Monthly Archives: January 2014

A dose of the bitters…..


photo-147  Just a quick post this week as I am working hard on editing my novel-in-draft. First of all, a big welcome to the new followers of this blog (not to forget the support of those of you who have been following for a while!).

My news this week is that I have finalised the title for my chapbook for Dancing Girl Press. It will be called the bitters with reference, in part,  to the strychnine-based nerve tonics prescribed for patients (mainly female) in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  (For further information see McGarry RC, McGarry P. Please pass the strychnine: the art of Victorian pharmacy. CMAJ. 1999 Dec 14;161(12):1556-8, or catch the current exhibition on the history of the treatment of mental illness at the Science Museum, London).

The starting point for the bitters was discovering the archive of my local mental hospital (now closed) where both my grandmother and my grandfather were patients. Many of the poems in this collection are ‘collage poems’ , created out of some of the shadow side or darker  ‘bits’ of cookery books, wedding advice, fashion magazines and  household tips, as well as archive material pertaining to the treatment of women’s mental health, and the exploitation of female home workers in the 19th and 20th centuries.

It is due to be published by Chicago-based Dancing Girl Press    in November 2014.  Nearer the time, I will be posting more information about the background research that went into this collection as well as news about various launch events. Or feel free to contact me for more information through the comment section on this blog.

Here is a tiny snippet:

There’s a man in my room who puts sulphur in my tea. He is hiding under my bed. They say it’s a dose of the bitters to pep me up but I have seen the dark blue caddy turn green. They whisper about me. They will rob me as soon as my eyes close. The man in my room puts poison in my food. They say it’s my brother visiting but I know they’re all in on it. I watch them when they think I’m at my prayers. I am already dead. My coffin is tender the palest pink. They tuck me into it each night and tell me to sleep like a good girl.

Eliza, County Asylum, 1902 (an extract from Casebook, a sequence of poems based on patient casebooks)

the bitters, published  by Dancing Girl Press, November 2014. 


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The Buried Bear

How odd. I had only just posted Jen Hadfield’s poem Paternoster in my last post when I picked up a call from the Poetry Library in London. More than a year ago, I asked them if they could obtain a copy of The Printer’s Devil & The Little Bear, an Arts Council collaboration between Jen Hadfield and Ursula Freeman to produce a letterpress portfolio of illustrated poems.  After all these months, I had given up on it. Then, out of the blue, the call came.

Today, I finally got the opportunity to look at this rare and beautiful portfolio.

As I waited for the librarian to fetch it from the rare books collection, I hoped  I wouldn’t be disappointed. I needn’t have worried. The portfolio arrived in its shale coloured hessian cover, fastened with two polished wooden beads and lined with paper based on Jen’s linocuts. Inside, a pile of loose leaves on thick paper.

The first page explained the project. Jen had a passion to learn letterpress so she contacted Ursula at Redlake Press. For two months, Jen set type and operated the Vandercook proofing press.   In August 2006, the 29 pages  of the portfolio were printed at the Redlake press at Clun in Shropshire on Somerset paper. The pages are unbound to allow the reader to rearrange them, study them, pin them on the wall or read aloud.

The finished result is exquisite. I felt privileged to be turning the pages. Each one shows a different way of presenting poems and combining them with illustration. Although Jen’s photos are gorgeous, I love her linocuts even more: a fern, a fisherman, an insect, a mousetrap, a little black dipper, a gorgeous rust-red kitchen whisk. Her poems conjure a luminous natural world, and a domestic world that is, all the time, tending back towards the wild. The words ping and pang off the page, scored in one poem for an imaginary mandolin.

I tried to copy down some of my favourite lines:

‘the forest all dusky and woolly and luminous, like static electricity on a stroked cat’,

‘offering herself the fruit,/ on her way to the compost / as if she were the horse’,

and the caught fish, ‘lip hung with blood/and the bright, brutal jewellery.’

But my favourite poem is of the violent awakening of a winter landscape. The linocut is almost abstract – a line, a blue hill, a few mustard splodges that could be trees. The unevenness of the print looks like sunlight on the wintry trees and the white page becomes the snowfield gradually breaking up into her ink marks as spring’s ‘claws shoot out/from the buried bear.’

I was sad to reach the end of this treasure. Back it went to the rare books collection. Only 30 copies of The Printer’s Devil were printed, of which this was  No. 6.  Jen Hadfield’s signature confirmed it.


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