5th August 2008 – 2018

Ten years is too long, a fear that to others she may be fading

Ten years is her imagined height, and length of hair; the clothes she would be wearing this summer

Ten years is as an overwhelming bout of crying, when returning to the hospital to plant a flower

Ten years is like digging in the ground

Ten years is driving away from a commemorative rose and fretting it will die

Ten years is sometimes not thinking about her

Ten years is understanding that

Ten years is the time it’s taken to include her when asked how many children I have

Ten years is not a shameful secret

Ten years is her first sleep suit still under my pillow

Ten years is two books, a baby, a new house, another dog

Ten years is not feeling her let go of my hand or take hold of it again

Ten years is tomorrow

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The Suffolk Poems

The Suffolk Poems are coming on, at a Suffolk pace I admit, but I am loving the whole process. I do my research. I may intentionally seek someone out whose working life I want to observe, or sometimes it can happen a little more serendipitously. I found my farrier when he was carrying out an emergency shoe repair in the car park of my local supermarket – horse, hammer and all. On the day of observation, I spend anything from a few hours to a whole afternoon. I take a small notebook, a pencil and a phone to take photographs or film the odd short video. I have a dedicated Instagram account documenting each of my visits, but mostly it’s about watching and talking. The encounters are gentle, slow, memorable. I strive not to interrupt the ‘process’ as much as possible, asking questions while each person works and it always feels more like conversation, a revelatory exchange.  I don’t necessarily want each resulting poem to be a pure description of the trade being carried out. The poem ‘about a thatcher’ has ended up being about his ladder, made bespoke, to the measurements from thatcher’s foot to knee, so as to ensure comfort whilst working. I like the personal stories I am gathering. The farmer I spent a glorious July day with, touring the square mile of land he works, has an avenue of English Oak trees between his and his brother’s farm. Planted to mark a centenary of ownership and link the two families, I have written about those trees and what they signify. The lime plasterer, busy on the scaffold that curtained a 15th century former pub, was keen to tell me that ‘these old buildings are full of stories’ as I watched him apply a creamy sludge to laths. Tools down, he leaves more than just a repair, he has added to that building’s narrative and leaves a legacy lasting (another) 500 years. I’m exploring other occupations too – those who may not be using their hands so explicitly, but whose livelihoods depend on being in East Anglia, being inside its ancient buildings. I interviewed the vicar of a small, remote church, its simple frame tucked behind a mere, out of sight from the road. Meeting under rafters, Reverend Liz Law and I slid into a pew, and talked about that building, its importance to her tiny parish, how it exists in the modern age. The Hadleigh bell ringers were a joyous bunch: gathered like excited bees in the tower until their Captain called them into silent concentration and the physically demanding task of practice. My day with the blacksmith could almost be a favourite so far.  I spent two hours at his workshop, situated on a farm just outside the village of Framlingham, observing the sheer skill of what he does, learnt many new words, discovered that sparks can be ‘read’, felt heat rise from the anvil, and listened to a hammer’s bounce on metal. Let me tell you, there is music in that moil.

I refer to the collection as The Suffolk Poems and there are many more people, and poems, to come: boat builder, brewer, artist, woodsman. Suggestions are always welcome. But in the summer, watching John the blacksmith begin to make a Suffolk latch, I decided that’s what I’m going to call the book: Latch. These poems are about people’s significant connections to this county; how their presence graces land and loam. There will also be a personal thread included in the collection about my daughter. I have loved watching her grow up in our very old house. Her interaction with the ‘history’ she encounters under its roof and the small part she plays in the building’s story. My childhood roots are here in Suffolk, my daughter’s are forming. She is beginning to make her own associations with this place, no longer an infant in my clasp, but still running the same rural tracks that I did.

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Two presses

July saw the publication of the Triptychs from Guillemot Press. I was one of twelve poets asked to write for the series, the brief being just that – the word ‘triptych’.  We were however, told how the poems would be produced.  As a small, three-sided pamphlet, hand printed on a 1920s letterpress.  The result is beautiful: all twelve triptychs presented in a striking black, limited edition box – only 52 made.  My triptych contains three poems responding to the work of artist Alison Watt. I’m managing my slight obsession with her work, specifically her paintings that address the ‘erotic connotations of fabric’, by writing a sequence of poems that will be included in my next collection.  Now in possession of a triptych boxset myself I have loved reading how we all interpreted the commission. There are poems inside from Peter Riley, Mona Arshi, Toby Martinez de las Rivas, Isabel Galleymore and others.  Our respective offerings are fascinatingly varied. Luke Thompson, editor of Guillemot Press has written a piece about the Triptych project’s gestation and production for the forthcoming issue of PN Review. I have great respect for the press, and what Luke is doing, and hope to work with Guillemot again in the future. Watch this space.

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I have always been a long admirer of Candlestick Press.  I often buy their books as gifts. Even though I’m sure they would have preferred wine, I bought my daughter’s teachers a copy of Ten Poems of Kindness at the end of term. My daughter has just about got into the swing of school, and her teachers recognised her anxieties as well as her enthusiasm with patience and, well, kindness. Later in the summer, my daughter received a handwritten letter from one of her teachers, thanking her for the book and also explaining what kindness meant to her, as a grown up.  It made me a bit emotional I have to admit, but what a good, gentle correspondence for that small book of poems to spark. I have always loved the idea of featuring in one of Candlestick’s anthologies, so it made my day when I was asked if my poem ‘Pigeon Love’, from my first collection, could be included in their new edition of Ten Poems About Birds.  Out now and including poems from Katrina Porteous, Paul Farley, Emily Bishop, it is a very lovely thing – and each purchase includes a donation to The Owl’s Trust.

 

 

The Telephone

‘…my telephone is my joy. It tells me I am in the world and wanted’
– Edward Field, source: Poetry Foundation

We are addicted to our phones, you don’t need me to tell you that. Our phones allow extensive access to everything and everyone. I believe there is still pleasure to be gained from receiving a call (and I mean a call, not a text, not a whatsapp, not a snapchat) from someone we care about.  But I have never thought anything good comes from a phone call made in the middle of the night. Everything about the Grenfell Tower tragedy is harrowing. The news that some of the telephone calls from trapped residents lasted more than an hour has haunted me, as has the knowledge that people made ‘last calls’ to the people they loved. However distressing, it made me recognise that need to hear, and be heard, ‘hungry…for the human voice’ (Edward Field again). I felt angry and ashamed that people have been allowed to live in such inadequate, dangerous housing. With so many people still missing, the grieving process is involved and complex. I know my ‘reach’ out there is slight, but I wanted to post details of a charity that can offer help and support – and is available at the end of a phone. Whether affected directly by the tragedy, or if that terrible night triggered difficult memories, The Child Death Helpline is there help to anyone affected by the death of a child ‘whether they are parents, grandparents, siblings, family members, friends or involved professionals’.

Their confidential helpline is open every day of the year.

Monday to Friday 10am to 1pm

Tuesdays 1pm to 4pm

Wednesdays 1pm to 4pm

Every evening 7pm to 10pm

Freephone on 0800 282 986 or 0808 800 6019 if calling from a mobile.

The Child Death Helpline is staffed by volunteers, all of them trained, supervised and supported by professional teams within Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Trust and the Alder Hey Children’s NHS Foundation Trust. All volunteers are bereaved parents – offering that much needed connection when you are grieving, isolated and scared.  I knew one volunteer personally, in Liverpool. A Health Visitor with her own difficult story, she was dedicated to her day job – providing unerring support to me when I needed it – but was also able to give her time to the helpline. She was a good soul. She was a human voice.

Stealing Stories

I will write more soon, about various poetry projects in progress, but wanted to update on courses I am teaching locally, in East Anglia.  Details here of a new one, at a great venue in Colchester, starting July 1st.  Seven places remaining….

“STEALING STORIES: A short creative writing course, exploring narrative and poetry.”

The aim of this course will be to seek out the stories that come from within us, or stories we glean from others. We will explore ‘other voices’ and look at how to use these voices in your writing, paying attention to poetic language, character, narrative – pushing the creative boundaries of truth and lies. Designed to liberate the imagination using a wide variety of stimuli, and an opportunity to work in a small, attentive group, we will focus on how to entwine tales with poetry and turn them into unique pieces of creative work.

Location: The Tree Room, 12 Trinity Street, Colchester, CO1 1JN.
Time: Doors open 2pm, for refreshments. Prompt start: 2.30 – 4.30pm.
Dates: Saturday 1 July, 15 July, 29 July.
Cost: £85
Number of places: 10

If you would like to book a place, please email Rebecca for a registration form on: gosspoems@hotmail.co.uk

Writing Poetry – a new course taught by Rebecca Goss

I’m lucky enough to live in village with a library. Since moving to Hadleigh in 2013, my daughter and I have spent lots of time there. The library offers many services, including family art and craft days on a Sunday, cinema experiences, a well-organised Summer Reading Challenge and events with local authors. I’ve been thinking for a while about how I could use the space, and offer something to the surrounding community.

I have taught creative writing at all levels, in a variety of settings, at universities, schools, literary festivals, as well as working with bigger organisations such as The Arvon Foundation. I meet people from all across the country who want to write, and I enjoy that very much. I’m discovering that Suffolk is home to thriving creative communities. I have been to many literary events and have been welcomed by several creative organisations since moving back to East Anglia. I’ve also met lots of people who write poetry.

In 2017, I will tutor a poetry writing course at my local library in Hadleigh, Suffolk. Beginning on January 18th, it will run every Wednesday evening, for ten weeks, ending on March 29th.  Aimed at intermediate level, I would like to keep the numbers small, with ten writers, so we can work closely as a group. If enough people are interested, I’m looking forward to establishing a weekly slot for writers, where new work can be created, shared and encouraged.

I will be spreading the word locally, but if you know of anyone who may be interested in the region, do pass this information on, thank you. More details about my teaching experience can be found here. More information about the course can be found below.

Writing Poetry – a new course, with tutor Rebecca Goss

Do you write poetry? Would you like to write and work in a positive, constructive atmosphere, enabling you to develop your poetry writing skills? This 10-week course, run by award-winning poet Rebecca Goss, is an opportunity to see your poetry writing progress.

The course will provide:

  • stimulating writing workshops designed to create new work
  • concentrated time for writing
  • development of editing and drafting techniques
  • a chance to explore and learn from the work of contemporary writers
  • the opportunity to share work with others, helping to develop your critical skills
  • regular feedback on your work
  • information and discussion of the contemporary poetry scene and routes into publication

Dates: January 18th 2017 – March 29th 2017 (no class Feb 15th)

Time: Wednesdays 6.30-9.00pm

Location: Hadleigh Library, 29 High Street, Hadleigh, Suffolk, IP7 5SD.

Cost: £375.00  For registration/more info please contact gosspoems@hotmail.co.uk

About the tutor: Rebecca Goss’s first collection The Anatomy of Structures was published by Flambard Press in 2010. Her second collection, Her Birth (Carcanet/Northern House), was shortlisted for The 2013 Forward Prize for Best CollectionThe Warwick Prize for Writing 2015 and The Portico Prize for Literature 2015.  It was winner of the Poetry Category in The 2013 East Anglian Book Awards. In 2014 Rebecca was selected for The Poetry Book Society’s Next Generation Poets.

August

July ends with my daughter’s birthday, but early August stores the anniversary of Ella’s death and my birthday – a day apart.  Since my second child, Molly, was born her July birthday has been clouded by the dates that loom ahead of it.  I don’t function well.  I don’t plan her birthday well either.  I put off buying presents.  I never know what to get her. I panic buy, with 24 hours to go.  I try to organise parties on neutral ground – at the beach say, with Molly’s school friends, their mums, my extended family – at a time when I don’t really feel like seeing anyone. I don’t like milestones or markings of time.  The reasons why are both obvious and complex. But none of them is Molly’s fault. This summer I was determined to get her birthday right: a few friends, a sunny garden, a bag of streamers, a bag of balloons. It took place a week before her birthday. It made such a difference not to tangle her day with my unhappy calendar.  It was only two hours, with some cake decorating, some dancing, some games but Molly loved it, and so did I. The fact that I achieved that for her may not sound a very big deal to you, but it was a very big deal to me.

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The month improved too, when I received an Authors’ Foundation grant from The Society of Authors. The Roger Deakin award to be exact, which means a huge amount to me now I’m a Suffolk  girl again. The grant was for a collection of poems I am about to start – about rural Suffolk lives.  Something I’ve been thinking about since returning to live in the county, and a lot to do with my husband’s new life as a furniture maker.  Through him – and through the restoration of our very old house, we’ve met a great deal of skilled people who work with their hands and I want to write poems about them.  I want to write about the interesting, unique existences that are tucked away in this bucolic place. You can follow the project as it progresses on Instagram. It’s a complete change from my next collection, which is now finished but being edited.  You can read about it, and a poem from it, in my recent interview for Poetry Spotlight.

I’m well and truly over pleurisy now, but it was good to air the poems I’ve written about the experience at UCLs Pain conference earlier this year. Such a fascinating two days, where I was lucky enough to meet Joanna Bourke, Rita Charon, Sharon Morris.  A batch of the pleurisy poems are forthcoming in Stand next year.  I’ve been writing articles/reviews for magazines. I reviewed Wendy French’s bold and brave collection Thinks Itself a Hawk for the medical humanities site BMJ Blogs. I wrote about Simon Armitage’s new translation of Pearl for The Lancet – and looked at the issue of fathers and bereavement. You can read the piece for free upon registration. And I’m delighted to be included in a commissioned series of short essays addressing ‘poetry in our secular world’ for Agenda, coming soon.

I’ll be mentoring the poet Victoria Kennefick over the next six months, as she works towards completing a full-length collection.  I’m thrilled to be working with such an exciting new voice.  We met on Twitter – where she is knowledgable, engaging and generous. I recommend you follow her.  I especially like working closely with writers, on a one-to-one basis. If you are looking for a mentor, take a look at my teaching page, and do get in touch.

It’s not like me to do these kinds of posts – a summary of what’s been happening in my poetry life.  Makes a change from the personal life I have shared so much of.  I’m trying to shed the maudlin tone, believe me, but I will end with the biggest change this year – the death of my dog. A ‘rescue’ one year old, we had him for twelve years.  He got a mention in Her Birth a few times, and even made a screen debut in an online poetry project a few years back.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to start writing poems about his demise, but life is very different without him.IMG_20150320_111747

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pain

Pain is not a word I would use in a poem. It’s not specific enough. It’s not precise. But two months on from a bout of pleurisy, that left me feeling wretched and bewildered, I want to write about pain.

While I was ill, all I could think about was the hurt, as it moved around my upper body. To steal Jo Shapcott’s word, I was shocked by pain’s ‘mutability’. Pleuritic pain doesn’t stay in one place. It sneaks around your back and shoulders and chest. Some days you can’t walk properly, your frame crippled by a cough. Some days you can’t breathe calmly, because there’s something skulking in your ribcage, with a knife. It’s the closest I’ve come to feeling anything remotely hallucinatory, so intense was its burn.

Having never been ill before, the only pain I’ve really experienced is the pain of childbirth. But that was entirely different. It was quick and purposeful. This pain was explicitly unkind. I spent a lot of time in my sick bed, mentally trying to articulate what I was feeling.  I convinced myself I was onto something. Where was the language for pain? Of course, a quick Google later, and I discovered this to be a well-mined subject, but it made for some interesting reading.  My favourite quote came from American essayist and academic Elaine Scarry saying that “physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it”. Nothing has ever made more sense to me. But there was no way I was going through all that agony and not writing a poem about it.

The only thing I enjoyed about any of this, was the challenge of writing poems about pleurisy. All my work tries to avoid sentimentality, but with pain, it could be easy to slip into cliché. Trying to be original and believable made me really think about the words I was choosing.  Our similes for pain can be so heightened and ‘unreal’. It’s only in the past week that I haven’t woken up and not bored my husband by (yet again) stating that I felt like I inhabited the body of a ninety-year old woman. But I don’t really know what it feels like to be a ninety-year old woman. The challenge for me, came from wanting to remain ‘true’ to the experience. Or maybe I just wanted to eschew self-pity, and ask you to believe me that it really did hurt.

So my new collection, almost done, will contain a few pleurisy poems. Here’s one of them. Not quite finished.  And it still doesn’t nail the pain I felt.  As I said at a recent reading (managed the twenty minutes without coughing, thank God), I actually think the best poem would begin: ‘It’s like being in labour for thirty days, but with the baby trying to get out of your ribs……’  That’s believable for some, surely.

Pleurisy

At its most acute,
she pictured an orb,

phosphorescent,
in its snare of rib.

It eased to the pressure
of a handstand,

executed
by someone fully grown

on her chest,
and every cough

discharged small bombs
across her back.

In her most breathless
state, there was a tree –

cankerous and scratching,
malevolent in its reach

around her frame.
She wanted it uprooted,

hauled outside her body,
just to pick off the lungs

snagged amongst branches.

Poetry & Communication in the Medical World

‘In the din of medicine, what are the voices of our patients, what are our voices, that they become so hard to hear?’ (1)

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Last week I spent a truly enlightening day at Manchester University’s Medical School. I was there to contribute to a day of seminars on the topic of Significant Illness, run by Dr. Sarah Collins. Brilliant and inspiring, Sarah is course director for the MSc Medical Humanities and Senior Lecturer in Communication. Students come to Significant Illness sessions to hear former/current patients talk about their experiences of living with a ‘significant illness’. Two women came to speak about being diagnosed and treated for cancer. I was there to discuss patient/carer/doctor dialogue and palliative care, but also, as the first poet to visit the centre, to run poetry workshops exploring poems about the body.

The day was all about communication. It was set in the Consultation Skills Learning Centre, where Sarah teaches Clinical Communication. She aims to encourage a relaxed and informal atmosphere. There was lots of food and drink provided, to sustain us throughout the day, and we needed it. The talks are frank and can be distressing, but Sarah provided a safe place for everyone, including the students, to talk openly about their views. We started with a discussion in small groups about what ‘palliative’ means. I admitted to the students that I have always interpreted ‘palliative’ as a hopeless word. Its connotations for me are negative and desperate. The medical students however, saw its meaning change, and adopt different levels of significance depending upon the age of the patient. If the word was attributed to a child, they understood my interpretation, but when applied to an elderly person, then the word became more positive. ‘Palliative’ became about making people ‘comfortable’, about enhancing the quality of a life, however limited, not a failure to save one.

In workshops that followed we discussed poems about diagnosis by Raymond Carver, Sharon Olds, Jon Glover. I had to remind myself I was not working with creative writing students, so acute was their understanding of the texts, so engaged were their responses.

One thing that really struck me is how much I assumed the students inherently understood the patient experience.  I was surprised how much they welcomed not only the poems but also Debbie’s story, about her diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer. I began to realise she was telling them something ‘new’, when she explained the impact of diagnosis, on her and her husband. I expected a medical student to already appreciate the range of emotional reactions, or to foresee what oncologist Samir Guglani, Director of Medicine Unboxed has described as the ‘charged world of the medical encounter’ (2) This is not a negative observation.  I’m beginning to understand, that just because it’s happened a lot in my family, not everyone has experienced ‘death’ and ‘dying’.  For some medics, the world of hospitals may be their first encounter with serious illness and bereavement.

Poet and editor Jon Glover, has written about living with Multiple Sclerosis in his collection Magnetic Resource Imaging. He and I have talked about the ‘alien world’ of the hospital, and people’s behaviour within it.

He says: ‘I am always amazed that they (medics) can seem interested, calm, helpful, sympathetic, gracious when they have just said something that changes one’s life. And they have said it to five people that morning and five more that afternoon, no doubt. And then they go home to tea.’

The poems led to an interesting discussion about how to communicate ‘bad news’. How acceptable is it for doctors to reveal their ‘human’ side? With that come questions of vulnerability, professionalism and respect. In a telephone call with Samir Guglani, I told him about the consultant who came to see my husband and I within an hour of our daughter’s death. She had been part of the team trying to save her, or rather prolong the little life Ella had left, at what was a very traumatic time in intensive care. Whilst talking to us, she began to cry, but abruptly stopped herself. She said she was being unprofessional. I wanted her to cry. We had looked to doctors all through Ella’s life for advice and help and knowledge. For them to cry, surely that would prove to my husband and I, that what had happened was terrible? We shouldn’t have to accept it. I felt cross that she chose to censor her response. When explaining this to Samir, he asked me to consider what right did she have, to intrude on our grief in that way? Could it be be detrimental if she was to place her own sadness upon us?

On sharing this with the students, they agreed that ‘getting it right’ was challenging in the complex world of communication within hospitals.  They were keen to overcome it, find an answer. In the end, we decided that time was an important factor. Although time is the most difficult thing to claim more of, we agreed it was needed for initial reactions to be understood, not misunderstood, between doctor and patient. Time spent in a room with a clinician is almost suspended in some way, it doesn’t feel real, especially at that moment of explaining bad news. There is almost a freezing of time, when the patients’ senses become extremely heightened. Glover’s poem ‘Back to the Diagnosis’ ends with him leaving the room, after an appointment with his consultant, and going ‘out to the corridor/and the waiting room and the files and the right time.’

After a writing workshop in the afternoon, where students read poems about all kinds of bodies by Jo Shapcott, Jean Sprackland, Neil Rollinson and Clare Best, they then began to write their own ‘body poems’. The day ended with a reading from Her Birth. I read to medical students and clinicians, writers and writing students from the city, actors who are ‘simulated patients’ at the hospital, as well as music and art therapists from hospitals in Manchester.  The setting was the most unusual I’ve read in so far: mock consultation rooms, where the students learn and practice. Nothing like a full-size skeleton as backdrop.

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The students seemed keen for more days like this, where they are given the opportunity to learn from ‘the voices of our patients’ and express themselves creatively.  I spent the day with intelligent young people, who absorb a vast amount of knowledge daily.  They learn intensely, but many of them miss literature. There is ‘no time’ for it in their studies and yet they feel they could learn so much from it. It was wonderful to see the students responding so vibrantly to the poems they read and heard that day.  I am very grateful to Sarah for inviting me to the centre, and for letting me devise workshops for the day. It was a day of learning for everyone involved, myself included and it felt so positive to be using poetry in this way.  It was a privilege to spend time with the students. I will leave you with some of their revealing thoughts about the day.

“As a former literature and languages student, it was really refreshing to dip back into that world an indeed learn more about the bridge between art and medicine. I feel that my arts degree has truly enriched my view of our world and of people and of ‘the human condition’ – and as such has added so much to my study of medicine – coming to the reading has enabled me to reconnect with this.” (Olivia George, Year 2 Medical Student)

“It was really nice to have something involving literature as this is an interest of mine that it is hard to explore while doing a medical degree.” (Sam Button, Year 2 Medical student)

“I believe that introducing the power of poetry into medical education can make a difference in the way medical students approach their patients….Coming to the session really helped me consider how we as medical professionals can make a difference to families affected by bereavement – empathy is fundamental for healthcare workers and this form of poetry really helped me revisit its importance. The role of poetry is hugely underestimated in medicine and medical communication – needs to be promoted and encouraged!” (Sargam Vohra, Year 3 medical student)

“I really enjoyed attending the workshop. It was very comforting to listen to poetry about medical conditions. Being a medic means I think about medicine for a long time, so it can sometimes get overwhelming. But looking at medicine through poetry is healing and restoring. I think poetry gives medicine a more humane perspective. The workshop gave me an opportunity to think deeply and philosophically. I would love to attend more workshops like this.” (Zarat Queen, year 2 medical student)

“An interesting session……relevant to our studies but also cathartic and helpful personally. A useful reminder of why we are going into medicine! Something different, enriching our experience of the course.” (Bethany Butcher, Year 2 medical student)

“We were taken through a whirlwind tour of real patient experiences of hospital life and treatment at the same time as considering the ethical, emotional and philosophical aspects to debilitating illness, death and bereavement. As well as being fantastically enjoyable throughout, it was a brilliant way to introduce second year students to the lay person views and the importance and significance of understanding death and the roller-coaster ride involved for patients.” (Matthew May, 5th year medical student)

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Dr Sarah Collins and I during the post-reading Q&A

Dr Sarah Collins and I during the post-reading Q&A

Notes:  Quotes (1) & (2) from ‘The Art Of Medicine: Medicine’s Human Voices’ by Samir Guglani, The Lancet, Vol 384, Sept, 2014

On reading Karen McCarthy Woolf

This is not a review. This is a short piece about spending eight hours on trains last week, getting to and from a reading, and having uninterrupted time to open several neglected books, including Karen McCarthy Woolf’s An Aviary of Small Birds.

The collection, about the poet’s stillborn son, is something I have been keen to read. For obvious reasons, some may say, and yes I was deeply curious to see how another poet and mother writes about the death of a child. By the sixth poem, and the ‘tiny white vests, unworn’ I was crying so much I had to put the book back in my bag. I was surprised to be upset. That may sound naive but I’ve got used to keeping myself together for Her Birth readings. I thought I could cope with the subject matter. Talking to poet Martin Figura once, about his performance of Whistle – a mesmerising, autobiographical piece about the death of his mother, we both agreed that keeping a boundary between how we felt about our experiences and what we revealed to the audience was essential. It would be detrimental for the audience to see us upset. He did make me laugh when he said, ‘Nobody wants to see that Rebecca.’ True.

But this time, reading An Aviary of Small Birds, I was in the audience. I did finish the book, later, at home, and at the end of it, I was thinking about the poet’s dead baby, not mine. I was immersed in McCarthy Woolf’s acute, sensory images. I was immersed in all the beauty she has been able to create. I was immersed in the water ‘…because it is a comfort,/this return to water, to the stream, to the earth;//the mindless torrent of the brook,’ (from ‘Hawk’).  It made me think of Robert Peake’s moving, elegiac pamphlet The Silence Teacher with its many watery images and scenes. I mentioned the connection between water and bereavement to Robert. ‘I suppose grief is fluid somehow’, was his response. The fluidity of McCarthy Woolf’s book carries us through her experience. Rivers ‘press, insinuate, overwhelm, insist, endure,’ and we are passengers, sometimes clinging to the sides, sometimes peering over the edge to look more closely.  There were harrowing parts:

‘Under Other requests or concerns:
hands, feet, face, hair – all must be left intact.
Brain restored to head, skin
stitched neatly and correctly.’

(from ‘The Paperwork’)

Harrowing yes, but it felt right to read them, because such experiences need to be exposed and discovered if we are to understand ‘difficult’ things. McCarthy Woolf’s poems have made me understand more about this very particular grief and its impact. There was a lot I could relate to, obviously, but the experience was so uniquely hers, the poems became illuminating. I may not have gained comfort from reading An Aviary of Small Birds, but what I did glean from its pages was knowledge.

 

Karen McCarthy Woolf will be appearing at The 2014 Aldeburgh Poetry Festival this weekend.