One of my fictional heroes is Esther Summerson in ‘Bleak House’. Most of the students I’ve ‘taught’ on A level and on degree courses disliked her or dismissed her as wetly pious. I argued long and hard for her courage, her moral strength; I always believed in her genuine humility rooted in a sense of her own worthlessness. It takes a lot for her to believe that she can truly be loved, as opposed to being relied on. I’m not sure if this is germane to this week’s cobweb strand. Who knows where we’ll end up. But, like Esther, ‘I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I am not very clever.’ She adds: ‘I always knew that’. I wish I could, hand on heart, say that. And let me clear up what I mean by clever here. I’m not talking about smart arse clever (I always knew that) or clever-clogs clever. What I have in mind is ‘knowing’; the knowledge of the heart and the imagination, and the knowledge of the physical self. That’s what’s been preoccupying me for weeks, and while the point of this week’s cobweb strand is to celebrate poems by my friend Wendy Pratt, I’m concerned that it’ll get tangled up with ideas I’m wrestling with as I try to write a review of collections by Wendy, and by Clare Shaw. I first tried to clarify it in a post on December 28 [The other side of silence]. This what I wrote about poems by Wendy and by Fiona Benson:
‘There’s a physicality about these poems that’s unanswerable, and a synthesis of the solid worlds of absolutely imagined birds and wild creatures, of weathers and the leaching of soils and the decay of rocks with the intensely particular personal lifeof the poet that makes this collection so wonderful and distressing. She [Fiona Benson] reminds me of Wendy Pratt, not just because of the coincident experience, but their way of somehow living on level terms with it, and their way with words. Like this from ‘Nan Harwicke turns into a hare‘
I will tell you how it was. I slipped
into the hare like a nude foot
into a glorious slipper. Pushing her bones
to one side to make room for my shape
so I could settle myself like a child within her.
In the dark I groped for her freedom…..
There’s that physicality, that sensuality, again, and again infused by the unspeakable loss of a child that has to be spoken and spoken for.’
What I hung back from was something I’ve been trying out in not-very-coherent conversations; this is the idea that it’s not an accident that some of the poems that have moved me most of late are written by women. It’s not an accident, either, that I’ve been absorbed in stories of metamorphosis, particularly in retellings of Ovid. What has been consistent in this is the feeling that women have access to knowledge that men can’t have. The feeling that women are metamorphic and tidal, that they go through changes that a man can’t imagine, and that this makes them capable of different modes of imagining. It doesn’t mean that all of them can articulate it, or are necessarily consciously aware of it. But when they are the results are powerful and unnerving. When I re-read Ted Hughes’ retellings of Ovid, and even Robin Robertson [in ‘Swithering’] what I think is that these are external. Powerful, but externally dramatised. I’m struggling to articulate it. What I find in, say, Fiona Benson, and in the passage from Wendy Pratt’s poem I just quoted is a kind of emotional fluidity and in Hughes and Robertson a sort of epic stiffness.
It’s an analogy at best. Just for now, it’ll have to do. A hostage to fortune. But I’d like to know what readers think, before I dig myself any deeper in what may be a misconceived notion. I’ll leave it at that, for now, take a deep breath of relief, and get on with letting Wendy Pratt introduce herself:
Wendy Pratt was born in Scarborough, North Yorkshire in 1978. She now lives just outside Filey. She studied Biomedical Science at Hull University and worked as a Microbiologist at the local NHS hospital for thirteen years. She recently completed a BA in English Literature with the Open University and is now studying towards her MA in creative writing with the MMU.
She has enjoyed publication of her poetry in many journals and magazines and her first poetry pamphlet, Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare was published by Prolebooks in 2011.It was well received, being reviewed favourably in the TLS. Her first full size collection, Museum Pieces is also published by Prolebooks. It was launched in Leeds, in January 2014.
Wendy is the poetry correspondent for Northern Soul, where she writes a regular column called ‘Northern Accents’. She is also part of the womentoring project. Her third collection, a pamphlet entitled Lapstrake will be published by Flarestack Poets in 2015.
What she modestly doesn’t mention is her absorbed interest (no, it’s more passionate than interest) in the archaeology of her part of the East Coast, in its Viking past, in urn burials and antlers, in handled stones and bone fragments. And she understandably doesn’t mention what is central to her most lyrical and elegiac writing…which is the loss of a child and the metamorphoses of fertility and infertility. But you should buy her books and read that for yourselves. She’s sent me two poems for the cobweb. The first she calls her ‘headline’ poem. It’s from her Nan Hardwicke pamphlet
Stop playing the fool, bag,
spooled round the wind, in the corner
of my yard. Stop teasing me.
Stop folding the sky through the creases
of your polythene skin, stop inhaling the breeze
with your single billowed lung.
You act like you’ve only ever known the air
but I’ve seen you lumped with your brethren
on the back seat of a Volvo, or slung
on pushchair handles, your belly hung low
like a dead deer between two poles.
Stop touching the leaves like you love them, bag,
they are not for you.
Yes, you’ve been passed around
and done your duty as a rubbish bin, lunch box and
wet trunks receptacle, but, bag, I love you.
Don’t spurn me now, for a few weightless seconds.
Come home, where you are loved for your humble willingness,
your honest shape. I’ve seen the simple pleasure
that you take in caressing the meagre shopping of the old,
the loose testicular swing of a pair of oranges
or mandarins. Bag, I’ve let you carry my own.
I’ve folded you over my secret purchases, we’ve shared
our half truths, bag. You’ve slipped into the pocket of my jeans
on those long dog walks and risen, brimming with bottles
on a Friday night. We’ve forgotten the world together, bag.
Don’t leave me now, for imaginings of flight.
There’s cheek, that riff on MacCaig’s toad….stop looking like a purse…….and sheer improvisational verve, all the play with a plastic bag in a windy backyard. I love that. But I think it goes beyond homage and playfulness and exuberance. It morphs does this bag, like ghosts, like undersea things, like ectoplasm, and the poet’s in a collusive morphing relations ship with it. ‘Bag, I love you.’ They share secrets and half truths. The last two lines make the whole poem into something quite different from what I thought it was going to be, or mean. Think on the resonance of that line:
We’ve forgotten the world together.
Because Wendy Pratt is a serious poet who takes on seriously important issues. So much of her poetry really is a matter of life and death. I’m delighted that she sent this new one for me to share with you. I have an image of the tiny shoes of a child wrapped in faded tissue, and it has coloured the way I read the poem. That’s what reading is. Every implied reader becomes an implicit and collusive co-writer. Maybe I should have kept this comment to the end. But I’ll leave it as it is, say thank you to Wendy, and finish with her poem. And a hare for Nan Hardwicke.
You wear your death like dance slippers,
taking them out of their coffin-box
at the barre, while you arabesque and plié,
allegro lightly round the room, touch the mirror,
turn, feel your feet bleed into the blocks,
assemble on your own edge, bitter
and full of remorse. The dance becomes a quick-step,
a flamenco, a stream of soft tap, a fox-trot.
The slippers lead. But you are no black swan.
Someone needs to stop you, pull you back, help,
‘There’s something eerie about a hare, no matter how stringy and old……..into your dreams she waltzes strung with starlight’ [Ted Hughes: What is the truth]
Wendy Pratt’s books:
Nan Hardwicke turns in to a hare : (with a preface by Alison Brackenbury) Prolebooks [2011.] £4.50
Museum Pieces (with a foreword by Abegail Morley) Prolebooks  £6.50