Two pamphlets: Victoria Gatehouse and John-Paul Burns

[This post was originally published on the Write Out Loud website in September]

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I read this on Julie Mellor’s poetry blog last week: “I aim to post something once a week on my blog but last weekend I skipped it. Maybe I didn’t have anything to say. Maybe I didn’t have the energy or drive to write it. Anyway, I thought I’d better get on with it today before another weekend slipped by.” 

Me too, I thought. Me too.

And then I read this in Anthony Wilson’s Lifesaving Poems: “If you write poetry (and I assume that if you do, you are also actively engaged in reading it), sooner or later Poetry Exhaustion is going to happen to you. By Poetry Exhaustion I mean the complete lack of that shock of recognition you’ve always been able to count on from a favourite unputdownable book of poems. Or the sudden knowledge that the poems you have been working on for the last two months are certainly not your best work and actually not  even worth keeping (though you do, in case).”

It sums up exactly the kind of ennui, mental blankness that’s stopped me writing posts and reviews and poems. It happens. You just have to hunker down and wait for something to change you. Like a poem, you can’t just will it into existence.

Last week, out of the blue, I decide to re-read Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways. And suddenly, phrases come jumping off the page, .moments that get you in. Phrases like these:

The cold like a wire in the nose.

Snow caused everything to exceed itself

starlings…feathers sleekly black as sheaves of photographic negatives

big gulls…monitoring us with lackadaisical, violent eyes

a dolphin….a sliding bump beneath the a tongue moving under a cheek

star patterns..the grandiose slosh of the Milky Way

gannets bursting up out of the sea…like white flowers unfurling…avian origami

[and, after a hard long hike] … feet puffy as rising dough

It was lovely. Language well-wrought can galvanise you like that. I’ve had a review waiting to be written for months. Macfarlane let me know that it was time I got on with it.

When I started my first poetry blog, the great fogginzo’s cobweb,  I wanted, among other things, to publicise the writing of poets who fly under the radar … the ones without a ‘book’. I quickly learned that most of them were not ‘undiscovered’ at all. They just weren’t self-publicicising. They had been published in respectable and reputable magazines. They had won prizes. They just didn’t go on about it. They didn’t have a collection. They didn’t particularly do open mics, or get guest reader slots. But they couldn’t half write. At least as well, and often, I thought, a good deal better, than some published poets. And such are today’s poets, Vicky Gatehouse and John Paul Burns, both of whom I keep meeting at the Poetry Business, or, by accident, at open mics and readings.

I should add something else. You go to writing and critiquing workshops and you become aware that you’re hearing a poem and a poet, in the process of becoming: Kim Moore, before she won anything, before she had her first pamphlet, trying out the first draft of her ‘Train ride from Barrow to Sheffield’; ditto Roy Marshall with a draft that had echoes of Heaney; Julie Mellor, also, with a mole on the neck that marks you for hanging; Keith Hutson and a suicidal, drunken pantomime dame. It’s like seeing a musician before s/he becomes a star. Like seeing a 16-year-old Ginger Baker drumming for Terry Lightfoot’s band in Bradford. Which I did. Or Dylan going on the open mic for the first time in Greenwich Village. Which I didn’t. I’ve added today’s poets to the list. They couldn’t be more different voices.

John-Paul Burns

Kim Moore writes of John-Paul Burns’ poems in The minute & the train that “the speakers in these poems are often out of sight, looking outward at landscape, objects or people while using clear-eyed and precise descriptions … leaving the reader with the realisation that looking out can also be a way of looking in”.

I think of Isherwood’s “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.” I think of a kind of attentive detachment, a sort of separateness, like Stephen Daedalus’ willed secrecy/invisiblity. I also think of the Larkin of Mr BleaneyIt’s like being in a land where we are in the shoes of a traveller, and outsider. There’s a shared anonymity, that of the observed and observer. It’s no accident, I think, that John-Paul’s first degree is in film, that the films he references include silent classics, and that the jazz he references is ‘cool’. It’s not accidental that the poems are monochrome, and mainly silent when they’re not quiet.

A first fast reading through the pamphlet left me with the impression of particular times: night, twilight, sunrise; of bedsits, and shared houses, (like Mr Bleaney muttering to his younger self); urban places, the corner shop, the old factory, a lot of reflecting rain, almost unpopulated landscapes, gravestones, rags, odds and ends fragments, exhaustions:

             My hair is brown, dark to the point

     of black when rained on. It blocks the drain

             as everything does     (‘Drinking Songs’)

It also left me trying to figure out the fact of apparently random or wilful line breaks, indentations, capitalisations. I’m still not reconciled to those, but repeated readings override the initial sense of alienation in distressed places. Something much more committed, engaged and human, and sometimes funny, is going on. The most obvious is that though much of the work is studiously monochrome, it can explode into an unexpected and startling colour.

     you’re all belly aren’t you       

     everything is patches really

              intimate as waxwork

     A suggestion of planet in the pool.          

            of orange moon.   (‘A tangerine being drawn’)

or in a later poem, the moon again “as it meanders from orange to pink”. There is “ruby ale, lovely blue grass”and in ‘Cricket club scene, Oldham’  a flood of colour: “a deep yellow hour. / The red ball, a deep ochre red; / pale violet rooftops /orange-green parakeets”. Considered and precisely Technicolor colours, that have the impact of the Tecnicolor sequence in that 1949 film The Secret GardenHere’s a poet who knows just what he’s up to.

In her review in The High Window online quarterly poetry magazine recently, Carole Bromley wrote: “As far as subject matter goes, Burns is particularly good at capturing the world of bedsits, shared flats and houses. I get the feeling that the poet in him longs for solitude, while the young man with a sense of humour can enjoy company, parties, drunkenness.” She adds that he is also “an observer with a gift for capturing landscapes, objects and people. A pear “waits for the hand/that will hold it, give it/its pear shape, bite into/its sweet and dripping self”, a tangerine “will be torn without violence/ Your oils will mist a fresh sweat into the air/ You will disappear and you will remain”, at a cricket club “The track curves in the grass/ with no-one running. They play/ just out of earshot, a deep yellow hour.”

What I’d add to this is that his urban and rural/coastal landscapes, both interior and exterior, can be sinister and disturbing in the way of Expressionist cinema, as in the decidedly unsettling ‘Knott End-on-Sea’ which incidentally also illustrates what I think is an arbitrary use of capitals and indents without punctuation. I can be open to persuasion on this.

     The footprints trail off out of sight

          The sand stays in the morning

     A pale blue dusk sitting above it

          And Jimbo the dog is missing

     Out beyond the soft horizon

         The man in the footprints exhales

The narrator is apparently looking out of the window of a cafe on a nondescript bit of shallow coast, making notes, or planning a storyboard of something Hitchcockian, and with the relish for the suggestion of menace in its ambiguities, the questions it asks, that infuses that one word “exhales” with something troubling.

I want to finish, though, on what I said earlier about the engaged, the warm, the human that runs through the studied stance of ‘attentive detachment’. Take this, for example:

     A bundle in the mist

     When I think of the arctic terns

     they come in pairs from years ago

     flirting over the stones in the wide teal

                of Shetland air.

     Let me have them as they seem.

     Allow their blurriness too, swerving up

     from the name Shetland with faint high knells.

     There were no bells, but further in

                  there are.

     Say the word and the birds come, chiming.

     I could live for a while in one spark like this

I love the wholehearted openness of it, the undefended credo that ends this sequence; it’s epiphanic, like Stephen Daedalus standing on the shore, every nerve singing to the joyous otherness of things.

And finally, a poem that Carole Bromley also highlighted:

     Two views of Whitby Harbour

     One by day, bright for October

          and calm. I say it’s strange really

     and you laugh: the giant Doric column

         bitten by the salt wind

     that is absent today. Cormorants

         line the Eastern Pier

     crooked, athletic and shy.

        The sky is a flat sky blue

     Another by night, sharp

        and calm, though the wind

     picks at the black ocean skin.

        A creaking hinge; the night-

     fishermen cast in silence.

        Vague white seabirds hover

     dashing at the air;

       there is no horizon.

I like this for the way it evokes an unforced, easy companionship, a happiness. The ‘I’ and ‘you’ are abstract but still seem specific as the moment is specific, and the cormorants are memorably recorded: “crooked, athletic, shy”. Surprising and true. A moment that gets you in. I like the wry humour of “The sky is a flat sky blue.” I like the creaking hinge that is sort-of-lifted from Robin Robertson. I like the way the birds are vague and sudden at the same time, batting at the mist to simply stay still. It’s a poem that’s worth the entrance money on its own, in this genuinely interesting first collection that will stick in your mind for a long time.

 Victoria Gatehouse

And so to Vicky Gatehouse and The Mechanics of LoveI said they were strikingly different voices. Other reviewers have made much about the fact that Vicky trained as a scientist, but I’m not sure they quite nail down what it means for the poems. I may not, either, but we’ll see. Gaia Holmes identifies what I think of as the exuberance of the collection which is full to the brim with “love locks, 1980s perfume ads, cross dressers, owl pellets, pearl divers, Premier Inn hotel rooms, the visceral trials of a lab technician, lost tennis balls, spiders’ webs, the delightful idiolectic ‘Shunkley’ and the speakers’ ‘magpie need for bling’. ”

Vicky Gatehouse is pretty much always the actual voice of the poems, which are more often than not autobiographical. These are poems populated by identifiable people:  mothers, grandmas, husbands, younger selves, biology teachers, and abattoir man in a bloodstained apron, mum’s friend Sylvia; like the cross-dresser in Lenton Boulevard, they live in identifiable places like the Premier Inn or the Pont des Arts, and are surrounded by artefacts and goods with resonant names: Aartex, Midget Gems, Poison, Fortune-telling Fish.  

Gaia also identifies what she calls “the muscular language of the heart”. Vicky Gatehouse’s poems involve physical as well as emotional engagement, and her imaginative memory is tactile as well as visual. She is as concerned and slightly anxious for her earlier adolescent self as a mother. I would be inclined to say that that is normal enough, and possibly not enough to lift the poems out of the run of enjoyable, competent poems we write about ourselves. What makes the difference, I think, is the science, the combination of exact and intuitive knowledge of how the world works, its structures, its mechanisms. The whole pamphlet challenges the popular elision/confusion of mechanism and mechanistic with its secondary connotations of dehumanisation and the binary opposition of mind and body. What I like (and hope to demonstrate) is the understanding in the poems that knowing how things work doesn’t take away their wonder, but actually intensifies it.

When I think of ‘the mechanics of love’ I think of UA Fanthorpe’s ‘Atlas’the kind of love called maintenance that knows where the WD40 is. I think of mechanics as a set of abstract principles, and also as people who mend and put things to rights. Doctors, for instance. And mothers and fathers, and lovers.

I’m inclined, therefore, to disagree with Mat Riches’ review in Sphinxwhen he writes that “Starting with the perfumery of ‘Poison, 1986’, and the ‘Sixth Form Science Technician’ being sent out to collect supplies for student experiments, science leaps out of many of the poems…”, that “as a result of having a day job in medical research – these poems take a microscopic look at love and life as though they’ve been carefully sampled on a slide and Gatehouse is noting the beauty and fragility of the findings.”

I don’t think they’re as calculated or as forensic as this suggests, but rather that scientific language and thinking comes naturally as part of her ideolect and way of experiencing things. I had much the same take on Emma Storr’s Heart Murmurs  [Calder Valley Press 2019], a poet who naturally thinks like a doctor because she is one. This makes it different, I think, from the way poets like the Metaphysicals and some modern poets bring in ’science’ as it were from the outside.  Indeed, Vicky makes the point herself in ‘Fortune telling fish’ when she says

     A scientist now, you could explain
     that whisper-thin strip as hygroscopic –
     swelling or receding with the level
     of moisture in the skin

She’s pointing out that this doesn’t explain the fact, signalled by a “but” that “you’ll find yourself wanting to show” you’re passionate, or independent or whatever, and science won’t explain that. Not at all. I wrote in another poetry blog about her poem

     The moth

     This is her time –
     birds dark-stitching telegraph wires,

     the woods blue-shadowed,
     crackling with dusk.

     The moon untethers her,
     she pitches from fence to wall

     to leaf, would hurl herself
     for miles, such is her faith

     and you think of how she gorged
     on hawthorn and thyme, spun

     herself a mantle, hung tight
     inside the blackout

     of her own skin
     before the breakdown, the forcing

     of all that remained
     through the veins of her wings,

     this lit-bulb junkie,
     wrecking herself on your porch light.

     (Ink, Sweat and Tears, 2015)

I really get a buzz from the controlled energy of this, and the way images imprint themselves (“how she gorged / on hawthorn and thyme.”) “Gorged” is absolutely spot on and surprising. And “the blackout of her own skin is rich and layered. Blackout curtains, fustian and dusty; blackout unconsciousness …a binge-drinker’s blackout that springs the trap for the ambush of “this light-bulb junkie”. You can read and re-read this and it keeps on giving. I’ll go on highlighting the fact of energy, the accurate richness,of her language. This new collection is packed with the moments that ‘get you in’, often in opening lines like these

     The biology teacher wanted blood

     I remember kitten heels clipping tarmac

     It ticks me to sleep,

     the titanium valve in your heart

     On the fifth day I find it in your cot

There’s a specific narrative in each of these which I immediately want to hear, to have explained. And the poems never let me down. For instance, what we find in the cot is the shrivelling umbilical cord that had

     … pulsed between us, blue-white

     vigorous, the best I had to give –
     stem-cell, lymphocytes, streaming

     down the line they had to cut off.

There it is. The physical immediacy as intimately known as what the cord actually did, when it pulsed, blue-white. I like that word pulse. That’s what so many of these poems do, as she explores her memories of adolescence, the mysteries and excitements of burgeoning sexuality; also the memories of becoming and being a mother, a wife and a lover, a daughter. She finds an emblem for all this textured experience in the opening poem, ‘Inosculation’:

     And this will be no perfect union

     but one born of abrasion: two trees

     grown close enough to graze, to chafe

     as they shift in the wind, their bark worn thin

The title is a label for a process, but the poem in its crafted consonality enacts the process itself. It’s not an idea but a felt experience. And it’s lovely. Gaia Holme’s endorsement should give you a taste for the tumbled richness of things in The Mechanics of LoveI’ll finish with a poem that might seem a surprising choice, but which, I think, tells you what’s at the heart of Vicky Gatehouse’s collection. On one level it’s simply a beautifully observed set of moments that come like “talons trailing the tips of the wheat, to the tooth-hole ruin of that barn”, (THAT barn, notice); on another you might call it Birth of a Naturalist. It’s the moment you go back to, again and again, it’s a rite of passage.  It’s as exact as the “dark, neat parcels of feathers and fur,/ the pale curve of bone”

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     This is the hour when she thinks of the field,

     the unsteady embrace of drystone walls,

     end-of-summer grasses, whispering

     their untidy truths, the tooth-hole ruin

     of that barn where she first found the pellets –

     dark, neat parcels of feathers and fur,

     the pale curve of bone within, each one

     packaged up like a gift so she had no choice

     but to return every evening, at owl light

     and wait for that change in the air, the weight

     that comes on silent wings, talons trailing

     the tips of the wheat, a half-lifetime ago

     and still the bleeding, unseen beneath the gold,

     the skeletons in her pockets, carried home

It’s also unnerving; a poem about a compulsion that remains after half a life time, where whatever else has happened, there is “still the bleeding, unseen beneath the gold, /the skeletons in her pockets, carried home”.

There we are. Two pamphlets that couldn’t be more different, and which both will hold your attention and fix themselves in your minds.

John-Paul Burns, The minute & the trainPoetry Salzburg, £6

Vicky Gatehouse, The Mechanics of love: a Laureate’s ChoiceSmith|Doorstop, £7.50

The past, and other countries: Gráinne Tobin (2)

[First published on the Write Out Loud website in September]

It’s been hard to concentrate, these last few days. It’s hard to think about poetry when you’re consumed with rage and frustration in a world where truth is an endangered species, and the management of the body politic has become a kind of game for the ones who have tickets, and the rest of us are shut out. It’s 80 years since Auden wrote September 1939,  four years before I was born into a world that had been at war for all of them.

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

A low dishonest decade:  there’s an epitaph for the last ten years in this country that I used to think was mine, and which I now hardly recognise. We’ve been used to muddling along (or compromising) and on the whole got on with each other. Not any more. Politicians who were born into a world of entitlement, and who will never come face to face with it have validated ignorance, intolerance, racism; it’s fashionable to be xenophobic and be contemptuous of expert evidence, of the qualified, of experience and nuance. A world in which a phrase like ‘fake news’ has traction, the purposes of language itself are threatened.

And curiously, it’s why poetry (and all well-wrought language) seems more important than ever. I’m reminded that, as I wrote last week, when I met Gráinne Tobin for the first time nearly 40 years ago, it was in a city divided by religious hatred. I’ll not ever forget the barbed wire and barricades of the Crumlim and the Shankhill Roads. That was Gráinne’s world; she lived through it and wrote through it, and that gives me some hope even now. What will survive of us is love. That’s what lies at the heart of the poetry I treasure, and I’m delighted to be introducing Gráinne for a second week, and to bring you up to date with what she’s been up to since 2010 where last week’s post sort of terminated.

She retired from the day job then (as an English teacher), and says she wondered why I wasn’t writing all day every day. But as I should have known, it doesn’t work like that at all. Whatever…she ‘s been kept busy, accepting all offers connected with poetry in that first year, including travelling scores of miles on buses in heavy snow to a mass book-signing by 70 authors in Galway to celebrate 70 years of Kennys’ bookshop, and finding herself standing beside President Michael D Higgins, who is even shorter than I am and a person I seriously admire.

She went by ferry and train to Blackpool, to read her shortlisted poem in the libraries’ Wordpool competition, but they didn’t know she was there. She says: I didn’t know I should be pushy about declaring myself, so I sat awkwardly in the audience waiting to be called on, and someone else read it. Let that be a lesson to me. (I like that story very much. We learn against the grain to be pushy. )

She applied for an Arts Council of Northern Ireland Single Individual Artist Award; the ACNI grant was for mentoring, so she had a chance to talk in detail about her manuscript with Penelope Shuttle, who advised her to start entering competitions, and it gathered momentum. 

She won competitions, was invited to send poems to anthologies and to lead creative writing workshops for adults, teenagers, and children. She’s had three poetry residencies, in the Tin Jug Studio in Birr, Co Offaly, and in Sumburgh Head Lighthouse, Shetland, and in Cill Rialaig, Co Kerry. 

Her writing group, Word of Mouth, published its Russian-English parallel text, When the Neva Rushes Backwardsin 2014 with Lagan Press. It was the product of working on these pieces by St Petersburg women poets for years , a huge group effort with expert help from Russian speakers. Some of of the English versions of the poems were in Modern Poetry in Translation.

The Word of Mouth Poetry Collective, which had been her main support in writing poetry, voted to dissolve itself in 2016 after 25 years of meeting monthly in the historic Linen Hall Library in Belfast:  we felt that our work was more or less done, except for the Of Mouth reading series which we  wanted to continue.

And here we are now : her third poetry collection, The Uses of Silk, is from Arlen House[2018] and you can get it online, or in good bookshops such as No Alibisin Belfast. Or order it  by post from the publisher Alan Hayes, at Arlen House, 42 Grange Abbey Road, Baldoyle, Dublin 13, if you want it posted to  the Republic of Ireland. Or direct from her by sending a Facebook message with your address.  

The cover image is by the painter Jim Manley who lives in Killough, on the Co Down coast. She says: The picture has our house in it as one of the tiny lights of Newcastle, just visible if you wish hard enough, across Dundrum Bay, beyond the path of moonlight on the sea. There is a temptation to X our spot on the left edge of the page.”


Right. All up to date, and time for the poems.

Damian Smyth has commented on the qualities of the work in this collection:- subtlety, cleverness, a succinct wisdom, exhilarating formal dexterityThe dramatis personae are varied and unexpected; the emotional range expansive enough to run from elegy to slapstick; the diction charged, ingenious,

and Penny Shuttle tells us that:

“Gráinne Tobin casts a steely sceptic eye over the Ireland of her childhood but her view is mediated by gentler memories of family tenderness surviving amid the fervour and craziness of 1950s religiosity.  Here is a poet employing a nimble wit, seeing behind facades, moving in the slipstream of savage histories in and beyond Ireland.”

I think you’ll find all this confirmed by the poems in last week’s Part One, and should you need convincing, here are three more, each with an introduction by Gráinne. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

An Irishwoman Reads Dodo with Keith Douglascame from a week’s writing break alone in Alicante , in a state of solitary absorption, wandering round a foreign city talking to myself about this young man who I only knew from his writing. As someone who has lived through the disturbing presence of soldiers on the streets of Northern Ireland, it was good to bring him to mind both as a strange military youngster and also as one of us poets. He died too early, at 24, and I admire his work very much. I feel a tenderness towards him, though I imagine we might not have hit it off in real life.

An Irishwoman Reads Dodo with Keith Douglas 

In spite of his photographed moustache 
and his few years of manliness, he is excited 
by tinned rations jazzed-up for squadron dinners.
An acceptable hot porridge can be made 
of hammered biscuits, boiled and laced with jam.

Any dusty tent can be made beautiful 
with flowers and books in a cut-out petrol can, 
such as the tank-men fill with desert sand 
as bricks to make small houses for latrines.

He’s careful of the whiskey. He must stay fit 
to note the fear that pushes at his belly, just 
where the shell would enter, and his useless pity 
for the burnt corpse of one who’d laid a towel
over his wounds against tormenting flies.

In hospital after the land-mine, the lieutenant
needs the book they bring – he reads it twice – 
Dodo, Edwardian comfort to draw his poet’s eye 
away from the wreckage of flesh and the ends of bone.

I find it on my Kindle, and I read Dodotoo
at bedtime in his honour, by its faded glow,
saving his Zem Zemfor sensible daylight –
the boy learned how to kill and soon was dead 
as a doornail, blown to glory, joined the majority.

I loved learning that Keith Douglas used pulp fiction…tripe, if you like…as a comfort blanket; I like the unforced allusions, the echoes. 

the fear that pushes at his belly, just 
where the shell would enter

takes me back to Vergissmeinicht , the poem that became a touchstone for me about the importance of the image, of accurate seeing, and economy of means.

  she would weep today to see

  how on his skin the swart flies move;

 the dust upon the paper eye,

 the burst stomach like a cave

I like, too, that line break in the last stanza, the matter-of-factness, like Tony Harrison’s your life’s been blown to smithereens, and the black irony of glory.

the boy learned how to kill and soon was dead 
as a doornail, blown to glory,

Junction Box is about a magic bit of practical gadgetry or street furniture beside the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast. Every time I pass it, I stop to put my ear to it, and it always has sound coming out.  It has an emotional charge for me and possibly for other passers-by. I can’t help being romantic about communal experience: the junction box seems to have an invisible choir of diverse voices celebrating our fragile peacetime. (We are only began to get incomers from other places when the Troubles ended, as before that, few people would have wanted to join us here.) I fretted about referring to the Spanish Catalan painter Tápies because it might be an obstacle for some readers – I only know of him by chance, and allusions can be really daunting – but then decided that anyone who was bothered could always google him, and the comparison with his work is exactly what I mean, so I didn’t want to give that up. 

Junction Box 

Upper Crescent, Belfast

Something is singing 

among cracked-up flagstones 

under the young leaves

of a lime tree where the park’s square edges

nudge the railings of a sooty church,

grey rubble-stone still smudged

from the city’s smoking past, 

            and there it is,

shoulder-high, an arm-span wide, a big black box

in painted steel with a rutted crust,

the under-paper from posters that you can’t pick off,

stained and overlapped so in the end

it looks deliberate, distressed graffiti-chic,

or like an artwork by Tapies that marks the times

in dirty layers, 

            and this is where

it’s coming from – the sound –

 a sitar-accordion drone,

an old song echoing, an imperfect note, 

single yet multiple, voices plaited together

in a chord with no pause, chanting day and night

beside the parking meter and the litter bin.

I read this and thought of Penny Shuttle’s endorsement of  a poet employing a nimble wit, seeing behind facades. Exactly so..what I like is that it’s a poem to read aloud, to follow the twists and turns of the landscape through the twists and turns of a poem that’s a single sentence that weaves like a chant or a harmony. It’s lovely.

The third poem is in The Uses of Silk and came from my preoccupation with the 1916 rising and its effects on the later history of Ireland, and on my family. My parents were born  into moderate anti-Treaty families, around the time of Partition. They were babies during  the Civil War, as children attended the monster 1932 Catholic jamboree in Dublin that sealed the reconciliation between the former revolutionaries, now in government, and their church, and as young adults they moved north of the border during ‘the Emergency’  i.e. WW2, to find teaching jobs, ending up having a family of wee northerners, and being politically active (in the SDLP, at first a bit pinko, later more nationalist) during the Troubles. The epigraph is a family joke, one of those parental sayings you grow up with and later trace to a quotation. 

Where Were You in 1916? 

Where were you in 1916? I wasn’t born. Excuses, always excuses! 

– Brendan Behan

Of course I wasn’t yet born, but I was included  

with a quarter of the country’s population

at the Eucharistic Congress of 1932,

latent in a pair of ten-year-olds who were yet to meet.

An ovum in her reserves, the boast of Catholic Ireland,

I hid inside my mother, who wore her good coat 

on the excursion train from Portarlington

in fine weather, said to be God’s answer 

to thirty-seven thousand spiritual acts of self-denial

undertaken by the new and ancient nation

and placed on record in the archbishop’s office.

The child who grew up to be my father

wore the lanyard and badges of a Limerick troop 

of the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland,

one of fourteen hundred plucky little fellows

encamped with trench latrines on a boarding-school lawn

and tireless in fifteen acres of the Phoenix Park,

directing a million pilgrims, holding lines and fetching water.

Where are their two faces in the crowd

that knelt with its shriven leaders in the grass? 

The hungry streets, a supernatural toyshop

of angelic toy theatres, as by night

the Post Office roof beamed sky-writing, 

GLORIFICAMUS. And I hear the last

of the ornate urinals made for the Congress

was bought in the seventies by a student of art.

I did a lot of research for this poem and then tried not to overload the poem and to keep most of it out of the way while writing. It still fascinates me. I read as much as I could about the 1932 Eucharistic Congress. The details were much, much more surreal than I can bear to describe in the poem. Processions of girls in white First Communion dresses who were called ‘the boast of Catholic Ireland’ – creepy – and international bishops in full campery of purple silk robes and handmade lace. It came across as rather earnest, but with an unpleasant tinge of 1930s Nuremberg rally about the whole thing. GK Chesterton was the newspaper reporter who mentioned the pathos of the ‘supernatural toyshop of angelic toy theatres’in the poorest streets. This national pop-festival of piety presaged the tight Church-state partnership that led to the mother and baby homes and their aftermath.

Final word from Gráinne: for now.

“The next thing I’d like to do now, apart from keeping on working on poems, is to get on with sending letters out, asking festivals if they would like to book two poet friends and me for readings. It’s an odd thing to advertise oneself but how else is anyone going to know we are available as a package?  And then I want to make my work more traceable by sorting out an online poetry presence that doesn’t make me want to hide in the wardrobe and deny everything.  Perhaps a modest and sober webpage? I have nothing to lose except my ancient convent conditioning”. 

And from me:

That last comment makes me want to devote a whole post to the business of making yourself visible as a poet. I can do my bit to make other poets visible, but what about self-promotion? It’s not why I write poems, but the thing is, I have a lot of unsold books in boxes just behind me. They won’t sell themselves. Hmmm.

Still, the main thing now is to thank Gráinne Tobin for her generosity and for her poems. And a personal thankyou for initially distracting me from the Brexit nightmare, and then, through these poems, reminding me that people have come through worse.

Next week, some thoughts about poetry pamphlets and and a Northumberland poet. See you then.

A loss you can’t imagine: young men and suicide

1992. Only a few weeks after his twenty-first birthday, our son David died in a fall from the top floor of a high-rise block of flats behind the Merrion Centre in Leeds. I  see it from the motorway every time I drive to Leeds .

Suicide prevention remains a universal challenge. Every year, suicide is among the top 20 leading causes of death globally for people of all ages. It is responsible for over 800,000 deaths, which equates to one suicide every 40 seconds.

Every life lost represents someone’s partner, child, parent, friend or colleague. For each suicide approximately 135 people suffer intense grief or are otherwise affected. This amounts to 108 million people per year who are profoundly impacted by suicidal behaviour. Suicidal behaviour includes suicide, and also encompases suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. For every suicide, 25 people make a suicide attempt and many more have serious thoughts of suicide.

September 10thwas World Suicide Prevention day. Anything anyone can do to raise awareness of the waste of life and the damage it does to friends and families, and to teach us how we can better look out for and look after those we love is timely.

For over twenty years I’ve wondered if I should have seen anything that would have told me how desperate our 21 year old son was when he took his own life. The sense that I bear a responsibilty for it will never leave me, or his mother, his sister, his brothers. All I can do is share the story. 

Just over five years ago, two people I love found their son dead in their living room. He was about the same age as mine was when he killed himself. I remember I wrote to them and said something like: people will tell you they can imagine what you’re going through. They are wrong. More thoughtful people will tell you they can’t imagine what you’re going through. They are nearly right. The fact is, you can’t imagine what you’re going through.

Three good friends of mine, all the same age as me or thereabouts, have died in the last 18 months. Two, apparently fighting fit and well, died of sudden catastrophic heart attacks. One died after a long and painful illness. We grieve for them, but we understand our grief. Their deaths are sad, they diminish us, but we understand this natural process. It doesn’t accuse us. But when someone you love takes his own life, when it comes without warning, it’s inexplicable, bewildering, devastating. It makes no sense. The world makes no sense. You are made helpless with guilt; you believe you are to blame, that you could have prevented it if only…..

This happens to tens of thousands of people every year. The statistics are terrifying. The websites you can visit will tell you:

Suicide is the single biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK. In 2015, 75% of all UK suicides were male.

Men and boys are often more vulnerable to taking their own lives because:

  • They feel a pressure to be a winner and can more easily feel like the opposite.
  • They feel a pressure to look strong and feel ashamed of showing any signs of weakness.
  • They feel a pressure to appear in control of themselves and their lives at all times.

Most suicidal people don’t actually want to die, they just want to remove themselves from an unbearable situation, and for the pain to stop.

There’s a lot of support and advice available for people who are worried that someone they know may be a suicide risk. Advice like this:

So how will you know? 

You ask. It sounds scary, but the best thing to do is talk about it.

Saying something is safer than saying nothing. Trust your gut and start the conversation

What to say

Not too much. Above all, LISTEN

For me, and for my family, it was all too late. Because we had no idea, because there was no warning sign we could pick up on. There was just the immutable fact that our David had killed himself. We are tight as a family, we comforted each other, but we go on living with the bewilderment and loss and overwhelming guilt. It never quite goes away. So I’ll dedicate this post to all the families who have lost a child, a sibling, a parent, a partner to suicide, and I’ll talk about the long long process of finding the serenity to accept what cannot be changed. I’ll tell you our David’s story.

Two of my five children were adopted, and our David was one of them. Against all the rules, we met his birth mother, who would have been no more than eighteen. She wanted a say in who would adopt him, and a wise social worker thought she had that right. That young girl trusted him to to a couple not that much older than her. She will be in her sixties, now.

our david c 2 copy.jpg

It’s a complicated story, but the core of it is that we were at yet another stage of the usually ponderous adoption process, which suddenly accelerated quite wonderfully and frighteningly, and we found ourselves sitting in the small living room of a foster-mum, and our David, who wasn’t yet Our David, four months old and surrounded by love, was having his bath. He wasn’t called David, either. He was Conrad Hamilton Gervaise Irving (no surname), and just Conrad, for convenience. When you adopt a child you’re not supposed to keep his or her given names. Since the truth is that the amazing and enlightened social worker short-circuited every due process that evening, and that we drove home up the M1 with Our David in a carry-cot on the backseat of a Ford Anglia, it didn’t seem so transgressive to keep Conrad as his middle name. David Conrad Foggin.

This much
I remember:
the small neat creases, the crook of each elbow,
the crook of each knee, the soft place
between your neck and your shoulder,
and the tight whorls of dark hair
tattooing your skull, and the delight,
the wide pink of your open mouth
as you came shedding light and bright water
out of your bath, how you sank
in the fleece of a fat white towel,
and you lay on your back on her knee
and you danced,
how you pedalled and trod on the air,
and how pale the soles of your feet.
You were mangoes, grapes, you were apricots,
all your round warm limbs, your eyes.
How your name made you smile;
how we said it over and over, your name;
how we wanted to make that smile.
And I remember
how we would take you away,
and why your name could not come,
why we must leave it behind,
and how we feared for your smile.

When his face would cloud over, or when he seemed to turn inwards (as happens with all your children) it troubled us. And then it would be OK, and we’d forget.

Our David on a trike

Later, when he was nine or ten years old, he drew endlessly; meticulous battle scenes, some times on rolls of lining paper, so they stretched out like eclectic Bayeaux tapestries. I wrote a poem about them, years ago, and keep revisiting it, and rewriting it.

Untitled copy

Our David’s Pictures

In tracing the anatomy of war

our david’s concentration’s absolute.

He kneels in peace, head bowed. An acolyte.

His pictures conjure tiny armies on the floor.

All history’s invited to this fight:

Martello tower, pele, and launching pad,

heaps of Roman, Norman, Saxon, Panzer dead.

Drawn up, his minute cohorts. Black and white.

Each man’s accoutred – breastplate, chainmail, greaves.

Crusaders squint down Gatling sights,

or brandish spears with blades as big as axes,

and quivers jammed with arrows, bunched in sheaves.

Every shield’s a wicked chevron

or a bossed and studded disc;

the sky is bristling with a stiff cheval de frise

of arrows and everyman’s vulnerable, at risk.

There’s Agincourts of arrows, flight on flight.

The sky’s cross-hatched, and somedays almost black.

The sun’s crossed out. Eclipsed. Our David’s arrows –

they fly miles, out of day and into night,

they shift the whole perspective. What is it

he celebrates? Pattern? Power?

The living or the dead. I’ll never know,

his last bow drawn, and loosed, an age ago.

I wrote this when he was still alive, puzzled and perhaps mildly worried about the obsessive quality of the drawings. But mainly delighted. When he died, I changed the ending, and it was read at his funeral. We had a Bob Marley track in the service. Stop that train. It was an extraordinary service. There were dozens and dozens of young people who I’d never seen before, who I didn’t know, but who had clearly loved our David. For some reason he either never knew, or if he knew, he didn’t believe it.

It was a long time between being told of his death and his funeral. My wife and I had separated seven years earlier. We weren’t asked identify his body and I was too numb to wonder why I wasn’t notified of the inquest, and I was too numb to protest. The morning the police told my ex-wife of a death behind the Merrion Centre, the morning she drove from Leeds to tell me, the morning we went to the police station in Chapeltown was the morning I started to learn about the lovely boy I realised I didn’t really know. That he’d been smoking dope, that this may have triggered a suspected schizophrenia, that some time earlier he’d served a short prison sentence for a trivial non-violent offence, that he was being looked after by NACOS, that he was training as a painter and decorator (like his great-granddad). I know I could have known all this, and I should have, but I was too busy, too tied up with a new job, a new relationship, and deep down, because I was scared to ask. Most of those young folk at the funeral were young offenders on schemes like the one our David was apparently enjoying. Nothing made sense.

It was a morning like this

a Sunday morning. The sun shone.

It was July. It was a morning like this,

your ex-wife at the back door,

and why would she tell you

your son was dead, or had died,

or had been in an accident

on a morning like this still

not fully woken, a morning of sun

to drive into Chapeltown to drive

to a police station that’s called

The Old Police Station now, that’s

a bijou gastropub but then was just

a police station full of Sunday morning

sadness, and a morning something

like this and two young coppers

who thought we’d need somewhere

quiet at the back which turned out

to smell of smoke, that had a pool table

and coffee rings, and no-one knew

how to start or what to ask but

it was a morning much like this

they asked if we knew a tower block

behind the Merrion Centre or if

we had a connection to a tower block

and a ring with a skull and a brown

leather case and did we know if

our son had friends in a tower block

behind the Merrion Centre and

we might as well have been asked

about tree rings or chaos theory

or fractals on a July morning and

one young copper saying that

he didn’t think it made sense

for cannabis to be illegal and

what harm did it do really and

how it wasted everybody’s time

and I don’t know why I’d remember

that except it was a morning like this

I learned what waste might mean.

A couple of weeks after David’s funeral my good friend Bob Hogarth, the Art Adviser said: why don’t you do a painting of him? Why don’t you paint his life? I set out on a collage of maps of the city, photographs of his childhood, images of a small attache case and a strange ugly ring that he’d left on the top floor of that block of flats behind the Merrion Centre, an old atlas open at a map of Africa. Buddleia. Hydrangeas. I worked on it for a week or so. And then stopped. Just a layer of collage and thinned down acrylics. Every couple of years I’ll have a look at it, and resolve to finish it. But I don’t think I want to. I suspect I understand why. It took a long time…more than twenty years…to find out that for me the answer lay in writing. Maybe it started with a friend of a friend buying me Jackie Kay’s Adoption Papers, and then started again with being told about Carrie Etter’s Imagined Sons. 

It started with rediscovering Greek myths, and particularly the story of Icarus. It was discovering, through the process of retelling the story, that the character no one pays enough attention to is Daedalus, or points out that if Daedalus had used his amazing gifts well, he would never have needed to build a labyrinth, would not have given away its secret, would not have been imprisoned in a tower with his son, would never have needed to conceive of making wings. I understood, through this that if you make wings for your children, it’s not enough to just watch them fly. Whether they fly into the sun or the heart of darkness, if they fall, then are you responsible, and how will you live with that.

Tony Harrison wrote that in the silence that surrounds all poetry

articulation is the tongue-tied’s fighting’  .

I believe articulation is healing, a way to atonement and to being able to forgive yourself. The serenity to accept the things you cannot change. Articulation can be confessional, too. You can’t change the past; ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’ simply make you spiritually ill. We know this, rationally, consciously, but living by it needs help. Two poets have given me that help. Clare Shaw’s credo “I do not believe in silence” and her unwavering frank gaze at her history of self-harm, and psychological disturbance gave me courage. As did Kim Moore’s decision to use poetry to deal with her experience of domestic abuse. And, finally, one moment in a writing class that Kim was running that somehow unlocked suppressed and unarticulated belief, guilt, knowledge. I remember I wept silently all the time I was writing. It only lasted five minutes, that task. But an insight, an acknowledgement takes only a moment no matter how long the process that leads up to it. This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine says Prospero at the end. I think I understand the release he must have felt in that split second.

A weak force

there’s sometimes a loss you can’t imagine;

the lives never lived by your children, or

by the one who simply stopped

in the time it takes

to fall to the ground

from the top of a tower block.

They say gravity is a weak force.

I say the moon will tug a trillion tons

of salt sea from its shore.

I say a mountain range will pull a snowmelt

puddle out of shape.

I say gravity can draw a boy

through a window

and into the air.

There is loss no one can imagine.

In the no time between

falling and not falling

you learned the art of not falling;

beneath you burned

the lights of Sheepscar, Harehills,

Briggate, Vicar Lane;

lights shone in the glass arcades,

on the tiles, on the gantries of tall cranes;

motorway lights trailed ribbons of red,

and you were far beyond falling.

Because you shut your eyes

because you always shut your eyes

you closed them tight as cockleshells

because when you did that the world

would go away the world

would not see you.

I remember how you ran like a dream.

I remember how you laughed when I swore

I would catch you.

Then you flared you went out

you flared like a moth and you blew

away over the lights over the canal

the river the sour moors the cottongrass

the mills of the plain

and over the sea and over the sea

and the bright west

and you sank like the sun.

I count myself lucky. Lucky to have had our son for 21 years. Lucky to have learned to live with the loss of him and to have learned how to make amends to myself and to his memory. Lucky to be able to articulate it.

A year ago we we were told we now have a Minister for Suicide. She has no budget, no staff, no office, no brief.  A disproportionate number of young men and women will take their own lives in the coming year. Some of them will have been made desperate by being stripped of benefits, being made homeless; some will have been denied the recognition and appropriate treatment they desperately need for their mental health issues. Whatever their circumstances, there will be parents, siblings, partners, children, friends who will be numb, full of unassuageable guilt. There is loss no one can imagine.

Bridges and troubled waters. Gráinne Tobin [1]

(This last appeared as a post in The Wider Web on the Write Out Loud poetry site)

I’ve reached a point where I can hardly bear to listen to or watch news programmes, when politicians lie effortlessly and without shame, and when total strangers spew bile at each other on what we call, without apparent irony, ‘social media’.

So I thought it appropriate to devote two posts to a poet I met in the most divided community I’ve ever spent time in, because right now I need all the hope I can get.

There’s a Bob Neuwirth song that I can’t get out of my head . Venice beach.It doesn’t stand up as poetry. It’s sentimental, in the way of good Americana. But I’ve always loved it, especially the second verse:

Broken promise on the beach, empty feeling heading home

with that sense of being free that’s only all alone,

and as the water reached my feet, I looked down into the foam,

and lying just beyond my reach lay a perfect heart-shaped stone.

It does that thing that a good song does, of matching a mood, and putting a tune to it that won’t leave you. It’s how I felt when I woke upa couple of years ago to find that I wouldn’t be a European anymore, and nor would my grandchildren. And if this sounds sentimental, I’m not apologising.

So what’s that to do with the image of a squaddie patting down a guy on a shopping street where no one seems to find it unusual or a matter for concern? Well, this was Belfast in the early 80’s, where for the first time in my life I was stopped by two young squaddies who jumped out of an armoured car and pointed loaded weapons at me, and demanded ‘Eye dee’. 

I was a visiting tutor for a week at Stranmillis College, and I was walking back from the theatre on my own. I’ve never got over the culture shock of that week, the business of routinely having bags searched at shop doors, the barbed wire, the breeze-block defended pub doorways, and, above all, the way everyone went about their business as if it was normal. 

This is where social and religious and political division will take you.

The course I was tutoring on was in-service for all the heads of English in Northern Ireland. One afternoon I ran an optional poetry workshop (badly enough, but I didn’t know better then) and met today’s guest poet,  Graínne Tobin, who was even younger than me, and who wrote a draft that has always stayed with me. It was about the small town where she lived. It’s a Protestant town, and then she was one of the few Catholics in the community. And she was married to an Englishman. The Orange Lodge boys had come round to say they’d be hanging their bunting in the street and on her house. When she told then they couldn’t, she was subject to a campaign of menace. Eventually, the bunting was hung up.   It was unnerving to finally read a finished version of that draft, earlier this year, 30 years later. The poem is ‘Rural retreat’ from Banjaxed [2002]. Here’s the town.

It’s a beautiful place at the foot of the Mournes. What’s not on this photo is the graffiti telling Bobby Sands to get on with his dying, or the boys who followed a careful distance behind us, whistling The Sash. I was more scared there than in the middle of Belfast.  It stuck hard did that visit to Annalong with Graínne in 1981.That’s what nationalism and sectarianism does.

But I didn’t have to live there, and I came home. I kept in touch with Graínne for a time as she set up a N.I. branch of N.A.T.E., and then life got complicated, as it does, and that was it until three years ago when I met her again in the largely wonderful virtual world of Facebook. She sent me her two poetry collections, and the bilingual anthology she collaborated on, and told me all the amazing things she’d been doing. I fell for the poems, and asked her to be a Cobweb Polished Gem. And here she is to speak for herself, as she always has.

“Gráinne Tobin (she writes) is believed to be mostly harmless. She was born in 1951 in Portadown, in a maternity home which later became the local HQ of the Orange Order.. She was brought up as Catholic but has been an atheist for the last 49 years. She and her parents belonged to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement in its innocent early days. 

At university in Canterbury, she met an English student, Andy Carden, when they were both part of a social action group visiting the high security Borstal in Dover. He became her husband and moved to Ireland with her, against the 1970s flow of people fleeing Northern Ireland for the safety of Britain. Both worked in the education service – Gráinne taught in further and adult education and then in Shimna Integrated College – and are now retired. They have been closely involved in the movement for integrated education and have helped to set up two integrated state schools.

In the 1980s when they had a young child and another on the way, they ran into sectarian trouble in their idyllic-looking fishing village and were under some threat in their home  (which is when we met)They have lived since then in Newcastle, Co Down .

She was a member of the Word of Mouth Poetry Collective which offered encouragement to female poets locally through readings and poetry parties; it ran for 25+ years, until it affectionately decided to wind itself up in June 2016. 

Most members went on to publish individual collections. The group made a connection with some Russian women poets which led to collaborative translation projects, and readings in St Petersburg and Belfast. 

Gráinne Tobin’s books are Banjaxedand The Nervous Flyer’s Companion(Summer Palace Press) and she contributed to the Word of Mouth Poetry Collective’s anthology of translations from five St Petersburg women poets, When the Neva Rushes Backwards(Lagan Press).

Her poems have been published in anthologies, and in literary magazines such as Poetry Ireland Review and Magma.. She has won the Segora Poetry competition in France, was long-listed for the UK’s National Poetry Competition and the Fish Poetry Prize, ….and a lot more.

 Her poem, Learning to Whistlewas made into a sculpture and is on display in Down Arts Centre. 


I would happily sit and read poem after poem to you, relishing  their clear-eyed honesty, their range, their verbal and rhythmical sure-footedness. Hearing the voice, like the one in Scabies 1970 (from The nervous flyer’s companion)..

The whole town knew someone in the prison –

pinpoints of blood on the children’s sheets

were not from hives or the strawberry harvest.

How’s that for an opening line? And how’s that for the resonances of ‘hives’ and ‘strawberry’…there are two words that really pull their weight. I’m also envious of the way that Graínne can look steadily at atrocity, and its dazed survivors in poems like Bad news from home. (from Banjaxed)

There’s an emptiness in the scattered street

where women wander, talking to the wind,

blood on their faces, looking for each other.

If you’re looking for the image that fixes the moment that makes a poem a poem, how about this from Mortal sin…..

Grown to the age of reason and her first confession

she runs into clean air like a sheet

drying in the wind of absolution.

It’s moments like this that always make me think the Irish have the unfair advantages (in poetry) of accent and of Catholicism. But enough. You’ve waited patiently, and here comes Graínne’s selection of her poems..and, which is nice for me, her commentarires on them. Which means I can now put up my feet and just enjoy myself. First up, the seaside.

Happy Days in Sunny Newcastle

 The air’s washed now,

last night’s sad leavings

swept up and away.

Van drivers park outside the bakery

with fried eggs held in breakfast soda farls .

Arcades of slot machines

lie berthed between spent streams

that slip downhill to a tideline flagged with pebbles,

faded wood, wrecked loot, rubber gloves, broken glass

abraded to droplets by the tumbling waves.

The daily walker on his coatless course

between youth and age,

observing wading birds and children’s games.

Up for a trip, out for a drive,

dandering down the promenade.

Loudhailer hymns, crusaders’ tracts

warn of strange temptations

offered to ice- cream lickers,

candy-floss lovers.

In the chip-shops’ wake the street

opens to the sea

which is the reason for everything,

shingle bank,

shops and houses,

foundations sunk in marsh,

confined by a shadowed arm

where mountains lift out of the water,

growing darkness like moss

over the forest where the young

roost with beer and campfires.

Heron pacing the harbour at twilight

stiff-collared in clerical grey,

squinting at coloured lights

edging the bay.

Far out, the lighthouse signalling

Good – night

chil – dren.

(Happy Days in Sunny Newcastle was a banner above a local seaside joke and souvenir shop. There is a local eccentric everyone knows, who walks the roads every day in a tweed jacket. And when our son was tiny I used to tell him the lighthouse was flashing goodnight to him though his bedroom window. )

[Me…I love the ‘sea that is the reason for everything’, the business of protestant tracts, the textures…at the same time there’s something slightly disturbing going on. And even more so in the next]


Tell me a really story.  Tell me what it was like

when you were small, which way you walked to school,

the garden where you tried to dig to the other side of the world,

your uncle’s rows of leafy plants to eat,

the orchard tree you climbed to hide,

the old lady waving from the window, the bags of coloured sweets

and the house you were told you’d inherit.

Apricots and lemons.

If you go there, pick some for me.

Tierhogar, Spelga, Qatamon.

The names are spells.

When you shovelled soil aside with your scaled-down spade,

did you know you’d come out where you are now?

That your children would save cereal boxes

to reconstruct your home in sticky-tape and cardboard?

Tell me what happened. Exactly.

(This was written in 2006 well before the current refugee crisis. It was prompted by going to an art exhibition while on a teacher fellowship in Oxford – two women photographers, Israeli and Palestinian Arab. One photographed the family lemon orchard a friend could no longer visit because of travel restrictions on Palestinians. So Qatamon stands for such places. Tierhogar was sold and demolished, my mother’s lost cottage of childhood, for which she always longed. And Spelga is a drowned reservoir-valley near us in Co Down). 

The next one nails it for me in one couplet:In her neat suburb of the dead / you’ll need no A to Zed

The Catholic Graveyard in Armagh

Push away the feather quilt,

alert for the small hours review.

Here comes the siren, whoo, whoo,

to rattle your dazed heart.

Now the compulsory tour

of the raw trench where you left her,

wearing her navy dress as waked at home

among chrysanthemums, china cups

and a murmur of rosaries in her own back room.

Neighbours in sequence are addressed

as if they live here: Mrs So-and-So?

Third on the right.The sister and the father

under their slab in the new vernacular,

polished black marble, inscribed in gold,

carried from China for twelve weeks by sea.

She’s two plots away from the tidiest grave in town.

Fresh flowers always, though it took a year

to find a lad his executioners hid.

In her neat suburb of the dead

you’ll need no A to Zed,

killers and killed housed side by side

when booby trap or bullet

levelled their last breath.

Weeds came up over her while your back was turned.

Geraniums from Cemetery Sunday,

candles in plastic holders and a varnished cross

maintain old decency until granite

can name her true and final death.

(My mother’s death left me reeling, and recalibrating everything. I am the only one of 7 siblings in Ireland. The rest are in England and Wales. So the day-to-day elder-care, and the funeral and grave arrangements, mostly fell to me. Cruse Bereavement Care helped me to hold on to sanity at the point when I wrote this poem. The title does stick its tongue out at Lowell. That graveyard has the neighbouring corpses of my best friend’s police constable dad and his INLA murderers. Plus everyone else on the Catholic side of the town. It was the subject of a nasty snobby chapter in Kate Adie’s memoir in which she misses several vital points. Cemetery Sunday is when there is a three-line whip on families to clean and decorate graves and stand beside them for an open-air Mass. Ugh! I used to bring my father to attend, beside my mother’s grave in which he would remark that he would also be buried, and after both parents died, my sister heroically came over from England to relieve me of it. Oul’ dacencies can get too much at times.)

It’s not all dark, though it’s always serious. The last one takes you on a busride you weren’t quite expecting. Fingers crossed that WordPress will let me keep the layout as it should be. (of course it didn’t. So let’s see what converting to a jpeg will manage. Yayy. It works )

(This was partly prompted by a poet friend’s objection to current Irish poems which ignore modernity in favour of bogs and swans. There is a backlash against all this rural Oirishry, which amuses me, since so many of us really are still rural, but I’m also drawn to the idea of a debunking nature poem.)

So, there we are. Next week we’ll get up to date on what Graínne did next. See you then.

Poetry that really matters: Ann Gray (Part Two)

Tell me a story, Pew.

What story, child?

One that begins again.

That’s the story of life

But is it the story of my life?

Only if you tell it.

(Jeanette Winterson: Lighthousekeeping)

I’m a bit late starting to write this morning. The garden was full of pigeon feathers. Our cat has the unpleasant habit of attacking birds, making a mess, and then getting bored and leaving them. Sometimes it doesn’t bother killing them. So I found a pigeon with its shoulder muscle torn out, wandering about and helpless. I’m not good with stuff like this, but caught it in a sheet, and made a bad fist of breaking its neck, and then buried it. It should be easy, and I suppose it is if you know what you’re doing. And I’m always astonished by the tenacity with which an injured bird or animal will hang on to life. As it happens, this is not altogether irrelevant to today’s post, in which we get to hear more poems from Ann Gray, and to have our lives enriched.

If you missed Part One in the previous post, you might like to have a quick look, and read the poem she wrote about having to identify the body of her partner who had been killed in a traffic accident. I said I didn’t want to write any kind of commentary on it then, but there are a couple of things worth saying before I crack on with this week’s poems.

I said that her poem ‘unnerves and confronts’; I think I should qualify that. It’s not confrontational, it doesn’t insist. What Ann Gray does is to look unwaveringingly at her own trauma. There are three key verbs. I wanted. I was afraid. I watched. While she stands by the body of the man she loves the morgue attendant watched me through the window. He’s separated from the human story by glass, and by his bureaucratic routine that demands she uses the official, distancing, dehumanising formula

“He said take as long as you want, but he watched me

through a window and everything I wanted seemed

undignified and hopeless”

Meanwhile, what she ‘wants’ is to touch, and to touch passionately, but she’s afraid to hurt this man who can never hurt again. He’s gone, essentially, and separate. It makes me think of the agony of the dead miner’s wife in Lawrence’s ‘Odor of crysanthemums’. It’s this absolute honesty that told me I want to read and hear more and more of Ann Gray. So we will.

And I’ve just realised I’ve still not introduced her properly; let me put that right! 

Ann Gray says she always knew she wanted to write poetry:

 “I felt I was able to say more. There was a space inside the poem                                                                                     which I rarely found in prose.”

She has a Creative writing MA from the University of Plymouth. Her most recent collection was At The Gate (Headland, 2008) 

Her poems have been selected for the Forward Prize Anthology, commended for the National Poetry Competition, won the Ballymaloe poetry prize and shortlisted for the Forward prizes best single poem in 2015.

In 2013 she was Poet in residence at Cambridge University Botanic Gardens for the Thresholds University Museums Project, curated by the Poet Laureate.

A winner of the Poetry Business Pamphlet competition in 2018, she is co-director of the Bodmin Moor Poetry Festival, now in its 9th year

She lives in Cornwall where she cares for people with dementia.

Her studies for her MA led to her collection of poems about the sudden loss of her partner, At The Gate(Headland, 2008). The next poem,‘My Blue Hen’ is one of many written since that publication, which, she says, “prove” she was not finished with those poems.

She describes it as “a love song and a spell” and was inspired by the experience of moving her poultry to a safer place after a fox attack: “Although I was weeping with fatigue from walking up and down the hill, I found myself singing to console her, to console myself.”

How do we deal with unbearable loss? Who do we tell our grief to? Who will listen to its wildness? Who will be our confessor? Someone or something we trust not to judge, I suppose. Like this.


I sing to my blue hen. I fold her wings 

against my body. The fox has had her lover, 

stealing through the rough grass,

the washed sky. I tell her, I am the blue heron

the hyacinth macaw. We have 

a whispered conversation in French. I tell her 

the horse, the ox, the lion, are all in the stars

at different times in our lives. I tell her there are

things even the sea can’t do, like come in when 

it’s going out. I tell her my heart is a kayak 

on wild water, a coffin, and a ship in full sail. 

I tell her there is no present time, 

an entire field of dandelions will give her

a thousand different answers. I tell her 

a dog can be a lighthouse, a zebra finch can 

dream its song, vibrate its throat while sleeping. 

I tell her how the Mayan midwife sings each child 

into its own safe song. The moon holds back the dark.

I snag my hair on the plum trees. I tell her I could’ve 

been a tree, if you’d held me here long enough.

I stroke her neck. She makes a bubbling sound,

her song of eggs and feathers. I tell her you were 

a high note, a summer lightning storm of a man.

In Maya society, it is believed that midwives receive their calling from God in a series of dreams. The midwife is the first to see the infant, and before a mother can bond with her baby the midwife is expected to carefully interpret the signs that the child bears, and she alone will interpret what profession the child is destined for..

When Ann read this poem in St Ives, she explained that each time a baby is born, the Mayan midwife makes up a song for that baby and sings it every time she visits the mother before the baby is born. As the mother goes into labour the midwife sings the baby out into its own song, one that will make it feel safe as it has heard it for 9 months inside the womb. The other mothers sing the beat of the mother’s pulse and all the women of the village breast feed the baby so that it knows it belongs to the whole community and is safe there.

It’s a dream poem, this, isn’t it. Rousseau should have painted it. I love it.

As she says, with her partner she now cares for people with dementia, as she cared for her mother who she celebrates in her winning pamphlet I wish I had more mothers. The poems she writes about living with dementia have the same unflinching honesty as the ones about the death of her husband, but they’re laced with with a wry humour, too. I love the form, the voice of these one-way conversations, their assured ease with a relaxed, conversational blank verse. They speak for themselves.

Is it in your diary, Dear?

Every year they’d go to Heffers, shop for diaries,

not the Academic year, but the straightforward

blue black covered January to December, laid out

in weeks of empty days, waiting for engagements.

His records pills taken, the death of mice, the day

the gardener visits to set the traps, which coloured

bin goes out beyond the gate, when more oil is due.

Hers has been traversed by a spider, possibly drunk.

Odd words here and there could be meaningful, 

but it’s very hard to say. A right word could appear

on a wrong day. Though every day could be wrong.

She licks her thumb to turn the tissue of scribbled 

pages and readjusts the navy string of ribbon to hold

her weeks apart. Did you say they’ll be here for lunch

on the twentieth and who was that, I’m not sure what

this says here, have you got it in your diary, dear?

In her bag, there’s a small hardback journal bravely

titled ‘things to remember’, each page entirely blank. 

She still likes to keep a blue biro handy in case 

writing is required, but this will mean he shouts

and then it’s really difficult to take it down.  Just jot 

it down has such a jaunty sound to it. Jot what down

where, what is jot, a jot of what, where did she leave it.

Think where you last were, maybe in the kitchen, not a

jot in there, all sorts of stuff in cupboards she should

sort out, move about into their proper places. Can you

get your diary, he’s shouting now, can you get it from

the table beside your chair. She brings him a napkin,

tries a piece of cake, then tries a newspaper discarded 

on the floor. Your diary. Oh God, I give up, he shouts.

She sits down, folds a blanket on her knees and sleeps.

He uses the remote to tilt his chair, lift his legs, weeps.

Without Us

I am washing up a saucepan she thinks she’s using to boil 

milk. I am an intruder in her kitchen unnecessarily cleaning 

everything that’s sticky or has left a rusty stencil of itself 

inside the pull-out drawer. Her voice is rising to a shout,

Get out! I want to bite you!  You can, I say softly, and it’s 

forgotten. We return to chocolate in two faded cups, to 

cutting cake, to finding forks and saucers. So much shorter 

now, she peers into my face, are you, she hesitates, Ann?

I say, I am. I’m your eldest daughterOf course, she says 

with a little laugh. Neither of us believe I’ve convinced her.

She wants to watch the washing machine and has dragged

a chair there. The constant movement must be soothing

as she’s happiest waiting for the green light beeping under

Open Door, even though that instruction can be baffling

on a bad day, and there are more. Sometimes she’ll whirl

about the house causing mayhem, on other days we’ll find

her upstairs, in a room she says her mother left her when 

she died, turning pages of her Bible, talking softly to herself

while she watches tops of trees move against the window.

Lost there, she’s 4 years old, without her father. She weeps,

searching for his clothes, his shoes, his overcoat, his hat.

He will need them when he goes out on his visits. It’s so 

little, what we can do to be there, where she is without us.

We’ll finish with a poem of love, and hope, and a celebration of the fact that life goes on, that we endure or go under. Ann Gray is not one for going under, we understand.

Seven Years

I’m on the bed with Beth, fresh from Zumba.

Her socks stink. She’s promising to shout

for me, when I get old. It’s seven years since

we were left to watch at weddings, Christmas

after Christmas. I search for words, move

my tongue around my mouth,

I’ve met someone. She tips forwards.

I take her tears with my thumb. She asks me,

Does he know, and is he gentle?And I’m buried

in her clothes, her curling hair, her jumbled bed,

her guitar where her boyfriend’s propped it.

When I leave, it’s dark along the river,

the moon’s not quite full, breaking through the trees.

There’s no-one on the road and as I pull up the hill, 

I flick off the wipers, realiseit’s me; it’s not raining.

Thank you, so much, Ann Gray. Thank you for sharing the poems. Thank you for writing them.

I’ll let another writer have the last word because she says it better than I ever could.

“Turn down the daily noise and at first there is the relief of silence. And then, very quietly, as quiet as light, meaning returns. Words are part of the silence that can be spoken.”

[Lighthousekeeping.   Jeanette Winterson.  Harper Perennial 2004]

ps.Ann says that if you want to get hold of your own copy of At the gate it can be hard to source but she’s happy to sell you a copy direct. Let me know via the comment section, and I’ll put you in touch. No such problem with I wish I had more motherswhich you can order direct from The Poetry Business :

Poetry that really matters: Ann Gray [Part One]

“ If only I could say 

   a new thing, a thing 

   I’ve never said before.

  Something as small as a spoon

   or as big as a landscape:

  as new as a baby.”

      [Hope: Norman MacCaig]

Some weeks I despair of knowing how, and where to start. First line nerves kick in, particularly when I worry that I won’t do justice to the guest poet. It’s felt particularly acute this last few days. So if I seem especially incoherent, bear with me, and we’ll find out together whether justice has been done.

I wrote the following last week, feeling a bit low. But everything turned out well in the end. So I’m republishing this, slightly edited from the version that appeared on the Write Out Loud site in my other blog, The wider web. 

Hope you like Ann Gray’s work as much as I do. There’s be more of her work in a follow-up post very soon.

I didn’t know anything about Ann Gray except that her pamphlet I wish I had more mothers was one of the winners of the 2018 Poetry Business Pamphlet competition, which was judged by Liz Berry and (there’s synergy) David Constantine. I had no idea what to expect when she was the guest reader at a residential course I was on in St Ives earlier this year. I pricked my ears up when, in her introduction, Kim Moore announced that John Foggin is going to like thisbecause he’s a big fan of Clive James, and Clive James is a big fan of Ann Gray’s poetry. It turned out that he’d written an enthusiastic endorsement of one of her collections. Now I know why.

But even that’s not what really reeled me in. There are moments when you hear a poem for the first time, and you know that it’s the real deal, when the hair on the back of your neck stands up, when your heart gives a lurch. Here’s the poem, of which she says

I thought the most difficult collection I put together was after my partner was killed in a road accident. I used 44 of the poems as my final MA dissertation and read every poem or prose that I could lay my hands on that dealt with loss.

Your body

I identified your face

and when he said is this,and gave your full name,

it wasn’t enough to say, yes, he said I had to say,

this is, and give your full name.

It seemed to be all about names, but I only saw your face.

I wanted to rip back the sheets and say, yes this his chest,

his belly, these are his ballsand this is the curve of his buttock. 

I could have identified your feet, the moons on your nails,

the perfect squash ball of a bruise on your back,

the soft curl of your penis when its sleeps against your thigh.

I wanted to lay my head against you’re your chest, to take your hands,

hold them to your face, but I was afraid your broken arm was hurting.

My fingers fumbled at your shirt, the makeshift sling had trapped it.

Your shirt, your crisp white shirt. The shirt I’d ironed on Friday.

The shirt that grazed my face when you leaned across our bed

to say goodbye. I watched the place where your neck

joinsthe power of your chest and thought about my head there.

He offered me your clothes. I refused to take your clothes.

Days later I wanted all your clothes.I didn’t know what I wanted,

standing there beside you, asking if I could touch you,

my hands on your cheek. He offered me a lock of your hair.

I took the scissors. I had my fingers in your hair.

I could taste the blacken silken hair of your sex.

I wanted to wail all the Songs of Solomon.

I wanted to throw myself against the length of you and wail.

I wanted to lay my face against your cheek.

I wanted to take the blood from your temple with my tongue,

I wanted to stay beside you till you woke.

I wanted to gather you up in some impossible way

to take you from this white and sterile place to somewhere

where we could lie and talk of love.

I wanted to tear of my clothes, hold myself against you.

He said take as long as you want, but he watched me

through a window and everything I wanted seemed

undignified and hopeless, so I told him we could go,

we could leave, and I left you

lying on the narrow bed, your arm tied in its sling,

purple deepening the sockets of your eyes.

[from At the gate. 2008]

This poem confronts and unnerves because, unlike the Victorians, we have removed ourselves from physical contact with the dead. Some of their customs persisted into the 1950s. As a child I was shocked when a classmate of mine in Primary School, Geoffrey Brooke, died of meningitis (none of us knew what that was; just that it was frightening, that it could visit any of us). More shocked when his mother invited us, his 8 and 9 year old classmates, to come and see him laid out in his coffin in the single downstairs room of their terrace house. When it came to it, I stayed outside. Some of my friends went in, and when they came out they would say nothing about it. Not then, and not later.

When my dad died, and years later, my mother, they were whisked away before I coud see them. They vanished. 

I wonder what I ever made of Sassoon’s line from The Dugout

You are too young to fall asleep forever;

And when you sleep you remind me of the dead.

It was just an idea, a notion. I think we too often persuade ourselves we understand. Unlike Hamlet, we are happy to conflate sleep and death and leave it there.

Which is why I need poems like Your body. One of my sons committed suicide by jumping from a high rise block of flats. The police told me that I wouldn’t want to see him, and I was too stunned to argue. I have no idea who identified him, or how, but it wasn’t his mother, or me. We couldn’t have a funeral until a long-postponed inquest was over, and his body was released. In his coffin, only his face was visible. His face was like the death mask of a beautiful stranger. It was unmarked, and he really did seem unnaturally asleep. I kissed him, but he didn’t wake.

Years later I had to go with my partner to identify the body of her ex-husband in the morgue in Wakefield. It was so bizarre, so unreal, like a piece of theatrical still life. I thought I would never find words for it and maybe I shouldn’t try. Now I know I was wrong in that, as in so many things, because of this lovely, tender, terrible, astonishing poem. 

I’ve made all sorts of notes about the way it barely contains its emotional pressure; it seems to me today that they’re irrelevant. If you need to have it explained you weren’t listening. But also today, by chance, the poet Jane Clarke posted this on her Facebook page, and I knew that it said what I couldn’t.

“That must be among the strangest of poetry’s many paradoxes: that we are driven to write by fire and then must distance ourselves to a cool dispassion in order to make those flames burn for anyone else. That is not a heartless thing, or an opportunistic one, to turn your experience into art. Your life is not diminished—nor changed—by having been the basis for a poem. But poetry does ask the writer to be inside a life and outside it at once, standing in the center and also looking in, through the shaping (and distorting) aperture of a lens.” 

 Mark Doty in ‘Can Poetry Console a grieving Public?

I’m not sure about the ‘cool dispassion’. But the visceral need, the fire, to find the words that will tell you the meaning of the inchoate thing that just wrecked your life….that fire. Yes. Yes, that.

I don’t think I’ve ever done a single poem post for a guest before. But it feels right to end here, for the moment. We’ll be back with Ann Gray next week, when I’ll tell you more about her, and share more of her poems about things that matter. I’ll leave you with this

     “Tell me a story, Pew.

 What kind of story, child?

      A story with a happy ending.

There’s no such thing in all the world

     As a happy ending?

As an ending.”

         [Lighthousekeping: Jeanette Winterson]

My kind of poetry: David Constantine

I’ve been a bit under the weather of late, and falling behind with posts and promises. Sorry about that. Still here’s a fan letter (it hardly counts as a review, and it’s certainly not unbiased or remotely objective) to David Constantine. It appeared first on my Write Out Loud blog, The wider web .

I’m feeling something of a fraud , having recently read the latest spat about the Oxford Poetry Professorship. It concerns one Todd Swift. I’ve never heard of him. It reminds me yet again that I know next to nothing about the world of contemporary poetry, who’s in, who’s out, who’s round about. And yet here I am again, spouting about poems and poets.

However, it provides a nice hook for today’s post which is the first of two in which I’ll celebrate the poetry of David Constantine. 

The link is this: I was barely aware of David Constantine until about four years ago. It seems to me now like being unaware of, say, Geoffrey Hill or Tony Harrison. How did it happen?….perhaps because despite being a much-acclaimed translator, the co-editor of Modern Poetry in Translation, and author of the stunning Bloodaxe Collected Poems, he attracts no controversy, his work is crafted, elegant, and educated (as well as passionate, humane, and given to wearing its heart on its sleeve). In short, he is not fashionable. For me, he sits alongside Harrison, Fanthorpe, Causley and MacCaig; but apart from Kim Moore in one of her blog posts, no one had ever said to me have you read x or y by David Constantine?  So I’m taking a punt on some of you out there, like me, not knowing, and I’m hoping that after you’ve read this, you, like me, will want to rush out and buy his Collected Poems.

I met him by accident at a reading/party for the 30thbirthday of The Poetry Business at Dean Clough in Halifax. I was reading from my new first collection and David was top of the bill. 

It was wonderful. He reads apparently effortlessly, he reads the meaning of the words, so it sounds like unrehearsed speech until you become aware of the patterning of rhythm, of rhyme, the lovely craftedness of it. I bought his Collected Poems (more than embarassed to find it was £12 and my collection was £9.95. Jeepers) and once I’d finished a year of reading Fanthorpe, I spent a year of reading David’s poems, three or four every morning, listening to the work of words, the deft management of unobtrusive rhyme and assonance, relishing the huge range of reference, the lightly-worn scholarship, the management of voices. I heard him reading again quite recently, and took a punt on asking him to be a guest on The Wider Web. He said yes. He’s a generous man. I like this introduction to him..I’ve managed to lose the source, for which mea culpa..but it says what I’d like to have said myself.

He was born in 1944 in Salford, Lancashire, an urban landscape of factories, red brick terraces and mizzle-grey skies, the Lowry backdrop to his childhood with a nimbus of “visionary dreariness” quite particular to that part of England. Some of his poems home in on this familiar prehistory and its memorable characters, while others range across the mysterious mythical world of faraway Greece, inspired by epiphanies beneath the clanging skies above the Aegean. ..Constantine fuses the compressed stoical grit of the one with the lyrical flexibility of the other to create an intense poetic voice…He is a maker of poems, a craftsman as well as messenger … [whose] poems arrive freighted with authority.

I also latched on to another description of his work that draws attention to the way that he seems to fly under the fashionable radar.

David Constantine, a scholar-poet whose considerable poetic achievement mysteriously wants the wider appreciation it deserves, considering its emotional range, its mastery of formal and linguistic variety, its lyrical intensity and disarming confessional intimacy, these all finely attuned by a keenly attentive ear. It is contemporary poetry which unfashionably, and unexpectedly perhaps, makes frequent use of forms, ideas and associations buried deep in a grand European poetic tradition.

Some readers, startlingly, don’t get it. As in this extract from Laurie Smith’s review of David Constantine’s Collected Poems in Magma 31

David Constantine’s Collected is not complete, comprising the poems from his seven previous Bloodaxe collections which he wishes to keep in print together with the poems in two limited editions and some new poems. Reading the 350 pages, I am struck, first, by how few poems deal centrally with other people, that is people in the present world, not in myth or history, who are determinably separate from the poet. A series of early poems describes people and their ends with decided lack of sympathy: Milburn Margaret, Mrs who 

               on a Friday in the public view

           Lodged on the weir as logs do.

Who is this reviewer who seems to inhabit a different universe from mine? Someone, it seems, incapable of reading what’s there in plain sight. Let me show you how astonishingly wrong he was. Let’s start with a poem from one of his earliest collections, A brightness to cast shadows [1980]. ]. I chose this to show his lyricism, and the way he can stop a moment like a held breath.

But most you are like 

But most you are like 

The helpless singing of birds

To whom the light happens

On whom it falls

And at whose purity of voice

The skies weep and there is a pause

In all the world before beginning

And before the ending

Some of the moments he stops in time are accurately bleak, looking unwaveringly at the space between life and death, and between the dark and the light..the space where the poetry goes.


A lamb lay under the thorn, the black

Thorn bending by the last broken wall

And grasping what it can.

The dead lamb picketed a ewe.

She cropped round, bleating

And chewing in that machinal way of sheep.

And although she backed to a safe distance,

When I climbed down towards her lamb

Through a gap in the wall,

It was as if painfully paying out the fastening cord.

The crow was there, also

At a safe distance, waiting for the ewe to finish;

And sidled off a further yard or so 

Waiting until I too should have finished.

For me, it spins round that unnerving observation The dead lamb picketed a ewe. There’s a double-take when you suddenly see the umbilical cord that links the living to the dead, and then the camera pulls back, and there’s the crow, waiting. I love the clarity of it all, the exactness of the line breaks, and the way the capitalised lines slow you down, make you pay attention to the heft of each line. I actually queried his preference for what I carelessly called ‘an older tradition’, this business of capitalisation. He put me right on that:

About initial capitals – what you call ‘the old tradition’ – I’ve always set my lines like that and I think the (in practice very fast) reappraising of the syntax from line to line is a good thing. Lineation plays a critical part in causing the mind to (however briefly) pause in its grasping after sense, in which pause it entertains possibilities, which is a good thing. The capitalization is a marker or gentle enforcer of that process.

So I’ll ask you to keep that in mind as you work your way through the rest of the poems and extracts. Read them aloud is my advice.

When I began to read the Collected Poems, though there were so many of those ‘moments that draw you in’ I was brought up short by a sequence which is essentially a praise poem to his Grandma, widowed in WW1. Light and dark is a leitmotif through so many of the poems, and memorably so in the notion that the dead ‘glimmer for a generation’ and unless we constantly attend to them they will lose their (lovely word) luminance.

from In Memoriam 8571 Private J.W.Gleave

who was at Montauban, Trônes Wood, and Guillemot

There are some dead we see and even see by;

They glimmer for a generation, our looking

Lends them more luminance.


We saw a similar light dawn on the woman

Who had been a widow more than fifty years.

She lingered in the doorway of the living room

  Impelled as people leaving are to say

Some word more than goodnight


The women stood by, they followed the post like crows:


So the news came from Guillemot to Salford 5

After lapse of weeks during which time

She had known no better than to believe herself a wife.


But by November the congregation of widows

Being told it was a reasonable sacrifice

Their men had made saw mutilated trees bedecked

With bloody tatters and being nonetheless

Promised a resurrection of the body

They saw God making their men anew out of

The very clay. These women having heard from soldiers

However little from the battlefield

Towards All Saints gathered black gouts from the elder

Among their children stared at the holy tree

And envied Christ his hurts fit to appear in.


There being no grave, there being not even one

Ranked among millions somewhere in France,

Her grief went without where to lay its head.


Constantine returns to the business of his Grandma in his collection The pelt of wasps in 1998, with this poem. Angry and tender at once; a memorial for all those women his grandma represents, the ones who were left, like my own grandma, to bring up their their children, to count the pennies, to soldier on.

Soldiering on

We need another monument. Everywhere

Has Tommy Atkins with his head bowed down

For all his pals, the alphabetical dead,

And that is sweet and right and every year

We freshen the whited cenotaph with red

But no one seems to have thought of her standing her

In all the parishes in bronze or stone

With bags, with heavy bags, with bags of spuds

And flour and tins of peas and clinging kids

Lending the bags their bit of extra weight –

Flat-chested little woman in a hat,

Thin as a rake, tough as old boots, with feet

That ache, ache, ache. I’ve read

He staggered into battle carrying sixty pounds

Of things for killing with. She looked after the pence,

She made ends meet, she had her ports of call

For things that keep body and soul together

Like sugar, tea, a loaf, spare ribs and lard,

And things the big ship brings that light the ends

Of years, like oranges. On maps of France

I’ve trailed him down the chalky roads to where

They end and her on the oldeast A to Z

Down streets, thin as a wraith, year in, year out

Bidding the youngest put her best foot forward, 

Lugging the rations past the war memorial.

It reads so easily, it’s so instantly accessible and memorable, you hardly notice the craft of it, its rhetorical ease, those half rymes and internal rhymes, and what you remember is the tenderness, the anger. David Constantine will take you from familiar urban landscapes to worlds of myth and legend, those strange distant landscapes which, you discover with a sort of shock, still penetrate our uncomfortable present

“This was a pleasant place.

This was a green hill outside the city.

Who would believe it now? Unthink

The blood if you can, the pocks and scabs,

The tendrils of wire. Imagine an apple tree

Where that thing stands embedded.

“The flat earth is felloed with death. 

At every world’s end, in some visited city,

Diminished steps go down into the river of death.”

From: Mappa Mundi [1987]

See that amazing conflation of myth, religion, history, all time present in the vulnerable ‘now’. The apple trees of the Hesperides and of Eden, Golgotha and barbed wire. The whole world deserving of an inundation. David Constantine is drawn to cataclysmic flood, to Atlantean myths, and conflagration; I thought about this when I read one critic querying what Hiroshima had to do with Pompeii. David’s a year younger than I. We were at grammar school when the first H Bomb was exploded; in Liverpool, in Manchester, in London and elsewhere you could walk through bombed ladscapes still. This was the 1950s. I had no doubt that I would never see 21. If you grow up in a shadow, you’re always conscious that lights can go out.  I love this next poem, not least because of that.


The quick and the dead at Pompeii

I cannot stop thinking about the dead at Pompeii.

It was in the Nagasaki and Hiroshima month.

They did not know they were living under a volcano.

The augurers watched a desperate flight of birds

And wondered about it in the ensuing silence.

There was sixty feet of ash over Pompeii.

It was seventeen centuries before they found the place.

Nobody woke when the sun began again,

Nobody danced. The dead had left their shapes.

The mud was honeycombed with the deserted forms of people.

Fiorelli recovered them with a method the ancients

Inveted for statuary. When he cast their bodies

And cracked the crust of mud they were born again

Exactly as they had died. Many were struck

Recumbent, tripped, wincing away, the clothing

Rolled up their backs. They were interrupted:

A visting woman was compromised for ever,

A beggar hugs his sack, two prisoners are in chains.

Everyone died as they were. A leprous man and wife

Are lying quietly with their children between them.

The works of art at Pompeii were a different matter.

Their statues rose out of mephitic holes bright-eyed.

The fresco people had continued courting and feasting

And playing mythological parts: they had the hues

Of Hermione when Leontes is forgiven.

What do I take from this?…the nakedness of the human condition, a people without defence. And, I suppose, the echo of Larkin’s ‘what will survive of us is love’. Like the quietness of the leprous man and wife.

In another poem in the sequence the figures of Demeter and Persephone are uncovered having ‘survived a bombardment of hot stones’

Nobody loved the earth better than Demeter did

Who trailed it miserably

Calling after her child and nobody’s gifts 

Withheld were more pined after.

Mother and daughter passed north

From prince to prince and latterly

Survived the fire in Dresden. How Pompeii

Seen from the air resembles sites of ours:

Roofless, crusty. Look where Persephone

Wound in rags

Leads blinded Demeter by the hand

Seeking an entrance to preferable Hades.

from: Mother and daughter

There it is again, that insistence on the connections of myth, of history, Demeter’s agony and the death of growing things in the landscapes of Dresden , and I suppose, of his own Salford. 

Now, from cataclysmic fire to cataclysmic water. David lives in the Scillies, a drowned landscape off the ria coast of Cornwall, where Atlantis seems entirely possible if not actally present.

From Atlantis

It dies hard, the notion of a just people;

  The wish that there should have been once mutual aid

Dies very hard. Through fire and ghastly ash and any

  Smothering weight of water still we imagine

A life courteous and joyful; see them lightly clad

  Loving the sun, the vine and the grey olive.

Over the water from trading, they come home winged

  With sails, their guide and harbinger the white dove.

The sea suddenly stood up vertical, sky-high

Bristling with the planks of their peaceful ships.

The first line is one I can’t forget, and never want to, living as we do in a world that seems suddenly willing to destroy everything that approaches the respect and love of what we casually call ‘community’. David  will take you memorably into the not too distant past, and the present, too, as in his poems about the days in the Scillies, after storm and shipwreck when the islanders gathered whatever flotsam was brought to their shore, and when  ‘the harvests were golden’   



Mother has linen from the Minnechaha,

I bought the ship’s bell for half a sovereign

From Stanley, our dumb man. 

Everyone has something, a chair, a bit of brass

And nobody wakes hearing a wind blow

Who does not hope there’ll be things come in

Worth having, but today

Was a quiet morning after a quiet night.


The bay was coloured in

With bobbing oranges. What silence

Till we we pitched into it

Knee-deep the women holding out their skirts

And the men thrashing in boats

We made an easy killing

We took off multitudes

And mounded them in the cold sun.

When Matty halved one with his jack-knife

It was good right through, as red

As garnet, he gave the halves

His girls who sucked them out.


The beams we owe the sea 

Are restless tonight but every home

Is lit with oranges. They were close,

She says, or else the salt

Would have eaten them. Whose popping eyes, 

I wonder, say them leave, 

Roaring like meteors

When the ship in a quiet night

Bled them, and they climbed

Faster than rats in furious shining shoals

In firm bubbles and what

Will tumble in our broken bay tomorrow?

I could go on and on and on, but I see this is a longer post than usual. I need to stop. I hope you’re converted if you weren’t already. Last word from David

“Poetry now, every bit as much as in the Romantic age, is a utopian demonstration, by aesthetic means, of what true freedom would be like. It engages us to imagine something better than what at present we are afflicted with; it helps keep hope alive; it incites us to make more radical demands. And poetry does that out of the enjoyment of its own autonomy, which it is duty-bound not to forfeit.”  

A real treat coming up. A shorter post, but a rich one. Six new poems from David Constantine’s forthcoming collection Belongings, due out from Bloodaxe in early 2020. See you soon.