The House Where Courage Lives: Maggie Sawkins, Waterloo Press

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Maggie Sawkins won the Ted Hughes award for innovation with her live literature production Zones of Avoidance in 2013. But although she is a widely published poet, and is also recognised for her work in facilitating creative writing in community and health care settings, reading her latest collection The House Where Courage Lives makes me conclude that she hasn’t yet received the full applause that her work deserves.

There is a spiritual quality to many of her poems, which always retain a cool intelligence as well. The opening one has a hypnotic incantation: “Let the house sleep” (‘When You’re Alone in Your Bed’). There is the ghostly atmosphere of ‘Old Room’; and the intimation of mortality in the prose poem ‘First Job’ (at an undertakers). ‘Parliament Street’ tells of another job, at a newspaper where the narrator was sometimes asked to deputise for the crossword compiler: “But my clues, I was told, were either too cryptic or not cryptic enough.” Verdicts that might easily be applied to some others’ poetic output; but not this poet’s.    

'Poignant' is a shorthand word that can be over-used when reviewing, and I am as guilty of doing it as most others. And ‘poignant’ is inadequate to describe a number of poems by Sawkins about family, on subjects that are deeply painful: a grandson ”taken away for safekeeping” (Zebra Finches’); a drowned young man (‘What is Written’, and a number of others); a mother’s story, including migration and memories of the Black & Tans; the visceral ‘Sheep’, written as a short fable; the lockdown prayer for a daughter, “to a god I barely believe in”; the welcoming of ghosts (‘Peel’). Often these poems look forward, as well as back.

Recently Sawkins moved from her home city of Portsmouth across the water to the Isle of Wight, where she now lives in a former stationmaster’s house. Her sestina about her new home records another family discovery:


     I’d never have imagined it – I’d end

     up here – in a house by an old station,   

     checking the time by the arrival of trains,

     and discovering that my father’s father

     (whom we never knew) was a porter

     with the Island Railway – bizarrely true,


She fantasises about him, with humour and a sense of fulfilment, too, as if she has reached some kind of “journey’s end” herself:


     I wonder whether he was a poet, my grandfather,

     and the two of us share this affair with

     words – now that would be some end

     to the story – poems inspired by trains –

     not that brilliant, I confess, that’s true –

     I have my limits – I know my station.


This settled tone is also reflected in ‘Why did you come? Why did you stay?’, which were questions asked of some monks at a monastery on the island:


     I stay because I no longer want to go. I stay

     because each day is better

            than the last.


The title poem is actually a short piece of prose that ends with bottle of tequila being tipped down the sink. The penultimate poem ‘Stone’ is quoted in full on the flyleaf of the book, as if it represents the poet’s credo:  


     Everything is rowing back

     to that first stark lake


     of unknowing. Even this

     stone, even this poem.


These poems are expertly crafted, in language that is clear yet often mysterious, too. There are no loose ends; they all appear completely finished. It is an admirable collection.


Maggie Sawkins, The House Where Courage Lives, Waterloo Press, £12



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