Jessica Traynor writes for Culture about the inspiration behind her latest poetry collection, The Quick - read on for a poem from The Quick, entitled In Bath Cathedral.
As a young poet in my early twenties, I had the good fortune to have a feedback session with Michael Longley, who praised my work before peering at me over the top of his glasses and asking, ‘But if you don’t mind me asking, why are they all about death?’
It’s a question I’ve struggled to answer, but my interest in the macabre has been a constant, ever since I donned a witch’s costume in August, aged nine, and wore it daily after school until the end of Halloween. In writing my second collection, The Quick, I found myself exploring that other side of the divide again – the unanswerable question of death. Not because I consider myself a particularly morbid person, but because of the imaginative scope lifting that veil can offer. Like a Victorian table-tapper, I’m more interested in creating a theatrical spectacle than imagining I have a genuine connection with the other side. I’d imagine, if there is another side, the message our dead relatives would send is, ‘Life is short, so just get on with it.’
Anger and politics are still perhaps not seen as fitting subject matter for poetry, especially in a country where the lyric reigns supreme. But perhaps there is something touching, funny, or even beautiful to be found in the intersections between life and death...
But there were other reasons for me to want to play ventriloquist for a host of departed characters. We are living, as the man says, in Interesting Times. There’s a lot of history happening. And in times of great change, or terrible stagnation, I find it intriguing to think about how those threads of history connect us to the great and terrible characters of the past. And so, when commissioned to respond to Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal from a contemporary point of view by Jamie Murphy of the Salvage Press, a host of voices poured forth – Lord Haw-Haw with his sneering drawl, John Berger and Rosa Luxemburg, John Charles McQuaid, architect of Ireland’s culture of shame and repression, and my own ancestors with their various complaints. It’s a bit like the opposite of that dinner party game where you ask what dead celebrities you’d have over for a drink. Maybe the assorted guests I’ve name-checked above is the reason why no one likes my parties.
But I think perhaps there are reasons why these particularly turbulent ghosts are demanding a voice right now. There is a lot to be anxious and angry about in today’s society – the migrant crisis, the housing crisis, Brexit and Trump, and the terrible lack of empathy Western society sometimes seems to display in response to these outrages. Anger and politics are still perhaps not seen as fitting subject matter for poetry, especially in a country where the lyric reigns supreme. But perhaps there is something touching, funny, or even beautiful to be found in the intersections between life and death, those liminal spaces where we are faced with our own mortality and have to take the measure of our lives. A space for a message to be passed, a lesson to be learned, or a pithy kiss-off to be shouted into the void. I hope that these poems might offer an intriguing glimpse into those fecund places.
In Bath Cathedral
O reader stay one moment with the dead –
our bones are mingling beneath your feet
and we are all alone.
Stay with us while our knuckles roll
amongst pence and relics, over curses
scratched on tin or silver to hex a neighbour
for a stolen blanket. All the company
we have now is Minerva’s stone head
that never suffered joy or entropy,
her brow smooth while all around us
hot spring water picks holes in bones.
Stay through days of rotting joists,
through bombs that make the air sing
with flying glass. Stay, though the nave
is scattered with broken saints;
stay and hear and remember –
our echoes chime around the world.
They sound through the breath of others,
in unimagined deserts and cities,
in Damascus, in Aleppo, in Palmyra.
Stay and hold vigil. The dead are all the same.
The Quick (published by Dedalus Press) is released on October 31st.