Stocking fillers (4)

Feeling under the weather. Again. Not up to doing justice to a guest poet who I admire greatly. In the meantime, more stocking fillers. Sometimes in a workshop someone may ask you to write a poem about an imaginary event. Invent a bit of history, but, if possible, treat it with great seriousness. When I think about it, a great deal of the ‘history’ I was taught in school was actually of this sort. Kings burning cakes. Noblemen drowned in butts of malmsey. England being ‘founded’ by descendants of Aeneas. Richard the Second being a monster. That sort of thing. Who knows, if you’re deadpan enough, it might just get some leverage, like urban myths. This one was triggered by a starter poem by Billy Collins.

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1470. Annus mirabilis

(after Billy Collins: ‘Nostalgia’)

1470. We’ll not forget that in a hurry;

the year they invented Jam. 

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We’d hear rumours,

folk passing on the turnpike,

a shout on the wind 

from the back of a lathered horse.

‘Jam’ they’d shout. ‘Jam’.

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We’d sit in the Tarred Pheasant 

at the end of a day’s slurry-shifting, 

or fettling capons, or stooking hares,

and speculate.

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Change was never good. 

The moon had been a funny colour

all through Martinmas,

the vicar’s wife had lost her arm to croup,

mice took to midnight swimming in the dewpond

by the mandrake patch in Cotton’s Bog.

.

All sorts of tales were rife.

Jam would bring back sight to the goitred.

Jam would take off a murrain,

make a slack-twisted pigman smell sweet.

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It was more than that.

Fruit that didn’t roll off tables.

Fruit you could stick your hair down with..

No good would come of it. Devils’ work

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Alternatively, you could make up your own historical figures. Lord knows, ‘history’ has edited out 99% of the people who actually made it. By a pleasing synergy, jam features in this one , too.

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Unsung Heroes

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Let us remember them.

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St. John Chatsworth Grace:

inventor of the reversible umbrella,

serviceable in jungle and in desert

to deflect, or conserve, rain

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Enoch Waterman of Burslem

who patented a fruitless jam

and a device for getting blood from stones

.

Frederick Jagger, the Pennine Penitent

Who, daily, walked barefoot to his work in Rochdale

from Todmorden to mortify the flesh 

and save on cobblers’ bills

and once walked backwards for a week

to see the future unfurl in his wake

.

Remember Benjamin Hardwick of Haworth

who patiently engraved the Book of Genesis

on the obverse of a halfpenny

that he accidentally put,

with a handful of loose change,

in a collection tin for

the Overseas and Colonial Society

for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge,

and who shortly after died,

consumed by irony   .

.

Next week, I promise, there will be a proper post with proper poetry. And who knows, the country might have accidentally stumbled into sanity by then. Go well. Wear a mask. Keep a safe distance.  

Stocking fillers (3)

Another family of stocking filler/stand-up poems is the stereotype poem. Another workshop task I’ve enjoyed, too. The first one I remember was one set up by Peter Sansom, the invitation being to write about a group of people entirely through the medium of generalisations, stereotypes and downright lies.

I think I’d recently been to Beverley folk festival for the weekend. Curiously, I’ve performed this particular poem at Beverley , and in loads of folk clubs….and the thing is, I’m invariably asked by folk if they can have a copy. People like it, and very often they could well be in the poem. I think it was Swift who said that ‘Satire is a Glass in which men see all men’s Features but their own’

There’s a companion piece to this called ‘Literary Festival Folk’ but there’s no way I’d ever post it. I’m also reminded that Bob Horne wrote one about his times at the Cambridge Folk Festival. It’s a much kinder one than mine. Maybe I should ask him if he’ll share it.

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                    Folk festival folk: 

They work in council housing departments

and sing sad songs of flooded seams and firedamp,

poss-tubs, pinnies, lockouts ,blacklegs,

disasters, deprivation.

.

Or tutors in evening classes

who know The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens,

and Matty Groves by heart; they sing without 

accompaniment. And slow. And flat. They never miss 

a verse. They sing the chorus after every 

one, bring unimagined nuances to 

the meaning of interminable.

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Some sell insurance; or work in call centres, 

and sing , at length, about the whaling,

silver darlings, foundering trawlers, ice;

shawled fisherwives on shivering wharves

gazing at the widowing sea.

.

They drink real ale (the men), are

overweight and thin on top (long at back and sides);

their wives once looked, a bit, (they hoped) like Joan Baez;

they cultivate split ends, and henna. 

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They believe that all real folk songs

were writ on tablets of millstone grit 

brought down from the moors 

by Mike Harding and Eliza Carthy

and that Kate Rusby is the Second Coming

.

They wear, without discrimination,

cheesecloth, tie-dye, leather waistcoats;

regardless of the cold,or drizzle: sandals.

They run to seed, self-righteously. Own tents.

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Their children dream of days at Alton Towers,

junk food, Playstations,  X Boxes

and hanging out. Instead, are herded into

story-telling workshops; they are quiet,

and subdued, and, often, pale.

Secretly, they harbour visions 

of a terrible revenge.

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Something should be diddly-done about it.

Catching up: Natalie Rees’ “Low Tide”

For so many reasons I’m struggling to get going. I am collecting fragments to shore against the ruins of good intentions.

For instance:

I’m thinking of something I read about Norman MacCaig (I think it may have been in Andrew Greig’s At the loch of the Green Corrie). Apparently he tried to stop smoking and his writing completely dried up until he went down to the corner shop, bought twenty Senior Service, and promptly wrote a sheaf of winners. I stopped smoking three months ago.

For instance:

I’m thinking of one of my literary heroes, Commander Samuel Vines of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. Loving husband, besotted father, practising cynic and recovering alcoholic. Every evening at 6.00pm Sam Vines reads to Young Sam. It’s always the same book. Where’s my cow?

This reading he treats as an obligation which is non-negotiable,his thinking being that if he ever missed it for a good reason, he might miss it for a bad reason, and that this might apply to everything he does.

In other words, if you say you’re going to write a post featuring a guest on a certain day, then you should. I said I’d write this last Sunday. What can I say?

For instance:

I’m not feeling too chipper; one of the after effects of the chemo I had at the start of the year is joint pain; it distracts and makes it hard to concentrate. Ideas come and go, I jot some down and when I go back to them they make no sense. Everything gets clogged up and tired, and I wait to be bestirred, for the old log in the river to twist and release in a release and a rush.

For instance:

I’m missing the surprise of the face-to-face, the unpredictable encounter that disturbs or excites you in unexpected ways, like the headteacher of a small Primary school in a Pennine valley who once, without any notice, told a class of 10 year olds I worked in a circus. (For the full story follow this link: https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2014/04/28/by-way-of-explanation/).

For instance:

I’m thinking about Piaget and his notions of assimilation and of accommodation, and what that has to do with the great fogginzo. I’m probably over-simplifying, at best, but I always took it to refer to two modes of learning (both essential. Not an either/or). The first kind consolidates your ideas about the way the world works. It doesn’t disturb you. We tend to read news that we agree with, or agrees with our model of things. Ditto fiction, and poetry. And so on. The second challenges and disturbs. It demands that you change your models and assumptions in greater or lesser degree…. like recognising, say, that the earth goes round the sun and not vice versa. Or agreeing that the Bible might be written in English. People died for ideas like that. Being challenged by a feisty headmistress to accept a role no one gave you the lines for demands accommodation.

If we want to grow, we need to be disturbed (in good ways). What I look for in poems and poets is that challenge to see the world anew, and in ways that ultimately change me. And it’s what I find, in spades, in the work of today’s guest, Natalie Rees, and particularly in her pamphlet Low Tide from Calder Valley Poetry. Here’s a taste of the sort of disturbance I mean, the moment that pulls you in.

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Four men form a circle around you;
you have been plucked out:
Praise the Lord, are you ready to receive Him tonight!
one shouts at you, eyes on the crowd.
…………………………………………………………..
The catcher with the bald head lunges
from behind, hands at your armpits,
next to the lady with the modesty blanket
ready to cover your knee-high socks
when you hit the linolleum floor.

.

I’ll give you some context for this later on but there’s so much going on in these eight lines, the moment becomes locked in you memory. For me it all spins around that phrase you have been plucked out. ‘You’ have been given no choice. It’s such a sudden verb, isn’t it? Those four men (why men ?) are loud and threatening. At least one is playing to the crowd. The bald headed ‘catcher’ has his hands at ‘your’ armpits. It’s unsettling, creepily intrusive. And the lady with the modesty blanket is complicit, standing by. And you are a child in knee high socks.

I think Kim Moore nails the quality of the moment in her endorsement of Natalie’s pamphlet:

“Filled with unforgettable lines, a wry humour and keen and exact observations…….  In her examination of an unusual childhood, Rees refuses to look away from the difficult truth of how darkness and love can coexist”.

It must be time to introduce the guest.

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It’s five years ago..2016!!!…at the Otley Open Mic that I heard her  read for the first time. For me it was the stand-out voice and the stand-out poem, though she wasn’t the winner. Natalie Rees reads with a rare musical clarity…I’ve written before how I’m a sucker for Irish voices, and Irish vowels…but it was a lot more than Irishness that made me sit up and listen. 

The next time I heard her was later that year at a grand event as part  of Bradford Literature Festival. It was in a huge room in the Midland Hotel, a room like something out of the Titanic. Mirrors, chandeliers, banquet room chairs and a dubious sound system. She shared a bill with Peter Riley and Kim Moore among others, and read her poems and told the stories that surrounded them with absolute assurance. A natural. I asked her that afternoon if she’d be a guest on the cobweb, and she said she’d rather not, that she didn’t have enough work out there to give some up for the blog. 

That made me sit up and take notice. In these self-publicising, rushtogetabookout days its refreshing. I kept asking. I asked her to be a guest poet at the Puzzle Poets, and she put that off for a very long time. Same reason. Bob Horne told her he’d be interested in publishing her…eventually he did, but not until she was quite sure that what she’s written was ready. I have an early draft of what became Low Tide. The working title was The thin places. The title poem of that found its place in Low Tidebut so much else didn’t. And all that discipline and self-criticism has paid off, wonderfully. As Natalie wrote when she finally became a guest of the cobweb in 2017:

” I suppose I have always had the makings of a writer in me but it’s been a bit of a journey along the way to find my voice, which I think don’t really came until I found myself. I began to write poetry in my school days, elbowed on by a wonderfully cynical, disaffected English teacher, Ms. O’ Neill, ………I went on to train as a primary teacher. I taught for ten years, only going to the odd open mic here and there but always reading. 

The Bloodaxe anthologies were the gateway for my revived attempts, and in 2008, I signed up for the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester. It was a full-on year studying under Vona Groarke and John Mc Auliffe, and I gave a few readings of my final portfolio. Then life got in the way – wedding, house, child, career change (copywriting), bereavement – there was always something to keep the engine going.

Poetry is that thing that does not let you go though, and it has always boomeranged its way back to me through people and through places. If were to give it a relationship status, it would read ‘it’s complicated’. 

At the moment, (2017) the largest portion of my time is dedicated to my postgraduate studies in Play Therapy and my clinical placement. In my spare time, I am writing when I can and I am in early-day cahoots with Bob Horne at Calder Valley Press working towards my first pamphlet.”

There’s so much to think about here, but one thing sticks in my mind and won’t leave me:

                        Poetry is that thing that does not let you go

Natalie Rees writes what won’t let her go. When she read at the Bradford Festival, she told the story of her complicated childhood.She was born and raised in Ireland to a German Mother and Irish father who were both pastors of a Pentecostal Christian Church;  it wasn’t done with any self-dramatising, though I could imagine another writer wringing out every last drop of emotional trauma. I thought it was a powerful example of how poetry lets us understand our own selves, where we came from, who we are. When we can get it clear to ourselves, then we may be ready to tell others the story.

The poem that stood out for me in her  Bradford set was No. 6 Highfield Grove. If you’ve seen the TV film version of Oranges are not the only fruit think of that.Read it aloud. Hear it in an Irish voice. Think of a small Irish town where almost all the population is Catholic.

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No. 6 Highfield Grove                       

Every Wednesday they would come.

Fill all the spaces on our street,

just after the RTÉ news at 6.

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Ford Fiestas, Mazdas, Fiat Pandas.

The Christian Mafia 

armed with leather concordances, tambourines 

and acetates in plastic sleeves

with the guitar chords penned over the lyrics in red – 

tiny bullets lined up to lose their lives for Jesus.

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We are waging war on the kingdom of darkness.

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From three fold-up beach chairs, two foot pouffes, 

an armchair and a couch.

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And they would shape their bodies into capital ‘Y’s,

their closed eyes squinting towards the light 

of some invisible sun as the guitar strummed on.

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Shine Jesus, shine, fill this land with the father’s glory.

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Then it would start with

one – a word of knowledge,

two – a prophesy in season,

three –  a foreign tongue,

four – an interpretation of the foreign tongue.

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By then Margaret would have a vision,

there would be a light growing around me,

God would have a specific healing ministry for my life.

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I am five.

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This would be followed by the laying on of hands.

There would not be enough room for the onslaught 

of soldiers for Christ scattered across our sitting room floor,

and Jimmy the Baker writhing like a long-tailed rattlesnake,

my father swiping the air above with the sword of the Word.

             .

I would count shoes: two pairs of runners, 

six pairs of navy, five brown.

Line my wax crayons in order from black to white,

rearrange my fuzzy felt shepherds and kings. 

.

Put the manger on its own on the hillside with the sheep.

             .

I can read and re-read this poem, and never get tired of it. I like its complete self-sufficiency. It’s dense and layered, and still needs no backstory explanation. Everything you need to know is there, balancing on one simple line:

I am five.

The narrator’s resistance (whose weapons are crayons and fuzzy felt) to the surreal juxtaposition of suburban domesticity and religious fervour is made simple and remarkable by that uncluttered and unanswerable truth. No wonder the poet became a Play Therapist. I love the child’s achieved indifference to the Jimmy the baker’s frenzy, and father brandishing the sword of the Word. It took me to Jeanette Winterson, and one of the things she wrote about “Oranges….”

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“I didn’t want to tell the story of myself, but someone I called myself. If you read yourself as fiction, it’s rather more liberating than reading yourself as fact………….In the library I felt better, words you could trust and look at till you understood them, they couldn’t change half way through a sentence like people, so it was easier to spot a lie”

The thing I find remarkable in Natalie Rees’ poems is her ability to stand with and simultaneously outside herself at the key moments she selects. And her honesty, too. Her persona can’t always resist through play and a distanced imagination. She can lose herself in the world of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but she also understands why she needed to.

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Laura Ingalls, I turned the top shelf of my plywood wardrobe

into your mid-western attic bedroom,

and sneaked up matches to read my Bible by paraffin lamp

made out of a used Nutella jar and tea light.

I craved your wholesome life, so safe and contained. If only 

we could all skip around swinging packed lunches 

in tin pails, wearing starched cotton dresses with white aprons,

everything in my eight-year-old life would be okay.

Laura Ingalls, I spent Sunday afternoons fantasising 

your father Charles would step out of the screen 

into my living room, and pinch my cheek,

and call me Half-Pint,

his eyes meeting mine with all the twinkle 

……………………….

I needed a paternal figure to soak my shame

into the metallic sweetness of his flannel shirt.

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That unguarded admission “I craved your wholesome life, so safe and contained ” retrospectively colours so many of the other poems where play can’t resist the darker forces crowding in

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She asks how my week has been. I tell her 

the Bible verses I have been standing on 

are not working. The problem is never at God’s end

she tells me, asks me to bow my head. 

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She invites the holy spirit into this space. 

I am crying and I don’t know why. 

Let him do his work in you she says. He’s a gentleman. 

He will never force his way

(Prayer ministry at the Old Fish Shop)

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At other times, it may be a an insouciant swagger, a laugh-out-loud scatalogical defiance that’s the answer

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we are in the last throes of fucking       on our daughter’s square 

Billy bookcase       on the top landing        and I lose my cum 

because all I can think is      if I fall over the banister to the bottom step      

will he finish himself off       before he dials 999

(La Petite Mort)

I love the way this poem comes hard on the heels of the one in praise of the Little House on the Prairie, and lets you know, very early on in the collection, that accommodation is going to be the name of the game. There’s so much going on in this apparently slim collection that I can’t do it justice. Ian Humphreys has commented on the voice and technical ease of the poetry, and its range of line and imagery :

.

startling images and dream-like narratives drift across the page, never quite settling. ……Natalie Rees has an original voice and an unflinching gaze……There’s potency in what’s left unsaid, in the hesitancy of a line-break, the held breath of white space.

John Macauliffe draws your attention to the range of themes and ideas; most memorably, he called it ‘a poetry of becoming”. (I wish I’d said that).

The poems in Low Tide pick their way through a minefield of ideals and ideas about the body, gender, family and faith; addressing themselves to lovers, a husband, preachers, the language of the Bible, the German language of a mother, the dead, the emergency services and, in one of its most brilliant poems, Laura Ingalls.
                                                                                                               

What I’ll do now is indulge myself (and you) by sharing two poems about the poet’s mother and their complicated relationship. …as someone who finds himself endlessly trying to explain and understand his relationship with a mother who could not be, what’s the word? appeased? I’m open-mouthed with admiration for what they achieve.

The first is stylistically conventional. It seems to acknowledge the diffuse sort of guilt some of us feel when we think we never knew someone as we should have, and now it’s too late. It’s also tender, funny and loving…..an underrated quality. It makes me think of Tony Harrison’s ‘UZ can be loving as well as funny’. It has the feel of the family stories we share at funerals, after the service, after the tears.

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Muttersprache

My mother was never waiting 

for my father but on 

him. I had to sit on the table and never at.

I ate Schnitzel with flowery potatoes 

mashed with vinegar and oil,

wore matching dirndls with my sister on Sundays.

.

Some days she would bundle 

us in the orange Fiat to St.Patrick’s Well,

send us in to rob the coins between the moss.

Superstition is vitchcraft

she would say, and afterwards we would buy 99s

from the van and count the Catholics on their way to burn.

.

V’s were W’s and W’s were V’s.

And she would take me to wiolin lessons in the willage

and vait vhile I practised.

Practised reels and jigs and hornpipes.

Practised being normal 

and Irish.

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Once she picked up two hitchers 

with us three in the back. I had to sit on a lap. 

We stopped for chips and said grace

over our greasy cartons while mam sped 

through the second coming 

with a 1970’s cartoon Bible tract.

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We spent the last Christmas waiting 

by my mother. I watched my sister lift and turn 

with all the right positions. I was not like her.

All I could do was pick small bits of Lebkuchen

and place them on mam’s lips. Lecker

she said. Delicious..

.

I love that image of the lot of them hunched over chips while ‘mam sped through the second coming’. And I am glad of the sense of absolution that comes from the image of cake crumbs placed on her mother’s lips, like a fragment of host, and the breathed last word. Lecker. It’s like forgiveness.

Finally , a poem that’s full of haunting imagery and spaces in which you can lose yourself. Fingers crossed that WordPress will hold its carefully crafted shape

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Low Tide

that summer  the sea                               spread her white arms     .                                               

across the bay       dragged back   the whelks    the driftwood  

the lobster traps   the nylon mesh           wiped the spray 

from the tops of the children’s heads

.

left them                                   naked on the shore

.

they sat there with vacant eyes 

                           shoving fistfuls of sand into their dry mouths

.

one day you’ll thank me  she told them

crawling backwards        scraping her knees 

along the rocky bed

.

shhhhh  shhhhsh  shush the oldest one said

as she grew smaller 

and smaller 

a pencil-blue line 

 so static        you could balance            a glass marble on her

.

the children walked for days to get her back

      it was hard to see where the sky                      ended

and their blue mother began

.

so thin 

flat and lifeless on the edge  

of their world

nothing else                 but sand                          for miles

             .

the younger ones crying because their feet were so hot

             .

when will mother stand up   is she sleeping?

Mother  when you left I couldn’t find the              word

for dead

every time I closed my eyes to focus

all I could see were coral bones                ebbing further              

away

without          touching

you moved with such harmony I thought to not be alive                                 must be a beautiful thing

.

.

What a lovely accomplished thing this is. I’ve tried many times to write about how I waited for my mother to die, how I waited with her, and about what it meant. But this image of the tide going out and the the children being left

with vacant eyes shoving fistfuls of sand into their dry mouths

and the line of the sea indistinguishable from where the sky begins, all that has done what I couldn’t do for myself, and I’m grateful for it.

It’s taken me too long to write about this remarkable first collection. If there were any justice, (and no pandemic) Natalie Rees would have been signed up for readings all round the country, and would have sold out several print runs. What can I say? You can do your bit. Buy yourself copies of Low Tide. Tell your friends. Share this post. Here’s link to a page with a Paypal button

https://caldervalleypoetry.com/low-tide-natalie-rees/

And for now, thank you all for being here; and thank you, Natalie Rees, for the poems, for your patience, and for letting me share them

Stocking fillers [2]

Just a reminder about why I thought I’d start this occasional series of ‘poems I’d never dream of sending out to magazines or journals’.

“One reason why I write poems, and about poems, is that some years ago I used to go to folk clubs which were essentially sing-/play-arounds. ……. That’s how it started. At first I’d perform other people’s poems…Pam Ayres, Roger McGough, Mike Harding and so on. Because poems in folk clubs basically, need to be funny, probably need to rhyme, and need a punch line. They need to be compact and robust. Which is what much oral poetry was, originally. After a bit, I started to write my own, rather than (or as well as) freeload off other poets. Bit by bit I assembled a folder that I called ‘Stand-ups and stocking fillers’. Sometimes I’d use some of them to finish a set at a reading, just to leave the audience with a laugh, or sometimes to relieve what may have been a bleak sequence. One or two have been published. “

Very often, writing workshops would set a task that prompted what I’d think of as  a stocking filler. When I think about it, most of them started life like this. I don’t think I ever sat down unprompted, thinking, you know what? I think I’ll write something funny…a stand-up poem.

The first two “stocking fillers”, posted a couple of weeks ago, were written in response to invitations to write about imaginary/invented places.

Today I thought I’d share two about real places. The first in response to a prompt to write about somewhere you’ve never been, but as though you know all about it. It’s an invitation to plunder your favourite films and novels, when you come to think about it. If you’re ever stuck for something to do, why not try it?

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Travellin’ man

     There’s a fat wet slap of paddles, the gambling boats

on Pontcharrain;  damp lawn and cotton, sweet lavender,

limp dogs in the streets, dancing girls and their laughter,

a slow slow blues playing somewhere, and high-yellow girls

in first floor windows, the slow swing of a silky leg

from a fretwork iron balcony, a shiver of hibiscus,

pale bougainvillia, a yellow playbill in the lazy breeze

of a dusty street, the tilt of a tight-brimmed bowler hat,

a flash of white teeth, and a reek of skillet oil, 

of cornbread frying, the iodine of fresh-shucked oysters,

tobacco juice, the moonlight tang of smoke from lit cheroots,

a boardwalk castanet of heels, the alarm of mockingbirds,

a slur of Cajun French and all the icing sugar saloons 

and bars, bordellos, gambling joints, and the river

huge and brown and slow, its towheads, boils and rips,

shoals of punched shell by the button factories. Spanish moss.

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New Orleans.

.

Never been there.

Read about it, some.

The second one was a response to an invitation to write about something someone said. It could be something odd and out of character; it could be something they often say, something quite peculiar to them..like a malapropism. My first wife’s great aunt used to tell neighbours I worked in ‘one of them apprehensive schools’. I sometimes think about writing a poem describing the curriculum.

This however is about something said by the poet and all-round good chap, Christopher North, and said in a real place. In the real place we were scrambling up a steep place below a cliff, looking for Iberian pottery shards. In the real place, he slipped and ripped the backside out of his trousers.

.

So.

we’re climbing this hill,

a shaly slope ,a broken spine of stone,

all levels and layers , silicas, sandstones, 

muds, and coral flowers, when he says :  

from here we have to bushwack . 

Cue long shot :

winding canyon, mesquite, stallions, bitter dust,   rawhide quirts, and stetsons, cactus, creek and willow, mineshaft tailings, clapboard stables, saloon and whorehouse, Colt repeaters, pianola, mirrors, scrolled mahogany, sleeve bands, tight black bowler hats, tooled leather, spit, unshaven desperadoes, shifty mexicans and crooked sheriff, dark Apache , in his birdbone breastplate, three crow feathers pushed into his blueblack hair,  wired- up Commanche on a piebald horse, contempt like a scalp on the tip of a lance, Black Hills Sioux, with eagle bonnet,  the softest buckskin fringe, plumes of smoke in the lodge by the oxbow’s quiet shadows, and thin dogs doing nothing in particular,  the hero carefully turned out, the  rancher’s daughters prim as prayerbooks , careless dancehall girls, their knees and tucked up skirts, their buttoned boots and ribbons, ah, so many ribbons, the double door that swings both ways, a silhouette, a shadow bringing conversations to a stuttering halt, that exact moment that the piano stops midtune, a pause like a burial plot, just waiting on its allotment of words.

.

And from here, he says, we have to bushwack.

.

Whatever that is.

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Right. I’m off for a hearing test; 8.00am tomorrow I’m having a CT Scan. I’ve booked a telephone appointment with the doctor to find why, after chemo, I’ve got chronic joint pain and permanent fatigue. My dad used to have a joke he’d trot out in these circumstances, the punch line being. Does it hurt? Only when I laugh. Exactly. Where would I be without you all?

I’ve got a great guest poet coming up for the next Catching Up post…hopefully this Sunday. See you then. Crossed fingers xx

Fathers Day

It strikes me from time to time that while I have loads of photographs of my mum before she met my dad, there are none of him. I have no images of him as a child, or as a young man (apart from one in a group photo of the Salvation Army Band, in which he played cornet or trumpet as required).

I know loads of stories about my mum and her brother and her sisters, about their childhood. I know them because she told me. None at all about my dad, because he didn’t, and neither did his mum, the only grandparent alive after I was barely six months old.

I know one story about my dad as a young man. It’s hardly a story. Just something one of his fellow bird watchers said in a passing comment…one that I never followed up. “He liked a bet, your dad.” It has no context, this remark, and he certainly showed no interest in the horses or the football pools in all the time I knew him.

So it’s fair to say, there’s always been that sense of a mystery about him, something he kept to himself, in the place where he kept the dreams and ambitions he never talked about. So this is a memory of that part of him I wish I could have asked him about.

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Changeling

It wasn’t that he thought of a previous life,

but rather of a might-have-been one,

the one he was due. You saw it

in the the set of the shoulder, his eyes,

and most of all you saw it in his clothes.

.

He could never resist a nice suit length.

Three piece, double vent, hand-stitched.

He liked a worsted, a fine herringbone.

He dressed like a gent, trimmed his ‘tache

accordingly. I really think he thought

himself a changeling.

                               Gypsies or elves, 

were involved, and careless nursemaids.

The heir to something better. That was him.

.

Though gentlemen don’t test the worsted

in a pattern book the way he did, don’t

take their suit-lengths to little shops

in small dark streets off City Square,

to dapper men with bandleader’s hair.

.

Maybe that was what lay behind the rebel in him, that showed itself in small ways, and in unexpected contexts. Like the Yorkshire Naturalists. The birdwatchers in the mould of the Kinder protestors. Here they are, the revolutionaries at one of their Christmas do’s in a cafe in Otley. My dad’s the piratical one with the pipe.

[Yorkshire naturalists 1950s]

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Trespassers

Drawn to Mam Tor, to Kinder Downfall,

Simon’s Seat, Grass Woods, The Strid;

they came  by steam train, on the bus,

away from mill and pit and forge,

an England dark with smoke;

passing crumbled slums, grand

neo-classic terraces, iron-railinged

parks, until the cities petered out

on the edges of high moors, big skies;

they came to the quiet of neat fields,

of drystone walls.

They walked miles,

wore caps or trilbies, belted macs,

flapping  turn-up trousers, ordinary shoes.

They knew the habitats of birds and flowers;

they knew shortcuts and hidden waterfalls,

would pull aside wired gates,

push over  ‘Private: Keep Out’ boards,

would not be kept from bluebell woods.

.

At school we had to pray they’d be forgiven,

those trespassers, who rambled viking fells, 

ghylls and cloughs,  sour gritstone moors

and green lanes cropped by mourning sheep.

They knew the land they walked should not be owned, 

wished it was theirs; coveted the cottages 

of the small stone villages, their tidy gardens.

Those men like my father, the woollen spinner,

 namer of birds;  presser of wild flowers.

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Catching up: Mike di Placido’s “Alpha”

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A day late. This is becoming habitual and worrying. Mea culpa. Again. However, it’s Monday morning..sleeves rolled up, best intentions tidily laid out where I can see them, and a poet I like a lot to be introduced. Here we go.

And here’s a question. How many established poets can you name who are equally good at writing funny poems, and poems that are, for the want of a better word, serious? I can name lots of poets who are very good at writing funny poems, but who lapse into sentimentality or worse when they aim at ‘seriousness’. I think Pam Ayres is one, and Les Barker another. There are serious poets who sometimes aim at ‘funny’ and miss by a mile. The ones who do both well are few and far between. Carol Ann Duffy managed both in The World’s Wife. Roger McGough has always managed it, and so has Ian McMillan. In fact, I think our guest poet today occupies the same kind of emotional and topographical territory as McMillan; I think, when you’ve read some of the poems, you’ll agree.

I first heard him before I heard of him…at the Albert Poets in Huddersfield, one of four poets that included Kim Moore. And, like Kim, I was a fan straight off. He’s got a stand-up comedian’s dry delivery and sense of timing. He knows how to deliver a line. Low-key and quick on his feet. There are poets who do a lot of self-publicising. Mike Di Placido isn’t one of them..all light under bushels  and low profile. So, if he won’t blow his own trumpet, I’ll blow one for him. Because how many ex-international footballers do you know who write poetry? How many poets do you know who’ve been shortlisted four times in the PB Pamphlet Competition? 

Mike lives in the village of Seamer, near Scarborough, North Yorkshire. He is an ex-professional footballer and England Youth International – although that time seems to be, increasingly, like some previous incarnation.
His debut pamphlet, Theatre of Dreams (Smith/Doorstop: 2009), takes its title from his trial with Manchester United in the early seventies, recorded in snapshots of Busby, Stiles, Law and, not least, his fourth person of The Trinity, George Best.
After peddling his soccer wares from York City to Australia and New Zealand in the mid-seventies, Mike returned to study, eventually taking an MA in Poetry at Huddersfield University, in 2000, while working as a househusband
His second collection, A Sixty Watt Las Vegas (Valley Press 2013), features poems in celebration of his home town of Scarborough, North Yorkshire. His third collection, Crow flight across the sun ( Calder Valley Poetry 2017) is Mike’s tribute to Ted Hughes and also a thank you to Keith Sagar who read his early poems and encouraged him to keep writing. His poetry has appeared in magazines such as Pennine Platform, The Rialto and his spiritual home The North; and also in Poetry Anthologies by Templar Poetry, Poetrypf and Valley Press. His poems have been shortlisted four times in The Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition [!!]and once for The Bridport Prize (2012). 
He says he also still harbours a lifelong ambition to be a Frank Sinatra impersonator on a cruise ship. Which brings us neatly to Alpha, his latest collection [Poetry Salzburg 2020]. Another question. If you lived, however briefly, in a land of giants how would it be to return to the world of the everyday? 

Steve Ely (I’ll rely on him a lot in this post) put it better when he wrote that :Theatre of Dreams and Crow Flight across the Sun are characterised by a gently self-deprecating tone in which the author adopts the persona of an unexceptional everyman figure, doomed to fall short of the unattainable standards of his heroes. Theatre of Dreams contains a poem in which a speaker resigned to his quotidian life nevertheless wishes he could be more like Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood

I think this is what colours all the poems in Alpha, and the rueful (and wry, and sardonic, and comic) voice of its final poem

Alpha

I’d like to be 

an alpha male – but do you think

the others would mind?

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When it comes to the stellar and the alpha the collection is multifariously wide ranging. Steve Ely again , from his cover endorsement of Alpha:

Themed around an impossibly wide-ranging array of alpha male heroes, anti-heroes and celebrities (Al Pacino, Harald Hardrada, Paul McCartney, Barry Bucknell, Muhammad Ali, and Nostradmus to name but a few), the poems are written from the perspective of …..a never-quite-made-it, beta male persona looking wistfully and sometimes enviously at their achievements. 

Di Placido’s perennial heroes – George Best, Lionel Messi, Ted Hughes, Frank Sinatra – make their appearances too. But alongside these are other literary heroes – John Ashbery, John Keats, R. S. Thomas, Simon Armitage and John Masefield,  and all of them approached in a range of forms all handled with impressive technical dexterity. Ann and Peter Sansom sum the whole thing up thus:

“Such a pleasure, Mike Di Placido’s poems, funny, often moving and completely unlike anyone else’s. Full of story too and told in such a distinctive voice it’s like an audiobook.”

I’ve though hard and long about this post…certainly for too long…not least about how to select poems that will give you a sense of its range. I chose four, eventually. The first is one I’ve heard Mike read almost like a throwaway line between poems, much in the way an AngloSaxon scop would give you a big list of a king’s virtues while he mentally rehearsed the next bit of the narrative.

Usain Bolt

He wouldn’t live with me 

down the back lane from the chippie

to our ’ouse .

I’d leave him for dead over

the first ten yards, for a start,

and he’d never dodge the wheelie bin

outside no 13

or know to jump that hole in the tarmac

near our hedge.

I’d be waving bye-bye

on the right-hand camber 

down the path to our door.

And when he came in –

panting and sheepish to the kitchen –

the kettle’d already be on.

Usain Bolt?

Hmphh…

I’ve always liked the cheek of it, the insousiance and the casually dismissive ‘hmphh’. The pace of it all, the detail, and the way it stage manages its own performance is lovely. I leave you to imagine the timing of the last two lines….it’s an oral poem. You have to do it aloud.

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The next one, like another about Tiresias, assumes a camaraderie with an iconic figure, and an assumption that his lot is pretty awful much in the way of a king who can touch nothing he loves because it will turn, uselessly, to gold.

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Nostradamus

He couldn’t have enjoyed his gift. Imagine:

loving the one who’ll give you herpes 

(or worse); that over there’s the burger bar

that’s going to leave you heaving for a week! 

And you couldn’t put a bet on or go fishing:

winning all the time would bore you rigid

and what to do between the expected

bites and nibbles on your line? 

You’d be a nervous wreck, expecting

toothaches, dead legs, bashing funny bones…

paranoid too: called a prat behind your back

then smiled at – and that’s from your mates!

.

Then the big stuff: plagues, earthquakes, eclipses, 

the Antichrist arriving by taxi. He didn’t need it!

Got pissed off, being the high priest of prescience,

nights waking up in a cold sweat because

some prince or pope’s about to croak it.

So he decided enough was enough: retired 

to a place in the country where he cultivated

amnesia. Settled for the obvious:

full moons, sunrises, sunsets,

winters unlocking into summers;

took himself off the hook, grew cabbages, 

changed his name. 

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When I read this I can imagine that when he changed his name it might just well be di Placido, and has retreated with the poet into his shed, settling for the wonderful obvious, the daily, seasonal miracles. This is one of those that reminds me of his kinship with Ian McMillan, the sense of fun combined with an essential emotional seriousness.

Next up, I wanted a poem from Mike’s own landscape and its history. I’m intrigued by the sympathy the narrator seems to have for Hardrada, who in 1066 landed with a force of 10,000 warriors and 250 longships, maurauded down the the Northumbrian and Cleveland coast, allegedly burned down the town of Scarborough, and was finally killed in a berserk state at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Harald, the embodiment of everyone’s idea of a Viking warrior, I guess. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that if the forces of Harold of Wessex had not had to make forced marches to oppose Hardrada and then to move at speed all the way down to Hastings, the Normans may not have won, and England would be a different nation. However, the narrator has the same sympathetic, if qualified respect for Hardrada as some of us feel for Richard, at Bosworth, say.

Hardrada in Scarborough Bay

September, 1066

The North Bay, at anchor

rocking on a full swell.

The smell on board’s a crew-full 

of men – but you’re used to that –

and anyway, the brine in the wind

and the water sorts that out, 

as you stare into the offing

and the looming scar of rock ahead, 

weighing the level of resistance, if any, 

when the prows of your dragonships

bite the beach.

.

You know what it’s like

to bide your time in a bay, 

to wait for the moment, the right moment, 

before you’re off and in –

but this is different: 

because you’re Hardrada, Harold 

Hardrada (the Ruthless), to be exact;

and those dreams you’ve been having,

and those dragons in the night skies

are giving even you pause for thought –

you, who have never admitted to fear 

and who, now, as then, can tell no one.

.

But how could you know of the force

that will butcher you and your men just

days from now, or how they, in turn, 

will be slaughtered shortly after?

And so you stare into sea flint,

then up into the boiling welkin

and the wrath of the gods, wrestling

in vain with these strange runes,

then do what you’ve always done –

act: marshal the fear to work for you,

push on into hell. 

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Finally, a poem that is my favourite in the whole collection. Everything about it is tender, assured. It never puts a foot wrong.

To R.S. Thomas

If poetry can’t cope with what God means in the late twentieth century, then it doesn’t 

deserve to be regarded as a major art form.

                                      R.S. Thomas. The Independent, Saturday 27th February 1993 

I was wondering if, towards the end,

faith’s compass had failed you?

Whether its bleak north proved illusory

(the needle going haywire

in some terrible

re-configuration). I hope not.

.

I hope it stayed true to its promise

(though trembling as those needles do);

that what you met there vindicated utterly

the journey towards that

which you’d divined on your peninsula

(as near to heaven as could be without touching)

.

or in your verse: those chiselled, austere,

persistent attempts to explain the unexplainable;

views now deemed, at best, ‘old hat’,

precisely because of that.

.

Perhaps, though, you’d found it all along –

the journey (not the destination) being the point.

In perfecting your art, you perfected yourself,

knowing

.

that that little is more than enough.

.

It’s what I mean about Mike di Placido’s ability to be funny and to be serious, and in this case, reverential. I love the use of those tentative parentheses, the qualifications of hope, and the way it turns on the core image of the compass needle, and God as true (if bleak) north

I hope it stayed true to its promise

(though trembling as those needles do)

It’s taken me far too long to catch up with Mike di Placido and Alpha. I find myself finishing with another quotation from Steve Ely.

Alpha is quite a tour-de-force, a delight on every level – these poems are vivid, pro-found, compassionate – and often laugh-out-loud funny.”    

Except that I’d change the order of that sentence. I say:

“these poems are often laugh-out-loud funny. They are also vivid, pro-found, and above all, compassionate.”

Like I said at the beginning, there aren’t that many poets who are both.

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PS. I’d just finished when this stop press piece arrived in my email inbox. So now you have a post like a DVD or a CD, with outtakes and Director’s thoughts. Which is nice

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On Alpha

“I’ve written lots and lots of Alpha-type poems over the years (as well as those in my previous three collections) and, at some point, I had the idea that I could not only lump a lot of them together, but also, through the title poem, set a prism, of sorts, through which the poems could be viewed and notions of Alpha-ness celebrated and, where appropriate, deconstructed and challenged. It seemed incongruently topical, too, in the light of a more questioning time in gender politics – although this was never a main aim, as such, just something which occurred as the book took shape. Also, many pieces which I’ve always had a feeling for and which, for some reason, had never been published or placed anywhere, could have a home at last. Pleasingly, I can also report that some of these pieces – many written at the very start of my writing career, for want of a better word/description – have registered the most positive responses amongst readers, and many of those readers are writers whose work I admire and respect. (The sequence on Wilfred Owen has been accepted by The Wilfred Owen Society, for instance, and will be appearing in one of the Society’s journals later this year.)

Ok, so not a staggering ‘How to’ account of putting a collection together, I grant you, but there you go! Sometimes – most times – I’d say, simplicity can be the key. Interestingly, too, the project seems to have continued since the completion of the book. Those natural bedfellows – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Francis Bacon, Albert Einstein, Norman MacCaig, John Cooper Clark, Kevin McCloud from TV’s Grand Designs and Dick Strawbridge from Escape to the Chateau are all pushing for a place in the second edition of Alpha, which will surely be forthcoming as sales go through the roof…..

Well, I’m nothing if not an unreconstructed optimist! “

If you want to know more about Mike, then try his website. It’s very handsome. Here’s the link

https://www.mikediplacidopoetry.co.uk

The books:

Theatre of dreams:  [smith|doorstop] £5.00

A sixty watt Las Vegas [Valley Press] £7.99

Crow flight across the sun [Calder Valley Poetry] £8.70 incl.p&p

Alpha [Poetry Salzburg] £10.00 +£2.00 p&p

Acknowledgement: The image accompanying Harald Hardrada is by the wonderful Len Tabner. It’s actually a painting done further up the coast. But it’s the right coast, and, I think, exactly the right light.

Stocking fillers

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I committed myself to ‘catching up’….particularly and especially to catching up with work I liked by poets that I like. At one time I used to do this pretty much on a weekly basis (I had a role model called Kim Moore). Still do, but I simply can’t keep up. But I do want to keep the great fogginzo’s cobweb ticking over. 

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How many of you remember The Interlude on television, when there was only one (b/w) channel and a 17” screen was regarded as excessive, and potentially damaging to eyesight unless you lived  in a huge house? Programme sequences were interrupted intermittently by the interlude. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was because the programmers had all grown up with the notion that visual entertainment like the theatre and the cinema traditionally had interval breaks when you could in one case go to the bar, and in another, buy an ice cream from a lady with a tray. Or maybe they thought that television posed too great a challenge to the concentration and/or eyesight, and that viewers needed a break for reasons of health and safety. 

Whatever the  reason,there would be a break that may feature a gently turning windmill or the hands of a person you never saw working at a potter’s wheel. It’s only just now struck me that they both involved turning wheels. Why? Are wheels soothing? If you use Google, you’ll find there was also one with a lady working a spinning wheel, but every now and then, a kitten playing with a ball of wool, and one of teams of horse drawn ploughs.

So I thought that if it was good enough for the BBC in its pomp, it was good enough for me. One reason why I write poems, and about poems, is that some years ago I used to go to folk clubs which were essentially sing-/play-arounds. The organiser would point to me and say “are you performing” and I’d say no and that would be it, until one night the organiser said ‘can’t you do a poem or something’. That’s how it started. At first I’d perform other people’s poems…Pam Ayres, Roger McGough, Mike Harding and so on. Because poems in folk clubs basically, need to be funny, probably need to rhyme, and need a punch line. They need to be compact and robust. Which is what much oral poetry was, originally. I discovered that writing your own stuff is a lot harder than you’d think, and I think I learned a fair amount about the trade from trying. Sometimes I’d try what I thought of as ‘real poems’, but they didn’t work, and once I decided I wanted an audience for them, I shifted my allegiance to poetry open mics. Bit by bit I assembled a folder that I called ‘Stand-ups and stocking fillers’. Sometimes I’d use some of them to finish a set at a reading, just to leave the audience with a laugh, or sometimes to relieve what may have been a bleak sequence. One or two have been published. Very often, writing workshops would set a task that prompted what I’d think of as  a stocking filler.

And now I see that I have a use for them again, in the absence of open mics and readings in the real world. The poetry equivalent of the potter’s wheel and the kitten with the ball of wool. So here we go with the very first interlude, the very first stocking filler, while I get on with planning the next Catching Up post.

Two poems tonight. Each comes from a workshop task. One where you’re given an obscure word from the OED (thanks for this one, Ann Sansom) and do something like writing a definition, or treating it as an object in a display case, or being taken on a guided tour of it. The second (thank you Carola Luther) is to be given a list of odd sounding/unusual place names and writing someting like a travel brochure entry for it..or, again, giving a guided tour. I think that at the time I’d been reading a book by Jonathan Raban about the abandoned settlements of the American prairies. Something of the sort. I sort of believe they’re real now. Here we go. Interlude time.

Boanthropy

.

Sprung up damn near overnight

when the railroad come through. 1878.

Nuthin’ here but saltbush flats,

buncha tumbleweed, willows out by the creek.

Hard to tell. But this here’s Main street.

There’d a been the First National Bank, 

grainstore, hardware, general store,

haberdashers, three saloons, a whorehouse

(course, they wouldna called it that).

Later, gas station, J C Penney’s, soda fountain,

Episcopalians, the Baptists, and the Coloured church,

Picture Palace, auto wrecker’s, stockyards.

.

Interstate went right on by, what,

twenty years gone now. Nuthin here

but saltbush flats, a buncha tumbleweed,

the creek run dry.

Them rusted-up gaspumps there.

Boanthropy. Sounds kinda fine.

.

Aint worth spit.  

.

  (To save you looking it up: boanthropy:    a mental condition in which the sufferer believes he is an ox. OED)

Dead Women Crossing Bridge

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Weren’t always a bridge, just a slackwater place,

sandspits, yellow bluffs, just a slow turn

on the river, willows on the edges.

Dead Women Crossing.

You might go there, one day.

Come off the Interstate. Ain’t no sign.

But come off by the Mobil place.

Been shut down twenty years or more.

Rusted to hell.

Blacktop ain’t too good.

Keep goin west. Just mesquite, prairie scrub.

Big red silo. Lundquist’s place.

Keep on past there. ‘Bout an hour near enough.

Used to be they had a store.

Baptist church still goin’.

Shotgun motel. And the bridge.

Over that you’re out the other side.

Goin’ nowhere pretty much.

That’s it. Dead Women Crossing.

.

Why they call it Dead Women Crossin’?

Maybe sometime back they was some women went and died there.

.

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Next time, we’ll be doing some catching up. See you then.

Catching up: Maria Taylor’s “Dressing for the afterlife”

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Hey, you guys, you gotta wear ties on the weekend! : Eddie Cochran

We had Weekends when I first started this poetry blog, and Sundays were for writing poetry blog posts. I didn’t always want to, but the routine was the thing. A bit like Saturday night being all right for fighting. Or the way that Saturday nights before television were for going to the cinema or the Mecca. 

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Something has happened to time, to weeks and weekends in the last 14 months. Isolation, shielding and lockdowns effectively meant there were no trips out, no holidays, no shopping. Shopping was something a neighbour did for us, or, more alarmingly, what I did late at night via Google, so that Amazon kept delivering stuff I couldn’t quite remember ordering. In theory I could have got up and gone to bed at any time, since all times were much the same…..but the sun rises and sets and there is some kind of rhythm to hang on to. It’s just that the names of days don’t signify. There have been weeks when for three days in a row I might say things like I keep thinking it’s Friday. The routines slip. 

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Shortly, there will be no excuse. For a week now I’ve been relishing the heady excitements of getting in the car and driving to shops, of mooching round Wickes and B&Q, of buying gravel. Taking in the novelty and odd normality of sanitising stations at the doors of Sainsbury’s and the Tesco garage; the arrows and two-metre space markers on the floors. In odd ways, beyond the  news headlines, this is not my country, not exactly. I don’t speak the language, or at least, not fluently. I’ve lost my tongue. I stutter.

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So here I am, writing this on Bank Holiday Monday, which actually feels like a Sunday. Somehow I’m a week behind, again. One day I’ll know what day it is, and what I need to do on it. One day, maybe, I’ll really catch up. In the meantime let me say how pleased I am that Maria Taylor is today’s guest. I haven’t seen her since January 2020, in the far off days when writing workshops were in places like the Millenium Gallery in Sheffield, on frosty mornings. I’m mentioning this for a bit of serendipity…the poem she took to workshop in the afternoon was I began ther twenty-twenties as a silent film goddess is now the second poem in her second collection which was published last year, and which I will share with you all today. 

[and now today is Tuesday. Lordy lordy. Not sure what happened there……it’s an odd business, coming down from chemo and coming off steroids. I was tired. Simple as that. Fingers crossed I get the job finished today.]

What I was about to say, yesterday, is that I remember two things about the afternoon workshop. One: it was in part of the art gallery, and there weren’t quite enough chairs to start with, and people kept peering in to see what we were up to. Two: I was knocked out by Maria’s poem and I said so, and afterwards managed to tell her that it felt like she was stepping up a gear, pushing the envelope, writing more boldly. I didn’t mean this in the way that one reviewer did.  

In a “Litter” review, Alan Baker talks about an impressive achievement in which the poet’s move towards a language-driven poetics bears fruit in apparently simple poems about immediate experience which are woven effectively with more adventurous poetic structures

There are certainly poems like  Everything is is a fight between winter and spring (which is left- and right- justified), and And there she was in the shrunken apatrment… (which is right-justified) and Moon in Gemini which is right-justified and which, fashionably, uses forward slashes to break the lines. 

But what I meant had nothing to do with form/poetics, and games with shape, but more about what John McCullough meant in his back cover endorsement:  Maria Taylor’s new collection is exhilaratingly bold…[the poems] are constantly surprising. It also had something to do with what Kathy Pimlott calls her extravagantly vagrant thought paths (though I didn’t know that at the time ).You’ll see what they meant, shortly.

Maria was a guest poet for the cobweb back in 2015. There’s a link at the end of the post if you want to know more. At the time, I’d written a review of her first collection for The North, in which I said

‘Maria Taylor’s Melanchrini, whose title I take as the touchstone for the whole collection – melanchrini – ‘the dark-featured young woman’ , it seems, is, and isn’t Maria herself. An alter ego, a persona, that gives her license to watch and comment. Born in England of Greek/Cypriot parents, she and many of her personae inhabit the edgelands of overlapping, and sometimes antagonistic, cultures where a sense of identity and belonging sometimes feels hard to come by.’ 

I also said: ‘Maria Taylor can come across as edgily hip and sardonic. In 99/2000, as bells toll the end of the millenium: ……

somewhere around the eight we finished
the last hilarious fuck of the twentieth century

but the toughness and urban savvy isn’t exactly as it seems. Our love was still a secret..because mum and dad haven’t been told. Why is that? And there’s something hugely wistful about the last stanza, when she goes back alone to pick up her parents from her aunt’s house.

On the mantlepiece a calendar, with a Byzantine icon
of St Michael, his stiff painted wings trying to open,
my mum and dad wondering how long they’d keep hold,
me saying ‘Happy New Year, I’m here, let’s go home

Where exactly IS home? her poems ask, again and again. Her dad doesn’t know; he’s a stranger in his own village, and her mum is too busy at the Singer to answer. We’re not excluded, quite. But we’re on the edges, neither one place or another.’

When I went back to this earlier post, I think I nailed what I’d meant when I said that the new poems were ‘stepping up a gear’. I think I meant that this poet in 2020 is surer of who she is, and who knows exactly what she’s up to when she inhabits all manner of edgier personae. The wistfulness is nore likely to be replaced by a hard-won confidence and swagger. Maybe Matthew Stewart puts it better, more accurately:

‘Throughout Dressing for the Afterlife, the reader is witness to the unfurling of a poet whose comfort in her own skin is attained by acute self-awareness. This enables her to explore issues without the need to resolve them. One such theme is that of her national identity, always approached obliquely as in the following extract from ‘She Ran’:

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‘I ran through my mother’s village and flew past

armed soldiers at the checkpoint. I ran past

my grandparents’ and Bappou’s mangy goats

with their mad eyes and scaled yellow teeth

I ran straight through Oxford and Cambridge

didn’t stop……………’

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It begs (he says) the question: where does she/the poet/the narrator belong? When I read and re-read this collection, I’m more and more convinced that she knows the answers, now, in a way she didn’t, six or seven years ago. The distance travelled is measured beautifully in the first and last poems in Dressing for the afterlife. Both are about running. 

The first, She ran opens on a note of what, defiance?

                       ‘ I took up running when I turned forty

                         I opened my front door and and started running’

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and ends: ‘I couldn’t get as far as I wanted’ . 

In the final poem of the collection, in Woman running alone, she has become ‘a woman who follows her own trail’. It’s a poem that ends with a wonderful affirmation:

  ‘The rhythm fills her with flight – 
and her wings,

what wings she has –’. 

 

To which I say Amen. Time for the poems, I think. The poems I asked for are not, I suppose the obvious ones, the ones that inhabit glamorous personae. But each in its own way has stuck. The first one because of its ..that  word again..swagger. But also for the ending, its surefootedness. It was first published in what feels like the prototype of this collection, a pamphlet from Happenstance. Instructions for making me

 
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Poem in Which I Lick Motherhood

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I have several children, all perfect, with tongues made of soap and PVA glue running through their veins. My boys and girls benefit from eating the rainbow. I iron children twice daily. Creases are the devil’s hoof print. I am constructed from sticky-back tape, pipe cleaners and clothes pegs. There are instructions for making me. Look at the appropriate shelves in reputable stores. I am fascinated by bunk beds, headlice and cupcakes. You will only leave the table when I have given you clear instructions. So far I have not. The school-run is my red carpet. Yes, you’re right, how do I manage it? Though, I didn’t ask you. Dreaming is permitted from 7:40 to 8:20 am on Saturdays and Bank Holidays. My children’s reward charts are full of glittery stars. I am the Milky Way. Crying is dirty. One housepoint! Two if you eat up all your peas. I always go off half an hour before my alarm. In the morning I speak a language of bleeps and bell tones. Chew with your mouth closed. No. Don’t chew at all.  Admire the presentation. Underneath my ribs is a complex weather system of sunshine and showers. Heat rises from me and blows across the gulf stream of my carefully controlled temper. 

Sometimes I am mist.’

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I loved this one, straight off. I read Facebook posts by mothers who have all in one way or another been persuaded by a child’s tantrum that that they are doing it wrong, that they don’t know the rules, that they are a Bad Parent. It always seemed to me as a very young father (equally guilty of being a Bad Parent but not made to feel like it) that there was a closed shop of Mothers Who Know but that any individual mother is not allowed to belong to it and is frowned upon for not knowing the rules. Here’s a poem for them. The last line, almost an afterthought, tells you what it takes out of you…the effort, the bravado. The last line nails it. Lovely.

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The next one comes as a surprise in the collection. I wanted it for its craft, the accuracy of language, for its precision, its pin-sharp images.

The Bee-Bird

We duly found an inscription under the base, 

believed to be in Sir Vauncey’s hand… We could 

make out its name, ‘the bee bird’… ‘died 1895.’ 

  • notes taken at Calke Abbey

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In his cabinets of wasted wings

a heron’s beak clasps a fish,

its convex eyes a jet prison.

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Bell-jars of hoarded birds

stuffed with their master’s tedium:

faded goldfinches and redpolls,

a frozen kestrel, wings unstretched

for impossible flight.

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I imagine his birds reborn,

darting through his stuffy rooms, 

a chaos of feathers in his Lady’s boudoir 

across the airless library. 

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Unhatched eggs crack open.

Chicks beg, hungry for more

than sawdust and rags.

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And there at his sash window

a yellow and black canary, 

tiny and alive – singing, singing. 

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It needs no commentary, really. It speaks beautifully for itself, this poem about defiant resilience, about song. And maybe, too, about poetry.

Finally a poem about love; it adds to the list which includes the kind of love called maintenance, and to what will survive of us. Particularly it was good to learn about

                                                  philautia,

loving the self. Not so easy. For others 

who dive into pools of themselves

too easy. Be your own best friend.

I wondered when I read it again , and then again, if this was not the core message of the whole collection, written by someone who understands just how and why it’s not so easy.

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Learning to love in Greek

They said beware eros, though many 

begin with madness. Learn to fall

in love with dancing – this is ludic

the love you felt for skipping ropes

or bikes. If eros and ludus combine 

you may suffer mania, the white blood 

of the moon that petrifies. Grow phillia,

the love of football fans on terraces.

Chant together. Fight with the same heart.

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If you have children or a puppy

you’ll know storgi, it rhymes with be.

It sits at kitchen tables, magnetises 

crayon drawings to fridges. If you don’t

have these, you may feel storgi

from an old aunt, a mate. A lover

might see the child hiding in you

from a cowlick of grey that won’t

be brushed straight. Then philautia,

loving the self. Not so easy. For others 

who dive into pools of themselves

too easy. Be your own best friend. 

When love moves into a house

with a mortgage and enough space

for the future, this is pragma.

To stand in love comes after falling.

Pray you’ll land on your feet. 

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Above all, agapè – when you forget 

who you are and take someone’s hand.

Dressing for the afterlife is one of those rare books that does pretty much what it says on the tin (or on the back cover) :

 a diamond-tough and tender second collection of poems and how we adapt to the passage of time.. these poems shimmy and glimmer bittersweet with humour and brio. 

The poems in Melanchrini were about personal and cultural identity, always asking ‘where do I fit?’ These poems are surer about the answer. In She ran, (which tangentially reminds me of Dylan’s what did you see my blueyed son?) whether running away or towards doesn’t get the narrator what she wants or waht she thinks she wants. By the end of the collection she’s grown out of or beyond the glitzy masks and personae she’s tried on:

‘I’d like to be the woman next door

with a walk that says I know where I’m going

or in Wearing red, like wearing purple, it’s not a disguise.

In Woman running alone she is

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                                                               ‘neither running away

                     nor running towards anyone, wind-sifted

                     letting the weather sing through her,

                     she who is different to her brothers.

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                    The rhythm fills her with flight –

                                                  and her wings

                                                      what wings she has –

Isn’t that satisfying! That’s what I meant by the poems having stepped up a gear. Thank you for letting me share youe poems Maria Taylor. I’m sorry it’s taken so long.

…right, my lovely readers. Off you go and buy the book.

Dressing for the Afterlife: Nine Arches Press [£9.99]

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And here’s the link to the earlier post

.https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2015/10/18/reviewing-the-situation-and-a-polished-gem-11-maria-taylor/

 8

Catching up: Mike Farren’s “Smithereens”

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Catching up….but slowly, me. Trying to get to grips with ending a course of chemothrapy which involved maintaining the daily intake of steroids that I’ve been taking for about two and a half years; all part of the cancer treatment. Feeling decidedly off-it for the last couple of weeks as the steroid intake tapers off. I looked up the possible side effects. I appear to be able to tick off lots of them, particularly tiredness, recurrent anxiety, loss of stamina and poor concentration. None of them are in any way severe, but they do slow me down and slow my thinking down. They screw up the rhythm that I think we all need when we write. 

So apologies for the week’s delay in getting this post done, and apologies in advance for any muddled prose.

I’m really pleased to be writing about Mike Farren’s Smithereens for all sorts of reasons that will become clear as we go along. But I have to say that the first one was its title, which is, I think, only the second use of the word in a poem since Tony Harrison’s Bookends in the 70s. The poet and his father are sitting in a morose silence, either side of the gas fire, sitting out the night of the day Harrison’s mother dropped dead. It’s one of many poems that explores the business of articulacy, of education, the way they separate families that should be close, make them inarticulate and awkward in each other’s company. Like Dylan says we never did too much talking anyway, but as he didn’t say, it’s not all right. Not at all.

A night you need my company to pass

and she not here to tell us we’re alike!

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Your life’s all shattered into smithereens

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Back in our silences and sullen looks

for all the Scotch we drink, what’s still between’s

not the thirty or so years, but books, books, books

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It’s not just the title ‘Smithereens’ that resonates but the obduracy.. the stupidity, if you like.. of the men and their silence. As Harrison says in the poem, his mother’s not there to break it. It’s a theme I keep coming back to, as I did in the last post on the cobweb, where I wrote this:

From time to time I try to write about the notion that women experience the world differently from me, from men. I sometimes use a quotation from one of my favourite novelists to shine a light on what I mean. She’s writing about the human condition; I narrow the focus for the sake of argument:

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary life it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well-wadded with stupidity”  George Eliot. ‘Middlemarch’

I’m thinking of the kind of stupidity that stops some of us from ‘keeping in touch’, from asking the right questions at the right time, from saying what ought to be said, from telling each other what the other needs to know. It cropped up again, obliquely, in a recent post of Anthony Wilson’s, which caught me just as I happened to be thinking about how to write this appreciation of Mike Farren’s collection. 

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  “I had bumped into a friend at the cash machine. We greeted each other, as we always do, with a handshake, then set about putting the world to rights. My work, his work; my family, his. ……..As you do.

And then something that I was not prepared for. It turned out that he had been ill, briefly and seriously, and that I had known nothing about it. Profuse apologies followed, batted off with a wave as though I had merely missed a dinner party. Think nothing of it. How could you have known? We told no one. And with speed we moved on to other things, something lighter, the rise of Islamic State perhaps, to break the tension.

As you do.” [A day he won’t have. Lifesaving poems. 9/5/2021]

“As you do”. Exactly. Awkwardness ‘batted away’. The women in my life would never have let that happen. They would have known, they would have told each other. They would have the imagination to know that their friend would need to know about them, if only to avoid this kind of uncomfortable awkardness. It’s part of the same attention to others that remembers people’s birthdays, and keeps in touch, that has long telephone conversations. Whereas men like me, who are ‘stupid’ don’t tell their children that they need chemotherapy, and then are surprised when their children are angry/upset to find out by accident. As you do.

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There’s another thing, too. The poems in Smithereens tell the story of a friendship which lasted more than 40 years, beginning at school before either party was a teenager, and ending with the untimely death of A from alcohol related causes. Mike writes in his introduction to the collection that 

“I prefer not to name ..but to memorialisethe life of a brilliant, eccentric, self-contradictory individual. I miss him terribly”. 

He also writes in one of the poems about the things/ we hadn’t need to say/for forty odd years. Although, of course, the irony of the collection is that, yes, they had need to, but didn’t.

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And one more thing. For 40 years Mike and met only intermittently, and rarely contacted each other. lived and worked in the US, mainly in the days before we had Facebook or email to give us no excuses for not being regularly in touch. Another stab of conscience in that. My two closest friends moved abroad twenty years ago or more. And, being stupid, I didn’t/don’t keep regularly in touch. My oldest friend, my schoolmate/soul mate, who lived in Spain, and who I only talked to intermittently , died eight years ago, before I got round to telling him how much I’d needed his friendship. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. I stayed for a few  days with him in Spain before I went to my first poetry residential in Alicante, and four months before he died. He was baffled by the fact that I didn’t drink any more. He didn’t quite know what to make of me. Hey ho. So it goes. But you’ll see why Smithereens spoke so directly to my own experience before I began to take in the quality of the writing..which is beautifully summed up in Kim Moore’s endorsement of poems:

shot through with real tenderness and love, [that] tell the story of a friendship between two men which stretches across a lifetime and around the world. The pamphlet’s narrative is as compelling as a novel, and each individual poem is that rare thing – a true moment of musicality and lyricism. (Kim Moore)

So now you know why I want to share the poems with you, it’s high time that I did. Mike can introduce himself.

“I was born and raised in Bradford, where I returned after spells in the South and the East Midlands. Having won a grammar school scholarship (with heavy prompting from my father, who had been unable to take up the one he won in the 30s), I found myself studying English Literature at university without a clue what to do with it. 

After a depressing couple of years as an accountant, I ended up working in IT for nearly thirty years.

I knew I wanted to write and even tried an MA at Sheffield Hallam, which I nearly failed on the back of some terrible short stories, but I didn’t really take up poetry until my 50s, around the time I was able to take a step back from full-time working. I joined Beehive Poets in Bradford and Wharfedale Poets in Ilkley and had a big break when I won publication of a pamphlet by Templar in 2017.

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I have since gone on to have two more pamphlets published – All of the Moons (Yaffle), which was set to music by Keely Hodgson, and Smithereens (4Word). I was a solo publisher of anthologies before I joined Gill Lambert, Mark Connors and Lorna Faye Dunsire to start Yaffle Press, and I have been one of the hosts of Rhubarb open mic for the last couple of years.

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I first met Mike via poetry nights at the Beehive and poetry events in Otley and Ilkley…and more recently, until Covid stopped us in our tracks, at Poetry Business days in Sheffield. It was there that heard Mike workshop some of his poems, and knew I wanted to share some on the cobweb. So here they are.

Fewston

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These days are as calm, serene and infinite
as the early autumn sky reflected in
the unruffled water of the reservoir.

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Almost every story I can tell her
she hasn’t heard before and almost all 
their narratives point toward a happy end

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and, as if there aren’t enough already, 
we steal fragments of sentences we hear 
from strangers in the instant they pass by

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and make them meaningful by making them
ours – smooth out the tensions they express
or magnify their little happiness.

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And I talk about you: the friend she hasn’t met
and won’t, for years, because you are so far 
away – about the gilded summer night

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we sat here, just us two, with cans of beer
and planned the legends of our future lives,
not thinking to factor in the world’s resistance

.

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to plans, and everything that could go wrong
and will – but hasn’t yet, for me and her,
on a day so calm, serene and infinite.

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Mike tells me that “Fewston was one of the last to be written and means a lot to me but I almost hesitated to put it in, given that it’s more about Tricia, my (now) wife than about A.” I’m not sure that I agree, because although I love the unalloyed happiness of the poem, its quietness beside unruffled waters, there’s a shadow in the second stanza which is the presence of the narrative told by the whole collection.

Almost every story I can tell her
she hasn’t heard before and almost all 
their narratives point toward a happy end

The repetition of ‘almost’ is something you might not notice at first, but you’ll almost certainly have had your attention snagged by the slightly odd syntax of the first two lines. The poem may have come late, but it could almost have been the first poem in the book. It has the quality of a Garrison Keillor story that signs off : Stories are true. Anything can happen.  Bittersweet.

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The second poem I chose for the contrast, both of mood and of style. Because this is a collection full of variety in its handling of language and form.

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Angry

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at a lifetime of never showing anger / always taking it all on the chin / being strong & stoical // we belonged to a generation of englishmen / of human beings / long gone now or maybe always a fiction / because everyone I meet is angry as fuck / why should I be any different 

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at them for being so angry that they make the same mistakes you could have warned them about / from two thousand odd years of knowledge // how some big dick personality drags a country down / so easily // how empires rot on their own complacency / their assumption some gods / & their natural superiority / always keep them on top // how repression & resentment bubble away for centuries // how game shows & reality tv are modern bread & circuses

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at how the world you thought you made your own / closed ranks // kept you the outsider / after thirty years proving how you fitted in // how everyone knew what you were looking for // let you go on & on & never / ever / find it

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& with you / like I was never capable of being angry before // not just anger / at waste of talent / at waste of life // but that you left me / to find my way / to navigate this / angry  /  fucking   /   world    /    all     /     by      /      my       /       self

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The rawness of this is something that sticks, as is the honest admission of resentment and, if you like, self-pity. How could you do this to me ??? If I had to think of a visual analogy, it might be the estate agent’s window in St Malo 1980.. about their first trip abroad together, the faked insouciance of the 17 yr old who sits

 on the ledge / of the closed immobilier, /[you] lean on the plate glass window- shatter / everything to smithereens

.

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I couldn’t make up my mind which of two poems to end with. Unable to choose, here are both, one from the beginning of the collection and the second from the end. What you need to do, of course, is to buy the book and then you’ll understand the irony of the the second.

Afterwards

Afterwards, there’s no need to be anxious.

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Afterwards, your lack of health
insurance doesn’t matter.

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Afterwards, there’s no reason 
to numb the pain: 
there is no pain.

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Afterwards, the idiocy, 
political illiteracy 
and failure to learn 
are not your problem.

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Afterwards, your ghost 
lives on on social media, 
in letters never sent to me – 
your birthday I can’t bring myself 
to strike out from my calendar… 

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Afterwards, things fall apart, 
as if you’d been the cornerstone 
that held our world 
unwittingly together.

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Afterwards, your daughter finds you
when there is no longer 
any you for her to find – 

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afterwards she takes her chance
with all the rest of us you left behind.

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And afterwards, I raise a glass to you.

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It’s a reminder that death is no problem for the one who died. It’s the ones left behind who have to deal with the what-ifs,the muddle, and, very often, the guilt. 

Thank you, Mike Farren for being our guest and sharing Smithereens.  You didn’t just write a poem. You wrote two life stories.

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I wrote you a poem

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it didn’t say the things
we hadn’t needed to say 
for forty-odd years;

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it talked about coming home,
when I’m not sure where
it was you saw as home;

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it never mentioned 
your daughter or told you
where you might find her;

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it talked about talking with ghosts,
when I didn’t realise you’d be
a ghost before you could read it;

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it talked of holiday 
and drinking together,
while you were drinking alone 

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day after day after day.

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  [To buy a copy of Smithereens, see https://www.4word.org/titles/]

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Catching up: Helen Ivory’s “The Anatomical Venus”

I can’t keep up. Here’s a book published in 2019, and I’m only just getting round to it. In the poetry world that churns out collections and pamphlets and chapbooks by the thousand, 2019 might as well be the remote past. It’s like when I used to subscribe to Q magazine, and attempted to keep up with reviews of hundreds of new albums a month, all of which were the next Big Thing. And then they weren’t. It was pointless. I stopped trying.

With poetry I more and more rely on word of mouth, which sort of dries up when there are no readings to go to, no courses where people say, “have you read…?”. Everyone loses out.

And what if you’ve just published something. Imagine, you struggle, and work, and rework, and submit, and go to open mics, and one day someone offers to publish your first pamphlet/chapbook/whatever. There’s no feeling quite like it. But it happens in the middle of a pandemic, so you can’t go to readings and open mics and get the chance to sell your book (most of my sales have been on the back of readings), and you can’t charge your batteries on that energy, and gradually you see the wave’s subsided under you, and you’re floating in dead water. And you have books you can’t shift.

Now, imagine that poetry is your business, your profession. You rely on readings, on running courses, on tutoring…and on the back of that you go on writing, and hopefully selling your work. That’s how it is. Your job. Lockdown leaves you in dead water just as surely as if being published was a hobby. A nice one. But a sideline. Meanwhile, The Anatomical Venus should be flying off the shelves and hoovering up the accolades and starring at festivals. If you’ve bought it already you’ll need no telling. And if you haven’t, I hope the next few minutes will persuade you your life is incomplete till you do.

Sometimes a poem, a book, a voice speaks to you, makes you sit up. The Anatomical Venus does that for me, to me, no question. It’s full of what Clive James calls ‘the moments that draw you in’, when you recognise a poem as a poem, when it says that this is what it is. Something that memorises itself as you speak it, something that hooks you and reels you in. Sometimes it’s the sheer zestfulness of the thing, the unabashed love of language, its quirks and textures that are the stuff of en-chantment and incantation. So, yes, that. But also precision, the accurate control of the medium, a sure ear and eye, all that, and passion too. I don’t think it’s overstating the case to say that Helen Ivory has all of that.

When I first read The Anatomical Venus I’d taken it with me to hospital . A session of chemotherapy is, counterintuitively, a good place to read poetry in. Quiet and peaceful as a Quaker meeting. It does mean you can’t read aloud, but this collection has a voice you can hear in your head. I highlighted hook after hook after hook…like these:

These should give you a taste for the language of the collection. A feast of crafted imagery, which may be visual , like the mendicant dark, or auditory, like the whispering moth (I love that ‘snick’), true and witty, like the spoons, textured (shockingly) like the ransacked eel…what a word, ransacked .., epic and spacious, like the sail of seraphs, and so on. There’s an accurate ear for consonants, and a precise understanding of verbs and what they can do. And then, of course, there’s the black irony of her demolition of the Puritan husband who has his wife burned as a witch

he had witnessed Sarah transmute/ from flesh into fire/heard the spirits/scream out of her

He can disguise the barbarity of the deed in the language of his religion and law, but the nightmares ride him and ride him though she is dead, and she will not be exorcised

What else? This is a passionately felt collection that quietly seethes with righteous anger and pity, at the world of women who have too often found their only protest in hurting themselves; the ones who resisted, burned or drowned as witches, force-fed as suffragettes, or diagnosed as mad, and treated accordingly. By men. One way and another , this raises an issue that chronically bothers me. From time to time I try to write about it on the cobweb, this notion that women experience the world differently from me, from men. I sometimes use a quotation from one of my favourite novelists to shine a light on what I mean. She’s writing about the human condition; I narrow the focus for the sake of argument:

I wrote about this, not too coherently, 6 or 7 years ago. (here’s a link if you’re interested https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2014/12/28/the-other-side-of-silence/). It’s something I go on trying to tease out. I often say I was brought up by women, and in the company of women. When I was small, by the time my dad came home from work, I was in bed. I could wander into the houses of neighbours and eavesdrop uncomprehending on ‘women’s talk’ as I sat under a table. I went to my mother’s embroidery classes in a school library, where I sat on the floor and pretended to read. Or I’d be taken to visit a great aunt in a segregated old folk’s home, full of old ladies in various stages of sparkiness and confusion. All my Primary school teachers were women. A boys’ grammar school and an all male college made no real dent on the impact of my growing up. When I became a teacher, it was women teachers who gave me books like Dale Spender’s Man Made language, and Elaine Morgan’s The descent of woman; it was Miss lamb who gave me Melanie Klein’s Mathematics and Western Culture.

This is what I wrote in that earlier blog post.

“It’s not an accident that some of the poems that have moved me most of late are written by women. It’s not an accident, either, that I’ve been absorbed in stories of metamorphosis, particularly in retellings of Ovid. What has been consistent in this is the feeling that women have access to knowledge that men can’t have. The feeling that women are metamorphic and tidal, that they go through changes that a man can’t imagine, and that this makes them capable of different modes of imagining. It doesn’t mean that all of them can articulate it, or are necessarily consciously aware of it. But when they are the results are powerful and unnerving. When I re-read Ted Hughes’ retellings of Ovid, and even Robin Robertson [in ‘Swithering’] what I think is that these are external. Powerful, but externally dramatised. I’m struggling to articulate it. What I find in, say, Fiona Benson, is a kind of emotional fluidity and in Hughes and Robertson a sort of epic stiffness, like some grandiose Renaissance paintings.”

I’ll leave it there. I’m struggling. But it lies behind there immediacy of the way I respond to Helen Ivory’s The Anatomical Venus.. And it’s about time I cracked on and shared it with you. Indeed, if you don’t already know her, I’d better introduce her.

“Helen is a poet and visual artist. She edits the webzine Ink Sweat and Tears and is tutor and Course Director for the UEA/National Centre for Writing online creative writing programme.

She has won an Eric Gregory Award and her fifth Bloodaxe Books collection, The Anatomical Venus was short-listed for the East Anglian Book Awards (2019) and won the East Anglian Writers ‘By the Cover’ Award (EABA 2019). The Anatomical Venus examines how women have been portrayed as ‘other’; as witches; as hysterics with wandering wombs and as beautiful corpses cast in wax, or on mortuary slabs in TV box sets, is available here: www.bloodaxebooks.com

Fool’s World a collaborative Tarot with the  artist Tom de Freston (Gatehouse Press) won the 2016 Saboteur Award for Best Collaborative Work.  Hear What the Moon Told Me, a book of collage/ mixed media/ acrylic painted poems was published in 2016 by Knives Forks and Spoons Press, and a chapbook Maps of the Abandoned City was published in January 2019 by SurVision. She lives in Norwich with her husband, the poet Martin Figura.”

And she makes poppets. I can’t resist this. Goody Ivory makes poppets. She’s quite shameless about it. She said in an interview with Abigail Morley earlier this year: ..

The poppets I make have red felt hearts, they are for me, representations of love, light and hope – the spirit of Spring.

Now, as a teenage boy, I was fascinated by the film and fiction of witchcraft. By the shameless plagiarist, Dennis Wheatley and by the fraudulent faux-priest Montague Summers who wrote a tin-foil hat History of witchcraft and demonology in 1928, with the following introduction:

In the following pages I have endeavoured to show the witch as she really was – an evil liver: a social pest and parasite: the devotee of a loathly and obscene creed: an adept at poisoning, blackmail, and other creeping crimes: a member of a powerful secret organisation inimical to Church and State: a blasphemer in word and deed, swaying the villagers by terror and superstition: a charlatan and a quack sometimes: a bawd: an abortionist: the dark counsellor of lewd court ladies and adulterous gallants: a minister to vice and inconceivable corruption, battening upon the filth and foulest passions of the age.

1928! It’s as though Matthew Hopkins the Witchfinder (who also features in The Anatomical Venus) is alive and well when my father’s already in his 20’s, and Freud’s accounts of female ‘hysteria’ are by now deep rooted. Summers also happens to be the author of the first English translation of the 16thC Malleus Maleficorum, a witch-finders’ hand book. One of its authors, the Rev Heinrich Kramer, is addressed by one of his victims in another poem in the collection which ruthlessly exposes and denounces the ways in which women are suppressed over the centuries, by patriarchal religions and by ‘medicine’. They are witches or they are insane. Either way they have to be silenced.

Mark Connors wrote this in a review for Northern Soul (March 2020)

….The Anatomical Venus is an often disturbing journey of how women have been treated by men through the ages. It is historical reportage. It is controlled and focused anger without sentiment. It is subjugation and oppression laid bare in subtle and often mesmerising ways. It is Angela Carter’s eye meets Elaine Showalter’s brain. It is dark, upsetting and erotic. And it’s laced with magic from the first page until the last. It’s the suffering of women, and women fighting back in delicious and unusual ways. It says as much, if not more, about men throughout history as it does about women.

The phrase I especially like is ‘historical reportage’. It’s hard to do justice to the sheer amount of research that went into this collection, and to the ease with which it carries its acquired knowledge. Set this alongside the imaginative engagement with her characters, the shapeshifting monologues, the dexterity of the writing, its richness and variety of rhythms, and you have a collection you’ll keep re-reading, and which will reveal new treasures every time.

Helen has lately been posting poems from it on her Facebook page. Lots of them. I’ve chosen four to illustrate the qualities of The Anatomical Venus . The first one is the poems I’ve returned to most often

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If I ever have a tattoo, it will be a quotation from Tony Harrison. “The tongueless man gets his land took”. Or “articulation is the tongue-tied’s fighting” . It was Tony Harrison who coined that phrase ‘the branks of condescension’…..the condescension, say, of his English teacher who derided his Beeston accent, and tried to silence it with the muffling blanket of RP.. A branks is another name for the scold’s bridle that might be used to publicly humiliate a ‘nagging woman’.

I like everything about this poem. I’m a sucker for the well-made dramatic monologue, and this is exceptionally well-made. I like the defiance of it that struggles past the iron restrain of the pricking gag. I like the way the shape enacts the struggle . I like the sheer surprise of that verb ‘fell’, and the way ‘anchoress’ brings me up short to haver between anchorite and anchor. Here’s a sybil who won’t be silenced though her tongue bleeds. The last line is a martyr’s banner. Stunning.

The next poem is a deceptively simple telling of what could be a myth as old as the universe. At the same time, it’s entirely contemporary in its perspective. It’s entirely matter of fact in its account of a fall from grace, and a fall from heaven (or Olympus) into the glaring antiseptic light of of what may be a psychiatric ward, where the goddess (Demeter? Gaia?) fruitful and full of grace, is grown thin as a whistle and slices her belly with a shiv she’s made from the moon. A thin sickle blade. How beautifully exact this image is, how cold.

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Curse

The goddess bled into the earth

and babies formed 

congealed and glorious 

like fleshy fruit.

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And life went on like this

with beads and lunar counting

until the wild dogs hit

with their beastly appetites.

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Hence, girls were strung up in cages 

when they waxed unclean,

lest milk turn to vinegar

or sea lay siege to fishermen.

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And now the goddess,

thin as a whistle

hugs the hospital blanket

to her waning self.

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Each glaring day on the ward

she makes a shiv from the moon

and cuts a tidy red line

into the narrow rise of her belly. 

My third choice is a tad self-indulgent. Someone bought me a copy of Old Peter’s Russian tales when I was eight, and introduced me to Baba Yaga and her iron teeth. And also to the feisty heroine who outsmarts her through kindness. And, quite simply, this poem both puzzles and entertains me. The title is the hook. The where and the when are flexible, but it feels very like a synthesis of Blair Witch project, accounts of backwoods survivalists, Chechen forests and Scandi Noir newsrooms. The narrator’s voice keep the reader slightly off-balance with the combination of the casual contemporary ( Word is…) the slightly archaic (her eyebrows/ foster a dire and savage air), the patterning and texture (the talking dolls; the lantern skulls; /an oven chocked with teeth), the unexpected switching of verbs for adjectives and vice versa (tender/babble) It’s quirky and gleeful, and should be read aloud. Try to find the right voice. It’s harder than you think. If not impossible.

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Baba Yaga No Longer Reads the News

Since decommissioned 

she’s a dug-out in the woods.

Word is, she’s quit electrolysis 

so her stubbled legs resemble chicken flesh

and likewise her eyebrows

foster a dire and savage air. 

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She creeps through the spinney

zealous as ground frost 

scouring for morsels to tender her pot. 

She is a fallow vessel

who deigned to grey,

a babble word.

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Now a rumour of an intern eaten whole;

young reporters always hustling for a story:

the talking dolls; the lantern skulls; 

an oven chocked with teeth;

and how she is protected 

by the devil’s spitting geese.

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My final choice, is Anger in Ladies &c. A battle cry for the monstrous regiments . It speaks for itself, with a swagger, with a fist clenched. The last line made me laugh out loud , and then realise that maybe the revolution will make no distinction between me and Mr Dunton, and indeed, why should it, me and my mansplaining.

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So…thank you Helen Ivory for being our guest and sharing these poems with us. It’s taken me far too long to finally write this, and there’s a great deal more to be said. Fortunately, a lot of that is available via interviews Helen’s given since the book was published. And here are the links.

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https://thehighwindowpress.com/2019/05/16/wunderkammer-with-black-coffee-helen-ivory-interviewed-by-william-bedford/

https://poetrynonstop.com/2020/11/05/episode-28-helen-ivory-the-anatomical-venus/

https://www.shantiarts.co/SPAQ/SPAQ36/files/hogan.pdf?fbclid=IwAR2Uus56mdpKG0cPqrFWHMOAtD4jyHe_pVjKmm1_-5Bntl99fYvPqmrG5jI

Finally. If you don’t yet own a copy of The Anatomical Venus, then it’s high time you did. Buy from Bloodaxe, direct. Or Amazon, if you must. Or why not message Helen via Facebook. She’ll probably sign a copy for you.