GEOFF STEVENS MEMORIAL POETRY PRIZE 2018 IS NOW OPEN
A GAP IN THE RAIN
Barbara’s poems are rooted in the natural world. She looks at landscape with a geologist’s eye, sometimes influenced by her strict religious upbringing and its repudiation. She has an eye for the telling detail that lifts a poem. Her poems have been published in many poetry magazines including Acumen, Orbis, Poetry London, Poetry Salzburg Review and The Rialto.
“Barbara Cumbers has a very distinctive way with language and structure. Her poems won me over with their quietly beautiful and devastating lyricism” was how Amy Wack (Poetry Editor for Seren Books) described Barbara’s entry for the 2014 Mslexia pamphlet competition where she was a runner-up.
She earned her living as an information officer in the NHS and is a former associate lecturer in geology for the Open University. She lives in London, with a husband and two cats. This is her first full collection.
A GAP IN THE RAIN
Indigo Dreams Publishing
138 x 216mm
£8.99 + P&P UK
PUB: 4 DECEMBER 2015
Through the long wet grass of autumn
domes are growing, doe-coloured, velvety.
In line like explorers they track along
old apple root. No photosynthesis
when sugars are there for the taking,
white threads sew through damp wood.
When I don’t need it any more,
let my body be as that apple root
where soft and branching explorations
of mycelium can feed and send
their fruit up into light to scatter spores
as dust in a cloud downwind.
The Foolishness of Squirrels
It’s not yet ten o’clock and already
the heat is pressing its dry weight
down on head and lungs. Already
others are preparing to camp
in the shade of the cottonwoods,
avoiding the whiteness of afternoon.
There’s a thumping behind me –
a squirrel is whirling its tail to drum
on the ground, and chattering.
In the shadow, an inch in front,
is a rattlesnake, coiled and still,
diamond head solid and deadly.
The squirrel is deliberate
with its feckless little noises. Perhaps
the god of squirrels is a rattlesnake.
The squirrel is in awe of it, dancing
before it with the pointlessness of ritual.
I wait in shamefaced hope that the snake
will strike, but it goes on sleeping
and I walk away, downwards
into the white noon of the canyon.
I am a gap in the rain
which flows around me,
my skin dividing water-self
Most of me is water,
the trees in a distance too far
to offer shelter are mostly water,
as are the rabbits, their ears
flattened like broken umbrellas.
The wholeness of rain
in its long, long fall
where droplets scatter
and merge, splits
as it hits me,
rejoins into runnels
as it pours from my skin.
It leaves my water-self
flowing where I choose.
It is like watching mandrake bloom, the slow
unfolding of what I know, the stiffening
of fear in men’s faces, my prophecies
forgotten in the ruin that is now.
It is like watching the dead decay, inexorable
liquidity, gas-filled flesh dissolving
while the faces of the living have denial
shining clear from their unknowing eyes.
At every turn I tell them if this then this.
They do not hear, or if they hear, say
I am mistaken, that other seers see it
otherwise – anything to say it will not be.
It is like watching ice melt, its solid grip
on mountains loosening, its water flowing
into disbelieving future, each tide
a little higher, the wind a little stronger.
Dinosaur Footprints, Isle of Wight
The tide’s retreated to the edge of sight,
a blur of birds and waves. I brush dried mud
of Chilton Chine down from my clothes,
fine dust scattering. You should have held on to me,
you say, as I might have done five years ago.
Dinosaurs had walked here once – huge feet
left prints on ripples in a delta’s swamp,
and ripples turned to rock, and rock to shore.
Silt slides over older silt, continents buckle.
Iguanodon is twice transformed,
from beast to footprints, teeth and bones;
from Hawkins’ horn-nosed quadruped
through lumbering biped to bird-like grace.
First built with little data, modified with more,
the past is always changing. You smile,
as you did five years ago when we’d collected
sediment for your research. And now
we work together at a fresh cliff face
revealed by winter storms and landslip,
uncovering more data cautiously.
This collection of poems is mainly about water or the lack of it. The water ranges from rain in Cumbria to a well in Palestine, from the North Sea to the Colorado River; its lack is deserts anywhere, actual and metaphorical. The poet’s geological knowledge and scientific background add depth to poems of landscape and the natural world, often as it has been changed by man.
“ ‘The idea of the journey’ is what fires these beautiful poems. Barbara Cumbers employs a scientist’s mind and a poet’s eye when describing the minutiae of the natural world. She is the perfect guide to take us through fields and over mountains, and into the more difficult terrains of the heart and soul. It is a joy to follow her lead.”
“Barbara Cumbers’ poems exist in a powerful tension between the physical reality of this world – with often explicit reference to her geologist background – and its moments of emotion and uncertainty. The result is poems of moving precision and revelation.”
“I thought these poems were simply beautiful: well-wrought, intelligent, keenly perceptive and finely crafted.”
He was bound by frogskin and water,
held beneath hosta leaves
and on the damp soil around irises.
By day he had the flat of lily pads
where he could launch himself
into flights through his watery world.
In the grace of rain at night
he could leap into the elegance of air.
But always he returned,
dragged back by his chains.
Then she came and made a prince of him.
She gave him freedom, so she said.
In quiet moments he could forget
the claims of duty and decorum.
He cultivated a vivarium,
talked to newts and salamanders,
knowing they would not answer
his now too-solid tongue. He grew
sedge and sundew, looked deep
into the eyes of water forget-me-nots.
Next time, he thought, I will be a bird –
a marsh harrier, hook-beaked and taloned.
My chains will be feathers and air.
The moor is teaching me infinity,
not in the way the night sky
might in the distances
of stars, nor as rocks do
with the length of their memories.
The moor has its own way
in the rise and fall
of sphagnum with rain,
in the unnamed greens
the heather takes into itself,
in the ever-changing light,
and in the figure of a man
small in the distance
as he picks his way
on the old pack road,
who staggers as if heather
had snagged his walking
and who never reaches home.