It is 20 years since I visited Little Gidding, as the mid-week trip on a one-week course at Madingley, part of Cambridge University. Our tutor that week was the poet Lawrence Sail. Last Sunday I featured four poems from his collection Guises. That week I also met Kathleen Kummer who has become a good friend. Her poems have featured here over the last few months.
Little Gidding is famous for being the fourth and final poem of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets. Eliot had visited Little Gidding in 1936. The title refers to a small Anglican community in Huntingdonshire, established by Nicholas Farrar in the 17th Century.
I wrote the short sequence of haiku during my visit. It was published in Presence magazine.
Almost hidden by grass
following her across the field a white butterfly
almost hidden by grass three wooden crosses
the church bell covered in pigeon droppings
pink geranium petals a droning plane
on the terrace calling us old, advanced – the toothless guide
This month’s poet is Lawrence Sail. We met 20 years ago when he tutored a week-long course at Madingley Hall, part of Cambridge University. We have kept in touch and I was delighted with his endorsement of my second collection Nothing serious nothing dangerous.
Lawrence Sail has written thirteen books of poems; Waking Dreams: New & Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2010) was a Poetry Book Society Special Commendation. His publications include the anthology First and Always: Poems for Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital (Faber, 1988), and two books of essays, Cross-Currents (Enitharmon, 2005) and The Key to Clover (Shoestring Press, 2013). He has written two memoirs, both published by Impress Books: Sift (2010) and Accidentals, the latter illustrated by his daughter, Erica Sail, and published in December 2020.
He was chairman of the Arvon Foundation from 1991 to 1994, has directed the Cheltenham Festival of Literature and was on the management committee of the Society of Authors from 2007 to 2011. He was awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship in 1992, and an Arts Council Writer’s Bursary the following year. In 2004 he received a Cholmondeley Award for his poetry. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
I’ve selected four poems from Guises, Lawrence’s most recent collection, published by Bloodaxe Books in early 2020. They show his close observation skills, precision of imagery, interest in art and in life – what is and what was lost. Understatement is used to great effect in Journey.
Radishes ‘What do I know of man’s destiny? I could tell you more about radishes.’ Samuel Beckett
Bunched tightly – no sign of the flowers with their four petals
At one end, weak and tatty leaves that soon wilt, ill with yellow
At the other a wisp of root, vestigial tail thinly curling
Their cylinders, white and carmine, harbour a residue of soil’s sourness
Their gifts? Crispness and surprise – from their pure white core they bite back: like destiny
Start at the nape with the helmet that tapers so finely and looks designed for a new occipital shape – it must come straight out of a dream played on an oval board, under lights
Everything comes second to aero-dynamics, kinetics – it is not always easy to tell where the cycle ends and the rider begins. They become one curve among many, parts of one thought
– which bends their spines, stares from the rounds of the goggles, pumps the pedals, blurs the black wheels’ outlines; which has them swoop flightily down the banked track sudden as a hawk stooping
Such oneness, wholly integrated – as in the fado singer’s tremble of husky melancholy, or the grounded delight of lovers before they reel out of the charmed circle
Its head to body to tail is one long, mean horizontal hoisted on the spindly twin trestles of its best feet forward
A nerve-bundle fused in bronze it lives apart, locked in a trance of stealth as it probes the air ahead taking nothing for granted
I am travelling to meet you again – through morning air burnt to a clarity you would admire
And of course my mind has stored a certain amount of baggage accrued in the course of time
It includes a small rucksack you once wore, and the sweep of your arm, stressing a point
As well as the passion with which you embark on serious discussion with, sometimes, an emphatic blink
Yet almost as vivid is the thought of the platform as it will look after the train has gone
The shine of the rails snaking away, a soft breeze, the atmosphere intent but free of intention
On the far side of you waits an absence charged and changed that I do not want to re-settle
‘Good things will continue happening in her name and spirit…Manchester became a poetry city not because of the university writing programmes…but because an expatriate American found a vocation there.’ Michael Schmidt; PN Review
Today would have been Linda Chase’s birthday. She volunteered to run and organise courses for the Poetry School. She ran the first one Autumn 2004. She started Poets & Players the same year. I was there and at the amazing Garden Parties. Here is a photo of me at the 2006 one, selling donated poetry books to raise funds for bursaries. In the background is the wonderful Village Hall.
Linda arranged for Sharon Olds to read in the Manchester Museum and to run a workshop at the Village Hall behind her house. It was all amazing and she was amazing.
With my birthday coming up, I am posting a poem that celebrates key experiences in my life. These include visiting Lalibela in Ethiopia in 2007, travelling with the friend who set up the Lalibela Educational Trust, to meet the boy I sponsored and his widowed mother. My parents – a church organist father and semi-professional singing mother – did pass on the creative gene, for sure.
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Taking other routes
My parents never taught me to swim; didn’t take me skating on those Christmas-card frozen canals. I have never been famous, but I have sung in Burgos and Florence, Vespers in St Mark’s. My singing has made grown men cry.
I have not travelled on ferries, floating from one Greek island to another, forgetting the name of the day. I have never stroked a giraffe, nor given birth to a baby boy. But I have picked redcurrants from the back garden, sharing rich crops for over twenty years with small black birds.
In Ethiopia I have a son and I sat with him in his Physics class. And for a few years I was a sailor, snatching a few hours in Sydney, shopping in Hong Kong. I danced in a grass skirt and flew across Alaskan glaciers with the man I loved.