Review of How To Be A Dressing Gown by Charlotte Oliver

How To Be A Dressing Gown contains an eclectic range of work. Each poem is a gem because Charlotte Oliver has a keen eye for observing the world around her, and the results are both humorous and insightful.

The collection begins with Charlotte locating herself in a world where people are afraid of words (My People),. In this environment, wages and care for others take priority over an artistic soul (Yorkshire Puddings) and the discovery that expressing emotions on paper is a revelation (Her Secret).

…she whispered her deepest feelings 
into the void 
and the peaks and troughs formed outside of her 
and she saw that 
they could be beautiful. 

Family also appear in these early poems. Mum Gets Ready describes untying her housewife self, and hangs her on the back of the kitchen door ready for the morning. The young Charlotte watches as her mother gets ready for a night out, my film star at her dressing table – the red-lined jewellery box dribbles out her pearls. There’s the click of the curling tongs, hiss of hairspray and high heels which puncture the path outside my window as she leaves. The poem is full of visual images, as is Song Of My Granny, who comes to life on the page with her lipsticked giggle and painted nails.

Oh granny, creator of lemon meringue pies, 
who cocked a snook at age – smoked at 9, ears pierced at 70, 
a job at 75 playing music for the ‘poor inmates’ 
in the old folks home. 

Charlotte sees poetry in everyday objects and the title poem, How To Be A Dressing Gown, offers a great example of her talent. Here something recognisable is made special. The role of the dressing gown is that of a hug, and a valuable source of warmth. It has the power of an unexpected sponge pudding with custard. Who wouldn’t rethink their relationship with their dressing gown after reading these lines!

Other day-to-day objects also become poems through Charlotte’s precise observations. It Could Be Anybody’s refers to the odd sock phenomena we’re all familiar with. This one is covered in dust from underneath the bed but when stretched out it reveals a rainbow, chosen because of a love of bright colours. Being Charlotte’s view of a sock, it’s also much more than an item of clothing as it represents the wearer with solid feet that keep us anchored…that cycle to work to save the world.

In Self-Portrait As A Tablecloth, embroidered flowers represent the previous generations who made and owned it, while Shopping List Bird offers a magical world where scraps of paper, receipts, torn notes and sheets lined deep in poems, all turn into birds at night, their countless wings unfolded to and fro as they soared up high towards the setting daytime. 

Part of the appeal of this collection is its blend of styles and subjects. You’re can never be sure what will come next. Not only do the portrait and background poems contain lines of great depth and universal meaning, Charlotte isn’t afraid to leave behind the relative safety of humour. I suspect poems such as Nothing Happens But Everything Happens come from a deeper place. The sudden absence of humour in this poem, first encountered in Her Secret. comes into its own with lines such as these;

Like the silence when you ask if everything’s ok
and the words in their throat crumple up
like a paper straw sucked too hard
and you can’t straighten it out for them

For me, this and the following poem, Appointment, demonstrate Charlotte’s poetic skill on a different level. Appointment describes a hospital visit, and the struggles experienced when White coasted language, sugar-free, muffles my understanding where, after the examination, the narrator returns to the waiting room;

breathless, desperate to escape
the searing light that sees
bones and tissue, but not sadness. 

These are accessible poems, with powerful images, making it a collection I’d recommend to anyone new to poetry as well as for more experienced poets. Charlotte offers her unique view of the world, often with lines which stay with you long after reading. In My Averageness the narrator describes herself as a brown crumb of Christmas pudding in a pile of shiny coins while being no prize specimen…but necessary so others can shine brighter, while the final poem, We Can Just Be imagines leaving behind the day-to-day world where the language of schedules and plans does not exist…leaving only this moment   this moment   this moment. 

Poetry exists in the moment of reading and Charlotte’s poems use words to create worlds which are both personal and universal. Blending the two takes talent and this collection shows great skill in bringing these qualities together in ways which blend humour with deeper insight. The resulting poems capture moments of emotion, suggesting this is a poet to follow. I’m already looking forward to reading Charlotte’s next collection.


How To Be A Dressing Gown is published by Dreich Chapbooks and Charlotte can be found on Twitter as @CharlotteOlivr (without an ‘e’).

Charlotte is an artist as well as a poet. This image of tulips is on the About page of Charlotte’s website. I think it’s beautiful, like Charlotte’s poetry, and for me, the watercolour is another poem waiting to be written!


 

Review of ‘Learning from the Body’ by Sue Butler

The title ‘Learning from the body’ drew me in. I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with my own body, and wondered if this collection by Sue Butler would offer insight or affirmation. After all, women and their bodies have always been problematic… haven’t they?

The text on the back cover describes Sue as a mother, wife and daughter. These were perspectives I could identify with, but Sue is also a doctor, a profession I know little about. Reading the opening poem, The Work of Women, I realised a lack of medical knowledge didn’t matter.

Doctors are half of a relationship and I’ve often been the patient on the other side of the desk or bed. The Work of Women took me back to being stitched after my first experience of childbirth. Here was the pain from a different perspective with a doctor who had learned to sew flesh by making French seams on fabric. I loved the image of the cone of starch white light over her shoulder as Sister did, pushing her wire rim glasses down her nose, and the mother and baby as they begin to learn their separation.  The poem segues between present and past with the absorbing catch on skin of needle, lips, fingers, merging with the memory of nuns and how they prayed together for each other. Reading these lines, I felt confident the collection would contain poems I’d understand, despite knowing little about medicine. The lack didn’t matter because good poetry contains spaces for the reader to fill in and this poem was allowing me to do this.

Sue’s poems are precise and well structured. The clarity of the images invites the reader into a different world such as the title poem Learning from the Body which introduces the experience of autopsy. A basement room is separated from pedestrians on the other side of the frosted glass window, where sunlight slips in and burnishes the skin of his thigh to the rich, smooth texture of polished ebony. All the senses are evoked, especially sound; the clang of scalpel against the metal tray, the seep and reek, the rasp and snap which precede his final release. Practical observations of the colour of skin…state of lungs, heart, weight of liver merge with something more personal as the certainty of death trickles over my forehead, down the creases of my nose. All the while outside the pedestrians pass soundlessly to and fro. This is great visual writing.

We all exist in multiple worlds, but are often unaware of what is happening in the next room or across the street.  Poetry can shine a light on the unknown, making us aware of different experiences, as well as creating resonance. I felt this particularly strongly in the poems which stepped outside the surgery and hospital.

Whale, Walking away and Walking up Quinaig are centred in the natural world, in places of water, dales and mountains. It’s not difficult to think this is where Sue might find an escape from the ever-present sickness and death encountered in her profession, and maybe searches for answers to the inevitable questions we all ask when faced with the loss of a loved one or on encountering disease with family and friends.

Walking away is one of my favourites in the collection. It takes the reader to the Yorkshire Dales where

…an enchantment

falls across the grits
and scars of the dale,
the clints that skin
shins, the grykes that turn
ankles, the wind that whips
chilblains into cheeks.

There are ewes and lambs, lapwings, fossils, and low flying jets, their roar trapped by the wiles of the landscape, alongside a burst of hailstones, hard as pickled conkers. I loved the images of those long gone, the Roman legionnaires and the miners, and how the echo of their lives remains in the landscape

.

Nature is never far away from Sue’s poems.  The Rhododendron is set in a hospital and contrasts the reality of a discussion about an imminent operation with the beauty of flowers with flirting petticoats as they shimmy their ruffles of sugar candy pink, shot with magenta. Ways of looking at a bruise sees it ripe and purple as a plum, sun warm on the palm...flesh soft and wet as unset jelly while the haunting It seemed that some of us were made of nothing describes the shallow water where reeds snagged fragments of coal that crumbled from the seams of the lake. 

The theme of family runs through the poems, calling attention to how every doctor and patient brings other people with them. Whether it’s being forced into the choice between taking a child to its martial arts class or contacting Mrs Briggs about her chest pains in Six o’clock, or the new widow in Last rites whose first automatic action after the death of her husband is to put the kettle on for a cup of tea, these poems remind us how no one exists in isolation.

The relationship between a doctor and patient is confidential but in this collection, their communication is opened up for sharing. The reader is offered insight into a normally private world where illness is the trigger for bringing together people, often strangers, but who have become dependent on each other.

It’s always hard to pick out a favourite poem. I liked Striae, the Latin word used to describe stretchmarks. This is probably because I have the scars and found the idea of life lines to be compassionate, especially the reminder of their association with a new person. It’s too easy to think of striae as cosmetic and forget what they really represent.

this is where all arms first stretch
this is where all feet first kick

I was particularly moved by the final poem Cum Scientia Caritas (knowledge with compassion, the motto of the Royal College of General Practitioners). It’s a short poem but for me, the shifting roles for mother and daughter, sums up all of life, succinctly and with beauty.

Age outruns science.
Healing simply fingerstrokes
in the evening sun.

The beloved daughter
now sponges, clothes, quietly sings.
The caring seasons turn.

Grey plait, white pillow.
Cool lavender draughts.
Life neatly closing.

Sue’s collection showed me how medicine and poetry are more linked than I realised. In the midst of statistical data and clinical precision, doctors need to find and care for the person as much to cure and heal the disease. They deal with life and death, which are the bookends of what it means to be human, while poetry also deals with similar fundamental issues.

This collection takes the reader on a journey, one which deals with facts as much as the poetic imagination.  The Greek Apollo was the god of poetry as well as healing. The connection between them is old and Learning from the body offers evidence of how this ancient relationship remains true to this day.


Learning from the body by Sue Butler is published by Yaffle Press and Sue can be found on Twitter as @drsbutler 


 

Review of ‘Traumatropic Heart’ by Susan Darlington

I love a new collection. The first encounter is always a privilege because you only get one chance to experience that initial read through. The anticipation, which comes from not knowing what lies ahead, is exciting. I’d already been drawn to the title of this new collection by Susan Darlington, where traumatropic refers to the modification of something, such as the root of a plant, as a result of wounding. Intrigued, I settled down to the title poem, unsure of what to expect, but suspecting I could be in for a treat. I was not disappointed.

Traumatropic Heart begins with an image of a felled oak tree with blackbirds nesting in its crook. So far, so ordinary, then I reached the second stanza.

I swallow them both ~
beak first
and they fly – resolute –
into the heavy chambers
of my traumatropic heart.

I felt in the presence of an imagination I could relate to. Here was something special. The depth and breadth of these poems was fascinating, while the mix of otherworldly subjects, alongside day-to-day reality, ensured going out for a walk would never be quite the same again. From now on, I’ll be seeing the natural world in a different way.

Nature has generative cycles, where everything has a purpose, even when abandoned. Antlers in ‘Dry Velvet’ are discarded by the stag in a process of growth and development. But even though they’re no longer of use to the creature, they still have a function. What we leave behind can be used by others and transformations like these reflect one of the themes running through the collection.

After the storm has passed‘ is full of mystery such as the stranded whale which ‘heaved itself up and into the waves’. I loved the descriptions of sea glass, worn by the tides, the water both polishing and staining its surface and blurring the edges. It made me think of life and how it can batter us at times, still retaining its beauty but continually reshaping it.

I thought ‘It’s said’ was a perfect poem. It introduces the acorn as having a soul, the heart cracking and ‘breaking for those it left behind while its roots are searching for friends who are already on the other side. The poem contains a delicate transition to the personal in the lines I look at the acorns scattered – under the oak tree- and wonder which one is you’. I don’t think there are many people who’d be unable to connect with this.

‘Autumn’ has a stunning first line; ‘Fox carries autumn on her back‘ and later, she pulls the harvest moon into her eyes. It’s an example of the magic and mystery which flows through the collection, sometimes gorgeous but at other times, more malign. The poem ‘Owl’ is positioned across to the first of several line sketches which I thought beautifully enhanced the collection. Owl is sinister; ‘she can take away your fear if you name the right price’ suggesting an otherworldly power, one which needs to be encountered with care, as the final stanza warns the reader.

She opens her other eye, turns her head,
and fixes you with a tunnel black stare
that freezes you with a fear great enough
to take away all you’ve previously known.

It begs the question, what would we give to lose fear, but what is the price of feeling good again?

The sense of something more powerful, and not always benevolent, is another theme. In ‘Magpie eggs (two for joy)‘ the narrator rears the chicklings until they are two weeks old. The strongest pair are then removed and drowned with ‘the rest of the brood within their sight.’  ‘Demolition‘ also speaks of destruction, as does ‘The Trapeze artists’ where one can ‘feel his fingers start to loosen from my grip’, and the ‘Snow Angels’ which are destined to melt ‘over the roots of skeleton trees and into the sea.’

Susan does not shy away from difficult subjects. ‘Hope‘, introduces the theme of the dead or unborn child. who appears again in ‘Ladybird winter‘, ‘Skimming stones‘, and ‘Stone babies‘. Like learning about the word traumatropic, I needed to do some background reading. ‘Stone Babies’ is the name given to a calcified foetus, which can remain undetected for decades. The thought of carrying multiple stone babies without knowing stayed with me long after the first read. I was haunted by lines in this poem such as ‘in one another they have the only company they’ll ever need‘ and ‘they make an unspoken pact – never to be born’.

The sense of difficult loss reaches off the page many times. In ‘Skimming Stones‘, not only has the narrator purposely ‘twisted a leg off the water boatman’ and squeezed the insect ‘between thumb and finger until blood ran’, there is also the creepy presence of the lost village below the reservoir, where the eighth chime of the underwater church bell tower ‘drowned our child’s laughter’.

it’s always hard to pick out favourites, especially from a collection where every poem contains memorable lines, but standout poems for me were ‘Dolls house‘ with its vivid depiction of anger, and the closing poem ‘Translate the notes‘ which has more wonderful images of transformation;

And then one day
I didn’t even need the piano,

I swept its ivory keys
into the concert of my skin

and laid them in the caesura
between my vertebrae.

If I had to pick out one poem, I’d be torn between ‘Vanilla’ with its tender portrayal of love, and ‘Silver Birch‘ which speaks to the reader about a dryad, or tree spirit. The poem suggests an ambivalent relationship between the spirit and its host. There are hints of cruelty where ‘the cuffs of silver birch bind her wrists’ withsplinters of bark scratching flesh. She has the very human ability to feel pain and restriction where ‘The vertical of her body is broken‘ and ‘twigs that were lashed in the gale – have ripped and caught in her tights’. As ‘Vanilla’ was full of soft-sounding words, the first stanzas of Silver Birch are more harsh. ‘Bird song is stifled’ and the ground is parched before a roe deer appears, unheard. There is a powerful  visual effect in these lines where the deer

‘scratches its neck against her hipbone
and lazily nibbles at the ferns
that have germinated across her skirt.

This is followed by the effect of its breath. It turns her blood to sap and the dryad begins to photosynthesize, a biological process for creating energy. She becomes even more evanescent until finally disappearing altogether.

This image of dissipation stuck with me. It’s not hard to believe trees have a unique essence of their own, beyond rational understanding. Although recent research suggests trees are capable of communication, the existence of dryads remains a pagan tradition, but one I don’t find hard to have sympathy for. Trees are special. A walk in the woods or forest can be both settling and uplifting and something about this poem resonated on a deeper level. The relationship between carbon dioxide and oxygen is essential for life, and the meeting between the physical deer and immaterial dryad, creates change. Already spirit, she evolves into the air we breathe.

It’s not dissimilar to the loss of loved ones where our memories from the times we knew them remain. For me, the poem touches on the universal experience of life and death. It made me want to lean up against a tree and in doing so, feel a different lifeform, one we don’t fully understand but is integral to our existence. Any lack of scientific knowledge creates a space for poets and other artists to fill, and I thought this poem achieved that beautifully.

Traumatropic Heart captured me. Not only were the glossy pages a pleasure to touch and turn, each poem invited me on a new journey of discovery. I was sorry to reach the final page but delighted to find the debut collection by Susan Darlington, titled ‘Under the Devil’s Moon‘, which I immediately ordered. It’s another collection I’d highly recommend, but to say any more really needs a separate review!



 

Something for everyone – films about bees

Long sunny afternoons on the allotment are already this year’s memories. Winter is coming, and Sundays are for curling up indoors with a good film.

There’s a game newbie beekeepers play. Complete the sentence ‘You know you’re a beekeeper when…..’ Filling the blank includes first sting, having a frame full of bees and honey fall apart in your hands, and the first time you leave your hive tool under a roof, then spend hours searching for it!

This year I added a new category. ‘You know you’re a beekeeper when…. you watch a film about beekeeping and think I wouldn’t do that‘. While everyone looks after their bees differently, when this happens, it shows how far you’ve travelled on the beekeeping path.

Here’s a variety of films with a beekeeping theme. Hopefully, something for everyone as we move through the winter months.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORI2PFOePYM&ab_channel=HDRetroTrailers

Ulee’s gold is a 1997 US film written and directed by Victor Nuñez and starring Peter Fonda as Ulee Jackson, a widowed beekeeper from Florida. Struggling with his broken and troubled family, the film made use of existing beekeeping apiaries, with the family of beekeepers acting as consultants and playing the role of extras. The honey Ulee’s bees make comes from the nectar of the tupelo tree. A bit like heather honey in the UK, the light tupelo honey is sought after for its mild but original taste.

A review on Variety describes the film as “A gem of rare emotional depth and integrity, “Ulee’s Gold” is the cinematic equivalent of a wonderful old backwater town, a community bypassed by the interstate of the mainstream American film industry that possesses virtues and knowledge that travellers in the fast lane never stop to appreciate.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7nhkNAfHtw&ab_channel=GoodDeedEntertainment 

Tell it to the bees is a 2019 film based on the book by Fiona Shaw. Set in the 1950’s, it’s the story of two women; Lydia Weekes (Holliday Grainger), and Jean Paquin (Anna Paquin). They come together through Lydia’s son who is interested in Jean’s bee colonies. The film contains the memorable line ‘tell the bees your secrets then they won’t fly away’. Reviews are mixed but most of them agree it perfectly recreates a small town atmosphere where two women moving in together creates suspicion and increasingly negative reactions.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WY9RvcbzTCw&t=92s&ab_channel=MOVIEPREDICTOR 

I loved the book Secret life of bees by Sue Monk Kidd so was looking forward to the 2008 film adaptation. It didn’t disappoint. Secret Life of Bees is set in South Carolina, the story follows the journey of Lily Ray (Dakota Fanning) and her family’s housekeeper Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson). The two leave home and, guided by the label on a jar of “Black Madonna Honey“, they arrive at the Tiburon home of August Boatwright (Queen Latifah) and her sisters May (Sophie Okonedo) and June (Alicia Keys). Lily becomes an apprentice beekeeper and finally discovers the truth about her mother, who she believed, wrongly, abandoned her as a child. Set against 1960’s racism in the American south, the film offers a realistic portrayal of rural life and is a coming-to-age story which will stay with you long after the film ends.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ycccI-ES_2w&ab_channel=MovieTrailerFan1980

Bee stings cause many people to be more than a little afraid of them. This fear underlines The deadly bees, a British horror film based on H.F. Heard’s 1941 novel A Taste for Honey. An exhausted singer, sent away for a holiday to Seagull Island, finds a farmer rearing a strain of deadly bees. As the trailer above shows, it’s typical of the horror genre in the 1960’s. Starring Suzanna Leigh, and Frank Finlay, the film is dated to say the least, and watching this in 2021 provides comedy as much as fear. It does nothing to persuade anyone to consider beekeeping as a hobby or career but is worth watching as a reminder of a style of filmmaking long since abandoned.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvIHtXc_Urg&ab_channel=MovieclipsClassicTrailers 

Another horror film with bees in a starring role, is The Swarm, based on Arthur Herzog’s 1974 book. Starring Michael Caine and Richard Chamberlain, it uses the common trope of a swarm of killer bees annihilating everything in its path, and a group of humans seeking to destroy them.  A classic example of US horror from the 1970’s, the stye is less dated than the British equivalent, or maybe it’s just the presence of Michael Caine who always has a gift for making the absurd seem credible.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t4ZzMkDLjWI&ab_channel=MovieclipsTrailers

Bees can also be found in the Sci Fi film Jupiter Ascending. Produced by Andy and Lana Wachowski, you might expect something far-fetched but watchable, and viewers comments suggest it lives up to expectations. Jupiter Ascending was slated by the critics but even they admit the music is great and the special effects are superb. The character of Stinger, played by Sean Bean, is half human and half honeybee. The bees give him enhanced speed, special vision, and a sense of loyalty, so at least the bees have some positives. Stinger keeps hives and dabbles in genetic engineering. The film is a typical action-packed intergalactic adventure, with lots of CGI, and the voice of Sean Bean as an added bonus!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fz_MxmGP6Aw&list=PLM6a8JVoBC8KPWgoevQ4hcVFU73gh7ZW-&index=3&ab_channel=DamienPerez 

I couldn’t write about bee films without including the classic family favourite, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree. This can be watched in segments on YouTube, beginning with Part One (which is all credits) and followed by Pooh’s Stoutness Exercises. Who doesn’t love Pooh Bear and can’t identify with the part where he splits his stitches.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VONRQMx78YI&ab_channel=AnimationTrailers

On the subject of animations, there’s also the Dreamworks film Bee Movie. Voiced by Jerry Seinfeld and Renée Zellweger, it tells the story of Barry B. Benson, a bee who can communicate with humans. In the supermarket, he discovers they’ve been stealing and eating honey, and on a visit to Honey Farms, Barry sees first-hand the terrible conditions the bees live under, such as the use of smoke to daze and confuse them. Barry decides to sue the human race to end their exploitation.

Like most animations, it has multiple layers of meaning and if, like me, you’re a fan of Dreamworks and Pixar etc, Bee Movie is worth a look.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B27ORUHlp6E&ab_channel=NEON

If you can manage subtitles, I’d recommend Honeyland. Set in Turkey, this is a film/documentary portraying the life of Hatidže Muratova, who lives in the remote mountain village of Bekirlija, with no electricity or running water. Hatidže is a keeper of wild bees who earns her living by selling honey in a town a four-hour walk from her home. The film shows Hatidže collecting honey from nests in remote places, and you can hear her chanting ‘half for me, half for you’ based on the traditional custom of her grandfather, who taught her how honey was essential for giving bees enough energy to fly and mate. Visually stunning, it explores topics such as climate change, the loss of biodiversity and human exploitation of natural resources.

Another subtitled film about bees is called Keeping the Bees. I can’t find a trailer and it only seems to be available on Netflix which is a shame because it’s well worth watching. This is a story about what happens when the youngest daughter, Ayse, returns to her childhood home in northeastern Turkey, because her mother is ill. As she lies dying, her mother tells her she wants Ayse to take over her beehives. Ayse has built a life for herself in Germany and is afraid of the bees, but nevertheless makes an attempt to fulfil her mother’s wish.  The community is set in a rural area and is full of local traditions and customs. If you have Netflix, or know someone who has, I’d recommend it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2vQ5PV-bNtM&ab_channel=DocumentaryTrailers

Queen of the sun; what the bees are telling us is a documentary full of wonderful characters. It takes a serious look at the role of bees in nature and what can be done to try and prevent Colony Collapse Disorder, where beekeepers find their bees have mysteriously disappeared. Including the perspective of beekeepers, scientists and philosophers from around the world, it shows what people are doing to try and help, and gives insight into all the different ways bees can be kept and looked after.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rac_D_v-nrc&ab_channel=1091Pictures

The documentary The Pollinators is set in the US, where Colony Collapse Disorder was first recognised. It follows the migratory beekeepers who drive truckloads of honeybees across the United States, often from Florida to California, to ensure the pollination of flowers in areas where bee populations have diminished.

Einstein is reputed to have said ‘If the bee disappears from the surface of the Earth, man would have no more than four years left to live.

The exact source of this quote is unknown, but we’re dependent on bees for fruit and vegetables, not to mention the role they play in maintaining the natural ecosystem on which we all depend, so there may be some truth in the statement.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2NT05qEJxUk&ab_channel=FilmsBoutique

More than Honey is full of the most amazing photography of the life of bees, both within and without the hive. It also looks at pollination problems and their effect on beekeepers around the world, with insight into beekeeping in California, Switzerland, China and Australia. Made by Markus Imhoof, and narrated by John Hurt, More than Honey is a hard-hitting look at the reality of a world which, if not in crisis now, very soon will be if issues like Colony Collapse Disorder are not better understood and dealt with.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EEY9tcZS_eY&ab_channel=BioHoneyBeeFarm

Finally, Who Killed the Honey Bee is a UK documentary narrated by Martha Kearney, who presented the four-part BBC series The Wonder of Bees. This followed her own experiences as a novice beekeeper and clips from the programmes appear in this documentary.  Who Killed the Honey Bee includes a looks at commercial beekeeping and the changes bought about in the industry by the mysterious loss of colonies. The full documentary is available on YouTube and can be watched on the link above.


The next bee-related blog will take a look at books with a beekeeping theme. If you have any recommendations, please leave the details in the comment box below, contact me via Twitter @suewatling or email watlingsue@gmail.com.


 

Review of ‘Hanging Fire’ by Louise Longson

Hanging Fire is a chapbook containing 16 beautifully crafted poems. To me, it feels like a collection of pagan poems which speak of life-mysteries as much as day-to-day reality. Each one has the polished feel of careful editing where the removal of superfluous words leaves clean, visual images. Some of these jump off the page while others are more still and quiet. Only poetry can summon such a broad range of emotional responses, and Louise crafts this effect with great skill.

image from https://avax.news/fact/Festival_of_Samhain_in_Glastonbury.html

There’s a mixture of styles and design. Traditional equal-length stanzas in Sunset at Samhain, which I read as an account of Persephone’s descent into the underworld, mingle with unbroken lines in The Star Paradox, an unpunctuated flow like a continual thread of an idea, or thought stream. The line ‘at the same time’, is repeated four times in its 17 lines. It should be too much but it isn’t. Instead, the refrain brings together the elements of the poem, where what we see today in the stars has already long since happened.

Star watching is the closest we can get to time travel. It’s like being in a museum where objects are still present, despite their owners being dead, often for millennia. On those rare occasions when you get to hold something of great antiquity, you can close your eyes and imagine the past in the same place as the present. Reading The Star Paradox gifts a true poetic mystery.

Evening: Overlooking Padstow Harbour is another poem without pauses. The reader finds themself alongside the narrator, looking out through ‘a picture window     our aquarium…’  where the boundary between earth and water is blurred through phrases like the ‘shoals of sightseers’  who are ‘swimming by’ with ‘bubbles pluming     rising    into the air…’

This blurring of worlds can also be found in the title poem Hanging Fire. Here the forest ‘Sometimes feels like an underwater world…’ where trees are ‘barnacled with lichen‘, on a ‘coral reef of leaves and pine needles‘, alongside the wonderful image of tidal light ‘ebbing and flowing with the wind‘. Even the quiet is described in watery terms as ‘ a submerged hush.’ The final lines of this poem refer to the Hanging Fire sculpture by Cornelia Parker.

It seems as old as the forest; an ancient rusting
fire, a flame that perpetually burns.

The flames are symbolic images of perpetual fire, hanging from the trees in a circle, as if fragments of the sun have fallen and been captured in cast iron.

Hanging Fire by Cornelia Parker from https://environmentalsculptures.wordpress.com/forest-of-dean-sculpture-trail/

Something I love is when poetry introduces me to something new. Thanks to the internet, I willingly fall down rabbit holes full of associations. With Louise’s collection, it was the title poem Hanging Fire which led me to the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail by Cornelia Parker and others, before the rabbit hole extended off into different directions.

The trail looks wonderful and it’s a shame it’s so far away from the northern town where I live. Cornelia Parker has several sculptures there, including one of leaves positioned like fungi on the bark of a tree. With this in mind, re-reading Louise’s collection made me think about sculptures as poems.

Poems can raise visual images in your mind. The moon poems Selene and Moonbathing made me think of the silver light of a full moon, rising over fields and woods in the distance. Visual art triggers specific words and phrases. It’s a two-way relationship and, thanks to Louise, I’m now wondering about this further.

Brackets by Celia Parker from https://environmentalsculptures.wordpress.com/forest-of-dean-sculpture-trail/

An example of sculpture as poetry is Strandbeest, a kinetic structure by Theo Jansen. Strandbeest is a giant object with moving parts which is propelled by the wind down a beach. The giant skeleton, constructed from plastic tubing, moves with incredible grace. It’s also a little disturbing, almost the stuff of nightmares, like a poem can touch home in ways you might not have chosen to experience.

One such poem in Hanging Fire was A Ritual to Escape Madness at Nightfall. The opening line ‘When the moon rises, I must gather my wits‘ set me up to expect a sabbat, or some other ritual ceremony, maybe in the woods at night. I didn’t expect what followed. It’s an example of a poem containing the unexpected. Its final lines ‘This is the last time, the last time, the last…‘  shares the universal cry of the addict who knows they must stop, but only has the power to think this when in the grasp of a fix.

It’s always hard to select a favourite poem from a collection but Theia ticked all the boxes. I like poems that take on the voice of inanimate objects and I loved the imagery of the collision between the earth and Theia, an impact where tons of molten material hit the earth’s atmosphere, before congealing to create the moon in ‘a first, only, kiss…’ As if this were not enough, I was unfamiliar with the story of Theia, so learned something new. For me, it contained all the elements of perfection.

Outside of Hanging Fire, Louise has written other poems including this one, published by One Hand Clapping.

St. Michael’s Churchyard (Autumn)

Even on the calmest evening,
when the trees stand mute
and the leaves of ivy-covered
graves are motionless,
nothing is still. 

White winter pansies shake
their neurasthenic heads on
slender stalks and I remember
your hospital gown; the thinness
of your limbs; your breath’s last rush.

Sounds carry, even in
this airless space – voices
of lives that are not our own
insist on being heard. 

Rooks congregate;
a radio blares. Each evening
there’s another final harvest.

Other poems by Louise include Chiromancer in The Poetry Shed and Working Late in The Ekphrastic Review. Further examples can be found on Twitter where Louise tweets as @LouisePoetical.

Louise Longson 

Hanging Fire is Louise’s first collection. It’s full of magic, mystery and the promise of more to come. I’m looking forward to seeing what follows next year and would recommend Louise as a poet to watch out for in the future.


Hanging Fire by Louise Longson is published by Dreich

Louise tweets as Louise Poetical https://twitter.com/LouisePoetical

images without captions in this post are all copyright free from pixabay


 

John Keats and ‘negative capability’ then and now

John Keats by Joseph Severn (painted 1845)

I revisited Keats after reading this blog post a fix of autumn, the darkness coming down by Felix Hodcroft. Felix writes about the Keats poem To Autumn, saying it’s a ‘poem, so well-known that it’s become a cliché, a hand-me-down (“season of mists and mellow fruitfulness….”) which, however (like much ye olde stuff) repays a fresh look.’

So I did.

I struggle to like traditional poetry, such as the romantics, Keats, Shelley, and Byron. I find them difficult to read. For me, there’s a lack of resonance, but I followed Felix’s advice and listened to the Radio 4 series on Keats Odes, starting with Sean O’Brien and Ode to Melancholy. They didn’t help and I still found the poetry of Keats hard going.

Comments on Felix’s post included references to Bright Star, the Jane Campion film looking at the relationship between John Keats and Fanny Brawne. Beautifully photographed, it’s a visual treat. The film covers the last years of Keats life and how he was forced to choose between staying with Fanny in Hampstead, or going to Italy for his health.  Keats died within three months of arriving in Rome and twelve years later, Fanny married Louis Lindo with whom she bore a son Edmund, and daughter Margaret.

Fanny kept letters from Keats and her children had these published as Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne. By this time, Keats had become famous for his poetry but his relationship with Fanny was unknown. The knowledge created a scandal during which Fanny was criticised and seen as ‘unworthy‘. This viewpoint remained until the 1937 publication of her letters to Keats sister, also called Fanny. Letters of Fanny Brawne to Fanny Keats helped to change public opinion and the relationship between Fanny and John was finally acknowledged as a true love affair.

Portrait of John Keats at Wentworth Place on the day of his composing ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, 1834, by Joseph Severn.

Bright Star includes Keats poetry and hearing his work within the context of the film worked well. The language which I found difficult on the page came to life in a different way, but I still struggled to appreciate the written versions. I think this is partly to do with the language. To Autumn, for example, is full of the dated use of thee’s and thou’s:

Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

This is poetry belonging to a different time, unlike Keats’ letters which I find more readable. In particular, I was intrigued by his reference to ‘negative capability’. In a letter to his brothers George and Tom, dated 1817, Keats describes this as ‘…when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…’ It’s the only reference he makes to ‘negative capability‘ but the concept has remained associated with him to this day.

I’ve been reflecting on how this might look in practice.

Discussions with Felix and other poets have shown how poems can be interpreted differently to the poet’s intention. The best way I can describe it is when poems contain fluidity. The lack of fixed meanings allows them to mean different things to different people, despite poets and readers often being strangers to each other, and the poet having no way of knowing what the reader brings to the page in terms of their own life experience.

For me, this is part of the magic of poetry which, like certain music, can reach out and touch. We feel this happening, and can’t always explain why. I’ve been wondering if it might be an example of ‘negative capability’ i.e. the mystery exists, and we’re comfortable accepting it, without the need for explanation. An effective poem is one which leaves ‘space’ for the reader’s resonance. They find themselves on the page, and recognise a life experience, because the poet has left gaps for this to happen.

Sketch of Keats by Joseph Severn, drawn shortly before his death in Rome
I don’t think it matters that I’ve struggled to appreciate Keats poems. It doesn’t lessen my interest in him as a person, and I remain fascinated by his short life and the personality which comes over from reading his letters. Culture changes and Keats speaks from a different time, using words and phrases belonging to the early 19th century rather than 2021. Language is constrained by the time in which it’s used, yet Keats works better for me when heard rather than read, which suggests his poetry still contains magic.
Keats Shelly House in Rome and the room where Keats stayed and died
While researching Keats, I came across some interesting videos on You Tube.

The Death of Keats‘ provides a tour through the Keats Shelley House in Rome, as does A Walk Through the Keats-Shelley House with Giuseppe Albano, Curator of the museum.

Keats House, also known as Wentworth House, visits what was originally a pair of semi-detached residences in Hampstead, where the poet lived from 1818 to 1820, and where Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on an Grecian Urn were written.

I’m currently reading the book Bright Star which contains the love letters from John Keats to Fannny Brawne.

Often beginning ‘My Dearest Girl‘, or ‘Lady‘, and ending ‘Yours forever’, they’re still full of emotion, for example ‘Will you confess this in the Letter you must write immediately….write the softest words and kiss them that I may at least touch my lips where yours have been‘.

Like Keats’ poetry, the language comes from a different time, but anyone who’s felt love will find something to identify in these letters where the voice of Keats remains on the page.

My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you — I am forgetful of every thing but seeing you again — my Life seems to stop there — I see no further. You have absorb’d me.’

Such a shame the art and practice of letter writing has waned!

Finally, it might be worth remembering that Keats poetry was not well thought of in his own time. This was maybe due to him not fitting into the English class system, as much as a dislike of his poems. Unlike fellow Romantic poets Byron (educated at Harrow and Cambridge) and Shelley (Eton and Oxford), Keats left school at 14 to become an apprentice to a surgeon and apothecary. His life is detailed in a number of biographies both old and new. Keats by Sidney Colville (1909)  and The Life of John Keats by William Michael Rossetti (1887) can be read online while contemporary accounts include the controversial ‘John Keats a New Life‘ by Nicholas Roe and more traditional Keats by Andrew Motion. Chapter One can be read online here.

When Endymion, the first ‘long’ poem by Keats, was published in 1818, it was poorly received. I quite liked it on first reading, and then discovered On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. Maybe the subject matter of ancient Greek myth and legend was closer to me than the Odes, I’m not sure.

Nevertheless, it goes to show if at first, you don’t like a poet, don’t give up. Keep trying their work and maybe something, somewhere, at some time, will eventually speak to you.

Posthumous image of Keats by William Hilton, in the National Portrait Gallery, London

 

Review of ‘A Glimmer o Stars’ by Lynn Valentine

Each of the sixteen poems in A Glimmer o Stars by Lynn Valentine, has been published in Lynn’s Angus Scots as well as English. On my first reading of this lovely new pamphlet, I covered up the English so I could experience the Scots.

There were places where I wasn’t sure of the meaning, but found speaking them out loud offered useful clues, like haun haudin for ‘hand holding’, efternuin for ‘afternoon’, and I sik yir for ‘I seek your’. I’m so glad Hedgehog Poetry Press did this.

Sometimes, text on the page can reveal less than the voice does and I’m now thinking how lovely it would be to listen to these poems while ‘haudin the buik in your haun‘ at the same time!

A Glimmer o Stars contains poems of great tenderness. Set in Scotland with ‘the smell of smoked fish that still makes my veggie mouth water’, and ‘the red of the cliffs bright at any time of year’ (The Language of Home), alongside the ‘small snow of lambs‘ and ‘daffodils drowning in hailstones’ with ‘sly winds starting low then taking over the whole length of sky‘ (A Lost Friend). 

There are poems about family and friends, they speak of love and loss, while being a testament to those no longer with us. The theme of remembrance runs through the book.  There’s the ‘boy in class, the one that could always make us laugh’ who now has their name ‘written on the harbour stone, I mark your passing every time I’m home‘ (A drowning). 

For the mother, the weather map on the tv represented the locations of her family, it ‘tethered and tied us to her coordinates, located her son in the centre of things, held my sisters’ summers in the same spot as hers’ (My Mother’s Complaint).

Meanwhile, the father ‘whistled as if the world was his alone’ before starting up the snowplough for ‘his careful handling of a snoozing town, as he cleared the roads‘ (My Father at 4 a.m.). These are lovely poems of remembrance where, as in so much Lynn’s work, the everyday mingles with the universal, as in Opening.

We are changed, marked by this year –
a furrow of losses ploughed into the soil –
the earth trembles, crows watch,
our hands raw from prayers.

Love and loss are huge themes but Lynn treats them with delicacy, finding meaning in small details and running a thread of subtle humour throughout.

As well as remembrance, these poems speak of ‘involuntary childlessness’ in ways so powerful they seemed to jump off the page. ‘My barren belly concaves in the wet afternoon, my waterproof the only second skin I’ll own‘ (Sheela Na Gig, Rodel). Visiting a rag well with ‘nervous giggles‘ speaks of places where hope and prayers are manifest in gifts to the earth. ‘We knotted our wishes round the well…white for a child, blue for a cure.’

The reader wants there to be a happy ending but the truth is more painful. ‘You away by midsummer, me and my belly empty‘ (Clootie Well).

Poetry has a way of giving voice to unspeakable things so they can be shared. Reading Lynn’s poems is like opening locked doors, and finding you’re not alone after all. This can be a great comfort, in particular when it comes to difficult subjects.

The title of the pamphlet comes from the poem Snow Blind, one of my favourites. The opening lines pull you in and carry you on to its sad, but beautiful, ending.

She can sense the emptying of the sky
though her sight’s nearly gone, her eyes
a glimmer o stars. This cold snap
came on quick and now everyone flies.
She can’t hear the housemartins
anymore, their small cheeps
above the fields. She listens to the geese
going north, their song of for snow, for snow.
By winter, if she’s spared, she’ll be
snow-blind, neither use more ornament
to anyone. She’ll choose a course,
~go travelling for snow or sun.

There’s so much to like and love in A Glimmer o Stars. Lynn’s poems are full of stunning images like the sparrows with cold children, where the poet saves loose dog hair, ‘pushing it into trees to warm their nests‘ (A lost friend).

The line ‘hope was measured in small things’ returns to the theme of memories, and how small objects can carry so much meaning. The line describing a street in Prague, filled with bundles of wool and shelves of tins, put me in mind of a collection of poems like this pamphlet, where each blank page is an opportunity for the poet to ‘…weave, shuttle and loom, knot gaps for other peoples dreams’ (Lacuna).

The image of weaving reminded me of ‘rhapsode‘, from where we get ‘rhapsody’. In Ancient Greece, the name was used for the performer of epic poetry such as Homer, and can be translated as ‘sewing songs together’.  Lynn takes the imagery of the loom one step further, by knotting gaps for other people’s dreams. I interpreted this as ‘resonance’.

We turn to poetry for different reasons; comfort, pleasure, recommendation, or simple curiosity. Sometimes, when a line resonates, it becomes part of the attraction. I liked ‘hands raw from prayers‘ (Opening). The words not only reinforce the passage of time, but speak of longing and desire, as evidenced in Pickers, where the womb of the earth quickens, birthing potatoes as children.

Pickers also offers examples of Lynn’s lovely, gentle rhymes, so subtle they risk being missed, especially when reading to yourself. I’d suggest reading them aloud to fully realise their cleverness and subtlety. These rhymes are as much about the sound a word leaves behind, or the shape of it in your mouth and on your tongue. It’s the best type of rhyming, as in ‘field and leave’, ‘work and earth’, and the repetition of ‘ing’ in the final stanza.

Readers are shown the power of language in these poems, not only to communicate but to physically mirror who we are. Language can both unite and separate, but I prefer to think of it as linking people together and Lynn is gifted at this.

It’s also clear that Lynn treasures language. The opening poem The Language of Home (after Roger Robinson), sets the tone of the pamphlet with its closing words I will take this gift and pass it on, write my words, sing my songs.

The closing poem All sunflowers turn, is another of my favourites. It describes Lynn packing the weather into a bag, with the intention of emptying it onto her mother’s bed, a gentle repetition of the weather theme introduced in My Mother’s Complaint.

Memory is fixed in the setting sun, which is always different, always beautiful. It represents the time of day when we’re reminded of the breadth and depth of a world bigger and greater than we are, and provides a beautiful image to end the pamphlet.

I will open your eyes to the reddening sky, 
turn your head westwards, stay for always.

What are poems after all, if not attempts to pin life onto the page for sharing, to be read in quiet places, or as windows to be looked through by strangers.

The best poems are like rags tied to the trees at Clootie Well, made and left behind for others.

Lynn’s poems are physical evidence of presence in a world of multiple voices. If you want to write poetry, but don’t know where to start, I’d suggest reading A Glimmer o Stars. The poems offer ways into poetry which are accessible and have meaning, while also demonstrating how the heart of a poem often lies in its unexpected twists and reminders of universal experience, something Lynn does so well. I loved these poems and am looking forward to reading more when Life’s Stink and Honey, Lynn’s first full collection, is published by Cinnamon Press in 2022.

A Glimmer o Stars is published by The Hedgehog Poetry Press. The print version has sold out at Hedgehog, but the e-book is still available. Alternatively, a print version can be ordered via Lynn’s website lynnvalentine.com where you can read more about Lynn and her poetry. Finding a Voice Lynn Valentine is another page worth visiting, and lastly, to see and hear Lynn herself, watch The Aunties, a poem not from this collection but one which includes the line Life’s Stink and Honey, to be published next year by Cinnamon Press.

Auctioning Sylvia

In July, Sotheby auctioned possessions belonging to Syliva Plath and a pack of tarot cards caught my eye. A gift from Ted Hughes, the estimated price was £4-6000 but they sold for £151,200 (exclusive of taxes and costs). Since then, I’ve often wondered who owns the pack now, whether they use them or not, if they’re on display to selected visitors or maybe even shut up somewhere out of sight.

Possession always carries the risk of theft. Some owners choose to store valuable objects in secure vaults like The Geneva Free Port where investments appreciate in darkness year on year. Da Vinci’s Christ as Salvator Mundi, was there following its purchase for $75 million in 2013.  Also Klimt’s Water Serpents II, bought for $183.8 million in 2012, before being sold on privately a few years later. This secrecy contrasts with valuable items on public display in museums and art galleries around the world.

Images from the Marseilles tarot

Syliva Plath’s tarot is a Marseilles pack. Also known as tarocchi or tarock, the design can be traced back to 17th century Italy. Playing cards with four suits and court cards have been dated from 13th century China. Over time, the 22 images of what’s known as the Major Arcana, has been thought to function as some form of trumps. The association of the tarot with mysticism and divination isn’t referenced until the 18th century. Like astrology, the intuitive value of the cards is often rubbished, but the archetypal representations of the major arcana images remain a fascination for many.

It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to think of the poet holding, shuffling and laying out the cards on a table. Syliva refers to the tarot pack in her letters and journals, although the references appear more to do with her intentions to learn rather than the record of any first-hand experiences. Ann Friel in Sylvia Plath, Ariel and the Tarot claims the cards appear in her poetry although some of the links feel tenuous rather than factual. It’s easy to conclude Plath-fans are looking for what they want to see rather than what is. Nevertheless, the tarot was undoubtedly a part of her life, one which sat alongside a desire to cast horoscopes and delve into the existence of fate as a force to be understood, sometimes challenged, but always present.

What gives inanimate objects, such as the tarot, the power to attract?

We’re moving into the world of relics. The church is full of them; alleged bones of saints, cross splinters, crown thorns and fabrics with the imprint of a face in blood and sweat. The last time the Shroud of Turin was on public display in Turin’s cathedral in 2015, millions queued to see it. Regardless of the lack of science, pieces of cloth like the Veil of Veronica, the Mandylion, or the Veil of Manoppello, all retain a fascination for those who want or need to believe in hard copy evidence of the existence of Christ.

It’s not just religious items which have this power. At Haworth Parsonage you can look at Emily’s writing desk, Charlotte’s clothes and a cambric hanky belonging to Anne. Possessions like these remain with us long after their owners have gone. I don’t think it’s too difficult to believe something of the people who owned and used them also remains left behind. The objects have become relics.

Relic derives from the Latin reliquiae, meaning ‘remains’, and is a form of the Latin verb relinquere, to ‘leave behind, or abandon’.  Religious relics are housed in reliquaries which often form part of a shrine, a word from the Latin scrinium meaning a case or box for keeping papers.  A relic has survived the passage of time. Even where the original culture has disappeared, they remain cherished for their historical and emotional value.

Victorian collectors often housed their relics or collections in what’s referred to as a Cabinet of Curiosities. These are fascinating to see, for example, Wondrous Obsessions: The Cabinet of Curiosities, while A Cabinet of Curiosities includes the Rotunda at Scarborough and Whitby Museum. Both contain huge eclectic collections, open to the public and well worth a visit.

The Rotunda Museum in Scarborough

Objects create connections while the shared experience of seeing them feels incremental. The more they’re revered through the centuries, the greater their power. I’m not particularly religious but like to visit sacred places, both pagan and catholic, and have often felt something tangible which is hard to explain. Maybe it’s partly the accumulated effects of centuries of belief rather than a connection with some form of divinity.

Outside of the sacred, the 1999 ‘Monet in the 20th Century’ exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, included several of Monet’s giant water lilies. These were displayed with the canvas edge showing rather than it being hidden by frames. Viewers could see where the brush strokes faded away before stopping. Seeing this was like going back to the moment of origin. The personal connection was more effective than seeing the overall completed work.

Back to the auction of Slyvia Plath’s possessions. Sotheby’s called the sale ‘Your Own Sylvia‘, a play on words as successful bidders now ‘own’ the items, and in doing so can be said to possess something of Sylvia herself. This is an old belief, one stretching back to the ancient Greeks who thought a statue was much more than a representation. The physical shape of a god, or an image on the tomb of the dead made popular by the Romans, somehow indicated presence.

Tarot cards are traditionally believed to absorb energy from their owner. An old belief says no one else should handle them, other than shuffle or draw for a reading, and they should be kept in the dark. There’s little factual evidence they possess power, yet many people have unswerving faith in the ability of such inanimate objects being able to connect with external forces. This involves believing in several things simultaneously i.e. that such forces exist in the first place and the world is layered into conscious and subconscious awareness. In the case of the tarot, the archetypal images act as bridges or doorways to alternative realities.

image showing a selection of tarot cards

I wrote about the tarot in a post titled Tarot archetypes and Poetry Prompts which followed on from On Archetypes and Poetry. Both posts address the sources of creativity and the need for a translative process in order to make connections between the ‘here and now’ of the present and the existence of universal beliefs and memories. Jung called this the collective unconscious or a form of genetic memory. Without proof, I still believe the tarot can be a useful prompt for bringing these together. It’s similar to the experience of an open fire at night, or the single eye of a harvest moon rising low on the horizon in September.

image showing a fire at night beside a river

Whoever owns Sylvia Plath’s tarot is now in possession of a device which she appears to have believed was an effective prompt for poetry. Belief, like faith, is a powerful emotion and many people will claim meditation on the images can help cross the boundaries between the known and the unknown. When it comes to writing poetry, it’s these universal experiences that help create the resonance which stays with the reader long after the poem has ended. Someone, somewhere, wanted this tarot pack enough to pay over £150,000 in order to own it and I wonder if they are a poet.

 

maybe I should have tanged the swarm

images of tanging from medieval times

Last year I had a colony swarm within a few weeks of it arriving on the allotment. I wrote about this in The Day the bees Left, with a follow-up post After the bees swarmed. If I’d known about tanging, I might have given it a try. Tanging is to hit a metal object, loudly and with enthusiasm. This is alleged to encourage the bees to return to their hive, or settle in a cluster above the head of the tanger.

image of tanging in Victorian times

There’s lots of references to tanging, both historical and contemporary. Search ‘tanging bees’ on YouTube for videos of beekeepers trying it out, such as the one below where the practice seems to make the bees change their minds about leaving.

This year I was determined to avoid another swarm situation, but determination was not enough. The swarming instinct is strong. Once it’s kicked in, it can be hard to persuade the bees to change their minds. Fortunately, my bees seem to have found a new first-stage swarming spot on the allotment behind me. Even more fortunately, Walter, my plot neighbour, loves them.

This is part one of the swarming story for 2021.

I met the first swarm on a warm sunny Sunday morning at the end of May, after several weeks of poor weather. I’d just arrived at the plot when Walter called for me. There was a cluster of bees, up the side of a fence post, and extending out onto the lower branches of a tree. Here it was, my first swarm of the year.

I did what most newbie beekeepers do and panicked. Mentor Patrick was having a cup of tea, Sunday morning style, but in the best mentoring fashion, was soon driving down the allotment road, booted, suited and ready to go. He loves bees!

Walter was fascinated. He said they’d arrived the day before. He’d filmed them and posted the clip onto Facebook.

He knew the queen was in the cluster, and that the bees would follow her, so was watching our every move with interest. Patrick cut back some branches and sprayed the cluster with water to help them bond together, before laying a white sheet out on the ground while I fetched a nuc to catch them in.

The nuc was my first mistake. It was too heavy. The roof was a tight fit and the floor separate so, like all things in beekeeping, I learned by doing that a lighter box with an integral floor was a better option. In the role of assistant, I held the box as best I could under the base of the cluster, as Patrick tapped the branch and down it fell., covering me in bees. Patrick flipped the box over, stood it on the sheet and propped one end up so the other bees could walk in and join their queen. At least, that was the theory.

You know when you get a bee on the outside of your veil, and for a moment it looks like it’s on the inside?

It took me a moment to realise it wasn’t an illusion. The bee really was inside. When the cluster fell and covered me, there must have been the tiniest of gaps somewhere and this bee had found it. Fortunately, it wasn’t bothered but I decided the best option was for us to part company.

Immediately!

Meanwhile, the bees continued to find their way into the box.

Patrick was full of swarm-catcher tricks such as having a queen bee suspended in a jar of pure alcohol and lemongrass so he could transfer her pheromones onto the swarm box.

After a while, we noticed the bees were reclustering on a branch above the original swarm spot. This could have been a sign we didn’t have the queen, but as the bees were walking into the box, it might have been some stragglers who’d detected a smell of her. Maybe she’d rested on that branch during the initial flight.  Patrick brushed them in with a feather saying he preferred feathers because bees can get caught in the hairs of a bee brush and they don’t like it. The last thing you want is to upset a bee, especially a calm, happy one.

We also smoked the tree as this can disguise any lingering queen pheromones. Some beekeepers suggest using a deodorant spray or air freshener, but smoke feels more natural and, as you’re likely to have your smoker with you, it’s one less thing to carry in your swarm kit.

Finally, there were more bees in the box than were buzzing around, so Patrick wrapped it up in the sheet and carried it back to my allotment. As it was hot and sunny, we put it in the shade by the side of the shed, and I returned that evening to transfer them into their new forever home.

I got everything prepared, unwrapped the sheet, opened the lid and – nothing. The box was empty. I don’t know how they got out. I’d been working in the apiary later that day and saw no sign of escapees, plus the entrance was shut. However they’d done it, they were gone. I’d lost my swarm.

It had been a textbook collection. The cluster was reachable and close by. My plot neighbours were delighted to see the bees up close, and collecting them had gone well, but I’d lost them all.

Bees swarm in two stages. The first is where the queen and her attendants leave the hive and gather somewhere relatively close by, while scout bees determine their final destination. The colony then agrees on their new home and during the second stage, they fly off. The whole process from hive to new home can take several days.

Where they went, I’ll never know but the act of collecting them had been a new learning experience. This was useful because the following week, I received a call from Walter to say another cluster was forming, this time on one of his apple trees. I booted and suited up on my own, ready to go solo collecting for the first time.

Review of ‘When I think of my body as a horse’ by Wendy Pratt

Motherhood is a universal club women take for granted, until they find their entrance is barred. The poems in When I think of my Body as a Horse by Wendy Pratt are about the struggle to gain membership to this club. They are beautifully written poems, but not easy to read because they deal with the death of Wendy and her husband Chris’s daughter, Matilda. The collection is a testimony, not only of Matilda’s life but also the siblings who were conceived, then lost.

The book follows the journey Wendy and Chris made as they tried to start a family.  Like so many others, they had no idea what the future held. This is poignantly shown in the intimate Sleep (for Chris), which contains a terrible prescience in its final lines. A single star in the sky

can stare straight in at our nudity
our utter innocence.

With no indication of what lies ahead, we are innocent of future delights and tragedies. Instead we live from day to day and in The Language of Pre-Motherhood, Wendy is unable to find the moment of change when the decision was made to become parents.

I don’t remember a discussion,
but there must have been one

there must have been a catalyst
the thinnest slice of the thinnest razor
splitting the moment

when we went from being two
to the imaginary three

Membership of the Motherhood Club guarantees common ground, one which offers affinity with strangers and provides topics of conversation which can be relied on. You gain automatic entry with the birth of your first child, while the months prior to birth are like standing in front of its open doors. looking inside. This is the time when baby shopping is validated, and you’re exposed to the vast range of products you had no idea existed. You think of your own mother and grandmother, and how it’s your turn to perpetuate the archetype of motherhood. Wendy describes this in the language of sainthood.

And I waited meekly for my turn 
as one by one the others were beatified 
rising up: a rapture of motherhood…

… Until there was no one left 
who spoke my language.

The language was infertility. Diagnosis tells the reader there are problems on both sides, with just two lines representing 60 individual months of hope and subsequent loss.

The five years we’ve been trying
to conceive: a waste of time.

I’m not entirely sure where Matilda first appears. It might be the thirteenth poem titled Embryo Transfer, where Wendy and Chris have to wait 14 days to know if an embryo has embedded.

                   In exactly fourteen days, 
the morning will arrive and you may 
be carted away; a mote of a dream 
on the razor edge slant of the morning’s light.
Until then let me keep you with me,
held fast with blood and imagination,
longing and love.

Two poems later, there is the wonderfully titled Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare, dedicated to the memory of M. If this is Matilda, these are the poems where she exists. Nesting is about shopping for ‘tiny baby bits’ and putting the Moses basket together.  My Favourite Memory describes feeling like a Russian doll with infinite babies inside, and the sensation of being kicked ‘down into my cervix, pushing up under my ribs’. The poems fill the reader with hope until Tachycardia tells us something has gone wrong. The title is the medical term for a heart rate over 100 beats per minute and this appears to be the point where the baby dies.

The aftermath is Air, a poem which refers to a funeral, white coffin, the tiny grave and contains the heartbreaking cry ‘Houdini Girl, how did you disappear?  Air is followed by The Circle of Sisters where Wendy describes the shift from expectant mother to becoming the woman who was different.

I became an embarrassment. I was no longer 
a sister of the circle, but my body 
couldn’t forget their dance, so I danced
in the shadow of my sisters, and shouted
my daughter’s story through the gaps. 

The drive to become a mother is primaeval. Women are biologically, socially and culturally guided towards parenthood from their earliest moments. Every month contains the possibility of pregnancy, too often followed by loss. In Warning, the reader is reminded how the painful process manifests itself. Like the single reference to five years of trying to conceive in Diagnosis, this poem ends with the painfully brief sharing of two further bereavements.

All the time I am warning others, 
My body has become a broken machine
sparking life then promptly distinguishing it. 

I warn myself not to get too happy, 
not to get too comfortable, or too complacent
with the tiny heartbeats in my womb. But I do, 
and death comes, twice more.

The theme of hares runs throughout the collection. They include the wonderful When Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare, Hare Enters the Bedroom, and The Hare Refuses to Speak. Hares are associated with rebirth, the coming of spring and new beginnings. In Hare we’re told,

My husband buys me hare-themed
gifts; we have hare cushions
and hare notebooks.

Hares are also icons for fertility and a symbol of hope, but in this collection, it’s the pattern of loss which continues. Sixth Birthday shows Matilda’s memory living on as Wendy imagines a day spent with Chris and their daughter at the seaside.

In Seven, Wendy visits Matilda’s grave and in Packing the Maternity Clothes Away, another step on the journey of acceptance is painfully taken.

How limp they all look 
how dispossessed, how empty.

It’s like I dropped them here,
when I heard she was leaving,
and returned seven years later. 

Eight revisits some of the time Wendy and Chris spent with Matilda.

I held you like a doll. 
I should have touched 
those still-wet curls, 
sucked those little fingers
kissed your foot soles 
while you were warm.

In Nine, the annual ritual is played out again, with this poem containing what, for me, is one of the saddest lines in the collection.

The pause where we 
wait to hear your first breath
has lasted nine years.

After a bereavement, common phrases are used by family, friends and strangers, such as time heals, you’ll get over it, you can always try again and so on. The truth is, time doesn’t heal and you don’t get over it. All you can do is learn to live with loss and it’s within the process of living where something eventually shifts. This is beautifully shown in Nine Years of Mourning.

There is a snap of umbilicus.
We slide apart. I step away.

Today I climb out of my skin;
my mourning dress. I am nude and white
as a stripped willow branch. I leave the dress behind,
stiff with the sweat of surviving.

The following title poem, When I Think of my Body as a Horse, speaks more about this acceptance.

I do not blame it for lost babies, 
it did its best. I do not blame 
myself for lost babies. I did my best.

I ride my body in a slow companionship.
Comforting it at the end of the day
and I say, Body, you are beautiful, 
you are beautiful, 

There is no language adequate to describe the loss of a child or children, and no social vocabulary for childlessness by circumstance rather than choice. Becoming a family is taken for granted and most couples are not taught how to live fulfilling lives on their own, or given advice for dealing with years of failed attempts to conceive.

In these 50 poems, Wendy has started the essential process of finding ways to speak about losing your babies. In doing so, she has created a collection which will resonate with anyone who has been through a similar situation, or knows somebody who has.

The book ends with hope of a different kind. At the end of the day, two people chose to make a life together, neither of them knowing what lay ahead. Eventually, the time arrives to draw a line under the failed attempts for a viable pregnancy. The decision is made to abandon the fertility clinics and rounds of IVF. The couple accept they are two, and not three or more. The people who met and fell in love continue to exist, and it’s recognising and cherishing this partnership that matters most of all.


When I Think of My Body as a Horse, by Wendy Pratt, is the winner of the 2020 International Book & Pamphlet Competition judged by Imtiaz Dharker & Ian McMillan. The book can be purchased from the Poetry Society website here

When I Think of My Body as a Horse is Wendy’s third full collection. The first collection, Museum Pieces, was published by Prolebooks and the second Gifts the Mole Gave Me was published by Valley Press.

Wendy’s website, Wendy Pratt Writing, contains further details of publications and poetry courses.


 

 

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