Sunday Poem – Pauline Keith

This year I seem to have got off relatively lightly as regards Carol Services or Christmas concerts with schools.  However, I’ve made up for it by booking my junior band in to do a whole succession of busking at various supermarkets in a bid to raise money for the band funds, which have been seriously depleted last year when we had to buy quite a lot of new instruments.  I’ve been out carolling with them three times now and am due to go out another two times before Christmas.  We’ve been to Asda, Morrisons and Barrow Market so far and are due in Tesco and at the football ground next week.

Whenever I take the junior band carolling, it reminds me of going carolling with Unity Brass when I was young.  I absolutely loved going out.  Even though it was always cold and it usually involved standing up – two of my least favourite things in the world.  Most nights in December would involve playing under lamp posts in residential areas while our parents knocked on doors with collecting tins.  I learnt all of the carols off by heart, mainly because I couldn’t be bothered to turn the pages of the carol book.  There was something about standing in the cold together that I really liked.  I can still remember what it felt like to have the carol book rolled up inside my coat pocket.  I remember our conductor, Rob Boulter, showing me how to rock backwards and forwards on your feet to stop them aching, how to stop your lip hurting by putting it on the cold metal of the bell of the cornet.  Now I know I loved all the carols that were in a minor key – Coventry Carol, In the Bleak Midwinter.  I didn’t know that was why I loved them back then though but I always loved the words to In the Bleak Midwinter – although I only knew the first and last verse –

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter, long ago

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would give a lamb;
If I were a wise man, I would do my part;
yet what can I give him: give my heart.

I didn’t know back then that the words were by the wonderful poet Christina Rosetti – but I remember loving that simile in the second line ‘water like a stone’ and then that wonderful daring third line with the repeat of the word snow, over and over again.

Every Saturday and Sunday the band would be booked to play Christmas carols all day in Asda.  There was none of this two hours business that I do with the junior band now.  It worked a bit like a relay – somebody turned up who could play your part and then you could go home or have a break.  If nobody turned up to take over you just stayed there until they did.  My mum and dad would stand again with the collecting buckets for hours on end.

Lots of parents of the junior band members hold buckets to collect money, or just stand and watch.  It doesn’t seem to matter to them how many times they hear the carols, they just want to support their children – I find this strangely moving as well.  I should say I wasn’t moved by it when I was younger.  I just expected that my parents would do it – and I think this attitude is typical of most of the junior band as well!  You don’t appreciate your parents and all the things they do for you until you get older – this probably isn’t a particularly exciting revelation for most readers of this blog but I rediscover this and realise it over and over again when I’m working with young musicians and I see the parents turning up time and time again. I always feel a little pang of guilt as the image of my mum and dad, sitting at every rehearsal on a Monday and a Wednesday night flashes through my mind – every rehearsal – can you imagine!?

Anyway, I didn’t set out at the beginning of this blog to write a nostalgic memory of playing carols when I was young.  I wanted to tell you about this fabulous book I’ve been reading by Thomas Lux, who I heard read at Aldeburgh Poetry Festival a couple of months ago.  He was a great reader – and he said he liked my purple hat when he was signing my book.  And he called me kiddo.  All things that go in his favour.  I enjoyed the poems but I was worried that without the force of his personality they would wilt into nothing when I was reading them on the page – but they don’t! They are so good.  He has just had a Selected Poems published by Bloodaxe which I would heartily, heartily recommend you go and buy at once.  I wanted to draw your attention to these lines from a poem called ‘An Horation Notion’.  In the last stanza he says

‘You make the thing because you love the thing
and you love the thing because someone else loved it
enough to make you love it.
And with that your heart like a tent peg pounded
toward the earth’s core.
And with that your heart on a beam burns
through the ionosphere. And with that you go to work.’

I read those first three lines this morning and I haven’t been able to stop saying them over and over again since then. Like the first two lines of Tithonus by Tennyson ‘The woods decay, the woods decay and fall/The vapours weep their burthen to the ground’ or the first sentence of Prayer by Carol Ann Duffy ‘Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer/utters itself.’ I know those three lines will haunt me…

‘You make the thing because you love the thing
and you love the thing because someone else loved it
enough to make you love it.’

The three things I’ve loved for most of my life – music, running and poetry.   Rob Boulter, my band conductor at Unity Brass loved music enough to make me love it.  Wayne Walker, my running coach, loved running enough to make me love it.  Poetry – poetry is different.  I feel like I found that on my own, although I suppose my dad loved reading enough to make me love it, which led to me finding poetry.  I’d be interested to hear if people think it’s true – think about the things you’ve loved all your life, or found out that you love late in life.  Was there somebody who made you love those things because they loved them?

A few people have laughingly said this week that they were looking forward to hearing about my epic drive to Sheffield on Tuesday but the journey was so awful I can hardly bear to recount it.  All you need to know is that I left Barrow at 3pm after work and didn’t arrive in Sheffield till 9pm.  I missed the reading by the other two poets, Noel Williams and Linda Goulden which I was really gutted about.

Cora Greenhill was hosting and managed to keep everybody entertained and happy in between the first half finishing and my arrival.  I was slightly flustered (to say the least) and relieved to find there was still an audience there.  I sold three pamphlets which I was pleased about as I think two thirds of the people in the room already had a copy.  Cora gave me a lovely, thoughtful introduction and everybody was very welcoming and friendly.  It’s a great little venue and if I lived closer I would definitely be attending more often.  It was lovely to see some poetry friends that I hadn’t seen for a while but it all felt very rushed after the reading, because of course I had to drag myself back to Barrow ready for work the next day.

And then there was the drive back.  Ugh is all I can say.  I was so tired by this point – a combination of this awful cold I’ve had, the awful drive and reading from my sequence which always wipes me out that I had to pull over three times on the way back home to try and wake up a little bit.  The third time I gave in and went to sleep for an hour in the car.  I eventually arrived back in Barrow at 3.30am which gave me time for a bit of a sleep before having to get up and get ready for work the next day.

This week’s Sunday Poem comes courtesy of my adventures last week at the Wayleaves launch of four pamphlets.  Pauline Keith’s pamphlet ‘By the Light of Day’ is absolutely fantastic.  The pamphlet describes Pauline’s childhood experiences of being brought up in the family slaughter-yard.  The poems are utterly compelling, and although they work very well on their own, when they are drawn together, as they have been in this pamphlet, the end result is wonderful.

I first met Pauline in Brewery Poets, a writers group that we both attend in Kendal, and I have come across some of the slaughter-yard poems before so I knew I would enjoy the pamphlet.  I’m sure Pauline won’t mind me saying that she doesn’t send her work out as often as she should so not enough people are aware of what a great writer she is, so I’m really happy that Mike Barlow of Wayleave Press has produced this brilliant pamphlet.

The poem I’ve chosen is called The Old Toll House and it is the first poem in the pamphlet, and really introduces the atmosphere and themes that are worked out in the other poems.  I also think it fits really well with the earlier Thomas Lux lines I’ve quoted, with both of them mentioning the word ‘work’ at the end.

The Old Toll House is so beautifully described in that first stanza.  We can picture the tall arches and the dusk, but it only takes until the first line of the second stanza where Pauline has used the word ‘seem’ to signal to us that this is not an idyllic place, and this is carried on in the next two lines with the ‘tainted river’ and the ‘half-derelict canal’ – both of these are hidden from view.  Things are not what they seem.

From this point on, the poem becomes darker and darker, almost relentlessly.   In stanza 5 the italics are used to good effect for emphasis. I also really like the line ‘Chained dogs rage at strangers.’  The master stroke of the poem comes for me in the last three stanzas.  Here the poem turns on its heel and goes in a completely unexpected direction: ‘lift the house roof like a lid’.  I really love this ending.  It gives us the sense of looking back into a far away past and also the feeling of being larger and more real than this past – as if the house is really a dolls house.  We know (whether we know we know or not) that these poems are going to explore power – who has it, and who doesn’t, family, cruelty, pragmatism and the world of work.  Which there aren’t enough poems about!

Pauline Keith has lived and taught in Turkey, Nigeria, Singapore, Holland and Canada.  She was a founding member of Lancaster’s pioneering Literature Festival in the late 70’s.  She received second prize in the 2005 Bridport Prize and commended in the 2007 National Poetry Competition.

Mike tells me a Wayleave Press website is currently under construction, but if you would like to order Pauline’s pamphlet, or any of the other Wayleave pamphlets, you can email Mike at on  and he will make arrangements to get the pamphlet to you in exchange for a small and reasonable sum of £5.

Thanks to Pauline for letting me use her poem.

The Old Toll House – Pauline Keith

Admire it, done in oils,
set near the viaduct’s tall arches
rising from the valley’s dusk.

Lit windows seem to welcome.
You can’t see the tainted river
or half-derelict canal.

No boats pay tribute here –
the Toll House now a family home
fronting a slaughter-yard

for sick cows and useless horses.
Their flesh, condemned for humans,
feeds the townsfolk’s cats and dogs.

There are few visitors –
no friends.  Just business.
Chained dogs rage at strangers.

Wait till those windows are dark holes
in white walls washed by moonlight –
then lift the house roof like a lid.

Look down on restless sleepers
separate in shared beds: mother
with daughter, father with son.

Replace the roof.  Later, light
will come and the day’s work:
a matter of knives and livelihood.


8 comments on “Sunday Poem – Pauline Keith

  1. For once, I want to respond, not the the poem…..though the last two stanzas take my breath away…..but that clean clear reflective prose about where love comes from, prayers and circling hymns. One day some scholar will stumble on this as he writes the definitive study of your 638 page collected works, and claim to account for the leimotif of psalm and prayer that ran through your oeuvre fro 2008 to 2064 when you unaccountably took to expressive dance and monumental paintings.

    1. Ha! Thanks for this John although it is highly unlikely I will turn to expressive dance 🙂 Just back from carolling and had a good enough group today to have a go at ‘Coventry Carol’ my other favourite carol – I love the crunches in it…

  2. I agree with John. This is a captivating piece of writing …The journey to Sheffield, the parents ( both then and now)standing around in the cold, the band being together and the shared focus of needing money for instruments, the Christina Rosetti lines and the Thomas Lux lines…. As well as the poem itself. You have created a magic spell. Thank you, kim.

    1. Thanks Becky. Am glad you enjoyed it. I think there is also something really important for the kids to realise that music can make you money (albeit not very much). That was a light bulb moment for me when I realised I could get paid for playing my instrument.

  3. An wonderful read as always Kim. The Thomas Lux lines are stunning and so deep. The Pauline Keith poem is equally stunning for different reasons, for me it is dark and reveals a certain emptiness in its detail. Your description of them is very thoughtful and insightful as is your whole blog. The seed for my love of words was sown around 2009/10 when I returned to full time education at the age of 42 and had a wonderful woman teach me English with a thick Glaswegian accent. The seed began to grow this year when I attended the Igniting the Spark workshops run by the amazing Gaia Holmes and what a year in words I’ve had.

    1. Hey Andy – I hope you told the teacher that she inspired you – I’m sure she would be flattered to hear that! Glad you enjoyed Pauline’s poem as well – all of the poems in the pamphlet describe what it was like to live in a slaughter house in quite a matter of fact way. They don’t shy away from the brutality or the casual cruelty of everyday life and they don’t sentimentalize. And Thomas Lux is becoming one of my new fave poets. Thanks for reading

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