Sunday Poem – Penny Boxall

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I’m writing this from a motorway services station at midnight on Wednesday night.  It is a very strange place to be.  There are two men who are sitting in front of the slot machines – they’ve been there for the last half hour.  They probably think I’m just as strange though, sitting here with a laptop cursing at it because it won’t connect to the internet.  A family has just walked in who are using the baby feeding station to warm up a pizza which seems strange, but then it’s that or paying a ridiculous amount of money for a cake or a limp sandwich.

It is my sworn oath this year that no Sunday shall pass without a Sunday Poem being unleashed onto the world.  Unfortunately for my sworn oath, I only remembered at about 4pm today that I would be in Holland on Sunday, at a campsite, maybe in the middle of a poetry festival, and it would be an absolute pain to try and find a computer and an internet connection.  So I am trying the whole scheduling a blog-post to publish in advance.

But what a strange thing to write this on Wednesday when only half the week has happened! By the time you all read this, I will have been in Holland for four days and I’m hopefully having a great time.  Although I might be a little sad because my lovely friend Jan Glas will be leaving on Sunday to go home.  But I will be happy because it will mean only two days till I see Mr C, the husband.

Anyway, of necessity, today’s post is going to be short.  My flight is at 5.55am on Thursday morning from Manchester, and tonight (Wednesday) I had another reading to sixth form students who are on a trip and staying at the university campus in Ambleside.  The reading went ok – this week only a third of them stayed for my bit of the poetry reading and I was slightly thrown when I saw another one of my ex-pupils who used to play in the band. After the reading finished, I went for a Chinese in Ambleside and then drove here – it wasn’t worth me going back to Barrow as I’d just have to set off again, but once I’ve finished this I’m going to try and get a couple of hours sleep in the car.

I’m really excited about this trip.  The poetry festival is in Vlieland which is a very small island off the coast of Holland.  There are not many cars there apparently, but lots of cycle paths, which means lots of paths to go running on and nothing much else to do apart from read and write and hang out with people – sounds like my ideal weekend!

This week I’ve had my friend Lindsey Holland come to stay and we’ve had a really nice time.  We decided to have a poetry day on Monday and spent the whole day in our pyjamas, writing and reading.  I managed to get two submissions sent off for the first time in god knows how long.  I had to finally admit to myself that I have in fact been hoarding poems, not sending them out and thinking they were all rubbish.  Precisely what I tell other people not to do.  So twelve are now out in the world seeking their fortune.

Today’s Sunday Poem is by Penny Boxall, who I met when she was an intern at The Wordsworth Trust, but more recently at a Canada Poetry Day, organised by Polly Atkin.  I really enjoyed Penny’s reading and bought her book ‘Ship of the Line’ published by Eyewear Publishing.  I’ve read the book today while I was eating my Chinese and I really enjoyed it.  The poems, on the whole, are very outward looking, taking their inspiration from objects and interesting stories, so when you arrive at a poem that is in a more personal vein, like ‘The Advantage’, describing a tennis match between a father and daughter, it provides a great contrast.

There is a huge range of subject matter in the collection.  One of my favourite poems was the very first one ‘Taxidermy Outpost’, full of striking images and finishing ‘here is a chipmunk/paddling a canoe/ his little fist/just like yours’.  I also liked ‘Common Use’, ‘The Old Magic’ and ‘Halfway Up an Elephant’ in particular – but I read the book start to finish and was never bored.  It’s actually another of my favourite first collections I’ve read this year, along with Jane Clarke’s ‘The River’.

I’d have loved to have posted ‘The Old Magic’ but as I still haven’t worked out how to do indented lines on WordPress, I’ve decided to go with another wonderful poem – ‘Williams, Who Lived’, which is just a great example of the interesting stories you can find in the collection.  The notes in the back of the collection tell me that ‘Three men – each named Hugh Williams – were the sole survivors of three separate shipwrecks in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.’

I’m not going to say too much about this poem, it being nearly 1am now, but I do want to draw your attention to the lovely use of the verb ‘hauled’ in the first line – it could have been pulled, or dragged, but hauled is so much better.  The line breaks all the way through the poem are really deftly handled but my favourite line break (yes I do have them) has to be in the penultimate stanza, in the third line, when Penny breaks after ‘did’, so we get ‘did/or did not like onions’.  I also really like the fourth stanza with ‘Williams married Susan, married/Mary, married Anne’ – another good line break at married! I like the repetition of ‘and died – and died’ in this stanza and the headstones which ‘read the same, like yesterday’s paper’.

The poem is also a good example of what I talked about before, the way that Penny draws inspiration from stories and objects outside herself, rather than looking inward.

Penny was born in 1987 but already has an MA with Distinction in Creative Writing from UEA.  Her work was commissioned in 2012 for the WEYA festival on the theme of ‘Treatise’.  She won the 2010 Frederik van Eaden poetry competition and has been shortlisted for an Eric Gregory Award.  You can order Penny’s book from her publisher here.  Penny also wrote a brilliant and thoughtful review for The Compass magazine recently for our inaugral issue which you can find here.

Thanks to Penny for allowing me to use her poem.

Williams, Who Lived  – Penny Boxall

When this man was hauled from the foam
and, shaking, asked his name, the news spread fast.
They skimmed him back to shore –
a talisman, breaking the waves like eggs.

Hugh Williams had lived before.  The name
confounded shipwrecks, made men float
through salted depths towards the aching
light.  Williams was a lonely but a living sort.

It seemed the surest way to last gulp air not water,
to die dry, was to be him; or if not him
another of his kind.  The parish registrars
scrawled Williams upon Williams as though they kept

forgetting.  Williams married Susan, married
Mary, married Anne; and when he died,
(and died – and died -) the headstones
read the same, like yesterday’s paper.

Williams stayed at home and picked rocks
from the binary of ploughed earth.
Or travelled, wrote a book, did
or did not like onions; wet the bed.

And when he went to sea – as captain,
passenger, stowaway – he kept himself
to himself; threw his name around him,
vein-strung, tenuous as a caul.

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4 responses »

  1. You’ve posted some stonking poems over the years but this suddenly came racing ahead of the pack. It can go in the book of ‘poems I’d have made a pact with the devil to have written’. There’s not a wasted syllable. You can explore that ‘skimming’ in the first stanza for ages. The 4th line is a startling wonder. The very last line is totally memorable. There’s the caul a sailor would carry as a charm against drowning fresh and pliable. Veined.
    By the way, I’m chuffed you’re back in writing fettle again.

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