Pressed for time: more teasers and trailers

Another milestone passed. The MS is off to the printer on Monday.

Today I did the last of many proof-reads, and effectively signed off on the manuscript of my new collection. We’ve scratched our heads over how to persuade Word to make prosepoems symmetrical and now it’s up to the printer. It’s all out of my hands, and I’m at the stage of staring at the text and wondering what it’s all about. It’s the stage painters know, which has gone beyond the stage of finishing a painting you’re already tired of, but has to be finished, because…well, it does. The stage of looking at what you’ve made and not quite recognising it as yours. Not exactly regretting it, but wishing it had said what it was meant to, and then accepting that ‘meaning’ is largely out of your hands once you start something, because it makes up its rules as it goes along until how it ends is inevitable, regardless of what you intended.

When I taught drama, I recall we lived by a kind of mantra. We learned to believe that the best you can achieve in creative arts, (and, indeed, in theoretical science) is an approximation to a resolution. Which is just as well, because otherwise you’d make one perfect thing, and stop. The answers are always approximate, because, partly, we never quite get the hang of asking the right question(s). It’s never good enough.

I’ve found myself apologising to the lovely poets who wrote endorsements for the collection. “Look,” I’ve been saying; ” I think what I asked you to read was less of a collection and more a loose amalgamation of pamphlets that I never quite got the hang of or brought to a resolution (approximate or otherwise)”

There are sequences about mortality, about hospitals, about paintings, about mining disasters, about childhood and about ageing. Why do I keep thinking it’s not quite what a collection ought to be? Maybe it’s because I’m thinking of the collections I’ve written about in the last months. Helen Ivory, Martin Malone, Kim Moore, Carola Luther, Ruth Valentine, Marion Oxley…all their books seem to have a coherence. Maybe it’s because the poems are clearly about shapeshifting and identity, or about witches, or about setting the record straight about the poetry of WWI, or about all the men who were never married. Or maybe it’s about a singleness of voice and vision. Whatever it is, they all have it.

And here’s the thing…..I think like this every single time I finish a book. It’s not what I thought it would be. And it’s not good enough. I have to kick myself. Of course it isn’t. It never is and never will be. I have to remind myself of something I wrote before, probably in a similar state of mind.

Every now and then I puzzle about why the last 2 or 3 years has been full of the need to write, and especially, the drive to write poems. This morning I started reading Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Landmarks’ and early got brought up short by this:

‘To defend what we love we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know’

So that’s why.”

We’re all after the ‘particularizing language’. Gradually, with luck, it will develop a personality, a particular idiom and lexis, a rhythm and accent. It will be distinctly your own, your voice. If anything makes this new book ‘coherent’ it will be that. A way of looking and thinking that comes with its own language. I’m intrigued as I trawl through the poems looking for glitches and syntactic slurs and spelling errors and sloppy punctuation, to become aware that poem after poem is asking questions, and full of conditionality. Maybe. Perhaps. What if. Why.

I suspect that what this collection is mainly about is puzzlement, written by someone on the outside, looking in, listening to a language he recognises but doesn’t quite understand, like your reflection in a train window that may just be your alter ego, looking in, wondering about you. Or like looking at a painting and wondering about the mystery that’s looking back. Or looking at moments in your own childhood and wondering if they were actually yours. No wonder that every now and again I’ll settle for looking at a bit of landscape that’s simply what it is and lets you walk about in it.

Until the book comes out I’ll post a couple of poems every now and again, and maybe you and I will see what I mean. There I go again. Maybe.

Here’s a poem that turned up, out of the blue, at an Arvon Course, when the tutor dished out a load of postcards and asked us to respond to one. I got “Vanitas’ . I’m still puzzled about where the inspector came from.. apart from wondering who would own stuff like this, and why.

.The Inspector’s Room   
(Jan Lievens: Vanitas)
Whispers come down the road before him;
nothing can be hidden; there will be reckonings.
His ledgers are compendia, they say,
of the absolutes of birth and death,
the accidents of name and ownership.
His books are more at home in saddlebags,
odorous with dried horse-sweat, their bindings
flaccid, sprawled like half-flayed Marsyas.
He has come far to be here in his good boots, soft gloves.
He’d have you understand he is a frugal man;
he will have no clock, has all the time he needs.
He wants no candle, nor yet fire.
He has light enough for a plain meal,
and light enough to read. And write.
Will no one bring him ink and pen and knife?
For this is now the Inspector’s Room.
We shall be glad to see him gone,
him and his books, and boots and gloves;
to throw away the unbroken bread,
to scour the glass, the plate his hands have touched;
to light candles, bring in coals.

I very rarely travel on trains these day. In my childhood we always went on holiday by train. There was a magic about being woken up to look out of the early morning window on the stretch from Exmouth through Dawlish, and the business of crossing the Tamar Bridge. There were the single track train rides to places like Lostwithiel and St Ives. I always loved the transpennine trains, too, the tunnels and the sudden valleys, and the long viaducts. The last time I was on a train was coming back from Manchester on a winter night after doing a reading in Cork. It was dark outside and crowded inside. It wasn’t what I hoped for. Just me, looking back.



Last Night I Saw You on a Train

Just your face in the window,

indistinct, an underwater face   

a blur in the hurling night,


coming and lost in the suddenness

of street lights and motorways,

small stations’ neon rush,


the walls of warehouses, IKEA, B&Q,

and lorry parks; then back and clearer

in long tunnels of dripping dark.


I thought you looked like me, a bit. 

I would have liked to talk, to ask

how things are with you.


But it wouldn’t do. The train

was full, people swaying in the aisles,

their faces blue with smartphone light,


and all of them talking and talking

to someone, somewhere,

texting, and texting.


What can we do? There you are

in a train beyond the streaming glass

and here am I. We raise our hands.

We nod. And you’ve gone.


(however, I’ll be back, sometime next week, either with a guest or just ego-tripping. Thanks for being here)

3 thoughts on “Pressed for time: more teasers and trailers

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