She steers my mother slowly across the care home lawn. A ship of state adrift on a sea of green.
“Here are my two favourite girls,” I call from the shade of the arbour. Because if I wasn’t jolly I’d cry.
“Haven’t seen you for a while,” I remark as she lowers mum onto the garden seat beside me and relays two porcelain hands from hers to mine for safe keeping for the next half hour. “Been on holiday?”
“I’ve been to Mogadishu,” she says and then adds quickly before I have time to ask something crass like oh what’s the weather like there at this time of year “to bury my mum.”
To bury my mum.
I want to reach across my mother’s head and hold her hand. But, of course, social distancing has made human instinct less instinctive. So words are our lifebelts. To stop the grief sucking us down.
Her name was Fatima. She was 60. A proud mother of four. Two children seeking new lives in America. Two here in the UK. Widowed four years ago so alone in the Somali capital. Taken by Covid before Foz could say goodbye. So she went instead to bury her. And then had to pay for hotel quarantine on her return. Red lists and all that.
These are the bare facts.
I look down at the mother who’s left.
“You can share mine. She can be your honorary mum.”
Shackled by time slippers shuffled Stooped to the high-backed seat Queen throned, grey crown ruffled Prince and Princess at her feet
The Prince takes a marbled hand But a child’s touch cannot reach beyond Their birth to a foreign land To retrieve lost memories fond
In her realm time and place are a synaptic jumble Behind curtained lids sightless pupils dart O’er a past decaying to a mumble As mind and body part
On a pedestal a not-still life Head set in stone yet body moving To the heart beat of a mother and a wife Her monumental presence soothing
This poem came to me after visiting my mother in her care home with my sister, Joanne. It was our first visit in six months because of Covid restrictions and only the second time we’d seen her in a year. I had originally planned writing about how hand holding is central to human relationships and that holding hands through surgical gloves is wholly inadequate – perhaps surprising given that latex is thinner than a sheet of paper. But it turned out there wasn’t much poetry in PPE 😷 and I was stumped until leafing through Poems of Today, an anthology of poetry I serendipitously discovered later that same day on my mother’s bookshelf. In it I was struck by Midnight Lamentation by Harold Munro and in particular by the last verse:
I cannot reach beyond Body, to you. When you or I must go Down evermore, There’ll be no more to say -But a locked door.
The locked door image resonated as a metaphor not just for death but for the death of memory that is dementia. Another book on mum’s shelf (and on mine too) – A Shropshire Lad by A E Housman provided the metre.
Guinness, lager, shandy, coke (You can go your own way) Wisecracks, quips and sexist jokes (Go your own way) “This chair taken? No feel free!” (You can call it another lonely day) “Your shout Dave I need a pee.”
Please make your selection…
Fleetwood Mac then Britney Spears (Sometimes I run) Singles, doubles, mixers, cheers (Sometimes I hide) Earnest chats in cosy snugs (Sometimes I’m scared of you) Pimms for toffs is served in jugs
Please make your selection…
ELO then Squeeze and Bread (Mr Blue you did it right) Abba, the Ungrateful Dead (And then came Mr Night) “No of course I ain’t been drinkin…” (Creepin over) …on his phone to mum while winkin’ (Now his hand is on your shoulder) Red braces clipped to pinstripe suits (Mr Blue Sky) Blokes in work-stained jeans and boots
Please make your selection…
The pound coin drops it’s Motörhead (The ace of spades The ace of spades The ace of spades) The juke box dies. The sound goes dead.
I scribbled this on a soggy beer mat in a noisy, sweaty north London boozer pre-Covid and have only just rediscovered it. Reminds me of happier times – apart from the ending which, with hindsight, appears prescient. I hope you can “smell” the atmosphere too.
For most of the year the field is like a sheet of writing paper covered with invisible ink. Words indivisible from the page. Blank every morning save for brown-blot molehills. But the overnight snow has rendered the lines for all to see. All at once. An animal track heat map, only cold. Footsteps frozen in time and place.
Much is indecipherable. Unknowable. But some is observable. Or deducible.
The ink is barely dry on the sheep paths. Close up, the freshest, once-trodden tracks are, in fact, two closely-spaced furrows with a distinct ridge in between right and left ploughshare hooves. No such distinction in the oft-trodden lamblines where the front leg dots and hind leg dashes have worn through to the grass beneath. Feint blue becoming bright green.
Other writers have left strings of single letter words and flown. The Y Y Y of bird feet. Serif here. Sans serif there. Upper case. Lower case. Bold buzzard prints. (I know they were left by a buzzard because I saw it fan down from its perch in the snow-shadowed oak – gracious in flight, but grounded, stamping cold feet like an angry child in oversize wellies). Italicised wagtrails. Barely more than scratches on the crusted surface of the snow. Spokes leading to the stock feeder hub. Hay for the sheep. A meagre harvest of flies for the birds who’ve been forced down from their usual haunt on the clay tiles of the barn roof.
By the brook where the flood water has congealed then dropped to leave a glass dance floor, there are the arrowheads of a pheasant. Pointing back from where it came. And ending abruptly. Mid sentence. With a tail-dragging smudge and a silent squawk. Only to start again somewhere else. In another field. The other side of the stream. On another page.
The writing paper field.
Freed from the conventions of verse form, I find prose poetry easier to compose. So it’s my go-to style. That said I hope this latest piece in the Field series still has poetic qualities in its use of imagery, metaphors and symbols.
Taking pictures forces you to look at the world more carefully. You see things through the viewfinder that you might miss with the naked eye. And yet more detail resolves itself in the taken image.
So it is with recording sounds. You hear things through the headphones that might otherwise be lost in the background noise. The squeak of freshly fallen snow under foot. The scrunch of that same snow after a hard frost. The splashing of drips. Drips becoming trickles. Trickles becoming streams. Melt water tumbling over stones. And listening back, the source of each sound can be clearly “seen.”
Ears have eyes.
Ridiculously pretentious I know, but like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, The Shropshire Symphony will eventually have four movements. You can listen here to the Spring movement I recorded during the first lockdown in April 2020.
Paper lantern queen Your subjects crawl on their knees No sting in the sun.
For me the soundtrack of the first lockdown was the bumblebees feasting on the nectar in the blossom of our cherry trees. It’s a different kind of buzz this time round as we enter winter and a second lockdown – wasps. Drones falling like autumn leaves from their nest in the gable end of the cottage roof. Dazed by the cold. Angry like prize fighters losing their prowess. Drunk on the juice of windfall apples. Lurching not flying. But still capable of delivering a stinging blow. They won’t survive the winter. Their job is done. Only their queen will survive. And even that is not guaranteed.
Colour-eating cloud West wind-stacked silver strata Fading green to black
I love the easy discipline of Haiku. Just three lines: the first of five syllables; the second of seven; and the third back to five. It’s the sort of poetry you can write anywhere anytime you have a few moments to spare. And I often find that the images the words conjure up (if not the words and lines themselves) lead to bigger works – weeks, months or even years later.
From early morning geese to late night owls via a blackbird serenading from his perch in our cherry tree, all these natural sounds were recorded over the four days of Easter in our garden near Ludlow.
To my way of thinking there is little or no separation between sounds and words. The best words are visual – in the sense that they readily conjure up a mental image. Sounds do the same. So I hope you can “see” the source of the sounds in this composition with your ears with the same vibrancy I first saw them with my eyes.
You didn’t like people making a fuss of you. So you weren’t a big fan of Mother’s Day.
Before it all became what you disdainfully called Americanised, I do remember me and my sister bringing you breakfast in bed. Dad was in on the annual conspiracy and I’m sure you knew what was happening from the clatter in the kitchen. But you always feigned surprise when Joanne carried in the tray and I, her younger brother, theatrically threw open the curtains to let the morning shine on Kellogg’s Cornflakes, a boiled egg and toast (which left crumbs on the sheet we could feel through our pajamas when we were allowed to snuggle up next to you). Thank you for your indulgent smile that morning and every morning.
You still have it. Dementia may be emptying your mind. But it’s not draining your face. I’m picturing it now. It’s your gift to me this day (because mothers everywhere give far more than they can ever receive).