When All This is Over again

Some distinguished contributors, notably Julie Mellor, have already reflected, via blogs and other social media, on the Calder Valley Poetry anthology, When All This is Over, conceived by John Foggin. Here are some further thoughts of my own.

I’ve said previously that it was a brilliantly simple idea, to ask poets to respond to Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s poem ‘Swineherd’. Each poet who heeded John’s call was tasked with writing a poem from the perspective of someone with an occupation beginning with a particular letter of the alphabet. 70 or 80 poets did so, including some who gamely took on more than one letter and occupation. Kim Moore then selected the 26 poems for the eventual pamphlet.

John allocated ‘K’ to me, and, unusually quickly, I came up with ‘Kitman’, in which the titular character dreams of what my poet–friend Maggie Reed (another fine contributor) has described as “an idiosyncratic tour of Europe”, revisiting cities where his football club had played during one long-ago journey to the UEFA Cup quarter-finals. I rarely produce anything half-decent when tasked with writing to order, but I really enjoyed it this time. It must’ve been the constraints of the Covid-19 Lockdown; the fact, as John notes on the back of the anthology, that, “So many of us were locked down, locked in, waiting for ‘It’ all to be over”, and which freed my brain, as it apparently did for everyone else who submitted. Covid, the UK Government’s pitiful and unforgivably dreadful response to it, and the consequently high numbers of deaths it caused, somehow made me more obsessive than usual about work, so this project was a very welcome relief.

There are so many likable tours de force amongst the 26 new poems gathered in the anthology that it almost feels wrong to single one out, but because the project was his genius idea, it seems apt to throw the spotlight on John’s ‘Night Soil Man’. It’s a poem which intrigues from the title onwards: in the 18th and 19th Centuries, night soil men were employed to take away the faeces – the ‘night soil’ – deposited in chamber pots throughout the night. No wonder then that this particular night soil man says that, ‘when all this over’, he’ll, ‘have a fire, sift ashes, boil up lye and scour/ the cart, holystone it white as bone’. As anyone who’s familiar with John’s poetry knows, he unerringly gets the tone of the language right and uses rich vocabulary when it’s called for. The narrator continues:

I’ll currycomb the old horse, I’ll braid his mane
and oil his hoofs. The cart I’ll paint with roses,
like a varda or a barge, and we’ll ride out
past Beeston, past the forcing sheds,

find a quiet place where he can graze, and I’ll imagine
I can smell the grass. Scent is a language
I shall relearn, said the night soil man:
lavender, sage and cedar; woodsmoke, lemons.

This is lovely, imaginative writing, with the confidence to use words and terms – currycomb, varda and forcing sheds – which may be obscure to some readers, but which, with omniscience at their fingertips, they would find themselves compelled to look up. That line ‘Scent is a language/ I shall relearn’ is a beautiful one per se, and even more so in the context of this poem.

I won’t quote any more lines from the poem, because it deserves to be read in its entirety, from the page, at the very middle of this smashing little anthology containing big, hearty poems. The beautiful, surprising ending of ‘Night Soil Man’ alone is worth the pamphlet’s bargain price.

I should say a final word for Bob Horne’s superb production – as neatly as it’s turned out, it sits as neatly in the hand.

When All This is Over, Calder Valley Poetry, £7.20 (inc. p&p).

2 thoughts on “When All This is Over again”

  1. Hi Matthew,
    You’re right to focus on John’s poem. It’s beautiful. It’s strongly rooted in place (via the language – forcing sheds [for rhubarb], ginnels, the mention of Beeston etc). There’s also a sense of time passing (and past), and of the world’s lost innocence (the scent of ‘Air before snow, like tin’ – such a sharp image). For me, the ‘essence of a baby/ the blue pulse in her skull I’ll be allowed to kiss’ which comes at the end of the poem, is a reference to the speaker’s ageing. All his working life, the Night Soil Man has kept us clean, and abased himself in the process. Now it’s his turn to be cleansed, to ‘shed [his] skin, to be somehow born anew through the act of putting his lips to the baby’s head. The contrast between youth and age is subtle but important.
    As you can tell, I’m very enthusiastic for this pamphlet, and for John’s poem in particular. I hope people buy the collection, read it, pass it on, recommend it to those who ‘don’t read poetry’, leave it in unlikely places to snare the unwary etc. It deserves a wide audience.
    Julie X
    PS I understand what you mean about lockdown making you feel obsessive about writing. Poetry really does feel vital at the moment.

    1. Hi Julie and thanks for commenting. You’re absolutely right about the ending of John’s poem, which is so beautifully resolved and memorable. And yes, let’s hope that the anthology sells well. It’s an honour to be part of it. All the best, Matthew

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