My kind of poetry: Jane Burn and glossolalia

First line nerves. I wrote a whole post about that, years ago. This is the 400th post since I started the cobweb. Just do it.. Come on brain…out of lockdown. Start somewhere. Start with a bird.

 “ The underside of a buzzard above

me again. This one, a curl of chocoalte

dark etching the afternoon, porridge-meal

stomach aaginst a lid of bleachy silver,

cloudless, cold”

Promises to keep. I’ve promised myself for months that I’ll write something about Jane Burn, a poet who unfailingly makes me sit up and pay attention, whose writing is full of turns and rhythms and moments that draw me in. For five and a half months I’ve been ‘shielded’, which is a euphemism for ‘under house arrest’. And I’ve been distracting myself with projects like ‘When all this is over’ and an abortive project which attracted precisely zero responses to an invitation to illustrate stories by my friend and collaborator, Andy Blackford. 

But inventive or analytic thinking has been beyond me quite. Concentrated, reflective reading, too. I decided I should systematically read the whole of Auden’s Collected Poems and see what I could learn…about technique, for instance. That lasted about a week, rather than the planned year. It’s hard to concentrate, especially when you’re distracted by frustrated rage at a country seized by the sleep of reason, and at the dreadful schism in the British nation.

Seeking for hook to hang the post on I went back, as I often do, to Tony Harrison. The school of eloquence, especially, and the extended sequence of sonnets that grew from it in Continuous. The theme that runs through them all, in one way or another is articulacy , the making of language and meaning which is ‘the tongue-tied’s fighting’.

‘The tongueless man gets his land took’; the working man is silenced by ‘the branks of condescension’, or even more brutally, by the local gentry who lower a convict down a bottomless pit  to see how deep it was, and winch him back; flayed, grey, mad, dumb’.

In Them and Uz  he took a long, slow-burning revenge on Mr Jones, the Grammar School English teacher who derided Harrison’s south Leeds accent. Mr Jones was one of those (and their name is Legion) who didn’t understand the difference between articulation (as in Received Pronunciation) and articulacy. And for a time, as Harrison wrote ‘that shut my trap’. But not for too long. One wish, at least was granted.

Words and wordlessness. Between the two

the gauge went almost ga-ga. No R.I.,

no polysyllables could see me through, 

come glossolalia, dulciloquy.                

[Wordlists]

Sweetness of sound and glossolalia : speaking in tongues, languages of en-chantment. The fire of Pentecost : 

        cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.

                And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, 

                   and began to speak with other tongues

Pentecost has always excited me as an image or an idea, the notion that we can go beyond the language we are assigned to talk across boundaries. There are poets who use language in ways that I think of as Pentecostal. Jane Burn is one of them. Exuberant, unguarded, dangerously vulnerable and full of joy. Distinctly unfashionable that sort of thing. Which is why I wanted her as a guest.

So, what about the buzzard we started with? The lines are from Perlemorskyer, the final poem in Jane’s 2016 Indigo Dreams pamphlet Nothing more to it than bubbles. The bird lands ‘a hieroglyph on a fencepost’, its mate stays hovering in the spindrift falling on a tight-bunched herd of heiffers. Caught in a dream of flight the poet wants to ask the birds

                   Did you go where the sky is painted like pearls?

Perlemorskyer. The polar stratospheric clouds of the Arctic which have been seen as far south as Whitby. Which is , like Jane, in and (now) of the North East. I like the sense of connections being made between words and images and moments, and the electric crackle of it. I like the fearless, and occasionally eccentric way Jane will plunder the wordhoard. Here’s a sample to go along with perlemorskyer

luciferin, cabriole, ossicles, cilia, shucking-knives, oospore, petiole, byssus, gloam, orbicular, daal mist, hordeolum

(While I was typing this I found myself reorganising the list so I could chant it. It’s not quite there, yet)

I like the way her poetry is crammed with the moments at draw you in, that memorise themselves, the prodigality of phrases like canker-cups, or fingers that become five baby eels emerging from their cavern of cuff or the woman who walked the skim of jigsaw floe. I like her fascination with shape-shifting in fire and water and the confusions of identity. And I like the voice. It’s the tune I hear, first. The words come after; it’s the rhythm, the space of vowels, the textures of consonants. It’s the authentic accent, the distinctive voice, which like Christy Ducker’s has the rising inflexions, the dance of dialect, its crisp consonants. Jane Burn is not from the North East originally, but it’s claimed her voice in a way that it claimed mine.

So I’m going to stick my neck out again and say it’s the stuff that takes you by surprise, that’s exciting but something you don’t understand, something you want to understand…that’s what you wait for, or go hunting for. Like this poem.

Thistlecrack
 .

Telephones are malevolent. Cradle-bones biding 
until you have felt the evening’s quietness spread
above the room and you, uneasy, try to settle below it. 
.
Then, it will rack the air with shrill – you leap 
from the chair, stub a toe in your hurry to answer. It slips, 
soapy from your hands. This is how the complexities 
.
of twilight pass. Dusk is easy to close the curtains against – 
night comes like the healing of a wound. You close your door 
upon it, shove the key down the throat of the lock, spin it dead.
 . 
Dawns keep coming – it has been your habit to rise to them. 
Mornings you squat on the step, watching sun fledge 
through the wall’s topping of broken glass, edges tinkered
 .
with glim. You know how jagged this place is. How it makes you 
afraid. Policemen knock in a way peculiar to them – 
their knuckles on wood say something’s wrong and your heart 
.
goes all clatterbash in your chest. Tonight, they are door-to-door 
after someone called about screams on nearby scrub. You say, 
it’s vixens make a noise like that but even as they go, slicing 
.
the wasteland with knives of light, coining a fox’s eyes with beams, 
you lie in bed, headful of murder grasses and think how a pair 
of arms would be a comfort. You live where you can afford to live – 
.
most days, you just get on with it and dream of fields. Exist in
little things – see how fingers of spruce grasp invisible wind, how, 
in a thistlecrack, petals feather from spiny bulbs, turn to down. 
.
Step to avoid torched bins. When you live somewhere rough, 
you can choose to hold sun in your eyes. Search out the trees. 
Discover the best and worst of places look beautiful under snow.

.

[First published in Crannog ]

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It was the sound of consonants I heard before the meaning. All the hard sounds that create that sense of anxiety and threat that go along with the knock on the door, the police torchbeams slicing the wasteland night, beyong the wall topped with broken glass. I love the way the shift from thistlecrack to feather and down is managedAnd then the muffling release of snowfall; everything, the best and the worst, smoothed and white.                        

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Time to introduce Jane, if you don’t already know her. And also to identify the link I felt with Tony Harrison, and his experience of schooling:

“I didn’t really have a voice until I really began, about eight years ago, to properly write. Before that, I was just a mish-mash of copycatting, of parroting other people’s behaviours, of doing whatever it seemed necessary to do in order to fit in. I was not really a success with friendships or relationships. I don’t need to go into all of that. I have always loved reading, writing, art and craft but I never quite managed to hit my stride, or fathom what it was I really wanted to do. I hadn’t really matured at all. I had no idea who I actually was or what I really wanted. I felt useless. I felt like one giant waste. 

My forties have been about really beginning to learn who I really am. It was about courage too – and like I said in a previous interview earlier this year with Fran Lock, in not fitting anywhere, I have sort of fitted everywhere, if that makes a grain of sense. I can’t claim any great creative writing academic credentials, though I keep on treasuring the hope that at some point finances will magically allow me to go and get some.

I struggled at school – I was always tried to be a conscientious pupil and I worked as hard as I could but always at the wrong things, like making a beautiful job of colouring the blue sea in round a map for geography, producing intricate diagrams in physics but ending up with no idea what capital city belonged where, or which equation would give you what mass. In fact, my well-meaning, kind physics teacher would give me extra lessons after school. He once said to me (in frustration), “I don’t understand how someone can try so hard and learn so little.” That really seemed to set the tone for my life. Maths was a nightmare. I just used to sit and cry. So often, my mind would simply go blank and wander away and I would have missed whole lessons. 

My mental health has been repeatedly misdiagnosed but at long last, I know who I am. I have a long journey ahead of me now – this sounds like such a cliché but it is true nonetheless. I can look forward to the future with a deeper understanding of who I am. I feel the need to look back too, which will be a lot more painful. My autism has always affected my ability to know right from wrong, to know how to say no. It has made me too easy to abuse. It must be responsible for the disintegration of family relationships which led to my family’s complete rejection of me. This is not an easy thing to face but at least some of the endless wondering ‘why’ can be offered a sort of explanation. This is oversimplifying I know.

I began to write. I am lucky (unlucky?) to have no filters. I write about whatever is in my head, my heart, my soul and none of these are easy, settled places. I write about the difficulties, the challenges of life. I write about love and sexuality, my body, my bones. It is only in poems that I am free  that I feel articulate. (my italics) 

It is only in my poems that I don’t feel as thick as that girl did, all those years ago. I am an obsessive researcher. I am an obsessive writer. I write every day. Day and night. My brain does not switch off. For some reason, poetry opens a gateway for me and it is there I tell all my ugly and beautiful truths. Poetry is where I am free.

I guess my first ‘big break’ in poetry came in 2014, I think it was. I was at a local poetry event called Poetry Jam in Durham and one of the guests was Degna Stone. She mentioned at the end of her set that she was editing a magazine and looking for submissions. I was so clueless at that time with regard to poetry magazines that I had no idea what a lovely magazine it actually was. I asked her for the details and sent three poems. I was stunned when one was accepted – the poem was Froghopper and the magazine was Butcher’s Dog. It was such a big thing to happen to someone who saw herself as a complete nobody and the poem was even nominated by them for The Forward Prize. I think that it has taken magazines a while to get used to the way I write – I know my poems are often not the easiest to read. They have been described as ‘bricks through a window’‘scattergun’‘stressful’ and ‘difficult to place’. I never gave up, though sometimes I felt like I wanted to. Some magazines have been so supportive though – like The Rialto. They have been brilliant and I am awaiting the latest issue, which will see the publication of my seventh poem in there. I am so grateful to them and it has kept me hoping. 

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I’ve italicised the phrases that explain what it it is that energises and excites me in Jane Burn’s poetry. It’s the combination of hungry research and unguarded honesty, with her intuitive grasp of the sound and rhythm that bind them. They are generous and disturbing poems in a locked-down world that needs more bricks through windows. So let’s have some. They won’t do justice to her prolific output, but I hope they’ll send you searching for more.

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Let’s start with two that might just explain the labels stressful and difficult to place. Because these are not comfortable poems. The first puts me in mind of some of Goya’s more unnerving images. There’s some Paula Rego in there, too. Everything is hot and curdled, a stew of inchoate guiltiness that invokes Leda and the Swan, but it ends in an affirmation of self-belief that makes it fly, finally.

.

Ogre’s Burrito
.
Parcelled in linen, a crack of smudged eye
opens. Under-sheet in a claustrophobe,
arms pinned,  I am an ogre’s burrito. 
A salt-sweat salsa of the nights
inappropriate dreaming stains me, soaks
the bedding. Sour. I can smell myself – 
I feel basted, the musk of arousal as I split 
my welded legs apart. For a while,
through the sleep hours, I was unafraid.
Oh, how you were on me, how I was on you – 
hip grind, deep kiss, wet hot, touch. Lord,
if you could see me now, in all my repulsion!
I did not remove yesterday’s mascara – 
flecks on my sockets like new-born flies,
grease and stickum. Today, no manning
the till, no school run. Time to wallow
in slattern filth a while longer, time to tune
to the wants of me. Soon, the scourge
of shower scrub, toothbrush, hairbrush, 
scent. I want you on me still, incubus – 
not ready to be churched of your raking hands.
Dregs of lip remembered on my skin,
silverskim of lover’s argot sleeping the curls
of my ears. I open my mouth to the spoiled
dairy of waking breath. We were a chimera
through the dark time. Vagary. I stew myself
for a ghost. For the ache of a fool’s paradise,
a sapid drowse to ease the limbo of kitchen
sink, carwash, teacup, name-badge, smile.
I am hoarding you, a swallowed swan, 
mute inside the Tabernacle of my chest.
Soon, the fall of dusk – our gullets sing
the sound of feathers, I am not ugly
in the sable of your eyes.

.

[First published on And Other Poems]

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The second reminds that I talked briefly about how some of her poems involve shapeshifting and metamorphosis, in water and fire. This one is all blaze.

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Self-Portrait as an Inferno
.

I saw the birthing of a crazy phoenix – saw it raise hackles of fire, 
span its bright wings of pain, sear the night with a flock of sparks. 
.

It made a spear of embers and flew its pyre into the night – 
crackled with vicious feathers, spat its language of waste
.
from a vivid, orange tongue. I looked square in its red-cleft beak,
saw a gizzard drunk with boiling doom, saw it arm the flue
.

of its shocking neck with bellyfuls of apocalypse. This blistered bird

pegged its talons to my boneless cheeks and infiltrated every breath 
.

with filth. I’ve had uglier meat than you fed down my scalded throat
I crowed and beat my voice against the smouldered void.
.
My pupils rolled wide as dark wheels – I wore the shape of flames 
upon my eyes, doused greedy tinder beneath each blink, met its furnace 
.

and found that I was not afraid. I’ve been through worse, I hissed 
into its scorching ear, watered vessels full and bore it a cure 
.

of moon-reflected pools to quench its rage, wore its shroud 
of vengeful smoke like my own defiant coat. I cursed it in its own

kindled speech. Grew hooded with dust, tasted reeking night
and lapped the dry well of my parchment mouth, looked toward 
.

my aftermath of filthy hair and frowned the colour of fumes. 
I saw the grimy mark of evil flight upon my skin, was alive though
.

the night had flickered with angels, made a soiled font of my face. 

I was an echo of waste, built from tomorrow’s cold remains.
.

[First published on Idle Ink]

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It’s something of a relief to move to a different cold from the slack aftermath and ash of fire.

Villanelle to Cold Psalms

.

Here among the gloam owls, their cry of cold psalms

I am treetops, bearing a crown of night. The dark is born.

I imagine the death I would make in the strange of your arms,

.

shiver beneath the void of stars, sing the charm

of moths. Wish them against my neck. My skin mourns,

here among the gloam owls, their cry of cold psalms.

.

Dusk is a lie. This is crushed light, visions of curious calm.

I am prey, twitching in uneasy sleep, a distant spire’s thorn.

I imagine the death I would make in the strange of your arms.

.

Here are the tendons of my neck. Here is the throb of harm.

I am lost as one drop of rain is lost to a storm,

here among the gloam owls, their cry of cold psalms.

.

I bear a ghost of gloom in the curl of my palm.

I am the moonlight’s gash where the sky is torn.

I imagine the death I would make in the strange of your arms,

.

shiver of mist upon my mouth. I drink its balm,

damp upon the tip of thirst. Leave me to mourn,

here among the gloam owls, their cry of cold psalms.
I imagine the death I would make in the strange of your arms.

.

[First published on Poethead ]

It’s a poem that should remind you that Jane’s apparent emotional unguardedness might distract you from the fact that her poems are almost always crafted as well as surprising and unnerving.

I’ll end with a poem that not only hints at the wide-ranging nature of her poems, but also takes us away from the intensely personal to the ultimate cold. I have my own near obsession with the narratives of early Polar exploration, and with Scott and Titus Oates in particular. I wish I’d written this one. Jane adds the footnote: Titus was a nickname given to Captain Lawrence Oates (1880-1912). 

To which I might add that Oates kept his own detailed journal in which he religiously and regularly recorded his contempt for Scott’s leadership. It tends to get edited out of the popular myth

Wilson Oates Evans Bowers Scott
.


Everything real died in front of our eyes.
Our ponies, raw with fur and numb with cold
.
wore drifts upon their backs, blurred between sky
and horizon. Our dogs thinned to their wires.
.
One by one they gave away their lives 
we would turn to see them swallowed by white
.
and push on, through pale blindness. Everything
else survived, as a sad fascination 
.
our sugar. Our butter. Our brittle bones,
un-fleshed by cruel weather, marrowed with snow.
.
Remember our hut, where enamelled cups 
still swing from nails like tinny leaves? We sat,
.
cosy-smart in our yarns, penning ourselves
immortal. We left our minds and hearts, our hope
.
behind in copious notes  glass tubes eternally hoard
the ghosts of our experiments inside. 
.
The table is a tundra of scrubbed wood 
a chill of dust settles a bottled world 
.
of camphor flowers. The aching gripes of wind
haunt each room, mourn the unworn clothes. Our books 
.
are frozen closed, while dull lamps make poor stars. 
We were not the first. The footprints we left
.
soon filled afresh  this bitter place erased
each step. Remember Titus bridling up 
.
the nags? His poor bitten feet. How he passed
from canvas to blizzard, vanished from sight.

.

[Shortlisted in the Wells Poetry Competition, 2019]

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What I particularly like about this is the voice. Who’s talking to who, and how did the speaker come by the knowledge, the perspective, the hindsight? I like, very much, the precision of the two-line stanzas, the accurate economy of the images, the dogs that one by one would be shot thinned to their wires, and in the silent, frozen huts that they left behind, enamelled cups that still swing from nails like tinny leaves, and on the abandoned tables and shelves a bottled world of camphor flowers . No bricks through windows here, no ‘scattergun’.

I think that early on I used the word unfashionable. What I think seems to be fashionable at the moment is the cool, the redacted, the ‘experimental’, the minimalist, the poetry of white space. Which reminds me of Roy Fuller’s waspish squib (about The Movement, I’m fairly sure).

“You praise the firm restraint with which they write 

– I’m with you there, of course: 

They use the snaffle and the curb all right, 

But where’s the bloody horse?”

What I like about Jane’s poetry is that the horses are often untamed, and kick down the stable doors. And there are lots of them. As there are in her painting. I didn’t mention the painting, did I? Try her Facebook page. 

Thank you for being our guest, Jane Burn. For those who want to know more, here’s a precis of her work:


She has been a member of 52, the North East Women’s Collective, the Tees Women Poets and the Black Light Writing Group and regularly perform at many poetry nights.

Her poems have been published in many online magazines such as, Ink Sweat & Tears  Antiphon, Algebra for Owls (where my poem was voted Reader’s Choice), The Blue Nib,: Journal of Art & Letters, Deepwater Literary Journal, International Times, John Foggin’s When this is all over project and the 2020 Write Where We Are Now project from Manchester Writing School.

Her magazine publications include Black Light Engine Room Magazine,Strix, Under the Radar, Bare Fiction, The Rialto ,Prole, the Oxford English Journal and the New European, and her work has featured in anthologies, including ones from Seren, Picaroon, Three Drops Press, The Emergency Poet, Poetry Box, Beautiful Dragons, Paper Swans, and The Emma Press 

Amongst her many competition successes, she was nominated for the Forward Prize Best Single Poem category[2014], won 1st prize in the inaugural Northern Writes poetry competition,had four poems longlisted in the National Poetry Competition between 2014 – 2017,was awarded the first place Silver Wyvern in the open category in the Poetry on the Lake competition and 1st place in the PENfro Book Festival Poetry Competiton,
Shortlisted in the Live Canon Poetry Competition. In 2018 she had two poems nominated for The Forward Prize Best Single Poem category,and in 2020 won1st prize in the WoLF poetry competition

Pamphlets and collections :

fAt aRouNd tHe MiddLe  [2015] Talking Pen
Tongues of Fire [2016] The BLER Press
nothing more to it than bubbles [2016] Indigo Dreams
This Game of Strangers (co-written with Bob Beagrie) [2017] Wyrd Harvest
One of These Dead Places [2018] Culture Matters 
Fleet [2018] Wyrd Harvest 
Remnants (co-written with Bob Beagrie) [2019] Knives, Forks and Spoons
Yan Tan Tether [2020] Indigo Dreams

Child’s play: send us your pictures

Whether you’re looking for something for your locked-down children to get stuck into, or you fancy it yourself, here’s a collection of stories by my friend and poetry collaborator, Andy Blackford. It’s more than unlikely that this could end up as an actual book. We think it will stay as a webpage story. But what we’re inviting is book covers, title pages or moments from a story. Whatever catches your imagination.

You or your children, or your grandchildren, or friends’ children don’t have to be artists…just be inspired by ones like Brian Wildsmith, and all the others I talked about two posts ago. In any case, children draw and paint what they truly see when they hear or read a story.

To kick it off I asked one illustrator, Kate Rolfe, to inspire you with two of hers. You can see what she came up with:

https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/johnfogginpoetry.com/15711

……………………………………………………..

If you want to be involved and want more detail, (especially about the resolution we need for the images) contact me at john.foggin.outlook.com and I’ll get back to you pretty well straight away. I’ll be accepting your illustrations until the end of August, and posting them as they come in. After the deadline, Andy Blackford will choose the ones he likes best, and they’ll then form part of the story text. Basically, we’ll be choosing the best overall book cover, a title page for each story and up to three images in the body of each story.

How about it? Lostriches, Hummingbirds, Magpies, Cuckoos, Woodpeckers, Swans, Penguins. Any medium. There’s talent and imagination out there.

ROCKY the WOODPECKER

Rocky was a baby Woodpecker. He lived in a nest in a tree in a forest with his mum and dad and his three brothers. 

One day, a great wind shook the trees and Rocky fell out of the nest.

Before long, he was hungry. He was too little to catch flies to eat. But he could peck through milk bottle tops. Every morning, he hopped around the town, and drank the milk on people’s doorsteps.

The people didn’t like it, of course.  But they forgave him because he was only a baby. 

All that milk made Rocky grow big and strong.  And all that pecking gave him a very tough beak.

Soon, he became the loudest Woodpecker in the forest.

But he soon grew tired of pecking wood. “Wood is far too easy to peck,” he thought. “I think I’ll be a Brickpecker instead.” 

So he went to the town and pecked holes in the houses. 

The townspeople were very cross. They went to the Mayor and complained. So the Mayor had a quiet word with Rocky.

But Rocky just laughed. “ Don’t worry. Bricks are far too easy to peck.  From now on, I’m going to be a Stonepecker!”

On Sunday, the townspeople went to church. But the church was gone. Rocky had pecked it all away.

The people went to the Mayor again. “You must lock that Woodpecker up,” they cried, “or he’ll peck the whole town to bits!”

But the Mayor was a wise and kindly old man. He went to visit Rocky in his nest in a tree in the forest. “Rocky,” he said, “why don’t you peck us some nice, stone statues? They will make the Park look nice. Then perhaps the townspeople will like you again.”

Before long, the Park was full of stone animals and stone mayors and huge, stone woodpeckers.

The Mayor invited everyone to a party. When Rocky arrived, they sang “For He’s A Jolly Good Woodpecker!” 

But from the corner of his eye, Rocky could see the bridge over the river. “Hmm,” he thought. “Stone is far too easy to peck. 

“I think I’ll be a Steelpecker!”

SHIRLEY THE SWAN

Shirley’s very first memory was of two big white question marks, reflected in the river. They were the long, curvy swans’ necks that belonged to her Mum and Dad.

Of course, little Shirley didn’t know what a question was. But then she asked one: ‘What’s a swan, Mum?’
‘Why, you are, dear!’ her Mum said.
‘We are!’ said her two brothers and two sisters.
Shirley was looking at a family of ducks who were paddling past.

She asked her second-ever question. ‘Are they swans?’
‘Certainly not!’ said her Mum. ‘We don’t mix with their sort. They’re ducks.’
The ducks gave Shirley a cheery wave. Shirley waved back.
‘Shirley!’ snapped her Mum. ‘Just ignore them!’

And Shirley asked her third-ever question. ‘Why?’
‘Well, because…because…’
Shirley’s Dad said, ‘Because they’re small and mud-coloured, not graceful and gorgeous like us. Also, they quack.’
‘That’s right!’ said Mum. So do as we say and leave them be. All five of you.’
‘Four,’ corrected Shirley’s Dad.
Shirley’s Mum looked around and counted the cygnets. ‘One…two…three…four…five. Five!’
Shirley’s Dad frowned. ‘Hmm. I could have sworn there were only four. Oh well, dear, you know best.’

*****

The Spring turned into Summer and the little cygnets were growing up fast – at least her sisters Lily and Iris, and her brothers Bulrush and Skunk-Cabbage were. But Shirley was falling behind. Before long, she was quite a lot smaller than the rest. 

Her Mum and Dad were worried about her, and gave her more food than the others. But it didn’t seem to make any difference – except that her brothers and sisters were cross with her because she got more to eat than they did.

Also, she was finding it harder to keep up with the rest of the family as they swam up and down the river. She would paddle away with her short legs and her little webbed feet, while her brothers and sisters seemed to glide along smoothly with hardly any effort.
‘Get a move on, Duck Face!’ shouted Bulrush. 
Shirley was hurt. ‘Why did you call me Duck Face?’ 
Bulrush replied, ‘Well now. Let me think… Could it possibly be because you’ve got a face like a duck?’

Shirley looked at her reflection in the water. Was it true? Did her mouth look rather flat and wide – perhaps a bit more like a duck’s bill than a swan’s pointy beak? 
Every day, they’d pass the duck family, who would smile at her and quack in the most friendly way. If her Mum and Dad weren’t looking, she’d give them a shy little wave in return. 

Then one day, she just couldn’t keep up. 

The swans vanished around a bend in the river and she was left far behind, exhausted and out of breath. She tried to call out but instead of a swan’s cry, all that came out was a sort of squawking noise, like something made of iron that needed oiling.

By the time she got her breath back, the Swan family were nowhere to be seen and she began to panic. The sun was going down, she was cold and she started to cry. 

But suddenly, an otter’s head popped out of the water – quickly followed by the rest of an otter. You don’t often see otters, but otters wearing spectacles are very rare indeed. ‘Hello!’ he smiled. ‘Lost?’
‘I couldn’t keep up with my family,’ she said, ‘and now they’ve left me behind.’
‘Hop on my back,’ said the otter, ‘and we’ll have you back with your folks in no time!’

As they sped through the water, the otter said, ‘I always try to help lost ducklings.’
‘Ducklings?’ squawked Shirley. ‘But I’m a swan!’
The Otter disagreed. ‘I’ve seen a lot of swans in my time, and even more ducks. I think it’s pretty safe to say that you’re a duck. 

‘You see, it’s a bit of a thing with me. Back in the Spring, I picked up a lost duckling and delivered it to a family of swans by mistake. The ducks never forgave me. That’s why I wear glasses nowadays – so I can tell the difference.’

‘No, you don’t understand! I really am a swan!’
‘Well, if so, you’re going to have a hard time of it. Your beak’s all wrong – your feathers are a funny colour – you’ve got a quacky voice and I don’t mean to be rude but you’re a midget.’
‘That is quite rude,’ Shirley said.
‘Do the other swans call you names?’
‘Sometimes,’ Shirley admitted, ‘they call me Duck Face. And Mucky. And Donald. And Daffy. And Crispy. And Quackers. And…’
‘Yes, yes, I get the picture,’ the otter interrupted. ‘And it’ll only get worse, trust me.’

Then around a bend in the river came the family of ducks that always waved at Shirley. The otter swam towards them. ‘Mother Duck!’ he called. 
‘What is it?’ she snapped. ‘You’re that otter what lost our Tracy!’
‘True,’ said the Otter, ‘and I’m very sorry. But I think I’ve found her again!’ And he pushed the little duckling towards her. 

Mother Duck stared at Shirley than suddenly threw her wings around her. ‘Derek!’ she screeched to her husband. ‘It’s our Tracy! She’s come ‘ome!’

And that’s about the end of our story. Tracy (for that was her proper name) felt much happier with her real family. 
And Mrs Swan had to admit that she might have been wrong about how many children they really had. ‘Eggs all look the same,’ she explained. ‘It’s hard to remember exactly how many there are.’

‘Yes,’ replied her husband. ‘Of course, dear.’

THE BEST NEST CONTEST

It was Spring and time for the big Nest Competition. The Blackbird had to visit every tree in the forest.

The birds worked hard to make sure their nests were clean and tidy.

The Robin’s nest was on the ground, round and neat and lined with soft, green moss.

The Swallow’s nest was as hard as wood, with a little hole for a doorway. The little Wren’s nest was tiny and pretty, just like the Wren.

The Greenfinch made her nest in a little house in a tree in someone’s garden.

Even the Dove tried hard to make a safe, warm home for her family.

But when the Blackbird flew to the tree where the Cuckoo lived, she couldn’t believe her eyes. What a mess!

The Cuckoo was still trying to build her nest. But she wasn’t doing very well.

First, she tried to make the nest with grass – but it just fell to bits. Then she tried sticks, but they wouldn’t stick together.

Then she tried string. Then she tried mud. She even tried cake. 

‘Rubbish!’ cried the Starling.

’That’s a good idea!’ said the Cuckoo. But it wasn’t.

She tried baking foil. And fur. She even tried toothpaste. But nothing seemed to work.

The Blackbird shook her head. ‘My dear Mrs Cuckoo, why don’t you come and stay with us instead?’ 

And so the Cuckoo laid her eggs in the Blackbirds’ beautiful nest. She had never been so happy in her life.

THE END.

Childs’ play: Two more stories

In case you missed the last post: we’re looking for illustrators of any age. Whether you’re looking for something for your locked-down children to get stuck into, or you fancy it yourself, here’s a collection of stories by my friend and poetry collaborator, Andy Blackford. It’s more than unlikely that this could end up as and actual book. We think it will stay as a webpage story. But what we’re inviting is book covers, title pages or moments from a story. Whatever catches your imagination. To kick it off I asked one illustrator, Kate Rolfe, to inspire you with two of hers. If you want to be involved and want more detail, (especially about the resolution I’ll need for the images) contact me at john.foggin.outlook.com and I’ll get back to you pretty well straight away. I’ll be accepting your illustrations until the end of August, and posting them as they come in. After the deadline, Andy Blackford will choose the ones he likes best, and they’ll then form part of the story text. Basically, we’ll be choosing the best overall book cover, a title page for each story and up to three images in the body of each story.

THE MAGPIE KING 

Magpies can’t resist shiny stuff.  Silver paper, 5p coins, the Crown Jewels. 

When Malcolm the Magpie collected heaps of silver paper and 5p coins, nobody minded much.

But then, one day, he came home with the Crown Jewels.

His wife, Maureen, said, “Those belong to the King!  When he notices they’ve gone, he’ll be cross.”

But Malcolm just winked. “He won’t know it was me!”

Next day, the King knocked on the Magpies’ tree.  “I see you’ve got the Crown Jewels up there.” 

“What?” called Malcolm. “These old things?”

“Don’t worry”, replied the King.  “It’s just that whoever has the Jewels is the King.  So, er, well done!” 

“Me?  KING?” squawked Malcolm. “Brilliant!” 

The ex-King flew off to Barbados. “This is more like it!” he said, as he lay on the beach in the sun. 

Back home, King Malcolm made lots of new rules.

Everyone had to live in trees…

….and sleep in nests…

…and eat worms. 

 By and large, the People didn’t like it. 

So one morning, when Malcolm was still asleep, Maureen wrapped up the Crown Jewels in a handkerchief. Then she set off for Barbados.

The ex-King was fed up, too.  Nobody called him Sir anymore. 

Also, it was very hot. He tried to buy an ice cream. But he forgot that Malcolm had all his jewels, and he couldn’t pay. The man made him give the ice cream back. 

Maureen flew across the sea for three days and three nights. The jewels were very heavy. ‘I wish the King collected something a bit lighter,’ she thought. ‘Like stamps. Or feathers.’

At last she saw an island ahead. It was Barbados.

The King was sitting on the beach. He was hot and grumpy. But when his jewels landed plonk! on his beach towel, he was happy again. “Holidays are no fun,” he said, “if they never end.”

Next day, the King knocked at the Magpies’ tree. “I’ve got my jewels back!” he called.  “So you’re just an ordinary magpie again.  Sorry!”

The People cheered. “We’re not sorry! God Save The King!”

“I’m not sorry, either,” Malcolm whispered to Maureen.

“Nor me,” said Maureen.  “I think we’ll stick to silver paper in future.”

ROYSTON WINS HIS WINGS

When Royston the penguin burst out of his egg in Antarctica, there was only one thing on his mind.

He lay on his back in the snow and stared at the gulls, wheeling and soaring high above.‘I was born to fly!’ he told his mum and dad.

‘Don’t be silly,’ said his dad. ‘Penguins forgot how to fly thousands of years ago. Stop wasting your time staring at the sky!’

So Royston went to see the albatross. ‘Show me how to fly!’ he said.The albatross frowned. ‘Your wings are a bit short,’ he replied. ‘Are you sure this is a good idea?’

‘I’m sure,’ Royston insisted. ‘Ok, watch me!’ said the albatross. And he ran across the ice, faster and faster, beating his wings. Then he rose slowly into the air.

 ‘Brilliant!’ squawked Royston. But when he tried it, he just ran and ran ‘til his legs got tired and then he fell over.

For days, he tried to fly. He even collected feathers and stuck them to his wings to make them longer. But nothing worked. 

In the end he sat down and cried. The albatross felt sorry for him. ‘Why don’t you hop on my back and I’ll take you for a ride.’P 

The albatross dived and climbed and swooped and wheeled and soared. Royston was so scared, he just closed his eyes and hung on. ‘This is horrible!’ he whispered to himself.  ‘I’ll never try to fly again!’

Then the albatross turned quickly and Royston slipped off his back. He tumbled head over heels through the air. ‘Oh no!’ cried his mother, far, far below.

Then he splashed into the sea and sank down, deeper and deeper. ‘I’m going to drown!’ he thought. But then he flapped his little wings and suddenly he was shooting up again.

He dived and climbed and swooped and wheeled and soared.‘I’m flying UNDERWATER!’ he cried. (But only bubbles came out).

When he bobbed up on the surface again, the albatross smiled. ‘Even I couldn’t do that!’ he said. All the penguins were cheering. ‘Well done, son!’ cried his dad.

(Stories Copyright Andy Blackford 2020)

Two more tomorrow. Tell your chums.

Child’s play

Child’s play. A challenge for artists of all ages

I have friends in the world of poetry who will tell me that they ‘don’t like poems about pictures’. Sometimes I’m not sure what they mean. Does that include Auden’s Musée des beaux arts or UA Fanthorpe’s Woman ironing ? Probably not. In another life I sometimes dream I could have been a painter rather than a writer of poems. I love visual imagery, and all its complex apparent immediacy.

Which is why I’m going to take a bit of time out from writing about poetry, why I’ll share my abiding enthusiasm for picture story books, and then invite you to contribute to one.

For about ten years of my 40 in the teaching business, I was in teacher training, teaching would-be primary teachers how to teach literacy. Which self-evidently includes helping young children to see how books ‘work’. The bit I always liked best was the business of exploring how we can learn to read the subtexts of pictures, of illustrations, and the ways in which the very best don’t literally mimic the text (which is invariably the case in Enid Blyton books, and, indeed, in so many reading scheme books) but enhance it, comment on it, respond to it, and sometimes tell a slightly different story from the words.

Here’s what I mean. One of my absolute favourites of the last 30 years is I’ll take you Mrs Cole. It’s the story of a parental threat. Every child understands the dark and generally non-specific threat a desperate parent will make when the child is naughty. Let’s have a look at the first three images. The first two might be ignored by a reader because the first page proper is page three. (Ask yourself why an artist would go to the trouble of illustrating an end paper and a title page). Here we go

The first is the inside cover. 4.00pm. Kids coming out of school into a foggy evening. It’s cold (how do I know that?) Two of them seem to be a lot happier than the the one in the red top. Why?

The second is the title page. It’s 4.15pm. And he’s running. Why? How many stairs does he have to run up?

Finally, the third…and the first page of the story. It’s 4.30pm. We know he’s had 15 minutes to turn the living room into a fantasy. But we only see what his mum sees. She can only see a mess. She can’t see his face. But I think I can. Michael Foreman has done something remarkable with those eyeholes, simply by tilting them inwards. And here come the threat. I’ll take you to Mrs Cole. Which will escalate as the tale progresses. Wonderful.

Viewpoint’s important. At a crucial point in the story we start to see events as the child sees them…and so on.

OK. here’s another favourite. Jan Ormerod’s retelling of Chicken Licken. Anyone whose only experience of the story with their children is the dire Ladybird version will likely roll their eyes. But this is what a great illustrator can do to enrich a simple, repetitive tale.

Basically there are multiple narratives, and they each have their own subtext and backstory. 

First of all it’s the story of the performance of a primary school play .

Then there’s the traditional story which is retold in speech bubbles. The narrative’s told by a Narrator, in his top hat (my guess is that he’s the best reader and best behaved boy in Year 6) and the dialogue is performed by various characters. I like the costumes.

Then, of course, there’s the story of the audience. The parents, in silhouette. And one child.

Finally, there’s the tale of the baby in the moses basket who has just woken up and started to take an interest.

Each of these narratives is visually separated, and part of the fun is to find out how they might start to interact.

Happy so far? Here’s another one that deals in simultaneous parallel narratives. Dear Daddy by Philippe Dupasquier. 

    

Dad’s on a oiltanker, and once a month he sends a postcard (and, I think, a letter) to his daughter who writes back to him. Which means we get a calendar of changing seasons. Ask yourself why the artist took such pains over a bashed up car being towed away, and why it’s apparently of no interest to the child. What does dad write? What are mum and the neighbour talking about?

What about the artist and the characters in a story. Sometimes an illustrator’s imagined hero/heroine is, for me, the only imaginable one. Tenniel’s Alice, for instance. Or E H Shephard’s Mole from Wind in the Willows

Lots have tried but they always fall short of what seems like authenticity.  But for the purpose of this post, I’ll concentrate on the fact that illustrations can be expressive and apparently simple. Take the image of Mole, lost in the Wild Wood. It’s a heartbreaker. It works because he’s alone (that’s what the white space around him says) and very small. The trees are huge, and we are quite high up, looking down. Artful stuff. And it doesn’t have to be as obviously art-trained as Shepard’s. Quentin Blake does a really good job of pretending he isn’t

And also of showing transformation in time, like a medieval muralist. 

Some best-loved characters have been been made ‘simply’. David McKee’s Elmer, and the two monsters; the wonderful John Burningham’s Borka (the goose with no feathers…his take on the Ugly Duckling).

Before I get on to the real point of the post, just a word about book covers. They can kill a book stone dead, if you’re not careful. In the case of Mrs Cole, the original cover showed the hero looking dismayed at a mucky breakfast table as his mum sets off for work. A later one gave the whole game away by using a picture of a red-faced jolly Mrs Cole. Whose idea was that? Someone with no idea about how stories work, I guess.

Here are two I like a lot. I like the way Rosemary Wells suggests that Norah is the younger/youngest, her sister is ‘sensible’, her dad can only cope with one child at a time, and Norah is going to seek attention (by which we mean love) one way or another. The artist takes one moment from the story to make it stand for the story’s meaning. And will Norah find love….you need to read to find out. Harry’s Bee is also illustrated by the author. I like this one because while it’s not a scene from the story it’s clear that Harry’s Bee is out of the ordinary, that people stop in the street to point him out to each other. What’s the deal with this bee?  You need to read to find out.

And now we get to the point. I’m looking for illustrators of any age. Whether you’re looking for something for your locked-down children to get stuck into, or you fancy it yourself, here’s a collection of stories by my friend and poetry collaborator, Andy Blackford. It’s more than unlikely that this could end up as and actual book. We think it will stay as a webpage story. But what we’re inviting is book covers, title pages or moments from a story. Whatever catches your imagination. To kick it off I asked one illustrator, Kate Rolfe, to inspire you with two of hers. If you want to be involved and want more detail, (especially about the resolution I’ll need for the images) contact me at john.foggin.outlook.com and I’ll get back to you pretty well straight away. I’ll be accepting your illustrations until the end of August, and posting them as they come in. After the deadline, Andy Blackford will choose the ones he likes best, and they’ll then form part of the story text. Basically, we’ll be choosing the best overall book cover, a title page for each story and up to three images in the body of each story. So here we go with the first two stories, and I’ll post the rest two at a time so the post doesn’t get ridiculously unwieldy

Absurd Birds. 

by Andy Blackford, with illustrations by Kate Rolfe

(and others to be decided)

Contents

  • The Lostrich
  • The Humming Bird
  • The Magpie King
  • Royston wins his Wings
  • Rocky the Woodpecker
  • Shirley the Swan
  • The Best Nest Contest

THE LOSTRICH

Once upon a time, the Ostrich could fly.

But only just. 

One day, he took off from his home in Africa.

There was a great storm.  It blew the stars away and the moon got stuck in a tree.

The Ostrich was blown across the sea and half way around the world.

When the sun came up, the Ostrich was a Lostrich.  He had no idea where he was. He only knew it wasn’t home. The City was big and cold and dirty. There were no trees and no birds. 

He was chased by a huge yellow monster with sharp black teeth teeth. 

He was so scared, he busied his head in the sand.  It popped up in the middle of a desert. It was nicer than the big city. There were a few trees and a big animal with humps on its back. But it wasn’t home. 

So he pulled his head out of the sand and flew away. Soon he had left the City far behind him. Down below, he saw a huge green lawn with sand pits on it. He said to himself,  ‘This is more like it!’ 

So he landed on the lawn. He was just about to eat the lush, green grass when something small and hard and white nearly hit him on the head.  He was so scared, he buried his head in the sand. It popped up in the middle of a jungle. It was better than the desert. There were lots of trees and animals and birds. But it still wasn’t home.

So he pulled his head out of the sand and flew away as fast as he could. Down below, he could see the seaside. He landed on the beach. The children shouted at him and chased him. 

He was so scared, he buried his head in the sand. This time, it popped up in his favourite place in the whole world… home! 

With a loud squawk of joy, he wriggled through the hole in the sand. All his friends made a big fuss of him.

He said to himself, 

‘I’m not a Lostrich anymore! I’m an Ostrich, and that’s the way I’m going to stay. 

‘I shall never fly again.’

And he didn’t.

THE HUMMING BIRD

The people on The Island were choosing a bird to put on their stamps.

All the birds gathered in the jungle. They argued about who was the most beautiful. 

 One tiny bird sat on a branch and didn’t say anything.

‘They certainly won’t choose you!’ the rest of them told her. ‘You’re far too small. You’re not even a proper bird. You’re just a bug!’

And they all pointed at her and laughed until she flew away.

At first, the little bird was upset. But then she thought, ‘Right! If they think I’m a bug, then a bug is just what I’ll be!’

First she went to see the butterfly. ‘Please can you make me bright and beautiful like you?’ 

The butterfly painted her until she shone like a rainbow.

Next she went to see the spider. ‘Please can you show me how to make a nest like yours?’

And the spider showed her how to use spiders’ webs and moss to make a perfect little home.

Then she went to visit the bumble bee. ‘I’m fed up with eating worms,’ she said. ‘Please can you teach me how to drink from the flowers?’

And the bee showed her how to suck nectar from the flowers.

While she hovered by the flowers, her tiny wings made a humming noise, just like an insect. ‘From now on,’ she said, ‘this sound will be my song!’

The day came when the people had to make up their mind which bird to put on their stamps.

The birds all lined up while the people looked at each one in turn.There were tall birds, short birds, fat and thin birds, brown birds, yellow birds – even pink bird.    

Right at the end of the line hovered the smallest bird of all.

Straight away, the people fell in love with her. ‘She’s so pretty!’ they cried. ‘And just listen! She’s a humming bird!’

And from that day on, the humming bird’s picture has appeared on all the island’s stamps. 

[Copyright. Andy Blackford 2020]

About

Andy Blackford. has been a rock guitarist, a professional skateboarder, an extreme marathon runner, a biographer, and a diving instructor. He was a partner in a major advertising agency (creating the UmBongo advert, amongst other things. They drink it in the Congo) and has written at least twenty books for children, including titles in the Oxford reading Tree scheme. He co-authored a poetry collection with me. Gap Year [SPM Publications 2017] as the result of a yearlong collaboration after we met up again after a break of about 40 years.

Kate Rolfe Kate Rolfe is an illustrator based in Suffolk, UK. She is currently studying an MA in Children’s Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art, and has previously worked in graphics and textile design. You can find many of her latest creations at stripykite.etsy.com. Kate has a lifelong love for storytelling in all its forms, and is particularly passionate about picture books! See more of Kate’s work at katerolfe.com, and follow her at Instagram.com/katerolfeartand twitter.com/katerolfeart

The books: Publishing details. Some are a bit problematic, since they’ve been published by different houses over the years. Some are out of print, though available from Abe Books. And so on.

I’ll take you to Mrs Cole: Nigel Gray and Michael Foreman

(Picturemac. First publ. 1985)

Borka. : John Burningham. (Jonathan Cape. 1963)

Noisy Nora: Rosemary Wells v (Puffin . 2000)

Dear Daddy: Philippe Dupasquier (Anderson Press 2002)

The true story of Chicken Licken: Jan Ormerod

(Scholastic 1986)

Elmer the patchwork elephant : David McKee

(Anderson Press 1989)

Two monsters : David McKee (Anderson Press 2009)

The Twits: Roald Dahl (Jonathan Cape. 1980)

ps. During August I’ll also be writing about poetry, and poets, including Ian Parks, Jane Burn, Martin Zarrop, Steve Ely and Jenny Hockey.

Our David’s Birthday

Twenty eight years ago the whole family sat round a huge round table at a Chinese restaurant in Leeds, celebrating our David’s 21st birthday. A few weeks later he took his own life. None of us had the first idea how troubled he was.

I’ve chosen this photo, because here he is maybe two months after we adopted him. His brother and sister were entranced by him. We all were.

The thing is, you live imagining you have all the time in the world, until you don’t, and then it’s too late. Years after he died I wrote a poem for him; I thought about how my own Dad never told me any stories about his life, about his childhood, about who he was before he married, before I was born, and about how I never really knew him.

I wanted to tell our David the stories I failed to tell him, because, after all, I thought we had all the time in the world, or we didn’t have the time for it. And then it was too late. So here it is, a belated present for his 48th birthday.

.

I made this box,

ran lead, quick, in the veins of driftwood roots,

the silver grain of bleached board and the wind-eyes

of burnished beachstones – rose quartz, granite, flint, 

bound them with silver wire to honey oak, red pine,

and clenched them tight with sea-rust iron nails.

.

I made this box for you

.

I filled it with fragments, beachcombed 

sea glass, wisps of snagged wool.

I wanted you to know

the random loveliness of being alive,

to know it in your bones and blood.

.

I put in :

.

snow, to remember draughts

and rooms with cold corners;

.

a black handled knife, sharp as silk,

in a grey-vaulted market, the scent 

of cut flowers to show that fathers 

give like the gods; a bicycle stammering

through stems of barley, willowherb,

to understand that gravity may be defied;

.

the humped glass of a brown river,

black branches snagged on the weir’s rim;

.

these bundled letters in different hands 

and inks to show how words fall short of love.

.

I put in riddles:

.

silhouettes of mountains, oiled gun barrels,

a sheriff’s badge, a dust-blown street,

a child running in a drift of grasses,

a scrubbed deal table in a pitman’s house.

.

I wondered if you’d find the answers

or if I might understand the questions.

.

I did not want to put inside my box

your cold clay mouth

this pale oak chamfered cube

and my two hands holding it, all

I wanted was you holding my box

in a high place

where you could only fly, not fall

For my Dad on Fathers’ Day

I think this may be the only photo I have of my dad as the centre of attention, proposing a toast at the wedding of his brother Alec.

Like everyone else’s dad, especially men of his generation, he could have been so many things. He could have gone to Grammar School, but my gran couldn’t afford the uniform. He won a scholarship to go to art school, but it ran out after a year, and he had to leave. He was a rambler, a birdwatcher, a singer in the chapel choir. And for fifty years he was a woollen spinner.

In his heart, I think, he never accepted it; he bore it. He just got on. It never struck me at the time, but it does now, that he had no ‘best mates’. He was sociable, he was good company, but never had any close friends. It bothers me, quite unreasonably. It never seemed to bother him.

I’ve found myself writing about, and for, him more and more recently. For this Father’s Day, I thought I’d share the first poem I ever wrote for him, and the most recent.

Maestro

His hands cross-hatched as a chopping board

from breaking yarn- a million creels.

I think he dreamed moors and opera, in the mill;

his nails were horny, blue with old dark blood,

caught by flying shuttles in the humming  sleet

of shivering threads. Miming in the din,

the racket of machinery, the deafening beat

of spinning-mules, close air thick with lanolin.

Chapel  choir –  his tenor voice came reedy-light.

Round and ringing if he thought he was alone

with Jussi Bjorling on the gramophone,

the gathering wave of ‘None shall sleep’;

a duet to bring a dreamed La Scala to its feet,

his voice like a moorland wind, and rich as night.

.

The latest one was harder to write. My dad’s father, grandfather John, by all accounts, was not an affectionate man. My dad was, but he found it hard to show it, spontaneously. He wasn’t cold, or distant. But something in him was withheld. This is just to say, ‘I love you, Dad’.

What remains

.

How do you know that this is love? Is it

the moment that draws you in, the saving stitch?

One moment out of all the moments,

out of all the wrong notes, the missteps.

.

Because I thought he didn’t know the way of love,

didn’t know the tune, the words, 

they were what other people spoke,

they were borrowings, and he wasn’t one

to accept with grace, always on guard. But

.

he’d go out, not saying where, come back

and give his grandchildren each a Marathon.

He wasn’t a man to pick up a child

so a child could slip into his shape

as cats do. A silent gift of chocolate bars

was him articulating love.

.

What they remember of him, my children,

what they tell of him, is Marathons.

Remember when our granddad gave us Marathons?

What remains of us might just be love

but the story’s always Marathons.

.

A grating roar

“Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

From : Dover Beach. Matthew Arnold

.

I seem to have come to a point where I cannot watch any television news programmes, I switch off most radio news programmes, and fear for my spiritual well-being every time I visit Facebook. I am angry to the point when I am lashing out at friends who I cannot see or meet. As a ‘shielded’ person during the English catastrophe of a ‘lockdown’, I have only left our house twice in just short of three months. There is no action I can take against the people responsible, or to help those who they harm. Rage against the machine.

More reason, then, to remember as I try to do every year, one of those who would not be content with shouting into the void.

When people murmur in a mildly moralising way about peaceful protest, maybe they should stop and think about Emily Wilding Davison.

A militant suffragette, she was repeatedly arrested and imprisoned for breaking windows, setting fire to mail boxes, and on one occasion for attempting to horsewhip a clergyman who she mistook for Lloyd George.

She undertook repeated hunger strikes in prison, was forcibly fed 49 times, and attempted to kill herself in Holloway by leaping off a landing. She said after that she thought that her death might cause people to pay attention to the cause of women’s suffrage. On June 4 2013, Emily Wilding Davison travelled to Epsom, went to the racecourse on Derby Day, waited behind the railings at the bend to the final straight, and as the horses came round the bend, ducked under the rail, and walked in front of the king’s horse. On and off for 30 years I tried to find a way to write about it.

I think about images that have, one way or another, changed how we see the world, and maybe changed the world itself. The terrified villagers of My Lai in Vietnam, and the small girl stripped naked by napalm, her mouth a silent scream; a Buddhist monk in flames; a student holding up his arm against a tank. A white policeman kneeling on the neck of a black man until he dies.

I was staggered when I learned that the death of Emily Davison was filmed live by a Pathe news camera, and duly appeared in British cinemas. I had thought the stills I had seen were remarkably in-focus single camera shots. I could not understand their clarity. How could you do that with a plate camera? I wondered.

Camera obscura               

(Emily Wilding Davison. June 1913)

The reason for your being here

is out of sight. They can’t be seen –

your Cause’s colours sewn inside

your decent coat: white, violet, green.

.

The cameras sees the moment 

you began to die:

the jockey,  trim in silks, is doll-like

on the grass and seems asleep;

his mount is spraddled on its back;

its useless hooves flail at the sky.

.

Your spinning, flower-trimmed hat 

is stopped, distinct, mid-flight;

your hair’s still not come down;

you’re frozen, inches from the ground;

your boots are neatly buttoned,

take small steps on the  arrested air.

.

You’re stopped in time. No sound,

no texture, no sour odour

of bruised grass and earth. Just

silence and the alchemy of light.

.

How did you comprehend

the shock of heat, huge muscle, hair,

in that white moment

when the dark came down?

.

The camera cannot tell;.

it’s business neither truth nor lies.

It shows a fallen horse. A woman falling. A crowd

in hats and blazers staring down a long perspective;

the field intent upon the distant fairy icing 

grandstand. The waving flags. The finish line.

.

Until the image blurs, dissolves in silver flowers,

it’s there on celluloid in shades of grey;

the camera only says that in that instant     

you are dying, and everyone has looked away.

.

[Camera Obscura. first publ. in Larach . WardWoodPublishing 2014, and subsequently in The Forward Book of Poetry 2015]

.

Day after day we are bombarded by images that tell us about the ugliness that the world is capable of, and the arrogant ignorance of those who perpetrate it. We are all getting too good at looking away.

When this is all over: Day 15. Omega Day!!!!

To be honest, I’ve not been looking forward to today. Last post (in the series). But I promise you, it’s a good one. Like all the others. Thank you all for following.

X-rays are my life   (David White)

(the Radiologist)

.

When this is all over I shall shed tears of blackened silver

.

But then it’s not silver anymore 

So maybe I shall shed pixels

.

But it’s all pictures 

with beauty and sadness

Surprises and sameness 

A tree in bud 

A fissure found 

A neoplasm blossoming unexpected 

Like Breughel 

After plague  

No vague hope of vaccines just prayer 

His Triumph of death

.

And hope was less that tides could be turned and breath could be saved 

.

But also that crowns came with thorns

And redemption 

.

But Now

.

 Fluffy shadows on a screen

The puff and wheeze of air and spit and sweat and shit 

And tears over phones 

No hands to be held

Without plastic and masks

.

How will I leave those shadows behind?

.

A Xylophonist reflects (Rachel Davies)

When this is all over

and the C# Minor strains of the requiem’s

final movement dissolve and fade, 

when the world is open for business again 

and I’m free to go anywhere I choose 

.

I’ll choose to sit on the banks of the Congo

in the shade of a great mninga tree

eat nyembwe with saka saka

and let my instrument speak

to its ancestors, rediscover the peace 

of connection, hear the music of a warm 

breath of wind over its wingfruit, 

its coral wood. When this is all over, 

.

I want to discover a new normal 

away from the accelerando and allegro 

away from the march and symphony,

in the quiet hymnal of the forest, 

find the largo I fear I’ve lost.

.

.

Zaminder (Ruth Valentine)

.

When all this is over, said the zamindar,

the tenants will queue at my door to press their taxes

into my sapphire-ringed hands, along with gifts,

water-buffalo, rice, and from time to time

their most beautiful daughters.

I will of course decline

.

at first.  My ten per cent

will go towards building a bigger palace

with daring frescoes copied from Isfahan

in the private rooms, and peacocks in the gardens.

The Resident

will get off his high horse and bow to me.

I’ll requisition the horse.  I’ll organise

polo on the maidan, and champagne cocktails

afterwards on the verandah.  There’ll be none of this

insolence or elections or journalism.

.

Zamindar: in the Indian sub-continent, a landowner who collected taxes on behalf of the Mughal and later British ruler

.

The Zinc Plater (Wendy Pratt)

When this is all over

I will never clean again. 

 .

Dust will gather on the surfaces

in balls and motes the size of mice.

I’ll run my fingers through it; 

let the breeze release it like pollen.

 .

I will pickle only food: rough-skinned gherkins,

slick aubergines, the hard whites of onions.

 .

There will be no baths, no bathing. 

I will wash at the Belfast sink with water 

from my own well, water I heaved 

from the dank earth, water that stinks 

of moss and peat. I will swim 

in silt-clouded rivers and nothing 

will be rinsed away. 

 .

I will live by the light of gas lamps

or candles; the honeyed scent

of bee’s wax. There will be 

no electricity, for me. 

 .

My skin will be tanned mahogany

by red flakes falling from my corrugated roof, 

my boots will crust with it, my white linen

will blush with it.

 .

When this is all over, nothing 

will be smoothed to a mirror-shine

and no surface will be untrue to itself. 

.

Zookeeper (Maggie Reed)

after Eilean Ni Chuilleanain

.

When this is all over, said the zookeeper,

I’ll move to the North, where 

property is cheaper and they have hedges,

drystone walls – fewer fences or railings.

.

I’ll roam the Cumbrian fells, watch ravens

soar through the blue, pick heather,

stomp through the bog grasses, laugh

like a hyena at the full moon.

.

Listen, I can do this, learn how to let go,

run with the ants and spiders,

bounce with the bees.

I’ll follow my nose to the dark

.

corners (under stones, behind bark)

I’ll root out the undiscovered,

the unloved, place them in my heart,

beside the tiger, elephant, chimpanzee.

.

And here we are, at the very end . Whatever will I do with my time? Hang on…there’s the selection, then the announcements, the joy and the despair, the re-editing. Not the very end at all.

And in any case, I almost forgot that we started with a Prologue poem by Ian Parks, and we’ll end this leg of the journey with a stunning Epilogue ,a reflection on the ultimate when this is all over, from the endlessly prolific and multi-talented Jane Burn..

.

On the idea of leaving a part of myself wherever my ancestors lie

A piece of me left to the absent coal
and the village that failed above its death –
to Ireland, ringed by the sea’s aureole 
ever binding the secret of my kith.
A piece of me left to the scrapman’s cart
like a glint of tin in the gathered trash.
To Scotland and its beating selkie heart,
I will gift my changeling pelt of fired ash.
It will end with me, this birthright of scars.
The sky will carry my epitaph. Jane,
you did not rise up. You were not the stars.
here you were made and here you will remain.
Wherever my kin are cloistered beneath
I will lay my ghost like a coffin’s wreath. 

.

Falling leaves return to their roots : Chinese Proverb

When this is over : (Andy Blackford)

Nothing is ever over.

.

Events roll out of the night of the past

collide like snooker balls or Black Holes;

rebound and ricochet; altered, rumble on

to make their next encounter.

.

They leave us older, occasionally wiser.

But wisdom peels like wallpaper, otherwise

we’d all be hovering about as Archangels.

.

What we seem to learn least well is how we never learn.

For all the tears and fears, we opt to stay perpetual pupils,

truants on Double History day, wide-eyed and barefoot 

because sometimes, suffering and joy are inextricable 

and dangerous innocence is the price we pay for ecstasy. 

.

Last night, the Hubble Telescope was 30.

An aged astronaut talked us through a photograph

of Deep Time; a proto-galaxy hanging in the dark

a foetus in the womb of space, about to roll

out of the night of the past.

.

Nothing is ever

over.


When this is all over: Day 14…V is for Valetudinarian

With apologies to all the poets who were given a letter from the end of the alphabet to tinker with. It’s been a bit like reading round the class at school. Or, as it was in the unreformed 1950s when we all sat in alphabetical order.

By the time it’s your turn you’ve forgotten why you were in the queue .

Weaver

.

When all this is over, said the weaver,

I’ll weave you an Indian summer.

Jacquard curtains of forget-me-not blue,

green damask tablecloths spread with flowers.

I’ll plant rows of mulberry trees and breed

silk worms, weave satin and lace bridal gowns

.

instead of silk shrouds. When I’m free to see

the ancient barrows on the furrowed brow

I’ll listen for the song of Nightingales

in empty skies of bleached white cotton sheets.

.

Seeking the silenced voice as I unpick

lines from lips to find love among the ruins,

touch hidden words woven in tapestries

where wefts of truth cover a warp of lies.

.

When this is over

.

Nothing is ever over.

.

Events roll out of the night of the past

collide like snooker balls or Black Holes;

rebound and ricochet; altered, rumble on

to make their next encounter.

.

They leave us older, occasionally wiser.

But wisdom peels like wallpaper, otherwise

we’d all be hovering about as Archangels.

.

What we seem to learn least well is how we never learn.

For all the tears and fears, we opt to stay perpetual pupils,

truants on Double History day, wide-eyed and barefoot 

because sometimes, suffering and joy are inextricable 

and dangerous innocence is the price we pay for ecstasy. 

.

Last night, the Hubble Telescope was 30.

An aged astronaut talked us through a photograph

of Deep Time; a proto-galaxy hanging in the dark

a foetus in the womb of space, about to roll

out of the night of the past.

.

Nothing is ever

over.

.

Widow

.

When this is all over, said the widow,

I won’t sit with mandarins in my son’s fruit bowl

and chat while he counts potatoes. 

I won’t Zoom away from his kitchen

because my dandelion soup

starts pinging.

.

Nor will I tramp patterns into unmown grass

or bang drain-holes into a seized-up wheelbarrow.

I won’t clear the shed of broken umbrellas 

so I can train peas and beans 

up their spokes.

.

When this is all over, said the widow, I’ll sit down 

and scroll through Netflix. Read books about

derring-do on mountains. Tune in 

to Private Passions. 

.

I’ll live 

a vicarious life 

again.

.

Just one more day of X,Y and Z, and then they’re all off for judging.

When this is all over: Day 13

There’s light and shade in this collection. For some reason, U and V and W have brought some darkness along. But there’s hope by the end. And speaking of the end, no more poems until next Monday. Next week will see the final two posts in the sequence. What I’ll do with my life after that heaven only knows.

.

Undertaker (Tim Fellows)

.

There was only the faintest sound
of sobbing. It was cold that day,
as when Towton saw so many dead.
Soon, he hoped, when this is done,
things will return to as they were.
When he could deal with tumours, hearts
that stopped in shock. The mangled flesh
and bone, the aged
and those who chose to die.

.

They sat in separate pews, the broken
widow and the stoic son. No comfort,
no loving touch. An impotent priest.

.

This plague had come to his house,
the cross was on his door. 

.

The Veenboer: (Jack Faricy)

i.m. Andrew Weatherall

When this is over you’ll find me at the peat bog

with my cutter and spade and a gallon of beer.

I’ll have made short work of flaying the turf 

and raising a stack of slabs to be gathered.

You’ll want to hang back for the good stuff,

which means digging deeper into the moor

than has been dug before, but on my word,

though my back be breaking, I’ll not slacken

till I’ve extracted the richest, darkest nugget

you can imagine, and when it’s dried enough

I’ll tease out the fibres, pack them in my pipe,

pour us each a draught of sun-warmed beer

and you and I will partake of the mòine dhubh.

.

mòine dhubh – heavier and darker peats which lie deeper into the moor

.

Vulnerable Person (Lesley Merrin)

When all this is over I won’t be a vulnerable person

but, I’ll no longer sit in my she shed watching the robins feed

and begin to build their nest

or see the flash of the blue tit

flying into the hedges making way for the robin on the bird table.

.

When all this is over I won’t sit in my she shed in the evening

with a chilled glass of rose listening to the radio 

spilling jazz or classical music

feeling tranquil and serene, with the fairy lights

flickering on the lawn

making weird patterns with the shadows they create.

.

When this is all over, I won’t sit in my shed

and imagine I’ve been summoned 

by Gertrude to one of her soirees

along with Hemingway and Ezra To the Salon of Des Arts, 

and dream about the conversations we would have.

.

When all this is over I won’t get video calls 

from my grandchildren using silly apps to make me laugh

Or daily limericks which shows someone cares

.

When this is all over I might feel more vulnerable  

.

than I did before this lockdown.

.

Watchman (Laura Potts)

After Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

.

When all this is over, thought the watchman,

I shall take to my garden, where 

the light will be long as tomorrow

.

and the larks will not depart from me. 

I shall lay on my lawn, lord of the morning,

and shed my black self, my shadow.

.

My watchlights will fill with the glisten of wings, 

the tinkle of wrens on the terrace. 

My whiskers will lift on the lip of the wind

.

and I’ll swing to the stars from the trellis.

When all this is done, thought the watchman,

and I stand at the gate of the day, 

.

my garden will never know absence. 

The swallows and sparrows will stay. 

.

.

May your gardens never know absence. Have a lovely weekend. Stay safe, be well, go well xx