Monthly Archives: May 2018

Beneath the Earth

I’ve just finished reading Beneath the Earth by the Irish writer John Boyne. It’s his first collection of short stories. Boyne is better known as a novelist: he has published nine novels and five novels for younger readers. One of these The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas sounded familiar: in 2008 a film was made in the UK based on the book.

I’d taken the book with me when I went to Italy recently. I can’t settle into a novel when I travel – plane, train, hanging around at airports. The blurb calls them “dark, unerring and surprising” and you can tell from the opening sentences below that they are dark. Boy, 19 opens the collection and Beneath the Earth is the last of the dozen.

* I started charging for sex a few days after my nineteenth birthday (Boy, 19)
* The brick crashed through the front window shortly after midnight and Émile woke with a start, his heart pounding, his eyes raw from interrupted sleep. (The Country You Called Home)
* I never had a chance to observe Arthur in his public role until a few days before my mother’s funeral (The Schleinermetzenmann)
* Hawke, a grey wolf in human form, emerged from the forest on his hands and knees, pulling pine needles from his palms. (Rest Day)
* It was no easy task to dig the child’s grave. (Beneath the Earth).

In my folder “Working Poems” sits a poem Reading Disgrace at the Mezza Luna. I started it on a workshop where the sample poem was Reading Rumi in the Bear Inn (I think that’s the name of the pub – I’ve mislaid the poem). The novel starts: For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.

We know, immediately, that the protagonist (David Lurie who teaches Romantic poetry) will fail and fall. The novel is a masterpiece for which J M Coetzee was awarded the 1999 Booker Prize.

Is this opening line too strong, though, to include in a poem that weaves together quotes from a book with observations about a place and people in it? Is that why the poem doesn’t work (yet)?


During my recent trip to the Netherlands I joined my sister and brother-in-law for a visit to the Keukenhof. It was a clear dry day, with a slight breeze and a some sun in the afternoon.

The Keukenhof is one of the world’s largest flower gardens incorporating different gardens and styles on a 79-acre site. It’s situated on 15th century hunting grounds and there are beech trees which are centuries old. The original park was designed in the 1830s and the Keukenhof (Kitchen garden) first opened in 1949. Each year some seven million bulbs are planted up.

17 purple tulips

I vaguely recalled the Sylvia Plath poem about tulips, so I looked it up. It was written in 1961 and consists of nine 7-line stanzas. It starts: The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here. The poem is based on Plath’s experience of recovering in hospital from an operation: I am learning peacefulness, I am lying by myself quietly/ In the following stanzas the tulips are not experienced as benign: The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me. The vivid tulips eat my oxygen. The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;

I have one poem about tulips (in the Building Bridges anthology published by Ek Zuban last year). It has a very different feel from the fabulous Keukenhof tulips and is more at the Sylvia Plath end of the continuum. The title of the poem is the title of a watercolour painting donated by the (anonymous) artist to Manchester Art Gallery.

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

They’ve not yet reached one of the tulips,
the central one of this display.
You can imagine a window, if you like.
Five parrot tulips lean towards the light.
Degrees of purpling. The ants appear
half-way up the bulb-shaped vase.
I’ve left the thin pencil lines
indicating a flat surface.
Look closely and you’ll see this vase
should tumble, fall or slip.
Three fingers’ width, water level
in the glass. Greying water extracted.
The tulips were a present.
You can count the ants, if you like.





Last night I did an open mic slot at a fundraising event for Greenpeace. There were two fabulous readings by the poets Kim Moore and Clare Shaw, as well as music. The open mic slots were four minutes each which meant three poems per person.  This gave a good flavour of each poet’s “voice” and offered plenty of variety. I’d come back from Holland 36 hours earlier, so only just got my tongue round the English…

In the afternoon Clare Shaw ran a short workshop. One of the sample poems was The Low Road by Marge Piercy. The poem starts: What can they do/to you? Whatever they want. The first stanza is then a list of things that can be done, e.g. “bust you, break your fingers, blur you with drugs, burn your brain with electricity.” After a short second stanza starting But two people fighting/back to back can cut through/a mob, there is this third stanza. The recent news in the UK (the ongoing Brexit saga, the “Windrush generation” scandal, the NHS failure with 450,000 women missing out on mammograms and treatment) has been deeply depressing. So, this was a timely reminder of people-power and I found it immensely encouraging and heartening to read.

Two people can keep each other
sane, can give support, conviction,
love, massage, hope, sex.
Three people are a delegation,
a committee, a wedge. With four
you can play bridge and start
an organisation. With six
you can rent a whole house,
eat pie for dinner with no
seconds, and hold a fundraising party.
A dozen make a demonstration.
A hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter’
ten thousand, power and your own paper;
a hundred thousand, your own media;
ten million, your own country.