You can read my story (plus lots of other stuff) on River and South Review Issue 9 at the following link:
Friday, June 17, 2022
Rainbow's Red - Poetry by Lily Lawson
As others have said, her work often reminds me of Blake’s Songs of Innocence, particularly in those poems in which she personifies emotions like love and hate:
Hate’s afflicted admirers
Keen to ingratiate themselves
Bow and scrape at its [love’s] feet. [from ‘Hate vs Love’]
When the first sign of light breaking
Takes the darkness from my sight,
The dawn of early promise
Shines in the blackened night. [from ‘Sunrise’]
There is a refreshing simplicity which masks a vein of complexity in her work. She cleverly slips much more profound sentiments into poems which start out seeming to be more obvious and straightforward. This is impressive and exciting, though the early poems in this collection struck me as sometimes a little too simplistic – ‘Complexities of Human Existence’, for instance, was simply a list of continuous verbs: ‘Questioning, doubting,/growing, learning,/’ etc. I found this an interesting experiment but ultimately it seemed to lack that cathartic moment of insight that the best of these poems provide. It was descriptive rather than incisive. Yet, even here, Lily shows she has the courage to try new styles, new methods of expression. And as I read through the poems, I found myself becoming increasingly captivated.
In later poems, she comes into her own, finding her feet with flair and confidence. For example, her use of extended imagery in poems like ‘Isolation’ is effective and astute:
Falling into the deep dark pit,
I reach for the safety rope.
It’s cut with a knife. [from ‘Isolation’]
I feel that this collection represents a leap forward in Lily’s ongoing development as a poet. I can see a real maturity emerging here – her images are more complex, original and unexpected than I’ve seen in earlier poems, her topics weightier and more philosophical, her range of styles more varied. The rhyming poems have a more assured grasp of rhythm and a more ambitious choice of rhymes, and she is prepared to experiment with new forms and methods of expression. The collection contains poems about love in all its guises, and includes poems about music, refugees, family, writing itself. It is at its best in those poems which express the mettle required to simply continue living and thriving in the face of adversity.
The most joyful aspect of this collection is that Lily’s personality imbues every poem with its characteristic warmth, humour, maturity and compassion. I am glad that I know her, and her writing makes me feel optimistic. It is a drop of calmness and positivity in an often difficult and frightening world.
Rating: **** [recommended]
I have hay fever. I’m not alone. According to the internet, around 13 million people in the UK suffer from it – that’s around one in every five or six people.
But, of course, my hay fever is much, much worse than everyone else’s…
I’ve suffered from hay fever since childhood, along with allergies to books, dust and some animals. I’ve been taking daily antihistamines for decades. If I stop taking them, the allergies become impossible to manage, but the antihistamine tablets don’t get rid of all the symptoms. They simply dampen them down a bit - though this summer they don’t seem to be dampening them down much.
This is why I got married in December.
I’m currently reduced to sitting inside with all external doors and windows shut, a pile of tissue boxes on one side of me and a waste-bin on the other (to put the used tissues in), nasal spray and eye-drops within arm’s reach. Every so often I wipe my face down with a dampened bit of kitchen paper to remove any stray bits of pollen (and the accumulated snot and tears). It makes me feel a tiny bit better for a few moments, but is probably pointless.
trying not to move or talk too much because moving and talking makes the
symptoms worse. It’s a good job I’m not teaching much at the moment. Or maybe
the kids wouldn’t notice the difference.
Hay fever is generally considered to be a ‘trivial’ condition. You don’t get much genuine sympathy from people as it isn’t life-threatening, and it’s very boring being around sufferers. I mean, no one wants to spend much time with someone who keeps sneezing into their beer, blowing their nose with a noise like an elephant at a watering-hole, sniffling, coughing and moaning, and who can’t go outside to enjoy the sun that everyone else sees as a ‘good thing’.
If you don’t suffer from hay fever, it’s difficult to appreciate how bloody miserable it is. At this moment, I have itchy, swollen, runny eyes, a nose that is running like a tap but simultaneously blocked, an itchy sore throat, dry mouth, itchy ears, a sinus headache. I keep having random bouts of uncontrollable loud sneezes that just go on and on and on. I just ate an ice lolly which cooled me down and made me feel for a few blissful minutes like I was taking part in British Summer Time, though I shouldn’t be eating sugar due to the pre-diabetes. Anyway, the sniffling returned as soon as I’d taken the final bite. I mean, how much mucus can one set of sinuses actually produce? It’s no wonder hay fever makes you feel dehydrated.
And to make things worse, I can see what feels like everyone else in the world, outside, enjoying the sunshine. I keep imagining passers-by coming up to the window, dressed in their shorts and t-shirts, tanned and cheerful, peering in at my vampire-pale face, red-rimmed eyes and damp red nose, and sticking out their tongues and going ‘Na na na!’.
I also suffer from light sensitivity. I’ve always had a terrible habit of keeping my left eye shut all the time unless I keep reminding myself to open it. Oh, the number of photos I ruined as a child by having one eye shut and the other squinting! These days, I try to wear sunglasses outdoors whenever the light levels are even just a little above Britain’s usual greyness, which leads to people telling me to stop trying to act ‘cool’ (if only!). We live in the middle house of a terrace of three, and our patio windows in the living room face north-west, so our living room is very dark at the best of times (we often have to put the lights on in the daytime) but the sunshine streaming through the windows still gives me visual disturbances. When P draws the curtains, he never shuts them fully – I think men are specially trained to leave curtains with an inch-wide gap, so they can keep their eye out for potential intruders – and he creates a kind of intensifying effect, narrowing the aperture through which the sun can shine in one intense beam, straight into my eyes. I’m sitting at the dark end of the living room at this moment, but I’m still screwing up my eyes against the glare and seeing glowing zigzags in front of my eyes (I keep going back to correct typos but I apologise for any that get past me). I’m considering shutting the curtains, but it feels like cutting myself off from the outside world even more.
I triggered the hay fever this morning by foolishly going into the garden to hang out a few towels to dry. That was all it took. Hay fever is a bit like a toddler or an internet troll – once triggered, it’s very difficult to calm it down again. Yesterday, the neighbour’s cat, who visits us daily, triggered it by maliciously being cute and encouraging me to stroke her. I assume she was well-coated in pollen, as she spends a lot of time slinking between the flower-pots in my garden, and I guess I transferred this motherlode onto my hand – from where it was a small step to my nose (which sounds like a new yoga pose).
I expect you’re wondering why someone with bad hay fever has put pots full of flowers in their garden. Well, earlier in the year, I forgot I wasn’t like other people and I had the crazy idea that it would be lovely to try to make our tiny garden into a little oasis of calm in which we could sit on sunny days. We have a table out there with an umbrella, and we used to eat out there quite often when we first lived here. You see, though I developed allergies as a child, they were much more under control during my thirties and forties, and I could live more or less like a normal person. We could sit outside during the occasional hour of sunshine our garden gets, the only thing putting us off being our next door neighbour’s CCTV camera which scans across our garden towards the garages (for good reasons) and makes us feel self-conscious.
But then my hay fever got worse, and I’ve always hated gardening, so for several years I got rid of the pots of flowers, stopped mowing the lawn and rarely ventured out there. However, a couple of years ago, I got mad about this and decided I was as entitled to have a pretty garden as anyone else. I painted the fence panel that replaced the one that blew down in a storm, I bought pots that hang off the fence, and grew marigolds and calendula and nasturtiums from seed, took spiderlings from my indoor spider plants and grew them to put in some of the hanging pots, took trips to the garden centre to buy new pots and pretty flowers to put in them. I repainted the wooden garden table, checked the table umbrella for spiders, pulled up the uglier of the wild plants that had taken root in our largest pots – I left the bracken which looks incredible.
Yes, while I did all this, I had some hay fever symptoms, but it was bearable.
So now the garden looks better than it has for years. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t as nice as the gardens on pictures posted on Facebook by members of various groups I belong to, but by my standards it’s nice enough. P even mowed the lawn, which I’m sure pleased our neighbours but which made me a bit sad as I actually liked it looking like a meadow full of bees. The grass, which was lush and rich-green before, now looks bone-dry and unhappy, but that’s what comes of bowing to peer pressure. Anyway, I now have a little garden suitable for sitting out in – but the hay fever’s so bad now, I can’t even open the patio doors!
All I can do now is stare out at P, through the glass, while he sits in one of our two garden chairs, beer in hand, and completes chess challenges on his phone, and think of days gone by…
Monday, June 13, 2022
There is a scene in the sequel to the beloved US comedy-drama The Gilmore Girls, where Emily visits a museum on Martha’s Vineyard and is given a long lecture about the whaling industry which lists all the things that can be made out of a whale. The list of products that different parts of a whale have been used for is astonishingly long, and as it goes on it becomes both increasingly fascinating and also increasingly macabre to modern sensibilities. It seems to emphasise the brutality of whaling, the commodification of these magnificent creatures, the way they have been (and still are) exploited – but also how the killing of whales has been, historically, so closely interwoven with human existence. The list is at once dull, banal, comic, unexpected and horrifying. The list in fact takes on the properties of a poem.
I love list-poems. Some of my favourite poems from my own work are based on lists of various kinds. Lists are surprisingly versatile and can convey complex and profound emotion; they can be mysterious, thrilling, passionate, trivial, exciting. Even the most mundane of lists can reveal a great deal: imagine a detective story conveyed by means of a shopping list, or a list of chores. What could be revealed by a list of romantic partners, or a list of jobs, or a list of Christmas presents bought by a husband for his wife during all the years of their marriage?
The effect depends very much on the type of list you use, however. Some lists are just intrinsically tedious, or give too little information to have any genuine significance. A list of random names of people who attended a meeting, or types of trees in a forest, or months in the year, probably wouldn’t in themselves be sufficiently interesting to produce a successful poem (though maybe someone with great skill and imagination could make even that kind of list work). Because lists can be intriguing and can provide insights into different worlds. Consider Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, poring over the list she finds in the old chest with the concentration of an archaeologist uncovering an ancient mystery - the list seems heavy with portentous meaning, only for our expectations to be dashed by the comic bathos of discovering it is merely a laundry list.
The items on the list need to be made compelling in some way, of course, or their sheer abundance needs to make a point of some sort; the way the items are ordered and arranged should be deliberate and manipulated to create whatever effect is required. Experimentation can give rise to unexpected resonances. Sometimes the list itself becomes the focus of the poem, and sometimes the list has a metaphorical meaning, or is intended to make the reader think about specific issues and ideas.
And if you think you can't get deep emotion from a list, you need only read Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘How do I love thee: Let me count the ways’ (immortalized in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) to see how effective a love poem written as a list can be. And if you struggle to believe that philosophical ideas can be conveyed by a list, consider Jacques ‘seven ages of man’ speech in As You Like It , which is a type of list, and shows how, while each item in a list can have its own individual charm, the whole thing can say more than the sum of its parts.
Find out more about different kinds of list poems and see examples from other poets on the following sites:
EXAMPLES OF LIST POEMS BY ME:
EXAMPLES OF LIST POEMS BY ME:
The following poem is one I wrote recently. I’d been reading about the statues pulled down by people who objected to the unsavoury associations of the people depicted, such as the statue of Colson in Liverpool who was involved in the slave trade. This led me to think about public art, both in its establishment persona (statues of famous people or mythological creatures, etc) and in its subversive form (graffiti, Banksy, etc). I was already writing a poem about a mysterious street-artist who transforms a town and then vanishes without trace, and I decided to bring these two things together. The poem was published early in 2022 by New Verse News, an online magazine that specializes in publishing poems that are a response to current news stories [apologies for the double line-spacing - it is what happens when you cut and paste from Word onto the blog]:
She painted Love on a garage roof,
in throbbing streaks of purple-red, the convolutions of a colon.
Sprayed Birth inside a canal bridge arch – metallic mist of bronze and copper,
cream and jungle green – its colours glowing loud as we moved
closer. Joy on a fire-damaged caravan, in orange streaks, fading
at their edge to silver fairy-dust against a woodland midnight.
Paintings drifted off around the town – first drafts, discarded
– or maybe gifts, or threats. A wisp of air, she moved
about the streets, unseen save for the spores that trailed behind,
hand-prints on lamp-posts, splashes on a fence, office windows
and abandoned cars. Tragedy in a bus shelter, thick brown strokes
with an uneven brush; Bliss rolled up a shutter’s sides in jolting yellow
stripes; the turquoise-blue of Hope rubbed on the bricks of an abandoned
warehouse – and Innocence, black as a crow’s wing, sprawling, smug, along
a dry-stone wall.
On the beech-tree avenue in the park, she painted the stretch of Life,
from gold to god, each stage a different tree. Her colours startled
like a kestrel’s swoop, on bollards, awnings, road signs, multi-storey
concrete car-parks. On a crossing, she painted the white stripes shocking
pink. She filled the holes of letters with tiny dots like grains inside an hour-glass;
scrawled a Nightmare on an underpass, a Daydream on a council refuse bin;
Ambition on the tall side of a Tesco van, Destruction on the shovel of a JCB.
Peace, soft as sand, perched on picnic tables. She spread her peacock tail
so the hues that churned inside her could escape, Tenderness like a swirl
of oil on a puddle, blood-red Anger, bile-green Envy, the pewter-grey
of Misery, and the sharp vermilion ache of Fear, vinegar shiny as a magpie
feather. Shades and shadows, grit and silk and dust and grease, stirred
and shifted, blended and erased.
Until one day, she drenched with the fishbone-white of Death,
a statue of a man whose alchemy created gold from blood and bone.
This man of stone had swaggered in that square for a hundred and fifty years.
Her colours now were spent. She hiccuped out a final few beige coughs,
a gentle sneeze that left a cloud of baby-pink dancing in the sun – and then,
with a flap of her wings, she left.
First published in New Verse News, Spring 2022
The next poem was written some time ago, when I was feeling very jaded and quite angry about all sorts of things. It is definitely a stream-of-consciousness poem, with one idea suggesting another, and all of them tumbling out apparently randomly. I found myself unconsciously shaping the list of ideas that emerged, and the final poem, published in Snakeskin Magazine in 2020, actually surprised me by being very close to the way the ideas had poured out in the first place. Apologies for the first three lines being awkwardly-spaced - when I cut and pasted this poem onto the blog, its format changed a little.
War’s hell, they say – but so is love
- and growing old - and tax.
And so is nature red in tooth in claw.
And politics – and school – and learning facts.
And so is family, famine, flood and fire
(well, fire’s a given, hell’s own living flesh);
And flesh itself is hell when first it grows
then shrinks, stretched loose on twisted bones,
and wired with bunged-up veins. Yes, flesh is hell.
Skin’s hell, and brains, and maddening sounds,
the voices, wheezes, coughs and grunts,
and all the living huffs and farts and groans and sighs
and creaks and clicks and squeaks and moans
and squelches, hisses, whistles, bumps and burps,
the soft detritus of the human mound.
And wasps. They’re hell. And flies and worms and bees,
and rotting plants and dusty rooms and dread.
Yes, dread is hell. And smells, both vomit and Chanel.
And pus and poo, of course, and blood and wee.
And porn, and trains, and Kim Kardashian,
and news read by impassive speaking heads,
and fashion shows - the paparazzi press -
pulp fiction and reality TV.
Kalashnikovs. And cold. And hot, of course -
yes, hot is hell. And death and birth. Belonging
and belief. And culture. O, and race.
And graceless people claiming they have grace.
And gunmen shooting children in a school,
or bathers on a beach, or praying men in mosques.
Closer to God are we, when hell goes off in our hand
or sidles up and shoots us in the face.
And synagogues and saints and sand and sun
and brigadiers and cherry trees and Fun,
and vicars, tarts and teachers. Everyone.
And beards and burkas; Jimmy Choos and jeans.
And some being rich while others starve.
And some being safe while others die.
And jobs that should be done by now,
or will be never done.
First published in Snakeskin, August 2020
The following poem is one of my personal favourites. I have little idea myself what it is about or where the idea came from. I woke up one morning with the first two lines in my head, and then I built a kind of narrative from that. I really enjoyed thinking up all the different wooden objects, selecting appropriate ones and putting them together in a way that sounded right to me. I don’t know whether it works for other people, but I find it weirdly satisfying. It was published in The New Writer, a long time ago, and I have received some very positive feedback on it over the years.
I was a lollygagging lout of a lord. I kinged
and kinged and kinged - till, finally, one day,
I said enough’s enough. I left the mansion,
divvied up the real estate, and moved
into the folly on the island.
I’d all I needed there: a hammock, bench,
a chair. I rescued a few books but all
the other wood was chopped for kindling,
piled beside my door: the antique frame
of my kingsized bed, the boards from
the bathroom floor, the dining table - solid teak - ,
the picture frames and pencil casings,
joists and beams. Each night I’d bonfire
with my friends, roast game I’d poached
from land now theirs. I grew my hair
and took to prayer. And day by day
my woodpile shrank. I burned the willow
cricket bats, the windowsills and mantelpiece,
the plywood coving and the dado rails.
My friends built walls around their strips of land,
used looted bricks from the mansion house,
topped with spikes of glass. Some bought
or sold, some gave or took, and boundaries
changed. I burned the cherry bookcase
from the study, the old oak parlour door,
the mango fretwork screen, the inlaid
knick-knack box. I took to meditating
by the lake. My bonfires blazed less brightly
and my friends grew fewer. The woodpile
dwindled, as I burned the skirting
and the sideboard, pantry shelves and coat
hooks, toilet seats, the cedar ottoman and pine
apothecaries’ chest. I couldn’t keep the winter
out. I burned the window frames, the psaltery
and piano, the lectern from the chapel,
the statue of Our Lady carved from rosewood.
But still the woodpile waned. I ate wild
berries, fished the lake - until my friends
brought documents to prove they owned
the land beneath. The water penned me in.
I burned the sweetpea canes, the maple
shutters from the window sconces,
chestnut flower tubs, clothes pegs, croquet
hoops, the washing prop, the hogshead
from the cellar, door stops, light pulls,
boot box, balsa spitfires, and the grips of garden
forks. My friends said I was poaching
on their land. I burned the summons.
Winter swaggered in, licking its icy lips.
The last embroidery ring shivered into ash.
First published in The New Writer, 2008
The final list-poem I am including here, from my own work, is ‘Sleepless’, a poem which was published in Confluence in 2017. It began as a very self-conscious attempt to recapture the buzz I’d felt while writing ‘The Woodpile’, but it quickly went in a different direction. I suffer from insomnia myself, and I also wanted to combine this with a narrative I had in my head of a young girl sleeping above her stepfather’s pub.
She was a fleet, unprepossessing girl
who used her anger like a bed of nails.
It corkscrewed open sleep’s somnolent ease
until she found she couldn’t sleep at all.
She tried to count the wood-knots in the beams.
She tried to count the stitches in the knitted
quilt her aunt had made, the dust-motes
in the firelight, and the flames themselves.
There were no sheep to count. She felt the eggshell
smoothness of the sheets on which she lay,
worn glib by years of slumber that she could not find
again. Her hot cheek was a counter to the pillow’s
cool refrain. She tried to number voices from below,
the muffled calls for beer, the stranger’s laugh.
She tried remembering the sore-toothed
pain until the anger flared - imagined
it would peak and spill, relieve the frozen hours
- but still the crowbar night crept in,
jimmying open her dreams. All torpor fled.
She felt the mattress button at her thigh,
a finger jab - the seam where the sheet
was turned, a bully’s strap. She heard the bed
creak with her fidgets, like the sail-groan,
timber-mewling of a ship. She listened
to the hectic wind that spiralled round the house;
goose-gossip overhead, signifying things would change,
though nothing did; two owls exchanging hoots;
the morning drill-bit twitter of a robin; far off,
the sea against some shore, whispering of things
long gone and best forgotten. She felt the white moon rise
- and then the sun, in red and gold, to blue the sky.
But sleep was dead. Each day the morning sneered
her up and out of bed, laughed at her reddened eyes,
her corpse-pale skin, the stiffness in her limbs.
Each night edged closer. But all sleep was dead.
First published in Confluence, Nov 2017
I’ve started several other list poems over the years, but I haven’t finished them yet. Some are barely started, just undeveloped ideas really. Here are their working titles, which you might like to use as inspiration for your own lists – or you might even wish to try out your own versions of these actual lists:
Ten things I love about you…
Things I found under the bed…
My new house contains…
Things you didn’t say…
Places I will never go…
The ingredients of old age…
The lessons I’ve not learned…
A list of my enemies…
Colours I've painted my bedroom…
TV programmes I watched during lockdown…
Wildflowers on the path beside the lake…
You remind me of…
Friday, June 3, 2022
Thirty Angry Ghosts: Poems by Mai Black
Mai Black takes thirty famous historical figures and imagines they are speaking to us from beyond the grave. This is a brilliant idea and gives the book a distinctive theme, which many volumes of poetry lack. It also means she can inhabit a wide range of ‘voices’, from Julius Caesar to Pocahontas, Tutankhamen to Joan of Arc, which provides variety in style and tone. The poems are accessible, interesting, imaginative and should appeal to even those people who don’t generally read poetry.
Black also provides a detailed set of biographical notes in the back of the book so that readers can look up the life stories of the characters portrayed. Her writing is lucid and her ideas frequently original. She has a clear, accessible style and knows how to construct an effective opening line:
‘How many ways are there to kill a man?’ [Grigori Rasputin, p79]
‘I am lonely here but never alone’ [Margaret Catchpole p60]
‘You will have heard of me, no doubt’ [Adolf Frederick, King of Sweden, p54]
Though her writing at times tells rather too much for my taste, I know that many readers enjoy poems that are not too obfuscating, that allow their meaning to shine through clearly. She does make use of some wonderful images which illuminate her work, but occasionally overdoes them, writing a little too much. For example, the brilliant phrase ‘the eloquence of gunshot’ [Abraham Lincoln, p70] is immediately followed by ‘the genius of shooting a man from behind’, which, while not a bad line in itself, feels to me like it is making explicit what is beautifully implied by the first phrase. Similarly, in ‘Adolf Frederick, King of Sweden’, she writes ‘To eat semla is to have your tongue brushed/by a rose petal’ [p53], a wonderful image which is then diluted rather than amplified by the addition of several more unnecessary comparisons – ‘held by an angel,/resting on a butterfly’. However, there is a case to be made that such language is appropriate for the character, that the King of Sweden, clearly a gourmand, would use a list of metaphors rather than just one. The excess of words seems appropriate for the character, and conveys something more about him.
There are some lovely images in these poems, and some striking choice of words, often created with a strong sense of the specific character, the time in which they lived, the reasons they are well-known. The voices often sing out, with vivid particularity:
‘and then the earth rose up to meet me,/smacked me round the face’ [The Unknown Soldier, p77]
‘The blood moon hangs heavy in the sky’ [Mary Shelley, p64]
‘What joy they must have taken in snapping/off my pretty head’ [Marie Antoinette, p58]
‘I am not the one who troubles/your rump-fed brains’ [William Shakespeare, p49]
‘And my words were yellow leaves drifting in the water’ [La Malinche, p41]
I admire the way Black has conveyed the personalities of her characters, often with subtlety and nuance, and with more complexity than her overtly straightforward style would initially suggest, whether it is the wry humour of Henry VIII’s misogyny, or Anne Boleyn’s contemptuous assertion ‘I’d rather be a witch than a fool’ [p43]. There is a strong vein of protest running through the collection, feminism, revolution, anger – but also touches of humour and refreshing insights. The emotional atmosphere of the poems is varied and interesting. The characters are drawn from many different cultures and historical eras, and their stories are told in voices that feel appropriate to their characters in general. The book works as an effective means of learning about famous people from the past, as well as an enjoyable collection of entertaining poems.
Rating: **** [recommended]
Rating: **** [recommended]