Well met; a Polished Gem: Christopher North

If you’ve followed the various strands of the cobweb for some time, you’ll have seen this photograph before. The limestone range that circles the villages of Sella and Relleu in Alicante, the village of Relleu itself, and, seen between the trees, the blue house. Almaserra, the old olive press that’s the home of today’s guest poet, Christopher North. I can say without any exaggeration that this place changed my life and made it clear to me that what I needed to do was to write poems. 

I can’t explain why it’s taken me so long to ask Christopher to be a guest, but I suppose the trigger was that this year he was one of the winners of the 2018 Poetry Business International Pamphlet Competition, a prize that he adds to the dozens he’s won over the last 20+ years. There’s a synergy here, because I’ve no doubt that the residential courses he runs at the old olive press are one of the two main reasons why I wrote poems that eventually won the same pamphlet prize in 2016. So be warned….this will not be an impartial review, but an enthusiastic ‘thank you’. 

I met Christopher at a coffee shop in Alicante Airport in 2013, where he told me that the guest tutor for the residential course I’d enrolled on was forced to cancel at short notice, and that I could have my money back and fly home, or take a punt and stay, and that he’d try to take over the tutoring duties for the week. I chose to stay, and it was one of the three best decisions I’ve ever made..we drove along the coast, and, just short of Benidorm, turned inland into a landscape I’d not imagined and which I’ve come to love. Big uncompromising limestone mountains, a blue reservoir, huge views. Places I learned to walk in and find the bones of a fox, among other things.

Christopher has quietly introduced me to a dried up 17thC dam, prehistoric cave paintings in a stifling remote valley, the best paella bar in Alicante, another which is a shrine to the Civil War and left wing revolution, a Stanza group in room decorated with crumbling late-renaissance frescoes, and, memorably a steep shale hill below a cliff where we went to find shards of Iberian pottery and where he ripped the arse out of his trousers. I wrote a sort of prose-poem for that

We’re climbing this hill

a shaly slope ,a broken spine of stone, the tilt of strata, all levels and layers , silicas, sandstones, 

blue, green, grey muds, coral flowers, when he says :  from here we have to bushwack

CUE:  

long shot from a winding canyon rim, mesquite, stallions, bitter dust,   rawhide quirts, and stetsons, cactus, creek and willow, mineshaft tailings, clapboard stables, saloon and whorehouse, Colt repeaters, pianola, mirrors, scrolled mahogany, sleeve bands, tight black bowler hats, tooled leather, spit, unshaven desperadoes, shifty mexicans and crooked sheriff, dark Apache , in his birdbone breastplate, three crow feathers pushed into his blueblack hair,  a wired up Commanche on a piebald horse, contempt like a scalp on the tip of a lance, the sage chief  of the Black Hills Sioux, with the eagle bonnet,  the softest buckskin fringe, plumes of smoke in the lodge by the oxbow’s quiet shadows, and thin dogs doing nothing in particular,  the hero carefully turned out, the  rancher’s daughters prim as prayerbooks , careless dancehall girls, their knees and tucked up skirts, their buttoned boots and ribbons, ah, so many ribbons, the double door that swings both ways, a silhouette, a shadow bringing conversations to a stuttering halt, like traffic, that exact moment that the piano stops midtune, a pause like a burial plot, just waiting on its allotment of words.

And from here, he says, we have to bushwack.

Whatever that is.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

This year is the first in six years that I haven’t been to one of the writing weeks that he and his wife Marisa host. It’s been like a year without Christmas. At the old olive press I’ve met so many writers and made lasting friendships. Tutors Mimi Khalvati, Jane Draycott, and Ann Sansom. Fellow residents Jane Kite, Shirley McClure, Wendy Klein, Carole Bromley, Fokkina Macdonald, Martin Reed, the photographer Ton Out, and, especially, Hilary Elfick and Gyula Friewald. Most of them have been guests on the cobweb, and you can find them easily enough. 

I’ve checked today, and established that of the poems I’ve written in workshops there 22 have been published, four have won prizes in competitions, and one, surreally, has been read to a bilingual audience in the frigid air-conditioned basement of El Corte Inglese in Murcia.

So there you are. The people, the friendships, the amazing places. I owe him so much, this urbane, companionable, erudite, entertaining man. Time to meet him and his poems. He’ll introduce himself better than I could .

“Through the seventies and eighties I worked as surveyor doing structural surveys, mortgage valuations, court work and some house-building I was in private practice with an expanding firm – and though I read a good deal of poetry, (to keep reasonably sane), I wasn’t writing it. I did keep a journal and the odd phrase or observation suggests that there was a spark of creativity in my writing. I sold my business in 1988 and was thus contracted to a corporate. I no longer had the weight of responsibility I carried before (I had five partners and about 30 employees) so I was freed up somewhat. By a mischance I attended week long writing course in Provence run by John Fairfax, of Arvon fame, and the poet Sue Stewart, who I believe later held a creative writing fellowship at Stirling University. It was a week that changed my life. John Fairfax was particularly encouraging. 

A little later I went to a Literary festival in Devon followed by a Lumb Bank week (at John Fairfax’s suggestion) and from on then poetry became a major element in my life.  When retirement from ranging rods and valuation tables came over the horizon, I  had to honour an old promise to  my wife Marisa that we would move to her country of birth, Spain. I had long carried the idea of facilitating residential courses in poetry – and ten years mixed up with the London poetry scene, and eight years running my own poetry workshop, we looked for a place suitable for housing Arvon style residential courses. After a number of abortive negotiations we find a derelict industriel building on the lip of a ravine within the ‘casco’ of a mountain village. As soon as we saw the rear terrace with its panoramic view of terraced mountains and a 10thcentury castle, we knew we had found the right place. It was an old olive press with the machinery still there – albeit under mounds of rubble. In two years we rebuilt  the ‘Almassera’ always with the view of creating an ambience for creative courses. We had our first pilot week in 2002 .

After  ten years, in the nineties, mixed up with the London poetry scene, and eight years running my own poetry workshop, Metro-land Poets, I had the confidence and contacts to engage the poetry elite as tutors and host a huge number of aspirant poets and writers from England, Scotland, Ireland , Wales, France , Germany, Holland along with a dash of Americans. Running these courses has been an intense pleasure for us. I have attended most of the courses as a student, so had the in house perk of five or six course a year with the likes of Mark Doty, Michael Donaghy, Mimi Khalvati, Matthew Sweeney, Alfred Carn Penny Shuttle, Vicky Feaver, Ann Sansom, Tammy Yoseloff, Jo Shapcott., Christopher Reid, Graham Fawcett, James Harpur, Mario Petrucchi and others.  As a result my own poetry developed rapidly. We have also hosted retreats in our annexe in a village house.

Poetry grows in the doing of it, in causing it to become organically part of you and part of the day, every day. It is ancient, endless and essential – more so now than at any time, save possibly when the country is at war.” 

He chairs The UK Poetry Society‘ Stanza Alacant ’in Benissa, Spain which is now in its eleventh year. He is currently working on a monograph exploring his diary entries during the 25 years of the ‘Way With Words Literary Festival’ in  Dartington , Devon, England.

Christopher’s  first collection ‘A Mesh of Wires’published by Smith Doorstop was short-listed for the UK’s ‘Forward Prize’ in 1999. He has published two full collections since: ‘Explaining the Circumstances’(2010), ‘The Night Surveyor’(2014) and a joint , bilingual collection ‘Al Otro Lado del Aguilar’(2011) with Terry Gifford  – all with Oversteps Books. His pamphlet collection ‘Wolves Recently Sighted’Templar Poetry 2014 was launched in Matlock 2014 and his latest pamphlet collection ‘The Topiary of Passchendaele’was a winner in the Poetry Business competition 2018. Almassera Vellain Relleu, Alicante, Spain. (www.oldolivepress.com) He chairs The UK Poetry Society‘Stanza Alacant’in Benissa, Spain which is now in its eleventh year. He is currently working on a monograph exploring his diary entries during the 25 years of the ‘Way With Words Literary Festival’ in  Dartington , Devon, England.

And since that will have certainly whetted your appetites, it’s high time for the poems. Chris has sent me three and I like them a lot.

The Smudge of Andromeda

Counting the trillion or so stars of Andromeda

or persuading others to count the trillion or so

stars of Andromeda — and considering the 

apparent impossibility of counting

the trillion or so stars of Andromeda —

or maybe containing them in a dark room 

and closing the door — preferably a room

where despite the dark, and the curtained windows,

all the pictures on the walls are shrouded.

They will be going on and being present in the room

beside the trillion or so stars of Andromeda,

also going on and being present in the room

as outside in the evening sky and its first planets,

the wood will be breathing and the last

of the day’s swallows will be flicking through the air

seeking roosts in the darkening trees and roof spaces.

[the German astronomer Simon Marius re-discovered the Andromeda nebulae in 1612 saying it shone like a candle through horn]

What has often struck me in writing workshops with Chris is the way he seems to effortlessly manage poetry (and conversation) that uses long, complex, beautifully constructed sentences without ever losing a rhythm that gives then a musical coherence. I suppose the other thing is an erudition, and encyclopaedic knowledge that ought to be chaotic but isn’t, an erudition that’s lightly worn and which provides a huge source of surprising reference that he combines with lyricism. Which is what this poem does.

You need to read it aloud more than once, realising that the first stanza isn’t actually a sentence but a proposition that’s like an extended title (a bit like the long chapter headings of 18th C novels). I love the way it combines the confusion of ‘a smudge’ with the focussing precision of what we’re being asked to consider…the repeated trillions of stars in a room where all the pictures are shrouded, where the stars are inside and outside in the sky, and the organic rhythmical processes of dusk, the breathing of trees, and the flight of birds coming home to roof. It’s dreamlike (with all the accurate precision of dreams), incantatory and magical.

The next poem is equally magical and slightly unreal, but firmly rooted in what is effectively a narrative, and anecdote. “Remember that night when….’

The Night Surveyor: Dartington Gardens

(For Ben Okri)

After the farewell party we grabbed a bottle

and, on your suggestion, headed into the gardens,

pitch dark, rustling leaves, I don’t know how many came.

Giggling, without a torch we found the Tiltyard,

above us Cassiopeia, a slumped Great Bear.

Now be our night surveyor you said.

I declared to the six (or were there seven?):

‘The Cypress is twenty metres from the twelfth Apostle;

the fountain, two chains, fifteen eleven

Starlit dunes of Devon fields gleamed above trees

as we crossed silvered lawns and I announced:

we are four hundred feet above the sea

then led them up endless steps, finding risers with gentle kicks.

There’s this place of seven echoessomeone whispered

someone counter-whispered: No there’s only six.

Full fathom five.. I shouted from the bastion. 

No please not that one surveyor  you murmured, 

O trees of dark coral made?  – ‘No try something else.

Some bow or brooch or braid or brace, lace, latch or catch…

No echo but a leaden voice climbed inside my ear.

Over Staverton, or Berry Pomeroy’s lowly thatch

hung Jupiter, no Venus, or was it Mars?

One shouted:  I embrace the universal me,

voice cracked and small beneath shades and stars.

Two melted into trees: We remaining passed round wine.

The town below lolled in sodium as if bathing

and you yawned Get us back surveyor, I think it’s time.

I counted steps. Shadows rose and fell in bands.

Feeling for damp and stone, plotting silhouettes 

and shadows, gradually we became a chain of hands.

I really like the filmic quality of this, a film by Peter Greenaway…the draughtsman’s contract. The story of the bunch of tipsy chums stumbling around in the dark under a huge starlit sky, stumbling over silvered lawns, declaiming of bits of Shakespeare, the absurdity of it that gradually comes to its senses, and back to earth as The town below lolled in sodium. I love the way the declaiming poet comes back to the role of the measuring and sensible surveyor and the group of friends who became a chain of hands. The whole thing is witty, elegantly constructed, and ultimately life-affirming, lyrical and loving.

I’ll take a risk with the last poem, the title poem of Christopher’s winning pamphlet, selected by David Constantine. I’ve picked an image of calculated regularities and dreadful repetition.

The Topiary of Passchendaele 

Clip the box precise,

       make corners a right angle

and thus contain the Cherry tree

       in a low wall of green.

Lower the cypressus 

       to see the horizon file of poplars

flickering in afternoon wind.

        Make it horizontal, check

with a spirit level,

        always control height — 

all needs daily attention

         before cheese, fine cheese

and beer, fine beer.

Order these gardens,

          contain the beds and herbs,

they must be shielded, neat.

          Allow no thistle or spurge, 

ground must be raked clean, pure —

           cleansing makes for calm.

Be exact in measurement,

           correct in the lie of paving,

check privet, manicure the arborvitae.

           It is imperative to be uniform.

It needs hourly attention

            before cheese, fine cheese

and beer, fine beer.

It’s a poem that makes me think of the kinds of calculation that lay behind the obscene economics of concentration camps, the apparent rationality of the mathematics of slaughter in WW1. It’s done with such precision, the clipped tones of a set of instructions about clipping, the obsessive fact of tidying:

                       Allow no thistle or spurge, 

ground must be raked clean, pure —            

                       cleansing makes for calm.

As though there could be atonement in raking and minutely manicuring; as though we could take our beer and cheese with a clear conscience, conscious of a job well done.

I realise I can’t do justice to what Christopher North has done through his quietly passionate championship of poetry, to the windows he’s opened for so many writers over the years, to his own poetry.  But I can say thank you. So I will. Thank you.

Gaia Holmes’ “Where the road runs out”: a labour of love

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before we begin..something very odd is going on with WordPress…or my bit of it, anyway. There are some very odd line spacings  that are none of my doing. But apologies in advance, anyway

It’s hard to keep track of what’s about, what’s in, what’s out in the bubble of the self-defining poetry world. New collections and pamphlets and chapbooks and pamphlets appear on a weekly basis, and of the ones I manage to get hold of some are good and some are not, and some are so-so. But only a very few are special, ones that haul you in, won’t let go, make your nerves and your heart more alive and alert. This year, I’ve already written about one such collection: Clare Shaw’s Flood. I suspect that Tom Weir’s Ruin will prove to be one, and also Julia Deakin’s Sleepless. And now, here’s the third (and, I think) the best collection yet from Gaia Holmes: Where the road runs out.

Regular readers will see that she’s been a guest on the cobweb three times already, and her poems have appeared in other posts, too. But I’m frequently surprised by how many poets I know don’t know about her. I was at The Poetry Business yesterday, and enthusing about her to as many folks as would listen…about half of them didn’t know her work. She seems to be one of those genuine stars who fly below the radar. It’s my mission to correct this state of affairs. Let me introduce her:

As well as being a familiar face on the local (Calderdale) poetry scene, she has read at literary festivals throughout Britain and beyond. Her poem ‘Claustrophobia’ was highly commended in the best individual poem category of the Forward Poetry Prize, 2007; ‘A homesick truckie In The Algarve’ was the featured poem in Frieda Hughes’ weekly literary column in ‘The Times’ (May 2007). Currently she runs the Halifax-based writing workshop ‘Igniting the spark’

There are many poets around Calderdale who’ll testify to the richness of these workshops, my publisher Bob Horne,  and the hugely talented Natalie Rees among them. Her  first full length collection, was Dr James Graham’s Celestial Bed in 2006. and her second Lifting the piano with one hand in 2013 [both publ. by The Comma Press]. Joan Jobe Smith has called her ‘my favourite contemporary female poet’. She’s not alone in that.

Jane Draycott talks about the point where a poem detonates.  Gaia’s poems often put me in mind of Chemistry lessons in the blissfully pre-Health and Safety 1950’s, when to demonstrate the meaning of the word crepitation a teacher would toss a slack handful of crystals (potassium?) into a sinkful of water and stand well back. So many poems in Where the road runs out detonate in line after line, like dangerous Rice Krispies. But because many of her poems are about separation and loss of love or lovers, and in this collection, of a father…..sometimes tender and sometimes vengeful, sometimes wistful and sometimes heartbreaking…….. they also take a reader into dark woods and lose her. Like this one

Road salt

Snow falls plumply, prettily,

whites out the dog-eared leavings

of Christmas,

dolls-up the ragged end of January,

mutes the road between us

with its whispering glamour

and we’re stuck –

you in the East and me in the West

with miles too thick and deep to cross

and, once again,

without you, I fall asleep

listening to the frost

patterning the insides of my windows,

laquering the edges of my bed.

If I could

I would send you

seal-skin boots and brandy.

I would send a sledge

and a savvy husky to guide you

across the blinded miles,

but instead I go out

into the bright, dumb darkness

with my pockets full of road salt,

toss it to the night

like chicken feed,

try to melt myself

a path to you.

I hope that, like me,  you’re snagged and reeled in by listening to frost, understanding its cold, lacquering glamour, and being out in the bright, dumb dark; a folktale world of snow and lost girls, and chickens that make me think of Baba Yaga and her  house on hen’s legs.  There’s a lot of ice (and also stars, and milk and fire) in Gaia’s poems ; there’s even an Ice Hotel in an earlier collection. There’s the cold of loneliness and love gone wrong, and broken things that might be hearts or dreams which make you think twice about walking in bare feet. There’s the orphan voice of a narrator who sees things that no-one seems to notice her seeing.

The Allure Of Frost
Boxing day.
No fire in the grate and unopened presents
stacked around the base of the tree and fairy lights muted,
switched off, and the brandy that swells the fruit starting to eat
the cake in its tin and all the mirrors doused with tea towels
and your raw-eyed mother keening into a pillow in her bedroom
and too many men in black whispering and nodding
and I don’t know what the rosary is and whether to curtsey
to the priests when I hand them their tea
and the phrase ‘fruits of thy womb’ seem too ripe and too rich
for this and, Mary mother of God, I don’t know
how to cross myself and fear I’m invoking the devil
and the scent of death’s so thick
that it’s tainted the water and it’s heavy in the curtains
making them bend the rail
and your lips taste of the oils that grease your dead sister
and when I kiss you, you push me away and I want to spit
and weep and slap the corpse where she lies in her coffin
all done-up with hair grips and lipstick,
her sunken cheeks plumped out with wads of cotton wool
and the rictus of sin softened
by the crust of Rimmel Natural Beige powdering her face
and it’s so hot in here
that the cheese is sweating and the butter is liquid.
The chocolate coins are dripping from the tree.
Your Aunt’s un-bitten sandwiches
are curling upwards on her plate
and the lilies are wilting and stinking in their vases
and the cat stands quivering and retching
against the cold crack beneath the back door.
Outside the frost, not knowing any difference,
continues to sparkle. And I’d like to go out there.
I’d like to stand in it until my feet turn blue.

I think this has everything in it that I think of as a Gaia Holmes poem. The piling on and on of sensory detail, the Alice in Wonderland sense that the logic of things is wrong; the wistfulness, the vulnerablity, and the pluck of a girl who will stand in a sparkling frost till her feet turn blue and the world becomes real again. It also has the undertow of of a diffuse guilt about religious uncertainty  (which resurfaces in The Lord’s Prayer, a poem with a sting in its tail)

and I don’t know what the rosary is 
……..and, Mary mother of God, I don’t know
how to cross myself

There’s a more worldly voice, too. I’m struggling to make up my mind about which poem to choose , but I plump for this one.

Ballast

You reach a certain stage in your life
when you seem to spend a lot of time
holding other people’s babies.

At parties, the bottles of M & S berry crushes
on the kitchen table
outnumber the bottles of wine
and it seems you’re the only one drinking.

Tonight you’re nursing your second glass of Chianti,
warming it against your chest
as the other guests sip Mocktails
and talk of teething rings and Farley’s rusks
and you’re trying to find a way in, but failing

and one of the kids is doing that cute thing again
with his hat pulled down to his nose
and everyone starts taking photos
and clucking and cooing and you take one too
just to fit in, even though you know
that you’ll delete it later
in favour of a landscape
or something you can understand
or something you can have

and you want a cigarette but no one’s smoking
so you go and stand outside the front door in the sleet
to smoke a roll-up but it gets wet
and you’re sucking on nothing

so you go back in. You cut through the branny fug
of milk and nappies with your reek of smoke
and they look at you cow-eyed with pity
and you know they’ve been talking about you
and one of them says “It’s not too late at forty”

and you mumble something and walk into the kitchen
to pour yourself another bigger glass of wine
and you sit there for a while listening to them talking
and think about the things they have:
the husbands, the high chairs, the family-sized toasters,
the pairs of tiny red wellies lined up by the door,
the huge American fridges
covered with glitter-crusted playschool pictures
and you think about your lack.

You think about your cat that moved next door,
your scrawny Basil plants withering on the windowsill,
the bread you bake always turning black

and you go back into the lounge,
move mounds of small, pale woollen things off a chair
and sit down wishing you had some ballast in your pockets,
wishing you were not made of straw and dry things,
wishing you were not quite so old and flammable
because they’re all looking at you
and it seems you’ve turned into
the hollow witch levitating in the corner,
that lonely, awful thing
that they could have become.

The first time I heard this it took me aback. It’s a great poem to read aloud, working out the breathing-through of long, burgeoning sentences. But a second reading picks out the trademark observation, those sensory images that are always surprisingly right…that branny fug, for instance, and the incredibly frustrating business of sucking on a wet roll-up, sucking on nothing, surrounded by Farley’s rusks and Milton, and milky babies, and mounds of small, pale woollen things. So far so ‘Guardian’ till the poem takes a tilt into something darker, and it’s the darkness of the folktale and the fairy godmother who may have things in her heart that you don’t want to know about, wishing she were not made of straw and dry things  /  the hollow witch levitating. Don’t tell me that last verb didn’t catch you out.

In case you should think that the world of the poems is always cold and frost-bound and the heroine ‘helpless’ there are poems like Rain charm for Stirling Street that are funny, extravagant, and where the heroine becomes downright gleefully dangerous

Rain Charm For Stirling Street

Oh, the itch and nag of it-

……. in the fridge
milk thickens and clots
in the necks of bottles,
the cheese gets louder and louder
until it roars.

………………………

I am taking action.
I am standing behind the kitchen door
wobbling a cross hatch saw
to make the sound of thunder.
I am cooking lightning
in the microwave.
I am pouring rice on to a saucer
to make the sound of rain.
I am summoning a storm.

You know what? I believe Gaia Holmes can make rain. I know that cheeses can roar. I take that as the West Riding dialect word for ‘weeping’. ‘Give ovver roaring or I’ll give you summat to roar ovver’ my Gran would say.

There are so many riches in the collection: the joy and lyricism of Hope, the wild fantasy of Imported goods, the quiet and accurate observation of Bloom, the indignant comic voice of The runners versus the ramblers, the psychic dark of Shadow play, the surrealism of Last order and This monstrous hole. And then there’s a self-contained sequence, Remembering light about the trapped Chilean miners of the San Jose mine in 2010. If that was all there was, this would still be a stand-out collection.

What takes it to an altogether different level, however, is the sequence that opens the book, and which is referenced at several points throughout. Some collections have at their heart something particular, powerfully felt, personal and universally engaging. Kim Moore’s Art of falling has that sequence that draws on the experience of domestic abuse. Fiona Benson’s Bright travellers is lifted out of the merely good by her poems about childbirth and miscarriage. The core of Clare Shaw’s Flood  is rooted in her experience of the devastating flooding of her home town, which is at once a singular history and a universal metaphor. Where the road runs out is made remarkable by the poems which deal with the death of Gaia’s father.

David Holmes, you learn through these poems, was a stubborn, fiercely independent, difficult and, in more ways than one, remote father. A potter, he lived on a small bleak Orkney island, treeless, stormswept.  Elwick Mill was a recalcitrant renovation project, and David mainly lived in a caravan on the property. Over many months, Gaia, her brothers, her mother, her partner would make the long journey north, where the roads run out, to nurse him (which he fiercely resisted) in the late stages of his terminal cancer.  Finally, Gaia was with him in his last days, and these are last days’ poems.

The book begins by putting you in the landscape.

And still we keep on singing

Up here the hours go backwards

and we’re closer to the edge of things.

Up here you have to know the language of the wind,

you have to understand the manners of mist and riptides

in order to go to sleep singing,

in order to wake up

on the brighter side of life.

Some days sunlight sugars the island.

Cats lie on their backs bleaching their bellies,

seals bask on the rocks, braise their lovely fat

until it’s close to boiling point.

Orange crocosmia burns gently

around the mill dam.

Every kitchen smells of bread .

The world hums as it hangs out its washing.

Other days we gag on the reek of drift tide rot.

Broken gulls and fulmars

float in the harbour

like oily rags.

Damp socks and dresses

freeze and stiffen on the washing line.

A furze of  haar blots out our thin and precious light.

The glow of the mainland, that cosy grail we cling to,

that glimmer of cars, buses, shops and  living,

disappears in to the dark, monstrous mouth

of the island where lightbulbs shatter and fuses blow

and we’re left with singed fingers, the thick stink of wax

and candles whose wicks are too damp and weak

to sustain a flame.

The image of the candles is real and perfect; things cling to life and light and warmth, but the whole business is ultimately exhausting.

My father is fevered and godless.

My father is dying on an island

with no trees.

I send him prayers.

I send him bulging sacks of autumn leaves.    (Leaves)

In his caravan with its cracked windows, hugging the damp, your denial , this father

surrounds himself with the lying dog-eared books / How to outsmart you cancer and his

daughter has to assert that

I belong here,

Mistress of Haar, Our Lady of the Seals,

your angel, your fumbling nurse, your little star,

stumbling around in your size 10 wellies

and your clay-crusted fleece,

stubbing my toes on shadows,   (I belong here)

Those who have never had to care for the terminally ill or the terminally old might not

anticipate that their care and their love can be received by what seems like ingratitude;

the dying can be awkward, cantankerous, bloody-minded, resentful. They can be in

denial, and they are strangers to serenity. Maybe it’s fear, or maybe it’s some visceral

survival instinct. But to the carer, believe me, it hurts. I thought I’d understood and dealt

with my mother’s protracted dying, but these poems shone a new and healing light on it.

They do what good art should do. They enlighten. Which is a layered word if ever there

was one. These poems will strike a chord with, potentially, thousands of children and

partners who thought no one understood that

grief needs feeding ( Kummerspeck)

because you have no choice, and would want no choice..or you’ve chosen, because, as the

poet says, defiantly,  I belong here / with your dying / and every dawn sky / seething / and

blistered / with stars.

It’s defiance that’s needed in the teeth of anger of frustration that no one can condemn in

the dying

(from) Feckless

Sometimes it makes him angry, this dying,

and I keep doing things wrong,
……………………

Forgodsake, he says, still strong enough

to make the caravan shake,

to make the clock fall off the wall,

to scare the fat white cats

from where they lay

scorching their fur on the gas fire.

Forgodsake.

And I know that I’ve lost

my angel’s status

but I’m trying.
…………………………

Forgodsake.

The island whimpers

and trembles beneath us.

There will be bruises

in the morning

Forgodsake, he says.

………………………………….

I sit at his bedside sucking my knuckles

until he slips in to fevered sleep

then I jog barefoot around the mill

in the frost to remind myself

that sometimes I need to suffer.

There it is again, that image of self-mortification, and the salt shock of frost that tells you

you are who you are, and you are real. There are moments of respite, though and they

come quiet and healing, especially in these extracts from Hygge: 

Tonight, with you calm, clean,

smelling of lavender in your new pyjamas
…………

I light all the candles I can find,

put Tallis on the stereo, sit holding your hand.

…………………..

Tonight, the sea will be too wanton

to carry a ferry.

……………………

Tonight we will keep the cats in.

Tonight, we will be landlocked

………………………….

Tonight I will feel your knots unravelling,

our bond thickening

as love and thin motets chase the cold

from the corners of the room,

and I will almost forget that you are dying.

venus-transit-preview-planet-night-sky_54376_600x450

In the meantime we have to survive as best we might. Which is why I particularly love

the next poem that brings together those strands of folk tale and their vulnerable

resilient youngest sons and daughters, and of the crafted textures and sensory reality of

this lovely collection.

Stone Soup.   ***

Up here every night,

just for the hope

and the blessing

of something steaming

and bubbling on the hob,

I cook us stone soup.

The thin broth

tastes of the sea,

reminds you of how,

only weeks ago,

you’d scramble

over the shingle,

happy to bruise your shins

in the Bay of Balfour,

gulping down the briny air,

savouring its myth,

its tang, its babble.

Now you are bed-bound,

landlocked

so I tack a crumpled sea-view

from an old National Geographic

across your window,

bring the tide home

in old pickle jars,

pour grains of sand

into your cupped palms,

sing you to sleep

with hissing lullabies,

press crystals of salt

onto the tip of your tongue.

raku

What will survive of us is love. I keep typing that. What I want now is for this collection

to be given the recognition it deserves, I want it to win prizes, and I finally want to be

able to tell poets about Gaia Holmes and not need to explain who she is.

Gaia Holmes’ poetry to buy….you know Christmas is upon us.

Where the road runs out. [Comma Press ]£9.99

Dr James Graham’s Celestial Bed  [Comma press 2006]

via Amazon: anything from £15 – £65

Lifting the piano with one hand      [Comma Press 2013]  £7.99

You can buy direct from Comma Press via

https://commapress.co.uk/

There’s currently a reduced price on ‘Where the road runs out’

Tales from the Tachograph   (co-authored with Winston Plowes)

[Calder Valley Press, 2017). £7.00

For anyone puzzled by ‘stone soup’ it’s made from cunning, resourcefulness, self-belief and hope. First, catch your stone.

Fox & Bloodhound

Fox & Bloodhound

Every now and then there’s a poetry blog post that stops you in your tracks. One that lets you access the excitement, the awe if you like, of being inhabited by a poem as you write it, and then inhabits its readers.Thanks for this, Helen Mort

Freefall

On Friday last week, I was lucky enough to be part of an event at Leeds University to celebrate the remarkable life and career of poet Ken Smith who died in 2003. A new volume of his Collected Poems have been published by Bloodaxe. I’m sharing a piece written for ‘Stand’ magazine about Ken’s influence on my own poetry.

*

Fox and Bloodhound

fox

As a teenager falling in love with poetry, I thought of Fox as the bold, definite creature that slunk into Ted Hughes’ poem ‘The Thought Fox’ with a ‘hot stink’, printing the page in its wake. Fox was smouldering, certain and momentary. Brought up on books like Hawk Roosting, I could imagine no other kind of poetic animal. When I eventually wrote my own poem ‘Fox Miles’, it seemed almost sacrilegious to have created a personal version of this archetype, a creature who ran beside me…

View original post 945 more words

Guilt chests, a sideways look and a polished gem:Pauline Yarwood

pauline 8 

Ah yes…the guilt chest. I have a chronic habit, driven by thoughtlessness and good intentions, of spontaneously offering to do things without thinking through the consequences. Amongst other things, this means that I currently have a backlog of things to do that keep me awake at night or wake me up feeling uneasy.

Sometimes they’re things that I decide on the spur of the moment will be A Good Idea. Which explains why there are six 1920s dining chairs in the garage which are halfway through being refurbished to go on eBay. They’ve been halfway done for about four months. However, since they’ve sat gathering dust in the garage loft for about two years, it doesn’t matter to anyone but me when they get done.

And then there are the jobs that come under the heading of Promises To Keep (and miles to go before I sleep). Currently they include critiquing draft collections that friends have sent me, a review of a significant book about Ted Hughes that I started on in July, of which I’ve written and scrapped four drafts, because I’m terrified of being wrong; a review for the cobweb of a beautiful collection by someone I love; two polished gems on the stocks and two more coming in….and then there are the unwritten poems, and the one that has to be sorted out in time for tomorrow night’s workshop in Huddersfield.

I keep putting them off, and do displacement things. And to be fair, some of these are things I love doing. Like reading at Gill Lambert’s Shaken in Sheeptown poetry night in Skipton on Thursday night. I got to be a guest poet with the wonderful Clare Shaw. Who wouldn’t jump at that! And the Puzzle Poets last Monday, where guest poet Emma Storr was a revelation. Two more readings coming upon in the next ten days, and then there’s that Kim Moore reading in Hebden Bridge as well. It’s too easy to defer and procrastinate when you’re doing the things that come easy.  But sooner or later, you knuckle down, and do what needs doing. With the curious result that when you do it you can’t understand why you didn’t do it sooner. So in the last two days I’ve bitten the bullet, written an application I was dreading, written a careful critique of a bunch of poems and sent it off; last Sunday I finally got round once more to the real business of sharing the work of ‘polished gems’. Next week I’ll write that review, feedback on a collection and write a long post about a new collection. There. That’s out there in public. No way back. Phew.

So after much delay I’m delighted to welcome today’s guest poet and polished gem, Pauline Yarwood. Pauline is a poet and ceramic artist living in Cumbria.    In 2013 she was mentored by Judy Brown (a Polished gem in April 2017)  at the Wordsworth Trust, and collaborated with artist Kate Bentley to write a short series of poems for her exhibition Skyline.   She is co-director, with Kim Moore, of the Kendal Poetry Festival,  and runs Kendal Brewery Poets (which was where I met her and invited her to be a guest) .Her first pamphlet  Image Junkie  was published by Wayleave in 2017.

pauline 7

But, of course, she can introduce herself. Here she is.

“I was born in Cumbria, brought up in Manchester. I’m notoriously bad at sending stuff out – I always find an excuse. (me too, Pauline. me too) . I’ve been published by Fire Crane (Mick North from New Writing Cumbria (which doesn’t exist any more) Mick was the first person to publish my poems which was a huge encouragement).  The Interpreter’s House and The North. Most recently I have two poems in the new book of Cumbrian poets:  This Place I Know  (published in Oct. 2018) by Handstand Press).

This-Place-I-know-300x300

I had mixed feelings about poetry at school.   I hated Walter de la Mare and especially William Henry Davies’ ‘Leisure’ – the ‘if we have no time to stand and stare’ one.Loved the sentiment, hated the poem! Strangely, like lots of other kids of the time, I loved Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Tennyson’s The Lotus Eaters.

I was dreading having to get to grips with poetry when doing my teacher training, thinking that it was too difficult and I wouldn’t understand it. But, I was wrong. It was Gerard Manley Hopkins that set me off with Inversnaid, and that last line about wilderness, obviously playing into my attraction to the Ancient Mariner and The Lotus Eaters. Then Louis MacNeice and Dylan Thomas drew me right in, and when I discovered that there were political/apocalyptic poems – Alan Brownjohn’s To See the Rabbit,Edwin Brock’s Five Ways to Kill a Man, Norman Nicholson’s Windscale, Peter Porter’s Your Attention Please and Edwin Muir’s The Horses, I was drawn in for ever.

I used those poems regularly when teaching, and the kids loved them too.  Gradually, women poets moved into sight – Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Stevie Smith, Plath, Duffy and I discovered a whole new kind of writing.Along the way I became a potter, too, and taught ceramics in an Oxfordshire comprehensive for a while .I did an MA in Women’s Studies at Lancaster in 1998 – my dissertation was on gendered subjectivity in the art of the four contemporary women artists.

I followed some literature seminars also and gradually began to think about the process of writing and I included a short series of self-reflective poems in my dissertation.They really came out of no-where, apart from how difficult it is to write, but I was completely hooked by this time, and have written poetry ever since.”

I don’t know about you, but I really recognise and respond to the seeming randomness of this, the accidents that bring some of us to poetry and eventually find us writing poems. Which is, ultimately what this Sunday post routine is about. Oh. Yes. A sideways look. What’s that about? Sometimes I stick a post title in the drafts and then forget why it seemed a good idea at the time. I suppose it came from a phrase in the first poem that’s coming shortly.

the slippery-slidey look you almost saw,

One of those things that just stick, and seemed to me to catch a quality that I like in Pauline’s writing. A sideways look can be suspicious. It can be cautious or secretive. It’s the quality of noticing that seems to come with a withheld comment. And it also suggests to me the things accidentally seen, that come without the filter of expectation, as though seen for the first time. Think of walking through a city street and suddenly seeing your reflection in a shop window, that elderly/dishevelled/comic/clumsy/ill-dressed you who can’t possibly be you, that isn’t you looking as you imagine you’re seen, but as you actually are in that split second. The you a dark watcher would see, and withhold judgement, but be thinking it anyway. A sideways look sees something on the periphery, and brings it to the centre.

pauline 2

Being Eight

I wanted out of childhood,

away from unexplained asides,

the slippery-slidey look you almost saw,

the put that lip away you, now.

 

It seemed to me that film stars had it sussed,

always smiling satisfied, grown-up smiles.

I wondered how they did it, how they fixed that grin.

My plan was to look like that, and so I thought

 

if I wedged my pillows high behind me,

tightened the sheet over the blanket,

sat bolt upright, hands good-girl folded,

and fell asleep with a smile as wide as the sea

 

then my smile would last forever,

fixed in perpetuity.

You can take that look off your face

But, no, I can’t.  I can’t.

 

I like the sure-footedness of this poem, its clarity, the iambic ease of it. It never misses a beat. And I especially like the ambiguity…or do I mean ambivalence? I like the observation of the way that children find adults puzzling, hard to read, but suspecting that somehow they have spotted a transgression that was never intended in a look you almost saw. The strategy of sitting bolt upright with a fixed smile that will ‘stay’ and make a film star of you is beautifully surprising, and I love the doubleness of the italicised ending, which may declare a ruefulness or a defiance. Maybe that I can’t is really an I can’t, because it isn’t in me. Nailed it.

The next poem comes into the category of the image seen on the edge of vision that turns into something much more serious; an awareness that what we don’t notice is maybe something we really should. That shift (signalled by the ruptured centre which reminds us that the centre cannot hold) from the web to the fell to the alienated young of the streets is an admonition that we owe it to ourselves to notice things. Which is, I suppose, what poetry is ultimately for.

Across the door frame                                                                                                                                                                              

caught by slantwise sun

a rainbow cobweb stretched from

corner to corner

a single thread holding

the ruptured centre

 

up on the fell

the mewing of a young buzzard

and the sound of a single gun shot

 

in our cities the young,

restless.

Screenshot 2018-11-11 at 14.39.37.png

 

Pauline Yarwood’s poems never seem to stand still, constantly change the viewpoint and the landscape. Here we are in the cosmetics dept of Harvey Nicks, being judged against standards no one has troubled to explain, pitched back into the sideways looks of childhood.

Applying lipstick in Harvey Nicks

 The doorman is stone-faced and mirthless,

eyes me up and down,

sees that I don’t look like I flash the cash,

but lets me through, straight into cosmetics.

 

Try red I say, and climb onto a high stool.

I feel childlike, as though someone

is going to put a plaster on my knee

or pour gripe water into my mouth,

but the sleek assistant selects a lipstick,

twists the barrel and fills a brush with ruby red.

 

Part your lips.

 

I hold my mouth unnaturally open,

and she outlines the edges,

intimate and invasive as an unwanted kiss.

She outlines, fills in, blots.

 

Smile, she says, hands me a mirror,

I’m nervous, expecting transformation,

but not this:

The Joker looks back,

the grotesque killer-clown who leaves his victims

with a permanent post-mortem grin.

 

I decide to go back to the doorman,

give him something to smile about.

 

pauline 3

Revenge being a dish best served cold, you wouldn’t want to be that doorman, top hat or no. Well, would you? And finally there’s a poem that  teachers everywhere will respond to. You hear that note again…the sense that one way or another we’re being judged, tested.

pauline 4 

Demonstration

 

It takes some courage to cone

a lump of clay with sixteen year olds.

You know and they know,

or guess if they don’t,

how your hands feel against the clay,

the initial give, the softness of the gradual rise,

the flow of movement, the firming,

the forming of something different.

 

They stand in a close group,

two at the back hold hands,

some touch shoulders

they’re eager, ready,

there’s a strange intimacy.

 

The class heart-throb shifts,

folds his arms, grins,  

done this before, Miss?

 

I worked with a young art teacher who said that the problem with throwing pots is that, if your thinking runs that way, a pot can only be either a phallus or a vagina. Which pretty well sums up the preoccupations of savvy 16 year old boys. I imagine that, as with the Harvey Nicks doorman, the poet gave the class heart-throb something to smile about. This poem certainly made me smile.

So there we are. How Pauline Yarwood manages to teach, throw pots and co-organise the Kendall Poetry Festival and write poems of this quality is a wonder. Thank you, Pauline, for being this Sunday’s guest. Please come again.

Image Junkie : Wayleave Press [2017] £5.00

This place I know: Kerry Darbishire, Kim Moore and Liz Nuttal [ed]

Handstand Press [2018] £10.00

 

Centenary

 

alfred 1

100 years since the end of WW1. My granddad, Alfred, was a sergeant in the Kings Own Yorkshire Life Infantry. He joined as a territorial some years before the war, working as a journeyman housepainter. For some time, on Armistice day I’ve posted a poem I wrote for him, and also for my grandma, Ethel.  I never knew her.

Everyone dutifully remembers the men who died in uniform, and that is right and proper. I wish we would publicly remember their wives and mothers, the ones left behind to bring up big families; there was no social security for them. They were left to fend, and those working class women often struggled to make ends meet. They often had big families. Alfred never saw active service. He wanted to, but instead of going off with the lads he called his comrades, he he was admitted to hospital and died in 2016 of Hodgkinson’s lymphoma.

Ethel managed to bring up my mum, my two aunts and my uncle. She gradually grew profoundly deaf. The isolation fed depression and in the 1930s she took her own life. Remember the women left behind. Remember them.

Alfred

 

There he is. Grinning and unsoldierly,

the despair of the RSM. The joker in the trench.

Except, I’ve no way of knowing if he ever was.

 

Ypres and Mons and Passchendale

meant no more to him than Chapel hymn tune names –

O dass ich tausand zungen haite.  Armageddon.

 

But all the same, a bit of a lad. No more than a lad,

father of four, and husband of (I think)

a small girl, left all alone to scrat and fend.

 

My grandma, Ethel, who went deaf, who sat

with her head in the swelling horn

of the wind-up gramophone.

 

Listened to the scratchy tinnitus

of brittle shellac  records until

they hissed like the sea on a shingly shore.

 

Who drowned herself, a poor Ophelia,

in the beck that ran hot from dyehouses,

than ran blue and plum and crimson red.

 

Who died (I think) wreathed in bindweed,

those wide white silky flowers,

and the pink of balsam, sour as a sink

batley_war_memorial_Terry_Alfred.jpg

Normal service resumed: a polished gem revisited – Tom Weir

Before I start, an apology to all the folk who responded in one way and another to my post about young male suicides. It certainly touched a nerve. I hoped to write to all of them individually, but I just ran out of time and opportunity. So here’s a thank you to all who shared your stories. I was moved and touched by all of them. Thank you.

And now it feels good to be back in a routine. When I started this business of writing a Sunday post it was because I wanted to share my enthusiasm for poets I’d recently read or heard…particularly those who you may not have heard of, poets who were just starting out, poets who hadn’t been published, or not much published. Undiscovered gems. That’s becoming more difficult given just how many poetry blogs there are around and (what seems to me) the phenomenal increase in the publication of pamphlets and chapbooks and first collections. Which is, by any measure, A Good Thing. Hence the series of posts of ‘gems revisited’. And here we are with one I’m very happy to be writing.

Stacey's knee

I’m often looking for a slightly left field introduction to a guest poet. Today’s is is slightly daft. It’s just that the first time I saw Tom Weir read on an open mic  I was struck by the fact that he stands very still…or almost. He does something with his right knee that I’d seen before in a performer who also works in bubble of concentration. The aunt of Justin Townes Earle. The sister of Steve Earle. It’s Stacey Earle who performs with her partner Mark Stuart. If you get the chance, go and see her. See what she does with her knee. I’m sure she doesn’t know she’s doing it. There you are. Told you it was daft.

With that out of the way, please give a big cobweb welcome to today’s guest, Tom Weir,who I first met at a reading by Kim Moore and Helen Mort at the excellent Chemic Tavern in Leeds ( by the way; one thing that’s striking about the Tavern is that they let the customers bring in fish suppers from the nearby chip shop; poetry readings among the smell of fish and chips! And compered by the excellent Mark Connors. Another of the young ones…and also a runner.) Tom did a couple of poems on the open mic. and I was bowled over by his delivery (as well as his knee). Dry. Almost deadpan. Ironic. Funny. Even more bowled over when he told me he’d been at Kim’s launch of ‘The art of falling‘ in Leeds, and had liked my reading. We did a bookswap on the spot…his lovely collection ‘All that falling’  for my chapbook Larach. I got a bargain there that I still feel guilty about.

The poem that really stuck in my mind on that evening was one that stays and stays, two years on, the poem that told me that Tom Weir’s the real deal.

Day Trippin’ for Thomas

‘I’d ride horses if they’d let me’— Will Oldham

We talked all morning about the horse
that, if we’re honest, none of us actually knew existed

but it seemed worth it just to get you into the car,
to stop shouting. We mentioned it so often

you began to repeat it from your child-seat
like a mantra, and you’ll never know the relief,

having arrived and not been able to see a stable,
having stalled you with an ice-cream which you wore

like a glove as it melted over your hand,
of finding the woman who showed us where

the horse rides took place, where you waited
so quietly in line, where I stood and watched

as you approached the man with a five pound note
scrunched up in your tiny hand. You spent

the rest of the day repeating the words too little
like a radio breaking bad news every hour on the hour.

We took you down to the lake and watched
you throw stones at the water, watched clouds fall apart

and mend as rowing boats left the harbour and you
sat still, refusing to join another queue.

 

What I like so much about this poem is its clear-eyed objectivity. It could so easily have been sentimental. Instead it’s close to heart-breaking. I love the way the anxieties of adults and small children are equally weighted, as are their disappointments, and the guilt of parents for which there is no atonement, and for which nothing can be done. Everything is managed through images that are utterly memorable and true….the way the parents make a mantra for the child that’s replaced by the mantra of ‘too little’ , like a radio breaking bad news every hour on the hour; the ice cream

which you wore / like a glove as it melted over your hand,

the clouds falling apart and mending, as reflections do, quite indifferent. I can imagine this poem being endlessly anthologised. I think it should be. Tom Weir’s poetry will do that to you, catch you aslant, unawares, tip you into a world where things like love and joy and security are fragile at best, where we are vulnerable. He makes me think of Larkin’s line that ‘what will survive of us is love’, although Tom Weir’s poetry is more unequivocal than Larkin’s on that. Every time I read it I see that quality of Tom’s poetry, the way you see a scene through a glass that suddenly shifts or cracks and refracts the significance of the moment into a different dimension that memorises itself as you hear it.

Of his debut pamphlet  Christopher James wrote:

Tom Weir is an exciting new voice; candid and assured, with enough in the way of light and shadow to fully intrigue. The cover of his pamphlet, The Outsiderpublished by the ever-excellent Templar Poetry, is a statement of intent with its arresting image of a barnacled man staring out to sea. It has the ghostliness of an Anthony Gormley. If the figure is looking to foreign lands, then it is well chosen. Weir’s poems range from corners of English fields to hotel rooms in Hanoi and the psycho dramas that play out are as dramatic and finely judged as the language chosen to tell them.

It’s a real pleasure to welcome him back, just as he’s launching his new collection.

Tom’s poetry has been Highly Commended in both The Forward Prize and The National Poetry Competition and he was the winner of the 2017/18 Magma Editor’s Choice Prize. His first full collection All That Fallingwas brought out by Templar in 2015 and his second collection, Ruin, for which he is grateful to the Arts Council for the writing time to complete, was published in September this year. Poems from his latest collection have appeared in Strix, The North, Poetry Saltzburg and The Scores, among others.

Away from poetry he is an avid follower of AFC Wimbledon and awaits the call to become their first ever poet laureate so he can quit his job as a primary school teacher. So much so one of his poems in Ruin is centred around a dire 0-0 away at Darlington which he hopes will act as a calling card to its many members.

What I’m sure about is that the new poems he’s sent me will act as a calling card to any of you who haven’t encountered his work before. And here they are.

Tom Weir 2

 

Magic

You used to say there was magic in these stairs—

pistons turning, hammers getting to work,

 

springs being fixed onto the wings of birds.

I used to tiptoe because, under my feet,

 

there were clouds about to burst

and one night I dreamt I stamped so hard

 

rain fell and buried the village like Pompeii.

I still remember the step that kept

 

all the loose bits of storm, the one where trams

and buses went to be repaired

 

and the one that held curfews like ice about to break.

You used to say if we opened them up

 

we’d see men throwing wood onto the sun,

find out where waterfalls began,

 

but this chill has nothing to do with water.

Why did you never tell me about the one

 

that hid black ice? Or this one that sinks

under me now like a landmine, leaves me frozen

 

while everyone else carries on up to your room

to say goodbye and I cannot move?

 

Part of the magic of this poem, for me, is the way it understands how children imagine, how they are formed by chance encounters and stories whose tellers never imagined the impact they might have, and how our childhood is carried in us, and how we can be startled back into it, and in some ways become as powerless as a child. The framing narrative is kept implicit..you used to say …. these stairs …everyone else…..your room. The detail is kept for the stories of each tread, the fabulous tales told to a child who will never forget them. And then there’s the power of the image of one rooted to the foot of a staircase and its narrowing closed off perspective. I love the way poem pivots on that one line . why did you never tell me?  In its control and contained love and grief it does everything I want in a poem. Lovely.

Tom Weir 4

 

Swings

 

I do it because I want to know how waterfalls feel,

to remember the way our old Fiat Strada used to slow

 

as it clawed up hills no factory worker in Milan

had prepared it for.

 

I do it because I want to think of that Catherine wheel

freeing itself in that field outside Church Stretton

 

down the road from your parents’ old house,

because I want to see it again,

 

cartwheeling like a 1980’s Soviet gymnast,

towards the crowd of farmers in checked shirts

 

and wellies and kids so puffed up with clothes

I wanted to take them to an edge of something

 

and push them off, watch them bounce around

so for once I could imagine the world was made

 

for soft landings. I do it for the moment of stillness

at both ends, because the sudden release

 

reminds me of the crabbers in Whitby,

their woven boxes slapping onto the cold sea.

 

I do it because I want to smell your perfume

mixed with salt-water, feel the warmth of the sun

 

that burned in the smokery where I bought kippers

and had them sent to London in a sheet of brown paper

 

with your address scrawled in felt-tip pen.

I do it because, when I fall, my breath hangs on the air

 

like the fog above the chimneys on the edge of the M16.

I do it because I like the uncertainty of it,

 

the way my movement is held in their chains—

how they shake when they should remain completely still.

 

Proustian swings, these, aren’t they? It’s the first line that hauls you in, the image or imagined sensation of things on the cusp of changing, the stilled nanosecond between one state and another, that held breath. And after that a succession of crafted two-liners that sustain the moments that draw you in and stick like burrs. The moment before we leave our breath hanging in the air as we fall away from it, for instance. And I think that the next poem actually says exactly what I’m clumsily trying to pin down.

The Art of Standing Still

The Argentinian striker Batistuta had it,

and so did Zidane, and the Bulgarian midfielder

Hristo Stoichkov and, depending who

you speak to, even Gazza for a while.

 

It’s not movement, it’s knowing how not to move—

when to gently apply the brakes, root to the spot,

opt out of the chaos and wait

so by the time they notice it’s too late—

 

the coin-clatter of ball striking net,

the keeper looking round, the defenders

scattered like stunned cattle on the ground.

I should have known you’d have it too—

 

a lifetime of small clues, how you always

had a feel for things that couldn’t be felt,

how you could sense rain before the sky,

how like the sea you could absorb

 

your grandson’s lightning bolt of rage.

Even now I cannot recall the exact moment

you stopped, left the rest of us flailing

while you stayed still—

 

your spirit wheeling away, arm held aloft,

index finger pointing to the gods.

 

I wonder if the you who stopped, who stayed still, whose spirit is wheeling away is the you  that made a flight ion stairs magical.  Surely it is. There’s a lot of celebration of fathers and of (I think) grandparents in the new collection, and we’ll finish with one of them.

Tom Weir 5

Fathers

The size of them

the roughness of their skin

the thrill of their words

that don’t come as often

or as easily

the way they know so little

about the subtle art

of holding hands

whether the palms

should remain flat

if the fingers should intertwine

how they know every pressure point

in your body

how they know about graft

how you can count

the number of baths

they’ve had on one hand

the way they slope off

in company

find most comfort

in unoccupied rooms

how theirs is the only place

at the table that never changes

how they never sit down

at the bar

how their pranks

are a kind of currency

how no matter the price of the thing

they always have the exact change.

coinsinhand-1353743323

Exact. That’s the word. Thank you, Tom Weir for sharing your poems. I guess that a lot more folk will be wanting to buy them, so here’s the detail.

The Outsider [Templar Poetry 2014] £5.00

All that falling [Templar Poetry 2015] £10.00

Ruin [Templar Poetry 2018] £10.00

tom weir 8

And if you live anywhere within reach of Leeds you can hear him read on November 18th, 3.30-5.30 at Wharf Chambers, Wharf Street, Leeds LS2 7EQ. Watch out for the knee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes from a small island

 

If tonight’s post is unusually incoherent, it’s because I still haven’t got over driving back from Skye yesterday.  440miles, ten hours. There was  snow down to road level in Glen Shiel and it looked wonderful; so did Glen Cluanie. There was a Mordor sunset beyond Fort William. Rannoch was just a long dark punctuated by headlights, and it’s pretty much downhill all the way after that, and after Glasgow  the grim non – welcome for travellers on the M73 on a Saturday night. Bothwell, squalid. Cairn Lodge, shut. Annadale water, near deserted, cold, and everything shut but the coffee machine in W H Smith ….and a MacDonald’s. It’s a tribute to my desperation that I bought a double-cheeseburger, and ate it. If it had been cooked I might even have enjoyed it.

It never feels like this on the way up, because every mile gets more wonderful, and after Glen Shiel there’s the sight of the Skye Bridge and the Red Cuillin beyond, and then it’s the last twenty-odd miles of brown moorland, the first sight of the Black Cuillin, and whatever the weather’s doing is fine with us.

As it happened, it mainly rained this year. As it did last year. Mizzling rain a lot of the time. Which gave me more time than usual to watch the shoreline of Suishnish and Boreraig come and go across the loch.

 

It’s an important bit of coast, for me. The first time I came to Skye on my own was to Write. The capital letter is deliberate. I’d signed up for an MA in Creative Writing. As I’ve said before, it was rubbish, but that was at least in part because I was, too. Suishnish, on the left, and Boreraig are sites of 19thC. Clearances, and I was going to Write Poems about them having read everything John Prebble could tell me about the business. Anyway, I hiked over the moor to Boreraig, and on another day, tramped up the metalled track to Suishnish, where there’s a house that was inhabited until relatively recently, and also big fank…a sheep station barn. There are only ruined walls at Boreraig. The crofters were driven to subsist on the poorer land on the opposite shore, or shipped off to Canada. Or they just died.

That was over 12 years ago, and the past is another country. I wrote poems about it all, but as Helen Mort said to me ” You can make a poem be, but it won’t be any good”. They weren’t. However. There’s a circular walk of 12 miles or so that starts on the other side of that Boreraig skyline. It starts from a the ruined church of Kin Criosdh on the Elgol road, and can be walked clockwise, passing the doomed marble quarries to go over to Boreraig and then along the shore below the cliffs, up a cliff path and on to the Suishnish headland and track..it’s a bit of a plod along the road back to Kil Criosdh. I had always wanted to walk it, and when I hit 65 I had both hips replaced and six months later I did the walk, counterclockwise. The following yearI did it again, clockwise. For my money, counter- clockwise is best…it gets the road and the lorries from the Torrin quarries out of the way while you’re fresh, and after that, you may see no one for the rest of the trip. If it’s pissing down they’ll let you shelter in the fank if they’re working that day. Golden eagles haunt the cliff above the track, and there’s often the sight of one being harassed  by crows.

I’m conflicted by that bit of coast in so many ways. I want to walk it again, but my ankle’s useless, and I can forget it. I regret the whole business of the MA and the ill-considered writing. And every year, there they are, Suishnish and Boreraig, the first thing I see in a morning for a week in the year. Or don’t see.

 

They are shapeshifters. They vanish in a scrim of wet muslin. They shine in the sun. They are scoured by squalls of snow. Sometimes, after a snowfall one of the Red Cuillin peaks rises like a moon, and Bla Bheinn towers beyond the headland. I love them and miss them. Anyway, last week, unable to get any sense out of my laptop, and unable to make it let me log in to WordPress, I had to give up trying to write two proper guest poet posts. And it rained, so longish walks were just too wet. I decided to have one last go at the stuff I’ve written and rewritten over the years about what those two Clearance sites mean to me. I thought I could try stripping them back…they were long rambling things originally. And then stripping back some more. And a bit more. I thought I could stitch in some of one about the defunct marble quarry I mentioned earlier. Child murderers found their way in and I let them stay. The only bit of backstory you need is that abandoned buildings frighten me. Always have done. As did the kids who who would haunt them when I was a kid. Old bits of terrace houses. Air raid shelters. Shut-down builders yards. Old mills. Edgeland places. That’s what the croft at Suishish is like, for me. So here they are. Final version. Whether they work or not, I’ve done with them. I’m not going back.

Follow

the factor’s men who came in snow,

over the watershed, bearing iron and fire;

 

the hasty steps of the quarrymen,

the steps of disappointed creditors;

 

the track of the engines that broke the bank,

a straight track through bluebruise upcasts;

 

a winding track through weeping peat,

dour hymns on the wind;

 

the smell of men in Sabbath black,

of wet worsted, old dogs;

 

ghosts who go through slough, over stone

to take Christ’s blood and flesh

 

at Kil Criosod’s roofless shell

among its slanting headstones.

 

Where they quarried star-white marble

for graveyards and fine houses

 

bright new fences are shining

and a pair of crows are calling.

 

Boreraig.

 

‘The earth has no melancholy

and the land no ghosts

except what we bring with us.’ [John Prebble]

 

Go to Boreraig, head full of history,

of the nailing of doors, the burning of rooftrees,

of milk thrown to douse a burning thatch;

of an old woman dragged on a hurdle

to die in the lee of the wall;

of snow flurries in the bitter smoke.

 

There’s a standing stone, tumbled field walls,

amber bracken in the shells of houses, brittle reeds.

 

These crofts turn their backs on the setting sun;

the crofters all went long ago, over the ocean,

and the veils that blow in from the islands

are only skirts and skeins of rain.

 

Craft webs of handwove shawls if you like,

webs of weeping, but no ghosts come here,

no grey shades from out of the west;

 

there’s no return from Tir nan Og

for the dead, for the dispossessed

 

 

 

Suishnish.: Croft

 

 

It shifts, the land; won’t be fixed

by maps sealed and signed

with thumbprint contours.

 

One day rowan, birch and ash

will turn the clock back to an age

before the blackfaced sheep

that potter and nibble

between the polished stones

on the shore at Camas Malag.

 

 

The metalled road crumbles

on this green headland,

runs out at a grim croft,

sinking in a moat of hoof-pocked mud,

set about with trees brittle as bones.

 

Someone had thought to make a go of it;

put on a bright tin roof, hung doors, lit fires;

brought in a bed, a stove, a table, chairs.

Then, one day, just upped sticks , cleared off.

 

The fire’s out; the roof’s rust; the stove’s cracked;

two rolls of barbed wire in the iron bed frame.

 

Sheep fank at Suishnish

 

Clean grey steel in a a green park,

rain hissing on the roof like static,

a constant note behind the pock and tick

of neat hooves on packed ground;

four hundred sheep and lambs;

hooves and rain, the scrape of shifted hurdles,

the shepherds’ necessary talk,

moving the beasts through metal mazes,

and the great shed quietly emptying,

till, there’s just a residue

penned in with bedframe fencing;

mad-eyed as sheep are anywhere:

the rickety, the runts, the lame, the goitred,

the ones not fit to sell.

What won’t pay’s out of mind,  off the map,

 

coda

 

Stories come and go like the wind and rain.

 

There’s a story of the seasons’ rhythm;

the certainties of dour religion,

accommodation to thin land,

hard weather, quarter days;

weddings, christenings, funerals.

 

In some others, bad dreams come.

Wire, rust; the creeping clones

of Brady, Hindley, Thompson,

Venables. Mary Bell. Here be monsters.

The caution at the edges of old maps.

fank

Next week, proper poems from a proper poet. See you then xxx