Monthly Archives: February 2020

The Ugly Sisters

This week has been a fusion of poetry, health stuff and life. The life and health stuff got in the way of the poetry a bit. I’ll put that balance right this week.

In November 2013, following a particularly rigorous aerobics session at the gym, I became very stiff. Nothing unusual in that, you say? Except the stiffness didn’t go away after a couple of days. It didn’t go away after a couple of weeks; it got worse. I suspected I’d pulled a muscle and went to see my Doc to arrange physio. She opted for blood tests, which surprised me. Who orders blood tests for a pulled muscle? She suspected Polymyalgia Rheumatica, an autoimmune disease that makes your own body attack its healthy muscle tissue, causing inflammation, pain and stiffness in the shoulder and pelvic girdles. I’d never heard of it. The diagnosis relied on testing the inflammation markers in the blood. Sure enough, the inflammation markers were raised and PMR was diagnosed. The treatment is to take a daily, and slowly reducing, dose of steroids for about eighteen months. Six and a half years later I’m still taking Prednisolone and the autoimmune system is stubbornly refusing to sit down and behave itself.

Originally I took the steroids, as directed, for eighteen months. I reduced gradually from the original 20mg to 2mg. I started to get pain in my scalp, sharp and relentless pain like an invisible crow pecking my head. Paracetemol taken 6 hourly improved the pain for about an hour and a half before the crow was back. I’d read somewhere that headaches can be a cause of concern with Polymyalgia, because it might signify PMR’s ugly sister, Giant Cell Arteritis, which if left untreated can cause permanent blindness. The statistics go something like this: about 25% of the population, mostly women over 50, will contract PMR. Of those about 25% will also contract GCA; which calculates to roughly 6% of the population becoming acquainted with both ugly sisters. How lucky was I to be diagnosed with GCA? The Prednisolone dose was increased to a massive 45mg, I was referred to a rheumatologist and had to start the process of steroid reduction all over again.

In April 2018, I eventually managed to reduce the Prednisolone to 0mg. I had a small celebration as I took the last dose. Don’t get me wrong, Prednisolone had given me a quality of life that PMR/GCA was trying to deny me. But Prednisolone brings its own challenges. For instance, it gives me a very visible tremor in my hands, worse in my right hand. I’ve had to teach myself to eat soup left-handed because the right hand is just too messy! Chopsticks? Left handed. Spaghetti bolognaise? Left handed. Pred can also affect the voice, making it shaky and pitching it higher than ‘normal’. Mood swings? A by-product of Pred. So it was good to be off the steroids at last. Except it didn’t last. By the autumn of 2018 the stiffness was creeping back into the shoulder and pelvic/thigh muscles. By December 2018 I was walking like a ninety-year-old, having to be helped into taxis, finding stairs a challenge. Doctors refused to accept that the PMR was back and treated me with physio for a suspected shoulder injury. At last, on New Year’s Eve 2018, a locum at my local surgery agreed to give the steroids another trial. Within hours the stiffness and pain were improving; when I saw him again three days later, I was walking normally and was pain free. That’s what Prednisolone does. It’s a magical drug with nasty side effects. I love Prednisolone but I hate Prednisolone: ambivalence writ large.

And here I am, fourteen months later, having reduced the Prednisolone to 2mg, still taking the tablets. Except when I reduced to 2mg, the stiffness in the legs returned, notably after sitting down for any length of time. Once I’m up and moving it loosens up, and I’m fine; but it’s worrying that it manifests after sitting, for instance in the evening when I’m watching telly. So I went to see my doctor again this week. She has advised a slight increase in the Pred again, and more blood tests to see what the inflammation markers are doing. A tiny percentage of people need to be on small doses of Prednisolone for life. I’m beginning to suspect I might be among their number. Which is fine; but don’t sit at the next table if you see me trying to eat soup, is all.

Bill also had health stuff going on this week which I won’t elaborate on because it’s not my story to tell; but it involved spending best part of a day at Rochdale Infirmary, and a CT scan for which we’re awaiting results. Because I’m a terminal optimist I know it will be fine; but I might have my fingers crossed, just a bit.

So, life has truly got in the way of poetry this week; but it hasn’t entirely blocked it out. I had Tuesday free to do poetry stuff and that was my favourite day this week. I sent out my Stanza mailing, calling the group to the Buffet Bar at Stalybridge Station on Tuesday 25th for the February session. We’re having an anonymous workshop this month; members send me an early draft of a poem that they’d appreciate some feedback on. I put all the poems together in a standardised document, without any identifying markers, and send it out to all who submitted in time for the meeting. At the meeting we read and discuss the poems, offer positive and constructive feedback. At the end of the evening we have the big reveal when we find out who wrote what. So far, I’ve received six poems and one apology. So our group, which was on the endangered species list a couple of years ago, is rallying and altogether looking healthier. Which is lovely. I’m looking forward to reading the poems and meeting up on Tuesday to discuss them.

On Tuesday I also wrote up the work I drafted at the Manchester Art Gallery, at the Poetry Business Writing Day. I love this aspect of poetry: getting new stuff on the MacBook, moulding it, shaping it like clay until it forms a satisfying whole. I’ll leave them for a few weeks and come back to them with fresh eyes. Peter Sansom reminded us at the Gallery that you can work a poem too hard, until you work the life out of it. So I’ll leave them to breathe a bit, come back to them when I’ve almost forgotten them, find surprising stuff in them I can’t see at the moment, while they are too young.

The last, and very satisfying, poetry related thing I’ve done this week is book a hotel for the weekend of the Kendal Poetry Festival. Check out the festival here:  I’ll be going with my poetry twin, Hilary Robinson. We’re planning to take our annual Line Break the week following the festival; but we’ll be hiring a holiday cottage for that and we can book that later. Hilary’s enjoying time with her granddaughters this week, so we’ll meet up and start planning Line Break when they’ve gone home. No rush, it’s still four months away.

Yesterday was the Poets&Players event at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. Unfortunately I had to miss it this month, but you can find links on our website to the YouTube videos when they’re prepared:  A family friend in Peterborough is having a hard time at the moment and I went with Amie to offer some love and support. We met up with my elder son Richard and our friend and went for a late lunch in Peterborough City Centre. I hope she was feeling better when we left. Sometimes life is just too hard and all we can do is show some support and try to grow a few smiles. We had a lovely day. We’ve even planned a long weekend away at the end of August: Richard and said friend both work in schools, so school holidays are when we can all meet up. Family time is very precious.

I’ll leave you with a poem I wrote at Leighton Moss Bird Reserve on our Line Break last spring. Hilary and I can’t be accused of being serious bird watchers, not really. The real ‘twitchers’—is that what they’re called?—were there in their camouflage gear, binoculars around their necks, the Eye Spy Book of British Birds peeking from jacket pockets. We were there in our usual bright jackets, sunglasses, poetry journals in hand. So perhaps it’s not surprising that we didn’t see the birds the woman in the visitor centre gave us the heads-up on. They spotted us a mile off and kept their distance. The scones in the café were good though.


Leighton Moss

I’m scanning the sky for marsh harriers,
Nureyev and Fontaine
in an ariel pas-de-deux of feeder and fed.

But all I’m seeing is the dipping and dipping
flight of tits, swifts catching an in-flight meal,
the black capped gulls soaring and landing
spooked by the low flight of helicopter.

My ears are tuned for the call of Cetti’s warbler,
the chiff chaff of the chiff chaff,
the boom boom of the bittern
but all I’m hearing is the territorial robin,
the garden gossip of blackbird and sparrow
the low hum of a distant iron bird.

Rachel Davies
May 2019

‘…the brunt wind’

“This house has been far out at sea all night” (Ted Hughes).

Storm Dennis is raging outside my window as I write this, reminding me of the Ted Hughes poem ‘Wind’,  “…the brunt wind that dented the balls of my eyes.”  and I’m thinking of friends in the flood plains along the Calder Valley, Ribbledale, Cumbria, York. They’ve not recovered from Ciara yet, and now Dennis is kicking his heels.

This week I’ve been a domestic goddess, cooking and cleaning like a 1950s housewife. Housework is usually low on my list of priorities, so when I decide to do it, I attack it like a goodun. I can bear not to do it, but I can’t bear to half do it. So most of my week has looked away from poetry and towards the domestic. The ironing’s all done, the freezer’s full of chilli, bolognaise sauce, soups. The study is immaculate. I found it all strangely relaxing.

I let my gaze fall on poetry a bit though, when I booked festival passes for Kendal Poetry Festival for Hilary Robinson and me. This festival is organised by Kim Moore and Clare Shaw: always good to have a poetry festival with rhyming Directors. Check out the wonderful line-up of poets for 2020:  I’m really looking forward to this one. I know from past experience what a lovely, friendly festival it is; and it’s mostly contained in one venue, the Castle Green Hotel, so no rushing from one event to another, like some festivals we’ve been to. I’ve started to look for accommodation: Hilary, we need to meet for coffee, to confer on holiday lets. I’m not good in a tent.

On Saturday—yesterday—I went to the Poetry Business Writing Day at the Manchester Art Gallery. Peter and Ann Sansom hold monthly writing days in Sheffield and Manchester. Check out the Poetry Business here:  You’ll see from the website that the new Laureate, Simon Armitage, has said of Ann and Peter, “In my view, the UK’s most astute and effective tutors”; the Guardian considers them “The best writing tutors in the world”; and The Poetry Trust: “…incomparably experienced and inspirational tutors with a brilliant repertoire of exercises”. I can’t argue with any of this. I’ve been going to Poetry Business workshops for years and I’ve never repeated a prompt. It was lovely to meet up with other poetry friends, and to meet some new ones.

I feel a bit of a bozo though. In November I asked Peter if he’d write a blurb for the jacket of my forthcoming pamphlet, Everyday I Promise Myself. Bless him, he agreed and replied to my email with a request that I let him know when the launch is so that he can come along and throw fruit. The humour is so typical of Peter that I immediately responded to that comment without reading to the end of the email. I still had twelve months to the launch so I wasn’t expecting a rapid response to my request. When I saw him yesterday he asked if I’d liked the blurb. I said I hadn’t seen it yet. He’d thought it was odd that I hadn’t thanked him for it and resent the original email. If I’d read to the bottom, I would have thanked him profusely: there was the blurb in black and white, sitting in my inbox all these months. Durrh! It’s a lovely blurb as well, but you’ll have to buy my pamphlet to read it. So thank you Peter, and forgive my bozoness, even though I doubt if you’ll read this—but I thanked him hugely yesterday after I did read his comment at last. I owe him a huge cream cake.

Anyway, back to the writing day. We met at 10.30 in Studio 1 at the Gallery. Numbers were down slightly: some poets with distances to travel had cried off in anticipation of Storm Dennis. Crossing the Pennines is always a challenge in harsh weather. But there were still a dozen poets there. We wrote from the prompt of published poems: my favourites were ‘Learning to Spell’ by Kathryn Simmonds and ‘Snow’ by Jacob Polley. I think I drafted half-decent poems from these prompts. Of course, my poems bear little relation to the originals, and that’s the point: the prompts are jumping-off places, triggers for a place to start. I’ll include the draft I wrote from the Simmonds prompt at the end of this blog.

We also had to find an artwork in the gallery and write from that as a prompt. I chose ‘A Family Seated Around A Kitchen Fire’ by the Dutch painter Quiringh van Brekelenkam, c1650. I was drawn to it by the huge parsnip the woman is peeling: it reaches from her lap almost to her shoulder. You can see a copy of the painting here:  Is that a cat in the chair, hiding under blankets, looking menacing? Since I finished my PhD, I’ve found it hard to sit and concentrate on poetry, so it was good to do just that yesterday; and I feel I have three or four drafts worth working on. The next Manchester Writing Day is on March 14th. I’ll be there, will you?

Here’s the poem I wrote to the Simmonds prompt. It was to write a poem about someone who taught you something. I chose to move away from school and look to life. I wrote about my old Aunt Mary, who was a fount of wise sayings. When I was a teacher I used to use some of these sayings with the children. Name-calling? My Old Aunt Mary used to say ‘Call me anything you like as long as you don’t call me late for dinner.’ Workmen in the street? My Old Aunt Mary used to say ‘I love hard work, I could watch it all day.’ She had so many sayings that the children got to know Aunt Mary almost as well as I knew her myself. So this is the poem about a woman who taught me lots, including how to knit, and how to repair your knitting when it went wrong. She used her fingertips to feel her way in the world.

My Old Aunt Mary

 At just the right moment, one of her wise sayings
pops into my head—
everyone’s willin’
            some’s willin’ to work
            and some’s willin’ to let ‘em
and I’m a child again in that huge iron bath,
Aunt Mary kneeling on the bath mat,
sponge soaped and ready.

I’m not keen to show those bits of my body
that hide discretely under liberty bodices,
in knickers, as Aunt Mary, blind since childhood,
I’ll wash up as far as possible
            and down as far as possible—
            you can wash possible yourself
she says.

Rachel Davies
February 2020

In which I learn to play an (un)musical instrument…

This week began and ended with poetry. In between were dogs and walks.

On Sunday I had to go into Manchester for a Poets&Players planning meeting at the Whitworth Art Gallery. Oh my, that was an eventful journey. On Sunday the tram network was disrupted ‘bigly’ by ‘engineering works’, so the tram I usually take to St Peter’s Square terminated at Exchange Square. I had a long walk to the Principal on Oxford Rd. to get a bus to the Whitworth; and when I did get the bus, I overshot my stop and had to walk back. The homeward journey was just as disrupted.

P&P heard recently that we have received Arts Council England funding for another twelve months, so we were able to plan our 2020-21 programme with confidence. Our high-quality events at the Whitworth continue on February  22nd with J O Morgan, and a poetry translation-collaboration between Maria Stepanova and Sasha Dugdale. The ‘player’ this month will be Phil France. You can find our developing programme on our website:

Tuesday to Friday daytimes I spent at my daughter Amie’s house, dog-sitting her two lovely Cockerpoos, Cooper and Sonny. Her sisters-in-law walked their dogs with us, so I had the confidence to let Amie’s boys off the lead for a good run. I’ve lived in Saddleworth for thirty plus years, and this week I discovered three lovely new-to-me walks. On Tuesday I walked up Lark Hill from Dobcross. It was mizzly and wet when we set out, but half way through the cloud broke up and the sun came out, revealing lovely views across Saddleworth. The dogs enjoyed it, especially Cooper, who found some fox poo to roll in. Oh my word, caked! And foul-smelling! We had to give him a good bath before I could take him indoors. In the afternoon I took them for a second walk in Delph park, behind the Chippie, through meadows beside the River Tame with its gentle waterfalls. How did I not know about this? And on Friday we walked again from Delph, this time behind the White Lion pub, through meadows and wetlands. It was messy, up-to-your-eyes wet mud, but it was a crisp, frosty morning and the panoramic views were amazing.

On Friday evening I went into Manchester with Hilary. It was the gala celebration event for the Manchester writing prizes, established by Carol Ann Duffy as an aspect of her Laureateship. The event was held in Chetham’s Library, an historic and atmospheric venue next door to Manchester Cathedral. We arrived in time for a celebratory glass of wine before the finalists read their work. It was a diverse and wonderful shortlist and audience. Hilary and I sat behind some visitors from Cincinnati who were there to support a finalist friend.  One of them had brought a bag of kazoos. Of course, Hilary and I cadged a kazoo each to augment our applause; and we learned to play it, which is more than some of our neighbours managed. Hilary’s was in her favourite shade of orange, mine a confident pink:

My beautiful new Kazoo

Samples of all the finalists’ works were read out; if the writer couldn’t attend, one of the judges read for them. There was some seriously exciting work; as you’d expect from a competition with a prize of £10,000 each for the winning poetry and fiction writers, a liberating sum designed to give the winner the financial security, time and space to be able to develop their writing. The winner of the poetry prize was Momtaza Mehri, an exciting new voice whom I’d heard read at Verve Festival in Birmingham last year. The winner of the fiction prize was artist/writer Tim Etchells, who is Professor of Performance at Lancaster University. This is a competition that attracts and showcases the most original and exciting of contemporary writing. Congratulations to all the finalists: being on the shortlist of such an amazing competition is a prize and an achievement in itself. Hilary and I had a lovely evening, met up with some poet friends, heard the best of modern poetry and fiction writing, and had complimentary wine. Afterwards we went into Mamucium for coffee and cheese scones—which were cleverly masquerading as cheese and onion pakora. Also, the tram journey was uneventful, which is a bonus. All round, a perfect evening.

On Saturday I had a family day: my sons Richard and Michael visited; Amie cooked lunch, a lovely vegan moussaka with Greek salad, and White chocolate and raspberry ‘brownies’ with ice cream for dessert. Michael came to collect the Grundig radiogram Amie was giving away: he’s a devout vinyl collector. Richard came just because. It was a lovely day, a perfect evening. As I parked my car when I arrived, I found the Ugg mitten I’d thought was lost forever: it was on Amie’s neighbour’s wall, wet but wholesome. Which was especially nice, because, also thinking I’d lost it, Amie bought me some pink Ugg gloves to say ‘thank you for Cockerpoo Sitting’. I have a plethora of Ugg gloves. I am truly blessed.

I won’t leave you with one of my poems this week. Instead you can read the Manchester Prize shortlisted poems here:

and the Manchester Prize shortlisted fiction here:

I hope you will check them out; they are well worth the read.

There’s always poetry

It’s February. My least favourite month. T S Eliot wrote ‘April is the cruellest month’; I disagree. For me it’s February, coming at the end of a long winter of grey skies, grey light, grey, grey days, long, long nights. February. Its only redeeming feature is that it’s also the shortest month; although this year of course, it’s a bit longer. Twenty nine days to process. And to make it worse: B****t. It’s happened. We’re no longer part of the European Community. As if February wasn’t bad enough already without taking away that fundamental aspect of my sense of self. Truly, roll on Spring. If February’s here, can Spring be far behind?

Thankfully, I have poetry in my life and that lightens the greyest days. This week I’ve had loads of competition entries to process. The closing date was January 22nd, but various diary commitments at the end of last week meant I had to put off processing the last of the entries until early this week. We had a record number of entries this year, which is wonderful: thank you and good luck if you sent us your work. I eventually got them all processed by Tuesday. On Wednesday I wrapped a thousand poems, took them to Oldham Post Office to send them on their way to Sinéad Morrissey, our judge. So if you sent us your poems, thank you and good luck. They’re now with Sinéad and she’ll start the long process of reading and sifting until she comes up with our winners by mid-March. We’ll inform our winners; but we won’t make the decision public until our celebration event on April 4th. Be at the Whiworth on that afternoon to be one of the first to know. Keep up to date on our website,

Tuesday evening was our monthly Stanza meeting. We meet on the last Tuesday of each month, 7.30 to 9.30 at the Buffet Bar, Stalybridge Station.

Reading Simon Armitage at the Buffet Bar, Stalybridge

This session was dedicated to the poetry of our new Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage. We read and discussed his work. There were five of us at the meeting; and a plethora of Simon Armitage collections. He’s such a prolific writer; and we were impressed by the variety of his work. Poetry, prose, humour, sadness, philosophy, translation: it’s all here. We had collections from his residency at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, culminating in the publication of The Twilight Readings (Yorkshire Sculpture Park; 2008), a beautifully produced book of his writings with pictures from the park. I was given a copy of the book when I researched poetry residencies during my MA: Simon’s residency was one I concentrated on. I was able to get it signed eventually. One of his latest collections is Flit (Yorkshire Sculpture Park; 2018) in which he reimagines the Park as the European republic of Ysp.  We read from these books, and from books honouring war veterans; international events like the 9/11 terrorist attacks; close readings and translations of literary classics: Sir Gawain, Death of the King, Homer: all these published by Faber and Faber, I think. And although we didn’t read from them, we discussed the prose and poetry accounts of his troubadour walks along the Pennine Way and the south-west coastal path. He is indeed a prolific writer and a worthy Laureate. Also, I found out I actually have Armitage collections on my shelves that haven’t been signed yet: not sure how that’s happened, but I’ll be putting it to bed as soon as the opportunity present itself, hopefully later this year.

On Wednesday evening I went with Hilary Robinson to an open mic reading, Bad Language in Gulliver’s Bar in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, with irrepressible hosts, Fat Roland and Joe Daly. Ian Humphries was the headline poet—another Manchester Writing School MA Creative Writing graduate: we are a large community! Ian gave a masterful reading from his collection Zebra (Nine Arches Press; 2019). If you haven’t read it yet, get it, read it. It’s good poetry. The poem that provides the title, ‘Zebra on East 55th and 3rd’ imagines a zebra in New York City, unnoticed by folk absorbed in their mobile phones: ‘Unfazed, he grazes on popcorn and nachos/from a Keep New York City Clean litter bin…’ Hilary and I both had reading slots in the second half of the evening. I was last to read. I took three of the poems I wrote after my daughter was diagnosed with malignant melanoma four and a half years ago. If I’d known I was going to read last, I might have chosen something less intense, a bit more cheerful, but I didn’t.

open-mic reading at Bad Language, 29.01.2020

However, they proved a good end to a fantastic night celebrating established and emerging writers. As we were leaving the pub a member of the audience, outside enjoying a fag, shook my hand and thanked me. It’s the little things; and I suppose cancer affects us all in some way. I’m very pleased to tell you that Amie is recovering well; she’s still being monitored, but we expect her to be discharged from the Christie’s outpatient care later this year. I had a message from my son, Richard, while I was at Bad Language: he’d fallen while out running, damaged his shoulder, bruised his face and leg. He was in A&E with a sling on his arm. Nothing broken, thankfully, just badly bruised. Fitness eh? It’s bad for you. When I feel like getting fit, I sit down with a brew until the feeling passes. Here’s a list of upcoming Bad Language nights at Gulliver’s:

Poetry weeks are the best. Even B****t can’t cloud that. I still say ‘bollocks to B****t’: I’ve got the badge; I wore it on Friday when we left the Union. I hung my little European flag in my front window and played Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. However insular we become as a country, I’ll always see myself as a citizen of the world. So yes, bollocks to B****t; and hooray for Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’. There’s not much in the world that poetry can’t make better.

I’ll leave you with one of the poems I read at Bad Language on Wednesday: it addresses the biopsy of the mutant mole Amie had on her shin, early in the diagnostic process. I used to think melanoma was just a rogue mole; you had it removed and you were cured. I’ve learned a lot since that early naivety, and if you are concerned about a mole anywhere on your body I urge you to get it checked out, the sooner the better. Melanoma is not someone you want to mess with. Here’s the poem: it’s included in my 4Word pamphlet, to be published later this year.



 A tiny room a doctor two nurses
you me a trolley a bed gloves masks
gowns a small jar a scalpel.

At last we’ll see it cut down to size,
a raisin in a raspberry jus, tamed
evil in a plastic jar. The nurse

slaps a label on, puts it in a bag
for the lab—a foreign body,
a pernicious collection of cells

turning back on themselves,
mutating, rolling time into an avalanche.
Look, it has ambitions to rule the world,

a tiny Brain of Morbius breathing.
I can feel its little pulse, hear it
croaking malice to other samples

in other jars in white coated labs, massing.
As we sip our coffees it’s multiplying,
rallying under the stare of the microscope.

We’ll see.      We will.         We
wait.               Wait.        Just wait.

Rachel Davies