The male gaze (5) Innocent bystanders

Last in the series, you’ll be pleased to hear. Guest poets coming up very shortly. I’m off to listen to Tony Harrison in Leeds on Sunday, so the next post may be delayed. We’ll see.

I’ve been putting this post off, because it’s about poems and paintings that elect to deal with women who it’s difficult to think of as anything but victims, not just in the narratives, but in the subsequent treatment of those narratives.

Ophelia, first. She’s always troubled me…and particularly so when I once directed  Hamlet as a school play. Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that though I like working with Shakespeare texts, and their multilayered subtexts, the sad fact is that there are a lot more male than female parts, and we used to get a lot more talented young actresses auditioning than there were parts for them. This led us plan for four performances, and in the case of Hamlet, for instancewe’d have an almost exclusively female group of travelling players, plus two Ophelias and two Gertrudes, who would play alternate shows. It was intriguing how this shifted the dynamic in the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia, depending on how each young actress saw her. Because it’s possible to pick up a bit of defiance and feistiness in Ophelia’s first exchange with her brother; or a learned obedience. You takes your pick.

Objectively though, her first appearance is with her pompous brother who gives her a lecture about ‘Hamlet, and the trifling of his favour’. Her belief in the possibility of Hamlet’s genuine affection is brusquely dismissed. Hard on the heels of Laertes comes Polonius, that moralising old bore of a father, pooh-poohing ‘these tenders of affection’ Affection seems to be in pretty short supply as far as Ophelia’s concerned. Still she sends all Hamlet’s love-letters and tokens back. The time compression of the play means that almost instantly, but off-stage, Hamlet turns up in her room, apparently deranged. He’s just had a chat with the ghost of his father, but she’s not to know that. Alas, my lord, she tells her father, I have been so affrighted. And so she has.

And her father’s response? Off to Claudius to set up a nasty bit of eavesdropping. I’ll loose my daughter to him’ he decides, and we’ll hide and see what happens. Every time we see her she’s badgered and lectured, and now she’s disgustingly manipulated. Never mind she’s been terrified by Hamlet, and now she’s sent as bait in a trap. I’ve always believed that Hamlet has sussed this. Where’s your father? He asks. Hiding behind the arras, getting a taste for it, is the answer. And later, hiding behind another, he’s killed by Hamlet for his pains.

The next time she appears, Ophelia is deranged, distressed and talking Shakespearean not-as-mad-as-it-seems doggerel about flowers. Then off she goes to fall, (off-stage) by accident, as a willow bough gives way, into a weeping brook, incapable of her own distress. And there she floats, singing for a while, and drowns.

The thing is, this is the bit that seems to fascinate 19thC painters; this scene, described in graphic detail by Gertrude, and no other scene at all. I started off these musings by referencing John Berger, and his analysis of the way in which “Art” was re-appropriated for a particular class after its democratisation by photographic reproduction. The trick was to make it seem inaccessible via the mystifications of language, and in the case of Millais’ Ophelia , by chopping her up into little components, a bit like the images at the start of the post. Stuff like this:

By veiling the emotional significance of Ophelia’s death with a profuse veneer of detail, Millais privileged surface effect over content and divested the literary heroine of her traditional emotive impact in favor of a sensationalistic style. Millais thus created a crisis of sorts in literary illustration that allowed the painter power to skew conventional readings of female characters like Ophelia from one indicative of virtue to one of transgression, perversity, and decadence. The irony is that Millais did this by being quite literal in his depiction of Ophelia’s death, rendering the entire text rather than a portion of it. Traversing Shakespeare’s text from beginning to end, one finds Millais adhering strictly to his source: a willow branch arches over the brook and Ophelia’s head; flowers of the type mentioned in Gertrude’s monologue either grow on the bank or float in the water; her white embroidered and beaded dress spreads into a bell as she sinks; and her mouth is agape to indicate singing.”

Kimberly Rhodes, Ophelia and Victorian Visual Culture: Representing Body Politics in the Nineteenth Century (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1988), 87, 90.

Or this:

The unstated lesson of Ophelia’s tragedy was that a woman’s fate is determined by the men in her life. Without male guidance or a male object of devotion, Ophelia was lost and helpless. That female independence could precipitate insanity was supported by ‘scientific’ research….The research of Jean-Martin Charcot – father of psychopathology and teacher of Freud – into the female ‘malade’ of hysteron-epilepsy, conducted during the 1870s, supported the myth of inherent female irrationality, especially among young, unmarried women….To citizens of the late nineteenth century, Ophelia represented the fate of single women driven over the brink by circumstances that men would normally overcome and epitomized an erroneous, if widely accepted, link between gender and insanity.”

Michelle Facos, Symbolist Art in Context (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 123-4

Let’s chuck in this backstory:

Ophelia was modelled by artist and muse Lizzie Siddal, then 19 years old. Millais had Siddal lie fully clothed in a full bathtub in his studio at 7 Gower St. in London. As it was now winter, he placed oil lamps under the tub to warm the water, but was so intent on his work that he allowed them to go out. As a result, Siddal caught a severe cold, and her father later sent Millais a letter demanding £50 for medical expenses. According to Millais’ son, he eventually accepted a lower sum.

….and Ophelia, as a living breathing human being is left behind in a dust of words. It bothered me and bothered me, and then at some point in a writing workshop I find myself imagining her, through this haze of stage productions, A level essays, art criticism and what have you. This is what I wrote.

One day

 I may grow fey, muddy-footed,

tangle-haired, caught up with goose-grass,

burrs, dandelion clocks, shepherd’s purse.


I’ll bite the ends of my hair,

tie loose knots of it across my eyes,

tug at elf-locks, thrash docks


and nettles with an elderberry switch,

puddle the river’s edges, kick

rotting branches, trouble frogs,


sing to water voles, pick blackberries –

hard and green, portwine, plum;

spit their bitterness out.


I shall wear bewilderment like a child

in a grown-up dress, trespass

among dog-roses, meadowsweet,


trespass among flag iris, marsh marigold,

trespass among the slow brown waters.

ophelia 2

Male gaze? I think so. And who comes into my mind? Yes….John Waterhouse and Miss Muriel Foster. Is it right to ‘envoice’ someone who’s presented over and again as a helpless victim without colluding in one way or another in the assumption. What was I thinking? I’ll ask the same question about one more poem, in this case, one about Echo, that much abused mythic character, the victim of the characteristic small-minded spite and cruelty of the classic pantheon. This one ended up as a kind of dialogue or interrogation, though I’m still not sure that it isn’t completely internal. I know it was skewed by yet another 19th C Alexandre Cabanal; pretty horrible it is, too. What was it about that pose of raised-hand surrender and vulnerability, plus several yards of gauze. What went on in their heads?

ophelia 7



In my cool room

I left that bracelet of fine silver

hung with amethysts, but it wouldn’t do


somewhere among the colonnades

you left your soft scarlet sandals,

at the gates, you loosed the clasp of pearls from your neck,

you cut off your hair, its living weight, in the avenue of laurels,

on the hot road you threw down your girdle, rings, your linen shift


I would have left my nails, my skin

anything to keep the telling of myself


they left it all in the dust


they pulled words

like teeth from your mouth

and left you dumb to tell your self,

alone in the crack of stone

in whispered frost


wrapped in cast-off language


in bits of syllables falling

leaves in a well

saying nothing again

and again saying nothing

that is mine or might have been me


this is all in your head


I say stonefall

I say buzzard

I say sleet


you will say your name

if they call



oh I cannot be silent


I can say nothing



(Should you wonder, a branks was also called a ‘scolds bridle’…essentially a gag of metal and leather. Tony Harrison uses it in a wonderful phrase the branks of condescension, by which the labouring classes are silenced)

There we are. To my relief and yours we come to the end of this sequence, and normal service will shortly be resumed. Thank you for your patience and attention, and especial thanks to those of you who’ve commented, here and also on Facebook.


The male gaze (4) “Envoicing”

Two more posts in this sequence…just in case you’re thinking the line will stretch out to the crack of doom. And it keeps me busy while I wait for stuff that’s in the pipeline from a bunch of new guest poems.

I was reminded on Wednesday night about why it’s important to keep on teasing out the issues. Driving back late-ish from a great night at The Puzzle Poets Live, chatting away to Laura Potts who just goes on and on winning prizes and plaudits. At some point we got on to the subject of what had been one of my favourite poems as a teenager. I was talking about how important time seems to be when you acknowledge you’re running out of it. Time’s winged chariot / deserts of vast eternityTo his Coy Mistress. 

Taken aback when Laura told me that she thought it was a poem with a horrible message…and quoted the bit about worms shall try /that long-preserved virginity. Which gave me a well-deserved jolt, because I realised that somehow I’d always managed to edit that out. Woah!! A valuable lesson.

What I’d thought, at 16, a sardonic, playful (and possibly tongue-in-cheek) piece of seduction, a poem shared between equals, was from another viewpoint calculating, cynical and misogynistic. Shifted me right out of my comfort zone, and quite right too. Which is why I’ll go on a bit longer with this process of asking questions about poems I’ve written.

Right; onwards and hopefully upwards. Poet Pam Thompson wrote a really interesting comment on the last post, describing what I was doing with some of the poems was “envoicing”. I was much taken by the idea, conflating it, I suppose, with Robert MacFarlane’s idea of “en-chantment”….that is to bring into being, or to call up, by language. I’d always thought of the business of dramatic monologues as ‘ventriloquism’, but envoicing seems much more an act of imaginative invention. I’ve written before about what brought me into it. Basically, I was looking to break out of my own ‘voice’ and its way of seeing, and what unlocked the door was Carole Ann Duffy’s The world’s wife. An absolute revolution at the time, to me, ‘envoicing’ all those female voices in a series of revisionist versions of myth and legend. Eventually it lead me to finding voices for a whole range of sculpted figures…the angel of the North, Epstein’s St. Michael,  Rodin’s kissing lovers, one of Anthony Gormley’s figures on Crosby Sands, and so on. But the first  project, which produced a lot less than I thought it might, was to explore the relationship between the late Victorian painter, John Waterhouse, and his (supposed) favourite model.



I’ve always liked that late-post-pre-Raphaelite sort of painting based on poems and myths and fables. I was fascinated by the fact that one face turns up in painting after painting. There’s no conclusive proof, but it’s supposed the model was a Miss Muriel Foster. I spent nearly two years reading all I could find about it all. I was intrigued by the idea of a triangular relationship between the artist, his model and his wife (who was also a painter). In the end I wrote four poems, and realised that it needed a novel and that either A S Byatt or Jill Dawson or Hilary Mantel should have written it. While I’ve been worrying away at this business of the male and the female gaze, I’ve revisited the poems, and I’m not sure what I feel about them any more.

Take the case of the envoicing of Muriel Foster. As far as the most reliable researcher could make out she was probably the daughter of a bourgeouis Quaker family who were friends of the Waterhouses. Bear in mind that Waterhouse himself was trained in a tradition that taught figure painting from statues, rather than from living models, and yet from the age of about 15, Muriel Foster ‘sat’ for him in painting after painting, right up to his death in 1915/16. She had trained as a nurse in the late 1890s, (bear in mind it took Florence Nightingale to turn it into a respectable profession) and she died, aged 90, in a nursing home in St. Leonards on Sea. I wondered and wondered how she could have come to model for this eminently respectable and successful painter. It seemed to me that the only way I could ‘get at it’ was to imagine her much older, reflecting on her own story. I still find it baffling, but here’s the poem I wrote after a long and painful process.




Miss Muriel Foster

He asked if he might do a pencil sketch;

a simple head and shoulders;

said my hair would grace ‘his mermaid’;

told me of a vision of combed silk,

of autumn-umber leaves against white skin,

a sea impossibly green and cold,

irridescent scales, warm flesh….

and it seemed that I could hear the mermaid’s song

and that I sang it.

So,suddenly, I said I’d sit for him. Unclothed.

That’s how things came to be. That first time.


You know ‘The water babies’? Yes?

You see, I thought that as a waterchild,

like Tom, or Ellie, I would be unafraid –

– no unaware – of nakedness. So, I imagined

high grey crags, sweet turf, the limestone beck,

and how poor Tom, so hot and trammelled

became so cool and clean. So, simply done.

How to put it? All was loose and lovely.


Stillness? Quiet? I’d always loved the Meeting’s

silences. And, oh, his eyes were grave

and serious. I think I never felt so much

myself before. I think I never felt so real.


So many sittings, so much peace. Such dreams.

So many stories in that steady gaze.

He transfigured me; I was Danae

inaccessible in a tower until Zeus came

in a shower of gold.. and so was set adrift…

Naiad, dryad, temptress, nymph, Ophelia;

so many lives he drew for me to live

in his quiet studio; or even, by a river bank,

La belle dame sans merci; my kneeling knight

in all his heraldry, his armour softly gleaming,

and the air starred with flowers, a heart on my sleeve,

my living hair ensnaring him, there in the dark copse,

and I pulling him close, and his eyes so dark.

Oh my.


In all those years among the weak, the hurt

along the wards,soiled dressings,

starch and metal, antiseptic air, I knew

that there were always other worlds

that only he and I could make.


The last work that I did for him

was never finished.The Enchanted Garden.

There I stoop to prove

the scent of one pale rose.

Never kissed his living face.


He was my Hylas, and I, desire multipled.

See how he painted me. Each nymph

wears a flower in her hair,

but I the only one to wear a rose.

The one who holds his hand, who clasps his arm,

is me. Or who I used to be.

I seem to imagine her, not sentimental exactly, but still puzzled by her own innocence. Which raises a lot of issues, I suppose. You’ll let me know, I hope. Esther Waterhouse, the artist’s wife, seemed less difficult at the time. Some 10 years his junior, she had been a watercolourist, but apparently gave up exhibiting after their marriage. In the years following his death she was increasingly in financial difficulty, having to sell their home. Cared for at some time by relatives ,she died in a nursing home in 1944. My starting point was the one portrait that Waterhouse painted of her, in a style quite unlike any of his meticulous pictures of, say, The Lady of Shallot. What would she have made of it? (I like it a lot..I like the textured painterliness of it, the energy, the vitality).

ophelia 6

Esther Waterhouse

See me,a brown patch.

No expense wasted here.

Don’t talk to me about the avant garde,

about  advances, fashions;

this is how he sees me: brown, trowelled.


Where’s the sensitivity? the sables?

softness of touch? the gleam of subtly considered skin?

expensive pigment? translucent lakes?

This is plastering.

Where are the coppiced stems? the salt shores?

the limpid pools? the dog roses? gentle petals

like the skin of babies that we never had?

Why the mud, the shale, the clay?

Why this drab suttee? Why lay me in this murk,

this dark laminate, this clotted earth?


And now I’ve read his last confession.

Tell me. Should I laugh or cry?

Be numb; or bitter; sour; an unripe thing?

What am I left with now?

His house. His dog. This portrait.

Not enough to live on,

and canvasses that no-one wants to buy.

I read The Times obit. again,

that condescension, damning with faint praise.

They judge his work ‘agreeable’,

consider that ‘he never quite found himself’.

Let me beg to differ, now I’ve found

the man I thought I knew.

I’ll burn it all. The letters, private diaries.

I’ll not be mocked or pitied.

My questions all are answered here,

and now I know. I think I always knew.

I’ll leave nothing. No.

All this can go into the fire.


I’ll leave you to imagine that ‘confession’ which is sort-of-made in the poem I wrote in his voice, as he contemplates his own death. All the three poems are in Outlaws and Fallen Angels. I’m always happy to sell anyone a copy. See My books via the menu at the top of the post. In the meantime, are these ‘envoicings’ in Pam Thompson’s terms, or just clumsy examples of ‘the male gaze’ ?

Just one post in this sequence, when I’ll look at two female ‘victim’ figures. See you then




The male gaze (3)…how does your garden grow?

mary 6

I knew I was going to feature one particular poem this week. Imagine my delight when this image popped up on my Facebook page, posted by Mary Gauthier. I was especially grateful for what she wrote underneath it:

“Ok, a day late .. but here it is. My #oldheadshot I don’t remember being that person. I don’t even know where we took this picture. But.. there it is. The shoot was for the release of my Drag Queens In Limousines record. 1998.”

I’ll come back to Drag Queens In Limousines later, but what I lit on was the phrase

                               I don’t remember being that person. 

Someone made that image of her. For a split second it stood for her, represented her, said who she was. Or, at least, someone’s idea of who she was. Now she can’t remember where she was, or who the image belongs to.  We read that image, whether we acknowledge it or not. I might suppose I’m looking at someone  who’s tired, who’s vulnerable and wary. Or maybe at someone who knows exactly who she is, and isn’t about to take shit from anyone. I might read that as a ‘who you looking at look?’. And so on. And I’d be bound to be wrong in one degree or another.

But that’s how it is, isn’t it. We deconstruct and reconstruct, and tell ourselves stories about the people we look at. The moment we see them is a memory instantaneously. Everything shifts. I actually think that that’s a joyous thing, just as it can be dangerous when we make moral judgements and form opinions about who we look at. We can’t help it. It’s the way we’re made. Just so long as we acknowledge this and take responsibility for it. I have another image of Mary G. hanging on the wall in the room where I’m writing.

mary 7

There she is between one of my grandfathers (about whom I wrote a poem that was spectacularly wrong about him and essential part of his biography), multiple Michael Caines, and one of my great aunts. It’s an image she chose to tour with, so I guess it’s one she was happy with, believing that it told the truth about who she was, or wanted to be seen as. Then.

Maybe you’re not into Americana, and  you’ve not heard of her. Well, now you have. Mary Gauthier is one of those who make me optimistic whenever I’m feeling down about where the writing is going, or if it’s worth the effort. I first heard her sing at The Pheasant Inn in Sheffield. It’s a place that in the 90’s used to host many of the Americana musicians like Steve Forbert and the Be Good Tanyas. It wasn’t the most salubrious or glamorous place. I remember queuing outside in late Autumn gloom and drizzle, and then walking through to the concert room via a taproom with a carpet that sucked at your feet, and between young mums who sat with toddlers in prams, and fed them crisps and bright pink drinks. The overall colour scheme was brown in all its variations, the lighting was perfunctory, and the stage was cramped, and too high. And then on comes Mary G. and lights up my night.

One woman with a guitar and a mission. I’ve seen her since in a church in Leeds, in a church hall somewhere in rural Leicestershire with a backdrop painted by the Scouts for a pantomime (where we bought the poster on my wall); above a wine bar in Wakefield. Man, does she work. To my absolute delight she’s battled and battled and worked and worked and now she needn’t work crap bars filled with people who don’t listen.

These days, she’s on radio shows; she plays festivals all over the States and in Europe; she seems to be booked up for every day, forever. And she’s played The Grand Ol’ Opry. Isn’t that something for an artist who’s gay, who’s battled drug addiction, who wrote a song for Karla Faye – executed in Texas to the applause of George Bush, who’s protested that Woody Guthrie never got inducted into the Country Hall Of Fame. She’s brought out a succession of critically acclaimed albums. I guess that helps.

The first album I knew of hers was Drag Queens in Limousines (1999). The first track is the most explicitly autobiographical.

“I stole momma’s car on a Sunday and lit out for good

moved in with some friends in the city in a bad neighbourhood”.

She was born in New Orleans. Born to a mother she never knew, and left in St Vincent’s Women and Infants Asylum, Gauthier was adopted when she was a year old by an Italian Catholic couple from Thibodeaux, Louisiana. At age 15, she ran away from home, and spent the next several years in drug rehab, halfway houses, and living with friends; she spent her 18th birthday in a jail cell. She enrolled in university as a philosophy major, dropping out during her senior year. She opened a Cajun restaurant in Boston’s Back Bay’s neighborhood, Dixie Kitchen, which she ran, and cooked at,  for eleven years. She was arrested for drunk driving in July 12, 1990, and has been sober ever since. After achieving sobriety, she was driven to dedicate herself full-time to songwriting, and embarked upon a career in music. She wrote her first song at age 35.She sold her share in the restaurant to finance her second album, Drag Queens in Limousines, in 1998. (thanks to Wikipedia for the summary)

It was at a gig in Wakefield a few years ago when I heard her tell for the first time the story of her search for her birth mother, and how it led her to St Vincent’s Women and Infants Asylum in New Orleans, which was now a brothel. The bit that I could never get out of my mind was her telling us that the year photographs of the orphans were still on the walls of the quadrangle. Sometimes an image will lodge itself and demand, sooner or later, to be dealt with. It’s also important to know that that a strong thread of Roman Catholic imagery runs through her songs; often and often it centres on concepts of grace and of mercy. I finally sat down to write a poem that would end up in a pamphlet which grew out of the urge to find voices for iconic sculptures …the conceit is that they imprison the souls of fallen angels, and of the transgressive. In this case the story is told by Mary Magdalene as imagined by Donatello. As it happens, this Mary is ruefully aware of more sentimental versions of herself. And she has what I imagine to be a Louisiana accent…that is, I think she sounds like Mary Gauthier. I probably get it wrong.


Mary Magdelene and the orphans

Mary, Mary, quite contrary;  how does your garden grow?


Right here in this courtyard, there’s a girl

come lookin’ for her childhood. In this house

in New Orleans. May ‘s  well be  the Rising Sun.

Started out an Orphan Home..St Vincent’ Paul


With silver bells, and cockle shells


It’s a hot-sheet motel now, where girls pull tricks.

And round these courtyard walls –

ain’t no-one thought to have ‘em taken down –

the Orphans’ photos; go back more’n fifty years.


and pretty maids all in row


She’ll be there, in one of ‘em, this troubled child

whose mother give her up, so long ago.

They stare down, the Orphans, all of them

conceived in love that righteous men call sin.


wallflowers, wallflowers, growing up so high


Give a girl a bad name and it sticks.

I weren’t no working girl. No sir. No saint,

neither. Maybe I talked too loud. Only

one man saw me as I truly am. Lord, O lord.


Them cracker preachers hung him up. Called me

a whore.  Him, I’d a followed till the end

of time. I washed his wounded feet, his hands,

with tears and spikenard and myrhh,

drew the thorns  from out his brow. I closed his eyes.

I dried his lovely body with my hair.


we’re all pretty maidens, we’re all set to die


There’s a magdalena here. A little worse for wear.

Them pretty golden clothes get tarnished. Still.

Won’t hurt to light a candle, say a prayer

for this lost child, for working girls. For me.

For Mary Magdalena everywhere.

U – biq – uit – ous.  My lord,

ain’t that a word!  I’m stretched so thin. Wore out.


 all these fallen souls, these angels, come  to me,

lookin’ for the grace from which they fell.


I can’t do nothin’ for them. And it breaks my heart


(From Outlaws and fallen angels. [Calder Valley Poetry 2016. £7.00]


There’s so much going on in my mind, now.  The pamphlet’s introduced by a quotation from Mary G’s song Camelot Motel. Cheaters, liars, outlaws and fallen angels /come looking’ for the grace from which they fell. The poem is a thank you for her sharing her story. At the time I thought my motive was simple, but on reflection its a lot more complicated and conflicted. I don’t think I quite acknowledged it at the time, but part of her story is that when she finally found her birth mother, her mother wasn’t willing to meet her. Now, as I’ve written before, I had an adopted son who took his own life when he was 21. The day we met him and took him home was also the day we met his birth mother. What would she feel now if she tried to find out what happened to him. What would it do to her? Here I am, writing about a woman who I can’t be said to know, in the voice of a woman whose story I can only guess at, but who has been dreadfully misrepresented down the centuries. And then appropriating an accent that that I only know by listening to Mary Gauthier telling stories between songs. Do I have the right?

There’s a verse in one of her songs, which happens to be a song of amends and atonement. I fell into the space between us / and that’s a long way to fall


I’ll leave the question hanging, and equally the question: what kind of gaze is this? Maybe someone will tell me.

In the meantime, go and buy Mary Gauthier’s records.


  • Dixie Kitchen(1997)
  • Drag Queens in Limousines(1999)
  • Filth and Fire(2002)
  • Mercy Now(2005)
  • Between Daylight and Dark(2007)
  • Genesis (The Early Years)( 2008) – 15 track compilation from the 1st three albums
  • The Foundling(2010)
  • The Foundling Alone(2011) Acoustic Demo’s of songs in development, from The Foundling
  • Live at Blue Rock(2012) 11 mixed new and old tracks plus a hidden Mercy Now
  • Trouble and Love(2014)
  • Rifles and rosary beads (2018)




“The male gaze” , or just “a gaze” (2)

I said in my last post that I’d be posting a sequence of my own poems, each of which assumes (I think that may be exactly the right word) a female persona. It may be deliberately ventriloquial …a dramatic monologue, I suppose….or more oblique and ambiguously written in the second person. Of the latter I’m never quite sure whether it’s A Good Thing, because it lends the narrator a degree of distance, or a Cop-Out..unwilling to put its money where its mouth is. The question I’m asking is this:

do you recognise this as ‘the male gaze’ or is it more simply a human gaze?

I thought it would be appropriate to start with a couple of poems which try to understood two women who have, it seems to me, been reified by history, by photography, by journalism, documentary and by art. Myra Hindley and Winnie Johnson. Winnie who died a couple of years ago never gave up her search for her son Keith Bennett, assumed murdered by Brady and Hindley, and whose body has never been recovered. Someone asked me why I’ve not written about Brady. I think it’s because he is simply not interesting, in the sense that it’s impossible to make any human or imaginative connection with him; because in some way he’s not human. Just a thing.

Three things bothered me about Myra…or “Myra”, if I think of her as a character I intend to play. One is that over time she has gradually been reduced to that strange, unsettling staring face. The second is the portrait/installation by Marcus Harvey; an image collaged from thousands of photographs of children, and an image I say is unremittingly judgemental and objectifying. Which may be right. The third thing, the thing that’s always bothered me is Myra’s claim to have discovered a saving Christian faith. I think they all feed this poem, though I was thinking of none of them at the time. It was written very fast in a workshop, and not much changed afterwards.


You look at me

and I know
what you think
you think that I know
where the dead are buried.
and I tell you what
I dream
I dream of cottongrass
its million white heads
its tender flowers
streaming white
like the blood of Jesus
like the love and mercy of Jesus
white as forgiveness
white as the rainy wind
and there are no bodies
if there ever were
they are gone in the whin
in the bracken
ground small
between millstones
and you think I know
where the bodies are buried
but I know I can look                                                                                                                          in this mirror of steel
and I do not know for a second
the woman who stares back at me

Winnie is a poem that has taken much much longer; it started maybe 10 years ago after an especially gruelling TV documentary about Winnie.  A singer/songwriter friend wrote a song afterwards. Dark skies. The key image is of a white sliding moon in the dark skies over Saddleworth Moor. It’s a haunting song. It must have been in my head at a Writing Day in Huddersfield, when a very rough draft appeared and then got forgotten for ages. It’s one of a handful of poems that really took me a long time to write, and I’m inclined to distrust them. Still. The issue is similar to that of Myra. Winnie had been photographed so often in all weathers, with those dark moors in the background, it’s hard to think of her indoors, with the curtains drawn. The images from TV at the time, of searches of peat-hag gritstone moorland in sopping vile winter weather are simply unforgettable. When I tried to write Winnie in the 1st person, and it simply felt crass, intrusive, wrong. Why this should not also apply to Myra is beyond me.



You dream of cottongrass

of threaded ghosts of baby’s hair,

white water spilled on blackstone grit.


You know that you will never know

where your boy is, has been

this forty year and more;


you know this as you know

the iron and salt of hot rare meat

the smell of his skull, his skin.


Thin winds pick among the rags

and bones of brittle heather,

sunken jaggers’ roads;


trouble dammed black waters,

the sour weeping of turned turfs

that won’t give up what’s held


where men in raincoats walk

in ragged lines with long white rods

testing the depth and smell


of the peat the way a shepherd

probes drifted Pennine snow

for buried sheep that eat their own fleece


You knew such things could be,

breathed vowels. Air.

Now you know nothing else —


the texture of a house

this pale moth-knowing

in a shadowed room,


ringed by black moors, dark humps:

tumbled cairns that mock

the lost, that will not show the way


[Both poems from Much Possessed . smith|doorstop 2016]


So there you go. Male gaze or just “gaze” ? More poems coming up.






Here’s looking at you: the male gaze


Here’s a thing; it’s Sunday afternoon,  and Sunday’s a Rugby League day,  yet I’m here, because there’s something that’s been nagging and nagging, and if I don’t write about it I shall go on waking up in the night worrying at it. Sometimes I wish poetry didn’t have such a hold on me. Nevertheless.

Some time in the early 1970s I was trying to get to grips with sociolinguistics, and, especially, with the notion of gendered language. One of my colleagues at the College of Ed. where I was a lecturer played his students (and me) an audiotape of pairs of people talking on a train. What they were talking about was pretty much gender-neutral. Simplistically, not about fashion or football. The conversations sounded slightly odd, out of kilter but we couldn’t put our collective finger on why.

This is how it worked. The researchers made transcriptions of the taped conversations, which were those of pairs of women and pairs of men. They then had men reading the dialogues of the women, and vice versa. Simply, the idioms, the structures, the dynamic, the interactions didn’t fit. It seemed that the problem went much deeper than gendered lexis. I leave that for your consideration.

At the time, my view of the world had been radically challenged by two bombshell texts: John Berger’s Ways of seeing, and Dale Spender’s Man-made language. Interestingly and paradoxically, Berger’s presentation includes statements like

The invention of the camera changed the way men saw


all images are man made.

Which pretty well made Spender’s point.Lots of things have happened since then, but they continue to be just as important to me now as they were 40 years ago.

Why am I telling you this? I’m still buzzing from a week in St Ives with poetry inspirations and tutors Kim Moore and Helen Mort, and from the impact of the poems they brought into the workshops. Poems which simultaneously raised issues of the negative, of silence, of contradiction and of how women are written about and how women write about themselves. Let’s chuck into the mix the fact that Kim Moore suggested I watch a You Tube clip of a lecture on “the female gaze” by Jill Soloway. Here’s the link.You might want to watch it before you read on.

Did that link work? welcome back, in any case.

What she says isn’t new, but in essence she says that the male gaze is characterised by being predatory, objectifying and commodifying, particularly when the gaze is turned on women. Think, say, of Durer who created an image of the ‘ideal woman’ by assembling it from bits of other images, like a kit. It’s tied up with ‘ownership’ and the power of defining the limits of another identity. This is essentially no different from Berger’s thesis, which in turn draws on earlier writers, though his conciseness is all his own:

“a woman…. is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself”

which, he argues is constructed from centuries of images of woman made essentially passive, looking back at the active and proprietorial observer.

Soloway asks what constitutes ‘the female gaze’ and make the obvious point that it’s not the simple reverse of the male gaze, substituting women observers for male observers, but maintaining the assymetric power relationship. Whether she manages to explain what the female gaze is, I’ll leave to you to decide. What I can’t leave in the air is when Soloway says, blithely enough, the male gaze is pretty well everything. Because if the male gaze is necessarily predatory and reifying  then the semantic and rhetorical books are well and truly cooked, and I might as well stop right now. It’s not that simple, because life never is. The core of it is pretty well indisputable; Western art and literature are dominated by men and their gaze well into the 19th C. Think about all the countless paintings of madonnas (by men) and then paintings of mothers and children by women. Check out Berthe Morrisot and you’ll see what I mean. Now we live in more relativist cultures, with all their contradictions and ambiguities. Have look at these female nudes. Two are contemporary. One is more than 20,000 years old. One is painted by a woman. One by a man. One we know nothing about. Where’s the male or female gaze? I don’t know, and I’m not out to win any arguments. I’m just asking myself questions.


Let me ask some more. Let’s shift the ground to poetry…it is a poetry blog after all. Think about Browning’s My last duchess. There’s a poem about the predatory male gaze if ever there was one. But whose gaze is turned on the Duke, and whose on the the woman whose portrait the Duke is showing off. What is the poet assuming about the duchess? Or think about Philip Larkin’s The less deceived and how he imagines (gazes on) the little street girl abducted and taken into fulfilment’s desolate attic. At every turn I feel the ground slipping away from under my feet.

At this point, I’m going to go back to an earlier post, (December 204) in which I was equally uncertain of what I was arguing about or why. I started with a quotation from George Eliot…who had to assume a male persona to get published.

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

I went on to write about my response to work by Pascale Petit, Kim Moore, Fiona Benson and Wendy Pratt, and to wonder whether I could access their experience of the world via their poems. I wrote:

“I read these poems, and then I read what I’ve written in the last two years and I see what isn’t there, and I wonder if I have access to what’s missing. Just to explain why I chose that opening quotation from George Eliot; for the last 18 months or so I have grown gradually more deaf. It’s something that can be dealt with, and will be, but at the moment I hear the world through a soft sieve. I miss the point of conversations and questions if I’m not attending. It’s like listening to French. I recognise songs on the radio by the bass lines and drum patterns but I can’t hear the whole tune. And now these poets. It’s as though they’ve shown me emotional registers and harmonies that I can’t hear or feel for myself, as though, in George Eliot’s word I’m ‘well-wadded’. I’m writing rhetoric and well-observed landscapes, and anecdotes, but I’m not accessing the whole picture.”

I was reminded of this last week when I read one of Clare Shaw’s remarkable poems from her annual foray into the world of NaPoRiMo. Here’s a bit of it (thanks for the permission, Clare)

I was told not to write about wombs

but mine writes itself
in capitals. It is prolific,
I cannot forget it.

It reminds me
of all its hard work,
how patient and kind

it has been;
what it gave me. It boasts
it is further inside me

than the maps would suggest.
It says has swallowed small men
and some creatures.

How once it was sea and sky,
and a star floated there,
and its world was endless.


I pick out one phrase that all my conflicted and muddled feelings spin on: it is further inside me / than the maps would suggest. It’s that internal understanding, that knowledge that seem beyond me. And at this point I’m going to pass the buck. Over the last few years I’ve written poems in the voices of so many women…which is to say, I’ve made the attempt. Myra Hindley, Keith Bennett’s mother Winnie, Mary Magdalene, Joan of Arc’s mother, a cunning woman, one of the Three Graces, Ophelia and so on. And I’ve turned my gaze on other women without appropriating their imagined voices. My week in St Ives, and a week spent reading about ‘the male gaze’ and ‘the female gaze’ have left me uncertain of what I’ve been engaged in. What I’ll do is post of some of these poems, one at a time, and see what you make of them. Male gaze or not? And what tells us?

The first is new, though the subject is one that’s dear to me. A little Toulouse Lautrec drawing, on a bit of torn card (which reproductions crop out),tucked away in a corner of the Alte Pinakotech in Munich. You come upon it after huge galleries , like celestial butchers’ cold rooms, full of enormous Rubens nudes


After the Rubens

Just your head, just your slumped shoulders.

They’ve tucked you away, low down

in a corner by the door, with the woman

tugging a stubborn goat over the chalk.

I guess you’ll settle for this, no one

staring, this small space to yourself,

no one to bother.  Do you mind

that all he had was chalks,

a torn off bit of pasteboard.

Do you mind that your hair’s come

unpinned and he’s noticed that,

and how grey is your skin, do you mind

that scribble of pistacchio smudged in

to make you hair catch fire.I don’t know

your name and for this I am sorry.

It’s just that you look so tired that I stare.

Do you mind.And if I don’t stare, if

I look away, where will we be then.




Red Shed Poetry Competition – closes 28 April 2018

A great competition. Small but beautifully formed.

The Poetry Shed

Red Shed Poetry Competition 2018
Sole adjudicator: Maria Isakova Bennett
Closing date: Saturday 28th April, 2018
Prizes: 1st— £100, 2nd—£50
​Short listed poems – £10

Wakefield Postcode prize—£25 

Generously sponsored by Mocca Moocho café


About the Judge

The amazingly creative Maria Isakova Bennett is one of the founders of Coast-to-Coast-to-Coast, the beautiful hand-stitched poetry journals you’ll have heard about. Maria lives in Liverpool and holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. She won a Northern Writers’ Award for poetry in June 2017, and has won and has been placed and commended in many poetry competitions.

Find out more and enter here.

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A serious business, and a polished gem :Jennifer Copley


toilet roll crop

Two things have stuck in my mind as the hook(s) I’ll hang this week’s post on.

I remember Ian McMillan saying, in a short film he made with Martin Wiley, something to the effect that ‘funny’ poetry is regarded as less important than ‘serious poetry’. When he said this I think he actually pronounced it as Serious Poetry, and I believe I knew what he meant, even though I also knew that what we mean by ‘funny’ is a lot more complicated than it might seem on the surface.

I thought of this when I saw in a Facebook post an image of faces crafted from toilet roll tubes. My first reaction was to laugh out loud. My second reaction was to see them as sinister and unsettling. They’re like the faces you might find in Breughel, or maybe in Bosch, and perhaps in some of Lautrec’s more grotesque sketches, and Boz’s illustrations for Dickens. They hover somewhere between caricature and realism. Unsettling is the word I’ll settle on.

The other thing was that for some reason I chose to take ‘funny’ poems to read on the open mic. at The Puzzle Poets Live monthly do this week. I particularly chose some of Rory Motion’s poems as well as a couple of my own. Now, it may be that you have never heard of Rory Motion, but you should. I’ve written before about how I started to do open mic poetry in folk clubs. What goes down well in folkclubs is poems that rhyme, and poems that are funny, and, preferably, poems that do both. I built up a list of ones that went down well, by people who wrote the kind of poems I still can’t write myself.

I built up a big file of stuff that wouldn’t let me down. Poets like Matt Harvey and Les Barker. I used a lot of Marriott Edgar. And I came to respect what Pam Ayres did. She’s a crafty, clever writer despite her TV persona. I’m very fond of ‘Clive the fearless birdman‘. I learned a lot from watching Ian Macmillan’s live performances in libraries and other small venues…especially when he worked with Circus of Poets. And I think Roger McGough is frequently brilliant.

bubble compilation 1

But the one who I came to enjoy and respect most was Rory Motion. You can find out about him via this link.

He honed his stage skills on the stand-up comedy circuit in the late 80’s and early 90’s, being described by Time Out as a “a post-Hippie comic”, which by way of cheerful response is how he described Time Out. Finding the increasingly gladiatorial nature of the stand-up world too limiting, he decided in 1992, following a successful national tour with Frank Skinner, to move to Bwlch y Cibau, a small village in Powys.

A regular contributor to national radio, he has appeared on comedy shows, the literature panel game ‘Booked’ with Roger McGough and Miles Kington, and written and presented his own programmes on Radios 4 and 5. In 2001, Rory and fellow poet Matt Harvey created a series of programmes called ‘One Night Stanza’ which, in a victory for poetry lovers everywhere, made the coveted 6:30 Radio 4 comedy slot. In the same year Cassells published Rory’s collection of poems, ‘Neither is the Horse’. It’s still available, and remarkable value at £7.50 for a pocket-sized hardback of 125 pp of poems.





He performed at every Glastonbury Festival from 1989 up until 2008. ( He also paints landscapes, interiors and text-pieces, and in 2007 exhibited at the Peter Pears gallery in Aldeburgh, in conjunction with a reading at the Aldeburgh poetry festival).
Rory is a huge fan of the late Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band (which tells you a good deal) and in 2013 and 2014 supported them at the York Duchess. In 2015, at the Ilkley Literature festival, Rory gave an entertaining, and apparently very successful, practical tutorial on the mysteries of solving cryptic crosswords.

Why he’s not better known, I cannot fathom. But if you hunt down his flash fictions like Mid Wales (a darkly brilliant precis of Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill) or Spear of destiny (which item is for sale at a carboot sale in Totnes) or poems like  Mrs Donkersley’s Chutney (an extravagant rhapsody enacted on a bus between Pocklington and York) you’ll encounter a poet of real craft and imaginative engagement with the rich oddity of the world. It’s simply not possible to pigeon-hole or categorise him, but if I think of the company he might keep it would be poets like John Cooper Clark, and, particularly, Ivor Cutler (who regularly entertained, puzzled and unsettled me when I heard him on the radio…the Home Service as it was…in the late 1950s). Surreal, surprising, artful and impeccably crafted work. Funny, serious, and, yes, unsettling.




Which brings me to today’s guest, and a long-delayed post that I’ve been wanting to write for weeks, ever since I was invited to read at A poem and a pint in Ulverston, and where     I heard her read two poems that simply stuck in my mind like burrs and would not let me go…..because they were funny, spare, beautifully written, and, well, unsettling.

Time to introduce Jennifer Copley who lives in Barrow-in-Furness with her cat, dog, husband and a vast quantity of Victorian furniture inherited from her grandmother. She enjoys polishing and often gets ideas for poems while rubbing up the sideboard. 

You may have come across her work via Kim Moore’s The Sunday Poem but because I think she’s one of those talented poets who tend to fly under the radar, you may not know that she’s published four pamphlets including Ice (Smith Doorstop 2002) and House by the Sea (2003) and three full-length collections Unsafe Monuments (2006), Beans in Snow (Smokestack 2009) and Sisters also by Smokestack in 2013.

Sisters sprang from a photograph of two unknown girls she saw on a post-mortem website. The poems in the first half of the book imagine the lives of these two motherless girls brought up in a strict Victorian household. The second half explores the nature of sisterhood, the predicaments that siblings face, in life and in death. A new pamphlet is due shortly from Happenstance on whose website you’ll find the endorsement many of us would give several limbs for:

U.A. Fanthorpe has described [Jennifer Copley’s] work as ‘urgent, visceral, written out of a fierce commitment to truth’ and Carol Rumens finds ‘a Chagall-like, magical-realist quality to Copley’s delicate shape-shifting’.

She has been published by The Rialto, The North, Stand and PN Review, also twice in the Forward Prize Anthology. She was 2nd in the Cardiff International  and 3rd in the Bridport Poetry Prizes and although she was shortlisted for the Strokestown Prize twice and flogged all the way to County Roscommon, she didn’t win any money. I’m also gratified to learn (via Google) that for the last few years her poems have been used in Poetry Unseen Revision Papers for GCSE students.

In other words, she’s a serious poet; the whole nine yards, the full monty. And she writes poems not unlike the images I started the post with, poems that make you smile, or laugh, and then quickly reassess what just happened. I’d like to say they’re edgy, but they’re more subtle than that. Frequently, they’ll be as tender, lyrical but always clear-eyed, as these images from

Ten Places Where I See My Mother

Mondays, in the kitchen, her arms all suds.

I peer through steam but she’s disappeared


Later she’ll be upstairs, taking off her wet blue dress


In the dark she’s in different places:

the end of my bed, the space by the wardrobe,


Her footprints glow for ages after she’s gone.


Sundays, I see her under the earth,

peacefully asleep, her mouth slightly open,

but she comes to when I start arranging flowers.


What I love about this the matter-of-fact tone, the way this mother will never die and sees nothing remarkable about it. It makes me think of the ‘normalities’ of folk-tale and the narrow boundaries between the mundane and the wonderful. Although Jennifer Copley has something to say about them, too.

They’re only fairy tales, say our mothers,
who serve us porridge that’s far too hot;
and who are they that we should trust them
when they prick their fingers,        (from ‘Fairy Tales’)

I love the way she brings the reader up short in this line: ‘who are they that we should trust them’, the way it wryly and sardonically subverts my expectations of ‘our mothers’. Subversive..that’s the word; and that’s what the last line of The robin subverts.

The Robin

– was dead but no one knew who’d killed him.
–Snow in the wind, said the sparrow.
–Ice in the water butt, said the wren.
–Frost on the five-barred gate, said the blackbird.
–A poisoned snail, said the thrush.
–God, said the canary who had no respect.
–Then they all turned on each other, shrieking and accusing, although
no one had liked the robin since he’d bullied the goldfinch children to death.

What makes very tiny children laugh is surprise (which may be frightening) followed by relief. Everyone who ever played ‘Boo!’ with child in a cot or a pram knows this. And Jenny Copley’s poems know this too. She herself says ‘I must tell stories. Stories about people (or animals) in improbable situations. I’m interested in how they react and how they resolve (or don’t) the things they face.’

So here we are with the two poems she sent me to share with you all, both, as it happens set in cellars of the kind you might finding Chris Van Allsberg’s wonderful book The mysteries of Harris Burdick. If you were looking for visual equivalents of the images that Jennifer Copley creates, you could do a lot worse than start there. Basement starts in a cellar in 1940, which sets up a set of expectations that’s immediately put in question by that flat but they feel safe here. 


1940, but they feel safe here,

between the ping-pong table

and the bottled fruit.

Light from a tiny barred window

spills down dust-motes.

There’s a birdcage

he always knocks his head on,

a cupboard that creaks.


Today it’s hot.

They remove more clothes than usual.

Her buttons roll into mouse-holes.

His braces, hurriedly unsnapped,

fly into a corner where they stay

for fifty years.

Upstairs, pans clatter.

Where’s Lizzy? Someone shouts

but with his tongue in her ear,

Lizzy doesn’t cotton on.


Not knowing the way war will turn,

all their arrangements,

love tokens,

sweat from their bodies,

moons from their fingers,



lie in scuffs on the floor.

I like the story-teller’s ‘they’ that demands you have to find out who ‘they’ are, between the deliberately comic ping-pong table and the bottled fruit, lit dimly by what comes through a window that’s ‘barred’. Which should make you think twice. Whoever they are, they come often because ‘there’s a birdcage / he always knocks his head on’. And yes, it’s comic, until it’s unsettling. Because they take off more clothes ‘than usual’ in a fumble of snapped-off buttons and unsnapped braces. A poem of desperate love in a time of war that’s not comic at all but as serious as salt and moons and semen. I love it.


cellar crop

The second poem, Cellar was the one that made me sit up and take notice at Ulverston. It has that quirkiness that makes me think of Ivor Cutler, and that disingenuous matter-of-fact quality that is so unsettlingly at odds with the story.


Here’s where we live,

buried under ground,

our hats in our hands.

We came down in 1963

to fill up the scuttle

and the door slammed shut.


The light knocked off in 1984

so we live in the dark, bowed over

like the hulls of two old boats.

You say ‘tomato’ and I say ‘tom-ate-o’.

Apart from that we get on well enough.


Our children call down the coal hole

occasionally. They almost try the door

but their hearts aren’t in it.

After all, what would they say to us,

it’s been so long since we

kept a grip on things, on them.


Understated, memorable and unnerving.  I wish I could do work like that, so economically and apparently without effort. Thank you Jennifer Copley for the poems and waiting so patiently for me to write about them.

St Ives 2017 014


And now I’m going to check all my lists for the umpteenth time, and double-check my packing, because first thing tomorrow I’m off over to Greater Manchester to collect two poets and then we’re heading off to St Ives for a week of poetry reading and writing. There may not be a post next Sunday, but I reckon you can put up with that, and I’ll see you when I see you. Thank you for reading.