I just read this, in a review of Death Of The Poets, by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts:
‘ . . . as one psychologist is quoted as saying, “being a published poet is more dangerous than being a deep sea diver.” Versifiers are absolute martyrs to anorexia, agoraphobia, epilepsy, dipsomania, manic depression, paranoia, broken hearts and self-slaughter.’
Think it’s time for a career change.
I’ve taken lately to spending some mornings upstairs in my local McDonald’s. It’s warmer up there, away from the constantly opening automatic door, and it’s a lot quieter, too. Most of the time I have the room to myself while I drink a coffee and read a book.
Yesterday morning, however, a woman came upstairs, placed her tray down before her on the table and took a seat. As she opened the sachet of milk to pour into her tea, something tore a sob from her. At that very moment she became aware of me, and held up a hand that quite clearly said I’m alright as I am, leave me be.
The gesture allowed no approach, so I simply nodded. She continued with her morning meal, her mind evidently focused on some inner conflict. I continued to read for a while, then finished a final chapter and rose to leave. As I put on my jacket I looked out of the nearby window, down onto my town outside, and saw a child-a young girl, with presumably her mother. Suddenly the girl snatched her hand away from the adult and hurried towards a man with a dog, ignoring the calls to come back.
The dog was one of those Staffordshire bull type dogs, nothing remarkable in that, but one of its front legs was missing. It gave a shuffle-hop as it moved, and the girl, obviously moved by the sight, crouched down and gave it a hug, wrapping her arms around it and holding it close to her chest. The man was speaking, perhaps telling the girl’s mother that the dog was friendly. The dog stood there, rapidly wagging its tail.
When I turned I saw that the woman who had been weeping was also watching this encounter, a thin smile upon her face. On making eye contact with me she quickly turned her attention back to her breakfast. Perhaps that girl’s act had moved her, gave her fresh insight and perspective. Who knows?
I left but kept thinking of that scenario: the woman and then the girl, the weeping and then the embrace.
We are all in the same boat here. Some are broken; some are ready to help others put the pieces back together again. But I think it has to be by consent-we have to be invited in.
I had a conversation once with a local priest.
“I thought there’d be more vegetarians within the church,” I’d said. Apart from myself, I knew of only one other.
“Well, I think that, both morally and spiritually, the strong have a responsibility towards the weak. Be they people or animals. Also, if, as we are told, that we are called to lead a life of compassion, then I don’t know how we can if we are eating the flesh of slaughtered animals.”
I’m no activist. And it is not my place to moralise, and far be it for me to preach to a clergyman! It was just a thought I’d had. He replied that maybe it was a deeper kind of faith that I practised.
But I was thinking beyond religious faith, more as a rule of thumb as we go about life. Of course faith should inform all areas of your life, not something you pick up again when you go through the church doors on a Sunday to set back down again on the way out.
We can attempt to live a compassionate life, but we can’t go around forcing compassion upon others. That woman was quite clear about what she needed and wanted at that time.
And I think she may have got some of it unexpectedly, from watching that little girl and the three-legged dog from a window in the local McDonald’s.
I wish my wife would stop getting the kids cups with pictures on them. I’ve just spent five minutes trying to clean off a juice stain that turned out to be the blush on a baby duck’s cheek.
Should have gone to Specsavers.
For me, my poems serve as a diary. When I look at them I can remember where I was when I got the idea for each one, and what it was that acted as the initial inspiration. The opening poem in my book, Heading North, is called Midnight, July.
The title indicates the when, but not the where and why.
The words for this one came when I was sat in the back garden with a coffee. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and I was looking up at the stars and wondering whether we could be alone or was there life somewhere out there?
We writhe with a rage to know the unknowable, blind to great masses that dance in dark orbits. And a soft, summer wind on a night beneath stars is no balm.
While I was sat there, neck craned in the quiet of the night, the stillness was broken by the sound of somebody passing by the front of the house, their presence announced by their whistle as they went.
From somewhere a whistle casts a line, a fragile camaraderie in a world fell silent, where white moth-wing is riotous and a spider's touch carnal.
That faceless person, whoever it was, initiated the close of this poem. Sometimes we go about life oblivious of the effect we have on others, positive or otherwise. And writers can be voyeuristic vampires, stealing in secret what they need from those around them.
I had half of another poem entitled Old Town. When writing it I had the idea of an American-type run down town in the middle of the desert, with people eking out a life in a place where unknown others lived long before them.
As is their wont, the ancestors speak of nothing, just leave their handprints on rock, drying in shadow. In sterile dust we kick careless trails, tracks opening up in animal minds. In towns we lay our markers down, watering holes within arid charms. The rats have our number, wait us out, sandstorms filling our lungs like egg timers.
I wanted to add a second part to the poem.
Regular readers of City Jackdaw will no doubt know of my love for old photographs. There is one in particular that has featured on my blog a few times before. It bears the legend Mary and her Grandfather Jasper. Around 1900. In many cases we never know who the people are in photographs such as this one, but with this we know enough to give it a personal dimension.
I wanted to somehow include this in my book, and so for the second part of this poem I envisaged somebody using it as a bookmark, reading a Truman Capote book (I had The Grass Harp in mind) while, in contrast to the whole ‘heading north’ theme, thinking of the south where the author came from and set his stories.
On the porch she reads Capote. Turns her face to the south. Her bookmark is an old photograph of an old man; a girl; a dog: 'Mary and her grandfather Jasper, around 1900.' He: sat, stern and saturnine, wearing the dust. She: stood, hand lightly on his shoulder, glaring at the camera, facing down posterity: Not yet. Not yet. The dog is unnamed. The birdcage in the window, empty. In the book there are voices on the wind. Here, just the parched whisper of turned vellum.
Just weeks before Heading North was to be published I went to stay for a few days in Sweden. It being the furthest north I’d ever been I thought it an ideal opportunity to write something as a last minute addition to my collection of poems.
And thus was born Three Poems In Stockholm.
The first poem came about when I was staying on a boat that served as a hostel and I was woken early by the sound of a foghorn. On looking out of the cabin window I was greeted by the unexpected sight of a Stockholm blanketed by thick fog.
Anchored mists hold down the grey waters of Saltsjön. The mournful baritone of a foghorn splinters the hull, grinds the bones, raises us up from our slumbering wooden berth, to climb high above the city's fitful dreams.
I got dressed and went for a walk. Wandering around there was hardly anyone else around: it was a Sunday morning and the shops were still closed, even in this capital city.
I found myself on an empty street, myopic in the cataract effect of the fog. Suddenly a girl came into sight. Perhaps in her twenties, she wore a bright chequered dress, and beneath her arm she carried around half a dozen sunflowers.
The contrast between her and her surroundings struck me, and I immediately knew that this encounter would feature in the poem I was writing.
In Södermalm, shining in a multicoloured, chequered dress, a girl breezes along with an armful of sunflowers, creating a fissure of brightness in the milky gloom, ploughing a passage of light right through to the warm facades of Gamla Stan. Blind to all else, we follow her down.
Although another two Stockholm based poems followed, this is the one that reminds most of my time there. It was that image I can still see now: within a fog-bound scene a flame-haired girl in a bright dress, clutching yellow sunflowers. A centre of colour in a colourless landscape. It was like a painting.
Of course if I’d have approached her and said I was going to write a poem about her I could have been hit with a restraining order or something much more painful.
So somewhere out there, probably still in Stockholm, there is a girl who inspired a poet and is immortalised in a poem that featured in a book.
And she will never know.
I don’t know about you guys, but I think that’s kinda sad.