Jane Burn and Fran Lock write about Rosemary McLeish, who sadly passed away on Sunday 23rd August
Jane Burn writes: I got to know Rosemary on Facebook at first, in that way that we poets seem to do. Like minds do gravitate towards each other. I didn’t meet her in real life until July, 2018 when we both travelled to Leeds to read at a launch of Strix magazine (issue 4). It was lovely to meet her and her poem, Somewhere in the Netherlands, Summer 1956 was wonderful:
When I grow up
I’m going to marry a Dutchman.
I’ll wear clogs…
Indeed she did - she was gaily sporting one of her trademark amazing, self-made neck adornments. A circlet of brightly painted wooden clogs. I loved it and I loved her. She was incredibly, unfailingly kind to me and sent me many supportive messages. I never quite managed to compute that she wasn’t ever going to get better and I always wrote back hoping and praying that she would. I have been reading back her messages to me today and the sense of her strength and kindness is overwhelming. I wish we had lived closer but I am so very glad we managed to meet that once.
We shared a passion for bold, bright artwork and pattern and she was multi-talented. She saw all the colour in the world, magnified. She was so supportive of my writing and art and I will be forever grateful for that. She loved experimenting with cakes and loved her garden - when she would post on Facebook that she couldn’t see her flowers, it was heartbreaking.
When Fran and I were putting together Witches, Warriors, Workers, the first of our women’s poetry anthologies, I emailed Fran to say that I felt it was so important to have Rosemary in the book and I am eternally glad she is in there. It is like we have been able to keep her voice alive and that means a great deal. When we had the Newcastle launch of the book in March this year (just before lockdown), I read her poem for her as she couldn’t make it, though I know she really wanted to. I wanted to tell everyone there a little bit about her and I wanted her to feel as if she was there.
I loved her (love her still) and she was a much better person than me.
Here are my full thoughts on her collection, Defragmentation (Wordsmithery). I was honoured to be asked to provide a blurb for the back and I was so happy to do it for her.
Cancer has come to get me again are the first words that hit you when you begin to read this book. This collection will not pussy-foot around you. In its honesty, it does not pull any punches. Rosemary wants to live - she writes with passion about the everyday experiences that most of us take for granted. Within these poems, McLeish is open about the fear, pain (both physical and emotional), brutality, strength, weakness, anger and sadness that she feels.
There is such touching beauty in this collection, with lines like Oh, I could cry a Glasgow winter, wet pavements and all plucking painfully at the heartstrings. There are nightmare moments. There are hard edges. The collection ends in such an agony of hope for merciful oblivion. You will find yourself aching. And here is an article in The Blue Nib that Rosemary wrote recently.
There is truth and you will both smile and cry. This poet is, to me, both a friend and a writer I love and respect. When you have finished reading these poems, I believe she will mean the same to you.
Rest in peace, Rosemary. We will never forget you.
Fran Lock writes: I want to celebrate the life and voice of Rosemary McLeish, the artist, poet and all round powerhouse who has passed away. Although I had come across Rosemary's poetry before in numerous anthologies, my admiration for her work crystallised the moment I read her submission to Witches, Warriors, Workers. I was immediately struck, and I am struck still, by the honesty, intensity, and the intimacy of her poem. The Last Time I Got Hysterical in The Middle of The Night is uncompromising. It lets neither speaker nor reader off the hook. It does not try to resolve fear, pain, or the unfairness of terminal illness. It strikes neither stoic nor defiant poses. Its commitment is to emotional truth, and this she relays with dignity and skill.
In Rosemary's 2019 collection, I Am a Field there is a similar quality of unflinching witness, although a witness tempered with tenderness. As Rosemary herself says in her introduction, she 'cannot write about the beauty of the world […] without confronting the reality of its destruction.' These tensions hold and propel her poems, a delicate balance of bitter-sweetness, where sometimes sweetness wins out, and sometimes not. I Am a Field is an invigorating and original work, that explores with nuance and acuity our relationship to the natural world, and our experience of ourselves and each other as part of nature.
2020's Defragmentation is a different beast. It is a difficult, disturbing and necessary confrontation with death and dying, and everything society and poetry makes of them. It is a work that offers no concession or apology for pain or rage. Nor should it. To describe a book or a poet as 'brave' when bravery is the only option available is, frankly, nauseating. I will say instead of Rosemary that these poems performed hard, necessary work. We need them, and the reminder that death isn't a metaphor, the dying are not ciphers, nor do they owe us some kind of trite moral lesson. Unadorned and unabashed, this poetry is admirable. It is also bloody good.
I wish I had known Rosemary better. There was so much to admire about her work as both an artist and a poet. She was by turns brutal, eloquent, inventive, humorous, and full of fire.