Poetry that really matters: Ann Gray (Part Two)

Tell me a story, Pew.

What story, child?

One that begins again.

That’s the story of life

But is it the story of my life?

Only if you tell it.

(Jeanette Winterson: Lighthousekeeping)

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

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

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

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

through a window and everything I wanted seemed

undignified and hopeless”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY BLUE HEN

I sing to my blue hen. I fold her wings 

against my body. The fox has had her lover, 

stealing through the rough grass,

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

the hyacinth macaw. We have 

a whispered conversation in French. I tell her 

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

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

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

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

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

I tell her there is no present time, 

an entire field of dandelions will give her

a thousand different answers. I tell her 

a dog can be a lighthouse, a zebra finch can 

dream its song, vibrate its throat while sleeping. 

I tell her how the Mayan midwife sings each child 

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

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

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

I stroke her neck. She makes a bubbling sound,

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

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

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

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

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

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


Is it in your diary, Dear?

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

not the Academic year, but the straightforward

blue black covered January to December, laid out

in weeks of empty days, waiting for engagements.

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

the gardener visits to set the traps, which coloured

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

Hers has been traversed by a spider, possibly drunk.

Odd words here and there could be meaningful, 

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

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

She licks her thumb to turn the tissue of scribbled 

pages and readjusts the navy string of ribbon to hold

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

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

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

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

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

She still likes to keep a blue biro handy in case 

writing is required, but this will mean he shouts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

tries a piece of cake, then tries a newspaper discarded 

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

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

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

Without Us

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

milk. I am an intruder in her kitchen unnecessarily cleaning 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She wants to watch the washing machine and has dragged

a chair there. The constant movement must be soothing

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

Open Door, even though that instruction can be baffling

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

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

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

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

while she watches tops of trees move against the window.

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

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

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

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

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

Seven Years

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

Her socks stink. She’s promising to shout

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

we were left to watch at weddings, Christmas

after Christmas. I search for words, move

my tongue around my mouth,

I’ve met someone. She tips forwards.

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

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

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

her guitar where her boyfriend’s propped it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Lighthousekeeping.   Jeanette Winterson.  Harper Perennial 2004]

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

Poetry that really matters: Ann Gray [Part One]

“ If only I could say 

   a new thing, a thing 

   I’ve never said before.

  Something as small as a spoon

   or as big as a landscape:

  as new as a baby.”

      [Hope: Norman MacCaig]

Some weeks I despair of knowing how, and where to start. First line nerves kick in, particularly when I worry that I won’t do justice to the guest poet. It’s felt particularly acute this last few days. So if I seem especially incoherent, bear with me, and we’ll find out together whether justice has been done.

I wrote the following last week, feeling a bit low. But everything turned out well in the end. So I’m republishing this, slightly edited from the version that appeared on the Write Out Loud site in my other blog, The wider web. 

Hope you like Ann Gray’s work as much as I do. There’s be more of her work in a follow-up post very soon.

I didn’t know anything about Ann Gray except that her pamphlet I wish I had more mothers was one of the winners of the 2018 Poetry Business Pamphlet competition, which was judged by Liz Berry and (there’s synergy) David Constantine. I had no idea what to expect when she was the guest reader at a residential course I was on in St Ives earlier this year. I pricked my ears up when, in her introduction, Kim Moore announced that John Foggin is going to like thisbecause he’s a big fan of Clive James, and Clive James is a big fan of Ann Gray’s poetry. It turned out that he’d written an enthusiastic endorsement of one of her collections. Now I know why.

But even that’s not what really reeled me in. There are moments when you hear a poem for the first time, and you know that it’s the real deal, when the hair on the back of your neck stands up, when your heart gives a lurch. Here’s the poem, of which she says

I thought the most difficult collection I put together was after my partner was killed in a road accident. I used 44 of the poems as my final MA dissertation and read every poem or prose that I could lay my hands on that dealt with loss.

Your body

I identified your face

and when he said is this,and gave your full name,

it wasn’t enough to say, yes, he said I had to say,

this is, and give your full name.

It seemed to be all about names, but I only saw your face.

I wanted to rip back the sheets and say, yes this his chest,

his belly, these are his ballsand this is the curve of his buttock. 

I could have identified your feet, the moons on your nails,

the perfect squash ball of a bruise on your back,

the soft curl of your penis when its sleeps against your thigh.

I wanted to lay my head against you’re your chest, to take your hands,

hold them to your face, but I was afraid your broken arm was hurting.

My fingers fumbled at your shirt, the makeshift sling had trapped it.

Your shirt, your crisp white shirt. The shirt I’d ironed on Friday.

The shirt that grazed my face when you leaned across our bed

to say goodbye. I watched the place where your neck

joinsthe power of your chest and thought about my head there.

He offered me your clothes. I refused to take your clothes.

Days later I wanted all your clothes.I didn’t know what I wanted,

standing there beside you, asking if I could touch you,

my hands on your cheek. He offered me a lock of your hair.

I took the scissors. I had my fingers in your hair.

I could taste the blacken silken hair of your sex.

I wanted to wail all the Songs of Solomon.

I wanted to throw myself against the length of you and wail.

I wanted to lay my face against your cheek.

I wanted to take the blood from your temple with my tongue,

I wanted to stay beside you till you woke.

I wanted to gather you up in some impossible way

to take you from this white and sterile place to somewhere

where we could lie and talk of love.

I wanted to tear of my clothes, hold myself against you.

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

through a window and everything I wanted seemed

undignified and hopeless, so I told him we could go,

we could leave, and I left you

lying on the narrow bed, your arm tied in its sling,

purple deepening the sockets of your eyes.

[from At the gate. 2008]

This poem confronts and unnerves because, unlike the Victorians, we have removed ourselves from physical contact with the dead. Some of their customs persisted into the 1950s. As a child I was shocked when a classmate of mine in Primary School, Geoffrey Brooke, died of meningitis (none of us knew what that was; just that it was frightening, that it could visit any of us). More shocked when his mother invited us, his 8 and 9 year old classmates, to come and see him laid out in his coffin in the single downstairs room of their terrace house. When it came to it, I stayed outside. Some of my friends went in, and when they came out they would say nothing about it. Not then, and not later.

When my dad died, and years later, my mother, they were whisked away before I coud see them. They vanished. 

I wonder what I ever made of Sassoon’s line from The Dugout

You are too young to fall asleep forever;

And when you sleep you remind me of the dead.

It was just an idea, a notion. I think we too often persuade ourselves we understand. Unlike Hamlet, we are happy to conflate sleep and death and leave it there.

Which is why I need poems like Your body. One of my sons committed suicide by jumping from a high rise block of flats. The police told me that I wouldn’t want to see him, and I was too stunned to argue. I have no idea who identified him, or how, but it wasn’t his mother, or me. We couldn’t have a funeral until a long-postponed inquest was over, and his body was released. In his coffin, only his face was visible. His face was like the death mask of a beautiful stranger. It was unmarked, and he really did seem unnaturally asleep. I kissed him, but he didn’t wake.

Years later I had to go with my partner to identify the body of her ex-husband in the morgue in Wakefield. It was so bizarre, so unreal, like a piece of theatrical still life. I thought I would never find words for it and maybe I shouldn’t try. Now I know I was wrong in that, as in so many things, because of this lovely, tender, terrible, astonishing poem. 

I’ve made all sorts of notes about the way it barely contains its emotional pressure; it seems to me today that they’re irrelevant. If you need to have it explained you weren’t listening. But also today, by chance, the poet Jane Clarke posted this on her Facebook page, and I knew that it said what I couldn’t.

“That must be among the strangest of poetry’s many paradoxes: that we are driven to write by fire and then must distance ourselves to a cool dispassion in order to make those flames burn for anyone else. That is not a heartless thing, or an opportunistic one, to turn your experience into art. Your life is not diminished—nor changed—by having been the basis for a poem. But poetry does ask the writer to be inside a life and outside it at once, standing in the center and also looking in, through the shaping (and distorting) aperture of a lens.” 

 Mark Doty in ‘Can Poetry Console a grieving Public?

I’m not sure about the ‘cool dispassion’. But the visceral need, the fire, to find the words that will tell you the meaning of the inchoate thing that just wrecked your life….that fire. Yes. Yes, that.

I don’t think I’ve ever done a single poem post for a guest before. But it feels right to end here, for the moment. We’ll be back with Ann Gray next week, when I’ll tell you more about her, and share more of her poems about things that matter. I’ll leave you with this

     “Tell me a story, Pew.

 What kind of story, child?

      A story with a happy ending.

There’s no such thing in all the world

     As a happy ending?

As an ending.”

         [Lighthousekeping: Jeanette Winterson]

My kind of poetry: David Constantine

I’ve been a bit under the weather of late, and falling behind with posts and promises. Sorry about that. Still here’s a fan letter (it hardly counts as a review, and it’s certainly not unbiased or remotely objective) to David Constantine. It appeared first on my Write Out Loud blog, The wider web .

I’m feeling something of a fraud , having recently read the latest spat about the Oxford Poetry Professorship. It concerns one Todd Swift. I’ve never heard of him. It reminds me yet again that I know next to nothing about the world of contemporary poetry, who’s in, who’s out, who’s round about. And yet here I am again, spouting about poems and poets.

However, it provides a nice hook for today’s post which is the first of two in which I’ll celebrate the poetry of David Constantine. 

The link is this: I was barely aware of David Constantine until about four years ago. It seems to me now like being unaware of, say, Geoffrey Hill or Tony Harrison. How did it happen?….perhaps because despite being a much-acclaimed translator, the co-editor of Modern Poetry in Translation, and author of the stunning Bloodaxe Collected Poems, he attracts no controversy, his work is crafted, elegant, and educated (as well as passionate, humane, and given to wearing its heart on its sleeve). In short, he is not fashionable. For me, he sits alongside Harrison, Fanthorpe, Causley and MacCaig; but apart from Kim Moore in one of her blog posts, no one had ever said to me have you read x or y by David Constantine?  So I’m taking a punt on some of you out there, like me, not knowing, and I’m hoping that after you’ve read this, you, like me, will want to rush out and buy his Collected Poems.

I met him by accident at a reading/party for the 30thbirthday of The Poetry Business at Dean Clough in Halifax. I was reading from my new first collection and David was top of the bill. 

It was wonderful. He reads apparently effortlessly, he reads the meaning of the words, so it sounds like unrehearsed speech until you become aware of the patterning of rhythm, of rhyme, the lovely craftedness of it. I bought his Collected Poems (more than embarassed to find it was £12 and my collection was £9.95. Jeepers) and once I’d finished a year of reading Fanthorpe, I spent a year of reading David’s poems, three or four every morning, listening to the work of words, the deft management of unobtrusive rhyme and assonance, relishing the huge range of reference, the lightly-worn scholarship, the management of voices. I heard him reading again quite recently, and took a punt on asking him to be a guest on The Wider Web. He said yes. He’s a generous man. I like this introduction to him..I’ve managed to lose the source, for which mea culpa..but it says what I’d like to have said myself.

He was born in 1944 in Salford, Lancashire, an urban landscape of factories, red brick terraces and mizzle-grey skies, the Lowry backdrop to his childhood with a nimbus of “visionary dreariness” quite particular to that part of England. Some of his poems home in on this familiar prehistory and its memorable characters, while others range across the mysterious mythical world of faraway Greece, inspired by epiphanies beneath the clanging skies above the Aegean. ..Constantine fuses the compressed stoical grit of the one with the lyrical flexibility of the other to create an intense poetic voice…He is a maker of poems, a craftsman as well as messenger … [whose] poems arrive freighted with authority.

I also latched on to another description of his work that draws attention to the way that he seems to fly under the fashionable radar.

David Constantine, a scholar-poet whose considerable poetic achievement mysteriously wants the wider appreciation it deserves, considering its emotional range, its mastery of formal and linguistic variety, its lyrical intensity and disarming confessional intimacy, these all finely attuned by a keenly attentive ear. It is contemporary poetry which unfashionably, and unexpectedly perhaps, makes frequent use of forms, ideas and associations buried deep in a grand European poetic tradition.

Some readers, startlingly, don’t get it. As in this extract from Laurie Smith’s review of David Constantine’s Collected Poems in Magma 31

David Constantine’s Collected is not complete, comprising the poems from his seven previous Bloodaxe collections which he wishes to keep in print together with the poems in two limited editions and some new poems. Reading the 350 pages, I am struck, first, by how few poems deal centrally with other people, that is people in the present world, not in myth or history, who are determinably separate from the poet. A series of early poems describes people and their ends with decided lack of sympathy: Milburn Margaret, Mrs who 

               on a Friday in the public view

           Lodged on the weir as logs do.

Who is this reviewer who seems to inhabit a different universe from mine? Someone, it seems, incapable of reading what’s there in plain sight. Let me show you how astonishingly wrong he was. Let’s start with a poem from one of his earliest collections, A brightness to cast shadows [1980]. ]. I chose this to show his lyricism, and the way he can stop a moment like a held breath.

But most you are like 

But most you are like 

The helpless singing of birds

To whom the light happens

On whom it falls

And at whose purity of voice

The skies weep and there is a pause

In all the world before beginning

And before the ending

Some of the moments he stops in time are accurately bleak, looking unwaveringly at the space between life and death, and between the dark and the light..the space where the poetry goes.

Lamb

A lamb lay under the thorn, the black

Thorn bending by the last broken wall

And grasping what it can.

The dead lamb picketed a ewe.

She cropped round, bleating

And chewing in that machinal way of sheep.

And although she backed to a safe distance,

When I climbed down towards her lamb

Through a gap in the wall,

It was as if painfully paying out the fastening cord.

The crow was there, also

At a safe distance, waiting for the ewe to finish;

And sidled off a further yard or so 

Waiting until I too should have finished.

For me, it spins round that unnerving observation The dead lamb picketed a ewe. There’s a double-take when you suddenly see the umbilical cord that links the living to the dead, and then the camera pulls back, and there’s the crow, waiting. I love the clarity of it all, the exactness of the line breaks, and the way the capitalised lines slow you down, make you pay attention to the heft of each line. I actually queried his preference for what I carelessly called ‘an older tradition’, this business of capitalisation. He put me right on that:

About initial capitals – what you call ‘the old tradition’ – I’ve always set my lines like that and I think the (in practice very fast) reappraising of the syntax from line to line is a good thing. Lineation plays a critical part in causing the mind to (however briefly) pause in its grasping after sense, in which pause it entertains possibilities, which is a good thing. The capitalization is a marker or gentle enforcer of that process.

So I’ll ask you to keep that in mind as you work your way through the rest of the poems and extracts. Read them aloud is my advice.

When I began to read the Collected Poems, though there were so many of those ‘moments that draw you in’ I was brought up short by a sequence which is essentially a praise poem to his Grandma, widowed in WW1. Light and dark is a leitmotif through so many of the poems, and memorably so in the notion that the dead ‘glimmer for a generation’ and unless we constantly attend to them they will lose their (lovely word) luminance.

from In Memoriam 8571 Private J.W.Gleave

who was at Montauban, Trônes Wood, and Guillemot

There are some dead we see and even see by;

They glimmer for a generation, our looking

Lends them more luminance.

………………………

We saw a similar light dawn on the woman

Who had been a widow more than fifty years.

She lingered in the doorway of the living room

  Impelled as people leaving are to say

Some word more than goodnight

…………………………

The women stood by, they followed the post like crows:

………………………..

So the news came from Guillemot to Salford 5

After lapse of weeks during which time

She had known no better than to believe herself a wife.

………………………..

But by November the congregation of widows

Being told it was a reasonable sacrifice

Their men had made saw mutilated trees bedecked

With bloody tatters and being nonetheless

Promised a resurrection of the body

They saw God making their men anew out of

The very clay. These women having heard from soldiers

However little from the battlefield

Towards All Saints gathered black gouts from the elder

Among their children stared at the holy tree

And envied Christ his hurts fit to appear in.

………………………….

There being no grave, there being not even one

Ranked among millions somewhere in France,

Her grief went without where to lay its head.

………………………..

Constantine returns to the business of his Grandma in his collection The pelt of wasps in 1998, with this poem. Angry and tender at once; a memorial for all those women his grandma represents, the ones who were left, like my own grandma, to bring up their their children, to count the pennies, to soldier on.

Soldiering on

We need another monument. Everywhere

Has Tommy Atkins with his head bowed down

For all his pals, the alphabetical dead,

And that is sweet and right and every year

We freshen the whited cenotaph with red

But no one seems to have thought of her standing her

In all the parishes in bronze or stone

With bags, with heavy bags, with bags of spuds

And flour and tins of peas and clinging kids

Lending the bags their bit of extra weight –

Flat-chested little woman in a hat,

Thin as a rake, tough as old boots, with feet

That ache, ache, ache. I’ve read

He staggered into battle carrying sixty pounds

Of things for killing with. She looked after the pence,

She made ends meet, she had her ports of call

For things that keep body and soul together

Like sugar, tea, a loaf, spare ribs and lard,

And things the big ship brings that light the ends

Of years, like oranges. On maps of France

I’ve trailed him down the chalky roads to where

They end and her on the oldeast A to Z

Down streets, thin as a wraith, year in, year out

Bidding the youngest put her best foot forward, 

Lugging the rations past the war memorial.

It reads so easily, it’s so instantly accessible and memorable, you hardly notice the craft of it, its rhetorical ease, those half rymes and internal rhymes, and what you remember is the tenderness, the anger. David Constantine will take you from familiar urban landscapes to worlds of myth and legend, those strange distant landscapes which, you discover with a sort of shock, still penetrate our uncomfortable present

“This was a pleasant place.

This was a green hill outside the city.

Who would believe it now? Unthink

The blood if you can, the pocks and scabs,

The tendrils of wire. Imagine an apple tree

Where that thing stands embedded.

“The flat earth is felloed with death. 

At every world’s end, in some visited city,

Diminished steps go down into the river of death.”

From: Mappa Mundi [1987]

See that amazing conflation of myth, religion, history, all time present in the vulnerable ‘now’. The apple trees of the Hesperides and of Eden, Golgotha and barbed wire. The whole world deserving of an inundation. David Constantine is drawn to cataclysmic flood, to Atlantean myths, and conflagration; I thought about this when I read one critic querying what Hiroshima had to do with Pompeii. David’s a year younger than I. We were at grammar school when the first H Bomb was exploded; in Liverpool, in Manchester, in London and elsewhere you could walk through bombed ladscapes still. This was the 1950s. I had no doubt that I would never see 21. If you grow up in a shadow, you’re always conscious that lights can go out.  I love this next poem, not least because of that.

.

The quick and the dead at Pompeii

I cannot stop thinking about the dead at Pompeii.

It was in the Nagasaki and Hiroshima month.

They did not know they were living under a volcano.

The augurers watched a desperate flight of birds

And wondered about it in the ensuing silence.

There was sixty feet of ash over Pompeii.

It was seventeen centuries before they found the place.

Nobody woke when the sun began again,

Nobody danced. The dead had left their shapes.

The mud was honeycombed with the deserted forms of people.

Fiorelli recovered them with a method the ancients

Inveted for statuary. When he cast their bodies

And cracked the crust of mud they were born again

Exactly as they had died. Many were struck

Recumbent, tripped, wincing away, the clothing

Rolled up their backs. They were interrupted:

A visting woman was compromised for ever,

A beggar hugs his sack, two prisoners are in chains.

Everyone died as they were. A leprous man and wife

Are lying quietly with their children between them.

The works of art at Pompeii were a different matter.

Their statues rose out of mephitic holes bright-eyed.

The fresco people had continued courting and feasting

And playing mythological parts: they had the hues

Of Hermione when Leontes is forgiven.

What do I take from this?…the nakedness of the human condition, a people without defence. And, I suppose, the echo of Larkin’s ‘what will survive of us is love’. Like the quietness of the leprous man and wife.

In another poem in the sequence the figures of Demeter and Persephone are uncovered having ‘survived a bombardment of hot stones’

Nobody loved the earth better than Demeter did

Who trailed it miserably

Calling after her child and nobody’s gifts 

Withheld were more pined after.

Mother and daughter passed north

From prince to prince and latterly

Survived the fire in Dresden. How Pompeii

Seen from the air resembles sites of ours:

Roofless, crusty. Look where Persephone

Wound in rags

Leads blinded Demeter by the hand

Seeking an entrance to preferable Hades.

from: Mother and daughter

There it is again, that insistence on the connections of myth, of history, Demeter’s agony and the death of growing things in the landscapes of Dresden , and I suppose, of his own Salford. 

Now, from cataclysmic fire to cataclysmic water. David lives in the Scillies, a drowned landscape off the ria coast of Cornwall, where Atlantis seems entirely possible if not actally present.

From Atlantis

It dies hard, the notion of a just people;

  The wish that there should have been once mutual aid

Dies very hard. Through fire and ghastly ash and any

  Smothering weight of water still we imagine

A life courteous and joyful; see them lightly clad

  Loving the sun, the vine and the grey olive.

Over the water from trading, they come home winged

  With sails, their guide and harbinger the white dove.

The sea suddenly stood up vertical, sky-high

Bristling with the planks of their peaceful ships.

The first line is one I can’t forget, and never want to, living as we do in a world that seems suddenly willing to destroy everything that approaches the respect and love of what we casually call ‘community’. David  will take you memorably into the not too distant past, and the present, too, as in his poems about the days in the Scillies, after storm and shipwreck when the islanders gathered whatever flotsam was brought to their shore, and when  ‘the harvests were golden’   

Oranges

1

Mother has linen from the Minnechaha,

I bought the ship’s bell for half a sovereign

From Stanley, our dumb man. 

Everyone has something, a chair, a bit of brass

And nobody wakes hearing a wind blow

Who does not hope there’ll be things come in

Worth having, but today

Was a quiet morning after a quiet night.

11

The bay was coloured in

With bobbing oranges. What silence

Till we we pitched into it

Knee-deep the women holding out their skirts

And the men thrashing in boats

We made an easy killing

We took off multitudes

And mounded them in the cold sun.

When Matty halved one with his jack-knife

It was good right through, as red

As garnet, he gave the halves

His girls who sucked them out.

111

The beams we owe the sea 

Are restless tonight but every home

Is lit with oranges. They were close,

She says, or else the salt

Would have eaten them. Whose popping eyes, 

I wonder, say them leave, 

Roaring like meteors

When the ship in a quiet night

Bled them, and they climbed

Faster than rats in furious shining shoals

In firm bubbles and what

Will tumble in our broken bay tomorrow?

I could go on and on and on, but I see this is a longer post than usual. I need to stop. I hope you’re converted if you weren’t already. Last word from David

“Poetry now, every bit as much as in the Romantic age, is a utopian demonstration, by aesthetic means, of what true freedom would be like. It engages us to imagine something better than what at present we are afflicted with; it helps keep hope alive; it incites us to make more radical demands. And poetry does that out of the enjoyment of its own autonomy, which it is duty-bound not to forfeit.”  

A real treat coming up. A shorter post, but a rich one. Six new poems from David Constantine’s forthcoming collection Belongings, due out from Bloodaxe in early 2020. See you soon.

My kind of poetry:David Underdown

[First published in The Wider Web/Write Out Loud]

Last week I decided not to comment much on the poems Bob Beagrie shared with us; I wanted to them to be heard, and work on the reader, for their music, the texture of the language. I’m just hoping that it persuaded at least some of you to go back and listen to what they said, as well as the way they sounded, so that you could feel the surprise of recognition, say in the lovely image of the shape-shifting seals that

cheose a life apart in the sealtsæ-tides,

on the blæcecges o’ the woruld’s teahorducts.

or in the admission of the limits of language, and the erosions of language through time.

I stand, one hand on the cross, turning,

aiming names at horizon markers

knowing the words can’t reach them,

how the crow-wind strips them bare,

how history is deciphering our footprints.

The other thing I might have said is that when I think about ‘northwords’ and ‘northern poetry’, I have in mind a quality that I’ll call expansiveness. And also a relish in the textures and surfaces of things that are an essential quality of what Gerard Manley Hopkins called haeccitas. It’s this quality that I like so much in the poems of David Underwood. So, less argument this week; just the enjoyment of sharing poems.

David(www.davidunderdown.co.uk) has recently come to live in Hebden Bridge. Though a Mancunian by birth most of his life has been spent in the West of Scotland, latterly on the Isle of Arran where he is an organiser of the McLellan Poetry Competition which is how I first came to meet him. I can’t resist using this photo of me having the time of my life, having won the competition in 2015, and reading to a big room with the judge, Simon Armitage, in the audience, and David himself, just to my right. 

His two collections, both from Cinnamon, are Time Lines (2011) and, in 2019,  A Sense of North. David Constantine describes his poems as ‘watchful’: ‘he gives us a view from (in his own words) ‘a window / we did not know was there’, he makes ‘a halo round the ordinary’’. The Poetry Book Society said of A Sense of North:

 drawing on subjects as varied as Roman legionaries and a worn-out shirt, modern air travel and the imagined life of a lugworm, [it] searches for purpose and order in the human condition. A sense of wonder finds itself kindled in the small and familiar as much as the large and emotive. Whether pondering the fickleness of memory or the meaning of love and loss, this is poetry that asks what it means to be alive.

Time for the poems. I want to start with the poems of a particular sort of landscape and move towards the more interior and particular to illustrate the business of windows and of haloes round the ordinary. We start in wild places, and the relished names of bothies. Note that you would see the Quirang from the Craig Bothy…and then the poem ranges like an airborne camera across the Highlands

Bothy Lands

Peanmeanach, Leacraithnaich,

Strathchailleach, Staoineag, Craig . . .

Across the firth the Quiraing’s jigsaw fret

is topped again by April snows

just as when families arrived

All over now: moors marching back 

to claim their Homes for Heroes.

from scoured shingle, lousewort and broomrape

clinging on. For fear of falling masonry

the house is closed with health and safety tape.

Out in the Minch the famished gannets gorge on plastic 

line their guts with shreds of carrier bags.

Inland, stacked beach-high behind the tide lines,

cartons, a lube oil drum among the yellow flags.

The bridge has gone – a lone Lands Ender

heading South was almost drowned – 

but though the talk’s of open access

all futures now are settled on The Mound – 

glens bright with plans,

bankers talking dirty down in Edinburgh

of how they’ll bring the salmon 

back to how they were.

Birders scan the empty shorelines

toting top Swarovski bins.

Sharks sieve thinning seas for plankton, 

thresh accusatory fins.

Peanmeanach, Leacraithnaich,

Strathchailleach, Staoineag, Craig . . .

I read this as a pibroch, a lament for dispossession, and for the despoiling of the earth. Bothies shelter storm-caught walkers, but they are invariably the abandoned houses of folk who could no longer be sustained by the land, or who were forcibly cleared from it. Homes Fit for Heroes indeed. Nothing can sentimentalise them. The moors are ‘marching back’, the masonry’s crumbling, the seas are choked with plastic and the birds and the fish are gone. What’s left is the roll-call of the Gaelic placenames from a time when the people who spoke them knew what they described. It’s a haunting angry poem that sticks in the mind and the heart.

The next one takes some chutzpah, to take on MacCaig on his chosen ground. Toad.Everyone’s favourite MacCaig poem, I imagine: 

Stop looking like a purse. How could a purse
Squeeze under the rickety door and sit,
Full of satisfaction in a man’s house?

Here’s David’s take on a similar experience:

Naked

You must have hopped in

while the door was ajar 

bringing with you a pattern 

from the spaces between

tall stems and stalks

the dark marsh grass

behind the shed.

Beneath the light I see

through your hopeless camouflage

the mad mosaic of browns

and greens, your landscape;

and when I bend and kneel –  

my eye almost the level of yours – 

your eye is an unwinking bead.

Among the upright legs of chairs

you pulse a gentler rhythm. 

Cupped in my palms

I encompass you.

We are surrounded by upholstery

and household equipment – 

the two of us, skin to skin.

Out in the marshy bit behind the shed

from my bare hands you slip 

naked into soft rain.

From underneath my hood

I look in vain amongst the grass

for where you’ve gone

and kneel, and feel the ground. 

There’s so much to like about this, starting with the title that sets up the expectation of both intimacy and vulnerabilty. I like the shifts of perspective, too, from outside to inside to outside again and the ambiguity of spaces between. It’s an expansive word, space, and a relative one two. I like the way the space perceived by the toad is utterly different from that perceived by the human. There’s a moment that draws you in..that observation of how the the toad brings into the angular spaces of the house a camouflage that abruptly ceases to work. There’s the tenderness of the connections of touch and also of eye contact, and the abrupt sense of loss when he returns the toad from that moment of intimacy into the world in which it vanishes, quite; you share the poets wondering if it was ever there at all. Brilliant. MacCaig comes to mind again

A jewel in your head? Toad,
You’ve put one in mine,
A tiny radiance in a dark place.

A similar sense of intimacy, the trope of ‘handling’, and a kind of wonder fills this next poem, that begins with a question.

Charlotte Brontë’s Boots

Your choosing them: what took your fancy 

must have been the compact chiseled toes

capped by black leather, soft

as human skin might be.

No Vibram, no Goretex, no inner sole.

You could never walk roughshod in these

over your reverend father, over Branwell, 

over your dead sisters,

yet here they are, left and right,

under glass now. In fine or inclement weather

each morning you would lace them tight

to go about the business of your day.

More here than fabric and the skin of animals.

The same fingers held these as held the pen 

in that room upstairs, the one where Jane 

and Bessie Lee and Rochester were born.

Brown, patterned like Laura Ashley

and tiny, more like gloves than boots,

they must have encased your feet,

your boniness, white beneath your stockings.

Who warmed them, those feet of yours,

sore and cold from moors and rough cobbles?

Who would you trust to feel the space 

between each toe, or hold that instep in their hand?

I think it’s the final stanza that lifts this poem beyond what many of us may have written, as it shifts from a speculation about the world of a famous writer and her boots to something more important..her feet inside them, and the imagined vulnerabilty of the wearer. Tenderness. There’s not enough of it in the world. 

I thought I’d finish with a poem that segues nicely from one garment to another.

My Favourite Shirt

After all this time my favourite shirt

the one I never have to think about

or wonder if it’s right, has gone, 

worn out, a tear across its back

where countless times I’ve tucked it in. 

And now I look more closely

the collar’s frayed. Cuffs too.

In places it’s so thin it is diaphanous.

When did this occur? When

was the first time someone might have looked

and idly thought: ‘Bit shabby’?

I wonder how it is that we lose grace.

It doesn’t happen suddenly

though that is how you notice it, 

the thinning of the lips, the brightness gone

from this person who remains your friend.

It doesn’t need a commentary, does it? Except to observe how it’s lifted from what might feel predictable by one startling line: I wonder how it is that we lose grace. That phrase ‘I wonder’ is what lies at the heart of so much of David’s poetry. What do I mean by ‘wonder’? I think it’s what one critic wrote (my rueful apologies..I can’t locate the source) :resonance, aliveness, enthusiasm —attained through very close observation which manifests as care and love for such varied aspects of the world.

Thank you, David Underdown for being our guest and sharing your poems. For me, it’s been a labour of love.

Northwords: Bob Beagrie

 

[Originally posted on The Wider Web on the Write Out Loud site . June 2nd]

I like to toy with a notion that I came across years ago. I don’t know the source. I have a suspicion it could have been David Crystal; basically, it’s that if the accidents of history had taken a different shape, the governance of England could have set up its home in the north. York, say, or Durham. Great cultural and religious centres. What would have followed would have been that the language and accent of the ruling classes would have been northern. I think it’s a lovely idea. I remember that the decision to let  Wifred Pickles , a Halifax man, read the news during the war brought down a torrent of criticism. What’s remarkable is that when you listen to archive tape, he sounds remarkably RP. 

Whatever. This post will be about a northern poet and about what I’m going to call northwords. Bear with me. 

It seems to me that all the poets I originally gravitated towards, and whose books I bought were ‘northern’. Or, at the least, not metropolitan. When they weren’t self-evidently ‘northern’ they were ‘regional’; they came with distinct voices that could not be described as RP, and would lose something important if they were read in RP…and I guess that what they would lose would be music, rhythm, texture. I’ve shared the idea with other writers that this poetry was somehow more ‘committed’, less inclined to be ironic, more inclined to wear its heart on its sleeve. I know it’s teetering on the edge of a generalising sentimentality, but I’m trying hard to be honest, to nail some kind of felt truth. One of my northern poet friends opined that ‘metropolitan’ poetry was ‘too cool for school’, that it prided itself in its avoidance of a felt emotional engagement. I don’t know if that’s accurate or fair. But something about it resonates enough for me to want to try to pin down that elusive idea of ‘north’ and ‘northernness’. 

Let’s start with ‘accent’, and (predictably) with a quotation from Tony Harrison’s ‘Them and Uz’. 

“All poetry (even Cockney Keats?) you see 

‘s been dubbed by [ɅS] into RP, 

Received Pronunciation please believe [ɅS] 

your speech is in the hands of the Receivers” 

Harrison spoke for tens of thousands of us who, in the 50’s, were harried for our accents in the Grammar Schools we sat scholarships to get into. It goes deeper than accent…which we can train ourselves to change. It springs from lexis, the words themselves, their resonance, their heft and texture. All the Old English, Germanic, Scandinavian words. 

*Words for where we are and where we might go: north, south, east west; here, there and everywhere; this, that and the other. 

*Words of house and home: gate, door, window (which is a wind-eye); roof, wall, and also fire and hearth (but not chimney, which is French) 

*Words of kinship: folk, father, mother, brother, sister, daughter and son, and child and children 

*Words for the earth: what we make of it-plough, sow,and seed and till- and where we come from and where we go: clay, and dust. Rocks and minerals and what we make with them: iron and gold, swords and ploughs, and hammers. Also, for the times and seasons of the earth: day, night, summer, winter, spring; its weathers, its sun, cold, rain, wind;  and for the trees and flowers that grow from the earth…rowan, birch, holly, oak, alder, thorn, beech; the names of the landscapes they grow in…moors and fells, dales and denes, dens and cloughs, leas and thwaites, all of which make the names of places where we live. 

*Words for the seas: water, wave, froth and foam, wharf and staithe (also the boats and ships) 

*Words for the textures of things: rough/smooth; hot/cold; wet/dry 

If we grow up with these words, we grow up with their texture and music. When people tell me they recognise my ‘voice’ it must be partly to do with the accent and dialects of the West Riding. Along the way, I picked up Northumbrian inflexions, and some persist, the way the stress might fall differently, the rising inflexion at the end of a sentence. Lexis, syntax, accent; they go deeper than we know. Which is why I’m attracted to the poets whose ‘voice’ is not RP, and especially to those who deliberately celebrate the roots of their language. Ian Duhig is one, and so is Steve Ely. Irish poets can’t help it. 

All of which brings us to our guest, Bob Beagrie. I’ve seen Bob perform his work two or three times at Square Chapel in Halifax. “Perform” is the idea you should hang on to. His work is firmly and deliberately rooted in belief that poetry is primarily oral, and it’s also in his attachment to the roots of the English, pre-Norman English. Like Steve Ely, he’s entirely comfortable with the idea of blending this old English with his own 21st C language. At first sight it will puzzle…but sight isn’t the way in. Reading aloud is. A bit more of this later. First, let’s meet him. 

Bob Beagrie has published nine full collections of poetry and several pamphlets, most recently Leasungspell (Smokestack 2016) Nobody (Hunting Raven 2017), This Game of Strangers – written with Jane Burn (Wyrd Harvest Press2017) and Remnants written with Jane Burn (Knives Forks & Spoons Press (2019). . His work has appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines and has been translated into Finnish, Urdu, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Spanish, Estonian and Karelian. He is co-director of Ek Zuban Press & Literature Development and a founding member of the experimental spoken word and music collective Project Lono. He has worked as a writer in schools and community settings for twenty years and has held residencies at The Dylan Thomas Centre, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, The Hartlepool Headland, Crisis Skylight, The James Cook Birthplace Museum. He lives in Middlesbrough and is a senior lecturer in creative writing at Teesside University. Now, over to him: 

“Thanks for inviting me to contribute (he’s sent four poems and explains that:) the first two are extracts from the first part of Leasungspell which was published by Smokestack in 2016. The book recounts the journey of an Anglo Saxon monk walking from the monastery on the Hartlepool Headland to Whitby in 657 AD, carrying secret correspondence from St Hild. The monk, Oswin, grew up a pagan and was converted to Christianity after his family was slaughtered by Mercian raiders and after having lived as a wild hermit for a time. As he treks across the wild landscape of the Tees Estuary, animated by God’s light and the old earth spirits, he describes the things he encounters and tells the story of how he became a monk, and how the Princess Aelfleda arrived at the monastery. Due to there being not enough surviving vocabulary from 7th Century Northumbrian the text is a creative hybrid of Old English, Modern English, Yorkshire, Northumbrian and Cleveland dialects.” 

 I decided to put the poems in a sequence that will take you from 8thC English to the recognisably modern, so you can see how rooted we are. Before you start, if it’s new to you, you may  be as puzzled as I was at university when I was first set to read Beowulf. The thing was, no one told me to read it aloud, and to realise that I would actually hear words I was familiar with. There are two unfamiliar graphemes ð and þ. Anglo-Saxon text distinguished between two th sounds:  soft (as in think) and harder, (as in though). Think of Riddley Walker. You want to get the sound in your head, and the rhythm comes with it. Or you can listen to it first and then read it aloud yourself. It’ll be a labour of love. Here’s your link 

Oh, and here’s another thing. I know people who resist the fantastic,the magical, and these poems have a magical field as well as a history. Robert Macfarlane addresses this scientific/rational resistance to ‘magic’ when he writes, in Landmarks  about the provenance of a language he calls Childish.  

“To young children…nature is full of doors…what we bloodlessly call place is to young children…dream, spell and substance: place is somewhere they are always in, never on…the best children’s literature understands this differeent order of affordance.” 

 I think this is what fed into a poem I wrote about ‘true naming’  

    you need one to be sent on a quest / through silent forests, stony wastes, 

   to a bony church and a hillside that opens 

   to a way that he’ll walk through all the ages, / to come dumb and dazzled to the seashore 

I guess I’m comfortable/at home on the shores of the North East coast, and with the way in places like Whitby, or Dunstanburgh the perceived barriers between the past and the present grow thin.  We’ll start with one such shore in Leasungspellwhere shapehifting grey seals sunbathe on tide-smoothed rocks. 

Adríeme on the sands o’ wendan watterwegs 

græ seolhs sunne-bathe, idel, gelic tide-smeðian roccs, 

an’ hu thie honc, hu thie beorc te æn anoðer, 

wisccars abristel, col eyes átrendle hwenne æfer thie 

finde mi passen, an’ i wundor hwæt dríemes floe  

ynneside thor flod-dog sculls. Sum sæy sum seolhs 

are nae triewe seolhs at ealle but schyftars hwo hæfd clæþd 

‘emsylfes in fur, cheosan te dwell healf thor lifes 

as déor that dyf thruh ísceald bryne an’ iegstréam watters,  

gnagan reaw fisc an’ hlæhh at gods an’ mancynn;  

þouh þese be but léasspell for gowks an’ bearns. 

Raðer, i recon thie wær ænes beons wið sāwls 

hwo befeall sum gréate bane or bliht o’ hearm  an’ syððan lifian  wiðin The Glōm for so lang  

wiðoot sumyan te stier ‘em fram that trod,  

hwo hæf forgietan thor lincs te mancynn 

an’ cheose a life apart in the sealt sæ-tides, 

on the blæc ecges o’ the woruld’s teahor ducts. 

                              …………………………………………………………………………  The mann i sloh in Rheged hæfd oft huntede mi breost-hord 

for alþouh we boþ feaht bealdlic wið spere an’ scield  

for wiðercynings he wæs nae mi triewe foeman. i ken nae  

his name, nawþer wyrre-cræft macod me sigoriend  

an’ him woruld-deað, but raðer luc, God oþþe wyrd;  

an’ slippian te soden grund wið a blodie gasc mi spere  

hæfd oppened in his cræg i seo mesen thruh his deað-mist,  

feolt a wearme wyllspring o’ mynd-floe o’ heah,  

ruggig beorgas, steap wudu an’ scieldtrum dælls 

spillan inti his inborn eorð, an’ ænlic þænne de i see hu  

we ealle, as blostm o’ eorð, berst oþþe rot te gan ham. 

So that thruh his deað i fund a paþ te faðfylness 

for hwylc i hæfd oft gifen þancs un te him 

an’ prayed he beon Heofon wið the Cyning o’ Cynings. 

I’m willing to bet you found you fell into the rhythm, reading more quickly, until you were fluent  

‘through his death I found a path to faithfulness for which I have oft given                                                                       thanks unto him …..the King of Kings’ 

You might want to say: Well why not write it like that?  To which I’d say: would you have paid the same kind of attention? I’ll leave that question there. Here’s Bob again: 

  “The next poem, ‘Remnants’ is the title poem from the new collection that has just come out from Knives Forks & Spoons Press which I wrote with Jane Burn. It is a futuristic sequence of post-apocalyptic dream visions based on the notion of a small tribal community struggling to survive after the next Great Flood.” 

(I’ve mentioned Riddley Walker earlier…Russell Hoban’s wonderful post-apocalytic tale that’s written in what seems to be an invented dialect. Remnants is its blood brother (or as Riddley would say, moonbrother). The clue to reading it is the same as it is with Hoban’s story. Read it aloud. Think of a Northumbrian accent.) 

                   Remnants 

The Old Man ysed t’ tac us oot onte the skerries 
snot-slippy n’ green at doon-tide n’ lathered  

wi’ flies that foggled awer feet as we padded  

leery over the wyrm-stems o’ knotted kelp 
te peer inte them rock pools, picking winkles, 
ousting stones te latch them scuttling crabs; 

the sea rose n’ fell aboot us, baring n’ covering 

the boles o’ a petrified forest, the limpited ridge-tiles  

of a once thrifty B & B called Neptune View,  

the washed-oot bingo hall wi’ its drunk bandits 

the barnacled spire of an ainchent kirk where  

the One God once drooned. ‘Hlisten!’ he’d sush us, 
‘Sumetymes ye can harcen the kirk bells still  

ringing undra the waves, calling all the Mer.’ 

 
At niyht I’d wayke, thinkin I’d heard ‘em, 
te pry over ower stockade o’ scrap cars n’ cawld stores 
across the flooden playn n’ wunder if the Mer 
we’re gatherin’ te march fro the deep watters 
bringing the cawld furie o’ the Drooned God  
upon the remnants o’ the bairns o’ men. 

  
Efrey morning, for me learnings, the Old Man  

had me recite the songs n’ psalms the Olders sang  

onboard ship throughoot thor Greet Floating: 
      The Rhapsody o’ the Hrafen’s Skull 
      The Ballad o’ the Boar’s Tusc 
      The Hymn o’ the Stag’s Heart 
      The Canticle o’ the Whale’s Lung. 

I love the way the poem conflates elements of a contemporarary present (the B&B, the bingo hall) with a timeless landscape of sea meeting land, and a past that exists in the ryhthms of Tyndale’s Bible, in order to create a vision of the future.  

The final poem is taken from Civil Insolvencies which will be published by Smokestack in October 2019. The language is now firmly, it seems, in the 21stC . But I hope that now you also hear where it came from, where its roots lie 

Chiromancy 

“The great Sage as high as Heaven visited here” 

      Wu Cheng’en: Journey to the West 1592 

High staggered moorland crossroads 
too few trees, the big wide sky 
fresh roadkill and opportunist crows 
turning turning turning turning, 
The Roda Cross by the roadside 
scattered offerings in the grass 
Hogtenberg’s summit beyond Westerdale 
Crouched friars, Rosedale Abbey, Cockayne Ridge 
Roundhead recruits resting sore shanks, 
tarmac’s scrape and sweep through crimples: 

Life line, Fate line, Heart line, Sun line. 

The cross’s shadow pointing arrow straight 
at Boulby Mine, turbines and the sea 
turning turning turning turning, 
sheep picking paths through cropped heather, 
fleeces marked with red or blue splodges, 
lichen forests spreading over dry stone walls. 

I stand, one hand on the cross, turning, 

aiming names at horizon markers 

knowing the words can’t reach them, 

how the crow-wind strips them bare, 

how history is deciphering our footprints. 

( here are two more links to performances of the last two poems. We really spoil you on The Wider Web) 

Bob Beagrie, it’s been a pleasure to put this post together. You’ve been phenomenally generous. The last word is yours:  

“The collection I wrote with Andy Willoughby ‘Sampo: Heading Further North’ which is inspired by the National Finnish Epic ‘Kalevala’ was published in three languages in three different countries during 2015. I consider myself a European poet and think that poetry, and creativity in general, can act as a bridge that is able to span cultural and linguistic boundaries. The act of translation is a process of reaching out, a tentative grasping of potential meanings to be carefully examined and carried back into one’s own language, and enrich it. This process seems more important than ever given the rise of xenophobia and right wing ideologies over the past few years.” 

To which we can only say ‘Amen’ 

My kind of poetry: Carole Bromley

This post is for those of you who don’t follow Write Out Loud where I’m currently the resident blogger, and where it originally enjoyed. I’ll be doing this every time there’s a guest poet, so you won’t miss out.

I was trying to decide between three possible posts for this Sunday, when my mind was made up for me by two things.

On Wednesday I had a great time as a support reader at Seven Arts in Chapel Allerton in Leeds, where the launch of Emma Storr’s debut pamphlet Heart Murmur played to a full house, and where she sold all but three of the copies available. If you want to know more about Emma Store (and you should) check out the Cobweb post via this link: https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2019/01/13/on-hearing-and-listening-and-an-undiscovered-gem-emma-storr/

Subsequently, you may decide you want to buy a copy of Heart Murmur, then follow this link to Calder Valley Poetry: https://caldervalleypoetry.com/book-shop/

Emma is a retired GP, and had invited Carole Bromley to be her other guest support reader. And, as it happens, Carole had just come back from Newcastle and the Hippocrates Prize-giving (as well as having , last year, gone through complicated surgery)…and both of them read hospital/medical related poems.

So much so hospital. It all coincided with my having a complicated programme of appointments with consultants to agree treatments/surgery for bits of skin cancer and for long term prostate cancer. So, yes; I’ve got hospitals on my mind.

Sooner or later we’ll all end up there, as patients or visitors. Either state is stressful. . But here’s a thing……I’ve been in and out of hospitals for about 70 years. Hours spent in X ray, or sitting by a bed in an Intensive Care ward, or having morphine nightmares in High Dependency, or observing with an odd curiosity the sociology of General Wards, or marvelling at the linguistic ineptness of a minority of consultants, or at the insouciance of tanned anaesthetists, or being put through the rituals of admission.

I love the NHS, which has saved and prolonged my life and the lives of those I love. But I’ve never got over the sense of being depersonalised, processed. I think it must be like going into prison. That’s what I think when I read the sequence in Solzhenitsyn’s The first circle,when the apparatchik Volodin finds himself in the Greater Lubyanka. Here’s part of the sequence I mean:

“May I dress?” asked Innokenty…but the barber left without a word and locked the door.

………………………………….

After a while he got into his underclothes, but just as he was pulling on his trousers the key rattled in the lock, and still another warder, with a fleshy purple nose, came in holding a large card.

“Surname?”

“Volodin” the prisoner replied without arguing, although the senseless repetitions were making him feel sick.

“Name and patronymic?”

“Innokenty Artemyevitch.”

“Year of birth?”

“Nineteen nineteen”

“Place of birth?”

“Leningrad.”

“Take all your clothes off”

Half dazed, he took off those he had on.

………………………………………………………………………..

And so it continues. Of course, in the novel, the whole system is designed to demoralise the prisoner, take away all his resistance, individuality, his selfhood. I’m not saying that’s what the NHS is remotely after. But the passage invariably pops into my mind when I’m once more repeating all my details…birth date, address, doctor, all that…. and when I’m in an awkward cubicle taking my clothes off and trying to deal with one of those amazingly humiliating backless surgical gowns, and trying to fit my stuff into a plastic shopping basket, which I may have to carry down a corridor full of normal people in their normal clothes. It’s all necessary, and simultaneously dreamlike…something you hope to wake from, soon.

I spent some time musing about how many poems about hospitals I could think of. I struggled. Hilary Mantel writes brilliantly about the experience of being in hospital; Norman MacCaig’s Visiting hour says all I ever want to say about hospital visiting. And U.A.Fanthorpe cornered the market in poems about patients, and doctors and hospital administrators. But, I thought…there must be loads of others. And then could not bring any to mind.

When I look at ones I’ve actually written, it seems that what bothers me about hospitals is not the physical experience, the small humiliations, the pain, the discomforts and so on. I prefer my poems to grit their teeth and soldier on, and not make a fuss. What intrigues me is the way that being in hospital is like being deported to a foreign country whose language you only vaguely understand. But I’m always delighted when someone comes along to throw a new light on the whole nervy business, and thus, effortlessly, we come to today’s guest poet, Carole Bromley.

Carole lives in York where she is the Stanza rep and runs poetry surgeries. For several years she judged the YorkMix Poetry competition, which became a major event under her care. Winner of many prizes herself, including the Bridport, Carole was a winner in the Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition twice and has two pamphlets and three collections with Smith/Doorstop, most recently a collection for children, Blast Off! She is currently working on a new children’s book and also a pamphlet collection about her recent experience of brain surgery. She is also currently judging two competitions, one on the theme of snow for the Candlestick Press and the other the YorkMix Poems for Children Competition https://www.yorkmix.com/entertainment/write-a-childrens-poem-and-win-250/Her website is www.carolebromleypoetry.co.uk

She sent me four poems for this post, all from a pamphlet length collection she is hoping to publish which is based on her experience of brain surgery in Hull last year, all of them with her trademark accuracy of observation and understated technical craft. Here we go

Carole lives in York where she is the Stanza rep and runs poetry surgeries. For several years she judged the YorkMix Poetry competition, which became a major event under her care. Winner of many prizes herself, including the Bridport, Carole was a winner in the Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition twice and has two pamphlets and three collections with Smith/Doorstop, most recently a collection for children, Blast Off!  She is currently working on a new children’s book and also a pamphlet collection about her recent experience of brain surgery. She is also currently judging two competitions, one on the theme of Snowfor the Candlestick Press and the other the YorkMix Poems for Children Competition…

Her own website is www.carolebromleypoetry.co.uk  So there you are. There are absolutely no excuses for not finding out a lot more about her.

She sent me four poems for this post, all from a pamphlet – length collection she is hoping to publish, and which is based on her experience of brain surgery in Hull last year. Four poems, all of them with her trademark accuracy of observation and understated technical craft. I have a strong suspicion that WordPress will go on corrupting the text and ignoring stanza breaks. In case it does, you should know that Afterwards and Unpacking are in 3 line stanzas, and the last poem about reading Henry James is in 2 ten-line stanzas.

Here we go. I think we should start with the pain and  work our way to relief and release. I won’t say much about this first poem except to note the way one short phrase – everyone eating syrup sponge – contextualises everything that happens around it. Oh, and also to note that it is, after all, possible to write about self-pity without sounding full of self-pity.

The Unpacking

I think at the time 

the nose-unpacking 

was the worst

The houseman hadn’t time 

to fetch the pethidine and wait 

just squirted and tugged

It was lunchtime

and everyone eating 

syrup sponge

After the screams

which surely came from 

someone else’s throat

after the begging 

Oh, I can’t bear it. I can’t bear it

plates clattered onto trays

My neighbour was crying 

on my behalf

I rang my husband

Please come Please come 

I lost all pride 

I put it on Facebook 

longing for comfort 

a child again

needing its mother

All afternoon I cried

That night the doctor came back

shook my husband’s hand

said how sorry he was 

he’d had to hurt me 

He was so young 

He was showing two students

how to do the procedure 

Beforehand I joked

I’ll tell you if he’s rubbish

Afterwards he said

I’m sorry love I’m sorry 

(Third prizewinner Poem and a Pint Competition 2018)

Life in hospital, Carole reminds us, is made of longeurs, black comedy, tedium, discomfort, pain, fear and boredom, punctuated by small triumphs and fleeting pleasure. Nearly all of these find their way into the next poem, which I think is in the spirit of Ivan Denisovitch’s day. 

Sodium 136

A new form of torture

to raise my sodium level

which is dangerously low.

They measure out five glasses

of water into my jug

to last me till midnight,

write 1 litrefluid restriction

on the board over my bed

so the tea trolley passes me by,

the milk-shake woman doesn’t come,

the pourer of custard shakes her head.

Slowly the level creeps up.

After five days I’m fantasising

about gulping cartons of juice.

I have a tug of war with a nurse,

will not let go of the jug

which she wants to remove,

tell her if I wanted to cheat

I could put my head under the tap

and drink. I win, the jug stays.

The tea lady leaves me half a cup

and whispers I won’t tell them, love.

I do not touch it. 117, 118,

123, 124 and then, overnight,

SODIUM 136. I weep with joy.

They rub out the notice.

I gulp down glass after ice-cold glass.

(Commended in Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine 2019)

It’s beautifully observed, isn’t it? It’s deceptively simple, but listen to the way it shifts from measured and matter-of fact, through childish : the milk-shake woman doesn’t come, the pourer of custard shakes her head.  to frantic : I will not let go of the jugand finally to joyful.  For me, after a week of no solid food, it was porridge. Very Ivan Denisovitch. I suppose the spirit of both these poems is ultimately comic (which is a more serious business than is universally acknowledged). The next one is less apparently comforting.

Afterwards

Make a fist for me, she says.

Now, push your heel against my hand.

Now pull my fingers towards you.

How is it I forgot this

Do you know where you are?

when I remembered the words,

She tells me it’s so she can compare.

Afterwards. I had not thought,

really thought of afterwards

only of an end to the pain,

the way the ward is blurred,

the endless, endless nausea.

So matter of fact. Afterwards.

It isn’t logical but I want to say

My brain is a long way from my feet.

(Published in Algebra of Owls 2018)

This is a poem that sticks in the mind. With great economy, it does something very complex . It’s the business of using clear plain language to recreate confusion. At the heart of it is the reminder that when you’re in pain, all you want is for the pain to stop. There is only the moment, and no ‘afterwards’, so that when ’afterwards’ happens we don’t know how to deal with it. It’s disconcerting and disorienting. 

The last one I liked not least because it made me think that it would be interesting to speculate about what folk choose to take to read in hospital. I tend towards Solzhenitsyn, as I’ve said. After him, later Dickens. A teacher I loved was given days to live, and asked for a copy of Middlemarch  in hospital. I have never coped with Henry James. I think I never shall.

Reading Henry James in Hospital

What Maisie Knew. I haven’t read it

for fifty years. I knew nothing then,

only the rhythm of his prose,

that Maisie was the centre of consciousness

that I would need to sit up late

to finish it before the tutorial,

swigging from a tooth mug

the port I stole from formal dinner.  

For me the book will always taste 

of peppermint and port and the summer of love.

I turn the pages with my cannula’d hand,

wander away from Sharon glued to Corrie,

from Jean flipping through Take a Break

from Joan’s painful voyage to the toilet.

‘I say, I say, do look out’, Sir Claude 

quite amiably protested. Sister trips

over the zimmer Jean parked by my bed, 

tells me not to keep my frame there.

I do not have a frame, I protest.

Jean looks up from her article, Yet.

(2ndPrizewinner Poetry Space Competition 2018)

 I like the wry, dry ironies of this, the intercutting of reality and fictions of all shapes and sizes. It’s a great poem  to read aloud….I like the timing of the punchline. I like the way it reminds us that when we’re in a hospital bed, we’re all dark watchers, and, like Maisie, the centre of consciousness. Hospitals make egoists of us all. 

Thank you, Carole Bromley for being our guest and being so generous with your poems. Next week we’ll be heading northwards and speculating abour northwords. See you then.

Get out there and vote

Some people never had to fight for anything in their lives. Some people never  needed a vote because they were born knowing they owned everything and owed nothing to anyone. Some people had nothing until they had a vote. Don’t tell me you you’d betray the right to use what some people died to give you.

I know when this goes out via Facebook and Twitter I’ll be preaching to the converted. But so are The Sun, The Mail and The Express. And, possibly, the BBC. So if you share this, you’ll do so in solidarity, and who knows…someone you know who thinks voting doesn’t matter may just think again. We do what we can do. Some did more than that.

Camera obscura               

(Emily Wilding Davison. d. June 1913)

The reason for your being here

is out of sight. They can’t be seen –

your Cause’s colours sewn inside

your decent coat: white, violet, green.

The camera sees the moment you began to die:

the jockey,  trim in silks, is doll-like

on the grass and seems asleep;

his mount is spraddled on its back;

its useless hooves flail at the sky.

Your spinning, flower-trimmed hat

is stopped, distinct, mid-flight;

your hair’s still not come down;

you’re frozen, inches from the ground;

your boots are neatly buttoned,

take small steps on the  arrested air.

You’re stopped in time. No sound, no texture, no sour odour

of bruised grass and earth. Just

silence and the alchemy of light.

How did you comprehend

the shock of heat, huge muscle, hair,

in that white moment

when the dark came down?

The camera cannot tell;

it’s business neither truth nor lies.

It shows a fallen horse. A woman falling. A crowd

in hats and blazers staring down a long perspective;

the field intent upon the distant fairy icing

grandstand. The waving flags. The finish line.

Until the image blurs, dissolves in silver flowers,

it’s there on celluloid in shades of grey;

the camera only says that in that instant

you are dying, and everyone has looked away.

Camera obscura. First published in The Forward book of poetry 2015