I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while, so I’m doubly delighted to say that this week’s drop in is by Pratibha Castle to reflect on her impressive debut collection, A Triptych of Birds & A Few Loose Feathers.
This poem, which first appeared on One Hand Clapping a couple of years back, and later in Spilling Cocoa Over Martin Amis, like many of my poems, was inspired by an image from childhood.
I was with my father one morning when he was digging a plot of earth. While he took a break, a robin turned up. Not unusual, when there is a chance of worms. There was, of course, a spade. My father’s name was Patrick. St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, is indeed rumoured to have driven the snakes from the isle of Poets and Bards. But my mother was the one who left, taking me along with her. And there was no slowworm.
My father, however, did turn up at the end of school months later. And the presents were real. Coming from a generation where men did not easily acknowledge their feelings, gifts were perhaps the only way he had to show his love. I did hide the books and games, so my mother would not be confronted with them on arriving home from work. I applaud my nine-year-old self for intuiting that the sight of them would have caused her as much shock and fear as the sight of my father, after months of absence, waiting at the school gates. I was sent off to boarding school. And the suggestion that the ‘head nun was nice to you /if your mother gave her fruit cake /in a tin, bottles of orange linctus sherry/ a shawl like frothy cobwebs’ comes from a comment directed by one of the school bullies to this new and insecure student whose mother could no way afford such luxuries. These images in the poem are inspired by truth and yet the whole poem to me feels dreamlike and fictional. The robin was the key to opening my subconscious, leading me to inhabit the child’s psyche and allow the poem’s world to unfold on the page.
Like many before them down the ages, my parents fled Ireland in search of work. We arrived in London in 1953, when I was three years old. I have since learnt that it was not unusual in that era for boarding houses to display a sign declaring NO IRISH NO BLACKS NO DOGS. As an adult I came to understand that my mother sent me to elocution classes to help me integrate into this hostile environment. Though it disconnected me from my Irish heritage, it was vital to protect me from the prejudice of that era. Returning back ‘home’ at the age of nine for a brief visit, it would be another forty odd years before I returned to Ireland of my own volition. A bit of a cliché, but as I stepped onto the tarmac from the plane, I was overwhelmed by a sense of coming home.
Many listeners comment on a strong narrative thread in my poetry, which is the case in Padraig. I have, in fact, been telling stories since early childhood. Rather than have my mother or father read to me at bedtime, I would tell them a story of my own invention. Writing as a mature student on a BA in English and Creative Writing at The University of Chichester, I loved to fill my short stories with semi-familiar worlds and characters that must have their origin in my first three years in Dunloaghaire. I was also particularly inspired and tickled at that time by the short stories of Kevin Barry. It was not until 2019, stirred by Mary Oliver’s passing, and delighting in her celebration of the natural world, that I returned to poetry, my focus for several years having been prose. To my surprise and delight, Irish themes began to appear in poems described by Naomi Foyle described as having ‘a courageous way with a secret reminiscent of Edna O’Brien and Medbh McGuckian’.
While the trigger for a poem will often be a pleasing phrase or image, sound is another important element in my writing. Often the sound of the words will lead me on. Since early childhood, music has been important in my life. My mother, who learnt violin as a child and sang all her life, took me when I was six to see Swan Lake in Montreal where we lived for a year. I was entranced by the dancers as well as the music, which made my heart ache; it was so beautiful. I learnt ballet for several years, and piano. In my teens I studied singing and piano at the now non-existent Trinity College of Music in London. In my early twenties I formed a folk-rock duo with my American husband musician and learnt guitar and autoharp. This background influences how I write, a word’s sound in addition to its meaning or atmospheric quality informing my choice of language. Many times a sound arrives before a word with the appropriate meaning.
Working on the poems in this book has not only helped me reconnect me with my roots, it has brought about a healing for past situations that at the time were painful.
Once again, many thanks to Nigel for inviting me to ‘Drop In’ and share these thoughts with you. I hope the poems in this book give as much joy to read as they gave me to write.
Next week read my review of Triptych of birds & A Few Loose Feathers.
The Saboteur Awards 2022
I’m delighted to announce that this drop in/review feature has been shortlisted for a Saboteur Award in the category of Reviewer of Literature for the second year running. If you like this feature, I would be both honoured and delighted to have your support. You can vote by clicking this link: Saboteur Awards 2022. Deadline 7th May.
It would be fantastic to go one better than last year and actually win it against such stiff competition!