This has been my best week since the gall bladder saga – I’ve managed to run 45 kilometres this week. My target for the next two weeks at least is to try and get 45 kilometres in each week. I was talking to my friend about goals, and the importance of having them. My next goal is to run the Coniston 14 race on March 28th. I’ve never done it before, but I paid for it before I got ill, and I’m determined to have a good go at it. I’m not sure what time to aim for, as it is very hilly, and a bit longer than a half-marathon. I’m also reading at Lancaster Litfest that afternoon at 4pm, so I can’t take any longer than two hours, otherwise I won’t have time to get home, have a shower and cram some food in before setting off to Lancaster again! I think I’m slightly crazy for attempting this, and I am wondering now whether going home to have a shower is slightly ambitious. In fact if I have any friends between Coniston and Lancaster who would be willing to let me use their shower on the way, I would be forever grateful, and am sure the audience would be as well as I won’t turn up all sweaty and smelly.
My twin sister is doing the Keswick to Barrow event which takes place on May 6th. This is a 43 mile walk that is in its 51st year of running. I was vaguely thinking about doing the walk with her, but I’ve got a soul band gig that night so I’ve decided that it would be a bit ridiculous to try and do both. However, there is a Coniston to Barrow walk on the same day which is 21 miles, which I think I’m going to have a go at running. Or maybe run/walking. This will be the furthest I’ve ran, so I just need to see how the training goes for it over the next few months.
Anyway, enough running talk as one of my esteemed readers, Martin Copley skips over any mention of running as it brings him out in a cold sweat. This week I’ve also done a bit of poetry stuff as well. I went to Manchester on the train to the Carol Ann Duffy and Friends reading series on Monday night. Liz Lochhead was the main guest reader, but as part of the series, students from the MA are invited to read. My friends Keith Hutson and Hilary Robinson did ten minute sets each and read really well. There was another student called Ian Walker, who I hadn’t met before who was also very good. The House Poet who introduces the readers is now two House Poets, John Fennelly and Mark Pajak, and as Keith said when he got up to read, they were a bit like Ant and Dec with their double act.
While I was in Manchester I managed to get a copy of Mark Pajak’s new pamphlet Spitting Distance, and today’s Sunday Poem is the title poem of that pamphlet, but more on that later. First I have to tell you about the rather exciting headlong gallop through the streets of Manchester. I sat in the pub for far too long chatting with people and then my friend B and I realised we only had 15 minutes to get to Picadilly and we were a good 25 minute walk away. We ran all the way from the bar opposite the theatre to the train station which would have been fine, if I hadn’t been carrying a really heavy bag of books just in case I got bored on the train AND wearing stupid boots that are not designed to run in. I’d also ran 7 miles that morning along the beach so could have done without another couple to be honest. Anyway we made our train with a minute to spare which was lucky seeing as it was the last one!
Even more exciting than that though is I managed to hand in my RD1! I actually sent it over a day earlier because I couldn’t bear to have it hanging around anymore. I had to ring the admin guru at the university because I couldn’t find a form that I needed to fill in, and then I had a couple of questions. I don’t usually like talking on the phone – I have a phobia about it – I come out in a cold sweat! Unless it’s someone I know very well and feel comfortable with and then I’m ok. Anyway, I usually avoid the phone at all costs, so this may indicate my level of desperation! Anyway D, the university admin guru was brilliant and got me sorted out and now it’s gone, there’s nothing I can do about it which is a great relief. I just have to wait and see if it is passed by the committee now, and I’m not sure how long that will be.
So back to Mark Pajak’s pamphlet Spitting Distance. I read it in one sitting on the train on the way home, and really enjoyed it. It was published by Smith/Doorstop in 2016 as part of the ‘Laureate’s Choice’ series. Mark’s work has been published in The North, Magma and The Rialto and was highly commended in both the Cheltenham and the National Poetry Competitions. Today’s Sunday Poem is the title poem of his pamphlet, but it is also the poem that won the 2016 Bridport Prize.
It’s easy to see why – the subject of the poem is startling and different. Perhaps one of the things I most admire in Mark’s work is his ability with simile and metaphor. He is able to do that rare thing of finding the exact metaphor or simile that is both true to the thing being compared, but also completely surprising. In Spitting Distance, you can see this in the first couplet, when he writes that the rifle shell he finds is ‘like a gold seed in the earth.’ There is something completely surprising about this, and yet completely correct. It’s surprising because it is an object that causes death, and it is being compared to something that life springs from. It also sounds as if the earth has produced the bullet – it is ‘in the earth.’ Later on the bullet is described as a ‘blunt bud’. A path is described as ‘falling like a braid’ – and I know exactly what he means, although I’ve never walked on that path.
On one hand, the poem is set in a very real landscape. Mam Tor is named. We are told about the ‘warped floor of Derbyshire’ and a wonderful description of a chimney which ‘hangs from the sky/on a white string.’ Yet there is also something strange about this poem. Surreal isn’t quite the right word, but things are slightly odd. The speaker in the poem has a strange way of thinking about things, and we know this right from the second couplet when he says ‘So I load it into my mouth/and go on walking.’ Again, that word ‘load’ pre-empts the later line ‘So this is what it’s like to be a gun’. A lesser poet might have just said ‘So I put it into my mouth’ or ‘place it in my mouth’ or ‘pop it in my mouth’ but load fits with loading a gun.
There are no motives offered for the strange behaviour and later on it gets stranger still, when the speaker lies down in the heather to be ‘A body with a bullet/in its head staring at this sky.’ Of course the speaker is pretending to be a dead body with a bullet in its head, but the speaker also is a body with a bullet in its head. Of course, Mark Pajak isn’t the first poet to imagine life as a gun. Emily Dickinson’s famous poem ‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun’ starts
‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun
In Corners – till a Day
The Owner passed – identified –
And Carried Me away
In Emily Dickinson’s poem, the gun is carried away by the ‘owner’ and put to use. The gun is both passive and active. It is active only in another’s hands. In Mark’s poem, the bullet is the thing that instigates change – first it changes the body of the speaker into a gun, and then it changes it back into a body, but a dead one.
There is ‘the red dot of a car’ which made me think of looking through the sights of a gun to aim and shoot. The poem is a masterclass in ensuring that all the language and imagery contained within it is working together and pulling its own weight. Definitely one of the poems I’ve read and wished I’d written it myself!
Spitting Distance – Mark Pajak
Near Edale, I find a live rifle shell
like a gold seed in the earth.
So I load it into my mouth
and go on walking, the sun
breathing down my neck,
the head of Mam Tor rising
and the path falling like a braid.
So this is what it’s like to be a gun;
copper bleeding on the gums,
the domino click in the teeth.
At the blue summit, I look down
with my new perspective
on the warped floor of Derbyshire,
to where a village pools in a valley
and a chimney hands from the sky
on a white string. And I watch
with hunger the red dot of a car
stop at a crossroads. I suck hard
on the blunt bud, drawing out
its deeper flavour of powder,
smoke down the barrel
of my throat. Then it hits me
that there’s another side to this.
And I lay in the warm heather.
A body with a bullet
in its head staring at this sky.
Its clouds blown open.
Its sudden night.