Today I was delighted to read at Lancaster Lit Fest, as part of the Beautiful Dragons showcase event. Beautiful Dragons is a wonderful collaborative writing project run by the energetic and passionate Rebecca Bilkau. I was invited to take part in the third one, Heavenly Bodies, which is when Beautiful Dragons first came to my attention. The idea came from Rebecca, and another poet I admire, Sarah Hymas, writing about the same subject at the same time. Each successive project has involved more and more poets.
The collaboration is run in a non-competitive way. Each poet chooses the aspect of the theme they are going to work on and simply gets on with their own poem. There were 88 poets involved with writing about the 88 constellations for Heavenly Bodies, A Constellation of Poetry (2014) and an astonishing 118 for the latest book, My Dear Watson, The Very Elements in Poetry (2015). I stand in awe of Rebecca’s energy in producing these books from start to finish, including commissioning the poets, chasing them up (probably similar to herding cats at times) and bringing out elegant, beautifully produced books with gorgeous covers and illustrations by Richard Kenton Webb and Una Murphy.
The range of poets included makes for a great mix of different approaches to the theme, and each poet has a completely different aspect, so the books are held together by a thread but the poems are not limited in style or approach, so long as there is a clear link with the theme.
For example, in Heavenly Bodies, I wrote about Perseus, which was fun, writing as a man (well half god, as he boasts in the poem), Melissa Lee-Houghton wrote about Cancer the Crab, Jan Dean wrote a witty poem about Canis Minor, John Glenday chose Lacerta, Oz Hardwick, Lyra, and Bob Beagrie about Vela. Some of us read our constellations poems today, but the main focus was on the new book.
As Janet Rogerson couldn’t be there because of a clash with the fabulous Poets and Players, which she helps to run, I read her stunning and spare poem on Arsenic. Thanks to Janet for permission to feature her poem here:
In 1849, Rebecca Smith was hanged for the murder of eight of her children. Afraid they ‘might come to want’, she poisoned them while breastfeeding.
Tip a small moon – hush rhyme of the sky moon-
white powder. One. Like sugar, like salt, like snow.
Up there’s where heaven is. Two. Like milk,
strong toothless hold, hungry you. Three.
Blanket heavy as day old bread. Drink away
your hunger. Four. Take my fullness take all
you want. I’ll boil his milk, full moon on the river,
he’ll come home drunk wanting me. Five.
Long night I’ll feed you, small mouths
pulling and pulling , mornings drowning in milk.
Six. This dress, tightening fire on skin,
soaked hard into winter. Seven.
Come home each night and drink. Eight.
This poem is very compassionate. It demonstrates what straights of poverty this mother was living in, with a husband demanding sex and no birth control. One has only to visit the Foundling Museum in London to see the desperation of these mothers who had to apply for a place for their babies, and the staff were instructed to accept only babies whose mother was of impeccable morals. Rebecca Smith was hanged for this crime, but she was taking what she thought was the kindest course of action. The counting of the babies is heart-rending. Janet Rogerson does not waste a single word here.
I’ve also been given permission to feature Gill Lambert’s poem about Calcium. This was another stand out poem for me at the Manchester launch (a night of torrential rain and obscuring roadworks) because I am fascinated by the Wars of the Roses. It chimes with the discovery of Richard III’s poor corpse in a Leicester car park, too. But this is not a high royal figure. but one of the common soldiers who died in Britain’s bloodiest battle.
Before the battle buried me, and snow
filled every hole my body had to offer,
before Palm Sunday, fourteen-sixty-one,
cleaved a question mark into my skull,
I dreamed of this. In every billet-bed
and whoring house, I wondered not how
I would die, but what would be found.
I never considered bones would testify
my truth. That every tooth God gave me,
would be found, but my brain, with my identity
would dissolve into pulp and drain
into the soil. My personality seep
from my body with my liver and my lungs.
There was never any hint in beer-soaked
nightmares that my name would be lost,
eaten away with my woollen vest, rotted
into rags by years of floods and dust-filled
droughts. I’ve emptied my fertility into the land
where the grass has grown lush but my daughters
and my sons would never come to be.
All that’s left of me is here, labelled.
Numbered, tagged and catalogued – my bones,
battle-scarred and stripped of flesh. Aged
between one decade and the next, I have become
an estimate; there are no details of the woman
that I loved or the friend in whose memory
I remained clear, only to die with him.
*Towton 25 is the name of a skeleton that was removed from a mass grave at the site of the battle of Towton, in 1996.
Gill Lambert gives this unknown man a voice and makes him young, innocent and disbelieving in his own anonymity. The rotting of the corpse is so vividly imagined. I love the line about snow filling every hole his body could offer, and the idea of him spilling his possible children into the soil. Like Rogerson’s poem, every word has been chosen with care and judicious thought.
My own poem for this book was about Topical Iodine, referring to a treatment for minor wounds that is now obsolete. Some poets wrote about the element itself, or its discovery or discoverer. There were as many different approaches as poets.
The books are available from Rebecca Bilkau and are reasonably priced at £7.99. All of the poets who were involved are excited to know what her next idea will be for us to tackle. Today was a lovely event, run informally and collaboratively. It was great to meet some of the other poets again, and encounter some I had not met before. A big round of applause for Beautiful Dragons! Apologies to all the poets I have not mentioned! There were loads of brilliant poems in both books. Impossible to mention every one.