It was lovely to be beside the sea at Aldeburgh on October 14th for the annual Crabbe Memorial Competition results, with the Suffolk Poetry Society. The sun was shining, the sea was flat as a blue pancake (is there such a thing?) – we were on the East Coast! My old alma mater. I met some great people, including re-meeting, with great pleasure, Harriet Thistlethwaite, who had been one of my writers on the Iona Retreat a few years ago, and re-meeting poet and this year’s judge Kenneth Steven, who has previously written a wonderful book of poetry about Iona, just called Iona, and is about to have a new poetry book published.
I grew up in Suffolk and lived there, apart from going away to study, until I was in my early 20s. I was adopted early on by SPS as their protégé and given enormous encouragement – the only encouragement I got as a writer for many years. My father didn’t approve, for a start, and thought I should have a respectable profession, so I eventually trained as a teacher, while still editing the college magazine, writing jazz poetry, and later working part-time as a journalist. Ipswich High School GPDST, my school, was not always as enlightened in those days as it is now, and although I had a splendid education there, for which I’ll be forever grateful, they were not always very keen on my rather experimental poetry. However, the then Head of English (rather terrifying) descended upon me one day in the Sixth Form corridor (I can still smell the polish) to pronounce that if the Suffolk Poetry Society, a venerable institution even in those days, has taken me under their wing, she supposed she would have to put me in the school magazine. After all, I was a bit of a rebel, and my first poems were probably something of a shock!
Anyway, one of the poems which had won a prize this year at the SPS Crabbe Poetry Competition was Green Jell-O, was also previously long-listed for the Bridport Prize and is still up there on their website. The poem is actually about the East Coast, and was written during a workshop which Grevel Lindop and I were doing together in Keswick for the Society of Medical Writers Conference, and was prompted by memories of rowing with my father in the pram dinghy up the Orwell River, the subject of, and inspiration for, so much of my writing. Despite the privations of the sleeping in a damp fo’c’stle, under rough army blankets, and with Kilner jars of stew for dinner, I loved every minute of it.
Moon moon moon , the other prize-winning poem, which received a Highly Commended, was inspired by my grandson Joe, who especially loved the moon when he was small and would stand looking out the French Windows repeating moon moon moon- almost his first words. Now, like any healthy seven year old he is keener on football, rugby and Barcelona!
You can hear my reading of the two poems on the links below.
And/Or see them in print here…
I can never remember
what I wore in those old days, only the jellied
coolness of the water, pressing on my trailed fingers
as my father rowed the Ransome river,
me in the stern, and he pulls and pulls
so the slow shock of the water comes into my palm,
away between the spaces in my fingers.
I imagine it as the Jell-O they gave me at the American party
for the girl who wore tartan silk, green jelly in a lettuce leaf,
impossibly exotic just after the war.
Whatever I wore those days in the pram dinghy
rowing ashore on the ebb tide
through that long green river, its shingle banks exposed,
gulls strutting, the stink of estuarine mud,
old canvas trousers maybe, barefoot. My party dress
-that time of the green jelly and the American girl-
made of crepe paper by my Gran,
(don’t stand too near the fire) a pale pink confection
in response to rationing, no material here
– that tartan silk, that jelly,
the jelly river between my fingers,
old canvas trousers, on a cold day walking chap-footed
up the jetty, canvas shoes to put back on.
I’m left with a longing for old rivers,
for all those people I have loved,
for the smell of salt on my arms,
for tartan silk dresses, for puffed sleeves,
for the running, time-lost scent of rivers long gone,
memories too long, old dinghies,
boat tar, memories too long melted
in my empty, outstretched hands.
Moon moon moon
It’s all about the moon tonight, spreading light
as quicksilver on the land. Moon sparkle on snow, diamond-cut,
moon shadows feathering the white stillness under Ash,
moon hanging between oaks as a great globe in the rose
window of the sky, and then the night, its stars cut like spy
holes into some glorious room. Here the child, hair white
as the moon, stands pressed against the glass, as close
to the night as he can get, saying his first word, hushed
in awe: moon, moon, moon. It’s an enchantment.
Even in sleep this moon, so huge and full over the fell,
calls us out. We cannot bear inside a moment longer.
Some power wishes us into this silent landscape,
as dead as the moon except for owls and sky,
so we may drink this light like a libation. Our faces
small moons bathed in its silver water,
we lift ourselves, adoring, into the old story,
that old myth of glory.