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Colleen Higgs

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

a new poem – marriage

Notes from the Dementia WardFinuala Dowling runs a monthly poetry class. Well it’s not a class exactly. You sign up. She sends you exercises. You do them or you don’t. You send in poems. Then on the Saturday afternoon in question from 4 to 6, you sit with about 11 or so other poets and Finuala. She has put all the poems together in a stapled sheaf. According the way she has printed the poems out, Finuala asks someone to read a poem. She then asks a few pertinent questions. Others sometimes join in discussing the poem. Then she moves onto the next poem. Each poet gets a turn to have at least 2, sometimes 3 poems examined in this way. The afternoon is friendly and funny and you come away having learnt a lot about the way poems work, about things like clangers and cliches; shifts in mood and changes in direction and how to accomplish this. In short Finuala is a gifted teacher.

Promptly at 6 Finuala stops the class and offers all of those present a glass of wine. If you get there early you can sit in a chair from which you have a wonderful view of Kalk Bay, the sea, whales, the sky.


Here is a poem I submitted and have edited a little since the class. I wrote it about 18 months ago, edited it before the class, cut out the whole of what was the first stanza.


The birds have all gone, the river is fuller
the days are shorter, and the rain is coming.
My life will end. I’ve seen it now, I’ve seen the face of death.

They came and wheeled your mother away
on a metal trolley. Instead of mohair or cashmere, they
covered your mother with a rough, grey blanket.

I can’t know what you know, how you really feel
I can only surmise from how I see you spend your days
and what you come up with, what you have to show for it all     after all

I’m here, not exactly                waiting. I’m distracted,
busy, reading, preoccupied, thinking, dreaming.
But if you wanted to say something more to me
than paint colour, OSB, plywood, pergola, mast, tiller
screen, decking, boat, weather, wind, supper, diesel prices
I would listen.

Except, this is the way you talk to me of what is in your heart.
My own heart is thickened, hardened against your anguish.
There are gashes in our understandings.
I can’t know what you know.

(last two lines come from a poem by Adrienne Rich)

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Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    September 21st, 2009 @17:46 #

    A lot packed in here, Colleen. I like the shifts, the sadness, the havering -- "I'm here. I'm not here."

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Hugh</a>
    September 22nd, 2009 @07:00 #

    Very strong poem, primal images, unsentimental: I share Helen's observations. Good to hear Finuala's classes are as direct as I expected. Lovely views there too. I hope you will send me some of these fruits for New Contrast.

  • Christine
    September 22nd, 2009 @07:48 #

    A wonderful poem. It moves me deeply, says so much about marriage; how one can know someone and not know.

  • Maire
    October 6th, 2009 @03:10 #

    Just spent far too many ages catching up - or trying to. Have to second Rustum's comment on another thread - about missing being here. Especially when I realise that I've missed a beautiful poem like this - and so much more.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    October 6th, 2009 @10:12 #

    I also stayed up far too late catching up. It's Ben's round-up mail that does it -- I realise there's a whole bunch of stuff I've missed...


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