I’ve wanted to write about Anne Lister for a long time, even before she was brought to the attention of the wider public by the popular BBC series Gentleman Jack. I felt an affinity with Anne, not only because of her relationships with women, but also because she was such a prolific diary-writer. I recognise in myself that same compulsion to get everything down on paper – and was amused to hear that, like me, Anne would sometimes refer back to old diaries to settle arguments!
In searching for a way in to writing a poem about Anne Lister, I was hugely indebted to the women who are, even now, painstakingly deciphering Anne’s spidery writing and fiendish codes to make the diaries accessible to a wider audience. Specifically, this website generously offers transcripts of many of Anne’s diary entries, and I became curious to read the very last entry that Anne wrote, before her untimely death from a fever at the age of 49, whilst travelling in Georgia with her partner Ann Walker.
There’s a gap of about six weeks between this diary entry and Anne’s death, and there’s no suggestion that at the time of writing it she had already fallen ill. This, of course, leaves the distinct possibility that she wrote more diary entries beyond this one. Perhaps her actual final volume was buried with her, and we will never know what the real last words were?
However, this is all we have to go on for now as a final diary entry, and I was really struck in reading it by the mixture of precisely-observed detail about the new places through which Anne and Ann are travelling, and by the very ordinariness of the final sentence: ‘Tea & coffee at 8.25’. Tea and coffee? Did they both drink both, one after the other? Much more likely, I think, that one liked tea and the other preferred coffee, and so they brewed up both in the wicker barn that was their shelter for the night. That sentence has both the precision and the lack of elaboration of a routine that has been repeated many times, with the confidence that this will be continued into the future. That this is, then, the very last sentence of the diary makes it deeply poignant, adding to the sense of a rich life cut off abruptly.
As well as providing the title, Anne’s last diary entry contributes some other phrases in the poem – those ‘wooded hills rising / to conical summits’, for example. And the entry begins with Anne complaining at having been woken in the small hours by ‘cats at my cheese’, a detail so delightful that I couldn’t resist including it.
One particular challenge in writing this poem is that Anne’s partner’s name was also Ann. This is a particular issue for some same-sex couples, and I’ve discovered that there’s a rather satisfying name for it: homonymy. Nevertheless, it makes life tricky for a poet who wants readers not to be confused. At least Anne and Ann’s names are spelled slightly differently, so I refer to ‘the other Ann’ in the first verse, and hope that the reader will recognise the shift to Anne (with an ‘e) Lister in the second. Of course, it’s harder for an audience to spot that difference when the poem is read aloud!
I’m delighted that Tea & coffee at 8.25 was accepted for publication in Issue 65 of The North, where it can be found on page 41, together with another poem of mine, When we hold hands. I’m so grateful to the editors, Peter and Ann Sansom, for publishing these poems.