Memory and forgetting

Pete, who commented last time, is at Manchester doing postgrad Psychology and trying to work out what his dissertation should be. They’ve been given various options….. one of them is about mapping how memories are laid down. Well, there’s a thing, and what’s strangest is what you consciously or subconsciously choose to forget and the pin-sharp flashes of those things you would like to forget, but can’t.

Don’t you think a lot of it is about trying to forge your identity, some kind of coherent identity, out of the muddle of jigsaw pieces life has handed you? My father was a very skillful artist; he could draw or paint anything and bring it alive on paper in a few fluent strokes, but he came from a background of poverty in the East End and when he was young and trying to make a living as an artist, his girlfriend’s rich and sophisticated family refused to let her marry him because they said he would never make it as an artist. That brought him to a shuddering halt. He couldn’t get past it; that memory stood between him and any piece of canvas he tried to paint on. (The girlfriend believed her family rather than believing in him; a humiliating memory etched in acid….) He worked as a potter, throwing cups and saucers, and that was fine, because it was what a working man who would never be an artist might do. The only times he managed to paint was if someone outside himself set him an absolute deadline: he painted the scenery for the local am dram society and on the last night before the dress rehearsal, usually about 10 or 11 pm, he would suddenly throw himself at the job and dash off some beautiful scenery or sketch out vividly coloured portraits for the walls of a stately home – whatever was wanted. But his ability to construct an identity in his own mind of himself as a worthwhile artist, to be taken seriously by others, was gone for good.

Funny old world, isn’t it?

This is a poem about him, called “Stroke,” from which you can tell what happened, when he was 87. We never did get him home from hospital, back to the house where we’d been living next door and looking after him for 11 years. He died before we could move him.

Stroke

He looks wrong

most essentially, he smells wrong

– But he is still my Dad.

His hands defined him.

Straight-grained as the beechwood,

broad- knuckled as the oak,

strong and supple as the subtle ash.

Now, one like a water-swollen rubber glove,

a shiny, fisted pale balloon;

the other shrunken to a claw like a pitifully small lobster’s.

He looks wrong

for the man who was many skilled, lived by the work of his hands;

most essentially, he smells wrong

but he is still my Dad.

His voice defined him.

Cockney vowelled and deep brown, speaking in rushes

as the ideas formed in him,  a rough, passionate man,

swear words salting every smoky utterance,

till his thoughts were seasoned like a ham hung from a beam;

quick, convinced of his rightness

however wrong he was, nasal and clear as Bow bells

opinionated, funny, strong of wit.

He sounds wrong

– silent, he cannot speak – cannot make the words;

most essentially, he smells wrong

but he is still my Dad.

I want to take him home.

Yes, Doctor, that’s what he wants too.

How can I tell? Many ways –

the shift of his head when I speak of it; the sigh;

the shaft of a milky eye under the creased lids.

When I was a child he knew what I wanted,

knew from a tug at his hand or a shoe sidling round the door.

And he is still my Dad.

Nothing about a room is as important as how the room smells…..

….I mean, if you’re going to write in it or do anything creative. The smell of a room influences your mood so much. It may not even be a room. If you’re a fresh air fiend and a singer songwriter, maybe you need to stride along a hilltop to pull your ideas together in the bracing cold air, or maybe, loiter in the earthy melancholy of an autumn wood. If you write flash fiction, do you do your best work locked up with your i.pad in a private den that just smells comfortably stuffy and safe? Or do you like to write in a shed that smells of cedar planks, or your bedroom that has your perfume in the curtains?

Some people find the smell of a library gets them in the creative mood – conditioned by years of doing research for their historical novel, perhaps. In any case, there’s something about the sense of smell that goes straight to the centre of your brain. It influences your mood, it tells you you’re safe. Or not. As the case may be. Tells you you’re in your home. Or the pub. Or a cafe…….

Of course, you may do your best work in a place where you’re not comfortable, or safe. You may be on fire creatively in a place which is nearly intolerable in other ways. I once wrote the first draft of a novel standing up at a sideboard in a room where my mother was very ill – Radio 4 playing constantly, as she found it comforting. Writing when she was asleep, stopping, of course, when she woke up, or when innumerable things had to be done. That writing – it wasn’t about her directly – but it kept me sane, I was writing for my life. A lot of people will have had a similar experience.

Unlikely, mind you, that one could revise or edit one’s work under those circumstances – you need the calm room that smells of cedar or the coffee-scented cafe for that.

Coffee

 

……. the smell of coffee,

that strong, particular black brew, pungently French,

in the broad breakfast cup carelessly ample,

as if there could never be too much coffee, an adult pleasure,

never too much pleasure.

The bold, slightly ugly furniture. Jolie-laide.

A handful of flowers.

The strong Provencal sun, slabbed on the table like butter,

southerly, yellow, striping the wood with its heat.

Diagonal on a plate, a crisp baguette,

new from the bakery, its soft, fresh crumb

a revelation of how much one day is treasured.

Outside the shutters rattle in wind that rises, breath of the scorched land,

arid acres of vines.

That smell of coffee

Floods me with a memory brazenly sharp:

The sense of my young blood, how when I smelt that coffee

I was intoxicated with newness of life

rising like bread, ignorant too

how soon it could stale

and how an empty cup

cooling on the breakfast table

reminds me how long it is since I was last in France

Beautiful needy dogs

Looking after my son and daughter-in-law’s dogs while they are on honeymoon. Understandably, they are wondering what’s going on and while they’re good-natured enthusiasts for walks and any kind of action, they are being incredibly needy for attention! It’s impossible to get on with anything without an inquisitive nose trying to poke into the grill while you’re making toast, under your elbow between you and the keyboard….. At the moment Briar is fetching shoes. This, no doubt, is a suggestion that a walk would be in order. They’re German short-haired pointers, tall, hound-style dogs with a greyhound’s hindquarters and very fleet of foot, and it’s impossible to tire them out. One is four and the other a youngster of five months. In between shoes Briar has been fetching egg-boxes – as her mistress keeps chickens, this is probably trying to prompt me to go out and collect the eggs. Any excuse to rush about out of doors! Sadly for her, I don’t have chickens so her suggestion has fallen on stony soil.

This is a poem about the adult dog, in the days before they had the young one, and they were going on holiday. That time she did go with them – this time, she really has had to stay behind, but she is not so worried as she has her sidekick Briar constantly at her heels.

   The brown dog and the child are in the car a long time

The car is full of stuff.

Even the brown dog’s place in the boot under the back window.

The little child, strapped in her seat, throws her Comfy lamb on the floor, fretfully.

The brown dog circles the car, full of worry.

There is no room in the car. No room for dog.

No room and she senses they are all going away.

The brown dog knew when they all got up very early

that there was an Atmosphere, a hurry, excitement,

something is happening but what? Then they filled the car with bags

dog can smell food and she can smell rubber and sunscreen

and the little child peeing in her clean nappy already, and sweat, tense sharp sweat,

they are going away, dog is sure, there is no room for dog!

Desperate, she decides she will run after the car.

Dog can run very fast, she will follow them.

She will hide and not allow herself to be shut in the house.

Her tail is between her legs, she quivers, she noiselessly sneaks to a spot by the gate.

Ready to leap to a gallop when the car goes past.

Worrying that the car is too fast and she – no, she will run!

She will keep up!

They are shouting for her. She quivers. She needs to obey.

Shivering, she skulks towards her mistress.

The car door is open! “In you go, in the back!”

The brown dog dives among legs and packages

she can just fit, tail curled tightly, next to the little child’s carseat.

The brown dog is happy. Her jaws smile.

Her tail has no room to wag but her rear switches slightly.

She is in the car with her mistress and the master and the little child

for a long time, a long long time, but

dog is so happy she was not left behind, they are all together.

She spends hours separating, identifying smells in the car

and looking out of the window, beyond the carseat.

Dog’s keen eyes check the places that fly past,

looking particularly for rabbits.

Wish me luck!

Off on an organised walk in half an hour or so, I’ve got people at work sponsoring me for the “Dani Hayman Fund.” This is the social workers’ own charity,  local to Swindon – though I expect other social work departments all over the country must have their own version – so that we can access small amounts quickly for immediate needs of our clients. We can use it for all sorts of situations where official funding wouldn’t apply. For example, a teenager who was carer for her dying mother who wanted to buy her mum a Christmas present for her last Christmas. She didn’t get pocket money because the household finances were too tight, and obviously, she couldn’t have a paper round because she was doing things for her mum until she went to school. Or a coffee machine for a lady with a very painful chronic illness whose painkillers were so numerous and difficult for her to swallow that a cappuccino was the only thing that helped her to take them! But the most frequent use is just when people who are isolated are found unwell at home, to enable us to rush out and get them milk and bread and tomatoes, some cheese and fruit – you know – the perishables which have gone off in their in their fridge. Perhaps fish and chips or a takeaway to cheer them up with something hot.

It has been raining,  but the walk will be beautiful anyway, or parts of it – through the bluebell woods. It’s the Mayday Beating the Bounds walk round the parish boundary, an old tradition for all the villages round here. It’s got moved from the traditional Mayday to the nearest Sunday, and it will be 23 miles altogether, which I have done in the past, but I’m not getting any younger and a touch of arthritis so I’m only doing half.

The bluebell woods are lovely, but I’ll tell you what isn’t – oilseed rape fields in the rain are disgusting to walk through, they look yellow and bright but they are amazingly sticky underfoot and against your clothes, and they smell of over-boiled cabbage. Not looking forward to that so much!

This is a poem about woods: specifically a wood where American airmen carved their names during WW2.

Words in a Wood

Scattered words in a wood       dropped at random       like rabbit droppings   like spiders thread

leaf drift          of thought      fallen here              many lives of woodmice ago

in a time of legend to      squirrels when      huge birds that thunder        flew from the wood

trees remember:    to them    it is only a few seasons     in their long lives, but   words

were carved into their bark   careless of the risk        of fungal invasion

trees are strong, stern and                         survive                                             The carvers

mortal as burrowing beetles                    vanished soon after            in an armada of fuel vapour.

So the trees say.

   Where   BUCK  twigs like finger-bones  clatter  on the  silver B. BILLSON trunks of beech

               BUTCH                               BETTY                             JOE MATIN

               BALLIN                              CAIRN                                  XXX X                      

                  USA                                   CASEY                              MARY JO                         

  Barbed KILROY wire etched  deep round  the perimeters hurtful  JEAN wounds on wood

            WAS HERE                           MARIE                                  USAAF    

The history of men and wood rots together in the understory,

stories of women written on leaves sink into the mould.                

    What is battle, what heroes, what fear and excitement, what is the struggle for justice  

or the fate of living people and nations, to a wood?

Bones clutched in the roots,

a plane’s skeleton slowly twisted under the soil

as the trees grow, irresistible as the passing of years,

but mortal to the axe, to chainsaws just as we are.

Then why is a wood so comforting, why does it feel a place of peace?

It is in balance, lives without fear in the moment.

It sways and roars to the storms, the crows that whirl overhead, exulting.

It spreads new green to the sun after every war, after dire winters.

Words in a wood:

wounds accepted, life grows, bluebell throngs breathe perfume;

one may feel the breath of God in a wood, sometimes, in the wind or the stillness.

Let those incomprehensible wounds of war heal, let them heal: so the trees say.

Journalism should have as much in common with poetry as with prose…Why?

There was a fascinating thread on a writers’ site I follow. Chasing down the idea of this connection, one of the things it did expose was very different ideas on what poetry is. Several people believed that the one defining feature of poetry is to express an idea in as few, punchy, words as possible. One contributor quoted a headline which he thought was poetry:

“Headless body in topless bar”

Do you think this is poetry? It’s minimalist, certainly, and it has humour. It could be a good line in a poem – or a title for a poem – but a poem in itself? Might be interesting to try to write that poem…

The idea that poetry should be minimalist is a modern one, on the whole. Poetry on the other hand is an ancient art, intimately linked to song and memory. It’s hard to imagine that Homer, writing “The Odyssey,” or the writer of “Beowulf” were trying to keep it short – the origins lie in oral poetry and wonderful inventions of beauty and complexity in metre and form, telling a story which kept audiences gathered round the fire spellbound for hours.

But now we don’t have to rely on poems to pass on our history and values – do we? We have a vast volume of info coming at us through umpteen forms of media, and we need something brief and brilliant to captivate us and make us think.

So here is a translation of a poem by Anna Akhmatova:

He loved three things

He loved three things in life:

White peacocks, evensong,

And old maps of America.

He hated hearing a child’s strife,

Hated tea with raspberry,

And womanish hysteria.

……. I was his wife.

wordsaremychocolate – where on earth did you get that name??

I went over to some friends for dinner recently, and this was the in phrase round their table – people were saying, when mushroom soup arrived, “I love mushrooms, mushrooms are my chocolate!” or “bacon is my chocolate!” So when I was thinking about trying my hand at a blog, since I’ve always loved words and spend a lot of time mulling them over with people in writing groups, it seemed the thing to call it…..

Incidentally, the friends we were visiting are passionate art collectors, particularly Mark who’s been a friend since school. Not that they’re rich, they live in an ordinary house, but it’s full of paintings and pottery – beautiful sculpted ceramics. They don’t buy what’s expensive and fashionable, but Mark trusts his own taste and follows the cutting edge in what he likes. And he was saying that when the house is full up he donates a slice of his collection to a museum and or public art gallery and starts again! Now that’s confidence – and being free of attachment to your possessions – and making your mark on the future. He’s making a donation to Swindon art gallery, because he felt they really needed some good up to date stuff. I like his style!

We need more like him, to buy young artists’ and potters’ best work and give them encouragement and appreciation, and then donate it to an art gallery and buy some more – what’s not to like??

On a more practical note, we’re helping with the organisation of my son’s wedding at the moment – negotiations about the cake this morning. There’s a definite tendency, where wedding arrangements are being made, for everybody who can supply or make things to think that you have infinite time and money at your disposal. Of course that would be great….. but it’s not the real world, not in this house anyway! I got told off by a shop this week for not being free at 11am on a Wednesday. I can’t get my head around this. Do they assume everybody is unemployed….. and if so, how do they think they can afford their prices?

High grey (rather rainy) skies this morning: I’ll post a poem about swans, as there are some flying across. In the last verse there’s an unusual word. “Limned” means to draw or paint like the animals on an illuminated manuscript.

                                        On two swans, flying

 

Like haikus written on the wind,

matched wing on wing precisely so,

smooth neck by neck, great-striding by

a giant’s pace across the sky,

– what do you voyage so far to find?

An ancient priest at sacrifice

would pause before the fatal blow

if two such swans, like mystic words,

gods’ sendings, mute-prophetic birds

wrote on the sky their scrawled device

foretelling battles won or lost,

a shrine to seek and far to go,

the doom of empires, fall of kings

in sighing of momentous wings,

the earthbound left to count the cost.

Reproach us from our grubby ponds,

where children look out stones to throw!

In meagre parks you bend your head

to pick up scraps of mouldy bread,

like a proud unicorn in bonds.

You two strange voyagers, onward fly,

limned on the clouds like snow on snow,

no one may know their destiny

so, sunset bound, fly westerly,

your element the boundless sky.

Things just fly everywhere

One of the bad things about being a poetry reviewer for Pulsar poetry webzine is trying to find the time to read the books after a heavy day at work. One of the great things about it is that I get sent the books for free, not books I’d have chosen but new, challenging material, and I have to read it and reflect and re-read with real attention! Going to write about it so I have to give it 100%.

Nothing like it for keeping the little grey cells alive. It means having to take on board unfamiliar genres and writers who are pushing the boundaries – in all sorts of ways. One was quite extraordinarily obscure, but you have to think: should I recommend this – what will people gain if they take the time to feel and think their way into this work? Another was a sequence, rather beautiful, about a melancholy dominatrix – it did seem to be feeling its way towards suicide chic.

Some of the most original and brilliant are collections by American poets – there are vibrant scenes both in the USA and South American countries, some collections in three languages. One poet who really grabbed me is Kim Shuck, who combines threads from several worlds in her poems; she has Cherokee and Polish ancestry. I love the blunt way she puts words together, and how she uses fantasy and humour, to look deep into the realities behind everyday life.

The only thing I really don’t understand is why the whole book is in capital letters??

A BLANKET AS MAP             KIM SHUCK

ART IS TERRITORIAL

THESE ASSEMBLIES OF THINGS

COLLECTED FROM MY WORLD

LIFTED FROM YOURS AND REWORKED

UNTILTHEY HAVE A PLACE IN MINE

NO LESS A STATEMENT THAN THE CAT

FACE RUBBING SCENT MARK

MIGHT FEEL GOOD

MIGHT FLATTER

PURR MIGHT PLEASE

DON’T BE FOOLED

THIS IS ABOUT TURF

THESE BLOODY PAWPRINTS

I STITCH ACROSS OUR SHARED QUILT

What do you think? Strong, isn’t it – thought-provoking – but does it gain from the capital letters?