John lives in Ossett, West Yorkshire. He has been a teacher, lecturer and LEA Adviser for Drama and English.
he has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Leeds, but learns much more from The Poetry Business and all the poets he has met there.
His poems have appeared in 'The North', 'The New Writer',and 'The Interpreter's House', among others.
He was First Prize winner in the Lumen/Camden Poetry Competition (2014) and of The Plough Prize (2013 and 2014). These were followed by others, including The McLellan (2015) and the Poetry Business International Pamphlet Prize (2016). His poems have been picked as prize winners by three posts laureate: Andrew Motion, Lizlochhead and Billy Collins. His first collection of poems , a pamphlet: 'Running out of Space' was published in April 2014, a second one, 'Backtracks' in JULY 2014, and his chapbook, 'Larach' was published by WardWood in November 2014. A pamphlet, 'Outlaws and fallen angels' was published by Calder Valley Poets in 2016. His first full collection 'Much Possessed' was published by smith|doorstop in 2016, and a second collection,'Gap Year', jointly authored with Andy Blackford was published by SPM Publications in 2017. He has ten grandchildren, all of whom are amazingly talented; he has supported Batley Bulldogs RL team for over 60 years, and would live on the Isle of Skye if they had a rugby league team.
While I’ve been off the airwaves, I’ve been tinkering about with the unwieldy archive that this website’s turned into since 2014.
A lot of the earlier posts have lost some of their images….and I’ve not been able to replace some of them. It’s ridiculously time-consuming and is likely to take much longer than anticipated, so I’ll plod on with it piecemeal, rather than waiting until the whole thing is updated.
Lots of the posts have become time-expired, tired, irrelevant…or maybe were not very interesting in the first place. Quite a few were duplicates. I can’t quite figure out why. Anyway, I’ve gone through as unsentimentally as possible, and deleted 200+ posts. I quite enjoyed that.
It also struck me that I’ve had scores of talented poets as guests on the Cobweb, but there was no quick way of finding out who they were, or when they appeared. It took along time, but I’ve now created an alphabetic index. I can’t understand why I didn’t do this from the very beginning.
I noticed that, for reasons that escape me, I’d started a page called ‘Poems’ (or My Poems). For the life of me I can’t see why, so I’ve dumped it and replaced it with an ego-trippy page called My Landmark Poems. I chose six that seemed to me to be the most significant, poems that became game-changers.
The design of the cobweb has bothered me for some time. A lot of poetry blogs are really elegantly usable. I’m going to stick with the one I’ve used since I started, but just point out that the door to all the different pages is the menu. So why not pop in and have look round.
Click on the Menu and up pop the pages
……or my Landmark poems…..and so on
With a following wind I hope to be shortly writing new posts and sharing my enthusiasm for guest poets.
I’m ever so grateful to The Friday Poem, and to poet Maryann Corbett for permission to use extracts from Maryann’s poem Erasures. It’s about the necessity imposed on the librarian to periodically cull the shelves of unread books
What he remembers is the poetry. The graceful little books, a hundred-some years old, the 1890-to-1920 range. Some leather-bound, some with gilt edges. Elaborate end-papers, ribbon markers, physical richness no one pays for now. …………….
Scanning the cards and date slips, he considered: Sometimes a given book had four or five names, neatly penned in its first year of life, a flush of bright attention. And then nothing. Mostly just one — a friend? a family member? One name. There followed decades of no interest, he writes forlornly.
Erasing them was not what he was doing — not he, nor shredders, nor incineration. Indifference had erased them.
Well that struck a nerve. I’ve been mulling over this post for a while, and then, via my friend Hilary Elfick, The Friday Poemoffers me a perfect starting point. You’ll see why as we go along.
It all starts with my looking at the stats for the cobweb and realising that, after about 460 posts since 2014, I’d amassed over 750K words and suspected that most of it was either redundant or unsearchable. I spent a day scrolling through and culling about 160 posts…most were duplicates/reposts, some were time-expired and of no more interest; some were simply dull or ill-advised. What struck me, however, was that there was an archive of guest poets who were all worth revisiting.
What the cobweb needed was an index. There are 100+ guest poets, and some have appeared two or three times. But there’s currently no simple way of finding where they are. And then I decided that I could also do something (anything!) about promoting my own stuff, apart from the bit where you can press Paypal buttons to buy stuff. And I needed to update the autobiography. And so on.
When I started to look at some of the very early posts I found that many of the images I’d used have vanished…time-expired…so those would need attention. I don’t know how long it’ll take, but I simply have to take some time out, and knock the blog into some sort of usable shape.
So much, so simple. But there’s more to it. Basically, if you want to maintain any kind of credibility as a poetry blogger, you need to be engaged with the world of poetry, who’s in, who’s out, who’s on the way up, where’s it all going….and so on. And for all sorts of reasons, I’m not, if I ever was. So long as I was jointly running a monthly poetry event, so long as I was getting out and about and blagging guest spots at other poetry clubs, so long as I was regularly getting to readings, to writing workshops and residentials, so long as I was doing that I was meeting poets of all kinds, listening to new voices, buying books. The whole nine yards. Tiring but exhilarating and battery-charging in equal measure.
And then along came the double whammy. The pandemic locked me down, and then various cancer treatments that affected my immune system threw away the key. Yes, I’ve been kept sane by regular Zoom workshops with my mates at the Albert Poets, and by Zoom courses with poets like Kim Moore and Jean Atkin. But the buzz isn’t the same, and above all you miss the accidental encounters and conversations that surprise you into creativity. Apart from that, not travelling, not seeing changing landscapes, new faces …it all dulls the imagination. Basically, I’m tired and unresponsive. I got to a point where I couldn’t think clearly or quickly or sharply. And I don’t think I’ve been doing my guest poets justice. That’s one thing. As to the other, I need to resort to analogy (always a danger sign).
Remember “Q” magazine. There was time in the 90’s when I couldn’t be without it. And then I couldn’t be bothered with it any more. It was always the ‘next big thing’, the next ne plus ultra. It was all summed up by the page after page of reviews of releases by bands who I’d never heard of, and were all amazing and unmissable. There wasn’t enough time in the world to find if the reviews were true. We were drowning in a plethora of latest things. So I gave up. I couldn’t keep up any more. It’s like reading James Ellroy (American Tabloid et al)..you know that the characters are genuinely interesting, that the plot is pacy and complex, but the prose in all its telegrammatic density is utterly exhausting. It’s like being bludgeoned. Here’s another parallel. I’ve recently been reading ..or trying to keep up with…Nicholas Crane’s The making of the British landscape. It’s genuinely interesting but it’s also the prose equivalent of timelapse film. Continents slide, icecaps rise and fall like meringues, a huge chunk of Norway slides into the abysmal deeps beyond the shelf and a tsunai takes out Doggerland. Forests multiply like bacteria and shrink as suddenly. You’re conscious of convulsive change but the timescale becomes incomprehensible. It’s all too much.
And, that, gentle reader, is just how the contemporary world of poetry seems to me. It’s a full time job to keep track of it, and for much of the time (as with those groups of the 90s that never went anywhere) it doesn’t feel as though it’s worth the effort. In a dark mood I’m inclined to agree with Clive James’ view that there’s never been a time when there’s been so much Poetry about and so few real poems. Social media is dense with folk announcing that they’re ‘working on their new collection’ five minutes after the last one came out, or folk posting pictures of their recently arrived books fresh from the printer. I should know. I’m one of them. I also know (and I’m not surprised) that my second collection came out in May and vanished without trace. As far as I know, it’s not been reviewed. Why should it be? I’m not getting to poetryt events where it can be heard. There’s a tsunami of new pamphlets and chapbooks and you’re either surfing the wave or you’re overwhelmed. It is what it is. But I really do want to stand back and reconsider where to go next, if at all. I want to clear my head. I want a rest.
So. I’m signing off for an unspecified time while I curate the great fogginzo’s cobweb and make it fit for purpose. When I come back I’ll want to be sharing enthusiasm and clear-mindedness. There are poets who I know I want to write about. But not till I can do them justice.
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with extracts from a post I wrote some years ago. It’s about hope and ambition, both realistic and unfounded. In one way and another it seems relevant. As does Maryann Corbett’s poem. (see what I did there?)
The post is from 2016: So you want to be a rock ‘n roll star
“In the last year or so, I’ve reviewed – or blogged about – collections that I love. Kim Moore’s The art of falling. Christy Ducker’s Skipper.Fiona Benson’s Bright travellers.Jane Clarke’s The River.Work by Shirley McClure, Maria Taylor, Hilary Elfick, Tom Cleary, Bob Horne, Steve Ely, Clare Shaw, Wendy Pratt…loads of them. I’ve been asked to read manuscripts of draft collections and wished they were mine. I just signed a contract for a first collection of my own poems…of which more in another post. And I’m involved in a frustrating email exchange about the cover design. “
(that was how it felt, to be involved. The past is another country!)
“We can all dream. Write poems. Get them accepted by The Rialto, Magma, Poetry Review...all of them. Find a publisher. Bloodaxe would be nice. Get great reviews, prizes. Sit in Waterstones and sign copies as the queue stretches out of the door and along the street. We can dream, and so we should; our reach should exceed our grasp, or what’s a heaven for? So.
You go on writing, and maybe you get some poems accepted by magazines. And for a bit you feel sort of content. And then folk start asking: have you got a collection out yet? And you look at the growing files of poems you’re more or less pleased with. Your ouevre. And that ‘what shall I write about?’ morphs into ‘when will I be published?’. More specifically, ‘I want a collection’. Which morphs into ‘When will I be famous?’. And then poet-envy. Then doubt. Despair. Oblivion.”
“Everyone’s route to a collection is different. ( I nearly wrote ‘journey’ and caught myself just in time). This was mine………..
Years ago, I did a part-time Creative Writing MA. To be honest, I really did it because I was semi-retired, and struggling to cope with free time. I thought that committing to a course would put some discipline into my life. It didn’t, but that’s another story. On the other hand, I was struck by the diffuse ambition of my (much younger) fellow students. None of them asked questions about how to make their work better. But they constantly asked about how you set about getting published. I didn’t get it. I genuinely thought it was hard enough to actually learn something about the craft of writing, and to actually write some poems.
But. I’d got a taste for it, even if I didn’t acknowledge it. It was Poetry Business Writing Days that set my feet right. You learn from the company you keep; I was taken along for the first time by Julia Deakin, to whom I shall be eternally grateful. I sat in rooms with people who seemed to write as though writing, and getting it right, was enough. I was comfortable in their company. Eventually, though, the conversation would turn to magazines and pamphlets and collections, and I realised after all that just writing better wasn’t enough. What was the point, if no one was reading your stuff?
Why would they would be reading yours? Who would notice? How would they find it in the multiverse of books and bookshelves and libraries and bookshps? I remember saying to Ann Sansom that I couldn’t see why folk would pester publishers. Or why poetry publishers put themselves through it. There’s no money in it for anyone, that’s for sure.
Something that’s stuck in my mind since then is an anecdote that Simon Armitage put in his account of walking the SW Coast Path and reading at various venues along the way. (Walking away.Faber). He’s staying overnight at what was the home of Peterloo Poets…who, inter alia, were the publishers of U.A.Fanthorpe. At some point, they simply went out of business. And left behind thousands and thousands of unsold copies, gradually falling prey to dust and damp. There you go. No one’s going to see your stuff on those crowded shelves, and eventually you’ll be remaindered or pulped. It’s a profoundly depressing thought.
(But as it turned out, I’ve realised I’ve been lucky enough to sell up to a 100 copies of some the books I’ve had published. The flip side is that I probably know everyone who ever bought a copy. I guess that when you’re selling books via bookshops, and strangers are buying them, then you’ve started to make it. )
“You send stuff out, you enter competitions, you do open mics. You realise (well I did) that even if someone offers to publish you, it could be over a year before anything happens. And maybe you think you haven’t the patience for it. That’s what I felt like, but at the same time there’s something deeply unsatisfying about a whole bunch of poems that sit there in their Wordfiles, that have no physical heft. As it happened, still struggling to cope with semi-retirement, I enrolled in a bookbinding course at the Tech in Leeds. Learned very simple techniques.. Decided that for my assessment projects, I’d make books of my own poems. So I did.”
(later I went in for self-publishing, just so I could have multiple copies to sell (hopefully) at open mics and so on
“You want to be published? Just do it. Two of my happiest memories are seeing the big smiles on the faces of Kim Moore and of Jane Clarke when their brand new collections came out.”
(in 2016 I must have thought the world was my oyster; I wrote this:)
“I started off by making handmade books, just for the fun of it. Then I got a printer. Then I won a competition. Then I won another. I’m a lucky boy. My first collection’s coming out in November. I may even post pictures of it. Or, like Jane Clarke, go to sleep with it under my pillow. You’ll never be a rock ‘n roll star. That’s not what it’s about. But whatever you do, just do it. You know you want to.”
I was going to sign off with an ironic flourish :Hasta la vista. But someone just trashed that for all time. I’ll stick to something more low-key. I’ll be back.
Thirty years ago today, our son David, took his own life. He’d be 51 today, if he’d lived, our lovely boy.
I’m reposting this blog from 2019 in his memory, and for all the other troubled children.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“There are maps of a kind…but the trouble is, the maps are always last year’s…..England is always remaking itself, her cliffs eroding, her sandbanks drifting, springs bubbling up in dead ground. They regroup themselves while we sleep, the landscapes through which we move…the faces of the dead fade into other faces as a spine of hill in the mist”
from: Bring up the Bodies
This, for me, is one of the most memorable passages in the cornucopia of memorable passages that is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, and it explains in some measure the urge that lies behind Bob Hamilton’s and Emma Storr’s Offcumdens. At the heart of it is that phrase
the landscapes through which we move
It’s the idea that landscapes are never static, that they change moment by moment and aeon by aeon. They change because we move through them,and they depend on viewpoints. They are unlimited and four-dimensional, but we go on trying to pin them down, as this moment, or that, to give ourselves, I think, a place to stand and be secure in. We want to secure the memory of the place and also to share it.
I knew when I asked the authors if I could write about their collection that there would be two ideas that I would have to riff on ..the idea of ‘landscape’, and the business of collaborative works. Let’s start with the idea of landscape..because that’s what it is. An idea. A concept.
Raymond Williams’ The Country and the City is missing from the shelf, but otherwise it’s a fair cross-section of the books that have explained the the notion of landscape for me by teaching me its cultural history. The word arrived as landscipe or landscaef in England after the 5thC. It meant land shaped …by farming and clearance for instance. The word landscape, first recorded in 1598, was borrowed from a Dutch painters’ term. In other words, a piece of land specifically chosen to be looked at and visually recorded. It gets tangled up with the idea of scenery, and backdrop and setting. Think of the Breughels, Elder and Younger…their huge vistas full of human activity, or, closer to home, Lowry’s teeming industrial cotton towns. At different times the fashionable ‘landscape’ might be Sublime and awe-inspiring (Caspar David Friedrich, Turner, Anselm Adams) and at other times pretty and and managed and Picturesesque.
I’ve read and read trying to understand my own preference for particular kinds of landscape. I’m not at home in woodland or in conventionally ‘pretty’ countryside. I’m uncomfortable in flatlands where the sky’s too big, and everything is too far away. I’m happier looking down rather than up. I like to be on the tops of things. I’m immediately in tune with the first stanza of Offcumdens’ title poem, in which Emma Storr announces
I didn’t know I’d fall in love with bleak:
the swerve of dry stone walls around the hills,
the fissured scars of rock above the fields.
It may be, too, that it comes with its own language of ‘north’. The Norse ‘k’, the stone, the hills, the scars, the fields. A language and a place in tune with each other. It reminds me that I have two poet friends ,each of whom have a house which embraces a 180° view; one view ranges from the Dark Peak, via Holme Moss and the moors above Halifax and Bradford to the beginnings of the East Riding. The other one, on the horizon of the first, looks out north over Ponden Reservoir as far as Whernside. To be in either place is simultaneously to be grounded, and like flying. It’s also to be immersed in the sound of things, wind especially, and also its texture. Essentially, I’m saying that when it comes to writing about Offcumdens I’m a captive audience.
Another thing. A landscape is a much more complex thing than a photo or a painting. I believe, like Robert Macfarlane, that you only come to ‘know’ a landscape by walking in it, physically knowing the effort of hills and hard ground, or the release of level turf. Equally, walking in its weathers, wet or dry, cold, blustery, calm, humid. One of the things I like about this collection is its range, from the hard uplands of the Northern Dales, to the limestone cliffs of the East Coast, the scooped trough of Upper Wharfedale, the tucked- in small valley towns, and also curious corners of the big cities like Leeds. All of these places have been walked, explored on foot, in the way that is constantly shifting the perspective and arrangement of things in time and space. And this creates an energy, and organic sense of living places that are worked and populated.
So much for landscape. The other attraction is that of a collaborative piece. I’m fascinated by the interaction of different ways of seeing, and often wonder about the process. For instance, how did Norman Ackroyd work with Kevin Crossley-Holland? Which comes first…the poem or the artwork/photo. Did Fay Godwin and Ted Hughes work independently and then see what came up? It looks fairly clear that R L Lloyd illustrated the poems that Hughes had written, as did Charles Keeping for Charles Causley. The dynamic is going to be different all the time. [Note to self: maybe I should ask Stella Wulf about her collaboration with Graham Mort. And also about her illustrating her own poems. Hmmm.]
The thing about Offcumdens is that a) it has the courage to work in the same territory as Hughes and Godwin and b) it rather wonderfully provides the reader with an appendix of detailed commentaries, in which Bob and Emma write about their involvement in particular poems. There’s one telling moment when Bob, writing about the poem Walking away, says
“Emma is called upon to be very patient while we’re out walking together. I see something in the landscape that I think will make for a good photograph, and go running off to find the right spot……I often see shapes and textures in the patterns of the clouds, imagining how they are going to look in black and white…”
Emma’s comment is that
“It can get very cold waiting for Bob to take photos…this was in March with frost on the ground and a bitter wind”
I really like the sense of the to-and-fro of the collaboration in which sometimes the image will generate the poems, and at other times the photographer will work to respond to or illustrate the poem.
As Philip Gross writes in his endorsement on the back cover: “Each double page is a conversation” . Each pair of facing pages is made of an image and its companion poem. A conversation.That’s it, exactly! Time now to eavesdrop on three of these conversations, which I hope will give you a sense of the range and richness of this lovely book. First up, let’s meet our guests.
Bob Hamilton is a Londoner who moved to Ilkley in 1988. He has a background in mathematics and spent his working life as a software developer, involving everything from computer games in the 80s to image databases in the 90s—pioneering the first systems for museums to display their photographic archives on screens—to public health systems in the 2000s. Somewhere in the middle of all that coding he took a sabbatical to write a non-fiction book called Earthdream (Green Books, 1990), a work of ecophilosophy. With his family having spread its wings, he has found the space to pick up his camera and his pen again, pursuing a number of photography and writing projects. He has won a number of open photography competitions and has had his pictures exhibited nationwide through The Photographic Angle.
Emma Storr is also a Londoner who moved to Leeds in 1993. She has a background in medicine but is now turning her attention to poetry. She completed an MPhil in Writing at the University of South Wales in 2018. Publications include poems in The Hippocrates Prize Anthologies of 2016, 2018 and 2020, Strix Nos. 2, 3 & 4, Pennine Platform Issues 86 & 87and Raceme No.8. Her poems have appeared in the following anthologies: These are the Hands, Fairacre Press 2020, And the Stones Fell Open: A Leeds Poetry Anthology, Leeds Church Institute 2020, When All This Is Over, Calder Valley Poetry 2020 and Bloody Amazing, Dragon-Yaffle Publications 2020. Her debut pamphlet Heart Murmur was published by Calder Valley Poetry in 2019 and has a medical theme, based on her work as a GP. And she’s also been a guest on the cobweb. Here’s the link https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2019/01/13/on-hearing-and-listening-and-an-undiscovered-gem-emma-storr/
I asked Bob and Emma for three poems. The first one is dedicated to cottongrass which the long-distance walker John Hillaby described as an ecological warning sign of of a soil beyond regeneration. It’s the flower of the gritstone moorland tops. It’s fragile and beautiful. I loved the idea of its being gathered by a distraught Ophelia
Poor Ophelia with her floral gifts.
Pansies never eased her heart or cheered.
Forget the rosemary, columbine and rue,
the daisies and the fennel’s feathered leaves.
By the river, far from sniffing dogs
I’ll pick white stars of garlic growing wild
and in the hills I’ll find the nutty scent
of gorse, the yellow tongues among its thorns.
I’ll gather cotton grass, the tufts that rise
from swamps to dip and dance in gusts of wind.
My garland will have barley and sea thrift,
stems of pink and purple Yorkshire fog.
I’ll give my lover flora from our walks
in sprinkled woods, on moors, on salt-licked cliffs.
The second one I asked for is a less obvious choice, but I wanted to reflect the fact that this collection takes in the variety of a much-worked and imbricated landscape. There are many images of high moors, but the soft valleys around Ilkely and Menston can sometimes be home to bleak and disturbing memories.. Menston was one of those asylums like Storthes Hall that were built in the 19thC and in recent years abandoned or turned into apartments..or student accommodation ….with the rise of so-called ‘care in the community’. My own reading of the poem, which I think is heartbreaking, is coloured by re-readings of a novel by William Horwood whose daughter was born with severe cerebral palsy. Horwood writes multilayered intra-textual stories involving invented mythologies, actual documentary histories and imagined biographies and publications. This one’s called Skallagrig. It was published by Penguin at some point.I think it’s wonderful. It appears to be out of print but you can pick up used copies starting at around £6.50
West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum
Is this home? I forget.
Stains on green and brown walls
are clouds above my bed.
I watch the ward canary fly
from its cage towards the light.
Sometimes it grips its perch,
stays within the bars.
Sometimes I prefer the dim
inside, the dull calm.
They say it might be good for us
to have fresh air, to weed and rake
the flower beds and walk
the grounds as if we’re free.
Marshall tried to hang himself.
The gaslight bracket broke.
Lavatory chains can’t be looped
into a noose or knot.
We are watched over,
Did I mention the orchestra?
Music made from lunatic strings,
brass and drums, we beat
the wildest rhythms, dance
our madness in and out
with stamping feet and whirl
the staff about until they beg
to be released from jigs and reels.
I think that this is home.
A garden for nesting birds,
the greenest grass,
the smiling face of a clock.
The final choice I couldn’t resist. The Brontes had to find a place. Unsentimentally.
I dreamed last night of Haworth hills,
misty moors and damp days past,
trudging pattens on the cobbles,
Emily breathing hard and fast.
I saw their rooms, the tiny books
Branwell’s painting, creased and brown,
a battered trunk, a Scarborough grave,
lives of passion, all cut down.
I watched the father find his stick,
place his nightcap on his head,
stiffly kneel to say his prayers,
cursing God he was not dead.
Today the Brontës sell as soap
and broken biscuits by the pound.
Thousands come to walk the moors
worshipping the hallowed ground.
The air is clean, the drains are clear,
the deathly coughs are buried deep.
The Brontës have been sanitised,
their untold stories put to sleep.
So there we are….it’s taken some time to put this together what with a spell of Covid followed by debilitating complications. I wish my mind was clearer. But thank you, Bob Hamilton and Emma Storr for being our guests and sharing the riches of your book.
I guess everyone will want to buy a copy. I hope so, anyway. Here’s the detail
Offcumdens: Hamilton and Storr . [Fair Acre Press. 2022] £19.99
Dylan Thomas’ Do not go gentle into that good night has bothered me for many years.
And you, my father, there on the sad height, Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
It bothered me more when, in my 30s I sat with my dying father. All my dad wanted in his last days was release from pain. Imagine the sheer tone-deaf selfishness of that injunction in his ears. All I can hear is a young man’s impotent rage against the loss of his father. It makes me wonder about rage and poetry. Among other things.
It has been a quiet week here in Ossett, mainly because my wife, Flo, and then me, tested positive for Covid after two years and more of shielding, self-isolating, masking, handwashing, disinfecting and the avoidance of social gatherings. It’s made each of us alternately angry/depressed/philosophical/rueful…but mainly miserable and pissed -off. It doesn’t help that I’m increasingly prone to bouts of what I can only describe as rage-born-of-frustration. It sort of helps to know you’re not alone.
The poet Jo Bell’s given me permission to use this Facebook post; when I read it it chimed immediately:
“You all know this already, and this is a classic case of me speaking to my own bubble. I’m almost weeping with anger after hearing a government PR man on the Today programme, blithely pretending that Johnson knew nothing about a party – a party at which he [the PR man] exhorted people in writing to ‘not wave bottles around in front of the camera’ and later crowed that ‘we got away with it.’ The man also repeatedly made the point that Downing Street staff were ‘working very hard’. I don’t doubt it. But we all remember the pictures of NHS staff who were working on the frontline for 12 or 16 hours a day and sleeping in corridors, and quarantining their own families at home for months on end. Many of us, of course, couldn’t work very hard, and spent our way through our savings, because our lifetime’s work disappeared as the people around us kept to the rules, for the good of our neighbours and strangers.
A Ministry of Justice cleaner, Emmanuel Gomez, contracted Covid and died – possibly from the people around him. They were boldly flouting the rules that they themselves had put in place – and which we were all following at the expense of our own working and domestic lives, to keep each other safe. The level of explicit lying and doublespeak perpetrated by this government are gobsmacking. I didn’t get this man’s name, but I hope he goes home and bangs his head against the table in shame.”
Almost weeping with anger.
Exactly. It’s the anger, the rage, that makes you incoherent and impotent. At worst it makes you lash out. I’ve shouted at a bunch of Tory canvassers who knocked on my door (we’re in the middle of a bye-election here in Wakefield); I wanted to be cold and calm and and take them to them to bits while clearly maintaining a moral superiority. But I lost it. I could not handle a bunch of smug fools telling me self-evident bare-faced lies. I was impotent.
A couple of days ago, Flo and I spent a period of 26 hours trying to deal with the NHS 111 hotline that I was told, in an NHS letter, to use in the event of a positive Covid Test…because I would be eligible for anti-viral drugs.
It’s hard to describe the experience. Kafkaesque is a cliché but it’s as near as I can get. It involves long periods on hold, followed by being asked to spell out the reason for the call, followed by a lengthy questionnaire and then being put on hold while we arrange to put you in contact with a clinician. The same process is then repeated several times. There is apparently no way of maintaining an on-going record of the sequence of phone calls, so you constantly go back to the start and on no account do you collect £200. After a bit you simply stop trying. But in the morning your phone tells you NHS 111 rang you at 1.23am and at 3.27am….. Later you are rung by an actual pharmacist, you are put on hold, you lose the line. They ring you back. Eventually a doctor in our local hospital rings. He is appalled to be told about the process. He is a nice man, and tells us he sees no real need for me to try the anti-viral drugs. The only reason I rang in the first place was because a letter told me I should.
Why didn’t I ring my surgery and the doctor who know my case inside out? Because it’s a Jubilee and the surgery is closed for four days.
In other news (ironically) footage of our egregious PM being booed on the steps of St Paul’s is edited out of the footage by our public service broadcaster, and our Culture Secretary is in denial. Again. I’m almost constantly angry and it does no good. The Serenity Prayer in under enormous stress. But after all, this is a poetry blog. Facebook and Twitter are the places for ranting into the void . If you want that done well, then follow (as I do) Another angry voice, and I see you.
So, I’ve been brooding on the difficult relationship between art and anger. We’re taught to be comfy with notions of emotion recollected in tranquillity, or that beauty is truth and that’s all you need to know. Songwriters and singers can develop a creative partnership with anger (think Early Dylan) and arguably even with rage (think Sex Pistols).
I have a feeling that angry political poetry gets sidelined these days. Tony Harrison was villified for it by the ‘popular’ press. I’m thinking of “V”, particularly, but also his Gulf War poems. I’ve no doubt that lots of readers will help me out, but I can’t readily think of ‘angry’ poets or ‘angry’ poems outside the performance/stand-up circuit. And it makes me smile awkwardly to see how John Lydon and John Cooper Clark got assimilated into the ‘eccentric lovable national treasures corner’.
The only thing I’m sure about is the ways in which, one way or another, I seem to have shaped some of my own anger into poems…or poetry. What follows will be a bit scattershot. Forgive me…I’m still dealing with Covid, which is debilitating and annoying.
Let’s start with Lear.. Here he is about to storm out of his daughter’s castle and into a transformative storm.
I will have such revenges on you both That all the world shall – I will do such things – What they are yet I know not, but they shall be The terrors of the Earth! ….
O Fool, I shall go mad!
I’ve always thought this a wonderful gift to an actor, the character inarticulate with impotent rage, the fractured phrases, the dashes that invite you to consider how the actor will inhabit those spaces. He’s flailing for language and it wont come. Grrrrrrrrrrrr….. And shortly after he does go mad, and what’s rather wonderful and terrible is that he comes out the other side in what sounds like lucidity. It’s verse that never puts a foot wrong. Because the mad Lear is in control of this anger
Rage makes you incoherent. Articulation is the tongue-tied’s fighting. The gift is to find the right channel. I thought I’d cool my head and calm myself down by reflecting on the the rage I feel about the apparently untouchable sense of entitlement that characterises the last ten years of the contemporary Tory Party in power, and then how more or less by accident, I found a way of channelling it. The answer for me lay in the Greek Myths, the stories of the Greek pantheon, and particularly the version created by Garfield and Blishen in The God beneath the Sea.
Olympus is in the hands of arrogant and empathy-free public school bullies with supernatural powers. I came to think of Zeus (who crucifies Prometheus, the maker of humankind) as a divine psychopathic gangster:
Violent and vulgar as the Krays
a white bull, miasmic with testosterone,
or a shower of gold, or a flurry of wings
The whole pale mortal world
just asking for it.
A bit of blood and bruising.
No harm done.
(True Stories: Larach. [Ward Wood 2014]
There was a one conduit for the anger, and another in the persona of Apollo. Serial rapist and torturer of Marsyas the Satyr. It was Tony Harrison who taught me about Marsyas, via The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus which I saw at Salts Mill, performed by Northern Broadsides, 30 years ago. The anger at the silencing/muting of the working class that Harrison channels in The school of Eloquence erupts in this play that spins around the death of the satyr who has the temerity to surpass Apollo in a contest of musicianship. Some of the rage I felt at Cameron’s contempt for Jeremy Corbyn (wear a suit/stand up staright/sing the National Anthem) was given a shape, I realise, by what Harrison taught me.
Autodidact Marsyas, face to face
with god. Between us, flensers,
their knives along his wincing flesh.
Abject, in a loose wet skirt of his own skin:
this satyr’s all that my sealed eyes can see.
A scream that occupies all silences
all I can hear
(Apollo wishes to atone.. Outlaws and Fallen Angels. CVP )
He keeps turning up, Apollo. When Kim Moore was working on her first collection The art of falling, she got me hooked on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and thence to the story of the rape of Daphne by Apollo, appallingly and beautifully recreated in white marble by Bernini.
He doesn’t get it, this golden god
this spoiled pretty boy,
why his skin grows crusted,
why his supple fingers crack like kindling
why his large joints are querns
why clay and stones impede him
why his blood pulses slow and green.
(Metamorphosis: Outlaws and Fallen Angels. CVP )
I must be full of unconsummated anger. Or maybe I’ve finally exorcised it with this last poem, started in a Poetry Business Saturday workshop, with Rilke’s poem Archaic torso of Apollo as a starter. What I never saw coming was that it would be taken over by a phrase from a left wing blogger I follow on Facebook.
I see you, Apollo
“there is no place/ that does not see you. You must change your life. “
Sans head, no fingers,hands or arms.
No mouth. No lips. Someone found you beautiful.
You’re an accident of time,
the great convulsions of the earth,
the depredations of philistines or vandals,
the boys from the steppe, stinking of horse
and sweat, and blood that may be their own,
who cannot feel a wound, pumped up
with fear, testosterone, adrenalin,
flames, and screams of the nearly-dead.
I see you, Apollo, toying with a lyre,
testing the give of a string, and Marsyas
slowly dying nerve by nerve, slippery
with blood; his wet skin, his appalled gaze.
I see you exquisite in marble, oblivious to everything;
hot and reeking of musk, you’re blind
to tender leaves springing
from the fingers of a frantic girl.
I see you, Apollo, on a green hill. A gaping mask
the winds blow through. You have no body at all.
Like all the gods, you thought you’d fixed the game,
in the flatteries of myth, in bronze and marble.
You never saw us coming; libraries burning,
the statues overturned and smashed,
your lyre strings turned to garottes.
Do you see us Apollo,
the satyr’s children’s children? We see you.
[from Pressed for Time. Calder Valley Poetry 2022]
I think I may just have got Apollo out of my system. And here’s a thing. For the first time in days I don’t feel full of anger. Writing will do that sometimes. The tongueless man gets his land took.
Thanks for indulging me. Next week I’ll celebrate a collaborative collection that I really like and makes the worls a better place.
In 1952 I was given a book for my 8th birthday. It became one of my favourite stories. I’ve still got it, though I’ve had to rebind. It’s had some hard wear. It’s The wind in the willows which starts, as well you know, with the Mole, doing his spring cleaning and feeling the pull of Spring even in “his dark and lowly little house” which it penetrates “with its spirit of divine discontent and longing”. Amazingly, even at 8 I instinctively ignored the Edwardian whimsy and turned the page to find the Mole dancing for the sheer joy of being outside. Two pages later he’s standing at the boundary between his quotidian locked-down world and the world of story where anything can happen. And then does.
Over a week ago I knew just how he felt. Like too many others I’ve been (as I keep on saying in this blog) shut in and shielded for two years and more. I’ve grown nervous of the company of strangers. Timid is as close as I can get to describing it. How I’ve missed the buzz! I tried to write about it…the nearest I got was this.
Last day of January
In the last days all days are the same;
we have no way of recognising endings.
Somewhere it’s the last day
of someone’s sentence, let out
in a world locked down, hedged
with prohibitions that no-one
Daffodils don’t care,
push up bruise-blue in the field
that’s waterlogged and frozen.
The apple tree’s still full of fruit,
blackbirds hollow out the fallen.
Up in the hawthorn a thumbprint
of feathers is filling the sky
with a song so complex you could weep.
A blackbird triggers his alarm.
That big white cat’s out in the field.
Somewhere out of sight the sun
is setting beyond the windfarm
on the whaleback moor.
Last day of January. You have run out
of timber. You want to fettle everything.
What the small bird wants
is extraordinarily complicated.
That blackbird built his first nest
last year and sang himself to silence.
You hope he’ll try again.
You can wait the year out.
You’ve done it before.
Well, I was really chuffed when this was published in The North .67 and finally in my new collection Pressed for time. Which brings me back to May 3rd when we had a live launch for the collection in the lovely venue which is Brighouse Library and Art Gallery . For a week before, I was awake nights wondering if it was true, and if, because I’d done it before I could still do it. I was absurdly nervous about the whole thing, apart from the usual business of wondering whether anyone would turn up. I was nervous enough to write a script for my bits of the reading. These days I’m usually in bed by 9.00pm. Would I have the energy? I haven’t read aloud to a live audience for two years and more…….and so on.
[Photo courtesy of Kim Moore]
What actually happened was that twelve Calder Valley Poets rocked up to do support readings; former students and ex-colleagues from the 1970s (Northern Counties College) and 1980s (Boston Spa Comp) turned up out of the blue; poets and friends I’ve not seen in yonks came along; eldest son, daughter in law and grandson came along (and filmed it all); we sold a shed-load of books. It all went like clockwork thanks to my editor Bob Horne’s careful planning. To top it all, my friend, mentor and inspiration Kim Moore arrived (a five hour round trip from Barrow!) and read three of my poems from the collection, so I heard them as if I’d never encountered them before. Wow!
Nervous? The script went out of the window. I’d forgotten what a live audience can do. I’d forgotten how it feels, the buzz, to be flying. There’s an electricity that energises you, that overrides two years of lockdown and chemo, and I thank my stars for it. I was reading a Facebook post today from Gill Lambert, the Leeds/Airedale poet who launched her new collection A small goodbye at dawn in Haworth. She’s flying, too. Suddenly there are launches everywhere. We’ve been let out. We know how the Mole felt. We’re learning the synergy and language of company again, the sound of voices.
Which brings me to the second part of the post. There’s a phrase that’s stuck in my head since the early 80s when I heard a lecture by an American “Real Books” educationist. I can’t remember his name. Mea culpa. It was a catchphrase taken up by the English ‘Real books’ enthusiast, the Literacy lecturer Geoff Hynds.
You learn from the company you keep
Oversimplified and politicised by the eduation Right Wing, this came to be villified as the idea that children would learn to read if they were left unhindered with lots of books. A bit like claiming you could learn retail theory by being left in a shop, or dietetics by eating a lot. No-one ever advocated anything of the kind, of course. But core truth is that you learn best and longest from the company you keep. It’s not necessarily a good thing, as demonstrated by our PM, but true nevertheless. You learn to perform poems by performing, but you need responsive audiences. And you learn to write poetry blogs by keeping company with people who do it better. I’ve become introspective in the last two years, and needed the good old kick up the pants reminder of why I started this blog in the first place…to share my enthusiasm for poets who excited me. Well, I got that last week when a friend sent me a link to The Friday Poem ( https://the fridaypoem.com ) and an article by poet Regina Weinert (who has been a cobweb guest before now)
It’s an appreciation of a poet I didn’t know about and now want to know more of. William Bonar was born in Greenock and grew up in the neighbouring shipbuilding town of Port Glasgow. He graduated from the Universities of Edinburgh and Strathclyde and gained a distinction on the MLitt in Creative Writing at Glasgow University in 2008. After working in education for 30 years he retired to become a full-time writer, becoming a founder member of St Mungo’s Mirrorball, Glasgow’s network of poets and readers of poetry, and was a participant on Mirrorball’s Clydebuilt mentoring scheme (2009-10) under the tutelage of Liz Lochhead. His sequence, ‘Visiting Winter: a Johannesburg quintet’, originally published in Gutter 06, was chosen for the Scottish Poetry Library’s online anthology Best Scottish Poems 2012 and he was shortlisted for a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award in 2015. He published two pamphlets: Frostburn Steel (Dreadful Night Press, 2004) and Offering (Red Squirrel, 2015) which won the James Kirkup Memorial Poetry Prize for 2014.
Billy died in September 2021 and the William Bonar Pamphlet Prize, supported by St Mungo’s Mirrorball and Red Squirrel Press, was founded in his memory.
A collection of poems The Stuff of the Earth was published in 2021.
Regina’s appreciation of a poet who was a friend and inspiration is everything I want in writing about poets and poetry. Jim Carruth has written on Offering that
“You cannot help but trust a poet who treasures the briefest moments in his journey,
and works them back to the very essence that will keep them bright always.”
It might be the bleak moment that draws you in, and takes you though bleakness and out the other side.
Regina provides part of the backstory:
“Four poems deal directly with William Bonar’s own experience of illness and near-death. It was important to him to be open around this and he contributed poems to the anthology Living our Dying. The poems are unsparing, almost clinical, yet also calm and not without humour. In ‘Awake’ he wonders whether it was the “two-tone hooting of owls” that woke him, “penetrating my ear like a bolus of ice-water”, or whether it was the full moon, “whatever”:
I must face that brilliant eye endure its lunatic indifference
Once you hear that, you can’t forget it for its utter clarity. And clarity is what Regina Weinert gives you. She’s taught me how to properly read ‘spaced’ poems, which are all the go, and to understand the difference between playing around and the real deal. Here’s an extract to explain what I mean:
“[This poem] illustrates many features of William Bonar’s work. It situates the person and the poet subtly and firmly, foreclosing nothing. It has his signature spacing, which never becomes a mannerism, as it is always in step with sound, rhythm, image and content. It also shows his skill in inserting concepts that anchor a poem.
The Early Days of a Better Nation
once the weather suiting the architecture I caught The Modern crystalline
as pure water it must have been June pupils gone I walked a glass-walled corridor
a man in a movie alone geometry and sky at home with possibility
The poem directs the reading pace. Line breaks perch on the edge of things. The speaker pauses, deliberates; chooses the appropriate expression, the right time, the fitting comparison.
despite the grand scheme, we still have this one man who is maybe just looking forward to the holidays and a bright day is making him feel optimistic. “
That’s how she writes, how she deftly directs your attention to where it belongs. I want to write as clearly as that. And another thing. It struck me as I read the article, and as I checked out more of William Bonar’s work, that his friendship and his poems had an impact on Regina’s own (apparently) cool and spare poems. I asked her about it. Here’s what she said:
“It’s interesting about influences and how they work, at a slant. Billy and I share a preference for writing short or condensed poems. I got his poems, or rather his poems got me, instantly. It is how I wrote before I knew his work , but now I go back to his poems to try and up my craft. It’s not a direct route. It’s more to do with trying to widen and deepen a poem, to reach the essence, whatever that is – to be better at listening, is maybe what I’m saying. MacCaig was the first poet I read where I thought, that’s how poems can be! I felt such a lift. Decades before I ever wrote a poem. “
Like I say. We learn from the company we keep, and my words, haven’t I missed that face to face, in-the-flesh company, these last two years.
Thank you, Regina for teaching me about listening properly.
I’ve posted six trailers and teasers from Pressed for time. Here’s one more – it’ll be the last . One for a cool wet April and May, perhaps.
A Furious Drench
The erth was voyde and emptie and darcknesse was vpon the depe
There was rain in the ancient woods
of Inverdalavil; birds stopped
singing, rain hushing leaf and branch;
the way small burns bunched and muscled up,
the sound of big stones on their beds,
the way a big old ash came spinning
and dipping on a peat-thick foamy wave,
racing down the valley and out to sea,
to grow waterlogged, and drown.
Than sayd God to Noe….behold I wil bringe in a floude
of water apon the erthe to destroy all flesh from under heauen
There was rain that fell in one great lump
on dried-up cottongrass moors, ran off
in bright sheets down the flanks
of small tight valleys, gathered pace,
scoured through the estates and streets
of Mixenden and Illingworth, sluiced
in a shining wall off the stilted road
above Dean Clough on to the old road
where a man in the pub below stepped
out to see what all the roaring was,
saw a car float past and another and then
he was up to his knees and off his feet,
tumbled in the mad waters, down
into the beck in its cold, boiling canyon,
into its culverts and tunnels with litter bins
and broken things.
In the seconde moneth … were all the founteynes of the depe
broken up and the wyndowes of heauen were opened
There is rain that ghosts of flood
remember where they mutter in the branches
of alder and willow – fertiliser sacks,
black binbags, sodden clots of leaf,
slick and sour as asphalt, morning-after breath;
skips of rancid sofas, leaking fridges,
laminate and lino. Rain inexhaustible
on sopping land that can take no more,
fattening rising rivers, filling cellars,
downstairs rooms, creeping up and up;
fat brown rivers easing out of bounds,
floodplain, estuary, and at the last, the sea,
the whole world become wave and waste.
and the spirite of God moved vpon the water
One last thing about the book. I planned to sell it P&Pfree until May14. That’s now extended to the end of June. Get yours now while copies last. Just go to My Books at the top of the post
See you again before too long. I’ll be writing about other poets. I’ve had enough of introspection.
A short post this week. Three tantalising teasers before the launch next Tuesday of Pressed for Time (Calder Valley Poetry). Shortly there should be a link via the Menu (top of the page)to My Books which will hopefully take you to the PayPal facility. Once it’s up, check out the special offer, available up to may 14th. In the meantime, here are three more poems which I hope will balance the bleakness of some of the work………..If you’re one of those who understand the urge to collect fragments which we shore against our imagined ruins, then this brick is for you.
By the Tide of Humber
Here’s the brick I fetched
from the grit of a beach so hot
my feet were blistered
that day at Spurn where sometimes
clouds of goldcrest blown off-course
make landfall, exhausted, too weak to move,
are picked off by rats and gulls.
This brick, more pig-iron than clay,
a small cylinder block. Little pebbles
wedged in four of its six holes,
picked up the day two dolphins came
rollercoasting up the muddy Humber
while container ships sat top-heavy
on the tightrope horizon, waiting for the tide.
Brittle marran, dusty thrift, rusted beer cans,
bits of glass at the end of the walked world.
Two dolphins, distant as birds
and blithe as birds. This brick.
The second poem is the title poem, and at the centre of a sequence exploring the astonishing processes of earthbuilding needed to take a man’s life in the underground of deep time. I don’t think WordPress will cope with the format, so I’ve had to use a screen grab.
And finally, out into the air, in a poem for my Dad and all the working people who knew how to see what the world had to offer if only you learned to look
Something Going On
Brick gable ends, gardens of dock and dandelion,
Privet, trodden clay and rusting prams.
A beck that ran hot, ran yellow, red and indigo.
The park and its ornamental lake
and fountains choked with mast and mulch,
and the ancient peacock clattering
the brittle sticks of its fan.
My father took himself to sewage beds,
marsh, canal banks. Dipper. Moorhen. Heron.
Gritstone moors, old quarries soft
with Yorkshire mist; curlew, lapwing, wagtails
were his familiars. Old woodlands;
coal tits, blue tits, yellowhammers,
chaffinch, robin, wren.
A poet in Hessle watched a man who pushed
a lawnmower down the cobbled street,
and wished him grass. He saw how a roofer’s trowel
makes diamonds of a slanting sun. Everywhere,
they told me, there’s a view. Something going on.
Something definitely going on next Tuesday 7.00-9.00pm at Brighouse Library. Launch of Pressed for Time with a supporting cast of Calder Valley Poetry poets. It’ll be lovely, and I’d love to see you there. If you’re not sure how to get there, here’s a link.
I’ve been remiss. I’ve not written anything for too long. I’ve been trying to write this ever since Flo, my partner of 36 years, and I got married just over two weeks ago, on a day of alternating snow squalls and clear blue skies. It was a day like one years ago on Skye, a day of snow and sun. We were hiking back from the Point of Sleat, in a sudden whiteout, and blundered into a herd of Highland cattle and one big Highland bull, pressed into the side of the hill, moodily waiting out the snow. And, snuffling and mooing, they made way for us. That was another special day. Days are where we live.
I wanted to write about writing about being in love. I thought I could write something grateful and insightful and intelligent. It turns out I can’t. In the end you simply have to sit down and do it and let it be what it will. This I learn from the to and fro of Kim Moore and Clare Shaw egging each other on to stick to their NaPoRiMo challenge via Facebook. They are each distracted by children or by work or by tiredness and still they do it. A couple of days ago each of them posted a piece for which the prompt was the challenge to write a love poem.
Kim wrote one for her three year-old which had a section that I’ll not forget in a hurry:
My nearly-three-year old
says when I’m not with her
she hears my voice
inside her head saying
‘I’ll be back soon.’
sometimes it feels
as if I’m talking
to a strange bird
whatever it hears
or an old soul
come to teach me everything
It took me back decades to the lurch of that possessive, utterly-enveloping feeling, watching my tiny daughter running down the road to greet me, oblivious to everything but me coming to meet her. That kind of love.
Clare’s was different; a reminder that when love goes it goes absolutely and leaves you in a different place. A lost love.
To hear a knock on the door
and no-one there.
To be empty, to be filled by a memory.
To hear footsteps, to be suddenly cold.
This took me straight back to Thomas Wyatt, who might well have written this in the Tower when he was in imminent danger of execution for loving the object of the poem. It was a dangerous business, falling in love with the wife of a king.
They flee from me that sometime did me seek With naked foot, stalking in my chamber. I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek, That now are wild and do not remember That sometime they put themself in danger To take bread at my hand; and now they range, Busily seeking with a continual change
So many songs, so many poems that we call love songs and love poems. The ones you share. Then the ones you hug to yourself when you sing along to the Everleys…When will I be loved? The ones you would dance to: I saw her standing there /I wanna hold your hand/ I love you, Peggy Sue/Then he kissed me/Heartbeat, why do you miss/ I’m in love with you……………………… And so on. There’ll be the songs that played along to your heartbreaks. Brian Ferry singing You are my sunshine. Prince’s Purple Rain.And the ones when you fell in love again. Steve Forbert: I’m in love with you. You can write the soundtrack to your life with them. Love is all you need.
And it’s a matter of life and death. Faith, Hope and Charity or Faith Hope and Love. The greatest of these is Love. Or Charity. In 16th Century England you could be strangled and burned for choosing the politically wrong one. Like Tyndale who was concerned with the love of God who so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. [John. KJV].
Agape, eros, desire, absorption and infatuation. We talk about love of country (whatever that means); we love our children, our parents and our partners, and sometimes I think we never feel love more vividly than when we find we’ve lost it.
I got to thinking about the poems I’ve written that I could call love poems, though I didn’t think of many of them as such when I wrote them. Poems for my parents and grandparents, poems for my children. When it came to poems for a lover, a partner, a wife, I was never confident enough. Love letters I could write. But poems, not so much. I think I thought that if you couldn’t do it like John Donne…say in The Good Morrow..then you shouldn’t try, that you’d just be writing sentiment
And now good-morrow to our waking souls, Which watch not one another out of fear; For love all love of other sights controls, And makes one little room an every where. Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone, Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown, Let us possess one world; each hath one, and is one.
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears, And true plain hearts do in the faces rest
Clever, confident, laconic, grown-up, sexy. No wonder I thought that was the way to do it when I was a teenager, and why I never quite got over it. Until I learned to listen to more understated voices. Like Ursula Fanthorpe’s.
There is a kind of love called maintenance Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it;
……………………………..which keeps My suspect edifice upright in air, As Atlas did the sky.
It taught me, that poem, that a celebration of patient and enduring love of the kind we call living together could be so wonderfully memorable.
I was thinking about that when Flo and I decided (after 36 years) that we needed to get married to safeguard each other legally. It’s a shock to discover that there’s no such thing as Common Law marriage. Not really. Living together and sharing everything for 36 years gives you no rights at all in law. It turned out that it made us happy to get married. We had a lovely day of it. I didn’t write a poem for it or because of it. I realise that over the years the love poems I’ve written have been oblique…apart from ones not for sharing, publicly. But a couple of years ago I wrote a poem that says what I want to say about all this. UA Fanthorpe gave me permission. This is for me and Flo. Self-indulgent, possibly. But who’s to stop me?
But that was years ago. In Bakewell there were beasts
with clotted flanks in the cattle market’s clanging mazes,
on a day of rain, the showground waterlogged,
pubs warm and dark and full of farmers in damp coats,
farmers drinking big mugs of hot dark tea,
screwing red faces round slabby bacon baps;
and at the junk stall in the market down the street
I bought you this small warm mahogany box
with a broken lock. And some dished brass discs,
and two brass rods. I had no idea what use they were,
only that you would like them. And that was the year
I made you paper hyacinths in a paper box
painted with hyacinths , and a poem for its lid.
I suppose I was thinking of cruel months
and hyacinth girls, and unexpected rains.
I was thinking of surprises. I was not thinking at all.
I was in love, and in various ways I am, still,
and thinking how we have assembled things around us
and cannot bring ourselves to throw away anything.
These cards, those bits of ribbon, these fragments.
PS. It’s a self-indulgent post is this. So while I’m on a roll, let me advertise the launch of my new collection, Pressed for Time published by Calder Valley Press
It’s on Tuesday May 3rd in the lovey and airy art gallery of Brighouse Library, in whose grounds you can park for free. It’s an early start, 7.00-9.00pm. (ish). This is partly because that’s the hours they offer, and partly because these days I get very tired very easily. It’s the first live reading I’ll have done for over two years, mainly because of the combination of lockdowns and shielding. I realise I’m absurdly anxious…not on health and safety grounds, but because I’m terrified no one will turn up. So, If you can make it I’ll love you all for ever. And if you can’t, you’ll be able to buy the book, after May 3rd, all 104 pages of it, either via this blog (there’ll shortly be a Paypal Button in the My Books link at the top of the page) or direct from Calder Valley Poetry.
I planned to start this post by reflecting on Anthony Wilson’s enthusiasm for/love of the poems of Thomas Tranströmer for one, and of James Schuyler for another. Schuyler particularly…you can sometimes hear Schuyler in Anthony’s poems in the way that Tony Harrison, and later, Norman MacCaig could, every now and then, make me sound like them, their rhythms and phrasing.
I’m thinking, for instance of a sequence from The four of us, a poem from The Afterlife.
From three gardens away
a lawnmower begins its drone
carving stripes we’ll never see.
A woodpigeon clatters above.
The great time we’re having
(or had) is not what’s really there.
Beyond the silent tripod we have
no idea what lies ahead of us –
futures of wild promise, snapshots of our own children
under this very willow.
We cannot grasp what we have
been given, or can give back
However, I was not very well for a couple of days and I missed my self-imposed deadline of Sunday, and then Monday. And on Monday, Anthony posted a poem on his blog which saved me a lot of trouble. Because he says it much better that I could. Here’s the link.
Before that though, I’ve been turning over in my mind what it is I mean by ‘my kind of poetry’. Because there was a time when I wouldn’t have thought that today’s guest was ‘my kind of poet’. Indeed, there was a time, not all that long ago when I would have been puzzled by the idea that poems could be ‘life-saving. Bear with me.
For years and years poetry was always on the periphery for me. There were exceptions. When I was 16 it was the Metaphysicals….sardonic, clever, witty, sexy. Everything I wanted to be and wasn’t. At 18 the Augustans spoke to me. Clever, cool and witty. And I like the craft of couplets. At 20, briefly, it was Hopkins. What they all had in common was visible craft. At 22 I heard Robert Speaight’s recording of The Wasteland’ and it opened my ears and mind to TS Eliot. You can listen to it via YouTube in all its melancholy thespian RP musicality. It jars in a way that it didn’t, 57 years ago. Our ears become accustomed to different vowels and stresses. It occurs to me that it also opened my ears to Shakespeare, for which I shall be eternally grateful. Try it. Here’s another link.
And so it went. As a teacher I liked the textures and evident emotion of Hughes and Heaney, but as a reader it was mainly documentary and revisionist history that spoke to me: ballads and broadsheets, social realism. The 19thC Novel, Orwell. When I was asked to read Robert Lowell I fought it. I wasn’t interested in introspective, reflective late Romanticism (as I saw it). It wasn’t for me. I thought it was self-indulgent. Which is ironic, now I come to think. Anthony notes something in his post that chimes :
“I have also been reminded of Seamus Heaney’s dictum in The Government of the Tongue
that ‘no lyric ever stopped a tank”.
I used to think that was an unanswerable argument to a question I never fully worked out. But now I say of course it can’t. And your point? No tank ever made me happy or illuminated a mystery. A wren landed on the window sill earlier today, and just for a second it stopped my heart. So it goes. The thing was, what I wanted in poetry was stuff that could fill a room, like Shakespeare, that was memorisable and memorable. Most poetry was never ‘lifesaving’, and what I wanted was unlikely to be understated and quiet. We didn’t match. I didn’t miss it. I just didn’t get it..or it didn’t get me.
Something changed, about 15 years ago. Something shifted and if you wonder about ‘my kind of poetry’ it’s what the great fogginzo’s cobweb has been sharing for the last eight years. What strikes me is that while I’ll never have the apparently encyclopaedic knowledge of/familiarity with contemporary and 20thC that Anthony Wilson shares with you in his wonderful book Life-saving poems I’ve gradually being made more open to voices that one time I’d have dismissed. Life changes us.
Anthony and I share more things than the things that ‘separate us’ (he’s not a fan of the 19thC Novel, for instance): teaching English to Post-Grad teacher trainees, writing about the teaching of poetry in Primary schools, an enthusiasm for a particular Garrison Keillor Lake Woebegon story, which is a story that begins with stories about snowfall, and a story about a man (who does not know that his father has died but whose story we shall learn something of)) telling the story of Hansel and Gretel to his children, and about how an author can, like god, change the events of a story to save his characters pain.
It occurred to me that I could begin with a story. Let me take you back to 1960. St Catherine’s College Cambridge. 17 years old and up for interview for an Open Scholarship in English. Everything was foreign, from the fact that there was no railway station, so you had to get a bus from March to the otherness of gated colleges and the bustle of insouciant young men in gowns who threw breadrolls at each other in the dining hall. The other candidates wore grey flannel suits and had partings. I had grey winkle-pickers, an Italian suit and a Tony Curtis hairdo. They had elegant drawls and asked me what I thought about Kierkegaard, and had I been to Heffers. I was interviewed by Tom Henn who wrote The apple and the spectroscope (no, I’ve never read it), who had an oar hanging on his study wall, and asked me my opinion of the prevalence of bee imagery in Shakespeare. I knew it wasn’t for me, or I wasn’t for it. I didn’t feel resentful or stupid. I was just in the wrong place. Later I went to Durham where I felt comfortable simply because it was in the north, was hilly and had my favourite cathedral. That’s how a lot of poetry has felt to me in the last few years.
But you learn from the company you keep, and it changes you so you can understand its language. That’s how I feel about Anthony Wilson, whose Life-saving Poems (along with Clive James’ Poetry Notebooks) have introduced me to new ways of thinking and new familiarities.
That’s a more than usually lengthy preamble…be thankful it’s not longer. Time for our guest. Who probably needs no introduction but still….
Anthony Wilson is a poet, writing tutor and lecturer at the University of Exeter. His books of poetry are The Afterlife (Worple Press, 2019), Riddance (Worple Press, 2012), Full Stretch: Poems 1996-2006 (Worple Press, 2006), Nowhere Better Than This (Worple Press, 2002) and How Far From Here is Home? (Stride, 1996).
The Wind and the Rain is forthcoming from Blue Diode Press in 2023.
In 2015 Bloodaxe Books published his bestselling anthology Lifesaving Poems after his blog of the same name.
He is also the author of Deck Shoes (Impress Books, 2019), a collection of essays, and Love for Now (Impress Books, 2012), a memoir detailing his experience of cancer.
Anthony has held writing residencies at The Poetry Society, The Times Educational Supplement, The Poetry Trust and Tate Britain. He has judged the Manchester Cathedral Poetry Competition, The Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize and The Impress Prize for New Writers.
He is editor of Creativity in Primary Education (Sage, 2015), and is co-editor of Making Poetry Matter (Bloomsbury, 2013), Making Poetry Happen (Bloomsbury, 2015) and The Poetry Book for Primary Schools (Poetry Society, 1998).
To put it in perspective, last time I looked, the blog had about 10,000 followers. This one has about 450. I’m in awe of it all. A few years ago I wrote about the poetry blogs that have influenced me and my writing, and here’s part of what Anthony said about how he started on Lifesaving poems
“since I began it in July 2009 I have been copying out poems into a plain Moleskine notebook, one at a time, in inky longhand, when the mood took me. Allowing myself no more than one poem per poet, I wanted to see how many poems I could honour with the label ‘lifesaving’.
My criteria were extremely basic. Was the poem one I could recall having had an immediate experience with from the first moment I read it? In short, did I feel the poem was one I could not do without?
Copying them out into my book has not always been fun, but now that I am finished, I am in possession of a deeply satisfactory feeling of having learnt more about myself and about each poem that I copied.
Over the next weeks and months I am going to be blogging here about the stories behind the choices I made, the influences upon them, and what I learnt in the process”.
And what follows is a list of about 180 poems by 180 poets. That’s more than three years’ worth of blogposts sorted, at one fell swoop. Bloggers’ Nirvana. Shangri La. Provided, of course you know at least 180 poets, and you know their work well enough to choose one poem from each of which you can say, hand-on-heart: ‘this is lifesaving’. What I love about reading Anthony Wilson is the effortless erudition that is never exclusive or scholarly. It’s what great teachers do…like Bronowsky in ‘The ascent of man‘, or John Berger in ‘Ways of seeing‘ (and not remotely like Kenneth Clarke in ‘Civilisation’). It’s like the introduction to poetry you get if you regularly go to Poetry Business workshops. I’d not heard of half the poets Anthony chose. But I have now.
Of course, Anthony’s Lifesaving poems are not unconnected to another theme of his blog which was essentially a shared journal of his experience of the diagnosis, and subsequent treatment for a particular cancer which was, at the time, life-threatening. I’ve been treated for two kinds of cancer, and I’m currently being treated for a third, which is also life-threatening, so it’s going to resonate. “
And then I wrote:
But I doubt I’d have that kind of courage to share the experience
Well, since then as the treatments for cancer have become more radical, and suffer from the law of diminishing returns, it turns out that I can write about that kind of experience, obliquely more often than not, and the fact that I can write about personal mortality is at least in part down to Anthony, and lately in particular, to his book The Afterlife. It turns out that I can write introspectively and reflectively, so this post will be a thank-you as well as an appreciation.
The Afterlife hasn’t garnered the reviews or the attention it should have in 2019. A lot of good work’s gone missing in action during the pandemic. What’s the book ‘about’ ? Let me borrow from the publisher’s blurb:
…”the poems explore the borderline territory between grief and laughter, memory and forgetting, illness and health. His central subject is the way we live within family and community, questioning the roles we construct, both alone and with others. The Afterlife explores central themes: mortality, mental health, the relation between body and soul, and how to live fully in the present moment”.
I like that last phrase particularly, not least because I guess that’s what the best poems are doing at the moment when we read them. I’d add that they have a quality for me that chimes with the Serenity Prayer..the way we achieve cceptance of the things we cannot change in order the better to live with them. It’s not easy or comfortable. As Fiona Benson wrote in her endorsement:
“Anthony Wilson’s poems are often meditative and always very, very readable, but don’t be fooled; the avuncular voice belies a restless interrogation of faith, love and loss, and Wilson moves from moments of everyday comedy to a wounded reckoning with the afterlife of cancer survival (my italics) and poems of intense anger and grief.”
To which I’d add that believing you are going to die and coming to terms of a sort with that, and then learning that you are going to live, and coming to terms with that, is going to make anyone into a dark watcher. The opening lines of The editing suite (which will make you sit up and pay attention) describes it perfectly:
We turn back the film of our lives
and edit the past in rooms
where no one goes
Between two kinds of existence, not quite of this world. Liminal. This is my take on it, anyway. And now to the poems, and particularly to noticing that Anthony’s poems can seem plain and understated, which means that you can be ambushed by the moments that draw you in, the moments that mark language as ‘poetry’. Moments like these, which are often the openings of poems.
There are days I lose to knowing / it has come back
I have not felt desired by you / in years
I am telling my hands / to be still. They do not want /to be still
Now I am no longer any use to you /…..
and these lines in the middle of one that’s utterly unexpected
Death shelf, you said. You need a death shelf
In other words, for all the apparently plain language of many of the poems, walk carefully, and listen. Read them aloud. See if you can nail the ‘voice’. Especially in the apparent matter-of-factness of everything in the opening poem of the collection
Teaching Writing Theory
On Tuesday I discovered if my cancer
had returned. Later I discussed teaching writing
to six-year-olds. We spun our arms
like windmills, then made chopstick-motions
with our fingers mirroring the motor control
functions we daily take for granted
even less think about as we stare at the page.
We looked at motivational theory. Taxonomies
and heuristics jammed the white-board,
a cacophony of formulations we all wanted
to witness taking flight. During self-study,
I watched students tap-tapping at mobiles
and tablets, all the while sustaining complex
discussions about pedagogy, and dress codes
for their forthcoming Christmas parties.
If they were nervous of the outcome
of their assignments, none of them showed it.
I keep reading this, recognising how the ‘if’ in the first line undermines the matter-of-factness of ‘On Tuesday’ and the apparent confidence of “I discovered’. What follows is a flurry of polysyllables, of distracting activity and pretence of understanding. It keeps on giving, and I love it. The business of distraction is probably why I asked for the opening sequence from Part Three..a 14 page, not-quite-blank verse, sort-of-stream of consciousness poem called To a notebook which includes, among many other things, references to the poet’s love affair with particular kinds of pen and ink and paper, as well as a troubled relationship with Facebook. Above all though, I think it’s a poem about displacement strategies which have to do with dealing with intimations of mortality and also the urge to write. In the end I think it’s Cartesian. Scribo ergo sum. These fragments I have shored against my ruins. Just enjoy it.
from To a Notebook (page 1 and a bit)
All summer long the lorries have passed
My window taking earth from one end
Of the street to the other, an eternal quest
For silence and rest. Now Joe brings
His radio and sets up shop right outside,
All the hits I used to know and now resent
For filling this moment with noise
I did not ask for. The house that took till
October to build is now taking till December.
I sat for so long listening to trucks beeping-
Reversing I no longer hear them (not true).
It’s amazing I go to church: for a non-joiner
Like me, a miracle. I’m there to have my
Edges knocked off, plus knock those I slowly
Learn to love. After a week of people,
Silence. The breeze finding its voice
Like rain on apple leaves but without rain,
So prolific with windfalls this year,
We hear them thud and roll from the house,
The territorial robin that has sung all summer
Suddenly clearer than thought while I make
Lists for eggs and books I want to have read,
This paper, scratchy yet smooth, is the best –
Since when? – France, probably (maybe
All the answers are France). The worst part
Is starting, but then you know that already.
Twitter can’t keep up with me, nor I
With it: help me, someone, understand
Why I need to applaud your cake.
The delicious loneliness of staying
In a town where no one speaks English,
The rain never more alive than when
I lay awake listening to dawn inch closer
Through the fizzing traffic. Only a week ago
Automated hosepipes like cicadas sprayed
In sunshine (‘The Cathedral is not a happy place,’
Said -not telling). Then blue tits invaded
The apple tree after a summer away,
A silent V of geese arrows across
Ochre-orange clouds, my heart a shipwreck
To follow their progress. I sleep badly
And make others do the same. I try
To sleep in the day, but no.
Two more poems that particularly moved me, because of their clear-eyed dealings with the dying and the dead. Poems that make their peace with both, and need no commentary from me
The Last Time I Saw Mary
The last time I saw Mary
was in her kitchen, September sunlight, the door open to her garden.
She gave me a tutorial
on my book, warning me not to be meretricious.
Your faith, she said, don’t be afraid
of it. It is who you are.
She was skinny by then, her grey hair
in a bob, like a girl’s.
Shuffling in her slippers she made coffee
and brought waffles.
The Dutch balance these on their cups
and watch them deliquesce
into the hot liquid, she said. So sweet.
To an English person, their name is unpronounceable.
I said, I think you can buy them in Lidl now.
They cost nothing.
Sitting With Your Body
When the others had gone
we sat with your body for a while
and watched you pass over
from person to body, watched you
become blue, then grey, then ivory,
then grey again, the cave of your ribs
no longer heaving, and Tatty stroked
your shoulder as if comforting
a poorly child who hasn’t slept,
all the while watching your stillness,
finally you were still and ours,
then we kissed your ice forehead
and found our coats and walked
across the common to eat with the others.
Both of these poems bring me a sort of peace, and it’s a rare thing in these days of the sleep of reason. What can I say. The Afterlife was published in 2019, and it’s been overlooked. Go and buy it. In the meantime, thank you Anthony Wilson for being our guest, for your blog, for your Life-saving poems, and for The Afterlife [Worple Press. £10]
Not so long ago I came across this comment about In The Taxidermist’s House in the Wombwell Rainbow poetry blog :
“An ecopoetic and zoopoetic powerhouse of a 28 poem collection. Her final poem “journey of the light travellers” is an empathic devastating critique of wind farms. “Woodlice” is from the insects point of view and, for me, captures it perfectly.
A lot of the poems enact transformation, metamorphosis “They come/the seekers of freedom/shedding the skin of crowds//Emerge/displaced and solitary/haunters of canal paths/”
Metamorphosis, transformation, shaeshifting. I simply had to have a copy.
But let me tell you about the image of a freezer full of stiff birds
I’ve watched the programme about Polly Morgan again and again. In it she says that people send her roadkill she might use; someone rang her to say
saw a dead fox today and thought of you.
She’s an artist who creates work out of taxidermy; she rummages about in freezer chests looking for exactly the right size of mynah bird, and then sits with infinite patience, teasing off the skin ( and therefore the plumage) in one undamaged piece; she uses incredibly sharp scalpels and focussed concentration. There’s something reverential in the attention she pays to the bird in her hands, and something very gentle and steely about the way she puts it back together, stitching minutely, stroking back the plumage. And musing at the same time about her awareness of her hands’ fragility; ‘sometimes’ she says,’ I can’t stop wondering what’s beneath the skin’.
The images haunted me; I had to put them into a poem:
She keeps mynah birds and fledgling sparrows
in the freezer. Knows just how feathers lie
in a wing…………………..
Sometimes she looks at the backs of her hands,
imagines the bones she has never seen…
And, in part, that’s also how I came across the debut collection by today’s guest, Marion Oxley. The opening poem of the pamphlet is Still life [after Polly Morgan]. There a stanza in there that made me punch the air.
Hands tie up hair, pin back despair,
pack loneliness into the shoulders
of a raven.
I knew Marion Oxley before this, because she’s been (when it was still alive and well) a regular supporter of the Puzzle Poets Live open nights, a member of the poet Gaia Holmes’ occasional writing group Igniting the spark, and every now and then getting up to the mic. with one of her poems. She’s not one to seek the limelight, which is why I’m especially pleased to share her work. She writes powerfully and memorably, like this
A fortune telling squirrel dressed in bling peers into a crystal ball; the murky waters of the Leeds Liverpool canal slowly part.
Jake the ten foot Burmese python squeezed into a freezer; lies coiled like a giant black pudding waiting for the thaw.
From: A taxidermist regenerates Blackurn.
..which is a title to win a place in any competition shortlist. She’s good at titles that draw you in; The girl who became a zebra, A crocodile in Neverland, A chameleon goes to Butlins. You see what I mean?
Anyway, time for introductions. Marion Oxley was born in Manchester and spent her early years in Salford. She’s worked in a variety of paid and voluntary jobs including the NHS, youth services, Manchester City Council’s Equal Opportunities Unit, Women’s Aid, drug and alcohol services, postal services, psychiatric nursing, community occupational therapy and adult services care management. She has a BA(Hons)Fine Art.
She came to poetry by chance whilst learning to play the fiddle. Inspired by the tradition of story telling in folk ballads. This lead to a desire to experience the landscape of contemporary pieces, especially those that explored the inter-weaving of geography, archaeology, myth and folk-lore. She is a regular visitor to the Orkney islands.
She currently lives amongst the flood plains of the Calder Valley with her boisterous Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Alice. She has family in the Republic of Ireland and volunteers at the local foodbank.
She’s told me: I don’t really feel I’m on the poetry ‘scene’. I mostly write alone though currently doing a Wendy Pratt short course along with some excellent poets who are so much better than me, so are an inspiration.
She may be underselling herself; her poems have been published widely in magazines and anthologies. Most recently in The Blue Nib, The Fenland Journal, Artemis, The Alchemy Spoon, The Bangor Literary Journal, Geography is Irrelevant (Stairwell Press), Bloody Amazing (Beautiful Dragons/Yaffle). She’s had poems shortlisted or placed in many competitions, recently being runner up in The Trim Poetry Competition and Second Light Competition.
What draws a reader’s attention, apart from the titles, are her concerns and her craft:
Myra Schneider identifies an imaginative engagement with “the relationship between birth, life and death” and also her writing which is “…. in deft and sinuous language, deconstructs and reconstructs our relationship with nature and mortality.”
James Nash focusses on the way “She reflects and pays homage to the work of other artists, and shares her very own particular vision, in poetry that is fiercely intelligent, celebratory and beautiful. “
And after that, you’ll be wanting to read the poems. The ones I asked for all illustrate three qualites Myra Schneider highlights…language that is intense, tactile and energetic. Let me add that its often uncomfortable, too.
The first poem is about shapeshifting, and it’s unsettling because it’s constantly fluid. I was never sure who was telling me the story. There was a time some time ago when the selkie was a fashionable feminist trope in poetry. But none of the poems seemed be as deliberately ambiguous and ambivalent as this one.
Once hands turned her soapstone smooth
ran thumbs over flesh and fur, took measure.
Wrapped mother and child in pelted warmth.
Eyeless skin stretched keeless boats
slipped silent passages through frozen seas.
The soft pulse of ferries shivers skin,
a quicken of gannets slick as flick knives, slit the sea.
The torn fishnets had rankled
caused an underwater roar, falling on her deaf ears.
The last ferry slides like a birthday cake,
candles burning, off the plated sea.
He comes with the twitchers, the hikers,
occasional bikers. The divers of dreams in neoprene.
After a skinful, pissed on myth and mist,
he gives her the present; a seal skin.
Water-marked, mottled, in the corner a faint blue stain,
half-formed letters, clear as a fingerprint.
She rides her past in a blast of black sea squall.
On the wet quayside they are gathered, bodies shimmering.
She watches the totter, the flop across the bonnet. Hears a clink of glass,
bottle rolling, head lolling, hands flapping.
Watches the bend in, taking of a lighted cigarette. Hears the unzipping
of black, skin-tight jacket.
There on pale skin, a heart, three faded blue letters; Mum.
Liquid eyes turn towards her. Strands of damp hair flick back
like seaweed rolling off slim shoulders of rock.
She remembers her fourteen years old stepping out of the bath
patting dry the new tattoo. She hands her the sealskin.
I come away asking whose hands turned ‘her’ soapstone smooth even as I relish the texture of the phrase.
I’m bothered by the abrupt shift from a protective warmth to the skin of a boat in icy seas, which morph into a harbour where the last ferry pulses and slides like a birthday cake off the plated sea. Every one of the phrases rings true, but belong in different places in space and history.I can make connections with the typical folk-tale of a man who steals a female selkie’s skin, finds her naked on the sea shore, and compels her to become his wife, and how the wife will spend her time in captivity longing for the sea, her true home,. She may bear several children by her human husband, but once she discovers her skin, she will immediately return to the sea and abandon the children she loved. But then I have connect that with what well may be an Orkney harbour, a CalMac ferry, the shimmering bodies, the skintight suit that may (or may not) be a diver’s wet suit. Everything is real and baffling. And everything is precisely placed, filmic. I love it. Just don’t ask me to explain it. I keep coming up with different answers.
I asked for the next poem not only for its passionate concern for the balance in things which is challenged (as in so many other ways) by the impact on the migratory cycles of one beautiful northern bird, but also for the texture of language, and it’s cinematic eye. This one insists on being read aloud.
Journey of the light travellers
‘Red-throated diver sees off consortium of energy firms, as wind farm plan axed.’
This is the treeless land you moved through,
were born to, left and returned to.
The land where you stared into the midnight sun,
peered through a green glass sky.
Where sun dogs pant at sea ice melting.
Where an Arctic fox crouches, blurs, dissolves,
white as sea salt sinking.
This is where your North is turning
ice needle sharp, towards the sun.
In the twilight of the thaw you are waiting.
This is a land where darkness stalks you
will snap your wings, if you leave too late.
They found you on a broken Northern shore.
Twenty three years old.
Claimed you were old, for your kind.
Scraped a body, red-eyed and grey,
pinstriped, a triangle at your throat
the colour of blood or was it wine?
Hunched over as if you had just fallen from the sky
or pulled the earth up from the bottom of the sea
or seized a titanium flag glinting like a speared fish
from under a water sky.
Your slender body slathered in black gold
and the ring; a travel journal of your life
tucked beneath a wing. Your haunting wail;
a tarred and feathered ghost. Lame duck, loon.
Your kind arrived in winter, stumbling onto our shore.
Hungry, pale faced migrants.
Light travellers. Gavia Stellata.
Your backpacks stitched with stars.
Bewildered by an array of verticals;
a sea-forest of white arms rising in unison.
And then the fall like dense bones diving
the sky dragged down through mist and cloud,
a search for light in dark waters. A slow rise.
On the shore they counted the numbers,
decided no more. Heads held high,
bills like glinting sailmaker’s awls.
You’re sailing close to the wind.
The first two stanzas set up a rhythm that might be a hymn to a place
This is where your North is turning
ice needle sharp, towards the sun.
There are three points of colour- green glass, blood and gold- in a monochrome landscape in which everything is at risk and vulnerable. The fox dissolves, the ice is melting, the dark will snap your wings/if you leave too late. The birds are refugees rather than seasonal migrants in the face of change; stitched with stars and also tarred and feathered. We are all sailing close to the wind, not just these birds, warns the last line of a poem that insists we acknowledge the loveliness of endangered birds whose bills glint ‘like sailmakers’ awls’.
One more poem to end with…and another bird. If it is a bird. Whose is this ‘last quickening’? I keep asking questions like this as I read Marion Oxley’s poems. Always, it seems, there’s some shapeshifting going on.
Death of a Humming Bird
Is this how it will be
the last quickening?
A chest full of flight,
wings beating backwards.
Your tiny body hovering
just out of reach.
Pale petalled hands grown old
withered in the waiting.
The darting in and out of memory
sweet rush of longing
withdrawn on a tongue
sticky with lies.
A torpor of hope
weighing less than a feather
balanced on a finger
stroking a cheek
soft and damp as moss.
Lips crusted in sea salt
speaking only of the past.
The air between us hanging
white as a sheet ready
to be pegged out.
A flapping, slapping space
a nest full of bones,
skin pulled tight as a lampshade
stitched around a glow.
Racing over waves, tides revolving,
flumes of feathered plumes
sparkling and dipping.
And there you are sipping
from an Angel’s Trumpet.
When Clive James wrote about a poem declaring itself a poem by the moments that draw you in I think he had in mind images like this:
The air between us hanging
white as a sheet ready
to be pegged out.
It’s such a packed image that synthesises all those ideas of separation, of being unable to communicate, of being blind to another, of ‘pegging out’…and at the same time of a shared task, like two people folding or unfolding a white sheet. It’s the washing day of my childhood and also an image that takes me to rooms I’ve known where someone is dying and at least one of us is wanting it to come soon and gentle. Someone with a cheek /soft and damp as moss, with Pale petalled hands grown old , and Lips crusted in sea salt .
I’m pretty sure that I’m pulling the poem out of shape, making it fit me. I think I need to accept it as a poem that understands our ambivalence about death, and especially that of someone we are close to. And while I’m typing this, I realise I’ve never written a blog post which so frequently confesses to puzzlement about poems I know that I like very much.
Maybe I’ve been trying too hard. And I realise that I’ve not shared any of the poems specifically about taxidermy. I’ll just say that I like everything in this pamphlet. It’s a remarkable debut. What can I say? Thank you Marion Oxley for being our guest, and if I failed to do you justice, please forgive me.
At least I can remember to tell everyone to instantly rush out, virtually or otherwise, and buy the book.
In The Taxidermist’s House: Publ. 4Word Press 2021 £5.99