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The Picture of Decrepitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pickled Walnuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Davies
August 2018

A fortnight in seven days…

Even by my standards, this has been a busy week. Poetry, PhD and Life have all been large. I worked on the thesis on Sunday and on Tuesday, continuing the redraft and editing jobs. I separated the thesis and the poems: I found on Wiki images a great picture of teeth hanging on string, perfect for my title Dreaming of Pulling Teeth, so I copied that—no credit asked—as my cover pic. However, WordPress won’t allow me to reproduce it here. I prepared a list of contents and checked out every reference to the poems in my thesis—what a good idea it was to write them in red in the first place, knowing the page numbers would change radically in the edit and I’d need to locate them easily. Finally, on Tuesday, I sent the thesis and the collection off to my team. Because I’d done a lot of cut-and-pasting on the thesis, I deleted the annotations as I went along, so I also sent the previous annotated version—thank goodness I’d saved it when I started work on it—with my responses showing how I’d addressed my team’s advice. Sending it off was like letting out your corsets—I can relax a bit now. But I’m already thinking of other poems I can write to include in the collection.

The portfolio of poems includes a section on ‘alternative mothers’ and the next one will be dedicated to Polly Myalgia. It reared its ugly head again this week. This is a painful auto-immune disease I’ve been suffering for about four and a half years. It’s been treated with the cortico-steroid, Prednisolone. At the end of April, I had a little ceremony when I took my final Pred tablet, so pleased was I to be off it. By the time I saw my rheumatologist in mid-May, the tops of my arms were already a bit stiff and I suspected it was returning; but blood tests for anti-inflammatory markers were only slightly raised, so I stuck with ibuprofen rather than returning to the steroids. By August the stiffness was a nuisance, so I requested a repeat blood test: normal result. I continued to take painkillers and ibuprofen morning and night with no real benefit. A feature of Polymyalgia is that it’s at its worst first thing in the morning and improves throughout the day, and this was happening. This week the pain and stiffness were so bad I contacted the rheumatology clinic again: I had an appointment booked for December but didn’t feel I could wait for two more months. More blood tests and a thorough medical examination and I was diagnosed not with Polymyalgia again, but a ‘spinal issue’ involving trapped nerves, dating back to the fractured fourth thoracic vertebra in 2016. The thought is that the Prednisolone was masking the problem while I was taking it and it’s only since I stopped taking it that the pain has been given permission to make a nuisance of itself. Mostly the problem is in my left shoulder, which has very restricted movement, the right one less of a problem. This all makes sense because when I suffered the fracture, the pain and bruising was predominantly over the left shoulder blade; for more than a year I couldn’t lie on my left side in bed. I’m to see a consultant, probably in the coming week; it’ll probably involve steroid injections directly into the shoulder joints. Ask me how much I’m looking forward to that!

Thankfully, there were other good things on the poetry front this week. On Tuesday evening it was our Stanza meeting. We had a writing session: Hilary, Pat and I took writing prompts for members to write poems, and we shared the poems at the end of the evening. My activity involved writing acrostics but disguising them so they didn’t seem like acrostics. Hilary gave me a lovely book for my birthday, Lost Words, containing some of the words that were removed from the Oxford Children’s Dictionary to make room for modern technology and social media related words. The words are surprising in their commonness: conker, fern, blackbird, bluebell to name just four. The poet has written acrostics for each word and the book is beautifully illustrated. I used that as stimulus for my activity. Hilary brought a prompt where we had to invent a set of rules for old women to live by: as we were all ‘old women’ at the meeting, that was a good fun activity which brought some lovely poems. Pat’s activity involved photos as stimulus. Pat had been to the Jurassic Coast in Dorset during the summer and brought lovely photos of fossils she’d seen ‘lying around’.

Also concerning poetry, the final proofs of our joint pamphlet Some Mothers Do… arrived from Rebecca Bilkau, the editor at Beautiful Dragons Press. The cover is indeed beautiful: I’ve been trying to get a copy to include in my blog but it all came as PDF and I can’t seem to copy it to my photos. Hilary sent me .docx versions she’d made, but I’m in a hotel room in London this morning and the wifi is limited so I can’t access my email except by G4 on my phone, which isn’t very helpful under the circumstances. Perhaps I’ll be able to do it from the train on the way home. Perhaps. Fingers crossed. There’s a flyer based on the front cover, with details of the launch: here are details of the launch and as soon as I can, I’ll bring you the front and back covers and the flyer in glorious technicolour.

The Launch of Some Mothers Do…
6.30pm Wednesday 7 November 2018
The Portico Library 57 Mosley Street Manchester M2 3FF
Be there, or we’ll tell your ma…

The Portico Library, though, with all the gravitas our poems deserve, obviously! Please come, if you can. There’ll be wine and nibbles, poetry, entertainment and everything. What’s not to like?

And finally, here I am in London. We travelled down on the train early yesterday morning, taxied to our hotel to drop off our overnight bag—I don’t feel up to being jostled on the underground yet—and walked the short distance to the Duke of York’s theatre for the matinée performance of King Lear, with Sir Ian McKellan in the title role. We stopped for lunch at a lovely café, La Roche, opposite the theatre and were in our seats for the 13.30 start. Oh. My. Word. It was wonderful; and McKellan by far the best Lear I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a few in my time. He was wonderful. I was sobbing by the end, as he carried the dead Cordelia in on his back. Sinead Cusack was brilliant as Kent, Danny Webb as Gloucester; and if you read this blog regularly you’ll know my fascination with TV detective series. Two of my favourite sergeants were in the cast: Claire Price—from Rebus—as Goneril; and Anthony Howell—from Foyle’s War—as Albany. It was such a treat, a birthday treat from my three children. Every year I say ‘that was the best birthday ever’; but this was by far the best birthday ever, ever. I am blessed.

Finally, a poem I wrote in that year of anxiety when my daughter was first diagnosed with malignant melanoma from a mole on her shin. The mole was removed, biopsied, identified as malignant and four years of treatment and ongoing monitoring began. I’d been reading Jane Yeh’s The Ninjas and I had that music in my brain when I wrote this. The rhyme scheme and rhythm gives it an illusion of humour, but it becomes sinister, unlike malignant melanoma which is just sinister. I’ve included it in my portfolio with a set of poems inspired by being the mother of a daughter. Here it is:

 The Moles

Their moleskin pants are designed by Molinari.
They buy their Rayban shades at Sunglass Hut.

They mine the soil in nice suburban gardens
to use it raising hills on grass well cut.

They use white sticks in subterranean tunnels,
in daylight, leave them in the brolly stand.

They carry a brace of useful on-board shovels
so they’re ready for retirement castles in the sand.

They give their name to tide-breaks, whistle-blowers
and pigment patches that could be beauty spots

except sometimes the patches turn psychotic.
They grow and grow like porridge in magic pots,

they grow and grow till molehills seem like mountains:
big bad-ass moles make ugly beauty spots.

They ride down shinbones like a sledge on snowdrift,
a game psychotic moles dig more than soil,

then when they’re bored, they turn to Hammer Horror.
Using Ultra-S-F-X to summon ghouls

they spook the likes of leukocytes and lymph nodes,
blow raspberries on the blades of surgeons’ knives.

They know they’re marked so you should see them party!
High on shots of morphine, they live their lives

like a dance macabre under theatre lights.
Moles won’t give up the dance without a fight.

 

Rachel Davies
2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Dream of Pulling Teeth

I had to re-register for my final year of the PhD this week. I tried to do it from home, but I needed my password; and of course, MacBook remembers the password for me so I don’t have to. This is an example of ‘pharmakon’: the thing that contains in it both benefit and harm. In remembering the password for me, MacBook allows me to forget it. Which is wonderful until I need to remember it, then it’s a bummer. I tried to change the password so I could re-register, but no could do. So on Tuesday, when I went into MMU library I called at the student hub for assistance. They changed the password to something easy so I could access my account and when I got in and registered for next year, I changed the password to something I could remember. MacBook remembered it. I’ve forgotten it already!

It’s been a long week. I’ve got lots done. I’ve been so, so tired! On Sunday I finished the job of editing my thesis. I finished the ‘red pen’ reading and then edited the errors out on screen. It took all day. One thing I noticed, a nit-picking thing, was my inconsistency in inserting footnotes: the number should come after punctuation in the text. So many times I’d put in the number before the full stop. Talk about needles and haystacks! I noticed some more yesterday after the editing was complete: the Forth Road Bridge of edits.

I was back doing the books at the Black Ladd on Monday. Holidays are wonderful but there’s no-one to do your work for you while you’re away, so I had three week’s worth of invoices to process. Amie pays them all when I’m on holiday but they still have to be input into the Sage software. It took all day to do everything, and still the bank statements to reconcile. I left them for next week. By 6.00 my brain was fried.

On Tuesday I went to the MMU library. I returned all the books I took on holiday and checked a couple of references I hadn’t made a complete note of. And I found the Jacques Derrida book I needed. Oh my! Philosophy eh? Once upon a time, I used to love grappling with pure thought, but I think the brain isn’t as agile as it used to be. He’s slightly more accessible than Jacques Lacan, but it’s a contest! I was there to check out ‘pharmakon’: see the first paragraph, above. I think I get the gist. I’m glad I didn’t have to read the book from cover to cover; one chapter was plenty. While I was in the library I completed my registration for next year. Registration required the completion of a questionnaire: personal details etc., but also details of support for employment. I don’t want employment, I’m very happy in my retirement, and in being a full-time poet. After the sixth slightly different question about the kind of job I saw myself doing post-study I simply wrote ‘I’ll be lying on a sunbed reading rubbish; it will probably involve wine.’ After answering ‘retired’ in the first question, shouldn’t there have been an option to go straight to question 32? Bureaucracy! But I am registered for the final year. That sounds so good I’m going to write it again, in upper case: THE FINAL YEAR! By May, all this pain will be over. I’ll miss it when it’s done, I’ve learned so much about the nature of study, about myself, about mothers and daughters—about the ‘pharmakon’, obviously. But it’s been, as it should be, the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life and I’ll be glad when it’s behind me. Sun beds, rubbish reading, wine and poetry beckons.

On Wednesday I went with Amie to Peterborough to visit a friend. We went for lunch in Carluccio’s. We hoped to meet up with Richard as well while we were there, but he had a parents’ evening at school so he was working late. I’d better mention Michael or I’ll get an earful of sibling rivalry when he reads this! He doesn’t live anywhere near Peterborough so unfortunately meeting him wasn’t an option. We called to see my sister in Stamford on the way home. She retired in May having worked for a couple of years beyond retirement age. She looks well and happy. She’s enjoying retirement so much she wishes she’d done it years ago! I always say retirement’s the best job I’ve ever had. We’re both fortunate in decent pensions though, that helps.

Thursday we had to take the cat to the vet for his annual health check and vaccinations. Cats are canny creatures: as soon as he saw the pet carrier he hid himself away. As long as he was contained in the lounge it wasn’t too bad: behind the settee, under the side tables, nothing too daunting there; although how he managed to squeeze himself between those two magazine racks on the bookshelf is a mystery. But as soon as the door was opened he made good his escape and hid behind the desk in the study, in the loft space under some shelves. That was clever: he needed serious coaxing to get him out of there. We tried putting him in forwards, backwards, any way imaginable; but he’s such a strong cat: 10kg of pure muscle and he beat us. I was just about to ring the vet to cancel when Jimbo gave up and walked in under his own steam. When we got back from the vet I put a scratching board with catnip in the carrier and left it in the lounge as a cat cave. He’s spent most of the weekend in there. I wonder if it’ll be easier to get him in next time I need to take him to the vet?

Saturday I was back at my desk again. I went through the thesis print-out seeing where I could lose some words. So far I have 22400 of the 20000 I need for completion. Given that I still have to write a conclusion, you can see my problem. So I’m looking for economies, as they say in business when they want to sack someone. I’m looking for words to lose. Précis isn’t going to cut it, so I’m going to be looking for passages of text that are surplus to requirements today. That’s hard. It’s all there because it fits the bill. I’ll have to be the axe-woman. I’ll have to have a psychopathic ruthlessness and cut, cut, cut. By the end of the day I want to send what I have to The Team for discussion. There might be a glass of wine in it tonight, if I achieve what I’m hoping to.

On the poetry front, we have a preview of the cover of our joint pamphlet, Some Mothers Do…It’s lovely, a bit of edgy, modern art on a stunning blue-green background. I heard from Kim Moore with the jacket blurb early in the week; it’s very positive and uplifting; thank you Kim. It’s there on the back cover along with Helen Mort’s blurb for Hilary and space for Tonia’s, which isn’t in yet. This is getting real, and exciting. We are planning our launch now. We will probably be launching in Manchester at the beginning of November; there could be a Cheshire launch in Chester; and Amie has kindly offered the Black Ladd for a local Saddleworth launch so that’ll be good. I still need to discuss this with the other poets involved.

So, a poem: this is a poem I wrote some time ago to a writing exercise. It’s an ekphrastic poem; that is to say it took its stimulus from three separate paintings. I can’t remember what they were, I have a visual memory of the paintings, but can’t remember artists or titles, I’m afraid. But the poem is so whacky I don’t think it matters. The last line is a reference to Freud’s dream analysis: he linked a woman’s dream of pulling her teeth out with giving birth, particularly to boy children, I believe. I know, don’t ask! I’ve decided to use that last line as a title for the collection: ‘A Dream of Pulling Teeth’. What do you think? I’m rubbish at titles so I’m open to changing my mind.

Exposed

The goat herd, brought here
by the old nanny, found me.

He said I floated downstream for days
with only the black mouser always ready
to jump ship, Time crawling in our wake.

An ancient prophecy says leave your girls
without protection or breast, a daughter
will be the death of a mother.

Still
I like to think she lay awake nights
wondering where I washed up

but really I suppose she slept happily
dreaming of pulling all her teeth out.

 

Rachel Davies
2016

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:

IMG_1148

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