Sunday Poem – Mike Barlow

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Sunday Poem – Mike Barlow

I’ve had another week at home, with no gallivanting around the place, which has been nice, but I’m starting to get slightly itchy feet now.  I’m not very good at being in one place! I’ve spent most of the week continuing with my reading for my PhD and editing one of the poems which I showed to Michael Symmons Roberts at my last supervisory meeting before the summer.  Michael asked me why the poem was in the form it was in, and I didn’t have an answer, so I decided to work on the structure of the poem, and as I’ve been reading lots about rhyme, half rhyme and parallelism, so I decided to use some of the things I’ve read about.  Instead of being in a long column, it’s now in four line stanzas, and each group of four lines rhyme together.  I think it makes the poem feel more knitted together, more robust, but maybe also more obsessive, or circular.  The strange thing is I didn’t have to really write any new lines, I just rearranged what I already had – I knew that the original version had lots of internal rhymes and echoes, but I didn’t realise how much until I started this exercise!  I don’t think it’s quite finished yet, but again, it feels different to my usual style, so the next test is to send it out somewhere and see what happens to it.

I’ve had one of my newest poems accepted for The New Humanist this week  so I’m chuffed about that.  I have to constantly keep reminding myself that I’m doing ok, as my brain likes to trick me and tell me I’m not writing, I’m not writing enough, I’m not writing well enough etc etc etc.  I’m always saying I’m not writing and then I look through my folder and realise I have been writing, but somehow have just not noticed.  Maybe I need that level of delusion to function.

I went to Sheffield yesterday to the Poetry Business workshop.  It was really great to see lots of old friends there, and to sit and write for the whole day, even though I didn’t feel like I wrote anything that could remotely make it to poem status, I’m trying to follow my own advice and think of it like practice or a workout, necessary and with hopefully long term results.

I’ve just spoken to staff at Treloyhan Manor Hotel in St Ives – bookings have gone crazy for the course I’m running with Helen Mort there in April 2018 and I’m both surprised and delighted that it has already sold out! Surprised because I only put it up on the blog less than a week ago, delighted because it means that is one job ticked off the list, and I can just look forward to running the course now, and booking a fabulous guest poet.   They are going to keep a waiting list, as in previous years, we’ve had a few people drop out at the last minute, so if you are still keen to come, it would be worth putting your name down on the list.

There are still a few spaces for the Poetry Carousel which I’m running from the 8th-11th December 2017 with Hilda Sheehan, David Morley and Steve Ely – you can find more information here but to book your place, you need to ring the hotel direct on 01539532896.  If you’d like more information about the carousel and what it will involve, you can contact me via the contact page.

So that is pretty much all of my news.  Next Saturday I’m off to Benidorm on a running holiday with three friends from my running club.  I call it a running holiday, but we basically go running for half an hour in the morning and then we lounge around for the rest of the day.  But I’m looking forward to the chance to relax for a week in the sun.

Today’s Sunday Poem is by Mike Barlow, a brilliant poet and friend of mine who lives in Lancaster.  Mike has published a number of full length collections and pamphlets.  His first full-length collection was Living on the Difference, published in 2004 by Smith/Doorstop.  This collection was shortlisted for the Jerwood Aldeburgh Prize for Best First Collection.  His next collection, Another Place, was published in 2007 by Salt, followed by a pamphlet, Amicable Numbers which was a Poetry Book Society Pamphlet Choice.  In 2012 he published his third full-length collection Charmed Lives with Smith/Doorstop.  He then went on to publish a series of pamphlets and started Wayleave Press in 2014, a small press publisher producing 6-8 pamphlets a year.

I re-read Mike’s 2014 pamphlet The Folded Moment the other day and really enjoyed it, so I asked Mike if I could feature a poem from the pamphlet here.  Mike says this pamphlet was a kind of test pamphlet for the press.  And apparently, there are no copies left of this pamphlet, so I have a rare piece of poetry history sat beside me on my desk! If you do like the poem though, Mike has just brought out a new pamphlet, again published by Wayleave called The Promise Boat which you can order from Wayleave for a mere £5.

I chose ‘Toad Road’ as the Sunday Poem this week because as soon as I read the poem I had a jolt of recognition and memory.  A few years ago now I spent a week at Cove Park in Scotland on a writing retreat.  It was terrible weather, gale-force winds and rain, and coming back from the pub in a car full of poets and novelists, I got out to open the gates to get back into Cove Park.  My hands were freezing from touching the iron gates, but we didn’t get far down the road before someone (I can’t remember who – but I can remember the shape of them in the headlights) got out of the car to try to encourage the toads/frogs (not sure which) to hop off the road so we could continue to drive down.

In ‘Toad Road’ the weather isn’t quite as bad.  It is ‘late summer’ and by saying ‘rainfall after a hot spell’ the smell of rain hitting tarmac that has been hot all day is conjured up.  There’s some great images in this poem – I love the introduction of the toads, that they could be ‘leaves, blown twigs, or squirrel-torn bark’, and I love the sharp observation of ‘These shapes don’t move/in a way only something animate is able/not to move’.

This is a journey that has been carried out before and in stanza 3 there is a disturbing and shocking image of ‘skin-stars’, of what happened when they didn’t notice.  The interesting thing about this poem is that we don’t quite know where the speaker is situated in it.  The pronoun ‘We’ is used throughout, as if these two people are of exactly one mind.  ‘We slow down’ and ‘We know now’ and more interestingly ‘one of us gets out’ to guide the driver, but as readers, we don’t know whether the speaker is the driver or the one guiding.  It’s almost as if the point of view flicks between the two.

At the beginning of Stanza 4 we read ‘rain beats hair lank,/soaks shoulders, trickles down the collar’ which is so vivid it sounds like the speaker is feeling the rain, but then in the next line, the point of view shifts, and we could almost believe we are inside the driver’s head when we read ‘Wheels weave between gold hemispheric eyes,/sacks of warty skin.’

I love the reference to Jainism, which the BBC website tells me is

‘an ancient religion from India that teaches that the way to liberation and bliss is to live lives of harmlessness and renunciation. The essence of Jainism is concern for the welfare of every being in the universe and for the health of the universe itself.

I also like that the speaker(s) in the poem are ‘sprung’ with a small elation, rather than ‘filled’ which would be a much more ordinary verb, and ‘sprung’ seems to fit the movement of the rather sedentary toads, although they do an ‘awkward flop’ rather than a spring.

I hope you enjoyed the Sunday Poem this week – please do comment below if you did, I know the poets do read the comments and they are always pleased when people engage with their work!

Toad Road – Mike Barlow 

Night, late summer, rainfall after a hot spell.
We can count on it as we slow right down
to cross the cattle grid its sump-grinding
hump before dipped lights flood tarmac.

There’s a litter of what might be taken
for leaves, blown twigs, or squirrel-torn bark.
But we know now.  These shapes don’t move
in a way only something animate is able
not to move, a toad-still rain-basking.

There was a time we failed to notice.
Next morning found the track of a murky way
of flattened skin-stars.  So one of us gets out,
precedes the car (the way they used to walk
a flag in front of early automobiles)

semaphoring to the driver here, no  here,
now there, as rain beats hair lank,
soaks shoulders, trickles down the collar.
Wheels weave between gold hemispheric eyes,
sacks of warty skin.  A nudge with a foot

gets no response, though a hand’s touch
prompts an awkward flop to the long grass.
Safely home we’re sprung with a small elation
for having made a Jain’s way through.

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4 responses »

  1. So many good things in this poem, aren’t there. Toad-still rain-basking. The sound of protesting gears on a humpy road, sacks of warty skin, a small elation….it’s great when a word like ‘small’ does exactly the right job. It was great to meet Mike for the first time at the ‘Strix’ launch, and to meet him again here. Thank you xx

  2. Really liked the line “These shapes don’t move/in a way only something animate is able/not to move, a toad-still rain-basking. I loved the whole uncertainty of that second verse. A subtler (and shorter) version of Bhishop’s The Moose perhaps! Thank you Kim and Mike!

  3. As well as the good stuff mentioned above, I like the Jain reference at the end. It’s as if the process of caring about the toads has suggested something revealing and slightly holy, amid the dark and the rain, without hitting you with ‘meaning’ or some borrowed ‘depth.’ Really great. Ken Evans

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