Sunday Poem – Michael Conley

While a lot of the country has been covered in snow, Barrow has been basking in winter sunshine.  We have had two days where the sky is that crisp kind of blue you only get when it is cold, which is my favourite type of weather to run in, when the wind is only strong in one direction, when running into the wind is enough to make your ears ache, but running with it behind you makes it feel like it has disappeared.  I clocked up 14 kilometres today with the Walney Wind Cheetahs and hardly noticed the distance at all and have spent the rest of the day in such a good mood because I felt like I was finally getting my fitness back again.

I bought myself a foam roller which is supposed to loosen up and massage your muscles and I’ve been rolling about the house on it every day and my legs were definitely less tired today.

This afternoon the husband went running with a friend and the dogs so I’ve had the house to myself.  After starting this blog post in daylight, I then switched the computer off because I realised what I really wanted to do was try and write some poetry.  My mum and dad have been up visiting this weekend and I’ve been picking my dad’s brain again about his job as a scaffolder.  I ask him questions and then just write down what he says.  So I wanted to write about that.   I want to write a poem about his first day at work, when he was taken on as a labourer and spent the whole day inside a steel chimney, passing kit up, when you climbed the scaffold in what you turned up in, no gloves, no boots, no helmet.  I want to write about all the things that have happened to his body because of scaffolding, his broken hip, his numb fingers, his loss of hearing, his aches and pains.  I want to find out by writing why he’s done it for nearly half a century – what it is about a job that is classed as high risk, that takes such a toll on the body, why he loves it.  He does love it, although he wouldn’t say that he does.  I know this because of the way he can’t take his eyes off a building that is wrapped with scaffolding.  Scaffolding has its own vocabulary too.  The planks of wood that are put across on each level for scaffolders to walk on are called ‘lifts’ which I love, because the word doesn’t suit what they are designed to do, which is to stay put, to stay firm and provide a footing.  But then of course, they do ‘lift’ up the scaffolders as they climb from one to the other.

Anyway, I have started writing about it.  I’d love to interview some female scaffolders, so if you know any, or you happen to be one, please get in touch.  Luckily for me my dad is very tolerant of me writing poems about him.  I think he also likes it because he gets a chance to correct me when I call tubes poles or poles tubes or make some other rookie mistake.

This week I’ve been having great fun getting started as the Reviews Editor for a new online magazine called The Compass.  The poetry editors and driving forces behind the magazine are Andrew Forster and Lindsey Holland, so do send them your best poems for consideration.  I’ve been getting in touch with publishers to request copies of various books, which is really exciting.  The aim is to review a wide range of books from a wide range of publishers.  So far I’ve sorted out two and a half reviews and the magazine has room for four and the publishers that have been covered are Bloodaxe, Smith/Doorstop, Smokestack and Cape, so a nice mix of independent and larger publishers.  At the minute I’m not taking unsolicited suggestions for reviews, so please don’t send any!  It has made me aware again, just how much interesting, exciting poetry is being published – tons and tons.

On Friday the soul band that I play with, the Soul Survivors did their first proper gig to a sell out audience at The Soccer Bar in Barrow.  I really enjoyed the gig, although it has been a strange process for me really.  A couple of years ago, I decided I wasn’t enjoying playing and decided to stop taking on paid orchestral work.  I used to get myself stressed and worked up about how good I was and finding time to practise to play to the standard I thought was acceptable.  It took me years to realise I didn’t want to do it anymore.  So I just stopped playing completely.  I stopped playing in a brass band, I stopped playing in orchestras.  The only time I played was whilst I was teaching and for a couple of years I didn’t really miss it.

I say I didn’t really, because it felt like something painful in my chest, whenever I thought about playing.  It felt like something unresolved and that was probably because it was.  I always knew that I wouldn’t not play forever.  A year or so ago, I decided I wanted to set up a brass quintet because that was the type of playing I used to enjoy, then about six months or so ago, I started playing with the Soul Survivors.

I really enjoyed playing on Friday – although towards the end of the second set, I started to get overheated and thought I was going to faint.  Apparently I used to faint all the time when I got overheated when I was younger.  The last time it happened to me I was playing with the Yorkshire Volunteers, an ex-army band at Pontefract Race Course.  We’d been standing in the blazing sun for a while in full army uniform, ready to march onto the race course and I keeled over.  I remember a kind of black curtain slowly going down over my eyes.  The last thing I heard was the Drum Major, Dave Rimmer saying ‘Someone fetch the horse doctor!’.  Hmph.  Anyway, I avoided fainting by dashing water on my face and my neck and it seemed to do the trick.  Apart from that slightly grim episode, everything else was great.  The gig raised £2500 for Barrow Communities Trust.

Story of the week which is a candidate for a whole new verse in my ‘Trumpet Teacher’s Curse’ poem?  One morning I got to school last week and all of the rather small children were gathered round the door handle to the music room very excited because there was what can only be described as bogies all over the handle. My friend who is a teaching assistant at the school was fleeing down the corridor.  I thought at first she’d finally cracked and was heading home, or going to the staffroom to hide for half an hour, but no, she came back with some cleaning stuff and sorted the door handle out and order was restored.
The Sunday Poem this week is by Michael Conley who I met during the Manchester MA.  I think he was the year below me and had a poem featured as the Sunday Poem back in July 2013, but Michael has recently had his first pamphlet published which is called Aquarium and was published by Flarestack Poets in 2014.

I really enjoyed the pamphlet and read it straight through in one sitting.  His poems are always suprising – there are no dull poems in this pamphlet.  I chose Krill Rations because I have a soft spot for penguin poems – Martin Kratz had a great penguin poem in The Rialto a while back.  In Martin’s poem, he is posting a penguin but the penguins in Michael’s poem seem to be in a lot more trouble even than being sent through the post.

The language of authority and orders is used throughout the poem – ‘Do not approach the enclosure’ – which is actually quite an ordinary thing to read in a zoo – except that we know we are in no ordinary zoo right from the first day when the penguins are communicating ‘their desire to be free.’

Michael is particularly good at using words which hum with energy, like in Day 2 when he describes the ‘keening’ of the penguins  or in Day 3 with the use of the word ‘advocate’.  I wrote ‘post-apocalyptic’ in my notes about this poem, then deleted it because I thought it’s a bit over-dramatic for a poem that’s actually wry and funny.  Typing this and re-reading the end of Day 7 though ‘Remain in your homes until further notice’ gives it that feeling that something awful is happening or has happened, aside from the penguins wanting to escape.

I think the penguins represent something else as well – maybe I’ve been reading too much Proletarian Poetry but I think they are a metaphor for the working class, and the voice of the unidentified speaker of the poem is a member of the government or the ruling elite.  It is Day 16 that makes me think this the most with those lines

‘The penguins have realised
that the concept of freedom
is more complicated than they thought’

Having said all that, the poem made me laugh the first, second and third times I read it.  But the poem is actually so dark! I love that duality about it.

Michael  is a 30 year old teacher from Manchester. His work has been published in a variety of magazines including Rialto, Magma and New Welsh Review. He came third in the Flash Fiction section of the 2014 Bridport Prize,

Krill Rations – Michael Conley
Day 1

Using a series of hops, clicks and honks, the penguins
have communicated their desire
to be free.

We have increased their krill rations.
Do not approach the enclosure.

Day 4

We are aware
that the penguins’ keening
has escalated.

Those exposed report uncontrollable sobbing
as they are reminded of all their unspoken
childhood sadnesses.

Earplugs and tissues
will be issued
to all homes within a two mile radius.

Day 7

We have treated the bars of their cages
with invisible paint.

You are reminded
it is a capital offence

to advocate on behalf of the penguins.
Remain in your homes until further notice.

Day 12

All children must be taken to the zoo to see the penguins.
Demonstrate how easy it is to come and go

Do not be alarmed if the penguins
fling themselves towards your famiily:
the invisible bars are electrified.

Day 16

The penguins have realised
that the concept of freedom
is more complicated than they thought
and have indicated

that they no longer blame us.
Administration will be handed back
to the surviving zookeepers.
Please rinse and return your earplugs.

Day 28

The penguins are completely silent.
They lounge like tuxedoed lions
and are no longer even approaching
the invisible bars

which we have been able to remove entirely
and sell for scrap.
This revenue will be given back to you
in the form of a small tax rebate.

12 comments on “Sunday Poem – Michael Conley

  1. Enjoyed hearing about your week. And about your dad & his work. Look forward to seeing poems that come out of that material. And I like the penguin poem very much!! I just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s latest book of tales — and for me, Michael’s poem has a similar “duality” of wit & darkness.

    1. Hi Elly – thanks very much. I didn’t know Margaret Atwood had a new book out – have just finished reading the trilogy a while ago that was set in the future – can’t remember what it was called…

  2. I love this poem. It has set me thinking, just when I was thinking I don’t know how to write a poem any more. And I really enjoyed the scaffolding stuff and it reminds me that in the Handful book I gave you I tried writing a scaffolding poem too.. It was set off when we had to have scaffolding on the house and I saw how complicated it all is like a 3d mathematical model and the clasp things they use which must have a name seemed v interesting too. I liked it when a pole went cla-a-ng! ( Iwas once yearning to write a poem about the parish lengths-man who has a truck full of tools with different names and whose job title is medieval)

  3. An explosion of narrative energy and joie de vivre to kickstart my Monday morning! It feels likke you’ve written the first draft of a new scaffolding poem/poems already. Thank you for The Michael Conley poem. I saw him read (first time for me) at the Heart last Wednesday with Liz Vennand Jim Caruth. I really liked his set. What’s odd, for me, is that I was intrigued by this penguin poem, but now think it works even better on the page. It’s denser and less whimsical than I thought. Written down, the ‘invisible paint’ is entirely plausible. A bureaucrat has written these bulletins. Everything in this language is equally real or surreal. So, Kafka-esque rather than the Alan Brownjohn post-apocalypse. Great post.

    1. Hi John – That must have been a brilliant reading – wish I lived closer, I would have been there! I agree with you about Kafka-esque. For me the whole pamphlet was very fresh – each poem has a unique way of looking at things which I like…

  4. I really enjoy your weekly post, but this week in para. 6 you have “time to practice”. It should be “practise” (verb) because “practice” is a noun in British English. Something about ships and ha’porths of tar. Yes, I’m a pedant

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