Reflections/poem biography for Against Candlelight
Against 1 version 2

“As marbled wax melts, flickers
of unknown lives beckon
from fire’s hypnotic chaining.”

‘Against Candlelight’ is a poem that has several particular significances for me. It is typical of my use of the first person and it is the plenty-fish poem that went through the most changes post-submission of the collection to Jane Commane at Nine Arches Press.

In poetry, there seems to be a greater tendency for readers to link the ‘I’ of a poem to the writer, where they wouldn’t make that connection between a novelist and their first-person narrator. Perhaps because I wrote short fiction before I wrote poetry, I tend to use first person in a poem as I would in a short story. That is to say, I choose first, second or third person as a technique, because of the different relationships they can build with the reader, rather than as a choice of, for example, writing in a confessional style.

Over the years, I have written first-person poems in the voices of shells, seed-fern fossils, a barmaid mermaid and a grief-stricken father, amongst others. There is something of me in all of my poetry (in first, second and third-person narration) but few of my poems are fully autobiographical or confessional.
‘Against Candlelight’ is quite typical of my first-person poems in taking something from my life and then playing with it in a fictional way. The poem, then entitled Wicks, started life as observations of a candle on my desk. The wick had burnt down to nothing, so I had to use a piece of string as my makeshift wick in order to use it. Early versions of the poem had descriptions of the candle as magma and the wick as like roots threading down through cracked rock. Alongside these, I had various abstractions drawn from my brain’s metaphorical connections.

The poem being fairly newly written when I had to submit my full manuscript to Nine Arches, it was sent in this still unfinished state. I cringe about that slightly now. But it was a poem which I knew meant something to me, even as another part of my brain knew that I hadn’t yet quite worked out what that ‘something’ was. I don’t recall exactly what Jane said, but I know it was one of the poems that most needed work, and that her feedback really focussed my mind.

Against 1 version 1

The poem already contained the hypnotic nature of flames linking to past generations that have fire-gazed before us. The root connotations led naturally to similar thoughts, but were themselves too obvious. The poem also needed to lose some abstractions, then find some specifics that would help it connect and hopefully carry more emotional resonance.

The June 2014 version of ‘Against Candlelight’, then entitled Wicks.

The June 2014 version of ‘Against Candlelight’, then entitled Wicks.

Family trees seemed to be the answer. But this is where fiction mixes with reality. I’ve never researched my family tree. My mother has, and through her I know a little of our likely Welsh, German, Belgian…roots. For me though, it’s enough to feel that general sense of ancestry behind me. I’m more interested in how history lives on through the present, and general changes in society and attitudes over the centuries than my own specific family background. But this poem was a chance to explore some of the things that might be discovered in my or anyone’s family tree. And to think of the black sheep or family skeletons which could be revealed.

The poem ‘Against Candlelight’ that I sent back to Jane Commane in my revised manuscript was very different from the original ‘Wicks’. Later, in the final proofing stages of plenty-fish, the last amendment. The poem had finished with the line: “then pinch out its heat.” But I was aware that I had used a similar phrase in a poem in The Magnetic Diaries (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press). As I was writing about an unwed mother in ‘Against Candlelight’, the fact that “burn” is very similar to “bairn” seemed to provide the sadly appropriate final word: “then pinch out its burn.” 

(‘Against Candlelight’ in its final printed form is also a poem that usually shape-shifts when I read aloud to an audience. Its ellipsis, which is hard to signal clearly off the page, is replaced by ‘perhaps’ and extra emphasis added with an ‘All’ before ‘Bones’ at the start of the sixth stanza.)

against candle light smaller

Discussion Point

Compare the two versions of this poem. What has been done to improve it? Is there anything you would have changed differently?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Use either fire or stone as your theme. Draft a poem that is either all in very short lines (to create a wick shape) or in very long dense lines (creating a boulder shape). If you’d like more guiding structure, try to include the following words/ideas in your poem (perhaps one per stanza): crater, chaining, exist, makeshift, thief, feed.

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.