Monthly Archives: August 2018

Above a thousand feet of space

 

D Wilson action

 

In the Balance

You pause beneath a boss of ice
above a thousand feet of space.
The picks of your axes barely bite:
it’s bullet hard, black with rock dust.
You’ve run out forty feet of rope,
placed only an ice-screw and screamer.
You’ve dreamed of this route for half your life.
Your calves ache. You can’t wait long.

Decision time. Weigh the following:-
an abseil retreat to blankets, pasta, beer;
the taste in your mouth if you bottle out;
November at work without a fix;
glimpses of where the pitch might ease;
a face at a window, Dad come home,
and you not knowing where you’ve been
or how to get back from it.

 
David Wilson turned to writing poetry a few years ago after being inspired by reading Derek Walcott’s poem ‘Midsummer, Tobago’ on the wall of a hospital waiting room in Leeds. He then discovered the Writing Days run by the Poetry Business in Sheffield and started writing poems of his own. His pamphlet Slope was published by Smith/Doorstop in 2016 and he has a collection coming out with them in 2019.

David was born and brought up in North London and studied at the London School of Economics, followed by a Master’s degree at Leeds University, which at the time had the only indoor climbing wall in the country and was close to excellent outcrop climbing. He has climbed extensively in the UK, Alps and further afield, at a standard best described as erratic.  In mid-life he got hooked on windsurfing, but writing about climbing has led him back into it.

After living in Leeds, David settled with his family in Harrogate. He has worked freelance for many years as an organisation development consultant. He now works part-time, exclusively in the area of academic leadership, helping people like Heads of Department to tackle the many challenges they face. He mainly works 1:1 with people and the diversity of their subject areas is a delight: from Medieval Welsh Poetry to Theoretical Physics to Cancer Research to Arabic, and that’s just in the past few weeks!  Favourite poets include Jane Kenyon, Les Murray, Jane McKie, Norman McCaig and Seamus Heaney.

Slope cover

David and I met on the 2012/13 Writing School and I’m delighted to share his work. Below are more poems from the pamphlet Slope. Everest was awarded 1st prize in the 2015 Poets & Players poetry competition, judged by Paul Muldoon. For a few technical terms: a cam is a device fitted into cracks to protect a lead climber. It has spring-loaded metal cams which grip the rock. A Micro-traxion gadget is a pulley that locks the rope, capturing what’s gained as a climber is hauled from a crevasse. A screamer is a sling which has stitches designed to rip and thereby absorb the energy of a fall. Typically used with doubtful ice-screws.

Stanage Edge

Summer’s returned for one day only,
blue sky, no wind, mist in the valleys,
bracken bronzing every hill,
the Edge’s gritstone silver in the sun.
Rock warm to touch. But holds won’t sweat.

I check my harness, knots and rack,
lay away, step high and up again to poise
off-balance, wriggle a cam into place,
then smear a slab, heels low, until
a crack grips my outstretched hand.

We linger on the edge. Smoke rises
straight up from the chimney at Hope.
It’s not a day to hurl ourselves against
but for dancing with, to feel alive
on Black Slab, Inverted V, Goliath’s Groove.

And it will light the long edge in our minds,
where name after name spells a life,
Flying Buttress and Left Unconquerable,
holds we could trust to be always there,
winds which threw every word away.

 

Everest

Once it was Chomolungma,
Mother Goddess of the Earth,
a face whose veil rarely lifted,
its whiteness the White Whale’s.

Now it’s like Elvis near the end,
a giant in a soiled jumpsuit,
blank, useful for percentages,
a sheet from which the music’s fled.

 

Alpine Partner

I was thinking of glaciers as metaphors,
you knew the car park’s exit code.
And you’d practised techniques
for rescue from a crevasse.

to dig a T slot, bury your ice-axe,
attach our micro-traxion gadget,
then fix the rope as a Z-haul
across the sweating surface, so that inch

by inch you heaved me up when I fell,
up from that cold place – its white walls
and longing, fins of green ice, pale blue caves,
darker blue depth beyond saying.

Ink wasters

pen 2

The late poet Gerard Benson coined this term for the warm-up, stream-of-consciousness exercise at the start of a workshop: Start writing, don’t stop writing, don’t think, just keep the pen moving.

If you’re familiar with The Artist’s Way, then you have the Morning Pages in your toolkit. To me, the Morning Pages are still more of a “dumping” ground of grumpy stuff, Aargh – not a morning person and never will be….

At a workshop the tutor or facilitator gives a starting line and sets you off. But, how do you create that effect when you’re by yourself? How do you nudge your self on to the track? Here are some options I’ve used:

Liminal lines
The immediacy of being on a threshold of sorts, for example:
Standing on the flood line I noticed…
When I stepped into the room…
Waiting on the platform there was…

Lines that open onto the unexpected, the other side
I turned the corner and then…
As I opened the door…
At the back of the cupboard…
I thought I saw…., but….
I never even once…
It was that dream again…
Sometimes you’ll think of…
No telling what arrived here in the night…

Unlikely/Doomsday scenarios
It hadn’t stopped snowing for thirty years…
It rained for ninety days, then suddenly….
The morning after the storm…
Your body lies on the floor, with or without you…

Juxtapositions
I have an envelope with pieces of paper, some with names of rooms in a house, others with objects, others with abstract nouns. So, we might get hallway, stapler, vanity. Off we go just putting those together in some way or another.

List poems
We’re not expected to write a “proper” list poem with a story arc, a development, an argument. Just a list of anything will do. Six lines is a good starting point, six things I would never eat for breakfast. Then another day there could be a list of the opposite: breakfast favourites (scrambled eggs and my poet friend E told me to add mustard and some dill, homemade porridge with berries, and I’ve just found out that one berry is one calorie, so I’ll have a few more, and strong black coffee in the mug with lavender fields on it. That mug was given to me by a lodger who’d had wanted to become a nun, but then decided to train as a nurse instead….)

Borrowed lines
Using opening lines from poems often work. I have typed up a batch of these, cut them out and put them inside an envelope. Picking one out gives the surprise effect that just reading it in the book doesn’t give.

I’m signed up with the Academy of American Poets for poem-a-day. I really like getting a surprise poem in my inbox every day and sometimes use the title or the opening for my warm-up. Yesterday’s poem started Imagine your heart is just a ball. Go to poetry.org to sign up. Similarly, there may be good “triggers” from other websites – on-line magazines, poetry publishers. A recent newsletter from Carcanet showed Snow in C Sharp Minor which I found intriguing and could have used as a prompt. It is a poem from Errant by Gabriel Levin.

And there is always Carl Sandburg’s This morning I looked at the map of the day…

Sometimes ink wasters can be developed and turn into a poem. It’s rare for one to be a complete poem straight-away. That’s a bonus. Below is one of those. It was published in The North, No 48.

On the town

In the time it took to buy a birthday card, a special
80th birthday card, they had arrived in a long, black limousine,
jumped out, set fire to the hotel and released wicker
baskets. The flying baskets with wicker wings chopped
tops of trees, trees falling on traffic lights – chaos everywhere
and in the middle of it the small bronze statue.
A smiling woman holding doves covered in birdshit.
The wind howling, sirens crying like the end of the world had come.
And me and that card that had cost me £2.99 and nowhere
to buy stamps, no letter box to post it.

Giraffe

Seren Books had a brief 50% discount offer, so at the end of July I dashed to the website to make a purchase. In the library at Ty Newydd I’d seen a copy of In a different light, Translations into English of fourteen contemporary Dutch-language poets. Scrolling I suddenly spotted a picture of a giraffe!

giraffe-cover.jpeg

Bryony Littlefair was the Winner of the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Competition. Seren Books published her pamphlet last year. In her testimonial Myra Schneider says Her work, with its unexpected imagery and juxtapositions, is witty, ironic, frank, and poignant. Giraffe is a striking debut collection.

There are some intriguing titles: The year she asked for a scrubbing brush for Christmas; Poem in which not everything is lost; Visitations of a future self; The meaning of employable.

The tone of the poems is conversational, but Bryony has a clear eye for the detail. Dear Anne Monroe, Healthcare Assistant celebrates the “quiet beauty” of NHS nurses in Archway where the light is piss-yellow and everyone is angry. In The sadness of giftshops we see the owner’s thin, teal scarf, smattered with small white horses and the way she writes down everything she sells on a plain sheet of A4.

I enjoyed reading Bryony’s pamphlet, including the memorable poem Maybe this is why women get to live longer.  Here is a woman in a wrap dress/and brown hair tied loosely at the nape/of her neck, slack as an otter’s tail.  This woman is listening to a man with the thick/tufty eyebrows of a politics professor -/permanently raised, as if hung by them/to a washing line -.

The title poem is the last poem of the book, placed opposite Sertraline. It was previously published in Popshot Magazine, and I appreciate Bryony’s permission to share Giraffe with you.

Giraffe

When you feel better from this – and you will – it will be quiet and
unremarkable, like walking into the next room. It might sting a little, like
warmth leaking into cold-numbed hands. When you feel better, it will
be the slow clearing of static from the radio. It will be a film set when
the director yells cut! When you feel better, you will take: a plastic spoon
for your coffee foam, free chocolates from the gleaming oak reception
desk, the bus on sunny days, your own sweet time. When you feel better,
it will be like walking barefoot on cool, smooth planks of wood, still
damp from last night’s rain. It will be the holy silence when the tap stops
dripping. The moment a tap finally starts to make sense. When you feel
better, you will still suffer, but your sadness will be graspable, roadworthy,
have handlebars. When you feel better, you will not always be happy,
but when happiness does come, it will be long-legged, sun-dappled:
a giraffe.

 

Mirror poems

mirror

A poet friend gave me the collection The World’s Two Smallest Humans by Julia Copus as a birthday present. Copus is said to have invented the specular (mirror) poem form. However, the word palindrome comes from the Greek, meaning “running back again” and palindrome or mirror poems have been found in Sanskrit language and way back in antiquity. But, it was Copus who gave the form the new title and she has written several of such poems, where the second stanza repeats the first, but in reverse order.

The title of the poem is Raymond, at 60. It starts The 185 from Catford, the 68 from Euston -/those same buses climbing the hill long into the evening. The last line of the first stanza is: that first time she’d taken him down to watch the buses. The first stanza of 20 lines is a journey through time with Raymond in a hospital ward. He kisses his mother who has just died, and this takes him suddenly

back on Broadway, crushed to her breast, in a gesture
that meant, he knew now, You are loved. There he was, with her

The second stanza, perfectly mirroring, is therefore also a journey: this time in chronological order, with Raymond setting out, aged eleven, or twelve.

By the time we have read the first stanza, we have the story, the information. So, the second stanza will not be a complete surprise. Small changes in punctuation are permitted in the second stanza, but it far from easy to ensure that the second half of the poem is alive, has emotional impact. This poem works because of the death, the mother-son relationship, rich and telling detail.

In the recent Ver Poets Competition one of the shortlisted poems clinging on in the badlands by Steve Pottinger is another example of a specular poem:

The beer is good when you’re sitting in the sun.
I can only tell you that
the work has gone to China or Taiwan.
We’re a precariat now, bolting up memories.

The poem is an effective and moving account of changes, the end of manufacturing. All this were factories, once, making locks by the million: Yale, Union, Parkes’s. Steve has dealt with the challenge of making the second stanza “fresh” by keeping the poem relatively short – 22 lines.

The poem by Victoria Gatehouse Weathering the Tent (from her book Light After Light) has the same length as Raymond, at 60. Perhaps there is an optimum length for this type of poem? Anyway, it’s still summer, we’re not packing up that tent yet!

Weathering the Tent

Tonight, we pack up the tent –
a corner at a time, our familiar routine, folding
the canvas we weathered twenty years ago,
cocooned in green dimness, listening, listening
until finally, that drip drip drip on our faces
as we lay on the groundsheet, numb-backed
from the cold, every one of your roll-ups
lighting me up, a catch in my throat;
over our heads that slow expansion,
fibres growing into one another,
meshing until watertight.
Tonight, kneeling side by side,
we press forward to quash the billow,
releasing breaths of earth, smoke, gabardine.
All creaking resistance, this fabric,
you and I cursing, our guy-roped hands
holding out for old creases.
All these years of practice and still
so many attempts
to force another summer in the bag.

To force another summer in the bag –
so many attempts,
all these years of practice and still
holding out for old creases;
you and I cursing, our guy-roped hands
all creaking resistance, this fabric
releasing breaths of earth, smoke, gabardine.
We press forward to quash the billow
tonight, kneeling side by side
meshing until watertight,
fibres growing into one another;
over our heads that slow expansion
lighting me up, a catch in my throat
from the cold, every one of your roll-ups,
as we lay on the groundsheet, numb-backed,
until finally, that drip, drip, drip on our faces.
Cocooned in green dimness, listening, listening –
the canvas we weathered twenty years ago,
a corner at a time, our familiar routine, folding.
Tonight, we pack up the tent.

 

Yorkshire Day

A suitable day for checking up on the Northern Poetry Library project: a series of poems in the new 821 form. I posted about the competition a few weeks ago. The picture is of Fountains Abbey, near Ripon, North Yorkshire.

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The first canto of poems is up: poems about Liverpool, drystone walling, the journey North, a poem titled Notes made on Hadrian’s Wall by Catherine Ayes, and Ghost Crossing by Harry Man which has been Commended in the competition, and starts:

Making an enemy of the wind, a crow
backtracks on its own trajectory against

Two poems have just been added to the second canto and you can follow the growing sequence on https://poemsofthenorth.co.uk