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 firstname.lastname@example.org ****
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.
I was utterly delighted to read this press release from Bloodaxe first thing this morning:
We are thrilled and honoured that David Constantine, one of the first poets to be published by Bloodaxe, has been named winner of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry 2020. He was recommended by the Poetry Medal Committee on the basis of his eleven books of poetry, in particular his 2004 Collected Poems. His 11th collection, Belongings, was published in October.
Let me add to the celebrations by reposting a piece I wrote first in early 2019, for my blog on Write out Loud :The Wider Web
“I was barely aware of David Constantine until about four years ago. It seems to me now like being unaware of, say, Geoffrey Hill or Tony Harrison. How did it happen?….perhaps because despite being a much-acclaimed translator, the co-editor of Modern Poetry in Translation, and author of the stunning Bloodaxe Collected Poems, he attracts no controversy, his work is crafted, elegant, and educated (as well as passionate, humane, and given to wearing its heart on its sleeve). In short, he is not fashionable. For me, he sits alongside Harrison, Fanthorpe, Causley and MacCaig; but apart from Kim Moore in one of her blog posts, no one had ever said to me have you read x or y by David Constantine? So I’m taking a punt on some of you out there, like me, not knowing, and I’m hoping that after you’ve read this, you, like me, will want to rush out and buy his Collected Poems.
I met him by accident at a reading/party for the 30thbirthday of The Poetry Business at Dean Clough in Halifax. I was reading from my new first collection and David was top of the bill.
It was wonderful. He reads apparently effortlessly, he reads the meaning of the words, so it sounds like unrehearsed speech until you become aware of the patterning of rhythm, of rhyme, the lovely craftedness of it. I bought his Collected Poems (more than embarassed to find it was £12 and my collection was £9.95. Jeepers) and once I’d finished a year of reading Fanthorpe, I spent a year of reading David’s poems, three or four every morning, listening to the work of words, the deft management of unobtrusive rhyme and assonance, relishing the huge range of reference, the lightly-worn scholarship, the management of voices. I heard him reading again quite recently, and took a punt on asking him to be a guest on The Wider Web. He said yes. He’s a generous man. I like this introduction to him..I’ve managed to lose the source, for which mea culpa..but it says what I’d like to have said myself.
He was born in 1944 in Salford, Lancashire, an urban landscape of factories, red brick terraces and mizzle-grey skies, the Lowry backdrop to his childhood with a nimbus of “visionary dreariness” quite particular to that part of England. Some of his poems home in on this familiar prehistory and its memorable characters, while others range across the mysterious mythical world of faraway Greece, inspired by epiphanies beneath the clanging skies above the Aegean. ..Constantine fuses the compressed stoical grit of the one with the lyrical flexibility of the other to create an intense poetic voice…He is a maker of poems, a craftsman as well as messenger … [whose] poems arrive freighted with authority.
I also latched on to another description of his work that draws attention to the way that he seems to fly under the fashionable radar.
David Constantine, a scholar-poet whose considerable poetic achievement mysteriously wants the wider appreciation it deserves, considering its emotional range, its mastery of formal and linguistic variety, its lyrical intensity and disarming confessional intimacy, these all finely attuned by a keenly attentive ear. It is contemporary poetry which unfashionably, and unexpectedly perhaps, makes frequent use of forms, ideas and associations buried deep in a grand European poetic tradition.
Some readers, startlingly, don’t get it. As in this extract from Laurie Smith’s review of David Constantine’s Collected Poems in Magma 31,
David Constantine’s Collected is not complete, comprising the poems from his seven previous Bloodaxe collections which he wishes to keep in print together with the poems in two limited editions and some new poems. Reading the 350 pages, I am struck, first, by how few poems deal centrally with other people, that is people in the present world, not in myth or history, who are determinably separate from the poet. A series of early poems describes people and their ends with decided lack of sympathy: Milburn Margaret, Mrs who
on a Friday in the public view
Lodged on the weir as logs do.
Who is this reviewer who seems to inhabit a different universe from mine? Someone, it seems, incapable of reading what’s there in plain sight. Let me show you how astonishingly wrong he was. Let’s start with a poem from one of his earliest collections, A brightness to cast shadows . ]. I chose this to show his lyricism, and the way he can stop a moment like a held breath.
But most you are like
But most you are like
The helpless singing of birds
To whom the light happens
On whom it falls
And at whose purity of voice
The skies weep and there is a pause
In all the world before beginning
And before the ending
Some of the moments he stops in time are accurately bleak, looking unwaveringly at the space between life and death, and between the dark and the light..the space where the poetry goes.
A lamb lay under the thorn, the black
Thorn bending by the last broken wall
And grasping what it can.
The dead lamb picketed a ewe.
She cropped round, bleating
And chewing in that machinal way of sheep.
And although she backed to a safe distance,
When I climbed down towards her lamb
Through a gap in the wall,
It was as if painfully paying out the fastening cord.
The crow was there, also
At a safe distance, waiting for the ewe to finish;
And sidled off a further yard or so
Waiting until I too should have finished.
For me, it spins round that unnerving observation The dead lamb picketed a ewe. There’s a double-take when you suddenly see the umbilical cord that links the living to the dead, and then the camera pulls back, and there’s the crow, waiting. I love the clarity of it all, the exactness of the line breaks, and the way the capitalised lines slow you down, make you pay attention to the heft of each line. I actually queried his preference for what I carelessly called ‘an older tradition’, this business of capitalisation. He put me right on that:
About initial capitals – what you call ‘the old tradition’ – I’ve always set my lines like that and I think the (in practice very fast) reappraising of the syntax from line to line is a good thing. Lineation plays a critical part in causing the mind to (however briefly) pause in its grasping after sense, in which pause it entertains possibilities, which is a good thing. The capitalization is a marker or gentle enforcer of that process.
So I’ll ask you to keep that in mind as you work your way through the rest of the poems and extracts. Read them aloud is my advice.
When I began to read the Collected Poems, though there were so many of those ‘moments that draw you in’ I was brought up short by a sequence which is essentially a praise poem to his Grandma, widowed in WW1. Light and dark is a leitmotif through so many of the poems, and memorably so in the notion that the dead ‘glimmer for a generation’ and unless we constantly attend to them they will lose their (lovely word) luminance.
from In Memoriam 8571 Private J.W.Gleave
who was at Montauban, Trônes Wood, and Guillemot
There are some dead we see and even see by;
They glimmer for a generation, our looking
Lends them more luminance.
We saw a similar light dawn on the woman
Who had been a widow more than fifty years.
She lingered in the doorway of the living room
Impelled as people leaving are to say
Some word more than goodnight
The women stood by, they followed the post like crows:
So the news came from Guillemot to Salford 5
After lapse of weeks during which time
She had known no better than to believe herself a wife.
But by November the congregation of widows
Being told it was a reasonable sacrifice
Their men had made saw mutilated trees bedecked
With bloody tatters and being nonetheless
Promised a resurrection of the body
They saw God making their men anew out of
The very clay. These women having heard from soldiers
However little from the battlefield
Towards All Saints gathered black gouts from the elder
Among their children stared at the holy tree
And envied Christ his hurts fit to appear in.
There being no grave, there being not even one
Ranked among millions somewhere in France,
Her grief went without where to lay its head.
Constantine returns to the business of his Grandma in his collection The pelt of wasps in 1998, with this poem. Angry and tender at once; a memorial for all those women his grandma represents, the ones who were left, like my own grandma, to bring up their their children, to count the pennies, to soldier on.
We need another monument. Everywhere
Has Tommy Atkins with his head bowed down
For all his pals, the alphabetical dead,
And that is sweet and right and every year
We freshen the whited cenotaph with red
But no one seems to have thought of her standing her
In all the parishes in bronze or stone
With bags, with heavy bags, with bags of spuds
And flour and tins of peas and clinging kids
Lending the bags their bit of extra weight –
Flat-chested little woman in a hat,
Thin as a rake, tough as old boots, with feet
That ache, ache, ache. I’ve read
He staggered into battle carrying sixty pounds
Of things for killing with. She looked after the pence,
She made ends meet, she had her ports of call
For things that keep body and soul together
Like sugar, tea, a loaf, spare ribs and lard,
And things the big ship brings that light the ends
Of years, like oranges. On maps of France
I’ve trailed him down the chalky roads to where
They end and her on the oldeast A to Z
Down streets, thin as a wraith, year in, year out
Bidding the youngest put her best foot forward,
Lugging the rations past the war memorial.
It reads so easily, it’s so instantly accessible and memorable, you hardly notice the craft of it, its rhetorical ease, those half rymes and internal rhymes, and what you remember is the tenderness, the anger. David Constantine will take you from familiar urban landscapes to worlds of myth and legend, those strange distant landscapes which, you discover with a sort of shock, still penetrate our uncomfortable present
“This was a pleasant place.
This was a green hill outside the city.
Who would believe it now? Unthink
The blood if you can, the pocks and scabs,
The tendrils of wire. Imagine an apple tree
Where that thing stands embedded.
“The flat earth is felloed with death.
At every world’s end, in some visited city,
Diminished steps go down into the river of death.”
From: Mappa Mundi 
See that amazing conflation of myth, religion, history, all time present in the vulnerable ‘now’. The apple trees of the Hesperides and of Eden, Golgotha and barbed wire. The whole world deserving of an inundation. David Constantine is drawn to cataclysmic flood, to Atlantean myths, and conflagration; I thought about this when I read one critic querying what Hiroshima had to do with Pompeii. David’s a year younger than I. We were at grammar school when the first H Bomb was exploded; in Liverpool, in Manchester, in London and elsewhere you could walk through bombed ladscapes still. This was the 1950s. I had no doubt that I would never see 21. If you grow up in a shadow, you’re always conscious that lights can go out. I love this next poem, not least because of that.
The quick and the dead at Pompeii
I cannot stop thinking about the dead at Pompeii.
It was in the Nagasaki and Hiroshima month.
They did not know they were living under a volcano.
The augurers watched a desperate flight of birds
And wondered about it in the ensuing silence.
There was sixty feet of ash over Pompeii.
It was seventeen centuries before they found the place.
Nobody woke when the sun began again,
Nobody danced. The dead had left their shapes.
The mud was honeycombed with the deserted forms of people.
Fiorelli recovered them with a method the ancients
Inveted for statuary. When he cast their bodies
And cracked the crust of mud they were born again
Exactly as they had died. Many were struck
Recumbent, tripped, wincing away, the clothing
Rolled up their backs. They were interrupted:
A visting woman was compromised for ever,
A beggar hugs his sack, two prisoners are in chains.
Everyone died as they were. A leprous man and wife
Are lying quietly with their children between them.
The works of art at Pompeii were a different matter.
Their statues rose out of mephitic holes bright-eyed.
The fresco people had continued courting and feasting
And playing mythological parts: they had the hues
Of Hermione when Leontes is forgiven.
What do I take from this?…the nakedness of the human condition, a people without defence. And, I suppose, the echo of Larkin’s ‘what will survive of us is love’. Like the quietness of the leprous man and wife.
In another poem in the sequence the figures of Demeter and Persephone are uncovered having ‘survived a bombardment of hot stones’
Nobody loved the earth better than Demeter did
Who trailed it miserably
Calling after her child and nobody’s gifts
Withheld were more pined after.
Mother and daughter passed north
From prince to prince and latterly
Survived the fire in Dresden. How Pompeii
Seen from the air resembles sites of ours:
Roofless, crusty. Look where Persephone
Wound in rags
Leads blinded Demeter by the hand
Seeking an entrance to preferable Hades.
from: Mother and daughter
There it is again, that insistence on the connections of myth, of history, Demeter’s agony and the death of growing things in the landscapes of Dresden , and I suppose, of his own Salford.
Now, from cataclysmic fire to cataclysmic water. David lives in the Scillies, a drowned landscape off the ria coast of Cornwall, where Atlantis seems entirely possible if not actally present.
It dies hard, the notion of a just people;
The wish that there should have been once mutual aid
Dies very hard. Through fire and ghastly ash and any
Smothering weight of water still we imagine
A life courteous and joyful; see them lightly clad
Loving the sun, the vine and the grey olive.
Over the water from trading, they come home winged
With sails, their guide and harbinger the white dove.
The sea suddenly stood up vertical, sky-high
Bristling with the planks of their peaceful ships.
The first line is one I can’t forget, and never want to, living as we do in a world that seems suddenly willing to destroy everything that approaches the respect and love of what we casually call ‘community’. David will take you memorably into the not too distant past, and the present, too, as in his poems about the days in the Scillies, after storm and shipwreck when the islanders gathered whatever flotsam was brought to their shore, and when ‘the harvests were golden’
Mother has linen from the Minnechaha,
I bought the ship’s bell for half a sovereign
From Stanley, our dumb man.
Everyone has something, a chair, a bit of brass
And nobody wakes hearing a wind blow
Who does not hope there’ll be things come in
Worth having, but today
Was a quiet morning after a quiet night.
The bay was coloured in
With bobbing oranges. What silence
Till we we pitched into it
Knee-deep the women holding out their skirts
And the men thrashing in boats
We made an easy killing
We took off multitudes
And mounded them in the cold sun.
When Matty halved one with his jack-knife
It was good right through, as red
As garnet, he gave the halves
His girls who sucked them out.
The beams we owe the seas
Are restless tonight but every home
Is lit with oranges. They were close,
She says, or else the salt
Would have eaten them. Whose popping eyes,
I wonder, say them leave,
Roaring like meteors
When the ship in a quiet night
Bled them, and they climbed
Faster than rats in furious shining shoals
In firm bubbles and what
Will tumble in our broken bay tomorrow?
I could go on and on and on, but I see this is a longer post than usual. I need to stop. I hope you’re converted if you weren’t already. Last word from David
“Poetry now, every bit as much as in the Romantic age, is a utopian demonstration, by aesthetic means, of what true freedom would be like. It engages us to imagine something better than what at present we are afflicted with; it helps keep hope alive; it incites us to make more radical demands. And poetry does that out of the enjoyment of its own autonomy, which it is duty-bound not to forfeit.”
In October this year, David arranged for me to have a copy of his lastest collection: Belongings. [Bloodaxe £10.99] In a normal world I’d have already posted an enthusiastic and utterly biased review. In 2021 I promise it will be done. But here’s a spoiler: it’s great. Go and buy it for Xmas. Treat yourself.
I started making annotations and sticking Post-its in Steve Ely’s pamphlet about nine months ago. It was a week before the first lock-down, and I was sitting in a dentist’s waiting room in Ossett. I used to take novels to read in surgeries and hospitals. More recently it’s been poetry that’s replaced Solzhenitsyn’s “Cancer Ward”. More often than not, it’ll be U A Fanthorpe’s ‘Tyndale in Darkness’. Whatever, it will probably feature the themes of suffering, endurance and redemption through faith of one kind or another. It’s a kind of epicureanism, I suppose. I beheld Satan as an angel… was, and is, different, because throughout it challenges the whole notion of the possibility of redemption. I’ve kept trying to write about why it seems to matter so much to me, and failing to nail it, falling short of what I think I mean. There are critical reviews that make an effort to appear objective; I never believed that such a thing is possible. When I read a poem I read it through a glass darkly, through the refracting lens of my preoccupations and memories, and subsequently, the poem ‘reads me’ if it’s any good at all. Afterwards, I see differently, and the poem becomes different. This is a sequence about falling from grace and about the death of a son, about the guilt for the death of a son. One of my sons took his own life by jumping from a tall building. It speaks to me in ways that it can’t speak to everyone.
Sooner or later, though, you simply have to follow the advice of the old Nike slogan, and Just Do It. So, here goes.
The precis on the back cover pulls no punches.
“This sequence is about falling and fallen-ness, thrown-ness and being thrown. It begins in lust and it ends in death, taking in abortion, miscarriage and murder. It excoriates evil, embraces guilt and denies the possibility of absolution…it tries not to flinch, but it does, because it cannot bear the absence of reassurance”
Kim Moore’s endorsement talks of ‘[Steve Ely’s] trademark visceral and multi-layered language…these poems are blistering in their honesty..resting on multiple layers of allusion’
Quite simply, it’s disturbing, uncomfortable, upsetting; it’s as well to know that before you start. And if you don’t know Steve Ely’s work, you probably need some context. If you have the time and inclination you could follow these two links to earlier posts about my enthusiasm for his poetry:
If you haven’t the time, let me identify three or four things that may give you pause.
The first thing may be the voice, its language.It’s packed with archaisms and archaic spellings, with a sometimes violent vernacular, with scatalogical slang (jamrags and johnnies),with disruptive lexis and (sometimes) syntax, and what I think of as a kind of medieval lyricism. Sheenagh Pugh, in an interview, said:
‘You’re very unafraid of words. That sounds an odd thing to say of a poet, but I’ve read so many reviewers, in particular, who seem downright terrified of any vocabulary vaguely out of the ordinary. …….One of the things I like best about your work is how you cheerfully expect your readers to cope with liturgical language, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, umpteen bird and plant names, lovely obscure words ….’
Steve’s answer is uncompromising:
Words are my business, and as such, every word, in every language — past, present and future — belongs to me. I’ll use them as I see fit.
Secondly, there’s the business of Biblical reference, because often it’s a Bible you don’t recognise, that no-one ever told you about. If you went to Sunday School, as I did, you grew up with the winsome Infant Samuel. I remember a course when Steve Ely introduced me to the older Samuel. Here he is commanding Saul :
Now therefore go thou, and slay Amalek, and destroy thou all his things; spare thou not him, nor covet thou anything of his things; but slay thou from man unto woman, and little child, and sucking, ox, and sheep, and camel, and ass.
But Saul and the people spared Agag, and they left of the sheep and of the oxen and fat things and the lambs and all that was good, and would not destroy them.
How does Samuel react? In fury he denounces Saul as apostate. Saul tries to make amends. At Samuel’s request he delivers up Agag.
And Samuel said, As thy sword hath made women without free children, so thy mother shall be without free children among women. And Samuel hewed Agag into gobbets before the Lord in Gilgal.
You might think ‘well, this is Old Testament.’
But Ely’s pamphlet takes its title from the New Testament’s Luke 10. You may not recognize the Jesus of these verses. You know all about the twelve disciples. Did you know of the 72 who Jesus sent out to spread the gospel, with these words ringing in their ears
Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.’
I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! ……. it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades.
“Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me.”
The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.”
He replied, I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.
I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.
Gentle Jesus meek and mild? Not remotely.
As a ‘youngish mature student’ Steve Ely took a degree in Biblical Studies after travelling around the Middle East and Europe, working as a fork-lift driver, and being involved in various ways with political activism. A degree in Divinity and growing up in a different, less imbricated, landscape might have generated a different, more emollient, more consoling range of reference.
Two more things.
Be ready for a range of allusion and reference that takes in the Southern Gothic of True Detective, Biblical exegisis, gnosticism, arcana, 20thC child murderers and paedophiles, the biochemistry of sexual reproduction, Near-Death experience, genocidal massacre and the business of designer polo shirts and trainers. Be ready to find that all epigraphs and references appear to carry the same weight, despite the widely varied provenance.
Finally. The key event, the starting point is a miscarriage. It’s easy to see this as the whole point, and it isn’t. Steve said this in a email conversation I had with him:
‘A lot of people have called it a ‘male take on miscarriage’ ….. ‘it’s not really about that – it’s about what we’re capable of, and ultimately becomes a gnostic speculation on the possibilities of life after death’.
For me it’s a sequence of poems about spiritual despair in a world of great moral and physical violence; it’s about damnation and redemption. There you are. Colours nailed to the mast.
I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heauen begins with five poems which return and return like nightmare to this core moment.
‘Kids 5 and 2,
the third in the womb three months that March
stopped moving after I shattered your joy
by suggesting you have an abortion:
you know and I’ve always known—I wished him dead
and he fled from Herod into Egypt’s plummeting dark’
The joy of annunciation is donkey-kicked into oblivion; a life that begins in a careless act of drunken sex, and threatens the comfortable security of a house and two affordable kids is snuffed out. Marie’s joy is blighted, and all this wretched Joseph can offer is the recognition that
The glamour of Tyre and Sidon, the exaltation
of Capernaum—fitted kitchen, custom bookshelves,
things and social life—he died for me
and freed us for those things.
[The mother of Naim]
He will always remember and be haunted by the moment:
And there I was, stumbling burdened
from the stuttering car, bushwhacked by the dazzle of your joy
But here I am with my life among the living,
my fleets of ivory, apes and peacocks. A worm in my heart
and a snake beneath my tongue.
This, as I said is the starting point. A probably doomed attempt at ‘confession without self-justification’; an act of contrition without hope of any kind of absolution. But from the very start, the hope it denies will not be suppressed. The second poem, The feather of Ma’at makes this absolutely plain, whatever doubts and disclaimers follow. The image from Egyptian myth is of the heart of the dead being weighed against a feather. The pure heart is lighter and is saved. Salvation in Ely’s elision of multiple beliefs is to be reunited with the single flame of the universal spirit or godhead; to be no longer separate and cast out.
Surely perfect love is felt there, which comes
from perfect understanding. Where sinnes unfetter
and leap to meet annihilating grace: a wretch like I,
scum of the sphynxy earth.
Dissolved, they weep
with joy together, the boy, his mother, his sister
and brother: the father freed from outer darkenesse,
still wailing and gnashing his teeth.
There’s no salvation or self-forgiveness here, is there?
Assoone as the voice of thy salutation sounded
in mine eares, the babe leapt in my wombe for ioy.
[ From: Luke 1:41. The Magnificat]
To wish someone dead and not kill them
is cowardice and bad faith. Therefore we must be murderers.
The sin is to stay the knife.
The boy that lit the linnet’s nest,
then blubbered over the fledglings as they writhed
and gaped in crackling death? There’s no forgiveness.
The act can never be undone.
[Ego te absolvo]
The poet/narrator wanders an appalling dysfunctional world of financial collapse, massacres, terrorist attacks, assassinations..ugly death on a global scale…and, in Goe, and doe thou likewise through a hideous Edgelands despoiled landscape that could have been invented by David Peace:
‘ditch-litter of nonces,
wrists cable-tied behind their backs, eyes popped
from broken sockets. Thirty brace of dumped pheasants,
a gargoyled fox in a Tesco bag-for-life.
Ditch litter of blood-soaked Tattershall shirts
and torched Izuzu Troopers’
Like Peace’s Red Riding novels it’s spiritually and emotionally exhausting. When the wanderer appears before the Peacock throne making his lame excuses he gets the short thrift that you may have begun to think he deserves.
‘I had saved a toad’s life, formed the committee
that rescued the Common and given one-hundred-
and-fifty pounds to Smile Train. And as for the other things,
I was always heartily sorry.
And He said,
Your merits are more contemptible than your sins
and your sorrow is self-pity.
The angels lowered
But He stayed their hand, saying,
I will not be complicit in the contagion of his darkness.
Examine your heart and know what you are:
a beast and a murderer. You cannot be redeemed.
Embrace the blackness and kill yourself.
In the instant of death, you’ll know you’ve done
the one right thing—let that be your consolation.
I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heauen is a short pamphlet of 14 poems. You can see that as as a narrative sequence it could have ended right here. Embrace the darkness and kill yourself. And because of my own personal history I would not be telling you that here’s a collection you need to read. It would have been too bleak to bear. Remember the precis I quoted at the very beginning. This collection:
‘excoriates evil, embraces guilt and denies the possibility of absolution…it tries not to flinch, but it does, because it cannot bear the absence of reassurance.’
If your sin outweighs the feather of Ma’at, what hope is there? I think it lies in the last poem that begins in a landscape the early Christians would have recognised. The black rocks of, say, Sula Sgeirr or Rona to where they sailed their frail boats in a search for God.
Hæc nox est
Fireflies illumined the darkness, and lightning flashed
on the horizon. But there was no thunder. A weird circular
light glowed in the sky for a few moments and then suddenly
plummeted toward the horizon, a crimson tail behind it.
I stepped from the cliff into ocean’s buffeting
up-thrust, and plummeted in the darkness,
face strafed with salt-shot, breath torn-off
by up-flung bolts of foam. Clap-rattling gannets
leapt from the crag and circled their crosses.
Auks dropped from their cracks and exploded.
Fulmars squirting vomit. I flapped and flailed
like an oily eagle, and fell.
Below, the black and heaving sea,
its ghostly freight of fallen stars and shoals
of glittering sturgeon. Above, the all-enveloping night,
the pulsar static of the buffering empyrean.
They say the shock of the fall alone
will stun the head and stop the beaten heart;
else splat on the glass of the marbled sea,
and nothing in that instant. But I just kept falling,
a rope-less bucket, dropped in a bottomless well.
And I thought, perhaps this is it,
the way DMT seeks to ease our deaths
in the moment of transition, that we fall forever,
and forever are spared the shattering shock of impact.
Not like those nights we hit the rocks
and scream erect in freezing sweat, thank God—
it’s all a dream.
It is no dream. The cormorant’s embrace
awaits, this flick-book life of a thousand torn-off
guillemot wings, each plucked from the body
and cast into the mantling dark, where now he falls
and continues to fall, a feather of flame now falling
beside him, a small cool flare of feathery flame
lighting his darkness and feathering his falling,
and now he himself transfigured to flame, falling
beside the spark that found him, and together they fall,
a flaming man and a flaming child, with angels,
falling, feathers of flame flaring from the darkness,
like sparks from a rocket or the tail of a comet,
falling together and joining the fallen, the sobbing father
and weeping mother and all their gathered children:
and now they are falling as a single flame,
a tear of feathery fire, warming the world
like the flame of a beeswax candle, bringing light
to the salt and whistling night, before settling
on the heave like a lotus, or a burning swan,
drifting out on the darkness and sinking.
To ‘embrace the darkness and kill yourself’ was the instruction. To throw yourself into the dark, in a blizzard of torn-off wings. It brings to me the image of the gannet hunters that Robert Macfarlane describes in The Old ways
“The birds are plucked, singed, seared. Then their wings are chopped off, they’re scrubbed again, split open and emptied of their innards, and their evacuated bodies are placed on ‘the Pile’ – a great altar-cairn of guga corpses. So it proceeds. On the middle Sabbath comes rest, prayer and song. If summer storms blow in, the men sit them out in the bothies, for there’s no working the Rock in big wind or big waves. Once the effort is over, they sail south again for Lewis. …..The guga that survive the harvest will, eventually, stagger down the cliff ledges until they fall off and splash into the sea. They are water-bound for a couple of weeks, riding the waves and fasting, until they are light enough to take flight and make their maiden voyages: winging down the west coast of Britain, the north-west peninsulas of France, through the Bay of Biscay, along the Atlantic facade, following their own sea roads – their migration paths – until at last they reach their winter home off West Africa.”
I’ve quoted all of this, not just for the detail of the wings torn from the bodies of gannets, but for the image of the survivors, falling exhausted on to the sea, and amazingly, miraculously, generation by generation, flying thousands of miles, coming home. I think that Steve Ely, a passionate watcher of birds, might appreciate this connection. I love the physicality, the noise and space and texture of the opening, the primaeval star-studded black sky, the salt-shot, and then the way it transmutes into the weightlessness of a dream, that turns out not to be a dream. I like the echo of Thomas Wyatt (who was a master of emotional ambivalence): It was no dream: I lay broad waking:
Above all I love the long twenty-line sentence in its circling, lyrical recreation of falling and falling , flame-light, feather light, gathering into ‘a single flame’, settling on the heave of the sea like ‘a lotus’, or astonishingly, a ‘burning swan’. It reminds me of the final moments of Beethoven’s 6th, that long diminuendo, that leaves you quiet after a great storm.
Thank you Steve Ely, for letting me share all this. I doubt I’ve done justice to its complexity and craft. But it’s as good as I can manage.
I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heauen: [New walk Editions 2019] £5.00
for details of Steve Ely’s other books use the links to earlier posts (above)
Welcome to Try to Praise the Mutilated World – a poetry writing project which will last for the duration of the current English lockdown, which is expected to be one month. The name is both a summary of what we’re doing, and a manifesto. It comes from this poem by Adam Zagajewski.
This is an absolutely unique time, and a fat lot of good that is to us. I’ve always said ‘it’s not pain, it’s raw material’ but I hadn’t reckoned on quite this much pain – for everyone, everywhere, and all at once. Still – it is a deep reservoir of raw material. We can dive into it time and again – sometimes looking for monsters, sometimes for pearls.
In the past months, we’ve all learned more about working and living online. Even the technophobic have now been introduced to Zoom meetings or online booking systems. We can now…
At our house, we’ve just completed eight months of a combination of shielding, enforced lockdown, and self-isolation. Most of it was, well, bearable. We had months of good weather to work on the garden, and reclaim another bit of the neighbouring farmer’s field for a wild flower patch. When the weather was bad I had picture framing, decorating…and in between showers, repointing various walls and gable ends. I had the ‘When all this is over’ project to keep my my brain ticking over in May and June. The annual trip to St Ives for a poetry residential was cancelled, but I managed a consolation in the form of a Garsdale Zoom course tutored by Kim Moore.
But right now I’m stalled. If you’re from my part of the West Riding the resonance of this will be understood. When my mum or my grandma said ‘I’m stalled’ they meant they were stuck, depressed, bored, fed-up, frustrated and generally out of sorts. I’ve finally become unable to shut out the appalling state of the country and its wilful mismanagement. I can’t think straight or clearly. I had an email from the poet Steve Ely (who will feature in a moment) in which he said he was ‘******* stir crazy’. He said he could go to the gym, and go for walks but (and this is the kicker) “there’s no joy in it” . Not a fashionable word joy. But I know exactly what he meant. Where’s the joy? It’s compounded by the fact that I’ll spend Thursday in Pontefract Hospital for minor surgery. I wouldn’t think twice about it in the normal run of things. But nothing’s normal, and for the first time in my life I’m assailed by anxiety, timidity. Today was set aside for writing an enthusiastic appreciation of Steve Ely’s latest pamphlet I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heauen. But my head’s like a washing machine, and I can’t do it justice. Apologies for that, but to keep the cobweb ticking over, here’s an edited version of a post I wrote almost exactly three years ago.
For the last four years I’ve been more or less bogged down, stalled, stymied – call it what you like- with a project that won’t let me be. It started with a reading I heard at the Red Shed in Wakefield, a group performance by the Sandal Writers. It was a compilation, something on the lines of a radio ballad, about a pit disaster at Lofthouse Colliery near Wakefield in 1972. I can’t explain why it stuck, why it bothered me, why it generated random images and narratives. I just know that I wanted to/had to write about it. Which is when the the problem of The Sequence wandered into my head and won’t wander out. I keep thinking I’ve cracked it. I’ve got one poem that I thought would open the door. It’s published, in the estimable Pennine Platform (2020) so maybe we’re finally getting there. Fingers crossed.
Last shift, winding up
Half a million years a metre,
faster than light they come
out of the sparkling dust
of ancient ferns, of seeds, of crinoids
pressed thin as frostleaves in the seam;
out of an ancient England,
a polar world of icecaps rising,
falling; a tropic land under a moon
come close and huge;
an England slipping north
on the shift of continents.
up through compacted tailings
of the silt and grit of worn-down ranges,
winding up into light,
into the sky of England now.
Time travellers, they come blinking
at exploding flowers of flashbulb fire;
minstrel-eyed, with red wet mouths,
black faces estuaried with sweat.
They walk heavily like warriors.
Slab-muscled, in filthy orange vests,
steel booted, in buckled metal greaves,
webbing belts, and battery packs
and helmets, here they come.
They could have fought
at Towton, Adwalton Moor, Orgreave.
They check in their brass tokens
for the last time; officially they are alive.
They will check in their gear,
sit in the hot rain of the shower,
and if they weep, no one will see.
They will not say much.
They have been wound up out of history
into this moment. Into England now.
Of the future they can say nothing at all.
(At Kellingley, the last deep coal mine in England,
the last shift clocked off in December 18, 2015)
I’m not even sure what I mean by ‘a sequence’ beyond the feeling that I want to write about a particular something and that one poem won’t do…and possibly not six or ten. How many poems does it have to be before it’s ‘a sequence’? When I published my first pamphlet it was simply a case of organising poems I’d written into some kind of order, with a suggestion of a beginning, a middle and an end. Subsequently I found I’d written sequences by accident, the unintended consequence of undeclared passion or obsession. My second pamphlet, Backtracks is a back to front narrative, Poems that tell the story of me, my parents and grandparents. Anyone can do that. It’s a given.
And then there were the problematic ones…the deliberately conceived sequences. For instance, when I was half-heartedly doing an MA in Creative Writing I determined to write a sequence about the Highland Clearances as they affected the Isle of Skye. I read a lot, and I went on a good many walks to clearance sites like Suishnish and Boreraig (including another kind of dereliction in the remains of an abandoned marble quarry). But the places didn’t fit my preconceived emotional narrative. I went looking for ghosts and found none. I wrote a handful of poems, but not the ‘sequence’ I thought was there, somewhere.
Then there was the late 19th C painter John Waterhouse…I’ve always liked that late-post-pre-Raphaelite sort of painting based on poems and myths and fables. I was fascinated by the fact that one face turns up in painting after painting. There’s no conclusive proof, but it’s supposed the model was a Miss Muriel Foster. I spent nearly two years reading all I could find about it all. I was intrigued by the idea of a triangular relationship between the artist, his model and his wife (who was also a painter). In the end I wrote four poems, and realised that it needed a novel and that either A S Byatt or Jill Dawson or Hilary Mantel should have written it. I think that what it comes down to is something Helen Mort said to me…something on the lines that you can MAKE a poem be, but it won’t be any good. Pretty much what Keats said about poetry needing to come as naturally as leaves to the tree’. And I guess that applies to ‘sequences’, too.
And then there were the sculptures. I worked for a few years in a college in the grounds of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and every day I’d pass Elizabeth Frink’s ‘Seated man‘ and Michael Ayrton’s Minotaur. I got in the habit of passing the time of day with the seated man, and conceived the notion that these great sculptures contained the souls of the famously transgressive and of fallen angels. Bit by bit, mainly because I really wanted to experiment with ‘voices’, I wrote enough fallen angel poems to fill a pamphlet. I enjoyed that, and it became a book, but I still wonder if it’s the real deal. I know I like performing them, and I know that the idea of the narrative voice was the key that opened the door. But when it comes the seven men killed in the Lofthouse Disaster (six never recovered) the key is elusive.
I’ve asked various poets for advice. One was frankly dismissive, another was amazingly helpful. And one more thing that helped enormously was to bite the bullet and find the chutzpah to ask poets I admire if they’d share their experience. Particularly, I asked two poets who write recognizable and wonderful sequences…..especially I asked them this
I’ve been struggling with a writing project. I’ve got shedloads of material…I’ve been assembling that for well over a year. What I can’t manage at the moment is to find a place to stand and say: we start here. I’m convinced that could come about in a trice. A phrase, an idea for a holding form, a structure, a phrase, a refrain. It doesn’t matter how.
I’m particularly interested in the fact that each of you have done substantial amounts of research into a reality that absorbs and excites and energises you. It may be a blind roadmaker, your forebears who you trace to the banks of the Tyne, Amazonia, or medieval priests and criminals,
At some point you had to make a decision, or one was made for you. Where do I start? What’s the language, the structure, the voice of the teller….there comes a moment, as I found in writing about, say fallen angels, when you see a way through.
Would you be prepared to share some thoughts about the experience? A paragraph would do…or maybe it wouldn’t. It’ll make its own mind up, won’t it?
So, here they are, each one identifying a different way into, a way of shaping, what they urgently wanted to say. I’ve learned a remarkable amout from them, and I hope you will too.
Steve Ely : on voice and persona…who tells the story?
I organised my third book of poems, Incendium Amoris, around the figure of Richard Rolle, the 14th century hermit and mystic. Rolle suited my purposes because he was associated with the Cistercian Priory of Hampole, which is located in my natal Barnsdale landscape, which remains an enduring obsession. My previous two books had written public, political poetry out of that landscape. I wanted my third book to reflect a more personal, autobiographical engagement. Further, Rolle’s mystical writings are charged with an earthy carnality – his relationships, with God, women and the created order are often erotic in both the technical and popular senses of that word. That suited me as well – my earliest concept of the book was that it was going to be about ‘shagging down the fields’. I suppose I reinvented Richard to suit my purposes (and partially in my image) and used his life, writings and landscape to unify, inform and perhaps soften the guerilla-pastoral idiom that wouldn’t be suppressed and broke out anyway.
Pascale Petit : On sequence and motif in Mama Amazonica
My books grow organically, and Mama Amazonicagrew very much like the Amazon rainforest it explores. But I can say that there was a single poem that set it all off, though I didn’t know it at the time, and this title poem ‘Mama Amazonica’ was slow and painful to write, laborious even. But there seemed to be an energy in it that was new, so I persisted, even though it felt like one of those experiments that will probably not work. I showed an early draft to my husband, who is my first reader, and he encouraged me, and suggested I could expand it. He was excited by it and this made me more confidant. At the heart of the poem, and indeed the whole book, is the central image of the poem, of a huge waterlily in a slow Amazonian backwater, the water still and sluggish, the drama unfolding of the lily’s sex life, which involves pollination by beetles. I compulsively watched every time-lapse video of this extraordinary process. The lily is my mother and she is in a psychiatric ward undergoing deep sleep therapy, remembering meeting my father.
To write the rest of the book – all 112 pages (and there were many more poems I discarded) – I would concentrate on the lily in that backwater, like a trance. I didn’t yet know why, but by the time I had written eight more poems I began to see that for once in my life I was writing about my mother tenderly. The poems express love, as well as terror of her and of what she suffered. It astonishes me that I have created a book in which I love my mother. I did not love her and she did not love me. This felt important, to have an artefact in which our relationship was transformed.
So I suppose what I’m saying is that the whole sequence grew out of one powerful feeling, trancelike, filmic, a moving image of a flower in time-lapse motion that is apart from ordinary life and ordinary time. I did not think the book through analytically or consciously even, just let the images grow, and the feelings that are also colours and sensations and pictures. Because the book records what happened to her when she met my father, the tragedy unfolds chronologically, and that’s roughly how the book is ordered, like a story told in pictures and sculptures.
I hope this helps? I suspect we all have different ways of compiling a sequential collection, but I try to do what what Rilke advises, to search within myself to find my way, “Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write”.
Sometimes life gives you riches just for the asking. I feel a bit like one of those naive characters (usually girls…the male equivalents are often ‘fools’ or guizers) in folk tales who set off into the forests and thickets and are given things of power that help them to survive and flourish. The possible keys to the kingdom. Form. Voice. Image/motif.I’m glad it’s three, if only for the sake of narrative convention.
I’ve looked back over some recent posts and find I’ve been teasing this strand out for some time. A reminder, then, of other ‘keys’ to sequences that I’ve considered. Kim Moore’s work in progress ‘All the men I never married’ tells you that the key could actually be a title! (and there’s her sequence at the heart of The Art of falling where the key is the mythic narratives of metamorphosis). Ruth Valentine and Christy Ducker show you that alpabetical order can be a key. Jane Kite uses the timeline of an imagined family as a key. The answer for you might be to find a narrator or to build a chronology. And how about objects. I’m attracted by the title of a book on my shelf as I look up: A history of the world in twelve maps. And also by Uncommon ground which is a list sequence of dialect names for landscape features..one page for each and an accompanying photo, organised geographically from the SW to the very far North.
Whatever, the basic problem will be that an interest became an enthusiam or an obsession, that involved research, that eventually needed to be given some sort of poetic shape. If I think a sequence is anything, I think it’s something that involved you in research. Or maybe not.
Thanks for reading all the way through. Thanks and ever thanks to Steve Ely and Pascale Petit for their time and amazing generosity. The least you can do is buy their books. If by a miracle you’ve not read their work before, a bibliography follows.
After 400+ posts on the cobweb, I’m bound to repeat myself, I suppose. But I still have to remind myself that when I started it, it was simply to share my enthusiasm for poets who I called undiscovered gems…or (un)discovered gems. It depended on whether they’d already been recognised by a publisher and had work ‘out there’.
Over time I got distracted by what seemed like the need to sound off about the business of poetry in general, and on occasions, like last week, to have a bit of a strop. Mea culpa. I’m determined to get back to basics, albeit not on a weekly basis.
So here we go, with a poet I’m very fond of; I’ve enjoyed listening to her at Poetry Business Saturday workshops, and I’m delighted to have a guest who, among other things, has been active in the campaign to save Sheffield’s street trees and was arrested for the first time at the age of 70.
Jenny has a background in Anthropology and had a career in Sociology. If I’d only read her poems, I’d have guessed at Archaeology..I think a lot of her poems are like careful excavations. Jenny has written that her aim has been:
to notice the everyday and give it due weight. And that’s what I write about mostly, my lived or remembered everyday. I want to hold or recover the moment and gently scrutinize it
I think this illuminates all her work. It chimes with MacCaig’s lines in An ordinary day
‘how ordinary Extraordinary things are or
How extraordinary ordinary Things are, like the nature of the mind And the process of observing.’
Jenny writes about memories of childhood and family (and the memorials of them enshrined in documents and objects, the work of their hands). The response to this might be a world-weary doesn’t everyone? The family anecdote, the familiar, the quotidian are staples of our memories. But poems that we remember. that seem to memorise themselves as we read take us beyond that. They surprise. They illuminate our own experiences. They will involve what Clive James calls ‘the moment that draws you in’ and what Jane Draycott calls ‘the point of ignition’. Let me share some of the moments that drew me in, and then Jenny will tell you a bit about herself before I share some of the poems with minimum interruption.
I was born dwarfed by the dead and/all their impedimenta , she says. And that last unexpected, accurate word lifts the idea out of the ordinary.
She sleeps , (as we all do, without thinking about it ) under a bedroom ceiling, the other side of which is the dustbound side of everyday.
Which is how, from now on I will have to think of lofts and attics. Which may, or may not, store memories, and which she searches out:
to a high shelf..[she says]….. to a legacy of albums and attaché cases /I take my ignorance
Of a painter- Grandfather she writes about how she comes to take possession of his
sunlit room, and something up there
laid out above his wardrobe
under the pall of a dustsheet’s folds
Here, the past is probably unnerving, and tantalisingly out of reach, or possibly forbidden. These images stick. Her observation is acute, too, as in the cleaning of a fish and its stamp-hinge scales. Love that one. I like the bit of grit that jams the Dyson, a bit of grit that comes out of Deep Time; grit the oyster turns to pearl in a later poem.
I love the house of (I think) an elderly relative, up a
fern-choked clough….a nudge of pasture at her kitchen window.
So far, so Laurie Lee. But then there’s a line that stops me dead in my tracks: Cute as a grave/ here’s her garden.
There are poems about birds and animals that remind me of MacCaig (again). A mouse in the house has battery-powered whiskers; birds in the garden trees are perched like saints or green men.
I could go on. But I think you get the point. Enough. Here’s Jenny to introduce herself, and then some poems she’s shared.
“I am a poet and until recently an active academic. Then I gave up the day job to find more time for poetry. I wanted to feel, think and hear through poetic language, as well as the academic words I had written in their many thousands. Memory, loss and the objects that survive us have been longstanding research interests and they remain an important inspiration for writing poetry.
Ed. : Why poetry, why poems? I ask
Rupert Bear Annuals were a feature of my early childhood. My grown-ups only read me the text under the pictures and I now discover it’s all end-rhyme couplets. Did that set my ear? There was little spare cash after my mother divided the housekeeping into her five labeled tobacco tins in the kitchen drawer, but she bought me Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’ one Christmas, and I adored it. I wish I could recapture what its simple language evoked for me, so skillfully written from a child’s point of view: the child in its bed; the child watching from the window; the child re-imagining its garden as a battleground. I never wrote anything myself but I did read and re-read and re-read A.S.Collins ‘Treasury of English Verse, New and Old’, given to my mother by my father ‘with my very deepest love, for Christmas 1946’, an inscription I could never marry with my parents’ apparently boring lives. I was six months old that Christmas. Did Mum find time to read it, with a new baby and no washing machine or fridge? And with ‘duty before pleasure’ as her mantra.
Me reading aloud A.S.Collins ‘Treasury in bed on long light evenings makes me smile at myself now. As a parent (and grandparent) I think it might unsettle me to hear a child intoning poems for what I remember as hours. What did I actually read? Wordsworth’s ‘Westminster Bridge’, Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’ and Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’, almost all of Keats and Tennyson, Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’, Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’ , almost all of De la Mare and then Masefield’s ‘Sea-Fever’
Ed.: which I find impressive and unnerving in equal measure
As a young parent I wrote little, but kept the faith. Two of the four poems I eventually produced in the early 1980s were included in The Raving Beauties’ No Holds Barred (The Women’s Press, 1985). That set me off, with regular Arvon courses and The Mutiny Poets group in Hull. In 2013 I received a New Poets Bursary Award from New Writing North (http://newwritingnorth.com/) and, after magazine and anthology publications, my debut collection, Going to Bed with the Moon, is now available from Oversteps Books.
I’ve written as a member of Cora Greenhill’s inspiring poetry workshop for women, ‘Living Line’; I’m also a member of Tuesday Poets, a workshopping group, and of The Poetry Room, a group that reads poetry collections as well as workshopping its own poems. I also relish The Poetry Business’s Saturday writing days and absolutely value its presence here in Sheffield. where I live with Bob, my partner, in a house sandwiched between two parks. I continue to write about loss, but also the tree- and bird-filled landscape that surrounds me. And along with my leaning towards the downbeat, I am always inspired by the quirky, surreal and laugh-out-loud hilarious nature of everyday life.
When my debut collection, Going to bed with the mooncame out with Oversteps in 2019, I introduced myself at the launch as ‘a recovering academic’.
I’ll still put lots of words into long complicated sentences when I write poetry. Or still assume too much on the part of the reader. But being trained as an anthropologist did sharpen my capacity to notice the everyday and give it due weight. …….. I’ve never visited Mars or Atlanta in a poem, never taken on the persona of a historical figure or inhabited a painting by Breughel. But there’s still time.”
Ed.: To which I add: oh yes there is
So. As everyone says. For no reason at all. The poems. First from Going to bed with the moon, which the editor descibed as a collection which moves from the beginning to the end of the day, and from the familiar world of home to unknown travel destinations and their imagined challenges.
There are a lot of poems about remembered tactile love in the collection, bound up very often with memories of foreign travel, a touch of glamour. I chose this one because of its compression, its absolute assuredness, because of the image of layers, an idea that quietly and unobtrusively runs through the book. I think its a stunner
Concrete and Clay
We lay there a long time, really
chilling to the draught which blew beneath the door.
We were like statues, weren’t we,
one above the other like folded rocks,
massive in our contentment.
It mattered to us then
if you remember.
Jenny says : I’ll still put lots of words into long complicated sentences when I write poetry. I’m not sure if the next poem is the kind of thing she had in mind, but what grabbed me was the way the matter -of -fact, decidedly prosaic language of the ‘memoir’ is suddenly transformed into something quite other in the second stanza. Maybe the pivot is that ‘cut throat razor’, but Grandfather’s suddenly not a comfortable old buffer. There’s something of the folk tale about growing longer than the alcove, and sonething decidedly insettling about the line
and I came intopossession of his bed
And as I said before, the last four line absolutely nail it.
Meredith Charles Watling
was an acknowledged East Anglian
painter, I read in the 1955 obituary
that fluttered from the unlocked leaves
of my mother’s diary. He filled our house
with the scent of linseed and St Bruno
pinched from a flat Bakelite pouch
with a screw-off inset lid; pared his nails
with a knife, stropped a cut-throat razor.
When I grew longer than the alcove
in my parents’ room, they moved me
downstairs by Grandad’s easel and paint
— until Addenbrookes took him one night
and I came into possession of his bed,
his sunlit room and something up there,
laid out above his wardrobe,
under the pall of a dustsheet’s folds.
One more from the collection; this is the last poem in the book, and exactly where it needs to be
The Party’s Over
Oily scraps of veg, drabs of bread
and napkin shreds,
red wine, salt and cigar butts
and I’m drink-dazed for sleep,
drained with the weight
of my own unspoken words.
And in the small room where three flames burn
on the green fish candlestick
that I cycled seven French miles to choose for myself
at the cost of several hundred francs,
I spit on my finger and thumb
and draw down the darkness.
I like this for its filmic quality, the way the camera moves slowly, the way it lingers, the way it takes us through the house to the last room. I love the assuredness of the narrator, the conjuring of the darkness. I love the way the screen goes black.
And now, to finish, the bonus of two new poems, a bit edgier, a bit more swagger. And that trademark thing of the unwritten subplot…as well as another attic.
Jesus with Guinea Pigs
There’s always something to be done in our house.
But in between, my mum gets out her paints, completes
another Jesus and props his wet radiance on the easel,
his wounded body hanging there as I walk in from school,
fists clutching roadside grass grubbed up for Ginger
and Bobby Charlton squeaking their heads off in the shed.
Always that quiet conversation going on — something about
The Other Side, evidence of uncles who have crossed over.
Mum and Mr Sperring, the worry of his gifts.
Easter and I’m crossing the Cleveland Hills,
Losing My Religion full onthrough the sun roof
as you stow the relics of a dead husband
in your attic, filling a tall house
with withered climbing gear,
a grounded kayak I later help you free.
Picture us down at the quayside, posing
by the whale bones, the Abbey’s silhouette.
Thirty years on and you’re not
anymore, I’m losing my religion.
Jenny Hockey, you may be losing your religion, but you’re not losing your touch. Thank you for being a guest on the cobweb, and for sharing so many poems.
Right.I think everyone should now follow this link, and buy the book