My kind of poetry: Carole Bromley

This post is for those of you who don’t follow Write Out Loud where I’m currently the resident blogger, and where it originally enjoyed. I’ll be doing this every time there’s a guest poet, so you won’t miss out.

I was trying to decide between three possible posts for this Sunday, when my mind was made up for me by two things.

On Wednesday I had a great time as a support reader at Seven Arts in Chapel Allerton in Leeds, where the launch of Emma Storr’s debut pamphlet Heart Murmur played to a full house, and where she sold all but three of the copies available. If you want to know more about Emma Store (and you should) check out the Cobweb post via this link: https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2019/01/13/on-hearing-and-listening-and-an-undiscovered-gem-emma-storr/

Subsequently, you may decide you want to buy a copy of Heart Murmur, then follow this link to Calder Valley Poetry: https://caldervalleypoetry.com/book-shop/

Emma is a retired GP, and had invited Carole Bromley to be her other guest support reader. And, as it happens, Carole had just come back from Newcastle and the Hippocrates Prize-giving (as well as having , last year, gone through complicated surgery)…and both of them read hospital/medical related poems.

So much so hospital. It all coincided with my having a complicated programme of appointments with consultants to agree treatments/surgery for bits of skin cancer and for long term prostate cancer. So, yes; I’ve got hospitals on my mind.

Sooner or later we’ll all end up there, as patients or visitors. Either state is stressful. . But here’s a thing……I’ve been in and out of hospitals for about 70 years. Hours spent in X ray, or sitting by a bed in an Intensive Care ward, or having morphine nightmares in High Dependency, or observing with an odd curiosity the sociology of General Wards, or marvelling at the linguistic ineptness of a minority of consultants, or at the insouciance of tanned anaesthetists, or being put through the rituals of admission.

I love the NHS, which has saved and prolonged my life and the lives of those I love. But I’ve never got over the sense of being depersonalised, processed. I think it must be like going into prison. That’s what I think when I read the sequence in Solzhenitsyn’s The first circle,when the apparatchik Volodin finds himself in the Greater Lubyanka. Here’s part of the sequence I mean:

“May I dress?” asked Innokenty…but the barber left without a word and locked the door.

………………………………….

After a while he got into his underclothes, but just as he was pulling on his trousers the key rattled in the lock, and still another warder, with a fleshy purple nose, came in holding a large card.

“Surname?”

“Volodin” the prisoner replied without arguing, although the senseless repetitions were making him feel sick.

“Name and patronymic?”

“Innokenty Artemyevitch.”

“Year of birth?”

“Nineteen nineteen”

“Place of birth?”

“Leningrad.”

“Take all your clothes off”

Half dazed, he took off those he had on.

………………………………………………………………………..

And so it continues. Of course, in the novel, the whole system is designed to demoralise the prisoner, take away all his resistance, individuality, his selfhood. I’m not saying that’s what the NHS is remotely after. But the passage invariably pops into my mind when I’m once more repeating all my details…birth date, address, doctor, all that…. and when I’m in an awkward cubicle taking my clothes off and trying to deal with one of those amazingly humiliating backless surgical gowns, and trying to fit my stuff into a plastic shopping basket, which I may have to carry down a corridor full of normal people in their normal clothes. It’s all necessary, and simultaneously dreamlike…something you hope to wake from, soon.

I spent some time musing about how many poems about hospitals I could think of. I struggled. Hilary Mantel writes brilliantly about the experience of being in hospital; Norman MacCaig’s Visiting hour says all I ever want to say about hospital visiting. And U.A.Fanthorpe cornered the market in poems about patients, and doctors and hospital administrators. But, I thought…there must be loads of others. And then could not bring any to mind.

When I look at ones I’ve actually written, it seems that what bothers me about hospitals is not the physical experience, the small humiliations, the pain, the discomforts and so on. I prefer my poems to grit their teeth and soldier on, and not make a fuss. What intrigues me is the way that being in hospital is like being deported to a foreign country whose language you only vaguely understand. But I’m always delighted when someone comes along to throw a new light on the whole nervy business, and thus, effortlessly, we come to today’s guest poet, Carole Bromley.

Carole lives in York where she is the Stanza rep and runs poetry surgeries. For several years she judged the YorkMix Poetry competition, which became a major event under her care. Winner of many prizes herself, including the Bridport, Carole was a winner in the Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition twice and has two pamphlets and three collections with Smith/Doorstop, most recently a collection for children, Blast Off! She is currently working on a new children’s book and also a pamphlet collection about her recent experience of brain surgery. She is also currently judging two competitions, one on the theme of snow for the Candlestick Press and the other the YorkMix Poems for Children Competition https://www.yorkmix.com/entertainment/write-a-childrens-poem-and-win-250/Her website is www.carolebromleypoetry.co.uk

She sent me four poems for this post, all from a pamphlet length collection she is hoping to publish which is based on her experience of brain surgery in Hull last year, all of them with her trademark accuracy of observation and understated technical craft. Here we go

Carole lives in York where she is the Stanza rep and runs poetry surgeries. For several years she judged the YorkMix Poetry competition, which became a major event under her care. Winner of many prizes herself, including the Bridport, Carole was a winner in the Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition twice and has two pamphlets and three collections with Smith/Doorstop, most recently a collection for children, Blast Off!  She is currently working on a new children’s book and also a pamphlet collection about her recent experience of brain surgery. She is also currently judging two competitions, one on the theme of Snowfor the Candlestick Press and the other the YorkMix Poems for Children Competition…

Her own website is www.carolebromleypoetry.co.uk  So there you are. There are absolutely no excuses for not finding out a lot more about her.

She sent me four poems for this post, all from a pamphlet – length collection she is hoping to publish, and which is based on her experience of brain surgery in Hull last year. Four poems, all of them with her trademark accuracy of observation and understated technical craft. I have a strong suspicion that WordPress will go on corrupting the text and ignoring stanza breaks. In case it does, you should know that Afterwards and Unpacking are in 3 line stanzas, and the last poem about reading Henry James is in 2 ten-line stanzas.

Here we go. I think we should start with the pain and  work our way to relief and release. I won’t say much about this first poem except to note the way one short phrase – everyone eating syrup sponge – contextualises everything that happens around it. Oh, and also to note that it is, after all, possible to write about self-pity without sounding full of self-pity.

The Unpacking

I think at the time 

the nose-unpacking 

was the worst

The houseman hadn’t time 

to fetch the pethidine and wait 

just squirted and tugged

It was lunchtime

and everyone eating 

syrup sponge

After the screams

which surely came from 

someone else’s throat

after the begging 

Oh, I can’t bear it. I can’t bear it

plates clattered onto trays

My neighbour was crying 

on my behalf

I rang my husband

Please come Please come 

I lost all pride 

I put it on Facebook 

longing for comfort 

a child again

needing its mother

All afternoon I cried

That night the doctor came back

shook my husband’s hand

said how sorry he was 

he’d had to hurt me 

He was so young 

He was showing two students

how to do the procedure 

Beforehand I joked

I’ll tell you if he’s rubbish

Afterwards he said

I’m sorry love I’m sorry 

(Third prizewinner Poem and a Pint Competition 2018)

Life in hospital, Carole reminds us, is made of longeurs, black comedy, tedium, discomfort, pain, fear and boredom, punctuated by small triumphs and fleeting pleasure. Nearly all of these find their way into the next poem, which I think is in the spirit of Ivan Denisovitch’s day. 

Sodium 136

A new form of torture

to raise my sodium level

which is dangerously low.

They measure out five glasses

of water into my jug

to last me till midnight,

write 1 litrefluid restriction

on the board over my bed

so the tea trolley passes me by,

the milk-shake woman doesn’t come,

the pourer of custard shakes her head.

Slowly the level creeps up.

After five days I’m fantasising

about gulping cartons of juice.

I have a tug of war with a nurse,

will not let go of the jug

which she wants to remove,

tell her if I wanted to cheat

I could put my head under the tap

and drink. I win, the jug stays.

The tea lady leaves me half a cup

and whispers I won’t tell them, love.

I do not touch it. 117, 118,

123, 124 and then, overnight,

SODIUM 136. I weep with joy.

They rub out the notice.

I gulp down glass after ice-cold glass.

(Commended in Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine 2019)

It’s beautifully observed, isn’t it? It’s deceptively simple, but listen to the way it shifts from measured and matter-of fact, through childish : the milk-shake woman doesn’t come, the pourer of custard shakes her head.  to frantic : I will not let go of the jugand finally to joyful.  For me, after a week of no solid food, it was porridge. Very Ivan Denisovitch. I suppose the spirit of both these poems is ultimately comic (which is a more serious business than is universally acknowledged). The next one is less apparently comforting.

Afterwards

Make a fist for me, she says.

Now, push your heel against my hand.

Now pull my fingers towards you.

How is it I forgot this

Do you know where you are?

when I remembered the words,

She tells me it’s so she can compare.

Afterwards. I had not thought,

really thought of afterwards

only of an end to the pain,

the way the ward is blurred,

the endless, endless nausea.

So matter of fact. Afterwards.

It isn’t logical but I want to say

My brain is a long way from my feet.

(Published in Algebra of Owls 2018)

This is a poem that sticks in the mind. With great economy, it does something very complex . It’s the business of using clear plain language to recreate confusion. At the heart of it is the reminder that when you’re in pain, all you want is for the pain to stop. There is only the moment, and no ‘afterwards’, so that when ’afterwards’ happens we don’t know how to deal with it. It’s disconcerting and disorienting. 

The last one I liked not least because it made me think that it would be interesting to speculate about what folk choose to take to read in hospital. I tend towards Solzhenitsyn, as I’ve said. After him, later Dickens. A teacher I loved was given days to live, and asked for a copy of Middlemarch  in hospital. I have never coped with Henry James. I think I never shall.

Reading Henry James in Hospital

What Maisie Knew. I haven’t read it

for fifty years. I knew nothing then,

only the rhythm of his prose,

that Maisie was the centre of consciousness

that I would need to sit up late

to finish it before the tutorial,

swigging from a tooth mug

the port I stole from formal dinner.  

For me the book will always taste 

of peppermint and port and the summer of love.

I turn the pages with my cannula’d hand,

wander away from Sharon glued to Corrie,

from Jean flipping through Take a Break

from Joan’s painful voyage to the toilet.

‘I say, I say, do look out’, Sir Claude 

quite amiably protested. Sister trips

over the zimmer Jean parked by my bed, 

tells me not to keep my frame there.

I do not have a frame, I protest.

Jean looks up from her article, Yet.

(2ndPrizewinner Poetry Space Competition 2018)

 I like the wry, dry ironies of this, the intercutting of reality and fictions of all shapes and sizes. It’s a great poem  to read aloud….I like the timing of the punchline. I like the way it reminds us that when we’re in a hospital bed, we’re all dark watchers, and, like Maisie, the centre of consciousness. Hospitals make egoists of us all. 

Thank you, Carole Bromley for being our guest and being so generous with your poems. Next week we’ll be heading northwards and speculating abour northwords. See you then.

Get out there and vote

Some people never had to fight for anything in their lives. Some people never  needed a vote because they were born knowing they owned everything and owed nothing to anyone. Some people had nothing until they had a vote. Don’t tell me you you’d betray the right to use what some people died to give you.

I know when this goes out via Facebook and Twitter I’ll be preaching to the converted. But so are The Sun, The Mail and The Express. And, possibly, the BBC. So if you share this, you’ll do so in solidarity, and who knows…someone you know who thinks voting doesn’t matter may just think again. We do what we can do. Some did more than that.

Camera obscura               

(Emily Wilding Davison. d. June 1913)

The reason for your being here

is out of sight. They can’t be seen –

your Cause’s colours sewn inside

your decent coat: white, violet, green.

The camera sees the moment you began to die:

the jockey,  trim in silks, is doll-like

on the grass and seems asleep;

his mount is spraddled on its back;

its useless hooves flail at the sky.

Your spinning, flower-trimmed hat

is stopped, distinct, mid-flight;

your hair’s still not come down;

you’re frozen, inches from the ground;

your boots are neatly buttoned,

take small steps on the  arrested air.

You’re stopped in time. No sound, no texture, no sour odour

of bruised grass and earth. Just

silence and the alchemy of light.

How did you comprehend

the shock of heat, huge muscle, hair,

in that white moment

when the dark came down?

The camera cannot tell;

it’s business neither truth nor lies.

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

in hats and blazers staring down a long perspective;

the field intent upon the distant fairy icing

grandstand. The waving flags. The finish line.

Until the image blurs, dissolves in silver flowers,

it’s there on celluloid in shades of grey;

the camera only says that in that instant

you are dying, and everyone has looked away.

Camera obscura. First published in The Forward book of poetry 2015

A polished gem revisited: Yvonne Reddick

This post originally appeared in The Great Fogginzo’s Wider web on the Write Out Loud Poetry site. As promised, I’ll reblog some posts that haven’t previously appeared here for those of you who aren’t linked to WOL. This one is part of a planned series of posts about ‘my kind of poetry’, particularly about my kind of poets. Of which Yvonne Reddick is undoubtedly one. Here we go:

We can get used to all sorts of fashions and default settings in poetry, getting comfortable with psalms, and sestinas, and free verse, and minimalism, and stanzaic bits of ekphrasis and sonnets, and narratives. Which reminds me of a writing course I went on where elegant lyricism and exquisitely crafted velleities were the name of the game, and, en passant, one lady of letters remarked, languidly enough: ‘The anecdotal, the bus-stop conversation, has its own charm.’ by which I understood that it has no place in serious poetry at all. 

This set me to think of my own predeliction for narrative in poetry, and my inability to engage with, or be engaged by, self-referential stylistic games with fleeting moments, and the fragility of, say, a lemon. It also made me think of what does engage me. Emotional and intellectual surprise and challenge… that grabs me. I like novels like ‘The Name of the Rose’, and ‘Tristram Shandy’. I like MacCaig’s outrageous similes. I like the Metaphysicals. I like early Tony Harrison. I like ‘The Waste land’. I like to be out of my comfort zone, put slightly off -balance; I like creative disturbance. And so I came to like Yvonne Reddick’s idiosyncratic take on the world and its multifariousness.

The first time I met her was (regular readers, you can now roll your eyes and get it over with) at a Poetry Business Writing Day. After all, that’s where I get all my new poetry and poets.I may be wrong, but I think that was the one where she brought a distinctly eccentric poem to workshop. The title gives you due warning: Holocene Extinction Memorial.Nineteen irregular stanzas, each of which might be an idiosyncratic label in a room full of unnervingly strange exhibits.

‘The Indefatigable Galapagos Mouse from Indefatigable Island wants to be invincible’

‘The Hacaath of Vancouver struggle with smallpox’

‘The quagga hopes Burchell’s zebra remembers her’

I have no idea if she made some of them up, or all, or none; I could Google them but I have no desire to find out. The thing is, she read with such emphatic conviction that I had no choice but to be convinced. I have no idea if anyone else was as taken as I, or even if it was ‘a Good Poem’. All I know is  it was unexpected, and memorable, and that’s not the case with everything you hear in a workshop. It was like the poem equvalent of the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford before it was tidied up and curated into rationality. Like the cabinets of curiosities beloved of the incumbents of Victorian rectories.

Sometimes we ask of a poet we can’t pigeonhole:  ‘Where’s she coming from?’ Well, how about starting with her biography. Yvonne  grew up between Glasgow, Aberdeen, Kuwait City and Berkshire. She is an academic and writer, currently based in Preston, where she is Research Fellow in Modern English and World Literatures at the Institute for Black Atlantic Research at the University of Central Lancashire. She’s also Visiting Fellow, at the Centre for the Study of International Slavery, University of Liverpool. After reading English at Cambridge, she studied for her PhD and began her academic career at the University of Warwick, where she also published her first pamphlet of poetry., LandForms, which was published by Seapressed in 2012.

One reviewer was clearly taken with the challenge of dealing with what I see as an intriguing erudition. The violence he does to syntax and semantics is a joy worth sharing. Yvonne says she didn’t understand it. Me neither. But it is enjoyable.

‘The binary is itself the uncomfortable site of negotiation, laying waste to and galvanizing its own division and divination
‘ Mostly by stanza, these lines betray navigational lyric, resplendent with lean overtures of isle:’

Well, there you go; decipher as you will. Yvonne’s research has seen her deciphering Ted Hughes’s notebooks on horoscopes and necromancy, (which has fed into her dauntingly dense academic work: Ted Hughes: Environmentalist and Ecopoet:2018*); reading David Livingstone’s beautiful copperplate writing in Zambia, and translating previously unanalysed Congolese writers from French. Deerhart, her second poetry pamphlet, was published by Knives, Forks and Spoons Press in 2016. You can see now why you should be prepared to be, with me, happily just outside your comfort zone. You should also understand that this is no cut and paste anthologiser of the strange, cryptic and bizarre. Like another favourite poet of mine – Julie Mellor – here’s a researcher who brings an imaginative sensitivity and a careful craftsmanship to her work. And it’s time that was given its chance to persuade you to share my enthusiasm. Here goes, with an extract from:

My Grandmother Was A Pink-Footed Goose

II

My Mémé was bird-bone hollow, all ribstrakes and flapping bald elbows, flesh slouched over a V of sternum. Shallow breath-râles, knuckly birdleg fingers. Her English evaporated as her mind nested the tumor. The remains: ‘J’ai ces … hallucinations’ of pools and oceans, my father webbing through air, his hands in outspread sheaves of primaries.

 A couple of years ago, I asked Yvonne to reflect on one of her poems and she wrote this about about this particular poem:

‘My Grandmother was a Pink-Footed Goose’ was inspired by a decomposed pigeon that flopped from the roof of the block of flats where I live! … it was an interesting intimation of mortality. I’d been wanting to elegise my Swiss grandmother for a long while, and I used images of keelbones, quills and ribs to evoke a body racked with illness. She was the last native speaker of French in our family, but she was also a real polyglot: she spoke excellent English, good German and some Romansh. I wanted to honour her heritage as a migrant, and to end my poem with an image of renewal and return.

I’d been intrigued by the imagery of keelbones, quills and ribs,but now realise that I hadn’t read all the poem properly at all. Or perhaps it’s that after five days of intensive reading and writing on a residential writing course, I’m just that bit more fine-tuned to really, really listen to what a poem intends me to hear.

What we make of a poem is what we bring to it, all our memory that shapes the poem we reinvent from the text on the page. I suppose what I brought to it, among other things, was my relationship with the story of Icarus, of a boy whose wings failed him, and a father complicit in his death. Also, thirty years of responsiblities for increasingly old and frail relatives – my mother, my mother and father-in law. Also a day in June one year when I took my mother’s ashes to a waterfall in a quiet Dales valley. Also my father, the birdwatcher, and the cold northern hills and seas and skies where I think I belong. And all that baggage can get in the way of what’s there, if we listen. I didn’t attend properly to the voice of this poem…or perhaps the voices which overlap…..and what they are telling me and discovering for themselves. So what triggered a re-understanding (which may well still be wide of the mark)

It was this comment that stopped me dead in my tracks 

My collection in progress ( now published: Translating Mountains : Seren. 2018)is about mountaineering in the Highlands and Alps. It elegises my father, who died in the Grey Corries

The Grey Corries in the Nevis range are one of those landscapes I can only dream of, and read of. They’re too big, too hard, too altogether intimidating. I don’t have the strength, or the limbs, or the confidence to go into those high and unrelenting places. And I had a son who died in a fall from a high place. So I read that sentence, and then went back and READ

my father webbing through air, his hands in outspread sheaves of primaries.

I have no notion whether I’m reading truly, but I know I’ll no longer read that line and think ‘what a wonderfully nailed down image of a great bird in flight’. Instead, I’ll remember watching a friend of mine fall off a pitch on a face in Borrowdale, and every account I’ve read of fatal falls on mountains will blur together, and mesh with that one word ‘webbing’. And, I suppose, I’ll be faced once more with the complicated business of the relation of the poem which is out there on its own terms, and the knowledge we have, or haven’t, about the writer, her biography, her intentions. And we’d better, at the same time, acknowledge that she may not have known what her intentions were, and that she may still not know what, or how, she feels about the process. All I know is that when I’ve written about Daedalus, or Hephaestus, or Mallory, or, indeed, Lucifer, I never knew what was going on, and was regularly unnerved and surprised. Yvonne Reddick, made me see that more clearly, whether she meant to or not. And if I’m totally off track with the whole business, the question of what a poem means, and what it can be made to mean, will still be there, insistent and demanding our attention.

And what demands my attention now are the poems she sent me after I heard her read with David Constantine at the Square Chapel in Halifax. She spoke passionately about her engagement with the slow extinctions of climate change and the conflict she feels between elegising the father who died in the mountains he loved, and the father who worked in the oil industry, on oil rigs around the world. I think it’s this tension that gives these poems a rare and urgent energy.

In Oils

1

Between fjords and the Firth, the rig whirred 

from its crown-block to the pit of its possum belly –

my father left at dawn to work the offshore fields.

He mixed with roughnecks and a crude-talking toolpusher: 

their toil lit the flarestack, sparked fuses, stoked motors.

Farther north, the trickle and tick of ice floes.

That year’s gales uprooted dunes, hurled gulls 

along Union Street; the derrick braced its anchors, 

strained against the storm surge. 

   His chair sat empty.

The desk paperweight: a drop of Brent crude

globed in glass, the tarry slick levelling as I tilted it.

I tried to pray for breezes to ferry him home,

but all I could invoke were fields of North Sea oil:

Magnus, Beatrice, Loyal.                                  

2

I was nine, when my father made me leave –                     

he drilled an emirate with straight-ruled borders.

The heat on the runway like the breath of a foundry.

My Narnia books arrived after their voyage

along the Suez Canal, in the sea-freight.

Wearing shorts was forbidden – even for men.

Mirage city, under the warp-shimmer of fifty degrees. 

Sun-beaten metal. Lightstruck glass,

the bombed-out bridge to Bubiyan Island. 

At the sandstone ridge on the edge of Iraq, 

herdsmen turned camels loose to trigger landmines. 

At school, they preached that oil was fossil light:

one barrelful did twelve years’ human work.

Dad’s friends talked Bonny Light, Brent Blend,        

Sour Heavy Crude, counting days in gallons.  

Oil was refined, but its temper had a flashpoint –

3

I’d listen from the landing: 

“They kicked down the door 

of the neighbours’ shop, 

then bullets started shattering the windows. 

Khalid and I ran. 

We saw tanks lumbering down Gulf Street. 

They stole everything – air conditioners, cigarettes – 

then torched the ground floor. 

My cousin shot at the police station they’d seized.

They tore out his eyes.” 

“The burning pipeline howled –  

Sara said like a jet engine. 

Fire-trenches and oil-lakes under a sky dark at midday.

Six million barrels of light, sweet crude…”

“I watched birds wading in the slick-ponds. 

There was a hoopoe drinking petroleum, 

an oiled eagle panting for water.”

“Airstrike on the Basra road: 

the man clawed at the windscreen,

trying to smash free before the petrol tank blew. 

An American camera blinked at his burnt out sockets.”

4

From Anchorage, Calgary, Houston or Galveston,

my father returned, jet-lagged and running fumes,  

to plant English lavender on Texan time.

His shirts would smell of earth and gasoline.

I’d see him at the sink, scrubbing his hands:

“I’ve fixed the engine!” He’d show his palms – 

I watched him scouring skin that wouldn’t come clean.

A two-stroke heart has steely valves and chambers,

a trace that falters. He said he’d hike the path 

above the falls, but dusk could not bring him home – 

The spring after we buried him, I heaped his books

in a rusty petrol-drum, and flicked the match. A pyre

for Goodbye to All That, Fire in the Night andPioneer

Muirburn

My father weighed a little less than at birth.

I carried him in both hands to the pines

as October brought the burning season.

When I unscrewed the urn, bone-chaff and grit

streamed out, with their gunpowder smell.

I remembered the sulphur hiss of the match – 

how he taught me to breathe on the steeple of logs

until the kindling caught, quickening flames. 

That night, in sleep, I saw the forest clearing

by the moor’s edge, and the ring of his ashes. 

A skirl of smoke began to rise – 

bracken curling, a fume of blaeberry leaves. 

Ants broke their ranks to scatter and flee,

and a moth spun ahead of the fire-wind.

I took the path over the heath at a run.

A voice at my shoulder said, “You’ll inherit fire.”

And through the smoke I glimpsed a line of figures

on the hillside, beating and beating the heather

as the fire-front roared towards them.

A volley of shouts: “Keep the wind at your back!”

My grandmother threshing with a fire-broom, 

Dad hacking a firebreak. My stillborn brother, now grown, 

sprinting for the hollow where the spring once flowed, 

the whole hill flaring in the updraft.

And there: a girl, running for the riverside – 

she wore my face, the shade of ash.

You know what? Normally I’d feel driven to write some sort of commentary on the poems as I go, feeling the need to tell you just why you should like them as much as I do. I’d be talking about the rhythm, the texture, the lexis, the moments that draw you in, the points where the poems ignite. I’d talk about the core images, the metaphors. And I’d just get in the way. So read these poems, but read them aloud and taste their textures. And I’ll store these three lines in a special place, along with my mother’s ashes in the Valley of Desolation

My father weighed a little less than at birth.

I carried him in both hands to the pines

as October brought the burning season.

Thanks for being our guest today, Yvonne Reddick. It was a pleasure and a privilege.

For a review ofTed Hughes: Environmentalist and Ecopoet  use this linkTed Hughes, eco-criticism and the common reader

 

Bibliography

Deerhart. Knives, Forks and Spoons Press 2016 £5.90 on Amazon Prime

The apple anthology [Ed] with George Ttooli

    Nine Arches Press 2014 [available on Kindle or ‘Used’. Current prices    range from £3.50 to £64.00 so why not have a punt]

Translating mountains. Seren 2017 £5.00

Wise sisters (2). Elizabeth Sennitt Clough

Feeling a bit like this mackerel, not exactly of my element. I spent last week on a Poetry Residential in St Ives, with star tutors Kim Moore and Carola Luther. I loved it, and simultaneously still have that odd feeling of dissociation or dislocation when I travel. It’s an eight hour drive there and eight hours back, and at either end I have that weird sense of not belonging, as though I’m in a country whose customs and language are a mystery.

I felt a kind of kinship with the mackerel, which was lying on the road down below the station on the way down to Porthminster beach. It was bright and fresh but pulled into a fixed and rubbery curve. There was not a clue about where it had come from, or why. Out of place, that was us. Which is a tenuous enough link with today’s post. It’s a reposting of the post I wrote for Write Out Loud last week; I’m still juggling the business of running two blogs, and as I promised some weeks ago, I’ll occasionally post items on the Cobweb for those of you who aren’t linked up with WOL. It’ll all sort itself out. And so to our guest:

Poetry, place and identity: Elizabeth Sennitt Clough

Some politicians are inescably linked to things they said, often without thinking, or because they were poorly advised. Or plain stupid. JFK could never shake off the ‘ich bin ein Berliner’ thing, however well-meant was what he thought he was saying. Margaret Thatcher was famously ‘not for turning’ even though she delivered the line as if discovering English for the first time. Her ‘no such thing as Society’ is more problematic since you could probably find a Marxist linguistics buff pointing out that she might well have been aware of the business of reification and false consciousness. Personally, I doubt it, but there you go.

The one I’ll go with, however, is our current PM’s shrill and unpleasantly jingoistic assertion that ‘a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere’. It’s a narrow and parochial thing to hang your hat on, isn’t it? On the other hand, it raises questions of how our identity, our sense of self, may be tied to the landscapes, the places we think of as ‘home’. Which is, as with most important things, more complicated and troublesome that we might like to think.

A month or so ago I was writing about my own uncertainty about what it means to ‘belong’, to feel part of a culture, to inhabit its language and ways of seeing.

I wrote, then, 

that for the last 30 years I’ve been living in a small town less than 10 miles from where I was born and grew up. More or less in the same valley. And I still don’t know the street names, which tells me that somehow, unconsciously, all this time I’ve been thinking of it as temporary. So if I’m from ‘a place’ I think that place is ‘North’ and my thinking and imagery is ‘North’…….. I find myself speculating on ways in which language (and therefore, our writing) is shaped and informed by the landscapes where we feel we belong. How we come to feel secure in one landscape or another…..Place isn’t just topography. It’s story, and where you place yourself in the narrative.

Which is why, when I was doing some background reading to help me introduce today’s guest poet, I was drawn to an extract from an interview she gave to Paul Stephenson for his blog (here’s the link for the full piece; it’s well worth a read: https://paulstep.com/2017/11/11/interview-with-elisabeth-sennitt-clough/). A bit of background is useful at this point…especially in relation to that ‘citizen of the world’ bit.

Elisabeth Sennitt Clough is a dual-nationality British/American poet who grew up in the Fenlands of Cambridge. In 1998, she studied English and Sociology at Anglia Ruskin University (formerly APU) for her BA. In 2001, she went on to complete an MA at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. She obtained her PhD from the Open University in 2010. In 2013, she returned to study, undertaking an MA in Creative Writing with Teaching at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Elisabeth has lived and worked in Jakarta, Indonesia; Panama City, Florida; Fresno, California; Reykjavik, Iceland; and Maastricht, Netherlands, where she was a member of the Maastricht Writers’ Group.

Now living in Norfolk with her husband and three children, Elisabeth is a member of a local writing group and regularly attends poetry readings and launches. She runs long distances (which seems to be de rigeur for what I think of as younger poets) and co-edits The Fenland Reed (of which more later).

Paul asked her about place, about growing up in the Fens and its influence on her poetry. She replied:

I’ve heard that living at or below sea level can have an effect on a person’s physical/mental state. I don’t know how true that statement is, but it interests me, as does the fact that the Fens were once underwater. Growing up, I didn’t even question why there were so many freshwater snail shells in the soil. 

I have travelled a lot, since my late teens with my own work and later with my husband’s job. I wanted to escape the Fens (all teenagers do), but I kept returning. I was once away for four years though without coming back to the UK and it started to affect me. …Perhaps I was homesick? When I did return, I found that I had ‘re-membered’ a lot of the places in my mind; they looked entirely different and I’d only been away for four years! 

That interested me, the idea of growing up in Graham Swift’s waterland, its big skies, dark soils, its low horizons. Totally alien to a valley-dweller like me. The other thing I took from the interview was its reference to the darkness you’ll find in some of Elizabeth’s poems..what was highlighted in a comment on her Paper Swans pamphlet Glass. its:

unflinching look at a world of darkness, violence and unhappiness. The repeated use of water and glass invites the poems’ speakers to reflect on their past, to recount the cruelty they have experienced in precise and straightforward detail; they loosen the glass collar and find a way to speak.

Talking about her poem Boy she said

This is an uncomfortable poem. As a child, I didn’t want to be female because I’d been conditioned into thinking girls and women were weak/lesser beings by my stepfather (who beat and humiliated my mother). 

 My stepfather passed away a long time ago and has no living relations. Even so, there were times when I felt uncomfortable, that what I was writing was wrong, but I resisted the urge to silence myself, having often been too scared to speak during my childhood.

If that doesn’t draw you in, that three-part tug of conflicted, ambiguous and troubling  relationships with place, family and gender, nothing will. 

One more thing, before the poems; Elisabeth Sennitt Clough seems (to me) to have arrived suddenly , fully formed on the contemporary poetry scene. Just think about what she’s achieved in the last two/three years: An alumna of the Arvon/Jerwood Mentorship scheme 2016 andToast Poets 2017, she was also a Ledbury Emerging Poet 2017. Her debut pamphlet, Glass, was a winner in the Paper Swans inaugural pamphlet competition in 2016. It went on to win Best Pamphlet at the Saboteur Awards 2017. Her debut collection, Sightings, was published by Pindrop Press in December 2016. It won the Michael Schmidt Prize for Best Portfolio. A poem from that collection was highly commended in the Forward Prize and published in the Forward Book of Poetry 2018. Her second full collection At or Below Sea Levelis a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.

As you can imagine, when I finally met her at a Poetry Writing weekend last December, I was already daunted by this, a bit tentative in approaching her. And as is so often the case, she was not daunting at all, and much to my delight said she’d be a guest for The Wider Web. So here she is. Of the first poem she says

‘Herding the Northern Lights’ is from The Cold Store, the collection I’m working on at the moment;

it was published in Mslexia, so it missed 50% of the poetry audience! 

Herding the Northern Lights

After Oded Wagenstein’s photo-essay 

about elderly female reindeer herders in Siberia

who are now living in retirement: 

I’ve turned my back on the glamour of snow

and glaciers, though I once lost myself to their bite.

The days hatch and faucets crack: nothing flows

when all that’s left to herd are the lights.

Beneath the pines, the bear and wolf collide

and in my ears, the tundra winds still blow

and ripple the skins of sleds until twilight.

I’ve turned my back on the glamour of snow.

Yet sometimes I want to return to the tow

of a migrating journey, but my body has no fight:

it’s become a slow creature. Each fibre bellows

loud as glaciers – how I once lost myself to their bite.

When my daughters return, they chase away the night

with stories and rituals I told them decades ago.

They fill my eyes with scenes I put in their sight.

The days hatch and faucets crack: nothing flows,

until I hear the hooves of reindeer echo

like Siberian lullabies across the night

and then I dance like melt-water flow,

but all that’s left to herd are the lights.

My life has become a segment of white

that my family fold neatly and stow – 

all clasps on the trunk snapped tight.

And I tell them, I’m happy. I don’t miss the snow.

I’ve turned my back.

Just two things to say about a poem that speaks richly for itself: first off, it demands to be read aloud; you need to hear the repetitions of the rondeau redouble, it’s assonance and consonance, and not be distracted by how it looks on the page. The second thing, for me, is the business of belonging, the tug of distance and of the rhythms of migration. The fear of stasis. I love the clinching snap of that triplet

My life has become a segment of white

that my family fold neatly and stow – 

all clasps on the trunk snapped tight

The next poems are from At or Below Sea Level.  The first follows neatly from the last

Matryoshka 

Maybe I do want to be a dollsome days,

but never that painted thing  

you often shuck in two – 

where, in every wooden shell,  

there’s a diminutive version,

as you work your way down 

to the final fingertip me:

that tiny bloodless woman,

miniature lips erased

by the heat from your palm. 

It’s this business of identity and self again, and how each can be defined by family, by lovers, by place, and how this simplifies and constricts and denies. I like the compression and clarity of it. The last poem is more expansive, in every way.  I’ve had to do a screenshot to preserve the shape and the line breaks. One day I swear I’ll find out how to overcome WordPress resistance to poetic shape. It’s a bit fuzzy. Sorry.

I loved this, its sensuousness, its texture, its drama. It’s packed with those moments that draw you in. I have a favourite. This is it:. I love the way it spins around that one word: envelope

yet his touch transforms me

into iciness as he leans across 

reseals the thin envelope of my body

his mouth twitches as if in prayer 

when he closes me with his tongue.

So there we are. Another labour of love. I hope you enjoy the poems as much as I do. I hope they’ll send you off to buy more (details below). Thank you Elisabeth Sennitt Clough for being today’s guest. You were great.

Glass.  Paper Swans Press[2016] £5.00

Sightings  Pindrop Press [2017]. £10.00

At or below sea level Paper Swans [2019] £9.99

ps. I nearly forgot I’d promised to say something about the magazine that Elisabeth jointly edits.

The Fenland Reed is published twice yearly, with one themed and one unthemed issue each year.

It’s a handsome journal. If you haven’t come across it yet, then take a look at what’s on offer

https://www.thefenlandreed.co.uk

On Mothers Day, for my mum, Marjorie 1911-2007

At some point I discovered that, after she died, I’d written far more poems about my mum than seemed feasible.

Making do

Mending, making do. These women, perched

on bedroom window-sills, their feet inside the house,

who weekly made their stiff sash-windows bright;

sluiced their flags, and donkey-stoned the steps

before the next-door neighbour got hers done;

hung out wet sheets and overalls, the day not light;

who riddled ashes from the grate, laid kindling,

black-leaded the cast-iron kitchen range,

stared out at gardens on the backs of terraces

where nothing grew but privet, docks and mint.

No wonder that my mother hoarded rainbow silks,

embroidered bluebell woods and lavender,  

fields of poppies,  satiny lush roses

Bought blue–and–white ceramic jars of ginger,

ate it syrup-rich with ice-cream, double cream

and grated Cadbury’s dark chocolate on top.

Indulgences. Mother of mine, I’ve just about 

Indulgences. Mother of mine, I’ve just about 

exhausted you. You occupied my growing up

until I wonder if I ever did. You set me going. 

Make what you will of this. It’ll have to do.

I told Ann Sansom of the Poetry Business that I’d probably written everything I had to say. She said she doubted it. As usual, she was right. I’d written this as part of the eulogy all my family helped to write fro her funeral:For some of us, if there’s life after death it’s in the memories of the living and in the stories they make of them. For those of you who believe differently, then there is a heaven, and my Mum’s has high hills and huge skies; the central heating will be switched off. Regardless of the weather, doors will be open. Somewhere there will be a dish of stem ginger, with Cornish ice-cream, clotted cream and grated Bournville chocolate. A lot of it. There will be a lot of fresh air. And fettling

And, because because today it’s a day when she’d have loved to have been up the Dales somewhere…Simon’s Seat, Valley of Desolation, Grass Woods…. here’s some more poems for her. And pictures. Oh, and because life’s like that, I see that WordPress has once again ignored all the stanza breaks. Try to imagine them.

The parents you never met

I knew one had filleted a python,

and also launched a stuffed crocodile

on a Norfolk mere one summer’s night.

These are the stories we go on telling,

that gather detail, year on year.

Turn mythic.

Not in the same world as the ones

in which my mother learned

to drive a car,

my father gambled.

I can’t imagine them at all,

or, if I did, I’d get them wrong.

My mother young

and long before me, with a chap

whose name I never knew;

white shoes, maybe,

a Morris with a running board;

my mother who learned 

to double de-clutch,

to manage sparks and chokes,

to rattle with insousiance

down country lanes

in a velours hat that never once

blew off, laughing with a man

I cannot picture.

They were glamorous,

these mothers,

and I never knew them at all.

She was so many contradictory and complex and awkward things, my mum. A compendium of mothers. My Dad took hundreds of photos of her on holidays, and somehow never caught her, and I wondered who I would like to have paid to paint her portrait, to capture her.

A gallery for my mother

For her at ten, fetch Joan Eardley from Catterline.

Just one more, for her, I’d say. Pie-faced slum children,

wonky prams. Those sweetie-wrapper colours.

Make my mother for me, her sisters, her brother

and her mother—never had two pence

to rub together; coals in the grate, pegged-rug

reds and blues dabbed in the shine of a black-lead range.

For her at twenty, Picasso or Matisse.

Call it ‘Bather’. That one-piece belted costume,

white shoes. Her thick spectacles. Plain girl

posing in Torquay. Who was that man?

For her wedding photo, Peter Blake.

The cut-out, pasted look.

Degas for my childhood. For the washing,

for the steam, for the set of her shoulder,

for her hand on the iron.

Mary Cassatt for her sewing. Or Vuillard –

all those silks, those ravelled rainbows,

white satin, small bright scissors,

lips pursed on a thread.

Or Hockney. Spoiled for choice.

For my wedding, Beryl Cook.

She’d do that hat, that fabric rose,

those shoes, the look she gave

my mother-in-law.

That shrivelling look.

For her dying, 

Frans Hals and the monochrome

of charity, the greyscale of death.

Or Dürer, who could draw a hare

that could leap into life

at the snib of a latch. 

Cold hands

She had a touch for pastry.

A gift. She hung on to it

as fiercely as she hung on

to life, as fiercely as she hated

being unfree to do

as she wanted with it.

Never passed it on to me

who watched her pinching

pastry: butter, sugar, flour;

how it fell from her fingers,

how it fell through the air.

She tried. She did. But grew impatient

with the way the mix would clump

and stick. O, give it here she’d say.

The pastry would flake, and fall.

You need cold hands she’d say.                    

Yours are too warm. She’d not let go

of life. Could not, would not

pass it on. Until her hands

grew cold enough to let it fall,

and leave them clean.

A happy mothers’ day to mothers everywhere, and all their lovers, and all their children and children’s children.

Wise sisters [1]. Greta Stoddart

[a slightly adapted version of the post I did for Write out Loud. I shall keep doing this for some time, for followers of the Cobweb who aren’t tuned in to the other webpage.. Why “wise sisters”? I dedicated my first collection to’my three wise sisters: Kim Moore, Hilary Elfick and Gaia Holmes’ . I just want to keep saying thank you to all the others. There will be two more in the next three weeks, and doubtless more in the coming months.]

I came back to Ted Hughes’ Season songstoday, as I do on a day like this, with

“the earth invalid, dropsied, bruised,wheeled

out into the sun,

after the frightful operation

….

leans back, eyes closed, exhausted, smiling

into the sun. Perhaps dozing a little.

While we sit,and smile, and wait, and know

she is not going to die”

[March morning unlike others]

One of those days when you feel the buzz under everything, the buzz at the tip of every stem, the spurts of daffodils, a day when:

“with arms swinging, a tremendous skater

on the flimsy ice of space,

the earth leans into its curve”

One of those days when you come awake and bestirred. How things suddenly shift, like an old log in a river bed that twists into a release and a rush. Two days ago I wrote a poem to take to a Poetry Business Writing Day; a poem I’ve been trying to write for two years or more, an old log of a poem, and everything pent up behind.

I put it down to how the company of other poets matters, how listening to them tells you ‘it can be done’. There may be writers who can make poetry out of solitude but I can’t imagine how it is to be like that. I love the urging and weight of stuff. And deadlines, pressure. When the company and the pressure come together I can feel blessed and released.

I guess this starts last Monday when I went to reading at The Square Chapel in Halifax; a wonderful space stitched into the fabric of the renovated Piece Hall, an amazing North Italian piazza that seems to have landed from space in a steep-sided gritstone valley. You can hear the footfall of 18thC Russian cloth merchants. It is astonishing. 

The were three readers: D A Prince, a Happenstance poet who I hadn’t known, and who read from a collection that is inpired by the bookmarks she collects or finds in second-hand books. She tells the story of them, these tickets, programmes, bits of card. And you think: Wow! why did no one think of that before? There was Yvonne Reddick (see the review of her book in earlier posts on Feb 19 and 25) who reads with an articulate conviction..memorable poems about her father, a man who died in a mountaineering accident; an oil industry worker across the world..in Kuwait, on the Norh Sea rigs. She read poems that bring stormblown birds into a world of glistening steel; poems about the enormous fragility of the world. Passionate and political poems that make you say yes: poems matter; writing matters. And then there was the prodigiously accomplished David Constantine who appears to be able to do absolutely anything with language and make it appear simple and inevitable. I came away buzzing, having been given permission to believe I can go on writing.  Some writers can do that.

Which brings me neatly to today’s guest poet (which was the reason I started writing a poetry blog in the first place..to share my enthusiasm for poets that you probably knew already, but who I’d just discovered). I met Greta Stoddart in December where she was a tutor on a Writing Residential weekend. You never know what to expect from writers’ workshops, but hers was everything I like. Structured, focussed, purposed. It was about the work of the line and of line endings. It was full of the variety of the things a line break can be persuaded to do. It taught me more in two hours than four years of puzzling over Dana Giaio had done, and it offered me one trick with a two stanza poem that might just solve an apparently intractable problem. So this post is by way of a thankyou.

Greta was born in 1966 in Oxfordshire. She spent her childhood in Oxford and Belgium. She studied mime in Paris and worked as a performer before becoming a full-time poet. She now teaches at the Poetry School in Exeter and Bridport. 

Stoddart’s first collection of poetry, At Home in the Dark was published in 2001, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and won the 2002 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize.

Her second collection, Salvation Jane was published in 2009 and shortlisted for the 2008 Costa Book Award.

Her third collection, Alive Alive O, was published in 2015 which focuses on life, death and mortality, was shortlisted for the Roehampton Poetry Prize 2016.

Her latest work, a radio poem called ‘Who’s there?’ broadcast on BBC Radio 4 was shortlisted for the 2017 Ted Hughes Award.

She lives in Devon and teaches for the Poetry School and the Arvon Foundation. 

It was the business of mortality (which I wrote about in last week’s post) that made a couple of the poems in her own webpage [http://www.gretastoddart.co.uk] jump off the page, and I’m delighted that she’s let me share them with you. I love their combination of precision and passionate engagement. 


The Curtain

Perhaps you know that story where people step 

out of this world and into another 

through a split in the air – they feel for it 

as you would your way across a stage curtain 

after your one act, plucking at the pleats,  

trying for the folded-in opening through which 

you shiver and shoulder yourself 

without so much as a glance up

to the gods, so keen are you to get back

to where you were before your entrance:

those dim familiar wings, you invisible,

bumping into things you half-remember

blinded as you’d been out there

in the onslaught of lights, yes, blinded

but wholly attended to in your blindness.

Imagine our dying being like that,

a kind of humble, eager, sorrowless return

to a place we’d long, and not till now, known.

No tears then. Just one of us to hold 

aside the curtain – here we are, there you go –

before letting it slump majestically back 

to that oddly satisfying inch above the boards

in which we glimpse a shadowy shuffling dark.

And when the lights come on and we turn to each other

who’s to say they won’t already be

in their dressing room, peeling off the layers,

wiping away that face we have loved,

unbecoming themselves to step out 

into the pull and stream of the night crowds.

It’s one of those poems, full of momemts that pull you in, full of lines that seem to be memorising themselves as you say them, as you hear them: 

plucking at the pleats,  

trying for the folded-in opening

and

Imagine our dying being like that,

a kind of humble, eager, sorrowless return

and, this remarkable phrase that sees the dead as actors, already

unbecoming themselves

It’s full of the accurate truth that I’d been striving for when I was writing about this particular subject, and falling short . I love the way the conceit of the theatrical exit which ought to feel like a cliche, and doesn’t, is so beautifully sustained. I love the way it begins with an apparently tentative ‘perhaps’, its tact, and the way it’s followed by the sense that there’s no ‘perhaps’ about it. This is the way it is. Ben Wilkinson put it better than I can when he wrote about the economy and deceptive simplicity of her writing, and a cool-headed emotional restraint. Yes.

I met the next two poems for the first time in a Poetry Business writing day; I can’t remember what the exercise was that they illuminated, but the poems stuck. Metaphorically and literally, since they’re pasted into my workshop notebook.

The Street Lamp

Maybe it’s this orange light 

that has me up 

in the middle of the night 

when sleep ought to have 

taken hold and placed us 

god knows where

with whom and how and why 

or was that the baby’s cry 

turning into something else 

and rising that has me rising 

not to him but to look 

down at the street and see 

in a pool of light – what is that – 

a stain, his small coat?

Body seems to know 

but mind, sleep-filled 

and slow with notions, 

ups and follows

(whatever it is it has that 

self-possessed and desolate look 

of a thing left behind);

and heart that knows 

starts to knock and will not 

take comfort from the street lamp 

who stands over our house 

like a guardian angel, 

head inclined but with no arms 

or wings to gather whosoever in.

I came back to this poem after last December’s workshop, now noticing as I should have done, the work that’s done by the way the first two stanzas are a single unpunctuated sentence, and the way the next two are more reflective and ‘rational’, even if they’re interrupted by that parenthesis. Lovely. And I like that slightly startling use of the not-quite-abstract body, mind, heart. It’s something I’ve started to notice in Kim Moore’s poems, too. I need to think about it.

One more poem. This speaks straight to my other enthusiasm, for physical craft and craftsmanship…the precision and neatness I can never manage whatever tools I invest in. Just relish the way that first line abosolutely nails what lies at the core of the poem.

The Engraver

It has to be a dying art,

this man leaning in with hammer and chisel,

intent on the angle, cut and concision;

all morning on a single word, a name.

His commissioners – each time the same

exacting band of passionate mourners –

want only the best; for this one stone page

to stand for less and more than all their tears.

And as the dates sharpen, the prayer clears

so it all blurs for him; in the end he leaves 

what it means to those who already know

just as he leaves the heart of the stone alone

knowing there’s nothing there, that deep down

his work is with the surface of things;

the opposite of archaeology

where nothing’s found and all is to be made.

It’s a poem that has to be read aloud, so you taste the consonants, and feel the the point where the poem pivots on that moment when  it all blurs for him. A beautifully crafted piece of work about art and transience. There’s that buzz under everything today. Thank you, Greta Stoddart for making it sing.

Staying Alive: me and Mr MacCaig

Screenshot 2019-03-17 at 12.15.30There’s a sequence in one of Eddie Izzard’s shows where he’s riffing on supermarket shopping. At some point he remarks that if an old lady bumps you with her shopping trolley (which, by the way, will contain only hairnets and dog food) she’ll tell you, for no apparent reason: 

I’m eighty- two.

She’ll probably say it quite loudly. 

I’m eighty- two. Old ladies do this all the time. Old men never do this.

He lets this hang a nanosecond. 

Old men never do this, because they’re all dead. 

There’s a minute silence. A sort of shock before the audience laugh. I’ve always thought it’s the kind of laugh you get from a baby when you go BOO!!! Its face crumples momentarily, and then comes the laughter of release. It was just a trick. Phew.

We don’t care to be reminded of our mortality. In this we are radically different from the Victorians, who (in public, anyway) edited the fact of sex out of their literature, but were happily graphic and sentimental when it came to deathbeds. I’m thinking of Dickens, of Jo the Crossing Sweeper, of Smike, and all the rest. Since the sixties, it seems we’ve become quite the opposite.

Where’s all this leading? Lately there been a voice in my head, a little chap with a shopping trolley who will stop me as I go about my business, and announce: I’m seventy -six.I pointedly ignore him for much of the time, essentially because I feel no different from when I was 16. I’m just as conflicted, baffled, puzzled, excited by the day to day as I ever was. But at the same time, I have to acknowledge, like Mr Casaubon in Middlemarch, an uncomfortable truth. As George Eliot points out, it’s one thing to say ‘we will all die’ and quite another to say ‘I am going to die’. (and in Casaubon’s case with an additional phrase: and quite soon ).

Before you start looking at the clock, and wondering how soon you can decently get away, let me reassure you that this isn’t going to be a miserable read. But it is going to be about poetry, about reading it, about writing it, and why it just might be important. I was going to call this post, tongue in cheek, I hope I die before I get oldand play around with the double-edged meaning  in The Who’s lyric. But the title of Neil Astley’s anthology is more to the point. I think of it alongside Anthony Wilson’s poetry blog subsequent anthology Lifesaving Poems.  There’s clearly a big readership out there for books that offer us hope…or, at least the reassurance of our common humanity; most of them, though, seem to be full of fluff, like literary comfort blankets. The best, like Astley’s and Wilson’s are grown-up books full of grown-up poems that get to grips with uncomfortable truths, and show how they can be acknowledged and how this makes our lives richer.

At 76, I’ve lived longer than anyone on the male side of my Dad’s family (and all his sisters, too). Sometimes I’ll do the maths, and think something like, “well, with a following wind I could probably have five or six or seven years left. Four would be good. Every day’s a bonus. You’re a lucky man.” It’s not for a moment depressing, but it’s made me notice that I’m reading poems I might not have taken much notice of before. Life enhancing poems that didn’t seem that relevant or interesting at one time. Your stories will be similar, I imagine. When I was in my 30s and my Dad was dying I found myself reading and re-reading Tony Harrison’s sequence of sonnets from The school of eloquence… Book ends(especially), Continuous, Marked with D.They gave me a vocabulary, a language to shape my grief. In the break-up of my first marriage, and in finding a new love, it was A kumquat for John Keats, that midlife thankyou for coming through, for love, for survival. I remember him reading it when it had just come out, the relish with which he read the lines

I burst the whole fruit chilled by morning dew

against my palate. Fine, for 42

I loved the way it came after:

Then it’s the kumquat fruit expresses best

how days have darkness round them like a rind,

life has a skin of death that keeps its zest.

I saw him reading last summer, still going strong at 80. And I wondered how those lines sound to him now. I think he might give them a wry smile. It’s the same kind of wry smile I reserve for young men’;s poems about their imagined end. Rupert Brooke, for instance

If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England……….

a pulse in the eternal mind, no less

I don’t imagine for a moment that he had any intention of ending up like that; he just thought he did. Since he never got to the Front he never got to rethink it, unlike Sassoon, or Rosenberg, or Owen and the rest. But I’m pretty sure it spoke to me differently when I was 16, when I believed sincerely (because of the H Bomb) that I’d not see 21. We read who and where we are. We change and the poems change with us.

I’d been chewing over writing this post, or something like it, but what finally gave me a shove was Kim Moore’s sharing a Derek Walcott poem: Sea Canes, and the first stanza particularly:

Half my friends are dead.
I will make you new ones, said earth.
No, give me them back, as they were, instead,
with faults and all, I cried

Four of my best friends have died in the last four years…three of them in the last two. That stanza gave me a jolt, but it also sent me back to something that has snagged my attention and sort-of-bothered me for some time. A couple of years ago I decided to read the Collected Poems of Norman MacCaig. The idea was to read from beginning to end, several poems, aloud, every morning till I’d read them all. The idea was that somehow that would show me ‘how he did it’ whatever the ‘it’ was. It was an ‘it’ I wanted to be able to ‘do’… the business of being rich and plain at the same time. Obviously, I still can’t do ‘it’, but along the way in the year I spent with him I became aware that something was bothering him, and that the something was death, and dying. I began to notice moments, images (as in Clive James’ phrase:the moment that draws you in). A black sail out at sea. The scyther in the hayfield, the cart on the shore road, the horse, the blind horizon.

I sort of left it there, but when I went back to MacCaig last year, I paid more attention. These images and the concerns that surround them turn up more and more in the poems of the 1980s and into the 1990s. Why? It’s actually obvious when you remember he was born in 1910. These are the poems he wrote in his 70s and through to his death in 1996. For whatever reason it started to bother him a lot earlier than it need have done. But, there again, what he couldn’t have was hindsight. What he had was the here and now, which contains all our yesterdays, and which is all anyone has. It’s his love for the gifts of the here and now that make him the great poet that he is.

As I was reading and researching for this post I cut and pasted scores of lines and stanzas from the poems of his last 16 years; I can’t decently share them all…only give you flavour. There are the ones in which he’s caught up in the business of wondering if he can say what he wants before it’s too late (which clearly wasn’t bothering Harrison at 42, for all the rind of death that keeps us zesty). The thing about MacCaig was that he kept his zest, even when he was writing:

I’m a crofter in the landscape of time

repairing a tumbling wall

[Processes]

or

If only I could say 

a new thing, a thing

I’ve never said before

[Hope]

or

Of the rest of space

I can say nothing

nor of the rest of time, the future

that dies the moment it happens

[Chauvinist]

I love that last one, because it seems to contain the credo that the moment, the now, is what we have and what we should celebrate. He sustains it even as he writes again and again about the sense of approaching the end of a journey

In the harbour a boat

sets its white sail.

Its anchor crawls aboard.

Those who are left behind

will look out to sea, 

their eyes bright with hope –

not knowing when it returns

they’ll see approaching

a black sail on the bright water

[That journey]

The days pick me up and carry me off,

half-child, half-prisoner,

on their journey that I’ll share

for a while

[Between mountain and sea]

Three men are pulling

at the starboard oar,

the man I am and was

and the man I’ll be.

The boat sails 

to a blind horizon

…….

Pull as we may

we’re kept from turning

to port or starboard by that

invisible oarsman

[Crew]

And ahead, the blessed islands

are a mirage over it.

We forge on towards them.

They keep their holy distance.

[Fore and aft]

When he writes, in the 1990s, after the death of his wife of 40 years:

It’s night now.

I’ve no fear of going to sleep

I’ve no fear of waking in the morning.

For peace will say, Today

is like yesterday

and I’ll be here for the long length of it

[In the croft house called The Glen]

it’s not Stoicism that sustains him, but the kind of Epicureanism that Solzhenitsyn found a parable for in One day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch. The salvation of the apparently small things, their significance. Because alongside all these clear-eyed poems are the ones I suppose we think of when we think of MacCaig. The sheltie with the filmstar eyelashes, the road hemsitched to the rim of the mountain, all the birds and beasts, the man with the bottle-shaped bulge in his pocket, the fiddlers, the music,the weather. All the bright moments, all neatly packaged in one stanza of the 1990s

This girlish morning

comes straight out of old stories

where girls wore sprig muslin

and spent their entire time 

being happy

[Spring morning]

When I think of life-saving poems, it’s Norman MacCaig that I think of. I wrote him a thank you poem.

A pibroch for (MacCaig)

[ ‘History frightens me…/ If                                                                                                                                                                                                       only I come to be a word with brackets round it /                                                                                                                                                                                 a word drowned in a footnote / a word’                                                                                                                                                                                              Norman MacCaig : ‘Backward look’    1984 ]

It sounds right, pibroch – 

plaintive and Scots.

He’d not be doing with that;

what did he write about death?

‘the one that smiles ruefully

thinking how little he is understood.’

MacCaig, punctilious as a dipper, 

pertinent and spry as a robin

on the precise tips of his verse.

What a look he’d give me,

laconic, spare and handsome,

holding his cigarette like a matinee idol.

It’s just that I come to him late

and he bothers me with death:

that cart on the shore road,

the one coming with the sack in his hand, 

the scyther in the hayfield,

those blind horizons, black sails.

  

I keep wondering: why; 

 in this land of birds, weather,

 the big skies of Assynt, 

why these  shadows, this shadow?

I should pay more attention. 

He’s writing this the age I am now.

I want to say: you don’t die for years.

He can’t hear me, any more than Socrates.

I picture him casting, casting

into some high lochan

and a shadow on the opposite bank;

the delicate arcs of two mirrored lines,

the finicky business of flies, 

and the two of them, still as chessmen

each bent with all his art

on reeling the other in.

Parentheses bother me, too;

(enter a life, stage left; exit right),

as though there were beginnings

and endings. No such things.

The salmon go back into the water.

No brackets for you, MacCaig.

Still learning me your language.

[* Pibroch:  a tune played by a single piper.                                                                                                                                                                  A call to a gathering, a salute, a lament,                                                                                                                                                  characterised by the complexity of its grace notes]

Thanks for staying with me. I promised you it wouldn’t be depressing, and I don’t think that is. Self-indulgent, maybe, but that’s how it is at 76. Next week we’re having a guest. Come along. It’ll be great.

And never forget what MacCaig wrote in An ordinary day

And my mind observed to me,
Or I to it, how ordinary
Extraordinary things are or

How extraordinary ordinary
Things are, like the nature of the mind
And the process of observing.