Chapbook Confessions is a series in which poets discuss, at length, the writing of their most recent collection of poems, in whatever way they desire. For more information on the series, go here.
Below, Sarah Law writes on her 2014 collection Ink’s Wish.
Sarah Law lives in London, UK, and is a tutor for the Open University and elsewhere. She has published five collections of poetry, the latest of which is Ink’s Wish. Recent and forthcoming work in Ink, Sweat & Tears; Ekphrastic Review; Eunoia Review; Amaryllis; The Windhover, Saint Katherine Review; Where is the River and elsewhere.
These poems are from my collection Ink’s Wish which was originally published by Gatehouse Press and was shortlisted (one of four collections in the poetry category) in 2014 for the East Anglian Book Awards of that year. The small (100 only!) print run from Gatehouse soon sold out and I have been given permission to self-publish the collection as an ebook on Amazon which I did in 2017.
Ink’s Wish explores the life and febrile spirituality of medieval Norfolk visionary Margery Kempe. Margery was a very distinctive and disruptive figure and there is still debate over her place in medieval spirituality and literature. After marriage, a brief career as a brewer, and bearing fourteen children, Margery took a vow of celibacy (‘contractual widowhood’) and departed on several pilgrimages abroad, including trips to Europe and the Holy Land. In England she caused disruptions to church services due to her penchant for copious crying (‘the gift of tears’) and for reprimanding members of congregation and clergy for their bad behaviour. She was always treated as an outsider, sometimes as a bit of a joke. But she persisted, and despite her own neuroticism and anxiety, she dictated her life story, which became the first autobiography in English. She sought guidance from figures of spiritual authority whom she admired, most notably from the mystic and anchoress Mother Julian of Norwich – a woman with a very different temperament, who seems to have treated Margery kindly.
As a poet, I identify with some aspects of Margery but not with others! I’m drawn to her position as a misfit, an outsider, and someone who is prepared to break or disregard conventions while being desperately serious about what she felt was her mission in life. Margery is a disrupter of hypocrisies and complacencies. She was also verbally inventive and ambitious. All these aspects appeal to me as a poet. And there is something attractive about her ‘otherness’ too: poetry gives the poet a chance to explore and connect with a life and an energy that is distinctly other than that of one’s perceived self.
For all her instabilities, Margery seems to have been a person of great conviction and was possessed by a sense of urgency; her story holds a touch of humour, a touch of pathos, a touch of mystery and divinity. I started engaging with her by writing a few song lyrics, but the poems continued to come and so the collection, to an extent, wrote itself.
I didn’t submit many poems from the collection in journals prior to the collection (only a handful in Stride Magazine, and subsequently one was published in Eyewear’s anthology The Poet’s Quest for God – none of these are enclosed here) so I would be delighted if I could give them a wider audience.
Life on a Limb
Salt, tar, filthy rags, songs –
a sense of momentum
seasick Mrs. Kempe aloft
spews prayers, like a flag
pulsed in the cross-channel breeze
Margery pours the chorus –
a cluster of pilgrims
sweat the verses
Cold stone, sluts of dust
splats of wax
set me as a seal
upon your unwise heart
The mind stained
a distressed art –
touch of the moderns
cup of clay –
be the first
Bless me father
for I have
These ears are so thirsty
for the again-and-again
of you are holy
The hand writes dry
but life unspools its words
and you will scribble.
Margery’s Second Wedding
in a flurry of God
White – brighter than any dress
decreed to my soul
Such light as could cause loss
of self-perception, of what comes across
I called for Christ, his cross,
but only – barely – caught his voice –
She is my precious love and she feels fear
I had the madness then
to make demand
Where is God’s hand
(the furls of it, the rip tides, and the shock
like lightening striking at the heart)
He holds you in it. So it was
that what seemed alien was really us:
His heart so large it was a pulsing cosmos,
the milky way a shimmer in his hand,
and I a flake of nacre
on a whorl of his finger
a solar flare
encircling all that vows.
Wondrous Hot and Delectable
God’s a hot flush –
a raw body-rush
of volatile maturity
in his arms
and the chill of withdrawal
is taken by the grace of his surprise:
upsurge, low-light, pucker –
How measure mirth and awe?
by the blushful.
Now I, wise to life’s cycles
dance, rave, in the guttering pyre
of the power of my name.
‘I seem to have always a craving to touch the great human mystery of Time’
(Hope Emily Allen, editor)
It heaves; a great wheel
spewing water, ephemeral gems
human mystery –
we suffer in its spume.
Her ailing priest says: Damsel,
Ihesu is ded long sithyn –
one thousand and four hundred years ago
among the stripped trees
he hung. Now not an atom
suffered or sustained.
Great water wheel
The priest fades as he speaks.
Out of charity, she keeps
his dessicated words as fallen leaves.
Then the water whips her – Sir
hys deth is the body cleaving to its god
as fresch to me as he had
lift me into the palm of life, the sorrow
deyd þis same day
as he told me that he loved
& we awt euyr the work that he did
he gave to her
to han mende of hys kendnes & euvyr thynkyn of
She sees him and more than sees.
She wrote not a word and we read her.
The water softens, quenches, drowns,
þe dolful deth þat he deyd for vs
streams on. The wheel itself
hys kendnes & euvyr refracts,
she says, eternity.
‘Wher is my name?’
My name is Creature to his scribe
I name not him, nor any child
of mine. Only my husband John,
and he who knew my name is gone.
The layering of words in time
makes up a palimpsest so fine
its white gauze moulds me and
its textured silence holds me in.
My book jumps up to hoops of gold
of hagiography. It’s grains in folds
as if the worn down glass of years
is sandstuff in the palms and ears.
Life shines in fits and scratches you.
Your words are trapped in amber too.
Things just for then are just for now –
These words are mine and in your power.
‘a very dowtyr to me & a modyr also, a syster, a wife, and a spowse’
These are the worlds
unfurled for me; he
Covering with his rich robe
Hovering with his rent robe
And holding out
His hands, the wounded palms
With an invisible force
(Those pegs we hang our self-love over,
Frozen nubs of nothing.)
One day I dropped my guard,
And then my husband, sons,
My chickens, little ones.
I gave up my role, furs, gowns,
The names of towns, the company,
the small beer and the night.
I swore to white.
It was then that the world’s negative
Showed its silver backing;
from the prayer-and-corner,
The beating heart, the opened
shrine of the ribs,
the core: I was all
the women I could be to him,
and for each there was a world,
and for each there was a word,
and I was new.
The end of the world – at least
of Europe in its medieval melting-pot.
Margery in Compostella, spending her time,
earning her shell. In time she will unfurl.
The rain falls and the narrow cobbles gleam,
wine is offered, sustenance and sacrifice.
Margery slips outside and her tears mingle
with the slanting grief of heaven.
Here she can almost smell the sea:
the salt soup of the world which slow-boiled life
into swimming, then creeping sentience,
stars on a dark cloth: heart brimful.
Back to the great God’s house. Its holiness
Swirls under rich stone ribs. All
the petty pilgrims gather up their prayers,
exhale. The golden censor swings
across the long body of the nave,
dispersing incense. Together
the scented, silent intercessions mingle
and become acceptable. Margery
slips from her own flesh into a veil
between shell and the beating
muscle of the heart. The golden
sand she lands on feels like home.
To Trouble You
It was the cause He issued: come to trouble you
enough that you broke rank. Nothing but trouble. You
challenged the clergy, crossed the borders, ordered
this creature be allowed to weep and trouble you.
You are a wicked woman. No, it’s you
who are a wicked man. The genders trouble you,
each second person slipping into hinterland –
the hymn you warble, hurt you roared. In trouble. You.
Taken to court, the accusations claw at you,
but Margery does more than merely muddle through.
Her words rise up like swans, white, heart-shaped, strong,
this Margery makes language. You’re in trouble, too.
Up Her Sleeves
Piquant, the folds fall
fleshed human follies –
she’s seen them all.
Love’s a hot narcotic,
a rest from the diurnal,
the gossip’s only topic.
Red as the eternal
pulse along the cotton’s vein,
blushing’s gone internal,
my sartorial loss, but heaven’s gain,
these naked wrists, these calloused feet,
they call me witch, insane,
yet in the stripped down streets,
this earth under her star-wide skirt of sky,