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THE DANCING SAILORS
Ann Pilling was born and schooled in industrial Lancashire then at London University.
Her 2nd degree involved writing a thesis on C. S. Lewis which was her first introduction to great children’s books.
She has had a long career as writer of children’s fiction, over 30 titles, and won the Guardian Prize for ‘Henry’s Leg’, which was televised and has been broadcast on Radio 4.
Stan and On the Lion’s Side were Carnegie nominations.
Ann has written 4 adult novels, playscripts and the libretto for a children’s musical.
She won the Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition for ‘Growing Pains’ in 2007, and her first full collection ‘Home Field’, was published by Arrowhead in 2008.
Ann Pilling lives in North Yorkshire. She is married to Sir Joseph Pilling, until 2005 Permanent Secretary of the Northern Ireland Office. They have two sons and six grandchildren.
Since 1987 she has owned a house in Swaledale and this valley is "The country of her heart".
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The Dancing Sailors
Indigo Dreams Publishing
138 x 216mm
These poems follow the heartbeat of life with scrupulous accuracy. Cast in language as true and clear as a flowing stream, they are rooted in reality and find value in the overlooked, the unexpected, and ‘the hard edges’ of human experience.
The poems in The Dancing Sailors are concerned with landscapes – most notably the rugged terrain of the Yorkshire Dales, captured vividly and with painterly precision – but also with the people who populate them. Ann Pilling is considered and compassionate in her portraits of family, friends and characters who pass through but make a lasting impression. Her formal grace and resonant imagery make this collection a pleasure to read.
Ann Pilling brings a haunted, sometimes tragic quality, to a marvellously tactile, solid reality, particularly that of a rugged Northern landscape. Pain is portrayed deftly and memorably: "that second when / a big love suddenly snaps like bone".
She can conjure a hillside, a room, an era, in spare, sensuous language, and she knows well the poignancy, the power wielded by 'things':
"We could write our lives in flowers,
the daisied christing gowns,
the poppied pinafores our mothers wore,
the rose-sprigged wraps when they lay dying."
The Dancing Sailors
I see you walking on the beach at Douarnenez
your slacks bulgy with pebbles, shells in your hand
under a fierce blue sky, the blue
of Van Gogh’s final cornfield spattered with crows.
You have gone too near the heaving sea
and I call out, you cannot swim,
you never grew up, you were Peter Pan,
you ran too fast for us to sew your shadow on.
In a square, sailors are dancing, the houses
are paper pasted on, a crooked church
peers through a gap while a chalk-cheeked man
waves his hat to some women in a window.
Whom the gods love die young, Vincent, Virginia,
the man who painted this, you – intense, beautiful,
savouring the sacrament of this hour
as you dance with the sailors out of the frame.
I like this field, the way wind
fingers each blade
then ripples them up to the skyline in a single square.
I like the way
the lambs sit on their mothers’ heads
and mob John when he turns up with their feed.
I like his even-handedness, tip sack, spread pellets.
From where I sit he’s in a sea
foamed up by winds from Wetherfell.
I like it when Kath says
"the trees are budding up", shows me
green pinpricks on a twig, with May half gone.
Here becks blether,
ewes get tupped: bap, sup, clowt, nowt,
words solid as Whernside.
When cold bites it’s backendish and this field
will curl at the edges, fold in on itself,
wombing me in for the long sleep.
Through closed car windows all the way home
I smelt hay, its thin, sweet fragrance.
They worked all yesterday
and some already lies in long green bricks
on bristly fields, the rest like swathes of hair
still waits for the machine.
I step across our threshold
Virtute non Verbis spelt in tiles
and think of old Julys
of men who walked out of this house
to the Somme, to Caen;
up this lane a boy brought telegrams.
I climb steadily, going west,
to a shaved meadow where the dog
careers about, tossing the loose hay.
Below, the quilted land thrums with mowing,
while a horse big enough to pull gun carriages
sleeps in the shade.
I have narrowed it to a plain place
less talk, less folk.
Today I watched a man walk down a field
along a rope of wall, its stones
still hugged by melting snow that spread
fish spines on the emerging green.
I have learned about finches and moons,
walked only by stars, marvelling
how their still, cold light felt warm to me.
The frost opens old cuts but here
I have no past and the land
arched between that life and this
is generous, like the speckled breasts
of these spring-hungry thrushes.
This newly minted hour, untouched by children
mouse-scrabbling at the door, carrying toys in,
waits for its imprint. I descend the stair
to breakfast in my burnished kitchen where
last night I knelt in Lego grit for stray
cornflakes and soldiers as they drove away.
Only for minutes does this pristine quiet
console. I thought I had done with riot
of guns and bathtime, I long for the sweet
tug of hands at my skirt, I am incomplete.
‘Dancing Sailors’ by Christopher Wood used with permission from Leicestershire Museums and Art Galleries.