Tree Bark

This is the tree bark moment –
whether to treat it figuratively

even though cicadas did once
cling and leave their shells

as actual memory, or find it in
its many names of explaining.

I’ve been waiting days to do
this, stripping away at the ideas

to leave just the playful behind,
but now with all those words

there is a pre-meditation as
reckoning. So, I’ll spit it out:

how the phloem is comically
the sound of puns yet also the

first layer of meaning – sugary
in all aspects of what it feeds.

Then there is that further
choice, whether it is xylem or

sapwood, and I’ll go for the
latter to make it appear like

empathy rather than a science.
And already I’m done on this

construction, unwilling to go to
the cambium and its trajectory.

Rather, it is back to layers, and
in this life with their dark depths

as wraparound / enclosure; that
hard shell where as tissue it’s not

nature or art but constriction
like a dead wood sheath, harder

than looking for the signals of an
ending it won’t allow us to make.

War of The Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands

When 11 minutes of nasal whine
went viral, the Dylanites were on

their march, torches blazing (or
incandescent with battery power –

it is 2021 after all) and once at the
commentator’s house, they chanted

At 80, Dylan is two thirds of
American history!, and while it

didn’t scan, there was merit in
the calculation, but he shouted back

At 80, Dylan is getting older! It was
a stand-off of monumental

opinion, the weight of ‘like’ and
‘dislike’’ balanced on years of

social media practices, or not:
he eschewing the populism of that

routine too. If Blood on the Tracks
was going to remain a metaphor

as well as album title, they’d have to
compromise – for example agree

there is clever enough alliteration
in the line mercury mouth in the

missionary times, even if wrapped
in the weak chimes of its rhymes, and a

suspect meaning. Or simply settle on
how it is the lesser melody of his output

and more in the poetry; or take the
dispute to how we collectively name

the Nobel Prize winner’s fans: Bobcats
Zimmsters, Freewhellers, The Bob Mob,

Dylanistas? Let the axe fall wherever the
fishing boat bobs on to-and-fro waves,

out where there’s enough water to drown
everyone, unless we all love the blue.

(source: prompted by review here)

My light-hearted – yes it is – response to another trenchant review by Rupert Loydell

‘The Hours’ by Gillian Clarke – Broken Sleep Books

G Clarke image

I first came across Gillian Clarke’s poetry as a teacher, teaching it. She (and her poetry) were a mainstay of a GCSE English poetry anthology, with poems like the poignant and relateable Catrin in particular used in connection with those from Seamus Heaney (e.g., Follower) for linking to the theme of Relationships. I think her work was first included in 2000 – and I quite by chance came across a planning schedule from me to the English team dated 2009 with the following:

Key Literature poems introduction. Focus on parental theme: ‘Follower’, ‘Digging’, ‘Catrin’, ‘On My First Sonne’

so she was anthologised for at least a decade, and probably more. I’ll leave this reminiscence now before someone wants to debate the pros and cons of teaching anthology poems – I could talk to both. I’d also like to think at the time we all in the English department articulated an awareness of the diversity embraced (or perhaps not) by the ‘parental’ reference.

This collection from Broken Sleep Books is therefore a welcome return for me to Clarke’s fine poetry, The Hours released from the shackles of having to be taught, but nonetheless firmly rooted to another context: Covid and lockdown.

In the opening poem The Silence, Clarke references the ‘pretty names’ of various diseases (‘Ebola’ / ‘Nipah’) as well as their viral flights around the world, this then drawn from a reference to Da Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds through the imagery of

‘the winged mammal Leonardo caught and cut’.

This is next linked to the consequential reality of our collective isolation

‘Isolate. Isola. Island. Ynys. Us.
Alone…’

(the ellipsis here is in the book a gap before the following ‘with the page’: for a moment I got trapped in teaching mode, knee-jerked into how I would look at and talk about those individual, isolated words, and then the enjambment for ‘Alone’, and the visual impact of that gap…)

and her own personal place in this

‘to Llanllwni mountain over the brow of a field’.

These opening themes are further carried on lyrical lines linking the natural world to the human experience where ‘birds self-isolate to the trees’ and the wider (incidental?) consequences of ‘festivals folding their tents’.

This is a wonderful first poem/opening on the lockdown experience that merges references to fear and gain, this latter represented in the next poem March 2020 where the ‘human’ silence of lockdown allows us to hear the palpable world around us.

The personal and the global experiences are continually linked as the poems progress, so in April we have the lines

‘The whole world together.
Each one of us alone.’

In another line ‘The world belongs to this virus’ we have the thread of Clarke’s poetic response to it, and questions asked in this poem purposefully universalise and diversify the experience.

The final poem in this short sequence What time is it? is self-conscious about the writing process – ‘viral on a moonless page’ – but this and what precedes is, for me, quintessentially the poetic voice wrapping a beauty of observation, thought and expression around something ugly to own it as best it can. And perhaps precisely because of the crafting of this work I should be less sheepish (through my earlier deflecting ‘teaching it’ aside) about acknowledging the traditions Clarke uses in her poetry.

In the book’s title poem The Hours – St Benedict’s hours of the day 6th century, Clarke is referring to his eight daily prayer routines and therefore the themes already mentioned are continued indirectly or directly though this ruse, for example in Sext

‘…There will be
no mourners, no funerals’.

These poems explore further the personal and the global and the universal, and the language is both beautiful – again – but also vivid and blunt: the final two poems What day is it? / What month is it? breaking the rudiments of hourly schedules and the notion of such control to reflect the loss of time. These poems embrace themes of death and life as obviously normal realities but also those rooted to their Covid context – and the paradox of its universality as well as each ‘alone’ experience.

This is an important, meaningful collection – its voice poetically fixed in the natural world to articulate the viral impact of Covid on all life. It is neatly produced by the excellent Broken Sleep Books, this one of its Secret Sleep Books where sales profits go to a charity, this edition to Shelter.

For more details, go here.

Erika Encore

erica

1. Erika Prepared

Think of erika late at night,
a felt-tip of lipstick red
in a grip to sign her name
on napkins she has no need to
fold, ready-made from the
diner where her breakfast shift
begins by carefully placing it
with hand-drawn hearts
before someone. And they’ve
been caught – not out – but within
its tender eliciting charm,
too soon to be pondering,
as they are now, her preparations
made to casually disarm.

2. Erika Serving Breakfast

If you happen upon
and open the notepad

taken on holiday to
write plans and poetry –

coming across that napkin
with her name –

do not imagine it is more
than a simple thing,

seeming exotic
or suggestive because

you didn’t expect, like the
words bloc steno or

bloc de éspiral, even
spiraalnotablok, because

these too are only language
for the everyday and plain.

Look closely in the
corner and note its

imprint of a coffee stain
that had perhaps

spilt from a breakfast cup
and was wiped to clean.

The hearts? Lipstick?
Imagine Erika late at night,

a pile of these and
signing with red felt,

hoping a tissue of such
tenderness will prompt a tip.

After Las Vegas

Things I
miss:

laughing with
the

elevator
sign

and drinks and
carry-around

sunshine;
bourbon

storytelling
and getting lost

with Sinatra;
monorail

reggae and
Hawaiian hotels;

lost in
drinks

and laughing
with

the
girls –

Stubblefield
too, palm

trees in his
laughing;

trees and
sunshine;

trees and
bourbon

restaurant;
Hawaiian pool

reggae;
keen talk

feelings, and
Frank Sinatra

monorail
riding.

The Election with Single-Use Pencils

In considering
what can be thrown away,
make it the viral

pencil, not a
vote for those with lead in theirs
and other lies

about delivering.
And these are not for colouring in –
so, if within

red walls,
keep yours true and not fooled
by shades

of shadiness:
that politicking of the self,
their mates,

and cronies all.
‘Single-use’ is wonderfully woke, if
awake when you choose.