Matt Merritt’s ‘A Sky Full of Birds’

Birds, or more specifically eggs and dead birds, had a big impact on me during my formative years.  There was the occasion in primary school where I innocently removed an egg from a nest in order to show a teacher. She told me I had caused the death of a baby bird and some thirty years later I recollected that moment in a poem, ‘Egg’ published in a pamphlet called ‘Gopagilla’.  I also remember finding a dead blackbird while making a den in a hedge at the age of nine or ten. The bird was very recently dead and I can still picture its delicate feet and oily eye. I did notice live birds too- most memorably the house martins in their mud nests under the eves of a white house in the Leicestershire village of Quorn where I lived.

On family walks in Swithland woods my father had two bird calls he could make by shaping his hands and blowing into them. One was the sound made by a cuckoo, the other, that of an owl. I don’t know what kind of owl it was that my dad was impersonating, but I do remember my mother telling him to stop once when his call received an identical response. I think she was concerned that the respondent would be disappointed when no suitor proved forthcoming, and that the interested party would be left bereft and lonely in the otherwise owl-less wood.

My renewed interest in birds coincided with starting to write poems again in my early thirties. I imagine this had to do in part, with spending more time walking and noticing things, whether that be the beautiful plumage of starlings bathing in puddles by a bus stop in a busy Sheffield high street, or a skylark climbing from a field near the South Downs way. I had no idea, until recently, what an impact birds had and have upon my imagination and how often they appear in my poems.  A skim through my first book reveals, scattered through the pages, a kestrel, a blackbird, swans, sparrows, a crane and a wren. The typescript of my new book has a similarly high avian count, this time featuring a heron, cormorant, swan, crows, geese, rooks and a disembodied wing.  My knowledge has increased a little, but I am hardly even an apprentice bird-spotter. Both the heron and geese in these poems were spotted in the patch of sky revealed by the office window where I sit writing this, and although I am always thrilled to see hedge sparrows, blackbirds and occasional starling or robin in the small garden behind the house, I’ve been keen for some time to learn something of the birds that frequent the country beyond the village and city where I live and work.

For this reason I was delighted to obtain a copy  of Matt Merritt’ s book, ‘A Sky Full of Birds’.

A sky Full

As well as being a poet (see an interview here), Matt is the editor of Bird Watching Magazine.  I took the book on holiday with me to the Northumberland coast, one of the great areas in which to see seabirds in the British isles, and it proved to be an educational and entertaining choice for such a trip.

While there I was fortunate to see puffins, cormorants and sand martins, among many other birds I was unable to identify (I have since bought a field guide.) I was also lucky enough to visit the grey seal colony’s by boat, and one evening while walking alone on the rocks below Bamburgh Castle, to catch several glimpses of what I believe was a Minke whale. I was too surprised and slow to capture the whale with my camera.

P1030521
The sea after the whale I spotted
had submerged.

I am unqualified to write in any meaningful way about these sightings, which is why I was so taken with ‘A Sky Full of Birds’, a book that generously shares great expertise and passion for its subjects without ever alienating the inexpert reader.

Early on, the author makes it clear that he knows that birdwatchers are a strange species, and that their dedication, passion and associated behaviors are likely to appear peculiar to those with a more casual interest. While I was absorbed by the writer’s easy , laconic narration, I was learning; absorbing facts about the astonishing and often overlooked bird-life that inhabits every part of the UK. Each chapter ranges freely and smoothly across historical, anthropological and geographical landscapes, weaving in social and autobiographical detail.  The humor is gentle and self-effacing, and the text is punctuated by astonishing flights of description that might be described, in the best sense, as wildly romantic.  Unlikely as it may sound, these sections sit beside and segue-way easily into scientific fact and research based evidence.  Ecological concerns are raised and are placed in the context of humanity’s historical impact, with triumphs, both accidental and otherwise, being highlighted alongside failures to manage and protect environments, as well as tales of the incredible resilience and adaptability of birds.   There are a wealth of facts relating to the origins of bird names, and references to the appearance of various birds in literary and musical works. All this may sound too dense and specialized for those with a casual interest in bird-life. It is not.  The author accesses a well of deep knowledge in an entertaining way, managing to convey something of the mystery surrounding many of his subjects and fascination this inspires. Both the scarcity of certain birds and the ubiquitous nature of others are frequent themes, and we discover how the shifting location of populations are effected by the unique geography and micro-climates of the British isles.  ‘A Sky Full of Birds’ is a great read. Buy a copy for yourself and another for a friend or relative.

Matt Merritt blogs at Polyolbion.

Featured poet Elizabeth Parker

I was lucky to attend the launch of issue 62 of The Interpreter’s House magazine at the wonderful Albion Beatnik bookshop in Oxford.

Albion Beatnik

The Albion, a small and enthusiastic bookshop in the Jericho part of town, has been described by the Sunday Times as the “best bookshop in Oxford,” and it is the kind of place where it is hard to tell staff from browsing customers and tea drinkers. The bookshop houses a relaxed cafe and hosts poetry, music, themed literary evenings and general talks and debates.

The Interpreter’s House issue 62 launch event was held in the evening and attended by hard-working editor and co-editors Martin Malone and Charles Lauder.

TIH62_CVR

There were readings by some of the many contributors to the issue, including Elizabeth Parker.

Zelda Chappel, Dawn Gorman, Lizzie Parker
Left to right, poets Zelda Chappel, Dawn Gorman
and Elizabeth Parker at the Albion Beatnik.

Among the many highlights was Lizzie’s reading of her beautiful poem about walking with her father, ‘At Cannop Ponds’. I asked if Lizzie would like to share the poem and some other work here and I’m delighted that she kindly agreed.

Elizabeth Parker was born in The Forest of Dean and grew up in a garden center which her parents still own and run. She finds The Forest of Dean inspires her writing more and more.

After achieving First Class Hons in English and Creative Writing at Warwick University, she taught secondary English for eight years. Elizabeth’s poems have been shortlisted for The Bridport Prize and Eyewear Publishing’s Melita Hume Prize, which resulted in Eyewear publishing her debut pamphlet Antinopolis.

ANT
Elizabeth lives on Bristol harbor and is a member of poetry group The Spoke. Her work was recently Highly Commended in the Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Competition, and has been published in Magma, The Stony Thursday Book, Raceme, Southword, The Interpreter’s House and Eyewear’s latest anthology The Best New British and Irish Poets 2016. She is currently working on her first full collection.


Antinopolis

A city founded by the Roman emperor Hadrian to commemorate his deified young beloved Antinous, who drowned in the Nile.
The site of excavations by French explorer Albert Gayet, who discovered ‘Mummy Portraits’ at the site- highly realistic head-and-shoulder portraits attached to mummies of the Coptic period, bound into the burial cloth so as to cover the face of the deceased and painted in the classical style of ancient Greece and Rome.

 

Antinopolis

They have locked up the river where you fell
bike-tyre slotting into tramline, tipping you

into water that wants us all
now striped with chrome bars.

There is a photo in a pollypocket
cable-tied to a tube bolt.

Your looks were classical
remind me of the mummified boy
in Antinopolis
his portrait on a cedar panel
bright lips, thick brush strokes of black hair.

When Albert Gayet opened the dark
their faces gleamed in the tombs
ancient paint still glossy
in egg-yolk eyes, milk cheeks

hair of soot and plant gum
lips a pinch of cinnabar
stirred through beeswax
kept hot and dry
for two thousand years.

After two years
your shrine is fading

carnations threaded through the bars
hemmed brown with rot
rain drawing pale lines
through your inkjet colours.

I want to laminate your picture
so your face shines

unpick metal stitches
slimy weave of dead carnations.

  

Rivers

My father’s river has risen
above seams that won’t be softened or stolen
from hard lime and coal
to pennant sandstone that gives
until the water is precious
Pewter

My sister’s brook is root beer with rot
the dead giving up their tannins
letting riches from their skins

My grandfather’s river floats rafts of flotsam
scum bobs and pops near its walls
He says it has turned from pea to tea
that his favourite part
sometimes flows the wrong way

My friend is afraid
of her river’s urge for her

Despite wide-mouthed sewers
my grandmother’s river still licks up storms

My mother’s river keeps forking
thinning to little more than shine
Her deft eye gathers its frays
slicks them back to their source

My brother’s river
broods behind loch gates

My aunt’s river grazes its banks
and widens
Rocks are loosed to salt her river

Some drink from their rivers
morsels of light and water
speck their lips

My uncle’s river remembers its monks
their nights rowing to secret mass
prows cutting water bonds
to rock chapels in the gorge

My river reaches for me
At night I watch my river
slink toward my feet

Stormwater has thickened my grandmother’s river
sluicing darkness from the banks

My father’s river has broken through
soothes dry mud
allows fish

My friend’s river has dropped
can’t reach its own watermark
etching of sand that flakes as it dries

This morning my river was high
green and urgent with rain
rushing light and leaves toward the estuary

I have seen it slow
ease its freight of yachts and light

thickened with dark loads

cradling neon

swilling
a dun afternoon

In summer people meet at my river
their bare legs tassel its banks.

Previously published in The Best New British and Irish poets, 2016
Eyewear publishing 

 

At Cannop Ponds

we take the wettest path.
A nestbox spits a nuthatch.

Dad says they shape the hole
by nibbling it larger then rimming the edge
with mud to keep woodpeckers out.

I ask about sinews in the black beech.
He tells me most trees have a twist in them
changing position for light.
We both press palms against the bark.

Mud sucks our boots, moss is juicy
every tread squeezing
a moat around the foot.

On the jetty a fisherman spins a plastic fish
tricking carp, pike, tench,
bream, perch, gudgeon.

We pause over water
clear spaces where silt is settled
crowfoot birthing silver beads.

He can still name every fish, plant
bird, tree, starting with Latin
forgetting I’ll insist on the Common.

He shows me a slime mould on an oak stump
props a node on the end of his finger.
Light glows inside.

There is a mackerel head
by the bench where we pause
one platinum eye.

He describes stumps of alder as gorgeous
says their sap must be red
so I look for wounds.

Across the water, coots pop up
an oak shakes off birds and bits of gold.

He says there’s more life in the reeds
the yellow smoke of oatgrass.

For him, I want the air peppered with little grebes
lifting and landing on the surface like fleas.

I want to keep asking
make sure he remembers every bird call.

He says he is tired of listing things for me

says, quietly, that he and his mates
used to jump into marl holes.
The Blackhand Gang of 50s Smethwick
finding gaps in the fences
of biscuit factories, building sites
skirting pits of quicklime.

On the biggest rock
we do not find the black crossbow
of the lone Cormorant.

 

From Antinopolis

 

 

Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise

The quote at the top of this page is taken from the wall of ‘Shakespeare and co.’ a bookshop on the left bank in Paris. I discovered the shop when returning from a train trip through several European countries with a girlfriend when I was eighteen
and took a photograph, long since lost, of these words .
It looked very much like the one below.

Be not inhospitable

The quote has, at various times, been wrongly attributed to both W.B Yeats and  William Shakespeare. It was actually the bookshop owner, George Whitman, who wrote and possibly hand painted these words on the wall of his bookshop. The words are in fact paraphrased from the Bible

‘ Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.’
Hebrews 13:2

Why am I writing about this? Because some months ago I was contacted by Stephen Liverman, an organizer of the Ashbourne arts festival in Derbyshire. Stephen asked if I would like to be part of the festival, leading a poetry workshop, giving a reading and judging the children’s poetry competition, the theme of which was ‘Stranger’ .

It was my great pleasure to accept this invitation, and some time later a parcel of poems arrived. The theme gave the children an opportunity to explore the word ‘stranger’,  either as in the phrase ‘stranger and stranger’ or denoting someone unknown to us.

While, perhaps unsurprisingly,  there were many poems about the potential danger of strangers – after all it is important for children to have a basic understanding of how strangers should and should not behave and how to respond  – I was looking for poems that approached and explored the theme imaginatively from different angles; poems which captured an individual’s thoughts and emotions, as well as poems which were funny, surprising and quirky.

As well as sounding good when read aloud, I was also looking for poems which were well-made in terms of their shape – poems that used rhythm and rhyme in subtle and interesting ways, and poems where it was obvious that some thought had been given to the way the poem appeared on the page.  I was delighted to find thought-provoking poems, poems which made me laugh and poems that told interesting stories. Which brings me to the content of the poems.

The UK recently voted by a slender margin to leave the European Union and the aftermath of the result has had one appalling consequence, namely a dramatic rise in the number of racially motivated attacks and abuse in the UK. During this campaign and many others before it, the fear of immigration, of the impact of ‘foreign elements’ on economics and culture was exploited.

It seems to me that now, as always, it is important to enable children to explore themes of difference and commonality.  We all have a responsibility to encourage young people to engage with these themes; however, it seemed a pity that this opportunity had been overlooked by many of the schools who entered their student’s poems to the competition. Much of the work concentrated on fear of strangers and of their potential to cause harm.

I was delighted to find a poem that shed another light on the theme. The poem I eventually awarded third place was entitled ‘Who’s he?’. In it, the writer, seeing a homeless person imagines possible ways in which the man may have fallen on hard times. I was impressed with the way this poem displayed empathy and concern for a stranger, and an awareness that any individual can experience circumstances that will make their lives very difficult.  I liked the imaginative exploration of the stranger’s possible stories. Here’s are some extracts from the poem

‘ Where did he come from? And does he even have any chance of food for his hungry self sleeping outside the bakery’s pastry shelf.’

‘Does he have any money? Did he own a football club but couldn’t pay for his new stadium?’

‘or did he just come back from a war in his muddied up army clothes?’

Not only does this twelve-year-old writer demonstrate the questioning approach that must lie at the heart of a civilized and compassionate society, he also concludes the poem by resolving to take action, to go to find out what had happened to make the person in the poem homeless.

If there is any hope for a confused and frightened world, a world in which ‘strangers’ are vilified and notions of ‘Us and Them’ are exploited by those who would profit, it surely lies in the sort of empathetic inquiry and determination to understand that is at the heart of this child’s poem.

You can read all the winning poems from the competition
here.

 

Ashbourne Festival

I’m looking forward to leading a poetry workshop at the Ashbourne Festival in Derbyshire tomorrow, as well as presenting prizes to the winners of the children’s poetry competition and giving a reading in the afternoon. I’ll let you know how it all goes.

Paper Swans Press

There are a number of small independent poetry presses in the UK that make a vital contribution to the plurality and diversity of poetry that is printed and distributed here. These presses have been set up and run by dedicated individuals with a passion for poetry.  In recent years we have seen an increase in the emergence of presses run by women, including those set up by Emma Wright of the Emma Press and of course Jane Commane at Nine Arches Press.
Another welcome edition to this growing sector of cultural expansion is  Paper Swans Press, a small independent publisher of poetry and flash fiction run by Sarah Miles.  To date the Paper Swans team have produced high quality anthologies after calling for submissions on fruitful themes, such as ‘Schooldays’ and ‘The Darker Side of Love’. The presses first pamphlet by an individual poet,  Elisabeth Sennitt’s ‘Glass’ will be available in the very near future.

The Chronicles of Eve, one of their latest publications, contains poems about, and predominately, although not exclusively, written by women.  The anthology aims to collect together poems that address many aspects of women’s experiences and relationships with themselves and with others.

Chronicles of Eve

I enjoyed attending the launch of the Schooldays anthology last year in London, and was also pleased to have recently won the Poetry of Roses competition that Paper Swans ran in conjunction with the National Trust.  The resulting pamphlet is a thing of beauty, containing some fabulous poems on the theme of roses by Michael Marks Award winner and Happenstance poet Gill McEvoy, competition judge Jill Munro and others.

Roses

You can find out more about Paper Swans here,  and read some short interviews with Carole Bromley, Jill Munro and myself.
Editor Sarah Miles has also kindly published one of my poems, ‘Geese‘ from this summer’s edition of The Rialto.

 

John Lucas and Shoestring Press

There’s a brief interview with writer and publisher John Lucas, in Nottingham’s Leftlion  here . It’s a good read, conveying  John’s passion for writing, publishing, cricket and music, in no particular order, and capturing a little of his direct and down to earth manner, his forthright, informed and uncompromising views, his quickness of mind, joyful independence and wicked sense of humor.  It’s a brief article so doesn’t touch on John’s vast knowledge of literature; mention any writer to him in any genre and John will have an opinion on the merits or otherwise of their works.

I met John Lucas in 2012 at a poetry reading in Nottingham. It was the first time we had ever spoken and John said he had enjoyed my pamphlet, ‘Gopagilla’,  and asked if he could have my home address.
I thought this was unusual in the age of e-mail, but duly wrote my name, street and post code in John’s well thumbed notebook. A week or so later I received a handwritten note on hand-stamped paper asking if I had any more poems as John would like to bring out a collection with his publishing company, Shoestring Press.
The resulting collection of poems came out in November 2013, and was launched in London, at the Lumen in Camden Town, and in Nottingham. I’ve still got some copies- please see the link at the top of the page if you would like one. And you can read one of John’s poems in the Guardian newspaper, here.

Shoestring make beautiful books, and have a very busy publishing schedule. Because of his reputation and the reputation of the press, John manages to sell lots of books without using the internet.
I once accused John of being a twentieth-century publisher to which he swiftly replied ‘oh, eighteenth century, please.’
Despite his suspicion that the internet is no place to sell poetry,  I understand that John has recently been persuaded to try out a paypal button on the website for one of Shoestring’s new titles-a collection of short stories by David Belbin. It remains to be seen if he will be convinced of its value!

I’m delighted to know and work with John, and to be in the company of so many fine writers.  My new collection of poems is scheduled for publication by Shoestring press in 2017.

Happiness, by Raymond Carver

Happiness

So early it’s still almost dark out.
I’m near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.
When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.
They wear caps and sweaters,
and one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren’t saying anything, these boys.
I think if they could, they would take
each other’s arm.
It’s early in the morning,
and they are doing this thing together.
They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs pale over the water.
Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love,
doesn’t enter into this.
Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.

 

I like this poem by Raymond Carver very much. It’s lucid and realistic, a bit like a Robert Frost poem. And it’s apparent simplicity hides the fact it is well made and slightly mysterious.
The feeling of being in the narrator’s presence is immediate and established by the informal tone – the way the poem begins with ‘So.’ I’d suggest this was an almost exclusively American  way of starting a sentence in English until fairly recently, although I may be wrong. Now, many social media postings in the UK begin with ‘So ‘.
The ‘usual early morning stuff that passes for thought’ establishes a downbeat, self-effacing and perhaps almost weary, ‘nothing much doing’ tone. Until the boys appear in the poem, and with them the sky is ‘taking on light’, though the day is beginning gently and quietly and slowly, since the ‘moon still hangs pale over the water’.
This image, (and notice how the line hangs further out into the white space than any of the other lines)  arises easily but surprisingly from the poem and is central to it. Here is Carver, responding to an interview  question about the images in his poems.

RC: ‘Oh, image. You know, I don’t feel, as someone said to me, that I center my poems or my stories on an image. The image emerges from the story, not the other way around. I don’t think in terms of image when write.’

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Raymond  Carver

Peter Prescott, writing in Newsweek,  described Carver’s short stories as often being concerned with the ‘collapse of human relationships…the moment things fall apart.’
The moment inhabited by boys in this poem seems the antithesis of this type of human experience, united, as they are, in their silence, in the action of walking together – maybe they will be delivering papers, or perhaps they are embarking on an adventure
that necessitates an early start, but this detail doesn’t really matter.
They almost mirror one another in appearance, and are in a moment when life is, hopefully and for the majority of children, simple-  the sort of moment when companionship or friendship is enough to bring the happiness of the title, before any of the challenges or the ‘falling apart’ to come. They are, for this moment, between day and night, between childhood and adulthood.

R. Edwards in the New York Review wrote that Caver’s stories take place in a setting where ‘people worry about whether their old cars will start, where unemployment or personal bankruptcy are present dangers.’ These boys are up before there are any cars about. They don’t yet have cars themselves, and not concerned with the trappings and trivia of adult lives. I wonder about that line, ‘I think if they could, they would take/ each other’s arm.’

It is ambiguous as to whether the boys are restricted from making such a gesture by social convention, their own inhibition, or maybe even a lack of awareness that their happiness might be expressed physically.

Is this a sentimental poem? Almost, but not quite. It has a profundity and toughness beyond the sentimental.  I also wonder if Carver had read Larkin’s ‘High Windows’ – ‘When I see two kids..’ and maybe taken something from it; the juxtaposition
of the poet/viewer’s conversational opening tone and the transcendent ending, maybe.

The truth of the observed relationship in Carver’s ‘Happiness’ resonates with me. I remember a boyhood friendship such as this, the feeling of being happy in that moment together, away from everyone else and alone with one best friend.

Carver suggest that at least  ‘for that minute / death and ambition, even love, /doesn’t enter into this’.   The paring of ‘even’  and ‘love’ intrigues me, since it would be easy to surmise that the poem is, in fact, about love. But ‘even love’ suggests that happiness is more simple, or perhaps more complex than love.

I have wondered if the poem should end on that line
‘ even love,/ doesn’t enter into this.’

When I started writing this piece, (on a whim, this afternoon, instead of doing some work I have to do) I thought the poem might step off, perhaps, more lightly, more hopefully, and leave the boys there, without the following concluding statement. But as I write I’m being to see that Carver got it right. As it stands, the last two lines bring back an awareness of the narrator’s presence and the what seems his almost proprietorial duty to close the poem. The final line brings the observing narrator back, reminding the reader of both the writer’s and his or her place on the periphery of the passing scene. It is as though the boys in their happiness have allowed Carver, and us, a moment of escape, and now he must return to the context of his present life and perform the adult task of ‘wrapping things up’ .

With the final lines  ‘and goes beyond, really/ any early morning talk about it’ , Carver returns to that downbeat, self-effacing tone that opened the piece. He describes this poem, this small work of art -as ‘early morning talk’.  The word  ‘talk’ suggests a kind of intimate
but casual relationship has taken place between writer and reader, and this contrasts with the encapsulated joy of the description and beauty of the image. It may be that Caver is suggesting that the poem we have read is nothing much in comparison to the experience it depicts.  It may be that in contrasting the tone between the ‘matter of fact’ voice – the one that opens and closes the poem – and the flight into description of ‘ such beauty’ before the paradoxically downbeat conclusion-  the poem is demonstrating exactly what it describes, namely that happiness, and even the observation of happiness, is fleeting.

A bleaker conclusion might be that it is a condition experienced in youth, before other concerns can enter.  But that’s one interpretation, and the fact happiness ‘comes on/ unexpected -and what a simple and effective line break that is-  could be read as containing the hope that it can and will arrive again.

You can read more about Raymond Carver and find some more of his poems at Poetry Magazine.