In the first of an exclusive new series where we ask top writers to talk about the composition of a single work, Maria Apichella explores Psalmody, the poetry collection currently on the Forward Prize shortlist for debut collections.
When I worked as a cleaner, I had two types of clients. Those that tidied before I pressed their doorbells and those that didn’t. Oddly enough, I preferred the latter. I loved to be alone with a cup of strong tea, a loud radio and rolled up sleeves. The trick is to focus on the details and work outwards. I created order beauty. I got the same sense of hard-earned satisfaction when I finished the clutter of writing my book. Psalmody is love story between a spiritual woman and an atheist solider in Ceredigion. Like washing a pile of dishes plate by plate, the book progressed poem by poem. Building a clear narrative was messy work.
As part of my PhD, I needed to write 10,000 words of poetry. At first, I had no direction, like being given a gun and told to shoot with no particular target, but I had deadlines and a vague interest in poetry exploring the ecstatic. My tutor said ‘study the Psalms; no one else has. They’re not cool.’ I wanted to, but I did not know how. Should I write about violence, war and masculinity? I tried and it was awful. My other tutor said, just write about what you are interested in, what you know. That was driving steep Welsh roads, working odd jobs, cooking with friends, making bonfires, praying, and camping in the library. So, I wrote about those things; as Nora Ephron said, everything is copy.
At first, I tried to make each poem draw on all five senses, showing not telling, etc. However, there was no cohesion or solid connection with the Psalms. Yet, as I studied these Bronze Age poems in more depth, I saw some unexpected parallels. They too drew on imagery from local landscape. Mine was Ceredigion, theirs was Israel. The Psalms were also poems of celebration and lament, full of physicality and food such as honey and bread.
Like mine, they were written for the purpose of processing real communal and personal situations, although neither mine or theirs are confessional. Rather, they were offered up to God as complaints, bargains and praises. I liked this raw and direct addressing of God.
The Psalms’ main clusters were hymns, individual thanksgiving, community and individual laments. I decided to categorise mine like this as well, writing poems of praise and invective.
It soon became apparent that a narrative was emerging so I honed in on fleshing out my main characters, a man and a woman dancing around love. Yet Psalmody is not driven by events. It focuses on the woman’s inner turmoil as she clashes with David, the guitar-playing, man-of-the-earth, squaddie whose atheist beliefs are an anathema to her soul. For this reason, I wanted there to be spaces, pauses and areas of ambiguity to reflect the tension. However, after my first draft was laid out on my bedroom floor like a storyboard, I saw there were too many gaps. I did not have enough links between each poem to follow any accessible logic.
As I cogitated over this with friends, one suggested I read Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. This book explores myth-inspired story telling paradigms and is based on an adaptation of the well-known theory of the hero’s journey which Joseph Campbell introduced in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. To summarise, a hero goes on a which includes several stages. The first is the departure and separation from the ordinary world. The hero is called to an adventure, which she usually rejects at first. The second is the descent, when the hero goes through tests, initiations or ordeals. Finally, there is the return home and the transformation of the hero.
Exploring this structure helped me move away from the internal mechanics of each poem and to look at the wider scope. I saw that in order to create a story, there needed to be a clear narrative arc. The tradition of storytelling is generally to start with creating an ordinary world where we see the character within the routine of their daily life. So, I wrote Poem 1 which opens with the unnamed female speaker driving to Bala with a box of cakes she has made for a student party.
Friday traffic to Bala
through mizzle, alone,
psalms whispering like a cassette.
The moon criss-
crossing the A
497, revelation of hills
like a face shimmering in a dark car.
Gravel prattles. I’ve arrived. The honey
cakes hot in Tupperware; apple, cinnamon
imbues. I’m tired; jangled, I carry a box
of many flavoured choices.
Friends of other friends roil, the front
door ajar, smokers silhouetted like saints,
arms wide, palms open. ‘Come
in, and know us better.’
The beat of the evening is underway. A couple
neck in the corner, a man in thick
glasses chews the crackling. Crystal
glasses scattered like puddles, filled
or spilled, maroon wine, ochre beer alight
under candle and lamp. Cakes left in the hubble-
bubble kitchen, so many faces half-recognised
from the Arts Centre, Tree House, Barclay’s,
the Bus Stop.
A man laughs; a ring-
leader on leave.
He’s strumming on a stool.
‘Sing for us, David,’
David acts as her ‘call to adventure’ and is the catalysis for the rest of the story.
By applying the principles of the Hero’s Journey, I was able to create a convincing narrative, whilst at the same time creating valid lyric poems which engage with the themes and imagery from the Psalms. With hindsight, it’s as easy as washing and sorting the dishes piece by piece.
Among the many things I learned while working on my PhD, being a cleaner and a poet is not so different. In each case, you are faced with something needing to be brought into order. We can’t exist in chaos but it’s often the starting point. Sorting the mess is the key element that fosters the creative process.
 Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters, Third Edition (Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2007), (p. 6).
Reading Maria Apichella’s poems in Psalmody, I was reminded of the Jesus & Mary Chain song, ‘Just like Honey’. The title is an apt description of the book; it leaves a sticky, sweet residue long after reading. Apichella has a unique way of poeticising trivial gestures where love is concerned, ‘We click still./ A net curtain moves’. When her imagery is right, it is perfect in its obliquity: ‘I look goodbye/ into your Autumn face’ and, ‘The flushed evening/ melts into the sea,/ fades to a duck egg dawn’. The fragments have a covert musicality, with subtle inner rhymes and sibilance sharpening the claustrophobia of obsessive love: ‘Who wants an absent partner, tense’.
The everyday acquires profundity in the book. Hands that have ‘formed meatballs,/ unlocked doors, picked up onion skins/ from [the] kitchen floor’ are the hands of a pilgrim. Elsewhere, at a party, the smokers are ‘silhouetted like saints’ and ‘a couple/ neck in the corner’. Articles associated with transubstantiation appear in different contexts in the poems. For instance, the ‘freshly broken bread’ reappears later as the simile ‘breaks us in half like a baguette’. After a meal of chicken and red wine, the speaker and David ‘lean against the table’s raft’. Food is the saviour here, returning the speaker to simplicity and necessity. Just as food provides sustenance, it binds the fragments together and creates space in the otherwise intense atmosphere:
‘I will not demand.
He cannot give.
I dice chicken breast,
Red peppers, garlic.
What he cannot change
I’ll not demand.’
There are echoes of John Berryman’s Dreamsongs in the claustrophobic atmosphere, the tone and form. Apichella’s ‘I am frenetic/ blue; tension under a cool-headed guise’ is reminiscent of Berryman’s: ‘I am, outside. Incredible panic rules.’ (Dreamsong ‘46’). Just as Mr. Bones is the man Henry addresses in the Dreamsongs, bones are a frequent feature in Psalmody: ‘his heavy bones’, ‘I was those bones’, ‘David,/ your shoulder bone hurts me.’ and the significant ‘We’re made of bones like nerve endings’.
The subtle says more about the speaker’s emotions than the explicit. For example, ‘I’m thirsty as earth in high summer’, ‘You fill all that can be filled’ and ‘I was designed for your rescue’ are clichéd and obvious. The magic is in Apichella’s observations of the banal. The poured honey at the beginning of the book, ‘like dense sunlight’, resurfaces in various guises throughout the book. The repetition of imagery never dulls, just as ancient religious doctrines and morals are applicable to us today. Apichella shows we can never truly know something; even concrete everyday objects can mutate, depending on the viewer’s projection.
Psalmody has an incredible variation of form- each poem contains a new world that is built on the previous in a disjointed way. Non sequitur replaces disclosure: ‘How I reared my head, stomped my feet,/ galloped headlong into a pile of-/ At night I imagine terrible things’. The fragments are at their best when they concentrate on the concrete, and instigate deeper meanings for the reader to ponder. The gaps between words don’t always work but when they do, they distil the moment:
looking at me
A full presence –
like the song he sings
expansive as tributaries
makes me shell target bird’
The speaker struggles with her own beliefs and David’s atheism. In the oneiric dream ‘41’, she asks ‘why can’t the Bible be a manual, a systemic list?’. In the end it all becomes the same: ‘I’ll carry God/ David/ into my un-shaped days.’ The ‘unseen force’ the speaker hopes for is the sacred, the unattainable, the ‘Truth’.
The speaker sometimes addresses David personally, and at other times in the third person. Just as the being we love can become a concept, ubiquitous and deified. The book begins and ends with the speaker driving to Bala, mirroring the circuity of the age-old conflicts of love and faith. True love never really ends. Just as the ‘Toast-flecked honey’ is irrevocable, once real love has entered one’s life, its presence cannot be easily removed.
New Welsh Review in association with Aberystwyth University is delighted to announce the longlist for the New Welsh Writing Awards 2017: Aberystwyth University Prize for Memoir.
New Welsh Review editor Gwen Davies judged both categories with help from students from Aberystwyth University.
Congratulations to our long listed writers below:
Maria Apichella (Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk) The Red Circle
A daughter’s Pennsylvania road-trip with her Italian-American father is taken to help reconcile him with his mother. A red and black oil painting and the father’s hospital visit frame evocative settings of forest and former coalmines, while this memoir is warmed by delightful exchanges with a cast of far-flung relatives.
Maria Apichella’s first collection, Psalmody (Eyewear), ends on a note of quiet, confident affirmation:
I can’t play the sax
I can’t bang the drum
I can’t work the flute
I can’t pick the harp
but I can respond.
Apichella’s tough, lyrical psalm-poems celebrate the virtue of responsiveness, suggesting the possibility of a deeper, simpler, more open relationship with the material world. It’s a promise that poetry often makes, but rarely delivers with such nerve, or such consistency. For creatures of flesh and blood, we have a troubled relationship with the material world, and too often our attitude towards it is one of suspicion, disgust or simply indifference. If we are driven towards basic urges like food and sex we are also driven away from them. Those ‘basic’ urges are not so simple after all.
The poems – numbered, and not named – follow a loose plot which enacts a conflict between two forms of love: agape, or love of God, and eros, romantic or sexual love. The psalmist, an ardently religious woman (presumably Christian, perhaps, or possibly Jewish – the ambiguity feels intentional), falls in love with David, a Welsh squaddie; David happens to be an atheist. Initially, the psalmist struggles to reconcile her faith with the new relationship:
I wake recognize I’ve taken a wrong
for a doubter –
As religion and desire come into competition they blur, swapping and sharing meanings; ultimately, love and faith work to deepen each other. The psalmist learns to see David’s materialism as a virtue: ‘David’s an atheist after God’s own heart’. Armed with this revelation, passion gets admitted to the temple. Apichella interrogates and celebrates sex and the body with playful, enjoyably odd images:
You are like fingers after chopping chillies,
burning deeply long.
However, just as a resolution looks in sight, David is deployed to the Middle East (the birthplace of his Biblical namesake). Apichella’s depiction of war here, as a combination of bureaucracy and male violence, is sharp and disturbing:
Who wants an absent partner, tense
with tooth-breaking secrets, whose body is
owned by government men?
Whose job’s all jargon, bullet –
hold paper work.
Who plans to occupy, re-make cities,
countries, traditions, bedrooms.
There were moments when I felt that David’s deployment was a distraction from the book’s other concerns, but the poems in Psalmody are profoundly bound up with the Hebrew King David, to whom around half of the Bible’s one-hundred and fifty psalms are attributed. The Middle Eastern turn is best seen as part of an intricate constellation of associations – the Holy Land dropped into the wind and rain of rural Wales. The Hebrew King was both a singer and a soldier (the ‘virile, weepy bard’), and both characters in Psalmody take on multiple aspects of him. The poems wear these references lightly: King David’s harp – the national instrument of Wales – sounds alongside iPod speakers and the ‘morning clatter’ of the Welsh coast: a candle-lit vigil is re-imagined as the long-dark-night-of-the-soul of a late night car journey:
Friday traffic to Bala
through mizzle, alone,
psalms whispering like a cassette.
The moon criss-
crossing the A
497, revelation of hills
like a face shimmering in a dark car.
I love the line ‘psalms whispering like a cassette’, an apt simile for Apichella’s wide-ranging and instinctive feel for music. Apicella makes these poems sing, often in unfashionable ways, by dropping fragments of regular metre as well as naive rhymes and half-rhymes, using an idiosyncratic free verse:
A man laughs; a ring-
leader on leave.
He’s strumming on a stool.
‘Sing for us David’,
The poems also worship, speaking directly to God. This might alienate secular readers, although it shouldn’t. Like prayer, poetry is full of imperatives, requests and questions. Apichella uses these to create real urgency, and a disarming vulnerability:
Please don’t stop
me from loving David.
The Biblical David also had a famously tortured relationship with God. Usually, it was sex that got in the way (see also Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’). This conflict, which runs through Psalmody, plucks at a chord that still holds real power in popular culture. In certain circumstances, agape and eros have a lot in common: doubt and uncertainty coupled with devotion and dependency, extremes of isolation and happiness. Religion denies pleasure, but it can also affirm it.
In Psalmody, it is food that acts as a final reminder of the value of the material world, a subject that recurs from poem to poem, as well as the occasion of some of Apichella’s most powerful imagery.
Toast-flecked honey inched
across the breakfast table
like dense sunlight.
It is also food which brings the lovers together, preparing it and eating it. Their bodies are food, too, ‘good as bread’ – with echoes of Christ’s body and the Eucharist. The imagery here draws on the centrality of food to religious rituals and domesticity, as well as the psalms themselves, and the Jewish tradition particularly, bringing us full circle to the theological implications of the ‘consumption’ of the material world, and the gratitude the poems offer for it. Psalmody swarms with lists of ingredients, collected and treasured like jewels: in particular, apples and honey, symbolizing sweetness and hope, drip a trail of Levantine light. In one poem, even the contents of a kitchen cupboard take on a strange luminance:
my round –
packets of couscous,
cannelloni tubes, curry.
Later, the psalmist imagines herself as a seagull. Like the poems themselves, the identity reclaims hunger as a virtue, rejecting false notions of purity.
I’m hungry for the salmon
bagels others chew.
I loom. Tear out binbag innards.
Leave streets bristling
with crunched brown glass,
packets of cheese.
If the success of Luke Kennard’s Cain is anything to go by, God is making a comeback in contemporary poetry, and Psalmody should have an important place in that conversation. Apichella revels in religion’s more visionary, rhetorical contributions to poetic language. It’s vivid, breathless work, like how the psalmist describes David: a ‘full presence’:
If with your throat,
you choose to follow fully, blessings
like Queen Anne’s lace; escort you as scent;
blackberries, Welsh rain,
stone. You’ll be blessed in Aberystwyth,
in the bathroom.
The lyrics on your screen, the extension of your mind,
every page of every hardback you skim
– all your friends, your flat pack desk, keys,
green lamp will be hallowed
when you sleep, rise, and on
But if God is coming back, He deserves more scrutiny than critics have given him. Not simply with regards to the claims that the Abrahamic religions make about the world but, more especially, the currency of their symbolism, tone and style. What is it exactly that we have inherited from them? How much of it do we want? Who is even literate in them anymore?
Psalmody asks these questions in a way that should appeal to believers and unbelievers alike, and will challenge both. You do not need any particular knowledge or faith to respond to Apichella poems. But neither does she waste time justifying them to the reader. Rather, the poems celebrate desire with a confounding directness and sincerity: desire for love, desire for God, desire for ‘Portobello mushrooms browned over beach coals’.
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I am so excited to be returning to Wales, even if just for one night.
I lived and studied there for ten years and my book, Psalmody is based in the towns, hamlets and steep roads of Ceredigion.
I will be reading in the Arts Centre with Words&Words&Words. This innovative poetry and spoken word evening built up a poetry buzz last year and is back for a second season in 2016-17.
Organised by Mary Jacob in association with the Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Words&Words&Words features invited guest poets and special slots in conjunction with literary journals such as Poetry Wales, New Welsh Review, Planet, and more. Here is all the information you need.
‘Psalmody’ has been birthed and released into the world! If you fancy a read, click here:
The launch in London was fantastic. I caught up with old friends and met writers whose names I knew but not faces – and the other way around.
Check out fellow Eyewear poet Mel Pryor whose collection Small Nuclear Family makes me itch to write more poems.
REVIEW by Sophie Baggott
by Maria Apichella
For a collection engulfed in haziness, a definition is an oddly precise opening. Maria Apichella translates her Hebrew title, Paga, as ‘intercession, a chance encounter or an accidental intersecting’. This debut poetry pamphlet is indeed marked by a crisscross of cultures and characters, but in uncertain terms: a yearning for identity pervades every verse. The narrator and her subjects are unsure of nationality, of religion, even of their very surroundings at times. These twenty-two poems knit together a compelling yet unrelieved tension in their pursuit of anchorage.
The melancholy is redeemed by Apichella’s linguistic poise. A focus on image-building often replaces any narration of action, conjuring up staling seaside towns and eerie manors. The poem ‘Margate’ is intensely atmospheric; besides ‘warm coins palmed for rides’, Apichella’s words dart around the page like the rides themselves. The meticulously scattered presentation of her poetry underscores the sense of fragmentation. Punctuation is haphazard, and peppered lists (‘ciggies kisses flame orange twists black sticks’) recall scenery without delay. Flickers of the art world emphasise the focus on visuality: both Rodin and Turner crop up within the first few poems. Turner’s rough light ‘slaps’ the poet’s Margate, as if a painter’s brush meeting canvas.
In ‘Do Not Be Far From Me’, Apichella isolates the word ‘silence’, which resounds with the implications of her character Reg’s death. An exception to the general void of action, Reg’s narrative preoccupies the centre of Paga and follows his looming mortality right up to the relatives’ agony after his death. The fragility of another figure, Virginia, in the early poem ‘Monk’s House’ adds to the prevailing impression of bewilderment. Virginia is seen ‘swimming harlequin corridors’, exhausted by pushing doors. Again light ‘slaps slaps’, and stings dazzled eyes. Coldness reigns, and the clashing of light and dark strengthens the suspicion that nature almost works against characters in this collection. This harsh climate is reinforced by gusts of chill and rain invading the car en route to Reg’s funeral.
Much of the collection certainly feels like a barren wilderness. Perhaps the second poem forecasts this with its quotation from Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’: ‘On Margate Sands. I can connect nothing with nothing’. A hint of Dylan Thomas’ rage against the dying of the light may be perceived several poems later, where Apichella’s narrator asks ‘‘Why not / swing, shoot, sink, dive into the Dark?’. The thrust of ‘Paga’’s meaning as ‘intercession’ often emerges in poems that read more as prayers. ‘Poem’ ends with the couplet ‘Strengthen me with goodness, / with your goodness make me strong.’.
Yet an air of alienation is prevalent, particularly in the pattern of poems entitled ‘East West’ which divide the page between two distinct voices. The culture of wrangling opposites is drawn out in these. In the third version, the left side of the page recalls Diwali whilst the right side remembers the ‘sherry and sellotape’ of Christmas. Though details generally remain vague, the familiarity of this repetition becomes something of a comfort.
More subtle is the tug-of-war between contrasts in ‘i.m. of A, 1985-2011’. Here Apichella jumps from memories of an anonymous character’s company to the reality of his absence in the present. The twists and turns between negatives and tenses compound the poem’s desolate confusion: ‘I / see I don’t see.’ The last stanza of this poem holds Paga’s most beautiful line: ‘I want to lean all my weight / against the clock’s long arms.’ Throughout the collection, a grip on time is elusive. One of the central poems seems to depict ‘Reg’ as suffering from memory problems, and on flicking the page we find a title that trips into the poem’s first line: ‘Reg Came Back, / briefly.’
This is poetry which demands every fibre of concentration. It will make you frown, nod, smile, shiver, and – most importantly – think. The journey through the collection is fraught, but ultimately rewarding.
Sophie Baggott is a Masters student at Cardiff School of Journalism, and previously read Classics at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Her interests include spoken-word poetry, running, and Welsh drama.
I am very happy to announce publication of my book!
‘Psalmody’ will be launched alongside the latest collections from other Eyewear poets, including Tony Chan, Alice Anderson, Ben Parker and Terese Svoboda.
The launch is in London on Tuesday 4 October, from 7-9pm at The London Review of Books Bookshop, on Bury Place in Bloomsbury.
The book will be available from booksellers, Amazon or directly from the publisher: http://www.eyewearpublishing.com/products/psalmody
You can also buy it directly from me.
I will be doing more readings in the coming months so watch this space.