Here is a bit more detail about some of the poems in the collection, explaining something of the stories behind them.
1) LOVE AND PI
Love and Pi is the first poem in the ‘Anatomy’ collection and it’s the poem in the collection with the longest history.
The idea first started rolling around when I was a teacher over 10 years ago. I was listening to a lunchtime conversation between maths teachers who were having a moment to appreciate the number pi. One teacher was expressing their admiration for the relationship between the simplest of shapes, a circle, and the most complicated, irrational, never ending numbers, pi. They saw it as evidence of order among the chaos of this world.
Many years later, I was asked to present a short talk at the church I was an assistant minister at on the theme of ‘love much’. That’s when the idea of connecting love and pi really happened for me. It’s very difficult to capture the tension talking to people about love. How do you capture the complexities of human relationships and the simplicities of needing to say ‘well, just love people’? A metaphor with love and pi seemed like a neat way of doing that.
After the talk, a friend suggested I should convert what I had said into an article, but instead I changed it into a poem.
Love and Pi was not intended at first to go into ‘Anatomy’, although my sister told me that I had to do something good with it. It made it into the collection after the first draft because I felt I needed something like an overture to introduce the marriage between the husband and wife. I feel like it also helps by starting to open up the key questions of Anatomy. What does it mean to know someone in marriage when knowing goes on forever? Can marriage be a place of security which builds a foundation for freedom? How do abstracts get experienced in everyday domestic life?
To really give Love and Pi the best treatment I could, I made the video above for it. The video was made by creating over 1400 individual frames using the GIMP image editor program over the summer.
2) KISS ME HUSBAND
Kiss Me Husband was the first poem to have been deliberately written for ‘Anatomy’.
If I’m honest, before I wrote ‘Anatomy’, I wasn’t expecting to write a collection of poems based around a theme or characters. My expectation was that the writing I would do would be based in personal reflection and social comment.
Things changed when I started having a period of a few weeks when, without any prompting, I often woke up uncannily at 5am. Quickly, it became obvious to me that this was an opportunity for constructive times of thought, reading and prayer. I started to read a commentary on the bible book Song of Solomon by Bernard of Clairvaux and re-read the Song of Solomon in the light of the commentary. And then I started writing.
The poem is responding specifically to two verses of the first chapter of Song of Solomon. Verse 2: ‘Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!’ and Verse 13: ‘My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh that lies between my breasts.’
I wanted this poem to be a bit like fire. If you get close, you get warm, but if you get too close, you get burned. If you want, it’s a simple love and desire poem. If you want to come closer though, its a poem about the vulnerability of being kissed rather than kissing, it’s a thought about how marriage can be a place where knowing someone and being inside someone and empathising deeply with someone can change everything about you. It’s another way of affirming what one of the best writers of the way of marriage in the 20th Century, Johnny Cash, sang, ‘I fell into a burning ring of fire / I went down, down, down, and the flames went higher.’
3) A TOAST
A Toast was one of the later poems written in the collection. It was written as a way of trying to clarify the husband’s character more and explain what he is trying to achieve. He is not just a nice guy, he is not interested in being ‘sensitive’ or ‘in touch with his feminine side’. He is interested in building a masculine identity which is non-hierarchical.
In my research for Anatomy, I came to the conclusion that the Bible and modern sociology converge on the idea that masculine hierarchies are a constant in society and that this hurts everyone. I set about with the Husband’s character and the essay ‘The to A’ trying to explore how a man could live without relying on or supporting a hierarchical masculinity.
You’ll have to read the book to get a full picture, but this poem points to how identity needs to be forged in relationship rather than formed by objects. The husband is not simply rejecting the things which traditionally and stereotypically represent masculinity, he is also rejecting the things that spring up in their place. The only identity we hear of the narrator is as a husband and he can only be a husband in relationship with his wife.
4) NO BATTERY
This poem was one of the later poems to be added. It replaced a poem that more explicitly dealt with the wife’s relationship to her friends. I’d wanted to try and capture something of a contrast between the wife’s exterior personality and interior life between her husband. But it wasn’t working, so it got replaced with this. The friends cannot be involved because there’s no battery on the phone to take the photo to post on the social media.
‘No battery’ is about the most domestic of domestic rhythms. In my marriage, the one thing that happens every day is that we meet up at the end of the day to share news and feelings about what has happened. Even if we have spent the day together, we still usually take time to reflect on what has taken place. It’s the way we maintain effective communication.
In this poem, this domestic routine is linked to an actual experience that I had walking on the Tamar Bridge, thinking about the book. As the poem describes, there was a full moon and a gap in the clouds which the moon seemed to be rolling across the top of. There was a moment where an inter-city train passed over the railway bridge and it was beautiful in the moonlight, before the clouds covered the light and the moment was gone.
The aim of the poem was to try and connect the domestic rhythms of life to something larger. A moment can be created by the convergance of celestial movement, weather systems, railway timetables, and family routine which invite us to enter into a deeper love for the reality surrounding us.
5) IMPRESSIVE YOU
My wife and I are not the characters that I have written about in ‘Anatomy’. However, ‘Impressive You’ is really a little love letter to my wife because it’s the way I feel.
There’s not much more of a story than that really.
6) A NIGHTMARE
A Nightmare was one of the hardest poems to write in the collection. It was written in response to Song of Solomon 5:2-8. In that text, in a nightmare, the beloved rejects her lover and then is beaten up in the city as she tries to find him again.
I was well aware when writing it that I was walking on sensitive ground. It’s hard at the moment to get away from issues of rape culture, although that’s not specifically what I had in mind in this poem. I was trying more to highlight the theme of the contest between fantasy and reality. Even though fantasy can be hugely attractive and is sold in our culture as such, in choosing to wake up, in choosing her husband, in some ways I think the wife chooses reality over fantasy. She chooses the glass of milk over the glass of vodka.
7) COME AWAY
Come Away takes it’s point of departure from one translation of the last verse of the Song of Solomon. I wanted to give it a bit of a different twist though, so most of the poem shoots forward to the end of the husband’s life, decades after the time of the other poems. I wanted to write something grounded in reality and experience about the end of the marriage which has lasted the difference.
I also wanted with this poem to affirm the way in which marriage passes through the generations and includes people who perhaps become parents and grandparents. There’s a theme throughout the Bible that people are the pinnacle of creation. I believe you can learn more about what is good about the world from the person you are sat next to on the couch than you do from the David Attenborough documentary on the TV screen. Despite our culture’s definitions of beauty, this still applies to an older generation, even to those on death’s door.
8) TUNING FORK
Tuning Fork was the last of the poems in the collection to be completed. It’s also set after most of the other poems too.
I had in my mind a thought by an author called Mary Doria Russell in her haunting sci-fi book The Sparrow. You can read the full quote here, but the key point is when one of the female characters says, “Lemme tell ya something, sweetface. I have been married at least four times, to four different men.” even though she has been married to the same person all her life.
The point is that people change in marriage and if, like I’m trying to say in Anatomy, married identity is something which is forged between a husband and wife, the act of marriage changes identity. With a couple like the one presented in the poems, when a husband deliberately tries to alter their character, in this case by trying to construct a non-hierarchical masculinity, that still has a knock on effect into the identity of the wife. In trying to be something which may well in the end benefit her, he has created a tension as identity changes. It comes back to the wife again to choose to change with the husband or lose something of their marriage.
I hope that the last lines are seen more as an active choice than a passive acceptance. When I read this poem, there is a double meaning in the last 2 lines. On the one hand, it’s telling the story of the wife but it is also saying something personal about how I see faith. Being a person of faith requires a person to retune towards a different instrument, you lose that sense of being in tune with the world around you, but it is faith that leads you to believe such a choice is a good one.
9) SUMMER SATURDAYS
This poem references Song of Solomon in a more indirect way. The theme of a walled garden recurs through the text. Here is one example.
A walled garden is a really interesting metaphor for a marriage. In some ways, it’s a really comparison. A walled garden has protection from the wind and generally is warmer by a few centigrade than the average garden. This means that you are able to grow a wider variety of more exotic plants than you can anywhere else.
However, because of the cost involved, walled gardens are also a mark of privilege. In our time and place, the best opportunity to go and see a really good example of a walled garden is to get down to a National Trust house. Which is where the link comes in between the poem and theme. (The picture in the video is taken from Godolphin House, a National Trust property in Cornwall with a lovely walled garden)
Most of the sound effects on the audio are taken from sound effect collections, but the birds singing in the middle are genuine National Trust.
10) I DREAM AGAIN
I dream again is the last poem of the collection. I remember writing it on my smartphone last new year’s eve staying at relatives.
Originally, the collection was going to end with a poem which was intended as a script between the husband and the wife with them playing a game of callling names. However, neither the structure of them talking to each other in one poem, or the language they were using worked.
What I was hoping for with this poem was to link back to some of the themes of earlier poems. Perhaps it balances off the nightmare poem in some ways because it’s a happy dream, but it also works back into No Battery. I wanted to find some way of talking about how the domestic routines of life can be invested with spiritual and cosmic significance. Perhaps the only way to see that is through a dream.