Masks and Mirrors

It’s been another busy week—is there any other kind?

On Sunday I first-drafted the review of Pascale Petit’s The Huntress and Mama Amazonica. I have concentrated on her themes of ‘masks and mirrors’ in both collections. Then I reorganised it and made a second draft. I sent this off to Hilary Robinson to read and for advice and feedback.

On Monday morning I drafted a new poem in bed. It was the writing workshop at Leaf on Portland Street—we’ve been tasked to come up with a name for the group—in the evening, and I was concerned I had nothing new to take. So I wrote a poem about my mother, from one of the prompts in the many books I bought before my holiday. This prompt was to take the opening phrase, ‘I come from…’ and make this the start of every stanza. I adapted this to ‘She came from…’ and drafted my poem. I was rather pleased with it. So I took it to Leaf in the evening, and it was well received. I was given some constructive and useful feedback too; so now it is an even better poem. It was a lovely evening, as always, with some seriously good writing to discuss. I love the generous community of poets.

Tuesday saw me in Manchester bright and early for a day’s work at the MMU library. There were two books on the psychology of masks I wanted to read. Both were on a two week loan only, so I decided to read them in the library. The first one by Christopher Monte, Beneath the mask: an introduction to theories of personality (1999 Orlando Harcourt Brace College) was a big fat brick of a book, so I didn’t want to have to take that one home to read. It was the first one I tackled. It turned out to be a kind of résumé of various theories of masking from other psychological theorists. It would probably not be an acceptable book on the bibliography of a doctoral thesis, but it gave me lots of academic references to check out in more focused academic works: Jung, the Freuds, Winnacott, Karen Horney etc., so it was well worth the effort of reading the relevant chapters.

But oh my, MMU library was a distracting reading environment on Tuesday. The noise in there! Mobile phones going off, students answering them, library staff showing around freshers to introduce library systems. It was like trying to read in a market place. So, when I’d done all I could with Monte, I decided I’d take the other book, A L Strauss’s Mirrors and Masks, to read at home. I left the library and, it being a lovely day, I sat in All Saints Park to eat my butty before going home. The park was full of young students, crowded around a huge red ‘welcome’ installation, having lunch, chatting, getting to know new friends. A middle-aged woman was in there with a bag of peanuts, feeding a grey squirrel from her fingers: the squirrel was taking the nuts from her fingers with his little hands, very tame. It was good to watch. After lunch I went off in search of coffee and spent an hour reading the Strauss book in a Costa coffee shop, which turned out to be quieter and more conducive to reading than the library. I think the book is rather too sociological in its tenor, and, published originally in the fifties, is probably ‘old hat’ for a scholarly read. But I’ll stick with it for a bit, see what it has to offer.

On Tuesday evening it was our monthly Stanza meeting. This session was a writing workshop. Three members, Pat, Linda and Hilary had prepared writing prompts and we wrote poems from the prompts. Pat’s activity involved looking at, smelling, feeling and tasting a prickly pear. I saw these growing on huge cactus-like succulents in Zakinthos; they looked spectacular on the plant; but oh, my, they are a different thing to eat. Pat loved them; I think it’s fair to say she was the only member who did. To me, they were tasteless; or at least they just tasted ‘green’, the way grass might have done if I’d been eating that. The seeds were like indestructible little bits of grit. They were good to look at though. And the poems they inspired were worth a read. I won’t be having prickly pear in my fruit salad any time soon, though. The other activities? Linda’s involved a poetry form I hadn’t come across before, a ‘Quennet’, named for its inventor, the French oulipo poet, Raymond Queneau. It is a truncated form, using staccato adjectival phrases in a prescribed format. Hilary’s activity was a variation on the golden shovel. All-in-all it was a good night.

On Thursday people kept wanting to stick needles in me. I had blood tests first ahead of my next appointment with the rheumatologist about the Polymyalgia Rheumatica, Giant Cell Arteritis and Osteopenia triptych that has taken over my body. I’m hoping to reduce the corticosteroids again next week, fingers crossed. The second needle was in the hands of the lovely pharmacist in Uppermill’s Well Pharmacy: the annual flu vaccination. He is such a gentle man. We go there every year: no appointments necessary, no queueing up and totally NHS approved. I recommend him to anyone who will listen.

By Friday I had the feedback from Hilary on my ‘Mama’ review. It took a while for it to pass through the ether with all the comments in tact, but we managed it eventually. As a result, I wrote an additional paragraph before submitting it to The North for consideration. I have already had a provisional ‘yes’, so I’m hoping they will like it and include it in the next edition. Watch this space. I enjoyed writing it, whatever the outcome, and it’s a start on the chapter I’m planning for the thesis, so it won’t be wasted by any means. I’m really ready to get my teeth into the chapter now, and am considering redrafting the Hill chapter to bring more cohesion around masks and mirrors to the whole thing. Will this thing ever be finished to my satisfaction?

And lastly, Saturday. Yesterday was the Poetry Business writing day in Sheffield. Hilary and I left Saddleworth early to get to Sheffield in time for coffee before the event. It was lovely to see poetry friends there: Pam Thompson, John Foggin, Keith Hutson, Janet Lancaster and several others; also lovely to meet new people. The writing prompts were varied and stimulating as ever and the standard of writing was high. I love these writing days: if you are interested in poetry, I’m sure you would like them too; details here: http://www.poetrybusiness.co.uk/workshops/writing-days

I took my aeroplane poem, the one I wrote about fellow passengers en route to Zakinthos. I received some really constructive feedback from most of the group; I also took a verbal kicking from a young female poet who thought it was sexist, prejudicial and ‘a snobby attack on single mums.’ Ouch. I can see why she might think that; but it was all inspired by actual events, so hardly prejudicial, I think. I’ll look at it again in the light of her feedback and decide if she had a point; but I’m not inclined to change a good rant just in the interests of political correctness; that would knock the life out of it.

So, a poem from yesterday’s Poetry Business workshop. We were asked to write about something that had ‘arrived’: a parcel in the post, a package for a neighbour, that kind of thing. I wrote about ‘seventy’ arriving. Here’s a first draft:

 

Significant

Seventy has arrived.
It knocked on the door, then waltzed 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 birthday cake.

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

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

 

Rachel Davies
September 30th 2017

Year three of three…

There, I’ve done it. I’ve registered for year 3 of the PhD. Two down, one to go. There were times (moments) at the end of year one/beginning of year 2 when I considered pulling the plug. It all seemed too hard. And it is. And it should be. I really thought it was beyond me; and what do I need a PhD for anyway? In a sense it’s a vanity project: a personal challenge to prove to myself I can do it. In those moments, with thoughts of quitting, I was convincing myself I couldn’t do it. Perhaps I can’t. I won’t know until it’s all done and I’m a success or not. But what I do know about myself is, I’m not a quitter. I persevered and here I am at the start of year 3 of 3. Once I relaxed and saw this as a journey and not a destination I started to really enjoy it. A good friend had her viva this week and she has attained her PhD. I am thrilled for her; although I always knew she would be successful. I genuinely don’t know if that success will ever be mine. But I have enjoyed the work and learned a lot: about the psychology of mothers and daughters; about the poetry of Selima Hill and Pascale Petit; about Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop; about the sonnet; and about myself. Obviously, I hope I’ll come out of this with a PhD; but if I don’t I’ll know I gave it my best shot. I also learned that when this is over, I’ll never pick up another book in anger. I’m done with study. Best-seller list for me after that viva next year!

This week I’ve been back in the swing of things after the holiday. Holiday? What holiday. It seems so long ago, I’ve forgotten it already. Real life has resumed itself. I have been researching the psychology of masks. I did an online MMU library search and up came loads of references for ‘masks’; but most of them seemed to be to do with computer technology. I have no idea what masks are in computer-speak but there are hundreds of academic articles about them. In amongst them—I didn’t give up looking—there were a couple of articles on the psychology of masks in a human context: the human masks, real and imagined, that we wear in everyday life. There were also a couple of promising books on the subject. I downloaded the articles and put the books on hold. I decided to read the articles to see if they give me what I’m looking for and then spend a day in the library checking out the books. The articles were just what I needed, so this week I’ll be in the library bright and early on Tuesday working with the books.

It’s been a good week on the poetry front too. I heard in the week that my poem ‘Chiggy Pig’ was ‘Commended’ in the Battered Moons poetry competition. This was a poem I wrote to one of Penny Sharman’s activities on our Bitch Week in Anglesey earlier in the year: to write a poem about a small creature. I chose the woodlouse because they fascinate me; and I always loved working with them in those ‘mini-beast’ projects we used to do with children in primary schools. When I drafted the poem, it was called simply ‘Woodlouse’. I took it to the Monday workshop at Leaf on Portland St. for feedback. They loved it but were puzzled by the last line: ‘fourteen jointed little porker’. I explained that we used to call woodlice piggies when I was a kid; Rosie Garland remembered then that they used to call them ‘chiggy pigs’ in her childhood in the west country. ‘Chiggy pig’ was too good a title to pass up, thank you, Rosie. I’ve booked train tickets and hotel for Bill and me to go down to Swindon for the presentation event on October 7th. It cost about nine times my prize money for the overnight stay and travel; but I help to organise the Poets&Players competition in Manchester and we really appreciate it when people turn up to read at the presentation event. It means a lot, feels like reward for the hard work of mounting the competition in the first place. So I will be there a week on Saturday introducing ‘Chiggy Pig’ to the audience.

I also heard that a selection of my mother/daughter poems—including the sonnet crown—has been long-listed for the Overton Prize; short-listing is in early October, so keep your fingers crossed for me, because this is one competition I really would like to progress in. And I have almost agreed an acceptance for the review of Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica in a ‘quality poetry magazine’; I’ll tell you which one when it is finally accepted. I won’t entertain even a thought that it won’t be. The deadline for submitting that review is also early October, so I’ll be working on that later today. It’ll put me well on my way for the Pascale Petit section of the thesis too. All good. Watch this space. This has all made me more determined to submit work more regularly. I’m a bit of a sluggard in this side of the work, but when I do submit I’m often more or less successful. I need to organise myself more.

My copies of The North, Rialto, PN Review and Magma came in the post. Lovely to see poet friends represented in these magazines. I’ve had only cursory reads up to now, checked out the work of poets I know personally; but there is a lot of reading in them for the coming months. I also received a ‘Magma’ tote bag in the post. Apparently, they messed up my subscription and sent the bag as compensation. I hadn’t noticed there had been an issue, so the tote bag was a complete and very pleasant surprise.

This week back from holiday has been a busy week in other ways too. My job keeping the books at my daughter Amie’s restaurant, The Black Ladd, has been a bigger-than-normal job this week with three weeks worth of work to make up after the holiday. It took up a long day on Wednesday and still not quite finished; but I’ll be up to date again this week. I also went to the Christie with her on Monday, where she is being monitored after surgery in 2014 for malignant melanoma. I’m pleased to say she is progressing well and it was all very positive feedback. Long may the positivity continue.

And friends. I met up with Hilary for a post-holiday catch-up on Tuesday. She has submitted her MA portfolio this week; three years of her life coming to a satisfactory conclusion. She’s off on a long celebratory holiday in October to places that include Bali, Australia, Tasmania, Singapore. I’m only a little bit jealous. And yesterday I met up in Manchester with Pauline, a friend from my school days. We became friends in the first term of grammar school; 59 years ago! How can that even be possible? We both suffered the ire of the demon head-teacher and every time we meet up we remember new and forgotten indignities at his hands. I think I’ve told you it’s down to him that I keep pursuing these qualifications? He told me the day I left school that I’d end up in the gutter for the unforgivable sin of talking to a boy from the secondary modern school. These were his parting words to me, a sixteen year old with low self confidence. I seem to have spent a lifetime negating that one remark. He’s long-dead now: I hope he’s keeping nice and warm!

So, here I am at the start of the final year of PhD. I began this blog to see how the work would fit into my busy life style: I think I’m doing OK. I’ll be buckling down and getting the work completed this year: I want it finished in first draft by about May next year to give me time for redrafting, editing, perfecting. It’s hard to believe it’s the third year already: it seemed so far away when I began. Ho hum. Tempus just keeps on fuging, as Reggie Perrin used to say.

I’m giving you two more verses of the poem I wrote on holiday, inspired by my travelling companions on the plane to Zakinthos. It’s still not finished, but I like where it’s going and I think it will find space in the portfolio. Enjoy.

 

 For I don’t deserve to die with these people

this mum has no sense of irony
for she feeds her girls Kwells—tells
them from a mouth wide as the Mersey tunnel,
tells them from a mouth that could have been
the prototype for the megaphone to
chew and swallow, chew and swallow
then administers copious doses
of fizzy pop and chocolate to take the taste away;

this mum asks if her darling girl
can have my window seat
and spits curare-tipped eye darts
when I say no; for when she grinds down
another traveller and the girl
sits in the window seat
smug as a lugworm,
she promptly pulls down the blind
on the remaining air-miles;

Rachel Davies
August 2017

In which I realise I can’t do everything…

I’m suffering the post-holiday blues. I haven’t been warm since I got home, although if I hadn’t been away the weather would seem quite mild for Saddleworth. And my body hasn’t adjusted to the time zone change, I’m still working on Greek time so I’m ready for bed at 9.00 at night and sleeping for England, which is unusual for me. I’m doing that post-holiday thing where you say ‘this time last week…’ I need to get a grip; but this time last week we were getting ready to go and find some loggerhead turtles, Caretta Caretta.We boarded the boat in a harbour just off Laganas. Searching for turtles seemed to involve the boat going round and round in circles in the harbour, along with about five other boats, until we actually spotted a turtle in the water; poor thing must have been a bit intimidated but I suppose they must be used to it. It was a majestic sight when we did spot one though. They really need to rethink their survival strategy though. They come to Zakinthos in April and stay till October. In that time the female can lay four or five batches of eggs, 100 in a batch. That’s up to 500 eggs, with a survival rate of 1%. That is serious endangerment. They are very well protected by the Zakinthian authorities though. We went to Turtle Island to see the breeding grounds on the beach: we weren’t allowed to go near the nests, but you could clearly see the tripods marking and protecting the nests from the boat.

But as you know by now, a holiday isn’t just a holiday; it involves work as well. Every morning I got up early and took a cuppa out to our balcony to do some work. I spent a couple of hours a morning analysing the poems in Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica. I analysed three or four poems in that time; and that is about as many as I could manage emotionally. They are very taxing poems to close read. It is a brilliant collection, similar but different from The Huntress. It is amazing how much more you see in a poem when you spend quality time with it. I am happy to report I completed the analyses on our last morning there. And now I have 17,500 words to draw on for the chapter in my thesis. So I’m pleased with that aspect of the work while I was away. A slightly optimistic conclusion to the analyses: I have sent out feelers for offering a review of Mama to a quality magazine—I won’t say which one at this stage, don’t want someone stealing my thunder; because I had a fairly positive response to my proposal. I’ll be following that up this week. The creative aspect, less satisfying: I wanted to write a poem a day while I was away and I didn’t manage anything close to that. My favourite time, early morning, was taken up with the analyses; and I don’t work well around lots of people and busyness; but I did draft some stuff—I can’t call them poems yet—and I kept my dream journal going for the fortnight. I seemed to dream a lot of dreams with ‘teaching’ and ‘teachers’ as elements. Am I regressing to a past life? I hope not; retirement is the best job I’ve ever had!

We arrived back in Manchester on Thursday evening and my lovely daughter was there to meet us off the plane. Since then it has been a long round of unpacking, laundry, shopping for food. And more PhD work. Yesterday was the September Poets & Players event at the Whitworth Art Gallery: Clare Shaw, Malika Booker and Hilda Sheehan, and Olivia Moore providing the ‘player’ aspect. Unfortunately I didn’t make it: I always knew it was going to be a struggle and in the event I prioritised work; but I know it was brilliant because people keep telling me so on Facebook; I was genuinely sorry to miss it. The next event is in October, details here:

http://www.manchesterliteraturefestival.co.uk/events/george-szirtes-caroline-bird-andchuck-37848

It’s our annual collaboration with Manchester Literature Festival and it will be BIG. George Szirtes, Caroline Bird and Andchuck providing the music. This event is at Halle St Peter’s in the Northern Quarter, so make a note of that; also that you will need tickets for this one, available at the MLF website via the link. Unfortunately I have to miss this event too, bah! But you just know it will be good, don’t you?

Yesterday I got down to more serious work on the critical side of the PhD. I was rereading the theory related to mirrors and mirror images. Lacan’s Mirror Stage is not easy to understand: Lacan is not an accessible writer; but mirrors and masks feature heavily in Mama Amazonica and this will be a major focus for the Petit section of the thesis. So I reread and re-reread Lacan yesterday; along with commentaries on Lacan: The Cambridge Companion to Lacan; Bailly’s Beginners Guide to Lacan etc, and I think I have a handle on his thoughts. I think. I also read Winnicott, Home is Where We Start From; and an article I found on the MMU website about the importance of positive interaction in healthy child development, “Identification and subjectivity in a Year-3 classroom: using Lacan’s mirror stage to analyse ethnographic data” by Sue Walters published in the online journal “Ethnography and Education Volume 9, 2014 – Issue 1”. This was fascinating reading for me on two counts: it was helpful to my research; but it also spoke to me as an ex-headteacher of a primary school with high numbers of Bangladeshi heritage pupils.

 

So, I know what I want to say in the Petit section of the thesis but I’m worried, as ever, about sounding ‘academic’ enough; about sounding as if I actually have a level of authority over the theory. I have no idea how I will go about it; so I’ll do what I always do and wade in, a page at a time and perfect it over time.

 

That’s it then; holiday over, week over, blog over. I’m happy to be back and to be back on a healthy eating regime. I had a lovely time away; but it is the once-a-year binge. I’m actually glad I don’t have to live like that all year; I’d be elephantine after a couple of months.

Here is a very short poem I wrote on the aeroplane on the way to Zakinthos. It seems as if the aeroplane is stationary at 35,000 feet and it is the earth scrolling by below. That is the image I’ve tried to capture in this little draft.

 

Window Seat

the aeroplane hangs from sky
hovering like a harrier
while Earth on microfiche
scrolls by below

the pilot spots the quarry
of Zakinthos runway
and we start our slow dive
from sky to sun

Rachel Davies
September 201

Holidays, analyses and anxiety dreams

I wondered when I started the PhD whether those enjoyable and, until now, indispensible, parts of my life would have to go by the board to make room for the research. I have proved that, actually, they don’t. I have taken several holidays since I’ve been doing the PhD; some of them have been work related: poetry writing weeks that have served the creative aspect of the research. But some have been just holidays; just the chance to sit back and rebuild. I have never left the work at home and ignored it for a week or two. Let’s face it, it won’t be ignored.

This week I’ve been in Zakinthos on the ultimate sun-bum’s holiday. The work sulked so much when I told it I was going on holiday, I smuggled it into my cabin baggage and brought it with me. Of course, I never ever intended to leave it home alone; but it didn’t know that, and I’m hoping it will be kinder to my as a result of my generosity.

So, among the sun worshipping, the Greek salads, the yogurt and honey, the Mythos, the local wines there has also been work. And, I have to say, quite a smug-making lot of it. Before I came away, I promised myself I would write a poem a day while I was away. I downloaded several prompt books to my Kindle to keep me focussed. I have to report, I probably haven’t managed a poem a day; but in response to one prompt, I have been keeping a dream journal. I have had some weird dreams since I’ve been here. One of them relates to the broken promise of a poem a day: I was invited by a teacher I worked with years ago to go into his classroom and read poems to his class of 8/9-year-olds. There were other poets there to read, we all had a ‘slot’. I was first to read; unfortunately I had left the poem I wanted to read at home; and I couldn’t remember it at all. One little girl in the group had copied my poem out in her writing book and she lent it to me; but writing wasn’t her strength, and it was really hard to read what she had written; so I blagged. I tried to make it up as I went along. Alice Oswald was like Jiminy Cricket on my shoulder: why wouldn’t you remember the poem? You wrote it! The only lines I can remember were the first line: Write ‘the’ and part of a limerick that came at the end: They called him Max the Tax. Not much of a poem then; not even poetry! But I took so long making it up, I took every other poet’s slot of time too. Anxiety dream, definitely. I must write more poems, as per my promise to self.

However, I have drafted about four poems since I’ve been out here, and I think the dream journal will stimulate more unusual ones. So I’m not slacking really. I’ll post a poem at the end of this blog that relates directly to the ‘poem’ dream. I can already see where I’ll change it, but I like the idea.

In other news, regarding the critical element, I have been very conscientious. I made myself the promise to work for two hours a day before breakfast to analyse the Pascale Petit poetry in Mama Amazonica. That is a promise I have kept, rigorously and satisfyingly. I have analysed all but thirteen poems in the collection. That gives me 3-4 a day for the rest of my time here to get the job done. I have found that about four a day is as many as I can do: they are quite gruelling, dealing with rape, abuse, mental illness. Petit approaches these themes by placing them in the backdrop of the Amazonian rain forest. They are brilliant. The mother is written as beautiful, abused creatures: the hummingbird, the deer. She is often predatory in her response to abuse, so she is jaguar, fossa, python, boa. The abusive father/husband is almost always a cockroach—‘Cockie’; sometimes other low, unattractive creatures, in one instance a ‘screw-worm’; which all seem descriptively appropriate. I will definitely have fulfilled that promise-to-self by the time I board the plane home on Thursday. And so far I have 12,500 words; not all words I’ll be using in the chapter, but they’re there to be cut-and-pasted, along with the analyses I did of The Huntress. So I feel I’m making real headway with the critical aspect while I’m out here, and putting myself in a strong position to start writing the Petit chapter when I get home.

There, you see, you can allow yourself holidays while you pursue PhD. You just have to be prepared to take it along for the ride: it doesn’t cost extra, as a child would do; and mostly it behaves itself without annoying other holiday makers with its noise, unlike some children (see last week’s blog)! In the hours between breakfast and drafting poems on the sunbed I have enjoyed all the aspects of ‘holiday’. I have played boules on the beach every day with Bill; the beach here is lovely soft sand, unlike a lot of Greek beaches there is no shingle. So it’s a good boules surface. It helps us believe we’re not just beach bums. We’ve also played mini-golf a couple of times. The first time I beat Bill, who is a regular golfer at home. That didn’t go down too well, it stung a bit; but yesterday he beat me quite comprehensively to put me back firmly in my place. I enjoyed the crowing while it lasted, though. We have been walking, stopping off at a lovely beach bar for pizza and draft Mythos on the way back to the hotel. And, of course, we’ve been swimming. I’m not a huge fan of swimming, I learned as a young adult, not as a water baby. I learned, actually, in the nurses’ home swimming pool when I was a student nurse in the sixties. A gorgeous doctor taught me to swim; I only did it because I needed to look competent in his eyes. We weren’t an ‘item’, but I fancied the pants off him. Years later I saw him again when my son Richard broke his arm. The gorgeous doctor of my teen years and my memory was actually a disappointment: shorter than I imagined, balding and gaining a paunch. But he did teach me to swim and I’m grateful for it. I’ve never been a particularly confident swimmer, although I love that I can swim; and as long as my feet touch the floor when I stop, I’m happy.

Oops, I must dash: I’m taking a boat trip to see the Zakinthian turtles later today. Life’s just so full, I don’t know how I fit it all in.

Here’s the poem I wrote as a response to the anxiety dream I had in the week. It has a long way to go, but I wrote it following Jean Sprackland’s advice to write more poems in a syllabic form. This one is a (double) nonet: nine lines, nine syllables in the first line reducing to one in the ninth. I think I’ll retain the form and redraft some of the content; but it does show that I am making an effort; honest!

 

In this life I’m a double nonet

In a past life I was a sonnet.
I tripped off the quill in inky
magnificence, perfect in
first draft. There was nothing
slant about my rhymes,
they were bold, strong,
flavoursome
on the
tongue.

 

I used to be a sonnet, fourteen
lines of perfect Shakespearean
rhyme, a turn at line nine. But
the life was edited
from the first draft and
now I’m doggerel,
clichéd crap.

Delete.

Stop.

 

Rachel Davies
September 2017

 

Oscar, if I’ve told you once…

I’m not sure if you’ll all get to read this this week. My laptop isn’t recognising the IonianWifi I paid 25Euros for earlier in the week! I’m writing it on Word, hoping I might be able to post it on the hotel Wi-Fi later. Yes, I’m in glorious Zakinthos, soaking up some rays, eating ridiculously unhealthily and drinking too much Mythos and local wine. I’m having weird, dystopic dreams about punishments for unhealthy eating that may indeed become a poem one day soon.

We travelled on Thursday. All experience is grist to the mill of the poet, and our travel companions were no exception. Indulgent parents, aggressive parents, parents with no sense of their own irony when they fed nasty tasting Kwells to their children, ordered them to ‘chew and swallow, chew and swallow’ then plied them with fizzy pop and chocolate to take the taste away. Beware! All these things have been recorded in a poem, an extract of which I’ll include at the end of this blog post.

It seems a long time ago, and the whole distance of Europe, but other poetry events figured in the week since my last blog post. On Monday it was the writing workshop at Leaf on Portland Street in Manchester. I met Hilary Robinson for an early evening meal before the workshop because I have been reading her MA portfolio prior to submission later this month and we met up so that I could feedback my reflections on a good collection. There were only five poets at the workshop this time, but oh my, there was some lovely work presented for discussion/feedback. I took a poem about my mother’s hands that I wrote from a prompt in the Behn/Twichell book (see below). I’m really pleased with it and it received some useful and positive feedback.

On Tuesday it was our East Manchester and Tameside Stanza meeting. We meet at the Britannia Inn in Mossley. Again, there were five poets there, a different set from Monday’s. We were reading and discussing the work of Gwen Harwood, an Australian poet writing from mid-twentieth century. I don’t know if you know her work, but she’s worth checking out. I can’t give a web link to any of her poetry right now, but if you do seek her out, avoid the Poem Hunter website because it has messed with the formatting of the work, sometimes even displacing stanzas into the wrong poems. Thankfully a couple of the poets present had her collected works and we were able to rectify the errors; although they made good stimulus for discussion. My favourite quote from the poetry we read on Tuesday: ‘Poets are lovers. Critics are/mean, solitary masturbators.’ (From her poem “The Critic’s Nightwatch”).

On the Wednesday before we travelled I had a surprise in the post: a birthday parcel of books from a friend I haven’t heard from for some time. There was a lovely photographic book of cats; and two more poetry prompt books. One was by Peter Sansom, an extension of his Poetry Business writing days. I can’t remember the author/poet of the second prompt book as I didn’t bring them away with me; but I’m thinking I’ve probably got more than enough writing stimuli to complete the creative side of the thesis now. That will be a huge aspect of my work this year, so all assistance is gratefully received.

Being on holiday doesn’t exclude work: I’ve brought work with me. I’ve promised myself a poem a day while I’m our here, and so far so good. The prompt books I added to my Kindle before I came have proved worthwhile. There are some particularly good prompts in The Daily Poet by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano. They offer a prompt for every day of the year; some are related to the day, anniversaries of events (mostly American), but some are random and can be used in any order. Another good prompt book is Robin Behn’s and Chase Twichell’s The Practice of Poetry. I think I mentioned this one before. It has writing activities by practicing poets who also teach creative writing. One of the activities is to keep a dream journal: no embellishments, just write down what you can actually remember and see where your unconscious takes you. That’s why I was up at 3.00 a.m. this morning writing down my weird unhealthy-eating dream.

I also brought Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica away with me. I’ve been spending two hours a day before breakfast analysing these poems for the mother-daughter theme. They are different from The Huntress: less anger and fear, more sympathetic. Interesting comparisons, though. I’m finding some inter-textual writing too, notably a perceived (by me) link to Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shallott’ in the image of the shattering mirror. I’m loving this analysis. It hardly feels like work at all.

So, my poem this week. I’m just giving you an extract. It’s a rant at the not-very-nice people who shared space in the aeroplane. I’ve called it ‘For I don’t deserve to die with these people’ for fairly obvious reasons. I’m giving you the last of four stanzas. It was a constant commentary on the flight: three and a half hours of Oscar being told. I didn’t see Oscar or his mother; but I built up my own mental pictures! I apologise in advance if you know Oscar and his mum. You’ll have to imagine more of similar in the other stanzas. The poem is so new, the ink hasn’t dried on it yet.

 

For I don’t deserve to die with these people

 this mum says Oscar I’ve told you
says Oscar I’ve told you once
says Oscar if I’ve told you once I’ve told you a million
says Oscar I won’t tell you again
says Oscar if I have to tell you again I’m taking you home.
How? How is she taking him home?
We’re cruising, as the pilot has just assured us,
at thirty-five-thousand-feet.
Oscar, I’m sick of telling you
Oscar don’t make me tell you again
Oscar for the love of God

 I utter my own prayer: Dear Lord, keep this aeroplane safe
for I do not deserve to die with these people.

Rachel Davies
September 2017

For the love of poetry…

I’ve concentrated on poetry this week, mostly the creative aspect of the PhD. This has been one of my favourite weeks: a week dedicated to poetry. I have read poetry, written poetry, ate, slept, dreamed poetry. Wonderful.

On Monday I met up with poet friends Polly Atkinson, Hilary Robinson and Rod Whitworth. We went to Proper Tea for lunch–yes they are open again, having undergone a refurb, mostly in the kitchens I’m guessing because the decor hadn’t changed a great deal, still the old doors they have used to make the counter and the settles by the windows. The counter has turned through 90 degrees and is now a chiller cabinet full of gorgeous sandwiches and cakes. We met to celebrate my birthday: someone asked me if I’ve done celebrating now! Silly question! I’ll celebrate this one until I have the next one. Did you know, science has proven that birthdays are good for you? Apparently the more birthdays you have the longer you live. Really.

One of the books I downloaded to my new Kindle this week is The Practice of Poetry by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell. This is a collection of writing prompts that have been used in creative writing classes by poets who also teach. I have been writing to some of the prompts this week, mostly in bed before sleep–which has meant not much sleep because poetry is such an upper! One activity involved thinking of a part of someone’s anatomy and writing about that part as a representation of the whole. I wrote about my mother’s hands. I remember her telling me how she hated her hands when she was a little girl because she had dimples where her knuckles would be and she wanted knuckles like her mother. Of course, when I knew her she had her wish: hands that were Rough-knuckled, raw from hard labour. Be careful what you wish for. I described her hands as she cleaned the eggs ready for market. I quite like the poem from that activity. I have other poems in the pipeline stimulated by some of the other activities too. One of the activities is to do ten minutes of ‘automatic writing’ a day, then after ten days to read the writing and underline what can be kept and perhaps made into a poem. The rule is to write but not to edit, not to read what you’ve written for the full ten days, when you’ll have almost ten pages of writing you don’t know too much about. I’m finding that less satisfactory at the moment, because automatic writing–writing for ten minutes without stopping just what comes into your head–is hard without a prompt to start you off. But I’m persevering, sticking to the rules. I’m giving myself a starting prompt every morning.

Tuesday is one of the days I can give whole-heartedly to PhD work, because Bill plays golf and the house is all mine for the day. I had a great day on Tuesday this week. I decided to write another sestina; but I wanted to bend the form to make it less obviously a sestina. So I decided to compile a list of homophones–words that sound the same but are not necessarily spelled the same, and don’t have the same meanings: ‘there, their and they’re’ is a group that is always used as an example. Would you believe it, there is actually a website dedicated to the homophone: groups of homophonic words arranged alphabetically:
http://www.homophone.com/search?type=begin&q=Z
All I had to do was choose ones I thought I could work with. I chose six homophone groups and wrote my sestina. It took all morning: who knew poetry was such a long job! I have worked on it all week, trimming it, refining it. Because it has words like based/baste and cord/chord/cored with variations like record/accord/discord it really is a sestina in disguise, I think. It will fit in the portfolio, although the ‘story’ of the poem is entirely fictitious. I’m really quite pleased with it. A good morning’s work.

On Thursday my copy of Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica arrived in the post. On Saturday Bill played golf again so I had another day dedicated to PhD. I gave it over mainly to reading Mama. I read the whole collection in one sitting: I couldn’t put it down. It is a collection that deals with the mother-daughter relationship through the mental illness of the mother, much as The Huntress does, but in a way more sympathetic to the mother, I think. I read it aloud to myself, the whole collection. I had a very rusty voice afterwards; but reading a poem aloud does slow your reading down and it gives you a different perspective on the work. I can’t wait to get down to a serious analysis now. Petit has such a creative way of writing: humming birds feature largely, beautiful and abused in this collection, as the mother has been. The animals of the Amazon region are used as metaphors for the people and personalities in the poems; for instance the abusive father is often depicted as a scarab beetle. In ‘Jaguar Girl’, ‘Her gaze is tipped with curare/…/Her claws are crescent moons/sharpened on lightning./…/Her own tongue is a hive/that stings’: wonderful images for a fearful and frightening woman. Compare this with the tense tenderness in ‘Jaguar Mama’: ‘…the whirlpools and rocks of her tongue/almost pulled my skin off, I never knew/if she was grooming or preparing to eat me.’ I love this collection. I think a comparison of the two works will be an exciting and original part of my thesis.

On Saturday I also did some submitting to competitions. I’m not good at submitting work, I don’t do it enough. I’m never sure when a poem is ready to make its way in the world; there always seems to be some small change you can make. But I sent some out on Saturday to try to earn their living. Given that most of the best competitions receive well over a thousand entries, I’m realistic about their chances; but, as the early lottery adverts used to say, ‘you gotta be in it to win it’; so I sent off to Oxford Brookes and Buzzwords on Saturday. Online entries are so easy; too easy perhaps. Now I need to sort my poems out for sending to journals; prepare myself for the inevitable rejections that make the occasional acceptance more sweet.

Later today, more poetry. I have to reread Hilary’s MA portfolio so that we can discuss it when I meet her on Monday before the Leaf Workshop. I’m honoured that she has asked me to read and comment before her final submission in a couple of weeks time. Her collection  addresses marital infidelity and reconciliation: it’s a good read. I also have to read a selection of Gwen Harwood’s poems for our Stanza meeting on Tuesday evening. So, plenty of poetry to keep me going for a day or two; as well as the daily ‘automatic writing’ and my promise to myself to write a poem a day while I’m on holiday. Yes, we fly to Zakinthos on Thursday for two weeks of sun, sea, reading, boules, bumming out. I intend to get lots of work done in that two weeks; the best kind of busman’s holiday! I’ll be blogging from the Ionian region next Sunday; bring it on.

In honour of the upcoming holiday, I’ll post a poem I wrote in Zakinthos two or three years ago. There seems to be some seismic activity in the Mediterranean area at the moment: this week there was an earthquake on the island of Ischia in the bay of Naples; in July an earthquake between Turkey and the Greek island of Kos. When we were on holiday on Zakinthos–2014 I think–there was an earthquake that was strong enough to move furniture across the room and make waves on the hotel swimming pool. No structural damage, but it was quite a scary event none-the-less. What struck me most was the noise: a loud boom like a bomb to begin with then the dreadful grinding sound as the earth’s tectonic plates rubbed against each other. This is the poem I wrote from that experience:

 

Koukounaria Quake

mobile phone footage of lanterns swinging,
floors flapping like tablecloths being shaken
of crumbs, windows spitting out their glass,
cars like Dinky toys tossed by a petulant child,
fissures in roads that swallow juggernauts whole:
this is an earthquake.

But a mobile phone can’t record the noise,
as if the earth were turning in her sleep,
dropping her bedtime read to the floor, breaking
wind. She grinds her teeth and the hotel shifts
and the wardrobe slides across the bedroom
and ripples ride on coffee mugs and coffee
slops onto tables and tables walk the floor
and the swimming pool gets the surf up
and tourists, not used to this, make to leave
the safety of structures built to withstand it.

Eleni checks on her pregnant daughter, the earth
settles to sleep again and all three carry on
as if something extraordinary didn’t just happen.

Rachel Davies
2014/15

 

 

Didn’t we have a loverly time…

In three years where life is driven by work towards a PhD, sometimes the work has to take a back seat, be a passenger; and that’s what happened this week. For the first time in two years, PhD hasn’t been the be all and end all of my existence. It has been there, keeping its eye on me, ready to rebuke me for slacking, but life has been to the fore.

This year my daughter Amie and I had ‘significant’ birthdays; so we hired a cottage overlooking the beach in Trearddur Bay, Anglesey and took our 120th birthday celebrations on tour. Richard and Michael, my two sons; Amie, Angus, Ben and the dogs; and Bill and I had a few days of doing nothing but being together. It was lovely. It was  five days of very nearly doing things: we nearly took the ferry to Dublin, but it was fully booked; we nearly took the cable car to the summit of Great Orme, but high winds put a stop to that; we nearly took the railway to the summit of Snowdon, but on the day we wanted to go there were no tickets; I nearly did some reading, but my Kindle battery died. Despite all this, we had a lovely time. It’s so good to spend time together, it doesn’t happen often enough when your children become adults. We did manage to do a lot of dog walking though. Amie has two cockerpoos, Cooper and Sonny, and they are energetic to say the least. They chased that ball over most of Anglesey, and still asked for more. Oh, another nearly: we decided to go to Aberffraw for a circular walk we had found in the cottage info pack. Ten minutes into the walk the high winds that prevented us from using the cable car in Llandudno the day before whipped up the sand from the beach and pebble dashed the backs of our legs and other exposed skin. We turned back to the cars and drove on to Bangor, where we had al fresco coffee while we watched unoccupied chairs blow off up the street!

I did manage some reading, though. I used the Kindle until the battery died completely. I was blaming the cheap charger I bought but I borrowed Michael’s charger and it just wouldn’t make a charge at all. No Kindle, and another holiday coming up in two weeks? I decided to order a new one when I got home so I can still pack a library in my hand luggage. I’ve learned that I can get a battery replacement for the old one as well, so I might look into that. But it’s a delicate operation, apparently, easy to mess up. I’ll take it to an official repair outlet sometime. Thankfully I took a ‘real’ book away, as well as my Kindle. Toril Moi’s Sexual Textual Politics in paperback was my reading-in-bed book this week. I was reading a chapter about Gilbert and Gubar’s Madwoman… It was interesting to get an academic review of the book I read only recently. I took my MacBook on holiday as well, thinking I might get some creative work done, but the house was full to overflowing; there was never space to sit and work apart from in bed and I’m quite particular about conditions for writing. I have to be on my own, have silence, get my thoughts filling the house. I could have done some work in bed, but I know it wouldn’t have been good work and I would have just rolled it into virtual balls and binned it when I got home anyway: we have to pay attention to our own preferences for work, I think. So I made do with a bit of bedtime reading. I hope the PhD doesn’t mind that I ignored it this week. It was good to have the best part of a week off. I’ll be on it again next week; and the upcoming holiday will involve a lot of work as well.

The world stage is as worrying as ever. We live on a speck of dust in an infinite universe. There are millions, trillions–zintillions–of other planets, stars, heavenly bodies out there, some with the potential for life, some, no doubt, hosting life in one form or another. But humans have such ego trips about being made ‘in the image of God’; about human life being the epitome of life forms. And oh my, we are so full of hate: my skin is better than your skin; my nationality is supreme; my god is more powerful than your god. Why? We are here for the blink of an eye; we are nothing in the great scheme of history. My grand-daughter Corrinna was in Barcelona when that van rammed into crowded Las Ramblas. Thankfully, I learned she was at the airport for the homeward journey when the atrocity happened. Unfortunately many holiday makers weren’t: collateral damage in ‘the war on terror’. No-one in power has worked out you can’t make war against an idea: an idea isn’t an enemy you can target. This is a war that can’t be won. And this week the most powerful man on the planet refused to condemn alt-right white supremacists carrying Nazi and KKK flags in Charlottesville into skirmishes with civil rights protesters; thereby reinforcing a global view of the US president as a white supremacist, Nazi and KKK sympathiser. What a pernicious world we’re living in.

This morning I’m posting a poem I wrote in Carrie Etter’s Napowrimo week in April. It is about the month my brother died; a month that was also dominated by powerful men flexing their international muscles, sizing each other up. We never learn from history; we just invent bigger and more destructive ways of killing each other. I only had one brother, in a house filled with sisters, so this was a pivotal month in my growing up. I was fourteen at the time.

 

June 1962

that was the month
Albert and Harold first hauled their rags on BBC TV

and George Martin unleashed Beatlemania

I sat in the library at the grammar school reading
about a Wall dividing Berlin to keep communism pure;
or to keep capitalism pure; or more likely to keep propaganda
pure; but people didn’t want purity they wanted their lost families
and they staked their own lives to be reunited on the other side

Khrushchev sent missiles to Cuba while the world held its breath
and even Peter Parker, bitten by that radioactive spider,
no, even Spiderman himself couldn’t sort that one out

the Foreign Legion left Algeria for the last time
but Algerians kept long memories of their occupation

Marilyn was fired by 20th Century Fox for not turning up
and no-one seemed to notice that her world was falling apart
and she’d begun that sad descent to her infamous nude scene
in that hotel room; and I wonder if you ever met her

because that was the month you went into Stoke Mandeville Hospital
and I never saw you again.

Rachel Davies
April 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Blood and more blood…

I started to write this blogspot to see how a PhD would elbow its way into my life: what it would nudge out of the way to make its space. I’m reminded this week that, in the end, completion may not be negotiable. The week has been dominated by frightening global events as two playground bullies square up to each other across the wide Pacific. Trump has been using hyperbolic phrases like ‘locked and loaded’, ‘…the likes of which the world has never seen’ and ‘fire and fury’–which one American local newspaper reported as ‘fire and furry’: typo or satire? The trouble with playground bullies is they don’t back down until they have bloody noses, and the bloody noses of this scenario will make a world-wide mess. I was fifteen at the time of the Cuban missile crisis and I remember well how a frightened world held its breath; and the crisis then was handled by men who understood the power of diplomacy. Trump and Kim only seem to understand ‘my bomb’s bigger than your bomb’; so perhaps we’re all f****d. Let’s hope someone with influence somewhere has a bit more foresight than them. We live on such a beautiful planet, that we seem bent on destroying. Here’s a picture I took from my bedroom window at 5.00 a.m. this morning. I was struck by the mist hanging in the Tame Valley: autumn is just around the corner I’m afraid; and we haven’t even had a summer yet!

IMG_1263

Anyway, I plod one, tending my own garden as Candide advised. I’m beginning to have more flowers than weeds at last, I think. I have finished the analysis of Pascale Petit’s ‘The Huntress’ this week all ready for the section I’ll write later in the autumn. A daughter speaker tells of her relationship with her mentally ill mother: ‘Like Cortés, I found her monstrous’, she writes in the poem ‘Portrait of My Mother as Coatlicue’, pronounced Koh-at-lee-kway meaning ‘serpent skin’; this is the frightening Earth Mother Goddess, her head, decapitated by her own offspring, replaced by two serpent heads. That first line of the poem pretty much sums up the relationship between mother and daughter in the whole collection. I can’t wait for Mama Amazonica to arrive later in the autumn. Alongside this, I continue to read and take notes on Jessica Benjamin’s The Bonds of Love for the critical aspect. I can see how that relates directly to Pascale Petit’s poetry: I can see where I’m going with it.

I also did some work on the creative aspect: I’ve vowed to give that more space as it carries the weight of the thesis. I revisited the sestina I posted here last week, trimmed it considerably, making it less of a baseball bat: much more subtle than the baseball bat I felt it was last week. I like it. I’ll leave it alone for a few weeks now before I come back to see if I still like it after a break. I’ve started to edit some of the other poems in the portfolio that I’m not happy with too. This is my favourite thing: to take a rough first draft and model it like clay until I have a product I can live with. It’s the making of something worthwhile; without creativity, what are we? I find my creativity in words.

On Wednesday evening Bill and I went to Oldham Odeon to see the live screening of Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare’s plays I didn’t know at all. I went expecting to see a Roman history, and it sort of was; but oh, it was so much more that I didn’t expect. It is bloody and bizarre: bloody bizarre!  Rape, intrigue, limbs lopped off in the name of justice, enforced cannibalism; and so much blood shed, you have to wonder how they all stay alive. And it still managed to be funny in places as well: as I said, bizarre! Shakespeare must have been on something when he wrote this one. But it was wonderful for all that; David Troughton in the lead role was brilliant.

In other news, I sent out my Poetry Society Stanza mailing this week. We meet again on August 29th, 7.30-9.30 at the Britannia Inn in Mossley, when we are going to read and discuss the poetry of Australian poet and librettist Gwen Harwood. You can find some of her work here:
https://www.poemhunter.com/gwen-harwood/
Come along if you’re in the area, you’ll be very welcome.

And in other other news, my granddaughter, Corinna, completed her nursing degree this month and on Monday she managed to land a staff nurse post in Telford Hospital, so that was reward for three years of hard work. She’s been a single parent for much of that time as well, and I’m so proud of what she’s achieved.  And Bill had his last appointment at the hospital: he was discharged on Monday after ten years. He had radical surgery for prostate cancer ten years ago and on Monday that phase of his life came to a happy conclusion when he was discharged into the continuing scrutiny of his GP; so that was some really good news.

That’s it then, another rewarding week. I’m sure you know that July 31st was the centenary of the start of the Battle of Passchendaele in the first world war. It seems appropriate to remember that this week, with the playground bullies doing their worst. So for a change, this week I’m going to post a poem by Isaac Rosenberg to remind us all of the reality of war. It isn’t glorious, it isn’t victory at any cost. It is just too high a cost. We wear the poppy for remembrance, but we don’t remember. Not really. If we did, we wouldn’t still be making war. Rosenberg fought at Passchendaele, so he understands absolutely. The ‘queer sardonic rat’ has more chance of life than the ‘haughty athletes/…bonds to the whims of murder’. As long as the playground bullies remember that themselves, just keep pulling faces across the ocean and don’t resort to pressing buttons, we’ll all get through this. We will.

Break of Day in the Trenches

The darkness crumbles away.
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver–what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe–
Just a little white with the dust.

Isaac Rosenberg

 

 

 

The Best Job I’ve Ever Had

I heard this week of a man who is due to retire from Sainsbury at the age of 95. Reg Buttress first retired from his job at the Cwmbran supermarket when he was 65. That retirement lasted for six weeks, by which time he was so bored, he asked for his job back. He retires again next month. The thing is, when I googled this story, I learned that Reg isn’t the only one. In March this year, for instance, Kathleen Privett retired from her hairdressing job aged 93. These are commendable stories that show how keeping busy is good for your health. But if retiring at 90+ becomes a trend the government might feel justified in adjusting its state-pension-age policy significantly upwards: retirement at 68 might well look like a luxury of idleness.

I was a primary school headteacher in my past life. I retired fourteen years ago and the lovely teachers’ pension I earn every month is compensation for accepting a lower salary than I could have earned in a comparable management stratum in the private sector. Teaching was hard, rewarding work, I loved it. I loved being a headteacher. I’ve also done some nursing in my life, packed purchases in Freeman’s Mail Order, been first aider in a carrot canning factory, worked as a check-out girl in a cash and carry, picked broad beans on a Fenland farm. Without a doubt, retirement is the best job I’ve ever had. Boredom, as Reg experienced, has never been an issue for me. Since I retired I’ve completed a BA (Hons) Literature with the OU; done an MA in Creative Writing and am now working towards PhD from MMU. I have written poetry, read poetry, been on countless poetry retreats, published some poetry, won some poetry competitions. I have travelled to Australia on two occasions where I watched the one-day international cricket series, drove the Great Ocean Road from Melbourne to Adelaide, took a train trip to the Blue mountains and twice went to the Sydney Opera House for performances of Carmen and Sweeney Todd respectively. I’ve visited Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo and Cape Town. On top of this, I have done the books at Amie’s Black Ladd restaurant every week for more than ten years. I couldn’t have done any of these things if I’d still been working. Reg, boredom is only an issue if you let it be. And I’ve known too many people who have died within months of retiring, their bodies unable to cope with the change of pace. Thankfully, my health hasn’t let me down–not too badly at least. For me, retirement is a privileged age when I get to do the things I dreamed of doing while I was paying my taxes and NI to fund it. I’ve never been busier.

This week has been all about poetry, most of it PhD related. On Monday it was the writing workshop at Leaf. Despite Metrolink’s best efforts to thwart the plan, Hilary and I were there. A points failure at Newton Heath resulted in delays on the way in, and that is where the tram ended its homeward journey. We made the trip home via Ashton-u-Lyne instead, where Bill met us, bless him. On Sunday I spent the morning revisiting some of my portfolio of poems. I have a poem about motherhood that I’ve never been entirely happy with: it is a big block of text, is a bit cheesy and not a little gender stereotyped. I had written on it at a previous revisit, Would this make a sestina?  In case you don’t know–and excuse me if you do–a sestina is a poetry form of six six-line stanzas and a three line last stanza. Each of the six stanzas uses the same six end words in a varying order and the six end words appear, two in each line of the tercet at the end. So I decided to give it a go. I chose my six end words from the original poem and composed a sestina. It wasn’t the sestina I meant to write, but it was a sestina non-the-less. The end words sort of dictated what it became about. It’s still about mothers and daughters so will possibly be included in the portfolio; it still needs lots of work before it earns its place though. I took it along to Leaf on Monday evening and received some really useful feedback. At the moment the repetitions driven by the end words are a bit like sledge hammers; I need to make them much more subtle. But it is there to be worked on.

On Tuesday I spent the most wonderful day analysing Pascale Petit’s The Huntress for the critical element of the PhD. What a collection that is, addressing the mental illness of the speaker’s mother, linked to domestic and sexual abuse and all woven as a collection with Petit’s visits for research to the Amazon Rain Forest. I love it. The mother is a frightening and threatening woman, depicted variously as poisonous snakes, Aztec gods of death and destruction, a Tibetan singing bowl. Alongside my analysis, I was doing internet searches to clarify all the references to Amazonian myths, gods/goddesses, flora and fauna: I learned so much. After a morning’s work I’d analysed only about eight of the poems in the collection and have the start of a framework for the next chapter of the thesis. I was so engrossed I even forgot to stop for lunch, which hasn’t been known often. I have preordered her new collection, Mama Amazonica, due out in the autumn. It deals with similar issues in a similar way, so I’m interested to see how she makes it new. It is published by Bloodaxe and is Poetry Book Society autumn choice.

On Thursday, Bill and I went into Manchester together. I wanted to spend the M&S gift card my sister very kindly gave me for my birthday. Sad to say, I couldn’t find anything I wanted to buy. I’m not surprised they are struggling for profit at the moment. Frankly, the displays are boring, the merchandise lacks flair. One dress, a light cotton floaty thing which was quite nice but ‘not me’ was displayed on a mannequin; and even ‘she’ looked bored. Her shoulders sagged and it’s no exaggeration to say the dress hung like a limp rag: who could think anyone would be encouraged to buy that from such an unattractive display? Perhaps I should go in and ask for a job? Well I would, but I don’t have time! We also went into Waterstones to spend a gift card I had for Christmas. I was saving it for Mama Amazonica, but I ordered it online from the Poetry Book Society, so I had a lovely half hour browsing the poetry section before settling on Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake and an anthology of three poets, including Kathryn Maris. I also bought a quirky bookmark in the shape of a stuffed pig: my Chinese horoscope sign. We went for a bite at Proper Tea only to find it closed down. Thankfully, I’ve learned since it’s only a temporary closure for refurb; so hopefully I’ll get a fix of their lovely caraway seeded Polish rye bread toast soon.

On Saturday I was at my desk again for 8.00 a.m. analysing some more Pascale Petit. I broke off at 10.00 to meet Hilary for coffee in Albion Farmshop and went back to my books when I got home about 11.30. I worked until 2.00; so now I have about 6000 words of analysis and still only about half way through the collection, with Mama Amazonica still to readIt won’t go into the thesis as it stands, but I’ll be able to use a substantial part  of it as cut and paste.

That’s it then; another week done and dusted. I’ve enjoyed it, been busy, learned loads, done some shopping. A good week all round.

I’ll give you a sneaky peak at the sestina this week. I’m not happy with it yet, not by a long chalk, but it’ll give you an idea of the sestina form and you’ll see where I’m going with it. I need to disguise the end words more, and revisit the repetitions that hit you round the head like a baseball bat at the moment; but remember I only wrote it on Sunday morning so it’s still only foetal at best. It’ll grow old gracefully as I work on it. In its favour, it does have some good lines, I think, well worth keeping.

 

This is not really a poem about grandmothers

 it’s more a cautionary tale about mothers.
Mine wasn’t one to hold her babies close.
She never saw herself as a repository of history.
She was no story-teller and lost histories can change
who we think we are. How can we know
ourselves if our story isn’t roused from its troubled sleep?

Some mothers tell bedtime stories to encourage sleep.
I don’t remember ever sitting on my mother’s
knee for a story, so I never got to know
my lost grandmothers. I had to make them up, close
approximations to an ideal: stories are loose change
In the trouser pockets of our history.

Who we are is indelibly imprinted by our histories.
We can’t ever know ourselves if we sleep-
walk through life, half plotted. A story can change
who we are, where we’re from. Mother
kept her stories wrapped in the closed
shroud of memory, never passed them on. I knew

my grandmothers as shadows, women I didn’t know
I missed until I was a grandmother myself. History
should be passed down the generations. Don’t close
the door on it, instead feel its draft. Sleep
in peace knowing I think of you, Grandmother,
more now than I ever did as a child. That changed

when I became a grandmother; now it’s time to change
trajectories. I’ll make sure my children know
every story I never heard from my mother.
I’ll invent our story myself—we all know history
is owned by the woman with the pen. So sleep
knowing your dreams won’t be wasted. Close

to my long night closing
in, I’ll exchange
our lost history for folk tales. I won’t sleep
until my grandchildren’s grandchildren know
their place in history.
What I can’t know I’ll invent. My un-storied mother

put the past to sleep in a crypt that’s still closed.
Not me. I’ll be Mother Almighty. I’ll change
history. They’ll know me best by the tales I weave.

 

Rachel Davies
July 2017

 

 

Brain gym, Todmorden and Tutankhamun

I read this week that keeping your brain active is prophylaxis against dementia. Well I should be protected then, my brain is never still. I’m a gold medal reader; I write; even when I’m watching rubbish on the telly I’m usually doing an iPad sudoku at the same time. My brain thinks it’s had a good night if it sleeps five hours. When I retired from my primary headship one lovely child said to me, ‘you’ll be able to put your feet up now.’ I have to report, feet-up hasn’t happened yet.

I’ve had another busy week. I spent Sunday being creative for the PhD. I edited a poem I wrote some time ago and wasn’t happy with. ‘Dear Grandma Ghost’ is a poem I wrote about a photograph of my mother and her sisters when they were little girls. I redrafted it as a modern sonnet, but it doesn’t really like being restrained in this form. I was more happy with it after spending a couple of hours on it, but it still asks a lot of the reader. My maternal grandma was Lord Caernarvon’s cook: he who bankrolled the Tutankhamun pyramid raid, so I allude to that in the poem, but it isn’t clear why. Anyway, I decided to take it to Stanza on Tuesday for feedback.

Monday I spent a lovely day with family. Amie, Richard and I went to Todmorden for lunch in a vegan café, The Old Co-op. Amie had discovered it in an internet search: Richard is a vegan and he always seems to get last dibs on an exciting meal when we go out.   The Old Co-op was lovely though, lots of choice. I can’t seem to say the same for the rest of Todmorden, unfortunately. Perhaps we didn’t look in the right spaces, but there didn’t seem to be too much to hang around for, and what there was was horribly depressing–sorry if Todmorden is your home, but that’s how I felt. I’m open to being convinced otherwise. We drove back to Shaw and caught Metrolink into Manchester for a look around. My younger son, Michael, got in touch while we were having lunch, so we were all together in spirit.

On Tuesday I had the day to myself: Bill was out of the house playing golf. I had a hair appointment first thing. I took my Kindle and when I called into Java in Uppermill for a coffee before coming home to settle to PhD work, I was able to read some of Jessica Benjamin so I felt less as if I was skiving. I love my Kindle: how you can carry a library in your handbag. It’s no good for poetry as a rule, though. It messes with the formatting. But it is brilliant for academic books because you can highlight passages without feeling like a book vandal; and you can immediately check references in the body of the writing. When I got home I worked on the sonnet crown. I’m chipping away at it all the time, making the dialogue more natural, colloquial, believable. I like it more every time I work on it.

Tuesday evening it was Stanza. We met at the Britannia Inn in Mossley: it’s becoming our new home. It was the anonymous workshop this month, when members send me a poem they want feedback on and I send them all out without names attached. We find this leads to more honest, less constrained feedback if we don’t know who we are addressing; although it has to be said, when you get to know the poets, it isn’t difficult to guess who wrote what. We had six members this month and a very pleasant evening with good discussion around the poems. I took my ‘Dear Grandma Ghost’ and at the end of the evening, when the poets had owned up to the poems, Rod asked if it was part of my crown of sonnets. No, it isn’t; but that did give me a way into the problem of clarifying it. It could be a crown: I could develop it in that way to reveal it to the reader. Thanks Rod, I feel another sonnet crown coming on.

Wednesday, after doing the books at the Black Ladd, Bill and I went into Oldham for an evening meal prior to going to the new Odeon Cinema in the town centre to watch ‘Dunkirk’. I’m not avid for war films, but this one had Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance in, three of my favourite actors so they were my draw. And they didn’t disappoint. The film itself was like watching the first ten minutes of Private Ryan for a full two hours: it was mental torture; but they, and particularly Rylance, were brilliant. He was at his understated best. I loved him as Cromwell in ‘Wolf Hall’; and I saw him play Olivia in Twelfth Night at the Globe some years ago. He definitely retrieved Dunkirk from becoming a death wish!

Thursday was all domestic stuff; and I worked with Amie to review her menus. Friday I bought some prescription sunglasses with the 50% off voucher I got from Specsavers when I picked up my new specs. The sunglasses are a bit of an indulgence, but I find lenses that change shade with the sun are fine outdoors but it takes a bit of time for them to clear when you go indoors, rendering you temporarily vision impaired. Hence the sunglasses. My distance vision is really too weak for normal sunglasses now. Ho hum!

Saturday I was at my desk just after 8.00. I dedicated most of the day to the creative element of my PhD. I went through my portfolio, editing poems that needed it, and I spent five glorious hours sending poems out for publications and competitions, including sending a selection of my portfolio poems to the Overton Prize organised by Loughborough University, details here:

http://www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/aed/about/creative-opportunities/competitions-prizes/overton-poetry-prize/

They accept poems that have been previously published so that’s a bonus. I also sent off a couple of non-portfolio poems for consideration for a children’s anthology of humorous poems aimed at children 7-11 years old. I sent poems about a woodlouse and a jelly fish. So, some of my babies are out there, finding their way in the world. Wish them luck.

In the afternoon I did some more reading of Benjamin’s Bonds of Love. This is going to inform my analysis of Pascale Petit’s poetry when Mama Amazonica arrives. By the end of Saturday, the old brain was complaining it needed a rest. Sorry, can’t rest: let’s watch Vera and do a sudoku, shall we?

I’m going to give you ‘Grandma Ghost’ as my poem this week, mainly because I know it’s nowhere near ready for publication. After Tuesday I have decided to develop it into a crown of sonnets, so that I can show the story without having to spell it out. The story is, I didn’t know either of my grandmas. As I said earlier, my maternal grandma, the one of the poem, was the cook for Lord Caernarvon before she married my granddad. He–Lord Caernarvon, not granddad–bankrolled the discovery by Howard Carter of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Of course, since then there has always been speculation about a ‘mummy’s curse’ on those involved, many of them dying young; including my grandma who died very young, although I don’t think she actually went out to Egypt. My mother left her nursing career to nurse grandma in her final illness. I don’t know much more about her than that, really. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t miss her when I was growing up; I didn’t realise what a grandma was until I became one myself, so I miss her more in my dotage than I ever did as a child. I have tended to invent her bit by bit; and this poem is part of that.

Dear Grandma Ghost

Inscrutable in her organza frock,
white stockings, button bar shoes, this girl
I don’t know who became my mother.
Was she your princess Grandma Ghost?

I wish I’d missed you when I was growing up.
You were a story passed down in instalments,
the shadowy outline of a Pharaoh’s curse.

I used to imagine you cooking the lunch
as Anubis stood at the gates of hell licking his lips,
ensuring you all exited stage left in the desert heat
pursued by a mummy. And he caught you

before we had chance to meet, before I could ask you,
Grandma Ghost, about this girl who’s my mother,
inscrutable in her organza frock.

Rachel Davies
July 2017