Tag Archives: poems

Six months of 2017 in books

Last year, I published a list of what I had read during the year. I thought that, this year, I’d get it down in two instalments. As before, I should love to know what others are reading. So do comment or talk to me! I don’t have time to review all these, but when I am done with the current fit of writing, I will try to post a few reviews, with a focus, I hope, on the independent presses. Also, I will update this list as I’ll likely forget something!

I read as much as I can and I read quickly. In snatched hours, in the bath, on the train, little bits of time carved out. But mainly, I go to bed earlier than I would naturally do purely so that I can read. I want to be frank about this. It’s how, as a child and growing up, I coped with anxiety and trauma. I went to bed and built a world. I do believe that with books, you can rebuild your mind and, to this day, it’s what I do.

Why?

Because every day is a conscious attempt to stay well and to manage, as best I can, my mental health: it has broken several times. Okay, many times. But I am back. Then there’s the pleasure of it all and the way my imagination is hotly stimulated. The way that reading, for me, leads on to discussion and friendship. As, I’ve discovered, does writing. Why did I ever think otherwise? And by the way, if you are feeling low or really, properly battling, I am not an expert, but I can tell you which books have soothed me, including the very few non-fiction texts I have read about mental health – though I have to preface that with, proceed with caution because, as I said, I’m no expert, but I CAN share. x

In no particular order, my reading over the past six months…

Dickens: The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Finally got round to it. Also, the second book of his Bleak House (a re-read). I also re-read A Christmas Carol because I was teaching it for GCSE. To support my older children I read Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner and  Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree. Now, this I found this an excellent read and was delighted to find a friend had been reading it, too. Cue – memorable and moving discussion en route to the hustings in Swindon, two days before the general election. WHICH REMINDS ME: the same person has left Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (still haven’t read) and C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings. Summer reads, then. 

At top speed, for GCSE teaching I re-read Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Woman in Black. Which led on to my re-reading of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw in one bit, sitting on the floor, because it was next to The Woman in Black on my sitting room bookshelf. I discovered, through the new OCR English Language and Literature spec, the first poetry collection from Jacob Sam La Rose Breaking Silence (Bloodaxe), which led to some wonderful things. Some of his poems prompted me to revisit one of my favourite modern poets, Tony Harrison. There will have been assorted other reading in here too – going over GCSE (and IGCSE) literature and poetry anthologies and the like; reading for A levels in English Literature and English Language and Literature and the EPQ…but it was Jacob Sam La Rose who was my new discovery.

Edith Sitwell: Fanfare for Elizabeth

Ben Myers: The Gallows Pole and Beastings. Shout out for the independent presses – here, Bluemoose. These are wonderful books. Enormously atmospheric. He’s brilliant, I think, on landscape.

On the subject of indies, from And Other Stories (we have a couple of subscriptions at Bookworm Towers), I am currently reading The Gurugu Pledge by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel (translated by Jethro Soutar), which is stunning, and Joanna Walsh’s Worlds from the Word’s End, a series of sharp and funny stories which make me very jealous too: never have I managed to craft one as she does! I’ve just ordered Hold Tight by Jeffrey Boakye – that’s an Influx Press title. Oh, there are so many indpendent presses – but my favourites – that is, of the ones I’ve explored – The Linen Press, Patrician Press, Galley Beggar, And Other Stories, Influx, Comma Press and Bluemoose. I read from all over, but get some of my greatest pleasure from texts published by risk-taking independent presses. That’s not to say risks aren’t taken by bigger concerns. Why not read both?

Dipped into a favourite book on writing (and close reading), Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. This precipitated both editing and reading (I hope she knows how useful she is!) – in this case, going back to Chekhov’s short stories.

I am about to read Jess Butterworth’s Running on the Roof of the World, Jo Barnard’s Hush Little Baby and Amit Chaudhuri’s Friend of my Youth. I love Chauduri’s books. Such restraint, so moving and unmistakeably his. I thought his last book, Odysseus Abroad gently broke a few rules (the rules you read about…) including ‘show don’t tell’ (bit bored with this): oh, he tells beautifully, and I felt the book was wonderfully episodic and that some of these epiosdes would have stood as short stories. More on which when I’ve got round to reading the latest one. Jo Barnard is a lovely lady. Very encouraging to others (including me) and a lean, spare writer at the literary end (what do I know? So kill me now if I have this market appraisal wrong!) of commercial fiction and cool in a hot and crowded market. That is a considerable achievement, in my view. I’d recommend her debut, Precocious. Unsettling and very well judged in tone. Jess is an old friend and I am very excited for her and cannot wait to see what she does in this, her debut, a MG set in India and Tibet, subjects close to her heart, as they are to mine.

For book groups I re-read A Tale of Two Cities, read PD James’s Innocent Blood – do you know, I had never read a P.D. James book – and Gilly McMillian’s What She Knew (which, by the way, is the same book as Burnt Paper Sky – hence the odd furious review by folks who bought the same book twice). Regarding the latter, generally speaking, I seem to fail with psychological thrillers. I read the Amazon reviews and those on Goodreads and generally feel like I haven’t read the same book, in that the ‘twists’ seem obvious to me – you know like in Of Mice and Men, when the foreshadowing smacks you round the face so hard – girl with the red dress/mouse/puppy/Candy’s old mutt/Curley’s wife…Lennie gets shot? Never saw that coming! It’s that kind of experience – and I don’t find them nail biting at all. I’ve been told that this sounds sneering, but it’s only my opinion and a statement of what works for me. Apologies if I’ve denigrated Of Mice and Men (quite like Cannery Row and The Grapes of Wrath, though…) but to me Steinbeck is a pygmy compared with giants like…Faulkner and Wolfe. Oh yes: I have an idea. Why not read – although you won’t sleep afterwards – Ali Land’s striking debut novel, Good Me Bad Me before or after Innocent Blood? Some of the same themes rise up. Criminality. The choices that children and young people make in extremis. (Ali was previously a children’s psychiatric nurse and that gave the book a certain heft for me.) What it might mean…not to feel, or to feel unusual things. I don’t want to give more away. Yes. Do that for a book group.

But back to Southern US literature and…

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, which I will re-read in a little while (I want to write something about her), well, that is brilliant. Is all this meandering discussion awful, do you think?

Which brings to me to…

Of Time and the River and (currently reading) The Web and the Rock. Thomas Wolfe. In my view, a genius and we lost him so young.

Patrician Press launched its Anthology of Refugees and Peacekeepers and we had a lovely event at the Essex Book Festival; I read everything in it and that led me on to (two indies here) Refugee Tales from Comma Press.

Now, for my own current book, Saving Lucia (or even Passerines – depending on who nabs it…), I’ve been re-reading Joyce, so I’ve had Finnegans Wake and Ulysses to hand. Also lesser known Joyce works – Pomes Penyeach. I’ve been reading up on Joyce, Beckett, Mussolini, the history of psychiatric care (I listed some of this stuff in last year’s post and also it’s in my bibliography at the end of Saving Lucia – one for the future, if you be interested); I read Annabel Abbs’s The Joyce Girl and continued to dip into Frances Stonnor Saunders’s exemplary account of Violet Gibson: The Woman Who Shot Mussolini and Carol Loeb Shloss’s Lucia Joyce. To Dance in the Wake. I’ve been reading articles in The Lancet, articles on Queen of the Hysterics, Blanche Wittmann and accounts of Bertha Pappenheim (there’s a need for a bigger study and, I would say, what exists needs to be translated from the German because she is fascinating!); I also looked (in German) at Bertha’s book of prayers – Gebete and found an English translation of her short stories, The Junk Shop and Other Stories and finally read Florence Nightingale’s posthumously published Cassandra – which Virginia Woolf said was more like screaming than writing. I concur. Also, religious texts, archive work (letters and documents) and miscellaneous articles.

And I think we are there!

Two other things on reading and writing. How good it was to see the Authors for Grenfell auction raise so much and I was pleased to be a tiny part of it. I’ve a tea party coming up – and also a tour of Pembrokeshire, visiting all the settings in my second book, The Life of Almost, which comes out in autumn, 2018 with Patrician Press. Also, in September, for the first time, I have a work experience student and I am so excited. I am still a newbie fiction writer (I put pen to paper in mid July 2014, although I’d been a freelance author before and writing is not my day job) and this kind of thing makes it feel…real. We are going to get a writing project off the ground; she’s going to submit work for publication. She may also help me with editing of and suggestions on two anthologies of which I am co-editor and editor, respectively. Said student (she’s in the upper sixth) is reading the manuscript of my third book – which led to her mum reading it too…which led into a date to discuss it. and, I hope, a super-clever new beta reader. Yay.

I’m sorted on my reading for the next few weeks, the manuscript of Saving Lucia goes out again on the 20th of July  – and in the meantime I wait to hear if others are biting…it is a long process and probably a good education for me, seeing as I rush at everything like it’s my last day. (In my defence, it could be: I’ve had a lot of people die on me, some of them very suddenly: another story – some of which is in my first book Killing Hapless Ally, if you are not freaked out by very dark humour. If you are, don’t read the bits of The Life of Almost concerning a love story in a funeral parlour…)

Other booky things: my two Grenfell offers to fulfil in summer and autumn and archive work in St Andrew’s psychiatric hospital, Northampton.

And reading Horrible Histories in bed when stressed or sad. Oh forgot: I had norovirus so badly I was hospitalised. During that period I read Gren Jenner’s (he’s part of the Horrible Histories telly team) A Million Years in a Day. A jolly diverting read.

AND FINALLY

Quibbles and possible spelling errors spotted in some of the books, above (English teacher forevaaa):

prophesise (prophesy) as verb

disinterested (to mean uninterested) – feel free to argue

past (for passed)

Thursday’s…Friday’s…for simple plurals, not possession

it’s when you mean its (ugh!)

passer bys

me/I/myself I won’t blather on about that because I sound like a twat. BUT in a top selling book for which I’ve shelled out, say, £12, it niggles to see a chapter starting (names changed) “Me and Andrew left France…”

I have been spelling fuchsia wrong my whole life. And cardamom. So I’m a fine one to talk. In my Killing Hapless Ally, Myfanwy twice appeared without the first y. My fault. And I swear as if my life depended on it.

Love,

Anna xxxxx

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For writers starting out. Do comment, discuss and contribute your thoughts!

I know there are a lot of people out there writing books and a lot of people submitting said books at the moment. I know or have met people who now have stunning commercial success, writers who are agented but yet to have their first book sold, those who work with the small presses and who are not agented, those who are what we might call a hybrid (I am thinking this is likely to be me) – by which I mean agented but also finding publication routes on their own, perhaps with a small press, those who are disconsolate because everything is a flat rejection or they have received no answer at all and those – including recent MA in Creative Writing students – who are, for various reasons, too scared to submit at all. That’s just for starters.

It might come quickly; it could take years. I do think the key thing is not to take rejection personally (while accepting that, maybe, you need to write a different book if nobody at all is biting); also, if you are floored by rejection and delay and disappointment, then this might not be for you. And that, OF COURSE, is fine. Because there is a life beyond writing.

Here’s where I am. I started writing a book, Killing Hapless Ally, a novel, which originally began life as a memoir, in July of 2014; by the 1st of May, 2015 it had a publisher and it was published in March 2016 by the small press, Patrician. I only sent this manuscript to five agents; two rejected it, three didn’t reply at all. I read an article about the press in ‘Mslexia’ magazine and I liked the sound of it, corresponded with its charismatic founder and there we go. I was, I should add, realistic about how visible the book would be, but I have relished the experience and, ever since, the bonds I have made with its readers. Is it a bestseller? Good God no, but it has been important to its readers and the engagement I have had with them has been life changing. With Patrician, to whom I now feel rather bonded, I also published a poem in Anthology of Refugees and Peacemakers (just back from an event at Essex Book Festival on that) and will be co-editor of next year’s anthology, My Europe and editor of its Tempest, which is a book, by various authors, on (Trump) America. And my poetry has been published by the brilliant indie Emma Press, too.

Way leads on to way.

Meanwhile, I spread my wings and wrote another book, a novella, The Life of Almost. I began sending this out before Christmas 2016. I’m a quick worker, apparently. Two agent rejections (one the day I sent it!), three small press rejections (but read on for that and for more on agents), waiting on two further presses and an agent so still out on submissions. BUT during this process, another agent had read a section from Killing Hapless Ally and admired my writing; said agent asked me to send what I was currently working on (as in, The Life of Almost) in partial then in full; told me they thought I was a brilliant writer but that this book was not, though they admired much about it, for them. To their taste, for example, it needed more pace. But I had also told them about my plans for the next book (I actually have four more books sketched out: is that crazy sounding?) and the agent asked me to send them the full manuscript for that as soon as it was ready because they absolutely loved its concept. This was my third text, Passerines.

Meanwhile, one of the other agents told me (having read three chapters of Almost) about how they loved my writing style. That there was much to like; it was innovative and compelling but in the end the book was not right for them. Keep sending! And of the three small presses who rejected me, one said that though they would not be taking this one, they were confident it would be placed and would I send them future work? The other told me there was some lovely writing and they were impressed, but that this text was simply too innovative for them and, on that basis, they would simply not be able to shift enough copies to make it financially viable. I do know that the small presses – whom I adore and champion, by the way – are often those who DO champion the innovative book, but clearly that is not always the case.

So you see, there’s a lot of encouragement in that pile, just as there is a lot of rejection. The rejection is part of the experience and of the learning.

I have almost finished my third novel. So that’s three books – from the first word, I mean – in three years and this is not my day job. I run a a company, teach, have three young boys and I’m a volunteer and mental health advocate, too.  I don’t have a great deal of time so I’ve got to want to do this.

Do you? Take your time and don’t give up.

I may not have hit a super stellar advance just yet and obviously I may never, but I am playing a long game. May those who find later books go back and read my first, for example. We are three years in and I have met so many fascinating people, read hundreds of books – I read a great deal anyway, but I am so much more alive to different presses and sources of reading; it has been such an adventure. I’ve made a film about mental health, presented at a literary festival, had a packed book launch at a wonderful bookshop, spoken to, had dinner with, corresponded with, interviewed and had my work read by – it is happening now – writers whom I admire. I’ve also published poetry and articles and guest blogged. To boot, I think I am a better teacher because I am a better reader and writer and what is more I am able to share my work with students. Right now, I am commissioning those in years 10-13 to write for the two anthologies I have mentioned and, through my company, I felt inspired to set up a year-long bursary so that I could help someone who had had – this is the icing on the cake for me – long term mental health problems (as I have had myself) to evolve and complete a creative writing project.

So that’s where I am now. In the peculiar position of having one book out on subs and another being waited for and…without giving too much away…being discussed. At the weekend I had an offer of publication for my second book, but I am taking my time.

And now I have to make the tea because the kids keep coming in and rooting through the cupboards. Not having the time forces me to write when and as I can and I mull at other times, which I also regard as working. If you wait for your perfect writing environment or space or time, it may never happen. So why not write something tonight and get started – even if it’s just a paragraph?

Do tell me about your experience and about how you are getting on.

Anna.

Killing Hapless Ally: Patrician Press (2016)

The Life of Almost (TBA!) and Passerines (ditto)

Patrician Press Anthology of Refugees and Peacekeepers

‘We are all from an island or a foreign sun and every one of us uncertain; alone

the human condition isolates us; our experience, our very world

blunted by language of a raggedy drum, our faith sharp and clear

or not so, as we cry out our unbelief, our refugee song,

but together.’

Today, a beautiful and timely book will be published: Anthology of Refugees and Peacekeepers from Patrician Press. Donations from any profits go to http://www.helprefugees.org and I am proud and delighted to be in it. The publisher has given me permission to include my offering, below.

I feel so passionately about the texts in the book – particularly because of the events of the last few days with the Trump administration pursuing (chaotically, I might add) its aggressive path and watching the egregious sight of our own Prime Minister appeasing Trump.

What unites us is strong; what separates – or rather what we choose to allow to separate us  – can embitter us and will degrade us – if that is the path we choose. Get on twitter: look at the protests, marches and campaigns going on; see what you can do. You may have seen the crowds at Dulles, JFK; watched the people turn out in Boston. Maybe you are going to be outside Downing Street tonight or at the Bristol event. Our family is Welsh-American; we are doing what we can, both sides of the Atlantic: it makes me cry to see how heartbroken my American mother in law is by what she sees. And yet: out we go here and out I know she will go, too. Don’t lose hope and let’s keep the momentum going.

Who is ‘Emigre’ below? Is he or she a refugee? Well, yes. But he or she is also you. You, Trump,  May, Bannon…

                                                            Émigré

I was far from home. I stood on the grey street corner.

I was far from home and stood at the mouth of the sea, ivory curls around my feet.

I was far from home. I stood outside the stores and restaurants at night;

sat in the hotel room, the train compartment, the gimcrack coffee shop;

watched the dark frontiers fade out as the yellow jack of the gas station made midday;

I traced the sad cars on the motorway and my eyes hurt from the strip light.

Memory seared and I drank sour coffee and ate a chocolate bar.

I was far from home; an outsidertossed up as motes from some former life,

composed of Eros, intellect, memory and uncertain dust.

But I was you and I was me. Everyman; foreigner; flâneur; such longueur: étranger

And did you care? Did you stare? But did you know?

We are all from an island or a foreign sun and every one of us uncertain; alone

the human condition isolates us; our experience, our very world

blunted by language of a raggedy drum, our faith sharp and clear

or not so, as we cry out our unbelief, our refugee song,

but together. We beat our palms against the past, each a piece of the continent,

a part of the main: our love tremulous in our hands, like water that shall spill.

The book is a collection of poems and short stories from a wide range of writers. Robert McCrum described it as ‘A gripping, rare and brave collection of new work written in extremis, the classic source of truly original poetry and prose through the ages.’ It has a deeply moving afterword by the jazz musician, Ian Shaw, who volunteered for a year at the Jungle in Calais and two fine epigraphs; one by the poet George Szirtes, on seeing refugees camped in Keleti railway station in Budapest, and the other by The Bishop of Barking, on seeing the refugee children trapped in the Calais Jungle camp. (There is more on the plight of the children at this camp in Ian Shaw’s afterword; I struggled to read this but insisted I did: conscience dictates that we know.)

Do please comment and share. x

(So, you can order it here at Amazon, https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0993494560/ref=cm_sw_r_fa_api_2xRByb1ZJV3FV or go here, to the press site http://patricianpress.com/ or to bookshops where it is on sale; if it is not, you can, of course, order it from them, its ISBN is 978-099349-456-7.) The book is available in both paperback and kindle versions.

Patrician Press Anthology of Refugees and Peacekeepers

From the Patrician Press blog (below) earlier. (I am published in this splendid new anthology with ‘Emigree’). You can buy this book through the publisher’s site http://patricianpress.com/ or, you know, the usual outlets. Few bookshops will stock books from smaller presses but they can always order!

I am proud to say that my dear friend, Susie Freeman, who has been such an encouragement to me in my writing, novels one and two, entered the associated writing competition run by Patrician and the judges (I wasn’t one, I should add; Susie’s just awesome so they noticed her) picked her poem as a winner and have subsequently included it in this anthology. CONGRATULATIONS SUSIE AND I LOVE YOU SO.

I quote from the blog…

This year has been horrendous in many ways but at least on the publishing front we have some good news: our lovely Refugees and Peacekeepers anthology has been sent to the printer today. We are happy to report that as well as quotes by George Szirtes and the Bishop of Barking in the foreword, the back cover contains a quote by the wonderful Robert McCrum. We are hoping to have advance copies in time for our event at the First Site art gallery in Colchester on Saturday 10th December from 12-3pm. All our books will be on sale with a combined raffle. Various pieces of artwork by our cover artists will be the main prizes, as well as some consolation prizes.

We will be in good company as the retrospective exhibition on at the time is by Gee Vaucher:

http://www.firstsite.uk/whats-on/gee-vaucher-introspective/

Epigraph of The Life of Almost

For Ned. Because Almost is also a love story: Seren, Mfanwy, Perfection, Mammy, the sacred headland and the mermaids. And you are my story and my song. x

This is what it says at the beginning of my next book, The Life of Almost: wish me luck, as it has gone, by kind request, out to an agent who liked the writing in Killing Hapless Ally; the ms has also gone to a press; later in October, it is going out elsewhere and, to my utter surprise, a really lovely person at one of, you know, the big five, said they would look at it just to be helpful. I said it wasn’t really, as far as I could see, a commercial proposition, but then it is the next story I had in me. I know it’s ambitious and I do know about Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs. Ah, but bear with now. This one now is comical, I hope; indebted to Dickens and to Dylan Thomas; to generations in Pembrokeshire and beyond; to the coffin hatch in my own house; to the dead, who are legion and all around; to mermaid lore; The Mabinogion; Celtic Magic, Gwyn Williams, Danny Abse, the earliest Welsh poems, the Southern Gothic I married, books on sex, embalming and death practice, John Donne and Dickens again. And don’t you want to know who or what Almost is? How mermaids love? Why a child was found sleeping on a headland gravestone? Why moss creeps and sucks at your feet as you dare to tread? How a love story happens over the embalming table and how Almost feels, when he meets Derian Llewhellin, both fear and happiness and a blurring of his edges and how it is he begins to understand what he is capable of. The story begins this squalid summer, June 2016, but oh…it is old, old, old.

 

THE LIFE OF ALMOST OR,

A LIFE OF VERY LITTLE EXPECTATION

Anna Vaught

Disclaimer: this is a work of fiction, I swear on The Mabinogion and the sacred headland. Characters in this book are fictional, although I have drawn upon the history of my own Welsh family and diaspora and many things which to me seem normal and maybe which, to you, do not. I make no apology for references to the political situation in the summer of 2016 while a cunning clown and cohorts and a tide of rage pushed through the always unexpected rain. Real places named in the book are at least partly fictionalised and the dead and undead are somewhat mixed up. But enough: don’t you want to know about Almost? He was mine; now I am giving him to you.

All poems (unless otherwise attributed, but out of copyright) are by the author.

Lewis, the Younger, who went away

When I was a kid, Lewis took his own life.

I heard them say he took it, but where it went,

I couldn’t say or wasn’t told. Perhaps it had

been drained, in The Sloop, with all his pints,

or thrown gladly off Stack Rocks with a shout

that he married well and was a man they liked,

but I don’t know. For once, though I was very young,

I saw a look from out the corner of his eye as he shipped

off, went laughing with the pot boys and his girl:

that look it said, I think, that Lewis wanted rescuing,

but no-one came, as the sea foam danced in Cardigan Bay.

“Look’ee here, Pip. I’m your second father. You’re my son—more to me nor any son.”

Abel Magwitch, Great Expectations, chapter thirty nine.

 

Some more publication plus MacNeice and Kavanagh

Ramsey Sound, Pembrokeshire

I am very excited to say that my work is being included in a poetry anthology published by the Emma Press. Here they are

http://theemmapress.com/

I wrote a series of poems called Pembrokeshire Poems and they picked one called ‘Cast out my broken comrades’, the title of which draws on Homer and also a poem (which itself does the same) by Louis MacNeice called ‘Thalassa.’ I am so pleased as I didn’t expect to achieve publication so soon.

I’d been re-reading Louis MacNeice prior to starting these Sea poems; he is a great favourite of mine and he always has been. MacNeice appears briefly in my first novel Killing Hapless Ally (Patrician, February 2016) and there is a refrain from his poem ‘Meeting Point’ in the novel, too. If you read the book, you’ll see WHY and HOW ‘time is away’ and also (I quote from Patrick Kavanagh’s poem, ‘Prelude’ – another refrain) why ‘the millstone has become a star’ – the epigraph to the novel, a refrain and there at close of day. (I was granted permission from literary estates for these at no charge – very generous.)

For me, the lines already in my head and the lines I have yet to read, will always be salve and solution.

The poem itself decribes a dawn voyage across Ramsey Sound to the island; the voyage itself is both literal and figurative – as I expect you guessed. It is about being broken, being lost and experiencing the first moments of healing. A ‘sea-change’ you might say, quoting Ariel in Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’.

Do have a look at The Emma Press. They are a dynamic lot – much going on – and their Anthology of Motherhood contains some stunning writing. You can buy it through the site – or borrow my copy!

By the way, I have written (I’m aware this sounds reckless) a chapter book to enter for The Bath Children’s Novel Award (I hadn’t even told my husband I did it), but I’m still deliberating whether it’s too rough and ready to submit.

But back to the poem. The Emma Press Anthology of the Sea will be published in October, 2016.

The picture of Ramsey Sound, above, is from the Pembrokeshire South East Energy Group website.

Sea poems – a submission

Just occasionally, I write poems. I have always loved reading poetry and, as a teacher, working with it, but it’s only recently that I’ve tried to write myself. This week, I wrote three poems, all based on experiences, of which I have told in both literal and rather more allegorical terms, in Pembrokeshire, which is where my family is from.

These poems were for a submission to an anthology of poems on ‘The Sea’. I was thinking, in the first, about  how landscape, water and journeys can rejuvenate a tired soul; the first line recalls both The Odyssey and Louis MacNeice’s poem ‘Thalassa’, which is a favourite of mine.

In the second poem, I was thinking of forbidden journeys and how one person’s adventure is not another person’s; also, about how the sea is both dangerous and beautiful and how it calls to one. (The title recalls a phrase of Dylan Thomas and, more broadly, is a nod to his syntax – which I love and feel in my bones.)

The third poem looks at a particular place, my grandmother’s house, on the Cleddau estuary. I was thinking about how I wanted things and people back, about the multiple bereavements I have experienced, how I wished I could have shown her more of the world, gone out to sea with her (and she was, I remember, not one for the sea, preferring the creek and the estuary and the waves from a distance) and how I sometimes feel sad that places I have known all my life get their rougher edges polished off and prettied up, just so.

Sea Poems 
‘Cast out, my broken comrades’
St Justinian at dawn; the boat,
Its clenched hull scowling,
As braced against the swell,
Collected errant figures – all
Adrift, so lost on land, and sad.
We reached out, emptied souls,
To Ramsey Sound; the island
Siren-called us, brought us home
To sea: to stay afloat a while
And find our shipwrecked selves.
It wasn’t in the landing of our craft,
Against the crashing deck of shore,
But somewhere in between the rock
And rock, that melancholy came to rest –
And tumbled down through navy depths
And we were free, unbroken: still.
‘My heart unbroken, then, by fish- frozen sea.’
‘Oh never fill your heart with trawlermen’:
My Nanny told, then told: ‘You want
A man with both feet on the ground –
A man with roughened nails, from
Dirt and labour on the land,
Not brined and drenched through by the Sea.’
But Nanny never knew the sound
Of oilskin slipped on clover bank;
Of danger in the stolen hull,
Of silver, limned above your head,
While thwart hands toiled through the night,
And washed me up and brought me home.
I wouldn’t learn: I dreamed of pearls, full fathom five;
I sang of gales, the tang of salt,
The storied depths of sea and sea –
Limb-frozen journeys, far from home
With yellow light on midnight crests.
But Nanny told, then told, ‘You want
A man with bone-dry shoes, inland;
Your sailors leave you high and dry,
They catch and throw and pack in ice
The keenist heart that you can toss.’
But Nanny never knew the song
Of siren journeys way out there,
Of labour stoked by heat and loss –
She didn’t feel the azure pull,
The mermaid kiss, the tongues that spoke;
She died a desiccated death, in clod
That choked, while primrose mocked.
Still, out at sea, I rocked and bobbed:
We drew the finest catch that day.

 

 ‘My grandmother: the Madonna of the Cleddau’

The sea coast was too far for you;
To keep inland was your advice,
Away from Jack Tar, foreign folk:
Stay cloistered on this estuary.
Madonna of the Cleddau, come:
Square jaw, dark eyes and, counterpoint,
Retroussé  nose and powdered cheeks:
And born of earth, not briny downs.
You birthed eleven, stood back up,
With apron on and sleeves rolled high,
Delivered livestock, lipstick on,
With plaintive songs of field delight.
But, round the wall, the sea began,
Spoke not to you: you had no thought
To jump and best a warmer wave;
A voyage out was lost on you.
What did you care for them or theirs?
Madonna’s night world of the quay
Had supernatural force: the owls,
The rustle of the hawk, black elms,
The screech and call and elsewhere sound.
Such pale wings drew on navy sky
As you looked out across the flats
And thought that this was world enough,
The kelp, the wrack was only stench.
I’ve seen it now, your home; your hearth:
The summer quay was bunting dressed,
The village pub all polished up,
No gossip, snarling by the bar.
A ‘Country Living’ August snap,
All cleansed of snuff or pewter cup,
Sent gentry, as you might have said.
And rag and bone man, gone to dust.
Madonna of the Cleddau, mine:
I sing to you from farther shores:
I wish that you had gone to sea –
We could have basked there, you and I.
It never changed, waves’ thunderous moods
Could not be altered, made anew.
I look at Cresswell now and wish
The sea would roar and cry and break
The tidy walls, the altered beds,
Bring wrack and shells to grace the walls
Where mortar tidily restrains.