Read Raw Ltd

 

Promoting Creative Writing in Scotland

 

Poet of the Month

Valerie Thornton

 

Hello!

 

I’m delighted to be Read Raw’s Poet of the Month.

 

 

I’ve been writing poems for a number of years, along with short stories and textbooks on creative writing for school pupils. You can see details of some of my publications at the end of this.

 

What follows, is a selection of some of my favourite poems, with not so much an explanation, as some contextual information which will help you to appreciate what inspires me and what makes me tick.

 

 

 

 

The first poem is called Looking for Blanche Dubois. Blanche is the doomed heroine of Tennessee Williams' wonderful play, A Streetcar Named Desire, which is set in New Orleans. I’ve always loved New Orleans, ever since I learned The House of the Rising Sun in my teens. I had the good fortune to go to New Orleans in 2000. Before Katrina.

 

I loved the place. I saw the house that was alleged to be of the rising sun, and I visited the voodoo museum, and the cemetery with the tombstone that Dennis Hopper scaled in Easy Rider. There was a music festival that steamy April in 2000 and the streets were full of musicians. The imperious star of the following poem mesmerised me: when she saw me photographing her, she simply pointed a long finger at the donations bowl.

 

 

 

Looking for Blanche Dubois

 

 

She must have stepped here once –

Decatur, Dumaine, Bourbon, Toulouse

quartering the French Quarter

in humid heat

for gentlemen callers

lounging below black lace balconies

dripping with watered baskets

of bright ferns and white flowers.

 

Magnolia-scented handkerchief

to her nostrils, her satin heels

would rise above

the smell of stale beer and worse

from a sidewalk stained

with crushed green caterpillars,

their stings as voluptuous

as their jagged fur.

 

And what would she make of you,

Roselyn Lionheart, busking on Royal

with cheekbones to die for,

a nose hooked sweet as Brando’s

and teeth so white

behind that big black voice

raising rhythms, and blues,

above sooty, salt-frosted armpits?

 

Affecting disdain, she’d tiptoe

silkily past, but linger

enchanted not by the lingerie

or liquor stores on the left there,

but by your House of the Rising Sun

which sends a tingle

all the way down

her whiter than white spine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next poem, Playground Games, revisits my childhood, when we played peever in the streets and at school. There was someone with a marble peever and I think it might have had initials carved into it, but it is so long ago that I can’t remember. When I’m writing, I look for connections between things. I know I’ve made up some of the ‘connections’ in the following poem.

 

 

 

Playground Games

 

 

She could chalk beds

in a flash

on the asphalt

with straight lines

and even boxes

and numbers as neat

as her brown polished shoes

and her playpiece pair

of chocolate digestives

carefully folded

in a white paper bag

by her fat-armed mum.

 

Her grandpa made gravestones

and a round peever

of white marble

with gilded initials

and two full stops

which eclipsed

our Cherry Blossom tins

weighted with earth.

 

She could skite her peever

to the dead centre

of any box

and hop and skim

with such precision

until her dad died

and was put in a box

and folded into the earth

under a gilded stone

and her mum’s arms shook

and someone brought

skipping ropes instead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Orkney 1981 is the next poem. I love islands and ferries and I have visited Shetland and Orkney and the Western Isles and The Other Big Ones that everyone goes to. My favourite island (more of which later) is Coll. My love of islands began not with my childhood holidays on Mull or Arran but with my summer as an 18-year-old waitress in the Stromess Hotel. The hotel owner’s son taught the summer waitresses how to water-ski in StromnessHarbour. When I revisited Orkney some ten years after that, I met a lovely artist, Liz Kay, from New Mexico. To celebrate 20 years of our friendship, she sent me a scrap book of songs and poems and my envelopes to her with lots of pretty stamps, and some photographs I’d never seen before, one of which inspired the following poem.

 

 

 

Orkney 1981

 

 

If she weren’t wearing

my clothes

I wouldn’t know who she was,

this happy young woman

with dark curly hair

young enough

to be my daughter,

smiling from Orkney

a generation ago.

 

Her black and silver scarf

is bright and new.

I can feel it slinky

and cool against her neck,

the weight in it

when she turns

and it swings

like memory

beyond her.

 

That amber necklace

glowing like sunrise

against her throat

I haven’t seen in years

and the fine black cardigan

which she embroidered

with tiny flowers

in green and gunmetal beads

has long gone to seed.

 

Permanently waved

into transient curls,

her long dark hair

is catching on the wind.

She was pretty then,

if only she’d known,

with hopes and dreams

in her eyes and

bleak moorland all around.

 

The silver brooch

from her lapel

is the only memento

I still have of her,

a blackening keepsake

hidden away

to charm the time

when she becomes

my granddaughter too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next poem, S2 Environmental Studies, was inspired by an exchange I had with a pupil in a creative writing workshop. I loved the logic of his thinking.

 

 

 

S2 Environmental Studies

 

 

We’re talking puffins and terns

and the Braer and the oil

and the sandeels, but that threat

was then, when they were two:

‘Does anyone know a greater threat

to our puffins and terns today?’

 

‘Bird flu!’ Kevin bursts out.

‘Well, maybe…’ I ponder tactfully

and guide them to global warming

and no sandeels to fill beaks and bills,

which, as Kevin then points out,

will stop the bird flu too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The following poems are about places which both are, and are not, other places. I know this sounds cryptic, but it is a theme I like: the almost-ness of some places. The first poem, Jaipur, Partick, is about how a part of Glasgow, can, at a certain time of day, resemble India.

 

 

Jaipur, Partick

 

 

It’s Jaipur time in Partick

when the setting sun

gilds red sandstone

against a sky of fragile blue.

Grey slates are warmed to bronze

and star-fretted chimneys

of pale clay, blushing,

rise with the slow amber moon.

 

A gull with hennaed breast

soars above copper aerials

and a ginger cat glowing

at a western window

where marigolds,

French and African,

open their saffron hearts.

 

And we eat carrot

grated in orange slivers

and discs of pink peppered salami

with mango crescents,

croissants and chilled rosé

before the sky melts

to minted chocolate

and espresso fills the street.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next poem, Partick Beach, is about a place that doesn’t, but could almost, exist. It’s about how close our building materials - our walls, windows and roofs - are to the ground, or the sea.

 

 

 

Partick Beach

 

 

When the Clyde Sea

turns its tide

these sandstone castles in the air

will melt to dunes.

 

At the high water line

nuggets of tumbled glass

and driftwood with sashcord tails

wait for a Partick beachcomber.

 

Those flaking slates

reclaimed from descaled roofs

will skim a dream

on the ebb tide

 

and, as the light cools,

the moon will pull

frothy curtains

across the mouths of shells.

 

 

 

 

 

 

If Only Coll were two floors down was prompted by my return from yet another wonderful holiday in that beautiful place. I was sunbathing in the back court at the tenement where I used to live and I closed my eyes and tried to convince myself that I was back on Coll…

 

 

 

If only Coll were two floors down

 

 

If only Coll

were two floors down

I could drive (for two hours)

to the Oban

of my front door,

sail down two flights

on the Lord of the Isles

(for three hours)

and walk on the machair

of the back court (for ever)

to the best beach

in the world.

 

The song of the seal

on the rocks over there

is drowned out

by the sirens

rising and falling

from stone streets.

The slow thunder

of wheely binmen

ebbs and flows

and the smell

of rotting oranges

eclipses acres of clover.

 

The thrumming

of Archie’s lobster boat

is lost in the drum

of a washing machine,

a neighbour

repairing his window

hammers out

the wingbeat of a raven

and, though the rhythm

is right, that phone

will never master

the corncrake’s croak.

 

But you are here

on the southern beach

of this island of city

where later

in the cool of evening

we’ll bathe

sleek as seals

in our waves

and whisper softer

than the raven’s wing

to charm the short night

slow and long.

 

 

 

 

 

This is what Coll looked like, the last time I left it…

 

 

I am enormously fond of cats. I love the essence of felines, their silence, their sensuality and the gift of their affection. I shared my home with two cats for nearly eighteen years. The following two poems, Familiar and She is, are among the many poems they inspired.

 

 

 

Familiar

 

 

When I lie on the rug

the cat settles

in the small of my back

and we are a camel.

 

When I sit on the chair

in my big woolly jumper

the cat burrows under

and we’re seven months gone.

 

When I stand by the window

longing to fly

my wings are rolled up

purring, across my shoulders.

 

When I’m trying to sleep

on a cold winter’s night

I am near stifled

by a rumbling fur hat.

 

When I’m cooking our fish

and she tries to be slippers

I am a stumbling monster

she, a mouse under the dresser.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This second cat poem is more cryptic, but not unfathomable…

 

 

 

She is

 

 

She is the tip

missing from the finger

of the kentia palm

 

and the holes

in the shoulder

of a T-shirt or two

 

and the odd profile

on one wooden leg

of the kitchen table

 

and the thread

of faded scars

on the skin

 

and the bright wail

of the elder cat

in a new night.

 

 

 

I’m pleased to add that I am now frequently favoured by the subtle presence of Mouche, above, my neighbour’s cat who regards my home as her own.


 

The next poem is called Pilgrimage, and was inspired by the most beautiful motorway sign in the world, which anyone in the west of Scotland can see, provided they cross the River Clyde at the right place, and in the right direction.

 

 

 

Pilgrimage

 

 

Even now, only

the Ordnance Surveyors

are privy to the perfection

of junction number thirty

on motorway number eight.

 

Perfect Celtic knotwork,

the symmetry is concealed

by its oblique angle

on the map’s grid, but

there is one exquisite sign.

 

Take the eight-nine-eight south

and soar over the Clyde

on the bridge at Erskine

with the estuary flaring west

to the hills of Arran,

 

then you too will see

the sign: madonna blue

on the hard orange shoulder,

serenely simple, symmetrical,

a huge curved ‘V’

 

each arm indicating

an irrelevant destination

for the miles of cars

paying homage

to its beauty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The following poem arose from an incident in the early morning when I was driving to Oban for the ferry to Coll. It was at the time of day when the world belongs to nature, not humans with vehicles. I was driving slowly, calmly, but, as someone was blasting past me in a big and inappropriate rush up the side of Loch Lomond, this bird flew just in front of them, from the right.

 

 

 

Black Bird

 

 

There is a bird-soft thump

as it volleys off my wing

and the ragged lump

of tumbling feathers

dumped at the centre line

is already gone

from my wing mirror.

I brake

 

but only in time to save

(some minutes and miles ahead)

a bird-sized rabbit

with a chirpy white tail

that would have lolloped

straight under my wheel

but for its guardian angel

with small black wings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I love birds as much as I love cats. I felt awful, grief-stricken, about this, and I paid the price for it too, breaking my ankle when I leapt into a burial ground at Crossapol, on Coll. I had to hobble back two miles along the beach, too scared to take off my boot, in denial that the crack I’d heard was my bone. I drove 90 miles back to Glasgow the next day trying not to use the excruciating clutch. Only one week later, Angus, a good Coll friend, died suddenly on his way to the well at Sorrisdale.

 

 

 

The next poem was written a few weeks after Black Bird, and explores transcending the signs of suffering.

 

 

 

Avoiding the Limelight

 

 

Christmas Eve and I leave the Western

with my wisdom teeth in a jar,

with hamster jowls and a jaw

so yellow that on Christmas Day

I wear golden stockings,

a futile diversion below this table

groaning with turkey and everything,

and nothing I can sip or suck.

 

Midsummer and, in a foolish leap

from a graveyard wall, my ankle snaps.

The stookie clapped around my leg

blooms bright as snow-in-summer.

I hirple in the loudest scarlet

and orange Hawaiian shirt, gaudy

with white flowers and fish bones,

a charm to knit the tickling joint.

 

Despite the limelight conferred

by spectacular wounds,

I prefer to chew with impunity,

dress at any volume I choose,

and leap all walls in my way

but always I wear quiet black

somewhere, a dark prophylactic

against the silence of graves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ll finish with a more light-hearted poem, when a pile of connections (or not) all just came together for me.

 

 

 

PC

 

 

Yesterday

we clicked

at first sight.

 

We merged,

inserted symbols

created a new template

 

but we could not

find and replace

our pasts

 

escape the cursers

undo and redo

the shattered windows.

 

Today we are cut,

cancelled beyond restoring

the arrow broken.

 

I have been saving

for such a rainy day:

tomorrow, a Mac.

 

 

 

 

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed my poems. I have a collection called Catacoustics, published by Mariscat Press (ISBN: 0 946588 25 2) and another in preparation.

 

My two recent teaching books, The Writer’s Craft and The Young Writer’s Craft, are both published by Hodder Gibson. I’ve had many more publications in literary anthologies and magazines, and something in almost every issue of New Writing Scotland, apart from the ones that I edited.


 

I work as a creative writing tutor, mostly freelance or for the Open University, and as an editor/writer. When I’m not doing that, I enjoy playing penny whistle and taking photographs. I took all the photos here, apart from the photograph of me at the top of this, which was taken by Donald Beveridge.

 

 

 

 

 

Here is one final photo… of a moorhen on the pond on Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow, one very cold day last winter. I love its beautiful big feet and the points of red and yellow light.


 

Thank you for your time – and best wishes to you,

 

Valerie

 

Valerie.thornton1@btinternet.com

 

 

 

 

All poems on this page are the copyright © of Valerie Thornton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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