Saturday, 31 March 2007

Weed Cocktails and Lucozade with Anne Stevenson




So Boo (Beloved Only Offspring) intends to arrive today wreathed in the sound of maternal clucking and the intention to cook me a ‘nice’ surprise tea. Role reversal is a wonderful thing. She has always loved to create concoctions in the kitchen. I envisage her being able to create something interesting with eggs, cream cheese, strawberry jelly and soft cod roes.

Bizarre non-alcoholic cocktails were her specialty when she was a small child. One favourite was lime cordial, dandelion and burdock, orange squash and apple juice, decorated with a fresh dandelion plucked form the wildlife area (the patch formally called a lawn by previous tenants). “It’s a fruit and weeds drink” she said. Subsequently she has introduced me to home-brewed chai, bristling with vanilla sticks and carpeted with whole cardamom pods. I have felt righteously alternative whilst stirring it on the hob.

I think at the moment I have a craving for Lucozade…not that cunningly marketed power drink it flaunts itself as now but the old fashioned slightly dimpled glass bottle wrapped in cellophane. It was borne to the beds of the ailing with due reverence. You had to be really ill to merit its presence in the house. It was expensive and was used to pump the pale and limp full of sugar. As a child a Lucozade purchase validated your absence from school, no mother would purchase a bottle unless the ailment was beyond a mere cold or uncomplicated chicken pox or measles. I had pneumonia and it appeared by magic to tempt my appetite. Mr D who lived two doors up when I was a child, was classified as the deserving sick, he was downing a bottle a day for weeks, his wife still managed to pour it from a feeding cup between his protesting lips three times a day towards the end. Despite her ministrations, he died.
“It was diabetes they said” my mother told me years later. “Sad really, he may have been a bit of a bastard to her for years but when he needed her she was there for him.” My mother seemed blissfully unaware of the relationship between huge doses of sugar and diabetes.

Despite this tale I still always fancy Lucozade when a bit off colour, it is my comfort food, my passport to pukka poorly status. Think I will text the Boo to pick up a bottle complete with cellophane on her way here. Of course I will cluck about whether she is eating properly when she arrives, examine her face for signs of stress, unhappiness, vitamin deficiency, man problems, writer’s block, in-growing toe nails and lack of sleep. She in turn will do the same thing with me and will also point out that she is twenty-five, very capable and can knock up a healthy beverage now without the use of weeds but with the judicious use of herbs. Of course a weed is merely a herb or flower in the wrong place.

In recognition of the Boo’s imminent arrival with TLC and culinary skills, hopefully minus dandelion garnish, I’ll point you to the wonderfully wise Anne Stevenson and her Poem For A Daughter’…mothers of daughters will get this poem at an immediate visceral level. This poem is for anyone who has said ‘Yummy’ to a fruit and weed cocktail delivered by a beaming five year old or wondered why they are worrying about whether their twenty something child is wearing damp socks in cold weather or thinking they should take one carbon footprint less so that their child isn’t forced to live on a boat in the fens like a bad remake of Water World as the melting Polar ice caps make Cambridge a tasteful seaside resort with pier and £200,000 beach huts.

Thursday, 29 March 2007

Warming to a duck, hard water and Jean Sprackland


Having thankfully returned to my quiet fen cul de sac and sunk into my own bed, I lay and counted my numerous blessings. No old man wandering the ward trying to climb into bed with another startled gentleman with suspected kidney problems. No Darth Vader sounds from various nebulisers, which seem unable to synchronise their rhythm. No drips making repeated alarm noises when the tube became kinked at the very moment you were about to drop to sleep. I am deemed well enough to be in my own home. I run for the door, well amble with purpose. ‘Much safer’ said one of the nurses conspiratorially, I presume she was referring to MRSA et al rather than the staff, who have been very aimiable; despite overwork, overcrowding and underpayment.

Peace at last, the quiet of an early morning in fenland wraps round me like a warm fluffy blanket, deep sigh and the blessing count reaches an all time high. Then the boiler fires up and all the radiators begin to make a resounding gurgle. I have never experienced this sound before, I know all the sounds of my own house; the clicks of the new fridge, the scrabbling of local cats defecating under the bushes under my bedroom window, the shudder of the door to the spare bedroom if I’ve left the window in there slightly open and the Beaufort Scale is above a 5. This particular central heating system noise is not in my catalogue of home generated or peripheral sounds. I phone the Housing Association (may blessing be upon those that provide social housing to the deserving poor) and a plumber phones me back. I feel secure in the knowledge that
a) he is not calling me from a call centre in India
and
b) I am not being charged the national debt of a small African country per minute of the call. “What’s your pressure like?” he enquires, “Blood up, water down.” I report back after consulting the dials. “It’s the hard water round here, I expect something is clogged, duck.” Such a swift diagnosis, I think, like the flying doctors over the airwaves of a poorly sheep-herder and I have warmed to his duck. Being from the Midlands, I love a duck thrust into the conversation; it takes me back, it makes me feel that my short vowels are validated in a southern world of parths, carstles and barths.
“We’ll try and get out in the next week.” I am still slightly anesthetized by the warm smell of the duck and mutter an ok. Having put down the phone and re-tuned to the gurgle and now slight clanking I realize a week is a long time in burble land.

I was on an Arvon Course when Jean Sprackland was called in to act as a temporary Centre Director and we bonded over short ‘a’ s and words like twitchel and mardy. Her poem Hard Water is too much of a gift in the circumstances to be ignored.

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Tiny Tears and Bukowski





“I think almost definitely you have a Mallory-Weiss”.

Hmmmm I thought, it sounds like an ancient Thespian who has trodden the boards in a series of small halls doing his one man show, ‘An Evening with King Lear’. Alternatively, quite a good name for an author of bodice rippers, ‘The King’s Handmaid’, ‘Bess of the Three Shires’. I also thought about the use of the words ‘almost’ and ‘definitely’, I was struggling to define that phrasing; not a tautology, perhaps a paradox. An indefinite definite is a strange contradiction in terms but can co-exist, maybe not philosophically but in that nitty-gritty world of common sense that we lesser mortals inhabit. It could be purely poor English of course but the little grey cells were not functioning on all pistons at this stage in the proceedings.
The consultant addressed the accompanying entourage, two boys and a girl, none of whom looked old enough to have their hands anywhere near my body let alone on it. There was a brief question and answer session which I tried to follow, a sort of medical University Challenge and eventually I seized on a lull to press my metaphorical buzzer and join in so as not to prove myself the duffer and ensure that Jeremy Paxman didn’t reduce me to a quivering heap.
“So it’s a small tear in my esophagus that has caused me to vomit up copious amounts of blood” and do a passing impression of that girl in the Exorcist, without the head swiveling business I continued in my head. I had summerised extremely well I thought.
The Consultant turned as if wondering where this voice had appeared from. I knew I was the proverbial sheet colour and may therefore have been successfully camouflaged amidst the pillows. He finally seemed to locate me on the bed.
“Yes, this condition is most commonly found in alcoholics.” The assembled group peered at me and seemed to be wisely stroking a communal beard. I tried to adopt the camouflage pose again and hurriedly examined my booze intake counter. One small glass of Pinot Grigio at a quiz the night before, organized to raise money to send a cow to Africa (What if it doesn’t want to go I had asked to a stony silence). I examined the faces gathered around the bed, if they find out I’m a poet and writer that will be it, the image of me knocking back absinthe and all manner of alcohol will be firmly established in their minds and my pleas that I only have two or three glasses of wine per week, if that, will be seen as a product of my own alcohol fuelled imagination.

“Of course, excessive coughing can cause it, TB patients can experience Mallory Weiss tears.” The Consultant had thrown me a life line of respectability. Tuberculosis, now that seemed a far more socially acceptable cause; so many poets and writers had succumbed to that. Keats, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, all the Bronte sisters, Dostoyevsky. Robert Louis Stevenson and Kafka had all died of the disease. Pale literary wraiths with the strange roseate cheeks that defined the illness
“Of course in your case it’s not that.” He had snatched away the life belt as I was just reaching for it. “You are probably coughing because you have been talking too much.”
I examined his diagnosis carefully; I am too loquacious; I have torn my own esophagus because I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. I was unsure whether the Consultant was giving me a subtle clue that I was interrupting him as well as giving me a diagnosis.
“The lady has continued to use her voice a great deal despite a severe throat infection which has caused her to have a persistent dry cough which has probably led to the tear.” This particular lady girded her loins to argue about any comment that was about to be made about the capacity of women for talking. However I suddenly realized I do talk a lot and his assessment was fair enough.
Talking too much is ok by me (perhaps not to those around me) compared to alcoholism and tuberculosis, those terrible, deep and dark diseases that have always seemed to have their part to play in the literary world. A Puerto Rican microbiologist professor is apparently using work written by well known poets who suffered from TB to help her students understand the human experience behind the disease.

Bukowski in the 1980’s famously managed to juggle both diseases but survived the TB. I think the man had an innate sense of survival, despite the cynicism he seems to show in many of his poems. You only have to know that he survived working for the American Postal Service for a number of years without poisoning, shooting or generally harming any of his colleagues, to realize the man understood about hanging on. Read Question and Answer to get a flavour of that.

So I have been diagnosed as being too garrulous, there are worse things. Here I am trying to think for at least an hour a day(see previous post re Wallace Steven’s advice) and now even my own body is telling me I need to keep my mouth shut more. So husky voice and mysterious quiet disposition…perhaps I could take up spying instead of poetry, I do live near Cambridge, after all; a rich nursery for so many home-grown spies.

Saturday, 24 March 2007

British Summer Time, Cows and Wallace Stevens On Thinking




So having read or rather croaked with friends at The Poetry Café in London last night, I was off early this morning to a small Norfolk town to audition for a tour of village halls in the autumn. It was raining, windy and bitterly cold….The magnolia tree opposite my house has been unceremoniously stripped of its pink frou-frou frock and is shivering in its grey bark knickers. It does not know that it is officially spring.The clocks go strong>forward this week-end and apparently it is a hundred years exactly since British Summer Time was first proposed. As a rule I forget such things and wake on Sunday with my life, as ruled by Radio 4 on Sundays, totally out of sync. The Archers and Desert Island Discs are not where my body clock expects to find them. I find the mysteries of time measurement intriguing; twice a year we can make a whole hour disappear and reappear like a rabbit from a top hat. I know how we manage time is arbitrary, we chunk the passage of time up into small manageable parcels to which we give names like second, hour, week, year. We have machines and gadgets whose sole function is to measure these parcels and present it to us in a visual manner so we know how many of these parcels have passed and how many more are to come before it is morning, lunch, the appearance of a train, the start of East Enders, our retirement, the end of a long poetry reading by someone who has no sense of the average capacity of the human bladder. The means become an end in itself at times.

Popes, committees, men of government have met and deliberated long and hard how to conjure with time. British Summertime was invented in 1916 to maximize daylight hours for the war machine and save on lighting. Double summer time was introduced in the Second World War again to make maximum use of the daylight hours for production of planes, tanks, nourishing meals from dried egg and spam. We are very good at finding time for war. An old farmer friend of my father once told me that altering the clocks by two hours played havoc with the dairy cows. The times to be milked are dictated by their own pace, the rhythmic operation of three stomachs, the slow chew of the cud, the time spent examining the view over the fence and how the field looks rather good in green. Cows he told me will not be rushed, they do things at their own pace. They don’t live with the idea of time but time itself. As soon as I typed that I realized I was either remembering or simply running by accident into a Wallace Steven’s poem I know quite well. Not Ideas About The Thing But The Thing Itself. This poem places itself in the month of March so perhaps subconsciously I was already heading there. Wallace Stevens was famous for his statement that ‘The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully". He was, however, still very keen on thinking, in an old journal of mine I have a copied extract he wrote to a young friend.

There is no passion like the passion of thinking which grows stronger as one grows older, even though one never thinks anything of any particular interest to anyone else. Spend an hour or two a day even if in the beginning you are staggered by the confusion and aimlessness of your thoughts.’

Of course this blog is a way of thinking out loud and I am constantly staggered since I started it by my own confusion and aimlessness. Unfortunately I don’t see myself as a beginner, I think I am quite an advanced thinker; I could sit and think for hours about the view over the fence and how a field looks rather good in green.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Fenella Fielding and 'Carry on T S Eliot'



I am now starting to sound like Fenella Fielding rather than an old gate hinge that needs oiling. This statement may of course date me and place me firmly amongst those who can remember the ‘Carry On Films’ and who watched them as a child on those wet Sunday afternoons yet again( see previous post about Fay Wray and King Kong ). I must have been glued in front of the box every wet Sunday for years, even as an adult but I do seem to recall now and then climbing the odd tree and wandering off for hours by the canal with soggy banana sandwiches and a bottle of Vimto( as a child that is .....then again I have been know even now to main line on Vimto and the odd, very low tree). Probably the wanderings only occurred during good weather, although I do have vivid images of my wellies constantly being stuck in mud so I must have ventured out sometimes when it was less than a clip from blue remembered hills.

Fenella memorably played Valaria the vampiress in 'Carry On Screaming' and projected her usual vampish, sexy image with a melting, dark chocolate, 'come hither' voice. I think mine might be more church pew mahogany and has more of a ‘stay away you might catch my germs’ timbre about it. I have had to succumb to a day off work and am therefore typing guiltily. However typing on my lap top in bed is rather decadent and googling Fenella just to check my facts a luxury. Did you know she has recorded T. S Eliot’s Four Quartets? I didn’t. I would never have even thought of connecting her and Eliot in the same lifetime let alone the same breath.. There I was writing yesterday about how poorly he read his own work and then I discover Valeria from Carry On Screaming (and the voice of the public address system in the cult series ‘The Prisoner’ …cyberspace oracle informs me) has recorded one of his most important works. I am now agog to hear this recording; her sexual allure focused on his lines, her pouting lips mouthing those rich cadences of vowel sounds. After writing this I can go on ebay and see if anyone out there has a copy.....ebay, Eliot, Fenella, my what a feast of bizarre connections.
I actually think I am being stalked by Eliot or to be more precise, The Four Quartets. I sometimes have to work near Little Gidding and have eaten my sandwiches in the churchyard there on a number of occasions. This summer I spent three weeks in Cape Anne and wandered past the Dry Salvages a few times not knowing the name for them. They are a group of granite rocks off the coast and I didn’t connect until someone told me what they were called and pointed out that Eliot had lived there for a while. In fact it was a little group of retired academics who hung out in a wonderful little bookshop in a small town there, who pointed out the connection to me. In my defence I was living in a basement at the time and can’t be blamed for the effects of sunlight deprivation or squirrel bites on my memory( See previous post re Psycho Squirrels). I now have to visit East Coker and Burnt Norton or rather I have to find myself there by chance; then I will be completely paranoid and I will start acting oddly and looking over my shoulder like Viv.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Lost Voice and Dylan Thomas whistling for his dog


So temperature down but voice has by-passed husky and sexy Lauren Bacall and lodged itself firmly in the ball-park area of horse and frog. This is not good; I am reading with poet friends in London on Friday night, I need to find my voice. How many times have I heard that at workshops and on Arvon Courses and wondered if I had one. I have roamed many a piece of literary countryside, dodging behind trees to avoid other writers and poets, near Arvon Centres looking for it or wondering whether the one I thought I had brought with me was working. No doubt the other mooching writers were doing the same thing; whistling for it like a lost dog. In Scotland at Moniack Mhor I began to think the midges had eaten it; along with my legs. You start to ask questions like, what is my voice, what shape and sound does it have, if I don’t have one how can I get one? If I have one, is it nicked from someone else, in which case do I have to give it back? I started to imagine my voice was something out there waiting to be discovered like Australia, radiation or black holes. It’s more than the sum of the parts; grammar, syntax, form, sound, rhythm, language, it’s the ghost in the machine and without one your machine barely wobbles along.

Finding the voice can be like the story of the Wooden Bridge at Queen’s College in Cambridge. It was designed to be self supporting by Newton but when taken apart to see how it worked by fellows at the college it couldn’t be put back together again without using bolts. This story is totally untrue, it was built after Newton died and they were not so stupid as to build something without nails, it may be Cambridge but they do have a modicum of common sense, at least in the area of bridge building. People love this story, it is bandied about to show that analyzing something destroys the ‘magic’, the genius. The death of a poem by critical analysis is a myth. I don’t think ‘the voice’ is a pale delicate wraith that haunts poems, I tend to think of it as something robust enough to be poked with a few sharp sticks. When and if I find my voice, I hope it is as fat as a butcher’s dog and when whistled home it is capable of knocking anyone off their feet and snapping a few sharp sticks with its strong slavering jaws.
There is, of course, something about the physical voice and its effect on the poem. It has been useful to hear someone else read my poems; it allows me to step back and admire my own genius or blush crimson and hide behind the curtain. When I have heard actors read my poems it was like hearing something different, not better or worse, just different. ‘What’s my motivation here?’ is the classic actorly cliché. 'What is it trying to say sub textually' they need to know; actors tend to look for an angle if not a handle on a poem. Once the motivation, the ‘why’ is grasped then the ‘how’ of reading will follow suit, they have techniques for delivery. Of course poets don’t have dramatic techniques on the whole, they just read the words they have written, of course they know its sub textual nuances its rhythms, rhymes, the stage directions of the punctuation. Or do they? Some poets can read their own work so badly you start to wonder if they actually wrote them. This is nothing to do with nerves or shyness in public, I have heard the most confident of poets massacre their own work. Then I have to ask myself, perhaps they haven’t delivered their poem badly perhaps they are simply refusing to read it how I would want it read? I am a control freak after all.
Some poets when heard on records sound dreadful, T S Eliot sounds as if he is reading a menu on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. Dylan Thomas can sound as if he’s about to launch into a Victorian melodrama about a moustache twirling landlord and a twitching virgin. Give me Richard Burton reading Under Milk Wood anytime, and even he can be a tad over the top. However, I came across Dylan’s own introduction to the reading of his own poem A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London in the Poetry Archives.
The poem itself is still rather declamatory and you can hear how hard he has worked to drive every trace of a Welsh accent from his voice. His introduction interestingly does address the tendency of the poet reading their own work to milk it for nuance and lean on syntax to ensure the audience ‘get it’. However, listen to his other recorded reading ‘In my Craft or Sullen Art’, toned down, his physical voice reined in ..it seems better to me ; less Donald Wolfitt or a scene from ‘The Dresser’. However the man definitely had a voice; he was born with it, wrestled demons for it and maybe wandered the woods now and then whistling for it to come home.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Seamus Heaney versus King Kong?



Off piste yesterday in order to try and allow temperature to drop and tonsils to lose their white frosted coating. The goblins that chose to appear on the end of my bed like extras from a bad gothic Hammer film managed to disappear by dawn. As it was Mother’s day and St Patrick's day over the week-end, for some reason I started reading some of Seamus Heaney’s poems as he has recently won the T.S. Eliot prize. I was especially drawn to re-read an old favourite poem ‘Clearances’ dedicated to his mother (which I publish in full below as I don’t trust the link to bring it up successfully). Think combination of tonsils, temperature, goblins and Mother’s day had made me rather maudlin, like the effects of gin or watching poor Ginger die in the film of Black Beauty. I am rather prone to being easily manipulated by filmic push button sentiment. I have long since ceased to beat myself up over it or regard myself as intellectually challenged if a cheap trick can make me snivel. Dirk Bogarde mounting the steps to the guillotine in the film of A tale of Two Cities, the original Lassie crawling home to Elizabeth Taylor on bloody paws, Shane’s nobility riding into the sunset, mortally wounded, with the boy crying out his name, King Kong lovingly placing Fay Wray safely down before plunging from the Empire State building (yes I know that particular relationship was unlikely to work but one always hopes that true love can overcome such small obstacles as size and species).

I think I was overexposed as a child to every old movie shown on the television. I knew who shot Liberty Valence, that Harvey was a giant six foot rabbit, that those bouncing bombs would work on the German dams before I knew how baby’s were made and how the eleven plus would determine my life forever. Such wet Sunday afternoons in front of the tiny bakelite TV are lodged deep in my psyche and I had my sentimental buttons forged then so that Mr Speilberg, the past master at finding such things, could push them with a small alien and a little girl in a red coat years later.

Poems have to work much harder to push such buttons, the lack of immediate visuals allows the intellect to get to work darn quick on any images created by the poet. I can sneer at a cheap trick and anything that even verges on sentimentality. However, sometimes I can indulge in emotions and nostalgia because someone has taken those two things and, for me, framed them with such discipline and craft that I can reach for the tissues and have a guilt-free weep.

‘Clearances’ is one of those poems that pushes my buttons; the chipping away at the black rock and the appeal for that skill that is so important in such dark times; the ability to listen to others and ourselves. The following sequence of sonnets just reins in that grief to allow it to become something strong enough to be examined in the linear black. Of course Seamus Heaney being an Irish man is not afraid of sentiment he faces it head on but he knows how to mine it for something richer. A cut above Speilberg perhaps but then we can never play two such disparate crafts against each other. Speilberg came from a culture that always understood that film rather than poetry is the royal road to accessing Jo Public’s admiration and their emotions. Seamus Heaney, of course, can pack them to the rafters but there’s no popcorn or million dollar pay-offs, no quick immediate visual to hook you in and have you repeated endlessly on prime time TV at Christmas. Nobel Prize for Literature versus an Oscar is of course like trying to set up King Kong versus Tosca but then of course falling from a high building was the way they both chose to wind up proceedings. Perhaps King Kong the opera isn’t too far down the road ( perhaps like Jerry Springer it already exists) and I’ve already seen the film of Tosca.



Clearances
In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984
by Seamus Heaney

She taught me what her uncle once taught her:
How easily the biggest coal block split
If you got the grain and the hammer angled right.

The sound of that relaxed alluring blow
Its co-opted and obliterated echo,
Taught me to hit, taught me to loosen,

Taught me between the hammer and the block
To face the music. Teach me now to listen,
To strike it rich behind the linear black.

A cobble thrown a hundred years ago
Keeps coming at me, the first stone
Aimed at a great-grandmother's turncoat brow.
The pony jerks and the riot's on.
She's couched low in the trap
Running the gauntlet that first Sunday
Down the brae to Mass at a panicked gallop.
He whips on through the town to cries of 'Lundy!'

Call her 'The Convert.' 'The Exogamous Bride.'
Anyhow, it is a genre piece
Inherited on my mother's side
And mine to dispose with now she's gone.
Instead of silver and Victorian lace
the exonerating, exonerated stone.


Polished linoleum shone there. Brass taps shone.
The china cups were very white and big --
An unchipped set with sugar bowl and jug.
The kettle whistled. Sandwich and tea scone
Were present and correct. In case it run,
The butter must be kept out of the sun.
And don't be dropping crumbs. Don't tilt your chair.
Don't reach. Don't point. Don't make noise when you stir.

It is Number 5, New Row, Land of the Dead,
Where grandfather is rising from his place
With spectacles pushed back on a clean bald head
To welcome a bewildered homing daughter
Before she even knocks. 'What's this? What's this?'
And they sit down in the shining room together.


When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other's work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives --
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

Fear of affectation made her affect
Inadequacy whenever it came to
Pronouncing words 'beyond her'. Bertold Brek.
She'd manage something hampered and askew
Every time, as if she might betray
The hampered and inadequate by too
Well-adjusted a vocabulary.
With more challenge than pride, she'd tell me, 'You
Know all them things.' So I governed my tongue
In front of her, a genuinely well-
Adjusted adequate betrayal
Of what I knew better. I'd naw and aye
And decently relapse into the wrong
Grammar which kept us allied and at bay.

The cool that came off sheets just off the line
Made me think the damp must still be in them
But when I took my corners of the linen
And pulled against her, first straight down the hem
And then diagonally, then flapped and shook
The fabric like a sail in a cross-wind,
They'd make a dried-out undulating thwack.
So we'd stretch and fold and end up hand to hand
For a split second as if nothing had happened
For nothing had that had not always happened
Beforehand, day by day, just touch and go,
Coming close again by holding back
In moves where I was x and she was o
Inscribed in sheets she'd sewn from ripped-out flour sacks.

In the first flush of the Easter holidays
The ceremonies during Holy Week
Were highpoints of our Sons and Lovers phase.
The midnight fire. The paschal candlestick.
Elbow to elbow, glad to be kneeling next
To each other up there near the front
Of the packed church, we would follow the text
And rubrics for the blessing of the font.
As the hind longs for the streams, so my soul . . .
Dippings. Towellings. The water breathed on.
The water mixed with chrism and oil.
Cruet tinkle. Formal incensation
And the psalmist's outcry taken up with pride:
Day and night my tears have been my bread.

In the last minutes he said more to her
Almost than in their whole life together.
'You'll be in New Row on Monday night
And I'll come up for you and you'll be glad
When I walk in the door . . . Isn't that right?'
His head was bent down to her propped-up head.
She could not hear but we were overjoyed.
He called her good and girl. Then she was dead,
The searching for a pulsebeat was abandoned
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.

I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge above the wallflowers.
The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high.
I heard the hatchet's differentiated
Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh
And collapse of what luxuriated
Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.
Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval
Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,
Its heft and hush became a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.

Sunday, 18 March 2007

The truth about tonsils, appendices and Raymond Carver

I am still awake at 4 am, nursing something. I think it’s my tonsils that could be nurtured and developed into a hefty pair of screaming twins. Tonsils are a strange part of the human body’s immune system. They can sit there one minute, as Dr Jekyll, doing whatever it is they are designed to do for the welfare of the body and then they become Mr Hyde and reverse their function and start to infect the whole of the system. The Boo ( Beloved Only Offspring) has tonsils the size of those spherical Fylingdale Early Warning system buildings. As a child the GP eventually just gave me powdered anti-biotics to make up as and when needed to prevent me constantly having to present her and her tonsils at the surgery. We managed to avoid removal, she was attached to them and I had a strange need to try and keep her as whole as possible, given that she had slipped from the womb fully equipped.

Evolution may dictate in another few thousand millennia (should we survive that long as a species) that the human body can dispense with the need for tonsils, appendix (or is the plural appendices as in books), little toes and other bits and bobs we can manage without. However I tend to think that if we have them we ought to hang onto them unless they are making life intolerable. I lost my appendix, when it malfunctioned spectacularly in Kings Lynn, to a very diminutive Sri Lankan woman surgeon. She obligingly entered via a previous scar; as she said to me afterwards, it seemed so much neater. Her neat work has often been commented on by other doctors, who always seem to feel the need to say something when they are in that area. I think it is a question of professional courtesy. I feel almost proud to be a walking example of fine needlecraft. Twenty-seven years on it is a neat faded red line which I look at and think; another human being cut me open and put their hands inside my body, took something they had no personal use for out of it to heal me and then sealed me back up…the evolution of the opposable thumb and true altruism is a wonderful thing in the right hands.
I have been reading an essay, to while away the throat, written by Raymond Carver on the principles of a story in which he says one of the postcards taped above his desk is a quote from Ezra Pound.

‘Fundamental accuracy is the one sole morality of writing’

The definition of what fundamental, accuracy and morality mean of course is open to interpretation. That sounds like the start of a lazy and padded out undergraduate essay…in the ‘let us define our terms for two sides so I can get my word count up’ time honoured way. However I’m not a student and it’s my blog to indulge myself with as I see fit; the dictionary says accuracy is the correctness or truthfulness of something. Once you mention the nature of truth that’s a whole can of worms opened up as Pontius Pilate once said at a board meeting. I love Raymond Carver’s short stories they have an economy of language that passes into that realm where the precise and accurate placement of one word or even a full stop conveys something entire and I can believe what he is telling me is true at an emotional and intellectual level.

Fiction and poetry have their own truth, in the interests of which I ought to tell you that my appendix was not truly spectacular in its malfunction, as that implies a level of visual impressiveness. I think the word, to be truthful, would be a painful malfunction. I have reined in the use of agonising as I do have a high threshold of pain and I want to be accurate both emotionally and factually.

E mail from the Boo at 4.30am, to wish me a happy Mothers Day, I point out the time to her in my e mail response and tell her that she should be asleep in bed. I think she will probably be thinking the same thing about me. We will bond over tonsils on the phone at a later, more civilised, hour; if I am able to croak, I am hoping to sound like a husky Lauren Bacall.

Saturday, 17 March 2007

The Culinary Use of Left-Overs and e.e.Cummings


I went to the supermarket yesterday, I stocked up on various dry goods, as they used to say in ship cargo manifests. I had reined myself in on the food purchasing front as I had been driving there listening to a debate on the car radio about food waste and a report that had revealed the huge amount of food that was thrown away uneaten in British households every week. Many contributors who phoned in sited the Home Front during the Second World War as the template for frugality and the creative use of left-overs. My mother was always heavily committed to left-over cuisine; I recall as a child that the Sunday roast appeared in various guises until Wednesday, sometimes Thursday if she was on a roll. She also believed in the power of grated cheese as an additive to any dish to lift it into the realms of a protein enhanced meal rather than mush. She once nearly killed our nice but dim Boxer dog by feeding it leftover Cheese and Potato pie. Recycling to the family pets was deemed to be a good frugal use of left-overs. Of course the dog, being a Boxer, a breed not renowned for sensible food habits (a friend once had a Boxer that had to have a half digested rubber glove pulled out of its arse) ate the rather generous portion that was served up with great relish. It must have set like reinforced concrete in her gut and she lay down for a full twenty–four hours, unable to stand. My mother merely commented that digesting a good meal could be tiring. The cat once threw up pink bullet-like fur balls after my mother used tinned tomatoes and left over cod to create a ‘light supper dish’ on toast.

We tended to feed the pets under the table a lot, they were our ‘private tasters’ or perhaps our canaries down the mine that we studied for the effects of gas, especially in the cabbage based left-overs. We never had a budgie though, so the effects of left-over concoctions on bird life were never fully trialled. In later life my mother did feed anything uneaten to the birds, and I mean anything. I would have to creep out under cover of darkness into her garden and remove chicken carcasses, Jammie Dodgers, curry and Brussel sprouts from the groaning bird table. My mother would have approved of those on the phone-in yesterday who talked of the good old days when not a crust was wasted and parsnips were hand carved to look like quail eggs and served up to eager and grateful family members.

Having talked about the recycling centre yesterday I feel that this wander into food recycling is a fitting follow-up. There is a lovely droll poem

‘Nobody Loses All the Time’ by e.e.Cummings that was probably written long before the concept of recycling was fully grasped and global warming was only a twinkle in a factory chimney’s eye. Uncle Sol always seems to me, to be the ultimate green and frugal person, and he did have a scrumptious funeral which sounds a tasty way to describe someones left-overs.

Friday, 16 March 2007

Shaggy Blog Stories


So in Waitrose car park I was accosted by three teenage boys wearing nothing but nappies and baby bonnets. As I knew their mothers they seemed to be holding their buckets in a strategic manner. Your mother's friends may have seen you in nappies seventeen years ago but much has changed since, or so they hope. However it was a sign that it is again Red Nose Day and on such days young men are willing to do such things for a good cause. Bloggers have decided to appease all of our "Me, me, me,look at me" moments by raising money as well. It was put together in just one week so round of applause for the compilers and a double scotch and a long lie down in a darkened room. Shaggy Blog Stories is available now, it contains one hundred of the best funny extracts from British Blogs. You can order it from here www.shaggyblogstories.co.uk

You may have to exercise a little patience as the site may be imploding under the pressure for a while.

A shed and a wooden leg


Jo Shapcott at the poetry reading I attended on Wednesday night said she retreated to a shed to write. I have a shed that is full of things which you eventually put into sheds because that is the only place you can think to put them. It is very over full, therefore logic suggests I have accumulated endless things that will inevitably find their way into the shed. Nothing in there is for specific retention, everything is there because it can’t go in the dustbin or is too large to fit in the car to take to the dump…sorry it is now called the re-cycling centre.

Our local dump(RCC) is now as trendy as All Bar One, there are colour coded skips with steps up to them that have slip proof coating so you don't go arse over tip in the rain. Cars drive in and friendly attendants help you dispose of your stuff and waste in a flurry of good humoured customer relations. It is quite a treat to go there now, although it is very close to a compost plant which sits on the rural crossroads a few hundred yards away. The Boo called this The House at Pooh Corner as a child as the stench could at times be quite rife but of course now we know that this is the smell of eco-friendly bio-degradable fertiliser production. This is good shit as opposed to bad shit happening if somewhat slowly: good compost I am assured takes patience and careful layering. However despite its overarching eco-friendliness locals do check which way the wind is blowing before embarking on their jaunt to the dump with their flasks of coffee, sandwiches and picnic tables to ensure their re-cycling experience is fully enjoyed.

So, I digress, I was in my shed or rather I am outside my shed as it is now so full all I can do is wrench open the swollen door and gaze at the compacted contents. If I had layered my stuff more effectively it might have hunkered down into a re-useable rich mulch of stuff. The roof is leaking and I have neglected to slap on the wood preserve. I think the shed is actually now held together by its contents; what it contains propping up the walls and the roof.Note to self, rich metaphor for this writer's body going to the dogs. This shed would not be a great place to write, it would take a large skip to even skim the top of the stuff in order to let me even perch in there with my laptop.

So no shed for me, I am a travel writer; I write on the sofa in the living room, on the kitchen table, in the spare room, in my bedroom, outside in good weather, in bed with the electric blanket on full when the nights are colds. I am frankly oblivious to my surroundings when I am in 'the zone' but of course if it is not going well I am aware of everything going on around me and I start to fixate on small things. Why does the clock tick so loudly, I ought to shampoo the living room rug, the fat balls that the birds are fighting over outside the window will need replacing soon, there is candle grease on a photograph and how did it get there? I have wondered what it would feel like to lock myself in a totally black room with nothing but a table, chair and a laptop. Even a plain grim shed would not do as I would be bound to start examining the wood for knot holes and creating small maps of Belgium or pictures of Kate Winslet posed on the prow of the Titanic out of them. I would be searching for a passing spider in order to re-enact a scene from Robert the Bruce’s life and apply it to the endless sestina or chapter opening I may be struggling with. I would start to think of ways to make it more homely, a milk bottle full of wild flowers, an old rug on the floor, photographs hanging from a few nails hammered into the wood.I would start to indulge in imaginary cluttering.

Trust me I am not a natural homemaker, I do not quilt or bake but I can do clutter; that’s why I don’t have a shed I can write in because I have a surfeit of clutter and I have poured what I have gathered around me into any space available and the last ditch stand for clutter is the shed. This cluttering trait also spills over into my writing; I have to be aware of the clutter and ensure I get rid of it before it starts to take over. Adjective, do I really need it, I might be quite fond of it but is it serving a purpose? Will that adjective keep falling off the top of the wardrobe or trip me up on the stairs. Adverbs are also a slippery slope, before I know it I will be boldly cramming adverbs where no adverb has been crammed before. Make the verb do the work and don’t keep a poor one simply out of laziness I tell myself, as if I were trying to rid myself of all the old Christmas heart shaped lights wound round the banister that no longer work. I can’t be bothered to take them down because I might make them work if I fiddle with them just like that poor choice of verb. Get rid, shouts the voice of life laundry and good writing. One day I will aspire to a vacant shed like Jo Shapcott or many other writers. I tend to think that if I had a shed free of crap I would be a better writer. The shed is therefore turning into some sort of totem of personal creativity or alternatively a gauge from which I can read the extent of my mental clutter and crap retention. I could just hire two very large skips but that would be far too easy and relieve me of my excuse for not writing better poems or more prose.

In Transactional Analysis terms (famous for the I’m OK Your OK catchphrase) I am playing what is labelled ‘the wooden leg game’, which goes….”If it wasn’t for my wooden leg I would be an Olympic runner, I would be able to climb Everest, I could be a ballet dancer” etc. There was a story in an old girls magazine called Bunty I believe about a ballet dancer with a wooden leg and we are now in the era when physical handicap is regarded as no barrier to success so perhaps the wooden leg game, so called, is not a very politically correct term. Perhaps it should be re-entitled the ‘If it wasn’t for my shed game’.

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Lines of Desire, Porters and Poetic Gentlemen in Duffels

I went to a poetry reading in Cambridge last night to hear Jo Shapcott read. It was held in Trinity College one of the oldest and richest colleges in the University. Four cheery Porters greet me at the lodge. A cursory glance tells them I am not a student, Cambridge Porters pride themselves on being able to spot a student at fifty paces. “Can we help Madam?” They often use the royal we, Cambridge Porters operate as a pack with the Head Porter being the alpha male. I note that the students they have been dealing with prior to me have been addressed as Sir and Miss, age obviously pushes me into becoming a Madam. They talk amongst themselves when I ask about the whereabouts of the poetry reading as if they have to agree by unanimous decision that I look the right sort of person to come into the college, one of them is wearing a bowler. “I have just this minute given the keys to the Old Combination Room to a young poetic gentleman in a duffel coat, I suggest you follow him.” There isn’t a flicker on his face; he has no doubt experienced a trickle of young poetic men in duffel coats over the years and has learnt not to flicker but can express a puckish note of irony in the tone of address. Young poetic gentlemen of the college do go on to become cut-throat big wheels in the City, Cabinet Ministers, Professors at other less well-endowed colleges,scientists who offer the meaning of subatomic life and gravity and media stars. Cambridge College Porters I feel are still trying to live down and live up to the novel ‘Porterhouse Blue’ and Skullion the Head Porter in that book which is a difficult thing to do.Of course Trinity Porters may well point out that the college described in that book best fits Clare, a poor relation down the street.

I spot the duffel coat disappearing across the huge quad. I know better than to cut across the lawn, Cambridge College turf is lush, velveteen green and only allowed to be stepped on by bare footed pixie sized girls who would leave no trace of their presence. I think they have CCTV cameras trained on their lawns, Head Gardeners look at the footage late at night for evidence of any student trying to inaugurate a line of desire. A planner once told me those paths trodden down regularly by people as a short cut across green land is called a line of desire. I have always thought it a rather wonderful name. I walk a line of desire. Mental note to self, must write poem about lines of desire, especially that well trodden one at the local park and ride which goes straight through a rather prickly shrubbery to the waiting buses. I imagine a Head Gardener’s aim is to nip in the bud any line that students may desire to establish. Have they developed some chemical over the years that they spray on the grass to deter students, like the products you can buy that are meant to ward off cats using your garden as a toilet? I know they don’t work as I watch the local cats hunker down regularly in my grass despite their use but perhaps students are easier to discourage than cats, they have less sense of their own superiority.

The Old Combination Room is imposing, groaning with huge paintings of benefactors and old students over the past three centuries. They seem to be all named after pubs like The Duke of Sussex or The Marquis of Granby ( which was a fine spit and sawdust miners pub I once knew intimately). The chairs look original Chippendales and there is a grand piano covered up and awaiting a madrigal group in the corner. There is a decent turn out but small considering how fine a poet Jo Shapcott is. The young girl on the committee sighs and tells me it is nearing the end of term and students are desperately trying to pad out their portfolios. I thought only artists had portfolios, huge ungainly things which the Boo (Beloved Only Offspring) tells me are very difficult to navigate through the ticket machines on the tube and which tend to poke fellow travellers in the eye in the rush hour. Now Cambridge students have them as well apparently but perhaps given the age of the university it was they who had them first; Shakespeare after all had a folio, which must have been carried around. I picture the students, heads bent over books and laptops into the early hours drinking endless cups of coffee and desperately trying to develop the art of padding. I hope they sometimes have time to follow a line of desire (but not the cocaine sort of course).

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

PowerPoint, Square Dancing and Lord Byron


I have just returned to base from a day of being trained. Gone are the days of death by shaky overhead and a plethora of pokes in the eyes with bright backlit PowerPoint has taken its place. Now we have text that scrolls in from left or right, text that wraps itself into bows, text being dropped like an unexploded bomb or rising up like a whale gasping for air. PowerPoint gives the determined presenter a myriad of ways to be cutesy or snazzy with text. The premise of course is that if you make text appear in the shape of a tortoise or a urinal its contents will be more memorable. PowerPoint can make words change colour and shape and dance for their supper.
Hand in hand with this has been the joy of interactive learning that has trickled down to the lowly paid masses in training situations. You just get nicely settled in your seat and then suddenly you are required to move. You are juggled around by the presenter who seems to take on all the characteristics of a caller at a square dance.
“Take your partners and work in pairs, swing those chairs now work in fours, work with someone you don’t know, dozy-doh, now go and work with someone you vaguely know. Promenade around the room and take your place in the coffee queue.”
Today I worked with so many different people I was beginning to have moments of deja-vu or I had simply worked with the same person before and had forgotten. The permutations were endless. We had three minutes to tell them something about ourselves; training nowadays seems to involve a strange version of speed dating without the pressure of wondering if they are giving you a mark out of ten and if they have decided that you are the last person on the planet they would want to see again, let alone date. I have shared a lot today with complete strangers. I have learnt never to say that I write poetry as the ‘face’ comes out. The ‘face’ involves re-arranging the muscles around the eyes and mouth into a semblance of fascinated and rapt attention.
“That’s interesting” they say brushing the custard cream crumbs from their lap, “Such a cheap hobby all you need is a paper and pen. My cousin writes a little poetry.” For some reason most people manage to dredge up a distant relative that writes poetry, just like most people can summon a family member with tinnitus or a stammer. I believed for many years that this was an attempt at putting me at my ease, of making me feel less odd. I think now it is a desire to place me amongst those who cope well with a problem despite the obvious deleterious effects it can have on your life. One woman at a similar training session once presumed that writing poetry was a ‘coping mechanism’; it was a way of dealing with passing moments of depression and the sharp prick of spinsterhood. She also asked if I did funny stuff like Pam Ayres and whether I brought them (my poems) out to amuse people at weddings or office parties. I assured her that I brought them out in a variety of situations. She then advised me to buy a pet. When required to share something now at a training session I tend to tell them about the problems of going through the menopause in excruciating and minute detail which they seem to be much more comfortable with than writing poetry, even the young men.
It wandered across my mind today as I was trying to make one of those strange pump action coffee urns work without it sounding like a heart-lung machine, that PowerPoint presentations at a poetry reading might be interesting. Being able to read the text may cut down on misunderstandings and if nothing else allow people to see how long the piece is you are intending to read. I have seen a couple of poets read, who hold up the page in the book so the audience can see not only the shape of the poem but can rest easy in the knowledge that it is only half a page long. We could have poetry kari-oke sweep the country and read-a-long with Andrew Motion nights like those Sound of Music sing-a–longs. Aisle 16 the Boy Band poetry group who make me feel ancient and in need of ginseng did a tour which involved PowerPoint recently but this wasn’t used in all its full Microsoft capabilities. I wonder how some of the long dead poets would have taken to technology.

I think Byron would have liked the flamboyance of the full PowerPoint show, pacing in front of the audience with a come hither limp whilst tossing his dark hair so that he cast a magnificent silhouette on the screen. He would have loved the theatrical possibilities of the strong visuals mixed with text and all of it held together, like an old fashiohttpevangelical revivalist rally, by the force of his personality. Take his poem Darkness
. Here you have echoes of Al Gore collecting his Oscar. Yes Byron would have been on the circuit strutting his PowerPoint poetry and mesmerising the crowds…he would have even liked a few fireworks being a member of The Hellfire Club and the girls would still swoon at his feet when he walked into a room.

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Fuchsia Bridesmaid in the Poetry Scrum


There was a small dance to the internal head tune of ‘I will survive’ in the kitchen last week as I was runner up in a national poetry competition. Later, after the euphoria wears off, I suffer from my usual brief bridesmaid complex, which is of course, churlish, ungrateful and very immature. When will I get to be the bride, I think? I want the gorgeous dress with many many net skirts, ride of the Valkyrie on the organ and a reception in which important poetry people pin cheques onto my heaving and humble bosom (I think a Greek Wedding would be more fun, lucrative and better than gifts of poetry magnet kits or decorative notebooks made from the bark of trees). I want assembled poets to dance very badly to tracks from the seventies and eighties, get drunk and argue about the merits of male versus female rhymes. I want to be waved off on a holiday in which the moon will drip with honey.

However, I have to acknowledge that I got past ‘The Sifters’ and gained admission to the church; I even got to trot up the red carpet behind what is, I admit, a far better poem; this in itself must be cause for joy. I have never been a bridesmaid in real life as I am usually bigger that the groom let alone the bride so it doesn’t make for a good visual at the photographic stage. I think at my advanced age I would also now be deemed to be a Matron of Honour, which still has ‘Carry On Up the Aisle’ connotations for me, I can almost hear Sid James’ dirty laugh as I squeeze into a fuchsia concoction with matching floral headband. As a poetry bridesmaid I at least have the fun of holding the train and enjoying the whole ceremony.

I think I may have to start nurturing all the top qualities of a decent prop forward in the line-out to grab that poetry bouquet when it is up for grabs. Better poems, more muscular power and an elbow in the eye when the ref isn’t looking. Of course the fuchsia concoction may cramp my style but I am prepared to rip a few seams in my endeavours to write a better poem. It’s not about ego it’s about the work and any poet or writer would willingly squeeze themselves into a fuchsia frock and go into a rugby scrum if it were the only thing that allowed them to create something magnificent with the wonderful power of language.

Monday, 12 March 2007

A brush with daffodils and a close call with William Carlos Williams' plums

The magnolia tree opposite my house is starting to look hopeful that it can put on its party frock soon. Spring feels as if it might want to put in an appearance. I always hesitate to mention daffodils, for a poet that comes with baggage, especially if there is the slightest hint of a breeze and bobbing is involved. This is a shame as I like daffodils, they make me feel happy. Of course, in a post modernist world, perhaps that is far too direct a statement. What does a smile indicate, happiness? How does one define that state given the ramifications of an imploding world? Happy is difficult, 'happy' demands explanations of such philosophical tortuousness that to engage in defining it would make my head hurt, achieve very little everyone could agree on and probably end up with a thousand angels balancing on the sharp end of a pin, elbowing each other for room and punching each other in the eye. Daffodils do make me smile as a spontaneous expression of delight, may be that is more precise. I see a daffodil and I smile because I am delighted. Delight, as a word, may be equally dangerous; it has been devalued or is seen as archaically Jane Austen.
“I’d be delighted to see you in a wet shirt Mr Darcy, let me show you the way to the local pond.”

I saw a large stretch of wild daffodils today on a grass verge as I drove along the fen back roads. I will not think host, I will not think host, I said to myself, neither will I think of them as dancing, not even a reined in Cha-Cha. I wrestled with the Wordsworth description but it won by two falls and a submission. I was pinned to the mat by a man who lived two hundred years ago and lived with his sister. Of course a rose by any other name is called Shakespeare but the daffodil is the brand image par excellence of English poetry not just Wordsworth. Wheelbarrows, toads, a train to Adlestrop even a summer’s day does not have the same universal power in the English speaking world to trigger the connection to poetry. I don’t even have to do a survey, cyberspace has pre-empted the need to drag in one out of every ten people off the street. Just Google daffodil and after an encyclopaedic definition of the flower and for some reason the American Daffodil Society up comes Daffodils by Wordsworth. The massive internet search engines, the definition of the computerised world’s desire for information and knowledge, thinks immediately of hosts and dancing in the breeze.
As a poet and writer, I must fight this, it is the slippery slope to copycat poems, unintentionally homage, parody and cliché. Last week I opened the fridge and there were some plums staring at me, daring me to think William Carlos Williams, I could almost feel how delicious, sweet and cold they would be in my mouth The sudden shock could have blocked me for weeks; luckily I had just read an erudite analysis of The Red Wheelbarrow by the same poet. I was pondering on the ‘exquisite use of precise painterly language, stanza breaks and assonance that turns a sentence into a masterly eight short-lined poem’. I was wondering whether I should have a go at writing about my green watering can without the aid of a passing chicken and so the full force of the plums just grazed my left temple. I managed to shut the fridge door in the nick of time. I asked an old friend, who called round for a cup of tea later, to move the plums behind the Flora when she was getting the milk out of the fridge. She never questioned me as to why, after twenty–two years, she has become accustomed to my foibles. The definition of a true friend is someone who will move your plums when asked without asking why.

Sunday, 11 March 2007

Larkin and Cuprinol Amazons



Yesterday, I removed the wellies; the most suitable footwear for pegging out the washing in a low lying fen area in which there has been much rain and made a sortie into Cambridge to collect the Boo (Beloved Only Offspring) from the train station. Cambridge is an odd city, a constant buzz of tourists that rises to a crescendo of camera clicking and thudding of colliding punt poles in the summer months punctuated in short bursts with the chatter of bright-eyed bushy tailed students. Added to that is the trickle of Fen folk visiting to stare and tut at the exorbitant price of spuds on the market and the odd passing crusty dreadlock. The silicon fen tribe and the human genome shamans also thread their way through this rich tapestry of life. They clutch their lap tops and swipe cards as they hurry to laboratories where the future of mankind is contained behind a door that has a code encrypted from their favourite character in Lord of the Rings.Stephen Hawkins has been known to weave his way along the pavement.
After re-reading that paragraph I need to stop and strike that image of students with bushy tails from my mind, too shudderingly squirrel related; although the odd student does have some potential for aggression, especially the girls, when tanked up on cheap college beer and blue cocktails. None have, as yet, attempted to bite me on the foot, but that may be because if they bent down they would fall over.
The Boo having lived and worked in the rougher areas of Hull whilst a student, informs me that the average female Cambridge student could not hold a candle let alone a can of Carlsberg Special Brew to a local Hull girl. These girls can wear tiny skirts, no tights, high heels and backless halter necks without a coat or a goose bump to protect them on a Saturday night out in sub zero temperatures. They can gut you with a glance and bone you with a flick of their eyeliner pencil. She tells me this with a measure of pride and respect for them. She believes they are born weatherproofed and tough. It was voted the crappiest town in England to live in and yet they come back fighting; you don’t mess with a Hull woman.
I wonder whether the poet Phillip Larkin, who was the librarian at Hull University for many years, ever messed or fantasised about Hull woman. Given the extent of his bursts of deep misogyny he may have been wise enough not to tangle with the local women, they would have made fish paste out of him. I think all of the women who supported and complicated his life where incomers; they were not bred within a short sniff of a trawler or a fish dock. The area around the University is actually suburbia with Methodist and Congregationalist Chapels on corners of mock French Boulevards and there is the odd tree. However sometimes he must have caught the bus clutching his umbrella and travelled through the dark interiors of Hull where the Cuprinol Amazons walked the streets pushing their sturdy babies in heavyweight pushchairs. I think Larkin and Hull may have suited each other; a cynical almost weary acceptance of how things are but a sense of fighting back, if only by the use of words and language.Hull women can be articulate and know about strategic use of language.
The Boo used to work in Boozebusters (a poetic gift of a coupling of person and place) in an area of Hull where cars are stolen and burnt by boys barely big enough to reach the pedals. She had her share of men buying £2.99 wine and a can of larger for his dog on a rope. It is tough there but life goes on, the postmen always deliver but sometimes in pairs in case they are mugged and the doctors on call out have police protection.


‘Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house’


The last two lines of Aubade Larkin’s last published poem prior to his death.

Larkin I feel would have been comfortable wandering in there to buy a bottle of something cheering at the end of a hard day in the book stacks juggling his women.

Saturday, 10 March 2007

Coffee and Coleridge on a step machine


I have consumed two large mugs of high roast ‘there is more caffeine in this than carbon footprints at Heathrow’ coffee and am wondering about the wisdom of attempting to write this blog whilst under the influence. I write a great deal under the influence. I drive a lot under the influence; I always think that should a breath test be devised for caffeine intake, my crystals would turn a rich dark shade of Colombian or possibly Blue Mountain beans. I think road rage incidents could at times be attributed to coffee intake. Does a Police Officer ever say at the scene of a driving related incident, “Have you been drinking coffee Sir, would you like to blow into my little bag?”
Of course tea has nearly as much caffeine in as coffee so Lorry Drivers in those roadside eateries where they consume heart stopping fry-ups and huge mugs of tea could also be at risk. One wave of a fist and a dent in the back bumper of a pensioners Fiesta and those four mugs of tea would be discovered. “I’m sorry Sir but you are way over your caffeine intake limit and you are driving in an erratic manner”. One cafétiere and you could lose your licence, two pots of strong Yorkshire tea and it might even be a prison sentence. Caffeine can play with the synaptic pathways; it can play with the mind.
See this if you want to scare yourself. A hundred cups of coffee in one day and you could be a goner, I could have come close when a deadline has loomed.
I have tried herbal teas, I have pretended that I like them and made ‘how much better this is for me’ faces in the mirror. Frankly, camomile tastes like brewed privet twigs to me and the fruit teas …well I’d much rather suck on a wine gum. I have taken to water, which of course is the trendy and advised drink of choice. Umpteen litres a day and my kidneys are flushing like Niagara and my brain and body tissue is so hydrated I feel like a soggy mattress left out in a cloudburst. I use the water to balance the caffeine intake and make myself look as if my body is my temple carrying a water bottle in the car and into hot shopping malls. I consume two big glasses of water for every mug of coffee or tea. I do a lot of thinking in the loo these days, my bladder could be sold as a hot air balloon should I die in an accident. I navigate no longer by the stars but by signs for the toilet.
I can always tell those first poem drafts I have completed under the influence of the bean; they tend to have rather jittery short lines, no drifting on with commas. They often have slightly aggressive take me or leave me metaphors. Poems written under bean power are never lyrical, pastoral or mention stars. I have to wedge in stars and universal truths on my water and twig brew-up days. Bean poems contain close examinations of sharp things, sandpaper and mature cheddar cheese with beetroot sandwiches which have that kick you in the face taste and a lot of red that stains your fingers.
Many famous poets, of course, such as Dylan Thomas and Baudelaire notoriously consumed huge amounts of alcohol; although Baudelaire really only hit the bottle hard when he moved to Belgium which is understandable. Poets have always written fine memorable work either under the influence or recovering from the influence of some drug or other. Caffeine now seems to be a slightly more acceptable drug of choice than wine, absinthe, opium or whiskey. There are endless modern poems and blogs that glorify and serenade the bean and its delights. I am waiting for the water poets to make their mark or perhaps the gym visiting poets. The consumption of water in excess can cause unusual brain activity and of course the endorphins released by exercise are a well known cheap if sweaty high. Maybe Christabel or The Ancient Mariner would still have been written in the same way if Coleridge had thrown his opium pipe away and had worked out daily on the step machine or had a personal trainer.
I have sometimes read a poem that has made me feel on a complete high, giddy with the excitement and possibility of words. I wonder whether the brain activity induced by a great poem could be shown to agitate the brain.
“Excuse me madam would you please blow into my little bag as I believe you may be under the influence of a poem whilst driving.” I suspect the crystals might turn the colour of someone’s eyes or the mosaic inside that Art Deco building in Philadelphia. However poetry, good prose or a compulsive story can surely oblige you with a memorable hang over you can savour.

Friday, 9 March 2007

The Fridge Sounds as a Sonnet

The BOO ( Beloved Only Offspring ) is returning today for the weekend clutching a newly acquired MA in Creative Writing and a serious question. When I started this blog I pointed out that I thought I should write as if my parents could read it as this would ensure I might use a modicum of discretion. An E mail from the BOO has been received saying ‘Why didn’t I know that you hugged the fridge?’ I have revealed to the anonymous masses of cyberspace that I hug the fridge but do I mind if the BOO knows? Should I write instead in the knowledge that the BOO is reading it assiduously. I do feel that I have come out of the closet to my family as an embracer of the upright combination fridge-freezer. There is, of course, no law that precludes a relationship between a consenting adult and white goods, but there may still be some residual prejudice about it.
A few months ago I was forced to replace my twenty-three year old fridge; it had started to hum in a disgruntled manner. If I was a musician I might venture a description involving pitch however I am incapable of holding a tune. What I feel I am quite good at is noting a change in tone. Poems can do it, that sudden twist that leads you into another emotional area. The sonnet can let you do that within its formal structure. You think the poem is about that but ha-ha up the sleeve of my last few lines I have a turn and it’s actually about this. My old fridge had definitely turned, its tone had changed from humming in a coping manner, to a dark and peevish drone with frequent 3am house shuddering clanks. It was in its death throws, it had become slightly incontinent when it sneezed at night. Its temperature had become erratic, icy cold or feverishly warm. It gave off odd odours from its environmentally unfriendly innards.
It had to be put out of its misery. I had to pay some men to dispose of it in a manner that did not increase global warming and would allowed it to enter white goods Valhalla, safe in the knowledge that it was not personally responsible for the polar ice caps juddering and melting into oblivion like itself. I did hug it goodbye, I cried as I removed all the fridge magnets and felt as if I was ripping the epaulets from the shoulders of an upright and innocent old soldier. We had been through a lot together; it had allowed BOO to thrust her head into its stuffed and groaning interiors and declare that there was nothing to eat. It had stood firm as visitors and drunken teenagers had buried its surfaces under bad fridge magnet poetry. We had shared private moments of joy when I had received particularly good news.
The new fridge, I have to say does not quite feel the same. I am still in that stage where I have the old template of what a fridge hug feels like. Kinaesthetic memory will gradually fade I am sure and a fridge by another name will smell as sweet; once a bit of mouldy cheddar has been stuck at the back for a few months and an old lemon in the salad drawer takes on the look and texture of a fur ball the cat might cough up.

Thursday, 8 March 2007

Swedes versus Rutabagas and associated poetry incidents

A friend in New York has informed me that any Americans reading yesterday’s blog will be lead to believe that unsuspecting Scandinavians are being crushed by tractors in the Archers. This might make for a more interesting plotline than already exists and could be a change from the exploitation of unsuspecting ex-Eastern block students for the purposes of picking Adam’s strawberries. However to avoid the BBC being called to book on humanitarian grounds, I need to clarify that alternative names for the swede is rutabaga, neep, yellow turnip, white turnip, Kalrabi(Norway), Kalrot (Sweden), snadgies ( NE England) and Steckruben(Germany). I have been forced to research the swede for the purposes of clarity.
I have discovered that there is a Rutabaga Festival held annually in a town in Wisconsin and that in New York State there is a Rutabaga Curling Championship. I imagine that this must involve ice, those scrubbing brushes to smooth the swedes way towards a target and people clad against the cold to scrub furiously at the ice with afore mentioned brushes. The winters can be long and hard there and I am sure practising the art of swede curling is a family sport that keeps the locals not only warm but challenged during the long dark nights. I have learnt more than I care to know about swedes and have learnt two valuable lessons about words.
a) Always do your research
and
b)Never presume that people know what you are talking about

I have had ‘swede/rutabaga’ type incidents at poetry readings, where, without the written text to follow surreal misinterpretations can occur quite easily. Someone has either misheard a word or they have not been listening attentively enough and misconstrued a particular word and they have been unable to apply context clues rapidly enough to sort the whole poem out. Personal iconography can also rear its head here (see previous post regarding the use of the Jubbly, sardines and milk in poetry). I feel there is a special chamber is purgatory reserved for those audience members who allow themselves to drift off and examine the pattern of the floor tiles or plan a dinner party for a group of people (one of whom is vegan and another suffers from Gluten intolerance) whilst I am reading. I cannot allow the thought to even enter my psyche that I am boring them to death or that I am too obscure in my language use. Should I do so it will plunge my already fragile ego into a deeper slough of despond and besides my psyche is already crammed with stuff, such as images bequeathed to me as a child by the Disney Empire.
“I loved that poem about clothes shops that you read” a couple told me once after a reading. I smiled beatifically at them whilst at the same time thinking, “Clothes, did I read a poem about clothes? I don’t recall writing a poem about clothes? Have I even used dress, suit, jacket, hat, Dior, braces or socks in a poem? Is the menopausal memory so shot that I can no longer recall poems I wrote or indeed read five minutes ago? Such feedback keeps you on your toes re communication with your audience. Do I presume that they are hard of hearing and have misheard the word stove, mess, root, pack it, rat, ignore, traces or clocks of which I might have an example somewhere in my oeuvre. Suddenly it clicked but the sound of my marbles rolling into place was drowned out by their coughing; I had given an introduction to a poem during which I had mentioned a new look at genes.
“We nearly didn’t come tonight” they continued “we both have stinking colds but we are so glad we did.” Immediately the couple were plucked from the dark realms of Dante’s inferno and restored to their rightful place in the heaven reserved for those wonderful stalwarts of poetry readings who turn out despite pneumonia and blizzards; may their god continue to bless their cotton socks.
To conclude, therefore, never presume. A young child I know once struggled under the burden of a particular bizarre image for weeks and finally asked me how you could make a lock out of hair and what sort of key would you use.It may be the case that a small number of people who inhabit New York State are busy practising the art of twisting the leaves of the humble rutabaga onto hair curlers.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Chainsaws and Assonance

I have been thinking about sounds and effects lately. One particular sound that caught my ear at the week-end was the crunch of swedes being broken up by tractor on the Archer’s. It has been rattling round in my head ever since. Did they record that especially? Did they already have it on file, labelled ‘sound of swede being split by tractor’? A couple of years ago I was present with a playwright friend when a radio play he had adapted form a narrative sequence of my poems was recorded at the BBC in London. It was a fascinating experience and revealed the huge amount of skill and expertise that goes into just one forty-five minute afternoon radio drama.
The sound effects people were a joy to watch at work. There was a man who did sounds in the studio, ‘live’. He had in the past, he revealed, spent a great deal of his time randomly roaming the streets and the country side recording sounds that could be stored for the BBC Archives. I have often thought of that job, how sound would fill your world and become the consuming landscape through which you move. What sound, no matter how inconsequential, would merit recording, how would you choose?
What would be my eight Desert island sounds of choice I wondered? The sound of bacon sizzling in a pan is wonderful after an early morning walk on a cold winter's morning but would this sound be welcome on a sweltering hot desert island with only coconuts and the odd exotic fish as your staple diet? That particular sound could drive me crazy and lead me to hollow out any small discarded turtle shell as a canoe in order to seek out some Danish unsmoked back bacon. My luxury would, of course, be paper and pen, what sort of writer would I be if I asked for cigars or a Slumberland mattress? I may, therefore, be driven to write poems including the words sun, sea, sand, seashells, solitude, serenity, sleep, sinusitis and sanity in order to feed my need for the right degree of sizzling assonance.

I may be slightly over-sensitised to sound at present as a neighbour has been using a power-saw in the front garden for several days. By late Tuesday afternoon I had the Texas Chainsaw Massacre firmly established as a visual, although I have never seen the original film nor any of its blood soaked spawn. I had tried to make the sound morph into something else more conducive to writing or just general living. All that I could think to summon that approximated, were bees; the lazy drone of bees on a summer’s afternoon. However I am not a fan of bees they are too close in sound to the wasp that twitch me about when all I am trying to do is relax in the garden with a glass of wine and a sandwich on a hot day No matter how hard I thought of bees whilst also trying to fight off the image of wasps landing in my wine glass and crawling over the sandwich, the power-saw remained stubbornly a sound total unique to itself.
Some sounds and voices are so intrusive into the skull that they cannot be ignored. The neighbour, I noted, was wearing ear-protectors and an MP3 player wire was trailing from under them. Tinnitus suffers use music to mask out unwanted sounds, no doubt he had Meatloaf and Status Quo blasting out. I am engaging in stereotypes here; he is a middle-aged builder with a Landrover and a fast bright red motor-bike purchased, he told me, as a post divorce treat to himself. He is a very nice man, he has crawled through my small open upstairs window on more than one occasion when I have locked myself out and did not once make any comment about women of a certain age and forgetfulness. He could be listening to Beethoven and mediaeval plain song.
I tried to turn up the radio, I played music, I even talked out loud to myself; nothing proved an auditory firewall to the power-saw. Even now after it has stopped I am hearing the ghost of it, there is a slight hum in the back of my head. The only thing that really helped sooth me was the imagined film clip and as I say I have never even seen that film but I have found it very easy to make up my own footage. It involved my neighbour as a victim and a naked George Clooney wielding the chain-saw as I am personally a pacifist. The neighbour only received a few minor cuts with the blade and if I concentrated very hard on George naked the noise did seem to reduce a tad.
I should tear myself away from that visual image, which for some strange reason has popped back forcefully into my head as I write; back to the sound effects people. The particular sound effects man I met at the BBC created the sound of a woman vomiting onto a hospital corridor floor from a trolley with the use of the perfect amount of water poured from just the right sound height onto the exact surface. Cupboard doors were open and shut when he produced a small portable door.
Other sound effects held on file were precise to the point of anal retentive. A car door shutting was required. "What sort of car? Someone will write in and say that you mentioned a Mini in the play but that was the sound of a Ford Granada circa 1998 shutting." There are apparently people who listen so attentively that the clunk of a mug holding coffee can be spotted instead of the clink of a nineteenth century china tea-cup half-full of Earl Grey. The ‘sound police’ listen with their ears close to the radio. Some record it and listen to it over and over in order to substantiate their complaint. The BBC knows who they are, they call upon all the many arts of technology to outwit them; it is a matter of pride.
The play required night sounds. The sound effects librarian asked “Do you want night in the country, night in the suburbs, night in the inner city, with or without other passing people, with or without sirens, with or without drunks, walking on night streets, walking in night woods with or without owls, night suburbs with or without curtains twitching as you walk past, what sort of weather, what pace are you moving at?”
It made me realise how imprecise or inattentive to the detail of sounds I can be when writing. Do I work as hard on the soundscape as on the visual image in a poem?
It is not true that in space no one can hear you scream, the BBC sound effects people have it on tape, the silence is precise and carefully constructed from an empty paper cup and a velvet clothe.

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Roadkill on very flat roads and Poetry

Yesterday I was driving through the farthest flung reaches of the fens* as I am wont to do in the course of work. It was glorious, the sun was shining, the wind for once wasn’t bustling in from the Urals in its Dr Zhivago overcoat and the odd cock pheasant was wandering purposefully across the road. Why does a pheasant cross the road? To give himself an adrenalin rush, for the sense of being on the wrong side of the track, the closest he can get to pretending to be a night club transvestite chicken, who knows? Out in the flatlands I have seen enough equally flat wildlife to make a rich deep textural chapbook of residual fur and feathered poems. I have cause to know that a few fen people do not flinch or slow in the face of passing wildlife, but actively speed up. This makes for rich pickings for a poet as we are often drawn to dead wildlife. The image is irresistible, something squashed by the inexorable wheel of mechanised humanity that demands the search for a new way of saying ‘dull-eyed’ or ‘the final tremor of stilled wings’.
Don Patterson in a recent article for Blinking-Eye wrote that, after reading three hundred poems as the judge of a competition, he was strangely drawn towards a poem entitled "To My Dog Benjy, Killed by a Landrover Outside My House" (it carried the footnote: "Benjy was a cocker spaniel"). He did, however he continues, change his mind after a decent night’s sleep. Another poet I know has written a poem in which there is a stanza about a whole group of poets being lured to their death by one dead rabbit during a Ted Hughes Workshop. At readings fellow poets in the audience always laugh heartily, perhaps because it is rather close to the bone or at least the bleached femur of some mangled badger. A flat-packed roadside bunny could be the default setting to which we poets return when all other creative synaptic pathways are blocked. A Norwegian work colleague once told me that she had hit an enormous elk that had wandered onto a night road outside Trondheim. Fortunately she was fine, as was the temporarily stunned elk but the car was damaged beyond repair. When she told me this story I admit to being somewhat envious of Norwegian poets; so much larger wildlife to cross the road, more exciting roadside events to ponder over and totalled Saabs to eulogise.

* For any reader unfamiliar with the geography of the United Kingdom, The fens I am referring to are in East Anglia ( just inside the backside of mainland Britain as you contemplate the map and view it as someone sitting down and clutching a non-existent steering wheel). It is flat here, not given to woodland or sweet thatched cottages clustered around a village green. In fact many fen villages are long and thin as the houses straggle along the old sheep tracks that offer some vestige of solid foundations. The fens produce extraordinary sugar beet, carrots and celery plus men, who if they are from old local families, have evolved to have short legs and long arms, so helpful in the picking of such root crops.Historically it was a wet marshland where the locals caught eels , hunted ducks and generally caught the ague and malaria.Hereward the Wake had great fun leading the poncy French Normans who did not like getting their feet wet into these marshes and losing them, literally. In the seventeenth century some rich capitalist types with connections in all the right places who could get all the right permits (does that sound universally familiar ?)were allowed to keep any land they drained.Much digging of huge dykes ensued, mostly by Scottish prisoners of war and later Dutch prisoners of war which must have pissed them off no end as it was the Dutch engineers who were busy helping afore mentioned capitalists design the drainage system. The locals known as Fen Tigers pulled down the dyke walls and the windmills at night as fast as they could be built during the day but they were fighting a losing battle.Money talks, money gets you land, money permanently alters the total ecology of a significant area of the countryside ( hmmmm again does that sound familiar ). However it could be that the acres of rich black soil stretching out to the horizon and the proliferation of polytunnels, Peculiar and Strict Baptist Chapels in the middle of nowhere and drive-in MacDonalds next to cinemas with ten screens is indeed progress and may be better than eating jellied eels, the need to sleep under a mosquito net whilst taking mind bending anti-malaria products and the killing of ducks (I seem to have come full circle here to slaughtered wildlife)

Monday, 5 March 2007

The Use of the Jubbly in Poetry



An American friend e mailed yesterday to say she has bookmarked this blog and for some reason her toolbar randomly designates small pictorial icons to each site marked, I am a fried egg. I began to mull this over. It is a cliché but nonetheless a useful guideline that all poetry is ultimately about sex and death, in all its various guises. However after just completing a new poem, I have again realised that a great deal of my poetry is about food. A poet friend has pointed out to me that food either directly or as a simile or metaphor seems to slip inexorably into the body of my poetic work. Perhaps I am not contemplating sex and death enough and instead my waking hours are spent sub consciously processing food?
Food is, of course, often used as a metaphor in itself for thoughts on sex and death, not only by poets but by artists. Picture that ancient biblical image of the apple. Maybe Eve did not want the powers of an omnipotent god and knowledge of all things perhaps she just yearned for a tasty crisp snack? She may have grown tired of exotic soft pulp: mango, papaya, pomegranate and the grape perhaps she just wanted a firm crisp Granny Smith or a rosy Braeburn to get her perfect teeth into. The serpent merely had to extol its virtues as a crunchy unyielding fruit and bobs your uncle; he’s crawling on his belly for the next few millennia, women are bringing forth offspring in travail and needing epidurals and those small plastic pots of ersatz cream you can’t open in cafes without being splattered, have been invented. Giving into one innocent snack can be the beginning of the end, as the Weight Watcher Counsellor once told me at the local Recreation Centre.
On reflection I think I wrote more poetry that included food during my Weight Watching Years. ‘We are what we eat’, we write what we dream of eating. However, since then I have also managed to weave; pork pies, sherbet lemons, mayonnaise, beef casserole and dumplings, vanilla pods, roast lamb and frozen peas, to name just a few foods or culinary accompaniments, into very serious poems about sex and death. It may be that the old adage in my case is wrong perhaps all my poems are ultimately sub textually about food disguised in other darker metaphors. Every phallic symbol really is a sausage; every dark bowl of night is chocolate sauce.
I have noticed that a poem only has to mention a Five Boy Chocolate bar, Jubblies or chewing on a liquorice root and the reader of a certain age is easily grounded in childhood nostalgia. It’s an easy trick, it may often be a lazy device but memory like an army often marches on its stomach.
We all have our own iconography of food; say sardines and for me it’s Saturday tea, sardines on toast in front of the TV with my Dad taking down the football scores so he can check his Littlewoods pools coupon. It is my careful and fascinated excavation of their tiny spine from the flesh, the tomato sauce clinging to it like clotted blood. Milk conjures for me the slimy and vomit-inducing feel on the lips of the skin that builds up on untouched hot milk given to me when I had pneumonia. The word chip is mentioned and I see and hear my mother expounding the virtues of the ‘double frying in lard’ technique to me when I am twelve years old whilst the kitchen slowly grows smoky with neglected hot fat.
That’s the joy of using words, especially in poetry; striving for their precision for your purpose whilst at the same time the reader brings to those words their own personal images and meaning. I like that tension, that tugging on the rope of language between the reader and the writer. That could be a metaphor for the umbilical cord; for me its The Lady and The Tramp eating spaghetti (another point yet again to the effect of food and the Disney Empire on my psyche).

NB When searching for an image of a Jubbly the internet offered me a number of images of big breasted women. As a child I recall wrestling with the problem of trying to squeeze out and gain access to my Jubbly so I could suck on it whilst at the same time ensuring it did not shoot out onto the pavement. Meanwhile some sleazy marketing manager was either paying a covert homage to the Blackpool postcard or had fantasies of handling the large firm breasts of a woman. I rest my case about the connection between food and sex in particular.