Every month, we shine the light on a book from our collection – one which is new to the library, which has been particularly enjoyed by a borrower, recommended by a volunteer, or which seems salient to the month’s events or happenings. This is the archive of past books of the month (formerly book of the week) from 2019 for your perusal, allowing you to explore books in our collection we’ve highlighted in the past.

 

August: Flèche by Mary Jean Chan

 

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Mary Jean Chan‘s debut pamphlet, A Hurry Of English was produced by Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre’s ignitionpress. This summer her first full collection, Flèche, was published by Faber & Faber. A flèche, in case you were wondering, is a fencing move – a sudden, explosive lunge against one’s opponent, a surprise attack, and a risk which can leave the fencer exposed (the word also suggesting the vulnerability of ‘flesh’). Chan’s collection holds this same balance of safety and strength, woundedness and attack.

Tension runs through the poems as Chan explores her queerness, her relationship with her Chinese heritage, and in particular her relationship with her mother. Some of the most striking moments in her poems are the navigations of her mother’s love and the search for her mother’s acceptance of her queer identity. This is traced through a Conversation with Fantasy Mother, reflections on the woman who raised her mother in Wet Nurse, and in Always, Chan’s “lips wishing / they could kiss those mouths / you would approve of. She recalls her mother asking “Do you ever write about me?answering “Mother, what do you think? / You are always where I begin”. There are secrets and miscommunications and misunderstandings but most powerfully, love.

The poems are rich in the imagery of combined worlds: multilingualism, cultures meeting and reacting, the agony of not belonging, and holding onto the safe spaces found. It is poetry which lunges and presses deep into the heart.

 


 

July: Owls and Other Fantasies by Mary Oliver

 

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As we head into midsummer, nature is burgeoning, things are growing and birdsong is birdsonging. We are celebrating this with Mary Oliver’s “Owls and Other Fantasies” (Beacon Press, 2003). It is a short collection of verse and poetic-prose, with each piece describing a bird. We are invited to watch and observe through the poems, hearing the dipper ‘starting up the clear strong pipe of his voice’, the loon, ‘crying for the north it hopes it can find’ and the silent heron, like ‘an old Chinese poet, hunched in the white gown of his wings’.

Oliver’s observations are fresh and immediate, the product of a life long-lived among birds. She succeeds in capturing real moments: the poem ‘June’ in particular feels as if it was breathlessly scribbled down at the moment the swallow flew out of sight.

The most beautiful is ‘Bird’, a short poetic essay in which Oliver describes the rescue of an injured gull: a ‘piece of sky’ brought into a human home. This piece alone, with its echoes of light and darkness, is worth borrowing the collection for.

Read carefully, and find yourself transported, out onto the dunes or into the shaggy woodlands, standing alongside the poet and hearing the singing in the wild branches.


 

21-27 June: Lullabies to Make Your Children Cry by Lucy Ayrton

 

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This week our reading and writing group, LIT, is running a session in collaboration with Women’s History Oxford about local Oxford women. We thought it apt, then, to celebrate a local female poet this week. Lucy Ayrton is a stalwart of performance poetry here in Oxford, running Hammer & Tongue and performing regularly around the city.

Updating fairytales is not a new thing. But Lullabies to Make Your Children Cry (published by Stewed Rhubarb Press) is unique not only in its modern quipping, its vicious turns of phrase, and clever subversions – but in its genuine artistry. Ayrton takes well-ploughed furrows: dragons, princes and princesses, anthropomorphic nightingales, but retells their stories not just with a twist, but in a deeply likeable, conversational voice, and with ingenious rhythm and rhyme.

There are witty stories (Little Tarquin confronting a demon in Battersea Park), poems imbued with poignant nostalgia, most vivid in Bonfire Juice, and confrontingly modern accounts of femininity (as in Let Me Be Lost). We highly recommend you read these out loud – either to yourself, or ideally to some young person in your life who is hungry for fairytales with a bit of reality in them and voices they could recognize.

 


 

14-20 June: The Thunder Mutters

 

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Alice Oswald begins her introduction to The Thunder Mutters by explaining that in Devon dialect, “a dew’s harp” is a rake, to which she dedicates the anthology: “a rhythmical but predictable instrument that connects earth to our hands.” Those who play the dew’s harp are “running their fingers over the leaves, listening in, finding what’s already there”. Poets are doing the same thing.

This speaks to the usefulness of poetry. Not just ornamental, pretty words, Oswald has selected here poems without whimsy: beauty, yes. Delicacy and attention to detail, yes, but not whimsy, and poems always with their ear to the ground, listening to the shifts and movements of the earth. From ancient anonymous folklore to words in the language of a contemporary Northumbrian fishing community (Katrina Porteous’s The Wund an’ the Wetter), these poems are chosen to show the connectedness of human worlds to the earth, where the personal and the natural borders overlap – and where the links between ourselves and our predecessors lie. Combining new and ancient reflections on landscapes and creatures that dwell in them, Oswald draws out the way humans have always sought connection to the world around them, and the way writing and story-telling links us to our past and into our future. From the timelessness of “lasting life’s-blast” in The Seafarer (an Anglo-Saxon lyric) to Ian Hamilton Finlay’s concrete poem which lists five wild grasses, five wetlands birds, and then five international oil giants – these are the songs of our time.

Running throughout the collection is the undeniable usefulness of poetry in “putting our inner worlds in contact with the outer world — a deep, slow process that used to be the remit of the rake”.

On Sunday 16 June we take the link between ecological action and poetry even further with our workshop RECYCLE A POEM at Oxfordshire Reuses festival. Join us between 12pm and 3pm as we rake through old books to find new meaning, breathing new life into old words, and recycling books destined for the bin through collage, cut-up poetry, black-out poetry, and paper-folding techniques.

 


 

7-13 June: The Bed Book by Sylvia Plath

 

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This week we are running a free workshop called Writing Healing Spaces (15 June, 2pm-4pm) with Museum of Oxford’s Healing Spaces exhibition. This is a relaxed, family-friendly, drop-in session in which we’ll be exploring the kind of spaces you find healing and what places make you feel better. The exhibition itself tells the stories of child healthcare in Oxford going back to the 19th century, exploring what hospitals and paediatric wards looked like over the years. You might expect lots of sterile white sheets, white walls, and chrome – but you’d be quite wrong.

Similarly, you might expect our book of the week by Sylvia Plath to be doom and gloom – but you’d be quite wrong. As someone who suffered a lot throughout her life, Plath clearly had firm ideas as to what a healing space can be. The Bed Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake, explores not just “white little / Tucked-in-tight little / Nighty-night little / Turn-out-the-light little” beds. There are also beds which are submarines, which dispense snacks, tank beds with “cranks / And wheels and cog / And levers to pull / If you’re stuck in bogs”, and beds you can go bird-watching from. All written with Plath’s gorgeous linguistic gymnastics, this is a book which celebrates the bed as not only a place of rest and recovery, but also the very seat of playful dreaming and imagination. The spaces we heal in can be full of energy, light, curiosity, creativity, can be indoors or outdoors, real or make-believe.

Come write us a poem about your healing space next Saturday at Museum of Oxford! We’ll be there with lots of crafting supplies, prompts, and ideas from 2pm – drop in anytime until 4pm.

 


 

31 May – 6 June: Woods etc. by Alice Oswald

 

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Tomorrow, in collaboration with LIT Reading Group, we are running Light Up The Woods, a led poetry walk through Aston’s Eyot as a way to welcome in the summer, celebrate the wildlife in our own neighbourhoods, and find poems in their natural habitats. Our book of the week, therefore, is similarly immersed in the natural world. However, Woods etc. by Alice Oswald is not nature poetry as you know it.

Oswald’s poems meditate on woods, birds, stones, sea, rivers in a way that brings the act of being attentive to the fore. Birdsong for Two Voices listens to a song that “assembles the earth / out of nine notes and silence,” the gathering up of sounds woven into one another of animals, rain, road, including “the big bass silence of clouds” – but also “the mind whispering in its shell”. The act of listening is a presence that is itself part of that natural landscape, and an idea repeated across poems: in Woods etc. “my hearing like a widening wound”, and in Owl: “seeing my eyes seen, / hearing my listening heard.” The poems are a meditation on what it means to perceive and exist in wild places.

Oswald’s work also frequently embodies the things which dwell in that wilderness, regardless of human perception. For instance, Autobiography of a Stone inhabits the experience of “drawing my whole body inward into my skull,” the hard hibernation of a buried stone. Or Seabird’s Blessing which embodies the experience of a wind-buffeted gull. These poems answer the question ‘if a tree falls in a forest and no one’s there to hear it, does it still make a sound’ with a categorical ‘yes’. These loud and silent living worlds exist so far beyond our perception of them, and yet we are very much a part of that living world. We offer our own pulse up to weave into the complicated languages spoken by the natural world. Oswald’s poems are a profound exploration of those worlds, our attentiveness to them, and our place within them.

Incidentally, Alice Oswald is currently standing to be Oxford Professor of Poetry and although we would never be partisan here at OPL, we urge you to go here and browse the candidates’ statements. There are a couple of really great poets in the running and if you’re eligible to vote: do it! Support poetry in Oxford!

 


 

24-30 May: Heartwood by Alison Jones

 

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Alison Jones is a local writer whose launch of her debut pamphlet, Heartwood (by Indigo Dreams) is taking place this Sunday at Florence Park Community Centre. Jones is also a member of our own LIT Reading Group, which is putting together a poetry walk, Light Up The Woods on 1 June.

The themes of this beautiful little collection are rooted in nature, wooded places of mystery and nostalgia. The poems hold gentleness and melancholy. They remind me of kaiho – a Finnish word for a hopeless longing – an involuntary solitude in which one feels incompleteness and yearns for something unattainable. In their evocations of teenage liaisons, falling in love in fields, grief, and growing up – there is a pervasive, bereft sense of reaching out to something, somewhere.

This longing dwells in nostalgic sneaks out to the graveyard to kiss boys, promises broken and made, an insistence with trying to find a place in time – between “dead friends / passing through like falling mist” and “waiting worlds”. The use of imperatives throughout the collection are insistent: “Pull up the handbrake, turn on Beethoven.” “Put on your cherry reds, and walk out into the rain,” “tune out, tap in”. They suggest immediacy and an attempt to fix, to decide, but constantly thwarted by the next line, the movement of time.

The last poem in the collection is a final prayer to find presence:

“We are nothing more than heartbeats
and holding, our feathers lost and burning,
asking only to feel what it is like,

to be here.”


10-16 May: Knots by R. D. Laing

 

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It’s Mental Health Awareness Week this coming week and the Mental Health Foundation is campaigning for visiblity of issues surrounding mental illness and the way we are all as human beings affected by our mental health. This week, therefore, we’re featuring R. D. Laing’s collection of poetry, Knots.

R. D. Laing was a psychiatrist who wrote extensively about understanding mental suffering, and was concerned with treating his clients’ feelings as valid and subjective experiences of the world rather than just symptoms of an underlying illness. His poetry, then, is keenly attuned to the chaotic, sometimes contradictory and painful, experience of what it is to be human.

Knots is structured as a series of ‘poems’ but read as dialogues, internal monologues, sometimes even diagrams which play out mental processes. These thought patterns are agonizingly recognizable, demonstrating the ways we trip over ourselves in navigating relationships, the tangled webs of social interaction, and how we relate to ourselves. The first poem hits the ground running with a short but knotted account of interacting with others:

They are playing a game. They are playing at not
playing a game. If I show them I see they are, I
shall break the rules and they will punish me.
I must play their game, of not seeing I see the game.

However you’ve experience your own mental health, these poems ring so true in laying out the snarled cat’s cradles we entangle ourselves in. They explore how we love, hate, remember, and try to come to terms with ourselves as we pick through life, and they are not always comfortable to read. There are poems which snag and prod because they remind us of conversations we have had with ourselves or mental cycles we too have been embroiled in. But isn’t it through those experiences of reading that we learn to feel less alone? Isn’t getting those glimpses into other people’s mental patterns and being aware of them the first step to understanding our own? Here at OPL, we highly recommend a bit of poetry this Mental Health Awareness Week – we find it a pretty good way to become aware of mental health.

 


 

3 – 9 May: The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus:

 

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Raymond Antrobus’s debut collection The Perseverance has been making something of a splash the past few months. It won the prestigious Ted Hughes Award, was the Sunday Times and Guardian’s Poetry Book of the Year – all deservingly so. It is an insightful, profound meditation on the d/Deaf experience, exploring themes (amongst others) of communication, language, and speech. This coming week is the UK Council of Deafness’s Deaf Awareness Week the theme being ‘Celebrating Role Models’ so what better time to draw attention to a poet writing honestly and deftly about the deaf experience.

The collection reflects on Antrobus’s relationship with his father both growing up and caring for him with dementia towards the end of his life, and especially the miscommunications which pervaded their relationship. Similarly, poems explore Antrobus’s race and the misunderstandings which often come with a mixed race identity. ‘Jamaican British’ sees Antrobus flip between his labels: “Eat callaloo, plantain, jerk chicken – I’m Jamaican” but flying to Jamaica with his father: “passport: British.” Every line ends with “Jamaican” or “British” or “Jamaican British”. These labels pass back and forth, the poem untangling identities and labels. Language matters. What’s at stake is erasure.

The poems navigate languages that are recognized and those which are not – miscommunication and misunderstanding a constant theme, whether expressed explicitly (for instance in the address, ‘Dear Hearing World’) or through the frustrated silencing of the deeply patronizing ‘Deaf School’ by Ted Hughes (represented through ‘reproducing’ the poem as a series of blacked out blocks).

Antrobus’s poems state the injustice of this erasure: the loss and utter waste of all those voices and confidence “gone to a silent grave.” But here is a collection which refuses that erasure. It not only shares Antrobus’s own experience of his own deafness, but also that of others: a Deaf Jamaican woman called Samantha, Daniel Harris (an unarmed deaf man who was shot by a US police officer), as well as reflecting on speech and the difficulties of communicating across languages, both spoken and signed. Antrobus makes clear his mission: “Deaf voices go missing like sound in space / and I have left earth to find them.”

 


 

26 April – 2 May: Words as Weapons

 

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The past few weeks, Oxford Writers’ House have been featuring Open House Oxford and in particular our Writing Home open drop-in sessions which we run there every Wednesday morning from 10-11am. You can find out a lot more about those projects and events here and we encourage anyone who would like to to attend!

Oxford is a city with astonishing levels of wealth disparity and an urgent housing crisis. Oxford is also a city full organizations and individuals who work closely with people facing homelessness or who are vulnerably housed and this week, our book of the week is the product of one of those projects. Words as Weapons is a true homegrown grass-roots anthology published by Hurst St Press and developed by Arts at the Old Fire Station and Crisis Skylight Oxford (a national charity for homelessness housed at the Old Fire Station). The collection records the work of Crisis members with lived experience of homelessness, working with local poets Tom Kuhn and David Constantine.

The poems themselves are honest and angry, fearful and raw. One of Doug Lucie’s powerfully raging poems recounts the “dark back alley-ways that snake their sneaky way behind the blaringly glaringly-lit shop-fronts,” the humanity and desperation and dizzying reality and “measly dreams on the pavements of Homeless Street”. What is striking even in such a small collection is the diversity of voices: there may be overlap in the experiences of some of the contributors, but each voice is strong in its distinct account of survival on “Homeless Street”.

The collection begins with a translation by Tom Kuhn of Bertolt Brecht’s poem, ‘Driving along in a comfortable car’. It is a brief, deceptively simple anecdote about a drive on a “rainy country road”. The speaker sees a “raggedy man” and decides in a split second not to give him a lift, that there’s no room in the car. The final lines chill with the revelation: “I suddenly took fright at this voice of mine / This behaviour of mine and this / Whole world.” This sentiment is an echo throughout the collection: how simple it is to look the other way, and how callous the world can be. Yes, cruelty and injustice lie in big structural systems which are the underlying causes of homelessness. But this collection reminds us of the humanity at the heart of those issues. It reminds us (to adopt the words of Philip Larkin) to “be careful // Of each other, we should be kind / While there is still time”.

 


 

19-25 April: Flora Poetica ed. Sarah Maguire

 

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We’ve made it through another long, dark winter and it is finally Easter. What better way to celebrate than by stepping out into the big, wide world? Flora Poetica, edited by Sarah Maguire, is the perfect anthology for just that.

This book of ‘botanical verse’ pulls together poems about flowers, plants and trees to revel and luxuriate in the richness of the botanical world. Poems are organized by species (Aquifoliaceae: Holly Family, Ericaceae; Heather Family, Gramineae: Grass Family etc). This means you could have a medieval lyric comparing God to a rose right next to a poem reflecting on “the blood-red flower of revolution” in the 20th century experiences of African-Americans. The collection juxtaposes the ways plants are read, anthropomorphized, become symbolic: meditations on each of their personalities and places in the world. These create contrasts and echoes in how the plants are evoked. Snowdrops “risk joy // in the raw wind of the new world” (Louise Glück), and “winter lingers in its icy veins” (Anna Laetitia Barbauld).

Maguire is careful to choose poems and poets both familiar and surprising. There are the usual suspects of recognized nature writers like John Clare and Thomas Hardy. But there are also new names, or writers we may recognize but not immediately associate with the language of flowers: Allen Ginsberg, Vicki Feaver, Seni Seneviratne. Similarly, there are plants we might expect to be poeticized: daisies, daffodils, roses, but also the ‘dragon-tree family’, onions and pokeweed. It captures the vastness and possibility of the natural world, and reminds us of the many ways it can be used to frame our experiences.

The collection is inevitably about so much more than plants. Maguire writes in her introduction about the gendered depths of floral writing, for instance as a way for Victorian women to write unstifled about sexuality and power (see Dickinson on clover, ‘There is a Flower That Bees Prefer’). Flowers can be political – common English weeds given gravitas and dignity. Plants become the context, environment, and metaphors for our lives, with poetry as a way to explore and describe “the routes [the writers] have travelled, the roots they have set down, or the roots and routes they’ve lost”.

Flora Poetica reminds us how inspiring it is to see the world through a botanical lens: to watch things thrive and grow and die, with their deep taproots and kaleidoscopic colours. And now, at the beginning of spring, is the perfect time of year to take that extra bit of time to notice.

 


 

12-18 April: Oxford in Verse ed. Glyn Pursglove & Alistair Ricketts

 

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This week, we officially launched a new project! Poems Around Oxford is collecting the poems that people associate with local places. We are looking to discover the Oxford beyond Matthew Arnold’s “dreaming spires,” to find the landmarks current residents feel connected to in their city. This could be a sonnet about Port Meadow, an ode to Cowley Road, a free-verse stream-of-consciousness poem recounting a bus-trip to Blackbird Leys… It could also be a poem which isn’t about Oxford specifically but recalls an individual’s relationship with a particular place: dropping a child off at school for the first time, a walk by the river. The aim is to uncover the way people connect with the geography of their city through poetry.

We are looking for your stories, and your favourite poems related to Oxford, but you can get some ideas by checking out some of the already-existing anthologies of Oxford verse. Oxford In Verse is one of the best of its kind. It covers most of the traditional dreaming-spires writing which celebrate the academic, university-heritage of the city: John Fuller writing of the “guilty half-silence” of the “Upper Reading Room: Six p.m.” musing that “Books are about life, and life / Is somewhere here. On paper. In eyes. Somewhere.” Sir John Harington, though writing in the 16th century, muses on something I’m sure many current undergraduates can relate to, “Of Learning Nothing at a Lecture”.

There are the inevitable “merry Christ-Church Bells”, “Sheldon’s haughty dome” which “Rivals the stately pomp of ancient Rome.” But there are also poems which reflect on the greenness of the city. Oxford was and remains such a pastoral place, with poems like “Port Meadow, Oxford” by Francis William Bourdillon, and “Pegasus in the Botanical Gardens” by Anne Ridler exploring that.

The anthology does venture further afield. Other parts of Oxford are immortalized in the deliciously musical “Binsey Poplars” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. A world beyond the idyllic university world is hinted at in a few of the more modern poems. Craig Raine poignantly describes war-time “Houses in North Oxford” as soldiers “on parade,” and the fear of their inhabitants “afraid of a khaki envelope”. Anne Stevenson’s poem dreams of endowing a college in Oxford called “Lost Souls College” where “The Fellows will be specialists in Despair,” and “classes in Snobology and Anathematics” and “Chairs in Metafailure and Gastrophysics” are offered. Instead of dreaming spires, sculptures “made of lost bikes, failed theses, fag-ends / red tape and refused applications for grants will stand as a monument to our patron philosopher, / I Kant.” We detect a hint of resentment.

This is a thorough and fine collection of Oxford poetry. But we think there is so much space for modern voices, perspectives of the city that drift beyond Carfax, Magdalen, and Tom Towers, experiences of Oxford which have nothing to do with the university, which capture the vast diversity of this magical city. So why not submit your favourites to us now?

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5-11 April: The Autistic Alice by Joanne Limburg

 

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This week is World Autism Awareness Week, which raises awareness of autism and fundraisers to enrich the lives of people with autism, and we’re marking the week with Joanne Limburg’s The Autistic Alice. This moving collection delves into the death of Limburg’s brother, then her own experience growing up with undiagnosed Asperger’s.

The poems about her brother, The Oxygen Man, approaches his death with frankness as she weaves together her memories of their shared childhood with the side of him she never knew day-to-day: his adult life as an academic in America.

The Autistic Alice is part two of the collection, and draws on the oddities and logical flexibilities of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as an allegory for her own autism spectrum disorder. Limburg as Alice treads water in the isolating, confusing crowd at the Mad Hatter’s tea party; grows and shrinks to the annoyance of others, unable to move her body the way they’d like her to; and learns to find her place, one foot in front of the other, in a strange and illogical world. In the final poem of this section, Limburg is herself again as she tells us how, from toddler age, she loved looking at illustrations of Alice: sombre-eyed and often expressionless, ‘I was drawn by that other girl with the unsmiling level look.’

The Autistic Alice is a touching insight into Limburg’s experiences of both grief and neurodivergence, and demonstrates the powerful way poetry can be used to explore those themes.

 


 

29 March – 4 April: Nobody Told Me by Hollie McNish

 

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It’s Mother’s Day this Sunday, and flowers and chocolates are all very well, but don’t feel you have to settle for soppy Hallmark-card rhymes. Poetry has so much more to offer in the way of understanding motherhood, and appreciating it in all its intricacy and enormity. Hollie McNish’s Nobody Told Me is one such collection.

Just as the title suggests, this is a collection which tells you everything you never even thought to think about if you’ve never had a child. Part poetry collection, part diary, it traces 3 years of McNish’s life, from the moment of finding out she was pregnant, through birth, and into parenthood. The poems (often literally) bare all about the human experience behind motherhood: how society categorizes you, how your relationship to yourself changes, the physical, (often literally) visceral reality of pregnancy and childbirth.

This is chat usually relegated to Mumsnet or discussions behind closed doors. But when there is poetry about the agony of love and loneliness, other kinds of physical pain and pleasure, and just about every other kind of human experience, why shouldn’t we read poems about morning sickness, the anger at the stigma of breastfeeding in public, the blissful joy of having a day to oneself when the baby is being looked after by someone else? There is catharsis, but also elevation of this world which is experienced by so many, given the attention it deserves. Of course, McNish’s poems acknowledge that there is love and happiness and wonder in motherhood, but never shy away from the complicated mass of emotions which underlie being a parent.

These poems deserve to be read not just by people who’ve been through it themselves, or those who are planning to. They give us an intimate insight into some of the most essential experiences of humanity: being pregnant, giving birth, being a mother. And we appreciate mothers all the more for it.

 


 

22-28 March: I Am The Seed That Grew The Tree

 

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This month, we’re running another workshop-and-walk session inspired by The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris – a project which aims to celebrate and reconjure the natural world, and vitally, to reintroduce it to children’s lives. It also happens to coincide with a campaign to get a copy of The Lost Words in every primary, infant and special school in Oxfordshire. To celebrate these two very exciting things, all this month we will be featuring a choice selection of nature poetry from our collection.

Our final choice is the perfect sibling to The Lost Words. Aimed at children but delightful for all ages, brilliantly illustrated, and carefully crafted, I Am The Seed That Grew The Tree is a stunning collection. The anthology was created in collaboration with the National Trust and features a nature poem for each and every day of the year, each poem perfectly and meticulously chosen to resonate with the day it corresponds to.

But this is not a simplistic anthology of 4 seasons. This is a collection which encourages you to examine the world day by day, as nature around you shifts and shades in and out of seasons and temperatures, wildlife ebbing and flowing and adapting in its cycles. There aren’t just ‘summer’ and ‘winter’ poems, here. This is an anthology which zones in on the first day you see a primrose on 5th April, or captures that anticipation on the very edge of spring on March 9th. There are poems which settle in the depths of winter on January 11th, and which rejoice in the energy and adventure of summer on 14th August. Each poem gives you a moment to dwell in, and asks you to truly connect with the living world you can see today.

Some of the poems are familiar – nursery rhymes or those by old classics like W. B. Yeats, Wordsworth, and Christina Rossetti. But there’s a healthy mix of newer voices Jackie Kay and Jack Prelutsky. Even the familiar poems, however, are given a new lease of life both by the joyous illustrations, and by their context as the poem for that day – the one that you are being encouraged to savour and think about for those 24 hours.

This anthology is sheer joy. The glorious vibrancy of each double-page spread teems with life: birdsong, water, creaking trees, frozen snow, creeping things. The creatures look out adorably from the pages, the plants wind colourfully through the book, puddles sparkle, and fog glows. It is the perfect anthology to celebrate nature, revel in its delight and diversity, and feel part of the big living world around us. We hope some of you will come and do the same at our workshop on Sunday!

 


 

15-21 March: A New Path to the Waterfall

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This month, we’re running another workshop-and-walk session inspired by The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris – a project which aims to celebrate and reconjure the natural world, and vitally, to reintroduce it to children’s lives. It also happens to coincide with a campaign to get a copy of The Lost Words in every primary, infant and special school in Oxfordshire. To celebrate these two very exciting things, all this month we will be featuring a choice selection of nature poetry from our collection.

You may know Raymond Carver primarily for his prose writing – short stories populated with bars, booze, suburbia, kitchen tables, the occasional camping trip but mainly urban landscapes. But when Carver ducked out of his cycle of alcoholism and urban decay in his last decade, he found kinship with the natural world. A New Path to the Waterfall is one of his later collections, with poems steeped in rivers and woods. Whether examining a sturgeon, allowing grief to unfold on a morning of summer fog, swimming with a lover in Naches River, these poems are characterized by slowness. They cultivate patience, observation, and contemplativeness which is then angled to other aspects of Carver’s world: his wife’s hairbrush left behind when she leaves him, the memory of the sleepless, angry quiet of going to bed after a family argument, picking up a suit from the dry cleaners and wondering if it’s the one you’ll be buried in…

These poems, whether they are specifically about nature or not, are meditative to read, imploring you to breathe and experience the world around you in all its detail as it uncurls and emerges. There is fear and hope and grief, but all are experienced with a gentle curiosity which echoes his love and curiosity for the rivers, woods, animals, and landscapes that surround him. Carver ends a slightly earlier poem, ‘Where water comes together with other water,’ with: “It pleases me, loving rivers. / Loving them all the way back / to their source. / Loving everything that increases me.”

It’s impossible not to let that love stir in you when you read these poems, to adopt this slow and patient attitude too as you go with Carver deep into the woods.

 


 

8-14 March: No Map Could Show Them

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This month, we’re running another workshop-and-walk session inspired by The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris – a project which aims to celebrate and reconjure the natural world, and vitally, to reintroduce it to children’s lives. It also happens to coincide with a campaign to get a copy of The Lost Words in every primary, infant and special school in Oxfordshire. To celebrate these two very exciting things, all this month we will be featuring a choice selection of nature poetry from our collection.

It is also International Women’s Day today, so it felt particularly apt to feature a book which celebrates both nature and the female spirit. Helen Mort’s No Map Could Show Them is the perfect embodiment of this. This is a collection of odes to courageous women. From the sex worker in ‘Rachel in Attercliffe’ to the “difficult women…crowding the bus stop with their difficult bodies, / refusing to budge for the light, ” in ‘Difficult’ (a viciously tongue-in-cheek response to an AskMen web article called ‘Why Men Date Difficult Women’), these poems demand that women take up space.

Most of the poems, however, are about the brilliantly unlikely subject of female mountaineers: from the Victorian Jemima Morrell who hiked the Swiss Peaks in all her petticoated glory, to Lene Gammelgaard, the first Scandinavian woman to summit Everest, and beyond. Mort explores their bravery, fear, brilliance, and passion. The mountains are engraved on their hearts. ‘Home’ voices the longing of a woman stuck at home, injured, while the “blackbirds sketch private, airy maps outside”, yearning to be in the snowy alps but instead she waits, her “heart: a compassion, magnetised.”

The determination of these women is apparent in these poems, but also clear in their stories is their love of the wilderness. Nature is their freedom, salvation, calling. ‘How to Dress’ implores you to “put on the mountain’s suit // your forearms gloved with permafrost, / your fingers lichen-light” – forgo “the clothes they want / to keep you in…The sky will be your broad-brimmed hat.” Nature also promises to be the death of them, with the poems verging on all kinds of precipices. This is poetry that urges you to take risks, explore, take the leap (literally and/or figuratively), telling stories which are as gripping as they are moving.

 


1-7 March: Thames: An anthology of river poems

 

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This month, we’re running another workshop-and-walk session inspired by The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris – a project which aims to celebrate and reconjure the natural world, and vitally, to reintroduce it to children’s lives. It also happens to coincide with a campaign to get a copy of The Lost Words in every primary, infant and special school in Oxfordshire. To celebrate these two very exciting things, all this month we will be featuring a choice selection of nature poetry from our collection. First up, Thames: An Anthology of River Poems edited by Anna Adams.

This slim collection includes poems from across five hundred years of the river’s history – from William Dunbar’s Thames “where many a swan doth swymme”, through Thomas Gray’s “hoary Thames” on “his silver winding way”, to Adams’ own modern Thames – the “serpent soul of London”, “grey and old, gold and immortal”.

The poems are arranged broadly chronologically through the river’s history. Pope, Spenser and Dryden are perhaps a little hard-going for a casual reader, but the images they create permeate softly through the later poems like rainwater through Cotswold limestone. There come familiar voices: Blake wanders thro’ each charter’d street, Wordsworth stands upon Westminster Bridge, and Rudyard Kipling imagines ancient giant tigers stalking down // through Regent’s Park and Camden Town.

Newer and less familiar names present their views of the river too: Pauline Stainer’s Thames wears “its oiled silks”, and further downstream, Lavinia Greenlaw’s “River History” describes a horizon broken by “a forest of cranes that unloaded meat, cloth, tobacco and grain from countries my old school atlas still colours pink”. Finally we reach Ruth Pitter’s elegiac The Estuary, where “light, stillness and peace lie on her broad sands”.

Writing from Oxford, it is difficult not to bristle a little at the emphasis on the Thames as “London’s River” – there is scant mention of the river beyond the capital. But most interesting to me is the way the collection chose to depict the Thames (and the city) at the end of the last century. Published in 1999, it captures something of the optimism of two decades ago. In his preface, Ian Sinclair describes the “lurid ceramic blue” of the Thames in “computer-enhanced Millenium Dome prospectuses” (a sentence which seems very firmly rooted in past decades).

The London described here is bold and new, hopeful and regenerating; we see her as she catches sight of, and admires, the long reflection of her history as it sparkles in the neon-lit ripples beneath Hungerford Bridge.

 


 

22-28 February: You Got To Burn to Shine by John Giorno

 

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It’s LGBT History Month so all through February we will be featuring poets who belong in some way or other to the LGBT community, celebrating their lives and their work. This week, our book of the week is You Got To Burn To Shine by John Giorno.

Giorno’s life as a gay man is explicit in his poetry: frequently sexually graphic, occasionally tender, and often ringing with anger and justice and the consequences of living on the margins of society. His poetry is charged with simple, direct language organized in long columns and repetition: “Whatever / happens / it will seem / the way / it seems / now, / and it doesn’t matter / what you / feel, / how perfectly / correct / or amazing / the clarity, / everything / you think / is deluded / everything you think / is deluded / everything you think is deluded, / life / is a killer.” The words are often bitter and nihilistic, but repetition grants them a persistence, a chant like a prayer.

Giorno’s poetry has urgency and viscerality. And you get the impression from this collection – the poems and the interspersed prose mini-essays – that he lives his life with that same urgent desire to connect with people. Giorno speaks frequently of the important of speaking directly to his audiences: “Spoken word, using breath and heat, pitch and volume, and the melodies inherent in the language, risking technology and music, and a deep connection with an audience, is the fulfillment of a poem”, he says.  This is why he created recordings of his poetry by setting up a record label, Giorno Poetry Systems, and released LPs and videos and cassettes and CDs, and in the 60s created the concept of Dial-A-Poem. Dial-A-Poem was an ingenious service in which members of the public were encouraged to ring a phone line connected with individual answering machines. These answering machines would play fragments of live recordings by various poets and callers could dial in anytime to listen.

Giorno’s determination to connect with the people around him is powerfully clear in his poems, in his work with Giorno Poetry Systems, and particularly through his AIDS activism. Though HIV negative himself, Giorno lived through the 1980s AIDS epidemic, losing many peers to the disease. ‘AIDS Monologue’ in this collection describes his founding of the AIDS Treatment Project, which exists to give money, solidarity, friendship, “compassion without partiality directed at every individual person with AIDS”. Whether through poetry, art, activism, or simple humanity, Giorno’s message is clear: reach out to others, spark connections, put yourself out into the open and risk catching fire. You got to burn to shine.

 


15-21 February: Poems, Elizabeth Bishop

 

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It’s LGBT History Month so all through February we will be featuring poets who belong in some way or other to the LGBT community, celebrating their lives and their work. This week, our book of the week is Poems by Elizabeth Bishop.

A fantastic, comprehensive collection of Bishop’s poetry, this includes her writing from early, outward-looking observations of landscape and place to her later, more inward-looking reflections on life and loneliness. Her voice is singular, distinctive and clear and her keen eye for detail can be heartbreakingly perceptive. ‘Filling Station’ describes the dingy forecourt of a petrol station, notices the “wicker sofa” on which sleeps a “dirty dog”, a “big dim doily” draped over a table: “Somebody embroidered the doily. / …Somebody arranges the rows of cans / so that they softly say: / ESSO-SO-SO-SO / to high-strung automobiles. / Somebody loves us all.”

Sadness and bereftness pervades Bishop’s poetry. She lived a full life, travelling widely, teaching at Harvard, winning poetry prizes – and yet she asked friend and fellow poet Robert Lowell, “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.” Her turbulent and several long-term relationships with women inform much of her poetry, though she is often evasive as to her sexuality and the gender of her lovers (not least because of the mid-20th century hostility against and prejudice towards homosexuality). Nonetheless, the poetry is tender and full of love. ‘The Shampoo’ for instance describes washing her lover’s hair, “The shooting stars in your black hair / in bright formation…Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin / battered and shiny like the moon.” In ‘Breakfast Song’, she aches over the idea of dying before her long-term (much younger) partner, Alice Methfessel: “How can I bear to go / (as soon I must, I know) / to bed with ugly death / in that cold, filthy place, / to sleep there without you”. The poems are specific, about Methfessel’s eyes, “awfully blue / early & instant blue”, but they have a universal quality in their longing and yearning for connection with another person.

Possibly her best known poem, ‘One Art,’ is the swan song of her relationship with Methfessel. This is a poem for anyone who’s prone to misplacing things, imploring: “Lose something every day. Accept the fluster / of lost door keys, the hour badly spent. / The art of losing isn’t hard to master” but ends more poignantly on losing a lover, that “the art of losing’s not too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” Loneliest person who ever lived or not, here at OPL we are so grateful to Bishop for having written her experiences of solitude and loss. It helps us feel less alone.

 


 

8-14 February: Other Lovers by Jackie Kay

 

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Ahh Valentine’s Day. And whether you’re all nested in a cosy relationship, or living the single lifestyle (or anywhere, really, on that spectrum), it’s a bit rubbish, isn’t it. Fakery abounds, capitalism cashes in, and there’s lots of meaningless gabble about luuurrrve. Poetry is the perfect antidote to that. And not the kind that you find in Hallmarks cards. Our book of the week, Other Lovers by Jackie Kay, celebrates and explores all different kinds of love in their rawest and diverse forms – not a mushy love poem in sight.

Other Lovers has poems about romantic love, but usually recounting the agony of longing, as in the frustration of waiting for a call in “Dusting the Phone”: “Come on, damn you, ring me. Or else. what? // I don’t know what”. There is the dance from singledom to relationship to heartbreak: from I to we to emerging to “a whole new life” in the title-poem “Other Lovers”. But there is also the painful, ungraspable, ineffable, complicated love between a child and mother in “Keeping Orchids”. There is even a sequence of poems about Bessie Smith – long-term hero of Kay’s – spoken of with a tenderness: “a blue song in the beat of her heart”. This sequence mythologizes Bessie Smith, “the Empress”, and adores her power and strength, her “cast iron” voice. Smith was also a queer icon for Kay. In an interview with the Scottish Review of Books, Kay even recalls reading “a biography of her at fourteen, and it described these sexual relationships she had with women, and I was just starting to think about that then, so she was like a role model, although an unlikely role model that ate pig’s feet and roared at people.” Now, in the midst of LGBT History Month, it seems apt to acknowledge queer love as another form of love underlying Kay’s collection.

The collection is a love-letter to the multiplicity in people, the many ways to be and love and be loved. Being both black and Scottish, many things in one, Kay recounts in ‘In My Country’ the experience of being accused of not being from ’round here.’ She is asked ‘Where do you come from?’ and answers ‘Here…Here. These parts.” These are all the parts which make her up: black, Scottish, queer, heartbreak, music, love…

This Valentine’s Day, let us appreciate and celebrate all the parts that make us (and the people we love) up.

 

1-7 February: Otmoor by David Attwooll & Andrew Walton

 

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If you were inspired by our session last weekend about The Lost Words you could do far worse than a bit of bird-watching in Otmoor. Just outside Oxford, this area of wetlands is a gorgeous spot for seeing wading birds, songbirds, and (this time of year) starling murmurations. And you could also do far worse than take along this little book of poetry as a companion.

David Attwooll, recently passed away, was a local poet who worked with Andrew Walton to make this beautiful collection. Walton, originally from Otmoor, has created stark, etched illustrations of the landscape. They perfectly echo the almost primal nature of the poems, which beat the rhythm of “a tightening tide felt / here in the country’s navel / a hundred miles from the sea.” If you listen closely, you can hear the waterbirds’ calls, “the sound of a pattern / intricate and oriental // chatter of circling stars / in daytime when no-one sees”. This is a love-letter to Otmoor, but also a prayer to stop, listen, look, and let the wildness overtake you.

So yes, it’s cold, the snow is melting to a bleak slush, but now is the perfect time to take a minute and notice the natural world as it breathes and survives around you. Best of all – take a trip out to Otmoor. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a murmuration and watch the flocks transform (as Attwooll describes) “as filings magnetise, or continents fold / and drift, framing new maps, possible worlds”.

25-31 January: The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane & Jackie Morris

 

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There’s been a lot of buzz about this book since it came out a few years ago – and it is worth every ounce of hype it’s gotten. If you haven’t already picked it up, you are in for a treat – not just because of its poetry which is delicious and profound, following in the footsteps of Gerard Manley Hopkins in its use of sound and rhythm to magic imagery from thin air – but the literal act of picking the book up is itself a delight. It’s a beautiful object, gilded, meticulously and luxuriously illustrated – and does entirely what it is meant to do: enchant, inspire, and conjure the beauty of nature.

Macfarlane and Morris created this spellbinding collection in response to the 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary which introduced new words such as “broadband” and “blog” while words relating to the natural world (acorn, wren, otter, willow, to name a few) were lost. The dictionary, reflecting the frequency of words in the daily language of children, threw into undeniable relief the idea that children are losing touch with nature. Enter ‘The Lost Words’. This is a magical collection of acrostic poems by Macfarlane, gorgeously illustrated by Morris, which re-conjures these words, brings them back to our hearts and minds, and helps children to discover the natural world around them.

To further this mission, the library itself is running a session this weekend in our very own Florence Park in East Oxford. After a chat about the kind of creatures, creepy-crawlies, and all manner of living things we might see (and a bit of binocular training!), we will head out into the park to explore. Nick Boyd, resident nature-expert, will lead the walk, teaching you how to look and listen and notice the living world around us. We will then return to Flo’s to create our own Lost Words-inspired poetry with the help of poet Phoebe Nicholson. Collage and craft materials will be available to illustrate and decorate your spells!

Places are limited but if you miss out this time, never fear! This is a pilot session for a longer series of workshops we’re planning for the spring, so keep your eyes peeled for our future plans to celebrate this lovely collection – and nature itself!

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18-24 January: Blue Horses by Mary Oliver

 

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Yesterday, Mary Oliver died at 83. We are celebrating her work this week at the poetry library with this, her penultimate collection, Blue Horses. For the uninitiated, Oliver was a Pulitzer-prize winning, much-loved poet who wrote about the world around her and her place in it, nature, creatures, what it is to be mortal… Her work is characterized by simplicity, delight, strength.

It’s accessible and direct, but profound – she said herself in an interview with NPR, “Poetry, to be understood, must be clear…It mustn’t be fancy.” Hers are poems that can knock the air out of you on first reading, but which you can revisit again and again and constantly find inspiration and grace in. The poetry implores you to slow down, walk, pay attention. Reading it is itself a meditative act, but they are also prayers to the intricacy and hope that the natural world can offer. It falls in love with nature and invites you to do the same. Much of her poetry was inspired by long walks. The Summer Day, for instance, begins with musings on the animals she sees, the grasshopper eating sugar out of her hand, and ends celebrating the simple act of strolling, “which is what I have been doing all day. / Tell me, what else should I have done?…/ Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

So here at OPL, we invite you, in her honour: go for a walk. Or better yet, come along with any kids in your life to the nature walk with us at Florence Park this week, where we can help you notice things, listen, appreciate, and create. As Oliver says in Wild Geese: “the world offers itself to your imagination, / calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting – / over and over announcing your place / in the family of things”.

Lost words poster flyer

11-17 January: Wretched Strangers

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Both here in the UK and across the pond (and beyond), it is increasingly impossible to avoid conversations about borders and migration. There is paranoia about movement of people, heated debate about where and whether lines can be drawn, there is nationalism and anger and fear. It’s easy to forget in the political fog about the individual human beings who are and will be affected by the outcomes of these debates. Our book of the week, Wretched Strangers (edited by Ágnes Lehóczky and J. T. Welsch and published by Boiler House Press) is an important reminder.

A whopping 100+ non-UK born writers have contributed to this astonishingly wide-ranging anthology. Dedicated to “celebrating the irreducible diversity” of ‘British’ poetry, the collection presents each writers’ voice exploring their experience of home and movement and beyond. There is striking diversity not just in where the poets come from (I haven’t checked but I’d guess just about every continent, with the possible exception of Antarctica, is represented here), but also their individual styles, the voices, and their expression. Poems range from very visual concrete poetry, James Joyce-esque stream of consciousness prose poetry, to more formal styles, to words combined with visual art and photography. Shot through so many of these pieces is a sense of belonging, disorientation, loss or gain of one’s culture or language, family, kinship. It is undeniable and vivid proof that there are as many ways to experience migration and displacement as there are people.

We will be hearing from a few more of these people at our event on 18 January we are collaborating on with Orchestra of St John’s, Somerville College, and Open House Oxford as part of an initiative called Displaced Voices. Join us at 5.30pm at Somerville for a FREE event starting with a panel discussion exploring issues of displacement and the refugee experience. The discussion will be followed by a short performance at 6.30pm across the road at Open House from some Oxford-based writers on their experiences of migration. We will present a brief showcase of poetic voices, reading their work on the subject of displacement, migration and home. This will include short performances from Yousif Qasmiyeh, Nancy Campbell, Mukahang Limbu, Shara Lessley, and Muradi Bakir, sharing their stories of movement in landscapes as far-flung as arctic Greenland and the Syrian civil war, exploring how homes can be left, moved, and made.

More information and details about registration here: https://www.osj.org.uk/event/displaced-voices-panel-discussion-at-somerville-college-and-open-house-oxford/


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4-10 January: Emergency Kit: Poems for Strange Times

 

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Well, we’ve all made it another year crawling the face of this big lump of rock hurtling through space, and here at OPL we hope you’ve celebrated appropriately. These are indeed strange times we live in, so what better way to start the year than facing that head on. Emergency Kit: Poems for Strange Times (edited by Jo Shapcott and Matthew Sweeney) is the perfect way to revel in, explore, and be in equal parts fascinated, horrified, and in love with all the bizarre quirks of the modern age.

The collection, as the editors note in their introduction, aims to capture the way that art and literature in our time encourages us to “make free with the boundaries of realism”. Imagination and play outpaces moralism and ideology and the result is a literary landscape defined by unusual and vivid insights, with poetry being a direct line to the bizarre uniqueness of individual experience.

These poems are all about the individual experience. Poems from familiar names like Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, and Seamus Heaney are joined by lesser-known writers, and poets from all over the Anglophone world: India, the Caribbean, Africa… But unlike most anthologies, they are not grouped or categorized – poems aren’t even separated by page breaks. The effect is a wash of human experience. Poems flow into each other and are drunk in, giving real prominence to the words themselves and the images they conjure over the individual Big Name (or otherwise) who wrote them.  And those images speak of things scavenged from a landfill, dirty old men, a rival’s house, markets where you can eat “sweet fog from a stick” – dream-like and unsettling, both disconcerting and strangely validating. Reading this collection is reassurance that your own odd experiences, secret desires and fears are perhaps not sounusual after all.

Strange poems for strange times, indeed. This may not necessarily be a feel-good collection, but for us is the perfect book to kickstart the new year. Happy 2019, all.

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