Floods and droughts

When I finished the MA in Creative Writing in 2010, I went through a period of drought in my poetry life. I couldn’t write anything. It was as if my brain had been purged of the need for poetry. Friends I’ve spoken to experienced the same thing when they completed poetry-based study. Well, it’s happened again post PhD. I’m finding it difficult to think about poetry, much less write it, or make any submissions to journals or competitions. I know it’ll come back, but it feels like an unpleasant barren period.

Having said that, I have engaged with poetry on some level this week. On Tuesday it was our Stalybridge Stanza. We had an anonymous poetry workshop this month. Four poets submitted poems to me, I sent them out in a single document, standard font without names. We met on Tuesday evening to read, discuss and offer feedback on the poems. There were five members at the meeting, including a new member who wants to join us. This seems like a critically small meeting, but we’ve had less; and I also had four apologies, so we’re moving off the red list of the critically endangered. I think we’ll survive.

The poems were all good; very different in style and subject. Our new member, Viv, also brought a couple of poems that we made time for in our discussions. It was a good evening, interesting and lively discussion. I sent a poem I’d redrafted in Coniston when Hilary and I went through our old notebooks looking for forgotten gems. It’s called ‘Burying the Past’, and I quite like it. I might offer it to a journal at some stage. I’ll give it a few weeks to mature before I decide. It made me think that this might be a route into poetry again: to trawl my old notebooks and journals and find writing to redraft. It might be just the springboard I’m needing.

Yesterday I did write a new poem. It’s concerns Whittlesey Wash Road, the B1040  running through the Washes, which are a series of dykes through the landscape, built as flood defences, to divert water from the River Nene in periods of potential flooding. Originally, this area of England was under the sea, until it was drained in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I found out the Ea—the original ending of Whittlesea—means island. This was Whittle’s Ea, or Whittle’s island in the surrounding sea-water. Thorney, Ely and Peterborough were also islands at that time, all towns and villages built up around historic cathedrals or abbeys. Imagine those buildings standing proud above the sea. No wonder Henry VIII sent his first wife Catherine of Aragon to this barely-accessible region to incarcerate her until her death. So I wrote my poem about Whittlesey Wash road, the B1040 that we used to drive along from our home near Thorney to visit relatives in and around Whittlesey. I’m not sure the poem I wrote is the one I should have written. It was intended for the latest Beautiful Dragons anthology, whose working title is Well, dam. The idea is to celebrate—or expose—all the ways humankind has used—or abused—the earth’s watery resources. My poem should be about the drainage of the fens, the series of dykes and cuts that reclaimed the land from the sea, and how the sea sometimes calls the land back into itself. Instead I wrote a personal poem about riding that road in childhood, and how the pollarded willows lining the roads seemed to shake angry fists at me as I rode past. I think I retrieved it sufficiently for it to survive the cut for the anthology, but I’ll leave it to marinade in its own poetic gravy for a while, see what I think mid-August. The deadline is August 31st, so I still have time.

I’ve started to prepare for my Viva in September. I’ve been doing some research into my examiners. My Director of Studies told me to be savvy: one of his students hadn’t done their homework and underestimated the external examiner’s personal expertise in the area of the PhD under examination. Ooops! I don’t want to make that mistake; not that I’m likely to! If only I had the self-confidence to think my version was the definitive version! But it’ll be good to know who she is, where she’s coming from professionally. I’ve also started to re-read my thesis. May seems a long time ago and I feel out of touch with it already. I need to know it inside out to be able to discuss it like an expert. I have less than five weeks to the Viva, on September 6th, so I’m trying to use this time for revision. I’ve been reading my older blog posts too; which is revealing, because they speak of me reading books I’d forgotten I’d read, books I didn’t necessarily use in the written thesis and so aren’t listed in the bibliography. Thank goodness for Kindle. Those books are still there to be revisited; or on my immaculately ordered bookshelves in my spring-cleaned study.

Speaking of my study, the Velux window above my desk let the water in this week. We’ve seen particularly heavy rain lashing onto that face of the house throughout the week, and the window’s faulty seals let the water in. This isn’t the first time it’s happened either. It’s so annoying to see papers and books on the desk damaged by rain that should be staying on the outside of the house. I’ve made a decision. The window will be replaced in the next month or so. I’ve had enough. I can’t take the soul-destroying damage rain water causes when it invades the home; and yes, I know this is a minor inconvenience compared with the damage to the dam at Whaley Bridge and all the possible devastation that could cause; but it’s a recurring inconvenience I can do something about with the installation of a new window. Thank heaven I did the big spring clean in the study earlier in July. At least the desk was relatively clear. When I was doing my PhD it was permanently full of books and papers, in an organised chaos only I understood. The last time water came in through the Velux, a lot of work was damaged. But I can do something about the risk. A new window it is then.

On Monday I went to Peterborough with my daughter Amie to meet up with son Richard and friends. We went out for dinner, had a lovely day. Next week we’re all going to Kidderminster where Richard has booked a holiday cottage to celebrate his Big Birthday. I know, Kidderminster is a rare holiday venue, but it’s central for all of us to meet up. Richard is coming from Peterborough, Amie and I from Saddleworth, Michael from Wiltshire. I’ve called it our Wilt weekend in my diary, because originally Richard wanted to book a boat for the weekend, and it reminded me of that storyline from Tom Sharpe’s novels. But he couldn’t find a canal barge big enough to accommodate us all, so a cottage it is.  It’ll be lovely to be with all the children together. It doesn’t happen often enough when they grow out into their own lives.

So that’s my week: post-PhD limbo. Poetry trying to make a come-back. And family. A former member of my staff retired this week. I told her to enjoy her retirement; it’s the best job I’ve ever had. I stand by that. It brought me poetry and there are worse things to do with your leisure time. I won’t post the poem I wrote for Beautiful Dragons, because that’s for Rebecca Bilkau, the editor. But I’ll post another poem about an East Anglian legend, Boudicca, the Celtic queen who resisted Roman power when the Roman Governor stole her powerbase and the Roman forces raped her daughters. Her uprising was ultimately unsuccessful, but she caused a lot of havoc in the process. She’s been a heroine of mine for a long time. My staff used to call me Boudicca when I took on a fight as head-teacher; a nickname I didn’t object to. Everyone should fight like Boudicca for things they believe in. Here’s the poem I wrote, one in my ‘alternative mother’ series. It’s in the pamphlet I share with Hilary Robinson and Tonia Bevins, Some Mothers Do… (Beautiful Dragons Press; 2018). Boudicca certainly did!

Alternative Mother #2

Boudicca

In your footsteps, pearl-wort, loosestrife
and purple orchis grow. You are Andraste the Invincible,
moon goddess, tall as an ash tree, your hair
a fire-fall that consumes empires.

Let me trace the hot threat of war-paint
colouring your cheeks as menace, widening
your wolf wife’s eyes. Make the cold twists
of gold at your throat simmer.

Moon-mother, you are fearsome. Your eyes are
vengeful swords you sheathe from me; in fury
you roll up meadows into proclamations, stanch rivers,
rip up cities to skim on the sea’s surface.

You were there when I cried out to you.
Scabbard your anger in his back, warrior mother,
make revenge a magma flow,
become a new stratum in earth’s skin,

broadcast your battlecry as clarion then
make your wake a feast of nightshade, arum lily.
You can be no man’s trophy.

Rachel Davies
2018

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