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 was published in the journal Poetry Salzburg. 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.

Solstice – a haiku

It is almost Solstice, the day in December that means the most to me: the shortest day, the gradual turn towards the light.

I will celebrate with a short meditation, then some music and mulled wine. I send you warm wishes for Solstice, Christmas and for the New Year. Thank you all for your support and your comments. On Sunday 3 January I will post again.

The marvellous illustration is by gdizerega on Pixabay, and the winter solstice haiku by Matthew Paul. It was first published in The Haiku Calendar 2014.

winter solstice
the street-cleaner picks up                              
a glass half full

Winter Migrants

At a recent workshop I read from Winter Migrants, a collection by Tom Pickard. I saw the title and cover in an email from Carcanet, the publishers, and knew I would have to get the book. A short sequence and individual poems bookend a selection from Fiends Fell Journals.

This is a poetry-diary, or haibun, composed over the decade Pickard lived alone on the wind-blown North Pennines. The two dozen entries cover the period June 2003 – February 2004. They vary in length from a few lines to a page. Here is an example, showing Pickard’s sharp vision and economy of language:

12 February

Late at night, without a coat and the wind still raging, an old woman from the cottage hospital in Alston, banging on the deserted mortuary window, demanding entry – convinced she is home.

Water drapes over worn flattened rocks,
smooth as curtains.

Birds appear frequently in the Journal – an alert kestrel, a growking raven, snipes, curlews – and in the title sequence – the Solway estuary where winter migrants gather / in long black lines.

Heron, Annette Niemeyer, via Pixabay

This is also from Fiends Fell Journals:

A heron
criss-crosses the lashing syke,
fast, with sudden thaw,

its spiky tread sunk
in unscuffed snow

patient
and hungry as death

no inkling of urgency
in its measured step

close, almost overlapping,
at the water’s edge

St Nicholaas 2020

St Nicholaas, Public Domain, Pixabay

St Nicholaas arrives in the Netherlands by boat, each year at a different port. He then rides through the town on his white horse. It’s on the mid-November Saturday. In the three weeks’ run-up to St Nicholaas Eve (5 December) he will appear in other towns, always with at least one Zwarte Piet who carries a large bag with goodies and, traditionally, a birch bundle to clean a chimney. But, as children we were told that, if you were naughty, you’d get spanked – even worse, you might be put inside that bag and taken away to Spain …

Since 2010, there has been growing concern about Zwarte Piet and racism. There have been demonstrations for and against the tradition. Motorways have been blocked. Arrests made.

St Nicholaas and Zwarte Piet, olliebrands0 via Pixabay


The arrival of St Nicholaas attracts large crowds: not good in a pandemic. This year the Dutch, pragmatic as ever, have killed two birds with one stone. The holy man arrived in a non-existent village, called Zwalk. The verb Zwalken means to drift, wander about. His arrival was shown live on Dutch television on 14 November. There were no crowds, no protesters.

Here is the white horse, a display in the famous Bijenkorf store in Amsterdam.

The traditional sweets connected with St Nicholaas were already in the shops late September when I was due to travel back to Manchester. Alphabet letters, capitals in dark or milk chocolate, along with marzipan figures, gingerbread cookies (pepernoten), speculaas filled with almond paste…

St Nicholaas sweets and cookies, nietjuh via Pixabay

Once children know the truth about St Nicholaas – that he is based on a Greek bishop who lived 270 – 343 in Myra, in what is now Turkey – and they have pocket money, they can buy presents for other members of their family. Traditionally, these are hidden in a surprise – a humourous, unusual or personalised packaging, made of papier maché and painted. These may come with a “poem” that is supposed to come from the good old man himself. Poor St Nicholaas can only compose doggerel!

St Nicolaas writes to my dear brother.
He wants to know: Why is it so much bother

for you to take a turn at doing the dishes?
The knives and forks are not dangerous fishes!

Coffee cups, soup bowls, the dirty plate:
Why do you always leave it so late?

The plastic bowl with soapy water isn’t deep.
Honestly, you won’t drown, you could do it in your sleep!

Promise St Nicholaas that you’ll improve
and he’ll send you some presents and his love.

Sunday morning – a poem

Manchester Art Gallery

I’ve been sorting and clearing papers and poems. This poem was written a couple of years ago in a workshop with Peter Sansom of the Poetry Business. We were at the Manchester Art Gallery and were sent out into the galleries to find an art work, then write a poem about it. All that and have a quick lunch too!

The inspiration was the painting Sunday morning by the Victorian painter Edward Stott. A quiet image for a quiet poem.

Sunday morning, Edward Stott, Manchester Art Gallery

Sunday morning

Through lace curtains
a shining sun
red flowers in the garden.

Father and mother
in black at the back
of the painting.

The small girl
with ginger hair
holds a large white bowl.

The boy to her left
blond cropped hair
drinks from a saucer.

A black-and-white cat
looks up at the older sister
slicing bread on her lap.

He has borrowed both
children and adults:
all live here in the village.

Much of the collections at Manchester Art Gallery is now accessible online.

Moment – haiku

Moment arrived at the beginning of the year. A wonderful surprise. It’s a pocket-book size anthology of haiku, senryu and tanka by Ian Turner. Ian, this month’s poet, was for many years a member of our regional haiku group which used to meet monthly. After his 30-year career as an Fine Art Lecturer, he relocated with his partner to France where he is now a practising fine artist.

Beautifully produced on thick cream paper, Moment includes well over 300 haiku. Ian has organised these in small sets on a number of themes which recur through the book: the seasons, various places and locations, both in nature and urban, animal behaviour, human activities. So, there is variety and consistency. The poems cover the period 1997 – 2020 and most have been previously published in quality haiku magazines: Blithe Spirit, Presence, Snapshot Press, Shamrock Haiku Journal.

Ian tells me he is photophobic, so instead here is the image of indigotyger, Ian’s taoist spirit persona. I hope you enjoy my selection from his anthology.

that’s me
in the far thistle field
stalking a tethered pit pony
hooves and heart
skip a beat

early thaw
a snail emerges
from the meter box

hospital maze
I become number seven
on a pink plastic chair

the cool silence
of a prayer room
last flight call

swishing shingle
the putter of a fishing boat
in a smudge of light

throngs of tour coaches
a gypsy woman’s
empty paper cup

phantom moon
red deer at the turnpike
in their own time

yet more protests
riot police greet each other
on both cheeks

stood
in a rippling white cloud
the black calf

safe storage facility
a life free of stuff
so insecure

wild sage
deep in the maquis
a clank of goats

after a squall
the ink stained letter
in an unknown hand

November – a poem

photo credit: redmupfe via Pixabay

Earlier this week I read for Todmorden Wednesday Writers. The Zoom event was well attended, with the open mic attracting poets from UK and abroad. I still want to abolish January – blogged about that before. The Todmorden poets liked this November poem. The pumpkin picture perfectly represents how I’m feeling right now – lockdown in November!

November

The month that offers only Halloween and All Souls’ Day.
That Danish hygge nonsense – an IKEA trick to sell
more scented candles, cocoa, woollen blankets
with a Nordic pattern. All those Scandinavian series –
Killing, The Bridge, different actors playing Wallander,
every instalment set in November.
Groundhog month. Lit-up pumpkins will never
warm the knuckles of your heart.
Every November day is an odyssey.
To be away twenty years and be recognised
only by a mangy old dog.
Check your bonfire for hedgehogs, remember
Battersea Dogs & Cats Home in your will.
Do away with Christmas.

Shoes and siblings

The Garsdale Retreat

This week I’ve been on a writing course at the Garsdale Retreat: Memoir/Life Writing. It was an intense four days with tutor Cathy Rentzenbrink. She wrote a successful memoir The Last Act of Love and has published two books since. Of course, we were meeting via Zoom. Rebecca emailed us recipes to make up for the fact we would not be eating her delicious, home cooking. There was an afternoon chatroom option, but it could never replace Rebecca’s home-made cake!


One way to elicit memories for a memoir is to think of objects. I’ve read exercises about shoes, seen a tutor on another workshop bring in her first shoes. I have no memories of the shoes I wore as a child, but I have fond memories of the green shoes with three tiers – glamorous and comfortable – I wore that year when I was doing my MA at Sheffield University.


I do recall the astonishing poem My Shoes by Charles Simic. It starts:

Shoes, secret face of my inner life:
Two gaping toothless mouths,
Two partly decomposed animal skins
Smelling of mice-nests.

There are four more stanzas, with a surprise in the second stanza – two dead siblings.

Last year at Garsdale, I was delighted to find that another woman on the course was wearing identical boots! Briefly, I felt like I had a twin sister …