In which I realise I can’t do everything…

I’m suffering the post-holiday blues. I haven’t been warm since I got home, although if I hadn’t been away the weather would seem quite mild for Saddleworth. And my body hasn’t adjusted to the time zone change, I’m still working on Greek time so I’m ready for bed at 9.00 at night and sleeping for England, which is unusual for me. I’m doing that post-holiday thing where you say ‘this time last week…’ I need to get a grip; but this time last week we were getting ready to go and find some loggerhead turtles, Caretta Caretta.We boarded the boat in a harbour just off Laganas. Searching for turtles seemed to involve the boat going round and round in circles in the harbour, along with about five other boats, until we actually spotted a turtle in the water; poor thing must have been a bit intimidated but I suppose they must be used to it. It was a majestic sight when we did spot one though. They really need to rethink their survival strategy though. They come to Zakinthos in April and stay till October. In that time the female can lay four or five batches of eggs, 100 in a batch. That’s up to 500 eggs, with a survival rate of 1%. That is serious endangerment. They are very well protected by the Zakinthian authorities though. We went to Turtle Island to see the breeding grounds on the beach: we weren’t allowed to go near the nests, but you could clearly see the tripods marking and protecting the nests from the boat.

But as you know by now, a holiday isn’t just a holiday; it involves work as well. Every morning I got up early and took a cuppa out to our balcony to do some work. I spent a couple of hours a morning analysing the poems in Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica. I analysed three or four poems in that time; and that is about as many as I could manage emotionally. They are very taxing poems to close read. It is a brilliant collection, similar but different from The Huntress. It is amazing how much more you see in a poem when you spend quality time with it. I am happy to report I completed the analyses on our last morning there. And now I have 17,500 words to draw on for the chapter in my thesis. So I’m pleased with that aspect of the work while I was away. A slightly optimistic conclusion to the analyses: I have sent out feelers for offering a review of Mama to a quality magazine—I won’t say which one at this stage, don’t want someone stealing my thunder; because I had a fairly positive response to my proposal. I’ll be following that up this week. The creative aspect, less satisfying: I wanted to write a poem a day while I was away and I didn’t manage anything close to that. My favourite time, early morning, was taken up with the analyses; and I don’t work well around lots of people and busyness; but I did draft some stuff—I can’t call them poems yet—and I kept my dream journal going for the fortnight. I seemed to dream a lot of dreams with ‘teaching’ and ‘teachers’ as elements. Am I regressing to a past life? I hope not; retirement is the best job I’ve ever had!

We arrived back in Manchester on Thursday evening and my lovely daughter was there to meet us off the plane. Since then it has been a long round of unpacking, laundry, shopping for food. And more PhD work. Yesterday was the September Poets & Players event at the Whitworth Art Gallery: Clare Shaw, Malika Booker and Hilda Sheehan, and Olivia Moore providing the ‘player’ aspect. Unfortunately I didn’t make it: I always knew it was going to be a struggle and in the event I prioritised work; but I know it was brilliant because people keep telling me so on Facebook; I was genuinely sorry to miss it. The next event is in October, details here:

http://www.manchesterliteraturefestival.co.uk/events/george-szirtes-caroline-bird-andchuck-37848

It’s our annual collaboration with Manchester Literature Festival and it will be BIG. George Szirtes, Caroline Bird and Andchuck providing the music. This event is at Halle St Peter’s in the Northern Quarter, so make a note of that; also that you will need tickets for this one, available at the MLF website via the link. Unfortunately I have to miss this event too, bah! But you just know it will be good, don’t you?

Yesterday I got down to more serious work on the critical side of the PhD. I was rereading the theory related to mirrors and mirror images. Lacan’s Mirror Stage is not easy to understand: Lacan is not an accessible writer; but mirrors and masks feature heavily in Mama Amazonica and this will be a major focus for the Petit section of the thesis. So I reread and re-reread Lacan yesterday; along with commentaries on Lacan: The Cambridge Companion to Lacan; Bailly’s Beginners Guide to Lacan etc, and I think I have a handle on his thoughts. I think. I also read Winnicott, Home is Where We Start From; and an article I found on the MMU website about the importance of positive interaction in healthy child development, “Identification and subjectivity in a Year-3 classroom: using Lacan’s mirror stage to analyse ethnographic data” by Sue Walters published in the online journal “Ethnography and Education Volume 9, 2014 – Issue 1”. This was fascinating reading for me on two counts: it was helpful to my research; but it also spoke to me as an ex-headteacher of a primary school with high numbers of Bangladeshi heritage pupils.

 

So, I know what I want to say in the Petit section of the thesis but I’m worried, as ever, about sounding ‘academic’ enough; about sounding as if I actually have a level of authority over the theory. I have no idea how I will go about it; so I’ll do what I always do and wade in, a page at a time and perfect it over time.

 

That’s it then; holiday over, week over, blog over. I’m happy to be back and to be back on a healthy eating regime. I had a lovely time away; but it is the once-a-year binge. I’m actually glad I don’t have to live like that all year; I’d be elephantine after a couple of months.

Here is a very short poem I wrote on the aeroplane on the way to Zakinthos. It seems as if the aeroplane is stationary at 35,000 feet and it is the earth scrolling by below. That is the image I’ve tried to capture in this little draft.

 

Window Seat

the aeroplane hangs from sky
hovering like a harrier
while Earth on microfiche
scrolls by below

the pilot spots the quarry
of Zakinthos runway
and we start our slow dive
from sky to sun

Rachel Davies
September 201

Holidays, analyses and anxiety dreams

I wondered when I started the PhD whether those enjoyable and, until now, indispensible, parts of my life would have to go by the board to make room for the research. I have proved that, actually, they don’t. I have taken several holidays since I’ve been doing the PhD; some of them have been work related: poetry writing weeks that have served the creative aspect of the research. But some have been just holidays; just the chance to sit back and rebuild. I have never left the work at home and ignored it for a week or two. Let’s face it, it won’t be ignored.

This week I’ve been in Zakinthos on the ultimate sun-bum’s holiday. The work sulked so much when I told it I was going on holiday, I smuggled it into my cabin baggage and brought it with me. Of course, I never ever intended to leave it home alone; but it didn’t know that, and I’m hoping it will be kinder to my as a result of my generosity.

So, among the sun worshipping, the Greek salads, the yogurt and honey, the Mythos, the local wines there has also been work. And, I have to say, quite a smug-making lot of it. Before I came away, I promised myself I would write a poem a day while I was away. I downloaded several prompt books to my Kindle to keep me focussed. I have to report, I probably haven’t managed a poem a day; but in response to one prompt, I have been keeping a dream journal. I have had some weird dreams since I’ve been here. One of them relates to the broken promise of a poem a day: I was invited by a teacher I worked with years ago to go into his classroom and read poems to his class of 8/9-year-olds. There were other poets there to read, we all had a ‘slot’. I was first to read; unfortunately I had left the poem I wanted to read at home; and I couldn’t remember it at all. One little girl in the group had copied my poem out in her writing book and she lent it to me; but writing wasn’t her strength, and it was really hard to read what she had written; so I blagged. I tried to make it up as I went along. Alice Oswald was like Jiminy Cricket on my shoulder: why wouldn’t you remember the poem? You wrote it! The only lines I can remember were the first line: Write ‘the’ and part of a limerick that came at the end: They called him Max the Tax. Not much of a poem then; not even poetry! But I took so long making it up, I took every other poet’s slot of time too. Anxiety dream, definitely. I must write more poems, as per my promise to self.

However, I have drafted about four poems since I’ve been out here, and I think the dream journal will stimulate more unusual ones. So I’m not slacking really. I’ll post a poem at the end of this blog that relates directly to the ‘poem’ dream. I can already see where I’ll change it, but I like the idea.

In other news, regarding the critical element, I have been very conscientious. I made myself the promise to work for two hours a day before breakfast to analyse the Pascale Petit poetry in Mama Amazonica. That is a promise I have kept, rigorously and satisfyingly. I have analysed all but thirteen poems in the collection. That gives me 3-4 a day for the rest of my time here to get the job done. I have found that about four a day is as many as I can do: they are quite gruelling, dealing with rape, abuse, mental illness. Petit approaches these themes by placing them in the backdrop of the Amazonian rain forest. They are brilliant. The mother is written as beautiful, abused creatures: the hummingbird, the deer. She is often predatory in her response to abuse, so she is jaguar, fossa, python, boa. The abusive father/husband is almost always a cockroach—‘Cockie’; sometimes other low, unattractive creatures, in one instance a ‘screw-worm’; which all seem descriptively appropriate. I will definitely have fulfilled that promise-to-self by the time I board the plane home on Thursday. And so far I have 12,500 words; not all words I’ll be using in the chapter, but they’re there to be cut-and-pasted, along with the analyses I did of The Huntress. So I feel I’m making real headway with the critical aspect while I’m out here, and putting myself in a strong position to start writing the Petit chapter when I get home.

There, you see, you can allow yourself holidays while you pursue PhD. You just have to be prepared to take it along for the ride: it doesn’t cost extra, as a child would do; and mostly it behaves itself without annoying other holiday makers with its noise, unlike some children (see last week’s blog)! In the hours between breakfast and drafting poems on the sunbed I have enjoyed all the aspects of ‘holiday’. I have played boules on the beach every day with Bill; the beach here is lovely soft sand, unlike a lot of Greek beaches there is no shingle. So it’s a good boules surface. It helps us believe we’re not just beach bums. We’ve also played mini-golf a couple of times. The first time I beat Bill, who is a regular golfer at home. That didn’t go down too well, it stung a bit; but yesterday he beat me quite comprehensively to put me back firmly in my place. I enjoyed the crowing while it lasted, though. We have been walking, stopping off at a lovely beach bar for pizza and draft Mythos on the way back to the hotel. And, of course, we’ve been swimming. I’m not a huge fan of swimming, I learned as a young adult, not as a water baby. I learned, actually, in the nurses’ home swimming pool when I was a student nurse in the sixties. A gorgeous doctor taught me to swim; I only did it because I needed to look competent in his eyes. We weren’t an ‘item’, but I fancied the pants off him. Years later I saw him again when my son Richard broke his arm. The gorgeous doctor of my teen years and my memory was actually a disappointment: shorter than I imagined, balding and gaining a paunch. But he did teach me to swim and I’m grateful for it. I’ve never been a particularly confident swimmer, although I love that I can swim; and as long as my feet touch the floor when I stop, I’m happy.

Oops, I must dash: I’m taking a boat trip to see the Zakinthian turtles later today. Life’s just so full, I don’t know how I fit it all in.

Here’s the poem I wrote as a response to the anxiety dream I had in the week. It has a long way to go, but I wrote it following Jean Sprackland’s advice to write more poems in a syllabic form. This one is a (double) nonet: nine lines, nine syllables in the first line reducing to one in the ninth. I think I’ll retain the form and redraft some of the content; but it does show that I am making an effort; honest!

 

In this life I’m a double nonet

In a past life I was a sonnet.
I tripped off the quill in inky
magnificence, perfect in
first draft. There was nothing
slant about my rhymes,
they were bold, strong,
flavoursome
on the
tongue.

 

I used to be a sonnet, fourteen
lines of perfect Shakespearean
rhyme, a turn at line nine. But
the life was edited
from the first draft and
now I’m doggerel,
clichéd crap.

Delete.

Stop.

 

Rachel Davies
September 2017

 

Oscar, if I’ve told you once…

I’m not sure if you’ll all get to read this this week. My laptop isn’t recognising the IonianWifi I paid 25Euros for earlier in the week! I’m writing it on Word, hoping I might be able to post it on the hotel Wi-Fi later. Yes, I’m in glorious Zakinthos, soaking up some rays, eating ridiculously unhealthily and drinking too much Mythos and local wine. I’m having weird, dystopic dreams about punishments for unhealthy eating that may indeed become a poem one day soon.

We travelled on Thursday. All experience is grist to the mill of the poet, and our travel companions were no exception. Indulgent parents, aggressive parents, parents with no sense of their own irony when they fed nasty tasting Kwells to their children, ordered them to ‘chew and swallow, chew and swallow’ then plied them with fizzy pop and chocolate to take the taste away. Beware! All these things have been recorded in a poem, an extract of which I’ll include at the end of this blog post.

It seems a long time ago, and the whole distance of Europe, but other poetry events figured in the week since my last blog post. On Monday it was the writing workshop at Leaf on Portland Street in Manchester. I met Hilary Robinson for an early evening meal before the workshop because I have been reading her MA portfolio prior to submission later this month and we met up so that I could feedback my reflections on a good collection. There were only five poets at the workshop this time, but oh my, there was some lovely work presented for discussion/feedback. I took a poem about my mother’s hands that I wrote from a prompt in the Behn/Twichell book (see below). I’m really pleased with it and it received some useful and positive feedback.

On Tuesday it was our East Manchester and Tameside Stanza meeting. We meet at the Britannia Inn in Mossley. Again, there were five poets there, a different set from Monday’s. We were reading and discussing the work of Gwen Harwood, an Australian poet writing from mid-twentieth century. I don’t know if you know her work, but she’s worth checking out. I can’t give a web link to any of her poetry right now, but if you do seek her out, avoid the Poem Hunter website because it has messed with the formatting of the work, sometimes even displacing stanzas into the wrong poems. Thankfully a couple of the poets present had her collected works and we were able to rectify the errors; although they made good stimulus for discussion. My favourite quote from the poetry we read on Tuesday: ‘Poets are lovers. Critics are/mean, solitary masturbators.’ (From her poem “The Critic’s Nightwatch”).

On the Wednesday before we travelled I had a surprise in the post: a birthday parcel of books from a friend I haven’t heard from for some time. There was a lovely photographic book of cats; and two more poetry prompt books. One was by Peter Sansom, an extension of his Poetry Business writing days. I can’t remember the author/poet of the second prompt book as I didn’t bring them away with me; but I’m thinking I’ve probably got more than enough writing stimuli to complete the creative side of the thesis now. That will be a huge aspect of my work this year, so all assistance is gratefully received.

Being on holiday doesn’t exclude work: I’ve brought work with me. I’ve promised myself a poem a day while I’m our here, and so far so good. The prompt books I added to my Kindle before I came have proved worthwhile. There are some particularly good prompts in The Daily Poet by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano. They offer a prompt for every day of the year; some are related to the day, anniversaries of events (mostly American), but some are random and can be used in any order. Another good prompt book is Robin Behn’s and Chase Twichell’s The Practice of Poetry. I think I mentioned this one before. It has writing activities by practicing poets who also teach creative writing. One of the activities is to keep a dream journal: no embellishments, just write down what you can actually remember and see where your unconscious takes you. That’s why I was up at 3.00 a.m. this morning writing down my weird unhealthy-eating dream.

I also brought Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica away with me. I’ve been spending two hours a day before breakfast analysing these poems for the mother-daughter theme. They are different from The Huntress: less anger and fear, more sympathetic. Interesting comparisons, though. I’m finding some inter-textual writing too, notably a perceived (by me) link to Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shallott’ in the image of the shattering mirror. I’m loving this analysis. It hardly feels like work at all.

So, my poem this week. I’m just giving you an extract. It’s a rant at the not-very-nice people who shared space in the aeroplane. I’ve called it ‘For I don’t deserve to die with these people’ for fairly obvious reasons. I’m giving you the last of four stanzas. It was a constant commentary on the flight: three and a half hours of Oscar being told. I didn’t see Oscar or his mother; but I built up my own mental pictures! I apologise in advance if you know Oscar and his mum. You’ll have to imagine more of similar in the other stanzas. The poem is so new, the ink hasn’t dried on it yet.

 

For I don’t deserve to die with these people

 this mum says Oscar I’ve told you
says Oscar I’ve told you once
says Oscar if I’ve told you once I’ve told you a million
says Oscar I won’t tell you again
says Oscar if I have to tell you again I’m taking you home.
How? How is she taking him home?
We’re cruising, as the pilot has just assured us,
at thirty-five-thousand-feet.
Oscar, I’m sick of telling you
Oscar don’t make me tell you again
Oscar for the love of God

 I utter my own prayer: Dear Lord, keep this aeroplane safe
for I do not deserve to die with these people.

Rachel Davies
September 2017

For the love of poetry…

I’ve concentrated on poetry this week, mostly the creative aspect of the PhD. This has been one of my favourite weeks: a week dedicated to poetry. I have read poetry, written poetry, ate, slept, dreamed poetry. Wonderful.

On Monday I met up with poet friends Polly Atkinson, Hilary Robinson and Rod Whitworth. We went to Proper Tea for lunch–yes they are open again, having undergone a refurb, mostly in the kitchens I’m guessing because the decor hadn’t changed a great deal, still the old doors they have used to make the counter and the settles by the windows. The counter has turned through 90 degrees and is now a chiller cabinet full of gorgeous sandwiches and cakes. We met to celebrate my birthday: someone asked me if I’ve done celebrating now! Silly question! I’ll celebrate this one until I have the next one. Did you know, science has proven that birthdays are good for you? Apparently the more birthdays you have the longer you live. Really.

One of the books I downloaded to my new Kindle this week is The Practice of Poetry by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell. This is a collection of writing prompts that have been used in creative writing classes by poets who also teach. I have been writing to some of the prompts this week, mostly in bed before sleep–which has meant not much sleep because poetry is such an upper! One activity involved thinking of a part of someone’s anatomy and writing about that part as a representation of the whole. I wrote about my mother’s hands. I remember her telling me how she hated her hands when she was a little girl because she had dimples where her knuckles would be and she wanted knuckles like her mother. Of course, when I knew her she had her wish: hands that were Rough-knuckled, raw from hard labour. Be careful what you wish for. I described her hands as she cleaned the eggs ready for market. I quite like the poem from that activity. I have other poems in the pipeline stimulated by some of the other activities too. One of the activities is to do ten minutes of ‘automatic writing’ a day, then after ten days to read the writing and underline what can be kept and perhaps made into a poem. The rule is to write but not to edit, not to read what you’ve written for the full ten days, when you’ll have almost ten pages of writing you don’t know too much about. I’m finding that less satisfactory at the moment, because automatic writing–writing for ten minutes without stopping just what comes into your head–is hard without a prompt to start you off. But I’m persevering, sticking to the rules. I’m giving myself a starting prompt every morning.

Tuesday is one of the days I can give whole-heartedly to PhD work, because Bill plays golf and the house is all mine for the day. I had a great day on Tuesday this week. I decided to write another sestina; but I wanted to bend the form to make it less obviously a sestina. So I decided to compile a list of homophones–words that sound the same but are not necessarily spelled the same, and don’t have the same meanings: ‘there, their and they’re’ is a group that is always used as an example. Would you believe it, there is actually a website dedicated to the homophone: groups of homophonic words arranged alphabetically:
http://www.homophone.com/search?type=begin&q=Z
All I had to do was choose ones I thought I could work with. I chose six homophone groups and wrote my sestina. It took all morning: who knew poetry was such a long job! I have worked on it all week, trimming it, refining it. Because it has words like based/baste and cord/chord/cored with variations like record/accord/discord it really is a sestina in disguise, I think. It will fit in the portfolio, although the ‘story’ of the poem is entirely fictitious. I’m really quite pleased with it. A good morning’s work.

On Thursday my copy of Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica arrived in the post. On Saturday Bill played golf again so I had another day dedicated to PhD. I gave it over mainly to reading Mama. I read the whole collection in one sitting: I couldn’t put it down. It is a collection that deals with the mother-daughter relationship through the mental illness of the mother, much as The Huntress does, but in a way more sympathetic to the mother, I think. I read it aloud to myself, the whole collection. I had a very rusty voice afterwards; but reading a poem aloud does slow your reading down and it gives you a different perspective on the work. I can’t wait to get down to a serious analysis now. Petit has such a creative way of writing: humming birds feature largely, beautiful and abused in this collection, as the mother has been. The animals of the Amazon region are used as metaphors for the people and personalities in the poems; for instance the abusive father is often depicted as a scarab beetle. In ‘Jaguar Girl’, ‘Her gaze is tipped with curare/…/Her claws are crescent moons/sharpened on lightning./…/Her own tongue is a hive/that stings’: wonderful images for a fearful and frightening woman. Compare this with the tense tenderness in ‘Jaguar Mama’: ‘…the whirlpools and rocks of her tongue/almost pulled my skin off, I never knew/if she was grooming or preparing to eat me.’ I love this collection. I think a comparison of the two works will be an exciting and original part of my thesis.

On Saturday I also did some submitting to competitions. I’m not good at submitting work, I don’t do it enough. I’m never sure when a poem is ready to make its way in the world; there always seems to be some small change you can make. But I sent some out on Saturday to try to earn their living. Given that most of the best competitions receive well over a thousand entries, I’m realistic about their chances; but, as the early lottery adverts used to say, ‘you gotta be in it to win it’; so I sent off to Oxford Brookes and Buzzwords on Saturday. Online entries are so easy; too easy perhaps. Now I need to sort my poems out for sending to journals; prepare myself for the inevitable rejections that make the occasional acceptance more sweet.

Later today, more poetry. I have to reread Hilary’s MA portfolio so that we can discuss it when I meet her on Monday before the Leaf Workshop. I’m honoured that she has asked me to read and comment before her final submission in a couple of weeks time. Her collection  addresses marital infidelity and reconciliation: it’s a good read. I also have to read a selection of Gwen Harwood’s poems for our Stanza meeting on Tuesday evening. So, plenty of poetry to keep me going for a day or two; as well as the daily ‘automatic writing’ and my promise to myself to write a poem a day while I’m on holiday. Yes, we fly to Zakinthos on Thursday for two weeks of sun, sea, reading, boules, bumming out. I intend to get lots of work done in that two weeks; the best kind of busman’s holiday! I’ll be blogging from the Ionian region next Sunday; bring it on.

In honour of the upcoming holiday, I’ll post a poem I wrote in Zakinthos two or three years ago. There seems to be some seismic activity in the Mediterranean area at the moment: this week there was an earthquake on the island of Ischia in the bay of Naples; in July an earthquake between Turkey and the Greek island of Kos. When we were on holiday on Zakinthos–2014 I think–there was an earthquake that was strong enough to move furniture across the room and make waves on the hotel swimming pool. No structural damage, but it was quite a scary event none-the-less. What struck me most was the noise: a loud boom like a bomb to begin with then the dreadful grinding sound as the earth’s tectonic plates rubbed against each other. This is the poem I wrote from that experience:

 

Koukounaria Quake

mobile phone footage of lanterns swinging,
floors flapping like tablecloths being shaken
of crumbs, windows spitting out their glass,
cars like Dinky toys tossed by a petulant child,
fissures in roads that swallow juggernauts whole:
this is an earthquake.

But a mobile phone can’t record the noise,
as if the earth were turning in her sleep,
dropping her bedtime read to the floor, breaking
wind. She grinds her teeth and the hotel shifts
and the wardrobe slides across the bedroom
and ripples ride on coffee mugs and coffee
slops onto tables and tables walk the floor
and the swimming pool gets the surf up
and tourists, not used to this, make to leave
the safety of structures built to withstand it.

Eleni checks on her pregnant daughter, the earth
settles to sleep again and all three carry on
as if something extraordinary didn’t just happen.

Rachel Davies
2014/15

 

 

Didn’t we have a loverly time…

In three years where life is driven by work towards a PhD, sometimes the work has to take a back seat, be a passenger; and that’s what happened this week. For the first time in two years, PhD hasn’t been the be all and end all of my existence. It has been there, keeping its eye on me, ready to rebuke me for slacking, but life has been to the fore.

This year my daughter Amie and I had ‘significant’ birthdays; so we hired a cottage overlooking the beach in Trearddur Bay, Anglesey and took our 120th birthday celebrations on tour. Richard and Michael, my two sons; Amie, Angus, Ben and the dogs; and Bill and I had a few days of doing nothing but being together. It was lovely. It was  five days of very nearly doing things: we nearly took the ferry to Dublin, but it was fully booked; we nearly took the cable car to the summit of Great Orme, but high winds put a stop to that; we nearly took the railway to the summit of Snowdon, but on the day we wanted to go there were no tickets; I nearly did some reading, but my Kindle battery died. Despite all this, we had a lovely time. It’s so good to spend time together, it doesn’t happen often enough when your children become adults. We did manage to do a lot of dog walking though. Amie has two cockerpoos, Cooper and Sonny, and they are energetic to say the least. They chased that ball over most of Anglesey, and still asked for more. Oh, another nearly: we decided to go to Aberffraw for a circular walk we had found in the cottage info pack. Ten minutes into the walk the high winds that prevented us from using the cable car in Llandudno the day before whipped up the sand from the beach and pebble dashed the backs of our legs and other exposed skin. We turned back to the cars and drove on to Bangor, where we had al fresco coffee while we watched unoccupied chairs blow off up the street!

I did manage some reading, though. I used the Kindle until the battery died completely. I was blaming the cheap charger I bought but I borrowed Michael’s charger and it just wouldn’t make a charge at all. No Kindle, and another holiday coming up in two weeks? I decided to order a new one when I got home so I can still pack a library in my hand luggage. I’ve learned that I can get a battery replacement for the old one as well, so I might look into that. But it’s a delicate operation, apparently, easy to mess up. I’ll take it to an official repair outlet sometime. Thankfully I took a ‘real’ book away, as well as my Kindle. Toril Moi’s Sexual Textual Politics in paperback was my reading-in-bed book this week. I was reading a chapter about Gilbert and Gubar’s Madwoman… It was interesting to get an academic review of the book I read only recently. I took my MacBook on holiday as well, thinking I might get some creative work done, but the house was full to overflowing; there was never space to sit and work apart from in bed and I’m quite particular about conditions for writing. I have to be on my own, have silence, get my thoughts filling the house. I could have done some work in bed, but I know it wouldn’t have been good work and I would have just rolled it into virtual balls and binned it when I got home anyway: we have to pay attention to our own preferences for work, I think. So I made do with a bit of bedtime reading. I hope the PhD doesn’t mind that I ignored it this week. It was good to have the best part of a week off. I’ll be on it again next week; and the upcoming holiday will involve a lot of work as well.

The world stage is as worrying as ever. We live on a speck of dust in an infinite universe. There are millions, trillions–zintillions–of other planets, stars, heavenly bodies out there, some with the potential for life, some, no doubt, hosting life in one form or another. But humans have such ego trips about being made ‘in the image of God’; about human life being the epitome of life forms. And oh my, we are so full of hate: my skin is better than your skin; my nationality is supreme; my god is more powerful than your god. Why? We are here for the blink of an eye; we are nothing in the great scheme of history. My grand-daughter Corrinna was in Barcelona when that van rammed into crowded Las Ramblas. Thankfully, I learned she was at the airport for the homeward journey when the atrocity happened. Unfortunately many holiday makers weren’t: collateral damage in ‘the war on terror’. No-one in power has worked out you can’t make war against an idea: an idea isn’t an enemy you can target. This is a war that can’t be won. And this week the most powerful man on the planet refused to condemn alt-right white supremacists carrying Nazi and KKK flags in Charlottesville into skirmishes with civil rights protesters; thereby reinforcing a global view of the US president as a white supremacist, Nazi and KKK sympathiser. What a pernicious world we’re living in.

This morning I’m posting a poem I wrote in Carrie Etter’s Napowrimo week in April. It is about the month my brother died; a month that was also dominated by powerful men flexing their international muscles, sizing each other up. We never learn from history; we just invent bigger and more destructive ways of killing each other. I only had one brother, in a house filled with sisters, so this was a pivotal month in my growing up. I was fourteen at the time.

 

June 1962

that was the month
Albert and Harold first hauled their rags on BBC TV

and George Martin unleashed Beatlemania

I sat in the library at the grammar school reading
about a Wall dividing Berlin to keep communism pure;
or to keep capitalism pure; or more likely to keep propaganda
pure; but people didn’t want purity they wanted their lost families
and they staked their own lives to be reunited on the other side

Khrushchev sent missiles to Cuba while the world held its breath
and even Peter Parker, bitten by that radioactive spider,
no, even Spiderman himself couldn’t sort that one out

the Foreign Legion left Algeria for the last time
but Algerians kept long memories of their occupation

Marilyn was fired by 20th Century Fox for not turning up
and no-one seemed to notice that her world was falling apart
and she’d begun that sad descent to her infamous nude scene
in that hotel room; and I wonder if you ever met her

because that was the month you went into Stoke Mandeville Hospital
and I never saw you again.

Rachel Davies
April 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Blood and more blood…

I started to write this blogspot to see how a PhD would elbow its way into my life: what it would nudge out of the way to make its space. I’m reminded this week that, in the end, completion may not be negotiable. The week has been dominated by frightening global events as two playground bullies square up to each other across the wide Pacific. Trump has been using hyperbolic phrases like ‘locked and loaded’, ‘…the likes of which the world has never seen’ and ‘fire and fury’–which one American local newspaper reported as ‘fire and furry’: typo or satire? The trouble with playground bullies is they don’t back down until they have bloody noses, and the bloody noses of this scenario will make a world-wide mess. I was fifteen at the time of the Cuban missile crisis and I remember well how a frightened world held its breath; and the crisis then was handled by men who understood the power of diplomacy. Trump and Kim only seem to understand ‘my bomb’s bigger than your bomb’; so perhaps we’re all f****d. Let’s hope someone with influence somewhere has a bit more foresight than them. We live on such a beautiful planet, that we seem bent on destroying. Here’s a picture I took from my bedroom window at 5.00 a.m. this morning. I was struck by the mist hanging in the Tame Valley: autumn is just around the corner I’m afraid; and we haven’t even had a summer yet!

IMG_1263

Anyway, I plod one, tending my own garden as Candide advised. I’m beginning to have more flowers than weeds at last, I think. I have finished the analysis of Pascale Petit’s ‘The Huntress’ this week all ready for the section I’ll write later in the autumn. A daughter speaker tells of her relationship with her mentally ill mother: ‘Like Cortés, I found her monstrous’, she writes in the poem ‘Portrait of My Mother as Coatlicue’, pronounced Koh-at-lee-kway meaning ‘serpent skin’; this is the frightening Earth Mother Goddess, her head, decapitated by her own offspring, replaced by two serpent heads. That first line of the poem pretty much sums up the relationship between mother and daughter in the whole collection. I can’t wait for Mama Amazonica to arrive later in the autumn. Alongside this, I continue to read and take notes on Jessica Benjamin’s The Bonds of Love for the critical aspect. I can see how that relates directly to Pascale Petit’s poetry: I can see where I’m going with it.

I also did some work on the creative aspect: I’ve vowed to give that more space as it carries the weight of the thesis. I revisited the sestina I posted here last week, trimmed it considerably, making it less of a baseball bat: much more subtle than the baseball bat I felt it was last week. I like it. I’ll leave it alone for a few weeks now before I come back to see if I still like it after a break. I’ve started to edit some of the other poems in the portfolio that I’m not happy with too. This is my favourite thing: to take a rough first draft and model it like clay until I have a product I can live with. It’s the making of something worthwhile; without creativity, what are we? I find my creativity in words.

On Wednesday evening Bill and I went to Oldham Odeon to see the live screening of Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare’s plays I didn’t know at all. I went expecting to see a Roman history, and it sort of was; but oh, it was so much more that I didn’t expect. It is bloody and bizarre: bloody bizarre!  Rape, intrigue, limbs lopped off in the name of justice, enforced cannibalism; and so much blood shed, you have to wonder how they all stay alive. And it still managed to be funny in places as well: as I said, bizarre! Shakespeare must have been on something when he wrote this one. But it was wonderful for all that; David Troughton in the lead role was brilliant.

In other news, I sent out my Poetry Society Stanza mailing this week. We meet again on August 29th, 7.30-9.30 at the Britannia Inn in Mossley, when we are going to read and discuss the poetry of Australian poet and librettist Gwen Harwood. You can find some of her work here:
https://www.poemhunter.com/gwen-harwood/
Come along if you’re in the area, you’ll be very welcome.

And in other other news, my granddaughter, Corinna, completed her nursing degree this month and on Monday she managed to land a staff nurse post in Telford Hospital, so that was reward for three years of hard work. She’s been a single parent for much of that time as well, and I’m so proud of what she’s achieved.  And Bill had his last appointment at the hospital: he was discharged on Monday after ten years. He had radical surgery for prostate cancer ten years ago and on Monday that phase of his life came to a happy conclusion when he was discharged into the continuing scrutiny of his GP; so that was some really good news.

That’s it then, another rewarding week. I’m sure you know that July 31st was the centenary of the start of the Battle of Passchendaele in the first world war. It seems appropriate to remember that this week, with the playground bullies doing their worst. So for a change, this week I’m going to post a poem by Isaac Rosenberg to remind us all of the reality of war. It isn’t glorious, it isn’t victory at any cost. It is just too high a cost. We wear the poppy for remembrance, but we don’t remember. Not really. If we did, we wouldn’t still be making war. Rosenberg fought at Passchendaele, so he understands absolutely. The ‘queer sardonic rat’ has more chance of life than the ‘haughty athletes/…bonds to the whims of murder’. As long as the playground bullies remember that themselves, just keep pulling faces across the ocean and don’t resort to pressing buttons, we’ll all get through this. We will.

Break of Day in the Trenches

The darkness crumbles away.
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver–what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe–
Just a little white with the dust.

Isaac Rosenberg

 

 

 

The Best Job I’ve Ever Had

I heard this week of a man who is due to retire from Sainsbury at the age of 95. Reg Buttress first retired from his job at the Cwmbran supermarket when he was 65. That retirement lasted for six weeks, by which time he was so bored, he asked for his job back. He retires again next month. The thing is, when I googled this story, I learned that Reg isn’t the only one. In March this year, for instance, Kathleen Privett retired from her hairdressing job aged 93. These are commendable stories that show how keeping busy is good for your health. But if retiring at 90+ becomes a trend the government might feel justified in adjusting its state-pension-age policy significantly upwards: retirement at 68 might well look like a luxury of idleness.

I was a primary school headteacher in my past life. I retired fourteen years ago and the lovely teachers’ pension I earn every month is compensation for accepting a lower salary than I could have earned in a comparable management stratum in the private sector. Teaching was hard, rewarding work, I loved it. I loved being a headteacher. I’ve also done some nursing in my life, packed purchases in Freeman’s Mail Order, been first aider in a carrot canning factory, worked as a check-out girl in a cash and carry, picked broad beans on a Fenland farm. Without a doubt, retirement is the best job I’ve ever had. Boredom, as Reg experienced, has never been an issue for me. Since I retired I’ve completed a BA (Hons) Literature with the OU; done an MA in Creative Writing and am now working towards PhD from MMU. I have written poetry, read poetry, been on countless poetry retreats, published some poetry, won some poetry competitions. I have travelled to Australia on two occasions where I watched the one-day international cricket series, drove the Great Ocean Road from Melbourne to Adelaide, took a train trip to the Blue mountains and twice went to the Sydney Opera House for performances of Carmen and Sweeney Todd respectively. I’ve visited Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo and Cape Town. On top of this, I have done the books at Amie’s Black Ladd restaurant every week for more than ten years. I couldn’t have done any of these things if I’d still been working. Reg, boredom is only an issue if you let it be. And I’ve known too many people who have died within months of retiring, their bodies unable to cope with the change of pace. Thankfully, my health hasn’t let me down–not too badly at least. For me, retirement is a privileged age when I get to do the things I dreamed of doing while I was paying my taxes and NI to fund it. I’ve never been busier.

This week has been all about poetry, most of it PhD related. On Monday it was the writing workshop at Leaf. Despite Metrolink’s best efforts to thwart the plan, Hilary and I were there. A points failure at Newton Heath resulted in delays on the way in, and that is where the tram ended its homeward journey. We made the trip home via Ashton-u-Lyne instead, where Bill met us, bless him. On Sunday I spent the morning revisiting some of my portfolio of poems. I have a poem about motherhood that I’ve never been entirely happy with: it is a big block of text, is a bit cheesy and not a little gender stereotyped. I had written on it at a previous revisit, Would this make a sestina?  In case you don’t know–and excuse me if you do–a sestina is a poetry form of six six-line stanzas and a three line last stanza. Each of the six stanzas uses the same six end words in a varying order and the six end words appear, two in each line of the tercet at the end. So I decided to give it a go. I chose my six end words from the original poem and composed a sestina. It wasn’t the sestina I meant to write, but it was a sestina non-the-less. The end words sort of dictated what it became about. It’s still about mothers and daughters so will possibly be included in the portfolio; it still needs lots of work before it earns its place though. I took it along to Leaf on Monday evening and received some really useful feedback. At the moment the repetitions driven by the end words are a bit like sledge hammers; I need to make them much more subtle. But it is there to be worked on.

On Tuesday I spent the most wonderful day analysing Pascale Petit’s The Huntress for the critical element of the PhD. What a collection that is, addressing the mental illness of the speaker’s mother, linked to domestic and sexual abuse and all woven as a collection with Petit’s visits for research to the Amazon Rain Forest. I love it. The mother is a frightening and threatening woman, depicted variously as poisonous snakes, Aztec gods of death and destruction, a Tibetan singing bowl. Alongside my analysis, I was doing internet searches to clarify all the references to Amazonian myths, gods/goddesses, flora and fauna: I learned so much. After a morning’s work I’d analysed only about eight of the poems in the collection and have the start of a framework for the next chapter of the thesis. I was so engrossed I even forgot to stop for lunch, which hasn’t been known often. I have preordered her new collection, Mama Amazonica, due out in the autumn. It deals with similar issues in a similar way, so I’m interested to see how she makes it new. It is published by Bloodaxe and is Poetry Book Society autumn choice.

On Thursday, Bill and I went into Manchester together. I wanted to spend the M&S gift card my sister very kindly gave me for my birthday. Sad to say, I couldn’t find anything I wanted to buy. I’m not surprised they are struggling for profit at the moment. Frankly, the displays are boring, the merchandise lacks flair. One dress, a light cotton floaty thing which was quite nice but ‘not me’ was displayed on a mannequin; and even ‘she’ looked bored. Her shoulders sagged and it’s no exaggeration to say the dress hung like a limp rag: who could think anyone would be encouraged to buy that from such an unattractive display? Perhaps I should go in and ask for a job? Well I would, but I don’t have time! We also went into Waterstones to spend a gift card I had for Christmas. I was saving it for Mama Amazonica, but I ordered it online from the Poetry Book Society, so I had a lovely half hour browsing the poetry section before settling on Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake and an anthology of three poets, including Kathryn Maris. I also bought a quirky bookmark in the shape of a stuffed pig: my Chinese horoscope sign. We went for a bite at Proper Tea only to find it closed down. Thankfully, I’ve learned since it’s only a temporary closure for refurb; so hopefully I’ll get a fix of their lovely caraway seeded Polish rye bread toast soon.

On Saturday I was at my desk again for 8.00 a.m. analysing some more Pascale Petit. I broke off at 10.00 to meet Hilary for coffee in Albion Farmshop and went back to my books when I got home about 11.30. I worked until 2.00; so now I have about 6000 words of analysis and still only about half way through the collection, with Mama Amazonica still to readIt won’t go into the thesis as it stands, but I’ll be able to use a substantial part  of it as cut and paste.

That’s it then; another week done and dusted. I’ve enjoyed it, been busy, learned loads, done some shopping. A good week all round.

I’ll give you a sneaky peak at the sestina this week. I’m not happy with it yet, not by a long chalk, but it’ll give you an idea of the sestina form and you’ll see where I’m going with it. I need to disguise the end words more, and revisit the repetitions that hit you round the head like a baseball bat at the moment; but remember I only wrote it on Sunday morning so it’s still only foetal at best. It’ll grow old gracefully as I work on it. In its favour, it does have some good lines, I think, well worth keeping.

 

This is not really a poem about grandmothers

 it’s more a cautionary tale about mothers.
Mine wasn’t one to hold her babies close.
She never saw herself as a repository of history.
She was no story-teller and lost histories can change
who we think we are. How can we know
ourselves if our story isn’t roused from its troubled sleep?

Some mothers tell bedtime stories to encourage sleep.
I don’t remember ever sitting on my mother’s
knee for a story, so I never got to know
my lost grandmothers. I had to make them up, close
approximations to an ideal: stories are loose change
In the trouser pockets of our history.

Who we are is indelibly imprinted by our histories.
We can’t ever know ourselves if we sleep-
walk through life, half plotted. A story can change
who we are, where we’re from. Mother
kept her stories wrapped in the closed
shroud of memory, never passed them on. I knew

my grandmothers as shadows, women I didn’t know
I missed until I was a grandmother myself. History
should be passed down the generations. Don’t close
the door on it, instead feel its draft. Sleep
in peace knowing I think of you, Grandmother,
more now than I ever did as a child. That changed

when I became a grandmother; now it’s time to change
trajectories. I’ll make sure my children know
every story I never heard from my mother.
I’ll invent our story myself—we all know history
is owned by the woman with the pen. So sleep
knowing your dreams won’t be wasted. Close

to my long night closing
in, I’ll exchange
our lost history for folk tales. I won’t sleep
until my grandchildren’s grandchildren know
their place in history.
What I can’t know I’ll invent. My un-storied mother

put the past to sleep in a crypt that’s still closed.
Not me. I’ll be Mother Almighty. I’ll change
history. They’ll know me best by the tales I weave.

 

Rachel Davies
July 2017

 

 

Brain gym, Todmorden and Tutankhamun

I read this week that keeping your brain active is prophylaxis against dementia. Well I should be protected then, my brain is never still. I’m a gold medal reader; I write; even when I’m watching rubbish on the telly I’m usually doing an iPad sudoku at the same time. My brain thinks it’s had a good night if it sleeps five hours. When I retired from my primary headship one lovely child said to me, ‘you’ll be able to put your feet up now.’ I have to report, feet-up hasn’t happened yet.

I’ve had another busy week. I spent Sunday being creative for the PhD. I edited a poem I wrote some time ago and wasn’t happy with. ‘Dear Grandma Ghost’ is a poem I wrote about a photograph of my mother and her sisters when they were little girls. I redrafted it as a modern sonnet, but it doesn’t really like being restrained in this form. I was more happy with it after spending a couple of hours on it, but it still asks a lot of the reader. My maternal grandma was Lord Caernarvon’s cook: he who bankrolled the Tutankhamun pyramid raid, so I allude to that in the poem, but it isn’t clear why. Anyway, I decided to take it to Stanza on Tuesday for feedback.

Monday I spent a lovely day with family. Amie, Richard and I went to Todmorden for lunch in a vegan café, The Old Co-op. Amie had discovered it in an internet search: Richard is a vegan and he always seems to get last dibs on an exciting meal when we go out.   The Old Co-op was lovely though, lots of choice. I can’t seem to say the same for the rest of Todmorden, unfortunately. Perhaps we didn’t look in the right spaces, but there didn’t seem to be too much to hang around for, and what there was was horribly depressing–sorry if Todmorden is your home, but that’s how I felt. I’m open to being convinced otherwise. We drove back to Shaw and caught Metrolink into Manchester for a look around. My younger son, Michael, got in touch while we were having lunch, so we were all together in spirit.

On Tuesday I had the day to myself: Bill was out of the house playing golf. I had a hair appointment first thing. I took my Kindle and when I called into Java in Uppermill for a coffee before coming home to settle to PhD work, I was able to read some of Jessica Benjamin so I felt less as if I was skiving. I love my Kindle: how you can carry a library in your handbag. It’s no good for poetry as a rule, though. It messes with the formatting. But it is brilliant for academic books because you can highlight passages without feeling like a book vandal; and you can immediately check references in the body of the writing. When I got home I worked on the sonnet crown. I’m chipping away at it all the time, making the dialogue more natural, colloquial, believable. I like it more every time I work on it.

Tuesday evening it was Stanza. We met at the Britannia Inn in Mossley: it’s becoming our new home. It was the anonymous workshop this month, when members send me a poem they want feedback on and I send them all out without names attached. We find this leads to more honest, less constrained feedback if we don’t know who we are addressing; although it has to be said, when you get to know the poets, it isn’t difficult to guess who wrote what. We had six members this month and a very pleasant evening with good discussion around the poems. I took my ‘Dear Grandma Ghost’ and at the end of the evening, when the poets had owned up to the poems, Rod asked if it was part of my crown of sonnets. No, it isn’t; but that did give me a way into the problem of clarifying it. It could be a crown: I could develop it in that way to reveal it to the reader. Thanks Rod, I feel another sonnet crown coming on.

Wednesday, after doing the books at the Black Ladd, Bill and I went into Oldham for an evening meal prior to going to the new Odeon Cinema in the town centre to watch ‘Dunkirk’. I’m not avid for war films, but this one had Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance in, three of my favourite actors so they were my draw. And they didn’t disappoint. The film itself was like watching the first ten minutes of Private Ryan for a full two hours: it was mental torture; but they, and particularly Rylance, were brilliant. He was at his understated best. I loved him as Cromwell in ‘Wolf Hall’; and I saw him play Olivia in Twelfth Night at the Globe some years ago. He definitely retrieved Dunkirk from becoming a death wish!

Thursday was all domestic stuff; and I worked with Amie to review her menus. Friday I bought some prescription sunglasses with the 50% off voucher I got from Specsavers when I picked up my new specs. The sunglasses are a bit of an indulgence, but I find lenses that change shade with the sun are fine outdoors but it takes a bit of time for them to clear when you go indoors, rendering you temporarily vision impaired. Hence the sunglasses. My distance vision is really too weak for normal sunglasses now. Ho hum!

Saturday I was at my desk just after 8.00. I dedicated most of the day to the creative element of my PhD. I went through my portfolio, editing poems that needed it, and I spent five glorious hours sending poems out for publications and competitions, including sending a selection of my portfolio poems to the Overton Prize organised by Loughborough University, details here:

http://www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/aed/about/creative-opportunities/competitions-prizes/overton-poetry-prize/

They accept poems that have been previously published so that’s a bonus. I also sent off a couple of non-portfolio poems for consideration for a children’s anthology of humorous poems aimed at children 7-11 years old. I sent poems about a woodlouse and a jelly fish. So, some of my babies are out there, finding their way in the world. Wish them luck.

In the afternoon I did some more reading of Benjamin’s Bonds of Love. This is going to inform my analysis of Pascale Petit’s poetry when Mama Amazonica arrives. By the end of Saturday, the old brain was complaining it needed a rest. Sorry, can’t rest: let’s watch Vera and do a sudoku, shall we?

I’m going to give you ‘Grandma Ghost’ as my poem this week, mainly because I know it’s nowhere near ready for publication. After Tuesday I have decided to develop it into a crown of sonnets, so that I can show the story without having to spell it out. The story is, I didn’t know either of my grandmas. As I said earlier, my maternal grandma, the one of the poem, was the cook for Lord Caernarvon before she married my granddad. He–Lord Caernarvon, not granddad–bankrolled the discovery by Howard Carter of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Of course, since then there has always been speculation about a ‘mummy’s curse’ on those involved, many of them dying young; including my grandma who died very young, although I don’t think she actually went out to Egypt. My mother left her nursing career to nurse grandma in her final illness. I don’t know much more about her than that, really. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t miss her when I was growing up; I didn’t realise what a grandma was until I became one myself, so I miss her more in my dotage than I ever did as a child. I have tended to invent her bit by bit; and this poem is part of that.

Dear Grandma Ghost

Inscrutable in her organza frock,
white stockings, button bar shoes, this girl
I don’t know who became my mother.
Was she your princess Grandma Ghost?

I wish I’d missed you when I was growing up.
You were a story passed down in instalments,
the shadowy outline of a Pharaoh’s curse.

I used to imagine you cooking the lunch
as Anubis stood at the gates of hell licking his lips,
ensuring you all exited stage left in the desert heat
pursued by a mummy. And he caught you

before we had chance to meet, before I could ask you,
Grandma Ghost, about this girl who’s my mother,
inscrutable in her organza frock.

Rachel Davies
July 2017

Everything I’ve got in my pocket…

As a poet, I hate clichés, of course I do. But sometimes, only a cliché will do. So I’m going to use one right now. Here it comes, are you ready? OK. There are no strangers, there are only friends we haven’t met yet. There, I’ve done it.

I started writing this blog for my own benefit, to see how PhD would fit into my life as a poet, what would have to go to make space for it. And since I started the blog,  I’ve frequently been amazed by the number of people who read it every week. I have sometimes been to poetry meetings—readings and so on—when people I’ve heard of or know by sight but don’t actually ‘know’ yet approach me to say how much they enjoy my blog every week, how much they look forward to it. Well that’s good, because I love writing it. This month I am in line to have the most readers in a month since I started writing it regularly a couple of years ago and there is nothing more satisfying for a writer than an audience.

But today was extra special. Someone I hadn’t met yet, didn’t even know by sight, claimed to be my biggest fan. Obviously she doesn’t know about the Pro-Breeze oscillating 30in tower fan in the conservatory, because that’s a very big fan; but I’ll take the accolade none-the-less.

She reminded me that writing, and particularly writing poetry, is such a joy to me; I came to it late, after I retired from my other life, and it feels like the life I was supposed to be living all along. It fits me; I’m happy in its skin. No-one told me poetry can be a life, that it can be what you do with—what you make of—your life. When I ‘did’ poetry at school it was all the Male Romantics: Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth etc; Byron was out: far too risqué, far too risky; sometimes we got a dose of Philip Larkin if the teacher was in a forward looking mood. I didn’t even know there were women in poetry. Women poets were the silent minority, possibly the unacknowledged ‘Anon’ of the anthologies of poetry in the school library. I didn’t discover the likes of Carol Ann Duffy, Adrienne Rich, Fleur Adcock, Jackie Kay and a myriad other women poets, until I did the BA literature with the OU when I was well into my fifties.

But as Percy Bysshe Shelley knew, and as I’ve waited a lifetime to discover, poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds. I can’t comment on the quality of my mind, although I think it’s pretty sharp; but I can vouch for the mental happiness. Poetry is the result and the cause of the happiness that comes with knowing I’m in the right life at last.

So I thought I’d write an extra blog this week especially for her, whatever her name. This is it. Hopefully it will serve to help me break my readership record, but that would be a by-product. I’ve drafted a poem to go with it, a poem about poetry, inspired by a favourite Minnie Driver song. I offer it especially to my self-professed ‘biggest fan’—and I’m not talking about the Pro-Breeze. Thank you, whoever you are, for reminding me how blessed I am.

 

The Best Poem I Haven’t Written Yet

I’d bet everything I’ve got in my pocket
some loose change, a torn tissue
a humbug leaking from its wrapper
a Metrolink ticket, a till receipt
a smart phone, a notebook and pencil
an original thought, a stupid question,
a lifetime of memories, the ones I’ve forgotten
a straight rhyme or a slant rhyme,
a strong rhythm, five feet, an end-stop
or enjambments, caesuras, white space,
a study in form, some stanzas and images,
a world lingua franca

to find, balled with the fluff in its unexplored corners,
the last of my three wishes
that one poem…

Rachel Davies
July 2017

A rare case of terminal optimism

If I was asked what is the most beneficial attribute to doing work towards a PhD, I would have to say ‘a positive attitude’. I’ve always been a ‘glass half full’ sort of woman but I’m also given to opposing bouts of self-doubt. But it’s a positive disposition that puts the difficulty of doing PhD work into perspective. I’ve had a good week this week fuelling, and fuelled by, a positive mindset.

I’m going to start with the big birthday. Sunday was the best day ever. I had lots of lovely cards, including a chocolate one from my daughter which I shared with Bill: I’m generous like that. I had some gorgeous presents: my glittery Docs, my bee tattoo, my Apple watch; but also a ceramic salt pig and a gift card for M&S. And from a poet friend, a poetry collection, Jacqueline Saphra’s All My Mad Mothers which I’m enjoying no end. On the afternoon of my 70th, Roger Federer set a new record for the number of Wimbledon wins, this year being his eighth, making it a memorable day on the world stage. I spoke to all my children; and we have booked a holiday cottage on Anglesey in August so we can all get together for a Big Birthday Bash. Bill and I went out to eat in Manchester on Sunday evening, then shared a bottle of champagne when we got home. I had such a good day, I’m thinking I’ll be 70 again next year. I celebrated so well I felt as if I’d been blown out with the candles on Monday. I just wanted to put my feet up, so the gym went by the board. I met up with Amie for a birthday chat over coffee instead.

Sunday was the way marker for a good week. I had such a satisfying day of work on Tuesday I almost forgot to stop for lunch. I added to the section about the sonnet as a metaphor for patriarchy in the literary canon. I put my analysis of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’ into readable words and spent time reading Christina Rossetti’s ‘Monna Innominata’, another sonnet cycle in the tradition of the love sonnet, but written from the viewpoint of the silenced woman. I also reordered the Hill chapter in line with advice from Antony and Angelica. I lost some of its bulk too. I think I have a more stream-lined, well organised chapter now, it reads well in my opinion. I hope it will also read well in theirs. So, by the time I stopped work on Tuesday afternoon I was feeling good; I had the rare feeling that this thing is going well and perhaps I can do it after all. FaceBook is full of graduation photographs at the moment: I began to believe I could be posting my own in a couple of years time.  Those positive moments don’t happen often enough: I’ve been prone to floundering in self-doubt over this project, beat myself up for perceived inadequacies, so I enjoyed that light-hearted feeling, that positive skip in the step I achieved on Tuesday.

On Friday it was Amie’s quarterly VAT visit from the accountant. No problems there, except the amount to pay. In the afternoon I went into Oldham to collect my new specs. I can see again! A pair of varifocals and a separate pair of reading glasses. I can read with my varifocals, of course I can, but am I the only one who finds it difficult to read a book in them? I feel as if I’m always moving my head from side to side to catch the print; so I have a separate pair of reading glasses for book reading. I’m doing a lot of that at the moment.

On Saturday, back to my books. I finished the sonnet section, at least in first draft. So, by the end of the day I had two completed sections in a new folder on the MacBook. I had a very pleasant day researching modern sonnets. The Reality Street Book of Sonnets shows how the sonnet form can be completely manipulated for a modern/post-modern poet: some of the sonnets in there are extreme and off-the-wall challenging. I also read Bernadette Mayer’s collection Sonnets. She gives a whole new perspective to the love sonnet, let me tell you. Very physical. Love is situated not in the heart but in the c**t and cock, for Mayer. I have the 25th anniversary edition, which includes her ‘skinny sonnets’ at the back, sonnets that have three or four words to a line. In one case the sestet is a list of six children’s names, one name to a line. That’s it. It all helps to show how women have continually pushed against the patriarchal constraints of the traditional sonnet form. Fascinating.

When I’d tidied up the ends of the sonnet section, I tried some of the writing exercises in Rowena Murray’s How to Write a Thesis. I enjoy these writing exercises, they are a good way into making me think about my writing, think about what it is I’m trying to achieve; and why. I spoke to a fellow PhD research student on the recent ‘Writing Up Writing Down’ course I attended; he had taken some of the writing exercises from this book and formed his introduction. I can see how that can happen, they really do concentrate the mind in very practical ways.

And amid all this writing productivity, I have been reading. I keep dipping into Murray’s practical guide all the time; but I have also finished reading Gilbert and Gubar’s iconic feminist lit-crit book, The Madwoman in the Attic. A good read. And I’ve started to reread Jessica Benjamin The Bonds of Love in readiness for my analysis of Pascale Petit’s poetry. I’ve been reading The Huntress again: I love that collection, can’t wait to get my critical teeth into it. And I’ve preordered her Mama Amazonica from the Poetry Book Society; I’ve been waiting for this to be released for months. I’ve heard her read poems from it on two occasions, once at the Freud Centre in London early in 2016 and again at Poets&Players earlier this year. I think it isn’t actually published until the autumn, so I’ll have to wait a bit to get stuck into that one.

That’s it then; another week of PhD work well and truly knocked into shape.

On my last birthday, as some of you know, I had an unfortunate accident, fell in Manchester and broke a vertebra, spent my birthday in Manchester Royal Infirmary. This year, I’m pleased to say, I got through the birthday without mishap, finished it all in one piece. So I’m posting a poem this week that is autobiographical, about being clumsy, being accident prone. When you knock yourself about as much as I do, you have to be able to laugh at yourself. It’s a list, hinting at the several accidents I’ve had in my past. There have been more, of course; but you have to draw a line somewhere and move on. Enjoy a laugh at my misfortune: I do it all the time.

 

Accident Prone

it’s really not my fault
it’s really about how the table stepped in front of me

it’s really about how the stairs became a switch-back
it’s really about how the doorstep put its foot out to trip me up

it’s really about how the plate just knew you were in the next room
it’s really about how the bed grew thinner overnight

it’s really about how the soap leapt off the soap dish
and slipped itself under my foot

it’s really about how the kerb was just getting its own back
it’s really about how the branch told me it was stronger than that it was

it’s really about how she put too much coffee in the cup
it’s really about how the water didn’t actually look green

it’s really about how that Ming vase had a wonky bottom
it’s really about how the rosebush reached out and grabbed my skirt

it’s really not my fault, she made me do it.

Rachel Davies
May 2017