2021: That was the year that was

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In those days

In those days we didn’t know we were in those days

only in the day to day, in the moment when

we might say in those days and mean the days

of our mothers whose fathers were ploughed under

the fields of France or died of lead poisoning

or carcinogens in the fumes of hot poured asphalt

and when our mothers said in those days they meant

the days of our grandmothers who went to work

at six years old and lived above a rich man’s stables,

who married travelling asphalters, or journeymen

painters and decorators, and if they ever thought

of people in those days perhaps they thought 

of their grandmothers who never learned to read 

or write, or did and dressed in crinolines and wore

longsleeved gloves, because in those days everything

was golden or everything was ash, but when 

we say in those days we tell ourselves it was golden.

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In June this year I see that I wrote:

Hey, you guys, you gotta wear ties on the weekend! : Eddie Cochran

We had Weekends when I first started this poetry blog, and Sundays were for writing poetry blog posts. I didn’t always want to, but the routine was the thing. A bit like Saturday night being all right for fighting. Or the way that Saturday nights before television were for going to the cinema or the Mecca. 

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Something has happened to time, to weeks and weekends in the last 14 months. Isolation, shielding and lockdowns effectively meant there were no trips out, no holidays, no shopping. Shopping was something a neighbour did for us, or, more alarmingly, what I did late at night via Google, so that Amazon kept delivering stuff I couldn’t quite remember ordering. In theory I could have got up and gone to bed at any time, since all times were much the same…..but the sun rises and sets and there is some kind of rhythm to hang on to. It’s just that the names of days don’t signify. There have been weeks when for three days in a row I might say things like I keep thinking it’s Friday. The routines slip. 

It was hard to keep going, some weeks. But as I said, courtesy of Dylan, last January

                      he not busy being born is busy dying  : 

January

Six weeks ago I started a programme of chemotherapy. I wasn’t prepared for the lethargy or the mental tiredness. I thought I was already mentally tired by the unchanging circumstances of ten months of shielding/lockdowns/self-isolation. Though I suppose it was some kind of practice. It would be so easy to catalogue the frustrations of 2020 and would serve little purpose. Everyone else has been there. I’ve grown spiritually and physically agarophobic as the world has consistently shrunk. 

…and that was pretty well it. One post. Reflective, introspective and pretty depressing, now I look back. Mea culpa

February

Not much change, apparently

“I’ve been shielding and self-isolating for a year. It’s my Covid-versary. At the start, you don’t mark the date. I just remember thinking that it would be sorted by the end of April, and I’d go to St Ives to write. And then April became September, except it didn’t. And so on. Can you remember what day its anymore? 

If someone told you a year ago you’ll be isolated for a year you’d probably say but I can’t do that. Much in the style of folk who post on social media that they can’t wait for X or Y or whatever. meaning that they don’t want to. I can’t do that. I’m reminded of Kim Moore’s glorious Trumpet Teacher’s curse

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a curse on the teacher who says I’m rubbish at music
in a loud enough voice for the whole class to hear

I can’t do that. We believe we can’t cope. We lose someone we love. We lose an occupation. How will we survive? It turns out that you can, that you have to, that you do. I had another anniversary in January. Eight years ago I joined an inspirational fellowship and gave up alcohol. I thought I couldn’t do it, but it turned out I could. The remarkable thing is that, as a direct result, I started to write seriously, and joined another inspirational fellowship of people who write poems. I’ve had a book published every year since. I started to write a poetry blog, and about 750,000 words later, I’m still writing it. It turns out I could do it after all. As can we all, mostly. 

 Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question

Brings the priest and the doctor   

In their long coats

Running over the fields.

March

I made a promise in March. It turns out that I kept it.

“I’m a fan of Terry Pratchett – that wise, witty, inventive, humane man. I have 30+ of his audio books on a flash drive, and I listen to them over and over in the car. I love his characters, not least Tiffany Aching, the witch and keeper of sheep. She has a great love of words that she experiences in a kind of synaesthesia. They are mobile, tactile, visual, aural, all at onceLike this:

Susurrus . . . according to her grandmother’s dictionary, it meant ‘a low soft sound, as of whispering or muttering’. Tiffany liked the taste of the word. It made her think of mysterious people in long cloaks whispering important secrets behind a door: susurrususssurrusss … (The Wee Free Men)

There’s one that’s stuck in my head of late. Desultory. Limp-wristed, indolent, dilatory. That’s me. That’s twelve months of self-isolating and procrastination. It’s what happens when days fail to have meaning as events or sequences, when deadlines seem like irrelevances. Time to do something about it. Time to catch up.

It’s what we say when we haven’t seen someone for a long time…”let’s get together and do some catching up”. Of course there is the obverse …as in “playing catch up” which is when a team will rush things, and forget the plan and take risks, and generally lose the plot on the way to losing. I’ll keep that in mind. The thing is, poets go on writing, and even through a year of Covid, books are published and I buy them, and I mean to tell folk about the ones I liked. And then I go all desultory. So here’s the plan. I’m going to do some catching up; I resolve to get back to a proper routine of regular cobweb posts and tell you about the books that have made me happier in the last year. “

And I actually did!!!! 

Martin Zarrop, John Duffy, Alison Lock, Mike Farren, Helen Ivory, Mike di Placido, Maria Taylor, Ruth Valentine, Martin Malone, Carola Luther and Kim Moore…..thank you for being our guests, thank you for your poems.

April

 I started April with low immunity and a dose of pneumonia that left me, as I reported:

“catching up and trying to catch my breath. Literally. I planned to write this last Sunday, instead of which I spent the afternoon at A&E in Pinderfields Hospital, Wakefield, because I’d developed symptoms of what I remembered about the pneumonia that almost did for me when I was 19.

The NHS is an astonishing institution. Triaged, ECG, chest X-ray, blood test, a succession of inputs from two technicians, two nurses and a doctor (twice). Diagnosed with acute chest infection, cleared of any possibility of blood clots, prescribed mega doses of antibiotics, and a nurse went down to the pharmacy to collect my prescription. The whole thing in slightly under two hours in an extremely busy A&E.

Since then I’ve been in bed more than not. Tired out from coughing, but now pretty well clear. Debilitated, though. That’s the word. I hope I can do justice to Alison Lock, our guest today and her collection Lure [Calder Valley Poetry]…an unnerving and beautifully observed sequence about her near-death experience of a fall, and her subsequent recovery.”

As it turned out, I think I did. If you missed it, check it out.

May

I noted that I was still 

“catching up….but slowly, me. Trying to get to grips with ending a course of chemothrapy which involved maintaining the daily intake of steroids that I’ve been taking for about two and a half years; all part of the cancer treatment. Feeling decidedly off-it for the last couple of weeks as the steroid intake tapers off. I looked up the possible side effects. I appear to be able to tick off lots of them, particularly tiredness, recurrent anxiety, loss of stamina and poor concentration. None of them are in any way severe, but they do slow me down and slow my thinking down. They screw up the rhythm that I think we all need when we write.”

I went on catching up, and was utterly delighted to write about  Helen Ivory’s The Anatomical Venus , which let me share this poem and tell you why I love it.

Scold’s bridle

Such a bridle for the tongue, as not only quite deprives [women] of speech but brings shame for the transgression and humility thereupon

drive your iron tongue into my mouth

fell me of my speaking

ride me through the streets dumb beast

this carnival of spitting, pissing

you think it makes a manful man of you?

the root of me is driven down to silence

to some dark earth

anchoress

my tongue is pricked and raw

god’s words are kindling in my throat

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If I ever have a tattoo, it will be a quotation from Tony Harrison. “The tongueless man gets his land took”. Or “articulation is the tongue-tied’s fighting” . It was Tony Harrison who coined that phrase ‘the branks of condescension’…..the condescension, say, of his English teacher who derided his Beeston accent, and tried to silence it with the muffling blanket of RP.. A branks is another name for the scold’s bridle that might be used to publicly humiliate a ‘nagging woman’. 

I like everything about this poem. I’m a sucker for the well-made dramatic monologue, and this is exceptionally well-made. I like the defiance of it that struggles past the iron restrain of the pricking gag. I like the way the shape enacts the struggle . I like the sheer surprise of that verb ‘fell’, and the way ‘anchoress’ brings me up short to haver between anchorite and anchor. Here’s a sybil who won’t be silenced though her tongue bleeds. The last line is a martyr’s banner. Stunning.

June.

I was obviously running out of invention, and started to post what I called Stocking Fillers…mainly to keep the blog ticking over. 

But then the world changed. Just a bit. I was let out of self-isolating. 

“ For a week now I’ve been relishing the heady excitements of getting in the car and driving to shops, of mooching round Wickes and B&Q, of buying gravel. Taking in the novelty and odd normality of sanitising stations at the doors of Sainsbury’s and the Tesco garage; the arrows and two-metre space markers on the floors. In odd ways, beyond the  news headlines, this is not my country, not exactly. I don’t speak the language, or at least, not fluently. I’ve lost my tongue. I stutter.” 

Still, some kind of normality returned. I caught up with TWO collections. First there was Mike di Placido’s Alpha, which I introduced thus:

“How many established poets can you name who are equally good at writing funny poems, and poems that are, for the want of a better word, serious? I can name lots of poets who are very good at writing funny poems, but who lapse into sentimentality or worse when they aim at ‘seriousness’. I think Pam Ayres is one, and Les Barker another. There are serious poets who sometimes aim at ‘funny’ and miss by a mile. The ones who do both well are few and far between. Carol Ann Duffy managed both in The World’s Wife. Roger McGough has always managed it, and so has Ian McMillan. In fact, I think our guest poet today occupies the same kind of emotional and topographical territory as McMillan; I think, when you’ve read some of the poems, you’ll agree.”

And then there was Maria Taylor’s splendid second collection: Dressing for the afterlife about which I  said:

Dressing for the afterlife is one of those rare books that does pretty much what it says on the tin (or on the back cover) :

 a diamond-tough and tender second collection of poems and how we adapt to the passage of time.. these poems shimmy and glimmer bittersweet with humour and brio. 

The poems in Melanchrini were about personal and cultural identity, always asking ‘where do I fit?’ These poems are surer about the answer. In She ran, (which tangentially reminds me of Dylan’s what did you see my blueyed son?) whether running away or towards doesn’t get the narrator what she wants or what she thinks she wants. By the end of the collection she’s grown out of or beyond the glitzy masks and personae she’s tried on:

‘I’d like to be the woman next door /with a walk that says I know where I’m going’   

This collection says loud and clear that she does.

July

I see that I was still not feeling too well. Every post so far last year seemed to start the same way. It’s embarrassing. 

“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:

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.”

But I managed to catch up with two more collections that I liked a lot; work that bestirred and excited and entertained, and stuck in the mind. Natalie Rees’  Low Tide, and Di Slaney’s quirky and jampacked Herd Queen.  For both of those, much thanks, Natalie and Di.

August

August was all stocking-fillers and obituaries. Much possessed, like Webster, with death. But I’ll come back to one moment in August at the end of this post.

September

September looked as though things were picking up. I never reflected on being tired or ill or wallowing in uncreative self-pity. I finally managed to write about Martin Malone’s uncompromising and brilliant unpicking of the iconographies of WW1 in The Unreturning:

It’s a collection that draws on painstaking and passionate research. It’s technically varied and accomplished. It wears its heart on its sleeve. As I said:

“I realised a long long time ago I’d not do justice to the complexities and variety of this collection– lyrical, satitirical, rhetorical, polemical, extensively researched, and technically accomplished. Put all that together and you realise that it doesn’t add up to something you might recognize as currently fashionable. But do go and buy it. You’ll not be disappointed and you’ll certainly be educated. And you can dream that Michael Gove and his satraps could be forced to learn this poem by heart.”

October

I was delighted to share my enthusiasm for Ruth Valentine’s If you want thunder [Smokestack] and to finish the post with this poem…tender, tough, sharp, ironic, bleak, worldly, desperate,funny. Like the whole collection

Sonnet Written With a Pink Pen

My tiny hand is frozen, having cleaned

mould out of the fridge.  I’ve scoured the loo,

made chicken soup, altered a pair of jeans,

addressed a meeting.  It’s what women do.

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I’ve dressed a dead man in his football shirt

and laid him in his coffin; known the stench

we all may melt to; comforted the hurt

partners and enemies.  I didn’t flinch,

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or not in public.  For thirty years I’ve written

poems of death and exile, sex and grief,

Pinochet, Kosovo, London riots, love.

Now that I’ve got this pen, though, I can prove

my feminine vocation: violets, kittens,

cupcakes and curls.  Imagine my relief.

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In October I was also able to celebrate the fact that Anthony Wilson had returned to the poetry blogging routine, with a series of Life-saving lines. There was something that resonated.

“Of late I’ve been taking some comfort from the fact that Anthony Wilson has revived his poetry blog, and I look forward to each new post, partly because there’s sometimes a wistful quality about them that chimes with me for complex reasons I’ll not be sharing. His latest one struck a chord. Particularly because he’s writing not just about struggling to write poetry, but also with the idea of putting it ‘out there’. I just want to share this extract in which he ponders on the ins and outs of keeping away from ‘social media’ …. which he elected to do for the sake of his spiritual/mental well-being; I understand that, totally.

“On another level altogether, it (ie, this deliberate withdrawal) just feels  lonely. I have been battering away at some stuff for a while now, which, thanks to the help of some very kind people, might one day see the light. Some of it is emerging, slowly and cautiously. But it still feels lonely. My instinct is to hide, both the poems and me. Yet out it must. I wish there was another way.

Anyway, while I, like Anthony, am tentatively working on new stuff that may or may not turn out to be the real deal, and while I am less and less confident about sending stuff ‘out there’, whether as submississions or competition entries, I’m re-engaging with new poetry from other folk. I can’t cope with writing appreciations of new collections every week…there’s a bucket list that I’ll deal with as and when. 

November

November brought us face to face with a collection (along with December’s guest) that will go down as one of the best of 2021. This is what I said:

Today’s (returning) guest is someone I first met about eight years ago at the Monday night workshops of The Albert Poets in Huddersfield. Like another poet at these workshops, the much-missed Mark Hinchcliffe, she has a unique voice, and one that I didn’t quite tune into until I heard her do a full guest reading a year or so later. You may have had moments like this, when you suddenly hear what you’ve been missing, when you hear the tune that brings the meaning and the passion along with it. She’s a poet who has the quality of what Keats called negative capability, that ability to en-chant a place or a moment that bypasses the writer’s personality. It’s a voice that takes you on walks into, along and out of the imbricated valleys of the West Yorkshire Pennine, and along moorland tops; on walks at the edge of things by seashores and dunescapes; on walks through the thin places of the world, across thresholds. It’s the kind of quality that’s hinted at by the layered, ambiguous title of her latest cornucopia of a collection On the way to Jerusalem Farm.

When I last wrote about our guest, I said 

“there are those who I can only think of as poets, albeit some may have been priests or librarians, or hospital receptionists or teachers. It seems they were always poets first and the other things were incidental. Men and women with astonishing imaginative/empathic reach allied to the (apparently effortless) control of words, of the capabilities of language, syntax, rhythm, form. Men and women who are artists with verbal language in the way that, say, Hockney, lays down a mark, or Picasso makes a pure line. They seem to have been born that way, regardless of the phenomenal effort they put into assembling their craft.

I think, if I’m lucky, that might happen to me once or twice before I die, but I can see the same quality of ‘not being able to help yourself’ flare up in the contemporary poems that have excited me..ones by Christy Ducker, by Fiona Benson, by Pascale Petit, Kim Moore, Steve Ely. Ones who do it often enough for me to think of them as poets rather than people who write poems. Forget the hierarchies, the rankings, the ‘who’s better than who’ nonsense. Some have done more than others, and some have had more success in terms of public recognition than others, but whatever it is, they have it, and they are poets. They are passionately moved by what they see and feel around then..it’s a quiet passion, but passion it undoubtedly is.”

December

It was an utter joy to end December and to end 2021 with a shameless roar of approval for the long-awaited second collection from my friend, hero and mentor…Kim Moore’s All the men I never married. I’ve nothing left to say about it. But here’s the prologue.

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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So, there we are. A year of recycled poems, stocking fillers, stand-ups, long-delayed appreciations and reviews, and far too much about being unwell and sorry for myself. And let’s be fair. In the world ‘out there’ it was a truly horrible year, a sleep of reason beginning with a failed putsch by morons led by a moron in the USA, and ending with tsunamis of incompetence, criminality and sleaze in what passes for government. What keeps me sane? You do. You and the poets whose work makes the world a better place. Go well. Stay well.

Postscript.

In August me and my partner Flo had a day out. We went to the seaside. 

“The first trip anywhere beyond the homes of close family for 18 months. A drive to the coast with my partner Flo, to meet up with a former student and great friend, Andy Blackford .

Unnervingly, as we drove over Fylingdales Moor and caught our first sight of the sea, we found ourselves in tears. It caught me on the raw, that feeling that something we’d taken for granted for years should feel extraordinary because it was unchanged. I think, too, it was unnerving to drive through an entirely normal Sandsend, of families picnicking on the beach, children paddling, hardy souls swimming. And I still felt shut off from it all, isolated in a self-imposed bubble, not quite sure if I spoke the language of ‘out there’ any more.

We had a fine day with Andy and Sandra, looking out over the harbour at Staithes, watching small boats coming in trailing clouds of gulls, and catching up….though gradually noticing that what we were catching up on was films we’d watched and books we’d read, because they’d largely replaced the accidents of normal life, the business of going places and bumping into people. Stuff we take for granted, like the first sight of the sea from Fylingdales.”

This is what it looks like, looking out of Andy’s sitting room window in Staithes. This is why I go on writing, to stop the world vanishing.

Staithe

(O.N. stodh = a harbour, wharf or jetty)

A jut. A tilt at the water, for the hopeful,

for the end of the tether. A boy with a crabline,

a lowtide dog sandscrabbling, worrying kelp.

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Stolid lads in yellow rubberboots, whose business

is setting-out, smelling the wind, appraising the light,

the cast of the sky. And also the affair of boats

and their stowage; the coiling of ropes, the neat

and practised stacking of blue plastic boxes, 

fishcrates, creels and woven traps.

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They come pottering home on the tide

in a haze of gulls and diesel. 

                   .    

They tie up at the staithe, string half a dozen

mackerel through the gills, carry them home. 

A bundle of bluesteel  and stripe, 

a bouquet of redmouthed protest.

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A raft of gulls lifts itself and its trailing yellow feet

off the fattening tide. Then pirouette and shuffle

back on the water, sit on rainbows and tension,

shiver their wings and tuck themselves in.

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Somewhere beyond that buttress of a shaly cliff,

rackety with cross birds forever falling

in and out, the sun is quietly shutting up the day.

[from Gap Year. John Foggin and Andy Blackford .(Sentinel )]

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8 thoughts on “2021: That was the year that was

  1. I don’t always comment John, but I always read your blog and take something from it that makes me think, reflect on my life, consider yours, reminds me about humanity, connects me with poems that touch me, sends me off researching and exploring ideas. It has been a hard year in many ways- harder to manage for some reason than 2020- and I am glad it’s over. Hope 2022 treats you well. Elaine Riley

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  2. Gosh. As ever, you capture time and how the apparently mundane is more powerful than we know. Life pretty rough here too, but improved by your company which is more reliable than maybe you know. Lots love, from someone who last week wrote only her second poem since August 2019…
    Lots love, lots thanks.

    Like

  3. Lovely post John. It captures the ups and downs of your year, and that of many others. It’s as if everyone’s experiences have been ‘same but different’ in a weird way, like it’s a long film in which we’re all part of the same narrative but some are in leading roles and many, so many, are extras. And this film has so many sequels and spin offs! Ah well. Thank you for your posts, your poems, your insights. Do take care.
    Julie x

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  4. Happy 2022, John! Thank you for all your blog posts over the last year, you know I’m reading. And “stop the world vanishing” you do. It’s a gentle resistance too, I think, and a way of making things that matter endure. Lovely August poem – my kind of poem. Wishing you many more trips to the seaside. Take care.
    Regina x

    Like

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