John lives in Ossett, West Yorkshire. He has been a teacher, lecturer and LEA Adviser for Drama and English.
he has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Leeds, but learns much more from The Poetry Business and all the poets he has met there.
His poems have appeared in 'The North', 'The New Writer',and 'The Interpreter's House', among others.
He was First Prize winner in the Lumen/Camden Poetry Competition (2014) and of The Plough Prize (2013 and 2014). These were followed by others, including The McLellan (2015) and the Poetry Business International Pamphlet Prize (2016). His poems have been picked as prize winners by three posts laureate: Andrew Motion, Lizlochhead and Billy Collins. His first collection of poems , a pamphlet: 'Running out of Space' was published in April 2014, a second one, 'Backtracks' in JULY 2014, and his chapbook, 'Larach' was published by WardWood in November 2014. A pamphlet, 'Outlaws and fallen angels' was published by Calder Valley Poets in 2016. His first full collection 'Much Possessed' was published by smith|doorstop in 2016, and a second collection,'Gap Year', jointly authored with Andy Blackford was published by SPM Publications in 2017. He has ten grandchildren, all of whom are amazingly talented; he has supported Batley Bulldogs RL team for over 60 years, and would live on the Isle of Skye if they had a rugby league team.
Still out of the loop, or many loops, befogged and becalmed, I nevertheless make a solemn promise that the next post after this one will be final one of the Catching Up series and will feature Martin Malone’s The Unreturning.
I won’t be a review. It’ll be more like a fan letter. I’m not up to analysis and summary and critical aperçus. Enthusiasm is the most you should expect. But there will, fingers crossed, be a lot of poems to enjoy.
A short post tonight, then. As you know by now, ‘stocking fillers’ are mainly stand-alone, one-off, ‘where did that come from?’ poems that more often than not are limited to outings at open mics. But some appear because a prompt in a writing workshop touched a nerve. I think these are the ones I’m most grateful for. Every now and then, at Poetry Business Writing Days, either Ann or Peter Sansom will invite you to think of a writer …novelist, poet, dramatist…and one of his or her creations, and then imagine them meeting somehow in a wholly unlikely location or circumstance. Jane Austen and Mr D’Arcy at a Ban the Bomb march, say. Dickens and Mr Gradgrind at a parents’ evening. As I say, the best times are when you’re ambushed. Why I should think of R.S.Thomas and of Cynddylan I have no idea, and why I should imagine them rubbing shoulders on a Parish trip to a Silver Blades in Swansea or Chester, even less. But here they are…and they even ended up in print, which I’m very happy about.
Cynddylan and the priest at Silver Blades
Hard and slippery, there’s no purchase,
unless, for one, consolation of a kind in bleakness,
the indifference of god, his chill disciplines
and the fear of falling, the nothing of stilled water
and the darkness under all,
and for the other
the thought of earthfasts rising in his frozen fields,
a broken ploughshare
and a shrunk clamp of beets in the lee of a barn.
They have no language for not working.
They want for the cold flags of a chapel,
a plain altar, absolution
for what will not be, precisely, named;
just a dusting of snow, the red of the Fordson,
sharp blue exhaust, a clutter of gulls
and a straight furrow.
.[Published as ‘The priest and the ploughman go skating’ Much Possessed. 2016]
The second, and similar prompt was to imagine the meeting of two writers or artists or otherwise famous people under unexpected circumstances. Norman MacCaig and the mountaineer, Mallory on a broken-down bus in Cambridgeshire, say. Pete Townsend and Beethoven swapping anecdotes about deafness. Peter Benchley and Damian Hirst seated together on a long-haul flight……..What happened on this occasion was that my mind sidestepped the ‘rules’. Possibly I’d been up to Heptonstall and Colden, and remembering lots of visits to Lumb Bank when it’s cold and wet and bleak, and the valley can be sinister. Anyway, Ted and Sylvia metamorphosed into the protagonists of a lost novel.
brittle as a mirror
worrying at little lines
exquisite as ants or wasps
half-aware of an open window
banging somewhere in this long dark house
in a clenched valle
of cold chimneys and black walls
cemented with orphans’ bones
of trees flogging themselves to death
balsam flattened by the weight of air
she cramps herself small and smaller
dreams of dwindling
into the fastness of a shell
white under a full moon
in a sky of no wind
somewhere out in the yard a bucket has blown over
rackets about the cobbles like a big man in a rage
like a man who’d smash his fist into a gritstone wall
and sing about the blood
Thanks for dropping by; it’s always good to see you. Stay safe. Go well.
Feeling guilty at the continued failure to Catch Up as planned. I went to see a doctor last week, and discussed the after-effects of chemotherapy, and the business of withdrawal from steroids. We talked about the downsides of continuous low-level pain/discomfort. One of them is that to various degrees, you can’t concentrate; in my case it includes not being able to read for any length of time before it all becomes meaningless. Writing is a frustrating slow business…the words simply don’t line up and fall into place. But I’m heartened to find that it’s not just me, and that my doctor has a blanket term for it. She calls it ‘brain fog’. That’ll do for me. It explains why the collections waiting for me to write about (one in particular) are piling up, but it explains why I can do little about it for the time being.
What I CAN do is to keep the Cobweb ticking over.
I just stopped and stared at what I’d written. Can a cobweb tick? I think not. Mixed metaphors? Jeez. Possibly I meant to say that I’d keep on spinning. I’ll settle for that.
Last week my partner Flo bought me this surprise present to cheer me up. American First Edition, with these stunning watercolours by Baskin. I’d forgotten just how Ted Hughes can knock you sideways; it was like reading him again for the first time. The Sunstruck Foxglove
Her silky body a soft oven
For loaves of pollen
Or in another OTT piece about an Iris …Sketch of a goddess
An overpowered bee buries its face
In the very beard of her ovaries.
It deafens itself
In a dreadful belly-cry – just out of human hearing
It all just made me feel more alive, more aware of sound and texture and the buzzzing stuff of life. It reminded me just how much Ted Hughes has got into some of my ways of thinking, and so tonight, here’s a kind of thank you .
A lot of stocking-fillers turn up in one-off tasks in poetry workshops. I’ve never sat down with the intention of writing about birds or animals, but when I’m ambushed into it, Ted Hughes is always going to turn up, providing some of the sound and texture.
When my children were small, in the remote past, one of our favourite books was Hughes’ How the Whale became
and that’s the voice I borrowed in this workshop opener: an invitation to write about things that shouldn’t ever be in the x or y…in the sea, say, or the sky, or in a shop, or down your street.
When God made Heron, he’d been hard at it,
five days creating day and night, sun and moon
and stars, the oceans and the earth,
and on the fifth day,the creatures of the sea
and the birds of the air. Let’s see, says God.
What have we not got? A bird that can spear a fish.
I like that. Give him a long sharp beak.
A touch of gold.
But not the fish of the sea,
thought God, who’d spent the afternoon
in a frenzy of invention: Puffin, Gannet, Fulmar,
Skua, Albatross. The fish of slow rivers,
the fish of placid streams. That’s the thing.
He’ll need long thin legs and wide-spread feet.
My words, he’ll need to be a hefty bird
with legs that long, thinks God.
The wings he’ll need! and a sharp dark eye.
Now. Where will he make his home?
It had been a long day. He can nest
in a tree like all the rest, says God.
And he breathed life into Heron
who flew off on his great wide wings
and landed in his tree, like a broken kite,
a thin old man falling off a bicycle.
(I think I should acknowledge that U A Fanthorpe was over my shoulder too….have you read that poem about the Creation that she wrote in Northumbrian dialect? I hear God with a Geordie accent.)
I can’t trace the prompt for the next one, but it wasn’t necessarily an instruction to write about a bird. I don’t know what it was. Sometimes the name of a bird is enough to call up stories and images. The owl will do this, obviously,and equally the kite and the crow. But I was surprised to find the St Stephen’s Day hunting of the wren turning up without invitation.
God thought of the smallest coin
he could make, and made the Wren
to fit, neat as a thumb in a thimble,
tail cocked like a feather on a jaunty hat.
He should have loved the Wren more
than let the boys come smashing down
the thorn, chanting, calling: Wren!
come out! come out! come out and die.
With her hair trigger call, she can not
keep silent, the Wren, full as an egg
with alarm and urgency, her voice a tattle
of fingernails on an old tin lid.
Fragile as a chalice on its thin glass stem.
Why kill a Wren and her mid-winter song?
What did she ask for but a zipwire of air,
a tangle to hide her nest, a May full of flies?
By the way. The farthing ceased to be legal tender on Dec. 31st 1961. Which surprises me. So there you are. If the brain-fog persists there may be more like this. Fingers crossed, then.
(from Poems for Gordon Hodgeon. ed Bob Beagrie et al 2009)
I was not expecting to write this post. I thought I’d post a couple of stocking-fillers while I sorted out what I wanted to share with you in a final ‘catching up piece’. It will be about Martin Malone’s The Unreturning. There’s a dark irony in that, which will become clear as we go along.
I was wondering if I had anything to say, and if there was, if I knew how to say it any more.
The week before last, for four days out of five I was virtually back in St Ives, Zooming in on a much-postponed residential, with Kim Moore and Caroline Bird as tutors. In theory, with relaxations of Covid rules, it could have been a much-postponed actual residential in a real hotel but the Christian Guild small chain of hotels has gone bust. I guess the pandemic was the last straw. That’s Abbot’s Hall in Grange, Willersley castle in Cromford, and the Trelhoyan Hotel in St Ives, all closed. All places where I’ve been entertained and challenged and inspired by Kim Moore’s courses, and by the Poetry Business. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
And I was struggling. Everyone does, from time to time. It’s not the end of the world; on the other hand it’s no fun, not to respond, not to feel the buzz of making new things with new people. Jess Mookherjee nailed it for me in a Facebook post recently. Amongst other things she wrote about the business of largely working from home in the last 18 months, she wrote this
[I]have become more introverted and atomised
That’s it. The business of being turned in on yourself, and simultaneously fragmented, cut off from the physicality of company and its wonderful unpredictability. To this I’d add the fact of becoming physically more timid.It’s been a thin diet of second hand experience for the last 18 months. The world draws in. I can’t read properly. I’ve lost, for the moment, the ability to surprise myself. Not the best frame of mind in which to approach a week of writing which set itself to challenge us to explore our self-imposed taboos and preconceptions, to query what we think we mean by the ‘truth’ and to be more daring and take more risks.
However, in the middle of, one way or another, avoiding the truth, and flinching from risk I had a day off. The first trip anywhere beyond the homes of close family for 18 months. A drive to the coast with my partner Flo, to meet up with a former student and great friend, Andy Blackford .
Unnervingly, as we drove over Fylingdales Moor and caught our first sight of the sea, we found ourselves in tears. It caught me on the raw, that feeling that something we’d taken for granted for years should feel extraordinary because it was unchanged. I think, too, it was unnerving to drive through an entirely normal Sandsend, of familiies picnicking on the beach, children paddling, hardy souls swimming. And I still felt shut off from it all, isolated in a self-imposed bubble, not quite sure if I spoke the language of ‘out there’ any more.
We had a fine day with Andy and Sandra, looking out over the harbour, watching small boats coming in trailing clouds of gulls, and catching up….though gradually noticing that what we were catching up on was films we’d watched and books we’d read, because they’d largely replaced the accidents of normal life, the business of going places and bumping into people. Stuff we take for granted, like the first sight of the sea from Fylingdales.
Setting off back home in a sudden cold squally downpour that emptied the harbourside and streets in seconds, as Andy drove us up the main street, I saw the Bethel Chapel was for sale. Which was when I learned that my friend Patrick Scott had died. The stunningly converted chapel is /was his house. Last time I saw him there was at Staithes Art Week, a couple of years ago.
Here he is, full of beans with his wife, Angel. And suddenly I learn he’s died, a month or so ago, of lymphoma.
Patrick was a good friend, at one time the editor of a book I wrote about teaching writing, a fellow member of NATE, one of the generation that revolutionised English teaching in the 70’s. His last post was as Director of Children’s services for York, but earlier he was English Advisor for Cleveland/Teesside, a post that was previously held by another friend and mentor, Gordon Hodgeon . Which explains the the verse from the poem at the beginning. It’s from How things are made. A collection of poems from his friends, a get well card for him when he went into hospital for a spinal operation, which tragically left him paralysed, and eventually speechless. I’ve written at length about Gordon; if you don’t know about his story and his poetry you should. There’s a link at the end of the post. Another friend and inspiration, Andrew Stibbs, (NATE alumnus, former head of English in Cleveland, pioneer of mixed ability teaching, Leeds University lecturer in English in Education, painter, musician, cricketer and gifted poet) had been a member of Brotton Writers with Gordon, and equally a good friend of Patrick. All three have died and I miss them, terribly. All three are bound up with my memories of living and working on Teesside and in working as a teacher-trainer. All three are somehow present whenever I go back, say, to Staithes.
What do I make of it. Here am I, writing a poetry blog. What do I know. I say that poetry lets you say what you can say in no other medium, and that is true, when it’s working. But how does that fit with what I described as a week of writing which set itself to challenge us to explore our self-imposed taboos and preconceptions, to query what we think we mean by the ‘truth’ and to be more daring and take more risks.
I’m approaching what I’ll write next with great caution, because I fear to be misunderstood, and in any case I may be wrong. However. I rejoined my Zoom course the next day, head buzzing, not sure of anything in particular. A bit numb. What to be daring about, what risks to take, and why? Possibly I was feeling oversensitive, but it struck me that what I was being challenged to feel more open about, or to, were issues of gender politics, of sexual identity, of sexual violence. Could I write about a parent’s genitals, for instance. Could I challenge self-imposed taboos? Well, yes, I could, but my heart wasn’t in it, I couldn’t give myself up to the game. I sense I missed the cultural tide, recently. But it’s set me thinking about something I read a long time ago, that the Victorians (officially) couldn’t write about sex but wrote with amazing freedom about death, whereas, since the late 60s exactly the opposite has been the case.
I was brought up to distrust generalisations, but there’s an element of truth in there, isn’t there? I have a sense that we are much more uncomfortable with the physical facts of death and dying than much contemporary poetry acknowledges. It may be, of course, because we know so little about it. When each of my parents died, I wasn’t there, in the house, in the room, and both had been neatly removed before I was told. The whole business, sanitised by the funeral business. That would have been unthinkable in a Victorian household. I have only seen two dead people. One was my son, coffined in a Funeral Directors nicely lit room. The other was in a morgue where I went with my partner to identify another body. I’ve never been able to write about either moment, not properly.
Where am I going with this? I don’t really know. I’m chasing ghosts. I should stop.
I say there are no ghosts
though coming on deer in a dip in a moor
when they startle and run
might be like seeing a ghost,
or in woodland where there is too much
of whispering and birds and water.
Worse is a space you long to be filled.
When love is done it is done absolutely.
It does not withdraw. It goes absent.
Whoever saw it go and how?
There is a hole in things, indifferent
to what you do, who you are.
I have sat with the dying
and never encountered death.
I think you have to love someone
enough for someone to die,
you being there, and them
giving you their giving up,
trusting you enough for that.
[From Dark Watchers. Calder Valley Poetry. 2019]
Something strange has gone on with the links, so that some are duplicated. I have not the faintest notion why. Forgive me and the system
When I started this occasional series of stocking-filler poems, I’d sort of decided that they would necessarily all be the kind I knocked together to perform in folk clubs. I said, quite blithely that:
“They need to be compact and robust. Which is what much oral poetry was, originally. I discovered that writing your own stuff is a lot harder than you’d think, and I think I learned a fair amount about the trade from trying. Sometimes I’d try performing what I thought of as ‘real poems’, but they didn’t work, and once I decided I wanted an audience for them, I shifted my allegiance to poetry open mics. On the other hand, I’d assembled a folder that I called ‘Stand-ups and stocking fillers’. Sometimes I’d use some of them to finish a set at a reading, just to leave the audience with a laugh, or sometimes to relieve what may have been a bleak sequence.”
You see that I made a distinction between ‘real poems’ and ‘stocking-fillers’ which, when I come to think about it, is as foolish as putting a capital P on Poetry or a capital L on Literature, and thinking that is a tenable proposition. For that, mea culpa. Because sometimes I’ve set out to write a bit of ‘entertainment’ and found that the poem has ideas of its own. I guess this is particularly true of dramatic monologues. There’s a long tradition of the dramatic monologue in music hall performance, and it sort of slips into the folk scene, via Marriott Edgar’s brilliant creations like ‘Albert and the Lion’ which were immortalised in Stanley Holloway’s recorded performances of them . You can hear their influence in some of the work of Pam Ayres and Mike Harding.
There’s the music hall at one end of the spectrum, and, I suppose, Shakespeare at the other, and in the notional middle, between the two kinds of performance art, there’s the printed poem. So many of them sink into your subconscious sense of how characters can be created, how they can be made to sound, from the appalling duke of Browning’s ‘My last duchess’ to Tony Harrison’s dead Iraqi soldier or David Constantine’s five monomaniacs in ‘Monologue’. If you were to ask about the appeal of the dramatic monologue for me, it’s the liberation of wearing a mask, and the genuine enjoyment of discovering the accent, the ideolect of the persona.
Discovery. That’s the thing. I was in a poetry workshop where we were asked to improvise on the idea of someone giving advice to another…a tradesman advising an apprentice, say, or a football coach, or a master thief, or a seductress, or…..well, you get the idea. The prompt poem was Emily Berry’s “A short guide to corseting”. Go figure.I wrote the poem that follows in about five minutes, and it didn’t need a lot of altering/editing.
*** see comment below
But as it went along, it surprised me. I thought I knew the voice of the older bloke; I was pretty sure I’d worked with lots like him. It wasn’t as funny as I thought it was going to be. I should have guessed, I suppose.
A proper job
There’s more to this than people think.
So listen. See, you want to get the build-up right.
That one I took you to last week. All wrong.
What’s the good of flogging a chap
till he can’t carry the thing? He only ends up
dropping it, spectators want to help,
military jump in. A bloody circus.
Take my advice. You want to keep them
fit and fed and fresh. They’ll not thank you,
but just think on. You’re not there to cheer them up.
Just to do a proper job.
Make sure you order oak
that’s been let to lie a year or two.
You need to cut a solid six by six,
one tight lap joint, nice and snug.
Four clean dowels.. olive;,
don’t get palmed off with pine…
If it does get dropped you don’t want
that cross-piece twisting.
Causes too much bother later on.
Nails? Get them from that blacksmith
by the market. You’ ll want clean-cut, well tapered,
a good nine inch.
Plan to use just the three, but get six.
They can break if you don’t catch them right,
and anyway a big lad might need
a couple in each wrist.
I’ll tell you all about the way
to lie them down, the knots,
the bones to get between,
the hoisting and the dropping in the slot
when we’ve had our snap.
But just one thing. You get it right.
You don’t want another carry on
like the one last week.
The one it turned out wasn’t dead.
Never hear the last of that.
[from Much Possessed. smith|doorstop 2016]
A Postscript: I was rereading this today (Monday) and deeply embarrassed by the apparent piece of throwaway showboating. “I wrote this in five minutes” indeed. I was driven to hunt down the original and found it in a notebook . Poetry Business Whitby Residential, December 2013. Here it is.
As it turns out, I was right about not needing to change very much so it looks like one of those gifted moments when you apparently write without thinking, and everything seems to fall into place without any effort at all. Which is, of course, nonsense. For a start I’d spent a lot of time that year struggling with a whole series of dramatic monologues based on the notion that statues can be brought to speak. I’d been investigating a whole debate about the nature of resurrection (in the body or in the spirit?); I’d been reading a lot of UA Fanthorpe. In short, I’d been unconsciously rehearsing my way towards this moment for ages. Sometimes you’re given the key that opens a door you didn’t know you’d been pushing against.
It turns out that, as we all do, I owe all sorts of debts to all sorts of writers whose work I’ve enjoyed and absorbed, and that I unconsciously/subconsciously exploit. If I had to single out one particular poet and one particular poem it would be Edwin Morgan’s ‘Instructions to an actor ‘.
Because of the intensity of the speaker, I’ve always imagined that Morgan had the idea of Shakespeare doubling as one of the actors in this production of A winter’s tale, explaining to a boy actor how to play one of the most problematic ‘moments’ in English drama. He must be, convincingly, a statue in the course of 80 lines, and then convincingly come to life. And, boy, how the speaker believes in this moment!! He knows just how wonderful and implausibly difficult it’s going to be.
What am I saying? It’s simple, I guess. You learn from the company you keep.
Next week, more voices from more occupations, but probably less serious. In the meantime, I’ll be working on the final ‘Catching Up ‘ post, and I want to do justice to the last poet in this particular sequence. Bear with me.
Spoiler alert. If you follow the cobweb regularly you’ll be aware that I’m very slow at getting over a course of chemo that ended in April. One of the side effects of coming off the steroids that accompany the chemotherapy is increased joint pain due to inflammation. Pretty well everything hurts in varying degrees and in different places during the day. It’s not severe, but it’s debilitating, and at the moment, my hands are particularly arthritic. My keyboard skills have never amounted to much, but I’m more clumsy than usual, and there are likely to be more typos that usual. I religiously proofread before I publish, but invariably miss stuff. So, apologies in advance.
So. Here we go. Over the last few months I’ve become addicted to the TV series The Repair Shop. In a world that appears committed to trashing anything that works, including language itself, here’s a programme that celebrates a group of men and women who patiently mend and restore anything that’s brought to them…defunct harmoniums and accordions, broken porcelain and earthen ware, desiccated leather purses, saddles, torn and sagging easy chairs, clocks, watches, bicycles, gas lamps, vintage calculators, telescopes……for every job there’s an expertise, an arcane array of tools, and beyond all that, patience, attention to detail, imagination and love. All this quiet work of regeneration and resurrection goes in an ancient brick-floored barn, in a thatched lean-to, in an ancient smithy, and all of it cradled in a downland valley where patient Clydesdales crop the greenest grass, clouds of gulls follow a tractor, and small birds perch photogenically . It’s William Morris’s utopian vision of a might-be England. It’s down-to earth and idyllic in equal measure, in the way of Our Yorkshire Farm. And also, I realise, of at least one element of the work of today’s guest. Because while The Repair Shop mends things, Di Slaney’s animal sanctuary…I’m tempted to say ‘hospice’…mends damaged creatures. Since 2005, she has been filling her ancient Nottinghamshire farmhouse and its land with more livestock than is sensible: Manor Farm Charitable Trust is home to over 170 animals at the last count, many of them with special physical or behavioural needs.
Some of them are celebrated in the opening cluster of poems in Herd Queen , but this isn’t a collection of poems about animals, damaged or otherwise. It’s more like an anthology of poems that all happen to be written by a single author. A rumbustiously, whole-hearted rattle bag of technically varied and accomplished poems. When Di Slaney was a last a guest of the cobweb I wrote of her collection
“Let me tell you what I like about Reward for winter. One thing surprised me; I’m not an animal lover, or, I’m not someone who is comfortable around animals, apart from cats, who don’t give a toss anyway. But I’m drawn in by Di Slaney’s poems about animals because of their knowledgeableness, like Ted Hughes’ poems in What is the truth .
I like poems that grow out of absorbed research. I love the way the language of research seeps into the fabric of the poetry and fast-dyes it
What else? I like writing that grows out of specific, realised places. I think that it probably started with Akenfield, to stories that evolve through generations lived in a single place. The Rainbow,and Alan Garner’s wonderful Stone Book Quartet.
Apart from all this, Di Slaney writes what Jonathan Edwards has described as ‘sophisticated and dexterous poems…..beautifully crafted and very moving’.There are terza rimas, every conceivable variant on the sonnet (and faux-sonnet) with crafty and elegant rhyme schemes. The poems have a sure-footedness that lets you know just where you are, and how to hear them; there’s a precise ear for line breaks, for diction, for rhythm, and so much richness of rhyme; slant rhymes, internal rhymes. So much music.”
Every one who has reviewed or endorsed Herd Queen seems to say much the same sort of things, as Di acknowledges when she brought me up to date on what she’s been doing since 2016. I asked:
“…..if you could write me a bit about what’s happened since May 2016, not least how you came to to put “Herd Queen’ together. I suppose I’m partly asking, because Herd Queen bucks the trend (it seems to me) of the thematically organised collection. What I like about yours is that chunks of it could be freestanding pamphlets, and in any case it’s wide-ranging in its range of characters, voices, forms, moods, landscapes…..it is, in fact, refreshing, as most endorsers and reviewers seem to agree. And I bet it’s the only collection I’ve read to be briefly reviewed in The Countryman!“
A few big ‘life stage’ things have happened to me since May 2016 – I became sole owner of Candlestick Press in that year, then in 2017 our private animal sanctuary here on the smallholding became a registered charity specialising in disabled and special needs livestock – see www.manorfarmcharitabletrust.org. And then in June 2019 I was diagnosed with a brain tumour. The latter two events definitely fed into the development of Herd Queen – understanding the real focus of our animal care work and what a difference we can make to the welfare of those creatures in our care, and then finding strength in their situation for my own health issues. These experiences have surprisingly made me more light-hearted and joyful as a writer, and more determined to share light and shade in my writing – there are some dark pieces in Herd Queen but I wanted there to be humour and solace as well, from unexpected sources. Life throws us these curve balls but it’s up to us what we make of them – if we’re adaptive and resourceful like the animals, then we carry on living for the day and making the best of what we have, or at least try to.
And you’re very right to comment on the thematically miscellaneous nature of the collection! It was pieced together out of several wholes – where there was a short sequence of work in one particular direction at one time – but what I’ve tried to do is unite it all under one concept, that of the vigorous and challenging caprine Herd Queen who will zig and zag all over the hillside to protect her territory and her companions, covering plenty of ground in the process. Someone once said that my writing is muscular in style and I took that as a compliment (maybe it wasn’t intended that way!) so these different forms and voices and moods are flexes of those muscles. I do hope it isn’t a messy read, and that it doesn’t cause too much head-scratching for the reader – the first section is intended to be an extension of the land and animals themes of Reward for Winter, the second section an exploration of human and family relationships from a variety of sources and then the third is the naughty section…
It does mean of course that the book can pop up in unexpected places like Knitting or Yours magazine or The Countryman, as well as reviewed in literary journals like London Grip or Raceme. “
Paula Meehan wrote that
“All that is animate has Di Slaney’s attention…….. Her poems are robust and earthy, subtle and direct by turn, her insight often witty and sometimes wicked. …..She covers an impressive amount of ground in these warm, well-crafted poems, and she does it with considerable energy and style.”
Jonathan Edwards says that
“as a poet, she can do everything, from intricate sestina to energetic monologue, from musical lyric to vibrant prose poem. But even more important are the ends to which she employs her technical gifts……. Slaney’s animal poems remind us of Hughes and of Liz Berry in their forging of a new language to describe that experience…… her poems about people give us everything from a cobbler great grandfather to Frankie Goes to Hollywood, ‘tongue and spittle snogs’ to Shirley Bassey. “
All this only reminds me of the difficulty I’ve had in deciding how to present my ideas about Herd Queen , its clusters of poems about wounded animals, about family photographs, about Saudi evacuees , about forgotten histories from meticulously researched local histories. Add to that the range of form and structure..ballads, prose poems, sonnets, dramatic monologues (in stanzas), lots of complex rhyme schemes…including the absurdly complicated Welsh gwawdodyn (no, I’d not come across it, either). How will I do it all justice? The answer’s simple enough. I can’t. I’ll simply share some of my favourites . Off we go.
‘Big goat left to die in snow’ was all that I
was told, and that she was old, so promised
I would go along to meet her, see how her
ordeal had left her and if there were no
major complications, nothing more
they could do, I’d bring her here. Fear
penned her nosefirst in that stable corner, fear
so strong the reek of it sank me to my knees. I
softtouched her coat and bones, promised
I would do the best I could, would give her
all the food she needed to be well. She made no
sound, didn’t move or flinch, had more
sorespots than I’d first noticed, more
dirt than grey in thinwhitecoat. The fear
kept her silent that first week when all I
did was strawsit with her, promising
she could have a friend, that her
hollowrumen hungeraches would end, no
one would hurt her here. There was no
clue she’d heard or understood, it was more
that she put up with me. Yearslearnt fear
still flickered in her eyes each time I
tugged the stable door, the promise
I’d be back offering no comfort, her
nostrils alarmwide with whiff of me. But her
appetite was good and she had no
trouble eating, brokenmouthed with more
teeth missing than remained. One day, fear
seemed to hover above the haypile and I
breathstopped while she cudded, promising
myself patience would pay, promising
her the moon if only she’d respond. Then her
blackovals set in gold met startledmine, no
hesitation now with ears uppricked, more
curious with nose cleanpink and wet. Fear
evaporated like milkspurt on warm grass and I
kept my word every day after, although we only had
her for a year. She died in May whitesunshine while
I stroked her beard, promised her no more fear.
There’s a lot to like in this poem, not least the way it treads carefully around the edges of sentimentality without actually falling in; I’m thinking of what Di said about the possibilities of reciprocal healing, the:
difference we can make to the welfare of those creatures in our care, and then finding strength in their situation for my own health issues.
I like the way the opening stanza is very close to prose-with-line-breaks; the poem begins with a business-like transaction, the voice that says, ‘well, I’ll come round and have a look, but I’m making no promises’. retrospectively, you realise that a lot of rhymes and pararhymes have been set up, and that they’re sustained right through. They’re all monosyllabic, from linked stanza to stanza. There’s an edginess about them, which has to work alongside the strongly textured reality of the animal, and its fear that requires new-minted kennings for its description. I didn’t expect to like this poem, and then found that I did, not least because of the turning point that depends on two different kinds of eyes making a connection.
blackovals set in gold met startledmine
Texture is especially what you notice in the next poem, which is self-evidently written by someone who knows a thing or two about wool. (The first time I met Di Slaney was at an Interpreter’s House launch in Leeds; it was also the first time I met a poet who brought wool from her own sheep to sell as well as books.) A handy note in the collection explains that
Witches cannot resist wool, & this Mazey Ball from The Museum of Witchcraft in #Cornwall is so filled. It was believed “no witch could cast an evil eye on the owner until she had counted every bit of wool in the house.” Aberdeen Press & Journal, 17th Nov 1932.
She watched him gather tufts from fences
along the field, as he’d watched her finger wool
in the village yarn shop, her gaze low and dark, small
brown hands lingering over skeins still fresh
from early shearing. That night he switched off all
the lights and kept squat candles burning on the hearth,
their flicker pointing beams and cracks in ancient brickwork.
His thickweave cushions, driftwood hangings and peg
loom rugs brought the flock indoors, while by the fire
raw fleece sacks breathed their sweetness across
the room towards the porch. Single storeyed, the cottage
eased itself to darkness as he doused his mug goodnight
and padded to the bed, cablesocks three quarters high
on tanned and knotted calves, tired legs. The ball twined
above the kitchen stove where a skillet used to drop,
anchored by aran ply to a thumbed black squab.
Candlelight caught cream, a flash of white, then grey
as the ball twisted first this way, then that. He lay on one
hundred quilted crochet squares, felt each deadwifestitch
pressing into skin like penance, but resolute he still listened;
breathsure, heartloose. When the front latch snagged at two,
he smiled and reached beneath the bed, shepherded silence
along the flags to find her backwards in the shadows, ball in hand,
bloodblack hair flowing down a feltstiff gown above her knees.
Skin glistened, and she seemed to halo pale fawn fibre
that curled towards him, her bare feet pointed in two cleaves
of hoof, and soft noise escaped her lips like new lambs bleating
in barn sunlight. She never shifted from the ball, kept
mumblecounting little threads, so he gently snaked his crook
around her neck like every ewe he’d ever landed, and snared his witch.
I chose this one because it’s such a beautifully told tale, and one which actually relishes its own narrative tricks. The question of who is watching who, and who will be the catcher and who the caught is set up so deftly in those first two lines, as is the ambiguity of time and place. The title says ‘once upon a time’, but the ‘village wool shop’ says ‘now’, as does his switching off the lights. It’s a very satisfying piece of storytelling ending, too. He ‘snared his witch’. What her nature is and why he should snare her is unresolved. I love it and all its imagery, its filmic moments, the slowly turning ball anchored by aran ply to a thumbed black squab, that satisfying solidity.
I want to share three more poems, but with minimal commentary. The next two are monologues /ventriloqual but could not be more different in tone and style.
The first is Di’s take on a piece of research about her neighbourhood of Bilsthorpe . Dame Elizabeth Broughton was the widow of Sir Brian Broughton who counted Bilsthorpe as part of his estate. On the 15th April 1727, she defended herself in court against a bill of complaint brought by William Hodgson. The gist of the matter appears to be that Sir Brian promised an annuity to his mistress Anne Carter, which Dame Elizabeth has defaulted on. During further research, it appeared that Dame Elizabeth had been previously accused of causing the death of Anne Carter in a fire, and her relations are now retrospectively claiming the annuity as it was passed to them after her death. In transcripts of the court record, Dame Elizabeth defends herself vigorously, claiming that she is ‘entirely a stranger’ to all allegations and claims.
All I’ll say is that you might like to decide whether Dame Elizabeth is as innocent/naive as she appears to make out, or whether she’s being at least disingenuous.
Dame Elizabeth Broughton answers the court
15th April 1727
Sir, I am entirely a stranger to proceedings here.
You must forgive a poor widow’s lack of grasp,
for in all such matters prior, my dear late husband
Sir Brian Broughton would stand. Since his demise
all must forgive my widow’s grasp, my lack of
certainty. I have not slept, the thought of how
Sir Brian would not stand for this and his demise
weighs heavy on my mind, for I am growing more
certain, despite not sleeping, that the thought of
Anne Carter and her claims for full annuity would
weigh too heavy on his mind, of this I am more sure.
She was a scandal and a scold, beg pardon the court,
the name Anne Carter and her canny claims would
have ruined a lesser man, but not my husband.
He pardoned her the scandal, I begged and scolded
him to end his visits to her, but he courted disaster
like a lesser man, was briefly not at all my husband.
Those boys she had, he hoped them his, would only
end his visits when he saw William Hodgson courted
her, how quickly she came undone, how hot she flushed.
Those boys she had were never his, his only hope of
siring heirs lost years before when his horse tipped him,
but the way she flushed and came undone, the heat
of her convinced him for a time that he had it in him
to sire heirs. I lost our boy when his horse tipped him
and they told me he was crushed, unlike to live.
He convinced me for a time he still had it in him
to recover, do his duty for the parish, but I knew
our hopes were crushed even as I learned to live.
Sir, I wander and you are right to rally me to task.
I am recovered, will state my duty for the parish but
I will not cede on the amount. Her boys have no right
to wander into our affairs and rally your support.
When Mistress Carter died in last year’s fire, her
boys amounted to naught and I will not cede my rights.
What, sir, the fire? I know naught of how it started.
Anne Carter died and that’s all I knew of it last year.
In such matters, my late husband would know best.
I had no part in that fire. May the court forgive me
for I feel entirely strange, sir. Proceed without me here.
You might like to read the opening three lines and and then the last three, and listen to the echoes, and ask yourself if it’s not that bit too artful, too ‘rehearsed’. For contrast, then, here’s the second poem from the sequence ,The Songs of Saudi , developed in collaboration with composer Omar Shahryar, and based on recorded interviews with his mother, father and brother about their evacuation from Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War of 1990. The first poem in the sequence ‘Shona’s Song’ became the lyrics to a performance piece for the 2017 Leeds Lieder Festival, with music composed by Omar sung by mezzo-soprano Emily Hodkinson. Side by side, you might think they were the work of two different poets, which is a tribute to the range of what you discover in this unclassifiable collection.
Di Slaney can do lushly textured poems and then she can do this stripped back, near abstract, monochrome that is full of the aching distance of separation and disembodiment to the accompaniment of flickering TV screens and mindless electronic noise. It’s heartbreaking. But I wouldn’t leave you with a voice calling out of separation. I’ll finish instead with one from the third section of the book, from the what DI Slaney calls ‘the naughty ones’. If this poem was a painting it would be by Beryl Cooke, a saucy postcard of a poem. It’s in the same world as Pam Ayres’ asking forlornly ‘do you think Bruce Springsteen would fancy me?’
Feather boa, sequins, diamonds and lace,
Nut-brown bare arms and firm upright chassis –
so few wrinkles on that beaming face,
at 73, I want to be Shirley Bassey.
No bond can contain her, the dame is forever.
Feisty, fearless, well-sussed and sassy –
she may be a spender, spendthrift never never;
at 73, I have to be Shirley Bassey.
Belting voice, smutty laugh, star-spangled life,
diva supreme from a Tiger Bay lassie.
OK, not every man’s ideal wife,
but at 73, I must be Shirley Bassey.
Thigh slits, stilettos and festival wellies –
no wheelchair for me, I’ll still wiggle my assy.
Tight-fitting gowns will restrain all my bellies
and at 73, I will be Shirley Bassey.
Di Slaney..Thank you for being our guest..It’s taken me ages to finally write this post about Herd Queen. I hope I’ve given the readers a sense of its range and richness, and I hope I’ve persuaded them to go and buy it.
Feeling under the weather. Again. Not up to doing justice to a guest poet who I admire greatly. In the meantime, more stocking fillers. Sometimes in a workshop someone may ask you to write a poem about an imaginary event. Invent a bit of history, but, if possible, treat it with great seriousness. When I think about it, a great deal of the ‘history’ I was taught in school was actually of this sort. Kings burning cakes. Noblemen drowned in butts of malmsey. England being ‘founded’ by descendants of Aeneas. Richard the Second being a monster. That sort of thing. Who knows, if you’re deadpan enough, it might just get some leverage, like urban myths. This one was triggered by a starter poem by Billy Collins.
1470. Annus mirabilis
(after Billy Collins: ‘Nostalgia’)
1470. We’ll not forget that in a hurry;
the year they invented Jam.
We’d hear rumours,
folk passing on the turnpike,
a shout on the wind
from the back of a lathered horse.
‘Jam’ they’d shout. ‘Jam’.
We’d sit in the Tarred Pheasant
at the end of a day’s slurry-shifting,
or fettling capons, or stooking hares,
Change was never good.
The moon had been a funny colour
all through Martinmas,
the vicar’s wife had lost her arm to croup,
mice took to midnight swimming in the dewpond
by the mandrake patch in Cotton’s Bog.
All sorts of tales were rife.
Jam would bring back sight to the goitred.
Jam would take off a murrain,
make a slack-twisted pigman smell sweet.
It was more than that.
Fruit that didn’t roll off tables.
Fruit you could stick your hair down with..
No good would come of it. Devils’ work
Alternatively, you could make up your own historical figures. Lord knows, ‘history’ has edited out 99% of the people who actually made it. By a pleasing synergy, jam features in this one , too.
Let us remember them.
St. John Chatsworth Grace:
inventor of the reversible umbrella,
serviceable in jungle and in desert
to deflect, or conserve, rain
Enoch Waterman of Burslem
who patented a fruitless jam
and a device for getting blood from stones
Frederick Jagger, the Pennine Penitent
Who, daily, walked barefoot to his work in Rochdale
from Todmorden to mortify the flesh
and save on cobblers’ bills
and once walked backwards for a week
to see the future unfurl in his wake
Remember Benjamin Hardwick of Haworth
who patiently engraved the Book of Genesis
on the obverse of a halfpenny
that he accidentally put,
with a handful of loose change,
in a collection tin for
the Overseas and Colonial Society
for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge,
and who shortly after died,
consumed by irony .
Next week, I promise, there will be a proper post with proper poetry. And who knows, the country might have accidentally stumbled into sanity by then. Go well. Wear a mask. Keep a safe distance.
Another family of stocking filler/stand-up poems is the stereotype poem. Another workshop task I’ve enjoyed, too. The first one I remember was one set up by Peter Sansom, the invitation being to write about a group of people entirely through the medium of generalisations, stereotypes and downright lies.
I think I’d recently been to Beverley folk festival for the weekend. Curiously, I’ve performed this particular poem at Beverley , and in loads of folk clubs….and the thing is, I’m invariably asked by folk if they can have a copy. People like it, and very often they could well be in the poem. I think it was Swift who said that ‘Satire is a Glass in which men see all men’s Features but their own’
There’s a companion piece to this called ‘Literary Festival Folk’ but there’s no way I’d ever post it. I’m also reminded that Bob Horne wrote one about his times at the Cambridge Folk Festival. It’s a much kinder one than mine. Maybe I should ask him if he’ll share it.
Folk festival folk:
They work in council housing departments
and sing sad songs of flooded seams and firedamp,
poss-tubs, pinnies, lockouts ,blacklegs,
Or tutors in evening classes
who know The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens,
and Matty Groves by heart; they sing without
accompaniment. And slow. And flat. They never miss
a verse. They sing the chorus after every
one, bring unimagined nuances to
the meaning of interminable.
Some sell insurance; or work in call centres,
and sing , at length, about the whaling,
silver darlings, foundering trawlers, ice;
shawled fisherwives on shivering wharves
gazing at the widowing sea.
They drink real ale (the men), are
overweight and thin on top (long at back and sides);
their wives once looked, a bit, (they hoped) like Joan Baez;
For so many reasons I’m struggling to get going. I am collecting fragments to shore against the ruins of good intentions.
I’m thinking of something I read about Norman MacCaig (I think it may have been in Andrew Greig’s At the loch of the Green Corrie). Apparently he tried to stop smoking and his writing completely dried up until he went down to the corner shop, bought twenty Senior Service, and promptly wrote a sheaf of winners. I stopped smoking three months ago.
I’m thinking of one of my literary heroes, Commander Samuel Vines of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. Loving husband, besotted father, practising cynic and recovering alcoholic. Every evening at 6.00pm Sam Vines reads to Young Sam. It’s always the same book. Where’s my cow?
This reading he treats as an obligation which is non-negotiable,his thinking being that if he ever missed it for a good reason, he might miss it for a bad reason, and that this might apply to everything he does.
In other words, if you say you’re going to write a post featuring a guest on a certain day, then you should. I said I’d write this last Sunday. What can I say?
I’m not feeling too chipper; one of the after effects of the chemo I had at the start of the year is joint pain; it distracts and makes it hard to concentrate. Ideas come and go, I jot some down and when I go back to them they make no sense. Everything gets clogged up and tired, and I wait to be bestirred, for the old log in the river to twist and release in a release and a rush.
I’m missing the surprise of the face-to-face, the unpredictable encounter that disturbs or excites you in unexpected ways, like the headteacher of a small Primary school in a Pennine valley who once, without any notice, told a class of 10 year olds I worked in a circus. (For the full story follow this link: https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2014/04/28/by-way-of-explanation/).
I’m thinking about Piaget and his notions of assimilation and of accommodation, and what that has to do with the great fogginzo. I’m probably over-simplifying, at best, but I always took it to refer to two modes of learning (both essential. Not an either/or). The first kind consolidates your ideas about the way the world works. It doesn’t disturb you. We tend to read news that we agree with, or agrees with our model of things. Ditto fiction, and poetry. And so on. The second challenges and disturbs. It demands that you change your models and assumptions in greater or lesser degree…. like recognising, say, that the earth goes round the sun and not vice versa. Or agreeing that the Bible might be written in English. People died for ideas like that. Being challenged by a feisty headmistress to accept a role no one gave you the lines for demands accommodation.
If we want to grow, we need to be disturbed (in good ways). What I look for in poems and poets is that challenge to see the world anew, and in ways that ultimately change me. And it’s what I find, in spades, in the work of today’s guest, Natalie Rees, and particularly in her pamphlet Low Tide from Calder Valley Poetry. Here’s a taste of the sort of disturbance I mean, the moment that pulls you in.
Four men form a circle around you; you have been plucked out: Praise the Lord, are you ready to receive Him tonight! one shouts at you, eyes on the crowd. ………………………………………………………….. The catcher with the bald head lunges from behind, hands at your armpits, next to the lady with the modesty blanket ready to cover your knee-high socks when you hit the linolleum floor.
I’ll give you some context for this later on but there’s so much going on in these eight lines, the moment becomes locked in you memory. For me it all spins around that phrase you have been plucked out. ‘You’ have been given no choice. It’s such a sudden verb, isn’t it? Those four men (why men ?) are loud and threatening. At least one is playing to the crowd. The bald headed ‘catcher’ has his hands at ‘your’ armpits. It’s unsettling, creepily intrusive. And the lady with the modesty blanket is complicit, standing by. And you are a child in knee high socks.
I think Kim Moore nails the quality of the moment in her endorsement of Natalie’s pamphlet:
“Filled with unforgettable lines, a wry humour and keen and exact observations……. In her examination of an unusual childhood, Rees refuses to look away from the difficult truth of how darkness and love can coexist”.
It must be time to introduce the guest.
It’s five years ago..2016!!!…at the Otley Open Mic that I heard her read for the first time. For me it was the stand-out voice and the stand-out poem, though she wasn’t the winner. Natalie Rees reads with a rare musical clarity…I’ve written before how I’m a sucker for Irish voices, and Irish vowels…but it was a lot more than Irishness that made me sit up and listen.
The next time I heard her was later that year at a grand event as part of Bradford Literature Festival. It was in a huge room in the Midland Hotel, a room like something out of the Titanic. Mirrors, chandeliers, banquet room chairs and a dubious sound system. She shared a bill with Peter Riley and Kim Moore among others, and read her poems and told the stories that surrounded them with absolute assurance. A natural. I asked her that afternoon if she’d be a guest on the cobweb, and she said she’d rather not, that she didn’t have enough work out there to give some up for the blog.
That made me sit up and take notice. In these self-publicising, rushtogetabookout days its refreshing. I kept asking. I asked her to be a guest poet at the Puzzle Poets, and she put that off for a very long time. Same reason. Bob Horne told her he’d be interested in publishing her…eventually he did, but not until she was quite sure that what she’s written was ready. I have an early draft of what became Low Tide. The working title was The thin places. The title poem of that found its place in Low Tide, but so much else didn’t. And all that discipline and self-criticism has paid off, wonderfully. As Natalie wrote when she finally became a guest of the cobweb in 2017:
” I suppose I have always had the makings of a writer in me but it’s been a bit of a journey along the way to find my voice, which I think don’t really came until I found myself. I began to write poetry in my school days, elbowed on by a wonderfully cynical, disaffected English teacher, Ms. O’ Neill, ………I went on to train as a primary teacher. I taught for ten years, only going to the odd open mic here and there but always reading.
The Bloodaxe anthologies were the gateway for my revived attempts, and in 2008, I signed up for the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester. It was a full-on year studying under Vona Groarke and John Mc Auliffe, and I gave a few readings of my final portfolio. Then life got in the way – wedding, house, child, career change (copywriting), bereavement – there was always something to keep the engine going.
Poetry is that thing that does not let you go though, and it has always boomeranged its way back to me through people and through places. If were to give it a relationship status, it would read ‘it’s complicated’.
At the moment, (2017) the largest portion of my time is dedicated to my postgraduate studies in Play Therapy and my clinical placement. In my spare time, I am writing when I can and I am in early-day cahoots with Bob Horne at Calder Valley Press working towards my first pamphlet.”
There’s so much to think about here, but one thing sticks in my mind and won’t leave me:
Poetry is that thing that does not let you go
Natalie Rees writes what won’t let her go. When she read at the Bradford Festival, she told the story of her complicated childhood.She was born and raised in Ireland to a German Mother and Irish father who were both pastors of a Pentecostal Christian Church; it wasn’t done with any self-dramatising, though I could imagine another writer wringing out every last drop of emotional trauma. I thought it was a powerful example of how poetry lets us understand our own selves, where we came from, who we are. When we can get it clear to ourselves, then we may be ready to tell others the story.
The poem that stood out for me in her Bradford set was No. 6 Highfield Grove. If you’ve seen the TV film version of Oranges are not the only fruit think of that.Read it aloud. Hear it in an Irish voice. Think of a small Irish town where almost all the population is Catholic.
No. 6 Highfield Grove
Every Wednesday they would come.
Fill all the spaces on our street,
just after the RTÉ news at 6.
Ford Fiestas, Mazdas, Fiat Pandas.
The Christian Mafia
armed with leather concordances, tambourines
and acetates in plastic sleeves
with the guitar chords penned over the lyrics in red –
tiny bullets lined up to lose their lives for Jesus.
We are waging war on the kingdom of darkness.
From three fold-up beach chairs, two foot pouffes,
an armchair and a couch.
And they would shape their bodies into capital ‘Y’s,
their closed eyes squinting towards the light
of some invisible sun as the guitar strummed on.
Shine Jesus, shine, fill this land with the father’s glory.
Then it would start with
one – a word of knowledge,
two – a prophesy in season,
three – a foreign tongue,
four – an interpretation of the foreign tongue.
By then Margaret would have a vision,
there would be a light growing around me,
God would have a specific healing ministry for my life.
I am five.
This would be followed by the laying on of hands.
There would not be enough room for the onslaught
of soldiers for Christ scattered across our sitting room floor,
and Jimmy the Baker writhing like a long-tailed rattlesnake,
my father swiping the air above with the sword of the Word.
I would count shoes: two pairs of runners,
six pairs of navy, five brown.
Line my wax crayons in order from black to white,
rearrange my fuzzy felt shepherds and kings.
Put the manger on its own on the hillside with the sheep.
I can read and re-read this poem, and never get tired of it. I like its complete self-sufficiency. It’s dense and layered, and still needs no backstory explanation. Everything you need to know is there, balancing on one simple line:
I am five.
The narrator’s resistance (whose weapons are crayons and fuzzy felt) to the surreal juxtaposition of suburban domesticity and religious fervour is made simple and remarkable by that uncluttered and unanswerable truth. No wonder the poet became a Play Therapist. I love the child’s achieved indifference to the Jimmy the baker’s frenzy, and father brandishing the sword of the Word. It took me to Jeanette Winterson, and one of the things she wrote about “Oranges….”
“I didn’t want to tell the story of myself, but someone I called myself. If you read yourself as fiction, it’s rather more liberating than reading yourself as fact………….In the library I felt better, words you could trust and look at till you understood them, they couldn’t change half way through a sentence like people, so it was easier to spot a lie”
The thing I find remarkable in Natalie Rees’ poems is her ability to stand with and simultaneously outside herself at the key moments she selects. And her honesty, too. Her persona can’t always resist through play and a distanced imagination. She can lose herself in the world of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but she also understands why she needed to.
Laura Ingalls, I turned the top shelf of my plywood wardrobe
into your mid-western attic bedroom,
and sneaked up matches to read my Bible by paraffin lamp
made out of a used Nutella jar and tea light.
I craved your wholesome life, so safe and contained. If only
we could all skip around swinging packed lunches
in tin pails, wearing starched cotton dresses with white aprons,
everything in my eight-year-old life would be okay.
Laura Ingalls, I spent Sunday afternoons fantasising
your father Charles would step out of the screen
into my living room, and pinch my cheek,
and call me Half-Pint,
his eyes meeting mine with all the twinkle
I needed a paternal figure to soak my shame
into the metallic sweetness of his flannel shirt.
That unguarded admission “I craved your wholesome life, so safe and contained ” retrospectively colours so many of the other poems where play can’t resist the darker forces crowding in
She asks how my week has been. I tell her
the Bible verses I have been standing on
are not working. The problem is never at God’s end
she tells me, asks me to bow my head.
She invites the holy spirit into this space.
I am crying and I don’t know why.
Let him do his work in you she says. He’s a gentleman.
He will never forcehis way.
(Prayer ministry at the Old Fish Shop)
At other times, it may be a an insouciant swagger, a laugh-out-loud scatalogical defiance that’s the answer
we are in the last throes of fucking on our daughter’s square
Billy bookcase on the top landing and I lose my cum
because all I can think is if I fallover the banister to the bottom step
will he finish himself off before he dials 999
(La Petite Mort)
I love the way this poem comes hard on the heels of the one in praise of the Little House on the Prairie, and lets you know, very early on in the collection, that accommodation is going to be the name of the game. There’s so much going on in this apparently slim collection that I can’t do it justice. Ian Humphreys has commented on the voice and technical ease of the poetry, and its range of line and imagery :
startling images and dream-like narratives drift across the page, never quite settling. ……Natalie Rees has an original voice and an unflinching gaze……There’s potency in what’s left unsaid, in the hesitancy of a line-break, the held breath of white space.
John Macauliffe draws your attention to the range of themes and ideas; most memorably, he called it ‘a poetry of becoming”. (I wish I’d said that).
The poems in Low Tide pick their way through a minefield of ideals and ideas about the body, gender, family and faith; addressing themselves to lovers, a husband, preachers, the language of the Bible, the German language of a mother, the dead, the emergency services and, in one of its most brilliant poems, Laura Ingalls.
What I’ll do now is indulge myself (and you) by sharing two poems about the poet’s mother and their complicated relationship. …as someone who finds himself endlessly trying to explain and understand his relationship with a mother who could not be, what’s the word? appeased? I’m open-mouthed with admiration for what they achieve.
The first is stylistically conventional. It seems to acknowledge the diffuse sort of guilt some of us feel when we think we never knew someone as we should have, and now it’s too late. It’s also tender, funny and loving…..an underrated quality. It makes me think of Tony Harrison’s ‘UZ can be loving as well as funny’. It has the feel of the family stories we share at funerals, after the service, after the tears.
My mother was never waiting
for my father but on
him. I had to sit on the table and never at.
I ate Schnitzel with flowery potatoes
mashed with vinegar and oil,
wore matching dirndls with my sister on Sundays.
Some days she would bundle
us in the orange Fiat to St.Patrick’s Well,
send us in to rob the coins between the moss.
Superstition is vitchcraft,
she would say, and afterwards we would buy 99s
from the van and count the Catholics on their way to burn.
V’s were W’s and W’s were V’s.
And she would take me to wiolin lessons in the willage
I love that image of the lot of them hunched over chips while ‘mam sped through the second coming’. And I am glad of the sense of absolution that comes from the image of cake crumbs placed on her mother’s lips, like a fragment of host, and the breathed last word. Lecker. It’s like forgiveness.
Finally , a poem that’s full of haunting imagery and spaces in which you can lose yourself. Fingers crossed that WordPress will hold its carefully crafted shape
that summer the sea spread her white arms .
across the bay dragged back the whelks the driftwood
the lobster traps the nylon mesh wiped the spray
from the tops of the children’s heads
left them naked on the shore
they sat there with vacant eyes
shoving fistfuls of sand into their dry mouths
one day you’ll thank me she told them
crawling backwards scraping her knees
along the rocky bed
shhhhh shhhhsh shush the oldest one said
as she grew smaller
a pencil-blue line
so static you could balance a glass marble on her
the children walked for days to get her back
it was hard to see where the sky ended
and their blue mother began
flat and lifeless on the edge
of their world
nothing else but sand for miles
the younger ones crying because their feet were so hot
when will mother stand up is she sleeping?
Mother when you left I couldn’t find the word
every time I closed my eyes to focus
all I could see were coral bones ebbing further
you moved with such harmony I thought to not be alive must be a beautiful thing
What a lovely accomplished thing this is. I’ve tried many times to write about how I waited for my mother to die, how I waited with her, and about what it meant. But this image of the tide going out and the the children being left
with vacant eyes shoving fistfuls of sand into their dry mouths
and the line of the sea indistinguishable from where the sky begins, all that has done what I couldn’t do for myself, and I’m grateful for it.
It’s taken me too long to write about this remarkable first collection. If there were any justice, (and no pandemic) Natalie Rees would have been signed up for readings all round the country, and would have sold out several print runs. What can I say? You can do your bit. Buy yourself copies of Low Tide. Tell your friends. Share this post. Here’s link to a page with a Paypal button
Just a reminder about why I thought I’d start this occasional series of ‘poems I’d never dream of sending out to magazines or journals’.
“One reason why I write poems, and about poems, is that some years ago I used to go to folk clubs which were essentially sing-/play-arounds. ……. That’s how it started. At first I’d perform other people’s poems…Pam Ayres, Roger McGough, Mike Harding and so on. Because poems in folk clubs basically, need to be funny, probably need to rhyme, and need a punch line. They need to be compact and robust. Which is what much oral poetry was, originally. After a bit, I started to write my own, rather than (or as well as) freeload off other poets. Bit by bit I assembled a folder that I called ‘Stand-ups and stocking fillers’. Sometimes I’d use some of them to finish a set at a reading, just to leave the audience with a laugh, or sometimes to relieve what may have been a bleak sequence. One or two have been published. “
Very often, writing workshops would set a task that prompted what I’d think of as a stocking filler. When I think about it, most of them started life like this. I don’t think I ever sat down unprompted, thinking, you know what? I think I’ll write something funny…a stand-up poem.
The first two “stocking fillers”, posted a couple of weeks ago, were written in response to invitations to write about imaginary/invented places.
Today I thought I’d share two about real places. The first in response to a prompt to write about somewhere you’ve never been, but as though you know all about it. It’s an invitation to plunder your favourite films and novels, when you come to think about it. If you’re ever stuck for something to do, why not try it?
There’s a fat wet slap of paddles, the gambling boats
on Pontcharrain; damp lawn and cotton, sweet lavender,
limp dogs in the streets, dancing girls and their laughter,
a slow slow blues playing somewhere, and high-yellow girls
in first floor windows, the slow swing of a silky leg
from a fretwork iron balcony, a shiver of hibiscus,
pale bougainvillia, a yellow playbill in the lazy breeze
of a dusty street, the tilt of a tight-brimmed bowler hat,
a flash of white teeth, and a reek of skillet oil,
of cornbread frying, the iodine of fresh-shucked oysters,
tobacco juice, the moonlight tang of smoke from lit cheroots,
a boardwalk castanet of heels, the alarm of mockingbirds,
a slur of Cajun French and all the icing sugar saloons
and bars, bordellos, gambling joints, and the river
huge and brown and slow, its towheads, boils and rips,
shoals of punched shell by the button factories. Spanish moss.
Never been there.
Read about it, some.
The second one was a response to an invitation to write about something someone said. It could be something odd and out of character; it could be something they often say, something quite peculiar to them..like a malapropism. My first wife’s great aunt used to tell neighbours I worked in ‘one of them apprehensive schools’. I sometimes think about writing a poem describing the curriculum.
This however is about something said by the poet and all-round good chap, Christopher North, and said in a real place. In the real place we were scrambling up a steep place below a cliff, looking for Iberian pottery shards. In the real place, he slipped and ripped the backside out of his trousers.
we’re climbing this hill,
a shaly slope ,a broken spine of stone,
all levels and layers , silicas, sandstones,
muds, and coral flowers, when he says :
from here we have to bushwack .
Cue long shot :
winding canyon, 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, wired- up Commanche on a piebald horse, contempt like a scalp on the tip of a lance, Black Hills Sioux, with 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, 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.
Right. I’m off for a hearing test; 8.00am tomorrow I’m having a CT Scan. I’ve booked a telephone appointment with the doctor to find why, after chemo, I’ve got chronic joint pain and permanent fatigue. My dad used to have a joke he’d trot out in these circumstances, the punch line being. Does it hurt? Only when I laugh. Exactly. Where would I be without you all?
I’ve got a great guest poet coming up for the next Catching Up post…hopefully this Sunday. See you then. Crossed fingers xx
It strikes me from time to time that while I have loads of photographs of my mum before she met my dad, there are none of him. I have no images of him as a child, or as a young man (apart from one in a group photo of the Salvation Army Band, in which he played cornet or trumpet as required).
I know loads of stories about my mum and her brother and her sisters, about their childhood. I know them because she told me. None at all about my dad, because he didn’t, and neither did his mum, the only grandparent alive after I was barely six months old.
I know one story about my dad as a young man. It’s hardly a story. Just something one of his fellow bird watchers said in a passing comment…one that I never followed up. “He liked a bet, your dad.” It has no context, this remark, and he certainly showed no interest in the horses or the football pools in all the time I knew him.
So it’s fair to say, there’s always been that sense of a mystery about him, something he kept to himself, in the place where he kept the dreams and ambitions he never talked about. So this is a memory of that part of him I wish I could have asked him about.
It wasn’t that he thought of a previous life,
but rather of a might-have-been one,
the one he was due. You saw it
in the the set of the shoulder, his eyes,
and most of all you saw it in his clothes.
He could never resist a nice suit length.
Three piece, double vent, hand-stitched.
He liked a worsted, a fine herringbone.
He dressed like a gent, trimmed his ‘tache
accordingly. I really think he thought
himself a changeling.
Gypsies or elves,
were involved, and careless nursemaids.
The heir to something better. That was him.
Though gentlemen don’t test the worsted
in a pattern book the way he did, don’t
take their suit-lengths to little shops
in small dark streets off City Square,
to dapper men with bandleader’s hair.
Maybe that was what lay behind the rebel in him, that showed itself in small ways, and in unexpected contexts. Like the Yorkshire Naturalists. The birdwatchers in the mould of the Kinder protestors. Here they are, the revolutionaries at one of their Christmas do’s in a cafe in Otley. My dad’s the piratical one with the pipe.
Drawn to Mam Tor, to Kinder Downfall,
Simon’s Seat, Grass Woods, The Strid;
they came by steam train, on the bus,
away from mill and pit and forge,
an England dark with smoke;
passing crumbled slums, grand
neo-classic terraces, iron-railinged
parks, until the cities petered out
on the edges of high moors, big skies;
they came to the quiet of neat fields,
of drystone walls.
They walked miles,
wore caps or trilbies, belted macs,
flapping turn-up trousers, ordinary shoes.
They knew the habitats of birds and flowers;
they knew shortcuts and hidden waterfalls,
would pull aside wired gates,
push over ‘Private: Keep Out’ boards,
would not be kept from bluebell woods.
At school we had to pray they’d be forgiven,
those trespassers, who rambled viking fells,
ghylls and cloughs, sour gritstone moors
and green lanes cropped by mourning sheep.
They knew the land they walked should not be owned,