Of late I’ve been taking some comfort from the fact that Anthony Wilson has revived his poetry blog, and I look forward to each new post, partly because there’s sometimes a wistful quality about them that chimes with me for complex reasons I’ll not be sharing. His latest one struck a chord. Particularly because he’s writing not just about struggling to write poetry, but also with the idea of putting it ‘out there’. I’ll add the link in a moment but I just want to share this extract in which he ponders on the ins and outs of keeping away from ‘social media’ …. which he elected to do for the sake of his spiritual/mental well-being; I understand that, totally.
“On another level altogether, it (ie, this deliberate withdrawal) just feels lonely. I have been battering away at some stuff for a while now, which, thanks to the help of some very kind people, might one day see the light. Some of it is emerging, slowly and cautiously. But it still feels lonely. My instinct is to hide, both the poems and me. Yet out it must. I wish there was another way.
On the plus side, a huge advantage of following McLaverty’s advice is that it can insulate you from what Heaney describes so acutely in the ‘Singing School’s’ final poem, ‘Exposure’: ‘friends’/ Beautiful prismatic counselling/ And the anvil brains of some who hate me’; and ‘what is said behind-backs’. The poets I look up to, Kennelly and Heaney among them, seem to (have) be(en) able to navigate a path between the private and the social (in the fullest sense) which fulfils the obligations of each without cancelling the other out. I aspire to be among them.”
Anyway, while I, like Anthony, am tentatively working on new stuff that may or may not turn out to be the real deal, and while I am less and less confident about sending stuff ‘out there’, whether as submississions or competition entries, I’m re-engaging with new poetry from other folk. I can’t cope with writing appreciations of new collections every week…there’s a bucket list that I’ll deal with as and when. In the meantime, to keep the Cobweb ticking over, I’ll go on making do with stocking fillers. I think today’s suit my mood. And the first one lets me share my pleasure at encountering a new word. Haruspex. Did JKRowling pinch it as the name of a character at some point? If she didn’t she missed a trick.
Things could only get better. Or worse.
It was hard to tell. I was cleaning a mackerel.
Or maybe it was a chicken. Definitely
not a rabbit or a squid. But the light that fell
on the wet insides made a kind of pattern.
One of those like when you see the face of Jesus
in a muffin. Though it wasn’t that kind of pattern.
I mean, it wasn’t Jesus. It wasn’t a face at all.
It was more runic, I suppose. Though that’s not it.
Anyway, it was the strangest feeling.
One that says: something awful is about to happen.
Not instantly, but fairly soon.
It wasn’t a cataclysmic flood or purgatorial fire
or death of the firstborn sort of thing,
but it would be awful in a diffuse,
non-specific way. You know when
someone writes in a story about
a nameless dread. It was exactly that.
I thought perhaps I should tell someone,
but thought I might feel silly. So I didn’t.
And here’s another that was kicked off by a workshop prompt. I think I must have been reading Middlemarch , and, as usual, being much moved by the way Casaubon’s need to be remembered by posterity makes him blind to the fact that he’s essentially a sad failure in the here-and-now
When I come to write my memoirs
I shall hesitate over many things. Pens
for a start. Inks. Nibs. And paper. Lined or plain?
And a routine. A fixed time every day, like Trollope?
Stop after two hours, mid-sentence, regardless.
Or after two thousand words. Or as things dictate?
Middle of the night, esprit d’escalier. Perhaps
a dictaphone? Though transcription is a bore.
An amenuensis would be nice,
but who would you trust, and they’d want paying,
regular hours. Food and drink and board?
Who knows. Anyway, that’s out.
Notebooks, perhaps. But not Moleskines, in case
people notice, and ask if you’re a writer and then
tell you that they do a bit themselves
and wonder if you’d like to take a look,
and tell you how they’re fascinated
by Temperance, or the evolution of the urban bus.
And then, of course there’s the problem
of chronology. Alpha to omega? Or start
at the end, work back? Or in the middle?
How do you know where the middle is?
Will there be photographs? And the voice?
Wry? Authoritative? Detatched? Assertive?
Ironically diffident…like Esther Summerson
I have great difficulty beginning my portion of these pages.
A key theme that runs through Ruth Valentine’s latest collection is the idea of the shadow line, the one between the living and the dead, and between sea and sky, that utterly notional ‘horizon’ . I’ll come to the business of the sea later, but given the story of death and resurrection and the way this Grunewald altarpiece contains both like a conjuring trick, it’ll be nice to start with this tour de force .
To make water flow wherever it’s told, you need
a wooden box with four divining-rods,
a compass, several men with boots and shovels,
a pump to shift it by its own volition,
and me, Meister Mathis, hydraulic engineer,
clerk-of-works, model maker, stonemason,
also painter of many-hinged altar-pieces,
so men and women with St Anthony’s
sacred fire charring their blood and skin
stare and are healed. I work in tempera
I mix myself, with just a little oil
so the colour goes on clear, like a held note
on an angel’s trumpet: here it’s cinnabar,
red mercury. Jesus dies,
his whole weight hanging from his nailed-up hands,
blood from his head wounds; but when the fathers turn
the panels outward on feast-days, his linen shroud
flames in the up-draught of his resurrection.
I observe where I am, and paint: the leering faces,
green skin, festering lesions, how the sinful
imagine their souls. For the Last Supper,
I sit the ungainly tired apostles round
an oval table, in twos and threes, arguing,
and Christ the least of them, or the least human,
already half disincarnate. At the far end,
fingertips pressed together in explanation,
is my namesake, Mathis, Matthew the tax collector,
a clever man, used to working out the cost,
already glimpsing the next afternoon
when the sky will darken and the saints’ graves open.
It’s a poem that stopped me in my tracks, in much the same way as UAFanthorpe’s ‘Tyndale in Darkness’, because of its easy familiarity with the world of the drainage engineer/visionary painter, and also with his imagined dreams in what feels like a wholly authentic voice. Stunning.
You can read an earlier post about Ruth from 2017 via this link
Or you can jump straight in with this introduction:
Ruth Valentine has worked as an undertaker and as a celebrant at secular funerals. In Downpour she draws on her experiences to compose an extended meditation on dying and death, its emotional grammar and its painful but necessary rituals. Bleak and brave, serious and sad, Downpour is an unflinching study of the physical realities of dying
Ruth grew up in Sussex, but has lived most of her adult life in London. She has been a teacher, advice worker, voluntary sector manager and consultant. Currently, as well as writing, she conducts secular funerals. She began writing seriously at the age of forty. ……. In 2000, looking for a new direction in her writing, she enrolled on the MA Writing at Sheffield Hallam University. Her novel, The Jeweller’s Skin, was the somewhat unexpected result.
In her website (http://ruthvalentine.co.uk/index.php/about/) she writes. “I write poetry, novels and short stories, and non-fiction. You can find details here of my published work, and sample poems and extracts. Go to the poetry page for details of my latest books, Downpour and Rubaiyat for the Martyrs of Two Wars.
To this we can add A Grenfell Alphabet ., and now If you want thunder [Smokestack 2021]
And it’s this latest collection that I’ll be celebrating today.
The Smokestack publisher’s blurb will you that:
“Ruth Valentine’s tenth collection encompasses the tragedies of the public world – civil-wars in Syria and Sudan, knife crime in North London, the Iraq-Iran war – and our private griefs. At the heart of the book is an extraordinary alphabetical sequence about the Grenfell Tower dead and the society that allowed them to die. It’s a book about the morality of politics and the mortality of us all, a study in remembrance and forgetting, about the indifferent sea with its soft lullabies and cold temptations, time spreading its blankness over everything, and ‘busy humanity with its suitcases and phones, its sudden weeping…”
I enthused about and shared several of the Grenfell poems in my 2017 post, as well as a wonderful poem about Tolstoy and railway stations (which reappears in the latest collection). I want to concentrate, though, on the business of mortality which is never far away in this collection.
You’ll search Google in vain for detailed reviews of Ruth’s work….a fact which is both astonishing and inexplicable…..but I picked up a couple of comments that resonated in this portmanteau review via Happenstance. Here’s the link
and here, the comments which I wish I’d thought of first:
“Valentine is a very gifted poet. She has mastered the craft of starting a poem in a low key, almost conversational style, describing a past event, quietly dropping a single disconcerting word into the lines which unsettles but you’re not sure why. So you read on, and there are further hints, subtle, understated, but always pulling you towards an exploration of something you realise has universal importance—but by being brought there as a travelling companion of the poet, you discover it in parallel with the poem. It’s almost as if you’re walking around in the poem itself, seeing the whole landscape of it.”
“Ruth Valentine is able to reach across from the living to the dead, bridging that great divide in tender ordinary words.”
It’s the business of the living and the dead, and also of the divide between them which, in this new collection, seems to me to be symbolised by the transition from land to sea, and the sea in all its multifarious and drowning shapes.
In August I wrote in a post:
“I read a long time ago, that the Victorians (officially) couldn’t write about sex but wrote with amazing freedom about death, whereas, since the late 60s exactly the opposite has been the case.
I was brought up to distrust generalisations, but there’s an element of truth in there, isn’t there? I have a sense that we are much more uncomfortable with the physical facts of death and dying than much contemporary poetry acknowledges. It may be, of course, because we know so little about it. When each of my parents died, I wasn’t there, in the house, in the room, and both had been neatly removed before I was told, the whole business being managed and sanitised by the funeral business. That would have been unthinkable in a Victorian household. I have only seen two dead people. One was my son, coffined in a Funeral Director’s nicely lit room. The other was in a morgue where I went with my partner to identify another body. I’ve never been able to write about either moment, not properly. “
Which is why, I suppose, I’m so grateful for poets like Ruth Valentine, who can write about ‘these moments’, about living with the dying and considering the business of setting out to die. And who, I should add, can do it via utterly memorable/unfogettable moments that draw you in, like these
a poem, slipping in mildly off the broad
cobalt: goes into the furnace a black powder
and comes out radiant, butterfly, dragon, dolphin
The goddess of forgetting
is pale and very old, with long stained teeth
and, of course the constant reminders of the the sea and its mutability
What use to the world is water that thinks it’s stone
…sun covers the sea in silver-leaf
and the Icarus wind falls into the water
…sea…snatching a child of a cliff, and twirling him
in swaddling clothes of spindrift
As I said, I’ve chosen to concentrate on poems that place themselves where the sky is enormous and isolating and where the landscape inevitably ends in a shadow line like the numinous dividing ‘lines’ in Rothkos great canvasses.The collection is in six sections, or chapters, and each one contains a tidal river, or a sea shore, or saltings or estuaries reedbed and marsh and the dangerous unstable effulgent light off such places. As though you find yourself in a Turner that’s suddenly become live and cold and dangerous. This first poem is the opening poem of the first section, and and contains whole millennia of refugees
on the passage between the islands the boat was clutched
in the hands of drowned farmers, who pulled it down
into the wave’s ploughed furrows, bellowing
my carrots fresh from the earth? where are my oxen?
in the hands of drowned merchants with topaz rings,
fingers of fishermen clawing through the traps
of their lobster-pots
the wild boat shook them off
and headed out to the plain of cormorants
folding themselves like paper, plunging down
to the wrecks and the jetsam, all the jettisoned,
whoever steps awkwardly away from land,
unborn children venturing on an ocean
though grandmothers weep and the soldiers shrug and yawn
I found it next to impossible to clear my mind of the appalling image of the fleeing being dragged down by all that had gone before, drowned by the clawing hands of history. Who can tell if they escaped in that wild boat, or who may plunge down with the cormorants ‘folding themselves like paper‘ into the detritus of the jettisoned and abandoned and wrecked.
I’ll stay with the business of water and of drowning in the three poem sequence that ends Section 2. I’ll remind myself of what one reviewer wrote about the way that
Ruth Valentine has mastered the craft of starting a poem in a low key, almost conversational style, describing a past event, quietly dropping a single disconcerting word into the lines which unsettles but you’re not sure why. So you read on.
The Inshore Waters
all water inland silent do not disturb
the shoremen at their hedging and ditching dreams
you could drown in this stuff lingeringly a dancer
past the leap of his youth your port-de-bras superb
the staithe then the river channels across the marsh
basalt molten but cold all unmet depth
paralysed motion weedless no pulse no splash
as if it were flowing backward as if the waves
might thicken and surge between the reeds upstream
the low pale sun catch a silky flash of green
on the throat of a breaker before it broke you’ve seen
just such a choker glint at a beach and gone
What use to the world is water that thinks it’s stone?
When you choose to drown
you’ll have to get into a rowing-boat and make
oar-scars on the polished surface. You’re facing back
to the staithe you left, willows and reeds. It’s miles
to the sea from here. You’re flagging. You pull the sculls
across your thighs, rest, float; but the water wants
to haul you in to the bank. Far off, in front
(if you turn your head) there’s a bit of sheen in the sky,
a taste of salt to the cloudscape, so you try
again for the open ocean. A starting swell
rocks your coffin-cradle. Keep going. You’ll do well
to reach the sea before sunset, but the dark’s
just as good to drown in. That isn’t a meadow-lark
or a seagull crying, it’s you as you smell the tide,
as you hear the scrape of the shingle. Now, decide:
do you sit in your boat till it’s toppled, or pull in
to the riverbank, step out to the sea wind
and the sky, the breakwaters, the flying spindrift –
if it ever was stone – fire-opal and amethyst.
A breaker rises and roars at you. Safe at last,
you pour down its throat.
You won’t do it of course, walk into the sea and drown.
More likely a bout of asthma, a derailed train.
Though if one day it comes to it, the cancer back,
some antibiotic-resistant inward muck,
you’d do something to finish, you hope. Not a rowing-boat:
you’ve never learned to row anyway. No note
to whoever was going to find you in your bed
or more likely, sprawled on the kitchen floor. So you could
buy a one-way ticket down to some drab resort,
walk into the waves. Get a tide-table first,
you don’t want to be striding out across the sand,
the water knee-high for miles; you might change your mind,
which isn’t the point. Or is it? But are you brave,
could you keep on walking deeper until the waves
felled you and held you under? You’d hold your breath
as it spun you below the surface. It seems that death
may not come when you call. Or you have to yell
again, at the top of your lungs, before they fill.
What I like so much about this sequence, apart from the unnerving way the three poems address the unthinkable, is their versatility. The first announces itself very frankly as a poem, happily parading its technique in much the same way a a wave breaks over a rock and runs back on itself and reforms. DHLawrence wrote a praise poem for that, didn’t he. But the next two seem so easily conversational, unnervingly, apparently prosaically and rationally discussing (or advising on) the likelihood of attempted suicide by water going right or wrong, that it’s easy to overlook the craft of it all. It’s so easy to not notice that they are both sequences of rhyming couplets. When you do and go back, the music of full and half rhymes seems obvious. I love it.
I did say that I’d concentrate on the shadow line poems. There’s so much more (not least, the Grenfell Alphabet in full, as well as a remarkable poem sequence Cobalt, about the dying of a friend) but you’ll need to go and buy the book. I really think you should. For a taste of the range you can expect, though, I’ll finish with one that’s darkly, wickedly funny. The Notes at the end explain that for Valentine’s (Who else?) Day 2016 Bic relaunched its pink ballpoint pen ” designed specially to fit the hands of the ladies”.
I’m pretty sure that the last bit is Ruth’s take on it, which is whyI’ve put it in inverted commas.
Sonnet Written With a Pink Pen
My tiny hand is frozen, having cleaned
mould out of the fridge. I’ve scoured the loo,
made chicken soup, altered a pair of jeans,
addressed a meeting. It’s what women do.
I’ve dressed a dead man in his football shirt
and laid him in his coffin; known the stench
we all may melt to; comforted the hurt
partners and enemies. I didn’t flinch,
or not in public. For thirty years I’ve written
poems of death and exile, sex and grief,
Pinochet, Kosovo, London riots, love.
Now that I’ve got this pen, though, I can prove
my feminine vocation: violets, kittens,
cupcakes and curls. Imagine my relief.
Thank you, Ruth Valentine for sharing so many of your poems. It was a joy to have you back as a guest.
And now, the rest of you will want details of the book you will surely buy before the day be out. Here you are.
Well here we are, on an unfeasibly sunny day in October when the stuff in the planters can’t work out whether to put out more blossom or just curl up and die, and the country in its sleep of reason is out in force, unmasked and undistanced.
We went up to the cinema complex in Birstall this lunchtime, determined to overcome our suspicions and nervousness about Out There (where There Be Tygers, and the world’s winds puff their cheeks from the corners of the map). We have been in no enclosed public spaces for at least 18 months, and it makes you timid. Cautious, anyway. Neverthless, we want to see James Bond on a big screen, and we went to check out the seating and booking arrangements for a showing at 10.15am next Tuesday, when it’s plain we will not be jostled by crowds.
Which is just as well since there were queues of cars happily burning fuel as they waited to get through the DriveThru Macdonalds; Nando’s car park was rammed as was every other fast food joint. Goodness knows what it was like in IKEA. No one…or hardly anyone, was masked. Everywhere seemed happily oblivious to the parlous state we’re in. It was unnerving.
I’ll tell you how serious the state of England is. You can’t find anywhere with Auntie Bessie’s Giant Yorkshire Puddings in stock. I remember the dismay when, some years ago, there was a fire at Auntie B’s factory in Brid, and there were no giant Yorkshires to be had for months. I remember the joy when they came back.
I guess this put me in a nostalgic frame of mind…you know the kind of thing. We didn’t have two pennies to rub together but we were happy. That kind of nonsense.
So I’ve been trawling the stand-ups and the stocking fillers for something that fit the mood, and came up with these.
In the early 60s you could effectively get a job just about anywhere simply by knocking on the office door and asking. I’m not talking about salaried work. I’m talking about the kinds of jobs that someone has to do, the ones that Tory politicians call ‘low-skilled’ and have never themselves tried to do. Most folk of my generation have done them if they were students. “Holiday jobs’. I worked in a biscuit factory, a woollen warehouse, delivering Christmas post; I picked potatoes….The latter was the only one that would now be called a zero-hours one. The thing was, you didn’t get paid lots, but you did get paid. Everyone who’s done temporary jobs as a student has her/his own stories. Here’s two of mine.
The first is set in 1964. Eventually it was published in the first issue of Strix, and was used in an exhibition in Leeds celebrating the experience of work and immigration. But originally, it was just an anecdotal poem for open mics.
There’s jobs I’d rather forget like the biscuit-tin steamer at the biscuit factory and the paint factory machine that clamped lids onto tins of bright blue hot enamel and the drums of acetone that melted sacks of cotton and working with the engineer from Pakistan and the doctor and the tailor and the rest who lived in one small terrace house where the beds were never cool who came to work to work and nothing else these men who kept to themselves or were made to keep to themselves because in those days I didn’t know which was which but anyway would rather miss the break not just because it’s in a lavatory open to the sky and because they don’t understand this fifteen minutes in the smell of piss and cigarettes is sacrosanct because they only want to keep on running pieces through their big machines that turn miles of polyester stuff into something with a nap and tumble it to a semblance of a leopardskin for steering wheels and the seats of Triumph Heralds and Cortinas but any way they’d rather stand in cleaner air and wonder how soon they can get back to work and crank the pieces out piecework being the system and the point because they don’t smoke and they send every penny back to Pakistan because one day their children will own taxicabs and chipshops barbers kebab houses small garages off-licenses that never shut and one day they will build mosques with golden domes and the men I have to work with don’t like work and the one I’m partnered with comes late every morning because he doesn’t have a family in Pakistan waiting on the next instalment for a ticket on a plane and neither do I but I need to work and turn the pieces out but I’m not let to start the machine till he clocks in and I don’t want to have to watch him have his breakfast which is always in his jacket pocket and always is a battered fish he bought the night before on his way home from the Institute and he swears it’s better the next morning and swears the smell of curry makes him sick.
The second is set in the following summer of 1965. The Silver Paint and Laquer Company was the creation of Leslie Silver who went on to become Chairman of Leeds United and be awarded an OBE, but in this incarnation, his factory was a fire hazard, and after three weeks I was the longest-serving person in the place apart from the permanent staff like the chemist, the drivers, the engineers and the folk in the office. For younger readers, Queen Salote of Tonga was the smash hit of the Coronation procession in 1953. She had a ball
A temporary post
In those days you could walk down Bradford Road and get a job with anyone
just for the asking, like the one I had working on a machine that turned printed
polyester fabric into fakefur leopardskin for the steering wheels of Triumph Heralds
and Cortinas but that was nothing in the light of the Silver Paint and Laquer plant
in Burnley’s old mill buildings where everything was a flat affront to Health and Safety
where the extractor fans were always breaking down and where I spent one summer’s
afternoon pouring drums of acetone and bales of cotton pellets into a paint mill making
white enamel without any ventilation, the day I rode home and up the wrong street on
my Lambretta and tried to get into someone else’s house, and after two days off
sick I got shifted into filling tins, like the rush job for Queen Salote’s palace, and I
hope it got there quickly because she died five months later, but mainly I remember
the bright blue gloss that came still hot from the paintmills and melted all the shellac
seals of the tins I poured it in and lidded. It was cerulean. That kind of blue. I’ve recently
been told off for using it in a poem. If you know a better word than bright, I’ll gladly use it.
Well, that was a more than a tad self-indulgent. But next week proper service will be resumed, and I’ll be sharing my enthusiasm for a poet whose work never fails to move and excite. See you then.
No more “Catching Up “ posts. Phew. There are at least four new collections/pamphlets staring at me from the shelf above my Mac screen, and they’re all demanding that I write about them.But I’ll take my time, and raise no false hopes about when and how.
I’m planning to recharge my batteries. That’s the priority. Chemo knocked me for six; I wasn’t prepared for that. But I’ve started going for walks again. The first one was a shock to the system inasmuch as I only managed a mile of easy walking; but in the last couple of weeks, egged on by my partner, it’s getting to be 4 or 5 Km, and the target is to be doing it every day until it’s no longer painful.
And this brings me to stocking fillers. I’ve been posting on Facebook about being introduced to the remarkable variety of field paths that start pretty well at my front door, and which I was almost totally unaware of until a couple of weeks ago.
There’s one that starts when the road I live on becomes a bridle path, and then a field path that eventually links to a path that leads you over the River Calder, under a railway line, and finally to the canal, beside which you can (if you want) walk for miles and miles. I’m no fan of towpath walks, mainly because no matter how far you walk you still seem to be in the same place. But I knew the path…and thought that it was the only one. It’s a popular path, part of the Kirklees Footpaths system, and for 30+ years I’ve been aware of groups of walkers passing our front window. To my shame I wrote a stocking-filler about what I thought was their being kitted out as if for hard walking in the Cairngorms, as opposed to having just come a quarter of a mile from the town centre. I poked fun at their Goretex, the OS maps slung in pastic wallets dangling round their necks, their Brasher boots, their air of being on a risky expedition.
Today I went for a walk in the sun, and I had boots on. And I had two walking poles. I beg absolution
However. Stocking-filler time. For the anniversary of 9/11 I posted a poem on Facebook about the memory of where I was at the time the first plane was flown into the Twin Towers.
Out of the blue
The Inter-City comes into Wakefield
on a curving viaduct of ten great arches,
built by men who mainly could not read or write,
who worked with picks and shovels, barrows,
hods, and rope and block and tackle.
Wonders, remarkable as pyramids, that endure
like great cathedrals, that no one notices.
Under the arches, small businesses spring up:
builders’ merchants, body shops, scrap yards,
and Cesar’s Ceramics where we went one day
to buy tiles of a particular shade of blue,
when Capitol Radio cut into Erasure’s
Blue Savannah with a news flash that a plane
had crashed into one of the Twin Towers.
As we drove home with our boxes of blue tiles,
a second plane crashed into the second tower.
For hours after we got in, we watched
the images repeat. Small glittering planes
in a cerulean sky, the smoke, the dust, the dark.
To my considerable surprise, it sparked a long thread of comments in response to one that took me to task for the use of ‘cerulean’ …..a word I suppose I took for granted. Anyway, I watched the arguments unfold about words that should be at all costs avoided in poetry.
There’s a myth that Peter Sansom of the Poetry Business proscribed the use of the word ‘shard’. Being one of those who believe that the only rule in art of any kind is that there are no rules beyond asking: does this work?, I was intrigued to see that ‘cerulean’ could well go the way of ‘shard’. Which reminded me that I wrote a defence of ‘shard’ and all things shard-y after spending a very hot afternoon in Alicante scrambling up steep shaly slopes looking for fragments of Iberian pottery. Shards, in fact.
From Mare Nostrum’s Anatolian shore,
ten leagues distant, ‘midst arid, jagged
mountains, eagle-haunted airie heights,
there stands a tow’ring cliff of golden stone.
If to its rocky foot, with faltering steps
the dauntless Traveller would ascend
by goat path tortuous, through brittle thorn,
and bitter dust, as ‘twere of dead sea fruit,
blooded,dwarfed below that precipice dire,
beneath his feet appear, among the roots
of juniper and ericacae desiccate,
fragments of the ancient potter’s art…
broken amphorae, rough bowls and goblets
that, for two millenia lay spurned
by hoof of goat, scorched by tropic suns,
blown at every wind’s caprice, unheeded
even as great Empires rose in pride,then fell.
O! shattered reliques of an Ancient Race!
And say, how should the Traveller, besmeared
with toil, and foul with cloying dust and blood
Apostrophize a single Piece of all this Multitude?
Two thousand years it’s lain in dust
on a thorny hill, this broken pot,
waiting, patiently, for that mot juste
from all the lexicon of crock that poets have got
not fragment, splinter, scrap or shiver,
remnant, or chunk, or flake, or sliver.
Dismiss all injunctions laid upon the bard.
Sometimes only one word will do.
So, Take up your pen and write it: shard
More stocking fillers next week. Or perhaps an appreciation of a collection that’s snagged my attention and won’t let go. Who can say?
Here we are at last. Thought we’d never get here. Except we haven’t even started, not by a long chalk. I’m thinking of those pioneering Himalayan climbers who took months just to get to the foot of Everest, and essentially they still hadn’t started the job they came to do. Here I am at last, and still scrambling around, looking for a likely line. Daunted. Because Martin Malone’s The Unrerturning is a hefty piece of work, a
sequence of merciless hymns to our cultural obsession with the First World War …an effort
to create meaningful acts of witness for ‘a nation/with so many memorials/but no memory..
a collection of great ambition and originality [Peter Robinson]
As PW Bridgman says in his London Grip Review
it is widespread failures and (inescapably) distortions of historical memory that are Malone’s central concern…..
with a conjured mythology about war [I would say THIS war, in particular]..a false record that has been cultivated
and propagated to serve certain political ends
The more I’ve chewed this over, the more I’ve come to think that I need to put the whole business of assertions about ‘conjured mythologies’ in some kind of context. Because there are lots of them, and many are mutually exclusive. After all, there were more than 16 million dead — armed forces and civilians.
Let’s play a game of association, bearing in mind that we’re already primed to be thinking of WW1 poetry and poets. If you think of the First World War, what images come to mind? Would they, perhaps, be like mine.. a silhouette of a procession of gas-blinded men? miles of mud, barbed wire? artillery men trying to drag a floundering horse out of a crater?
If you had to choose just a single image, would it be a poppy?
Like this one, for instance, which featured in the Yorkshire Post this week. It’s certified to have been plucked from the battlefield in 1916 by the brother of one killed there in action
“The dried poppy – described as “one of the most poignant symbols of brotherly love ever seen” – was plucked in memory of Private James Henry Lester. It’s up for auction amongst a collection of WW1 memorabilia, and expected to raise in excess of £1000; the family owners hope
“that a museum may purchase the items and put them on public display, a permanent reminder of the sacrifices made by an entire generation.”
After all, we’re concerned with ‘conjured mythologies’. Which is the concern at the heart of Martin Malone’s collection.
When you’re asked to think of WW1, is your default image one of Flanders Fields? If you like, it’s easy to argue that our collective ‘memory’ has edited the World out of World War.
For instance, if I ask you to think of a battle, I think the odds are that it’ll be The Somme, or Ypres. Something like that. But if you were French, it might be Verdun, or the Ardennes; if you were Italian, it might be Isonzo. For Russians, Tannenberg, for Romanians, Bucharest.
Like I said, Flanders is probably your default …not Macedonia, or Sinai and Palestine, or Egypt, or the Congo, or Mesapotamia/Iraq, or the Dardenelles where Attlee was the penultimate man of the beach in covering the retreat from Suvla Bay.
And if you’re like me, you probably didn’t think of naval warfare at all….Jutland, The Falklands. In truth, there were few naval engagements, which is ironic, especially for those mythologists who still sing Rule Britannia(Britannia rule the waves). Navies were mainly engaged in blockading enemy ports in an effort to starve them into defeat. And so on.
Our collective memories and myths shrink the world.
Here’s another thing. If I ask you to name the first bit of WW1 writing that comes to mind what’s the odds that it’ll be a poem? A bit of Wilfred Owen? A bit of Rupert Brooke? Isaac Rosenberg? Edward Thomas? August Stramm?
How many of you thought first of memoir (Vera Britten? Robert Graves?)
Or novels…All quiet on the Western Front ? (Eric Remarque’s book was burned by the nazis). Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy ? Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914?
And if we’re thinking of image making, how about film? Paths of Glory ? Oh what a lovely war ? Peter Weir’s Gallipoli.
The scale, both spatial and temporal, is clearly beyond daunting. Martin is quite clear about this in various interviews he’s given about The Unreturning, and about his more recent Selected Poems. A couple of extracts will make the point:
“The Unreturning …… was a subject given/ gifted me on the basis of funding for my Sheffield PhD. My main challenge was to say something new about [the poetry of WW1] from the perspective of its centenary.
Both academic research and my creative practice did, indeed, look to poets like Thomas and Isaac Rosenberg, however, as well as the even more obvious ones. For the Ghosts of the Vortex sequence, my purpose was to seek out some of the lost, or lesser-known, narratives of the conflict and convey a sense of its global dimensions and legacies: hence poems like ‘Ansky’s Lament’, ‘Legacies’, ‘The 1st Women’s Battalion of Death’, ‘Nostos’ and ‘The Turnip Winter’. German Great War poetry is, in many ways, more interesting than the British stuff – certainly, it often feels more modern and experimental – though it’s an all-but-lost canon. So, I wanted to be a bit more 360° than is often the case with UK writing about the war.”
“The complicating factor in a project such as this is the pervasive nature of the Great War’s literary legacy. Already the most poetically memorialized conflict since Troy, its writers provide the urtext to our collective sensibility of much subsequent warfare, while its historical stature as global event represents something of a dragon lying across the threshold to our under- standing of the modern world
Catherine Reilly’s estimation that, in Britain alone, there were 2225 published poets of the Great War (1978) is a formidable enough legacy, further deepened by the remarkably privileged position enjoyed in UK culture by that small body of poets who have since emerged as representatives of its core canon [my italics]: poets such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke, Laurence Binyon and John McCrae, all of whom are studied widely in schools or habitually appear in Remembrance Day ceremonies. “
What he sets out to do is to provide some sort of perspective on the failures and distortions of historical memory, both about the war itself, about the ‘truth’ or otherwise of its poetry, and what he sees as conjured mythologies, the ‘trench honesties’ occluded by ‘one century/ and the paradigms of myth’. And when you consider the ‘truth’ of the poetry, it’s as well to remember that this war was unprecedented, mechanised, industrialised. There was no language ready made to account for it. Which brings us to Martin Malone’s poems, and particularly at this point, an extract from one about Wilfred Owen at the time of his recuperation after Craiglockhart.
They were dying again at Beaumont Hamel
as you stroll Borage Lane,
three days after your twenty-fifth birthday,
mind yet cobbled with skulls of the lads you left behind…
At number seven, you unlatch the gate,
take out a key and stroll up to the white front door.
Searching for peace, you retreat to the attic with its tiny skylight,
the shrieks of children playing soldiers down the street.
Here you are Chatterton and Keats,
half in love with death’s idea
while making best use of its dutiful shadow.
You write your mother, go over old drafts,
‘defectuosities’, and ‘the inwardness of war’.
Briefly, you pause to listen to swallows skirruping their early return,
then back to your notes, strike-throughs,
séance and retrospection,
another time-strafed Edwardian
caught out in the open with defective kit…
(from “Ripon Work”)
It’s the last two lines I find particularly poignant; Edwardian poetry, with its roots in lyrical Romanticism, simply wasn’t set up to deal with the horrors of trench warfare, particularly if your mind was
cobbled with skulls of the lads you left behind…
It’s Martin’s concern with the disjunction between the limits of language at any given time, and the actual experience it’s trying to realise that colours the whole collection, which, as one reviewer pointed out, and as the book’s jacket copy correctly declares, is in effect a “Great War diptych in which the later dissenting voices… parley with [war poetry’s] more traditional elegiac forms.”
So, set this poem from the second part (The Unreturning) against Ripon Work, and you’ll get a sense of the way it works
41. War Poet
Beneath this creeping barrage squats our chap, in his breast pocket the scribbled draft that sets off a vintage look: hapless subaltern, sick with sin, chewing pencil and pity onto notepaper doomed to be found upon a mud-matted corpse. En route to legend, Herr Krupp’s handiwork tears its messy path through temporal, parietal and the red wet thing of a line-break. Let us rest here a while then dig down to the destruction layer where we find change come suddenly and everywhere, and everywhere the final week of this poets’ war: Boudicca’s wrath, shock and awe, the stratified earth of charred words pulling free of decorum.
“The first half of the diptych (collectively, “Ghosts in the Vortex”) does indeed consist of poems, mostly written in free verse, which are conventionally presented and employ language and diction that beautifully reflects Martin’s own earlier absorption in poets like Edward Thomas, and the landscapes of, say Eric Ravillious. The second half, by contrast, comes to us in prose poetry form and speaks in a conspicuously more modern voice. The prose poems look back at some of the content of the first half, offering an often acerbic, but nevertheless lyrical, commentary on real truths as they have sometimes been refracted though systematically distorted lenses. (PWBridgman in London Grip).
Some of the poems made me consider the disparate backgrounds of those who fought, especially before conscription. There were the Pals Regiments who could not initially be supplied with unforms, and who were subsequently decimated; there were those who were rejected because of the effects of malnutrition. Later, of course, the need for men to fill their places became acute, and thus were formed the Bantam Regiments of men below 5’3”…the Jewish East-ender Isaac Rosenberg was one of them. There were those conflicted, like Owen and Edward Thomas who enlisted later in the war, And there were the enthusiasts, the beautiful, blue-eyed bourgeouis boys like Rupert Brooke and Julian Grenfell.
Martin’s momentarily unsparing of Julian Grenfell and his “Krupp-made end”.
Warm with late spring, in a field near Ypres,
you were never happier than on this big picnic,
chatting with the General when that shell struck
He can just as easily borrow some of the acerbity of Sassoon when dealing with others, like Sassoon himself, and Robert Graves, who bought their own superior gear from the Army and Navy stores)
Yes, how we hate you, you cheerful young men with your tinned kippers and today’s Daily Mail; the periscope from Harrods, the warm new boots.
There’s one poem in part two of the diptych that savages the literal business of the memorabilia of wars, and it illustrates for me the to-and-fro of reverberation between the two parts. I like way the distinctively modern dialect throws a light on Sassoon’s use of his demotic. I like the savagery of it.
Buy it now for two-seven-five, condition as shown in photo, too well-made to be repro, the kosher stuff of a lost patrol. As metaphors got real and euphemism ugly, the Aldershot Design lugged its rough rigging onto the dog-tired shoulders of our line. And, if you’re browsing for archetype, for “how it really was”, then scroll no further than this, one belt; two braces; bayonet frog; pouches for ammo; one haversack; valise with two straps and carriers for the head and helve of an E-tool. This was our hyperlink, a one-piece jacket for the universal soldier: Dai’s Greatcoat, Hotspur’s mail, John Ball’s frayed thread for the fucked-up Grail of Mametz Wood. Epic failure/ epic fail
Equally, Martin Malone can write with a deft lyricism that conjures the literary/poetic world of the age.
As though nothing happens
our hemisphere shoulders the sun,
the hill asleep on its trove of peat,
the sea is soaked in light.
In the days before Johnsmas
we bear fuel to the sgùrr,
our own brief blaze stoked
in its hours and seasons
by the darkness and the light.
I love the completeness of this, its precision (its echoes of MacCaig, too), and not least for the way it sits alongside much bleaker, more deliberately disturbing poems, like the one about the artist Kokoscha, shot in the head and wounded in the lung, left for dead on the Russian front, and later declared insane by his hospital doctor.
KNIGHT ERRANT, 1915
A spitted dragoon
prone in pike-grey,
Oskar Kokoschka considers his fate
and wonders if you can paint a premonition
or, in the war of endless coincidence,
is this just another incident
bereft of the brush
to anoint its meaning?
As March canvass turns
August into wounds,
his lung swabs blood
from the jag of Russian bayonet
and things begin to swim,
heading out towards allegory
and revenant self-portrait:
Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?
He floats above himself as seraphim,
notes a passing influence of Grünewald
and the Northern Renaissance,
while Mahler’s widow looks on,
sphinx-like, close attendant
to his ever-present grief
and the narrow horizontal
of a stricken son of man.
I like the way that this reminds me that painters were way ahead of poets when it came to the profound disorientations of this war (and possibly everything else throught history). I like the way it takes the reader away from the provincialism of English war poetry, I like the widening perspective. And I realise, belatedly that it chimes with an image(the pikelhaube snout) in one of the prose poems from the second half of the diptych (The Unreturning).
10. School Run
If you’ve a minute, tweet this: the car-struck badger you’ve driven past these last two weeks, pikelhaube snout irate in death, body bloating with fetid air, hind-legs rigid in surrender. Kamerad, emptied of essence, this is the boy from your home village; that snotty kid with a terrier whose Dad liked a drink, the one who pissed himself when Miss Manning caught him with a rat in his desk. Him: always the last to put up his hand, always unlucky in love. His losing streak continued over here and now that’s him rotting away to your left, hung on the brambles of a B-Road: a passing stain in no man’s land, fuel for the coming spring. He’ll walk no more on Cotswold.
I realised a long long time ago I’d not do justice to the complexities and variety of this collection– lyrical, satitirical, rhetorical, polemical, extensively researched, and technically accomplished. Put all that together and you realise that it doesn’t add up to something you might recognize as currently fashionable. But do go and buy it. You’ll not be disappointed and you’ll certainly be educated. And you can dream that Michael Gove and his satraps could be forced to learn this poem by heart.
Thank you for your neo-concern
that we grasp the full facts
of this complicated matter;
for sending out, once again,
the officer class to explain
the subtle difference between
Blackadder and the nation’s history,
the one being truth the other comedy;
for pointing out our parents’ mistake
in taking Oh What A Lovely War!
to be anything but a sixties musical
and not how it really was. Thank you
for assuming our poetry stops at Owen;
for sending out the privately-educated
to explain that confusion in the ranks
between your national story
and literature’s false history,
as if, not royal families, but poetry
tips men into war graves.
Saxe-Coburg, be advised, your poppy
is not mine.
I’m grateful to you for letting me hear
Paxman attempt the phrase wor canny bairns.
And I do appreciate your engagement
with those events which legitimise
the contemporary state of affairs,
or, as you put it on a recent visit
to a sink school, make pride cool again.
I appreciate, as you say, the need
to understand the popular thinking
of the day; how words you are trying
to re-claim meant something real
to my grandfather right up to that morning
the Liverpool Regiment came unstuck
at Hermies, on the road to Cambrai.
As if history can make some
long term sense of the losses
and every lesson to be learned
is, once more, yours.
Martin Malone, thanks for your patience, and for your generous sharing of so many poems from The Unreturning.
ps. I’ll finish with one last thought. I’ve read a lot of reviews of the book and transcripts of interviews that Martin has given as well as articles he’s written. Sometimes, Google sends you down unexpected pathways. I came across the deeply depressing world of Poetry Notes and Analyses….the virtual world’s Cole’s Notes. Amongst other things I learned that there is no kind of filter. You’d be astonished to find that it’s commonly assumed by all sorts of writers, and even some reviewers, that Wilfred Owen’s poem The unreturning isa War Poem. The first two stanzas certainly sound as if they may be
In fact, it was written between 1912 and 1913, and it’s about a crisis of theological and doctrinal doubt. It has more affinity with the Dark Sonnets of GM Hopkins than with war poetry. There you go.
Martin Malone lives in north-east Scotland.
He has published 3 poetry collections: The Waiting Hillside (Templar, 2011),
Cur (Shoestring, 2015)
The Unreturning (Shoestring 2019).
Larksong Static: Selected Poems 2005-2020 was published by Hedgehog Poetry in December 2020.
In addition, he has published 4 pamphlets: 17 Landscapes (Bluegate Books), Prodigals (The Black Light Engine Room), Mr. Willett’s Summertime* (Poetry Salzburg), Shetland Lyrics (Hedgehog). Poems from these and his other work have been published in a wide variety of magazines & journals.
He reviews for Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry Wales and Poetry Salzburg Review.
An editor at Poetry Salzburg and Honorary Research Fellow in Creative Writing at Aberdeen University, he has a PhD in poetry from Sheffield University. Currently, Martin is a Poetry Ambassador for the Scottish Poetry Library.
*Mr. Willett’s Summertime comprises 25 poems that were the early nucleus of The Unreturning
Still out of the loop, or many loops, befogged and becalmed, I nevertheless make a solemn promise that the next post after this one will be final one of the Catching Up series and will feature Martin Malone’s The Unreturning.
I won’t be a review. It’ll be more like a fan letter. I’m not up to analysis and summary and critical aperçus. Enthusiasm is the most you should expect. But there will, fingers crossed, be a lot of poems to enjoy.
A short post tonight, then. As you know by now, ‘stocking fillers’ are mainly stand-alone, one-off, ‘where did that come from?’ poems that more often than not are limited to outings at open mics. But some appear because a prompt in a writing workshop touched a nerve. I think these are the ones I’m most grateful for. Every now and then, at Poetry Business Writing Days, either Ann or Peter Sansom will invite you to think of a writer …novelist, poet, dramatist…and one of his or her creations, and then imagine them meeting somehow in a wholly unlikely location or circumstance. Jane Austen and Mr D’Arcy at a Ban the Bomb march, say. Dickens and Mr Gradgrind at a parents’ evening. As I say, the best times are when you’re ambushed. Why I should think of R.S.Thomas and of Cynddylan I have no idea, and why I should imagine them rubbing shoulders on a Parish trip to a Silver Blades in Swansea or Chester, even less. But here they are…and they even ended up in print, which I’m very happy about.
Cynddylan and the priest at Silver Blades
Hard and slippery, there’s no purchase,
unless, for one, consolation of a kind in bleakness,
the indifference of god, his chill disciplines
and the fear of falling, the nothing of stilled water
and the darkness under all,
and for the other
the thought of earthfasts rising in his frozen fields,
a broken ploughshare
and a shrunk clamp of beets in the lee of a barn.
They have no language for not working.
They want for the cold flags of a chapel,
a plain altar, absolution
for what will not be, precisely, named;
just a dusting of snow, the red of the Fordson,
sharp blue exhaust, a clutter of gulls
and a straight furrow.
.[Published as ‘The priest and the ploughman go skating’ Much Possessed. 2016]
The second, and similar prompt was to imagine the meeting of two writers or artists or otherwise famous people under unexpected circumstances. Norman MacCaig and the mountaineer, Mallory on a broken-down bus in Cambridgeshire, say. Pete Townsend and Beethoven swapping anecdotes about deafness. Peter Benchley and Damian Hirst seated together on a long-haul flight……..What happened on this occasion was that my mind sidestepped the ‘rules’. Possibly I’d been up to Heptonstall and Colden, and remembering lots of visits to Lumb Bank when it’s cold and wet and bleak, and the valley can be sinister. Anyway, Ted and Sylvia metamorphosed into the protagonists of a lost novel.
brittle as a mirror
worrying at little lines
exquisite as ants or wasps
half-aware of an open window
banging somewhere in this long dark house
in a clenched valle
of cold chimneys and black walls
cemented with orphans’ bones
of trees flogging themselves to death
balsam flattened by the weight of air
she cramps herself small and smaller
dreams of dwindling
into the fastness of a shell
white under a full moon
in a sky of no wind
somewhere out in the yard a bucket has blown over
rackets about the cobbles like a big man in a rage
like a man who’d smash his fist into a gritstone wall
and sing about the blood
Thanks for dropping by; it’s always good to see you. Stay safe. Go well.
Feeling guilty at the continued failure to Catch Up as planned. I went to see a doctor last week, and discussed the after-effects of chemotherapy, and the business of withdrawal from steroids. We talked about the downsides of continuous low-level pain/discomfort. One of them is that to various degrees, you can’t concentrate; in my case it includes not being able to read for any length of time before it all becomes meaningless. Writing is a frustrating slow business…the words simply don’t line up and fall into place. But I’m heartened to find that it’s not just me, and that my doctor has a blanket term for it. She calls it ‘brain fog’. That’ll do for me. It explains why the collections waiting for me to write about (one in particular) are piling up, but it explains why I can do little about it for the time being.
What I CAN do is to keep the Cobweb ticking over.
I just stopped and stared at what I’d written. Can a cobweb tick? I think not. Mixed metaphors? Jeez. Possibly I meant to say that I’d keep on spinning. I’ll settle for that.
Last week my partner Flo bought me this surprise present to cheer me up. American First Edition, with these stunning watercolours by Baskin. I’d forgotten just how Ted Hughes can knock you sideways; it was like reading him again for the first time. The Sunstruck Foxglove
Her silky body a soft oven
For loaves of pollen
Or in another OTT piece about an Iris …Sketch of a goddess
An overpowered bee buries its face
In the very beard of her ovaries.
It deafens itself
In a dreadful belly-cry – just out of human hearing
It all just made me feel more alive, more aware of sound and texture and the buzzzing stuff of life. It reminded me just how much Ted Hughes has got into some of my ways of thinking, and so tonight, here’s a kind of thank you .
A lot of stocking-fillers turn up in one-off tasks in poetry workshops. I’ve never sat down with the intention of writing about birds or animals, but when I’m ambushed into it, Ted Hughes is always going to turn up, providing some of the sound and texture.
When my children were small, in the remote past, one of our favourite books was Hughes’ How the Whale became
and that’s the voice I borrowed in this workshop opener: an invitation to write about things that shouldn’t ever be in the x or y…in the sea, say, or the sky, or in a shop, or down your street.
When God made Heron, he’d been hard at it,
five days creating day and night, sun and moon
and stars, the oceans and the earth,
and on the fifth day,the creatures of the sea
and the birds of the air. Let’s see, says God.
What have we not got? A bird that can spear a fish.
I like that. Give him a long sharp beak.
A touch of gold.
But not the fish of the sea,
thought God, who’d spent the afternoon
in a frenzy of invention: Puffin, Gannet, Fulmar,
Skua, Albatross. The fish of slow rivers,
the fish of placid streams. That’s the thing.
He’ll need long thin legs and wide-spread feet.
My words, he’ll need to be a hefty bird
with legs that long, thinks God.
The wings he’ll need! and a sharp dark eye.
Now. Where will he make his home?
It had been a long day. He can nest
in a tree like all the rest, says God.
And he breathed life into Heron
who flew off on his great wide wings
and landed in his tree, like a broken kite,
a thin old man falling off a bicycle.
(I think I should acknowledge that U A Fanthorpe was over my shoulder too….have you read that poem about the Creation that she wrote in Northumbrian dialect? I hear God with a Geordie accent.)
I can’t trace the prompt for the next one, but it wasn’t necessarily an instruction to write about a bird. I don’t know what it was. Sometimes the name of a bird is enough to call up stories and images. The owl will do this, obviously,and equally the kite and the crow. But I was surprised to find the St Stephen’s Day hunting of the wren turning up without invitation.
God thought of the smallest coin
he could make, and made the Wren
to fit, neat as a thumb in a thimble,
tail cocked like a feather on a jaunty hat.
He should have loved the Wren more
than let the boys come smashing down
the thorn, chanting, calling: Wren!
come out! come out! come out and die.
With her hair trigger call, she can not
keep silent, the Wren, full as an egg
with alarm and urgency, her voice a tattle
of fingernails on an old tin lid.
Fragile as a chalice on its thin glass stem.
Why kill a Wren and her mid-winter song?
What did she ask for but a zipwire of air,
a tangle to hide her nest, a May full of flies?
By the way. The farthing ceased to be legal tender on Dec. 31st 1961. Which surprises me. So there you are. If the brain-fog persists there may be more like this. Fingers crossed, then.
(from Poems for Gordon Hodgeon. ed Bob Beagrie et al 2009)
I was not expecting to write this post. I thought I’d post a couple of stocking-fillers while I sorted out what I wanted to share with you in a final ‘catching up piece’. It will be about Martin Malone’s The Unreturning. There’s a dark irony in that, which will become clear as we go along.
I was wondering if I had anything to say, and if there was, if I knew how to say it any more.
The week before last, for four days out of five I was virtually back in St Ives, Zooming in on a much-postponed residential, with Kim Moore and Caroline Bird as tutors. In theory, with relaxations of Covid rules, it could have been a much-postponed actual residential in a real hotel but the Christian Guild small chain of hotels has gone bust. I guess the pandemic was the last straw. That’s Abbot’s Hall in Grange, Willersley castle in Cromford, and the Trelhoyan Hotel in St Ives, all closed. All places where I’ve been entertained and challenged and inspired by Kim Moore’s courses, and by the Poetry Business. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
And I was struggling. Everyone does, from time to time. It’s not the end of the world; on the other hand it’s no fun, not to respond, not to feel the buzz of making new things with new people. Jess Mookherjee nailed it for me in a Facebook post recently. Amongst other things she wrote about the business of largely working from home in the last 18 months, she wrote this
[I]have become more introverted and atomised
That’s it. The business of being turned in on yourself, and simultaneously fragmented, cut off from the physicality of company and its wonderful unpredictability. To this I’d add the fact of becoming physically more timid.It’s been a thin diet of second hand experience for the last 18 months. The world draws in. I can’t read properly. I’ve lost, for the moment, the ability to surprise myself. Not the best frame of mind in which to approach a week of writing which set itself to challenge us to explore our self-imposed taboos and preconceptions, to query what we think we mean by the ‘truth’ and to be more daring and take more risks.
However, in the middle of, one way or another, avoiding the truth, and flinching from risk I had a day off. The first trip anywhere beyond the homes of close family for 18 months. A drive to the coast with my partner Flo, to meet up with a former student and great friend, Andy Blackford .
Unnervingly, as we drove over Fylingdales Moor and caught our first sight of the sea, we found ourselves in tears. It caught me on the raw, that feeling that something we’d taken for granted for years should feel extraordinary because it was unchanged. I think, too, it was unnerving to drive through an entirely normal Sandsend, of familiies picnicking on the beach, children paddling, hardy souls swimming. And I still felt shut off from it all, isolated in a self-imposed bubble, not quite sure if I spoke the language of ‘out there’ any more.
We had a fine day with Andy and Sandra, looking out over the harbour, watching small boats coming in trailing clouds of gulls, and catching up….though gradually noticing that what we were catching up on was films we’d watched and books we’d read, because they’d largely replaced the accidents of normal life, the business of going places and bumping into people. Stuff we take for granted, like the first sight of the sea from Fylingdales.
Setting off back home in a sudden cold squally downpour that emptied the harbourside and streets in seconds, as Andy drove us up the main street, I saw the Bethel Chapel was for sale. Which was when I learned that my friend Patrick Scott had died. The stunningly converted chapel is /was his house. Last time I saw him there was at Staithes Art Week, a couple of years ago.
Here he is, full of beans with his wife, Angel. And suddenly I learn he’s died, a month or so ago, of lymphoma.
Patrick was a good friend, at one time the editor of a book I wrote about teaching writing, a fellow member of NATE, one of the generation that revolutionised English teaching in the 70’s. His last post was as Director of Children’s services for York, but earlier he was English Advisor for Cleveland/Teesside, a post that was previously held by another friend and mentor, Gordon Hodgeon . Which explains the the verse from the poem at the beginning. It’s from How things are made. A collection of poems from his friends, a get well card for him when he went into hospital for a spinal operation, which tragically left him paralysed, and eventually speechless. I’ve written at length about Gordon; if you don’t know about his story and his poetry you should. There’s a link at the end of the post. Another friend and inspiration, Andrew Stibbs, (NATE alumnus, former head of English in Cleveland, pioneer of mixed ability teaching, Leeds University lecturer in English in Education, painter, musician, cricketer and gifted poet) had been a member of Brotton Writers with Gordon, and equally a good friend of Patrick. All three have died and I miss them, terribly. All three are bound up with my memories of living and working on Teesside and in working as a teacher-trainer. All three are somehow present whenever I go back, say, to Staithes.
What do I make of it. Here am I, writing a poetry blog. What do I know. I say that poetry lets you say what you can say in no other medium, and that is true, when it’s working. But how does that fit with what I described as a week of writing which set itself to challenge us to explore our self-imposed taboos and preconceptions, to query what we think we mean by the ‘truth’ and to be more daring and take more risks.
I’m approaching what I’ll write next with great caution, because I fear to be misunderstood, and in any case I may be wrong. However. I rejoined my Zoom course the next day, head buzzing, not sure of anything in particular. A bit numb. What to be daring about, what risks to take, and why? Possibly I was feeling oversensitive, but it struck me that what I was being challenged to feel more open about, or to, were issues of gender politics, of sexual identity, of sexual violence. Could I write about a parent’s genitals, for instance. Could I challenge self-imposed taboos? Well, yes, I could, but my heart wasn’t in it, I couldn’t give myself up to the game. I sense I missed the cultural tide, recently. But it’s set me thinking about something I read a long time ago, that the Victorians (officially) couldn’t write about sex but wrote with amazing freedom about death, whereas, since the late 60s exactly the opposite has been the case.
I was brought up to distrust generalisations, but there’s an element of truth in there, isn’t there? I have a sense that we are much more uncomfortable with the physical facts of death and dying than much contemporary poetry acknowledges. It may be, of course, because we know so little about it. When each of my parents died, I wasn’t there, in the house, in the room, and both had been neatly removed before I was told. The whole business, sanitised by the funeral business. That would have been unthinkable in a Victorian household. I have only seen two dead people. One was my son, coffined in a Funeral Directors nicely lit room. The other was in a morgue where I went with my partner to identify another body. I’ve never been able to write about either moment, not properly.
Where am I going with this? I don’t really know. I’m chasing ghosts. I should stop.
I say there are no ghosts
though coming on deer in a dip in a moor
when they startle and run
might be like seeing a ghost,
or in woodland where there is too much
of whispering and birds and water.
Worse is a space you long to be filled.
When love is done it is done absolutely.
It does not withdraw. It goes absent.
Whoever saw it go and how?
There is a hole in things, indifferent
to what you do, who you are.
I have sat with the dying
and never encountered death.
I think you have to love someone
enough for someone to die,
you being there, and them
giving you their giving up,
trusting you enough for that.
[From Dark Watchers. Calder Valley Poetry. 2019]
Something strange has gone on with the links, so that some are duplicated. I have not the faintest notion why. Forgive me and the system
When I started this occasional series of stocking-filler poems, I’d sort of decided that they would necessarily all be the kind I knocked together to perform in folk clubs. I said, quite blithely that:
“They need to be compact and robust. Which is what much oral poetry was, originally. I discovered that writing your own stuff is a lot harder than you’d think, and I think I learned a fair amount about the trade from trying. Sometimes I’d try performing what I thought of as ‘real poems’, but they didn’t work, and once I decided I wanted an audience for them, I shifted my allegiance to poetry open mics. On the other hand, I’d assembled a folder that I called ‘Stand-ups and stocking fillers’. Sometimes I’d use some of them to finish a set at a reading, just to leave the audience with a laugh, or sometimes to relieve what may have been a bleak sequence.”
You see that I made a distinction between ‘real poems’ and ‘stocking-fillers’ which, when I come to think about it, is as foolish as putting a capital P on Poetry or a capital L on Literature, and thinking that is a tenable proposition. For that, mea culpa. Because sometimes I’ve set out to write a bit of ‘entertainment’ and found that the poem has ideas of its own. I guess this is particularly true of dramatic monologues. There’s a long tradition of the dramatic monologue in music hall performance, and it sort of slips into the folk scene, via Marriott Edgar’s brilliant creations like ‘Albert and the Lion’ which were immortalised in Stanley Holloway’s recorded performances of them . You can hear their influence in some of the work of Pam Ayres and Mike Harding.
There’s the music hall at one end of the spectrum, and, I suppose, Shakespeare at the other, and in the notional middle, between the two kinds of performance art, there’s the printed poem. So many of them sink into your subconscious sense of how characters can be created, how they can be made to sound, from the appalling duke of Browning’s ‘My last duchess’ to Tony Harrison’s dead Iraqi soldier or David Constantine’s five monomaniacs in ‘Monologue’. If you were to ask about the appeal of the dramatic monologue for me, it’s the liberation of wearing a mask, and the genuine enjoyment of discovering the accent, the ideolect of the persona.
Discovery. That’s the thing. I was in a poetry workshop where we were asked to improvise on the idea of someone giving advice to another…a tradesman advising an apprentice, say, or a football coach, or a master thief, or a seductress, or…..well, you get the idea. The prompt poem was Emily Berry’s “A short guide to corseting”. Go figure.I wrote the poem that follows in about five minutes, and it didn’t need a lot of altering/editing.
*** see comment below
But as it went along, it surprised me. I thought I knew the voice of the older bloke; I was pretty sure I’d worked with lots like him. It wasn’t as funny as I thought it was going to be. I should have guessed, I suppose.
A proper job
There’s more to this than people think.
So listen. See, you want to get the build-up right.
That one I took you to last week. All wrong.
What’s the good of flogging a chap
till he can’t carry the thing? He only ends up
dropping it, spectators want to help,
military jump in. A bloody circus.
Take my advice. You want to keep them
fit and fed and fresh. They’ll not thank you,
but just think on. You’re not there to cheer them up.
Just to do a proper job.
Make sure you order oak
that’s been let to lie a year or two.
You need to cut a solid six by six,
one tight lap joint, nice and snug.
Four clean dowels.. olive;,
don’t get palmed off with pine…
If it does get dropped you don’t want
that cross-piece twisting.
Causes too much bother later on.
Nails? Get them from that blacksmith
by the market. You’ ll want clean-cut, well tapered,
a good nine inch.
Plan to use just the three, but get six.
They can break if you don’t catch them right,
and anyway a big lad might need
a couple in each wrist.
I’ll tell you all about the way
to lie them down, the knots,
the bones to get between,
the hoisting and the dropping in the slot
when we’ve had our snap.
But just one thing. You get it right.
You don’t want another carry on
like the one last week.
The one it turned out wasn’t dead.
Never hear the last of that.
[from Much Possessed. smith|doorstop 2016]
A Postscript: I was rereading this today (Monday) and deeply embarrassed by the apparent piece of throwaway showboating. “I wrote this in five minutes” indeed. I was driven to hunt down the original and found it in a notebook . Poetry Business Whitby Residential, December 2013. Here it is.
As it turns out, I was right about not needing to change very much so it looks like one of those gifted moments when you apparently write without thinking, and everything seems to fall into place without any effort at all. Which is, of course, nonsense. For a start I’d spent a lot of time that year struggling with a whole series of dramatic monologues based on the notion that statues can be brought to speak. I’d been investigating a whole debate about the nature of resurrection (in the body or in the spirit?); I’d been reading a lot of UA Fanthorpe. In short, I’d been unconsciously rehearsing my way towards this moment for ages. Sometimes you’re given the key that opens a door you didn’t know you’d been pushing against.
It turns out that, as we all do, I owe all sorts of debts to all sorts of writers whose work I’ve enjoyed and absorbed, and that I unconsciously/subconsciously exploit. If I had to single out one particular poet and one particular poem it would be Edwin Morgan’s ‘Instructions to an actor ‘.
Because of the intensity of the speaker, I’ve always imagined that Morgan had the idea of Shakespeare doubling as one of the actors in this production of A winter’s tale, explaining to a boy actor how to play one of the most problematic ‘moments’ in English drama. He must be, convincingly, a statue in the course of 80 lines, and then convincingly come to life. And, boy, how the speaker believes in this moment!! He knows just how wonderful and implausibly difficult it’s going to be.
What am I saying? It’s simple, I guess. You learn from the company you keep.
Next week, more voices from more occupations, but probably less serious. In the meantime, I’ll be working on the final ‘Catching Up ‘ post, and I want to do justice to the last poet in this particular sequence. Bear with me.
Spoiler alert. If you follow the cobweb regularly you’ll be aware that I’m very slow at getting over a course of chemo that ended in April. One of the side effects of coming off the steroids that accompany the chemotherapy is increased joint pain due to inflammation. Pretty well everything hurts in varying degrees and in different places during the day. It’s not severe, but it’s debilitating, and at the moment, my hands are particularly arthritic. My keyboard skills have never amounted to much, but I’m more clumsy than usual, and there are likely to be more typos that usual. I religiously proofread before I publish, but invariably miss stuff. So, apologies in advance.
So. Here we go. Over the last few months I’ve become addicted to the TV series The Repair Shop. In a world that appears committed to trashing anything that works, including language itself, here’s a programme that celebrates a group of men and women who patiently mend and restore anything that’s brought to them…defunct harmoniums and accordions, broken porcelain and earthen ware, desiccated leather purses, saddles, torn and sagging easy chairs, clocks, watches, bicycles, gas lamps, vintage calculators, telescopes……for every job there’s an expertise, an arcane array of tools, and beyond all that, patience, attention to detail, imagination and love. All this quiet work of regeneration and resurrection goes in an ancient brick-floored barn, in a thatched lean-to, in an ancient smithy, and all of it cradled in a downland valley where patient Clydesdales crop the greenest grass, clouds of gulls follow a tractor, and small birds perch photogenically . It’s William Morris’s utopian vision of a might-be England. It’s down-to earth and idyllic in equal measure, in the way of Our Yorkshire Farm. And also, I realise, of at least one element of the work of today’s guest. Because while The Repair Shop mends things, Di Slaney’s animal sanctuary…I’m tempted to say ‘hospice’…mends damaged creatures. Since 2005, she has been filling her ancient Nottinghamshire farmhouse and its land with more livestock than is sensible: Manor Farm Charitable Trust is home to over 170 animals at the last count, many of them with special physical or behavioural needs.
Some of them are celebrated in the opening cluster of poems in Herd Queen , but this isn’t a collection of poems about animals, damaged or otherwise. It’s more like an anthology of poems that all happen to be written by a single author. A rumbustiously, whole-hearted rattle bag of technically varied and accomplished poems. When Di Slaney was a last a guest of the cobweb I wrote of her collection
“Let me tell you what I like about Reward for winter. One thing surprised me; I’m not an animal lover, or, I’m not someone who is comfortable around animals, apart from cats, who don’t give a toss anyway. But I’m drawn in by Di Slaney’s poems about animals because of their knowledgeableness, like Ted Hughes’ poems in What is the truth .
I like poems that grow out of absorbed research. I love the way the language of research seeps into the fabric of the poetry and fast-dyes it
What else? I like writing that grows out of specific, realised places. I think that it probably started with Akenfield, to stories that evolve through generations lived in a single place. The Rainbow,and Alan Garner’s wonderful Stone Book Quartet.
Apart from all this, Di Slaney writes what Jonathan Edwards has described as ‘sophisticated and dexterous poems…..beautifully crafted and very moving’.There are terza rimas, every conceivable variant on the sonnet (and faux-sonnet) with crafty and elegant rhyme schemes. The poems have a sure-footedness that lets you know just where you are, and how to hear them; there’s a precise ear for line breaks, for diction, for rhythm, and so much richness of rhyme; slant rhymes, internal rhymes. So much music.”
Every one who has reviewed or endorsed Herd Queen seems to say much the same sort of things, as Di acknowledges when she brought me up to date on what she’s been doing since 2016. I asked:
“…..if you could write me a bit about what’s happened since May 2016, not least how you came to to put “Herd Queen’ together. I suppose I’m partly asking, because Herd Queen bucks the trend (it seems to me) of the thematically organised collection. What I like about yours is that chunks of it could be freestanding pamphlets, and in any case it’s wide-ranging in its range of characters, voices, forms, moods, landscapes…..it is, in fact, refreshing, as most endorsers and reviewers seem to agree. And I bet it’s the only collection I’ve read to be briefly reviewed in The Countryman!“
A few big ‘life stage’ things have happened to me since May 2016 – I became sole owner of Candlestick Press in that year, then in 2017 our private animal sanctuary here on the smallholding became a registered charity specialising in disabled and special needs livestock – see www.manorfarmcharitabletrust.org. And then in June 2019 I was diagnosed with a brain tumour. The latter two events definitely fed into the development of Herd Queen – understanding the real focus of our animal care work and what a difference we can make to the welfare of those creatures in our care, and then finding strength in their situation for my own health issues. These experiences have surprisingly made me more light-hearted and joyful as a writer, and more determined to share light and shade in my writing – there are some dark pieces in Herd Queen but I wanted there to be humour and solace as well, from unexpected sources. Life throws us these curve balls but it’s up to us what we make of them – if we’re adaptive and resourceful like the animals, then we carry on living for the day and making the best of what we have, or at least try to.
And you’re very right to comment on the thematically miscellaneous nature of the collection! It was pieced together out of several wholes – where there was a short sequence of work in one particular direction at one time – but what I’ve tried to do is unite it all under one concept, that of the vigorous and challenging caprine Herd Queen who will zig and zag all over the hillside to protect her territory and her companions, covering plenty of ground in the process. Someone once said that my writing is muscular in style and I took that as a compliment (maybe it wasn’t intended that way!) so these different forms and voices and moods are flexes of those muscles. I do hope it isn’t a messy read, and that it doesn’t cause too much head-scratching for the reader – the first section is intended to be an extension of the land and animals themes of Reward for Winter, the second section an exploration of human and family relationships from a variety of sources and then the third is the naughty section…
It does mean of course that the book can pop up in unexpected places like Knitting or Yours magazine or The Countryman, as well as reviewed in literary journals like London Grip or Raceme. “
Paula Meehan wrote that
“All that is animate has Di Slaney’s attention…….. Her poems are robust and earthy, subtle and direct by turn, her insight often witty and sometimes wicked. …..She covers an impressive amount of ground in these warm, well-crafted poems, and she does it with considerable energy and style.”
Jonathan Edwards says that
“as a poet, she can do everything, from intricate sestina to energetic monologue, from musical lyric to vibrant prose poem. But even more important are the ends to which she employs her technical gifts……. Slaney’s animal poems remind us of Hughes and of Liz Berry in their forging of a new language to describe that experience…… her poems about people give us everything from a cobbler great grandfather to Frankie Goes to Hollywood, ‘tongue and spittle snogs’ to Shirley Bassey. “
All this only reminds me of the difficulty I’ve had in deciding how to present my ideas about Herd Queen , its clusters of poems about wounded animals, about family photographs, about Saudi evacuees , about forgotten histories from meticulously researched local histories. Add to that the range of form and structure..ballads, prose poems, sonnets, dramatic monologues (in stanzas), lots of complex rhyme schemes…including the absurdly complicated Welsh gwawdodyn (no, I’d not come across it, either). How will I do it all justice? The answer’s simple enough. I can’t. I’ll simply share some of my favourites . Off we go.
‘Big goat left to die in snow’ was all that I
was told, and that she was old, so promised
I would go along to meet her, see how her
ordeal had left her and if there were no
major complications, nothing more
they could do, I’d bring her here. Fear
penned her nosefirst in that stable corner, fear
so strong the reek of it sank me to my knees. I
softtouched her coat and bones, promised
I would do the best I could, would give her
all the food she needed to be well. She made no
sound, didn’t move or flinch, had more
sorespots than I’d first noticed, more
dirt than grey in thinwhitecoat. The fear
kept her silent that first week when all I
did was strawsit with her, promising
she could have a friend, that her
hollowrumen hungeraches would end, no
one would hurt her here. There was no
clue she’d heard or understood, it was more
that she put up with me. Yearslearnt fear
still flickered in her eyes each time I
tugged the stable door, the promise
I’d be back offering no comfort, her
nostrils alarmwide with whiff of me. But her
appetite was good and she had no
trouble eating, brokenmouthed with more
teeth missing than remained. One day, fear
seemed to hover above the haypile and I
breathstopped while she cudded, promising
myself patience would pay, promising
her the moon if only she’d respond. Then her
blackovals set in gold met startledmine, no
hesitation now with ears uppricked, more
curious with nose cleanpink and wet. Fear
evaporated like milkspurt on warm grass and I
kept my word every day after, although we only had
her for a year. She died in May whitesunshine while
I stroked her beard, promised her no more fear.
There’s a lot to like in this poem, not least the way it treads carefully around the edges of sentimentality without actually falling in; I’m thinking of what Di said about the possibilities of reciprocal healing, the:
difference we can make to the welfare of those creatures in our care, and then finding strength in their situation for my own health issues.
I like the way the opening stanza is very close to prose-with-line-breaks; the poem begins with a business-like transaction, the voice that says, ‘well, I’ll come round and have a look, but I’m making no promises’. retrospectively, you realise that a lot of rhymes and pararhymes have been set up, and that they’re sustained right through. They’re all monosyllabic, from linked stanza to stanza. There’s an edginess about them, which has to work alongside the strongly textured reality of the animal, and its fear that requires new-minted kennings for its description. I didn’t expect to like this poem, and then found that I did, not least because of the turning point that depends on two different kinds of eyes making a connection.
blackovals set in gold met startledmine
Texture is especially what you notice in the next poem, which is self-evidently written by someone who knows a thing or two about wool. (The first time I met Di Slaney was at an Interpreter’s House launch in Leeds; it was also the first time I met a poet who brought wool from her own sheep to sell as well as books.) A handy note in the collection explains that
Witches cannot resist wool, & this Mazey Ball from The Museum of Witchcraft in #Cornwall is so filled. It was believed “no witch could cast an evil eye on the owner until she had counted every bit of wool in the house.” Aberdeen Press & Journal, 17th Nov 1932.
She watched him gather tufts from fences
along the field, as he’d watched her finger wool
in the village yarn shop, her gaze low and dark, small
brown hands lingering over skeins still fresh
from early shearing. That night he switched off all
the lights and kept squat candles burning on the hearth,
their flicker pointing beams and cracks in ancient brickwork.
His thickweave cushions, driftwood hangings and peg
loom rugs brought the flock indoors, while by the fire
raw fleece sacks breathed their sweetness across
the room towards the porch. Single storeyed, the cottage
eased itself to darkness as he doused his mug goodnight
and padded to the bed, cablesocks three quarters high
on tanned and knotted calves, tired legs. The ball twined
above the kitchen stove where a skillet used to drop,
anchored by aran ply to a thumbed black squab.
Candlelight caught cream, a flash of white, then grey
as the ball twisted first this way, then that. He lay on one
hundred quilted crochet squares, felt each deadwifestitch
pressing into skin like penance, but resolute he still listened;
breathsure, heartloose. When the front latch snagged at two,
he smiled and reached beneath the bed, shepherded silence
along the flags to find her backwards in the shadows, ball in hand,
bloodblack hair flowing down a feltstiff gown above her knees.
Skin glistened, and she seemed to halo pale fawn fibre
that curled towards him, her bare feet pointed in two cleaves
of hoof, and soft noise escaped her lips like new lambs bleating
in barn sunlight. She never shifted from the ball, kept
mumblecounting little threads, so he gently snaked his crook
around her neck like every ewe he’d ever landed, and snared his witch.
I chose this one because it’s such a beautifully told tale, and one which actually relishes its own narrative tricks. The question of who is watching who, and who will be the catcher and who the caught is set up so deftly in those first two lines, as is the ambiguity of time and place. The title says ‘once upon a time’, but the ‘village wool shop’ says ‘now’, as does his switching off the lights. It’s a very satisfying piece of storytelling ending, too. He ‘snared his witch’. What her nature is and why he should snare her is unresolved. I love it and all its imagery, its filmic moments, the slowly turning ball anchored by aran ply to a thumbed black squab, that satisfying solidity.
I want to share three more poems, but with minimal commentary. The next two are monologues /ventriloqual but could not be more different in tone and style.
The first is Di’s take on a piece of research about her neighbourhood of Bilsthorpe . Dame Elizabeth Broughton was the widow of Sir Brian Broughton who counted Bilsthorpe as part of his estate. On the 15th April 1727, she defended herself in court against a bill of complaint brought by William Hodgson. The gist of the matter appears to be that Sir Brian promised an annuity to his mistress Anne Carter, which Dame Elizabeth has defaulted on. During further research, it appeared that Dame Elizabeth had been previously accused of causing the death of Anne Carter in a fire, and her relations are now retrospectively claiming the annuity as it was passed to them after her death. In transcripts of the court record, Dame Elizabeth defends herself vigorously, claiming that she is ‘entirely a stranger’ to all allegations and claims.
All I’ll say is that you might like to decide whether Dame Elizabeth is as innocent/naive as she appears to make out, or whether she’s being at least disingenuous.
Dame Elizabeth Broughton answers the court
15th April 1727
Sir, I am entirely a stranger to proceedings here.
You must forgive a poor widow’s lack of grasp,
for in all such matters prior, my dear late husband
Sir Brian Broughton would stand. Since his demise
all must forgive my widow’s grasp, my lack of
certainty. I have not slept, the thought of how
Sir Brian would not stand for this and his demise
weighs heavy on my mind, for I am growing more
certain, despite not sleeping, that the thought of
Anne Carter and her claims for full annuity would
weigh too heavy on his mind, of this I am more sure.
She was a scandal and a scold, beg pardon the court,
the name Anne Carter and her canny claims would
have ruined a lesser man, but not my husband.
He pardoned her the scandal, I begged and scolded
him to end his visits to her, but he courted disaster
like a lesser man, was briefly not at all my husband.
Those boys she had, he hoped them his, would only
end his visits when he saw William Hodgson courted
her, how quickly she came undone, how hot she flushed.
Those boys she had were never his, his only hope of
siring heirs lost years before when his horse tipped him,
but the way she flushed and came undone, the heat
of her convinced him for a time that he had it in him
to sire heirs. I lost our boy when his horse tipped him
and they told me he was crushed, unlike to live.
He convinced me for a time he still had it in him
to recover, do his duty for the parish, but I knew
our hopes were crushed even as I learned to live.
Sir, I wander and you are right to rally me to task.
I am recovered, will state my duty for the parish but
I will not cede on the amount. Her boys have no right
to wander into our affairs and rally your support.
When Mistress Carter died in last year’s fire, her
boys amounted to naught and I will not cede my rights.
What, sir, the fire? I know naught of how it started.
Anne Carter died and that’s all I knew of it last year.
In such matters, my late husband would know best.
I had no part in that fire. May the court forgive me
for I feel entirely strange, sir. Proceed without me here.
You might like to read the opening three lines and and then the last three, and listen to the echoes, and ask yourself if it’s not that bit too artful, too ‘rehearsed’. For contrast, then, here’s the second poem from the sequence ,The Songs of Saudi , developed in collaboration with composer Omar Shahryar, and based on recorded interviews with his mother, father and brother about their evacuation from Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War of 1990. The first poem in the sequence ‘Shona’s Song’ became the lyrics to a performance piece for the 2017 Leeds Lieder Festival, with music composed by Omar sung by mezzo-soprano Emily Hodkinson. Side by side, you might think they were the work of two different poets, which is a tribute to the range of what you discover in this unclassifiable collection.
Di Slaney can do lushly textured poems and then she can do this stripped back, near abstract, monochrome that is full of the aching distance of separation and disembodiment to the accompaniment of flickering TV screens and mindless electronic noise. It’s heartbreaking. But I wouldn’t leave you with a voice calling out of separation. I’ll finish instead with one from the third section of the book, from the what DI Slaney calls ‘the naughty ones’. If this poem was a painting it would be by Beryl Cooke, a saucy postcard of a poem. It’s in the same world as Pam Ayres’ asking forlornly ‘do you think Bruce Springsteen would fancy me?’
Feather boa, sequins, diamonds and lace,
Nut-brown bare arms and firm upright chassis –
so few wrinkles on that beaming face,
at 73, I want to be Shirley Bassey.
No bond can contain her, the dame is forever.
Feisty, fearless, well-sussed and sassy –
she may be a spender, spendthrift never never;
at 73, I have to be Shirley Bassey.
Belting voice, smutty laugh, star-spangled life,
diva supreme from a Tiger Bay lassie.
OK, not every man’s ideal wife,
but at 73, I must be Shirley Bassey.
Thigh slits, stilettos and festival wellies –
no wheelchair for me, I’ll still wiggle my assy.
Tight-fitting gowns will restrain all my bellies
and at 73, I will be Shirley Bassey.
Di Slaney..Thank you for being our guest..It’s taken me ages to finally write this post about Herd Queen. I hope I’ve given the readers a sense of its range and richness, and I hope I’ve persuaded them to go and buy it.