Those things which I ought to have done

It’s not that long since Imbolc, a time for reviewing both aspirations for the year and broken promises – not just this year’s resolutions but all the things I was going to do last year and somehow didn’t get round to. All the writing I was going to do. I promised several friends I would review their books on this blog or on Amazon, and I promised myself I’d review some more. I did write a few reviews and people were pleased with them, but that was quite early in the year. Perhaps I’ll just name some of the poetry collections I promised to review: A Sprig of Rowan by Rebecca GethinVoices in the Garden by Julie-ann RowellMarietta’s Wardrobe by Hazel Hammond and, from way back, Other Blackbirds by Alex Josephy. I’d like to apologise to all those people for not having done so. I know how valuable and affirming it is to be publicised in this way, and I’m enormously grateful to Rebecca Gethin, an indefatigably generous reviewer of other people’s work, for including a review of my collection on her blog – my only review to date.

I’ve also wanted to write about several prose books by friends: Hospital High, a novel for young adults by Mimi TheboIn Search of Grace, an account of an ecological pilgrimage by Peter Reason and, again from a long while back, The Brilliant History of Color in Art by Victoria Finlay.  And I’d intended to write about other collections by people known to me that I’ve been impressed by, including bolt down this earth by Gram Joel DaviesAmazon by Catherine Ayres, nothing more to it than bubbles by Jane BurnThe Book of Tides by Angela Readman and Wild Gooseberries of Hailung by Frances Corkey Thompson. For the moment all I’m doing is mentioning these titles, but I know all of them deserve more than that.

And I had plans to set up a website, and in fact started doing so. A proper website that would showcase my work and tell the world that here I am, a poet and writer, who has published a book and self-published another one, and who writes real writing. Only I haven’t been writing so have wanted to keep quiet about myself, and when I’m not writing I tend to stop believing in my work and start to feel like a fraud for thinking it’s good enough to promote. Not that the desire to put my work out into the world has completely gone away. I’ve started entering competitions again and am even submitting work to one or two magaines, trying not to anticipate either acceptance or rejection. And I’m reading at a poetry event next week and haven’t taken myself off the list for that…

All of the above could be an excuse for a good old mea culpa session: I haven’t written, I can’t really write anyway, I’ve procrastinated and distracted myself and haven’t been getting down to it, so I don’t deserve to do it. As I said in my previous post, I’ve been there, done that all too often. It’s easy to get into the same frame of mind with meditation practice: I haven’t been sitting, which proves that I don’t really care about it, so how can I possibly start again etc etc. But both writing and meditation are infinitely forgiving: if you didn’t do it earlier on, you can always do it now. No need to make a fuss about it; just pick yourself up, take hold of the pen, open up the document, or sit on your cushion or chair. You don’t have to make yourself good enough to meditate – some Buddhist teachings suggest starting by remember all the good things you’ve done, however small they seem – and you don’t have to make yourself good enough to write. In both cases you just have to do it, and in both cases the less you try to show what you think is your acceptable face, the more worthwhile it will be. For me, both writing and meditating are about making a commitment to what feels deeper and more real than endless busyness and distraction. I hesitate to use a big word like authenticity, but I think most people can sense when it’s there, to whatever degree, in writing or in the way someone speaks about their experience.

For Christmas a dear friend of mine gave me a beautiful journal with a dragon on the cover – I’ve had an affinity with dragons for a long time. And when my collection was published my lovely writing group gave me not one but two very swish notebooks – writing, for purposes of. So even supposing I didn’t have a computer or any paper in the house (as if!) I’d have no excuse. Next weekend I’ll be on a residential course with Greta Stoddart, whose monthly seminars I go to, and in April I’m venturing up to Iona for a week’s course with Roselle Angwin.  I’m looking now to find ways of cutting down on work again and making more space for writing. In the last post I said a resurgence might be coming. Now what I have to do is (to mix metaphors somewhat) prepare a clear patch of ground for it to take root.

 

 

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Getting back into it

The last time I wrote here was in September, just after my book had been published. That seems a long time ago, and now having published a poetry collection is well on the way to becoming just another fact in my life. I still have the unsold copies from the hundred I ordered piled up in their box, waiting for their next opportunity to be picked up, glanced through and put down again, and I still have my reading copy and supply of coloured tags ready for the next time I’m invited to read – or invite myself at an open mic. In fact I’ve sold 62 books and given away the five free ones I had plus a few more, and a couple to magazines that I hope may honour me with a review. The two launches went very well, and I was fortunate to be launching my book with other poets who are much better known locally. I was also proud to organise a reading in Bristol with three friends, Sue Proffitt, whose beautiful collection Open After Dark I reviewed on this blog some while ago, Rachael Clyne and Hazel Hammond. The success of the reading, in a cafe to a small but very supportive audience, was marred only by an opera group preparing for their performance in the room next door, dragging furniture across the floor and talking at the tops of their voices. To be fair to them, they did keep quiet once they heard me apologising over the mic for the noise they were making, but let’s say the conditions weren’t ideal. And I’ve got one or two other readings planned. All of which makes me now a Proper Published Poet.

When people ask me how I feel about the collection, I usually say it seems a long time ago now. Not the book coming out, but writing the poems and putting them together. My first submission to a publisher was at the end of 2014 and, having said they wanted to read the full manuscript, this publisher couldn’t then consider it until spring 2016. When they turned it down I revamped it, with much help from my friend Helen Evans, and then submitted it to another publisher. It wasn’t until September 2016, nearly two years after the original submission, that I heard it had been accepted by the second publisher. A lot of the poems in it date from 2014, the amazing year of poetry that was the ’52’ online group, and some of them are very much older than that. One is about two friends of mine and their babies; the babies are now in their thirties. If I read from the collection, which these days I usually do, I always wish I had more new poems to read. Not that there are none, but there’s been a real dropping-off in the frequency with which I write – not just poems but anything at all. Alan Bennett says somewhere that he doesn’t like calling himself a writer because he can’t guarantee to be writing all the time. I feel the same, only more so. The painful truth is that at the moment I’m not actually writing very much at all. I have many reasons and excuses as to why not, but right now the published poet and would-be-published novelist is in what could be called a slump.

So why is that? The usual lack of confidence, for one thing: I can’t write poetry as good as my friend X’s or novels as good as my friend Y’s, so it’s probably not worth my while bothering… etc etc. Getting busy and involved with work, for another, even the work that’s entailed in being secretary of a local poetry association, of whose 50 or so members nearly half are published poets. Work brings with it a different mindset, be it administrative or psychotherapeutic or academic (I do some dissertation tutoring and marking). And there’s the seductive slide into distraction, be it Facebook or TV or my newest one, online Patience – I’ve never played card games before with any enthusiasm. The distraction is often an escape from feelings I’d rather not feel or, especially at this time of year, being physically not very well, but as a way of spending time it’s about as satisfying as eating crisps when you need a proper meal. Of course there’s more to Facebook than that – contact with friends, political updates, petitions and rants of all sorts – but I know far less of it is necessary when I’m really engaged with my writing.

For most of my life I’ve been through this kind of cycle: a period when the writing happens, a period when there isn’t much of it and it doesn’t seem to matter, and then a period where not writing really begins to hurt and I start to long for it again. That’s where I am now, groaning because I’m not doing it and groaning at the thought of doing it. The only thing to do, as everyone I’m sure will tell me, is just to start. Often a good way in is to pick up something I was working on before, read through it, and – if I’m lucky – begin to get interested again and carry on from where I left off. Sometimes I’ll see its faults far more clearly than I saw them before, but sometimes I’ll be surprised at how much better it is than I thought it was and feel genuinely sorry for this poor person who thinks she can’t write. I ought to know better by now. I’ve had some lovely comments about my collection from other local poets and my prose writing group are always encouraging me to continue with the novel that I’m reworking yet again, differently this time. I’ve got another novel I started at the back of my mind too and really want to finish that. And I’ve got ideas for poems and half-finished poems written in workshops, all of which could be brought back to life.

It’s my birthday today. Though much less than I used to, I still sometimes go through a bit of a low patch during the darkest days. Around my birthday is often when things start to pick up again, as the evenings become noticeably lighter (it was still light at 5pm today) and there are signs of new growth in the garden. I haven’t celebrated my birthday this year, though I’ve had cards and presents. Today I’ve had some work and yesterday, after an arrangement I’d made with a friend fell through, I spent the afternoon finishing my tax return and being horrified at the amount of tax I’d have to pay. I never used to leave it till the last minute, but for the past few years I’ve done so little work that the amount of tax I paid was negligible. I hadn’t realised just how much more I’ve been doing recently. Ah well. It has to be paid one way or another. Quite what my tax return has to do with writing I’m not sure, but it seems to indicate how much things in my life have been slipping. Never mind: I can begin again. As I come back from the dark places I think of R D Laing’s phrase ‘the freshness and forgivingness of creation.’ Now is the time to turn towards the light, and even a blog piece like this can be a way back into writing.

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Published

Oh, my goodness! I hadn’t realised how long it was since I last posted anything on this blog. May, it was, and now it’s September. The summer we’ve had has been and gone and it’s not long till the autumn equinox. In fact it feels so long since I last wrote here that I’ve almost forgotten how to do it. My blog book has sold all of twenty copies – to kind friends and fellow writers – but never mind. What I’m writing about now is a real book, one that’s been published by a publisher. I think it looks rather splendid, I must say, kind of mysterious and enigmatic.

A House of Empty Rooms is published by Indigo Dreams. The trade publication date is 11th September (perhaps not the most auspicious of dates) but copies are already available from me and from the publisher. If you want to see some sample poems (and incidentally a picture of me), you can find them here.

As I’m sure many people know, the way poetry publishing works is that the author buys copies from the publisher at a reduced price and sells them at full price, which means it is possible to make a profit. The poet also gets a royalty on any copies sold by the publisher, which adds a little more. People who are familiar with other types of publishing will know that often the author gets an advance on royalties upfront, but poetry publishers aren’t usually in a position to work in that way. And unless you’re the likes of Seamus Heaney or Carol Ann Duffy, a poetry collection will sell in pretty small numbers, certainly hundreds rather than thousands. The people who buy poetry collections are more likely to be poets and poetry aficionados than members of the general reading public, and unfortunately some people still regard poetry as something difficult and arcane which isn’t for them. All of this means that the onus is on the poet to publicise her/his work as widely as possible, through launches and readings and on the internet. All of which is really rather fun, especially if it’s your first book and an opportunity to get known more widely as a poet.

Speaking of which, I’ve got two launches coming up down here in Devon, with two very fine local poets. The first one is with Julie-ann Rowell, whose pamphlet of poems about Joan of Arc, Voices in the Garden, is published by Lapwing Poetry, and the second is with Ian Royce Chamberlain, whose collection Vertigo & Beeswax is published by Oversteps Books. Reviews of both books will appear on this blog shortly, and I can assure you they are both very well worth buying. In case anyone out there is interested in coming to either launch, here are the flyers. I’ve just discovered a wonderful website called Canva which enables you to design posters and flyers of all sorts and have put the flyers in here because I was rather pleased with them. Even if you can’t come to the launches, I do hope you will consider buying the books.

 

 

 

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Wanting to do it better

Gradually I’ve been getting back into writing again, producing more poems, thanks to the April Poem a Day online group set up by Simon Williams, and working on a new rewrite of my much-worked novel. I’m altering the time sequence, changing the voice slightly and replacing the protagonist’s husband (Gerald, short, stocky and ginger-haired) with a new one (Patrick, tall, rangy, with tousled dark hair). I don’t know whether it will work but I’m certainly enjoying it. I’ve kept the previous draft, of course, so I can always revert to bits of it that seem to work better.

I seem to alternate between thinking I can’t write fiction and had better stick to poetry and thinking I can’t write poetry and had better stick to prose. Prose comes easily to me in a way that it doesn’t to all poets, but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped wanting to write poems too. At the moment I’m trying to do a bit of both and not sure how switching heads will work. When I posted on Facebook that I wanted to write both poetry and fiction, a number of poet friends immediately put their hands up and said they wrote fiction too. Fewer novelist friends have said they write poetry, which is interesting, especially as some of them write beautiful poetic prose. One poet and novelist said she definitely couldn’t do both at once, and I can understand why. Once you start writing a novel, its world extends around you; it’s then hard to break off and work on something as brief and intense, and possibly personal, as a poem. Or is it? At the moment I seem to have a couple of poems on the go as well as the next chapter of the novel – and of course I’m writing here on the blog – but I may be spreading myself too thin. That remains to be seen.

Recently I’ve reviewed the work of three poet friends on this blog to tie in with their joint launch, which was a lovely occasion. All three had beautiful poems to read and read them beautifully, and the audience – many of them not poets or literary people – listened with an attentiveness that said much about the quality of the work. One person I spoke to said she hadn’t thought about poetry at all since her schooldays but had now realised there was much more to it than the compulsory Wordsworth we were all served up then. Not that there’s anything wrong with Wordsworth, I hasten to add, but for thirteen-year-olds perhaps he’s not the best choice.

After the launch, and having read my friends’ poems in considerable detail, I couldn’t help doing some soul-searching. Is my poetry as good as that? Can it ever be? How can I begin to make it better? The answer to the first question is fairly clear, the answers to the other two much less so. I do want to write better poems – something in me is burning to do so – but I can’t do it by saying, ‘Right, now I’m going to write a poem that’s as good as X’s’, and certainly not by saying, ‘I’m going to write a poem that’s like X’s’. I can learn a lot from other poets, including my wonderfully skilled friends, and can study their poems to see what makes them work so well. But, having learnt from my friends and listened to their feedback, I can only write poems that are mine and not theirs. I can extend my range, experiment with form – or perhaps less form – use different voices and registers of language, but it seems to me that my strengths and limitations as a poet are intimately linked with my strengths and limitations as a person.

It’s the same with trying to improve my novel. I can take notice of my novelist friends’ comments and try to eliminate – or at least sidestep – some of the faults. I can read more novels and try to see (as I constantly do) what works and what doesn’t work about them. I can follow some of my gut feelings about what the novel needs. But at the end of the day it’s still my novel and everything about it, from the characters and setting to the prose style and choice of vocabulary, is inescapably mine. That’s not an excuse for not working on it – I wouldn’t be rewriting it if I didn’t think I could do a better job – but it is an acknowledgement that in the end I can only do what I can do. I might wish I could write like Y or construct a novel like Z, but unless I can find a way of making their techniques my own they won’t stick – they’ll just stick out. That may all sound rather negative. The upside is that writing the novel afresh, with all that I’ve been through in the intervening time and all that’s been happening in the world, I’ve got a chance to make it something more than it was before – something different, at least.

So here I am, wanting to do it better for its own sake and wishing I could be as good as X and Y and Z. And, somewhere inside me, trusting that this whole process that I call ‘my writing’ is growing and developing, in ways that I can certainly help along but can’t totally control.

 

 

 

 

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Playing Alice by Jenny Hamlett

Jenny Hamlett is the third Devon poet who is launching her collection at the beginning of May. Playing Alice (published by Indigo Dreams) is her second full collection. Her first collection, Talisman, was also published by Indigo Dreams, and as well as these two collections she has published two poetry pamphlets and two children’s stories.

Like Rebecca Gethin, Jenny Hamlett lives on Dartmoor. She previously lived in Cornwall, and over a period of years she and her husband have been walking the country from Land’s End to John O’Groats. She is very much a poet of place, and many of the poems in Playing Alice are rooted in these places that she has visited or known well. For her the landscape is inseparable from the human lives that have shaped it and been shaped by it. In the first section of the book, If Centuries Were Seconds, she writes of the people, long gone, who eked out a living as best they could in harsh northern places. In the poem Naming she enters a Peak District church and through the names carved on the pews, ‘as if centuries were seconds/and they still had the power of speech’, some of those people begin to come alive to her. ‘In every creak of the church’s fabric,/ in the loud tick of its clock,/   in my footsteps on the hollow floor/ I’m waking the dead./   Candle makers, lead miners, sheep farmers,/ rope-makers from the huge cavern in the Peak….’  Other poems in this section speak in their voices. We hear the rope-maker who ‘won’t walk death across the floor’, the wife of a lead miner who knows what her husband’s fate will be, the weaver struggling over the Hollins Cross pass to work in Edale. One of the poems, entitled simply 1348, describes a man succumbing to the Black Death. ‘A wick burns in the empty house./ His heart is full of soft grey ash.’ The simplicity and transparency of the language lets us feel Jenny Hamlett’s sympathy with the people she writes about.

The second section, Going In, captures a series of moments in Cornwall at different times of year. Again nearly all the poems are set in particular places – Trebah Garden, Zennor, Trewey Hill, Marazion – and some portray particular people: a man painting in the snow, a woman singing in a pub, the poet’s son. The Marazion poem describes seeing sanderlings on the beach: ‘More like pale Easter chicks/    escaped from chocolate eggs’ and the exhilaration of being driven by the wind. ‘We ran with it, hair in our eyes,/ boots soaking as we splashed through puddles – /     no book could tell us why.’ Even when metaphorical, the language has a directness that takes us to the heart of the experience.

Most of the poems in the third section, Winter Pass, are set in Scotland, on Iona and other islands. The imagery is sometimes striking. In The Grey Mare’s Waterfall, ‘the fall/  is the colour of a woman’s hair/   as she strides/  her last few years’ and ‘If seconds were iron bars/ she could jam/ in the cog wheels of a mill.’ In these poems we are again aware of the closeness of history, as in Ulva:  ‘Let your feet down into the loch,/ watch them turn white./    Out there, coming in fast,/   are the longships.’ St Columba is very much a presence in these poems. In When the Lamp Oil was Spilt, the speaker is a serving woman whose accidental spillage causes the king-to-be to fall. She knows she ‘….would have been beaten/ until flesh fell from my back/ and life ebbed’ but the saint forgives her. Instead her life continues: ‘Serving my mistress/ quiet as an otter in the loch.’ In Prayer to St Columba, one of the most lyrical poems in the book, the speaker is again a woman: ‘I’m a wild woman      heather in my hair/ goat-faced    elongated arms    web-footed/ I belong to the distant lands    no one can visit.’ She recognises that the saint ‘…. smile(s) from spring violets/ from stitchwort   campion   wood anemone/     God’s companion    sometimes I long to make your journey/ but mine is different.’ The last two poems in this section speak of people close to the poet.  Oban Night, the final poem in this section, describes a visitation from her father, long dead. Like several of the poems in the final section, including the title poem, Playing Alice, it speaks of loss and the desire to connect with those who have passed away.

Like her fellow poets Sue Proffitt and Rebecca Gethin (in A Sprig of Rowan), Jenny Hamlett has been inspired by the Bronze Age burial discovered on Dartmoor. The last section of her book, Saying Goodbye, begins with a sequence of poems about it in which the speaker is a young man witnessing the woman’s ritual sacrifice. Pollen grains of meadowsweet were found at the burial, and meadowsweet is a recurring image throughout the poems ‘…. soft as summer fruit/  welcome/ as the first violets/ when winter unclenches its fist’. As in many of the other poems, Jenny Hamlett makes us believe utterly in her character’s story, which is described in powerful images : ‘That day it seemed we had broken out/  from a cage of rain and wind./ The sun god was fierce, his heat gnawing our skin.’

The more I read the poems in this collection, the more I appreciate their quiet power and unobtrusive skill. As well as writing about her own experience with honesty and humour, Jenny Hamlett has the gift of being able to put herself in the place of others far removed in time and situation. There is richness here, and a sense of the fullness of life.

 

 

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All the Time in the World by Rebecca Gethin

 

Rebecca Gethin is another of the trio of Devon poets who will be launching their collections at the beginning of May. She is the author of two acclaimed collections of poetry, River is the Plural of Rain (Oversteps Books) and A Handful of Water (Cinnamon Press), and two novels, Liar Dice, set during the Second World War, and What the Horses Heard, set during the First World War. Both novels are also published by Cinnamon Press. Her two newly-published short collections, All the Time in the World (Cinnamon Press) and A Sprig of Rowan (Three Drops Press) are entirely different from one another and show Rebecca Gethin’s poetic range. Here I’m reviewing the first of the two new collections.

All the Time in the World is intensely personal and deeply moving. Rebecca Gethin’s mother died of cancer at the tragically early age of thirty-two, leaving two very young children. These poems are the poet’s response to the letters that her mother wrote when she was dying, which have only recently come to light. The book’s title is a quotation from one of the letters. The first section of the first poem, The Visit, takes us back to the child’s last memory of her mother: ‘The last time I was taken to see her/I sat aside her tummy and she laughed.’ With utter simplicity it also brings the experience into the present: ‘Sixty years on/I am still in that room.’ From then on the poems quote from the letters, reading between the lines in poems of heartrending directness. ‘because there was only/now/   to her and those round her bedside/who watched her leave a little more/each visiting time’.

In the poems that quote the letters we hear the mother needing to be useful, trying to be grateful, not wanting to worry people, but showing her struggles nonetheless. She spends her time darning socks: ‘Sometimes, just a touch unravels/the fabric of the knit…..  It makes her want to rip it apart,/ to scream at them all,/and she has barely the breath in her to weep.’ We also hear of the child’s father, who has a temper, and the child’s sense that she is part of him as well as her mother’s milder family: ‘But I will always have to live with how/they face one another. I am half of him/ and keep them bound together.’ Other poems are more metaphorical. Like Origami describes opening the letters themselves: ‘But in my hands/ all her birds and flowers/ turn into different figures/ of her sorrow.’ Rebecca Gethin is very much a poet of the natural world and some of the most poignant poems, like ‘Want’ was a word forbidden by my grandmother, use imagery of other creatures to describe states of mind. ‘Such a fat little mole of a word to signify lack./It burrows out its winding passages/within you, throws up want hills.’

The last two poems are especially moving. Again using a metaphor from the natural world, in Not long after Rebecca Gethin writes about the death of her infant sister, deprived of their mother’s care. ‘We were like nestlings in a tiny cup of a nest,’ but ‘Probably our father was too preoccupied/ and never found time to add/ the spider egg sacs to the twigs,/ as a father wren should.’ The poem ends, heartbreakingly, ‘Without her mother’s warmth/    at that point/ she couldn’t live long/       leaving me without’.  In the final poem, Fingertips, she imagines her mother’s hands writing that death is not an end but a beginning. ‘I want to grab her back and ask/  ‘the beginning of what and for whom?/   But her fingers have slipped/ into mine and the ink has run out.’ Opposite this last poem is a photograph of the poet as a toddler held by her smiling mother.

Emotionally harrowing though the subject-matter is, the poems themselves are taut and crafted, with a control of form and language that allows the emotion to speak for itself. Rebecca Gethin’s skill as a poet is evident but never obtrusive and leads us compellingly through the poems. ‘…when I die that will be/the end of my mother’, she writes in A short life, but this pamphlet is a continuing memorial to the mother she barely had time to know.

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Open After Dark by Sue Proffitt

 

As I’ve said before, I’m fortunate enough to belong to a group of extraordinarily accomplished novelists and prose writers who first met on the MA at Bath Spa University. I’m also very fortunate that down here in Devon there is such a vibrant and talented network of poets, many of them already published, who workshop together and read their work locally. Three of these fine poets, Sue Proffitt, Jenny Hamlett and Rebecca Gethin, have published collections recently and will be launching them at the beginning of May. Sue and Rebecca are both members of a workshopping group that I’m honoured to be part of.

Open After Dark, published by Oversteps Books, is Sue Proffitt’s debut collection, although she has been publishing poems in magazines for several years and has been placed in a number of competitions. She recently won the Teignmouth Poetry Festival competition with a beautiful poem entitled ‘The Woman of Whitehorse Hill’, about a Bronze Age burial that was discovered on Dartmoor in 2007. The poem is not in the collection but you can hear her reading it in this recording from Ian Beech’s programme Poetry Islanders on Soundart Radio (at just before 43 minutes).

Sue Proffitt lives on the coast and her deep engagement with the natural world shines through her poetry. The first section of the book, entitled The Gift, consists of poems about birds, animals and plants. These are not simply poems of observation: in them there is a feeling into the creature’s own experience, be it a butterfly: ‘Imagine,/the cold, the descending dark,/a banquet/but your mouth is locked’, a spawning salmon, a polar bear who swan to Iceland only to be shot on arrival: ‘Navigating instinct,/the dream of blood warm in your maw,/its metal current on your tongue/pulling you mile/     after mile’.  In all these poems there is a profound sense of her relationship with the creatures she describes, whether a charge of wild boar, a jellyfish hanging in water or a kestrel close by: ‘that golden stare/fixes on me,/and as I rifle /through my life/it’s there —/neck-breath near.’  She has an instinct for ending a poem with a memorable image: the jellyfish is ‘a moon/in a wedding dress’; when the wild boar have passed ‘The quiet, following after,/ hovers outside me/ ringing like a storm glass’, watching crows ‘My whole world contracts/like a marble inside their eyes.’

The later sections of the book focus more on human relationship. In the second section, Learning to Swim, the poems encapsulate moments of vision and moments that carry a whole history. The Light is a beautifully understated poem in which light coming into a room at night reveals ‘…. there is someone else/in there with the child’. Other poems, clear-eyed and unsentimental, describe first menstruation and the loss that is menopause, hint at the ending of a relationship and –  most memorably perhaps – recall her father in his coffin. This last poem, Visiting my Father, ends: ‘you are boxed/and wearing a pink dress/presented to me/like a sepulchral rose.’

The third section, My Mother’s Language, is perhaps the heart of  Sue Proffitt’s collection. It is a series of poems about her mother’s long journey with dementia, with the poet as her close companion. These poems are deeply poignant, tender, loving and exploratory.  They don’t pretend to know any answers but are willing to stay in the strangeness of the moment. In one of them, The Night Call, her mother is convinced that her children are lost in the night. The poet calls her mother to reassure her they are all right: ‘… and there, in the waiting dark,/a tiny child-voice grows out of my throat./Mummy, I say.’ Other poems evoke the bafflement, the frustration, the moments of lucidity, the helplessness of being confined in a nursing home where her mother sits, ‘a collapse of cardigan and cushions’, in the ‘warm, sweet, rancid seep/of cooked food, trapped air,/tang of urine, the stain/something cellular.’ In In the Sadness of Spring her mother’s disintegrating mind ‘…grasps for thought-holds/that crumble — flails in the terrored space —/pulls on the lifeline of my still remembered love’, before ‘appraising the land that’s gone to waste.’ Again the images are striking and memorable: ‘the clipped wings of her cardigan’, ‘the comfort-cud of repetition.’

The last section of the book, To Make a Path, returns to the natural world. The final poem, Gull Dawn, honours the gulls on the nearby coast. ‘Long after I have left/I will remember the gulls/carrying dawn to me.’ Other poems in this section are dark and powerful, especially Aisha, about a thirteen-year-old Somali girl who was stoned to death after having been raped. ‘The small bulb of your head/pokes above ground — /not to grow but to crack/like an egg broken open.’ The poem is angry and compassionate, but expressed with the delicacy and precision of imagery that characterises so many of the poems.

Apart from the imagery, what stands out for me in these poems is the musical flow of their language and their truthfulness to their subject, no matter how disturbing or heartbreaking it may be. As soon as I started reading them I was completely under their spell. As Simon Williams, another highly accomplished Devon poet, says, ‘This is an exceptional collection to read and re-read.’

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