Castaway Cantos: Joolz Denby





Joolz Denby picks poems for paradise


I've loved poetry all my life, it satisfies something in me that nothing else can. It seems to slot neatly into place in my mind, like a well-made key in a lock which smoothly opens the door to other worlds. As a constant traveller, I find poetry is a good companion. I have carried dog-eared poetry books up mountains and across swollen rivers, in rock and roll tour buses and on the backs of motorcycles. Poetry is comfortable in any company. One of my first poetry books was The Faber Book Of Children's Verse and in it I found Eliot's 'Journey Of The Magi'. It made me see how extraordinary things were understandable and that they could be described in normal language without losing their beauty. It also sums up my attitude towards camping and would be a pleasure to read out loud as I struggled to construct a shelter and some book shelves on my island. A favourite from my youth which I never tire of is the little gem 'Blackie, the Electric Rembrandt' by Thom Gunn. It perfectly sums up the experience of being tattooed and the last line "Now he is starlike", is just how you feel after the pain; full of a scintillating rush, as if you'd eaten stars. I'd also take 'The Horses' by Edwin Muir because of its curious, compelling vision and its tremendous sense of hope springing from the hardiness of humanity's long relationship with animals. I don't think I could be without Larkin's 'This Be The Verse'; I carried a photocopy of it with me for many years and produced it for people who had parent trouble – it always raised a wry smile.

I couldn't be anywhere, ever, without Wilfred Owen, who has been my greatest influence and who I love dearly. To take only one of his poems is terrible, but it would have to be 'Exposure' – so perfect, so intensely emotional without being histrionic and everything I think is wonderful about poetry. The refrain 'But nothing happens' is excruciating in view of where and who he was writing about. Cheating a bit, I would sneak in Seamus Heaney's version of Beowulf, because it would serve both as poetry and a cracking good story of the frozen Northlands to while away those long warm nights by the camp fire under the Southern Cross. If, as I soaked in the island's mineral hot spring, I felt lonely or in need of romance, I'd recite Lorca's startlingly erotic and sensual 'Lucía Martínez' from 'Eros with a Cane'. The repeated line "shadowy in red silk" seems to personify Spain with its haunted, brutal passions and the arrogant, youthful machismo of the poet wishing to "devour your mouth… Because I want to and I can" is, literally, thrilling.

I don't know if I'd need music after that, but I'm sure my partner Justin Sullivan would have burnt a CD compilation for me, with his own wonderful songs, so I'd have his voice near me, along with some Billie Holliday, Maria Callas, and Barber's 'Adagio For Strings'.

Lastly, as I lay in my home-made hammock strung between two palm trees on the white beach, watching the sun set over the glowing turquoise sea, I'd read 'Fern Hill' by Dylan Thomas. This incredibly beautiful poem, one of my all-time favourites, is so rich and juicy with language it would be the perfect accompaniment as I waited for rescue – if indeed I wanted rescuing from such a paradise.


Read about Joolz's latest publications at

Poetry News, Spring 2002