Monday 28 December 2009

Four Quarters

I have begun a collaborative venture, Four Quarters, with three friends. Our aim is to document the seasons throughout the solar year, by spending four days in a wood in our village, spread across the two solstices and equinoxes.

Last Monday's winter solstice was our first day together. We met before dawn and parted around midnight, and spent much time either putting on layers of clothing to go out and greet the cold, or removing some of those layers, now soggy with snow, sleet or rain, in order to warm up and re-fuel again. I'm not sure how many miles we walked, but I was very glad of the numbing effects of the mulled wine we drank before leaving for the last hike home.

Our next meeting will be on 20th March, for the spring equinox. In the meantime, I have many wintry notes and much work to do.

Sunday 27 December 2009

A Thought for Gawain

From Simon Armitage's 2007 translation.

Now night passes and New Year draws near,
drawing off darkness as our deity decrees.
But wild-looking weather was about in the world:
clouds decanted their cold rain earthwards;
the nithering north needled man's very nature;
creatures were scattered by the stinging sleet.
Then a whip-cracking wind comes whistling between hills
driving snow into deepening drifts in the dales.
Alert and listening, Gawain lies in his bed;
his lids are lowered but he sleeps very little
as each crow of the cock brings his destiny closer.
Before day had dawned he was up and dressed
for the room was livened by the light of a lamp.
To suit him in his metal and to saddle his mount
he called for a servant, who came quickly,
bounded from his bedsheets, bringing his garments.
He swathes Sir Gawain in glorious style,
first fastening clothes to fend off the frost,
then his armour, looked after all the while by the household:
the buffed and burnished stomach and breastplates,
and the rings of chain-mail, raked free of rust,
all gleaming good as new, for which he is grateful
With every polished piece
no man shone more,
from here to ancient Greece.
He sent then for his steed.

Sunday 20 December 2009

Cixous Says

Outside, the snow lies thick enough to keep me at home. I am reading Helene Cixous, again. I keep returning to her Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. Every time I think I've escaped the book, something happens to take me back to it. A friend told me recently that it was the kind of book that could kill you. I can see what she meant. I also think it's the kind of book that could save your life.

Snow forces us to change our plans, Cixous encourages us to change our writing:

How can we keep our mixture of innocence and crime sufficiently alive and open to live and write? How can we proceed to the burning point, reach that last hour, when we'll be able to write or say everything we have never dared say out of love and cowardice?

In my last post, I touched upon my sense of holding so much back here and I wonder whether I want to use this space to say what I dare not say. Perhaps I feel the urge to say something strong or shocking, secure in a certain anonymity, although I also suspect that saying what I dare not say would take me into the realm of the confessional blog. I don't much like confessional blogs, their overt exhibitionism makes me feel uncomfortable.

I don't think I will use this space to write to the burning point, that can happen elsewhere. However, by way of taking a small step towards it, I would like to say a few things that I haven't said before. They aren't particularly important things, they may not even be interesting, but I will say them nonetheless.

I am writing in a room with pale yellow walls. There is wallpaper beneath the paint and in places I can see where the paint ends and the old colour still shows. The wallpaper is textured, wrinkled above the radiator and where one piece joins the next. There are many cobwebs and candle smudges.

There is a Christmas tree in the window. Sunlight catches on the baubles and is reflected on the walls and ceiling. There are small dashes of sunlight all over the room.

I can smell either diesel, rolled down the hill from the main road in the very still, snow-bound air, or marzipan from my airing-before-I-ice Christmas cake.

My feet are cold.

My husband is sitting beside me, working on his laptop. He is breathing loudly and there are clicks from his computer. I don't think he has touched the cup of tea I made a while ago. I look towards him and he asks in our domestic language, 'Urda?' It translates roughly as, 'Why are you looking at me? Are you alright? What are you thinking about? Why are you disturbing me?' I look away and he returns to his work.

There, that's it. A very long way from the burning point, but for the moment, it's enough.

Saturday 12 December 2009

Call and Return

A new poem was born this week. It's already, rather guiltily, a favourite. I pick it up often and carry it around the house, singing to it. I am neglecting my older work.

The new poem is a piece of free verse that weaves together a number of voices and languages, Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Middle English, hymns, prayers, the voice of the soil. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed playing with Anglo-Saxon verse ,within the free verse frame, and it seems my recent wanderings in traditional verse form have had some sort of influence upon my work. I was certainly pleased with the resulting poem and enjoyed using so many voices. I loved fitting them together in a meaningful and tuneful way; so that each voice spoke with the next, even though many of them had never met before.

What is more, it occurs to me now that I speak in this voice, this particular voice, on the subject of a polyphonic poem, and that the voiceI am currently writing in carries a lantern, illuminating what it can, what it wants to, while the glare from its light throws other things into greater shadow. Iam aware of using this space to reveal only a little, to uncover and to conceal. Like all communication, this is an exercise in control, as much as it is a reaching out. More on this subject later.

Saturday 5 December 2009

Voices Raised

I want to return to the matter of voice and to Eavan Boland's comments on her use of traditional poetic form. Boland says that her poetic maturity enables her to begin to, 'dissolve all the borrowed voices of [her] apprenticeship.' I am very curious to know how these borrowed voices dissolve into the authentic voice. What happens to our earlier voices while we're waiting for the borrowed ones to dissolve? Do our new ones sit on top somehow, while our older voices lurk beneath, muttering in the gloom?

I rather like this idea and it chimes with an experience I had recently, when I used the word, 'chuck' in a poem. I was exhilarated by it, it felt irreverent, almost as if I was also chucking the poem away. Writing the word made me feel lighter, younger, more vital, and I was glad to let it escape from me.

Apprentice writers are all in search of our authentic voices. It seems to be a case of moving back and forwards at once. We write as much as possible, in order to free ourselves and let something natural come through, but we also read and consume other writing, trying on other voices, hoping to learn from them, and we listen to conversations to learn the way people speak. All these voices we try to assimilate, and at the same time, there's still our own voice to find, to keep to.

I am still an apprentice poet. There's so much I don't know and I have spent so many years hiding from traditional form that I now have a lot of catching up to do. For the moment, I've set my Prologue aside and will look at it again in a few days, once I've gained some distance from it. I did begin to absorb its iambic pentameter though, and found that a few lines came already formed. Perhaps I am slowly adding a new iambic stratum to my voices.

Friday 4 December 2009

A Note from the Forge

Work continues on the Prologue I mentioned in my last post. I have spent the past couple of days hammering and bending it to a new shape and it's now in iambic pentameter, more or less, for that hint of of something Classical.

I wonder how good it is. Have I hammered the beauty out of it, or have I not gone far enough? Am I working against nature?

The first stanza's still cooling, but it goes something like this:

Come clattering on Sindy's plastic horse.
Come trotting to my door. I've covered
all the clocks and photographs with winding sheets.
I've shut the sun out. Come, my little too scared,
launch your Lego rocket, land it here.

Am I achieving what Eavan Boland describes as, 'pushing the music of dailyness against the customary shapes of the centuries', or am I producing something grotesque? I guess I'll have to keep bashing away at it and see what happens.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

Fear of Form

I have been advised to use this site to explore my creative process; so here goes....

I am currently working on a long narrative poem, a polyphonic piece, featuring the voices of buildings, people and ghosts. So far, the voices have come to me in different ways: some I have simply recorded and edited with the minimum of effort. For example, last week I made a Gossips' Chorus, the first stanza of which reads,

There's something wrong
with Simon Wright:
he swears at the girls
and shouts, SEA-GU-LLS.
You should hear what he says to his dog.

The entire first stanza came ready-spoken. I recorded it and then followed the same metrical pattern with each succeding stanza, and the poem was born, quickly, easily and with the usual number of fingers and toes.

Other parts have been trickier. Yesterday, I began work on a prologue, an invocation of my child self, rather like an invocation of the muses. I chose an iambic metre, in the hope that I might collect a flavour of something Classical as I went along. I didn't want to press the piece into too strict a form, such as absolute pentametre, as I've spent most of my writing life form-phobic.

The piece is progressing, but I'm finding it tough and I feel very unsure of my footing, both metaphorically and metrically. I am wondering how strictly I should stick to my iambic promise. I've already wandered off the metre a number of times and I'm not sure whether to keep what I've written.

Last night, I read the following in Eavan Boland's introduction to The Making of a Poem:
I have come upon one of the shaping formal energies: the relation of the voice to the line. That simple discovery begins to dissolve all the borrowed voices of my apprecenticeship. I begin to see how it would be to be able to work with the line by working against it, pushing the music of dailyness against the customary shapes of the centuries. Suddenly I see how these contrary forces make language plastic. And how exciting it is to find that a poetic language will liberate and not constrain.
Boland seems to be saying what I've heard elsewhere: do it enough times and it'll become natural, so that you'll feel your way through tradition and modernity, merging the borrowed and authentic voices** into one instinctive poem. I love the idea of, 'pushing the music of dailyness against the customary shapes of the centuries.' However, I am also worried that I may slog away, writing dreadful sonnets for years to come, wasting valuable time which I might otherwise have given to creating muscular free verse. All writers have only limited time to write, even those of us for whom paid work is the kind of guest who does embroidery, coughs quietly before she enters a room and goes for lots of long, solitary walks. Why spend precious hours battling with Sapphic stanzas?

I must admit, though, that wrestling with form is great fun and I'm thoroughly enjoying writing at the moment. In fact, the decision to face my fear of traditional forms has been a very valuable one and my work has certainly improved as a result. Perhaps I should stop worrying and get back to my prologue.

* The Seagulls is the sobriquet of Brighton and Hove Albion football club.
** The difference between borrowed and authentic voices seems a huge subject and one I'd like to return to in the future.

Thursday 26 November 2009

A Totem Animal Speaks

For Jenny and Rebecca

I have a long snout and live close to the ground, foraging
for food in the undergrowth.

My back is covered in spines. I get caught on clothing and am often carried miles from home.

I am descended from the burdock plant.

I walk backwards into people because I am too shy to greet them face to face. All too often, this gets their backs up.

I curl in upon myself whenever I'm afraid. I am occasionally mistaken for a football.

My front is very soft. Sometimes it hurts.

Once, I met a woman who worked with confused horses. I climbed into her lap and she let me sleep there for a while.

I uncurl in the presence of patient people who talk quietly and don't mind waiting.

I am a nocturnal cactus.

In moonlight, I produce vitamin D.

I eat snails and then take their empty shells home. My walls and ceilings are made of yellow, cream and brown spirals.

For years, my kind has been hunted. Men, particularly young men in indie bands, kill us for our pelts, which they stick onto their chins for women to stroke and admire. We are also made into hairbrushes.

My spines may be planted separately in compost, where they will grow into musk rose bushes.

I am afraid of slug pellets and cars.

Wednesday 25 November 2009


He went to the house where the moon lived. She lay upstairs, sleeping on a bed made of ivory and moths’ wings. He climbed the bone staircase, kissed her white paper mouth, and left.
Nothing changed in the house, but after he left, the night glowed a bright, blood red.

© 1997 Telegraph Group Limited

This piece was Highly Commended in the Daily Telegraph & Arvon Foundation's Mini Sagas competition, 1997.

Words and Insects

I have always felt a kinship with entomologists. Words and insects are so similar. Words are small, often black. They move on the earth, although some go underground, where it’s safer. Some words fly or swim and some sting. Some can survive even fire.

Insects are signifiers: cockroach, ladybird, daddy-long-legs and rose chafer can be split into their constituents, can buzz about us, carrying their meanings on delicate wings. If we want to, we can pull their legs off.

Behind the bark on rotting trees, words breed. They’re making nests, colonies, cities. Pull away the first layers, they scuttle out to frighten, charm or disgust us. They are gorgeous: iridescent greens and blacks, stripes and spots of red and yellow, but there is decaying matter on their legs and mouths, and if touched, they exude a foul-smelling oil that will burn us and itch for days.

There is something obscene about insects. In-sect: jointed, sectioned, cut. It’s a private word, a word of intersection, insertion, dissection, sadomasochism. The word is a scalpel: its jaws will harm us. And we in turn will dissect the word to find out where it comes from. We cut it, it bursts with eggs.

Last Day of the Vic Reeves Show

Everything’s closing.
The butterflies are folding
their wings. The beetles
are shutting the black
lids of their backs.
The birds are testing
and preening their feathers,
in anticipation of migration
to the basement. The jaws
on the skulls are closing,
their no-eyes are heavy
in their sockets. The skinless,
tissue-less snake is shedding
its bones in the un-breathed
air in the glass of its case.
The canvasses are peeling
themselves from their frames
and rolling away
with the bath-chair. Even
the spotlights are sleepy.

On this last day, I will climb
inside a painting: this one,
with the sea and the white-
bottomed bird. I will float
in the spout of the kettle,
steer with the black and white
pole, and follow the bird,
through the storm, through
September and the surging
equinox tides, through the rain
and the smudges of clouds,
keeping my eyes on the white
spot on the tail of the bird.
I will chuck my badge
overboard, put my feet up,
whistle a shanty, with a brew
on the go, bubbling beneath,
as an albatross circles
and sings in the voice
of the mistlethrush.

The Scrying Bowl

Come closer.
This black water in a silver bowl
is a black and silver lake.
Here reflected trees distort.
The black bird flies
from branch to branch.
Here your face appears,
framed by branches,
rising to you:
black eyes, black mouth.

Deep within this mirror,
the faces of your future, of yourself:
the moon becomes the bull
becomes the child
you will never know.
Her face is your face,
her hands are yours:
the self-same fingers
strain towards you
as you reach down.

Four hands touch the surface,
breaking it. You pull away,
leaving only ripples.

This poem first appeared in Agenda's online suppliment.


On this shaven hill,
suspended between death and something after,
I watched the empty purse that was my body
as they cut it from the cross.

You were there beneath it,
though you couldn’t stand and they sat you in the shade
of that unnatural tree. You took my mass of limbs
upon your lap and rocked it

as though I were your child again.
You cried a cradle song: a lullaby to wash away
the blood and dirt, while the wound at my side
kissed a stain into your gown.

This poem first appeared in an online suppliment to Agenda.


My poem, 'Lupercalia' won this year's Chapter One Promotions poetry competition.

Friday 6 November 2009

The Story of S

S is for Snake. I remember first seeing that on the walls of my reception class at primary school: a sinuous green and red snake smiling down on me. S was my silent friend in a too noisy classroom. She was my guardian, my keeper, my saint.

I remember first learning to write her: it gave me such pleasure to describe that curve which doubles back on itself.

S begins and ends my name. I feel held and contained by her. She makes my name a caduceus, as she twines around and through me.

S is for secrecy and sorcery. She is the sinister sister of the hidden path. S hides, waiting for me to pass. She whispers to me.

S sings me to sleep.

S slithers from my grasp.

S is a sea-swimmer and I’m afraid of water. She calls me to join her, but I can only watch. She swims like a seahorse, like mosquito larvae, flexing her spine.

I love the numbers I associate with S: Five and Seven. She’s the green serpent of Five and the lilac serpent of Seven. As Five, foliage sprouts from her mouth; as Seven, she’s a ghost, a spectre.

S is incomplete, imperfect: she’s Eight broken, snapped, halved. She strives for eternity, for (re)union, but she can’t attain it. S is all desire. She falls in love too easily.

S is for September, the month in which I was born. She’s all ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’… though I’ll say anything to feel closer to Keats.

S turns to Sh in Sian: Shin, not Samekh. I have always felt divided by this difference between the spelling and the pronunciation of my name: often, I have to spell it for people I meet, and have to pronounce it for people who have only read it.

I lie down and my twin S’s curl around me. One of them is already asleep. The other remains awake.

Thursday 5 November 2009

Spirit Bottle

Here is a body,
a container
of the correct proportions,
a little long perhaps,
a little thin.
Here are sinews,
muscles, bones,
coils and strings
of red and white;
hard, turned sticks
and ivory dowels;
the threads of veins.
Here is a centre,
a lump of a heart
to jig, to flex,
for the rhythm
in the dancing.
Here are lungs
to squeeze,
to wheeze,
airbags, a throat
for the singing.
Here everything moves,
quivers, pulses,
trills, resounds.
Here's a home for a spirit,
fill it, fill it.