What microbes can teach us about power:

This week I have been in a dessert. Or that’s how it felt.

There was a cartoon on FaceBook showing the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. One of them was carrying several toilet rolls under his arms: he’s been panic buying, like a large portion of the UK population. And I saw what we’ve become as humanity: there is no humanity, it’s each person for him/herself. H G Wells would love this: how a microscopic organism can lay waste to power. I’m not religious, but when God gave to Adam dominion over the animals and plants, wasn’t that about care as well as power? Didn’t God entrust paradise to humankind to look after it? Well, he got that wrong. In times of crisis, like say a pandemic involving a virus that none is immune to, shouldn’t we be protecting each other, down to the least vulnerable? Apparently not: we should look after ourselves, and sod the rest. So supermarket shelves are stripped of toilet paper, pasta, rice. Bread mixes? None. Milk? Oh-oh. Baked beans? All gone. How is toilet paper or pasta going to protect us from a virus that none is immune to? Breaking News: it isn’t! Well, we can look to our elected leaders for guidance in times of crisis, surely. We look in vain:

Wash your hands, keep calm and carry on. Old folk: don’t go on any cruises. Young folk: get yourselves to school and work, your economy needs you. Oh, and prepare yourselves that lots of your loved ones are going to die.

This isn’t leadership; this is ineptitude. A leader of people would have put the people first: truth, but with reassurance, is all. Our leaders worship the god Mamon: so economic wealth must come before people. Ordinary mortals are mere sacrifices to this powerful and uncaring god. More Breaking News: the god Mamon won’t save you in times of crisis either. I lay awake on Thursday night, reflecting on all this. I felt ill and desperate. My elected leaders did this to me, not the Covid 19. I already knew that was bad: I watch and read the news.  I needed to know the Government had my back, would take decisive action to protect me and mine, as has happened in China, Italy, Germany, Spain: most countries that put their people before their wealth. But not here: go about your Business—the uppercase initial is intended—and prepare to die.

By 3.00 a.m. it was clear I wouldn’t be sleeping tonight. I decided to read, hide my thoughts behind someone else’s words. I found a ‘Vera’ novel on my Kindle: Vera has often pulled me through hard times and it was to Vera I turned in the small hours of Friday: anything to fill my head with words so I didn’t have to think my own thoughts.

To make matters worse, I got up on Friday to another urinary tract infection. I spent a stressful twenty minutes pressing that ‘call back’ button on my iPhone before I eventually got through to my doctors’ surgery: a recorded message warning me about the surgery’s policy re. Coronavirus. I would be asked to respond to questions from the receptionist about my ‘Coronavirus history’ and about the reason for my current call. This seemed preferable to the Government response: at least my GPs were caring for their vulnerable patients in a responsible way.

Receptionist: Do you have a fever, sore throat or chesty cough?
Me: No, I have a urine infection.
Receptionist: I must ask you just to answer these questions. Have you recently been to a country outside the UK that is a Coronavirus concern.
Me: No.
Receptionist: Have you been in contact with anyone who has Coronavirus. [You can probably see the weak point in this question, as I did.]
Me: Not as far as I’m aware.
Receptionist: Yes, there is that. What is your problem today?

And then we got down to discussing why I was contacting my doctors’ surgery this morning. I was allotted a time-slot for a telephone consultation with a GP. I have a history of UTI, so he sent a prescription for antibiotics to my nominated pharmacy and my problem was resolved without putting anyone else’s, or indeed my own, life at unnecessary risk: responsible action to protect the weakest in our society. Government, take note.

I spent the rest of the day hunkering down under a blanket, feeling sorry for myself. Thankfully, the antibiotics kicked in quickly and by bedtime I was feeling much better; and I slept better on Friday night. The thinking time I had on Thursday had allowed me to produce a loose plan of action. If I’m on my own in this, I’ll take action to protect me and those close to me as much as I can. I have decided to withdraw from unnecessary contact with society, adhere to a strict hygiene regime, face this crisis down. I’m not one for panic-buying, but I’ve been batch-cooking for weeks, before panic-buying was even a thing, and I have enough food in the freezer to make do for a while.

Thankfully, most of the rational world is of the same frame of mind. Several poetry events I was looking forward to have been cancelled or postponed. The launch of Jean Sprackland’s latest collection, These Silent Mansions, rescheduled for April 2nd after its initial postponement, was cancelled; Carol Ann Duffy and Friends at the Royal Exchange Theatre on 23rd March, was cancelled. I had a lovely email from Peter Sansom asking if I felt he should cancel the Poetry Business Writing Day at the Manchester Art Gallery on Saturday: you’re a doctor now, he said, you’ll know what to do. I know that was a joke, but as my doctorate is of philosophy, I agreed that cancellation was the ‘philosophical’ thing to do. Bless him, he notified all those who had signed up for the event, and to compensate he placed writing activities on his website so that folk don’t miss out completely. Humanity and care: Government take note. The Poets&Players committee had a long e-conversation about cancellation of our up-coming events. In the end we decided that cancellation was the responsible course of action. Our March and April events are cancelled; later events will be decided as the Coronavirus crisis develops. Lastly, this week Hilary and I joined a writing feedback group in Mytholmroyd, on the invitation of a fellow graduate from MMU’s writing school. Our first meeting with the group was scheduled for Sunday, this evening. I sent off my poem for the workshop in the middle of the week. But in the light of my new resolution to avoid social gatherings, I pulled out of the group. So did most of the other members. We’ll probably end up offering on-line or email feedback instead. Sporting events up and down the country have been put on hold. And lo, our Government is now taking its lead from its people and will announce plans in the coming days to restrict social gatherings. A classic case of leading by following.

In one short week, my life as a poet has been decimated. I’m in self-imposed isolation; or almost. Amie and I went out to walk the dogs yesterday. We called into a café for coffee, but we sat al fresco, in a corner of the outdoor space away from other customers. So not total isolation; but responsible isolation, keeping myself and those I love as safe as I can. In times of crisis, that’s the most we can do.

As the Persian adage has it, this too shall pass and we’ll come through. I’ll probably not be blogging for a while: not because I think it will affect the vulnerable or pass on the virus: I’m not that daft; but because, with all my poetry life on hold, I’ll have nothing interesting to blog about. I cooked something, I washed up, I watched the telly, doesn’t really pass as huge interest to anyone but the doer, does it? When my life resumes normality, when I have something to say, I’ll say it. I’ll be back then. I hope to see you all on the other side.

I’ll leave you with this poem that I wrote some time ago. It was inspired by Wallace Steven’s famous poem, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.’ It was fun to write. Perhaps we should all write some ‘Thirteen ways…’ poems to get us through the current crisis. It’s a great way to concentrate the mind.

Adieu, à bientôt, and look after yourselves.

 

13 Ways of Looking at the Moon
after Wallace Stevens

 i
Among a million zillion stars
the man in the moon
is another breathing being.

ii
I am pensive
like the moon reflecting in
a pool of standing water.

iii
The moon is a mint imperial
sucked by the eternal tongue.

iv
A man and a woman
and the moon: don’t believe it

v
Which is more trustworthy,
the sliver of truth that is the new moon or
the moon in all the fulfilment of its promise?

vi
The moon
is one giant leap
from Arizona.

vii
O you ladies at the Court of King Caractacus,
raise your eyes to the infinite heavens and behold
your image in the waning moon.

viii
All inescapable rhythm and cyclical
loss is the fault of a pull on the string
anchoring the moon to the ocean’s toe

ix
When the moon casts her shadow over the sun,
leaders will be born, achieve greatness, be deposed,
perish.

x
In the light of the full moon,
an orphan wolf silently
laments his mother.

xi
the moon is an illegal drug
in the sky with Lucy
and diamonds

xii
The moon is moving
the stars are moving
the Earth is still
moving

xiii
It was night all day
and the moon held sway
over heaven and earth,
an inconstant constant.

 

Living my best life

Another storm is lashing outside my window. The neighbour’s security lights came on in the force of it and I can see the rain being driven horizontally, up from the south-west. This worries me, because this week we’ve had the Velux window in the study replaced. The old window, on that face of the house taking the brunt of this weather, took to leaking all over my desk. Paperwork ruined, buckets to catch the flow, rain streaks down the walls: these are not conducive to productive work. My ‘desk’ calendar-pad took to hiding under the desk and could only be coaxed out when I was in there to make sure it was safe and dry. I had to completely clear that end of the study to give room for Dave the Roofer, to work. Dave left on Friday, so I spent yesterday morning restoring my workspace. Well, this morning’s lashing rain will be the test: having replaced the desk calendar-pad to the desktop, will it still be dry? I’m hoping so, or it might mean more extensive work to the roof. So my fingers are crossed that the leak is resolved, despite this foul weather buffeting that side of the roof this morning.

On Tuesday this week, due to circumstances beyond my control, I had to miss an event I’d been really looking forward to. My friend, and fellow East Manchester Stanza poet, Fokkina McDonnell, launched her second collection of poetry at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Cambridge Street, Manchester. Nothing serious, nothing dangerous is published by Indigo Dreams Publishing. Here’s a photograph of Fokkina, beside the painting ‘Departure’, by the late Graham Kingsley Brown, which became the book’s cover. The photograph was taken by the granddaughter of the artist.

Fokkina_McDonnell_Poetry_Launch_3March2020_with_GKB_Painting (002)
Copyright Sophie J Brown, 2020.

You can read a selection of the poems from the collection here: https://www.indigodreams.co.uk/fokkina-mcdonnell/4594743254 , along with purchasing details if you’d like a copy: and why wouldn’t you?—Fokkina is an accomplished poet. I’ll be getting my signed copy of Nothing serious…when we meet at the Buffet Bar for the March Stanza.

On Wednesday morning I met up with my poetry twin, Hilary Robinson, for coffee, to continue planning for our annual Line Break. This year we’re tagging it onto the end of Kendal Poetry festival: https://www.kendalpoetryfestival.co.uk  We’ve bought weekend passes to the festival, so we’re planning to attend lots of writing workshops; a good deal of the week following the festival will be spent working on poems from the workshops. We’re at the stage of looking for suitable accommodation within driving distance of Kendal: the north-east coast or the northern lakes. Hilary is the best person I know for offering feedback on poems: she read and sent constructive criticism on my PhD thesis at a crucial time, just prior to the final submission. And this week she was commissioned by me again. We both submitted poems to an upcoming anthology, Bloody Amazing, addressing menstruation and the menopause. Profits from sales of the anthology will go towards period poverty charities, so I was happy and excited to be involved in the project. Hilary was accepted for publication unconditionally; one of my poems was provisionally accepted, pending revision. The editors, Rebecca Bilkau and Gill Lambert, felt my poem was trying hard to be a prose poem, so I asked Hilary if she’d take a look when I’d reworked it. I’m no expert on the prose poem, but it has its own controversies: when does a poem become a microfiction? And does it matter anyway? I re-read Carrie Etter’s essay on the prose poem in The Craft (ed. Rishi Dastidar; Nine Arches Press 2019) and thought about internal sounds: alliteration, assonance etc. and the importance of an impactful last line. So on Thursday morning, while Dave the Roofer was labouring away in my study, I took my MacBook to the conservatory. Thursday was a beautiful spring day and it was lovely working in there, in warm sunshine for a change. I spent a couple of happy hours reworking my poem as a prose poem around the metaphor of a moonwalk. I wrote two versions, one in first person, one in third person and sent them both off to Hilary for feedback. She preferred the first-person version, more immediate, more ‘I was there as witness’. Her feedback was helpful; early on Friday morning I resubmitted the first-person version to Rebecca and Gill. I was delighted to receive a positive reply later in the morning: my prose poem, ‘Moon Landing: the last’ has made the cut and will be in the anthology—Yay!—later in the year. I’ll keep you posted of launch dates etc.

Last night Bill and I went to Manchester Cathedral for a piano recital by the amazing Warren Mailley-Smith. The hook for me was two Beethoven piano sonatas, including the wonderful ‘Moonlight’ which was the opener. Mailley-Smith told us that Beethoven wrote the sonata for the Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, one of his aristocratic pupils he’d fallen in love with. Apparently she was singularly unimpressed, the Phillistine! Well I can tell you, if he’d written it for me, I’d have been his forever. Ho hum, such is unrequited love. The recital included a second Beethoven sonata, works by Chopin, Liszt, Debussy and Rachmaninov; it ended with Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, adapted for the piano by the composer. Just wow! It was such a lovely evening, the gorgeous Yamaha piano positioned on a plinth beneath the organ pipes of the cathedral, which look like giant candle flames when the light catches them:

E8pP4ctfSNaHTWGCjDs6jQ          hWFH8Y+wSZWNJdm5U4S7Fw

The most amazing thing, though, is that Mailley-Smith works from memory: he doesn’t use sheet music at all during his performances. Fancy being able to play all that—holding all that music in your head. The artist’s biog in the programme tells us that ‘he is the first British pianist to perform Chopin’s complete works from memory’. How truly astounding is that? It was a wonderful evening. You’ll find a list of up-coming performances here: https://www.warrenmailley-smith.com/calendar/   If you love the piano, you must catch some of these.

I love a live classical concert; but oh my, the protocols! I can never understand how folk can keep so still while listening to music. Listening to a Beethoven symphony or a Mozart concerto is a visceral experience for me. I wrote this poem after a visit to the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester to see/hear ‘Mozart by Candlelight’ a few years back. I had to sit on my hands to control them! C’mon, music is physical! Live it!

Listening at the Bridgewater
‘When music strays too far from dance
It atrophies…’ Ezra Pound

A cough, then silence.
A finger on a string, breath over a reed,

lips on a mouthpiece, a hammer on skin.
That’s how it starts, with the body. The air

ripples with it, your tympanic membrane
vibrates with it, your ossicles pick it up,

chase it to your muscles which ache to move
as they do at home when you listen on the stereo.

But here in this seat it’s all cultured politeness,
you mustn’t let on you’re moved by it, keep

your muscles taut, your fingers and toes,
which itch to keep the beat, frozen. Sit on your

hands, knit your feet under the seat in front, close
your eyes, move only on the mind’s dance floor.

Remember how, at home, the music fills you,
blows you away, how you move and sway,

conduct that imaginary orchestra in the hifi,
how your muscles hear it first, before your ears,

how you’re carried somewhere by it, swimming in it,
soaring and surfing on a wave of sound. Then

come back to the Bridgewater as the last strain dies,
open your eyes to polite applause. A cough. Silence.

Rachel Davies

2014

‘A host of golden…’

images

Dydd Gwyl Dewi Hapus: happy St. David’s Day. Not that I’m particularly Welsh, despite the surname—that’s just part of my divorce settlement. But I’m always glad to celebrate St. David’s Day because it means the end of February: that’s it for another year. Spring’s just around the corner. Yesterday I drove into Oldham and there was a ‘host of golden daffodils…fluttering and dancing in the breeze’ along the central reservation of the bypass, just in time for March 1st. February didn’t seem so bad this year; it was probably buffeted along by the following winds of Storms Ciara, Dennis and Jorge.

This week I’ve fitted in more poetry. On Tuesday, early, I sent out the ‘anonymous’ poems to the Stanza group. I had seven submissions in the end, so the group is rallying nicely. Coupled with three apologies for the evening, we’re back to a workable group, off life support. On Tuesday evening we met as usual in the Buffet Bar to read and discuss the poems. Oh my, it was a good and varied set this month, with good discussion and feedback. We had one particularly intense discussion around centre-justified poems: centre justification always produces a shape to a poem; but does the ‘shape’ enhance or detract from the work? Everything you put into a poem should contribute something to the poem, or it’s extraneous, isn’t it?

Anyway, it was a good, energetic meeting. It snowed on Tuesday, just a light dusting for most of the day, but by the time we left the Buffet Bar it was coming down more relentlessly. I had a message from Bill that it was settling in Saddleworth, so not to be too late home. But the drive home wasn’t too bad, the worst of the snow was within a mile of home. I didn’t take my car down our steep and snow-covered Lane, I parked it on the top road overnight.

It snowed all night on and off, and Wednesday was the worst, snow all day, louring skies, dark, dark, dark. It was everything I hate about February, right there in that one day. I brought myself upstairs to my study and did poetry stuff.  I sent some poems out to the Enfield competition: https://enfieldpoets.com/2019/09/07/poetry-competition/  The particular hook was Ruth Padel as the judge. She visited our Stanza once, in 2012 when we were invited to be involved in ‘Ruth Padel’s Poetry Workshop’ on Radio 4. She’s such a gracious woman, and it felt good to send off some of my work for her to read. I had a lovely morning escaping from the wild weather outside, sorting through my poems and choosing the ones to send out. I also wrote up a poem from Peter Sansom’s workshop at the Art Gallery. It was surprisingly disappointing to see it in Word. It felt vibrant in my handwritten notebook; when I typed it up into Word it looked a sad thing, no life in it at all. I’ve kept it to work up into something more alive one day; maybe; if I’m at a loss for something to do. I had another poetry day on Friday. I sent some poems out to journals. I don’t know if they’ll be accepted or rejected; but I’ll ‘treat those two imposters just the same’. If they’re successful, I’ll enjoy that; if not, I’ll enjoy trying sending them somewhere else.

I’ve been doing domestic stuff this week too. On Tuesday I decided to start to deep-clean the conservatory. It tends to get too cold in there to use it in the winter months, but I like to sit in there, watching the birds in the garden, enjoying seeing the daffodil spears forcing their way through frozen soil—yes, our daffodils are still only green spears up here on the edge of the moors. Not much ‘fluttering and dancing’ going on in our garden, not yet. It took a couple of days to get it all cleaned: I’m not as fast and furious as I used to be. The hardest job, possibly the hardest job  I’ll have this year, was changing the ‘loose’ covers on the sofa-bed we have in there. I had muscles like October cabbages by the time I was done.

Yesterday I decided to investigate upgrading my phone contract. I went on the Vodafone website and got myself a new iPhone XR in red, with a renewed two-year contract. I ordered it ‘click and collect’, so yesterday afternoon we went into Oldham for the ‘collect’ bit. I spent a few happy hours last night getting it up and running. It’s similar but different from my old phone, so I’m making it up as I go along. I couldn’t pair my watch with it, but I have a couple of resident IT experts in my sons, and I found out I had to unpair it from my old phone before I could pair it with the new one. It’s all sorted now, and the phone and my watch have photos of my Memoji as wallpaper.

FullSizeRender 13

So, another good week. To finish off February, I had dinner with my friend Joan on Friday, the day I’ve lived with my partner Bill for seventeen years. I know, you only get fifteen for murder; but he’s not a bad old bugger, and last night we celebrated with a chilled Chablis, and waved goodbye to February for another year. The days are lengthening from both ends, and later this month we spring the clocks forwards. It’s all good.

Here’s the poem I wrote for Ruth Padel’s Radio 4 ‘Poetry Workshop’.  I’d broken my right arm, the head of the humerus, the day before the programme was recorded; so I found it hard to get involved in the warm-up writing activities on the day. Although, when I broke my right arm as a child, I discovered that if you write with your left hand but write backwards from right to left, you can make perfect mirror writing. I guess it works if you’re left-handed too.  And that’s what I did in those warm-up exercises in Ruth’s workshop. It’s not fast, but it’s surprisingly satisfying. You should try it: you never know when it’s going to come in handy. Anyway, before the event in the Buffet Bar, our Stanza members were asked to write poems inspired by travel, the theme interpreted loosely. I’d just been away to Zakinthos for a fortnight’s sun. We travelled on the silly-o’clock flight with a party of Club 18-30 revellers and this poem was inspired by the corporate ‘uniform’ of the group. As my Old Aunt Mary used to say, we didn’t do it like that in my day!  You can find the original draft of the poem here, along with other members’ poems from the event: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01nx3rp  I redrafted it to include in my PhD collection.

 

I  (heart) Watford Gap

their tee-shirt says I (heart) Zante
and on the back, In Zante without panties.

I think of the trip we took after our results,
being driven at speed in boyfriends’ cars

along the new M1 to Watford Gap services
for frothy coffee, feeding the jukebox,

Lesley Gore singing ‘It’s My Party’
the boys calling us their birds and us

preening our feathers, chirping to be fed
how we used to before we read de Beauvoir

and Greer, before we burned our bras.
I can’t imagine the legend I (heart) Watford Gap

on a sixties tee shirt; but that was how
we severed the school tie, cut the umbilical cord
travelled from school girl to woman.

 

Rachel Davies

The Ugly Sisters

This week has been a fusion of poetry, health stuff and life. The life and health stuff got in the way of the poetry a bit. I’ll put that balance right this week.

In November 2013, following a particularly rigorous aerobics session at the gym, I became very stiff. Nothing unusual in that, you say? Except the stiffness didn’t go away after a couple of days. It didn’t go away after a couple of weeks; it got worse. I suspected I’d pulled a muscle and went to see my Doc to arrange physio. She opted for blood tests, which surprised me. Who orders blood tests for a pulled muscle? She suspected Polymyalgia Rheumatica, an autoimmune disease that makes your own body attack its healthy muscle tissue, causing inflammation, pain and stiffness in the shoulder and pelvic girdles. I’d never heard of it. The diagnosis relied on testing the inflammation markers in the blood. Sure enough, the inflammation markers were raised and PMR was diagnosed. The treatment is to take a daily, and slowly reducing, dose of steroids for about eighteen months. Six and a half years later I’m still taking Prednisolone and the autoimmune system is stubbornly refusing to sit down and behave itself.

Originally I took the steroids, as directed, for eighteen months. I reduced gradually from the original 20mg to 2mg. I started to get pain in my scalp, sharp and relentless pain like an invisible crow pecking my head. Paracetemol taken 6 hourly improved the pain for about an hour and a half before the crow was back. I’d read somewhere that headaches can be a cause of concern with Polymyalgia, because it might signify PMR’s ugly sister, Giant Cell Arteritis, which if left untreated can cause permanent blindness. The statistics go something like this: about 25% of the population, mostly women over 50, will contract PMR. Of those about 25% will also contract GCA; which calculates to roughly 6% of the population becoming acquainted with both ugly sisters. How lucky was I to be diagnosed with GCA? The Prednisolone dose was increased to a massive 45mg, I was referred to a rheumatologist and had to start the process of steroid reduction all over again.

In April 2018, I eventually managed to reduce the Prednisolone to 0mg. I had a small celebration as I took the last dose. Don’t get me wrong, Prednisolone had given me a quality of life that PMR/GCA was trying to deny me. But Prednisolone brings its own challenges. For instance, it gives me a very visible tremor in my hands, worse in my right hand. I’ve had to teach myself to eat soup left-handed because the right hand is just too messy! Chopsticks? Left handed. Spaghetti bolognaise? Left handed. Pred can also affect the voice, making it shaky and pitching it higher than ‘normal’. Mood swings? A by-product of Pred. So it was good to be off the steroids at last. Except it didn’t last. By the autumn of 2018 the stiffness was creeping back into the shoulder and pelvic/thigh muscles. By December 2018 I was walking like a ninety-year-old, having to be helped into taxis, finding stairs a challenge. Doctors refused to accept that the PMR was back and treated me with physio for a suspected shoulder injury. At last, on New Year’s Eve 2018, a locum at my local surgery agreed to give the steroids another trial. Within hours the stiffness and pain were improving; when I saw him again three days later, I was walking normally and was pain free. That’s what Prednisolone does. It’s a magical drug with nasty side effects. I love Prednisolone but I hate Prednisolone: ambivalence writ large.

And here I am, fourteen months later, having reduced the Prednisolone to 2mg, still taking the tablets. Except when I reduced to 2mg, the stiffness in the legs returned, notably after sitting down for any length of time. Once I’m up and moving it loosens up, and I’m fine; but it’s worrying that it manifests after sitting, for instance in the evening when I’m watching telly. So I went to see my doctor again this week. She has advised a slight increase in the Pred again, and more blood tests to see what the inflammation markers are doing. A tiny percentage of people need to be on small doses of Prednisolone for life. I’m beginning to suspect I might be among their number. Which is fine; but don’t sit at the next table if you see me trying to eat soup, is all.

Bill also had health stuff going on this week which I won’t elaborate on because it’s not my story to tell; but it involved spending best part of a day at Rochdale Infirmary, and a CT scan for which we’re awaiting results. Because I’m a terminal optimist I know it will be fine; but I might have my fingers crossed, just a bit.

So, life has truly got in the way of poetry this week; but it hasn’t entirely blocked it out. I had Tuesday free to do poetry stuff and that was my favourite day this week. I sent out my Stanza mailing, calling the group to the Buffet Bar at Stalybridge Station on Tuesday 25th for the February session. We’re having an anonymous workshop this month; members send me an early draft of a poem that they’d appreciate some feedback on. I put all the poems together in a standardised document, without any identifying markers, and send it out to all who submitted in time for the meeting. At the meeting we read and discuss the poems, offer positive and constructive feedback. At the end of the evening we have the big reveal when we find out who wrote what. So far, I’ve received six poems and one apology. So our group, which was on the endangered species list a couple of years ago, is rallying and altogether looking healthier. Which is lovely. I’m looking forward to reading the poems and meeting up on Tuesday to discuss them.

On Tuesday I also wrote up the work I drafted at the Manchester Art Gallery, at the Poetry Business Writing Day. I love this aspect of poetry: getting new stuff on the MacBook, moulding it, shaping it like clay until it forms a satisfying whole. I’ll leave them for a few weeks and come back to them with fresh eyes. Peter Sansom reminded us at the Gallery that you can work a poem too hard, until you work the life out of it. So I’ll leave them to breathe a bit, come back to them when I’ve almost forgotten them, find surprising stuff in them I can’t see at the moment, while they are too young.

The last, and very satisfying, poetry related thing I’ve done this week is book a hotel for the weekend of the Kendal Poetry Festival. Check out the festival here: https://www.kendalpoetryfestival.co.uk  I’ll be going with my poetry twin, Hilary Robinson. We’re planning to take our annual Line Break the week following the festival; but we’ll be hiring a holiday cottage for that and we can book that later. Hilary’s enjoying time with her granddaughters this week, so we’ll meet up and start planning Line Break when they’ve gone home. No rush, it’s still four months away.

Yesterday was the Poets&Players event at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. Unfortunately I had to miss it this month, but you can find links on our website to the YouTube videos when they’re prepared: https://poetsandplayers.co  A family friend in Peterborough is having a hard time at the moment and I went with Amie to offer some love and support. We met up with my elder son Richard and our friend and went for a late lunch in Peterborough City Centre. I hope she was feeling better when we left. Sometimes life is just too hard and all we can do is show some support and try to grow a few smiles. We had a lovely day. We’ve even planned a long weekend away at the end of August: Richard and said friend both work in schools, so school holidays are when we can all meet up. Family time is very precious.

I’ll leave you with a poem I wrote at Leighton Moss Bird Reserve on our Line Break last spring. Hilary and I can’t be accused of being serious bird watchers, not really. The real ‘twitchers’—is that what they’re called?—were there in their camouflage gear, binoculars around their necks, the Eye Spy Book of British Birds peeking from jacket pockets. We were there in our usual bright jackets, sunglasses, poetry journals in hand. So perhaps it’s not surprising that we didn’t see the birds the woman in the visitor centre gave us the heads-up on. They spotted us a mile off and kept their distance. The scones in the café were good though.

 

Leighton Moss

I’m scanning the sky for marsh harriers,
Nureyev and Fontaine
in an ariel pas-de-deux of feeder and fed.

But all I’m seeing is the dipping and dipping
flight of tits, swifts catching an in-flight meal,
the black capped gulls soaring and landing
spooked by the low flight of helicopter.

My ears are tuned for the call of Cetti’s warbler,
the chiff chaff of the chiff chaff,
the boom boom of the bittern
but all I’m hearing is the territorial robin,
the garden gossip of blackbird and sparrow
the low hum of a distant iron bird.

Rachel Davies
May 2019

‘…the brunt wind’

“This house has been far out at sea all night” (Ted Hughes).

Storm Dennis is raging outside my window as I write this, reminding me of the Ted Hughes poem ‘Wind’,  “…the brunt wind that dented the balls of my eyes.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O4TqgxiXsXI  and I’m thinking of friends in the flood plains along the Calder Valley, Ribbledale, Cumbria, York. They’ve not recovered from Ciara yet, and now Dennis is kicking his heels.

This week I’ve been a domestic goddess, cooking and cleaning like a 1950s housewife. Housework is usually low on my list of priorities, so when I decide to do it, I attack it like a goodun. I can bear not to do it, but I can’t bear to half do it. So most of my week has looked away from poetry and towards the domestic. The ironing’s all done, the freezer’s full of chilli, bolognaise sauce, soups. The study is immaculate. I found it all strangely relaxing.

I let my gaze fall on poetry a bit though, when I booked festival passes for Kendal Poetry Festival for Hilary Robinson and me. This festival is organised by Kim Moore and Clare Shaw: always good to have a poetry festival with rhyming Directors. Check out the wonderful line-up of poets for 2020: https://www.kendalpoetryfestival.co.uk  I’m really looking forward to this one. I know from past experience what a lovely, friendly festival it is; and it’s mostly contained in one venue, the Castle Green Hotel, so no rushing from one event to another, like some festivals we’ve been to. I’ve started to look for accommodation: Hilary, we need to meet for coffee, to confer on holiday lets. I’m not good in a tent.

On Saturday—yesterday—I went to the Poetry Business Writing Day at the Manchester Art Gallery. Peter and Ann Sansom hold monthly writing days in Sheffield and Manchester. Check out the Poetry Business here: https://poetrybusiness.co.uk/whats-on/workshops/  You’ll see from the website that the new Laureate, Simon Armitage, has said of Ann and Peter, “In my view, the UK’s most astute and effective tutors”; the Guardian considers them “The best writing tutors in the world”; and The Poetry Trust: “…incomparably experienced and inspirational tutors with a brilliant repertoire of exercises”. I can’t argue with any of this. I’ve been going to Poetry Business workshops for years and I’ve never repeated a prompt. It was lovely to meet up with other poetry friends, and to meet some new ones.

I feel a bit of a bozo though. In November I asked Peter if he’d write a blurb for the jacket of my forthcoming pamphlet, Everyday I Promise Myself. Bless him, he agreed and replied to my email with a request that I let him know when the launch is so that he can come along and throw fruit. The humour is so typical of Peter that I immediately responded to that comment without reading to the end of the email. I still had twelve months to the launch so I wasn’t expecting a rapid response to my request. When I saw him yesterday he asked if I’d liked the blurb. I said I hadn’t seen it yet. He’d thought it was odd that I hadn’t thanked him for it and resent the original email. If I’d read to the bottom, I would have thanked him profusely: there was the blurb in black and white, sitting in my inbox all these months. Durrh! It’s a lovely blurb as well, but you’ll have to buy my pamphlet to read it. So thank you Peter, and forgive my bozoness, even though I doubt if you’ll read this—but I thanked him hugely yesterday after I did read his comment at last. I owe him a huge cream cake.

Anyway, back to the writing day. We met at 10.30 in Studio 1 at the Gallery. Numbers were down slightly: some poets with distances to travel had cried off in anticipation of Storm Dennis. Crossing the Pennines is always a challenge in harsh weather. But there were still a dozen poets there. We wrote from the prompt of published poems: my favourites were ‘Learning to Spell’ by Kathryn Simmonds and ‘Snow’ by Jacob Polley. I think I drafted half-decent poems from these prompts. Of course, my poems bear little relation to the originals, and that’s the point: the prompts are jumping-off places, triggers for a place to start. I’ll include the draft I wrote from the Simmonds prompt at the end of this blog.

We also had to find an artwork in the gallery and write from that as a prompt. I chose ‘A Family Seated Around A Kitchen Fire’ by the Dutch painter Quiringh van Brekelenkam, c1650. I was drawn to it by the huge parsnip the woman is peeling: it reaches from her lap almost to her shoulder. You can see a copy of the painting here: https://www.artuk.org/discover/artworks/a-family-seated-round-a-kitchen-fire-206268  Is that a cat in the chair, hiding under blankets, looking menacing? Since I finished my PhD, I’ve found it hard to sit and concentrate on poetry, so it was good to do just that yesterday; and I feel I have three or four drafts worth working on. The next Manchester Writing Day is on March 14th. I’ll be there, will you?

Here’s the poem I wrote to the Simmonds prompt. It was to write a poem about someone who taught you something. I chose to move away from school and look to life. I wrote about my old Aunt Mary, who was a fount of wise sayings. When I was a teacher I used to use some of these sayings with the children. Name-calling? My Old Aunt Mary used to say ‘Call me anything you like as long as you don’t call me late for dinner.’ Workmen in the street? My Old Aunt Mary used to say ‘I love hard work, I could watch it all day.’ She had so many sayings that the children got to know Aunt Mary almost as well as I knew her myself. So this is the poem about a woman who taught me lots, including how to knit, and how to repair your knitting when it went wrong. She used her fingertips to feel her way in the world.

My Old Aunt Mary

 At just the right moment, one of her wise sayings
pops into my head—
everyone’s willin’
            some’s willin’ to work
            and some’s willin’ to let ‘em
and I’m a child again in that huge iron bath,
Aunt Mary kneeling on the bath mat,
sponge soaped and ready.

I’m not keen to show those bits of my body
that hide discretely under liberty bodices,
in knickers, as Aunt Mary, blind since childhood,
knows.
I’ll wash up as far as possible
            and down as far as possible—
            you can wash possible yourself
she says.

Rachel Davies
February 2020

In which I learn to play an (un)musical instrument…

This week began and ended with poetry. In between were dogs and walks.

On Sunday I had to go into Manchester for a Poets&Players planning meeting at the Whitworth Art Gallery. Oh my, that was an eventful journey. On Sunday the tram network was disrupted ‘bigly’ by ‘engineering works’, so the tram I usually take to St Peter’s Square terminated at Exchange Square. I had a long walk to the Principal on Oxford Rd. to get a bus to the Whitworth; and when I did get the bus, I overshot my stop and had to walk back. The homeward journey was just as disrupted.

P&P heard recently that we have received Arts Council England funding for another twelve months, so we were able to plan our 2020-21 programme with confidence. Our high-quality events at the Whitworth continue on February  22nd with J O Morgan, and a poetry translation-collaboration between Maria Stepanova and Sasha Dugdale. The ‘player’ this month will be Phil France. You can find our developing programme on our website: https://poetsandplayers.co/future-events/

Tuesday to Friday daytimes I spent at my daughter Amie’s house, dog-sitting her two lovely Cockerpoos, Cooper and Sonny. Her sisters-in-law walked their dogs with us, so I had the confidence to let Amie’s boys off the lead for a good run. I’ve lived in Saddleworth for thirty plus years, and this week I discovered three lovely new-to-me walks. On Tuesday I walked up Lark Hill from Dobcross. It was mizzly and wet when we set out, but half way through the cloud broke up and the sun came out, revealing lovely views across Saddleworth. The dogs enjoyed it, especially Cooper, who found some fox poo to roll in. Oh my word, caked! And foul-smelling! We had to give him a good bath before I could take him indoors. In the afternoon I took them for a second walk in Delph park, behind the Chippie, through meadows beside the River Tame with its gentle waterfalls. How did I not know about this? And on Friday we walked again from Delph, this time behind the White Lion pub, through meadows and wetlands. It was messy, up-to-your-eyes wet mud, but it was a crisp, frosty morning and the panoramic views were amazing.

On Friday evening I went into Manchester with Hilary. It was the gala celebration event for the Manchester writing prizes, established by Carol Ann Duffy as an aspect of her Laureateship. The event was held in Chetham’s Library, an historic and atmospheric venue next door to Manchester Cathedral. We arrived in time for a celebratory glass of wine before the finalists read their work. It was a diverse and wonderful shortlist and audience. Hilary and I sat behind some visitors from Cincinnati who were there to support a finalist friend.  One of them had brought a bag of kazoos. Of course, Hilary and I cadged a kazoo each to augment our applause; and we learned to play it, which is more than some of our neighbours managed. Hilary’s was in her favourite shade of orange, mine a confident pink:

IMG_1767
My beautiful new Kazoo

Samples of all the finalists’ works were read out; if the writer couldn’t attend, one of the judges read for them. There was some seriously exciting work; as you’d expect from a competition with a prize of £10,000 each for the winning poetry and fiction writers, a liberating sum designed to give the winner the financial security, time and space to be able to develop their writing. The winner of the poetry prize was Momtaza Mehri, an exciting new voice whom I’d heard read at Verve Festival in Birmingham last year. The winner of the fiction prize was artist/writer Tim Etchells, who is Professor of Performance at Lancaster University. This is a competition that attracts and showcases the most original and exciting of contemporary writing. Congratulations to all the finalists: being on the shortlist of such an amazing competition is a prize and an achievement in itself. Hilary and I had a lovely evening, met up with some poet friends, heard the best of modern poetry and fiction writing, and had complimentary wine. Afterwards we went into Mamucium for coffee and cheese scones—which were cleverly masquerading as cheese and onion pakora. Also, the tram journey was uneventful, which is a bonus. All round, a perfect evening.

On Saturday I had a family day: my sons Richard and Michael visited; Amie cooked lunch, a lovely vegan moussaka with Greek salad, and White chocolate and raspberry ‘brownies’ with ice cream for dessert. Michael came to collect the Grundig radiogram Amie was giving away: he’s a devout vinyl collector. Richard came just because. It was a lovely day, a perfect evening. As I parked my car when I arrived, I found the Ugg mitten I’d thought was lost forever: it was on Amie’s neighbour’s wall, wet but wholesome. Which was especially nice, because, also thinking I’d lost it, Amie bought me some pink Ugg gloves to say ‘thank you for Cockerpoo Sitting’. I have a plethora of Ugg gloves. I am truly blessed.

I won’t leave you with one of my poems this week. Instead you can read the Manchester Prize shortlisted poems here:

https://www2.mmu.ac.uk/media/mmuacuk/content/documents/manchester-writing-competition/2019-Manchester-Poetry-Prize-short-lists.pdf

and the Manchester Prize shortlisted fiction here:

https://www2.mmu.ac.uk/media/mmuacuk/content/documents/manchester-writing-competition/2019-Manchester-Fiction-Prize-short-lists.pdf

I hope you will check them out; they are well worth the read.

There’s always poetry

It’s February. My least favourite month. T S Eliot wrote ‘April is the cruellest month’; I disagree. For me it’s February, coming at the end of a long winter of grey skies, grey light, grey, grey days, long, long nights. February. Its only redeeming feature is that it’s also the shortest month; although this year of course, it’s a bit longer. Twenty nine days to process. And to make it worse: B****t. It’s happened. We’re no longer part of the European Community. As if February wasn’t bad enough already without taking away that fundamental aspect of my sense of self. Truly, roll on Spring. If February’s here, can Spring be far behind?

Thankfully, I have poetry in my life and that lightens the greyest days. This week I’ve had loads of competition entries to process. The closing date was January 22nd, but various diary commitments at the end of last week meant I had to put off processing the last of the entries until early this week. We had a record number of entries this year, which is wonderful: thank you and good luck if you sent us your work. I eventually got them all processed by Tuesday. On Wednesday I wrapped a thousand poems, took them to Oldham Post Office to send them on their way to Sinéad Morrissey, our judge. So if you sent us your poems, thank you and good luck. They’re now with Sinéad and she’ll start the long process of reading and sifting until she comes up with our winners by mid-March. We’ll inform our winners; but we won’t make the decision public until our celebration event on April 4th. Be at the Whiworth on that afternoon to be one of the first to know. Keep up to date on our website, https://poetsandplayers.co/

Tuesday evening was our monthly Stanza meeting. We meet on the last Tuesday of each month, 7.30 to 9.30 at the Buffet Bar, Stalybridge Station.

fullsizeoutput_755
Reading Simon Armitage at the Buffet Bar, Stalybridge

This session was dedicated to the poetry of our new Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage. We read and discussed his work. There were five of us at the meeting; and a plethora of Simon Armitage collections. He’s such a prolific writer; and we were impressed by the variety of his work. Poetry, prose, humour, sadness, philosophy, translation: it’s all here. We had collections from his residency at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, culminating in the publication of The Twilight Readings (Yorkshire Sculpture Park; 2008), a beautifully produced book of his writings with pictures from the park. I was given a copy of the book when I researched poetry residencies during my MA: Simon’s residency was one I concentrated on. I was able to get it signed eventually. One of his latest collections is Flit (Yorkshire Sculpture Park; 2018) in which he reimagines the Park as the European republic of Ysp.  We read from these books, and from books honouring war veterans; international events like the 9/11 terrorist attacks; close readings and translations of literary classics: Sir Gawain, Death of the King, Homer: all these published by Faber and Faber, I think. And although we didn’t read from them, we discussed the prose and poetry accounts of his troubadour walks along the Pennine Way and the south-west coastal path. He is indeed a prolific writer and a worthy Laureate. Also, I found out I actually have Armitage collections on my shelves that haven’t been signed yet: not sure how that’s happened, but I’ll be putting it to bed as soon as the opportunity present itself, hopefully later this year.

On Wednesday evening I went with Hilary Robinson to an open mic reading, Bad Language in Gulliver’s Bar in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, with irrepressible hosts, Fat Roland and Joe Daly. Ian Humphries was the headline poet—another Manchester Writing School MA Creative Writing graduate: we are a large community! Ian gave a masterful reading from his collection Zebra (Nine Arches Press; 2019). If you haven’t read it yet, get it, read it. It’s good poetry. The poem that provides the title, ‘Zebra on East 55th and 3rd’ imagines a zebra in New York City, unnoticed by folk absorbed in their mobile phones: ‘Unfazed, he grazes on popcorn and nachos/from a Keep New York City Clean litter bin…’ Hilary and I both had reading slots in the second half of the evening. I was last to read. I took three of the poems I wrote after my daughter was diagnosed with malignant melanoma four and a half years ago. If I’d known I was going to read last, I might have chosen something less intense, a bit more cheerful, but I didn’t.

fullsizeoutput_759
open-mic reading at Bad Language, 29.01.2020

However, they proved a good end to a fantastic night celebrating established and emerging writers. As we were leaving the pub a member of the audience, outside enjoying a fag, shook my hand and thanked me. It’s the little things; and I suppose cancer affects us all in some way. I’m very pleased to tell you that Amie is recovering well; she’s still being monitored, but we expect her to be discharged from the Christie’s outpatient care later this year. I had a message from my son, Richard, while I was at Bad Language: he’d fallen while out running, damaged his shoulder, bruised his face and leg. He was in A&E with a sling on his arm. Nothing broken, thankfully, just badly bruised. Fitness eh? It’s bad for you. When I feel like getting fit, I sit down with a brew until the feeling passes. Here’s a list of upcoming Bad Language nights at Gulliver’s: https://badlanguagemcr.com/events/

Poetry weeks are the best. Even B****t can’t cloud that. I still say ‘bollocks to B****t’: I’ve got the badge; I wore it on Friday when we left the Union. I hung my little European flag in my front window and played Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. However insular we become as a country, I’ll always see myself as a citizen of the world. So yes, bollocks to B****t; and hooray for Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’. There’s not much in the world that poetry can’t make better.

I’ll leave you with one of the poems I read at Bad Language on Wednesday: it addresses the biopsy of the mutant mole Amie had on her shin, early in the diagnostic process. I used to think melanoma was just a rogue mole; you had it removed and you were cured. I’ve learned a lot since that early naivety, and if you are concerned about a mole anywhere on your body I urge you to get it checked out, the sooner the better. Melanoma is not someone you want to mess with. Here’s the poem: it’s included in my 4Word pamphlet, to be published later this year.

 

Biopsy

 A tiny room a doctor two nurses
you me a trolley a bed gloves masks
gowns a small jar a scalpel.

At last we’ll see it cut down to size,
a raisin in a raspberry jus, tamed
evil in a plastic jar. The nurse

slaps a label on, puts it in a bag
for the lab—a foreign body,
a pernicious collection of cells

turning back on themselves,
mutating, rolling time into an avalanche.
Look, it has ambitions to rule the world,

a tiny Brain of Morbius breathing.
I can feel its little pulse, hear it
croaking malice to other samples

in other jars in white coated labs, massing.
As we sip our coffees it’s multiplying,
rallying under the stare of the microscope.

We’ll see.      We will.         We
wait.               Wait.        Just wait.

Rachel Davies
2015

 

 

In Which Poetry Restores My Sense of Self

I feel more like my real self this week: it’s been a week full of poetry, a week that began with a walk alongside a frozen canal with Amie and the Cockerpoos. I’ll be doing this again later today.

IMG_1696
a walk alongside the canal, Uppermill to Diggle

As for poetry, the Poets & Players competition closed at midnight on Tuesday. I had a steady stream of entries to my inbox all day. By midnight I had about 250 new entries to process; and an unreliable internet. I did what I could in the short windows it gave me, so I’m now down to the last 50 or so. By the end of this week, they will all be winging their way through time and space to Sinead Morrisey, our judge. Then the wait for the results: watch this space. It seems to have been a record entry this year, so a big P&P thank you all who entered; and good luck.

I’ve been reading the book of essays Hilary Robinson gave me for Christmas: Rishi Dastidar’s The Craft (Nine Arches Press, 2019). It’s a good read. Favourite essays so far have been ‘I Will Put Chaos into Fourteen Lines and Keep Him There: On the Sonnet’ by Jacqueline Saphra and ‘Writing Poems Can Be Real Cool: On the Golden Shovel’ by Peter Kahn. There’s an interesting exercise at the back by Saphra to go with her chapter: she suggests fourteen rhyming words to use at the end of each line of a sonnet, to be written in iambic pentameter, with the traditional abba cddc efgefg rhyme scheme of the Petratchan sonnet. No prompt at the back from Kahn, but his chapter asks us to always be alert to lines of poetry—or prose—that will provide Golden Shovel, so my notebook is at the ready

Yesterday, Saturday was the best poetry day of all: it was the Poets&Players event at the Whitworth Art Gallery on Oxford Road, Manchester. The day began with a workshop run by Jo Shapcott. There were only two exercises in the workshop, but they were engaging. First, as a warm up, we were asked to write down a favourite word and a type of weather that says something about us. I wrote down ‘longing’: the first word that popped into my head; and ‘sunshine’ because it’s been a grey, grey week for weather and I’m a summer person. Then we had to write a ‘very short poem’, a haiku for instance, including those two words and a catastrophic event to finish it with. All this in fourteen syllables? I’ll write my attempt at the end of the blog. The second activity was more involved. We read ‘Kintsugi’ by Rebecca Perry (from Beauty/Beauty, Bloodaxe 2015). Kintsugi is a Japanese word, it describes that Japanese craft of mending broken pottery with gold, to make the mend—and the piece of pottery—more beautiful as a result of the break. The poem is about a broken relationship, and the mending of self by the narrator. It’s a beautiful poem. Next we lucky-dipped two ‘fortune cookies’ with foreign words and their meanings. I dipped ‘Eomchina’—which I read as ‘ee-om-chee-nah’, a Korean word meaning ‘Mum’s friend’s son’ in the negative sense of mothers being competitive and comparing their own sons to their friends’ sons, usually in a derogarory way to encourage them to do better. The second word was the Swedish word ‘Gökotta’ meaning to wake up early in order to go outdoors and listen to the first birdsong of the day. We had to put these words into a poem; or at least the sentiment behind them becasue we couldn’t use the word itself. I’ll maybe include a stanza of my effort at the end too.

The afternoon event was wonderful. Chris Davies, musician and fellow founder of Poets&Players, provided the ‘Player’ element yesterday. His first contribution was a flute piece evocative of the natural world, haunting and exotic, sounding of rainforests and birdsong. There were words too, spiritual spoken words. A second, supporting performer, Bisakha Sarker, interpreted the words and music in Indian dance. It was beautiful, graceful movement, as you’d expect from Indian dancing, Bisakha’s whole body to the tips of her fingers expressing the dance. What a wonderful start to the afternoon.

IMG_1705
Bisakha Sarker dancing to the music of Chris Davies

Our poets were Jennifer Lee Tsai, Kim Moore and Jo Shapcott. Jennifer read from her pamphlet Kismet (Ignition Press), poems that address the conflict between her Chinese and English heritages. ‘River Mersey’ is ‘a geography of otherness’, a dedication to her grandfather who arrived as an immigrant into Liverpool. ‘Self Portrait at Four Years Old’ describes her sense of that same ‘otherness’ growing up as the only Chinese child in her primary school, where her uniform was ‘grey like an English sky’. It’s a sad poem of loneliness and difference: ‘I am learning how to be silent,’ she read. She explained how her father was concerned about her love of books because ‘the Cantonese word for book sounds like the word for to lose’. That seems wholly appropriate to me, as a book is a thing to get lost in.

Next reader was Kim Moore. Kim is a superwoman, juggling the disparate roles of poet, poetry teacher, PhD research student and new mother. There’s a photo that illustrates her super-human power on her website: https://kimmoorepoet.wordpress.com Baby Ally came to the reading and not a peep; perhaps she’s a poet in the growing? Kim read from her collection The Art of Falling (Seren 2015), and from her PhD portfolio, which will become her second collection All the Men I Never Married. Personal favourites are ‘The Trumpet Teacher’s Curse’: ‘a curse on the boy who threw up in his baritone/as if it was his own personal bucket.’ Every cursed thing in the poem actually happened in her years as a peripatetic music teacher in Cumbria. She read from a section of the book which addresses domestic violence, poems it’s difficult to hear: ‘And in that year I gave up on all the things/I was promised and left myself to sadness.’ The new work is different, still retaining Kim’s sense of humour, but addressing casual sexism and female desire. So far she has written about forty of the men she never married. Her PhD is coming to an end early this year, so will there be more? I look forward to buying the book.

After a short comfort break we had a second input of music from Chris Davies, this time incorporating a poem, ‘Frisco’, by the late Linda Chase, co-founder of Poets&Players. It was good to hear Linda’s lovely voice again; she’s still sadly missed by everyone who knew her. Poets&Players wouldn’t even be a thing without Linda’s creative genius. There’s a recording of ‘Frisco’ on our website: https://poetsandplayers.co/linda-chase/
Chris used an instrument called a hangpan, a kind of steel drum, but held on the knee and played with the hands. It’s sound was sometimes like a harp, sounding plucked, sometimes a harder sound more reminiscent of a steel drum. He told me hangpans are made in Switzerland and you have to go to the factory/workshop to buy one, to find the one that best suits you.

The afternoon ended with a wonderful reading by Jo Shapcott, our headline poet: https://www.joshapcott.com She read about Emily Wilding Davison. She’s most famous for being the suffragette who threw herself under the King’s horse; but Jo reminded us that Davison was a fearless campaigner for women’s suffrage, and her poem describes Davison hiding in a cupboard in the Houses of Parliament on the night of the 1911 census, so she could record her home address as the Houses of Parliament. No matter how frustrating the political situation gets, we should never waste our vote, because it was hard-won.  Jo also read a couple of poems about having to visit Guy’s hospital in London, the hospital where John Keats had been a surgeon. Her poems are imaginings of Keats being her surgeon there: ‘…let me feel your pulse for axioms’. Well, that line went into my notebook straightaway: what a good line for one of Kahn’s ‘golden shovels’! I’ll definitely be trying that on for size.

I love weeks like this, when my life fills to the brim with poems. Our next event at the Whitworth is on February 22nd: https://poetsandplayers.co/future-events/ with the poets J O Morgan and Maria Stepanova, with Sasha Dugdale as translator, music from Phil France. It promises to be another good event. Will I see you there?

Here are the pieces—very early drafts, draft 0—I produced in Jo Shapcott’s workshop yesterday morning.

SAD
This veiled sunshine is
longing for eggs frying on
pavements, melting wings.

And next is one stanza of the poem from the second activity: I think it was inspired by the news this week that a long-lost painting of Lowry’s has sold for in excess of £2,000,000. How noble is that for a ‘hobby’? I recently watched the film ‘Mrs Lowry and Son’, and she spent her life ruing the day her husband scuppered her middle-class aspirations through his mounting debt, forcing their move to a shabby mill district of Salford. She reminded me of Bill’s mum. Bill was an architect in his working life, an unlikely profession for a man from working class Manchester. His mum couldn’t appreciate what it took to achieve this and she used to say ‘He should have been a car mechanic, he was always good with his hands.’

 E-om-chee-nah
L S Lowry’s mother said
he should stop wasting his time
on useless hobbies,
leave his easel, get a proper job.
Knocking doors for rent arrears
is more noble than painting
teeming millworkers,
common as warehouse rats.

Rachel Davies
January 2020 

…say nothing

For the first time since I started my blogspot in 2015, I am lost for words. Now the PhD is done, I have noting to say; and my old Aunt Mary used to say, ‘if you have nothing to say, say nothing.’ I’m in a wonderful and unusual state of having nothing extraordinary to write about. I’ve had a most boring week of not much happening; although I’ve responded to several poetry opportunities, so I know it’s just a short dearth. I did go walking with Amie and the Cockerpoos a couple of times along the canal from Uppermill to Diggle for coffee and doggy sausages at Grandpa Greene’s: we managed to avoid the worst excesses of Storm Brendan, although the towpath was very muddy after all the recent rain. 

And then on Friday I went into Manchester with my poetry twin, Hilary Robinson. It was Hilary’s birthday on Tuesday so we took one of our legendary CCP days–cider, cake and Paperchase–to celebrate; although we had wine instead of cider, and churros instead of cake. We had a long, leisurely lunch in Wahaca in Exchange Square. We did do the Paperchase bit though, where I bought some new notebooks in the sale (as if I haven’t got a cupboard full already) and started my Christmas shopping for next Christmas. In the Doc Marten shop I resisted the urge to buy some new DMs, but it was a fight. They were gorgeous but a bit tight over the instep. I’ll keep looking.

The rest of the week has been mostly about processing online entries to the Poets&Players competition, which closes at midnight on Tuesday so you still have time to get your entries in: https://poetsandplayers.co On past experience, it’ll be about all I’ll be doing this week, because entries come in thick and fast in the last couple of days; and I have to have them off to our judge, Sinead Morrisey by the beginning of February. It’s an exciting time, but not as exciting as waiting to discover our winners. I’ll keep you posted. While I’m on the subject of P&P I’ll throw in a reminder about our upcoming events. We heard recently that our Arts Council bid has been successful, so we can keep organising our wonderful, free-to-our-audinece events for at least another twelve months. We’ve got some terrific events planned, so check them out here: https://poetsandplayers.co/future-events/ and come along to the Whitworth Gallery on Oxford Road for as many as you can. Where else do you get this quality for no outlay? Our 2020 kicks off next Saturday with a Jo Shapcott workshop in the morning, followed by readings in the afternoon by Jo Shapcott, Kim Moore and Jennifer Lee Tsai, with music by Chris Davies.  I’ll be introducing Kim Moore, the easiest job I’ll have all year. I’m really looking forward to it; and hopefully to writing something worthwhile in the morning workshop; and to having something to write about next week!

Because that’s it for this week. I’m off for another walk to Grandpa Greene’s this morning, then I’ll be processing more entries. Keep ’em coming and have a good week.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Australia these last few weeks, with the awful fires raging around the south east of the country. Bill and I followed the cricket there in 2007 and again in 2011. So my Facebook ‘memories’ are mostly about Australia at the moment–we were there in January into February both times. My poem this week is a reminder of our first visit and why we went there in the first place. We were lucky enough to be in the Sydney Cricket Ground when Glenn McGrath bowled his last ball for Australia, an amazing and memorable moment. This poem recalls that moment; and was shortlisted in the Ilkley Poetry Festival competition a few years ago.

 

Stumps
McGrath’s Last Ball for Australia
Sydney Cricket Ground 02.02.07

In these dying moments of the match
as you bend to a setsquare buffing the ball,
does your brain replay your international career:

the thousand or so leg befores,
catches behind, in the slips, in the deep,
all those middle pegs somersaulting to Gilchrist,
the dogged run chases wagging the tail?

Or do sixty thousand feet tracing your paces
on grandstand floors, hands drumming your beat
on chair-backs, voices rising in a tsunami of sound,
flush all thought before it?
A deafening noise, a roar of Thor

covers the ground, darkens the sky, places
a thunderbolt in your hand, lightning in your stride so,
as if in glorious slo-mo, you run up, plant your feet,
deliver the ball—it is, after all, just a ball.
It bounces short of a length.

Nixon thinks he’ll steal your thunder,
lofts it high over extra cover
where it seems to hover.
English voices join the noise

but on the boundary, buoyed by the tide,
Hodge stretches, hand open
and Nixon c Hodge b McGrath.

Rachel Davies
(more years ago than I care to recall!)

 

On Post-PhD reading

To be honest, I’m stuck for content for the blog now the PhD is done. What do you put in a blog whose banner headline reads ‘PhD and Poetry’ when the PhD is finished, all bar the dancing, and the poetry has been slack? When I was coming to the end of the creative section of the PhD, Jean Sprackland asked me what I was going to do now, and I said I was going to spend the rest of my life reading shite! Seriously, I didn’t want to read anything again, for ever, that required me to think and analyse.

I tried it in the summer. I didn’t like it much. I read a couple of Tudor murder mysteries in which the author seemed more about impressing her readers with her knowledge of the period than with losing them in the story. I decided there was only so much shite the human brain can take and I pulled back on the pledge.

I stepped up a gear. I decided to re-read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I read it years ago, and the recent television series had tickled the reading tastebuds: I wanted to see if the TV adaptation had stayed true to the book. It had, pretty much. What a mind Atwood has; and how prophetic is that book, written in the eighties? In 21st century UK, I felt as if I was living through the foothills of the tale, with regime change in the USA and the far right on the rise across the western world. I read it on my Kindle, enjoyed it in a kind of masochistic way, so much that I wanted a copy. I ordered a hard backed version online, a book to pick up, touch, admire. When The Testaments was published in September 2019, I had to have a copy of that and read it too. How could Atwood follow up on The Handmaid’s Tale, which had left an ending that was open to a sequel? But that was thirty years ago. How would it work now? And was it just cashing in on the TV adaptation? It wasn’t, it was wonderful and surprising reading. And if you haven’t read it yet, I recommend it. Highly. And if you haven’t read the original Tale, you’ll need to read that first to really get the sequel. Hilary and I went to see Atwood ‘in conversation’ at the Lowry theatre in October. I had dreams of getting my two lovely books signed, but that was a pipedream: she wasn’t doing a signing. But I have them on my shelves to re-read whenever I feel it coming on.

I read a William Boyd novel, Waiting for Sunrise; I’ve never been disappointed by a William Boyd novel. This one came close. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t lose myself in it, it wasn’t as gripping as some of his books. Perhaps I just didn’t believe in his hero, Lysander Rief. The first few pages are an imagining of the reader watching this man walking through Vienna. Towards the end of these introductory pages Boyd has the line ‘Ah, he’s English—how uninteresting—your curiosity is waning.’ And my curiosity never really waxed again. I stuck with it to the end though, and it was, I suppose, a good story; but I wasn’t gripped.

I re-read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.  I read it at the night class where I studied for A-level English, and remembered really enjoying it. I enjoyed it again, probably on a different level, or a series of different levels. Having lived through the scientific and technological revolution of the intervening forty years, it, like Handmaid’s Tale, seems all too possible—probable even. Is it serendipity that these dystopian novels become reality; or is it inevitable? I went on to read a collection of essays Huxley wrote in the eighties, Brave New World Revisited, in which he analyses the actual world in the light of both his dystopian vision, and George Orwell’s in 1984. His essays are spot on too, and distinctly disturbing.

I read Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls Trilogy. The first in the series, The Country Girls, O’Brien claimed ‘wrote itself in three weeks.’ Lucky her; it rocked the Irish establishment, and it isn’t hard to see why. Read it with the unsophisticated eyes of the early sixties, when Lady Chatterley was on trial as pornography, and understand why a sexually and religiously conservative society like the Republic of Ireland would be shocked. I loved it.

I read Katie Hale’s debut novel, My Name is Monster. Its plot is that one woman is left on Earth after an apocalyptic event—we’re never told exactly what the event was, although it involved war and disease. (Why do I seem drawn to dystopia since completing my PhD? There must be a thing here?) When I read the first few pages I thought ‘How is Hale going to make a novel out of one woman and a shattered world?’ She does, in surprising ways. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it.

I’ve read other stuff too: I am a prolific reader. I could read before I went to school. And because I could read already, the infant teacher put me out in a cold corridor with a book while she taught the ‘normal’ pre-literate children how to do it. I was miserable, cold, lonely—all emotions I came to relate to reading. I didn’t pick up another book for enjoyment until I was a young adult. Oh my, what had I missed? I haven’t stopped since. On Thursday I met up with Hilary for coffee—our first catch up since the carousel week in December. We swapped Christmas presents. She gave me The Craft, edited by Rishi Dastidar (Nine Arches Press; 2019)—‘a guide to making poetry happen in the 21st Century’. It contains essays by some of my favourite poets: Liz Berry, Carrie Etter, Karen McCarthy Woolf to name just a few. There’s a section of writing prompts at the end, which I’m looking forward to trying out. I can’t wait to read it. It’s on top of my ‘to-read’ list.

To bring us full-circle, Hilary also gave me a second book, from a mutual friend, Jo. When we all went to see Simon Armitage in Conversation with Guy Garvey in November, Jo asked me what I’m going to do now the PhD is over—this is a common conversational ice-breaker. I repeated my pledge about reading shite, but explained that I’d tried it and didn’t like it much, but I needed to read stuff that wasn’t too taxing, give my poor old brain a rest. She said she had just the book. Hilary brought that book with her on Thursday. M. C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death (Constable and Robinson:1992). Jo put an inscription on the title page: ‘To Rachel. Read it and weep (a lot!)’ I’m a part-time insomniac and I woke at 3.00 on Saturday morning this week, so I decided to read it to stop the brain racing. Thanks Jo, it hits the spot perfectly: frothy, inconsequential, insubstantial ‘shite’. I love it.

Before I go, a reminder about the Poets&Players competition, judged by Sinead Morrisey. The closing date is midnight on Tuesday 21st January; which gives you just under ten days to get your poems to me via the online route or to Viv in the post. Details and rules are on our website: https://poetsandplayers.co

I’ll leave you with another poem that did well in a competition. It was placed third in the Manchester Cathedral Competition in 2015. The competition asks for entries ‘of a spiritual nature’; being an atheist this is easy: everything under the sun is spiritual, so I entered this, written after a visit to Tate Liverpool and being gripped by a huge and totally wonderful painting by Leonora Carrington.

 

Ix Chel and the Madonna
The Magical World of the Mayas Leonora Carrington
Tate Liverpool May 2015

One eye a telescope the other a microscope
you see it all, how the land is a woman
reclining—sleeping or dying—her breasts pert

her belly taut while Mayan temples
and Catholic symbols spring like Cain and Abel
from between her knees and each tries to win

her best breast. You see it all, how the earth
blurs the binaries of night and day, truth and lie,
old and new, gods and God until they all seem

the same somehow, indistinct, not to be trusted.
You see it all, how a thousand crucifixes can pierce
her left breast, pierce her heart and still Ix Chel

breathes through her death throes, how the wood
of Calvary grows on her abdominal plain even
as the Ceiba tree withers, its branches bleached,

leafless, its roots in the realm of the dead atrophied
to stumps that can no longer suck the waters
of faith. You see it all, how Madonna and Child

process across her skin and her skin rends open
exposing the powerless jaguar god of the underworld
where the Monkey Twins hide themselves behind human

death masks, learn to live out eternity in the dark.
You see it all, how Kukulkan still slithers across
an angry sky crying I’m here, I’m here and none hears

but the dying few, how Chaak the thunder god
weeps tears plump as pears at Ix Chel’s passing
and the Popl Vuh hands down its myths to anyone
who will listen and you listen and you see it all.

Rachel Davies
2015

(First published in Manchester Cathedral Competition Winners Pamphlet 2015)