Monthly Archives: January 2021

A Word in Your Ear

Alex Josephy

It is a great pleasure to introduce this month’s poet. Alex Josephy and I met last November. We both read at the ‘virtual’ Poetry in Aldeburgh festival, along with poets Sharon Black and Christopher North – all of us with a connection to Europe.

Alex lives in London and Italy. Her collection Naked Since Faversham was published by Pindrop Press in 2020. Other work includes White Roads, poems set in Italy, Paekakariki Press, 2018, and Other Blackbirds, Cinnamon Press, 2016. Her poems have won the McLellan and Battered Moons prizes, and have appeared in magazines and anthologies in the UK and Italy.

As part of the Poetry School Mixed Borders scheme, she has been poet-in-residence at Rainham Hall, Essex, and in Markham Square, London. Alex is a poetry mentor and writes reviews for publications such as Envoi and London Grip. Find out more on her website: http://www.alexjosephy.eu

I have chosen four poems from Naked Since Faversham which show the range of her work. I hope they speak to you, as they did to me.

Grasshopper, Castelvecchio

Stalled between diagonal slats,
you’re a dry hull, ridge-backed

as if whittled from a vine stem,
forelegs splayed to grip the ledge

you’ve chosen for shelter.
Hail made me close the shutters;

that’s when I noticed you, remote
in winter torpor. When I woke

you were still here, a cold wedge
interrupting the light.

Each time I pass I look for you,
imagine how the frost

deepens, fills your hollows;
hear no rasp of song, no longing

for green. Cavalletta, little horse,
I hope we’ll see the spring.

A Word in Your Ear

Cielo, the heaven
of unimportant things:
half an hour together

in the usual bar.
It’s a light still on
when the morning sky

starts to remember blue.
Cielo, just look
at the shape of it:

five strokes, a hasty dot,
slight enough
to skim a canvas

on a brush-tip, watery
peaks and arcs.
That fluent curve –

a sudden smile,
stand-offish verticals,
and then a hug.

A little bite of something
sweet and quick –
cielo, cielo, ce l’ho!

warbles the pastry cook.
His cielo is yeast
that swells the heart

of a brioche, opens
rooms of warm air
in a bread roll.

Going Up

At the door I pause to salute
the white plastic vessel. Press

the panel, cupping a palm
beneath. The blessing flows;

I wring my hands, fold them,
gather a fearful breath, hope

for the best. Together we can fight
infection. Shed what I’ve carried,

invisible on the wheezy bus. This is
a clean hand zone. Trace finger bone

to knuckle, heart line to life line.
Catch a whiff of spirit,

hurry through Reception,
head for the silver lift.

Therapy

Take thistledown, hold it in the bowl
of your palms. Feel it tingle
like Spumante.

No, it can’t mend your heart,
but it will float you to the surface
of your skin.

Each time you long for your child
across the ocean,
find a river

or a canal., worn stone steps
down to the towpath.
Accept

a kingfisher’s quick shot of blue,
a moorhen’s buoyancy;
how easily

they dive, come up somewhere
unexpected, sleeved
in a twist of air.

Poetry

Edward Hirsch

Poetry rises out of one solitude to meet another in recognition and connection. It companions us. (Edward Hirsch)

A postcard arrived this week from the academy of american poets in New York. I make a small donation each year for the pleasure of their daily poem in my inbox. The quote was against a background of black tree trunks in snow. The machinery in the P.O. sorting office has scuffed the postcard, but I am glad to have it.

It made me think of other definitions of poetry and poetry about companions. Looking in my folders, I came across an old poem which was homework set by our tutor, the late Linda Chase. She asks us to personify an abstract concept and then write about two types of people who are opposites. The poem seems to me highly relevant to our times.

The twins

The older one by a few minutes, she’d come
to the door and be the first to greet you.
Her bright eyes shine, her cheeks are red,
but there is an edge to her fixed smile.
She sings nursery rhymes out of tune,
whistles through cracked teeth,
she gives and then takes back.
Many have been taken in by False Hope.

At dawn we’ll enter, climb the back stairs.

They lie in their bed, both still asleep.
The sun travels across the blanket
and lights up her face.
She makes soft puffing noises,
like secrets whispered in a dream.
I’ll touch her shoulder gently to wake her,
while you watch for movement
in the other bed: the grunting sounds,
the claw-like hand clutching the sheets.

Soon Hope will walk with us,
small steps on grass covered in dew.

Hunters on the Hill

One year ago I received an email in Dutch from poet Elsa Fischer. She had read my second collection and related to the poems about the Second World War. Elsa and I have kept in touch by email. Her poems were featured here on 24 May 2020 – the end of that month we were going to meet in person in The Hague …

A 1,000-piece jigsaw of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Hunters on the Hill is waiting in the hall – a present for a friend. Seeing it there reminded me that Elsa and I have both written a poem inspired by that painting from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. On its website you can see all the works by Bruegel that still exist from their 2018 exhibition.

Jonathan McAloon published a fascinating article on Artsy “The Deadly Truth Behind Pieter Bruegel Elder’s Idyllic Landscapes” (4/2/2019). The winter of 1564-65 was the coldest winter of the century. Europe was living in what’s now called the “Little Ice Age”. It would be so cold that rivers froze enough for local people to have rent-free marketplaces on them. Frozen birds fell from the sky, people could enjoy themselves skating. There were also food shortages, resulting in illness and riots.

Elsa’s poem Hunters was published in the journal Poetry Salzburg Review. Mine is in the pamphlet A Stolen Hour (Grey Hen Press, 2020). We’ve both taken the viewpoint of someone in the landscape.

Hunters

I’ve come to feast again on Flemish grotesque
at the peasant wedding and Shrove Tuesday’s kermis.

To watch the hunters as they bring in the kill,
the trails of blood not far from where I stand

for cover. I hear branches and shrubs and ice
breaking and feel no pity until the knives release

a medieval agony of entrails, shimmering,
steaming, on to the floor of the estaminet.

The heady beer explodes, the pissoir smells.
I grab a cue at the billiard table. I am seventeen.

Piercing the cold like the crow’s flight I escape
into the northern twilight, away from memories.

In a far corner

It is a clear afternoon.
I hear children laughing,
the clacking of skittles,
skates carving the ice.

I know it is Friday and hear
the silence of crows.
My bones are strong,
my wife is in good health.

I do not yet know that
on the hill the hunters
with their wet and tired dogs
are heading for home.

I think about my wife,
heavy with child, her apron
as white as the snow
under my feet.

I see plumes of breath from my lips,
as though I’m a horse with plough.
Branches on my shoulder creak, shudder.
I’m yoked to this life.

Blackbird – poem

I am grateful to Josephine Corcoran for posting this poem on her And Other Poems site today. You can read the full poem and many other wonderful poems here Josephine had a brief submission window from which she selected those poems that would connect with many people, poems that would lift our spirit in these difficult times.

Blackbird

There’s a blackbird on the wooden fence.
It looks left, then right,
stretches up and its yellow beak plucks
an orange berry from the pyracantha.

Snow – a poem

Oak bark, by 2999492 via PIxabay

I hope that you have had a safe and good transition into 2021. Twice this week I pulled open the white vertical blinds to see a thin layer of snow. It does not often snow in Manchester; snow comes sooner to the hills around it where some of my poet friends live.

Perhaps that’s why I enjoy encountering snow in poems. One of my favourites is the poem Snow by Louis MacNeice, with that fourth line World is suddener than we fancy it. You can read it on the Poetry Foundation website here

My short poem is below.

Snow

1

I arrive suddenly
yet will always linger
in the shadows of trees, drystone walls.

Over time I make a blanket
to purify, a silent pause
for you to hear your heartbeat.

2

From the York train I noticed
crumpled sheets of dingy grey.

The April sun does not reach
the entrance of tunnels,
behind the wrinkled wood.

Snow depends on shadows,
a mare keeping her foal close by.