Monthly Archives: September 2011

Trévien and Burnhope in conversation

Claire Trévien was born in 1985 in Brittany. She is a poet, critic and literary translator. Her writing has been published in a wide variety of literary magazines including Under The Radar, Poetry Salzburg Review, Ink Sweat & Tears, The Warwick Review, Nth Position, and Fuselit. Earlier this year she published an e-chapbook of poetry with Silkworms Ink called Patterns of Decay. She is the editor of Sabotage Reviews and Noises Off. She was the winner of Leaf Book’s 2010 Nano-Fiction Competition.

Mark Burnhope was born in 1982 and studied at London School of Theology before completing an MA in Creative Writing at Brunel University. His work has appeared in a variety of print and online publications. He currently lives and writes in Bournemouth, Dorset with his partner, four stepchildren, two geckos and a greyhound. The Snowboy (Salt Publishing, 2011) is his first book of poetry.

Mark Burnhope reviews Claire Trévien’s Low-Tide Lottery
Claire Trévien’s Low-Tide Lottery (Salt Publishing, 2011) is a confident debut. Most striking is its multi-faceted sense of place (or places: it takes us to Brittany, Paris, Warwickshire). Trévien understands that to bring readers into her own territories is about more than painting landscapes, and she takes us far from the pleasantries of the beaten track. As her title suggests, it’s the rusted, broken detritus washed up by the tide which she’s interested in. ‘Belleville’ is more than a tourist’s mooch around town: ‘The market’s skeleton shines/ its claws at night, but in this twilight, only/ songs are shred as the smile of the knife/ cuts ripe pears in half’.
Peopling poems is a difficult thing do convincingly, but relationship is another vital part of Trévien’s sense of place. Her characters and their relationships are not just literary constructs – they flirt, laugh and smoke pot – and the poems are all the more warm and compassionate for it. ‘Novella’ is a formal but mischievous response to Rimbaud’s ‘Roman’:
          You can’t be serious when you’re twenty-one
          – the evenings flare, a rolled joint behind your ear,
          drunk on Wednesdays, university veteran!
          You talk in your back yard of us all being queer.
The most effective lyric has an anarchic streak. Trévien never loses sight of that in her observations, which are often poetically sharp and darkly humorous. Take the first tercet of ‘Mère’ (a very fine poem, by the way):
          Jean Le Cloirec laid a skeleton on the dock.
          That day, the pier was stiff with onlookers
          keen to see the ship with its kit off.
My favourite poems here are the ones in which Trévien, like Rimbaud in his Illuminations, clashes tradition and innovation to create unexpected sparks in the language. The first poem, ‘Sing Bird’, is a perfect introduction. It would be trite to describe it in prose, and I can’t reproduce its formatting (it’s rotated to fit a landscape-orientated page, for a start), but let’s just say that it’s a view of birds roosting on telephone wires, an attempt to sing their song lyrically, and a way of peering down on the bustling life of the town with an idiosyncratic bird’s-eye-view: ‘Vile                    Birds fried to the wires/ Violins played by the jaded weaves of a rainstorm’. All of which is, on the whole, beautiful and ambitious.
Mark Burnhope interviews Claire Trévien
I’m generalising, but a lot of poets are drawing from British and American tradition lately. So the first thing to grab me about Low-tide Lottery was the fact of the French tradition you draw from, Baudelaire (the father of Modernism) and Rimbaud included. Could you tell me something about what attracts you to these writers, and what they’ve given you as a young contemporary poet?
I think one mustn’t underestimate the power of the poets one grows up with! I was raised on the Symbolist poets, Baudelaire and Rimbaud (and Verlaine, though he is absent from this collection, he is also very important to me). I remember memorising their poems for class and I think I will always carry them with me. So, to answer your question, part of the pull is instinctive and nostalgic, but I do also admire their technique, their fluidity, their way of manipulating language. Their music, in particular, is bewitching. There’s something about their way with words and language that I would like to emulate in modern English whether through translation or my own poetry. It’s a bit of a tall order, but I like having unreachable goals.
The first poem in the pamphlet seems to spring from traditional lyric, yet is very playful with form: rotated on the page, for one thing, but also embracing white space, ambiguous syntax and fragments that leave meaning and sense very open. For me, that tension between a respect to lyric tradition and an almost postmodern take on it runs through the whole pamphlet. Would you agree with this, and if so, what led you to this clashing together of styles and wordviews?
What a great observation! I like a good clash. I’m a mongrel, with a foot in two countries that are torn between loving, hating and laughing at each other. Creating hybrid monsters was therefore inevitable. Having said that, I have trouble identifying with both those terms. The word ‘lyrical’ feels foreign to me, perhaps because it has wandered so far from its original purpose, and I’m not sure if I’m cool enough to be postmodern. However, I do think being playful and experimental is an integral part of a writer’s job, as is keeping the ‘heart’ of the poem in sight, so I do agree with the sentiment.
I know that you have lived in Brittany, England and Paris, and your pamphlet has a bilingual element, with French place names and phrases interspersed throughout. Is sense of place important to you? What does having lived in two different countries give to your writing?
Yes, definitely, I am fascinated by places and the way stories shape landscape. Walking down a path, I can’t help but wonder what arguments, what discussions led to it being such a way, what happened to alter it bit by bit, what accidents and incidents took place on it. In a poem like ‘Beg an Dorchenn’ for instance I am particularly interested in the way prehistory, WW2 and surfer culture can cohabit in a single space. I primarily wrote in French until I was fourteen (though I‘ve always spoken English and taught myself to read it at a young age) so the shock of suddenly writing creatively in a language that was mine but not mine has had an impact on the way I write today, I think. Even when I think I am writing very plainly, there’s often something about that transfer that gives me away, a strangeness that no one can entirely pinpoint. I was once told that French is driven by nouns and that that’s something I persist in, even though I write in English. That’s the low-tide lottery in a way, you don’t pick what you’re originally given but it’s up to you as to whether you see it as trash or treasure.
You deal with relationship a fair bit, to the land and sea but also love relationships. To what extent are your poems autobiographical? Is your lyrical ‘I’ yourself? Does it matter?
Several are indeed to some degree autobiographical and it’s been an interesting experience having my family read them who recognise events, people, and so forth. However, I do take liberties with the events, and it often worries me to think my close ones might feel misconstrued. I changed a person’s name in one of the poems actually, as I feared it might hurt them. I would say that my lyrical ‘I’ is an enhanced version of me and in some cases not me at all! Sorry, that’s not a terribly helpful answer, is it? But I am working on some poems at the moment that further play with the notion of ‘I’ so that’s something I’m going to continue exploring.
I’m aware that you have also translated poems, as well as working as editor for Sabotage, which reviews pamphlets and performance events. Do you think of these tasks as entirely separate from writing poems, or do they feed into each other? How?
I definitely think they can feed into writing poetry. Generally, after translating poetry, I find that my next poetic effort is heavily influenced either by the style of the translated poem, or from an idea I got during the process. Likewise, reviewing can lead one to read outside of familiar authors and therefore to new interesting ideas. They’re both very useful when feeling uninspired.
What’s next?
Well, I’m still writing poems and rather enjoying the direction they’re taking. For now, I’m going to enjoy sharing this pamphlet with as many people as I can and organise poetry events in my hometown of Beaconsfield. I’m attempting to translate the pamphlet into French, which is proving to be a slow process, so that I can share it with non-English speaking friends and family. I think the dream eventually would be to have a bilingual edition of the pamphlet … I also have an overwhelming amount of ideas for Sabotage, so I just hope I find the time to put them in action.

Claire Trévien reviews Mark Burnhope’s The Snowboy
The Snowboy is an inventive collection that explores disability, storytelling, the act of finding a voice with erudition and heart. Throughout the collection, we are challenged to alter our perceptions of familiar literature (Notre Dame de Paris, Moby Dick, and Pinocchio) as well as our relationship to space. Mark negotiates us through these masks and changes deftly: this is an inclusive collection and Mark is a generous poet. In ‘Dream Invertebration’, for instance, we get a real sense of the wheelchair as a body part. The wheelchair’s separation from the protagonist in a dream leads to him to walk ‘on one paw like a cirque-du-freak performer’. Using metamorphosis as a way to explore disability, it is also a surprisingly disturbing poem on the nature of perception and intention.
Mark has a particular talent for manipulating noise. One of my favourite poems in his pamphlet, ‘To My Familiar, Queequeg’, is a tightly constructed echo-machine, with wrecks of sounds answering each other: ‘Our ink speaks/ in skin: spins tale/ of speared fins;’ that reminds me of dróttkvætts, those Old Norse alliterative verses.
There is no sense of clashing voices in the pamphlet, in spite of the different styles and forms employed. Instead, one gets a sense of forms fitting snugly to their purpose. The sea makes a guest appearance in several of the poems. I particularly enjoyed ‘Our Jonah of Boscombe Pier’, an imaginative take on the Jonah tale (Leviathan’s crash-mat spine, almost/ plugged the blowhole with a boot).
All in all, The Snowboy is a powerful collection of thoroughly individual poems, all bound together by the same warm wit. A remarkable debut.
Claire Trévien interviews Mark Burnhope
Some of these poems read like prayers and I know you’ve studied theology. Would you say that faith and religion are an intrinsic part of your poetic practice?
That’ll depend on what I’m working on at the time. Speaking of this pamphlet, yes, I’ve worked with the influence of several poets who are, more or less, part of a religious (‘Christian’) tradition: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wallace Stevens, Blake, Hopkins, R.S. Thomas … But I’m conscious of where we’re at culturally: a secular, some say postmodern context in which no view can claim a monopoly on knowledge (and neither should it, especially within the shaky realms of metaphysics). So, faith is a lens, for me, through which I look at themes, imagery, language, wit … everything. I’m interested in poetry as prayer, icon for contemplation, vessel for incarnation – all that stuff – but my poems aren’t really personal or devotional. They’re not prayers or worship songs as a private dialogue between me and God. Even if that’s a reason for writing something, which it is once or twice, I can’t assume a reader wants anything to do with it; they want craft, stuff to make them think, a bit of mischievous fun, and readability. A lot of them don’t want God.
The other lens I write through is disability, and when disability clashes with faith – and it does clash, especially in the Evangelical/Charismatic tradition, with its obsession with ‘healing the sick’ – there is prejudice. Faith and disability provide a way to talk about these prejudices which affect us all, and which the Christian tradition has so often propagated. I’m hoping that I have a ‘religious poetry’ (if you like) which is immediately inclusive, and embraces frustration, pain, doubt, agnosticism. The last poem in the pamphlet is a long poem (for me) in which I let it all hang out; a Hopkins-inspired praise poem, a ‘reluctant psalm’ of God’s handiwork in nature, and the inevitable decay which is an inherent part of it, whether by The Fall or just by good old Ecclesiastes meaninglessness. I’ve exuberantly gone over the top. There are jokes, and everything gets a bit Dylan Thomas, when dead fishermen start walking around. I hope that the irony, almost insincerity, is clear. It could be seen as a blatantly ‘Christian’ poem (though it’s too unsure to be a traditional creed; bullet-point creeds are always problematic). It offsets the darker and more agnostic aspects of the pamphlet, but I hope that it also bookends the first poem, and leaves the reader on a high note, whether or not they side religiously.
There’s a concern for the body and its extensions running through the collection, with several featuring your wheelchair. I think my favourite though is ‘Dream Invertebration’ where your body undergoes a drastic transformation in the mind of your loved one. I know you’ve been thinking about the possibility of a poetry movement centred around disability, what are your thoughts on it now? Are these poems, in a way, an attempt at a manifesto?
Speaking of ‘Dream Invertebration’, I do have in mind the ideas of metamorphosis and transformation – sort of – but I’m playing around with the validity and usefulness of those, especially with regards to the physically disabled body. There’s some scepticism there. On one level, the process of metamorphosis holds a great deal of metaphorical possibility for poetry about the disabled body. On another though, we are real and physical bodies, and for all our flights of fancy, the frustration of bodily limitations can’t be ignored. So for me, those flights of fancy and surreal mutations are sometimes satirical.
Alas, I’m not sure I can claim to be writing a new manifesto. I know that disability isn’t represented enough in contemporary UK poetry (and if I can call anyone out of the woodwork, I’d welcome that), but there is something of a manifesto already being written by a fledgling ‘movement’ (if you want to call it that) based largely in America. Some have called it crip poetry. They’re seeking to give disability a bigger voice in contemporary poetry, but also – like with queer poetry – to redress tradition, take back and redefine vocabulary from the bottom up, rather than the top down (‘crip’ itself being the most obvious example, which is short for ‘cripple’, and now a term of endearment, tomfoolery and identification more than insult). I’m in two minds about whether I’d want to be identified with any tightly defined movement. But crip poetry defines itself by the Social Model of Disability, rather than the Medical Model that so narrowly focussed on physical difference and impairment. The Social Model says that it’s society which disables us – through ignorance, discrimination, prejudice, lack of access to services, jobs, buildings – and that if those barriers weren’t there, the word ‘disability’ would be obsolete. We’d all be accepted as equals. So disablement is all in the mind. I side with that, and it certainly makes its way into my poetry in terms of subject-matter and aesthetics. Also, poets who choose to affiliate themselves with crip poetry tend to have a hero-worship thing going on for Larry Eigner, a Black Mountain poet who had cerebral palsy, and used his physicality less as a subject, more in the nuts and bolts of craft and aesthetics. I share that enthusiasm for Eigner. For those reasons, I don’t mind the tag crip poet. It’s a little bit edgy, which is nice, even though when push comes to shove, it’s all about the writing.
There’s a real concern with space, and limits, and geography – and reflecting that, the shapes of the poems each shift accordingly. Which comes first to you: the words or the shape of the poem?
I’m very glad you noticed that. Yes, the poems are all very different shapes, and I’ve taken some liberties with line-breaks for various reasons (there are deliberately nervous, jagged, ‘unbalanced’ enjambments that I hope support the subjects of the poems). That’s one of the things I’ve drawn from experimental poetries like the Black Mountain poet, Larry Eigner, and newer ones like Tim Atkins, Ira Lightman, Lisa Jarnot, Stephen Nelson, being aware of this slightly frightening fact that one has to veer away from workshop rules in order to make the medium the message.
I just like so many different kinds of poem, from so many different styles, that I don’t see the point in narrowing that down. I want to reflect everything which catches my eye. ‘Jack of all trades’ is at the back of my mind, but that’s a risk I’m prepared to take. I’d like to think that the range of shapes and approaches says something about wanting diversity in the world, and hating prejudice of any kind. If that means the baby (consistency) goes out with the bathwater (monotony), so be it. To answer your actual question, though: I might come up with a line to start a poem, but unless a shape starts to suggest itself, there’s no point writing the poem yet. I don’t think in single images very easily, and it’s hazardous to think first about subject: sitting down and thinking ‘Right, I’m going to write a poem about X’ never goes well. So, I suppose it’s finding a general impression of a shape, however vague, then thinking in terms of lines and rhythms (rhythm is important to me, being a drummer, even if that rhythm is consciously shaky – the breaking of established rhythm at various points is important to me too), and then individual words and images. I don’t go into those obsessively until I’ve written the first draft. After that, I’m fairly obsessive about making tweaks. I’ve killed plenty of poems by being over-obsessive, so losing the original life and impulse …
If you had to name one creative influence on your writing, who or what would it be?
Well, it’s very difficult to name just one. I’ve tried to draw together all the poetic streams that I’ve enjoyed reading through the years: pastoral/landscape, poetries broadly called ‘religious’, and the difficult social commentary and deadpan satire of ‘anti-poetries’ like Zbigniew Herbert’s. But there’s very little contemporary poetry I’ve found which speaks from within a disabled perspective, and that’s where I’ve had to grab influences wherever I can find them. The collection which spurred me on to try and collate everything under the general umbrella of ‘disability’ (and encompassing myth, stereotype, discrimination, prejudice, and loss) was Laurie Clements Lambeth’s Veil and Burn. There was no soap-boxing, and so much love, tenderness, and regard for the reader. This collection proved that disability poetry could be done with equal attention to blatant honesty, subtlety and sensitivity.
You have some fantastic titles – do you spend hours agonizing over them (as I do!) or do they spring quite organically? 
I’m so glad you like my crazy titles. Actually, two of them were shortened at the last minute because they seemed just a little over the top. I do like my elaborate titles; they can do a lot heavy lifting, and a good example of that might be ‘Wheelchair, Recast as a Site of Special Pastoral Interest’, which warns the reader that I’m about to show them a wheelchair transforming into some kind of monolithic landscape structure; the Cripple of the North, or some kind of Gammy-legged Wicker Man. They can also provide a useful sense of irony straight away, meaning that a reader doesn’t have to go into big subjects with the fear that I’m shooting my mouth off; maybe I’m just inviting them to think through, even laugh at, a scene, or a message (‘Milo Won’t Go in the Water’ and ‘The Man Upstairs Drafts a Letter to the Councils’ both flirt with ‘the message’, but end up laughing at the whole idea that a poet can instruct anyone on this stuff). Why are some of my titles so long? I just like long titles. Musicians have been doing it for a long time (Alanis Morrisette for one), as have novelists. And Matt Nunn does it, which makes it okay.
What’s next?
I have a pamphlet to sell, thanks to the marvellous Salt. I’m reading from that in Oxford and London as part of the Salt Modern Voices Tour (all the dates can be found on my blog, and I think yours too, is that right?). Other plans: well, I’m going to review more books, just because I love it, and it assists my own development: looking closely, working to reassess opinions and form new ones. I have two possible creative projects in mind, and I don’t want to jinx them by talking about them. But one is something around an invented form I’ve been playing with, the zennet (‘The Well and the Ceiling Rose’ is one). The other idea, and the most likely to take shape in the fairly near future, is a closer exploration of Larry Eigner’s application of Black Mountain aesthetics, which The Knives, Forks and Spoons Press has expressed an interest in, if I can make it good enough. Of course, now that I’ve told you all that, I’m not sure how much of it will get done.
Order Claire Trévien’s Low-Tide Lottery (Salt Publishing, 2011).
Read ‘1789’ and ‘Belleville’ from Low-Tide Lottery.
Order Mark Burnhope’s The Snowboy (Salt Publishing, 2011).
Read ‘To My Familiar, Queequeg’ and ‘To My Best-kept, Quasimodo’
from The Snowboy.
Visit Claire’s website.
Visit Mark’s blog.

Hugh Dunkerley’s Hare

Hugh Dunkerley grew up in Edinburgh and Bath, and now lives in Brighton. He has published two chapbooks, Walking to the Fire Tower (Redbeck Press) and Fast (Pighog Press). His first full collection is Hare (Cinnamon Press). He has been a Gregory Award recipient, a Hawthornden Fellow and a Leighton Fellow at The Banff Centre for the Arts. He currently teaches English and Creative Writing at The University of Chichester.

“This original and confident collection depicts an unsettling contemporary world, where the quotidian is found to be profoundly other than expected, and a sense of troubled realism prevails. Acuity of observation, emotional depth and intellectual rigour inform Hugh Dunkerley’s work.”

– Penelope Shuttle
“What I admire about Hugh Dunkerley’s poetry is the sparseness and clarity of his language: his ability to tackle the extremities of experience – death, sex, loss, the ruthlessness of nature – with a vision which is unsentimental and yet profoundly moving.”
– Vicki Feaver
“No fault-line separates the personal or family poems in Hugh Dunkerley’s collection from his vivid empathetic observation of the natural world. From the range and close-up acuity he brings bear on wild creatures it would be easy to cast him as a nature poet, except that he applies the same sensitive but unsentimental attention to the most intimate human concerns. When he notices a dead mole’s ‘wrinkled human palms’ or when the title poem plays a real sense of the hare across a tender moment of touch, there is nothing so crude as anthropomorphism going on. Rather the effect is to remind us all that we are creatures too.”
– Philip Gross
You were sleeping when they found you,
curled in a ditch, long summer grasses
bending down to touch your senseless face.
You never heard the clatter of the circling helicopter,
never noticed the men and women
in dazzling overalls combing the fields,
the battery of bristling cameras
waiting for you at the end of the lane.
You were silent when they asked
about the men who’d taken you,
what they’d done to you
with hands, threats, caresses,
how for weeks the grasses had gradually
closed out the light until you were finally
cocooned in a green darkness.
You never woke when they lifted you,
naked, from your hiding place
and carried you away,
some skin cells, a few stray hairs,
floating down onto the broken ground,
already finding their way
in the long slow sift of matter.
This was the Canada you’d always wanted,
the old fused seamlessly with the new,
like the timber-framed lobby of the quietly
purring hotel, the restaurants serving
moules marinière and endless coffee
but with none of the surly truculence of Paris.
I was fascinated by the St Lawrence,
its cargo of pack-ice that seemed
to swirl around every side of the city,
the knowledge that to the north,
just beyond the few lights on the other bank,
there was whiteness the whole way to the pole.
You’d sprung the trip on me a few days earlier
as a Christmas present, hoping, I guessed,
for something to weave us back together.
At night I lay motionless, listening
to the low hum of the heating,
the huge space of the king-size bed between us,
while outside the lethal floes sped past.
Natural History
Kingley Vale Nature Centre, West Sussex
These are the casualties,
the ones who never made it
to the tangled safety of the other verge,
their lives seeping away in ditches,
or who, racked with toxins,
lay under bushes, uncomprehending
as a million suns
burned through their bodies.
Now they’re pinned and labelled:
a catalogue of flattened rats,
voles and squirrels
frozen in assorted agonies,
the roe faun like a mummified foetus,
its too-long legs
twisted at impossible angles.
An emaciated husk
was once a green woodpecker
that must have died of starvation,
its balding plumage almost colourless.
A pinboard is lined with skulls,
pebble-sized finches and sparrows,
the curlew’s beak a huge needle,
four times as long as its head.
And below the skulls, something I can’t make out,
a thin dried-up tube of flesh
ending in two big-fingered paws
and a ruff of fur.
A faded card is lying beside it.
Mole, I can still read, July ’69.
I lift the tube onto my hand.
It weighs almost nothing.
The long claws are like fish bones.
Whatever ate it turned the skin inside out
like a glove, stripping away everything
except this stubborn spine
and these feet with their wrinkled, human palms.
The Tranquillity Maps
Their co-ordinates are silence
and the voices of water,
their symbols concealed
in the revelations of bark.
They describe the contours of light,
the seedhead’s vocabulary,
mathematics of stillness
and the geography of leaves;
elaborate the progress of lichen,
the wind’s unstructured notations.
from Hare (Cinnamon Press, 2010).
Order Hare.

Elizabeth Rimmer’s Wherever We Live Now

Elizabeth Rimmer was born and educated in Liverpool and moved to Scotland in 1977. Poet, gardener and river-watcher, her roots are Catholic, radical, feminist and green. Her work is inspired by weather, landscape and tradition, the work of craftsmen, gardeners, foresters and musicians, and by language, legends and heritage. Or anything else that appeals to her magpie mind. Wherever We Live Now is published by Red Squirrel Press.

Visiting the Dunbrody Famine Ship
Grief bubbles like rosin out of the pine
they built these stacked bunks from –
one to a family, and bring your own bedding,
each adult’s life packed into no more
than ten cubic feet, says the ticket, including
utensils for eating and drinking.
Bad enough in fine weather, queuing to cook
in their cold half hour on deck, but in storms
battened under hatches, chewing raw oatmeal and biscuit,
sweating, vomiting, pissing in the dark,
and the smell of loss and fear. The actors recall
a good captain, five deaths only the whole trip.
It’s the lists that really hurt. The database
remembers everyone, keeps them safe by name,
and age and occupation, by ship, and by landfall.
I look for my Foleys, Richard and two daughters,
my grandmother’s family, left Waterford
in 1873, and lost at sea, still lost.
It’s the way they tell you, as if they know
it’s you, crying in the dark for your mammy,
and the sweet taste of new milk, and sunlight,
and just to be still. They know those names mend a link
in the chain that leads us back to our dead,
and makes us whole, wherever we live now.
A Doll for Lucy – The Orkney Venus
It would have taken time without metal –
hours, weeks, grinding the stone to part
the head from the shoulders, score the lines
that gave her hair, hands below wide sleeves,
the flow of her dress and the pins
that kept it together, like owl eyes, like breasts.
Who else would they have done it for, endowing
two inches of pebble with wisdom,
her mother’s fertility, her father’s smile,
the memory of hills in her brow-line,
the lochs of home in her eyes,
except a loved child?
                                     More than a play-thing,
they made her a doll to keep in her pocket,
a blessing of family, homeland and story
to keep her safe, as we would keep you.
Museum Exhibit at Arles
Two thousand years ago they put the child
to sleep in the cupped length of a roof-tile,
as in a cradle. Her longer bones
are fine as knitting needles, the small skull
sunk into the cavity of her crushed ribs.
Behind glass walls, earth and ash cling to her,
and the smudged caressing fingerprints
of mourners long since gone to clay.
Breaking through Gravel

                           for Deborah
My Muses have nine children.
They go mad, lose their jobs,
live on rolled oats and vegetables.
That’s how they write. In three languages,
in trains, in kitchens, in libraries,
on the back seat of the bus. They write
about sex and history and fairy tales,
the shape of a sonnet, splitting the atom,
where the rent is coming from. Their lives
are made of food, and soap, and meetings with strangers,
the family china, the slammed door, a child’s stamped foot,
the hurt silence, the stolen kiss,
the need to write.
The art of women is not a quest, like the whale,
but salvage from a storm of perplexity.
It is unlicensed, illicit, defiant,
and inevitable as starlight,
or the trajectory of the lily of the valley
disregarding gravel, and breaking the tarmac
with unapologetic, overwhelming joy.
Orpheus Plays 2: Battlechant of the MCRmy
He has never seen the venue from this side.
Behind the amps, behind the rocksteady
cordon in liveried t-shirts, he has not seen
the broken vinyl, the congealed sweat
that drips like greasy rain, advertisements
for help-lines for the drugged, abused or disappeared.
From his side, in the stagelight bubble’s
liquid pulsing, he sees glitterflashes,
a snowfall of shredded tickets, and the hands
waving when he waves, love graffiti
in tattoos and eyeliner, skull mittens,
fingers making horns. He hears the screaming,
singing in the pauses, maenad chanting
MCRmy! What is your profession?
He says he thinks of them as family.
They tell him how his music saved their lives.
He gives them songs of alienation
disillusionment, despair, death, pain and hell.
They sing too. They already know those words.
He tells them to be gentle to each other.
He comes downstage, takes the mike and shouts
I want to hear you mother-fuckers scream!
      The MCRmy is the ‘street team’ of the rock band
My Chemical Romance.
“What is your profession?”
is the first half of the password on their website.
from Wherever We Live Now (Red Squirrel Press, 2011).
Order Wherever We Live Now.
Visit Elizabeth’s website and blog.

Alistair Noon’s Out of the Cave

© Image by Clare Jephcott

Alistair Noon was born in 1970 and first arrived in Berlin in time to be filched by East German border guards. He’s lived in the city since 1993, apart from a couple of years in China. He currently works as an in-house translator of legal texts. His publications include the chapbooks At the Emptying of Dustbins (Oystercatcher), Animals and Places (Longbarrow), In People’s Park (Penumbra) and Some Questions on the Cultural Revolution (Gratton Street Irregulars), as well as translations of Alexander Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman and the German poets Monika Rinck and August Stramm. His translations of Osip Mandelstam are forthcoming in 2011. Out of the Cave was published by Calder Wood Press in September 2011.

“I don’t know any poet who flies about so carefreely, never alighting in the pigeonhole for long enough to become ringed. Each poem represents a moment of attention just long enough to signal its intention, and then it moves on.”

– Giles Goodland
“Alistair Noon’s writing is characterised by a worldly intelligence, striking verbal dexterity and technical accomplishment.”

– Peter Hughes
Wrench open that bottle of vodka
Wrench open that bottle of vodka:
Moscow nutritionists have shown
that a daily half-litre of Stolichnaya
toughens both tissue and bone.
Swig it down like the Russians do,
from brimming, bottomless tumblers.
Inhale, bite bread and breathe out:
exercise strengthens the lungs.
But don’t slurp borshch between shots:
long term, fresh vegetables are lethal.
Those enzymes will track down your brain
like a wrecking crane a church steeple.
Pass me that glass. To the devils
who manage nutritional hell,
the headmasters, webmasters, editors,
and the whole of the Ministry of Health.
Hold the chicken feet,
and pass up the pumpkin ice cream.
Don’t order live shrimps for your mum.
Red wine from Shell
has all the benefits to health
of the stuff you’ll find in the pumps.
Play drinking games if you must
in Tashkent hotels, with Uzbek brandy,
but first write your room number on your hand.
Read Kafka, Darwin and the instructions.
Get the regulator the right way round
in your mouth when three fathoms down.
Be sure to have full cover insurance
on your 16-track professional-standard mixing desk
if your partner has a key and is easily jealous.
Time being dumped with rejections.
Keep readings free from greyhounds.
Don’t crap in your publisher’s garden.
from Out of the Cave (Calder Wood Press, 2011).
Order Out of the Cave.
Visit Alistair’s Myspace page.

Dale Favier’s Opening the World

Five years ago Dale Favier quit his job as a programmer at IBM to become a massage therapist; at the same time he began writing the poetry that appears here.
He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife of thirty years. They are longtime Buddhists, practicing in the Tibetan tradition, and they have two grown children.
He has an M.Phil. in Medieval English Literature from Yale University. He writes essays and poetry at Mole. His poems have appeared in Qarrtsiluni, Ouroboros Review and the anthology Brilliant Coroners.
“In Opening the World, the anticipated first collection of Dale Favier, rain mixes with snow and apple blossoms, sidewalks are streaked with tears; crows and pigeons, urban detritus blown about by the wind – all these become unlikely signposts and sometimes shrines on the difficult path to awareness. Dale Favier makes no false promises about what we’ll find, or that we’ll even get there, wherever “there” ultimately is.  Instead, like a good massage therapist (which I have on excellent authority that he is),  he proposes that his readers open to the touch of these poems, make themselves vulnerable, even ” … welcome every wave of misery/ as it arrives: make sure it’s comfortable/ and feels free to stay”.
Some poems are not easy to read; but that’s okay because, as he wisely perceives, “nothing is free”. A story lies in the depths of many poems, like a cobra in hiding: if you let it stay with you it will ease its fangs into your heart. Some poems are like a pebble you can skip across the water, or cleave to cut “the universe in half/ and [make] two new ones”. But above all, these poems are unabashed love letters always addressed to a “you” – they are poems looking for readers who “don’t want a value” but who “want to understand a relationship/ … a way of saying what cannot be said”.
Reading these poems, I’m strangely reassured that all of me, including what’s “unsanctified, unseemly, tatterdemalion,/ awkward and unkempt but full/ of the kind of undulant, unsteady courage/ the sun will never see, and never reckons on” – gets taken in, will never get turned away at the inn. Dale Favier reminds me we’re all traveling down the same road. How wonderful to have him along, for “when gods and men go down …/ [his] heart is singing, singing”.
– Luisa A. Igloria
“Dale Favier is a new kind of American Buddhist poet, one less concerned with wisdom than compassion and desire, and as comfortable with the fables and paradoxes of the West as those of the East. His poems sing, chant, weep, declaim and delight. Earnest to a fault, yet always ready to indulge in foolishness and absurdity, Favier wears his erudition lightly and takes risks that few professional poets would take: “They have not written this in books;/ they would not dare; they have their suppers to earn”. Johan Huizinga wrote in Homo Ludens that poetry “proceeds within the playground of the mind”, and “the true appellation of the archaic poet is vates, the possessed, the God-smitten, the raving one”. Favier is one of the few modern poets I know who seems to fit this ancient mold. Opening the World documents no mere dalliance with ideas, but a life-long, passionate struggle with gods and mortals, love and death.”
– Dave Bonta
The chalk flickered and clicked across the board;
a long, untidy scrawl of figures,
written faster than we could read it.
“So x would be …” said a dubious voice.
“No! No! We don’t want to know what x is yet!”
So clear to him, so obscure to us. We eyed him
Don’t you always want to know what x is?
“We don’t want a value,” he said, sweeping his white hair
out of his eyes. “We want to understand a relationship.
If x had a value now, we couldn’t solve the problem.”
He looked out at a sea of blank faces, and soldiered on.
X isn’t a number, right now. It’s all numbers.
It’s any number.”
And suddenly I saw it. I saw all the numbers that ever were,
that ever could be, snaking through that x.
Just as Leibniz
and Newton first saw them, that staggering vision,
that realization, that what prevented us from understanding
was trying to understand too soon.
You must hold x loose in the mind,
let the numbers flow through it like water.
This was not the ordinary x, just a number wearing a mask.
This x was a window
into a universe of numbers; this x was a glimpse of God,
a way of saying what cannot be said.
We don’t want to know what x is yet.
Border Country
We came to the border country in the autumn
and waited for you. We questioned the slow,
incurious marksteppers. Sometimes you came,
they said, and sometimes you didn’t. Well.
Any child could have told us that.
A double rainbow made our Nepalis nervous
since that happens when great beings cross realms.
Some said it meant you weren’t coming,
but others said it meant you were:
and it grew colder, winter drawing in.
The snow made us see differently.
We could see through skin into bones,
the black cutouts of rib, pelvis, spine,
the laddered vertebrae of the waiting ships,
the threaded skeletons of clouds.
Closing our eyes made no difference.
The marksteppers said
it was always that way, in the snow;
that it had to do with red light,
that’s what they’d heard. They didn’t know.
The Nepalis had a horn made of thighbone
which they blew during their
elaborate prayers. I wondered if the man
missed his leg. I wondered where you were,
what you were thinking. If you heard the horn.
The ice grew out across the bay
like a great, sleek back rising to the air.
The birds grew shriller. I stopped asking
questions, the answers came so heavy,
and the head-shaking so quick.
Maybe you came in the form of a local girl
lithe and quick, bringing eggs for sale,
but that was no good. She was interested
in the salt taste of shuddering flesh,
and nothing else. Not even
the long slow dragging questions, where from,
wherefore, whereby,
which occurred to the steppers at length.
It passed the nights, but made the dawn
that much lonelier.
Now the sky is opal, milk, pearl;
the white of the sky reaches to the white
of the snowfields. We wait for Spring.
They say that sometimes you come
in the Spring. And sometimes you don’t.
from Opening the World (Pindrop Press, 2011).
Order Opening the World.
Visit Dale’s blog.

Rollo May on imagination and form

“When you write a poem, you discover that the very necessity of fitting your meaning into such and such a form requires you to search in your imagination for new meanings. You reject certain ways of saying it; you select others, always trying to form the poem again. In your forming, you arrive at new and more profound meanings than you had even dreamed of. Form is not a mere lopping off of meaning that you don’t have room to put into your poem; it is an aid to finding new meaning, a stimulus to condensing your meaning, to simplifying and purifying it, and to discovering on a more universal dimension the essence you wish to express.”
“Imagination is the outreaching of mind. It is the individual’s capacity to accept the bombardment of the conscious mind with ideas, impulses, images, and every other sort of psychic phenomena welling up from the preconscious. It is the capacity to “dream dreams and see visions”, to consider diverse possibilities, and to endure the tension involved in holding these possibilities before one’s attention. Imagination is casting off mooring ropes, taking one’s chances that there will be new mooring posts in the vastness ahead.”
from The Courage to Create (1975)

On Fairy Stories

“Faerie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold. And overbold I may be accounted, for though I have been a lover of fairy stories since I learned to read, and have at times thought about them, I have not studied them professionally. I have been hardly more than a wandering explorer (or trespasser) in the land, full of wonder but not of information.
The realm of fairy story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.”
– J R R Tolkien, ‘On Fairy Stories’

Valerie Laws’ All That Lives

Valerie Laws is a UK poet, novelist, playwright and sci-art specialist. Her new book All That Lives (Red Squirrel Press, 2011) arises from residencies at a London Pathology Museum and Kings College London Medical School, and at Newcastle University’s Institute for Ageing and Health, working with neuroscientists and pathologists to write poetry about the brain, its bizarre beauty and life cycle. Her ten books include poetry collections (including two full collections with Peterloo Poets), crime fiction and drama. She has written 12 commissioned plays for stage and BBC radio and been the recipient of prizes and awards.
Valerie invents new forms of poetry and devises science-themed poetry installations and commissions including the infamous Quantum Sheep, an Arts Council funded project spray-painting random haiku onto live sheep. She featured in BBC2 TV’s Why Poetry Matters, with Griff Rhys Jones, with a quantum haiku on inflatable beach balls. Her poetry AV installations which move and change to reflect their subjects have featured in public exhibitions in London and Newcastle, and her embedded haiku Window of Art computer-controlled illuminated commission is in St. Thomas Hospital. 

“Poems of sex, death and pathology, both funny and moving, tackle taboo subjects with cutting-edge science and rich sensuality. All That Lives arises largely from residencies in pathology and neuroscience research institutes. We trace Laws’ personal journey from witnessing deaths of loved ones, through her quest to understand the science of dying down to brain cell level, encountering strange specimens and conditions. Concurrently, her rediscovery of modern sex and dating brings hilarious, earthy life to an unflinching collection which has already won many prizes and distinctions including a Wellcome Trust Arts Award.”
“The poems are extraordinary. Desire and dementia, the death of the brain and the life of the body jostle in All That Lives. These poems provoke thought, shock with sadness, and revive. They are alive.”
– Alison Brackenbury 
“Remarkable poems. Valerie Laws uses words and powerful imagery as surgeons and pathologists wield their scalpels – she dissects our relationships with the living, the demented and the dead with compassion, neuroanatomical detail, explicit eroticism and black humour. Her achingly sad reflections on the insidious progress of neurodegenerative disease and the impact of the slow loss of self awareness on family life should be mandatory reading for all medical students and their teachers.”
– Susan Standring, editor of Gray’s Anatomy
& Professor of Anatomy, KCL 
“Laws’ images are vivid and the language rattles and sparks. … she chooses her subjects carefully, seeking the intense and pregnant within them, and offering the reader something of the ‘real’ experience they contain.”
Poetry Review
Your Skin Will Outlive You
‘anticipating the heaven of actual touch’
      – Elizabeth Smart
Do you know that your skin will outlive you?
My mother’s, before they made me
Leave her, smelled so good against my face,
Like a baby’s, purged of all impurity through her
Long dying: I didn’t know then, it was still alive.
Whether the brain, like hers, dies first, killing
The breath, and with it, the heart: or like my father’s,
Holds out until the struggling, suddenly blood-starved
Heart gives up, strangling brain, then breath:
Either way, the rest follow, bowels, liver, kidneys,
Until there’s just skin, holding things together
In its quiet way for a day or two more, mute
Witness of our premature grief, the attendant’s
Wash cloth, the clutching hands of the bereaved.
No-one told her skin it was time to be dead.
When I let her go for the last time, maybe
It registered, somehow, my hand on her arm.
Left alone, perhaps it was still
Anticipating the heaven of actual touch.
Published in By Grand Central Station We Sat Down and Wept
edited by Kevin Cadwallender (Red Squirrel Press, 2011).
Lifting the Lid

(Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm)
Full fathom five in A&E, my father
Lies white as a cuttlefish blade, suddenly granted
The sailor’s death war denied him. Water runs
Clear from his mouth and the puncture wounds
Where they pumped in saline to keep his heart afloat
Too late. Holed below the water line, he’s drowned,
Awash, beached, bleached, my pale hand red raw beef
Beside his dead man’s fingers. Our nails, I see
For the first and last time, are exactly the same shape.
Lividity branches up his sides like coral,
As the corpuscles see-saw and sink,
Silt in the veins. The nurse has battened down
The long-sighted eyes that made him a pilot, too young
For the navy in a war he couldn’t wait to join,
After a fisherman’s childhood, the curve of cobles
At Cullercoats like the sweep of an eyelid
Over the North Sea’s blue.
I think of him sinking, in his sweat-damp bed,
The paramedics baling in vain, his drowning,
Puzzled voice, ‘I think I might be dying,’
The aneurysm, an unseen fist in the gut,
An anti-heart, leaking into his belly, blood pressure
Going down, ‘I can’t breathe,’ down, ‘can’t breathe’,
Down for the last time. Swollen as a stranded seal,
As if he’d swallowed the sea, his keel of a chest –
His blanked face – I lift one eyelid, see his eye true blue,
Like those of our Viking ancestors, fierce as the harsh views
He and I fought over, now rinsed clean of blood and rage,
Truly an iris, afloat in its bowl of wet, white china,
Blue as the bruised top of limpet shells
Sanded by tides, the slaty violet of mussels, the white
Like crusts of barnacles, sea-scoured bone.
‘Lifting the Lid’ won a Commended Prize in the
2009 National Poetry Competition.
A Litter of Moons
(Foetal specimens, Pathology Museum)
Brown dwarfs, like Jupiter, we are stars
that didn’t make it, too slight to shine.
‘Malformed Foetuses’: our landfall
broke hearts, though we barely tasted air.
We came in peace, but could not breathe
your atmosphere. Film aliens can be cute:
we dropped into your world to gasps
and screams, at how nature riffs
on your forked symmetry, your skin
with its certainty of inside, outside. Look
at us, how richly we number the ways
cells can combine, or choose to stay apart.
Here a brain balloons, a dark cloud
of thought above the skull. Here, bowels
billow through a split spine. A face
with cartoon eyes slopes straight to cranium
above that comic stare: this has one eye,
a milky navel in mid-brow, where another
has a flaccid horn, a tiny penis bobbing.
Many of us are twins, gazing into identical eyes
across a single body like a seesaw
held in perfect balance, incessant tête à tête.
Tails, fur, tangles of limbs which cannot live
knotted or survive undone: ranged on shelves,
we shine with borrowed light, a litter
of moons. Held suspended, helmeted
in glass, rocked by the footfalls
of those who come to learn from us,
we had a life, though it too was borrowed.
We travelled hopefully, not knowing
until touchdown left us stranded
how you’d fear us, flinch
from our delicate, audacious difference.
‘A Litter of Moons’ won 2nd Prize in the
2008 Mslexia Poetry Competition.
In the Dissecting Room
The boy slices an old man’s scrotum, his face
Intent, inches above the pouch and the thick hump
Of penis. A girl scrapes at the abdomen of a woman
Of ninety, the turned-back skin flap
Backed with creamy fat like wet sheepskin.
But though lying naked on steel drainage tables,
These are not victims. These are not
The tabloids’ ‘frail pensioners’. Veterans
Of the war on gravity, they are massive, grand,
Muscular, with beautiful strong necks, chins
Superbly jutting, hefty thighs and calves. The genitals
Seen from this angle are surprisingly big, roomy,
Solid and durable, unselfconsciously exposed.
The faces we can see are grave, unwrinkled,
Filled out by death and formalin. Some
Are veiled by cauls of sacking, the students
Avoiding their silent teachers’ eyes.
Clutches of gorgeous boys and girls glow
Amber, rose and gold, clustering round
The ivory dead, like exotic birds pecking
Nervously at the skin of splendidly indifferent
Rhinos. The bloodless bodies display
Something few of the living attain:
The ability to simply be, without apology
For imperfection, without awareness of
How they look. This is what gives them
Their final outward beauty, as the scalpels
Scrape, exposing the beauty within
Which has been there all the time.
‘In the Dissecting Room’ won a Commended Prize in
the 2010 Hippocrates Competition.
from All That Lives (Red Squirrel Press, 2011).
Order All That Lives.
Visit Valerie’s website.

Margaret Clough’s At least the duck survived

Margaret Clough grew up in Wellington. After studying at the University of Cape Town, she worked as a science teacher, soil chemist and food technologist. She has been published in Litnet, South African Writing and Carapace. Some of the poems in At least the duck survived (Modjaji Books, 2011) have appeared in Difficult to Explain (Hands-On Books, 2010), edited by Finuala Dowling.

“Funny, true, pellucid … At least the duck survived offers a series of lyrical observations about old age, retirement and approaching death; about Tai Chi classes, dogs, lesbian aunts, grandchildren, bicycles and symphony concerts. In its unassuming charm, perfect understatement, succinctness, attentiveness, generosity and wry humour, Margaret Clough’s poetry proves Virginia Woolf’s dictum that “Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his work”. Irresistable reading.”
– Finuala Dowling
It’s Difficult to Explain
Why was my car standing as though abandoned in Waterford
road, you ask?
It is difficult to explain; it’s a long story –
because my grandson drove it home,
because he took it to his work
because it had to be repaired
because it had a nasty dent
because I ran into the gate
because the gate began to close
because its motor didn’t work,
because the remote was bust,
because it got wet in my jeans,
because I fell into a pond,
because I tried to catch the dog,
because she tried to catch a duck.
(At least the duck survived.)
Reunion at the Tearoom
The last time we were here there were five of us.
Five old girls playing at being wild,
letting our gray hair down,
wiping the tears of laughter from our eyes,
shouting each other down with bawdy reminiscence,
disgraceful and rowdy, seventeen again and tasting
Today we sit here, you and I, with nothing left to say.
Our tea gets cold, Our scones lie on our plates. Our fingers
tremble, joints are stiff with pain.
Dry-eyed we hold each other’s gaze.
We do not want to look to left or right
and see the empty chairs.
Luck is a lady
With a questionable taste in clothes
accessorising with mouldy
rabbit’s feet
and smelly crow’s feathers.
She has a weakness for
coats put on inside out
and vests worn back to front
But with this lack of care
in her attire,
she is very fussy about
spilt salt, cracked mirrors,
and the way the wind blows.
She sits on my veranda
with a mangy black cat on her lap,
watching me out of one squinting beady eye,
making sure
that I don’t step on cracks in the patio pavement
or start anything new
on a Friday.
Against Symphony Concerts
You have to be so careful not to cough
or let your programme rustle.
However moved you are, you mustn’t wave your arms
or ululate in that rude township way, and please
remember not to clap between the movements.
However much you hate Shostakovich
you must endure him first before
the orchestra will let you hear some Bach.
Does anybody really like
solos for bassoon or double bass,
even when played by visiting celebrities?
Isn’t it much nicer here at home
where we can loll on easy chairs
sip Merlot and enjoy our own CDs?
from At least the duck survived (Modjaji Books, 2011).
Order At least the duck survived from