#6: Bearing gifts

Day 6 of lockdown in England, and also of our online poetry community, Try to Praise the Mutilated World. The prompts are here every day, and free. Access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10, and lasts for the duration of this lockdown. The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished. We have guest readers via Facebook Live on a Sunday – the next one is Forward Prize-winning Malika Booker. Join us at any time through November. See the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.

In my twenties, I fell in love with a splendid, attractive and funny young man. On our first Christmas Day together, he gave me an unusually shaped gift. It looked something like a beautifully wrapped colander. I opened it carefully, thinking it might be a hand-blown glass bowl or a musical instrument.

Reader, it was a colander. As colanders go, it was lovely: shiny steel, nicely made and, as he indignantly said, a fine example of design. It was not, however, the gift a 25-year old woman expects from her lover. We are still friends, and now I understand how interested he is in design – but Jonnie, what were you thinking of?

Your theme today is gifts. Not the intangible ones that you inherit from your ancestors, like perfect pitch or a bad temper; not the metaphorical ones, like the gift of freedom from an abusive partner; but the actual, physical sort. Some, like that colander, are surprising, but show you something touching about the giver. You may be the giver yourself, delivering the present with instructions. Some gifts are handmade with great care – the delicate lace shawl for a christening, the ghastly jumper that Aunty Mina expects you to wear every winter. Some are simple, but loaded with complex meaning: others are well-intentioned disasters (another pair of slippers, the slinky red underwear you hate). Some are valuable in monetary terms, but meant nothing to the giver. Some might be sinister, misjudged or malicious – the macho books given to a gay teenager, the make-up kits given to a girl who asked for books. Some create a dilemma – oh goodness, I only got her a box of chocolates and she’s bought me a flatscreen TV!

So – gifts. Even the most prosaic can be a rich source: if you doubt that, see what Pablo Neruda did with a gift of handmade socks. Show us the gift itself, and try to resist telling us how the giver or the recipient felt; show us instead. Did their voice shake with laughter or tears? Did they put it immediately in the bin or re-gift it to someone who found the old name-tag on it? The gift will do what the ostensible subject of any poem does – it will stand for something else. It shows a relationship between two people, and it is tied up with tangled associations. You are sufficiently far from Christmas to write this poem well, without fear – and even to embed inside it a cautionary tale for those currently writing their Christmas lists.

Published by Jo Bell

Poet, boater, archaeologist and former director of the UK's National Poetry Day. One third of @OnThisDayShe. Erstwhile UK Canal Laureate.

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