Sunday Poem – Penelope Shuttle

Today I’ve been finishing off the final touches for the workshops that I’ll be running on the residential at Abbot Hall, starting tomorrow!

There are now 14 people booked on – I hope they are all as excited as I’ve been.

Today I’ve been working on the ‘Journeys’ workshop and finding poems that write about travel and the sea.  One interesting thing that I’ve noticed is that the poets who write about the sea write about it a lot. The sea weaves its way through a collection – and it is a constant preoccupation.  Perhaps the easiest example of this is the brilliant Kathleen Jamie.  I have two of her collections – ‘The Tree House’ and the new one ‘Overhaul’.  In ‘The Tree House’ there are eight poems that the sea features in – I hesitate to say theme – because often the sea is the setting, more than a them – and there are eight in ‘Overhaul’ as well.

And some poets just don’t write about the sea at all – it seems to be one or the other – I searched through some of my favourite poets for sea-themed poetry and couldn’t find any – I won’t name them, because I know someone will pipe up and say ‘Yes, here’s one’ and thus blow my theory right out of the water.

It’s been really interesting to see how the sea is used to explore the inner psyche – maybe this has something to do with the fact that not only can you travel across the sea, but you can also travel downwards…but I don’t want to preempt my workshop, so I’ll shut up!

Today’s Sunday poem is by one of my favourite poets Penelope Shuttle.  I got to know Penelope’s work because in the first ever competition that I entered, the Kent and Sussex, a good four or five years ago now, Penelope was the judge, and she gave my poem a Fourth Place.  I went down to Kent to get my £75 prize money and was so dumbstruck by being amongst famous poets, that I squeaked at Penny when she came over to congratulate me, and then I scuttled away.

After that, I started reading Penelope’s work and she is a poet that I often come back to when I’ve had a busy time that has meant that I’ve moved far away from poetry, or feel like I’ve moved far away.  Like January for example – when I didn’t write any poetry because my energies were somewhere else – but as soon as I had a bit of breathing space, without thinking about it really, I went and re-read ‘Sandgrain and Hourglass’ – Penelope’s 2010 collection from Bloodaxe and I had the feeling that I have had in the past from this book – of my brain slowly being cleared of the mundane, the trivial and the unimportant things, leaving a lovely empty space in my head in which I can start to write and think again about poetry.  I don’t know why Penelope’s poetry has this effect on me.  There are other poets too who do this to me – Kathleen Jamie is another one – it’s like a feeling of calmness that comes over me – and we all need a little calmness right?

Penelope Shuttle’s most recent collection is ‘Unsent: New and Selected Poems 1980-2012 and you can get hold of this and ‘Sandgrain and Hourglass’ through her publisher’s website

The poem I’ve chosen is called ‘You’ and comes from ‘Sandgrain and Hourglass’.  Sandgrain and Hourglass is a book of elegies, for both Penelope’s husband and her father – but it is also much more than this.  It is an exploration of grief and how it changes and how the human spirit can recover from pain – but some of the poems are also very funny – ‘Miss Child’s Owl’ about two sisters, one of whom owns a wooden owl called Ruth and a poem about a machine that grades kisses…

Here is the poem – tomorrow I’m off to the dizzy heights of Grange Over Sands.  Wish me luck!

You – Penelope Shuttle

Now there’s no trace of you anywhere,
and you’re no longer interested in me
or that equally private creature, the moon,

I’m like someone so far behind with the rent
not even her great grandchildren
will be able to settle the debt –

But sometimes your absence hovers
close to me in the form of a hummingbird

whose bright wings beat the rain into so many rainbows
I’m like the river drinking from her own cupped hands…



10 comments on “Sunday Poem – Penelope Shuttle

  1. I really enjoyed the way you introduced this post as it helped me to focus on the poem and to read it several times for different purposes. Such interesting observations about sea poems, too. I have recently bought ‘Unsent’ which contains a selection of poems from ‘Sandgrain and Hourglass’ and I’ll find some time to read it today. My head certainly needs a good clean – thanks for this brilliant advice and post.

    1. Thanks Josephine – The most interesting sea poem I found (and I found a lot!) or the one that has stayed with me at least, is an Anne Sexton poem called ‘Letter Written Whilst Crossing Long Island Sound’. You can read it here

      I think it’s just extraordinary. She is not a writer I’ve read very much of – although I do have her ‘Love Poems’ collection – there is nothing like this in there, I don’t think.

  2. Kim, your post was particularly interesting to me as I have just finished doing “Journeys” with the CW group I lead for a mental health charity and it is fascinating how some poems were travelogues and others used the journey to explore the stages of life, but whatever direction they came from they all had a springboard and an ongoing sense of movement towards something still to be reached. But nobody went to sea – strangely!

    Penelope Shuttles poem is one of my favourites of hers. I lost my husband albeit some thirty years ago and she is the one person who has brought me comfort and who I can identify with. It is so difficult to write such poems (I’ve never been able to do it) – she does it so brilliantly and makes it look so easy. But I know it’s not. Thank you for posting this.


    1. Thanks Valerie – I’m really glad you enjoyed it – and interesting to hear you have been looking at journeys as well. My partner is a psychotherapist and I’m really interested in how poetry can be used as therapy – although I’ve never done any of this myself – I would think the sea might be quite a ‘high risk’ way in – it seems so emotive (for some people). I would be interested to hear if you’ve ever used it in your work for the mental health charity…

  3. I think that anyone who has lived by the sea can never really leave it behind them. I now live in Sheffield which is about as far as you can get on this island from the sea but yet it keeps recurring as a metaphor in my poems.
    I remember sitting in school (on a hill above Belfast) watching the ships move up and down the Lough – it was always a way out for me rather than an entrance, the horizon always somewhere I could never reach.
    Love the PS poem!!!


    1. It would be an interesting survey to see if the poets that use the sea as a recurring metaphor all had experience of the sea in their childhood… For me the sea always meant holiday! I think that’s why I immediately liked Barrow when I first moved here – I remember lying awake on the first morning and smiling because I could hear seagulls!

  4. Thanks to all for their comments above, I’m very glad to read them, and to know that the poem speaks. Someone wiser than me once said that poetry needs to be of use, and I try to keep that in mind on the ocean of the imagination, choppy though it can be at times. Thank you, Kim, for posting the poem, and for your scrupulous and insightful introduction.

  5. I reviewed Sandgrain and Hourglass for Ink Sweat and Tears. I loved it. I’ve written 16 poems plus a coda for my very close poet friend who died in 2009 quite suddenly, and I found the process helped me mourn him. Penelope’s poems speak so beautifully of her love for Redgrove. I treated myself to Unsent recently and do urge others to read these poems.

    1. I think she is a stunning poet. It is interesting how the writing of poetry can help people come to terms with a death – I wonder when the process starts of the poems changing from being carthartic to being ‘art’ – I heard some very early drafts of Christopher Reid’s ‘A Scattering’ and I was struck by how much they had changed when the final published version came out- they were more like works of art, they were not as raw, more controlled, and ultimately I thought, more powerful because of that process- although I suppose some people wouldn’t agree..

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