Poetry Worth Hearing: Episode 14
Welcome to Episode 14 of Poetry Worth Hearing. This episode features poems about work. Most of us, poets included, spend most of our lives doing some kind of work for money. Usually, it is quite unrelated to poetry. However, surprisingly few poems are written about the work people do, what might be called 'the day job'. Here, we have an interview and reading from poet and vet, Ilse Pedler. She talks about how her two vocations work together and gives us a reading of some of her poems directly relating to her veterinary practice. We then have a huge range of poems, published and unpublished, which approach different kinds of work in different ways. Sometimes work itself is the theme, sometimes the job is an opportunity to explore other ideas. Poets include Sarah J. Bryson, Stephen Paul Wren, Alan Buckley, Pat Winslow, Merryn Williams, Dinah Livingstone, Roddy Maude-Roxby, David Burridge, Helen Overell, Jane Thomas, Philip Pollecoff, Carl Tomlinson and Sarah Watkinson.
Ilse Pedler wins prizes for her poetry and practices veterinary medicine in the Lake District[ trying to juggle writing with the unpredictability of sick animals, she has also found time for thirty years of Morris Dancing! Her poetry has appeared widely, including in Stand, Magma and Poetry News . She was a winner in the Poetry Society Members’ Poetry Competition in Spring 2022 with 'These are the days of snow and ice' – and in anthologies. She was shortlisted for the Rialto Nature Poetry competition in 2014 and 2015, for the Bridport Prize in 2016 and the Hippocrates in 2017.
Ilse won the Mslexia Pamphlet Competition with The Dogs That Chase Bicycle Wheels, published by Seren in March 2016. Her poetry reveals high levels of skill in observing and recording the natural world, remarkable even from a poet who is also a trained anatomist, allied with a sensitivity to landscape and the lives of animals and humans:
Yesterday I walked through a field scattered
with zeros, wondered if it was a message
but it was where sheep had lain overnight
and frost had frozen the grass around them
Ilse published her first full collection, Auscultation, with Seren in June 2021. Auscultation, the action of listening or hearkening, has also a technical sense: the action of listening, with ear or stethoscope, to the sound of the movement of heart, lungs, or other organs, to judge their condition of health or disease (Oxford English Dictionary). This metaphor captures Ilse’s very serious commitment to her poetry: ' I … explore the idea of listening and being listened to through poems... I interrogate the importance of the types of care we give and receive'.
Sarah J Bryson
Early shift, Winter
Flakes like goose down float without purpose through the glow
of the sulphur street light over the garden wall as you unlock
the shed to release your blue Raleigh from the tangle of bikes.
You’re bundled up in your coat, with a thick scarf and gloves ready
for the descent of Headington Hill, through town to the Infirmary.
The cold stings your face. The dynamo whirs as it rubs on the rim,
gives out a flicker to show how the snow settles a layer of white over
the black Tarmac. You control the freewheel, gently breaking, your mind
focussed on not slipping, on getting there in one piece, the thought
of cycling back at the end of the shift, uphill all the way,
already weighing on your mind.
Post op obs, quarter hourly, reducing to half
then hourly, done routinely, depending on the surgery
using manual sphygs & communal stethoscopes,
mercury thermometers, popped under the tongue,
pulses palpated for 15 seconds eyeing the fob watch
quick in-the-head, times-four calculations
all noted on charts, clip boarded at the foot of the bed.
Respirations, unless alerted by wheeze, stridor, or cough
often ignored or guessed. One round finished
time to start the next.
Not just the obs, nurse, it’s not enough.
Check the wound, make sure you look
at the actual patient.
General Student on Psych placement
This elderly, emaciated man was so weak and bony thin
wanted to stay in bed, if he could; alcoholic they said
with a chronic wound. One for you, perhaps
as you know something about leg ulcerations?
We had convoluted discussions. Confabulations, they said.
He had a recipe for Campbells soup and poached egg
which he claimed makes a decent lunch with good cheese,
in times of need. I did try it, just once.
He told anecdotes about acting with Olivier and Dench,
gave his thoughts on the correct cooking of potatoes,
and the importance of poetry – after negotiations of timing
and his need for pain relief he’d let me re-bandaged his leg
while he quoted his favourites. I had Wordsworth, and R S Thomas
with swathes of Shakespeare, a little of The Shropshire Lad.
The charge nurse commented one day, after I’d been away,
that no one else had been permitted to do this dressing.
That morning I went to his room and he complained his leg
had been left too long, and stenched of flowering ivy, was leaking
green though the padding. No negotiations needed that day.
Afterwards he said he had something for me. A little gift.
I told him I’m not supposed to accept it. It’s against the rules.
He told me it’s not worth much. I checked with the staff nurse.
Take it, she said, with a shrug, if it makes him happy.
It was a small green hardback. The Golden Treasury,
with a dedication to ‘she who dressed my wound, with thanks’
taped in the front, with his card. The Sellotape’s gone stiff
and yellow now, after more than 40 years.
When I arrive his wife says, I know he’s dying.
It’s been coming to this for a while, but now
he has reached the reality of it - a changed man
who is diminished in size, whose bones push at the skin
who rambles a little when he wakes, then asks for a drink
but can’t manage to sip, who plucks at the sheets
doesn’t like the light, who’s breath is more erratic.
His wife is trying to stay strong, holding things together
and the daughter is taut, walking a tightrope, fearing the fall
not knowing what will happen next, what to do
how long this may go on, the wanting it over
quickly, mixed with the wrench of not being ready.
Later, when he’s more settled and dusk seeps in
his wife asks me to call her Mary, and her daughter Sue.
She puts on the bedside lamp, and Beethoven.
He knows what’s coming, they tell me, he wants
a cremation, not burial. He’s updated his will.
They show photographs, of his life, tell how, in his day
he used to coach the rugby and rowing, his pride in this
- their pride shows in the telling. There are tears
and laughter. A pause. Sue asks about the undertaker,
wants to know if they can leave his wedding band
on his ring finger when he to goes to the crem
so that it can stay forever with him.
Sarah J Bryson's poetry has been published in various forms, including in on-line publications and in anthologies. She is currently working on a pamphlet relating to her nurse training in the early 1980s, from which these four poems are taken.
She is a keen photographer and during lockdown combined her images with haiku style poems while involved with an on-line weekly broadcast "Live in the time of Corona."
She runs occasional workshops with Dorothy Yamamoto.
Stephen Paul Wren
Husks at dusk
I am thinking of the back of your head
I am thinking of the gold in your hair
I hold these coatings of seeds in my hands
I am thinking of the skill in your hands
I am thinking of the mind that made you
I watch the fading light paint walls at dusk
I am thinking of the job of your dreams
I am thinking of the speed of your mind
I search for what is hiding inside seeds
I am thinking of the work you have done
I am thinking of the calm in your voice
I know that pennies can drop when it’s still
I am thinking of the sick you made well
I am thinking of your life that was work
I get to the kernel of what matters
I am thinking of the gold of your soul
I am thinking of the pride in my heart
I thank God that I am your Dad this night
Dr Stephen Paul Wren studied at Cambridge (Corpus Christi College) and worked in industry for many years. He transitioned back into academia at Oxford (St Hilda’s College) before joining Kingston University in 2018 where he works as a Senior lecturer in pharmaceutical chemistry. Stephen's poetry can be read at www.stephenpaulwren.wixsite.com/luke12poetry and you can find him on Twitter @Stephen34343631. His book ‘Formulations’ (co-written with Dr Miranda Lynn Barnes) was published by Small Press in 2022. His book 'A celestial crown of Sonnets' (co-written with Dr Sam Illingworth) was published by Penteract Press in 2021. Also, Stephen's poetry has appeared in places such as 14 magazine, Marble Broadsheet, Consilience, Green Ink Poetry, Tears in the Fence, Fragmented Voices, and Dreich magazine. Stephen's Facebook group Molecules Unlimited is growing quickly and its third online meeting is scheduled to take place in April 2023 (with Philip Gross as guest reader).
Thanks to Alan for allowing me to include two poems from his time working in residential mental health which were published in Touched by Happenstance Press in 2020.
Alan Buckley is the author of two pamphlets, ‘Shiver’ and ‘The Long Haul’, and his first collection ‘Touched’ (HappenStance Press) was published in 2020. He was a founding editor of ignitionpress, and for many years was a school writer-in-residence for First Story. He works as a psychotherapist for a refugee charity in Oxford.
Strangeness in Reverse
Of all the things I’m warned about, this one sticks:
We never let anyone walk out alone. It’s the keys.
So I’m expecting strangeness to happen in reverse:
my first week, the weight of an iron gate, the swing of it,
the clang when I let it go too hard against the frame,
how four inches of thick brass warms up in the palm,
the silver chain that’s never still, the whistle.
But no. Handing over the keys is easy.
Even the goodbyes. The suddenness of tears is comforting,
the clasp of hands and, on occasion, arms.
So, not the parting. And I’ve long ago lost the ability
to be shocked by birds flying over perimeter fences.
I shred many things, not least the Official Secrets Act,
and feel lighter for that. No one knows the itch of a secret
that lies beneath the skin, how it burns to break free.
Unexpectedly, it’s the ID tag I hoped to keep.
They take it from me, my face shining out as it was
six and a half years ago. I am not that person.
The realisation bites and begins to deepen.
I walk out more alone than I ever imagined.
The prisoner steps into the painting his brother made for him.
He knows there’s no going back, that he must learn to swim
through colour, trust negative space, seek a vanishing line.
In time, he may decide that the cell he’s leaving behind
is a cube and cubes can be undone and spread out, made flat
like a net diagram. Walking in blue and orange he’ll find that
parallel lines often meet, that sound travels best by pen and ink.
Nothing is more profound than the silence of green, he’ll think.
And though he might not see his brother, he will on occasion
hear him sing. He’ll recognise the familiar scent of his skin
which is not unlike his own. Today, stepping out into the light,
he is stripped clean. He is his brother’s breath, without weight.
Nothing can detain him. He is beyond the margins of time,
beyond anything that suggests containment, beyond frame.
This poem was first printed in Hands & Wings, ed. Dorothy Yamamoto, White
Rat Press 2015.
Notes from a Prison Chapel
Sometimes when I’m waiting, the silence
reminds me of when I was thirteen.
Sunlight, holy water and incense,
a dozen veils in a cardboard box,
a candle flame in a small red glass.
Pray that the light doesn’t go out.
It would mean the end of everything.
I prayed – but it never did – I talked
and ate sweets, I laughed at damnation.
Endless flames were hard to imagine.
Outside, is a group of prisoners
who can walk on water – the lino
shines brilliantly in these corridors.
They’re grinning, tripping over laces.
They could be kids but for their voices.
Football fans, then. Sons with their dads
out for a pint before the match starts.
A group of workmates, a gang of lads.
How many? Numbers are important.
in this Home Office establishment.
Say twelve. You won’t easily forget
good men and true, steps to recovery,
the keys on a phone, bars on a gate,
noon and midnight, stamps for your letters,
the days of Christmas, the months, the years.
This poem was first published in Dreaming of Walls Repeating
Such faithfulness and loyalty
in these barrel-bodied burrowers
that come snouting for a place to rest.
They’re solid as armadillos
and snuggly as bears. We feed them.
We adjust their limbs to ease their sleep.
We’ll harbour a colony in our lifetime.
We’ll get used to their hammocked weight
as they settle to a ballast. Why deny them now?
Isn’t love always a kind of grief?
Pat Winslow has been an actor, a writer-in-residence in prisons, a collaborator on projects with the NHS, a storyteller and a humanist celebrant. She has published seven collections including Dreaming of Walls RepeatingThemselves and Kissing Bones with Templar Poetry. A winner of several notable competitions over the years, she is currently enjoying commissioned collaborations with film-makers, composers and artists.
When the Open University opened, people
said it could never work, and was a mad
idea; there were only two real universities anyhow.
It was my first job and I was terrified.
I got there, knowing no one. A field of mud
surrounded lovely Walton Hall, the ancient church and cedars;
not far off emerged a new city, Milton Keynes.
There was much that I had to learn fast. Then there was summer school,
teaching the great English and Russian novels to students
all older than myself. I stayed awake
and heard them celebrating through the small hours.
I agonised at the thought of public speaking.
I didn’t know how vast it would become, but am grateful
for all the interesting people I met, the skills that I discovered;
thankful, above all, that the Open University
taught me to write so as to be understood.
Merryn Williams was the first editor of THE INTERPRETER'S HOUSE. During the pandemic she collected poems from eighty poets for an anthology, POEMS FOR THE YEAR 2020. Her pamphlet, AFTER HASTINGS (Shoestring) is just out. Her New and Selected Poems, THE FRAGILE BRIDGE, was published last year.
Likeness in Difference
In Regent’s Park I hear the roar
from the football field.
In whatever language,
the roaring sounds the same.
Round St Martin’s Gardens
a mother walks with her two little ones
and speaks a language I don’t know.
Could it be Bulgarian?
But I do understand what she means
when she calls one back who has gone too far
or picks up the other who falls,
and comforts him, just as a mother
in English would call and console.
Translating that German book
was difficult. Huge compound words,
interminable sentences whose clauses
in unfamiliar order interwove.
Verbatim it would sound ridiculous
to us. I laboured to sort it out,
untangle it like garden wire or wool
with a will of its own. Sometimes I needed
at least three new full stops. A few days later,
re-reading what I’d done, I was surprised
the English sounded ordinary,
a normal procedure,
which is the same and not the same.
Yet actually I am glad
German is so German
and French so French,
that each language is so much itself
but using it is the same activity.
As Wordsworth says,
there is a peculiar pleasure
from likeness in dissimilitude.
In my garden I enjoy herb robert,
periwinkle, philadelphus, fuchsia, rose,
all flowering. Goldfinch,
blue tit, great tit, robin, wren
come to my balcony, all being birds.
Just ordinary living can be difficult
but here we are, doing our best
in London’s 300 languages.
In imagination that translates
into the city achieved and splendid
where Pancras and Kentish Town repose,
the hungry are fed, distressed are comforted,
all different kinds of humanity thrive,
each enjoying, enriching each other
and all share the common good.
This poem was originally published in Acumen.
Dinah Livingstone has given many poetry readings in London, throughout Britain and abroad; she has received three Arts Council Writer’s Awards for her poetry. Her tenth collection, Embodiment, was published in 2019. She is also a translator and edits the magazine Sofia. katabasis.co.uk/dinah.html
when the mask works
to wait in line with eyes closed to receive a mask
these are full masks with painted eyes they do not speak
we see out through slits our first deep breath is theirs
we have disappeared they are in play they are other than us
when our emotions rise they show in our bodies
the mask face seems to alter
when the mask pulls on a rope what a change of expression
the masks touch their stomachs and hold out a hand
They are begging said the Queen
The half mask comes to the lip they are the ones who speak
a girl aged nine in such a mask became a dancing dervish
shouting until mask off she tells us
I am the last person to do all that I am a shy one
But now if you give yourself permission ?
Oh yes and she leaps towards the audience
Roddy Maude-Roxby, founder member of Keith Johnstone’s Theatre Machine, Improvisation & mask, actor, teacher, artist, mask maker and poet, member of Jane Duran’s Wednesday Group.
The table - a theatre of thumps on a stretch of pine
picketed with flasks and cups. No man’s land
between ranting arms and finger jabs. Down in
the basement of knees secret notes are passed.
Derisory offer almost chair-scrapes an end.
Principles aired; realities faced. Everyone agrees;
better than a poke in the eye. Delegates
assigned to storm out, grudge back again.
A stubbing of fags signals closure.
Exhaled-smog hacks coughs, quells tempers,
A grip of agreements threatened with tear up
now briefcased for another year.
Words penned for a quick show of hands,
then back slaps and see you soons.
The room empties grin after grin, until
just the table barefaced remains.
Work Life Balance
I’ve got to get the rhythm right,
of fun and friends and sleep at night
Not too much to drain my spirit
That will never do now will it?
Feeling tense? Get to that gym.
Unravel muscle nerve and skin
The business lost well don’t be bitter;
at least you’re feeling somewhat fitter.
Yoga on the office floor
Nirvana reached by half past four.
Who cares if sales are down?
At least your Karma’s safe and sound.
Work life balance, really sets a challenge
I’ve got to get the rhyming right;
even if takes all night.
Once we all strove to be promoted into private offices,
Working spaces in which we could build our authority.
Entry always took a polite knock, then permission shouted.
Opinions swapped, confidentiality kept,
we thrived in our closed-door meetings.
Then open plan became the new ideology.
Everything to be done, sharing giggles and shouts.
It’s teamwork, they claimed, and made cost-saving sense.
We were all regarded as equal ins and outs.
As we bent our heads to tap in our thoughts,
we always wondered who was leaning over us.
A single sealed room was used for hard discussions.
Those who slipped in, then stormed out the street door.
Now office space is emptying and laptops carried home.
Work rooms are a zoom of book shelves and swollen heads.
Stay or leave just a finger click. Employees’ ideas are
systems infected; shouted and snarled across the world.
Face to face is now a deep fake - real shared space is out of date.
David Burridge has been a published poet for many years, appearing in magazines such as Acumen, Orbis and Dream Catcher. He has also published four poetry collections (Pausing for breath along my way, Making Sense, Child’s Play). His fourth collection, Streetwise, has been published by Cinnamon Press and a further collection, Ramblings of a Gentle Pragmatistis dangling in front of the publisher. Describing himself as a 'gentle pragmatist', he now has time to indulge his love of philosophy, having retired from a career in business and employment law. David is a fluent German speaker, a keen walker, and a passionate European. He lives in Oxfordshire with his wife.
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine — *TUC Centenary Occupational Health Department i.m. Jean C She works late, has the office to herself, puts the finishing touches to the article, tidies her desk, trundles along the corridor —
electric hum of wheelchair, squeak of tyres —
reaches the stairwell where the antiquated lift
wheezes behind the clang of metal-grille doors.
The daytime hubbub — flat-capped vowels,
polished consonants, accents the world over —
giving way to the rattle of galvanised buckets,
swish of mops over well-trodden floors,
good-natured banter, one woman to another,
in lilt of down-to-earth, workaday Creole. The whole building resonant with words —
talk as near to song as any she has heard.
*The TUC Centenary Occupational Health Department established in 1969 and part-funded by the Trades Union Congress, eventually closed in the late 1980's.
Deaf Services Team Meeting One person only speaks or signs at any time,
everyone can see each other, no-one in shadow.
The interpreter keeps pace, dance of hands, clear speech,
portmanteau gestures carry whole phrases, names spelled out,
lip-shape geometry deciphered, meaning shared, faces scanned for puzzled frowns, for matters understood.
Rumbled peal of thunder startles hearing colleagues,
the Deaf, bemused, ask a tumbled flurry of questions,
the team leader, eyebrows raised, shapes air into What?
stamps his foot to call order, calm returns in moments,
someone points upwards, right-handed, draws a downward
series of zig-zags as though lightning strike — thunderstorm,
minuted in shorthand with tick list for fire drill,
best practice minicom procedures, to be typed up.
Helen Overell has work in several magazines and some of her poems were highly commended or placed in competitions including the Poetry Society Stanza Competition 2018 and the Poetry News Members' poems Summer 2020. Her first collection, Inscapes & Horizons, was published by St Albert's Press in 2008 and her second collection Thumbprints was published by Oversteps in 2015. A booklet of her poems Measures for lute was published by The Lute Society in 2020.
Tom’s Affair with the Famous Ad Man
He was older than him, a few decades maybe,
Famous! he’d invented Snap, Crackle and Pop!
He had a light panelled party house in Hampstead
(wife and kids were out to graze in the Chippings).
He knew his way around the clubs (knew the
owners from Kings) and the young gayshas too.
He wasn’t as healthy or slim as he used to be,
something to do with skiing, and his left knee.
Tom knew it was over when he went from MAC to B2B
realised the lines weren’t new and that he had no USP.
Jane Thomas is currently working on her first pamphlet on the subject of Alzheimer’s. She has had poems published in magazines including; Stand, Envoi, ASH, Oxford Review of Books, ORbits, The Oakland Arts Review and The Oxford Magazine. She was also commended in The Poetry Society Stanza Competition and shortlisted in the Rialto pamphlet competition.
Poem for Emily on leaving Marie Curie to join Dogs Trust
No return for us to those times of mirth
about the sum of centurions in a legion,
funnier in situ and the answer’s 60,
I know, so unexpected!
I saw this painting:
The Only Blonde in the World
thought of you, the only Emily in the office
though that’s not true, I know there are twenty five more,
all imposters. I checked - in Outlook.
Your leaving proves that life is so compellingly unfair
even if it’s unfair for everyone, it is too unfairly so.
Joining Dogs Trust, half rhymes with keep in touch,
all our exchanges over these years
in corridors and office- kitchens,
the odd pint ticking over
in the Rose or Mother Kelly’s
and those flat-screen exec parades
where I’d seek your approval for whatever I was saying,
hardly amount to a weekend.
What more is there to attraction though
than finding the same things funny? Well, plenty!
Even so shared humour is a rare jewel,
yes, I am comparing you to a rare jewel.
What’s the point of travelling to the office
without people like you there?
Without you there.
Burning the world for others
Great uncle Philip you, a Russian Jew
selling matches door to door,
in 1908 around Bangor,
until the people saw themselves
in you and let you prosper. Though,
door to door means punched and spat
in sun and rain, a slap and slam lost
in a gale, for each doorway may bring
women ragged in leather clogs, a chatty
fellow, an angry man, an insult, a push, or a sale.
You daren’t accept - if invited in, in case
accused of theft, each small movement
of your limbs, each step and chill and
turn away and each pitch lets you place
food on the table for Amelia, Isi and Israel,
how the sabbath lights would have shone.
Philip Pollecoff was previously published fairly regularly in Smiths Knoll and once in the Rialto as well as various other publications. I have also had a pamphlet published called Carry This With You At All Times
Carl Tomlinson lives on a smallholding in the North Oxfordshire countryside. His poems have been published in South, Orbis, and in competition anthologies. Known to many for his hosting of reading in the Abingdon Arms and Live in the Time of Corona.His pamphlet, Changing Places, is published by Fair Acre Press. This poem first appeared in the Ver Prize Anthology last year.
A Song of Thermodynamics
Blanched cords of couch grass tangle on the fork.
Tread-moulded casts of earth mess up the floor.
Does order – or disorder – come from work?
New sunbeams pick out cobwebs in each nook.
The smallest must know what their toil is for.
Blanched cords of couch grass tangle on my fork.
What’s entropy, to spiders in the murk?
For wood mice in the wainscot, what’s a law?
Does their – or my – disorder come from work?
What’s buried isn’t dead. That’s just our talk.
Worms know that our remains are what life’s for
And spongy touchwood crawls upon the fork.
Earth loves decay. Its microbes feed on muck
Foul bags of bird shit, vegetable hair.
Does order or disorder come from work?
Roots live on captured sunshine in the dark.
Wake up! Smell the geosmin! Petrichor!
Fat couch grass rhizomes come up on my fork.
My order, their disorder – human work
Sarah Watkinson is a poet and plant scientist. She has published the pamphlet, Dung Beetles Navigate by Starlight and her first full collection, Photovoltaic. She is an emeritus fellow of St Hilda’s College and with Jenny Lewis, ran SciPo 2016-2020.
That's all for this episode. If you have any comments or you would like to contribute, please contact me at email@example.com. Contributions should be recordings of no more than 4 minutes. Poems should be unpublished. Please also send the texts and a short bio, no more than 200 words. I look forward to hearing from