The Picture of Decrepitude

October happened this week: my brain is still in August and it was a shock when my sister sent me her usual ‘pinch punch’ FaceBook message for the first day of the month. October! We alter the clocks in three weeks time and we’ll be officially in winter. If I had a superpower, it would be to slow down time in the summer: summer should be at least three quarters of the year, in my opinion, and the other quarter, spring.

Having submitted my thesis to the scrutiny of my study support team last week I’ve relaxed on the PhD work this week. I’ve had a week of poetry instead. The proofs of our joint pamphlet, Some Mothers Do… arrived in my inbox at the weekend. On Tuesday I got round to reading them and sending my feedback to Rebecca Bilkau, the editor at Beautiful Dragons Press. An interesting issue arose. In one poem, ‘San Martino di Griante’, I’d used a quote from David Constantine’s poem ‘Bad Dream’: the line ‘a sheer fall right, a sheer wall left’ reminded me of a walk I took in Italy to the church built precariously on the mountainside above Lake Como. That walk to the church is the subject of my own poem. In my poem, I’d italicised the line to suggest I had ‘borrowed it’; but Rebecca had italicised the whole poem to give it a conversational feel: the speaker of the poem directly addresses the reader throughout. Of course this effectively buried my italicisation of the line I had borrowed from Constantine. I pointed this out to Rebecca to enable a proper acknowledgement in the book. The worst crime a poet can commit in her art is to plagiarise another poet’s work; there have been one or two high-profile cases recently and I didn’t want to be ostracised as a plagiarist in my first publication. As Carol Ann Duffy says, all poets dip their pens into the same ‘fluent glittery stream’ of poetry: there are only so many words to use, after all; if you do take a significant line and use it, that’s not a problem as long as you thank the original source. Without coming across that line in ‘Bad Dream’ I probably wouldn’t have remembered my walk up the mountain and written my poem. Funny story: I read the poem, ‘San Martino di Griante’, at a reading in Manchester once. A fellow poet came up to me afterwards and said ‘I loved that line a sheer fall right, a sheer wall left.’ Wonderful. Of all my own lines of poetry she heard that night, she loved the one line by David Constantine! Good poetry will out every time!

Hilary and I have been inviting everyone we know to our pamphlet launch in November. Hopefully, we will show the Portico Library the respect it deserves by the number of guests we receive on the night. If you can come it would be wonderful to see you there: Wednesday November 7th, 6.30 Portico Library 57 Mosley Street Manchester.

Saturday was a poetryful day too. It was the Manchester Literary Festival collaboration with Poets&Players, bringing the poets Deryn Rees-Jones and Sean O’Brien to Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery. The day started with a workshop by Sean O’Brien. Sean had us considering the stories we tell in our poems. Using the stimulus of the painting ‘A Game of Patience’ by Meredith Frampton, we wrote ‘a novel in thirty lines or less’. This is a link to the painting: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/a-game-of-patience-78276
I wrote a potted version of the Persephone myth that might make it to the PhD portfolio with a little editing. After a lovely lunch in the Whitworth restaurant, the readings were in the afternoon. First, music by the Basilisk Duo, saxophonists Freya Chambers and Simeon Evans from RNCM. Freya also played a bass clarinet, which was like the beautiful progeny of a saxophone and a clarinet. After music, Deryn and Sean both read from their various collections of poetry. It was a lovely afternoon in the South Gallery, overlooking the park where squirrels were rummaging for food and chasing each other in territorial claims. The music was upliftingly jazz and the poetry was inspiring—and humorous sometimes. The next Poets&Players event is on November 17th, featuring Liz Berry. I have to miss it as I have a prior commitment at Leighton Moss RSPB Reserve, launching the latest Beautiful Dragons anthology Watch theBirdie: definitely one of those occasions when I wish I could be in two places at once. The proofs of that anthology—commemorating birds on the endangered list—landed in my inbox when I got home so I read through them in bed last night. All good for my poem, ‘Fieldfare’.

Alongside all this wonderful poetry, I’ve been getting to the bottom of the post-Prednisolone health thing. I saw a rheumatologist, Dr. Devakumar, on Wednesday this week. He agrees with his nurse that the issue probably arises from a shoulder injury masked by the continuing use of Prednisolone for PMR/GCA. He had a good examination of the left shoulder, used words like ‘restricted movement’, ‘crepitus’, ‘significant osteo-arthritis’, all of which made me feel like the very picture of decrepitude. He sent me for a shoulder x-ray to assess the damage and is referring me to physiotherapy before considering steroid injections into the joint. In my head, I’m still 36, so the mechanical issues that come with age aren’t really on my radar. There’s an old adage, you’re as old as you feel. Well, that makes me about 93 at the moment then. Hopefully a round of physio will sort out the shoulder and I can get back to being comfortably 71, at least.

So that’s it really; my body creaks, it objects to my doing too much exercise, it lets me down at silly times. I went for my x-ray on Thursday morning and had to ask a complete stranger to help me on with my coat: my arm won’t go behind my back any more. But at least there’s poetry and that is better than any drug on the market. As long as I can ‘do’ poetry, I’ll be OK.

The results for the Poetry Society Stanza Competition were revealed on National Poetry Day—what a poet friend, Cheryl Pearson, called ‘like Christmas, but just for poets.’ I was pleased to see poet-friends Janet Lancaster and Julie Corbett among the commended poets. I’ll post my competiton entry here: it’s called ‘Pickling Walnuts’. My mum used to pickle her own when I was a girl: it gave me a taste for pickled walnuts that has stayed with me all my life.

Pickled Walnuts

You notice the tree as we drive past,
see its branches overhanging the lane
from Mary Loder’s front garden
that first spring in our new house.
You call it Juglans Regia—the English walnut.

Its leaves are fresh green fingers spread
in pleading—cherish me, cherish my fruit
they whisper. An hermaphrodite tree, its drab flowers
have no need to show off. The males dance in the wind
like uncropped lambs’ tails, the females’ rabbit-ear stigmas
stand proud to receive their sperm.

You watch week by week as her flowers swell to fruit,
hang in heavy pairs, ripe green testicles. You make friends
with Mary Loder. Each year she gives you bags of walnuts,
semi-ripe, perfect for pickling. You carry them home
precious as treasure, a smile lighting your face,
your eyes on some lost childhood you never share with me.

We stick darning needles and bodkins
deep into the walnuts’ flesh, testing for shell.
We don’t want any shell, you tell me. Our fingers,
stained like sixty-a-day smokers from oil in the skins,
drop the pricked walnuts into a baby bath filled with brine.
We leave them to soak for days.

You lay them out in the autumn sun to dry, weeks later
bottle them in kilner jars filled with spiced vinegar.
I often creep into the cellar to watch them turning black:
eggs of coal, but raggy, as if they’re shedding their coats
in the heat. Days pass. Weeks become months.

And on Christmas morning, there they are
decanted onto plates of ham for the festive breakfast.
Oh my, the sweetness—I couldn’t describe the taste
without using superlatives. Charles Dickens knew, said
he was very fond of pickled walnuts, gentlemen—
just ask Samuel Pickwick.

And your grandchildren are fond of them too.
Pickled walnuts still come to our Christmas table,
bottled by Opie now though—they’re our first taste
of peace on Earth, goodwill to all.

Rachel Davies
August 2018

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