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Poetry Blog: ‘The cold does not embrace you.’

I’ve written about sleep and sleeplessness quite a few times before. It’s a topic that I keep returning to because every once in a while I’ll find my sleep pattern disturbed and often for a few nights in a row I’ll find myself either lying awake and unable to focus on sleep because my mind is racing or just out of bed, sitting downstairs in our house, wide awake.

This is a poem that focuses on the former of those two scenarios, although as a result of my mind racing, I eventually got out of bed and wrote the poem. It was a night where, if I’m honest, I’m not sure whether I was awake or sleeping fitfully and suffering with nightmares. One thing’s for sure; it wasn’t a pleasant night’s sleep and there was a lot that disturbed me. You think that nightmares are things you left behind in childhood, but then get reminded that you’re sadly mistaken!

The cold does not embrace you
yet, for a short time its shiver soothes your skin
like a smooth palm comforting you through illness, fear.
An uneasy dream shifts and your thoughts are strangers
caught in the void between the fevered images of disturbed sleep
and the disquieting thud of your heart as you realise you're awake again.
Without warning, the rough skin of working hands grabs at your jaw,
takes hold, clutches.
A strangers eyes stare out from a familiar face,
gripped by a mood you know all too well,
before one last squeeze,
then the calloused hand, shoves your face away viciously,
like an imperfect toy on a production line, rejected
not good enough to be loved.
You blink to try and wake only to find another face now,
her hot breath invading your nostrils,
her gibberish bringing spittle to your skin,
her disapproval at the runt of the litter writ large
in neon across unloving eyes and twisted expression
informing you again of what feels like their hatred,
before words are put in your mouth and you flounder,
helpless against a place you don't belong,
a jigsaw you don't fit.
Shaking free, you brace yourself, 
turn your collar against the piercing winter and stumble forward,
in search of somewhere warm.
And while these ghosts will always haunt you 
with their chill,
every once in a while the winter sun will warm your skin.

It feels like there are two antagonists in this poem. The first I’m not sure of and it would be unkind to speculate. However, the second is definitely my grandmother, who was someone that I had a fractious relationship with, at best. She was a woman who never seemed to display any warmth whatsoever to me, which as a child was quite perplexing. In company with my many cousins, I remember she’d frequently refer to me as ‘this one’ while everyone else got called by their name. Let’s just say that it was clear I wasn’t her favourite! I can’t say that her treatment of me didn’t bother me, as it did. But as I got old enough to make my own choices, I just decided to avoid being in the same room as her. Even now though, there are occasions when she comes to mind and it’s never pleasant. Hence, the words in the latter half of the poem.

I tried to end the poem on a more positive note, just explaining what I’ve just mentioned, really. Childhood memories will always be there and will always crop up and affect your day. But there’s always a positive to be found.

I hope you enjoyed the poem or at least it had some kind of effect on you as a reader. The memories I’ve written about were incredibly vivid and I hope that feeling is conveyed by what I’ve written. As ever, 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.