Monday, October 19, 2015

'Rock Ammonite' at the 'Poetry & Science Hub'

This poem and commentary first appeared on the University of Liverpool's 'Centre for Poetry & Science' website, edited by poet Deryn Rees-Jones. More content on this very fascinating marriage of ideas can be found at the Poetry & Science Hub.

Rock Ammonite

The surprising simplicity of it
there among the shoal:
little earth-memory,
spiralling palimpsest.
It is the alpha and omega
of necessity, the first word
and the last of all
argument. And if the eye
is steady retrace the slow-
turning of centuries
and descend step-wise,
down the tight curve
of its spine to the centre
about which all appears
to turn. And there,
to close your eyes
and push one step further,
past language and origins
into the dark beginnings
of it all.

from In the Library of Lost Objects (Ward Wood Publishing, London, 2011) 

As the French theorist Gaston Bachelard points out in The Poetics of Space, stones represent a special place in our imagination. They are symbols of permanence, at least to everyone except a geologist, who would view them undoubtedly as dynamic. It is no surprise that the grand monuments of any great society – from the Neolithic ‘time chamber’ at Newgrange to the Arc de Triomphe – are made of stone. They are there to endure, to suggest power over time; to defy time for as long as possible.
We often think of ourselves as being in possession of a Self, as Jung would put it, or an Ego and Id as Freud claimed. In a way though, we have many selves. There is the weight of personal memory and the biographical self; there is the social self, which is probably the one that doesn’t make it into poems; there is also the set of ideas we have encountered and assimilated giving us, what we might call, a philosophical self. In my collection In the Library of Lost Objects I have tried to explore these different ‘selves’ in a way that they become interconnected and necessary to each other, the small or large personal dramas played out against the backdrop of an impersonal canvas: deep time as well as lived time.
If stones signify permanence, fossils represent a special case. They are life preserved in rock. As such they are a kind of double-image of the notion of permanence, giving us both a glimpse of what they were as living things, and their concrete existence in the present as “little earth-memories”. Their lives are short-lived, but through the process of petrifaction, they possess an after-life, surviving across vast tracts of time to present themselves to us behind glass in display cases.
This poem is based around a simple conceit: that the spiral form of the ammonite represents both its own cause and the spiral of evolution itself. We push back in time and “descend step-wise / down the tight curve / of its spine”. This brings us to the origins of life itself and beyond to the point of unknowing before “the dark beginnings of it all.”
In an earlier draft, that phrase “of it all” read “of the world”. The word world is one of most powerful in the language, yet here it seemed too abstract and general. The more casual “of it all” seemed to suggest something broader and bigger, yet more mysterious: life itself.
When CP Snow delivered his famous lecture in 1959 on the “two cultures” – the sciences and the humanities – they seemed to him at that time to be growing ever further apart. It is an observation that is probably even more true now. I think to resolve this we need to understand that the sciences and the arts can live side by side and both serve a function, though it would be simplistic to say it is the same function. Science gives us objective knowledge whereas a poem can never be verifiable in the same way as a scientific argument is. It is not a theorem and its proof.
Yet, at the same time, I believe the best poems endure because they represents a different type of truth, though one that is more persuasive than empirical. It gives us a sense of the subjective and emotional nature of our daily existence. In other words, where science excels at giving us definitive, objective knowledge, poetry and the arts are the instruments of expressing the experiential nature of our lives – even when encountering something as seemingly abstract as a fossil, as I try to show in this poem.  I very much hope that poetry can engage with and be informed by the rich insights, vocabularies, and discoveries of science. As someone with a background in natural sciences, I draw on these subjects not just for effect but because they feel integral to the way in which I respond to, and write about, both the personal and philosophical aspects of life. In the end, all these things can connect and inform each other. That is my hope, at least.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

'The Beekeeper to his Assistant' on BBC iPlayer

Just a quick post to mention that my poem 'The Beekeeper to his Assistant' was broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Poetry Please, hosted by Roger McGough, on 6th September. Was a truly great honour to be included. The show will be repeated on Saturday 12th September at 11.30pm, but will be available (worldwide) on the BBC iPlayer for the next month or so. (See below link.) The theme is, indeed, bees and you'll find some really lovely pieces by Tagore, Carol Ann Duffy, Jo Shapcott, Sean Barodale and Roger McGough, among others, as well as my own small offering, which ends the show. Insight, also, from beekeeper, Jeff Davey, between poems.

Poet and Presenter, Roger McGough

So here's where you can listen in, should you wish to. Link will go down on 12th October.


Now that the link to the iPlayer is down, here's the text of the poem for anyone who might be interested.

The Beekeeper To His Assistant

You must understand from the beginning
that the hive is a mind and one
you will not comprehend. Behind
the frantic to-ing and fro-ing of the bees
order prevails: the honeycomb from nothing
builds itself by geometry alone, cell by cell,
the Queen its centre and circumference.
Even the pollen-drunk dance of the messenger
returned from gardens heavy with blossoms
is a kind of mathematical waltz, calculating
in each step the sun’s slow orbit through
the heavens. For all the talk of the nuptial flight
no one has ever seen it, though it must happen.
Once in early summer I did see the Queen hover
by the hive’s entrance awaiting the drones.
And they came, hundreds of them, greedy
for her scent. I saw them disappear into the shade
of the meadow in her wake. That was all.
When they returned to the hive at dusk
exhausted and sticky from their work, their wings
were snapped and they were thrown to the earth.
Not even the Queen can evade the will of the bees.
Unknowingly she gives birth to her own successor
incubated in the brood and hidden from her.
Without a sign her servants descend on her
in a swarm and she is smothered – by violence
the honeycomb becomes her honeyed mausoleum.
Yet despite these explanations I have told you
nothing. And the beehive has its secrets.
I live for those moments in late evening
beneath the lilac blossoms when the bees
gather in a cloud about me, buzzing flecks
of light like Einstein’s vision. It is a door
into the heart of summer where time
seems to slip away and is lived through.

'The Beekeeper to his Assistant' appeared in my debut poetry collection In the Library of Lost Objects, which was published by Ward Wood Publishing in 2011.

Monday, August 17, 2015

'Vergissmeinnicht' by Keith Douglas

It is often said that there were no great poets of the Second World War - unlike the First with outstanding figures such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen highly acknowledged, among others. This isn't at all accurate, though is a view that has persisted. There was, for example, the Welsh poet Alun Lewis, who fought in the South-East Asian campaign and wrote some truly moving poetry through the war years, including 'Goodbye', a heartbreaking piece to his wife before he returned to the front where, it seems, he died, perhaps, by his own hand, though the exact circumstances remain unclear. The poem ends:

Yet when all’s done you’ll keep the emerald
I placed upon your finger in the street;
And I will keep the patches that you sewed
On my old battledress tonight, my sweet. 


It is also often forgotten that T.S.Eliot's Four Quartets was written during the war years and while oblique, it is a clear statement about how civilization rested in the balance at this time, though such a large-scale work deserves far more than a few lines of summary.

For me though, it is the work of Keith Douglas that stands above all others as an expression of the daily reality of 'soldiering'. Douglas fought in the North African campaign and wrote one of the finest war memoirs in Alameim to Zem Zem. On leave in early 1944, and aware a 'big push' was coming, Douglas desperately tried to finalise his poetic works, then made another (desperate) search to try find a publisher in the limited time available to him. During this spell, he had an intensely strong presentiment that he would not outlive the year. In haste, he found an enthusiastic figure in the form of an Indian Prince who took on the task of publishing him, though sadly this proved a disastrous choice (though he had no other) with his work effectively falling out of of print, almost immediately, and with no acknowledgement of its importance in the post-war years. It took several figures, including Ted Hughes, to rediscover it in the 1960s and revive to small interest. It was subsequently republished by Faber but still remains somewhat under-represented and less know than it should be. A Complete Poems is now in print, thankfully.

Douglas's presentiment proved sadly true. He survived the D-Day Landings - and all the fortune that entailed - but was killed by a mortar shell while on a reconnaissance mission in a field in Normandy three days later. He was twenty-four.

Here is a poem from his time in North Africa. Staggering to imagine, he was 23 when he wrote it. First a fine reading by Tom O'Bedlam of the piece, followed by the text. It's an extraordinary, beautifully tender and 'unblinking' poem about the nature of war. Vergissmeinnicht, translates as "Forget-me-not" from the German.


Three weeks gone and the combatants gone
returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again, and found
the soldier sprawling in the sun.

The frowning barrel of his gun
overshadowing. As we came on
that day, he hit my tank with one
like the entry of a demon.

Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht.
in a copybook gothic script.

We see him almost with content,
abased, and seeming to have paid
and mocked at by his own equipment
that's hard and good when he's decayed.

But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.

For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Levine, Berryman, Sexton - from the archives

Some rare and priceless footage from the archives about the Boston poetry scene in the late 1950s. Philips Levine first talks about Lowell and Berryman, then some Berryman and Sexton reading. Believe me, not to be missed. I just love the freewheeling (non-media trained) nature of these poets, along with their profound commitment to their art.

So, firstly, the wonderful Philip Levine on studying with Lowell and Berryman at the University of Iowa.

This one is a clip is of John Berryman during his famous stay in Dublin in 1967.

Anne Sexton at home. If this was an arts programme today, most of this wonderful interview would've been cut. Something very carefree and honest about this.

And to end, Berryman reading  'Dreamsong 14', again in Dublin in 1967. He's clearly drunk as was his want. So: 'There sat down,once, a thing on Henry's heart' heavy...

Great that this stuff has resurfaced. Poets, and TV, were different then!

Monday, July 13, 2015

New Poem - 'Christine'

Here's a taster from a series of dramatic monologues I'm working on. Hope you like it.

I place a drop upon the slide                                      
then spread the blood along its length,
the bead smeared to a pinkish layer.
Not every day is bad, most bloods
are as they should be, the white
and red cells as portioned and populous
as the next, made luminous
and still by my microscope light.
I study what I see with an expert eye
count the cells in the feathered edge
and confirm the worst – the progress
of it there in the lens, spreading
inexorably from one cell to the next.
This woman I’ve never known
beyond her altered chromosome.
Soon she will be laid to waste
by what I spy in this Cyclops eye
she not knowing yet her fate
as she sits in a cafe somewhere perhaps
the rain drumming against the window glass
a dulling, restless metronome,                                                
she smiling as she picks up her cup,
telling her friend it will most probably
be fine. I have tried to be
as dispassionate as the lens’ stare,
this blood work I do too far
from the living world to feel real,
protecting me from my own fear –
that if I look too closely there,
I might see my own daughter’s hair
my mother’s smile, my husband’s
glare, the blue eyes of the one I love.
Today I try but cannot escape
the mortal flaw that I reveal. I turn off
the machine to a humming click
the backlight lingering a moment
then sinking to black – like the sky
my small office window frames
and the weight of news I must give


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Abroad Writers' Conference, Dublin, December '15

This one is some time off but just to say I will be giving an intensive two day poetry workshop (on 17th-18th December) at Butler's Townhouse as part of the Abroad Writers' Conference. As I understand it, natives of Dublin (or elsewhere in Ireland) can sign up for individual workshops and, of course, the full programme of events if they choose, though early booking is recommended! You can get the full details and contact information at the webpage below:

Butler's Townhouse, Dublin

The authors I am truly honoured to be teaching (or reading) beside are:

MEDBH MCGUCKIAN Alice Hunt Bartlett PrizeROONEY PRIZE, short-listed POETRY NOW 
RUTH PADEL – 5 time winner of UK National Poetry Competition, shortlisted TS Eliot Prize 

BRITT TISDALE STATON Psychotherapist and Creativity Consultant


Here's a brief outline of the Workshop I will be giving at the conference on 17-18th December, 2015

“Gravity’s Angel”
This workshop is aimed at those who have already written poetry and would like to explore in more depth both the general strategies that can be applied to approaching subject matter and the more technical aspects of how the music of the poem can be used to ‘enact’ the meaning of the work. The morning sessions will be devoted to exploring certain key concepts, using examples from poems as the basis for discussion among the participants, the spirit of which will be far more interactive than didactic. The afternoon sessions will be given over to work-shopping individual poems put forward by members of the group. The main thing is that there will be a relaxed ambiance through both morning and afternoon session and that we all enjoy it!

DAY 1: ‘Stillness, Movement’
In this session I’d like to explore the ways in which the music of poetry (rhythm and sound) can help to enact the ‘meaning’ of a given piece, including rhythmic techniques to create harmony or tension (or both at different points) in a poem, and musical techniques that again aid in reflecting the feeling, subject and tone of a given work.

DAY 2: ‘Image & Idea’
This session will focus on the ways in which concepts can be explored in poetry by employing different strategies as required. As someone who has extensively written poetry about science, I’d like to look at some approaches that can be useful in making such ideas move beyond mere abstraction. For me, I always try to avoid using footnotes for such poems and believe pieces should carry their own meaning and be comprehensible to a non-specialist. These notions and strategies naturally apply to ideas beyond science also.

Afternoon Sessions:
The afternoon sessions will be devoted to work-shopping material from the group. Such sessions always throw up unexpected questions and discussions around given poems and the only requirement is that they are undertaken in a spirit of mutual respect and good grace. We learn from each other.

Contact: Nancy Gerbault for more details at:

My website:

Monday, April 13, 2015

Ó Bhéal Sessions, Cork, March 2015 - Recording

Just a quick post to say my poetry reading at the Ó Bhéal Sessions, Cork, at the end of March was recorded and is now available as an MP3 from the Ó Bhéal website. 

I should point out that there was a very late kick-off time for this one and I tested quite a lot of new material on the audience, so it's not quite as fluent as I would like in a few places. Still, the only way for me to find my way into new work is to read it in public and I hope it's worth tuning into all the same. It runs to approximately 30 minutes in total. 

Photo: Linda Ibbotson

So here it is, with pub ambiance and clinking glasses to add to the atmosphere and generally late night vibe there was for the whole evening - and with a warm audience for company...

Special thanks to the organiser Paul Casey for all his wonderful hospitality during my stay in Corcaigh and also for making the recording available. You can find out much more about his endeavours at the Ó Bhéal website below. Truly, he is doing great work there and long may it continue.