Fishing for Birds - The Epilogue

Fishing for Birds is a collection of poems written by me between around 1973 and 1996 (though there are one or two after that date too). The explanation for the title is given with the poem of the same name which starts this online reading (scroll to the bottom).

The intention of Podcasting the collection was to provide people with a poem a day throughout the whole Christmas and New Year period from 2008 into 2009.

Those who followed the collection as it built up day by day will have heard the poems in the intended order. If you've come along now then you may prefer to listen to them that way by scrolling to the bottom and working up. Alternatively why not choose one of the category options on the left (eg Humorous) to pick the sort of poems you'd like to hear.

Being One

Well, it's been quite a discipline to record, edit, write about and publish 35 poems for this collection in the last few weeks, but I'm glad I did it. The original intention was to provide a little something each day for people feeling lonely over the festive period, so twelth night seems a fitting day to end.

This last contribution is short but sweet. If you've been along for the ride and picked out some of the themes then I hope it makes a fitting close though. And don't forget that the Equality and Diversity Podcast, "Just Plain Sense" continues to run over at podcast.plain-sense.co.uk

Best Wishes Christine Burns

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It’s life, but not as we know it

"It's the mind's new dimension .. a world without edges.."

This poem was written at the height of the mid nineties hype about the World Wide Web, at a time when the papers were full of talk about the "Internet Highway". Looking back, some of the hype was justifiable. The WWW has altered our lives in undreamed of ways. Yet my aim was to challenge the idea that it could do everything. Although we knew nothing then about things to come, such as social networking and Second Life, I still think it's important to challenge to remember that we live for real in the physical world, and that there are some things that can't be substituted in the virtual one.

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Writer’s Block

If you write then you'll know about Writer's Block. This case is possibly a world record contender though.

The poem was begun in 1974 but I couldn't find the words to finish it and put it away. Then, around 1994 - when I was ready to write again - I got it out and finished it off.

You can definitely see the join - the second half has a different tempo and the style is changed. Still, the moral is to never give up!

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Yes, I sympathise but…

Calling all Jobsworths! This one means you!

We've all met them of course; the people who'll say "Yes, but it's more than my job's worth to help you". This poem is connected with the previous one. They were both written the same angry, tearful weekend, when I crashed into that barrier at full speed. I was younger then, of course. Now I'd know what to do rather than writing a poem about it.

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Natiramas

A short and cryptic one today .. which dates back to an argument which I had many years ago with an organisation I used to volunteer for.

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Counsellor’s help sought to clean up streets

I have a soft spot for this poem, which was written many years ago at a turning point in dealing with some personal demons. The title is a mock newspaper headline and contains a word play about Councillors (the elected kind who would be concerned about dangerous streets) and Counsellors (the active listening kind). It was a positive action statement about doing something to deal with the dark places that frightened me and was written on the day I had found the just the right Counsellor to work with.

As this is New Year's day - a time when everyone reviews their lives and makes resolutions - I thought this was a fitting time to read such a poem about making positive steps towards change. Personally, with all those years of hindsight, I can say that the day I wrote this poem was a really positive one, from which I've never looked back.

I hope everyone this year gets to clear up the dark alleyways and banish the shaddows this year.

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A Bridge too Far

This is a bit of a bitter poem about trying to get someone to understand what you say when their arrogance is getting in the way.

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Greed

Today's selected poem encapsulated sheer anger for me the day it was written.

Like so many emotionally driven poems, Greed draws from personal experience, on the receiving end of another woman's insane hunger for gratification at all costs. You don't need much imagination to work out the scenario which it describes, so I'll not labour the tale .. although I will say that, like any good therapy, the poem worked wonders for me.

The effect of the greed had been crushing. To spit the anger and hurt out onto paper in one venomous Sunday-morning outburst enabled me to get the last vestiges of the previously wordless anger out of my system in one go so that, by the third verse, I actually felt sorry for my abuser. And that's the way it has stayed ever since.

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Professional Priorities

Although this poem is ostensibly about an imaginary Samaritan volunteer who is too busy caring to realise the neglect under her nose, the idea could be readily applied to just about any caring profession.

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Ode to the Plastic Surgeon

It's all been a bit serious and thoughtful for the last few days so it's time now for another poem in a lighter vein.

This was originally inspired by watching an acquaintance of mine succumb to an aesthetic surgery addiction. First it was just going to be a little liposuction here, then it was a rather more dramatic piece of bone surgery there. Each treatment was followed by her critical examination of some other part that wasn't "right" and I could see her spending her entire savings in pursuit of ever more unnecessary perfection.

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Size Doesn’t Matter

This poem harkens back to a time, around 1993, when I was agonising over whether to give up, once and for all, on the man I'd been half living with for almost two years.

It wasn't a straightforward decision (is it ever ?). What made it hard was that, paradoxically, I was very fond of him ... or rather I was still very fond of his best side. Unfortunately the more established we became, the less I saw of that good side ... and the more he chose to regard me as a full-time audience for what I now realise to have been his intense self hatred.

Of course, being me, I just wanted to mend him ... to make him feel better ... to help him to be what he always managed to be for others when we weren't alone.

Good natured ... fun ... a source of support for me as well.

Feeling I was getting nowhere with the awful decision about whether to part from someone who was unfortunately liable to drag me down with him, I sought the advice of a close friend. ...A very out lesbian friend, as it happens, who'd suffered what seemed like just as much anguish from her women friends, as I was experiencing now.

We spent a lot of time comparing our experiences. Was it different ? Or did lesbian partners endure just as much anguish from each other as heterosexual people did ?

I knew what I wanted. I understood that people were often attracted to me because of the emotional strength which they perceived. Maybe I was attracted to them by the complementary sense of being needed. There's something very desirable about a "little boy lost". The snag was that there were also lots of times when I wasn't in a state to be their mummy substitute; times when I needed a daddy substitute of my own. Someone whom I could lean on. Somebody who could take over sometimes and provide a space for me to let go for the time I needed.

How did that sort of role exchange take place between two women? Was it a gender related thing ? If so then maybe I was on a hopeless search for my ideal man. Was it the case that people were fixed in either one behaviour or the other ... nurturer or dependent ? That seemed unlikely, because my very problem stemmed from exhibiting both behaviours myself.

I can't say that my friend was altogether objective in her answer either. We knew, and I acknowledged, that she wanted me to be more than just a friend. So I'm really not sure if her answer to my question wasn't tinged with a little bit of wishfulness.

In her view though, she felt that women were better starred as lovers, because of that greater ability to fulfil both roles in one : to be the big sister one moment, and the little sister, the next. She described instances of both and said how, she believed, true one-ness occurred when the roles became so fluid that she and her lover could be both at the same time, changing poles from moment to moment.

It certainly was an intoxicating thought and it stuck with me when I went to sleep that night, imagining the type of relationship my friend had painted. The next morning I had the words to express it in this poem.

What's interesting is that lesbian friends who hear the poem all seem to understand the meaning without the need for an explanation. Heterosexual friends almost all assume I'm writing about something else.

So draw your own conclusions ...

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Momentary Respite

I'm not really sure what to say about this little poem, except that it's grown on me with the passage of time. I like the simplicity of the words painting the scene - especially "Speak only with your hands .. let fingers serve her soul's demands". And then there's the surprise twist at the end, which transforms the sense of the whole piece.

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Song for April

My Boxing Day pick, "Song for April", started life as a song lyric. It was written when I was still an undergraduate student in Manchester, in early April 1976.

At the time I was alone in the house that I normally shared in one of the less salubrious parts of Manchester's northern suburbs. Everyone else had gone home for Easter, but I'd stayed on, to house-sit and to fret over my impending finals. Worse, I thought I'd fallen in love. (How wrong we can be).

It had been a miserable few weeks. I'm still sure to this day that the house was haunted. It was cold, damp, and the last few nights had felt very lonely. It had even snowed. Yet on that particular morning Spring had decided to arrive. Sunshine positively beamed through the large bay window of the downstairs room where I worked. I could feel the light passing through my skin and warming me inside. And my room looked different suddenly. The corners weren't dark anymore. Everywhere was fresh and new. Was it love or the sunshine ? It didn't matter, but the two were both bound up together in the sense that life was different today than it had been yesterday.

I used to sing the lyric but advancing age means I seem to have lost the ability to hit the top notes or sustain them. So, this is the first time I've tried to reinterpret the lyric poetically. Hopefully the sounds of a warm Spring day help it along.

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Christmas on the Front

For Christmas Day I've selected a poem written only recently about the kind of strife that goes on between different factions of queer folk, whilst the world generally carries on discriminating against them all.

I have always been struck by the way in which the famous Christmas Day Truce between opposing trenches in the First World War really highlighted the futility of human battles. For a short period, deadly enemies came together because of their similarities, before retiring to their lines to resume killing one-another. So it occurred to me to borrow that backdrop but replace English and German opponents with Gays, Lesbians, Bisexual and Trans people.

May the peace in your own lives extend beyond one day.

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Spare a tear for the altruist

This poem is all about the downside of getting involved with a cause. It's about the evenings and weekends spent giving up a social life; how that irrevocably changes your life; and about the vision you create of an end goal in order to keep yourself going.

The setting to imagine is an empty meeting hall. You know the sort -- basic wooden trestles; folding chairs; chipped paintwork. The final celebratory meeting has ended. The caretaker is folding the chairs and trestles. The table on the stage is still festooned with posters and leaflets. The revellers have gone on to a pub and to enjoy the spoils of success and the lonely campaigner, now decades older, tired, takes one last look around at the scene and wonders what it all did for them, and why they actually gave up so much.

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Bastards have their uses

We've all had a dose of them I'm sure. Bastards, that is. Yet have you ever thought whether they must serve some sort of purpose? I mean, why else would they have evolved and (more to the point) flourished in such plentiful supply?

Come with me as I explore that thought.

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In Praise of Teddies

This poem was written one evening back in 1995.

On the evening in question, I was feeling happy and content as I got ready for bed, and rather rueful that although there was nobody "special" in my life at the time. I seemed to have reached a plateau. A point where the full time company of another person didn't seem to matter quite as much as it had before. In fact you could say quite the reverse ...

I sat up in bed, craddling my precious cup of fruit tea, and looked around the room .. suddenly aware that the order and calm felt quite precious. I'd got my own home, work was going well, there was money in the bank, and I began to realise that the thing I'd mourned for so long (the lack of somebody special to focus on) was now potentially the most disruptive thing I could let into my nicely-ordered life.

A lover in my life would be nice company, and somebody to care about ... and to care for me. Yet they would also take away the peace and calm I'd taken so long to establish. Their things would be strewn on the floor .. vying for space. Their needs would inevitably conflict with mine. I might want to listen to music and stare wistfully into space just when they wanted to do something entirely different. I'd get used to it, of course, but would the cost be worth it ?

From a purely selfish point of view, of course, there's no doubting that it's nice to go to sleep with someone's chest pressing against your back, and an arm around you .. and to wake in the realisation that your head is rested on that same lover's chest, listening to their sleeping heart beat. To *smell* that special aroma of someone you're in love with.

There's no getting away from the fact that there are advantages as well as disadvantages to living as a couple.

Yet as I thought about it, I realised that I'd even evolved a sort of replacement for that physicality too. Beside me I had a big cuddly lion that my parents had bought me .. and lately I'd realised that I slept a lot better if I lodged this behind my back as I lay down to rest. So I *did* now have a sort of surrogate partner. A partner who provided the thing that I missed .. and yet demanded nothing in return.

The more I thought, the more I could see that the stuffed toy was quite an important palliative, for the moment. It allowed me to enjoy the time I needed for regrouping, by putting off the simple physical desire for closeness.

And how many people, I wonder, look desperately for a relationship .. any relationship .. just so they won't have to feel alone in those moments between the distractions of the day and letting-go of consciousness ?

Maybe adults need their teddies more than children, in fact ? Could a good teddy save a desperately lonely person from charging blindly and hungrily from the carcass of one realtionship to another, without pausing to think, in-between, what they really want ?

So, come with me now, as we explore why there really is nothing to equal a teddy ...

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It’s Good to Talk

Who makes all the running in your friendships? Who is the first to ring or come round?

Is it you, your friends, or are you both as likely to keep the fun and shared interests going?

This poem harkens back to a time (long passed now) when I seemed to be doing all the work. The title is a reference to a TV ad campaign at the time for British Telecom.

If you've been relying on a friend to call you every time, why not pick up the phone today and return the interest.

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Jesus Jasmine Jones

I need to watch myself. If I keep on with religiously themed poems then you'll have the wrong impression about my beliefs. In reality, I don't really consider myself religious. Nevertheless, I was thinking one day about what would happen in our modern world if there really was a second coming and, as before, the Messiah hailed from humble origins. Would the political power structure of the world's major organised religions accept someone from the backstreets? What would the media make of them? And then, if you've not already noticed, I do like to add a little twist at the end of many of my poems.

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A Woman’s Prayer on Waking

This one is a bit wistful, reflecting the contented way I was feeling at the time of writing it, back in the mid 90's.

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Jam in the Middle

Would a doughnut still be a doughnut if it didn't have the hole in the middle? And what about the jam? Would you even notice the hole without it? And how does this all apply to the place you have in other people's lives?

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Scene in an Italian Restaurant

The man he said "Prego!", but pray go where? Hmm.. yes. Don't look for or expect deep meanings in this one. I freely admit that this is just a bit of sillyness, cooked up one evening after too many glasses of wine. The only connection with reality is that I really do like Italian restaurants and food .. especially the Ice Cream.

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You’re a Looking Glass

I'm sure it happens to us all. That tendency to look critically at bits of ourselves at indecently close range in the mirror. Or maybe it's a case of looking at and hating a particular photo.

Mirrors and cameras have a lot to answer for. We can't all afford the Photoshop treatment! And, having once upon a time been 'tweaked' to look more oriental by the Japan Times, I can vouch that it's not always quite what you expect anyway.

This poem is about recognising that there are better (and more positive) ways of understanding your image in the eyes of others. You just have to listen and look and their behaviours.

Maybe the fact that I'm happier being 55 than 25 says more about my friends than about all the wonders of fruit acids, moisturisers and an alcohol-free diet put together.

It's not easy to learn to see yourself through other people's eyes rather than your own .. and you do have to be picky of course ! The effort's well worthwhile nevertheless.

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To Dream, Perchance to Wake

It happens sometimes that you can dream and wish for something so hard that you end up failing to notice when you've achieved it. You may also find that the obstacle to you getting there wasn't the all the things that you imagined, but your own inability to go with the flow you've started. This poem is about waking up to those realisations in glorious hindsight, and realising that the worst culprit for making change difficult might have been something in yourself.

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The Tenth Life of Alice’s Cat

I suppose if I had to choose the poem which I enjoy performing the most then it would have to be this one. ... And, in this case, "The Tenth Life of Alice's Cat" is based on a true story.

The "Alice" in question is a very good friend of mine who lives in the southern seaside resort of Brighton .. in a house that is home to a vertitable menagerie of animals plus, at times, a coterie of lodgers too. The lodgers have gone these days .. but it was one of the last, a post graduate chemistry student from the nearby university, who made the observation which inspired this piece of poetic fun.

A few months previously, Alice had buried her pet cat "Oscar" after the animal had passed away from old age (much to the relief of her dog I should add). Oscar had held court in Alice's house for a feline lifetime, and I was among the many who missed him. It wasn't because he was all that friendly towards me, mind you, for he was aloof to the point of rudeness. No, it was just something about his self confidence that inspired a sort of grudging admiration.

Anyway, to get to the point, it was about six months after Oscar's death that the new lodger (who'd never seen him) described in perfect detail the apparition she'd just seen in the kitchen. In turn this emboldened the other lodgers to speak up and admit that they, too, had seen the ghost of Oscar .. always in the same place .. lurking near the fridge. We can only presume that he hadn't yet found anyone naïve enough to feed him yet on the spirit side.

But, I ask you, is that greed or is that GREED ? Not content with eight more lives than the average human being, it struck me that Oscar was in danger of overstepping the mark just a little if he planned on a tenth performance, in the spirit world. There comes a point, surely, when cat and human alike have to make way for others.

So there was the titlle and the inspiration. The rest, of course, is poetry.

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On Being a Poet’s Cat

This little ditty was written on the same day as "Walter De La Mere's Cat", whilst I was having a long email exchange with an American pen friend about her four Coon Cats. As with "Walter..." this one is unashamedly based on a rip off. In this case the victim is John Masefield's poem Sea Fever "I must go down to the Sea again", which I remember reading in English class at school. Our English teacher also taught us a "rip off" version, "I must go back to a vest again" and you'll recognise that my version has more in common with the rip off than the original, which made me feel better! After all, it's not quite the same to rip off a rip off.

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Walter De La Mere’s Cat

This is the first in a series of poems on a cat theme. Fans of Walter De La Mere will recognise at once that it is based on the opening lines of his poem, "The Traveller". My Mum used to recite The Traveller from memory when I was very little, and then she patiently taught it to me as well, line by line. I've long since forgotten most of it, but I can still see the image which the opening lines conjoured up for me.

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Seven Ages

The idea of this piece, written in the early 1990's, was to try and sum up each of the seven decades of the traditional "three score years and ten" in as few simple words or phrases as possible, all connected with the last. It's not intended to be serious, but I was feeling mischievous at the time.

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The Diminishing Cadence

There is no connection between this and "Ticket the to Edge...", other than the fact that they both deal with relationships and emotions. In this short poem, written in my early twenties, I was thinking about the contradiction that sometimes happens in relationships -- that idea of being able to have really passionate and intense anger over the other partner's behaviours whilst still (deep down) loving them all the same. I realise in older, educated, hindsight that you could also read this poem as a comment about the dynamics of domestic violence settings, although that certainly wasn't intended at the time.

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Ticket to the Edge of Despair (Return)

For all the things that may happen to us in life, divorce is perhaps the worst .. certainly at the time. The death of somebody close involves a terrible loss and inevitable grief .. and in that sense the loss of a once-held dream and a one time friend means that death and divorce have much in common. Yet the end of a relationship has other emotions too. There is blame and sometimes hatred .. a sense of failure too. And then there is the unexpected secondary loss, as networks of friends take sides, or depart from your life altogether .. unsure suddenly of how to cope with a single person with painfully obvious needs, where once there was a couple supposedly reliant on each other.

Perhaps it's little wonder then that the end of a relationship takes so long to get over.

This poem was written the night when .. several years after the event .. I realised that I had finally recovered. It started as I was getting ready for bed .. and took form so fast that to write it down was almost like taking dictation. In a sense I sometimes wonder, in fact, whether it was I who wrote it .. or whether the words came from somewhere else.

Whatever the case, it's a piece which I now always pass on to people going through a loss .. and I'm told it helps. Those who've come through often go quiet and nod, too. So maybe it's captured something essential about the experience.

If you think it's depressing though, then consider the title .. and the form. It's about a personal and very lonely descent into despair, yes... But there's a turning point and a celebration of our ability to return from that brink too. And, in that sense, it's ultimately a poem of hope.

If you should ever need to take the journey, then make sure that yours is a return ticket too.

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Reflections

Contrary to what people sometime assume, this was one of the first poems I ever wrote, as a second year undergraduate student nearing the end of another year in hall, in the Summer of 1974. It does seem to have borne the test of time very well though. Nobody, of course, understood what was really between the lines at the time .. and that’s part of the magic of poetry. Indeed I'm not sure that I was able to acknowledge what I was saying at the time. It worked at several levels, and with different interpretations .. which is how we all choose our words when the truth gets uncomfortable.

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Inside the Other Side

I haven't a lot to say about this poem, written back in 1975, except to say that it deals with that common experience of reflecting back on a relationship that wasn't, and trying to figure it out.

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Thoughts

There has to be a first time for everything, and this is the first poem I ever wrote. Rather appropriately, I suppose, it concerned my very first meaningful relationship too.

Looking back, the encounter itself was nothing out of the ordinary… I suppose that it was no different to the rather awkward and self-conscious experience that epitomises the experience for most young adults encountering sexual desire and feelings for another person the first time around. Sadly of course, as often happens, the relationship (which seemed so important at the time) also simply fizzled to nothing almost as soon as I’d unpacked my bags for my first term at University.

Mind you, if I’d appreciated at the time that such an inauspicious end was quite commonplace then I suppose I’d not have found myself brooding about the event, feeling guilty, eighteen months later.

I was later to realise that this is the environment into which poetry is born. You can’t write a good poem (or a second rate one, for that matter) without good fresh emotional material. Being happy and content is the kiss of death to my own brand of creativity. Even my humorous poems are born at moments of black despair, in a sort of gallows humour. You can’t fake an experience to order, either. Ersatz feelings give birth to ersatz poetry.

This was my first time though. As a young, virgin, poet I didn’t know that the need to get up at 2am and write the words down, was the portent of things to come. It was a long time before I understood the rule that there would be no sleep till the job was done .. till the words had been written down and massaged into syllabic symmetry on the paper .. topped by a title.

What I did learn from that first night under the desk lamp was the sheer pleasure of releasing the feelings onto paper, between the lines of double-edged words. I’d discovered that the real poetry lies in the ideas conveyed in such a short, neat, package. The trick of getting words to say more together than their individual meanings alone.

In short, I suppose I was hooked.

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Spirit in the Wires

This poem was written in the early 1990's on the day when I first properly realised the power of the Internet as a campaigning tool. I had received an email from someone in Sydney, Australia looking for some advice; I knew someone in Aberdeen, Scotland who had the answer; five minutes later, with my help, the two were in contact with one-another. I remember that the power of that event hit me so hard that I burst into tears. In that moment I saw the potential and, as they say, I never looked back.

So, this poem is dedicated to anyone and everyone out there who, through their disembodied presence on the Internet, beavers away with making connections that file away the chains.

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Fishing for Birds

This poem was a true story about a man I met when walking across Boston common one time back in 1995, whilst touring in New England. I have never before or since heard of anybody else who flys a kite with the aid of a fishing rod, nor do I think I'll ever forget the encounter. The poem is dedicated to the man who finished his lesson by shamelessly bumming a kiss .. and it was his expression "fishing for birds" which provided the inspiration.

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