Category Archives: Art

The Nettlebed

Matthew Paul June 2020 (002)

 

I feel that I have known this month’s poet for many years. But, I don’t think we have ever met. Like me, Matthew Paul has been a participant on The Poetry Business Writing School. We both had work published in an excellent haiku journal. I very much enjoy his blog posts and am pleased that I can introduce you to his work: grounded in actual place and rich in vivid detail.

Matthew was born in New Malden, Surrey, in 1966, has worked for 30 years as an education officer for local authorities in south-west London, and lives in Thames Ditton. Matthew’s first collection, The Evening Entertainment, was published by Eyewear Publishing in 2017.

He is also the author of two collections of haiku – The Regulars (2006) and The Lammas Lands (2015) – and co-writer/editor (with John Barlow) of Wing Beats: British Birds in Haiku (2008), all published by Snapshot Press. He co-edited Presence haiku journal, and has contributed to the Guardian’s ‘Country Diary’ column.

 
THE TOXTON TORCHERS

Still their identities are secret. Let’s call them Gary and Glyn,
names which are popular then, at the Sixties’ fag-end.
This nit-locked pair of toe-rags, seeking alms box and plate,
enter St Joe’s via its sacristy, find nothing of value
and burn down the sanctuary like proper East End heavies.

They’re not discerning: any place of worship will do-
in the next few weeks, Our Lady Star of the Sea, St Anne’s,
the Kingdom Hall and the new St Margaret’s all go up in flames.
It’s when they smash collection boxes in All Souls that it ends:
old Reverend Carew and his nimble curate get straight on the blower
to the Law, who tip up in Black Marias at Z-Cars speed.

Gary blames it all on gormless Glyn. Brought before the Bench,
their eyes light up like matches as they detail every deed:
how in the new church they hadn’t the heart to torch the tapestries
as so much effort had been put into them, most by Gary’s nan.

 
THE KITCHEN GARDEN

On Capability Brown’s last visit
to this well-temperèd chalkland estate,
he plumped for action instead of advice:
training espaliers of local pears,

which would otherwise have become extinct,
against ev’ry venerable wall of brick—
‘for market opportunities’, he said,
and focused eyes on an artichoke head

whose outer bracts formed interlaced patterns
around the heart’s delirious embrace,
aubergine-veined chroma of grey–jade green.
He claimed it resembled ‘a scarecrow’s brain’.

Unaccountably, he bricked up the arch,
to dead-end our last remaining path;
so now unscalable walls enclose us,
in God’s own country’s Hortus conclusus.
(Both from The Evening Entertainment)

 

TEE (002)

 

THE NETTLEBED

One September afternoon in August, a water vole
beavers through reeds. I feel the slap
of rain on my father’s umbrella. Mercy
and I compare families: I can’t compete
with her memory of travelling,
as one of five kids, with her moody
half-sister in the boot of their dad’s Datsun Bluebird,
without a torch. The teasel-lined tributary disappears,
reappears. Moorhen chicks stumble off lily pads,
to spatter at pace upstream, their parents
flicking tail feathers and squeaking alarm.

We reach beyond toddler-high nettles and burdock—
seedheads packed like the yellowest sunflowers—
to pluck the last few blackberries, sugaring
from ruby to plum. Mercy says the wide outdoors
keeps her well; that nothing else,
neither booze nor love in any of its myriad forms,
quite does the job. We sit on a log to wait and watch.

The moorhens tiptoe over stepping stones fording
back-water channels, to vanish like mumbled
anecdotes. I shake the rain from the brolly
into the river. Day’s end brightens
as an afterthought muttered out loud; becomes
a crumbling hurrah of loneliness. Dusk
spotlights parakeets sidling, like circus budgies,
along the railing of a tower-block balcony.
We realise, then, our arms are stung to fuck.

(Previously published, in a different form, in Fire.)

 

PLOUGH POND

Tiptoeing through them to the Co-op
would be impossible, this ragtag army

of marsh frogs. They block the alley
from our cul-de-sac’s cul, pairing up

to belly down within the water’s grease:
tansy eyes, camouflage-trousered legs

and lime-striped backs, clamped
in the fumble of joyful amplexus.

(Published in Poetry Salzburg Review 34, summer 2019)

Father’s Day

 

40th Wedding Anniversary
The picture shows me and my parents at a dinner to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary in 1984. At Christmas 1988 I became the scapegoat for the difficult circumstances around my sister leaving her husband. My father, my brother and that husband were all called Theo. My sister was living with someone else by then.

So, one Theo told me off for keeping in touch with that Theo and the third Theo collected me from my parents’ flat and took me to the airport. My father and I became estranged. Late September 1990 my father was taken to hospital after a suspected heart attack. He was doing okay, my brother told me, no need to rush and book a flight. Two days later my father died in hospital, instantly, after a large heart attack.

 

Almuerzo con mi padre

My father’s eyes behind the spectacles sparkle.
There’s wisdom in his moustache,
and dreams of fino sherry, chilled in a thin glass.

There would be time to wait and wander,
criss-cross a square, look at people,
the statue of a famous general on his horse.

The dead will be around us on the hills that hold the city.
My father claps his hands, decides where we will eat.

He’s learned his Spanish from reel-to-reel Linguaphone.
I’m online with Duolingo: Vino tinto, pan, conejo.

My father would have found it hard to choose
between the crema catalana and helada.
His moustache would have selected ice cream.

The Old Olive Press

 

rear view

The Old Olive Press, view from the terraces at the rear

June was when I would visit the wonderful Almassera Vella (Old Olive Press) in Relleu, Spain. I have been on several one-week workshops with the incomparable Ann Sansom of the Poetry Business. Other poets from whom I learned a great deal were Mimi Khalvati and the late Matthew Sweeney.

Christopher North, himself a published poet, and his wife Marisa took two years to convert the old olive press into a stunning home. As you can see, they kept the actual press. Relleu is a one-hour drive from Alicante airport and about half an hour from Villajoyosa on the coast.

 

olive press 2

The olive press

 

Nowadays, Christopher and Marisa organise cookery workshops. You can also book B&B accommodation and the flat over the road is still available as retreat accommodation for writers.

The poem June rain is from my first collection Another life  published by Oversteps Books Ltd (2016).
June rain
for Cristopher and Marisa

It’s June and the rain is falling.
It is cooler and darker now.
It’s the rain we prayed for last night,
though we’d not meant to do such a thing.

The old women, eight or nine, spread
across benches outside the church.
Us along the tables, a line of snails,
sloping down towards the blue house.

It was speaking of Sundays now filled
with shopping and the silence
that binds Quakers together.

And it’s in silence we, snails,
all of us with our whorled shells
of stories, sit at the breakfast table.

The cheep-cheep-cheep of birds
after the rain is flowing into the room
and a fresh breeze that tells of new stories.

Strawberries

 

strawberries-1452717_1280

Photo credit: congerdesign on Pixabay

The first June weekend here in Holland is wet and windy: a perfect time to remember strawberries. My local supermarket has them on special offer this week, along with discounts on raspberries and watermelon.

During my childhood I lived in a small town further north, a couple of miles from the beach, and also close to the chimneys of the steelworks. Walking home from school my friend Nellie I and would take the long route, along the small harbour. We would pass the rear entrance to the covered market. I have a vivid image of a line of small horse-drawn carts, loaded with punnets, punnets full of strawberries …

The poem is from my second collection Nothing serious, nothing dangerous (Indigo Dreams Publishing Ltd, 2019).

 
Strawberries

The strawberries of my childhood
were like my favourite grandmother,
soft, a rosy smell, a taste that stayed
with you on the way to school.
Those strawberries were red,
not like the winter swedes
which are a red stone,
are purple with anger.

Strawberries entered our home
first in paper bags, then as June grew
in oblong wicker punnets. Then we ate
them for breakfast and for lunch, pressing
them with a fork on sliced white bread.
You could stroke the strawberries
of my childhood. They were company,
like cats, purring gently even when asleep.
Small green stalks their whiskers, and warm.

Missing Manchester …

Manchester_Art_Gallery_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1748756

I am settled in my caravan in Holland, enjoying the warm weather and making the most of the peaceful environment before the camp site opens 1 July when it will be the high season.

 
But I am missing Manchester and, in particular, the monthly writing workshops with Peter Sansom of the Poetry Business These have been held at Manchester Art Gallery. It consists of three connected buildings, two of which were designed by Sir Charles Barry. The main building is Grade 1 listed, while the Atheneum is Grade II. A modern extension was added in the beginning of this century.

 
During the writing workshops we have the opportunity to be inspired by the permanent collection – works of international significance and Victorian art. The painting Albert Square (1910) by the French impressionist painter Adolphe Valette hangs in a central foyer. Valette lived in Manchester for a period and really caught the damp and wet conditions. My poem is included in the pamphlet A Stolen Hour (Grey Hen Press, 2020,

 

Albert_Square_Manchester_1910,_Valette

 

Albert Square

I am not that cellar man pushing 

his barrow loaded with crates of wine.
I am not the horse with its head
stuck into a nose bag, nor
the coach driver resting his
right knee on the plate,
nor the men with bowler hats
conversing by the railings.

Up there is the Town Hall
covered in a velvet coat of soot.
I am the greyness of the oil paint,
the rippled rain reflecting
the cellar man’s rounded boots.
I am the smog and the smoke,
half shielding these statues:
politician, mayor, consort.

Palmistry in Karachi

 

Elsa F

Imagine my surprise and delight when, in January this year, I received an email in Dutch from a fellow poet! Elsa Fisher had read and liked some of my poems. We started a correspondence and were going to meet at the end of May. It’s a great pleasure to introduce this month’s poet who has ‘a clear eye and an ironic ear’.

Elsa Fischer was born in The Hague, Holland. She has lived and worked on four continents and, later in life, studied Art History in Canada and at the Sorbonne. Always a lover of poetry, she joined a poetry workshop after her retirement.

She has two published pamphlets: Palmistry in Karachi (Templar Poetry, 2016) and
Hourglass – Poems from the retirement home (Grey Hen Press, 2018). Other poems have been included in a range of magazines and anthologies. She is currently preparing for a third publication.

Elsa lives in Bern, Switzerland, in a lovely retirement home (where some of her poems are set). She likes to point out that she does not belong to the Woopies (well-off older persons) but rather to the Yelpies (youthful energetic elderly persons)….

I hope you enjoy the range of these poems, with their sharp observation, humour, empathy and poignancy.

 
Palmistry in Karachi

“…the old days when we were still young,
naïve, hot-headed, silly, green. A little bit’s
still there…”              Wislawa Szymborska

 
At twenty I danced the tango
in Karachi at the saried begums’
Red Crescent Bazaar with a gay
attaché who had that rhythm in
his blood and where a sketch
of my profile by a local genius
fetched handfuls of rupees.
I shook hands with Ayub Khan
and Fatima Jinnah, ignorant
of who they were and that
he would have her killed.
There was my near-drowning
in the Arabian Sea and a wicked
camel race along its shore.
And I’ll tell you this: I lost
my innocence in Karachi.
To an Italian born without
toenails and his palms
with no lines so that you,
my friend of little faith, claim
he could not have existed
and that I’ve made it all up.

 

 
Seedpods

 
I love how your wisteria seedpods exploded in the night,

love to hear drops falling from where someone waters geraniums

early in the morning as I am writing at the wrought-iron table,

its rusty flakes cutting into skin and I remember how, in another life,

they caught my mother’s dress as she sat down to tea under

the glycine, my first French word, and for a startling moment

I hold this image called up by smells of soil and fleshy leaves,

by all this art nouveau abundance.

 

 

In the beginning are my hands
after Andy Goldsworthy

 
they are my skin-cut tools
cracked as dried earth.
I trust them, they lead me.

I listen to the passive witness
of stones, their dialogue with trees,
learn how they rely on each other.
I need the energy of peat – the melt of mud
and mineral feed and sheep’s piss on canvas.
Above all I love my icicles – reconstructed,
glued with my spit or draped like lobster
claws and oysters on a plate of river ice.

I square black-rooted bracken stalks
thorn-pin chestnut leaves into floating
snake ribbons until surfaces open up
and nature itself becomes the object found.

I go into its internal spaces, lie spread-eagled,
feeling the pull, feeling the rain.

 

 
Safe

Like ducks waiting for the cull
we line up at the doctor’s,
baring arms for the flu jab.

Once you stood like this, in an orderly row,
mouth wide open to receive the sugar lump
that the school nurse had carefully dosed
with the life-saving drops of Dr Salk’s vaccine.

To be protected from the fate of that boy,
fitted with braces, who sat for years reading
as we messed around with bats and balls in PE.

A nurse helps with the sleeves
and we return to our coops.
Safe for another season.

 

Trespassing

I’m digging out my winter things.
And watch from behind the slats
how he opens a wardrobe, takes out
the bridal gown for her to hold,
then gently crowns her with a garland.

On a small table lie the bric-a-brac
of a long marriage. Masai beadwork,
a glass paperweight from Venice,
the matryoshkas.

He gives her a moment,
then puts the gown carefully back
on the coat hanger, smiles as he lifts
the garland with its faded ribbons
from her hair. A whiff of Chanel.

He makes sure she’s comfortable
on the walker and wheels her away,
switching off the cellar lights.

I stand for a while, getting used
to the dark, arms heavy
with scarves and shoes.

Music

Schimmel sideways

 

Looking in the Cloud for a picture of a frog I came across a photo of my piano: a white horse (Schimmel). My friend Marianne who left me the old caravan had a digital piano here. I took that across to the UK and started having lessons with John who came to the house.

The next year (2009) I even took the Grade 1 examination. Turned up at the venue to find bemused children staring at me. I passed, just short of a Distinction. As a reward, I got  a proper acoustic piano. Found this lovely Schimmel with a warm European sound.

Horror! One day I lifted the lid to see a moth appear from between two white keys. Yes, a proper infestation. Fortunately, the wonderfully eccentric tuner, also called John, managed to take the piano apart and deal with that. I continued with lessons. But I was too anxious to go for the Grade 2 or Grade 3. When I moved into the flat, so did the piano. On its side, still a mellow sound. I sold it a couple of years ago. It went to a good home …

The poem Music is from my second collection Nothing serious, nothing dangerous, published by Indigo Dreams Publishing (2019).

 
Music

There was always music going on in our house,
live music, piano and song. The organ was
down the road, past the Catholics’ houses.
We were Protestant then, some of us, anyway.

There was always music in our house.
Bach on a black piano and Brahms
Mein Mädel hat einen Rosenmund.
My mother, the diva, practising before
her weekly lesson with the best alto
in Holland, who kept a pet monkey.
My father, with his piano hands,
shaking his vigorous black hair.

In our house there was always music.
More often than not it would be
minor chords, discordance, long
silence above the empty bar lines.

Moment

 

Clingendael 2

Photo credit: Ted Koehler

The warm, sunny weather this week has helped me to stay more in the present. I’ve been for walks in the nearby estate of Clingendael.

Clingendael estate has a 17th Century manor house which is home to the Dutch Institute for International Relations. Since the 16th Century the gardens have been remodelled, from the original French design, to the popular English landscape style. Now you can find a rose garden, splendid azaleas and rhododendrons, and a walled fruit garden. There are some marked walks, cycling paths, and canoeists and rowers can travel through by water.

However, Clingendael is most famous for its Japanese garden. It is the only Japanese garden from around 1910 and is, therefore, of great historical importance and a state monument. Marguerite M, Baroness van Brienen made several trips to Japan by ship to purchase the lanterns, statues, bridges and the wooden pavilion. Because of its fragility, the Japanese garden is only open eight weeks of the year, from mid-May to early July. Because of the Corona-crisis, it is closed. Here you can view a short video clip that The Hague city council put on their website.

Clingendael 3

Photo credit: Ted Koehler

 

My poem Moment from my second collection Nothing serious, nothing dangerous was inspired by a poem with the title This Moment by the Irish poet Eavan Boland who died recently, aged 75, after a stroke. Her poem, with its short, choppy lines starts A neighbourhood/At dusk and is an excellent example of how a short poem can give us a snapshot of time, the night and temporality. You can read the original poem here. It is deceptively simple, but Boland uses several poetic techniques to achieve the effect, such as alliteration and repetition.

 
Moment

A suburb at dawn

People are turning back
from dreams
into their own lives

Frost and spiders,
shrubs cradle themselves.

One side of the road is black.
One row of houses a yellow pink.

A cat wakes up
to the footsteps above,
secure in his oval basket.

Frost fades,
spiders stretch,
ferns unfold in the sun.

The light streams in …

 

Keukenhof 18

Yesterday afternoon I watched a TV programme about the Keukenhof, a major Dutch tourist attraction. Annually visitors come from over 100 different countries. A team of 40 gardeners has worked for three months last autumn planting around seven million bulbs – tulips, hyacinths, narcissi. Easter w/end is usually one of the busiest times; this year the Keukenhof will not open to visitors.

The photos are from 2018 when I went with my sister and brother-in-law. Now you cannot visit the Keukenhof, the Keukenhof will come to you. On the website they will be posting more videos. Go to de Keukenhof

 

purle tu;los

 

The poem is by Thomas Tranströmer, from his collection The Sad Gondola, 1996. May you and those dear to you be safe and sound this Easter.

 
The Light Streams In

Outside the window, the long beast of spring
the transparent dragon of sunlight
rushes past like an endless
suburban train – we never got a glimpse of its head.

The shoreline villas shuffle sideways
they are proud as crabs.
The sun makes the statues blink.

The raging sea of fire out in space
is transformed to a caress.
The countdown has begun.

Vanished …

 

broom-2884860_1280

Photo credit Milliways42 on Pixabay

The storm last weekend changed my To Do list: on Sunday morning I opened the door to see the terracotta-coloured broom had been cut down – two parts lay entangled on the lawn.

 
I had planted that broom with its coconut scent, the yellow forsythia and white spiraea as a new hedge in spring 2012 after the new caravan was towed into place November 2011. Nico, the trusted on-site DIY man had removed the gate, shrubs and old hedge, and had taken apart the old wooden caravan my friend Marianne had left me a few years earlier. When she bought that old caravan her partner, a sculptor, had trimmed the tall conifers and shaped them into four guards. I had wanted to keep these, so Nico dug them up and they’ve been attached to the new fence. You can see they’re beginning to look grey and grumpy…

the for men
Good things happened this week too – an extended Skype lunch with a good friend in Manchester. The onsite shop and snack bar has opened, so I can treat myself to the occasional saté and French fries.

I hope that you and those dear to you are keeping well and safe.

The poem is from my second collection Nothing serious, nothing dangerous, with Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2019.

 
Vanished

Vanished the coconut scent of the bronze gorse,
forsythia, the thin red stalks of fuchsia.

Lavenders are dotted around the borders,
a white one with the old red rose that Marianne planted.

The shadows must rest in the memories of grass blades.
Does grass carry its memory from year to year?

Early evening already, the new conifer hedge catches
the sun. The single siren of an ambulance going to Bronovo.

A blackbird hides among the orange berries,
sky is greying. Vanished into the earth
my friends, enemies. Finches swing on the fat ball.