Archive for December, 2015

Although I’m agnostic, as a lover of myth and folklore I can’t help but have a deep attachment to certain bible stories that I was told, as a child, were true – all their wonder and strangeness. Isaac being taken to the place of sacrifice, Jonah in the whale’s belly, a basket made of rushes pushed onto the Nile, perfume poured onto Christ’s feet. And most of all, I think, I’m drawn to the story of the nativity. I like it best in the weirdly Anglicised, Christmas-Card version with snow on the ground that Christina Rossetti wrote of – ‘earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone’ – and then the anxious parents, the baby squirming in hay, bleating armfuls of lambs, a bitter gift.

The poetry world raised an astonishing £20,000 for refugees this month with the Poem-a-Thon organised by my friend Jacqueline Saphra, and I kept seeing the photo of a church sign on social media: CHRISTMAS: THE STORY OF A MIDDLE EASTERN FAMILY SEEKING REFUGE. It is about vulnerability and kindness.

My favourite Christmas poems draw on the nativity too. There is ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ of course, but also Hardy’s yearning ‘The Oxen‘, which always breaks my heart a little with that last line; Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’, with its wonderful details: the camels ‘galled, sore-footed, refractory, / Lying down in the melted snow’; or Brodsky’s ‘Star of the Nativity’ where ‘a child was born in a cave in order to save the world’ to whom ‘all things seemed enormous: His mother’s breast, the steam / out of the ox’s nostrils.’

And this year Gruff has been learning the tale for the first time – he was a sullen sheep in his nursery play, and we have been acting it out with his granny’s nativity set. I am pregnant again and have explained how, like me, Mary has a baby in her tummy, who is born amongst the animals. Following the shepherd’s lead, Gruff gave baby Jesus the gifts of a tiger and a chicken.

My next book is going to be called Incarnation, because it brings together poems about becoming a mother with those that draw on religion, and the nativity is central. I think I need a nativity image for the front cover although I haven’t decided which one yet (if anyone knows of any good modern re-imaginings I’d love your suggestions…)

So here is my Christmas poem from the collection (which was first published in the wonderful Emma Press Anthology of Motherhood a couple of years ago.)

Wishing you all shelter, warmth and family this Christmas.


Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.
– The Coventry Carol

I woke because I thought he was awake,
but he’s not awake now I’m awake
and the street is not awake –
it has been held and shushed by ice.

The frost is breath on a looking-glass;
the pulse of Christmas lights
makes the shadows move
as his eyelids move,

but his shriek gouged like a nail
and he thrashes: something
has injured sleep, something
I won’t let happen is happening.

In the day he is blithe; all light.
Christ was a child, famously.
Poor lamb, how the whole dark world
must have squatted above his crib.

Too absurd to think of God
in a flyspeck beast, oblivious
to itself; his burp and drool;
the wet gold blaze of his raised bum.

Did Jesus have these meat-sleeves,
this snodgy nose, the welts
on the ball-sack, could he really be
so innocent? Poor Mary fled

the darkness her own son uttered,
clutching her swaddled love
through Egypt; cave after cave.
To be blessed is a kind of terror.

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Last week I went to see Bridget Christie’s comedy show ‘A Book for Her’ with my mum. I rarely go to see comedy, but always love it when I do – there’s something about the rhythm of good jokes that’s only a breath away from poetry. Christie is also great at satirising the assumption that being a feminist means she’s anti-male (‘I think that all men are rapists, without exception. Even paralysed men, who can only move one eyeball. All rapists. Even my seven-year-old son is a rapist, and that is how I introduce him to people. “Have you met my son? He’s seven. Rapist.”)

It felt a relief, in a weird way, to laugh. Because lately feminism, for me, has been more about scrolling through the fury on social media and feeling a bit unwell. There was a day in June this year in which I started to notice how uncomfortable I was getting with the debate – it was announced that Emily Berry had chosen Bobby Parker’s poem ‘Thank You for Swallowing my Cum’ for the 2015 Best British Poetry anthology (which I had read and thought brave and touching) and to my surprise I saw the writer Caroline Klocksiem declare on VIDA that her hands were ‘still shaking’ after reading this misogynist poem about women as ‘receptacles’. And then a few hours later I saw that Hannah Silva had typed on her feed that she had taken ‘feminist’ out of the description of her show Schlock. ‘I would never have done that before. But today’s ‘feminists’ seem to be defending their right to censor over their right to equality.’ Part of me was horrified that such a good writer and thinker might be abandoning the term, but part of me knew what she meant.

For me feminism has always meant equality above all else. ‘The advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.’ And, very basically, I don’t believe you can ever achieve equality through prejudice. I’m uncomfortable with a situation where a man writing about enjoying consenting heterosexual sex is automatically read as misogynist. I instinctively flinch at terms used to shut speakers down like ‘mansplaining’, even as I know the word sprang from a subtle, smart essay by Rebecca Solnit.

And I find the concept of ‘male privilege’ over-simplistic, especially if you look at the histories of ordinary families in Britain. I can see how it might be useful when talking about structures, but once it’s applied to individual men it seems incredibly crude. Was labouring in the mines and dying in his 50s as a result a ‘privilege’ for my husband’s grandfather? Was being sent thousands of miles from their families to fight a world war a ‘privilege’ for mine? It is a ‘privilege’ for the boys I’ve watched all my adult life on the streets of Dalston and Peckham to be growing up male in London: worrying about gangs and knives and whether the police will stop-and-search them? The majority of men have traditionally been used as muscle and cannon-fodder, and it’s likely just as many of them hated it as women hated childbirth and cleaning. Patriarchy has always been unpleasant for anyone who doesn’t live up to the stereotypes, which might be most of us.

Also, when I was growing up I was taught that feminism meant not making assumptions about people on the basis of their gender. Girls could be anything they wanted: sporting heroes, prime ministers, electricians, scientists or soldiers. But what bigger assumption could there be than labelling someone you don’t know on Twitter as privileged, when you have no idea what their life has been like?

I’m uncomfortable with the growing use of the term ‘microagression’ too. Again I get its usefulness – there needs to be a term for those kneejerk assumptions people make about you based on some aspect of your identity: the female doctor who keeps getting mistaken for a nurse, etc. But I’m not sure it’s the right word. If a man calls me a ‘poetess’ or ‘my dear’, whilst it’s absolutely right to let them know it’s not appropriate, labelling it an ‘aggression’ seems to ascribe a hostile motive that probably doesn’t exist. It’s much more likely a clumsy attempt at friendliness – we all fall back on well-worn formulae when we make small-talk and anyone can make a slip-up, especially when culturally acceptable language is always changing. How is it helpful to deliberately mislabel clumsiness as an attack? Feminists using the term ‘microagression’ on social media often seem to be choosing not to give people the benefit of the doubt. Most people are capable of changing and learning, but accusing them of being oppressors doesn’t help things much. The safest spaces are spaces where everyone is treated kindly, even the mistaken.

I suppose this blog was triggered by two articles I read online this week. The first, ‘To a White Male Facebook Friend’ by Cera Byer on Salon has a wife or sister telling the man “I am being harassed, threatened and terrorized out on the street by men. I experience gender inequality on a daily basis. I live in some degree of constant fear for my personal safety, just because I am a woman.” The second, called ‘The Thing All Women Do That You Don’t Know About’ by Gretchen Kelly, was shared and liked by many poets I respect on Facebook but also puts forward this new feminist narrative, which is making me uneasy. I totally understand that the one in five women who have experienced sexual violence may feel as Kelly describes, but I also have to say – this article is not about all women.

In fact, this is not my experience at all.

I have never been abused, assaulted or raped. Men my dad’s age never came onto me. My supervisor never patted me on the ass. My male bosses have never said or done anything inappropriate. No man has ever acted angrily because I wouldn’t have a drink with him. My male friends have never tried it on with me or been accused of rape. I don’t think I’m especially unattractive, but I can honestly say no one has cat-called or made a sexual comment to me in the street for over a decade. A simple comment from a strange man does not send ripples of fear through me. And I certainly do not agree that ‘even walking into a store women have to be on guard’. (I do not perceive any threats in Morrisons except the fish counter, which I have to steer my two-year-old past without him demanding a squid.)

Sorry if this sounds flippant, but I am not willing to accept this assertion that as a woman I’m a victim, constantly having to deal with slights and threats and hurts. I do not recognise in any way this account of womanhood as a state of fear. It clearly is for some women, but those of us who are lucky enough not to live this way should say so, rather than perpetuate this grim fiction that being a woman inevitably means terrible sufferance. (BTW, my periods: no big deal). I’m starting to feel it is actually sexist of me not to offer a counterpoint to this prevailing narrative, which paints the majority of men as sleazy and untrustworthy.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, there are some real dicks out there. And there is still much structural sexism in our society – don’t start me on attitudes to pregnancy or the pay-gap – with too little being done to address domestic and sexual violence. But statements about ‘all women’ or ‘all men’ are where inequality begins, not where we end it.

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