My kind of poetry: Marion Oxley’s “In the taxidermist’s house”

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Not so long ago I came across this comment about In the taxidermist’s house in  the Wombwell Rainbow poetry blog : 

“An ecopoetic and zoopoetic powerhouse of a 28 poem collection. Her final poem “journey of the light travellers” is an empathic devastating critique of wind farms. “Woodlice” is from the insects point of view and, for me, captures it perfectly.

A lot of the poems enact transformation, metamorphosis “They come/the seekers of freedom/shedding the skin of crowds//Emerge/displaced and solitary/haunters of canal paths/” 

Metamorphosis, transformation, shaeshifting.  I simply had to have a copy.

But let me tell you about the image of a freezer full of stiff birds 

If you can find it on your i.player, see if you can track down a BBC 4 occasional series: What do artists do all day  And if not, here’s a link to a YouTube extract. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5PxZbqjlcE

I’ve watched the programme about Polly Morgan again and again.  In it she says that people send her roadkill she might use;  someone rang her to say 

saw a dead fox today and thought of you.

She’s an artist who creates work out of taxidermy; she rummages about in freezer chests looking for exactly the right size of mynah bird, and then sits with infinite patience, teasing off  the skin ( and therefore the plumage) in one undamaged piece; she uses incredibly sharp scalpels and focussed concentration. There’s something reverential in the attention she pays to the bird in her hands, and something very gentle and steely about the way she puts it back together, stitching minutely, stroking back the plumage. And musing at the same time about her awareness of her hands’ fragility; ‘sometimes’ she says,’ I can’t stop wondering what’s beneath the skin’.

The images haunted me; I had to put them into a poem: 

Much possessed

She keeps mynah birds and fledgling sparrows

in the freezer. Knows just how feathers lie

in a wing…………………..

Sometimes she looks at the backs of her hands,

imagines the bones she has never seen…

And, in part, that’s also how I came across the debut collection by today’s guest, Marion Oxley. The opening poem of the pamphlet is Still life [after Polly Morgan]. There a stanza in there that made me punch the air.

             Hands tie up hair, pin back despair,

             pack loneliness into the shoulders

             of a raven.

I knew Marion Oxley before this, because she’s been (when it was still alive and well) a regular supporter of the Puzzle Poets Live open nights, a member of the poet Gaia Holmes’ occasional writing group Igniting the spark, and every now and then getting up to the mic. with one of her poems. She’s not one to seek the limelight, which is why I’m especially pleased to share her work. She writes powerfully and memorably, like this

A fortune telling squirrel dressed in bling
peers into a crystal ball; the murky waters
of the Leeds Liverpool canal slowly part.

.

Jake the ten foot Burmese python
squeezed into a freezer;
lies coiled like a giant black pudding
waiting for the thaw.

From: A taxidermist regenerates Blackurn.

..which is a title to win a place in any competition shortlist. She’s good at titles that draw you in; The girl who became a zebra, A crocodile in Neverland, A chameleon goes to Butlins. You see what I mean?

 Anyway, time for introductions. Marion Oxley was born in Manchester and spent her early years in Salford. She’s worked in a variety of paid and voluntary jobs including the NHS, youth services, Manchester City Council’s Equal Opportunities Unit, Women’s Aid, drug and alcohol services, postal services, psychiatric nursing, community occupational therapy and adult services care management. She has a BA(Hons)Fine Art.

She came to poetry by chance whilst learning to play the fiddle. Inspired by the tradition of story telling in folk ballads. This lead to a desire to experience the landscape of contemporary pieces, especially those that explored the inter-weaving of geography, archaeology, myth and folk-lore. She is a regular visitor to the Orkney islands.

She currently lives amongst the flood plains of the Calder Valley with her boisterous Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Alice. She has family in the Republic of Ireland and volunteers at the local foodbank.

She’s told me:  I don’t really feel I’m on the poetry ‘scene’. I mostly write alone though currently doing a Wendy Pratt short course along with some excellent poets who are so much better than me, so are an inspiration. 

She may be underselling herself; her poems have been published widely in magazines and anthologies. Most recently in The Blue Nib, The Fenland Journal, ArtemisThe Alchemy Spoon, The Bangor Literary Journal, Geography is Irrelevant (Stairwell Press), Bloody Amazing (Beautiful Dragons/Yaffle). She’s had poems shortlisted or placed in many competitions, recently being runner up in The Trim Poetry Competition and Second Light Competition.

What draws a reader’s attention, apart from the titles, are her concerns and her craft:

 Myra Schneider identifies an imaginative engagement with “the relationship between birth, life and death” and also her writing which is “…. in deft and sinuous language, deconstructs and reconstructs our relationship with nature and mortality.”

James Nash focusses on the way  “She reflects and pays homage to the work of other artists, and shares her very own particular vision, in poetry that is fiercely intelligent, celebratory and beautiful. “

And after that, you’ll be wanting to read the poems. The ones I asked for all illustrate three qualites Myra Schneider highlights…language that is intense, tactile and energetic. Let me add that its often uncomfortable, too.

The first poem is about shapeshifting, and it’s unsettling because it’s constantly fluid. I was never sure who was telling me the story. There was a time some time  ago when the selkie was a fashionable feminist trope in poetry. But none of the poems seemed be as deliberately ambiguous and ambivalent as this one.

Skin Trade

Once hands turned her soapstone smooth

          ran thumbs over flesh and fur, took measure.

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Wrapped mother and child in pelted warmth.

Eyeless skin stretched keeless boats 

          slipped silent passages through frozen seas.

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The soft pulse of ferries shivers skin,

          a quicken of gannets slick as flick knives, slit the sea.

 .             

The torn fishnets had rankled 

          caused an underwater roar, falling on her deaf ears. 

 .

The last ferry slides like a birthday cake, 

          candles burning, off the plated sea.  

He comes with the twitchers, the hikers, 

          occasional bikers. The divers of dreams in neoprene.

 .

After a skinful, pissed on myth and mist, 

          he gives her the present; a seal skin. 

 .

Water-marked, mottled, in the corner a faint blue stain,

          half-formed letters, clear as a fingerprint.  

 .

She rides her past in a blast of black sea squall. 

 .       

On the wet quayside they are gathered, bodies shimmering. 

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She watches the totter, the flop across the bonnet. Hears a clink of glass,

          bottle rolling, head lolling, hands flapping. 

 .

Watches the bend in, taking of a lighted cigarette. Hears the unzipping

          of black, skin-tight jacket. 

 .

There on pale skin, a heart, three faded blue letters; Mum.

 .

Liquid eyes turn towards her. Strands of damp hair flick back 

          like seaweed rolling off slim shoulders of rock. 

 .

She remembers her fourteen years old stepping out of the bath

          patting dry the new tattoo. She hands her the sealskin.

.. 

I come away asking whose hands turned ‘her’ soapstone smooth even as I relish the texture of the phrase.

I’m bothered by the abrupt shift from a protective warmth to the skin of a boat in icy seas, which morph into a harbour where the last ferry  pulses and slides like a birthday cake off the plated sea. Every one of the phrases rings true, but belong in different places in space and history. I can make connections with the typical folk-tale of a man who steals a female selkie’s skin, finds her naked on the sea shore, and compels her to become his wife, and how the wife will spend her time in captivity longing for the sea, her true home,.  She may bear several children by her human husband, but once she discovers her skin, she will immediately return to the sea and abandon the children she loved. But then I have connect that with what well may be an Orkney harbour, a CalMac ferry, the shimmering bodies, the skintight suit that may (or may not) be a diver’s wet suit. Everything is real and baffling. And everything is precisely placed, filmic. I love it. Just don’t ask me to explain it. I keep coming up with different answers.

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I asked for the next poem not only for its passionate concern for the balance in things which is challenged (as in so many other ways) by the impact on the migratory cycles of one beautiful northern bird, but also for the texture of language, and it’s cinematic eye. This one insists on being read aloud.

Journey of the light travellers                                                                            

‘Red-throated diver sees off consortium of energy firms, as wind farm plan axed.’  

This is the treeless land you moved through, 

         were born to, left and returned to. 

The land where you stared into the midnight sun,

         peered through a green glass sky.   

                                   Where sun dogs pant at sea ice melting. 

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Where an Arctic fox crouches, blurs, dissolves, 

         white as sea salt sinking. 

This is where your North is turning 

         ice needle sharp, towards the sun. 

                                   In the twilight of the thaw you are waiting.

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This is a land where darkness stalks you 

         will snap your wings, if you leave too late. 

They found you on a broken Northern shore. 

                                   Twenty three years old.

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Claimed you were old, for your kind.

         Scraped a body, red-eyed and grey, 

pinstriped, a triangle at your throat 

                                   the colour of blood or was it wine?

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Hunched over as if you had just fallen from the sky 

         or pulled the earth up from the bottom of the sea

or seized a titanium flag glinting like a speared fish 

                                   from under a water sky. 

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Your slender body slathered in black gold 

         and the ring; a travel journal of your life

tucked beneath a wing. Your haunting wail; 

                                   a tarred and feathered ghost.  Lame duck, loon.

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Your kind arrived in winter, stumbling onto our shore. 

         Hungry, pale faced migrants. 

Light travellers.   Gavia Stellata.

                                  Your backpacks stitched with stars.

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Bewildered by an array of verticals;

         a sea-forest of white arms rising in unison.

And then the fall like dense bones diving

         the sky dragged down through mist and cloud, 

                                   a search for light in dark waters.  A slow rise. 

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On the shore they counted the numbers, 

         decided no more.       Heads held high, 

                                    bills like glinting sailmaker’s awls.  

                                                           You’re sailing close to the wind.

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The first two stanzas set up a rhythm that might be a hymn to a place 

      This is where your North is turning 

         ice needle sharp, towards the sun. 

There are three points of colour- green glass, blood and gold- in a monochrome landscape in which everything is at risk and vulnerable. The fox dissolves, the ice is melting, the dark will snap your wings/if you leave too late. The birds are refugees rather than seasonal migrants in the face of change; stitched with stars and also tarred and feathered.  We are all sailing close to the wind, not just these birds, warns the last line of a poem that insists we acknowledge the loveliness of endangered birds whose bills glint ‘like sailmakers’ awls’.

One more poem to end with…and another bird. If it is a bird. Whose is this ‘last quickening’? I keep asking questions like this as I read Marion Oxley’s poems. Always, it seems, there’s some shapeshifting going on. 

Death of a Humming Bird

Is this how it will be 

the last quickening?

A chest full of flight, 

wings beating backwards.

.

Your tiny body hovering 

just out of reach.

Pale petalled hands grown old 

withered in the waiting.

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The darting in and out of memory 

sweet rush of longing 

withdrawn on a tongue 

sticky with lies.

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A torpor of hope 

weighing less than a feather

balanced on a finger 

stroking a cheek 

soft and damp as moss. 

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Lips crusted in sea salt 

speaking only of the past.

The air between us hanging 

white as a sheet ready 

to be pegged out. 

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A flapping, slapping space  

a nest full of bones,  

skin pulled tight as a lampshade 

stitched around a glow.

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Racing over waves, tides revolving, 

flumes of feathered plumes

sparkling and dipping. 

And there you are sipping 

from an Angel’s Trumpet.

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When Clive James wrote about a poem declaring itself a poem by the moments that draw you in I think he had in mind images like this:

The air between us hanging 

white as a sheet ready 

to be pegged out. 

It’s such a packed image that synthesises all those ideas of separation, of being unable to communicate, of being blind to another, of ‘pegging out’…and at the same time of a shared task, like two people folding or unfolding a white sheet. It’s the washing day of my childhood and also an image that takes me to rooms I’ve known where someone is dying and at least one of us is wanting it to come soon and gentle. Someone with a cheek /soft and damp as moss, with Pale petalled hands grown old , and Lips crusted in sea salt . 

I’m pretty sure that I’m pulling the poem out of shape, making it fit me. I think I need to accept it as a poem that understands our ambivalence about death, and especially that of someone we are close to. And while I’m typing this, I realise I’ve never written a blog post which so frequently confesses to puzzlement about poems I know that I like very much.

Maybe I’ve been trying too hard. And I realise that I’ve not shared any of the poems specifically about taxidermy. I’ll just say that I like everything in this pamphlet. It’s a remarkable debut. What can I say? Thank you Marion Oxley for being our guest, and if I failed to do you justice, please forgive me.

At least I can remember to tell everyone to instantly rush out, virtually or otherwise, and buy the book.

In the taxidermist’s house: Publ. 4Word Press 2021 £5.99

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