from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

final guest prose poem: 15 Vivienne Sansum, & some closing comments.

So here we are on the 1st day of March. It's been a rich journey for me curating this near-month of offerings in relation to my prose poem invitation.

The final one is this small treasure, stunning in its simplicity, from Vivienne, who tells me it came from the 'Inward Flame' retreat of mine she attended at the end of January to mark Imbolc, or Candlemas: the point when we feel we begin to leave the dark behind in our northern hemisphere on our journey round the star that is our sun.

Searing pain, dark earth
tell me how I leave you behind
and return to the light.

The light returns
so slowly
and sometimes the searing dark earth
pulls me back down.

But the light returns,
a different light – hazy, elusive; and sometimes
I am in it and sometimes I am not.

© Vivienne Sansum

Vivienne says: 'Something about me? I live in Bristol where everything is a bit squeezed in, I write to create order and space for myself.' 


Vivienne's prose poem gives me a context for discussing what exactly a prose poem is. I began this discussion back here. Partway through that post I mentioned that it's easier to describe what a prose poem isn't than to tell what it is.

What I knew I didn't want was something too one-dimensional, or too narrative, like a piece of flash fiction. An anecdote wasn't enough, either. 

I like it to sprawl over borders a bit; to exhibit some liminality, some refusal to be caged. Yes, that's it.

I was also looking for literary sensitivity, I suppose; a prose poem needs heightened language, like a poem, but handled loosely.

I wanted a layer beneath the topsoil; or at least a hint that there was one. I particularly like pieces that begin with the personal and incorporate interpersonal/universal human experiences, and maybe gesture at the wider picture. (Better still if they can be big enough to contain perhaps the slender thread of the transpersonal or metaphysical.)

Many of these poems do; an excerpt that comes to mind in relation to the universal is Betina's prose poem 'Shelter', about her child: 'you squeeze my hand... I turn my face, merge with the darkness, and think of all the orphans crossing Europe with no hands to squeeze.'

Vivienne's piece above speaks of the journey of grief at the loss of a loved one. Anyone above a certain age can relate to that.

Lesley wrote two very different pieces. The first one is, as I said when I posted it, heartbreaking; and a kind of prelude to Vivienne's piece. Her second one is humorous; it's a rare knack, the ability to write both serious and amusing pieces.

Rachael writes about grief in relation to the non-human: the loss, or anticipated loss, of a companion animal. This is hard to do without sentimentality. For those of us who live with animals, it's a pain with which we can only too easily identify; hard perhaps for people who don't have such a relationship to imagine the depths of unconditional love that one can experience reciprocally with an animal.

(I would have liked from someone to have had a prose poem submitted on our collective grief at the state of the world, or the disastrous loss of species. Hard to write about without being overly abstract.)

Gerald approaches the question of the very-human response to transience and fear, tangentially, in the last lines of his 2nd piece: 'Mortality frightens us, he thinks... But it’s not the mortality / that frightens them, he realizes. It’s the losing. / He anticipates plowing the snow. And shaving.' – As if we can erase these fears through the act of bulldozing that over which we have little or no control, like a snowfall, or by cutting the continuing growth of our hair (which continues to happen for a while even after we die).

I like it when there's an edge of mystery that the writer chooses not to explain to us via a context. Jeff finishes his prose poem with this: 'Here in the bow one sees only the soft thrusting forward, hears only the soft sweet sound of water separating, slipping past the steel: kind, supportive, untormented'– the implication being that a human is inevitably tormented.
Jean's passage uses a meditation on art to speak of a love triangle. Love, of course, at least in personal romantic and sexual relationships, is far from all cupids and hearts. Blood figures; as it does in Lania's passage which brings together the sensuous with the darker strands beneath, in that 'blood orange'.

Andy intermixes dream and reality through the motif of teeth and biting. His last line speaks of something that has not yet happened, and our tumble towards that line suggests a certain inexorability about the fading away of innocence after childhood: 'Inside the schoolboy’s mouth, the first taste of a stranger’s mingled blood.' (My italics.)

In Lindsay's piece which riffs around the idea of distance and the idea of self, there is a wonderful build-up to the final line: 'There is no distance.' There is no distance per se? There is no distance between self and concept of self? There is no distance between boot and snail? Between self and snail? Life and death (and madness)? All these, I think.

Miriam carries on a tacit theme of self-ness and and our desire to transcend that sometimes in her last sentence: 'Beguiled, be wild with me, fall into me and find your pace and I’ll carry you on and beyond and beyond yourself.' How easy it is to read 'pace' as 'place' in this line, which adds something again to it.

I love it when the language itself casts a spell, as 'Samhain, a Door', by Geraldine Green, does. 

Not enough people are willing to take risks with syntax, allowing it to be loose enough as to carry us with it rather than have us control it – just as the water does in David's passage, which exemplifies exactly that looseness for me.

Many of you are walkers, and write about journeys; whether that journey is the passage of the day, the travel through a moment, your presence in a garden, or a long walk. Hilaire's pieces are meditations on small moments that carry the weight of bigger ones.

And finally, Robert wrote of one of his long walks and introduced an element more commonly associated with poetry poetry: repetition, which holds his slightly varying 4 'movements' together. In this case, the repeated phrase is a question, which reverberates in us as readers too.


Which brings me to another issue: when is a prose poem actually a poem?

Someone commented on my facebook mention of Gerald's post that they seemed more like poem poems to her. One might perhaps say the same of Vivienne's poem above (which might have lost some of its formatting in cyber-space, but we were both happy with the end result).

Yes; it's true they are all three laid out on the page like poems. My criterion was how well they'd work if I 'translated' them to prose poems. In fact, they're arguably better, especially Gerald's, not having many of the 'devices' of a poem poem (except repetition), but not being 'mere' prose either. 

In the end, though, my choice was subjective.

In both cases I chose to respect the authors' original intention, but have a look at these two now:


The morning is a flat white white, dull white sky over matte white snow. The woman who was once a girl poses for a profile in a smooth white jumpsuit unzipped to her stomach exposing fat flat tits and cleavage. I glance at the photo on my phone, thinking I knew her mother at that age. The snow is fresh on the drive to town where the new government is holed up, scheming, in the white hotel.

Back home I fire up the old plow truck and drive it up and down the drive, pushing curls of snow, and scraping thin layers of dirty gravel as the blade sparks loudly across the ground. By now the clouds are gone and the sun is shining, melting and widening the holes in the snow where the edge has exposed the cold brown earth. The snow had fallen everywhere, thick and soft and white, the day before.

(Gerald McEachern)

What do you think? 


Searing pain, dark earth tell me how I leave you behind and return to the light.

The light returns so slowly and sometimes the searing dark earth pulls me back down.

But the light returns, a different light – hazy, elusive; and sometimes I am in it and sometimes I am not.

(Vivienne Sansum)

This works. And yet, because it's a small piece, it feels more perhaps unhelpfully strung-out on the page than when it's compacted.

I've said already elsewhere that the boundaries between forms in writing are permeable; increasingly so in our post-postmodern world. My analogy for the variations between creative fiction and non-fiction, prose poems and poetry, in my view, goes something like this (I know it's a bit artsy-flaky and imprecise):

A piece of narrative prose (say) we could liken to a rock in a stream: something prominent, which we lift and sculpt a bit to read and enhance its story, chipping bits off, glueing bits on. We don't need to pay too much attention to heightened language, alliteration, assonance, rhythm, verbs, diction, end-words or of course where we complete a sentence. We don't really care where the story has come from.

A prose poem is a pebble, smooth and satisfying, with a glimmer on it. It's perhaps not quite as immediately noticeable as the rock. We lift it out of the water with the sheen still on it, so to speak. We rub it over a few times with our fingers; polish the best bits to show it off to its best advantage. If there's a narrative, it's loose and implicit; slightly elusive. It belongs half to the water, and half to the imagination. This genesis – to me – is important, even though I can't articulate why.

A poem might be a neighbouring pebble with a different potential. This one we lift and dry off. We take possession of it. We polish it carefully. The human mind has more input into its final shape, which may bear little resemblance to our starting pebble and, despite the 'rules' being different, may resemble more the sense of being 'worked' that fiction exhibits, though in a different way. Now, it's a tad translucent, maybe; it's lost the opacity of the prose poem; has become something other.

Does this mean anything to anyone else?


And there is one further thing I want to mention. I said previously that Gerald and I had had a cyber-conversation between Devon and Canada. This was about another aspect of his first piece. I have been half expecting a response to his first piece from someone; perhaps a woman.

When Gerald sent the first piece in, I recognised it as a strong piece of writing. I wanted it for my blog. However, for many days I hesitated. I fell over the phrase 'fat flat tits'. (I hope you don't mind, Gerald, that I want to examine this further and in a shared context?)The feminist in me felt this was objectifying and judgemental; and like many women in our culture I have experienced judgements at the hands of men at not being bean-pole skinny. (I've no idea whether this happens to the same extent in non-hetero contexts.) If you are an average-sized woman, it feels horrible to be objectified and insulted as being less than ideal in your body shape (and who is ideal, man or woman?) – as if that is what you are, and therefore can be dismissed on a succeed/fail score. I didn't want to seem to be condoning male (negative – because 'fat' is a loaded word) judgement of women's bodies on my blog.

Against that is the fact that I believe in free speech, and Gerald was describing something he saw. (As you will have seen, the right to free speech is what I went with.) As far as I can tell, Gerald is not a sexist chauvinist.

I ran my dilemma past a couple of people close to me. The bloke felt there was no problem 'as we objectify all the time, otherwise we'd have no world to relate to'. (OK, it was TM.) The woman felt similarly to me: perhaps there was an element of unkindness in the judgement?

And actually it was a statement of perceived fact, written simply and plainly, in the service of art/creative expression, where inhibition and prohibition can seriously stifle and repress our exploration of what it means to be human.

So my question to you: none of you commented on this. What is or was your response? 

And if anyone has more to add about the prose poem, my definitions of it, or any of the specific pieces, then comments please, to any and all of this, not on a postcard, but below...





  1. Gerald here. First, thank you for taking the time to do this. It was a valuable experience and wonderful to read others' approaches.

    I appreciated our exchange and your critiques as well. I agree with the comment about my poem reading like a poem poem. Your initial instincts were correct and reformatting is good, and I prefer it, so again thanks!

    As to the pejorative "fat flat" line, I appreciate the free speech argument. But I feel that it's an insufficient excuse. I approach these things as if I am a third party observer decoding my own split second reactions to seeing something, in this case the "tits" and just writing it down like my four-year-old daughter would say it. I am just as honest in my own self observations. I do it, I think, to jar myself awake, as in: "did I actually think that, write that?"

    Hope the other contributors enjoyed it as much as I did.

    1. Thanks for taking that a bit further, Gerald. That's another useful angle.

      Robert, author of one set of prose poems on my blog, mentioned that there is something unsettling in this piece of yours, and that it is arguably part of the remit of art to unsettle us.

  2. My reaction is or was similar to yours. Thinking about it again though a weak linguistic excuse comes up that the author has fallen victim to alliteration and assonance (the poem is full of them). And the second stanza with his snow ploughing reveals to me kind of his own anger at reacting to aging the way he did; after all he does not plough very sensitively. Finally the sun comes up and wipes away grief and anger.
    And the title: could it refer to the poem’s I’s dirty (?)thoughts against the background of the pure white snow, kind of a secret insight that ‘mortality frightens us’, as he writes in the second poem?

    1. Bea! Blogger has let you post!

      Thank you for your thoughts here. Yes, I should have mentioned, alongside the repetition, that Gerald also plays with alliteration and assonance - to good effect, and it was certainly operating in the phrase mentioned.

      There is the idea that creative works don't really take on life until a reader or an audience has engaged with them, and I feel you have done that here. I like your insights. No idea whether Gerald would agree...

  3. Thanks, Roselle, for this fascinating postscript to a month of prose poems. Very interesting to read what you say about our offerings and revisit them all in the light of it.
    When I first read Gerald's Impurity, my initial reaction was like yours. Then I re-read it and when I looked harder at the unzipped jumpsuit, I could see it exactly, just as it was: 'fat flat tits with cleavage', the tight-fitting jumpsuit doing its job, a valid observation. I do wonder, though, about the title: Impurity. I see its relevance to the second part, and I think I do in the first, but not so sure, maybe. I can't help linking it to unzipped jumpsuit, I suppose! My problem, perhaps, not Gerald's. I liked the whole idea, though – the idea of white being significant for me.
    I also very much like your metaphor of how a prose poem v narration and poetry emerges. I agree – I work much harder at poems – they often feel over-contrived or too much like short stories masquerading as poems. Prose poems, though, remind me of the word fugue – not so much a musical one, but the idea of altered consciousness, or flight. For me, when they come, it's the closest I get to unconscious writing and it's exhilarating and liberating. Much of my prose goes like that too – maybe why I'm not so good at form and plot!
    Enough from me again – though I must say what a great idea this is for the blog.
    Miriam x

    1. Oh I love what you say about fugue, Miriam, you musician, you. That's added to my sense of the prose poem; given it a new dimension. Thank you.

      And I agree that the prose poem can offer a kind of stream-of-consciousness experience that is, or can be, mesmerising.

  4. That's what I personally enjoy about prose poems, how they seem to open up a quirky, surreal corner of my imagination and allow for my whacky humour to take flight.

    I find it interesting that one of Gerald's reverted to stanza form and that's something that has happened with some of mine, they work much better in poem form. It seems the edges are blurred at times and I know some poets who are experimenting with combinations of poetry/prose and non fiction. Some prose poems do seem to have a narrative arc as Carrie Etter puts it, while others work as a cluster around one focus or emotion.

    You mention planetary references, as it happens I have written one called 'Apocalypse Shoes' and how it seems to be a priority for me to have shoes that will last in case of collapse. Thanks for allowing me to be part of this month's experiment.


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