Monday, November 15, 2010

Comet (for Chris Woods)

Where the high horizon sutures the sky
to Holcombe Moor
way up above the padlocked hut
his dog tailwags up ahead alongside the one
stringvested hillrunner
while he and his alchemist hold
this season-soaked day about them
as they calibrate and calculate
and examine a sclerotic sky for
one sign of it.

But jagged time arcs away
towards Two Brooks and beyond
as the weather presents
a fond bleakness.

Down the generations
it’s a night tingling with stars
that grants his last wish to his grandchildren
now full-grown who step aside for
the ghost of the hillrunner
as they screen subatomic
pointing the autoscope
to capture at last
the faithful messenger sizzling
through an ocean of sky.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Chris Woods visits Bank Street

A very well attended November Bank Street Writers meeting in Bolton had the well-known local poet Chris Woods as guest.

Chris started by referring with affection to Anne Hendy, whose recent loss was felt by so many of us, and read from her ‘Snapshots’ collection the poems Pisces, Visit from my Great Aunts and Mother’s Day.

Chris then treated us to a baker’s dozen of his own poems. The first of these was about North West Water digging up his road. Naturally, some of his poetry reflects his locality on the edge of Holcombe Moor. The next poem Racing Time for Ron Heaton referred to a local hill-runner whom he got to know whilst out walking his dog. Another dog walking poem followed this time in the snow. White Walk, just like the previous poems, had striking imagery and a powerful ending, ‘up to my knees in dazzle.’

The theme changed to astronomy and we were treated to On Not Seeing Halley’s Comet where a repetitive affirmation was seen in the comet’s return. Newtonian Analysis dealt with one of Chris’s pet subjects, the master scientist, whilst Hut was about a retreat for writing and meditation. There followed two festive poems, Pumpkin Lantern ( with its final ‘You have changed into yourself’) and Bonfire Night, a vivid poem about children and firelight.

A moving poem for his father, Sealham Harbour For My Father considered the power of the tide ‘as the sea takes the sand and time away’ whilst Seasons For My Father reflected his belief that we tend to associate memories with particular seasons: ‘snow and silence everywhere.’

As a GP he would be expected to write a lot of poems about medecine but in fact, though using medical imagery, not many of his poems are about his job. One that he read for us was Coronary Care. In this poem he addresses the heart directly: ‘my red balloon…my bruised red apple… sweet heart… such love I took for granted.’

To Cows was just that and included the clever ‘the Milky Way their memorial overhead.’

The final poem The Lawn Is Green, about planting a new lawn, referred to with the medical image of ‘a graft’, again involved his children at play on the new carpet and contained a line which certainly made me green with envy: ‘elbowing the distance to one side.’

What struck me above all about Chris’s poetry was that it was considerably elevated above narrative or location poetry through astounding and unexpected imagery and the juxtaposition of the personal and the external, the individual and the panorama.

Thank you Chris for your inspiring poetry!

Monday, May 24, 2010

And the Judge said...

Bank Street Writers Poetry Competition 2010

What guarantees entry to the No pile? Sloppiness, for a start. Inattention to line lengths, inaccuracy. Teeth don’t smirk, mouths do. Faces don’t chew. Clich├ęs won’t win you any prizes, either. Neither will clunky or archaic language, inversions and poems that strive to be ‘poetic’. Poetry is intrinsically poetic. It doesn’t have to be given gossamer threads and veils. Every noun doesn’t need an adjective. A poem with a good title helps. A title is the door to the poem. But the door doesn’t need announcing and the door doesn’t need to be repeated. That’ll only get your poem in the No pile.
So, what gets into the Yes pile? Poetry that is arresting and original. There were a lot of poems about MPs’ expenses, which probably says something about what’s irking people at the moment, but it did little to make me sit up and pay attention. What caught my eye were a striking use of language, atmosphere, texture, good lineation, a real sense of structure and a willingness to trust the words to work. Of course, words won’t work for you unless you choose the right ones and – to paraphrase Coleridge – put them in their right order.
Dance of the Cobblers has some nice detail in it. I liked Mr Boorman’s drizzling fag and the beeswaxed thread and bottles of dye. I also liked some of the detail in Talecrumbs I Left Myself for Navigation (marvellous title!) and the gentle way it explores the ways we find home.
Swingers caught me by surprise with its ending. I’d thought the poem rather ‘usual’ till I read the last stanza. The notion that a silence can lie beneath our clothes is interesting, but it’s the penultimate line that really catches you unawares – Cool, unsteady, I bandage myself – as if the narrator were somehow damaged by the whole experience. The juxtaposition of cool with unsteady surprises, too. This deserves a commendation. Big Fish is a superb poem. There’s a real sense of place. Time is held in the balance here. Two boys are fishing. The ‘howl of school has vanished’ and ‘giant carp/move slow as blood cells’. The mood is still. I can’t help thinking about Ted Hughes’ famous Pike. There are deep things being alluded to here – war, ‘pockmarked Madonnas/with dirty mouths’. The poet says ‘Some stains never come out’ and we imagine degradation and dereliction, death perhaps. But the fish are ‘lavender’ and they ‘whisker the smoky water’. This is a poem about finding peace in a damaged world. The last line is heartbreaking in its simplicity. I just have a few quibbles with some of the line lengths and perhaps mildew isn’t luminous – it’s black or grey, isn’t it? I’m nitpicking. I’m having to. There’s some very strong work here. I like this poem very much. This is a poet whose work I would choose to read.
Grunting Up gets a well earned 3rd prize. I had no idea that sows sing when they’re being suckled. This poem has a nice physicality. The use of ‘plug on’ to describe the way a piglet will latch onto the sow’s nipple is accurate and inventive. It has a good strong sound.
The 2nd prize goes to Acting Blackbird. The use of language is dynamic and the metaphor of the blackbird as an actor is well-sustained. Not an easy thing to do throughout an entire poem. Well done.
And finally, the 1stprize is awarded to The Rambla at Alfaix. This poem is assured and measured. The opening line reminded me slightly of The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket by Robert Lowell and, because The Rambla at Alfaix is such an accomplished piece of work, it immediately made me suspicious. I had to Google a few lines just to make sure it wasn’t nicked – ‘small dark oranges hard as want’ for example. There is so much detail here – ‘livid pomegranates//split open in the dust’ ‘fine dots of rain//sharp as pipa shells’ ‘a single slit of weed’. Small things have a way of bringing larger ones into focus. They contrast with the flood, with the memory of a river, abandonment, injuries. We’re never told what happened and the narrator doesn’t conjecture. We are given the freedom to inhabit the poem, to walk, to experience the season of drought and neglect. Like the previous poem, dereliction and damage and a certain poverty are suggested, but the tone couldn’t be more different. Only one nitpick here – the fourth stanza could be a couplet to complete the overall sense of unity in the structure. But really, this is very good work. I’d certainly be thinking of publication if I’d written this.

Pat Winslow