Perspectives by Sandra Horn

A while ago, I submitted two poems for an anthology on Age.

I am Of A Certain Age myself, and was under the (mistaken, as it turned out) impression that it would be celebrating agedness. I was delighted when one poem was accepted. Then, when the proofs came, it was only too evident that the focus was on loss, dementia, incontinence, death...very good poems, I must say, but not exactly joyful. I went to the launch with some trepidation and discovered two things: the guest editor had been working with people with dementia, and I was, by a stretch, the oldest poet there.  It made me remember that when one is surrounded by the less happy aspects of life, perspectives, inevitably, become skewed. No-one there had met my sparky mother, dignified, in control, and sharp as a tack until she closed her eyes for the last time at age 93. Or my friend Alice, who lived to 105 and was equally ‘with-it’ to the end. They didn’t know about the woman who has just passed grade 6 ballet at the age of 71. They were looking at old age from the perspectives of its sadder aspects. I wouldn’t want to deny that there are aspects of old age that are often challenging, tragic, but that is so very far from the whole story. It partly depends on where you’re standing – too close to the sad parts of ageing for the editor, or too far distant from the lived experience of being older for the younger poets.

I wrote the poem – the ‘in my head’ bit before editing, re-editing, etc. - on the ferry between Hurst Castle and Keyhaven. It’s a great walk along the Spit to the castle, and a short-and-sweet ride back on the little ferry. Two things enchanted me on the way back: one was a row of beautiful identical white boats, tethered to mooring buoys and making that lovely tinkle-clank noise in the breeze. They were called, Skugga, Sylphe, Seren Wen and  Sea Eagle. Seren Wen is Welsh for evening star and Skugga is Faroese for cloud, I discovered later. The second thing was a kite surfer; a gorgeous muscular young man, who came alongside and then soared up and over the ferry. A nice piece of showing-off that brought a smile to my face. My spirits were lifted along with the kite and I was reminded strongly of a friend, who, well into her eighties and physically frail, said, one day, out of the blue, ‘Inside this old woman is young girl dancing.’ Here’s the poem in its original form:

On the ferry

The ferry chugs unhurried through the bay.
To our left, the shingle bank;
To the right, a row of tethered boats,
Skugga, Sylphe, Sea Eagle, Seren Wen,
Tug at their moorings in the salty wind.

Kite surfer skims the shallow sea,
Comes alongside, keeps pace with us,
Then makes a half-turn, lifts –
And flies. Over the ferry,
Over Sea Eagle, Skugga, Sylphe and Seren Wen.

Oh, I am nudging threescore years and ten,
Slack-fleshed, stiff-jointed,
Needing to feel my feet flat on the ground;
But now I’m up there with the surfer – past him –
Riding the wind on strong and tireless arms.

The ferry chugs below.
Skugga and Sylphe, Sea Eagle, Seren Wen
Clatter and tug and fret;
Sea-bound. Earth-bound, while I surf the sky.
I am the woman on the chugging ferry.
I am a freed Sea Eagle, sky-bound Skugga, floating Sylphe, a shining Seren Wen.

 When it was published, in The Emma Press Anthology of Age, it didn’t have the final two lines as   the editor thought they didn’t add anything. I’ve put them back, here, not to argue with the editorial advice, but to underline my feelings and thoughts on that day, in that moment. It is simply a hymn of thankfulness for undimmed youthful oomph in an ageing body, which is pretty common amongst my venerable acquaintances. The anthology had a stonking review in Cadaverine (yes, really) Magazine. The reviewer picked my poem out as her favourite. Joy! Amazed delightedness! Cor, blimey! She saw intimations of mortality in it that I hadn’t seen or meant, though. I don’t know who she is but I’m willing to bet that she is young. Young in body, I mean. She won’t yet know about the dancer inside – the unageing dancer. 

My own very particular favourite in the anthology is by Joan Lennon. It is written from yet another perspective on oldness – a much, much longer view.  I find it profoundly joyful. Here it is, with Joan’s permission.


Warm wool of moor
wraps the hills –
   black feathered trees
   a touch of frippery
to soften old shoulders –
the long day
   paled to pink
though flame remembered
   in touches
   in shadows,
umber, amber, ochre
aged together
to a comfortable communion –
   this old earth
   that old sun.

Wow! Joan – and thank you!


Dennis Hamley said…
Sandra, what a wonderful blog and marvellous poem to greet an old git in his eighties as he prepares for what will undoubtedly be yet another great day! How sad that the editor cut out the final line of your poem. First, that was an unpardonable thing to do: editors do not have that right, ESPECIALLY when they are merely putting anthologies together. Second: that line is terrific. It's a triumphant cry of defiance, another version of Hardy's 'invincible human impulse to self-delight'. I shall cherish it. But I know the other side too, especially when I see my brother cope with a wife a long way down the road to dementia and can say, 'There but for the grace of God go I.'

PS. I've looked again and cannot believe how the editor couldn't see how that last line isn't just tacked on but takes up line 4 of verse 1 and the last line of 2 and turns them into that extraordinary affirmation. I think it's a great poem and (dare I say it) far better than the winner. That says 'old is old'. Yours says 'old is young,' which of course it should be.
Dennis Hamley said…
Though it doesn't stop me from admiring Joan's poem, which I think is beautiful.
Sandra Horn said…
Oh, Dennis - thank you! I'm all moist and soppy now.
Chris Longmuir said…
Great post, Sandra. I'm not a poet and don't pretend to understand poetry but there is one on ageing that has always stuck with me. It's 'SeeMe' and no on knows who wrote it. Here is the link if you want to have a look

It's quite a long poem but have a look at the first verse:

"What do you see, nurses, what do you see?
Are you thinking, when you look at me —
A crabby old woman, not very wise,
Uncertain of habit, with far-away eyes,
Who dribbles her food and makes no reply,
When you say in a loud voice — “I do wish you’d try.”

And these lines further down:

"Is that what you’re thinking, is that what you see?
Then open your eyes, nurse, you’re looking at ME…"

It's worth reading the whole poem, although you might be in tears by the end.
What an excellent post, Sandra. And so true. There is a dreadful tendency to focus on the miseries of age, without celebrating the wisdom and maturity too. I have an artist friend who is currently writing her PhD on the relationship between ageing and her creative practice, and we have had lots of conversations about this, and about the default negativity about ageing in our society. Women in particular simply disappear. The mass media have a lot to answer for - not least the stock footage of zimmers and swollen legs they roll out, thoughtlessly, to accompany every mention of older people, even people in their sixties! I know at least one successful novelist who will never mention his age in interviews, because he says it will predispose the industry in which he works to shelve him as being 'past it.' He demonstrably isn't, but he definitely has a point. Although occasionally I do find myself in gatherings of older people that deteriorate into one long moan about everything and everyone. Having younger friends helps. I just love your poem, and think the last two lines are essential.
Sandra Horn said…
Thank you, everyone. Chris, I do know that poem - I love its determination and its anger, although on the whole getting angry doesn't serve. Cheek and laughter are better, I think. The Hen Coop, Second Light poems, Silver Swan ballet classes - bring 'em all on!
Dennis Hamley said…
Catherine, how true it is, that the industry deems you're 'past it' at a certain age. Ironically, the very first book which I wrote which COMPLETELY satisfied me - and the reviews seemed to confirm my subjective opinion - was 'Divided Loyalties', published by Walker in 2008, when I was 73. Though I had already started the third in the trilogy, that was when it was deemed that my conventional writing career was over. And yet perhaps I was lucky that it lasted as long as it did. But apart from that, I moan about nothing but the sickness of the nation. Younger friends are essential.
Bill Kirton said…
Beautiful, Sandra - both poem and blog. I've just finished (and reviewed) Julia's 'Beloved Old Age' which, given that its central subject is caring for the elderly, necessarily looks at many of the sadder aspects of ageing. But even there, there's so much warmth, humanity, love and challenging of stereotypes and attitudes that one's made much more aware of the complexity and layering of the condition and the relationships within it. I'm not quite as venerable as Dennis, but I constantly find myself astonished and irritated by the unthinking implications of TV presenters, journalists and the like that people my age belong in bath chairs. Thank you.
Susan Price said…
I can only agree with everything said here. I loved your poem, Sandra and, like Dennis, can't believe the editor had the cheek to lop off the final lines when they so obviously complete it. (I love Joan Lennon's poetry too: she's a friend and I've read a lot by her.)

A little story: I recently phoned the gym I used to belong to, to enquire about rejoining. I am quite fit and strong but said, joking, "I'm over sixty now, so are there concessions for the ancient, like me?" - The woman on the other end immediately switched into an exaggeratedly saccharine, slow, enunciated manner: "Oh, bless!" (She really did say this.) "We don't, but I'll see what I can do, just for you."

I almost guffawed in her ear. I could hardly believe it. Seconds before, when I'd been explaining that I used to be a member but dropped out because of work-pressure, she'd spoken to me in a completely normal way. But as soon as I mentioned my age, I apparently became scarcely able to understand her or ask for me porridge. - I'll know not to make that joke again.
Ann Turnbull said…
Oh, Sue, that's so funny! I get that "Oh, bless!" all the time now I'm in my seventies - maybe it's a West Midlands expression? But don't let it stop you claiming your bus pass and senior railcard when you can.

Sandra, I loved both poems - yours and Joan's - and I share the outrage at the editor's removal of your last lines. And the dancer inside...yes. Until last year I was a dancer on the outside: a member of a group of older circle dancers that met once a week. Then our teacher had to retire, and we've been unable to find anyone else to take us on. We meet for tea and cake, but it's not the same. I'd been circle dancing nearly every week for 26 years! Our ages range from 60s to 90s and we will always be dancing inside.

Fran B said…
I have always made a point of having friends younger than myself. Nowadays, some are decades younger. I abhor gatherings of my peer-age group talking endlessly about bifocals, teeth implants, hearing aids and hip replacements. Just get these things when/if you need them and get on with living life to the full. There are so many much more interesting things to talk about! My young/youthful friends keep me young in my spirit and, no, I have no intention of giving up dancing whether physically or metaphorically.
Joan Lennon said…
Great post, Sandra, and many thanks for including my poem - even with bits falling off, I'd rather be old than young!
Enid Richemont said…
Oh Susan - go in there with a hatchet. Strip off, apply sequins, and scandalise - cartwheels totally permissable if you can do them. I do HATE this kind of thing.
julia jones said…
Realise that Sarah Hesketh is by way of being a friend (went to the launch of her Hard Word Box) so will make no comments re editorial decisions and understand why dementia etc may dominate the selection. We do need to rethink our dread of age and our pretence that we can all stay young for ever because it's the only bearable state. I agree with Joan -- it was so emotionally painful being young. Very much like your poem (in both incarnations) and have shuffled off to Amazon to order a copy, shoving my zimmer before me.
And the poem I have come to HATE is Dylan Thomas "Do not go gentle into the good night."
glitter noir said…
Sensational, Sandra, both the blog and the verse. I heartily recommend, to one and all, as a companion piece, a remarkable book called Growing Old is Not for Sissies. Out of print, but available on Amazon. A collection of inspirational photos showing senior athletes, some in their 80s and 90s. Thank you once again. Absolutely lovely.

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