Family affairs and other stories. With Laura Potts, and a Polished Gem: Rebecca Gethin

Putting together a post some weeks ago about ‘Sequences’ (thank you, Pascale Petit, Keith Hutson and Steve Ely) I said something on the lines that we could all write sequences about our own families, and that many of us do. I discover photos that were stuck in envelopes among my grandma’s effects in a desk I inherited. I know that her dad was a coachman, that she started work in a mill before she was 8, that her husband John had been a travelling asphalter ( among other things). I look  at these photos, and wonder if John is one of the gang of lads working on that pier, wherever it might be, or if my great-grandfather is in this group on the steps of what seems to be a grand house. We  tap in to the natural curiosity that drives TV programmes like ‘Who do you think you are?’ in which folk with varying degrees of celebrity discover, with what sometimes feels like theatrical distress, that folk they never knew were criminals, or were incarcerated in asylums, or were bigamists, or…well, you know the kind of thing. Programmes like this have no time for quotidian lives, ordinary lives, not liking to face up the the truth that there’s no such thing as ‘ordinary’, or recognising the truth of what Norman MacCaig spelled out

“how ordinary

extraordinary things are or

how extraordinary ordinary

things are, like the nature of the mind

and the process of observing.”

An ordinary day [1964]

 

We’ve got two guests today who demonstrate exactly what he was getting at. Laura Potts, first. I went to a reading at The Beehive Inn in Bradford a few months ago, when Laura, in introduction to one of her poems, said something about an unnerving discovery she made while exploring her NE roots. I asked her to write about it for the cobweb. And I’m delighted to say that she did.

Newcastle in the 1800's (10)

” I come from an unknown people.

Grandparents gone, siblingless parents, and none of my own. No cousins or uncles to speak of. That old, lost and probably long-dead aunt in the highlands or even entirely off this island ceased to be named years ago. It is a stranded existence to live in a city without ties at all. We were dropped here and everyone fled.

Stranded, maybe, but free too. I have never been bound by the figures and facts of family, or a history which is true and absolute. Doubt and endless hope have been the impetus behind my work. The sheer not knowing, and the search to find a past in which truth will always elude me, have formed the stimuli to write. That past can take a thousand forms and speak in countless tongues. Few photographs exist. It is a vacuum which promises endless creation, and I know nothing else that burns so brightly.

So how does the becoming begin? In this void, without the touchstone of truth (if such a thing even exists), from where does the narrative come? The process is threefold: observation, instinct and artefact.

Living between the same two people for my twenty-one years, I have come to see them as the only living gateways to my past. They think therefore they are much more than single sets of DNA, and for the last few years my end has been to study them intensely: from simple physicalities to interacting with the world around them, my parents are the opposite of ‘whole’ or ‘structured’ bodies. In sudden mood switches and changes of heart, in moments of pain or startling danger, and in their convergence/divergence from the different dogmas which move around them I find the fragments of many people. Even in the slightest idiosyncrasies and facial quirks I see the sparks of bygone lives. They may now embody two very different forms, but they live nonetheless.

Some may call this ‘people-watching’, and it is a process I find even more difficult to apply to myself. ‘Instinct’ is the rough word I give to self-appraisal and contemplation. Simply, this is the process of asking yourself how you might react in a given situation. When I have written of the past – of a dockland prostitute, of a grieving mother, of a cheated wife – I have taken long days to let the scene clot and grow in the subconscious mind before writing. Usually, this is a protracted period of pain and a series of feelings I have rarely felt before. I usually also find that this is where the structure of a piece might evolve: painful contemplation often produces a fragmented structure without regular rhyme or meter, for example. Often this is a time of pleasure-pain: as an intensely private person, long and lonely contemplation is more cathartic than anything else, but can also give the ‘thousand shocks’ of sadness.

And finally, much of writing is reading and I will always believe that the best writers are the best readers. Where else to find the life of art than in the living, breathing world outside? This is the ‘artefact’: the hours of reading and headached research that goes into each poem I write. This is never just art for art’s sake: my work has always been a historicist endeavour. Contemporaneous and secondary sources, from paintings and poems to historical and legal documents, are always at hand if you look long enough. True, I have few family photographs of my own. But that does not mean I cannot find those out there that do. There are endless resources right at your fingers: The British Library, The Oxford English Dictionary, The Carlyle Letters Online, Literary Manuscripts at The Brotherton Library (Leeds University), Vogue Archive, Project MUSE, The Times Digital Archive, Victorian Popular Culture, 19th Century British Newspapers… I could go on. But if (as unfortunate as the thought may be) I am going to take my place in Eliot’s ‘Great Tradition’, then I am going to do it knowing exactly what that Tradition is. And where I would like to be.

This should see me right.”

 

And so it should. It caught me off-balance, that flatly stated fact of felt dispossession. It caught my breath because I come from a big extended family full of cousins and aunts, who all, it seemed, told stories about the family. There were gaps and mistellings, and downright untruths. But, a lot of stories that somehow I belonged with. I had to read this more than once:

Grandparents gone, siblingless parents, and none of my own. No cousins or uncles to speak of. That old, lost and probably long-dead aunt in the highlands or even entirely off this island ceased to be named years ago. It is a stranded existence to live in a city without ties at all. We were dropped here and everyone fled.”

At the same time, I’m excited by Laura’s manifesto:

“But if (as unfortunate as the thought may be) I am going to take my place in Eliot’s ‘Great Tradition’, then I am going to do it knowing exactly what that Tradition is. And where I would like to be.”

What it’s made me think of is that argument thread on Facebook recently….the one about ‘writing what you know’. Laura reminds me that the best poetry comes out of writing from what you know into the unknown, the stuff you want to know, the stuff that helps you define your identity, the stuff that you don’t ‘know’ until you find what it is by writing it.

Which brings us to our guest poet for today. I’d ‘discovered’ Rebecca Gethin via Kim Moore’s wonderful blog The Sunday Poem’ and then finally met her this summer at the Lewes Poetry Festival, where she read from a new collection of poems All the Time in the World based on her discovery of a bundle of her mother’s letters, and from that, via her poems, the discovery of a mother she didn’t have enough time to know.  Rebecca Gethin’s mother died of cancer at the tragically early age of thirty-two, leaving two very young children. These poems are the poet’s response to the letters that her mother wrote when she was dying, which have only recently come to light. And here’s Rebecca to tell us about the process of that discovery.

All the Time in the World was written in one month while I was on a retreat at Hawthornden Castle.  If I hadn’t had that concentrated amount of time on my own to think and reflect and with no domesticities to do I’d never had written it.  I needed to enter into and stay attentive to that space in my head and heart.  The ordinary interruptions of life would have made this impossible.

Only two years before, I’d been given a small envelope of frail and flimsy letters written by my mother to her sister and her mother as she lay dying in hospital (60 years before).  A cousin found them in an attic. Before that I had never seen her handwriting so seeing her script gave me a massive shock in my heart.  It was as if her handwriting conveyed her voice to me.  The few scraps of letters answered a few questions and provoked more unanswerable questions.  I had actually put them away because it was all too much to take in.  But something made me pack them when I was leaving to go to Hawthornden as I did feel I wanted to write a poem or two about them and I was worried about running out of subject matter while I was there and this was to be my emergency fall-back kit.

As soon as I got there I read the letters many times and began to know them off by heart. I’d use her own phrases to start me off on a line of thinking which I’d write about.  There was no date order so I couldn’t be sure of chronology and I guessed that.  I deliberately cut out too much poetic technique as I wanted to stay as close to the experience as possible and not be distanced by metaphor, simile, rhyme.  One or two poems turned into a short sequence which morphed into more and yet more.  I wasn’t sure if any of them were any good and as I was determined to write at least one good one, I just kept going.  They were short on the whole, little flames of thought and feeling that came in response to her words. I wanted to bring her back to life for myself and leave out myself right out of it.  Over a period of time I began to think she was with me and, in fact, had been so all my life but I hadn’t noticed.  (I have no faith although she had bucketloads. )  I walked every afternoon and she came with me, just a comfortable presence. I remember wondering if I became her!

Along the way, I made discoveries, things like her doctor sister must have been asked to give her the bad news that she had a cancer which was terminal.  And I realised I remembered an incident she mentioned: my last visit to her in hospital although I didn’t know it was the last (so 2 year olds do remember things). They kept things from children in those days and I hadn’t a clue what was going on.  Strangely, I also remembered a perfectly ordinary bathtime and I wondered why. So that is also in the booklet but not strictly speaking part of the letters (okay, so I do sneak in now and then).

With growing excitement, I discovered I might have enough for a whole pamphlet so started shuffling papers around even though some of the poems seemed so incredibly small.  My confidence often left me however.  Even so, I decided on the order while I was in my bubble at Hawthornden where there was plenty of space to lay the poems out and I read them over and over again and found an inner logic. I thought that if I were writing a narrative I might well move the sections around to create suspense or mystery so I used what I had learned from novel writing. The title came from a phrase in a letter.

When I returned home I tried to edit them but found that having left the bubble I couldn’t fiddle with any of them apart from a little punctuation here and there: it felt like sacrilege. I tried to check on my ordering but it was fixed already and wouldn’t be altered. Helena Nelson read them and gave me a huge amount of encouragement for which I am very grateful.  But the title suddenly didn’t seem usable as there were at least two other books with that title and it was, I thought, a bit of a cliché.  But nothing else fitted half so well….

I never submitted any of the poems to magazines as I felt it was all one long poem and they stood or fell on their own.  And I also knew they weren’t to be a section in a collection. All together and separate or nothing.

all the time in the world

So there they are. I was astonished when Cinnamon Press published them and with the title ‘All the Time in the World’ (none of the other books of that title were poetry) and have been even more so when people say how touched they have been by something about my mother. It’s almost as if I am not there. ”

You can read a fine review of All the time in the world by following this link. https://thebelatedwriter.wordpress.com/2017/05/01/all-the-time-in-the-world-by-rebecca-gethin/#comment-232

And then you can buy it. In the meantime, you can ponder on the notion of a writer wanting to leave herself ‘right out of it’. The more I think on that, the more I want to emulate it. But it’s time for poems.

Frugality   

 

She likes to be of use, so in her hospital bed,

my mother is darning socks with fine wool.

With the needle she draws the yarn over

and under her warp thread without causing

a pucker, checking the tension to mesh a flat disc

across the hole. Smooth as an obol.

By the time each is done, she’ll have touched

the yarn all along its length as it moved through her hand,

felt its spring and bounce.   But before she finishes

her supply (there’s still two ounces left)

she asks her mother to bring in more wool

of the same colour so she can keep mending

enough socks to last.

 

Just like her –

 

She could read a book

do crosswords

or paint her nails

but she prefers to work.

So, on the subject of mending socks,

she writes I’ve all the time in the world.

 

I wonder if we have to wait to reach an age age where we can really imagine our parents. I think this is even more poignant because the actual memories stop when this poet is two years old, and what she brings to the ‘invented’ memory is an actual tactile, spatial, kinetic memory of the deft handling of yarns and needles. You really can’t write what you don’t know. Not well, that is.  What I love is the way the first poem turns on a phrase that’s right and surprising simultaneously:  Smooth as an obol. It carries the weight of practised ritual and ceremony, and anchors the apparently simple detail of what it is to darn a sock. I love that reflection that

By the time each is done, she’ll have touched

the yarn all along its length as it moved through her hand,

so that the wool keeps a memory of the hand, and the hand of the wool, the loving connection that underlies the understatement of having enough socks to last. To last for whom? we need to be asking. What will remain of us is love. That’s what outlasts the socks, the wool, the woman in the bed. This, it seems to me, is what gives the second poem its heft as a coda, and makes its last line so moving, so resonant. It lives in the same world as Eliot’s ‘these fragments I have shored against my ruins’ but makes them more real.

a-sprig-of-rowan

Two more poems now, the first from A sprig of rowan.

 

Apparition 

 

A wraith of the darkness drifted

down the twist of path ahead and hardly

was there time to believe it,

when it re-appeared

in a fluster of wings, tumbling

from between the trees and out

into the sunshine of open field –

nacreous, tinted with gold –

as if haunting the day

to hunt for the dusk it had lost.

 

It’s such a delicate-seeming poem, this, that if you only read it with your eyes, you might miss, at first, the the sheer frantic baffled energy of it, this bird, this owl (I suppose. It’s an apparition. It’s not named or identified),that belies it’s ‘wraith’ness, that twists and tumbles, flusters, haunts and hunts. I like the way the verbs get elided in the poem’s breathless moment, this thing that happens to fast and puzzlingly. And I like the way that the surprising word ‘nacreous’ sits naturally as does the ‘obol’ of the darning poem. I like the craft of it that doesn’t announce itself. But read it aloud, and try to figure out how fast or slow it needs to be. I like that. I like poems that make me look again at things… like birds that I imagine I know because they come into my garden, and because my dad was a birdwatcher. The thing that matters though is ‘this’ bird. ‘This’ moment. It’s in the same tradition as Hopkins’ Windhover. It’s what this last poem does

Blue

 

The colour of sky and sunlight

he acrobats

among the tree tops,

 

or with head on one side

he sometimes considers

the abracadabra

 

of the high twigs

where he splits open a seed

or spin-twizzles

 

a caterpillar

like a strand of spaghetti

and as he skitters

 

out of sight, you wonder

how his goblin wings

grew from the yolk of an egg.

 

 (published in The Broadsheet, 2016)

So that’s where we’ll leave you. Wondering. Thank you so much, Rebecca Gethin and thank you Laura Potts. I’ve had a great time writing this, this afternoon. I don’t invariably feel like that. I’ll leave more details about both at the end of the post, and then go and make something that’ll be good to eat at the end of a proper cold November Sunday. I’m not sure about the timetable for the next few weeks, but I’m pretty sure I can promise you a proper Advent sequence and also the celebration of a significant number. Thanks for your company.

 

Rebecca Gethin  won the Cinnamon Press Novel Writing Award with her first novel, Liar Dice, which was published in 2011. Her first poetry collection, River is the Plural of Rain, was published by Oversteps Books in 2009 and was followed by a second collection, A Handful of Water, with Cinnamon Press in 2013. What the Horses Heard is her latest novel and was published in May 2014. Her two latest collections are A Sprig of Rowan  [Three Drops Press], and All the time in the world  [ published in Feb 2017 :Cinnamon Press]

 

 

Wakefield-based Laura Potts was recently chosen from thousands of applicants to become one of the BBC’s Verb New Voices for 2017. The award, which includes a £2,000 bursary, expert mentoring and development support, will enable her to create a collection of poems Sweet The Mourning Dew. The poems will explore the nature of grief and examine the experiences of ordinary people living with loss as a result of war.

She was twice named a Foyle Young Poet of the Year and in 2013 became an Arts Council Northern Voices poet and Lieder Poet at the University of Leeds.

She appeared at Wakefield Literature Festival with Linton Kwesi Johnson and on  BBC’s Contains Strong Language Festival in Hull in September  and at Ilkley Literature Festival, in October

She is currently interviewing people in the north of England as part of her research. She will then be selecting around six stories to work from and is looking forward to getting started on the new poems which will be broadcast on Radio 3. “Writing is what keeps me going,” she says. “It is the reason I wake up in the morning.”

And she’s 22. Think on that.

 

 

 

 

Hunting for truth, and an (un)discovered gem: Zetta Bear

river

It’s been a busy old week…three poetry nights: the New Beehive Inn and the Beehive Poets in Bradford on Monday; Wordplay at Square Chapel in Halifax on Wednesday..a night of smith|doorstop poets; The Albert Poets on Thursday with Steve Ely, Ian Croft and Ian Parks.

One of the readers on Wednesday, Ed Reiss…whose dry, wry, oddly surreal poems deserve a post of their own…read one poem that muses about why there seem to be more funerals than weddings; it’s possibly because people marry as a pair, but die as individuals (there’s a ‘but’, but I’ll leave that hanging). It’s a handy hook to hang the introduction to our guest today, however. Like a recent guest, Ruth Valentine, Zetta Bear works as a celebrant (among other things). That is, she works with the living who are trying to understand death. I think this is an idea I’d like you to hold on to.

However, for a change, rather than rabbiting on about whatever bee happens to be in my bonnet, which is the usual thing, we’ll start with a poem.

 

Stalker

The man who thinks to woo me by explaining

how to shoot a deer strips by the fire

peeling clothes off his blue patterned skin

in his kitchen with the back door wide open

to the windy night he’s come in from

wet through after standing for hours

waiting for his doe to show herself

waiting for the heart shot.

 

While in his shed ten grey rabbits hang from a pole

one hind leg slotted neatly through the other,

his muddy graft hangs from a hook,

and the doe he has shot and gralloched,

turns and cools, waiting quietly for him

to return and undress her.

 

I heard this for the first time a couple of years ago at a prizegiving on the Isle of Arran. Simon Armitage had chosen it as a Highly Commended poem in the McClellan Competition for 2015, and he said he was initially nonplussed by it, unsure about the conflict you might feel between your reaction to the surface rawness of the subject, its powerful sexual/sensual energy, and the evident crafted tenderness of the poem. And I suspect, lots of the audience were slightly uncomfortable about the matter-of-fact way it deals with the hunting and dressing of animals. (By which we mean their undressing).  I suppose, too, about the way the poet feels comfortable, rather than threatened, by the elision of seduction and stalking. When Zetta sent me her poems, she wondered ” if my poems will cause a reaction – hunting is provocative “.

Well, I certainly hope any poem worth its keep will cause a reaction, but since Zetta hunts to eat rather than for fun (though she is clear that she also hunts for the sheer pleasure of it), I think I’ll spend just a short while exploring the topic. Let’s be clear that if I didn’t eat meat, I think I might have a different take on the subject. But I do, and I’m not about to make a distinction between meat that’s been butchered somewhere I never see, and then neatly parcelled up for a supermarket shelf, and meat that you actually catch for yourself. I wondered for quite a time whether I should raise the subject at all, but I was at a reading where some of the audience found Zetta’s poems ‘offensive’. That bothered me. I find adultery and casual sex ‘offensive’ in the sense that I disapprove of the harm they cause. But not poems about them. I’ll let that stand. Poems either justify themselves or they don’t. I might also chuck into the mix that I’m interested by the fact that folk seem less bothered about fishing, especially when the fisherman is Ted Hughes. As Keith Sagar pointed out

It had occurred to Hughes that writing poems was also a form of fishing

“The special kind of excitement, the slightly mesmerized and quite involuntary concentration with which you make out the stirrings of a new poem in your mind, then the outline, the mass and colour and clean final form of it, the unique living reality of it in the midst of the general formlessness.”                                       [Poetry in the Making, p.17]

Maybe I’m worrying needlessly. Why don’t I let our guest introduce herself. Ladies and gentlemen, Zetta Bear:

“When I was invited to be a guest on the blog, I started by having a look at what other people had said about themselves, and then stopped before I despaired. I don’t think of myself as a poet (I’m not published apart from one poem in Smith’s Knoll) although sometimes I feel compelled to write a poem. I don’t write many poems, either. I try to write well when I do, although as you’ll see from what I’ve sent, they’re mostly better read aloud than seen on the page. (I think they work beautifully both ways.)

Here, at random, are some of the thoughts I’ve had whilst wondering what on earth to say:

I recently read some of Kate Atkinson’s ‘A God In Ruins’ (I got bored and annoyed and didn’t finish it) but somewhere in there Teddy says he wants to live a life of the senses, and write about it, and I thought ‘yes, that’s it.’ I’ve never thought to articulate it before, but that, I think, is what I’m up to. What takes priority is being out there and doing stuff. Every now and then, a poem seems to grow out of that, and then I write it down and if people let me, I inflict it on them, with the greatest of pleasure. I love doing readings and always accept invitations!

I’m interested in direct, raw experience. I’m interested in being human and non-human and crossing boundaries. I like to feel, and I like poems and experiences which provoke feelings. I go on feeling above most other things. I’m not a particularly intellectual person, not especially mentally-identified. So I wonder, when I write things like this, if I will end up saying things that look ridiculous and ignorant to people in the know. (No. You don’t)

If there’s a purpose or consistency to what I write, its to try to both record, and also to communicate, the experience of being immersed in the beautiful, profound, demanding experience of hunting, the joy of putting meat on your own table and the shared rapture of hunter and dog in the pursuit of game. I’m heartbroken by the remorseless attack on rural life by an ignorant urban elite. I’ll stop now to avoid a rant, which is where these things almost always land up. In poems, I try to convey it with love, which, in my experience, is the only hope we have of communicating across substantial difference.

(and then she adds this…which I think is at the heart of the matter)

I seem only to be able to write love poems.

However, my poems aren’t excerpts from my diary. They start from people or places or beasts that I know, and they may sometimes include actual events (although probably less frequently than people imagine) but I feel frustrated when people think all I’m doing is writing the equivalent of ‘what I did today’ with line breaks. After one reading, someone commented that all my poems were about a particular person. Well no, they weren’t.”

So, what were they about? Let’s see.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

John The Baptist

 

Once I went to Lincolnshire

with a Born Again Christian

Gun Maker I’d met on the internet.

 

He picked me up in the Co-op car park.

I climbed into his clapped out four by four

his gun dog and my terrier in the back.

 

He steered us there with his thighs

hands busy making roll ups. Veering

to aim at squirrels at the side of the road.

 

We turned off into tracks at the edge

of Tetris fields, scouting game for later.

Every living thing in that Landy wanted to kill something.

 

In the flat dark nowhere we stopped by a barn.

He rolled the wide door open to a caravan.

We all got out. The dogs went hunting.

 

Me and John sat down to tea. Cheese and raw onions.

He opened two bottles of wine and slapped

one by my plate, one by his. We drank the lot.

 

After, we drove round the fields, leathered,

shooting out of the windows down the headlights.

Charlie! He yelled, Quick, shoot the fucker!

 

This is not the way it’s done, but it is also the way

it’s done. He talked non stop, about his thousand

acres of permission, about knowing Kenzey Thorpe,

 

the Famous Fucking Chancer, about his boyhood

and the strange man who came to the door

and turned out to be his father, armed

 

with the key to all his mother’s secrets.

And now, his sister a doctor,

his brother in prison for murder, and him,

 

the Gun Maker. The beautiful

carved gun he planned to shoot

wild geese with in the morning.

 

In the morning I made him

bacon sandwiches and Irish coffee.

Then I took my terrier out among the crop

 

where she killed a rat and put up a deer

we watched bound out of reach

across the cabbages into grey sky

 

and I missed my old lurcher who’d died

and broken my heart which is why

I was here with a man who likely didn’t remember

 

my name. But that afternoon, he said I’ll take you

somewhere you’ll like and drove, to a river cut

deep into the mud, a fast deep

 

dangerous channel that poured with the force

of the tidal bore out to sea twice a day,

too fierce to resist, taking everything out

 

to disperse among the clean

white geese, to be washed away.

And I walked hard along its treacherous banks,

 

slipping, following it to the shore to watch it surge

into the bay and he didn’t tell me to be careful or catch

my arm. He watched me go, trailed

 

at safe distance until I sat down,

breathless, furious, heart sore and

happy, in the cold bare open land.

 

……………………………………………………………………………

 

That first stanza had me hooked, right at first hearing, and it’s great to have the written version to tell me why. It’s the way that prosaic first line is immediately subverted by the utterly surprising.   A Born Again Christian // Gun Maker. That line break is beautifully judged….it’s a feature of this poem and of Zetta’s ear and eye for guiding her reader, as in a later stanza, where we’ve been primed by a narrative of guns:…

his father, armed

with the key to all his mother’s secrets.

And the casual last line of the stanza is another twist. There’s at least two opening chapters of a novel here; the unwise dangerous journey into  a flat dark nowhere.
Unemphatic narrative voice is sustained right through the poem, full of the elision ofbeauty and potential violence. And danger.. which is what the Born-Again Christian Gun-Maker seem to understand the narrator wants:

I’ll take you

somewhere you’ll like

Which turns out to be the treacherous banks of a tidal river

too fierce to resist, taking everything out

 

to disperse among the clean

white geese, to be washed away.

The phrase ‘the clean // white geese’ with its artful linebreak nails it for me as the poem quietly expands outwards in the last stanza, like a sigh. I love it. Indeed, ‘love’ is probably the core of Zetta’s poems. It may not be a conventional notion of ‘love’, but it’s utterly authentic. As is the next poem, which is also a love poem.

zetta 4

The Hunter In My Heart

 

In the moment between thinking

I’ll call, and calling

he comes to me.

He uses old fashioned language

how can I serve thee mistress

although I’m not his mistress –

he chooses to please me

because it’s beautiful.

The curve of him floating

above the heath after a hare

is more glorious than

any handsome man.

He’s both bow and arrow

as sprung, as straight

as pure in his design.

Sometimes he presses

his forehead to mine

and we imagine his thick pelt

lying against the inside of my skin.

 

 

I’m not a dog person. But you don’t need to be to take in this one. There are elements of medieval verse in this address to a lover/loved one floating // above the heath after a hare, the dog

both bow and arrow

as sprung, as straight

as pure in his design.

And I’m slightly wrongfooted (in a good way) by the sudden elision of purpose and identity in:  and we imagine. That one word ‘we’ is what does the trick. Right; one more poem, which I’ll leave to speak for itself.

Winter Wedding

 

These past weeks I find I’m wanting

to say yes to what I’m asked.

Do I want a pot of strong tea?

Yes.

 

After, shall I wade through deep snow

to the moor top where the dogs hunt,

come down with a white wind-dancer

still warm in my poacher’s pocket

thinking of meat and fur mittens?

Yes. Yes please.

 

Shall I eat stew, slow cooked with oats

by the range in my dark kitchen

from an oak bowl with an oak spoon?

Yes, I shall.

 

And when that meat is gone, will you

come to my front door with your nets,

polecat hob in hand, to take me

to the old hedgerows that you know?

Yes, come.

 

Will we walk home swinging coneys,

lay them on the flags by my door?

That we will.

 

Do I want you to take my hand

kiss my muddy knuckles, my nails

rimmed with blood and then turning

place a kiss on my open palm?

Oh yes, say I. Oh yes I say.

I do.

 

Did I say I’d leave it to speak for itself? But I’m still going to say how I love the echo of Molly Bloom, and also that ‘white wind-dancer’. I hope I’ve persuaded you that Zetta Bear writes poems that do what poems should do, that memorise themselves as you hear them.

At this point I normally tell you all to go and buy the books. Right now there are none to buy. But I think it’s high time there were. There must be publishers reading this who can see what I’m getting at. In the meantime, let’s say thank you to our guest and hope to be reading her first pamphlet/chapbook/collection soon.

See you all next Sunday, when we’ll be having another splendid guest. xx

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All our yesterdays

for Sgt. Alfred TERRY (1882 – 1915) (King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry)granddad alfred's centenary 019

Never go back

 

That’s the wisdom. You can’t

step in the same river twice.

Where’s the bank, my chapel,

where’s the fire station?

 

But my grandparents’ grave

is where it was, not vandalised,

though the plinth’s knocked skew

by a clumsy tractor mowing grass.

 

Alfred’s been dead a hundred years

today. An actor’s dressed

in a sergeant’s uniform,

a faithful replica of everything

 

but mud, sweat, lice,

rips from snarls of wire,

fumbled stitches, burns, blood.

The rifle’s spotless. Never fired.

 

And all this is accurate.

Alfred never saw The Front,

knee-deep slurry trenches,

never trudged through Picardy

 

watching men and horses drown.

His uniform was always drill-hall smart.

Going back is fine, today .

The Chapel of Rest a museum

 

where reverence is on display

like something solid people

used to do, when the air was thick

with mill-smoke, lanolin, temperance.

 

(2015. A small ceremony to commemorate the 100th anniversary of my Grand-dad     Alfred’s death. And for all the fallen in all the wars)

The “problem” with prosepoems. And a Polished Gem: Anne Caldwell

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Ah, the problem with labels and definitions. Has your heart gone black at the obscenity being perpetrated on our children. “Write a sentence with a fronted adverbial” indeed. What does it mean? Simply, it means writing a sentence starting with words like because, whenever, if, because. These will trigger adverbial clauses that tell you something about the when, where, how and why of what’s happening, or about to happen. So why, in the name of all that’s holy, confuse the issue with labels and definitions (well we know the answer to that don’t we? It lies in the ideologies of ranking and testing as the aim of education. If it confuses and humiliates, then so much the better…don’t want the working classes getting ideas above their station, now do we?). Why not just work productively with our children? I’ve written books about teaching writing. I’ve taught trainee teachers how to do it. It’s not rocket science.

“Let’s see if we can say a bit more; let’s see where we can put it; lets see what happens when we turn this sentence around.”

The alternative, imposed by a government of self-important fools, is to make children tongue-tied, dismayed, deskilled, and artificially inarticulate. And, because the majority of teachers are themselves insecure (like 99% of the population) with analytic approaches to language, it’ll be badly taught, and the unhappy teachers will fall back on commercial workbooks/worksheets. Someone’s making a lot of money out of all this. Which, in the prevailing ideology, is the point. I’m very angry. It does me no good. But still, what does this have to do with poetry? Bear with me a while..but hang on to the idea that labels and definitions are less than helpful, and potentially harmful….because they are never adequate. They leak. They cause argument and division.

Let’s try another tack. If you haven’t seen the stunning documentary film about Picasso on BBC4 recently, track it down on iplayer. There’s so much stuff I’d not seen before, including time spent on his sketchbooks in his early cubist period. And a longish section that traces the process that took him from his excitement at seeing the Ingres image of the seraglio to his own stripped-down reconstruction in Les demoiselles d’Avignon. What’s genuinely enlightening is the time the process took, the complex stages, the examination of all its elements.Here was a man entirely fluent in the language of drawing and painting since the Renaissance and the revelations of perspective. And what does he do? He goes back way beyond Giotto, through medieval art to ‘primitive’ sculpture and imagery. Why? Because he couldn’t say what he wanted to say in the complex language he’d learned. Hold on to that thought. And also to the fact that art students now, including those who have never learned to look and draw accurately, can knock off images that look not unlike Picasso’s. At 16, I could do you a passable piece of cubism. I couldn’t draw that well. No surprise you get people who’ll say: call that art? my kids could do better than that. Embedded in this is an assumed ‘definition’ of art, what it looks like, what’s expected of it.

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Right. Poetry….and definitions. I’ve written before about how, as a young and insecure teacher, I’d be knocked off balance by the simple question posed by bright kids who knew how to waste time.

Please sir, what’s a poem?

It genuinely bothered me. I used to go looking for definitions…and that way madness lies. In the end I settled for saying if it’s got a raggy right hand edge, it’s poem. Which held a grain of descriptive truth, since it inherently acknowledged the tradition of the line break as somehow distinguishing poetry from prose. Later I added to this the firm belief that since the roots of poetry are oral, and that poetry was invented to be memorisable, it probably would involve elements of repetition, especially rhythm, and, later, rhyme. Poetry would be, in one way or another, musical. Which didn’t mean it needed to be pretty. The Blues are music. Substantially, right up to the end of the 19thC that was substantially true.. And then along comes Rimbaud, the poetry equivalent of Picasso, and after him, Eliot, Pound, Whitman and so on. The prose poem starts, as far as I can tell with Rimbaud’s Iluminations.

I embraced the summer dawn.

Nothing yet stirred on the face of the palaces. The water is dead. The shadows still camped in the woodland road. I walked, waking quick warm breaths, and gems looked on, and wings rose without a sound.

The first venture was, in a path already filled with fresh, pale gleams, a flower who told me her name.

 I laughed at the blond waterfall that tousled through the pines: on the silver summit I recognized the goddess.

 Then, one by one, I lifted up her veils. In the lane, waving my arms. Across the plain, where I notified the cock. In the city, she fled among the steeples and the domes, and running like a beggar on the marble quays, I chased her.

 Above the road near a laurel wood, I wrapped her up in gathered veils, and I felt a little her immense body. Dawn and the child fell down at the edge of the wood.

 Waking, it was noon.

It’s not a pretty translation, is it? But it feels like prose full of elements of traditionally poetic diction, and still doesn’t seem to to be prose. Poetic prose? Why don’t we just say: it is as it is. What does it say? How? How do I know that’s what it means to say? The thing is, it takes you out of a comfort zone of expectation, which is exactly what Picasso did. And  Eliot, and Pound and the rest.

Rimbaud wrote something interesting, though. Or at least,something that suits my argument.

Ina letter of 15 May 1871  he says that “Viendront d’autres horribles travailleurs” (Other horrible workers will come along)—a prophetic assertion of his role as initiator of a process that would continue long after he himself had ceased writing. Horrible workers. I like that. Because if something looks simple, people who should know better will think it is, and assume that anybody can do it. Free verse. Prose poems. The thing is, Rimbaud was, in traditional terms, technically accomplished. And he felt that this hard-earned technique was stopping him from ….something. He didn’t know what that would be till it was done. Hold on to that.

Right, you’ve been fantastically patient. Just one more thing. I nail my colours to the mast. I spent too long worrying about what prose poems and prose and poems are; about labels and definitions. I know that I find that if I read prose these days (apart from ‘rubbish’ (see an earlier post: https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2017/08/13/confessions-of-a-tripe-addict/) I’d rather spend time with writers whose prose is close to something I think of as poetry. Hilary Mantel, for instance.

“His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horse-back, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when she takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist. But the sounds she makes then, the rustle of feathers and the creak, the sigh and riffle of pinion, the small cluck-cluck from her throat, these are sounds of recognition, intimate, daughterly, almost disapproving. Her breast is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws.

Later, Henry will say, ‘Your girls flew well today’. The hawk Anne Cromwell bounces on the glove of Rafe Sadler, who rides by the king in easy conversation. They are tired; the sun is declining, and they ride back to Wolf Hall with the reins slack on the necks of their mounts. Tomorrow his wife and two sisters will go out. These dead women, their bones long sunk in London clay, are now transmigrated. Weightless, they glide on the upper currents of the air. They pity no one. They answer to no one.”

[Bring up the bodies]

I think the italicised bit is prose. The rest is poetry. It’s something to do with the rhythm, the music. Don’t ask me to be more precise. I just want to say: it is what it is. Definitions won’t help, and they’ll probably be destructive.

And with that off my chest and out of the way, you’ll be more than ready for today’s Polished Gem : Anne Caldwell. And from here I’ll let her do all the talking, you’ll be pleased to hear.

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Anne Caldwell writes:

I am a blow-in, an incomer to the north of England, but have made it my home for so long that it feels strange to admit that I was born in London. I left when I was two, and grew up just south of Manchester on the Cheshire/Staffordshire border. After travelling and a nomadic early life, I have lived in West Yorkshire now for over fifteen years. I have written since childhood, and the first poetry success I had was at primary school, where I won a speech cup for reciting one of my own poems. This urge to write has been with me ever since. I have always been a great reader of poetry as I think critical reading is the key to good writing. It goes in the ‘creative compost’, so to speak. I think the cadences of poetry need absorbing, on a conscious and unconscious level. I would see the process of reading as a similar activity to listening to music.

When I was younger, the poets who inspired me were the people I met when studying at UEA. I was part of a society that promoted poetry and guests included Tony Harrison, Margaret Atwood, Hugo Williams, Liz Lochhead and Fleur Adcock. This was back in the early 1980’s and I thought this was how life would always be, surrounded by all these writers! I had not realised was a privilege it was to be in a small room at the Premises Arts Centre in Norwich, listening to all this work. (It was also a great music venue).

 

norwich

I began writing poetry in earnest at UEA but did not really get much published until I turned forty and started an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. I had a pamphlet out with Happenstance called Slug Language and then won the first prize for a full-length collection with Cinnamon Press, Talking with the Dead, back in 2008. I also edited and wrote for a collection of stories on the theme of mothers and daughters (Some Girls’ Mothers) published by Route and featuring Clare Shaw, River Walton, Nell Farrell, Suzanne Batty and Char March. After publishing a limited-edition book of poems and photographs, called ‘After Image’ with artist, Jack Wright, my most recent book of poetry was also published by Cinnamon in 2016 – Painting the Spiral Staircase.

Until recently, I also programmed live literature events for the University of Bolton, whilst working there as a lecturer. I had a great experience meeting the region’s rich and diverse writers and poets and I have been blown away by hearing people read their work, such as Kim Moore, David Gaffney and novelist Robert Williams. Long may this continue. Thanks to poet, Paul Munden, I have also been introduced to a great bunch of Australian writers in an international email prose poetry project. I have been reading work by Paul Hetherington, Dominique Hecq (Hush: A Fugue) and prose poetry by Cassandra Atherton. The project is hosted by the University of Canberra and includes over 25 international writers. It has produced three volumes of prose poetry so far, so it has been a great experience to be published in Australia as well as the U.K.

Currently I am writing a lot of prose poetry on the theme of the north of England.  It is a difficult form to define, but here are a couple of great quotes:

‘Which of us, in his ambitious moments, has not dreamed of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical, without rhyme and without rhythm, supple enough and rugged enough to adapt itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul, the undulations of the psyche, the prickings of consciousness?’
Charles Baudelaire (Little Poems in Prose, 1869)

‘So, what is prose poetry? To me, it has affinities with black humour. Just as black humour straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels. Prose poets, no matter how different in sensibilities, wander on this uncertain terrain. It’s a land of paradoxes and oxy-morons, welcoming the sleight of word artist.’

Peter Johnson, (editor of The Prose Poem: An International Journal)

I love writing in this form! It has been a liberation for me because I have used it as a container for improvisation, for play and as a way of bypassing the critics in my head. (And there are many – believe me.) I think prose poetry can be very hard to pin down, and the minute you try to define it as a form, you come across a prose poetry writer who breaks whatever rules you may seem to have discovered. However, I love the work of Canadian poet, Anne Carson, whose first book of prose poems was called ‘Short Talks’. These poems are small, rectangular blocks of writing, full of humour, insight and philosophy. I can highly recommend her work. I used this form recently in my own draft collection, Alice and the North, which was shortlisted for the Rialto Poetry Pamphlet competition this year.

Here are a couple of examples:

 

Nidderdale

 

Alice made a nest of coats in the caravan she borrowed from a friend. She was off grid. It rained all night, Nidderdale rain, heavy and persistent, drumming on the metal roof of her box-shaped room, with the sound of the river like a bass note in the music of water. Her father would have remarked, it’s raining stair rods, lass or raining cats and dogs. She thought of Escher’s stairways leading nowhere, the Bourgeois print of a woman cradling an angry baby at the bottom of a flight of steps. At night, she dreamt of stray terriers falling from the sky. Would she be furred-in, rather than snowed in? Limp, sodden bodies piled up against the cinder blocks of the caravan? Waking to sunshine was a relief. She parted the yellow beaded curtain and looked up to the grit-stone moors, birch trees shimmering like unspoken words.

[Published in The Valley Press of Yorkshire Poetry, Ed Miles Salter and Oz Hardwick, 2017.]

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The Gate-Opener

Alice tramps along the Pennine Way all summer and remote, Cumbrian sheep farms in the winter; lying in wait for ramblers, vagabonds, genuine Romanies, long distance walkers, locals out for a stroll and fair-weather campers. She loves them all in different ways. Legendary throughout the north, she can negotiate any kind of five bar, kissing or latch-key gate; unlocks padlocks with a hairpin that she keeps in her knickers; always shuts and secures each field after strangers.

 

She collects all the smiles, nods, pecks on the cheek and cheery thanks like bunches of wild flowers. One bright evening, Alice meets a man who has walked in solitude for miles and wants to tell another human being of the boggy moors, sodden clothes, the way the mist came down, his pedometer readings.  The exact number of miles traversed.

[Published in the Australian Journal, Rabbit no.19, 2016. www.rabbitpoetry.com]

 

Writing about the north is taking me into new territory as a writer, as I have been reading about cartography, combining prose poems with maps, and thinking about how the two activities interrelate. I was brought up with a strong tradition of fiction writers who have used the imaginative power of maps to create a sense of place in their writing, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island to A.A. Milne and E.H Shepard’s ‘Hundred Acre Wood’. However, I have become aware of a body of work that explores how mapping can be used to illuminate the writing process itself. For example, Peter Turchi’s fascinating book, Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer takes the idea of mapping as a ‘potent metaphor’ for writing. The book explores how cartography can shed light on the ways in which writers might approach the blank page, select and omit material to create an imaginative world.

map

The Scottish writer Malachy Tallack wrote The Undiscovered Islands in 2016 illustrated by artist Katie Scott. The book investigates islands that are figments of imagination. Tallack writes: ‘The science of navigation has worked towards the eradication of uncertainty and the end of mystery, and to an astonishing degree it has succeeded… and though that technology brings its own kind of wonder, part of us mourns what has been lost’. Writing in The Scotsman, the reviewer Roger Cox commented: ‘never mind the sterile certainty of Google Earth, here’s Onaseuse, an island in the South Pacific “discovered” in 1825 by one Captain Hunter and the crew of his ship the Donna Carmelita.

island

With Onaseuse, as with many islands in this book, the charm lies in trying to separate the facts from the fiction’.  I am finding that cartography is a more imaginative activity that you might at first think, and that prose poetry is a perfect form in which to explore the north of England, with its porous, hard to define edges and rich diversity of cultures. The only problem I have discovered recently is that using mapping as a metaphor for writing misses out the messy stage, the playfulness and the chaos of creativity that I am working hard to preserve in my work. Writing is a process that explores the art of getting lost as well as finding the right pathway to explore an imaginative terrain.

I am finding that cartography is a more imaginative activity that you might at first think, and that prose poetry is a perfect form in which to explore the north of England, with its porous, hard to define edges and rich diversity of cultures.

What a point to end at……. opening out, widening, full of possibility and promise. Better than labels and definitions any day. Thank you, Anne Caldwell, for being our guest, and for your generosity on a bright November day

A Story

Read this and weep. Or take to the streets.

Roy Marshall

This morning the UK Secretary of state for health Jeremy Hunt has stated that the Chancellor will not grant a pay rise for nursing staff unless the NHS becomes more productive.  It is unclear to me how the productivity of the NHS is linked to pay of nursing staff. As a response I am posting my short story, Late, which covers a few hours in the life of a newly qualified nurse on a coronary care unit. Late was  previously published in Bare Fiction magazine and highly commended in their 2015 Fiction prize.

LATE

I love you even though I have a blood bag in one hand and a drip stand in the other and I should be concentrating on explaining the need for a transfusion to my patient who tells me he didn’t understand a word the doctor said. I’ve got to check the details on the bag against his notes…

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Clear vision, and a Polished Gem : Judith Willson

 

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We’ve been on Skye, as we have for 30 years at the end of October (and in a good year, the end of March). The first time I went I made no sense of it. It was too big, too extreme, too wild, too wet. Too much. Over the years it’s changed…by which I mean that I’ve changed. I’ve learned to look, to let it be.

As you learn to look, it all rapidly becomes not featureless at all. You rely on a rock outcrop to give you a rough line on where you’re going. You learn to avoid the bright green bits. And faced with a quarter of a mile of what looks like wet, boggy land that you can’t go round, you learn to see that sheep (and deer) being intelligent and helpful creatures, as well as creatures of habit, have made paths through the tussocky, reedy stuff. If the sun’s in your eyes, you can’t see them easily, but otherwise they’re clear. I’ve learned to love sheep tracks, not only for showing me the way across flat wet stuff, but over becks and burns in deep cut gullies and ghylls. Look for the bruise in the bracken, or the shine of small stones, and sooner or later you’ll find that they’ll take you to the spot where it’s easiest to cross running water, and the way up the other side. And they’ll take you to sheltered spots, too. Stands of silver birch and rowan, with a bit of turf to sit on. Desire paths. That’s what sheep make.

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What I’ve never noticed (or acknowledged) till this year is the sensory overload. My partner, Flo, who’s a painter, can be thrown by the prodigality of the light, its changeableness, but at least she’s working in the right medium. I’ve realised that despite taking all my notebooks and all my good intentions, I can’t write poems for toffee when I’m there. It’s as though the visual cortex takes over, trying to deal with the extravagance of scale and texture and distance…the sheer excitement of everything you look at, the speed at which images change, and the shifts of perspective and composition for every 10 or 20 metres you make up a hillside. The way you can be stopped in your tracks by coming across red deer in a stand of birches, or the line of a gull’s flight on the wind over Loch Eishort, or a sudden blaze of light coming aslant across Bla Bheinn, or……

The thing is, at the time, there’s no room for words, and later, too much that you decide has already been said, especially by Norman MacCaig and Sorley McLean. The bit of my brain that deals with words has turned to mush, and the rest of it is concentrated on weather and route finding, and trying to ignore the fact that one ankle has equally turned to mush, and that I can’t walk as far as I could or as far as I’d like. I can’t get enough of Skye, and at any given moment it will always be too much. That’s how it is, and to be honest, I wouldn’t change a scintilla of it. Because it surprises, always. Take the  odd image at the top of the page. I’ve passed it scores of times, but a big squall off the loch stopped me by it and I looked for the first time. It’s the skeleton of something piscine that apparently would come inshore to browse on whelks. Sometime in the 19thC this one got itself stranded. I don’t want to do anything about it. I’m just glad I actually saw it. Just as it’s lovely to be not quite sure of where you are, and to come over a moor top and find a familiar road shining like a silver river.

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Which, one way or another, bring us to today’s guest, because here’s a poet who reminds me that there’s clarity and quiet and precision to be had in poetry. You just need to learn to wait. And learn a craft.

I met Judith Willson for the first time at one of the Monday night workshop session at the Albert Poets in Huddersfield (regular readers may become fed up of reading this particular line, but it’s unavoidable) and was immediately taken by two things. One was the precision she brings to her writing. There is a precise craft that is also fluent, never stiff or artificial. It’s that kind. The other thing was the sensory quality..texture, light, shape, space. Painterly and musical. I think the first poem I remember workshopping with her was this one that appeared in The Rialto later….it was the title and the first stanza that nailed it.

Julie’s boat is in the field behind my house

A gale’s punched the sheets on the line all day, now they’re fighting out of my arms
to get back to the brawl and there’s Julie’s boat on the crest of the field
goose-winging into the slap of rain, prow sheering high
over a hawthorn reef.

There’s a detailed critique of the whole poem that does more justice to the writing than I think I can. Here’s the link.

https://www.therialto.co.uk/pages/2016/03/04/julies-boat-is-the-field-behind-my-house/

At which point you might leave the cobweb and forget to come back. Of course, if you do, you’ll be missing more lovely writing. Let’s meet Judith, shall we?

Judith was born in London and grew up in Manchester. She now lives in a village near Hebden Bridge. She spent some years as an English teacher, but most of her career has been spent in book and journal publishing, initially as a freelance copyeditor, then in a series of in-house editorial and production roles.

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She’s been very generous with her time and work, and I like the synergy of my coming home with my mind full of blurred edges and morphing sensory images to what Judith says about her writing:

I am interested in blurred edges and porous borders: the illusory doubleness of reflections and repetitions; estuaries that are both / neither land and sea. Places where boundaries between past and present are thin and unstable, their meanings constantly remade. Short-sighted since early childhood, I have always been fascinated by optical tricks and illusions, the slipperiness of what we think we see. You can make the world wobble like stage scenery if you tilt your glasses; a new lens prescription will make a startling difference to how you perceive contours and distances in the short interval before your eyes adapt. Much of what I write seems to return to ‘seeing’ as transformation and interpretation.

And then there’s language. I don’t have any special linguistic skills, but in hindsight I think one of the most useful steps I ever took towards becoming a writer was to slog away for two years trying to learn Arabic. Sadly, I hardly remember any of it now, but what has stayed with me is the impact of entering a language whose fabric was so radically unlike any European language I was familiar with. It was a new lens. I like poems that have the textures of other languages in them, and the unsettling effect that a translated poem can have when nothing in the language feels inevitable. I occasionally try translating poems, usually when I don’t feel I have much to write about. It’s the best way I know of refocusing my attention on language and form.

I’m fascinated by borders in a quite literal way, too. The wonderful poet Roy Fisher wrote ‘Birmingham’s what I think with.’ I have never written from that sort of identification with a place, although I admire many poets who do. I am drawn to write about places that aren’t ‘home’: transits, places where languages and cultures rub against each other. Border cities, ports, outposts. Or lost places made strange by memory, imprinted with the layered traces of what has passed across them.

These are ideas that I think I will be exploring further. At the moment I’m drifting in post-book slack water. Two sequences are at a very tentative, doodling stage. One has a working title ‘Translations of the word after from languages I do not speak’. I’m beginning to think about how to write a kind of irrecoverable narrative full of traces, glimpses and fragments. It could just evaporate (appropriately enough) or develop into something else.

 

 

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The alchemy of circumstance and chemistry in five photographs

 

Tacita Dean’s Blind Pan’

 

[Exile, no sun]

This is a photograph of twenty years. There are no people

in it, and no shadows. He carries this famine

on his back; he carries his country in his mouth

and it has no word in it for home, no proverb of forgetting.

 

 

[Antigone leading, dark clouds]

Walking under rain. Who was your father? Gunfire in villages,

dogs at the gates. What does her voice look like?

Like the weight of her coat. Like bread. Like Take my hand,

walk in my footsteps. No. Who was your father? Like rain.

 

 

[Furies, ‘your steps are dark’]

Forests run howling for water; air shredded, wingbeats.

She cannot look into the burning, curls under herself

as if she were unborn. Walk in my footsteps. Her hand.

He leads her over the border, into dark, out of sight.

 

 

[Colonus, just out of frame]

Halting. Halt where a spring overflowing a basin

returns his face to him in silver and sunlight slipping over the brim

through wet, open hands. He sees the place when he knows it.

No one can look directly at the sun.

 

 

[Light. End here]

It begins, no way back, in a dark room, something taking

the imprint of light. In this photograph are constellations,

musics, scribbled maps; our chancy travel across peopled time.

And there is no exposure long enough to make this visible.

 

 

 

‘The alchemy of circumstance and chemistry in five photographs’ is a response to a set of five photographs that make up Tacita Dean’s ‘Blind Pan’. Dean’s title alludes to a panning shot, to the blindness of Oedipus, perhaps to the fact that the photographs seem almost empty of content – just five black and white photographs of a featureless moorland. Dean has over-written the photographs with instructions, as if the photographs were a storyboard for a film about Oedipus and his daughter, in exile, travelling across the landscape to Oedipus’ death. The viewer, looking from left to right across the five frames, creates the imagined journey. The poem’s form and language echo the five stills of the artwork. I wanted to create spaces a reader could move through without a context being over-specified. In each stanza there is a blind place, a negation, an invisibility but also, I hope, a dark room where images take shape.

  1. 3/5

 

Noctilucent

 

We cross the garden: late sun, evening’s slack tide.

He is remembering woods below San Pietro, the ragged end of a war.

Soldier and red-cloaked shepherd meeting on the road,

the old man calling his dog, waiting in the white road.

He watches how it goes on happening, the time it takes

to wade knee-deep in dazzle

towards the soft chalk curve between the trees.

The red cloak burned in his eyes. His hand, unsure.

 

He says, If a person walking raises his hand

he sees the shadow of each finger doubled.

 

Trees slide down to lap us, attentive to our solitudes

until the hollow dark is filled with memory of light –

fluorescence, phosphor glow, poppies’ slow burn.

Ghostlights to guide our double-going.

 

‘Noctilucent’ is a scientific term meaning ‘night-shining’, used of flowers, for example, that glow in the dark. The poem evolved very slowly. I first drafted it as a retelling of an incident that had been told to me. It wasn’t a story that had any point or consequence; it was just a meeting that lasted minutes, which had been remembered for sixty years. Early drafts struggled with this. I couldn’t see how the poem could go anywhere. I invented and padded, then did too much research. Many drafts in, I realised that the centre of the poem wasn’t the incident itself, but the memory of it. There was something mythic to me, archetypal, in the meeting of soldier and shepherd: the poem found its form as a sonnet. I have broken open the formal structure at the point where the memory breaks off at a slant.”

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

What can I say to or about all this? Well there’s a hint, isn’t there, about the point where memory breaks off at a slant. I get the sense that you need to immerse yourself and, probably, over-learn, before  the moment arrives when a slant light reveals a shape you need, or an image or an idea that anchors a poem or a sequence. In the meantime I can savour the moments that draw you in, the moments that seem to be memorising themselves as you see them for the first time. Moments like these:

 

a spring overflowing a basin

returns his face to him in silver and sunlight

I love the way this elides a precisely photographic image with the slightly out of focus memories of myth, the half-remembered story of Narcissus which may or may not be intended.

and this

he sees the place when he knows it

that’s how I want feel about last week. Why does it stop me, bring me up short? Because of that quietly understated reversal that you hardly notice, but which demands your attention by puzzling you.

And then I like this line that drops me back where I was at one point last week, in a birchwood where I’d just seen two young red deer, and remembering how it felt

to wade knee-deep in dazzle.

Finally, these two lines for their enormous resonance in a world of the displaced and abused millions …and also for the gap between the meanings we sometimes think we want to make, but cannot make at this moment, right now.

he carries his country in his mouth

and it has no word in it for home, no proverb of forgetting.

 

Judith Willson: thank you for not only sharing your poems but showing us ways of reading them. The least we can do is to buy the collection that she refers to when she wrote: At the moment I’m drifting in post-book slack water. This is it. Buy it.

MirrorLine cover

Carcanet Press, Limited26 Oct 2017 – 80 pages £9.99

Praise for Judith Willson: ‘Judith Willson’€™s poetry takes us, in a dazzling flow of images, to lives which have the solidity of Central European fairytale with all the frightening reality of history behind them. Richly inventive in form and precise in tone, this is an amazingly assured debut collection.’ 
Elaine Feinstein 

Postscript

While you’re waiting for the book to arrive in the post, if you live anywhere near Calderdale, you can hear Judith reading her work…she’s the guest poet for November at the Puzzle Poets Live in Sowerby Bridge. Nov. 6th, 8.00pm at The Shepherd’s Rest. There’s a great open mic, too.

 

Rainy day women

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It’s been raining much of the night. There’s water running down the road, and the cliffs by Boreraig are streaked white. The moor will be sopping, and walking sloppy. So it’s a morning indoors while the the rain blows itself east and things dry out a bit. Thirty years ago when we first started to come to Skye there would be frost at the end of October and always snow on the Cuillin and on Bla Bheinn…in two days, I’ve yet to see them this year,the cloud low-hanging.

Yesterday afternoon it cleared down here by the seashore..dry enough for a wander. I met a chap who wasn’t quite sure of where things were or went. He asked me where was the best place to see ‘the otters’. I was on the point of saying ‘on a calendar’ but bit it back. The thing is, in thirty years I’ve yet to see one. I’ve sat for hours in the hide at Kylereah and seen a lot of seals and even more kelp. In the cluster of cottages where we stay at Ord, the residents complain about them. They tend to come off the shore in winter and shelter in the spaces under the houses. The bring fish with them.What they don’t eat rots and stinks. I still haven’t seen one. I didn’t tell the chap this, either.I pointed out the rocks about half a mile along the shore where I’ve been told I’d be guaranteed to see at least a couple. I didn’t tell him that I hadn’t, but he looked disappointed, as though the half mile was an unsurmountable obstacle, and wandered back in the direction he’d come from.

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Five years ago I was staying here with my youngest son, and his mate Steve, who’s a professional cameraman. He’d driven up from London eager to try out his very expensive new camera. On a brilliant clear morning with a mediterranean sky we drove up to Glen Brittle, walked up by Eas Mhor, the biggest waterfall on Skye…full of of white water…..and up into Coire Lagan. 2000ft up from the shore, a mini lochan in a volcanic bowl surrounded by a 275 degree amphitheatre of 1000ft cliffs and scree. The view to the Outer Islands was astonishing and lovely. When we got back some hours later, he wanted another walk, so I sent him off along the shore. An hour or so later he was back.

“Do you get a lot of otters round here?” he asks, his camera full of images of a family of them doing tricks and dance routines. There again, there are folk who’ve been to Skye many times, usually in the summer, and never seen the Cuillin completely clear of mist.  Anyway, here’s a poem I wote for Steve. I couldn’t quite keep the bitterness out of it.

 

A watched pot

 

You can watch all day for an otter

among the delusions of kelp;

if you think you’ve seen an eagle

odds-on it’s a buzzard;

for days, in the Glen, The Cuillin

could be there, but all you’ll know

is blown grey mists and ghosts.

 

So, that time on Am Mam

as I eyed the two miles down

to the shore, when the eagle came

unlooked for, below me, and not gold

but matt brown in the smirr,

freewheeling on the wind,

why would I fumble for a camera,

drop pack and gloves, faff about,

when I could just be still and stand

and watch, try to see, remember?

 

When I looked up it was a mile away,

vanishing into Bla Bheinn’s flank

like a thrum in a bolt of tweed.

 

Young Steve: first time on Skye,

hikes by Eas Mhor – a hundred feet

of bridal lace and champagne flutes –

Corrie Lagan crisp edged, gun-metal blue

under a cerulean sky without a cloud;

photographs an otter family in the bladderwrack

not five minutes from the house.

 

Well, good luck to him, I think.

It’s the metaphor that bothers me.

A watched pot never boils. Fine.

Don’t watch the pot. But when

the pot boils dry? What then?

 

(first published 2014 in Running out of space . See the My Books link)

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If the weather turns fair, there’ll be no more posts from Ord. And if it turns foul, there’ll be more Rainy Day Women. Win-win situation.