I’m proud and excited to be able to offer a Poetry Breakfast peopled entirely with Bloodaxe poets! Bloodaxe Books was founded in Newcastle by Neil Astley in 1978 and is now one of the country’s foremost independent poetry publishing houses. Bllodaxe has to its credit no fewer than six Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry winners: three of whom are represented here ~ Fleur Adcock, who was awarded this honour for 2006, Imtiaz Dharker for 2014, and David Constantine who will receive his medal this year, for 2020.
Read on for new and exciting poetry ~ with grateful thanks to Bloodaxe for accepting my invitation to be our first guest publisher with such kindness and enthusiasm. I am honoured.
Bloodaxe Books 1978–2018: Forty Years of Poetry with an Edge
Bloodaxe Books marked its 40th birthday in 2018. This film by Pamela Robertson-Pearce and founder editor Neil Astley celebrates forty years of poetry with an edge ~ with readings, archive footage and visual snapshots of notable events over four decades.
Our Bloodaxe Poets
Imtiaz Dharker grew up a Muslim Calvinist in a Lahori household in Glasgow, was adopted by India and married into Wales. Her main themes are drawn from a life of transitions: childhood, exile, journeying, home, displacement, religious strife and terror, and latterly, grief. She is also an accomplished artist, and all her collections are illustrated with her drawings, which form an integral part of her books.
She was awarded The Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry for 2014, presented to her by The Queen in spring 2015, and has also received a Cholmondeley Award from the Society of Authors and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
In 2015 she appeared on the iconic BBC Radio 4 programme Desert Island Discs. In 2019 she was appointed Chancellor of Newcastle University.
Luck is the Hook is her sixth book from Bloodaxe.
In these poems, chance events play a part in finding, keeping or losing people and places that are loved: a change in the weather, a trick of language, a bomb that misses its mark, six pomegranate seeds eaten by mistake; random events that cast long shadows and raise questions about who is recording them, about believing, not believing, wanting to believe. A knot undone at Loch Lomond snags over Glasgow, a seal swims in the Clyde, a ghost stalks her quarry at the stepped well, an elephant and a cathedral come face to face on the frozen Thames, a return ticket is thrown into the tide of Humber, strangers wash in. Even in an uncertain world, love tangles with luck, flights show up on the radar and technology keeps track of desire.
Cathy’s mother says
she is her sweet heart.
My mother says I am a piece of her liver.
Cathy has an ice blue cardigan.
My mother holds Cathy still
in front of her, and studies the stitches
with her eyes screwed up. She
measures me with the span of her hand
and marches me over the bridge
to Argyle Street for wool and needles.
Sitting by the fireplace, she is fierce,
unwinds the skein to a ball
off my arms, slips one, purls one,
unravels, starts again,
needles clicking, clacking
in time to the pattern in her head,
the shape of the life she is plotting
for me, knitting herself into me.
Done, she holds the cardigan
over my chest, a perfect copy
of Cathy’s, but red.
The edges wriggle more
because hers is machine-made
and mine is worked by hand.
Years later, when I leave, my mother cries
on the phone, and says her liver
has been torn apart.
Sometimes the mouth is so unknown
that kissing it is a flight
to another country,
the unexpected dip above the lip,
the wicked skid round corners,
the corners tilted up
to tip you straight into the place
where the accent changes.
Why talk to strangers when
there’s kissing to be done instead?
Your mother’s lipstick blazes
Rimini Red on your lips
and some of it on the cheek of the boy
outside the Italian café
where the music plays
Eri piccola, piccola, piccola,
Your mouth is still cold
from the ice-cream cone, his warm
with raspberry blood
and that other thing you can’t get
your tongue around, that comes
from somewhere blue,
il pomeriggio è troppo azzurro
e lungo per me.
di non avere più risorse,
senza di te,
where you have gone in your head,
where the language plays by different rules
and your only signposts are the stars.
Seal, River Clyde
Flourishing, aye, its glass filled with dazzle
all the way up to the sky, Glas-cu greened
as if St Mungo has just passed by. It might
have been just yesterday he broke a branch
off a tree and it burst into flame
and could this be the tree, could this be the tree?
Out of the tree a robin sang
its last song into the exhausted air,
but St Mungo was there to pick it up
off the road in case the buses killed it again,
breathing into its mouth, saving its name
and could this be the bird, could this be the bird?
Under Jamaica Bridge, a log rolls and turns
into a shining seal. It has swum past the armadillo,
past Glasgow’s glass eyes, snakes of children
in high-vis, to search for the live thing
in the water, the salmon that swallowed a ring
and could this be the fish, could this be the fish?
The seal looks at the children and they look back
as if they have a question to ask before the tree
comes alight on the banks of the Clyde, where
the salmon swims to the mouth of the seal
who has something to tell before the bell tolls
and could this be the bell, could this be the bell?
by Imtiaz Dharker, from Luck is the Hook, published by Bloodaxe Books, 2018. Thank you to Bloodaxe for permission to include these poems.
Artwork by Imtiaz Dharker, with thanks to Bloodaxe Books for permission to include these images. All of Imtiaz Dharker’s poetry collections are illustrated with her drawings, which form an integral part of the books.
Luck is the Hook by Imtiaz Dharker
Buy Luck is the Hook online from the Poetry Pharmacy or your chosen bookshop.
David Constantine was born in 1944 in Salford, Lancashire. He read Modern Languages at Wadham College, Oxford, and lectured in German at Durham from 1969 to 1981 and at Oxford from 1981 to 2000. He is a freelance writer and translator, a Fellow of Queen’s College, Oxford, and was co-editor of Modern Poetry in Translation from 2004 to 2013. He lives in Oxford and on Scilly.
He has published eleven books of poetry, five translations and a novel with Bloodaxe.
In December 2020 he was named winner of The Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry for 2020. He will be presented with the award in 2021.
Like the work of the European poets who have nourished him, David Constantine’s poetry is informed by a profoundly humane vision of the world. The title of his eleventh collection, Belongings, signals that these are poems concerned both with our possessions and with what possesses us. Among much else in the word belongings, the poems draw on a sense of our ‘co-ordinates’ – something like the eastings and northings that give a map-reference – how you might triangulate a life.
The poems ask: Where do you belong? And have in mind also the hostile: You don’t belong here. Go back where you belong. Many, possibly all, the poems in the collection touch more or less closely on such matters. Perhaps all poetry does, showing a life in its good or bad defining circumstances.
On my geological map of Manchester
The drift edition of 1949
Most is washed over in a faint blue or a faint pink
For the boulder clay and the glacial sand and gravel
Travelled down from the Lake District. Also
Much faded sepia, for the alluvial terraces
Along our soiled river. I wanted outcrops, faces
Daylight apparitions of the city’s bedrock
And it took a while of poring till I found a small
Dull smear denoting Bunter Sandstone. Then I walked fast
To the locus itself, a railway cutting
Behind the hospital I was born in. Stood looking:
Nothing bright about it. It was soot black. Touched it:
Black on my fingers. Still I believed in it, the red
From the era of the Greatest Extinction. Yes
After my fashion I saw the bright red in there
Waiting. And I believe it was that moment
Of a boy staring for the red stone through the soot
In a railway cutting close to home that drove me
Again and again to the uplands between the conurbations
The White Peak and the Dark
On paths as many as those that criss-cross your palms
Or climb the arbor vitae in your head
Or to all your body’s provinces feed the blood.
Thanks be to the map-makers that they have devised
Signs, a whole system, intelligible to all comers
To denote what’s locally there. Leave the B road
At a level crossing, head north, enter a mixed wood
Catch hold of its stream and in less than a mile
You will emerge on a steepening slope. Outcrop
Scree, a small lake… Thank them for that
But more still for the space they let you into
Through every pictogram. Two hundred miles away
You can tell whether the church in question
Has a tower, a spire or neither, but not
Whether listening to the sermon you’d have been distracted
By mermaids and green men. Behind the sign
Into the vacancy, oh the inrush of presence
The holy particulars! The map-makers have represented
Some of the many incarnations of water
But not my drying your chilled feet in a handkerchief
Nor the licks of salt. Reading the map afterwards
Assures us of our hinterland, all we got by heart
Through our boot-soles from the braille of the terrain
And all that our fingers learned by digging in
And hauling up our bodyweight. There it is
Our route, very public, anyone can follow it
But only the walkers know it for a song-line
With undertones. Thanks be then to the makers
Of agreed markers, conventional signs
Among the current place names. In any company
I can say aloud, Yes, she is my friend.
How it saddened me …
How it saddened me after one last time
Tracing with a forefinger the remembered route
Into the tightening contours to where, almost contented
We had turned with the wide-open sky behind us
Back down the stream that was becoming its river-self
Down and down in a kind of satisfaction
That we were leaving the immense rest unseen
Slowly with a finger trailing the way into the flatlands
How it dejected me concluding that last after-journey
To fold the map and slot it back where it belongs
In the hoard of the trodden, the untrodden
The never now by us to be trodden paths.
by David Constantine, from Belongings, published by Bloodaxe Books, 2020. Thank you to Bloodaxe for permission to include these poems.
Belongings by David Constantine
Buy Belongings online from the Poetry Pharmacy or your chosen bookshop
Susan Wicks has published eight collections of poetry, five of them with Bloodaxe Books: Dear Crane, 2021, The Months, 2016, House of Tongues, 2011, De-iced, 2007 and Night Toad: New & Selected Poems, 2003, which includes a selection from three earlier books published by Faber: Singing Underwater, winner of the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival Prize; Open Diagnosis, which was one of the Poetry Society’s New Generation Poets titles; and The Clever Daughter, a Poetry Book Society Choice which was shortlisted for both T.S. Eliot and Forward Prizes. The Months, House of Tongues, Night Toad and Singing Underwater are all Poetry Book Society Recommendations.
Susan has also published three novels.
A giant crane appears at the back windows of a residential street, its beam swinging freely, its red ‘eye’ seeming to overlook the lives on the other side of the glass. In her eighth collection of poems, Susan Wicks writes searchingly about our ordinary existence, its serendipities and unreliable sense-impressions, its delight in a new generation, its brief escapes – but this earthbound perspective is also part of an implicit dialogue. Under the crane new buildings spring up, seasons shift, perspective varies, until, its work completed, the giant machine is ready to be driven away. By the time it leaves, the landscape we knew will have changed and we too will have moved on.
From here you see it’s flowing left to right –
yet pace from one room to the other
and you’d swear the opposite.
Light on the muscled play of water
flecks it with dark and silver,
depth and surface-shimmer.
Willow boles reach down while birds fly up
into a paler sky. This is the fluent place
where world and mirror touch.
Against all reason, we can still believe
what our eyes still tell us: water
is both dark and silver, shallow, deep,
absorbing and excluding light;
this spreading gleam
from a broken branch or pile of detritus
is an inverted shadow. From the sky
the shadow shines, the ripples
smiling as they curl away.
The Romance of Steam
(Spa Valley Railway, 1 January)
Remember the Brighton Belle,
that glimpse of opalescent lamps strung out
from here to other lifetimes
in the windows’ glass
as they flicked past, like pearls?
It wasn’t that. Yet all the same
there’s something about the steam,
the way it swells and rolls below the tracks
and spreads across a winter valley
The way we slipped on mud,
standing to watch each carriage chug away
and vanish round the bend, as water
seeped into our footprints
and filled up with sky.
And how the little bridge still gathered moss
and echoed, voices bouncing up and down
from brick to brick; the way the drizzle coated us with moisture
till we shone.
(‘How would YOU describe GOD in One Word?’ Publicity postcard for local church)
I tried ‘divinity’
because it seemed to show
no prejudice: a category
for a certain kind of need, historical, a cultural contingency.
I tried ‘toast’
because my eyes
were resting on the toaster at the time
and the toaster’s shape was retro,
making me remember weekend mornings
lost in childhood dreaming
by the solid fuel
boiler in the kitchen corner.
since when she was still alive
I hadn’t understood her
and with age I feel myself grow closer,
understand her better,
thinking of her gently with a
you, the way a child might say a prayer.
Then I thought, ‘Why one,
when they have ‘Father, Son
and Holy Ghost’? – and through the trees
I saw its steel-built tower, small red light
and concrete counterweight.
I watched it turning
in the prevailing breeze.
by Susan Wicks, from Dear Crane, published by Bloodaxe Books, 2021. Thank you to Bloodaxe for permission to include these poems.
Dear Crane by Susan Wicks
Buy Dear Crane online from the Poetry Pharmacy or your chosen bookshop
A.B. Jackson was born in Glasgow in 1965 and raised in the village of Bramhall, Cheshire. After moving to Cupar in Fife he studied English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. His first book, Fire Stations, Anvil, 2003, won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2003, and a limited-edition pamphlet, Apocrypha, Donut Press, 2011, was published in 2011. In 2010 he won first prize in the Edwin Morgan International Poetry Competition. His second collection, The Wilderness Party, Bloodaxe Books, 2015, was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.
The Voyage of St Brendan is published by Bloodaxe Books in 2021.
In The Voyage of St Brendan, A.B. Jackson tells the tale of the legendary seafaring Irish abbot. After burning a book of fantastical stories, Brendan is compelled to sail the ocean with a crew of six monks in a leather-skinned currach; his task, to prove the existence of wonders in the world and create a new book of marvels. Discoveries include Jasconius the island-whale, a troop of Arctic ghosts, a hellmouth of tortured souls, a rock-bound Judas, and the magical castle of the boar-headed Walserands.
Although the roots of this legend lie in early Irish immrama and the Latin Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis of the ninth century, Jackson has taken the fourteenth-century Middle Dutch version of Brendan’s voyage as the template for this engaging and spirited interpretation, making it recommended reading for scholars of medieval literature and lovers of fantasy adventure alike. The book includes a series of black and white linocuts by the American artist Kathleen Neeley.
The Burning of the Book
Books were Brendan’s love. At number one,
Amazing Tales, a vast compendium.
Within, he found the Mathematic Salmon,
the Manticore, the breath-defying Dragon.
The dog-head folks, called Cynocephali,
a godless bunch who play the banjolele.
The Arctic tribes who worship tiger seals,
their ice-hickle cities on wagon wheels.
The whale Jasconius, its mountain-back
all porcupined with oak, and elm, and ash.
And Inexpressible Isle, its ruined fort
with butterfly judges, Heart’s Grief Court.
In time, this diet of ripe and rum detail
weighed on Brendan: he sickened, grew pale.
He craved, instead, a simple common sense
in keeping with his Rule of abstinence.
‘These things,’ he cried, ‘are figments, folderols.
The truth is here, at hand: a linnet’s carols,
Kerry mountains, Christ upon his hook.’
And Brendan made a fire, and burned his book.
Brendan’s dream was short. An angel spoke:
‘The book you burned, that marvel-busy book
is fact not fiction. Abbot, hear my curse:
you’ll sail abroad, prove wonderstuff on earth.’
On waking, flesh and spirit were engaged.
‘Brothers, build a currach! Come, make haste!’
Fifty hides were bathed in oak-bark liquor,
one full year, the tanning spell for leather,
and waterproofed with stinky wool grease.
Carpenters raised a body, piece by piece –
gunwhales of oak, the rest of bone-white ash:
thwarts and ribs and oars, the single mast.
The hides were sewn, tacked on, an outer skin
whose reek made every Dingle dog a pilgrim.
And Brendan cried: ‘No miracle of God
outshines this boat! I name her now – the Cog.’
The Cog rubs her leather belly
on Kerry sand
the crew overspill and fish-flop
they cannot stand
Fabulous now with legs like birds
a tribe unsprung all muscle gone
nine years at sea
Hairy as saints who perch on rocks
hairy as mermayds badly beached
hairy as bears
Greeted as kings by shoreline dogs
nosing high reek
flesh and clothes one greasy woven
They hitch a ride in tradesmen’s carts
back to Ardfert
a welcome there of shocks and wails
and full heartburst
Brendan carries Aidan’s fat book
as though a babe
lays it down on the altar cloth
white as a wave
The crew are restored in wild rose-
sunset brings a clamour of crows
then sleep’s fortune
Brendan retires flower-festooned
alone at last
his mind an oakwood of owl hoots
and rooting masts
He listens wide-eyed his weak heart
shifting like snow
an angel bright as springtime says
It’s time to go
by A.B. Jackson, from The Voyage of St Brendan, published by Bloodaxe Books, 2021. Thank you to Bloodaxe for permission to include these poems.
The Voyage of St Brendan by A.B. Jackson
Buy The Voyage of St Brendan online from the Poetry Pharmacy or your chosen bookshop
Penelope Shuttle has lived in Cornwall since 1970, is the widow of the poet Peter Redgrove, and has a grown-up daughter Zoe, who works in the field of sustainable energy. She has written fiction and non-fiction as well as poetry.
Penelope’s work is widely anthologised and can be heard on The Poetry Archive website. Her poetry has been broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and 4, and her poem Outgrown was used recently in a radio and television commercial. She has been a judge for many poetry competitions, is a Hawthornden Fellow, and a tutor for the Poetry School. She is current Chair of the Falmouth Poetry Group, one of the longest-running poetry workshops in the country.
She published seven collections with Oxford University Press, one with Oxford Poets/Carcanet, before moving to Bloodaxe Books. Redgrove’s Wife was shortlisted for both the Forward Prize and the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2006. Sandgrain and Hourglass is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.
The submerged land of Lyonesse was once part of Cornwall, according to myth and the oral tradition, standing for a lost paradise in Arthurian legend, but now an emblem of human frailty in the face of climate change. And there was indeed a Bronze Age inundation event which swept the entire west of Cornwall under the sea, with only the Isles of Scilly and St Michael’s Mount left as remnants above sea-level. Lyonesse was also Thomas Hardy’s name for Cornwall where Penelope Shuttle has lived all her adult life, always fascinated by the stories and symbolic presence of Lyonesse.
After seeing the Isles of Scilly from a small plane at a low altitude – flying over the Wolf Lighthouse – and then visiting the recent Sunken Cities exhibition at the British Museum, imagination and memory played their part in joining the Lyonesse dots together for her, prompting what she calls ‘a spontaneous inundation of approaches to the theme, images, soundings of Lyonesse’.
When the wave
with a run-up height of
over forty metres
it sealed the churches full of people
stoppered them up with five million tons of fatal debris
Side-swiped orchards crashed down
to the abyssal plain
no longer dependent upon the sun
Repair garages sparked like broken wineglasses at a wedding
The hands of the planet could not lift a finger to help
They say the tilt-yards of Lyonesse
took to shamanism
They say a cooked goose was waiting
in every oven in that gobsmack city of the dead
They say the tremblor of the event
shortened the length of the world’s day by a microsecond
They say fjords a thousand miles away sloshed in seismic sympathy
They say icebergs broke off
the Sulzberger Ice Shelf in Antarctica
All this is true
Our Cradle Sea
the sleepers turn their faces to the west
the beech trees
bear fruit every autumn
and the forest you could see from the city gate
still waits for the huntsmen though only bream
gurnard and monkfish
the branches of oak and ash in the green ocean
where no living person
Saturdays & Sundays
Remember our Lyonesse Saturdays,
queuing for bread and milk?
And on blameless Sundays we’d visit
what you called: our parlour in the pines.
I think we were happy nine-tenths of the time.
Then you travelled to where whales
are never watched, leaving me the small change
of my spare time, endless coppery Saturdays
and silver Sundays. I learned how our days
are numbered and how years go by.
Last summer I heard of a woman in London
who was ready and willing to die.
But the day she’d chosen went by without taking her.
Weekend after weekend, she wondered why?
by Penelope Shuttle, from Lyonesse, published by Bloodaxe Books, 2021. Thank you to Bloodaxe for permission to include these poems.
Lyonesse by Penelope Shuttle
Buy Lyonesse online from the Poetry Pharmacy or your chosen bookshop
Fleur Adcock writes about men and women, childhood, identity, roots and rootlessness, memory and loss, animals and dreams, as well as our interactions with nature and place. Her poised, ironic poems are remarkable for their wry wit, conversational tone and psychological insight, unmasking the deceptions of love or unravelling family lives.
Born in New Zealand in 1934, she spent the war years in England, returning with her family to New Zealand in 1947. She emigrated to Britain in 1963.
Fleur Adcock began writing the poems in this book when she was 82. The two chief settings are New Zealand, with its multi-coloured seas, and Britain, seen in various decades. There are foreign travels, flirtations, family memories, deaths and conversations with the dead. Katherine Mansfield, incognito, dodges an academic conference; there’s a lesson in water divining as well as a rather unusual Christmas party. We meet several varieties of small mammal, numerous birds, doomed or otherwise, and some sheep. The book ends with a sequence in memory of her friend, the poet Roy Fisher.
It was in this dress – pink and apricot
glazed cotton in a geometric print
with a draw-string waist, boat neck, small cap sleeves
(home-made from a Simplicity pattern –
we all made our own dresses in those days) –
that I rode a camel in the desert
outside Cairo to the Great Pyramid
of Giza. (Less intrepid than it sounds:
a tourist guide was holding the bridle.)
The skirt was knee-length, and rather too tight –
not suitable for an Arab country;
it rucked right up as I clambered aboard.
Then – a bit of a surprise to me – rain
began to fall. (This was February
1963 – that famous winter.)
Anyway, I thought you might like the dress.
Magnolia Seed Pods
Among the wonders vouchsafed to me
during my suburban wanderings
in two countries, this one and that one,
were these exotic excrescences,
each a miniature pineapple,
framed in petals the size of saucers.
The first I saw were strewn underfoot,
with no magnolia bloom in sight:
a mystification until I asked.
It was late in life when I found them.
Who would have thought I’d still be allowed
to walk out freely where there were trees
and carry on as I’ve always done:
picking things up and looking at them?
What was the use of these brisk new wing-blades
or these legs like springy twigs, young robin,
if they couldn’t lift you just a bit higher
than the jaws that snatched and punctured you
and then dropped you on my flower bed,
right here, beside the antirrhinums?
It’s far too early for a rosy breast,
but I see the advance markers of it:
two shreds of orange fluff on your bosom,
nestled among the tweedy russet.
You loll on my hand as I pick you up,
surprisingly heavy, surprisingly warm –
just getting the knack of being dead.
The reddest thing is the splash on my palm.
by Fleur Adcock, from The Mermaid’s Purse, published by Bloodaxe Books, 2021. Thank you to Bloodaxe for permission to include these poems.
The Mermaid's Purse by Fleur Adcock
Buy The Mermaid’s Purse online from the Poetry Pharmacy or your chosen bookshop
Huge thanks to Neil Astley and everyone at Bloodaxe Books for giving us such a special Poetry Breakfast. Thanks too, to Imtiaz Dharker, David Constantine, Susan Wicks, A.B. Jackson, Penelope Shuttle and Fleur Adcock for their brilliant and intriguing poems. For me, this has been a wonderful mix of poets I’ve known and loved for years, and poets, new to me, that I am so pleased to have discovered.
Next month, our special guest is Sheenagh Pugh with the theme Absence and Edges ~ see you then!
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