Monthly Archives: December 2011
Anna Woodford’s Birdhouse
Anna Woodford has received an Eric Gregory Award, a major Leverhulme Award, an Arvon/Jerwood Apprenticeship, a Hawthornden Fellowship and a residency at the Blue Mountain Center (New York). Her pamphlet Party Piece was a winner in the International Poetry Business Competition, selected by Michael Longley. Her pamphlet Trailer was a Poetry Book Society Choice. She has a PhD on the poetry of Sharon Olds from Newcastle University. Her poetry commissions include residencies at the Tyne & Wear Fire Service, Alnwick Garden and Durham Cathedral. Birdhouse is her first full length collection (Salt Publishing, 2010).
“From diamonds hidden in a grandmother’s pantry to a peahen’s shout of ecstasy, from the voice of a deranged bridesmaid to that of a nun teaching a sex education lesson, Birdhouse is full of life – and its flip-side. It includes an award-winning sequence of elegies for the poet’s grandparents and great-grandparents who were victims of the holocaust (the sequence was a Poetry Book Society Choice).
Throughout this dazzling debut, Woodford explores sex, running away from school, and the happy ever after endings of Goldilocks and Eliza Doolittle. She takes a reader from Poland to Darlington on a dizzying scenic route involving graveyards and playgrounds. Along the way she celebrates a dead pigeon, a washing line, a big bed scene and an endless pair of legs. Her poems speak directly to a reader. Intimate and compelling. Casually artful. They stir up time and place to dissolving point, honouring the material word but not taking it for what it is. Or isn’t.”
“As Birdhouse is the first poem in the book, it would seem a hard act to follow for its intensity, accuracy and – yes – its beauty. Yet, while not all the poems rise to that level of ebullience, Anna Woodford’s perfect pitch, control of suspense and capacity for surprise are everywhere in working order.”
– Leah Fritz, Poetry Review
“Though these poems are deeply personal, Woodford also engages the reader through universal themes of love, loss, childhood and family. There is darkness, but not bitterness, loss but also strength, emotion, celebration and wit. This heartfelt and intimate exploration of life lingers with the reader.”
– Laura Kaye, Mslexia
“Finally this week, a mention for the beautiful poetry of Anna Woodford. I’ve had her award-winning debut collection Birdhouse on my to-read pile for ages and finally managed to steal an afternoon to enjoy it this week. It includes poems about sex, escaping school, pregnancy, nuns and a miniskirt scandalising a pit village. It is quite, quite wonderful.”
– Lauren Laverne, Grazia
“a series of elegies for the poet’s grandparents, reveals Woodford’s writing at its best: understated, genuine, and emotionally intelligent.”
– Ben Wilkinson, the Guardian
The Goldilocks Variable
Some fairytales say she jumped
out of the window and ran home to her mother,
never to stray ever after.
Some say she came round to the idea
that her prince wouldn’t come and settled
for shared living with the bears.
An Internet site describes her turning
into a glamour model called Goldie
who likes a good hiding
or, maybe, she’s not out of the woods yet
and her hair went white,
slim-picking through the neighbourhood bins.
In Prague, an astronomer saw a light in the sky
and christened it for her
– and his mystery blonde girlfriend –
The Goldilocks Variable. It is an elusive star.
It isn’t always shining. Sometimes it appears
to have vanished from the night’s curtain-call.
You were sitting at pains
in an easy chair, your hands
pushing themselves forward
in a series of jerky movements,
in a relinquished corner
of the room, a desk-light
was angled towards the wall.
I asked you all the questions
I could think of
but you had only one comment to add
to the end of your life story,
I would press it into the appendix now
before commending you to heaven:
‘I don’t feel like myself anymore,’
you whispered, your voice breaking
it to me, that the man
I had come to see
had already left the building,
leaving behind your anonymous figure.
I would leave you like that,
the desk-light angled
towards the wall, your words
making angels prick up their wings.
Staying the Night
My mother is curled up
in the bed I have made
for her. All of my demons
are sniffing around. She is baiting them
with the bare bones
of the body she gave me.
She is trying to keep them
from my door. After nights
without sleep, I don’t wake
until the click of the immersion
when the darkness is lifted
around my pit. My mother has saluted the sun
and is waiting for me
in the next room. I must remember this
on all the sleepless nights
after she has gone, when I only think
I can hear her, tiptoeing around me
above the everyday traffic.
The church is not broad enough
to accommodate your figure.
You put your faith in God anyway,
with a shrug of your covered shoulders,
with a wave of your fan. You kneel
before the statue of Our Lady and mutter
a prayer. Behind your back,
the flowers on your dress skim
over your body, bloom
on your arse. A priest
should come running
to take up your fanning. An altar boy
should unfasten your Jesus sandals
and bathe each clay foot. You are older
than you look. You have come this far
after centuries. You have reached this point
with a prayer. I would raise you above
the hollow of your idol. I would praise you
above the shelf life of her candles.
I sat in the rush hour
cradling a box full of holes,
and sounds and sweet airs
whenever the cab rattled.
The driver didn’t ask or look round
maybe it was God come for you, but
when we got to the vet,
‘I can’t do anything with that’ she said.
I dawdled home, wanting to hang out with birds
a little longer, to be admitted to their fold.
from Birdhouse (Salt Publishing, 2010).
David McCooey’s Outside
David McCooey’s first book of poems, Blister Pack, won the Mary Gilmore Award, and was short-listed for four other major Australian literary awards, including the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. His chapbook of poems, Graphic, was published in 2010. Outside, his third collection has just been published by Salt Publishing.
He is the Deputy General Editor of the prize-winning Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature (2009), published internationally as The Literature of Australia (2009). He is also the author of a prize-winning critical work on Australian autobiography (Artful Histories, 1996/2009), and numerous book chapters, essays, poems and reviews published nationally and internationally in books, journals and newspapers. His audio poetry (original music, poetry and sound design) has been broadcast on ABC radio, as well as published in various literary journals. He is an associate professor in Literary Studies and Professional and Creative Writing at Deakin University, Victoria.
“Outside is the second full-length collection from the prize-winning poet David McCooey. Outside takes the most basic of categories – day and night, inside and outside – and makes them the source of powerful meditations on the strangeness of our diurnal lives. In the resonant landscapes of these poems, the domestic slides into the universal, the personal becomes the historical, and the cultural is the real. This is a deeply unified work, even as it encompasses reflections on such diverse topics as the number 5, hands, newborn infants, heaven, anger and rock music. The collection also features a number of major sequences, including ‘A Short Story of Night’, and an electrifying response to the films of Stanley Kubrick. The book is also finely balanced in another way: by a generous and unique sense of humour, demonstrated in the Dadaist and hilarious ‘Intermission’. Outside is always unsettling, but it is, too, always humane.”
“The poems take strength and originality from the way they combine opposites. On the one hand, studies of Kubrick films and animal slaughter, they are straightforwardly fierce; but they achieve their effects in a manner remarkably controlled and subtle.”
– Lisa Gorton
“David McCooey is one of the most controlled and attentive poets writing in Australia. Renowned as a critic as well as a poet, McCooey’s careful study of poetry is shown in his poems, but they never rely only on this learning and consideration of craft. This remarkable book almost liberates an aesthetic, and is in itelf a work of great beauty mixed with moments of biting satire. It’s the wit, the aphorisic turn just when it’s needed, both within the poems and within the timing of the book as a whole. McCooey has become entirely his own poet – genuinely good and essential. Read him.”
– John Kinsella
(I) Dracula, Retired
He has taken to wearing a silver cross
to help him occupy the mirrors of the world
and tolerate the monotheistic sun
(that plants the crows’ feet near his eyes).
He sometimes feels that he has lived
a hundred years or more, that life’s become
a kind of sickness, and a single kiss would
drain the blood from his adamantine face.
(II) Frankenstein’s Monster, Tourist
He has taken himself away into
the wordless north, where days move
like seasons, and ice and snow are
clean of promises. From here the world
he has left behind begins to look like
one of God’s sins. He divines the greatest
iniquity: that, nameless, he should be
mistaken in name for his creator.
In my primitive childhood
the Cheynes Beach Whaling Station
in Frenchman Bay, just outside Albany,
was operational and open to tourists.
My memory gives up very little.
How, out of the dark ocean,
did they find the ocean-coloured bodies of
living whales to turn into pieces? What mysterious
industry was there to turn them into
those pieces? Flenser and Hookman
worked the blubber, while Saw Man and his
steam-driven saw cut the whales’ heads to pieces
small enough to fit into the cookers that
were worked by Digester Operator. It
took two men to straighten the harpoons.
Any ambergris found in a whale was sent
to Scotland for refining. But I don’t
remember any of this. I just remember that
as we watched from the distance, my father
or brother taking photographs, the vast smell
offered an unimaginable and unrelenting intimacy
of disgust. The equipment was not subtle,
though devious and effective enough. We could
not watch for long, though probably long enough to be
told that the whales’ oil, once refined, was used
for special purposes including cosmetics, fine
machinery, and watch mechanisms.
From the gift shop we bought
a piece of tooth which, now slightly
yellowed, sits in my parents’ bookcase.
The station then must have had about four
or five years left in it, closed down as it was
in 1978 by the rising cost of fuel oil.
An Essay on The Shining
A hotel is not a house.
The length of a corridor
is the length of a mirror halved.
A tricycle articulates
the uncanny difference
between floorboard and carpet.
The Steadicam is a nervous
energy, a kind of music.
The music is a kind of
violence. The violence—when it
comes—is a kind of intimation
of the real thing, like
the stilted dialogue, the
hysterical typewriter (first blue,
then white), and the shadow
of a helicopter on the car
in the film’s opening sequence
(with its synthesised Dies Irae).
The style of the blood
filling the lobby; the archly
symmetrical shots; the
characters caught in reflections;
the seduction of numerology—
all of these are realised
in a struggle with the sincerely
ugly: the drinking, the man
fixed in the labyrinth of his
rage, lost in the Indian
reservation of his long-forgotten
crimes. (The African-American
is also historically accurate).
What becomes of the boy,
we wonder, once we have safely
seen his father’s corpse, frozen
in the achromatic salt
of a pure, factitious snow.
Eyes Wide Shut
Call out the doctor
and bid him to tell
the difference between
a dead woman and
Ask him what becomes
of the glittering masks
when we sleep.
Ask, too, if he
knows where his
children go to in
this ritual night.
Lastly, ask whether it is
the outside or the inside
that is beyond reckoning.
When he gets home
his wife will tell him.
There is one thing
Hysterical animal banging
in the box of night that
your brain becomes.
Harm migrates across
the swampy distances
of your mouth.
Your body, merely grass
distorted by the wind
raking over a hill.
There is a script for
such chaos, though it
can never be remembered,
this occult confusion
itself as clarity.
is the heir of colour.
Godless, this suburban night
is almost heavenly.
We are justified by love;
each day a room we home to.
from Outside (Salt Publishing, 2011).
Read more about David.
Phil Brown’s Il Avilit
Phil Brown was born in Surrey in 1987. He graduated from the University of Warwick in 2008 and now works as a secondary school English teacher in London. In 2009 he was shortlisted for the Crashaw Prize and won an Eric Gregory Award in 2010. He has had his work published in Magma, Pomegranate, Dove Release: New Flights and Voices (Worple Press, ed. David Morley), Dr. Rhian Williams’ The Poetry Toolkit (Continuum, 2009), The Salt Book of Younger Poets (Salt Publishing, ed. Roddy Lumsden) and the forthcoming Lung Jazz: The Oxfam book of Younger British Poets (ed. Todd Swift) and Coin Opera 2 (Sidekick Books, ed. Jon Stone). He is the Poetry Editor for the online magazine and chapbook publisher, Silkworms Ink.
“Phil Brown’s Il Avilit moves forcefully between the noise and disorder of the modern world, picking through the debris of the many lives we lead, leaving a trail of perfectly poised and fiercely observed poems. Dejected teachers, low-life pub landlords, faithless lovers, libertines and heroes populate this piercing and quick-witted debut, where darkness and regret linger at the corner of the pages, reminding us that an urgent clock ticks with our every step.
Whilst the poems go toe-to-toe with the big subjects of lust, loss and deception, the collection remains savvy, upfront and entertaining. Brown’s poems seek to confide in their reader with precise and carefully-measured words in their ear, finding their form and shape in persistent and surprising ways.”
“Ink spilled from a dark wingtip overhead … with pitiless skill this shade of Baudelaire unmakes his life and lays it out for our delectation – a casual gift, a rarefied vision, a human sacrifice.”
– Hugo Williams
“Phil Brown’s poems jump across the page, play with language and meaning, and interrogate – thumb in collar – our multifarious, simultaneous worlds. From Sir Gawain on the Northern Line to the sleazebag publican – from Chiron in Southend to an American president on his deathbed – these poems blend urban, virtual, and mythical experience through a sharply observant eye, fizzing like intellectual fireworks as they go.”
– Katy Evans-Bush
A Minor Offence
It wasn’t theft as such that night,
we tried to pay, had a train to catch.
No jobs were lost over the matter
I’m sure, just two coffees
and a slice of pie.
Worse crimes are committed
every second. Three murders
at least during the time it
took to read this poem.
Still, as I skim through
the underground, I offer
my seat to an elderly
or disabled woman
and hope that God was watching.
Averos Compono Animos
The soggy floor sags under us
as though walking on a gloved hand
over a patchwork of spread newspapers stained sepia
dustily detailing what the Russians were up to.
The cast safety of our torchlight
projects Venn diagrams in which to step.
Embarrassed to be eighteen and afraid, I am coaxed
into trying on a jacket hanging solo in a balsa closet.
Smell of dust and piss as it grips
my shoulders like an angry parent.
Screams held in stone tape
teased out by kicked cans and footfall,
our fingers trace the braille
of sodden wood and soft walls.
We last an hour in all
before returning to our torn corner of fence.
A silent ride home, rifling through our loot:
three syringes, a nurse’s coat baring a Latin motto,
a duty rota dated ’82 and a small pile
of clumsy polaroids:
the cold chamber, the smashed window, the pew
barnacled with moss
and me in a too-small jacket.
Harry Baker, who the alphabet placed
next to me in Physics lessons
in that wooden room festooned with equations.
His masculine sway across class, always late
always proud of his knuckles’ cuts
caught from walls or often hand-dryers.
Harry, with whom I shared little time,
but watched and ridiculed as he flitted
from trend to trend with the years
– a constant reinvention of clothes
hung on his Olympic swimmer’s physique,
his eyebrows sheared to a barcode, then pierced.
Harry whose voice blackened with time,
whose re-imagined ancestry accessorised
with his final angry guise.
You made the papers Harry, made them all,
made him see you weren’t afraid,
and I wonder how it felt going in.
All Harry left of the other boy
is a dwindling shrine of flowers topped up yearly
by a dwindling group of teens in their twenties.
New recruits are broken in on Tuesdays
being the easy shift to be shown the ropes.
During this time, you will be told how to:
give change, push promotions, bag ice
bottle-up, wipe surfaces, pour Guinness,
check ID, work a till, be bought a drink.
You will be informally tested on these criteria:
a) Do you smoke? b) are you a thief?
c) will you let the bouncers touch you?
d) do you smile? e) are you poor?
f) are you funny?
g) will you have sex with the management?
If the other girls have already begun to hate you
then you are pretty enough to work here.
I had none of these qualities
but Adam put in a word.
from Il Avilit (Nine Arches Press, 2011).
Order Il Avilit.
Visit Phil’s website.
Visit Silkworms Ink.
Victoria Bean’s Caught
Victoria Bean is an artist and a member of the Arc Editions group. Her work has been collected by the Tate, the V&A, and shown at the Courtauld Institute of Art, while her poems have appeared in The Spectator and Poetry Review Salzburg. She currently works in a voluntary capacity with Young Offenders.
She spent a year in Horseferry Road Magistrate’s Court in central London, recording in verse the high-drama and low-comedy of the English justice system.
Caught (Smokestack Books, 2011) is her first collection – a unique take on everyday life in a busy courtroom and its cast of thieves, drunks, kerb-crawlers and dealers who come before the bench each day in despair, bewilderment and indifference. All human life is here – the strong and the weak, the hopeless and hapless, the users and losers, the innocent and guilty, the banged-up and the free. She lives in London.
“Incisive, witty, compassionate and captivating, Victoria Bean’s poems are short, sharp shocks that capture the human face of crime and punishment. A gem.”
– David Jenkins
“… a humbling & poignant collection, & that rare thing: poetry of witness, poetry as social document.”
– Alan Morrison, The Recusant
“This is a remarkable book, breathtaking in its artistry and its clarity.”
– Richard Price
You said the f word you said the c word
you said you were on your way to Wembley
you said I’m hard, I’m hard, I could have you
you said you don’t remember any of it
Boy with a knife
If you walk out of here today
arm yourself only with these words:
keep your freedom.
Keep watching those cartoons
your father says you like.
Stand up please.
We can’t send you to jail
just because you’re hungry
and it’s cold outside,
however, you will stay in custody
until you’ve had your lunch.
The benefits of a real fire
The judge says you’re on a hopeless, homeless spiral
but when you set that bin alight
you had some warmth
and for a moment
a bit of a welcoming glow.
Fifteen years on crack
cheekbones sculpted by
sweet pink crystals still dissolving
the plump padding of his youth
He uses car stereos as currency
but wants a second chance
for the last time,
for the hundredth time.
Muie and Mosh in the public gallery
with their post code surnames
gouged and scrawled
in vandals’ Braille
a universal hand writes
we were here, we were here, we were here,
and names get carved in sharp angled letters
because cursive font is tricky
where the wood grain won’t give.
I’ll stand if you don’t mind
I don’t want this man to represent me
I want to represent myself
I’ll remain standing
if you don’t mind.
from Caught (Smokestack Books, 2011).
Visit Victoria’s page at Arc Editions.
Tim Cockburn’s Appearances in the Bentinck Hotel
Tim Cockburn was born in 1985 in Banbury, Oxfordshire, and raised in Nottingham. He studied Fine Art and Creative Writing at the Norwich School of Art and Design, and holds an MA from the University of East Anglia in Creative Writing. He lives and works in Nottingham.
“Reading these poems there is a sense that, through ‘the sneakiness of words’, their tantalising truths are continuing partly to elude us – when ‘no’ touches ‘yes’, a dream solidifies on waking, coffee dregs yield one’s reflection, or the song you didn’t think to remember renews its hold on you.
Their highly-tuned awareness comes not out of introspection, but attentiveness, and also a real affection for the ‘cheerful stabs of flair among the serious junk’ of the world. Dry ice, microwaves, lager tops: all have their limelight in the mind, but there is nothing glib or cheaply-won about how the temporary or everyday become the emblem of a thought. Cockburn’s poems realise this time and again, with the sureness of an Anglepoise lamp that ‘throws its one enquiry’ into moments that, though private, are also the ones we most meaningfully share.”
“Admiring another writer is always a mixture of pleasure and pain, and it’s pretty much my highest praise that as I read these deeply glowing, profoundly enjoyable poems I was muttering out loud: Damn it he’s right. He’s right. He’s right. He’s right. He’s right.”
– Luke Kennard
“Tim Cockburn is a poet of skill, risk, and imagination. He borrows a wryness of observation, and a resigned, poignant sadness of predicament, from the Movement, but his poems are most impressive for the way they create a lifting sensation, a disarming feeling of romantic urgency, uncertainty and precariousness.”
– Jack Underwood
Expansion on a Microwave Warning Sticker
Check standing items frequently and stir.
Leave nothing unattended (this is in case
delayed eruptive boiling should occur).
Take her, she loves you, yes? Within a year
or two she’ll miss the danger, miss the chase.
She doesn’t now? Check frequently and stir.
Wear lovers through or change as you prefer;
if you won’t replace because you can replace
delayed eruptive boiling may occur.
Conviction, kindness, these things drain to where
so surely, so like colour from a face?
They may return. Check frequently or stir.
Life is flux, the manic screens infer,
invite it into yours, or in its place
delayed eruptive boiling will occur.
Better to wait on stubborn water, or
affect its leaping, when in either case
you could be burned (stress could be)? Waters, stir.
Delayed, eruptive: boiling must occur.
A Rave in North Norfolk
After the rave the steamed-up Peugeots
that, nightlong, blunted the field’s edge
slunk off one by one like a flagging picket,
leaving a stillness of litter-strewn hedges
the waterfowl dared enter back into.
On the lawn tall shadows tucked stickered decks
into retracted back seats, whilst the few
who remained in the lamp-lit mill slept,
not noticing how like kicked up sediment
settling the displaced calm restored
itself around them, or how, beyond the lane,
the shallow-pooled stretches sharpened:
the coloured smudge of ballast and gorse
beside a decelerating train.
Appearances in the Bentinck Hotel
Sometimes in going to pick something up,
however casually certain your fingers it is one thing,
looking may show it to be another,
just as sometimes in telling someone you love them,
however casually certain your tongue the words are true,
on the ear they may fall as forced or artificial,
and in saying them you may come to realise you don’t,
or not as you thought, and it will seem
a kind of sneakiness on the part of the words,
as it does on the part of my lager, when playing pool
I swig from it and it is not my lager
but your lager top, or even in coming to write a poem,
when it shrugs at you from the page and says,
No poem here, only the bones of one at best,
and those you reject as too deliberate or too cute,
since always it is possible that for forty minutes
exactly my lager is a lager, on my ears on my tongue
to the touch I love you, and this is the Bentinck Hotel.
from Appearances in the Bentinck Hotel (Salt Publishing, 2011).
Order Appearances in the Bentinck Hotel.
Read ‘Deco’ and ‘Reminder about the songs currently in the charts’
Read ‘Immediately on Waking’ on George Szirte’s blog.
Read ‘Poem’ and ‘Panthers’ at Selected Poems.
Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons
“Journeys, like artists, are born and not made. A thousand differing circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will—whatever we may think. They flower spontaneously out of the demands of our natures—and the best of them lead us not only outwards in space, but inwards as well. Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection…
These thoughts belong to Venice at dawn, seen from the deck of the ship which is to carry me down through the islands to Cyprus; a Venice wobbling in a thousand fresh-water reflections, cool as a jelly. It was as if some great master, stricken by dementia, had burst his whole colour-box against the sky to deafen the inner eye of the world. Cloud and water mixed into each other, dripping with colours, merging, overlapping, liquefying, with steeples and balconies and roofs floating in space, like the fragments of some stained-glass window seen through a dozen veils of rice-paper. Fragments of history touched with the colours of wine, tar, ochre, fire-opal and ripening grain. The whole at the same time being rinsed softly back at the edges into a dawn sky as softly as circumspectly blue as a pigeon’s egg.
Mentally I held it all, softly as an abstract painting, cradling it in my thoughts—the whole encampment of cathedrals and palaces, against the sharply-focused face of Stendhal as he sits forever upon a stiff-backed chair at Florian’s sipping wine: or on that of a Corvo, flitting like some huge fruit-bat down these light-bewitched alleys…
The pigeons swarm the belfries. I can hear their wings across the water like the beating of fans in a great summer ballroom. The vaporetto on the Grand Canal beats too, softly as a human pulse, faltering and renewing itself after every hesitation which marks a landing-stage. The glass palaces of the Doges are being pounded in a crystal mortar, strained through a prism. Venice will never be far from me in Cyprus—for the lion of Saint Mark still rides the humid airs of Famagusta, of Kyrenia.
It is an appropriate point of departure for the traveller to the Eastern Levant…”
— Lawrence Durrell, Bitter Lemons (Faber & Faber)
Order Bitter Lemons.
On heat and hemispheres by Kona Macphee
Recently, I re-read the 1999 poetry collection Wicked Heat by Australian poet Kevin Hart. The book doesn’t belie its title: on the contrary, I was reminded of just how much heat-related imagery the poems contain.
I haven’t lived in Australia since before Hart’s book was written, yet his poems bring back all kinds of recollections: the scorch of a sun-roasted vinyl car seat on the back of my bare legs; the way my flip-flops (or, to be Aussie, “thongs”) would get stuck in the melting car park tarmac at the local shops; those scorching, insomniac mosquito-haunted nights spent lying on a coverless bed, turning the pillow every few minutes in the forlorn hope of finding some coolness and refusing to open the windows in case a night-prowling huntsman spider came in.
When I first moved to the UK in September 1995, I lost a summer, skipping directly from southern hemisphere spring to northern hemisphere autumn. Somehow this absent summer seemed symbolic of the bigger climatic adjustment I’d made, from a city where serious frost was a rarity to one where a day of twenty-six degrees centigrade was “a scorcher”. Indeed, a few years later I was to write, of my arrival into Heathrow, that the landing plane’s engines spilled “a last Australian heat”.
It might be tempting to conclude that life in the Northern Hemisphere – where I’ve done all of my “proper” writing – has had a big effect on my creative landscape. For example, just for fun I once ran the text of my first poetry collection through a word-cloud generator that emphasised the most frequently-used words. The thing I immediately noticed was the prevalence of chilly words – ice, snow, frost, winter, cold. Since then, cold-as-metaphor continues to crop up regularly in my writing, and interestingly, certain words have become proxies for coldness in a decidedly un-Australian way – “North” and “January”, for example. Is my location really the source of these images? I’m not so sure. Isolation and loss tend to figure more strongly in my writing than (for example) rage and passion, so maybe the cold imagery is an expression of an inner emotional landscape as much as, or indeed more than, an outer physical one.
There’s a subtext to my pondering all of this right now: I’ll shortly be visiting Australia, for the first time since 1997, to be reminded of the “wicked heat” of my first quarter-century. On my journey, I’ll be accompanied by the uneasy knowledge that it was shortly after (or – to introduce a note of writerly superstition – perhaps resulting from) that last brief visit to Melbourne that my writing life began.
Now that I’m sixteen years a Northerner, I don’t know what to expect from the imminent return to the Land Downunder. Perhaps what I’ll be noticing this time, as the plane makes its final approach, is not the heat spilling from the engines but the tendrils of high-altitude frost melting away inside the plane’s double-glazed windows.
Born in London in 1969, Kona Macphee grew up in Australia. She flirted with a range of occupations including composer, violinist, waitress and motorcycle mechanic. She took up robotics and computer science, which brought her to Cambridge as a graduate student in 1995.
She now lives in beautiful Perthshire, where she works as a freelance writer and moonlights as the co-director of a software and consultancy company. She has been writing poems since 1997, and received an Eric Gregory Award in 1998. Her first collection, Tails, was published by Bloodaxe in 2004. Her second book of poems, Perfect Blue (Bloodaxe, 2010) is now available. Visit Perfect Blue’s Bloodaxe page, Perfect Blue’s dedicated website and Kona’s website.
David Caddy’s The Bunny Poems
David Caddy is a poet and critic from the Blackmore Vale in north Dorset. He was educated as a literary sociologist at the University of Essex. He founded and organised the East Street Poets, the UK’s largest rural poetry group from 1985 to 2001. He directed the legendary Wessex Poetry Festival from 1995 to 2001, and later the Tears in the Fence festival from 2003 to 2005. He has edited the independent and eclectic literary magazine, Tears in the Fence, since 1984. He co-wrote a literary companion to London in 2006, has written and edited drama scripts and podcasts, and regularly contributes essays, articles and reviews to books and journals.
“The Bunny Poems give us a ‘localised sensation’ of twentieth-century rural existence. They re-connect us with the land as a deep, mirroring presence; the double-edged properties of plants; creature-sense; and the animal face each human carries. At the same time, the poems are an acute acknowledgement of absence; in speech, understanding and relationship.
David Caddy’s edge of anger works to show real events having real consequences that can be subtle yet devastating. The poems make the case for how the slow erosion of poverty and remoteness, can deprive community of a language resourceful enough to protect itself.”
— Sarah Hopkins
No explanation is offered
when the old barn burns down.
No one wants to follow
into the three mile wood.
In 1961 it is enough
to believe in electricity.
A dark awareness rooted
in broken branches, absence of song,
strangling webs, a healing stag’s foot,
the remains of a bonfire,
what could be moving, or forced to,
catches an eye, jolts.
Pausing, mid-stride, to look left,
adjust the step and suspend
the slap of recognition.
Drips, echoes. Stoat ripped
flesh. Muffled clips, snaps.
Something nervous, blurred, calls out.
Back in the days of centre partings,
when gentlemen doffed their hats to strangers
and old people were those that walked
into the river or hid under a bridge,
I had a dog called Sue.
The wind told her a fantastic story.
I caught the periphery of her vision.
We jumped the wire fence that subsided
in our making and lifted our legs
to meet whatever lay ahead.
She burned for days. Implied
that I should prod the door, walk out
with a stick. She slept in the tool shed,
with the jackdaw, by the paraffin heater,
and never came on heat. I minced her tripe.
Someone was lost, trying to find a way.
We walked a steady line along the
grind, ears pricked, negotiating real
and perceived obstacles with trust and luck,
waiting for the next call or crack.
I could read, hear the breeze listening in,
following a trail that began to stare back
in more than distance. My foreboding
appeared in a rush from the legs of a woman
and Sue growled long and hard at our find.
Harry in His Last Year of Employment
He brought his milk round with him, clicking
in his mouth, when we entered the hot room.
Harry in his last year of employment and I
in my first. Two greenhorns hugging baskets
of yellow curd towards an electric hopper.
Crumbs, an acrid smell, filling our open shirts.
Harry sifts bird calls in his frequent blows.
His wholeness drifting in bits of past lives.
Stone picker. Bird scarer. Stone-breaker,
hauler. Road builder in the Twenties and Thirties.
Turns on the boundary of speech, takes
seconds to reply to a question or an order.
Leaning over hot vats to cut and turn,
forcing sword like knives inwards two-handed
as if punting, exhaling every second, third stroke.
Two men attempting to carefully empty top hats,
trimming their edges, restoring body, shape,
relentlessly told to empty yet more vats.
Harry rubs both nostrils with his forefingers
as if shaving off some unwanted flakes.
Vision ceases as the hopper clogs. Wedges
removed. Hands opened to release distant
dreams. Recaptured as the connection sparks.
Whiff of rennet, old man, wet coat.
Harry spits. The pour of his head wringing out
inner strength. Veins in full display. Effort
effervescent. Between bursts, he inspects callouses.
He insists on filling the muslin covered moulds
refusing impulses to slow down, their sheer volume
seemingly a challenge to his name’s aura.
He thrusts his shovel to the trollery bottom
and in measured experience presses his weight
sideways on, whilst I with nimbler hands
weigh, fold muslin, remove pins, apply the pump
re-weigh and place on the press room belt.
We become a team. Old-timer. A-level student.
By hose down he’s nearly spent. Handkerchief knotted.
I offer to take the shovel. Am met with an iron
no and cannot grasp. I sulk. We do not speak.
Other workers avoided the shovel, sniggered.
Later I saw marks on the scales, his fear, and
Harry lost two fingers in the hopper, and left.
Before the by-pass and Bristol raiders,
I used to visit the Italian in West Street
with its signed pictures of starlets,
octogenarian, dog and Serena,
immaculate in tight skirt, mobile, artificial
leather, barely disguised fatigue.
The owner would sometimes appear
with fat cigar, smile and shrug.
I recalled my old economics teachers
saying that monetarists were a mad
fringe group that would never come to power.
When the Italian closed we moved
our allegiance to Sarah’s in East Street,
and Serena, in new pinstripe, answered
her last call and never came back.
from The Bunny Poems (Shearsman Books, 2011).
Order The Bunny Poems from the Shearsman online store.
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Read more of David’s work here and here.
Ross Wilson’s The Heavy Bag
Ross Wilson was born in 1978 and raised in Kelty, a former mining village in west Fife. He has written three novels, reviewed for Books in Canada and co-edited Almost an Island: A New Anthology of Fife Writings. He recently worked with a team of writers on The Happy Lands, a feature film, in which he had an acting role. Awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship in 2004, his short stories and poems have appeared in many magazines and anthologies. A national schoolboy boxing champion and internationalist, he has worked in warehouses, factories, hotels, kitchens and various other places. His first collection, The Heavy Bag, was published in November 2011. It is available from the publisher, Calder Wood Press, at £5 plus postage.
“This collection marks the emergence of a refeshing new voice in poetry. Some of his work explores subjects seldom, if ever, described in poems. He writes with great insight, characteristic honesty and a strong emotional involvement with people and their lives.”
(Amateur Boxing Club)
Wee Barry was first – his first bout.
Three rounds with a twelve year old double.
Mirror images until
the glass shattered like a dream
and reality battered his wee face red.
Barry cried in the changing room:
ma nose hurts like hell!
Only a point in it, Alec said,
ye done well.
Then there was Sean.
Features ghosted with nerves,
Sean flushed vomit and
seconds out, minutes later, was hit
out of time. A wee one asked: did it hurt?
No! The pain
was several inches south of the blow.
Sean didn’t bleed:
blood bloomed his cheeks.
Lanky Colin jabbed and crossed, dangling
danger on the end of two rods,
a smug grin as each jab went in and in.
In the closing seconds a hook sank into
his burger-Coke lined guts. Winded,
he grappled a pummelling desperado, until
the bell sounded, sweet as his girl the night before.
Colin won by a score:
nineteen hits to four.
Next, John. A Scottish champion six years
before nightlife blackened his eyes
darker than any glove ever did.
Body hardened by Saughton’s gym,
arms colourful as an exotic bird’s wings,
rage carried him into the ring, through two
wild rounds into a third. Drained as a
pint glass, a white towel fluttered
to save him from himself.
Dean! Dean always broke the circle training –
facing a mirror as the rest faced one another.
I-pod in ear, unable to hear instruction,
Dean danced and vaulted the ropes!
But a boot snagged and tumbled him
and laughter bellowed around the ring.
It was hell for Dean after that. Pride punctured,
body blows deflated the rest.
And his record fell: four wins, now a loss.
Last: eighteen, unbeaten, Andy sat
one a table staring at boots that run miles
every night they don’t skip rope in a gym.
No one will fight him: too much power, skill.
There are whispers of other countries;
talk of a blue vest.
‘I’ve no passport,’
he told Alec.
‘Your passport’s talent n’ will.’
Weekends Alec drives a transit van full
of bleeding noses, bruised ribs, battered egos.
Sixty years old and so alive his breath
is a winter plume against a darkened windscreen.
Half way cross-country tonight.
Tomorrow: a roof with hammer and slate.
Alec smiles into a mirror full of boys
sleepy with dreams or dreaming awake:
the future is full of girls and fighting.
The Way John Went Out
In memory of John Gray
I had you in my corner a few years,
talking me into, and through, pain.
Weekends, you’d take me into
Edinburgh and Glasgow to train;
mid-week, we worked out in Rosyth.
Days in-between, I ran alone.
We were about the same height then:
Five three, flyweights. I, fourteen, all bone,
you, a trim forty, fitter than anyone
in the gym, until I caught up, like time
caught us, six years later.
A six foot welterweight that day
we met, books tucked under what had been
a left hook, specs on a never broken nose.
I was awoken that day
like a brawler too clumsy to duck
the surprise counter of your news.
The best punches come from nowhere.
This one hit before we could begin.
A doctor stepped between us, waving it all off;
a timekeeper beat the slow count out of days
before a bell could ring.
And it was a daze to stumble into,
like those nights when I’d run alone
in the dark of a wood, no stool to rest on,
and no voice in the corner where I once stood
tired and bloodied with your hand
flying my hand like the kites
we were both high as, walking
down the steps of Meadowbank Stadium, 1993.
You came in with nothing,
you said to me, you went out a champion.
In memory of Alec “Spangles” Hunter (1936 – 1995)
When they found Marciano’s body
strapped in the crashed plane seat,
someone said start counting, he’ll get up.
He always did, when he was down.
I remembered that story the day
Spangles went down.
A sweet tooth behind a bark:
thir’ll be no fuckin’ swearin in this gym!
A face marked by 626 fights.
At 59, he went down refereeing a bout
with no one to replace him to take up a count
that went by so fast we had our doubts
it was over.
That’s anithir season yeh’v wastit!
He’d say when I’d return to the gym
years after my last fight,
and with more appetite
for the atmosphere than the blows
that carved and cut and shaped him
like a pumpkin fired within.
Anithir season wastit
as though he thought I’d be back.
As though to say: he’s just resting.
I was young after all.
Now, I hit harder with the weight
time packs into a punch, and slower,
with energy that saps like the sweat
I watch drip away, wondering
what Spangles would say
about this new club full of women
and bairns and music – attitudes
shaped by the seasons he’s been gone.
His voice plays on – and old record
scratched and scored as his face,
and turning in my memory:
This isnae a fuckin’ youth club!
As if to say: this isn’t a game.
You don’t play boxing.
Months after the old club
was knocked down and out of existence
the headline read:
Final Round for Boxing Legend.
That was 1995.
This is another country, another gym
with the same fighting spirit alive
in twelve year olds I watch spar
and prepare fir anithir season.
The ABC 2
James came and turned
away from a right cross
in pain and walked across
the street for a bottle.
Craig put on two stone of muscle,
boxed a man naturally heavier than him
and discovered the truth in:
there’s nowhere lonelier than the ring.
Stewart had talent but lacked will,
won a few fights, missed nights
training, got a girl pregnant and
no one knows where he went.
Graham went sixteen and two,
won a few district titles, a national,
boxed international and
died inhaling aerosol.
Lesley was a tom-boy lesbo bitch
according to a few folk before
she learned to fight back and
flattened Fat Mary on her back.
Alan wasn’t very good – he got better,
lost a few before he won,
never won much but
All six were in the same year.
James is on the dole now.
Craig is a bouncer.
No one knows where Stewart is.
Graham is in Kirkford Cemetary.
Lesley is at the university.
And Alan runs the local ABC
three nights a week.
from The Heavy Bag (Calder Wood Press, 2011).
Order The Heavy Bag.