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Sheenagh Pugh
21 December 2014 @ 02:17 pm
Metaphors do wear out sometimes, in the sense that the field from which the metaphor is drawn becomes unfamiliar, so that its meaning is no longer clear to those wishing to use it, and when that happens, the metaphor is liable to get changed. This makes sense, when it is changed to something that does carry meaning to the speaker. For instance, I used to know a nice old gentleman to whom old-fashioned bicycles were more familiar than geometry, which was why, when a conversation had strayed from the subject, he was apt to say "I think we've gone off on a tandem". This may, technically, have been incorrect, but it made just as much sense in the context as "gone off at a tangent" (as well as being vastly more original and entertaining). Ditto the fishermen's union spokesman, annoyed at new European quotas, who claimed his members were being treated as political prawns. A small insignificant fish, frequently the prey of larger species, would do just as well as a minor, frequently-sacrificed chess piece to make his point, and better, if he wasn't an habitual chess player.

What's harder to understand is when an idiom gets changed to something that couldn't possibly make any sense to anyone. "Toe the line", meaning to follow orders exactly, is clearly enough visualised in terms of schoolchildren or soldiers standing along a line marked on the floor. Possibly schools don't actually do this any more. But "tow the line", as we often see it written down by students these days, can only mean to haul a rope behind one, and it isn't easy to fathom how they get any relevant meaning out of that.

At least, though, there is a possible meaning. What on earth is in the minds of those who, wishing to say that something is up for debate, say "it's a mute point"? OK, they don't get "moot" because the Anglo-Saxon word for a meeting where you debate things is no longer familiar. But why would a debating point be silent? Then there's the impossible-to-visualise "off his own back" for "off his own bat". Again one can see how, in an era where cricket is less familiar, people might be missing the point that while it takes two players to score a run, it is only credited to the one whose bat it came off - hence, off his own bat: on his own initiative. But what on earth could "off his own back" possibly mean? Changing one idiom, the sense of which one no longer understands, to another that makes no better sense (or even any sense at all) does seem a bit baffling.
Sheenagh Pugh

Some time ago, I reviewed Sue Rose's chapbook Heart Archives, published by Hercules Editions. It was then a sequence of 14 sonnets, inspired by Boltanski’s Les Archives du Coeur, a long-term project to record heartbeats and store them on a Japanese island. The sonnets were each accompanied by a photo of something meaningful to Rose, taken with an iPhone, her own archival device - a multi-media project, then.

Now the sequence, expanded to 21 poems, has become part of a full-length collection, The Cost of Keys, Rose's second from Cinnamon. (Her first, From The Dark Room, was reviewed here.) Here the poems must stand alone, without the photographs, which they do perfectly well, though the reading experience is obviously different - less immediate, wore worked-for.

Heart Archives ends a collection which moves seamlessly through various themes and images. The "keys" of the title poem, which are door keys, morph in the next poem into piano keys, which in turn lead on to other musical instruments in the succeeding poems. Other leitmotifs develop and run through the book: water in various forms, photography, islands, above all, memories and archives. What is it, by the way, with keys in titles all of a sudden? Jean Sprackland's Sleeping Keys, Marianne Burton's She Inserts The Key, now this?

The description of that title-poem key:
Like a flag cast in iron, a stiff wind
caught in its holes and grooves

sets a tone for the collection: an exact, unexpected image that gives an immediate sensory impression. This happens again and again, making for a very visual, tactile read - the image of Murano glass "like bonbons, poisonous with sugar" not only comes alive off the page but, as an effective image should, slants our vision of the object. Another constant tactic is the merging of present with past and future, and this is very skilfully done indeed. At the beginning of "Guided Tour", we could be in the ruins of Pompeii or Herculaneum; by the second verse, doubt creeps in and by the third we know we are looking back from the far future at our own time or something very near it. Later we shall meet "Herculaneum" as a poem title, plus "Time Capsule", and both hint back at this poem. And in "Time Lapse", the year's exposure of a Toronto skyline recorded with a pinhole camera and
for eternity in the ether
while being erased
forever by the hot glare
of a scanner
transports us straight back to Herculaneum. By the end, we have a very strong sense of continuity, of the strands of blood, history, cultural imagery that bind our present to the past and will bind our future to our present.

The verbal skill throughout this collection, in fact, is impressive. She's also quite brave, using words like "palimpsest" and "cadences" that some critic will surely object to as "too poetic". Well, prove they don't work in the context, say I, and the only time I did think something could have been said in a fresher way was the "snowfield" bedsheet and "ice" heart of "Lacrimoso".

There is a lot of bearing witness in this collection, and many people who aren't alive any more. Yet I would not call it nostalgic; what is gone is not idealised and the poet's insistence on memory comes with the consciousness that nothing remembered can wholly die and that there is no need to "escape" to the past, because it is part of the present. The final poem of the chapbook "Heart Archives" is still the poem with which she chooses to sign off both that sequence and this collection: "D25072049", in which she recognises that our immortality lies in human memory:
The vessel for my remains
will be those who carry part of me
in their histories.
The down-to-earth tone there is typical: as in her first collection, this is a poet who can use deeply personal, emotive material and still avoid sentimentality or self-pity.
Sheenagh Pugh
06 December 2014 @ 10:09 am
I hate the List Season. Best books of the year, favourite books of the year, call it what you will: it takes up pages of newspapers that would otherwise be devoted to book reviews and it's boringly predictable. Novelists recommend their besties and are in turn recommended by them. Critics recommend whatever is abstruse, unreadable and will make them look incredibly clever, not forgetting along the way to marvel at why this choice has not proved more popular with the general reader, otherwise known as you crowd of ignoramuses who aren't as discerning as Mr Critic. Celebs from other fields name whatever has won an award or been much talked about and is therefore a safe choice. Poets are seldom asked to take part at all, but those few who are asked take immense care not to name, at all costs, any book of poetry in their choices.

There are, of course, honourable exceptions in all fields - even the poetry field, where the much-sniped-at Andrew Motion, as usual, has been recommending poetry in order to rectify to some small extent its general neglect by the newspapers. Whatever one thinks of his own poetry, few living poets have done more to advance the genre as a whole, both via his marvellous creation of the Poetry Archive and, in a smaller but still important way, by actually using lists like these in a productive way.
Sheenagh Pugh
01 December 2014 @ 02:52 pm
I like adopting personae in poems, partly because I intensely dislike the notion that lyric poems are (or should be) autobiographical and From The Heart. Poems, for me, are a way of being other, of entering a different viewpoint and consciousness, and that applies to reading as well as writing, for just as there is nothing more liberating for a writer than to inhabit another skin, so there is nothing more fascinating (and, often, revealing) than watching another author do so. Below is an example of an author, already working through the mask of translation, interposing a fictional persona as well, and I'm interested in wondering to what end.

James Elroy Flecker's "The Hammam Name" has a playfulness and wildly imaginative humour that have always appealed to me. Briefly, it concerns a young man who goes to the "hammam" or public bath (the word "name" in the title is, I think, the early 20th-century equivalent of "celebrity"). This lad is so impossibly beautiful (or is imagined to be so by the narrator) that not only human beings but inanimate objects fall in love with him on sight. Soap melts with love, a window shatters, bubbles burst like breaking hearts. The hammam's personnel are no more immune: witness the swooning shampooer's priceless line about the full moon.

The poem announces itself as being a translation "from a poem by a Turkish Lady", and this is where the business of persona comes in. It is indeed a translation, and a pretty faithful one both to the poem's events and its rollicking rhythms, by accounts I've seen (I'm no scholar of Turkish, but Flecker was). But this Turkish Lady is a fiction: the original author was in fact one Mehmet Emin Beligh of Larissa, an 18th-century male Ottoman poet.

On the face of it, there's one very obvious reason why Flecker might have wanted to put the poem in a female voice – in a male persona, it's extremely homoerotic, a thing of which Edwardian England might, at least overtly, have disapproved more than 18th-century Turkey did. But I'm not sure this wholly explains the Turkish Lady. After all, the reactions of the male bath-house personnel and customers are unequivocal and in no way played down. Just as educated English audiences were used to accepting, with varying degrees of enthusiasm or reluctance, the fact that Classical Greeks and Romans had more adventurous attitudes to sex than modern Christians, so they knew also that these things were managed differently out East. If Flecker wanted to distance himself from the poem's homoeroticism, all he needed to do was flag it up as a translation from its actual author.

What the Turkish Lady does, it seems to me, is add an extra layer of distance and fictionalising. In the first place, she isn't herself a witness to any of this: she can't be. The hammam was a single-sex environment: women were not necessarily barred, but they would not go at the same times as men. The Lady sees what happens in the first few lines: her young idol walking down the street toward the hammam. From then on, her own imagination and yearning attraction supplies the rest. She projects her feelings on to objects and people who, however hopeless their desire, are at least in contact with the boy in a way that she, in a segregated society, can never be. The soap may melt and the shampooer faint, but they do at least touch him, see him in a state of undress. Bitterness is born of beauty, she says, and the final three words about the frozen water have an emotional impact I don't think they would have in a male voice. Spoken by the man who wrote it, the poem is essentially funny and playful; the boy's inaccessibility more an amusing poetic conceit than anything else. In the voice of Flecker's invented Turkish Lady, it is still playful and imaginative, but the hunger behind it speaks more powerfully and the whole thing becomes more about fictionalising and reshaping.

The Hammam Name by James Elroy Flecker
From a poem by a Turkish Lady

Winsome Torment rose from slumber, rubbed his eyes, and went his way
Down the street towards the Hammam. Goodness gracious! people say,
What a handsome countenance! The sun has risen twice to-day!
And as for the Undressing Room it quivered in dismay.
With the glory of his presence see the window panes perspire,
And the water in the basin boils and bubbles with desire.

Now his lovely cap is treated like a lover: off it goes!
Next his belt the boy unbuckles; down it falls, and at his toes
All the growing heap of garments buds and blossoms like a rose.
Last of all his shirt came flying. Ah, I tremble to disclose
How the shell came off the almond, how the lily showed its face,
How I saw a silver mirror taken flashing from its case.

He was gazed upon so hotly that his body grew too hot,
So the bathman seized the adorers and expelled them on the spot;
Then the desperate shampooer his propriety forgot,
Stumbled when he brought the pattens, fumbled when he tied a knot,
And remarked when musky towels had obscured his idol's hips,
"See Love's Plenilune, Mashallah, in a partial eclipse!"

Desperate the loofah wriggled: soap was melted instantly:
All the bubble hearts were broken. Yes, for them as well as me,
Bitterness was born of beauty; as for the shampooer, he
Fainted, till a jug of water set the Captive Reason free.
Happy bath! The baths of heaven cannot wash their spotted moon:
You are doing well with this one. Not a spot upon him soon!

Now he leaves the luckless bath for fear of setting it alight;
Seizes on a yellow towel growing yellower in fright,
Polishes the pearly surface till it burns disastrous bright,
And a bathroom window shatters in amazement at the sight.
Like the fancies of a dreamer frail and soft his garments shine
As he robes a mirror body shapely as a poet's line.

Now upon his cup of coffee see the lips of Beauty bent:
And they perfume him with incense and they sprinkle him with scent,
Call him Bey and call him Pasha, and receive with deep content
The gratuities he gives them, smiling and indifferent.
Out he goes: the mirror strains to kiss her darling; out he goes!
Since the flame is out, the water can but freeze.
The water froze.
Sheenagh Pugh
30 November 2014 @ 10:57 am
My next reading will be at the StAnza poetry festival, St Andrews, in March 2015. I'll be at the launch on Wednesday 4th (Byre Theatre, level 2 foyer, Abbey St: free, at 18.30) and the next day, Thursday 5th, I have the great pleasure of reading with the renowned Anne Stevenson in the Five O'Clock Verses slot (Parliament Hall, South Street, 17.00, £5.75/£3.75). StAnza is a terrific festival; hope some of you can make it there.
Sheenagh Pugh
26 November 2014 @ 02:33 pm
Apparently one's nephews and nieces can be referred to, collectively, as one's niblings (by analogy with siblings but more endearing). I like this word. I don't know who invented it, or when, but it's always good when someone comes up with a word we didn't have and genuinely needed. Another such, I fear, is the unkind but forensically accurate Japanese neologism "bakkushan", a weird macaronic mix of English "back" and German "schön", meaning someone who looks gorgeous from behind but proves a fearful disappointment on turning round. That is very much a thing. So is someone who was once a parent but now is one no longer (and no, "bereaved parent" will not do; it needs a proper dedicated word, like widow or orphan, not just a definition).

Although I don't know a word for that in any language, one advantage of being a linguist is that you get to assemble a collection of these handy, ultra-specific words, which may not exist in your own tongue but do in others. When I hear people moaning because times have changed and they can no longer smoke indoors, drive half-drunk or catcall young women unchallenged, I think of them as "buivshi", the word Soviet Russia sometimes used to characterise people whose thought processes were stuck in pre-revolutionary times. It means "the former people", or "people of former times", and in that is reminiscent of our own "has-beens", but the meaning is different. Has-beens are people who were once noted, even famous, at what they did, but are now either out of style or past their best - an eighties pop star or an ageing boxer might be a has-been. Buivshi are people who belong in the past, who can't adapt to change. The closest in English might be "dinosaur", but apart from being a shade metaphorical, that connotes not just extinction but power, something that in its time was awesome, and doesn't quite convey the contempt in "buivshi".

Blumenkaffee, coffee so weak you can see the pattern of flowers on the inside of an old-fashioned china cup, is my favourite German contribution to this eccentric collection. Languages rich in compound words are especially good at coining new ones, but all languages have these words that are so particular and apposite, you can't think how your own tongue has done without them. They don't all catch on, or stay in the language. Blumenkaffee seems to have survived the demise of pretty cups with patterns inside, but the English "maffick", meaning to celebrate in the streets, came into use after the street celebrations of victory at Mafeking and soon died out again, though street celebrations did not. I hope niblings will survive.
Sheenagh Pugh
15 November 2014 @ 06:43 pm
Dear AQA

I've just been discussing online, with a student, the incredibly stupid and irrelevant question you set him or her on an "unseen poem", namely my "The Beautiful Lie", see below. You ask "What do you think the poet is saying about parenthood?"

Please read said poem and tell me where in it there is any mention of parenthood, or indeed any parents. It's about a young child discovering, for the first time, how to interpret the world differently, i.e. tell a lie, and how he realises this is the doorway to artistic creativity, the key to telling stories, painting pictures, making up characters. Due to this daft question you have set, the student has supposed that the lie at the centre of the poem must in fact be a Bad Thing and that the poem's "message" (I'm sure you think poems must have a message) is that parents should discourage lying. Admittedly the student has, in order to arrive at this interpretation, had to ignore all the positive vocabulary that builds up around the "lie" from the title on. But that's easily done; he or she has simply assumed that the celebration of the "beautiful lie" and all it leads to must be "ironic".

In the poem there's a grandmother, a grandson and an unnamed narrator who chooses not to reveal his or her relationship to the boy. This narrator spends the whole time undermining what he/she has already said: giving us "facts" and then admitting they may have been misremembered or simply invented. We shall never know, because that's what writers do. Much as I generally agree that the interpretation of a poem is a matter for reader as well as writer, you do need to back up said interpretation from the text, and if you can find me so much as a single phrase in the text that suggests the poem says anything at all about parenthood, I'll be mightily surprised. It's things like this that make me think it would be better if poetry were not taught (and certainly not tested) in schools at all, rather than by those who have no understanding of it.

The Beautiful Lie

He was about four, I think... it was so long ago.
In a garden; he'd done some damage
behind a bright screen of sweet-peas
- snapped a stalk, a stake, I don't recall,
but the grandmother came and saw, and asked him:
"Did you do that?"

Now, if she'd said why did you do that,
he'd never have denied it. She showed him
he had a choice. I could see, in his face,
the new sense, the possible. That word and deed
need not match, that you could say the world
different, to suit you.

When he said "No", I swear it was as moving
as the first time a baby's fist clenches
on a finger, as momentous as the first
taste of fruit. I could feel his eyes looking
through a new window, at a world whose form
and colour weren't fixed

but fluid, that poured like a snake, trembled
around the edges like northern lights, shape-shifted
at the spell of a voice. I could sense him filling
like a glass, hear the unreal sea in his ears.
This is how to make songs, create men, paint pictures,
tell a story

I think I made up the screen of sweet peas.
Maybe they were beans; maybe there was no screen,
it just felt as if there should be, somehow.
And he was my - no, I don't need to tell that.
I know I made up the screen. And I recall very well
what he had done.
Sheenagh Pugh
04 November 2014 @ 09:34 am
Let them enjoy their little day,
Their humble bliss receive.
Oh! do not lightly take away
The life thou canst not give!

Thomas Gisborne, in that verse, was exhorting his reader to avoid treading on a worm. Anyone who takes it on himself to abridge a human life had better have a bloody good reason, ie one very much better than profit, spite or possessiveness. I can just about see a justification, in a case where someone's life does far more harm than good in the world, particularly if it threatens the lives of others.

But Anne Cluysenaar was a witty, warm, cosmopolitan woman and a thought-provoking poet. I met her several times and always had fun in her company. If she'd died in the way of nature; well she was 78; one would boast, with Chaucer's young drunks, "we wol sleen this false traytour Deeth" and then realise ruefully that there's nothing to be done. But she was, apparently, murdered, and that makes me very angry. Do we get so much time here, that we can afford to lose any? She was still writing, she published a book this year and I don't suppose her friends and family were at all ready to lose her. I'd need a lot of convincing that she ever did more harm than good, or that whoever assumed this right was able to give the world anything as worthwhile as "Whatever we're made of, it wants to know/
how it came to be what it is." Here's the rest of that poem of hers:

Hunting the Higgs

No wonder they love a laugh, the physicists.
What ever they find or don't, it's OK.
Symmetries of the world just remnants
of those which, if perfect, would only have led to

no world at all – anti-matter, matter
would have cancelled each other out. Maybe.
Or maybe not, if the theory is at fault.
And if it is? More exciting still.

Whatever we're made of, it wants to know
how it came to be what it is. In us,
for a while at least, the stuff of stars
gets a glimpse of its own precarious life.

Like a single life, that will soon be gone.
Universes before, maybe, or after
our own, we won't ever get to explore.
They make up what is, though. And here we are!
Sheenagh Pugh
21 October 2014 @ 01:39 pm
I have a poem in a new anthology of poems inspired by popular culture, Double Bill, ed. Andy Jackson, pub. Red Squirrel Press. It has poems by a great many different poets, on subjects from Frank Sinatra to Bagpuss - mine, which is called "Oral English", is about Julian & Sandy from Round the Horne and was inspired by an anecdote of Barry Took's about a puzzled letter he once received from a Japanese gentleman who was trying to improve his colloquial English with the aid of The Bona Book of Julian and Sandy.  His letter went as follows: Ichigoro Yuchida to Barry Took: "Dear Sir, I am reading with an teacher, The Bona Book of Julian And Sandy. Mainly for the purposes of picking up slangs and very colloquial expressions. My English teacher is well trained in the job, and quite able in every way as a language teacher. Yet he still has some difficulty handling the queer and funny languages, brimming over the pages. I should be more than happy if you would kindly answer the following questions and let me know what they mean in plainer language. One, naff is it, page 25. Two, he's got the polari off hasn’t he. Three, but did you manage to drag yourself up on deck, page 27. I am sorry but I can't see what Mister Horne meant. Sincerely yours, Ichigoro Yuchida..." Took replied, with urbane courtesy, and a correspondence ensued.

You can buy Double Bill here or here. And here's the poem:
Oral English

Ichigoro Yuchida, keen to improve
his colloquial English, puzzles over

a text with his (equally baffled) teacher.
They can't seem to find dolly old eek

in the phrasebook.  And why, during a shipwreck,
should Mr Horne laugh when our heroes

drag themselves up on deck?  So many queries…
in the end, they think best to seek wisdom

from the writer, which is how they come,
courtesy of Mr Took, to knowledge

of some comic stereotypes, a secret language,
a national habit of wryness, a way of talking

as if one could make a joke of anything,
of code, of hiding from the law, of love.
Sheenagh Pugh
08 October 2014 @ 01:17 pm
Most Norwegian towns and cities are very tidy, and though that is also true in the English sense, I mean it mostly in the Welsh sense, ie respectable, well to do and with an indefinable sense of everything being right. Bergen, it's true, has a slightly raffish air, like the younger son of a prosperous family who's decided to play at bohemians for a few years before settling down to practise law. (Oslo, from my admittedly limited experience of it, is more like the daughter who went to the Sorbonne and came back thinking herself several cuts above all her relatives). Bergen is less sophisticated and more fun. If you're there in summer, don't miss visiting the former leper hospital, which is one hell of a story.

Going up the coast, Ålesund, like almost all the wooden towns in Norway, was forever burning down; in Ålesund's case it was destroyed in 1904. It was their good luck that Kaiser Bill, of all people, used to go yachting there (it still has a considerable marina and port area) and he put a lot of money into rebuilding it in the art nouveau style. Since there were no more fires of note, it's still very much in one style, and its palette is pastel, rather than the bright primary colours of many Norwegian towns. Ålesund is an older second cousin, pretty and elegant but inclined to hark back to whichever decade saw her heyday.

Trondheim used to burn down a lot too, until after one such conflagration in 1681, the then mayor thought "what a good idea it'd be if all our houses didn't burn down every few years" and hired a Luxemburger called Johan Caspar von Cicignon to make a city plan based on broad streets so that any fires could be contained. The result is that today's centre has a lot of old buildings, wide tree-lined boulevards and no real congestion. And the river Nid, and an austerely lovely cathedral. Trondheim is a beautiful maiden aunt of indeterminate age and independent means, with impeccable taste and manners but a very relaxed outlook on life. As may be obvious, I'm rather besotted by it.

Next up, just inside the Arctic Circle, comes Bodø, tidy, with an aviation museum and, at least to a visitor's eye, very dull. But its inhabitants love it, even taking pride in its frankly undistinguished architecture, so there must be more to it than meets a tourist's eye. (It does have the original maelstrom nearby). I think of it as the male cousin who's essentially friendly and decent, if a bit of a bore.

Tromsø is the big exception to the "Norwegian towns are tidy" rule, and I can only put this down to the big student population. It has many old buildings and some spectacular new ones, but a lot of its streets look run-down, the pavements are a danger to life and limb and the whole place has a frontier-town, unfinished air. It's definitely a student son, and not a bookish one either, more the kind who gets out of bed just in time to watch Bargain Hunt and never remembers when it's bin day.

Very unlike Hammerfest, which is further north but definitely tidy. North of Tromsø you are into the tract where the retreating German forces in WW2 carried out a shocking scorched-earth policy as the Red Army approached. Lothar Rendulic, the Austrian Nazi governor of North Norway, burned entire towns to the ground, with winter coming on; Hammerfest folk were reduced to living in caves. There's a Reconstruction Museum that details it all.  Hammerfest made a conscious decision to rebuild modern, not old-style, and did it well. From the sea, and from above, it is a white triangle among greenery, not unlike the fanciful mediaeval descriptions of Algiers as a diamond set among emeralds. Hammerfest is your bachelor uncle who lives in a penthouse, all glass and wood and the sort of minimalist design you pay a fortune for.

In Kirkenes, close to the Russian border, the people took shelter from Rendulic's burnings in the town's mines, from which they were literally brought back to light by the Red Army. There's a lot of Russian influence, with a Russian market every last Thursday of the month, and Russian street signs. The actual border is in a forest that looks like Narnia, and the Pasvik river valley is very pretty, but the town is plain, cheerful, no-nonsense industrial and maritime; they repair ships and are profiting from increased petroleum-drilling activity in the Barents Sea. Kirkenes is your uncle who's always on his travels, and turns up every so often with exotic presents and even more exotic stories which your mother wishes he wouldn't tell in mixed company.
Sheenagh Pugh
20 September 2014 @ 02:36 pm
In an earlier post, I talked about different things coming together to produce a poem. The poet Bethany W Pope has been discussing sestinas on Facebook lately, and it reminded me of how long I'd wanted to write a sestina before I actually did. Like Bethany, I love the intricacy and playfulness of this form, based around six key words that recur in different places in the verse, ideally not always with the same meaning but using all possible senses, homonyms, even grammatical forms. One issue I had with it, however, was that in a conventional sestina, it's pretty obvious from the start what one is doing; the form is like scaffolding left up on a building and to my eye, dominates the subject matter too much. I didn't see how to get over this one until I read sestinas by people like Paul Muldoon and Paul Henry, who disguised the form by putting line and verse breaks where they aren't expected, so that at first reading it might not strike the reader as a sestina at all.

But I still had a problem with finding what seemed to me to be suitable subject matter, so that the form would seem natural and organic to the poem, rather than the poem seeming to have been invented for the sake of filling out the form. This happened when I read a biography of Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I's spymaster. He ran many agents, who naturally used aliases, fake IDs, codes and all the other paraphernalia of their trade, and I could see how this could be mirrored both in the six key words with their shifting shapes and meanings, and by disguising the form itself. For the first time ever, I was looking at a theme - secrecy, personation, encoding and code-breaking - that actually seemed to want this abstruse form. Of course, having taken years, three of them then came along at once, like buses, and became a sequence called "Walsingham's Men", which is in my new collection Short Days, Long Shadows, to be had from Messrs Seren and no doubt very few good booksellers... Here's one.


3. Decoder
Thomas Phelippes, alias John Morice, alias Peter Halins, 1598

When, in the street, he catches foreign words
- Spanish, Italian, French – he can sense
his thought shifting, see the world remade,
but if the language be one he does not know,
he follows, caught, longing for sounds to resolve
into a pattern, to begin to mean
                      This maggot has been the means
of his advance; it is not only words
he has a feel for. He can make sense
of symbols, letters, language unmade
by cipher, a crafted chaos he knows
for a world, for plans that dissolve
in the code's chrysalis, and will resolve
again to damn their authors. All means
of ciphering can be unlocked: the words
run together, the strings of nonsense
that mask how sentences are made,
the nulls, the substitutes.
                                              He seeks to know
what the enemy knows, what they think he knows,
to read their mind's language, to solve
their uncertainties, decode what they mean
to do. When sometimes they put into words
less than he knows they think, he turns the sense
to speak the truth. Their letters remade,
he sends them on their way, having first made
copies for all who need to know.
Some trust to alum ink, that dissolves
and fades on the page; he reads it by means
of fire. Their cipher keys, their passwords
open to him. People see him, and sense
no danger: so small and thin, in no sense
memorable, a null.
                                   His fortune's made,
yet, for all the languages he knows,
figures are the code he can't solve,
the closed book. His debts many, his living mean,
he will get out of jail only with words,
demeaning himself to men who see sense
in his accounts, that wordless hash, who know
how to solve his life, the mess he's made.
Sheenagh Pugh

"I am not an historian, but at 91 I am history and I fear its repetition"

Harry Leslie Smith's father was a miner in the early years of the last century, like my own grandfather, and the only difference between them was that, as Smith observes, a miner in those days was only ever one accident away from destitution. My grandfather was relatively lucky, surviving to his sixties with an impressive collection of lung diseases: Smith's father had the accident that plunged the family into real poverty.

It isn't often I go in for saying "if you liked this, you'll like that", but in this case it is a fair guide: if you found Ken Loach's film "Spirit of 45" both moving and alarming, you will want to read this book. Harry Leslie Smith is another from the same stable as Sam Watts and Ray Davies, interviewed in that film. Born in 1923, he grew up in the Depression years in such poverty that joining the army to fight in World War 2 felt more like an escape than anything else. He then emerged, with so many other young working-class people, into the sunlit uplands of a country that for the first time in its history was actually trying to bring about decent housing, education and a health service for people like him. And naturally he thought it was going to last, so that his own children and grandchildren would never be in danger of repeating the life of his mother, worn down by poverty and so suspicious of authority that she saved as much as she could of her pension in case the government might suddenly change its mind and want it back. Or of his father, whose marriage broke up when he became unable to support his family, or his sister Marion, who died of TB in childhood.

Now in his nineties, seeing the wreck of all he once saw built up, he is naturally puzzled and annoyed: "Sometimes I try and think how I might explain to Marion how we built these beautiful structures in our society – which protected the poor, which kept them safe at work, healthy in their lives, supported them when they were down on their luck - only to watch them be destroyed within a few short generations. But I cannot find the words".

That, though, is just what he did do, by setting down the story he sees the world in danger of forgetting: the narrative of the slum housing in which he grew up, where no amount of cleaning could eradicate damp and vermin, of disease which could not be cured because doctor's fees could not be afforded, of education unavailable to children whose families could not spare the wages they might bring in. (Harry's own education, like so much else, really began in 1945 when he went to adult education classes.) As one of his chapter headings says, "everything old is new again" and he is concerned in this book to warn "we have to take back control, or soon we won't have a social welfare system, we won't have free or affordable health care, we won't have safe neighbourhoods and we won't have decent school. We will have the world of my youth, where people died from poverty and preventable illnesses and lived short, unfulfilled lives".

How this control might be returned is a tricky question, because one thing that has changed about the world is the amount of power in the hands of multinational corporations with no aims or obligations outside the making of money. Harry Leslie Smith is an unusual man, who sees beyond boundaries that restrict the vision of others, as he showed when, in post-war Germany, he overcame his hostility to his former enemies to the extent of marrying a German woman. He has no time for the demonisation of minorities, the fragmenting of those who have a common cause if they could only see it, nor for the fashionable apathy that says "what's the point of voting?". He does have some practical suggestions for making our world better, like going after corporate tax evaders and amending the voting system. But mostly, as I think he himself suspects, it is a matter of spirit, the spirit in which he and his generation not only "voted for the future" in 1945 but were prepared also to work and pay tax for it. It's a question of whether that spirit still exists: when he says "I am history", we must hope this is only true in the sense that he and his kind lived through it, and not in the modern slang sense of the phrase.
Sheenagh Pugh
12 September 2014 @ 04:45 pm
An article in yesterday's Grauniad quoted the Poem We Don't Mention and linked to a page at the Wondering Minstrels site that had printed it. Foolishly I followed to see if they'd at least printed it without any typos, and was soon helpless with mirth. The site had recorded my known views on the poem, so of course there were the usual hurt remarks below, saying for instance "you must try to like it" (no, actually I "must" do nothin' - to quote Barbossa). I'm sure the word "ungrateful" cropped up too; it usually does, to my complete bafflement.

But the laugh-out-loud bits - two priceless quotes:

1. "the fact that you sold it to (sic) a English GCSE exam board" Ha! Dear punter, GCSE exam boards in the UK are exempt from copyright. They can and do take and use anyone's work without paying, asking or even having the courtesy to inform them. Sell them anything? I'd like to see you try!

2. "I bet you still take the buckets of royalties that Sometimes brings in!" Oh, pick me up from the floor, someone! Now, Mr Know-all, please listen carefully. Most people who reprint poems don't bother to ask, and certainly don't offer money. That includes national newspapers; the Telegraph once reprinted this one, without my knowledge. Those that do ask are almost always representing charitable anthologies and don't have money to offer either, not that I wouldn't give them poems free for a charity I approve of; I'd just rather it wasn't this poem). As it happens, I do not accept money for this one because on the rare occasions I let some charity use it, I insist they leave my name off. But I'm not exactly losing much, because those anthologies etc that do offer money for reprints, which in my case happens maybe twice a year, will be offering about £20 if you're lucky. Yeah, rolling in it, us poets are.
Sheenagh Pugh
12 September 2014 @ 09:28 am
Is there a way of disabling LJ messages? I've gone through the FAQ but can't find it. I hardly ever remember to check them and it'd be much better (and less embarrassing) if folks couldn't contact me that way.

ED: dunnit, thanks to Espresso Addict!
Sheenagh Pugh
11 September 2014 @ 12:20 pm
In a recent Facebook post, I mentioned that I'd written a couple of poems after a long fallow period, or more accurately, a long period when I had written, but not thought anything worth keeping. In the comments, someone asked a question, not the old chestnut "where do you get your ideas from", but the far more interesting question of why some of these ideas end up as poems while others prove intractable, and what the process is that sends them one way or t'other.

To start with the two I wrote this week, which came from two very different places and followed different routes to completion. The first derived from a thought I had about my neighbour's trees, and an image I could pretty immediately see them providing. This, for me, is a good place to start, because poems that start from things or images, for me, are a lot more likely to get written than ones that start because I feel like writing a poem on a certain theme. The latter usually end up more like lectures, or at least prose. The core image then meshed with a couple of other things currently going on in my mind and the neighbourhood, all of which I could see were tending the same way. I wrote the poem quite quickly, over a couple of days.

The second was quite different. It derived from something I'd read in a history book about a year or more ago and been, at the time, much moved by. I'd had a perfunctory go at writing about it at the time and got nowhere. I was reminded of it because an email arrived with some proofs to check, of an interview I'd done for a book. In this interview I'd mentioned that I was working on this idea, and when I read the proofs, I thought perhaps I'd better go back and do something about it.

I was into half-rhymed terza rima at the time, and started out trying to work the idea into this form. It fell into it easily enough, but it wasn't exciting me and I could see the thing going the way of so many poems I'd started and abandoned as not being keepers. But I was sure this one had something going for it as an idea, so I persisted, but abandoned the terza rima. The breakthrough was an idle reflection that if Cavafy had happened to know of this particular event, he'd surely have written about it. Light went on in head: okay, thinks I, we'll channel him and see if we can figure out how he'd have handled it. Which I did, and ended up with something I liked. It isn't, I hope, imitation Cavafy; apart from anything else, it doesn't rhyme, which most of his did, but there's definitely an influence there, especially in the way the incident gets seen through the eyes of a character in the poem, which I hadn't been doing when I first read about it. Perhaps because of this, the poem didn't turn out to say quite what I thought it was going to when I began. Once I had this character's viewpoint, the poem took shape quite quickly but it had essentially taken over a year from the first idea.

Now, my notebook is still full of other ideas that didn't make it - or haven't made it yet. It's possible some of them need a nudge, like the one my second poem got when I read those proofs. Or a lucky insight, like the one about Cavafy. It is certainly a fact that the older I get, the less easily satisfied I am with my work and the more I reject. It isn't enough for there to be nothing obviously wrong about the poem - there needs to be something not only right but necessary about it. This may partly be down to my being aware of so many more poems now, of knowing how many poets have handled this or that material and thinking well, there'd better be something different about yours, or there's no point in writing it down. I think I have also become more exacting in the same way about reading. I have read a lot of poetry collections and thought "it's all right, good even, but it isn't essential; I wouldn't grieve unduly if I could never read a collection by that poet again". With the poets I love - Louis MacNeice, Edwin Morgan, Sorley MacLean, Paul Henry, Louise Glück - I do feel they're essential; if one of the ones still living brings out a new book, I know I'll have to buy it.

I don't know if this business of heightened expectations happens to other poets as they age, meaning they complete, and keep, fewer poems the older they get. I think it's true for me. Also that being intrinsically idle, the odd nudge can help. But mainly I think it is things coming together - an image links with an incident, or a phrase wanders into the mind and changes the rhythm of how you were going to clothe an idea. Maybe some writers work like sculptors and chisel a poem out of a single block of marble, as it were. I think I'm more like a jackdaw who has to assemble it from various materials collected in different places and sometimes over a very long time.

Oh, the title of this post - from a poem of Housman's in which he uses the image of gardening for his own creative process:

And some the birds devour,
And some the season mars,
But here and there will flower
The solitary stars.
Sheenagh Pugh
15 August 2014 @ 11:39 am
Agent 160 is a writer-led theatre company that produces work from its female playwrights, based across the UK. (In 2010, Sphinx Theatre Company hosted a conference where it was revealed just 17 per cent of produced work in the UK is written by women. It seemed like a good idea to do something about that.) I have a huge interest in their work, naturally, because one of their playwrights is my daughter Sam Burns.

Right now, they are involved in a project to create a Fun Palace, a concept first mooted by Joan Littlewood. In 1961 Littlewood had a vision, of a Fun Palace that would be a temporary, moveable “laboratory of fun” that would welcome everyone. It never happened. But now, her vision is being brought to life for the 21st century. On 4th-5th October 2014, hundreds of pop-up local Fun Palaces will appear across the country, open to everybody, and free.

Agent 160 is working with the Wales Millennium Centre to make one in Cardiff this October; the idea is for lots of short plays to be performed and for the audience to join in a massive, group-written play, and see it performed. However, as is so often the case, they need a bit more money and are raising it via a Kickstarter. It's already got to well within £1000 of its target, but momentum is all in these things, so here I am promoting it. It's here, and well worth supporting especially if you live close enough to go down and have a look at some of the brilliant young women writers' work. Here's the list of playwrights:

Sandra Bendelow
Sam Burns
Vittoria Cafolla
Poppy Corbett
Branwen Davies
Abigail Docherty
Clare Duffy
Samantha Ellis
Sarah Grochala
Katie McCullough
Sharon Morgan
Kaite O'Reilly
Lisa Parry
Marged Parry
Lindsay Rodden
Shannon Yee
Sheenagh Pugh
12 July 2014 @ 06:37 pm
I'm the Saturday Poem in the Guardian! One from the new book, Short Days, Long Shadows. Nobody told me that was happening, just came across it while faffing about on the net doing serious research. Of course it's one about being terrified of mortality; I don't really do much else...

Sheenagh Pugh
09 July 2014 @ 07:37 pm
Confusingly, I now have two websites. This came about because, which had been very easy to edit, got "improved", and of course you can guess with what result. It became very hard to edit, so I set up a new site at

I moved all the poetry-related stuff across, including the pages of resources for exam students. When it came to the stuff relating to novels and fan fiction articles though, I wondered if that was necessary. I don't really write either any more, so the pages at the old site were not going to need editing, which was the problem. Plus I don't trust any site builder not to go offline or just "upgrade" and make itself unusable. So I decided to keep the old site at as an archive site for the translations and prose-related stuff, and just in case I ever needed it again....

It's weird, because last time I moved house in real life, we kept the old house up for some years, because there was a very old cat living there who couldn't be moved...
Sheenagh Pugh

Dr Blair's cook is outraged by the storage of parts of dead elephant in her kitchen, while his assistant Gilbert Orum, who is to make sketches and engravings of the beast, finds his mind turning to mortality:

Never mind, Miss Gloag!" shouted the doctor […] "Just think that your splendid kitchen has this evening played a part in the History of Philosophical Experiment!"
Miss Gloag expressed her ardent desire that Philosophical Experiment would rot slowly from its **** upwards, die painfully and be ****** by Satan forever. […]

All I can think of is Death: the age of an Elephant; the age of Man; the age of Woman. Three-score and ten is considered the usual allotted span of our years. But it seems to me that the age of Man is either grossly exaggerated or that it has diminished considerably since the days of the Patriarchs, for the common age of death among the people of Dundee is perhaps thirty or forty, by which time the trials and burdens of the world have taken their toll; a fresh-faced young woman of eighteen may turn, in a matter of three years of marriage, to a woman of middle years, haggard, bitter, bowed, lined, grey; a man of thirty will pass, within a twelve-month, to a white-haired cripple if he suffers one of many possible accidents in his labour

Florentia the elephant died at Dundee in 1706, and remained there in a stuffed condition, having been dissected by Dr Patrick Blair. It will be noted that another death was imminent, that of independent Scotland, for the Act of Union would be signed the following year and the negotiations leading up to it were going on while Dr Blair (an anti-unionist, who would later join the uprising of 1715) was busy on his elephant; indeed Blair explicitly compares his own dissections to those of the Commissioners "cutting and butchering the Body Politick of Scotland".

Of the real Gilbert Orum, engraver, not much is known, but here his imagined journal forms the basis of the novel. It is rediscovered in 1828 by a man using the pseudonym "Senex" and published, with Senex's footnotes, in tribute to Dr Blair. Senex, however, is both an ardent pro-unionist, which means he has constantly to blind himself to the views of his hero Blair, and a prig who disapproves vehemently of the caustic, independent-minded Orum without ever understanding him. His indignant footnotes to Orum's MS provide a rich comic seam running through the novel.

Orum is, in fact, a thoughtful, fallible, likeable narrator who comes to have his own agenda with regard to the elephant. Blair, dissecting and reassembling the skeleton, sees it purely in a scientific light, but Orum has a sense of it as a living creature – indeed he ends up being visited by its spirit – and wants, through his engravings, "to ensure that the world knew what the Elephant had looked like, how it moved, how it lived". Meanwhile though, he also has his family's pressing financial problems to consider, and frequently staves them off by selling various bits of elephant to interested parties.

What is the elephant? We should never forget that she was real; she lived, and died alone and in exile (as will Orum's descendant who inherits the journal and hands it on before departing for Canada, only to die almost as soon as he gets there). But what does she connote, apart from herself? Scotland? Knowledge? A cause; something to live for? All are possible; the novel's sub-title, "A Huge Misunderstanding", rather suggests that no one sees everything about her, like the six blind men in the Hindu proverb who feel different parts of the beast and come to six different conclusions about its appearance.

A final irony: this book about a huge beast is easily his shortest and sparest so far. But that doesn't mean there's any lack of the usual wit, fascinating detail and thought-provoking strangeness that characterises his writing. I've read my way through all his four novels now, more's the pity, and cannot wait for number 5.
Sheenagh Pugh

Innkeeper Voronov regrets losing touch with his sons:

        "What have they done," he concluded nervously, "but run off with the maids?  What young man would not do the same, if he was kept in the same house with them […]?"
       Mrs Voronova saw the justice of this observation and dried her eyes. "It is only natural," she admitted.
       Her husband continued on this romantic vein of thought: "Until that night when, all being quiet, he slips on his boots and coat and-"
       "A young man will always follow his-" judged the wife.
       "-breeches," finished her husband, continuing to paint a simple picture of elopement, "and set off into the world with nothing but a knife in his-"
       "-heart," she concluded.
       "-pocket and a girl on his arm," Voronov sighed.

This conversation, its two tracks occasionally crossing, more often running alongside each other, is typical of a novel in which communication is constantly hampered by the fact that people are better at talking than listening. Even Horatio, infatuated with Ksenia, finds it hard, when she is telling him her story, to stop his mind wandering to inconsequential mental arithmetic. Most people in this novel have a story to tell, and since each is more interested in his or her own story than in any other, there are several of these two-track dialogues. Indeed there are two tracks to the novel itself; one concerning Horatio, who may be a merchant, and Ksenia, who may be a widow, who spend a night together in 1833 at the bedside of a dying man in Novgorod, and the other concerning the adventures of the Cochrane family, one of whom, the traveller John Dundas Cochrane, had been married to Ksenia, while his father Andrew had been a friend of the dying man, Major Sinclair.  The novel's two strands, therefore, cross and interact from time to time; indeed Andrew's ghost occasionally turns up at Sinclair's bedside, along with a bookseller who appears to be a werewolf and a soldier who is an imerach (a human mirror, forced to reflect everything others say or do). The structure of the novel itself is reminiscent of the imerach:  John Cochrane's fascination with arcane facts and measurements reflects Horatio's, while the way in which Ksenia mirrors the Major's dead love Amélie causes another conversation to go off at cross-purposes.

It will be seen, then, that as in Drummond's two earlier books An Abridged History (reviewed here) and A Hand-Book of Volapük (reviewed here), this one contains rich potential for comedy, and this does exist, not least in chapter headings such as "He took the only course open to an honourable man  and fled to Europe" and "Degeneracy, rhubarb and millions of squirrels". But this strikes me as his most serious novel so far: its leitmotiv is a rhetorical question that keeps being asked, and variously answered, "What is Love but…."  There are as many answers as there are questioners, and I don't think any one is meant to be definitive: the implication is more that the question needs to be constantly asked and considered. 

Most of the main characters are historical personages, but while there is much in print by and about the Cochranes, far less has been written about Ksenia and Horatio. Strangely enough, it does seem to me that they and their strand of the novel come more alive than the Cochranes do, perhaps because their creator felt he had a freer hand with them.

Drummond has been quoted as saying that he writes novels because nobody else writes the kind of novel he wants to read. I can believe that, because he doesn't really write or sound quite like anyone else. I found his first novel in a cut-price Aberdeen bookshop and have been hunting down others ever since.  I'm off now to read the one novel by him that I haven't caught up with yet.