I recently read and very much enjoyed Hannah Brockbank’s Bloodlines published by Indigo Dreams Publishing and as a couple of poems in it feature objects I thought it would be perfect to get some feedback from Hannah about their evolution.
I am grateful to all the poets who submitted to the museum theme and hope this brief behind-the-scenes look at two poems gets us all creating more. I am also grateful to Hannah who has taken the time to share her poems and creative experience….
Bloodlines was born out of a desire to explore my experience of growing up without a father. I still have many unanswered questions about my biological inheritance and tried to deduce what I could from photographs. In fact, not knowing my heritage provided a creative opportunity to imagine a set of likelihoods, but what I really needed was an object, something physical, to explore and convey my emotion in a less abstract manner.
When I saw the skeleton and evidence of its historic tooth grinding (an awful habit of mine too), I knew I’d found my object. Its discovery felt serendipitous and I think for most writers, it is difficult to ignore these moments. The skeleton became my poem’s catalyst, but who did the skeleton originally belong to? Whose bones was I looking at? It was odd observing something that had made the transition from life to death, that had so much metamorphic possibility.
I made some observational notes which felt both intrusive and dangerous. As I looked at the skull, I simultaneously realised that my biological father could already be dead, and if he wasn’t, he might not be what I’d hoped for.
It’s not unexpected, in this place of bones,
to find a human skeleton fastened in place,
posed between a Slender Loris,
and a Flying Lemur that’s pinned
into an arc of flight.
I step towards your skeleton,
we meet eyeball to socket,
blood and flesh long run off
reveals a jagged fault line,
the meeting of cranial plates,
frontal bone giving way
to hollows as deep as my thumb.
If I could rewind time,
I’d hear you grind ridges into your teeth,
I’d see your eyelids twitch and open
to glare back at me.
But here and now,
I stare at the insides of your drilled bones,
threaded on wire, an intricate beadwork
your femur, patella – a smooth pebble
Your feet, rooted by steel cables,
imprint soft clay beneath you.
Underneath, the label reads;
Human Being, Humanite, Humanis.
Status: Widespread, and dangerous.
Martha is the name of the last known passenger pigeon. When she died, 104 years ago in Cincinnati Zoo, her species became extinct. I first learnt about her in a museum and became interested in what led to the extinction of passenger pigeons and also, what it must’ve felt like for her keeper to see the last of a species die.
I began to do a great deal of research, trying to shoehorn myself into the past, examining testimonies and photographs to aid my description of Martha. It became readily apparent that Martha was eminently symbolic of survival against the odds. Once I had a series of clear images, I stopped researching and started to draft ‘Martha’ the poem.
Initially the density of images weighed down the lines. I think this can be a common consequence of research, sometimes you can have too much information. I redrafted and aimed for 10-12 syllables or fewer per line. I found the nimbler lines carried the emotional freight of the poem more efficiently and that core images weren’t lost in the unnecessary loading of words.
One of the main themes of Bloodlines concerns departure, in particular the precise moment when someone leaves, sometimes permanently.
The curator shows me a light boned bird.
It is the length of his leathery hand.
The pale rufous throat no longer bobs.
The small, stuffed head, more buffish blue than grey.
Glass eyes, the colour of dried blood,
puncture its head.
Pillowy feathers yield to my touch.
They used to gather in billions.
Once, a flock 300 miles wide,
blackened the skies above Ontario,
and took hours to pass.
They fed on crops, could drink mid-flight
and roost in trees until the boughs snapped
under their weight.
Hunters sold the pigeons’ deep pink breasts
as cut-rate food for slaves.
Their feathers were plucked for dowry beds.
They ruptured the pigeons’ carmine eyes
with sharpened sticks;
they were left to stumble, blindly
along the edges of forest,
while airborne pigeons swooped low
expecting food, but found nets
and the slash of blades.
The hunters poked nestlings out of branches.
They shot higher nests down
with blunt arrows.
The young fell,
spilt open on the forest floor,
their mouths leaked crop milk into the dirt.
Martha, the last passenger pigeon, lived on in captivity.
As I leave the museum,
I don’t think of her loneliness,
but of her keeper.
How did it feel,
in those final, fleeting moments
to see the last of a survivor, before they disappear?
Hannah Brockbank was born in South Yorkshire, but grew up in West Sussex. Between 2001-2004 she read English at the University of Chichester. She then pursued a career in librarianship and studied for an MSc Econ in Information and Library Studies at the University of Aberystwyth. In 2013, she returned to the University of Chichester to undertake an MA in Creative Writing. In 2016 she achieved a Distinction and was awarded joint winner of the Kate Betts’ Memorial Prize. She is currently studying for a Ph.D and is working towards a full collection of poems about motherhood.
She writes, paints, and lives with her husband and two children near the South Downs.
Photo: Natalie Miller