Since I started the day job, life has been all horizontals, moving between tasks and roles, drawing thin lines with my self. It's hard to remember the times of deep illness when my life's direction was mostly vertical.
Appreciate what you have whilst you have it, that's the trick, someone told me: simple words that stuck.
I took a fragment of my life to reconnect with the vertical space that is DAO, and to post this poem. I hope that you like it.
Ode to a free moment
Fragment of my life
between school run and work run:
you grow like a cornflower
in the paving.
I cycle past you and can
barely nod: I yearn for you
in the supermarket.
These days I reverence
as now one still drop hangs
from the plants the autumn sun's
or I see you, moment,
on someone's face, hanging
like that drop, and
in the clarity
of his green-blue eyes
is you, indivisible time,
alone amongst the sold
and the named.
I used to live in you.
My illness married you.
I sunbathed against your wall.
When I tripped over
you came to me,
when my body's engine stopped
I was wrapped in you.
Oh, you are still
womb to my memories,
you vertical life,
bone of my bones.
In my lunch-hour
we nearly touch.
(c) Nicole Fordham Hodges
I am prejudiced against verbs. I use nondescript ones like 'do' or 'have' or 'make', which shrug their shoulders and lean their backs against trees. They stand immobile in a foliage of nouns. I use passive tenses, putting my verbs in tight skirts and holding them in awkward positions. I leave my sentences like soggy mattresses, sagging round their weak verbs.
What do verbs do anyway, that's so very bad? Nuzzle and kick? Rustle amongst dead leaves? Overturn soil? Grind their teeth in bed?
A verb can move a poem on to somewhere I had not intended to take it. A verb might chop through my forest of ideals and subtleties. There might not even be a poem anymore. There might be pure action, an enacted passion. Who knows what a freed verb might make me do. A verb is a naked thing, its self written in its face. Where's to hide when a verb shines through a clear-lit sentence?
I have a pack of unfree verbs struggling unexpressed under my poems' surfaces. They burn each other out in an exhausting push-and-pull. Adjectives duck and find dark corners in which to flourish unchecked. I look to the sky for an ungrounded image to float by like a helium balloon.
There is a natural ecology of the sentence, which my caging of verbs has disturbed. Should I let my poems be flooded with eager strong nose-twitching verbs? Would there be still room, in the order of things, for the-words-which-dream in their pool with uncertain edges?
Nicole Fordham Hodges
Perhaps it's the time of day, or something about the weather. In any case the cafe is empty. The man – is he the proprietor or just the waiter? - wipes the tables clean, watches over the quietness. It's like Hemingway's 'clean well-lighted place.'
Even better if this cafe has a terrace or veranda, even better if the veranda is up amongst the trees. The rain washes the boundary between outside and in. An unpredictable season is best. A sudden shower brings a blessing of inwardness, then the sky clears.
Until perhaps somebody walks in, like a song coming into a mind. An entity with an umbrella and a notebook. Perhaps a poem.
Keeping a cafe is like keeping a mind in readiness. There's a discipline and an art to emptiness. Not shoving the furniture to the side of a crowded room, but watching over empty tables. People with M.E. / Chronic Fatigue Syndrome have, by necessity, become practiced at the emptying out of energies and the dropping of fixed projects. They can create a clean well-lighted place. This can become an art in itself. As Hamlet says: 'the readiness is all.'
A poem can be the slightest of things: a small breeze, the smell of rain. The following poem – for good or ill – is a slight one. It was written in the Lodge Cafe in Queens Wood, Highgate. It serves to hold for me a subtle state of being, a particular moment, until such time as I can better express it.
Notes from The Lodge Café
The man who keeps the empty café steps out
to drink his coffee. Leaving just me
on the veranda
having myself stepped aside from my life.
The radio is still on in the inside
nobody listening to it
- London’s Heart - as if it listens to itself.
Every now and then a song comes on
which someone might pause to:
like that Tom Waits' song
the way the old American sang it last night
not remembering the words
but the colour they came out
the way they span.
I think myself specially blessed
then its gone.
Light slides on and off my hair.
The owner steps back in.
I have left behind someone I need to kiss.
Nicole Fordham Hodges
It's an age of self revelation. On Facebook pages, a mess of cats, cousins and icecream-covered children form public portraits of our lives. There's a link to a poet's blog, where the truth trips over itself on its way to somewhere else. A moment of brilliance lights up a forest of platitudes, then all goes dark.
If I try too hard to show myself, my trying clouds my openness. Can the 'real self' be revealed on purpose? Caught by surprise – or by love – I might show my face openly. But what I show is still a fleeting mystery. If I wait all day for a glimpse, a silver fish might flash by. It's like a muscle in the water.
A poem can contain for me wholeness and complexity. Imagery and form are like a 'ceremony of smoke.' A poem can balance between giving and withholding, between the things which can be shared and the things which cannot.
The following poem was written after seeing the exhibition 'Given'. This was a series of portraits taken in Papua New Guinea by Jeremy Millar, in the style of anthropological photographer Witkiewicz.
Where else to travel
but the human face
when it is looking down
from the side
is a muscular tree.
The tattoo round her lips
only points inwards
to her lips.
This womans age
requires the ceremony
This face is a landscape.
It comes out of shadow
Only the face
of the anthropologist
has not found form.
What is this soft thing
Nicole Fordham Hodges
It was a place of wild orchids and underground rivers: a dry valley on the North Downs. It was the perfect spot to be talking to a friend about quietness. He said there was more than one type: a quietness which is an absence of life, and a quietness which buzzes with life.
His words stayed with me. I have since thought that there are two types of speaking: one which comes from wanting power (essentially from fear) and one which comes from connection or love.
No communication is perfect. Even a gesture – however seductive or beautiful – can be cowardly. It might be a way of keeping yourself in shadow whilst pushing a gesture out before you: a false identity, a tiny doll. A man might take to wearing a bowler hat or carrying Wittgenstein wherever he goes. A young woman grows her fringe long and peeps out from underneath. A poem can be like this too: its imagery a hiding place.
A tree is something that speaks for itself. It is its own world and its own slow language. My favourite tree – a yew tree on a flinty slope - has a fairy-tale hollow to hold my real and metaphorical treasures. I return to it as if returning to my identity. The most treacherous language, the most twisted knot of fear, cannot compete with the presence of this tree.
The Yew Tree
Solid and square
intense and slow
the yew tree owns
its own hollow.
makes me false.
Nothing stops this yew
from holding dark space:
its branches touch soil
in which it is rooted.
Pay no attention
to the small red berries:
this tree is a being
in whom gender is tiny.
I was happy yesterday:
I found myself a hollow
Today I am weak:
I can barely touch upon it.
© Nicole Fordham
I live in a border world. My disability is invisible. It fluctuates. Sometimes it disappears. Then I hear it snuffling about. Its a sort of magic trick. I am an undercover agent, a disability spy.
I live with M.E. / Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ illness-with-many-nonspecific-names. I live amongst M.E. deniers. I can see nearly invisible things, and catch them before they manifest. Well, sometimes. I have learnt to go within and feel for the whereabouts of my energy. I try not to override my quiet self. People say I appear calm and gathered – even when I'm not. This is my secret power.
And are 'invisible' disabilities really so invisible – for those who are present enough to notice? A voice becomes thin, an eye flickers like a low flame. This person is accustomed to energy conservation: their stillness has an urgency.
We live in a society which ignores – or denies – quiet things and subtle states. It has erected a Berlin Wall for the psyche: a false barrier between mental and physical illnesses. This can leave people with neurological conditions clamouring at an (almost) impenetrable border made of other peoples' fear.
I live in a border world. I often write about the borderlands and intersections between our inner and outer lives. I try to put feelings and states of being into words, thus making them tangible. The following poem is in the style of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. In it, the earth represents our physical selves, the angel represents our invisible, spiritual selves. Both are longing for each other. "Earth, angel, why can you not know each other?''
After Rilke's ninth elegy
The earth longs to be the falling of a leaf
the vibration left by the falling - or not even that -
but she cannot imagine less
she longs for the pattern of a thing- though she does not know her longing
she cannot imagine the abstraction for which she thirsts
to be her own pattern unlocked by the hundred keys of – whom? angels, humans?
- our words surely could unlock her -
she yearns to be the moment in which she again becomes nothing.
And the angel? He longs to be a leaf fixed to a branch,
fixed to a trunk, to a tree root, fixed to earth
or else he longs for rock itself
unmeltable, perhaps unspeakable, perhaps
speaking with one low impossible sound, slowed down to less
than the speed of that rock.
Everything closeness, everything holding, all too close for parting.
Nothing flies out. Angel – now far as a star – you'll be
close to us as diamond.
Earth, angel, why can you not know each other?
And us? What is this embarrassment, this thing that reddens our faces?
Barefaced, human, we stand on a threshold narrow as wire
between earth and angel, between outside and in.
Our small home's on a doorstep.
We seek not to be blunted: we seek to be blunted.
The hammers in our hearts
knock in their nails
as we seek to define a nothing
before becoming a nothing.
What is this embarrassment which reddens our faces
keeping our souls from dissolving
giving them shape?
It undresses an untruth, which undresses a truth.
We long to be just this reddening.
More artwork by William T. Ayton can be found at http://www.ayton.net
I'd like to start my blog slowly. This is difficult for me. I have always tended to drive myself forward. But my poetry was first incubated in a time of illness. I was forced within. I learned and relearned the discipline of slowness. I believe that poetry needs time without pressure. I need to notice extra times and hidden places. These are where my poetry grows. I listen to nature: a sunbathing ladybird on a January wall. I listen to my body and its messages. I wait with quiet intention and its little noises. It is difficult in our times to be slowed down enough to notice. It's like listening for birdsong beside the motorway.
I am uncomfortable with my perfectionist nature, but it is a useful discomfort. Deep down, I seek substance not style. Because being real is more important than poetry. Poetry with a big P is an empty plate carried by a waiter with a neat white coat and no face. My self in my body waiting to be turned inside out is more important than Poetry. I seek danger and the overturned stomach. I seek substance not style.
It's hard to define what substance is. When it is there it is obvious: I feel it in my body. I want my audience to feel it too. Words can carry presence. They can carry the intention that made them. This can't be faked, or achieved by striving. Poetry is a container to hold presence and love – whatever you have. Wonky containers can hold love. When I find myself trying too hard, I tell myself: take the time to grow real. In the meantime, I keep writing.
I pick up my pen, and an image comes like a summer's day. I try not to idolise or overextend an image. Sometimes I bury the sun and work in the dark. Extended metaphors are fashionable. I don't think one metaphor should lead a poem. I believe in finding then following a feeling or intention. Imagery can be a place to hide. Original metaphors are beautiful and clever, but they can blind you to the fact you are writing on the surface of things. Better to wait until directness comes. What is the big unfashionable question? What is making me feel ashamed? I follow that shame and let it lead me to the truth. Is there a knot of ambivalence? Look at it, trace it in words. I aim to let my imagery follow my intention. Of course I do not always succeed. Imagery is so seductive. Half-rhymes come along to rock me and I often let them stay.
I no longer see my poems as separate from one another. In compiling my first collection, I am trying to gather my different voices and lay them side by side. Some poems spring apart. Sometimes I need to write a bridging poem to bind them. A few poems will always be exiles, lone poems from extraordinary places. I seek to rescue subtle states of mind and make a home for them. I seek a series of ambivalences, celebrations, beauties and wistfulnesses. I seek to grow real.
But as I start out as a New Voice, will I be able to notice - let alone write about - what is real in other people's art? It feels like tapping my fingernail against a glass, and listening for the note it makes. What comes from the heart reaches the heart, as the saying goes. But is this always true? Which languages might I need to learn, which prejudices might I need to overcome, in order to really listen?