The Box of Spells – Jackie Litherland

The box slips from my weakened fingers
into a vortex of jumble, two sharp pencils fall,
a tiny doll clutching a scroll I prise open.

Tell your worries to this doll it says. I refold
the note under her stiff little arms. A bundle
of coloured sticks tied with gossamer pink

thread, a paper plane made from a map of
Mid-Sussex, 2 dried rosebuds, a pearl button,
sea-frosted glass and a flat pebble. A stamp

claims I know my body better than you do.
A green label warns FIRST AID KIT
FOR THE MIND. A buff card addressed

to me: Box Launch, The Biscuit Factory.
Unopened since 2005. I read at random.
Don’t walk in a straight line. How to Deal

with Terrible News. Tell the doctor a joke.
I have to carefully repack your poems
in pink tissue. I spot a silvery green ribbon.

Nothing quite goes back the same way. My
fingers are impatient, clumsy, quavering.
This lucky box will undo harm you tell me.

I find the recipe for A Curative Soup ‘well
seasoned with tears and a secret’. The tissue
paper has somehow become old and split,

aged and careworn in the box, invaded by time
no charm can keep distant. In the Isle of Wight
you have a memorial bench. We borrowed you.

The luck was ours, the North a stopping place.
The box of curiosities spells out your gift
I bought for a friend, untouched by prescience,

who now lies in need of all its medicine. Who
knows, Julia, if one scrap will tip the balance, one
pearl button, one tiny marble, rolled like dice.

Julia Darling d. April 13 2005

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How to get rid of Elephants – Catherine Ayres

They’re fine, doodled in the margins of
hospital letters, so their curves look
pleasingly contained, like shells.

But squeezed into a three-bed semi
they’re harder to keep in proportion.

At first it’s a bit of a joke. You can
play telephones, whispering secrets
into a tail, while your husband holds
a trunk to his ear, pretending to listen.

And if you lean against one for warmth,
wearing the tracksuit you should have
thrown out after the operation, you can
dissolve into greyness for days.

The bulk of the problem lies in bed,
where a huge flank of indifference can roll
you both, fully clothed, onto opposing
edges, wincing at the sharpness of tusks.

So pick a quiet moment, use their proper
names and ask them to leave. Try:

You Will Never See Me Naked Again
I Want To Disappear
We Still Haven’t Talked About What Happened

 

I didn’t know Julia but she is very important to me. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012 aged 39. At that time, I hadn’t discovered poetry but during my treatment I started to read it, then write it, partly as a way of making sense of everything. About a year after I finished treatment, I went to a poetry surgery with Colette Bryce and she asked me if I’d ever read Julia’s poems. I bought ‘Sudden Collapses in Public Places’, read it in one go and then bawled for a bit. I felt as if someone had written down everything that was in my head. I also realised that Julia had been to the same place for her treatment – the Northern Centre for Cancer Care – and had undergone chemo in the same ward as me – 36. Her poems made me feel less alone. They also made me realise that I could voice my own experiences and that it would help me to do this. I thank her for that every day. I wish I had known her.

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Julia – Carol McGuigan

Julia, you were topaz,
a jewel of warmth and splendour;
shining, multifaceted,
through which we saw each other,
unobscured, immeasurably enriched
by your presence.

Julia you were a river,
uniting, never dividing,
buoying up and carrying others along
with the currents of your strength and enthusiasm.
Your energy moving on ceaselessly,
laughter deep and sparkling.

Julia you are a star.
There still. Dazzling,
though purportedly gone.
You guide our course,
we steer by your light.
We bless and thank you,
always.

 

 

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Pomegranates – Maureen Oliphant

Formed like a Christmas tree bauble without a hanging thread.
A leathery shell holding red jewels secreted in bitter yellow wombs,
waiting to be teased out with a sterilised pin.
A winter treat, a seasonal fruit like peaches in summer.

As children we sat on the rug before the fire,
the moving flames lighting up each perfect ruby orb.
The slow extraction, the tantalising taste, a hint on the tongue,
and then the crunch of seed, working the pin, splashing of juice,
bursting the gems, then frustrated mouths digging deep into the fruit,
the bitter taste of membranes.

Our Saturday evening treasure, a protracted savouring.
We, quiet by the hearth, curtains closed against the night,
firelight flickering round the room, silvering mother’s knitting needles,
as she clicked her purl and plain message.
Ticking clock and whirring quarter hour chimes.

A time held secure, warmly recollected,
before death claimed you both and left me orphaned
Now I eat pomegranates in summer and peaches in winter.

 

This poem was inspired by one of Julia’s workshops held in the Town Hall in Bishop Auckland. Julia was both inspiring and warmly encouraging. Her humour always shone through.

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Remembering Julia – Sylvia Forrest

I joined Julia’s screen printing class
in Southwick, Sunderland.
I can’t remember the year.
Nor did I know her as a writer…
In time one of her daughters would say
‘We’ll always have your words.’

The photograph I’d brought to screen print
was my mother.
I wanted to re-create
that single girl of nineteen
in layers of sepia like a cameo.

I know her image so well…
She’s in profile.
Her abundant, brown wavy hair,
crosses her brow and is held in place
with a tortoiseshell star
embedded with brilliants.

A generous curl, swirls
towards her face,
and turns back on itself.
She has a neat Roman nose unlike mine;
but maybe my green eyes mirrored hers.

It was good to begin drawing.
But on reaching her tapering hair
I found it coiled into a bun.
The discovery was warm.

But she’s not just a photograph
and a warm shadow.
She left behind some verses;
words that spoke her mind.

 

Like many another I benefitted from Julia’s various Creative Writing Classes. But it was in 1997 that I was very grateful to Julia Darling and Ellen Phethean of course, when, along with June Portlock, they published the both of us and we became the first pair in the Diamond Twig’s series of Branch Lines.

Sometimes it’s the odd thing a person says that comes to the fore: I remember meeting Julia on the stairs at the Tyneside Cinema and saying we were going to see the film of Eugene Onegin ‘Oh, One Gin’ she said.

And her writing is so direct; especially in Apology for Absence. Need I say more?

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A Letter to Julia from 2015 – Cynthia Fuller

You won’t be at all surprised to hear
that the Percy Building’s second floor
has resumed its serious demeanour.
All the fun you brought with the comfy sofa,
your afternoon sleeps and crazy knitting,
fruit and cake and noisy laughter,
was painted over
with institutional magnolia.

And there aren’t so many lurking now
outside buildings, out of the wind,
smoking roll ups and having lively chats –
though they’re still rebelling, your kindred spirits,
still naughty girls behind the bike sheds.

But I think you might be surprised to hear
you have a starring role in a PhD –
you and your faith in the power of poetry,
you and your ‘own sweet tasting words’.
You’re sharing the spot with Stevie Smith.
I think you’d like that.
I can see the two of you chatting over tea.
I can see you cheering her up.

 

Julia’s positive approach to life, her warmth and enthusiasm inspired me. Her refusal to conform and her ability to be herself whatever the situation and whoever she was speaking to were also inspirational to me.

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The Poem She Didn’t Write – Asit Maitra

Doctors had their say.
And the relatives and friends.
Now it’s my turn, and I shout
‘I’m free; I know the deadline’.

I’ll still do my daily tasks,
At least as much as my body can:
A bit of hoovering, cleaning,
Go to the shops choosing
The juicy tomatoes and a fresh
Cut of lamb, you push the trolley,
No hurry, no fuss. Then later slowly cook
The curry dish you love so much.

‘Let’s see the world, USA, Canada, Far East,’
We look at holiday brochures. My eyes
Light up but you say, ‘Better not take a chance,
Not go too far away. In case they don’t have
Facilities like us.’ I smile.
‘Get ready for work. You don’t want to be late.’
You depart fighting for words.

I’m light as a feather, a puff of air
That’s appeared from nowhere, nudges
The top leaves of our apple tree and say,
‘Let’s play.’
I’m a cloud, that flaky, white one
High up in the sky, silent and weightless
But chatting away with the sun.

I could be anything now that
The whole world has spoken.
It doesn’t matter what cure the scientists
Might discover in years to come.
But nobody really knows how free
We can be when we are told
‘Your journey’s only so many miles to go.’

 

I still remember that Saturday morning workshop (MA Creative Writing).
Julia was fluent and inspirational; her eyes glowing as if to defy the shroud that’s coming closer and closer.
My emotional connection with Julia was that my wife also died from cancer at the age of 52.
She wasn’t a poet but a nurse.

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Among the Feathers and Pigeon Shit

 
you will find a love
that hovers

on the edge of air.
A ritual

familiar
as a young man’s

one night stand;
no regrets.

A strutting walk
and cocky movement

of head
before winging away.

 

 
A fond memory – Jeanne Macdonald

I remember sitting in the bar with Julia and others to choose the title for an anthology to be published by those taking the first MA Writing Poetry. There were eleven of us – hence the title – First Eleven. Her shared enthusiasm and sense of humour an inspiration to us all.

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Dances

 

mother, why do you dress me as an old woman?

you rake my hair and put me in dangerous shoes
stick diamond twigs to my breast
and leave me at dances where I will look
ridiculous
the hostess does not look after me
I must talk to boys in paper suits
they wait by the pastry boats
and cannot kiss a girl without dribbling
my underwear aches
like you I am not the coupling type

twenty years later I have creeping regrets
thinking of those insubstantial boys
the alimony payments
the large castle attics
I could have disappeared in
their quiet asylums

how foolish I was to have scowled
and refused their vol au vents

mother you were absolutely right

Julia Darling

People sometimes ask where our press got it’s name from – here’s the answer. Rereading it now, I think it perhaps foreshadows Julia’s later use of houses or buildings as metaphor for the body. Also typical of Julia to reverse the received idea of the madwoman locked in the attic, welcoming ‘their quiet asylums’ where she could be creative and independent in peace and prosperity. Ellen

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Shad’wing – for Julia Darling on the anniversary of her death

Too dark to write
this rainy April morning, so
I’ll knit you a boat, Julia,
on big needles, strong as elbows,

trimmed in a  free-range yellow,
sprigg and span, sweet as a teacup, trig
and toasty, fit for the Nile, for the Tyne,
for the landing grounds of your lighthouses

I ache for still, those stay with me, go,
stay with me shades, fading slant
and gone, across the water:
I see you rowing for the Rendezvous in unseen sun,

nothing you need now, no gnarled prow, no four-ply
anchor –  you’re a sailing bird, a sailor flying,
sure as a tern, for whom the world is a thousand-mile
syllable, every breath says home,

anything’s possible across white noise
water, between sweep of echo
and our distance, your voice
carrying, a trawl-net of stars.

Pippa Little

“Shad’wing the surge that sweeps the lonely strand”
Sonnet XXX, ‘Bids Farewell to Lesbos’, Sappho and Phaon,
Mary Robinson 1757-1800

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