Poetry Worth Hearing: Episode Three
Welcome to the third episode of Poetry Worth Hearing. In this episode we begin with two poems by poet and plant scientist, Sarah Watkinson, followed by an interview in which she talks about science poetry and how, in a time of ecological crisis, we should write about Nature. We follow up with poems which look at different aspects of Nature by Andrew Dixon, Sharron Green, Margot Myers, Claire Cox and Eva Wal. These are poems about Nature and humans in Nature; as Sarah Watkinson reminds us, humans are always a part of Nature. Then we have an extract from a Zoom reading by Robert Etty who writes about the people and places of his native Lincolnshire, while Diana Bell takes us to the Black Country, Suzannah Houston to people and things and Lyn Thornton transports us to celestial fields with poems influenced by her reading of Dante.
You will find here the texts of the poems in Episode Three (anchor.fm/kathleen-mcphilemy) as well as background information about the poets and details of their publications. If you would like to submit to Poetry Worth Hearing please send your 4 minute recording to firstname.lastname@example.org. Further information about how to submit can be found in the post on December 7.
Rural Assets, Blenheim
Underfoot's not dirt, not soil - but earth,
skin of the planet where we live, allowed by leaves.
This morning bluebell shoots poke up. It's spring!
Moss glows green in the wood, paths run with water,
snails are on the move. Sun spotlights the palace.
Let's deny our dread at the jaundiced field,
think instead how like prairie a huge field
can feel, how a sea of barley covered the earth
last summer, foreground to a vista of the palace.
Let's pretend we're not offended at the dead leaves
of sprayed-off oat grass, forget our fear that water
flows nitrate-glutted even from the spring.
The farmer's doing his best. We spring
to his defence and praise how the field
is spread with sewage sludge, how flood water
drains off through new ditches, how gaily his earth-
moving JCB shines through quickthorn bare of leaves,
his entangled banks richer than the lawns of the palace.
The park is let for shooting; corporations fill the palace
with away-days and silver service lunches; by late spring
guides will talk of Blindheim, seen through tapestry leaves
on the eve of battle; show private rooms; Tatler, The Field
on rosewood tables; the animatronic ghost. Who on earth
eats round a rococo gold centrepiece? The ground water
that rises at Rosamund's Well - unholy water-
sells for souvenirs, custom-battled for the palace,
linked to a legend: King Henry and his girl, the earth
briefly theirs alone, the wildwood leaf-dark in spring
myth-haunted, concealing, with ho house or field
near; horned figures, magic, eyes behind the leaves.
Then, only autumn yellowed the leaves,
lakes and streams glittered with living water.
The ploughman dreamed his fair field
full of folk who'd never see a palace -
new grass and milk made their spring,
creatures beyond imagining, their earth.
This spring walking leaves earth on my boots. My house is no palace
but I have hot water; and my study, where I write and field calls.
with lines from Robert Frost and John Donne
You think, as the leaves
go down into the dark decayed
and the woods drip with winter
the world’s whole sap is sunk.
But buried isn’t dead. You only need
a child’s small microscope to see
inhabitants of this fermenting compost;
arthropods, larvae, snails and tardigrades
grazing fungal threads. A seething crowd
inhabits dark horizons underground -
layer on layer on layer of leaf-fall.
In November woods, you might hear
- as if there’s somebody there -
a scuffle in the litter. It’s only a blackbird
tugging up a worm by one end. Think of his body
as the apex of an upside-down food-chain
ascending from the cold furnaces of fungi.
Down in the earth, their filaments melt fallen trees,
break and reclaim the woody architecture
of daylight and photosynthesis.
Sarah Watkinson is an Oxford University plant scientist and emeritus fellow of St Hilda’s College. With Jenny Lewis, she ran SciPo 2016-2020 and she led O.U. TORCH SciPo New Network, 2018-2020. From 2019 to 2020 she was an inaugural writer in residence at Wytham Woods, the Oxford University ecological research station. Sarah is passionately concerned that everyone should have access to be in and learn about Nature. She is also deeply interested in building bridges between science and poetry. The photograph shows her poem on show at the Oxford University Natural History Museum in a biodiversity exhibition bringing together the art of Kurt Jackson and the reflections of university researchers.
Sarah has just published her first full collection, Photovoltaic (Graft Poetry, 20210) She has also published two pamphlets: The Woods of Hazel, 2020, with Romola Parish; Dung Beetles Navigate by Starlight, Cinnamon, 2016.
Recent Science Poetry books recommended by Sarah:
Steve Ely: The European Eel, Longbarrow Press, 2021
Essay on writing The European Eel, on Longbarrow Press blog https://longbarrowblog.wordpress.com/2021/07/02/body-of-dark-steve-ely/
Katharine Towers: Oak. Picador Poetry.
John Kinsella: Brimstone: a book of villanelles. Arc Publications. 2020.
Peter Larkin: Seven Leaf Sermons, with artwork by Rupert Loydell. Guillemot, 2020.
Anna Selby: Field Notes. Hazel Press, 2021.
Sarah Westcott: Bloom. Liverpool University Press, 2021.
One of my favourite poems: 'Wonder', by Thomas Traherne (not recent, but still relevant).
My own book, using various forms to attempt poetry about things I’ve explored as scientist. Sarah Watkinson: Photovoltaic, Graft Poetry, 2021.
The old man never really talked about the war
excepting when a TV program set him off -
the well-worn reels of London in the Blitz,
another documentary. God
how he’d huff and puff, yell at the TV
We’ve seen it all before! enough!
and then he’d pause, not wanting to go on
except for saying…’I was there you know young man.
The city lit up like a bloody birthday cake…’
his hands would shake before he settled back
and dropped his voice to say
I’ll tell you one day why I talk like that….
…We are in Hyde Park amongst the towering trees.
He whispers confidentially as if to mark respect.
These Plane trees took the force of bombing too
gave lives as real to them as mine to you
and others, they still carry injuries they bore
when shrapnel ripped into their heartwood core.
And for the many buildings round the park
the plane trees were protection from the shock.
How many Londoners know this, he asked -
the courting couples, people with their dogs,
the old, the young, the children at their play,
do they go home quite innocent of Hyde Park’s history?
And then he told me what he wanted me to know.
Why he comes here when he has the chance -
to find his memories and give thanks
that in the heat and hell of strife
the Plane trees, he was sure, once saved his life.
Andrew Dixon a scientist by profession, has come late to writing poetry.
His poems often come from noticing (or remembering) some small incident. He particularly likes to write poems that can be read aloud. He sings in a choir and believes that has taught him to listen, really listen, to sound associations and rhythms.
What was Wished for…
The plants had been crying out for weeks, in a tone that was at first round sob, then croaking rasp. A verdant request grown crackled and parched. Daily their colours deepened in ravishing desperation, a rain dance mistaken for attention-seeking. It was the thrusting thirst of dying petals. Then, at dawn, an amber sky signalled change. The sun was ominously blocked, the heavens grew flinty and weighted. The earth waited. In the distance, there was a rumble of disquiet – an impudent threat, mounting in intensity, drawing nearer. An army now of stomping boots accompanied by the pent-up tears of mothers. Heavy drops planted at random on the dusty ground, punishingly plentiful. The argument escalated, crossed boundaries, prodding the torpid, unprepared. So disconcerted was the ragged rain, fleeing from the uneven battle, it darted to the ground in spears, pierced past vegetation, to provoke a pungent petrichorus. Whilst the thunder receded, the rain persisted – waterfalls from an unfathomable source – sheets and curtains dragged down to blanket and smother. With no time to acclimatise, no time to savour or swallow, the baked crust gulped down the deluge with startled speed. Until it couldn’t.
Stomping pent-up tears
Ragged, darting spears pierce past
Shall I read you?
Will your words skip
from the page
and tantalise my tongue?
Twist and turn and tumble
out in torrents
or trickle timorously?
Shall I read you?
Can I process
Can I place myself
within your tortured exuberance
- empathise with your screams?
Shall I read you?
Will my heart beat
to your rhythm
and vibrate with your vitality?
My lungs swell
with the weight of your dreams
and propel them to the ears of angels?
Shall I read you?
Sharron Green, known as @rhymes_n_roses on Instagram, describes herself as a 'poet of a certain age' and shares poetry with elements of nostalgia, attempting to make sense of modern life and celebrate nature.
In 2021 Sharron completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Surrey. As part of the New York based Poetix University community, Sharron has delivered a couple of week-long poetry forms workshops on Instagram.
Sharron has produced two booklets 'Introducing Rhymes_n_Roses', and ‘Viral Odes’, the latter a collection of pandemic poems published by Ink Gladiators Press and available via her website https://rhymesnroses.com or Amazon and Lulu.
Here you are in the garden
out-yellowing the yellow daffodil
upstaging the polyanthus, cheer-leading spring
and sending the black bee into spasms, your pom-poms
pungent and powdered in champagne pollen as if this were
the Riviera or a bar in Mayfair or along the train track
between Florence and Pisa where I first saw you
floozing in yellow. Oh let me pick you and sit
you on the kitchen table in a vase.
Just thinking about you
I want to sneeze.
The Farmer's Wife
after Charlotte Mew
My quick little wife ran circles round me,
sparks flew from her hair, and in the swing of the gate
the frosty air – oh, the sharp young musk of her!
She'd dance sometimes, then curl into my arms
and gazing honey-eyed would nudge a kiss against my neck
as if it were a lover's bite; at night by the window
she'd watch the moon as it flickered through clouds
like a bowl of bright fish. I brought her fruit
the sticky thighs of chicken, tender rabbit breast
and she would lick her lips, half-glance, the slope
of her throat like snow. I sleep alone. Last night
I found her shivering by the door, awake
in heat to every skulking thing, her thick brown hair
grown rank — but not for me — for me
are scats of fur, the skin of grapes, crushed bone.
The Astronomer’s Daughter
You cut your teeth on the planisphere
dribble the gilded frame,
you like to spin its disc to the north horizon
turn day into night, time into space.
I speak of coordinates, latitudes and hemispheres
while you love to circle the deep blue chart
with the tiny moons of your fingernails
tracing each silvery constellation —
Andromeda, Orion — our alpha and our omega.
Sometimes you press your feet into my lap
flex your toddler knees and stand stiff,
straight as a rocket,
as if to shoot the star-wheeling sky,
dispute the science with innumerate angels.
and dance on the head of a pin.
Margot Myers lives in Oxford. She has a PhD on fairy tales; enjoys the surreal, the ironic, the unexpected. She has been placed or shortlisted in several competitions, and has been widely published including in The Emma Press Anthologies, Mslexia, The Interpreter’s House, Under the Radar, Cinnamon Press online, Poetry News,Snakeskin online. Audio for Poetry Worth Hearing is an exciting new platform.
I Meant to Say (2020) is her debut pamphlet.
Listen – I’ve clicking bones;
marrow reactive, I cleaned out
my isotopes before you were born.
Pinch your safety between my finger
and pricking thumb. Here’s a wind
for you to out-run
a broken road to gust down.
Tuck your families
under your wing and motor hard.
Creep back home and bury
your garden, topsoil parcelled
in blue tarpaulin. Bury your garden
under your garden. Cover over
with gleaming white gravel, its
sparkle will help you forget.
No. 4 Reactor, 26 April, 1986
1:23 a.m. and we’re dancing, palm
to sweaty palm, swapping partners
in the tubular dark. How the steam
excites us. It goads us to strip off
our clothes, crash into fourteen-hundred
ruptured walls. You send your boron
too late, too insubstantial –
like the iodine you will guzzle to fill
your thyroids or the vodka ration’s
oily day-time burn you think will flush
us from the greying flesh you strain
to shovel and to bury. 1:24 a.m.
and we’ve cracked open your roof,
scorched the night. From a mile high
we see flame and debris,
fire engines small as toys.
Snatched by the north wind, some
of us die young. Others eddy,
endure beyond biblical ages –
interstellar ghosts of hammer
and sickle: a crackle in the blood.
I thought of holding you
as a buzzard called across the valley
from behind the pines,
each spry needle dusted
what was over there? Lifting our nostrils like hunting dogs
we scented the source of it; turned our backs
to the water, waves bright
Claire Cox was born in Hong Kong, but now lives and works in Oxfordshire. She is co-founder and Associate Editor for ignitionpress, and is a part-time practice-based research student at Royal Holloway, University of London studying poetry and disaster. Her poems have appeared in magazines including Ink, Sweat & Tears, Magma, Envoi, Anthropocene, Butcher’s Dog, Lighthouse and Poetry Salzburg Review. She was one of three winning poets included in Primers: Volume Five (Nine Arches Press, 2020), and is the winner of the 2020 Wigtown Alastair Reid Pamphlet Prize.
The tiny thing
that you always kept to your heart
lies in a cradle of dark scented wood
pillow and cover of Banyan tree hair
You open the window
in this dark room of yours to
let in light and breath
sweetness and saltiness of air
The tiny thing starts to move
gently spreading its feathers
stretching clumsy wings
At dusk it will fly.
Das kleine Ding
das du immer in deinem Herzen trugst
liegt in einer Wiege aus duftendem Holz
Kissen - und Bettbezug gewebt aus dem Haar
Du erinnerst dich
Öffnest das Fenster deiner dunklen Kammer lässt
Licht hinein und Atem
Süße und Salz der Luft
Das kleine Ding beginnt sich zu bewegen
spreizt die klammen Feder
Bei Dämmerung wird er fliegen
der blaue Vogel.
When evening has fallen
I take off my fur
and put my feathers on
At dawn I let go my nightbird's
gown and see hair grow to fur again
Thick as felt in winter
wide and celestial blue in summer
I wear myself
In spring and autumn I cross a passage
I walk through trees
over mountains and wander
under river streams
I dusk and dawn
Wenn der Abend fällt
ziehe ich meinen Pelz aus
und kleide mich mit Federn
Zum Morgen entlasse ich mein
Nachtvogelkleid und sehe Haar
zu Fell wachsen
Dick wie Filz im Winter
weit und himmelblau im Sommer
trage ich mich selbst
Im Frühling und im Herbst überquere ich
Gehe ich durch Bäume
über Berge und wandere
Ich morgengraue und abendblaue
*These poems are taken from the bilingual collection, 'Poems in the Hourglas/Gedichte im Stundenglas' by Eva Wal.
Eva Wal is a visual and multimedia artist as well as a poet and writer of short prose.
In 2009 she published her first poetry collection “Marmorsee” (marble lake).
In 2017 she founded the group "Dada was all good" with participants of the workshops at the Arp Museum to meet members of Oxford Stanza 2 in Bonn.
Since the collaboration and friendship with members of Oxford Stanza 2, Eva has started to write poems in English as well as translating poems.
In 2019 she edited a booklet with English-German poems, “Oxford Stanza 2 meets Dada war alles gut”, together with Bill Jenkinson and, more recently, she has published a pamphlet of poems in German and English, Poems in the Hourglass - Gedichte im Stundenglas, from which these two poems have been taken.
Robert Etty was born in Lincolnshire, where he still lives. His poems were first published in literary magazines in 1985. The places and people of Lincolnshire provide the usual starting point for his writing.
His most recent collections are A Hook in the Milk Shed (Shoestring Press, 2013), Passing the Story Down the Line (Shoestring Press, 2017) and Planes Flying Over (Shoestring Press, 2020).
‘Etty’s poetry is characterised by its close attention to detail, but what marks the poems out most is their playfulness.’ -Stephen Claughton, London Grip
This extract is taken from Robert's Stanza 2 Zoom Open Mic Reading on January 24th, 2022.
Black Country Home
Where d’yow cum fr’m?
I cum fr’m where the air smelt of sulphur
and the smog turned off all the lights.
Where trucks rumbled all night
and spat coal on the tracks.
Where furnaces belched red ‘ot
and cullin towers breathed grey breath.
Where I erd miners boots marchin te werk
before t’er light.
and wimen lining up fur the buz to the factory.
Where the steel press put full stops
in yer ed all day
and the men drunk eight pints o’ beer at night
and went ume singing.
I cum fr’m where the cut passes under the road
and we walked the towpath on Sundays.
Where yow can get yer food on tick
and the neighbour keeps a pig in the garden.
Where the kids played on the street at night
and took the little ones to school.
Where mam took er washing to the laundrette in er pram
and carried the babby.
Where yow were always asked in for a cuppa
if yow knocked ont door.
Where the buz driver who comes from the Caribbean
calls yow ‘petal’
and people smile on the street and ask ‘Are yow alrite kid?
Diana Bell is a multi-media artist working with sculpture, installation, public
participation & painting. She often uses poetry and dance as part of her
work and enjoys collaboration. Diana has exhibited in France, Germany, The
Netherlands, Romania, Greece, Russia & Australia as well as the UK & has won
awards for her sculpture & for her work in hospitals. www.dianabell.co.uk
On and off they go.
Some dampened with tears, or snow
depending on how the day went and
where feet made their way.
Were you received, rejected,
The coats clean themselves
at the front doors of our lives
because we continue to go out,
to go on, with Mum and the kettle close by
and the shoe rack waiting
to understand why.
Genevieve never knew her arms were too short -
her legs were too long to play.
She just kept goin' out to the softball field everyday.
She never saw the faces that were making fun of her.
She sat there in the ranks on the bench giving thanks
'cause this was baseball to her!
Genevieve made her way into the towns on the buses
into the shows.
She kept playin' though nobody knowed
she didn't really have the skill - by damn she had the will!
Go on and knock one out of the park for us Genny -
Knock one out of the park for us girls!
You stood up proud when you sat down on backs of buses
while police batons twirled.
Knock one out of the park for all your sisters -
they sent the men off to war while you were fighting yours.
You bat like an eagle soars -
Your borrowed mitt the crowd adores
brave black one - just hear them roar ...
Suzannah Houston has had poems published in Envoi magazine.
Her collections 'My Our Fathers' and 'Triad' were long-listed in
Cinnamon Press competitions. Her poem 'Cornered' was featured at
Hollaback Oxford's 'Reclaiming Space' Exhibition and several
poems were included in Oxford's International Women's Day Festival.
'There, there polar bear '(Envoi issue 183) is being used by WWF
to help raise funds. 'A Donkey Named Mouse' is being shared on
the Donkey Breed Society News page.
after Dante’s Paradiso
how is it that I’ve arrived here
in this elsewhere world
so bright, it couldn’t be filmed
in common sepia
colours beyond description,
an artist’s palette falls short.
I have lived in monochrome until now.
Across the water Virgil’s ghosts, dazzling
beneath a lapis sky,
cluster by the shore line, then become
in this radiance, a dynamic radiance
that wills me on
but I stand transfixed
between crystal blue and gold
between the forest and open pasture
between the oak and quivering
the shingled roof and the lit fire.
I clutch a bunch
of primroses and gentians
from a meadow of that other world,
too timid to advance
(Inspired by Dante’s Paradiso, canto xxviii)
what can I tell you
that it was spring
in their abundance
what can I tell you
that the climb
had been hard
that this forest
was like none
other that there
was no going back
a curtain had dropped
on all that deep
what can I tell you
that arcs of pure
light silvered trees
that the soft cadence
of water merged
with the trilling
that a girl
timid as a fawn
called to me
a crystal stream
what can I tell you
that her honeyed
like the sea
that she was Venus
that her image
and it was
Lyn Thornton lives in Oxford where she tutors in English Literature and Creative Writing. She has an MA in creative writing from Royal Holloway University of London. Her poems have been published in numerous magazines and periodicals. She has been shortlisted or highly recommended in several poetry competitions She has a lifelong passion for Shakespeare and the theatre, reflected in her poetry. Her pamphlet The Tyring House, was published in 2021 by The Poet’s House Press.