Christmas stocking fillers

Maybe I should apologise in advance, but I’m going to recycle a couple of old posts…one from the early days of the Cobweb, December 2014, and a slightly later one. Each is right for today, in its own way.

First there’s one for a day whose date is often disputed. But today is a particularly dreich and dreary Sunday of cold and clinging fog.

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St Lucie’s day

St Lucie’s Day 

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Wrung like a cheese,

a day for the choice of the tallest, 

the wisest, the one most foolish,

the one with a limp, the one who casts

runes, the one with the no-coloured eye.

One of them.

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Him we will beat ,with hammer and anvil,

into the likeness of kings.

We shall crown him with green holly

till blood runs in his beard,

and him we shall dress in the plumes

of the crow, of the tern, of the wren;

we shall stitch him with quills. He will fly into flames.

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O this dark St Lucie’s day. You’d wish 

you were the Fool of the World . You’d wish

for his flying ship, you’d wish you could fly

to the cities, to the edges of things, to the sea.

You’d wish for a flicker of flame in the spruce.

You’d wish for a crossroads, for three wishes

to foil the old witch and her hen’s-leg house.

Old witch of layers, old doll of a year

and December her small heart.

(From Advice to a traveller. Indigo Dreams 2018)

[ps. I’ll happily sell you a copy . It’s only a PayPal click away via My Books …..  in the Menu at the top of the page]

and now for something infinitely more optimistic……………

a christmas story revisited

suncard

‘Every year, the toys were brought down from the attic and placed under the tree hung with angels and lights and smelling of the pine woods. Every evening the toys performed, and every day the tree shed more needles on the floor until Christmas was gone. Then the tree was thrown out and the toys were packed off to the attic where they lay jumbled in a box together…..through the long days and nights they listened to the rain on the roof and the wind in the trees, but the sound of the clock striking midnight never reached them; they never had permission to speak at all, and they lay in silence until another year passed and they stood once more beneath the tree………’

And thus starts one of the great stories of the 20th century, by one of its great storytellers.

mouseandchild

And you know, sure as eggs is eggs (because you understand how stories work) that something is going to change. And you also know that for all of the lights of the tree and the warm of christmas fires that there’s a darkness out there somewhere, and that nothing will be simple. Hoban does that. He does it with ‘The Marzipan Pig’, which is one of the oddest stories (ostensibly) for children I know. It begins, ‘there was nothing to be done for the Marzipan Pig. He fell behind the sofa and that was that’…..three pages into the tale he is eaten by a mouse, which, in turn is eaten by an owl who falls in love with a parking meter. It’s near impossible to second-guess what’s going on, and yet it’s never silly or arbitrary. I love Russell Hoban, not least for his unwavering acknowledgement of a Darwinian universe that’s red in tooth and claw, and his equally unwavering belief, in these two stories, and in the wonderful ‘Riddley Walker, of the resilience of the human spirit and the power of love and faith and idealism. I also love the fact that when I met him at a Children’s Literature conference in Exeter in the 70’s, we shared a breakfast table. He ate All Bran. At the same time, he handrolled cigarettes. Old Holborn is almost identical to All Bran, at least when they accidentally mix. He would get animated about the teachers on his workshop who wanted breaks…for chrissakes…breaks….they come here to write….it’s hard work, writing…breaks!….and he scattered more strands of Old Holborn about the table. It was a great start to anyone’s day.

The Mouse and his Child are wind-up clockwork toys, broken by a cat, thrown in the bin, mended -sort of – by a tramp, and set down on the highway to seek whatever befalls them – which comes in the shape of Manny Rat – and recruited into a hapless band of wind-up bank-robbers. I’ll tell you no more, other than that, along the way, the Child determines on an unwavering quest for self-winding status and for a family, and that Manny Rat becomes his nemesis. They pass through wildernesses; they endure.

6burns

It’s like the journey of Shackleton, or, closer in time, there are episodes I was reminded of when I read Joe Simpson’s epic ‘Touching the void’. Maybe I’ll say too that in the summer when my dad died, we took my mother away for a holiday. I was reading ‘The Mouse and his Child’ on the beach on the Isle of Wight. When I came back from a swim, my mum was reading it. She would not hand it back till the next day when she’d finished it. All she said was: that made me happy.

toys r us

I have to say I’m a total sucker for soft toys and dolls. Especially dolls like the one my daughter Julie had as a child, the one she gave me, the one who always looks so wistful that I provide her with the company of a dapper fox and and a perky decorator. She remains wistful, does that doll. And, also, since 1987 me and my partner Flo have bought each other wind-up toys at Christmas. They now fill three boxes. None have become self-winding, and I have never heard any of them speak. The Mouse and his Child, of course, can speak, and indeed are not bound by the rules of clockwork and the strokes of midnight. I wasn’t really aware, though, how much of the language of the book had seeped into mine until, inevitably there was a writing task at the Poetry Business, and out of ‘nowhere’ came this poem.

A prohibition….

….lifted on the stroke of midnight

on some special Eve, Midsummer, say, or Christmas.

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Then, it’s said that stones, or trees, or owls can speak.

Or toys piled pell-mell in boxes kept in lofts, in attic cupboards;

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and also things that hang in Christmas trees,

like fairies, snowmen, angels, and wind-up clockwork toys.

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What is it, do you think, they say, just once a year, just for one day,

This is the truth of it. The dark that lasts all year, the silent dust

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that settles bit by bit, grows coarse and gritty, will clog their tongues.

Listen. They’re as mad as stones and deaf as owls. They’re let to speak,

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have forgotten how, and what, to say. Stay silent

till the twelfth night. And then they’re put away.

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To be honest, ours have their own very jolly boxes, which never go into the dark. And if ‘The Mouse and his Child’ had been as dark as my poem, then my Mum wouldn’t have been happy. Have your own Happy Christmas, and light a candle for clockwork wind-ups wherever they may be.

Stocking fillers.. stuff gone missing in 2021

Much the same sort of stuff as in 2020, I suppose, but felt more keenly in a combination of recovering from chemo, lockdown, sheltering….. as well as no longer having a passport. I loved my EU passport, and can’t bear to shell out money for a Little England version.

So here’s one thing I’ve missed. Foreign lands. I’ve missed the mountainous limestone bits of Alicante, and the Escher streets and alleys of Relleu. So here’s one for that.

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Women are laying leaves in the street

Geckos print themselves on the hot walls.

In a haze of smoke and garlic, martins hurl 

round and around the square, calling and calling

above the tables where matrons study their cards

and fan themselves, and children climb from lap to lap.

The young ones in the town band giggle, polish cornets

and a crowd comes from the church to a long table

laid specially for them. Down the street that narrows

to a view of dusky mountains, all doors are open.

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The women of the Carre de Madre de Deu de las Miracles

are setting out small tables on their steps, 

with printed cloths and crucifixes, gilt framed Madonnas 

and plastic dolls that stand in for Jesus. They bring out pots 

of fern and cistus, break off fronds and petals,

tapestry the granite setts. Children are shooed away. 

It’s not for them and not for men.

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Later, the band will play slow and solemn, stepping down

the narrow street that smells of trodden leaves,

the priest in lawn and linen will walk before the band 

and its slow sad music, blessing every doorstep.

The town follows quietly after, believing in miracles.

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Equally heartfelt (though the pain will not be readily understood by everyone) I’ve missed shopping in places whose languages I have yet to master, and especially the hardware/DIY stores. Small ones in Greece; the local traditional ironmonger in the Gironde. Most of all, maybe, the joy of the French DIY superstore. This one, on the outskirts of Royan, in particular.

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M. Bricolage

It’s odd because you’re wearing shorts and flip-flops 

and the sun is hot outside, but you could stay

in there all day. French nails and screws are different.

Taps (they call them robinets) have working parts

you can’t guess the purpose of, and you don’t know

how to ask for plywood (it’s called contreplaque,

but you don’t know that at the time) 

or for a mole wrench,or a plane. 

But that’s nice, because you get to go down

every aisle, and you find patent clips for keeping

plastic tablecloths in place on pavement cafe

tables, which is such a neat idea  you buy a packet

to take home, and in a gloomy alcove they stock

huge electric-powered gates ( they sell them 

on the travelling markets too, next to Moroccans

stirring bags of frozen prawns and squid

into paella pans the size of circus rings,

so there must be spates of burglaries

or terrorists, or worse, and they’re not as pricy

as you’d think) and meanwhile you can dream

because you just might want to build that barbecue

that could double as foundry, and you can’t believe

how cheap they’re selling hammer drills and routers,

woodburning stoves, log-splitters, awnings, decking,

terracotta bricks and strange long-handled

shovels with blades like the ace of spades.

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You settle for a multipack of cross-head screws.

And two packs of tricky clips, because, who knows,

you might just open up a bistro. And two checked

plastic tablecloths. For the clips.

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Finally, something seasonal.

I don’t know about you, but I can never quite figure out the business of the round-robin Christmas message that tells you in immense detail how various nephews and nieces and grandchildren (they all have names like Peregrine, and Beatrice, and Barnaby, and Allegra, and Dominic) had a topping gap year in Peru before starting their degree at Balliol or St Andrews, and Gran is chugging along after her triple bypass and new hips, and Will or Charles has finally been promoted and so on.

So for years in our house we’ve looked forward to a Christmas card from one of my oldest friends who I met when he was doing Classics at our university and then followed in his father’s footsteps as an HGV driver for the next 40+ years. Like the rest of us, he knows that families are complicated and occasionally dysfunctional, and bear little resemblance to to the colour supplement accounts of the round-robin writers.Any way, his card arrived today with an apology for not writing his roundup of the year. He says it’ll make him too angry. So. Here’s my tribute to him, and to all “normal” families everywhere…a pastiche and compendium of his cards over the years.

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It has not been the best year 

The campervan broke down in the Cheviot.

I have sourced a gearbox from a scrappers 

up in Tamworth but he says I’ll have to get it out 

myself. As I wrote last Xmas, the eldest has moved

to Blyth, but her daughter’s still a handful

and glassed a para in a bar in Guisborough where

her boyfriend just got done for dealing. Apparently

it was a row about the jukebox. I know. Don’t ask.

I’ve lost touch with Anthony’s boy, who, we think,

has moved to Essex. The chap whose house 

he worked on got arrested. Turns out he torched

this dealer’s house outside Sunderland. Forgot

to check if it was empty first, so he’s up 

for manslaughter, and Anthony’s Wayne

has had to do a runner, since the dealer’s mates

are serious lads from Hartlepool who think our Wayne’s

the one who bought the parafin, and maybe he did.

What can you do? On the love front, the widow

I wrote you about last Xmas, the millionaire,

well, she wasn’t up for naturism, so I had to

kick her into touch. A shame. The back continues

playing up, but 50 years of HGVs, well

what can you expect. I miss the reading though.

Last thing I read , a Life  of Palmerstone.

Left it in a tranner up the Edgeware Road.

Never finished it. The home brew keeps me busy.

That, and the veggie patch. My best regards 

to your beautiful wife. Will write again 

next Christmas and hope to have better news.

Keep your chin up.

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I’m hoping to write about a couple of collections that have excited me lately. Before Christmas would be good. See you then.

My kind of poetry: Kim Moore’s “All the men I never married”

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“Now I’ve written one, I love sequences”

Kim Moore wrote this in a post for Anthony Wilson’s Life-saving poems in July 2015 after the publication of her first collection with Seren: The art of falling. Just to save you time, there’s the link at the end , and also to the rest of the sequence of posts featuring Kim as the most frequent guest poet on the great fogginzo’s cobweb. If you check them out you’ll understand just how much her poetry and friendship have meant to me and why I’ll find it so hard to do justice to her new collection (also with Seren) All the men I never married.

I met Kim for the first time at a Poetry Business workshop in Sheffield, I think it was in 2010 or 2011. She’d set off from Barrow at the crack of dawn, arrived a bit late and out of breath, and shortly after wrote the draft of a poem that stuck in my mind, that I asked her for a copy of, and that had me signed up forever in the fan club she never asked me to join. Train journey: Barrow to Sheffield was published in her Poetry Business winning Pamphlet If we could speak like wolves. [2012]. I wrote about the impact of the poem in one of the blog posts:

Unstoppable as the train, a poem of only two sentences, one of them six stanzas, thirty lines long. It’s a delight to read aloud. It insists on being read aloud, just do it, and you find, like a piece of music, it tells you exactly where to breathe, check, pick up pace. It never wrong-foots you. It just lines you up to arrive exactly on the moment when ‘This morning the sun came up in Bolton and all / the sky was red’,  exactly as it should be and inevitably as it must. What you have is a technically stunning poem that hides is technique, where every moment is true, and necessary. And I love the quality that I can’t find a name for that doesn’t sound condescending…but it’s a kind of innocence or naivete, where thing are seen in a clear childlike way. Actually I think in retrospect I CAN find a word for it. The word is ‘wonder’. There’s scarcely a word in the poem that announces itself as ‘poetry’ and yet the syntax could only be that of a poem. It fits James’ dictum that ‘declaring itself to be a poem is one of the the main things a poem does.’ I love the way the poem expands out beyond the dark window of the train to encompass the whole estuary, the ways of sheep, the heartbreak and history of the drowning saltflats. And then comes back to a different earth where we waken out of a dream of Tolkien. Wow!”

I’ve quoted this because there’s something in there that defines the quality of her work for me, and which is also germane to the growing strength of her work ever since. It’s this:

I love the quality that I can’t find a name for that doesn’t sound condescending…but it’s a kind of innocence or naivete, where thing are seen in a clear childlike way. Actually I think in retrospect I CAN find a word for it. The word is ‘wonder’.

Kim guested on Woman’s Hour last week ( there’s another link at the end. Her spot starts 24 minutes in). She was introduced as ‘exploring the contradictions and complexities of desire…your own and other peoples’, to which she said that, in a lull/blank space following the publication of her first collection it started as a joke.. However, a poem which is a list of remembered former boyfriends turns out to be not exactly a joke at all, but the beginning of something which is both playful and seriously important. And here it is.

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1.

There was the boy I met on the park
who tasted of humbugs
and wore a mustard-yellow jumper

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                        and the kickboxer with beautiful long brown hair 
                                    that he tied with a band at the nape of his neck

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and the one who had a constant ear infection
            so I always sat on his left

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                        and the guy who worked in an office
                                    and could only afford to fill up his car
                                    with two pounds worth of petrol

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and the trumpet player I loved 
from the moment I saw him 
            dancing to the Rolling Stones

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                        and the guy who smoked weed
                        and got more and more paranoid
                        whose fingers flickered and danced 
                        when he talked

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and the one whose eyes were two pieces
of winter sky

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and a music producer
long-legged and full of opinions

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                        and more trumpet players 
                                    one who was too short and not him
                                    one who was too thin and not him 

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are you judging me yet, are you surprised?

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Let me tell you of the ones I never kissed
            or who never kissed me

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the trombonist I went drinking with 
how we lay twice a week in each other’s beds
            like two unlit candles

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we were not for each other and in this we were wise
we were only moving through the world together for a time 

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there was a double bassist who stood behind me 
and angled the body of his bass into mine
and shadowed my hands on its neck

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and all I could feel 
was heat from his skin 
            and the lightest breath 
                        and even this might have been imagined 

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I want to say to them now 
            though all we are to each other is ghosts
once you were all that I thought of

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when I whisper your names
it isn’t a curse or a spell or a blessing 
            I’m not mourning your passing or calling you here

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this is something harder 
like walking alone 
in the dusk and the leaves 

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            this is the naming of trees
                        this is a series of flames
                                    this is watching you all disappear.

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I remember hearing her reading it for the first time at The Chemic in Leeds, I remember the way this phrase stopped me in my tracks and stayed with me ever since

how we lay twice a week in each other’s beds
            like two unlit candles

and I remember also the impact of the growing seriousness of the poem’s long incantation, as though the poet were realising something for the first time, learning something essential, or, at least, knowing she had to find out what it meant. Over time I heard her read more and more of the poems at various venues, becoming also aware of the way she was understanding how they challenged her audience even as she challenged herself from the moment it all turned on that one phrase

are you judging me yet?

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When she finally sent me a draft of the collection to look at it confirmed what I’d slowly come to understand. That it was a sequence that was her own version of The Prelude; that it charted a growing awareness, socially and politically, which never displaces the wonder in favour of rhetoric, but placed her own experience of male violence and more generalised unconscious misogyny in a wider social and historical debate. It’s a process that started with the ‘domestic violence’ sequence in The Art of Falling, and which she developed through her PhD course of which she’s written:

My PhD project is to write poetry which explores and represents experiences of sexism and I’m particularly interested in whether poetry can play a part in changing the way we talk about sexism, or even who talks about it.  A member of the audience at a reading came up to me a couple of weeks ago and said they  hadn’t even thought about the fact that they hadn’t read any women writers during their degree, until they’d heard me read poetry about sexism.  For me, this proves that poetry can be part of a conversation that will hopefully change the way we think and discuss sexism.  I know that writing poetry about my own experiences of sexism has changed the way I think about those experiences  – so poetry becomes a way of investigating, a way of knowing about not-knowing.  

The PhD has given me the time and space to think about the type of poet I want to be, and the type of poetry I want to write, and what I think poetry is for.  I don’t know all the answers to those questions yet, but I feel like I’m getting closer.  In 2015, I mentioned a sequence I was working on – ‘All The Men I Never Married’.  Who knew that this would grow into a fully-fledged PhD? Not me!

Well, it’s taken six years, at least, and it’s been road-tested every inch of the way. And now it’s getting the attention I thought her last collection deserved, but which at least provided the ignition point for this one. I seem to have spent a lot of time in its company, and for that I feel privileged and blessed. And, just to make a point about the attention it deserved, I notice that when this post went out on Twitter it harvested nearly 500 responses. My usual strike rate is single figures. More importantly, I forgot to add the image below. All the men I never married is in Amazon’s top twenty poetry list at the moment. Hang out the bunting!!!!!

Right.Back to the poems. It was about three years ago that I heard the next poem for the first time, and it made a particular impact because it was presented as a draft in a residential workshop session of which all the group members but me were women, and I was…… I don’t know….. baffled? disturbed? by one of the group questioning the motivation for the poem. What I know now, and which was reinforced in the Woman’s Own interview, is that it’s a powerful and unnervingly honest account of something that questions those contradictions and complexities of desire…your own and other people’s. It bothers people, especially men, and if that was all it did it would be important. But it’s also a beautifully constructed, utterly honest poem that keeps echoing that question are you judging me yet? Go on. Ask yourself what it was like to respond to the invitation of the first line, knowing that it’s exactly what the poet has set herself to do.

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7.

Imagine you’re me, you’re fifteen, the summer of ’95, 
and you’re following your sister onto the log flume,
where you’ll sit between the legs of a stranger.
At the bottom of the drop when you’ve screamed 
and been splashed by the water, when you’re about 
to stand up, clamber out, the man behind 
reaches forward, and with the back of his knuckle
brushes a drop of water from your thigh.

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To be touched like that, for the first time. 
And you are not innocent, you’re fifteen, 
something in you likes that you were chosen.
It feels like power, though you were only 
the one who was touched, who was acted upon.
To realise that someone can touch you 
without asking, without speaking, without knowing
your name. Without anybody seeing. 

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You pretend that nothing has happened, 
you turn it to nothing, you learn that nothing 
is necessary armour you must carry with you, 
it was nothing, you must have imagined it.
To be touched – and your parents waiting at the exit
and smiling as you come out of the dark
and the moment being hardly worth telling.
What am I saying? You’re fifteen and he is a man.

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Imagine being him on that rare day of summer,
the bulge of car keys makes it difficult to sit 
so he gives them to a bored attendant 
who chucks them in a box marked PROPERTY. 
A girl balanced in the boat with hair to her waist 
and he’s close enough to smell the cream
lifting in waves from her skin, her legs stretched out, 
and why should he tell himself no, hold himself back?

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He reaches forward, brushes her thigh with a knuckle,
then gets up to go, rocking the boat as he leaves. 
You don’t remember his face or his clothes, 
just the drop of water, perfectly formed on your thigh, 
before it’s lifted up and away by his finger. 
You remember this lesson your whole life, 
that sliver/shiver of time, that moment in the sun. 
What am I saying? Nothing. Nothing happened.

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I could have asked for so many poems from this important piece of work, like the one about the night club punter who assaulted Kim’s twin sister, or the assault in the bedroom of a teenage party, or the sexually threatening taxi driver in Cork, or the predator in a hotel an an unnamed country.

And I would say of each that the thing that disturbs is the poet/speaker in each questioning her own feelings of potential complicity. If there’s a more powerful way dramatising the insidious effects of societal gender conditioning, I can’t imagine it.

However,I can’t resist sharing this next one in its entirety, because it shares the same kind of space as Tony Harrison’s Them and Uz, and Jim Carruth’s account of the tutor who told him narrative is dead.

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48.

When he told me not to tell the story 
of my mother’s hair, I was obedient 
for many years, until I saw the video 
of wild horses in Patagonia,
tamed by increments over many days,
the gaucho calm and still when the horse
met his gaze, then shooing it 
as it looks away, and so the horse learns
that only when it gives its whole attention
to this man will it ever feel peace again.

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And of course my mother is not a horse,
she would never be fooled by such a trick,
but maybe the man who told me not to tell
is the gaucho, maybe once I was a horse,
to spend all these years listening to his voice.
He told me this was women’s business,
that the world was not interested in such things.
He said listen to me read Eliot until you fall asleep 
or until the red wine runs out, and so we did,
all of us who had gathered there to learn. 

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He stood in front of the curved window.
The bats criss-crossed the lawn. 
He did not hold a book, or open his eyes
to see if we were there. The room took 
his voice and gave it back to every corner.
It felt as if he whispered in my ear. 

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I have held my tongue for years.
My mother’s hair. I did as I was told. 
She sat for hours between my legs
as if she was the child, and I the mother.
I straightened her hair, every curl and kink, 
dividing it into smaller and smaller sections. 
The hiss of steam. The TV in the background. 
My father elsewhere, and part of me still there,
part of me in the library with the man
who told me not to speak about such things.
The lawn. The drifting dusk. The bats.
My mother’s hair. My hands. That house.
The shudder of a horse’s flank.

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It’s a lesson to all creative writing tutors. What’s clear, though, is that in the process of researching and creating this stunning book the poet has made for herself a language which lets her analyse the situation, and that empowers and defends her against the assumption that it’s OK to brush a shining droplet of water off the thigh of a teenage girl.

Let me end by sharing the one that begins the collection (which I think is a very clever thing to do). It says, gleefully enough,

this is who I am now, or who I know myself to be. Let me tell you how I got there.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

We are coming under cover of darkness,
with our strawberry marks, our familiars,
our third nipples, our ill-mannered bodies, 
our childhoods spent hobbled like horses

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where we were told to keep our legs closed, 
where we sat in the light of a window and posed
and waited for the makers of the world 
to tell us again how a woman is made.

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We are arriving from the narrow places, 
from the spaces we were given, with our curses
and our spells and our solitude, with our potions
we swallow to shrink us small as insects

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or stretch us into giants, for yes, there are giants
amongst us, we must warn you. There will be riots,
we’re carrying all that we know about silence
as we return from the forests and towers,

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unmaking ourselves, stepping from the pages
of books, from the eye of the camera, from the cages
we built for each other, the frames of paintings,
from every place we were lost and afraid in.

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We stand at the base of our own spines 
and watch tree turn to bone and climb 
each vertebra to crawl back into our minds,
we’ve been out of our minds all this time,

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our bodies saying no, we were not born for this,
dragging the snare and the wire behind us. 

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Kim Moore, thank you for being our guest. Thank you for the poems. I’ve not done them justice. But other people will do better jobs xxx

Here’s the link for Woman’s Hour on BBC i.player.

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https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m00127ck