Sunday, 5 September 2021

I Ready For Change

A change is coming. It's in the season - I am readying myself, need to prepare physically, mentally, for some experience or action. 

And so, I've started to read again. It's not that I stopped, but that I've been consumed by work, so eaten up by its immediate demands that I could hardly look at poetry, fiction, non-work-non-fiction, for the pain its absence causes. I think this shying away has been a sort of self-preservation too: to read great poetry and great fiction is to encounter the world in truth not found in sociology texts, rarely expressed in academic articles. To read what's written from the heart of experience is to know without doubt that freedom does not come from working harder, smarter, having what's been cited to me as a 'can-do attitude' (as if unquestioning obedience were some sort of virtue).

I've read The Great Gatsby again. I've read the newly controversial Some Kids ..., have just begun Beethoven, A Life in Nine Pieces. I'm enjoying making headway with Ulysses - hadn't realised how much fun it contains. I've dipped into the work of Adrienne Rich, Kei Miller, Philip Gross, Andrew McMillan, Gillian Clarke, Gerard Manley Hopkins, TS Eliot ... into the books which have been waiting patiently for me: my poet friends and familiars. They've soothed me, reconnected me to wider, deeper spaces. 

And I went swimming again this week in the reservoir. I had been waiting all August for the clouds to clear, the temperature to rise. The sun has been elusive, but when I turned to friendship, to LJ (who never shies away from experience or action), I found I could risk the plunge, even in 16 degrees under cloud. I went in not hot but bothered, came out cleansed. We sat afterwards in our usual spot, drinking tea, and the clouds cleared enough for there to be blue and gold. I carried the water's coolness into my evening, to the warmth of a poetry picnic in the park with friends. I began to remember who I am being, why I am doing. 

I Take the Plunge - drawing by John Rae

Sunday, 29 August 2021

I Scrape My Toast

The rasp of my knife

against charcoal, smell of fire:

an autumn hunger.

Drawing "I Burn the Old Year"  ©John Rae,

From I Buy A New Washer (and Other Moderate Acts of Independence) - available from, The Poetry Pharmacy, Castle Bookshop, Pengwern Books

Saturday, 7 August 2021

I Harvest My Crops

In the spirit of lockdown, and by way of testament to enduring friendship, I've been growing potatoes on my roof garden in tubs given to me by my longest-serving friend last Christmas. Everything to do with this process has been slightly more complicated, but much more enriching, than pandemic shopping: taking compost out of storage in my attic, climbing out of the window to plant seed potatoes ordered online during the #th lockdown, working out how to water the tubs in the dry spells with arcs of water poured from a watering can from the same window. 

After the problem-solving, and the anticipation, the harvest has been so satisfying - searching through soil to find, well, to find these:

I've staged this harvest, taking only enough spuds at a time for the next meal in order to achieve that tub-to-table-in-20-minutes freshness which has been the whole point, or at least a good part of the point. I've served them with mint from the window box, and roasted them with rosemary which grows next to the mint. With the next and final serving, I plan to smother then in buttery sage - the window box sage is flourishing, having been dug up and sent to me by Morar by Royal Mail last autumn. She'd read I didn't have any to go with my parsley, rosemary, and thyme (I Bottle Abundance). 

The rest of the point of the harvest has been to do with the pleasure of engaging in the physical world, the necessity of it. The joy of it is the reminder that growth often takes place out of sight ... but oh ... this is beginning to sound like it's heading in the direction of a sermon ...

You're right, dear reader: I'm going to use my potato harvest as a metaphor for creativity. You see, all the while these Charlottes were growing underground, I've been working on poems hidden in a file on my computer since 2019, now published by Fair Acre Press. I'd originally hoped their coming to light would coincide with Beethoven's 250th birthday in December 2020. This late harvest has also come in stages: a Zoom launch, a reading at the Poetry Pharmacy, and then a performance in mid-Devon on a summer's evening of extraordinary heat and calm. 

Carol Caffrey and I had hatched the idea of a joint event back in the spring when our host, Richard Higgins, was looking for productions for a short season of open air events. It had seemed, then, so theoretical, so impossible: the chances were that it would never happen.

And then, it did. 

Our journey down the M5 and through the high-hedged lanes was long. When we saw our names in huge letters on arrival at Brushford Barton, it was as if we had dug our hands into the soil, and, unbelieving until the moment of contact, found potatoes ... 

The following evening, in the house's beautiful enclosed courtyard, Carol's performance of Music for Dogs was wonderful as ever. I've seen the play six, maybe seven, times and it's just as well, as this time I was on sound desk duty. As she performed, in addition to the pre-recordings, extra barks floated across from the nearby lawns - Carol integrated these into the story like the pro that she is. She was amongst dog-lovers, and the audience loved her and the play, laughing and sighing in all the right places. 

When it was my turn, I read, for the first time, the whole sequence of GREAT MASTER / small boy, finding inspiration from the company of Beethoven himself. Richard had placed a wonderful carving of the Master next to me on the stage, complete with a 250th birthday candle.

For the two days we were at Brushford Barton, the world felt complete - a place of kindness, of hospitality, of growth and creativity: a place in which it is safe to be an artist, to bring new things to the surface, and to enjoy them in company. 

Wednesday, 7 July 2021

I Repair to London

It was the promise of meeting up with school friends, one who's flown (flown!) over from the USA, that fixed the London weekend date in my diary, two days after the launch of my latest pamphlet of poems. The train journey to London from Shrewsbury should be a simple matter compared with the 'freewheeling across' Europe remembered in GREAT MASTER / small boy. Wellington, Birmingham New Street, Coventry, Milton Keynes. 'Lützel, Bingen, Mainz, Würzburg'. But this is 2021, not 2018.

Window seat, masks, hand spray, packed lunch, bicycle - my new risk assessment. Taking my bike I reasoned, would enable me to ride to my destinations protected from threats encountered on the London Underground and its ultra-confined spaces. On my way to Shrewsbury station, I realised I'd forgotten another risk: I was wearing the wrong trousers. Wide and cream-coloured, bought as an attempt to fit in with London chic, they flapped against my bike's well-oiled chain. I stopped to roll them over my knees, made it to platform 4 three minutes before departure.

'On the last morning, you'll rucksack-up, / then lower your pack to the floor, / consider the weight of things.' My sons are moving on, and I'm travelling alone with the weight of a Brompton, folded. Companionship comes in many forms, and I have projected personality onto my bicycle - she is blue, she is named Boudicca. 

Blame the blockage in the Suez Canal, or the pandemic rush to get bicycles out of sheds, but the cycle shop nearest to London Euston is all out of bicycle clips and reflective ankle bands, and has been for months. Whilst telling me this, the kind assistant passed me a clutch of rubber bands in assorted sizes. "Try these," he said, with the confidence of someone who can speak several languages. Boudicca, were she able to do so, would have commented that I looked like a low-budget Tintin as I climbed onto the saddle, and set off for Tufnell Park.

'This is the birthplace of four symphonies, the violin concerto, / a clutch of quartets ...' 2018 - Pasqualatihaus, Vienna. 2021 - the Tufnell Park Tavern, Tufnell Park. 

'This city's a miniature of empire' - as true of London as it is of Vienna. The cycle route took us down the back streets, under railway bridges, past car repair shops, close to tower blocks. It took us over tarmac, and took us over glass. Nearing the pub, I felt Boudicca's back wheel resist the road in the way it does as a tyre deflates: instant lethargy, forewarning of the need to lie on one's back with one's wheels in the air.

'beached on the rounded island of myself '

A piece of luck - we were yards from the reunion pub, and I had arrived early, with time to fold up and consider my options.

My option was to be where I was, and enjoy my reason for being there: companionship which has stretched over forty, fifty years. Those school friendships are like music, 'stretched and plied like toffee    like smoke    like guitar strings'. They are part of the background which I wanted to foreground, revel in, for those brief hours in the pub, before they receded again.

'The next part I've rehearsed in my head.' I would take Boudicca, folded, on the tube from Tufnell Park to Stockwell, a straight, Northern Line route, and find my longest-serving friend. She will be sitting with G., at the end of her garden path. This herringbone-brick path has become a summer avenue of love-in-a-mist. She will be pouring champagne, and we will talk about how, the next day, we will face together with her bike (Cleopatra - good in a crisis) the challenge of changing the rear tyre on a Brompton for the first time. We admit what we know: that  it will be harder than fixing the front tyre, involving, as it does, negotiating gears and the chain. She will lend me scrubs and gloves for the procedure (direct me gently, saying, "Lefty Loosey, Righty Tighty" and other wisdoms learnt, though not at medical school). 'You understood the maths of it'. 

We will lunch on home-made faux gras pate and brioche with her mother Morar, my adopted mother, and no one will mind that my hair is unbrushed, and that I'm not wearing my wide London trousers, will be oily around the edges.

Vienna, 2018. London, 2021. I feel repaired by these journeys, and their memories, by the companionship of my family, my friends, my bicycle - all of this giving life rhythm, tone, timbre, beat. 'Whump Whump Whump Whump' goes the swan lifting from the River Severn, goes the flat back tyre, goes the pump inflating the new inner tube readying for the next ride.


This is the peculiar alchemy:
to be caught up in someone else’s song,
be drawn over strings, or hammered out,
plucked as a guitar, or blown across a flute.
It’s a hollowed space, a refuge, place of hope
which shows us all our losses. It’s where I go
when I exhaust the words for love and sorrow.
It’s music.

GREAT MASTER / small boy is published by Fair Acre Press. If you wish to buy a copy, please email for details

Sunday, 6 June 2021

I Express Myself

The only discipline I've made for myself in writing this blog is to use a verb only once, and in the simple first person present tense, when devising titles. This leads to an interesting list-poem of a contents page in my recently published book, I Buy A New Washer. When thinking today about how to summarise my feelings, or take control, or how to make a complaint, I find I've used all these verbs already: summarising T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, taking the plunge, making a list. This forces me to express myself instead.

In order to keep the title current, 24-hour, and available, I've enlisted some help. Not everyone reads this blog, after all. 

Here's the help, pictured below: known by some as Dennis, the tailor's mannequin, who's social distancing's answer to making clothes to fit when the rules meant dressing live models was not allowed. Dennis, by no means a dummy, but a well-crafted and articulated fellow, has been my elder son's constant sewing companion for over a year. He's remained at a constant weight and size, not gaining a single Covid-Kilo or Corona-Stone. 

And here he is, relaxing in dressing gown, cap, and shades, after modelling my son's final year degree collection. He's expressing how I feel about the current trend for popping exhausts, 'sporty' engines, and high-speed chases through Shrewsbury's town centre: the popular sport of using the one-way system as if it were a race track. 

I've written to my Shrewsbury and Atcham MP, my Quarry and Coton Hill Councillor, rung the police repeatedly (at their request - apparently, this is the only way that resources can be allocated), been referred to the 'Safer Neighbourhood Scheme'. 

It's made no difference, except to my feelings of powerlessness, which have risen.

And then, Dennis, freed from his modelling duties for a while, stepped in. Dennis, in contrast, has raised his hand (or more specifically, his finger - just one, as his hands aren't articulate enough to make a V-sign) in support. He stands, day and night, expressing my feelings for me.

Thank you Dennis. I can relax now, knowing something is being done, that I'm being heard at last.

Sunday, 16 May 2021

I Struggle With Words

My life is in words, not all of them beautiful, not all of them needed. But some of them thread me together like this poem by Sharon Olds:

    I cannot say I did not ask 

    to be born.

Yesterday, I proofread the manuscript for my forthcoming chapbook - GREAT MASTER / small boy (Fair Acre Press). I find this a nerve-wracking process, even though all is yet possible, nothing has been committed to print. I wrote the sequence in 2018-19 after travels to Germany and Austria with my son Jonty in search of Beethoven. "The trouble is," I said to Gabriel, his older brother, on our walk in the rain yesterday after dark, "I want it to be perfect." The book is, in its essence, a gift for Jonty (its publication date is his 21st birthday) - it's an account of that geographical journey, but of so much more too. As Andrew McMillan has written in his back cover endorsement, " of music is always a journey ... towards love."

     Before I existed, I asked, with the love of my

    children, to exist ...

This past year I have not been able to write much, or rather, I haven't been able to write much new poetry. I've written here from time to time. (Thank goodness for this blog, and the book that's come from it - so much pleasure there, and the kind reading and sharing of it). And I've written thousands of emails, texts, even posted the odd tweet ...I've written for my job as a university lecturer: thousands and thousands and thousands of words about, well, about how and why we can and must care for and empower each other, about how we try to learn when we cannot be together. That work has been utterly exhausting, though I regret none of it. 

As for the music of poetry? The place from which that comes feels numbed, weary, tuneless. 

    I asked, with everything I did not

    have, to be born. And nowhere in any

    of it was there meaning ...

I woke this morning and after a bit of Sunday morning laying around, talked with myself about first things - about how I came to write poetry in the beginning, how I scribbled lines, hid them and tore them up, then eventually had the courage to join a writing group in my 40s. It was through reading poetry, not writing, that I found what I needed to know. After the reading, the writing - the impetus to express my own longings. I knew, I reminded myself decades later, that it was reading The Wasteland in my 1980s London bedroom that convinced me that I was not alone.

Sharon Olds, in her poem I Cannot Say I Did Not addresses the question of unbidden existence more clearly than anything I've heard or read in any other context: church, family, school, social work text books, The School of Life website ...  This existential conundrum haunted my youth -  none of us asked to be born. Olds takes it head on in this poem, even daring to end on a preposition. It's brilliant, and reading it again this morning (from the Bloodaxe Staying Human anthology) it confirmed to me that if I turn back to reading the poetry that moves me most, poetry which is about this existence of ours - the one that we've been hanging onto for dear life - if I turn back to the well-worn pages of Olds, Rich, Hopkins, Eliot, Collins, McMillan, Clarke, Sprackland, Duffy, Oliver ...  in time, and with gentleness, and quietly, I will find my voice again.

    ... I want to say that love

    is the meaning, but I think that love may be

    the means, what we ask with. 

Sharon Olds - I Cannot Say I Did Not

Sunday, 2 May 2021

I Review A Pamphlet - Lucy Rose Cunningham's 'For Mary, Marie, Maria'

For Mary, Marie, Maria

after the nectar, pyre and linden tree

Lucy Rose Cunningham

Broken Sleep Books –

Purchase here:


Reviewed by Liz Lefroy


I read Lucy Rose Cunningham’s recently published sequence sitting on a bench in a country graveyard this afternoon, with memorial stones in the foreground, and the Shropshire hills in the long view. I had a flask of Earl Grey and a bun to keep me company. My bicycle was propped next to me against the wall of the church. I was glad I’d set the context to become acquainted with this beautifully produced pamphlet from Broken Sleep Books. All credit to the publishers for its austere elegance.

I’ve learnt to look after my body as I’ve aged – in Cunningham’s Acknowledgements words – to know what this body really deserves. It’s an important rite of passage, and one to which Mary, Marie and Maria all have something to contribute. Others have illuminated this aspect of Cunningham’s work, so  I won’t repeat what they’ve written (I refer you, for example, to the Cardiff Review )

For my part, I chose this setting for reading because I wanted to listen hard to Cunningham’s voice – not to understand every line (I didn’t) but to loosen up, pay close attention to what I heard and felt. I found much to enjoy, and much to grieve, in doing so.

Cunningham’s work resembles in so many ways what I first came to love in poetry as a very young woman (in Eliot, Hopkins, Keats, et al). It has space, subtlety, depth, originality.  Cunningham creates a soundscape which is both rich and spare, tender and fierce. Her writing is free from clamour, and uses imagery which is both familiar and sits skewed on the page. Behind each phrase, however taut the surface, is a softness which would bruise, were it gripped too hard:

              of simmered tea leaves and wicks,

              candles drunk with butter

              wax waning, as she waited

It is this tenderness, this open-heartedness, which gives the work its youthfulness. Here is a fresh voice which leaves traces on each page of that sense of being at the beginning of things, even though “I’m running out of spoons” (IV – Spoon theory). My reader self is grateful to Cunningham for her uncontrived authenticity which connects me with my young self in ways which took me right back to

[it’s] this aching thought,

the impress of Love of ache of thought

in my bedclothes,

At the end of my reading, I packed up my things and climbed back onto my bike. As I cycled home, I found myself filled with thoughts of my young body, my young self, the voice it didn’t have, the way it dared not speak. Cunningham’s voice speaks for her, in some ways, and that is reason enough to return to that bench, these poems again, one day soon.

Mary, Marie, Maria (with almond croissant)  
© Ellie Milne


                                                Lucy Cunningham