Lifesaving Poems: the book

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Photograph © Bloodaxe Books Ltd

 

I am delighted to announce that my Lifesaving Poems series of blog posts is going to become a book. Bloodaxe Books will be publishing the anthology in June 2015.

Readers of this blog will know how the project started and therefore what this means to me. Originally, the idea of Lifesaving Poems stemmed from a remark I once saw of Seamus Heaney, along the lines of an out-loud query about how many poems could affect a person over a lifetime. Was it ten, he said, twenty, fifty, a hundred, or more?

To put this notion to the test I began copying out poems, in inky longhand, into a plain Moleskine notebook given to me for Christmas. My criteria for inclusion were as basic as possible. In the style of Heaney and Hughes’s The Schoolbag I allowed myself only one poem per poet. And I had to be able to remember the experience of first encountering it.

I didn’t write in the notebook every day. Sometimes weeks would go by without an entry, only to spur myself into action with several poems in one sitting of a rainy weekend, say. According to the inscription on the front page I began in July 2009 and finally filled the notebook in May 2011, shortly after which I wrote my first Lifesaving Poems post, on Alasdair Paterson’s ‘Fishermen’.

Readers of this blog, and of my memoir Love for Nowwill also know that, quite apart from the physical effort of copying the poems, the notebook and subsequent blog mean much more to me. This is because, during my treatment for cancer in 2006 I felt for the first time in my life that poetry was leaving me. By that I mean not just the desire (or ability, or concentration) to write poems, but the notion of reading and spending time with poems at all.

Lifesaving Poems  is therefore an attempt to say thank you, ultimately to poetry for not deserting me but also to the poets who wrote the poems, and the people -teachers, friends, colleagues, poets, anthologists- who have influenced my reading, and therefore my life, so richly.

I should say straight away that not every poem from the blog is included in the book. Partly this is for reasons of size, and partly I am hoping there will be a sequel! To find out who I have included you will have to do what I am always encouraging my readers to do: buy the book. It feels both odd and wonderful to write that sentence in support of something I have put together.

If the process of turning a notebook into a blog into a book has taught me anything it is that poems are needed by people. Which is to say not just that we reach for poetry in times of distress, joy and grief; but that a poem, lying dormant, only comes fully alive when this or that person comes along and reads it. That is what I have tried (and continue) to do with Lifesaving Poems: to stay true to the energy of first encounters, remembering as accurately as possible my debt to the friend or anthologist who put me in the poem’s way.

I am indebted to Neil Astley for suggesting and supporting the anthology from the start; and to Anna Clarke for her help with the manuscript.

Adélia Prado’s tone

Prado, Adelia

She started as a name.

There I was, following my nose, minding my own business, trying to ignore all instincts and recommendations  that were not stemming from somewhere below my waistline, when I came across this name. A name that was new to me. Her name, in a list, with others. What drew me to her name, I will never know. But I trusted the voice of the poet recommending her, knowing nothing more of her name than a poem or two and an interview. This is how we fall in love, I thought.

Someone said. That you said. That she said. And anyway. So there.

A day or two later, an email, with an invitation. An invitation you do not turn down.

Then silence, forgetting the name, the recommendation, the only thing left of it a few internet bookmarks and a name, on a wish list, a list I would definitely get around to maybe doing something about some time from now. Definitely. Maybe.

Weeks, life, the stuff we do. Then a meeting, a printed programme on the table between us, next to my cappuccino, with this:

The Poet Wearies

 

I’ve had it with being Your herald.

Everybody has a voice,

why am I the one who has to get on board

with no say about where we’re headed?

Why not proclaim the wondrous woof of looms

Yourself, with that voice that echoes

to the four corners of the earth?

The world’s seen so much progress

and you still insist on traveling salesmen

going door-to-door on horseback.

Check out this jack knife, people,

Take a good look, ma’am, it’s magic:

slices and screws, tweezes and dices –

a whole set of tools in one!

Dear God,

let me work in the kitchen.

I’m not a peddler, or a scribe,

just let me make Your bread.

Child, says the Lord,

all I eat is words.

I began to take things a bit more seriously after that. As though the universe was trying to tell me something. Or God. Or both. I actually said a prayer of thanks.

I haven’t told anyone this before.

§

‘Adélia Luzia Prado de Freitas was born and has spent all her life in the provincial, industrial city of Divinópolis, in Minas Gerais, a landlocked state of baroque churches, rugged mountains, and mines (hence the name). Minas is also known for producing more writers and presidents than any other state in Brazil, though Prado says of herself: ‘I am a simple person, a common housewife, a practising Catholic.’ Since Mineiros are famous for their cautious self-containment, her words cannot be taken at face value. Behind modesty and simplicity is the courage of a woman contesting taboos and traditions, a woman who extracts from her daily life in a small town of the interior extraordinary poems in which the sensual and the mystical, the sacred and the profane, fuse with unusual vividness.’

Ellen Doré Watson, from the Introduction to The Mystical Rose (Bloodaxe, 2014).

§

This is what I think.

Adélia Prado’s poems’ main effort seems to be to try to remain in the genesis of their own creation for as long as possible, following, disregarding, and casually batting off other impulses which impress upon it along the way. The poems’ sleight of hand, if it is one, is a commitment to pursuing these lines of enquiry at full tilt as though wearing the mask of welcome. The effect is joyous, sensuous, unsettling and completely delightful.

Or.

You might not want to take my word for it.

Ellen Doré Watson is Prado’s friend and translator of nearly 30 years. This is her take on the poetry of her collaborator: ‘What is truly astonishing in all [her] abundance of appetites is that Prado seems to revel in turning them loose in the same poem. What some people might see as contradictory impulses appear and reappear obsessively, overlap and intertwine. For Prado, this is not only a fact of life but also the first step to understanding what it’s like to live both in our bodies and out of them.’

I couldn’t put it better. But here goes.

Prado’s poems take place in a kind of extreme present moment, the main interlocutor of which is God: not an abstract, or Anglican, or right-on, or cosy God, but a live, tangible being with desires, appetites, opinions and knowledge as real as the plate of papaya in front of her (let’s not bother with ‘speaker’), or sex, or news of a friend’s cancer.

Take ‘The Poet Wearies’, above, which suggestively merges that familiar trope, ‘the poem about poetry’ with an even more ancient form, the spiritual dialogue. Twice, the poem asks ‘why’: why have you chosen me? and why can’t you proclaim your goodness yourself?  My guess is that Prado is a fan of the Psalms, which have been summarised as ‘150 things you want to say to God but didn’t dare’. This is prayer, but maybe not as we know it, hotter than breath. It takes some adjusting to get used to.

The poem has several turns. There is the opening, questioning section, which ends with the bold and explicit comparison of God with ‘traveling salesmen/ going door-to-door on horseback.’ There follows four lines of an assumed voice, the ‘salesmen’ in full flow:

Check out this jack knife, people,

Take a good look, ma’am, it’s magic:

slices and screws, tweezes and dices –

a whole set of tools in one!

Now ‘magic’ has entered the frame, and ‘tools’ –the tool of language perhaps? (We are not told.) My reading is that she realises that ‘magic’, in life as in writing, is an illusion, leaving only faithfulness to the work in hand. This provokes a new shift in the tone of her direct address: ‘Dear God/ let me work in the kitchen/ […]/ Just let me make Your bread.’ The effect, after the poem’s initial interrogation, is startlingly tender. But she, and/or God, is not done. There is one more turn. God now speaks: ‘Child, says the Lord,/ all I eat is words.’ It is as though, having heard the poet’s complaint about poetry, God sends her right back into the fray, to begin writing again. I don’t want much, just your words. Which, to a poet, is everything.

§

‘Why not even wasp’s honey for me?

I, who said in the town square (exposing myself),

“Let’s dance, you ragamuffins, follow the beat,

the Kingdom is implicit but real” ̶

I don’t know where to go with this:

“The steeples are most eternal at two in the afternoon.”

I see the mango tree against the black cloud,

my heart warms,

once more I delude myself that I will make the poem.’

Imagine I told you this was from a previously undiscovered poem of Kenneth Koch, you’d already be clicking Google to see where it was from. It isn’t. But it is just as good. Maybe it is even better? Maybe even sadder?

Or just plain better.

§

I came home, tired, from a long day of teaching, to think what on earth I could say to sum up these extraordinary poems. Before beginning writing I drank a little wine, ate some pizza, and watched a detective programme on TV. Somehow I think Adélia Prado would have approved.

§

What I know is this.

The feeling of needing to possess the book (not merely buy it), as though your wallet goes up to the counter and exchanges the money without your say-so. You’re about to become a nag, a bore, a joke to your friends.

Not just a book of the week, or the year: it’s a discovery of the decade.

Remember when you first encountered Rich, Bishop, O’Hara, Neruda? ‘Oh, so poetry can do that.’ This is like that.

The Mystical Rose (Bloodaxe Books, 2014)