I met Shirley in the very first session. We were sat outside and Shirley was the last to arrive, roused to join us after she said she over-heard one of the nurses mention the words ‘poetry’ and ‘outside’. We began by reading a poem called ‘Sea-Fever’ by John Masefield, which has the line’… I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life…’ In response to this, Shirley spontaneously told the group about her memories of being down south, picking hops and her memory of the traveler camps and the things they made to sell. The group spoke about hop picking and the participants’ memories of the war. Shirley then looked through her copy of ‘A Little, Aloud’ and began to read aloud the poem again. It seemed so instinctive to Shirley to want to read it aloud, and she had a wonderfully rich reading voice.
Over the next months, Shirley’s appearance at the groups was sporadic, yet when she did participate, her responses added real depth to the group understanding of what we were reading, and her comments particularly luminous when we were reading poetry. During one session in September, we were reading a poem called ‘Winter Dusk’ when Shirley suddenly sat up and began to recite a poem:
‘O dull and windless day, no wind to stir the trees,
a leaf doth fall onto the ground, and the snowdrops with their pure white heads,
looked at the way things looked so dead, they knew that flowers are sleeping yet,
beneath their brown, earthy beds, no wind to stir the leaves, o dull and silent day.’
The whole group fell silent as she spoke, and stunned, I asked her what poem that was. She replied that it was one she had written herself. When encouraged to tell me more, she told the group she had written a book of poetry and prose called ‘A Golden Thread’, which had been published fifty years ago under her maiden name of Shirley Desmond. We found the book on the internet, published by Stockwell Publishers in Devon. No copies of the book were available to buy, but after a conversation with the care home manager about it, next week, he came to the group holding a red hard backed book; Shirley’s original manuscript. We sat together and looked at the book and Shirley chose to read a poem. It was such a wonderful experience, hearing Shirley read the words of her younger self aloud to her peers, and the reaction of members of the group was very special; one resident said ‘I feel really proud and privileged to have heard that. We had a poet in our midst all along and none of us knew it…’
At the Halloween reading event, when local school children attended the group, Shirley read out one of her poems called ‘Evening Shadows’. The children seemed amazed that she had written it herself, and also that it had been written more than fifty years ago!! The confidence, esteem and accolade that Shirley has re-discovered through reconnecting with her former life through her book has been immeasurable.
The Reader magazine offers a mix of new poetry and fiction, classic and neglected works and interviews with leading literary figures.
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