Carol Rumens, 2019 Recipient

Leonard McDermidCarol Rumens is originally from South London and now lives in North Wales, where she teaches creative writing at Bangor University. She has published one novel and eighteen collections of poetry and her plays have been performed at various theatres around the UK. Awards received include The Alice Hunt Bartlett Award, The Prudence Farmer Prize, and a Cholmondeley Award.

A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Carol has been Writer in Residence at the Universities of Canterbury, Belfast, Stockholm, Cork, Newcastle and Durham and has participated in festivals and readings in Toronto, New York City, Washington, Malmo, Wroclaw, Moscow, St Petersburg, Belgrade, Cardiff and London. She undertakes regular national and international Poetry Award adjudication, and has been a panellist for The Eric Gregory Awards, The Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine and The Forward Prizes.

Recent Publications

Bezdelki (The Emma Press, 2018). Winner of the Michael Marks Award for Best Poetry Pamphlet, 2019.
Perhaps Bag: New and Selected Poems (Sheep Meadow Press, NY, 2017). Link available hereChosen by the Washington Independent Review of Books as ‘Best “Collected Poems” of 2017.’
Animal People (Seren, Cardiff, 2016) “Could Rumens be a post-modern Dryden, a perpetual fountain of good sense?” (Review of Animal People, The Manhattan Review, Fall/Winter 2017-2018).

Forthcoming

The Mixed Urn ( full-length collection of new poems, to be published Sheep Meadow Press, with Syracuse University Press, New York, October, 2019).
Smart Device: Poems and Commentaries from the Guardian Poem of the Week (Carcanet, Manchester, November, 2019).

Earlier Publications

Poetry

A Strange Girl in Bright Colours (Quartet, 1974)
Unplayed Music (Secker, 1981) Poetry Book Society (PBS) Recommendation
Star Whisper (Secker, 1983) PBS Choice, shortlisted for Dylan Thomas Award
Direct Dialling (Chatto, 1985)
Selected Poems (Chatto, 1987) PBS Special Commendation
The Greening of the Snow Beach (Bloodaxe, 1988) PBS Recommendation
From Berlin to Heaven (Chatto, 1989)
Thinking of Skins (Bloodaxe, 1993) PBS Special Commendation
Best China Sky (Bloodaxe 1995) PBS Recommendation
The Miracle Diet (Bloodaxe, 1998)
Holding Pattern (Blackstaff, 1999) Shortlisted for Belfast City Arts Award
Hex (Bloodaxe, 2002) PBS Recommendation
Collected Poems, 1968 -2004 (Bloodaxe, 2004)
Blind Spots (Seren, Cardiff,2008)
De Chirico’s Threads (Seren 2010)

Prose Fiction

Plato Park (Chatto, 1987, Flamingo, 1988)

Drama

Nearly Siberia Pascal Theatre Company, London Soho Poly and Newcastle Gulbenkian Studio 1989.
The Freak of the Week Show, Eye Spy Theatre Company, Didsbury Studio, Manchester, 2000.
Suzanne Hecabe, Arden School of Theatre, Manchester, 2001.
The verse-play “De Chirico’s Threads” forms part of the text of the poetry collection of that name.

Literary Criticism

Self into Song (Bloodaxe-Newcastle Poetry Lectures, Bloodaxe, 2006).

The Guardian POEM OF THE WEEK blog

Carol has contributed a weekly poetry column to Guardian Books Online for the last 12 years. The column, a ‘blog’ called Poem of the Week, has an international following, and receives approximately 5,000 ‘hits’ per week. She chooses a single poem to discuss each week, and reviews the poem before the ‘forum’ is opened for comments. There are currently approximately 100 comments posted each week. Posters contribute from a wide range of places: India, South Africa, Russia, Ireland, Scotland, Shetland. The blog provides a platform for poets, with a wider application in encouraging new readers to explore poetry of all periods.

Manhattan Review describes the blog as “generous, not puffy”.

The distinguished poet and translator, Jamie McKendrick wrote:

I hope you won’t mind me writing to thank you for your wonderfully concise and suggestive account of ‘The Bluff’ and for choosing it for the Guardian blog. I very much liked also your final image of ‘our own huge human shadow looming over the Earth’ - which is close to the way I hoped the poem would be read. And a bonus to have Idowu Omoyele’s characteristically attentive reading.

“I’m also writing to thank you for your insightful piece (among many others week by week) on Keith Douglas’s ‘Desert Flowers’ which greatly helped me in something I had been writing about the poem. You’ve turned this small allotment of (virtual) newspaper space into a rich and various patch, and a meditative place where poems, now more or less excluded from media coverage, can be read and considered in depth - a real service to the art!”

McKendrick's latest collection, Anomaly is published by Faber, 2019.

Commissions, etc.

Carol’s poem ‘The Émigrée’ is included in the A Level GCSE English syllabus studied by school students in the UK. It’s published in the ‘Power and Conflict’ section of the AQA anthology, and there are comments and notes on the poem in various handbooks. Some commentary on the poem is here.

An active essay writer and reviewer for the print media, she was commissioned at the end of 2017 to write an “end-of-year round-up” of significant poetry collections published during the year. It was published in the print edition of the Observer (3.12.17) and on Guardian Books Online as Carol Rumens’ best poetry books of 2017.

Her poems and poetry reviews have appeared in the following: The Reader, PN Review, The Independent, Sunday Times, Observer, Poetry Ireland, Poetry Review, Poetry London, Poetry Wales, TLS.

Recent commissions include a selection of ‘ten inspiring poems’, Odes to Hope and Techno (G2, The Guardian, 2.01.2017), a review of new collections by Roy Fisher, Deryn Rees-Jones and John Riley (The Poetry Review, Vol.107, No. 1, Spring 2017) and a review of new collections by Nick Makoha and Andre Nafhis-Sahely (The Poetry Review, Vol. 107, No. 3, Autumn 2017).

Her review of Matthew Sweeney’s King of a Rainy Country (prose-poems after Baudelaire) and My Life as a Painter (poems) appeared in Poetry Review, Spring, 2019. The essays in this issue are to be published in the US magazine, Poetry (ed. Don Share) in an exchange of work between the two publications later in 2019. An essay responding to the new Faber edition of David Jones’s In Parenthesis will be published in Poetry Review, Winter, 2019.

A group of poems, including a sequence responding to paintings by Kyffin Williams, will be published by Manhattan Review in Autumn, 2019.

She has written the Foreword and contributed two poems to Indra’s Web, a fundraising anthology for the Book Bus, an educational charity which works among children in Africa, Asia and South America.

The Cornelius Cardew Concert Trust commissioned two poems on the theme of ‘One World’. These were performed in a public concert at Morley College in January, 2019. 

Individual poems published in 2018-19 have appeared in The Fortnightly Review, Times Literary Supplement and PNReview. Her work is represented in The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem: From Baudelaire to Anne Carson, Ed. Jeremy Noel-Todd, Penguin, 2018.

Adjudication

The Eric Gregory Awards

Carol Rumens was a member of the judging panel for the Eric Gregory Award (a literary award given annually by the Society of Authors to poets under 30) from 2010 -2018.

The Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine

 In 2018 she judged this competition alongside Mark Doty, USA, Dr Peter Goldsworthy, Australia and Alisha Kaplan, Canada. The Hippocrates Prize is an international award for unpublished poems on a medical topic, held in partnership with Harvard Medical School.

Forward Prizes, 2020

These prizes are awarded annually for Best Collection, Best First Collection and Best Poem. All collections from the relevant year are eligible, provided they were published in the UK. The current judging panel includes Carol Rumens, Tara Bergin, Andrew McMillan and Shahida Bari (chair).

Translation and Travel

Carol's poetry is translated into Polish, Russian, Romanian, French, Chinese and Greek.  Her own translations from the Russian, with Yurij Drobyshev, appear in The Poetry of Perestroika (Iron Press, 1989) Pencil Letter (Irina Ratushinskaya, 1989), After Pushkin (Carcanet, 1999) and Selected Poems by Yevgeni Rein (2000). A set of translations of prose poems by the contemporary Russian poet Anatoly Kudriavitsky appears in her 2008 collection Blind Spots, together with some new versions of poems by Eugenio Montale. Her translation of Canto 27 from Dante’s Purgatorio was commended by the judges of the Stephen Spender Translation Prize in 2010.  Bezdelki (2018) contains several translations of poems by the Russian Jewish poet Osip Mandelstam. The Mixed Urn (2019) includes translations of poems by Baudelaire, Mandelstam and Hildegard von Bingen.

Carol Rumens is one of the few women poets writing today whose seriousness is absolute but not closed; whose political beliefs are so enmeshed with her intelligence and sympathetic passions that it is impossible to consider the state of contemporary poetry in Britain without taking her work into account . . . She retains her feminine voice, but extends her sympathies beyond feminism in sinewy but heart-piercing poems.”—Anne Stevenson.

A recorded selection of Carol Rumens's poems is held by the Poetry Archive:
https://www.poetryarchive.org/poet/carol-rumens

A brief comment from Carol Rumens about being in Greece, in 2019

In March 2019 I was writer in residence at The Harvard Centre for Hellenic Studies, Nafplio, Greece. This 10-day residency and my participation in the Harvard Alumni Association Spring Break trip in Greece formed part of the 2018 Michael Marks Award. I shared a reading and discussion with Greek poets at the Centre, and, in Delphi, gave a reading to the Harvard alumni who were participating in the study tour.  Thank you to everyone for this marvellous privilege. Thank you to Lady Marina Marks for sponsoring the Michael Marks Awards. British poetry owes you a debt of gratitude.

Selected Poems from Recent Work

New Poems

I have always liked to steal from classical myth and narrative in my poems, and have read quite widely, although haphazardly and, regrettably, only in English translation.  My recent visit to the CHS at Nafplio, and the experience of the study-tour, both at the various sites and at home, reviewing the material online, tremendously enriched my imagination and vocabulary. The following poems are among current work-in-progress, and I hope to keep polishing them, and even adding more, if the Muses are kind. They are dedicated to Gregory Nagy, who teaches from the heart as well as the brain, and from whom I have learnt so much and continue to learn: to Matina Goga, wonderful host, friend and poetry-translator in Nafplio and my guide at Epidaurus: and to my fellow participants on the 2019 CHS study-tour.

Some Notes on the Poems.

In The Sibyl in the Bottlethe 1,000-years-old Sibyl, so shrunken she has to live in a bottle, addresses an impudent young visitor. She belongs to the ancient world, but she’s also a prophetess for our times of climate-change. What she knows is that everyone on earth has the same future: to die and become a shade. At the same time, she imagines herself as a triumphant survivor, finding new life, represented by the sun and dancing hares, in the Underworld.

The poems in the little sequence, Written in Shadow: To Hesiod, draw on the Theogony (available link here) the epic poem in which Hesiod describes how the Muses gave him a laurel staff and the gift of song. They told him he was unlike the other shepherds who were ‘mere bellies,’ He had the power to sing the true story of the gods and the cosmos. His Theogony also contains all kinds of practical advice in verse, and the speaker wishes Hesiod had written a guide to computer skills. The spelling of ‘lyre’ (the computer keyboard) as ‘liar’ is deliberate!

In the first of the three Prayers, Zeus shifts identity from rapacious lover to the angry god of climate-change. I wrote it when the UK was hearing news of the flooded reservoir and river in Whaley Bridge. The second is a promise to the Muses not to neglect them. In the line “I cover my high-risk promise with this prayer” I use the verb ‘cover’ in the sense associated with insurance policies. In the third, the female speaker imagines falling asleep in the dormitory at Epidaurus and dreaming not of Asklepios, and cure, but of her past lovers. She joins the other women at the spring next morning in a bathing ritual to restore love-worthiness.

The Dialogue after Death mixes up ideas and images from other moving and interesting experiences on the study-tour. There is the plane-tree in Syntagma Square, Nafplio, and the aria, ‘Ombra mai fu’, from Handel’s Xerxes. What I learned about Socrates’ death and its interpretation as an argument for the continuation of the word – and not only the word but the dialogue – also enters the poem. And, at the end, there’s the sacrificed rooster, and the newly wakened roosters crowing in the morning, imitating Handel’s aria -- not very beautifully, of course, but very hopefully.

The Sibyl in the Bottle
1.

Tiny as a shade, but just about living,
I still know who I am, but not why that damned girl

believed a thousand years of time worth having.
Could all her words keep her beautiful?

The god I cheated chased me over the hill
where nothing stops the sky, and all the air

on summer days is butterfly. Yes, still –
though what he saw, and what she sang, are over.

The years came and came.
I was cracked like an egg into this bottle.

You tremble. So I think you know my name.
Come nearer. Show your lips.

You want to test my gift? Maybe I lost it?
Your future needs one word. Ask anything.

Here’s a clue. Find the spot where the rusted
pipe spits its last bubble onto the tarmac.

2.

If you steal the bough and carry it underground,
with luck, you’ll see a carousel of hares

dancing in the sun -- the world’s round
uncurling in the dark a double circlet of bronze flames.

That’s my blue-sky picture, when electric Zeus
floods me out, or when the air’s so small

I smell the armpits of my poor black dress
as I raise my hands to wail speech.

We old should tell the truth. No word’s forbidden.
If you’ve come to sneer, go ahead.

Kick your emptied bottles into the Styx-black midden.
Suddenly notice me, and strike a match,

set fire to my little house. Don’t be afraid.
I’ll burst out flying, laughing: open-mouthed

I’ll drink you down. The word you wanted? Shade.

 

Written in Shadow: To Hesiod

   The Local Myths

Hesiodos, today we avoid grand narratives.
We promote local births, marriages, deaths --
and ourselves. We concentrate on our beautiful bellies.

   Handbook

How to Update your Website’ --
Chant it to me in verse, song-maker shepherd,
so I can pluck from the liar
of my keyboard melodies instead of mistakes.

   Capitalism

The Muses no longer smile
now the emperor funds their festival
and has had it renamed The Great Kaisareia

 

Three Prayers

  1. To Zeus

Great climate-shifter god, who sees the farthest,
Don’t be rough when you make love to our earth.
She returns the furious kisses of your lightning,
Fearing for her life. And when you strip the sky
To display the bruises we ourselves inflicted
Believe in the remorse of those who thought they were gods.

Oh Zeus, withdraw into your stern blue smile.
Spare us the vertical rain, your storms of pity.

  1. To the Muses

Children of Zeus, I will never again forget you.
In your absence there was no air.
Even my dreams were packed with trains, lost tickets.
Dance back, endorphin muses.
I cover my high-risk promise with this prayer.

  1. To Asklepios at Epidaurus

If I could have slept in the silent abaton,
among the stones and March anemones,
I’d have known some enchanting bedside visits,
less brisk, doctor, than yours. Bright-eyed at cock-crow,
quick as your scalpel, I’d have raced to the spring
where the faded women wash – (no men to stare at them) --
singing and splashing, some to recover beauty,
some asking simply for beloved-ness.

 

Dialogue after Death

We need a tree in leaf to dry our foreheads,
our dripping hair, and, perhaps, to listen
in that remote, kind way of adult trees.
If we can’t greet each other, can’t click cup-rims
and laugh at spilling coffee, share a match
or a fatal cigarette, if only one
of us sits down, tells stories, does it matter?
Words, as you’ll have heard, aren’t kept in mouths.
Masses of them, it’s true, fall over themselves
to miss the ferries and the Mars-bound spaceships,
but some have wings, a cocksure measurement
of earthly space and hope. More sinewy
and red than sacrifice, the new day’s roosters
call to each other, and to the wide green morning,
never was sun so hot: never was shade more lovely.

Poems from “Thinking About Montale by the River Hull”, Blind Spots, 2008.

These earlier poems began when I was working at the University of Hull, and discovered the poetry of Eugenio Montale, chiefly in the English translation by Jonathan Galassi. Montale is a great innovative 20th century poet, who connects with classical tradition, through Dante, to Virgil, to Homer. I have chosen 6 poems for this web-page, revised them slightly, and arranged them in a sequence, under the title, ”Shades, and the Art of Embracing Them”. They are headed by a new epigraph from Book XI of The Odyssey, in which Odysseus describes meeting the shade of his mother, Anticlea, in the Underworld, and being unable to embrace her.

Shades, and the Art of Embracing Them

“Without knowing whether I could, I yearned to embrace her spirit, dead though she was. Three times, in my eagerness to clasp her to me, started forward. Three times, like a shadow or a dream, she slipped through my hands and left me pierced by an even sharper pain.” (The Odyssey, Book 11).

  1. Doubled Solstice

Love, which restores in us the needs of children
So that new children may be created,
One day mistakes a winter’s afternoon

For spring. A butterfly quakes into the frozen
Air, bees dander from lost head to head;
And love, that swears it has no need of children,

Emboldens us to wrap ourselves in skin
Not wholly like our own, to be enfolded
And naked on a winter’s afternoon.

We can explain this chemistry-in-a-cauldron,
Dismiss the levitation of the dead,
But love, mocked by the piercing needs of children,

Puts back the clocks we trust, declares it dawn
At midnight, shakes our senses with absurd
Tender mistakes, like summer snow at noon,

Seeds from frost-flowers, mistletoe on the moon.
O, bower-bird, dancing in a factory yard,
O, love, you bring to age the tears of children,

Your longest day to winter’s afternoon.

  1. Chromotrope

Suddenly I was possessed
by the naked look of a hand.
Eyes, never admitted
to mine, entered the spectrum
on a blue-grey band, unlikely
as the glum river’s embarrassed
September moment of sky.
I went to sleep, and opened
among poppies, irises, sun-feathers -
paradise-birds that seemed to have followed us,
and perched, shyly deliberate,
on the little hill and stream
of an expertly knotted tie,
to be noticed (never touched)
and to vanish, as the finest
accessories – Armani, Versace –  vanish
when selves are truly worn.

  1. The Reading-Lamp Sonogram

I cannot hear you, no –
the light-streaked ash-white margins, the black letters
are not your keyboard:
your thoughts are not soft plectra on the graded strings.

But the silence sings to itself, as happiness does.
I creak my chair, skim pages, talk a little.
It is a blessing and an exorcism
to let slip, in my migrant worker’s tongue,
the possibly excessive confirmation:
            ‘Ma e possibile,
             lo sai, amare un’ ombra…’

Eavesdropping on love, my listening eyes
strain like October leaves before
the decimation,
brimming with rainbows, making waves -
so summer-fed they can’t quite own their dying.

You know, it’s not your voice alone they print
in me, nor simply mine:
something is outlined, though, as we gather these

        co-ordinates of frequency,
                         time
                                  and intensity -

some shadowy peculiar composite
of swimmer wrapped in sleeper,
answer bound into question, work so complex,

it asks a dual creator
but only one to bear it,
to rock it in her secret resonant fluids…

oh silent child, oh silent child

(Stanza 2, ‘Xenia 1’, Poem 13: ‘But it is possible/ you know, to love a ghost, ghosts that we ourselves are’. Eugenio Montale, Tr. Jonathan Galassi.)

  1. In Larkin’s Library

‘…Or puoi la quantitate /comprender de l’amor ch’a te mi scalda,/ quand’ io dismento nostra vanitate,/ trattando l’ombre come cosa salda.’
(Dante, Canto XXXI, Purgatorio, spoken by Statius to Virgil).
(‘…’Now you understand/ how much my love for you burns deep in me,/ when I forget about our emptiness// and deal with shadows as with solid things.’ Dante, Canto XXXI, Purgatorio, spoken by Statius to Virgil, tr. Mark Musa)

There is a hell with not a single soul,
local or tourist, hovering in the murk
to verify that ‘hell is other people’ --

the writer’s myth. That loneliness we make
rings us in smallest light, to self-defeat
the tiny breaths we call our life’s work.

But you, disgruntled shade, I hoped to meet
in some bleak bay, threading the needle’s eye
of scholarship with posthumous lantern-light.

I would have known you if you’d drifted by,
and, seeing as I’m not entirely dead,
I would have drawn my sigh across your sigh,

and breathed some heavier warmth. Montale said
in his long conversation with the past,
‘It’s possible, you know, to love a shade.’

I’m not saying you would have paused, or noticed -
even when, in some trickery of desire,
your smile was by a stranger’s smile replaced.

What use are smiles? Hell is a private fire -
unlike the world, peopled and merely warm –
and coveting faint shades, a poor career
although we burn so hard we give them form.

  1. Little Epic

(L’anguilla, torcia, frusta, freccia d’Amore in terra,’ L’anguilla . ‘Eel, torch, whiplash, arrow /of love on earth’ –Montale, The Eel, tr.Jonathan Galassi)

Everything was yet to be imagined –
even the river with her sandy blushes,
slithering up the chrome-work barrier,
and the bridge, that heron slenderness, its soaring
cruelly earthed by strings of disguised rain;
motor-ways, beach-walks – vanishing perspectives
of latitude –all were un-measured since
geography had never heard of you;
and nothing in the six-fold darkness stirred.
A god can have his project almost finished
before he lights upon that little spiral
of mud which seethes it into sense, but I,
the lesser maker, needed last things first:
before the supernovae, clouds, volcanoes
and icebergs – Adam! Stealthily engraved
(work of a star perhaps I dared not ask)
a human symbol lit the stone. The river
edged around it, birds hovered above it:
museums were bright with fish, shopping-malls claimed the sea.
Everything was more itself since printed
with some fine trace of him; even the air
feathered uncertainly into a footprint.
Then, like the washed-up oil-drum, swamped and emptied
with every tide, I tried to turn aslant
and rest – but from no angle could refuse it –
sea-fire and lash and squalor of love’s earthing,
which crashed the floodgates and, when it receded,
left nothing like a world. Left bridgeless dust.

  1. Poetry

(‘La poesia e la fogna, due problemi
mai disgiunti…’ – ‘Poetry and the sewer, two inseparable problems,’ Eugenio Montale, ‘Satura II’)

This river, no more distinguished than the large intestine,
no less mysterious
with its bacterial pastoral
only the sacrilegious attempt
to catalogue, its sump-pool
glittering with black reeds and a rusted swan –

we did not give our lives to it:
we had no life without it.