Morley Literature Festival Commission 2013

‘Daisy Hill’, ‘Queen Street’, ‘in bloom’, and ‘cow’ all found their way into the commissioned poem below.  But it wasn’t just these words and phrases that influenced its conception. Some of the other words collected by the festival team contained recurring motifs – the kindness and genuineness of the people; the beautiful historic buildings; Morley’s hills; words connected with family, with the ‘close knit’ community, with motherhood, courting and love.  It was, however, the submitted phrase ‘I’ll find a way back to then’ that echoed its refrain around my mind in the approach to the festival and gave me a starting point.

I wanted the theme of the poem to be guided by the words submitted and so put out a request for those dropping their phrases into the poetry buckets at Morley Library and The White Rose Centre for ‘a few words about a person, place, object or memory that you value’.  In addition people were asked what they thought about Morley.  Hence the wide-range of responses.

There are different approaches to the crowdsourced poem.  On the University of Northern Georgia website, visitors are given one line and asked to submit another line or a sestina.  The poet selects one of these and requests the next line, giving only the last word of that line.  For Dan Simpson, every word is sourced from submissions and so the piece truly becomes the poem of the crowd, a kind of poetic anagram.  Although the scope of my poem (and the research involved) was on a much smaller scale, my approach was similar to that of Alice Oswald when researching her narrative poem about the river Dart which she described as ‘a kind of jazz written by the whole Dart community’. Like her, I felt it was important to put my own stamp on the poem whilst prioritizing people’s stories and research into the locality I was exploring.

During my early ventures into Morley, I discovered Morley Hall, a building commissioned by a 17th century mill owner and owned by various people including Joseph Priestley, the namesake nephew of the man who discovered oxygen.  Looking into the history of this ‘beautiful building’, I developed an interest in one particular ex-inhabitant Alice Scatcherd, a radical suffragist who dined with weavers and miners and fought for working men’s rights.  She taught two hundred children on the grass outside her house, caused a scandal when travelling around Europe by refusing to wear a wedding ring, was the first woman to wear an elasticated waist and the only Victorian woman to lay a foundation stone.  Alice also campaigned for prostitutes to be able to keep custody of their children which makes it quite apt that, after the hall was given in perpetuity to the people of Morley by Charles Scarth in 1917, it became a maternity hospital (until it was sold to a private buyer in the 1970s by Leeds City Council).  I wanted my narrator to try to ‘find a way back to’ the period when Morley’s babies were born at the hall and, in trying to conjure up the place’s past who better to learn from than Morley Hall baby Jill Hepworth the local librarian.  On her recommendation, I also spoke to Mary Sykes who used to be a nurse there and whom I feel embodies the generosity of Morley people.  Some expressions used in the poem are taken directly from her and I am very grateful for the stories she told me.

In Bloom

for the people of Morley and Alice Scatcherd, past inhabitant of Morley Hall with particular thanks to Mary Sykes and Jill Hepworth 

Daisy Hill before bungalows and new builds,
a time of limed hides and working mills
when the snap of rhubarb resonated in rusted iron drums.

Cheek pressed against the cow’s flank,
your cramps came fast as the pulses of her milk,
pulled us into town, to Morley Hall
where you laboured on fissured ground.

Alice was ringless too and despite what they said
of you, yours was a queen’s promenade
past marigolds and carnations,
past a ripped-off linnet’s wing.

A more lettered lady
would have thought of Yeats;
you conjured the suffragist who once lived here,
suffered for women like you,

climbed despite the smoke
and the mockery of rooks,
despite the omen of the bells at your back,
kept on, abandoned pleasure gardens in bloom.

Blessings: your fingers before the carpal tunnel
still bulbing hyacinths or gritty with bun mix,
with the dirt I acquired – you forgave me my beginnings,
though you never forgave yourself;

that day the orderly answered the door
to explanations of your solitary presence, your fecklessness,
your gestures nimble enough to weave layers of air
from disused looms.

She took your arm, offered her support
and this is the best of our blessings –
the people round here, they walk with you.

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