Jack Thacker was the winner of The Charles Causley International Poetry Competition 2016 with his fantastic poem ‘The Load.’ Judged by Sir Andrew Motion with the exciting prize of £2000, and the added prestige of the backdrop of Charles Causley’s centenary year, the standard of entries was fantastically high.
Jack grew up on a farm in Herefordshire. He lives in Bristol, where he is studying for a PhD on contemporary poetry and agriculture at the Universities of Bristol and Exeter. His poetry has appeared in PN Review, The Clearing and The Literateur and has been commissioned by the Bristol and Bath Festival of Nature and the Bristol Nature Channel. He is the co-founder of the University of York-based poetry magazine Eborakon and is a board member of the Bristol Poetry Institute.
We were thrilled to welcome Jack to Causley’s former home in Cyprus Well for a week long writer’s retreat leading up to the centenary celebrations. This was a wonderful chance for him to explore the backdrop of Causley’s life and have some well earned time to write some exciting new poetry.
Here is what Jack had to say about his time at Cyprus Well:
“Having taken the train from Bristol to Exeter, and after that a bus, we approached Launceston and saw a large buzzard perched on the ‘Welcome to Launceston’ sign. We took it as a good omen.
We were met by David Fryer, Chairman of the Charles Causley Trust, who gave us a tour of the town, pointing out to us many of the local landmarks in Causley’s poems, among them St Mary Magdalene’s Church of ‘Mary, Mary Magdalene’. In the poem, Causley describes the custom of throwing a pebble over your shoulder at the statue of Mary Magdalene carved into the granite wall of the church. If the pebble lands in the arch of her back, it’s said to bring good luck. Somehow, I managed it on my first attempt. Another good omen?
Previous poets who have been in residence at Cyprus Well have commented on the quality of the sound (or lack of it) in the house. Alyson Hallett describes it as a ‘burnished’ quiet, which I think perfectly captures the warmth of the place even when it’s silent. I noticed that every time I cleared my throat in Causley’s study, his piano, even with its lid closed, would vibrate. Behind that sound I could hear an echo of his own warm speaking voice but I also felt the presence of those other poets who have since spent time in that room reading, writing and listening. It was as though they had written themselves into the atmosphere of the house.
The bookshelves curated by former poets-in-residence were a great way to get to know the personalities and tastes of those who had spent time there. I spent a lot of my time reading poetry by a range of writers over the course of the week but most of all I read from Causley’s Collected Poems. Our stay presented the perfect opportunity to come back to Causley and it was a privilege to do so in his Cornwall, his home town, even in his home.
We spent most of our time at Cyprus Well either reading or writing. (For my partner Rachel, the retreat offered the opportunity to make the most of the peace and quiet of the house and work on her PhD.) But we also tried to explore Cornwall as much as we could. The writer and editor Luke Thompson kindly offered to take me to Bodmin Moor to the Cheesewring (a granite tor that is said to resemble a press once used to make cheese), the location of another Causley poem ‘Christ at the Cheesewring.’ On another day, we travelled by bus to the beach at Crackington Haven on the North Cornwall coast to explore its rock pools and cliff paths.
Most evenings we spent at the local pub The Bell, where on our final night a group sang traditional Cornish folk songs and the whole pub joined in. Many of these songs can be found in Causley’s vinyl collection. On our final day, we walked down the hill to Causley’s birthplace and his grave next door at St Thomas Parish Church. Such proximity in life and death reminded me of these lines by Causley’s contemporary Seamus Heaney:
I had my existence. I was there.
Me in place and the place in me.”
I clear my throat; his piano stirs –
he walks an empty church alone,
footsteps echoing on stone, lingers
for a while, turns, utters ‘Amen.’
It’s said that in his final recording
at another house, here in Launceston,
you can make out his old cat purring
in the background of the poems. Listen,
they’re singing ‘Little Eyes,’ the bell
is ringing out across the town,
the sound is carried down Angel Hill
and fills this room within his home,
a language of water rising from a well –
‘I too lived here,’ and then it’s gone.
As well as Jack’s wonderful new poem ‘His Study’, we are also happy to once again share his original winning poem ‘The Load’:
Listening to your recording
crackle away like kindling,
my mind becomes the barn:
the sun reaches in through
a single door, the floor –
years’ worth of dry muck
and straw – is kicked and
raised to dust by the strut
of cloven hooves, and when,
from out of the shadows,
your voice arrives, I can
hear the scream of the bull
echoing along the beams,
glimpse its shuddering hide
through gaps in the steam.
Standing on the threshold
the men are shaking their
heads. That’s when you –
when you were sixteen –
vault the gate and stride
towards the tonne of stress
and muscle. I can read
the surprise on their faces
as you reach out your hand
and loop your finger through
its nose-ring – so easy –
like I might thread a
cassette-tape with a pencil,
winding back the spool
to listen again to you
as you calmly lead the bull
away and into the light.