Reflections/poem biography for Of fences

“Two things which life does not allow:
words that can be throated back,
and bullets which re-enter a gun.”

This poem started life at a time when I felt beset with overwhelming choices, and questions about what I wanted from my career, relationships, life. (Was my creative writing masters worthwhile or would the money be better spent elsewhere? Does anyone actually read poetry? Wouldn’t work directly saving or improving lives be more valuable than writing? How many children would be enough to satisfy my mothering instinct? Can any children at all be justified in environmental terms?*) But this was not just a re-evaluation of my personal values often summed up by the cliché ‘mid-life crisis’, it was also accepting the downside of being able to see many sides or viewpoints – potential paralysis or inability to make a decision.

*Answers: 1. I (mostly) enjoyed it and I learned – I don’t get to live the alternative to know if that might have been better. 2. Every reader counts. 3. Saving my own life is as good a place as any to start. Failing medical training, a word in the right ear/eye at the right time may be the next best thing. 4. & 5. I have two lovely boys!


But, in life, to not make a choice actively is often to make a choice by default in favour of the existing state – of family life, society, politics… At the same time, many questions of choice don’t have a clear-cut right or wrong, or aren’t the simple binary they might initially appear – as in the historical opposition of the church/religion and science.

All these again point for me to the importance of making a choice or a stand not because it is right or wrong in itself, but because it is the right or wrong choice for a person individually. (As someone who suffers from anxiety and depression, the realisation that there is rarely an absolute right or an absolute wrong is great for removing the pressure, weight of importance and fear of failure that often stand in the way of decision-making. On the negative side, however, it can augment any tendency to over-analyse or agonise over the past, because there is rarely firm confirmation that a choice was definitely the right or best decision.)

Like Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’, it also matters to me that each choice we do or don’t make carries its own story. Both art and science are places where, unlike life itself, we can enjoy the results of a range of options as well as the one actually taken. (For those that love film, I am thinking of Sliding Doors, where reliving a moment with only a slight change creates an overall different result. This is the nearest I get as a non-physicist to understanding some of the possibilities incorporated in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, where a world exists for each possible option at every point where an option arises i.e. producing an infinite number of worlds.)

From abstract ideas and word-play centred around options, ‘Of fences’ shifts focus to conclude with a deliberately very specific final image – the brave, bold and hope-filled example of making a choice and living that choice that Malala Yousafzai gave the world stage before and after she was shot in 2012.

But, for me, the poem also closes on a second very specific but missing final image. Through years of re-drafting, the poem’s final stanzas focussed around photographs by U.S. artist Alan Sailer of an air gun pellet caught as if in freeze-frame as it was shot through a red rose, shattering its centre in petal fragments. If the rose is a symbol of is life or beauty, the pellet is pain or death. But, captured in that moment, art is created not from rose or pellet individually but from their interaction. Also captured in these images is the hole left after the pellet/bullet has passed through.

Although this image is missing from the final poem – the trace of it is still there for me. Pain and death are, sadly, an unavoidable part of life. Coming through them enhances the beauty of the contrasting states of joy and life.

Both the absence of this image and the actual pellet/bullet-hole in the rose, might also be seen to represent the void, that emptiness, that sense of something missing yet undefinable, which seems to be very much a part of contemporary western life. While making a considered choice and taking a moral stand are important actions, they don’t themselves guarantee instant happiness or fulfilment. The void, for me, is not an actual state, more a state of mind. There is no filling it, only realising its non-existence outside of the mental thoughts and language-constructions that create the feeling of its existence.

To return to the actual final poem, life is what it is, in all its beauty, and all its grit. Hopefully, most of us strive as much as we can towards the beauty, rather than the grit.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Points

1) How is repetition with slight differences used to reinforce or alter the poem’s thrust both at a particular point in the poem and in terms of the poem’s overall central message?
2) Does the poem’s structure reinforce or undermine the sense of choices/opposites? How does it do that? (Couplets, lists, ellipsis, columns of text…)

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

1) Imagine opening a gate into a field of that proverbially greener grass on the opposite side of the fence. What would this look to you? How would it feel to finally step into it?
2) Choose a historical figure or inspirational character that you look up to. How does your life mirror or contrast with theirs? How would you/your life be if you had gone through the same experiences? What would it take to make your life like theirs?

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.