Poetry Worth Hearing: Episode 18
Episode 18 focuses on ill-being and well-being and was inspired in part by an unsolicited offer of poems by Dan O'Brien and American poet and playwright. These were taken from his book, Survivor's Notebook, which treats the experience of himself and his wife of having cancer. Coincidentally, I attended a poetry evening on Poetry and Medicine organised by the Oxford poet, Jenny Lewis. I received an abundance of submissions, though surprisingly, very few dealing with the ill-being of the planet; however, a recurrent theme was dementia, which also appeared in the previous episode.
In addition to the reading by Dan O'Brien, Sue Wallace-Shaddad reads some of the poems she has written about hysterectomy and talks to me about the reasons she thought this topic important and the process of writing the poems. There are also poems by Anne-Marie Daly, Stephen Paul Wren, Rodger Holden, Geraldine Clarkson, Sarah J Bryson, Deborah Cox, Roddy Maude-Roxby, Math Jones, Benedicta Norell, Helen Overell, Lou Hough, Dinah Livingstone, and Caroline Jackson-Houlston.
Dan O’Brien is an internationally published and produced poet, playwright, librettist, and essayist whose recognition includes a Guggenheim Fellowship and two PEN America Awards.His poetry collections, published in the US and the UK, areWar Reporter(winner of the UK’s Fenton Aldeburgh Prize),Scarsdale,New Life,Our Cancers, and the forthcomingSurvivor’s Notebook. His collection of essays on playwriting,A Story That Happens,was published in the US and the UK in 2021.The Body of an American, O’Brien’s play about the Battle of Mogadishu and the haunting of war reporter Paul Watson, was co-produced off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theatre by Primary Stages and Hartford Stage (New York TimesCritic’s Pick), and at the Gate Theatre in London.The Body of an Americanreceived the Edward M. Kennedy Prize, the Horton Foote Prize, the L. Arnold Weissberger Award, and was shortlisted for an Evening Standard Award. Previous off-Broadway and regional credits include premiers at Second Stage Theatre, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Page 73 Productions, Geva Theatre Center, Actors’ Theatre of Louisville, Portland Center Stage, and Williamstown Theatre Festival.O’Brien lives in Los Angeles with his wife, actor and writer Jessica St. Clair, and their daughter Isobel. Survivor's Notebook was published by Acre Press in September.
I Wouldn’t Thank You
For knowing something I don't,
an educated guess or a firm diagnosis.
Carefully chosen words, stock phrases
and your personal mobile.
For chemo, and 'what to expect' after chemo,
symptom management, pain control, and palliative care.
X-rays, CT scans, urgent family consults;
the last consult.
For putting a brave face on it,
sympathy, platitudes, and meaning well:
"It gets easier....you get used to it"
For turning a home into a house,
a month's mind, anniversaries, graveyard visits.
Our lives before,
And facing them, after you.
Hurtling towards water
swept up in waves and euphoria,
grownups greet childs play.
And you on sentry still flanking
the shore, safest under your gaze.
To eventually join, tripping
on a wave, grounded yet smiling
we tumble in tandem, helpless
to the sight of you carefree
and tangled in laughter.
One last time gently we're scolded
from the sea, your fear of her
more than fare, later finding our own
tripping at the sight of you
grounded not smiling.
There are empty seats
in armchairs, cars and stands,
on barstools and beyond.
Lights fall on a shadow,
we call off the search.
Anne-Marie Daly is a 45 year-old Irish integrative psychologist living and working in Oxfordshire. She has co-located somewhat between Ireland and the UK over the past 20+ years. ‘The interface between emotional processing through talking therapy, literature and writing poetry is a long term preoccupation of mine! Themes of loss, exile, identity, ambivalence and adjustment draw my interest and interrogation. Upon losing my father in 2014, I felt compelled to write in an attempt to process this profound loss. Coming up on 10 years since, I find myself revisiting his loss in the context of my writing and other losses superimposed upon my plans to return to live in Ireland in 2024. The poems here speak to the relative obliviousness I luxuriated in on a family holiday, not long after finding myself transported into an uninvited space of terminal illness and inevitable loss.’
Stephen Paul Wren
The hairs on your head/brown-gold flax/gentle in their positions/how do I keep them safe?/impossible really/and your sister is not here/you are both so precious/red and white cells/our common blood/I am thinking of timescales/does your sister see the sun setting?/are her years the same as our years?/Heaven is a mystery/we will be with her in Paradise one day/ I pray for you now/I pray for your sister this morning/I ask for you to experience a long life here/let all opportunities knock for you/let all your biology function/settle like dust/not the dust of decay/but, the dust that becomes visible as the sun enters our lives/as if it comes from a different dimension/your skin marvels/it forms the outer rim of your body’s universe/it is beautiful/it houses the meekest of souls/I can see the light of the world in your eyes/your brown, optical sponges that never stop observing/and you only have good bones/angels are assigned to you/they are centimetres away/absently present/their fingers pressed up to glass/The insights you share/wisdom beyond your years.
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, Tears in the Fence, Green Ink Poetry, Fragmented Voices, and Dreich magazine. Stephen runs the Facebook group Molecules Unlimited which seeks to bring together poetry and science.
Death of my grandmother
You have become a childhood memory
though you are still living.
But it’s now you and I, and you are dying;
your head tilts back on your ninety-third lap
as you gasp for borrowed air.
I feel almost like a stranger, I am a stranger,
watching you pack up for another life.
I am no longer your grandchild,
not in that sense,
I’m an adult now, and a bit rootless.
In that room of dark and hospital yellow,
it’s just you and I.
Your eyes are closed -
and because you are well-bred
you apologise for death’s thoughtlessness.
This must be rather boring for you, dear -
why don’t you get yourself a cup of tea?
Rodger Holden has worked in the not-for-profit sector for the past twenty-five years, most recently at Crimestoppers, the anonymous crime reporting service, which is proving to be a rich seam for his writing. He has only just started to submit poetry and will be appearing in a Wildfire poetry audio.
A shaving of the afternoon remains—
that hour when charcoal air
would charm my misfiled thoughts to twilight.
I’d work well for a while,
let the clock swing its long legs round to four-thirty
then hurry to the front room
taking with me a triangle of light from the hall
to find her wrapped in holy dozing
and television dusk.
I’d rouse her.
She’d shuffle back
across the coughing chasm
between that world and this.
She’d say no to everything
except the same thin soup
and least-fresh bread
I‘d funnel all I’d known and felt
into the pouring of rolling water over coral powder
stirring salt-savour fast into the atmosphere
setting a dry roll
on a china plate
rubbing a teaspoon till it shone
placing a tray on her knees.
a dozen words.
Just popping back to childhood
for the afternoon, dear.
He called and was gone.
She rattled the door
remonstrated with the cushions
angled her voice to skim TV hum—
Left alone once too often
she griped to be a playground widow—
to have rubbed roughly alongside someone
at each fat step, each lean turn
and now— seven rooms of no one,
save the little boy who rocked
and ran ragged
swings and rugger
and yard and brothers
and river and class and her.
Geraldine Clarkson lives in Warwickshire and has had poems published in Poetry Magazine, The Poetry Review, The Rialto, Mslexia, Magma, Poetry London, Ambit, Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal, and The Dark Horse. Her most recent publication is Medlars, from Shearsman Books.
Sarah J Bryson
Time to talk
I follow him down the long hall
not catching his attention
as he hasn’t seen me waiting.
I don’t want to distract him
or break his concentration,
cause a loss-of-balance fall.
He shuffles a little as he walks
but still without a stick,
still with a soldiers gait, left, right, left.
So I wait until he stops at the door
clearly looking for me, she who promised
to be there just after two, after chapel.
I’m here, Tom, I say, and he turns, smiling
pleased with his plans falling into place.
First the service, then a good listening to.
Two weeks have wrought changes -
loss of weight, pallor, a changed posture
to accommodate the unspoken.
We go in, sit down in the sunny room
make ourselves comfy. He talks for an hour
or so, in spirals, about nearly everything.
A zest for life
She’d rub the lemon, vigorously
on the narrow edge of the big cheese grater
with her strong capable hands and waste-not
attitude, to harvest every bit of the yellow zest
for sauces, cakes, for lemonade.
The denuded fruit would be put aside,
later squeezed for juice, while the scent of zest
would zing the air with anticipation.
See her doing that now, her hands distorted
with swollen knuckles: still keen to get the zest
but slower now, struggling not to grate her fingers.
Sarah J Bryson Bryson is interested in words, words for well being, people, nature and connections between these interests. She works as a nurse, and in off-duty moments often walks for miles at a time, and takes lots of photographs, especially of nature. She has poems in print journals, anthologies and on line.
Here are four of the poems Sue read from A Mysterious Space.
After Mali Morris, RA exhibition
I never saw my babies
squirming in the sac of fluid,
the ballet of their kicks.
Now the consultant searches,
finds a different life form.
She hopes it is benign.
I contemplate the screen
as she examines what she sees
following the edge of a line:
a mysterious presence
in that inner space
that once held a child.
In the Dock
It seems unreal.
I don’t feel ill.
I refuse to worry.
Step by step
each corner of my womb
the mass they find
with forensic care.
I wait as the lab
grows captured cells.
when it comes
‘A borderline tumour’—
atypical but ‘normal’
a serious sentence,
I’m not going to jail.
Now recovering, I feel rather a fraud
as I hear others’ stories, how they’ve coped.
I should apologise for feeling so well.
My good news seems unearned, a blessing
I shouldn’t expect. I played my number
in the lottery of health and won.
It could have been different, I know.
I’ve had to measure the spectre of death,
a useful reminder to live life to the full.
I’m back on my feet but taking it slowly.
They’ll check me for another five years.
With luck, I and others will see it through.
I am a different person—
the same on the outside,
not on the inside.
I am missing
that part of me
which gave life
as if the gods
now hollow inside.
My children are proof
I gave birth to life.
Now, for the first time
as I degenerate
cell by cell
before their eyes.
Sue Wallace-Shaddad S has an MA from Newcastle University/Poetry School London. Her short collection ‘A City Waking Up’ was published by Dempsey and Windle, October 2020. Shortlisted for the Plough Prize in 2021, commended in the Crabbe competition 2021 and recently shortlisted for Maytree Press’ Three Trees Portfolio award, her poems have been featured in London Grip, Artemis, Brittle Star, Fenland Poetry Journal, Ink, Sweat & Tears, Poetry Scotland and in various anthologies. Sue also writes poetry reviews for Sphinx Review/Happenstance Press, London Grip and The Alchemy Spoon. She lives in Suffolk and is Secretary of Suffolk Poetry Society. Her most recent publication, with the artist, Sula Rubens, is Sleeping Under Clouds, Clayhanger Press, 2023. https://suewallaceshaddad.wordpress.com
When we met I could not write a line
I was so much alive; like a child
primed to the world through silent eyes.
Existence. No greater happiness
than this – drunk on time’s tick / caress.
Our thoughts were pure, our rooms a mess.
Wild wild love for you
could never end. I knew
it could make another life, a few.
Then we spoke. It was not the same for you.
You did not love. It was not true.
I thought cursed language had made you lie:
Sick rhyme - blue to the bone with blame-lust,
a bushfire of shame from the roots of my hair thrust,
making you sob (you were always crying)
until I was mad, like I wanted you dead /
wild with fear when you saw, thick head,
what your poetry had done: my love was gone.
In the storm we clung to each other for life
promising one day we’d give it all back
and forget it was ever gone; no sayings
to cut between us, no word for wrong
for our love will have begun to go on
and on ‘till time’s sand dunes touch the sun
Deborah Cox was born in New York but educated in England where she developed a love of English literature. She graduated from Durham University with a First in the subject and went on to have poetry and essays published before completing her Masters in Film Aesthetics at Oxford University. She then founded Little Ox Press which publishes books written and / or illustrated by children.
She is currently working on a second novel and continues to write poetry. Her personal website is DeborahCox.co.uk.
the wellbeing tree
as well as a tree the child
adds radiating lines above branches
a round sun as a smiling face
saying I am as well as a tree
through my roots fungi carry health
alongside where death grows
below ground a line of worry and
into the tree a crow is drawn
flying in with a human face
Roddy Maude-Roxby describes himself as a painter who became an actor with mostly good health.
You're through to the emergency operator.
Can you hear me?
I can hear you.
Are you in a safe place?
Can you get to a safe place?
Somewhere you can sit,
or lie down? You're not alone.
I'm here. I've got you.
I know where you are now.
I’ve got you.
I need you to keep breathing.
Confusion. I know, be Here, be Now,
be, your knees have gone. I know.
That's all right. You can let them go.
You can let them go. Ease yourself down.
Let them go. Keep breathing.
As much as you can. I know.
There's so much happening here. Inside.
I'm here. So heavy. Just let me be here
as it happens. No further than here.
No further than now. As much breath
as you can. Your heart is swelling. Yes.
Your heart is wrenching. I know. Your gut. Your jaw
is clenching. Lips shaking. Chin. Tight-
balled like the child's, like the small
hurt child. Lungs are not working,
insides are turning, yes,
the cry is coming, your chest is
bursting. your limbs are in seizure.
i'm here. i have you. the cry is coming.
can you tell what you see? it's okay to see.
it's okay to feel. the cry is on its way.
i know, it's tight. stay with me. stay with it.
stay breathing. muscles, are rigid, steel Tight,
tight welded, no room for breath, no room
for blood, for air, your heart is Tearing,
it can take this, it can bear this,
as torn as it is, the cry is coming,
the knife is coming. out. Out. as gasps.
as shocks. as small cries. it's coming. the tears.
are coming. the Cry. is coming. the breath. is
in gasps, the heat, is building, the heat, is Burning,
the wrench, has got you. the twist, has got you as
tight as it is
the howl is Here the howl the howl is erupting the howl
is Dragging the demon out of this hell,
the Howl is releasing, the Heat is releasing,
your limbs are releasing what has been held onto
so long, so long, so long, so long,
the Sobs are wracking, the dribble, the snot
and the spit, the hacking, the gasping
for breath, the clutching for angels, the heat
is releasing like Wings. The sorrow
is falling, like rain, made gold, made gold
by the sun, and the heat, is gone, has left only
muscle, and breath, and the ache of a spirit
been Wrenched more free. I'm here. I'm here.
The worst, is over. For now. It’s over. Rest easy.
Rest easy. Be easy. I'm applying, be easy, some light
to the wound,
as golden honey and light, to ease
the healing, and stave off infection,
let it scab over for now.
You can put down your feet,
the ground is here.
I am here,
whenever you need.
Math Jones is London-born, currently based in Oxford. A return to writing came from the urge to create praise-poems and verses for Pagan ritual, and later to write for perfomance. Much of the work is intended to be heard; often dramatic, often in dialogue. Books published are Sabrina Bridge, a poetry collection, and The Knotsman, an almost-novel woven from poems, rhymes, fictions and folklore. There is also a spoken-word album of Heathen verse, 'eaglespit'.
Walk Me Through the Softly Moving Air
Can you store up boredom
In a hidden layer of the soul
Like dust on the top of a cupboard
Building unseen year after year
Until a gust blows it all in your mouth?
How did you not taste it while you were ill
Missing the parties and the voyages
The exhibitions and the meals
And the walks in softly moving air
And then –
Your twenties were gone.
Your thirties spent
Catching up on what you were supposed to do
Like homework postponed by a sore throat or a swollen appendix
And then your forties –
Traumas gathered like mourners
Drenching the years in black distress,
Demanding disentanglement –
Give me the parties and the voyages
All the voyages to all the places
Move me in trains and aeroplanes
Show me all the sights,
Feed me all the meals,
And walk me through the softly moving air
Every day that is left,
Every minute that is left to me.
Benedicta Norell is an editor of fiction and writer of poetry who lives in Oxford. Her debut pamphlet, a collection exploring themes of abandonment, family and belonging, is going to be published by Black Cat Poetry Press next year.
Just outside the sash window
those red geraniums —
scarlet petals brash as freedom
inside, bedspread, cushion,
an empty wardrobe,
clothes spill out from an open suitcase
novels at the bedside,
an acorn for company,
scribbled notes, tick of clock,
hours puddle, pool,
seep out whenever a door opens, closes,
trays to & fro,
flowers fade, wither,
form spindled seedpods,
release feathered seeds,
bid this room farewell.
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.
When you put on your socks
with a jolt
it shocks me back
to a rented room
to all the times you got up for work
and left me in bed
too tired to think
or venture out
to the grey parade of joined up hours
the long, slow days
till illness becomes me like a perfect skin
to languish in
for all you did
you could not rescue me
which makes it feel unfair
to complain of the seismic shock
when you sit on the edge
of the bed to put on
It feels so long.
This sense of greyness.
You feel for him. He does his best. He keeps asking and asks if it’s ok to ask.
He asks you every day, even if the reply is always the same: Not too bad.
What are you supposed to say? How do you think I’m feeling?
How to explain, to convey the ache in your limbs. The loss of identity. You can’t do normal things, you can’t express yourself. The self begins to disappear.
Looking back, you are sure that knowing how long this would last would have made all the difference. There are calculations for a broken leg, so why not this?
The days are all the same.
You are part of another population now.
The not-at-work in the daytime crowd. The separate people crowd. Surrounded and alone. You do not fit. They all look old, and besides, your condition’s invisible. No one’s going to stand up for you on the bus.
You’re guessing they don’t cry at the dentist, then apologize over and over because they’re too tired to hold their mouth open.
The doctor has her own angle. Have you considered having a baby? She asks. I’ve a patient who was worse than you and could barely crawl up the steps. She is completely cured.
The suggestion’s surreal. It feels like a punt on better health and on a child not yet conceived, never mind born. It feels like a long way off.
The concentration’s shot.
You can’t remember basic words like chair or book.
It doesn’t take much to disappear.
Lou Hough works as a teacher of English and has tried to visit the joys of poetry onto a lot of schoolchildren over the years. Her own writing is influenced by poets both living and dead. She is a member of Back Room Poets and Oxford Stanza Two and has contributed to Ekphrasis Poetry events at the Ashmolean Museum. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Oxford Brookes University.
About the House
My house is my outer body
with its history and memories.
I’ve lived here more than fifty years,
both of us decrepit now
but let’s keep going for a while.
I battle every morning
to get myself showered and dressed.
Ready, I go down to the kitchen,
open curtains, put the kettle on
and make my toast,
achieve that first cup of tea.
Then tidy up. Housework
much the same as bodywork.
It feels as if the house is also me.
Now I live with an eccentric cat,
times when I am happy in myself,
my house, my shell.
When I wake to a new day
I see the London plane trees
waving above the terrace opposite
with its morning sunlit parapet
along which squirrels skip
and pigeons stroll.
Late in my white sitting room,
which is a pleasant oblong shape,
the peacock feather shadows
on its corniced ceiling
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, which has also appeared in various magazines and anthologies. Her tenth collection, Embodiment, was published in 2019. She is a translator of poetry and prose and edits the magazine Sofia. katabasis.co.uk/dinah.html
(‘The earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up,’ 2 Peter, 3.10)
Despatches list the recent casualties:
The forest fires across the Amazon,
Siberia, Vancouver, New South Wales.
Where are you, legendary Archer Li?
What nine suns can you pinpoint and then snuff
To save the earth from flame, that otherwise
Can be quenched only in the thundering hiss
Of oceans swelling over ancient land?
Beyond the pother of the galaxies
Will some remote and languid deities,
Paring their fingernails, note that it’s gone—
That live skin of the third rock from the Sun
That made it seem not just one other world
But blue-green, shimmering, immortal pearl?
[‘Myth: Shooting the Sun.’ Gunpowder on paper plus collage,
Ashmolean Temporary Exhibition: Cai Guo-Qiang, Gallery 11]
Caroline Jackson-Houlston is a retired English lecturer who likes to think of herself as an eco-poet, or even by that unfashionable label a nature poet. Her poems have appeared in the e-zine Rise, and in A Fish Rots from the Head. She has just completed a short pamphlet of her poems about Otmoor.
The podcast episode can be found on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Audible Podcasts, or use the link https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/kathleen-mcphilemy/episodes/Poetry-Worth-Hearing-Episode-18-e2b1i20
If you would like to submit to Poetry Worth Hearing, please send a recording of up to 4 minutes of previously unpublished poems with their texts and a short bio to email@example.com. Comments and suggestions should be sent to the same address. The deadline for Episode 19 is November 20th and the theme (very widely) is winter - winter of the soul, winter sports, winter of discontent, winter tales -whatever.