Day 1: the birthday

The plan: to note something for each of the next 365 days. May be something, may be garbage….may not last past June.

Today by “the pond” in Reykjavik in the sun a young girl feeding bread to ducks, gulls and geese. She was earring a Barcelona football shirt with the name Camilla on the back. ¬†On her feet were purple glitter trainers.

Later we bought things from dead.

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Published weeks before her death, this collection carries the weight of Dunsmore’s terminal diagnosis but carries it lightly. It is impossible to read this collection without that context – for the moment, at least, that may change with time.

But it is how she tells us these things that matters: isn’t that always the way with good poetry. The universal and the daily, sit side by side with the myths of Ancient Greece and the remembered visit to “Hornsea 1952”, where “The wind blew from the east, you were always cold,/ And there was a boating lake…”

What struck me were the details and the noticing of those details, the precise choice of “absolutely the right word” noticing of these details, in this, Dunsmore’s collection reminds me of the last TV interview that Dennis Potter gave with Melvyn Bragg, swigging from a flask of liquid morphine, talking about the “blossomiest blossom” he had ever seen that Spring, which he knew would be his last. She talks about a “Mimosa – with plumes that make the sky quiver”, “The Bare Leg – the calf tightening/ The vessel of the hip cupping”, “Four cormorants, one swan – …it is flying/ Arrowlike to a fish a hundred yards off./ A lover could not be more direct” and “A Lose Curl – I have never known you easily/ hold my hand as you do now. / We sit for hours…”

Sitting anonymously, invisibly, silently at the heart of her world and noticing. And reporting. All of which is a cornerstone of good writing. Much here appears to come from time spent in a hospital bed, or hospital grounds; “The Shaft”, “Leave the door open”, “Winter Balcony with Dunnocks”, while other poems are a literal clearing of the decks “Rim – I’m getting rid, getting shot, cleansing/ Dark cupboards and fossil-deep/ Drawers…”, “Ten Books” or “On looking through the handle of a cup”. All this without wistfulness or self pity. The clear-eyed matter of factness is both admirable and salutary. As she says in the closing lines to the collection’s opening poem, “Counting Backwards”,

But you can get used to anything/ Like the anaesthetist/ Counting to himself/ Backwards, all wrong.

The edition I’m reading has an extra poem “Hold out your arms” which it states was written on 25 May 2017, hence too late for the first edition. It is a welcome note to Death, who may well have been seen a gentle lover and/or mother and finishes with Death murmuring, “We’re nearly there”.

I want to finish by quoting in full the poem, “Plane tree outside Ward 78”

The tree outside the window/ Is lost and gone,/ Billow of leaf in the summer dark,/ A buffet of rain./

I might owe this tree to morphine,/ I might wake in the morning/ To find it dissolved, paper/ Hung in water,/

Nothing to do with dreams./ I cannot sleep./ Pain is yards away/ Held off like bad weather,/

In the ward’s beautiful contentment/ Freed by opiates./ Hooked to oxygen/ We live for the moment.

twenty nine

A crackling tale of a teenage girl caught up in events she doesn’t fully understand. The language is simple and believable as the thoughts, the life view of a 15 year old, living in the back woods, well away from any metropolitan sophistication. There is an undercurrent of unease, something sinister, something she isn’t able to deal with.

Linda/Madeleine – she goes by different names with different groups – is the only child of a couple who live in a lakeside cabin miles from the metalled road back into the nearest town. One summer, a couple move in to a vacant cabin across the lake, with their toddler, Paul. Linda starts babysitting Paul, although it is hard to tell sometimes whether she is really babysitting Paul or his young mother Patra. The husband, Leo, is an astrophysicist, a religious fundamentalist who’s life’s work appears to finding the point where religion and science can be properly reunited, is often absent. Patra, drifts about dressed mainly in a dirty t-shirt that just covers her knickers, only occasionally affecting Paul’s daily life, leaving it to Linda to feed the boy, to take him out on day long trips through the woods, or to local museums – 11 miles away by bike – all of which only seem of passing interest to the boy, who may or may not, be gifted.

Linda notes that there is an 11 year gap between Paul and herself, between herself and Patra, and again between Patra and Leo, and she seems to find some meaning in the regularity of this gap…and seeks the pattern in other areas of life.

Patra, who was a university student, which is how she met Leo, he was a lecturer on one of her courses, is nobody’s fool but seldom appears fully switched on, becomes completely pliant when Leo is back from one of his work-related absences. She is besotted, to the point where she allows Leo’s religious certainty to take over from good sense – or even medical opinion – when it comes to the health of the family.

The meditations on nature, on the the teenage girl drifting in her canoe across and around the lake are gently dreamlike; the secondary story about her classmate Lily, an ‘early developer’ and apparently beautiful in the way of some cheerleader stereotype, and whether or not this girl was seduced and raped by a teacher – whoever was the father, she became undeniably pregnant – is a constant thorn nagging away in the memory of the older Linda. Other flashes of her later life, where the adult Linda is looking back through the confusion with clearer knowledge, with hindsight, gives the story an interesting angle. As does the court room drama.

There’s a lot of good stuff in this novel; an unusual tale well told.

twenty eight

There’s lots of good stuff in this tale of disaffected, slightly lost teenagers, in some unnamed Welsh town, near the slate quarries, near the sea. The story centres around 3 or 4 of these young people, one of whom is Pigeon, his real name – although sometimes spelled Pijin – as he repeatedly tells people, a young boy who lives in a shed in his family’s garden and rarely bothers with school. The others are Cher and Iola, two young girls.

I found the opening pages difficult and fragmented. In that way that your concentration wanders, you keep needing to go back over the previous half a page to grasp what has happened. I almost gave up on it. I’m glad I didn’t because it pulls together with an appealing vigour and momentum as the story reaches a conclusion.

There’s something in this about coming of age, something about the stories kids tell each other, half truths getting tangled with very real fears, something about lies. It’s almost as if there are two or three slightly unreliable narrators cutting across each others’ memories, not quite denying them, but not verifying them either. And they get into varying degrees of trouble as bored kids in dead end places do.

The adults in the book are damaged or dangerous, either way they neither set examples or boundaries. Gwyn, the ice-cream man, may or may not, pay a heavy price for some misdemeanours, imagined, exaggerated or real. Pigeon’s Mother seems unaware, dysfunctional an almost ghostly presence in the book and in Pigeon’s life, when he comes home from a brief spell in prison, he finds the place a can-littered dusty tip and in a fit of disgust sets about cleaning the place, while ‘His mam stares at him. She stands, holding the edge of the chair and stares.’ There follows a long paragraph of Pigeon dusting, tearing down curtains, opening windows to blow fresh air through, at the end of which, ‘His mam stands holding the edge of the chair until he’s finished. He cleans around her feet, not asking her to move.’

The way that the narrative style creates a distance, an otherness about the characters and the tale itself, as though they were being viewed behind heavy glass, reminded me a little of The Wasp Factory…which cannot be anything but a good thing. But the clearer literary precursers are Niall Griffiths’ drifting student, unemployed youths in Grits and Sheepshagger…almost as if this were the early days of a handful of those characters.

twenty seven

Two words come immediately to mind, on reading and re-reading these collections, Shaw’s second and third; bravery and love.

There is an immediacy – I’m really tempted to use the word ‘attack’ here, but that wouldn’t be correct, for so many reasons – there is an immediacy, a vibrancy, a daring that it is rare to find from poems on the page. They are in your face, they nag, harass and will not you alone: all of which are good things. They have life. Guts.

I have never cared about formal structures of poems, which is not the same thing as not caring about how they look, how they are presented on the page, and I don’t know if Clare Shaw can write a good villanelle, she probably can, but I don’t care. These poems rest on the story that is laid before us, and they are mainly personal, one suspects painful, perhaps with an element of redemption at times, and on the energy, the passion with which they are told. To be this candid about your own pain, the things you have fucked up and the things others have done to you, deliberately or otherwise, and essentially to still come out swinging, to still come out with a blindingly obvious love of humanity, is inspiring.

With “Flood”, the most recent collection which draws its starting point from the recent sorry history of flooding in Shaw’s home town of Hebden Bridge, it is impossible to avoid all those flood related descriptions – overwhelm, inundate, surge – when thinking about the collection. Which is not to say this rests on cliche, or such laziness, but it is to recognise the convincing job that Shaw has made of this collection: it is of a piece, it is structurally sound and it uses that base brilliantly to branch off into other areas of life (love, mental health) while sustaining the central metaphor.

Some of the titles are wryly brilliant, giving the collection’s overall title, where else would poems that glory in names like the following comfortably sit: “instructions for coping in terrible times”; “Low lying regions inundated. Large objects begin to float”; “Major structures destroyed; terrain significantly altered”; “Catastrophic devastation; damage complete.” And while thinking about titles, the following sit back to back, “My father was no ordinary man” – “…His loins were a river…his hand was a mark/ we will all wear forever” – “My Mother was a verified miracle” – “…my mother was bread/ and my mother was broken…”

“Grabbed” is a quietly horrific account, told spare, of an assault on a young girl who had just been playing out on her bike, noting “…the flowers that she gripped throughout…” the poem that offers up the prayer that “she feels nothing at all/ no touch like murder…” It will not be coincidence that the poem “Rainhill Psychiatric Hospital 1992” follows it.

The gallows humour of “Divorce”. The swoon of the several poems that make up “Lovehearts”; “your kiss was the sentence/ I wanted to speak”; “I have never seen such stars”; new love, Shaw notes, “opens the chest/ like cold air”.

“Head On” opens with one of the great statements of rage in recent poetry. MeToo before that was a hashtag, “I do not believe in silence” is that extraordinary thing: poem as personal and political without being dogmatic or hectoring…and when heard read live, it stands the hairs on end. When reading these collections together it is interesting to compare this with the opener of “Flood”, “What do I know”, which is less sure of itself, as if the anger has mellowed and been reflected on, but still simmers in a world that is necessarily different now, now that she has made her own star.

Amongst other subjects “Head On” tackles motherhood, miscarriage and birth, starting of course with “The Lesbian Guide to Conception.” “The No Baby Poem” rings like an empty bell across the Calder valley, it is heart breaking. But the poem in this group that stopped me cold was “This isn’t”, which continues, reading on from the title,

“what mothers are meant to do. / They’re not meant to stand in the corner/ of a white room/ while their daughters are led, bewildered/ to a white couch covered in paper/”

Before going on to describe the detail of a police forensic examination of the girl, “injuries duly noted”, these mothers “want to be anywhere,/ anywhere but this.” Simple language, harrowing scene.

I could go on and on picking out individual poems in these collections, instead I’ll say buy one, buy both and if you get the opportunity to see Clare Shaw read live, take it. She is one of the few poets currently active that bridge the much debated gap between performance and page poetry: she makes a nonsense of the supposed differences, she is simply a fantastic poet.

twenty six

This is a collection of gently assured poetry; poetry of time, loss and accommodation. The poet allows herself to notice time passing and records it in beautifully simple language. There are few pyrotechnics here. The things that last much longer than we do, the stones, the trees and rivers are our markers. Our fragility in comparison is noted with a clear eye and no little empathy.

Some memories, “Remote Capture” or “Under Water” are warm evocations of moments from childhood, even if the latter involves falling into a canal unnoticed by parents who “…kept on reading in the car, oblivious…”

…six weeks/ by the sea and we haven’t seen our parents/ since this morning and we’re hungry/ but don’t know it…

We’re red and brown and/ tousled, open-mouthed and laughing,/ …as we lurch/ towards the camera’s timeless eye.

(Remote Control)

Other memories are more difficult, the ghost of the mother “gone these twenty years”, the accident in “How the body remembers” that leaves a loved one in an ambulance, the ageing process is denounced for the “Sneak” that it undoubtedly is, while “Named” remembers the afternoon when the word Alzheimer’s was spoken and while it is not plainly stated it is hard not to read “Burrow” as a continuation of that theme with the seen “…entrance to the burrow of your skull…” that is “…dark and filled with absence”.

A four poem sequence on loneliness, takes “stone” as its central image, from number three:

Stone lies in the riverbed/ on a cushion of mud/ in the comfort of muffled sound// it feels the thrill of/ water rushing head/ long over it.

The sequence that first caught my eye however is the eight pages that go under the heading “Discredited form, Discredited subject matter” and apparently record random thoughts, half sentences, verbal snap shots all taken throughout the month that was January 2015, much of which appears to have been spent on the west coast of Ireland. For example, the entry for 3/1 reads:

The road runs with/ braided water. I lie/ thinking about verbs,/ Annie Proulx, her/ strong use of.

Or 12/1:

Twenty past eight and day barely/ here. Only the ghost of Clare Island/ and yards of surf.


I wake to a power cut…porridge and coffee by candlelight

The final few poems, weighted with titles such as “After the Funeral”, “Lost Negative”, “Counsel”, “Woman Alone” and “Grief” chart their own way with purpose, mapping the pain but also, as in the final poem, “Sometimes magic happens”, hope. This poem ends:

Deer leap into the road/ just as it says on the sign// and a bus driver juggles apples/ as he waits for the lights to change.

A marvellous quiet collection full of the emotions that make us.

twenty five

This is one cracking novel. It has something of The Cement Garden about it – the claustrophobia not the incest – something of Lord of the Flies and something ancient that I can’t identify.

Told through the eyes of young Danny who lives with his older sister Cathy – she’s about 15 or so – and their “Daddy”. The mother having disappeared years ago. Daddy, is a brute of a man, who makes his money in illegal bare knuckle fights, or formerly as an enforcer and general thug for local moneyed men. But having moved back to do the parenting of these two abandoned kids, now that Granny Morley has died, he settles them first in a kind of bivouac between two vans in an old corpse of trees while he builds their house. They don’t own the land. They are constantly aware of the threat of eviction by Price the landowner, but he initially keeps his distance.

They don’t do much schooling, except of an informal sort with a woman friend in the village, but they learn about nature, foraging, trapping and killing. They’re not quite feral but they don’t feel that need any society or company. They look inwards and each provides what the others lack. A tight sibling bond that is compelling without being unsettling.

The land, somewhere between York and the Wolds and the coast, is truly Yorkshire, with its dark hedges and heavy mud, scratching briars, plentiful corvids and a landowning class that see all of it as theirs to do with as they will…and woe betide any that cross them. There is a subplot about the unfair treatment of day labourers and the local people, nearly all of whom rent their housing from Price or one of his cronies, which eventually draws Daddy/John into mixing more widely.

The tension and blunt brutality of the first 250 pages do not fully prepare the reader for the violence of the final 50 pages, but in truth there was nowhere else the story could go. It is justified. Naming the novel ‘Elmet’ brings obvious connections with Ted Hughes to mind and through that a link to something more definitely, anciently and unarguably Yorkshire: a kind of mythical essential Yorkshire that only exists in the minds of certain types. But there is something there, something that Mozley has tapped into.

The novel is a glorious success and it is hard to believe that it is the author’s first.

twenty four

After reading the hype this book was a disappointment.

Bridget Jones with a literature degree, the girl kisses a girl then a (married and handsome) boy, then the girl again, there is a ‘difficult’ holiday of friends in Brittany before an existential crisis towards the end, all somehow wrapped up in a Richard Curtis ‘improbably ever after’ last 10 pages.

twenty three

(Trans From Polish, by Jennifer Croft)

This is a beautiful grown up novel in the tradition of ‘Middle European’ literature but very much of the 21st century – the nearest current comparator I can think of is Krasznahorkai.

At 400 pages it is a considerable read but with imagination and use of language like this, it is never a chore. It is difficult to say what it’s subject is: it takes in travel, many airport and flights; anatomy and plastination, an amputated leg, Chopin’s heart; a wife who walks out of her family home with no plan other than leaving…she sleeps rough in the city, spending days riding the underground system, makes an acquaintance or two but never any friends.

The novel considers modern humanity, wonders how we got here and it ponders time.

It is a truly beautiful and elusive thing.

twenty two

This is one of the best books of Poetry this side side of a Mort or Oswald new release.

It sings and gets waxed and wonders about work and philosophy and shags and bleeds and rhapsodises and in the final section is heavily pregnant.

It is not really three poems, more three themes.

It is a wonderful thing. I’ve read it twice in 24 hours and will read it again, soon.

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