Julia Copus: Guided Tour
“I’ve avoided poems that other writers here have recommended, but which otherwise would certainly have been on my list (such as Richard Wilbur’s superb ‘A Barred Owl’, chosen by Andrew Motion). There are also some astonishing recordings in the historical section of the Archive, and hearing the voices of these poets – stretching as far back as Tennyson, with Auden, Larkin and Plath among them – is always a thrill. But for this tour I have stuck mainly to contemporary poets. The one exception is W.S. Graham, whose ‘Lines on Roger Hilton’s Watch’ is, for me, a must-listen. Here, then, is a selection of some of my favourite readings from the Archive. I hope it encourages you to explore further. Enjoy!”
Julia Copus has won First Prize in the National Poetry Competition and the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem (2010). Her third collection, The World’s Two Smallest Humans, is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and is published by Faber.
This short poem contains one of my favourite last lines of all: "That man, I wish him well. I wish him grass." The poem is essentially a list of the belongings that emerge from a house during a move - including "two whistling youths" and, curiously, a lawnmower. Curious because no grass grows in Terry Street, where "worms / Come up cracks in concrete yards at midnight." The lawnmower, then, is a symbol of hope, of everything the man doesn't - or doesn't yet - possess. Douglas Dunn's voice, both warm and gentle, delivers that crucial last line with disarming candour.
One of the delights of this Archive is that it offers a fresh perspective on poems you may already know. I have long been an admirer of the work of this next poet, Jen Hadfield (winner, in 2008, of the prestigious T.S. Eliot prize), but this particular poem, while it works brilliantly on the page, is further enhanced here by Hadfield's spellbinding reading; she takes her time with it, apparently savouring the shape of each word as it forms in her mouth. As for the poem itself, this is no ordinary 'Paternoster' but a horses' version which builds slowly and with a quiet power, like an incantation - or, indeed, like the eccentric but heartfelt prayer that it is.
Some poems of place conjure themselves with such authority that the setting seems magically to form itself around you as you read. This is one such poem. In it, an old man rummages through a box of old glasses, trying to find a pair that fits. The unexpected flashes of light in the poem (which takes place, as the title tells us, in the gloominess of a thrift shop basement) infuse it with a sense of epiphany. This is a poem about ageing, loss of identity and acceptance, whose ending creeps up on us quietly but with enormous force.
The musical lilt and clear tones of Sarah Maguire's voice are a perfect match for this moving poem about an adopted child's birth mother. I'd recommend that you listen to this poem at least twice - first following the text, and then with your eyes closed, so that you can visualise some of the enchanting imagery. The poem's format is simple enough: the speaker remembers her birth mother while sewing buttons onto a silk shirt. But it's the exquisite detail that brings the poem alive: the flaws on the back of the creamy, mother-of-pearl buttons, like birth marks, the "peony of blood" that opens on the shirt like a baby's tiny opening mouth, after the sewer pricks her finger. I think this poem demonstrates as well as any I know that the best imagery enlarges a poem, resonating in the reader's (or the listener's) mind long after the poem has finished - in a way that straightforward explication could never do. In fact, here the imagery is so integral that if the poem were a silent film, it would manage to tell its story with no words at all.
Ian Duhig has, I think, an extraordinary speaking voice and is instantly engaging when he reads his work live. This poem, 'Fundamentals', is a dramatic monologue, spoken by a hapless missionary abroad in Africa. In his introductory note to the poem, Duhig explains that the missionary is based loosely on David Livingstone who only ever managed to convert one person to Christianity - and that person lapsed. The comment is typical of the understated humour that runs throughout this and other of Duhig's poems.
Catherine Smith is a short story writer, as well as a poet, and her poems often contain miniature plots, or the germs of plots. This one, also available in the Children's Archive, is about a house that's revisited by its former (long-dead) occupants. Smith's bright voice provides a perfect counterpoint to the poem's eerie mood. In it, as in many of Smith's poems, the speaker addresses the reader/listener directly: "We're back, walking through the garden / while you sleep." Her delivery here is friendly and unforced, yet she reads unusually clearly, enunciating each word so that you don't have to strain to catch it, which makes the listening experience all the more enjoyable.
This is as sincere and poignant a memorial as you are ever likely to hear, and the distinctive timbre of Graham's voice is a treat to listen to. W.S. Graham and Roger Hilton (the painter) were drinking partners in Cornwall (where they had "terrible times together"). Graham was given the watch of the poem's title by Hilton's wife, Rose, on the occasion of her husband's death. I find the lines "I hope / you told him the best time / When he lifted you up / To meet the Hilton gaze" very touching. They are also a hint, perhaps, that more important forms of time may exist than the sort we relentlessly measure with watches and clocks. Listen out for the section towards the end of the poem when the watch itself addresses the listener. If you follow the text, you'll notice that the lines are indented at this point.