Silent Voices – Found poetry of lost women

I’m delighted to have had three poems accepted for publication as part of the Silent Voices – Found poetry of lost women project. The first poem is here, the second is here and the third is here.

The project aims to give a voice to the ordinary women of history who, for so long, have been assumed, as if by default, to have nothing interesting to say. It does so by using their own documents, whether that be public records or private writings, such as letters and diaries, and using them to make poetry. It’s a wonderful idea and the more you look at these apparently unassuming primary sources, the more apparent it is that some of the best poetry hides in the everyday and the ordinary.

The woman behind my poems is my great grandmother, Dorothy. Separated from her husband for almost four years when he was sent to fight in the Mesopotamian campaign in WWI, the pair of them wrote hundreds of letters to each other. Most of his survive; very much fewer of hers do, perhaps because of the difficulty he faced in keeping and transporting large volumes of papers.

Dorothy died relatively young, when still in her fifties, and in notes written by her son, David, the Sonny of the poems, was described as a mild-mannered woman who had a great deal to put up with.

I first “met” Dorothy through the prism of her brother-in-law, William Faulkner Taylor (see here, here, here and here). She corresponded with him for more than a year until he was killed at Passchendaele and, judging by his letters to her (to my knowledge, none of hers to him survive), was variously helpful (she had his watch fixed for him and sent him tobacco and cakes), supportive (obvious by the way he thanks her for her advice and counsel) and, purely platonically, indulgent of his need to use her as proxy girlfriend when he despaired of ever finding a real one (“Say, I hope you’re right and there is someone waiting for me and that she’s just like you.”) Nowhere, though, had I seen her voice tell her own story until I chanced on these letters.

Dorothy: it’s over to you.

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The sun-drenched elsewhere: Agapanthus and Aye-Ayes in Jersey

The little boy on the aeroplane looks out of his window. ‘I can see our holiday!’ he says. For a moment, I miss my own children. Mournful at not being invited on this 40th birthday trip, they’ve requested a souvenir. I ponder the Jersey new potatoes on sale at the airport, imagining them coated with chives and butter, but I doubt they’re what the children have in mind.

In St Helier, we walk along the esplanade to the bus stop. Blue agapanthus grows liberally on World War II fortifications. If anything can beautify concrete pill boxes, it’s these flowers.

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Agapanthus on WWII fortifications in Jersey

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Continuing the theme, the bus has a fake grass floor. An orang-utan swings above the driver’s seat while a kaleidoscope of tropical birds perch in the luggage racks. Birdsong and the call of howler monkeys accompany us on the journey inland. Outside, plump Jersey cows, brown as caramelised sugar, graze in small fields, roadside honesty boxes invite passers-by to have potatoes for dinner again and the garden of almost every house is alive with spikes of yet more agapanthus.

The bus deposits us at our destination: 32 acres of green loveliness celebrating and preserving Gerald Durrell’s “little brown jobs”. Durrell is an unusual zoo, not only because of its exhibits, which tend towards the less glamorous end of the zoological spectrum, but also because of its founder’s aspiration that, one day, it will no longer be needed.

Not all the animals are small. The gorillas aren’t. Everything about them is large, including their smell – like a locker room no-one’s cleaned. Even so, they attract a crowd that would thrill many sports teams.

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Western lowland silverback gorilla at #Durrell

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After lunch, we browse the shop but I can’t see anything beyond the usual soft toys and plastic dinosaurs for the children so we adjourn to the aye-ayes. With their bright orange eyes and strange, elongated fingers – to winkle grubs out of bark – these lemurs are feared as omens of death in their native Madagascar. In Durrell, they’re housed in two mellow stone buildings. A woman shoves through the swinging door. ‘Can’t see anything,’ she says. ‘What’s the point of that?’

Inside, the darkness drops like a sack. It’s almost threatening – or would be without the musky smell and a dim red light I don’t at first notice. Silent, we wait, pressing our noses to the glass. There’s a shuffle and a scuffle, and then an animal with gremlin ears and a tail like a terrified cat’s passes in front of our faces. It’s only a shadow but it’s enough. It’s enough. It’s there.

Out again in the daylight, I spot a wooden collection box with a slot for coins and, beneath, what looks like a pile of sticks. There’s a notice: Bamboo chewed by an aye-aye. £1. It’s just the thing! I pick through the pile and, choice made, wrap two lengths of bamboo in a scarf and drop money into the box. I hope the children appreciate them more than they would the potatoes.

Friday Fictioneers – Sea beliefs

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Image © Claire Fuller

 

When I was seven, we found a mermaid. Right there on the beach, forgotten by the tide, tiny and curled up asleep inside a cockle shell. We couldn’t wake her, though we tried.

She came home with us and lived on a shelf in our bedroom, with the shells and sponges, the driftwood and sea beans. We didn’t tell anyone what she was. She was ours.

Yesterday, my daughter showed me a mermaid she’d found on the beach.

‘Look after her,’ I said and then, too quietly for anyone except the mermaid to hear, ‘while you still believe in her.’

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If you’d like to write your own 100 word story inspired by the picture, click here, or here to read other people’s.

Friday Fictioneers – And so the darkness

Inspired by my friend, Claire, I’ve decided to have a go at the Friday Fictioneers. This is a long-running project, hosted by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. The challenge is to write a piece of flash fiction, complete with beginning, middle and end, in 100 words or fewer, following a photo prompt. This week’s photo is supplied by Rochelle.

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Image © Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

 

‘We have light!’ She set the hurricane lamps on the table, one either side of the tiny shopping trolley the children had filled with bottles of sugar sprinkles and cinnamon (‘See, we won’t starve,’ they’d said). ‘I found them in the attic. They were Violet’s, I suppose.’

He shrugged and ran his finger over the glass of the nearer one, liking the burn. ‘Guess so.’

‘Lucky she never threw anything away.’

His finger was too hot. He counted to five and pulled it away. ‘No. You’re wrong there. She did. She threw people away all the time.’

 

William Faulkner Taylor – part 4

“I haven’t heard from Maud lately, she doesn’t write to me half as often as you do. Say I believe if you had your own way you would be quite a matchmaker, go ahead, hop to it……”

This is a quotation from one of William’s earlier letters. And, until recently, I thought that was where William’s friendship with Maud had ended.

But no. As this letter hints at, there was more to come.

France,

June 8th ’17

“Dear Dorothy,

I received your letter a few days ago with the badges in. Thanks very much, they were alright.

I am back with the Battalion again. I got back last Friday, the Battn was in the line when we got back so we were sent up to them & we stayed in the line for three days. We just arrived in time for quite a lively time, perhaps you read about it in the papers. We took a trench from Fritz but he came back at us pretty strong & we were short of men so couldn’t hold it & had to withdraw to our old position but we gave him quite a wallop for we hear now that the Germans have retired from the position altogether.

We took quite a few prisoners, some of them were just boys, I felt sorry for some of the poor little beggars. We had them carrying out wounded & they were just all in. You could see the tears in their eyes as they worked.

Well I had quite a good time at the Corps school, I did pretty well. There was sixty of us in the sniper class & I was seventh from the top in shooting & ninth in general knowledge, map reading & such like so I think that’s pretty good for me.

I have got two stripes now, so when you write to me please address my mail Cpl Taylor [indecipherable]. If this war keeps on another fifteen or twenty years I’ll be a Colonel or something like that.

I got a letter from Maud two or three days ago, & what do you think she sent me a photo. That’s going some, eh. I am going to write to her just as soon as I finish this. I have your photo & Maud’s tucked away in my pay book  together.

I got a letter the other day from Laura, with the usual amount of snapshots, of things around home in it. This time it’s the new colts & all the school kids. She sends me some photos of something or other nearly every week so that I can see for myself how things are coming along. In her last letter she said that Dad had just arrived home with a motor car. He has been talking of buying one for a long time & at last he has done gone & did it. He got half way home & got stuck in a mud hole on the trail & had to walk home & get a team to go & pull it out so he made a bad start. The lord only knows what the finish will be. I am expecting daily to hear that some of them have got a Blighty or something like that.

Well they are sending some of our boys away on leave. I don’t know when I shall get mine now. That three weeks at the school will put me back some & taking stripes will too. If I had still been a private I should have been about first but NCOs will go in seniority. Some of the fellows are also being sent to a rest camp on the coast for about three weeks rest. We were talking about leave this evening & I asked the Sg major whereabouts I stood on the list & he said oh you had better go with the next bunch to the rest camp & I said to hell with that stuff I want to go to England. So I don’t know what will happen but there’s going to be a row if I don’t get my Blighty leave. I think I can get it alright when my turn comes for I have a pretty good stand in with the powers that be, so if I don’t stop a whizz bang before long you may see me around Leicester soon.

Say what do you know about Marian Beaumont, anyway. She is only a school kid or at least she was when I saw her last. I seem to have got you & the folks at home guessing now. Laura wanted to know the other day what that ring was on my finger. She seems to think some French girl gave me that. “Nothing doing”.

Well I think this is all this time so good by, give my love to Harold when you write. With love

Bill

P.S. I don’t know about addressing letters to Mesop[otamia] but I fancy it should be addressed to Army P.O. London and not to Mesop. I think that is the trouble.

Did I tell you some of my letters came back marked “contrary to W.O orders. I asked Bill if he knew how the letters to Meso were usually addressed.”

 

So, a letter from Maud and her picture in his paybook…..  He’s been dead almost one hundred years but I am quite ridiculously pleased for him. And, thanks to the recent discovery of two enormous and fascinating packets of letters between Dorothy and her husband Harold (William’s brother) while Harold was posted in Mesopotamia and Persia, I also know the story was not yet finished.

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