A 17th Century Guide to Beauty in Virginia

Come,
in the owl-time, in the shy fox-hour, coyotes

still courting the moon, the silver creek
of the Milky Way glinting

above the Rappahannock River
in a fist of flung shillings –

come, dip your face
to the dew, each drop its own

loose change, waiting
to be slipped into the charity box of dawn.

Spend them liberally, soaking your cheeks
in the tears of your not-yet-country –

till, with a great stirring of snuff-dark breath
the sightless eyes of the household

blink awake, and the sun begins again
its daily scouring of the soil beneath tobacco leaves.

All day the plants will stake their hard
aromas to your brow, your unwashed palms.

All day you will catch your tongue
lamenting, reimbursing their murmuring aubade.

*

‘A 17th Century Guide to Beauty in Virginia’ was a finalist in the 2019 PBS/Mslexia Women’s Poetry Competition.

An Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Object

At the roof of the Rockies is the watershed
of America, the great divide,

where you can stand astride
the continental split, can gob your spit

(each gene-coded cell of it) one hawk to east
then west – then watch as each

begins its slow
globular journey towards opposing waters:

Pacific – deep, entrenched
and quarrelling fire; Atlantic –

dogged wrecker of ships, beating grey
determination on its coasts.

This is how a body can be pulled
in two directions:

my mother, newborn and uprooted
to a hospital crib,

her parents’ marriage
gone to tectonic drift

and both her grandmothers warm
colliding fronts from either side.

They say this mountain was a man
once, who wished to go on forever

and was granted. A strong
desire phrased badly –

though I too have wished
to be landscape in a foreign age,

to be cribbed in whole forests of life,
to be more than enough,

to undergo
the conflicting tug

of oceans, take heart
from their fierce competitive love.

*

‘An Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Object’ was longlisted for the 2019 University of Canberra Vice Chancellor’s Poetry Competition, and was first published in the competition anthology, Silence.

One of my big poetry achievements this year has been to finally have a poem published in Mslexia – something I’ve been trying to do for around a decade. And, as it happened, I ended up with poems in two consecutive isues! Funny how these things work out.

Here’s my poem, ‘Feathers’, which was submitted for the open callout on the theme of ‘journeys’.

Feathers

I don’t know what I’m trying to say
exactly – only that today, commuting the hangdog
length of the river path, I spied
for the first time this season

a flight of silver breaking from the broad
shoulders of the water:

the metal undercarriage
of an office chair, unheeding
of predators, basking in the knowledge of itself,
its wheels uplifted to the weak sun,
a cursive uncurling towards the sky.

I swear I heard it calling reassurance to its young
on the brambled bank, a sudden circular song.
I swear I heard their ruffled hope reply.

*

‘Feathers’ was first published in Mslexia, Issue 83: Sept/Oct/Nov 2019

With all the novel-related talk, it’s been a while since I shared a poem. Not since Easter, in fact. So, with summer (finally) here, I thought I’d share a swimming poem.

Over the past few years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time revisiting places I used to go as a child – including several local swimming pools. On this occasion, I decided to spend about an hour swimming, determined to take a break from the desk life and get some exercise. Instead, I got the idea for the poem about fifteen minutes in, then spent the rest of the time holed up in a changing room cubicle, scribbling away. Oh well. I tried.

The poem is from Assembly Instructions (Southword, 2019).

1999

In the communal changing rooms where old women’s bodies
flapped and scattered droplets like pieces of crystal,
we contorted ourselves behind the bright flags of towels, wished
together for the other pool – the one with lockers and locked doors,

where the air was jungle-thick and cubicles close with damp –
where once I saw your chest raised like a ripple of water.
You whispered look, showed me the first kindling of hair,
and I had to ask does it hurt? so you said feel it – see? soft – like a bird – 

Though you meant only one bird, the sparrow in the old byre,
battering itself bloody against the glass, till your dad
caught it, said girls, said don’t be afraid, and kept it
quaking between his hands for us to stroke.

In the pool, my stomach is too bare, and a man
with ribs like a shelf of dusty Reader’s Digests watches me swim.

 

 

I’ve been spending a lot of time over the past few weeks working on poetry as part of my MacDowell Fellowship in New Hampshire. I’ve also been spending a lot of time sitting in the beautiful James Baldwin Library at MacDowell, looking out at the gorgeous views of meadows and forest beyond.

With both of those things in mind, I thought I’d share a poem.

‘In the yellow library where in 2004 I had my first kiss’ is a poem in my second chapbook, Assembly Instructions (Southword Press, 2019). It was written following a workshop I ran a year or so ago, at my old school: QEGS in Penrith, Cumbria. I was working with the school’s creative writing club, exploring poetry and its relationship to place. The workshop took place in the school library…

*

In the yellow library where in 2004 I had my first kiss

the students are writing poems. I say,
write in an animal. Include an insect –
make the poem crawl. End
with something that opens, give it space.
What colour is your poem? Blue, they say, or Green.
One says his poem contains a bird and birds
always make a poem purple.

What colour was that Friday afternoon
before the buses came? Some now-or-never
shade – when never was Monday and weekends
were an ocean –
and I remember his mouth was the pink
cavity of a conch, and the books were grey with dust
and undisturbed, though I swear behind their spines
they whispered. I swear they’re whispering now.

The boy’s tongue tasted of pennies and rich tea biscuits
and there was too much of it. Our kiss
was the colour of water.

I say, put water into your poems.
Like the sea?

Yes, I say, or a vase or tap
or gob of spit.

                        But Miss, they say,
that could be anything.

And I say, Yes. Exactly.

 

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.