Remembrance Sunday

For some years now, I’ve written a post on Remembrance Sunday for my Grandfather, Alfred and his wife, Ethel. This year it’s on my Write Out Loud blog: The wider web. You can find it, if you wish, by following this link https://www.writeoutloud.net/public/blogentry.php?blogentryid=96777

It features my favourite David Constantine poem, and it focuses on the largely ignored wives and daughters and widows of The Fallen. It’s a plea for them to be remembered, the ones who were left to pick up the pieces of their lives, smashed to smithereens.

While I was writing it, for some reason I found myself thinking of my German brother-in-law, Frank Rupp. His father was sent to fight on the Eastern Front;  Frank, and his mother, never saw him again until 1947 when he was finally released from a Russian prison camp. I remembered that when Fank and my sister-in-law came to spend Christmasses with us in the mid-1960s how disturbed…maybe horrified is the right word…by Christmas television in England. The schedules were full of WW2 movies. You know the kind of thing. The great escape. Where eagles dare. Heroes of Telemark. It wasn’t just that the Germans were uniformly presented as either idiots or sadists. It was the fact that this was considered family entertainment at Christmas. He simple couldn’t grasp the idea that it was tolerated. And he was right.

Fifty years on there’s a channel called Yesterday. As far as I can tell, about half its scheduling is devoted to WW2, and about half of that to Hitler. It’s appalling. Who watches it? Why? I’m 76 and I grew out of that stuff by the age of 12 or so….I had my fill of The dam busters, The Colditz Story and all the rest of it. Something else struck me; all my Remembrance posts are about WW1 and my grandparents’ part in it. Why? Maybe it was being brought up on a diet of WW1 poetry. But it’s not good enough.

So, for this Remembrance Sunday I want to remember the ones I knew who came through WW2 and hardly ever talked about it. My father-in-law, Stan Rogers, who spent the war in India and Burma, in recon. behind Japanese lines. The forgotten army, they called themselves. The history teacher I worked with who survived the fiasco of Arnhem. The supply teacher, shot through the throat by a random bullet fired off by a Stuka over Scarborough while he was shaving in his attic digs. Another Stan who was at Anzio, fought up the Italian peninsula, sent to India, where he still was just before partition and had his skull bashed in by a rock in a religious riot. The uncle who was at the liberation of Belsen, and remained in a black depression for years. None of them ever understood the absurd glorification of war, mainly by men who never experienced it. They kept their counsel. 

So remember them, too. The quiet ones. 

Short back and sides

It’s fine, Stan’s hair. His wife, Vera, says:

“He gets it from his mother.

They were all fine haired, her side.”

He’s soft-skinned, too. Big hands

with liver spots. They tremble, agitate

an invisible test tube, like a chemist.

Big ears, lobes like small ox-tongues.

He likes his hair cut short.

Curious to be holding his head still,

gentling the clippers in the back of his neck,

hearing the buzz, feeling light hairs fall.

I’ve eaten snake, he says. A python.

He could butcher anything the lads brought in.

He’ll not eat curry. When you smell that

you know you’re closing on a village.

On Recon. they’d take the headman’s son.

Shackle him on the bonnet of the Jeep.

See, if no one made a fuss we’d know

no Japs was up the trail. Drive him for a bit

then let him off. The skin of his scalp is fragile,

scissors cold on the pink of the skull.

His goalkeeper’s hands beat a soft

tattoo against his knee, When he remembers

he clasps them like a handshake, or a prayer.

In jungle once, he came upon a pal

pinioned to a tree, opened up from throat to groin,

his piled entrails at his feet, a black buzz of flies.

I’ve never told our Vera that.  I tidy round his neck.

I’ll shake the teatowel outside on the step,

watch the hair blow, like dandelion clocks.

His hand have freed themselves.

He has forgotten them.

       According to their cloth

I knew one man made a forced march in a column,

full pack and rifle; heat and scrub, humidity, thick dust;

forty miles in a single day and never knew a battle plan.

One man who fell from a plane 

in a night full of parachutes,

the wind white silk ; the dark sound of planes

dwindling up into the night and him falling into fiasco;

who taught history, who clung to Communism

like a Tudor martyr to a relic.

Another who drove his truck 

into a camp made out of rust and rot,

of wire and sweet black smoke and rags and sweat;

No one came to liberate him;

no one to take his eyes from the dark,

no-one to bring him back from the dead.

The one I loved most spun yarn 

for uniforms and army blankets. 

Reserved occupationConchie.

All the same to him. Nobody tried to kill me.

He cut his coat according to his cloth.

Took his suit lengths into Leeds,

to Jewish tailors, emigrés

in small dark shops in narrow streets.

You don’t choose where you are in history.

You cut your coat

and wear it.

                     From Much Possessed. smith|doorstop 2016

Thinking about extinctions: ‘This Tilting Earth’, by Jane Lovell

This article is reblogged from my post in The Wider Web, published on the Write out Loud website

The other day, I came across an interview with the poet Kim Moore in which she says in response to the question: What does poetry mean to you?

“This is a hard question! I’ve just had a baby, so my relationship with poetry has changed a little, in that it has been squashed into the edges of my life at the moment.  But I guess poetry is my way of making sense of the world, of finding out what I really think, a way of making connections and these are all things I couldn’t live without doing. Poetry to me is those solitary moments of writing, when there is nobody to see or care whether it is any good or not, but it is also those solitary moments of reading, when you read a poem and put the book down because the poem is so good, because it has articulated something you didn’t know you felt.”

I’ll leave that with you for a while.

When I started to write a poetry blog I thought about how I wanted it to work. I thought it needed to have a reliable style/structure. What did that mean? For instance, I could rely on Roy Marshall’s poetry blog offering advice on the business of writing and compiling; I expected that Kim Moore would tell me what she’d been doing the previous week, before sharing a poem from someone she was currently excited about. Anthony Wilson would share a ‘lifesaving poem’ by doing a close reading in the context of its place in the narrative of his own life. And so on. So I couldn’t be doing any of that. It was already being done, and better than I could aspire to.

Instead of looking at blogs, I looked to journalism, and settled on the late AA Gill’s restaurant reviews in The Times colour magazine. What I always liked about Gill, apart from his acerbic prose, was the way he would come at the actual review obliquely, (say, musing on the manners of the English, or the hairstyles of Peckham, or whatever). I realised that for me it would also be a way of getting into the writing, so that by the time I got to the poetry I wanted to share, I’d have found some sort of rhythm, and a hook or a theme that put the poetry in context. I grew up with radio journalism/storytelling. Sometimes it works. But the plain fact is that I can’t just get straight into the poetry … I have to think my way towards it. You’ve been warned.

I grew up (or older) with radio, which had its own version of blogging in the form of, say, Alistair Cooke’s weekly Letter from America; perfectly constructed, 15-minute pieces as elegant and apparently effortless as Fred Astaire’s dancing. He would approach his topic obliquely, too. As would the wonderful Garrison Keillor who would invariably begin It has been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon. It’s got to start the same way. As he says in my favourite episode you can’t disappoint them, but you have to surprise them. Once upon a time there was a poor woodcutter/three brothers …The expected has got to spring a surprise. But the bottom line is the expected.

It has been a quiet week here in Lake Wobegon. It snowed three feet on Tuesday …” That’s how my favourite episode begins, in which we learn that a three-foot snowfall isn’t anything to write home about; this takes us to legendary snowfalls that have their own stories and thus to the tellers of the stories. And to Kenny, who’s “a chubby guy” who lives in a beat-up house on the outskirts. We can see him through his window (because we’ve taken a walk through town in the snowy night), and he’s telling a story to his kids. It’s Hansel and Gretel, and he’s vaguely uncomfortable about telling this story, and more about getting it wrong. We get to learn a lot about Kenny, his wife, the father he is alienated from and who is at this moment dying ; and also about the rules and uses of narrative. There’s a letter on the table which Kenny hasn’t opened. It’s from his dad who is trying to explain what cannot be explained. Kenny’s wife Joanne is on her way home from choir practice. The kids should be in bed. The house is in a mess. Whatever will she say when she sees it?

It has been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon. And here the governance of the nation is in chaos; the President of the United States has casually signed a death warrant on tens of thousands of Kurds (who unaccountably weren’t at Omaha Beach); our elected politicians are, at enormous expense and with our money, subverting the very purposes of language; and the streets of London have been brought to a standstill by young people and Extinction Rebellion.

It’s worth remembering that there have been five major extinctions in the long history of the Earth, the least catastrophic of which destroyed 75% of all living organisms, and the worst which accounted for 95%. Some happened relatively fast, like the one caused by a gigantic meteor strike. Some happened slowly over millennia, from an excess of carbon dioxide, from a scarcity of the same, from too much oxygen, or from not enough. The fossil record tells us all this. We are probably at the beginning of a sixth which is being accelerated by human agency. It’s little comfort to note that the Earth adjusted (though it’s tempting to say ‘recovered from’) to the last five and that it will probably do so again. It’s just that we’re unlikely to be around afterwards though other things will be. To put in perspective, today, extinctions are occurring hundreds of times faster than they would naturally. If all species currently designated as critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable go extinct in the next century, and if that rate of extinction continues without slowing down, we could approach the level of a mass extinction in as soon as 240 to 540 years. The astonishing, wonderful, accidental concatenation of what we call life on earth doesn’t care for us at all. Which is no reason for us not to care for it, and for ourselves.

embedded image from entry 95926

And finally, this brings us in roundabout ways to Jane Lovell’s remarkable pamphlet, This Tilting Eartha pamphlet lit by her fascination with the fossil record and also with historical ones, and by biophilia (the title of one of the poems). I didn’t know the word. It means the urge to affiliate with other forms of life. I’m glad to have learned it. I took a chance on ‘reviewing’ this pamphlet, responding to a plea on Facebook. I’m so glad that I did. I read it first on the Supertram in Sheffield on my way to a Poetry Business Writing Day. It’s a good job the tram was almost empty. I found myself punching the air, and saying (under my breath, I hope, but I can’t be sure) YES!! YES!! I go on about Clive James’ dictum about ‘the moment that gets you in’. This slim pamphlet is packed with them. It does what Kim Moore said in that interview about “those solitary moments of reading, when you read a poem and put the book down because the poem is so good, because it has articulated something you didn’t know you felt”.

Let me tell you about all the things that hauled me in, and then I’ll share a couple of the poems before insisting that you go out, at once, and buy the book.

First thing: the title. This Tilting Earth. I suppose this is personal. I seem to have been fascinated by the fact of the Earth’s tilted axis, without which we would have no seasons, for decades. I think it started with Ted Hughes:

     Brought to bare trees, to spike and shard

     browned by cold, our birds

     breast a homing departure; on wings press

     to correct earth’s sure tilt into darkness

                        ‘Nicholas Ferrer’ (Lupercal)

I spent a couple of hours yesterday trying to track it down. I’ve not consciously read this poem in 30 years. Why did that phrase stick? Why does it keep on popping up in poems as I write them? It comes uninvited, as in this from a poem of mine called ‘Viewpoint’.

Here, punctually, the earth rim tips up;

the sun’s disc eclipsed,

or this

     A moon is strange as it comes

     beyond the dark weight of hills

     and it is not rising

     but the huge world is toppling

     O so slow towards the moon

     in the dark ocean of the sky

For me it’s become an emblem of the accidents of our place in space and time, and simpler to hold in my mind than those that create our ideas of constellations like Orion or the Plough. The stability of that tilt relies on the gravity of the moon, which comes close and grows distant over huge spans of time. Our balance is so fragile. This tilting Earth; that word tilt is so exact, so layered. It seemed to me the perfect title.

embedded image from entry 95927

What next: it was the range, archaeological, geographical, historical, of the poem’s titles that sent me googling. These poems will takes you to the mammoth burial sites of Siberia and North America ..the Laplev Sea, Lugoskoe, Waco; to the bay of Mont Saint-Michel and estuary of La Sélune; to the salt pans of Sečovlje in Slovenia; to the Hebridean ghost-crofts of Hirta; to Sithylemenkat Lake in the bowl of a gigantic meteor strike in the Yukon, and to Beringia that was the land bridge between Russia and America. You have no need to worry about the ‘facts’ behind the places. The poems tell you all you need to know about small significant extinctions; the thing is that they are precisely located, and this is important.

So much for names and titles. What about the moments that memorise themselves as you read? The collection is packed with them. As a whistlestop tour will show. How about the painted horses of the Lascaux caves, threatened by the very breath of visitors? “They watch us with their oilbloom eyes. / We breathe and they may disappear.” Jane Lovell does brilliant opening lines, too, like these:

     They all ended up the same way, of course,

     deep in the silt and swirl of the Thames,

I love the insouciance of this, the crafty pronoun that starts it. And this, too: “He remembers, briefly, plummeting,/ tilting slowly like a tree.”

Think about the way those two verbs apparently work against each other until you visualise a man falling from a height, and realise how exact it really is.

She has a wonderful eye for the moment, for the image, as in that of the carts in the salt pans “with their drapery of halite”Drapery. Precise and true, as is her observation of

     quiet pans of algae, gypsum, clay

     where egrets pick their way

     through cubes of sky

The moments aren’t just visual. There’s a memorable line in the salt pan poem that captures the idea that the suspension of sound is so profound that the salt worker “is listening to the voice / of the salt, the tinkering of the sea”.

“Tinkering”. One of those moments when I said ‘YES’ on the tram. One of the delights of these poems is her easy use of a huge vocabulary that’s always being used for its rightness. And not just for their rightness, but for their textures: grume, squirl, laggy, skilly, candlenut, cinnabar. These are poems that demand to be read aloud and tasted. There are poets whose knowledge and erudition become exclusive. Jane Lovell’s not one of them. There may be arcane bits of information but the meaning’s always supplied by the context. Every living thing in these poems is brought to mind , enchanted, in Macfarlane’s sense, with a concrete textured clarity that becomes a praise poem for living things, and a reminder that like Blake she fervently believes that everything that lives is holy.I’m tempted to go on and on quoting. My review copy’s studded with underlinings and post-its. But you should have got the picture by now. I’d like to work my way through the poems. But one of the bits of advice I was given about doing a reading was that you should ‘leave them wanting more’. This Tilting Earth does precisely that, and so will I. I’ll provide this link to another review which throws some light on more poems, and then finish up with a couple of poems and a bit of commentary.Here’s the link first 

embedded image from entry 95924

It’s not easy to pick just two poems that foreground the qualities of this lovely pamphlet. I could pick the narrative swagger of ‘The last leap of Sam Patch’ or the pathos/drama of creatures and people drowning  like the young mammoths, or the 16th century drayman whose cart overturns into the Thames (unlike Robert Frost’s ending of the world , it’s not fire or ice, but water that threatens); equally the poems commemorating a flayed saint or a flayed horse (there are a lot of horses as well birds and water in the collection). But I’ve chosen two quieter, more intimate ones.

The first homes in on one apparently inconsiderable outcome of the depopulation of a Hebridean isalnd. When the last St Kildans were evacuated in 1930, the St Kilda house mouse (Mus musculus muralis) very quickly became extinct. The St Kilda field mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus hirtensis) is still present.

     Leaving Hirta

     We remain cautious, haunting crannies in low walls

     scabbed with moss and lichen,

     sloughed roofs smouldering soot and mildew.

     Without bread or grain, we grow thin.

     Our litters fail.

     Drawn to roar of sea and shingle,

     we skeddle down past sallow blooms of roseroot, sorrel,

     skirt the last remaining footprints brimming sky;

     alert for skirl of skua, hook-clawed kestrel,

     seek out sprat and crab between the rocks and kelp,

     tats of shell at cliff foot caught in gravel, lifting, falling.

     We have an instinct for water,

     Our bellies rimpled films of skin,

     bones hollow flutes funnelling the winds.

     We grow thin; our litters fail.

     Stiff with salt, the waves wash us away.

embedded image from entry 95925

There are no footnotes in the pamphlet, and reading the poem without knowing who the ‘we’ of the first line might be draws the reader in. Who remains cautious? Why? It makes the reader work, but you should pick up on the curious opposition of ‘leaving’ and ‘remain’ between the title and the first line, and then recognise that the stress in the first line falls on ‘we’.

You understand that the crofters left, so who or what remains? What relies on grain? What lives in crannies? What fears the skua and the kestrel? What’s small enough to skirt a footprint, and what moves so quick under the sky? I love that word “skeddles”. All this is played out to the soundtrack of breaking surf, and the riddled scratch of shell fragments. This small extinction is contained in one understated and beautifully observed sequence. What struck me was its filmic quality.

I was delighted to learn the factual backstory that reminds us of the reflexive relationships in ecosystems. Animals, some animals, need us as much as we need them.

The next one is more mysterious. The narrator of this poem is clearly at home with a process that is both mundane and numinous. It’s a routine and a ritual the purposes of which (it seems to me) are so normal as to be implicit, and need no explanation, despite the apparent horror of the opening image.

     Tallow

     Her eyes bleach the colour

     of milk, head coming up blind

     and turning.

     Once the fat is risen

     we syphon the cooling tallow

     into flagons, set them in line,

     add beeswax and lye,

     stand back from its boiling and hissing,

     do not breathe until it stills.

     I pour the soap into moulds,

     scatter over cranesbill, nibs of lavender

     and marigold,

     wrap the cooled cakes

     in scraps of vellum, stack them

     in the drystore.

     It’s warm there

     and dark enough for owls.

     Above shelves of pickled fruit

     and bottled juice,

     cowls of gut hang like vines.

     It is light tonight, cloudless.

    We carry her flesh to fire, break bread,

     sing her name.

     Tomorrow the women will roast the bones,

     use the crushed chalk to make buttons

     and beads.

     No one speaks of the old days.

     We light candles but no one prays.

     Each moon has its feast.

     She was our chosen one, our beauty.

Some creature, or someone, has been rendered down to soap. It’s all domestic and simple and normal. It’s done with care and something approaching reverence. In the manner of the native Americans, nothing will be wasted: “Tomorrow the women will roast the bones, / use the crushed chalk to make buttons / and beads.”

As a reader, I’m fascinated to be put in the position of a stranger, someone stumbling upon a lost way of life, to be given a guide who explains a routine without ever explaining it, without telling us why No one speaks of the old days.

She’s an artful poet, Jane Lovell; one who engages all your senses and sympathies. What a great collection this is.

Jane Lovell is the Poetry Society Stanza rep for Mid Kent. She has had work published in Agenda, Earthlines, Poetry Wales, Magma, The North, the Honest Ulsterman, Dark Mountain, The Lonely Crowd, Ink Sweat & Tears, Zoomorphic and Elementum, and in various anthologies including One for the Road from Smith Doorstop.She was awarded the Flambard prize in 2015, and has won the South Downs poetry competition 2017 and the Wealden literary festival 2018 writing competition.  In 2018 she won the Wigtown poetry competition, and was also joint winner of the Coast to Coast to Coast pamphlet competition. 

Jane Lovell’s pamphlet Metastatic is published by Against the Grain [2018]. 

This Tilting Earth is published by Seren  [2019] 

Two pamphlets: Victoria Gatehouse and John-Paul Burns

[This post was originally published on the Write Out Loud website in September]

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I read this on Julie Mellor’s poetry blog last week: “I aim to post something once a week on my blog but last weekend I skipped it. Maybe I didn’t have anything to say. Maybe I didn’t have the energy or drive to write it. Anyway, I thought I’d better get on with it today before another weekend slipped by.” 

Me too, I thought. Me too.

And then I read this in Anthony Wilson’s Lifesaving Poems: “If you write poetry (and I assume that if you do, you are also actively engaged in reading it), sooner or later Poetry Exhaustion is going to happen to you. By Poetry Exhaustion I mean the complete lack of that shock of recognition you’ve always been able to count on from a favourite unputdownable book of poems. Or the sudden knowledge that the poems you have been working on for the last two months are certainly not your best work and actually not  even worth keeping (though you do, in case).”

It sums up exactly the kind of ennui, mental blankness that’s stopped me writing posts and reviews and poems. It happens. You just have to hunker down and wait for something to change you. Like a poem, you can’t just will it into existence.

Last week, out of the blue, I decide to re-read Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways. And suddenly, phrases come jumping off the page, .moments that get you in. Phrases like these:

The cold like a wire in the nose.

Snow caused everything to exceed itself

starlings…feathers sleekly black as sheaves of photographic negatives

big gulls…monitoring us with lackadaisical, violent eyes

a dolphin….a sliding bump beneath the water..like a tongue moving under a cheek

star patterns..the grandiose slosh of the Milky Way

gannets bursting up out of the sea…like white flowers unfurling…avian origami

[and, after a hard long hike] … feet puffy as rising dough

It was lovely. Language well-wrought can galvanise you like that. I’ve had a review waiting to be written for months. Macfarlane let me know that it was time I got on with it.

When I started my first poetry blog, the great fogginzo’s cobweb,  I wanted, among other things, to publicise the writing of poets who fly under the radar … the ones without a ‘book’. I quickly learned that most of them were not ‘undiscovered’ at all. They just weren’t self-publicicising. They had been published in respectable and reputable magazines. They had won prizes. They just didn’t go on about it. They didn’t have a collection. They didn’t particularly do open mics, or get guest reader slots. But they couldn’t half write. At least as well, and often, I thought, a good deal better, than some published poets. And such are today’s poets, Vicky Gatehouse and John Paul Burns, both of whom I keep meeting at the Poetry Business, or, by accident, at open mics and readings.

I should add something else. You go to writing and critiquing workshops and you become aware that you’re hearing a poem and a poet, in the process of becoming: Kim Moore, before she won anything, before she had her first pamphlet, trying out the first draft of her ‘Train ride from Barrow to Sheffield’; ditto Roy Marshall with a draft that had echoes of Heaney; Julie Mellor, also, with a mole on the neck that marks you for hanging; Keith Hutson and a suicidal, drunken pantomime dame. It’s like seeing a musician before s/he becomes a star. Like seeing a 16-year-old Ginger Baker drumming for Terry Lightfoot’s band in Bradford. Which I did. Or Dylan going on the open mic for the first time in Greenwich Village. Which I didn’t. I’ve added today’s poets to the list. They couldn’t be more different voices.

John-Paul Burns

Kim Moore writes of John-Paul Burns’ poems in The minute & the train that “the speakers in these poems are often out of sight, looking outward at landscape, objects or people while using clear-eyed and precise descriptions … leaving the reader with the realisation that looking out can also be a way of looking in”.

I think of Isherwood’s “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.” I think of a kind of attentive detachment, a sort of separateness, like Stephen Daedalus’ willed secrecy/invisiblity. I also think of the Larkin of Mr BleaneyIt’s like being in a land where we are in the shoes of a traveller, and outsider. There’s a shared anonymity, that of the observed and observer. It’s no accident, I think, that John-Paul’s first degree is in film, that the films he references include silent classics, and that the jazz he references is ‘cool’. It’s not accidental that the poems are monochrome, and mainly silent when they’re not quiet.

A first fast reading through the pamphlet left me with the impression of particular times: night, twilight, sunrise; of bedsits, and shared houses, (like Mr Bleaney muttering to his younger self); urban places, the corner shop, the old factory, a lot of reflecting rain, almost unpopulated landscapes, gravestones, rags, odds and ends fragments, exhaustions:

             My hair is brown, dark to the point

     of black when rained on. It blocks the drain

             as everything does     (‘Drinking Songs’)

It also left me trying to figure out the fact of apparently random or wilful line breaks, indentations, capitalisations. I’m still not reconciled to those, but repeated readings override the initial sense of alienation in distressed places. Something much more committed, engaged and human, and sometimes funny, is going on. The most obvious is that though much of the work is studiously monochrome, it can explode into an unexpected and startling colour.

     you’re all belly aren’t you       

     everything is patches really

              intimate as waxwork

     A suggestion of planet in the pool.          

            of orange moon.   (‘A tangerine being drawn’)

or in a later poem, the moon again “as it meanders from orange to pink”. There is “ruby ale, lovely blue grass”and in ‘Cricket club scene, Oldham’  a flood of colour: “a deep yellow hour. / The red ball, a deep ochre red; / pale violet rooftops /orange-green parakeets”. Considered and precisely Technicolor colours, that have the impact of the Tecnicolor sequence in that 1949 film The Secret GardenHere’s a poet who knows just what he’s up to.

In her review in The High Window online quarterly poetry magazine recently, Carole Bromley wrote: “As far as subject matter goes, Burns is particularly good at capturing the world of bedsits, shared flats and houses. I get the feeling that the poet in him longs for solitude, while the young man with a sense of humour can enjoy company, parties, drunkenness.” She adds that he is also “an observer with a gift for capturing landscapes, objects and people. A pear “waits for the hand/that will hold it, give it/its pear shape, bite into/its sweet and dripping self”, a tangerine “will be torn without violence/ Your oils will mist a fresh sweat into the air/ You will disappear and you will remain”, at a cricket club “The track curves in the grass/ with no-one running. They play/ just out of earshot, a deep yellow hour.”

What I’d add to this is that his urban and rural/coastal landscapes, both interior and exterior, can be sinister and disturbing in the way of Expressionist cinema, as in the decidedly unsettling ‘Knott End-on-Sea’ which incidentally also illustrates what I think is an arbitrary use of capitals and indents without punctuation. I can be open to persuasion on this.

     The footprints trail off out of sight

          The sand stays in the morning

     A pale blue dusk sitting above it

          And Jimbo the dog is missing

     Out beyond the soft horizon

         The man in the footprints exhales

The narrator is apparently looking out of the window of a cafe on a nondescript bit of shallow coast, making notes, or planning a storyboard of something Hitchcockian, and with the relish for the suggestion of menace in its ambiguities, the questions it asks, that infuses that one word “exhales” with something troubling.

I want to finish, though, on what I said earlier about the engaged, the warm, the human that runs through the studied stance of ‘attentive detachment’. Take this, for example:

     A bundle in the mist

     When I think of the arctic terns

     they come in pairs from years ago

     flirting over the stones in the wide teal

                of Shetland air.

     Let me have them as they seem.

     Allow their blurriness too, swerving up

     from the name Shetland with faint high knells.

     There were no bells, but further in

                  there are.

     Say the word and the birds come, chiming.

     I could live for a while in one spark like this

I love the wholehearted openness of it, the undefended credo that ends this sequence; it’s epiphanic, like Stephen Daedalus standing on the shore, every nerve singing to the joyous otherness of things.

And finally, a poem that Carole Bromley also highlighted:

     Two views of Whitby Harbour

     One by day, bright for October

          and calm. I say it’s strange really

     and you laugh: the giant Doric column

         bitten by the salt wind

     that is absent today. Cormorants

         line the Eastern Pier

     crooked, athletic and shy.

        The sky is a flat sky blue

     Another by night, sharp

        and calm, though the wind

     picks at the black ocean skin.

        A creaking hinge; the night-

     fishermen cast in silence.

        Vague white seabirds hover

     dashing at the air;

       there is no horizon.

I like this for the way it evokes an unforced, easy companionship, a happiness. The ‘I’ and ‘you’ are abstract but still seem specific as the moment is specific, and the cormorants are memorably recorded: “crooked, athletic, shy”. Surprising and true. A moment that gets you in. I like the wry humour of “The sky is a flat sky blue.” I like the creaking hinge that is sort-of-lifted from Robin Robertson. I like the way the birds are vague and sudden at the same time, batting at the mist to simply stay still. It’s a poem that’s worth the entrance money on its own, in this genuinely interesting first collection that will stick in your mind for a long time.

 Victoria Gatehouse

And so to Vicky Gatehouse and The Mechanics of LoveI said they were strikingly different voices. Other reviewers have made much about the fact that Vicky trained as a scientist, but I’m not sure they quite nail down what it means for the poems. I may not, either, but we’ll see. Gaia Holmes identifies what I think of as the exuberance of the collection which is full to the brim with “love locks, 1980s perfume ads, cross dressers, owl pellets, pearl divers, Premier Inn hotel rooms, the visceral trials of a lab technician, lost tennis balls, spiders’ webs, the delightful idiolectic ‘Shunkley’ and the speakers’ ‘magpie need for bling’. ”

Vicky Gatehouse is pretty much always the actual voice of the poems, which are more often than not autobiographical. These are poems populated by identifiable people:  mothers, grandmas, husbands, younger selves, biology teachers, and abattoir man in a bloodstained apron, mum’s friend Sylvia; like the cross-dresser in Lenton Boulevard, they live in identifiable places like the Premier Inn or the Pont des Arts, and are surrounded by artefacts and goods with resonant names: Aartex, Midget Gems, Poison, Fortune-telling Fish.  

Gaia also identifies what she calls “the muscular language of the heart”. Vicky Gatehouse’s poems involve physical as well as emotional engagement, and her imaginative memory is tactile as well as visual. She is as concerned and slightly anxious for her earlier adolescent self as a mother. I would be inclined to say that that is normal enough, and possibly not enough to lift the poems out of the run of enjoyable, competent poems we write about ourselves. What makes the difference, I think, is the science, the combination of exact and intuitive knowledge of how the world works, its structures, its mechanisms. The whole pamphlet challenges the popular elision/confusion of mechanism and mechanistic with its secondary connotations of dehumanisation and the binary opposition of mind and body. What I like (and hope to demonstrate) is the understanding in the poems that knowing how things work doesn’t take away their wonder, but actually intensifies it.

When I think of ‘the mechanics of love’ I think of UA Fanthorpe’s ‘Atlas’the kind of love called maintenance that knows where the WD40 is. I think of mechanics as a set of abstract principles, and also as people who mend and put things to rights. Doctors, for instance. And mothers and fathers, and lovers.

I’m inclined, therefore, to disagree with Mat Riches’ review in Sphinxwhen he writes that “Starting with the perfumery of ‘Poison, 1986’, and the ‘Sixth Form Science Technician’ being sent out to collect supplies for student experiments, science leaps out of many of the poems…”, that “as a result of having a day job in medical research – these poems take a microscopic look at love and life as though they’ve been carefully sampled on a slide and Gatehouse is noting the beauty and fragility of the findings.”

I don’t think they’re as calculated or as forensic as this suggests, but rather that scientific language and thinking comes naturally as part of her ideolect and way of experiencing things. I had much the same take on Emma Storr’s Heart Murmurs  [Calder Valley Press 2019], a poet who naturally thinks like a doctor because she is one. This makes it different, I think, from the way poets like the Metaphysicals and some modern poets bring in ’science’ as it were from the outside.  Indeed, Vicky makes the point herself in ‘Fortune telling fish’ when she says

     A scientist now, you could explain
     that whisper-thin strip as hygroscopic –
     swelling or receding with the level
     of moisture in the skin

She’s pointing out that this doesn’t explain the fact, signalled by a “but” that “you’ll find yourself wanting to show” you’re passionate, or independent or whatever, and science won’t explain that. Not at all. I wrote in another poetry blog about her poem

     The moth

     This is her time –
     birds dark-stitching telegraph wires,

     the woods blue-shadowed,
     crackling with dusk.

     The moon untethers her,
     she pitches from fence to wall

     to leaf, would hurl herself
     for miles, such is her faith

     and you think of how she gorged
     on hawthorn and thyme, spun

     herself a mantle, hung tight
     inside the blackout

     of her own skin
     before the breakdown, the forcing

     of all that remained
     through the veins of her wings,

     this lit-bulb junkie,
     wrecking herself on your porch light.

     (Ink, Sweat and Tears, 2015)

I really get a buzz from the controlled energy of this, and the way images imprint themselves (“how she gorged / on hawthorn and thyme.”) “Gorged” is absolutely spot on and surprising. And “the blackout of her own skin is rich and layered. Blackout curtains, fustian and dusty; blackout unconsciousness …a binge-drinker’s blackout that springs the trap for the ambush of “this light-bulb junkie”. You can read and re-read this and it keeps on giving. I’ll go on highlighting the fact of energy, the accurate richness,of her language. This new collection is packed with the moments that ‘get you in’, often in opening lines like these

     The biology teacher wanted blood

     I remember kitten heels clipping tarmac

     It ticks me to sleep,

     the titanium valve in your heart

     On the fifth day I find it in your cot

There’s a specific narrative in each of these which I immediately want to hear, to have explained. And the poems never let me down. For instance, what we find in the cot is the shrivelling umbilical cord that had

     … pulsed between us, blue-white

     vigorous, the best I had to give –
     stem-cell, lymphocytes, streaming

     down the line they had to cut off.

There it is. The physical immediacy as intimately known as what the cord actually did, when it pulsed, blue-white. I like that word pulse. That’s what so many of these poems do, as she explores her memories of adolescence, the mysteries and excitements of burgeoning sexuality; also the memories of becoming and being a mother, a wife and a lover, a daughter. She finds an emblem for all this textured experience in the opening poem, ‘Inosculation’:

     And this will be no perfect union

     but one born of abrasion: two trees

     grown close enough to graze, to chafe

     as they shift in the wind, their bark worn thin

The title is a label for a process, but the poem in its crafted consonality enacts the process itself. It’s not an idea but a felt experience. And it’s lovely. Gaia Holme’s endorsement should give you a taste for the tumbled richness of things in The Mechanics of LoveI’ll finish with a poem that might seem a surprising choice, but which, I think, tells you what’s at the heart of Vicky Gatehouse’s collection. On one level it’s simply a beautifully observed set of moments that come like “talons trailing the tips of the wheat, to the tooth-hole ruin of that barn”, (THAT barn, notice); on another you might call it Birth of a Naturalist. It’s the moment you go back to, again and again, it’s a rite of passage.  It’s as exact as the “dark, neat parcels of feathers and fur,/ the pale curve of bone”

embedded image from entry 95435

Pellets

     This is the hour when she thinks of the field,

     the unsteady embrace of drystone walls,

     end-of-summer grasses, whispering

     their untidy truths, the tooth-hole ruin

     of that barn where she first found the pellets –

     dark, neat parcels of feathers and fur,

     the pale curve of bone within, each one

     packaged up like a gift so she had no choice

     but to return every evening, at owl light

     and wait for that change in the air, the weight

     that comes on silent wings, talons trailing

     the tips of the wheat, a half-lifetime ago

     and still the bleeding, unseen beneath the gold,

     the skeletons in her pockets, carried home

It’s also unnerving; a poem about a compulsion that remains after half a life time, where whatever else has happened, there is “still the bleeding, unseen beneath the gold, /the skeletons in her pockets, carried home”.

There we are. Two pamphlets that couldn’t be more different, and which both will hold your attention and fix themselves in your minds.

John-Paul Burns, The minute & the trainPoetry Salzburg, £6

Vicky Gatehouse, The Mechanics of love: a Laureate’s ChoiceSmith|Doorstop, £7.50

The past, and other countries: Gráinne Tobin (2)

[First published on the Write Out Loud website in September]

It’s been hard to concentrate, these last few days. It’s hard to think about poetry when you’re consumed with rage and frustration in a world where truth is an endangered species, and the management of the body politic has become a kind of game for the ones who have tickets, and the rest of us are shut out. It’s 80 years since Auden wrote September 1939,  four years before I was born into a world that had been at war for all of them.

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

A low dishonest decade:  there’s an epitaph for the last ten years in this country that I used to think was mine, and which I now hardly recognise. We’ve been used to muddling along (or compromising) and on the whole got on with each other. Not any more. Politicians who were born into a world of entitlement, and who will never come face to face with it have validated ignorance, intolerance, racism; it’s fashionable to be xenophobic and be contemptuous of expert evidence, of the qualified, of experience and nuance. A world in which a phrase like ‘fake news’ has traction, the purposes of language itself are threatened.

And curiously, it’s why poetry (and all well-wrought language) seems more important than ever. I’m reminded that, as I wrote last week, when I met Gráinne Tobin for the first time nearly 40 years ago, it was in a city divided by religious hatred. I’ll not ever forget the barbed wire and barricades of the Crumlim and the Shankhill Roads. That was Gráinne’s world; she lived through it and wrote through it, and that gives me some hope even now. What will survive of us is love. That’s what lies at the heart of the poetry I treasure, and I’m delighted to be introducing Gráinne for a second week, and to bring you up to date with what she’s been up to since 2010 where last week’s post sort of terminated.

She retired from the day job then (as an English teacher), and says she wondered why I wasn’t writing all day every day. But as I should have known, it doesn’t work like that at all. Whatever…she ‘s been kept busy, accepting all offers connected with poetry in that first year, including travelling scores of miles on buses in heavy snow to a mass book-signing by 70 authors in Galway to celebrate 70 years of Kennys’ bookshop, and finding herself standing beside President Michael D Higgins, who is even shorter than I am and a person I seriously admire.

She went by ferry and train to Blackpool, to read her shortlisted poem in the libraries’ Wordpool competition, but they didn’t know she was there. She says: I didn’t know I should be pushy about declaring myself, so I sat awkwardly in the audience waiting to be called on, and someone else read it. Let that be a lesson to me. (I like that story very much. We learn against the grain to be pushy. )

She applied for an Arts Council of Northern Ireland Single Individual Artist Award; the ACNI grant was for mentoring, so she had a chance to talk in detail about her manuscript with Penelope Shuttle, who advised her to start entering competitions, and it gathered momentum. 

She won competitions, was invited to send poems to anthologies and to lead creative writing workshops for adults, teenagers, and children. She’s had three poetry residencies, in the Tin Jug Studio in Birr, Co Offaly, and in Sumburgh Head Lighthouse, Shetland, and in Cill Rialaig, Co Kerry. 

Her writing group, Word of Mouth, published its Russian-English parallel text, When the Neva Rushes Backwardsin 2014 with Lagan Press. It was the product of working on these pieces by St Petersburg women poets for years , a huge group effort with expert help from Russian speakers. Some of of the English versions of the poems were in Modern Poetry in Translation.

The Word of Mouth Poetry Collective, which had been her main support in writing poetry, voted to dissolve itself in 2016 after 25 years of meeting monthly in the historic Linen Hall Library in Belfast:  we felt that our work was more or less done, except for the Of Mouth reading series which we  wanted to continue.

And here we are now : her third poetry collection, The Uses of Silk, is from Arlen House[2018] and you can get it online, or in good bookshops such as No Alibisin Belfast. Or order it  by post from the publisher Alan Hayes, at Arlen House, 42 Grange Abbey Road, Baldoyle, Dublin 13, if you want it posted to  the Republic of Ireland. Or direct from her by sending a Facebook message with your address.  

The cover image is by the painter Jim Manley who lives in Killough, on the Co Down coast. She says: The picture has our house in it as one of the tiny lights of Newcastle, just visible if you wish hard enough, across Dundrum Bay, beyond the path of moonlight on the sea. There is a temptation to X our spot on the left edge of the page.”

……………………………..

Right. All up to date, and time for the poems.

Damian Smyth has commented on the qualities of the work in this collection:- subtlety, cleverness, a succinct wisdom, exhilarating formal dexterityThe dramatis personae are varied and unexpected; the emotional range expansive enough to run from elegy to slapstick; the diction charged, ingenious,

and Penny Shuttle tells us that:

“Gráinne Tobin casts a steely sceptic eye over the Ireland of her childhood but her view is mediated by gentler memories of family tenderness surviving amid the fervour and craziness of 1950s religiosity.  Here is a poet employing a nimble wit, seeing behind facades, moving in the slipstream of savage histories in and beyond Ireland.”

I think you’ll find all this confirmed by the poems in last week’s Part One, and should you need convincing, here are three more, each with an introduction by Gráinne. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

An Irishwoman Reads Dodo with Keith Douglascame from a week’s writing break alone in Alicante , in a state of solitary absorption, wandering round a foreign city talking to myself about this young man who I only knew from his writing. As someone who has lived through the disturbing presence of soldiers on the streets of Northern Ireland, it was good to bring him to mind both as a strange military youngster and also as one of us poets. He died too early, at 24, and I admire his work very much. I feel a tenderness towards him, though I imagine we might not have hit it off in real life.

An Irishwoman Reads Dodo with Keith Douglas 


In spite of his photographed moustache 
and his few years of manliness, he is excited 
by tinned rations jazzed-up for squadron dinners.
An acceptable hot porridge can be made 
of hammered biscuits, boiled and laced with jam.

Any dusty tent can be made beautiful 
with flowers and books in a cut-out petrol can, 
such as the tank-men fill with desert sand 
as bricks to make small houses for latrines.

He’s careful of the whiskey. He must stay fit 
to note the fear that pushes at his belly, just 
where the shell would enter, and his useless pity 
for the burnt corpse of one who’d laid a towel
over his wounds against tormenting flies.

In hospital after the land-mine, the lieutenant
needs the book they bring – he reads it twice – 
Dodo, Edwardian comfort to draw his poet’s eye 
away from the wreckage of flesh and the ends of bone.

I find it on my Kindle, and I read Dodotoo
at bedtime in his honour, by its faded glow,
saving his Zem Zemfor sensible daylight –
the boy learned how to kill and soon was dead 
as a doornail, blown to glory, joined the majority.

I loved learning that Keith Douglas used pulp fiction…tripe, if you like…as a comfort blanket; I like the unforced allusions, the echoes. 

the fear that pushes at his belly, just 
where the shell would enter

takes me back to Vergissmeinicht , the poem that became a touchstone for me about the importance of the image, of accurate seeing, and economy of means.

  she would weep today to see

  how on his skin the swart flies move;

 the dust upon the paper eye,

 the burst stomach like a cave

I like, too, that line break in the last stanza, the matter-of-factness, like Tony Harrison’s your life’s been blown to smithereens, and the black irony of glory.

the boy learned how to kill and soon was dead 
as a doornail, blown to glory,

Junction Box is about a magic bit of practical gadgetry or street furniture beside the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast. Every time I pass it, I stop to put my ear to it, and it always has sound coming out.  It has an emotional charge for me and possibly for other passers-by. I can’t help being romantic about communal experience: the junction box seems to have an invisible choir of diverse voices celebrating our fragile peacetime. (We are only began to get incomers from other places when the Troubles ended, as before that, few people would have wanted to join us here.) I fretted about referring to the Spanish Catalan painter Tápies because it might be an obstacle for some readers – I only know of him by chance, and allusions can be really daunting – but then decided that anyone who was bothered could always google him, and the comparison with his work is exactly what I mean, so I didn’t want to give that up. 

Junction Box 

Upper Crescent, Belfast

Something is singing 

among cracked-up flagstones 

under the young leaves

of a lime tree where the park’s square edges

nudge the railings of a sooty church,

grey rubble-stone still smudged

from the city’s smoking past, 

            and there it is,

shoulder-high, an arm-span wide, a big black box

in painted steel with a rutted crust,

the under-paper from posters that you can’t pick off,

stained and overlapped so in the end

it looks deliberate, distressed graffiti-chic,

or like an artwork by Tapies that marks the times

in dirty layers, 

            and this is where

it’s coming from – the sound –

 a sitar-accordion drone,

an old song echoing, an imperfect note, 

single yet multiple, voices plaited together

in a chord with no pause, chanting day and night

beside the parking meter and the litter bin.

I read this and thought of Penny Shuttle’s endorsement of  a poet employing a nimble wit, seeing behind facades. Exactly so..what I like is that it’s a poem to read aloud, to follow the twists and turns of the landscape through the twists and turns of a poem that’s a single sentence that weaves like a chant or a harmony. It’s lovely.

The third poem is in The Uses of Silk and came from my preoccupation with the 1916 rising and its effects on the later history of Ireland, and on my family. My parents were born  into moderate anti-Treaty families, around the time of Partition. They were babies during  the Civil War, as children attended the monster 1932 Catholic jamboree in Dublin that sealed the reconciliation between the former revolutionaries, now in government, and their church, and as young adults they moved north of the border during ‘the Emergency’  i.e. WW2, to find teaching jobs, ending up having a family of wee northerners, and being politically active (in the SDLP, at first a bit pinko, later more nationalist) during the Troubles. The epigraph is a family joke, one of those parental sayings you grow up with and later trace to a quotation. 

Where Were You in 1916? 

Where were you in 1916? I wasn’t born. Excuses, always excuses! 

– Brendan Behan

Of course I wasn’t yet born, but I was included  

with a quarter of the country’s population

at the Eucharistic Congress of 1932,

latent in a pair of ten-year-olds who were yet to meet.

An ovum in her reserves, the boast of Catholic Ireland,

I hid inside my mother, who wore her good coat 

on the excursion train from Portarlington

in fine weather, said to be God’s answer 

to thirty-seven thousand spiritual acts of self-denial

undertaken by the new and ancient nation

and placed on record in the archbishop’s office.

The child who grew up to be my father

wore the lanyard and badges of a Limerick troop 

of the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland,

one of fourteen hundred plucky little fellows

encamped with trench latrines on a boarding-school lawn

and tireless in fifteen acres of the Phoenix Park,

directing a million pilgrims, holding lines and fetching water.

Where are their two faces in the crowd

that knelt with its shriven leaders in the grass? 

The hungry streets, a supernatural toyshop

of angelic toy theatres, as by night

the Post Office roof beamed sky-writing, 

GLORIFICAMUS. And I hear the last

of the ornate urinals made for the Congress

was bought in the seventies by a student of art.

I did a lot of research for this poem and then tried not to overload the poem and to keep most of it out of the way while writing. It still fascinates me. I read as much as I could about the 1932 Eucharistic Congress. The details were much, much more surreal than I can bear to describe in the poem. Processions of girls in white First Communion dresses who were called ‘the boast of Catholic Ireland’ – creepy – and international bishops in full campery of purple silk robes and handmade lace. It came across as rather earnest, but with an unpleasant tinge of 1930s Nuremberg rally about the whole thing. GK Chesterton was the newspaper reporter who mentioned the pathos of the ‘supernatural toyshop of angelic toy theatres’in the poorest streets. This national pop-festival of piety presaged the tight Church-state partnership that led to the mother and baby homes and their aftermath.

Final word from Gráinne: for now.

“The next thing I’d like to do now, apart from keeping on working on poems, is to get on with sending letters out, asking festivals if they would like to book two poet friends and me for readings. It’s an odd thing to advertise oneself but how else is anyone going to know we are available as a package?  And then I want to make my work more traceable by sorting out an online poetry presence that doesn’t make me want to hide in the wardrobe and deny everything.  Perhaps a modest and sober webpage? I have nothing to lose except my ancient convent conditioning”. 

And from me:

That last comment makes me want to devote a whole post to the business of making yourself visible as a poet. I can do my bit to make other poets visible, but what about self-promotion? It’s not why I write poems, but the thing is, I have a lot of unsold books in boxes just behind me. They won’t sell themselves. Hmmm.

Still, the main thing now is to thank Gráinne Tobin for her generosity and for her poems. And a personal thankyou for initially distracting me from the Brexit nightmare, and then, through these poems, reminding me that people have come through worse.

Next week, some thoughts about poetry pamphlets and and a Northumberland poet. See you then.

A loss you can’t imagine: young men and suicide

1992. Only a few weeks after his twenty-first birthday, our son David died in a fall from the top floor of a high-rise block of flats behind the Merrion Centre in Leeds. I  see it from the motorway every time I drive to Leeds .

Suicide prevention remains a universal challenge. Every year, suicide is among the top 20 leading causes of death globally for people of all ages. It is responsible for over 800,000 deaths, which equates to one suicide every 40 seconds.

Every life lost represents someone’s partner, child, parent, friend or colleague. For each suicide approximately 135 people suffer intense grief or are otherwise affected. This amounts to 108 million people per year who are profoundly impacted by suicidal behaviour. Suicidal behaviour includes suicide, and also encompases suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. For every suicide, 25 people make a suicide attempt and many more have serious thoughts of suicide.

September 10thwas World Suicide Prevention day. Anything anyone can do to raise awareness of the waste of life and the damage it does to friends and families, and to teach us how we can better look out for and look after those we love is timely.

For over twenty years I’ve wondered if I should have seen anything that would have told me how desperate our 21 year old son was when he took his own life. The sense that I bear a responsibilty for it will never leave me, or his mother, his sister, his brothers. All I can do is share the story. 

Just over five years ago, two people I love found their son dead in their living room. He was about the same age as mine was when he killed himself. I remember I wrote to them and said something like: people will tell you they can imagine what you’re going through. They are wrong. More thoughtful people will tell you they can’t imagine what you’re going through. They are nearly right. The fact is, you can’t imagine what you’re going through.

Three good friends of mine, all the same age as me or thereabouts, have died in the last 18 months. Two, apparently fighting fit and well, died of sudden catastrophic heart attacks. One died after a long and painful illness. We grieve for them, but we understand our grief. Their deaths are sad, they diminish us, but we understand this natural process. It doesn’t accuse us. But when someone you love takes his own life, when it comes without warning, it’s inexplicable, bewildering, devastating. It makes no sense. The world makes no sense. You are made helpless with guilt; you believe you are to blame, that you could have prevented it if only…..

This happens to tens of thousands of people every year. The statistics are terrifying. The websites you can visit will tell you:

Suicide is the single biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK. In 2015, 75% of all UK suicides were male.

Men and boys are often more vulnerable to taking their own lives because:

  • They feel a pressure to be a winner and can more easily feel like the opposite.
  • They feel a pressure to look strong and feel ashamed of showing any signs of weakness.
  • They feel a pressure to appear in control of themselves and their lives at all times.

Most suicidal people don’t actually want to die, they just want to remove themselves from an unbearable situation, and for the pain to stop.

There’s a lot of support and advice available for people who are worried that someone they know may be a suicide risk. Advice like this:

So how will you know? 

You ask. It sounds scary, but the best thing to do is talk about it.

Saying something is safer than saying nothing. Trust your gut and start the conversation

What to say

Not too much. Above all, LISTEN

For me, and for my family, it was all too late. Because we had no idea, because there was no warning sign we could pick up on. There was just the immutable fact that our David had killed himself. We are tight as a family, we comforted each other, but we go on living with the bewilderment and loss and overwhelming guilt. It never quite goes away. So I’ll dedicate this post to all the families who have lost a child, a sibling, a parent, a partner to suicide, and I’ll talk about the long long process of finding the serenity to accept what cannot be changed. I’ll tell you our David’s story.

Two of my five children were adopted, and our David was one of them. Against all the rules, we met his birth mother, who would have been no more than eighteen. She wanted a say in who would adopt him, and a wise social worker thought she had that right. That young girl trusted him to to a couple not that much older than her. She will be in her sixties, now.

our david c 2 copy.jpg

It’s a complicated story, but the core of it is that we were at yet another stage of the usually ponderous adoption process, which suddenly accelerated quite wonderfully and frighteningly, and we found ourselves sitting in the small living room of a foster-mum, and our David, who wasn’t yet Our David, four months old and surrounded by love, was having his bath. He wasn’t called David, either. He was Conrad Hamilton Gervaise Irving (no surname), and just Conrad, for convenience. When you adopt a child you’re not supposed to keep his or her given names. Since the truth is that the amazing and enlightened social worker short-circuited every due process that evening, and that we drove home up the M1 with Our David in a carry-cot on the backseat of a Ford Anglia, it didn’t seem so transgressive to keep Conrad as his middle name. David Conrad Foggin.

This much
I remember:
the small neat creases, the crook of each elbow,
the crook of each knee, the soft place
between your neck and your shoulder,
and the tight whorls of dark hair
tattooing your skull, and the delight,
the wide pink of your open mouth
as you came shedding light and bright water
out of your bath, how you sank
in the fleece of a fat white towel,
and you lay on your back on her knee
and you danced,
how you pedalled and trod on the air,
and how pale the soles of your feet.
You were mangoes, grapes, you were apricots,
all your round warm limbs, your eyes.
How your name made you smile;
how we said it over and over, your name;
how we wanted to make that smile.
And I remember
how we would take you away,
and why your name could not come,
why we must leave it behind,
and how we feared for your smile.

When his face would cloud over, or when he seemed to turn inwards (as happens with all your children) it troubled us. And then it would be OK, and we’d forget.

Scan-110104-0097
Our David on a trike

Later, when he was nine or ten years old, he drew endlessly; meticulous battle scenes, some times on rolls of lining paper, so they stretched out like eclectic Bayeaux tapestries. I wrote a poem about them, years ago, and keep revisiting it, and rewriting it.

Untitled copy

Our David’s Pictures

In tracing the anatomy of war

our david’s concentration’s absolute.

He kneels in peace, head bowed. An acolyte.

His pictures conjure tiny armies on the floor.

All history’s invited to this fight:

Martello tower, pele, and launching pad,

heaps of Roman, Norman, Saxon, Panzer dead.

Drawn up, his minute cohorts. Black and white.

Each man’s accoutred – breastplate, chainmail, greaves.

Crusaders squint down Gatling sights,

or brandish spears with blades as big as axes,

and quivers jammed with arrows, bunched in sheaves.

Every shield’s a wicked chevron

or a bossed and studded disc;

the sky is bristling with a stiff cheval de frise

of arrows and everyman’s vulnerable, at risk.

There’s Agincourts of arrows, flight on flight.

The sky’s cross-hatched, and somedays almost black.

The sun’s crossed out. Eclipsed. Our David’s arrows –

they fly miles, out of day and into night,

they shift the whole perspective. What is it

he celebrates? Pattern? Power?

The living or the dead. I’ll never know,

his last bow drawn, and loosed, an age ago.

I wrote this when he was still alive, puzzled and perhaps mildly worried about the obsessive quality of the drawings. But mainly delighted. When he died, I changed the ending, and it was read at his funeral. We had a Bob Marley track in the service. Stop that train. It was an extraordinary service. There were dozens and dozens of young people who I’d never seen before, who I didn’t know, but who had clearly loved our David. For some reason he either never knew, or if he knew, he didn’t believe it.

It was a long time between being told of his death and his funeral. My wife and I had separated seven years earlier. We weren’t asked identify his body and I was too numb to wonder why I wasn’t notified of the inquest, and I was too numb to protest. The morning the police told my ex-wife of a death behind the Merrion Centre, the morning she drove from Leeds to tell me, the morning we went to the police station in Chapeltown was the morning I started to learn about the lovely boy I realised I didn’t really know. That he’d been smoking dope, that this may have triggered a suspected schizophrenia, that some time earlier he’d served a short prison sentence for a trivial non-violent offence, that he was being looked after by NACOS, that he was training as a painter and decorator (like his great-granddad). I know I could have known all this, and I should have, but I was too busy, too tied up with a new job, a new relationship, and deep down, because I was scared to ask. Most of those young folk at the funeral were young offenders on schemes like the one our David was apparently enjoying. Nothing made sense.

It was a morning like this

a Sunday morning. The sun shone.

It was July. It was a morning like this,

your ex-wife at the back door,

and why would she tell you

your son was dead, or had died,

or had been in an accident

on a morning like this still

not fully woken, a morning of sun

to drive into Chapeltown to drive

to a police station that’s called

The Old Police Station now, that’s

a bijou gastropub but then was just

a police station full of Sunday morning

sadness, and a morning something

like this and two young coppers

who thought we’d need somewhere

quiet at the back which turned out

to smell of smoke, that had a pool table

and coffee rings, and no-one knew

how to start or what to ask but

it was a morning much like this

they asked if we knew a tower block

behind the Merrion Centre or if

we had a connection to a tower block

and a ring with a skull and a brown

leather case and did we know if

our son had friends in a tower block

behind the Merrion Centre and

we might as well have been asked

about tree rings or chaos theory

or fractals on a July morning and

one young copper saying that

he didn’t think it made sense

for cannabis to be illegal and

what harm did it do really and

how it wasted everybody’s time

and I don’t know why I’d remember

that except it was a morning like this

I learned what waste might mean.

A couple of weeks after David’s funeral my good friend Bob Hogarth, the Art Adviser said: why don’t you do a painting of him? Why don’t you paint his life? I set out on a collage of maps of the city, photographs of his childhood, images of a small attache case and a strange ugly ring that he’d left on the top floor of that block of flats behind the Merrion Centre, an old atlas open at a map of Africa. Buddleia. Hydrangeas. I worked on it for a week or so. And then stopped. Just a layer of collage and thinned down acrylics. Every couple of years I’ll have a look at it, and resolve to finish it. But I don’t think I want to. I suspect I understand why. It took a long time…more than twenty years…to find out that for me the answer lay in writing. Maybe it started with a friend of a friend buying me Jackie Kay’s Adoption Papers, and then started again with being told about Carrie Etter’s Imagined Sons. 

It started with rediscovering Greek myths, and particularly the story of Icarus. It was discovering, through the process of retelling the story, that the character no one pays enough attention to is Daedalus, or points out that if Daedalus had used his amazing gifts well, he would never have needed to build a labyrinth, would not have given away its secret, would not have been imprisoned in a tower with his son, would never have needed to conceive of making wings. I understood, through this that if you make wings for your children, it’s not enough to just watch them fly. Whether they fly into the sun or the heart of darkness, if they fall, then are you responsible, and how will you live with that.

Tony Harrison wrote that in the silence that surrounds all poetry

articulation is the tongue-tied’s fighting’  .

I believe articulation is healing, a way to atonement and to being able to forgive yourself. The serenity to accept the things you cannot change. Articulation can be confessional, too. You can’t change the past; ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’ simply make you spiritually ill. We know this, rationally, consciously, but living by it needs help. Two poets have given me that help. Clare Shaw’s credo “I do not believe in silence” and her unwavering frank gaze at her history of self-harm, and psychological disturbance gave me courage. As did Kim Moore’s decision to use poetry to deal with her experience of domestic abuse. And, finally, one moment in a writing class that Kim was running that somehow unlocked suppressed and unarticulated belief, guilt, knowledge. I remember I wept silently all the time I was writing. It only lasted five minutes, that task. But an insight, an acknowledgement takes only a moment no matter how long the process that leads up to it. This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine says Prospero at the end. I think I understand the release he must have felt in that split second.

A weak force

there’s sometimes a loss you can’t imagine;

the lives never lived by your children, or

by the one who simply stopped

in the time it takes

to fall to the ground

from the top of a tower block.

They say gravity is a weak force.

I say the moon will tug a trillion tons

of salt sea from its shore.

I say a mountain range will pull a snowmelt

puddle out of shape.

I say gravity can draw a boy

through a window

and into the air.

There is loss no one can imagine.

In the no time between

falling and not falling

you learned the art of not falling;

beneath you burned

the lights of Sheepscar, Harehills,

Briggate, Vicar Lane;

lights shone in the glass arcades,

on the tiles, on the gantries of tall cranes;

motorway lights trailed ribbons of red,

and you were far beyond falling.

Because you shut your eyes

because you always shut your eyes

you closed them tight as cockleshells

because when you did that the world

would go away the world

would not see you.

I remember how you ran like a dream.

I remember how you laughed when I swore

I would catch you.

Then you flared you went out

you flared like a moth and you blew

away over the lights over the canal

the river the sour moors the cottongrass

the mills of the plain

and over the sea and over the sea

and the bright west

and you sank like the sun.

I count myself lucky. Lucky to have had our son for 21 years. Lucky to have learned to live with the loss of him and to have learned how to make amends to myself and to his memory. Lucky to be able to articulate it.

A year ago we we were told we now have a Minister for Suicide. She has no budget, no staff, no office, no brief.  A disproportionate number of young men and women will take their own lives in the coming year. Some of them will have been made desperate by being stripped of benefits, being made homeless; some will have been denied the recognition and appropriate treatment they desperately need for their mental health issues. Whatever their circumstances, there will be parents, siblings, partners, children, friends who will be numb, full of unassuageable guilt. There is loss no one can imagine.

Bridges and troubled waters. Gráinne Tobin [1]

(This last appeared as a post in The Wider Web on the Write Out Loud poetry site)

I’ve reached a point where I can hardly bear to listen to or watch news programmes, when politicians lie effortlessly and without shame, and when total strangers spew bile at each other on what we call, without apparent irony, ‘social media’.

So I thought it appropriate to devote two posts to a poet I met in the most divided community I’ve ever spent time in, because right now I need all the hope I can get.

There’s a Bob Neuwirth song that I can’t get out of my head . Venice beach.It doesn’t stand up as poetry. It’s sentimental, in the way of good Americana. But I’ve always loved it, especially the second verse:

Broken promise on the beach, empty feeling heading home

with that sense of being free that’s only all alone,

and as the water reached my feet, I looked down into the foam,

and lying just beyond my reach lay a perfect heart-shaped stone.

It does that thing that a good song does, of matching a mood, and putting a tune to it that won’t leave you. It’s how I felt when I woke upa couple of years ago to find that I wouldn’t be a European anymore, and nor would my grandchildren. And if this sounds sentimental, I’m not apologising.

So what’s that to do with the image of a squaddie patting down a guy on a shopping street where no one seems to find it unusual or a matter for concern? Well, this was Belfast in the early 80’s, where for the first time in my life I was stopped by two young squaddies who jumped out of an armoured car and pointed loaded weapons at me, and demanded ‘Eye dee’. 

I was a visiting tutor for a week at Stranmillis College, and I was walking back from the theatre on my own. I’ve never got over the culture shock of that week, the business of routinely having bags searched at shop doors, the barbed wire, the breeze-block defended pub doorways, and, above all, the way everyone went about their business as if it was normal. 

This is where social and religious and political division will take you.

The course I was tutoring on was in-service for all the heads of English in Northern Ireland. One afternoon I ran an optional poetry workshop (badly enough, but I didn’t know better then) and met today’s guest poet,  Graínne Tobin, who was even younger than me, and who wrote a draft that has always stayed with me. It was about the small town where she lived. It’s a Protestant town, and then she was one of the few Catholics in the community. And she was married to an Englishman. The Orange Lodge boys had come round to say they’d be hanging their bunting in the street and on her house. When she told then they couldn’t, she was subject to a campaign of menace. Eventually, the bunting was hung up.   It was unnerving to finally read a finished version of that draft, earlier this year, 30 years later. The poem is ‘Rural retreat’ from Banjaxed [2002]. Here’s the town.

It’s a beautiful place at the foot of the Mournes. What’s not on this photo is the graffiti telling Bobby Sands to get on with his dying, or the boys who followed a careful distance behind us, whistling The Sash. I was more scared there than in the middle of Belfast.  It stuck hard did that visit to Annalong with Graínne in 1981.That’s what nationalism and sectarianism does.

But I didn’t have to live there, and I came home. I kept in touch with Graínne for a time as she set up a N.I. branch of N.A.T.E., and then life got complicated, as it does, and that was it until three years ago when I met her again in the largely wonderful virtual world of Facebook. She sent me her two poetry collections, and the bilingual anthology she collaborated on, and told me all the amazing things she’d been doing. I fell for the poems, and asked her to be a Cobweb Polished Gem. And here she is to speak for herself, as she always has.

“Gráinne Tobin (she writes) is believed to be mostly harmless. She was born in 1951 in Portadown, in a maternity home which later became the local HQ of the Orange Order.. She was brought up as Catholic but has been an atheist for the last 49 years. She and her parents belonged to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement in its innocent early days. 

At university in Canterbury, she met an English student, Andy Carden, when they were both part of a social action group visiting the high security Borstal in Dover. He became her husband and moved to Ireland with her, against the 1970s flow of people fleeing Northern Ireland for the safety of Britain. Both worked in the education service – Gráinne taught in further and adult education and then in Shimna Integrated College – and are now retired. They have been closely involved in the movement for integrated education and have helped to set up two integrated state schools.

In the 1980s when they had a young child and another on the way, they ran into sectarian trouble in their idyllic-looking fishing village and were under some threat in their home  (which is when we met)They have lived since then in Newcastle, Co Down .

She was a member of the Word of Mouth Poetry Collective which offered encouragement to female poets locally through readings and poetry parties; it ran for 25+ years, until it affectionately decided to wind itself up in June 2016. 

Most members went on to publish individual collections. The group made a connection with some Russian women poets which led to collaborative translation projects, and readings in St Petersburg and Belfast. 

Gráinne Tobin’s books are Banjaxedand The Nervous Flyer’s Companion(Summer Palace Press) and she contributed to the Word of Mouth Poetry Collective’s anthology of translations from five St Petersburg women poets, When the Neva Rushes Backwards(Lagan Press).

Her poems have been published in anthologies, and in literary magazines such as Poetry Ireland Review and Magma.. She has won the Segora Poetry competition in France, was long-listed for the UK’s National Poetry Competition and the Fish Poetry Prize, ….and a lot more.

 Her poem, Learning to Whistlewas made into a sculpture and is on display in Down Arts Centre. 

…………………………………………………………………

I would happily sit and read poem after poem to you, relishing  their clear-eyed honesty, their range, their verbal and rhythmical sure-footedness. Hearing the voice, like the one in Scabies 1970 (from The nervous flyer’s companion)..

The whole town knew someone in the prison –

pinpoints of blood on the children’s sheets

were not from hives or the strawberry harvest.

How’s that for an opening line? And how’s that for the resonances of ‘hives’ and ‘strawberry’…there are two words that really pull their weight. I’m also envious of the way that Graínne can look steadily at atrocity, and its dazed survivors in poems like Bad news from home. (from Banjaxed)

There’s an emptiness in the scattered street

where women wander, talking to the wind,

blood on their faces, looking for each other.

If you’re looking for the image that fixes the moment that makes a poem a poem, how about this from Mortal sin…..

Grown to the age of reason and her first confession

she runs into clean air like a sheet

drying in the wind of absolution.

It’s moments like this that always make me think the Irish have the unfair advantages (in poetry) of accent and of Catholicism. But enough. You’ve waited patiently, and here comes Graínne’s selection of her poems..and, which is nice for me, her commentarires on them. Which means I can now put up my feet and just enjoy myself. First up, the seaside.

Happy Days in Sunny Newcastle

 The air’s washed now,

last night’s sad leavings

swept up and away.

Van drivers park outside the bakery

with fried eggs held in breakfast soda farls .

Arcades of slot machines

lie berthed between spent streams

that slip downhill to a tideline flagged with pebbles,

faded wood, wrecked loot, rubber gloves, broken glass

abraded to droplets by the tumbling waves.

The daily walker on his coatless course

between youth and age,

observing wading birds and children’s games.

Up for a trip, out for a drive,

dandering down the promenade.

Loudhailer hymns, crusaders’ tracts

warn of strange temptations

offered to ice- cream lickers,

candy-floss lovers.

In the chip-shops’ wake the street

opens to the sea

which is the reason for everything,

shingle bank,

shops and houses,

foundations sunk in marsh,

confined by a shadowed arm

where mountains lift out of the water,

growing darkness like moss

over the forest where the young

roost with beer and campfires.

Heron pacing the harbour at twilight

stiff-collared in clerical grey,

squinting at coloured lights

edging the bay.

Far out, the lighthouse signalling

Good – night

chil – dren.

(Happy Days in Sunny Newcastle was a banner above a local seaside joke and souvenir shop. There is a local eccentric everyone knows, who walks the roads every day in a tweed jacket. And when our son was tiny I used to tell him the lighthouse was flashing goodnight to him though his bedroom window. )

[Me…I love the ‘sea that is the reason for everything’, the business of protestant tracts, the textures…at the same time there’s something slightly disturbing going on. And even more so in the next]

Migrant

Tell me a really story.  Tell me what it was like

when you were small, which way you walked to school,

the garden where you tried to dig to the other side of the world,

your uncle’s rows of leafy plants to eat,

the orchard tree you climbed to hide,

the old lady waving from the window, the bags of coloured sweets

and the house you were told you’d inherit.

Apricots and lemons.

If you go there, pick some for me.

Tierhogar, Spelga, Qatamon.

The names are spells.

When you shovelled soil aside with your scaled-down spade,

did you know you’d come out where you are now?

That your children would save cereal boxes

to reconstruct your home in sticky-tape and cardboard?

Tell me what happened. Exactly.

(This was written in 2006 well before the current refugee crisis. It was prompted by going to an art exhibition while on a teacher fellowship in Oxford – two women photographers, Israeli and Palestinian Arab. One photographed the family lemon orchard a friend could no longer visit because of travel restrictions on Palestinians. So Qatamon stands for such places. Tierhogar was sold and demolished, my mother’s lost cottage of childhood, for which she always longed. And Spelga is a drowned reservoir-valley near us in Co Down). 

The next one nails it for me in one couplet:In her neat suburb of the dead / you’ll need no A to Zed

The Catholic Graveyard in Armagh

Push away the feather quilt,

alert for the small hours review.

Here comes the siren, whoo, whoo,

to rattle your dazed heart.

Now the compulsory tour

of the raw trench where you left her,

wearing her navy dress as waked at home

among chrysanthemums, china cups

and a murmur of rosaries in her own back room.

Neighbours in sequence are addressed

as if they live here: Mrs So-and-So?

Third on the right.The sister and the father

under their slab in the new vernacular,

polished black marble, inscribed in gold,

carried from China for twelve weeks by sea.

She’s two plots away from the tidiest grave in town.

Fresh flowers always, though it took a year

to find a lad his executioners hid.

In her neat suburb of the dead

you’ll need no A to Zed,

killers and killed housed side by side

when booby trap or bullet

levelled their last breath.

Weeds came up over her while your back was turned.

Geraniums from Cemetery Sunday,

candles in plastic holders and a varnished cross

maintain old decency until granite

can name her true and final death.

(My mother’s death left me reeling, and recalibrating everything. I am the only one of 7 siblings in Ireland. The rest are in England and Wales. So the day-to-day elder-care, and the funeral and grave arrangements, mostly fell to me. Cruse Bereavement Care helped me to hold on to sanity at the point when I wrote this poem. The title does stick its tongue out at Lowell. That graveyard has the neighbouring corpses of my best friend’s police constable dad and his INLA murderers. Plus everyone else on the Catholic side of the town. It was the subject of a nasty snobby chapter in Kate Adie’s memoir in which she misses several vital points. Cemetery Sunday is when there is a three-line whip on families to clean and decorate graves and stand beside them for an open-air Mass. Ugh! I used to bring my father to attend, beside my mother’s grave in which he would remark that he would also be buried, and after both parents died, my sister heroically came over from England to relieve me of it. Oul’ dacencies can get too much at times.)

It’s not all dark, though it’s always serious. The last one takes you on a busride you weren’t quite expecting. Fingers crossed that WordPress will let me keep the layout as it should be. (of course it didn’t. So let’s see what converting to a jpeg will manage. Yayy. It works )

(This was partly prompted by a poet friend’s objection to current Irish poems which ignore modernity in favour of bogs and swans. There is a backlash against all this rural Oirishry, which amuses me, since so many of us really are still rural, but I’m also drawn to the idea of a debunking nature poem.)

So, there we are. Next week we’ll get up to date on what Graínne did next. See you then.

Poetry that really matters: Ann Gray (Part Two)

Tell me a story, Pew.

What story, child?

One that begins again.

That’s the story of life

But is it the story of my life?

Only if you tell it.

(Jeanette Winterson: Lighthousekeeping)

I’m a bit late starting to write this morning. The garden was full of pigeon feathers. Our cat has the unpleasant habit of attacking birds, making a mess, and then getting bored and leaving them. Sometimes it doesn’t bother killing them. So I found a pigeon with its shoulder muscle torn out, wandering about and helpless. I’m not good with stuff like this, but caught it in a sheet, and made a bad fist of breaking its neck, and then buried it. It should be easy, and I suppose it is if you know what you’re doing. And I’m always astonished by the tenacity with which an injured bird or animal will hang on to life. As it happens, this is not altogether irrelevant to today’s post, in which we get to hear more poems from Ann Gray, and to have our lives enriched.

If you missed Part One in the previous post, you might like to have a quick look, and read the poem she wrote about having to identify the body of her partner who had been killed in a traffic accident. I said I didn’t want to write any kind of commentary on it then, but there are a couple of things worth saying before I crack on with this week’s poems.

I said that her poem ‘unnerves and confronts’; I think I should qualify that. It’s not confrontational, it doesn’t insist. What Ann Gray does is to look unwaveringingly at her own trauma. There are three key verbs. I wanted. I was afraid. I watched. While she stands by the body of the man she loves the morgue attendant watched me through the window. He’s separated from the human story by glass, and by his bureaucratic routine that demands she uses the official, distancing, dehumanising formula

“He said take as long as you want, but he watched me

through a window and everything I wanted seemed

undignified and hopeless”

Meanwhile, what she ‘wants’ is to touch, and to touch passionately, but she’s afraid to hurt this man who can never hurt again. He’s gone, essentially, and separate. It makes me think of the agony of the dead miner’s wife in Lawrence’s ‘Odor of crysanthemums’. It’s this absolute honesty that told me I want to read and hear more and more of Ann Gray. So we will.

And I’ve just realised I’ve still not introduced her properly; let me put that right! 

Ann Gray says she always knew she wanted to write poetry:

 “I felt I was able to say more. There was a space inside the poem                                                                                     which I rarely found in prose.”

She has a Creative writing MA from the University of Plymouth. Her most recent collection was At The Gate (Headland, 2008) 

Her poems have been selected for the Forward Prize Anthology, commended for the National Poetry Competition, won the Ballymaloe poetry prize and shortlisted for the Forward prizes best single poem in 2015.

In 2013 she was Poet in residence at Cambridge University Botanic Gardens for the Thresholds University Museums Project, curated by the Poet Laureate.

A winner of the Poetry Business Pamphlet competition in 2018, she is co-director of the Bodmin Moor Poetry Festival, now in its 9th year

She lives in Cornwall where she cares for people with dementia.

Her studies for her MA led to her collection of poems about the sudden loss of her partner, At The Gate(Headland, 2008). The next poem,‘My Blue Hen’ is one of many written since that publication, which, she says, “prove” she was not finished with those poems.

She describes it as “a love song and a spell” and was inspired by the experience of moving her poultry to a safer place after a fox attack: “Although I was weeping with fatigue from walking up and down the hill, I found myself singing to console her, to console myself.”

How do we deal with unbearable loss? Who do we tell our grief to? Who will listen to its wildness? Who will be our confessor? Someone or something we trust not to judge, I suppose. Like this.

MY BLUE HEN

I sing to my blue hen. I fold her wings 

against my body. The fox has had her lover, 

stealing through the rough grass,

the washed sky. I tell her, I am the blue heron

the hyacinth macaw. We have 

a whispered conversation in French. I tell her 

the horse, the ox, the lion, are all in the stars

at different times in our lives. I tell her there are

things even the sea can’t do, like come in when 

it’s going out. I tell her my heart is a kayak 

on wild water, a coffin, and a ship in full sail. 

I tell her there is no present time, 

an entire field of dandelions will give her

a thousand different answers. I tell her 

a dog can be a lighthouse, a zebra finch can 

dream its song, vibrate its throat while sleeping. 

I tell her how the Mayan midwife sings each child 

into its own safe song. The moon holds back the dark.

I snag my hair on the plum trees. I tell her I could’ve 

been a tree, if you’d held me here long enough.

I stroke her neck. She makes a bubbling sound,

her song of eggs and feathers. I tell her you were 

a high note, a summer lightning storm of a man.

In Maya society, it is believed that midwives receive their calling from God in a series of dreams. The midwife is the first to see the infant, and before a mother can bond with her baby the midwife is expected to carefully interpret the signs that the child bears, and she alone will interpret what profession the child is destined for..

When Ann read this poem in St Ives, she explained that each time a baby is born, the Mayan midwife makes up a song for that baby and sings it every time she visits the mother before the baby is born. As the mother goes into labour the midwife sings the baby out into its own song, one that will make it feel safe as it has heard it for 9 months inside the womb. The other mothers sing the beat of the mother’s pulse and all the women of the village breast feed the baby so that it knows it belongs to the whole community and is safe there.

It’s a dream poem, this, isn’t it. Rousseau should have painted it. I love it.

As she says, with her partner she now cares for people with dementia, as she cared for her mother who she celebrates in her winning pamphlet I wish I had more mothers. The poems she writes about living with dementia have the same unflinching honesty as the ones about the death of her husband, but they’re laced with with a wry humour, too. I love the form, the voice of these one-way conversations, their assured ease with a relaxed, conversational blank verse. They speak for themselves.


Is it in your diary, Dear?

Every year they’d go to Heffers, shop for diaries,

not the Academic year, but the straightforward

blue black covered January to December, laid out

in weeks of empty days, waiting for engagements.

His records pills taken, the death of mice, the day

the gardener visits to set the traps, which coloured

bin goes out beyond the gate, when more oil is due.

Hers has been traversed by a spider, possibly drunk.

Odd words here and there could be meaningful, 

but it’s very hard to say. A right word could appear

on a wrong day. Though every day could be wrong.

She licks her thumb to turn the tissue of scribbled 

pages and readjusts the navy string of ribbon to hold

her weeks apart. Did you say they’ll be here for lunch

on the twentieth and who was that, I’m not sure what

this says here, have you got it in your diary, dear?

In her bag, there’s a small hardback journal bravely

titled ‘things to remember’, each page entirely blank. 

She still likes to keep a blue biro handy in case 

writing is required, but this will mean he shouts

and then it’s really difficult to take it down.  Just jot 

it down has such a jaunty sound to it. Jot what down

where, what is jot, a jot of what, where did she leave it.

Think where you last were, maybe in the kitchen, not a

jot in there, all sorts of stuff in cupboards she should

sort out, move about into their proper places. Can you

get your diary, he’s shouting now, can you get it from

the table beside your chair. She brings him a napkin,

tries a piece of cake, then tries a newspaper discarded 

on the floor. Your diary. Oh God, I give up, he shouts.

She sits down, folds a blanket on her knees and sleeps.

He uses the remote to tilt his chair, lift his legs, weeps.

Without Us

I am washing up a saucepan she thinks she’s using to boil 

milk. I am an intruder in her kitchen unnecessarily cleaning 

everything that’s sticky or has left a rusty stencil of itself 

inside the pull-out drawer. Her voice is rising to a shout,

Get out! I want to bite you!  You can, I say softly, and it’s 

forgotten. We return to chocolate in two faded cups, to 

cutting cake, to finding forks and saucers. So much shorter 

now, she peers into my face, are you, she hesitates, Ann?

I say, I am. I’m your eldest daughterOf course, she says 

with a little laugh. Neither of us believe I’ve convinced her.

She wants to watch the washing machine and has dragged

a chair there. The constant movement must be soothing

as she’s happiest waiting for the green light beeping under

Open Door, even though that instruction can be baffling

on a bad day, and there are more. Sometimes she’ll whirl

about the house causing mayhem, on other days we’ll find

her upstairs, in a room she says her mother left her when 

she died, turning pages of her Bible, talking softly to herself

while she watches tops of trees move against the window.

Lost there, she’s 4 years old, without her father. She weeps,

searching for his clothes, his shoes, his overcoat, his hat.

He will need them when he goes out on his visits. It’s so 

little, what we can do to be there, where she is without us.

We’ll finish with a poem of love, and hope, and a celebration of the fact that life goes on, that we endure or go under. Ann Gray is not one for going under, we understand.

Seven Years

I’m on the bed with Beth, fresh from Zumba.

Her socks stink. She’s promising to shout

for me, when I get old. It’s seven years since

we were left to watch at weddings, Christmas

after Christmas. I search for words, move

my tongue around my mouth,

I’ve met someone. She tips forwards.

I take her tears with my thumb. She asks me,

Does he know, and is he gentle?And I’m buried

in her clothes, her curling hair, her jumbled bed,

her guitar where her boyfriend’s propped it.

When I leave, it’s dark along the river,

the moon’s not quite full, breaking through the trees.

There’s no-one on the road and as I pull up the hill, 

I flick off the wipers, realiseit’s me; it’s not raining.

Thank you, so much, Ann Gray. Thank you for sharing the poems. Thank you for writing them.

I’ll let another writer have the last word because she says it better than I ever could.

“Turn down the daily noise and at first there is the relief of silence. And then, very quietly, as quiet as light, meaning returns. Words are part of the silence that can be spoken.”

[Lighthousekeeping.   Jeanette Winterson.  Harper Perennial 2004]

ps.Ann says that if you want to get hold of your own copy of At the gate it can be hard to source but she’s happy to sell you a copy direct. Let me know via the comment section, and I’ll put you in touch. No such problem with I wish I had more motherswhich you can order direct from The Poetry Business : http://www.poetrybusiness.co.uk/contact-us