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Rosie Jackson pays tribute to co-author Graham Burchell (1950–2021)

Rosie Jackson and Graham Burchell worked together on Two Girls and a Beehive, their wonderful collection of poems inspired by Stanley Spencer. Sadly, Graham died in May of this year. Rosie Jackson writes here about how she met Graham, how the collaboration came about, and his legacy.


I first met Graham at a reading I gave for Exeter’s Uncut Poets, 2016. I was promoting my collection The Light Box, which included a handful of poems about Stanley and Hilda Spencer, whose work and lives had long fascinated me. A few days later, Graham wrote to say how much he liked the poems, that he too had some Spencer poems, and would I like to collaborate on a collection. I didn’t hesitate. I enjoy the stimulus of dialogue and soon we were both submitting poems to the 2017 Cookham Festival Spencer Poetry Competition (whose excellent anthology of short-listed poems is also published by Two Rivers Press). I was fortunate to win 1st prize, which further boosted our enthusiasm and gave me the confidence to submit our final collection to Peter Robinson to consider.

Not that Graham and I wrote poems ‘to’ each other. It wasn’t a poetry dialogue in that sense. Rather we wrote pieces in response to paintings or aspects of the Spencer life story that most intrigued us. The poems were not done chronologically, nor in the sequence in which they now appear. We emailed each other with new poems, gave critical feedback, and a ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ or ‘maybe’ to inclusion. Of 60 poems in the final version of Two Girls and a Beehive, we wrote 30 each, and another 20 or so were excluded as not quite up to scratch. I had the utmost respect for and trust in Graham’s critical judgement. It was always considered, sensitive, spot-on. And throughout the whole process he sustained his deep commitment to the project. I felt our voices complemented each other really well, his poems moving towards the war paintings, social history, a wry view of Spencer the brilliant artist and fallible man; mine focussing on Hilda and issues of relationship, art, spiritual differences and gender politics.

Sadly the timing of our publication in April 2020 could hardly have been worse, coinciding as it did with the impact of both Covid and a progressive decline in Graham’s health. We had 30 live launch events planned – readings alongside power point presentations of the paintings – all of which had to be cancelled. And though we had a few successful Zoom promotions, and some fantastic responses and reviews, the book didn’t quite make the splash we felt it deserves.

By late 2020, Graham was subject to more and more medical tests to try and find a cure for his respiratory problems – he’d been diagnosed with COPD – and early this year, he shared with me and a few friends that no more could be done. He died in hospital on 21 May 2021, aged 70. But he dealt with it all with amazing resilience and humour. His last email to me from 11 May makes a wry comment about a short review we’d had, then adds, ‘Oh well, it’s better than a poke in the eye or someone standing on my oxygen tube.’

He leaves a wonderful legacy. Six books of poetry, 22 files of manuscripts (some of which will be published by Poetry Teignmouth), an excellent reputation as both poet and man – kind, warm, funny, patient, loyal, courteous, forbearing – and a huge network of friends and poets still stunned by his loss. His close friend Ian Royce Chamberlain stood in for Graham in some of the last Zoom Spencer readings he attended, and I’m happy to say Ian will also be reading with me at future events as we carry on promoting Two Girls and a Beehive. Spencer believed that life and death were one, and I too believe that though Graham has shed his body, his spirit caries on undaunted.

Rosie Jackson, July 2021


Graham John Burchell: 1950–2021

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Poet of the Week – 15: Rosie Jackson


Rosie Jackson lives in Somerset and works as a creative writing tutor. Her poetry collections to date are: What the Ground Holds (Poetry Salzburg, 2014), The Light Box (Cultured Llama, 2016), and Two Girls and a Beehive: Poems about Stanley Spencer and Hilda Carline Spencer (co-written with Graham Burchell, Two Rivers Press, 2020). She enjoys working collaboratively: she’s done projects with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; letter cutter Andrew Whittle has turned one of her poems into a copper sculpture in the grounds of a Dorchester hospital; and Hedgehog Press will soon publish Aloneness is a Many-Headed Bird, a pamphlet of poems she wrote in dialogue with Dawn Gorman.

Rosie has won or been placed in many competitions, including 3rd prize Hippocrates Open 2020, 1st prize Poetry Space 2019, 1st prize Wells 2018, 2nd prize Torbay 2018, 1st prize Stanley Spencer Poetry Competition 2017, 3rd prize Hippocrates Open 2017. Poems have appeared in Acumen, Ambit, Critical Survey, Domestic Cherry, Frogmore Papers, High Window, Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, Scintilla, Tears in the Fence, The Interpreter’s House and anthologies.

She runs the Frome Stanza group, is a founding member of Knucklebone Poets Bath, and teaches poetry groups in various settings, including Ammerdown and Cortijo Romero, Spain. Her books of prose include Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion; Frieda Lawrence; The Eye of the Buddha (fiction); Mothers Who Leave; The Glass Mother: A Memoir (Unthank Books, 2016).

Rosie Jackson writes:

Although I’ve spent all my life studying and teaching literature (I did my degrees at Warwick and York, then lectured at the University of East Anglia), I only came to writing poetry myself relatively late, in the last ten years. Initially a prose writer, my creative writing began with a book of short stories then longer fiction, but, after seven years of hard work and two unpublished novels, I turned to poetry, and my success with my poems has surprised and delighted me. I just love metaphor and, perhaps because of my strong spiritual bent – I’ve spent a lot of time in India – I love seeing the world in a metaphysical way.

Visual arts are also a great passion of mine. In many ways, I’m a frustrated painter, which is probably why I write so many poems about art and artists – Hepworth, O’Keefe, de la Tour, Gauguin, Picasso, Masaccio, and now, of course, the Spencers – and about light and colour.

The last couple of years I’ve been working on poems about anchorites – religious women who opted to be enclosed for life – so the recent lockdown has felt to be almost an imaginative extension of that, and I’ve responded to it in poems which are on the wonderful website WRITE Where We Are NOW initiated by Carol Ann Duffy. I think poetry is at such an exciting juncture right now, so much happening, the reinvention of old forms and always someone new to discover. It took me too long, but at last I’ve found what I want to do when I grow up!


after Stanley Spencer’s ‘Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta: Dinner on the Hotel Lawn’ 1957

We must get the cutlery right, lay clean linen cloths,
tables he can’t overturn. We must hide love letters
behind our backs, though surely he knows everything:
how the earth will one day turn to pebbles,
the Thames to dishwater. We must remember
to thank him for the kind weather, daisies underfoot,
pelargoniums in pots, the miracle of white sliced bread,
tinned fruit and salmon. We must give one last spit
and polish to our spoons, then sit and shine
like marigolds waiting to be picked, our clothes
the colour of barley sugar. We must stretch our arms
as wide as a crucifix, undo our hearts,
pluck feathers from our heads that he might believe
he is once again in the company of angels.
And someone must paint a picture, capture the scene,
so on our death bed we may point to it, remind him,
‘This is the day you promised we would be with you in heaven.’

[from Two Girls and a Beehive]


In this period of strange calm
I have become a distant witness
to other people’s suffering,
the way a woman in Ancient Greece,
say, whose hours are spent worrying
if yesterday’s dish of food will stretch
to another meal, or how many goats
are lost on Mount Pelion, is dumbfounded
to hear what is happening skies away
in Delphi, it being hard for one
with simple ideas about goodness
to understand the necessity of sacrifice
to appease gods who have, apparently,
reached their limit of enduring human folly,
and perhaps she too stands outside
under a full pink moon, sends thanks
to white-robed figures attending
the dead, tears off leaves of oregano,
sage, wild mint, raises her hands
in prayer towards the gods hiding
on Mount Olympus, says –
This is enough, now, surely this sacrifice
is enough, we can change our ways
then waits under the chestnut trees
for signs she has been heard.