One of my earliest memories is of listening with my mother to a schools' history programme about prehistoric cave-paintings. It was vividly dramatised, and though I can't have been more than four at the time it has stayed with me, giving me an abiding interest in ancient peoples. Growing up near Stonehenge helped to keep this alive — history is one of the things I write about often. At the moment, too, I'm exploring my memories of the Far East, where I lived when I was first married, and there will poems about that period of my life quite soon, I think. Otherwise, my obsessions seem to be death (in common with many other poets!), and just now for some reason animals.
Like so many other women, I wrote poetry as a child and returned to it when my own children were growing up. My first pamphlet, Running With the Unicorns, was published by the Bay Press in 1994. On Sketty Sands began to come into being the year after, when the last of my mother's sisters died.
I'm a founder member of the Darlington writing, performing and publishing group Vane Women. I used to do choral singing, but now choir practice always seems to be on poetry nights (and there are a lot of those, these days). I used to knit, too, but I can't think when.
During the course of a most enjoyable MA in Writing Poetry (Newcastle University, 2002), the slightly off-the-wall streak in my writing seems to have become more noticeable. True, it was always there, hence the title of my most recent Arrowhead publication, but these days I'm allowing myself to give it more freedom. This may be as a counterweight to the darker side of my work; my sequence of poems about the composer Shostakovich, of which the opening Praeludium appears below, has involved me in some fairly grim background reading. An award from New Writing North in 2002 has meant that under the mentorship of David Morley this work is now pretty well complete, and it will I hope be published in time for the Shostakovich Centenary year of 2006.
Darkness thrums like a drumskin. Somewhere,
for someone, night's rhythms have solidified
into the knock on the door.
And someone starts up scattering the patience-cards,
leans a moment against the the wall before walking
with stiff knees and shaking breath towards the sound.
This country lives
in the up-beat before Beethoven's fate motif,
on a perpetual inbreath hurting the diaphragm.
There are so many ways of being wrong.
from Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues on Dmitri Shostakovich
The flint flakes
clear-cracked, edge nudged
sharp and sheer. Run your thumb
gently along its fang; the blood springs.
Your blood for the stone's power, to give you life.
Itself will cut Itself,
splinter the dark bone of stone
only on one of its own kind.
Find, cruel, the split in its spirit
and strike, fearless, to hone its cruelty.
You cannot kill it.
This stone is numinous with life.
It has more life than the deer
it shears and shares, spares not sinew and skin.
It has more life than the branch
it hacks, the stalk, the leaf it cleaves.
It is more hard with life than anything on this earth.
Before I strike I speak:
Heart of flint, forgive me for what I must do.
Running With the Unicorns (Bay Press 1994)
tells me that he's a little bit of the wild,
imperfectly tamed. Also, he reminds me,
there's more to life than cooking and safe poems.
In the supermarket he pad-pads the aisles
beside me, tongue lolling out, panting
gently. Suppose the old biddies could see him?
There'd be panic, chaos, police, guns,
headlines in the local press. Hell, we might even make
the nationals! WOLF SHOT IN SAFEWAY:
WOMAN ARRESTED. My wolf growls.
The reek of storms rides on his pelt.
This is what I need, I think, his dangerous
north. Together we snuff pines and snow,
peer for the grey shapes slinking in the white.
Sometimes he howls, and then I remember
not to be predictable. Yes, now, he says:
astonish the children; frighten your husband;
surprise yourself most of all.
Write poems with teeth.
This is a land of pagodas. Everywhere
you turn, you're faced with another.
They are where the gods live, just handy
for the bazaar, so that they can come down
from their high places to fetch bananas
and coconut milk. They do not have to pay.
For who would dare ask a six-armed god
to delve with one of those many hands
into his garments and pull out a coin?
You could not give him change. That gold
six-sided token, discomfiting
your ordinary brass takings,
would have its currency nowhere in this world.
But when you die, make sure that coin is placed
with your burial meal of coconut milk
and bananas. Take it with your last strength
into your cold hand, grasp it tight.
It is your entry to the high pagodas.
Here are the places
where reality creases and wears thin,
settles itself into these close translucencies.
Roads become rutted, break up, disappear
and when they emerge they have been somewhere
not to be spoken of. Rivers flow
suddenly from strange springs
or dive into the earth, trees
have taken up their roots and walked.
Whole villages lost in these folds
begin to doubt their own existence.
The school is closed, the bus route diverted,
and no one is surprised,
they drive themselves to towns to become real.
As for the history that was there
time overlaid upon time shows through,
a palimpsest of unexpected junctures.
Alfred rallies his swordsmen
against Cromwell's muskets, Drake is keeping watch
for Boney's ships, Culloden is refought
on Bosworth Field.
It pleases me to think
that Frobisher after three hundred years
could navigate at last with Amundsen
the Northwest Passage that he'd dreamed of finding;
that the astronomers who planned Stonehenge
peer at the data screens of Jodrell Bank
whispering We were right.
Poems on this page Copyright © 1994, 2003 Joanna Boulter
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Last modified: April 3rd 2005