A month off school: one long and humid afternoon
quarantined inside a crushed emerald bedroom.
Head laid on damp cloth, he babbled to Test Card F
while a fresco of Death drew itself like hot breath
on a winter pane. Close by, a plague stone, well stocked
with vinegar and prayer, warned of measles, mumps, pox
and whooping cough. Doctors, in oilcloths and perfumed
beaks, called at his charnel to administer blooms
of treacle and arsenic while this fallen bird, dazed
after crashing against a glassy palisade,
muttered nursery rhymes and memento mori
as his sister placed plastic pennies on his eyes.
When I lost you, something fell loose,
the thread that sewed me together
unpicked and unstitched;
a thin and icy fingertip clicked
right beside the one that was tripped
my baby girl just about made it
after a glitch
in the system nearly stopped her heart
and all my heavy breathing failed
more life onto the knife and gloves
two beats above
true love and the end of my wits.
She did not quit.
She fought and breathed and hollered
and grasped tightly to the edge
of the cliff
between a life rich in fullness
and the abyss.
She clawed her way back with mettle
and has carried on in the same vein
But when you aimed for the same light,
Not even my surfeit of flitting breath
between the beats that your heart skipped,
and you slipped
between the bars when your faint pulse
Yes, the rest of us left behind laugh
but when she asks about where
my sense of humour, as black
and why I sometimes get mawkish,
my mood shifts
and I barely notice the switch.
A long weekend spent sightseeing around Paris,
hammered after peach Bellinis from Aux Folies,
we wobbled from Sacré-Cœur to the Grand Palais,
Notre-Dame, the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay
until we found a trapezium of indents
carved near where la Roquette no longer pressed against
the city skyline: five rectangles on the ground
where a guillotine, built by a German renowned
for making harpsichords, had once unencumbered
criminals of their skulls. The headless dead numbered
in the hundreds, and ghosts of traitors were revealed
all the way from the saltire to the breaking wheel.
I pictured your husband at your home in Quebec
and felt the crescent blade whispering on my neck.
One by one, you watch blinding lights blink off,
and listen to the building’s laboured breathing
slow. Somewhere else, within concrete depths, a lift
descends to a disused floor then comes to rest.
The world tilts like a ship at sea. The night yaws,
drifts and stumbles as if on stilts. The sudden shift
makes your stomach twist but there is no relief
to be gleaned from a vending machine dispensing
rotten teeth and bad dreams. The ward realigns.
Night nurses — kindness, comfort and warmth defined —
ghost from bed to bed, plumping pillows
and resting heads, fending off fear and dread
while doctors whisper terms to which they defer
when there are no other words to prepare
for that for which we cannot be prepared.
It is quite the feeling to be balanced
on the prick of a needle: in a private
room she lies — light as a wish, thin as a sigh —
shrinking further each time I take the path
that winds from my front drive to her bedside.
Back home, a rose is choked in an overgrown
hedge. Some day soon you will shear its gasping stem
and wrench it free. For now, its roots stretch too deep.
You leave it be and allow its bright colours
to be eclipsed by leaves. How could you decide
which is worse: let nature take its bitter course
or swallow the pill? In the car again, you watch
as a rainbow arcs across Craigantlet hills.
“Let go, my son,” it says. “Be still. Be still.”
It is the pleasing movement of door key
sliding inside lock, the click of barrel
turning and ball bearings retracting
into place, the echo of patio
as outer and inner door are unfixed
from their jambs. It is each handle’s weight, shape
and grain that meets your palm like a greeting,
like a rough smooth handshake from an old friend.
It is the scuff of varnished wood across
carpet, the console table, letter rack
and ghostglow of standard lamps in the hall,
the radiators’ contented ticking
after clocking off for the night, fading
embers in hearth, hothouse smell of kitchen.
It is a return to how each day starts
and ends by slipping into bed with you.
On New Year’s Day, 2018, I was awoken by an idea that had wandered into my mind like a stray cat and refused to be ignored. The more that I tried to shoo it away, the more that it bunkered down and stubbornly resisted being evicted. It arched its back and hissed, demanding that I pay it the appropriate amount of attention. So, I thought about the idea some more, and as I did so I was filled with both excitement and dread at the prospect of what I was about to talk myself into doing.
The idea went like this, and it might take a little explaining: last year, I completed the NaPoWriMo challenge, a global creative writing project where participants (there is no initiation rite, secret handshake or fee) write one poem every day for the entire month of April. As everybody knows, writing poems is hard. Very hard. As hard as manual labour, perhaps, and certainly as hard as scaling a mountain or carving a sculpture from rock.
No, don’t be silly. Writing a sonnet or two is not as mentally taxing as something truly important – cracking The Enigma Code, for example, or composing a symphony – but it is still quite difficult, particularly if, like me, you are not the quickest writer in the world. I deliberate and fret, often needlessly, over each word, metrical structure, placement of caesurae and so on. I can’t proceed until I find the perfect (i.e. elusive) fit, particularly as I shy away from shorter forms such as haiku. My approach, if I am justified in calling this process of self-torture an approach, can at times be deeply frustrating but for me it is an important act of refinement, distillation… sculpting, perhaps. Yes, I am finicky but by challenging myself to chase the white whale of the absolute best words and the absolute best order is to channel the very essence of poetry. Surely it is the meticulous attention to detail that makes a poem such a finely balanced thing. This honing is one of the elements that distinguishes the form from its rivals. It is “the blind stitch” or, to borrow the title of a recent film, “the phantom thread”: the little details, grace notes and subtle brush strokes that lend poetry detail, colour, depth… a tangible yet otherworldly quality that makes it so satisfying.
The problem is that writing a poem each day for a month is a notion that cares as much about slow-burn creativity as global warming does for glaciers. The NaPoWriMo challenge is merciless in its inflexible simplicity: your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to write a poem every day without exceptions. Every day. Every single day. If you write fewer than 30 (30 days hath November, April June… etc., which is one slight act of leniency) then you have failed the task. There is to be no cheating, so no stockpiling, no reusing old drafts and so on. A glutton for punishment, I placed extra strictures on myself, so none of the aforementioned haiku were acceptable (I have nothing against haiku per se – I just can’t write them), and I tried as much as possible to not repeat ideas, images or even particular words.
Thankfully, at any given time, I have four or five potential ideas for poems rolling around inside my mind but it often takes quite a lot of rolling, like a pebble being polished smooth by the tide, before they feel ready to be put down on the page.
But I did it. Just about. I ran the race, breasted the tape and stopped for an asthmatic collapse once I had crossed the finishing line. I collected the resultant poems, chronologically, in a document and was fairly pleased with what I saw – being a repressed Northern Irishman, “fairly pleased” is about as close that I get to pride. It was fascinating to see certain themes (or fixations) emerge. A strange, entirely coincidental quirk was that 8 out of the 30 titles began with the letter P. This little serendipity was entirely unimportant but the repetition of the plosive P pleased me immensely. A more consequential overlap was that a recurrent motif was the interplay between time and disappointment. (I was reading a lot of Thomas Hardy so it wasn’t surprising that such hang-ups would emerge.) However, I tried as much as possible to not venture too far down a woebegone rabbit hole. A poem should also, in my mind, be about balance: there should always be an upward turn, an element of humour or positivity to leaven the more maudlin tone of the piece. Also, I am uncomfortable with writing material that is relentlessly negative. I believe in hope, kindness, faith, love and the inherent goodness of human beings so I am always wary of being too cynical about the state of the world. While I also believe that poetry is a vital means of responding to the things that haunt and unsettle, I deliberately restrain myself from engaging with nihilism. It is a tune that is too easy to play, and there is often nothing much poetic about it. Of course, that is not to say that the writing cannot be difficult or dark. I often quote the Psalms as an example of this: many of the Psalms (which are in fact poems or musical ballads) find David at his most despondent and doleful, but when collected together with the writer’s jubilant pieces, they create a satisfying and balanced collection of work.
However, a poem should also communicate; it should find common ground with the reader where both parties meet, swap battle stories and show their war wounds. Otherwise, the writing is just self-indulgent – the literary equivalent of a hair metal band playing interminable guitar solos for nobody’s pleasure but their own. An honest poem is a genuine one.
For example, ‘Slow Theft,’ one of my pieces included here, concerns a long period of illness that afflicted my mother and which eventually claimed her life, the same experience detailed in ‘The Switch’ and many others that I have written since. ‘Slow Theft’ was a very difficult piece to write, largely because I did not enjoy mentally reliving the surreal, disorientating experience of repeatedly visiting a hospital where there is not much to do but sit and patiently wait for the inevitable while at the same time trying to be selfless for the person who, in their time of such vulnerability, needs you more than you need them. At the same time, trying to find the absolute best words for this loss, if there is a description that adequately captures such a life-changing series of moments, imbued the writing with a tension that is in part shaped by its sincerity, and in part by the universality of the fear of losing a dear friend or relative. Again, I wanted the poem to end on a positive note, hence the inclusion of watching a rainbow appear in the late afternoon sky. In the real world, this actually happened, and in the poetic one it reminded me of the way in which Robert Frost often takes a natural description – apples, a wall, a pile of wood – and thrusts it into a metaphysical or even psychedelic realm. I strive for the same transcendent quality in my own writing.
Jump cut to New Year’s Day, 2018, and I once again found myself thinking about the pursuit of writing one poem per day, except on this occasion I wondered if I could repeat the same process except for a year. An entire year. Wouldn’t that be fun? No, probably not. That would just be foolish. Hubristic, most likely, and the poems would most likely be terrible. But the idea, once it had lodged itself in there, anchored like a splinter beneath the skin, was not to be dislodged. And as the subsequent days passed, I found myself falling into a rhythm. I finished ‘Pest House’, also included here and inspired by a childhood memory of contracting chickenpox, and then more ideas came, and came fairly freely. I thought about a news story I had once read about a dead whale washing onto a beach in Canada, and then one about the first time that the Scottish village Arisaig received television. Once I had allowed my brain to open up more readily to the possibility that the poems will come when they are needed, I relaxed into the process. I developed an open ear, tuned with a poetic fork, always actively listening for unusual words and phrases that might inspire a new poem. Torino, Impala, Maladroit, Transpontine, Soubresaut, Isoglass, Tenebrae, Mayura… each of these terms were shining hooks upon which I could hang my ideas.
Now, I know that some folk might respond that this is a ridiculous gimmick, and a self-serving one at that. I can understand that view but I have too much respect for poetry to treat the medium so callously. I have to come to think of the poem a day for a year challenge as a helpful exercise – in every sense of the word. Athletes training for a marathon head out for a six mile run no matter how tired they might be – an appropriate analogy for the project upon which I embarked this year. I wanted to push myself creatively, to break out of bad habits of dithering before writing, and to take greater risks with my work, to try out different rhythms and arrangements on the page, and to follow ideas as far as they will go, even if they push in a different direction than I expected. This has become incredibly exciting, as each poem seems to be in part a reaction to the one that precedes it: a strictly metrical piece will be followed by one in looser free verse; a more humorous ditty will be succeeded by a more serious meditation; if I use the first person perspective in one, I will deliberately switch to the second person in the next.
So far, there has rarely been a day when no ideas have manifested themselves. Admittedly, not all ideas are good ideas but I am fine with that fact. There will inevitably be “burners” that are written but do not have the same emotive resonance as others but I believe that they are steps on the way to better poems. There are also certain days when I only produce a sketch or a few lines that I can fix or expand at a later date but hey, it’s my challenge so I can make and break the rules as I see fit.
I have found myself thinking about poetry all the time – and I do mean all the time. T. S. Eliot famously speaks in ‘The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock’ of measuring out one’s life “in coffee spoons” but I measure it out in ideas for poems, and occasionally – very occasionally – they arrive fully formed. My daughter cut off her ponytail and donated it to a charity that helps children with alopecia and leukemia. I came home from work to see her severed plait laid on the kitchen table. The experience was deeply moving: an overwhelming mixture of pride in her charitable deed coupled with a sense of the frailty and vulnerability of my child. Like any sane person, I decided to write a poem about it. I only have myself to blame, of course: I hung the Damoclean sword above my own head but daily it sways, threatening to drop until I have written at least something down on the page. “Oh look, there’s a young woman sitting alone at the bus stop. Would that make a good poem? I just ate the tastiest burrito. Would that serve as inspiration?” And so on.
Looking back on the pieces that have emerged so far this year makes for an interesting journal of sorts: again, I can see patterns emerging, similar ideas tessellating in the growing document on my hard drive. Of greater purpose is the quality of the writing. Writing more has made me squander less time on watching naff television and playing video games (the recent release of Spider-Man has posed a problem in that regard) and in turn spending more time on writing and reading. It has pushed me to aim for a higher calibre of work. The end of the year will reveal whether or not I have been successful, but the experience of writing regularly has brought its own share of rewards.
Ross Thompson is a writer and English teacher from Bangor, Northern Ireland.
His poems have appeared in a diverse range of publications such as The Honest Ulsterman, One, 4×4, Popshot, The Wild Word, Memory House, The Freshwater Review, The Island Review, The Rose, and The Stony Thursday Book.
His poem ‘Postscripts’ was featured in the second curation of The Poetry Jukebox at The Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast.
Last year, Thompson was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney New Writing Award, placed joint runner-up in the Mairtín Crawford Award, and he read his poem ‘The Slipping Forecast’ on The BBC for The Arts Show. He was also commissioned by NI Screen to write the poetic sequence for the Coast To Coast multimedia project.