For so many reasons I’m struggling to get going. I am collecting fragments to shore against the ruins of good intentions.
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.
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?
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.
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/).
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 Tide, but 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.
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
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
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
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
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
every time I closed my eyes to focus
all I could see were coral bones ebbing further
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
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