I’ve discovered this week that I’m not very good at being ill. I have quite a few friends who live with chronic pain or illness and they always seem to be cheerful and full of good humour, and to just get on with things. I was ill on Thursday with some kind of stomach bug. It only lasted one day – by the time I woke up on Friday, I felt much better, just very weak from not eating the day before. On Thursday though, it felt like I would never get better, and that I was in fact, mortally ill. I told you I’m not good at being ill. I get very dramatic and imagine that I’m dying. I also get bored very easily because I felt too ill to even sit up and watch TV, I couldn’t concentrate on a book, and I couldn’t go to sleep. Anyway, very luckily it didn’t last long. I cancelled my workshop on Friday with my Young Writers Group and didn’t go to Brewery Poets in the evening and spent Friday trying to take it easy.
On Saturday I had my Barrow Poetry Workshop. It was only a small group this month – for the last four months of the workshops, the groups have been getting steadily bigger, peaking at 20 last month. This month there were only six! Lots of the regulars on holiday or gallivanting off elsewhere. Those six wrote some brilliant poems though, so it was well worth the effort of running the workshop. We looked at poems by Judy Brown, Hubert Moore, John McCullough and and J O Morgan today.
We’ve got the plasterers in this week, much earlier than expected as the plasterer had a cancellation and rang up to see if he could fit us in earlier. So at the minute we have two rooms worth of furniture in the front room, and we’re living between the front room and the garden. Everything in the kitchen is covered in a film of white dust and there are radio stations playing all day which I wouldn’t normally listen to. I’m sure the plasterers think I am completely idle. The first day they were here (Friday) I was recuperating in my hammock in the garden for a lot of the day, which felt particularly lazy as they were obviously working quite hard. Then Saturday I was sat around having breakfast and didn’t go to work until 10.30 – they’d already been working for nearly two hours by that point! Then again, I was sat up until midnight, working on an assignment for Carrie Etter’s online course which I’m taking at the minute. I have to analyse sentence structure in a prose poem, which I’m finding really hard. It is interesting, but hard, and it feels like I understand what a compound-complex sentence is, and then the knowledge slips away from me again. This is probably basic knowledge that I should already know but it feels like my brain just isn’t wired up that way, to label these things.
The first half of the week I spent whizzing around doing my usual things. I went to Bowland Bridge on Monday to spend the day with a group of friends on a writing retreat before heading off to do my junior band rehearsal. I went for a run on Tuesday after work. On Wednesday, I was teaching till 6.30 and then I drove to Ulverston to host an Open Mic at Natterjacks. The friends I spent the day with at Bowland Bridge had been in touch to see if there were any poetry readings happening in Cumbria in the week they were here. There were none, so I decided to organise an open mic for them. Rob and Valerie at Natterjacks offered the venue for free and I advertised it with a minimum amount of effort via Facebook and emails, so I was really pleased when we got a good turnout and managed to fill the cafe. I think there were about 18 people signed up on the open mic, but everybody was well behaved and stuck to their time slot. Rob and Valerie’s son, Connor, who plays in my band, recited my ‘Trumpet Teacher’s Curse’ – he’d already won his category in a poetry recitation competition at the South Cumbria Music Festival but I couldn’t believe how many laughs he got – much more than when I read it!
Then Thursday morning I was stopped in my tracks. Which is probably a good place to introduce today’s Sunday Poem, by Steve Ely. I had the pleasure of working with Steve last year in St Ives on our residential and he was great to work with, very hard-working and conscientious with the feedback he gave to people on the course about their poetry, and he runs as well – what more could you want from a co-tutor?
Here is Steve’s poem, taken from a brand new pamphlet Werewolf, published by Calder Valley Poetry.
The Death Dealer of Kovno
Lithuania, land of heroes,
Thou our Fatherland that art,
From the glorious deeds of ages,
Shall Thy children take hear.
May Thy children ever follow
Their heroic fathers
In devotion to their country
(The Lithuanian National Anthem)
Duffy we hated, for his stink and snivelling
and strawberry birthmark, and when Mr Dowland
named him as the pen thief, the football team
rose in incredulous outrage that one
so contemptible, so negligible, so low,
would dare to place his scrubber’s hands
on our Papermates, Schaeffers and Parkers.
I chinned him at his desk in front of the teacher
to the raucous approbation of my peers
who swarmed over tables to land righteous blows
of their own. Dowland, who knew
exactly how we felt, bollocked us
back to fractions and told us such conduct
had no place in school, though come four
it was none of his business. When we got him
in the ginnel even the first years joined in.
Hey-fatty-bum-bum could neither fight nor run.
He hedgehogged to a foetal and curled tight
till we sickened of booting. He screamed
like a babby and bled like a pig:
fat-bastard, pen-thieving, beetroot-face bummer.
His Mam kept him off, until the school bobby
knocked with a summons. We were warned.
Sitting at his desk, he’d lost weight
but his wounds had healed. When he whispered
‘Yes Sir’, to his name on the register,
Dowland looked up from his careful herringbone,
and pointing with his Papermate,
asked if he’d learned his lesson.
On 25th June, 1941, the day after invading Nazis had driven out the Soviet occupiers, Lithuanians nationalists herded fifty Jews onto the forecourt of the Lietukis garage in Kovno. In front of a cheering crowd, the Jews were marched at gunpoint to the centre of the forecourt, where they were beaten to death with an iron crowbar by Algirda Antana Pavalkis, a Lithuanian national in his late teens or early twenties. After killing the last Jew, the Death Dealer of Kovno posed for photographs amongst the corpses before fetching an accordian and leading the crowd in a rendition of the Lithuanian National Anthem. A 1950 photograph of Pavalkis seemed to indicate that he was working as a doctor in the USSR.
Phew. So this poem, and indeed the pamphlet that it is taken from, is pretty dark, although I wouldn’t say unremittingly so. It explores a world of male violence and I think this poem certainly sets out the ideas for violence being a spectrum or a continuum. The violence that is meted out by both the children and the teacher, is compared to the deadly violence carried out against the Jews in the epigraph that follows. There are copious notes at the back of the pamphlet, and the notes for this poem say that this is a ‘fictionalised version of an incident that took place in my middle school in 1978’ leaving the reader to wonder which bits are fictionalised and which are true.
Leaving aside questions of truth, and the uncomfortable feeling I’m left with when reading this poem as I remember incidences from my own childhood when I was complicit to violence or cruelty against others, or the victim of it, and going back to the poem, it is a masterclass in creating a believable voice.
The fact that Duffy was hated for his ‘strawberry birthmark’ – a completely arbitrary thing fits with my memories of all the things that children get bullied for. I love the way he uses ‘hedgehogged’ as an action and the line ‘bollocked us/back to fractions’ – the teacher tells them off and makes them do fractions, but also the double meaning, of these boys being only fractions, only partly human. That idea of them not being ‘human’ also happens, I think, because there is only one use of the personal pronoun ‘I’. The rest of the time, the poem uses ‘we’ and ‘us’, as if the football team moves with one thought.
This is a brilliantly executed poem, and technically, I don’t think it puts a foot wrong. It’s interesting to consider it without the title or the epigraphs that precede and follow it. It’s still a strong poem, which explores childhood brutality and brutality wielded by someone in a position of power, but with the epigraphs, it opens it up to a wider consideration of violence in society and how it starts, and is allowed to take place.
If you’d like to read more of Steve’s work, you can email Bob Horne at Calder Valley Poetry at email@example.com. Calder Valley Poetry is a relatively new publisher, already producing beautiful pamphlets. I’ve still got a pamphlet that Bob sent by Peter Riley that he has published recently, which I’m looking forward to reading.
Steve Ely is a poet from the West Riding of Yorkshire. His book of poems, Oswald’s Book of Hours, is published by Smokestack and was nominated for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2013 and the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry in 2014. Englaland, his second book of poems, was published in April, 2015, also by Smokestack. His novel, Ratmen, is published by Blackheath Books. Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire: Made In Mexborough, a biographical work about Hughes’s neglected Mexborough period, was published by Palgrave MacMillan in July 2015. If you’d like to find out more about Steve, you can go to his website at http://www.steveely.co.uk/