Content warning: Mentions of death and suicide
In this episode we share three Wonderfull collections of poetry by Shane Johnstone, Virginia Betts and Elinora Westfall. These collections explore some of the most specific of human emotions through beautiful language, confronting honesty, and a sprinkling of humour in the right places.
Hello and Welcome to ‘Scintillating stories,’ in this show we read short stories by a variety of authors. Today we are reading three collections of poems.
Shane Johnstone is a Glaswegian poet, translator and writer. His first novel, ‘The Gods of Frequency’, was published in 2020, and his poetry, prose and translations have been widely published in Scotland.
What Was it Like?
It was sweltering, the heat pushed
on your chest like a policeman.
Parched, you sweated memories
through your pores til your head was
dry. Silence came, erratically, among
breaths and a jakie’s cortisol refrain,
in your small bare pink room
where you waited on the bed-less
floor for news.
Your eyes opened from sleep in that room,
four blinks, like four staccato knocks
on the door of absurdity.
You could easily wake wishing
for a large crowd of spectators
on the day of your ridiculous trial,
that they would welcome you
with obscene jowled wealthy faces,
grotesque wigs and questions of hatred,
so that your chest would hum with delight.
Queen’s Park Bench
Clouds ahead like the arms of a grey cardigan,
a whiff of pipe smoke to the brain, a sign
that things will be the same again at the end
of a cycle, that the greyness will pass soon.
Down there in the grass crows are stamping,
plotting, waiting for worms. Why
don’t pedestrians walk with a straight back
any more? The horizon is all hulking metal
silouhettes gulping air and birds, grinding them
into Netflix. After watching the pinprick
of a dove die from afar I can go home
and eat a bowl of soup, but a hard black
crow skewering a worm, or a fat cat
breaking a small bird’s back on your doorstep?
These sights leave a bad taste in the mouth.
Mausoleum Street. Gulls patrol, a slobbish
conspiracy of yellow eyes, gobbed guards
brooding over their catchments on
fissured window sills, loitering before the sudden
gross flappy burst as a shopper treads, quiet
as a feather falling. Mid flight, they don’t flinch
as a siren clips blue light through pedestrians’
tight shoulders with a thud like a silenced pistol.
Felt rather than heard, all our eyes are locked
on glitches embedded in the morning route:
mouldy taco, marigolds pulling,
trembling growbags, trespass litter,
dirty green refusing not to throb in pavement cracks.
Virginia Betts is a tutor, writer and actress from Ipswich in Suffolk. She runs Results Tutoring, and specialises in Neurodiverse learning styles, being neurodiverse herself. During the lockdown, she had poems, stories and articles published in literary journals, won prizes and published a story collection, The Camera Obscure, and Tourist to the Sun, a collection of poetry. She is a regular guest on BBC radio and she is also a professional actor and performer. She formed The Dead Poets Theatre company, has played Kate Bush and has just played Mary Boleyn and Elizabeth Barton with Black and White Productions in The Rise and Fall of Thomas Wolsey, by Suzanne Hawkes. She is currently writing her next books.
Tourist to the sun
Fired-up for take-off,
wearing my asbestos suit, designed to deflect,
I bring with me a cabin full of un-marked baggage for the hold.
Wing walker without a rope,
hurtling to the light fantastic,
First to sign up to step off the map;
where even the silvery surface is marked by dark spots;
even the brightest star is already dead.
With outstretched arms I
surrender to the sun,
glide, star-shaped, licked by flicking tongues of flame,
into the white-hot core;
white heat devouring sound,
searing conscience and
Not arrogance that brings me here,
The elemental need to fly, unfettered,
to pilot my own craft;
to pierce reality,
and seek the truth behind it,
and, in seeking, half expect to find it.
And thus, avoiding bird-strikes,
negotiate safe water-landings
when at last I am earthbound;
within my hand,
a brand to fire my piece of earth’s story
when I return
scorched and burned.
If I collected all the lost keys –
the ones on rings, or chains,
that drop into drains,
and squat there,
sequestered out of sight,
rusting behind bars,
far below blue sky,
in dank, stale beds,
just beyond light;
all the buttons, hanging by a thread,
that fall, unnoticed,
and fag-ends, and bits of cotton gone astray;
slipped slyly from shallow pockets;
lipstick, abandoned by a sink-side;
drawing pins and tacks that nestle in soft pile
poised to pounce,
and pierce the flesh of hand or foot
spiralling from empty shelves
dropped down loudly
to swearing curses;
under sofas, between cracks,
rogue staples worked free,
sending loose leaves
scattered to the wind;
If I could gather these,
place winking silver coins
beside the rest;
create small change;
collect them in a shiny tin;
then I might thread the needle,
mend the holes,
pay my debts,
unlock all the doors,
and let the world back in.
My Love Is Pure
She has sapphire magpie wings
falling in sheets of silk;
pale as death and fragile
as a cloud dissolved in mist.
She is amber wind,
spins hypnotic whirling dance,
black as a raven in her soul
and silver-lined like heaven’s walls.
She has splintered egg-shell heart;
makes music like the gods.
She stirs the leaves; she lifts the waves;
Deep as a well; un-touched.
Always scratching at your core;
never enough; wanting more.
When she’s gone you cry her back
When she’s back, you hate her.
She will hush a lullaby,
drift you down in feather bed.
but hollow dreams are all she brings;
she’s always in your head.
Broken feather; angel wings
driven, like the slush in snow.
Nothing ever makes her go,
although she’s gone by morning.
I love her with my hollow bones;
I love her with my ragged face;
I’d give her everything I own
If she would stay this moment.
Tragic face on silver screen;
dying swan; tormented scene;
and just as swift, a peaceful dream;
she wraps you up in linen sheets.
Always scratching at your core;
Never enough; wanting more.
That’s how you know your love is pure;
And that is why you hate her.
We meet in the street;
you fancy a chat,
and you go on and on
I admire your coat;
you admire mine;
I say you seem tired;
you say you’d look better
if you’d had the time,
to put your face on.
To put your face on
like after a fight;
so maybe a brave face;
which is war-paint;
which then leads to Braveheart,
smeared and daubed,
leading the charge;
so, leads charging;
well, there’s my laptop
at home, charging up,
like a knight on a white horse-
or loitering alone-
like the one in Keats’ poem,
where things wither by the lake;
which leads to monsters of the deep,
though technically that’s a loch,
like in a door,
without a key;
although the sound is soft…
where War-Brides stand
to wave goodbye to their sweet heartland-
and your remark makes my thoughts take off;
spill into my brain
in split-second time,
and, as they take flight,
I miss your next lines.
So, I just keep quiet,
and nod and smile
in the right place, I hope;
put on a made-up face;
wear normality like a cloak;
play out the elaborate spectacle
of the mask,
while behind the crafted veneer,
bottomless wells of thoughts
spiral down endlessly,
and the grey shadow of fatigue
Stepping Out On Derby Day
The moment before I stepped out,
I saw the future played out before me
like a news reel;
like the life I would not live.
All sound stopped.
There was no chattering crowd,
jostling for a space against the fence.
I did not hear
crashing iron hooves,
or feel the ground’s vibration
rise up through my feet,
and into my chest
to compete with my dancing heart,
and the sound of blood pounding
through my swimming head.
The air sizzled with static,
as if earth were anticipating;
bracing for impact.
There was no question
we were meant to meet-
the horse and I-
on this unexpected battlefield.
Not a drawn-out fight;
an almighty explosion of light
and sound, thundering down,
to plough me to the ground,
its rippling body tearing
One small step for woman
to change the course of time.
In My Shoes
I have walked in many kinds of shoes:
When I was small
they were a perfect fit;
parading in dim-lit shops
smelling of dust and leather;
made-to-measure, and fashioned
And as I grew,
I tried my mother’s shoes for size;
towered inches higher;
paper-stuffed the toes;
clip-clopping up the hall
like a new-born foal.
And there were other shoes to come -
that took me pirouetting
over quavers; crotchets, with a minim rest;
until I took to dancing to a different tune.
I squeezed my feet
into ankle boots
and kitten heels with pointed toes;
wiggled like Monroe;
danced ‘til 3am in six-inch heels,
and then limped home,
barefoot; blistered; bleeding,
dodging broken glass and needles;
those shoes you wear returning home
passing joggers on the way,
gratefully discard them by the bed,
as you crawl in shamefully,
with aching feet and head
as others start their working day.
I change shoes quite often.
Some I keep, like old friends;
some outgrow their use;
some look beautiful,
although they pinch me
some I gave away,
along the way.
The shoes I favour now for comfort
do not mistake for dull;
they shine so brightly!
I walk in them for miles
as I trip lightly
on the roads and paths I make,
I leave behind a trail
of stars and rainbows
in my wake.
I read once about a boot re-patriated;
leg still inside!
back from foreign soil,
to re-unite with owner, long dead.
Such is the power of shoes
to bring us back home.
I will end my days un-shod,
when finally I end the merry dance
relieving weary soul,
hoping that my child
will always wear the shoes that fit.
Elinora Westfall is a multi-award-winning writer of stage, screen, fiction, poetry, and radio from the east of England. Influenced by David Bowie, Virginia Woolf, and Dusty Springfield, Elinora’s first full-length poetry collection, Life in the Dressing Room of the Theatre, and her collection of short stories, The Art of Almost, are forthcoming with Vine Leaves Press in late 2023 and 2024.
Her novel, Everland was selected for the Penguin and Random House WriteNow Editorial Programme in 2021. Her short films have been selected by Pinewood Studios & Lift-Off Sessions, and her theatre and audio shows have been selected by The British Library and performed at Winterfest on Broadway, where she won the award for Best Monologue. Elinora was also selected as one of the 2022/2023 All Stories alumni.
Coal to Burn the World
I do not belong here.
I, do not belong
Belly down against flat earth I,
Splinter like sheet glass
beneath boots that crack my spine
I. Do not belong.
I, a feather bed to my own head
My Own, very particular kind of madness
Lying here, on the ground
Life in my teeth, my mouth, my tongue
But still, I breathe
Still not choked after
All of these
One, after the other, after the next, after the next
Life. I see it now, stretched too thin with a punctured eye and I see it
How the weeping willow would watch the river bed should I drown
belly up, this time
Eyes like sea glass
Mouth like a fish
Try them all,
Try them all,
These ways to sink a ship, to skin a cat, to catch a mouse
To break a heart
Sink me, rock bottom,
Drown me, slowly,
Take the coins from my mind’s eye and sell my universe for coal to burn the world
But still, I will breathe
Do not belong.
Where Plants Reside
I trespass, not wantonly, not lonely,
through heart-lines, word-lines
torn heart-shaped pages, set aside by time
how I might be, while the flowers lean
closer than they might, to me now
Lean and smother, thick with wild violets and hung with the wildest honeysuckle
I would grow roots, then,
roots of daisies, crocus, buttercup, dandelion
and bloom in spring
I, who leaves the inexpressible to the page but becomes no nearer
But that is how it should be
and one day, when the plants reside, root down in the place where my heart once was
The daisies will turn their faces to the sun, the grass will blow in next weeks wind
and my heart will always be the rose that will forever bloom
Just for you
On the 28th March 1941, Virginia Woolf drowned herself in the River Ouse. This poem is a moment wherein Virginia Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell, is writing to her sister, only a week or two after her death, where life continues to break back in, with all of its sharp edges.
Have you ever been to Merivale?
She writes. While
Angelica, (six), fist full of flowers, arranges them in a pattern similar to that of the painted tile of the hearth.
Violet stalks with purple faces for the V and daisies for the W while she sits, cross-legged, in the milk-dish of sunlight coming in through the half-open door.
Have you ever been to Merivale?
She begins again. Blots the end of the pen, nib down for too long on the fold of cloth.
Watches the ink bleed out blue, blue, blue…Perhaps-
Perhaps we shall go, you, me-
A song thrush in the wisteria just outside of the window calls from her nest, Leonard whistles back from where he stands between the tulips
Angelica hums a tune half-forgotten and half-remembered,
and the children, of course, they do so love to see you.
She smiles, watches her daughter weave her own initials with petals from the Forsythia.
And, upon our last visit, Angelica fell rather in love with a cow which she gave your name to-
Out in the garden again, just by the door, Angelica picks weeds, plucked with the hollow sound of the milk thistle or dandelion stalk
A brown cow, all doe-eyes, soft-muzzle. Standing on legs with knees like pollarded trees.
She smiles. Gains momentum. Shifts in her chair that creaks and scrapes against the flag-stone floor.
Netty’s here, folding your stockings, rolling them into yellow balls like eggs - like eggs, in a basket.
As soon as she is gone, I’ll unravel them, fitting perhaps, for I seem myself unravelled.
She hears Netty on the stairs. Knows the satisfaction she will gain from this rolled nest of previously unravelled and unkempt stockings.
Did I tell you I see Vita now?
She comes to dinner in your place, sits in your chair with its back to the fire, with some hesitation, of course.
She looks at me. And I in her see you, and you in me she sees, though neither of us has spoken of this of course.
Instead, darling Tom slaps cards down upon the table, Queen of Hearts upturned, only fleetingly, between her and I,
And then, of course, Duncan slaps his card down too - the King, perhaps, of Spades, as suits him, and the moment passes, without whistle or trace-
The song thrush sings again, greets her mate with a beak of soft sheep’s wool scraps.
- only the echo for which I have spent these last few weeks digging for beneath the roots of speculation, only to find dust and grit, the shrivelled bulb of a daffodil dug up too often and the skull of a blackbird buried by Angelica, I am sure, though at your behest.
Now, the ticking of the clock, the whirr, the readying, readying, then the chime. Too loud. Always, too loud.
She closes her eyes, waits, waits, for stillness, and then-
Have you ever been to Merivale?
She has digressed for too long.
I ask not because of the (now) literary bovine, but because, in passing a cottage I noticed a young woman, a girl, perhaps, sat, elbows on the windowsill, Mrs Dalloway between her hands - and it was such a shock to see you there, so suddenly, so starkly, in this house painted the colour of our Cornish sea, because you see (as only you do, you did) I look for traces of you, without knowing it at all, and I find I cannot speak, cannot say, as you would have done, so eloquently, but I cannot, neither with voice nor with pen the pain it is to glimpse you so suddenly, and so sharply within your absence.
The house is quiet, the bird has flown, Angelica has gone, the garden too tempting.
Such is death.
The stillness stretches.
But one of these days we may contrive to speak again. Who knows?
Again, the stillness
My darling Virginia, I miss you.
And this letter is nothing, without you to receive it.
The hesitancy of pen held above paper.
Thank you so much for listening. Our Halloween competition is open till the 1st of september. We’re holding a competition to hunt for truly haunting writing. Entries should be prose fiction, non-fiction or poetry and should fit the theme of ‘Halloween’. Think ghosts, ghouls, and goblins, witches, werewolves and warlocks.
The winner and runners up of our Halloween competition will receive a cash prize and be featured on our podcast each week in October leading up to Halloween. Find out more details of the ‘tricks and treats’ on offer on our website. There will be a link in the description.
We’re just dying to read your submissions!
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