In the fields near Arnhem

During this year I’ve been posting poems by my friend Kathleen Kummer. This is the last one. Kathleen lived and worked in the Netherlands after she married a Dutchman and taught German and French at an international school.

The battle of Arnhem took place during 17 – 26 September 1944. Operation Market Garden failed when the allied forces could not take the bridge over the Rhine.

In the fields near Arnhem

It falls like a petal from the last rose of summer:
a bus ticket, Arnhem Municipal Transport, flutters
from the faded pages of L’Art D’Etre Aimée.

Learning how to love and be loved, which was harder,
was what I had no idea I was doing that summer
of trains, boats and buses, all bound for Cythera.

It sounded so playful in French: Ecoutez-le,
(listen to him), passionnément. Ils adorent les cheveux,
so, wear your hair loose. But this was no game, we were serious.

Not so much so that we thought how, six years earlier,
they had floated down from the sky, white flowers
in their thousands in the fields near Arnhem.

Earth Days Numbered

I am very pleased to have a poem in this pamphlet which, along with its companion Counting Down the Days, has just been published by Grey Hen Press. Joy Howard, the editor, has done a great job of producing these two anthologies: allowing older women poets to show their support for the younger generation.

All proceeds from the sales of the two books will go to supporting the work of the UK Youth Climate Coalition. Below is my poem to give you a taster.

Paternoster

Some survivors live on the edge in cars,
dented, rusted ridges, blown tyres,
a towel drying on the steering wheel.
Much of life now is waiting and standing in line,
but Paternoster tells us it was often so in the Old Life.

Strong men searched among the rubble,
found saucepans, leather boots, shoulder bags.
Once a black wooden box called Schimmel
which Paternoster says means white horse.
Papaver grows inside that piano now.

Horses stand by the narrow river, kick sand.
One brown mare is with foal.
Our Friesian cows give us white gold most days.
We are waiting for rain, for a sign.
Men play a game of stone, paper, scissors.

I stroke the flute I made from bone.
I must be careful not to dream.
We trained the rats to smell landmines.
Paternoster remembers grapefruit,
a bitter yellow ball, the colour of sun.

Seven liners, seven lines …


Cruise liners were parked at sea last year. I could see them from the beach at Scheveningen. And a travel company did send me an offer I could refuse…

It was a different story on 3rd of July 2012, when P&O celebrated its 175-year anniversary: for the first time ever its seven passenger ships were in port together. An ex-P&O friend of mine was there taking pictures. Here is the flotilla leaving Southampton.

The offer of a £150 reduction comes on heavy white paper


SS Zeus floats downstream on the Danube.
Elderly passengers, each with their own balcony.
A decade on, scale models the colour of gold
are on display in suburban charity shops
where other old hands fumble,
hand over coins with the monarch’s head.

A poem about my father …

Building prev. Middelaarkerk, Beverwijk, NL

My father was born on the 2nd of September. Here is a short prose poem about him. That so-called High Street was the Breestraat in the small Dutch town of Beverwijk, a few miles from the coast. In 1996 the building was last used as a church. When looking for a photo I came across a website offering accommodation. There is an apartment with a stained-glass window…

Hat

That Saturday afternoon my father had been drinking with the sales reps who had driven in to collect their bonus and, of course, being pleased with their bonus, they would have bought my father a drink. My father, being generous and liking his drink, anyway, would have bought them a drink. How the subject turned to hats, I don’t know, but around three, or three-thirty, my father came back home and picked up my mother’s hat, the one she would wear to church the following day: a large peach-shaped, red-wine-coloured, black-velvet-edged-bonbon-of-a-thing. I watched my father put on this hat and leave the house. I went out and followed him. The three sales reps stood outside the café at the end of our road. With the disdain of a Spanish matador, my father strode past them, heading for the High Street.

(published in Another LIfe, Oversteps Books, 2016)

Initiative, challenge and excitement …

Nidd Hall, near Harrogate

I’m away this weekend on a reunion, staying at Nidd Hall Hotel, near Harrogate. Nidd Hall is a Grade II listed building with large gardens and a fishing lake. Many years ago, I went on a daytrip to the fabulous Turkish Baths in Harrogate. Dating back to 1897, it is full working order and historically complete: islamic arches, tiled brickwork, terrazzo flooring.


That outing was organised by Spice UK where Spice stands for ‘Special Programme of Interest, Challenge and Excitement’. Spice was started in the ‘80s on a part-time basis by Dave Smith, a police officer who held a sky-diving qualification. It grew into a national franchise organisation and still exists.

New to Manchester, I met lots of people at the social events, made friends and tried things I wouldn’t have done otherwise: abseiling, rock climbing, motorcycling, Formula Ford at Aintree. Here is a poem about one of those events. It’s from my first collection Another life. I hope you’re having a good weekend yourself!

Nicolae Baltatescu, via Pixabay

From Grassington, June
for Dave Smith

We had been following the Roman road:
Rita who was almost 80,
her bearded son, clutching champagne,
the pale daughter-in-law, and me
still gripping the metal frame.

Our shadow floated ahead of us,
scaring sheep and deer into running
towards the orange early evening.
The only sound creaking wicker
and the hissing of gas

We ducked as we rushed over
telephone lines, fences, tree tops.
The Land Rover – still keeping up –
with the bottle of whisky to placate
the farmer on whose field we hoped to land.

A walk in summer in Holland

Heide by Steinchen via Pixabay

It’s only days since I returned to Manchester and I’m slowly getting back into the English language. It has been a great pleasure to feature poems here this year by my friend Kathleen Kummer. I hope you enjoy this one.

A walk in summer in Holland

No ditch, no canal, no river here,
no heron to remind me, as always, of Gandhi,
hunched up, as it studies the text of the water.
This landscape, the heat at Blaricum,
its sandy paths moist from yesterday’s rain,
never seem to be still. It moves with a gentle,
rocking rhythm. The mass of heather,
shrubs and trees, the tipsy ladders
of vapour the jets leave behind like litter,
the cirrus snagged on the sky, the flock
of sheep, horned flecked with brown,
expertly nibbling between each dainty,
filigree sprig – all of these
frolic round us: moving pictures
on a frieze like those in a child’s bedroom.

An illusion? Call van Gogh as a witness.
His olive groves writhe, his crops are waves,
cypresses rock on an ocean of fields
or boil with the stars in a fiery furnace.
But here, there is no such fever. Under
the huge Dutch sky, we are cradled, rocked
on a warm bed of purple heather.

The shoplifter and the hermit …

It is three years since the poet Matthew Sweeney died. I was fortunate of having a whole week with him at the wonderful Almassera Vella, Spain in 2006. I learned a great deal. The photo was taken in the garden by the infinity pool.


One of my favourite books about writing is Teach Yourself Writing Poetry. It was written by Matthew and his friend and poet John Hartley Williams. It is packed with exercises, and I love the book because in between the exercises there is dialogue, chat, discussion. I can hear their voices as they talk (I’m sure over a glass of wine). Wit and poignancy.


The Hermit was written on a workshop. We were given Sweeney’s poem The Shoplifter and asked to think about someone with an unusual occupation and what life would be like for them when they retired. Both the shoplifter and hermit now live by the sea. Sweeney’s shoplifter has ‘fronds of marijuana’ outside, has ‘learned the use of coins’ and has a use for all those books:


His books come in useful now
as each time he has shinned

with an aerial up the chimney
Viking wind has ripped it down.

The Hermit


The hermit had to be retired
for health and safety reasons.

He was flown out of the desert,
given a dictionary and glasses.

He is renting an old longhouse,
leaves doors and windows open

so he can smell the cool air,
but still he cannot sleep.

The postman was his first visitor.
Mail lies piled up by the gate.

The grains of sand on the beach
make him feel homesick even now.

By the light of a candle he may
be able to look in the mirror, but not yet.

first in the office – a haiku

Matthew Paul is one of a small number of poets who write both haiku and longer poems. A selection of the latter was featured here on 5 July 2020.

On Lammas Day here is his selection from The Lammas Lands, beautifully produced by Snapshot Press, followed by his thoughts on writing both haiku and longer poems. I relate to the bugbear he mentions!

The Lammas Lands

first in the office
my whistling echoes
up the stairwell

onto my fingers the rust of the farmyard gate

school’s out
the riverbank flush
with tansy florets
 

the last sun
across the lammas lands
perennial asters

cobweb morning
the merest outline
of ship funnels

two years old
she grasps with both hands
the autumn wind

through an angler’s pipe-smoke rising jays

touch of sleet—
making space for
the guide dog

white skies
a hare skedaddles
over Wealden clay

*

I discovered haiku at the age of 15 or 16, firstly through an English teacher at school and then by reading The Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels and The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse. I tried writing them shortly afterwards, at pretty much the same time I started writing longer poems. I’ve written both fairly regularly since then, though I went through a long period – from 1990, when the British Haiku Society was founded, until 2010 – in which I concentrated more on haiku. In the last 10 years, my focus, as a writer – as opposed to editor or reviewer – has been much more on longer poems.
 
For me, the engagement needed for one is rather different to the other. Being able to write effective and affective haiku stems from being in the moment, using all your senses to pick up on what you’re experiencing and finding a charge between two different objects/elements which you are perceiving at the same time. ‘Desk’ haiku are almost always obvious and lacking the spark born from real sensory experience.


Longer poems can, of course, also have content born of, or responding to, ‘the moment’ and can therefore be haiku-esque in how they treat their subject-matter – Imagism was often like that, and haiku itself was born from longer forms. But longer poems for me have much more space and freedom to move back and forth through time and, if necessary, tell a story, whereas haiku can’t do that in any meaningful way because of their intrinsic brevity.


My longer poems are probably more likely to be mini-stories than those of most poets precisely because of the freedom they afford which isn’t available within the form of the haiku. (I should add that achieving any consensus among English-language haiku poets about the essential qualities of haiku has repeatedly been proven to be impossible!)
 
One of my bugbears is that longer-form poets often use what they think of as haiku as a means simply to sharpen their powers of perception, as if it’s child’s play. Whilst that may well work for some people, I feel that approach rather misses the point of haiku. Like any art form, it takes a long time to become adept at it, albeit that an ‘apprentice’ haiku poet can have a freshness of perception which is often labelled “beginner’s mind”.


On the whole, though, I find it annoying when poets put their first, usually clunky attempts at haiku out on social media or, worse still, into print. Haiku in English do not have to be – though they can – be written as three lines of five-seven-five syllables. It’s common sense, isn’t it, that the essence and power of haiku aren’t derived from syllable-counting, but from direct, lived experience. Like many haiku poets, I have reservations about even calling my haiku ‘haiku’, because the original Japanese art-form is so freighted with Japanese culture and history – and translators from the Japanese into English invariably repeat the mistakes of previous translators!

Almost hidden by grass – haiku

St John’s Church, Little Gidding, Huntingdonshire

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

finding the pigsties
number one boarded up

as we leave
sunlight
on the font

Little Gidding, August 2001

Olympic Cyclists – a poem

Photo credit: Grace Sail

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.

Cover painting: detail of Yellow Twilight
by Samuel Palmer

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

Olympic Cyclists

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

Giacometti’s Cat

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

Journey

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