I committed myself to ‘catching up’….particularly and especially to catching up with work I liked by poets that I like. At one time I used to do this pretty much on a weekly basis (I had a role model called Kim Moore). Still do, but I simply can’t keep up. But I do want to keep the great fogginzo’s cobweb ticking over.
How many of you remember The Interlude on television, when there was only one (b/w) channel and a 17” screen was regarded as excessive, and potentially damaging to eyesight unless you lived in a huge house? Programme sequences were interrupted intermittently by the interlude. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was because the programmers had all grown up with the notion that visual entertainment like the theatre and the cinema traditionally had interval breaks when you could in one case go to the bar, and in another, buy an ice cream from a lady with a tray. Or maybe they thought that television posed too great a challenge to the concentration and/or eyesight, and that viewers needed a break for reasons of health and safety.
Whatever the reason,there would be a break that may feature a gently turning windmill or the hands of a person you never saw working at a potter’s wheel. It’s only just now struck me that they both involved turning wheels. Why? Are wheels soothing? If you use Google, you’ll find there was also one with a lady working a spinning wheel, but every now and then, a kitten playing with a ball of wool, and one of teams of horse drawn ploughs.
So I thought that if it was good enough for the BBC in its pomp, it was good enough for me. 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. The organiser would point to me and say “are you performing” and I’d say no and that would be it, until one night the organiser said ‘can’t you do a poem or something’. 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. 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 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. 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.
And now I see that I have a use for them again, in the absence of open mics and readings in the real world. The poetry equivalent of the potter’s wheel and the kitten with the ball of wool. So here we go with the very first interlude, the very first stocking filler, while I get on with planning the next Catching Up post.
Two poems tonight. Each comes from a workshop task. One where you’re given an obscure word from the OED (thanks for this one, Ann Sansom) and do something like writing a definition, or treating it as an object in a display case, or being taken on a guided tour of it. The second (thank you Carola Luther) is to be given a list of odd sounding/unusual place names and writing someting like a travel brochure entry for it..or, again, giving a guided tour. I think that at the time I’d been reading a book by Jonathan Raban about the abandoned settlements of the American prairies. Something of the sort. I sort of believe they’re real now. Here we go. Interlude time.
Sprung up damn near overnight
when the railroad come through. 1878.
Nuthin’ here but saltbush flats,
buncha tumbleweed, willows out by the creek.
Hard to tell. But this here’s Main street.
There’d a been the First National Bank,
grainstore, hardware, general store,
haberdashers, three saloons, a whorehouse
(course, they wouldna called it that).
Later, gas station, J C Penney’s, soda fountain,
Episcopalians, the Baptists, and the Coloured church,
Picture Palace, auto wrecker’s, stockyards.
Interstate went right on by, what,
twenty years gone now. Nuthin here
but saltbush flats, a buncha tumbleweed,
the creek run dry.
Them rusted-up gaspumps there.
Boanthropy. Sounds kinda fine.
Aint worth spit.
(To save you looking it up: boanthropy: a mental condition in which the sufferer believes he is an ox. OED)
Dead Women Crossing Bridge
Weren’t always a bridge, just a slackwater place,
sandspits, yellow bluffs, just a slow turn
on the river, willows on the edges.
Dead Women Crossing.
You might go there, one day.
Come off the Interstate. Ain’t no sign.
But come off by the Mobil place.
Been shut down twenty years or more.
Rusted to hell.
Blacktop ain’t too good.
Keep goin west. Just mesquite, prairie scrub.
Big red silo. Lundquist’s place.
Keep on past there. ‘Bout an hour near enough.
Used to be they had a store.
Baptist church still goin’.
Shotgun motel. And the bridge.
Over that you’re out the other side.
Goin’ nowhere pretty much.
That’s it. Dead Women Crossing.
Why they call it Dead Women Crossin’?
Maybe sometime back they was some women went and died there.
Next time, we’ll be doing some catching up. See you then.
Hey, you guys, you gotta wear ties on the weekend! : Eddie Cochran
We had Weekends when I first started this poetry blog, and Sundays were for writing poetry blog posts. I didn’t always want to, but the routine was the thing. A bit like Saturday night being all right for fighting. Or the way that Saturday nights before television were for going to the cinema or the Mecca.
Something has happened to time, to weeks and weekends in the last 14 months. Isolation, shielding and lockdowns effectively meant there were no trips out, no holidays, no shopping. Shopping was something a neighbour did for us, or, more alarmingly, what I did late at night via Google, so that Amazon kept delivering stuff I couldn’t quite remember ordering. In theory I could have got up and gone to bed at any time, since all times were much the same…..but the sun rises and sets and there is some kind of rhythm to hang on to. It’s just that the names of days don’t signify. There have been weeks when for three days in a row I might say things like I keep thinking it’s Friday. The routines slip.
Shortly, there will be no excuse. For a week now I’ve been relishing the heady excitements of getting in the car and driving to shops, of mooching round Wickes and B&Q, of buying gravel. Taking in the novelty and odd normality of sanitising stations at the doors of Sainsbury’s and the Tesco garage; the arrows and two-metre space markers on the floors. In odd ways, beyond the news headlines, this is not my country, not exactly. I don’t speak the language, or at least, not fluently. I’ve lost my tongue. I stutter.
So here I am, writing this on Bank Holiday Monday, which actually feels like a Sunday. Somehow I’m a week behind, again. One day I’ll know what day it is, and what I need to do on it. One day, maybe, I’ll really catch up. In the meantime let me say how pleased I am that Maria Taylor is today’s guest. I haven’t seen her since January 2020, in the far off days when writing workshops were in places like the Millenium Gallery in Sheffield, on frosty mornings. I’m mentioning this for a bit of serendipity…the poem she took to workshop in the afternoon was I began ther twenty-twenties as a silent film goddess is now the second poem in her second collection which was published last year, and which I will share with you all today.
[and now today is Tuesday. Lordy lordy. Not sure what happened there……it’s an odd business, coming down from chemo and coming off steroids. I was tired. Simple as that. Fingers crossed I get the job finished today.]
What I was about to say, yesterday, is that I remember two things about the afternoon workshop. One: it was in part of the art gallery, and there weren’t quite enough chairs to start with, and people kept peering in to see what we were up to. Two: I was knocked out by Maria’s poem and I said so, and afterwards managed to tell her that it felt like she was stepping up a gear, pushing the envelope, writing more boldly. I didn’t mean this in the way that one reviewer did.
In a “Litter” review, Alan Baker talks about an impressive achievement in which the poet’s move towards a language-driven poetics bears fruit in apparently simple poems about immediate experience which are woven effectively with more adventurous poetic structures.
There are certainly poems like Everything is is a fight between winter and spring (which is left- and right- justified), and And there she was in the shrunken apatrment… (which is right-justified) and Moon in Gemini which is right-justified and which, fashionably, uses forward slashes to break the lines.
But what I meant had nothing to do with form/poetics, and games with shape, but more about what John McCullough meant in his back cover endorsement: Maria Taylor’s new collection is exhilaratingly bold…[the poems] are constantly surprising. It also had something to do with what Kathy Pimlott calls her extravagantly vagrant thought paths (though I didn’t know that at the time ).You’ll see what they meant, shortly.
Maria was a guest poet for the cobweb back in 2015. There’s a link at the end of the post if you want to know more. At the time, I’d written a review of her first collection for The North, in which I said
‘Maria Taylor’s Melanchrini, whose title I take as the touchstone for the whole collection – melanchrini – ‘the dark-featured young woman’ , it seems, is, and isn’t Maria herself. An alter ego, a persona, that gives her license to watch and comment. Born in England of Greek/Cypriot parents, she and many of her personae inhabit the edgelands of overlapping, and sometimes antagonistic, cultures where a sense of identity and belonging sometimes feels hard to come by.’
I also said: ‘Maria Taylor can come across as edgily hip and sardonic. In 99/2000, as bells toll the end of the millenium: ……
somewhere around the eight we finished the last hilarious fuck of the twentieth century
but the toughness and urban savvy isn’t exactly as it seems. Our love was still a secret..because mum and dad haven’t been told. Why is that? And there’s something hugely wistful about the last stanza, when she goes back alone to pick up her parents from her aunt’s house.
On the mantlepiece a calendar, with a Byzantine icon of St Michael, his stiff painted wings trying to open, my mum and dad wondering how long they’d keep hold, me saying ‘Happy New Year, I’m here, let’s go home
Where exactly IS home? her poems ask, again and again. Her dad doesn’t know; he’s a stranger in his own village, and her mum is too busy at the Singer to answer. We’re not excluded, quite. But we’re on the edges, neither one place or another.’
When I went back to this earlier post, I think I nailed what I’d meant when I said that the new poems were ‘stepping up a gear’. I think I meant that this poet in 2020 is surer of who she is, and who knows exactly what she’s up to when she inhabits all manner of edgier personae. The wistfulness is nore likely to be replaced by a hard-won confidence and swagger. Maybe Matthew Stewart puts it better, more accurately:
‘Throughout Dressing for the Afterlife, the reader is witness to the unfurling of a poet whose comfort in her own skin is attained by acute self-awareness. This enables her to explore issues without the need to resolve them. One such theme is that of her national identity, always approached obliquely as in the following extract from ‘She Ran’:
‘I ran through my mother’s village and flew past
armed soldiers at the checkpoint. I ran past
my grandparents’ and Bappou’s mangy goats
with their mad eyes and scaled yellow teeth
I ran straight through Oxford and Cambridge
It begs (he says) the question: where does she/the poet/the narrator belong? When I read and re-read this collection, I’m more and more convinced that she knows the answers, now, in a way she didn’t, six or seven years ago. The distance travelled is measured beautifully in the first and last poems in Dressing for the afterlife. Both are about running.
The first, She ran opens on a note of what, defiance?
‘ I took up running when I turned forty
I opened my front door and and started running’
and ends: ‘I couldn’t get as far as I wanted’ .
In the final poem of the collection, in Woman running alone, she has become ‘a woman who follows her own trail’. It’s a poem that ends with a wonderful affirmation:
‘The rhythm fills her with flight – and her wings,
what wings she has –’.
To which I say Amen. Time for the poems, I think. The poems I asked for are not, I suppose the obvious ones, the ones that inhabit glamorous personae. But each in its own way has stuck. The first one because of its ..that word again..swagger. But also for the ending, its surefootedness. It was first published in what feels like the prototype of this collection, a pamphlet from Happenstance.Instructions for making me
Poem in Which I Lick Motherhood
I have several children, all perfect, with tongues made of soap and PVA glue running through their veins. My boys and girls benefit from eating the rainbow. I iron children twice daily. Creases are the devil’s hoof print. I am constructed from sticky-back tape, pipe cleaners and clothes pegs. There are instructions for making me. Look at the appropriate shelves in reputable stores. I am fascinated by bunk beds, headlice and cupcakes. You will only leave the table when I have given you clear instructions. So far I have not. The school-run is my red carpet. Yes, you’re right, how do I manage it? Though, I didn’t ask you. Dreaming is permitted from 7:40 to 8:20 am on Saturdays and Bank Holidays. My children’s reward charts are full of glittery stars. I am the Milky Way. Crying is dirty. One housepoint! Two if you eat up all your peas. I always go off half an hour before my alarm. In the morning I speak a language of bleeps and bell tones. Chew with your mouth closed. No. Don’t chew at all. Admire the presentation. Underneath my ribs is a complex weather system of sunshine and showers. Heat rises from me and blows across the gulf stream of my carefully controlled temper.
Sometimes I am mist.’
I loved this one, straight off. I read Facebook posts by mothers who have all in one way or another been persuaded by a child’s tantrum that that they are doing it wrong, that they don’t know the rules, that they are a Bad Parent. It always seemed to me as a very young father (equally guilty of being a Bad Parent but not made to feel like it) that there was a closed shop of Mothers Who Know but that any individual mother is not allowed to belong to it and is frowned upon for not knowing the rules. Here’s a poem for them. The last line, almost an afterthought, tells you what it takes out of you…the effort, the bravado. The last line nails it. Lovely.
The next one comes as a surprise in the collection. I wanted it for its craft, the accuracy of language, for its precision, its pin-sharp images.
We duly found an inscription under the base,
believed to be in Sir Vauncey’s hand… We could
make out its name, ‘the bee bird’… ‘died 1895.’
notes taken at Calke Abbey
In his cabinets of wasted wings
a heron’s beak clasps a fish,
its convex eyes a jet prison.
Bell-jars of hoarded birds
stuffed with their master’s tedium:
faded goldfinches and redpolls,
a frozen kestrel, wings unstretched
for impossible flight.
I imagine his birds reborn,
darting through his stuffy rooms,
a chaos of feathers in his Lady’s boudoir
across the airless library.
Unhatched eggs crack open.
Chicks beg, hungry for more
than sawdust and rags.
And there at his sash window
a yellow and black canary,
tiny and alive – singing, singing.
It needs no commentary, really. It speaks beautifully for itself, this poem about defiant resilience, about song. And maybe, too, about poetry.
Finally a poem about love; it adds to the list which includes the kind of love called maintenance, and to what will survive of us. Particularly it was good to learn about
loving the self. Not so easy. For others
who dive into pools of themselves
too easy. Be your own best friend.
I wondered when I read it again , and then again, if this was not the core message of the whole collection, written by someone who understands just how and why it’s notso easy.
Learning to love in Greek
They said beware eros, though many
begin with madness. Learn to fall
in love with dancing – this is ludic,
the love you felt for skipping ropes
or bikes. If eros and ludus combine
you may suffer mania, the white blood
of the moon that petrifies. Grow phillia,
the love of football fans on terraces.
Chant together. Fight with the same heart.
If you have children or a puppy
you’ll know storgi, it rhymes with be.
It sits at kitchen tables, magnetises
crayon drawings to fridges. If you don’t
have these, you may feel storgi
from an old aunt, a mate. A lover
might see the child hiding in you
from a cowlick of grey that won’t
be brushed straight. Then philautia,
loving the self. Not so easy. For others
who dive into pools of themselves
too easy. Be your own best friend.
When love moves into a house
with a mortgage and enough space
for the future, this is pragma.
To stand in love comes after falling.
Pray you’ll land on your feet.
Above all, agapè – when you forget
who you are and take someone’s hand.
Dressing for the afterlife is one of those rare books that does pretty much what it says on the tin (or on the back cover) :
a diamond-tough and tender second collection of poems and how we adapt to the passage of time.. these poems shimmy and glimmer bittersweet with humour and brio.
The poems in Melanchrini were about personal and cultural identity, always asking ‘where do I fit?’ These poems are surer about the answer. In She ran, (which tangentially reminds me of Dylan’s what did you see my blueyed son?) whether running away or towards doesn’t get the narrator what she wants or waht she thinks she wants. By the end of the collection she’s grown out of or beyond the glitzy masks and personae she’s tried on:
‘I’d like to be the woman next door
with a walk that says I know where I’m going
or inWearing red, like wearing purple, it’s not a disguise.
In Woman running alone she is
‘neither running away
nor running towards anyone, wind-sifted
letting the weather sing through her,
she who is different to her brothers.
The rhythm fills her with flight –
and her wings
what wings she has –
Isn’t that satisfying! That’s what I meant by the poems having stepped up a gear. Thank you for letting me share youe poems Maria Taylor. I’m sorry it’s taken so long.
…right, my lovely readers. Off you go and buy the book.
Dressing for the Afterlife: Nine Arches Press [£9.99]
Catching up….but slowly, me. Trying to get to grips with ending a course of chemothrapy which involved maintaining the daily intake of steroids that I’ve been taking for about two and a half years; all part of the cancer treatment. Feeling decidedly off-it for the last couple of weeks as the steroid intake tapers off. I looked up the possible side effects. I appear to be able to tick off lots of them, particularly tiredness, recurrent anxiety, loss of stamina and poor concentration. None of them are in any way severe, but they do slow me down and slow my thinking down. They screw up the rhythm that I think we all need when we write.
So apologies for the week’s delay in getting this post done, and apologies in advance for any muddled prose.
I’m really pleased to be writing about Mike Farren’s Smithereens for all sorts of reasons that will become clear as we go along. But I have to say that the first one was its title, which is, I think, only the second use of the word in a poem since Tony Harrison’s Bookends in the 70s. The poet and his father are sitting in a morose silence, either side of the gas fire, sitting out the night of the day Harrison’s mother dropped dead. It’s one of many poems that explores the business of articulacy, of education, the way they separate families that should be close, make them inarticulate and awkward in each other’s company. Like Dylan says we never did too much talking anyway, but as he didn’t say, it’s not all right. Not at all.
A night you need my company to pass
and she not here to tell us we’re alike!
Your life’s all shattered into smithereens
Back in our silences and sullen looks
for all the Scotch we drink, what’s still between’s
not the thirty or so years, but books, books, books
It’s not just the title ‘Smithereens’ that resonates but the obduracy.. the stupidity, if you like.. of the men and their silence. As Harrison says in the poem, his mother’s not there to break it. It’s a theme I keep coming back to, as I did in the last post on the cobweb, where I wrote this:
From time to time I try to write about the notion that women experience the world differently from me, from men. I sometimes use a quotation from one of my favourite novelists to shine a light on what I mean. She’s writing about the human condition; I narrow the focus for the sake of argument:
“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary life it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well-wadded with stupidity” George Eliot. ‘Middlemarch’
I’m thinking of the kind of stupidity that stops some of us from ‘keeping in touch’, from asking the right questions at the right time, from saying what ought to be said, from telling each other what the other needs to know. It cropped up again, obliquely, in a recent post of Anthony Wilson’s, which caught me just as I happened to be thinking about how to write this appreciation of Mike Farren’s collection.
“I had bumped into a friend at the cash machine. We greeted each other, as we always do, with a handshake, then set about putting the world to rights. My work, his work; my family, his. ……..As you do.
And then something that I was not prepared for. It turned out that he had been ill, briefly and seriously, and that I had known nothing about it. Profuse apologies followed, batted off with a wave as though I had merely missed a dinner party. Think nothing of it. How could you have known? We told no one. And with speed we moved on to other things, something lighter, the rise of Islamic State perhaps, to break the tension.
As you do.” [A day he won’t have. Lifesaving poems. 9/5/2021]
“As you do”. Exactly. Awkwardness ‘batted away’. The women in my life would never have let that happen. They would have known, they would have told each other. They would have the imagination to know that their friend would need to know about them, if only to avoid this kind of uncomfortable awkardness. It’s part of the same attention to others that remembers people’s birthdays, and keeps in touch, that has long telephone conversations. Whereas men like me, who are ‘stupid’ don’t tell their children that they need chemotherapy, and then are surprised when their children are angry/upset to find out by accident. As you do.
There’s another thing, too. The poems in Smithereens tell the story of a friendship which lasted more than 40 years, beginning at school before either party was a teenager, and ending with the untimely death of A from alcohol related causes. Mike writes in his introduction to the collection that
“I prefer not to name A ..but to memorialisethe life of a brilliant, eccentric, self-contradictory individual. I miss him terribly”.
He also writes in one of the poems about the things/ we hadn’t need to say/for forty odd years. Although, of course, the irony of the collection is that, yes, they had need to, but didn’t.
And one more thing. For 40 years Mike and A met only intermittently, and rarely contacted each other. A lived and worked in the US, mainly in the days before we had Facebook or email to give us no excuses for not being regularly in touch. Another stab of conscience in that. My two closest friends moved abroad twenty years ago or more. And, being stupid, I didn’t/don’t keep regularly in touch. My oldest friend, my schoolmate/soul mate, who lived in Spain, and who I only talked to intermittently , died eight years ago, before I got round to telling him how much I’d needed his friendship. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. I stayed for a few days with him in Spain before I went to my first poetry residential in Alicante, and four months before he died. He was baffled by the fact that I didn’t drink any more. He didn’t quite know what to make of me. Hey ho. So it goes. But you’ll see why Smithereens spoke so directly to my own experience before I began to take in the quality of the writing..which is beautifully summed up in Kim Moore’s endorsement of poems:
shot through with real tenderness and love, [that] tell the story of a friendship between two men which stretches across a lifetime and around the world. The pamphlet’s narrative is as compelling as a novel, and each individual poem is that rare thing – a true moment of musicality and lyricism. (Kim Moore)
So now you know why I want to share the poems with you, it’s high time that I did. Mike can introduce himself.
“I was born and raised in Bradford, where I returned after spells in the South and the East Midlands. Having won a grammar school scholarship (with heavy prompting from my father, who had been unable to take up the one he won in the 30s), I found myself studying English Literature at university without a clue what to do with it.
After a depressing couple of years as an accountant, I ended up working in IT for nearly thirty years.
I knew I wanted to write and even tried an MA at Sheffield Hallam, which I nearly failed on the back of some terrible short stories, but I didn’t really take up poetry until my 50s, around the time I was able to take a step back from full-time working. I joined Beehive Poets in Bradford and Wharfedale Poets in Ilkley and had a big break when I won publication of a pamphlet by Templar in 2017.
I have since gone on to have two more pamphlets published – All of the Moons (Yaffle), which was set to music by Keely Hodgson, and Smithereens (4Word). I was a solo publisher of anthologies before I joined Gill Lambert, Mark Connors and Lorna Faye Dunsire to start Yaffle Press, and I have been one of the hosts of Rhubarb open mic for the last couple of years.
I first met Mike via poetry nights at the Beehive and poetry events in Otley and Ilkley…and more recently, until Covid stopped us in our tracks, at Poetry Business days in Sheffield. It was there that heard Mike workshop some of his poems, and knew I wanted to share some on the cobweb. So here they are.
These days are as calm, serene and infinite as the early autumn sky reflected in the unruffled water of the reservoir.
Almost every story I can tell her she hasn’t heard before and almost all their narratives point toward a happy end
and, as if there aren’t enough already, we steal fragments of sentences we hear from strangers in the instant they pass by
and make them meaningful by making them ours – smooth out the tensions they express or magnify their little happiness.
And I talk about you: the friend she hasn’t met and won’t, for years, because you are so far away – about the gilded summer night
we sat here, just us two, with cans of beer and planned the legends of our future lives, not thinking to factor in the world’s resistance
to plans, and everything that could go wrong and will – but hasn’t yet, for me and her, on a day so calm, serene and infinite.
Mike tells me that “Fewston was one of the last to be written and means a lot to me but I almost hesitated to put it in, given that it’s more about Tricia, my (now) wife than about A.” I’m not sure that I agree, because although I love the unalloyed happiness of the poem, its quietness beside unruffled waters, there’s a shadow in the second stanza which is the presence of the narrative told by the whole collection.
Almost every story I can tell her she hasn’t heard before and almost all their narratives point toward a happy end
The repetition of ‘almost’ is something you might not notice at first, but you’ll almost certainly have had your attention snagged by the slightly odd syntax of the first two lines. The poem may have come late, but it could almost have been the first poem in the book. It has the quality of a Garrison Keillor story that signs off : Stories are true. Anything can happen. Bittersweet.
The second poem I chose for the contrast, both of mood and of style. Because this is a collection full of variety in its handling of language and form.
at a lifetime of never showing anger / always taking it all on the chin / being strong & stoical // we belonged to a generation of englishmen / of human beings / long gone now or maybe always a fiction / because everyone I meet is angry as fuck / why should I be any different
at them for being so angry that they make the same mistakes you could have warned them about / from two thousand odd years of knowledge // how some big dick personality drags a country down / so easily // how empires rot on their own complacency / their assumption some gods / & their natural superiority / always keep them on top // how repression & resentment bubble away for centuries // how game shows & reality tv are modern bread & circuses
at how the world you thought you made your own / closed ranks // kept you the outsider / after thirty years proving how you fitted in // how everyone knew what you were looking for // let you go on & on & never / ever / find it
& with you / like I was never capable of being angry before // not just anger / at waste of talent / at waste of life // but that you left me / to find my way / to navigate this / angry / fucking / world / all / by / my / self
The rawness of this is something that sticks, as is the honest admission of resentment and, if you like, self-pity. How could you do this to me ??? If I had to think of a visual analogy, it might be the estate agent’s window in St Malo 1980.. about their first trip abroad together, the faked insouciance of the 17 yr old who sits
on the ledge / of the closed immobilier, /[you] lean on the plate glass window- shatter / everything to smithereens
I couldn’t make up my mind which of two poems to end with. Unable to choose, here are both, one from the beginning of the collection and the second from the end. What you need to do, of course, is to buy the book and then you’ll understand the irony of the the second.
Afterwards, there’s no need to be anxious.
Afterwards, your lack of health insurance doesn’t matter.
Afterwards, there’s no reason to numb the pain: there is no pain.
Afterwards, the idiocy, political illiteracy and failure to learn are not your problem.
Afterwards, your ghost lives on on social media, in letters never sent to me – your birthday I can’t bring myself to strike out from my calendar…
Afterwards, things fall apart, as if you’d been the cornerstone that held our world unwittingly together.
Afterwards, your daughter finds you when there is no longer any you for her to find –
afterwards she takes her chance with all the rest of us you left behind.
And afterwards, I raise a glass to you.
It’s a reminder that death is no problem for the one who died. It’s the ones left behind who have to deal with the what-ifs,the muddle, and, very often, the guilt.
Thank you, Mike Farren for being our guest and sharing Smithereens. You didn’t just write a poem. You wrote two life stories.
I wrote you a poem
it didn’t say the things we hadn’t needed to say for forty-odd years;
it talked about coming home, when I’m not sure where it was you saw as home;
it never mentioned your daughter or told you where you might find her;
it talked about talking with ghosts, when I didn’t realise you’d be a ghost before you could read it;
it talked of holiday and drinking together, while you were drinking alone
I can’t keep up. Here’s a book published in 2019, and I’m only just getting round to it. In the poetry world that churns out collections and pamphlets and chapbooks by the thousand, 2019 might as well be the remote past. It’s like when I used to subscribe to Q magazine, and attempted to keep up with reviews of hundreds of new albums a month, all of which were the next Big Thing. And then they weren’t. It was pointless. I stopped trying.
With poetry I more and more rely on word of mouth, which sort of dries up when there are no readings to go to, no courses where people say, “have you read…?”. Everyone loses out.
And what if you’ve just published something. Imagine, you struggle, and work, and rework, and submit, and go to open mics, and one day someone offers to publish your first pamphlet/chapbook/whatever. There’s no feeling quite like it. But it happens in the middle of a pandemic, so you can’t go to readings and open mics and get the chance to sell your book (most of my sales have been on the back of readings), and you can’t charge your batteries on that energy, and gradually you see the wave’s subsided under you, and you’re floating in dead water. And you have books you can’t shift.
Now, imagine that poetry is your business, your profession. You rely on readings, on running courses, on tutoring…and on the back of that you go on writing, and hopefully selling your work. That’s how it is. Your job. Lockdown leaves you in dead water just as surely as if being published was a hobby. A nice one. But a sideline. Meanwhile, The Anatomical Venus should be flying off the shelves and hoovering up the accolades and starring at festivals. If you’ve bought it already you’ll need no telling. And if you haven’t, I hope the next few minutes will persuade you your life is incomplete till you do.
Sometimes a poem, a book, a voice speaks to you, makes you sit up. The Anatomical Venus does that for me, to me, no question. It’s full of what Clive James calls ‘the moments that draw you in’, when you recognise a poem as a poem, when it says that this is what it is. Something that memorises itself as you speak it, something that hooks you and reels you in. Sometimes it’s the sheer zestfulness of the thing, the unabashed love of language, its quirks and textures that are the stuff of en-chantment and incantation. So, yes, that. But also precision, the accurate control of the medium, a sure ear and eye, all that, and passion too. I don’t think it’s overstating the case to say that Helen Ivory has all of that.
When I first read The Anatomical VenusI’d taken it with me to hospital . A session of chemotherapy is, counterintuitively, a good place to read poetry in. Quiet and peaceful as a Quaker meeting. It does mean you can’t read aloud, but this collection has a voice you can hear in your head. I highlighted hook after hook after hook…like these:
These should give you a taste for the language of the collection. A feast of crafted imagery, which may be visual , like the mendicant dark, or auditory, like the whispering moth (I love that ‘snick’), true and witty, like the spoons, textured (shockingly) like the ransacked eel…what a word, ransacked .., epic and spacious, like the sail of seraphs, and so on. There’s an accurate ear for consonants, and a precise understanding of verbs and what they can do. And then, of course, there’s the black irony of her demolition of the Puritan husband who has his wife burned as a witch
he had witnessed Sarah transmute/ from flesh into fire/heard the spirits/scream out of her
He can disguise the barbarity of the deed in the language of his religion and law, but the nightmares ride him and ride him though she is dead, and she will not be exorcised
What else? This is a passionately felt collection that quietly seethes with righteous anger and pity, at the world of women who have too often found their only protest in hurting themselves; the ones who resisted, burned or drowned as witches, force-fed as suffragettes, or diagnosed as mad, and treated accordingly. By men. One way and another , this raises an issue that chronically bothers me. From time to time I try to write about it on the cobweb, this notion that women experience the world differently from me, from men. I sometimes use a quotation from one of my favourite novelists to shine a light on what I mean. She’s writing about the human condition; I narrow the focus for the sake of argument:
I wrote about this, not too coherently, 6 or 7 years ago. (here’s a link if you’re interested https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2014/12/28/the-other-side-of-silence/). It’s something I go on trying to tease out. I often say I was brought up by women, and in the company of women. When I was small, by the time my dad came home from work, I was in bed. I could wander into the houses of neighbours and eavesdrop uncomprehending on ‘women’s talk’ as I sat under a table. I went to my mother’s embroidery classes in a school library, where I sat on the floor and pretended to read. Or I’d be taken to visit a great aunt in a segregated old folk’s home, full of old ladies in various stages of sparkiness and confusion. All my Primary school teachers were women. A boys’ grammar school and an all male college made no real dent on the impact of my growing up. When I became a teacher, it was women teachers who gave me books like Dale Spender’s Man Made language, and Elaine Morgan’s The descent of woman; it was Miss lamb who gave me Melanie Klein’s Mathematics and Western Culture.
This is what I wrote in that earlier blog post.
“It’s not an accident that some of the poems that have moved me most of late are written by women. It’s not an accident, either, that I’ve been absorbed in stories of metamorphosis, particularly in retellings of Ovid. What has been consistent in this is the feeling that women have access to knowledge that men can’t have. The feeling that women are metamorphic and tidal, that they go through changes that a man can’t imagine, and that this makes them capable of different modes of imagining. It doesn’t mean that all of them can articulate it, or are necessarily consciously aware of it. But when they are the results are powerful and unnerving. When I re-read Ted Hughes’ retellings of Ovid, and even Robin Robertson [in ‘Swithering’] what I think is that these are external. Powerful, but externally dramatised. I’m struggling to articulate it. What I find in, say, Fiona Benson, is a kind of emotional fluidity and in Hughes and Robertson a sort of epic stiffness, like some grandiose Renaissance paintings.”
I’ll leave it there. I’m struggling. But it lies behind there immediacy of the way I respond to Helen Ivory’s The Anatomical Venus.. And it’s about time I cracked on and shared it with you. Indeed, if you don’t already know her, I’d better introduce her.
“Helen is a poet and visual artist. She edits the webzine Ink Sweat and Tears and is tutor and Course Director for the UEA/National Centre for Writing online creative writing programme.
She has won an Eric Gregory Award and her fifth Bloodaxe Books collection, The Anatomical Venus was short-listed for the East Anglian Book Awards (2019) and won the East Anglian Writers ‘By the Cover’ Award (EABA 2019). The Anatomical Venus examines how women have been portrayed as ‘other’; as witches; as hysterics with wandering wombs and as beautiful corpses cast in wax, or on mortuary slabs in TV box sets, is available here: www.bloodaxebooks.com
Fool’s World a collaborative Tarot with the artist Tom de Freston (Gatehouse Press) won the 2016 Saboteur Award for Best Collaborative Work. Hear What the Moon Told Me, a book of collage/ mixed media/ acrylic painted poems was published in 2016 by Knives Forks and Spoons Press, and a chapbook Maps of the Abandoned City was published in January 2019 by SurVision. She lives in Norwich with her husband, the poet Martin Figura.”
And she makes poppets. I can’t resist this. Goody Ivory makes poppets. She’s quite shameless about it. She said in an interview with Abigail Morley earlier this year: ..
The poppets I make have red felt hearts, they are for me, representations of love, light and hope – the spirit of Spring.
Now, as a teenage boy, I was fascinated by the film and fiction of witchcraft. By the shameless plagiarist, Dennis Wheatley and by the fraudulent faux-priest Montague Summers who wrote a tin-foil hat History of witchcraft and demonology in 1928, with the following introduction:
In the following pages I have endeavoured to show the witch as she really was – an evil liver: a social pest and parasite: the devotee of a loathly and obscene creed: an adept at poisoning, blackmail, and other creeping crimes: a member of a powerful secret organisation inimical to Church and State: a blasphemer in word and deed, swaying the villagers by terror and superstition: a charlatan and a quack sometimes: a bawd: an abortionist: the dark counsellor of lewd court ladies and adulterous gallants: a minister to vice and inconceivable corruption, battening upon the filth and foulest passions of the age.
1928! It’s as though Matthew Hopkins the Witchfinder (who also features in The Anatomical Venus) is alive and well when my father’s already in his 20’s, and Freud’s accounts of female ‘hysteria’ are by now deep rooted. Summers also happens to be the author of the first English translation of the 16thC Malleus Maleficorum, a witch-finders’hand book. One of its authors, the Rev Heinrich Kramer, is addressed by one of his victims in another poem in the collection which ruthlessly exposes and denounces the ways in which women are suppressed over the centuries, by patriarchal religions and by ‘medicine’. They are witches or they are insane. Either way they have to be silenced.
Mark Connors wrote this in a review for Northern Soul (March 2020)
….The Anatomical Venus is an often disturbing journey of how women have been treated by men through the ages. It is historical reportage. It is controlled and focused anger without sentiment. It is subjugation and oppression laid bare in subtle and often mesmerising ways. It is Angela Carter’s eye meets Elaine Showalter’s brain. It is dark, upsetting and erotic. And it’s laced with magic from the first page until the last. It’s the suffering of women, and women fighting back in delicious and unusual ways. It says as much, if not more, about men throughout history as it does about women.
The phrase I especially like is ‘historical reportage’. It’s hard to do justice to the sheer amount of research that went into this collection, and to the ease with which it carries its acquired knowledge. Set this alongside the imaginative engagement with her characters, the shapeshifting monologues, the dexterity of the writing, its richness and variety of rhythms, and you have a collection you’ll keep re-reading, and which will reveal new treasures every time.
Helen has lately been posting poems from it on her Facebook page. Lots of them. I’ve chosen four to illustrate the qualities of The Anatomical Venus . The first one is the poems I’ve returned to most often
If I ever have a tattoo, it will be a quotation from Tony Harrison. “The tongueless man gets his land took”. Or “articulation is the tongue-tied’s fighting” . It was Tony Harrison who coined that phrase ‘the branks of condescension’…..the condescension, say, of his English teacher who derided his Beeston accent, and tried to silence it with the muffling blanket of RP.. A branks is another name for the scold’s bridle that might be used to publicly humiliate a ‘nagging woman’.
I like everything about this poem. I’m a sucker for the well-made dramatic monologue, and this is exceptionally well-made. I like the defiance of it that struggles past the iron restrain of the pricking gag. I like the way the shape enacts the struggle . I like the sheer surprise of that verb ‘fell’, and the way ‘anchoress’ brings me up short to haver between anchorite and anchor. Here’s a sybil who won’t be silenced though her tongue bleeds. The last line is a martyr’s banner. Stunning.
The next poem is a deceptively simple telling of what could be a myth as old as the universe. At the same time, it’s entirely contemporary in its perspective. It’s entirely matter of fact in its account of a fall from grace, and a fall from heaven (or Olympus) into the glaring antiseptic light of of what may be a psychiatric ward, where the goddess (Demeter? Gaia?) fruitful and full of grace, is grown thin as a whistle and slices her belly with a shiv she’s made from the moon. A thin sickle blade. How beautifully exact this image is, how cold.
The goddess bled into the earth
and babies formed
congealed and glorious
like fleshy fruit.
And life went on like this
with beads and lunar counting
until the wild dogs hit
with their beastly appetites.
Hence, girls were strung up in cages
when they waxed unclean,
lest milk turn to vinegar
or sea lay siege to fishermen.
And now the goddess,
thin as a whistle
hugs the hospital blanket
to her waning self.
Each glaring day on the ward
she makes a shiv from the moon
and cuts a tidy red line
into the narrow rise of her belly.
My third choice is a tad self-indulgent. Someone bought me a copy of Old Peter’s Russian tales when I was eight, and introduced me to Baba Yaga and her iron teeth. And also to the feisty heroine who outsmarts her through kindness. And, quite simply, this poem both puzzles and entertains me. The title is the hook. The where and the when are flexible, but it feels very like a synthesis of Blair Witch project, accounts of backwoods survivalists, Chechen forests and Scandi Noir newsrooms. The narrator’s voice keep the reader slightly off-balance with the combination of the casual contemporary ( Word is…) the slightly archaic (her eyebrows/ foster a dire and savage air), the patterning and texture (the talking dolls; the lantern skulls; /an oven chocked with teeth), the unexpected switching of verbs for adjectives and vice versa (tender/babble) It’s quirky and gleeful, and should be read aloud. Try to find the right voice. It’s harder than you think. If not impossible.
Baba Yaga No Longer Reads the News
she’s a dug-out in the woods.
Word is, she’s quit electrolysis
so her stubbled legs resemble chicken flesh
and likewise her eyebrows
foster a dire and savage air.
She creeps through the spinney
zealous as ground frost
scouring for morsels to tender her pot.
She is a fallow vessel
who deigned to grey,
a babble word.
Now a rumour of an intern eaten whole;
young reporters always hustling for a story:
the talking dolls; the lantern skulls;
an oven chocked with teeth;
and how she is protected
by the devil’s spitting geese.
My final choice, is Anger in Ladies &c. A battle cry for the monstrous regiments . It speaks for itself, with a swagger, with a fist clenched. The last line made me laugh out loud , and then realise that maybe the revolution will make no distinction between me and Mr Dunton, and indeed, why should it, me and my mansplaining.
So…thank you Helen Ivory for being our guest and sharing these poems with us. It’s taken me far too long to finally write this, and there’s a great deal more to be said. Fortunately, a lot of that is available via interviews Helen’s given since the book was published. And here are the links.
Finally. If you don’t yet own a copy of The AnatomicalVenus, then it’s high time you did. Buy from Bloodaxe, direct. Or Amazon, if you must. Or why not message Helen via Facebook. She’ll probably sign a copy for you.
Catching up and trying to catch my breath. Literally. I planned to write this last Sunday, instead of which I spent the afternoon at A&E in Pinderfields Hospital, Wakefield, because I’d developed symptoms of what I remembered about the pneumonia that almost did for me when I was 19.
The NHS is an astonishing institution. Triaged, ECG, chest X-ray, blood test, a succession of inputs from two technicians, two nurses and a doctor (twice). Diagnosed with acute chest infection, cleared of any possibility of blood clots, prescribed mega doses of antibiotics, and a nurse went down to the pharmacy to collect my prescription. The whole thing in slightly under two hours in an extremely busy A&E.
Since then I’ve been in bed more than not. Tired out from coughing, but now pretty well clear. Debilitated, though. That’s the word. I hope I can do justice to Alison Lock, our guest today, and to her pamphlet “Lure”.
If you follow the Cobweb regularly, you’ll know that Alison has been a guest before , but I’d better introduce her anyway. Alison is a poet and writer of short fiction whose work has appeared in anthologies and journals in the UK and internationally. She is the author of three poetry collections, two short story collections, and a fantasy novella. Her previous collection of poetry, Revealing the Odour of Earth, Calder Valley Poetry (2017), is an observation of life as seen through the natural environment: ‘landscape made language’ (Bob Horne). She finds inspiration in the moorlands and the natural environment of the South Pennines, which is often reflected in her writing, but she is also influenced by her childhood home of the West Country. More about her writing can be found at http://www.alisonlock.com
I really like that phrase of Bob Horne’s…‘landscape made language’. It chimes with Macfarlane’s ‘landmarks’. Unconsciously, I hyphenate it. landscape-made-language. And also language-made-landscape. So much of Alison’s poetry is a poetry of place. A topological poetry if you like. Her landscape is particularly that of the watershed lands between the old textile towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire ; sour moorland tops, incut valleys full of canals and railway lines, and bridges. Old mills and dyeworks in small valleys, sometimes slightly sinister, gradually falling into dissolution; millponds and leats. Valley sides thick with sycamore and balsam.A layered, imbricated landscape, and one she knows intimately, about which she writes with what is often a tectured precision. I’m thinking of moments like this from Nov. 9th 2016
a broken ribcage of stone
hefts under a thin white fleece. Potholes
along the track are milky white slip covers
Here’s a Pennine trackway after snow in all its contradictory physicality. And it’s full of traps for the unwary under its disguuise of snow, the milkiness of ice. A similar note’s struck in Lifelines
we are standing on a bridge glued with ancient lichen /but there are cracks opening
It’s an old landscape that can barely hold together. It could swallow you. Alison captures this in the first poem of her pamphlet:
Stilled water holds our secrets in silt,
a language of sand, leaf, root,
words lost below the surface.
Tales of those who walked
along the ponds and lakes
are in the voices that echo
from bank to bank: lives of creatures, times
of change, tints of season, incidents, accidents
– all steeped in the earthy sides,
muddy banks, the depths of the reach.
In our dreams, time sleeps.
Which brings us to the tale of one who walked among the ponds and lakes and accidents. Four years ago, her partner, Ian wrote on Facebook:
“Alison had a terrible fall and was not found for around 90 minutes. We now know she has seven fractured vertabrae. The good news is that there is no nerve damage and she is due to have a brace fitted and come home. Also the pain is under control and she is so much brighter.”
Four years ago, while walking her dog in a familiar place, she slipped, broke her spine, almost drowned in a millpond, from which she somehow managed to drag herself, until she was found.
Most of my life I’ve been fascinated by narratives of survival, from Robinson Crusoe to Matt Damon’s Martian, by tales of polar explorers and reckless adventurers, but most of all by survival in high mountains. Which is why, when I first read Lure I immediately made a link with Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void, and his purgatorial three day crawl from a crevasse thousands of feet up in the Andes. The scale may be different, but in dealing with pain and terror there is only the absolute ‘now’. What snagged my attention was the business of realising, remembering, recreating and understanding event like these in words. The business of poetry, and of memoir and journal. At the end of the epilogue to his book, Simpson writes:
……however painful readers may think our experiences were, for me this book falls short
of articulating just how dreadful were some of those lonely days. I simply could not find
the words to express the utter desolation of the experience.
It’s a problem Alison keeps returning to at various points in the sequence; she can not remember falling. Only being in pain and in cold deep water, and not understanding any of it.
Four years on, Alison wrote of Ian’s post that:
This is one of those posts you do not wish to be reminded of, but it does remind me that it was the beginning of an important process, one that I began in the hospital. I started to write what became Lure, a long poetic sequence about my journey from accident to recovery. I already knew the power of journalling and life writing from my days tutoring on a Life Writing course. Now it was my turn to write long and deep and really learn for myself the power of writing. I began to understand my place, my tiny place, in the world around us, and the power of the natural world to heal.
So. To the poems. Because the sequence is organic, because it’s at times a stream of consciousness, and at others post hoc reflection, and always in pursuit of memories that may be illuory, and are always illusive it’s hard to do it justice. I’ll settle for edited extracts, and hope I can give you a sense of the flavour, the quality of the whole. On the way, I’ll share some of my own responses
I swore I would never return, but here I am. Another winter has passed, a turning, a transitory tumble of season.
[ …………… ]
This is the place. I know you well.
We are intimates, yet you have changed. Beyond the slip-strip of a mud path there is new growth: fern, plantain, vetch, shepherd’s purse, and the bank is a fall-away, an edge, a single foot’s width.
On that day, I prayed, if it was prayer at all. To Brighid, patron saint of poets, goddess of the hearth, the spirit we celebrate at Imbulc when we bring in the Spring, wear the mask of the fox, juggle with fire, as we blaze through the snow-clad hills to defy the wintering.
She, Brighid, I believe, held me
in that moment when I fell.
I’ve kept coming back to this moment, understanding Alison’s deep involvement not only in ecology, but in its associated myth and folk lore. It still surprises me, but it works wonderfully, this concatenation of earth, air, fire and water. Fire and ice and rebirth. The next sequence spins round a memorable phrase: It was early one morning in April when I entered her waters . I love the way this nails down a kind of transmutation, an otherly altered state, almost like an out of body experience. She falls in a flash of a kingfisher’s stripe /I might never have seen. Was it a real kingfisher, a trick of the light? I read it as real, but in any event, a moment of inattention. A lure, in fact. A trap for the unwary, with allure of false promises. It coloured the way I imagined the pond, overshadowed (though it’s early April, and unleafed) and if I thought of naiads (as Alison does in the poem) they were quickly replaced the grindylow, Jenny Greenteeth, or the Mari-morgans that drown men when they are distracted.
There is the mark on the place where broken rocks are my bones, cold meltwater my blood.
Earth, air, water, spirit.
It was early one morning in April when I entered her waters in a flash of a kingfisher’s stripe I might never have seen.
I do not remember. The falling.
I stare down at the rocks. A strip of shore, barely a beach for a shrew, a slight edge.
But, I know it. Now. Too well. It is the place where I fell. Shallow (it looks from here) all silt and weed – those duplicitous bedfellows. I stare at the stones, the rocks that caught the fall of me: but in catching me, they broke me.
Do rocks have memory? After all, they have travelled so far, forced from the hills by the rumbling ways of earth, of rolling weather, split in their falling an age ago when these valleys formed in the icy retreat.
There is no movement in this millpond, no flow of water over the surface of the rocks, but below, there is a life that changes, mutates, shifts. I can hear the thunder. I look into you, and I see me.
But then, I am back to that moment, lured as if my reflection has slipped, sideways in time and I am falling into the unretrievable.
And as I fall through your cold glass surface, I see, as if for the first time, roots, stems, leaflets; all the delicates wavering their palms on tiny hands, fine capillaries, the detailed maps of the bindings of life.
I push upwards as if propelled until I gasp, grasp, at the air, but I am pulled back down
(what I find utterly memorable in this sequence..apart from its wholeness… is this I see, as if for the first time/
roots, stems, leaflets; all the delicates / wavering their palms on tiny hands. “All the delicates”Isn’t that exactly right! The hallucinatory precision of what is noticed, and the evocation of another world, its indifferent otherness.
A naiad watches her curiously/incuriously, and maybe Brigantia gives her strength as she struggles somehow out of the water, and somehow finds an anchored loop of heather root that gives her purchase and helps her start a purgatorial crawl up and out and on to the mud path where she encounters life and death in very particular ways, and which remind me of Walter Bonatti making an epic solo ascent, and encountering, below black overhangs, a butterfly)
I am a wolf, snarling into another life, circling wider and wider.
I must get to the next boulder,
pass through stone gaps. I know this path
so well but from an upright eyeline,
not from the height of a fox with face down-strained.
I have never been so close to ground:
its elements of metal, earth, stone, trash, shit.
Epigeal, unnatural, desperate, I am willing
someone to hear me, to find me.
But there is no one. Just me. Alone.
There’s a dead shrew, flattened
on the path. Its pressed body is dry,
paper-thin as if drawn in outline on the earth.
A perfect pointed nose.
I see each hair on its back, smoothed,
even its single eye, upturned,
is open, shocked, as if it saw the indentations of a tread.
Hands, knees, reaching, inching.
I am at the widening side
where the spilled earth
has been lifted, tipped into a pyramid
of brick, a rubble of razing.
I sink, I can go no further,
on, in, pain, dark.
Too cold, too cold, I am too cold.
With words, I state my being in the world,
and however softly uttered, even whispered,
they are caught on the breeze, slight feathers
to bed the nests, plumage to vane the flight,
to fletch the arrows, fly the fishing lure.
(I chose this sequence, partly because of how it shifts the narrative, this move from water to earth, but particularly for the perspective, the absolute ground level view of a small animal under the skies, where cracks are gullies and a tyre tread a mountain range. And for the shrew, its single eye, that reminds me of an image in Keith Douglas’ Vergissmeinicht. Or you might have found it in Remains of Elmet. It’s that good. It’s as if , like the shrew, she’s reached a point at which nothing remains, no more is possible, and the ords at the end that are feathers are her giving up the ghost. Everything is drawn together in that stanza which brings the the first section of the pamphlet to a close. The next section begins : Feet press around my ear, my shoulder, my head. / How do they know my name? She’s found, rescued, hospitalized and a different kind of struggle begins with the salve of routine mantras; in repetition is our survival. These are our psalms.
They speak my name.
Why do they chant this psalm
as if it is a balm, the sounding
of the word that is the moniker
attached to what there is of me:
my date of birth, again, what is your date of birth?
I think about a death, the one
that might have been this date,
my exit through that watery place.
I’ll choose just one poem from the second section, the story of her slow recovery, vignettes about hospitals, about doctors, about helplessness. This comes at the end, a celebration of healing, and of understanding the double-edgedness of things.
A New Season
So beautiful is the danger that comes with summer. Ragwort, the poisoner, waves gaily from the fields, fit only for the caterpillars of the cinnabar moth who absorb cyanide, letting the birds know of peril by a code of stripes: orange and black.
Poppies disperse their seed, Foxgloves, mauve or purple, a seldom droop of white, the digitalis of the easing heart, in a deadly shade of night, peal purple bells; a yellow clapper rings the knell.
Henbane, belladonna, mandrake.
Each day, I learn the walk of pain along this track, as click-click by sticks I return to the site. I am welcomed by a littering of granny’s bonnets, rabbit’s ears, the orange. The yellow spatterings of broom are like the gorse of my childhood cliffs.
I collect the healing herbs of the wayside: shining cranesbill, orange hawkweed, its rash of colour from dark stamen to sunset petals. Herb robert, black Medic, feverfew.
And when I finally venture back to the pond, by its sides are the sproutings of new growth, plants brought by birds in their droppings, seed fallen from the heels of ramblers, amblers, shed from the soles.
Here in this ground I have come to know so well, the dirt fosters tiny plants, scenting it with the crushed leaves of herb robert. A scattering of purple heads. Self heal.
Potent with the power to heal. I am healing.
I am the perennial grass. I am a single strand.
It is the end of the bright season. Rains shelve the ground, puddling, winds scatter the remnants, seeds are blown both dry and wet, or taken prisoner, impounded by the land.
Damp air feeds the aches, inflames the joints, insinuates. Leaves turn yellow, brown, on trees before descent. Brambles deplete of fruit and colour.
The edge of the pond is slippery again.
Only the heather blushes mauve and purple as roots delve into the banking, securing their future, giving the fallen a handle on life.
I like very much the last line that returns to the loop of heather root that saved her life, that draws everything satisfyingly together.
So now I have the words, I have darkness, and I have hope.
These are not the final words of the pamphlet…there’s an epitaph to follow… but they could be.
So thank you Alison Lock, for letting me share Lure with Cobweb followers, and being patient as I have so slowly been ‘catching up’. I hope I’ve done you justice.
There’s one extra bit of news to share, though, and I was desperate to get this post out in time. Alison reminds me that “Lure has now become an audio script and along with some amazing artists: a composer, musicians, sound technician/artist, and a wonderful producer who believed in my work, it will be broadcast on April 25th on Radio 3 on the Between the Ears programme. “
I’m a fan of Terry Pratchett – that wise, witty, inventive, humane man. I have 30+ of his audio books on a flash drive, and I listen to them over and over in the car. I love his characters, not least Tiffany Aching, the witch and keeper of sheep. She has a great love of words that she experiences in a kind of synaesthesia. They are mobile, tactile, visual, aural, all at once.Like this:
Susurrus . . . according to her grandmother’s dictionary, it meant ‘a low soft sound, as of whispering or muttering’. Tiffany liked the taste of the word. It made her think of mysterious people in long cloaks whispering important secrets behind a door: susurrususssurrusss … (The Wee Free Men)
There’s one that’s stuck in my head of late. Desultory. Limp-wristed, indolent, dilatory. That’s me. That’s twelve months of self-isolating and procrastination. It’s what happens when days fail to have meaning as events or sequences, when deadlines seem like irrelevances. Time to do something about it. Time to catch up.
It’s what we say when we haven’t seen someone for a long time…”let’s get together and do some catching up”. Of course there is the obverse …as in “playing catch up” which is when a team will rush things, and forget the plan and take risks, and generally lose the plot on the way to losing. I’ll keep that in mind. The thing is, poets go on writing, and even through a year of Covid, books are published and I buy them, and I mean to tell folk about the ones I liked. And then I go all desultory. So here’s the plan. I’m going to do some catching up; I resolve to get back to a proper routine of regular cobweb posts and tell you about the books that have made me happier in the last year. And we’ll start with……..
John Duffy “A Gowpen” (Calder Valley Poetry 2020)
In normal times (remember them?) I try never to miss the Albert Poets’ workshop at The Sportsman’s in Huddersfield. I love those Monday nights, getting feedback on draft poems from people who are on top of the game. I’ve never gone without coming home with an improved piece of work. It’s everything a workshop should be…democratic, critical, supportive, and warm. So thank whatever gods have not abandoned us for Zoom, and the virtual continuation of those Monday nights, and the company of, among others, John Duffy.
Glamourie. You don’t need to look it up. It’s a Scots word. It means ‘enchantment’, and it’s an enchanting collection of poems from a man who loves words and the craft of words. You may be aware that it’s not the first time you’ve seen the word. Kathleen Jamie‘s already used it as the title of a poem that relives a moment of bewitchment in an everyday wood, of feeling a sudden loss, of a search for a lost one. Here’s a flavour of it. It explains ‘glamourie’ better than I ever could
“It was hardly the Wildwood,
just some auld fairmer’s
shelter belt, but red haws
reached out to me,
…………………………. I tried
calling out, or think
I did, but your name
shrivelled on my tongue”
Well, we know full well that the words rarely shrivel on Kathleen Jamie’s tongue, and neither do they on John Duffy’s. Time for an introduction. John writes of himself that he:
” was born in Glasgow 70+ years ago, and has lived in Huddersfield since 1984. He has worked as a social and community worker in Glasgow, London, Huddersfield and Bradford, and as a bibliotherapist in Batley.He has run writing workshops mainly with community and mental health groups since the mid 1990s, and is one of the founders of Huddersfield’s Albert Poets, still going after 25 years.
He gave up employment in the 1980s to look after the house and children (not in that order), while Cathy qualified as a midwife (he calls this the practice of husbandry). When he moved to Huddersfield he made good use of Kirklees Council’s Writing in the Community workshops, and met the other Albert poets.
He likes reading, baking bread and making soup walking and singing, and is much given to utopian speculation.”
To this I’ll add a very recent bit of information he shared in one of our Zoom workshops . He once, years ago, overheard himself described by someone (who may well have been one of his clients) thus : the only social worker I ever met who wasn’t totally f***ing useless. There’s an endorsement to treasure.
He’s too modest to tell you what scores of poets around the West Riding (and beyond) will happily tell you…that there are scores of poets who owe him a huge debt for his quiet encouragement and support, for his enthusiasm, for his sustained stewardship of the Albert Poets in Huddersfield, along with Stephanie Bowgett. And, as I’ve said, there’s the Monday night sessions where I’ve grown accustomed to John Duffy’s shrewd editorial ear and eye. I’ve never taken a draft to share without coming home with something tighter, righter, better. So let me share with you a taste of A Gowpen. Which is a Scots word, from the Old Norse gaupn – a hollow made by cupped hands. An image of openness and generosity.
One of the first thing to strike the reader is the sheer variety of styles, subject, and, indeed, shapes. It’s a rattlebag of a collection, which reminds me of the unpredictability of what John will bring to workshops…it may be a succession of highly crafted dialogues between True Thomas and Duns Scotus. Or an anecdote about the kinds of encounters he had as a Glasgow socialworker. Or a praise poem for the making of soup. In A Gowpen you’ll encounter priests, Samuel Beckett, the Paris of tourists and wanderers, urban edgelands, Richard the Second, a Lanark bing, a shape-changing fox, and all sorts of birds and animals observed in the way that MacCaig would record encounters with toads or Dippers: mating bees, ducks, nest-building rooks, a blackbird drinking.
What always strikes me, too, is the matter of what Clive James calls ‘the moment that draws you in’. The phrase or short sequence that arrests you with its rightness, which seems to memorise itself. Like the mating bees
A knot of fumbling
fluff that tumbles
or a sudden rainfall
seeds spilled from a huge hand
crackle of an egg hatching
or tractors and their haymaking trailers on a steep slope
They clamber uphill, dogged as ladybirds
or a crow on a Huddersfield chimney pot
who crouches, hops
a quarter turn east
on nimble feet
or a small patch of woodland where
the beck steps
down in twelve-inch
with its own cool
or a night sky, far out at sea
There is the moon, the stars like dice
I could go on and on, but you get the picture. I’d like to share some of the lyrical poems that play elegantly (and, I guess, fashionably) with shape on the page, but I know WordPress will corrupt them, and you will just have to buy the book to find out how they work. But I’m more than happy to share two chunkier narrative anecdotal poems (because I like narrative) and finish with the title poem, which is a gem.
The first I chose because I like the voice, and the owner of the voice. I like the reflectiveness of it, and I especially like the half echoes of Larkin and also of Douglas Dunn at the end. That man. I wish him grass.
That Priest in Immingham
You’d think that when the rub and blur of the wind
stops and the engine stops its unheard throb
that there would be relief for us in port – all
those wishful rumours of rum-laced dance halls
crammed with girls who come in packs being true –
but all we get, another three-hour shift, shifting
unrevealing containers to the cranes, securing
the containers that take their place,
and every grubby place begins to look like all
the places where we sweat and schlep:
in and out of port so quick, these cranes these days,
no time to smoke, let alone get drunk or laid
or visit temples, hills, shops. See any children.
The ship will never wait for anyone and then
where are you? Back at sea: fight the war
with rust – scraper primer paint –
tighten the bolts that secure the crate towers.
There is the moon, the stars like dice,
the empty sea on a four-hour watch.
A lonely ship light passes sea-miles away,
you wonder if they wonder about you:
you sometimes feel like an actual sailor,
the morning light, the patterns
in waves and clouds and trailing birds;
and the shipmates who keep you sane
from port to port. For months. There was
that priest in Immingham asked
what he could offer us. I know what my crew,
the skipper said, would really like.
All they get to do is walk on steel.
We got out of his minibus in a car park
in a flat street by a bland church.
Between church and street, a lawn.
For half an hour we walked
barefoot on damp grass.
The second one I’ve chosen for its sheer range, its tumbling detail. I like the dry irony of “I will be a flâneur”. Because this narrator is anything but.
Parc des Buttes Chaumont
The Sibyl, with frenzied mouth uttering things not to be laughed at, unadorned
and unperfumed, yet reaches to a thousand years with her voice by aid of the god.
Alone and idle in Paris for an hour –
quiet Sunday morning, Belleville – I amble.
I will be a flâneur. Here is the market,
the clatter and clang of poles as the traders
erect their stalls, unfurl awnings, unpack flowers.
Listen to the chatter as they unload their vans;
their voices fill the square, too early for the snarl
of traffic. I walk beneath these plane trees,
towards the park on my map. Here is the gate:
a dozen steps in I am surrounded,
passed, thronged, jostled from all sides
by runners, joggers, Nordic walkers,
in pairs or in groups or alone; crowds
do tai chi; that must be a Pilates class;
here are skippers. There is a man
walking backwards. With fervent faces
they stretch, bend, jump, swing,
twist, kick thin air, lunge, crunch,
carry ropes and poles and bottles
of water and towels and backpacks.
They have headphones, they narrow their eyes
as I stroll among them, fully dressed,
without purpose, a sane man in Bedlam.
There’s the lake and the hill; the temple on top
of the pinnacle; the waterfall in its grotto;
the stalactites, and miles of rustic log fences,
all made from concrete, complete with knots
and grains and streaks. Thomas Coryat’s Crudities
describe this spot: The fayrest gallowes
that I ever saw, built on a little hillocke,
where people were hanged then hung
by the dozen for years; de Coligny’s headless
corpse swings by its heels, Quasimodo
holds dead Esmeralda in the charnel house below.
This bare hill where lepers were housed,
whores reformed, horse corpses cut up,
communards shelled, is a gym for the brothers
who need to be fit to massacre cartoonists,
and brush past me, perhaps, this morning.
From the hilltop I look at all the rooftops,
chimneys, domes, mansards, ridges;
turn away from the temple of Sybil,
make my way down, across the Suicide Bridge.
It’s a very artful poem that starts with the accumulation of sensory detail, the narrator going with the flow of things, oh, look Here is the market, …..Here is the gate. He seems to be carried along and essentially separate
as I stroll among them, fully dressed,
without purpose, a sane man in Bedlam.
But he’s a man who knows history and understands its complex ironies. It’s a very disingenuous poem, and unnerving in the way it takes the reader out of the park, away from the crowds, across the Suicide Bridge. It’s a poem to spend time with and return to, because there are discoveries to be made on each visit.
One more poem to end with. It’s an obvious choice.
To make a gowpen: cup your hands
together, hold that hollow of skin and light.
The portion of oats allowed each pauper,
a gowpen of gold the youngest son
snatches from the Fairy Barrow, a gowpen
of meal at the miller’s door (Quick,
before the Master comes back!), a scoop
of water for thirst, a scrape of dirt
to make a grave. We carry nothing,
but our hands are never empty. To calm
the child’s fever, a gowpen of snow.
Shape of pleading, gesture of beggars,
all you can carry in two hands, a gift
to a lover, this bowl of moulded air.
The whole collection is as generous as this. Give yourself a treat. Buy it. Here’s a link:
I’m looking back to the first time I went on a poetry residential at The Old Olive press in Relleu, in Alicante in May 2013. I’m looking back to how I met someone who transformed the week and changed me. In fact, there were two. The other one was Hilary Elfick, who has been a guest poet for the cobweb; the other was Gyula Friewald.
When my first collection, Much Possessed was published in 2016 it was dedicated to My three wise sisters, Hilary Elfick, Gaia Holmes and Kim Moore. Hilary was the first person to tell me that my work should be published. Gaia was the first person to give me a headline guest slot at a poetry open mic. And Kim Moore was the first to publish one of my poems on a poetry blog. They have, all three, gone on encouraging, inspiring and enthusing me. Inspirations, all three of them. And there’s another who’s never had a dedication in a pamphlet or a collection, but should have. So here’s a post, dedicated to him.
Gyula Friewald is a craftsman in metal; a sculptor, a forger, a blacksmith, an artist…all of these. He has made thousands of stunning things, like the bas relief Nomad, which is my headline image this week; he has created monumental gates for embassies, beautiful cast street lamps, elegant steel trophies, stunning staircases…he has made things for streets in capital cities, for restaurants, for private houses. His range and energy are formidable. But, like he says, it’s physically punishing, and he’s retired. He lives in Spain. He writes poetry in English. And he is one of the best walking companions I have ever met.
In the late afternoons, before the evening meal, we’d sit and workshop his poems, with me helping (I hope) him to find the English idioms that would keep the meanings he intended, in a language not his first or his own. But before that, after lunch, we’d go for long walks, and, if we hadn’t done that, I’d never have learned the landscapes we were walking through. It was a week of tumultuous history lessons, philosophy, discovering the names and properties of flowers, watching eagles, far off, uprooting steel snares, finding the bones of a fox, speculating on the meaning of petroglyphs, the behaviours of metals, the weight of anvils, and laughing a lot.
When I went there the second time, I hoped he’d be here too, and found that he was, even if he wasn’t..I found myself on every solitary walk wondering what Gyula would make of this or that, and pointing things out, even though he wasn’t there. In the end I had to write this poem for him.
( for Guyla Friewald, sculptor, and teller of stories)
On my own, months later, by the footprint
of St Jaume, the candles in the niche, I could swear
I heard you still forging meanings ……all this terraces…
and you held an arc of sky in one hard palm,
drew a pure line on the air…..thesebancals; was the Moors
who build.. and you put your hand on the drywalled stone,
tracing its joints, so I felt the weight and drag,
the ugly labour that it took to make those lovely
contours where olive, almond, lemons grow.
And where we came on the bones of the fox.
…. you want sculpture; look at your own hand, the way…..
The sea so far and vague.Back on the track
you were hunting wordsto tell the meaning
of that finger-paintedpetroglyph..
maybe this man,
he wants to make a power over the dark….
By this burned tree stumpabove the deep arroya …
was the timemy father had to hide away from Stalin…..
and in the meadowprofligate with flowers
you know why this Hungarian has a German name?,
In the dark below the grandfather’s Christmas table
the mill race ran…..between the boards you could see..
You know that…
………….. know why I like England?
a thick-boled olive, two hundred years old,
and a mountain floating in the sky beyond…
because is surroundedwith food.…….and we watched
the eagles, spiralling on thermals, miles away…..
you knowwhat my country is surrounded by?…..
In a blink the eagles slanted off into the sun…..
…..is by enemies…leaving nothing to be said.
Late afternoon, on the Via Dolorosa
below the castle ruin….that big anvil that I have
to leave behind in London…maybe two ton… between
the Stationof Veronica,…but that big hammer
gives the sound…like bells, maybe. and Simon of Cyrene
..you know is right…. you raised your arm, your fist,
so I felt how the forge,the heat, and that hammer
take their toll on the body, the bone.
Day after day, this lore of flowers, the secrets
of copper, of silver, the forging of steel,
how a carob pod smells of chocolate,
the hinges and hanging of church doors ten metres tall,
of damascening, of the breaking of Hungary, how love
can fracture on the anvil of work……all of it.
In the cool green light where the village women
used to do their laundry we said nothing at all.
I watch mosquito larvae struggle with the surface
tension. Listen to small sounds of water. Bells.
Since then I’ve stayed at his home in Murcia, and we’ve written together on a retreat in Relleu, and we’ve walked over the watershed to Sella, and we’ve talked and talked about everything. I have no idea when or if I’ll see him again. And my passport’s expired. I collected the bones of the fox, and they sit on my study window ledge, reminding me of him.
The fox on the window sill
grows articulate, what’s left –
skull and grinning jaw, femur,
scapula, pelvis, vertebrae.
She says over and over
how she once all fitted,
how each stiff bright hair lay
flat, went bracken-dark in rain,
how each grew loose and fell away,
how she grew used to her own sweet decay,
how she leached into the crumbled stone
among the thorn and cyclamen
how she listened into the wind
how she smelled the far-off ocean,
the taste of cordite, juniper, sun
how she remembers a fall
out of high places, blue distances,
how once she could move like smoke
how wet and red was her long tongue.
Light comes through the paper lantern
of her shoulder bone;
translucent, my fox,
with not a thought in her head.
It’s his birthday today. Happy Birthday, Gyula. Thanks for the memories.
Let me share with you my reasons for entering poetry competitions, because I hope I’ll persuade you to enter at least one. Which one is it? It’s The Red Shed Poetry Competition, which is organised by the Currock Press..
Why? Because Emma Purshouseis judging it..it will be launched by the lovely man behind The Currock Press, the poet, story-writer, co-organiser of The Red Shed Poetry Readings in Wakefield, and writing tutor, John Clarke.
Why? Because poetry competitions fund small presses and poetry ventures. The entry fees for The Red Shed Competition essentially pay for the readers and readings at The Red Shed in Wakefield. It’s one of the truly wonderful venues that actually pay the guest poet a decent fee, and it’s why they attract some really great readers.
You can look out for it being publicised via Facebook, and sites like Write out Loudand Spoken Word.Amazingly for the Northern fastnesses of this fair kingdom you’ll be able to pay by Paypal. Which is nice. Or in kind, if you’re into barter.
And to help you on your way, I’m reposting a strand I write at this time in many years. Because it may be useful if you’re tweaking poems you wrote under the daily pressure, and you think may go the distance, and it may give you an idea or two about the ins and outs of poetry competitions if you’ve not entered one before. Ready? Here we go…………………………….
Let’s get something out of the way right from the beginning. The odds of your winning a poetry competition are dramatically increased if you enter. Simultaneously, so are the chances of losing, but not by the same amount. And I guess most of us don’t buy a Lottery ticket expecting to win. If you’re like me, you buy yourself a dream.
In earlier posts on the cobweb, I’ve riffed on my own reasons for entering competitions. First comes the dream. What next? I look out for competitions run by small publishers, because when you pay for your entry, you’re in a win-win situation. Your entry fee is going to keep these small concerns alive…I’m thinking of ones like Prole and The interpreter’s house especially. Or you may be helping to promote a small festival. The point is, you’re not wasting your money.
Next thing is: who’ll be judging the competition. With the small presses, I don’t mind; however, when it comes to medium and high-profile affairs then what’s important to me is whether I like that poet’s work. Why? Because part of the dream is not anything to do with money (and there’s often not a lot of that involved) but the thought that my work is going to be read by someone I admire and from whom I’ve learned. If the judge’s work is not the sort of thing that floats my boat, then I don’t enter, because I guess that more likely than not, it’s going to be mutual. For example, if Pascale Petit were to judge a competition I’d enter like a shot, but not if it was someone who went in for avant-garde shapes on the page. It’s just how I am. I certainly think twice about competitions where the work is filtered by a selection committee before it reaches the star judge….The Bridport comes to mind….but they’re likely to be the ones with big prize money. For my money, I’d say that if it doesn’t guarantee the judge reads all the entries (as, say, Simon Armitage did for the McClellan) then I’d not bother. But take your choice….it’s up to you.
Is there anything else? I’m personally attracted to competitions which offer publication of your work as a prize. Some will guarantee that runners-up will appear in their magazine (as in The Rialto/ RSPB). It’s certainly worth checking out ones where the prize is a the publication of a pamphlet/chapbook. Indigo Dreams is one such.
Finally, some poets I know will tell me they would rather submit to magazines. My answer is always that it’s not an either/or choice. I do both. But I know I’m always less disappointed by not winning a competition than getting ‘sorry, but no thank-you’ emails from magazine editors. I get a lot of those. I suppose it’s because I don’t expect to win a competition, but I’m absolutely convinced that Magma, The Rialto and the rest would be mad not to jump at the chance of publishing my poems.
Anyway, let’s suppose I’ve persuaded you. What advice can I give?
I’ve thought hard and long about this, ever since John Clarke asked me to judge The Red Shed a few years ago. I’ve had a lot of luck in competitions. I’ve had poems chosen by Andrew Motion (twice), Liz Lochhead, Blake Morrison, Billy Collins, and Simon Armitage (twice). I have not caught the eye of Carrie Etter, Alison Brackenbury, Jo Bell, George Szirtes or Roger McGough (though with the latter, he probably never got to see it…it’s a huge comp, The Bridport). It’s hard to see that they have much in common apart from being immensely talented, and being poets I love to read.
What about the poems? I can’t see any pattern there, either. I sort of thought that most of them had been narratives of one sort or another, but when I check, I find it’s not exactly true. It’s a variety of elegaic, historical/political, mythic, anecdotal, and biographical. Possibly it’s a list that’s light on the lyrical. There are poems about Ted and Sylvia, Milton’s daughter,selkies, suffragettes, cocklepickers, cutting hair, a 10thC princess, Everest, and the plumage trade. They’re not all in the same voice. One is in the voice of a witch, another of a crucifixion expert. They’re all shapes and sizes. What it comes down to, I suppose, is that there was something in each that caught the eye, or the ear and ‘stuck’. Carole Bromley, who has judged the YorkMix Competition for four years, had to read 1800 entries in 2016, and tells me (and I paraphrase)
it just jumps out, it’s an instinctive thing…but you know it when you see it
And that leads me to the one piece of advice that I’m totally convinced about. You don’t try to second-guess the judge. Because she, or he, simply doesn’t know. I could tell you who my favourite poets are, but I doubt it would help. Vernon Scannell, Charles Causley, Tony Harrison, John Donne, Milton, Pope, Bob Dylan, Christy Ducker, Kim Moore, Roger McGough. Blank verse, free verse, quatrains, sonnets, rhyming couplets, multiple rhymes. It’s not a question of this or that form. But judges all know when something jumps off the page. And the thing about poems that win competitions, which makes them that bit different from poems that get accepted by magazines and journals, is that they are one-off experiences. They don’t have to fit a house style, or sit comfortably/interestingly with anyone else’s poems.
So what sort of things are we talking about?
None of this will be unexpected, I think, or new. I can only tell you what makes me pause as I look through a collection, for instance, what makes me want to buy it.
They don’t win competitions but they can snag the attention. Ones that explain exactly what the poem is about don’t do that. But this one does:
Sometimes you think of Bowness
It holds your attention even more because it’s also the first line. And it begins a list of the things that you remember. And each line of the first stanza begins with ‘and’.It’s just a poem that grabs you visually and puzzles you just enough to give it your attention. She can do that, Kim Moore (for ’tis she). She does great titles. If we could speak like wolves. When I was a thing with feathers. A previous year’s Red Shed judge, Julie Mellor, does, too. Speaking through our bones.Yes. Check out her pamphlet of the same name. So..think about titles.
First lines (which may also be the title).
(A small caveat here. I said you don’t try to second-guess the judge, but not everyone thinks that using the title as the first line is a good idea. I happen to like it, and I do it a lot, but Helena Nelson for one is dead against it. So maybe it’s not a bad idea to find out if the poet/judge does it in her own work.)
The first line may not have been where the poem started in its first or later drafts. But now you know what the poem’s ‘about’, so you’re playing to get an uncommitted reader’s attention. At the same time you don’t want to give the game away. A good first line will certainly make me pay attention.
Like The first hymn is Abba: I believe in angels. Double-take. What’s going on? Must find out.
Or this one: They lashed him to old timbers / that would barely float. Him? who is he? A game with a pronoun to create a little hesitation, a suspense.
Or this: Isn’t it enough that I’ve yanked out my heart?A question will catch the ear, especially if we don’t know who’s asking it or why.
I’m not offering recipes or nostrums. Just saying: look at the title. Listen to the first line. Ask yourself: why should anyone bother?
I go again and again to Clive James’ beautiful Poetry Notebookand his insistence on the memorable, the hard-to-forget. Here’s the thing that strikes me as the heart of the memorable poem, the one that sticks, the one that may just win the prize. ‘Everything’ says James
depended on, and still depends on, the quality of the moment……whatever kind of poem it is, it’s the moment that gets you in.
That moment has to be brought alive and bright in language. It will often be an image, but it could be a startling turn of phrase, or a beautifully placed rhyme. Trying to explain it is like trying to explain a tree or a table. It’s easier to point at some, and say: there’s a table, and so is that. And that. Here, then, are ‘moments’ in poems that persuaded me to buy collections. There might be a lot. It’s enjoyable tracking them down.
How about Robin Robertson’s At Roane Head
He went along the line / relaxing them /one after another / with a small knife
It’s the shock of that last line that nails you. Well, it does me.
Or this, in a different way, from Clare Shaw’s Ewe in several parts..about the imagined(?) loss of a baby, taken by sheep, unprotesting, because
She must have liked it
the way she likes dogs
her hands to its mouth and stamping
like she does when she’s pleased
I kept the line breaks here because they’re part of the way the moment is made to work. Think about it.
Sometimes the moment can declare itself as an image- metaphor or simile- as this does in Wendy Pratt’s Nan Hardwicke turns into a hare.
An odd feeling this, / to hold another’s soul in the mouth like an egg
That stops me in my tracks. What would carry an egg in its mouth? And how full would that be. Awkward and fragile. It’s packed, isn’t it?
The important thing is that they will lodge themselves in my mind. They stick at a first hearing.
There’s one like this that I heard when Kim Moore was reading at the Chemic Tavern some years ago. I can’t remember it precisely or exactly, but I can’t forget it. She’s writing about an old boyfriend, how twice a week they would lie together, and apart, on or in a bed, not touching, asexual, like unlit candles.And I know I can never forget it.
Just in case you get the idea that ‘moments’ are necessarily emotionally fraught or traumatic, the apparently funny and inconsequential will do it, too. Like this opening moment of Mike de Placido’s Diktat song(great title, too)
Some people are bad for the soul. Avoid them.
I quote granddad: Never wrestle with chimneysweeps.
You can’t legislate for it in your own poetry, but when it works, it WILL be recognised.
Technique, form and structure.
Clive James talks about ‘the spectacular expression that outruns its substance’. It’s not about formal structures or freeform or rule breaking or experiment. It’s a question of whether the words and their arrangement are doing their job, that they have to be as they are, rather than being flaunted to make an impression. I have no preference for one kind of poem or another. Sonnets, sestina, terza rimas, rhymed quatrains, couplets, tercets, villanelles. Just so long as they’re not like that to be decorative. Sonnets really do need to be about a particular kind of ‘argument’ don’t they. Sestinas deal happily with the obsessional..otherwise, what are those repetitions for. And so on.
This is a personal thing. But I like to know that a poem’s finished. And it’s not always the case. It doesn’t have to be a rhyming couplet; you can be brought up short by endings that surprise, that turn the poem on its head, that make you reconsider what you’ve just read. In the way that the end of that four line stanza of Robin Robertson’s does…’with a small knife’. The way it subverts what you expect ‘relaxing’ to mean, the way it throws a frightening light on the cold calculations of the man who, you realise, has just casually slaughtered his sons.
There’s an art to an ending that encompasses and goes beyond the neat sign-offs of the rhyming couplet, or the rhetorical tying-off of a well-crafted sonnet.
And one more personal thing. I once spent some time selecting poems for an anthology. As with competitions, all the entries were anonymous, but it taught me something I’d not explicitly acknowledged to myself. I can’t be doing with pretentiousness or sentimentality or ego, or writing that’s out to impress. This is not the same as being esoteric, or having a wide range of reference, or writing poetry that expects the reader to do a bit of work to follow an allusion or reference. It’s just that if it looks hard, you’re not trying hard enough.
I know there are thousands of people out there who are better writers than I am, and better than I shall ever be. I hope they all enter The Red Shed Poetry Competition and make Emma Purshouse’s life impossible.
Good luck. Get those entries in. All of you.
Here’s the outline details of the competition
The Red Shed Poetry Competition 2021
Deadline: Wed 31 Mar 2021
Prizes: 1st £100 2nd £50 Shortlisted poems £10 Wakefield Postcode prize £25 Open to anyone aged 16 or over.
Sole adjudicator: Emma Purshouse
Generously sponsored by Mocca Moocho café, Cross Square, Wakefield
I’ve never liked Sundays very much. In my childhood and into my teens it was a routine of Sunday School and Chapel, and in between, a day of tense silences between my mum and dad who were not made for days of inaction or each others’ unmediated company.
In those days all the shops were closed on Sundays. As were cinemas. There was no TV. Later, in my decades of teaching, my Sundays were often the days in the shadow of Mondays, days when marking had to be done, was often put off and off and off until it was all ploughed through in an unsatisfactory way, late on a Sunday night.
I sometimes remember that inability to knuckle down to what needs doing; like now, when for one reason and another I’ve put off writing a post I really do want to write, but tell myself I can’t find the hook, or the way in, or whatever. Mainly I think, it’s because I suspect I’ll make a pig’s ear of it.
I suppose the idea of Sundays has bothered me, too, because the idea of days has lost its resonance. Days in my past used to have significance. Mondays were washing days (why?). Tuesdays, Early Closing…shops shut at round about 1.00pm, and that was it if you forgot to buy the bread. Round our way, there was a day when housewifes (there were housewifes, then) queued to buy tripe. Fridays were fish (and chip) days. Saturdays, fathers were at home, and the afternoons were for the match. Saturday nights were cinema nights, and dance hall nights. And then there was Sunday.
Everything changed, I think, in the early 80s, when the Sunday opening laws changed; everything was now open 24/7; after the 60’s most households needed two wage earners, and so on. Though we clung to the notion of the ‘weekend’, days no longer identified themselves in quite the same way. And then, a year ago, we finally accepted that, like the rest of the world, we were part of a pandemic. And for millions of us, all the days became the same.
Which is, I suppose, a very roundabout way of writing my way into this post, which will be about, among other things, the passage of time, the erosions of memory and history, about loss and, I hope, about hope and salvation. When days are much the same we can lose track of time. I got a letter from the NHS this week; it advises me that I am vulnerable, at risk, and that I am strongly advised to ‘shield’ until March 31.
It was a bit of a shock to realise that I’d had one of these letters before. A year ago, to be precise.
I’ve been shielding and self-isolating for a year. It’s my Covid-versary. At the start, you don’t mark the date. I just remember thinking that it would be sorted by the end of April, and I’d go to St Ives to write. And then April became September, except it didn’t. And so on. Can you remember what day its anymore?
If someone told you a year ago you’ll be isolated for a year you’d probably say but I can’t do that. Much in the style of folk who post on social media that they can’t wait for X or Y or whatever. meaning that they don’t want to. I can’t do that. I’m reminded of Kim Moore’s glorious Trumpet Teacher’s curse
a curse on the teacher who says I’m rubbish at music in a loud enough voice for the whole class to hear
I can’t do that. We believe we can’t cope. We lose someone we love. We lose an occupation. How will we survive? It turns out that you can, that you have to, that you do. I had another anniversary in January. Eight years ago I joined an inspirational fellowship and gave up alcohol. I thought I couldn’t do it, but it turned out I could. The remarkable thing is that, as a direct result, I started to write seriously, and joined another inspirational fellowship of people who write poems. I’ve had a book published every year since. I started to write a poetry blog, and about 750,000 words later, I’m still writing it. It turns out I could do it after all. As can we all, mostly.
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
To Larkin’s priest and doctor, let me add Mathematician and Scientist, and so finally get round to the real point of this post which is to share my enthusiasm for the work of Martin Zarrop, one of that inspirational fellowship of people who write poems. And I’ll start with a poem which I think is at the heart of his first two books : No theory of everything and Moving Pictures
May 1945, Clock Cinema, Leeds
They search for the stars
through tobacco haze, follow
each washed out image
on the screen. Sweaty-necked
rows of utility suits,
tiredness slumped against
faded seats. Soldiers march
as powdered dolls parade
to music, to victory. Dust
dances in the flicker
of the projector’s light.
I want something.
She rummages through her bag,
tells the boy there’s nothing left.
Then give me something else.
A killer’s eye, perhaps,
orthe floating nightmare
of Donovan’s Brain, conjuring
bubble spells out of a glass jar,
turning men into monsters.
They shall not pass; Gary Cooper
will meet The End, armed
with his righteous gun while Mrs Miniver
survives her clapboard blitz
on the Hollywood back lot.
Now, through cracks in an adult wall
he sees the cock crow its news, hears
the clipped voice as cameras pan
slow as ice across an open pit
of broken extras, jumbled
contortions of skin and bone, stick
origami folded by bulldozers.
In black and white a woman weeps,
men stare, stone-grey
into the winter soil.
There is no hero, no lipstick.
His head is pulled down
into mother’s lap. They wait
for the main feature, the
safe return in glorious Technicolor
of the real world,
Ronald Colman to Shangri-La.
I started reading and annotating the two collections some time last November. I would take them with me to hospital when I went for check ups, for consultations, scans, and, latterly, for chemotherapy. This poem is the one that stopped me in my tracks. I remember the shock of those newsreels, too, but the thing is that I only saw them for the first time in the late 1950s, in my teens. They came at the end of a long series on TV: All our yesterdays. These lines brought back the nightmare that wouldn’t leave.
an open pit
of broken extras, jumbled
contortions of skin and bone, stick
origami folded by bulldozers.
The disjunction of that phrase ‘stick origami’, its obscene oxymoron of brittleness and foldings, nailed the sense of sick incredulity it generated. I was in the comfort of our house, watching with my dad. I didn’t know at the time that one of my dad’s brothers was at the liberation of Belsen..though when I finally knew, I began to understand the darkness that seemed to hang about him. Unlike Martin, I wasn’t Jewish, I wasn’t in a strange town, I wasn’t 8 years old.
The poem beautifully evokes the exhaustion at the end of the war, the tiredness of the audience, the offer of an escape from a grey, utilitarian world as they search for the stars /through tobacco haze. You sense that the cinema is a treat for the mother, and the child needs to be pacified with something else. Which, appallingly, turns out to be something he maybe shouldn’t see, through cracks in an adult wall. Shangri La will never be the same again.
In Moving Pictures, this poem is one of a sequence of thirteen, each set in 1945. Martin explains that
“the key to the 1945 poems is the title poem ‘Moving Pictures’. It’s the only poem of the sequence to relate to a personal experience. In 1945 I was 8 years old and living in Leeds with my mother who wouldn’t let me be evacuated alone so we left London and rented a house (now demolished) in Banstead Terrace. We went to the cinema regularly and she would take a bag of goodies to keep me quiet. I remember the Pathe News and the concentration camp images but I think it was my mother’s reaction that etched them in my memory. The Clock Cinema building is impressive and still in existence but has now some other function. I keep having to remind myself that ‘the war’ is 75 years into history for young people but it still fascinates me and visiting each month of 1945 seemed a fruitful way of touching on it and the various political issues that are still with us today.”
The sequence includes the execution of the son of Max Planck, the failed Hitler assassination plot, the Dresden firestorm, Hiroshima, the completion of the first supercomputer and the foundation of the United Nations. It’s worth pointing this out, because Martin Zarrop’s poetry, like his conversation, is wide ranging. He’s a polymath and polyhistor, and at the heart of it all, human and vulnerable. Martin summarises his background as follows:
“I spent my working life as an academic applied mathematician although I gave up physics and chemistry in the 4th form and graduated with a BA (not BSc) in Maths. My only period working outside academia was during my Trotskyite period (1964-71) at the end of which I worked for just over a year as a journalist until I burned out and ‘defected’. These events have impacted some of my poems. I suppose I was looking for mathematical certainty even in politics! It was ‘all or nothing’; just to do ‘something’ would be a betrayal. In the end, I do nothing politically except occasionally expressing an opinion and getting angry but, of course, I can afford that luxury!
My absence of scientific qualifications (and my non-practical essence!) has never blunted my interest in science, particularly physics, AI, cosmology and the philosophical questions they raise. I keep a close eye on New Scientist as a source of poetry and a tentative title for my next collection is ‘To Boldly Go’. I’m not certain where Covid should raise its head in a new collection. “
This should explain why you’ll come across a fascination with Artificial Intelligence, the Turing Test, the Uncertainty Principle and Schrodinger’s cat amongst many other things in his four collections. However, it’s the more explicitly human/vulnerable/personal poems I want to share with you right now. First, this poem about his father, which reminds me powerfully of Tony Harrison’s Bookends.. the business of how the 11+ and scholarship separated so many of us working class boys, and girls, from their neighbours and parents. What finally separates us, of course, is death. As Martin says in The Father-Thing, another poem about his dad : I would talk to him now/but the language is lost
I never wanted it
that life of sweatshops,
the taste of dust and steam,
the clatter of machines.
There my father was at home,
alive among his workmates,
thimble, needle in motion.
Schmutters: that was his trade.
I envied the skill in his fingers,
the blur of metal on chalk
piercing raw cloth
in a rhythm that never slowed
over fifty years. I still see him,
hands moving over garments,
Woodbine dangling from lip,
the yellow stain on his shirt.
We never talked about work,
never talked about anything.
His ambition for me was cutter-designer,
the Everest I refused to climb.
My hands move over white paper
etching the symbols of our separation.
Martin explains that “ my father was absent during my early childhood. He was already 29 when war was declared and didn’t reappear until 1946. He came from a large Jewish East End family and his parents were from Poland. His family was pretty noisy and lively and my mother (I felt) rather looked down on them, particularly as they loved gambling (horses, dogs, cards) and couldn’t hold onto money. My father was a ladies tailor, tried unsuccessfully on a couple of occasions to go into business with his father and siblings and couldn’t resist gambling. This was the cause of many parental rows and my mother ended up doling out weekly pocket money to him. He was always asking for a fiver (‘don’t tell mum’) when I visited later in life and this image (‘don’t be like your father’) is deeply embedded in my brain. It was impossible ever to have a proper conversation with him because of these background issues (see ‘The Father Thing’). There are still poems to be written about my parents.”
Amen to that I say.
Separation is a theme that runs through Martin’s poetry. He’s in his 80’s (though you wouldn’t think so) and of an age like me when ‘the loss of friends is devastating, particularly when they have been soul mates and walking companions’. His wife died in 2005, and she’s a constant presence, too. She’s implicit in the rituals of loneliness and loss that he evokes in ‘Moving pictures’….solitary cooking with a man who hasn’t ever quite embraced cookery. The ‘comfort of a Tesco fry-up’ that is no comfort at all.
The poem I asked for that illuminates this element of his writing comes at the subject obliquely, delicately, beautifully. It’s about displacement strategies among other things, I think. I’ll let it speak for itself.
I teach piano on a Sunday
to girls who’ve passed
away before they’ve made the grade.
I find it therapeutic, sitting in my chair,
savouring the touch of vanished fingers,
coaxing airs from tarnished keys.
We don’t speak much. I listen carefully
and stare through shimmer to a score
that must be strictly followed
as my wife insisted. No cutting
corners for a pretty face, she said.
And even though she’s absent
and they’re dead,
I maintain standards.
And finally, from his newest collection Is anyone there? a poem that made me cheer and then laugh out loud. It made me think that this is why I like poetry. Because, ultimately, it’s life-affirming. It’s a collection that’s dedicated to lost friends and loves
‘black holes, you become invisible / but you still bend space and time’
It’s a collection that teases away at the idea of consciousness, of intelligence, the intellectual puzzles of the Turing Test, Searle’s ‘Chinese Room’.
It’s a collection colored by the question of its title: is anyone there? A collection full of ghosts, or about ghosts, about what it means to be alive, and how to live when a loved one has died.
To My Nineties
You’d better get your skates on
or at least your boots
and get out there, old dribbler,
before it’s too late.
I may not meet you in the hills
struggling through Kinder peat.
Thirteen miles, fifteen?
Or so I thought as hair thinned
and Christmas followed Easter
as if in a time machine
that ate old friends for breakfast.
You stand patient near the finish line
as I pull myself up for the final sprint.
Nothing lasts forever, not hips
not brain cells. I need a project.
I’ll make you my project.
Wait for me.
I really would have liked to say so much more, about the poems about hill-walking, say; but sometimes less is more.
I’ll finish with an extract from ‘So many prayers’ (in Moving Pictures). I fancy I find here a metaphor for poetry, like Eliot’s fragments shored against our ruins. A prayer to push between the interstices of the ancient sunbaked Western Wall in Jerusalem
I have scribbled
Peace and Socialism
not much to ask.
The wall towers above me
Thanks, Martin Zarrop for being our guest and sharing your poems. The pleasure’s been all ours.
No theory of everything: Cinnamon Press  £4.99
Moving pictures: Cinnamon Press  £8.99
Making Waves: V.Press  £6.50
Is anyone there: The High Window  £10.00
Martin Zarrop is a retired mathematician who wanted certainty but found life more interesting and fulfilling by not getting it. He started writing poetry in 2006 and has been published in various magazines and anthologies. His pamphlet ‘No Theory of Everything’ (2015) was one of the winners of the 2014 Cinnamon Press pamphlet competition and his first full collection ‘Moving Pictures’ was published by Cinnamon in 2016. His pamphlet ‘Making Waves’ on the life and science of Albert Einstein was published by V.Press in 2019. His second collection ‘Is Anyone There?’ was published by High Window Press in March 2020.
***** If you like, you can buy a copy of Is Anyone There direct from Martin for the bargain price of £9.00 incl. P&P. ***** email him at email@example.com ****
It’s alright, Ma.(I’m only bleeding). Bob Dylan …………….
“It has been a quiet week, here on Lake Wobegon. It snowed twelve inches on Tuesday”.
So begins my favourite Garrison Keillor radio story. I’ve written about it before, in another context, because it’s a story about stories, about storytelling and storytellers, and the covenant between audience and author/performer. About expectations and surprises, about truth and falsehood. Which is more important now than at any time in my life, as we stumble through the sleep of reason in which monsters are born.
I suspect there will be a lot of quotations in this post which I’ve been struggling to start for about two months. Ready-to-wear ideas may well be what you get, instead of the bespoke ones that are, more often than not, eluding me. I can envy Keillor, who, whatever his doubts about what came next, always knew what the first sentence was going to be. And that what followed would be about ‘the quiet week’.
It’s been a horrible year here in the UK. It snowed on Wednesday. Things went on getting worse.
Who wants more? Thought not.
Six weeks ago I started a programme of chemotherapy. I wasn’t prepared for the lethargy or the mental tiredness. I thought I was already mentally tired by the unchanging circumstances of ten months of shielding/lockdowns/self-isolation. Though I suppose it was some kind of practice. It would be so easy to catalogue the frustrations of 2020 and would serve little purpose. Everyone else has been there. I’ve grown spiritually and physically agarophobic as the world has consistently shrunk.
I dream of going out to an actual shop and buying things with physical money. I’d like to have trips out to places that aren’t hospitals or surgeries….though every now and them they’re the highlight of the week, because they involve meeting people I don’t know, and having conversations, and, often, a laugh.
Which reminds me that two poetry residentials I’ve booked and paid for have been cancelled (and the hotels that would have hosted them have just gone into administration; my heart goes out to the staff); our annual trip to Skye has been indefinitely postponed. I miss the sea, the hills, and the creative buzz of it all. Poor me.
How to switch this around?
I have one friend, a singer/songwriter/performer/teacher/artist in his early 80s. He’s started these days to talk about not having much time left. Another friend, not quite 80, just emailed me and his post included the phrase ‘in the months that remain to us’.
I’ve been reading recent work by David Constantine, and by Martin Zarrop in which, quite co-incidentally, they share a trope. The business of hill walks you could once manage but know now that these days you can’t. And also the business of walks you you used to do with close trusted friends who are now dead and gone.
Then there was the Christmas card list. I realised that so many friends have died and so many addresses are dead-letter boxes that I need to start again with a new address book. A real book. Which brings me to the first quotation
………….he not busy being born is busy dying
In my early 20s I suspect I didn’t hear the ambiguity of it, any more than I did in The Who’s lyric ‘hope I die before I get old’. To which I now say a fervent ‘amen’. Because I understand, now, that getting old isn’t the same thing as the passage of time, and that dying is about not being born, every possible minute. For years my partner and I cared for elderly parents, one way and another, and I watched as their worlds shrank, physically, as did their curiosity. Slowly and inevitably they stopped taking any notice, stopped listening, stopped reading, being interested, talking. They were just busy dying.
I’ve decided I want none of it. I can learn from Solzhenitsyn and his take on Epicureanism, especially in One day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch. The idea that happiness lies, at least in part, in taking inventory of the day and identifying how it could have been much worse if X or Y had not happened or didn’t exist. And then focussing on X or Y. Things that made life better. An extra bowl of kasha. A bit of hacksaw blade. Building a wall.
What did I do in 2020? I have a house, I have a garden, a field beyond the garden, a view beyond the field. I have a garage full of bits of timber and power tools. In February three days of incessant horizontal rain worked through the gable end and round the kitchen window and poured in. So when the rain stopped, I got out the gear and repointed all the damage, and replastered and painted inside. I enjoyed it. Most of it.
The weather was nice this summer. I repained a lot of the outside woodwork; when it rained I decorated indoors or resprayed picture frames.
On a whim, via the cobweb and FacebookI invited folk to send me poems inspired by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s wonderful, artful poem Swineherd. Scores of people sent me poems, and then Bob Horne of Calder Valley Poetry suggested that we make a book of them, which involved asking Kim Moore to select the 26 best ones in an alphabet of occupations we’d leave When all this is over.
It’s only just struck me that probably every single submission involved a future of being left alone. You’d have thought that lockdown might have inspired dreams of crowds, of festivals of concerts. What most folk seemed to dream of was travelling alone, and almost invariably, in wild places or on the sea. Yes. My dreams too, I realise. But there you are. A book out.
I missed physical poetry courses, but I’ve been, virtually, to Garsdale Head with Kim Moore, to Sneaton Castle with the Poetry Business; I’ve joined in Joe Bell’s project To heal the mutilated world …and that was terrific…as well as Winston Plowes’ and Gaia Holmes’ Muse-li courses. And every Monday night, via Zoom, there was the Albert Poets’ Workshop. What else…oh yes. Tom Weir and I will be zoom-workshopping together, hopefully right through 2021. A lot of extra bowls of Kasha.
Then there was the field. It’s been fallow most of the time for the last 50 years. Next doors’ started to reclaim a patch in 2019. Dug out decades of crap (including substantial car parts), tons of bindweed and bramble and nettle, constructed raised beds, planted veg.
I was less ambitious and elected for wild flower meadow patches. We really should have asked the farmer, but no one has done anything with the field for half a century, and anyway……this year I decided to start another patch.
One August afternoon this year, Freda, the field’s owner decided to clear it all out. No idea why, but one morning there was a JCB scraping off decades of tangled briar, and we were rumbled. In the end I put into a poem which conflates events over two summers, but which made me happy when I made myself do it last November
It turns out
she’s been watching from her bedroom window
on the gable end side of the house which, officially,
does not exist. It turns out it was the smoke.
That and the red tee shirt in her field. Her husband,
himself a burner of fields, was keen on trespassers.
Its her field now, fallow fifty years, a seething sea
of bramble, bindweed, cowparsley, twitch and dock.
Every seven years, her husband (much older and now dead)
would assert his right of way, sometimes by burning,
one time with a greatbladed JCB that scraped it bare.
But now he’s dead, his rights of way have lapsed.
Next doors’ dug out a fair sized patch of field,
put raised beds in, planted spuds and onions and kale.
I cleared out my own; dug out miles of poplar roots,
asbestos sheets, old nettles, briars, furnace bricks,
and had a day of fires. Which is is when she saw me
from her bedroom window. The blue smoke, red shirt.
Came round to our front door with her nephew,
Kev, a big lad with earrings, hair like Johnny Cash
and letters on his knuckles. She said
she’d been watching from her bedroom window
That’s my field you’re burning. What’s going on?
I could have taken her round to look, but
her seeing Tony’s vegetable garden
didn’t bear thinking of. I’m seeding wildflowers.
I should have thought to ask. I meant no harm.
I bought her the packets to see.
Kev got back in the van. I’m Freda, by the way
she said. Freda Parkin. Would you like to do the field?
There we are. Busy being born. As to dying before you get old. I think they may be the same thing. It’s taken me two months to write this. I feel outrageously happy to have done it. Happy enough to end with two quotations, both from Tony harrison.
Articulation is the tongue-tied’s fighting
The tongueless man gets his land took.
When all this is over, I think I’ll have one of these tattooed on my arm. And maybe another on the other.