We end the month with a February poem by Kathleen Kummer. I love all the flowers that are included, how the poem touches on that moment of turning. The last two lines carry an extra weight this year.
There had been no hint that it was in the air, no question of even imagining a haze of green round the trees. What flowers there were pointed to winter: hellebores, snowdrops, a few crocuses trembling in the grass, and the camellias in bloom, ice-maidens, translucent, quite at home in the cold. It was February. Coming home in the dark, I paused on the step to the garden, held back by the smell of the soil someone had turned in my absence, moist, as if a god were breathing on it to warm the earth. Then I knew for certain that spring was coming, that, deo volente, I’d be there.
It is a great pleasure introducing this month’s poet. Paul Stephenson and I met eight years ago through the Poetry Business’ Writing School, an eighteen-month programme.
Paul was born and grew up in Cambridge. He studied modern languages and linguistics then European Studies. He spent several years living between London and France, Spain, and the Netherlands. He currently lives between Cambridge and Brussels.
Paul was selected for the Arvon/Jerwood mentoring scheme and the Aldeburgh Eight. He has been co-curator of the Poetry in Aldeburgh poetry festival since 2018.
His first pamphlet Those People (Smith/Doorstop, 2015) was a winner in the Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition, judged by Billy Collins. His second pamphlet The Days that Followed Paris (HappenStance, 2016) was written in the wake of the November 2015 terrorist attacks. His book Selfie with Waterlilies was published by Paper Swans Press after winning their 2017 Poetry Pamphlet Prize. Read more at: http://www.paulstep.com
I have selected two poems from Those People. The poems Turkish Delight and The Rub open the pamphlet Selfie with Waterlilies. Here is Paul’s keen eye for the details that matter, his playful language adding an extra dimension to the subject of loss.
Seventy litres: in theory more than plenty for three t-shirts, two shorts, the pair of jeans you’re wearing. Then the question of the tent,
saucepan, small canister of gas, map and bible of Thomas Cook timetables – every single train possibility from here to Ankara. One crisp fifty
thousand lira note, a handful of Swiss francs and wad of American Express traveller’s cheques. Foreign currency kept flat, zipped inside a canvas
wallet with Velcro strap, wrapped tight around the waist. Typical Monday. Your father at work. Your mother out somewhere. Your lift here soon.
I avoid the house I grew up in, keep away from my mother
and father’s birthdays: calendar opposites, June and January.
I steer clear of my brother’s crash, rule out the hot summer
I left school, graduated, went off. I adopt different characters,
mix upper and lower case. I do my utmost to never
choose when I was born. Mine take years to crack.
What you do when you get the call is take it, hear words at dawn before they’re mouthed: You should probably come now.
What you do is shower and dress, skip yoghurt and honey, the baklava breakfast, and walk briskly to the ticket office, hand over your sob story.
Once given a seat today (not tomorrow because tomorrow is too late), what you do is pack, sit on a shell-shocked suitcase poring over a tourist map
mentally-cataloguing Byzantine cathedrals then mosques, till a twelve-seater van for one pulls up to taxi you with stop-starts across the Bosphorous
into Asia. What you do to kill an afternoon on a new continent at the international airport hub is browse briefs and socks, visit the James Joyce Irish pub,
mill about getting sprayed with testers of musk, citrus, bergamot, think nothing of spending sixty three euros and seventy four cents on different nut varieties of
Turkish Delight (which is heavy and must be carried), remember nobody likes Turkish Delight – except him. What you do till they display your gate is stare out
as dusk descends, count the seconds between runway ascents, promise you’ll return one day to be consumed by the vastness of the Hagia Sophia.
Menthol my father, menthol his room, menthol his bed.
My out of sight father, my fast relief father, my warming father.
My dual action father, my targeted father, my daily father.
My caution father, my blood flow father, my enclosed father,
Menthol my father, menthol his back, menthol his beard.
My turpentine father, my paraffin father, my eucalyptus father.
My muscular father, my thin layer father, my recommended father.
My wool fat father, my liquid father, my expiry father.
Valentine’s Day: a love poem by my friend Kathleen Kummer. She lived and worked in the Netherlands when married to a Dutchman. Poems from her debut collection Living below sea level featured here on 25 June 2018. To celebrate our 20-year friendship, I will be posting more of Kathleen’s unpublished work over the next few months.
Like a holy relic rarely exposed, they lie in a drawer, not handled, let alone read, for half a century, their violet ink on airmail paper, your, my, dried blood on a membrane which is beginning to flake. If touched, it would instantly turn to dust. If read, the dried blood would flow again and burn.
The drawer is hard to close: coarse strands of pain, regret and grief obstruct it. I am able to ease it with the memory of lying with you by the sea, unseen by those who walked through the marram grass, throwing up little showers of sand on us. Nothing has been as soft, as caressing as the sand dunes that summer.
On a writing workshop last weekend, I introduced Vasco Popa’s The Golden Apple: a round of stories, songs, spells, proverbs & riddles. I have been using some of the riddles and proverbs as writing prompts.
Vasco Popa (1922-1991) was Serbia’s greatest modern poet. Ted Hughes was an admirer of his work and wrote the introduction to his Collected Poems. Popa collected folk tales from many sources. He found a rich inspiration for his own poems in this “eternally living wellspring of folk poetry” which he combined with vivid imagery and a touch of the surreal.
Here are two riddles from The Golden Apple. The answers are at the end of the blog.
With an iron key I open a green fortress And drive out the black cattle
A horse with its pack goes into a house and comes out of it, but its tail never goes in.
Popa’s Collected Poems inspired my poem Fairy tale. It was first published in erbacce and then in my debut collection Another life (Oversteps Books Ltd, 2016).
Someone needs to go to a deep cupboard in a dark room the others wait outside
The first one becomes a grandmother with a stoop then someone else steals her white lace cap her smile her soft voice they go to lie still in a deep dark bed in a cold room
Then someone else walks a long way through the wood, across the saddled serpent under a cold sheet of dark clouds
That someone is dressed in crimson already – it will save time the old one will rescue the red girl but they will not have enough bricks to finish the job
after that someone else will get to be hungry and someone will always be eaten