A Suggestion of Bones

Last week saw the launch of my new poetry pamphlet A Suggestion of Bones. It mainly comprises of individual poems published in small press magazines, anthologies or online and the over-riding theme is of things hidden, not being what they seem or lurking just beneath the surface.

The title comes from the last line of one of the poems At Birdoswald, a ruined Roman fort three miles from where I used to live in Gilsland, Northumberland, which is a village on the Roman Wall that stretches from Wallsend in Tyne and Wear across Northumberland and ends at the other side of the country in Carlisle in Cumbria. When I lived there I used to walk a great deal in the surrounding countryside with its spectacular views, craggy hills, deep valleys where clear ice-cold water gurgled and splashed, and Roman ruins hunkered down in the grass. At those times, I used to imagine what it would be like being an Italian soldier banished to these outposts in Britain, living in inhospitable weather and keeping the marauding hordes of Picts and Scots at bay.

A few years later I went back to visit my old stopming grounds. I needed to touch something familiar in my soul, to resolve some of my indecisions, and this poem came out of the visit.

At Birdoswald

There’s iron on the wind.

Sunset gasps from the horizon,

dusk circles like a cloak of feathers,

light flees the amassing darkness

and each breath hangs

like a ghostly membrane

 

promising a night of stars and stories.

 

After days of disquiet

I feel surrounded by tinder, fear

the burst of a match on shavings

of my soul and embers fanned

by the darkling wind. But here,

amongst the squatting ruins,

 

my crowded mind stills its chatter,

 

descends deeper into the landscape,

transcends time. I feel the scratch

of memory, smell the woodsmoke

of regret, touch the bruise of fear caught

between cracks of then and now,

hidden in the hillocks around me

 

like the suggestion of bones beneath skin.

A Suggestion of Bones is available from Amazon ttps://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_c_2_13?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=a+suggestion+of+bones&sprefix=A+suggestion+%2Caps%2C268&crid=2CW

 

Scorched Earth

Every once in a while you suddenly discover in your search through secondhand books an absolute gem, a book that stands out from the rest with its sparkling prose and hidden depths. Scorched Earth by David L Robins (Orion 2002) is one such gem.

The basic storyline is of a white woman, Clare, and her black husband, Elijah, whose mixed race baby, Nora Carol, dies shortly after birth. The white woman’s grandmother, Rosy Epps,  arranges with Pastor Thomas Derby for the child to be buried in her family plot in the graveyard of Victory Baptist Church where Epps is a deacon. The burial takes place, but when the other deacons find out they hold a meeting and refuse permission for the burial on the grounds of the child being mixed race. The child is then disinterred the following morning and transferred to the black cemetery up the road. That night the white church is burnt down and the man arrested for the arson is the baby’s father, Elijah, who declares his innocence.  What follows  is an intricately plotted, insightful and moving story, a legal case that reveals hosts of hidden prejudices and secrets that ignite rage and hatred.

What I love about the novel is that it spoke to me about identity and classification, about where and to whom people belong. I am a white grandmother of a blended family with a mixed race grandson so the issue is quite close to my heart, particularly in these troubling times. The novel raises issues about what it is to be ‘family’ or ‘community’, what part history, tradition and inheritance play in our psyche, and gets us to question, who are ‘our people’? And all this it does  in exquisite prose that delights me, captivating me right from  the opening chapter:

The place where they lie making the child is beautiful. They lie on a bed of ferns, which like a cushion of feathers, tickles them. Only a few strides off the old dirt road, they are beneath a tall red oak, thick as a chimney, bearded with gray bark: the tree is a gentle old presence.

If they were to stand on that spot they could see the fields. South lie forty acres of beans, leafy and ripe for harvest machinery resting now after church this Sunday afternoon. High pines and turning sugar maples make this field a green leafy loch where every breeze riffles. North of the road, beyond barbed wire and honeysuckle, is a cleared pasture for the cows, which are out of sight behind hills that rise and roll down, suggesting by their smooth undulation the couple lying under the oak.

He is a black man, blacker than everything, blacker than the soil of the road, everything but the crows. His name is Elijah, named by his mother for the loudest of the Hebrew prophets, though he has not grown into a loud man. He is silent as his skin, as the dark of a well.

Beneath him, wrapping him like roots seeking water, is his wife, Clare. Her green eyes closed behind white, blue-veined lids. Waist-length blond hair spreads over ferns and under her back. She kisses him and their tongues twine.

A band of starlings crisscrosses the field. The ebon birds strike something invisible at the center of the field and disperse, to clot again and circle some more, somewhat aimlessly. Clare and Elijah, tangled together, white and black, are absolutes, the presence and absence of all colors at once, sharing a smooth, perfect motion.

When Clare falls for Elijah, colour is no longer an issue:

She will remember this moment when Elijah’s blackness became not something missing from what she was but a remarkable presence not bound or described by color. She opens her mouth in a moment of shame, fleeting like a pinprick, fast and sharp, for ever having felt whatever ugliness it was she had just said goodbye to.

The couple are asked to sit on a Diversity committee at the paper mill where they both work but as Elijah says ‘This is y’all’s problem’ and Clare refuses to be used – ‘I’m sorry, but we’re not your damn role models’. However, in the aftermath of the tragedy of Nora Carol tensions escalate and soon both Clare and Elijah feel the effects of the problems others have with their relationship.

At the meeting of church deacons the Pastor is urging them to exercise compassion and leave the dead child where she is, but the response he gets is:

I like Elijah, by God I do, and I feel awful for what’s happened to him. But that don’t mean I want to buried with him or his kin. That poor baby ought to be laid to rest in a place surrounded by her own people, and that place isn’t here, it’s up the road.

And so begins a course of actions that divide a community, entrench latent prejudices where nothing and no-one will ever be the same, not even the reader.

As it says in the epigram for the novel:

The line separating good and evil 

passes not through states,

nor between classes,

nor between parties either,

But right through the human heart.

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn

Form and Inspiration

I’ve been tied up the last two weeks trying to publish an illustrated poetry pamphlet of my published poems. I’ve struggled with the format, getting images aligned opposite each poem, made more difficult because the images themselves were not uniform. Some were in portrait view and others landscape, so they had to be placed in the centre of the page so as not to bleed off into the margins. It’s been frustrating, to say the least.

I decided to have a break and to read through some poems in Josephine Corcoran’s excellent blog And Other Poems. I came across  Songs of the Sea, a pantoum by Eleanor Hooker, posted on March 17, 2017

Songs of the Sea

At Kilmore town ancient carols are sung,
legend says the sea will drown their town.
Casting stones into the sea is wrong,
storm-crested waves drag silent sail down.

Legend says the sea will drown their town,
a silver coin beneath the mast brings luck.
Storm crested waves drag silent sail down,
church bells sound when sinking ships are struck,

A silver coin beneath the mast brings luck.
true to say, what the sea wants, it gets,
church bells sound when sinking ships are struck,
a curlew’s flight makes fair-wind sailors fret.

True to say, what the sea wants, it gets,
casting stones into the sea is wrong,
a curlew’s flight makes fair-wind sailors fret,
at Kilmore town ancient carols are sung.

(published in The Shadow Owner’s Companion, Dedalus Press 2012)

I have attempted this form of poetry before and love the line repetitions as the poem slowly progresses and then winds backwards in the last stanza.

The pantoum originated in Malaysia in the fifteenth-century as a short folk poem, typically made up of two rhyming couplets that were recited or sung. However, as the pantoum spread, Western writers altered and adapted the form, made it longer and abandoned the need to rhyme.

The modern pantoum is a poem of any length, composed of a series of quatrains in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza serve as the first and third lines of the next stanza. The pattern continues for any number of stanzas, except for the final stanza, which differs in the repeating pattern. The first and third lines of the last stanza are the second and fourth of the penultimate; the first line of the poem is the last line of the final stanza, and the third line of the first stanza is the second of the final.

One exciting aspect of the pantoum is its subtle shifts in meaning that can occur as repeated phrases are revised with different punctuation and thereby given a new context. Ideally, the meaning of lines shifts when they are repeated although the words remain exactly the same: this can be done by shifting punctuation, punning, or simply recontextualizing.

An incantation is created by a pantoum’s interlocking pattern of repetition; as lines reverberate between stanzas, they fill the poem with echoes. This intense repetition also slows the poem down, halting its advancement. As Mark Strand and Eavan Boland explained in The Making of a Poem, “the reader takes four steps forward, then two back,” making the pantoum a “perfect form for the evocation of a past time.”

I love it.

The Furtunate Platform of Many Years

THE FOURTH SIGN OF THE ZODIAC (PART 3)

I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.

So why not get started immediately.

I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.

And to write music or poems about.

Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
Bless touching.

You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
Or not.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be as urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.                    

Mary Oliver – Blue Horses: Poems 2014

I cannot add to this. Just enjoy and reflect.

Perfection

It’s been a busy (and fraught) couple of weeks so apologies this blog comes a little late. My personal disposition has not been helped by world events unfolding in the media but I have to say, it does provide rich material for novels. The Trump administration trying to deflect attention from their involvement with Russia by accusing Obama of wire taps and, not content that Michael Flynn fell on his sword for them, they’re now labelling him a ‘foreign agent’. The new travel ban, the erosion of human rights, the lies…in the past a publisher might have said that it’s too much for one novel, that all those things happening more or less simultaneously is completely unbelievable. Not now.

We here in the UK fare no better: Brexit, the deportation of non-nationals who’ve lived here for years, the new rules regarding asylum seekers brought in (and effective immediately) when attention was on the Budget. We also have a new re-introduction of selective schools and schools who don’t enter some students for exams for fear of lowering the school’s overall ratings in the league tables. The world as I know it is going mad. So it got me thinking about a perfect world, what that would look like and who it is perfect for.

I can’t remember ever being called perfect before by anyone – family, partners, friends, colleagues – until Monday. I was having my monthly foot MOT (a luxury, I know) when  from nowhere my practitioner said, ‘I love working on your feet – your toes are still very flexible, the skin nice and soft, and there’s no damage from shoes. They’re perfect.’ I suppose at my age after standing for most of my working life, dancing away a good part of it and the rest spent hiking or running half marathons, that’s quite an achievement. But are my feet really where I want the perfection to be in my life?

I have succumbed, as so many women do, to notions of imperfection because my body was not the right shape, tone, strength. Even though I know it has nothing to do with my identity and it doesn’t define me, I still catch myself checking my image in the mirror and eat less when my waistbands start getting tight. One weekend, during a bout of depression, I decided to treat myself to a beauty therapy. I chose an organic mud wrap. I was first measured then slathered from chin to toes in mud before being wrapped in clingfilm and left in a darkened room for about an hour to relax.

The treatment was ‘guaranteed’ to help you lose 3 inches or your money back, but the 3 inches were accumulative from different parts of the body. When my treatment was finished I was measured again. I hadn’t lost the 3 inches, only 2, and the area where I’d lost most was 1 inch from my neck, which could least do with losing anything. Not quite the result I expected (or wanted). I didn’t get my money back, despite their ‘guarantee’, but it did make me laugh. Eventually.

In my perfect world everyone would be nice to each other, there would be no poverty, wars, abuse, discrimination, huge corporations owning half the planet and no-one would do anything to damage the climate, over-fish the seas, pollute the earth and her water, abandon children or mistreat animals. But if the world really was like that I’d soon become bored. There’d be no drama, nothing to write about, nothing to fight about or defend, nothing to strive for, no need to do inner work to self-improve. Life would be monochrome and what feels perfect to me wouldn’t necessarily be perfect for anyone else. Yet the perfection I seek is not found in the world behaving in a way I want it to, but in the small random moments that may not go according to plan but teach me something.

There would be no need for love if perfection were possible. Love arises from our imperfection, from our being different and always in need of the forgiveness, encouragement and that missing half of ourselves that we are searching for, as the Greek myth tells us, in order to complete ourselves. Eugene Kennedy
https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/perfection.html

 

All The Light We Cannot See

I’m getting overwhelm from all the political news and my disappointment in the human race. So coming across a book that transports and delights me enough to block all that out is a rare, and fortuitous, find indeed. It sat on my bookcase for a while, borrowed from a friend, until I picked it up last weekend. Usually I can devour a book in a few days but I haven’t got very far with this one, about a quarter of the way through the story, because I’m savouring the words so much. I want to spend time with them, read them aloud, then read them again.

Written by Anthony Doerr the novel is set in France and Germany during the 1930s and 1940s. Its main characters are a blind French girl who learns to navigate her town with the help of a miniature replica made by her father, and a German orphan who is destined for work in the mines until it’s discovered he can mend broken radios. As the novel, and the war, progress, their paths draw ever closer together. But it is the radiancy of  prose that grips me as much as the plot.

It opens on 7 August 1944 with:

At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.

The tide climbs. The moon hangs small and yellow and gibbous. On the rooftops of beachfront hotels to the east, and in the gardens behind them, a half-dozen American artillery units drop incendiary rounds into the mouths of mortars.”

Then:

“They cross the Channel at midnight. There are twelve and they are named for songs: Stardust and Stormy Weather and In the Mood and Pistol-Packin’ Mama. The sea glides far below, spattered by the countless chevrons of whitecaps. Soon enough, the navigators can discern the low moonlit lumps of islands ranged along the horizon.

France.

Intercoms crackle. Deliberately, almost lazily, the bombers shed altitude. Threads of light ascend from anti-air emplacements up and down the coast. Dark, ruined ships appear, scuttled or destroyed, one with its bow shorn away, a second flickering as it burns. On an outermost island, panicked sheep run zig-zagging between rocks.

Inside each airplane, a bombardier peers through an aiming window and counts to twenty. Four five six seven. To the bombardiers, the walled city on its granite headland, drawing ever closer, looks like an unholy tooth, something black and dangerous, a final abscess to be lanced away.”

Each short chapter alternates between French  and German perspectives and sections alternate between the past and the present of the tale. Neither the girl nor the boy fit in with their people or surroundings, and the war, as beautifully written as it is,  is still war and its stark realities don’t escape us.

If you love exquisite writing that transforms the ephemera of daily existence in a story much more than a conventional war tale, you’ll love this novel. It was the Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2015 and is well deserved of that title.

“This jewel of a story is put together like a vintage timepiece…Doerr’s writing and imagery are stunning. It’s been a while since a novel had me under its spell in this fashion” Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone.

I second that.

 

 

 

Between Birth and Death

These are troubled days and as it is St Valentine’s Day this week I thought a little escapism into love would do me good. However, for those of us without a significant other, this time of year with the roses and cards can be painful, or seem crass. For me it’s the latter. So I decided to look for the positives.

Trying to establish the facts about St Valentine proved to be more difficult that I thought. Apparently there have been up to five Valentine’s accredited with being the saint but the Roman Martyrology, the Catholic Church’s official list of recognised saints, for February 14 gives only one Saint Valentine; a martyr who died on the Via Flaminia.

So why has Valentine’s feast day has been celebrated as a lovers’ holiday and a day of romance since the 14th century? Some say the date was thought to be the beginning of the mating season for birds. Others say it is because the church wanted to Christianise an ancient Roman pagan festival called Lupercalia, which centred around fertility and purification.Whatever the explanation and whoever is the real Valentine, we have in the western world an annual celebration of romantic love on February 14th.

Some people look to the Bible for inspiration about Love. I look to Khalil Gibran, Paolo Cuelho and Don Miguel Ruiz who each in The Prophet, The Alchemist and The Mastery of Love respectively, use a master talking to and teaching a crowd of people about Love. My favourite is The Prophet, possibly because I discovered it first at a time when I needed it and we always hold our first loves a little more tightly.

Almustafa, the Prophet,  is about to leave the city of Orphalese. He has waited twelve years for a ship and when one arrives the people gather round, desperate for last words of wisdom before he leaves, to tell him “all that has been shown you of that which is between birth and death.”

He is asked to speak about Love and exhorts the people assembled before him:

“When love beckons to you, follow him, Though his ways are hard and steep. And when his wings enfold you yield to him, Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you. And when he speaks to you believe in him, Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning. Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun, So shall he descend to you roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.”

Not for him the slushy, chocolate box fiction of romantic love. He portrays love’s stark reality of light and shade, pleasure and pain, its catharticism.

When asked about Marriage he says:

Love one another, but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other’s cup but drink not from the same cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

So many elderly couples I know do everything together and take great pride in this, in never having had a cross word, of thinking and breathing the same way. It may work for them, and each to their own, but for me that kind of relationship seems claustrophobic, lifeless. The merging of two people into one is often written to describe finding one’s ‘soul mate’ but to me a soul mate is one who helps your soul sing its own tune in harmony with theirs, not get it to sing the same notes.

Someone recently commented that none of my characters in fiction are happily married or in successful relationships. I hadn’t noticed it before, but she’s right. I suppose as a writer I’ve brought my own experiences to my work and haven’t seen many examples of what I would say were ‘successful’ relationships. The couples involved might describe their relationships as successful, but seen by me, the outsider, they are too full of compromise, to the point where the individual has vanished. But I guess it’s all down to perceptions and the choices we make.

So whatever your status and views on love this Valentine’s Day, I wish you peace and joy.

“This day has ended. It is closing upon us even as the water-lily upon its own tomorrow. What was given us here we shall keep, And if it suffices not, then again must we come together and together stretch our hands unto the giver”