John Gohorry is David's Bookshop's Poet-in-Residence. He appears irregularly in the bookshop, reading his poems and talking poetry with allcomers. John has published thirteen collections of poems to date; his latest, Exploring Psalmanazar (Shoestring, June 2020) is a series of 52 poems centred on the 18th century celebrity George Psalmanazar who claimed to have been born in Formosa (modern Taiwan) though he had never been there, and in 1704 published a book about the island, giving details of its history and culture, including its language, which he invented and could speak and write fluently, to the astonishment of the English intelligentsia.
More information about John and his poems can be found at his website,
18 SEPTEMBER 2020
IT'S SAMUEL JOHNSON'S 311th BIRTHDAY (AND THAT OF ONE FICTITIOUS OTHER)
Samuel Johnson (1709 - 1784) was born 311 years ago today. It's time to hang a laurel wreath round his portrait in the hall and to post a few pieces from my sadly now out of print 2010 collection Samuel Johnson's Amber on the website (when I was last reading in the shop - before lockdown - there were two copies remaining on the shelves).
I've always admired Samuel Johnson, as a poet, critic, journalist, conversationalist and especially for his monumental Dictionary of the English Language (1755), which contrary to Blackadder does contain a definition of the word sausage (look for it between savoy and saw), but more importantly was the first to illustrate usage with supportive quotations, thereby setting a standard which was followed by the first and successive editions of the Oxford English Dictionary (1928 to the present day). These quotations are rather like the fragments of plant and animal life preserved in amber, whence the title of my collection, in which the poems contain fragments italicised to suggest some other layer of significance, sometimes but not always a quotation, that they have to the verse as a whole.
The poems in my collection are set between the years of Johnson's birth and his death, with a number of Strophes which have a contemporary focus and two or three highly experimental acruciferbostic verses, the first I believe to be written in English. To offset the literary figure of Johnson and his concern to establish clear and precise meanings for words, I contrast him throughout with a figure of my own invention, a Scots Romany named Malachi Macpherson who embodies all that is fluid, changeable and non-standard in human speech - his name, which has etymological connections with eels, quickly corrupts to Malarkey. The two are born on the same day, at precisely the same moment, Johnson in his parents' house in Lichfield, Macpherson in a labourer's cottage in the Kyle of Tongue. Their paths cross several times, but they meet only once, in a stagecoach travelling from Lichfield to London on 10 and 11 December 1772. This is the context for poem 90 in the sequence, Conversations in a coach.
Here are two poems describing the birth of Johnson and the christening of Macpherson; they're nos vi and vii in the sequence:-
Sometime in the night it would begin, when their heavy bodies
struggled awkwardly, then flashed out of sleep in a salt sweat;
she suddenly started upright and grasped for the husband.
The bookseller and the farmhand were wideawake, apprehending;
the formed subject of labour was framed by Desire on Desire.
In the beds now there is neither sleep, death, nor love-making;
this is a world of small stillnesses, exquisite twists of pain
that render it present tense only. He mutters plausible comforts
but the groan and the scream are too urgent a contradiction;
the hands reach out to those other hands, but cannot quite touch.
Grip, sweat and cry. Remember her slender wrists, how her hands
clenched into tight fists? Wait, wait for the penny to drop.
The raised knees of the wives are moonlit, white monuments
that border a dark stairway, a shivering, fragrant garden.
A midwife clatters up the staircase to interpret obscure terms.
The climax of their travails, the high coin spinning and falling.
Heads you win; in the labourer's cottage, an astonishing birth,
a fine bonny boy who emerged singing. Heads you win, tails
.....The bookseller's wife had a hard time of it. He was born
almost dead; he could not cry for some time, and when the midwife
at last held the child in his arms, he said, Here is a brave boy.
Elsewhere, in another time, a man sits at a desk and scribbles
hurried investigations, flicks the wordprocessor into edit mode.
The subject is formed by labouring on the script. Their future is
growth, difference, closure, disclosure, their own propagation.
At the tarnside.
Congregations of fir trees. Echo of teal, garganey, goldeneye,
their low, distant ruck, ruck extending the tarn's dimensions
to a distant, deceiving horizon. Far away over the water, birds
tumble and dive indistinctly, smudges of punctuation streaking
the text of the sky. From the gorse whins, the chirrup of finches.
The whole warld is blandit wi' sounis, ther is spechis wydquhair
if we be lookand for them, our earis attentif. From the scrublands
a straggle of poor travelling folk clutching at rugs and shawls,
the dirtfinger tatterdemalions formed out of clod and birdsong.
They stumble and weave to the tarnside, whaulling and whooping,
darl women with crow's foot eyes, umber-skinned husbands,
their children skittling under their boots like fallen acorns.
The chiel maun be kirsenit in the tarn. No crying as he is lifted
out of his mother's arms. Beloved, we are assemblit here today
for betakand o' namis. A breeze flusters kirtle and headscarf; vox
clamours into and out of the wind, the scuffling leaf-skirmishes.
The chiel maun be immersit, for we are all Maidibble's liberos;
the lace gowns are mired as the women kneel, and the tawny body
is plunged underwater. Nou gi'ye your chiel a's name and benison.
He heaves him out into shawls, the light-showering, singing fish;
what words might a father find to express hopes for his new-born?
Maun ha' be protectit fra' all gulravage; maun ha' niever wantie
guid wadmas tae cover his nakit likam in foule weither; guid hope
and fair wordis be his husel; and let my chiel be callit Malachi,
harbinger o' guid thingis to come. A clatter of hands applauding,
kisses, embraces. Each places a silver aitchison on his forehead
with Prosper now, Malachi Macpherson, in this guidly inheritance.
They drift away, back to the wildernesses, to the no-man's lands.
A fitting moment of celebration on which to bring this posting to an end, I think. There will be more frequent posts to look forward to as the coronavirus keeps me from live readings in the shop.
10 June 2020
IN THE ECHO ROOM
Along with Simon Cockle, Gareth Writer Davies, David Van-Cauter, publisher Martin Evans, I took part in an Arenig Poets virtual gig last Friday evening 5 June (see more on Facebook). Afterwards I posted DVC's recording of the gig to a number of contacts, several of whom said later that In the echo room, one of the poems I read, had downloaded imperfectly (though it's complete on the recording I have). So here's the text of the poem, also available in my collection The Stock Exchange of Ideas (Arenig, 2019). It's set in the Lister Hospital, Stevenage, where I had an echo cardiogram after a transient ischaemic attack in March 2015.
In the echo room
I’m in the echo room, lying down
on my left side as instructed.
North, east and west of my heart
Daniela has fixed three electrodes
and now a cold gel, not unpleasant,
helps the ultrasound probe she holds
in her right-hand slide over sternum,
clavicle, ribcage while with the left
she taps allegro assai at a keyboard.
I can’t see the monitor but remember
the sweep of shadow screens years back
when my children in utero stirred
and the technician could tell, as I
could not, which was boy, which girl.
I remember the lub dub of the foetal
heart, pushing the boat body over
its whispering tidal sea towards birth
and its rendezvous with the shore.
So they landed, became adventurers,
explorers, grew to adulthood, made
and brought up their own children.
What I hear now is the splash gurgle
of my grandfather blood pushing its way
through atrium, ventricle, the open
and close of valves singing their songs
in a major or minor key while I try
to keep my boat steady, willing it
to stay out at sea for a while longer.
Thirty years back at a friend’s funeral,
one mourner read from The Seafarer
and his lines ring clear in my head
telling how one of three things - age,
violence, illness - sooner or later
brings every man’s life to a close.
What consolation is wisdom? I ask
as my blood swishes and pumps
and Daniela’s sleeve brushes my ribs
for the last time. The keyboard clatters
again and the probe’s gone; she offers
wipes, reassurances, the privacy
of drawn curtains while I get back
into my shirt, cufflinks, normality.
Doctor will contact you. Everything
looks OK. Goodbye, have a nice day.
The door, as I go, promises closure.
9 JUNE 2020
COMING BACK IN THE EASING OF LOCKDOWN
The bookshop is scheduled to reopen next Monday, 15 June, and it feels rather as though a waterpipe from the oasis has at last been repaired or a supply of electric current reconnected after a long outage. We can get back into David's again, albeit with social distancing and other safeguards against the spread of coronavirus. As poet in residence I've been itching to pick up my Saturday readings in the shop again, but the time isn't yet right, and the thought of reading my poems aloud through a facial covering seems too grotesque to be practicable. So I've resolved to post poems more frequently to this page instead.
I've always felt an obligation as a poet to engage with public as well as with private matters of concern (public affairs exert a force on private ones in any case, and since six steps at the most link any two people and any two events on the planet, public affairs are inescapable). Simon Armitage was the first poet I became aware of who was writing about lockdown - his poem (with that title) was published in the Guardian on 21 March and drew amongst other things on the impact of plague on the Derbyshire village of Eyam in 1665 (though it didn't take any account of the fact that the Eyam villagers went into voluntary lockdown once the plague broke out among them.) Poetry ID, the North Herts poetry group that I belong to, used Armitage's poem as a springboard from which to write their own poems about the pandemic, and some of these poems have since been published in 20/20 Vision the latest in the string of annual anthologies published by the group at the end of May.
Thinking about the ways in which public events such as the pandemic impede our access to so much of what makes us human (family, friends, bookshops) I'm struck by the way poetry can always find a way through the obstacles put in its path, and help us to - as my own poem puts it - 'rejoice in the freedom of living'.
Here's my poem. Like all poems, it's best if it's read aloud.
In time of pandemic
You wear a surgical mask
to prevent breath spreading infection;
I wear two layers of cloth
with a filter paper between them.
Gateways to the lungs,
our noses and mouths must be shielded
but a poem is no kind of virus
and it can’t be suppressed by lockdown.
Face coverings muffle it
but they can’t gag it entirely;
our eyes welcome the poem
from hoarding, screen, printed page
and when we read it aloud
to ourselves or to others, our spirits
that labour so hard in extremity,
rejoice in the freedom of living.
For the body, then, vaccines. For the soul,
five stanzas a day, picked from a shelf
raw, unrehearsed; runed, given breath,
set to dissolve in the mind.
Enjoy the poem - other posts to follow quite soon.
15 December 2019
SERENDIPITOUS MOMENTS YESTERDAY FOR YOUR POET IN RESIDENCE
Chance is an interesting phenomenon – we take a degree of order for granted in so many aspects of our lives that it comes as a surprise when we are ambushed by chance events, and an even greater surprise when, in the course of a few hours in a single location, an ambush occurs more than once. This was my experience yesterday while enjoying the hospitality of everyone’s favourite bookshop. I’ll set down the two chance events in the order in which they occurred.
The first occurred mid-morning. I was at my table, books displayed before me and my latest (red) notebook of pasted-up poems to hand (I don’t want to read only published work.) I have a number of these notebooks, and I could have picked up any one when leaving home earlier. I was chatting with a friend whom I sometimes meet for a philosophical discussion over coffee in Letchworth about the pro-Brexit election results among other things, and he asked me if I had any ‘poems of consolation’. I didn’t think I had any, but had started to rummage when a lady in a red coat, who had evidently picked up on our exchange, cut in with the apparently unconnected remark that she’d been looking everywhere in the shop for some poems of Ovid, but hadn’t found any.
My friend and I enquired about what had drawn her to be looking for Ovid; she replied that she had just seen a TV programme about him on i-player, and it had prompted her to want to know more. I remembered having seen the original broadcast and having written a poem of my own in response. Quite by chance, I found it in the notebook I’d happened to bring in, and read it out. The TV programme was made to celebrate the 2,000th anniversary of Ovid’s death, aged 60, in exile at Tomis, on the shore of the Black Sea, in what’s now Roumania. My poem takes its title and draws on details from a painting by Delacroix; the italicised lines in the penultimate stanza are from Ovid’s Tristia. Here it is:-
Ovid among the Scythians
Ten years in exile
on the outskirts of Empire,
you lie on a patch of ground
beside a reed-thatched hut
in the back end of nowhere.
The Scythians are kind enough,
the man milking his brown mare,
the armed man on the charger,
and the family offering food
– a bowl of wine from the daughter,
a basket of fruit from the father,
the wife oozing breast milk
as she leans toward you, a small
child slung on her hip – but
you miss your own wife and son
whose faces, ten winters gone,
are no longer those you remember.
That sheaf of manuscript verses
on the scrub ground beside you
might bear witness to genius
but no-one has any Latin,
nobody’s heard of the Muses
and Scythian’s a gobbet of sputum
spewed from the Black Sea’s throat,
a vowel storm, a cargo of words
wrecked in the act of speaking;
you have eight words of vernacular.
You write Poetry comes fine spun
from a mind at peace, but my days
are clouded with unforeseen woes.
Yet what’s a poet to do but write on
through fear, worry, unhappiness?
Invention consoles, and posterity
two thousand years down the line,
reading your verse, will be thankful.
So quite by chance, the lady in the red coat had at least a vicarious contact with the Ovid she hadn’t found at first hand, and my philosophical friend had both an elegiac expression of our sense of loss and a degree of consolation provided in the hope that, two thousand years down the line, people will be glad of our words.
The second chance event occurred mid-afternoon. A man stopped by my table while his wife was occupied at the counter. His eye went to my Adagios en Ré, a collection of 79 short poems (7 or 10 lines each) that I’d written on the Ile de Ré over three summer holidays there. The poems are in English, with French translations, and each carries the date on which it was written.
I offered to read a poem, and asked the gentleman to pick a number between 1 and 79, which he did (it was number 45). I read the poem, and he was astonished, as I was, to learn that I’d written it on his birthday.
His wife returned from the counter, and I invited her to buy the book for her husband as a Christmas present, since what had happened seemed to indicate an aura of affinity between him and the collection.
She said that she would buy the book if, when she picked a number between 1 and 79, that poem turned out to have been written on her birthday.
In an attempt to outfox her, I casually asked when her birthday was, but she saw through my ruse at once. ‘Not telling!’ she laughed. She picked a number – I gave the date, which of course wasn’t her birthday – and read the poem.
The couple thanked me and left, without buying the Adagios.
Chance events, we all know, may be fortunate or unfortunate – the word serendipitous describes only those that bring happiness or benefit to those on the receiving end. Both of these chance events were associated with some degree of misfortune for at least one of the participants – the lady in the red coat didn’t find Ovid; the poet in residence didn’t sell his Adagios. But there was enough that was positive in each situation to offset any negative elements, and since everyone was a winner I call both events serendipitous.
21 July 2019
LONELINESS, SOLITUDE, AND A VOYAGE ROUND THE MOON
When, at some point in the 1970’s, I wrote what became the title poem of my first collection of poems, A Voyage Round the Moon (Peterloo, 1985), I centred it on the unique experience of Michael Collins, who flew in the command module Columbia on a solitary orbit round the moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked 60 miles below him on its surface. Fifty years on from the moon landing, yesterday’s (20 July 2019) Google Doodle containing a commentary by Michael Collins confronts me with the mismatch between what I imagined Collins’s experience to have been and what he says that it was, and, in the course of this, raises some challenging questions not just about differences between solitude and loneliness, but also about the authenticity of an act of imagining, an act of remembering, and the assorted underpinnings of each in the conditions that bring them about.
While Armstrong and Aldrin had each other for company, as Collins circled the moon, for two hours at a stretch on its dark side he had the moon’s bulk keeping him out of contact with the rest of humanity. He had no contact with his fellow astronauts; he was out of radio contact with the control centre at Cape Canaveral; as he says in his commentary, he was cut off from the 3 billion plus two inhabitants of Earth, all of them.
He spent over 20 hours entering and returning from this state of isolation in the Columbia module until the astronauts came back from the surface and the trio set out on their journey back to Earth. My poem reimagines this sense of intermittent connectedness. It catches Collins as he returns to the human fold at the end of each two hour half-circuit, the voices of Armstrong and Aldrin crackling up to him from the lunar floor, and the voices of various controllers ‘greeting him on his return with a routine / Howdy, it’s good to have you back with us / for they suspect what he knows on the far side.’ It ends by crediting Collins with a uniquely lonely experience:- ‘Only he, circling / her immense black back in the star silence, / knows the true meaning of loneliness, like the Old Mariner / sailing down his horizon, her fingers turned steel /at the moment of parting, and her dead heart /2,000 miles thick bulging between them like an iceberg.’ The thrust of the poem is that Collins, as a result of his unique experiences of separation from the rest of humanity, has gained access to some privileged knowledge, the existential implications of which can only be guessed at by others.
But this is a version of the experience far different from how Collins describes it in the Google Doodle. He says he was ‘All alone, but not lonesome. I felt very comfortable back there', he says. 'I even had hot coffee.’ And Collins does have the privileged position of first hand experience, when all’s said and done.
So the disparity between our two accounts prompts me to ask where, and even whether, in fact, I went wrong. It’s possible of course that in writing my poem I had failed through naivety / inexperience to register a fundamental difference between solitude and loneliness; fifty years’ further experience has certainly made it plain to me that they are not the same thing, but did I ever think they were? Perhaps I was overawed by the conditions of Collins’s systematic and recurrent isolation, not having had the pre-mission training that he will have had, one of the purposes of which must have been to strengthen him against the potential trauma of such solitude and indeed, to enable him to be in a frame of mind of which it would be true for him to say I felt very comfortable back there.
Were there other factors at work in writing the poem that led me to see loneliness where I might perhaps more accurately have seen solitude?The words loneliness and solitude both contain three syllables, so there can have been no metric considerations leading me to choose loneliness. Perhaps at this point I’m already anticipating Collins’s connection with Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner ‘Alone, alone, all all alone, / Alone on a wide, wide sea....'. The connection however is entirely mine. When Collins says that he was 'All alone, but not lonesome', it doesn’t seem to me that he has any conscious intention of setting himself alongside Coleridge’s seafarer.
Setting aside for one moment the possibility that my poem did mistakenly confuse loneliness and solitude, and without at this point conferring any greater weight of truth on either account at the expense of the other, might it not be the case that the two visions express different and even complementary perspectives on a complex reality sifted and framed by the different, partially overlapping experiences of the two people engaging with it?
Poet and astronaut look back on their 50 year distant experiences; the astronaut, trained to engage with the reality of space exploration and with the technical and emotional challenges of his particular mission, operates in a calm, logical and emotionally detached manner because the success of his mission and the safety of his fellow astronauts depends on it. He’s concerned to normalise the experience; ‘I even had hot coffee’ - because the mission represents – no, it is - a triumph of scientific method; other missions will follow (24 people altogether have landed on the moon) and although some sense of wonder is appropriate to Collins’s narrative, a sense of fear, threat, or apprehension just doesn’t occur to him.
The language in which Collins states his sense of wonder (in the Google Doodle) uses standard phrasing to report rather than to express that emotion:- 'The first time we saw the Moon up close, it was a magnificent spectacle' (my emphasis). The relative impact of the Moon seen close up and of Earth viewed from a distance is a matter chiefly of size: 'It [the moon] was huge...the sight of the tiny Earth.' The language of wonder does stretch to one vivid phrase: 'The sun was coming around it, cascading and making a golden halo' but this quickly dissolves into platitudes of wonderment: (my emphases again) 'As impressive as this view was of this alien Moon seen up close, it was nothing compared to the sight of the tiny Earth. The Earth was the main show. The Earth was it.' None of this is to discredit Collins’s authentic sense of wonder, but it does indicate how thoroughly regulated that sense is by a consciousness much more attuned to the logical, the rational and the prosaic.
The poem on the other hand, for all its use of narrative, is a document not so much of report as of dramatic imagination. It’s aware of the risks, not as rare possibilities that have been minimised by careful scientific preparation, but as realities as powerful and as essential to the enterprise of writing the poem as split-second timing and a cool head are to successfully landing on and escaping from the lunar surface. If solitude is primarily a matter of numbers, loneliness is wholly a matter of human feeling, and so, maybe, for this reason, I was right to attribute the sense of it to Collins in my poem after all.
10 July 2019
This is definitely a good time for me to reflect on the impact a poem can have on the world in which it's written; my latest collection, Squeak, Budgie! was published by Smokestack last month, a sequence of 24 poems giving a commentary on the unfolding of the Brexit situation from the referendum in 2016 to the point it had reached by May this year, just before publication. My poems are written in a satirical tradition stemming from John Skelton's sixteenth century Speke, Parrot!, in which the target is Cardinal Wolsey.The 'voice' in the poems is sometimes my own, and sometimes that of a budgerigar named Pipsqueak; the boundary between the two is deliberately blurred. W.H.Auden famously said that 'poetry makes nothing happen'; ultimately I don't agree with this and there are some strong arguments to the contrary (by Andy Croft, the proprietor of Smokestack as it happens) in last month's PN Review (accessible online at https://www.pnreview.co.uk/cgi-bin/scribe?item_id=10493).
So Squeak, Budgie! picks up on events as they unfolded - the battle early on to give Parliament a say in the process, the triggering of Article 50, President Trump and Kim Jong-un's hostile exchanges, the Salisbury poisonings, the royal wedding, the World Cup, the Windrush scandal, the plight of refugees, etc etc, and I posted the poems, more or less as they were written, on Facebook, in an attempt to expose the follies and deceptions involved in Project Brexit, and in the hope of dissuading people from going forward with it. With four months to go to the next scheduled date of our departure on 31 October, the issue of leave or remain is still very much a live one, and I hope that Pipsqueak's arguments will continue to exert what traction they are capable of in support of remain.
The first (and very positive) review of the book came out yesterday from Stuart Henson in London Grip (https://londongrip.co.uk/2019/07/london-grip-poetry-review-john-gohorry/) and I hope this will draw more people to read it and to flex their political sinews in favour of remain.
On the back of all this I've been invited to take part in a Breaking Lines podcast by members of Poetry ID at the beginning of next week on the theme of political poetry; I'm looking forward to a lively discussion, and I'll post details of it here, including links, once I've taken part.
23 June 2019
GRATEFUL THANKS - AND A MANIFESTO OF SORTS
Many thanks to David's Bookshop for giving me this space on their website and for allowing me complete freedom over what I put on it. I'll start with a poem I wrote near the beginning of my residency; it's a sonnet modelled on the metaphysical poet George Herbert's Prayer, which consists of a string of metaphors offering different perspectives on the subject. My (secular) poem aims to do a similar thing, giving different (though not exhaustive) perspectives on its subject, Poet. I think that each metaphor might in fact be a trigger for another poem, though not necessarily of sonnet length or structure. Here's the poem:-
Netmaker; interpreter; spark bringer
to the tinder-dry rook roost; nurse; midwife;
walker on rooftops; horsewhisperer; singer;
thief; lookout; lifeguard; preserver of life;
builder and crosser of bridges; artist
of all that disturbs, teaches or pleases;
dreamer; explorer; wallgazer; fabulist;
stone-breaker; namer of our diseases;
closer and opener of doors; coaxer of flame
from the hearts of others; plumber; scout; scourge;
faker; playmaker; cobbler of what came
to hand or to mind; shapeshifter; demiurge;
cook; traveller; acolyte; word-warden;
sweep; labourer in the Muse's garden.