Each year Poets & Players commission poets to write on a subject that we think is relevant that year and also that has potential to produce a variety of responses. This year we invited poets David Wheatley, Mary Jean Chan, Jane Burn and Isaiah Hull to write on the theme ‘Altered Nature’. The commissioned poets produced a wonderful range of poems and we are grateful for their work.
As the Covid-19 situation escalated it was clear that the poets and our audience wouldn’t be able to gather as usual at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. The date for our event was today, World Poetry Day, and although we can’t all be together in person we are pleased to be able to share the poems with you online along with a couple of readings kindly provided by the poets. Here are the poems:
Please click the link below to read David’s poem:
David Wheatley was born in Dublin in 1970 and educated at Trinity College, Dublin. He has published four collections of poetry with Gallery Press and, more recently, The President of Planet Earth with Carcanet. He has also edited the poetry of Samuel Beckett for Faber and Faber, and written an academic study, Contemporary British Poetry (Palgrave, 2015). He has reviewed widely for the TLS, Guardian, LRB and other journals, and lives with his family in rural Aberdeenshire.
MARY JEAN CHAN
Note: this poem was written before the arrival of Covid-19 in the UK.
The birds had their tongues tied to silver strings as they hung
mid-air in silence. I was kneeling on the wet earth, crying out.
A disembodied voice informed me that nectar was being slowly
harvested from their throats, that this was the only way. Heat
from their flailing bodies pressed my eyes into my skull. I tried
to hold myself together in the dream but could not. Once awake,
I could not feel tender. The brutality of all architecture stunned
me wherever I looked. What were we – as a species – doing?
I finally summoned the will to write Life on my to-do list but
kept postponing the task. I had been dreaming of the dying,
because I could not ignore the news from home, country not
so far from the heart. This viral uncertainty keeping me afraid
of intimacy. I did not want to touch what others had touched,
feared any public surface. Even the air was menacing, invisible
droplets omnipresent. A persistent cough soon developed, as if
to taunt me. My father, a rheumatologist, texts to say he is well,
reminds me that he went through the SARS epidemic and never
took a day off work. I have inherited this stubborn, Calvinist ethic.
Today, I return to where breath feels possible. My therapist asks
me: What do you want? I think to myself: mother’s gaze / straight gaze
/male gaze / white gaze… I am ashamed to confess that I want to
be reborn as the brother, the beloved son, the future patriarch.
I want to see this torso in a different light, beam on it a kinder
gaze as I wait for something to give. I read a poet’s words: Mostly,
we do not fail to go on living. There is fire on the streets of a city I still
love and fire in the earth’s lungs as the hour ticks on. Had I simply
imagined this intimate scene: the mother lying prostrate at the feet
of her child, begging for a miracle, or was it the other way around…
Mary Jean Chan is a London-based poet from Hong Kong. She is an editor of Oxford Poetry and a Lecturer in Creative Writing (Poetry) at Oxford Brookes University. She came Second in the 2017 National Poetry Competition, and has been shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem twice. She received an Eric Gregory Award in 2019, and won the 2018 Poetry Society Geoffrey Dearmer Prize for her collection’s title poem. Flèche (Faber & Faber, 2019). Her collection Flèche won the Costa Poetry Prize 2019.
The Fortingall Yew
I was here before your modern Gods. Before the chanted faith
of congregations I was my own psalm – young and green I held
my plush against cathedrals of ascetic sky, let the wind use
the stave of my branches to write its own hymns. Once I was a seed,
fallen and stripped of my fat, red flesh. I felt the call of soil and broke
my nut-brown shell, cast tiny threads to moor my beginning.
Around me, you raised up homes of daub as I raised myself,
wattled a crown upon my own head. You traded wildflowers for crop,
fingered the earth for twisted bulbs of ore, coddled them in flame
and cast an Age of Metal in the crucible’s molten eye. You learned
to make better blades. I saw the tombs you built, how you blessed
each cist with hoards of wealth. You turned your skill to iron
and streams ran with rust – put keen axe to wood, went from scraping
shallow lines with simple ard to deeply wounding plough, swelled the acres
with grain, bent the gentle animals to your will. You saw yourselves
as flowers, plunged your cloth in mordant baths, stole the bright
of madder, woad and weld, blossomed with posies of gold and jewels.
You fell in love with wheels and I have watched these circles orbit
like planets in galaxies of smoke, just as I have watched the moon
turning on the axle of night. I have seen too much of your war. The air
has carried strange birds who blot a shadow across the light. This land
has known blood. Is full of ghosts. Now is our permanent autumn
of plastic leaves. They fall wherever people are. This is the Age of Nylon
and its fruit seems to come with polyester pith. For aeons past I watched
you people spread, swell as I have from sapling to bough. I watched you
wither, saw your skin corrupt, warped as my own bark. I saw you die
yet I used no trick to stay evergreen. No chemical cream, so magic soap
has granted me this long-lived gift. I stay strong with only basic need –
my underground veins seek a little rain, my flora as allowance of sun.
Here I remain, rooted into your bones, anchorite still, warding this church
that has grown at my eroded side. I sense the tilt of your standing stones,
graved with faded sentiment and half-forgotten names. The weather
around me has started to speak in unforgiving tongues. I am wedded to time –
I wear its eternity of rings, though I cleft beneath the weight of years.
Each splinter of me has drunk your poison in and hankered for clean air.
My needles lift like tiny fingers. I point them into the unknown.
Jane Burn lives with her family for eight months of the year in a self-sustained wooden cottage on the Northumberland border which they fully restored using almost wholly reclaimed or recycled materials. Her love of nature is reflected in her poems which have been published in many magazines including Poethead, The Rialto, Iota Poetry, Under the Radar, Crannog, Strix and Butcher’s Dog to name a few. Her work has appeared in anthologies from The Emma Press, Valley Press, Seren, Fairacre Press and Beautiful Dragons. Her poems have been placed, shortlisted and longlisted in thirty-eight national and international poetry competitions and have been nominated for the Forward and Pushcart Prize.
A beehive of queens is never peaceful
No yellow equals black is regal
She might sting you many times
While listening to gasoline
Waiting for the match to fall
I recall you
Skinning me a tangerine
That was all
Neck and neck
Indigos in inky fashion
Nectar on my nose
Honey on my honesty i didn’t panic
You can’t end me with wicker man in cinematics
She stings my phone on my way home
Hands in holes about to close
I lost a friend in you
so now revenge is due?
Send him through she says I knew I’d end up here
I say ‘so you have chosen fear
Over growing?, don’t you dare! I held you dear
How come your poison won’t compare
Hocum, mares, woe comes paired!’
In holding cells the wax implodes in air
How are you coping? Scared
I lost my vision overnight and woke impaired
New orders from Her Majesty are ‘Poke him where the poem wears!’