The Guest Poetry Blog Series # 3 – Canadian Poet Tonya Lailey Features U.K. Poet Naomi Jaffa – Part Two of Two

U.K. poet Naomi Jaffa. Photo Credit: The Poetry Society

Poem for Wednesday

Oh, humpback of the week,
yardstick of productivity,
all to play for, seesaw pivot
of possibility. Is your gaze
holding mine for fractionally
longer than necessary
a sign of desire or disgust?
Will we even make it
to the weekend together?

Sometimes, Wednesday.
I wonder why I bother.

But then again it’s market day
in town, Matt and his fish van
are back – fresh from brain surgery,
his scalp fuzzy with new growth –
and here are plump scallops
glistening on their bed of ice,
and oh Wednesday, I think,
come on, let’s go for it,
let’s be lavish and splash out.

Naomi Jaffa (1961 -) from Driver, Garlic Press, 2017

So much to say about the UK based poet Naomi Jaffa. But first how I discovered her! Through her rockin’ poem above, posted by Anthony Wilson on his charmingly intermittent blog, Lifesaving Poems. I originally discovered Wilson’s blog when looking up Derek Mahon’s poem, Everything is Going to Be Alright. So, I came to Jaffa’s poems via a trip of serendipities – the best way in my mind. To see Anthony’s website and blog please click here.

Naomi Jaffa was born in London, U.K., majored in English at Oxford and was in classical music management before  joining the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in 1993 where she was director of the festival for many years and also a director of its parent organization, the Poetry Trust, until 2015. Currently she is the co-founder of Poetry People, a new organisation set up to run the Suffolk Young Poets Competition and other community projects. With so much of her focus on the poetry of others she has only published two poetry chapbooks: Driver in 2017 and The Last Hour of Sleep from Five Leaves Publications in 2004.

So what is it  about Poem for Wednesday that so struck me? It’s the simple, quirky address of the draggy middle-of-the-week day. I’ve always disliked the term “hump day”. Jaffa makes it a humpback and I hear whale and hunchback and I’m listening. It’s, also, the surrender. Her way of saying, here I am, it’s Wednesday and I’m doing my best, being as open as I can, talking to what’s before me. And the speaker is clear that she doesn’t quite know what to make of this Wednesday character. What a question: Is your gaze….a sign of desire or disgust? This tack feels honest, not striving for anything specific – always a good place to write from.

I love the ease and humour in the question: Will we even make it / to the weekend together? It’s true, we don’t know what’s next. And, wait, is the speaker dating Wednesday? Why would Wednesday be going with her, all the way to the weekend? Jaffa introduces this odd possibility – so great! – and gets me thinking about my own relationships with the days of the week. But it’s the turn in the third stanza that presses on my chest. The speaker wondering why she bothers.

Then the speaker tells us about all that Wednesday has to offer. It’s easy to forget the good stuff and yet, hey, it’s market day, remember? And the gorgeous moment when Matt enters the poem, his scalp fuzzy with new growth – fresh from brain surgery. The word “fresh”! How it belongs to the market freshness! How it could be an acknowledgement that Matt is getting another crack at life. Suddenly the speaker wants to celebrate the sweet luck around her, the new growth and plump scallops / glistening on their bed of ice. I like the cool comradery in convincing Wednesday to be a part of it, too: oh Wednesday, I think, / come on, let’s go for it / be lavish and splash out.

I keep Driver close at hand, on a shelf by the table where I write. I feel these poems through and through, each time I read them. I never know why certain poems and poets reach me at certain times and others don’t. I think it has to do with a chance intersection of emotions and awareness, where I happen to be with the world and in myself when I read a poem, where the poet was in with the world and in herself when she wrote it. All the same, I appreciate Jaffa’s precision in assembling a sturdy narrative while staying playful – keeping the lyric sweetly in the mix. She reimagines vividly those special occasions when humbling life lessons and big questions arise, occasions specific to the speaker and totally relatable. I find in her poems, the sort of connections that take time to arrive at, that take a good stretch of living to become so well cured. Here now, two great examples from Diver of Jaffa’s narrative and emotional depth. First, the tightly woven emotional complexity of this poem:


The owl of Minerva flies only at dusk.

—G.W.F. Hegel

At the start of the week I make it clear I’m leaving,
on one of those never-gets-light December mornings,
I drive across the old airfield and, almost past
the Passing Place sign, notice the barn owl,
perched and scrawny, hunger beating daylight.
I want to reverse for a better look, but here’s
the chicken-factory lorry in the mirror looming up,
and anyway I’m late, there’s no time today for nature.
But turning right at the end of the single track road
here’s a second one, much larger – a big white wedge
of a bird, level with the window, flying at my speed,
willing the car to disturb some small creature,
wingbeats in time with my heart all the parallel length
of the ditch between field-hedge and verge.
Of course I decide this is significant, this night-hunter
waiting up so late for me to arrive, willing to show
for at least ten slow clear seconds the way forward.
This isn’t history, but must be what Hegel meant.
After twelve and a half years and in the week
I make my intentions plain, only now
does he see and touch me, talk about how much
he understands, can’t bear the loss of.

Naomi Jaffa, ibid

I marvel at the set-up of this poem.  The mood established with one of those never-gets-light December mornings. The circumstance clear. The speaker is leaving – maybe not today exactly, but it’s going to happen for good, very soon. She’s decided. I presume a lover, partner. And the lovely music in Almost past the Passing Place sign but also how this describes the precariousness of her situation. Then out of the gloom an owl, already introduced by Hegel in the epigraph, so it’s a heady and significant owl. Then the image of the chicken-factory lorry in the rear-view mirror. I feel my heartrate rise with that image – the mirror filling up with it as it approaches from behind, threatening to overtake, belonging to the emotional disturbance of the scene, the situation.

There’s suspense with the next second  image, much larger. Second what? Second owl? Second lorry? I like not knowing which before I read, a big white wedge of a bird. That arresting image. And, wow, this owl is level with the speaker’s window now and it’s flying at her speed. The incredible energy of this, the thrill – wingbeats in time with my heart. The poem takes off on shapes and lengths; I feel its body beating in my own.

This is when the speaker enters with her own longing: Of course I decide this is significant, this night-hunter/waiting up so late for me to arrive, willing to show/ for at least ten slow clear seconds the way forward. So, so tender.

The ending hits hard, those twelve and a half years all tucked behind this week during which the speaker declares she’s leaving. Only now when the speaker says she’s leaving does he see her, notice, care, honour what they had, might have had. And with the Hegel reference at the outset, this is not about the “he” only in the poem, it is about humans, about how we understand in hindsight, how we are wise after the fact. All the loss in that – the owl at the window, the wingbeats without the touch, the energy there, the beauty, moving in parallel, so close and travelling alongside, out of reach.

Now, in this second poem, again, how Jaffa so carefully unravels the complexities of love and relationships. This time between a mother and daughter.


Eight weeks at nine months. Both gone
to concert-tour America, state by state: the violinist
and his new contralto-wife who’d promised
I wouldn’t get in the way. Separation
learned early as something to live with, latent
like herpes or shingles. Something perhaps to explain
the void unfilled by food, persevering with a lover
who spat I should have burned in the ovens
along with the rest of my kind. Something to forget
and forgive until today, 44 years on, her mottled hands
still on the wheel. It must have been really hard –
I drop into our journey – to leave a baby behind, choose
between me and your singing. But I never opened my mouth
my mother says. Coast to coast she hadn’t sung a single note;
she’d gone to be his driver. I never opened my mouth.
There was no dagger in her Honda Accord.
Just a big bubble of breath in my throat and a grown-up
decision to swallow hard and refuse this vision
of an old woman older, crying in her bath, needing
to be washed, dried, dressed, fed, stroked,
kissed, scolded, anything but not to be left.

Naomi Jaffa, ibid

So much love and loss in this poem, and a levelling with all of it. And how the line, I never opened my mouth, does its heartbreaking work. Then the click of the title when the speaker affirms: she’d gone to be his driver. The driver becomes a metaphor for the role played in a relationship, in a marriage. Despite being a singer, the driver is silent. That’s a long note not to sing. And now the daughter chooses the same, not to speak. Not to sing.

I’m taken by the weave of losses in this poem – the speaker’s, the mother’s. I think of Jaffa’s career, bringing other poets’ work to air, to light. How she has been the driver for so many poetic voices. Yet she has not lost her own. The speaker’s mother did not open her mouth. Naomi Jaffa did, has, does.

I hope we will see more poetry from Jaffa. But I am so glad to have found the slim volumes of her work that are already such a big treasure.

Tonya Lailey, September 30th, 2022


  1. Jen Lailey
    Posted October 1, 2022 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    OK I know I have a conflict of interest here but this was a killer blog post!! Wow. Very poetry unboundesque in the attention to the expressive nuances and the deep sense of connection to the poems here. Very grateful for the introduction to this poet!!Thank you Tonya

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted October 1, 2022 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    No worries! Conflict of interest or not great insights on Tonya’s blog post. So glad to have it.

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