Earlier this month YorkMix Poet In Residence Carole Bromley asked for your poems on the subject of stars. Here she considers the response
I was in Australia on National Poetry Day when my first blog went online. The stars are different there (at least they look that way to me) and either there are more of them or the skies are clearer and less polluted. You could gaze at them forever. And darkness seems to fall suddenly there, like the safety curtain at the theatre.
It’s nice to be back. I’ve been catching up on The Great British Bake Off after a fortnight of toasted banana bread. I think, myself, that Brendan was robbed and all for a few fondant fancies. Anyway I’ll have to transfer my allegiance now to Strictly.
Talking of which, just this once I’m going to risk the wrath of the editor by publishing slightly more than the ten poems we agreed on. You have no idea of the soul-searching that’s been going on in my back bedroom! OK so they may not all score 10 but they are seriously impressive.
They kept pinging into my phone in the middle of the night while I was away. It was so exciting. At first I was worried there might just be silence, then that there might not be any good ones to give me something to write about and finally I started thinking “Oh no, not another one. What do I do now?”
So, as Len Goodman would say, it is the first show and I’m going to be lenient but next time (and I certainly hope you’ll have a go at the next challenge which I will set in early November) I will turn into Craig Revel Horwood and be really picky. I may even limit myself to the best six entries (promises, promises).
So. Here goes. I promise you you’re going to enjoy these. What struck me most was the huge variety. People used stars as a way of writing about love, death, childhood, the seasons, spirituality, home, suicide, astronauts, the beauty of nature, the birth of a grandchild.
You travelled to Hull, the Orkneys, the Southern Hemisphere, the States, the Ardeche. One of you went back to look again at Van Gogh and another, perhaps the most original of all, wrote about rock stars, especially ones who sang about stars. Lovely.
It was such a privilege to read your efforts. Thank you. And if your poem isn’t here this time, please try again. I can honestly say I loved them all.
Here is my top ten (plus a couple I couldn’t leave out) in alphabetical order.
STAR by Jimmy Baker Mick Hucknall falls. Rose Royce wishes Bowie is a man, Madonna is lucky and the Carpenter’s super. But me? I stare for so long that my eyes, are simply red.
I loved this for its original approach, its playfulness and wit. OK, so I had to google a couple of lyrics/song titles but I loved the idea and the rather sweet self-effacing ending. My only suggestion would be to end the penultimate line after “are”, leaving Simply Red (perhaps with capitals) as the last line.
Night Sky In June by Liz Bertolla Along the tilted glass of an attic window stars skid, pell-mell into my head. Just out of sight a pumpkin moon flaunts her full belly. For the Incas this was Harvest moon, for their year fell in a different way from ours – here we call it Mulberry moon, Hare's month and time of Hawthorn. For this is June, six moons into the year and the sky swoops into my dreams scattering madness of hare and pungence of Hawthorn. Its velvet cloak enshrouds me as I tumble into sleep. The spheres pace their melodies to my breathing. Gliding on the June night I am cats-cradled in the ravel of life unpicking in dreams the skeins of a past time. A restless Penelope, postponing the moment of choice. My weaving mind escapes through this open-door month, soaring, like those Chagal couples, up and away above the city where time is arrested, spangled and star-blest.
I love the energy in this poem and also the way it ranges in time and space, the Incas, those lovely local phrases “Hare’s month and time of Hawthorn” and then flies on into myth and art. It has some great images. I like that “pumpkin moon flaunting her full belly”. My only suggestion would be to attach “A restless Penelope” to the previous line but it’s a very well-handled piece.
Stars by Chris Bridge Only once have I seen the way that stars ask questions. It was in Wanaka. I'd come out of the campervan, sleepless in the middle of the night and found myself looking up into a real night sky in which so many stars shone clear that they seemed jammed together, each one with a pure light that zinged and trembled: some white, some yellow with a hint of red, hanging above the mountain ridges like a chain, strutting their stuff far out to whale-backed seas. The Bushmen say stars hunt. I thought they looked into my soul. I wanted to laugh it off by using words others have given us. I could talk time and space. I could say God – but faced with firmaments on that rare scale and questions too profound for easy shots at truth, all I could do was stare and feel that ancient insignificance we've banished with the tungsten light.
A lovely poem. It had me hooked from the conversational tone of the opening line. I like the way Chris uses verbs to conjure the scene for the reader, I really like “zinged and trembled” and I know what you mean about them being “jammed” together though I think there might be a better word. The experience feels like a real encounter with Nature and perhaps with God too. I love the ending and the feeling of civilisation having lost something precious.
Shrove Tuesday by Sandra Burnett You were three when you learnt to squint stars, turn them into dancing tutus with nods of your head and demand everyone in the house shout I believe in fairies. At five you hop-scotched the garden path to your mother’s vegetable patch and failed to find that pea-green boat. Aged seven your present was a spinning top your friend chalked with a rainbow; spun in his dark hands until it bled a riot of colour and your father gave you a whip. You say you still hear its crack and blow on your palms.
I hesitated over this one as it’s really about childhood and only incidentally about stars but I felt it was too delightful to leave out. I loved the idea of “squinting stars” and that sense of the stars as something magical to the little girl. The simple language in this poem suits the subject beautifully and I like the ending with its hint of darkness.
The Night My Father Died by Helen Cadbury I stepped outside, found a sky pierced with light, as if each star was begging me to believe in an after-life, as if each stab of brightness was a window for looking down on the living. I wished on the brightest star that it was true, knowing, but choosing to forget, that he just wouldn't have had any truck with that, he'd have told me, don't be so ridiculous, death is death and that is all there is. Then noticing a star I hadn't seen before, above the next door factory wall, hanging like new against the winter sky, I couldn't help but whisper up to it: goodnight Dad. Goodbye.
Helen Cadbury’s moving poem about her father’s death and the communing with Nature afterwards is beautifully written. Something of the father’s personality comes across and I like the dialect phrase “just wouldn’t have had any truck with that”. The language is matter of fact but the emotion far from it. I chose to believe that the writer really did notice a new star and whisper up to it as if there was a Heaven whether he believed in it or not. Some lovely images in this one too – “a stab of brightness” etc. but for the most part Helen achieves her effects by simplicity. I might have split the poem into two stanzas perhaps after “all there is”.
Another Night Train by Julie Corbett is going faster than the car speeding its way to there where I expect you to be I'll be home very soon before the drags of this satsuma sky has gone before the birds roost in raggy Autumn nests in undressing trees and you will turn on the lights and gas fire readying the welcome I shall fold all my maps and look for star-like glows of the exit signs
Julie Corbett takes us on a journey and, again, in simple everyday language (what a relief it was not to receive poems with archaic language) evokes the scene; the train and car racing to the same point, the “satsuma” sky, the “raggy” autumn nests. Those unobtrusive images lift the description beautifully. I very much like the ending. Julie has chosen not to use punctuation. Usually I think you do need some but maybe here it goes with the subject matter. Did you mean “dregs”?
Reaching Skywards by Simon Currie Berryman, your nod towards the stars engaged me forty years ago, for all the firmament above is never ours except as backcloth. Did that fall from Washington Avenue Bridge take place under stars? Halfway to Heaven, then plummeting to Hell. By day, we face the sun, to live, to hope, to burn. The climber killed may get acclaimed as master of the starry ways, his sun set while it was still day. The soldier maimed will meet new challenges. And yet such guidance from the stars is pure conceit, with them indifferent. Life is at our feet.
This is a very skilfully handled sonnet in which Simon Currie addresses the poet, John Berryman (a different kind of star), thinks about man’s relationship to the stars and ultimately their indifference to our fate. I love that bold last sentence. This one perhaps demands more of the reader and repays rereading. The half rhymes are subtle and on a first reading it doesn’t immediately strike you that it is a sonnet. It is all the more successful for that. A lovely poem.
Dancing with Neil Armstrong by Jacqueline Everett (1930- 2012) A moment’s brilliance arcs downwards through the August sky, a falling meteor like a retina tear, leaving just a trace or maybe a hairline scar. But I remember still a darkened room, abandoned to rust leatherette chairs, residents by now tucked up in narrow beds, another night of memories unshared. Where I retrieve lost walking sticks. lace- trimmed hankies, a crumpled People’s Friend beneath a crocheted blanket of salmon pink patched squares. Where the TV sulks silently in a corner till I, like a moth to the flame, glimpse another creature, in white, beckoning me come with him across The Sea of Tranquillity. Where he and I quarter turn, in triple time, waltzing, rising and falling between the stars, straight out of this world. So farewell, Mission Commander Armstrong. And thank you for the dance.
I was really pleased someone chose to write about Neil Armstrong. I like this poem very much but I feel it needs a another draft. First of all what Matthew Sweeney calls a “frisk draft” (ie shake out all the contraband and nail scissors and bottles of water you forgot you had in your pocket) to sharpen it up a bit. In this case mainly adjectives, eg in stanza one wouldn’t it be better like this?
A moment’s brilliance arcs down through the August sky, a meteor like a retina tear, leaving a trace or a hairline scar. I remember…
I love the idea of being beckoned across The Sea of Tranquillity and all those lovely details of what I presume is a care home the writer was working in or visiting when Armstrong stepped onto the moon. The contrast with that and their dance is great. I think it would be better still if you ended on that wonderful “straight out of this world”. The rest, for me, is what Don Paterson calls “sub-titles for the thick”. We all do it. The temptation to end by pointing out what we’ve been doing in the poem is irresistible. Resist it! Trust the poem. It knows what it’s doing.
STAR CHAMBER by Bill Fitzsimons On the patio, in the warm breath of evening, I watched a lacy swirl of star-dust wheel slowly overhead - the Milky Way – a gossamer headscarf flung across the face of night. My mind reeled on the edge of immensity; overcome by the soul-swallowing impact of that glittering veil. Reason foundered in wonder’s wake as I strove to understand. What words could I find to express the inexpressible? No words of mine can describe the cauldron of creation; the galactic core ablaze with frozen light. Star nursery, birthing chamber, maker of worlds – the fabric of the cloth of heaven stretched across the void. I knew deep in my heart my poetic powers had fled, faced with the beauty and grandeur of the night sky overhead. At last I turned away from that star-filled curtain of light; back to my small concerns, plebeian, local, finite.
There is some lovely music in this one and I felt it was one of the more successful attempts to capture that feeling of awe at the immensity of the heavens. Great images too – that “gossamer headscarf”, “the cauldron of creation”, the “birthing chamber”. A very rich poem and I really like the ending.
Stars by Lydia Harris The lights at Tuquoy might be stars and the stars might be the lights on the farm with the huge shed Tam built with his sons where contemplative cows hang on to summer and hay lightens the mangers and there’s the cow in the far corner, who’ll not get up again, says Tam, but we’ll keep her comfortable. The farm’s close to the chapel and the taing where the Norse built their homes and asked, Is that a star or is Halkon in the bay hunting salmon or has Erland lit the beacon on Fitty, or is it a tilt in the pool I’ll have to wash my face to be rid of, is it light in the cup, or the eye of a fish, or the blade of a storm? Is it ice I see? It’s not far away. We don’t know where we are, which is star and which is light from the farm, how one looks like the other.
I love this poem in which Lydia Harris takes us effortlessly to Westray in the Orkneys and shows us a very particular scene, evoking the ancient Norse settlement and also starting and ending with the speaker in the modern world asking herself which are the stars and which the lights. I love the use of old dialect language such as “taing” and the names. Aren’t those place names wonderful?
Starry Night by Will Kemp The village sleeps beneath hills drowned by waves of blue its spire a thorn like the cypress trees twisting up to the rolling fireballs of stars and clouds only he could see
A brilliant example of what you can do with one sentence, no punctuation and skilful use of line-breaks. Clearly a reference to the Van Gogh painting, it does so much more than describe the picture though it does that too and I really like “its spire a thorn/ like the cypress trees” and those “rolling fireballs/of stars and clouds”. Simply expressed, a quiet little poem which packs a punch.
THE MARRIAGE VOW by Adam Lowe In the shade we fold into the dark bows of limbs, our shadows pool among roots. Succumbing, you pull from the low-slung branch plump bulbs of light. Your knife orbits the golden fruit, disrobes its pithy sunlight. You give it to me: a half-moon, a swell bowl of jewels, a fistful of princely favour. This dowry made in bright strands of citrus fibre. Illuminated, the canopy of the blossoming tree becomes sanctuary no more, exposes dark ridges of flesh, wet, scattered with seeds, anointed with juice that beads and runs where it will. I am hungry. You feed me discus after discus, mandarin quavers. There is no time to discuss the flavour. Just fill the hollow at my collarbone, a liquid necklace; make me your shining queen.
This was one of five strong poems sent in by Adam Lowe. I chose it for its rich language, the beauty of its images and its sheer sexiness. Aren’t those “plump bulbs of light” wonderful? And “discus after discus”. “I am hungry…make me your shining queen”. This one sticks in the mind long after you’ve finished reading it.
Making a Constellation by Stuart Pickford (For Chris, Jenny, Mark, Megan) A field in the Ardèche near midnight. Towels around our necks, we pad in flip-flops across corn stubble and shoots of black grass. The moon takes our negatives and fringes each of us with light. Our students follow in our steps to the middle where we arrange them in groups on their towels, bodies as spokes of silver, heads touching: children laughing, bathing in the stars. We also find a place, settle down to read the constellations: Orion’s Belt, always The Plough, Cassiopeia’s W: its why and when. Sitting up, there’s a frieze of oaks and seven circles of friends. Their futures seem possible and clear, their voices rising into the night. When a chill sends us inside, our shapes are printed on grass. A field in the Ardèche, eight circles cast in moonlight.
A delightful take on the theme by Stuart Pickford. A beautifully handled poem which is highly visual with some startling images. I particularly liked “The moon takes our negatives” and “bathing in the stars”, also that lovely “frieze of oaks”. I love this affectionate picture of pupils and teachers studying the constellations in a field in France. Lovely poem.
Nocturne by Jonathan Reid (for Lughan) The night has reared them – how they loft and gaze! Random and just, remotely tender, they Regard me archly with their white-lashed eyes; Bright with kindness and ferocity. Mapping the dark with cool acquaintance, Keen and scented, careless and benign; Though kin to us, both legion and unique, They trumpet and diminish me and mine. For our un-mantled and benighted kind Are lacking their seraphic certainty, And falter at the blind emphatic smile That froze their singleness in fellowship. We fumble for it, awkward and forlorn, At Love’s insistence fashioning the dawn.
Jonathan added a note explaining that this tender sonnet was written just before the birth of his grandson. It was a feature of the poems submitted that for many writers times of great personal significance (birth, death, love, loss) lead to a heightened awareness of the natural world and, in particular, of the night sky. I think this poem is beautiful and its sentiments, though simply expressed, are complex and also ancient. “They trumpet and diminish me and mine” and words like “falter” and “fumble’ say so much about the speaker’s new awareness of the littleness of man against the cosmic backdrop.
Thank you for your poems. I felt honoured to be entrusted with them.
I will be setting another challenge in early November. Watch this space. In the meantime who’s your money on in Strictly? And is it just me or does Darcy Bussell say yeah? far too often, yeah?
Carole Bromley is married with four children and lives in York. Twice a winner in The Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition, she has two pamphlets with Smith/Doorstop (Unscheduled Holt, 2005, and Skylight, 2009) and a collection A Guided Tour of the Ice House. She has won a number of first prizes, including The Bridport and Yorkshire Open, and her poems have appeared in a range of magazines and anthologies. Carole is a graduate of the MPhil in Writing at Glamorgan University and teaches creative writing for York University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning.