thu 04/06/2020

'What Grandma said (Grandma’s Corona)': sonnets by Claudia Daventry | reviews, news & interviews

'What Grandma said (Grandma’s Corona)': sonnets by Claudia Daventry

'What Grandma said (Grandma’s Corona)': sonnets by Claudia Daventry

The award-winning poet introduces her timely sequence mapping out all we have lost

'The prickle, when we run barefoot on grass / is like Proust’s madeleine'Jacob Tapper-Norris

A year plagued by Coronavirus is surely a time to dust off a seldom-aired poetic form, the Corona of sonnets, which was first dreamed up – officially, anyway – by the Siena Academy.

A year plagued by Coronavirus is surely a time to dust off a seldom-aired poetic form, the Corona of sonnets, which was first dreamed up – officially, anyway – by the Siena Academy. John Donne used the form to illustrate the circularity of existence and our connection with a creator, later expressed – in poetry – in Eliot's "in my end is my beginning".

Your basic Corona is seven sonnets long: I’ll say "only" because a step up from this is what’s known as a Heroic Corona - a 15-sonnet marathon in which each sonnet starts with the last line of the previous sonnet until the game is completed with a supersonnet made up of all the repeated lines in order. I have gone a step further with a full 16 sonnets so that the very last line is the first line of the entire cycle. I admit to having stretched the repeats for the modern ear, which cannot bear too much repetition, and, for any keen metre-maids out there, to having added a metric foot here or deleted one there in a bid to avoid feet of clay.

 

What Grandma Said (Grandma's Corona)

i

‘Ah, that was then, and this – well, this is now,’
my grandma told me; ‘then, before it hit
you couldn’t see the stars: the dark was lit
by banks of spotlights. Cities, councils – how
they fell in love with LED. The streets
and corners lost their shadows: criminals
slunk blinking from the murk like animals
– or so they said. They said we needed lights,’

she said, ‘but sell us more was all they did,
which you might think sounds fairly anodyne.
They didn’t mention mercury, or lead,
the dose of arsenic which fries the brain.
They sold us on the price. The truth they hid.
It changed the way we lived, the things we said.

ii

The life we lived, the sorry things we said
those days we thought we had the problem licked.
They said the world was warming, so we kicked
our dirty habits: idling engines, bread
like Polyfilla, plastic bags and batteries,
synthetic buds, wax dental floss, shampoo.
We washed our clothes with lye and ashes, grew
our vegetables in boxes with fritillaries

– that way it didn’t feel too serious.
We still drove cars, we still flew to Mustique
– not twice, but once a year – recycled more,
or took trash to a tip for other folk
to move to landfill (our inferiors).
Hypocrisy. It nailed us to the floor

iii

and once a self is banged down to the floor,’
she went on, cutting me a slice of bread,
‘that’s it. I won’t say we’d be better dead’
(she took some butter from the cooler door
then some of granddad’s home-made rosehip jam,
which granddad had to learn to make the day
they ruled soft fruit was earmarked for the USA).
‘ – we were as painted-in as Osip Mandelstam,

but then you’ve never heard of him, perhaps:
he was a Russian poet, often billed
a troublemaker (also paramour),
who said that poetry could have you killed,
who started rich but ended in the camps:
it was a tough time. Toughest for the poor...

iv

though in a time when even, yes, the poor
were still allowed to exercise outside.
I won’t say the misguided didn’t hide
in gyms, act out the poignant metaphor
of running ever faster on a treadmill,
benching ever bigger weights above
their church of ribs. Denial, drink or dread will
tell us muscle mass will buy us love,

yet, as they worked, they sweated out their dreams,
anaesthetised the soul from all it needs:
communion with the branches overhead,
to skin our shins with bark, to wade in reeds,
to cover up our tracks in water....seems
the river rinsed us clean when midge-bites bled.

v

We taught ourselves to swim when midge-bites bled
and water gave us an escape. It tumbled
from a precipice: our forbears scrambled
over pebbles in the stream that fed
the Orinoco, Rhine or Amazon.
We feel connection with the living rock
pulsating underneath our feet. The shock
of jumping into lochans with no swimmers on,’

she said, the nip, I tell you! It was bliss,
in those days. There’s no inky midnight lake
a set of one-armed pushups can replace,
no view of mountains from your static bike.
New trainers hug the feet – but then, your loss
if you’re not running barefoot on the grass.

vi

The prickle, when we run barefoot on grass
is like Proust’s madeleine: the senses hum
high-strung above your corpus callosum
and transmit signals via the thalamus.
The honey-butter scented madeleine
speaks to his uncus as Proust breathes it in
and sighs; to his postcentral gyrus when
he takes a bite and swallows, bites again...

to tell you things like this,’ said grandma, ‘I’m
depending on Paul Broca and his area,
and Wernicke, who helped decrypt the brain.
My temporal gyrus (he says the superior)
within my PFC produces rhyme,
though I’m the one who drives it, on my own.

vii

To own my mind and drive it, on my own,
or own a car – both make me master of
my destiny. Like Gary Kasparov,
who said that women’s smaller brains were prone
to scattering and chronic lack of focus,
hordes of men through history have ruled
a bunch of random macho things that fooled
the human race this wasn’t hocus pocus,

– though it is,’ said grandma. ‘Here’s the truth,
the honest truth and nothing but. The sting
is Emmeline, who dared to throw the stone.
It’s in the speech by Martin Luther King:
we must defend our freedom to the death
so we can earn bread, go outside alone,

viii

then we can buy bread, go outside alone
and fearlessly select what clothes to wear
no matter if they’re tight, cut up to there
or down to here, beyond the collarbone
and then some. As for niqabs, burqas, veils
or other kinds of showing-off, don’t start.
To show your hair does not make you a tart,
though if it has that odd effect on males

perhaps they simply ought to shield their eyes
or have a testorectomy instead
– or why not hide the gentlemanly ass
beneath a farthingale?’ my grandma said.
‘I’ll tell you why: misogyny. Surprise!
It’s not a million miles from social class,

ix

although in terms of nonsense, social class
still wins the toss hands down. Ask Thomas Hobbes,
John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau – a bunch of nobs
with time and money in the bank to pass
their mornings taking air in well-trimmed parks,
(occasionally nodding to the hoi
polloi who dig the soil and feed the koi),
then drift off to their polished desks. Or Marx,

the darling of the proletariat:
although he didn’t know which end to hold
a muddy spade or how to milk a cow
he talked as if he did, and they were sold
– lassoed with eloquence’s lariat –
the workers knew that they belonged. And how.

x

Some claim to know whose folk one is from how
one drops one’s aitches or distorts one’s vowels,
the Airwick one deploys to mask the bowel’s
 less floral odours’ – she was miming, now
– ‘and there are some who, never mind how daft
and out-of-touch it sounds, still think they’re born
way better than the rest of us. They’re thrawn,
impresentable, lummocks, onbeschaafd:

no matter how much they can quote from Kant
or Wittgenstein, can dance a minuet
debating what the post-Socratics taught
or singing half a Lammermoor duet
their poise is, in the end, irrelevant.
A lot of people spoke. Some others thought:

xi

you dressed, you spoke (a lot of people thought),
according to your rank. But that was then.
As long as you appear on Dragon’s Den
or beat your neighbour on the tennis court,
as long as you have buttocks like a horse
or write a tract on masochistic sex
and how some sadist type called Grey corrects
your right to have consensual intercourse,

now infamy is aristocracy.
As long as you can keep your Instagram
account updated then you’re good enough.
If you record your trip to Amsterdam
in selfies, sod the meritocracy.
Let others bust their asses writing stuff,

xii

they might impress the rest by writing stuff
but, yes, what rest is left, now, to impress?
The Left is unimpressive. So – the press,
perhaps, although most journalists are rough
as badgers....anyway, most proper news
comes scorching straight to us on social media
nobody would buy ye, much less read ye
– even if you have the wildest views

and tell me, what’s the point of reading books
or learning how to spell, or punctuate,
or buffing up your grammar as you ought,
or writing one – when I could name you eight
whose writers never even got their cheques
for work that no-one read, or even bought:

xiii

the books that people never read, or bought,
by ‘writers’ who have worked as yoga teachers,
bankers, corporate lawyers, gospel preachers
part-time sex-workers-slash-mid-or-short-
term perigenital masseurs, who wrote
their memoirs – semi-autobiographic
audiobooks for passing time in traffic,
self-help poetry with gems to quote

at partners, children, friends or ageing mothers;
family suffering from viruses
who, as they hiccup out their final cough
and sense a gentle clouding of the irises
accept that they were weaker than the others,
that their best was never good enough.

xiv

It turns out none of us was good enough
– or meek enough – to step up to the plate,
convince the rest to comprehend our fate
was plotted on an exponential graph,
that logic, just like god’s design, is simple
– that the rules were written in the stars,
obeyed by every species barring ours,
which chose instead to monetise the temple,

muddy up the waters, raze the wood,
exploit the earth and animals and plunder
sheep and pigs for meat and every cow
for milk and ocean-beds and fissures under
-neath and everywhere we fucking could
– ’ said grandma, ‘that was then, and this is now.

xv

Yes. That was then,’ she said, ‘and this is now.
And now we have to live locked down for good.
We have each other, standard-issue food
which comes in boxes labelled ‘chow’
– it didn’t used to be like this,’ said grandma,
‘we could run in open fields without
a mask, we walked in forests, we could shout
at mountains, swim through breakers to a sandbar

– can’t you understand me? Don’t you see?
Can you believe that once my feet were bare,
there was a time the heather wasn’t dead
I wore its tiny flowers in my hair,
yet we had no idea that we were free,
the life we lived, the space, the love we had...

xvi

The life we lived, the space, the things we said
before it caught and nailed us to the floor.
There was a time that – even for the poor
– folk learned to swim, and swam when midge-bites bled
from scratching, when we ran barefoot on grass.
When we could own a car and drive it, on our own,
quite far. We could buy bread, go out alone.
There was a funny thing called social class

where people knew whose folk you were from how
you spoke or dressed. A lot of people thought
they might impress the rest by writing stuff
in books that others might have read, or bought
– it turned out none of it was good enough.
But that was then,’ she said, ‘and this is now.’

Claudia Daventry in lockdown, 2020

  • Claudia Daventry is an award-winning poet: her work has been published in various reviews and anthologies and her libretti for choral music have been performed live and on Radio 3. She lives and writes in Scotland.

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