Tag Archives: neil astley

Sunday Poem – David Constantine


Hello everybody.  I’ve just got back from an amazing weekend at a residential course at Rydal Hall near Ambleside.  This course was the culmination of the Writing School – an 18 month intensive course I’ve been taking part in, run by the fabulous Ann and Peter Sansom of the Poetry Business. I’m pretty shattered – the whole weekend has been really intense and full of poetry – I’m not fed up of poetry though, my head is still buzzing with ideas and poems which is slightly worrying as by tomorrow I need to be back in music teacher mode – but it feels like I’ve been away for a week rather than just a weekend.

On Friday I drove up to Dove Cottage for a two hour editing session with the Kendal Young Writers group.  It was the first time they had edited their poems and I was really impressed with the way they reacted to suggestions and took them on board.

I then sped up to Rydal Hall in time for dinner with the Writing School.  One of the instructions was to prepare to read for eight minutes as another poet that we admired.  I thought that we would simply be reading say, four poems by said poet – but what little faith I displayed in my compatriots on the course!  Like a poet-monster with fourteen heads but one shared gigantic brain, they all decided that they would not (after dinner) simply read four poems by another poet – no, they would become that other poet!  So we had Alan Payne arriving not as Alan Payne but as Miroslav Holub on Friday night to start us off.  It was an interesting exercise to see which poets people chose.  The most impressive was Noel Williams on Saturday night who appeared as Selima Hill – not only did he pick great poems to read but he also told us about a letter Selima had written to him after he reviewed her book in The North – which led to a really interesting, and useful chat about reviewing – useful for me because I’m about to start a review for Under the Radar magazine.

On Saturday morning we had a fry up for breakfast and then the first writing workshop started from 10am.  Halfway through the morning we found plates of tray bakes and I developed an out of control addiction to the caramel shortbread.  These tray  bakes appeared with alarming regularity throughout the day and I didn’t want to just leave them there after all!

On Saturday afternoon we had a few hours off and I think most people went for a walk but I decided that I wasn’t going to leave hotel.  Instead I was going to slob around in my slippers and spend the afternoon reading – this seemed like a bit of a travesty when I was surrounded by such lovely country side, but I do have to walk every day with my dogs normally, so laying about the place was much more of a novelty for me…

Today we have done another writing and editing workshop, eaten more tray bakes, collected pack lunches and made our way up to Grasmere to do our end of course reading at Dove Cottage.  Everyone read for five minutes each and although I was worried I wouldn’t be able to concentrate for so long, I really enjoyed listening to everybody, hearing some poems that I’ve seen develop in the course, or heard for the first time during the workshop.  So it’s been a great weekend and I would definitely recommend the Writing School if you are reading this and looking for something to keep you focused on your writing.

So today’s Sunday Poem is David Constantine! How exciting is that.  David Constantine is the poet I decided to appear as on the course – I don’t know his work very well, but I bought his new collection ‘Elder’ after spotting it in the Durham Cathedral gift shop a week or so ago.  What made me buy it was the cover image, which is beautiful and the title of the first poem which is ‘How will they view us, the receiving angels?’.  The poem is just as beautiful.  Which says a little about the importance of the first poem in enticing a reader to buy a book. The four poems I chose to read to the other members of the course was ‘How will they view us, the receiving angels?’, ‘Bad dream’, ‘As though…because…’ and ‘Envoi’.

‘Elder’ is divided into six sections.  I’ve only read it through once, so I’m not going to offer more than a few thoughts on it.  First of all, I love the way Constantine uses titles – he often has the first line of the poem as a title, which I know some people don’t like, but I really like it.  It does vaguely remind me of Emily Dickinson…the poem ‘For a while after a death…’ starts ‘For a while after a death I live more kindly’ and the poem ‘The makings of his breathing…’ starts ‘The makings of his breathing are still there’.  In these examples I think the title is part of an irresistible arcing phrase that is completed and developed by the first line.

The book is also very formally patterned – I really liked the way Constantine uses rhyme – you can see this in the poem that I’ve chosen which I think shows how subtle he is with it.  The other thing that I really enjoyed in the collection was the poems which were derived from Ovid – I think this is because I’ve been reading Ovid recently and I think I got more from the poems because it felt like I was meeting some old friends in the characters that he writes about.

I’ve chosen ‘Bad Dream’ because I admire the structure of the poem with its rhyming couplets.  Although I don’t normally like poems about dreams (or films or books where everything turns out to be a dream) in this case I think this technique works for it.  What is more this is a bad dream – maybe a recurring dream? In fact it feels more like a premonition.  I also really like the division of self which occurs in the poem – the exploration of this is handled really deftly – it could so easily become a confusion of you’s and I’s but it doesn’t because of the sure footedness of the poet – in fact these are two of the lines that I like best

‘And there you were, not you, nearest the wall
And there was I, not I, nearest the fall’

I think that is fantastic and exciting  – and this

‘I, less and less myself, halted with the almost you’

It is a masterclass in how to use punctuation to get across the meaning that you want.  The ending to this poem is fantastic as well – and explores the importance of naming – that names give power.  At the end of the poem the name of the other person has found her like a ‘swallow’ while the I of the poem can only try to hold his with cold hands and fail – the I of the poem, nameless disappears.

I would like to say a big thanks to Neil Astley of Bloodaxe.  I don’t have David Constantine’s contact details, so I contacted Neil directly to ask if I could have this poem.  I’m a bit behind with my Sunday Poem requests and only asked Neil tonight but superstar that he is, he got back to me within fifteen minutes.  You can’t ask for more than that really!

If you would like to order David Constantine’s book you can go to the Bloodaxe website to order the latest collection ‘Elder’  http://www.bloodaxebooks.com/personpage.asp?author=David+Constantine.   You can also find a biography of David here as well.

Hope you enjoy the poem!

Bad dream – David Constantine

There was a path, the familiar path, the one
I’ve very often not yet ventured on
Around a mountainside, cut level, a sheer
Fall right, a sheer wall left, a ledge a pair
Might amble hand in hand on round the contour
And there you were, not you, nearest the wall
And there was I, not I, nearest the fall
And you were your age, but the hair was wrong
I looked like me but many years too young
And on a bend where the path swung out of view
I, less and less myself, halted with the almost you,
And on the brink, for fun or she dared him to,
He balanced his arms dead level and stood there
On his left foot and over the empty air
Raised level his right and so he stood
Lean steady spirit level of my blood
Over emptiness.  You laughed, the pair of you
And laughing hand in hand passed out of view.
On hands and knees, the ledge very narrow now,
I shouted after us, your name, my own.
Yours fled my lips to claim you, like a swallow.
Mine fell between my cold hands, like a stone.

Sunday Poem – Robert Wrigley


Evening all.  I have just had a little dance of glee whilst writing the title of this post – even though I was too cowardly to go and speak to Robert Wrigley at Aldeburgh Poetry Festival a couple of weekends ago, or to get my book signed, the lovely Neil Astley, the editor of Bloodaxe Books has given permission for me to use one of the poems from Robert’s new collection from Bloodaxe after reading a previous post about how I read Robert Wrigley’s poems at 6am on the way back from the Michael Marks Awards.

Bloodaxe have published the first UK publication of Robert Wrigley’s poetry.  The book is called ‘The Church of Omnivorous Light’ and takes poems from nine of his previous collections and you can order it here http://www.bloodaxebooks.com

Before I post the poem though I need to tell you that somewhere in the UK is a missing ‘If We Could Speak Like Wolves’. A lovely poet bought a Wolf from this blog and the envelope arrived with no pamphlet in it.  I frankly find it quite terrifying that somewhere is a postman with a penchant for pinching poetry (you see what I did there?) Anyway, I posted another out to the poet in question and I have been reliably informed (yesterday) that it has arrived safe and sound.  Why am I telling you all this? I don’t know, except maybe the power of the internet will return the wolf to its rightful owner – who will then have two personally inscribed copies – which isn’t much use…maybe it’s better left haunting the back shelves of a sorting office somewhere…

This has been the first week in ages where I have actually been at home on my days off! So on Thursday I went to get my hair cut.  On Friday I spent the day catching up with jobs – I have some more information about the residential course in April 2014 at Abbot Hall, Grange Over Sands and more information about the residential course that I’ll be running in October in St Ives and I’ll be posting that up on Tuesday next week.

On Saturday I went to Grasmere to go to a reading/talk/discussion by the Dark Mountain Project.  The Dark Mountain Project has a website http://dark-mountain.net/ which is full of fascinating stuff.  They have a manifesto, and produce beautiful anthologies but I found this summary on their website

‘The Dark Mountain Project is a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself. We produce and seek out writing, art and culture rooted in place, time and nature.’

I was particularly struck on Saturday by the idea that the language of science and ecology and politics is used a lot to talk about the environment, whereas the language of poetry isn’t – Paul Kingsnorth – one of the founders of the project said that people often discuss the cost benefits of wind turbine and measure what it will save but we don’t really talk about the impact it has on the human soul to see a wind turbine – I’m paraphrasing him here – and he said this in a much more graceful way – but I really liked this idea – partly because I’m not sure what seeing a wind turbine does do – and this does need exploring – and it is different for everyone of course – depending on your political point of view I guess, or whether you live near it or not.  Anyway, I’ve just had a quick scout of the site – it looks like I could easily spend a good couple of hours there…

I was really impressed with the quality of the work that Paul and the other reader, poet Em Strang read from the anthologies.  And I was also impressed by their humility and generosity – both read work from other writers in the anthologies – which left me wanting to hear some of their work – so I will definitely follow this up!

I then drove back from Grasmere, had some chips from the famous Matty’s chip shop in Barrow, and then drove out to Bardsea Malt Kiln.  It was a long evening, but I enjoyed it – Ross Baxter read some poetry – lots of ballads which fitted well with Maz O’Connor – a very talented folk musician who has performed for us in the past at A Poem and A Pint.  I haven’t heard her for a couple of years now, in the meantime she has been at university and winning various awards for her folk music.  Last night she performed some cracking songs she had written as a commission to mark the centenary of the death of Emily Davison – I was really impressed with her originality and musicality.  Alan Franks also performed – a mix of poetry and music and managed to lose his glasses and find them again for the last song – so all in all, a good evening.  I was glad I dragged myself out to do two poetry readings in one day – it was well worth the effort!

So, back to Robert Wrigley (if you’re sensible, you would have skipped all the previous to get to the poem).  There were so many poems I loved in this book – in fact I typed up the whole of ‘Explanatory’ and then changed my mind, because I still can’t get ‘Cigarettes’ out of my head.  I was going to use the poem ‘Explanatory’ which has an encounter with an owl at its heart to show how Robert Wrigley uses encounters with animals to find out truths about the human condition – this happens in lots and lots of his poems – I met Em Strang before the Dark Mountain event started for lunch and she mentioned Robert Wrigley as a great poet of nature and animals…I don’t think I told her I had him in my bag.  Well his book, not him, obviously.

Isn’t this poem illustrating Paul Kingsnorth point about language exactly though?  That all the language of science and the statistics about smoking do not describe the feeling that smoking creates – maybe we are using the wrong language when we try to get people to stop smoking – we use the language of statistics instead of the language of feeling…

I love the line ‘Whoever we would be for the next twenty years/took residence beyond our eyes’ – when I read this it felt like I’d been thumped in the chest – the recognition – we can all look back and remember those moments which shaped us, which we didn’t recognise at the time…then of course, if you’re a poet, you write poems about those moments…

I also like this poem for the way it follows a train of thought – it goes from one thought to the next, linking one to the other – and it does this so effortlessly.   I love the idea that the I of the poem ‘hardly stepped outside myself at all’ as if this is something we should all try and do, that the act of smoking can help you to do this, that a kiss can make you fall out of yourself and into another person..

Here is the marvellous ‘Cigarettes’ in full, with thanks to Neil Astley and Robert Wrigley for letting me post it here.

Cigarettes – Robert Wrigley

All the science notwithstanding, it’s still
a little like a kiss to me,
or what a kiss might lead to.
That first grand expulsion
of breath from the lungs hangs there
like metaphor given skin,
and we almost believe in ourselves
some new way.  Now and then
I bum one, and the rush
of dizziness that results
turns me woman in memory.
Though I lived in the world
I hardly stepped outside myself at all,
and women seemed a miracle of confidence.
Once I crossed the street
to retrieve the still-smoldering butt
a high-heeled, tight-skirted woman had tossed away.
I touched the lipstick-tainted end to my lips,
drew, and the fire burned my fingers,
the fire she’d taken into herself and sent out
into the air around us like a spell.
The first woman who ever let me
touch her, a girl really, only seventeen,
kissed me so deeply I fell out of myself
and became her.  In the moonlit backseat
I knelt upward and beheld my own eyes
in a body of perfection as vulnerable as a child’s.
Quick-witted and foul-mouthed
ordinarily, she was silent now,
even as the moments stretched out toward pain,
even when I reached over the front seat
and took one of her cigarettes and lit it
for myself.  When she moved at last
it was both arms rising toward me,
and absurdly, I handed her the smoke.
Maybe some tatter of cloud passed
before the moon just then
and in that moment her hands ceased
imploring and began simply to accept.
Whoever we would be for the next twenty years
took residence beyond our eyes.
With both hands she eased away the cigarette,
and the drag she pulled into herself
cast a light that left me blind.