Saturday, February 16, 2019

A whale and wandering womb

I dreamed about a whale in the sky and it turned into a murmuration of starlings heading for Brighton pier. So many birds have emerged singing in February sun - a blackbird in the morning, and walking with Julie and Roxy at Rottingdean, a charm of goldfinches mobbing a barn owl as it hunted. Larks were up and singing, and in the owl's easy flight, goldfinches' chittering, the afternoon expanded. I went to the allotment with Annie who's recording bumble bees. We talked about how social media has turned into a doom-merchant in the corner, sniping and groaning. Although kids streaming through Brighton streets and other cities made a whale. There were more goldfinches in the trees by the cemetery and just as Annie breathed 'a charm of goldfinches' we saw, among their bright flashes and high sounds, a kestrel. They were chasing it away. It doesn't take much of someone else's hope to feel it. It's like sourdough starter. So demonstrating kids and goldfinches set me looking through poems for my new book. Poems about the earth, letters from years ago and growing old. Many began after I found Virtue's Household Physician (1927). Woman's Head as Jug (Arc 2013) has poems on menopause but that's not the end of the story - the womb has so many travelling companions.
Work by Joan Lyons at Paris Photo 2018

Wandering womb

The womb is often out of its natural and proper place...*

I feel it pull at ligaments. 
It's the size of a mouse or turtle 
and can turn itself inside out 
like a glove. No surprise it wanders.

Think of a glove, conducting,
giving directions, all the places 
a mouse and turtle visit, 
compared to a womb, 

now joined in its ambling 
by a kidney, eye, spleen - nomads
seeking relief from a 24-hour contract 
to remain in the same body. 

Am I cruel to tempt my womb
of all body parts, back to captivity, anchor
it with stitches to this body-zoo,
to its natural and proper place?

* from Virtues Household Physician 1927

Friday, January 18, 2019

Dolly and Jolene - a taste for country

Source, Fair use,
I'm not too sure when I acquired a taste for country music and if it's a sign of age but the indy choir, Wham Jam, I've joined this winter includes a jazzy version of Jolene in its repertoire and it's incredibly pleasing to listen to and sing. 

Jolene, along with another country tune, is often on my mind, although when I try and practice at my desk, the cat leaves the room like a shot. Is she picking up on the tragedy?

Dolly is a woman to admire - she wrote the song and has performed it around the world. What does the cat pick up as Jolene starts up on the laptop? Tiger escapes the moment I start to sing along but I don't think I'm THAT bad. Everyone can sing, can't they? The quality of my voice, it seems, is irrelevant. I search the question, do cats like music? and unsurprisingly, there's a theory - a study from the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 

It seems cats like music so long as it's species appropriate. Researchers asked a musician to write three songs: Cozmo's Air, Spook's Ditty and Rusty's Ballad after test cats walked away from Bach and Faure. 

I'm not too bothered about Tiger disliking Jolene. It's the one she has the most extreme reaction to. The others in the set make her concerned. Perhaps it's not so much my singing as the fact that she's used to me being silent as I sit at my desk. The whole house is silent. She and I generally enjoy the silence, interrupted by the odd car passing, sparrows in the fuschia outside, Binky barking next door. Now I've worked out the BT blocking system, there's not even too many unwanted calls on the landline either. 

I wonder if there's something in the lyrics that Tiger picks up, a supremely human capacity for betrayal and jealousy, for theft and drawn out misery. Jolene is perhaps a robust reminder of the human world. But Dolly Parton is infinitely more interesting than whether cats like music because of everything she has overcome.  Her birthday, by the way, is 19 January. 

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Towards the sea

The song starts "A room with a window facing west/ Towards the sea". It's by the Staves and it's part of the repertoire of Wham Jam, the daytime choir I've joined this winter. As a newcomer, I'm daunted by the prospect of learning a set before mid March but this tune has stuck in my mind, particularly the line "Sing me a song, your voice is like silver...."

Sing me a song, your voice is like silver
It's an old metaphor but the melody's sweet and the invitation is lyrical. It was in my mind as I browsed Eurostar's £29 deals a few days ago, wondering if I could take some time out to stay at a friend's house in France. The question is still there in my mind, despite my decision to call myself semi-retired. The old work ethic nags and drowns out all idea of fun.

But then there are friends. Good, loyal, conscious and responsive friends, who remind me always of opportunity, of fun, of the need to make the most of what I have. And so this one friend, dear Michaela, texted me, "have you read your email?"

I'd been humming that line by the Staves as I cleared the front room, finding a space for Giya to work, filling bags with recycling. I felt like a sparrow brushing last year's twigs from the eaves and the sparrow gang was indeed outside at the time. So I went to my emails and could hardly believe what I was reading. There it was, that room facing the sea, and it was on top of a mountain.

It is as if that exercise of making the space for my daughter to work, the song, the earlier dream of travelling had become a living thing, had somehow found a place where thought and reality coincide and put an old Spanish house there, high above the sea, in a blur of green, ochre and blue. That the dream had, like the best secretary, matched the dates when I had no work, the time when I could risk leaving the allotment for a month, the time when Giya was here, and sung me that song.

I have neglected my writing over the past few months for all sorts of reasons. But I have a collection of poems to sharpen up, the South African book to continue editing and short stories to indulge in because I'm loving the looseness they create in me. I will plant two trees for my flights and ask favours of friends with strimmers and green fingers, to keep the grass down and bring on some seedlings. I have never felt so lucky.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Is the family mending?

It seems to have been happening forever and yet been compressed into a matter of months - one moving out, the other now engaged.

None of us makes decisions rashly. The happening forever starts with the children going away to do their degrees.

One leaving, two of us left. Then the second leaving and me left. Then one coming back so two of us again.

And just as the second comes back, the first moves in with his girlfriend. Now the second has shown me her ring.

Mum went out and bought a bottle of Bollinger, I drove over to her house with both children and partners. We toasted, we laughed and blew on the fire to get it going. It was suddenly cold and the sky was clear. As I drove them back along the seafront, the offshore wind farm sparkled, the stars sparkled, the seafront houses, car headlights and street lights sparkled.

I like to imagine my odd, fractured and skimpy family is mending itself, like bones, like bark, just as I realise that the grandfather I thought I'd found may not be the one. My children's new lives make the broken links to Ireland and beyond less important.

And through it all I have fallen in love with short stories - with the hard honesty of Doris Lessing's African stories, the snow light of Tove Janseen's winter book, and I am nervous even about hoping that a desire to write might be coming back.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Between years

Starlings, sunsets and a multi-storey angel are what the days between 2018 and 2019 seem to demand.

I swing between fidgeting and slumping, between being full of great intentions and grim thoughts dragging me back to the past like a stalker.

At four this afternoon the cat was purring on the bed next to me and I was dozing off.

I have five books on the chest of drawers - three borrowed, two from charity shops. I am dipping in and out as if I'm on a summer beach.

These days remind me of the mercury we let run onto the floor, between the boards, in the school science lab.

Bobbles of it rolling away, shinier than anything.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The snowy past and its answering voice

When the snow came that year it was thick and marvellous. The teenagers became children again, knocking on each others' doors as soon as it was light, reclaiming the road which was more or less impassable, although some tried and slid sideways into junctions and kerbs.
Tove Janssen reminded me of it as the autumn turned with her story, Snow, describing how snow changes the light, changes sound, turns us into hibernating bears. Dylan Thomas reminded me of it last week in his story, A Child's Christmas in Wales, which remembers throwing snowballs at cats, singing carols to an empty house and hearing a faint answering voice through the keyhole.
I am reading these stories in a Reading Round group for young people who have mental health problems, hoping to provide an hour in which something eases.
That faint answering voice is in this photo somewhere, behind one door, perhaps my future door. The past is so present right now as my adult children move into the next phases of their lives, one clearing out childhood's shoe boxes full of stones and essays, giving away hats that once were as powerful as crowns, the other looking over the water and finding work after years of study.
I hear the answering voice as I collect belongings, help bag them up, help store them away for now.
I find myself clearing out cupboards and being ruthless with cobwebs, wondering about painting the kitchen and about the pile of plastic boxes I've accumulated.
This mild December, the borage, fushia and calendula are still flowering, rain has stuck the windows shut and expanded doors.
Rain light doesn't encourage me to fantasies of hibernation but it does draw me to the windows, to the sun when it comes, to the sky at 4pm and the surprise of stars when clouds clear.
It is always a case of standing at a door or window and singing, to hear that faint answering voice, isn't it, understanding the voice isn't just from the past.
Royal Literary Fund Reading Round
Dylan Thomas reads A Child's Christmas in Wales
Tove Janssen's A Winter Book

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Singing again

There's a choir for people who are homeless, church choirs, choral singers, rock and gospel choirs, LGBT choirs, choirs just for women, choirs just for men. Some audition, some don't. Once I was in Jam Tarts, the Brighton choir run by Li Mills, now performing far and wide at festivals. I dropped out when I was working a lot of evenings and now there's a waiting list as long as my street. But Li runs three choirs - one a much less pressured daytime group, Wham Jam. So I am back, singing, with homework.

It has to be good, doesn't it, for a writer to experience words put under such pressure - repeated, harmonised, stopped and started again, broken up, mispronounced...

I am singing because I want routine, to have fun, to rehabilitate my lungs. I hadn't expected the singing to send me back to my writing and give it a different once over. The oldest Chinese poems, Shih Ching, are called song words.

Kwame Dawes explains better than I can in this interview with the LA Review of Books and delivers the phrase 'mistakes of sound' to explain what can damage a poem. So I shall go on singing as midwinter approaches, bleak and frosty.