Poet-in-Residence @ Chester Cathedral

 

In August 2019 I became Poet-in-Residence at Chester Cathedral. The role is a relatively new one at Chester Cathedral. I am only the second in post, and feel privileged to be invited to contribute to the rich and varied life of this unique space

A Residency can develop in various directions, alongside the opportunity to work on one’s own writing. Initially my focus has been particularly on fostering  interest in poetry through a Faith in Poetry discussion group, and running occasional Writing Workshops hosted at the Cathedral. You can read some reflections here

In January 2020 I launched Chester Cathedral’s first Young Poets’ Competition, to encourage writers in the 16-18 and 19-25 age groups. We invited poems on the Cathedral’s 2020 theme of Journeys and they came to us from all over the country.

Plans for other poetry events in 2020 were put on hold with the advent of Covid-19 as  Chester Cathedral closed for public gatherings. As it re-opens, new events are being planned for the end of this year and 2022.


Living Lights

One of the fruits of lockdown has emerged in Chester Cathedral’s publication of Living Lights in September 2021. Originally planned as an Education Pack, it focusses on 15 of the ‘Saintly Windows’ around the Cathedral Cloisters. Canon Jane Brooke has written a story, compiled facts and questions on each Saint; I have written an accompanying poem in a particular form along with a description of each of 15 different forms used. A depiction of each window and related images complete the attractive double page presentations in this saintly gallery.

Copies can be obtained from Chester Cathedral Bookshop @ £7.99, and also from me directly. Call me on 07787-116603 or e-mail juliamcg@creativeconnectionscheshire.co.uk

The publication is also the inspiration for November’s workshop below..


Poetry Writing Workshop @ Chester Cathedral


Form and Flow 

On: Saturday 13th November, from 10am-12.30pm

At: Chester Cathedral Library

Life is a constant dance between the ordered and the free-flowing. Writing poetry, too, involves choosing our words to create a piece that incorporates both form and flow. In this workshop we will explore this dynamic.

We will focus particularly on the Saints depicted in the Cathedral Cloister windows, and what it might mean to go about shaping a life in glass and on the page. We will look one or two poetic forms from the most accessible to the more challenging and try our hand at what appeals.

This workshop is suitable for anyone, of whatever level of writing experience, who wants to engage with exploring the writing of poetry in Chester Cathedral’s inspiring surroundings.

Cost: £15

To book, please go to the Ticketsolve page for this event on Chester Cathedral’s website: here


From the Residency…


 

Chester Cathedral ran a Medieval Day, inviting visitors to gain a taste of the Cathedral’s heritage through Medieval tours, live music, crafts and the exhibition of medieval objects with the Mobliity of Objects project based at the University of Chester. Among the objects we were allowed to handle (suitably gloved!) was this medieval key in the image above. It’s not every day you get to hold a 600 year-old key…

Medieval Key 

Behind my shiny line of Yales,

keys to unremembered locks

hang by my front door,

kept in limbo just in case.

Little wonder, then, this key

that has slipped six centuries

lands like an old friend 

in the palm of my hand. 

 

I hear its weighty sigh

as my warm fingers curl

over its skeleton body. 

It was made to be held;

partner in power of permission,

its portcullis bit purposed

to enter the darkness 

in unique and intimate fit.

 

It seduces us with questions:

Whose hands held it close,

fumbled for it in linen folds,

ringed it with others to feel 

its bony jostle on the hip?

What did it hide from others’ eyes –  

coins of currency now spent, 

spidery documents, cataract jewels?

 

Now it opens only air, a door

of empathy to unnamed souls

securing their precious things

just like us, who turn this key 

from household tool 

to treasured object, kept

captive in a glass case, 

safely locked away. 

 


During the pandemic, I was more a poet in exile than in residence…

Cathedral Poet in Exile

Abbey Square cobbles are fists

under my shoes. I don’t miss them, 

nor those mornings of organ-tuning,

the air slabbed with rising notes

of random length. Abrupt stops.

St. Werbergh’s Shrine sighing.

 

And I hadn’t thought about 

candles lit in Chapel harbours, 

bright glass gaze of angels, saints,

Choir’s wooded stalactite parade,

till I stood where branches arch

over this bluebell-peppered glade.

 

Trees touch fingertips in prayer.

Sunlight’s dapple dissolves words.

Air drifts in an incense of silence.

I am held in canopied sanctuary,

taste again that poise of space

that shimmers at the brink.

 

I am delighted that this poem has been included in Worktown Words 6th Edition on the theme of Silence, which you can find

here


My last morning in residence before complete lockdown was on March 17th, when only the  main body of the Cathedral was open and attracting a few visitors, mindful of social distancing. Sadly Peter Barnes’ stunning and unusual sculpture, of The Last Supper, just arrived for its stay in the South Transept, could no longer be viewed. But it was there that day, in part inspiring the poem below:

 

 

‘The body of the Cathedral remains open.’ 

Visitors trickle through the West Door, 

skirt an emptied nave – no more aisles

to mark the route; the undaunted

meander like lost coins on a pavement. 

Speech feels naked, drops to a whisper.

 

A war-torn Union Jack hangs still

above a surprise of through-breeze,

but racks of tea-lights wave wild arm

thrown by the breath of outside air.

A distant door clangs shut.

 

Little to do but light a candle, 

take a selfie, snap a companion

below a windowful of Northern Saints

or by scatter of flotsam and jetsam

chairs in wide circles where no-one sits,

 

not even these sculpted disciples,

solid company of The Last Supper,

computer-key clothed in transfigured mosaic,

inviting our touch in the only way open

in these days of corona.

 

 

 



Ageless 

To wander past the dead is an exercise 

in arithmetic. Subtract birth from death 

to get a life, peg a cliché:  

good innings, tragic loss

among this company of the mourned,

galleried in memorial tablets.

 

Perhaps Mary Lloyd, too, walked here

with sister Martha, skirts rustling

their bodies warm in Cathedral chill,

till the April she left Martha’s arms 

bare-branched, bereft of blossom 

as petals wept into wind’s snatch.

 

Mary’s heart, too gentle for the stone 

they placed for one so entirely beloved,

every mason’s incision a twist

that deepened the wound, 

but left her birthdate untooled,

age smoothed to marble silence.  

 

A life of affectionate deportment

that cannot be numbered

leaves us standing at a loss, 

our wonder an echo of Martha’s Why?

while Mary slips the open grave,

uncontained as Lazarus. 

(The Memorial Tablet in Chester Cathedral’s south aisle to Mary Lloyd, who died on April 28th, 1722, was commissioned by her sister Martha. The stone is blank where her age should be inscribed)


Hope 

Fingers slip; coins drop in a slot

with a flat metal splash, cash boxed.

His deposit for the upturn of days.

 

Silence swallows the moment.

 

He cradles a candle, egg-light.

Paraffin-wax sheens onto his palm.

He pushes it hard onto a dark spike.

 

Stillness holds a body pinned with pain.

 

Now he tastes vertigo; his taper wavers.

Even his flame must be borrowed,

a pinprick flicker caught from its neighbour.

 

Sighs soak into the flagstones.

 

Giant-clumsy, he threads a needle of light.

Prayer steadies on its tightrope wick,

joins the whisper of pearl-bead ranks.

 

Shadows absorb the waiting.

                                                                                                              Julia McGuinness 


Chester Cathedral has adopted the theme of Waves for 2019. As part of this, the Cloisters have been home to a Saving the Deep sculpture exhibition, the work of sculptor Jacha Pottgieter. It comprises a collection of sea creatures created entirely from re-cycled materials that Jacha picked up on Criccieth beach over a period of just three days. The exhibition is a wake-up call to care for our environment. If we do not change our ways, the sea will contain more plastic than fish within decades.

On my Tuesday mornings in Residence at the Cathedral, I’ve regularly seen these works of art. One, the Mediterranean Monk Seal, has been calling out to me every time I’ve passed by. My response is the poem Beached, which you can find alongside a picture of Jacha Pottgieter and his unique piece, here

 


It’s amazing what you find around a Cathedral. One morning over the summer, as I wandered around looking for poems, I thought about sculpting a poem from the words already there on screen, wall, noticeboards and displays. The result is this Found Poem. Its title, Ingredients Present, is from a notice giving dietary information located in the Cathedral Refectory. Other sources include information on exhibits and artefacts, fire regulations, leaflets and words on the walls – but what each was and was originally about, I will say no more…

Ingredients Present

A Guide makes good use of time.

Do thou likewise.

What time do you wake up?

Arise and eat.

Set out to explore

through the black gate.

 

Mind the step.

Join in the conversation.

You can be part of it,

do not have to tell us your name.

Become a Chorister.

Only if competent.

 

Help us build.

Only if safe.

Please give generously,

exciting holiness.

Take off any shoes.

Two remain in this Chapel

 

God is worshipped

in this place,

the start or finishing place.

Share its peace;

earth below, stars above.

Enjoy the Deep.

 

Do not leave without praying.

Jesus heals everything,

originally handcrafted   

to the glory of God –

no two are the same.

Walk straight ahead.

                                                                      Julia McGuinness 


As part of the Residency, I asked if I might make a poetic contribution to Chester Cathedral’s worship life. In response, I have had the opportunity to offer a poem at a Sunday evening Compline; a lunch-time Eucharist on National Poetry Day, and at one of the monthly gatherings of the Benedictine Group . For each occasion, I was given the Bible reading as a starting-point for a poem. The first of these, on St Michael and All Angels’ Day, was the most daunting – a section of Revelation 12 covering the war in heaven with all hell breaking loose and Satan overthrown. Somehow, from this, Hollow emerged.

Hollow

This was surely the place:

Earth hollowed by force of a fall.

Trees uprooted, branches ripped

to contortions of spent limbs.

It had been a thunderous night:

 

Stars shook, sky shot with fire.

Sharp as glass, glittering white,

a crazed whirlpool of wings

dizzied round a cloud of rage

that hurtled towards earth’s quake.

 

They found this crater, followed

ground gouged in a long wound

down to a steaming hiss of sea.

But harder to track a new hollow

within; silence where that iron voice 

 

used to pummel their souls

to a worm’s meat of frailties berated.

Now, this sunrise, and a fresh breeze

filling every space with song:

Salvation; Life; Beloved, Rejoice.

                                                                                   Julia McGuinness

  • About Julia

    Julia

    From writing stories for my younger brother, to penning poems for the School Magazine and filling a growing pile of personal journals, the written word has always been part of my life’s journey.

    I started out as an English Teacher and subsequently retrained as a Counsellor. I have counselled in a GP Surgery and worked with various Employee Assistance Schemes and Charitable Trusts alongside seeing private clients.

    Although I have done some freelance journalism and written four non-fiction books, creative writing has become my main focus in recent years.

    My poems have appeared online on sites including Amaryllis, Silver Birch Press, Clear Poetry, Spilling Cocoa Over Martin Amis, Riggwelter and Ink,Sweat and Tears. I have been published in Curlew and Bucks Mill Magazine, and anthologised in Our Hearts Still Sing. My first poetry collection, Chester City Walls, came out in 2015.

    Read more about Julia
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