Tuesday, 9 May 2017

The Small Bear Chronicles - 3: Small Bear

Part 1 - The Train to Barrow: http://simonzonenblickcaterpillarpoet.blogspot.co.uk/2017/04/the-small-bear-chronicles-1-train-to.html

Part 2: The Walney Channel: http://simonzonenblickcaterpillarpoet.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/small-bear-chronicles-2-walney-channel.html

When Ayelet, Ron and I arrive in the town of Barrow-in-Furness, a few miles from where Ayelet lives in Roose, I am immediately conscious of its history - it is redolent in the buildings hewn from traditional sandstone, in the steel statues of the town's old magnates, its Gothic spires and its long, Victorian terraced streets.  Much of the town was planned to support its growing population in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, and this spirit of Edwardian industrialism seeps from its dock-side edges, dotted with the remnants of its shipbuilding past, its wealth of iron, and its hull-like fortress of submarine construction.  The town's former magnates are commemorated in statues, and greeting us as we drive up Duke Street we are greeted by an impressive panorama of history and natural beauty.


Barrow's public library, on its present site, was built in 1915, though as this fell during wartime the building was not officially opened until 1922.  This is somewhat coincidental, as I had learned before visiting the town that it was here in Barrow, in August 1914, that DH Lawrence first heard of the outbreak of the First World War.  He had been on a walking tour in Westmoreland, and in a letter to Cynthia Asquith the following January, Lawrence recalled:

Then we came down to Barrow in Furness, and saw that war was declared. And we all went mad. I can remember soldiers kissing on Barrow station, and a woman shouting defiantly to her sweetheart ‘When you get at ’em, Clem, let ’em have it’, as the train drew off.

As we approach the library, I wonder what Lawrence would have made of Barrow-in-Furness today, or indeed of the country's wobbling, uncertain state, more than a century after going mad that fateful August day.  I think of the Barrow lads raised among these streets of steel, marched off to oblivion by the decaying powers of a dying world, who would never see the building we are entering now, and who would die without knowing the powers and freedoms that it might have brought them.

I am struck by the spaciousness of the library, its elegant interior and the deluges of light which bathe the bookshelves in a soft, inviting glow. 

It is one of the friendliest libraries I have ever been in, and as the staff get us settled in and usher us to the portion of the building where the launch is to take place I a thrilled to see so many old friends sunbathing on the shelves.

Soon to be joined by several newer faces:

The library begins to fill up:

We are joined for the event by two wonderful supporting poets - Jennifer Copley:

and Neil Curry:

Newcastle-born Neil now lives in Ulverston, and his verse translations of Euripedes have been performed in many countries.  When we meet, I congratulate Neil on the success of his translations, and he modestly laughs it off.  "Its so long now since I did those translations," he tells me, sitting down as the audience start filtering in around us, "that it almost feels like living off immoral earnings."

Neil's latest poetry collection is Some Letters Never Sent (Enitharmon Editions), a fascinating trawl through imaginary correspondence.  For his reading today, he delivers an excerpt from his "letter" between Coleridge and Wordsworth, and as I listen I feel myself back on my train to Roose, the seamless hillscapes and meandering waters of Cumbria rolling past in dreamlike drifts, and when I follow Neil to speak I talk of my joy at visiting Coleridge and Wordsworth's world, and of my own love for the lost art of letter writing.  Of course, I observe, were the poets alive today, their communications might not be committed to paper at all, but transmitted via the wonders of the world-wide web, and I explain to the audience how so much of Small Bear and our plans for today's launch were propelled via email, text and mobile. 

Jennifer Copley's most recent collection is Vinegar and Brown Paper (Like This Press), and she has been the winner of various poetry prizes. Jennifer runs the Barrow Writers' Group, and her fairytale-themed collection Beans in Snow (Smokestack) was one of the books which I was glued to on my journey up to Cumbria.  Today, she reads from her collection Some Couples (Happenstance), a book which I am intrigued to find features a poem set in the railway station of my own home city, Leeds, but also the elegiac The Drowners, whose poignant violence occupies a timeless sphere, but which for  me seems to bleed in pre-Raphaelite colours.

You plunged into love as if it were a river.
The current was stronger than you thought.
It pushed you over and you cried out.

She was no swimmer but she jumped in immediately.
The water punched her with its fists
and dragged her down.

(from The Drowners)

I do not read any full poems myself, just reel through my observations of the area, and pay tribute to Ayelet, and also to Kim Moore - whose suggestion prompted Ayelet to contact Caterpillar Poetry in the first place. 

It was early in 2016 that I first heard from Ayelet, and very soon we established a correspondence based on sharing poetry and ideas for poetry - not unlike the characters in Neil Curry's poems.  The first poem of Ayelet's to truly blow me away was Toadstools, which I told her reminded me of Sylvia Plath, and which I invited her to read at my Blue Teapot event in celebration of Plath's poetry.  I was delighted when Ayelet chose to include Toadstools in Small Bear, its publication being one of my own proudest moments.

Drenched in velvet
with darkest mosses,
where the green white
hellebore grows witchy and wild,
under the shadows of fallen branches,
you’ll find them there;
hoodies – huddled together,
poisonous and up to no good.

One of the next poems to tug at me was Ayelet's Octoluneo, simply entitled Moon, whose sinister story seems to have woven its way out of a nocturnal cityscape of predators, pavements and looming dangers, blended with highly symbolic stars and snowdrops - like the deceptively bucolic narrative of one of Jennifer Copley's fairytale poems:


The wolf moon
leers down on pavements
dredged with hoar,
on a night lemon fresh
sharp as a cut,
when plaintive snowdrops
shine brighter than stars,
licks his lips at lone women
who shun suitors and cars.

Although her subject matter is sometimes serious, or presented in starkly minimalistic terms (She is known for her brevity, reads Ayelet's self-penned biographical note), there is a real flash of joi-de-vivre cutting through so much of this collection.  We gain a window on the love-lives of the gradually uninhibited, enjoy a grandmother's overdue realisation of the beauty in her life, and in the wryly titled One of Those, we meet an unnamed protagonist, who is

turning into one of those women
who carry bags of boiled sweets in their
handbags, proffering them to strangers
whom she got talking to.

But it is Ayelet's poem Bus Journey which brings the house down at Barrow Library.  A warm, smiling, happy swipe at social rigidity, a plea for simple civility, a Mexican wave of rare humanity in a world of seemingly intractable convention, cynicism, and stultifying negativity, Bus Journey laughs off the uptight-ness of a self-conscious and sceptical society in flourish of stunningly simple pleasure:


A girl stands up and offers
her seat to the pregnant woman
on the crowded bus.
And suddenly everyone
is getting up and giving their seats
to each other, a Mexican wave,
and everyone eases up and feels happy,
as if they were on holiday,
each passenger a brother or sister,
and screw the fact that they’ll be late
for work.

To our great delight, people have travelled from as far afield as London to enjoy Ayelet's launch, and to buy Small Bear, which - pending a July reprint - has now virtually sold out! I take several closing photographs, including a nice snap of Ayelet with Ron, who so selflessly put me up, and provided such good company on my tour of the area.
After the event has drawn to a close, we head through town, past the steel statue of Willie Horne - much larger than the replica Ron and I had seen in the museum, and walk towards Barrow railway station.  I stand on the platform where, a century ago, DH Lawrence watched the soldiers kissing goodbye to their sweethearts, and I wonder what became of them.

As my train pulls out of Barrow, and I watch its overhead lights and corrugated roofs peter out into suburbs, streets and terraced housing, and we sweep through twilight-silvered fields of Swarthmoor, Ulverston, Flookburgh and Kent's Bank, swinging back through Grange-over-Sands and spooling through the evening rain into Lancashire, I find myself reflecting on what an honour it has been to be accommodated by the wonderful Barrow Library, to have published Small Bear, and to have been associated with the poetry of Ayelet Mckenzie.

BLACK MAGIC, by Ayelet McKenzie

The creepy, crawly night
creeps in like a black widow spider,
devouring the day light as she goes.
Sensible flowers take fright
and close their petals, wait
for the delight of morning
when they can revel in the sun
and shine bright.
Be what they are supposed to be.

The rain replenishes,
and blends with the sun
to form a rainbow – a child-full union,
and one with insight:
arcing over the wilderness of the earth,
this planet that will not stay for ever.

Ayelet and Ron, Barrow Library.

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