thirty four

Sometimes a pleasure deferred can prove to be a let down: how could you ever have been foolish enough to think that that thing would live up to the expectations you have piled on it? I deliberately didn’t buy a copy of Gaia Holmes’ third collection, where the road runs out, in advance of seeing her read from it last month in Marsden library, fully knowing that I would buy it there once she was done. I can’t explain why it felt like the right way round to do it…it just was. And it really was.

Like when a band releases a new album and then tours it, there’s the thought of being familiar with the tracks – not necessarily to sing along, mind – before going to see them. Sometimes though the first hearing sears with a fresh energy that just can’t be matched. Yes, you will miss some words and ideas but you can buy the thing and go back over what you missed.

I’d read a spell-binding article by Holmes (available through The High Window) giving some background to the genesis of the collection – caring for her terminally ill father, who was at the time living in a small caravan on a wind blasted Orkney island and the aftermath of his death. It is a remarkable subject, more than matched by Holmes’ fearless poetry. At the reading she explained that only about a third of the collection centred on this episode, and there are many other fine poems ranging across childhood, encounters between runners and ramblers, ‘What pylons dream of’ (power cuts, stepping into ball gowns, tickling kittens and falling into the water to make the ocean boil…amongst other things) as well as reflections on the experience and fate of those Chilean miners trapped underground for 60 odd days back in 2010. Her poetry speaks of intimate connections with, and knowledge of, the natural world around her – she is currently based in the Calder valley, where she was born – as well as connections, and sometimes the lack of connection, with people. These are fine poems, beautifully realised (special mentions to ‘Ballast’, ‘Road Salt’ and ‘Before All This’) but without doing them any disservice, it is the poems around her and her father that provide the emotional gravity holding the others steady in their orbit, while the clear-eyed honesty of the telling of this episode is what raises the whole thing above so many other collections.

From ‘Leaves’: …my father is fevered/ and godless/ My father is dying/ on an island/ with no trees./ I send him prayers./ I send him bulging sacks/ of autumn leaves.

From ‘ I belong here’: …stubbing my toes on shadows…cooking stone soup every day,/ beach combing for hope…with the cracked windows,/ the damp, your denial…grinding your tablets/ to powder at midnight,/ as the Orkney gales rock the caravan.

From ‘Hygge’: Tonight, the sea will be too wanton/ to carry a ferry…Tonight we will keep the cats in…Tonight, we will be landlocked and cosy…and I will almost forget/ that you are dying.

An outstanding poem from this collection for me is ‘Feckless’ – Google it (also the name of a poem herein) or buy the book. You won’t be disappointed.

But to finish, a few thoughts from the previously mentioned ‘Before all this’: a mighty poem of things that have been lost in our rush ‘forwards’, as some would have it.

Before all this/ there were phone calls,/ there were letters…There was ink./ there was paper./ There were crossings-out/ … We placed our faith/ in road maps/ and sometimes/ we got lost/ … We knew about patience,/ the beauty of waiting/ … We did not need an app/ for empathy or humanity…

Amen for the crossings-out and for getting lost, sometimes. A wonderful collection.

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