Tuesday Poem: Featherweight by Angela Readman

The farrier hands me a stone like an egg, clefted,
heart-shaped enough. I pocket it, laden with love.
On the way home, I rush past a hush of reeds and
picture a walk down the aisle.   We’ll marry on a
Monday when the church costs less. I will wear a
plain shift,  loaded  with only one shade of white,
watermarks ironed off my back.

Outside  the  woodshed,   Mother  bites  the  webs
of her hands to black scabs.  I nod.  We speak only
hisses.  Our  eyes are varnish,  keep  what we don't
say intact. She knew it was coming. I'm old enough.
Eventually I was going to be loved.  She lights the
swan skin. It burns like a sigh.The air plucks smoky
strands, wisps dust a chalked moon.

The skin felt too big,  hand-me-down feathers too
heavy for flight. Then, it  fit like a blizzard, down
between  my  legs  tickled  my petticoat to shreds,
swept  my  skinny legs  up.   It  was  the same for
her, I suppose  -  all this flying and loving and not
knowing how to stop.  The steel of our wings can
break first love's back - we do not know our span.
Boys  who got  too close snapped,  spines  skinny
rushes whistling in the wind.

The skin spits. Mother pokes ash, her neck is a coat
hook hanging up the moonlight.

I, too, will marry a man who never saw me as a swan.
He will not know as birds we miss nothing. Yet when
he kisses me, softly, woman, I miss my beak.

Copyright Angela Readman, 2016

from The Book of Tides, Nine Arches Press, 2016

When William Carlos Williams was writing about poetry in 1939 ('The Poet and His Poems' -note the male pronoun!), he came to this conclusion:-

                   It should

be a song - made of
particulars, wasps,
a gentian - something
immediate, open

scissors, a lady's
eyes - the particulars
of a song waking
upon a bed of sound. 

The poems in this collection are definitely very strong on particulars and they also rest on a bed of song, lyrical and rhythmic.  The language is as jagged and demanding as the north east coast, where the rocky shoreline meets one of the most dangerous northern seas, notorious for its tidal rips and sudden storms. I heard a poet say recently that the kind of poetry they most detested was the 'polite, English variety'.  Angela Readman doesn't do polite poetry.  Her lines don't wander elegantly across the page (thank god!).They never take you where you expect and they throw up the unexpected word or image like glittering pebbles, or pieces of sea-glass.

Readman's poetry makes you work for it - but the close attention it deserves is worth every second. These poems are crammed with allusions and references and there's a constant undertow of myth and folktale.  

Angela Readman was born in Middlesborough and lives in the North East and this is reflected in the language she uses - the odd 'Geordie' rhythm and dialect word.  There are some wonderful words. One of the most accessible poems in the book is Rose Petal Jelly - deceptively simple. It begins . .

The apples drip slow as September
dabbing sun to the rain, juice
slips over the glazed lip of a jug.

Outside, a resilience of roses hold
in the wind.  we feel petals open, jagged
caruncles in the corner of our eyes.

Caruncles are apparently the small red bumps at the inner corners of our eyes.   I love poetry where the poet is obviously having a fiesta with language. I like poetry that brings me particulars, wasps, gentians, a lady's eye, roses, apple jelly and then goes on to show me more.

In the poem above, Featherweight, Readman is referencing the old myths about women who are also swans, or geese, but who will relinquish their magical heritage of shape-shifting to marry a human man who knows nothing of their double life.  But the poem is more than that - it's about the cost of marriage for women, that egg-shaped stone, laden with love, that comes with a big price. I was a seventies feminist, so don't tell me that women can have it all - fabulous careers, wonderful relationships, perfect homes, perfect children, a creative life.  You can't.  You have to choose whether to have the cake or not. Never mind the eating of it.  In the Confessions of a Selkie Readman goes back to the same subject:

You can spot a woman who once had a different skin.
Our eyes are mourning lockets set into rockface. . .
The lives we could have lived are charcoal . . .

But these are also poems about female power, as the mother in the title poem -

Like that, the old lass could switch into a ship's mast,
stood on that cliff, air wringing a swell of hips
out of her skirt.  Then she was Ma again . . . 

flick, at licked pages in her big Book of Tides,
I watched her spit and tie the sky up, a snap
of fringe knotted into a handkerchief slipped
into a breast pocket.

The ideal poem, for me, is one that you can engage with on first reading, but that has a landscape behind it if you're willing to explore. I'm really enjoying this collection, reading and re-reading and wandering about in a salt-stained landscape.  I shared one of the poems with my Friday reading group and they too loved it, finding layers and layers of meaning when they dived in. It's what makes Angela Readman an award-winning writer of both prose and poetry.  One of my favourites in this collection is 'When We Don't Talk About the Weather' which begins:

The moon washes up to the window as you undress.
Outside, fishermen haul out the stars in their nets.
The sheets are an albatross, flapping over us. . . .

and goes on:

You lap me up like a drunk, open-mouthed for rain.
And I keen, the knot of me untied, absent loves
unmoored into storms without the anchor of a thought. 

I'm happy to be carried out to sea on lines such as this!

The Book of Tides is published by Nine Arches Press.  Angela Readman won the International Rubery Book Award in 2015 for her book of short stories, 'Don't Try This at Home'. Her story 'The Keeper of the Jackalopes' won the Costa Short Story Award (2013) and her story 'Don't Try This At Home' was shortlisted for the same competition the previous year. In 2013, Readman won first prize in the Mslexia Women's Poetry Competition, judged by Kathleen Jamie. She won the National Flash Fiction Contest, and the Essex Poetry Prize in 2012 and was placed second in the first Short Story Competition in 2011. She has won New Writing North awards, and won the Ragged Raven longer poems competition . In 2005 she won The Biscuit Poetry competition and publication of a collection Sex with Elvis.

Also available on Amazon. 


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