Helen Bowell

Four Centos From Your Reading

Last week, you sent in lines from books that have meant something to you in this last difficult year. I’ve woven some of those brilliant lines together, adding nothing of my own except line-breaks and punctuation, to create new poems.

This has been extraordinarily fun. Thank you so much to everyone who submitted lines – you are such a well-read lot, and gave me so much to choose from. It’s really exciting to read only the pithiest of any given author’s lines, and such a privilege to have you all do the hard work of thinking of them for me. Among books that you’ve been reading this year, I particularly enjoyed seeing The Plague by Albert Camus. Two different people quoted from Hilary Mantel, Anthony Anaxagorou and Louise Glück. I discovered new poets, from Amelia Loulli to Manuel Rivas, and I was pleased when I came across some of my own favourites, like Hera Lindsay Bird, Mary Jean Chan and Charlotte Van den Broeck.

From your colourful and textured fibres, I have woven together four centos – one longer poem, where, as I was putting them together, each section felt linked somehow; and three shorter centos where I had a bit of fun queering the texts. Thanks again to everyone who sent in a line, and of course to the authors themselves! It has been an honour to play with their words.

What Does the Storm Set Free?


I grew up with salt rings in my clothes,
chain smoking the innards of a living room parish:

my hands make a spire, a rood screen,
then a congregation of fingers.

It’s hard to sleep
in a one-bedroom with five boys and a window.

I gave birth to three children before
I knew how to do it myself.

It’s hard to write.
I had to learn to carry the feeling

like a stone in my head
that sometimes remembers it is molten.


Suppose you woke
and found your shadow replaced

by a black wolf.
If the light moves he is gone.

He is the slippery stones underfoot,
he is the last faint ripple in the wake of himself.

Once there was this and that; and now –


I had a friend who cured her own headaches.
It was like an illness.

You should go to a part of town which is also in pain,
the place where the person you love is,

the aroma of the cognac

rocks the head like a
pond rocks a boat.


The air is warm and the inhabitants of this Northern world
are testing out the notion that Winter is past.

The clouds are high and quick
in the unfurling of their tight white fists,

the winds knocking the fog off the pond.
No ice to be found across the city.


In another story altogether
by lantern-light

two men are playing.
Who are they, always in the dark?

Their eyes are the eyes of a tightrope walker
who can stride out only, cannot look down.


We learned new words for things. The decade changed.
And to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence:
the wisdom of birds lies, not in the individual, but in the flock.

Lines taken from the following authors: 1: Charlotte Van den Broeck, Anthony Anaxagorou, Matthew Caley, Manuel Rivas, Bryan Washington, Amelia Loulli, Tom Sastry; 2: Ocean Vuong, Hilary Mantel, Rebecca Tamás, 4: Amelia Loulli, Rebecca Tamás, Luke Kennard, Naomi Alderman, Kristin Ómarsdóttir; 5: David Hale, Sarah Rice, Frank Stanford, Mary Jean Chan; 5. Michael Donaghy, Rebecca Tamás, Kate Clanchy; 6. Matthew Caley, Albert Camus, Susanna Clarke, Elizabeth von Arnim.

What really is the point of the lighthouse?

You belong to three places: the place you grew up,
the place where you went to college
and the place where the person you love is.
I did kiss someone
but it was on holiday so you wouldn’t know them.
Her figure was by no means what it had been.
When she came to the fingerpost
I was left behind holding a cup of tea.
At the root of every triangle is
a tiny plastic figure in a snow globe.
Is snow not just water that changed its mind?
Wishing instead to die cold rather than wet.
Throw me in a haunted wheelbarrow and set me on fire.
Like a pond
I know exactly what my hands can hold.

Lines taken from the following authors: Louise Glück, Naomi Alderman, Ray Robinson, Alistair McDowall, Iris Murdoch, Elaine Ni Chuilleanain, Amelia Loulli, Nuar Alsadir, Anthony Anaxagorou, Hera Lindsay Bird, Kristin Ómarsdóttir.

We were gay before it was cool

Red rooms pulsing gently, a secret tunnel
in the cellar, leading to the lowlands…
when it was over, instead of feeling better one felt worse.

Lines taken from the following authors: Matthew Haigh, Elizabeth von Arnim, Andrew Waterhouse.

I’m not going to be with you one minute more

What’s wrong, my little peach?
People get over love.

It may be you’re not familiar with
the fingers of a woman.

All hail hot jasmine
in the night.

I have slept with half of you inside me.
I know exactly what my hands can hold.

In the dark
what really is the point of the lighthouse?

Lines taken from the following authors: Manuel Rivas, Rebecca Perry, Elizabeth von Arnim, Tracy K. Smith, Clayre Benzadón, Safiya Sinclair, Amelia Loulli, Rebecca Tamás, Louise Glück

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