The Curfew Bell

The Curfew Bell

Karen Jane Cannon

‘Set 1400 feet up in the Lowther Hills of southern Scotland, in a landscape scarred by the footprint of industry, The Curfew Bell clangs a warning—a baby born too early against a desolate backdrop bleak and snowy, amongst baaing sheep and remnants of leadmining works and grouse moors—a place of vanished villages and endless valleys, of motherhood and survival.’

My poetry pamphlet ‘The Curfew Bell’ was officially launched in early January 2021, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to say a little more about the collection. I am very grateful to Indigo Dreams for publishing this book— especially after such a difficult year for everybody.

When I was eighteen I moved to Leadhills, a little village in Southern Scotland set high in the Lowther Hills. At over 1400 feet, it is officially the second highest village in Scotland, and I arrived in the middle of a December snowstorm, the village materialising out of whirling flakes — rows of white single storey cottages with black doors and sash windows, the smell of burning coal heavy in the air, grey smoke spiralling from chimneys. Leadhills is an ex leadmining village and these tiny cottages were built by hand by the leadminers themselves. In the centre of the village sits the Curfew Bell, traditionally rung to warn of miners trapped underground or children lost on the moors, but nowadays it rings in the new year.

During my time in Leadhills, I lived for two years without electricity, in a bid to discover what it was like for the miners and their families living their lives in such a desolate cut-off landscape, so high up.

I had one open fire in the centre of the lounge which heated the whole cottage and provided copious amounts of hot water. For lighting I used gas lamps and candles. All cooking was carried out over the hot grate — it’s surprising how resourceful you become when this is all you have.

It was here, on a snowy April morning, that I suddenly went into premature labour, an hour from the nearest hospital. After a bumpy ambulance ride over cattle grids and down steep pass roads, my son was born at twenty four weeks gestation, and spent the first three months battling for his life in an Intensive care unit in Glasgow.

All this is happened a long time ago now — indeed a whole other lifetime — but I wanted this collection to recapture the wildness and isolation of this post industrial landscape, these hills and moors and the lives that inhabit them.

Poems from this collected have been published in many journals and anthologies, including Mslexia, Acumen, Places of Poetry, For the Silent and Best of British.

Suicide Hill was a finalist in the Mslexia Poetry Competition 2017 and a selection of the poems were highly commended for The Flambard Prize 2014.

The Curfew Bell can be purchased here:

https://www.indigodreams.co.uk/karen-jane-cannon/4595121238

Emergency Mints

Introducing the Poems

It’s been two months since the launch of my debut poetry pamphlet Emergency Mints (Paper Swans Press, 2018) and I thought this would be a good time to introduce tnree of the poems, and share an audio recording of each.

Emergency Mints

The summer our father sailed the English Channel,
we rolled packets of Polos into smooth white paper tubes.
My sister used her felt tip pens to write EMERGENCY

MINTS down each bony spine.
You were our polar explorer,
arctic adventurer.

We charted your route, coloured
the curved waves of land, solid
blue slab of sea.

And when you came back—all
St Tropez tan and French laugh,
Cognac and St Christopher—

we listened to your stories of basking
sharks and places orcas go to die, or you lashed
to the mast in a great wild storm, sucking

mints like tiny life belts. How you were
blown weightless across the harbour,
just missing the light

ship in the fog, the three of us
clinging to your legs as if your very voice
could stop us from drowning.

This poem charts the story of my father sailing the English Channel in a small yacht, back in the 1970s. It has to be said, he wasn’t a great sailor and felt very sick at sea. A few years ago I asked him about this crossing, but sadly, now in his eighties. he remembers very little of it. It was my sister who recalled the events in the poem from childhood, bringing into question concepts of ‘truth’ and memory.

Turtle Star

By the roadside there’s a stall
selling snake-eyed water melons, mangoes
plucked from the shore, fleshy paw paws,

claws of sweet bananas. All laid out,
they become these islands, a map
of the Caribbean, where the calm sea

meets Atlantic Ocean.
These fruit are not produce, but dreams
harvested by tobacco-stained fingers, cutting

cane in blistering heat,
five thousand miles from home.
The fruit seller rushes over, waving

and shouting, pushes a coconut
into my pale palms. He’s bored
a hole through woody husk

for a stripy straw, shakes his head
at a handful of Tobago cents.
As we drive, I suck in the whole island,

want to spit the bits I do not like,
but it’s hard to separate the savagery
of history, with the here and now,

when all I can hear are the birds
flocking to the plantation dawn and dusk
of their own free will.

And on the beaches, tiny turtles hatch
plans, retrace old routes,
guided only by a star.

I wrote this poem after visiting an old sugarcane plantation on the Caribbean island of Tobago. Although now abandoned, wild birds are fed there twice daily, and flock to the plantation as a tourist attraction. The island, with it’s history of both British and French rule, and strong links to the African slave trade, has rich, varied cultural influences, which for me, brought up questions of home, identity and migration.

Sadly, I didn’t see any turtles hatch on the island when I was there, though each year they travel thousands of miles to lay their eggs along the beaches. Legend has it they circumnavigate the globe guided only by a ‘Turtle star’.

Maritime Curios

Beside the arched entrance to Swanage pier,
the sign for the sewage works. This is the end
of journey. Everything ends up in the sea.
Day is smudging into watercolour,
the circular sweep of bay gilded with sand.
For 90p you can walk echoing planks, pay
the ferryman in his dark canoe,
to cross the water to Poole harbour
on the other side.

Underfoot hundreds of tiny dull brass plaques
mark the dead, every step
is sadness and loss. A small bunch of flowers
a heart tossed over ornate Victorian iron.
We stare into afterlife—the day’s opacity
deepening to black.

Hidden up a side street,
the Maritime Curios shop,
with the sign on the door saying I may be open
or I may not. You will have to chance it.
In the window a netted glass fishing float spins
on its hook, a life belt gapes, steam pressure gauges
measure nothing, and in the dim glow of dead whales
I see my mother’s father, sitting on a chair.
I want to go in, to buy something,
but the man has the look of the sea about him—
if I go in I may never come out
of the water.

A part of the journey of this book has been researching my family history. My mother was adopted back in 1937 and recently we’ve discovered her biological father was an Able Seaman, who joined the merchant navy aged 15 years, sailing all round the world. We can map various routes he took. His last voyage was in 1940. While returning from Iceland to Liverpool with a cargo of whale oil, the SS Coronda was torpedoed, killing all men on board.

This poem, although set in Swanage on the South Coast of England, is dedicated to him.

As you can see from the above poems, there are various themes of routes and journeys running through the pamphlet – either from physical travel and migration, to emotional journey and the ageing process.

Here is the blurb from the back cover:

‘Emergency Mints’ is a liminal pamphlet, existing in its own space between sea and land. Karen Jane Cannon offers glimpses of the worlds of sailors and the land-locked, cross-Channel swimmers and school-girl paddlers, deftly utilising all of our senses. (Jill Munro)

Copies available here or on Amazon:

Enjoy the rest of Spring!

The Poetry Cafe

We had a really brilliant night at The Poetry Cafe as part of Paper Swans Press’ ‘Stablemates’ event, organised and hosted by Jill Abram. It was an absolute pleasure to read with Elisabeth Sennitt Clough and Paul Stephenson, and hear them read their poems. I met so many lovely people on the night! And it was such a great venue to launch my pamphlet! Thank you so much to Sarah Miles for her hard work and dedication, and making the book look so beautiful!

It was incredibly cold at London Waterloo, waiting for our train. and -4 Celsius when we arrived back at Brockenhurst to a frozen car!

‘Emergency Mints’ is now available through Paper Swans Press here or direct from Amazon!