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A Guest Post from Poet Rachel Rooney

The first poems I recall being read to me were those of Edward Lear – The Jumbles, The Owl and the Pussycat and other nonsense poems. I was around four years old, staying overnight at my grandparents’ house. Being read to before bed felt like a major treat, because being the fifth of six children meant those night time rituals didn’t happen very often at home. I’m sure back then I didn’t follow all of what I heard, but I felt the tone and mood of the poems and remember being fascinated and a little scared of the Gorey illustrations. I also enjoyed listening to the lilt, inflections and changing rhythms of my grandfather’s voice as he read.

I have another early of memory of kneeling in church (I was brought up in a devout Catholic family), listening to the incantatory chants of The Latin Mass whilst leaning my head on the pew in front and sniffing the dark aroma of waxed and polished wood. The fact that I had no clue as to what was being spoken about felt almost liberating. I focussed on the music of the words alone and I enjoyed the differences I heard. That was also poetry, of sorts.

Ours was a relatively chaotic and impoverished upbringing, with few toys or treats, but it was full of books and talk of them. I was an avid, early reader and literature was my escape, my entertainment and comfort. Poetry was always part of that other world I entered. I particularly remember enjoying reading the children’s poems of Charles Causely, Ted Hughes and Christina Rossetti. And later on, Spike Milligan’s Silly Verse for Kids (which at the time of publication – early seventies – seemed very fresh and modern). My father was an Irish- born English teacher who lived and breathed literature. He would quote apposite lines from poems across the dinner table to prove a point he was making, he’d named one family cat Skimbleshanks after T.S. Eliot’s Book of Cats and the other, Kinsella after the poet Thomas Kinsella. Once, aged around nine, I’d complained to him of the usual summer holiday boredom. So he sourced the Witches’ Speech (Macbeth) and challenged me and my older sister to learn it. Amazingly, we did. It was that sort of household.

I don’t recall studying poetry at primary school although I do remember enjoying the ground-breaking and eclectic educational series of poetry anthologies called Junior Voices and the older, Voices that were published in the 1970’s.

I wrote some poetry as a child too, though only remember doing so at home. I was an enthusiastic writer and had a natural ear for rhythm and rhyme though I never showed my efforts to anyone. It didn’t occur to me to do so, partly because I was writing for my own amusement.

I stopped reading and writing poetry in my early teens. It became just something I studied at school – another subject to get a good mark in. Later, in my teens and early twenties, I subverted my love of words into listening to song lyrics; Cohen, The Velvet Underground, Love. I went on to become a special needs teacher and I raised my family. Though I continued to read literature, I didn’t pick up a poetry book or write until I was entering my forties, when life became tricky and I instinctively reached out for what felt most familiar and necessary. That proved to be poetry. Once I had rediscovered poetry, it became all-consuming. Five years later, I published my first collection The Language of Cat.

Looking back, I sometimes wonder if I would have continued to explore poetry through my teens and beyond if I’d been given the opportunities and encouragement to share and develop my writing. What I do know, though, is that the early drip-drip exposure to poetry and its word power lay the essential foundations that made me the poet that I eventually became.

Rachel Rooney is an award winning poet. Her poetry collections include The Language of Cat (which you can buy hereand My Life as a Goldfish (click here).  Rachel will be performing at King’s Hall Ilkely on 3rd October with The Children’s Bookshow in a lively and interactive event where she will also talk about what poetry is, how it makes us feel and where the ideas for poems come from.

Rachel is a National Poetry Day Ambassador.   National Poetry Day is on 28th September 2017. She chaired the judging panel for the 2017 CLiPPA Poetry Award and is a judge of the Betejman Poetry Prize.

For more information about Rachel see http://www.rachelrooneypoet.com or find her on twitter @RooneyRachel

Photo credit: Michael Thorn

Book of the Week

The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy


I’m a big fan of the television programme The Leftovers. Initially based on the Tom Perotta novel, it addresses the issue of what happens to those left behind when two per cent of the population simply disappears. Perotta apparently came up with the idea as a reaction to 9/11, ie the exploration of our emotions when people we love simply vanish. One day they’re there, and the next day they’re gone. Bain Murphy’s book doesn’t disappear people; even more startling in a way, is that abstract things disappear, and no one knows what’s going to be next. At first it’s sense of smell, then reflections, then colours and so on.

In The Disappearances, the absences are limited to a few towns, and only occur every seven years. When Aila and her younger brother, Miles, return to live in one of these towns after the death of their mother, they must come to terms with the absences, but also seek to discover their mother’s possible involvement with them, and a series of clues she inadvertently left behind.

There’s another story within the whole, that of a diary written by a separate character, as yet unknown to the reader, which crops up every few chapters. It’s another mystery for the reader to attempt to solve, and is written with a spooky turn of phrase. This mystery is perpetuated for a long way into the novel, and all the time the reader is still grappling with the clues Aila keeps dropping about her own mystery. Add to that a sort of fantastical historical setting – rural Connecticut in 1942, a love story, and am intriguing set up of teen friends and jealousies, and this is one dense novel.

Aila’s main key to solving the mystery is a collection of Shakespeare plays, annotated by her mother, from which she draws links to the ongoing disappearances. Herein, sadly, lies the flaw in the story, for although she does pull out quotations that somewhat link to the mystery, generally the quotations are tenuous, and one can’t help thinking that there must be a Shakespeare quote to fit almost any situation. What’s more intriguing are the references to different bird behaviours dropped into the text by the mystery diarist, which add another element to the whole.

Bain Murphy also feeds into the story a current trend among many young teens, that of creating ‘potions’, in this case ‘variants’, which add an extra level of curiosity, and she is adept at her ‘other world’ creation of introducing certain traditions and small character ticks, such as inscribing skin with quotations or illustrations, taking part in moonlit dreamlike competitions and so forth. All of which adds to the general romance of the text, and gives it extra layers of character and place.

So despite the slight tenuousness of the mishmash of clues and hints, this is a gripping and highly enjoyable novel with believable characters and flowing prose. In fact, the reader goes along with the clues happily because the plot and pace are so intense and riveting. Aila is flawed but believable, as is the family with whom she stays, and the other characters who punctuate this small-town America. The disappearances are well-developed and described, and there’s a great balance of reality/fantasy. Thoroughly memorable, and highly original, although marketed as ‘teen’, this could be read happily from 12+ years. You might even pick up the odd Shakespeare quote. It’s certainly one of the most inventive and lovingly crafted novels I’ve read recently. You can buy it here.