Joel Lane’s two previous collections of poems, The Edge of the Screen and Trouble in the Heartland, are both published by Arc. His other work includes two novels, From Blue to Black and The Blue Mask; a novella, The Witnesses are Gone; and three collections of short stories, The Earth Wire, The Lost District and The Terrible Changes.
He lives in Birmingham, where he works as a journalist and enjoys long walks, urban landscapes, cinemas and bookshops. His happiest hours have been spent offline.
“The Autumn Myth is a reality check on the myths and dreams that permeate our world. It attacks the culture of political and corporate mendacity in modern Britain, and goes on to consider the more ambiguous myths that sustain our personal lives.
These poems explore the human experience of time, the lessons of grief and illness, the messages of the urban landscape and the evocative power of music. They look beyond a fractured society governed by lies towards a more creative use of imagination as a way of connecting. The title poem suggests that global warming has eradicated autumn. Lane’s third collection celebrates an October of the mind, a revolutionary glow.”
Of Lane’s previous collection, Trouble in the Heartland, Sarah Crown wrote in the Guardian:
“Despite the bleakness and violence of the subject matter, these poems are precise, perceptive and, at times, beautiful. … he endows the city’s grit with grace.”
The last thing you expected to find
in a carrier bag, on a skip:
a human skull. The police told you
it had been part of a teenage girl.
No trace of skin or hair, no DNA
to link it to a family, a name,
a face anyone could remember.
She had no story to be doubted,
no marks of possible self-harm.
The first thing you noticed, holding up
its yellow cheekbones to the rain,
was how it smiled. As if it knew
its passport could not be revoked.
It had found the way out of trouble:
dropped from the news into science,
taken its place among rocks and stars.
You see them, from time to time, in hotels
or drinking clubs. Old, stiff-backed
their heads moving from side to side
as if scanning a distant horizon.
They were young in a world of borders
where drunken men muttered the facts
about life, explained what women were,
what dark rivers flowed under the skin.
They scanned the relief map of their needs:
this country was discipline, that was pain.
They walked through the fever-trees, alone,
to the sour cave by the river of plasma.
When the foreign upstarts took control
of the colonists’ birthright, they came home
to find the same heat disguised as winter –
the same mouths open, the same skin
needing punishment, the lessons to be taught
in prisons, detention centres, asylums.
Divide and rule. But the world healed up
behind your back, then came after you –
and so they end up like this, red-eyed,
backs to a wall where damp has grown
a strange forest, dividing the blank future
with alcohol and fear, colonising themselves.
The Mescal Worm
Look carefully, and you’ll see me
curled up in the end of the bottle
like some piss artist’s hallucination.
I am a dragon in embryo,
and my raw flesh secretes dreams.
All flavour is a dilute poison.
I am the bitterness that starts fires,
shatters glass, turns over the tables,
fills casualty wards. I’m not buying.
My blood is the stain of a child
whose pieces were buried long ago
in the forest, and never dug up.
My flesh sets your teeth on edge,
colder than the ice in your drink.
I taste bad. But I won’t kill you.
Not every night, or every weekend,
but now and then without warning
he twisted her arm behind her back
and beat her naked body with his belt
until her blood stained the duvet.
And afterwards, he held her still
and stroked her diminished face,
kissed the blue-black runes that stood
like Braille on her damp skin,
matched her breathing with his own
and quietened his own terror in her.
They had two children, both madness.
Some of These Days
She was the flavour of the decade,
the little redhead who acted out
Judy and Shirley with a shy grin
and the rhythm of a marching band:
hands rolling, throat full out,
giving it everything she’d got,
eyes bigger than her child’s belly
and swollen with reflected light.
The repeats kept her famous
while she pared herself down
in music college, then a clinic.
At the perfect age to launch
a glittering career, she starved
and no contracts could feed her.
The empty click of shutters
kept her awake every night.
Her last recorded performance
was nobody’s magic moment:
the bones showed in her arms
and her face was translucent,
her eyes vast with darkness.
The song was old, but not faked.
I’ve swallowed a camera. Now
it’s eating me from the inside.
If they come back – from the wastes of alcohol,
obscurity or madness – they come back alone.
Their scars masked by oddly placed silences
or facial hair. A blankness in their eyes
that their smiles never touch, from when
they hit the roadblock of middle age at ninety
miles an hour, like Kowalski in Vanishing Point.
Sometimes clutching an unpublished book, a personal
organiser, or (God help us all) a new faith.
You’re glad to see them, at first. They outlive
the comeback, start trying to settle scores;
turn up at Party meetings with documents
you need tunnel vision to read; lose the same
battles they lost the first time, but harder.
This time they’re in it for the duration: taut
and acrid, hand-rolled, always gleaming
with the failure that clings to them like gelatine
on the cheapest tinned meat, a version of spam.
Not so much a talking cure
as a way to listen –
like rebreaking an arm
healed out of shape,
opening a skylight
in the roof of the sky.
Standing by the doorway,
hearing the raven
flap its wings outside,
the steady beat of darkness.
Knowing it has more
than one word to say.
from The Autumn Myth (Arc Publications, 2011).
Order The Autumn Myth.
Read reviews of The Autumn Myth here.
Monthly Archives: June 2012
Ian Pople’s Saving Spaces
Ian Pople was born in Ipswich. He was educated at the British Council, Athens and the Universities of Aston and Manchester. His first book of poetry, The Glass Enclosure, was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. His second collection, An Occasional Lean-to, was published by Arc in 2004. Saving Spaces was published by Arc in 2011. He teaches at the University of Manchester.
“Ian Pople’s poems are shaped and tested by a crystalline sense of silence that makes his words sing out from the page like bird song. Each poem listens to itself unfold, feeling its way through its song in developments that are at once natural and astonishing. He is both an ecstatic observer of the natural world and a whole-hearted and honest participant in human relationships and the human condition. It is the way his poems move that make them so refreshing, the way they spill the reader through lines full of astonishing detail, alternating between moments of uncertainty and illumination.”
“Shaking up our sense of England and England’s poetry in the twenty-first century, Pople avoids the highways (and the many byways) of his contemporaries, making his own desire path, ‘saving space’ … His poems and sequences have a chancy magic in their juxtapositions. They deal seriously with love and faith, but are opportunistic and wittily anarchic as they say: “If you have that expression/ in your mouth, I’ll use it too”.”
– John McAuliffe
We quickly passed through
Berkhampstead and it was green,
all of it: houses, trees, cars,
herbaceous borders, allotments.
Everything except a pond
that reflected sky,
and Graham Greene’s father
pausing beside a window.
‘ … As Dedicated Men’
This is what his face has become,
exiled from prayer and the axle
of prayer; as if many birds
had flown through the room,
as if droplets of milk had gathered
and gathered, then remade
the cow, as a child might insist
on only three kisses then turn
to insist on three kisses more.
And in that face was a husband once,
the hands of marriage moving,
proving the sands between them.
Handiwork of Light
1. At Church
Some were at church, others running the towpath,
avoiding fishing poles, bait boxes with scrawling maggots.
That time of evening, the sheep still feed, the cricket’s
at the end of play. Across the hillside,
under heavy August cloud, cars are turning
their side lights on. Her father would have known
that time to move the flowers back inside the shop,
pull the shutters down, lock them in; infinite patience
for those things falling and those things waiting to fall.
2. A Lofty House
Set the suitcase down between puddles; knock
on the door. The chapel leans into silence; built
by subscription, among clay pits and brick fields,
an altar cloth of chalk dust, a warehouse,
a conclave for pigeons neatly fallen. Rooks are flying
fiercely back to roost, blue haze over August earth.
The clouds are lifting, and there’s a smell of covenant.
In the cut-hay evening, in the railway carriage,
everyone is talking, becoming wheels upon the tracks.
3. A View of Arnhem
The light is patterned, shaping round the fields,
or coming from the corner, an unmade sun
among boxes. On the garden side, you might
shutter off the windows for the lake is uncomfortable,
the water high, pouring and contained, there
among the formal trees, the stiff grass flattened
and open towards the cars and courtyard.
The hillsides move through one another
and little figures through the light and trees,
the river in sunlight. The sheep are walking
by the water wheel; behind the chain link
fencing, laurel, rhododendron, a tree that’s bitten
to the quick by lightning, where the dog looks
up at the man and the man looks down at the dog.
And there’ll be one winnowing and another
binding sheaves, and another sitting at lunch
because they’ll know, cramped as they are,
if someone turns or someone smiles.
4. The Kiss
August is still, a carnal river cuts
the counties, standing water in unploughed fields.
In the headlights a cat chews carrion, its head
is working side to side, and as you spit a fingernail,
the floating memory of a kind of kiss; of how she went
for flowers in a foreign night and, dark with
other language, window open for nectar moths,
the pumping heat, a disco rising, her returning
with the words, ‘how like you this?’
5. What the Car Park was Singing
The tennis court is sliding with the rain, moving,
taking the chain-link fence with it, away
from the pavement and the double yellow line,
carefully taking the tarmac and pulling its corners
slowly, away from the car park, pulling the white oblongs
of car spaces, out of kilter and towards.
But the word wants none of it, ‘IN’ needs to follow
the arrow along and around; the arrow with its
hazy reconfiguration that follows the man,
with his shadow in the rain, shining
on the tarmac, dancing with his cap slung
from his left hand, swung off under dark cloud
and the rain, once fallen, not yet falling on
the sliding tarmac. For he too turns between
the shifting oblongs towards, along the shining space,
and further away, another arrow, that points
to a white space almost unavailable, yet pushing
its way onto the car park, canting the eye towards,
as it approaches the only car, the graffiti car,
the car whose crazy white letters say ‘Sex’.
Stubby Venus on stubby-fingered
wind; that flapped above
the childhood park, a rail
to somersault off over gravel.
Firm-winged familiar that winter
of 63, the sledge so slow over
the last snow, it sent in Father –
old nicotine fingers, wheezy-cackle
breath – among the cat-ice
and pine needles, worn earth,
root balls, worm death; we saw him glide
into the tree silhouette, and not emerge.
from Saving Spaces (Arc Publications, 2011).
Order Saving Spaces.
Read reviews of Saving Spaces here.
Tony Curtis’s folk
Tony Curtis was born in Dublin in 1955. He studied literature at Essex University and Trinity College Dublin. An award winning poet, Curtis has published six warmly-received collections, the most recent of which was The Well in the Rain: New & Selected Poems (Arc, 2006).
In 2003 he was awarded the Varuna House Exchange Fellowship to Australia. Curtis has been awarded the Irish National Poetry Prize. In 2008, Days Like These (with Paula Meehan and Theo Dorgan) was published by Brooding Heron Press. He is a member of Aosdána. folk was published by Arc in 2011.
“The poems in Tony Curtis’s new collection are woven out of his fascination with the everyday, the quirky, the downright extraordinary, poems wrapped up in love and death, friendship and memory, madness and music – from the blind man singing in a field, to his three Cistercian uncles singing plainchant. There are folk at the heart of everything Tony Curtis writes. He is a born storyteller, and these are poems crafted by a poet with a wonderful ability to express great depth of feeling with deceptive simplicity.”
“Tony Curtis’s folk has an epigraph from Yeats: “I have spent all my life clearing out of poetry every phrase written for the eye, and bringing all back to syntax that is for the ear alone”. Beginning thus, Curtis is telling us that his poems are to be read out loud and listened to, and having heard Curtis recite from his work a number of times, I would challenge anyone not to be won over by his readings. His humour and charm, and ability to turn a poem with the seemingly simplest of images, and that understanding of how words will play over the listener’s ear, are hallmarks which are pleasingly brought to the fore on the page in this hefty new collection. His greatest skill is to make readers go “yes, of course”; he reminds us of what we’ve known all along though perhaps not recognised, and reading his poems is therefore an uplifting experience. In a beautiful elegy for Michael Hartnett he describes returning to that poet’s house, looking at the garden, seeing how everything had changed, “A life cleared up and packed away”. He lingers there, describing everything in detail, before cutting in with: “I just missed him. It’s often much later than you think”.
For Curtis, ‘Folk’ is “Such a warm little word,/ full of greens and browns,/ like something woven,/ a thread into the past”. He follows that thread down various avenues, recounting family members, old friends, people he has met on his travels; as the title of the collection suggests, these stories recapture an oral folk tradition, and his work is a welcome return to, and reinvention of, that lineage in Irish poetry.”
– Michael McKimm, The Warwick Review, Vol.5, No.3
“It is good to see the new collection by Tony Curtis, folk. His poems are often condensed short stories or character studies. The frequently ironic style is demotic and, like the traditional ‘little black dress,’ understated but, by inference beautifully crafted. In the wry ‘Trespass’ he reflects “This morning reading the newspaper,/ I found myself in the business section,/ a place I had no business being;/ I, who rarely stray far beyond/ the letters or the literary pages … a place where criticism and opinion/ are merely compass, weathervane or fluff”. He goes on to realise what had attracted him, “the misfortune, the gloom,/ the bleakness of the prose —// a world stripped bare. It was like the/ opening of a Chekhov or Beckett play,/ the vulnerability of the little man …”.
Most poems are first person narratives. They are not self-referential, but reach out touchingly and strongly to other situations, mysterious and universal feelings, as in the seemingly light ‘Opus in F Minor, for five string banjo and fiddle’, which opens with a dance-like rhythm: “To make it folk,/ I’ve borrowed a tune from the fields./ I heard a blind man sing: Mamma, I’ve been lonesome too long.// To make it folk,/ I’ve added a string to the banjo/ and hammer it hard/ I move to the beat.” He goes on to describe “When Old Josie begins to sing,/ you won’t know whether to dance or cry./ and your heart will want to speak/ old hurts, old hurts.” … “Then ghost after ghost takes to the floor/ tapping their feet to the music … nobody is lonesome tonight”. The poem unravels denial of loneliness, ending “… join us in the next folk song.// You may already know it,/ It’s called:/ When you open your eyes/ to look at me, all I see is sorrow.“
– Stella Stocker, Weyfarers No.111, December 2011
I’ve always wanted a good table
there in the space by the window,
there where the sun comes crawling
in the morning.
The birds and the moon
could watch me working.
A cluttered table –
you can imagine it holding
books, papers, poems,
all kinds of scribbling –
an empty coffee cup,
the lamp burning long after midnight.
A sturdy table –
the kind the hero comes in
and lays his sword upon,
or the dead body of his son,
a table strong enough
to bear sorrow,
to bear fruit,
flowers from the field,
a feather dropped
through the open window.
A poet’s table –
wide enough for the whiskey ballad,
long enough for the epic.
It must have a feel for sound.
The grain should run evenly,
a seam of gold that curves
and curves like a river of words
into the pool of a poem.
A good table –
I’d want the wood to be smooth,
pale as the undressed skin of a tree
so when the wind blows
over its bare back,
its soul will waken
to the memory of leaves and forest.
A useful table –
not a perfect table.
If it is chipped or scratched
it will remind me
of rooks and cuckoo
fox and squirrel.
But I want nothing broken,
nothing that speaks
of the axe, the chisel, or the saw.
When I come to the table
in the morning, I want to feel
like a woodsman hunting
or in the evening, a nesting bird.
What I want is to be lost
in the forest of myself.
Though I’ve searched for years
I’ve never found such a table
nor the carpenter to make it.
All I have is this: hear how it creaks.
In Praise of Grass
My father’s three brothers
were Cistercian monks
at a monastery in the hills.
We used to spend weekends there:
my mother and father
cleansing their souls
while I played in the fields.
My father’s three brothers prayed
harder than anyone I knew,
for me and the repose of the souls.
I shivered when they sang plainchant
praising God’s blessings,
their voices softer than girls’.
I see them still,
lined up like soldiers
against the dark –
the light dying,
the air colder than the cross.
I liked the bells that rang
all through the night.
I liked that everyone was up
and out with the light.
But what I liked best
was to watch the monks work.
When they cut the hay
or went to gather in the cattle,
they were like little bits of autumn
moving through the fields –
brown leaves blown by the wind.
God knows I was never any good
at prayer, and yet,
when a cloud passes along a hillside
or I look over an iron gate
into an empty field
I can still hear their voices
praising the grass, the snowdrop,
the leaf, the small miracle of rain.
A Writer’s Room
As if visitors were coming, I tidied my room.
I tore up papers, letters, abandoned scraps;
lines I had jotted down on buses and trains.
One note noted that I had gone so far into myself
I was beginning to see the light on the other side.
That must have been a bad day; everyone
knows there is no light on the other side.
I broke for tea to see how Mohamed
was getting on with wallpapering the kitchen.
It is a Laura Ashley blue; it will lift the spirits.
I returned to my room and moved things around,
piled paperbacks in different stacks,
put back what books I could on shelves,
then began reading an old copy of The Guardian.
I spent half an hour reading an article on C.K. Williams.
I love what he does with a long line,
he irons it until it’s as neat as a freshly pressed shirt.
And does the room look any better? I don’t know,
but for the first time in weeks, months even,
I can see the wood on the top of the table.
I often wonder if all this clutter
is what makes my poems so ramshackled.
And it isn’t that I don’t notice the chaos.
Every Saturday I look at ‘A Writer’s Room’
in The Guardian Review and each week
there is a photograph of a room, neat as a grave.
My room is a bombed-out bunker
and in it the poetry war goes on and on.
If C.K. Williams were writing this poem
a tramp would now pass through and take a piss in the corner
then grunt an apology when he sees me, saying sorry,
he mistook all this rubbish for an alleyway.
Three Poems from the Asylum
1. The Naming
If you’ve punched the wall
and kicked a hole in the door.
If you’ve been up all night
singing Johnny Walker blues.
If you’ve lost interest in your friends,
and the dog’s lost interest in you.
If your lover looks frightened,
and there are voices in the dark.
If sleep is a memory,
and your life is a nightmare.
If you’ve seen a doctor,
and he’s recommended
a rest, a little time
in a psychiatric hospital.
But you can’t bear
to tell your family,
where you are going.
Can’t even bear to say
the word Asylum.
Don’t let it bring you down.
Brendan Behan called it
The Puzzle Factory.
Pat McCabe referred to it as
who cherished asylums,
said they were The buildings
where the tears of the world are held.
For Elizabeth Bishop, lost in Rio,
asylums were always The Luna Bin.
For poor John Clare,
the peasant poet,
who spent three decades in asylums
they were always Prison.
I think of asylums as homes
for the bewildered.
On my visits, I have asked guards
what they call the place?
They say, The Snake Pit,
like some lost part of hell.
And the patients?
The Bolt Hole, The Fox Hole,
The Spaceship, The Traffic Island,
The Air Raid Shelter, The Ark,
The Bunker, The Trench,
The Safety Cage, Base,
Headquarters, The Loony Bin,
The Weekend Cottage,
The Campsite, The Caravan Park,
The Wigwam, The Dark Tower,
The Sanctuary, The Snug,
The Halfway House, The Hatch,
The Roost, The Chicken Shack.
Most of the doctors call it
The Central Mental Hospital.
Though the poet Michael Hartnett
who lived a hundred yards up the road,
always called it
The Sentimental Hospital.
A female patient
once said to me:
“The Sentimental Hospital,
that’s perfect, just perfect.”
2. The Gate
Did I ever tell you my father
made the gates to the asylum?
When they close behind me
their bronze shudder
holds an enormous sadness,
an old man’s tears.
Yesterday, being close to Christmas,
everyone was in good cheer
and the winter garden was restful –
those who’ve lost their way
seem to find great comfort in
cigarettes, pots of tea and gardening.
I read them poems about
flowers and trees:
Paula Meehan’s ‘Snowdrops’,
Robert Frost’s ‘Apple Picking’,
my own ‘Foraging’.
Then I sang
‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’.
Everyone joined in on the chorus
as if they felt for every man
who fell at Gallipoli.
When I finished
a guard stepped up
and handed me a note.
They have asked me back
to do the Christmas show.
3. Christmas Eve at the Asylum
Johnny sang ‘King of the Road’.
Mary belted out ‘The Power of Love’.
Brendan whispered ‘Waterloo Sunset’.
Elizabeth recited Kavanagh’s
‘A Christmas Childhood’.
Someone else did ‘Dirty Old Town’.
Harry played ‘Jingle Bells’
on his battered accordion.
Owen sang ‘O Holy Night’.
I tossed in a few carols,
and then we all sang
‘A Fairy Tale of New York’.
When the crisps, the lemonade
and the chocolate bars
were handed out,
everyone was smiling.
from the closed doors
through barred windows
across the grass,
all the way down the drive
to the red-hatted guards
by the locked front gates.
Yeats, January 1939
In the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, France
While Auden sat waiting for something
to happen, Yeats lay dying in France.
The old poet, fuelled by morphine
and the will to go on,
passed his days working on last poems.
To ease his troubled soul,
he wrote ‘Cuchulain Comforted’,
its stanzas, in terza rima, evoking Dante’s
journey through the underworld.
Days later, sensing Europe
was about to burn, he wrote
his last poem, ‘The Black Tower’.
Breathless, he went on amending.
Days before the curtain fell
he changed the title of
to the more Yeatsian
‘Under Ben Bulben’
and all the while he was imagining
the content list of this last volume,
a book he now knew
he would not live to see.
Still, with what little breath was left
he could command that
should appear on the page before
‘A Bronze Head’,
and ‘Crazy Jane on the Mountain’
should watch (the great carnival disbanding)
‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’.
The book ending
with the poet’s death nell
‘Under Ben Bulben’,
these last poems,
to be bound together
under the simplest of titles:
Last Poems and Two Plays.
I read somewhere
that when this was all done
the great man began to conjure
an imaginary content list
for another book of poems,
a book he would have written
had his stars allowed
and not aligned against him.
I sometimes like to think of this book.
I see its blue cover with a Norman tower,
an old graveyard and a mountain
laid out in gold leaf.
No title, just the name
hand-written, inside a pyramid
with the sun coming up.
I’ve often open Yeats’ unwritten book.
See, it opens quietly with a lament
‘Four Elegies for Augusta Gregory’
and is followed by seven love sonnets
‘Speaking to George from Beyond the Mirror’
and then the ghosts arrive:
‘The Dead Poet Visits Old Haunts’
‘Ezra Talks Things Over with the Ghost of His Friend’
‘A Visit to Roebuck – The Winter Solstice’
‘A Visit to Palmerston Road – The Summer Solstice’
‘Dante and the Poet Visit His Sisters’
‘Crazy Jane and the Ghost’
‘Margaret at the Window Ledge’
‘Ethel on the Riviera’
‘Dorothy and Edith Walk Their Empty Lawns’
‘A Voice from Spiritus Mundi’
The book finishes with two long monologues
‘Now That I Know’
‘Under God’s Gaze’
Some critics ponder, was it the morphine
set Yeats wondering about this imaginary book.
I like to think he was ending where he began,
wading through the waters at the edge of poetry,
waiting for the ferryman to carry him home.
from folk (Arc Publications, 2011).
Rosie Shepperd’s That so-easy thing
Rosie Shepperd lives in London and is studying for a PhD in Creative Writing (Poetry) at Glamorgan University. Her work has appeared in magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. She was a finalist in the inaugural Manchester Poetry Prize, the Ware Poetry Prize and the Café Writer’s. She won the 2007 Writer’s Inc Bursary and won the 2009 Ted Walters/Liverpool University Prize. She was a winner in this year’s Poetry Business Competition.
“These poems have a real originality both in form and content – from sestina to surrealism, villanelle to vignette – and are erudite, well-travelled, witty and sexy.”
– Carol Ann Duffy
“The surface textures of Rosie Shepperd’s poems are so engaging, with their wit, their sensual appetite, the fluid shifts of the voice, that you could almost overlook their most distinctive quality: a steady lithe intelligence, alert to the slightest nuances, like a fish in a fast-flowing stream.”
– Philip Gross
“Rosie Shepperd’s poems unfold with the logic of a well-planned journey to an unmapped land. We take in all the sights, the sounds, the scents – the local dishes – and experience, as things play out, the twin pleasures of inevitability and surprise that are the hallmark of superb poetry – and significant travels. We read these poems to notice things we haven’t seen before, and recognise what we didn’t know we know.”
– Liane Strauss
Tomorrow will be a day beloved of your father and of you
My name is Dr Seth; we have not met but I know your sister.
I’m going to tell you what we will do now for your father.
He is comfortable, not in pain and has just finished a glass
of apple juice. When I stopped by to see him, he waved
and you know, this may be a good time for you to leave.
You’ll be all right, get something to eat, just something light.
I know your mother would much rather drive in daylight.
It’s understandable and she is lucky to have you two sisters
close by. You’ll be all right. Let’s walk. See the leaves;
they have so many colours. The birch by your father’s
room – see, see how the branches move, almost in waves
of gold and silver with lamb-tails brushing against the glass.
The sun is low now; there is just time to visit the glass-
houses which, Fr Michael says, are the real highlight
of St Simon’s, with their tomatoes, anemones and waves
of vines. You’ll be all right. We have time; the lay-sisters
will know where to find us and if he is sleeping, your father,
well, he is sleeping and we must make sure he leaves
us in peace. It will help you to be outside, to leave
that place. See the late sun. Look at the weatherglass.
Tomorrow will give us a day beloved of your father
and of you and feel, even in this precious Autumn light
that is almost too thin, there is life, in you and your sister.
It’s all right. See the night-shift in the car park, waving
to their husbands, their wives. They talk in soft waves,
they think of the evening to come, how it will leave
them. Do you know Tagore, the Indian poet? Your sister
brought a book. It’s not what you expect, no? The glass
helped your father to read. Faith is a bird, feeling the light.
It’s all right. I know, you’re shocked. A man like your father?
That is what you are thinking, is it not? My father,
reading poems about faith? Tagore is not on his wave-
length, no? Let me tell you. Tagore is a man who delights
all men. Did you know he met Einstein? They both leave
each of us with the idea that we look at life through glass.
It’s all right; chance has its way, just as you and your sister
have each other. Chance and causality move together in waves.
See the lay-sisters; they do not know where the birch leaves fall
or why the lamb-tails brush with such lightness against the glass.
‘Tomorrow will be a day beloved of your father and of you’ won the Ted Walters/Liverpool University Prize in 2009 and has been commended in the 2012 Hippocrates Poetry Competition.
Perfect and private things have imperfect and public endings
i.m. Weldon Kees
And did you choose those friends with care and intelligence and did
they rinse your socks, let out the pinkish water and find a good home
for your cat whose name, I know, is Lonesome? I’ve read that suicides
prepare themselves with excruciating care, seldom leave errands for
others and yes, I remember they remove their glasses, sometimes
watches and also shoes. They do not tend to empty savings accounts;
usually they eschew talk of starting afresh, anew or anything ridiculous.
I hope your mind has ceased to flap like a broken blind; perhaps it was
broken. Perhaps it is. It may be dawn before you sleep and the silence
of these altered rooms has thinned. I want to think you are there now,
sitting in a different porch-light, where the wind doesn’t rush and tall
angular trees are actual and take no holiday. The music will start again
inside a small responsive smile. For a while anyway, let this be enough.
from That so-easy thing (Smith/Doorstop, 2012).
Order That so-easy thing.
Sheenagh Pugh interviews Rosie here.
Clare Best’s Excisions
Clare Best’s poems are widely published in magazines including The Rialto, The London Magazine, Magma, Resurgence, Agenda and The Warwick Review. A chapbook, Treasure Ground (HappenStance, 2009), resulted from her residency at Woodlands Organic Farm on the Lincolnshire fens. Breastless – poems from the sequence Self-portrait without Breasts with photographs by Laura Stevens – came out with Pighog in 2011, and Clare’s first full collection, Excisions, was published by Waterloo Press, also in 2011. Excisions has been shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre Prize. Clare teaches Creative Writing for Brighton University and the Open University, and lives in Lewes, Sussex.
“Excisions is an unusually clear and direct collection. The poems speak of one life, but the book resounds with universal themes of love and passion, inheritance and physicality, loss and adaptation. The first section, Matryoshka, concerns the interplay between grief and memory, while the third, Airborne, maps the changing landscapes of desire.
The central sequence, Self-portrait without Breasts, is inspired by the poet’s own journey through preventive double mastectomy. This is pioneer territory: Clare Best explores how it feels to experience radical surgery and its aftermath in a society permeated by orthodox ideas of perfection and beauty.”
“This is precise, inventive, often witty and sometimes erotic, and at all times powerfully truthful writing – I don’t think any other group of poems has made me feel so aware of my body. There’s not a shred of sentiment or maudlin self-indulgence here: this is the real thing. Formally the collection is varied and rich, assured in its handling of music and image, and conclusively powerful in tone, range and subject matter.”
– Andy Brown
“Excisions is a riveting book in which Clare Best explores the universal and fundamental subject of loss and the tensions which arise from loss: love and pain, grief and joy. It is a book that raises questions about the female body – about the choices we make, what it means to be feminine, what it takes to be loved. Accessible, beautifully crafted, tender and often witty, without a trace of self-pity these poems chart the rational, physical and emotional journeys we make as sentient beings. It is a love song to life and as such deserves to be read and reread.”
– Maureen Jivani
“Clare Best writes of the things of the world, and of the moments in our lives, as if they bear within them secrets of mortality that words will never quite have the power to reveal. She writes with scruple and clarity, listening always for the unsaid and the unsayable, watching for the passage of flame into darkness.”
– Michael Hulse
“Excisions is a tightly crafted book, quirky and brave. Clare Best explores one of the most difficult decisions a woman could make about her body. But she places the sequence, Self-portrait without Breasts, between two others, starting with grief and ending with love, so that it becomes both a pivot and a measure. Best turns Excisions into a narrative that we can all engage with – the story of how individuals deal with emotional extremes – unpredictable, erotic and philosophically demanding. She resists sentiment, but this book will still make you cry.”
– Jackie Wills
“Clare Best treads a sure path through intensity, complication and danger, and the resulting poems question the very nature of change.”
– Susan Wicks
Six rendezvous with a dead man
(i) The door from the foyer swings. A slice of brightness grows and shrinks, delivering them one by one to find their seats. The band’s warming up, auditorium thick with sax, bass, keyboard, drums. I’m sinking into rhythm when I catch your rich sweet scent—that cologne you’ve always slapped around your neck and chin each morning and again each night. The knowledge trapped within my cells, all I can keep, alone in the dark.
(ii) You sit in the ladderback chair, beside me. Not carcinoma, you snap, that was the secondary cause, the primary cause was pneumonia. The Registrar staples papers, signs fifteen copies of the death certificate. Seals them in an envelope. She clears her throat, thanks me for the cheque, asks if there’s anything else before I go. You dart me that sideways look, Let’s get the hell out of here. I need a drink.
(iii) An hour to check two hundred service sheets. You at my elbow, in your best dark suit, striking my knuckles with your metal rule each time the print is anything but monochrome. Copy by copy I discover magenta raked across lines of type, yellow and blue smearing the space between the second hymn and the Committal. Some copies are clean. You tell me to pile those neatly in a box marked GOOD.
(iv) I find the Bitter Aloes when I’m clearing shelves. The cap sheds crystals as I twist and pour the tincture onto my palm. Dip in the tip of my tongue. I’m six again, you’re painting all my fingers and both thumbs. Later, in bed, I suck and suck until the gall inhabits my mouth. The juices do their work, purge my sins, seal my lips. Time goes on. You add bitters to your nightly gin. I understand that I need punishing.
(v) The swimming hour: down and back. All the years: down and back. No need to think of you, no need to look. Down and back: learning to forget. Perhaps you never lived. Stretch, kick, breathe; under, up and breathe. Down and back. Vision alternating between silent fluid world and air above. Then I see you. At the deep end, by the clock, your right index finger beckoning. That way you have.
(vi) I wait in the cold for the people who take away stairlifts and deathbeds, the paraphernalia of a long decline. Standing in room after room, I seek your absence, as if the print of you here is the proof I want. You’re gone. Not for me the desire to touch your clothing or pull the hair from your comb. And when the bedroom door closes on its own, I welcome your invisibility, the mystery that’s parted your matter from mine.
(i) I am collected from school
He opens the passenger door for me, slams it shut. His face reddens, greys again. He walks round the back, checks the boot, sinks into the driver’s seat. At last he speaks. Your mother couldn’t come for you today … hospital … an operation. Nothing serious. He twists the key in the ignition. And all the way home he drives in the middle of the road saying, Don’t worry, everything will be all right. Everything will be all right.
(ii) I am taken to the hospital
The end of the lino, a barred window high in the gloss wall ahead. Door to the left. Stay here, he says, I’ll fetch you. Night blacks out the panes. I wait and wait. The door is finally opened, onto white. He has pulled the sheet to her neck, smoothed the pillows, bathed her eyes and cheeks. The words have been stuffed back in her mouth. She has set her lips in a smile. Her right hand crawls from the bedclothes, reaches out.
(iii) I prepare for my mother’s return
He asks me to draw curtains across windows, turn up radiators. Your mother will be cold. He selects three dresses from the wardrobe, lays them out on the bed, tells me to choose one for my mother to wear home. The blue, he suggests. When he has packed the case and driven away, I drag light into corners, stack it under the stairs. I unlock the garden door and let birdsong inside the house.
(iv) I listen to the unpacking
She comes in, stopping to stroke the dog. He brings the case upstairs, sets it down on the rack, offers to help. From the hall I hear metal catches snap back, zips unzip, bottles clank onto the dressing-table top, the clunk of close-fitting drawers. I whisper through the keyhole, I’m here when you need me, and sit on the floor, counting the days on the amber beads of my bracelet, guarding the bedroom door.
(v) I am left in charge
I am hungry, lonely. No-one calls. Just the clock ticking in a house of dust and ghosts. I go down to the kitchen, pile a tray with Rich Tea biscuits, packets of raisins. Jug of rusty water. Bowl of light. Climb upstairs, knock. He sits unmoving in the velvet chair, eyes staring forward. In the bed, my mother, facing the window, asleep. Next to my mother, myself. I place the tray at the foot of the bed, tiptoe away.
Is it like this?
My brothers’ domain. In, where I shouldn’t go—Spitfires and Messerschmitts hang on threads in the darkening air.
Isn’t it just like this? The quiet afternoon. Trestle table drawing-pinned with paper, littered with Airfix paints. Camouflage Grey, Khaki Drab. Pots of sable-hair brushes. Tubes of glue. A half-built Russian tank. Dead bluebottles; daddy longlegs everywhere.
Hard to strike a match against the little strip. I try and try. At last it flashes into life, sears my thumb. Drop it—smoulder smoke. Then flaring print, flames scorching the Russian tank. A bottle of water—quick quick—unscrew the cap—pour—but Oh! Oh! Oh! the liquid fuels the fire, makes it gasp and leap to the boarded ceiling in a rush of light and heat.
Beyond fear now. Part of me stays to watch the fire take—red, orange, yellow in a fiery fountain—whoosh—frizzle—spit. Part of me runs—down, along the passage, down more stairs to the kitchen, yelling Fire! Fire! Out of breath.
And isn’t it like this?
She turns from the sink, and she’s past me, shouting Don’t move! Up, up, an angel to the top of the house (I didn’t know she could fly).
Later she tells me she put the fire out with the big red extinguisher and her prayers. And Never, she says, Never Never Never Never Again.
Now I light matches in my head. Let them drop. I choose when to tip white spirit on the blaze. I stand at the centre—fire circling, wrapping, keeping me safe.
It is like this.
I think of love
and suddenly as though I’ve heard some new word
in a half-known tongue, comes
this sense of you, and in the opiate fog, a growth of light
and you there just beyond my reach
to make me stretch, fill my lungs
and feel the cuts,
a tightening band of steel around my ribs—
and all the years and days we’ve been together count
as much as every stitch that binds me skin to skin,
and in the places nipples were
I feel a charge of blood
and ghosts of kisses visit me as pain.
Self-portrait without breasts
Tangled hair, charcoal-socket eyes,
mouth slack after one more long night
restless on my back. This body’s fenscape,
manscaped, hills removed—the meaty joins
still livid, tight shut mouths
where distant territories were stitched
in touch. Blood seeps in deltas over ribs,
yellow and purple track to the waist.
You’re even more beautiful now, you say
and I believe, for though I never was, I am
explorer, seeker—I’ve travelled
and I have an ear for truth.
something’s out there
listened for not heard
something like song
plucked from a bird
the bird in mind
is looked for not seen
an astonishing idea
among the green
the green’s not there
but named in the head
some things some notes
are never found
how without these
should the music sound
from Excisions (Waterloo Press, 2011).
Visit Clare’s website.