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Norman MacCaig’s ‘Aunt Julia’ was the first poem I remember reading which made me think ‘I need to do this’.  I was about fourteen at the time.

I’d been excited by Ted Hughes’ early animal poems, Roger McGough’s ’40 Love’, and John Logan’s marvellous ‘The Picnic’ (in Michael and Peter Benton’s Touchstones 5 —now out of print). The difference with ‘Aunt Julia’ was that I came upon it in the first book of poetry I had bought with my own money, Geoffery Summerfield’s Worlds.

It spoke to me immediately.  I also had relations I could not converse with, my mother’s family, French-speaking Swiss.  We did French at school, of course, but it only made things worse. Here at last was a poem that validated my own speechless frustration.

When I read it now it is the simplicity of the language which continues to delight my nervous system, to borrow from Seamus Heaney.  It pulls off the difficult trick of telling the reader as much about the speaker of the poem as it does its subject. Aunt Julia comes back to life through the poem’s benign metaphorical gaze which draws attention to its artifice both as a remembered thing and its cry of lament for a lost way of life :

She was buckets 
and water flouncing into them. 
She was winds pouring wetly 
round house-ends. 
She was brown eggs, black skirts 
and a keeper of threepennybits 
in a teapot.

I love his use of adverbs: ‘marvellously’ and ‘wetly’ are strange, but generous and exact.  I love ‘the absolute darkness/of a box bed, listening to/crickets being friendly.’ They didn’t have crickets in the Jura but the darkest room I ever slept in was at my grandparents’ house in La Chaux da Fonds.  I dreamt that my fear and incomprehension could be similarly soothed by such insistent primitive music.  And I love her ‘threepenny bits/in a teapot’ which seemed to conjure my grandmother’s secret frugality precisely.

It is the poem that got me writing because it appeared when I needed it, (which wasn’t till after I had read it). It told a story -while leaving most of the ‘questions unanswered’; and because it taught me that plain language can be heartbreaking too.

I feel I owe it everything.                                                

To read ‘Aunt Julia’, click on the image below, and it will take you to the Scottish Poetry Library website where the poem is hosted. To read my review of Worlds visit the Articles page on this website.

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Lifesaving Poems