Category Archives: Art

Rembrandt van Rijn

Johnnes W

Rembrandt is always big business in the Netherlands, and especially this year: it is the 350th anniversary of his death. Everywhere there are items of merchandise for sale with Rembrandt’s paintings and etchings. I treated myself to a folder and bought birthday presents for friends. One of those was a birthday calendar. The Dutch have a tradition of hanging these inside the toilet, on the door!

I was raised a Protestant and for much of my childhood we lived down the road from the church where my father was the organist. Rembrandt was beginning to make a name for himself as a portrait painter when he did the portrait of Johannes Wtenbogaert. He was the founder and leader of the Remonstrant Brotherhood and preached religious tolerance. The poem was published in my debut collection Another life.

 
Portrait of Johannes Wtenbogaert, Remonstrant Preacher, aged 76

He stands there and we wonder what he thinks.
His head, resting like a deserted swan
in a nest of fine lace pleats. Did he shrink
even once from God’s black skull cap plan?

In a corner, placed to catch the light,
the book we expect is his bible. No,
those pages curling away from top right
are not yet half full, and only we know

this preacher would live till nearly ninety.
Too tired to protest, he faces Rembrandt
who paints a life-like sketch where we can see
the frayed edge of the limp cloth in his hand.

 

Synchronicity

Cover Narrow Road

I am listening to the BBC Radio 3 programme Private Passions: today’s guest is the novelist Richard Flanagan. Only two nights ago, I started reading his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The book was the winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. The title is borrowed from Basho and haiku by Basho and Issa start the different sections of the book. It is based on his father’s experience in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp. His father was a survivor of the Burma Death Railway.

Only two days ago I collected my first set of hearing aids and as I am typing this, Flanagan describes how he lost his hearing at the age of three and how he was thought to be “simple”. My hearing aids are brilliant: I feel more alert and it’s already helped me feeling more confident in social situations and meetings.

Richard Flanagan didn’t want to write The Narrow Road to the Deep North. He says It was a burden, a stone. A stone that grew. He also knew that, if he didn’t write the book, he would not be able to write another. He finished the book and emailed the manuscript to his publisher. Then he went to see his father who was 98 and ailing. That afternoon his father died.

Liberation Day

Bourdon

Bourdon bell, Waalsdorpervlakte

Even inside my caravan I could hear the dark sound of the Bourdon bell, just over a mile away in the dunes. The Waalsdorpervlakte is one of the major Second World War memorials in the Netherlands. On the evening of the 4th of May, there are formal gatherings everywhere in the Netherlands. The King and Queen will be on the main square in Amsterdam with other dignitaries, taking turns to lay wreaths.

However, there is something deeply moving about the gathering in the dunes. It is the location where around 250 people were executed during the war, many of whom had been active in the resistance. The area is part of a protected nature reserve, close to Scheveningen where those about to be killed were kept in prison (locally called the Oranjehotel), and close to the beach.

The first formal commemoration was here in May 1946 when there were just four wooden crosses. Later they were replaced with four bronze crosses. Local volunteers will have placed rows of flowers in the colours of the Dutch flag (red, white and blue) in front of those crosses. They also ring that large Bourdon bell and stop it just before 20:00. After two minutes’ silence and the national anthem, they start ringing the bell again. People can then walk past and leave a wreath, a bouquet, or just a single flower. The bell is rung until the last person has walked past and paid their respect. That may be close to midnight.

Liberation Day is celebrated annually on the 5th of May, with major celebrations every five years.

This poem will be included in my second collection, due out early autumn.

Here I am walking …

Here I am walking with a small horse.
I found it on the path to the supermarket
where it stood, eyes closed, by yellow gorse.

All this happened a long time ago,
before I was born, before the war,
and the rope in my hand smells of horse.

We can turn to the right, walk over
the dual carriageway, head for the dunes,
four bronze crosses to remember

the war dead and we’ll arrive,
place our feet on the beach
where it’ll soon be night.

Is it a competition?

 

11

Virtues of Unity, by Halima Cassell

Is it a competition? the woman with dark hair and glasses asked. I stood writing in a small notebook.  On the contrary, I said. I told her this installation is a major and ongoing project. The artist Halima Cassell was born in Kashmir, then raised in the UK. In England she is called a “foreigner” or “second generation migrant”, so she has always been aware of issues of identity. However, when she visited Pakistan as an adult in 2009, she was called “British Asian” or more frequently “a foreigner from England”.

This sense of double dislocation was the trigger for Virtues of Unity. Different countries produce different colours and textures of clay. Each sculpture has its own design. Superficially, we seem dissimilar, but we share DNA. We all come from the clay of the earth and will return to that same elemental clay. The shape of the sculpture resembles the earth, the holes remind us of the womb and the birth canal. Halima was pregnant with her first child when she conceived the project.

So far, Halima has made 39 vessels. Her aim is to make 195, one for each of the countries in the world today. It will be a life-long journey. Each of the sculptures has been made from the clay of that country. The designs of each vessel and the titles represents a positive quality of that country, eg the Netherlands is called Harmony.

I was on a writing workshop at Manchester Art Gallery and we were to imagine a public superhero with a piece of art in the Gallery. I have been pleased to read that the under 35’s are streaming the composer J S Bach. He has been one of my superheroes for many years.

2 (2)

 

Virtues of Unity

He seemed invisible to visitors,
though he was dressed in a costume
of the period, and his wig resembled
curved waves of a waterfall.

In truth, I thought he was part
of the installation: thirty-nine spheres,
each one representing a country and
made from the clay of this country.

He moved slowly anticlockwise,
stopped at the small ceramic vessel,
a creamy white called Faith.
The positive quality of Germany.

A slow smile grew on his face
when he saw there were no openings,
that the vessel seemed restful,
flowering into a solid cathedral.

Russet, tan, black, brown, beige, taupe,
grey, creamy-white, white. Eyes fixed
on his native country, he started humming
Jesu, joy of man’s desiring, and I was glad.

 

Glad not to be the corpse

NWA_ScottishBookTrust_HIGHRES_January_18_2018_KatGollock_-73_Lydia_Harris-200x300
A knock-out title for a poetry book, I should say. Lydia Harris and I met on the Poetry Business Writing School in 2012, the year Smiths Knoll published her pamphlet.
The others are glad not to be the corpse is the first line of a poem with the title
We make a video  on All Saints, North Street for English Heritage.

Many of Lydia’s poems have this filmic quality. They’re typically condensed narratives, with arresting first lines, and slivers of telling monologue or dialogue. They are also a masterclass in choosing titles. Could you resist I couldn’t ask if he was glad he’d married me; Widow to step-son; Lice-infested sea trout; Oxygen mask? The next poem is a delicious example:

The rolls arrive at the Inchnadamph Hotel

She doesn’t say ‘I never should have married you’,
instead tries I’ve cleaned our tennis shoes.
He spots the van through his binoculars,
the rattle on the cattle grid alerts the lad who helps.

The rolls brim with themselves,
two each, in baskets on the tables,
they smell of steam and Morag’s overall,
the early morning shuffle in the bakery.

A twist of butter opens out, floats on cloud.
Perhaps I’ll find a horseshoe charm, a wind-up bird.
She reaches for the marmalade.

I’d like a Harvey’s Bristol Cream, he says.
Tonight, she laughs, at five.

The day’s a swing-boat,
red plush seats, a fringe of gold.
He’s helped her in,
pulled the rope to make it rise.

 
Shortly after we met, Lydia moved to Scotland. She has made her home on one of the northern Orkney islands, a small but vibrant community. Recently, her pamphlet of Westray poems An unbolted door was published. I’m very pleased I can share a few poems from the book here. Lydia’s website is homeabout.co.uk

 

Lydia

 

How to Approach the Pier

With a bowline tied to your monkey-fist,
with your heaving-rope coiled sun-wise,
bow to Faray, engine in reverse.

With your stern door lined up to the ramp,
to starboard, the quarry, slumped
where the stones for the pier were hacked free.

With outlines of Wideford and Keelylang
papered on the skyline. The tide running high
and the wind southerly.

With trails of foam in your wake,
Geldibust to port. With the stanchions easy,
hung with tyres.

With a route pressed to your palm,
in your pouch, the honed spoon
and that knapped flint from Howar.

 

Jeemo Services My Van in January

He keeps spare bulbs in a fridge,
cattle in the byre next door,

spreads shafts and flanges
round the anvil
like the gaming pieces
and spindle whorls from Scar,

the woman who bore them
so long dead
she’s in the sky
over Ouseness at night,
unravelling her skins.

 
From the Box Bed

Our sheets are sails on the sweet hay sack
and we sail to the moon with an ebb and a flow.

Your hands smooth my throat in the starlit room,
there’s nothing to say but the brush of flesh.

My lips drink your breath and the tide is in,
the clock on the wall makes the only sound

but for the air as it leaves your lungs,
sweeter than scallops from the pan,

for where has it been,
inside your skin and I take you in.

Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody

Rotterdam 015

Marianne Carolan, Rotterdam, 2008.

This week my friend Marianne would have celebrated her birthday.  One of my best memories is the trip I made with Marianne and other sponsors to Lalibela, Ethiopia in January 2007, during the Timket celebrations. Marianne had set up the Lalibela Educational Trust in 2006, to ensure there would be enough funding for sponsored children when they moved into secondary and tertiary education – university, nursing college.

With her 2007 Christmas card she sent a change of address: she’d bought a flat in Rotterdam, to be close to her new partner.  She was going to join an accordion orchestra and find a violin teacher.  I booked my flights in November 2007, the month Marianne’s GP mis-diagnosed, telling her symptoms were just Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).  After the photo was taken Spring 2008, Marianne donated her accordion to the woman director of the orchestra.

 

Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody

The March visit had been planned
as a celebration of your retirement.
We walked on Calshot beach
summing up our lives, loves,
gifts and regrets.

Later, in your study upstairs,
we listened, connected
to your white MP3.
I couldn’t stop myself
from humming along.

Your ex-colleague (younger,
glasses, a little overweight)
started to speak in the silence –
when the men have stopped singing.
At your cremation they let
that alto voice fade away

An angel chooses a chocolate by Fokkina McDonnell

The Poetry Shed

An angel chooses a chocolate

The chalky terracotta wall with mildew patches
has bled into her long, shapeless dress.
This woman mothered too many sons,
this would-be Saint of Obesity.
The single chocolate rests in her right hand,
shielded from the sun by the other hand.

Her neighbour in the blue dress offers
the square box to the angel, sitting
to her left on a wooden stool.
This woman has short hair, stocky feet,
late-afternoon ginger shadows on her chin.
She is the Madonna of Reassignment.

Stiff wings point forward like sails,
the angel’s nose is the beak of a hawk.
His wings and gown have turned
blue-grey. A long dusty road,
but he carries these shadows lightly
and points politely, with a bent finger.

(Note: after the painting by Karolina Larusdottir)

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