All posts by grandavies

About grandavies

In 2003 I took early retirement from my life as a primary school headteacher. After retirement I undertook an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University's Writing School under the tutelage of Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, Jeffrey Wainwright and Michael Symmons Roberts. I am currently working towards a PhD at MMU, researching the mother-daughter relationship in the poetry of Selima Hill, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop and Jackie Kay. Work toward this PhD is the main focus of my weekly blog; that and how my poetry life determinedly carries on in parallel. I am on the organising committee of the Manchester based group, Poets and Players whose mission is to bring Arts Council funded, high quality poetry and music events to audiences, free of charge, at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. I am also the co-ordinator of the Poetry Society East Manchester and Tameside Stanza that meets on the last Tuesday of every month at the Buffet Bar, Staybridge Station. We have a dedicated FaceBook page: you can link to it here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/264023166946510/ I am a published poet, my work has appeared in Obsessed With Pipework, The New Writer, Envoi, The North among other poetry magazines. In 2013 I was a winner in the Fermoy Poetry Competition and in 2014 I won the Wells Competition. I was placed third in the 2015 Manchester Cathedral Poetry Competition. My work has appeared in several anthologies, most recently in My Dear Watson (Beautiful Dragons Press 2015).

Home again, jiggety jig…

So that’s it, the holiday’s over. The family went home last Sunday, and although they’d only been with us since Friday evening, the cottage felt empty without them. It was nearly lunchtime by the time they all left. I should have known I wasn’t in the frame of mind to watch Goodnight Mr Tom on the telly in the afternoon: it’s always a weepie, but on Sunday there seemed so many more scenes to reach for a Kleenex.

I kept up my two hours a day of working before breakfast this week. I was checking my reading notes and writing them into relevant sections of the thesis. I panicked at one stage because I wanted to check out a quote I’d written from an Elizabeth Grosz book: p. 39, I’d written in my notes. I found the book, skimmed p. 39, couldn’t find the quote; read p.39 from beginning to end, couldn’t find the quote; checked the key word from the quote in the index and checked out all the references in the book and still couldn’t find the quote. It was only then I realised I’m looking in the wrong book: I had two Elizabeth Grosz books and sure enough, there it was on p. 39 of the right one! Durrh! That wasted a half hour of study time; but it was worth checking. The rest of my working time was productive enough and I was pleased with the progress I made. Yesterday, my first day at home, I printed the thesis off to read it properly. I can’t read it closely enough on screen, I miss simple typos that are easier (for me) to pick up on paper. I wanted to do a red-pen editing job, find mistakes and places for further development, see how it hangs together as a piece after all the cut-and-pasting I’ve done. Here’s a photo of my personal assistant, Rosie Parker, keeping a watchful eye on the printer from the relative security of the waste paper recycling basket!

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The rest of the week we did touristy things. We had a day in Cardigan on Monday, visiting the Castle. It’s not a big castle, just a few remaining stones and parts of castle walls and towers that haven’t been plundered for local building projects. The castle itself was finally destroyed by the Parliamentary forces during the English Civil War, so there’s not much to see, but the walk around the grounds is pleasant, and the views of Cardigan from the castle walls are lovely. An eighteenth century manor house was built in the castle grounds, which I believe became the official residence of the Lords Lieutenant of the county of Ceredigion, and which fell into disrepair on the death of the last owner. The manor house was purchased by the council late in the nineties, and is now home to an exhibition about the castle and its restoration. The most impressive exhibit is a giant cardigan, knitted in parts by local townsfolk and assembled at the castle. It tells the story of Cardigan: cable knit is a key feature, reflecting the town’s maritime history, the twists of the cable stitch representing the rope used in rigging on the ships. Cardigan Castle boasts the birthplace of the Eisteddfod, and a giant poet’s chair stands in the grounds, a perfect photo opportunity for a visiting poet:

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Tuesday was a Very Wet Day. We decided to hunker down indoors and have a reading day, so I used it as a day for even more PhD work. On Wednesday we visited the gardens of Sculptureheaven at Rhydlewis. This is a privately owned garden, no entry charge. It is very new age, mystical stuff. We had a go at water divining. The ‘sculptures’ are mostly plaster moulded artefacts, but there are some lovely wood carvings. The history of the site is interesting. It was bought by a couple from Bristol who developed it from rural desolation into the beautiful gardens and grounds you see today. We had tea and small sample cakes in the tea rooms, still no charge, but a donation requested for the mine clearance charity, The Halo Trust. It was a good way to spend a couple of hours.

On Thursday we went to Llandovery to see the feeding of the red kites. One morning last week we had a pair of red kites swooping over our holiday cottage, looking for food: I felt very privileged to see them. So when I discovered a red kite feeding centre in an internet search we just had to go. We spent a couple of hours in Llandovery, which was plenty, then drove down seriously narrow and underused lanes to the feeding station. We took our places in the hide. The ‘show’ began at 3.00 p.m. but the kites, and the local buzzards, used to this daily ritual, began circling about ten minutes before. The man entered the small field with his bucket of flesh and started to hurl it around the field. He left to get a second bucket and then the kites started to come in for the feast: about fifty kites all swooping and diving for meat. One or two stayed on the ground devouring their ‘catch’ but mostly they swooped and dived, flew off clutching gobbets of meat in their talons. There were red kites and buzzards providing a fantastic aerial display, joined by  cheeky magpies and carrion crows, in it for a free lunch. It cost us just £3.00 each, the best value we had all week. It was a tremendous experience. Red kites were down to endangered numbers, only five breeding pairs left in Wales, until the conservation project saved them. There are now about 2000 breeding pairs in Wales, we were told. How successful is that?

On the poetry front, I sent my set of poems for the three-poet Dragon Spawn pamphlet to Kim Moore this week for her ‘couple of sentences’ for the jacket blurb. Poor Kim was poorly on her recent holiday, and then run off her feet with the Kendal Poetry Festival, which I was sorry to miss because I was in Wales. It’s a great festival if you can fit it in next year. So I waited until Monday to e-post the set to her. I’m waiting to hear from her about the blurb; but I did hear from Rebecca Bilkau, the Beautiful Dragons editor who is compiling the pamphlet, Some mothers do... She wanted to e-discuss the poem ‘Boudicca’; she felt I’d over-used ‘anger’ in the poem and suggested some possible alternatives, one of which was ‘ire’. For some reason I can’t rationalise, ‘ire’ is one of those words that make me laugh out loud. It sounds too tame a word for the kind of fury it purports to describe, and I told Rebecca as much. We agreed on ‘rage’ as an alternative. Later in the day I had another email from her questioning something I’d put in my poem about the fieldfare for the next Beautiful Dragons anthology, Watch the Birdie. She said she was reluctant to suggest alternatives after suggesting ‘ire’: she wrote ‘ire, ire, pants on fire’,which made me laugh out loud again. I think we’ve reached agreement on the fieldfare too.

On Friday I drove home from the Welsh coast, in pouring rain most of the way. There was a serious road closure at Machynlleth, and I had to confuse Tim Satnav by redirecting us via Dolgellau and Bala. It took Tim a while to catch up but he got the gist eventually. And coming home via Bala, we had an opportunity for lunch at that lovely little roadside café beside the lake. It was glorious despite the rain that didn’t put off the canoeists and wind surfers we watched as we ate.

So that’s it, holiday season over for another year. The next time I take a serious holiday my PhD will be a thing of the past, for good or ill. I have eight months left to complete and submit. Head down and work, work, work…

I’m including a poem I wrote on a Greek holiday a few years back. We went to Kefalonia and on a day visit to the fishing village of Fiscado the heavens opened and rain poured down the streets. We were in a taverna where Beethoven’s piano concerto no. 3 was playing, a surprising change from the ubiquitous bouzouki music. The sight of our young tour rep cadging a black bin liner to wear as a mackintosh will stay with me for a long time; as will our aging coach companions stripping down to their underwear in an attempt to dry out: some things you just can’t unsee!  Enjoy.

 

Vivace Maestoso

 Boats rock on harbour waves
and the taverna serves horiatiki
and village wine al fresco, when
the sun gives up and hides its face
and the sea chops around yachts
trying and failing to hang on.

Then rain.  Great water bombs of drops
exploding on pavements, evaporating
as they touch the ground. Rain.
Gathering its forces, organising itself,
falling to earth like rocks, breaking. Rain.
A wall of water, vertical, solid, grouping

on the path, turning street to river.
Rain pouring from the taps of clouds,
hissing, fierce. Rain, lightning,
spontaneous applause of thunder.
And you, wearing a black bin liner.
And Beethoven taking shelter in the bar.

Rachel Davies

Woman’s work…

Hello from rural Ceredigion. I am writing this from my bed in our holiday cottage three miles inland from Aberaeron. It’s isolated, quiet, relaxing. Although having said that, a lot of cars have been slowing down as they drive by this week, looking intensely at the house: either the owner has asked the locals to make sure we’re behaving, or we are on the route of a car rally/treasure hunt. We’ve taken to raising our glasses to them as they look in; and received smiles and waves back.

I’ve kept up my promise to myself to do two hours of work every day. I’ve read all the books I brought with me; well, the relevant chapters anyway. Next week I start writing that reading into the thesis. The first morning I sat at the dining table in the conservatory; but the chairs are not comfortable, not conducive to work; so now I sit in the lounge on the sofa with my books and MacBook around me and work from there. It’s not as good as my desk, but I’m managing. And it’s close to the kitchen for mugs of tea. I’m pleased with the work I’ve done. I’ve got visitors at the cottage this weekend and they are amused that I’m reading books with titles like Sexual Subversions and a book on female fetishism. Really? If only they were as titillating as they sound! But on the whole I’ve enjoyed my work this week; and I’m ridiculously happy that I’ve stayed on target, even though staying on target is mostly what I do. My bedtime reading has been Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, which I’m enjoying more than I thought I would when I started it. I’m always suspicious of memoirs of childhood, suspicious how much is ‘memoir’ and how much fiction. But as the book progresses, I’m struck by the way she questions herself about her early life, questions the bourgeois values of her upbringing. I’m reading her adolescent angst at the moment. Fascinating woman.

Of course I’m on holiday, so it’s not all work. I’ve eaten too much, drunk too much and, this weekend, laughed a lovely amount. In the week Bill and I have been to the National Trust property at Llanerchaeron, a sixteenth century farmhouse that was extended to a manor house in the 18thcentury. It’s about two miles from here. The old farmhouse reminded me very much of my childhood: the tools in the scullery, the built in copper where the laundry was boiled. We had one of those in an outhouse where mother boiled the sheets and nappies on Mondays; and on other days dad boiled potatoes as pig-feed. The theme of the walk around the house revolves around the strong women who have been involved in its history. That was interesting, because is showed how some women struck out against the patriarchal role they were expected to fulfil as dutiful daughters, wives and mothers. In the 18thcentury one of the women gained a legal separation from ‘her scoundrel of a husband’, stayed on in the house and raised her children alone; well, no doubt with the help of several servants, but what courage to successfully seek separation at a time when women were deemed the property of their husbands. Another of the women fell in love with the owner of Llanerchaeron as a teenager but her parents wouldn’t give permission for her to marry ‘beneath her’ socially. She refused to marry any of their ‘suitable’ suitors and eventually mummy and daddy relented—after seventeen years!—and agreed to her marrying the man she loved. The dowry she brought with her enabled the happy couple to commission the architect John Nash to develop and extend the house into the manor house it is today. I loved the cupola at its centre, allowing natural light to flood in; and the house’s curved walls and doors. I picked out my study, ready for the day when I can afford to buy it from the National Trust. Here is a photo of some wonderful bracket fungus I found growing from a felled tree as we walked around the grounds:

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We took a steam train ride from Aberystwyth to Devil’s Bridge on Wednesday, along the Rheidol Valley. The journey is an hour long through spectacular views that made up somewhat for the uncomfortable seats. Thankfully, we chose not to sit in the open carriages at the front of the train because the weather wasn’t brilliant: no rain, but a fair old wind. Those carriages had wooden benches; at least ours had some minimal padding on the seats. But we still had numb bums by the time we reached Devil’s Bridge. Lunch, a brew, then a bum-numbing ride back to Aberystwyth. I’m not particularly a steam train fanatic, but Bill is and it was a good experience.

I’ve only run once this week, not as much as I intended but it was a good run up and down undulating roads, nearly 2k. I’ll try to do better this week but I can’t make promises: I’m a fair weather runner and there has been rain here. If the mornings are fair next week I’ll run again.

This weekend my daughter Amie, her partner Angus, my sons Richard and Michael came to visit. They arrived Friday evening and will be heading home today. It’s been a good weekend, lots of laughter. Yesterday we went into Aberystwyth for a look around. We took Amie’s two Cockerpoos to the black sands of the beach. The weather was wet, windy and cold but it doesn’t matter when you’re enjoying yourselves. We called into M&S for food for an evening buffet and the evening felt like Christmas: party food, wine, chat. I’ll be sorry to see them leave today, but they all have work tomorrow. And so do I of course!

Kim Moore has agreed to write the jacket blurb for my contribution to the joint Dragon Spawn pamphlet Some Mothers Do…I asked Jean Sprackland, but because she is the creative mentor for my PhD portfolio she felt it might compromise us both as  perceived favouritism; disappointing but understandable. So Kim has agreed to be my blurber. The poem this week was written on one of Kim’s carousel workshops a couple of years ago and remembers how hard my mum worked as a farm labourer’s wife. It was unpaid work, but hard for all that. The old copper at Llanrchaeron reminded me of this poem:

 And This Is Also Work

We never see him.
He’s always out doing
whatever it is men do.

She’s the one teaches us
what work is—up at dawn,
porridge simmering on flame,

hot suds—cracked hands,
iron heating on range,
broom—mangle—muscle

as power; carrying, bearing,
suckling, midnight nursing.
She even works the farm—

butter churning, potato picking,
beet singling, cleaning eggs
for market. He’s told her

she can keep lash eggs
in lieu of wages. She does
what she has to do.

Rachel Davies

 

 

 

 

Ask A Busy Person…

There’s an old saying that if you want a job doing ask a busy person. Busy people can always fit in a little bit more busy-ness. This week, I’ve been meeting myself coming round corners, I’ve been that busy. There’s something of obsessive compulsion about me, I realise that. For instance, every morning before I get up I do a puzzle on my iPad. It’s a silly puzzle, joining coloured dots together, it’s called ‘Flow’. Sometimes it’s ridiculously easy, sometimes ridiculously hard. But I’ve done it every day for almost two years. I can’t not do it because it will break the streak and I’ll be back to day one. So it’s the first thing I do every day. It wouldn’t matter if I went back to day one really, would it? But it would matter to me. I quite like this compulsion in my make-up. It illustrates my determination: I’m not a quitter. I keep going, keep on keeping on. The PhD has been a saga of keeping on keeping on. I have come close to giving up a couple of times, but it is the same drive that makes me do ‘Flow’ every morning that keeps me going with the PhD. I don’t give up.

This week I’ve worked like stink on it. On Sunday I did a very scary thing. I came to a place in the thesis where my DoS had written a note recommending moving a fairly lengthy section up, closer to the beginning: he liked that section and felt the external examiner should be able to read it early on, to get a good impression of the work from the start. So I cut and pasted a huge swathe and moved it up about twenty pages. I had the foresight to save before and after versions, just in case it didn’t work out. I was inordinately stunned by the process, it seemed a huge change. I saved the work and walked away from it. I’d worked all day anyway so it was time to stop. I decided to leave the reading of it in its new situ until my next working day, Tuesday: on Monday I was at the Black Ladd doing the books for my daughter’s restaurant.

So, on Tuesday I went for my early morning run. It was my only run this week: even busy people have to let stuff fall by the wayside sometimes, I’m not Superwoman! I was at my desk by 9.00, first job to read the rearranged thesis. It wasn’t scary at all; in fact, I’d had an idea in bed, when I was planning my day, that it would benefit from moving up even further, very close to the beginning, So, first Tuesday job, I cut and pasted it again. I actually like it where I’ve got it now. It flows well, with minimal editing. Of course, I carried on with writing to the notes from the team, so I spent the rest of Tuesday addressing those. I checked out some books on Amazon, but even second hand copies were ridiculously expensive, and no guarantee of receiving them before we came on holiday on Friday, so I decided I needed a library day on Wednesday. I did an MMU library search from home and found most of the books I needed, so Wednesday saw me catching the early tram to Manchester. I don’t normally like working in MMU library: it can be incredibly noisy and I must have silence to work, no distractions. But in the summer recess, it is a quiet little haven of study; one or two determined folk there working, but nothing distracting. I found the books I was looking for. I worked with a couple of the big ones there: read, took notes, copied pages onto my iPad to read again later. The rest I brought home with me to take on holiday: a little ‘light’ holiday reading. I called at Waterstones on my way home: I’d ordered a copy of Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter online: Angelica recommended it as a good read and the library didn’t stock it. It wasn’t one I, or indeed the young man in Waterstones, had come across before: he added it to his own reading list. That book is probably my lightest holiday reading this year.

Thursday was about getting ready to come away. I have two lovely cats who have the run of the house but I don’t let them outdoors at all. Holidays would be a real problem if it wasn’t for my friend, Nat, who loves animals and has a dog-walking/pet-sitting business. She comes in every day, twice a day, to feed them, clean their litter trays and spend time with them so they won’t be lonely. She’s a  gem; she’s also quite house-proud, an adjective no-one could randomly fling at me; so I spent Thursday cleaning up, so I could pretend we don’t always live in a state of chaos. It was early evening before I got around to actually putting anything into a suitcase. Mostly it went in unironed: I packed my travel iron, I’ll have to iron stuff as I need it. Well, something has to go, even for an obsessively busy person. And ironing still hurts the Fourth Thoracic I fractured a couple of years ago; so it’s no bad thing to do a piece or two at a time.

Friday morning I got up early to finish getting ready to come away. Bill still hadn’t packed his case: so I left him doing that while I went to do the tills at the Black Ladd to help Amie out. When I got home we packed the car and hit the road. We called at the bank in Oldham en route and were heading out of Oldham towards Ceredigion by midday. It was a four and a quarter hour drive to Cardigan Bay, and the little cottage we have rented for a fortnight. Thank heaven for satnav; we found it without a problem. We stopped about half way for a sandwich: a fat, doorstop of a cheese sandwich; so it was 5.00 p.m. before we got to the cottage. We  had a brew, unpacked and convinced our heads they weren’t still travelling. Then we travelled some more, into Aberaeron to an Indian take-away for our evening meal. A bottle of Sauvingon Blanc to wash it down and we were ready for bed by ten o’clock.

Saturday morning I was up at 6.00, doing the ‘Flow’ puzzle, obviously: day 632! Then I was at the dining table wading in on the reading pile. I’ve promised myself two hours work every day while I’m here, mostly before breakfast so I’ll still have the day to holiday. But if I need to work during the day I can: Bill is very supportive and quite happy to read his Kindle in the garden while I work.

So that’s it: another busy week; a week closer to completion. On the poetry front, it was our Poetry Society Stanza on Tuesday evening. Due to the holiday season, our numbers were down again: only four of us. We took poems on the theme ‘Tradition’ we’ve written for the Stanza poetry competition: https://poetrysociety.org.uk/membership/poetry-society-stanzas/competition/
The closing date is a week tomorrow. There were some brilliant poems on Tuesday evening, so I hope we all do submit. I’ll be putting finishing touches to mine this week and it’ll be winging its way electronically to the judge, the wonderful poet, Penelope Shuttle.

Friday would have been my mum’s 102nd birthday.  I’m going to include a poem about her this week; difficult to choose because most of my poems at the moment are about her, one way or another. This is a poem I wrote in recognition that she wasn’t just my mum, she was a woman in her own right, with her own ambitions and desires. It was hard being an intelligent woman when I was a child: you were socially programmed to be a wife and mother; other ambitions were thwarted. When she was a young woman it was a competitive market to get into any profession: she entered  nursing, but she had to give it up to look after her own mother in her last illness: the lot of the eldest daughter. And women were usually disqualified from work in many professions as soon as  they married, so returning to nursing wasn’t an option. It was a bit like Gilead really. A woman’s job was to produce the next generation, particularly male children, and rear them as responsible young people, able to take their place in the social hierarchy. Mum hated it: she had nine children altogether and only one of us had tried hard enough to be a boy. This poem is my realisation of how hard domesticity was for her.

 

The Bat And Not The Ball

what if being loveless was protection
a carapace a breastplate a firewall

not disappointment at a missing member
not a statement about lack of love at all

for years it hurt to see you couldn’t see me
like the worn out pushchair waiting in the hall

I sulked because you tried hard not to know me
while you were as strange to me as Senegal

and what if I didn’t notice all you wanted
was for once to be the bat and not the ball

and consider this    what if chopping onions
turns out more rewarding than a smile

 

Rachel Davies

2017

 

 

 

 

Root Canal Wars

This week I’ve been living Return of the Root Canal. If that sounds like a Hammer Horror, it’s only because it is. The old root canal infection that I had in January came back this week, not quite as fierce, but persistent. The dentist warned me that it would, but, being terminally optimistic, I didn’t believe him. The tooth started being sore a week last Friday but I pretended it wasn’t happening. By Tuesday I couldn’t keep up the pretence any longer and I got an emergency appointment to see my dentist. More antibiotics and a referral to the dental hospital for treatment options, none of them pleasant. I don’t have time for dental treatment right now, so I’m actually quite pleased the waiting list for an appointment is months, and the waiting list for treatment is months beyond that. I should be finished the PhD before I have to have the treatment, by which time I’ll probably be on my fourth course of antibiotics, if the infection continues to return every six months or so. I’m pleased to report that the pain was receding by Saturday, so I think the microbes are dying. Sometimes, I can actually feel the battle in the root canal, the lymphocyte infantry stamping away in their MOD issue footwear, backed up by the heavy artillery of the Amoxicillin, all pounding away at the bacteria leaving casualties on both sides. So this week, what with toothache, Amoxicillin and paracetemol surging through the anatomy, I’ve been so tired! That’s why I’m late with the piece this week: I slept for six hours last night, which is a long lie-in for me.

But I have worked: at the thesis and at poetry, so all’s good. You can’t keep an old dog down. I’m happy to report that I’m now 76.7% through the tasks my support team set me at our last meeting. That was helped by being able to get rid of my own poems, replace them with references to the poems instead, along with analyses. I’ve taken most of my poems out of the thesis as I’ve gone along: they are now a separate section of the work after the bibliography, just a line or two retained to back up the argument. The collection has a title; but it’s even worse than ‘Title Page’ so I won’t tell you what it is. I’m pants at coming up with catchy titles. ‘All My Mad Mothers’, ‘I’m Becoming My Mother’, ‘Mommy Dearest’: other people are good at ‘mother’ titles. And the best I can come up with is ‘Title Page’! I’ll probably settle for a line from one of the poems; but it has to speak for the whole collection and for the theme of the PhD. I think I’m over-thinking it.

I’ve been back to in-depth analysis of Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica andThe Huntress this week. I spent hours of my last Zakinthian holiday reading and making notes on these two collections. When I went back to them this week I found so much I had missed last September. She is a poet on so many layers. I love poetry, love it. I do. That’s all.

I saw my dentist on Tuesday after lunch, so that took up a couple of hours of my allotted work time. After the consultation, and armed with the Amoxicillin, I did what any normal person would do, I called in at the garden centre en route home for an al fresco coffee to give me chance to start the microbe wars. It was a lovely warm afternoon, not particularly sunny but very pleasant sitting amongst the flowering plants drinking coffee, eating crumpets, taking drugs. Did I not mention the crumpets? Mmmh, good comfort food. I was thinking about pickled walnuts as I sat there. My mum used to pickle her own. I have to write a poem for Tuesday’s Stanza meeting, and I was thinking about my mum pickling walnuts from Mary Loder’s tree that overhung the drive to our house. A narrative poem of sorts began to form itself, I took notes and when I got home I wrote that poem. I’m quite pleased with it. I’ve been working on it, getting it ready for its adoring public on Tuesday. But the good news is, it’s a poem that will fit into the portfolio as well. Yesterday it earned it’s place between ‘Churning’ and ‘Spoons’. So Tuesday afternoon wasn’t entirely wasted.

On Wednesday, after my early morning run, I was back at my desk chipping away at the thesis, working mostly on Pascale’s poetry. I love it when time passes and you’re so engrossed you don’t notice it passing. It was only when my tummy growled that I realised it was way past lunchtime. I stopped for lunch. By then the tooth was particularly painful with all that antibiotic warring so I indulged the root canal and pampered myself on the sofa with Inspector Morse for the rest of the day. Bill even cooked tea; it was even edible! In the evening I responded to Rebecca Bilkau’s editorial email re minor edits. My set of poems for publication is duly edited and returned to her.

Yesterday I was back at my desk, working away on the thesis. I’m determined to  meet my September deadline having addressed all the issues the team raised, and I’m getting there. Next Friday I’m driving us both to Aberaeron for a fortnight in a holiday cottage. No flights out of UK this year, I’m going somewhere I can take all the  books I need, I’ll be working for a couple of hours every morning before breakfast. I will make that end-of-September deadline, I will! Have I told you, I’m heartily sick of PhD, I wonder why, or even when, I ever thought it was a good idea. But the end is in sight, a pin-prick of light at the end of a long winter tunnel. By the spring I’ll be free; and hopefully successful. I’m going to read rubbish novels for the rest of my life; and brilliant poetry, obviously.

So a poem: it’s another ‘alternative mother’. I’ve been experimenting with women who could have been my mother but weren’t. I’ve thought about women I knew: aunts, friends’ mothers, women I’ve met in my life. I’ve extended the idea to historical heroes: Pope Joan and Boudicca for instance; and literary heroes: Alice, The Wife of Bath. I’ve thought about men as mothers, even a three-toed sloth; even the place where I grew up, viewed as a mother. This week I’m posting ‘Alice’, a poem I wrote in St Ives last April. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was one of my favourite books as a child, I read and reread it several times. I had a lovely 1930s hardbacked copy, given to me by a relative who was a headteacher in a primary school. The book was missing all its illustrations, as she’d cut them out to mount for classroom wall displays. By the way, Kim Moore’s St Ives residential for next year is being finalised right now. We just heard that Amanda Dalton is to be the second tutor alongside Kim. How good is that. Think about it quickly though because places are filling up fast: https://kimmoorepoet.wordpress.com/residential-poetry-courses/st-ives-residential-poetry-course/

Alternative Mother #16

 Alice

 She keeps disappearing.
When it’s all too much for her
she clears off and we’re left
asking the fat caterpillar,
the grinning tabby
if they’ve seen her.

She keeps disappearing.
You can be playing cards,
but you trump her red queen
and pfft!
she’s gone.

One minute she’s there, peeling spuds;
the next, peeler and spuds by the sink,
frilly pinny on the dining chair back.
Call all you want
she won’t answer.

Sometimes, even when she’s there
in front of your eyes
there’s no talking to her.
You can see she’s away with the bunnies.

Yesterday she was baking jam tarts
lifting them carefully from the oven.
Next, boiling jam and pastry
all over the kitchen floor
and she’s nowhere to be seen.

Mushrooms are the worst.
She’s a different person
when she’s chopping mushrooms.

She just keeps disappearing
like a pool of tears
or grass stains on washday
or tea stains on a dormouse
or words left too long in the sun.

Last time she disappeared
there was a strong smell of damp earth,
the acrid stench of tunnels.

 

Rachel Davies
April 2018

Seat covers, Lacan and the papal plums

Time flies. Tempus fugit. It was Sunday, now it’s Sunday again. It was August 1st, now August is more than half-way through. It was my birthday, now my birthday is a month past. The leaves are turning, the days are getting shorter. And my PhD deadline, which once seemed a comfortable age away, is on an unseemly rush over the horizon.

The good news is, I’m 61% through the edits of my thesis. Yes, I’m OCD enough to have worked it out. Last week I couldn’t get over the half-way mark because the half-way mark kept receding as I did more writing; but this week I have scaled the summit and I’m coming down the other side. I worked at it on Sunday, lots of reading; and reading always leads to more reading. Much of it was stuff I’ve read before, and although I’ve got the notes of my previous reading, I wanted to be sure of my material. It was more selective reading: relevant chapters and use of the index, whereas before I was reading cover to cover. I was reading and adding comments and supportive arguments into the thesis as I went along. Reading is an easier job when it’s targeted on a particular focus. I found a couple of academic articles online that I hadn’t read before and they proved useful too. I was elaborating on my section about women poets, their relative invisibility which reflected the general invisibility of all but a few outstanding women in the twentieth century. In order for women poets to be recognised, they had to form their own small presses and publishing houses. Sisters, doing it for themselves.

I missed my usual working day on Tuesday: I had planned to meet a friend for lunch. Janice is an old work colleague, we went on holiday to Kos together one year when both our love-lives crumbled. She’s had a bad time this year. Her partner has been seriously ill since Christmas, but at last he’s on the mend; so she felt able to take a couple of hours off and come out to lunch. We met in Uppermill, went to the Wagon, had a lovely lunch and lots of chat. It’s good to have friends you don’t see for months, then when you do meet up it’s as if you never took a break. Amie asked me on Monday if I’d be able to help cover the settle seats in the bar and restaurant sometime, so as I wasn’t doing academic stuff on Tuesday I agreed to go in on Tuesday morning before I met Janice. Amie had bought a plain grey fabric, easy to work with. We managed to get half the settles done, following a method of trial and error. The last time they were covered, the covers had been stapled into the wooden settles so we had to get all the staples out to save diners ripping their legs to shreds. It took a couple of hours, and we finished in time for customers arriving at midday. I went back on Friday to cover the seats in the bar: they were easier than the restaurant ones, less staples to remove, and we were done in an hour. They look good. She wants some new cushion covers now to set them off. How work always leads on to work.

Wednesday I went for a run at 7.00 a.m. It was a better day for weather than Monday. I altered my route a bit, dropped down from the Donkey Track to the road, making it a circular: about 2.5km again, still a slow pace, but pleased that I’d done it. The rest of Wednesday was taken up with PhD: reading, writing, redrafting paragraphs and sections, polishing the work. I read it all through from the beginning to make sure it flows well. There were some glaring errors in syntax, having added to and redrafted the text, but when I’d edited them out I was quite pleased with it. Saturday I had another full day on it. I was re-reading Lacan’s theory of the mirror phase in child psychology. Lacan is notoriously difficult to understand, slippery as an eel. I can’t grasp his words and make them make sense at all. Lacan represents acadamese at its most frightening: I’m a literal thinker and Lacan comes to meaning via the side-streets. But I worked away at it and made my own kind of sense of it, backed up by writers who write about Lacan’s theories to help and support baffled folk like me. I wrote all that up into the thesis as well, so that’s what took me well over the 60% line. I genuinely don’t know if I’ve made sense of Lacan or not, the kind of sense he intended; but I’ve tried to make it all make sense in my own context. I’m moving on; I’ll read it all through later today, when I’ve worked on the next section.

Friday I took my last run of the week. I ran 2.8km in a very satisfying pace: I achieved three personal bests: for the 400m, the mile and half mile; and a second best ever for the 1km; so that was a good run, I felt as if I was getting back to where I left off; I’m getting my fitness back. On Friday evening I met my friend Joan. We went for a meal in Café Istanbul in Prestwich, had a lovely meal: lentil soup followed by Imam Bayildi, a vegetarian dish of stuffed aubergines, all with lovely  Turkish flat-bread. Joan is recently back from Chicago where she’s been visiting her son’s family; so there were lots of photos and videos to be looked at: her beautiful grand-daughter, who is just two years old. Joan gave me, among other things, a collection of Robert Frost poems for my birthday. One of my favourite poets, I’ll enjoy reading that. It’s on my reading list for the Aberaeron holiday in a couple of weeks.

You might have noticed that ‘poetry’ is missing from this blog: large in its absence. I did have contact with Rebecca Bilkau in the week, the editor of the shared pamphlet that’s coming out in the autumn. We have a book cover now, and there will be some illustrations inside, including one of a daughter peeking at the papal plums. It’s all very exciting. The official launch will be at the Portico Library in Manchester sometime towards the end of October; and we already have a reading booked in for the Square Chapel in Halifax in January. All invites gratefully received. I’ve been asked to ask someone to write a couple of sentences in praise of my poetry for the book cover. I’ve asked Jean Sprackland. I haven’t heard back yet, Jean’s on holiday; but how good would that be? Hilary has asked Helen Mort, who has agreed. This book is about to happen!

So, I’m including the ‘papal plums’ as my poem this week, so you know what that refers to in the last paragraph. It’s in one of my ‘alternative mother’ poems, ‘Pope Joan’. She was a feisty mediaeval woman who disguised herself as a man in order to be who she wanted to be: a scholar. She was so successful, she was eventually elected Pope, and the Church didn’t know she was a woman until she gave birth in the street, on a Papal procession. I know, outrageous and unbelievable. She was dismissed as myth and fiction by the Church. But they designed a chair with a hole in so they could feel ‘the papal plums’ to make sure they had a man in post. Why would they do that if Pope Joan hadn’t been for real. I think she was real, anyway. Here’s my poem:

Alternative Mother #1

Pope Joan

Duos habet et bene pendentes

I learned the hard way the drawback
of lacking a pair, not to have them
dangling nicely.

After you dropped me on the street
between Vatican and Lateran Palace
they tied you to your horse’s tail
and dragged the life out of you.

They said you betrayed the Father
of Fathers. They said you delivered
a boy; but they thought you were a man,
so what did they know?

They erased you from Church history,
dismissed you as fiction and myth.
What need, then, to sit their new Pope
on the dung chair with the holey seat,
feel reassurance in the Papal plums.

Rachel Davies
2018

 

 

Cold turkey and Stilton burgers

Do you ever think a plan is a bad idea and you should give it up and try something else? Going to MMU library last weekend was a bit like that. I planned to go on Saturday, but thankfully I checked the opening times for the summer, and on Saturdays the library is closed; but it is open on Sundays from 11.00-17.00. So I settled for Sunday. I got to the tram stop to find that there was (another) problem at Cornbrook and the trams were only going as far as Exchange Square; well, that’s OK, it’s a bit further to walk, but I can walk from there. The first tram to arrive was only going to Monsall; and anyway, it wasn’t in service. I decided that if the second tram was also going to Monsall I’d get in my car and go home again, leave the library for another day. But the tram arrived and it was going to Exchange Square. So I got on. At Newton Heath the driver announced he had been ordered to terminate at Monsall, but there was another tram behind, we could all get on that. So, we all disembarked at Newton Heath, hoping to get a seat on the next tram. Of course, we didn’t: we were packed in like sardines in tomato sauce, it was hot, sticky, uncomfortable and four stops to endure. I got to Exchange Square wondering why I’d bothered. I thought of getting straight on the next tram home; but I needed to go to the library and I’d already wasted an hour getting to Manchester. I did what any sensible person would do: I went to Salvi’s for coffee and cake while I decided. I decided to walk to the library.

It was past midday when I got there. The job I wanted to do was a quantitative analysis of the number and percentage of women represented in anthologies of poetry through the centuries.  I know, a plum job but someone has to do it. I chose six anthologies—all edited by men—from the Renaissance to the twentieth century. Guess what? There are more male than female poets in all of them—I bet you hadn’t guessed that, had you? An inequality of about ten to one. In one of the anthologies there were no women poets at all. In one, there were as many men called Thomas as there were women! That did surprise me, and that sentence is in the thesis. I ate my butty at my desk and worked until about 3.30, then walked back to Exchange Square only to find out that trams were back to normal and I could have caught it at St Peter’s Square. Ho, hum. Some days are just sent to try us. At least I got the job done.

On Wednesday I continued the analysis with three general anthologies I have on my bookshelves at home, and the results were much the same; even the one anthology I came across that’s edited by a woman; even the Bloodaxe one for goodness sake: Bloodaxe, who boast on their website about their commitment ‘to inclusion and diversity in British poetry’. Shocking! I wrote up my findings into the thesis.

I had a lovely day on Tuesday: poetry, friends and cider. What’s not to like. I took the bus to the tram stop–so I didn’t have to drink and drive, kids. I nearly didn’t catch it though: a car was parked just before the bus-stop, and despite me waving my arms like a football fan, the bus went straight past: I had to run 50 yards to catch it. The driver apologised: he didn’t see me for the car. Come on! I’m not that small! Anyway, I met Hilary at Mumps tram stop and we went to Piccadilly to catch the train to Crewe—oh, Mr Porter! We had time for a coffee in Carluccio’s at Piccadilly and we inveigled a  plate of biscotti out of the lovely waiter. We were in Crewe by about midday. We went to the Lifestyle Centre, where our poetry friend Helen Kay had an exhibition of ‘Poetry, Dyslexia and Imagination’. It is a brilliant display: poems by men and women who have struggled with dyslexia all their lives, some I have known on the MA course and didn’t suspect for a moment they were dyslexic. There was art work to support the poems. There was history on display: did you know that Flaubert (Mme Bovary) was dyslexic? I didn’t even know dyslexia was recognised that long ago: apparently, it has been recognised as a condition for two hundred years. And how far we haven’t progressed in that time. Thank you, Helen, it was a wonderful display. It is a project for Helen’s MA in Creative Writing at MMU; in my opinion it has ‘distinction’ written all over it. We watched poetry videos on a wonderful little Bluetooth gizmo, where you just put the dvd-cover looking thing on a special board and it reads, loads and plays on screen. How have I lived my life without this gadget?

Helen recommended The Big Apple for our lunch so we walked into the town centre. We were apprehensive at first: The Big Apple looked like a transport café, but the options didn’t seem huge: we couldn’t find anywhere else that served food, so we went in. We had burger and chips: my burger involved Stilton cheese, which is a favourite. We ate while we listened to songs from my youth: ‘It’s my party’; ‘Will you still love me tomorrow’; ‘Lipstick on your collar’. We sang along like the old buggers we are. It was wonderful. We went into the Cheese Hall for a pint of cider to celebrate Hilary’s graduation a couple of weeks ago. We left the pub at about 5.45, went off in search of a bus to get us back to the station; we’d walked to the station without finding a bus. I saw on FaceBook a couple of days later that Crewe is planning a make-over in line with Liverpool’s prior to its being granted European City of Culture. I don’t know Crewe well, but on Tuesday’s showing, a make-over would be good. The town centre is quite depressed. But the Lifestyle Centre is impressive; and we had a lovely day overall.

Saturday I was at my desk by 8.00 working on the thesis again. It’s a Sisyphean task, rolling that thesis uphill to watch it roll down again; at least that’s how it feels. I just start thinking I’ve done loads and it’ll get easier, but then I realise I’ve only worked on a couple of pages even though it’s taken all morning to do it. It keeps being ‘half way through’; but half-way moves as I do more work. I wonder if I’ll ever reach the end sometimes. But I’ll be there later today, working away at it, showing it who’s boss. Trouble is, it already knows who’s boss—and it ain’t me!

Oh, and running. I have been running again this week even though I am still  doing Prednisolone cold turkey and I’m dosed up on paracetemol and ibuprofen. I’ve only managed about 2k so far, but in very satisfying times; I’ve made a good start back.

So; a poem.

Listening to all the songs from the fifties and sixties in The Big Apple café on Tuesday reminded me of a poem I wrote the first time I went to Zakinthos for a holiday. We were on the midnight aeroplane, along with thousands (seemed like) of Club 18-30 revellers. They were clearly post-A levels and out for a good time. The girls had tee shirts with the legend ‘I   Zante’: when they turned round: ‘In Zante without panties’. No, really. It was too good a tee shirt not to put in a poem. It reminded me how times have changed: these young folk going to Zante to celebrate being over school. We piled into boyfriends’ cars and sped along the new M1 to Watford Gap services for a frothy coffee—how sophisticated were we—and listened to ‘It’s my party’ on the juke box. Ah, carefree days. It set me to planning another poetry sequence involving things we got up to that our mothers knew nothing about and would have been horrified if they had. Anyway, here’s the poem. It was one of the poems on a BBC Radio 4 programme in 2012: ‘Ruth Padel’s Poetry Workshop’, featuring writing groups around the country. The programme visited our Stanza at Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar. Poetry, eh? Always something going on!

 

Here’s the poem:

 

I (Heart) Watford Gap

 their tee-shirts say I (heart)Zante
and on the back, In Zante without panties

and I think of that trip after our results,
being driven at speed in boyfriends’ cars

along the new M1 to Watford Gap services
for frothy coffee, feeding the jukebox,

Lesley Gore singing ‘It’s My Party’,
the boys calling us their birds and us

preening our feathers and chirping to be fed
how we used to before we read de Beauvoir

and Greer, before we burned our bras.
And I smile to think of the legend

I (heart) Watford Gap on a sixties tee shirt
but that was how we severed the school tie,
cut the umbilical cord, nearly grew up.

 

Rachel Davies
(August 2018 version)

Poetry, PhD and Audrey Hepburn

Some weeks just shine. This has been one of those.

I discovered poetry after I retired. Of course, that’s a disingenuous statement: I’d always known about ‘poetry’. I studied the Romantics at school; I studied Shakespeare, Eliot, Larkin. I studied R.S.Thomas and Dylan Thomas. Poetry was a male environment, it seemed. Of course, It wasn’t: but the grammar school syllabus, and my A level evening class syllabus, didn’t seem to include women poets; or they played a minor role if it did. I don’t remember any; except possibly Plath. When I retired, I discovered poetry, modern poetry, a world of poetry I didn’t know existed; readings, pamphlets, books, workshops, Poetry Society Stanzas. Poetry. My life would be poorer without it. This week has been full of it. So I’ll start with poetry.

On Monday evening, I went with Hilary to the Square Chapel in Halifax for a reading organised by Keith Hutson. I can’t see Keith without thinking of Wilson Pickett singing ‘In the midnight hour’; but that’s another story from another day. On Monday Keith had brought three wonderful poets together for an evening of readings by ‘Cape Crusaders’ as he called them. Mark Pajak recently completed an MA from MMU; his Smith Doorstop pamphlet, Spitting Distance, was as a Laureate’s Choice pamphlet in 2017; he has a full collection coming out with Cape in the near future. Mark’s poetry shows how the most obscure event, like a day working at a chicken farm, for instance, is food for a poem. Mark was followed by Michael Symmons Roberts, one of my favourite modern poets. He is also published by Cape, more collections, more awards, than I can list here. He read mostly from Mancunia, a book length sequence of poems about his home town, Manchester, reimagined. Wonderful. After a break, Andrew Macmillan read. I loved Andrew’s first collection, Physical; possibly one of the most sensual collections I own. His new collection, Playtime (Cape, obviously), was officially released on 1stAugust; so on Monday we were at the unofficial preview launch. It’s wonderful. I bought a copy, which Andrew signed. I wasn’t being favouritist: I have the other poets’ work on my bookshelves already. All three poets read beautifully, fine examples of modern poetry; of accessibility coupled with Wow! I met lots of poetry friends there too, always a bonus.

Tuesday it was our Stanza at Stalybridge Buffet Bar. Our numbers have been dwindling a bit lately, so it was good to have seven poets in attendance—one very welcome new member—with one unavoidable apology. We had eight wonderful poems to workshop; all very different in style: love poems, nature poems, poems about family, political poems. It was a good night, an evening of insightful criticism and feedback. I enjoyed it so much. Poetry is the best antidote to sleep ever: on Monday and Tuesday I was so buzzed up on poetry I couldn’t even think of sleep. So I read. Poetry!

Lastly, on the poetry front, two poet friends sent me drafts of their latest Beautiful Dragons poems. The next anthology is entitled Watch the Birdie. It’s includes about eighty birds as subjects for poems by about eighty poets, one bird each. The poems I was sent for reading and feedback were about the red-backed shrike and the red-necked grebe, both lovely birds, both terrific poems. My own bird is the fieldfare, a winter visitor. Having read the poems of friends, I thought I’d better get my skates on and write my own. I’d done the research and knew how I wanted to make my poem; it’s just committing to the writing. The deadline is the end of August, I think, but I wrote my poem ‘Feldifire’ yesterday and sent the first draft off to the two friends for feedback. Feedback was good, with one useful idea for edits. I edited it in bed last night, so I think it’s good to go. I won’t send it till nearer the deadline, though. I’ll keep reading it to make sure I’m happy with it. How many times have I sent poems out, only to realise it would be a better poem if…?

I met a fellow PhD poet/friend on Monday and we were comparing notes. It was good to hear that she has similar experiences of sometimes feeling bamboozled by the process . I told her about the time I’d sent in a twenty-page document and my DoS had said ‘I really liked that bit on page 8’; which left me thinking the other nineteen pages weren’t worth the paper. Of course, it didn’t mean that at all; but that’s the default position, that feeling of worthlessness, that thing about only taking the negative feedback from a meeting. When I got home and read the feedback on the document itself, there was more positive feedback than I’d heard in the meeting. She’s had similar meetings; and then that wonderful surprise when you have the annual review and the report from DoS is all positive and you’re on target for completing within deadline and that you’ll be OK. (I still find that last bit hard to believe; as if by believing it I’ll jinx it, so I still think in terms of might…)  Anyway, the PhD has had a fair old slice of me this week too. I’ve been chipping away at the thesis, making it the best it can be, working within my support team’s advice. I’ve done loads of fresh reading, one piece of reading leading to others via footnotes and endnotes. It’s like fighting your way along a brambled path, all this reading; then sometimes you find the fattest, juiciest blackberry and it’s all so worth it.

Finally, the ‘life’ bit. I haven’t been running this week. The stiffness in my arms, signifying, I thought, the return of Polymyalgia Rheumatica, has been particularly bad in the mornings, which is a feature of PMR–it tends to improve through the day. On Wednesday I had an appointment with my GP to get the results of the Dexa bone density scan I had a few weeks back. The good news is, the Dexa was fine, keep doing what I’m  doing. He couldn’t tell me about the synacthen blood test though, as he hadn’t ordered it and wasn’t sure how to interpret the result. He advised contacting rheumatology again.  He ordered blood tests to check for a PMR flare re the stiff arms and hands: the earliest available date was 14thAugust. On Thursday morning I rang rheumatology to check if the synacthen test results were available. I spoke to a rheumatology nurse, who called me in later in the day for the blood tests I had booked with the GP surgery, so that was good. She rang me back on Friday morning with the results. All the blood tests, including the synacthen test, were in the normal range; so that was good as well, but it didn’t explain the continuing stiffness. She advised upping the paracetemol and ibuprofen: it could be a physical reaction to coming off the steroids after 4 and a half years, she thought. She’s arranging another consultation with the rheumatologist to make sure everything’s OK. So I’ve upped painkillers to two or three doses a day, and it seems to be improving. Fingers crossed. I don’t have time for being ill, it’s not on the timetable. Getting old is fine: except when it’s not.

So that’s it, another very full week; lots of PhD, poetry and life. Never a dull moment and lots accomplished. And a new poem to boot. What’s not to like?

I sent an ‘alternative mother’ poem to Stanza for feedback this week. I didn’t submit it as an alternative mother, though, because we submit the poems anonymously to allow for more authentic feedback; labelling it ‘alternative mother’ would have been a dead giveaway as one of my poems. I wrote it in a Helen Mort workshop in St Ives in April, but I’ve never been quite sure about whether it works. I sent it to Stanza to see if it deserves its place in the portfolio. I was surprised that the poets at Stanza liked it overall. It’s a sonnet, fourteen lines with a turn and everything; no rhyme scheme though. It’s about one of my silver screen heroes, Audrey Hepburn. My favourite line in a film comes in ‘Charade’, when Cary Grant is trying to get to know her in the café scene and she says, ‘Do I know you? Because I have so many friends, I can’t possibly know anyone else until someone dies.’ Brilliant.

Here’s the poem:

Alternative Mother #17
Audrey Hepburn

The elfin face, the well delivered line,
the designer clothes—these things were
the screen’s. You made Quant and Chanel
extraordinary by your childlike frame. You ate.
In films you’d be seen devouring chocolates,
cakes, knowing perhaps that some things
do indeed taste better than thin.
You used cosmetics like an artist, so
your own face was what I grew up with—
you never turned to the nip and tuck
but let your face tell the story
of things you’d seen. When I look in the glass
is it me who’s fairest of them all, Audrey,
or a version of me that Maybelline promotes?

Rachel Davies
April 2018

Soul songs and sea shanties

On Monday evening Hilary and I went to the inaugural ‘People’s Poetry Lecture’, Carol Ann Duffy’s latest brilliant project from MMU. Gillian Clarke was talking about Dylan Thomas, his life and work. Gillian, the former Welsh laureate, is a life-time lover of Thomas’s work. She bought her first collection of his poetry when she was just fifteen after her father encouraged her to listen to ‘Under Milk Wood’ on the radio as a girl. She read from his work: ‘Do Not Go Gentle’, obviously, ‘the best villanelle in the world ever’: she showed how this poem followed the traditional Welsh form in its use of sound; and she read from ‘Fern Hill’:

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea

drawing our attention to his extraordinary use of visual imagery and musicality. She read his poetry beautifully, much better than he reads it himself: I’m not a lover of his ‘poet’s voice’, but she read it like the lover she is. I visited Thomas’s home in Laugharne a couple of years ago, where I learned that the vast majority of his poetry he drafted before he was twenty: how extraordinary is that? This was the first in a series of four planned lectures: in the autumn, Andrew MacMillan on Thom Gunn; Michael Symmons Roberts on Auden; and Helen Mort—sorry I didn’t catch who will be the subject of her lecture and I haven’t seen any publicity for it yet. Gillian Clarke set the bar high; I can’t wait to see how these other wonderful poets measure up. I’ll copy the link to other lectures when they are available. If you can make any of them, I recommend them.

I worked some more on the thesis this week too: and managed to save the work I put in! I ‘Kindled’ a new purchase as well, a book I came across in footnotes to my research. The Madwoman in the Attic After Thirty Years ed Annette Federico with a foreword by Sandra M Gilbert (Colombia; University of Missouri Press 2009).It’s a—mostly—celebratory book of essays by academics, who write how Gilbert and Gubar’s iconic book of feminist lit-crit changed the way they approached their work in academe. Most of them took the book as a launch pad for developing their own ideas, moving beyond G&G’s ground-breaking work into new insights of their own. I love the original; I’m loving this one too. I’ve spent several happy hours in the garden reading it this week.

On Wednesday my son Richard came to visit. We went with Amie to the Lowry theatre to see ‘Dusty’, a musical bio-drama about Dusty Springfield’s life and work. We had good seats with a perfect view of the stage: until a woman with a huge Dusty Springfield hairstyle sat in the seats in front of us, completely obliterating the stage. Thankfully, the seats next to us were empty so we shunted along a few seats. I learned a lot I hadn’t known about the singer. For instance, I didn’t know she’d been expelled from apartheid South Africa for refusing to sing to segregated audiences. And I hadn’t realised she died from breast cancer, I’d always assumed she’d taken her own life after a downward spiral into alcohol and drugs. The drink and drugs were real, the suicide wasn’t. She had a negative relationship with her own mother too, which was interesting from a research point of view. Her mother was clearly biased towards brother Tom and disparaged Dusty for splitting with him and going solo. It was a good show, a romp through much of my own youth. We went to a vegan/vegetarian restaurant in Manchester after the performance. If you like vegetarian/vegan food I completely recommend 1847: https://www.by1847.com/manchester/?doing_wp_cron=1532844045.1078228950500488281250

On Thursday morning we all met at Amie’s for a vegan breakfast before Richard went home. It’s always good to spend time with family; it’s just a shame Mike couldn’t have been with us as well.

I’ve not been running since Monday this week. On Monday I only ran 1.8km. I wasn’t feeling centi per centi so I gave up and walked the remaining distance to my car. I’ve been having a flare up of the PMR, so feeling very stiff in my arms in the mornings. Added to that I’ve been feeling hung-over—without the drink; just not feeling my usual sprightly, full-on self. I think the ugly sister, PMR, is at the root of it all. I still haven’t had the results of the synacthen blood test I had at the beginning of July, so on Wednesday I rang my rheumatology nurse to ask if they were available. They have been passed to my rheumatologist for analysis and he will get back to me. I still haven’t heard, so I still don’t know if my adrenal glands are pulling a fast one; which I hope is a good thing: no news is good news? But it would be reassuring to know for sure. I’m fed up with feeling under par; perhaps it’s the heat? Ho hum.

That’s it then, my week in brief. I’m posting a poem this week that is a mystery to me. I wrote it at a Poetry Business workshop in Sheffield with Ann and Peter Sansom. I heard this week that Ann and Peter have been given honorary doctorates for their work in poetry: very well earned in my opinion. This poem was from prompts: a word for a line. I remember ‘silver’ being the word for the first line, for instance. I don’t remember which are the prompt words in the other lines; probably I’ve redrafted out the original prompt words anyway. It became a poem about my mother; sort of. I’m not sure what it’s about, it’s deeply unconscious stuff, but I like it. I hope you do too.

 

Pirate Copies

My hair wasn’t always silver—it was black
as a mermaid’s purse, waved like an ocean.

I wanted him to sing me sea shanties like a pirate,
feed me oysters, wanted to swim forever in the lagoon
of his arms; in a past life we hummed Fingal’s Cave

into the ears of Mendelsohn, never dreaming the sea
would bring its silver scales to hone our claws.

 

Rachel Davies
July 2018

 

 

Keep shining, brief candle!

It was my birthday week. I had a great week. It involved some work, some play and a lot of celebrating. I love my birthday: the celebrations always last for weeks/months: this one will be no different.

Let me start with the serious stuff, the work. That’s what this blog is supposed to be about after all: PhD, poetry and life. I spent time on Sunday copying and pasting the poems into the thesis. The title page has a working title: ‘Title Page’. I find it hard to give a title to a poem; giving a title to a whole collection is particularly challenging. It’ll come to me one day when I’m reading the poems, or when I’m asleep, or when I’m desperate because I’ve got to submit tomorrow. Suggestions welcome. It’s good to see the poems in some kind of order, and good to have temporary page numbers to reference them in the critical part of the thesis. I’ve referenced them in red ink, because obviously the page numbers will change as the writing grows. I need to be able to find them all as easily as possible to edit when the time comes. I stopped work at lunchtime so I could watch the Wimbledon men’s final: Djokovic v Anderson. It wasn’t one of the greats, actually. Djokovic entirely overwhelmed Anderson, who didn’t really start playing until the third and final set: Djokovic didn’t allow him to play. Sunday evening was taken up with the World Cup Final: a relatively easy win for France, although Croatia at least looked as if they were trying.

Monday was my birthday. A year older but not too much wiser, I hope. I’ve changed my day for working at the Black Ladd, doing the books, so that’s where I spent my birthday. In the evening we walked back there for a birthday meal. Halfway there—it’s about a mile from our house—the heavens opened. Going back was as wet as going onward, so we kept going. By the time we got there we were soaking: I had to wring my skirt out before I could go indoors. But it wasn’t cold, and the rain was welcome. Mostly. The three-week fire on Saddleworth Moor was extinguished by it; but the fire on Winter Hill continues to burn, I believe. Anyway, we had a large glass of wine, and sat at the table in the window from where you can see across Manchester and Cheshire to the Welsh Hills.  It’s spectacular. The meal was lovely too—a Portobello mushroom and beetroot burger for me, new to the menu–and Amie, bless her cotton socks, gave us a lift home, so no more dousing. Happy birthday to me.

Tuesday I was thoroughly dispirited. I came to my desk expecting to work on the next development of the thesis, only to find the work I did on Saturday around Biblical good and bad mothers hadn’t saved. Aaaargh! I’m sure I’m not the only person this has happened to, but it felt huge, a huge disappointment. We’ve had a lot of very short sharp power cuts recently, you hardly notice them happening, but the clocks start flashing so you know there’s been one. I expect the work I did was the victim of a power cut, though I don’t know how. But the wifi hub would have needed to reboot, so the cloud would have been temporarily disabled. Oh, I’m looking for excuses, because I don’t use the MacBook from the mains power source. I don’t know what happened, but suffice to say I closed the document and it didn’t save the work I did. Memo to self: keep pressing the ‘save’ icon while working. Frustrating doesn’t come close, because I was quite pleased with what I lost.  It was only a paragraph, but I didn’t relish starting again. I couldn’t even remember exactly what I wrote; just that I’d been pleased with it and a general idea that it contained Mary and Eve. So I did an internet search into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ women in the bible—written predominantly by men, remember, so a bit biased—and came across a 1913 silent movie on YouTube about Judith and Holofernes. He was an invading army commander, come to besiege and defeat Judith’s community. The elders in the community couldn’t come up with any plausible plan to break the siege and save the people; but Judith could. She made herself alluring and went out to meet Holofernes, who fell in love with her. She took him to her bed and in his happy post-coital slumbers she lopped his head, smuggled it back into her community and spiked it on the city walls. The invading army were so shocked and dismayed to see their leader leering at them in death from the city walls, they just packed up and went home. Judith saves the day! The over-acting of the silent era was there in spades: all those hand gestures and facial expressions. It was wonderful; and I was pretending it was research. I couldn’t decide after if Judith was a ‘good’ woman or a ‘bad’ one. Perhaps it’s good to do bad things in the best interests of your (patriarchal) community; but seducing your enemy and then murdering him does seem a tad naughty.

Wednesday I re-wrote the lost paragraph. I don’t know if it’s as good as the original—lost—one, but Judith gets a mention, and it is academically referenced so that’s as good as it gets, I guess. At the end, though, I felt as if I’d been on a treadmill, working like stink and getting nowhere forward. Sometimes work is just a slog. After the paragraph was replaced—and saved—I spent a happy hour researching the fieldfare, a bird of the thrush family. I have an upcoming deadline for a poem inspired by said bird for the next Beautiful Dragons anthology Watch the Birdie with about eighty birds represented by about eighty poets. The fieldfare used to be known as the fellfer in the Fens and I researched dialect names for it. I didn’t find ‘fellfer’, but I found lots of similar dialect names. I’m thinking a poem around these different names for the same bird.

On Saturday I was back at my desk working on the thesis. I did lots of research into the way a woman in mid-twentieth century could lose her self in marriage and motherhood: the way she was usually called ‘Mum’ or ‘such-a-body’s wife’ and often had to put her other desires on hold for housewifery and maternity. I found out that the Anglican Church only recommended dropping ‘obey’ from a bride’s marriage vows under Rowan Williams’ Archbishopric early in the twenty-first century. Isn’t that astounding? And I found an article on time.com about Meghan Markle NOT vowing to obey Prince Harry. In May 2018. I should hope not too: how archaic an idea is that; and still a thing, apparently. So, the thesis moves on apace.

Other stuff this week: I’ve kept up the running, increasing time and distance, three times a week. I’m quite proud of myself that I can now run more than 3k—I know the app was Couch to 5k, and I will get there; just need a bit more practice. The final aim of the app was actually to run for 30 mins and I’m now running for 35. I’m not bothered too much about distance, just about improving slowly. Three months ago I could barely run at all, so any progress from zero is good work as far as I’m concerned.

On Friday Bill and I went to York for the day. We caught the train from Stalybridge. The train was delayed by about seven minutes, which could have put the connection at Huddersfield at risk, except that train was also delayed, so no problem. The railway is run on delayed trains at the moment: starting times seem to be a rough guesstimate. We had a butty in the sunshine in York then went to the pop-up Rose Theatre that’s in the Castle Car Park for the summer. We went to the afternoon performance of Richard III. The theatre looks like a good replica of an Elizabethan theatre, if you ignore the metal scaffolding in place of the wooden structure of the real thing. The seats, although plastic covered and minimally padded, are authentically uncomfortable though. The play was good, a bit am-dram and over-acted but we enjoyed it. I’m so glad we went, because it’s a bit of history—sort of—a pop-up theatre in York. They are showing performances of Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth as well as Richard III, so why not catch one of them. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Well, that’s it, a lovely week, a lot done and a year older. I’m including a poem that I might well have posted last year, about turning seventy. But I’m posting it again: how time flies. It seems only last week I was celebrating my seventieth and here we are a year on. Tattoos and glittery boots still intact, and I’m still here, still learning, still living life to the full, still loving it.

Significant

Seventy has arrived.
It knocked on the door, then barged in
uninvited, as if it had been expected.

Seventy has arrived
and taken over the lounge
with its greetings cards, its balloons and bunting,
its ‘seventy years young’ badges,
its ‘you don’t look a day over…’
its fire hazard of a birthday cake.

Seventy has arrived
and you, hot on its heels,
kicking its arse with those Doc Marten’s
salted and peppered with glitter
that settles on the ground like moon dust
wherever they walk.

Seventy has arrived
and the bee tattoo is its music.
Play it again.

Rachel Davies
2017

a little Noble Dissent

A few months ago, a poem of mine, ‘Candidate’, was included in the Beautiful Dragons Noble Dissent anthology. The anthology was a reaction to right wing bias in international politics: the false rhetoric attached to the referendum, the rise of the Right in Europe, the election of Trump to the most powerful political position in the world. My poem was inspired by the ‘do and say anything to win an election’ mentality, and is a pastiche of Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘Girl’, which you can check out here: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1978/06/26/girl
‘Candidate’ is a similar prose-poem sort of rant.

On Thursday Donald Trump arrived in the UK on an official tour, making it clear in his interview with The Sun that he is not going to be a post-Brexit soft touch for a trade deal, which seems to have been the main reason for inviting him in the first place. A Trump Baby blimp and hundreds of thousands of protestors around the country let him know exactly how welcome he is here. I was one of them. A tee shirt at the Manchester rally had the legend  “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” (Albert Einstein). Einstein knew what he was talking about, having lived through the Nazi era. Britain has a history of appeasing fascism in the thirties, and look where that got us. So on Friday, Hilary and I went to the rally in Albert Square in Manchester.

IMG_1391
Hilary Robinson and I heading for the rally in Manchester’s Albert Square 

My daughter bought us the silly outfits, and they caused a lot of amusement in the crowd; but the rally had a serious message: that Trump’s racist, mysoginist, alt-right policies are not welcome here; that it isn’t OK to cage children separated from their asylum-seeking parents; that white is definitely not supreme. Dissent is a small act, but a noble one; and hundreds of thousands of voices add up to a very big voice. I’m glad we went: It was worth the soaking we got from a very sharp shower just as the rally closed.

There, that’s my rant done. Apart from protesting Trump, it has been a very productive week in other ways. I have continued to work on the PhD thesis, researching the cult of the mother in Western patriarchies: lots of reading about fairy tales, bible stories and evidence in history. I wrote up my response in the week, finishing it on Saturday morning. I’m quite pleased with it, it fits well into the writing I’d already done. I moved on to the next task; but there is only so much a brain can take, so having decided where I need to go next, I left it for next week and worked instead on the creative aspect. I finished revisiting the poems, printed off the latest version and thought about the order I want them to be in the finished collection. I spent an hour in the conservatory—the only place the cats can be excluded from—setting them out in themes across the floor. I’ve started with ‘motherhood in general’; moved on to poems inspired by my own mother, arranged in themes. So there are ‘thingy  poems’ as Jean Sprackland calls them: poems inspired by objects that bring my mother to mind; poems about roles and relationships; poems about grandmothers, real or imagined. I’ve concluded the collection with the two sequences I’ve been working on: my alternative mother poems and the poems depicting the death of my brother and how that affected my relationship with my mother. It was good to see the poems spread out and to affect an order, because they were written fairly randomly. Today I will work on copy/pasting them into the thesis in order, a full collection at the end of the critical work. I look forward to that; to seeing the whole thing in first draft. I feel as if the end is in sight now the two aspects are coming together; and, after all, ten months is a very short time in the life of a PhD.

I graduated this week. Oh, no! Not my PhD; my running! I completed the ‘Couch to 5K’ challenge with a fastest ever pace: I got PBs for the 1K and the 1mile as well; and a cup: I got a cup from the app to celebrate completion. I haven’t run 5K yet; but I have run 3K so that’ll do for starters. 3K is almost 2miles in old currency. Can you imagine? I ran for nearly two miles! I’ll keep up the running, even though the challenge is complete. I’ve got to get to 5K at least. I’ll keep you posted on progress.

A little light relief mid-week: Bill and I went to the Palace Theatre in Manchester to see ‘Mamma Mia’. It was a good, energetic romp through the Abba songs, plenty of eighties memories—unfortunately, not all of them good! Abba became a bit samey toward the end of their career; but I still think ‘Waterloo’ is the best Eurovision winner ever.

Last, but by no means least, it is my birthday tomorrow. I’ve changed my Facebook profile pic to a photograph of me when I was five to celebrate; and to prove I was young once! My lovely children have sent me 2 tickets to see Sir Ian McKellen in ‘King Lear’ at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London on September 29th; with first class rail tickets to get us there. The theatre tickets are in the Royal Circle; I don’t think a tiara is required but I’ll feel like a queen: I have the best children ever. Fact.

I’m going to finish with a poem I’ve been working on; actually it’s two versions of a poem. I’ve retained them both as parts 1 and 2; but I don’t know if it works like that. I’m reluctant to get rid of either but not sure I need both. I’ll leave it for now; a bit of space will provide the answer I need. The poem is inspired by my mother making soup on Monday from Sunday roast left-overs. I didn’t know when I was a child that it was a money-saver, a means of making ends meet. I loved it; I still like a bowl of heart-warming soup, full of goodness, easy and cheap. Here’s the poem.

Stone Soup

1
When I used to read that story to your grandchildren,
the way the trickster gets the poor woman
to make soup from a stone,
I think of you
cooking soup from Sunday left-overs.
Like in the story, your soup begins with water in a pan.
You drop into it, like a stone, the carcass
of Sunday’s lunch, picked clean;
an Oxo cube or two, some onion, carrot,
pearl barley, sage, potato, turnips, salt and pepper.

With my mouth watering, I listen as it simmers away
slowly,
smell the flavours mixing, impatient
for you to serve it up, my spoon
fisted in anticipation.

You make loaves of soda bread
we break into rafts to float in our soup lakes.

I don’t understand about making ends meet,
to me your soup is a feast.

Once, aged six, bridging the loneliness
between school and home,
I tell Miss Bacon—wishing out loud—
that we’re having soup for tea.
All afternoon the lie lays in my stomach
like a stone.

But as I walk from the school bus,
up the path towards the kitchen door,
the scent of your soup welcomes me home,
a nose full of tummy rumbling goodness
rubbing out the lie.

2
Start with this boulder, throw it
into the water bubbling in the pan, she says,
the way a storm might brag before it erupts
with the force that a practiced trickster
proves herself to be. She takes
the skeleton of yesterday’s roast, the flesh
picked clean and in it goes—poor protein,
but with onion, carrot, potato, a woman
can perform a Sermon on the Mount miracle
to satisfy a hungry pack, eking it out
with soda bread floats. The soup is as easy
as the enthusiasm it takes to move from
growling bellies to full ones. A magician she is;
she can produce soup from a stone.

Rachel Davies
July 2018