Saturday 31 December 2011

Day 26 (for Terri): On the blank page I read

my parents' lost words: my mother's diaries that she threw away a few years ago, which she'd written every day since she was single, before my brother and I were born; the letters my father hasn't written; the things both my parents haven't managed to say; the secret fears they've told me when drunk or nearly told me sober and pretended after that they never said; the things I can't tell them

my brother's voice before it broke.  With my ear to the page I hear the tapes we made and recorded over.  I hear him shouting, 'Ambush!' as he jumps down from his oak tree in the Back Field and runs at me, a hogweed sword in his hand

my grandparents' and great-grandparents' stories; the love letters they cherished, burned or forgot about; the words they buried, choked on, whispered into reeds or holes in trees, or told the wind; the spidery or arabesque script of my ancestors back to the first boy who was taught to write; and before that, the timbre of their voices, talking, singing, crying, snoring; their laughter; their infant screams; their last breaths; the ticks and chimes of their clocks and watches; the sounds of their houses: doors banging, dogs barking, footsteps and the squeals of gates.

Days 30 & 31: Terminus; a Bulb, a Promise.

Illustration to Colin Hawkins' Witches

Because endings are difficult.

Because it's hard to end without beginning again.

In September I'll turn forty.  I should have evolved beyond caring, but I haven't.  I should be philosophical about it, say something positive about wisdom and self-knowledge and how I'm looking forward to the next enriching phase of my life, but I'm not.  I hate feeling unattractive.  I hate worrying that what I wear might be muttonish.  I hate that my hair has lost its shine and my skin's weathering.  I'm dreading my friends asking me how it feels to be forty.  The worst of it is of course that in a few years I'll look wistfully on this as my youth.  I'm afraid of illness, ageing and death, my own and that of the people and animals I love.  2011 was a year of shocks and hard lessons and it's left me scared of what might happen next.  I have lost too much, as have many of my friends and family; it has to stop.
However, it's traditional to say something positive at this time of year, so I'll tell you that I'm working on a new sequence, based on one of the Reverb prompts.  There's a patch of grass in my imaginary garden that's covered with the snouts of emerging poems.   I have a vague idea of some of their varieties and colours, but they'll probably still surprise me.

We keep growing, don't we.  That's one thing good thing about getting older.

I'm taking some time off public writing and won't publish anything here for a while.  Thank you for reading my posts and for your comments.  I hope 2012 comes kindly to you.

Thursday 29 December 2011

Day 29: The Last Toast.

 Illustration to Colin Hawkins' Witches

If only it were. We clink glasses again: 'Happy This.  Happy That.'  I take a gulp and the old woman with red eyes and hair like a winter tree climbs off my shoulders and retreats upstairs, muttering as she goes. 

She'll be waiting for me later, at three or four in the morning. She'll climb on my chest, spit in my face and spend the rest of the night pulling at my fingers and telling me I need to change my ways. 

Wednesday 28 December 2011

Day 28: Five Curses

Illustration to Colin Hawkins' Witches

They come too fast for you to stop them, too fast to notice.  They appear at first like stars falling but they aren't stars and they have no light of their own.  They are formed of the new elements: heart, lungs, feet, hands and head.

The Curse of the Heart makes you spit fire when you should be singing.  It scratches your belly and climbs out of your mouth when you're walking, scorching the ground and causing forest fires.  It has scales and wings and can tear out your throat with one bite.

The Curse of the Lungs makes you wheeze.  It breathes your air, starving you of oxygen and making you faint. It is grey, flaccid spongy.  It talks in a whisper, usually about its looming death and last wishes, and has clammy hands. 

The Curse of the Feet is all blisters.  It flaps as it walks and parts of it peel off.  It weeps a lot.  It is sticky to the touch.  It follows you about, pleading for you to slow down, but if you wait for it it will never quite catch up: it will twist a knee or an ankle and fall over, writhing and moaning with its arms waving in the air.

The Curse of the Hands has teeth.  Don't stroke it.  It keeps its back to the wall at all times, and tries to stay in corners, snarling at passers by.  You can poke it with a stick or throw it a sandwich.

The Curse of the Head splits wood for a living.  It carries an axe at all times and can chop down trees with three blows.  It kicks over boulders.  It will kick you in the belly if you let it.  Its nose runs often and its eyes are sore and dry.  It bumps into corners and trips over doorsteps.  You can push it over, but you must be fast and plan your getaway meticulously.

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Day 27: Five Blessings

A morning in the garden, cutting back last season's herbaceous plants and chopping brambles; one of the serene days between Christmas and New Year when there's nothing pressing and you can drift from breakfast to bedtime.  The air was mild and full of early spring and bird song.  I watched Hellebore zip up and down the maple tree, and pounce on the soil from a plant pot I'd just emptied.  When I came inside Samuel was curled on the bed, sleeping off another late night.

Friday 23 December 2011

Day 23: Shucking the Oyster

Photograph by Tony Sutton
Anything but the oyster!
Roll on the days of normal work.
I'm sick of not hitting the mark, 
not getting the knife into the hinge,
not twisting at the proper point.  
Roll on the end of hurrying,
of cuts, splashes, shell shards
for nothing more than
a plate of plates,
of winter rock pools: 
salt-water, jelly and grit.

Thursday 22 December 2011

Day 22: Speaking in Code

With my hand against my mouth I speak riddles
you wouldn't want to understand.  I whisper
so fast it's like a cricket, like a scratch,
like a car's gears grinding, like my car radio
when Cherubino was singing in and out of signal
and I got it: two notes, grind, one note, grind.
With my hand against my mouth I can gurgle.

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Day 21: If you came this way at night

you'd probably catch me sleeping, having kissed the cats and Phill, written my diary and (if you arrived within the next few days) read a chapter of Marilyn Robinson's Home

Would you come by car?  It'd be wise: the rail service isn't what it used to be and there's no bus from the station, even during the day.  We're easy to find, just look for the alpacas.  They sleep in shifts, in case of predators, so you'd be bound to spot one standing in the middle of the paddock.

Would you knock, try the door or bring a ladder to set against the window ledge?  I'd hate to mistake you for a burglar, it could really blow my career, although at least if I hadn't already heard you I'm sure you'd tap me very politely on the shoulder to wake me.

I'd get up, of course, and make you a cup of coffee, perhaps offer you a peach.  We'd probably shuffle about awkwardly in the kitchen, waiting for the kettle to boil.  I expect I'd ask you about the journey, make some smart-arse quip about the ways being deep and the weather sharp, and look up from the tea pot just in time to see you wince. Would you ask me about my work?  I can't imagine explaining it to you, at least not the new stuff.  I suppose we could talk about Ovid, though you'd probably quote him in the original and I'd feel all silk hat and Bradford millionaire-ish and have to make the choice between pretending I understood and knowing you'd think less of me if I owned up.  I might cover myself by asking you to move at that point so I could get to the fridge for the milk.

I'd worry about the number of DVDs in the house.  I can hear you saying, 'What's Farscape?' while you sit on the edge of the sofa, sipping from the unchipped side of your mug.

'Oh, that's Phill's.  It's Sci-Fi.  I think it's made in New Zealand.  Have you read any Leontia Flynn?'  I don't suppose it would be wise to mention Alice Oswald.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Day 20: My Fingers as People, a Dog and an Olive Tree

Today's instruction was to:

Draw an outline of your hand - then give each digit a face, hair, hat, personality.  Turn your fingers into: characters from your favourite book, opera, play of the year; members of your family; people you encounter in daily life or in your dreams; characters from a myth or fairytale; or something else.

Monday 19 December 2011

Day 19: An Invoice (actually an End of Year Account) for 2011

Recipes for plover, lark and pigeon pies from Warne's Model Cookery


Tuscan bouillabaisse and Whitstable oysters in Sussex
Cornish paella
Mayfield and Cardiff curries
Pumpkin pie in Lewes
Thai curry in Finchley
Boeuf bourguignon in West Horsley
Italian white truffles at home.

Rusalka's tail
Mimi's hat
Isolde's potion
Captain Crawley's Ace of Hearts
Ippolit's diary
An armful of Sibyl Jardine's dahlias.

Hellebore, the morning I found her stuck up an oak tree, having called for her from first light and spent a sleepless night worrying because she hadn't come in 
Many mice and several slow-worms and birds from Samuel and Hellebore's paws.  


The deer I drove into one night a few months ago
My father-in-law Barry, who died in January
My lovely friend Lee, who crashed his motorbike in April
Very nearly my husband Phill, when he fell off his bicycle in August, hitting a car and the road
The many mice and several slow-worms and birds that Samuel and Hellebore have eaten
Two marbles from the front pocket of my new Florentine satchel
My belief that if I'm a good(ish) person nothing bad will happen to me
All hope that I will ever gain even a partial understanding of why we are alive.

Sunday 18 December 2011

Day 18: Gathering

Joan Sutherland as Olympia in Offenbach's Les Contes D'Hoffmann, photograph from the Richard Bonynge Collection

In my childhood jewelry box, among the broken charm bracelets; necklaces without clasps; belt buckles; clip-on earrings with sockets that once contained stones; brass buttons decorated with anchors; Indian bangles; beads made of shell, wood and coral, and a blackened silver pendant studded with amethysts, I find my great-grandmother's rose gold watch.  I set it to my time, rolling its hands clockwise around its face.  I wind it and hold it to my good ear: it ticks like a creaking whale-bone corset.  I hear my great-grandmother buttoning her boots.

Saturday 17 December 2011

Day 17: A Leaf

Fragment of wood or paper,
cut with a leaf-shaped cutter;
born of the shove of sap;
tanned to leather, tree hide.

Friday 16 December 2011

Day 16: Now I know this:

 Margarito of Arezzo, detail from The Virgin and Child Enthroned (showing Saint Margaret swallowed by a dragon and escaping unhurt from its belly)
that the sun sets too early and rises too late at this time of year.  I learn it every winter and forget it again by June

that there are trout, leaches and heptageniids in the tributary of the river Rother, which flows along the bottom of our neighbours' paddock

that my perception of time is quickening and I keep confusing this year and last

that teaching other people to write can be as rewarding as writing oneself

that a small black, fuzzy-haired, green-eyed kitten and a ginger and white solemn-looking one have become two sleek and splendid adult cats

that I shouldn't have got drunk last night and that cask-strength whisky really must be diluted before drinking

that teacher-Sian should quote Pina Bausch to writer-Sian every time she picks up her pen: 'Remember, you need to scare me'

that my friends are quite brilliant and that every year I grow more amazed by their wit, generosity, courage and unique grace.  One of the few benefits of getting older is that I am increasingly able to appreciate, admire and feel humbled by the people around me

that, to misquote David Tennant in a recent interview with The Guardian, 'The things you think are going to change your life, often don't'

that last year and the two before it were about commitment.  This year I began the Years of Perseverance

that this body, brain and life are what I have, weak or strong, clever or stupid, upside-down, back-to-front, lurching or leaping.  It's up to me to make good use of them

that I am really, secretly Italian.

Thursday 15 December 2011

Day 15: Clinging to the Craft

Detail from Fra Angelico, Annunciation

It's a hard word to swallow; it leaves a lump.
It neither goes down nor comes up.
Its simplicity is shocking: it's neither long
nor difficult, nor is it
the first time you've used it.

It must have waited for your mouth
like glass in jam.  You spoke it trustingly
without checking first.
It's sharp with consequence;
you cough, regret.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Day 14: My best dress

is silk, a simple shift, cut to the knee and graded from first-dawn blue at the shoulders to clay brown at the hem.  It's printed with dragonflies, irises and bulrushes.  At the waistline, water begins, deepening to the hem.  When I smooth my skirt, there are droplets on my palms.  Leaves fall onto my shoulders, land in the water and turn skeletal as they sink.  Fish and frogs swim, and water snails bend stems of starweed and crowfoot.  Dragonfly nymphs climb stalks that grow against my thighs.  They dry themselves beside my ribs, test their wings, take their first flights.  Sometimes, if I lift a hand, one rests there a while. It's studded with emeralds.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Day 13: I Remember

'Wedding of the Painted Doll' was the theme of our Brownie Guide float at the village summer fete around 1980.   I'm the girl in blue at the corner with her back to the camera.  I remember my mother asking me a few times to look at her and she has a number of other photos from the same day, all with me either looking behind or in smeary profile.  Along with some of my fellow dolls, I seem to be distracted by the toy soldier, who's giving a bouquet to the bride.  I can't remember the names of the soldier (another girl) or the bride, but I know I was jealous of them both that day, the bride in particular.

Neither can I remember the names of most of the other girls.  There's Lynne Watson on the far left who, at around the time of the photograph, was indirectly responsible for my first romantic disappointment.  Our class was weeding one of the school flower beds one afternoon in the summer, when Charles Pasfield, whom I'd loved for many days, came over and told me Lynne was now his girlfriend and he hated me 'down to the ground.'  I said I didn't care but I don't think I fooled anyone.

Beneath Lynne are Sharon Panel, Rachel Morarjee and, looking straight at the camera, Claire Taylor.  Rachel, Claire, and James Bennett and I were the school witches. We spent break-times pretending to fly broomsticks and praying to the devil to make it thunder.  We used to say we'd flown to one another's houses the previous night, but found each other fast asleep:

'No, I wasn't sleeping.  I'd put pillows in my bed to make it look like I was there, but actually I'd flown over to your house and you were asleep.'

'Well, I flew over both your houses and the two of you were snoring like pigs.'

Day 12: Through the Looking Glass

 Detail from Edward Hopper, Cape Cod Evening

With the room behind me,
all walls and angles,
it's you I need.  I stare,
searching for focus,
a shape in the fog;
listen for a single tap
or a coin spinning.

Sunday 11 December 2011

Day 11: A Bestiary

 Detail from Judith Leyster, A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel
Claw stretch to paw stretch to shake fur and shiver.  Sneeze, blink, yawn and stretch again.  Leg-side down, thigh-side down, belly-side-rib-side-drop-the-lot.  Sniff damp.  Head shuffle-rub; rub again.  Whisker crush, ear squash, head goes over chin.  Over goes it all.  Wriggle along from tip of head to neck to shoulders, back and bottom.  Tail out.  Onto other side.  Ear twitch; scratch a bite.  Lick paw.  Ear pitch forward, paw squash behind.  Lick squash lick squash, pause.  Lick squash lick squash, shake.  Air ripples whiskers.  Coming rain.  Fluff in claw.  Nibble chew gnaw spit.  Tail lift, thwack.  Up.  Rain.  Twitch coat.  Go.

Saturday 10 December 2011

Day 10: Ointment, Unguent, Butter

Ice, pine resin and holly-berry juice on your hands.  Here's a balm to soothe the cuts, heal frost damage.  The sun slips into muddy earth.  It heats the heart, which you and I can't see.  Though it's cold on the surface there's warmth beneath; the first bulbs are rising from it.  The nights are long because the sun is heating everything from within.  Push your fingers into the ground.  When you pull them out they'll be red.

Friday 9 December 2011

Day 9: In my pocket

One of the things I did buy.
I put the things I stole while I was queueing at the checkout: Little Bear Teddy Top Cones; chocolate waffles; Fox's Brandy Snaps; Scooby Doo! Freezerpops; Cadbury's Flakes; fifteen bottle of Becks; a case or two of Chablis; rolls of giftwrap; Sainburys Magazine; Duracell Ultra Power; a £20 Halfords Gift Card; a copy of Closer; three giant plastic decorations and a cardboard Christmas pudding; the cafe; the telephone; the pharmacy; the man who'd lost his daughter; the forget-me-not-blue of the coat of the woman in front; the three or four smiles from my fellow shoppers; the puddle in the car park; the crawl of trolleys like the crawl of cars; snatched conversations on nativity plays; 'Sorry's and 'Thank you's; my furrowed brow.

Thursday 8 December 2011

Day 8: An Echo

Illustration to the Rider Waite Tarot by Pamela Colman Smith

I tell myself I don't earn enough.  I say it in your tongue; whisper it beneath the sheets you paid for; pray it before I eat.  I feel it in the note you hand me, the pressure of your fingers on the edge, like a mouth, shutting.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Day 7: Lions, Tigers, Bears

I went out hunting for a poem, taking my notebook and pen.  Outside the northwest wind growled in branches, ripping leaves from trees.  I watched a herd of leaves scurrying to the roadside.  Clouds drew stripes in the sky; my ears stung and I wished I had a full pelt of fur to cover my face and keep me warm.

Day 6: St Nicholas - or a Gift

She has orange hair in plaits and a red cap and dress.
She carries nothing in her hands; I can carry her in mine.
If I scrunch her, she sounds like fire.
She smells of cupboards and cloth forests.
Flip her skirt over her head, there's a grandmother
with blue hair and a wolf's head hidden in her bonnet.

Day 5: Thirteen Ways of Looking at Home

A fast drive through cold London.  Orange night, orange clouds, white tiles in the Blackwall Tunnel.  The always unexpected right fork to the A21.  The darker dark of the Weald.

The sleepless oven clock.

A ginger cat cleaning himself on the bed beside me, a black cat sitting on my desk.

Three alpacas grazing in the paddock, three hens drinking from the pond.

Your voice coming from the room next door.  The hum of the house when you go for a walk.  I listen in Italian.

The last roses of the year.

The blue Formica of my desk. Its hardly-dare-touch-it cold.

Piles of dry washing in the spare room.  The washing-machine's song.  Your still-unpacked bag.

The sun, setting too early behind the oak tree.

The Time Out Guide to Florence and Mini Italian Dictionary among a pile of papers on the sofa.

A cup of tea, an extra jumper.

Waiting for my mother to get off the phone.

The smell of dead mouse; compost; woodsmoke; the fridge.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Day 4: Between Two Hills

The ground rises sharply as we follow the path.  The air smells of Bay and damp vegetation.  My hair curls around my face and the clouds are low over the hills.  We are almost alone here.  Two women who work at the garden's cafe talk quietly in the doorway as it begins to rain.  Even the plants seem quiet: they've drawn back into the ground and their remaining leaves are brown.  At the bottom of the valley, the Arno reflects brown and orange trees and cream houses.  Raindrops darken my page.

Day 3: Telling the Bees

Last night at the Teatro Comunale Mimi died again, while Rodolfo was looking the other way.  This morning we are walking around the church of San Lorenzo and, despite my protestant disapproval of the reliquaries and gold ceiling, I am moved.  My head is tingling and I want to cry.  I have come here like a broken king, carrying splinters of bone and coils of hair. 

The walls of the church are pale grey against the elephant grey columns, and the votive candles make yellow haloes.  I light a candle and pray for those who die while no one's looking.

Day 2: Standing behind me

in the Uffizi is Leonardo's Gabriel.  His stare is intense, and the folds of his blood-red gown weigh him to the earth.  He kneels and makes a gesture of benediction.  I drop a curtsy, but he waves me on and I realise I'm too old to be Mary and too young for Elizabeth.  Next to me is a Japanese girl in frilly shorts and thigh-high socks.  Her head is bent and there's a lily in her hand.

Monday 5 December 2011

Reverb11, Day 1: The River's Source

Flying into Florence, I look down and see the Arno, greenish and slow-moving.  I lose sight of it as we touch down, but I like to think it's come through the the hills and valleys we flew over a few minutes ago, when I nudged you and pointed out a forest, and you said, 'Mmm, truffles', then went back to your book.  On the bottles of water we bought at the airport I read, 'The Acqua Panna spring is located within the 1300 hectare park surrounding Villa Panna, a fully protected nature reserve since 1564', and, elsewhere on the label, 'Refund at Collection Depots when sold in South Australia'.


 Illustration to Angela Carter's Book of Fairy Tales by Corinna Sargood

I've been in Florence for the past four days and have a lot of catching up to do here, especially as December is the month of Reverb 11.  For those of you who don't know what that means or who might be tempted to join in, I've copied the following open letter from Rebecca's site. 

Dear Inky-Fingered Friend,

You are cordially invited to join Sian and me for a December writing challenge!

Last year I took part in something called Reverb10. It was inspiring and fun and for 31 days I did lots of writing, most of which found its way onto my blog.

This year, instead of leading Reverb11 themselves, the Reverb folk have suggested we come up with our own writing prompts and create a writing community. And so, in the seat-of-the-pants way we embark on things together, Siân and I have decided to do just that.

Reverb11 is a way of reflecting on the year that has just past, and looking forward to 2012. You can use it to both celebrate your life, but also to mourn what you have lost over the past 12 months. We've come up with a list of 31 creative prompts, which we will be posting everyday on Twitter.

If you want to join us then all you need to know is that there are no rules about word count or about whether you write just for yourself (keeping your words safe in a journal) or to share what you create on a blog. I
t can be as private or public an adventure as you wish.

The prompts are intended to be the catalyst for some freewriting (or drawing): they can be ignored or changed or subverted. Rebellion is positively encouraged.

Today's prompt is:
The river’s source...
Happy writing!

Rebecca and Siân