Saturday, 4 July 2020

Poems from the Backroom 111: Angela Graham

The disastrous news about vernacular Gaelic this week sharpens our anxieties about the other spoken languages of our islands. It seems no amount of special attention can encourage significant numbers of people to speak them as a matter of course, rather than learn them as a matter of interest. It would be a disaster if that most lyrical and beautiful language were not to survive, and thrive. I've always thought that Scots stood a better chance because its already got a foothold in the way that ordinary folk talk and tell stories. In a way many of us are already speaking it even if we think we aren't. Our guest in the backroom today, Angela Graham, is a Welsh speaking writer from Northern Ireland; and and much of her work is informed by the discourse between Irish, Ulster-Scots, Scots and English.

Angela’s had two bursaries From Arts Council Northern Ireland, one in 2017/18 to develop her novel 'Thorn' which is about the politics of language (Irish and Ulster Scots) in contemporary Northern Ireland, and one  I have written poetry and prose in Ulster Scots, and another to support her prose and poetry exploration of Place and Displacement in Northern Ireland. Poems from this have appeared in 'The Honest Ulsterman' and 'The Interpreter’s House' and she has also appeared in 'The North', 'Poetry Wales' and the 'Ogham Stone'. Her short story collection, 'A City Burning' will be published in October 2020 by Seren Books. She has a blog on work inspired by Gorse in Irish, Ulster Scots, Scots and English.

I must admit to not being familiar with her work until quite recently. I have been amazed by some of the poetry I've come across in the #plague, I've always seen poetry as a solitary pursuit but this immersion has made me think its all a tapestry, a universe of many stars and I can't see enough of it now.

Angela Graham's poetry is gritty but yet fragile, beautifully wrought, occasionally elegiac in tone. She's a wonderful writer. Buy her stuff!

Here she is reading 'Autun Cathedral, Magi' which, along with two other poems, is transcribed below:

Her Website:

Two Poems and a Short Story from 'Honest Ulsterman':

Autun Cathedral, Magi

Does the sky have tent-poles?

And some cathedrals are forested.
God walks in their depths on a December afternoon
while the topmost branches brush the undersides
of planets fixed mid-orbit
− those stained-glass windows fruiting overhead.
Here no one thinks of weight, of downwardness
and how the roof desires it.

God pauses among the pillars
at a carved capital that always lifts his heart:

an artist like himself, from this blunt-cornered oblong stone,
gives us a bird’s view of a bed
draped in a ruched counterpane, three kings tucked in,
but the eyes of one, popped open, register
Why? Who? still unaware
of the angel at his shoulder, stroking his hand,
whose other index finger points at a star.

God sighs, at the weight borne by the moment
after such a moment; at how he waits
for a man to look up at the sky
and recognise and seize
the chance of joy.

An Irish Covid Gift.

I’ve made a Spring bouquet for you, my love,
of gorse. ‘Harsh!’ you’ll recoil. ‘For this harsh time?’
Yes, and not yes. It’s true, gorse is a glove
of blood for any hand, a paradigm
of touch-me-not, a keep-your-distance hedge.
Gorse ‘bears it out even to the edge of doom’,
endures, defends, fends off the slightest touch.
Why? For the sake of its exotic bloom:
a golden purse, sheathed in pistachio green,
that flings its riches to the cloudy skies
till Ireland swoons, drenched in a heady rain
of tropical perfume, a paradise.
I will be gorse while we are kept apart,
with you The Land of Spices in my heart.

(From 'Pendemic')


Winter came early for that girl
When the unreturning brother –
The endlessly prevented youth –
Was thrown first in a ditch
And then a grave.

She was the Winter’s girl,
Wearing its icy dress,
So when she saw one parent
Smash the other’s face into a wall
She wasn’t fazed. She understood how well
The rounded skull fits to the palm;
How deep the need to make pain visible since he
Had been hooded when they tortured him.

But she − to Mammy and Daddy both −
She had become
As faint as frost on glass.
Then even the mirrors emptied.

A neighbour, meaning to be kind,
Had asked her to help him set December bulbs,
Late possibilities. She’d cupped a Winter White,
A cranium, papery-skinned and primed,
But when his back was turned
She’d plunged the bulb in upside down,
Cursing it to torment itself
In growing towards the dark.

Since she was a murderer too
She sentenced herself to drink till she was sick
On school-nights out beyond the playing fields.
And only the cold would do.

But a long dormancy
Can keep something alive.
Forty years on, even the Winter tired
Of cold. It dis-adopted her,
Heading for Spring
When she shouldered her dying mother
And felt how well that heavy head
Fitted the hollow below her collar-bone,
In that embrace sensing
A possibility, though late.

(From 'The Bangor Literary Journal')

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