I write in March 2020. Being over 70 and with a health problem relating to my immune system, I am in ‘lockdown’ like millions of others, all over the world. The weekend papers are full of reading lists, books suggested to pass the time. I am interested that so many of them are about survival in a time of pestilence ( for example, La Peste by Albert Camus). My inclination is to carry on celebrating life. Here is a very recent poem about the loss of a much loved tree, which celebrates its life ( and death).
It died quietly in the night. If there were death throes
the gale swallowed them; and it fell with care
sideways on to a holly tree which soon bounced back,
we can see the hills now and we have more light.
I will miss all of it, its witchy branches, its long hair,
its stubborn refusal to leaf until spring
had all but passed into summer. Only then
did its long black fingernails unfurl to green.
The logs, stacked up in chequered rows against a wall,
will last several winters. Ash burns well.
In the dark months we can pull up close,
warm our hands at its flame
as those we have loved warm
us when we remember them.
Ann Pilling 2020
This poem will appear a new collection from me, in October this year. The publishers are Shoestring Press.
It is May, the most beautiful of all months. Up here in the Yorkshire Dales it comes late, nevertheless
'Nothing is so beautiful as Spring
When weeds in wheels shoot long and lovely and lush' ( G M Hopkins)
The woods are full of wild garlic. Here is a poem about my seeing it spill out on to a forgotten road:
Wild garlic once
poured down a cart track and under a gate
and on to a lane till wheels stopped it.
A slew of white flowers. From high up
like sheep being herded through a gap
lower down like fields of coral.
When the old bridge broke
traffic was siphoned on to the highway
no one came here again.
Grass grew in the middle
seeds swelled, became bulbs, over years
the spread went mad.
It only needed time. This May
bees blunder roly-poly through the blossoms, woods
are sheeted blue. An entire lane
lies deep in the fallen snow of the garlic.
Ann Pilling, 2018
On Sunday this last week, 11th November 2018, acts of remembrance marking the centenary of the ending of World War 1, in which millions of soldiers and civilians died, or were wounded, took place all over the world. In my remote market town in Upper Wensleydale we too remembered the dead.
The silence is too short
it cracks before setting
while the church tower reels from its punch of eleven strokes
and birds fly out of crevices, arrowing
over the fields then drift about like burning scrap.
A band plays ‘Valiant Hearts’, six black-robed clergy form
a line of hunched-up crows
and a child steps forward cumbered with poppies
for her boy father ; the mother holds back
like Niobe, all tears. In the crowd a face cracks
then another, and another, and another.
She can run here, there are no sheep
and the enclosure walls are sound
only the dead lie round
Iveson, Metcalfe, Iveson again.
She circles graves and barks
town dogs bark back, her magpie coat is brash
against the tawny grass
the duns of lichened slab and urn.
Under one stone, farmer and soldier son
face east to boned-out hills
where only silence fills
the shape of words not spoken by the dead.
The son tipped bodies into pits who’d once
heaped bales, the father offered comfort but could not
be heard; they both forgot
the ways of speech, died old here and were loved.
Downwind a shot breaks birds from cover
she hares off, yelps for joy
and comes back panting, then
lies down beside the farmer and his boy,
Iveson, Metcalfe, Iveson again.
Ann Pilling, 2018
(June 17 th 2017)
Inside, two pages mirror one another.
Was this clever
or was it pasted up without thinking?
On the left a charred facade, a fretwork
of long black oblongs, on the right
a lattice of photos, some blanks.
It is too soon, too cashing-in,
to write about the fire so here I sit
in a London park with pigeons round my feet.
Someone said once, avoid big themes
don’t do the Holocaust, but if you must
pluck from the Alps of hair
a single ribbon on a child’s pigtail.
Money keeps pouring in, nappies and blankets,
No more donations please, we have no storage,
it will all rot when it rains, but everyone prays
in their own way. I sit here on scorched grass
with pigeons round my feet, not writing about the fire.
Ann Pilling, June 2017
That dent in your pillow is the book
that slipped from my fingers when I fell asleep;
you were in the next room, coughing your way through the small hours.
I am tidier on my own with my clock and my radio
my nightly pills, and I have all the bed;
if the cat comes I can sleep at a diagonal
feel it curl up behind my knees, picture its perfect oval.
I’d like a tail of my own to wrap round me,
thread under my forepaws, end at an ear.
Those in utero scans of babies show perfect enclosures
of frog-like shadows slowly firming up
to exit as homo sapiens. I’m practising going inwards.
But you can’t practise for someone you love dying.
I’m glad I’m awake, my dreams last night
were too filled with people crying
and it’s good that today is not bright,
that the house shakes under the wind.
I can practise curling up while rain bashes the glass
and the sea rules off the horizon with a steel blade.
Ann Pilling, May 2015, Spittal. Commended in the Bridport Poetry Competition 2016.
The grave clothes
flow over him like water , after nine years
his colours drained away,
he is a fine-boned boat
alone on a shore.
lies uneasily with the rest , its high gloss
jars with the flaking Tudor faces.
His mother smoothed the folds so sheer
his body shows through.
First a death mask,
face oiled, nostrils strawed, then plaster
smoothed on the Botticelli lips;
when peeled away, she started shaping
her parfait, gentil knight.
I run my fingers
down the flowings of his shroud
trace the lines of his feet, crossed like a crusader’s,
and I kiss his face.
It is no colder
than others I have kissed, less shocking;
and the body is perfect, no one has carved their name.
In the glow of evening it is flesh coloured,
making death easier.
Ann Pilling, October 2015. Commended in the Teignmouth Poetry Competition 2017.
(at a time of the breaking of nations)
Surfers in black skins
wait in the waves like dolmens
a soft tide creams the sand.
These pure white pebbles could,
in a full moon, light a path for babes
out of the murderous wood.
Here is the sea,
somewhere is land. Our journeys
are many, and various.
A child sends paper boats
across a pool. My car
gets ferried home on a flat belt of water.
At Calais a boy
black-skinned like the surfers
stands by his tent, its blazon
‘London, my dream’.
Ann Pilling, June 2016. Prizewinner in Torbay Poetry Competition 2016.
The new birds glitter
crusted with gold and silver beads
sprayed over wings and breast
and fight for fat-filled shells and wrest
pickings from thrush and finch
and claim the battleground
inch by cantankerous inch.
The first years strut in rosy leggings,
bead patterns soften as they grow
to a full starling finish, sheeny purple
and green like oil on water; unimaginable
that these will ever get tired or old,
take on the full, dull black
of priestliness, or widowhood.
Ann Pilling, May 2013. Prizewinner in Torbay Poetry Competition 2015.
They have done the state some service
and they know it suckled my boys, pleasured my man,
now they have to go under the knife.
I’m being good to them I’ve bought
fine cottons pricked with little flowers
I bathe them in sweet oils and I no longer
sit like a hunchback cramming them from sight.
Why in my fat-girl days did I wear bags
to hide their succulent roundness? Why did I
mound them with cushions on our old settee?
In water they float out like lily pads
nippled with dark pink buds as this old river
creeps silently to its weir. Sad I’ve denied them, sad
how love, released, runs wild when it is too late.
Ann Pilling. Yorkshire Prize, Smith/Doorstep 2016.