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

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