…a small pinprick of light

Completion of PhD is getting so close I can feel it; I can see it, a small pinprick of light at the end of a shortening tunnel. Six months left, and I’ll be using every one of them, but this week I took a significant step toward completion.

On Wednesday I met with Jean Sprackland, my creative support, to discuss the poetry collection. In the past I’ve sent sets of six or seven poems to her for feedback. This is the first time I’d sent her the complete body of work to read and comment on. We met in the Eighth Day café on Oxford Road and it was with some trepidation that I walked along Oxford Road in the rain, with the wind almost strong enough to blow me off my feet. We had tea and cake and talked poetry. I had three major questions:
Q1: is it a sufficient body of work to fulfil the requirements of PhD?
A: yes it is!
Q2: is my organisation of the collection appropriate?
A: yes it is!
The third question she answered without my asking: she enjoyed reading the poems, the mix of humour and pathos, the mix of forms, lengths, styles and emotions, the creative arc. She loved my crown of sonnets, a colloquial dialogue between a mother and her daughter, the first sonnet crown I’ve attempted. She had some small suggestions about four or five—out of eighty two—of the poems, mostly about sustaining metaphor, or strengthening verbs; one of the poems needs a bit of an overhaul. But apart from that, it’s almost ready to submit. Yay! A huge load off my mind; especially as I still have six months and several writing workshops booked before the deadline, so I can add to it if I write anything appropriate; and all the poems I write seem to be about motherhood at the moment, it’s a bender I’m on. I came away from that meeting full of joie de vivre—and chocolate and date cake—and went to meet up with Hilary in the MMU library.

We went to Principal on Oxford Road for bar snacks and coffee—actually I had a cider to celebrate—before going to the launch of Jean’s new collection, Green Noise (Jonathan Cape 2018) at No. 70, across the road. We met with lots of lovely poetry friends there, all alumni of the MMU Writing School, where Jean is Professor of Poetry. The event was introduced by Andrew McMillan, another poet-tutor at the Writing School. I heard Jean read some of this collection at her inaugural professorial lecture earlier in the year, I even asked her permission to use a line of  one of her poems—‘Crystallography’—as a quote in my thesis: ‘the strong life of the inert’, which she uses to describe the growing crystals, but which seemed just the phrase to describe the ‘things’ we remember people by, in my case, the tools my mother used in her day to day work as wife and mother. The reading on Wednesday was lovely, such a good collection, a minute look at nature, well read; followed by a Q&A session. I bought the book and Jean signed it ‘With love and admiration’: how good is that, to be admired by one of the country’s top poets? I was all poetried-out when we went home; and too poetried-up to sleep.

In other PhD news, I’ve been working on the thesis again; yes, I’m back into it, tackling it with renewed vigour after my meeting with Jean. I can see the finishing line, and I’m running hard to get there. On Sunday last, I printed off what I’ve written and redrafted already. I followed my Director of Study’s advice and began to read it through, taking notes of each paragraph to give me a framework for the introduction and conclusion. It was good to read it, a near-complete piece: I always find it more satisfying to read from paper than from the screen, I pick up on more issues. I found a major one: a couple of the pages near the end would fit much better within a section I’d written in the middle! So I did a cut and paste job; and then worried about saving it in case I didn’t like it where I’d put it. So I saved both versions: how many saved copies do you accrue before the final version is submitted? I have files within files, Mk 2, Mk 3, the final version, the final-final version, the post-October meeting with A&A version, the post-October experimental version—etc. I have to find ways of remembering which version I’m currently running with! But when I read through it again—from the screen this time—I liked the change, it made sense, it worked. By the end of the week I was putting together my introduction, about 1000 words telling the reader what the thesis covers. It seems like an easy job; but it comes with its own angst: I think it’s too long, I think it needs cutting down; but at least I know where I can lop some without spoiling the overall. Chip, chip, chip. I feel like Michaelangelo, who said he knew there was a perfect figure in that block of stone, his job was to keep chipping away until he found it. I keep chipping away until I find the perfect thesis hidden in all these words.

On Tuesday it was our Poetry Society Stanza at the Buffet Bar, Stalybridge. This session was an anonymous workshop: poets submit poems to me, which I put into one document, standardise the font then send out to all the poets who submitted to read and prepare for discussion and feedback at the meeting. There were six poems this time, six members at the meeting. It was a good session. We couldn’t have our normal room, it was booked by the Stalybridge Clairvoyant Society—I didn’t see that coming, Boom Boom!—so we met in the conservatory instead. It was noisy at first, several groups sat drinking at tables; but eventually they left and we closed the door to inhibit all-comers and had the room to ourselves. Our meetings were at critical attendance levels about a year ago, so it was good to have six members, with two apologies. Our conservation work is taking effect: we’re off the red list!

Finally, life: it was the first session of physio for the damaged shoulder on Thursday this week. We were a few minutes late, because just as we were leaving the house, our car was blocked in by the dustbin lorry. Is the physiotherapist always that curt, or was it because we were late? Your bedside manner needs some work, lady! And did I just imagine her sadistic delight at causing me pain in the examination of the shoulder? But she gave me some simple exercises to do at home, and I’ll see her again in January. That is to say, the exercises seem simple, sliding my arms up a wall, or sliding them outwards from the waist at a table, elbows at right-angles. But my goodness, I can feel the effects the next day. No pain, no gain, I keep telling myself; and I keep popping the codeine, which brings its own problems, but I do like liquorice!

I’m going to include the first sonnet in my crown of sonnets this week, in celebration of my very positive meeting with Jean. I wrote this following a visit in 2016 to Manchester Art Gallery to see the ‘Strange and Familiar’ photographic exhibition. I was particularly struck by the grotesque photographs of Bruce Gilden, especially one of an elderly woman, her bloated face a ‘street map of veins’, her hair in rollers. You can see a reproduction of the photograph here: https://www.google.com/search?q=Bruce+Gilden+photographs&client=safari&rls=en&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjeqejMrfTeAhVC3qQKHQzBBuMQ_AUIDigB&biw=1191&bih=750#imgrc=_

If you click on the ‘images’ tab you will find her—eventually—about 25 rows down. You can’t miss her. I was struck by her because she was displayed next to a board of photos of young girls in the 1960s, all mini-skirts, Sassoon haircuts and self-confidence, and it occurred to me that she would have been one of those young girls once. That was the inspiration for my sonnet crown, a dialogue between her and a fictional daughter I gave her. The italicised line introduces the daughter’s contribution to the dialogue. All fiction, but fun to write. Here’s the first sonnet of the crown; as usual, WordPress has messed with the formatting:

 

Mirror Images

I’m looking in the mirror
at a lardy old woman; but here
in the photo, Hyde Park ’68, I was thin
as an elf, confident, full of myself:
Quant make-up, leather jacket,
geometric hair, first generation mini-skirt,
burned bra.
See the photo of me then
and my mirror self now: blood-flushed
face a street map of veins,
wattle chin, whiskers like thorns, tits
slapping my knees.
I get that life’s a burlesque but

you landed the role of grotesque.

 

 Rachel Davies
2017

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