Saturday, June 18, 2011

Remembering Jane Wilson by Bruce Barnes

Remembering Jane Wilson by Bruce Barnes.

I am no longer able to remember people as well as I did. I used to recall their faces but now the favoured mnemonics is their things: it leads to a cluttered house with their cards, signed books, presents and stuff loosely connected to them. Under the computer table, beneath my feet, is her carpet, an Axminster in brightly coloured squares that I bought on Hoe Street, Walthamstow shortly after I moved into Marriott Rd, Finsbury Park in 1985. And the last time Jane and I sat on that carpet was a winter evening, talking in the dark with the gas fire on, but our story begins ten or so years before in Leeds.

Martina and I came to Leeds from the Irish countryside to study, and by 1973 we had moved into Eldon Mount a large house off Woodhouse Lane, near the road fork above the Brotherton Library; the house was roomy, had an absent minded landlord who forgot to collect rent and it seemed as if this part of Leeds, its student-ville, was at its cultural heart, with the City the hub of the universe. I loved the Arcades, shabby and forgotten then, the din and colour of Leeds Market on Saturday afternoon, the Elland Road roar, the house parties and meeting new friends, the Future Studies Centre that was sowing the seeds of the new environmentalism, and walking Meanwood Ridge.

We both liked poetry and our front room became a reading venue. Jane must have come along a while after the venue started up, perhaps encouraged by her friend Dave Stringer, a regular reader. I can't remember anything of what she read, but on one occasion she brought her elderly friend, the poet Martin Bell, who spoke and read very quietly.

Memories of those poetry evenings are largely shaped by Michael McCafferty. We tried to keep him out, but he had a way with the front door lock, and would sit in a corner with his piercing stare. Come his turn, sometimes he didn't bother waiting, he would perambulate his one City Poem, (published in the anthology Children of Albion edited by Michael Horovitz), throwing his arms out like flick knives, whizzing fingers inches past our faces. We knew he was mad, he knew we were scared. But I saw in him the difference between reading and performance: physicality.

I would bump into Jane on the street, elegant and refined, sometimes with Dave Stringer in tow. Dave was a green–warrior who lived in an attic on Woodhouse Moor and worked as a gardener when he could. I would laugh at their chalk and cheese but as Dave now remembers they were close friends such that they could go off on reading tours together. Jane encouraged me to write, wanted to see or know about what I was working on, and I think she understood how chaotic domestic circumstances could get in the way of writing.

When I came across her poem I go for Napoleons in her second collection Ringing the Migrants (Rainbow Books, 1977), I felt it encapsulated her support for the underdog:
I go for Napoleons, for small
men with chips on their shoulders, which
they take the opportunity to carve beautifully,
like Alpinists in a bad winter;
who are working out their Things in attics,
who need helping;
Thereafter I saw Dave and me as two of her Napoleons. Jane sometimes drove Dave over to the Pennine Poets when they were meeting at Mabel Ferrett's, and Jane may have done the same for me once, but I can't be sure as it conflates with Clare Chapman's driving. I do remember getting the bus out to the Ilkley Literature Festival in 75 or 77, intending to hear her read with other Pennine Poets, but getting the timing wrong and meeting her after the reading outside the Crescent Hotel. She seemed to be energised by the reading, but was still concerned that I had missed it; it was her concern for others that meant I didn't have sufficient opportunity to delve, to find out more about her. Her biographical note at the front of Ringing the Migrants refers to her being a teacher of Speech and Drama, and having been an infant teacher and counselled delinquent children. By its publication date, she had had a radio play performed, and an impressive list of poetry magazine publications.

By late 77, my chaotic domestic circumstances had become more so, and I felt compelled to leave Martina, the house in Eldon Mount and Leeds, for a small holding in West Cork, Ireland, and thereafter to another in County Leitrim. Ringing the Migrants travelled with me, its cover soaking up the damp of cottages without damp courses. Jane and I would exchange Christmas cards, and after moving to London in 1980, she came to see me leaving a signed collection for my mnemonic clutter: To find ourselves (Seven Arches Press, 1983)
Bruce-thank you for lunch. Lovely to see you again, best wish for all you do, Love Jane 24.6.85
During that hour or so of catch up, and lunch, I think there was bread, cheese and salad, but it was definitely on the table that it is now downstairs.

To find ourselves is a beautifully produced book, designed and printed by Arc and Throstle Press, with a cover in pale green matted card and a linocut of a canoeist on a lake. Its pages are of heavy cream paper and they still retain the smell of a new book. While the poetry publishing industry is haunted by the spectre of e-books, web-publishing and further Arts Council cuts, I believe that the revival of the artist book/poetry book can make such art objects memorable, including the circumstances around their acquisition, which in my case is a must-do.

In To find ourselves Jane explores her themes more intently than in Ringing the Migrants, but the quirky imagery is still there, as is the unbounded optimism and an intuitive sense of the music of language. Sometimes the piling up of striking images asks that fewer of them be explored and developed, sometimes the rose coloured spectacles weigh heavy, but this doesn't detract from her extraordinary eye. From Autumn Evening:

Collapsed apples are trickling wasps and moulds
are whitening tiny orchards of their own
in pin-prick blossoms on their sodden folds.
With Love (Cragg Poets 12), "Bruce with love from Jane 29.3.87" marks her night on the Axminster and our last meeting. She was either going to or coming from an event at the National Theatre and the Leeds timetable wasn't obliging. In the cover photo, she is more comfortable, sitting in an armchair, at home I think, and looking out of the window imbibing the world. Some of that world is at rest as in Garden at Dusk:
I have come home; I could not feel so deep
An affinity with things that creep
Under the leaves, with the leaves themselves, with the earth,
With the flowers and grass, if otherwise
or it is one of instability as with The Pickets, a poem that declines to be vociferously political but carefully reflects on the humanity of the striking miners and the ultimate fate of their pits:

... but summer
Was cogged into winter, and when the days got light,
Only the colliery wheel, unlocked again,
Turned on its bitter tripod in the dark.
A Christmas or so later, there was no card, and in 1990, I think, on a visit to Leeds, I called in to see her with an old Leeds friend. We knocked, knocked again, peered through the front bay window, sufficient to attract the attention of a neighbour. I asked about Jane and it transpired she had passed away a year before.

Losing friends is hard, harder when the knowledge is delayed and the loss mixes with regret at not staying in touch. This year I learnt through reading a back issue of Poetry Review that my first publisher, John Fairfax, had died in 1997. Losing both a mentor and friend, and a publisher, without being aware of it must seem like carelessness.

PS Dave Stringer and his partner now live in Cornwall and he edits ‘Phoenix Poetry magazine, a web based magazine of poetry on spiritual/ecological themes.

PPS Jane's first pamphlet not referred to above was Hooligan Canute and other poems selected by Colin Simms (York poetry series #8, 1973)

Bruce Barnes

Bruce Barnes moved to Bradford from North London in 1996 and became active in Interchange Writers, and Bradford Poetry Workshop which now forms part of the Beehive's program of events.

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