The poems included here came from a callout for work that reflected upon the many issues that social workers face in their professional lives. Some came from social workers themselves, others from people who have used social services. They all provide creative insight into the complex threads that make up our common life together. Social work is a profession that works with some of the most vulnerable and disenfranchised members of society, seeking to promote human rights, challenging inequality and discrimination, and empowering individuals, families and communities. These poems showcase how those intentions and goals play out in the messiness of real human lives.
Thank you to all who submitted and offered their responses. The poems were selected Dr Autumn Roesch-Marsh (University of Edinburgh), Dr Ariane Critchley (Edinburgh Napier), and Samuel Tongue (SPL) and sponsored by the Social Worker’s Union (SWU).
‘Present’ by David Grimm
‘Star Quality’ by Angela Cran
‘two haiku’ by Donal McLaughlin
‘The View’ by Jimmy Gordon
‘Come Awa In’ by Lesley O’Brien
‘See these boys’ by Craig Houston
‘The Hand Game’ by Olive M Ritch
‘These boys are all fathers’ by Phil Crockett Thomas
‘Believe’ by Tom Kelly
‘Mosaic’ by Anna Wigeon
‘Boatswain’ by Michael McGill
‘Shadow’ by Rosemary Hector
‘Charity’ by Alistair Findlay
by David Grimm
Still broken, layered and wrapped in guilt.
I make friends upon friends in a nation of shit,
My friends say they’re friends and I love to have been known,
D’You remember the days when I never held hands?
They say they’re my friends and they smile to my face…so why can’t I trust,
A singular word that is said?
Why do I cry on my knees in the night?
I love and I love and I wax and I wane, I love till I bleed or I cry or I scream,
I love with my eyes and my words and my soul, nevertheless I ache in my heart
And my head and my bones.
My heart is in bandages…made from singular threads,
Its fibres all torn and bleeding , the bandages stained from historical pain.
With each passing beat, my heart slowly grows
The people in sight, they smile. It grows. They speak. It grows.
They hug me. They touch me. They love me. It grows.
They ask of you; it damn well implodes…
These days it mends faster than it bleeds,
And it smiles much, much, oh so much more, than it ever sheds tears.
I’m trying to love you like I love those around, but for the moment I can’t…
Future ain’t sold yet, let’s see where it goes.
by Angela Cran
for Fiona S.
Social worker? I freeze on our green sofa edge, tilting
my eyes but not my head to the paediatric community nurse
sent to reconstruct our home-from-Great-Ormond-Street devastation:
our five-year-old son’s asthma is not ‘asthma’. It is a rare,
incurable, life-limiting, expect-to-be-listed-within-a-year kind of
lung condition. What do we need a social worker for?
Children with complex health needs; that’s your remit.
Your Glasgow-warm voice on the phone – I can come to you – relieves
my fear of transplanting him to yet another alien zone. Instead,
we drink tea on adjacent sofas and talk over the sound of him laughing
upstairs, bossing Granny! to find Mace Windu’s lightsaber,
a purple Lego needle lost in the wreckage of Star Wars Republic Attack Shuttle
his dad had built him up with on Ladybird Ward.
So begins this unimagined future, as you balance me along
the knife-edge of his health, his school half-days, his Child Plan,
his life beyond hospital. Your Make-A-Wish funding magics him, his big brother,
me and their dad by Caledonian Sleeper then limousine to Legoland Windsor, all our hearts
swelling as we pan nuggets of pirate gold and – pyew! pyew! pyew! –
laser off-road baddies in the Kingdom of the Pharaohs.
But the day you curl on the carpet against our new grey sofa, I don’t know
this Christmas will be his last. He presents square swirls of his signature
marble cake to you, his nurse and his shoes-off local consultant, on chipped side-plates
transformed by red and white-starred napkins, his blue-eyed sparkles falling
on every ‘Delicious!’ crumb. With a yank of tubing under the door, he crosses his
linguine legs beside his doctor on the floor, peching but triumphant in school gear and
oxygen mask, its blue elastic strap a Braveheart scar across each cheek.
You were able to stay on though our needs, technically, were gone,
along with his benefits, his meds, his Motability car, his midnight requests for chicken breast,
his marvellous love. Autoimmune, I raged with disorder while twelve furious candles burned
unblown on his brother’s cake and he stopped going to school.
Eventually, it’s to you he’ll speak his toughest questions. You who listens. You who acts.
Later, you challenge the three of us at badminton one night and this gift
of time and hard smashes is what he – 19 and six feet four – best remembers now.
But I return to before, when you’d faced me across sofas with honest drops like,
whatever happens you will come through this and out the other side.
I couldn’t go there, then; to think about being alive in that unspeakable place, if
that meant without him –
But here I am. I survived. And somehow, as you knew I could – I live.
Dedicated with thanks to Fiona Shevill, Social Worker (Complex Health Needs), who came into my family’s life in December 2009 after my younger son was diagnosed at Great Ormond Street Hospital with idiopathic pulmonary arterial hypertension. Fiona was named Highland Council Employee of the Year in 2010, at which time she was described by one of her colleagues as having ‘star quality’. For information about pulmonary hypertension, see https://www.phauk.org/what-is-ph/
by Donal McLaughlin
best bit, these days,
is being alive. – thought
makes me laugh even.
summit tae say.
the cojones tae say it.
nae haudin back
by Jimmy Gordon
Come Awa In
by Lesley O’Brien
If ah could pick up the pieces
pit them gently on ma cushion
you’d feel the wairmth
ae ma fingers
the saft cuddle o velvet
you’d know ah can see
an feel the splinters
ae yer broken hairt
reflectin a sair fecht
ae sufferin an skaith
you’d know yer no oan yer ain.
Cos in that reflection
we can see the faces
ae oor mithers
who’ve aw stummled
an cried oot
fur their mammy
in the daurk.
Forgie oor fingers
if we mak a bit o a bachle
ae it sometimes
in a braw and cannae fashion
come awa in
an wull sew the pieces
back in place.
by Anne B. Murray
That last fall he had
the one that killed him
left bloodstains on the carpet.
She scrubbed and scrubbed
but still she saw them.
She decided to make a claim.
The assessor called and
saw no evidence.
You shouldn’t have
scrubbed it. You should have
left the evidence there for me to see.
Looking through her
breathing shallow, smelling the poverty
I see no evidence, he said.
She felt him look through her
look right through her, and thought
What evidence do you need?
Shall I unbutton my blouse
peel back the skin
let you see the stains
on my heart?
First published in Songs for the Unsung (Grey Hen Press 2017)
See these boys
by Craig Houston
That society is so quick to label
NEDS, scum, delinquents & dangerous
Chastised by ever growing lies
The press and politics pack, so keen to get ahead
Anyway, anyhow doesn’t matter what’s said
Boys you’re fair game, please keep class and continue
But I see these boys
Resilient, surviving, forgotten & forlorn
Hiding their pain, it should put society to shame
But why is society this way?
Class systems, maintain division, tension and keep us at bay
A playground of prejudice, they want it to stay
But I see these boys
Misunderstood, scorned, aching & ageing
Succumbing to the pressure, of a societal aggressor
Trackies, hats and brand-new trainers
This allows them you see to differentiate once more, between you and me
Get an army uniform son, it’s the only way they’ll leave you be
But I see these boys
Scrapping, rapping, raving & misbehaving
Coping with the cost, of a childhood lost
BELIEVE WHAT WE READ! And not what we see
But out there, is a death toll rising
The Hand Game
by Olive M Ritch
Let not thy left hand know
what thy right hand doeth –
and let not your mother
hide their secrets in silence,
for only she knows the stories that lie
in the lines of the palms
of your hands. She knows
but cannot speak the words, tongue-tied.
Slumped in her chair,
she takes from your hand
the medicine, three-times daily
and smells your nicotine breath
when you tuck her in at night
before switching off the light. Sometimes
you creep back in and your mother knows
the colour of your filial love
from the tone of the touch
of your Hyde or Jekyll hand.
These boys are all fathers
by Phil Crockett Thomas
These boys are all fathers
or will be soon so they
can cradle some soft thing
In the baby harness
he goes up like Peter Pan
teasing the audience
briefly as white as his trainers.
The parole board say
“it’s good for the boy
a baby will keep him grounded.”
It’s happening, the odd crocus
edges out between rocks and trees,
blue tongues licking crisp sunshine
at the feet of near-stripped trees;
telling us it’s becoming warmer and lighter,
forcing us to believe that there’s life after hard-bitten hail,
snow and frost that sprayed our breath
in those black mornings.
From The Wrong Jarrow (Smokestack Books)
by Anna Wigeon
The study, work placements and exams are all done,
And now it is the hour for the clients to come.
Practice process explained and values declared,
Those attending may feel it’s now easier to share.
Hurting hearts, tell unique tales and words, about need,
Words, they hope, will be heard. ‘Loss’ is oft a core seed.
Those who want to feel ”whole’ and who yearn to ‘belong’.
The rich gent and poor rogue, might recite common song’.
What change might occur, if a skilled helping hand,
Could give timely support to assist them to stand.
Many stories depicting a myriad of need.
Common circumstance bringing so many to heed.
The homeless, sleeping on concrete sheets while their wits,
Go to waste and wither down the cracks in the streets.
Then there are those who just want to ‘Be‘. Be free of,
Societal labelling and that online melee.
No-one’s is excluded from these hardest of roads,
Caused by abuse, violence; into slavery sold?
Thank-you for caring; choosing a social work role,
For giving solace to those needing consoled.
Your compassion; open mind towards those in ‘chains’,
For your seeing anew and believing in change.
As you give of yourself and your social work skills,
Remember Self-Care and your support team’s good will.
And barring emergency……do try to leave at a reasonable hour!
by Michael McGill
On Tuesday, I placed a ship-
from the living room
sofa – “I’m adrift,”
Last week’s magazines
were all read; all
ready to recycle.
the waters; too long
now a voyage, too sprawling.
Heat and the Radio
Times remain delightful;
each week, fresh words,
Soon my son
with his warm smile
and his cool Tupperware dish.
Soon a light breeze
aired the house, and soup
warmed in the kitchen –
Mulligatawny, my favourite.
At 5pm, a storm rose
outside. My son
and I watched
The Chase, listening
to Bradley Walsh sailing
As he was leaving,
my son gave me this
week’s magazines. “Cheerio
until tomorrow!” he said.
safely, I turned
by Rosemary Hector
Just because your calling
– your full noon sun,
is about care and help
and support, don’t assume
that you are caring, helpful
and supportive. In fact
you might be none of these,
although it’s hard to operate
without these attributes
when faced with people
who need them. No,
your clients will probably
receive your help because
that’s the deal. Therefore
you will probably
survive the sun’s glare.
It’s the moon that
might do for you.
You may have expended
all shine of care etcetera
on those who are entitled
to claim it, leave no light
for those who work
with you, need you as peer.
You too will need them.
Be careful where
you cast your shadow.
by Alistair Findlay
Charity, students I’d make write essays on,
their feelings, attitudes, beliefs, is it part,
or not, of the gift-relationship their tutors
keep harping on about, or a throw-back,
soup-kitchens, carding for lice, impetigo,
‘Christmas Day in the Workhouse’?
Spell out how you’d spend twelve months
of the year saying ‘No’ to the underclass,
then, for one day only, open all the doors,
burst out the boxes for the poor! I remember
when, in 1973, a 15-pound turkey was donated
by a man who wanted to deliver it himself, yes,
to the chosen ones. It would not go in the oven,
the gas for which had been disconnected: discuss.
From Dancing with Big Eunice (Luath, 2010)