The casual first line really doesn’t prepare you for the visceral nature of what follows. This violent description (“dark innards”, “sliced open”) sits perfectly with the two other main elements of the poem, as I see it – the dogs and the you/I dynamic. And of course, all merge together with the speaker’s transformation into an animal-like entity herself.
There’s something very deft, and even brave, about the words chosen here, words like “brindled lurcher”, “blind-little-lives” and “dumb question”. They’re not the kind of phrases that shout “poetic!” to a reader, and that’s why they elevate this poem. The poet is taking a chance. And it has paid off handsomely.
Structure-wise, it’s very interesting that the first half of the poem describes in detail an event from the present time, then abandons this event, mid-verse, to mull over a moment shared in the past. The coldness of the scene before her takes the speaker back to this similarly cold act some time before. But, for all that coldness and all the gory/violent detail this poem is loaded with, there is the implied warmth of a mother’s bond with her young ones. Behind any tragedy, there’s a great deal of emotion, sometimes hidden, sometimes pouring out in lavish displays. This poem is one of internal tragedy, of a stomach churning silently.
The dogs don’t know what to make of it,
black plastic dumped by the roadside, fox-torn,
a trail left across the still frozen bog,
dark innards that spread
like links of butcher’s best.
Downy white curls stuck
to the shiny bones of a bare back
like cherub’s feathers.
The brindled lurcher circles and sniffs the air,
head raised in dumb question.
Like that day at Lady’s Mile
when the kittens were drowned,
thrown mewling into the sea.
The un-weighted bag billowed
and bobbed over the rough swell,
then spiked on barnacle-sharpened sandstone,
to cast four blind-little-lives into the deep.
I circled you on the rock,
teeth bared in a snarl,
anchoring the fathom of a mother’s loss.
I was born in England in 1958, but moved around a lot over the years, first as the daughter of an itinerant engineer and then as a teacher in international schools. I think you can see the influence of multiple locations in my writing. I started off writing as a child, subjecting friends and family to numerous evenings of "plays" and story telling, earning more from charging entrance for these than all my writing as an adult! English Lit at A Level put me off writing for several decades and it wasn't until I had to take early retirement because of ill health at fifty that I started writing again.
It was through online writing groups that I got my first taste of writing poetry. The short form suited my stamina and concentration levels at that point, but I loved it so much that it has become part and parcel of my life. I've taken part in a number of workshops and courses, as well as spending a week at the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen's in Belfast. I think that it is really useful for an emerging writer to spend as much time as possible with those who understand the craft and can act as signposts.
My poems have been published in a number of places, including the magazine formats of Crannog, Abridged, the Southword Journal and Wordlegs. I was short listed for the Fish Poetry prize in 2013. Also in 2013, a small collection was chosen for the Venture Poetry Award, which is due for publication soon as Let Red Hibiscus Fall, by Flipped Eye Publishing. In addition, I have two pamphlets, The Dragon's Egg and When I Think of You. In 2015, I was runner up for the Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing.
It seems that the “you” is purposely left out of the poem until near the end. Was there a specific reason behind this?
When I write a poem, I usually don't know where it's heading. Struck by the image of finding the dead lamb and the seeming surprise of the dogs who didn't know what to do, I wanted to get notes down on paper as soon as possible. The "you" only came into the poem later, when I reflected on what it was that I was reacting to so strongly. I kept it late in the poem as a conscious decision, a turning point, a moment of realisation.
Clearly, the loss of the kittens brought out the animal in you/the speaker of the poem, and I’ve noticed that animals appear in many of your poems. You seem to have particular empathy for them. Would you care to comment on why animals appear so frequently in your work?
I wasn't really aware that I wrote about animals, but you are right, they do feature frequently. I think the reason for that is that I have the debilitating condition CFS/ME, and apart from going to a writing group each week, most of my time is spent at home. I am lucky that the room I write in overlooks the garden, with views over farmland over to the Mourne mountains. At the moment, I have a small terrier next to my feet, barking through the glass door at a ginger kitten. Beyond that, there are three young rabbits nibbling the lawn, a crazy squirrel running up a beech tree and two buzzards calling overhead. So, I suppose that animals, being constant companions, creep into my writing almost unnoticed.
In this poem, you’ve taken us from the bog to the sea. Would you say landscape has much of an effect on your work? If so, in what way?
Landscape shapes all of us. I listened to a BBC radio interview recently, with Niall Campbell, who was born and brought up in the Scottish Islands. He spoke about how the sea finds its way into most of his poems, even ones written in the middle of a city; the images that occur in his head are those associated with points of reference that come from his direct experience. It's the same for me. The landscape grounds my poems, most of them take place in a physical setting that I'll actually describe in writing. It will often be discarded later, but the influence remains.
This poem expresses anger in connection with death. Would you say this anger is connected with the fact of death itself or just with the unceremonious nature of the deaths described here?
Natalie Handel once wrote that much of my writing addresses loss. I think that death represents the ultimate version of that. Yes, there is anger as a stage of grief caused by loss of all kinds, but here there is anger at the treatment of animals as an animal welfare issue (the kittens being drowned and also the lamb being discarded in a bin liner), but there is also an anger at myself for keeping quiet.
The carefully chosen words you’ve used here suggest this may be a poem that went through many drafts. Can you comment on how many drafts this poem received, and on the drafting/writing process in general when you write poems?
Yes (I smile), this poem went through many drafts. I can't remember how many, but it was a lot. I wrote it over a couple of days and then workshopped it on an online writing site, making changes according to suggestions. I don't do that as much these days, finding that I lost too many poems "overworking through committee". I still go through several drafts, trying to find exactly the right words to convey what I'm trying to say, as well as paying attention to the sounds in the words, but I have more confidence in my own voice. I still find great value in listening to what other people have to say, concentrating more these days on whether what I wanted to say has come across in the way I meant it. Ciaran Carson advocates looking up every word that you use in a dictionary. I sometimes do that – try it, you get some surprises.
Why do you write?
A number of years ago I was diagnosed with CFS/ME, which means that I can be house-bound, or even bed-bound, for periods of time. Writing allows me to feel as though I am still an active participant in life. I don't have the stamina for extended pieces of writing, but poetry I can dip into whenever I like. Through writing I can connect with others, it lessens the sense of isolation.
What one piece of advice would you give a writer?
Join a writing group, either locally or online.