Monthly Archives: November 2017

16 Days of Action Against Domestic Violence #day6

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16 Days of Action Against Domestic Violence – Day 6

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The painting above is by a fabulous artist called Fran Riley.  It hangs in my living room to remind me what I know.

Poets have always turned to myth and stories to talk about trauma and violence.  The figure of the woodcutter – just the word ‘woodcutter’ and the word ‘forest’ and all the old childhood stories are summoned from their resting places.

When a poem settles down on its hunches and the poet comes from out of the shadows and says something like ‘Listen’ or ‘I can tell you’ or ‘Let me tell you’ or ‘The story goes’ it can feel like they are with you in the room whilst you’re reading.

One of my favourite poems which does this is by the poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly.  The poem is called Song.  Listen, the poet says.  This poem is also about knowing.  Who knows, and who doesn’t.  Not only who knows, but what they know.  The type of knowing.

I read an article that told me that trees warn each other when there is danger.  That they communicate through an intertwined and complicated root system.  That if one tree is failing in a forest, other trees will divert resources to it to help it.

This poem is about a moment of knowing, of understanding, a moment of change, a moment of knowing. Although it is hidden amongst trees, and behind figures of woodcutters, and clever ravens, and throats, and light coming and going from the room as if it was a person.

 

 

 

 

The Knowing

The story goes that the light slipped past/and entered the
room like a shout/he stood over me/a woodcutter entered
the forest/and the trees began to warn each other/it was
July or maybe June/the knowing settled at my throat/a
clever raven/it never left/does not believe in trees or
flying/the light slipping past/it is sometimes painful/to have
a knowing at your throat/that clever raven/but better than
the alternative/something small and bruised/the raven
knows most things/it remembers nothing/this is really
about the trees/which saw it all

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16 Days of Action Against Domestic Violence #day5

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One must have a mind of winter

The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens is one of my favourite poems.  It is a poem that has haunted me.  I didn’t love it straight away – the first time I read it, I thought nothing of it, or thought I did.  But then, every time I’ve come across it, I take the time to read it again.

I like that the resolution of the first line, the conclusion, is held off, sustained by the poem until line 8, but then this is only half a resolution, and the poem pushes onward again.

What does a mind of winter feel like?

Who am I talking to in my poem? Not to him.  Maybe to you.  Maybe to myself.

Who is Wallace Stevens talking to?  There is a snow man.  There is a ‘himself’.  There is a male listener in the snow.  Could he be talking to me?  A mind of winter

Who am I telling this story to, where nothing really happened, apart from the snow falling, and everything, almost everything stopping.

Whenever it snows, I think of this poem.  I think of that night.

I am glad I live in a place now where it hardly ever snows.

There is too much salt in the air.  I live too close to the sea.

This is as close to a narrative as I can get.

I hardly ever read this poem out.

Even though it’s made of nothing but snow and air and light

 

 

 

Followed

It fell all day and cut off each street.
Nothing worked the way it was
supposed to.  Cars abandoned
at the sides of roads.  The snow
with a silent, insistent will of its own.
People in suits hurried past,
smiling despite themselves,
despite being late, snowlight
on their faces, opened up
at the slow speed of moving.
The traffic lights flashed
red/amber/green and every bus
brought shuddering to its knees.
In that quiet light he looked
taller than in the morning
when I left, everything black
about him, his coat and shoes
and trousers, his hands and heart
and eyes.  How pleased
he was to see me, his arm heavy
on my shoulders.  The smell
of his leather coat filled my nose
and took the cold away.
I told myself it was just a dog I heard,
that night on the street
when all I could see was snow.
I almost turned but then I followed.
I followed to the darkness of our home.

16 Days of Action Against Domestic Violence #day4

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16 Days of Action Against Domestic Violence #day4

Whilst I was writing these poems, this sequence, once I realised that was what I was doing, I started to look around for other poets who had written about violence or trauma.

My friend, the poet David Tait was leaving to live and work in China and asked me to look after part of his collection of books.

Looking through the box, I found Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

It was a huge and heavy book,written in blank verse.  It would only be a slight exaggeration to say I fell in love with it.

This is from Book 1, available online here and translated by Ian Johnston.

                                                    Before the sea,
land, and heavens, which cover everything,
the entire world of nature looked the same.
They called that Chaos, a crude confused mass,
nothing but lifeless stuff and scattered seeds of matter not yet properly combined, all piled up in the same place together.There was no Titan yet providing light to the world, Phoebe did not grow larger and renew her crescent horns, nor did Earth remain hanging in the surrounding air, balanced by her own weight. Amphitrite had not yet pushed her arms through long margins of the coastal shores, and where there was land there was also sea and air, but the ground was not solid, the water was not fit for swimming, and the air lacked any light. No matter retained its own proper shape—one thing would keep obstructing something else, for in one body cold things fought with hot,wet with dry, soft with hard, and heavy thingswith those which had no weight. 

In the Metamorphosis, there are more than 250 transformations as women (and sometimes men, but mostly women) fall afoul of the gods.  They are transformed into trees, birds, animals, flowers.

I started to think of the violence of that act.  The transformation of the self by another.

Which is what happens in an abusive relationship.

The self is transformed.  Maybe this is the most violent act.

Which sounds ridiculous, because physical violence is obviously more painful, more immediate, more obvious, more measurable.

But then, once the self is transformed, it can’t be reversed.

In Ovid, hardly anyone comes back to human form.

If they live, they live a different life.

I also, around this time, before, during, after writing this poem, found this wonderful and positive portrayal of transformation by the poet Liz Berry.  I’ve always wanted to ask her whether she’d read Ovid – the line ‘I found my bones hollowing down to slender pipes’ is particularly Ovidian, in its detail.  You can read her poem ‘Bird’ here.

When I Was a Thing with Feathers

When I turned mimic and could sing only what I’d heard
a hundred times before, when my throat changed shape
and left me unable to articulate the edges of words,
when feathers pierced my skin growing from within,
when I tried to let my head fall to my hands and found
only wings, when I was able to fly but chose never
to stutter from tree to earth and back again, when I
could live on almost nothing, when I saw myself reflected
in windows, my eyes like tiny stones and my beak
the smallest sword, when I knew fear was just a thing
to be bargained with, inside my feathered heart
was another feathered thing, born white but slowly
turning black, the way the crow in all the stories
was turned black for speaking truth.

16 Days of Action Against Domestic Violence – Day 3

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16 Days of Action – day 3

A few years ago – I think maybe the summer of 2014, I booked onto a residential poetry course with Ian Duhig and Ruth Padel at Ty Newydd.

It was a great week – and very productive for me – I wrote a lot of my first collection there.  I wrote my ‘Curse of the Trumpet Teacher’  in one of Ian’s workshops and my poem ‘That Summer’ in Ruth’s workshop (both in my first collection).

And I wrote this poem – ‘He Was the Forgotten Thing’ I think during Ian’s workshop.

Simon Armitage has a great poem here called ‘Not the Furniture Game’ which I think was one of the poems Ian may have used in the workshop. Simon’s poem reminds me a little of a blazon –  defined on the Poetry Foundation website as cataloguing ‘the physical attributes of a subject, usually female’.  It also ‘compares parts of the female body to jewels, celestial bodies, natural phenomenon, and other beautiful or rare objects.’  Simon Armitage’s poem isn’t a blazon but it seems to subvert and answer back to the tradition.

What does ‘forgotten mean anyhow?

There are references to other poems in the sequence in this poem.  When I was writing these poems, I often wrote a line, and then realised there was something, some story, some partial memory I had to write about.  Like ‘he was walking home/through the snow with his arm like a curse/round my neck’ – I had to write a whole poem ‘Followed’ to explain what I meant.  Like the birds, who keep returning throughout the sequence.  Like ‘he was a fist not an eye’ – see Day 10 ‘On Eyes’.  Or the line ‘the language of insects’ from the poem ‘In That Year’ from Day 1.  I didn’t know what I meant when I wrote it then.  I had to write another poem to understand.

Adrienne Rich said ‘Lying is done with words and also with silence’.

and ‘It will take all your heart, it will take all your breath, it will be short/it will not be simple

 

He was the Forgotten Thing

He was the forgotten thing, the blackened tree
that doesn’t grow, that doesn’t fall, he was
the car that wouldn’t pull over, the tide coming in,
he was everything I put my heart against,
the low set and turn of heads when he entered a room,
he was buses roaring past like blind heroes,
he was stolen things.  He was the connecting parts
of train carriages, he was windows with curtains
to keep out the street, he was a car that drove
through the night, he was a fist not an eye, he was
an eye not an ear, he had thoughts that took over
the day like weather, like the rain coming in,
he was nothing I thought of, he was not
what was promised, he was walking home
through the snow with his arm like a curse
round my neck, he was not black and white,
he was nothing like that.  And look at him now,
standing in a field surrounded by crows, one arm
pointing north but his face to the west,
he knows to be still with his black button eyes,
his stitched-on smile.  The birds have come
to pull out the straw that keeps him upright.
Look how they carry him home in their
sharp little beaks once again.

16 Days of Action against Domestic Violence #day2

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16 Days of Action Against Domestic Violence  – Day 2

There is a beautiful poem by the poet C.P. Cavafy called ‘Body, Remember’ or sometimes ‘Remember, Body’ depending on the translation.  You can find one translation of it here but I would recommend looking up different versions of this poem.

This is one of my favourite poems – full of regret and desire and passion and longing.  And there is something shockingly direct about it, as if Cavafy is not talking to his body, but to the readers, to yours, to mine.

And the heartbreak of that line ‘Now that it’s all finally in the past’.  The past as a place you want to return to, the past as a place that the body remembers.

The idea that the body can remember things that the mind can’t.

That sometimes there isn’t a narrative

That sometimes your body knows the narrative but keeps it to itself

That sometimes there are only fragments

The body and the mind separated and able to talk to each other

There’s a dog loose in the woods, there’s a dog loose in the woods  

Watership Down, and a rabbit going ‘tharn’

Body, remember not only how much you were loved

Body, remember that night you pretended 

Once you were full of fields

Remind me, body, so I don’t let it happen again

 

 

 

Body, Remember

Body, remember that night you pretended
it was a film, you had a soundtrack running
through your head, don’t lie to me body,
you know what it is.  You’re keeping it from me,
the stretched white sheets of a bed,
the spinning round of it, the high whining sound
in the head.  Body, you remember how it felt,
surely, surely.  You’re lying to me.  Show me
how to recognise the glint in the eye of the dog,
the rabid dog.  Remind me, O body, of the way
he moved when he drank, that dangerous silence.
Let me feel how I let my eyes drop, birds falling
from a sky, how my heart was a field, and there
was a dog, loose in the field, it was worrying
the sheep, they were running and then
they were still.  O body, let me remember
what it was to have a field in my chest,
O body, let me recognise the dog.

 

Previously published in The Art of Falling by Seren

16 Days of Action Against Domestic Violence

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16days

I wanted to take part in this last year – but by the time I realised it was happening, half of the 16 days had gone.  It seemed important to start at the beginning, to take part all the way through.

The 16 Days of Action Against Domestic Violence is linked to the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.  

In my first collection The Art of Falling there is a sequence in the middle of the book ‘How I Abandoned My Body To His Keeping’ which is centered around/explores an experience of domestic violence.

I thought that I was putting this sequence at the heart of the collection, right in the middle.  But from another angle, maybe I was hiding it.

A strange/almost coincidence that there are 17 poems in the sequence – it almost/nearly fits into the 16 days.

But not quite.  The poems spill out of the container they should have fitted into.  The experience spills out of the year that it happened in and touches everything that comes after.

When I think back to the process of writing this sequence, when I think of the poems in the sequence, Elizabeth Bishop’s poem ‘The Monument’  always comes into my mind.  ‘The Monument’ is only a monument.  But also an experience.  Something you can walk around, and look at from every angle.  Maybe you can climb on top of it and look down. Or lie on the floor and look up.  You can’t climb inside it and look out.  Or maybe you can. Still, by the end of the poem/experience, could you draw the Monument? Could you testify to the truth of it,to what it really looked like?

This was the first poem I wrote about that time, that place, that year.  I wrote it half-asleep, sitting in front of the fire on the floor.  The same feeling of half-asleep that you might have when you’re driving late at night, and you realise you need to pull over before you drift across a motorway, drift into a fence. I wasn’t driving, or at least I was only driving towards a poem. I woke up at 3am with my head in the dog basket and the house completely silent, and the poem (or at least a first draft) finished.

 

In That Year 

And in that year my body was a pillar of smoke
and even his hands could not hold me.

And in that year my mind was an empty table
and he laid his thoughts down like dishes of plenty.

And in that year my heart was the old monument,
the folly, and  no use could be found for it.

And in that year my tongue spoke the language
of insects and not even my father knew me.

And in that year I waited for the horses
but they only shifted their feet in the darkness.

And in that year I imagined a vain thing;
I believed that the world would come for me.

And in that year I gave up on all the things
I was promised and left myself to sadness.

And then that year lay down like a path
and I walked it, I walked it, I walk it.

 

This poem can be found in The Art of Falling, published by Seren 2015

The Garsdale Retreat – Residential Poetry Course

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ian mcmillan

I’m really excited to be running a residential poetry course on behalf of The Garsdale Retreat,  a creative writing centre ‘set in the heart of the remote and beautiful setting of the Yorkshire Dales’.  The focus of the course is ‘Encounters and Collisions’ and the guest poet is the fabulous Ian McMillan.  The course will run from the 5th-10th March 2018 and prices range from £500-760.

If you’d like to book, or find out more, head over to the website where you will find details of the course, testimonials from previous attendees of The Garsdale Retreat, and some beautiful photographs of the house and the surrounding area: http://thegarsdaleretreat.co.uk/courses/encounters-and-collisions/