Paul Batchelor opened proceedings with his poem ‘A Tawny Owl’ which showed off his aptitude for precision and clarity. This was followed by a long poem entitled ‘Brother Coal’ which, in its recollection of a childhood spent playing in a coal cellar, evoked the mining culture that is an important part of the history of the North East. A testament to the poem’s power was the quiet appraisal given, by a woman sat next to me, at the poem’s end: ‘that brought back a lot of memories’. This was followed by another poem that takes its starting point from memory, ‘Honesty’, which celebrates a kind of flower that used to be popular but is not seen so often any more. This led seamlessly into a pair of poems with specific addressees (‘To History’ and ‘To a Halver’) that illustrate Batchelor’s engagement with the notion that the past, present and future are always informing each other.
Deryn Rees-Jones read from her most recent collection Burying The Wren. ‘Truffles’ was a particularly moving poem in the way that it approached the elegiac theme of the book from a surprising angle. Other poems such as a selection from ‘The Songs of Elisabeth So’ showed off Rees-Jones’s engagement with the mysterious part of writing: those characters that come unbidden and insist on being written about. She followed this with some newer poems that came out of an ‘obsession’ with birds after the last book was finished. ‘The Bower Bird’ and ‘The Lyre Bird’ subverted the usual mode of love poems by focusing on the characteristics of these birds as a way of talking about human love. Rees-Jones finished with ‘Burying The Wren’ a poem she characterizes as a way of ‘saying goodbye to somebody you love and deciding to move on’. The poem, in its facing up to painful things, engages beautifully with the complexity of the grieving process.
Philip Gross launched straight into a poem celebrating fatherhood. “My father had a way with fire”, it began and from there it became a poem about Gross’s own fatherhood (and the fatherly pretence that passing your fingers through a flame does not hurt). This wonderfully introduced the idea of the said and the unsaid that informed the rest of the poems Gross read. Indeed, Gross explained that he has become fascinated with finding out what words can and cannot do. He expressed this through reference to the mode of thought that suggests that language, being predicated upon metaphor, is an insufficient means of addressing reality because it cannot render the world as exactly as mathematics does. The poems that Gross read challenged this and showed the power of the poem to go to the edges of language (incorporating silence as well as the meanings enacted by sound).