Dead Horses and Moscow Mules

My post-swim tea and porridge routine has relocated to the garden this week, where I have reclaimed my small corner between the overgrown bushes and the shed. I sit beneath the parasol, contentedly watching the birds on the feeders. It is so nice that I was moved to optimise the experience by planting out some special-offer bedding plants, which promise an abundance of gaudy joy in short order (provided the slugs don’t get them). I also installed a modest water feature, comprising a cheap solar-powered fountain and a builder’s bucket.

Cue a low-key summer solstice celebration, then, with the help of a homemade golden sultana soda bread, washed down with one too many Moscow mules. Yes, the vodka and lime have put in another appearance (along with a lively ginger fizz): my poetry manuscript was declined yet again, this time by Amy Wack, of Seren. Two significant doors slamming in my face in the space of a fortnight (the other being the Poetry Business) is hard to accommodate with equanimity.

Rejection, I get it (time after time). I know it’s an inevitable part of the writer’s life. But I have to question how sustainable this is as a practice. There are the emotional costs, certainly. But neither are the reading fees, competition entry fees etc. negligible. I know my work is good but this way of going about things is not getting me anywhere. Switching horses, mid-race? More like finding myself thigh-deep in the mud in the middle of nowhere, wondering what the hell I’m doing there (wherever there even is) and how to goodness I’m going to get home.

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.

Gold Stars and Marble Jars

I am tired and restless, starting to fret about my work and whether it is (in all the ways!) enough, even as my mind appears hellbent on becoming a perpetual acceleration machine. This would be more concerning were I not a meticulous tracker of the ‘seasonality’ of my mental and emotional energies. Consulting my journal, I see a pattern of steadily increasing pitch through late winter and spring, which reaches peak intensity (subject to a variable degree of discordancy) in summer, followed by an abrupt plummet, then a minor revival in autumn before the next-to-nothing-doing of early winter (or, as more accurately reflects my perception of it, several months of November).

Perhaps perversely, then, winter is ‘my’ season. My worst episodes of depression and/or anxiety have occurred in the summer. Perhaps the excess of it overwhelms me. The garden turning to jungle when I turn my back on it for five minutes. The trees pulling the sky down with their leaves. The insufferable heat. Weeks of poor sleep. Worst of all,the inescapable human noise: lawn mowers, strimmers, neighbours’ music clashing and roiling like the meeting of oceans. The nauseating reek of charred flesh and smoke. Everything comes too close, is too loud, too bright. That aside, I like the long-light days. I like taking a table and chair into the garden to work. I love the abundance of fresh fruit (Cherries! Apricots! Oh, doughnut peaches!)

I am reluctant to inquire too closely into the ramifications of apparently working most intensely when I am leaping out of my skin. I had another mentoring session with Pascale recently, discussing the twenty new poems I’d sent her. It was a ragtag collection of episodes from childhood, an ambivalent attitude towards my kitchen, and strange half-bird beings. Of those that Pascale judged the strongest, the majority began from prompts from the Zoom sessions I attended for NaPoWriMo, during which I was far from my comfort zone. The best poems in themselves unnerve me; there is something Other about them. But I have learnt to recognise that if the work is worth doing, it will scare me. And the only effective way I know for dealing with that fear is to crack on with the work.

It’s not all existential angst! Considering seasonality, I wonder to what extent I have simply not outgrown the school year. I like best to write in cheap exercise books. Perhaps I am still writing poems and stories for Mr Furze from Class 4, so he will reward me with an actual pen to copy them up ‘in best’ to be stapled on sugar-paper to the wall display. There’s a child here somewhere hungry for encouragement and recognition. To that end I have acquired a packet of gold stars and a jar of marbles. I put a gold star on the calendar every day I have written. I place a marble in the jar for every complete hour I have written. The marble jar is filling with gratifying speed. The calendar begins to resemble a small galaxy. Yes, it is silly. But it might just keep me going until the kilo boxes of cherries are back in Tescos.

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.

every morning, whether or not

As though asking me to witness a gruesome miracle, a domestic Turin Shroud, Bee holds up the sheet of kitchen roll with which she has blotted the grease from her cheese on toast. She says that dairy is bad for her skin. I probably shouldn’t be eating the cheese either. It’s the tasty Mexican one with the peppers, left over from chilli night. I weigh the likelihood of a flare of indigestion against the savour of it. I eat the cheese. In the category of items likely to unsettle my stomach, spicy cheese barely makes the long-list these days.

Is it weeks now or only days that it’s been raining? The sky has become a vast warehouse of marked-down stock rapidly approaching its expiry date. We sit snug in our houses, waiting it out, with only the News for news and the endless scroll of status updates to connect us to each other. An inscrutable algorithm judges us, determines which of our prayers will be seen and heard, by whom and how many. See how we bait our hooks! See how we shower each other with glib hearts! Today I cannot stomach any more. We venture out for a quick pond and Tesco’s combo-outing. At the petrol station Tesco’s we buy milk and haribos. I shouldn’t eat the haribos either, because of the gelatin, but just this once I want the delivered promise of empty sweetness.

Walking around the water we see that, improbably, the little egret is still there, looking wholly misplaced in this scruffy, suburban overflow pond. I struggle to reconcile myself to its presence. The swans flew off months ago and haven’t been seen since. I am glad it is there. But I do not trust it to be all right. The pond is scuzzy; the water level dropped significantly over the spring, transforming the moat between the shore and the willow tree island into a sucking mud-wallow and, despite the heavy rain since, the water at the pond margins has a flocculent and fly-blown, jellied look to it.
‘I don’t know why he stays, Bee,’ I say. ‘Perhaps it’s just his home.’

Emergency sirens scream at us on our way back. Nothing out of the ordinary. The shopping bag is heavy on my wrist. I rub it tenderly, nursing a soreness from weeding out the front at the weekend. This rain has turned the lawn into a meadow. Next door complained about the weeds, airing to visitors his genuine bafflement that we do not jump to it with alacrity now he has expressed his wish that we do something, ‘take action’. I do something. I stroke the grasses gone to seed. I admire the clover and search for, and find, the leaves of self-heal. If the rain ever stops I will mow the lawn, but not yet. I want a moment’s peace with the world in which I live. Is it too much to ask to feel at home here, to be allowed sufficient room as I am, without meeting anyone else’s expectations? I want to be able to drink my mug of tea in the morning and read my book and watch the small grey-brown slug abseil down the rain-beaded window and not need to justify such small pleasures to others as an acceptable response to this world, at least for this moment. I would like to find the courage to be happy, even (especially!) amidst the many things about which I cannot possibly be happy.

*The title is from ‘Morning Poem’ by Mary Oliver, from her collection Dream Work.