Six weeks ago marked the centenary of Armistice Day: 100 years since the official end of the First World War. The atmosphere was a strange mix of learned horror and official pomp and circumstance, with a disturbingly celebratory and victorious tone to some of the remembrance events. Six weeks on, I want to share my own poem about the centenary, which was broadcast on Radio Cumbria on 11th November 2018.

‘When there was peace’ was commissioned by BBC Radio Cumbria’s Up For Arts project, supported by Heritage Lottery Funding. It was recorded at Carlisle Cathedral.

Earlier this year, I was given the opportunity to work with a group of former miners from Whitehaven on an oral history project. This was part of Tables Turned, a three year participation project run by the National Trust and partners, which is all about bringing together community groups, young people, historians, curators and artists in projects that deepen understanding, build new partnerships and inspire creativity.

After meeting the miners and listening to them recount their experiences of working in the mines on Cumbria’s West Coast, I was commissioned by the National Trust to write a poem in response. The result is ‘We’re still here, with luck’, whose title comes from something one of the miners said right at the end of the meeting, as we were packing away all the chairs and biscuits and recording equipment. Quotes from the miners are threaded throughout the poem, which was then filmed by John Hamlett.

*

‘We’re still here, with luck’

 

                                       You can tell a miner from the scars,
                                       blue with coal dust, like free tattoos.

A miner wears his memory in his skin –
the mines and all the men who mined them,
screen lasses who sorted the coal

                             with good shoulders, shotputters’ shoulders.

Sitting in a circle in the church hall
in the room with custard creams and a serving hatch,

                                                     we teeter above a shaft
                             of stories, hanging like the cage at pit top
                             over a 1200ft drop. Outside,

boarded shut at the backs of houses and the edges
of fields, are beginnings of tunnels
like the town’s capillaries.

We bring them in,
till the adits are the mouths of the men

and the conversation goes back generations.
There’s a seam we keep following,
because these men remember the town
before they were born, can mine
stories and places passed hand to hand –

                                       black dust on Golden Sands

                                        and watter runnin’ in like hell

Some say the pier at Parton
was blasted by a storm, others
how Lowther pulled it down –
their tales like passageways that intersect
then channel on.

                                       No seam lies in a perfect plane.

In the deep, their memories
grow big and spacious as a ballroom, a new face
waiting for the goaf to drop:

                                       rippled, like being on a beach,

the fat clams of ironstone nodules, marcasite
like fish scales
where the rock
dances to the muscled band of the seam,
where the girders bend and break
and we wait.

           That waiting was the most profound sound you ever heard

like the stillness after the last reverberation
of a cathedral bell.

From their mouths come the names
compressed and precious as a litany, as coal:

                             Haig, William, Wellington, Lowca, Kells.

Last night I went to see the fantastic Andrew McMillan perform at Poem & a Pint. He read from his multi-award-winning (make that multi-multi-award-winning) collection, Physical, and then tantalised us with material from his upcoming collection, Playtime.

Playtime doesn’t come out till next year, but in the meantime, here’s on of the poems I performed at one of the open mic slots last night. As you may have guessed, it’s titled after a Joni Mitchell song. It was shortlisted for the 2017 Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize and features in my pamphlet, Breaking the Surface (Flipped Eye, 2017):

You’re in My Blood like Holy Wine

The nights we came home drunk and every night,
we sat side by side, toes curled over the cliff
of the bed in your Oxford bedsit, and talked

about nothing. I know this, because it struck me
how precisely we controlled our breath,
how intricate each flex and shiver of skin

for words that no one cared about. We talked
about next door, the radio constant
through the brickwork, clutching at stations

before moving on. Sometimes, our arms
brushed and for a second, I spiralled
like smoke. There were always cigarettes

and the faint smell of apples, your burgundy
sweater, and the bristled curve of your throat.
There were dark thumbprints in the bowls

of old wine glasses, stacks of plates
like unopened letters, crumbs
sharp as insects littering the rug –

and all the words I didn’t know how to say
were crows, flapping their frantic wings
against the inside of my mouth.

I swallowed, and they clawed my stomach
raw and sick. I’ve tried to drown them
in spirits, thick and toxic as the dark,

drown them till they tasted of nothing
but iron and burnt toast, and my body
was a smudge of wings on a pebble beach.

I’ve tried to speak. Once, I twisted my fingers
in the duvet, as if there would be ripples
that could reach you: your solid, immovable legs.

You shut the blinds, switched on the desk lamp
and Joni Mitchell – how I could drink a case of you
and I would still be on my feet – but before the end

you cut the track to watch the trailer
for the new James Bond. You said, I know
how you feel about me, and I believed you.

*

Remember the Church of the Assumption
of Our Lady in Mosta? Where the bomb
that plummeted through the roof in 1942

into the middle of a morning mass
without exploding was still on display,
and the little card proclaimed this a miracle

in several languages. Remember
how we watched it for almost twenty minutes,
how its silence filled the room

till we imagined we could hear it ticking:
a gunmetal heart; the weight of a hammer
raised above a head or bell

about to be struck; the stretched skin
of a drum anticipating thunder.
Or maybe it was just our own blood

beating against our ears like fists
against a door. Remember how I said, I wish
it would do something drastic, I wish it would explode?

HAPPY NATIONAL POETRY DAY!

For this year’s National Poetry Day, I was commissioned by BBC Local Radio to write a poem as part of the #FreeTheWord project. The project took 12 regional words chosen by listeners, and asked 12 poets to write a poem based on their region’s word. I was the poet from Cumbria, and my word was ‘twining’ (moaning / complaining etc).

You can watch the poem here:

Ode to Twining

The week summer slammed the door so hard the valley
rumbled from its leaving, you couldn’t move for moaning.

Not fat complaints dropping powerless from lips,
or torrents gossiping and coarse – up here,
our words are leaner, tighter… Here we twine,

unwinding our moans like wool
festooned between us. When the weather
rocked the windows and swept away the bins,
we twined till twining became
entwining, till we had twilled ourselves
in the warp and weft of our words –

the way we were that other winter, when water
rose through the town and the roads were a maze,
when the rain was a blank wall
wetting our backs and the wind was a wild thing,

when our words unravelled and all we could do was follow them
like string – till together our twinings wound thicker,
were rope, and we bound ourselves together like love
as the floodwater billowed and swept –
and we stood fast in our twining and we waited, and we won.

Reading the Signs

That was the summer we blatted the ants
with bits of kitchen roll, smudging
their miniature bodies between the countertop
and our thumbs. It didn’t rain for six long weeks
and in the spare room, a business of flies
crawled into the gaps around the windows
to feast on the wood’s protective coat.
A sparrow flung itself into the glass
of the front door. It lay broken on the step,
its wings and feet at wrong angles, till I shovelled it
into a polythene bag – though the grease spot
stayed on the window for weeks.
We slept in different rooms, agreed
that all these things, these signs, were unconnected.


‘Reading the Signs’ was first published in The Compass

The Raven Speaks

‘All the animals, birds, and fish will live in fear of you. They are all placed under your power.’
– Genesis 9:2

For a month or more, he kept us
in the dark, locked
in his mad tessellation of wood.

Through a slip of it, we could see
the lift and slump of horizon,
and on rougher days
shards of air forced themselves
through the gap.

When he took me
from the hull, led me up
and out towards the day…

to feel the chorus of sunlight on my feathers,
the freshness of salt
scouring from me the greyness of captivity…
when they unhooked my claw
from the metal ring, and made me soar –
is it any wonder I didn’t come back?

I found land: a rocky
dump of mud and drowned fish,
the single resilient
olive branch. It stank
fierce as the ship I’d left behind.

I saw her coming,
that lily-winged dove. Hid.
Watched her pinch that little spurt of green
in her petite, pampered beak,
and promptly nip it, dead.


‘The Raven Speaks’ was commended in York Literature Festival / YorkMix Poetry Competition 2016. It is also included in my pamphlet, Breaking the Surface (Flipped Eye, 2017).

This week I was planning to write a long and highly thoughtful blog post about some aspect of writing, but I think I used up all my writing juices on completing the first draft of the novel (!) – so I decided to be topical instead, and share a teaser poem from my upcoming pamphlet, Breaking the Surface (Flipped Eye).

(By the way, if you haven’t already put it in your diary, the launch is on Fri 2nd June! More here.)

Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway

after Turner

So slight it could almost be an accident
in the turmoil of colour and oil, racing
across the wingspan of the bridge
into the present – a flick of a hare

boxing the future, jacking its sharp angles
over dabbled green, its ears slipstreamed
to the focal point, and back legs springing
like a voice reaching the end of a question.

It runs to show man the limits of his progress.
It runs in terror of the industrial age.
It runs to demonstrate the engine’s speed.
It runs because it is a hare and hares run.


Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway‘ was first published in The Compass