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Other Things I Didn’t Use To Know
When Jacqui Rowe found she had blood cancer, writing poetry helped her come to terms with the anguish and absurdities of having an incurable, but probably not terminal, illness.
With both pathos and humour, the poems address the new knowledge she gained,
and the world she found herself in, of blood counts, Watch and Wait, and bone marrow biopsies, as well as her reflections on
childhood, family, and places, seen
from her new perspective.
One of our birthdays in a cold July, looking for food
up creeping lanes across the border,
we found a waterfall.
Or rather read the signs and didn’t quite believe
the road would open out, there’d be a carpark
and a stream, a café.
Opposite, the skein suspended, whiter than the sky,
its motion more substantial here
than wall or bough or leaf.
Water generated smells of diesel,
drizzle, foliage damp with summer
to the point of rot.
Inside they’d lit a fire, too warm to sit too close,
and I took off my parka for the first time
since we left.
They offered bara brith and welsh cakes, the malted
heat of dark tea, amongst voices bemoaning
the loss of another year.
And I wondered how it would be to not go back tonight,
to lie and listen to pale water dropping,
so that we would never fall.
What I might say to my one-time self
I don’t know the future, any more than
you do, but I’m sure it doesn’t turn
on a single act; eradicating one specific
sacrifice or solitary protest would not
wipe out a movement. So I’m not
going to suggest you change your diet
or your mind, choose some other subject,
live in a different town, refuse the offer,
run a mile. Where I am now is where
you still would be, here in this place
that all the histories have formed for us.
Things being various
‘Snow’ Louis MacNeice
All my life I’ve hated snow, the way it snarls
the city, promising the winter will be long
enough to annexe spring. Sometimes,
in the flame of summer, MacNiece seduces me
with his crazier world, flakes multiplying more
than anyone could know, out there behind
the glass, beyond the roses, where we’ll
quarter tangerines by the bubbling fire. But really
I’m the woman stranded on the pavement, with
a poundshop umbrella that buckles at the hint
of blizzard, by the claggy road, no certainty
of getting home now the buses have stopped,
no one prepared, none of this forecast,
world just as sudden as we think.
I never saw the tree I’d looked at every day
until it turned yellow with autumn, buttery
like the harvest moon, each leaf the colour,
I imagine, of maturing fields. Three storeys high,
the nameless tree, a narrow cone, pointed
towards bonfire night. Had it been a totem, bare
brown in wintery spring? With strings of blossom,
had it been a maypole? When grass was starved
of pigment and I lay here, fevered, curtains drawn
against the heat, what colour was the tree?
Jacqui Rowe was born in Birmingham where she still lives. Other Things I Didn’t Use To Know is her second full collection, and she has also had four pamphlets published. Her poems have also appeared widely in magazines, such as Tears in the Fence, Bare Fiction, The Interpreter's House, and Poetry Review. She has read and taken part in literary events all over the country, including reading her own poems on a live edition of Radio 4’s Poetry Please, hosted by Roger McGough.
In 2013 she was Writer in Residence at Birmingham’s Barber Institute of Fine Arts, where she established the creative writing programme which she continues to deliver. She has worked as a writer in schools and in health and social care settings.
Jacqui is co-editor of Flarestack Poets press and a tutor for the Poetry School; she also produced and hosted Poetry Bites, a popular poetry night in Birmingham, for over ten years. Since 2014 she has had a place on Room 204, Writing West Midlands’ writer development programme.
In 2018 she was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia.
Other things I didn’t use to know
Haematology shares a car park
with Maternity; there are eighteen steps to
the front door, I haven’t started to use the ramp
yet; chronic means slow-growing, acute is shorter,
sharper; fever is no more than a number
of degrees; leuko- is white, haemo- blood itself;
gas and air turns bone marrow
biopsies into fun; Watch and Wait has
quarterly fixtures, always away; blood isn’t
one of the Big Four, it skulks in the hinterland
with skin and oesophagus; colours must be
running out, all that’s left is orange
for the ribbon and the wristband; you’ll
probably die with, not of; survival is measured
in decades, when I hadn’t counted on
the plural even while I was well; a book
with Bloodwise on the cover, perfect bound,
is mine to keep, a prize, I read it all the way
to Cornwall; Exeter has its own Leukaemia
Fund, but there’s nothing in the charity shop
I want; the book talks of equalities, so I can’t
be discriminated against now, I laugh; ‘cancer’
isn’t hard to say at all, as long as it’s prefaced by,
‘l’m perfectly all right’; people don’t always
take in the email or read the whisper; they tell
you how well you look, some suspect you’re on
a secret diet; I haven’t drawn
a card that gets me out for free.
Plasma is like a river, says the article.
I hope it is my midland river, flows through
Shrewsbury, Bridgnorth on a market day, doesn’t
burst its banks round Tewksbury. I hope
it meets the Stour from Clent,
the Vyrnwy from Powys, the Avon
and the Arrow, and the lovely Wye
that wanders through Rhyadar
and Builth Wells, then home
to Hereford and on. I hope the platelets,
waterfowl, will bob along my Severn’s course
as it gushes to the Bristol Channel
and the sea.
A blood ritual for Samhain
Ghostbusters is playing on the radio
and she can’t find a vein in either arm.
I want to watch the blood come out
today, I say, it being Halloween.
My elbow crooked and braced, I don’t flinch
at the needle, thin as hair, embroidering me
with spiders’ webs. A dribble in the tube
is hopeful. Not enough, she says. It might only
be a smear, I think, but it’s life and death…
She’s telling me she never looked away
when they took bloods from her mother
and that’s what made her want to do this job.
She gives up arms, will have to try my hand,
and I’m behind the sofa, blotting out the thought
of juicy veins that stand proud like
a vampire’s road map. My other hand
across my eyes, the point still feels
driven home. Avoiding the wound,
I watch two phials fill up. She hopes
that will do and as she sticks on cotton wool
I want to say It’s practically an empty arm,
but she’s too young, or has had it
said to her too many times.
Indigo Dreams Collection Competition 2019
I fill phials with an homunculus
of blood, watch and wait, mark
each ache as a sign, scour
anatomical maps for the spleen
I didn’t know I had until
it was too big to fit the scanner
screen. If I were the sort
of person who liked to name
their parts, I’d call it
Baudelaire. There’s too much
white amongst the red. Nodes
are florescent under the shade
of my arms. I’ve grown this year
an unseen harvest of my own.