My kind of poetry: Jean Atkin’s “The bicycles of ice and salt”


Here’s a thing. I’ve just checked, and found that since early November last year I’ve written only two appreciations/reviews of other poeple’s poetry.


How on earth did I end up like this?After all, I started the great fogginzo’s cobweb precisely to share and celebrate work I’d just come across and couldn’t wait to tell you about. Part of the answer to this is many others I’ve been locked out of the everyday world of trips and visits and chance encounters. And in this context, particularly I’ve not been able to go on retreats or to readings or to open mics for over two years. I’ve not been well for most those two years, and I’ve not heard new poems being performed. I’ve not bought books at a reading because of the poems I heard, and brought them home, and reread them, and got to know them as friends .


Let’s throw into the mix that, apart from misssing the frisson, the buzz of company and of new experiences, I’ve been putting a collection together and trying to lay some nagging half-written poems to rest. I’ve been turned inwards. It might work for some, but it’s never worked for me, because, for me, poetry is performative, feeding on the to and fro of people’s reaction. For months now I’ve not been able to hear the poem on the page; its meaning drifts away in a jumble of words. 

I thought it was all coming back when I wrote about Kim Moore and Carola Luther, but then I lost track of it again. You’ll be familiar with the idea of Writer’s Block. I never imagined that there could be such a thing as Reader’s Block, and it’s truly alarming to be in the middle of it.


Anyway. Maybe it’s something to do with the early onset of spring, the urgency in the air and at the tips and edges of things, but the buzz and excitement is coming back, bit by bit. I’m reading poems aloud to myself again, relishing the texture and brush of another mind. The words are coming alive off the page for the first time in ages and ages. I found myself absorbed in other folk’s poems, and hearing them rather than just looking, nose pressed to the window. Loved re-reading Samantha Wynne-Rydderch’s Banjo. Ditto MacCaig favourites, and David Constantine……never thought it would come back, that music.


[I’ve just been deflected by rain coming in round the kitchen window frame. It did the same thing in identical weather two years ago. Bugger. I spent a lot of time up a ladder with cement and trowel. Clearly, it’s not been fixed. Job for what a relation of ours calls ‘a Proper Man’. Local builder hunt starts tomorrow. Back to the script]


Where was I? Ah yes. The music. I’m hearing it in two pamphlets [published in 2021] which I bought and didn’t properly attend to. I couldn’t hear them. Now I think I can. Jean Atkin’s The bicycles of ice and salt (Indigo Dreams £6.50), and Marion Oxley’s The taxidermist’s house (4Word. £5.99). I thought I might write about both in one post, and then decided each deserves its own . This week, it’s Jean Atkin, and next week, Marion Oxley. Put it in your diary.


I’ve always been a sucker for well-told travellers’ tales. Never having been a strong walker or adequate climber, and never having much enjoyed long-distance travel, I compensate with the books of those who are and do. Long distance walks, particularly. John Hillaby’s Journey through Britain was the first (and still the best, I think). For a time I was hooked on the books of Ffyona Campbell, the ultra-long-distance walker (Feet of clay, et al) and Nicholas Crane’s account of walking from the west coast of Spain to Istanbul via the mountain watersheds of Europe (Clear water rising). They can all write. They know how to illuminate a place via an anecdote or an image. They let you visualize what and who they see. They are good companions whose conversation I relish. When it’s done well it feels effortless. 

When it isn’t it’s dull and sometimes boring. At its very worst, it can be like being trapped by someone with a fat photo album of indifferent snaps, and a commentary that might include ‘this waiter we met who was real character…you can’t see him in this shot, but…..’

It’s possible to write good clear prose and still not pull it off. I’ve just read a well-reviewed climbing autobiography that seems to stay on the same note, where none of the places or people quite come to life. I hated not liking it, because it clearly meant a lot to the writer. It aims to take you into the Cairngorm (say) but Nan Shepherd, or Robert Macfarlane it isn’t. It’s a hard act to pull off, to make people feel as though they’ve travelled with you.

Which, after many stops and side-turnings, brings us to today’s guest, Jean Atkin, and her pamphlet The bicycles of ice and salt. who is exactly that kind of good companionThe last two years have not been kind to poets, inasmuch as when you publish a pamphlet you hope for live readings where you can sell copies, and the word of mouth that follows; when the readings aren’t possible, you’re reliant on the lottery of reviews, and ‘likes’ in social media. Greg Freeman has written a generous review (See link at the end) but as far as I can see, that’s been it since early December. However, there’s a launch event in a couple of weeks. You can be there via Eventbrite, and once more the link is at the end. Let’s hope Greg’s review and this post persuade you to rock up and enjoy it. Right. Welcome, Jean Atkin, who introduces herself like this:


“Jean Atkin grew up in Cumbria, with Shetland ancestry.  Her most recent publications are ‘The Bicycles of Ice and Salt’ (IDP), about two long journeys by bicycle, ‘Fan-peckled’ (Fair Acre Press) in 2021 which is based on lost Shropshire words, and her second collection ‘How Time is in Fields’ (IDP).  Her poetry has won competitions, been anthologised and was commissioned and featured on BBC Radio 4. She has been Troubadour of the Hills for Ledbury Poetry Festival, and was BBC National Poetry Day Poet for Shropshire in 2019. She works as a poet in education and community. ” 

I’ll add that she’s championed by Ursula Fanthrope’s former companion, RV Bailey, who writes ‘Atkin is one of the most original and rewarding poets that we have in the literary landscape at the moment’. There you go.

Jean explains that “I wrote the poems over the last seven years or so, but they’re based on diaries which cover two long journeys I made by bicycle in the 1980s. The first journey was with my friend Shona from October 1980 – August 1981, in which we pedalled into winter, with hardly any money, down the east side of France, later across Italy and back up the west and north of France to Boulogne – nearly 5000 miles. A very slow and eccentric Tour de France.  
Seven years later I persuaded my partner Paul to set off by bicycle, into winter, with hardly any money, south through France then around the coastlines of Spain and Portugal, returning to Britain from Santander in March 1988 – again, nearly 5000 miles.

When writing the poems so many years later, I had diaries and photographs to work from, including detailed lists of expenditure that demonstrate just how very cash-strapped both these journeys were…

Of course, despite that, they were magical, and life-changing.”

What drew me into these poems at once was the way that after a gap of years and hindsight Jean Atkin manages to realise the innocence and naievete of that first journey. The experiences come fresh minted. 

     We bought nothing that explained

     how to travel through the world of men.

     We weren’t streetwise. We had to learn

     hot to look competent, avoid their eye,

     how and when to lie.


These are songs of innocence which is never judged, although it’s obviously and lovingly understood,by the voice of experience.. Everything is vivid and present.

Eve in Autun 

Young and shivering I stand in front of Eve

who’s any age, and beautiful, in stone.

Her naked body’s sinuous as trees.  This

is about the flesh, and not the bone. 


The nave’s deep cold threads through 

my clothes.  I breathe the longings in its walls.

I’m half in love with this woman made 

of stone, not lewd, about to fall.


She lies in the Garden, in the leaves, one hand

to her soft cheek as she whispers to Adam. 

Her breasts hang round as fruits.  I watch her reach back,

without looking, for the apple and her whoredom.


I chose this poem to start with especially because it embodies that double vision that I like so much in the collection. Here’s the poet standing by, observing her young self who’s transfixed by this sculpture of the naked Eve in a cold church where everyone’s breath is white. Eve is caught by the sculptor at the transformative moment when the future balanced the point of her choice. Her vulnerabilty, naked in the winter cold of stone and mythology, is echoed in that of the shivering young self, and her insight that 

                              This is about the flesh, and not the bone. 

I really love the ambiguity of 

                  I watch her reach back, /without looking, for the apple and her whoredom.

Who’s the “I” that watches ‘her’ ? It’s the older and younger self, surely. The book is ‘transformative’ writes Matthew Stewart, and here’s the turning point. It’s beautifully crafted in three rhyming quatrains. It has a simple formality, this poem in which the poet looks back in some wonder at who she was. It has the stylised quality of an illustration in a Book of Hours, where so often the image is of a woman…Eve, the Virgin a moment of epiphany. It’s beautiful. I chose it to start with because it shows clearly how this slim pamphlet which potentially had enough narrative potential for a thick book tells that story by moments that draw you in. A stunning photograph album that almost needs no commentary.

The physicality of these moments is something that sticks in my mind. Nearly every poem is a moment of arrest in a journey that totals ten thousand miles, and can only be hinted at in the briefest of references to place..Auxerre, Laon, Montpazier, Aton, Soissons, Ponte de Lima, Barcelona…often off the beaten track, a landscape of out of season/closed down pensions, campsites, road verges and farmers’ fields. What the pamphlet does is gently remind you of the physical effort. We bought machines built for men, say the 18 year olds whose bikes grow icicles on their chains. I chose the next poem to stand for the months of effort, since I know nothing more physically draining than riding a bike in a a big wind.

Leaf night 

The spokes are going round so slowly I can count them. 

The wind bangs like pans in my head.   

Leaves cartwheel down the lane towards us.  

The frost has licked it clean.  


Tonight I know each rattling leaf, spun

from the plane trees of every village square.    

Like sails they lift, they scrape and flap.

I can’t hear your voice above the gale.    


Gusts slam my eyelids so I don’t see it start. 

A thousand leaves rise up like bolts of cloth.

They rustle as they come for us.  I call out your name

just once before they close my mouth.   


The long first line nails it for me, and I’m hooked.It’s such a simple image,but you understand the sheer effort of pushing down and down on the pedals that barely keep the bike moving. Read it aloud and let the end-stopped lines,the short sentences tell you about the stalled rhythms of it all.

And treasure that stunning image: 

                   A thousand leaves rise up like bolts of cloth

You see how the road ripples. It’s like CGI. And then it’s engulfing. 


I thought of finishing with one of the poems in which a rider walks a bike across the sand and pushes the front wheel into the edge of the ocean.  But that’s not how the pamphlet works, with a neat image of journey’s end. It’s as though the journey will never be over, and all the better for that. Instead, I chose this one for the way it encapsulates the business of being off the beaten track where strangers are an unexpected sight, in landscapes that might be beautiful in summer but are actually workplaces, and where the work is not especially well-paid.

El Vilosell

An old man and a boy are mending a moped.  

Beside them, a loaded donkey droops.


Bon Dia, I say, and keep both hands on the bars

because the bike is weaving on the rutted track.


They look up, and the man hasn’t shaved

and I think they’re both too surprised to speak.


For five minutes the hamlet is a maze we wander, 

repetitions of pantiles, propped doors and smoke


and then for an hour we climb through terraces of olives.    

Lean men beat the trees with sticks, and fruits rain


into nets through the mesh of their shouts.  Cliffs are hawks

rising.  We kiss on the brink, and feel, as much as see


the thousand soundless feet of air

falling from here to the Rio Monsant.  


I thought it would be nice to stop there, with a kiss on the brink, and just for a moment feeling as though we can fly. So there you are. I hope you’ll want to order the book…direct from Jean is as good any way. Use Google. And then book yourself a place at the Eventbrite launch in March.

Jean Atkin, thanks for being a guest on the Cobweb. It’s been a pleasure.

Eventbrite Link:

Greg Freeman Review:


Watching the river flow…..


…… if I had wings and I could fly
I know where I would go
But until that day, I’m gonna sit right here
And watch the river flow  (Bob Dylan)

I’ve read two things in the last couple of days that set me thinking. One is a book and the other a poetry blog post. 

I just rediscovered the book in my Kindle Library.  Outpost: a journey to the wild ends of the earth by Dan Richards [Canongate. 2019] It sits happily with Nan Shepherd, Robert Macfarlane, Roger Deakin et al. Another of those books that persuade me I compensate for not being able to be physically ‘out there’ in wild places. A bit like dieting by eating tons of meusli.

There’s a chapter in which he takes himself off to a Bauhaus-inspired writing retreat in Switzerland. It sounds like my worst nightmare: minimalist rectangular naked spaces entirely made of plywood.  In no time at all, he’s writing that the real essentials are a chair and a table of good height, a pencil, some paper, a door that locks and a comfortable bed. Despite having all that to hand, before you can say Roald Dahl, he’s riffing on being in Roger Deakin’s cluttered comfy hut, full of distracting sound and texture and interest. He faffs and fidgets. He writes I think Deakin cherished distractions. 

Me too. I can’t write in silence …the nearest I get to a silence which actually works for me is in a writing workshop where everyone is writing for five minutes or so, and I’m vaguely aware of their sighing or shifting or the scratching of pens and pencils or the creak and shuffle of a chair, but unable to break off and wander about. It’s like being in an exam, and that suits me fine.

What the book made me consider is what actually makes me get down to writing when I’m the only one to make me. Or, if you like, what stops me from just cracking on. And why do I do it anyway?

The second thing was one of Robin Houghton’s excellent poetry blog posts. (there’s a link to follow at the end)

These are the bits that stuck in my mind. 

” *How easily do poem titles come to you? How about book/pamphlet titles? And what about collection titles? 

*But now I’m working on a full collection, I’m coming up against two issues. The first is not having a collection title. None of the individual poem titles feel substantial enough to carry the whole book. And yet without at least a decent working title, it’s hard to refer to it and even think of it as an (almost) fully-fledged collection.

*My second issue is that I have the urge to change quite a few of the poem titles, mostly because I think that will help them to ‘speak’ to each other in the context of the book. I suppose that illustrates how unwedded I am to my first choices of titles. Perhaps I will change them temporarily, to help with the ordering and also to help me have an idea of the book’s themes firmly in my mind (which will help with selling it/talking about it). And maybe the new titles will stick, maybe not.”


The thing is, I don’t have a problem with titles. What I do have a problem with is the business of working on a full collection. Because (I think) I’ve just finished one. I realise that it’s the first time I’ve admitted in print that I was putting a collection together. It’s the first one that I’ve done that wasn’t the result of winning a competition or of putting stuff together to submit for a competition (or the one that I had to do for an MA that I hated doing). Quite simply, it arose from the realisation that I’m running out time, and the accompanying sense that I’d like to tie up loose ends and leave everything neat and orderly. It’s the kind of urge that had me stripping my classroom at the end of each term, cleaning, sweeping, ready for a new term and new ideas. Or, if I was leaving, a new occupant. It’s a collection that includes a sequence that’s taken me at least five years to fettle. Whether it works or not, I can’t say, but the book and the blog I shared at the beginning made me think I’d like to reflect on why it took so long. Here we go.

Nearly six years ago I wrote a post called “Please, Miss, I don’t know what to write. “

I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now, a lot less sure of myself.  I said, brusquely enough, that if you can’t write right now, if you’re blocked, or whatever, it’s because there’s nothing you urgently need to say, and you’d be better off going out into the world and collecting memories and experiences.

I need to rethink this, because as often as not the problem is not having nothing to write about, but having too much. At some point in that post in the long ago I riffed on the business of the business of assembling stuff to be written about… research, if you like. I wrote:

“I’ve scribbled a list of the stuff that was hanging about waiting to be read, or re-read. The stuff with post-it notelets stuck in it. William Tyndale, British mining disasters, a journey through the English moorlands, A sky full of birds by Matt Merritt, Antarctica (including the remastered films: South(Shackleton) and Scott of the Antarctic, David Wilson’s new pamphlet: Slope [smith/doorstop 2016].Tectonic plates. Coal measures and the Jurassic. The building of the Himalaya.


“I know that at least a bit of that ( the mining disasters, the Jurassic) comes from a poetry reading at the Red Shed in a distant past when the Agbrigg Poets performed a sequence about the 1972 Lofthouse Colliery disaster …which happened only a couple of miles from where I live, but might as well have been on the moon. I know that as a result of that, I’ve been finding out about Oshibana. And I can’t make myself write about any of it. It needs to settle into my thinking, become something I don’t know that I know, and wait for it to be surprised into a shape I can share. 


” I noted something that I just had to write down after a conversation with the poet, Helen Mort.

Helen said:    I can make poems to be written, and they might be OK, but that’s all “


That was over five years ago, and ever since I’ve been in the business of trying to deal with the problem of making sense of why the story of the Lofthouse Disaster bothers me. The nub of the story is that in working on a new coal seam 750 feet down,  the men at the face broke through into a disused 19th C shaft which had gradually filled with 3 million gallons of foul water. The men were overwhelmed by the flood. Seven were killed, and the body of only one could be recovered.

What’s haunted me is the sense of an infinite regression of causes. Why did these men die?  Before anyone could cut galleries and cut into the seams wherever they led, shafts had to be sunk. Three miles from Lofthouse, a shaft at Low Laithes had to be abandoned and forgotten. Before any of that, there had to be coal seams deep in the earth. So there had to be huge swamps millions of years earlier, as parts of the earth’s crust travelled infinitely slowly northwards. There had to be a crust, a mantle, a core. There had to be a primaeval cloud of gas; there had to be something coming from nothing, and maybe there had to be a god. 

And so I overloaded my head with stuff, I went on trying to make poems be written, and peddled the idea of a sequence of poems around various courses and workshops.

One famous poet told me it wouldn’t do as poetry because it was a narrative and full of information.  Another may have been closer to the truth when suggesting that perhaps it could be a radio ballad.

A kind of salvation was offered by another who showed me how to make a diagrammatic web of possibilities and suggested that I could interleave a sequence with short(er) poems about different mining disasters…..this gradually coalesced into a notion of four poems : four elements -earth, air, fire, water- and four events.

I suppose, too, that there are images which stay when everything else goes vague. There’s the Tollund Man that haunted Heaney’s imagination, a man apparently at peace and perfectly preserved. And there are the impressions of leaves in split coal that, as a child, I found marvellous. I began to think of the tens of thousands of miners who died underground, becoming as much part of the earth as ammonites and archeopteryx.

I tinkered with verse forms that could handle the business of balancing necessary documentary information and the need for compression, memorabilty, the moments that draw a reader in. And so it went, for five years. A week or so ago I think I finally laid it to rest.  For better or worse, I’ve knocked a collection together. I’ve tidied my classroom.  Thanks to Bob Horne of Calder Valley Poetry, it’ll be out in a month or so. It will be called Pressed for time. Originally I thought it would be called Where the masons went but I guess that although it was a line in one of the poems, it was altogether too  cryptic. Titles were never the problem. 

It occurs to me that I should say that coalminers, the cosmos and the Big Bang are only part of the collection which wanders around museums, hospitals, seashores, art galleries, Primary Schools, a Greek mountain, a Spanish village, scaffolds and a railway station, among other stuff. I have been much taken by the practice of Helen Ivory, a poet I like very much. You may have noticed that on Facebook she will post poems from her last collection as teasers and trailers. It worked for me. She also writes, tantalisingly, about what’s coming next. There will be witches.

So here goes with the first of an occasional series of teasers and amuses bouches from Pressed for time. Pretentious? Moi? 


I’d like to be out there, where the masons went

when the last blocks were cut and laid. 


Not the obvious places; 

not tavernas in the evening, 

the lapping of blue/pink/silver waters.


I’d like to sit up there, the ridge, in that moment

with the quail and her dustball chicks

on the old pack-trail from Sella to Relleu,

limestone hot, and Benidorm winking in the distance.


A little family of quail in the dust and shade

of a fin of stone, stratum of an ancient seabed

crumpled, folded, cracked, pushed up into the sky

by Africa grinding north, an infinitely slow

collision of continents sliding on molten seas

deep below the crust. 

                       All this cataclysmic silence


and the anxieties of small birds, scuttling

past a makeshift shrine: a blackened plaster Jesus

lacking forearms and one leg, wreathed

in dried grasses, flowers, tied to the fingerpost

that points one way to Relleu, one to Sella

and the bulk of Puigcampo, head in cloud,

feet in a tectonic train-smash – the Triassic, the Jurassic.


That day in Edale: a straight white plume

from the tall chimney in the green hills,

grey walls walking up and over the tops,

a castle in a cleft, a boy sealed in the shaft

he could not be moved from; a river running out.

The slumped scar of Mam Tor, the axe-split

pass of Winatts. Snow in the air.


Stone steps cut wet and steep into the heart

of the fell; slick mud, the air not quite chill,

a long crawl beneath a tombstone slab,

and maybe this is what burial is like.

Resurrection is a widening chamber,

the held breath of water running,

sour odours: limestone, gritstone, marl.


What a thing, to let the voices of children

and their glow-worm helmet lamps dwindle

and snuff out in darkness beyond the squeeze

of a fat clay gut. Strange to sit in perfect dark,

to come to know it fits perfectly as skin;

to know silence, to settle into it.


For now, I guess I’ll just settle down, wait for the collection to ‘come out’, and watch the river flow.


[Link to Robin’s poetry blog. The post I reference was on 16/01/2022]


My kind of poetry: Kim Moore’s “All the men I never married”


“Now I’ve written one, I love sequences”

Kim Moore wrote this in a post for Anthony Wilson’s Life-saving poems in July 2015 after the publication of her first collection with Seren: The art of falling. Just to save you time, there’s the link at the end , and also to the rest of the sequence of posts featuring Kim as the most frequent guest poet on the great fogginzo’s cobweb. If you check them out you’ll understand just how much her poetry and friendship have meant to me and why I’ll find it so hard to do justice to her new collection (also with Seren) All the men I never married.

I met Kim for the first time at a Poetry Business workshop in Sheffield, I think it was in 2010 or 2011. She’d set off from Barrow at the crack of dawn, arrived a bit late and out of breath, and shortly after wrote the draft of a poem that stuck in my mind, that I asked her for a copy of, and that had me signed up forever in the fan club she never asked me to join. Train journey: Barrow to Sheffield was published in her Poetry Business winning Pamphlet If we could speak like wolves. [2012]. I wrote about the impact of the poem in one of the blog posts:

Unstoppable as the train, a poem of only two sentences, one of them six stanzas, thirty lines long. It’s a delight to read aloud. It insists on being read aloud, just do it, and you find, like a piece of music, it tells you exactly where to breathe, check, pick up pace. It never wrong-foots you. It just lines you up to arrive exactly on the moment when ‘This morning the sun came up in Bolton and all / the sky was red’,  exactly as it should be and inevitably as it must. What you have is a technically stunning poem that hides is technique, where every moment is true, and necessary. And I love the quality that I can’t find a name for that doesn’t sound condescending…but it’s a kind of innocence or naivete, where thing are seen in a clear childlike way. Actually I think in retrospect I CAN find a word for it. The word is ‘wonder’. There’s scarcely a word in the poem that announces itself as ‘poetry’ and yet the syntax could only be that of a poem. It fits James’ dictum that ‘declaring itself to be a poem is one of the the main things a poem does.’ I love the way the poem expands out beyond the dark window of the train to encompass the whole estuary, the ways of sheep, the heartbreak and history of the drowning saltflats. And then comes back to a different earth where we waken out of a dream of Tolkien. Wow!”

I’ve quoted this because there’s something in there that defines the quality of her work for me, and which is also germane to the growing strength of her work ever since. It’s this:

I love the quality that I can’t find a name for that doesn’t sound condescending…but it’s a kind of innocence or naivete, where thing are seen in a clear childlike way. Actually I think in retrospect I CAN find a word for it. The word is ‘wonder’.

Kim guested on Woman’s Hour last week ( there’s another link at the end. Her spot starts 24 minutes in). She was introduced as ‘exploring the contradictions and complexities of desire…your own and other peoples’, to which she said that, in a lull/blank space following the publication of her first collection it started as a joke.. However, a poem which is a list of remembered former boyfriends turns out to be not exactly a joke at all, but the beginning of something which is both playful and seriously important. And here it is.



There was the boy I met on the park
who tasted of humbugs
and wore a mustard-yellow jumper


                        and the kickboxer with beautiful long brown hair 
                                    that he tied with a band at the nape of his neck


and the one who had a constant ear infection
            so I always sat on his left


                        and the guy who worked in an office
                                    and could only afford to fill up his car
                                    with two pounds worth of petrol


and the trumpet player I loved 
from the moment I saw him 
            dancing to the Rolling Stones


                        and the guy who smoked weed
                        and got more and more paranoid
                        whose fingers flickered and danced 
                        when he talked


and the one whose eyes were two pieces
of winter sky


and a music producer
long-legged and full of opinions


                        and more trumpet players 
                                    one who was too short and not him
                                    one who was too thin and not him 


are you judging me yet, are you surprised?


Let me tell you of the ones I never kissed
            or who never kissed me


the trombonist I went drinking with 
how we lay twice a week in each other’s beds
            like two unlit candles


we were not for each other and in this we were wise
we were only moving through the world together for a time 


there was a double bassist who stood behind me 
and angled the body of his bass into mine
and shadowed my hands on its neck


and all I could feel 
was heat from his skin 
            and the lightest breath 
                        and even this might have been imagined 


I want to say to them now 
            though all we are to each other is ghosts
once you were all that I thought of


when I whisper your names
it isn’t a curse or a spell or a blessing 
            I’m not mourning your passing or calling you here


this is something harder 
like walking alone 
in the dusk and the leaves 


            this is the naming of trees
                        this is a series of flames
                                    this is watching you all disappear.


I remember hearing her reading it for the first time at The Chemic in Leeds, I remember the way this phrase stopped me in my tracks and stayed with me ever since

how we lay twice a week in each other’s beds
            like two unlit candles

and I remember also the impact of the growing seriousness of the poem’s long incantation, as though the poet were realising something for the first time, learning something essential, or, at least, knowing she had to find out what it meant. Over time I heard her read more and more of the poems at various venues, becoming also aware of the way she was understanding how they challenged her audience even as she challenged herself from the moment it all turned on that one phrase

are you judging me yet?


When she finally sent me a draft of the collection to look at it confirmed what I’d slowly come to understand. That it was a sequence that was her own version of The Prelude; that it charted a growing awareness, socially and politically, which never displaces the wonder in favour of rhetoric, but placed her own experience of male violence and more generalised unconscious misogyny in a wider social and historical debate. It’s a process that started with the ‘domestic violence’ sequence in The Art of Falling, and which she developed through her PhD course of which she’s written:

My PhD project is to write poetry which explores and represents experiences of sexism and I’m particularly interested in whether poetry can play a part in changing the way we talk about sexism, or even who talks about it.  A member of the audience at a reading came up to me a couple of weeks ago and said they  hadn’t even thought about the fact that they hadn’t read any women writers during their degree, until they’d heard me read poetry about sexism.  For me, this proves that poetry can be part of a conversation that will hopefully change the way we think and discuss sexism.  I know that writing poetry about my own experiences of sexism has changed the way I think about those experiences  – so poetry becomes a way of investigating, a way of knowing about not-knowing.  

The PhD has given me the time and space to think about the type of poet I want to be, and the type of poetry I want to write, and what I think poetry is for.  I don’t know all the answers to those questions yet, but I feel like I’m getting closer.  In 2015, I mentioned a sequence I was working on – ‘All The Men I Never Married’.  Who knew that this would grow into a fully-fledged PhD? Not me!

Well, it’s taken six years, at least, and it’s been road-tested every inch of the way. And now it’s getting the attention I thought her last collection deserved, but which at least provided the ignition point for this one. I seem to have spent a lot of time in its company, and for that I feel privileged and blessed. And, just to make a point about the attention it deserved, I notice that when this post went out on Twitter it harvested nearly 500 responses. My usual strike rate is single figures. More importantly, I forgot to add the image below. All the men I never married is in Amazon’s top twenty poetry list at the moment. Hang out the bunting!!!!!

Right.Back to the poems. It was about three years ago that I heard the next poem for the first time, and it made a particular impact because it was presented as a draft in a residential workshop session of which all the group members but me were women, and I was…… I don’t know….. baffled? disturbed? by one of the group questioning the motivation for the poem. What I know now, and which was reinforced in the Woman’s Own interview, is that it’s a powerful and unnervingly honest account of something that questions those contradictions and complexities of desire…your own and other people’s. It bothers people, especially men, and if that was all it did it would be important. But it’s also a beautifully constructed, utterly honest poem that keeps echoing that question are you judging me yet? Go on. Ask yourself what it was like to respond to the invitation of the first line, knowing that it’s exactly what the poet has set herself to do.



Imagine you’re me, you’re fifteen, the summer of ’95, 
and you’re following your sister onto the log flume,
where you’ll sit between the legs of a stranger.
At the bottom of the drop when you’ve screamed 
and been splashed by the water, when you’re about 
to stand up, clamber out, the man behind 
reaches forward, and with the back of his knuckle
brushes a drop of water from your thigh.


To be touched like that, for the first time. 
And you are not innocent, you’re fifteen, 
something in you likes that you were chosen.
It feels like power, though you were only 
the one who was touched, who was acted upon.
To realise that someone can touch you 
without asking, without speaking, without knowing
your name. Without anybody seeing. 


You pretend that nothing has happened, 
you turn it to nothing, you learn that nothing 
is necessary armour you must carry with you, 
it was nothing, you must have imagined it.
To be touched – and your parents waiting at the exit
and smiling as you come out of the dark
and the moment being hardly worth telling.
What am I saying? You’re fifteen and he is a man.


Imagine being him on that rare day of summer,
the bulge of car keys makes it difficult to sit 
so he gives them to a bored attendant 
who chucks them in a box marked PROPERTY. 
A girl balanced in the boat with hair to her waist 
and he’s close enough to smell the cream
lifting in waves from her skin, her legs stretched out, 
and why should he tell himself no, hold himself back?


He reaches forward, brushes her thigh with a knuckle,
then gets up to go, rocking the boat as he leaves. 
You don’t remember his face or his clothes, 
just the drop of water, perfectly formed on your thigh, 
before it’s lifted up and away by his finger. 
You remember this lesson your whole life, 
that sliver/shiver of time, that moment in the sun. 
What am I saying? Nothing. Nothing happened.


I could have asked for so many poems from this important piece of work, like the one about the night club punter who assaulted Kim’s twin sister, or the assault in the bedroom of a teenage party, or the sexually threatening taxi driver in Cork, or the predator in a hotel an an unnamed country.

And I would say of each that the thing that disturbs is the poet/speaker in each questioning her own feelings of potential complicity. If there’s a more powerful way dramatising the insidious effects of societal gender conditioning, I can’t imagine it.

However,I can’t resist sharing this next one in its entirety, because it shares the same kind of space as Tony Harrison’s Them and Uz, and Jim Carruth’s account of the tutor who told him narrative is dead.




When he told me not to tell the story 
of my mother’s hair, I was obedient 
for many years, until I saw the video 
of wild horses in Patagonia,
tamed by increments over many days,
the gaucho calm and still when the horse
met his gaze, then shooing it 
as it looks away, and so the horse learns
that only when it gives its whole attention
to this man will it ever feel peace again.


And of course my mother is not a horse,
she would never be fooled by such a trick,
but maybe the man who told me not to tell
is the gaucho, maybe once I was a horse,
to spend all these years listening to his voice.
He told me this was women’s business,
that the world was not interested in such things.
He said listen to me read Eliot until you fall asleep 
or until the red wine runs out, and so we did,
all of us who had gathered there to learn. 


He stood in front of the curved window.
The bats criss-crossed the lawn. 
He did not hold a book, or open his eyes
to see if we were there. The room took 
his voice and gave it back to every corner.
It felt as if he whispered in my ear. 


I have held my tongue for years.
My mother’s hair. I did as I was told. 
She sat for hours between my legs
as if she was the child, and I the mother.
I straightened her hair, every curl and kink, 
dividing it into smaller and smaller sections. 
The hiss of steam. The TV in the background. 
My father elsewhere, and part of me still there,
part of me in the library with the man
who told me not to speak about such things.
The lawn. The drifting dusk. The bats.
My mother’s hair. My hands. That house.
The shudder of a horse’s flank.


It’s a lesson to all creative writing tutors. What’s clear, though, is that in the process of researching and creating this stunning book the poet has made for herself a language which lets her analyse the situation, and that empowers and defends her against the assumption that it’s OK to brush a shining droplet of water off the thigh of a teenage girl.

Let me end by sharing the one that begins the collection (which I think is a very clever thing to do). It says, gleefully enough,

this is who I am now, or who I know myself to be. Let me tell you how I got there.


We are coming under cover of darkness,
with our strawberry marks, our familiars,
our third nipples, our ill-mannered bodies, 
our childhoods spent hobbled like horses


where we were told to keep our legs closed, 
where we sat in the light of a window and posed
and waited for the makers of the world 
to tell us again how a woman is made.


We are arriving from the narrow places, 
from the spaces we were given, with our curses
and our spells and our solitude, with our potions
we swallow to shrink us small as insects


or stretch us into giants, for yes, there are giants
amongst us, we must warn you. There will be riots,
we’re carrying all that we know about silence
as we return from the forests and towers,


unmaking ourselves, stepping from the pages
of books, from the eye of the camera, from the cages
we built for each other, the frames of paintings,
from every place we were lost and afraid in.


We stand at the base of our own spines 
and watch tree turn to bone and climb 
each vertebra to crawl back into our minds,
we’ve been out of our minds all this time,


our bodies saying no, we were not born for this,
dragging the snare and the wire behind us. 


Kim Moore, thank you for being our guest. Thank you for the poems. I’ve not done them justice. But other people will do better jobs xxx

Here’s the link for Woman’s Hour on BBC i.player.


Breaking the rules…harder than it looks


In March 2018 I was at a poetry course in Garsdale Head , on a day with snow, much like today, and the course tutor, Kim Moore, finished a workshop session asking us to respond (if we could ) to the work of Daniil Kharms.

Kharms was a  Russian Absurdist, Surrealist, and under Stalin, decidedly antisocial

23 August 1941 at the beginning of the seige of Leningrad, Kharms was arrested for spreading “libellous and defeatist mood”. 

To avoid execution, Kharms simulated insanity; the military tribunal ordered him to be kept in the psychiatric ward of the ‘Kresty’ prison due to the severity of the crime. Daniil Kharms died of starvation 2 February 1942 during the siege ,

His wife was informed that he was deported to Novosibirsk. Only on 25 July 1960, at the request of Kharms’ sister, E.I. Gritsina, Prosecutor General’s Office found him not guilty and he was exonerated.

His “adult” works were not published during his lifetime with the sole exception of two early poems. His notebooks were saved from destruction in the war by loyal friends and hidden until the 1960s, when his children’s writing became widely published and scholars began the job of recovering his manuscripts and publishing them in the west and in samizdat.

His reputation in the 20th century in Russia was largely based on his popular work for children. His other writings (a vast assortment of stories, miniatures, plays, poems, and pseudo-scientific, philosophical investigations) were virtually unknown until the 1970s, and not published officially in Russia until glasnost

His manuscripts were preserved by his sister and, most notably, by his friend Yakov Druskin, a notable music theorist and amateur theologist and philosopher, who dragged a suitcase full of Kharms’s and Vvedensky’s writings out of Kharms’s apartment during the blockade of Leningrad and kept it hidden throughout difficult times.

In Russia, Kharms’ works were widely published only from the late 1980s.

Kharms’ world is unpredictable and disordered; characters repeat the same actions many times in succession or otherwise behave irrationally; linear stories start to develop but are interrupted in midstream by inexplicable catastrophes that send them in completely different directions.

Here’s a taste of his work that Kim Moore offered us.

The Plummeting Old Women

A certain old woman, out of excessive curiosity, fell out of a window, plummeted to the ground, and was smashed to pieces.
Another old woman leaned out of the window and began looking at the remains of the first one, but she also, out of excessive curiosity, fell out of the window, plummeted to the ground and was smashed to pieces.
Then a third old woman plummeted from the window, then a fourth, then a fifth.
By the time a sixth old woman had plummeted down, I was fed up
watching them, and went off to Mal’tseviskiy Market where, it was said, a knitted shawl had been given to a certain blind man.

The red haired man

What do you make of this world? Equally, how did he make it? Just how does he break the rukes? Because like all rule-breakers, he’s rule-governed, isn’t he? I just can’t figure out how. On the other hand, it gets in your head, and sticks. These are moments that draw you in.

I’ve been intrigued of late by the increased incidence in magazines, and also in workshops, of prosepoems (which is sometimes indistinguishable from flash fiction), and also the business of playing with white space, breaking up lines, making apparently abitrary line-breaks. I’m happy to accept that rules are there to be tested and stretched and broken, if only to see ‘what happens’, though less happy to see an accompanying tendency to view regularity, orderliness, evident craft and form as a bit passé. I guess my ‘rule’ is simply to ask: does it work? I’m spectacularly conscious that at the moment a lot of what I’m trying to write doesn’t work. I didn’t set out to do it, but a lot of what I write has ditched the word play, the allusiveness, the obvious rhythms and the imagery that I used to enjoy. It’s gone more reflective/introspective/personal/conversational but that’s a lot harder to do than the complicated stuff. It always was.

Whatever. I’m a regular reader of Julie Mellor’s poetry blog, and also of Anthony Wilson’s latest Life-saving lines after his welcome return to blogging. I learn a lot from their willingness to share their struggles to find new directions and forms, whether it’s haiku or finding a language that will share the experience of depression. It’s humbling.

So let me use my struggles to get my head round the way Kharms’ anti-narrative work as illustrative. Here are the three that I wrote, very fast, in Garsdale

Three tales to little purpose


There was poor forester who had three children. 

He sent them into the world to seek their fortune.

In turn each of them met a wise woman at a crossroad,

The woman asked each of them for bread and they threw stones at her.

One was pursued by dogs and got lost.

One fell into a river and was swept away. Maybe he drowned

One would have married a king but no longer knew the right words.


There was a remarkably clever cat.

He was so clever that people came to him for advice.

He knew, they said, what to do when a crop failed,

or a chimney would not draw or a baby was fevered.

Some said he should be made headman of the village.

Another cat came to the village.

Shortly after, I left the village. 

I don’t know what happened after that.


In the time of hunger a man and his wife found in the forest an iron porridge pot.

All that was needed was to ask for food and it was full. They took it to their cottage.

Afraid that folk would hear of it and take it from them they shut themselves in.

Afraid that folk would know they were there, they dowsed the fire.

Afraid that folk would smell the porridge, they never asked for any. They starved to death.

One day folk broke in the cottage and found them. 

They set fire to the cottage, thinking it cursed.The pot broke in the heat .

The time of hunger was a hundred years. Everyone died.


I’m on record as saying that as a writer I can’t invent…which is obviously something Kharms can. He invents people and situations, but somehow deprives them of his imaginative engagement, and, I think, narrative curiosity. Somehow he’s able to suspend it/them in the way you can in a dream. Me, I fall back on the folk tale formulae and try to subvert them, but morality (or the urge to find a moral meaning in people’s actions) simply comes in and refuses to leave. It’s not easy, breaking rules in a way that works.

On the other hand, playing around, trying to find out what Kharms was up to, and whether you can use it, might lead you to do things you didn’t expect. Which what I think happened with another workshop task. This one was simply introduced with the invitation to write about other people’s dreams. The rule of three is obviously stronger than any effort I might make to override it.

Other people’s dreams


One dreamed he saw a ladder into the heavens,

angels and archangels, seraphim, and every lesser rank

ascending and descending. The light

was astonishing. He dreamed it was numinous.

Effulgent, too, and inaccessible. Polysyllabic light. 

When he woke he’d forgotten all of it. 


One dreamed that angels spoke to her.

When she woke up, she could still hear them.

They refused to shut up. She told the priest,

who told her she was mistaken. She told another.

And another. They locked her up until

she learned sense. She never got out.


One dreamed he was on a high place and saw,

shining on the plain, a rich and fertile land

of placid rivers, deep and loamy soil,

and cypresses. He dreamed a voice said

this was a land for him, for his kin.

When he woke, he went there with his flocks,

his family. The folk who lived there

chased him off with stones and pitchforks.

When he kept coming back they killed him.

His family gathered up the flocks, went back

where they came from.


Well, there we are. Make of this what you will. You may decide I’ve just done it to keep the Cobweb ticking over. You’re probably not far off the truth. However, next week we’ll be back with a Proper Post and a Stellar Guest. I hope you’ll join me.

My kind of poetry: Carola Luther’s “On the way to Jerusalem Farm”


Today’s (returning) guest is someone I first met about eight years ago at the Monday night workshops of The Albert Poets in Huddersfield. Like another poet at these workshops, the much-missed Mark Hinchcliffe, she has a unique voice, and one that I didn’t quite tune into until I heard her do a full guest reading a year or so later. You may have had moments like this, when you suddenly hear what you’ve been missing, when you hear the tune that brings the meaning and the passion along with it. She’s a poet who has the quality of what Keats called negative capability, that ability to en-chant a place or a moment that bypasses the writer’s personality. It’s a voice that takes you on walks into, along and out of the imbricated valleys of the West Yorkshire Pennine, and along moorland tops; on walks at the edge of things by seashores and dunescapes; on walks through the thin places of the world, across thresholds. It’s the kind of quality that’s hinted at by the layered, ambiguous title of her latest cornucopia of a collection On the way to Jerusalem Farm.

When I last wrote about our guest, I said 

“there are those who I can only think of as poets, albeit some may have been priests or librarians, or hospital receptionists or teachers. It seems they were always poets first and the other things were incidental. Men and women with astonishing imaginative/empathic reach allied to the (apparently effortless) control of words, of the capabilities of language, syntax, rhythm, form. Men and women who are artists with verbal language in the way that, say, Hockney, lays down a mark, or Picasso makes a pure line. They seem to have been born that way, regardless of the phenomenal effort they put into assembling their craft.

I think, if I’m lucky, that might happen to me once or twice before I die, but I can see the same quality of ‘not being able to help yourself’ flare up in the contemporary poems that have excited me..ones by Christy Ducker, by Fiona Benson, by Pascale Petit, Kim Moore, Steve Ely. Ones who do it often enough for me to think of them as poets rather than people who write poems. Forget the hierarchies, the rankings, the ‘who’s better than who’ nonsense. Some have done more than others, and some have had more success in terms of public recognition than others, but whatever it is, they have it, and they are poets. They are passionately moved by what they see and feel around’s a quiet passion, but passion it undoubtedly is.”

So, let’s welcome again Carola Luther.  Let’s start with what pretentious restaurants call amuses bouches , like this taste of the way she she can pin down the texture , the physical reality of things encountered on those walks, the business (or busy-ness) of the world out there :


The woodpecker grinds open its gate and the evening rituals begin:

the deer lips the earth, the mallard dips, birds call and chunter


as if before doorways of shops, squirrels running along branches

doing chores like the branches are streets

                      from Theft  (from Herd. Wordsworth Trust 2012)


and then this which stops you short as you realise you have walked through one of the thin places into a different but flatly unignorable reality


The man who thought he was alone in my tree

croons a song of comfort. A tenor.

He sings to the beasts in a tongue I don’t know

but it could be Hebrew. Perhaps he’s a cantor.


He reminds me of my mother so I join in quietly

in Levantine Arabic, her home language.

I’m godless and tone-deaf but harmonise

as well as I can.

                                                 From The Rising (first publ. The Compass Review 2016)

The Carcanet blurb for On the way to Jerusalem Farm gives you a clear sense of the the range of landscapes and narratives you can expect in its hugely generous 150 pages:

Carola Luther’s new book On the Way to Jerusalem Farm explores the complexities of living in a damaged world. How, it asks, does such a world live in us, and we in it?

At the centre of the collection are three sequences, ‘Letters to Rasool’, ‘Birthday at Emily Court’ and ‘The Escape’. On the Way to Jerusalem Farm moves through the world, seeking and finding not answers, but sometimes, a means of continuing. The speaker in ‘Letters to Rasool’ travels onward through scarred and depleted landscapes, and searches for a lost beloved. The ageing residents of Emily Court celebrate a birthday and dance. Spring of a kind still comes. And in ‘The Escape’ there are colours to be found in the distant sea: ‘A whole translucent geology, / cross-sections of light and water’.

Poetry for Luther is a way of finding a way, of making connections and sharing our complex lives in an interdependent present. The roles of lover and beloved become – almost – interchangeable in these richly visualised poems.

So much for the range. As to the voice,Kim Moore wrote in one of her Sunday Poem blogposts that that a lot of Carola’s work has the quality of a ‘a prayer or a benediction’

The Carcanet publicity for another of Carola’s collections  Arguing with Malarchysays something similar, and much better than I’ve managed so far

full of voices: tender, sinister or angry, the glimpsed depths of their stories, the distances they have travelled. Carola Luther’s poems are alert to the ways a life can be briefly snared in the turn of a phrase – or in the moment when language fails. She explores silence, absences, the unspoken communication between animals and human beings, the pauses and boundaries between what is remembered, forgotten or invented, the living and the dead.

Basically, both of these pick out what I think is a numinous quality in Carola’s work…’a prayer or a benediction’; ‘the glimpsed depths’; the way they are alert to ‘the moment when language fails’…and thereby rescues it through language. It’s this quality of being alive to the moment that makes me think of Carola Luther as something more than ‘someone who writes poems’. Let’s meet her.

Carola was born in South Africa, from where she moved in the early 1980s.

Her  first poetry collection, Walking the Animals was published by Carcanet Press in 2004 and shortlisted that year for the Forward Prize for First Collection.

Her second collectionArguing with Malarchywas published by Carcanet Press in 2011.

She was Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust in 2012. Herd, a pamphlet of poems written in that year, was published in by The Wordsworth Trust (2012).

She has also written texts for theatre and mixed media performances including the libretto for Lilith, (composer, Dimitar Bodurov) a piece commissioned and conceived by soprano Claron McFadden. 

Recently she wrote about herself and her new collection for the Carcanet blog about what a friend called her ‘doubled vision’

I suspect ‘a doubled vision’ is something that will be shared by many people who have moved from the country of their birth. I have not experienced the trauma of forced migration so of course I cannot talk to that. But for me, after arriving here in Britain as a willing immigrant and living here for decades, I still see the country through a stranger’s eyes at times, as well as through the eyes of a lucky inhabitant. Perhaps this is what my friend meant – seeing from both close and far. And close sometimes feeling more ‘home’ than far, and far sometimes feeling more ‘home’, than close could ever be.  

My partner and I are currently moving house from the Ryburn valley to the Calder valley. It feels like a big deal, despite the fact that our new place is only seven miles away, and the landscape and communities, not so very different.

Strangely, I had the opposite sense when I first came to the area. Arriving for the first time in the Pennines, I had an unexpected sense of recognition, almost of déjà vu. I felt I ‘knew’ the shape of the landscape somehow – not of any specific place, but rather, its ghost geography, an imaginal sense of the moors, the weathers, the valleys, the creatures. Without knowing why, I felt oddly at home. And so I came back. And I stayed. 

It struck me later with a little sense of shock, that this feeling of recognition may have come from the poems of Ted Hughes.

Having grown up in rural South Africa, I think I may also have recognised something else. This was how Hughes seemed to experience the natural world as intrinsically powerful, and bigger than us. His creatures and landscapes were magnificent. Whether calm or violent, his animals and the elements were potent.

So much has changed since then. Ecosystems everywhere feel critically depleted and fragile, and the health of the earth highly dependent on how human beings go forward. This reversal of my childhood understanding may also inform any ‘doubled vision’ in this collection. In some poems I notice bewilderment and hardly-understood sorrow for the natural world around me. But there are also I hope, poems celebrating what remains beautiful and vital – connection, friendship and the small, brave things that help us keep going.

And so to the poems. Acknowledgements and thanks, first to Carcanet for granting permissions to use substantial chunks of the work…if you read the previous post about Carola, you’ll see that that see writes long poems. And that they are packed. That there’s no slack in them. Which makes it hard to choose a selection that does justice to a 150 page collection. 

Too start, I’ve chosen part of the very first poem of hers I heard (and, at first, didn’t quite get) at one of those workshops in The Albert.






two / no / three launching 

to get away hsh 

hsh  hsh 


leapline interrupted 

by trees beech / no / birch 

between us and light  


like shutters / no / film clips  






in the pixilation 

and confusion of brush 

they pretend to be memories 


images intuited 

in black and white 

passengers on a platform 

silent with suitcases



no / suitcases and trunks 

there they go / vaulting 

landscape / no / let them be           

landscape / no / 

carriages of trains 

flickering behind landscape / no /

trees / behind trees 









nnn the wind 

its empty coat hung 

in the trees


Back then I was stalled by the look of the poem on the page, not sure what to make of the elisions/compressions/slashes/pnonic invention. Later I learned to hear it. It’s a script for a performance of what could be an optical illusion, a trick of the light, the flickerbook images seen through trainwindows. What I hear now is the heartlift of catching sight of what may be deer, and the letdown of their vanishing. I think it’s lovely

Form the deer I’m moving to a character, Rasool, who’s never fully explained and haunts a sequence of poems that are almost, but never explicitly, set in the uprooted landscapes of the disposessed and displaced, the victims of war and poverty.

On Finding the way


Now I’ve turned the corner

I can see her Rasool  

            the architect of sands gazing at her small city

            It looks Moroccan 

            and not just because it’s the colour of lions


This beach might be my longing 

or yours      but this morning I woke on it  

face down                          

            The tide had receded 

            and the sand beneath me was cold and hard 


Standing        I saw no dog         no bird         

            no woman or man                           

and from the flat sea which could have been mercury                   

nothing breached

            no rock or whale-spout or hoop 

            of dolphin           not even a fibreglass boat


I recalled no-one had seen fish for decades


I miss you Rasool 


And I remembered how shorebirds 

used to run between waves

            and on their way in 

            and on their way out 

the waves did not always 

wash away imprints


three wire toes                arrow 

            after arrow                   pointing 

to where the bird had run from

                        where I should go


Who would not weep Rasool


I followed directions and turned back            walked east               

     around the headlands

            And now I can see her             

            her white shirt flapping 

            in the crook of the bay 


She is crouching down     

brown hands at work on her next suburb

            I imagine small arched windows 

            walls bleached pale 

                        almost pink        

                                    like shells

                         or salt-pan camels


Is it a dream, this apocalyptic shorescape? It certainly has the precise physical detail of dreams and also their disjunct narratives. All I know is the way it’s anchored by that image of

                                 the architect of sands gazing at her small city

That moment that draws you in, and holds you, along with the narrator’s unassuageable sadness. Magic.


The next extract works the same kind of spell, though in a landscape that’s ostensibly closer, geographically to the ‘home’ of West Yorkshire moorlands. It’s a poem that understand that skylines and and the shift from night to day are thin placesin which anything may happen, and when we see things as if for the first time.


Dawn on Nab Scar

I wait in the dark, as if on one foot, tense with the balance of almost

falling, other foot held above the ground. In the minutes before dawn


we are always waiting, stretched between two momentous things. Interminable,

and never arriving, the weight of proof has suddenly come, and I realise


I have missed the moment of change – there’s already more powder of light

than darkness in the air. Dawn hauls its pale mirror


up through Rydal Water; there are clouds today so I watch the clouds

whitening the lake’s surface. Mist in tufts rises like grasses.


Below the house on the farm, a pinkness used to stain the morning mist

above the Broederstroom. Tall grasses in the muddy dam.


On this day, years ago, sixty-nine people murdered at Sharpeville.

Was I implicated? No, yes, where does it begin, and end? 


                                                                         Above me, a whole town

wakes: the woodpecker begins its morning routine, opening and closing


the door to its castle, creak, creak, again and again; the little birds whistle

in their swept-clean market place as if no more conflict can ever come,


no bombs, no divided Jerusalem; just there in the distance, spring brightening

the greygreen, green, maroon trees reflected in the water. Two narrow deer


see me and stand, as if they too are reflections of trees with their mossy horns

and legs like the limbs of birches, and they stare, and I stare,


and we slip in and swim, we are lake-ideas, our eyes 

pools of brightening water: there is the past and also the future,


something oracular about eyes and water, and if I close my deer-touched eyes,

this road below me could be the road to Woodbush, not a lane on Nab Scar


between White Moss and Grasmere, a lane I’ll walk down when I return

for breakfast, and hear on the radio news of another massacre, this time in Syria.


Why am I thinking of T S Eliot’s ‘we had the experience but missed the meaning’. I think this poem might just enact something like it’s opposite, as we begin on tenterhooks, barely balanced, straining. The magic happens, and somehow we’ve missed it. I chose this poem, I think, not just for its numinous quality, but also for the element of autobiography, the authentic voice of the poet as opposed to a persona. It’s a shock, that connection between an old home (which contains massacres) and a new one which shows you plainly that there are massacres wherever you go. It’s a poems that brings so many themes together. And the elusiveness of deer, too.


Two more…just a short extract from one:

I chose this because as I heard Carola read it in The Albert pub, I ‘heard’ her voice properly for the first time. I loved the glee of this visions of moorland pylons metaphormosing into vengeful witches flying widdershins over unsuspecting Halifax.

Midnight, Beltane, Soyland Moor 

Ruche after ruche night is gathering, cloud piled 

over the moor, dim scone

for a moon, flat pallor lidding Huddersfield, Halifax 



Up here it’s cold. Dead sheep, winter –

keeps dragging back 

to unfinished December

out of kilter. On the skyline, pylons. Skeletal    

goddesses they hum 

as if a sun-surge has come and gone 

or something huge and clandestine is passing down lines 

and they listen in 

O soldiers of ruins make preparation 


and fields remain empty. Where do we go? 

The sea-starved sea. These days, screens 

are our lamps, yet tonight I want oceans, 

oracles stinking of goats 

in the dark, ribald women 

who fly. 


On the skyline, pylons. Tension

a kind of desire. Ambiguous 

as they are, for a moment I imagine 

they could show us how: Elbow. Knee. Elbow. Hah! 

Akimbo sisters! 

Give birth. Show your steel 

farthingales, Hoist skirts. Pant. Point

your six arms downwards, 

wake the earth. Hoist! 




Let’s finish with one complete poem that I first met when the Monday Workshops became virtual, and we became inured to seeing ourselves in celebrity squares. This one I choose because of the way it shows Carola at her job of rescuing the significant and magical from the wasteful flow of minute by minute and the rush of things moving on. It’s a poem that challenges the notion that the world is completely reliable. Tractors and ploughland furrows seem resolutely solid, and smiles and waves reassure us of out connection,

but here the physical world is tilt and slivery and fluid. The tractor becomes a foundered boat, and it’s driver has vanished. Crows flock in their hundreds, in this short unnerving film of a poem.




Walking away from the town, 

I passed a half-ploughed field, 

furrows turning inside out and black 

behind a new tractor. The driver smiled, 

waved, and I waved back 


watching him tilt 

the balance of light. In the unharrowed part

sun rilled between bleached-out oat-stalks, 

its silvery influx running like water. 

Crows were landing to feed there. 


On the way back from my walk, 

the tractor was stuck on the field’s far side, 

marooned in the dusk. As if it had foundered, 

was a wrecked boat leaning

under the weight of birds 


hundreds of them now, 

crows mostly, flowing over

the tractor’s cabin, or hovering above it 

waiting to land, occupying the green 

metal wheel-guards 


while other birds ransacked 

islands of unploughed ground. 

I called out. I couldn’t see the driver 

anywhere. Calm yourself I thought. 

Home-time, that’s all


So I too made my way home, and left the crows 

trawling for seeds in their ragged lines, 

while smaller birds bobbed 

between the great, sunk wheels, 

shrieking Corvus! Corvus!


What can I say? There’s no way I can do justice to 150 pages of poems, all as good as each other. It’s a bargain at £11.99, direct from Caracanet. 

Go to their website at

…think about it. That’s at least four pamphlets!

While you’re waiting for it to arrive you can also hear Carola talking about the collection via this link

Thank you, Carola Luther being being our guest; thank you, Caracanet, for letting me share these poems; and finally, thank all of you for turning up. See you next week.

My kind of poetry: Ruth Valentine’s “If you want thunder”

A key theme that runs through Ruth Valentine’s latest collection is the idea of the shadow line, the one between the living and the dead, and between sea and sky, that utterly notional ‘horizon’ . I’ll come to the business of the sea later, but given the story of death and resurrection and the way this Grunewald altarpiece contains both like a conjuring trick, it’ll be nice to start with this tour de force .



To make water flow wherever it’s told, you need

a wooden box with four divining-rods,

a compass, several men with boots and shovels,

a pump to shift it by its own volition,

and me, Meister Mathis, hydraulic engineer,

clerk-of-works, model maker, stonemason,


also painter of many-hinged altar-pieces,

so men and women with St Anthony’s

sacred fire charring their blood and skin

stare and are healed.  I work in tempera

I mix myself, with just a little oil

so the colour goes on clear, like a held note


on an angel’s trumpet: here it’s cinnabar,

red mercury.  Jesus dies,

his whole weight hanging from his nailed-up hands,

blood from his head wounds; but when the fathers turn

the panels outward on feast-days, his linen shroud

flames in the up-draught of his resurrection.


I observe where I am, and paint: the leering faces,

green skin, festering lesions, how the sinful

imagine their souls.  For the Last Supper,

I sit the ungainly tired apostles round

an oval table, in twos and threes, arguing,

and Christ the least of them, or the least human,


already half disincarnate.  At the far end,

fingertips pressed together in explanation,

is my namesake, Mathis, Matthew the tax collector,

a clever man, used to working out the cost,

already glimpsing the next afternoon

when the sky will darken and the saints’ graves open. 

It’s a poem that stopped me in my tracks, in much the same way as UAFanthorpe’s ‘Tyndale in Darkness’, because of its easy familiarity with the world of the drainage engineer/visionary painter, and also with his imagined dreams in what feels like a wholly authentic voice. Stunning.

You can read an earlier post about Ruth from 2017 via this link


Or you can jump straight in with this introduction:

Ruth Valentine has worked as an undertaker and as a celebrant at secular funerals. In Downpour she draws on her experiences to compose an extended meditation on dying and death, its emotional grammar and its painful but necessary rituals. Bleak and brave, serious and sad, Downpour is an unflinching study of the physical realities of dying

Ruth  grew up in Sussex, but has lived most of her adult life in London. She has been a teacher, advice worker, voluntary sector manager and consultant. Currently, as well as writing, she conducts secular funerals. She began writing seriously at the age of forty. ……. In 2000, looking for a new direction in her writing, she enrolled on the MA Writing at Sheffield Hallam University. Her novel, The Jeweller’s Skin, was the somewhat unexpected result.

In her website ( she writes. “I write poetry, novels and short stories, and non-fiction. You can find details here of my published work, and sample poems and extracts.  Go to the poetry page for details of my latest books, Downpour and Rubaiyat for the Martyrs of Two Wars. 

To this we can add A Grenfell Alphabet [2017]., and now If you want thunder [Smokestack 2021]

And it’s this latest collection that I’ll be celebrating today.


The Smokestack publisher’s blurb will you that:

“Ruth Valentine’s tenth collection encompasses the tragedies of the public world – civil-wars in Syria and Sudan, knife crime in North London, the Iraq-Iran war – and our private griefs. At the heart of the book is an extraordinary alphabetical sequence about the Grenfell Tower dead and the society that allowed them to die. It’s a book about the morality of politics and the mortality of us all, a study in remembrance and forgetting, about the indifferent sea with its soft lullabies and cold temptations, time spreading its blankness over everything, and ‘busy humanity with its suitcases and phones, its sudden weeping…”

I enthused about and shared several of the Grenfell poems in my 2017 post, as well as a wonderful poem about Tolstoy and railway stations (which reappears in the latest collection). I want to concentrate, though, on the business of mortality which is never far away in this collection.

You’ll search Google in vain for detailed reviews of Ruth’s work….a fact which is both astonishing and inexplicable…..but I picked up a couple of  comments that resonated in this portmanteau review via Happenstance. Here’s the link

and here, the comments which I wish I’d thought of first:

“Valentine is a very gifted poet. She has mastered the craft of starting a poem in a low key, almost conversational style, describing a past event, quietly dropping a single disconcerting word into the lines which unsettles but you’re not sure why. So you read on, and there are further hints, subtle, understated, but always pulling you towards an exploration of something you realise has universal importance—but by being brought there as a travelling companion of the poet, you discover it in parallel with the poem. It’s almost as if you’re walking around in the poem itself, seeing the whole landscape of it.”


“Ruth Valentine is able to reach across from the living to the dead, bridging that great divide in tender ordinary words.” 

It’s the business of the living and the dead, and also of the divide between them which, in this new collection, seems to me to be symbolised by the transition from land to sea, and the sea in all its multifarious and drowning shapes. 

In August I wrote in a post:

“I read a long time ago, that the Victorians (officially) couldn’t write about sex but wrote with amazing freedom about death, whereas, since the late 60s exactly the opposite has been the case. 

I was brought up to distrust generalisations, but there’s an element of truth in there, isn’t there? I have a sense that we are much more uncomfortable with the physical facts of death and dying than much contemporary poetry acknowledges. It may be, of course, because we know so little about it. When each of my parents died, I wasn’t there, in the house, in the room, and both had been neatly removed before I was told, the whole business being managed and sanitised by the funeral business. That would have been unthinkable in a Victorian household. I have only seen two dead people. One was my son, coffined in a Funeral Director’s nicely lit room. The other was in a morgue where I went with my partner to identify another body. I’ve never been able to write about either moment, not properly. “

Which is why, I suppose, I’m so grateful for poets like  Ruth Valentine, who can write about ‘these moments’, about living with the dying and considering the business of setting out to die. And who, I should add, can do it via utterly memorable/unfogettable moments that draw you in, like these


a poem, slipping in mildly off the broad

inarticulate river


cobalt:   goes into the furnace a black powder

and comes out radiant, butterfly, dragon, dolphin


The goddess of forgetting

is pale and very old, with long stained teeth


     and, of course the constant reminders of the the sea and its mutability


What use to the world is water that thinks it’s stone


…sun covers the sea in silver-leaf

and the Icarus wind falls into the water


…sea…snatching a child of a cliff, and twirling him

in swaddling clothes of spindrift


As I said, I’ve chosen to concentrate on poems that place themselves where the sky is enormous and isolating and where the landscape inevitably ends in a shadow line like the numinous dividing ‘lines’ in Rothkos great canvasses.The collection is in six sections, or chapters, and each one contains a tidal river, or a sea shore, or saltings or estuaries reedbed and marsh and the dangerous unstable effulgent light off such places. As though you find yourself in a Turner that’s suddenly become live and cold and dangerous. This first poem is the opening poem of the first section, and and contains whole millennia of refugees



on the passage between the islands the boat was clutched

in the hands of drowned farmers, who pulled it down

into the wave’s ploughed furrows, bellowing

my carrots fresh from the earth? where are my oxen?

in the hands of drowned merchants with topaz rings,

fingers of fishermen clawing through the traps

of their lobster-pots  

                                                the wild boat shook them off

and headed out to the plain of cormorants

folding themselves like paper, plunging down

to the wrecks and the jetsam, all the jettisoned,

whoever steps awkwardly away from land,

unborn children venturing on an ocean

though grandmothers weep and the soldiers shrug and yawn


I found it next to impossible to clear my mind of the appalling image of the fleeing being dragged down by all that had gone before, drowned by the clawing hands of history. Who can tell if they escaped in that wild boat, or who may plunge down with the cormorants ‘folding themselves like paper‘ into the detritus of the jettisoned and abandoned and wrecked.

I’ll stay with the business of water and of drowning in the three poem sequence that ends Section 2. I’ll remind myself of what one reviewer wrote about the way that

Ruth Valentine has mastered the craft of starting a poem in a low key, almost conversational style, describing a past event, quietly dropping a single disconcerting word into the lines which unsettles but you’re not sure why. So you read on.


The Inshore Waters


all water inland     silent     do not disturb

the shoremen at their hedging and ditching dreams

you could drown in this stuff     lingeringly     a dancer

past the leap of his youth     your port-de-bras superb


the staithe then the river     channels across the marsh

basalt    molten but cold     all unmet depth

paralysed motion     weedless     no pulse no splash


as if it were flowing backward     as if the waves

might thicken and surge between the reeds     upstream

the low pale sun catch a silky flash of green

on the throat of a breaker before it broke     you’ve seen

just such a choker glint at a beach and gone


What use to the world is water that thinks it’s stone?

When you choose to drown

you’ll have to get into a rowing-boat and make

oar-scars on the polished surface.  You’re facing back

to the staithe you left, willows and reeds.  It’s miles

to the sea from here.  You’re flagging.  You pull the sculls

across your thighs, rest, float; but the water wants

to haul you in to the bank.  Far off, in front

(if you turn your head) there’s a bit of sheen in the sky,

a taste of salt to the cloudscape, so you try

again for the open ocean.  A starting swell

rocks your coffin-cradle.  Keep going.  You’ll do well

to reach the sea before sunset, but the dark’s

just as good to drown in.  That isn’t a meadow-lark

or a seagull crying, it’s you as you smell the tide,

as you hear the scrape of the shingle.  Now, decide:

do you sit in your boat till it’s toppled, or pull in

to the riverbank, step out to the sea wind

and the sky, the breakwaters, the flying spindrift – 

if it ever was stone – fire-opal and amethyst.

A breaker rises and roars at you.  Safe at last,

you pour down its throat.


You won’t do it of course, walk into the sea and drown.

More likely a bout of asthma, a derailed train.

Though if one day it comes to it, the cancer back,

some antibiotic-resistant inward muck,

you’d do something to finish, you hope. Not a rowing-boat:

you’ve never learned to row anyway.  No note

to whoever was going to find you in your bed

or more likely, sprawled on the kitchen floor.  So you could

buy a one-way ticket down to some drab resort,

walk into the waves.  Get a tide-table first,

you don’t want to be striding out across the sand,

the water knee-high for miles; you might change your mind,

which isn’t the point.  Or is it?  But are you brave,

could you keep on walking deeper until the waves

felled you and held you under?  You’d hold your breath

as it spun you below the surface.  It seems that death

may not come when you call.  Or you have to yell

again, at the top of your lungs, before they fill.


What I like so much about this sequence, apart from the unnerving way the three poems address the unthinkable, is their versatility. The first announces itself very frankly as a poem, happily parading its technique in much the same way a a wave breaks over a rock and runs back on itself and reforms. DHLawrence wrote a praise poem for that, didn’t he. But the next two seem so easily conversational, unnervingly, apparently prosaically and rationally discussing (or advising on) the likelihood of attempted suicide by water going right or wrong, that it’s easy to overlook the craft of it all. It’s so easy to not notice that they are both sequences of rhyming couplets. When you do and go back, the music of full and half rhymes seems obvious. I love it.


I did say that I’d concentrate on the shadow line poems. There’s so much more (not least, the Grenfell Alphabet in full, as well as a remarkable poem sequence Cobalt, about the dying of a friend) but you’ll need to go and buy the book. I really think you should. For a taste of the range you can expect, though, I’ll finish with one that’s darkly, wickedly funny. The Notes at the end explain that for Valentine’s (Who else?) Day 2016 Bic relaunched its pink ballpoint pen ” designed specially to fit the hands of the ladies”.

I’m pretty sure that the last bit is Ruth’s take on it, which is whyI’ve put it in inverted commas.


Sonnet Written With a Pink Pen

My tiny hand is frozen, having cleaned

mould out of the fridge.  I’ve scoured the loo,

made chicken soup, altered a pair of jeans,

addressed a meeting.  It’s what women do.


I’ve dressed a dead man in his football shirt

and laid him in his coffin; known the stench

we all may melt to; comforted the hurt

partners and enemies.  I didn’t flinch,


or not in public.  For thirty years I’ve written

poems of death and exile, sex and grief,

Pinochet, Kosovo, London riots, love.

Now that I’ve got this pen, though, I can prove

my feminine vocation: violets, kittens,

cupcakes and curls.  Imagine my relief.

Thank you, Ruth Valentine for sharing so many of your poems. It was a joy to have you back as a guest.

And now, the rest of you will want details of the book you will surely buy before the day be out. Here you are.

Published by Smokestack Books [2021] £7.99

Stocking fillers [8] On prohibitions


No more “Catching Up “ posts. Phew. There are at least four new collections/pamphlets staring at me from the shelf above my Mac screen, and they’re all demanding that I write about them.But I’ll take my time, and raise no false hopes about when and how.

I’m planning to recharge my batteries. That’s the priority. Chemo knocked me for six; I wasn’t prepared for that. But I’ve started going for walks again. The first one was a shock to the system inasmuch as I only managed a mile of easy walking; but in the last couple of weeks, egged on by my partner, it’s getting to be 4 or 5 Km, and the target is to be doing it every day until it’s no longer painful.

And this brings me to stocking fillers. I’ve been posting on Facebook about being introduced to the remarkable variety of field paths that start pretty well at my front door, and which I was almost totally unaware of until a couple of weeks ago. 


There’s one that starts when the road I live on becomes a bridle path, and then a field path that eventually links to a path that leads you over the River Calder, under a railway line, and finally to the canal, beside which you can (if you want) walk for miles and miles. I’m no fan of towpath walks, mainly because no matter how far you walk you still seem to be in the same place. But I knew the path…and thought that it was the only one. It’s a popular path, part of the Kirklees Footpaths system, and for 30+ years I’ve been aware of groups of walkers passing our front window. To my shame I wrote a stocking-filler  about what I thought was their being kitted out as if for hard walking in the Cairngorms, as opposed to having just come a quarter of a mile from the town centre. I poked fun at their Goretex, the OS maps slung in pastic wallets dangling round their necks, their Brasher boots, their air of being on a risky expedition.

Today I went for a walk in the sun, and I had boots on. And I had two walking poles. I beg absolution


However. Stocking-filler time. For the anniversary of 9/11 I posted a poem on Facebook about the  memory of where I was at the time the first plane was flown into the Twin Towers.

Out of the blue

The Inter-City comes into Wakefield 

on a curving viaduct of ten great arches,

built by men who mainly could not read or write,

who worked with picks and shovels, barrows,

hods, and rope and block and tackle.

Wonders, remarkable as pyramids, that endure

like great cathedrals, that no one notices.


Under the arches, small businesses spring up:

builders’ merchants, body shops, scrap yards,

and Cesar’s Ceramics where we went one day 

to buy tiles of a particular shade of blue,

when Capitol Radio cut into Erasure’s

Blue Savannah with a news flash that a plane

had crashed into one of the Twin Towers.


As we drove home with our boxes of blue tiles,

a second plane crashed into the second tower.

For hours after we got in, we watched

the images repeat. Small glittering planes

in a cerulean sky, the smoke, the dust, the dark.


To my considerable surprise, it sparked a long thread of comments in response to one that took me to task for the use of ‘cerulean’ …..a word I suppose I took for granted. Anyway, I watched the arguments unfold about words that should be at all costs avoided in poetry.

There’s a myth that Peter Sansom of the Poetry Business proscribed the use of the word ‘shard’. Being one of those who believe that the only rule in art of any kind is that there are no rules beyond asking: does this work?, I was intrigued to see that ‘cerulean’ could well go the way of ‘shard’. Which reminded me that I wrote a defence of ‘shard’ and all things shard-y after spending a very hot afternoon in Alicante scrambling up steep shaly slopes looking for fragments of Iberian pottery. Shards, in fact.

The Relique

From Mare Nostrum’s Anatolian shore,

ten leagues distant, ‘midst arid, jagged

mountains, eagle-haunted airie heights,

there stands a tow’ring cliff of golden stone.

If to its rocky foot, with faltering steps

the dauntless Traveller would ascend

by goat path tortuous, through brittle thorn,

and bitter dust, as ‘twere of dead sea fruit,

blooded,dwarfed below that precipice dire,

beneath his feet appear, among the roots

of juniper and ericacae desiccate,

fragments of the ancient potter’s art…

broken amphorae, rough bowls and goblets

that, for two millenia lay spurned

by hoof of goat, scorched by tropic suns,

blown at every wind’s caprice, unheeded

even as great Empires rose in pride,then fell.

O! shattered reliques of an Ancient Race!

And say, how should the Traveller, besmeared

with toil, and foul with cloying dust and blood

Apostrophize a single Piece of all this Multitude?


The Replie

Two thousand years it’s lain in dust

on a thorny hill, this broken pot,

waiting, patiently, for that mot juste

from all the lexicon of crock that poets have got


not fragment, splinter, scrap or shiver,

remnant, or chunk, or flake, or sliver.

Dismiss all injunctions laid upon the bard.

Sometimes only one word will do.

So, Take up  your pen and write it: shard

More stocking fillers next week. Or perhaps an appreciation of a collection that’s snagged my attention and won’t let go. Who can say?

Catching up: Martin Malone’s “The Unreturning”


[from Part 2: The Unreturning]

Here we are at last. Thought we’d never get here. Except we haven’t even started, not by a long chalk. I’m thinking of those pioneering Himalayan climbers who took months just to get to the foot of Everest, and essentially they still hadn’t started the job they came to do. Here I am at last, and still scrambling around, looking for a likely line. Daunted. Because Martin Malone’s The Unrerturning is a hefty piece of work, a 

    sequence of merciless hymns to our cultural obsession with the First World War …an effort

   to create meaningful acts of witness for ‘a nation/with so many memorials/but no memory..

   a collection of great ambition and originality [Peter Robinson]

As PW Bridgman says in his London Grip Review 

   it is widespread failures and (inescapably) distortions of historical memory that are Malone’s central concern…..

 with a conjured mythology about war [I would say THIS war, in particular]..a false record that has been cultivated 

 and propagated to serve certain political ends

The more I’ve chewed this over, the more I’ve come to think that I need to put the whole business of assertions  about ‘conjured mythologies’ in some kind of context. Because there are lots of them, and many are mutually exclusive. After all, there were more than 16 million dead — armed forces and civilians. 

Let’s play a game of association, bearing in mind that we’re already primed to be thinking of WW1 poetry and poets. If you think of the First World War, what images come to mind? Would they, perhaps, be like mine.. a silhouette of a procession of gas-blinded men? miles of mud, barbed wire? artillery men trying to drag a floundering horse out of a crater? 

If you had to choose just a single image, would it be a poppy? 

Like this one, for instance, which featured in the Yorkshire Post this week. It’s certified to have been plucked from the battlefield in 1916 by the brother of one killed there in action

“The dried poppy – described as “one of the most poignant symbols of brotherly love ever seen” – was plucked in memory of Private James Henry Lester. It’s up for auction amongst a collection of WW1 memorabilia, and expected to raise in excess of £1000; the family owners hope 

“that a museum may purchase the items and put them on public display, a permanent reminder of the sacrifices made by an entire generation.”

After all, we’re concerned with ‘conjured mythologies’. Which is the concern at the heart of Martin Malone’s collection.

When you’re asked to think of WW1, is your default image one of Flanders Fields? If you like, it’s easy to argue that our collective ‘memory’ has edited the World out of World War.

For instance, if I ask you to think of a battle, I think the odds are that it’ll be The Somme, or Ypres. Something like that. But if you were French, it might be Verdun, or the Ardennes; if you were Italian, it might be Isonzo. For Russians, Tannenberg, for Romanians, Bucharest.

Like I said, Flanders is probably your default …not Macedonia, or Sinai and Palestine, or Egypt, or the Congo, or Mesapotamia/Iraq, or the Dardenelles where Attlee was the penultimate man of the beach in covering the retreat from Suvla Bay.

And if you’re like me, you probably didn’t think of naval warfare at all….Jutland, The Falklands. In truth, there were few naval engagements, which is ironic, especially for those mythologists who still sing Rule Britannia  (Britannia rule the waves). Navies were mainly engaged in blockading enemy ports in an effort to starve them into defeat. And so on.

Our collective memories and myths shrink the world. 

Here’s another thing. If I ask you to name the first bit of WW1 writing that comes to mind what’s the odds that it’ll be a poem? A bit of Wilfred Owen? A bit of Rupert Brooke? Isaac Rosenberg? Edward Thomas? August Stramm? 

How many of you thought first of memoir (Vera Britten? Robert Graves?) 

Or novels…All quiet on the Western Front ? (Eric Remarque’s book was burned by the nazis). Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy ? Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914?

And if we’re thinking of image making, how about film? Paths of Glory Oh what a lovely war ? Peter Weir’s Gallipoli.

The scale, both spatial and temporal, is clearly beyond daunting. Martin is quite clear about this in various interviews he’s given about The Unreturning, and about his more recent Selected Poems. A couple of extracts will make the point:

The Unreturning …… was a subject given/ gifted me on the basis of funding for my Sheffield PhD. My main challenge was to say something new about [the poetry of WW1] from the perspective of its centenary. 

Both academic research and my creative practice did, indeed, look to poets like Thomas and Isaac Rosenberg, however, as well as the even more obvious ones. For the Ghosts of the Vortex sequence, my purpose was to seek out some of the lost, or lesser-known, narratives of the conflict and convey a sense of its global dimensions and legacies: hence poems like ‘Ansky’s Lament’, ‘Legacies’, ‘The 1st Women’s Battalion of Death’, ‘Nostos’ and ‘The Turnip Winter’. German Great War poetry is, in many ways, more interesting than the British stuff – certainly, it often feels more modern and experimental – though it’s an all-but-lost canon. So, I wanted to be a bit more 360° than is often the case with UK writing about the war.”


“The complicating factor in a project such as this is the pervasive nature of the Great War’s literary legacy. Already the most poetically memorialized conflict since Troy, its writers provide the urtext to our collective sensibility of much subsequent warfare, while its historical stature as global event represents something of a dragon lying across the threshold to our under- standing of the modern world 

Catherine Reilly’s estimation that, in Britain alone, there were 2225 published poets of the Great War (1978) is a formidable enough legacy, further deepened by the remarkably privileged position enjoyed in UK culture by that small body of poets who have since emerged as representatives of its core canon [my italics]: poets such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke, Laurence Binyon and John McCrae, all of whom are studied widely in schools or habitually appear in Remembrance Day ceremonies. “


History of the Cenotaph | English Heritage

What he sets out to do is to provide some sort of perspective on the failures and distortions of historical memory, both about the war itself, about the ‘truth’ or otherwise of its poetry, and what he sees as conjured mythologies, the ‘trench honesties’ occluded by ‘one century/ and the paradigms of myth’. And when you consider the ‘truth’ of the poetry, it’s as well to remember that this war was unprecedented, mechanised, industrialised. There was no language ready made to account for it. Which brings us to Martin Malone’s poems, and particularly at this point, an extract from one about Wilfred Owen at the time of his recuperation after Craiglockhart.

They were dying again at Beaumont Hamel

as you stroll Borage Lane,

three days after your twenty-fifth birthday,

mind yet cobbled with skulls of the lads you left behind…


At number seven, you unlatch the gate,

take out a key and stroll up to the white front door.


Searching for peace, you retreat to the attic with its tiny skylight,

the shrieks of children playing soldiers down the street.

Here you are Chatterton and Keats,

half in love with death’s idea

while making best use of its dutiful shadow.


You write your mother, go over old drafts,

‘defectuosities’, and ‘the inwardness of war’.


Briefly, you pause to listen to swallows skirruping their early return,


then back to your notes, strike-throughs,

séance and retrospection,

another time-strafed Edwardian

caught out in the open with defective kit…

                                                                        (from “Ripon Work”)

It’s the last two lines I find particularly poignant; Edwardian poetry, with its roots in lyrical Romanticism, simply wasn’t set up to deal with the horrors of trench warfare, particularly if your mind was

                           cobbled with skulls of the lads you left behind…

It’s Martin’s concern with the disjunction between the limits of language at any given time, and the actual experience it’s trying to realise that colours the whole collection, which, as one reviewer pointed out, and as the book’s jacket copy correctly declares, is in effect a “Great War diptych in which the later dissenting voices… parley with [war poetry’s] more traditional elegiac forms.”

So, set this poem from the second part (The Unreturning) against Ripon Work, and you’ll get a sense of the way it works

41. War Poet

Beneath this creeping barrage squats our chap, in his breast pocket the scribbled draft that sets off a vintage look: hapless subaltern, sick with sin, chewing pencil and pity onto notepaper doomed to be found upon a mud-matted corpse. En route to legend, Herr Krupp’s handiwork tears its messy path through temporal, parietal and the red wet thing of a line-break. Let us rest here a while then dig down to the destruction layer where we find change come suddenly and everywhere, and everywhere the final week of this poets’ war: Boudicca’s wrath, shock and awe, the stratified earth of charred words pulling free of decorum.

 “The first half of the diptych (collectively, “Ghosts in the Vortex”) does indeed consist of poems, mostly written in free verse, which are conventionally presented and employ language and diction that beautifully reflects Martin’s own earlier absorption in poets like Edward Thomas, and the landscapes of, say Eric Ravillious. The second half, by contrast, comes to us in prose poetry form and speaks in a conspicuously more modern voice. The prose poems look back at some of the content of the first half, offering an often acerbic, but nevertheless lyrical, commentary on real truths as they have sometimes been refracted though systematically distorted lenses. (PWBridgman in London Grip).

Some of the poems made me consider the disparate backgrounds of those who fought, especially before conscription. There were the Pals Regiments who could not initially be supplied with unforms, and who were subsequently decimated; there were those who were rejected because of the effects of malnutrition. Later, of course, the need for men to fill their places became acute, and thus were formed the Bantam Regiments of men below 5’3”…the Jewish East-ender Isaac Rosenberg was one of them. There were those conflicted, like Owen and Edward Thomas who enlisted later in the war, And there were the enthusiasts, the beautiful, blue-eyed bourgeouis boys like Rupert Brooke and Julian Grenfell.

Martin’s momentarily unsparing of Julian Grenfell and his “Krupp-made end”.

Warm with late spring, in a field near Ypres,

you were never happier than on this big picnic, 

chatting with the General when that shell struck

                                   [Phoebus Apollo]

He can just as easily borrow some of the acerbity of Sassoon when dealing with others, like Sassoon himself, and Robert Graves, who bought their own superior gear from the Army and Navy stores)

Yes, how we hate you, you cheerful young men
with your tinned kippers and today’s Daily Mail;
the periscope from Harrods, the warm new boots.

                                      [Trench Requisites]

There’s one poem in part two of the diptych that savages the literal business of the memorabilia of wars, and it illustrates for me the to-and-fro of reverberation between the two parts. I like way the distinctively modern dialect throws a light on Sassoon’s use of his demotic. I like the savagery of it.


29. Webbing

Buy it now for two-seven-five, condition as shown in photo, too well-made to be repro, the kosher stuff of a lost patrol. As metaphors got real and euphemism ugly, the Aldershot Design lugged its rough rigging onto the dog-tired shoulders of our line. And, if you’re browsing for archetype, for “how it really was”, then scroll no further than this, one belt; two braces; bayonet frog; pouches for ammo; one haversack; valise with two straps and carriers for the head and helve of an E-tool. This was our hyperlink, a one-piece jacket for the universal soldier: Dai’s Greatcoat, Hotspur’s mail, John Ball’s frayed thread for the fucked-up Grail of Mametz Wood. Epic failure/ epic fail


Equally, Martin Malone can write with a deft lyricism that conjures the literary/poetic world of the age.


As though nothing happens

our hemisphere shoulders the sun,


the hill asleep on its trove of peat,

the sea is soaked in light.


In the days before Johnsmas

we bear fuel to the sgùrr,

our own brief blaze stoked

in its hours and seasons


by the darkness and the light.


I love the completeness of this, its precision (its echoes of MacCaig, too), and not least for the way it sits alongside much bleaker, more deliberately disturbing poems, like the one about the artist Kokoscha, shot in the head and wounded in the lung, left for dead on the Russian front, and later declared insane by his hospital doctor.



A spitted dragoon 

prone in pike-grey, 

Oskar Kokoschka considers his fate

and wonders if you can paint a premonition

or, in the war of endless coincidence,

is this just another incident

bereft of the brush 

to anoint its meaning?


As March canvass turns 

August into wounds, 

his lung swabs blood 

from the jag of Russian bayonet

and things begin to swim, 

heading out towards allegory

and revenant self-portrait:

Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? 


He floats above himself as seraphim,

notes a passing influence of Grünewald 

and the Northern Renaissance, 

while Mahler’s widow looks on,

sphinx-like, close attendant

to his ever-present grief

and the narrow horizontal

of a stricken son of man.


I like the way that this reminds me that painters were way ahead of poets when it came to the profound disorientations of this war (and possibly everything else throught history). I like the way it takes the reader away from the provincialism of English war poetry, I like the widening perspective. And I realise, belatedly that it chimes with an image(the pikelhaube snout) in one of the prose poems from the second half of the diptych (The Unreturning).

10. School Run

If you’ve a minute, tweet this: the car-struck badger you’ve driven past these last two weeks, pikelhaube snout irate in death, body bloating with fetid air, hind-legs rigid in surrender. Kamerad, emptied of essence, this is the boy from your home village; that snotty kid with a terrier whose Dad liked a drink, the one who pissed himself when Miss Manning caught him with a rat in his desk. Him: always the last to put up his hand, always unlucky in love. His losing streak continued over here and now that’s him rotting away to your left, hung on the brambles of a B-Road: a passing stain in no man’s land, fuel for the coming spring. He’ll walk no more on Cotswold.


(Thus, Ivor Gurney. I’d forgotten that I shared this early prosepoem in a post in which Martin was my guest poet. You can check it out via this link.

I realised a long long time ago I’d not do justice to the complexities and variety of this collection– lyrical, satitirical, rhetorical, polemical, extensively researched, and technically accomplished. Put all that together and you realise that it doesn’t add up to something you might recognize as currently fashionable. But do go and buy it. You’ll not be disappointed and you’ll certainly be educated. And you can dream that Michael Gove and his satraps could be forced to learn this poem by heart.


Thank you for your neo-concern

that we grasp the full facts

of this complicated matter;

for sending out, once again,

the officer class to explain 

the subtle difference between

Blackadder and the nation’s history,

the one being truth the other comedy;

for pointing out our parents’ mistake

in taking Oh What A Lovely War!

to be anything but a sixties musical 

and not how it really was. Thank you

for assuming our poetry stops at Owen;

for sending out the privately-educated

to explain that confusion in the ranks

between your national story

and literature’s false history,

as if, not royal families, but poetry

tips men into war graves.

Saxe-Coburg, be advised, your poppy

is not mine.


I’m grateful to you for letting me hear

Paxman attempt the phrase wor canny bairns.

And I do appreciate your engagement

with those events which legitimise

the contemporary state of affairs,

or, as you put it on a recent visit

to a sink school, make pride cool again

I appreciate, as you say, the need 

to understand the popular thinking

of the day; how words you are trying

to re-claim meant something real

to my grandfather right up to that morning

the Liverpool Regiment came unstuck

at Hermies, on the road to Cambrai. 

As if history can make some

long term sense of the losses 

and every lesson to be learned

is, once more, yours.

Martin Malone, thanks for your patience, and for your generous sharing of so many poems from The Unreturning. 

ps. I’ll finish with one last thought. I’ve read a lot of reviews of the book and transcripts of interviews that Martin has given as well as articles he’s written. Sometimes, Google sends you down unexpected pathways. I came across the deeply depressing world of Poetry Notes and Analyses….the virtual world’s Cole’s Notes. Amongst other things I learned that there is no kind of filter. You’d be astonished to find that it’s commonly assumed by all sorts of writers, and even some reviewers, that Wilfred Owen’s poem The unreturning is a War Poem. The first two stanzas certainly sound as if they may be

In fact, it was written between 1912 and 1913, and it’s about a crisis of theological and doctrinal doubt. It has more affinity with the Dark Sonnets of GM Hopkins than with war poetry. There you go.


Martin Malone lives in north-east Scotland. 

He has published 3 poetry collections: The Waiting Hillside (Templar, 2011), 

                                                                       Cur (Shoestring, 2015) 


                                                                    The Unreturning (Shoestring 2019). 

Larksong Static: Selected Poems 2005-2020 was published by Hedgehog Poetry in December 2020. 

In addition, he has published 4 pamphlets: 17 Landscapes (Bluegate Books), Prodigals (The Black Light Engine Room), Mr. Willett’s Summertime* (Poetry Salzburg), Shetland Lyrics (Hedgehog). Poems from these and his other work have been published in a wide variety of magazines & journals. 

He reviews for  Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry Wales and Poetry Salzburg Review. 

An editor at Poetry Salzburg and  Honorary Research Fellow in Creative Writing at Aberdeen University, he has a PhD in poetry from Sheffield University. Currently,  Martin is a Poetry Ambassador for the Scottish Poetry Library.


*Mr. Willett’s Summertime comprises 25 poems that were the early nucleus of The Unreturning

A game of ghosts. i.m. Patrick Scott


“Let’s face it, you and I

were never wildly optimistic.

Who would be, writing poetry?”

Geoff Tomlinson. Not King David. 

(from Poems for Gordon Hodgeon. ed Bob Beagrie et al 2009)

I was not expecting to write this post. I thought I’d post a couple of stocking-fillers while I sorted out what I wanted to share with you in a final ‘catching up piece’. It will be about Martin Malone’s The Unreturning. There’s a dark irony in that, which will become clear as we go along.

I was wondering if I had anything to say, and if there was, if I knew how to say it any more. 

The week before last, for four days out of five I was virtually back in St Ives, Zooming in on a much-postponed residential, with Kim Moore and Caroline Bird as tutors. In theory, with relaxations of Covid rules, it could have been a much-postponed actual residential in a real hotel but the Christian Guild small chain of hotels has gone bust. I guess the pandemic was the last straw. That’s Abbot’s Hall in Grange, Willersley castle in Cromford, and the Trelhoyan Hotel in St Ives, all closed. All places where I’ve been entertained and challenged and inspired by Kim Moore’s courses, and by the Poetry Business. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

And I was struggling. Everyone does, from time to time. It’s not the end of the world; on the other hand it’s no fun, not to respond, not to feel the buzz of making new things with new people. Jess Mookherjee nailed it for me in a Facebook post recently. Amongst other things she wrote about the business of largely working from home in the last 18 months, she wrote this

                                 [I]have become more introverted and atomised

That’s it. The business of being turned in on yourself, and simultaneously fragmented, cut off from the physicality of company and its wonderful unpredictability. To this I’d add the fact of becoming physically more timid.It’s been a thin diet of second hand experience for the last 18 months. The world draws in. I can’t read properly. I’ve lost, for the moment, the ability to surprise myself. Not the best frame of mind in which to approach a week of writing which set itself to challenge us to explore our self-imposed taboos and preconceptions, to query what we think we mean by the ‘truth’ and to be more daring and take more risks.

However, in the middle of, one way or another, avoiding the truth, and flinching from risk I had a day off. The first trip anywhere beyond the homes of close family for 18 months. A drive to the coast with my partner Flo, to meet up with a former student and great friend, Andy Blackford .

Unnervingly, as we drove over Fylingdales Moor and caught our first sight of the sea, we found ourselves in tears. It caught me on the raw, that feeling that something we’d taken for granted for years should feel extraordinary because it was unchanged. I think, too, it was unnerving to drive through an entirely normal Sandsend, of familiies picnicking on the beach, children paddling, hardy souls swimming. And I still felt shut off from it all, isolated in a self-imposed bubble, not quite sure if I spoke the language of ‘out there’ any more.

We had a fine day with Andy and Sandra, looking out over the harbour, watching small boats coming in trailing clouds of gulls, and catching up….though gradually noticing that what we were catching up on was films we’d watched and books we’d read, because they’d largely replaced the accidents of normal life, the business of going places and bumping into people. Stuff we take for granted, like the first sight of the sea from Fylingdales.

Setting off back home in a sudden cold squally downpour that emptied the harbourside and streets in seconds, as Andy drove us up the main street, I saw the Bethel Chapel was for sale. Which was when I learned that my friend Patrick Scott had died. The stunningly converted chapel is /was his house. Last time I saw him there was at Staithes Art Week, a couple of years ago. 

Here he is, full of beans with his wife, Angel. And suddenly I learn he’s died, a month or so ago, of lymphoma. 

Patrick was a good friend, at one time the editor of a book I wrote about teaching writing, a fellow member of NATE, one of the generation that revolutionised English teaching in the 70’s. His last post was as Director of Children’s services for York, but earlier he was English Advisor for Cleveland/Teesside, a post that was previously held by another friend and mentor, Gordon Hodgeon . Which explains the the verse from the poem at the beginning. It’s from How things are made. A collection of poems from his friends, a get well card for him when he went into hospital for a spinal operation, which tragically left him paralysed, and eventually speechless. I’ve written at length about Gordon; if you don’t know about his story and his poetry you should. There’s a link at the end of the post. Another friend and inspiration, Andrew Stibbs, (NATE alumnus, former head of English in Cleveland, pioneer of mixed ability teaching, Leeds University lecturer in English in Education, painter, musician, cricketer and gifted poet) had been a member of Brotton Writers with Gordon, and equally a good friend of Patrick. All three have died and I miss them, terribly. All three are bound up with my memories of living and working on Teesside and in working as a teacher-trainer. All three are somehow present whenever I go back, say, to Staithes.

What do I make of it. Here am I, writing a poetry blog. What do I know. I say that poetry lets you say what you can say in no other medium, and that is true, when it’s working. But how does that fit with what I described as a week of writing which set itself to challenge us to explore our self-imposed taboos and preconceptions, to query what we think we mean by the ‘truth’ and to be more daring and take more risks.

I’m approaching what I’ll write next with great caution, because I fear to be misunderstood, and in any case I may be wrong. However. I rejoined my Zoom course the next day, head buzzing, not sure of anything in particular. A bit numb. What to be daring about, what risks to take, and why? Possibly I was feeling oversensitive, but it struck me that what I was being challenged to feel more open about, or to, were issues of gender politics, of sexual identity, of sexual violence. Could I write about a parent’s genitals, for instance. Could I challenge self-imposed taboos? Well, yes, I could, but my heart wasn’t in it, I couldn’t give myself up to the game. I sense I missed the cultural tide, recently. But it’s set me thinking about something I read a long time ago, that the Victorians (officially) couldn’t write about sex but wrote with amazing freedom about death, whereas, since the late 60s exactly the opposite has been the case. 

I was brought up to distrust generalisations, but there’s an element of truth in there, isn’t there? I have a sense that we are much more uncomfortable with the physical facts of death and dying than much contemporary poetry acknowledges. It may be, of course, because we know so little about it. When each of my parents died, I wasn’t there, in the house, in the room, and both had been neatly removed before I was told. The whole business, sanitised by the funeral business. That would have been unthinkable in a Victorian household. I have only seen two dead people. One was my son, coffined in a Funeral Directors nicely lit room. The other was in a morgue where I went with my partner to identify another body. I’ve never been able to write about either moment, not properly. 

Where am I going with this? I don’t really know. I’m chasing ghosts. I should stop.

Brief encounters

I say there are no ghosts

though coming on deer in a dip in a moor

when they startle and run

might be like seeing a ghost,

or in woodland where there is too much

of whispering and birds and water.


Worse is a space you long to be filled.

When love is done it is done absolutely.

It does not withdraw. It goes absent.

Whoever saw it go and how?

There is a hole in things, indifferent

to what you do, who you are.


I have sat with the dying

and never encountered death.

I think you have to love someone 

enough for someone to die,

you being there, and them

giving you their giving up,

trusting you enough for that.


[From Dark Watchers. Calder Valley Poetry. 2019]



Something strange has gone on with the links, so that some are duplicated. I have not the faintest notion why. Forgive me and the system

Link to Brotton Writers

Guardian obituary for Patrick

Link to Gordon Hodgeon

Bright star: remembering Gordon Hodgeon

Link to Andy Blackford

But I was so much older, then…..Gems revisited: Andy Blackford.

But I was so much older, then…..Gems revisited: Andy Blackford.

Catching up: Di Slaney’s “Herd Queen”

Spoiler alert. If you follow the cobweb regularly you’ll be aware that I’m very slow at getting over a course of chemo that ended in April. One of the side effects of coming off the steroids that accompany the chemotherapy is increased joint pain due to inflammation. Pretty well everything hurts in varying degrees and in different places during the day. It’s not severe, but it’s debilitating, and at the moment, my hands are particularly arthritic. My keyboard skills have never amounted to much, but I’m more clumsy than usual, and there are likely to be more typos that usual. I religiously proofread before I publish, but invariably miss stuff. So, apologies in advance.

So. Here we go. Over the last few months I’ve become addicted to the TV series The Repair Shop. In a world that appears committed to trashing anything that works, including language itself, here’s a programme that celebrates a group of men and women who patiently mend and restore anything that’s brought to them…defunct harmoniums and accordions, broken porcelain and earthen ware, desiccated leather purses, saddles, torn and sagging easy chairs, clocks, watches, bicycles, gas lamps, vintage calculators, telescopes……for every job there’s an expertise, an arcane array of tools, and beyond all that, patience, attention to detail, imagination and love. All this quiet work of regeneration and resurrection goes in an ancient brick-floored barn, in a thatched lean-to, in an ancient smithy, and all of it cradled in a downland valley where patient Clydesdales crop the greenest grass, clouds of gulls follow a tractor, and small birds perch photogenically . It’s William Morris’s utopian vision of a might-be England. It’s down-to earth and idyllic in equal measure, in the way of Our Yorkshire Farm. And also, I realise, of at least one element of the work of today’s guest. Because while The Repair Shop mends things, Di Slaney’s animal sanctuary…I’m tempted to say ‘hospice’…mends damaged creatures. Since 2005, she has been filling her ancient Nottinghamshire farmhouse and its land with more livestock than is sensible: Manor Farm Charitable Trust is home to over 170 animals at the last count, many of them with special physical or behavioural needs. 

Some of them are celebrated in the opening cluster of poems in Herd Queen , but this isn’t a collection of poems about animals, damaged or otherwise. It’s more like an anthology of poems that all happen to be written by a single author. A rumbustiously, whole-hearted rattle bag of technically varied and accomplished poems. When Di Slaney was a last a guest of the cobweb I wrote of her collection


“Let me tell you what I like about Reward for winter. One thing surprised me; I’m not an animal lover, or, I’m not someone who is comfortable around animals, apart from cats, who don’t give a toss anyway. But I’m drawn in by Di Slaney’s poems about animals because of their knowledgeableness, like Ted Hughes’ poems in What is the truth


I like poems that grow out of absorbed research. I love the way the language of research seeps into the fabric of the poetry and fast-dyes it 


What else? I like writing that grows out of specific, realised places. I think that it probably started with Akenfield, to stories that evolve through generations lived in a single place. The Rainbow,and Alan Garner’s wonderful Stone Book Quartet.


Apart from all this, Di Slaney writes what Jonathan Edwards has described as ‘sophisticated and dexterous poems…..beautifully crafted and very moving’.There are terza rimas,  every conceivable variant on the sonnet (and faux-sonnet) with crafty and elegant rhyme schemes. The poems have a sure-footedness that lets you know just where you are, and how to hear them; there’s a precise ear for line breaks, for diction, for rhythm, and so much richness of rhyme; slant rhymes, internal rhymes. So much music.”

[you might like to catch up on the rest of this 2016 post. Here’s the link.

Every one who has reviewed or endorsed Herd Queen seems to say much the same sort of things, as Di acknowledges when she brought me up to date on what she’s been doing since 2016. I asked:


“…..if you could write me a bit about what’s happened since May 2016, not least how you came to to put “Herd Queen’ together. I suppose I’m partly asking, because Herd Queen bucks the trend (it seems to me) of the thematically organised collection. What I like about yours is that chunks of it could be freestanding pamphlets, and in any case it’s wide-ranging in its range of characters, voices, forms, moods, landscapes… is, in fact, refreshing, as most endorsers and reviewers seem to agree. And I bet it’s the only collection I’ve read to be briefly reviewed in The Countryman!

A few big ‘life stage’ things have happened to me since May 2016 – I became sole owner of Candlestick Press in that year, then in 2017 our private animal sanctuary here on the smallholding became a registered charity specialising in disabled and special needs livestock – see And then in June 2019 I was diagnosed with a brain tumour.  The latter two events definitely fed into the development of Herd Queen – understanding the real focus of our animal care work and what a difference we can make to the welfare of those creatures in our care, and then finding strength in their situation for my own health issues. These experiences have surprisingly made me more light-hearted and joyful as a writer, and more determined to share light and shade in my writing – there are some dark pieces in Herd Queen but I wanted there to be humour and solace as well, from unexpected sources.  Life throws us these curve balls but it’s up to us what we make of them – if we’re adaptive and resourceful like the animals, then we carry on living for the day and making the best of what we have, or at least try to.

And you’re very right to comment on the thematically miscellaneous nature of the collection!  It was pieced together out of several wholes – where there was a short sequence of work in one particular direction at one time – but what I’ve tried to do is unite it all under one concept, that of the vigorous and challenging caprine Herd Queen who will zig and zag all over the hillside to protect her territory and her companions, covering plenty of ground in the process.  Someone once said that my writing is muscular in style and I took that as a compliment (maybe it wasn’t intended that way!) so these different forms and voices and moods are flexes of those muscles.  I do hope it isn’t a messy read, and that it doesn’t cause too much head-scratching for the reader – the first section is intended to be an extension of the land and animals themes of Reward for Winter, the second section an exploration of human and family relationships from a variety of sources and then the third is the naughty section… 

It does mean of course that the book can pop up in unexpected places like Knitting or Yours magazine or The Countryman, as well as reviewed in literary journals like London Grip or Raceme. “

Paula Meehan wrote that

“All that is animate has Di Slaney’s attention…….. Her poems are robust and earthy, subtle and direct by turn, her insight often witty and sometimes wicked. …..She covers an impressive amount of ground in these warm, well-crafted poems, and she does it with considerable energy and style.”

Jonathan Edwards says that

as a poet, she can do everything, from intricate sestina to energetic monologue, from musical lyric to vibrant prose poem. But even more important are the ends to which she employs her technical gifts……. Slaney’s animal poems remind us of Hughes and of Liz Berry in their forging of a new language to describe that experience…… her poems about people give us everything from a cobbler great grandfather to Frankie Goes to Hollywood, ‘tongue and spittle snogs’ to Shirley Bassey.

All this only reminds me of the difficulty I’ve had in deciding how to present my ideas about Herd Queen , its clusters of poems about wounded animals, about family photographs, about Saudi evacuees , about forgotten histories from meticulously researched local histories. Add to that the range of form and structure..ballads, prose poems, sonnets, dramatic monologues (in stanzas), lots of complex rhyme schemes…including the absurdly complicated Welsh gwawdodyn (no, I’d not come across it, either). How will I do it all justice? The answer’s simple enough. I can’t. I’ll simply share some of my favourites . Off we go.


Meeting Geraldine

‘Big goat left to die in snow’ was all that I 

was told, and that she was old, so promised

I would go along to meet her, see how her

ordeal had left her and if there were no 

major complications, nothing more

they could do, I’d bring her here. Fear


penned her nosefirst in that stable corner, fear

so strong the reek of it sank me to my knees. I 

softtouched her coat and bones, promised

I would do the best I could, would give her

all the food she needed to be well. She made no 

sound, didn’t move or flinch, had more


sorespots than I’d first noticed, more

dirt than grey in thinwhitecoat. The fear

kept her silent that first week when all I 

did was strawsit with her, promising

she could have a friend, that her

hollowrumen hungeraches would end, no 


one would hurt her here. There was no 

clue she’d heard or understood, it was more

that she put up with me. Yearslearnt fear

still flickered in her eyes each time I 

tugged the stable door, the promise

I’d be back offering no comfort, her


nostrils alarmwide with whiff of me. But her

appetite was good and she had no 

trouble eating, brokenmouthed with more

teeth missing than remained. One day, fear

seemed to hover above the haypile and I 

breathstopped while she cudded, promising


myself patience would pay, promising

her the moon if only she’d respond. Then her

blackovals set in gold met startledmine, no 

hesitation now with ears uppricked, more

curious with nose cleanpink and wet. Fear

evaporated like milkspurt on warm grass and I 


kept my word every day after, although we only had

her for a year. She died in May whitesunshine while

I stroked her beard, promised her no more fear. 


There’s a lot to like in this poem, not least the way it treads carefully around the edges of sentimentality without actually falling in; I’m thinking of what Di said about the possibilities of reciprocal healing, the:

difference we can make to the welfare of those creatures in our care, and then finding strength in their situation for my own health issues.

I like the way the opening stanza is very close to prose-with-line-breaks; the poem begins with a business-like transaction, the voice that says, ‘well, I’ll come round and have a look, but I’m making no promises’. retrospectively, you realise that a lot of rhymes and pararhymes have been set up, and that they’re sustained right through. They’re all monosyllabic, from linked stanza to stanza. There’s an edginess about them, which has to work alongside the strongly textured reality of the animal, and its fear that requires new-minted kennings for its description. I didn’t expect to like this poem, and then found that I did, not least because of the turning point that depends on two different kinds of eyes making a connection.

blackovals set in gold met startledmine

Texture is especially what you notice in the next poem, which is self-evidently written by someone who knows a thing or two about wool. (The first time I met Di Slaney was at an Interpreter’s House launch in Leeds; it was also the first time I met a poet who brought wool from her own sheep to sell as well as books.) A handy note in the collection explains that

Witches cannot resist wool, & this Mazey Ball from The Museum of Witchcraft in #Cornwall is so filled. It was believed “no witch could cast an evil eye on the owner until she had counted every bit of wool in the house.”  Aberdeen Press & Journal, 17th Nov 1932. 


Mazey ball

She watched him gather tufts from fences 

along the field, as he’d watched her finger wool 

in the village yarn shop, her gaze low and dark, small 

brown hands lingering over skeins still fresh

from early shearing. That night he switched off all 

the lights and kept squat candles burning on the hearth, 


their flicker pointing beams and cracks in ancient brickwork.

His thickweave cushions, driftwood hangings and peg

loom rugs brought the flock indoors, while by the fire 

raw fleece sacks breathed their sweetness across

the room towards the porch. Single storeyed, the cottage

eased itself to darkness as he doused his mug goodnight


and padded to the bed, cablesocks three quarters high 

on tanned and knotted calves, tired legs. The ball twined 

above the kitchen stove where a skillet used to drop, 

anchored by aran ply to a thumbed black squab.

Candlelight caught cream, a flash of white, then grey 

as the ball twisted first this way, then that. He lay on one


hundred quilted crochet squares, felt each deadwifestitch 

pressing into skin like penance, but resolute he still listened; 

breathsure, heartloose. When the front latch snagged at two, 

he smiled and reached beneath the bed, shepherded silence 

along the flags to find her backwards in the shadows, ball in hand, 

bloodblack hair flowing down a feltstiff gown above her knees. 


Skin glistened, and she seemed to halo pale fawn fibre 

that curled towards him, her bare feet pointed in two cleaves 

of hoof, and soft noise escaped her lips like new lambs bleating 

in barn sunlight. She never shifted from the ball, kept 

mumblecounting little threads, so he gently snaked his crook 

around her neck like every ewe he’d ever landed, and snared his witch.



I chose this one because it’s such a beautifully told tale, and one which actually relishes its own narrative tricks. The question of who is watching who, and who will be the catcher and who the caught is set up so deftly in those first two lines, as is the ambiguity of time and place. The title says ‘once upon a time’, but the ‘village wool shop’ says ‘now’, as does his switching off the lights. It’s a very satisfying piece of storytelling ending, too. He ‘snared his witch’. What her nature is and why he should snare her is unresolved. I love it and all its imagery, its filmic moments, the slowly turning ball anchored by aran ply to a thumbed black squab, that satisfying solidity.

I want to share three more poems, but with minimal commentary. The next two are monologues /ventriloqual but could not be more different in tone and style.

The first is Di’s take on a piece of research about her neighbourhood of Bilsthorpe . Dame Elizabeth Broughton was the widow of Sir Brian Broughton who counted Bilsthorpe as part of his estate.  On the 15th April 1727, she defended herself in court against a bill of complaint brought by William Hodgson.  The gist of the matter appears to be that Sir Brian promised an annuity to his mistress Anne Carter, which Dame Elizabeth has defaulted on. During further research, it appeared that Dame Elizabeth had been previously accused of causing the death of Anne Carter in a fire, and her relations are now retrospectively claiming the annuity as it was passed to them after her death. In transcripts of the court record, Dame Elizabeth defends herself vigorously, claiming that she is ‘entirely a stranger’ to all allegations and claims. 

All I’ll say is that you might like to decide whether Dame Elizabeth is as innocent/naive as she appears to make out, or whether she’s being at least disingenuous.


Dame Elizabeth Broughton answers the court

15th April 1727 

Sir, I am entirely a stranger to proceedings here. 

You must forgive a poor widow’s lack of grasp,         

for in all such matters prior, my dear late husband 

Sir Brian Broughton would stand. Since his demise 

all must forgive my widow’s grasp, my lack of

certainty. I have not slept, the thought of how 

Sir Brian would not stand for this and his demise

weighs heavy on my mind, for I am growing more


certain, despite not sleeping, that the thought of

Anne Carter and her claims for full annuity would

weigh too heavy on his mind, of this I am more sure.

She was a scandal and a scold, beg pardon the court,


the name Anne Carter and her canny claims would

have ruined a lesser man, but not my husband. 

He pardoned her the scandal, I begged and scolded

him to end his visits to her, but he courted disaster


like a lesser man, was briefly not at all my husband.

Those boys she had, he hoped them his, would only

end his visits when he saw William Hodgson courted

her, how quickly she came undone, how hot she flushed.


Those boys she had were never his, his only hope of

siring heirs lost years before when his horse tipped him,

but the way she flushed and came undone, the heat 

of her convinced him for a time that he had it in him

to sire heirs. I lost our boy when his horse tipped him

and they told me he was crushed, unlike to live.

He convinced me for a time he still had it in him      

to recover, do his duty for the parish, but I knew


our hopes were crushed even as I learned to live.

Sir, I wander and you are right to rally me to task.

I am recovered, will state my duty for the parish but

I will not cede on the amount. Her boys have no right


to wander into our affairs and rally your support.

When Mistress Carter died in last year’s fire, her

boys amounted to naught and I will not cede my rights.

What, sir, the fire?  I know naught of how it started.


Anne Carter died and that’s all I knew of it last year.

In such matters, my late husband would know best.

I had no part in that fire. May the court forgive me

for I feel entirely strange, sir. Proceed without me here.


You might like to read the opening three lines and and then the last three, and listen to the echoes, and ask yourself if it’s not that bit too artful, too ‘rehearsed’. For contrast, then, here’s the second poem from the sequence ,The Songs of Saudi , developed in collaboration with composer Omar Shahryar, and based on recorded interviews with his mother, father and brother about their evacuation from Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War of 1990.  The first poem in the sequence ‘Shona’s Song’ became the lyrics to a performance piece for the 2017 Leeds Lieder Festival, with music composed by Omar sung by mezzo-soprano Emily Hodkinson. Side by side, you might think they were the work of two different poets, which is a tribute to the range of what you discover in this unclassifiable collection.

.Songs of Saudi 
ii. Suheil’s song
Dhahran, October 1990
I am the man in the bathtub, calling you
from my ivory tank, a stubborn fish
stuck in a pond without water to protect 
against gas and bomb, only a mirror to 
busy line
reflect this solid tank, a stranded fish
in this rich place, no lack of anything,
even gas and bomb, only a mirror to 
see me talking, although missing you 
dial tone
in a rich place with no lack of anything
is not the point. The mirror wall
shows me talking, and missing you 
so far away shows we’re tied together
ring tone
but that’s not the point. The mirror wall
makes everything bigger than it is,
you so far away and us not together,
but separation builds deeper ties, 
ring tone
makes everything bigger than it is,
the sky truth blue, the sand heart gold,
and separation ties us deeper, builds us up
while the sun sulks red each night
empty line
my truth sky blue, my heart sand gold,
and their tiny half-heard voices make
my face wet red each night 
without a bedtime story
ring tone
and their tinny half-lost voices make
home a question, here in the safe house
without my bedtime story
that home is family is home,
ring tone

without family here in the safe house
with taped windows and CNN,           
as my family makes home without me 
and the heat reeks through the aircon,
busy line
licks the taped windows, and CNN keeps       
those fighters coming in my dreams.
The heat seeps through the aircon
but your cool voice in my right ear
dial tone
says fighters are nothing but dreams,
and the pond without water will defend 
and you are my voice, my right, my dear one,
and I am the man in the bathtub, calling you.
ring tone


Di Slaney can do lushly textured poems and then she can do this stripped back, near abstract, monochrome that is full of the aching distance of separation and disembodiment to the accompaniment of flickering TV screens and mindless electronic noise. It’s heartbreaking. But I wouldn’t leave you with a voice calling out of separation. I’ll finish instead with one from the third section of the book, from the what DI Slaney calls ‘the naughty ones’. If this poem was a painting it would be by Beryl Cooke, a saucy postcard of a poem. It’s in the same world as Pam Ayres’ asking forlornly ‘do you think Bruce Springsteen would fancy me?’




Feather boa, sequins, diamonds and lace,

Nut-brown bare arms and firm upright chassis –

so few wrinkles on that beaming face,

at 73, I want to be Shirley Bassey.


No bond can contain her, the dame is forever.

Feisty, fearless, well-sussed and sassy –

she may be a spender, spendthrift never never;

at 73, I have to be Shirley Bassey.


Belting voice, smutty laugh, star-spangled life,

diva supreme from a Tiger Bay lassie.

OK, not every man’s ideal wife,

but at 73, I must be Shirley Bassey.


Thigh slits, stilettos and festival wellies –

no wheelchair for me, I’ll still wiggle my assy.

Tight-fitting gowns will restrain all my bellies

and at 73, I will be Shirley Bassey.


Di Slaney..Thank you for being our guest..It’s taken me ages to finally write this post about Herd Queen. I hope I’ve given the readers a sense of its range and richness, and I hope I’ve persuaded them to go and buy it.

Herd Queen : Valley Press [2020]. 96pp £12.00