by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
Writers, including poets, use pieces of their lives in their work. Some use large pieces, some only slip in brief flashes. For some, what happened doesn’t matter, only the feelings left behind.
Jo Shapcott (1953 – ) is an English poet, editor and lecturer. She won the National Poetry Competition in 1985 and 1991. Her collections include: Electroplating the Baby (1988), which won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for Best First Collection; Phrase Book (1992); My Life Asleep (1998), which won the Forward Poetry Prize (Best Collection); and Her Book: Poems 1988-1998 (2000). She was honored with the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. Then, though she published other work during the next ten years, she stopped publishing collections of her poetry.
In a 2010 interview in The Guardian about Of Mutability, her first new book in nearly a decade, she says, “I like titles. With other people’s collections, I enjoy reading the title page as if it were a poem itself. For me, I love the process of inventing them: a lot of thought goes in, but they’re serendipitous, too. When they come, it’s a real thrill. The title is the first sense you get that maybe you’ve got a book in your hands.”
Shapcott’s favourite title from her collections is Her Book. She says it’s “to do with being a woman in a male poetic tradition. The idea was just to say, OK, this is her book.”
Shapcott has certainly had some memorable titles:
The Mad Cow Talks Back
I’m not mad. I just seems that way
because I stagger and get a bit irritable.
There are wonderful holes in my brain
through which ideas from outside can travel
at top speed and through which voices,
sometimes whole people, speak to me
about the universe. Most brains are too
compressed. You need this spongy
generosity to let the others in.
I love the staggers. Suddenly the surface
of the world is ice and I’m a magnificent
skater turning and spinning across whole hard
Pacifics and Atlantics. It’s risky when
you’re good, so of course the legs go before,
behind, and to the side of the body from time
to time, and then there’s the general embarrassing
collapse, but when that happens it’s glorious
because it’s always when you’re travelling
most furiously in your mind. My brain’s like
the hive: constant little murmurs from its cells
saying this is the way, this is the way to go
It’s a hot night. We walk the highwalk
from the tube. The concrete walls
seep warmth and we smell
garden flowers, hear city church bells,
loiter in the odd sweet spot until
the sound of water falling
tugs us on. Lakeside, we know
if there’s a muse
of concrete, she lives
here, inside these buildings
made of crushed Welsh
granite and of rain. Through
the doors and now our ears
are caves, our minds
cathedrals of flash and glow,
until we are beside ourselves and
our hearts have softened in our bodies
and when we go back out the street is silk.
“Barbican Audience” © 2009 by Jo Shapcott
I Tell the Bees
He left for good in the early hours with just
one book, held tight in his left hand:
The Cyclopedia of Everything Pertaining
to the Care Of the Honey-Bee; Bees, Hives,
Honey, Implements, Honey-Plants, Etc.
And I begrudged him every single et cetera,
every honey-strainer and cucumber blossom,
every bee-wing and flown year and dead eye.
I went outside when the sun rose, whistling
to call out them as I walked towards the hive.
I pressed my cheek against the wood, opened
my synapses to bee hum, I could smell bee hum.
‘It’s over, honies,’ I whispered, ‘and now you’re mine.’
“I Tell the Bees,” © 2010 by Jo Shapcott, was specially commissioned for the programme of poetry about bees at Gresham College for the City of London Festival in 2010.
In May 2003, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and underwent the “full gamut” of treatment (her oncology team are named in Of Mutability’s acknowledgments). The process took almost a year, and was deemed, in the cautious terms of cancer medicine, to have been a success. But the remedy left its own scars. During the course of her treatment, Shapcott found herself facing “not only physical changes, which were quite profound, but mental and emotional ones”. It was, she says, “like being reborn as someone slightly different. And in my case, that meant not only finding out who I was now – this new, wobbly person – but how that person wrote. The distinctive thing about breast cancer is that you’re not cured, you’re only ever in remission. You become aware that the body is going in one direction: towards disintegration. That’s true for all of us, of course – but now it’s at the front of my mind, and that means living with a changed sensibility. I’ve had to carry out reconstruction on my brain. I’ve had to remake myself as a poet.”
Uncertainty Is Not a Good Dog
Uncertainty is not a good dog.
She eats bracken and sheep shit,
drops her litters in foxholes
and rolls in all the variables,
wriggling on her back, until
she reeks of them,
until their scents are her scents.
She takes sudden, windy routes
through hummocks, cairns and ditches
so you can’t spot where she is
and acknowledge her velocity
at the same time. She’s fidgety,
but still careful to snuffle
through all the mud on the trail.
She can’t see in the dark
but bumps her snout
on the overhang lapping
the path. Daylight’s no better:
she has to screw her eyes
tight against the glare
and, panting, just risk it, following
her nose across the landscape
her tongue brighter than probability,
brighter than heather, winberry and scree.
“Uncertainty Is Not a Good Dog” from Of Mutability, © 2010 by Jo Shapcott – Faber and Faber
Too many of the best cells in my body
are itching, feeling jagged, turning raw
in this spring chill. It’s two thousand and four
and I don’t know a soul who doesn’t feel small
among the numbers. Razor small.
Look down these days to see your feet
mistrust the pavement and your blood tests
turn the doctor’s expression grave.
Look up to catch eclipses, gold leaf, comets,
angels, chandeliers, out of the corner of your eye,
join them if you like, learn astrophysics, or
learn folksong, human sacrifice mortality,
flying, fishing, sex without touching much.
Don’t trouble, though, to head anywhere but the sky.
“Of Mutability” from Of Mutability, © 2010 by Jo Shapcott – Faber and Faber
Can the bald lie? The nature of the skin says not:
it’s newborn-pale, erection-tender stuff,
every thought visible, – pure knowledge,
mind in action – shining through the skull.
I saw a woman, hairless absolute, cleaning.
She mopped the green floor, dusted bookshelves,
all cloth and concentration, Queen of the room.
You can tell, with the bald, that the air
speaks to them differently, touches their heads
with exquisite expression. As she danced
her laundry dance with the motes, everything
she ever knew skittered under her scalp.
It was clear just from the texture of her head,
she was about to raise her arms to the sky;
I covered my ears as she prepared to sing, roar.
“Hairless” from Of Mutability, © 2010 by Jo Shapcott – Faber and Faber
“. . . There’s a mixture of autobiography and imagination in the poems that I don’t quite understand myself,” she says . . . “It seems to me that readers tend to relate poems to poets in a way that they don’t with novels. And yet poets and novelists share the same dynamic: we make stuff up; we move the point of view around. In Of Mutability, for example, the reader doesn’t get an account of my experience with breast cancer. I’m not an autobiographical poet in that sense; I’m not someone chasing her own ambulance. But what you do get is a series of meditations imbued with mortality and mutability, coming from the body, or from the boundaries between the body and the world. The poems are emotionally autobiographical, but not factually so. The ‘I’ is no more and no less me than it ever was.”
- Electroplating the Baby, © 1988 by Jo Shapcott – Bloodaxe Books
- Phrase Book, © 1992 by Jo Shapcott – Oxford University Press
- My Life Asleep, © 1998 by Jo Shapcott – Oxford University Press
- Her Book: Poems 1988-1998, © 2000 by Jo Shapcott – Faber and Faber
- Tender Taxes, © 2001 by Jo Shapcott – Faber and Faber
- Of Mutability, © 2010 by Jo Shapcott – Faber and Faber
- Transforming colors
- Black and white cow
- Barbican Hall, Barbican Performing Arts Centre, London
- Bee hovering
- Bald woman singing
- Jo Shapcott
World Cloud photo by Larry Cloud