He was in Paris for the weekend:
on his own – she was mad
to think otherwise.
She took the children
on an expedition with friends
to pick sloes – small bitter plums
from the spiky twigs
of the blackthorn; best picked
after the first frosts
have loosened the stones.
Her friends were going to soak them in gin
ready for Christmas.
She couldn’t think that far.
She couldn’t even think
as far as next weekend;
or the stallion, black as a sloe,
galloping above her
down a sloping field.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2006. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2006 was Janice Galloway.
I lost sight of Feaver after her collection The Handless Maiden and was delighted to find her risen again in the most recent NWS collection, still-voiced and modestly worded as ever, and still unpacking the female psyche.
Wordsworth wrote in the preface to the lyrical ballads that 'Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings' but that 'it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity'. That is certainly the case with 'Sloes'. It was written about an actual event but almost twenty years afterwards. What sparked the poem was picking sloes again. I was living at the edge of Chichester Harbour and blackthorn bushes grew all along the harbour wall. The sloes ripen at the very end of summer and I spent a glorious afternoon in October sunshine picking them. Then I pricked them with a needle and put them in jars with sugar and vodka (cheaper than gin and just as good) to be ready for Christmas. I was very happy at the time (I'd just got remarried) but it made me think back to the time immediately before my first husband left when I'd been so unhappy and when I'd also picked sloes.
The 'small bitter plums' seemed a perfect image for emotions that at the time seemed so desperate and overwhelming that I couldn't have found the necessary detachment to write about them. With half of my mind I was denying what was going on and with the other half, the intuitive half, I must have known perfectly well. The stallion image at the end is true (something I remembered) but I hope it works in the poem to convey both the woman's intuitive mind rushing to its conclusion and the unstoppable passion of a man who is utterly besotted and driven by a power he can't control. I included the Christmas reference in the poem to set the tragedy of family break-up against the background of the happy family festival.
Usually in poems I use the 'I' voice when I'm writing about autobiographical material. But with 'Sloes' the 'she' who experienced it seemed so far away from me – a different person – that it seemed more honest to write 'she'. It's a very short poem that came to me fairly quickly. This is unusual – I usually write hundreds of drafts. I did some editing of the early draft but not much – just a little tweaking and tightening. The final image of the horse was hardest to get right. I thought for a long time about whether the poem was too slight. But I decided that everything is there and that nothing that I could add would improve it. I suppose it's like a miniature short story that encapsulates a woman's life and emotions at a critical time.
'Sloes' is included in my latest collection The Book of Blood, published by Cape in 2006. The book begins with poems about the break-up of a marriage but it goes on to reflect much wider concerns. The blood of the title runs like a scarlet thread through poems that put life against death, joy against suffering. There is violence, war, illness; but there is also the power of nature and the extraordinary resilience of human beings in surviving and searching for love. It's the love poems and the nature poems that I most enjoy reading. But I wouldn't be a poet if I wasn't fully alive to the darkness as well. It's a personal book but I hope, too, that it's a book that reaches beyond the personal to connect with myth and history and art and with our shared experience.