling you
from my ivory tank, a stubborn fish
stuck in a pond without water to protect 
against gas and bomb, only a mirror to 
 
busy line
 
reflect this solid tank, a stranded fish
in this rich place, no lack of anything,
even gas and bomb, only a mirror to 
see me talking, although missing you 
 
dial tone
 
in a rich place with no lack of anything
is not the point. The mirror wall
shows me talking, and missing you 
so far away shows we’re tied together
 
ring tone
 
but that’s not the point. The mirror wall
makes everything bigger than it is,
you so far away and us not together,
but separation builds deeper ties, 
 
ring tone
 
makes everything bigger than it is,
the sky truth blue, the sand heart gold,
and separation ties us deeper, builds us up
while the sun sulks red each night
 
empty line
 
my truth sky blue, my heart sand gold,
and their tiny half-heard voices make
my face wet red each night 
without a bedtime story
 
ring tone
 
and their tinny half-lost voices make
home a question, here in the safe house
without my bedtime story
that home is family is home,
 
ring tone

 
without family here in the safe house
with taped windows and CNN,           
as my family makes home without me 
and the heat reeks through the aircon,
 
busy line
 
licks the taped windows, and CNN keeps       
those fighters coming in my dreams.
The heat seeps through the aircon
but your cool voice in my right ear
 
dial tone
 
says fighters are nothing but dreams,
and the pond without water will defend 
and you are my voice, my right, my dear one,
and I am the man in the bathtub, calling you.
 
ring tone

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Di Slaney can do lushly textured poems and then she can do this stripped back, near abstract, monochrome that is full of the aching distance of separation and disembodiment to the accompaniment of flickering TV screens and mindless electronic noise. It’s heartbreaking. But I wouldn’t leave you with a voice calling out of separation. I’ll finish instead with one from the third section of the book, from the what DI Slaney calls ‘the naughty ones’. If this poem was a painting it would be by Beryl Cooke, a saucy postcard of a poem. It’s in the same world as Pam Ayres’ asking forlornly ‘do you think Bruce Springsteen would fancy me?’

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Disgraceful

Feather boa, sequins, diamonds and lace,

Nut-brown bare arms and firm upright chassis –

so few wrinkles on that beaming face,

at 73, I want to be Shirley Bassey.

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No bond can contain her, the dame is forever.

Feisty, fearless, well-sussed and sassy –

she may be a spender, spendthrift never never;

at 73, I have to be Shirley Bassey.

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Belting voice, smutty laugh, star-spangled life,

diva supreme from a Tiger Bay lassie.

OK, not every man’s ideal wife,

but at 73, I must be Shirley Bassey.

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Thigh slits, stilettos and festival wellies –

no wheelchair for me, I’ll still wiggle my assy.

Tight-fitting gowns will restrain all my bellies

and at 73, I will be Shirley Bassey.

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Di Slaney..Thank you for being our guest..It’s taken me ages to finally write this post about Herd Queen. I hope I’ve given the readers a sense of its range and richness, and I hope I’ve persuaded them to go and buy it.

Herd Queen : Valley Press [2020]. 96pp £12.00

Stocking fillers (4)

Feeling under the weather. Again. Not up to doing justice to a guest poet who I admire greatly. In the meantime, more stocking fillers. Sometimes in a workshop someone may ask you to write a poem about an imaginary event. Invent a bit of history, but, if possible, treat it with great seriousness. When I think about it, a great deal of the ‘history’ I was taught in school was actually of this sort. Kings burning cakes. Noblemen drowned in butts of malmsey. England being ‘founded’ by descendants of Aeneas. Richard the Second being a monster. That sort of thing. Who knows, if you’re deadpan enough, it might just get some leverage, like urban myths. This one was triggered by a starter poem by Billy Collins.

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1470. Annus mirabilis

(after Billy Collins: ‘Nostalgia’)

1470. We’ll not forget that in a hurry;

the year they invented Jam. 

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We’d hear rumours,

folk passing on the turnpike,

a shout on the wind 

from the back of a lathered horse.

‘Jam’ they’d shout. ‘Jam’.

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We’d sit in the Tarred Pheasant 

at the end of a day’s slurry-shifting, 

or fettling capons, or stooking hares,

and speculate.

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Change was never good. 

The moon had been a funny colour

all through Martinmas,

the vicar’s wife had lost her arm to croup,

mice took to midnight swimming in the dewpond

by the mandrake patch in Cotton’s Bog.

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All sorts of tales were rife.

Jam would bring back sight to the goitred.

Jam would take off a murrain,

make a slack-twisted pigman smell sweet.

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It was more than that.

Fruit that didn’t roll off tables.

Fruit you could stick your hair down with..

No good would come of it. Devils’ work

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Alternatively, you could make up your own historical figures. Lord knows, ‘history’ has edited out 99% of the people who actually made it. By a pleasing synergy, jam features in this one , too.

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Unsung Heroes

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Let us remember them.

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St. John Chatsworth Grace:

inventor of the reversible umbrella,

serviceable in jungle and in desert

to deflect, or conserve, rain

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Enoch Waterman of Burslem

who patented a fruitless jam

and a device for getting blood from stones

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Frederick Jagger, the Pennine Penitent

Who, daily, walked barefoot to his work in Rochdale

from Todmorden to mortify the flesh 

and save on cobblers’ bills

and once walked backwards for a week

to see the future unfurl in his wake

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Remember Benjamin Hardwick of Haworth

who patiently engraved the Book of Genesis

on the obverse of a halfpenny

that he accidentally put,

with a handful of loose change,

in a collection tin for

the Overseas and Colonial Society

for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge,

and who shortly after died,

consumed by irony   .

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Next week, I promise, there will be a proper post with proper poetry. And who knows, the country might have accidentally stumbled into sanity by then. Go well. Wear a mask. Keep a safe distance.  

Stocking fillers (3)

Another family of stocking filler/stand-up poems is the stereotype poem. Another workshop task I’ve enjoyed, too. The first one I remember was one set up by Peter Sansom, the invitation being to write about a group of people entirely through the medium of generalisations, stereotypes and downright lies.

I think I’d recently been to Beverley folk festival for the weekend. Curiously, I’ve performed this particular poem at Beverley , and in loads of folk clubs….and the thing is, I’m invariably asked by folk if they can have a copy. People like it, and very often they could well be in the poem. I think it was Swift who said that ‘Satire is a Glass in which men see all men’s Features but their own’

There’s a companion piece to this called ‘Literary Festival Folk’ but there’s no way I’d ever post it. I’m also reminded that Bob Horne wrote one about his times at the Cambridge Folk Festival. It’s a much kinder one than mine. Maybe I should ask him if he’ll share it.

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                    Folk festival folk: 

They work in council housing departments

and sing sad songs of flooded seams and firedamp,

poss-tubs, pinnies, lockouts ,blacklegs,

disasters, deprivation.

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Or tutors in evening classes

who know The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens,

and Matty Groves by heart; they sing without 

accompaniment. And slow. And flat. They never miss 

a verse. They sing the chorus after every 

one, bring unimagined nuances to 

the meaning of interminable.

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Some sell insurance; or work in call centres, 

and sing , at length, about the whaling,

silver darlings, foundering trawlers, ice;

shawled fisherwives on shivering wharves

gazing at the widowing sea.

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They drink real ale (the men), are

overweight and thin on top (long at back and sides);

their wives once looked, a bit, (they hoped) like Joan Baez;

they cultivate split ends, and henna. 

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They believe that all real folk songs

were writ on tablets of millstone grit 

brought down from the moors 

by Mike Harding and Eliza Carthy

and that Kate Rusby is the Second Coming

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They wear, without discrimination,

cheesecloth, tie-dye, leather waistcoats;

regardless of the cold,or drizzle: sandals.

They run to seed, self-righteously. Own tents.

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Their children dream of days at Alton Towers,

junk food, Playstations,  X Boxes

and hanging out. Instead, are herded into

story-telling workshops; they are quiet,

and subdued, and, often, pale.

Secretly, they harbour visions 

of a terrible revenge.

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Something should be diddly-done about it.

Catching up: Natalie Rees’ “Low Tide”

For so many reasons I’m struggling to get going. I am collecting fragments to shore against the ruins of good intentions.

For instance:

I’m thinking of something I read about Norman MacCaig (I think it may have been in Andrew Greig’s At the loch of the Green Corrie). Apparently he tried to stop smoking and his writing completely dried up until he went down to the corner shop, bought twenty Senior Service, and promptly wrote a sheaf of winners. I stopped smoking three months ago.

For instance:

I’m thinking of one of my literary heroes, Commander Samuel Vines of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. Loving husband, besotted father, practising cynic and recovering alcoholic. Every evening at 6.00pm Sam Vines reads to Young Sam. It’s always the same book. Where’s my cow?

This reading he treats as an obligation which is non-negotiable,his thinking being that if he ever missed it for a good reason, he might miss it for a bad reason, and that this might apply to everything he does.

In other words, if you say you’re going to write a post featuring a guest on a certain day, then you should. I said I’d write this last Sunday. What can I say?

For instance:

I’m not feeling too chipper; one of the after effects of the chemo I had at the start of the year is joint pain; it distracts and makes it hard to concentrate. Ideas come and go, I jot some down and when I go back to them they make no sense. Everything gets clogged up and tired, and I wait to be bestirred, for the old log in the river to twist and release in a release and a rush.

For instance:

I’m missing the surprise of the face-to-face, the unpredictable encounter that disturbs or excites you in unexpected ways, like the headteacher of a small Primary school in a Pennine valley who once, without any notice, told a class of 10 year olds I worked in a circus. (For the full story follow this link: https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2014/04/28/by-way-of-explanation/).

For instance:

I’m thinking about Piaget and his notions of assimilation and of accommodation, and what that has to do with the great fogginzo. I’m probably over-simplifying, at best, but I always took it to refer to two modes of learning (both essential. Not an either/or). The first kind consolidates your ideas about the way the world works. It doesn’t disturb you. We tend to read news that we agree with, or agrees with our model of things. Ditto fiction, and poetry. And so on. The second challenges and disturbs. It demands that you change your models and assumptions in greater or lesser degree…. like recognising, say, that the earth goes round the sun and not vice versa. Or agreeing that the Bible might be written in English. People died for ideas like that. Being challenged by a feisty headmistress to accept a role no one gave you the lines for demands accommodation.

If we want to grow, we need to be disturbed (in good ways). What I look for in poems and poets is that challenge to see the world anew, and in ways that ultimately change me. And it’s what I find, in spades, in the work of today’s guest, Natalie Rees, and particularly in her pamphlet Low Tide from Calder Valley Poetry. Here’s a taste of the sort of disturbance I mean, the moment that pulls you in.

.

Four men form a circle around you;
you have been plucked out:
Praise the Lord, are you ready to receive Him tonight!
one shouts at you, eyes on the crowd.
…………………………………………………………..
The catcher with the bald head lunges
from behind, hands at your armpits,
next to the lady with the modesty blanket
ready to cover your knee-high socks
when you hit the linolleum floor.

.

I’ll give you some context for this later on but there’s so much going on in these eight lines, the moment becomes locked in you memory. For me it all spins around that phrase you have been plucked out. ‘You’ have been given no choice. It’s such a sudden verb, isn’t it? Those four men (why men ?) are loud and threatening. At least one is playing to the crowd. The bald headed ‘catcher’ has his hands at ‘your’ armpits. It’s unsettling, creepily intrusive. And the lady with the modesty blanket is complicit, standing by. And you are a child in knee high socks.

I think Kim Moore nails the quality of the moment in her endorsement of Natalie’s pamphlet:

“Filled with unforgettable lines, a wry humour and keen and exact observations…….  In her examination of an unusual childhood, Rees refuses to look away from the difficult truth of how darkness and love can coexist”.

It must be time to introduce the guest.

.

It’s five years ago..2016!!!…at the Otley Open Mic that I heard her  read for the first time. For me it was the stand-out voice and the stand-out poem, though she wasn’t the winner. Natalie Rees reads with a rare musical clarity…I’ve written before how I’m a sucker for Irish voices, and Irish vowels…but it was a lot more than Irishness that made me sit up and listen. 

The next time I heard her was later that year at a grand event as part  of Bradford Literature Festival. It was in a huge room in the Midland Hotel, a room like something out of the Titanic. Mirrors, chandeliers, banquet room chairs and a dubious sound system. She shared a bill with Peter Riley and Kim Moore among others, and read her poems and told the stories that surrounded them with absolute assurance. A natural. I asked her that afternoon if she’d be a guest on the cobweb, and she said she’d rather not, that she didn’t have enough work out there to give some up for the blog. 

That made me sit up and take notice. In these self-publicising, rushtogetabookout days its refreshing. I kept asking. I asked her to be a guest poet at the Puzzle Poets, and she put that off for a very long time. Same reason. Bob Horne told her he’d be interested in publishing her…eventually he did, but not until she was quite sure that what she’s written was ready. I have an early draft of what became Low Tide. The working title was The thin places. The title poem of that found its place in Low Tidebut so much else didn’t. And all that discipline and self-criticism has paid off, wonderfully. As Natalie wrote when she finally became a guest of the cobweb in 2017:

” I suppose I have always had the makings of a writer in me but it’s been a bit of a journey along the way to find my voice, which I think don’t really came until I found myself. I began to write poetry in my school days, elbowed on by a wonderfully cynical, disaffected English teacher, Ms. O’ Neill, ………I went on to train as a primary teacher. I taught for ten years, only going to the odd open mic here and there but always reading. 

The Bloodaxe anthologies were the gateway for my revived attempts, and in 2008, I signed up for the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester. It was a full-on year studying under Vona Groarke and John Mc Auliffe, and I gave a few readings of my final portfolio. Then life got in the way – wedding, house, child, career change (copywriting), bereavement – there was always something to keep the engine going.

Poetry is that thing that does not let you go though, and it has always boomeranged its way back to me through people and through places. If were to give it a relationship status, it would read ‘it’s complicated’. 

At the moment, (2017) the largest portion of my time is dedicated to my postgraduate studies in Play Therapy and my clinical placement. In my spare time, I am writing when I can and I am in early-day cahoots with Bob Horne at Calder Valley Press working towards my first pamphlet.”

There’s so much to think about here, but one thing sticks in my mind and won’t leave me:

                        Poetry is that thing that does not let you go

Natalie Rees writes what won’t let her go. When she read at the Bradford Festival, she told the story of her complicated childhood.She was born and raised in Ireland to a German Mother and Irish father who were both pastors of a Pentecostal Christian Church;  it wasn’t done with any self-dramatising, though I could imagine another writer wringing out every last drop of emotional trauma. I thought it was a powerful example of how poetry lets us understand our own selves, where we came from, who we are. When we can get it clear to ourselves, then we may be ready to tell others the story.

The poem that stood out for me in her  Bradford set was No. 6 Highfield Grove. If you’ve seen the TV film version of Oranges are not the only fruit think of that.Read it aloud. Hear it in an Irish voice. Think of a small Irish town where almost all the population is Catholic.

.

No. 6 Highfield Grove                       

Every Wednesday they would come.

Fill all the spaces on our street,

just after the RTÉ news at 6.

.

Ford Fiestas, Mazdas, Fiat Pandas.

The Christian Mafia 

armed with leather concordances, tambourines 

and acetates in plastic sleeves

with the guitar chords penned over the lyrics in red – 

tiny bullets lined up to lose their lives for Jesus.

.

We are waging war on the kingdom of darkness.

.

From three fold-up beach chairs, two foot pouffes, 

an armchair and a couch.

.

And they would shape their bodies into capital ‘Y’s,

their closed eyes squinting towards the light 

of some invisible sun as the guitar strummed on.

.

Shine Jesus, shine, fill this land with the father’s glory.

.

Then it would start with

one – a word of knowledge,

two – a prophesy in season,

three –  a foreign tongue,

four – an interpretation of the foreign tongue.

.

By then Margaret would have a vision,

there would be a light growing around me,

God would have a specific healing ministry for my life.

.

I am five.

.

This would be followed by the laying on of hands.

There would not be enough room for the onslaught 

of soldiers for Christ scattered across our sitting room floor,

and Jimmy the Baker writhing like a long-tailed rattlesnake,

my father swiping the air above with the sword of the Word.

             .

I would count shoes: two pairs of runners, 

six pairs of navy, five brown.

Line my wax crayons in order from black to white,

rearrange my fuzzy felt shepherds and kings. 

.

Put the manger on its own on the hillside with the sheep.

             .

I can read and re-read this poem, and never get tired of it. I like its complete self-sufficiency. It’s dense and layered, and still needs no backstory explanation. Everything you need to know is there, balancing on one simple line:

I am five.

The narrator’s resistance (whose weapons are crayons and fuzzy felt) to the surreal juxtaposition of suburban domesticity and religious fervour is made simple and remarkable by that uncluttered and unanswerable truth. No wonder the poet became a Play Therapist. I love the child’s achieved indifference to the Jimmy the baker’s frenzy, and father brandishing the sword of the Word. It took me to Jeanette Winterson, and one of the things she wrote about “Oranges….”

.

“I didn’t want to tell the story of myself, but someone I called myself. If you read yourself as fiction, it’s rather more liberating than reading yourself as fact………….In the library I felt better, words you could trust and look at till you understood them, they couldn’t change half way through a sentence like people, so it was easier to spot a lie”

The thing I find remarkable in Natalie Rees’ poems is her ability to stand with and simultaneously outside herself at the key moments she selects. And her honesty, too. Her persona can’t always resist through play and a distanced imagination. She can lose herself in the world of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but she also understands why she needed to.

.

Laura Ingalls, I turned the top shelf of my plywood wardrobe

into your mid-western attic bedroom,

and sneaked up matches to read my Bible by paraffin lamp

made out of a used Nutella jar and tea light.

I craved your wholesome life, so safe and contained. If only 

we could all skip around swinging packed lunches 

in tin pails, wearing starched cotton dresses with white aprons,

everything in my eight-year-old life would be okay.

Laura Ingalls, I spent Sunday afternoons fantasising 

your father Charles would step out of the screen 

into my living room, and pinch my cheek,

and call me Half-Pint,

his eyes meeting mine with all the twinkle 

……………………….

I needed a paternal figure to soak my shame

into the metallic sweetness of his flannel shirt.

.

That unguarded admission “I craved your wholesome life, so safe and contained ” retrospectively colours so many of the other poems where play can’t resist the darker forces crowding in

.

She asks how my week has been. I tell her 

the Bible verses I have been standing on 

are not working. The problem is never at God’s end

she tells me, asks me to bow my head. 

.

She invites the holy spirit into this space. 

I am crying and I don’t know why. 

Let him do his work in you she says. He’s a gentleman. 

He will never force his way

(Prayer ministry at the Old Fish Shop)

.

At other times, it may be a an insouciant swagger, a laugh-out-loud scatalogical defiance that’s the answer

.

we are in the last throes of fucking       on our daughter’s square 

Billy bookcase       on the top landing        and I lose my cum 

because all I can think is      if I fall over the banister to the bottom step      

will he finish himself off       before he dials 999

(La Petite Mort)

I love the way this poem comes hard on the heels of the one in praise of the Little House on the Prairie, and lets you know, very early on in the collection, that accommodation is going to be the name of the game. There’s so much going on in this apparently slim collection that I can’t do it justice. Ian Humphreys has commented on the voice and technical ease of the poetry, and its range of line and imagery :

.

startling images and dream-like narratives drift across the page, never quite settling. ……Natalie Rees has an original voice and an unflinching gaze……There’s potency in what’s left unsaid, in the hesitancy of a line-break, the held breath of white space.

John Macauliffe draws your attention to the range of themes and ideas; most memorably, he called it ‘a poetry of becoming”. (I wish I’d said that).

The poems in Low Tide pick their way through a minefield of ideals and ideas about the body, gender, family and faith; addressing themselves to lovers, a husband, preachers, the language of the Bible, the German language of a mother, the dead, the emergency services and, in one of its most brilliant poems, Laura Ingalls.
                                                                                                               

What I’ll do now is indulge myself (and you) by sharing two poems about the poet’s mother and their complicated relationship. …as someone who finds himself endlessly trying to explain and understand his relationship with a mother who could not be, what’s the word? appeased? I’m open-mouthed with admiration for what they achieve.

The first is stylistically conventional. It seems to acknowledge the diffuse sort of guilt some of us feel when we think we never knew someone as we should have, and now it’s too late. It’s also tender, funny and loving…..an underrated quality. It makes me think of Tony Harrison’s ‘UZ can be loving as well as funny’. It has the feel of the family stories we share at funerals, after the service, after the tears.

.

Muttersprache

My mother was never waiting 

for my father but on 

him. I had to sit on the table and never at.

I ate Schnitzel with flowery potatoes 

mashed with vinegar and oil,

wore matching dirndls with my sister on Sundays.

.

Some days she would bundle 

us in the orange Fiat to St.Patrick’s Well,

send us in to rob the coins between the moss.

Superstition is vitchcraft

she would say, and afterwards we would buy 99s

from the van and count the Catholics on their way to burn.

.

V’s were W’s and W’s were V’s.

And she would take me to wiolin lessons in the willage

and vait vhile I practised.

Practised reels and jigs and hornpipes.

Practised being normal 

and Irish.

.

Once she picked up two hitchers 

with us three in the back. I had to sit on a lap. 

We stopped for chips and said grace

over our greasy cartons while mam sped 

through the second coming 

with a 1970’s cartoon Bible tract.

.

We spent the last Christmas waiting 

by my mother. I watched my sister lift and turn 

with all the right positions. I was not like her.

All I could do was pick small bits of Lebkuchen

and place them on mam’s lips. Lecker

she said. Delicious..

.

I love that image of the lot of them hunched over chips while ‘mam sped through the second coming’. And I am glad of the sense of absolution that comes from the image of cake crumbs placed on her mother’s lips, like a fragment of host, and the breathed last word. Lecker. It’s like forgiveness.

Finally , a poem that’s full of haunting imagery and spaces in which you can lose yourself. Fingers crossed that WordPress will hold its carefully crafted shape

.

Low Tide

that summer  the sea                               spread her white arms     .                                               

across the bay       dragged back   the whelks    the driftwood  

the lobster traps   the nylon mesh           wiped the spray 

from the tops of the children’s heads

.

left them                                   naked on the shore

.

they sat there with vacant eyes 

                           shoving fistfuls of sand into their dry mouths

.

one day you’ll thank me  she told them

crawling backwards        scraping her knees 

along the rocky bed

.

shhhhh  shhhhsh  shush the oldest one said

as she grew smaller 

and smaller 

a pencil-blue line 

 so static        you could balance            a glass marble on her

.

the children walked for days to get her back

      it was hard to see where the sky                      ended

and their blue mother began

.

so thin 

flat and lifeless on the edge  

of their world

nothing else                 but sand                          for miles

             .

the younger ones crying because their feet were so hot

             .

when will mother stand up   is she sleeping?

Mother  when you left I couldn’t find the              word

for dead

every time I closed my eyes to focus

all I could see were coral bones                ebbing further              

away

without          touching

you moved with such harmony I thought to not be alive                                 must be a beautiful thing

.

.

What a lovely accomplished thing this is. I’ve tried many times to write about how I waited for my mother to die, how I waited with her, and about what it meant. But this image of the tide going out and the the children being left

with vacant eyes shoving fistfuls of sand into their dry mouths

and the line of the sea indistinguishable from where the sky begins, all that has done what I couldn’t do for myself, and I’m grateful for it.

It’s taken me too long to write about this remarkable first collection. If there were any justice, (and no pandemic) Natalie Rees would have been signed up for readings all round the country, and would have sold out several print runs. What can I say? You can do your bit. Buy yourself copies of Low Tide. Tell your friends. Share this post. Here’s link to a page with a Paypal button

https://caldervalleypoetry.com/low-tide-natalie-rees/

And for now, thank you all for being here; and thank you, Natalie Rees, for the poems, for your patience, and for letting me share them