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.