‘How does the miracle occur?’

This is You, Dear Stranger, by Fife poet Paula Jennings, has arrived in the world, thanks to the remarkable Red Squirrel Press. The poet’s first book dates back to 2002, so there have been a mere twenty-two years (and two pamphlets) since then. And frankly, this beautiful publication is a miracle.

How and why? It’s been a strange story. The work was originally scheduled by Red Squirrel mastermind Sheila Wakefield for 2025. However, late in 2023, Paula was diagnosed with a brain tumour. She might not be around in 2025. She hastened to finalise the manuscript, with the support of her friend and fellow poet Anna Crowe. Meanwhile, Sheila offered to bring the publication date forward by more than a year.

By January of this year, the manuscript was with the publisher. At this point, Sheila asked me to help with the final edit. She herself was feeling awful. Having had had a heart attack two years previously, she feared her acute exhaustion might be heart failure. Basically, both poet and publisher were seriously ill, although Paula, supported by her niece Emma, managed a riveting reading at a ‘Platform’ event in Tayport on February 24. Those who were present are unlikely to forget it.

Meanwhile, with some come-and-go between me, Paula and Anna, minor changes to the manuscript were agreed, dedication and acknowledgements added, and Sheila sent the whole clamjamfrie to her typesetter, poet Gerry Cambridge.

By the time Gerry had designed and typeset the volume, and the proofs were ready to check, Paula’s illness had advanced. Her two sisters were taking it in turns to provide the increasing support required. Mary was travelling all the way up from Surrey regularly; Anne, from Sussex. Paula was less able to respond quickly on publication matters. Publisher Sheila’s health hadn’t improved either.

Everything necessarily slowed down. But gradually all the book elements came together. A photo for the jacket was sourced by Eddie Gibbons and two lovely endorsement quotes arrived from Vicki Feaver and Jane McKie, each of them straight from the heart.

In April, the book went to print. By this time, Sheila had been diagnosed – not with heart failure but anaemia. She was, nevertheless, soldiering on, accomplishing the numerous invisible aspects of book production: allocating the ISB number; negotiation print run and costs; paying the printer; registering the book; commissioning jacket image for the webshop; ordering and checking hard copy proofs; communicating with all concerned etc. And this was not the only publication Sheila was working on. If you thought a poetry publisher’s life was relaxed, think again!

Finally, in the very week that Sheila received the books, she had a crisis. She lost partial vision in one eye, which led to a night on a waiting-room seat in A&E. In the days that followed, this drama was repeated twice. There were mutterings about TIAs (one possible explanation) and retinal emboli (later discounted). Nobody was sure what was wrong but Sheila spent as much time in a hospital that week as she did at home (she must be on first-name terms with the ambulance service now). Meanwhile, the brain tumour was taking its implacable toll on Paula in Cellardyke. She was longing to have her book in her hands. Did it really exist, or had she imagined it?

Despite partial vision and medical summonses, Sheila (with the help of her own family) managed to get a box of books by courier to Fife, where Paula and sister Anne were waiting. Amazingly, four friends arrived at Paula’s house later that week and on May 3, there was an impromptu launch, reading favourite poems aloud, with coffee, cake, anecdotes and laughter. This is You, Dear Stranger had officially arrived in the world and the author, though terribly poorly, has some comfort in that thought. All prayers, warm thoughts or supportive vibes are welcome right now. It’s a horribly difficult time for her. It cannot be other.

This book is something to be proud of, something that will endure. It doesn’t address the experience of brain cancer. It was assembled before the poet had that diagnosis. But Paula has always been a magical person. Her poems are prescient in their evocation of the shadowy margin between the living and the dead, between this world and the next. At times that prescience is eerie.

Once a formal publication exists – a real book – there’s no holding it back. If you’d like to purchase a copy of This is You, Dear Stranger, please, please do. It’s somewhat special. I do believe you will enjoy it. Here’s the link: https://www.redsquirrelpress.com/product-page/this-is-you-dear-stranger-paula-jennings

I will never again take a shower without thinking of the title poem. Here it is.

These are the first moments of the day:
one pillow under your head,
the other in your arms
and you are in this slash of light,
your slopes of skin buzzing with lost hormones.

Outside, the sun scratches furrows up the crags,
a blackbird anxiously practises two phrases

and inside you are about to invent a feasible day.
How does the miracle occur?

In the shower you are still no more
than a spinal column topped by
a roundish ball of memories.
The water taps and taps at you
like a patient sculptor
and then

there now
that’s you in the mirror, behind the steam;
this is you, dear stranger,
tying on your bones, your strung muscles.