Poetry that really matters: Ann Gray (part two)

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Tell me a story, Pew.

What story, child?

One that begins again.

That’s the story of life.

But is it the story of my life?

Only if you tell it.


I was a bit late starting to write this morning. The garden was full of pigeon feathers. Our cat has the unpleasant habit of attacking birds, making a mess, and then getting bored and leaving them. Sometimes it doesn’t bother killing them. So I found a pigeon with its shoulder muscle torn out, wandering about and helpless. I’m not good with stuff like this, but caught it in a sheet, and made a bad fist of breaking its neck, and then buried it. It should be easy, and I suppose it is if you know what you’re doing. And I’m always astonished by the tenacity with which an injured bird or animal will hang on to life. As it happens, this is not altogether irrelevant to today’s post, in which we get to hear more poems from Ann Gray, and to have our lives enriched.

If you missed part one in last week’s post, you might like to have a quick look, and read the poem she wrote about having to identify the body of her partner who had been killed in a traffic accident. I said I didn’t want to write any kind of commentary on it then, but there are a couple of things worth saying before I crack on with this week’s poems.

I said that her poem “unnerves and confronts”; I think I should qualify that. It’s not confrontational, it doesn’t insist. What Ann Gray does is to look unwaveringly at her own trauma. There are three key phrases. I wanted. I was afraid. I watched. While she stands by the body of the man she loves the morgue attendant watched me through the window. He’s separated from the human story by glass, and by his bureaucratic routine that demands she uses the official, distancing, dehumanising formula


     He said take as long as you want, but he watched me

     through a window and everything I wanted seemed

     undignified and hopeless


Meanwhile, what she ‘wants’ is to touch, and to touch passionately, but she’s afraid to hurt this man who can never hurt again. He’s gone, essentially, and separate. It makes me think of the agony of the dead miner’s wife in DH Lawrence’s short story Odour of Chrysanthemums. It’s this absolute honesty that told me I want to read and hear more and more of Ann Gray. So we will.

And I’ve just realised I’ve still not introduced her properly; let me put that right!

Ann Gray says she always knew she wanted to write poetry: “I felt I was able to say more. There was a space inside the poem which I rarely found in prose.”

She has a creative writing MA from the University of Plymouth. Her most recent collection was At The Gate (Headland, 2008). Her poems have been selected for the Forward Prize anthology, and commended for the National Poetry Competition. She won the Ballymaloe poetry prize and was shortlisted for the Forward prize best single poem in 2015. In 2013 she was poet in residence at Cambridge University Botanic Gardens for the Thresholds University Museums Project, curated by the poet laureate. She was a winner of the Poetry Business Pamphlet competition in 2018, and is co-director of Bodmin Moor poetry festival, now in its ninth year. She lives in Cornwall where she cares for people with dementia.

Her studies for her MA led to her collection of poems about the sudden loss of her partner, At The Gate. The next poem, ‘My Blue Hen’, is one of many written since that publication, which, she says, “prove” she was not finished with those poems.

She describes it as “a love song and a spell” and was inspired by the experience of moving her poultry to a safer place after a fox attack: “Although I was weeping with fatigue from walking up and down the hill, I found myself singing to console her, to console myself.”

How do we deal with unbearable loss? Who do we tell our grief to? Who will listen to its wildness? Who will be our confessor? Someone or something we trust not to judge, I suppose. Like this.


      embedded image from entry 93445 My blue hen

     I sing to my blue hen. I fold her wings

     against my body. The fox has had her lover,

     stealing through the rough grass,

     the washed sky. I tell her, I am the blue heron

     the hyacinth macaw. We have

     a whispered conversation in French. I tell her

     the horse, the ox, the lion, are all in the stars

     at different times in our lives. I tell her there are

     things even the sea can't do, like come in when

     it's going out. I tell her my heart is a kayak

     on wild water, a coffin, and a ship in full sail.

     I tell her there is no present time,

     an entire field of dandelions will give her

     a thousand different answers. I tell her

     a dog can be a lighthouse, a zebra finch can

     dream its song, vibrate its throat while sleeping.

     I tell her how the Mayan midwife sings each child

     into its own safe song. The moon holds back the dark.

     I snag my hair on the plum trees. I tell her I could've

     been a tree, if you'd held me here long enough.

     I stroke her neck. She makes a bubbling sound,

     her song of eggs and feathers. I tell her you were

     a high note, a summer lightning storm of a man.


When Ann read this poem in St Ives, she explained that in Maya society, it is believed that midwives receive their calling from God in a series of dreams. The midwife is the first to see the infant and before a mother can bond with her baby, the midwife is expected to carefully interpret the signs that the child bears, and she alone will interpret what profession the child is destined for. It’s a dream poem, this, isn’t it. Rousseau should have painted it. I love it.

As she says, with her partner she now cares for people with dementia, as she cared for her mother who she celebrates in her winning pamphlet I wish I had more mothers. The poems she writes about living with dementia have the same unflinching honesty as the ones about the death of her husband, but they’re laced with a wry humour, too. I love the form, the voice of these one-way conversations, their assured ease with a relaxed, conversational blank verse. They speak for themselves.


    embedded image from entry 93448  Is it in your diary, Dear?

     Every year they’d go to Heffers, shop for diaries,

     not the Academic year, but the straightforward

     blue black covered January to December, laid out

     in weeks of empty days, waiting for engagements.

     His records pills taken, the death of mice, the day

     the gardener visits to set the traps, which coloured

     bin goes out beyond the gate, when more oil is due.

     Hers has been traversed by a spider, possibly drunk.

     Odd words here and there could be meaningful,

     but it’s very hard to say. A right word could appear

     on a wrong day. Though every day could be wrong.

     She licks her thumb to turn the tissue of scribbled

     pages and readjusts the navy string of ribbon to hold

     her weeks apart. Did you say they’ll be here for lunch

     on the twentieth and who was that, I’m not sure what

     this says here, have you got it in your diary, dear?

     In her bag, there’s a small hardback journal bravely

     titled ‘things to remember’, each page entirely blank.

     She still likes to keep a blue biro handy in case

     writing is required, but this will mean he shouts

     and then it’s really difficult to take it down.  Just jot

     it down has such a jaunty sound to it. Jot what down

     where, what is jot, a jot of what, where did she leave it.

     Think where you last were, maybe in the kitchen, not a

     jot in there, all sorts of stuff in cupboards she should

     sort out, move about into their proper places. Can you

     get your diary, he’s shouting now, can you get it from

     the table beside your chair. She brings him a napkin,

     tries a piece of cake, then tries a newspaper discarded

     on the floor. Your diary. Oh God, I give up, he shouts.

     She sits down, folds a blanket on her knees and sleeps.

     He uses the remote to tilt his chair, lift his legs, weeps.




     embedded image from entry 93446 Without Us

     I am washing up a saucepan she thinks she’s using to boil

     milk. I am an intruder in her kitchen unnecessarily cleaning

     everything that’s sticky or has left a rusty stencil of itself

     inside the pull-out drawer. Her voice is rising to a shout,

     Get out! I want to bite you!  You can, I say softly, and it’s

     forgotten. We return to chocolate in two faded cups, to

     cutting cake, to finding forks and saucers. So much shorter

     now, she peers into my face, are you, she hesitates, Ann?

     I say, I am. I’m your eldest daughter. Of course, she says

     with a little laugh. Neither of us believe I’ve convinced her.

     She wants to watch the washing machine and has dragged

     a chair there. The constant movement must be soothing

     as she’s happiest waiting for the green light beeping under

     Open Door, even though that instruction can be baffling

     on a bad day, and there are more. Sometimes she’ll whirl

     about the house causing mayhem, on other days we’ll find

     her upstairs, in a room she says her mother left her when

     she died, turning pages of her Bible, talking softly to herself

     while she watches tops of trees move against the window.

     Lost there, she’s 4 years old, without her father. She weeps,

     searching for his clothes, his shoes, his overcoat, his hat.

     He will need them when he goes out on his visits. It’s so

     little, what we can do to be there, where she is without us.


We’ll finish with a poem of love, and hope, and a celebration of the fact that life goes on, that we endure or go under. Ann Gray is not one for going under, we understand.


    embedded image from entry 93449 Seven Years

     I'm on the bed with Beth, fresh from Zumba.

     Her socks stink. She's promising to shout

     for me, when I get old. It's seven years since

     we were left to watch at weddings, Christmas

     after Christmas. I search for words, move

     my tongue around my mouth,

     I've met someone. She tips forwards.

     I take her tears with my thumb. She asks me,

     Does he know, and is he gentle? And I'm buried

     in her clothes, her curling hair, her jumbled bed,

     her guitar where her boyfriend's propped it.

     When I leave, it's dark along the river,

     the moon's not quite full, breaking through the trees.

     There's no-one on the road and as I pull up the hill,

     I flick off the wipers, realise it's me; it's not raining.


Thank you, so much, Ann Gray. Thank you for sharing the poems. Thank you for writing them.

I’ll let another writer have the last word because she says it better than I ever could.


“Turn down the daily noise and at first there is the relief of silence. And then, very quietly, as quiet as light, meaning returns. Words are part of the silence that can be spoken.”

(Lighthousekeeping, Jeanette Winterson, Harper Perennial 2004]


PS Ann says that if you want to get hold of your own copy of At the gate it can be hard to source but she’s happy to sell you a copy direct. Let me know via the comment section, and I’ll put you in touch. No such problem with I wish I had more mothers which you can order direct from the Poetry Business.


◄ Time to take a break for Write Out Loud's Poem of the Week

Remembering Peterloo: reading by Manchester poets and Shelley recitals to mark 200th anniversary ►


John Foggin

Tue 6th Aug 2019 14:59

PS Ann wrote to tell me that I'd misremembered her account of the Mayan midwives. So, to put the record straight, here's the proper story:
When Ann read "My blue hen" in St Ives, she explained that each time a baby is born the Mayan midwife makes up a song for that baby and sings it every time she visits the mother before the baby is born. As the mother goes into labour the midwife sings the baby out into its own song, one that will make it feel safe as it has heard it for 9 months inside the womb. The other mothers sing the beat of the mother’s pulse and all the women of the village breast feed the baby so that it knows it belongs to the whole community and is safe there.

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