Lifesaving Poems: Deryn Rees-Jones’s ‘What It’s Like To Be Alive’


Last week I read Antony Dunn‘s marvellous essay about his poetics, ‘To Tell You the Truth’ (from In Their Own Words: Contemporary Poets on Their Poetry: Salt, 2012). There is a terrific line in the essay about having the ambition to write lines as good as those written by poets who inspired him to write in the first place. I like this. I think the social dimension of why we write poems, what Robert Pinksy calls a ‘need to answer’, seems to interest our culture less than those readily digestible aspects of poets’ autobiographies such as their marriages and employment histories.

I am talking about what Raymond Carver calls real influence: that friendship or teacher or connection that sets your reading and interest off in a whole new direction because of a chance comment or recommendation. As Thomas Lux says in his digest of creativity theory, the great ‘An Horatian Notion‘: ‘You make the thing because you love the thing/and you love the thing because someone else loved it/enough to make you love it’.

As I have said before, we make some of these connections completely on our own, by reading the maze of influences we detect or read or hear about in writers we like. Others are thrust upon us as it were, with little choice in the matter, as when Rupert Loydell used to bollock me for not knowing about Mark Strand.

Rupert also had a hand in my first encounter with Deryn Rees-Jones‘s ‘What It’s Like to Be Alive’ (from Signs Around a Dead Body: Salt, 1998). He was editing the reviews page of Orbis at the time. I was mostly doing what I laughlingly called freelance work, that is, earning not much money whilst looking after my children and doing the odd school gig or training with teachers. I’ll come clean: to deepen what little social contract I had with poetry at the time, I kept my eyes on the free books Rupert would pass to me.

One of the most enjoyable of all the books I reviewed in this period was Signs Around a Dead Body. I still think it is a fantastic piece of work.

As when you first see or hear or read something you connect with but do not fully understand, part of my response to this book was ‘How on earth did she do that?’, quickly followed by ‘I want to have a go!’ If you do not possess a copy, you really need to get your hands on one right this second.

Mixed in with this awareness was the question, for me, of how far I would be prepared to ditch most of what I had thought was acceptable in a poem up to that point. I am not talking about the subject matter of the poem here so much as its terms of direct address and urgent recall, its stark and repetitive vocabulary a child could understand. If I wanted to have a go at this, I thought, I am going to have to stop holding onto the same assumptions. It was as exciting as it was troubling.

Looking at the poem now I greatly admire how it is not ambitious for anything other than remaining within the cry of its eternal present moment. I comprises three sentences. One is long and multi-claused. The other two are short and declarative. When I first read them I thought of them as decoration, but increasingly I think they create a space in which their unambiguous finality not only lives and breathes but increases in mystery.

It is as though the speaker’s linguistic synapses have been held in suspended animation for a moment of daydream and self-forgetfulness. They provide a vital pause, unglamorous in themselves but nevertheless taking the poem into a realm that is part grief and part elation. The sudden dip in temperature that they create is not unlike burying your hand below the surface of icy water. It is a most curious phenomenon, to read lines of such certainty sounding like the least certain utterances ever made.

What It’s Like To Be Alive

after Django Bates


I remember the nights, and the sounds of the nights,
and the moon and the clouds, then the clear sky

and the stars and the angels on the rye,
and I remember the way we knelt on the bed, how the bedclothes

were a tide, and the sunlight was a tide, and how everything pulled,
and I remember the trains, leaving and arriving,
and I remember the tears, your tears, and my tears

and how we were children, not lovers,
how the angels cried,

and I remember your face and you coming in my hands,
and the clouds, and the stars, and how, for a moment,
with our eyes tight closed how the planet lurched

and the angels smiled,
and I remember how I did not know if this was grief or love,

this hot pool,
and the sounds,
and then nothing.

A watermark held up to the light.
A boat rowed off the edge of the world.

Deryn Rees-Jones, from Signs Round a Dead Body (Seren, 1998)


With thanks to Deryn Rees-Jones

If you liked ‘What It’s Like to Be Alive’ why not try Frank O’Hara’s ‘Why I am Not a Painter’

Lifesaving Poems


    1. It is my pleasure. Deryn’s recent book, Burying the Wren, is also extraordinary. Do buy it.

      As ever, Anthony Anthony Wilson

      Love for Now, my memoir of cancer, is availablehere

      Riddance, my new book of poems, is availablehere



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