For Russell Hoban at the end of Christmas

Is there a book that you’d run into a burning house to save? I think this might just be the one I’d choose. If I could have more, along with Middlemarch I’d probably choose Riddley Walker.

I go on writing short posts about this time of year, because Russell Hoban changed the way I think about the world. It started when I met him at a NATE Conference some time in the 1970s. Breakfast. He was smoking roll-ups, Old Holborn, and eating All-Bran, was Mr Hoban. He was fulminating about the teachers in his writers workshop who had asked if they could have a coffee break. “What do they think writing’s about…a leisure pursuit?”…I’m paraphrasing. He was wonderful company.

Will Self wrote a tribute to him in 2011, the year he died, the 25th anniversary of the publication of Riddley Walker, which I go on arguing is one of the great novels of the 20th C.

few years ago, charged with writing a new introduction to a 25th-anniversary edition of Riddley Walker, I called the author, Russell Hoban, at his behest. A frail-sounding voice answered the phone, and when I explained who I was, Hoban fluted: “Would you mind calling back in half an hour or so? My wife and I are about to watch Sex and the City.” I put the receiver down chastened: here was a man in his 80s who had more joie de vivre than I could muster in hale middle age.

 After I met him, I discovered The Mouse and his Child. I’ve read it dozens of times, often when life feels unbearably bleak. It never fails to relight your faith in the human condition and the power of hope combined with love and endurance. It’s a story of a quest for self-winding, undertaken by a clockwork mouse and his child. You’d think it would be twee and sentimental. It isn’t. It’s profound, layered. Magic realism doesn’t do it justice. It sits very comfortably (or uncomfortably) alongside Angela Carter’s The magic toyshop. Saved by a tramp from the dustbin (where they’ve been thrown after being broken by a cat) they’re sort-of-mended and wound up, set down on the road and left to find their destiny. Just buy it and read it. Your life will be better.

You may even find yourself, as we did, collecting wind-up toys and bringing them out every Christmas. You might even find yourself making special boxes for them. And writing poems. So here we are, taking down the Christmas tree and the angels and lights and tinsels, and maybe lighting a candle for Russell Hoban and for the Mouse and his Child. Happy New Year

A prohibition

lifted on the stroke of midnight

on some special Eve, 

midsummer, say, or Christmas. 

Then, it’s said  that stones, or foxes,

trees, or owls can speak.

Or toys piled pell-mell in boxes

kept in lofts, in attic cupboards,

and things that hang in Christmas trees,

like fairies, snowmen, angels,

and wind-up clockwork toys.

What is it, do you think, they say

just once a year, just for one day?

The dark that lasts all year,

the silent dust that settlesclogs their tongues.

In truth, they’re mad as stones

and deaf as owls. They’re let to speak.

Have forgotten how, and what, to say;

stay silent till Twelfth Night

and then, once more, are put away.

(But actually, I do believe they are articulate, fluent, funny, wise and occasionally as cross as Russell Hoban could be. I believe they will become self-winding and live rich and loving lives)

Best of 2018. November and December: Tom Weir and Christopher North

 Tom Weir

(and once more, WordPress defeats me. The poem is in couplets. Visualise it in couplets, hear the line breaks)

Magic

Magic

You used to say there was magic in these stairs—

pistons turning, hammers getting to work,

springs being fixed onto the wings of birds.

I used to tiptoe because, under my feet,

there were clouds about to burst

and one night I dreamt I stamped so hard

rain fell and buried the village like Pompeii.

I still remember the step that kept

all the loose bits of storm, the one where trams

and buses went to be repaired

and the one that held curfews like ice about to break.

You used to say if we opened them up

we’d see men throwing wood onto the sun,

find out where waterfalls began,

but this chill has nothing to do with water.

Why did you never tell me about the one

that hid black ice? Or this one that sinks

under me now like a landmine, leaves me frozen

while everyone else carries on up to your room

to say goodbye and I cannot move?


Part of the magic of this poem, for me, is the way it understands how children imagine, how they are formed by chance encounters and stories whose tellers never imagined the impact they might have, and how our childhood is carried in us, and how we can be startled back into it, and in some ways become as powerless as a child. The framing narrative is kept implicit..you used to say …. these stairs …everyone else…..your room.The detail is kept for the stories of each tread, the fabulous tales told to a child who will never forget them. And then there’s the power of the image of one rooted to the foot of a staircase and its narrowing closed off perspective. I love the way poem pivots on that one line .why did you never tell me?  In its control and contained love and grief it does everything I want in a poem. Lovely

Christopher North

Finally, a poem about friendship to finish what, out there, in what politicianns like to call “the real world” , has been a horrible year. Thank you to all the poets who have been guests on the cobweb this year, and constantly reminded me that what survives of us is love.

The Night Surveyor: Dartington Gardens

(For Ben Okri)

After the farewell party we grabbed a bottle

and, on your suggestion, headed into the gardens,

pitch dark, rustling leaves, I don’t know how many came.

Giggling, without a torch we found the Tiltyard,

above us Cassiopeia, a slumped Great Bear.

Now be our night surveyor you said.

I declared to the six (or were there seven?):

‘The Cypress is twenty metres from the twelfth Apostle;

the fountain, two chains, fifteen eleven

Starlit dunes of Devon fields gleamed above trees

as we crossed silvered lawns and I announced:

we are four hundred feet above the sea

then led them up endless steps, finding risers with gentle kicks.

There’s this place of seven echoessomeone whispered

someone counter-whispered: No there’s only six.

Full fathom five.. I shouted from the bastion. 

No please not that one surveyor  you murmured, 

O trees of dark coral made?  – ‘No try something else.

Some bow or brooch or braid or brace, lace, latch or catch…

No echo but a leaden voice climbed inside my ear.

Over Staverton, or Berry Pomeroy’s lowly thatch

hung Jupiter, no Venus, or was it Mars?

One shouted:  I embrace the universal me,

voice cracked and small beneath shades and stars.

Two melted into trees: We remaining passed round wine.

The town below lolled in sodium as if bathing

and you yawned Get us back surveyor, I think it’s time.

I counted steps. Shadows rose and fell in bands.

Feeling for damp and stone, plotting silhouettes 

and shadows, gradually we became a chain of hands.

I really like the filmic quality of this, a film by Peter Greenaway…the draughtsman’s contract. The story of the bunch of tipsy chums stumbling around in the dark under a huge starlit sky, stumbling over silvered lawns, declaiming of bits of Shakespeare, the absurdity of it that gradually comes to its senses, and back to earth as The town below lolled in sodium. I love the way the declaiming poet comes back to the role of the measuring and sensible surveyor and the group of friends who became a chain of hands. The whole thing is witty, elegantly constructed, and ultimately life-affirming, lyrical and loving.

So there we are. Thank you to all the cobweb guest poets of 2018. I hope you all have a happy and successful 2019.

Why not make a start by submitting your poems about food, or food related poems, or poems with taste and flavour and possibly a recipe for a better world to The Fenland Reed. It’s a handsome journal edited by lovely folk. Go on. You know you should.

Here’s your link. https://www.thefenlandreed.co.uk/submissions

Best of 2018.November. Gaia Holmes and Pauline Yarwood

Gaia Holmes 

There’s a lot of ice (and also stars, and milk and fire) in Gaia’s poems ; there’s even an Ice Hotel in one collection. There’s the cold of loneliness and love gone wrong, and broken things that might be hearts or dreams which make you think twice about walking in bare feet. There’s the orphan voice of a narrator who sees things that no-one seems to notice her seeing. So I think this poem is a perfect choice for Boxing Day 2018.

The Allure Of Frost
Boxing day.
No fire in the grate and unopened presents
stacked around the base of the tree and fairy lights muted,
switched off, and the brandy that swells the fruit starting to eat
the cake in its tin and all the mirrors doused with tea towels
and your raw-eyed mother keening into a pillow in her bedroom
and too many men in black whispering and nodding
and I don’t know what the rosary is and whether to curtsey
to the priests when I hand them their tea
and the phrase ‘fruits of thy womb’ seem too ripe and too rich
for this and, Mary mother of God, I don’t know
how to cross myself and fear I’m invoking the devil
and the scent of death’s so thick
that it’s tainted the water and it’s heavy in the curtains
making them bend the rail
and your lips taste of the oils that grease your dead sister
and when I kiss you, you push me away and I want to spit
and weep and slap the corpse where she lies in her coffin
all done-up with hair grips and lipstick,
her sunken cheeks plumped out with wads of cotton wool
and the rictus of sin softened
by the crust of Rimmel Natural Beige powdering her face
and it’s so hot in here
that the cheese is sweating and the butter is liquid.
The chocolate coins are dripping from the tree.
Your Aunt’s un-bitten sandwiches
are curling upwards on her plate
and the lilies are wilting and stinking in their vases
and the cat stands quivering and retching
against the cold crack beneath the back door.
Outside the frost, not knowing any difference,
continues to sparkle. And I’d like to go out there.
I’d like to stand in it until my feet turn blue.

I think this has everything in it that I think of as a Gaia Holmes poem. The piling on and on of sensory detail, the Alice in Wonderland sense that the logic of things is wrong; the wistfulness, the vulnerablity, and the pluck of a girl who will stand in a sparkling frost till her feet turn blue and the world becomes real again. It also has the undertow of of a diffuse guilt about religious uncertainty  (which resurfaces in The Lord’s Prayer, a poem with a sting in its tail)

and I don’t know what the rosary is 
……..and, Mary mother of God, I don’t know
how to cross myself

Pauline Yarwood

(apologies, in advance. Pauline’s poem is in four line stanzas. WordPress is defying all my efforts at keeping the double spaces. Forgive me)

the slippery-slidey look you almost saw,

One of those things that just stick, and seemed to me to catch a quality that I like in Pauline’s writing. A sideways look can be suspicious. It can be cautious or secretive. It’s the quality of noticing that seems to come with a withheld comment. And it also suggests to me the things accidentally seen, that come without the filter of expectation, as though seen for the first time. Think of walking through a city street and suddenly seeing your reflection in a shop window, that elderly/dishevelled/comic/clumsy/ill-dressed you who can’t possibly be you, that isn’t you looking as you imagine you’re seen, but as you actually are in that split second. The you a dark watcher would see, and withhold judgement, but be thinking it anyway. A sideways look sees something on the periphery, and brings it to the centre.

Being Eight

I wanted out of childhood,

away from unexplained asides,

the slippery-slidey look you almost saw,

the put that lip away you, now.

It seemed to me that film stars had it sussed,

always smiling satisfied, grown-up smiles.

I wondered how they did it, how they fixed that grin.

My plan was to look like that, and so I thought

if I wedged my pillows high behind me,

tightened the sheet over the blanket,

sat bolt upright, hands good-girl folded,

and fell asleep with a smile as wide as the sea

then my smile would last forever,

fixed in perpetuity.

You can take that look off your face

But, no, I can’t.  I can’t.

I like the sure-footedness of this poem, its clarity, the iambic ease of it. It never misses a beat. And I especially like the ambiguity…or do I mean ambivalence? I like the observation of the way that children find adults puzzling, hard to read, but suspecting that somehow they have spotted a transgression that was never intended in a look you almost saw. The strategy of sitting bolt upright with a fixed smile that will ‘stay’ and make a film star of you is beautifully surprising, and I love the doubleness of the italicised ending, which may declare a ruefulness or a defiance. Maybe that I can’t is really an I can’t, because it isn’t in me. Nailed it.

Best of 2018. October: Laura Potts

Laura Potts

Alma Mater

Widow-black and winter, evening took me south into

lamps burning blue in the dusk. Out and over my hometown musk

lay the hinterland hills breathing low in the dark. Still,

frostspark sharp on the city streets, holy rain sweet

in the winter and the wet, with no evening stars ahead I let

the pavement take me home. Through the town nocturnal, gloam

and grey, my chimney throat coughing its smoke, I saw aslope

on the city’s slow spine those old black gates, the summer of my days

inside. Grief cracked my face. Those navy girls and me, a pace

always ahead. But in the pale stairwell light the ghost of my girlhood dead

in its fresh green spring and gone. From roadside wet I looked on

at this child of light, her afterglow bright, her ashes of life

already black. The cold breath of loss on my face. At my back

a schoolbell cracked at the evening air. I saw Death at my table there

tipping his hat, and the years in my face that sank as I sat

at that desk at the back of the class. I remember that. And last,

on an old December evening, down hallways dark the wilting hymns

of girls turned ghosts before their time, I saw their eyes

like candles cold, like lights no longer leading home. Outside, to the bone

I shook and swung, the darkened seas that were my eyes done

and gone at the sight of myself. Each girl ringing her own passing bell.

Well, in that mist and half-dark morning, my face a clenching fist

in pavement pools, I saw that septic, terminal school for what it was.

I never went back, of course. I tipped my compass north.

The first time I heard this poem, I wanted to see it on the page. You need to hear it first, and then you need to have it in front of you, so you can read it aloud and try its syntax and rich texture on the tongue. I love the way it starts, in a landscape realised like an Atkinson Grimshaw painting (which is why I chose one). I love the persona of the narrator, a dark watcher who puts me in mind of others, like Jane Eyre, Mary Lennox, and of Stephen Dedalus, the ones who examine their isolation, or alienation, and square their shoulders, and become resolute. As she watches her own ghost with a mixture of pity and a huge sense of loss, of being cast adrift, the clenched fist of a face fighting back tears becomes the clenched fist of defiance. That last sentence nails it.

I tipped my compass north.

I really like that stripped back line after the rich language that comes before. And I like that rich language too. Laura kicks the fashion of the day.

Best of 2018. August and September: Clare Shaw and Jack Faricy

August

Clare Shaw 

(from a post reviewing her latest collection, Flood, from which this poem is taken)

 The biblical flood is unavoidable, isn’t it? In this version though, the survival is that of the wife and mother, and the survival is that of her self. Mrs Noah can say at the end : this is my voice. And it’s been hard-won. (I should say in passing that I like the device of using the stages of developing flood as described in a kind of Beaufort scale of inundation as titles for poems; I like the way that this one conflates and elides her personal story with the story of the valley, and its flood with those of myth).

Low lying regions inundated. Large objects begin to float

My man was not blameless but he knew his own mind.
He loved his sons, his God, his goats.
We were solid as wood, as steady as bread.
It was not perfect: it was what I had.
I brought up boys in a time of war.
I loved them. I had no choice.

And this is my voice:

you would not believe the violence;
how the ground was covered in minutes;
how quickly our valley was Nile.

When the river came with a sound like battle
and when all the waters were one

then we knew how angry we’d made him
and it was too late to run.

When I tell you I feared for my life

for my children – you cannot imagine.
When I say, I saw people drown,
they looked in my face and I could not help them –
ours was the only boat on that ocean;

a boat the size of a zoo, a mansion;
a sea the size of the world.

I lived to see what I loved destroyed
and all my world was unmade.

Forty days. The boredom and stink
and the darkness. No wonder

the birds pulled out their feathers
and the bear banged his head on the wall.
And when the rain stopped,

then the silence.

The mountains a dream in the waters beneath us.
I think, that day, there was sun.

When floods recede,
they don’t leave a world made shiny

and bright. For years, I’ll be cleaning up shit.
No bird nor branch can make this right.
No trick of the light. No I’ll-never-do-it

again. No god or man.

I loved him. I had no choice.
And this is my voice:
it takes more than a dove
and I will not forgive.

That note of defiance, truculence, even, sounds like a trumpet. It’s the voice of a survivor.

Jack Faricy

This was from the third post to introduce the work of poets I meet at The Albert Poets Monday night workshop group in Huddersfield. You’ve met David Spencer and Regina Weinert. Now meet Jack Faricy. 

Spoor

His silt-soled footprint fits like skin;

its mud-mould gives

a little, goads the nuzzling toes

and flexing arch.

I try to feel my way in, discern

the pulse of his veins,

hunt-quickened, alive

to some new cunning in his prey.  My eyes

strain to be his, not blurred

and blinking in the wind, but whetted

keen, flashing and darting

as he harries an aurochs

to death, heedless of shapes

left in the sand to harden, become relics

of the chase, like this

fragment of his scattered form.

Nothing. We share nothing

but this tide-washed stratum.

My foot’s a blindworm

thwarted in its burrowing, nostalgic

for its cast-off skin.

I turn back to the dunes. A boy

digs; his mother, deck-chaired,

wind-shielded, hugs herself for warmth,

waves.  I retrace the steps between us.

This poem reminds me that Jack’s poems have two qualities that particularly grab my attention. One is the quality of curiosity coupled with a wide frame of reference; you can find yourself anywhere in the world or in history. The other is the way he will seize on the moment that draws you in, and then speculate about its back-story, which is often (but not invariably) presented quite filmically.  So we start with the fossil record of the momentary impression of a long-dead hunter, his single footprint in estuary mud, then strain to see through his eyes, and fail. My foot’s a blindworm. I think this image nails it. We’ve reached a dead end, and then the focus shifts, as it does in film, back to the living and loved. We have been away too long. 

The best of 2018 . July: David Spencer

David Spencer

David is not primarily a “poet”. This is important. Born in Halifax, he is a dramatist and has been creative writing tutor at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg, Burgtheater Wien and the University of Arts in Berlin. His numerous plays were staged at the Royal Court Theatre in London, Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg, Volksbühne Berlin. The first time I heard him read was at The Albert Poets in Huddersfield, and he didn’t so much read as perform. His poems are more often than not, I think, soliloquies, and are written, consciously or not, as you would write for performance. They are like a score or a script, waiting for a performer who who understands  who the narrator is and what motivates him or her.

Jim Caruth called his Poetry Business winning Pamphlet The death of narrative because another poet told him that narrative was dead. I was told pretty well, by another famous poet, that narrative isn’t the real deal. Except she characterised it as “the anecdote, the conversation at the bus-stop” which was all very well in its place but that place was probably not ‘poetry’. And I thought well, if it’s true, that’s me stuffed. But it isn’t true. One of the most essential things we did after we invented language was to invent stories. I cannot imagine that we ever thought of using it to make lies. Not at first. We told stories to remember, to make sense of the world. It seems to me right now that people in power are doing the exact opposite., and it’s a crime that goes beyond denunciation or any possibility of forgiveness.

This poem is a narrative; it is set in Germany and one that David performs with rare passion. A poem of useful anger.

We Came to Lay Flowers

with the written permission of the Berlin police,

three hundred of us, here for comrade Mathilde

as she was there for comrade Rosa. We are to the left

and we are in the right, as comrade Jakob was

in the Altnazizeit.

just three of us may enter the Tiergarten town hall.

And now, a delegation, the cops say a delegation;

We say: “All of us or none of us, we came to lay flowers.”

Negotiators  negotiate. We crank the lautie louder

“Fuck, fuck, fuck the police! Fuck, fuck, fuck the police!”

We are AntiFa, we are Black Block; we are Green Partei, PDS,

we are SPD, members of the Jewish community; my Germany.

Riot squads down visors, hammer shields, “Fuck, fuck, fuck

the police!” deploy CS gas, water cannon, elite Hessische 

snatch bulls; I have seen this shit before:

Belfast, South Africa House, the Miners’ Strike, G8 summit.

With their telescopic whips, their tonfas, they will hurt us.

We are afraid but we are AntiFa: “Fuck, fuck, fuck the police!”

Five to our one, they kettle in; we are AntiFa, we do not run;

we came to lay flowers.

For comrade Mathilde Jacob, Rosa Luxemburg’s secretary and friend; (born, 8 of March 1873 and murdered 14 of April 1943, Theresienstadt.)

I was thinking before I wrote this piece that there is so much to be rightly angered about, from mindless validations of racist violence by powerful men, the brutal separation of children from parents, the needless and pointless deaths of disabled people by the withholding of benefits, the genocides of Palestine and Yemen, the sustained attacks on truth in the MSM…on and on. I have never known a time of so much hate, and we need people who can confront it with controlled anger and empathy for the wronged. We need poets who can write it. 

Keep on insisting that we will lay flowers even if we have to fight to do it.

The best of 2018: June Regina Weinert

Regina Weinert

 Regina researches language and linguistics; she writes ‘short’ poems. Put them together and you have the economy and precision that I’ve come to admire in her work. And also to envy it. My own writing sprawls. I don’t do short, especially ones built out of crafted couplets, and I’m fascinated by poets who can and do. Of the four she shared earlier, I picked this one. (for some reason, WordPress keeps reformatting the poem. It’s in couplets. try to imagine that)

Mistake, sister

Neither of us paid much attention to birds,

we never chased pigeons,

noticed gulls only as a threat

to our picnic or to our Sunday skirts.

If I remember rightly, your interest

was limited to a duck’s sense of timing,

how it pretended to study the grass

before snatching  the bacon from dad’s plate.

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long.

It’s all in the movement, the way you swoop

and dive in and out of your daily doings, yes,

you’re some kind of low flyer.

What always struck me was the lack

of doubt. Now I see the hesitation

I took for nonchalance, all that chaperoning,

how pristine you keep your wings.

( first published in  Somewhere to keep the rain, [Winchester Poetry Festival 2017, Sarsen Press])

What has always struck me in Regina’s writing is the way she understands line breaks. Look at the work that’s done by the big space between  swoop    /    and dive, all the expanse of air it implies. Or the space between lack  /  of doubt.Lovely. I like the way that apparent conversational tone, the unselfconsciousness of the voice, works with the accurate, careful diction; that’s where that immersion in language and linguistics pay off. It’s expressive and tight at the same time, like a confident etching.