Definitions and differences

I’ve been reading one of the books I got for Christmas: The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams. It’s like the Lindt chocolate shop for word-nerds! I told my daughter about mountweazels, made-up words inserted into dictionaries to serve as copyright-infringement traps. She misremembered the word as “snout-wurzel”, which I have since decided is a disparaging term for a dipsomaniac old man with a nose like a wizened turnip.

On being asked if she has a favourite word, Eley Williams expressed a fondness for “pamphlet”. I currently consider it one of the more triggering words in the English language. Eley Williams thinks it almost onamatopoiec, the breeze of fingers riffling through a slender volume. I am less socially appropriate. I suspect “pamphlet” to be a species of broken wind. Not the great florid rambunctiousness of fully letting rip but a muffled half-squeak of minor embarrassment: “Pardon me, I’ve just released a pamphlet.”

What, then, is one to call a poem from said pamphlet? I have one in the Dialect anthology, available here, anyway.

I am still not writing. What is the term for a non-writing writer? “A monster courting insanity”, if Kafka is to be believed. I cannot make myself write. I cannot force myself to power through a visceral aversion. I certainly cannot shame myself into doing so. It’s far from ideal, I realise that. But I sense that it will come back, provided I am not too insistent.

In the meantime, I am keeping my hand moving across the page in my sketchbook. This week I have taken a deep dive into Nicholas Wilton’s free Art2Life workshops. I have been exploring the concept of differences through the principles of design and value (whilst getting significant mileage out of the metaphors, to boot). Understand these, he says, and the majority of your (artistic!) problems are solved. And so I contentedly fill pages with shade and tone and the marvels of monochrome. Next up is, inevitably, colour. I’m a little apprehensive. This is the point, in previous courses I’ve done, that I get overwhelmed by the limitless possibilities available. But at the moment this feels like one challenge I am actually equal to. Mark me, then, daimons of the polychromaton, ye denizens of Pantonium; I have my eye on you.

What’s Hecuba to me?

Or I to Hecuba? I wrote last time that I was revisiting, and enjoying, Virgil’s Aeneid. On Saturday morning I took a break from my usual exercise routine and did an hour of Latin before breakfast instead. Or rather, I intended an hour but stopped after 40 minutes. God, it’s hard work! I have to read verrrry slowwwly: that’s quite enough for one day. Now, where’s my porridge and mug of English Breakfast?

All lies, of course. The truth of the matter is I put Virgil down because Aeneas’ telling of the fall of Troy was upsetting me. How many times have I read or heard that story? How many versions have I watched? I only picked up the Aeneid because Dante led me back to it and I am currently feeding a fascination with his Divine Comedy. I thought I was returning to my Latin A-Level text: a nicely gratifying intellectual exercise. Damn it, Virgil, I was not expecting to be emotionally affected by your 2000-year-old hexameters! I feel ambushed. I feel ridiculous. And quietly jubilant that words, that poems, have this power – even in a work I assumed familiarity had rendered inert.

My own words appear to have gone into early hibernation. Checking my notebook, I am reassured on confirming that my writing does indeed tend to go underground at this time of year. It is not a worry, then, yet (though I must take care over other early warning signs of depression I have noted) but it is still a far from pleasant state to be in.

I have returned to my recently neglected sketchbook. Wanting to keep things simple, and not overwhelm myself with limitless possibilities, I have been focusing on pen and ink sketches of stuff around the house. Well, if the pen won’t write, perhaps it can still be persuaded to draw!

I picked up a pear to eat with my porridge this morning and actually said, “Oh, hello: it’s you!” when I recognised it as one of the three I drew yesterday. So the act of giving my attention to the contents of the fruitbowl has transformed them from ‘it’ to ‘you’. Hecuba… pears… where is this going? I don’t know. I have no answers, but that’s fine as long as I am still making responses to things.

Writing is for life, not just for Swanwick

“What do you do?”
“I write.”
“Oh! So you actually make a living from your writing?”
“I make a life from it.”
“But it puts food on the table.”
“Tea, perhaps. Ink.”

What do you do? Even at a writing school this is the question I am invariably asked by new acquaintances, before they ask my name. As if even here people must be sorted according to, and validated by, a recognised economic activity. If that is so, I am in-valid. Do I believe that? Sometimes, yes. (Keeping me hungry, sleep-deprived and in fear of the shared air we’re breathing certainly fosters that belief.) Amongst writers it’s beyond depressing: I mean, where’s the imagination? Where’s the curiosity?

What do you do?
I sit alone in a small room, gazing at the sky, muttering rags and tatters of phrases.
What do you do?
I spend hours in the company of people I know do not exist. (And, while we are on the subject, I struggle to accept the belief that the people in Tescos are more real.)
What do you do?
I am told “No” a lot. I wrestle constantly with the Great Doubt (and occasionally with the Great Faith.)
What do you do?
I walk the path of failure. Even the best poem is a muffled echo of what I originally heard, a distorted reflection of what I saw. And if it were any better, it would replace that “revelation” with itself; a small neat murder, the way a memory is supplanted by the story one makes of it afterwards.
What do you do?
I persevere.

***

From writing to reading. Perhaps it is the pull of the tide of the new school year, but I’ve been compelled to acquire a bilingual edition of Virgil’s Aeneid  thirty years after Book 2 was my Latin A-Level set text. I’m reading a handful of pages each day. It has rapidly become something I look forward to. Of course, it is gratifying to discover that I’ve “still got it” (with the help of a vocab. list and quick glances at the, distinctly archaic, English translation when I get stuck), but the necessity of reading slowly rather than racing along at my usual clip is leading to a richer experience of the story. Juno is angry and attempts to shipwreck Aeneas. Who cares, right? But Juno is really feckin’ pissed off over repeated slights upon emotional wounds and I don’t blame her. Aeneas has been through ten years of war, his homeland has been destroyed, his people murdered or forced into slavery; he would rather share their fate than be in this boat breaking apart in a storm in the Mediterranean.

What was I saying about people I know do not exist?

Actually, it is Dante’s doing. Last year I read his Divine Comedy (in translation) for the second time after a gap of thirty years. And less than a year later, I find myself reading him again, scribbling copious notes and responses. I do not pretend to understand what is driving me. I don’t especially need to know. I trust that it will become clear enough in time: for now I’m just following my nose.

Unsettled

Last week I had another mentoring session with Pascale. Every time I go through the steps of the same tiresome dance beforehand. I get jittery and snappish with anyone who tries to talk to me. The Whisperer turns surly, to the tune of “why to goodness are you even putting yourself through this? whose bright idea was it? why the hell blah, blah, blah… .” Without fail the printer gets jammed or takes off on some kind of electronic fugue state or the broadband has an existential crisis and questions the whole meaning and value of connecting and… and… at the last minute everything pulls into focus, it is three o’clock, I’m clicking on “join meeting” and we’re off.

It does not get any easier. If anything, it was worse this time as I was unhappy with the poems I’d sent. (And I had been sleeping poorly. And my little back room was sweltering while the neighbours were splashing about beneath my window in their new patio-pool whose jacuzzi motor whined like an ignored child all afternoon and well into the evening.) But I know by now that I can be honest with Pascale and that I can deal with her comments on my work. She is never unkind. She is never dismissive. But neither does she say something is good when it is not. She tells me when I have wandered off into abstraction again. She tells me when I am losing the thread (and the reader with it). She tells me when things simply need fine-tuning, or re-ordering, or a thorough overhaul. I trust her professional judgement. I trust her as a person.

Throughout this mentoring process, I have sent her over sixty poems; many of them new, others substantial reworkings of existing pieces. I have done more work in these three months than in the previous three years. It has been difficult, occasionally miserable, sometimes exhilarating. And it has become not ordinary exactly (I don’t think writing poetry and sharing it with others will ever feel ordinary) but it is something that is done. Somewhere along the way I have lost the conviction that I must justify it to others as a valid way of spending my time and energies.

In the beginning I had a block, to the point of phobia, of showing my work, even my best pieces. As for sharing works in progress: not on your life! I also had a misguided notion, which I even recognised as nonsense at the time, that I had to do everything by myself, that to accept advice or suggestions from a “proper poet” was somehow cheating. My word, I had so many powerful strategies for making things unnecessarily difficult for myself!

I still have a lot of resistance towards sending work to magazines etc. I need to get over that, for the sake of doing my poetry justice, but also I owe it to Pascale, and to Dialect for giving me the opportunity in the first place.

Three months ago, if I had thought to ask myself what kind of feedback I really wanted, I’d probably have said I’d love someone to say my work was really good (not great: don’t think I could have handled that much!) and that I just needed to keep on doing what I was doing. I’d have been happy with sixty promising-to-good poems. No, not happy: I’d have settled. Amongst this session’s poems was one I had written as homework for the Poetry and Journalling workshop I am attending. Looking back afterwards through the scans of Pascale’s notes, I read “good but not special”. This is possibly my favourite piece of feedback! It offers a whole other order of possibility and potential. And so from these sixty poems I am now putting together a pamphlet of twenty. And they are better than good. I still can’t bring myself to think them special, but I recognise my voice in them. They are mine.

Zooming, stumbling, feeling the way

So. I’ve gone from being a Zoom newbie in March to attending five sessions in one week: two for NaPoWriMo; a mentoring catch-up meeting with Juliette from Dialect; the first of six Poetry and Journalling workshops; and Writers’ HQ’s weekly ‘flash face-off’ event’s 1st birthday party.

I have mixed feelings about Zoom. Yes, it makes ‘things’ possible (and I have attended readings and festivals etc. that were out of the question, pre-pandemic). But it does resemble an open-plan office. I find myself stressing about inefficiency every time the chat strays off-topic.

I do realise it is about more than getting work done and being efficient. And I do value being in a room with others who ‘get’ the writing thing, especially the poetry thing. I miss the monthly writing days with Writers’ HQ (and not just because of the sandwiches and cake, though that was obviously a draw). One of my worries about the mentoring is that when it comes to an end I will be returned to my disconnected, isolated routine, writing in a vacuum. I love my ‘anchorage’ and my solitude: loneliness is another matter altogether.

I would be more at ease on Zoom if I were good at making witty, insightful, or even coherent observations off the cuff. I like to consider things, have a good long think about them. I need to write things down (or draw, or paint them) to make sense of them. It surprises me this isn’t more of a writer-thing. The Whisperer, of course, tells me my lack of immediate response is construed as rudeness or stupidity. To my discredit, it’s the charge of ‘stupidity’ that bothers me the more of the two.

In more tech-related news, I have belatedly bought (pardon me, invested in!) a new tablet. My ancient laptop has become, at this point, a magic typewriter with email. I underestimated the degree to which it was exhausting me, all the hours spent peering into the screen of my phone. In the past fortnight, my new kit has gone from being a complete revelation to almost invisibility.

There is rather a lot of writing being done. In one week I have written good drafts of five new poems, all of them begun from prompts in the Zoom sessions. I am not necessarily writing the collection I thought I was, though. Some of the new pieces clearly belong to it, but other stuff is tugging at my sleeve, too. Is this a distraction? A new direction? I don’t know. Maybe I need to get these things out of my system, to clear the way for what I am meant to be writing. What I do not want to do at this stage is to veto anything.

Fear is a super power

You know that ice-breaker question, if you had a super-power, what would it be? I usually pick photosynthesis. I like my food, but just think of all the time it would free up: no more planning, sourcing, prepping, cooking and clearing up after meals. I could repurpose the kitchen cupboards as (yet more) bookshelves. I suppose I’d have to get used to green skin. That is less appealing, though anyone who wants to test my anger management skills by referring to my 5’1” frame as Hulk, give it a go. Although… in winter I am already a pale blue, which in summer becomes a startling white that reddens after twenty minutes beneath an overcast sky. I could adapt.

I hadn’t given much consideration to anxiety as a potential super-power. But now I think of it, residual traces of OCD in my system have likely helped keep me safe from Covid-19 these past twelve months. (For the record, I am NOT washing and sanitising my hands more than usual. We don’t all begin on the same starting-line: some of us are further round the bend than others.) But perhaps a long-term relationship with anxiety has put me in the novel position of feeling like the sanest person in the room as repeated lockdowns wreak havoc with the mental health of the populace at large. I have accidentally been in training for this for years.

And then I was awarded this mentoring opportunity. I was indeed anxious at the prospect of discussing my poems, in detail, with Pascale. Actually, I was anxious enough to wake at 5am for a 3pm Zoom meeting. But when everything has the potential to trigger the anxiety response, facing something properly scary doesn’t necessarily become the grand drama it would otherwise be.

Pascale is thorough! I’d sent her 25 poems and she talked about each one. I was delighted (if ‘delighted’ is a synonym for ‘incredulous’) when she called a handful of them ‘stunners’ and said she had no improvements to suggest. She talked me through some writing exercises I might try, for generating new work. And then we spent the rest of the three hours discussing how best to edit and improve ‘good’ poems. Primarily by being less abstract and removing anything that hinders the rapidity of the line (and by not introducing famous painters halfway through a poem only to drop them two lines later. Or having a seagull utter a phrase stolen from the mouth of a tetchy academic. How to goodness did I not notice those howlers?! The horror!) I had no idea how I would respond to having my work critiqued. Pascale did so with good humour, sensitivity and care. By the end of the three hours, I was mentally exhausted but emotionally buoyant. It is such a privilege to see my poems through her eyes. And as for hearing her read them back to me… .

Since then I have read through Pascale’s notes and made a rough schedule for ‘fixing’ those poems. I wrote a (terrible) draft of a poem using only one vowel (from one of Pascale’s exercises). I started two new pieces. I realised the enormity of the task ahead of me and felt briefly overwhelmed but mostly excited. I have so much work to do! I stepped into the unknown and booked a series of six poetry workshops.

I also sent two stories to Stroud Short Stories, one of which went on to be longlisted while the other was chosen to be broadcast on YouTube on 9th May. I have been invited to record it at the Cotswold Playhouse later this month. I am delighted. Having my story chosen and reading at SSS’s event in November 2019 was a turning point for me. It was a timely and much needed confirmation that I might actually be quite good at this writing malarkey. I was also astonished to discover that, despite threatening to go out-of-body with nerves (I was the ninth of ten readers that night), I loved being on stage and reading to an audience. Good memories, and positive things to take forward.

Timepiece

Three Poems by Hannah Sullivan, Faber 2018

Hannah Sullivan’s T. S. Eliot prize-winning debut collection comprises three long-form poems: You, Very Young in New York; Repeat Until Time, and The Sandpit After Rain. Her ambition in the age of the 9-second attention span is commendable. Likewise the confidence to allow the long lines of these poems their elbow room.

She says her aim with You, Very Young in New York ‘wasn’t to write a “poem” but a kind of essay in verse.’ Yet there’s plentiful poetic form on display, shape-shifting between terza rima and rhyming couplets amongst others.

She addresses her younger self in an unflinching, documentary style, capturing a particular, privileged, young life, oblivious to the luxury of ‘waiting to get older’, the impatience for things to ‘happen’ even in the expected excitement of New York.

Nothing happens. You try without success
The usual prescriptions, the usual assays on innocence.
I love you to the wrong person, I feel depressed,

… But the senses, laxly fed, are self-replenishing,
Fresh as the first time, so even the eventual

Sameness has a savour for you. Even the sting
When someone flinches at I love you
Is not unwelcome, like the ulcer on your tongue

Her self-exposure can make for uncomfortable reading. At times it resembles the kind of thing teenaged girls are warned against posting on social media, for fear it will show up years later and scupper their careers:

You are thinking of masturbating but the vibrator’s batteries are low
And the plasticine-pink stick rotates leisurely in your palm

There is a whiff of ‘too cool for school’, a passive-aggressive showing-off, which may indeed be the preserve of a privileged twenty-something:

Your psychiatrist said it would help your productivity,
But it feels like drawn-out sex on coke, like something dirty.

When she stands outside herself and considers the world of which she is a part/apart, this brittleness comes into its own and flowers into beauty:

Overripe in September they need to rest in the icebox, sitting with their bruises.
All summer you have been dreaming of Fall and its brittle confection of branches.

From peaches to novelists in Starbucks

Picking like pigeons at the tail of the morning croissant,

Shifts in tone accompany shifts in form, turning deftly from the wryly pertinent description of an ex-lover’s foreplay as ‘like someone testing the grass for a picnic’ to the bluntness of ‘trying out the bad banana taste of Durex on your tongue’.

Likewise from the height of self-absorption to what is surely a riff on T. S. Eliot’s ‘April is the cruellest month’:

Now plans have changed, it is April, and the first hot day of the year
Has exploded from nowhere. Skin is as profuse and white as funeral flowers.

Subtitled The Heraclitus Poem, Sullivan calls Repeat Until Time ‘an essay on repetition and history’. It is still personal, but there is a shift towards the philosophical. This is the hinge of the book. The theme, the familiar idea that one never steps twice in the same river, is addressed head-on in the opening lines:

1.1
The picked mosquito bites scab over, resin sap.
The bites are as itchy as ever, and the anaesthetic river
Still concentrates its cold, but the ankles are different this summer,
Less lean, veinier, slower in the river.

The poem includes within its scope pollarded trees, cats auditioning for a movie based on Poe, Henry James at the start of WW1, theories of the nature of the universe, the first atomic detonation … a potentially huge territory, but it is grounded in the particulars of the everyday:

2.1
Days may be where we live, but mornings are eternity.
They wake us, and every day waking is absurdity;
All the things you just did yesterday to do over again, eternally.

But, forever fumbling for the snooze button, the gym is there
Forever, and the teeth silt over yellow to be flossed, and there
Will be, in eternity, coffee to be brewed…

It is also the most poetically self-referential of the three poems:

3.3

Some words have also lost their pairs:
Some rhymes are only painful memories,
Recycled like family sagas at Christmas, cliches.
The almost-instincts of minor poets.

3.31
What will survive of us?
Larkin thought the answer might be ‘love’,
but couldn’t prove it.

There are intriguing ideas to consider:

1.2
When things are patternless, their fascination’s stronger.
Failed form is hectic with loveliness, and compels us longer.

With the suggestion that it is this, its limitations, that lies at the heart of linguistic compulsion:

4.2

Language with its simple action words, verbs:

Language with its ‘past’ and ‘future’ and ‘present’,
Pointing to what it doesn’t know, I love you, now, babbling of unicorns.

Meanwhile (in the shadow of the detonation of the first atomic bomb)

4.4

Now nothing will ever be the same again.
And everything will be as it always was.


Historic moments are as tiresome as first nights,
All lines to fluff, after being cooped up,
The meaning eroded by gabbling in rehearsal.

Contemplating the birth of her child and the death of her father, The Sandpit After Rain is the most personal of the poems. It is arguably the most accessible but not for that reason so much as for the clarity of its compelling imagery:

how the foetus lolls in the womb
swelling like a wine cork left out on the counter

how he wasn’t himself
why the new waxwork lolls in the bed,
the colour of A4 rubbed with Nescafe,
the distressed colour of fake parchment;
blank, dismayed, the worn-off face
of a cloth doll a girl is bored by

Here is the realisation that ‘birth and death happen on adjacent wards’, no respecters of our notions of proper sequence, ‘that both are labour, halting and starting’.

Three Poems covers a lot of ground from ‘belly of the beast’ autobiography from the perspectives of both a young self-involved woman to a more mature one whose experience and identity is inevitably bound up with others: the loss of a father, the birth of a child. The philosophical breathing space of Repeat Until Time acts as a bridge between the two, leading to the book’s closing lines (surely with a further echo of Eliot’s Four Quartets):

A mother and the child you were.
You have been among the living twice,
And loved both times.
You have fallen in the lurid air.

There is a sense of constant movement in terms of both restless formal variation and subject, and the seeking of an ongoing forward momentum with the acknowledgement that such is largely illusory. It is a book I admire rather than love (one for the head rather than the heart, perhaps) though it repays re-reading and thinking about as there is indeed much to appreciate.

Afterword
I regret to take issue with the cover blurb’s assertion that Three Poems offers the ‘unique perspective of a brilliant, new female voice’. If Sullivan’s perspective is unique, why is it immediately generalised (and simultaneously limited) to ‘female’? Can a woman who writes not simply be called ‘writer’ or ‘poet’? It is an unfair burden of responsibility to place upon her: the implied assumption that for a woman to write is to represent all women and not only herself.

The Ballad of Suburbia

It’s two hundred years to the day since the Peterloo Massacre, on the occasion of which Shelley wrote The Masque of Anarchy. So here is something from my own archive, for the ‘interesting times’ in which we’re living. (I’m not all bards and blackbirds, either.)

The Ballad of Suburbia

A salesman came to suburbia –
nothing unusual there
except every household invited him in:
he was so softly spoken and woefully thin,
sipping tea on the edge of his chair.

His business was life assurance,
he’d not give them the hard sell:
he could see they lived life by the book,
had never once leapt before they had looked;
oh, he knew their kind only too well.

They got on like a house on fire,
he put one and all at their ease
while he fed them tales of fire and flood,
and other such things as chill the blood
like (perish the thought!) disease.

Now these were ordinary, neighbourly folk,
the proverbial salt of the earth.
They listened politely and offered more tea
While he warmed to his theme of the agony
Of under-insuring their life’s true worth.

***

No-one recalls quite how it occurred
that he bought a house in the street,
became a pillar of the neighbourhood,
a breath of fresh air that did them all good –
how he swept one and all off their feet!

He ferried the local kids to school
in a top of the range 4×4,
stopped on the yellow zigzag lines
before waving them off at the door.

He shopped online and ran errands
for those who were not so able,
filled tax returns, asked Alexa,
got broadband and installed cable.

He alarmed the car, rewired the house,
he put up security lights.
He chaired the local neighbourhood watch
and ran popular self-defence nights.

He was, they agreed, a real treasure:
how had they managed before?
So many years deaf and blind to the dangers
posed by plausible-sounding strangers
who go selling from door to door!

They felt, to a man, so much safer
now they never went out after dark,
shaking their heads at the state of the nation
while their kids went AWOL inside Playstation
and the swings turned to rust in the park.

‘You cannot be too careful these days –
Don’t you watch News 24? –
terrorists, knife crime, asylum seekers,
the selfish gene, the pound getting weaker.
Not us though: we’ve never been more secure.’

***

Soon, their greetings were clipped like their hedges
on the few times they happened to meet.
Meanwhile, indoors their curtains twitched,
friendships were ended, allegiances ditched
as a cold war broke out in the street.

So the people live in the shadow
of the deathly fear of fear,
see its likeness in all they encounter
and its whisper is all that they hear.

Tell a lie three times, it’s as good as true:
who needs proof when they’ve got Twitter?
No, you haven’t a right to a different view;
get over it, loser. It’s a joke you’re so bitter.

Lives are lost in endless un-newsworthy wars
and jobs in a global recession.
Wives lose their husbands to work and TV
and husbands their wives to depression.

This, all this, must be somebody’s fault –
there must be someone to blame!
Are you at a loss for whom to accuse?
The tabloids will readily give you some clues
and your scapegoat a chant-able name.

‘Cause each of us would rather forget
the dark we keep inside –
the heart of every fear: the fear in every heart –
that softly, quietly, bides its time
and takes love and life apart.

So beware, good people of suburbia –
forget all else but remember this please!
Beware the blue-eyed charmer
who offers to sell you rogue warnings like these.

A Heaviness Inside Each Feather

Falling Awake by Alice Oswald
Jonathan Cape 2016

T S Eliot Prize shortlisted
Costa Poetry Award 2016

Backlist reader that I am, over the past year or so Alice Oswald has become my favourite contemporary poet. I appreciate never knowing where she will lead me in a poem whilst trusting that something astonishing will be revealed which will raise questions that refuse an easy answer. She is erudite and intelligent, with an instinctive eye for the visionary within the ordinary, especially with regards to the natural world and our relationship with it.

My willingness to trust her comes from a sense of her poetic integrity, the feeling that she herself is discovering the poem as she writes it: I don’t imagine her composing a killer last line and reverse-engineering the poem in order to get there. This focus on process rather than destination results in a sense of continual unfolding/enfolding. Her subject becomes the inevitable changing of mortal forms when acted upon by time, within time.

She herself has said (in BBC Radio 4’s Book Club programme) that a poem on the page is like a musical score: it is a description of a performance, with the words being punctuation for the silence (paraphrasing T S Eliot) which contributes as much as the words do. The book’s final poem, ‘Tithonus: 46 Minutes in the Life of the Dawn’, is a performance piece beginning in darkness (represented in the book by a black page). Immortal but without eternal youth, his is a voice without end: like the dawn it is constantly beginning and is gone without ever quite happening ‘but is always almost’.

The ten rhyming couplets of the opening poem, ‘A Short Story of Falling’, echo Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’ (‘To see a world in a grain of sand/ and heaven in a wild flower’) in their apparently simple musicality:

It is the story of the falling rain
to turn into a leaf and fall again

Nothing is still. All is in constant motion and transformation:

It is the secret of a summer shower
to steal the light and hide it in a flower

as we move from the natural world to the human realm:

then I might know like water how to balance
the weight of hope against the light of patience

and back to the natural world to close:

which is the story of the falling rain
that rises to the light and falls again.

This sense of movement/momentum prevails throughout the book: the focus is (paradoxically) fixed upon the process of becoming, rather than upon states of being. In ‘Swan’, a rotting swan lifts ‘from the plane-crash mess of her wings’ to see

how thickly the symmetrical quill points
were threaded in backwards through the leather underdress
of the heart saying…

what a waste of detail
what a heaviness inside each feather

The swan imagines herself as a bride, recalling Mary Oliver’s ‘all my life / I was a bride married to amazement’ (‘When Death Comes’).

The other side of amazement is a bewilderment that results in a fractured or dislocated articulation. Orpheus (‘Severed Head Floating Downriver’) and Tithonus are compelled to speak without ever getting out what they mean. Orpheus’ sense of self is eroding as he floats along (‘the water drinks my mind’) while in ‘Flies’

This is the day the flies fall awake mid-sentence
and lie stunned on the window sill shaking with speeches
only it isn’t speech it is trembling sections of puzzlement

Just as we are standing off at a safe distance, ‘they’ shifts without warning to ‘we’:

there is such a horrible trapped buzzing wherever we fly
it’s going to be impossible to think clearly now until next winter.

It’s intriguing. The flies evidently lack the benefit of the page’s white space, its silence. And yet there is an immediacy here: not ‘thoughts about’ something. What does Oswald mean to convey by foregrounding this insect sound? And how does it relate to expression/comprehension through language, conveyed through the rhythm as much as the understanding of the meaning of words (which is, after all, a large part of poetry)? I need to live with these questions a while.

The beauty and vividness of the imagery holds everything together. Take the badger in ‘Body’ meeting with his body’s death, for instance, who

went on running with that bindweed will of his
went on running along the hedge and into the earth again
trembling
as if in a broken jug for one backwards moment
water might keep its shape

The title Falling Awake evokes the tension between the gravity acting upon our physical being and awareness as the alert mind simultaneously takes flight. Not for her the transcendental ascension narrative: inescapably earthbound, her vision soars yet.

A Violent and Fragile Mystery

Human Work by Sean Borodale
Cape Poetry 2015

Feeding people, and all that entails: a time-consuming, daily task that isn’t work, that too often takes me away from the work in hand, the attentive simmering of words, such that I rarely pause to consider what may be going on a fingertip’s depth beneath the surface.

Sean Borodale wrote Human Work amidst the pots and pans (it’s easy to imagine the jam- and blood-splashed pages) but while his kitchen is the arena of this work, its subject reads as an enquiry into the nature of the heart(h) of the home, of the fundamental sustaining of our human-animal selves. What are its concerns and its communal purpose (he is feeding family and visitors, not just himself)?

The first thing to become apparent is how violent a process it is. In the opening poem, Stewed Apple, the flesh in the pan ‘bellows and blows’ and he uses the technical term, ‘flensing’: this is not so much cookery as going whaling (with Captain Ahab?).

In Making Apple Juice with Makeshift Apparatus (and what a grand metaphor that is for the making of a poem, pressing out perception from the pulp of experience with the best words one has to hand – never mind for the actual business of living!) the work is revealed to be ‘part violence, part sacrament’.

There is a simmering restlessness throughout. In Apple Jelly (ongoing), the opening line, ‘I was asking is a body ever at peace?’ finds its answer later in Elderflower Champagne: to Serve

… you undress your principles
and expose the constant of you rummaging through perception
for an exit.

Nothing holds steady. Everything is in constant transformation. Life is feeding on life and it is not a delicate business.

the eaters wait:
staring,
sat in the trees of their nerves
like rooks.

Globe Artichoke

There is as much death as life in this book, to the extent of (metaphorical) murder:

Beans I kept

like a killer keeps a corpse –
in the freezer five months.

Broad Beans

Yet this prevalent death proves to be inextricable from birth, or rather from pre-birth:

Each stone opened like a wooden womb
or a small sarcophagus;
the vision – very mute nevertheless –
of the small pip, quite naked, pale:
two white foetal feet pressed sole to sole over each sought tree.

Damson Cheese in Detail (Part 1)

The further into the book one travels, the more the tenuousness of our being becomes apparent. The fragrance of Blackcurrant Leaves Steeped in Cream is ‘like the heat of a body / left in a bed’ while in Pears: to Poach (a Meal for Others)

the vapours climbed unsteady – through the existence of air,
vagrant and stray

even the line is stretched to breaking point.

I noticed that many of the lines that caught my eye were the closing phrases or stanzas of poems, which suggests that I was more taken with Borodale’s conclusions than with the reaching of them. On reflection, that would seem a fair assessment. I would also have welcomed a greater variation of tone and pace at the level of the collection as a whole. It may be concerned with the keeping of body and soul together, but it is to the mind that this book most appeals.

It’s not a comfortable collection, this, and I like it the better for that. This maintaining of our human selves – our tenuous and ultimately futile project – what a violent, bright-dark and fragile mystery it turns out to be, encountered and enacted through the ingredients we have to hand in our daily routine.