TWO SHORT LINES OF POETRY

Last week I noticed a poem shared by Blue Diode Press on Twitter. ‘Meditation’, by Eunice De Souza, appeared in the collection A Necklace of Skulls: Collected Poems (Penguin).

The poem’s first two lines leapt out at me:

The lonely ask too much and then
too little

I love how the form reflects its content: how these two lines mirror what they’re describing.

All those words (relatively) crammed into that first line, in haste and at too great length; only to fall away into the sad stump of the second. 

How differently it would read if the line break fell in the obvious place – after ‘too much’. I really FEEL it this way.

I see a baby who cries and cries, then gives up crying.

I also think about ideas I’ve explored before – people thinking they know what they want (read ‘lack’) but that familiar yearning masking an ambivalence, or terror. 

I explore similar concerns myself – to all of these – in The Girl Who Cried.

Because I can feel I’ve spent my life rushing towards people, then retreating. Asking ‘too much and then / too little’.

So there it is: the magic. 

A whole lifetime’s dilemma distilled – understood, reflected back – in two short lines of poetry.

The front world, and the back

In The Girl Who Cried I have a poem about a ‘house with no door’. Tom Duddy’s wonderful poem ‘Doorways’ is very different – but, for me, it touches on related themes.

by Tom Duddy, from The Hiding Place, Arlen House, 2011.

I wrote recently about my sense of living ‘a double life’, or two lives running in parallel: the visible, and ‘the understory’. And Tom Duddy here – with all his characteristic gentleness – helps my thinking.

Such an intriguing layout – those three long lines representing the ‘three doors across / the middle of the old house’. I love the term ‘the old house’ – so many of us have one, and I think it instantly transports us, if not to our own, to some imagined place.

Tom Duddy often opens magical doorways in his poems. For me, this one works beautifully literally. But it also works as a metaphor. Just occasionally – and how ‘rare’ it is, and therefore precious – we see a system or person clearly, as they really are: both what’s visible on the outside, and what’s led to that, or is working away behind the scenes.

And there’s gentle comedy too, an empathic poking of fun at us all. So much we defend against needn’t be feared.

In this poem we ‘see framed / in the third doorway a back world / of hen-run, dunghill and dock-leaf clump, / far removed from the front world / of pathway, clipped hedge and rose.’

The lists he’s chosen are wonderful, and slightly absurdist. How can we not smile at all the human effort that goes into tending ‘the front world’?

At the same time, that final word, ‘rose’, pricks. And a ‘clipped hedge’ may make a great straight line – but ‘clipped’ itself is such a loaded word. Clipped wings. Clipped speech – which we deliver to each other when frosty and hurting.

It’s curtailing. While out back, there is so much of value. The ‘hen-run’ where we get our eggs, the ‘dunghill’ which nourishes the soil, the ‘dock-leaf clump’, which can calm a sting.

And I love those slamming doors. Whatever is seen here, it’s a fleeting glimpse – it happens rarely, ‘on a halcyon day’, and lasts only ‘for awhile’. One ‘draught’ and ‘without warning / from nowhere’ those doors all slam ‘shut in one go.’

It’s like the boundaries slamming closed inside us, and between us. We can’t help it: we all respond involuntarily to the subtlest currents. (Again, I think of my ‘house with no door’ – or with a door so closed it’s like no door at all?)

Which may make it ‘rare’ for us to catch sight of each other as we really are.

But once seen, we’re never forgotten, we never forget. And there is, at least, tenderness in that.

The Girl Who Cried is available from HappenStance – and on special offer for December.

PARALLEL LINES

Both my poetry collections – all three, if I include my pamphlet, The Long Woman – tell what I’m increasingly thinking of as my ‘understory’. There’s the public account we generally give of ourselves – the ‘how are you?’ ‘Coping, thanks’, ‘how’re the kids?’ version. The job. The family. The background. The how we look – ‘The smile I wore – my kind of clothes’ – as I put it in one poem in The Girl Who Cried. So, there’s this public face – our LinkedIn Profile. And then, well, for me certainly, there’s been a totally other story.

This is not to say the life people generally see is a lie: it’s not. Both are true. That’s the point. My family life, work life, social life – these are all crucial and crucially precious to me, and I’m honestly myself within them. BUT there is – and long has been – another true story. And this one isn’t so often told, and isn’t (probably, though what do I know?) nearly as visible.

It’s like my life has run along parallel lines. And I’m pretty sure this is more than the natural, and necessary, divide between outer and inner life. Noir, my first full collection, explores a time when that divide widened – when I was a teen and then a young and (yes, I now know) vulnerable woman. And The Girl Who Cried trawls right back to my very earliest difficulties, and then tracks their impact throughout my life. Both books attempt to surface and express the things I’ve found nearly impossible to say in other ways. Because I’ve felt I’m living this double life, of sorts, ever since I can remember.

I’m reminded of a strong image that emanates from childhood, when I suffered from double vision. One poem in Noir recalled the experience of repeated visits to Brighton Eye Hospital to attempt the seemingly impossible task of putting ‘the lion’ in one eye into ‘the cage’ in the other. I’d always wanted to write about this as it felt such an apt metaphor for my bigger difficulty: to bring my story and understory into the same frame, and hold them there, steady, together.

I, like millions, have watched and been moved by Brené Brown on her excellent evaluation of ‘The Power of Vulnerability’. I’ve taken on board, and taken seriously, her definition of ‘whole-hearted’ people being those who accept and acknowledge their vulnerability, know it’s ‘necessary’, and what makes them ‘beautiful’. And her insight that what stops us from managing this is, universally, shame.

Well, we can experiment with suspending shame, for a time. I really appreciated this review of The Girl Who Cried by Alex Josephy, on London Grip. She wrote: ‘Avoiding sentimentality and refusing shame, Charlotte Gann opens the box.’ And I’ve begun to wonder what it would be like to form writing groups – or be a companion, or critical friend – with others also curious about exploring their understories. Forge contexts where this stuff could be talked about – as naturally as what we’ve watched on Netflix recently, or what’s coming up in the garden. Where we write thoughtfully – with great care, and conversation – opening up (not blindly inhabiting) our understories. 

You may read this and recoil, think I can’t imagine anything worse. I, however, think this is a group I would like to belong to. A group where we explore what normally stays hidden and invisible: unsaid. Where we say it. And see where that takes us – and our writing.

A no-particular moment

IMG_20200726_111847006It’s funny isn’t it, how individual photos can really move us? A photo that’s in no way spectacular: an old blurred print, only 3½ by 4½ inches, taken at a no-particular moment. One we’d have discarded as uninteresting when the holiday snaps came back from the chemist.

Here’s one such, for me. Taken, I know, in summer 1981, when I’d just done my O Levels. We’re in Denmark: I’m standing; my sister Sarah (who was then in her mid-twenties and living in Amsterdam) is seated, in a white T shirt; her Australian flatmate Anne, in yellow beside her.

I’ve no idea why this photo so stirred me when I found it yesterday, but it did and does. Something about it looking like a film still? I really like the brown and yellow, almost sepia, colour scheme. I find it touching to catch this glimpse of us so much younger. (What am I even doing? Maybe putting a cassette into a tape recorder? Or opening a bottle of wine? Gawd knows…) 

A photo we just stumble on, in an old bag, stuffed between pages of a book, one of a bunch in a torn brown envelope, out of focus – not even taken in a place that means much to us. 

And no one smiling into the camera, not posed; just caught in some random moment. Three people. Being alive. Thirty nine summers ago.

TRUSTING QUIET

I’ve been thinking about this phrase. It seems potent to me. A relief. Especially for someone who has hungered for resonance.

I think about how it says – on the back cover of The Girl Who Cried – ‘Gann’s poems, which tackle risky subjects, do so quietly.’ (John Challis, Poetry School.) And of how small some of those poems are, crouched there on the page.

Family b&wI think of growing up the youngest of a big family, and how my two earliest cherished memories are of being alone in the quiet: once, in our sitting room, watching a spider plant cascade into the dusty sunshine; another time, when I was very young, out on the pavement watching snow fall by streetlight.

I think of the relief I felt finally living alone in a flat in my twenties in London – after that full house of childhood, and multiple shared flats and houses.

Of how much I’ve sometimes talked as a way of coping with awkwardness and empathy. How instinctively I mistrust ‘social media’, at a visceral level. 

How much of my life I’ve spent invisible, and silent about the things that have really hurt and shaped me.

How difficult it is for me, at times, to trust silence – and not reach out across it.

But how the Quiet trusts me – with its pillows and cat and light falling through a window. And how I trust it back: the gentlest, safest thing I know. Where work gets done.

One Point of Interest

One role I have in life is as co-editor of the Sphinx site where we publish OPOI – or ‘One Point of Interest’ – reviews of poetry pamphlets. I’m really pleased that one of our new reviewers, Jane Thomas, has taken the same approach, and written an ‘OPOI review’ of The Girl Who Cried. I can’t post this on the Sphinx site, of course – that’s only for pamphlet reviews. But I love this as an approach to reviewing anyway: it means just focusing on one aspect that you’re particularly struck by, and that only briefly.

Jane said she was happy for me to share her review – so here is what she wrote:

TGWC coverThe child inside

The crux of this glorious collection for me is:

How can I wake at fifty
with the same pain I woke with aged five? (p45)

The realisation that we always carry the child we were within us, with its most basic fears and traumas. That the adult version is just a build of years and experiences, like the stream of poems we find here.

Each page has a small square instead of a title. I think they may be small empty frames relating to the frame references – ‘unframed photographs’ (p60), ‘Your frame is f***ed’ (p53), and ‘Jesus Christ Almighty, I’ve been lugging this thing’ (p41) – but for me they also look like tick boxes: every year survived and ticked off. All the time the poet is just trying to survive: ‘Can I float?’ (p35).

It also feels like a study of the alienation that we all feel (maybe even more so in recent times). And the oft held belief that it is ours to deal with alone:

Nobody wants to know about me, or this.
Nobody. You want ‘an easy life’. (p9)

But when you read this collection you do want to know about the poet and her experience.

I grabbed your sleeve. I slipped pebbles
in your pockets: weighed you down. (p11)

Each poem slips a pebble to the reader, some shiny, some rough but they make you feel lighter – the assurance of common human experience. Some poems make use of psychoanalytic language hinting that the poet is speaking to someone and by the end of the sequence there is hope. It feels like now that the little girl has had a chance to cry, grieve and speak she is less likely to ‘drown silently’. In the final poem the poet is both loving herself and another and is being heard in the wider world. I suggest you join the audience and the journey in this inspiring book for alienating times.

Jane Thomas

 

How to frame a Conversation?

new frame_1One of the things I love most about poems is how they’re like little frames on the page. A poem can be like a picture on a wall: here is a scene, often with a twist. A collection can be like a gallery of one person’s work (an anthology, or magazine, is a gallery of a range of artists’). Of course the pictures have been hung in a certain order, in certain spaces, and in conversation with each other, as well as hopefully with their reader (viewer, as she wanders through). 

By writing The Girl Who Cried I’ve taken a gamble: I’ve hung an exhibition that’s tried to frame something fundamental from my own experience, and see if anyone responds with recognition. There’s the gamble: on it not being just me who carries this intruding burden, which is a particular kind of severe, anxious loneliness.

And frames have been important in my thinking. The thing I’ve yearned for, or think I’ve felt myself lacking, has been a kind of ‘framing’: a wish for someone’s understanding to ‘frame’ me. Hold me together. (This is matched by an equally primitive terror: the fear that I’ll get trapped, perhaps inside that person’s ‘frame’. A space that’s far too small and confined. A space that’s dangerous.) 

So, frames play out in this drama I am also trying to find a frame for. (A drama whose very nature feels pre-word.) How to find words to frame my experience?

IMG_20200617_093840021 (1)

I’ve tried – in my book. I’ve tried to document a lifetime’s navigating. With its title-less poems, each their own shape on their page. I’ve even added drawings – the thing looks rather like a room in a gallery, as you come in through the door, into its frame. And there are a couple of notices at the entrance: two epigraphs, and opening poems that sound an alarm, and lay the ground: The work you’ll find in this exhibition, they alert, concerns the artist’s preoccupation. And there are two key poems in the book which make explicit use of the frame-image, and a number more that do so obliquely.

But… things don’t fit neatly into frames. It’s been a long work-in-progress, a to and fro. How to find words to frame these things, when the experiences are themselves without the frame of words?

Another thing I love about poems: that they can frame sensation, felt sense, bodily trauma, not just thoughts. 

I find my poems wear their frames quite closely. There’s a claustrophobia perhaps – well, that is pertinent. A confined space inside the frame I allow myself, (too fearful to expand and speak).

But the other thing is this book is a conversation. It’s trying to provide the frame as well as explore the search for it: to be, or provide precisely the kind of connection it seeks. At the same time as keeping safe.

Everything passes_1And actually, yes, in writing the poems I have been having that conversation with myself. Crucially. And attempting, eventually, to render my wordless experience intelligible: to frame it in words. 

These poems are also in conversation with each other: albeit separated by the white wall between their frames. And they hope very much to be in conversation with a reader. A conversation that has started now.

I’m taking part in HappenStances Conversations with Poets series (a Zoom webinar), on 2nd July. See here for details, and to register.

‘Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.’

Red BookThis is one of my favourite lines from one of my favourite poems. I know Mary Oliver herself is said to have grown tired of everyone loving ‘Wild Geese’, but I can’t stop. It’s the unexpectedness of the lines that make that impossible. 

The first: ‘You do not have to be good.’ The first time I read that (a long time ago now) I couldn’t believe it. The relief. Then, before we get comfortable: ‘You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.’ The combination of depth of feeling, with ease of expression utterly compels me. I was thrilled at how extreme the situation was that she’s describing: that degree of shame and toil. The desert like the decades we live (walk on our knees) through. She’s saying we don’t have to, but with maximum compassion: there’s no doubt she knows we have, and we do, and that she has too.

Each line in the poem is a full, clear, simple sentence. There are so few adjectives – so the first that does appear leaps out: ‘You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.’ That ‘soft’.

(I like noticing the adjectives in this poem: ‘soft’, ‘clear’ [‘pebbles of the rain’], ‘deep’ [trees – which is just lovely], ‘wild’ [geese, of course], which then allows the positive outburst of: ‘the clean blue air’ through which those geese fly high.)

And then there’s the line I started with:

‘Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.’

The acknowledgment in this line. I like the fact we’re now together in this. There’s no room for doubt: you have your despair; I have mine. This poem (poet) meets us here: joins me on this vital similarity. That, in itself, is quietly marvellous: it leaves this (at times, despairing) reader so much less alone. It’s GENEROUS…

TGWC cover

The Girl Who Cried

So what brought me back to this line now? Sitting here, thinking how will I introduce my own, new, strange book, which just arrived for preorder in the HappenStance shop? And of course, in the midst of this awful, global situation – which none of us could have anticipated.

(Bloodaxe, by the way, chose Wild Geese as the epigraph poem for its famous anthology Staying Alive with good reason.)

My book. Why have I written it? Well, to start with, I couldn’t stop myself. I mean, if I was to go on writing poetry at all, these were the next poems that insisted on being written.

It is a(nother) quite brave book for me, detailing as it does the most basic, long-lasting and embarrassing inner struggle. This was the book that sat for me behind the first I wrote – Noir. I had to write that to get behind it to this – although once I did, I saw I had also, over some years, been writing them in parallel.

I carried on, writing poetry as simply and as clearly as I could. At one stage, I thought of these as ‘woodcut poems’. But there was something too thin or harsh about the book – as opposed to ‘harsh and exciting’ – and so I started introducing my drawings. I realised they were needed – to accompany these poems out into the world. 

They brought a bit of air, and together the poems and pictures lifted a little off the page. (Helena Nelson, publisher at HappenStance, also suggested removing each poem’s title – which helped lighten the pages further.) Something happened… The pictures, along with certain phrases in the poems (e.g. ‘I know / I shouldn’t walk on flowerbeds’ – phrases I think of as ‘human bridges’), HELPED.

‘Meanwhile the world goes on’, wrote Mary Oliver. And later:

‘Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.’

I could never have foreseen, of course, publishing in the midst of a global pandemic: the awful loss and pain and anxiety so many have suffered and are suffering and will suffer, and all of us gripped in this thing…

I guess some things remain human. I’m not certain why it is we go to such lengths not to tell the truth about ourselves: why the shame is so pronounced. This is my attempt to do something different – ‘Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine – and by doing so, too, perhaps to further discover my ‘place / in the family of things.’ 

Here is Mary Oliver reading ‘Wild Geese’.
Here is a link to The Girl Who Cried.

Occasionally a poem HELPS

Around any corner an amazing encounter may await. That’s what happened for me with Jennifer Copley’s poem ‘The Two Friends’. It just stunned – stuns – me. At every reading. A short piece – 13 lines. Set in three uneven stanzas. It’s irreverent, and concerned only with acceptance.

It’s a much happier poem than many I love. The title’s perfect – has a timeless, childlike quality. But the exclusivity of that ‘Two’, for me, coupled to its definite article and noun…  This pact is real. And sound.

The poem tells the story of the friendship between a small mouse and the corner of a field. ‘It’s his favourite corner / where he feels safe. / The corner is happy to have him.’ A good arrangement, then – excellent.

Although, of course, nothing is static, or perfect or permanent. The corner’s stuck there, the mouse comes and goes. (The mouse has legs and feet, the corner is a corner and has no choice but stay put: it’s in its nature.)

When the mouse is away, the corner frets – how can it not? And he doesn’t so much worry that something bad may have happened to the mouse; his worry is riddled with self doubt. ‘The corner worries he won’t come back, / that he’ll find a better corner elsewhere.’ And – indeed, because

‘A long time ago the corner’s mother did just that.’

But then this poor corner is reassured immediately, gloriously, compassionately. In bursts the poet, no less, and wielding an exclamation mark like a small sword. Breaking through convention, tearing down those paper walls.

‘Don’t worry, little corner! I am the writer of this poem
and I can reveal the mouse will always return’

In one last, exquisite twist, she also concedes that the mouse will age, and tire (though not of the corner) – life is tough, and gruelling; all the more need for that safe pact.

I love the fact The Two Friends are so different – in nature, size, strength – yet symbiotic. Of course they’re vulnerable – in completely different ways. The more physically robust corner is the more worried. Though that mouse’s fur is, increasingly, ‘bedraggled’, (and there’s that sting in the tail of the final word, ‘nettles’).

IMG_20190714_162929458 (2)Most of all I love the authorial authority – like a children’s book narrator – of this poet in this poem, including her necessary, wonderful, surprise appearance. I like the humour. I love the corner.

As a portrait of friendship – resonance – why it’s necessary – I’m not sure it leaves a thing unsaid.

 

IMG_20190718_084123509
by Jennifer Copley, from Some Couples, HappenStance, 2017.