Poetry Blog: ‘Distance.’

This is a poem that I rediscovered while going through a notebook recently. It’s about my sister and our relationship. I wouldn’t say that we’ve had a difficult relationship, but it’s not one that’s been particularly straighforward. It’s not that we don’t get on; it’s just that we’re quite different characters. I’m sure lots of siblings are exactly the same.

There’s a six year age gap between us and so, at times growing up it felt like we had little in common other than parents. It was just too much of a difficult age gap. There was and still is no shortage of love, but we just turned out very different and I think that meant that the bond wasn’t all that it could have been. I got thinking about it recently when I heard that my sister was ill and it led to me writing the poem and in a way reassessing how we are with each other and also realising how lucky I am to have her and how important she’s always been for me.

Distance

From the line where we started there was always a distance.
You were independent, strong, theirs long before me.
Later, when fate made me weak, doctors kept us apart and the distance grew.
You closed the gap as we got to know each other better,
looked after me, a fierce lioness to my runt of the litter.
Teenage kicks widened the gap again to a chasm 
and you were out more often than in.
Your influence remained even when you weren't around
as your music became mine, throwing me those White Lines
and an everlasting Motown lifeline.

Around this time you revealed to us your terrible taste in men
as a series of terrible choices took you away some more
and made you seem like a stranger.
No longer the apple of anyone's eye, especially not mine,
who, worldly wise at the grand old age of twelve was the perfect judge;
a pre-teen with a puritanical moral compass.
How that would change as we grew and underwent a role reversal.
At twenty one the bad choices still hung around as you set off, 
no more than a child, to become an adult,
from Miss to Mrs in the blink of an eye, my fierce, happy lioness just gone.
You were there, but not really...

My own growth widened the gap some more; a Grand Canyon of taste, 
culture, views and choices. And despite your own bad record, 
you were there to pick up the pieces when I made the wrong choice myself.
And, when I was too young to cope with loss you scooped me up, held me so tightly that it physically hurt yet emotionally helped and I endured the pain just to feel safe again.
Eventually it was geography that would create another mystery; the one that says
you cannot close a gap when neither of you will pick up the phone.
It's one we're still trying lazily to unravel.

Now the first knock on a particular door, the one that we were scolded just for mentioning when we were kids, brings the news that we had always expected with age and I'm a kid again,
grasping for words, gasping for air, unable to cope and looking to you for comfort me,
unfailingly, predictably.
The realisation that those gaps need to be closed hits me like a sledgehammer.
Forget the choices, forget the gaps, move on from the past and hope
that we can make the best of whatever future might remain.

I’m not sure there’s much else I can say about this poem. It feels like quite an emotive thing to write about and as such, I’m not sure how I feel about it. I’m not sure it really matters whether I think it’s good or bad, but I hope it does my sister and our relationship justice and I think it’ll be a subject matter that I’ll return to.

I’d love – as always – to know what people think, so feel free to leave a comment.

Poetry Blog: Jigsaw

So this is a bit of a strange poem. Maybe I’m going through some kind of arty phase or perhaps just trying something different. Maybe I’m trying too hard…I don’t know. Let me try to explain.

This is a poem that came from a couple of different places. It started with some words that I didn’t really know what to do with. A couple of weeks ago, I was teaching a lesson on creative writing, specifically narrative form. We were looking at the idea of ‘show, don’t tell’ and not being too obvious with description. So rather than saying that your character had laughed, you might write about the smile spreading across their face, their shoulders shaking and so on.

As part of the lesson we watched a clip from ‘The Woman in Black’ as the protagonist enters Eel Marsh House and wanders slowly around. I let the class watch the clip a couple of times as it was only a few minutes long, and then got them to write some snippets of description. While they were doing all of this, I got a scrap of paper and wrote some description myself. Once I’d done, I had a quick read through – I liked it, but had no idea what to do with it. So, I folded it up and put it between pages in my notebook, resolving to have another look at it later and try to work out how to use it. To be honest, I thought I’d just write a poem about walking through an imagined creepy old house.

Later that day, I was checking my emails and saw that I’d had an alert from a company called Ancestry.com who I’d been tracing my family tree with last year. It had been a frustrating process. I’d mainly wanted to find out about my father’s side of the family, as I never really knew my paternal grandparents.

Anyway, the alert told me I’d had a DNA match and so I opened it up quite excitedly. The excitement lasted all of 60 seconds or so as the alert that proclaimed to be about a second cousin turned out to actually be my own grandad on my mother’s side. So, not a second cousin at all and actually someone I knew pretty well as well as being someone that could be found on my family tree…on Ancestry.com. It got me thinking about my mysterious paternal grandparents though.

Later that evening I was watching one of my favourite programmes, American Pickers (one day I’ll write a blog about these programmes because I think it’s quintessential middle aged telly) and they were looking around the home of someone who’d collected antiques all his life. His son now didn’t know what to do with all of this ‘stuff’ after his dad had passed away. In turn, this brought to mind the entirely fictional idea of clearing my wife’s grandmother’s house when she died. And then, this poem clicked into place and it became clear, if a little weird, what I was going to attempt to do with my ‘show don’t tell/Woman in Black’ notes.

So the poem is basically about what I imagined it would be like to go and clear my own grandmother’s house and how, if I’d been able to do it, I might have been able to find out more about her. Hence the jigsaw puzzle reference. I mean, up until about a year ago I didn’t even know her name, so there were a lot of pieces missing. There still are. and I suspect they always will be.

Anyway, here’s what in one corner of head is my pretentious poem. Don’t worry, in another corner of my head – which isn’t actually square before anyone gets worried – I actually quite like the poem and am quite pleased with the whole idea behind it.

Jigsaw

A kaleidoscope of light streams through stained glass
as particles of dust waltz eerily across the room.
This is not what I remember.
Instead, you are fragments of a jigsaw puzzle,
too many pieces missing to ever be complete.
Today may fill in gaps, but I feel I'll never know you.
Perhaps it's because you never wanted to be known.

In my head I'm clearing your house, a house I never knew,
hoping for some of those lost pieces.
A stuffed bird, incongruous, gazes across the room
as an ancient rocking chair teeters back and forth without explanation.
I never imagined you as the type who had time to relax,
all of those children would put pay to that,
but perhaps you're there now, assessing another that you never knew.

My feet pad across a well worn rug, the latest in a long trodden line.
I trace my fingers over the top of a low table, idly making patterns in the dust,
imagining you and chunks of a family, maybe even my father, 
fighting for food and attention.
A wall is littered with portraits that trace my progress around the room.
I wonder who they are, speculating that one might even be you
which prompts a pang off loss for someone I never had.

Snapped back to the here and now, I resist the urge
to uncover any of the unknown items being protected from a lifetime of dust
by dull shrouds, brace myself
and place a tentative toe on the first of the stairs,
not knowing who or what I'll find, but hoping 
for something to fill in the gaps and solve at least some 
of this decades old puzzle.

I’m pleased with the way this poem came together. It’s something completely different for me and very much fictional. I think I surprised myself by being able to use the description I wrote in such a way. With that in mind, I suppose it doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad. It also pleased me because I have plans for another fictional – but based on true events – poem that I’m trying to write, but from the point of view of someone else entirely. Writing ‘Jigsaw’ makes me believe I can write this other poem, which feels like quite a big step.

I only have one memory of my grandmother and it’s vague to say the least. I remember being taken to a house on the other side of Newcastle by my father and him telling me we were going to visit my grandmother. I couldn’t have been any older than 6 or 7. I remember that it was pouring with rain when we arrived and I was very aware that this was somewhere I’d never been before, despite having a huge family that would’ve lived in and around the area. My dad left me in the car while he ran across the road to knock on the door of a big, imposing old house. I remember thinking that my grandma would come to the door and my dad would just come and get me and in we’d go. Pop and cake would inevitably follow.

I was wrong. Someone came to the door, there was what looked like a tense and brief conversation and then my dad headed back to the car. Seconds later we drove off, my dad telling me we couldn’t go in because grandma was ill. My ancestry research tells me that this was a nursing home and she would have died days later. There would be no pop and cake. The woman at the door wasn’t even my grandma. However, I think the house in the poem is the house I remember.

And that’s it! The fragments of a jigsaw puzzle that I refer to in the poem, well they’re actually one piece, I suppose. I wish I knew more. It’s not a particularly sad thing though. Lots of people have relatives that they never knew and in truth, both of my paternal grandparents just make me curious, really. My curiosity has led me to ask my dad about them, but – and this is the sad bit – he really doesn’t seem to have known them. My grandfather in particular seems to have been a very transient figure and in fact, one of the most frustrating things researching my family tree was the amount of addresses he seemed to have had that were different to the rest of his family! He was either what some people refer to as a free spirit, what others call a rascal or just a bit of a dick. Whatever label I settle on, I’ve made a note to write a poem about him too.

I hope you enjoyed this poem. I hope to God it isn’t too pretentious for words. Woe betide it might seem that I’m disappearing up my own arse! It was just an idea and one that I hope worked. For the record, I think I’m happy with it.

As always, feel free to let me know what you think. I’m always interested to hear what people got out of reading my poetry. Oh, and as always, thanks for reading.

Poetry Blog: As yet, still untitled…

This is a poem I posted recently in the Lockdown Literature group that I helped set up on Facebook. It was a good way of passing the time during our first period of lockdown and it’s great that people are still posting in it on a fairly regular basis. This was the first poem I’d posted there in a while.

It wasn’t a poem that I was going to post on my blog. I’ve tended to steer clear of anything too personal on here, but having sat down and read through the poem again, I wondered how relevant it would be to others. At the time of posting it in the group it didn’t have a title and I wasn’t sure it was finished. It was about growing up in our house, but on reflection I began to wonder just how normal the things I wrote about were. I grew up in a house where shouting and various kinds of tension felt almost constant and fairly normal. I hated it. When my parents argued I felt like I was waiting for the inevitable to happen and for one of them to announce that they were leaving. Or I worried about whatever other terrible end it might have. It felt like nothing ever got talked about or discussed; everything was a battle. And not just with my parents; with my sister, with my grandmother…wow, especially with my grandmother! But adult life has taught me that maybe it wasn’t all that rare. Maybe that is just how family life can be sometimes.

As I mentioned, it’s not something I really like to write about, or at least post where it’s so visible, but having revised the poem a little bit and revised my thinking about it too, I thought I’d post and see what people think.

Mam and dad fought; to keep food on the table,
to keep a roof above our heads, to stay together.
So maybe there was nothing left in them to fill a home with love.
Maybe being there when they could was enough.

In a lucid moment, in quiet, in solitude
I think I understand that now,
have sort of come to terms with it, am almost at peace with it.
But while it's easy to say let go of the past, it's impossible not to always be reminded of the impact that it's had. The damage that it's done.
Dealing with what it left behind, 
picking up the phone more often and enjoying the life you have while it's still there still present a knot to be unpicked by stone cold fingers.
Maybe a nod, a smile, an isolated cuddle and the odd word of encouragement was all the energy they had left. Maybe it works both ways. Maybe we're all just like this.
Maybe there's a lesson to be learned.

A funny one this. I still don’t think it’s finished. I’m still not entirely happy with it and I still think it will be revisited. It’s a slightly different poem to the one that appeared in that Facebook group and definitely one that’s changed in mood with the tweaks that have been made.

The poem still hasn’t got a title. I wondered about calling it ‘Maybe’ but that word was only added in this second draft, so it didn’t quite feel right. Maybe I’ll revisit the subject matter, but not the poem itself. Maybe, like the subject matter, the poem just needs to left. As I said earlier, it’s a funny one.

As ever, feel free to leave a comment as I’m always interested to hear what people think. I’m never entirely sure when it comes to poems, but this one has really stopped me and made me think.

Poetry Blog: Transition.

This is a poem I wrote a while ago now, late August in fact. It was around that time that we were preparing my son – our youngest child – for the step up to high school. In the U.K. schools had been closed for months, but he had gone back to primary school for the final half term, as the government opened them up again to Year 6 students in a bid to make transition to high school that little bit easier. It didn’t work, but that’s besides the point.

I happened to be looking through some photographs and found one that my wife had taken of our son at the start of primary school, as he headed to his first day of Reception class. She’d stood behind him and having let him walk a few steps further down the path and – no doubt crying – had taken a photo of him as he walked off. Every visible piece of uniform is just too big and his backpack takes up his entire back. He looks tiny and vulnerable and not ready for school at all. Suffice to say that while the image always makes me smile, it still makes me feel sad too.

At the time, we’d briefly debated not sending him to school. We genuinely didn’t feel he was ready for it at all and so we’d even gone as far as tentatively researching moving to Scandinavia where children don’t start school until later. I think (my wife especially) we just didn’t really want to let go. In the end, we relented and sent him. But every time I see that picture I can’t help but feel we made the wrong decision!

As I looked at the photograph last summer it brought the memories flooding back, but it also made me think about how quickly both my children seem to have grown up. Within a few weeks of that moment they would both be high school students and essentially a large chunk of their childhoods were over. And specifically where my son was concerned, my precious little boy was no longer the tiny child in the photograph. With time on my hands, I wrote the poem you’ll find below.

Boy

That picture will stay with me as the summers fade into autumn. You, walking ahead of your mum, in a uniform that you’d grow into eventually and an over sized backpack straining at your shoulders. Your jumper a red light telling us to stop and let you go into a bright new adventure.

We’d thought to avoid this moment by moving somewhere where the monster didn’t want you for another couple of years, but stayed, defeated by normality and a system that we did not like; school became an enemy that we felt we couldn’t fight.

Your mother returned to her car and cried that day, her body inert as the tears tumbled silently down her face, mourning the loss of her sunshine. I spent the day thinking of the three of you – my big, brave boy, his sister there, determined as ever to look after you and your mother; robbed, cheated, bereft. How could I protect you all?

For years from this moment you’d tell us, ‘Did you know?’ tales at the table, your new found knowledge taken, processed, committed to memory, worn like a brand new suit and then shared generously like your cuddles. Parents’ Evenings revealed what we already knew; everybody loved you, fell under your spell, like insects stuck in a web.

Years later, and a day after my heart broke down, I sat weakly watching you perform in your school play, expecting to cry uncontrollably, but instead mesmerised by your voice, your courage, your talent, and as our eyes locked I wondered if my wounded heart might now burst with pride.

Now, you prepare yourself to face new questions, leaving your cocoon to become a magnificent butterfly one day. Your mother has already shed the expected quiet tears, sought solace by burying her head into my chest, while I held her tightly without possession of the balm of words that might soothe.

Before we know it there will be another photograph and it will hurt to look at that too, You, in a new uniform that still won’t fit, walking headlong into the next five years of your future, stoic despite the nerves, wiser and still eager for more ‘did you knows’.

I will fret daily until I know you’re safe, drift off thinking of you and your new experiences and race home nightly to steal a kiss or lie beside you, clutching your shoulder while you let me in on your brave new world.

I have watched, awestruck as you’ve grown, felt my heart ache as you blushed at your achievements, daydreamed about the impact you might have on the world. Now, I urge you, with every ounce of strength I have, to conquer new worlds, open yourself to those new experiences and grasp at all of the future offers that may come your way.

My son didn’t seem ready for high school, unlike my daughter who three years previously had been desperate to move on. I worried about them both though, fretted through minute after minute of my working day, desperate to just walk back through my front door and see them, ask them how it had all been.

Both have had interesting ‘rides’ through high school thus far, as probably any kid does. They’re doing well though and both survived those first days! As did their parents! My son isn’t quite so full of wonder as he had been at primary school and is perhaps finding the transition quite tough. We suspected as much, given that he missed nearly all of the last 6 months of primary school and Year 6 and didn’t get any real transition between the two schools due to Covid-19. So all the worry that is conveyed in the poem wasn’t misplaced.

It’s a very personal poem and although I talked about him heading to high school quite a bit with my wife, my son and some friends, this was my main way of opening up about it all and probably where any actual emotion came out. I think my wife showed enough devastation for both of us at the time, so it felt important that I stayed strong. I can’t remember too much about it all now, but I imagine, writing late at night that I must have shed a tear or two. It’s such an emotive photograph!

I hope that if and when other parents read it they’ll perhaps recognise their own feelings and experiences in there too. It’s a longer poem, but I’d like to think that’s alright, given the subject matter. I won’t explain any intricacies of the language in there as some of it is personal to both my wife and son and their relationship and it’s probably not my place to share so fully. On a similar note, I’ve not used the photo that I tried to build the poem around, as again I don’t think it’s one that needs to be shared with the world (or the few people who’ll read this!). So the child in the image accompanying the poem isn’t mine! He just looked small enough and vulnerable enough to represent the subject matter!

Most of all, I hope you enjoy the poem. I hope it doesn’t bring back too many traumatic memories in any parents who read! When a child moves up to ‘big school’ it really is quite the event and I felt it was just too much to deal with unless I got it down on paper. Feel free to let me know what you thought in the comments.