I have a confession to make: I can’t remember the last time I wrote a poem.
It’s not the first time the words have dried up. After finishing my first book in 2013, it was a good three years before I got back into the rhythm of working on new poems. I wrote that book in two years, getting up at 5am to write before work. Following that gargantuan effort, I needed time to recuperate. I nourished myself with literary magazines, poetry collections and books about craft as though I was tending to some internal injury that could only be healed with time and good nutrition. I needed to refill and repair my internal word-hoard: the place of language and ideas where my poems come from.
This time, however, feels different.
One major thing that’s changed is that this year I finally got pregnant. I look at that word now — pregnant — and laugh. How stupid it seems. How little it has to do with the complicated business of conceiving and carrying a child.
Pregnancy has undone my relationship with language. I look at the word fear, for example, and it has nothing to do with me. I write it on the page and the letters are just black ink and paper. What I can offer you, however, is the moment when, laid in a plastic chair, my belly covered in clear, cold goo, the sonographer told me to sit tight while they ran to get the consultant obstetrician. That moment is still ongoing inside of me, taking over the place where the word fear used to live in my body and brain. It’s happened to other words, too. Time only exists now as the absence between baby kicks. Don’t even ask me to get started on the word love.
There is a paradoxical tension, here, of course. The more alien the abstract nouns I’ve listed above become, the more I find myself relying on the figuration and images of poetry instead. I’m not ready to start translating this new embodied vocabulary of images onto the page just yet (although maybe writing this editorial represents a start?) However, I do think it’s interesting that these ‘poetic’ devices have become the major way I experience the world at this strange time in my life. They have become more and more essential as conventional ideas about meaning have begun to dissolve.
Our feature poet, Seán Hewitt, picks up on similar ideas in the interview that frames Issue 8. Discussing his first collection, Tongues of Fire, Hewitt talks about the desire in his poetry to ‘draw attention to the body, to its capabilities and procedures’ while also acknowledging the complexity and difficulty of doing so in language. The best poetry, he suggests, doesn’t provide an ‘answer’ to this conundrum. Instead, it uses language to gesture towards a place of ‘increased mystery’ where ‘all mysterious things are sacred, inviolable, and fall into silence’.
This silence is, I think, one of the most generous things about Hewitt’s work. In the three new poems Hewitt has shared with us for Issue 8—extracts from a longer, book-length sequence—I can feel the silent, sacred centre that lies at their core. It hovers in the ‘empty street… bladed with ice’ that opens the sequence. It is inside the ‘blown prostate / of a chestnut shell’ the speaker stumbles over and the ‘thwack of bone on bone’ as two deer copulate in the dark. Hewitt gifts us these beautifully drawn images in the poems but together they are greater than the sum of their parts. There is something mysterious and sacred just beyond their surface, their careful management of language and white space allowing me to experience, rather than understand, this ‘something’.
This, I think, is what I’m really after from poetry: poems that operate as experiences. bath magg Issue 8 is full of poems that invite us to step into their worlds, asking us to inhabit and feel our way through them.
In Alice Hiller’s ‘je suis son petit chat il est mon papa’, concrete poetic strategies—in this instance the literal layering of one text upon another— allow the reader to enter into the problem of trying to remember the past, experiencing for themselves the obfuscations of memory.
Meanwhile, in ‘The Year of Mania’ by Tim Craven, language fragments are scattered across the page like pellets from a shotgun; the poem’s form demanding we enter into the mania that leads the speaker to proclaim: ‘It was exquisite I’d defeated time’.
The use of multiple voices is another strategy, used masterfully in Fred D’Aguiar’s ‘Walking, Talking Blues’, to get at the complexity and contradictions of experience itself. The lyric voice of the poem is interrupted by a questioner who asks, ‘Is that so; really so?’ The answer perhaps somewhere in the white space that surrounds the poem, waiting to be discovered by the reader.
In Zara Meadow’s ‘Another morning’, it is a vocabulary of undoing that becomes a tool for expressing the disorientating experience of cancer. The use of ‘no’ in ‘no strange solidities, no stones in your / kidneys, no egregious malignancies’ a way of verbalising a diagnosis that cannot otherwise be admitted aloud.
bath magg Issue 8 is full of different experiences and perspectives. The poems I’ve mentioned above are just a fraction of what our winter issue holds. However, what unites all the poems, from delicately crafted lyrics to experimental concrete modes, is a common desire to offer you, the reader, the experience of what it means to be a thinking, feeling human being.
So, I do not wish you ‘happy reading’ for Issue 8 of bath magg. Instead, I will say that I hope you enjoy stepping into and inhabiting the world of each poem. I hope you enjoy feeling your way through.
Mariah Whelan, on behalf of the editorial team