Cathedral Poet-in-Residence: Making Waves and a Monk Seal

‘Careful now!’ the Organist calls out as I gingerly tread the stone spiral staircase leading to the Cathedral’s organ loft. ‘I broke my leg coming down here a couple of years ago.’ It doesn’t bode well. We are on our way up.

At the top, we shuffle past the wooden seat to look at the hard tiled floor way down below, alongside a Verger who, somewhat inexplicably, we find already up here. ‘Whatever you do, don’t touch the organ stops,’ he says,’ indicating a console that wouldn’t look amiss on the deck of the Starship Enterprise.

I am on a recce. The next day, Chester Cathedral is partnering with Storyhouse, Chester to host a presentation as part of their Educating Creatively Conference. I’ve been asked to assemble a group of poets to read – from the organ loft.

Our pieces will be inspired by the Cathedral’s 2019 theme of Waves, and the prospect of reading from the organ-loft is already making some. I recall one poet’s e-mail, anxious about the narrow staircase: ‘I’m no string bean!’

I nip up the road to Storyhouse to be hailed in the Coffee Bar by the Conference Organiser: ‘We were just talking about you’, he says, cheerily. ‘There’s a change of plan. One act can’t make it, so the programme’s shorter. We’ll put the poets on stage and they can read another poem each if they like.’

No worries. I know from experience that two great things about poets are a) when it comes to the opportunity to read, they always have an extra poem or two about them to rustle up for the occasion and b) they tend to be easygoing and adaptable about last-minute programme adjustments.

Poems and poets appear on cue and we have a delightful afternoon of songs from Mary Poppins by Blacon High School; a moving performance – in all senses – from the Fallen Angels Drama group, interspersed with and followed by our poetry.

After the pressure of the public occasion, I’m ready for some peace and a quiet wander in search of some more poems. As I walk round through a place where the Creator is worshipped, I notice on how it abounds in the beauty of things crafted, from the building’s fabric itself to the artwork and memorials within: workings of stone, glass, iron and wood.

But of all the things made, what most moves me is the Exhibition of sea creatures beached round the Cathedral Cloisters. They have been brought to life from rubbish picked up on Criccieth Beach by sculptor Jacha Potgieter over a mere three days. It’s the life-sized Monk Seal that stops me with her glassy black-eyed gaze every time I pass, till I sit and find some words for her. Later, I send my poem off to Jacha. One creative act prompts another.

A Cathedral can seem like a timeless place and I been finding myself soothed by its familiarity as week succeeds week: the regular staff and Volunteers; pinprick light of candles; echoey quiet of the Nave (apart from when the organ is being tuned); mix of purposeful and leisured walkers round the building; rhythm of Midday prayers and the steadfast stance of stained-glass saints.

But the next week, it feels different. There’s a hearse pulled up outside the open West Door and a pedestal display of flowers. A funeral is taking place. This perhaps should not be so surprising, but it sets the morning out of kilter. I’m turned back on my way to St Werbergh’s Chapel by ropes and officials. Suddenly the morning seems aimless as it does for the several Cruise tour groups, cast adrift as they cannot access certain parts of the Cathedral.

Visitors hush, slow their pace or slip away. I join one or two others and sit as we listen to the choir’s beautiful rendering of Mozart Requiem’s Lacrimosa in tribute to the deceased, whom I’ve gathered was himself once a Cathedral chorister.

Afterwards I catch a few words with Jeremy, the Canon Precentor taking the service. I wonder why the whole building was not closed to the public for the service. ‘It’s important that the Cathedral’s kept open,’ he tells me. ‘This is part of human experience. It’s what lies ahead for us all.’

As if to underline the transience of all things, I see, as I go through the Cloisters, that the Monk Seal is missing one of the wide-open eyes I’ve referred to in my poem. And I feel a twinge of sadness.

Below is the poem this creature inspired:

Beached

Who played pitch and putt on the beach

and shrugged at a ball lost in the sand?

Which little girl’s brother buried her jelly sandals

as she raced barefoot to meet the waves?

And who is that man, picking along the tide line,

collecting dead food trays and yoghurt pots

to place here, on this life-sized Monk Seal,

hobbled in the Cathedral cloister,

where the black monks once paced

and prayed under the weight of a world

that drove them from their habitat?

 

Her back is littered with scraps of bin bags

over-stretched and whipped by wind,

but her habit is made motley, chequered

with bright body parts of plastic bottles;.

a spade handle, bereft of its scoop;

bruised wheel from a child’s buggy,

a day out stopped in its tracks;

a truant wooden clothes brush,

its owner left misted with sticky grains

that accompanied him home,

sandpapering his car seat en route.

 

This Monk Seal recycles the offcuts

of a thousand careless days,

single-use summers we discarded.

Black eyes shine, round, astonished

as her nostrils’ flare at the shock

of turquoise netting draped round her neck,

a necklace, or noose.

She catches our breath, foretells in flotsam

how trawler nets will gape and gag on plastic;

how things we think we’ve left behind

are not so simply brushed away.

 

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  • 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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