The Cull, 2036

I don’t normally post short stories on my blog until they have found a home, but considering our current political landscape and the prospect of an environmental meltdown, I thought this story was relevant. Please feel free to share.

animal bee blur close up

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

‘…on some secluded branch in a forest far and wide sits perched an owl, who, full of self-conceit and self-created wisdom, explains, comments, condemns, ordains and orders things not understood, yet full of importance still holds forth to stocks and stones around.’
Michael Faraday.

October 2036

The room was dark and reeked of damp. Ailith lit a candle on the mantelpiece and watched as the light cast her shadow onto the wall. She didn’t dare open the curtains, for fear of letting the heat out; plus, she didn’t want the neighbours knowing she was awake. They still thought she was the bloody community councillor. Fat lot of good she’d be if she was. She couldn’t deal with her own shit let alone anybody else’s. And it wasn’t that she didn’t like the neighbours, it was just the noise of them that riled her up, the noise and the desperation on their faces, like rabbits-staring-into-fucking-headlights, chapping on her door at all hours and pleading, ‘For Christ’s sake Ailith, what are we going to do?’ And she’d just stand there, shrugging her shoulders and thinking “Christ? What’s Christ got to do with it? Our so-called Lord and Savour has fucked off, shut up shop, and handed the keys to our new friend – drum roll – the OWL – Our One World Leader. It was only half six in the morning and her guts were heaving already.

She sat on the sofa and peeled the lid off a plastic container. She couldn’t eat this crap for much longer. She poked the spoon into the cream jelly; it squelched when she broke the surface and it let out a fart when she pulled it out. What exactly was she eating? She sucked the jelly through her teeth. It wasn’t food. It didn’t even smell like food. It didn’t even smell. The label said ‘nutritious’ but she didn’t believe it. She didn’t believe anything they had forced on her. No. None of their lies sat well in her stomach.
A muffled tune disturbed her thoughts. Recognising the OWL Corp. ringtone, she sat up straight and tidied her hair from her face.

‘Answer call.’ She said lifting the chat box from beneath a cushion. A balding man wearing a black suit stared poker-faced at her from behind the glass.

‘Ms McDonald? Is this correct?’

‘Yup.’

‘Can you confirm your date of birth?’

‘Twenty-fourth of May 2008.’

‘Please scan your identification into your box device.’

Ailith took her ID card from her wallet and placed it on the scanner. She waited for the beep.

‘Thank you, Ms McDonald. I am calling to remind you that you have not yet voted.’

‘I’m aware.’

‘And you are also aware Ms McDonald, that this is day three?’

‘Like I could forget.’ She bit a thread of skin from the side of her fingernail.

‘I’m sorry, Ms McDonald, can you clarify your last answer. Are you aware that this is day three?’

‘Yes.’

‘And do you understand that you are required by your One World Leader to vote by midnight tomorrow?’

‘Obviously.’ And the One World Leader could kiss her arse.

‘Sorry?’

‘Yes.’

‘And do you know the actions that will be taken should you fail to fulfil your requirement to vote?’

‘I understand.’

                                                                               ****

To be or not to be, that really was the fucking question. And she didn’t have an answer. She stood naked in the bathroom and shivered. Day three she didn’t have the balls to do what half the country had already had the balls to do. Filling the sink to the allocated water level, she dropped in two soap pellets. The clock was ticking, and if she did have balls, they’d be shrunk to the size of peanuts. The soap pellets fizzed for a couple of seconds then disappeared. Like the food, the soap didn’t smell of anything. If only her Mum was here to help with the big decision. But Ailith knew what she’d say. ‘Self-Elect. Human beings shouldn’t have the power to decide the fate of others.’ Or maybe that’s what Ailith wanted to believe. But her Mum didn’t have to make that choice, she’d died a year before they announced their plans. She plunged the sponge into the water and braced herself for the cold.

The door intercom buzzed then, Attention, Imogen A L Ahmed requires your attention. She wanted to ignore it but the buzzing set her nerves on edge, so she pulled her dressing gown around her and went to the door.

‘Oh Ailith, thank God you’re up.’ It was Imogen from next door. She squeezed past Ailith and walked into the living room.

‘Imogen, I haven’t even opened my curtains yet.’ Ailith said following her.

‘I’m sorry. I’ve walked past four times, I couldn’t wait any longer.’

‘What’s going on?’

‘It’s Raza. He’s…’ Imogen sat on the couch and dropped her head into her hands.

‘Talk to me.’ Ailith sat beside her and put an arm over her shoulder.

‘He’s going to self-elect.’ She let out a roar.

Fuck!’ Ailith took a deep breath, held it for five then slowly released, five, four, three, two, one.

‘He. Told. Me. This. Morning.’ She said in little breaths.

‘What about you and the kids?’

‘He’s doing it for our future. That’s what he told me’

‘What the hell?’

Imogen blew her nose into a tissue. ‘He’s been reading those stupid e-flyers again.’

‘The deep ecology stuff?’

She nodded.

‘Fucks sake. It’s all brain washing, they don’t even stand by their principles.’

‘So why does he read it? Raza’s not easily sucked in.’

Ailith shrugged her shoulders. She couldn’t understand why anyone would believe the shit they sent out. Or anything on the news. It was all bullshit. It was all – fake.

‘I’m so angry at him. And this self-elect bullshit has gone too far.’

‘You’re right, and we can’t do a bloody thing about it. The protesters are getting five years in prison now, did you know that?’

‘I heard.’ She looked up at Ailith. ‘What am I going to do?’

‘I’ll talk to him, okay?’

‘You can try, but I doubt he’ll listen. He not been the same since the deportation program took his Mum.’

Ailith took her friend’s hand. ‘It must be difficult for him.’

‘It is. He misses her so much. And now he thinks that Pakistan is going to vote for the elderly. That would pretty much wipe out his whole family. It’s not right Ailith. It’s just not right.’

After Imogen left, Ailith blew out the candle and opened the curtains. It was grey and damp outside and drops of moisture ran down the windows. She looked across the street tried to remember the sound of the big old Scots Pine’s that used to swish back and forth in the gap between Peter and Elaine’s house. Or how pretty the pink cherry blossom tree would look in Marion’s front garden in the spring. But it seemed like all the colour in the world had been wrung out. And amongst all the grey – was nothing but empty space. Empty or decayed. Decayed and silent. Ailith wrapped her arms around herself to stop the trembling. She was cold to the touch.

                                                                       ****

‘Come in Jimmy, you just missed Imogen. Poor buggers at her wit’s end.’

Jimmy lived two doors away. He nodded his head and shuffled past her. He stopped half way down the hall and groaned. ‘My bloody knees are killing me.’

Ailith followed him into the living room and helped him into the armchair. She took his stick and balanced it against the wall.

‘Have you eaten Jimmy?’

‘I had something, not that bloody Nutri-what’s-it-called stuff that they gave us. I can’t swallow it without gagging. I had something though, best leave it that, you don’t know who’s listening.’

‘Fair enough. Just remember to keep your strength up.’ Ailith knelt on the floor beside him. ‘I’ve got the leaflet on the tablet if you’re ready to go through it.’

She opened the OWL web page and felt instantly tense. The screen was filled with children wearing yellow sweatshirts reading, ‘Vote for our future.’

‘Are you ready for this?’

‘Hold on.’ He flipped the switch on the side of his glasses. ‘Okay, ready.’

‘Do you want me to read the jargon at the beginning? It’s just a lot of bollocks about how they are going to end world poverty and provide housing for everyone, and yadda, yadda, yadda.’

‘Are they going to sort out the food? It’s not right. I need meat in my diet. Or fish. Did I tell you I was a fisherman when I was a lad?’

‘Yeah, many times.’

‘I miss fish. Not as much as I miss meat, but God. I miss proper hot food, don’t you? You can’t even get a bag of chips anymore. Do you remember the chippy?’

‘I try not to think about it. They’ve said that once they’ve controlled the population, meat might be re- introduced.’

‘I should think so too.’ Jimmy scratched his beard. ‘And what about the heating? One hour a day isn’t enough, and I’d kill for a hot shower.’

‘Is that a bad joke Jimmy?’

‘Sorry, I never meant it like that.’

Ailith swiped the screen. ‘Right, here we go,’ she flicked past the introduction, ‘Population control is imperative for our survival, not only as a species but for all living creatures. Our ecosystem is depleting rapidly, the extinction of bees sped up this process far more rapidly than originally predicted.

‘The bees, who’d have thought.’

‘To protect the existence of our planet,’ she continued, ‘we must now realise our place on this earth, and that is as equals to our fellow creatures and to our land. Therefore, we must all play our role in the reduction of humans.’ Ailith gripped her hair in her hand. ‘Each country is required by OWL to reduce its population significantly. Your One World Leader has YOUR future in mind. After much consideration, we have decided that the groups nominated for the cull in your country are as follows.’ She looked to Jimmy who was biting his thumbnail.

‘Go on.’

‘Right.’ She took a deep breath. ‘Number one, All citizens above pensionable age as of October 2028. Number two, all prisoners with a sentence of five years or more. Number three, all citizens with a disability that prevents them from partaking in paid employment. Number four, all citizens who have been unemployed for five years or more and who have been proven to not be actively seeking work.’

‘Harsh,’ Jimmy said after the last one.

‘And obviously, there is the box for self-election.’

‘That’s a tough one eh lass?’ he shook his head, ‘And if we don’t vote?’

‘Enforced termination of life.’

                                                                   ****

‘World pollution is now being deemed as critical. In a not so distant future, the situation will become increasingly intolerable. It can be controlled, and perhaps even reversed; but we, at OWL, demand cooperation on a scale and intensity beyond anything achieved so far.’

Ailith turned off the T.V and gulped the last of her cup of tea. Such a waste. She preferred her tea ration in the morning, it kept the headaches at bay, especially on work days. Grabbing her coat and hat, she ran out the house.

The bus was full, and she had to stand. Her eyes were streaming from the cold and she felt a hand on her shoulder.

‘We’re all feeling it today dear.’

She turned around to see an elderly woman gripping onto the side of an empty seat.

‘Sit down lass; you look like you need it more than I do.’

‘No,’ she felt her face redden, ‘Honestly, I’m fine.’

‘Are you sure?’ she was already lowering herself back into the chair.

‘Check out the old dear trying to play the sympathy card.’ A voice shouted from the rear of the bus.

‘Fucking pensioners, I know who I’ll be voting for.’

‘Keep your opinions to yourself, idiot.’ Ailith took the woman’s hand. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘It’s okay dear,’ she squeezed Ailith’s hand, ‘I’ve had a lovely life. Five Grandchildren you know. I’ve voted already, you know, for the old ones.’

‘Grannie lover!’

The car park at the front of her work was full. Fucking customers, she thought, they never stop, they’re relentless. She stood outside the Amazon Superstore and watched the cars circling the car park. Customers were rushing to the front displays like flies on shit, for a special multi-pack of Nutri-fill with beef flavour, and this season’s plastic flowers. Ailith despised them all and their acceptance of everything fake. She shook her head and walked over to a small crowd, mostly men, gathered in front of the gazebo she had seen being erected a few days ago. Soldiers were handing out leaflets and chatting to the attentive audience. The gazebo was plastered in posters like, Be the Best. Self-Elect and Your Country Needs YOU. Self-Elect.

‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ she stared at a picture of a man in a wheelchair wearing a big smile and two thumbs up.

‘Are you going to do it?’ It was Taylor, one of her work colleagues.

‘I… I don’t know, I haven’t voted yet.’

‘I just did. I did it Ailith,’ he actually looks pleased. ‘They’re going to put my name in the book man. I’ll be a fucking hero.’

‘Seriously?’

‘Too right. Look at me, I’ve done absolutely fuck all with my life. I’m thirty-five years old and I’m nothing. I arrange plastic flowers for a living. At least this way I’ll be remembered. Taylor Smith. My name’s going down in history in that Big Red Book. I’ll be fucking celebrated. Taylor Smith saved the world.’

                                                                            ****
The lines at the checkouts were long. Ailith kept her head down and concentrated on the beep, beep of the scanner. It was hard to ignore the conversations at her checkout line though.

Broccoli flavoured curd. Beep.

‘Where are all these people coming from? You’d think it was the end of the world.’

Soap fizzers. Beep.

‘Probably dole scroungers. Gas the lot of them I say. I’m sick of paying for those lazy bastards.’

Nutri-fill. Beep.

‘I wish we could vote for two. Get rid of the scroungers and the rapists.’

‘Yeah, and put the old folk into the jails. They’ll get three meals a day, 3D T.V, top quality health care, they’ll be better looked after than they are in those old folk’s homes.’

Condoms. Beep.

Plastic roses. Beep.

Really? She looked up at a teenage lad who smiled and raised his eyebrows. She placed the items into the bag. Ribbed for her pleasure, bloody hell, how can he even get it up at a time like this?

‘Thirty-two credits please.’

He handed Ailith his ID card. She scanned it. Beep.

‘Thank you, Mr Douglas. Have a nice day and thank you for shopping at Amazon.’

                                                                        ****
Jessica was sitting on the doorstep when Ailith arrived home. She felt a lightness in her step, seeing her best friend. Jessica stood up and pulled Ailith in for a hug. They rocked back and forth.

Ailith held her at arm’s length, ‘It’s so good to see you.’ Although she did look tired.

‘Same. Sorry, I haven’t been around for a while, Mum’s not been keeping too well.’

‘Is it getting worse?’

‘Yeah, doctors have told her she’ll need a wheelchair soon.’

‘I’m sorry, Jessica.’

‘I’m glad you came around though, come on, let’s get inside, it’s freezing out here.’

‘Couldn’t let my bestie make the big decision on her own, could I?’

They went indoors and Ailith lit all the candles. Why not? Jessica kept her coat and hat on.

‘It’s cold in here,’ she breathed into her gloves, ‘I’m shaking.’

‘It’ll heat up soon. I saved the hours heating for tonight. Have you eaten?’

‘Yeah, before I left. Go ahead and have yours though.’

‘I’m not hungry.’ Ailith said but her stomach groaned. ‘I’d rather just get this over and done with.’

‘How was work?’

‘Busy. People are buying in bulk.’

‘Pretty normal under the circumstances, don’t you think?’

‘Absolutely not! This is the problem. Everybody’s going about like this shit is normal. It’s not. It’s fucking lunacy. But somehow they’ve managed to dumb down even the most rational of folk.’

‘People aren’t stupid Ailith, they’re scared.’

‘Yeah but rather than turning against the suits, they’re turning on each other. You want to have heard the shit an old wife had to take on the bus this morning.’

‘Yeah, it’s going on all over the place. There’s an autistic lass in our street. Got a brick through her window two nights ago.’

Ailith sighed.

‘Tensions are high. Probably something to do with all the Population Control Centre’s that have sprung up in the last year.’

‘But don’t you think it’s all a big fucking lie, Jessica? I mean, why not spend more money educating folk? Like, teach people how to live responsibly?’

‘They tried that though, then the bees happened.’

‘I reckon someone’s gaining from this shit.’

‘A conspiracy?’

‘And these population control centres though. It’s sick. It’s like the Nazis all over again. At least the self-elects get the dignity of euthanasia.’

‘Did you hear about Ronnie Coldwell?’ Jessica asked, taking her tablet from her bag.

Ailith noticed her hands trembling. ‘The actor?’

She nodded. ‘Self-elected, it was all over the news today.’

‘But he’s safe surely. He’s got enough credit to feed a small country.’

‘As safe as the fucking Royals, but said he can’t live in a world where people choose to murder other people.’

‘Jesus.’ Ailith felt like she was going to vomit. She turned on her tablet and felt like she was hovering just outside of her own consciousness. ‘Are you ready?’

‘Hold on.’ Jessica loaded the web page. ‘Yes.’ She held Ailith’s hand and tears run down her cheeks.

Ailith closed her eyes for a moment and just breathed. She let go of Jessica’s hand. ‘I’m scared.’

They both loaded the voting page.

‘Please scan your identification card into your device.’

Beep.

Beep.

Please scan your left index finger on the box provided. If you are unable to do so, please scan your left eye.

Beep.

Beep.

‘Please enter your passcode and answer the five security questions.’

‘Thank you. Please enter your vote now.’

Ailith let out a roar. ‘FUCKERS!’

                                                                           ****

October 2041

‘Welcome to One World Tonight, my name is Shannon McCallaghan, it’s the 30th of October 2041. Later in the show, we’ll be live at the opening of Cornton Vale Care – previously Cornton Vale prison – as 76 elderly residents move into the 50th G4S facility of its kind. This follows the outcome of the 2036 population control vote, that saw our population reduced by 15%. The One World Leader has today announced that the next stage of voting will commence early next year. How will you vote?’

Three Breaths

empty road with fog

Photo by Aleks Magnusson on Pexels.com

Three Breaths 

She breathed deep,
Jaggy at first,
And at her feet a pigeon pecked at pickings
While a bus shuddered close by –
Its doors folded open to the street.

She breathed out.

Her second breath was smoother,
And as people sped by
Hunkered under raincoats, rain tap tapping
In stereo around their ears,
The walking school bus
Marched hand in hand in high vis vests,
And she sat with cold bus-stop-feet.

She blew out an shivering  ‘oh.’

Her third breath was quiet
As still as the gap
Between the ‘Caw’ of the rook
And the flap of a pigeon’s wings.
Behind her a shop bell tinkled,
And the smell of baked bread
Hung as heavy as coffee in the air,
Warm and steady
Like her out breath.

She paused a while longer.
Watching a line of charcoal cloud
Make a bridge between two tenements blocks
While a buddleia swayed left and right
In an unused chimney pot.

Dedicated to Susie, from PauseandBreathe

Pushcart Prize Nomination

I was delighted to wake up to an email this morning telling me that Capsule Stories has nominated my short story, ‘Mother of Pearl,’ for the Pushcart prize. It is a wonderful feeling to have your hard work recognised by editors, it certainly takes the edge of those feelings of doubt.

Thank you to those who continue to support me in my journey.

A Letter To My Body Hair

To My Inner Bountiful Beast is a spoken word piece, an ode to my body hair. If you click on this LINK , you can watch/listen to me reading it.

close up photo of flowers on a person s left foot

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

To My Inner Bountiful Beast,
It’s been a while since we spoke, since I stroked the tips of my fingers over the waxy wires that poked through a hole in my ankle socks. Remember that time I accidentally paraded you around town, all frizzy and brown like twisted hazel on plump pink toes. Nobody saw my toe-nails, newly manicured and emerald green, or the obscene diamante studs that gleamed in the sunshine. No, my friend, they saw you, my bountiful beast. Oh, and how they laughed at you, they pointed and jeered, and I realised, I had become the woman I’d feared, half blind through middle age and apparently unkempt. Oh, how I wish I could have saved you, but (with my newly purchased reading glasses perched on the end of my nose) I chose the shave you as I bathed in the embarrassment of my day.
Well, as it turns out you’d been a follicle bursting bonanza, and not just in my socks, I found you creeping into crevice’s beneath my frock where even a yoga master might suggest that ‘before you rock into such places, consult a GP’. And little did I know, that the more I looked, the more I’d see. I found you in clumps on my knees, tiny little trees growing wild and free, I worried about overthrowing an entire eco system when you fell. And my beast, you did fall.
But I’m writing to say I’m sorry. I knew you’d be upset, and I didn’t bet on the permeance of the bald love heart shaved accidentally into my pubic parts. I didn’t bet on red raw arm pits, or the purple zits where a chin hair should be, I didn’t bet on the shame of fingers pointing at toes, or the woes of being caught wearing you, my bountiful beast. You see, it isn’t you, it’s me. Everything was fine when I couldn’t see, when you were free to be part of me. And you are part of me.
My inner bountiful beast. I wrote to tell you, I miss you.
Yours
E

Mother of Pearl

I am delighted that my short story, ‘Mother of Pearl,’ is now published in the Autumn edition of Capsule books. I have included an excerpt below and, if you like it, here is the link to purchase the full 106 page autumn edition – CapsuleBooksAutumnEdition.

capsule-stories-autumn-gloom

Picture credit capsulebooks.com autumn-gloom

 

Stanley Harrison Unwin Galloway was not supposed to die first.
Margo pulled the front door shut and hobbled out onto the veranda. She put her mug of hot tea onto the table then pulled out one of the plastic chairs. Fastening her fingers around the handles, she began to lower her fragile body on to the seat. She held her breath, knuckles white under the patio light, arms trembling, but her elbows buckled and gave way. She gasped. Her bottom hit the seat with a thud. The chair skidded backwards – with Margo holding on for dear life – and its four legs scraped the concrete, ripping a roar into the night. She sat rigid, her heart thumping hard in her chest. She blew out a long whistling sigh. Clumsy old fool. A large brown moth tapped the light above her head. She watched as it hovered and tapped and hovered then dived, down towards her face. Unfastening her fingers from the chair, she swiped the air. The moth darted back into the light. Shug would have scolded her for swiping the moth, “God created this world for all living creatures, not just the pretty ones.”
“Oh Shug,” she wrapped her arms around her chest. Her shoulders shook and tears welled in her eyes. She coughed out her sorrow in a whisper.
“Stanley Harrison Unwin Galloway, you were not supposed to die first.”
She wiped her tears on the sleeve of her dressing gown and inhaled the night. Autumn had begun to creep into the corners of the garden in little cold curls, and the air smelled of damp foliage and chimney soot. Margo looked out into the darkness and saw the moon, a white eyelash resting on a purple blanket.
The tea was hot. Margo held the mug to her chest and twirls of steam rose into the air, dampening her face. She turned away and caught her reflection in the patio window. How time had altered her face, it used to be so soft and smooth but now it hung in folds of sagging flesh. And those lips – sucked dry into a shrivelled line. She swept a strand of hair that had blown onto her cheek and tucked it behind her ear. How she missed her long fiery curls, her most defining feature back in the day. Now her hair was as grey as the chimney smoke chugging the air. Shug had barely noticed her changing though. “You’re bonnier than the sunset o’er the Forth of Firth,” he’d say, “as bonny now, as the day we met.” Shug had gone grey first. He was only twenty-three when it happened. In a single year, Shug’s hair transformed from bold black into fading grey. It was the year after Pearl died.

 

Consoling Miss Fermor – in Alexander Pope’s ‘Rape of the Lock’

64367982_466308760609354_2852692294178439168_n (2)

Alexander Pope wrote the first edition of Rape of the Lock in 1711, after persuasion from his friend John Caryll. Caryll, who was once guardian to Lord Petre, discovered that the Lord had cut a lock of hair from the head of Arabella Fermor, thus causing a rift between the two families. [1] Pope wrote the poem in a humorous attempt to mend the rift. In 1714 Pope expanded the original poem which became a five-canto mock epic (Gurr, p.5).
In predicting the hostility that he may have encountered from Miss Fermor over the content of the newly extended version, Pope explained to her in a letter that, ‘The ancient poets are in some respects like many modern ladies; let an action be never so trivial in itself. They always make it appear of utmost importance.’ [2] The purpose of the letter was to clarify to Miss Fermor that the newly adapted version of Rape of the lock was an exaggeration of the earlier incident. Considering this, I would suggest that Pope purposely refuted the customary disciplines of feminine behaviour in the early eighteenth century, within Rape of the lock, in order to restore Miss Fermor’s pride.

The female role was a performance taken very seriously in the early Eighteenth century. Women were encouraged to follow codes of conduct. ‘Codes of civility and courtesy were a matter of active practice, generating their own concepts, values and behaviours which could then be deployed as a set of power relations.’ [3] These behaviours included modesty, sociability and humbleness. Silence and obedience were also essential during this period, unless stimulated by a man. Chastity was a value which was not only desirable to men, but a marital attraction. [4] Rousseau suggested that, ‘One no longer dares to appear what one is.’ [5] Furthermore, women were encouraged to conduct themselves with virtue and an ability to talk knowledgably. [6] Knowledge may have been problematic for women, as education for many females was not encouraged. As a result, a female’s only profession was that of wife and mother. Women were described as a tender and weaker sex and trusted that men should be their stronger counterpart. [7]

The above illustration of female behaviour was ridiculed by Pope in Rape of the Lock, whose portrayal of Belinda, both mimicked the correct behaviour in which society deemed suitable yet, at the same time, furnished her with opposing qualities such as, strength, power, and intelligence, this often resulted in rebellious behaviour.
Pope began to represent these characteristics through his metaphoric use of the sun.

Sol thro’ white curtains shot a tim’rous ray;
And ope’d those eyes that must eclipse the day; (1.13-14)

The rhyming couplet not only exemplified the beauty of Belinda’s eyes but suggested that, she was in fact bigger, or more powerful that the sun. The metaphor continues,

Bright as the sun, her eyes the gazers strike,
And, like the sun, they shine on those alike. (2.13-14)

Along with the theme of beauty and power, Pope created a sense of irony at the end of the couplet when he wrote that Belinda’s eyes ‘shine on those alike’, these words demonstrate that it was Pope’s illusion to describe Belinda as a goddess yet he demonstrated a humbler side to the lady, who believes herself as an equal to those persons around her. Many critics fail to see the irony in Rape of the lock such as Cleanth Brooks, ‘is Belinda is a goddess, or is she merely a frivolous tease? [8] Pope created the illusion within the poem to generate such controversy. However, Brooks does go on to suggest that the sun metaphor may be interpreted in many ways, one of which suggests, that Belinda gives her generosity ‘like a great prince’. (Brooks, p.140). This ironic comment clarifies the opposing feminine qualities in which Pope demonstrated.

The poet continued to exemplify Belinda’s strength of character in canto one, when her maid Betty and the sylphs (Mystical beings) prepared their ‘goddess’ for her day ahead.

And now unveil’d, the toilette stand display’d,
Each Silver vase in mystic order laid. (1.121-148)

Although it may be argued that the presentation of the items on Belinda’s toilet were a representation of consumerism, these items would have been common in the period in which the poem was written. In the early 18th century the rapid growth of the British economy, resulted in an increase in consumerism. [9] Watkins suggested, that the elaborate beautification of Belinda only served to tempt the Baron to cut off the lock of hair,’ (Watkins, p.257). However, on closer inspection of this scene, Belinda’s transformation was in fact a mask that gave her strength in the outside world.

Now awful beauty puts on all its arms (1.139)

Pope deliberately wrote this line to be interpreted in several ways. Firstly, the word awful could be understood as creating awe; however, the actual meaning of the word signifies that Belinda saw her mask as a disguise from her real identity. The second part of the sentence, ‘put on all its arms’, suggests that Pope was arming Belinda for battle. The mere proposal of a fight, in which Belinda was willing to confront, allowed great strength and character.

Canto two set the scene for Belinda’s voyage along the Thames. Pope took the opportunity within this scene to enchant his readers with clear descriptions of Belinda’s beauty. However, his narrative of the silver cross in which she wore around her neck, served several purposes;

On her white breast a sparkling cross she wore
Which Jews might kiss, and infidels adore (Canto 2.7-8)

The cross, from Pope’s perspective, was a symbol of worship which, in the early 18th century was highly contentious. Pope himself was a Roman catholic and was raised during a time in which a Protestant monarchy held the throne. Catholics at this time were disadvantaged and treated at foreigners and, as a result, were forbidden from public schools and universities and could not live within the city of London. [10] Pope adorned Belinda with the silver cross to expose her rebellious nature as well as mock the political doctrines in which his religion had been compelled. (Hernandez, p.580) suggested that ‘Pope, on the contrary, looks on the ‘Goddess’ with uncharacteristic sympathy for the period.’ Hernandez was denoting that the cross was merely a commodity for Belinda. However, the cross bared such significance that the very use of it suggests power in its beholder.

Strength and rebellion were only a few of the characteristics that Pope displayed in Belinda’s role within the poem. He also portrayed her as an intelligent woman by displaying, in her possession, items of literature.

Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-doux (Canto 1-138)

Payne proposed that the two items (Bible and love letter) should ‘give us cause for hesitation, but the diction Pope uses in describing the objects, as well as the lady in question, makes them without a doubt subversively charming indeed.’ [11] Payne recognised that Pope was using these items to enhance the character of Belinda. Pope intended to have his audience take into consideration that Belinda could read, which as discussed at the beginning of this essay was unlikely for a female in this era.

Moreover, Belinda was also a skilful card player. Pope wrote this scene at Hampton court to introduce Belinda and the Baron.

Belinda now, whom thirst of fame invites,
Burns to encounter two adventurous knights (3.26-27)

In the first line of the couplet, Pope addressed Belinda’s ambition to win. This also gave Pope the opportunity to put Belinda into direct competition with the Baron. Not only did Pope introduce a battle of sexes, but Belinda was playing against two ‘Adventurous Knights.’ She dominated the game with her skill and intelligence, overthrowing the knights. Wimsatt, who reconstructed the card game Ombre in his essay, said that ‘appearance or probability, is what has a bearing on the elements of skill and fate in this game of Ombre and hence on its dramatic and poetic interpretation. [12] Wimsatt was implying that Ombre is not a difficult game, yet for an eighteenth-century female who had little or no education, Belinda proved to be a highly competent player and she dominated the game with her skill and intelligence, overthrowing the knights.

The pinnacle of the Popes exploration of Female sexuality occurred when the Baron, cut the lock of hair from Belinda’s head. Belinda’s first reaction was to shriek in horror, which would have been an improper response for a lady in the eighteenth century. It was at this point in the poem that Pope introduced the caves of spleen. The fictional representation of the underworld, explained how Pope believed Miss Fermor to have felt when her lock of hair was stolen. According to Lillian Feder, the caves of spleen are ‘often cited as evidence of Popes interest in libidinous drives and blind compulsions.’ [13]  Although this may be an alternative perception of the poem, the main purpose of Spleen was to arm Belinda with the necessary courage to fight back against the Baron. Pope also wanted to invite his audience to accept that the incident had caused Miss Fermor a great deal of sorrow and pain. This scene allowed Pope to give Belinda a voice;

For ever curs’d be this detested day (4.147)

Her speech continued to describe how she wished that she had stayed at home, for she knew in her heart that something bad was going to happen. It was not Pope’s intention to address Belinda as a weak character during this speech, but rather a conscientious woman who made great effort to fulfil her female role. Yet the final canto in Rape of the Lock defined Belinda as the strong, powerful and rebellious character that Pope designed in order to maintain Miss Fermor’s reputation. Belinda fought back against the Baron and threw snuff in his face, at which point the Baron sneezed and lost the lock of hair. Pope ended the poem in a ceremonial style by celebrating the lock of hair and sending it to the stars. This ending, for the benefit of Miss Fermor, was to assure her that she would become as well known as the poem, therefore, the poem had served its purpose in reinstating her reputation. Throughout the poem, Pope protected the reputation of Belinda’s Chastity. Critics such as Reichard believed that the plot of the poem was ‘a contest of wiles between commanding personalities – an uninhibited philanderer and an invincible flirt,’ [14] this opinion does not demote Belinda’s character for she was merely representing an eighteenth-century woman by flirting with a gentleman. Her virtue and chastity remained intact.

The evidence of Pope’s desire to reinstate Miss Fermor’s reputation may have resided in the original title of the poem ‘Rape of the Locke’. For Pope, the word ‘Locke’ was a pun to describe the philosopher John Locke, who opposed the practice of Catholicism. This contained not only mockery but is a parody of John Locke’s theory of the state of nature. In his Two Treaties of Government 1689, Locke wrote,

Though the earth, and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person. This no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state of nature hath provided, and left in it, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. [15]

This ironic evidence clarifies that the lock of hair was in fact the property of Belinda, yet when the Baron put his labour into the cutting of the lock; it therefore became his property, thus, justifying that Lord Petre’s actions were merely a misunderstanding which, once again reinstates the reputation of Miss Fermor.

It is evident throughout Rape of the Lock that Pope alternated the characteristics of Belinda to complement Arabella Fermor. His depiction of feminine conduct was inconsistent within the context of its period, yet he allowed the ill-fitting gender stereotype to form the foundation of his poem. Pope hoped that the reader of his time would therefor see the illusion that he created. Although the construction of the poem and the remaining characters may have produced alternative criticisms and interpretations of Pope’s intention, this essay provided an explanation of why the character of Belinda was written at such a contradictory way in comparison to eighteenth century femininity, concluding that its purpose was simply to console Miss Fermor.

***

Bibliography

Brooks, C, ‘The case of Miss Arabella Fermor’, in Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock, A selection of Critical essays, ed. By John Dixon Hunt (London: Macmillan and Company Limited, 1969) [8]

Dutton, R, ed., Alexander Pope A Literary Life (London: The Macmillan Press, 1990) [10]

Erickson, A.L, ‘Women and Property: In Early Modern England (Routledge: London, 1993) [4]

Feder, L, Madness in Literature (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980) [13]

Hernandez, E, ‘Commodity and Religion in Pope’s The Rape of the Lock’, Studies in English Literature – 1500-1900, 48 (2008) [9]

Jones, R.W, ‘Gender and the Formation of Taste in the Eighteenth Century Britain (Cambridge: The Press Sydicate of the University of Cambridge, 1998) [6]

Locke, J, ‘Two Treaties of Government’, ed., P.Laslett; (Cambridge University Press,1988) , in Political Ideologies, ed., Mathew Festenstein and, Michael Kenny (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) [15]

Payne, D.C ‘Pope and the War against Coquettes: or Feminism and ‘The Rape of the Lock’ Reconsidered- Yet Again, The Eighteenth Century, 32 (1991) [11]

Reichard, H. M ‘The Love Affair in Pope’s The Rape Of The Lock’ in Alexander Pope The Rape of the Lock, A selection of critical essays, ed., John Dixon Hunt (London: Macmillan and Company Limited, 1969) [14]

Rogers,P, ed., Alexander Pope The major works, (Oxford:Oxford University Press, 2006) [2]

Rousseau, J.J, ‘Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, or first discourse’ (1750) in) in L.Brace, ‘Improving the Inside: Gender, property and the 18th century self’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 12 (2010) [5]

Ward,A.W, ed., M.A, Litt.D, The Poetical works of Alexander Pope, (London:Macmillan and Co, Limited, 1930) [1]

Williams,C.D.’The Luxury of Doing Good: Benevolence, Sensibility and the Royal Humane Society (1996) in L.Brace, ‘Improving the Inside: Gender, property and the 18th century self’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 12 (2010) [3]

Wimsatt, W.K and Source, J.R ‘The Game of Ombre in Rape of the Lock,’ The Review of English Studies, New Series, 1 (1950) [12]

Wipprecht, C, ‘The Representation of Women in Early 18th Century England’ (Druck Und Binding :Norderstedt, 2006) [7]

 

Please feel free to use this essay for academic purposes but please reference accordingly. This is an academic essay and failing to reference this paper accordingly may result in plagerism. 

Madness and Hysteria in the Late 19th Century

I said some time ago that I would post some of my academic essays on my website. Please feel free to quote from any of my essays, but do remember to reference them accordingly. Also, please bare in mind that the point of view in the following essay is, like all critical analysis, subjective, meaning it is neither right nor wrong.

black and white picture of a crying child

Photo by Lucas Pezeta on Pexels.com

The number of female lunatics in Victorian asylums outnumbered males toward the end of the Nineteenth century. According to Showalter, ‘the rise of the Victorian madwoman may have been linked to the rise of the psychiatric profession, with its attitudes toward women and its monopoly by men.’ [1] Psychiatrists suspected that female madness was a result of biological problems due to the ‘instability of their reproductive systems [which] interfered with sexual, emotional, and rational control,’ (Showalter, p.55). The subservient female in the late Victorian period was therefore, incapacitated due her male dominated society. Moreover, a woman’s ‘longing for independence [was] socially unacceptable at every phase of the female life-cycle,’ (Showalter, p.132). As a result, the oppression of women within the standardised role of femininity not only maintained patriarchal dominance but reinforced it. This paper will discuss the way that madness and hysteria was represented from both a male and female author’s perspective in late Victorian literature.

Written in 1897 Bram Stoker’s Dracula has a multiple first-person point of view consisting of letters, diary entries, memos, and newspaper articles. This allows Stoker to present a comparative representation of hysteria in both masculine and feminine form. The character of Jonathan Harker experiences a ‘violent brain fever’ [2] because of his imprisonment in Dracula’s castle:

Whilst I live on here there is but one thing to hope for: that I may not go mad, if, indeed, I be not mad already […] feeling as though my brain were unhinged or as if the shock had come which must end its undoing (Dracula, p.32).

Harker’s breakdown is a response to his experience of the supernatural. Stoker portrays the characters madness as a form of post-traumatic stress rather than cowardice. This does not undermine Harker’s masculinity but rather reinforces it due to his intelligence and his bravery. In his journals, for example ‘When […] the conviction had come over me that I was helpless I sat quietly – as quietly as I have ever done anything in my life – and began to think over what was best to be done,’ (Dracula, p.24). The em-dashes in this quotation represent pauses that create a feeling of calm steady contemplation. Stoker was reacting to late Victorian fears of masculine decline, for example ‘In the fin de siècle […] men’s identities were destabilized by the appearance of the assertive new woman.’ Whilst Harker’s masculinity falls into decline due to his breakdown and his temporary removal as a narrator, it is reinforced when his supernatural experiences […] are

verified by a third party, masculinisation and writing; [therefore] Harker can be sure that he was not simply hallucinating [and] he can be confident of his manhood. [4]

Stoker’s assertion of masculinity in Harker re-established the male superiority in the late Victorian period. The author justified Harker’s madness as a temporary reaction toward the supernatural, therefore acceptable. Nordau suggested that madness was a symptom of modern times and quoted that, ‘We stand now in the midst of a severe mental epidemic; a sort of black death of degeneration and hysteria.’ [5] For Stoker, hysteria is a female illness, he demonstrates this by comparing the character of Harker to his partner Mina Murray.  Mina is an intelligent woman who works hard as a schoolmistress in order to ‘be […] useful to Jonathan,’ (Dracula, p.46), which is a typical representation of the late Victorian woman with ‘her innate qualities of mind [which] complement rather [than] equal [her man],’ (Showalter, p.123). Furthermore, the character appears to be more masculine than her partner Harker and is described as having a ‘man’s brain […] and a woman’s heart, (Dracula, p.195). Mina is, therefore, a threat to the masculine patriarchy of the Victorian period. Although her intellectual skills and courage become invaluable in the investigation of Dracula’s whereabouts, it is suggested by the psychiatrist Dr Seward that, ‘Mrs Harker is better out of it […] it is no place for a woman, and if she […] remain[s] in touch with the affair, it would in time infallibly [wreck] her, (Dracula, p.213). Dr Seward’s suggestion corresponds to Victorian psychiatric thought

that women were more vulnerable to insanity than men because the instability of their reproductive system interfered with their sexual, emotional and rational control, (Showalter, p.55).

Stoker uses this theory of female vulnerability not only demonstrate that women are the weaker sex but also to destabilise the new woman’s desire for feminine independence. For example, when Mina is dismissed from the group, she records her feelings in her journal, ‘And now I am crying like a silly fool,’ (Dracula, p.213). This demonstration of emotional weakness in addition to Mina’s ‘strangely sad and low spirit,’ (Dracula, p.213) are signs of what was known as neurasthenia, ‘a more prestigious and attractive form of female nervousness than hysteria’, (Showalter, p.134). It is therefore unsurprising that Mina should fall victim to Dracula.

Stoker represents an eroticised representation of madness from the perspective of Mina when she first encounters Dracula. Mina uses highly sexualised language in her journal such as, ‘my feet and my hands […] were weighted [and] leaden lethargy seemed to chain my limbs,’ (Dracula, p.215). This language has connotations of sadomasochism, a term used to denote both dominance and submission. In the case of Mina, Dracula is dominating her. Whilst being aware of these emotions she recalls them at a subconscious level as she ‘must be careful of such dreams, for they would unseat one’s reason if there was too much of them,’ (Dracula, p.215). Whilst Mina’s first-person narrative makes her recollections unreliable, her sexual undertones are carefully documented. Stoker is demonstrating Freudian psychoanalytic theory of female madness:

For Freud, hysteria had to do with disavowed sexuality, primarily female sexuality, in the context of the Oedipus complex and its derivatives (unconscious incestuous wishes and penis envy). [6]

Although Mina’s desires are presented as subliminal, Stoker illustrates how women are susceptible to madness due to their sexual repression. Consciously the character shows visible signs of madness as Dr Seward diarises, ‘Mrs Harker […] had drawn her breath and with it had given a scream so wild, so ear piercing,’ (Dracula, p.235). Furthermore, he stated that ‘Her eyes were mad with terror’, (Dracula, p.235). Seward’s analysis of Mina is typical of the male psychiatrist of the Victorian period.

Feminine weakness and madness are also explored in the character of Lucy Westenra. Lucy is Dracula’s first conquest in England. Whilst her symptoms appear to Mina as signs of madness, such as shortness of breath, loss of appetite and lethargy, Dr Seward suggests that ‘there is not any functional disturbance or any malady that I know of’, (Dracula, p.92). Whilst Lucy displays hysterical symptoms, Val Helsing and his colleagues are powerless to help her. After four blood transfusions from four different men, Lucy’s deterioration continues. These transfusions represent masculine power over the female whose unconscious form renders her submissive. However, the men’s control over Lucy is in vain and therefore they attempt to ward off Dracula by giving Lucy a wreath of garlic to wear around her neck while she sleeps. She describes this in her diary as ‘lying like Ophelia in a play, with ‘virgin crants and maiden strewments,’ (Dracula, p.110). According to Showalter, ‘Ophelia was a compelling figure for many Victorian […] doctors seeking to represent the madwoman’, (Showalter, p.90). Madness in Lucy prior to her death is represented as weakness, however, as a vampire ‘The sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness,’ (Dracula, p.175). Lucy is not only sexualised but also powerful and dangerous. Stoker is demonstrating the negative effects of powerful women in the character of Lucy who is found to have taken several children to feed upon. Lucy’s vampirism defies woman’s nature and is therefore, presented as madness.

The Darwinian theory of madness suggests that, ‘mental disorder might be passed on to the next female generation, [however] these theories were convenient ramifications of existing social relations between the sexes,’ (Showalter, p.123). It is for this reason that the vampire Lucy is destroyed whilst Mina, still in her human form is protected. Stoker opposes the new woman who attempted to redefine gender roles and ‘overcome masculine supremacy’, [7] thus by comparing Harker’s madness to the character of Mina Murray, Stoker reinforces the traditional societal views of masculine power.

Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper written in 1892 is a semi-autobiographical short story narrated in first person. This allows an intimate perspective of the character’s thoughts and feelings through her writing. Gilman demonstrates the ineffective use of the rest cure that the narrator is prescribed by her husband, who is also her physician, as a treatment for her nervous disposition. The portrayal of the rest cure in the narrative is similar to the Silas Weir Mitchell rest cure of ‘entire rest […] excessive feeding […] confin[ment] to bed,’ and being ‘forbidden to […] read, write or do any intellectual work,’ (Showalter, p.138). Neurasthenia according to Dr. Margaret Cleaves is a result of ‘women’s ambitions for intellectual, social, and financial success, ambitions that could not be accommodated within the structures of late-nineteenth-century society,’ (Showalter, p.136). The narrator admits that her intention was to conform to the role of the stereotypical Victorian wife, and she writes that, ‘I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already.’ [8] The word ‘comparative’ suggests that she is atypical to societal expectations of the wife. In addition, the word ‘already’ suggests that the couple are newly married. Nervousness, therefore, derives from the narrator’s inability to conform to the role of the typical Victorian wife. She explains ‘Nobody would believe what an effort it is to do what little I am able – to dress and entertain, and order things,’ (TYW, p.34). Furthermore, she struggles to cope with motherhood, ‘It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby. […] And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous’, (TYW, p.34). The narrator’s neurasthenia is represented as post-natal depression that is clarified by the italicised ‘cannot’. Moreover, according to Victorian psychiatrists, ‘after childbirth a woman’s mind was abnormally weak, her constitution depleted, and her control over her behaviour diminished,’ (Showalter, p.58-59). Whilst the narrator is fully aware of her depressive state, her husband refuses to believe it:

If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency – what is one to do? (TYW, p.31).

In the above quotation, Gilman is demonstrating how mental illness was misunderstood in Victorian psychiatry. The narrator’s husband John, to cure his wife, asserts full patriarchal control over her, he ‘hardly lets [her] stir without special direction,’ (TYW, p.32). Oppression causes the narrator to get angry with her husband and he tells her that she will ‘neglect proper self-control,’ (TYW, p.32). Fear of her husband’s dominance causes her to ‘take pains to control [her]self – before him,’ (TYW, p.32). The em-dash in this quotation suggests that the narrator is allowing her self- control to dwindle whilst her husband is out if sight. This retaliation is due to her husband’s ignorance, ‘John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him,’ (TYW, p.33). The italicised ‘reason’ demonstrates the narrator’s frustration in John’s dismissiveness of her nervous disposition.

Female repression due to male dominance in psychiatry is addressed in The Yellow Wallpaper. Not only does John mistreat the narrator’s madness, but her needs and solutions for recovery are ignored. As a writer, she is ‘forbidden to ‘work’ [until she] is well again,’ (TYW, p.31), moreover she suggests that, ‘Personally, I believe that congenial work […] will do me good,’ (TYW, p.31). The depravity of writing as a form of work and mental stimulation causes the narrator to use imagination in the confinement of her room. Allowing herself to lose her self-control, the reader begins to observe the narrator going insane. Whilst allowing the madness to consume her, the narrator begins to hallucinate. Enclosed in a room with bright yellow patterned wallpaper she slowly begins to see a woman behind the pattern, which introduces Gilman’s use of the literary double. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar discuss the narrative double in their book The Madwoman in the Attic.

She is usually the author’s double, an image of her own anxiety and rage. […] fiction written by women conjures up this mad creature so that female authors can come to terms with their own uniquely female feelings of fragmentation, their own keen sense of the discrepancies between what they are and what they are supposed to be. [9]

The above quotation highlights the technique used by many female writers in the Victorian period and can be found most certainly in The Yellow Wallpaper. Gilman uses the double to represent what women really are, whilst the narrator is represented as what women are supposed to be. The narrator studies the wallpaper vigorously to discover that in the moonlight the pattern appears to be bars. Furthermore, she continues to discover that ‘By daylight [the woman] is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still, (TYW, p.41). What Gilman sees as the repressed woman. She is a prisoner in her own society, which pacifies her through societal expectation and law. Over time the narrator begins to experience a realisation of her situation and writes, ‘I don’t want to leave now until I have found it out,’ (TYW, p.42). At this point, in the narration, there becomes a transition and the narrator begins to be consumed by the wallpaper. Over time, she becomes the woman behind the bars, ‘I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did?’ (TYW, p.46). By surrendering to her madness and metaphorically becoming the woman in the wallpaper, she is free from her husband’s dominance ‘I’ve got out at last […] in spite of you’, (TYW, p.47). For Gilman hysteria is represented as a misunderstood illness that is wrongly treated, causing madness in women who have no voice. Moreover, the author is demonstrating that because women are so repressed, madness can be an escape from it.

To conclude, at the end of the 19th century, hysteria and madness were represented in literature as a predominantly female malady. This was due to the Victorian patriarchal society that repressed women. For Stoker, male madness was represented as reactionary and could be justified, whilst female madness was represented as typical biological feminine problem. Moreover, Stoker demonstrated how the new woman threatened the patriarchy. Gilman however, represented female madness from a woman’s perspective, showing how it was misunderstood and misdiagnosed, leading to further madness. Gilman portrayed how ironically; this could become a woman’s escape from repression.

Bibliography

Chapman, James, and Matthew Hilton, ‘From Sherlock Holmes to James Bond: Masculinity and National Identity in British Popular Fiction’ in Relocating Britishness ed. Stephen Caunce (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004) [3]

Diniejko,Andrzej, ‘The New Woman Fiction’, The Victorian Web, (2011) ≤http://www.victorianweb.org/gender/diniejko1.html [7]

Gilbert, Sandra.M, and Susan Guber, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-century Literary Imagination (London, Yale University Press, 1979) [9]

Gillman, Charlotte Perkins, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, in Women Who Did: Stories by Men and Women, 1890- 1914 ed. Angelique Richardson (London: Penguin books, 2002) [8]

Nordau, Max, ‘Degeneration’, in Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, C. 1848-1918, ed. Daniel Pick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989) [5]

Pedlar, Valerie, ‘The Most Dreadful Visitation’: Male Madness in Victorian Fiction (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006) [4]

Showalter, Elaine, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (New York: Virago Press, 1987) [1]

Stoker, Bram, Dracula (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1993) [2]

Yarom, Nitza, Matrix of Hysteria: Psychoanalysis of the Struggle Between the Sexes as Enacted in the Body (East Sussex: Routledge, 2005) [6]

A Moment

I am delighted to announce that my poem ‘A Moment,’ has been selected to be part of this years Renfrewshire Mental Health Arts Festival, ‘Passing Time.’  This is an exhibition of Poetry on the station platforms of Renfrewshire. This particular poem will be displayed in Johnstone station.  For more information about the exhibition, click here.

timelapse and greyscale photography of woman

Photo by Luanna Cabral on Pexels.com

A Moment

I remember her sitting there,
Long amber hair, and a chair with wheels
The colour of the sea.

I remember sitting there,
Daring her to care, wishing her eyes
Would fall from the sky into mine.

But we just sat there,
I paid my fair, while she looked for mermaid
Shapes in the clouds.

But as I sat there,
and listened to the whistle tear a note
Into the station
She looked, she smiled, and we shared,
A moment.

And I sat there, and she sat there,
A pair, connected.
Then the train rumbled out of the station
To somewhere.

Message in a Bottle

60757175_2258673914198288_1940595876510564352_n

Photograph by Bipolar Scotland

It’s been a few days since I was awarded 2nd place at the SMHAF writing awards and I’ve received so many kind words since. I promised you a link to my prize winning story, but I have something better, a link to all of the short listed pieces here.

61028382_2258780627520950_3611226275051470848_n

Photograph by Bipolar Scotland

I think you will agree that the judges must have had a difficult time deciding the three winning pieces because all twelve entries were excellent. I feel proud to have my work showcased with such talent and diversity.

There has been some excellent write up’s about the event, as well as photographs and even live streaming. If you are interested in any of the above, please visit SMHAF and BipolarScotland and like their pages, both organisations do fantastic work.

Thank you if you were able to come along and hear us read from our work, and thank you for your lovely comments about my story.

Finally, thank you to SMHAF and Bipolar Scotland for an amazing event, to Emma Pollock for performing on the night, to Ian Rankin for hosting the event and being an inspiration to us all, to the judges whose job it was to read through hundreds of pieces of work, to those brave enough to submit their work, to the short listed writers who were brave enough to have their work heard by an audience -regardless of who was reading -and finally to the readers who make the job of writing worthwhile.

Message in a Bottle

Alistair stands in a doorway on the corner of Admiralty Lane. The streets are quiet today. A cold air has swept up from the Forth keeping the locals indoors. He shivers and pulls his scarf up over his nose and his woollen hat over his ears. It’s four o’clock and there’s Claire sneaking out of the office again, that’ll be the third time this week. She walks briskly on the opposite side of the road. Alistair follows, keeping close to the old sandstone buildings. He ducks behind parked cars and stops briefly behind a white Winnebago when she slows. The wind whips her coat tails and they splay out behind her, allowing him the briefest moment to catch the slender silhouette of her body. She continues past the Ship Inn. He imagines, just for a second, that she’ll go in, sit by the log fire, order a glass of red, then call him to join her. But the thought passes as quickly as she does, and she doesn’t give the place where they first met a second glance. He falls back, watching her hurry along the coastal path then up toward the cliffs that overlook Ruby Bay. She crests the hill and disappears.
He runs to the beach. The boat is still banked in the sand where he left it. Untying the rope from the cleat, he steps in. The sea is calm, and his oars cut through the water leaving a trail of ripples. Bowing his head, he rows beyond the bay. He sees a fisherman cast his line, but it’s unlikely that anyone will know him out here.
He sees her standing on the cliff high above the sea. Her face, though partly shadowed, looks void of emotion. He feels a sickness in his stomach. There she is, one hundred feet above him, tall and solid, and morbidly unashamed. He hates her, hates what she’s trying to do to them. Just then, she pulls a bottle from the inside pocket of her coat and throws it over the cliff. His eyes follow the bottle until it hits the water with a short splash. He waits until she’s gone, then rows towards it.

****

She stands in the shadow of an old oak tree. Over the cliff the grey sky has melted and spread like oil over the sea, with no end and no beginning. She watches his boat glide quickly through the water and feels pleased, she’s played him well. He’s a fast rower though.
She’d only found out recently that he could row. He’d spun her a yarn one day about almost drowning in a river when he was a boy, right after her best friend Craig and his husband Terry suggested they all go on a weekend cruise together. ‘But you’ll be safe on a cruise ship.’ She’d told him. ‘I don’t like boats.’ He snapped. ‘No, you mean you don’t like Craig.’ She’d always known it, but they’d never actually spoken about it. ‘You’re right. I don’t like the way he touches your arm when you’re having a conversation,’ Alistair told her, ‘and all the “in” jokes that you have with him. He should have married you.’ She tried to reason with her husband. ‘Craig’s gay,’ she laughed, ‘and we’ve been best friends since we were five.’ But Alistair shook his head. ‘I don’t like him, and I don’t like how close you are to him.’ So, she’d declined Craig’s offer, telling him that she’d catch up with him soon.
She hasn’t seen Craig since, he won’t come to the house when Alistair is there, and Alistair is always there. That was eight months ago.

She steps closer to the edge of the cliff to watch. Alistair reaches the bottle quickly. He pulls it from the water, holds it under his arm and pulls out the cork. The sky is darkening. He’ll struggle to read the gibberish she’d written anyway, besides, he isn’t wearing his glasses. He hadn’t worn them in over a year.
‘I can’t see a thing when I wear them, so what’s the point.’ He’d said and thrown them across the floor. It was a month after he’d been sacked from the gas board following an accusation of an affair between himself and a customer’s wife. Of course, he denied it. ‘I can’t afford a new pair, so I’ll do without.’ He folded his arms like a child. She offered to save to get him a new prescription, but he shook his head. ‘Keep your money,’ he said, ‘Besides, you’ll need it to pay the bills. Personally, with the lack of money coming in, I’d make cut backs. But seeing as you can’t live without your beloved Facebook, you’ll have to pay for the internet too.’ She ignored his snide comments for as long as she could. Then one day after work, she’d come home to find Alistair on her laptop looking through her online messages. ‘How dare you.’ She pulled the laptop from him. ‘Those are private messages between me and my friends.’ Alistair stood up and walked out of the room, not uttering a word. She’d spent the rest of the evening looking through all her messages to see if there was anything that he might misconstrue. About a week later, he called the phoneline provider and had the line cut off. ‘Because it’s a luxury we can’t afford.’

She sees him strike a match, can almost hear the hiss of the flame. He lights the corner of the paper and lets it float into the air. She winces at the sight of it burning and looks down at the scar on her right hand.
She’d been out for a drink with Kelly and Omar from work one Saturday afternoon. It was Omar’s fortieth birthday. Alistair had been invited along but he said he’d rather watch paint dry than go out with a bunch of accountants. An hour after she’d left, the texting began. ‘Is Omar your new best friend?’ and worse, ‘Will you be giving him a ‘SPECIAL’ present for his birthday.’ She tried to ignore the messages, but they kept coming. Embarrassed, she excused herself and went home. Music was blaring from the stereo when she arrived, and she could smell burning. Panicked, she ran into the living-room. The rug under her desk was on fire. An ashtray had fallen from the arm of the sofa and scattered on the floor. ‘Alistair. Fire!’ She screamed then ran into the kitchen and filled a basin of water. When she returned, her desk was on fire. Flames ripped through the wood, catching books and paper and all sorts. She threw the water. It barely touched the flames. She reached out to grab her precious memory box, but it was so hot it burned her hand and she dropped it. Suddenly, Alistair ran into the living-room. ‘Give me your phone,’ he yelled and grabbed it from her coat pocket. He dialled 999. The fire brigade saved most of the house, but she never saw her phone again. ‘Lost in the fire,’ Alistair said. ‘But you’ll have a note of your contacts anyway.’ Yes, in her diary, on her desk!
She watches him throw the empty bottle into the sea, then slips back into the shadows. She takes the quick route home. She’d discovered it about a month ago. That was the first time she’d realised that Alistair was following her. In her panic, she’d ran down the cliff and climbed a fence that lead into someone’s back garden. Luckily, when she reached the other side, she realised she was just a street away from her own. Since then she’d purposefully let him follow her to the cliff, just long enough to be one-hundred percent sure that it took him twelve minutes to get home. It only took her three. And with that certainty, she planned her escape.
She hadn’t realised how bad things had gotten at home, until one morning about three months ago. Alistair had begun insisting that she went home for lunch, and that morning was no exception. But he was in a particularly foul mood and she did something out of character, she lied. ‘The secretary is sick, so I’ll have to cover the phones.’ She needed space. So, that afternoon, she left the office, picked up a sandwich, and walked toward Ruby Bay. She used to come here with Alistair when they first started dating, when life was happy, when life wasn’t suffocating. She climbed the gravel slope to the cliff and sat. In the distance, the beach was busy with dog walkers and joggers. Seagulls swooped to the sand hoping for scraps. She sat on the grass, unwrapped her sandwich and opened her mouth to take a bite when she realised that she was crying. She put the sandwich back in its wrapper and went into her bag for a tissue. She pulled out a notebook too. That’s when she saw the empty bottle lying in the grass. I’m lonely. She wrote.

She pulls the backpack from the corner of her wardrobe, it was tucked under some winter clothes.

It was two weeks after she’d written the first note, rolled it into a tube and stuffed it into a bottle that she received her first letter at work. She really hadn’t expected it, and at first, she felt panicked. The sender, however, turned out to be a six-year-old girl who had found the bottle on the beach in Burnt Island. She’d drawn a picture of the beach with a big yellow sun in the sky and a red boat on the water. Attached to the picture was a note. You’re not alone, keep reaching, scrawled in adult handwriting. So, she did. She wrote note after note, rolled them up and tied pretty ribbon around them and popped each one into a glass bottle and sealed it with a cork. Then at lunch time, or if she could slip away early from work, she’d head to Ruby Bay to throw the bottles from the cliff. She felt free in those moments.

She checks her watch, Sheila should be here in fifty-nine, fifty-eight, fifty-seven.
Shelia was the fifth person to reply to her message in a bottle. Up until then, she’d received some encouraging words, not to mention a fridge magnet, a leaflet for the Samaritans, and a postcard, but there was never a return address. Still, it was wonderful to feel connected. But with Sheila, it was different. I can help. She wrote in a letter. Please write back. It turned out Sheila was an elderly widow who ran a small B&B in Broughty Ferry. Her dog Millie had found the bottle on the beach one morning and dropped it at Sheila’s feet. They began writing to each other regularly and soon became friends. Then one day, during work hours, they met face to face. That’s when they began to make plans.

She pulls back the blinds. Two car headlights flash. From her rucksack, she takes out a glass bottle and places it on the coffee table. Then she pulls on her backpack and walks out the door. She only looks back once at the house that was once her home.

****

‘She’s slipped away again.’ Alistair moans. The last three times he’d rowed the boat as fast as he could, then ran all the way home, but he never caught up with her. By the time he’d reached home, she’d be in a change of clothes and with a mug of tea in her hand. ‘Were you at the library again?’ She’d ask. He would nod then go into the bathroom to calm down. But tonight, the sofa’s empty, the kettle’s cold and although the lights are on, she isn’t home. Then he notices it.
He pulls the cork out and tips the bottle. A thin roll of paper, held together by a gold wedding band, drops onto his lap. He unrolls the note.
‘Disconnected.’

Award Ceremony

My short story ‘Message in a Bottle’ was awarded second place in the SMHAF writing awards tonight. Congratulations to Shirley Gillian for coming first with her short story ‘Outside In’, and Benny Allen for winning third prize with his short story ‘Twenty-Five, Vanilla Milkshake.’ The evening was hosted by Ian Rankin and there was music by Emma Pollock and overall it was great. All the the twelve short-

listed writers were fantastic and I’m sure will go on to do some brilliant things.

Some of you will know that I struggle with anxiety, especially social anxiety so getting up and reading at a sold out event was tough. I am lucky to have help and support from my partner Helen, my rock.

I will attach a link to my award winning short story as soon as it is available online.

Market Day

My short memoir piece Market Day set in my home town of Bonnyrigg, was published today in Talking Soup magazine. Click the highlighted link to read it. The story is set in the mid 1970’s and captures the hustle and bustle of the town. This piece is taken from the novel I am currently writing titled Tick. 

variety of fruits

Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com

Lochwinnoch Platform Renfrewshire

I  mentioned some time ago (2017), that one of my poems was selected to appear at two railway stations as part of the Renfrewshire metal health festival Scotland. A few days ago, I got along to see it displayed. I hope it moved some people, or just passed a minute while they waited at the station. A fresh batch of poems will go up in May.

 

Lost Connection

Now published by Fearlessly.co.uk

alone man person sadness

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I was alright in mid-June apart from the weather which was typically Scottish. Charcoal clouds were scribbled over the only green hill that formed part of our view. The air was thick. A warm breeze swayed the vertical blinds and they clattered together.

“I can’t concentrate.” I said, saving the document I was working on. I put my lap-top on the couch and got up to close the window, but Helen began coughing. She sat forward, red faced and I thumped the top of her back, careful to avoid the line where the nerve pain started. “Are you alright?”
She shook her head. “Not…”
“What can I do?” I asked.
She pointed to the window and wagged her finger.
“You want it left open?”
She nodded.
I hurried to the kitchen and edged a glass between last night’s dinner dishes and the cold tap. I filled the glass with water.
“I need to clean the kitchen,” I said when I returned.
“You said you’d do it later.”
“I know, but it stinks.”
“It’s just last night’s dishes.”
“It’s disgusting.”
“I’ll do it then.” She sighed. “You try to do too much, and you need to work on your dissertation.”
“It can wait. Besides, I can’t have you struggling to stand at the sink.” I kissed her cheek. “You worry too much.”
“You’d be better going up to the university to write. There’d be less distraction.”
I shrugged my shoulders, sat down and I lifted my lap-top onto my knee. The blinds rattled.

I was in the kitchen a couple of hours later when I heard the letterbox snap shut. The mail flopped on the floor. It was mostly junk, a Farmfoods leaflet, money off coupons for Domino’s, you know the likes, when I heard the Post woman’s footsteps echo down the stairs in the communal hallway. I considered opening the door and pointing at the sign above our letterbox: NO JUNK MAIL. But I didn’t. I realised for the first time, I couldn’t.
“Anything for me?” Helen called from the Living-room.
“Something from the council.” I took it through to her.
“Maybe it’s about the wood-worm.”
“It’s too soon.” I said. “Although it would be my luck to have the council ripping up floors while I’m trying to write a dissertation.”
Helen opened the letter. She raised her eyebrows.
“They’re coming to lift the floor, aren’t they?”
She nodded.
“When?”
“In a fortnight, and they want the house empty.”
“What about us?”
“They’re putting us up in a hotel. Guess we have some packing to do. Should I ask some friends around to help?”
“No!” I said too quickly. I even surprised myself.

***

At the beginning of July, the weather was still drab but there had been the odd rumble of thunder in the distance. I couldn’t help wishing it would hurry up, if only to clear the air.
“Could you pop over to Peter’s and ask him if he’ll run us to the hotel on Monday?” Helen asked.
“I’ll just finish packing this box.” I said laying an ornament on a piece of newspaper and triple wrapping it.
“I’ll finish that.” Helen said.
“It’s okay, I’m nearly done.” I snapped.
“Sorry.” She backed away and I felt a pang of guilt.
“I’ll go in a minute.”
“I’d go myself, but I can’t do the steps.”
“I know that.” I threw the wrapped ornament into the box and turned away from her.
“What’s wrong.” Helen sat on the floor beside me. “Are you crying?”
I hid my face from her. “I can’t go.”
“Go where? The hotel?”
I let out a sob.
“Kirsty?”
“I can’t go to Peter’s.”

***

By the time we got to the hotel the following week we could barely see a foot in front of us. The fog was thick and white, and our world shrank to the size of the cave we were temporary living in.
“What time are you meeting you tutor?” Helen shouted from the other room.
“In ten minutes, at the bar.” I sat on the toilet and my stomach cramped. I emptied my bowel. Again.

***

“Sorry I’m late.” My tutor said and ordered us a pot of tea. “How are you?”
“I’m well,” I lied but I wanted to run back to Helen and hide.
“How’s the dissertation coming along?”
“Fine.” I said a little too loudly and I felt everyone in the bar look at me. I waited for them to laugh. In my mind they did.
“Are you in touch with your classmates?”
“I’ve been too busy.” I lied because I felt too stupid to say that some of my friends hated me now because I was apparently the teacher’s pet. I felt stupid saying that they were horrible to me – and now I was lost.

***

It was January 2018 before I realised, I had social anxiety. I was standing in the back garden of our new home, inappropriately dressed for a blizzard but poised, perfectly still with a camera in my hand. Through the lens, I watched a robin on the fence have his breast feathers whipped up by the wind as flurry of snow danced around him.
I clicked.

***

“What time is everyone arriving?” Helen sticks a tahini dip covered finger to my mouth.
“That’s amazing.” I lick it from my lips. “Two o’clock I think.” I finish breading the cauliflower and pop it into the oven.
“Are you feeling okay?” She asks. “With, you know, people coming around?”
“I will be.” I tell her. I lift my purple headphones from the table. “I’ll be back in fifteen minutes.” I go into the spare room and close the door. Before I press play on the app, I check to see how many people will be joining me.
12,351.

Find a quiet space where you feel comfortable. Sit on a straight back chair or on a meditation cushion. When you hear the gentle chimes of the singing bowl, close your eyes.
Breathe in to the count of five.
Hold.
Breathe out to the count of five.
Hold.

 

I Am A Human. Right?

I have recently had one of my poem’s ‘I am a Human. Right?’ published in the Visual Verse : An Anthology of Art and Words. The instructions on the site are,’ One image, one hour, 50-500 words. The picture is the starting point, the text is up to you. Please visit the website for the actual picture – not the one posted. 

two person riding boat on body of water

Photo by Jayant Kulkarni on Pexels.com

I am a Human. Right?

 

You’ll stick out like a sore thumb

They said. Cover up.

Be careful not to hide your face

Though – too obvious.

And learn the language, be grateful,

Take a little, but not much

 

Remember walk straight, not proud

They said. Meek is best.

Stick to the gutters, avoid the bus,

Eyes to the floor

And wherever they take you

Know your worth.

 

Look for a job, but never steal one

They said. Take the worst

But don’t take them all. Earn your

Place but don’t grow roots,

Wait until the bombs stop, then fuck –

Off home.  

 

So, step aboard and steady your feet

They said. Hold on

For dear life. Hold on for your future,

Hold on for peace.

But don’t hold too tight. Remember,

You are a human. Right?

That Time

hand pen writing plant

Photo by Natalie B on Pexels.com

This poem is now published by The Ogilvie.

I hadn’t seen her in a decade,
Not since that time we …
Now she’s lying before me, tucked-up warm
In hospital sheets.

Her face is older now, saggy in parts –
And sallow. Her mouth puckers into
A tight circle when I arrive, an ‘Oh!’
Like that time we…

She touches my arm, cold fingers
That leave cold circles for minutes after.
‘How have you been? How time flies,
Tell me, what have you done since…
You know.’

Her shoulders hunch, eyebrows rise.
She reads my face, faster
Than the note I left by her bed…

‘Tell me,’ she insists, ‘did you sail to that island,
Where the wind whips the waves
Onto the lighthouse by the edge
Of the sea. Did you?

‘Did you climb the thousand stone steps
To the castle in the sky,
Where the world ends
And life unfolds like a paper chain?’

‘Did you finally find that missing moment,
Capture it in a photograph,
A half-truth bent into a scrap
Of happiness?
Or did you leave it behind?’

Her chestnut eyes leave mine,
Trail the cracks on the ceiling
And rest in the corner of room.
The sound of my footsteps echo
After I leave.

Eilidh G Clark

The Lift

There’s a story behind this poem. We were staying in a hotel because the floor in the flat we were living in had wood worm and the council were ripping it up. It was a weird set up, two of us and two dogs crammed into a double room in a Travel Lodge for a week;  in the middle of an industrial estate! Needless to say we used the lift a lot. It was a busy lift with people from all nationalities coming and going, so I wrote this poem (or a version of it) on a piece of paper and stuck it to the mirror. I told whoever found it to take it with them and stick it in a lift in the next hotel they visited and so on and so on. I don’t know if it made it anywhere else because I saw a cleaner go into the lift shortly afterwards but I like to think it travelled the world.

photography of a woman on elevator

Photo by Úrsula Madariaga on Pexels.com

The Lift

Welcome to the smallest room in the hotel,
The shiny box, The bare bones, the up and downs
The coming’s
The going’s.

I offer you ten seconds to make a friend,
Eight to fall in love. Make somebody’s morning –
Hello, Hallo, Salut, Ciao, Hola, ……

I offer six seconds, to put on your face,
Four to wipe it clean. Make up excuses –
Traffic, Arbeit, Slaap, Morte

For two seconds you can pick a floor,
Tell a truth behind closed doors, tell a truth
You never told before –
Ma olen segaduses
Jestem samotny
Jeg er red
Je suis gay

I am the quietest room in the hotel,
I offer you a second alone,
One delicious seconds, to be who you truly are
Before I set you free.

I hope you have enjoyed your stay.

The Break of Dawn

Now published in Veggie Wagon Website.

two white and black cows inside shed

Photo by Dan Hamill on Pexels.com

It was dawn when they arrived.
Two orange beams of light
Cutting tight between the lines of furrows,
And illuminating trees.
Her baby stirred.

It was dawn when they arrived.
Gravel crumbling under tyres.
A slither of sun crowning the hill,
And puffs of cloud lay as still
As her sleeping calf.

It was dawn when they arrived.
Two brown rubber boots crunching
On grass, still tipped with frozen dew.
A banging gate. A magpie flew.
The baby shook.

It was dawn when they arrived.
Two white hands and a noose.
A gate held ajar by a damp lump of wood
Four white walls, a nest of hay,
A trembling baby stood.

It was dawn when they arrived.
Two blue eyes trailing the floor,
Stealing her crying calf out of the door
White walls, empty bed, empty floor
Her mother stood – alone.

It was dawn they left.

Scottish Oral Storytelling Tradition & The Ballad

bird birds usa raven

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Sir Walter Scott recalls in his book Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border that ‘The Twa Corbies’ was ‘communicated to [him] by Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, esq. jun. of Hoddom, as written down, from tradition, by a lady.’ [1] The use of the word ‘Tradition’ suggests that ‘The Twa Corbies’ ballad survived orally. According to Buchan

The nonliterate person does not possess […] visual imagination, words for him cannot be translated into pictorial symbols, they exist in sound groups; his facility for imaginative retention is largely auditory. [2]

The traditional methods of ballad structure such as form, convention, uncomplicated language, and rhyme create the sound groups that Buchan is suggesting. Whilst assisting the performer and the audience in memorising the ballad, the construction of the ballad ensures that its bones remain intact regardless of time and place. This allows the longevity of the story.

The anonymous ballad, ‘The Twa Corbies’ has a chivalric theme. Morgan suggests that in the chivalric ballad ‘Neither historical figures nor legendary idols escape criticism, [in] the ballads of chivalry [they] serve to strip the façade of honor from their social betters.’ [3] Within a particular genre, the use of common tropes assists in memorising the narrative through fixed characters and themes. This also allows a performer to make a ballad contemporary whilst retaining the familiar narrative. Like most medieval ballads, ‘The Twa Corbies’ begins in Media Res, keeping the narrative brief whilst allowing the audience to quickly interpret the ballad’s intended meaning. The commonality of ballad themes means that multiplicity may occur, for example, ‘The Twa Corbies’ has great similarities to the English ballad ‘The Three Ravens’. Although the narrative of these ballads is similar, the tone sets them apart. ‘The Three Ravens’ conveys an optimistic tone which Morgan suggests ‘upholds the chivalric tradition of romance, complete with references to knightly behaviour, courtly love, and Christian piety’, (Morgan, p.119-120). The sombre tone of ‘The Twa Corbies’ however, implies a negative interpretation of chivalry with a realistic view of a social situation in which the importance of survival is crucial. This is found in the following three lines:

‘His hound is to the hunting gane,
His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame,
His lady’s ta’en another mate, [4]

The abandonment and disregard for the dead knight’s body offers the audience a natural and realistic account of life and death and the nature of survival. These three characters resume living in the most natural way. The theme of survival is clarified in the final line of the stanza:

So we may mak our dinner sweet. (TTC, 12)

This line highlights not only that compassion is essential for survival but also that all creatures are equal, a direct criticism of chivalric hierarchy. The tone of ‘Sir Patrick Spens’, is similar to ‘The Twa Corbies,’ in that it demonstrates the danger of the hierarchal structure, for example

‘O wha is this has duin this deed
An tauld the king o me [5]

The phrase ‘duin this deed’, suggests that the speaker has already accepted his deadly fate which, predetermines the remainder of the ballad. In addition, these lines not only demonstrate danger of royal hierarchy but also of the Kings right to assume the role of God. The ballad audience however, are already aware that the elderly knight is responsible:

O up and sat an eldern knight (SPS, 5)

The use of ‘O’ at the beginning of the line mimics the form of the traditional hymn. As a result, this technique elevates the position of the knight to God. This allows the audience to question not only the idealism of royalty, but also the hierarchal structure of the royal court and it’s danger of improper decision-making. The effect of tone in both ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ and ‘The Twa Corbies’, in addition to theme, structure and word choice directs the reader to the underlying meaning and intention of the ballad.
The generic ballad form allows the performer to navigate his way through the ballad by creating self-contained narrative frames, or stanzas. Each frame consists of a variety of stylistic conventions that create auditory symbols, instructions, and prompts, essential for the performer and the audience in memorising the song. For example, the opening couplet in ‘The Twa Corbies’ acts as an essential idea, setting the scene of the narrative. The first person speaker recalls an incident in past tense:

As I was walking all alane,
I heard twa corbies making a mane; (TTC, 1.2)

The use the of verbs ‘Walking’ and ‘makin’ rather than ‘walked’ and ‘make’ are coded words which have a dual purpose, firstly to fulfil the rhythm of iambic tetrameter and also to describe movement, firstly from the speaker then followed by the corbies. The progressive verb choices, in addition to the past tense narration demonstrate the continuity of life and the underlying theme of the narrative, which is survival. Performed in thin Scots, the mixed dialect gives the audience a sense of place, whilst acting as a comparison to the English dialect – the dialect of the hierarchal chivalry. In addition, the refrain of the rhyming couplets assist the performer in memorising the sound units whilst allowing the narrative to be adapted and developed within a set structure. In the first couplet ‘all alane’ (TTC, 1) is a triad of assonance, with the ‘a’ sound at the start of the three syllables. This acts as a sound group, important for memorising. In line two, ‘making a mane’ (TTC, 2) is a refrain of consonance. The ‘m’ sound lands at the beginning of a two-syllable word followed by a one-syllable word. This elongates the sentence making the ‘mane’ onomatopoeia. It is therefore the manipulation of sounds and beats that aid the speakers memory rather than the words themselves.
The symbolism of the corbies – a Scottish word for ravens, has various mythological connotations, one of which is that ‘Ravens as birds of knowledge appear throughout myth, especially in Odin’s two ravens, Huginn (Thought) and Muninn (Memory)’. [6] This tale will have been familiar to audiences in medieval times, therefore informing the audience of the role of the corbies within in this ballad to represent thought and memory, crucial for the survival of the narrative.
There is a tense change in the final line of the first stanza when the narrative changes into dialogue:

‘Where sall we gang and dine to-day?’(TTC, 4)

This change indicates a scene break that allows the oral storyteller to move on to a different frame with different conventions. The leaping between scenes or frames requires the audience to read between the lines and flesh out the narrative themselves. This closing line in stanza one is the last line in a long sentence, moving from past to present. This demonstrates movement in time, also survival and tradition – which is the link between past and present. The introduction of ‘we’ prompts audience participation, a further mode of memorising.
In stanza two, the speaker uses ironic juxtaposition in a couplet. The ‘auld fail dyke’ (TTC, 4) conceals ‘a new slain knight’ (TTC, 5). ‘Auld’ is the primary word, situated before ‘new’ in the stanza. This gives the former superiority. Not only does this romanticise an older way of life but also demonstrates the strength of the old through the symbolism of the wall and its survival. These conventions are important to allow the framing and unfolding of each stanza, important for prompting memory, and continuity.
The generic form found in ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ is the most commonly found traditional ballad form; a four foot line followed by a three foot line. The consistent rhyming scheme, ABCB allows the framing of each stanza, which, like ‘The Twa Corbies’ is an arrangement of quatrains. Whilst this ballad is greater in length, the techniques are consistent of the ballad tradition. The sound refrains such as ‘whare will’ (SPS, 3) creates a sound like the wind, whilst ‘skeely skipper’ (SPS, 3) makes a storm like sound. These techniques not only create an ambiance, but also are sound symbols. Due to the length of this ballad, the refrain is demonstrated on a wider scale, such as ‘To Norway’ is repeated three times in stanza four. Using a variety of different conventions within each frame, aids the memory of the oral storyteller through the use of sound, symbols and prompts.
Whilst ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ is a much larger poem in length than ‘The Twa Corbies’ the techniques of style and convention are similar. The overall effect of the style and convention in both ballads is to aid the memory of the performer whilst guiding and prompting himself and the audience. The purpose of this is to deliver a story within the bones of a well-known narrative theme, which, through auditory symbols and sound groups, makes it adaptable as it is re-told and reworked over time. Moreover, whilst many medieval ballads adopt a familiar theme, resulting in multiplicity, the tone and dialect set them apart.

 

Bibliography

Anonymous, ‘Sir Patrick Spens’, in The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, ed. by Robert Crawford and Mick Imlah (London: Penguin Books, 2006)

Anonymous, ‘The Twa Corbies’, in The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, ed. by Robert Crawford and Mick Imlah (London: Penguin Books, 2006)

Buchan, David, The Ballad and the Folk (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 1997)

Frankel, Valerie Estelle, The Symbolism and Sources of Outlander: The Scottish Fairies, Folklore, Ballads, Magic and Meanings that Inspired the Series (North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 2015)

Morgan, Gwendolyn A., Medieval Ballads: Chivalry, Romance, and Everyday Life. A Critical Anthology (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1996)

Scott, Sir Walter, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, 2nd edn (Edinburgh: James Ballantyne, 1803)

The Relationship Between the Private and Public in Shakespeares Henry V – (Academic Essay)

I decided that once I had graduated from university I would post my English Literature essay’s on my site as a reference point for English Literature students. This essay and other’s on this site are my own work and have been referenced accordingly. Please feel free to use my essay’s but remember to reference my work to avoid plagiarism. 

pexels-photo-189532.jpeg

Henry V is the concluding episode in Shakespeare’s tetralogy of history plays. It was estimated to be written in 1599 during the reign of Elizabeth 1. Critics have found the play to be puzzling and Shakespeare’s portrayal of King Henry unclear. Rabkin suggested that Shakespeare intentionally created Henry V as a play with two interpretations which resulted in the audience making up their own mind. [1] Shakespeare’s depiction of King Henry was influenced by Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ as well as being integrated with the Tudor philosophy of The Kings Two Bodies. By using these approaches Shakespeare created a plot where Henry was able to weave between the private and public spheres. The audience may have perceived Henry V as either a well-rounded king or a crafty politician whose actions were deliberate and calculated. The paper will discuss the relationship between the private and public in Henry V and will examine the theory of the Kings Two Bodies as well as relate some extracts from Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ to the Kings behaviours and actions. Furthermore, the essay will explore the key scenes in which the king adopts his role as a politician both publicly and privately which creates the illusion of the perfect monarch and argue that whilst he was aware of the sacrifices he had to endure, his actions were for the purpose of his kingship only.

The Kings Two Bodies derived from the English jurists of the Tudor and defined the King as having both the body politic and the body natural. According to the theory, the body politic describes the king as an eternal entity; his body will not age or weaken. The king cannot do wrong or even think wrongly, therefore, the king has no weaknesses. In addition, the king is described as superhuman and invisible therefore sees and hears everything. The body natural is polar opposite of this and is subject to all the flaws of the average person such as old age, weakness, corruption and fallibility.[2] Shakespeare used both aspects of this theory in Henry V in order to create the impression of the perfect king. Katrotowicz explains that the kings ‘capacity to take in the body natural is not confounded by the body politic, but remains still.’ (p.12). The evidence in this essay will display how Henry V was fully aware of his body natural yet his actions were purely that of the body politic; maintaining that his relationship between the public and private was merely an act which fulfilled his role as the monarch.

Salamon suggested that ‘the private/ public polarity is somewhat less obvious, taking the form by and large, of a unifying structural concept.’[3] This was an intentional tactic by Shakespeare who chose to exemplify the King as a compassionate leader. Henry underplayed his ceremonial role when it was beneficial to blend in with his public and he was able to exaggerate the spectacular when he needed to exude the body politic.

The Shakespearian audience would have known the former king as Prince Hal from the tetralogy. He was unruly, his friends were thieves, he gambled and drank with commoners. It would, therefore, have shocked the audience that Price Hal could adopt his kingship so completely. For this reason, when Henry V flits from public to private, the audience is not surprised. Rabkin poses the question, ‘Can political resourcefulness be combined with qualities more like those of an audience as it sees itself?’ (p.281). Shakespeare’s effective transformation of Prince Hal to Henry V leaves no doubt that this is possible.

The transformation of Henry V is glorified by Canterbury who, in a conversation with Ely, establishes that the new king has fully adopted the body politic;

The breath no sooner left his father’s body

But his wildness, mortified in him,

Seemed to die too; yea, at that very moment,

Consideration like an angel came

And whipped th’offending Adam out of him,

Leaving his body as a paradise

T’envelop and contain celestial spirits.[4]

Canterbury described the transformation of Henry as a death of his former private self, this allowed his body to become a paradise in order to become god’s representative on earth. However, unknown to his council, the sudden change in Henry was always planned. According to Paris, Prince Hal’s behaviour in Henry 1V part two may have been a moral education for him. By associating himself with commoners he was able to increase his skills in dealing with a range of different people and by stooping so slow, he was able to achieve the grand effect of transformation he was looking for.[5] Shakespeare’s depiction of Prince Hal made his illusion of the perfect King in Henry V more accessible by exposing him as a private citizen. However; Prince Hal openly admits that his persona as a drunken thief and gambler is a deliberate and calculated act;

Yet herein will I imitate the sun,

Who doth permit the base contagious clouds

To smother up his beauty from the world,

That, when he please again to be himself,

Being wanted, he may be more wondered at

By breaking through the foul and ugly mist

Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.[6]

This admittance from Prince Hal suggests that he is less comfortable with the body natural and will become himself when he adopts the body politic. For Rabkin, Shakespeare’s portrayal of Prince Hal is deceptive, ‘the day has had to come when Hal, no longer able to live in two worlds, would be required to make his choice, and the Prince has had to expel from his life the very qualities that made him better than his father.’ (p.285) Prince Hal however, made his decision long before his kingship; his qualities were fabricated in order to assume a private persona which died the instant his father did.

When Henry V decided to invade France it is unclear whether the King believed he had a legitimate claim to the throne. Henry’s decision, however, may have been personally motivated due to his dying father’s suggestion that Henry should busy the minds of his public with foreign wars in order for them to forget the way in which he stole the crown from the former King Richard. It could be said that he did it to confirm his tyranny over his subjects.[7] Machiavelli states that it is ‘necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.’ [8] Shakespeare hoped that by presenting the morality in Henry in his previous plays that the audience would be convinced that he is torn between his public job and his duty to protect his citizens.

If Shakespeare succeeded in convincing his audience of the Kings morality, there must have been an element of doubt when the chorus asked the audience to imagine the grand spectacle of the ship at Hampton pier. The elaborate spectacle served to overshadow the England that was left behind ‘Guarded with grandsires, babies and old women.’, (King Henry V, iii.0.20) It is obvious in this instance that Henry V has little regard for his countries weaker civilians and is motivated by his own agenda. Debord described the value and importance of spectacle as ‘something enormously positive […] the attitude which it demands in principle is passive acceptance which in fact it already obtained by its manner of appearing without reply, by its monopoly of appearance.[9] Shakespeare was able to display the disparity between the King’s private and public figures by involving the citizens in ceremony in order to motivate and distract them from the his true intentions. Later, the King declines the use of spectacle when after defeating the French, he has the opportunity upon his return to England to meet his public with a grand ceremony, yet he chooses not to do so. This action was an effective way of making the commoners feel that there was no public and private divide between themselves and the monarch.

Spectacle was also presented in Henry V in the form of speech. Henry V was able to use his skills as a public speaker to ensure his army felt equal to himself;

And you good yeomen,

Whose limbs are made in England, show us here

The mettle of your pasture; let us swear

That you are worth your breeding which I doubt

Not,

For there is none of you so mean and base

That hath not noble lustre in your eyes. (King Henry V, iii.i.25-30)

It is this intertwining of the public and the private that made Henry V such a good politician and increased his power as a monarch.

Shakespeare exemplifies the morality in Henry V prior to the final battle, when he has to muster a masterful speech to prevent his army from being defeated;

By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,

Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;

It earns me not if men my garments wear:

Such outward things dwell not in my desires. (King Henry V iv.3.24-27)

Henry dismisses his position of monarch in this scene and the triviality of his royal garments; it is a cunning speech which deceives his soldiers into assuming that he is the body natural and that he sees no difference between himself and his subjects. Henry goes further than this by announcing, ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he, today that sheds blood with me Shall be my brother.’(King Henry V, vi.3.61-62) Henry V is aware at this point that he has to combine the private and the public in order to gain loyalty from his soldiers and by treating them as brothers he gains their respect. Machiavelli wrote, ‘a prince, so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty’ (p.2). Shakespeare used this approach to demonstrate the effectiveness of personal persuasion for political necessity.

On the eve of the final battle, Henry delves into the private world and disguises himself as a commoner. In discussion with soldiers Williams and Bates, he tells them, ‘I think the king is but a man, as am I […] all his senses have human conditions; his ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man […] his fears, out of doubt, be of the same relish as ours are. […] by showing it, should dishearten his army.’ (King Henry V iv.i.102-112) The response from the soldiers is that of doubt, they mistrust his reasons for going to war and describe the implications that the King will have to face from his people if they are defeated. It is at this point that Henry diverts any blame or wrongdoing, ‘Every subject’s duty is the King’s, but every subject’s soul is his own’ (King Henry V, iv.i.176-177) It should be noted that when Henry is speaking as a commoner his dialect changes from his usual verse to prose, the style of language used by the common citizens. This highlights the variation of private and public within Henry.

What Shakespeare has produced in this scene is the body politic trying to convince his soldiers that beneath the spectacle of the king is a person merely doing a job. This scene, although mischievous, displays the King as his true self. Henry V is aware that in order to effectively perform his role as monarch he must supress the body natural yet display it to his advantage. According to Machiavelli, ‘it is necessary to know how to disguise this characteristic and to be a great pretender’ (p.4).

It is only when the King is alone that he fully allows his personal thoughts to be presented;

What infinite heart’s ease

Must kings neglect that private men enjoy!

And what have kings that privates have not too,

Save ceremony, save general ceremony? (King Henry V, iv.i.233-237)

Are though aught else but place, degree and form,

Creating awe and fear in other men,

Wherein thou art less happy, being feared,

Than they in fearing? (King Henry V, iv.i.243-246)

By allowing the audience to indulge in Henry’s soliloquy, Shakespeare hoped to provoke a sense of empathy towards the King. This enabled him to fulfil his aspiration of presenting Henry V as the perfect monarch. Henry is, however, aware of the sacrifices he has had to make and this private moment is reserved only for himself and the audience.

Shakespeare’s ability to humanise the King enabled his acts of cruelty towards his friends to be digested more easily. In order for Henry to fulfil his public duty, he was forced to sacrifice his private inclinations and banish those he loved. At the end of Henry 1V, Henry publicly banished and humiliated his friend Falstaff in order to display his body politic. Furthermore, in Henry V the King ordered the death of his friend Scrope, who conspired to kill him. In addition, his friend Bardolph was sentenced to death for stealing from a church. These acts display Henry’s ability to uphold the law and disregard his former private life in order to be a sincere monarch.

In this paper I  discussed The Kings Two Bodies and how Shakespeare used this theory to explore the relationship between the private and public in Henry V. In doing so he was able to create an illusion that allowed the audience to view the King with two different interpretations, one as a well-rounded king and the other as a crafty politician whose actions were deliberate and calculated. In addition, I incorporated some extracts from The Prince which Shakespeare used as a comparison to King Henry. In order to explore the relationship between the private and public, I described the character of Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s previous plays which allowed the audience to feel empathy for King Henry’s actions. Furthermore, I discussed Henry V’s transformation from a private citizen to a public monarch and the challenges he faced when motivating his people to fight the war in France with him. As a result, I confirmed that Shakespeare integrated the private and public within Henry V which revealed that Henry’s actions were for the purpose of his kingship only.

Bibliography

[1] Norman Rabkin, ‘Rabbits, Ducks, and Henry V: Shakespeare’s Quarterly, 28 (1977) ,279296 (p. 280)
[2] Ernst Hartwig Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1957)
[3]Brownell Salomon, ‘Thematic Contraries and theDramaturgy of Henry V’, Shakespeare Quarterly,31 (1980), 343356 (p.345)
[4] William Shakespeare, King Henry V, ed T.W. Craik (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 1995) i.i.25-30
[5] Bernard J. Paris, Character as a subversive force in Shakespeare: The history and Roman Plays (USA: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002), p.80
[6] William Shakespeare, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, (New Lanark: Geddes & Grosset, 2001), i.2.201-221
[7] Erasmus, The ‘Adages’ of Erumus, ed, Margaret Mann Philips (Cambridge: CUP, 1964), p.349
[8]Nicolo Macheavelli, Extracts from The Prince, (1513) http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/machiavelli-prince.asp [accessed 03 December 2013] p.1
[9] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Paris: Editions Buchet-Chastel Libre, 1967), p.3

 

My Name is Leon by Kit De Waal – Book Review

‘…he misses the photograph of Jake and he has to close his eyes to remember it. He holds on to Big Red Bear and thinks about all the things he didn’t say to his mum. How long will it be for her to get better? When is she coming back for him? […] Will she come back? Where is she? Where is Jake?’ (My Name is Leon. p.78)

Kit_de_Waal_—_My_Name_Is_Leon

Shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, My Name is Leon (2016) by Kit De Waal is a heart tugging, sad yet hopeful book. Set in England the late 1970’s – early 1980’s, Leon and his baby brother Jake are living with single mother Carol.  Leon’s father is in prison and Jakes father is married and wants nothing to do with Carol or the child. Carol is terribly lonely and desperately unhappy. Struggling with deep depression, the mother’s fragile state leaves her  unable to care for her children :

Leon has begun to notice things what make his mum cry: when Jake makes a lot of noise; when she hasn’t got any money; when she comes back from the phone box; when Leon asks too many questions; and when she’s staring at Jake, (p.12).

After Carol takes to her bed, Leon, at just nine years old,  takes on the role of carer and parent. Through the eyes of this young boy, the reader watches his world fall apart, fragment by fragment.

Eventually the boys are taken into care and find solace in the home of Maureen, an experienced foster carer with a deep love for both cakes and children. Maureen is a lovable character who feels a deep affinity for Leon, even though Leon is highly suspicious of anyone in the care system, but when Jake is adopted, it is Maureen who picks up the pieces.  It is perhaps her honesty rather than her role as parent that soothes Leon in his most difficult times:

‘Now listen carefully because I want you to understand something and I don’t say this to all the children because it’s not always true but with you it’s true so you have to believe it. And when you believe it you will stop grinding your teeth […] You will be all right, Leon.’ (p.55-56).

But when Maureen is taken into hospital, Leon is left with Maureen’s sister Sylvia, a less motherly role model than Maureen but with a desire to please her sister none the less. Their relationship is strained and often uncomfortable, but soon enough Leon finds comfort in a new friend, Tufty. Tufty is a young man who looks after a plot in his father’s allotment. The man and the boy form a friendship that grows alongside the seeds that they plant in the garden, so when they both find themselves in the midst of the Birmingham riots, they naturally come together to save each other. 

This is a coming of age story unlike any other, it is not a happy ever after but hope for a child and his future. 

I love this novel, it is clearly written with believable characters and honest emotions. At the start of the novel I was concerned about the character’s point of view – a third person limited perspective from the child’s perspective – but it is cleverly done. While the reader gathers glimpses of emotions from inside Leon’s head, there is still enough distance to feel the tug of the story from the outside. It is as if the reader is holding the child’s hand and experiencing his life with him as it unfolds. Brilliantly done and brilliantly written. Go Leon. 

 

Goblin by Ever Dundas – Book Review

‘They merge. Those years before the war. The long summers, the running wild, playing cowboys and Indians, Martians and humans. I don’t remember when we first found the worksite, or when David told me his dreams of the sea, or when I became friends with the Crazy Pigeon Woman of Amen Court. They merge, and I jump forward and back. I must bring order.’ (Goblin, Ever Dundas, p.22)

20180228_144109.jpg

Winner of the Saltire Society first book of the year award 2017, Goblin, by Ever Dundas is a brilliant and brave first novel. Set in both London during WW2 and in Edinburgh in 2011, the story is told in flashback. For me, the first half of the novel is the best, we meet Goblin as a nine-year-old tomboy with a love for animals and a passion for storytelling – both of which the protagonist collects.

Goblin has a difficult family life; a mother who doesn’t want her, ‘Goblin-runt born blue. Nothing can kill you. […] You’re like a cockroach,’ (p.5) a father who mends radio’s and barely talks and a brother (David) who spends most of his time in his bedroom. Left to her own devices, the protagonist, her dog Devil, and her two friends Mac and Stevie roam the neighbourhood and hang around in an abandoned worksite. As a collector of stories, Goblin enthusiastically attends the local church with Mac, ‘I loved the stories, turning them over in my head, weaving my own.‘ (p.24)  before meeting The Crazy Pigeon Lady who tells her tales of Lizards people from the realm below. The childhood innocence in these chapters, mixed with magic realism, break down the walls of adult reasoning and creates a wonderful suspension of disbelief.

But without giving away the story plot, the suspension of disbelief serves another purpose; to divert the reader (as well as the adult protagonist) from the truth. So, while the adult Goblin searches amongst her tangled past, she takes the reader along for the ride. We meet multiple parents, live life on the road, come alive on the streets and in the circus, explore love, death, desire, and hate – and somewhere in the middle we meet an impressive collection of animals – Goblin has it all. And as far as strong female protagonists go, she’s right up there with Anais Hendricks from Jenni Fagan’s Panopticon, to Janie Ryan in Kerry Hudson’s Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, characters who are so real you might just walk by them on the street.
The only teeny tiny criticism about the novel is that the second half spans over a lengthy period of time and it felt a little rushed. However, there is so much to say about this novel, so many angles to discuss, from Queer Theory to Religion, from Myth to Realism, and as a graduate of English Literature I could have a field day studying this book but for now, as a lover of good books, I’ll give it a big thumbs up and a huge recommendation, it’ll be finding a space on my ‘keep’ book shelve.

Goblin, Ever Dundas (2017) published by Saraband

Spring Is Failing

pexels-photo-209839.jpeg

Spring is failing.

And it’s not just the forecast

Crooned by the weather person

Or the news headlines saying –

‘Scotland still without power,’ – it’s failing!

 

It’s failing the birds

And the hibernating animals,

Too scared to wake, too tired to sleep.

 

It’s failing the people;

Stung from the gas boards who rub

Their fat hands over fat blue flames.

 

And as the meter’s tick, tick, tick, empty –

Spring is failing.

 

 

And still the snow dances,

Falling from the sky like confetti

On a stone man’s wedding,

While the red breasted bird

Salvages the last piece of fat

From the half moon, hanging by a rope

out back.

Spring is failing.

 

 

 

Dirt Road by James Kelman – Book Review

pexels-photo-164821.jpeg

Kelman’s novel Dirt Road is story that takes both characters and reader on a journey right from the outset, but the journey is more than it seems. The novel begins in the West coast of Scotland where we learn that Murdo – a sixteen-year-old boy – and his father Tom are mourning the death of their mother/wife and sister/daughter. Searching for solace, they embark on a journey to Alabama, U.S.A to spend time with Uncle John and Aunt Maureen. For Murdo, family is just a happy memory, a moment in time captured in a photograph, ‘The family was four and not just him and Dad’, whilst for Tom, family is the bond that holds them together.
Throughout their journey, Tom strives to guide his son and keep him on ‘the right path’, yet Murdo, as we will learn, has a path of his own to find.  Stifled by the fathers influence, the boy has a tendency to stray, thus when they reach Allentown Mississippi, Murdo stumbles upon a family of musicians led by Zydeco performer Queen Monzee-ay. Murdo is as drawn to music as his father is to family, the boy himself is an accomplished accordion player, and when he is offered an opportunity to play a set with Queen Monzee-ay in two weeks’ time, we watch as the road between father and son diverges and choice and risk becomes the key plot in the story.

While this may appear a simple story line, Kelman’s exploration into the fragmented relationship between father and son gives the reader an honest analysis of family and grief. The third person narrator, with bursts of free indirect discourse from Murdo, allows the reader both an internal and external insight into the constraints of family. This parallel leaves the reader feeling uncomfortable, yet with a conflicting heart. This is Kelman’s unique writing style at its best.  

Dirt Road is more than a novel of grief and family relationships though; it is a novel of risk, of following new paths with uncertainties, about leaving behind the familiarities and safety of the past and following the heart. It is about deep connections; for Murdo this is through music and the feeling of freedom that he associates with music, whilst for the other characters it is about cultural connections and Scottish ancestry. Kelman’s clever use of parallels shows the reader the intensity of human connections whilst suggesting that change and progression is possible. This great novel will linger in your thoughts for weeks after you put it down, and it brings to mind a poem by Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

Dirt Road by James Kelman

Canongate Books (14 July 2016)

Nasty Women Published by 404 Ink – Book Review

‘Sometimes the role model you need is not an example to aspire to, but someone who reflects back the parts of yourself that society deems fit.’
Becca Inglis

pexels-photo-862848.jpeg
Nasty Women, published by 404 ink, is a collection of essays about what it is, and how it feels to be a woman in the 21st century. When I first picked up the book, I assumed, like I think most readers would, that it would be an easy book to just pick up and put down whenever I had a spare ten minutes. Wrong, I was sucked into this book right from the beginning, and read it all in a day. That doesn’t mean it was an easy read, or perhaps easy is the wrong word – it isn’t a comfortable read – and it isn’t meant to be. Nasty women is hard-hitting, eye-opening, and unashamedly honest.

The book opens with ‘Independence Day’ by Katie Muriel.  A story of mixed race and identity in Trump’s America, Muriel discusses her experience of inter-family racism, heightened by political differences, ‘This is not the first, nor is it the last family divide Trump will leave in his wake, but I refuse to think of him as some deity who stands around shifting pieces on a board in his golden war room.’ The anger in this piece is clear, but it is the rationalism and clarity of the writer that speaks volumes. Race, racism and xenophobia, is a prominent feature in these stories. Claire L. Heuchan, for example, talks about ‘Othering’ a term that readers will see repeatedly in this book, ‘Scotland,’ she writes, ‘is a fairly isolating place to be a black woman.’

Survival is a key trope in Nasty Women. Mel Reeve, in ‘The Nastiness of Survival,’ talks about being a survivor of rape and emotional abuse, ‘I do not fit the ‘right’ definition of someone who has been raped.’ This statement alone is filled with irony.

I was particularly drawn to Laura Waddell’s essay, ‘Against Stereotypes: Working Class Girls and Working Class Art.’ Laura talks about the difficulty of both gender and class inequality, and, in particular, the lack of working class writers and working class fiction being published, ‘I have read a lot of fiction’ she says, ‘I have read almost none from housing estates such as the one I grew up on. These stories are missing, from shelves, and from the record.’ As a Scottish fiction writer from a working-class background myself, these words resonate deeply.

Alice Tarbuck’s ‘Foraging and Feminism: Hedge-Witchcraft in the 21st Century’, is almost fun to read in a deeply devastating way. There is a desperate tone in this piece, and a desperate need to escape society. ‘There is beauty and bounty around us if we look for it, and perhaps that is all the magic we need. Or perhaps, what we need is real magic, whether that comes in the form of resistance and community or the form of blackthorn charms and skullcap tinctures, and howling to the moon.

I loved this book. This book gives women a voice. And it is loud! Well done 404 Ink, and all the contributors, for bravely breaking the silence.

The Role of the Cross-Dressing Male in Literature For Children.

pexels-photo-301977.jpeg

The role of the cross-dressing male in literature for children serves to either reinforce societal gender norms or criticise them.  In order for the genre of cross-dressing to exist, however, the implied reader must already live in a society where dress plays a significant part in gender recognition and is generally practised as a social norm. Transsexual activist Nancy Nangeroni quoted that ‘It is not gender which causes problems; rather it is the imposition of gender on an individual by another.’[1]  Due to the socialisation of gender in Western societies, the cross-dressing male in literature for children is treated as the ‘other’. By discussing David Walliams’s novel The Boy in the Dress in comparison to Terence Blacker’s Boy2Girl, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I will identify the key issues surrounding the cross-dressing male in literature for children such as masculine reinforcement, sexuality, humour, and gender performance.

Written in 2008, Walliams offers an original critique of the male child cross-dresser in his novel The Boy in the Dress by addressing the way that clothing can create ‘otherness’. The opening statement of the novel is ambiguous, ‘Dennis was different.’[2] This statement not only poses the question of what or who is Dennis different from but also puts Dennis into the category of ‘other’. The narrator proceeds by telling the reader that ‘When [Dennis] looked in the mirror he saw an ordinary twelve-year-old boy,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.11). This implies that Dennis is not ‘different’ because of his appearance but rather because ‘he felt different- his thoughts were full of colour and poetry, though his life could be very boring’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.11). In this quotation, the italicised ‘felt’ in addition to his thoughts of colour and poetry not only demonstrate Dennis’s aesthetic view of the world but also an unconventional representation of the traditional masculine expression. Social theorist Victor J. Seidler suggests that ‘expressing emotions allows men to connect to an aspect of their subjectivity that traditional forms of masculinity have denied them.’ [3] Walliams is demonstrating that Dennis is aware that he deviates from the stereotypical Westernised idea of masculinity and therefore, feels different.  

Masculinity in The Boy in the Dress, suppresses the protagonist’s subjective self. Walliams demonstrates this by exploring masculine reinforcement within the child’s family. When Dennis’s mother leaves home, his father makes a rule of ‘No crying. And worst of all- no hugging, (The Boy in the Dress, p.16). For Dennis, his father’s lack of emotion is a result of depression, (The boy in the Dress, p15). Fischer suggests that

men hardly disclose their personal feelings, and tend to conceal the expression of emotions like fear, sadness, shame, and guilt. This can be understood as a strategy to boost conventional masculinity.[4]

By repressing his feelings, Dennis’s father reinforces his masculinity to the detriment of his sons. The repercussions of his behaviour are installed in Dennis’s brother who tells that protagonist that, ‘Only girls cry,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.17). Walliams demonstrates the effects that masculine reinforcement has on Dennis’s freedom of choice. When the protagonist is encouraged to try on Lisa’s dress, ‘he imagines for a moment what he would look like wearing it, but then told himself to stop being silly, (The Boy in the Dress, p.83). Identifying his discomfort, Lisa reassures him by saying she ‘love[s] putting on pretty dresses. I bet some boys would like it too. It’s no big deal,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.83). This contemporary reaction to cross-dressing is a result of the ‘differences [that] have been found in the perceptions of men and women towards transgender behaviours and people. In general, women are more tolerant.’ [5]  Dennis however, is torn between what he desires and how he has been taught to behave, ‘Dennis’s heart was beating really fast- he wanted to say “yes” but he couldn’t,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.83-84). Walliams criticises the Western construction of masculinity by showing Dennis’s oppression due to the masculine reinforcement he receives at home.

Unlike Walliams’s criticism of masculinity, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, published in 1908 promotes masculinity in order to reinforce Western gender norms. The character of Toad is represented as a carefree independent and wealthy animal with a disregard for societal rules. Following his imprisonment for joyriding, Toad’s female prison guard suggests that he dresses as a washerwoman to escape, explaining that ‘You’re very alike in many respects – particularly about the figure,’ [6] The character’s genderless shape allows him the ability to disguise himself. Dress for Toad is one of the ways that he can outwardly expose his masculinity in addition to gender performance and reputation.   It is for this reason that he is delighted when the original washerwoman suggests she should be tied and up and gagged before he escapes as she wants to keep her employment, ‘It would enable him to leave the prison in some style, and his reputation for being a desperate and dangerous fellow untarnished, (The Wind in the Willows, p.80).  The word desperate in conjunction with dangerous reasserts Toads masculinity as he is proving not only that his cross-dressing is a necessary deviance but one that enhances his power. Moreover, whilst the cross-dressing incident is presented as humorous, ‘Toad’s behaviour simply reinforces the normative gender binary rather than engaging with the subversive function of the carnivalesque.’[7]  For Toad, cross-dressing is a way for him to misbehave and divert attention from his true masculine self and as a result, gender binary is reinforced.

Gender performance is a key trope in male cross-dressing literature and highlights preconceived assumptions of gender roles. In Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in the United Kingdom in 1884, the protagonist is encouraged to wear women’s clothing in order to obtain information. Huckleberry’s friend Jim suggests that Huckleberry ‘put on some of them old things and dress up like a girl?’[8] In this instance, the act of cross-dressing is a fun experience and supplemented by an illustration by E. W. Kemble. This shows Jim kneeling down behind Huckleberry and laughing, whilst Huckleberry looks over his shoulder grinning and posing in a feminine manner. Flannigan suggests that

male cross-dressing is used for comedic purposes. The male cross-dresser, adored in feminine apparel worn in such an inexpert manner that his true sex remains no secret is a well-established comedic strategy,’ (Flannigan, p.135).

Flannigan’s suggestion demonstrates the reaction that the cross-dressing male has on its audience but fails to address the problematic response. In order for the act of cross-dressing to be deemed as comedic, the implied reader must already assume that the male character is acting incorrectly according to his perceived gender role. Walliams identifies this problem in The Boy in the Dress, by raising the issue of female inequality and the difficulty of femininity. Lisa suggests to Dennis that it’s ‘Not easy being a girl is it?’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.124). Furthermore, cross-dressing Dennis discovers the difficulty of being a girl:

Remember to cross your legs when you are wearing a dress, and most importantly, Don’t catch the boys’ eyes as you may be more attractive than you thought! (The Boy in the Dress, p.138).

In the above quotation, Walliams explores some of the rules of femininity. Not only is he discussing the female etiquette of ‘cross[ing] your legs’ but also the ways in which girls are sexualised by boys. The exclamation at the close of the quote illustrates male dominance, as it is the female who must divert her eyes from the male. Moreover, when Dennis’s father asks his son if he enjoys wearing a dress, Dennis replies, ‘Well, yes, Dad. It’s just…fun,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.167). The pause before ‘fun’ suggests that the protagonist is searching for the correct word that will console his father. Walliams is, however, criticising the way in which cross-dressing in literature for children is perceived as humorous. For Dennis, cross-dressing allows him the happiness that he normally suppresses whilst in his conventional male role, ‘He felt so happy he wanted to dance,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.100). This then raises the question ‘why are girls allowed to wear dresses and boys aren’t? It doesn’t make sense,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.175).  Dennis can see how illogical the typical Westernised view of cross-dressing is.

Sexual orientation is often explored in literature for children when a cross-dressing male is a main character.  In Terence Blacker’s Boy2Girl, written in 2004, Sam Lopez, is persuaded to cross-dress as part of an initiation into the Shed gang. The gang decide that Sam should go to his new school wearing girl’s clothes for five days. The novel is written with first person multiple narrators with the exclusion of the protagonist. This immediately demonstrates Sam’s lack of individuality. His first reaction demonstrates a common reaction to male cross-dressing, “You want me to be some kind of fruit?”[9]  Fruit or fruitcake is a common slang word that refers to a homosexual. [10] This association derives from the Victorian fin de siècle when ‘widespread contemporary fear[s] that perversion and deviation [from gender norms were] agents of degeneration.’[11]

This notion is also identified by Walliams in The Boy in the Dress when Dennis is caught by his Head Teacher wearing the orange sequined dress in school. The Head Master expels the boy and tells him ‘I am not having a degenerate like you in my school’, (The Boy in the Dress, p.163). Cross-dressing is often thought of as sexually motivated.  ‘Male cross-dressing is perceived as inherently sexual in nature (either in a fetishistic sense or in a homosexual context),’ (Flannigan, p.49). Sam’s reaction to cross-dressing in Boy2Girl demonstrates that the remnants of Victorian fear still remain. Similarly, in The Boy in the Dress, Dennis’s brother suggests that boys who read girls magazines are ‘Woofters!’(The Boy in the Dress, p.56), which is another popular term to describe the homosexual man. Whilst cross-dressing is identified as deviant behaviour in Walliams’s novel, Harrison suggests that cross-dressing can be referred to as:

“Gender Deviance” [which] simply refers to an individual who falls outside of our ordinary everyday understanding of male/masculine and female/feminine.’[12]

This critique raises the question of how the male child cross-dresser can be legitimately deemed as deviant when he is still in the early learning stages of his life and may not be fully aware of the Western gender ideology.

Walliams addresses gender ideology in childhood as problematic. In The Boy in the Dress, Dennis becomes bored due to his confinement within a socially constructed gender role. The word boring is mentioned eleven times throughout the novel and cross-dressing allows him to ‘feel like he [doesn’t] have to be boring Dennis living his boring life anymore’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.107).  This quotation illustrates the stifling effect that conformity has over the protagonist. Cross-dressing gives him a feeling of liberty. Walliams demonstrates this freedom through a change in narrative voice, from the third person to first, ‘I can be whoever I want to be,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.107).  The ‘I’, allows the character independent thought, whilst the repetition of ‘be’ gives him freedom of choice and finally ‘whoever’ is gender neutral.  The action of cross-dressing gives Dennis insight into life without gender conformity and he tells ‘Lisa I want to thank you for opening my eyes’, (The Boy in the Dress, p.207). Walliams is teaching the reader that gender should not be defined by what one wears.

The idea of gender neutrality is found in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the author demonstrates Huckleberry’s non-conformity due to his preference of wearing no clothes and his inability to accept and conform to civilisation:

We was always naked, day and night,[…] the new clothes Buck’s folks made for me was too good to be comfortable, and besides I didn’t go much on clothes, nohow, (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Para.3 of Chapter 19).

In the above quotation, Twain demonstrates Huckleberry’s relaxed nature and how he is comfortable in himself without the stifling effects of clothing. In addition, the author points out that adults are a child’s source of clothing, therefore limiting their independence. Huckleberry’s nakedness makes him gender neutral as opposed to conforming to socially constructed masculinity.

Cross-dressing in literature for children is often used to either reinforce societal gender norms or criticise them. Walliams, however, demonstrates that cross-dressing simply means a person who does not conform to Western dress codes. Dennis identifies this in his Sikh friend because he is ‘the only one who [wears] a patka,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.63). Dennis asks, ‘Do you feel different Darvesh?’(The boy in the Dress, p.63). The emphasis on the italicised ‘you’ alters the tone of the question suggesting that Dennis is aware of segregation due social conformity of dress. Darvesh’s reply allows Walliams to highlight how otherness is socially constructed; ‘When mum took me to India at Christmas to visit Grandma I didn’t at all. All the Sikh boys are wearing them,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.63). Walliams is demonstrating how alienating clothing can be for children, not only in gender but also within a cultural context.

Walliams, at the end of The Boy in the Dress, addresses exclusion or ‘othering’ due to societal control over children’s dress. In order to include Dennis in the football match after his exclusion from school, the full football team dress in women’s clothing. Suddenly ‘There was a huge cheer from the crowd’, (The Boy in the Dress, p.192). Walliams normalises the act of cross-dressing to demonstrate that exclusion due to gender or cultural dress is unnecessary. The final message in the novel serves to convince the reader that clothes are irrelevant to gender;  Dennis notices a red jacket coming towards him ‘And then the red jacket turned into a man,’(The Boy in the Dress, p.196).This defies the contemporary Western ideology of gender binary through dress.

I found that many of the authors wanted to demonstrate the effects of socially constructed gender. In The Boy in the Dress, this meant that the protagonist felt alienated through his family’s masculine reinforcement. Both Walliams’s novel and Blacker’s Boy2Girl, highlight the discrimination towards the cross-dressing male, which illustrates an out of date notion of homosexuality being linked to dress. Twain aimed to deconstruct the gender binary by presenting a character that was not affected by gendered clothing, whilst Grahame used the act of cross-dressing to reinforce gender binaries. Humour was a trope in all of the novels which was a result of inadequate gender performance, however, this highlighted that gender is socially constructed and therefore, unnatural. Not only did Walliams attempt to deconstruct the notion of the gender binary and demonstrate how emotions are similarly gendered, he also encouraged his reader to believe that clothing is irrelevant to gender. The originality of Walliam’s novel arises from his exploration of feelings surrounding gender and gendered dress and how these restrict individual freedom and result in segregation.

 

Bibliography

Adams James Eli and Millar Andrew H, Sexualities in Victorian Britain (U.S.A: Indiana University Press, 1996)

Blacker, Terence, Boy2Girl (Oxford: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2004)

Bolich, G.G, PhD. Today’s Transgender Realities: Crossdressing in Context (North Carolina: Psyche’s Press, 2007)

Fischer, Agneta, Gender and Emotion: Social Psychological Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)

Flanagan, Victoria, Into the Closet: Cross Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2011)

Grahame, Kenneth, The Wind in the Willows (London: HarperCollins Publisher, 1908)

Harrison, Kelby, Sexual Deceit: The Ethics of Passing (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2013)

Nangeroni, Nancy, in Into the Closet: Cross Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film, ed. by Victoria Flanagan (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2011)

Sedler, Victor J. in The New Politics of Masculinity: Men Power and Resistance ed. Fidelma Ashe (Oxon: Routledge, 2007)

Steen, Edwin B. and Price, James. H, Human Sex and Sexuality (London: Constable and Company, 1988)

Twain, Mark, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Charles L. Webster and Company)

Walliams, David, The Boy in the Dress (London: Harper Collins, 2008)

[1] Nancy Nangeroni, in Into the Closet: Cross Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film , ed. by Victoria Flanagan (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2011), p.258.
[2] Davis Walliams, The Boy in the Dress (London: Harper Collins, 2008), p.11.
[3] Victor J. Sedler in The New Politics of Masculinity: Men Power and Resistance ed. Fidelma Ashe (Oxon: Routledge, 2007), p.111.
[4] Agneta Fischer, Gender and Emotion: Social Psychological Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p.173.
[5] G.G. Bolich, Ph.D. Today’s Transgender Realities: Crossdressing in Context (North Carolina: Psyche’s Press, 2007), p.271.
[6] Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (London: HarperCollins Publisher, 1908), p.79-80.
[7] Victoria Flanagan, Into the Closet: Cross Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2011), p.143.
[8] Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Charles L. Webster and Company), para. 9 of Chapter 10.
[9] Terence Blacker Boy2Girl (Oxford: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2004), p.44.
[10] Edwin B. Steen and James H.Price, Human Sex and Sexuality (London: Costable and Company, 1988), p.297.
[11] James Eli Adams and Andrew H. Millar, Sexualities in Victorian Britain (U.S.A: Indiana University Press, 1996), p.97.
[12] Kelby Harrison, Sexual Deceit: The Ethics of Passing (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2013), p.9.

 

 

Social Media Down Time

pexels-photo-607812.jpeg

I have been toying with the idea of a social media down day ever since a tutor at university spoke of his own positive experience. Sunday past seemed like the perfect day to give it a go, not only because I already associate Sunday as a kind of  down day, but also because I have  just completed my first week studying  mindfulness. I began the online mindfulness course because I often struggle with anxiety. Anxiety, for those who have experienced it, can be debilitating; exhausting on the mind and the body. For myself, I experience social anxiety, dread and an inability to rest;  my thoughts go into overdrive and I feel them crashing together. My usual “go to” is social media where I can loose myself amongst everyone else’s lives – in other words I detach myself from myself. I knew something had to change; there had to be another way of dealing with my anxiety. Then right on time, along came an e-mail telling me about a  free course with Future Learn –  Mindfulness.  

Mindfulness (and remember I am still learning) is learning how to be present in our experiences, an, in our lives.  Even on my non anxious days I am constantly distracted by social media, not because it is a riveting alternative to real life, but because it is a filler. For me, Facebook more so than any other social media platform,  fills the time between breakfast and walking the dogs or when the dinner is cooking, or basically whenever I have a spare moment. E-mail is another source of distraction, as a writer, I find myself falling into the trap of checking my e-mail whenever I have a spare minute; I send between five and fifteen pieces of writing to magazines and competitions every quarter so am always waiting on reply. So, when I sat down and really thought about it, it seemed that I had forgotten how to just sit and do nothing. Thus, the idea to go ahead with the social media down day was decided.

Sunday 11th February

It is amazing how your hand automatically reaches for your phone in the morning. I decided to turn my internet off so that I wouldn’t receive any notifications tempting me to pick it up. Once that was done, I put my phone on my writing bureau (it usually sits on the arm of the sofa) and got on with my day. I found myself enjoying really quite mundane things such as putting the clean washing away – not only did I tidy my wardrobe; I re-arranged it. Then I decided on a few items that were ready for the charity shop. It was nice to take time to look at my clothes properly, to see the nice items that I have purchased over the winter (mostly from charity shops or from sales), and appreciate what I have..

Lunchtime was interesting; I found myself looking at my lunch rather that looking at my phone while eating lunch – it is amazing how much better food tastes when you look at it and pay attention to what you are eating.

By mid afternoon I had forgotten about my phone and about E-mails and Facebook and all of the other internet distractions that usually filled my time and I sat and looked out the window. We have recently moved into a new house and the living-room window faces onto a private garden with lots of trees and sky and birds. The sun was shining and the sky was clear and blue and I just sat,  and looked.  It reminded me of my teenage self, eighteen years old, no internet,  and looking out the bedroom window of our family home. There was fields and hills, trees – and a castle nestled behind some Scots pine’s. I was taken to a place where I felt like my old self again, (although I am sure if you asked my eighteen year old self how I felt, I would have declared my utter boredom) but at forty-five, letting myself be still, just looking and experiencing how that felt, I’ve never felt less bored in my life.

tree-field-horizon-countryside-81413.jpeg

My phone vibrated mid afternoon and I got my other half to take a look. Somehow, without any internet, a notification had got through. I ignored it although I am still baffled by how that could happened.

All in all, my day trotted along at a much slower pace. I had the odd moment when I wondered about what was happening in the land of Facebook or if some magazine had sent me an e-mail, but apart from the weird sensation of not picking my phone up every twenty minutes, it was a pleasant experience. Now I know that it isn’t for everyone, and I am certainly not trying to encourage anyone to follow my example, but for me – someone who grew up in the days before internet – it was like opening my eyes after a long daydream. I do enjoy social media and I would be lost today without the wonder of internet, but I will continue to have my Sunday down days, where I can see the week through wider eyes.

 

Soft Impression

I wrote this poem using a magnetic poetry set that I picked up from a charity (thrift) shop. I found the process of scattering random words across my writing bureau, and then carefully selecting the words that sparked my imagination both fun and challenging. Magnetic poetry  is a great way to think about words, to explore theme and to construct something meaningful out of word chaos. You could also do this by collecting interesting words from newspapers and magazines, or writing inspiring words on scraps of paper that you hear someone use on a bus, or in the supermarket line. Pop your words into a jar, adding sticky words such as and, it, or, as etc. and have fun.

 

Growing Form

I wrote this poem during my MLitt year at the University of Stirling. The plan was to select one of the many sculptures in and around the campus and write a creative piece based on that sculpture. This was aimed at children between the ages of 9-12.

Growing Form is an acrostic poem; a visually pleasing as well as challenging form for younger students. I also increased the word count on each line of the poem to incorporate the theme.

pexels-photo-15271.jpg

Growing Form

Gargantuan,
Rising up
Out of Shangri-la.
Waking the whispering world,
In melancholy maddening moans that
Night cannot conceal; his silhouette unravels.
Gathering height, he reaches, cutting sky with

Fork like antlers until the stars collide – like
Orion. He awakens the hunter. Down the cosmic fire
Rains upon the earth, blazing scorn and fury, and the
Mighty beast bellows. He gathers up the river and runs.

 

 

 

 

Shackled

I published this poem in Untitled 8 in November 2017.

pexels-photo-147635.jpeg

 

Shackled

I am separated. Segregated-
An inch away from vertical blinds
And the switch to turn of the Sky.
To shake away the World Wide Web
Of fabricated lies.

I am separated. Segregated –

A mile from the world outside,
Hidden behind grey vertical blinds.
Dry from the rain,
Fighting the pain of oppression.

I am separated. And bleeding from the outside in.

I am separated. Segregated –

Peeking through artificial lines,
Looking for the ordinary kind,
The crowds of mankind,
Unveiled and unmasked, separate and free

Instead of shackled to the reign
Of her majesty – To the so-called face, of a modern race
Of dumbed down, media choked,
Free folk. I am chained.

I am separated. Segregated –

Pained by a society –
Rich in lies and Tory piety, flying toward
Mars in dream boats –
In hopes of a better land.

 

 

Evoking Sympathy Through Narrative Point of View & The Unreliable Narrator.

stack-of-books-vintage-books-book-books.jpg

When attempting to evoke a sympathetic reader response in narrative fiction or creative non-fiction, it would be foolish for an author to assume that the reader will feel sympathy through theme, setting, or plot alone. Novels sought purely on theme may simply evoke an empathetic response, especially if the reader has an association with the theme. In this instance, evoking sympathy rather than empathy is more challenging. Moreover, if a reader does not relate to the subject or plot, evoking a sympathetic response relies on positioning the reader within the story in order for them to react. Segal suggests that ‘When reading fictional text, most readers feel that they are in the middle of a story…The reader often takes a cognitive stance within the world of the narrative and interprets the text from that perspective.’[1]  This highlights the importance of deciding where the reader is placed in relation to the narrator in order to evoke a sympathetic response. Emotional response however, is a purely subjective experience. It is unlikely that all readers will have the same emotional reaction to a narrative, no matter how skilful the author.  Yet, tailoring the way that the narrative is told, and choosing which character narrates, can enhance the probability of a sympathetic reader response. Narrative sympathy therefore, is possible, but it is not always guaranteed. This then raises the question, how do authors attempt to evoke a sympathetic reader response in fiction and creative non-fiction? In this paper I will examine the various ways that David Vann in Legend of a Suicide, 2008, and A.L. Kennedy in Serious Sweet, 2016, use narrative point of view in an attempt to evoke a sympathetic reader response. In addition, the essay will analyse the role of the unreliable narrator as a tool, which enables these authors to alter the reader’s perception. As a result, I will argue that narrative sympathy can be evoked in a reader through both first-person and third-person point of view.

Narrative sympathy is difficult to define. This is because of its closeness to empathy. Sklar argues that ‘empathy operates at what I call a “chameleon emotion,” in the sense that, when we experience it, we take on the emotional experience of another as our own.’[2] This would suggest then that for an empathetic reader response, they must ‘experience’ what the character is experiencing, thus seeing through the eyes of the first person narrator. Furthermore, he suggests that

Our immersion in that experience, […] may impede […] our capacity to form judgements about that character, since we may, […] become too close to view the characters reality objectively. (Sklar, p.48).

Sympathy on the other hand ‘involves a greater distance between the individual who feels and the person, towards whom it is directed,’ (Sklar, p.26). Sklar’s argument sets clear boundaries between how empathy and sympathy are evoked through narrative point of view.  Therefore, novels in which the author attempts to evoke sympathy,

anticipate response on the part of the reader, either authorial, or actual. […] sympathy by nature is a responsive emotion, and therefore texts that elicit it provide structures that enable readers to intuit and interpret the appropriateness of sympathy at particular moments within the progression of a narrative. (Sklar, p.53).

If Sklar’s theory were correct, then it would appear that sympathy could only be evoked when the author uses a third person narrator, meaning that the reader has enough distance to make a judgement.  Kellog and Scholes suggest that ‘In any examples of narrative art there are […] three points of view – those of the character, the narrator and the audience.’[3] In order for these three points of view to unite to evoke a sympathetic response, do they need to be independent of one another? Sklar’s theory would suggest so, yet David Vann illustrates that this theory is flawed in his novel Legend of a Suicide.  

In the American version of Legend of a Suicide, the book cover reveals that the contents are ‘stories’. For the reader, this determines the way that the novel is read, and therefore, their reaction to the work. Moreover, in the acknowledgements at the rear of the book, in both American and English versions of the novel, Vann states that his stories are fictional, ‘L

 

but based on a lot that’s true.’[4] With all of these factors in mind, it is clear that this novel can be read in a variety of ways.  In ‘Ichthyology’ for example, the first person narrator tells the story of his father’s suicide:

He took his .44 Magnum handgun from the cabin and walked back to stand alone on the bright silver stern under a heavy, gray-white sky and the cries of gulls, his boots slathered with the dark blood of freshly caught salmon. He may have paused for a moment to reflect, but I doubt it. […]. He spattered himself amid the entrails of salmon, his remains picked at by gulls for several hours. (, p.10).

Notice the lack of emotion in the above quotation from the first person character. The memory itself is written with intricate detail, yet whilst the subject is shocking, the only clue that the reader is given to Roy’s feelings is when he says that he doubts his father paused to reflect. Thus, we have a close first person narrative with regards to action, and a very distant first person narrative with regards to emotion. In the American version of the novel, this chapter would be read as a short story; therefore, the reader might assume that the narrator is hiding his emotions, thus unreliable. As a result, the response is likely to be one of shock rather than sympathy or empathy as the reader is only glimpsing over the character’s life, thus not invested in the novel as a complete entity.  Alternatively, if the reader is aware that the story is based on real life events, and with the narration being in past tense, this then creates a distance between the author, reader, and character – this allows the reader enough room to form a judgement. Hildick, suggests that narratives written in first-person-past-tense demonstrate, ‘the effect of an incident on a certain kind of personality.’[5] By concealing the character’s emotions, Vann is revealing that the memory is too painful to express, thus sympathy may be evoked in the reader. There are flickers of emotion in this chapter though. Vann indirectly demonstrates Roy’s feelings by projecting them onto something less significant, such as the fly and the fish: ‘so little movement that it seemed not to have happened at all, and yet there was the fly, mired in the water, sending off his million tiny ripples of panic.’ (LOAS, p.10). This technique reveals Roy’s feelings whilst creating a distance between himself and the reader, thus heightening sympathy for him. While these examples demonstrate how sympathy may be evoked through the first person narrator, it is not guaranteed, feelings of empathy may be more prevalent in readers who have experienced the death of a loved one. Thus, the reader response is unpredictable.

Reading the U.K version of Legend of a Suicide as a self-contained fictional novel, and without prior knowledge that the work is part autobiographical, can evoke sympathy in a more dramatic way. In chapter two, the author continues the technique of juxtaposing facts with emotion as the narrative steps back in time. This allows the reader to observe the other characters in the novel and also, and more importantly, it brings Roy’s father Jim back to life. Vann does this through retrospect but also free indirect discourse from Jim:

Rhoda in the walnut orchard that afternoon piecing together her thousand-piece puzzle […], never looked back to where my father sat utterly lost on the porch steps. He didn’t understand her. He had no idea how to comfort her. (LOAS, p.19).

The final line in this quotation could be read from either Roy’s first person thoughts, or through Jim’s third person point of view. It is clear here that Vann is juxtaposing the father and son to allow the reader to make a judgement.  Roy’s interpretation of the scene for example, is to assume that his father is ‘lost’, suggesting that he is not there, or cannot be found. Then the third-person interruption from Jim, suggests that his father is very much alive. This desperation to bring his father back to life may evoke sympathy for Roy but it also sets up Jim’s narrative voice for chapter five.

The first-person-past-tense perspective in Legend of a Suicide, allows the character of Roy to speculate why his father killed himself, Hildick argues that 

the method’s ‘distancing possibilities’: that is, the way it can be used to give the impression that the dust has cleared, that the action took place some time ago – possibly many years – [shows] that the narrator has had ample opportunity to see everything in perspective, (Hildick, pp35-36).

The first–person perspective allows the narrator and the reader valuable insight into Jim’s personal relationships, but through Roy’s point of view.  In chapter one, for example, the reader experiences Roy’s parent’s marital break down closely, through Roy. Whilst Roy’s mother Ruth is kept at a distance in this chapter, allowing the suicide to be the prominent feature, the following chapter focuses closer on her character after the break up. On his return from visiting his father and stepmother Rhoda, Ruth question’s the boy about his father’s new wife, “Is she pretty?” My mother’s voice quietened on this.’ (LOAS, p.17).  The quiet voice suggests an emotional fragility, as well as Ruth’s own reflection on herself.  “No, she’s deformed,” I said, and my mother laughed again.’ (LOAS, p.17). Roy is clearly protecting his mother’s feelings in this scene. Yet in order to evoke the reader’s sympathy for Ruth, Vann has to juxtapose her character with Rhoda:

My new stepmother, Rhoda, untied the ring for my father with thin white fingers. I looked up again at that blank eye, drawn to it[…] I realized too late that she was watching me […]  She laughed out loud, right there in the middle of service in front of everyone, at the same moment that she was slipping my father’s ring onto his finger. Her laughter startled all of us, but especially my father […]. His mouth opened slightly as he looked up, and for the first time in my life, I saw him frightened. (LOAS, p.11).

The description of Rhoda in the above quotation seems almost sinister. Moreover, this is described from Roy’s viewpoint, thus steering the reader towards negative feelings for Rhoda. This is further heightened by Roy’s observation of his frightened father. This juxtaposition of characters allows Vann to not only creates a sympathetic response for Ruth, but it is also allows Roy to divert blame from his mother. It is clear then that Vann is deviating from the traditional form of first person narration where ‘we are inside the characters head, so our experiencing of his sensations […] feel natural and plausible. […] It feels as if it’s happening to the reader.’[6] If Vann had chosen to use this type of narration, where the reader got full access to Roy’s emotions, the reader would feel only empathy for Roy. Furthermore, there would be no freedom for judgement, the novel would lack sympathy, and the response would be different to what Vann is hoping to achieve.

In her novel Serious Sweet, A.L. Kennedy uses third-person-limited narration interspersed with the first-person point of view presented as italicised monologue. Kennedy uses this technique to demonstrate the internal conflict of her main characters John and Meg. An example of this occurs when Meg visits the hospital for an internal examination:

Meg bent to remove her shoes, blood distantly roaring in her ears at the unexpected upset. Her body had decided to be nervy and easily unbalanced. This wasn’t her fault. […] there was this sensation of childishness in her fingers which, because she was in an adult situation, made her stomach tick and become wary. [7]

In the above quotation, the third-person-limited narrator begins by using the character’s name ‘Meg’ to create a distance. Furthermore, rather than describing her sensations, such as ‘her body felt’, the narrator separates Meg by saying ‘her body decided’. This separation between Meg and her body allows the reader to respond to the uncomfortable feelings of the character. The character of ‘Meg’, however, intervenes with free indirect discourse by saying, ‘This wasn’t her fault,’ thus indicating that something bad has happened to her. The gap between actions told at a distance and the immediacy of the characters thoughts evokes a sympathetic reader response. In, Consciousness and the Novel, Lodge describes this as ‘the realism of assessment that belongs to third-person narration [and] the realism of presentation that comes from the first-person narration,’[8] by combining the two, Kennedy creates a juxtaposition between seeing and feeling thus provoking a judgement. Furthermore, Meg’s ‘sensation of childishness’, in the above quotation, juxtaposed with her ‘adult situation’ creates a feeling of sympathy due to her adult vulnerability. Moreover, as Meg’s examination draws closer, the distance between Meg and her own bodily self becomes more distant:

And when this is suggested, you loosen the sheet until it’s opened and simply resting across your outspread lap as a rug might if you were reading at some fireside in some cosy evening on some other day.

       It’s good to imagine that. (Serious Sweet, p.75).

Notice how the third person narrator changes the ‘she’ to ‘you’.  Whilst it may seem that Kennedy is asking the reader to feel what Meg is feeling in order to evoke empathy, the ‘you’ in this instance is Meg.  The character is creating distance, as if she is looking down on herself and her situation.  In using the ‘you’, Kennedy provokes the reader to make a judgement based on how they might feel or react in a similar situation. The third-person distance, however, remains between reader and character, thus the reader is not feeling with Meg, yet is forced to feel for her. The italicised line at the end of the quotation is a direct intrusion into Meg’s thoughts; therefore, Kennedy is able to redirect the ‘you’ to the ‘I’ allowing the reader to direct their sympathy towards Meg. Whilst structurally Serious Sweet and Legend of a Suicide differ, the realism of assessment and realism of presentation is very much prominent in both novels.

Vann provides subtle clues throughout each chapter of his novel that something bigger is going to happen. At the close of chapter three, Roy realises he is unable is unable to bring his father back, and instead, his mother’s ex-partner John is ‘practically delivered to [his] doorstep,’ (LOAS, p. 34). This is the point in the novel where the point of view changes to third-person-limited and the reader questions the reliability of the narrator. Booth argues that ‘If he is discovered to be untrustworthy, then the total effect of the work he relays to us is transformed.’[9] Vann deliberately shows the reader that Roy is unreliable, not only through the change in point of view, but also through obvious changes in the plot. On page thirty-nine for instance, Roy speaks of a sister who is never mentioned before this point, thus indicating that what they are about to read is merely Roy’s fantasy. Furthermore, the change in point of view allows the reader to compare what they have learned about Roy at the beginning of the novel, with what they are about to read. By this stage, the reader has formed a relationship with the character of Roy from his first person point of view, and therefore, has gained his trust. Any alteration to his original narrative can therefore, be viewed sympathetically. Booth suggests that

By the simplest expedient of creating a character who experiences the rhetoric in his own person, it has been made less objectionable. Every adjective and detail intended to set our mood is part of the growing mood and experience of the central character; the rhetoric now seems functional.’ (Booth, p.202).

Vann is following this exact structure, which evokes sympathy for the reader by creating distance from the original narrative, thus allowing the reader to compare. On Sukkwan Island for example, ‘A place like Ketchikan, where Roy had lived until age five, but wilder, and fearsome now that he was unaccustomed.’ (LOAS, p.37), notice how Vann is juxtaposing Roy’s place of upbringing, as seen in the beginning of the novel, with this unfamiliar place, which causes a reaction in Roy. Yet what Vann is really doing is telling the reader that Roy’s journey into this fantasy is frightening for him. Throughout the chapter, the reader is immersed in this huge outdoor space, cold and unfamiliar with a heightened sense of monotony. Roy’s imaginary relationship with his father becomes one of perseverance rather than warmth, so when his father says,

I don’t know how I got this way. I just feel so bad. I feel okay during the day, but it hits at night. And then I don’t know what to do […] I’m really trying. I just don’t know if I can hold on. (LOAS, p.71)

the reader wonders just whose account this really is. Bearing in mind this is a fantasy chapter, the above quotation is in fact the voice of Roy, told through the voice of his father. Vann is indirectly demonstrating Roy’s desperation in this scene, and therefore, creating distance in order to evoke sympathy in the reader. As the chapter draws to a close, the reader begins to see that the real Roy has begun to figure out that his fantasy world has brought him no closer to his father:

Watching the dark shadow moving before him, it seemed as if this were what he has felt for a long time, that his father was something insubstantial before him and that if he were to look away for an instant or forget or not follow fast enough and will him to be there, he might vanish, as if it were only Roy’s will that kept him there. (LOAS, p.116).

The reader can easily see that Jim in fading away in the above quotation, yet by presenting the narrative through Roy’s point of view, and with a lack of emotion, the reader has ample room to judge. This technique allows the reader to feel sympathy for the character, so when ‘Roy became more and more afraid, and tired, with a sense that he could not continue on, and he began to feel sorry for himself.’ (LOAS, p.116), Vann is telling the reader that Roy’s fantasy narrative is too upsetting for him. Therefore, when on page 128, Roy puts a gun to his head and shoots himself; the reader sees this is a shocking act of desperation. This evokes not only sympathy for Roy, but also for Jim because the reader will have a deeper understanding, through Roy, of his father’s emotional state at the point he actually took his own life.

Kennedy uses the unreliable narrator in a more immediate form. Take for example the character of John Sigurdsson, rushing to his office in Westminster, ‘He was very breathless, which was not a good sign,’ (Serious Sweet, p.86). The beginning of this quotation is a distant third-person narrator; yet following the comma, the third-person-limited narrator brings the reader closer to how John feels. This is followed by his immediate thoughts, ‘But all is well. More than. Everything is fine,’ and then later, ‘And he wasn’t too hot. Not flustered. He did have these small red prickles of something on his skin – despair, unease, panic.’ (Serious Sweet, p.86).  This type of alternation between distance, closeness, and immediacy, demonstrates how the juxtaposition between points of view can reveal to the reader that the character is trying to conceal his emotions. Thus, the italicised first person monologue is unreliable or untrustworthy. Kennedy uses the unreliable narrator to build tension in her narrative. John’s unreliability is a key tool in the plot as the reader discovers he is disclosing government information to the press. Without this, and without the third-person narrator, the reader would only see through John’s eyes, thus his actions might be seen us unprofessional. Furthermore, it would not reveal the difficulty that these actions cause his character, thus would not evoke sympathy. Therefore, when the plot unravels as it does the reader’s sympathy is heightened.
In Legend of a Suicide, the plot begins to unravel with a surprising shift in chapter five, when the third-person-limited point of view changes from Roy to Jim. Whilst Vann continues to ensure that the reader knows that these chapters are a fantasy; ‘[Jim] pushed himself back further away from Roy but this was phony, another act, […] And though it couldn’t be his son there, it kept being his son there.’ (LOAS, p.130), the last line in this quotation hints to the reader that Roy is still very much narrating. This is achieved through the use of free indirect discourse. The narrative is shown though the eyes of Jim yet Roy’s voice consistently intrudes:

If Roy were still alive, and Jim could take him somewhere now, he would take him sailing around the world. That was something Roy had actually wanted to do. He had said so himself. And it was something Jim could have arranged just as easily as homesteading. He had the money for a boat, he knew how to sail, he had the time. But for that to have been possible, he would have had to listen to Roy. He would have had to notice him while he was still alive. (LOAS, p.152).

With exception of the first line, the remainder of the above quotation is the voice of Roy. This can be identified in the tone. The first line is Jim fantasising, it seems light-hearted, dream-like, yet the remainder has an angry tone and is intensified by the use of ‘actually’ and the repetition of ‘had’. These lines correspond to Roy’s version of his life in chapter one, thus confirming that this is in fact Roy speaking. Vann’s use of free indirect discourse here is to allow Roy to express his anger, because if he had expressed these feelings in the previous chapter in third-person-limited, the reader would have been too close to Roy’s thoughts to feel sympathy. It is important to remember that chapter four and five are fantasy stories, and although Jim is the primary character in chapter five, it is Roy’s fantasy. Thus, the narrator that we hear in both chapters is Roy. The juxtaposition between Roy and his father allows Vann to evoke reader sympathy for Roy by indirectly revealing Roy in his purest form; therefore, the free indirect discourse is essential in maintaining a distance in order to allow the reader to judge. On discussing Jane Austin’s Emma, Booth suggests that

The solution to the problem of maintaining sympathy despite almost crippling faults was primarily to use the heroine herself as a kind of narrator, through third person, reporting on her own experience,’ (Booth, p.245).

It is clear that Vann is using this same technique, and by diverting Roy’s thought and faults onto his father, he is creating sympathy for Roy at a distance. It is through the examples such as the one above that Vann proves that sympathy can be evoked in the reader when they are close to Roy’s thoughts. Yet for the overall effect to be plausible, the unreliable narrator is an important, if not necessary, device.

In chapter five and six of the novel, the point of view returns to first-person, thus confirming that the chapters written in third person were fantasy. There is however, a final twist in Vann’s novel. In the final chapter, Roy is referred to as the boy: ‘I like to think that the boy is helpful,’ (LOAS, p.221). For the reader, this change identifies that the narrator is in fact Vann himself. This creates a distance between the author and his own childhood self, thus creating a sympathetic response. Furthermore, the reader can at this stage, feel a greater amount of sympathy for Vann due to the entire structure of the novel. The reader will be aware that Vann has brought his father back to life over and over again.

In this paper I have demonstrated the various ways in which narrative point of view can be used to evoke a sympathetic response in readers by looking at David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide and A.L. Kennedy’s Serious Sweet. Whilst traditionally first-person point of view was believed to be more likely to evoke empathy, the essay has demonstrated that by using emotional distance, in conjunction with close observation, the author can create a sympathetic response; this is due to the reader having the accessibility to make an emotional judgement. Furthermore, the essay has looked at how the unreliable narrator can be an effective tool in concealing emotions, setting up the plot and diverting readers from the truth in order to create character sympathy. Overall, however, I demonstrated  that in order for sympathy to be evoked, there must be a juxtaposition, whether it is between first and third person viewpoint, between characters, or between what is revealed, and what is not. This juxtaposition is essential in order to evoke sympathy in the reader.

Bibliography

Booth, Wayne C., The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1961)

David Lodge, Consciousness and the Novel (London: Random House, 2012)

Hildick Wallace, Thirteen Types of Narrative (London: McMillan and Co Ltd, 1968)

Kennedy, A.L., Serious Sweet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2016)

Kress, Nancy,  Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint (Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2005)

Scholes, Robert and Kellog, Robert, The Nature of Narrative (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966)

Segal, Erwin M. in, The Art of Sympathy in Fiction: Forms of Ethical and Emotional Persuasion ed. Howard Sklar (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2013)

Sklar, Howard, The Art of Sympathy in Fiction: Forms of Ethical and Emotional Persuasion (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2013)

Vann, David, Legend of a Suicide (London: Penguin Books, 2008)

 

Letting The Outside In

I published this poem with Anti-Heroin Chic on 25th May 2017.

20180101_133054.jpg

 

I’m Letting the Outside In.

The double glazing is stained with winter splatter.
Porridge is cooling in a retro bowl and my bare feet –
Baking from the heat of a sun kissed puppy
Who is baking on a vertically striped carpet.

There is a reek of yesterday’s shenanigans at the burn
Wafting from tartan collars
and the air feels.

Music ripples through my rib cage

There’s washing hanging, half-arsed, on radiators
While a new load spins in the machine.
The sagging rope in the back garden
Is empty. Waiting for the weight of winter warmers

Honestly soaked,
to be nipped with plastic tipped pegs and a satisfying sigh.
I’m letting the outside in.

Three squirrels scurry along the naked trees across the way.
And me
I’m resisting the need to weed the garden
I’m letting the outside in.

The above photograph is my oldest dog Mille, she is a 6 year old chocolate lab.

Platform

This poem was published as part of the Renfrewshire Mental health Arts Festival and is displayed in two train stations in Scotland – Langbank, and Lochwinnoch in Renfrewshire.

pexels-photo-596912.jpeg

Platform

She stood upon the platform

She stared down the track

She counted back the hours

Since she thought he might come back

She wished upon a memory

Of when her life was true

She counted up the times

She heard him whispering ‘I love you’,

She stood alone and waited

For the seventh time that day

As the train spat out commuters

Who passed along their way

She held her old and broken heart

Afraid her love was lost

She knew she’d always feel regret

She’d grown old from the cost

But alas the lonely station

Had become her rightful home

As hope for the old lady

Stopped her being alone

Her love –  perhaps one lucky day –

On the platform she’d reclaim,

Like an old and traveled suitcase –

The man who called her name.

 

 

 

 

I Knew You Were Weary

I published ‘I Knew You Were Weary’ with Anti-Heroin Chic on 25th May 2017.

I wrote this poem in response to finding out an old friend and work colleague had died. While I never actually found out the cause of his death, I do know that in the months, maybe years leading up to his death, he was lonely. I spoke to him on social media on rare occasions but never allowed myself to get close enough to ask – are you okay, and do you need help. I guess over the years we had drifted apart as friends, and for that reason I felt that it wasn’t up to me to respond to his very obvious cries for help. Now I wish I could turn back time and not scroll by his social media posts. Now I wish I could talk to him and remind him that he is loved and that he has brought happiness to so many people in his life time. Perhaps those words might have saved him. Perhaps those words would have given him peace in his final moments.

R.I.P my friend. A fragment of your life is imprinted on mine.

lost-places-pforphoto-leave-factory-162387.jpeg

 

I Knew You Were Weary

I knew you were weary. I saw
Bold, Black words repeated. Graphited
On a hundred walls. I scrolled

Past your weeping lines, ignoring
The beats. Broken sighs, dripping

Dripping morbidly into saturated
Sentences. I knew you were trapped;
Bouncing madness inside your own
Head. Half alive, half way dead – Hanging

Tap, tap. I knew it, yet I paused
I paused. Liking your profile shot,
A ricocheting lie – a knot. My conscientious mind
Wrought, wrung, tangled in a world-wide web;

I searched and found a better you, impressed,
Pressed on the back of my eyelids.

I never heard you scream your final scream.

 

Funeral Parlour

I published Funeral Parlour with Anti-Heroin Chic on 25th May 2017. The poem was originally written for an assessment at university and was difficult to write. This poem describes my own experience of seeing my own mother for the last time.

Since writing this poem, I have begun writing a novel titled ‘Cheese Scones & Valium’, which is biographical fiction of part of my mothers life, and is embedded in memoir. This has a direct link to my poem.

pexels-photo-835773.jpeg

Funeral Parlour

They dressed you up like Christmas day. A faux
Silk blouse with ruffled trim – garnet red. Black
Pressed polyester trousers with an elastic waist,
The comfy yins. But the shoes,
the shoes were wrong.

Unworn kitten heels – black. The yins ye bought
Fi Marks and Sparks that rubbed yer bunions.

They dressed you up like Christmas day and put you on display. Painted
Your face back to life, with tinted rouge and peach lipstick that puckered
Like melted wax, concealing your smile,
Your tea stained teeth. They put you on display – Dead
Cold.

Jon brought you a school picture of your grandson Jack; slipped it under your pillow
Then squeezed a private letter into your clenched right hand. I
Gave you a card. A pink one with a rose. I placed it beside your left hand – sealed
Happy Mother’s Day Mum

They put you on display, dressed you up like it was Christmas day but without
Your love heart locket, your gold embossed wishbone ring.
Those damn sentimental things that might hold tiny particles of skin,
Fragments of last week – lingering in the grooves.

Window Pain

I published Window Pain with FTP Magazine on 7th April 2017 – click here to see the original. This is one of my favourite poems to date.

pexels-photo-190589.jpeg

Window Pain
Not a paper bag
Or a terracotta mask
Can erase this face,
Or misplace
The dug-out lines,
The outlines,
the valleys sketched
Like map markings, marking my skin.
Or the thin
Unconventional smile, forced from
A gully of pain
That rises to the tip
Of a pin like nerve

To my lip.
Does this body deserve
To mask these aging bones

With leather skin
Smoothed out,
Like putty on a window pane
With pain.

Or will night,
When dusk coughs
The light from the sky – celebrate,
and wait
until the moon is a silver eyelash
on a violet sheet
and the self –
erased.

Alone in a Council Flat

This poem was published by Tell-Tale Magazine on 31st July 2017.

DSCF3517.JPG

Alone in a Council Flat

The Curtains twitch.
An ambulance passes.
No siren. No need.
There’s a hush –
A breath
Held harder than a hiccup
As silence swells
Into the four corners of o’clock.

Through the letterbox
A whiff of kippers;
Of soup and salty socks, sink
Like a stain into embossed net curtains
And settle. Settle.
A beat –
A tick of life –
A wave from a crackling stereo;
and the Corries pinch the space
Before the light-bulbs blink
And press the night like putty-
Into the lips of the garden

Behind the disinfected wheelie bin and the whittled bird box
Tomorrow waits.
For news and for open blinds,
For fresh pheasant, hung dead on a hook by the washing line,
And footsteps –
And an old man
Carrying a loaf of bread in a crumpled up carrier bag.

The curtains twitch.

 

Juvenile Delinquent

This poem is featured in the Lies, Dreaming Podcast #11 named Treasure. Click here to hear me read this poem.

pexels-photo-147271.png

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was like this…

We whaur raking for treasure this efternuin,
Doun the back of the bing,
The bit where ma Ma kin see us,
Frae ower the kitchen sink.
And well–

Buried doun beneath some foosty plastic bags-
Fou of someone else’s ‘sexy’ Tennent’s Extra cans,
We fund four wheels of a Silvercross pram.

So.

We brought them hame and dunked them in a puddle by the kerb,
The drain gunk cleaned the rust up, they whaur looking quite superb.
Then Willie,

Well-

Willie wis having a muck aroond –
Spinning the wheels, and ripping them
Roond and roond and roond,
Until the cauld muck spat
Intae the plumes
That our laughing made.

Oh, and then!

Willie chored a fence post frae oot the back eh Mr Bain’s
While I was shottie.

‘But it was Ian that made the bogie!’

And it was the best boggie the Fruit-and-Nut scheme had ever seen.
A pure dr-eeam.
He made the seat frae a scullery chair,
And drilled it tae a widden frame-
Remember? The fence post that Willie chored frae the back eh Mr Bain’s?

Aye

Then Willie – he bagged first go.

So he pulled the boggie up the hill.
Right oot the top of the street – and wow!
There I wis, racing him doun the hill like Seb Co
Aboot to cross the line –
And claim ma gold,

When Willies orange helmet slipped – or so am told
And the next thing I kent-
Am lying
On the kerb –
Oot cold
And wi a skint knee.

And Willie –
Well –
He wis flying oor ma heed and
As you ken I was lying there – half deid
But the blooming bogie –
Well
It didnae even ken tae stop,
It smashed
into the back
Of Mr Law’s
New – fancy – Ford –

‘But is no oor fault officer – Ian never put any breaks on it. ‘

The Impracticality of Home

This story was highly commended in the short story category for the Carers UK Creative Writing competition 2017. To purchase the anthology in which this story appears, click here. Carers UK provides carers like myself helpful information and support.

 

The Impracticality of Home

I sit on the sill of the bay window watching the midday sun wink in the rooftop puddles. A small red helium balloon bobs over the roof of the neighbouring hostel and the sound of a child crying echoes in the alleyway below. I turn around and look up the narrow cobbled road, dotted with bikes and benches, brown haired tourists in matching ponchos, and a road sweeper. The shh shhhhh shhhhhhh of the brushes of his machine hiccough as they suck the remains of somebody’s late night shenanigans. I hug my knees letting the warm breeze that sneaks through the crack in the window touch my face; while the smell of charred meat, chip shop grease and warm bins curls up my nose. The blue curtains billow.

We’d both picked those curtains, trailed for hours around all the charity shops just to find a pair that was long enough for the main window in our new home. Our first home together. Our, we-don’t-care-if -we’ve-only-been-going-out-for-six-months overpriced flat in the centre of a busy student town. I remember sitting on the threadbare sofa, watching her stand on the sill stretching right up to the curtain pole to clip the curtain on to each tiny little hook. ‘Be careful,’ I said and she screwed up her face and told me, ‘I’m the D.I.Y person, remember?’ and I shrugged my shoulders because, in fairness, I could barely hang a picture straight.

I hear a horn tooting and I push the window open wide. It isn’t the patient ambulance service, it’s just a taxi. I hear a thundering of footsteps descending the stairs in the hall. The front door vibrates as they pass the landing and head to the ground floor. I see four of the neighbours burst out the main door in a flurry of neon feather boas, grass skirts and permed wigs and I know tonight is going to be a noisy one.

It was the third flat we’d visited and the best value for money by a mile. I was intrigued by the hand carved double bed on stilts in the small room, while she fell in love with the old Persian rug that covered most of the solid wood floor. ‘It’s a good size,’ I told the estate agent as I sat on the sill and looked around. One of the walls, papered with a grey brick effect looked dated but quirky; the mismatched cushions scattered randomly on the sofa and chairs could easily have been ours and the gap in the wall where a T.V was meant to sit, would be perfect for the plant I’d bought you for our one month anniversary. ‘We’ll take it,’ she said, standing in the centre of the room with her arms stretched wide open. ‘Are you sure?’ I asked, ‘It’ll be noisy.’ And she laughed and ran to the window where some dude in a straw hat sat directly below us playing Wonderwall on his guitar. ‘What’s not to love about that.’ She said and I loved her a little bit more.

The letterbox snaps and a pile of junk mail flops onto the floor along with two white envelopes and a pink one. I can tell from here it’s get-well-soon cards. I wish they sold, ‘I know you’ll never be the same but if you ever need anything just ask’ cards, or, ‘Congratulations on learning to walk for the second time,’ cards. Get well soon is a little presumptuous but I suppose if that’s all there is then…. My phone vibrates in my pocket. I’M HERE! In square letters across the screen. I look out the window to see the top of the ambulance pull up outside the tall heavy iron gates outside the flats.

I remember when we moved in. ‘This place has better security than Buckingham Palace,’ she’d said, as she held the gate open for me to pass through with another box before humphing it up twenty-four steps. ‘It’s your turn next,’ I shouted and kicked over a half empty can of Special Brew that was sitting on the stair.

I run down the stairs as fast as my legs will carry me, past the wheelie bins, over-spilling with junk from the Chinese Takeaway next door, through the black iron gates and to the back of the ambulance where the driver has just opened the two back doors. There’s a smile on her face as big as mine and I reach out my hand as she steps onto the platform and the driver lowers her slowly to the ground. She takes a step forward and wobbles. I grip her hand a little tighter as her feet test the un-even road. It’s shaky at first but we clear the cobbles and edge down the strip of the gutter to the gates. I type in the code twice before I can turn the handle and push it open. She kisses me softly as she passes, and I can’t believe I haven’t kissed her here for over two months. ‘Are you ready?’ We stand at the foot of the stairs. ‘How many is it again? She frowns and I notice her face looks a little paler outside of the hospital bed. ‘Twenty-four.’ I say and take the first step. I hold out my hand.
“One…….

 

 

Looking For Nora

This short story was published by Fairlight books on 13th November 2017. Click here to be redirected to their site.

DSCF5209.JPG

 

She pulled a bunch of ribbons from her jacket pocket, selected a red one, then squeezed it in the palm of her hand.
“I wish,” she said, and closed her eyes, “I wish that today will be the day that I find you.”
She took the ribbon to the large elm tree and tied it onto a low hanging branch. It flapped lazily in the breeze. From her backpack, she pulled out a folded handkerchief and unwrapped it. It held a rusty nail with a battered head, but with a newly sharpened tip. Crouching down to half her height, she traced her finger over the neatly carved lines already on the tree trunk. Nineteen lines for nineteen years, and the first, still as deep as the day her father helped her carve it. She pressed the nail into the bark, and tapped it with a large stone that she’d found by the loch. She carved line number twenty.
It was still early morning and the sky was a brilliant blue. She sat cross-legged on her sleeping bag, drinking strong coffee from the lid of her flask and let her eyes trail lazily over the rugged outlines of the Trossachs. A lone osprey flew from the east and soared over the wide loch, its white belly and black-tipped wings, mirrored in the still water.
“Look at the giant seagull Kim, look, look!”
Kim held her breath as it dipped its wings, swooping downwards and breaking the water with its claws.
“Did it steal a fish?”
Blinking hard, she sighed.
“Where are you Nora?”
The osprey was already back in flight by the time she shook off the memory, rising to the sky, before disappearing into the forest of Scots pines on the opposite bank. All that remained was a ripple in the calm.
She took the longer route to avoid the main campsite; weathered hill walkers tended to stray away from the paths and the noise of people. The terrain at the south side of Loch Chon was reasonably accessible, although rock scatterings hidden amongst the greenery at the foot of the hill could be tricky underfoot. She dug her trekking poles into the grass and took long strides, breathing in the smell of mulchy earth and sweet oily bog myrtle. It was late spring and the hills were alive with wildflowers. Smatterings of dog violets grew amongst the long grass that swished in the breeze. She paused to watch a woodman’s friend bat its tiny orange wings as it landed on the spike of a blue bugle.
“Is it a moth Kim?”
“I think it’s a butterfly.”
The valley led down to an old stone bridge, where twenty-one years earlier, she had found a little red shoe among the reeds. The shoe was still warm, perhaps from the sun that shone on its shiny patent surface, or perhaps from the foot of her five-year-old sister Nora, who was nowhere to be seen. She climbed onto the bridge, took off her backpack, and leant over, watching the reflection of her orange cagoule flickering in the stream.
“Count to fifty then come and find me.”
“Fifty is too long Nora.”
She bent forward and put her face into her hands. “One, two, three…” She said out loud.
“Are you playing hide and seek?”
Kim stood up, startled. A little girl, no more than five years old, stood beside her. Her eyes were red and her cheeks glistened with tears. She crouched down to the little girl’s height.
“Nora?”
“No, I’m Phoebe. Who are you?”
“Oh God.” She leaned against the bridge wall for support. “Sorry Phoebe, you gave me a fright. I’m Kim, where’s your Mum and Dad?” She stood back up and looked around but there was no one else in sight.
Phoebe began to cry. She held the sleeve of Kim’s cagoule while her little body shook.
“I got lost,” she sobbed, “I lost my Mummy.”

“It’s okay Phoebe, don’t you worry. I can help you find her.”
“Will I be in big trouble?”
“No silly, you won’t be in trouble.” Kim took a tissue from her backpack and wiped Phoebe’s eyes. “Now blow your nose and we’ll find her together.” She held the tissue to the girl’s face and laughed when she blew a trumpet.
“Now, which way did you come?” She asked, pulling her backpack on.
Phoebe pointed her finger east and Kim figured she must have come from the campsite. It was a five-minute walk on flat land, and easy to find.
“Can I take your hand?” Phoebe asked. “I’m scared.”
“Sure.” She held it out and felt the tiny warm fingers grip hers.
They passed through a grove of elm trees, stepping over protruding roots and clumps of moss. The temperature dipped in the shade.
“How did you manage to get lost?”
“I was following the big seagull.” Phoebe said. “Did you see it?”
“Yeah I did. But that big bird was an osprey. They look a bit like seagulls but they’re bigger and prettier.”
“Offspray,” Phoebe giggled, “Off. Spray.”
“Osprey, aye.” Kim laughed.
They emerged from the grove and found the man-made gravel path that led to the campsite. Kim could see a group of walkers ascending a softer hill in the distance. The odd tent was dotted around the flat ground while others clung diagonally to the side of the hill. When she saw the loch glistening at the far end of the horizon, she knew they were close.
“Kim. Who were you playing hide and seek with?”
“Oh. I was just pretend playing. I used to play with my sister Nora, she was five.”
“I used to be five. I’m seven now,” she smiled showing a gap where her front tooth had fallen out, “How are you going to find her if you’re taking me to my Mummy?”
“I’ll find her,” Kim pressed her lips together, “One day.”
“But isn’t she too wee to be left alone?”
“She’s lost Phoebe.” Kim took a deep breath before continuing. “She’s been lost for a long, long time. I come here sometimes just to look.”
“My Grandad got lost. He was in a home. Mum said he went to heaven but I heard her telling my Auntie Kate on the phone that they lost him.”
“Oh.” Kim squeezed Phoebe’s hand.
“If people get lost then they can get found too, can’t they?”
“I guess.”
“I think they can.” She nodded her head. “My Grandad leaves me clues. Like one time when me and Mum were out walking Timmy, that’s my dog, and we found a card with a number eight and a heart on it…”
“Uh-huh.”
“Well, eight is the number of his old house, before he went to the home, and the heart is because he supported the Hearts.”
“That’s a brilliant clue. Maybe you could be a detective when you grow up.” Kim laughed.
“Aye, that’s what my Mum says.”
Phoebe’s little blonde bunches looked so much like Nora’s did on the day she disappeared.
“When I’m big, I could help you find your sister.” She put her hands on her hips and raised her eyebrows.
“I’d like that.”
“Good. Does Nora leave you clues like Grandad does?”
“I’m not sure. I think so,” she said, “maybe I’m just too grown up to see them now.”
“How can you be too grown up to see clues?”
“You’re right Phoebe. Maybe I just forgot how to find them. Thank you for reminding me though.”
“You’re welcome.”

****

“Oh my God. Phoebe. Where on earth have you been?”
Kim stood by the door of the park ranger’s cabin. She smiled warmly as Phoebe’s mother ran towards them and scooped her daughter up into her arms.
“I got lost Mummy. I’m sorry but I was following an off spray, it’s like a big seagull you know, and then it flew away over the big mountain and then I didn’t know how to come back. But I found Kim.” She said, pointing at Kim who nodded her head. Phoebe’s mother mouthed a thank you and pulled her daughter in for another hug.
“You shouldn’t run off on your own. I’ve been worried sick.”
“It’s okay Mum, I only got a wee bit lost.”
“Well thank goodness you found Kim.”
“I know. She was playing hide and seek with Nora when I found her, but Nora got lost. Like Grandad.”
“Oh.” She lowered Phoebe to the floor and rubbed her hair. “Is your daughter lost Kim, do you need some help?”
“Twenty-one years ago, I’m afraid, and she was my sister.”
“I’m Kim, I’m so sorry. That must have been awful for your family.”
“Yeah, it was. Mum passed away the following year and Dad never forgave himself for losing her.”
“Is your Dad with you?”
“Gone too. Four years ago.” Kim coughed and looked out of the window.
“Sorry Kim.”
“It’s okay, but thanks.” She felt her chest tighten. “I come back at the same time every year hoping to find something, you know…”
“Clues.” Phoebe interrupted.
“Yeah, clues.” Kim laughed.
“I don’t know how to thank you for finding this little rascal.” They both looked at Phoebe who stood with her tongue out. “I’m Sandra.”
Kim took Sandra’s outstretched hand and shook it. “Nice to meet you. She’s a good kid.”
“I’m so glad you found her, she tends to wander. I only nipped to the toilet, she must have run off.”
“Well, no harm done.” Kim smiled. “And it was Phoebe who found me, honestly. In fact, I think she might even have been sent as a clue.” She winked at Phoebe who clapped her hands in delight.
“Can I get you a coffee or something?” Sandra asked. “or a hot chocolate?”
“No thanks,” She said. “I need to get on, I’ve a bit of walking to do and I’m heading home tonight.”
“Please Kim.” Phoebe took her hand and pressed her face against it.
“Not just now,” She whispered, “I need to go looking for clues.”
“Oh aye,” she whispered back, “I hope you find some good ones.”
“Me too. Hey, maybe you could both come around to my tent after dinner. I’ll let you make a wish on my faerie tree.”
“You have a faerie tree?” Phoebe’s eyes opened wide. “Do faeries live in it?”
“Yes, they do. Now, do you have a ribbon?”
“Have I got a ribbon Mummy?”
“Erm, I don’t think so.” Sandra said.
“Don’t worry, you can have one of mine.” Kim smiled. “I’ll come by here at six.” She patted Phoebe on the head. “See you later detective.”

****

She climbed down the rocks blow the stone bridge. Gripping onto a dangling root, she lowered herself onto the pebbled bank and walked into the cold shadow of the bridge.
“Watch out for creepy crawlies.”
She ducked her head. The water echoed around her like whispers and she hunched her shoulders to her ears. She found the line she’d etched into a large rock the previous year and set down her backpack. Using the ends of her trekking poles, she flicked pebbles one by one into the water. After each plop, her eyes scanned the ground – searching. She got to her knees, cupping the stones in her hands, sifting through them with her thumbs, before throwing them into the stream.
“Where are you?”
She dug her fingers into sand and mud, scooping up wet clumps, and throwing them to the side.
“There must be something.” She wiped the sweat from her forehead with the sleeve of her jacket. Just then, she saw the surface of a rounded piece of glass partially hidden in the dug-out hole. She pushed her finger into the mud and edged it out slowly, discovering a glass marble, cold, and smooth with green and yellow swirls through the centre. She washed the dirt off in the stream then rolled it around in the palm of her hand. Was it Nora’s?
“Come on Kim, play with me.”
She squeezed her eyes shut, searching her mind. Nora tugged her sleeve, blue eyes staring hopefully. Her pink freckled cheeks dimpled as she smiled. A smile that stretched over decades in Kim’s memory. The red velvet dress with white trim was as clear as the photograph in her purse. Shiny red patent shoes.
“Count to fifty and don’t peek.”
“One, two…”
Did Nora play with marbles?
“Three, four…”
I can’t remember.
“Five, six, seven…”
“Damn it!” She threw the marble into the stream and it barely made a splash.

****

The sun had begun to dip behind the mountains by the time Kim had led Sandra and Phoebe to her pitch. They stood beside the slow burning wood fire and Kim looked over the loch. It lay flat and still, reflecting sky and mountains and creating the illusion of endlessness.
“It’s like the sky is upside down.” Phoebe pointed.
“I think it looks like the edge of forever,” Kim said, “like you could walk right inside the belly of the world.”
“Forever-land.” Phoebe said. “Like Peter Pan.”
“That’s Never-Never land.” Kim laughed.
“It’s pretty though, isn’t it?” Sandra said and put her arm around her daughter’s shoulder. Phoebe nodded.
“This is the best time for wishes.” Kim said, “It’s when the faeries come out to play. Come on.”
They walked up the stony bank. The oak tree stood alone on the grassy hill at the rear of Kim’s tent; its wide trunk topped by a full head of leafy branches.
“Where are the faeries?” Phoebe asked as she stepped into the shadow below the tree.
“You can’t see them, but listen.”
They huddled together, listening to the tree branches creak, and the leaves rustling gently.
“They whisper to one another,” Kim continued, “Can you hear them?”
“I think so.” Phoebe put her ear to the tree trunk. “What are they saying?”
“They’re waiting for your wish.” Sandra said.
“That’s right.” Kim smiled and took two pink ribbons from her pocket. She pulled down a long thin branch to Phoebe’s height, then held it while Sandra helped her daughter tie the first ribbon.
“Don’t let it go yet.” Kim said as she fastened her own ribbon to the branch. “Now make a wish.”
“You first.”
“Okay.” Kim took a deep breath. “I wish that one day I’ll find a great big clue that’ll help me find my Nora.”
“I wish,” Phoebe squeezed her eyes tight shut, “that my Grandad will look after her until you find her.”
Together they let go of their ribbons and watched as they flapped freely in the breeze.

Dusk

Today my poem Dusk, was published in Tell-Tale Magazine. Click on the link to see more from Tell-Tale.

DSCF5466

Dusk
Dusk sucks the sun intae the mucky earth
And the night sky isnae born yet.
Ower the loch a purple landscape,
Scribbled and scratchy
Like jaggy curtains
Shuts out the day.

I force my eyes tight shut
So the wolf can cross my path
And drink the water that I bathed in.

I want tae hold this wildness
In my mind’s eye,
And feel the breath o night
Frolic with my daydreams
I want to sleep, I want to sleep.

©Eilidh G Clark

 

South Street Arbroath

17903538_1751493388475903_1624686325677448521_n

Artist Laura Walker kindly allowed me to use this painting along side my poem. You can visit her site by clicking on the link if you want to see more of her work.

 

 

South Street Arbroath 

Every day is laundry day on South Street.

White cotton flat sheets, stone-washed jeans; yesterday’s pink and yellow striped knickers

Dip and duck like multi-coloured bunting.

 

Children climb up from the beach

Where the sand hems the grassy slope.  Plastic sandcastles filled with shells; razors

And limpets, purple mussels speckled with shingle, and a wee deid crab,

Protected inside a bleached Hula Hoop bag, Crumpled.

 

The children’s laughter rips through the flapping blankets as they zigzag,

dodging Mrs Campbell’s frilly knickers that joyride on the briny wind.

The postman waves.

He’s sinking useless junk mail through the rusty red letterboxes of

the fisherman’s cottages. Unashamed.

 

A peg pings and a denim leg  kicks the sky, snapping the wind as it buckles around a

red rope.

Heaven rests like burning oil on the ocean.

 

A wrinkled man with leather lugs sits outside number twenty-five,

His eyes a hazy mist of blue sea, and cataracts.

He picks up his thick wooden board, red with blood and guts,

A deid head of a deid haddock with deid

Eyes.  He wipes his knife clean on a Pizza Hut flyer.

 

©Eilidh G Clark

 

This poem was first published by Artist Moira Buchanan in her art exhibition ‘All Washed up’. You can follow Moira Buchanan on Facebook by clicking this link  or visit her website.

 

Procrastination published by The Ogilvie

Today my poem Procrastination was published by The Ogilvie – (Click on the link to see it live).

fb_img_1465651212397.jpg

I wrote this poem on a day when I was supposed to be writing an academic essay. Clearly my mind wasn’t on the job.

 

Procrastination

Cardboard daylight
Prods me through vertical blinds.
I am slumped on an un-reclining recliner with
warm-breath-blowback burning my cheeks,

my toes, curl like a fist on the carpet, as cold as the kitchen tiles.
I cannot move.
There is a pork and Apple loaf
Baking in the oven
Two hours too soon
And a laptop on standby.

I am waiting
I have been waiting for years
For that phone-call, that chance
But it will not come
Not in this bitter cold dark
Afternoon. Not in this room.

I need to put the light on
But I won’t,
The dogs will think they
Can go out to play and I can’t bare the dampness, the half night day,
That is turning all the Orange brick brown.

I am writing, or at least I am typing, anything except
What I ought to write. But I will wait a wee bit longer. Until I am
Kicked up the arse by the artificial light of night, when the start of time begins to run out.
It is going to be a late one.
Writing by light-bulb and shaded by the un-dusted cobwebs.

©Eilidh G Clark

Book Review – Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma by Kerry Hudson

adult blur books close up

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

‘Graffiti and scorch marks, echoes of small fires, decorated doorsteps. Golden Special Brew cans and crushed vodka bottles, bright as diamonds, collected in gutters. Front gardens were filled with mouldy paddling pools and, occasionally, a rust burnished shell of a car. I had never seen anything so beautiful, so many colours, before in grey Aberdeen.’


Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma

 

This is a novel with nothing held back. While the title is light hearted and the cover art bright and cheerful, both are deceiving. The cover shows a silhouette of a young girl holding a giant red balloon against the backdrop of a Scottish suburban town. It is important to address the significance of this image. Readers may recall a similar painting by Banksy, named Girl With Balloon which was originally painted on a wall in London. Beside the painting was engraved “There Is Always Hope”. While Banksy’s painting shows the girl releasing the balloon, possibly representing lost hope or lost innocence,  Hudson’s cover shows the girl being lifted by the balloon.  Considering this when addressing the text, it is clear that Hudson wished to demonstrate that one can only hold on to hope by not letting go. Critics have described this book as containing bittersweet humour and Hudson cleverly intrudes in the second chapter by saying that this is in fact a ‘humorous cautionary tale’.   As soon as you begin reading, expect to get dirt under your nails. The author launches right into the location of the novel using regional Scottish dialect and local Aberdonian vernacular.  The story begins with the birth of out protagonist, Janie Ryan. Born to Iris (formally Irene), a single, homeless mother who comes from a line of women described as ‘fishwives to the marrow’, Iris has recently returned from London after trying to change her destiny (not wanting to become her mother). After falling pregnant to a rich and married American man, the relationship breaks down. Iris is forced to return to poverty in the back streets of Aberdeen but is keen to ensure that things have changed,’ I didnae go all the way to fuckin’ London to come back an’ be the same old Irene!’ Unfortunately, Iris falls back into her old ways and for Janie; this has a direct effect on her life. The reader follows the protagonist from her first home to temporary care and then to a string of homes over the UK in some of its poorest areas. Janie watches, as her mother gets involved in some abusive relationships, including one with alcohol, and watches helplessly as her mother loses hope.  Towards the latter end of the novel, it is clear that Janie is falling into the same habits as her mother, however, a string of unfortunate event forces her to reassess her life. The end of the novel, like the cover art, is left to the reader’s interpretation. Can Janie break the cycle and make changes to her life, or is she destined to become her mother? This is not only a well-written novel but also a powerful commentary on life within the poverty trap.

Kerry Hudson, Tony Hogan Bought me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, 2012 published by Vintage Books

©Eilidh G Clark

 

Literary Criticism – Optimism v Pessimism in Voltaire’s Candide and Johnson’s Prince of Abissinia

gray concrete building near trees under white clouds

Photo by Mark Neal on Pexels.com

 

Optimism in the eighteenth century derived from the period of Enlightenment where progress in scientific, political, and religious thought created widespread hopefulness.  Optimists such as Leibniz believed that ‘from among an infinity of possible worlds God has chosen for existence the one that is the best of all possible worlds.’ [1]  With the prospect of liberty and a claim for happiness, ‘faith in reason […] permeated even Christian thought’. Whilst many people were pursuing happiness, others were competing with fears of a cyclical history and the concept of political and religious regression. As a result, an abundance of philosophical questions arose about the nature of the world involving morality, reason, will, and faith. Progressive optimism, which was the driving force of hope in the eighteenth century became contested, and therefore, paralleled with pessimism. The existence of evil versus the nature of God’s good intention in the creation of the world became the defining argument of the pessimist. In this paper, I will discuss the relationship between optimism and pessimism in Voltaire’s Candide , and Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, and argue that optimism and pessimism co-exist and are subjective depending on observation, experience, and perspective, therefore, philosophy has its limitations.

Candide is a satirical novel that takes the reader through the protagonist’s journey from innocence to experience. The novel’s title is ironic. Candide or optimism suggests a positive narrative yet Candide is subject to a high degree of hardship, which suggests that pessimism also exists. The main theme in the novel is storytelling which Voltaire uses to demonstrate that optimism or pessimism is subjective and can alter depending on an individual’s experience and knowledge of the world. Written in the form of a travel narrative, Voltaire links both theories through the experiences of Candide. Optimism in the character of Candide is constructed and Voltaire demonstrates this through the innocence of childhood. This is presented in chapter one through uncomplicated language, humour, and ignorance such as, ‘[The] Barron was one of the most powerful lords in Westphalia, for his castle had a gate and windows’. [2] This is a very childish notion of power that establishes the character’s innocence. The word innocently is used on numerous occasions, which strongly enforces that the protagonist is unlearned and inexperienced.  According to Locke, children’s ‘notions are few and narrow, borrowed only from those objects they have had most to do with, and which have made upon their senses the frequentest and strongest impressions.[3] Candide receives his education from his tutor and philosopher Pangloss who is ‘the oracle of the establishment, to whose lessons little Candide listen[s] with all the good faith of his age and nature’, (Voltaire, p.4). Voltaire is demonstrating how easy it is to inscribe ideas into a young mind. Due to Pangloss’ theory that the world is the best of all possible worlds (Voltaire, p.4) his young pupil accepts this as his own belief.

Candide is unwillingly ejected from his world after kissing Cunégonde. Voltaire increases the pace of the novel by writing episodic chapters where the character experiences a vast amount of misfortunes one after the other. In order to show a pessimistic theory of the world, the author uses a real account of war:

First, the cannons toppled about six thousand men on either side; then the muskets removed from the best of possible worlds between nine and ten thousand scoundrels who were infesting its surface. Next, the bayonet proved sufficient reason for the death of a few thousand more. The total may well have amounted to thirty thousand corpses (Voltaire, p.7-8).

At first glance, the above quotation is presented as Candide’s unbiased account of war. The language and detail prove this to be otherwise because, at the time of action, Candide is hidden out of sight. Even if he were to see most of the goings on, the approximations of the number of deaths and the details of military equipment would be impossible for an individual to observe. The author is, therefore, using free indirect discourse to combine the narrator’s voice with Candide’s. Voltaire’s knowledge of events allows him to satirise optimism, for example, ‘the muskets removed from the best of possible worlds between nine and ten thousand scoundrels who were infesting its surface’, (Voltaire, p.7). This sentence suggests that pessimism does exist in the world and ‘God ha[s] given reason to men, [which] should teach them not to […] imitate animals, particularly when nature has given them [no] arms to kill their fellow-creatures. [4] The author’s pessimistic views of war combined with Candide’s belief in optimism demonstrate that both theories co-exist in the text but are subjective depending on individual perspective and knowledge. The simile that ‘Candide trembled like a philosopher’, (Voltaire, p.8) reveals that Pangloss’ philosophy of optimism is unstable because Voltaire applies the simile to Candide, whose only experience of philosophy is the optimism of his tutor.

Voltaire draws the reader into his narrative by switching between past tense and historic present tense. The purpose of this is to attract attention to, particularly important moments in the story whilst demonstrating the ways in which different characters respond. An example of this is found when Candide and Pangloss reach Lisbon:

They feel the earth tremble beneath them; a boiling sea rises in the port and shatters the vessels lying at anchor. Great sheets of flame and ash cover the streets and public squares; houses collapse, roofs topple on to foundations, and foundations are levelled in turn; thirty thousand inhabitants without regard to age or sex are crushed beneath the ruins (Voltaire, p.14).

The above quotation refers to the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and Voltaire writes the account based on his own experience of the disaster.  In his poem The Lisbon Earthquake, Voltaire says that the ‘lamentations which inspire [his] pain (6) Prove that philosophy is false and vain (7) (Voltaire, p.100).  There are three separate reactions to the earthquake in Candide. For the sailor, the theory of optimism is applied. He ‘dashes into the ruins,[…] in his search for silver;[…] seizes it, gets drunk, and […] purchases the first willing girl he finds’, (Voltaire, p.14). Pangloss questions the sufficient reason for the earthquake whilst Candide assumes that it is the end of the world, therefore pessimistic (Voltaire, p.14). Pangloss’ reaction to the earthquake shows that his firm belief in optimism falters temporarily. This demonstrates that optimism and pessimism are subjective and variable.

Eldorado is Voltaire’s representation of utopia. Everyone in Eldorado is happy and equal. Although the country is sealed off from the rest of the world, its people consent to never leave. For this reason, it has ‘preserved [their] innocence and […] happiness’, (Voltaire, p.46). This is due to the historical knowledge derived from the previous generation who experienced political upheaval and war. Optimism in this instance is, therefore, created. Candide first recognises pessimism once he leaves Eldorado and he describes Europe as ‘illusion and calamity’, (Voltaire, p.70). The metaphor of spectacle and illusion runs throughout the novel to demonstrate that optimism and pessimism can be manufactured. For example, after the earthquake, the sages of Lisbon decide ‘to give the people a fine auto-de fe, (Voltaire, p.15) where ‘the spectacle of a few individuals being ceremonially roasted over a slow fire [is] the infallible secret recipe for preventing the earth from quaking’, (Voltaire, p.15). The purpose of the ceremony is to create optimism for the people and, as a result, creates pessimism for the victims. Voltaire therefore, demonstrates that optimism and pessimism are a state of mind and are dependent on circumstances, place, and reaction to events. This is clarified in the final chapter of the novel when Candide and his party finally end their journey. Armed with knowledge and having experienced both optimism and pessimism, Candide says ‘we must cultivate our garden’, (Voltaire, p.93). This is Voltaire’s final explanation that we must live in the now and make the most of what we have.

Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, is also a travel narrative, but unlike Candide, the characters journey is circular.  The two main themes in the novel are ‘the choice of life’ and ‘the pursuit of happiness’. Written with a pessimistic tone, Johnson’s protagonist seeks to find optimism through happiness. The narrator summarises the moral purpose of the novel in the opening paragraph:

Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow; attend to the history of Rasselas prince of Abissinia.[5]

In the above quotation, Johnson satirises optimism by explaining that those who believe in the fallacy of hope will be taught a lesson by the novel. Moreover, in relation to ‘hope’, the author juxtaposes words such as ‘fancy’ with ‘phantoms’ to present optimism as an illusion. The full quotation is written in the present tense in a singular long sentence, which contrasts the young and the old, the present and the future, expectation with accomplishment and shortages with supplies. These contrasts provide a clue as to the moral of the story which is that choice of life is to be found between these contrasting words which are to live in the now.  The word ‘whisper’ seems out of place in this sentence however, it comes from the Gospel when Jesus addresses his disciples “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” [6] According to Ham, ‘Jesus was making the point that we learn some things gradually. We may not understand something at first but with reflection […] we finally get it’ (Ham, 2014). The impression the reader gets from Johnson is that happiness can only be found in reflection, therefore should not be sought. Moreover, optimism and pessimism are subjective to a person’s perception of the present and co-exist as a state of mind.

In order to demonstrate the effects of constructed optimism Johnston describes the palace of Abissinia, which is closed off from the rest of the world. It is preserved by the ‘wisdom or policy of antiquity [and] destined for the residence of the Abissinian princes’, (Johnson, p.7). This reveals that the protagonist’s ancestors were pessimistic of the world and therefore, created optimism in Abissinia as a solution to bring up the princes in the best of all possible worlds. In this creation, ‘All the diversities of the world [are] brought together, the blessings of nature [are] collected, and its evils extracted and excluded’, (Johnson, p.8).  By creating optimism, the ancestors have proven that it is merely an illusion The author goes on to establish the flaws of manufacturing optimism by limiting Rasselas’s choice of life. Rasselas cannot perceive happiness in Abissinia; this is because he has not experienced pessimism. He believes that seeing the miseries of the world is ‘necessary to happiness’, (Johnson, p.13). The protagonist, therefore, seeks knowledge from the poet Imlac whose wisdom inspires him:

Knowledge is certainly one of the means of pleasure, as is confessed by natural desire, which every mind feels of increasing its ideas. Ignorance is mere privation, by which nothing can be produced: it is a vacuity in which the soul sits motionless and torpid for want of attraction; and without knowing why, […] if nothing counteracts the natural consequences of learning, we grow more happy as our minds take a wider range (Johnson, p.31).

In the above quotation, Johnson is suggesting that knowledge is an important factor in achieving pleasure and Rasselas feels dissatisfied because this is what he lacks. By oppressing him in the confines of optimism, the protagonist is unable to feel happiness as his mind is confined within the boundaries of Abissinia. A similar situation occurs in Paradise Lost. When Satan, disguised as a snake, tries to convince Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge he suggests that Eve is ‘Deterred […] from achieving what might lead To happier life, [which is] knowledge of good and evil.’ [7] The difference between the two characters is that Eve has free will whilst Rasselas in imprisoned in his own country. Imlac suggests that learning is ‘one’ of the ways to feel enjoyment, which suggests that there are other means. Rasselas understands this because he presumes that God has ‘balanced peculiar sufferings with peculiar enjoyments’, (Johnson, p.11). In this instance, the author demonstrates that both enjoyment and suffering are necessary to guarantee equilibrium and that the perception of optimism and pessimism are equally essential in order to accept life in the present.

Johnson is determined that happiness is an illusion because an individual can never know how another is feeling. Rasselas explores the choice of life on his journey where he seeks answers through his observation of man. His continued unhappiness confuses him because he observes happiness in others. Imlac intervenes by telling the protagonist that  ‘We are long before we are convinced that happiness is never to be found, and each believes it possessed by others, to keep alive the hope of obtaining it for himself’, (Johnson, p.42). In The Adventurer, Voltaire suggests that happiness is comparative and that we compare our misery to the happiness of others. ‘We can never obtain as much happiness as we might enjoy.’ [8] Unconvinced, the protagonist seeks direction from a hermit whose advice states that ‘To him, that lives well […] every form of life is good’ (Johnson, p.50). The author is clarifying that happiness is not something that can be found, but is subjective to how one feels about their present situation. Imlac confirms this by telling Rasselas ‘that while you are making the choice of life, you neglect to live’, (Johnson, p.66). The author is, therefore, suggesting that living in the present is the best of all possible worlds because by looking for happiness, you are living in a pessimistic state. It is for this reason that the travellers return to Abissinia after searching for happiness and the choice of life and with a realisation that in order to live they must choose to make the most of what they have. Johnson concludes his novel with no answers. He is confirming that optimism, as well as pessimism, is subjective and that you can choose to live in the best of all possible worlds or the worst. Either way, philosophy is a state of mind and we should live in the moment before we look back with regret.

 

Both novels are pessimistic and satirise the Leibniz theory of optimism. In Candide, the essay established that optimism is constructed through the innocence both in childhood and in Eldorado, where external forces are shut out in order to maintain innocence, therefore, unnatural. This was also demonstrated by showing that optimism and pessimism can be manipulated by illusion, and so unnatural. The essay demonstrated that optimism and pessimism are subjective and co-exist depending on an individual’s perception of experience. For Candide, this was through his unfortunate experiences and how he felt in comparison to others. Similarly, the essay clarified that in The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia optimism and pessimism are subjective. Happiness is the key to optimism in the novel and the essay demonstrated that pessimism has to exist in order to create hope. Overall, the essay argued that optimism and pessimism are a state of mind and are not fixed. Both theories fluctuate depending on what a person experiences and how they feel and are therefore subjective.

©Eilidh G Clark

Bibliography

Delon Michael, ed., Encyclopaedia of the Enlightenment (Oxon: Routledge, 2013)

Ham Rev John, ‘Hearing the Whisper of God Matthew 10:27’, The Footscray Baptist Church (2014)     HTTP://footscraybaptist.org.au/?page_id=91≥

Johnson Samuel, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)

Johnson Samuel, Francis Pearson Walesby, and Arthur Murphy, The Works of Samuel Johnson: The adventurer and idler (Oxford: Talboys and Wheeler, 1825)

Locke John, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London: T. Tegg and Son, 1836)

Milton John, Paradise Lost and Regained (London: Harper Press, 2013)

Rutherford Donald, Lebniz and the Rational Order of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)

Voltaire, Candide, or Optimism (London: Penguin Classics, 2005)

Wright Henry Clarke, Defensive War Proved to be a Denial of Christianity and of the Government of God: With Illustrative Facts and Anecdotes (London: C. Gilpin, 1846)


[1] Donald Rutherford, Lebniz and the Rational Order of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p.177.

[2] Voltaire, Candide, or Optimism (London: Penguin Classics, 2005), p.3.

[3] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London: T. Tegg and Son, 1836), p.20.

[4] Henry Clarke Wright, Defensive War Proved to be a Denial of Christianity and of the Government of God: With Illustrative Facts and Anecdotes (London: C. Gilpin, 1846) p.128.

[5] Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p.7.

 

[6] Rev Ron Ham, ‘Hearing the Whisper of God Matthew 10:27’, The Footscray Baptist Church (2014)      http://footscraybaptist.org.au/?page_id=91≥ [accessed 03 December 2014] (para, 4 of 17)

[7] John Milton, Paradise Lost and Regained (London: Harper Press, 2013), p.220.

[8] Samuel JohnsonFrancis Pearson Walesby, and Arthur Murphy, The Works of Samuel Johnson: The adventurer and idler (Oxford: Talboys and Wheeler, 1825) p.105.

Book Review – A Portable Shelter by Kirsty Logan

adult blur books close up

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

‘…there’s no other way to give you the truth except to hide it in a story and let you find your own way inside.’

Kirsty Logan’s first collection of short stories, Rental Heart and Other Fairytales, The:, published by Salt in 2014, won the Polari First Book Prize in 2015.A Portable Shelter is her second collection. Set in a small cottage in the rural north coast of Scotland, Ruth and Liska are expecting their first child. The couple believe that their unborn baby will have a better chance of survival away from the harshness of suburban life. They make a pact with one another, that they will only ever tell their child the truth. Yet while Liska is asleep or Ruth is at work, each whispers secret stories to their unborn child. Delving into fantastical tales about people from their past and re-telling stories that span from generation to generation, the couple unfold the horrors of the real world. Whilst these tales, laced in myth and legend, and fattened with the magic of the imagination, demonstrate the art of oral storytelling, Logan reaches further to show the reader why storytelling is important.

While this book is primarily a collection of short stories, its novel like structure frames each story with a preceding monologue from either Ruth or Liska. The monologues offer delightful morsels of description that bring the harshness of Mother Nature into the safety of the couple’s bedroom, “right now our home is speaking to you. The walls creak their approval in the wind. The rain applauds on the roof. The lighthouse beam swoops, swoops, swoops. The tide breathes loud and slow like a giant. If you listen carefully, perhaps you can even hear the moon hum.”  The pace of these sentences, combined with the delicacy of language demonstrates Logan’s skill at describing the sublime spirit of the natural world, which brings the narrative to life.

Most impressive though, is Logan’s poetic language and carefully crafted sentences which create the most beautiful imagery. In ‘Flinch,’ for example – James is a fisherman struggling with his identity, yet his affiliation with the land is locked into his first-person point of view where the reader gets to closely experience what he sees, “The sky is pinkish-grey like the insides of shells. Speckled bonxies wheel overhead. Seals loll on the rocks, fat as kings. The rising mist is cool and milky.” Any of these lines could easily be arranged into a poem and with sentences that are squeezed tight; they create a wonderful poetic rhythm. Logan uses this technique throughout her novel, demonstrating the precision and craft in her work. There are definite similarities in her writing style to fellow Scottish novelist and poet Jenni Fagan. Both authors use rich language, which is well crafted and smattered with vernacular. Furthermore, combining this with the reoccurring theme of identity, the oral storytelling tradition, landscape, folklore, and myth, it is clear to see why these authors contribute to the growing canon in Scottish literature.  

This is a book that I will read over and over again because I know that in each  reading, I will find something new. A Portable Shelter, I feel, deserves a place on my ‘keep’ book shelf.

A Portable Shelter, Kirsty Logan, London: Vintage, 2015

©Eilidh G Clark

 

   Click image to buy

Book Review – Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan

adult blur books close up

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

‘What are you meant to do when a humongous cloud is coming toward you on a sheer mountain drop? He lifts his phone and there are no bars, he can’t even google it. Two eagles spiral out of the cloud, calling to each other, and one has something small gripped in it’s claws. They coast on the wind – each wingspan must be about three feet – and they appear almost still.’

The Sunlight Pilgrims  by Jenni Fagan, was published by Windmill Books in 2015 and for me, was a much-anticipated novel. After reading her debut novel, The Panopticon, my expectations were high and I was not disappointed. This is a pre-apocalyptic novel set in a fictional Scottish town of Clachan Fells in the not too distant future of 2020. The novel explores the lives of a community of eccentric individuals living in close the proximity of a caravan park. As the temperatures plunge into extreme minuses, the residents are faced with a bleak and uncertain future, not only of their own survival, but also the survival of the human race.

The most interesting thing about this novel is that on the surface, nothing really happens, yet it would be wise to look deeper. Amongst the daily challenges of individual lives, there lurks a thought provoking tale of identity, community, and environment.

The novel is written from the perspective of two of its main characters Stella – a transgender teenager and Dylan a Londoner who recently moves to Clachan Fells. The most interesting thing about these two characters is the perspectives that each individual has about place.  For Stella, her world is a difficult place full of prejudice and rejection, even from her own father. Whilst her own personal identity is unquestionable, the community rejects her choices. This point of view provokes the reader to question the nature of identity, a topic often argued when discussing Scotland. From Stella’s point of view, her own identity is progressive, changing, developing while the society around her static. Alistair’s point of view however, allows the reader a modern and open approach. Described in the prologue as the Incomer (notice the capitalization) directs the reader towards Margaret Elphinstone’s novel The Incomer or Clachanpluck (Twentieth Century Scottish Womens Fiction), published in 1987. Elphinstone’s novel is a post-apocalyptic tale and, like Fagan’s, novel examines the question of identity. Thomas Christie suggests in Notional Identities: Ideology, Genre and National Identity in Popular Scottish Fiction Since the Seventies, that Elphinstone is ‘depicting the country’s ability to adapt to extreme change­ ̶ carving a form of localism from the bones of globalisation ̶ she recognises its progressive aptitude to embrace forces of social transformation while retaining recognisable core cultural imperatives.’ It is no coincidence that Fagan has subtly steered the reader to this novel; identity is clearly a topic that the author is keen to explore. Dylan is a progressive character in Fagan’s novel. Discovering Stella identity very early in the novel, the character never questions her choices or that of Mother who has two partners. Likewise, this progressive thinking expands to the other residents of the caravan park, which houses a prostitute, an alien worshipper, and a disabled man with a crooked back who worships the sky. Not only does Dylan accept people for who they are; his deep connection to the environment makes him instinctive as opposed to the more rational thinkers of the world.

Unlike many modern writers, Fagan raises more questions about society and identity than she answers. This is an interesting technique as it leaves the reader to question the novel as opposed to question to authors own political and societal views. That said there is no doubt that this is a Scottish novel. The story is steeped in Scottish mythical symbolism such as the blackbird that lands on a fence post with his eyes reflecting a vast mountain range, to the eagles and stag’s on the mountains. In addition, the characters take on mythical persona’s including a giant, a girl with second sight, and a moon polisher. With oral tales of Sunlight Pilgrims highlighting the Scottish oral storytelling tradition, and a poetic sentence structure done in true Fagan style this novel feels truly Scottish.

I would highly recommend this postmodern novel, which urges the reader to look beyond society and address the problems of ego and the rational mind in order to create a progressive unified world where outsiders are welcomed as incomers – a prevalent issue in today’s society.

I originally published this post in The Scots independent newspaper.

©Eilidh G Clark

       

Matching Gold Bands

band blur close up engagement

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Inside the church

my heart went cold

I’m no longer the one

you want to hold.

You said ‘I do’,

the words still linger

like the pain in my chest

as the ring fit your finger

and genuine joy

spread over your face

on mine was just sadness

at what had took place.

Sealed with a kiss

the couple held hands

full of hopes for the future

and matching gold bands.

As I turned to leave

I caught your stare

with a flicker of memory

I knew you still cared

but the church bells rang

and I turned to go

would you always love me?

I’ll never know.

 

©Eilidh G Clark

 

Every Road (University of Stirling)

IMG_6749

Wherever I go

Wherever I walk,

every road that I wander

will lead me back to you.

 

For my footsteps are printed

in the grass by the hill,

and the loch’s stole an inch

of my tears,

 

And my smile is still etched

in the curve of the bridge,

and my heart in the grey stony

brick.

 

See my words still whistle

in the trees and the reed

and my fingerprints curl

in each book,

 

And my time never ended

with a tap on the head,

with a robe a scroll or a nod and a look.

 

Wherever I go

and wherever I walk,

every road that I wander

will lead me back to you.

©Eilidh G Clark

 

 

Miss Brown – Class of 2011

people coffee meeting team

Photo by Startup Stock Photos on Pexels.com

“Books open, pens on paper.”

Her voice is fanciful –

Worldly words of wisdom.

 

Whimsical.

Take a breath Miss Brown.

 

Over your shoulder, birds trilling

in your ear. Knowledge?

“You understand, You hear?”

 

“Wings have spanned, grown and flew”.

Miss Brown is telling you.

Over your shoulder in her parchment suit.

 

Scattered somehow, this puzzle

this test, this class.

Yet sewn together so neatly, so tight,

so fast, that brains leak words inspired.

 

Alert, not tired Miss Brown.

 

Spoken proper. Knitted

like a scarf, like the missing words

from a mother passed.

Thank you Miss Brown, Thanks for that.

 

“That’s all for today.”

An end in sight. Taught by one with

gust and might,

taught by Miss Brown in her parchment suit.

 

©Eilidh G Clark

 

This poem is dedicated to one of the most amazing and inspirational people I have had the pleasure of meeting. Madeleine Brown, Stevenson College Edinburgh. Access to Humanities course – English Literature and Communications 2011.

I Can See the Wind

I can see the wind.

You can see the airborne leaves, scooped

up from the ground,

You can see the waving branches

on tired trees

 

but I see the wind.

 

Not the inside out umbrellas

or the skirts around red faced ladies,

or even the cigarette packet

zipping through the air.

 

I can see it.

 

It’s not invisible!

Its long and its night coloured

and shaped like a snake and

it slithers and swishes through my hair

playing invisible.

 

I can see the wind.

 

I see it laughing

when it reaches in our chest

and sucks our breath

then whips our words into a whisper.

 

I’m not fooled

by its malice

when it asks the rain

to join in.

 

I can see the wind

and it’s ugly.

©Eilidh G Clark

Vitamin Glee

blue bright citrus citrus fruit

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

I am filled with vitamin D, with a pink
lemonade kiss and a fancy free
Candy floss smile.

It is a marvellous and menacing mischief
that had now pumped up my heart,
and a vitamin glee that I have swallowed.

Rays of sunbeams are hiding in my sweater
and my unshaven legs – prickling
with joy, how glorious to be shown the light.

I am shimmering and dancing in my pants,
and there is a party in my bed socks –
And they rock, because bed socks do that.

And if my eyes were as blue as the sky
-and they are as blue as the sky,
they would be lost, in disguise and forever.

“What is this poem you ask me muse?”
“What is its purpose?”
“The purpose my beautiful fairy-tale wife,

Is that summer came for a day,
Like sand in my toes and a three wheeler bike
It snapped its elastic on my bum cheek and cheered.”

©Eilidh G Clark

Happy Vision

foggy lake

Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh on Pexels.com

I looked in to the distance, not so far away,
the sparkling lake was dancing
to celebrate a perfect day.
Spring burst through the mother earth
and coloured it with sun
painted it with brightness
and completed it with fun.
I looked upon the picture
and felt my soul awake,
then a temperamental notion
was to jump into the lake.
instead I breathed in firmly
and I fell into the day
and let this happy vision
take me out to play.
I walked into the open air
the suns arms hugged me tight
and I held that shiny feeling
til it disappeared at night.

©Eilidh G Clark

Deadline

 

Time is running like the River Forth

and it is flowing down my spine.

Big Ben is printed on the back of my eyelids

And my heart is beating

Tick, tick, tick, tock.

 

Time is painted in the Stirling sky

and is burning holes

into the big fat orange moon, beating on me,

Beating like my pulse

Tick, tick, tick, tock

 

Time is flapping in the wind

And punching kisses on my chest.

White breath coughs from behind my teeth,

Chattering like supermarket baskets.

Tick, tick, tick, clatter.

 

Time is waiting on the bus,

Its holding a student pass outright

and the driver is checking his watch, shaking his head

Like a pendulum

Tick, tick, tick, bong

Time is passing by the window,

In the old ladies rain mate,

and it’s trapped in the spokes of an inside out brolly

and it’s pouring

Drip, tick, tock, drip

 

Time has landing on my face

From a charcoal dusk and

Airborne tear shapes that slap my skin

and roll

Tick, tick, drip, drip onto my essay.

 

Published in Brig Newspaper – University of Stirling

©Eilidh G Clark

If I Can’t Find You, I’ll Try To Find Myself

Everything is hushed, even the waves hemming the sand seems to hold their breath. Dawn is breaking and teasing the horizon. The world seems warmer. Tiny orange  crabs scurry sideways into jagged rocks and now I am alone. I feel naked. Alive. All that I hold are my most intimate thoughts and a new respect for life.

Visiting the Maldives had been a distant dream of mine, since – well since forever. I had lost my mother seven months earlier. Her sudden departure from my life was not only tragic but deeply confusing. Life as I knew it had changed. I found myself searching for answers instead of comfort and could not see beyond the noise. Seven months had passed and I found myself frustrated. I spent too much time sitting on my doorstep, looking to the sky and searching. I found nothing. Waiting for nothing is the most desperate way to pass the time. You feel the outside expanding rapidly from your doorstep while you slowly shrink inside your own head. After receiving a small windfall, it didn’t take me long to find my escape. “If I can’t find you, I’ll try to find myself.”

I watch the sun climb. Shocking red and orange slices flash upon the placid sea. Blood rushes around my body; my head feels light and my skin tingles. I want to grab this vision and stamp it urgently in my memory; nothing had been or ever could be this beautiful.

Sunrise is followed by nature. The salt water and wet sand creep up and swallow my legs. Schools of fish swim daringly close to me examining by pale white limbs. I enjoy teasing them with my toes.  A stingray skims the surface of the shore, round , large and flat like a piece of old leather being carried by the waves. I stand up and follow it until it disappears into deeper water. “Time is irrelevant. Time is unconnected to the world outside. The world outside is now extinct”.

I am walking. My island has opened up to people. Swimwear –  bright and cheerful which somehow looks dishonest here. Every soul I see equally treasures the silence. I see the emotion on every face that turns toward me. Passion has touched their soul. Passion has touched my soul.

I find a spot under a palm tree. It is a light relief from the burning sun as the fan like branches shade my skin. A tiny lizard scurries up the rough bark and hides from me. I have stolen its place. I close my eyes and breathe in a smell of warm salty sea and dry foliage. It is the pure and clean smell of the natural world, stripped back to its rawness, undeveloped and unpolluted.  Unspoiled.  All of my senses are kick-started. I am alive.

Hours pass, or perhaps it is just seconds but the next thing happens alarmingly quick. The brilliant blue horizon turns charcoal grey. In the blink of an eye the neighbouring island vanishes. The atmosphere feels instantly charged. Excitement and fear presses heavily on my skin and I watch in wonder as the sea trembles and spits out her waves as she chokes in the dense air. Colossal globes of water pelt from the heavens onto the world below. All at once I am alone again. Noise booms in my ears from the waves and rain and the intense screeching from the unhappy bird high above my head in my palm tree. I am motionless. I watch the storm gather itself, teasing my island with its wildness and ferocity, and I long for it. My heart pounds in my chest, my ears scream as I suck in the humid air and hold it as my body wretches. My eyes explode with tears cascading from deep inside my broken heart. I clench my fists and my eyes stare ahead, finally seeing myself through my blurred vision. I sob for my mother, I weep for the loneliness I feel without her and for my uncertain future.

Almost as quickly as it begins, the rain stops. The world stops. Only for a moment.Like I am caught between when time began and when time ended. I am nothing but am everything. The sea throws its last wave onto the wet sand then lies still,  tranquil. Silent.  Before my eyes is a florescent sea. A bright shocking bath of glory against a cruel bleak sky.

My eyes dry. The grey moves along the horizon until all that remains is a flawless sky that never ends. The sun lies down  on the clear and rested water and time resumes.For the first time in a long time I understand. My close encounter with a tropical storm has awakened me. Like the storm, my grief is fierce but beautiful and will eventually pass. I am alive. I can be whole.

 

©Eilidh G Clark

 

Tip Toe

“Good Evening”

burst into the empty room and sinks

into  wood-chipped walls.

I am thrilled

There isn’t a cushion of place,

Or a dirty plate,

or a  dish cloth dotted with swollen toast crumbs, no.

There is just me, alone in clean silence.

 

I tiptoe on my tea stained carpet and hold my breath

in case the robin in the back garden stops singing.

Or the train on the railway track 400 yards away slows.

 

In my little cupboard sized kitchen

the kettle rocks  on its silver disc,

and the fridge performs its hourly shudder.

And the walls sweat.

 

I put last nights dinner in the ding – chicken supreme and second day roast potatoes,

better reheated, yes, better.

I scroll through Facebook,

watch people talking to one another

without opening their mouths.

 

I turn off my phone – to feel.

I feel everything.

Maybe I should do something?

 

Maybe I should clean my plate,

eat a jammy Wagon Wheel just because –

Maybe feel a little guilty so practice Yoga on the Wii?

Maybe just sit and watch the robin in the tree.

©Eilidh G Clark

The Lesson

Our heaving lungs suck the air as we climb.

Higher, higher.

Aching legs and numb feet scramble over boulders and broken branches.

Rain, wind, and a glimmer of sun. A distant mist descending

from the sullen sky onto the earth, erasing a castle, a monument

a city.

Leaves shake violently in the cutting wind. Noise.

Squelching mud, snapping twigs,

unnatural sound, we create it.

On the cliff top, the landscape is our canvas.

Acorns and chestnuts, branches and stones, litter the floor

like a countryside collage  hung on a  classroom wall. Winters decay.

Carcasses of cream coloured leaves, consumed by insects, lie randomly

forming delicate lace arrangements.

Brown mud, brown leaves, brown bark, paint the backdrop

of a multi coloured woodland.

Green moss on a broken wall,

orange, yellow and grey foliage A tiny shoot, pushes through the earth.

Layers of  life on death, death on life. The liberty of nature.

Nature is shrinking, the colours rinsed out by

buildings, roads, litter, wire fences

hemming in the farmers cows

hemming in history.

Humanity’s smell is pungent,

food and  people

people and food.

Through the wind, a distant drilling is heard.

©Eilidh G Clark

The Girl I Would Become

This is my family, or part of it. That’s me on the left in my pink and white gingham dress, smiling because I don’t care that the elastic around the sleeve irritates my arms and the neckline strangles me. My socks are brilliant white, the proper wool ones that you steep in a sink of boiling water for hours until a thick film of soap powder floats in clumps on the surface. John has matching socks. He’s my little brother, he is three years old in this picture making me six. John doesn’t look as happy as I do, perhaps because Mum cut the sleeves of his favourite red jumper and made it into a t-shirt; he cried for hours afterwards. John and I are both wearing shiny patent leather shoes, good ones from Clarks. We often went there to get our feet measured. They put your foot into a strange wooden contraption and then the shop person slid a bar down the front of it until it touched your toes, it always tickled.  Right in the middle of us is my Mum, she looks happy. Mum must be thirty-one years old in this picture; I don’t remember her being this young though. Look at how tanned we are. You can almost see the white line at the top of John’s arm were the sun couldn’t quite reach. The little dog to the left of me is Prince or at least I think so, it might be Ben, my Auntie Annie’s dog. We had a dog called Prince but Dad gave him  to the local police man. I’m  not even sure why he gave him away, I think I was sad about it but I don’t remember.

The sky looks grey above our heads but this is an old picture and the summer had been wonderful. I was on my first long holiday from school and Mum took us to King George V Park. We’d been visiting Granny who lived behind the park. We’d have come in from the back gates. I know this because we are far away from the church tower; you can see it above Mum’s head looking like a giant green pencil. It’s the parish church, built in 1845 and the cornerstone of Bonnyrigg; this is where I went to Sunday school. The big old chimney at the far left belonged to a coal mine, it’s gone now. I can still remember the smell of the smoke. They stacked the coal up in huge black pyramids in the yard.

My big sister Marion is missing from this picture, Marion would have been ten. Going by low the angle that the picture is taken from, my sister may have been the photographer.

We all look happy. Except John that is. John is biting his nails. Maybe because Mum is about to feed his chocolate bar to the dog. Maybe because Dad isn’t there. This is likely why Mum isn’t wearing her wedding ring and looks full of life. For me?  I’m smiling because I have two adhesive tattoos on my arm, a tiny glimpse of the person I was to become.

©Eilidh G Clark

Bringing Life to the Poem

As a poet, I feel I have to invest parts of my own identity into my work in order to build a relationship with the poem – I need to feel it tug on my sleeve.  This means that prior to writing about a particular subject I have to take an emotional journey. This might mean simply touching parts of my mind that are easy to reach, however, it often means scouring through dark and lonely emotions that I have tucked away. I find this process is an essential part of my preparation. The emotional link, for me, is the most honest way to bring the subject to life.

The uniqueness of any poem comes from the link between the poet and the poem. The truth is the soul of the poem. The truth is etched into the poems conventions. Without an emotional link, language is flat, motionless, and stale. If I were to write about a tree, any tree, the tree is lifeless unless I can create an emotional link. A link could arise if it was planted as a remembrance for someone I love, or if the tree provided shelter during my first kiss. If a leaf falls from the tree and brushes my face, it may spark a memory of a loving touch. The tree might have a knot that resembles the face of an old school teacher or smell like the time I smoked my first cigarette in the woods. The swish-swish of the branches might bring to mind a road sweeper cleaning up litter, and my anger at people’s disregard for the environment. Without an emotional connection, the tree is just an object, an image, a flat word on a page. Poetry, ‘opens a corridor between the head and heart,’ (Andrew Motion, 2012) a statement I fully agree with.

In my own work, I use truth and personal experience in addition to the poetic conventions as an art form. In discussing the making of poetry, Jamie said that ‘just as much as sound and rhythm, what makes a poem is its relationship with truth’. (Kathleen Jamie, 2012).  I believe that truth allows the poet to work more closely with form, imagery and most certainly tone.

I am greatly influenced by poets such as Carol Ann Duffy, Chris Powici, Raymond Carver and Kathleen Jamie an. Duffy’s relationship with truth is evident in ‘Stealing’:

Part of the thrill was knowing

That children would cry in the morning. Life’s tough.  (Carol Ann Duffy).

 

The blunt words and lack of emotion from the speaker actually give the poem an emotional feel. The tone is sombre, almost desperate.

Truth for me is found in reality, my own reality, and in experience, emotions, and a connection with the natural world. Finding the truth in the everyday, and exploring language, form the basis of my work. Therefore, the need that I have to invest parts of my own identity in poetry means building a relationship with the poem – I need to feel it tug on my sleeve.

 

©Eilidh G Clark

Bibliography

Duffy, Carol Ann, ‘Stealing’, in Emergency Kit: Poems for Strange Times, ed. by Jo Shapcott and Mathew Sweeny (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 2004)

 

Jamie, Kathleen, ‘Holding Fast – Truth and Change in Poetry’, in Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry ed. by W.N. Herbert and Mathew Hollis (Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books Ltd, 2012)

 

Motion, Andrew, ‘Yes and No’, in Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry, ed. by W.N. Herbert and Mathew Hollis (Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books Ltd, 2012)

It’s Always Night Here

Everything is dark. I wonder if the orange heat has burned my eyes out. Some of my whiskers have fallen off because I keep banging against the dark. The night has grown walls all around me. I am normally free when the sun goes to sleep. It is the time when we own the world, when we can stretch our legs and run and play with hardly any fear.  You see, before the orange heat, we could see quite fine when the day turned black. I need a diddle but I keep banging into darkness and there is no room.  I want my Mummy.

          I had thought we were together, all seven of us, and Mummy. I guess I was wrong. Everything had felt confusing, with all the orange heat mixed up with the night blackness, which turned into poisoned air, and made  seeing and breathing ever so hard.

My tail is all cramped and curled up and it stings from top to bottom. I cannot sweep it out for relief and I have to sit on it which makes it feel burny and sore . The dark is like shut-eye and I feel confused. My fur is all itchy and sticky. I want to ask Mummy what to do. I am afraid. Wait. There is a little stripe of light in a part where the dark isn’t mixed up. I press my nose really close to it but the tip of my nose nips so I shuffle onto my side and stretch my paw out and scrape. Everything smells wrong. There is a scratchy smell and it bites my throat. I push one claw into the light stripe and it gets stuck. I think maybe the world has shrunk.

I think my foot is broken. It won’t move and it feels like it is facing the wrong way. There is a sharp stretchy feeling wrapped all around it. When I try to press it on the floor I feel my head go all wishy-washy and I nearly get sick. You see, I think it broke because I was looking at the light stripe and I nearly pushed my paw right into it but then everything started to move. My body flew  upwards but the night has grown a roof and I was crashed back down hard onto the floor and it kept happening over and over. I tried to get my paw out of the light stripe but it stayed stuck and I tried to shout out but I choked. I think my head is still moving up and down. I’m really too hot and I need something to drink. I think I diddled on the floor, it smells really horrible and it’s in my fur.

Everything is noisy. I can hear my heart beating really loud like it’s outside of me. As well, there is a loud squealing sound that I think is in my brain but its outside of my brain too, squeezing me tighter and tighter, and I have to breathe proper fast to stop it crushing me. I don’t understand where I am. Is this the world? I’m scared and I can’t run because there is no forward or backward, just a solid end in the darkness. I think my breath is the only air around me and I have to keep sucking it back in just in case it goes away and I can’t breathe anymore.

I wish Mummy was here, or my brothers. Callum is the oldest, he is three and even though he bites my tail sometimes he is still big and strong and could easily push hard into the light stripe. I think the light stripe is where the world used to be and I am stuck outside of it. I know I’m trapped or stuck or something. Billy is the same age as me; he can chew his way through everything. He once chewed a whole white shiny bag that flew into our nest and got stuck. Only instead of spitting out the shiny stuff he ate it and was proper sick then pooped out white curly snakes; it was rotten. I bet he could chew a hole through this outside world and let me back in to the proper one. Philip, Lawrence, Salvador and Russell are all my age and we cuddle lots. We had only just got our brown fur when the high sun came last week. It’s nice to nuzzle your nose into your brothers soft warm belly. Mummy has the best fur though. It’s long and white and smells like grass and corn and sunshine, even in the night. It’s always night here but it’s not freedom. This night blinds me, it is a prison with walls and a roof and no day, except the light stripe. Perhaps the sun has been folded up and the dark has squeezed it so tight it can only peep through the edges of night.

I don’t know how I got here. We were playing just outside the nest. Mummy was having a snooze, and the daytime was nearly packed-up. The field was all soft and swaying. The corn was making lovely long grey shadows on the ground that were shaking and shivering, and we were trying to catch them. The field was swishing and whistling and Mummy was snoring in the nest. Then all at once we stopped. There was a new sound. It was like a hissing and crackling and we could hear screaming and laughing from the people folk that pass by outside of our field.

“Stay away from the people folks,” Mummy always warned us with squinted eyes which meant ‘no joking’.

“They can never catch us Mummy, we are too fast,” Callum said with some reassurance.

“Keep away,” she just kept saying, “Them people folks don’t like us mice.”

So we were standing listening to the crackle and hissing and snapping when the air started to get terribly hot. Through the grass and corn, the air looked thicker as if it was not clear and see-through anymore and it made my eyes water. We ran to tell Mummy, her nose was already twitchy because the air smelled thick. She woke up just as we were about to shake her and her eyes were the biggest fear balls I ever saw.

“Fire!” she shouted. “Run.”

None of us knew what to do except trust in those big round fear eyes and follow her. I looked behind me and saw the orange heat. I think that’s what fire is. It was big and fast and chasing us. It swayed and stretched higher than the corn and spat little pieces of orange heat up into the sky, then angrily grabbed them back down again. It whipped and waved and grabbed the corn and grass into its belly which just made it bigger and angrier.

We were fast but the orange heat was faster. I ran and ran. I couldn’t see my family anymore because we were running in black air. It wasn’t just the dark, the dark was our friend, it was the night, the night had come down too quick and it got mixed up with the orange heat. It made my breathing hurt. It’s hard to run with your tail off the floor but the night had attached to my tail and the orange heat was nipping it. I ran faster and faster until I was up on a hill outside of the field. I felt like my eyes were going to pop right out of my face. I stopped to look at where our little nest was but everything was orange. I was about to carry on running when I started to fly. It was like my tail was pulling my up to the sky. I wriggled and shook my body and closed my eyes tight to stop my brains falling out of my ears. Then I felt floor. The orange heat was gone and the world had gotten so small that I couldn’t move.

I think I am outside of the world. I think I flew into a pocket of the mixed up night by accident and I got stuck. If I go to sleep, maybe when the day comes the light stripe will grow and melt the night away and I can find my family. I miss my family. I diddled again and my paws are dipped in it. I feel really hot but I can’t stop shivering. I will try to sleep, if only I could stop shaking.

It’s still dark but I cannot see like I normally can. The light stripe is fading away and I think perhaps the weird darkness has stolen me and I am sinking deeper and deeper into it. The squealing isn’t so loud anymore but my heart has moved from my belly to my ears and I can feel it just as loud as I can hear it beating. If I push my face right up to where the light stripe is fading, I can smell something new. It smells like turnip or cow droppings or both mixed up and made worse by the warmth. It isn’t a good smell but it feels cooler that this dark pocket which smells of diddle and orange night and rotten skin. My paw is still very sore but I can move it so maybe when you’re lost you can’t be broken because you don’t really exist in the world. I wish it would make the pain less though. I want to sleep again but my tongue is stuck to my teeth and I need to hold it inside my mouth to make a little wetness, otherwise it might fall off. Besides, if it hits the floor it might taste diddle and then I might die.

I feel like I am moving but I haven’t even sat up. I might be dreaming. But the light stripe is bright again and I think I can smell the world, the real world.

I’m falling………

I felt  like I was falling forever but I have landed exactly where I was.  It hurt, my bones are shaking and I can hardly stand up. It is still night and I am still almost blind. I bundle myself tight into a ball and cry. I want my Mummy so bad.

Just when I thought I was lost forever, the day came again. I was sucked back out of the mixed up night with my tail, and I seemed to hover in the air upside down for such a long time. I squeezed my eyes shut but when I didn’t move, I opened one of them just a little and saw a giant eye with long wiry eye-lashes blinking at me. It was huge and green with a giant black circle in the middle that grew and grew. I twisted and shook and screamed so hard because I had never seen anything so awful in my life.

I am falling to the ground, like in slow motion. The grass is warm but ever so short and I can’t even hide. My eyes sting and my legs are shaking but I manage to run a little.  I have to keep going forward and never stopping for fear of the orange heat and tangled darkness catching me again. Maybe if I can stay in the light long enough Mummy will find me and take me home. I wonder if I have a home.

©Eilidh G Clark

 

Postman’s Knock

Nobody comes but the postman.

She watches him pause by the fence.

 

He slips his wedding band into

his pocket.  The red light beckons.

His guilt, as thick as his folded fivers.

 

©Eilidh G Clark

N.B. The first line in this poem is taken from Gillian Clarke’s ‘At One Thousand Feet’.

 

Scroll

 

It is midnight.
And the stroke of its hand is a memory;
A memory of
a hand that once held mine.
I am entangled in darkness

The hiss of a serpent wraps around
my throat,
until my nicotine breath bellows
And drops.

Amongst the shadows,
Optimism shines like a ghost
from an invisible moon.

I am calm.

Déjà vu haunts me
and I realise my footsteps

may have, walked this place before when I was young.

And my future.

You made me. You

and a bald headed man
who is and is not my father.
You gave me this midnight, and you are gone.
Sadness lives in me like tumour
but sadness pays.

Soon

I will hold a scroll to say
Be proud mum, I did it.

©Eilidh G Clark

Drown

Midnight, On the blackened sand.
Waves crash upon the shore,
unfamiliar darkness
yet I’ve seen this place before.
Lying flat, eyes to the sky;
the stars are out of reach,
I’m all alone without you,
on this cold and lonely beach.
The gnawing cold snags my breath.
I wrap myself up tight,
I’m shrouded in a veil of grief
yet bathing in the moonlight,
I close my eyes and ponder
this melancholy mind,
I’m seasick from the universe
vanished from mankind.
Onto my feet I wander,
to the gentle lapping tide,
I asked the stars to help me,
in the moon did I confide,
but the burden was too heavy,
and my face a sorry frown
as I walked into the ocean
I said goodbye and drowned.

©Eilidh G Clark

Sep 1783: Mr Heathcliff’s Three Year Departure

Sep 1783
It is to my gladness to write this account on the eve of my inevitable return to Wuthering Heights. Many years and too long have passed since my parting and it is, therefore, with haste that I will surmount to obtain what is rightfully my own.
Returning to Liverpool was the mere consequence of my own disgrace. I sought retribution from a man who dared to call himself a father. This deplorable man saw fitting, that after the death of my mother he should flog me to slavery within his own trade. My father was an animal, whose sadistic conduct he bestowed upon me, determining my impending misfortunes. Alas, had I been saved from this cruelty by a gentler man, a man with whom was once my own heart, my fortune would have been my worthiness.
I write to ease my agitated state upon my eagerness to see my love, my Catherine. It is exhilarating to think that so soon my eyes will set upon her beauty. Insomnia shall keep me roused for the remains of the evening, but I have a candle for each hour and enough recollections to fill the parchment before me.
After the death of my mother, my father commanded my immediate departure. A brawny rogue with the darkest skin, darker still than my mother’s had been when she had breath in her body, wrenched me from within her cold dead arms. He was ordered to put me on the first vessel departing from the dock and secure a fair exchange for my labour. My escape was bloody. I braced myself as I was struck repeatedly and was almost lifeless when I grappled myself loose. I ran for all my life worth and hid in a darkened church yard, cowered beneath its long dark demonic shadows
In daytime I hid amongst the dead. The air was thick and humid and smelled of rotten flesh and bile that emanated from the cesspits that piled high behind the tall houses. My fear of being captured by one of my father’s slaves, or by that of the night watchmen who guarded the streets, refrained me from daring to find food even by darkness.
Many days and nights passed and I remained silent and still beneath my shroud. I scrutinised the stinking streets which were crowded with men. The gentlemen disassociated themselves from the labourers. They stood idly, smoking tobacco and flattering one another with accolades that sickened me to my stomach. My father would have looked quite the protagonist in their midst. It was during this period that my eyes first set upon Mr Earnshaw. His presence struck me immediately. He looked out of his station amongst these highbrows. His attire was as formal as any gentleman, yet outmoded. He possessed a placidness that was out of touch with his gathering. I was unsure if it was not my imagination that caught him looking directly at me, for I hid in the darkest and most wearisome part of the cemetery. I was quite unsure on several occasions if I were awake or in a dream. My body was starved from food and my mind was altered significantly. It was unsurprising how impervious I was when Mr Earshaw lifted me from the gravestone that had become my cradle. He was a bulk of a man who towered over me with a frown on his brow deeper than any scar. He smelled of soap, sweat and tobacco that were neither comforting nor vile. He grunted as he took me in his arms and carried me out of the shadows. He paraded around the church entrance asking those who cared to look, if they knew from whom I belonged. He sought honesty and kindness from those imposters who frequented the church in pursuit of god. Most people hung their head. Mr Earnshaw sensed my fear as I struggled from within his limbs. He whispered reassurance and concealed me within his thick woollen coat. I pressed my fingers deep into the rawest contusion on my arm in order to arouse my consciousness. Mr Earnshaw spoke to me in a muffled well-spoken manor. He questioned the whereabouts of my family and why I was inclined to be hiding in such a sombre location. I tried to reply but my arid throat closed and the words were distorted. He told me that he feared leaving me in my derelict condition and that he must take me to his home. I would be raised as his child for I had no man to call my father, for no father would leave a child to starve on the streets. It was neither trust nor weakness that allowed me to be removed by this stranger. It was merely the comprehension that I was soon to be dead. The pleasure my heart felt at this understanding allowed my first sleep in over seven days. I dreamed blissfully of perishing. I felt the wind rip through my hair and felt not Mr Earshaw carrying me on that torturous journey to Wuthering Heights, but my mother. She was as light as air and she sang to me as we floated together over the moors. When we rested, I was miserably awakened to flesh on my bones and a beating heart. I was given water and dried meat which I greedily devoured. The food was poison and for every morsel I ingested, I felt my mother fade away. My body was so malnourished that the consumption of my meal caused me excruciating pain. I clung to that pain like a trophy, for at once my mother returned to me and we continued our journey.
Wuthering Heights was the bleakest and most tragic residence my eyes had ever set upon. Monstrous beasts grew from the stone walls. Thorns grew like ropes tempting the throat of a dejected soul. It was a dark and sinister building, surrounded with the bleakest dankest countryside. There was no shelter and the bitter wind howled and groaned like a maddened spirit. I cowered within Mr Earnshaw’s coat, afraid not of dying within this residence, but of living. Upon entering the house I was at first struck with the searing heat from the colossal fire. Flames flickered threateningly outwards, like arms of the dead trying to reach out to the living. The room was dark and unfavourable. My eyes wandered around this dreadful space. The floor was hard and smooth and as white as dead bones. The furniture looked rigid and large and unwelcoming like church pews. The windows were so small that not a face could fit within to look upon the gloom of the nothingness that crushed this home.
I was at once surrounded by pale faced children. There were two girls and a boy. One child appeared ill fitted to the family and I later found her to be ‘Nelly’, the daughter of Mr Earnshaw’s help. She stood quietly behind the other children. The boy, who I leaned to be Hindley, looked cross. His face was twisted and distorted and he looked at me with venomous eyes. He was of my height but his frame was thin and awkward. His face although older, was not of a man but an arrogant child. I felt no threat from him when he clenched his hands tightly into a first by his side. He grunted and growled in my direction. I cared not for him or his pitiable manor. He appeared spoiled and selfish and I instantly abhorred him. It was of no wonder that Mr Earnshaw would look for a more suitable son.
I was however drawn to the smaller child with the curious eyes, her name? Catherine Earshaw. Her glorious face fit her glorious name. She has long black silken hair. Her face was alive and wonderful. I had never seen such an elegant little thing. She did not speak to me but prodded me instead. I would have gladly stood and stared at her had it not have been for Mrs Earnshaw. She was a stern woman with the blackest hair framing a ghostly pale complexion. She was thin and wiry and unlike a mother. Her brows turned down as she looked upon me with distaste. She shrieked at her husband. Her revulsion for me was written on her obnoxious face. She started toward me in such a fury that I clung to the leg of Mr Earshaw who scolded her rightly on my behalf.
My arrival at Wuthering Heights had caused such a calamity that I thought I might be fortunate enough to be sent back out into the great abyss. It happened that Mr Earnshaw had the final word over my residence in the household. I was given the name Heathcliff, which to this day I respectfully adopt as my own. My prior upbringing was never a topic of question within the family but rather of assumption, that because my skin was not of pasty white that I must be a gypsy. I had no intention of telling them of my father’s wealth and his perverse love for my mother, so I let them assume and remain unaware. Even to this day I have remained silent. Even after all that has gone and all of the bad fortune that has crossed my path.
My time will come.
The ignorance of my silence had left me ill-informed of the merit that wealth would have upon my life. I had been blissfully unaware of my unworthiness as a suitable mate for my one true love Catherine Earnshaw. Her pride grew as she became a woman yet in her eyes I became a lesser man. Had love alone been enough to fill her heart with mine, I would not be here tonight. Had I pleaded my father when I was a child, when grief filled his heart and hatred for me was his only solace, then perhaps I would have happened upon my Catherine in different circumstances. Perhaps she would have valued me as her suitor if my father had raised me as his rightful heir.
When I returned to Liverpool three years past, I had no money in my pocket and my appearance was not desirable. I sought out the man who was once my father but my place of birth was empty. I wandered the streets looking for the fiend who had ruined my life and ended up at the docks were I blended in much sounder than on the streets. I found myself employment loading supplies onto vessels and doing general hard labour.
The meagre salary that I earned was enough to rent a tiny room in a basement from a lady lucky enough to be blessed with the name Catherine. She was by trade a lady of pleasure. Her knowledge of the gentlemen in Liverpool led her to ascertain my father’s whereabouts. As payment for her services, I beat upon the scum who mistreated her.
My father greeted me as the stranger that I was. I had no intention of frolicking with his humour so I identified myself. His astonishment was inscribed on his haggard face as he recognised the boy within the man. He sensed within me the anger and grief that I had held since a child. As he stood to shake my hand he lifted from his mantle a copper candlestick. His ancient legs betrayed him and he fell to the floor at my feet dropping his weapon by his side. I did not harm a hair on his unsightly head for I saw behind him my mother. I was not alarmed by her presence, but alas their love I understood. For that reason alone I let him live on the provision that he bequeathed me what was rightfully mine.
I took it all.
Alas it is dusk and I will return to you at once my dear Catherine. I am at last the man to which you deserve. I have wealth of plenty and a love that has deepened and grown. Together Wuthering Heights will be ours. But for now I must conclude my account as I must be on my way.

H

©Eilidh G Clark

Free Day

I sat on the doorstep. My head was filled with a itchy buzz that drowned out the noise from the road fifty yards away. The afternoon was damp and humid and a smell of rotten leaves hung thick. The air licked my skin and my scalp prickled as I sucked life into my lungs, attempting to clear the fog that stifled  brain. I had been grinding my teeth ever since I received the phone call at 11am that morning and now my jaw ached. Outside, the doorstep was my reprieve, a place to escape. The mourning. It was the crying; the fear, it was the look of desperation etched on faces; pale, ashen and distorted. Outside I was alone, raw and separated from the solid hugging arms of collective grief and crumpled bodies. Fat blobs of rain began to fall, and I looked up to charcoal clouds scribbled over the sky.

“This,” I thought, “is how the sky ought to look today’.

From behind the rooftops of an adjacent tenement block of flats, a single black helium balloon appeared. I watched it stagger over the sky, bashing into thick air then sucked into jets of cold.For a moment it hesitated.

“Where are you Mum?”  I shook my head and watched as the balloon skittered off into the distance. The world above was black and white.

How was I meant to feel today? How are you supposed react when you get a call at 11am on a Sunday morning telling you that your Mum is dead?

Death.

Grief.

I had often tried to imagine how I would feel when this day arrived, especially more so in the last year as I noticed how fragile my mother looked and how tiny she had become. One thing was certain; I had always known my heart would break.  What I did not expect was confusion, fear, emptiness and a feeling of no longer being safe. I got up and went back into a house that was no longer home.

Loss. I had experienced it before.

***

It was a Wednesday afternoon and I was off school. I wasn’t even sure why my Mum had let me have a free day but it was bound to be great. I got to pick my own clothes because Mum had gone out to see Granny in hospital. Before she left, Mum told me to be good and remember to brush my teeth. When I went downstairs to see who was looking after me, loads of aunties and uncles had come to visit. I felt really excited because that usually meant a party. The room was filled with pipe smoke and old lady smell.

“I got a free day off school,” I said, and tried to squeeze in between Uncle Jimmy and Auntie Agnes.

Everyone was looking at me and pulling weird faces. Auntie Phamie was crying. Auntie Isa had a crumpled up face and was looking at the floor. Uncle John coughed and left the room. I was afraid I had done something wrong.

“Your Granny died this morning,” Auntie Isa said, looking up.

I laughed because I didn’t believe her. My Granny was in hospital. Auntie Phamie started wailing so I turned around and stood in the corner.

“Poor Eleanor, not getting there on time,” Uncle Roberts voice came from near the kitchen.

I knew my Mum was called Eleanor, and I wondered if she had missed the bus this morning.

“And Chic, poor man, going home to an empty house,” one of the Aunties said. I wondered who Chic was and if he’d been burgled like the folk on Jackanory yesterday. I nervously picked wood-chip off the wall, and it fell in between my feet and on to the green carpet. I was hungry because no one had made me anything to eat. This didn’t seem like a party to me at all. I was scared to turn around, partly because I could still hear Auntie Phamie sniffing and grunting, and also because there was now a pile of wood-chip on the floor at my feet. I stood and looked at the mess for ages and thought about my Grannie. Why did they say she was dead? I thought this was a nasty lie to tell.

After what felt like hours, I heard the front door open and turned around.  Mum walked in with Auntie Nan and Papa and everyone got up and started cuddling, just like at Christmas, except no one was singing. Papa was crying, and I felt like I should be crying as well but didn’t know why. My Mum took ages to come over and see me and when she did she crouched down so her face was close to mine. I wondered if my Mum would like what I had picked to wear.

“Your Granny died this morning,” she said.

I frowned and turned my back on my Mum, then felt warm pee dribble down my leg and into my sock.

©Eilidh G Clark

 

My World in a Ring

For Helen

It was not mine when it caught my eye,

I had never seen treasure like this before;

An opal stone set firmly in gold

Had lured me into the antique store.

 

Now it sat in a box amongst breakfast and tea,

Eight slices of toast with a message in cheese;

Toast perfectly buttered and words written neat,

Marry me?

 

Such a mighty feast adorned my table

That my brain was not quite comprehending,

The offer of marriage in edible love

And the unanswered question still pending.

 

My eyes filled with tears and the word “yes” escaped

And the ring flashed like sun and like fire,

She tenderly slipped the ring onto my finger,

For my love, I just could not deny her.

 

I mused over the jewel that now circled my finger;

Of its journey, its life and it’s past,

Who wore it before me, and who gave it up?

Was it a symbol of love that still lasts?

 

Was it owned by a lady who travelled the world,

Who read Shakespeare and Milton and Pope?

Did she write words with new inspiration?

Did the ring give her courage and hope?

 

Did she sit in a café and hold hands with her love?

Did they fill life with lobster and wine?

Did they explore foreign lands, discover by chance

The opal amongst darkened mines?

 

My ring holds the secret to questions I pose

Locked tight in six claws of rich gold,

The oval shaped opal like a world filled with fire,

And serpents and magic and wonder untold.

 

The magic consumed me as I strolled to the light,

The stone changed from fire into ocean,

Its sky filled with morning, with sunbeams

And clouds and a light show of pleasure and motion.

 

 

My gem is unique in this world, like no other,

It’s a rainbow enclosed in a stone,

Revealed to the world through endurance and skill,

It’s a lifetime of pleasure I own.

 

I wear it with pride on my left hand, fourth finger,

I imagine the gem’s sweet voice sing,

“You are unique, you are precious and have

fire in your soul, and your world will live on in this ring.”

 

©Eilidh G Clark

Blackbird

Mid April, calm yet breezy night,
I walked in the dark and was guided by moonlight.
The world was silent and the only sound
were the leaves in the tree’s and my feet on the ground.
Alas I was tempted by songs in my pocket
And the picture of you that hung in my locket,
But I felt that a change had grown wild in my brain
Like the seasons were changing, and so was the pain,
A stranger had challenged my withering heart
Twas the first real arousal since we’d been apart,
I looked at a distance but fantasised near
and the prospect of new love sent shivers of fear.
But she clawed like a blackbird at passions inside
And I craved her like coffee like a moon and the tide.
She danced on my gravestone, she lay on my skin
And she started a bonfire that burned from within
But the night was so lonely and the stars became shy
As the moon rode the heavens and rivers ran dry.
I looked to the shadows to picture her face
But shadows are demons that laughed in its place
And leaves brown and crisp sung tunes to my feet
The drizzle of rain arose perfumes so sweet
And the dark was forever and my thoughts took flight
She kissed me so tender in all shades of night.
But the season was April and the time was ‘not yet’
And the moonlight was kind and my destiny set.

©Eilidh G Clark

The Boatmen’s Song

Dawn breaks with a whip of fire across the ocean.

The boatmen rise and fall upon the waves as morning takes its first breath,

 

and the boatmen sing.

 

The song is everywhere, echoing through the morning wind, diving into

The tumbling waves then spat out as salty spray that rises in a vapour

towards the sky.

 

Clouds fall into the ocean and the afternoon melody becomes enclosed

within a circle of grey and white hazy mountains. A theatre of fog.

The song escapes.

 

Caught amongst the flapping wings of the sea birds, the music takes flight

And it circles and hovers amongst the stickmen, floating on a

Streak of mist, facing heaven’s door.

 

The boatmen weep and wave goodbye and the song becomes a hymn,

And the shrinking sun dips peacefully upon the sorry sea,

As the day dies and the boatmen sleep.

©Eilidh G Clark