Mary Palmer (1957-2009)
by Anthony Nanson
First published as 'Afterword' in Iona, 2nd edn, Awen, 2011
Mary Taylor, as she was then known, went to Iona in the summer of 1993. She was thirty-six. It was a pivotal time in her life. She was halfway through the brand new MA in creative writing at Bath Spa University College, through whose stringent discipline she was refining her craft as a poet; and she was grappling with difficulties in her personal and spiritual life, and especially the emotional legacy of nine years as a hospital dietitian. The outcome of her time on Iona was the sequence of poems that became Iona, the first draft of which she wrote as her MA creative project under the tutelage of Philip Gross. The poems can’t easily be read as a memoir of her pilgrimage to Iona, for they are framed in a fictional narrative. What Mary actually experienced there, in solitude, she kept to herself. That holy island, that ‘thin place’, as Mary calls it in ‘Pasture of the Geese’, seems like a mythic space of uncertainty within the story of her life. My sense is that on that tiny island, for a brief interval of time, everything that was most important to her came together: a truly nourishing form of spirituality, a delight in nature’s beauty, and a soul-healing creativity.
Though Mary had always enjoyed drawing and painting, she discovered poetry fairly late, while working as a dietitian. Her training in nutrition and dietetics simply had not prepared her emotionally for the harrowing experience of what she witnessed in hospital. ‘It was the start of a search for meaning, an awakening and a loss of innocence.’ Poetry, she discovered, was a way of connecting with and expressing feelings that might otherwise be suppressed. She subsequently wrote a number of poems based on her hospital experiences, some of which she published in a leaflet called ‘Hospital Heaven’ (2002). She became engaged with the concept of ‘writing therapy’, and in presentations and letters shared her ideas about the utility of this practice to the healthcare professions.
Mary’s completion of the MA in creative writing meant a lot to her: not only the sense of accomplishment, especially in completing Iona, but also the validation as a writer. Remember that back in the early 1990s, before the explosion of creative writing programmes in British universities, there were few opportunities for advanced study in this subject. Mary now embraced with great commitment the identity of being a poet and devoted herself in every way she could to the bardic triple path of writing, performing and teaching.
This artistic commitment became one with her faith commitment as a Christian. She was introduced by the Revd Richard Russell to the ‘Reformational worldview’, originating in the Netherlands, which breaks down the dualism between spiritual and physical to seek a redemptive transformation of the whole of life, including body, work and art. Mary was one of the many artistic young Christians attracted to St Matthew’s Church, Bath, where Richard was putting theory into practice to build a dynamic creative community and transform the church building into an arts venue. In 1995 she published a set of poems, celebrating this project of transformation, as a leaflet called ‘Take 2’. She began to meet with fellow poet Rachel Laurence to critique each other’s work. They set up a ‘Writers Support Group’ at St Matthew’s, offered creative workshops more widely and contributed poetry to church worship. Mary ran the poetry and writing strand of the Cross Rhythms festival at Launceston and performed poems at Greenbelt.
In the late 1990s the St Matthew’s community began to fragment. One of its offspring was ‘Sanctuary’, a monthly meeting for Celtic-style worship, which Mary attended and for which she wrote devotional poems in the style of the traditional Gaelic prayers of Carmina Gadelica. These were another fruit of her exploration of Celtic spirituality on Iona; a number of them have been included in devotional anthologies produced by Wild Goose, the publishing arm of the Iona Community, and in Coracle, its magazine.
Soon after finishing the MA, Mary was getting work published in many other anthologies and magazines, including ones as prestigious as Acumen and Tears in the Fence. Her big ambition, though, was to publish Iona. She continued to revise its constituent poems, as she did all her work, and assiduously approached potential publishers. Some key figures in poetry publishing praised the quality of Iona, but always in the end the story was they couldn’t publish it because so little poetry sells these days that they’d probably lose money.
Meanwhile Mary was not only writing, but also performing. On the Bath and Bristol poetry circuit she met Rose Flint. They clicked at once. With a third poet, Rachael Clyne, they put together a performance of readings from women poets for International Women’s Day, and then, as ‘Erato’, performed in diverse venues over a period of five years, gradually augmenting their shows with music, costume and props. They were united by a feminist impulse, conceived both spiritually and internationally: Mary was always drawn to the plight of people, women especially, in poorer countries. The Celtic dimension of her faith – the spirit of Iona, sacred to pagans as well as Christians – allowed her a sympathetic connection with Rose’s Goddess-centred spirituality.
Mary gained immensely in confidence, in her sense of being, through performing her poems. The ‘no reading’ rule at Bath Storytelling Circle, which she often attended, spurred her to commit her poems to memory; in doing so, she was able to inhabit them more deeply and to perform them with power, nuance and a sensual physical presence. Philip Gross, who remembers her shyness during the MA, was struck at a performance years later by the sight of her on stage, ‘visibly glowing in the light of the audience’s attention’. Mary always had in her bag whatever poem she was currently memorising; motorists halted at traffic lights on the Wellsway were sometimes startled by her reciting aloud as she hiked the interminable distance between the city centre and the little flat she rented in Odd Down.
For her subsistence she worked for several years at Bath’s Waterstone’s, where she was active in helping to put on events and encouraged colleagues to perform poems for National Poetry Day and the like. The shop at that time served as a transit camp for graduates of the MA in creative writing, so in 1998 Mary and her colleague and fellow MA graduate Adam Death started a writers group, which initially met in the shop but soon moved to Hannah Bagnell’s flat, where it got misnamed ‘Apartment 4’. The group had a preponderance of prose writers, who often troubled Mary’s aesthetic of concision and spareness with their extravagant use of adjectives. When Apartment 4 came to an end in 2002, she immediately started yet another group, the ‘Poetry Salon’, dedicated to poetry, which initially met in her own flat. Later she joined the ‘Natural Words’ writing group, which had originated from a course at the Envolve Environmental Consultancy and now met at the house of Judith Young; she continued to attend its meetings, when she could, right into her final illness.
Participation in this succession of groups was an essential part of Mary’s life, for the camaraderie they provided – everyone remembers Mary’s laughter – as well as the opportunity for incisive criticism, which she was able to both give and receive. It’s a mark of her dedication to her art that often she would bring multiple versions of the same poem, differing radically in approach, and invite listeners to critically compare them. She was still inviting criticism in this way when friends came to visit during the last few weeks of her life.
Her capacity to encourage others in their creativity had greatest scope in teaching. In 2002, realising that her low-paid bookselling job had become a dead end, she took steps to kickstart her career in a new direction. She put herself through an A-level in English and a PGCE and then took on a smorgasbord of teaching jobs, for Bath City College, the Open University, the University of Bath, plus workshops at, for example, Bristol Poetry Festival, Bath Literature Festival, St Gregory’s Catholic College – and Black Swan Arts Gallery, Frome, where she exercised her interest in making connections between writing and visual art. In her final years she also taught English as a foreign language at Languages United.
Mary Palmer – the maiden name she’d returned to – was much loved by her students. So many of them turned out to support the launch of Iona, alongside two other Awen titles, at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, that people were literally spilling out of the shop into the street. It was a special day for Mary, 9 April 2008, to see her book finally in print after fifteen years of revision and hammering on publishers’ doors. She was in her glory, shimmering with energy, reciting poems with her characteristic strength and conviction. During the ensuing year, she performed an Iona set in diverse venues, using simple items of costume to distinguish Aelia and Mordec from ‘the poet’. The power of these performances was superior to anything she’d done before.
Though inspired by the austere landscape and spirituality of the Celtic north, Mary was also drawn to the sensuality of tropical Africa, which seems in some way to have symbolised the other pole of her being – rather as Aelia and Mordec represent two poles in Iona – though her engagement was also a heartfelt response to African people’s history of suffering. Right in the middle of Iona stands the poem ‘Black Madonna’, about an African image of the Virgin Mary. In 2002 Mary went to Africa for the first time, to Kenya and Tanzania. The following year she went back, at her own expense, to teach English for eight weeks in Pangani on the coast of Tanzania. This experience, limited in space and time like her visit to Iona, had a similarly momentous impact. The poems it inspired reveal a widening of emotional range, a kaleidoscopic world of places and people, and an extension of form to include longer, more narrative poems; she also wrote some creative prose. She assembled some of the poems, with photographs, to make an exhibit called ‘Teaching English’ for an exhibition in the Grant Bradley Gallery, Bristol, marking the two-hundredth anniversary, in 2007, of the abolition of the slave trade, and began to put out feelers for the publication of an Africa sequence comparable in scale to Iona.
Sometime after her return from Tanzania she had to have a melanoma removed from her foot. The skin had got sunburnt there. Unfortunately, it seems, the surgery was too late. Tumours cropped up elsewhere. They were dealt with each time, but early in 2009 the cancer came back in more aggressive form. It seems a dreadful irony that the time in Africa, so nourishing to Mary in so many ways, should also – so she believed – have led to her demise. In an unpublished prose piece, ‘Mashaka’, she wrote of bathing in the Indian Ocean: ‘Fall, seduced by Africa, and roll in the waves, letting them swallow me, reword me and speak me out changed … I finally swim out, and then back along the path of the sun and wonder if this is what dying is like, dissolving into water and life.’
In March 2009 Mary performed some Iona poems in Waterstone’s, Bath, in support of another Awen book launch. It was the most powerful performance I ever saw her do. In her introductions she spoke with unusual boldness about her faith. I sensed that something had changed, and she told me afterwards that there was bad news from the doctors and she had come to accept the possibility it might be God’s will she should not be physically healed.
The cancer advanced with startling speed. Sometimes unable to sleep because of the pain, and promised publication of her ‘selected poems’ by Awen, she worked night and day to sort out and revise the best of her oeuvre. She also wrote new poems. For Mary was now in the storm’s eye of the greatest challenge and mystery of faith: she knew she’d done nothing to deserve such suffering, she believed in a loving God, and yet she suffered. ‘It really does help,’ she said of her faith in the teeth of this illness, yet she spoke also of a relentlessly intensifying ‘battle’. Not a battle to fight her illness, for the cancer was overwhelming her body, but one to sustain a positive state of mind in spite of everything. When I visited her at Dorothy House Hospice, the spring light shining through her window, she spoke with searing authority: ‘Only love matters. If someone offends you, forgive. Just forgive! Don’t hang on to it and let it twist you up inside.’ Her ‘Last Poems’ give expression to this struggle; they were sparked by her wish to communicate these final hard-won insights to members of the last church she belonged to, Bath City Church, who had been so supportive during her years of illness.
Mary died on 9 June 2009, a week before her fifty-second birthday. Four days earlier she’d handed over the body of poems from which Jay Ramsay made the selection that became Tidal Shift. The book was published three months later. The day after the launch in Waterstone’s, Kevan Manwaring and I travelled north to Iona. In our bags were copies of the book for the Iona Community Shop, which already stocked Iona. We gave a presentation, attended mainly by Americans staying at the Abbey, and read poems from Tidal Shift, including ‘Black Madonna’, reprinted from Iona. Reading Iona while I was on the island, I discovered how intricately it mediates the island’s topography. I had to ask help to locate ‘St Michael’s Chapel’, hidden behind the Abbey. In the sunlight streaming through a window was the beautifully sculpted ebony head of a young African woman. In this spot, I knew, Mary had sat to contemplate this sculpture and germinate her poem: ‘candles gutter/and your skin gleams/as if stained by tears’.
‘Mary distilled so much of herself into her poetry,’ says Rose Flint. Poetry made her feel alive, facilitated an experience of intimacy, mattered all the more to her because her options in life were so limited by lack of money, by being single and then by illness. Though you’d never know it from her ability to look on the bright side, Mary was never free from worry about the material necessities of life. In ‘The Way’, Mary writes, ‘following the Way/can damage your health/and hasten death’. The ‘Way’ is the way of Christian faith and at the same time of poetic integrity. It is radically defiant of contemporary materialism. In an essay titled ‘Write to Heal’, she says, ‘Poets who model Jesus are needed to counter the perverse and pseudo poetry of pop, slogans and jingles that brainwash us all. Their poetry should be good news to the poor, point another way to those captive to the idol of economic progress.’
The evening when Mary handed over her poems, she asked Jay and me to take a look in Dorothy House’s chapel: an elegant octagonal structure, three adjacent sides of which are giant windows upon a panorama of Wiltshire countryside. She impressed upon us how this embodied her vision of a harmony of the human, the spiritual and nature. That night Jay told me that he believed Mary to be ‘a major Christian poet’. The poems she left behind are the generous legacy of her commitment to poetry and to faith. A considerable body of her writing remains uncollected or unpublished. I hope that in time it will be and that, though she’s no longer with us, she will get the recognition her work deserves. Her epiphany on Iona speaks to all of us in our brief lives on earth: ‘Here, in this thin place/I choose to dream.’
This afterword draws on not only my own memories and Mary’s papers but also the memories and insights of a number of people who knew Mary. Many thanks therefore to: Hannah Bagnell, Verona Bass, Nikki Bennett, Rose Flint, Adele Gardner, Philip Gross, Liz Hendries, Jeremy Hooker, Rachel Laurence, Liz Newman, Ita O'Donnell, Ione Parkin and Richard Selby.
1. Mary Palmer, Tidal Shift: Selected Poems, Awen, Bath, 2009, p. 169.
2. Alexander Carmichael (ed.), Carmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations from the Gaelic, Floris Books, Edinburgh, 1992.
3. For example, in: A Book of Blessings, ed. Ruth Burgess, Wild Goose, Glasgow, 2001; Barefeet & Buttercups, ed. Ruth Burgess, Wild Goose, Glasgow, 2008; Acorns and Archangels, ed. Ruth Burgess, Wild Goose, Glasgow, 2009.
4. A provisional list of Mary’s publications can be found here. The publisher welcomes details of further publications not yet listed.
5. A video clip can be viewed here at www.youtube.com/watch?v=y4jsYJNVTkk
6. Palmer, Tidal Shift, p. 156.
Copyright © Anthony Nanson 2011