Tuesday, 18 October 2016


Instructions for writing a poem:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Mary Oliver wrote these words about life, rather than writing, but I thought about them last Friday night when I heard Helen Farish read from her new collection, The Dog of Memory.  The imperatives could apply to the content of several of Helen’s poems – a monkey novelty clock, a page from a calendar, an old stool, a road sign.  She pays attention to these apparently insignificant things, finds astonishment in them and spins from them beautifully crafted poems.  She even uses the word ‘astonishment’ in the opening lines of ‘The glow’:

‘Finding the crab apples, my astonishment
I’d gauge as being on a par with pilgrims
seeing a tear build in the corner
of the Spanish Virgin’s powder-blue eye.”

Several of her poems have rural, Cumbrian settings – for example, ‘Complimentary calendar’ is set in an aunt’s farmhouse at Crummock,  ‘Low Lorton ¼  High Lorton ¼’ in the Lorton valley near Cockermouth.  She pays attention to the details of local life – the Fox’s red and white mobile butcher’s van – and the words of local speech.  She remembers a school debate on the county name:

‘I argue for the old,
the one that belongs
with hoolet, clarty, slape ...
with door snecks and byres’
                       (‘Cumberland 1974’)

But there are other poems in the book that take us further afield.  Helen read ‘Missing the rain’ (Tess Gallagher in Arizona) and a love poem from the first section of the book, ‘Palermo da capo’. 

Helen went back to her A level set texts (the evening was chaired by Steve Matthews who had been her A level English teacher before he came to preside over Carlisle’s multitudinous second hand bookshop, Bookcase).  There is a sequence of poems in the voice of Jane Eyre (and one in the voice of ‘the cat Jane never had’), a poignant little poem in which ‘Tess has a word with Hardy’, and a poem on Doctor Zhivago.  This last poem is the longest in the book and when Helen read it she advised us to concentrate hard.  Perhaps it is a poem about snow.  We follow the snow in chapter after chapter, except chapter five – to which the poem returns at the end.

The collection is called The Dog of Memory.  Because of the pathos of memory, the sense of someone or something now lost (where is the monkey clock? ‘what does he see now?’) the book has an elegiac tone, or rather it has a quality of ‘belatedness’ in the sense that Peter Davidson uses the word in The Last of the Light (see my post of 25 September).  His book is a ‘meditation on twilight’ and I noticed the dusk settings of some of Helen’s poems (‘ A borrowing’, ‘Pastoral’,‘Tea time at my Aunt’s’, ‘Tess has a word with Hardy’, ‘The glow’).

But for those of us who went to hear Helen’s reading at Bookends’ Cakes and Ale cafe in Carlisle on Friday night there was no sense of coming too late.  Steve Matthews managed to coax Helen to read a few more poems, even when she thought she had finished and when she asked the audience if she should end with just one poem the audience demanded Two!  We had been paying attention.

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