Gaia Holmes: Where the Road Runs Out

I was going to call this lecture ‘The Poetics Of Grief’. I was going to call this lecture ‘Beyond The Mainland: Poetry of The Highlands And Islands’. I have started, and deleted, this lecture at least seven times. I was going to cancel this lecture because I am, to use the vernacular, ‘all over the shop’ but I’m here now talking to you. Well, most of me is here but some of me is way up North where the road runs out and the sea takes over at Dunnet Head. Some of me is stumbling through the darkness in my father’s size 10 wellies. Some of me is counting roadkill as I sit in the passenger seat being driven up the A9 towards Orkney, towards dawn, towards grief. So this lecture may be fragmented. It may drift back and forth between Jamieson’s Quay and Hatston ferry terminal. It may trip over itself and forget where it’s going and I apologise for that but lately, I have been unable to think in straight lines. I have been unable to focus.

This time last year I was up on Shapinsay, a tiny Orkney island, looking after my dying father. It was a dark time. The days were short. The infamous Orkney gales were blowing relentlessly: trashing the barn roofs, worrying hens and cats and windows, impaling terns on barbed wire fences. At this time of the year the winds are, on average, 40-50 miles an hour. As Hugh Marwick states in his 1921 essay about the weather in Orkney, the place is ‘perennially swept by high winds, frequently reaching hurricane force’. Due to this constancy, there are more than a dozen blustery words to describe the speed and intensity of the wind: a tirl, a gurl, gussel, hushel, skolder, skuther, and guster. The strongest, most intimidating Rottweiler of a wind is described as a skreevar.

Last November, when I walked off the ferry in Balfour harbour it was blowing a skreevar and I don’t recall it stopping. It raged throughout my father’s dying. I remember my dad saying that some years the winds were so strong that, to avoid being blown over, he had to crawl on his hands and knees to get from the caravan to the mill. This image made me think of the brutal force Ted Hughes describes in his poem ‘Wind’ which, until now, I had struggled to imagine. Hughes’ wind dented the balls of [his] eyes; flung magpies away, bent black-backed gulls like iron bars. This bullying Orkney skreevar was capable of doing the same.

My father spent the last 16 years of his life living in a flimsy 1980s caravan behind Elwick Mill, an old water mill he was in the process of renovating. The caravan was cold and draughty. It was anchored by rope held down by a two huge blocks of concrete but in the brutal clutch of the skreevar it rocked like a boat. The wind howled and wailed. Rain and hail rattled against the thin windows. One of my brothers, on visiting Shapinsay, described it as a ‘godforsaken place’ and refused to return. Marwick describes Orkney’s climate as ‘one of the vilest under heaven… and the usual colour of the sky overhead is a dull grey that makes the grim, insular landscape look grimmer…This effect is intensified by the almost total absence of trees.’ Before I went up to look after him, when the ferocity of his cancer had just been diagnosed, amongst many other things, I worried that up there on his treeless isle, he was missing out on Autumn, he would never see its colours again, so I went out gathering Maple leaves, pressed them in an Oxford dictionary and posted them to him. When my mum went up she blue-tacked them to the wall opposite his bed where he could see them. They’re still there now, I hope.

Orkney is not for everyone. It has a shady magic which you have to befriend. You have to learn the language of its tides, its myths, its elements. You have to get used to the constant screech and keen of the wind and in the dark half of the year you have to learn to milk the light and use it quickly before it curdles. My father loved Shapinsay. He called it his ‘paradise’ and knew how to deal with its mischief. He didn’t want to leave it. During the 16 years he lived there he only came back down South twice. Before he became ill, the place used to scare me. Almost every year I’d go up and stay with him for two weeks. Generally those two weeks would be shot through with anxiety. The groan of the mill wheel scared me. The gushing water in the lade scared me. The skuas and the dam and the darkness and the haar scared me. But lately, after spending lots of time up there I have seen how my father and the island are intertwined and I have come to love the place. This sentiment is summarized for me in the final stanza of ‘Orkney-This Life’, a poem by Andrew Grieg:

This is where I want to live,
close to where the heart gives out,
ruined, perfected, an empty arch against the sky
where birds fly through instead of prayers …

If you can cope with the everyday extremes of Orkney the place will exhilarate and inspire you, even on the most wicked of days. Up there you feel closer to the edge of things, deliciously precarious – a frightening state which I find is conducive to writing. But when I was up there last November I was there as a daughter and nurse and not as a writer. All I wrote were telephone numbers of the island’s doctors and nurses, and Cancer support helplines, long lists and the dosages of all the medication my dad had been prescribed, shopping lists for the villagers who kindly offered to pick up groceries for us from the big shops on the mainland. I read a lot as I sat at my father’s bedside, mainly light, distracting fiction but occasionally I’d open John Burnside’s ‘Gift Songs’ and get stuck on ‘De Corporis Resurrectione’ the first poem in the collection. I’d read it again and again to myself as my dad slept feeling especially moved by, and drawn to, the following lines from the beginning of the poem:

The snowdrops are an exercise in white:
not quite convincing flowers that would have been green
in a world without shadows:
but only the dead are green
in the last days of winter;
only the dead we have numbered and set aside
will blossom again in ditch-moss and columns of ivy
replacing themselves in the lull of the visible world
with fingerprints: voices, blood-blisters; rose tattoos.

I’d always loved the poems in Gift Songs but reading them at my father’s bedside made them more potent. Instead of just reading them, I climbed in to them. They helped me cope. They reassured me. They advised me: ‘Sometimes the only tool we have is panic/not what was wanted, perhaps, but something to work with/a shape at the edge of vision/a spill in the gut/a colour we cannot name…’ (from ‘Un Terrore Di Ubriaco’)

I am struggling to write this lecture. I have been putting it off for weeks or writing two lines then losing focus and abandoning the glare of the screen and the keyboard and the words I can’t shape in favour of a walk down the cat-steps near Love Lane and up the cobbles on to Savile Moor hoping that the ideas will come as I kick through the autumn leaves. What do I have to say about poetry? What, to me, makes a ‘good’ poem? What is poetry? For me, at some point, everything becomes poetry. Poetry can be full or garnets and humming birds and Calla lilies but it doesn’t have to be. It can be bricks and silence and awkward angles. It can be pouring liquid morphine on to a sticky spoon…It can be swivelling the anglepoise lamp to shine the beam on the everyday, the mundane, illuminating the small, seemingly unimportant components of this wonderful life. Peter Porter says that ‘Poetry is either language lit up by life or life lit up by language’. Gwendolyn Brooks believes that ‘Poetry is life distilled.’ Bernard O’Donoghue feels that a poem is ‘simply an adaptation of experience’. Sometimes that adaptation doesn’t have to do much. It can merely be an act of transposition to which little needs adding. I like what Cocteau says on the subject: ‘A true poet does not bother to be poetical. Nor does a gardener scent his roses.’ Raymond Carver expresses something similar: ‘It’s possible, in a poem or short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things—a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring—with immense, even startling power…writers don’t need tricks or gimmicks… at the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing – a sunset or an old shoe – in absolute and simple amazement.’

A few months ago I experienced the severe and delayed whiplash of grief. It was an awful impenetrable blackness. This was during the beautiful, benevolent time of the year, Keats’s ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’. The leaves were falling from the trees in shades of copper and bronze and goldfish orange. The sunlight was doing clever tricks, making the maples hum. From my top floor flat I could see this beauty but struggled to ‘feel’ it. It was as if my windows were painted with a layer of bitumen. Only shadows and the odd scrawny scrap of crimson could reach me. I was exhausted and slept as much as I could. My body was a knot tied too tightly on itself. I ached. When I walked I walked slowly, painfully. My pockets were full of rocks. I carried a huge cold stone in my mouth. I struggled to talk. There was nothing I wanted to say. This whiplash lasted for 2 months. I stewed in its awful darkness until it brightened and thinned a little then, in a step towards ‘recovery’ I forced myself to go out into the world and look for poetry.

One day I walked to People’s Park, sat on a bench with a flask of coffee. I found poetry in watching an old man and his feeble old Alsatian. The man was throwing a half-bald tennis ball for the dog. The dog looked like its hips had gone, could hardly walk but kept chasing the ball when the man threw it but would not bring it back. ‘Lucas, fetch…goo-on Lucas. Get it boy.’ The man shouted his encouragement for two or three minutes then relented, ‘Aye, yer silly auld bugger’ he said and struggled to his feet from the bench then hobbled across the grass to retrieve the ball himself. He returned to the bench, threw the ball and the routine began again. This scene, to me, was pure poetry. It made me want to cry.

Another poetic moment for me was on the bus journey to Hebden Bridge. A grandmother sat at a window seat with her toddler grandson on her knee. The bus set off and she started pointing things out to the toddler, naming things: ‘Ooooh, look…man with a bucket and a pole…maybe he’s a window cleaner…woman with a pushchair and a little baby…bus…look, do you see the bus?’ and soon the boy joined in, pointing, naming things. This scene also made me want to cry. To be a ‘good’ writer I think you have to pay attention to the world. You have to be interested in its people. Hemmingway says ‘If a writer stops observing he is finished. Experience is communicated by small details intimately observed.’

Since my father died last December I have not stopped writing about him, his life, his dying, his watermill, his island, and there are so many more poems I want and need to write. Often, when I’ve been writing these poems it has been plugging myself back into the grief and it has made me feel raw. Other times writing them has been cathartic and given me a sense of closure. My grief and my poetry are, at present, synonymous. I’m also aware that I have been mythologizing my father but I know that poetic magic comes in to play between the experience and the act of transposing: the wind gets wilder, the darkness gets darker, the cold gets colder, the silence gets thicker. Small, flickering candles on the caravan table become flood lights. Little details are magnified, illuminated, lit up and endowed with that ‘startling power’ that Carver describes. Looking after my father was one of the most frightening, difficult things I have ever done. It was also one of the richest, most beautiful things I have ever done and it has changed me.

I run a creative writing group called ‘Igniting The Spark’. Last November before I headed North we did a session called ‘Lost In Translation’ in which we looked at individual words from other languages which describe particular experiences, situations or emotions and have no English equivalent. We found some wonderful words such as Kummerspeck, a German word which literally translates as ‘grief bacon’ and means, ‘excess fat gained by emotional eating – specifically, the excessive eating people do in times of stress or sorrow.’ There is also Gumusservi, a Turkish word to describe the effect of moonlight on water. Iktsuarpok is an Inuit word which describes the anticipation of waiting for a visitor and repeatedly going outside to check if they’re on their way yet. Komorebi is a Japanese word which describes the sunlight flickering through the trees. Tsundoku, another Japanese word, describes the act of buying a book, leaving it unread and stacking it on the top of a tower of other unread books. Hanyauku is a Namibian word which means ‘to walk on tiptoes across very hot sand’. Gigil is a Philippine word which describes the overwhelming desire to squeeze or pinch something very cute. The most popular word that evening was the Danish word hygge. There’s a big trend for Hygge at the moment. The weekend newspaper supplements are full of it. You can buy hygge recipe books and kitchen wear, hygge coffee table books, hygge mugs and socks and jumpers. The origin of the word hygge is Norwegian and old Nordic. It means seeking refuge, protection, and shelter from the raging of the outside elements. Hygge came into use in the Danish language in the 18th century and has come to mean ‘to be cosy’,  to be warm and coddled in fleeces and blankets on cold winter nights: to take pleasure in gentle, soothing, simple things. It’s about being in a place where you can be yourself and shut out the big, dark, and dangerous world . It’s about togetherness, community. I’m going to end this lecture with a little bit of hygge.

Looking after my dying father in that flimsy caravan was not ideal but it was where he wanted to be and he refused to go to hospital for as long as he could. One particularly brutal night I gave my father a bed-wash. It took over two hours because I had to keep re-boiling the kettle and it was so cold you could see your breath. The dodgy gas fire would only work if you balanced a house brick against the control dial. Because it was so wild and windy the caravan was constantly rocking. The brick kept slipping and the fire kept going out. We had to take breaks, pull the covers up, relight the fire and let my dad get warm again. I never imagined that, one day, I would be washing my own father. It was awkward and intimate. I wanted my father to feel comfortable, to relax as much as he could so I lit some candles, put on some of his favourite music and sprinkled a few drops of lavender oil into the washing water. ‘You could write a poem about this’ he said. I did.

Here’s the poem:


Tonight, with you calm, clean,
smelling of lavender in your new pyjamas
and the gas fire I’ve been trying to light for hours
finally settling itself down to hiss and glow
across the honeycomb,
I light all the candles I can find,
put Tallis on the stereo, sit holding your hand.

Tonight the sea will be too wanton
to carry a ferry.
No one will come and no one will go
and in the morning there will be
no fresh bread or milk
on the shelves of the village shop.

Tonight we will keep the cats in.

Tonight, we will be landlocked and cosy
as rain pelts the windows like little pearls
and bolshie wind rocks the caravan.

Tonight I will feel your knots unravelling,
our bond thickening
as love and thin motets chase the cold
from the corners of the room,
and I will almost forget
that you are dying.

Gaia Holmes lives in Halifax. She is a free-lance writer and creative writing tutor who works with schools, libraries and other community groups throughout the West Yorkshire region. She runs ‘Igniting The Spark’, a weekly writing workshop at Dean Clough, Halifax. She has had two full length poetry collections published by Comma Press: Dr James Graham’s Celestial Bed (2006) and Lifting The Piano With One Hand (2013).and Tales from the Tachograph, a collaborative work with Winston Plowes (Calder Valley Poetry, 2017). She is currently working on her third collection which will, amongst other things, deal with gaps, sink holes, Orkney and broad beans.


*This lecture (part of series of lectures called The Kava Poetry Lectures) was delivered at a monthly poetry event – Kultura at Kava – organised and run by Anthony Costello in Todmorden, West Yorkshire. The 21 lectures are due to be published in 2018

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