Category Archives: Art

Pliers – poem

Earlier this week I looked at my website statistics. The blog post that has got the most views (after the Home page and the Archives) is Fishbones Dreaming from August 2019. Every other day someone views the post. Here is the link.

The children’s poem Fishbones Dreaming is by Matthew Sweeney. It is four years since he died on the 5th of August 2018, aged only 65. The poem uses a gradual flashback technique and a refrain.

Prompt

Here is a prompt that Matthew gave on the course he ran at the wonderful Almassera Vella, Spain in 2006.

We were just to sit quietly, clearing the head from clutter and then to slowly run through the letters of the alphabet until one letter gave some energy, sound or resistance.

I was sitting on the loggia, looking out over the terraced fields and the small white chapel in the distance. Once we got the letter, we were to run through some nouns until one noun spoke….potato, parsley, parchment. Pliers came from that prompt, and it was my first blog post.

Credit: Fabio Ribeiro on Pixabay

Pliers

A museum dedicated to pliers
opened last month in the old part of town.
Pliers, collected from the five continents,
are displayed in rows on walls and glass cases.
Most are made from metal, shiny or a rusty red.
The curator, a small Belgian, Jan de Smets,
exiled from the Congo thirty years before,
found the earliest exhibits on expeditions
to empty houses, garages, sheds and shacks.
Pliers have also been donated by retired
plumbers, old builders and master carpenters.
Six toy pliers are on permanent loan.
Where pliers are missing from a boxed set
the white outline of their shape remains.

Travels with my daughter – poem

It’s a great pleasure to introduce this month’s guest poet Mary Chuck. Mary and I first met on a poetry workshop in Manchester and we have met on such workshops many times since, including a splendid one at the Almassera Vella, Spain.

Mary Chuck started writing poetry when she retired after 30 years working in Secondary Schools, starting by teaching chemistry.  While she was working her need to escape and let some-one else do the organising took her on many walking holidays in different parts of the world. She is still an active governor at a local primary school and has just completed twelve years as a Trustee of the Wordsworth Trust. She has been writing poetry with several groups, attending workshops and going on residentials with a variety of poets, but most often with Peter and Ann Sansom at the Poetry Business.

I’ve chosen four poems from Mary’s debut collection Other Worlds (Dempsey & Windle, 2021). Mary will have a belated Zoom launch with two poet friends on Tuesday 23 August. Contact Dempsey & Windle for a link.

Migration

His people came from Russia and Lithuania,
their passports always changing, not because they moved
but because their countries became other countries.

His people were Jews, Ashkenazy Jews.
They came from the East,
driven south and west over centuries
until finally they fled from the Pale.

Long after my grandfather settled in England,
and long before he was naturalised,
he was able, once again, to be Lithuanian.
His mother’s people were White Russians
or maybe they had ten white horses?

My father married out.
Her people were not Jews.

They came from Shropshire,
farmers, and one was a stationmaster.
They were not the chosen people.
Her people were not so interesting.

Jammu-Kashmir

He tells me that his father was Kashmiri
but now he can’t go back and I describe
to him what Srinagar was like
before unrest made it unsafe to go;

I tell him how we only went because
the flight to Leh was cancelled due to clouds,
and how luxurious it was,
staying on house boats on Dal Lake;

how we were shown around the lake and lay
with curtains to protect us from the sun,
on cushions on a wooden boat, a shikara,
and saw the floating gardens there;

tell him how pink the lotus flowers were
and how the Mughal gardens, full of scents
I didn’t recognise, were
different from the spice stalls in the street;

how the couple in one garden, keen to speak
in English, asked me about my life,
how they were sad my family
had not arranged a marriage – then I stopped.

I knew I’d gone on far too long. His eyes
glazed over as he looked beyond me, said
I never knew my dad
I never really wanted to.

Travels with my Daughter

I’m not really sure
when the balance altered,
when I knew for certain
our relationship had changed.

Perhaps somewhere north of Peshawar
after we drove up the Khyber Pass
with an escort carrying a Kalashnikov,
arrogant, in the front seat of the car

and after we bought an alcohol licence
in the hotel, and she flirted
in the swimming pool, with a young man
who claimed he was the brother of Imran Khan

but maybe before the landslide
which closed the road, when she carried
a tiny baby across the rubble, impossible
for its mother wearing a burkha.

We crossed a bridge over a ravine at night,
before the house of the drunken engineer.
She had been talking easily in Urdu to the driver;
we turned and reversed, then advanced

more slowly, about nothing she said
as we jolted across – then on the other side –
He had heard that the bridge was rotten,
but I told him it would be fine.

A well-worn track on Kerridge Ridge

Another glorious Saturday morning
needing to be out, needing to be walking
to be moving rhythmically across the hillside
up to White Nancy, through the kissing gate,
ignoring the brambles, skirting the quarry,
following the well-worn track on the back of Kerridge Ridge
head down muttering to myself long before anyone
might have thought I was phoning
going over and over conversations I have had
or might have had
over and over thinking if only

until, hearing the hint of a cough
I feel warm breath on my face
and lift my head to find myself looking
at a moist, brown, eye
above a large, brass, ring
in the nose of an enormous bull.

I breathe, slowly.
I look around.
It is a glorious Saturday morning.

This is not Dante – poem

Dante, by Botticelli

One of the poems in this week’s inbox came courtesy of The Paris Review: Identity Check by Hans Magnus Enzensberger. The title is intriguing enough, the first line is a bold claim and a denial:


This is not Dante


This immediately sets up tension and hooks the reader’s curiosity. If not Dante, who is it? We get an answer we know can’t be true: This is a photograph of Dante. Then: This is a film showing an actor who pretends to be Dante.


The poem continues like this. It reminded me of a poem of mine published in orbis magazine which uses similar techniques. If I feel really ‘stale’, then using two prompts of a different kind is guaranteed to work.


In 2017 I went to Tate Modern for the exhibition of Robert Rauschenberg – very stimulating. It included his telegram This is a painting of Iris Clert if I say so. A visit with a poet friend to Manchester Art Gallery then started the poem. The painting described is Portrait of Lucian Freud by Francis Bacon. Here is the link.

Franz Kafka

This is a portrait if I say so


A portrait of Kafka, in a long coat; dark grey, almost black. No, it’s not. It’s just paint on canvas. This is a portrait of the man who was a friend of the man who put the paint on the canvas. Paint is history. Painting is looking for something, then losing it again. This is a portrait of a man, based on a photo of Kafka. My friend Kathleen asked Was Kafka’s face that long? The man in the long coat in the portrait is striding out. No, he’s not. The note to the right of the portrait says the man who is not Kafka is leaning against the pillar, but the pillar isn’t straight. This is a portrait of a man who isn’t famous, based on a photo of Kafka, and Kafka became famous, and the man who put the paint on the canvas became famous. Kafka is dead. The painter is dead, but this portrait is living, dead paint is living. This is the living portrait of a man who had friends. The man in a coat the colour of death. All colours become history. A coat; a face; a pillar. A portrait is, he says so.

Meeting Paula Rego – poem

I was sad to learn of the recent death of the artist Paula Rego. Last century I saw her work at the Whitworth Museum in Manchester, UK. That’s when I bought Nursery Rhymes. In March this year I went to the first major retrospective exhibition of her work in The Netherlands – at the Kunstmuseum here in The Hague. The museum shop had copies of Power Games.


I admire her as a person and an artist. As she told it ‘art was a way to work through fear and trauma, to soothe and comfort, as well as to erase, attack, scratch out and destroy.’

Whitworth Museum, extension


After a major refurbishment the Whitworth reopened in 2015. I would have liked very much to meet Paula Rego and talk with her about life and art. This imaginary meeting is set in the new café. The poem was published in my pamphlet A Stolen Hour (Grey Hen Press, 2020).

Meeting Paula Rego at the Whitworth, Manchester

Shading her eyes with a small black fan
she looks distressed and even out of place.
Ash trees cast a greenish shadow on her face.
To me she seems older now, frailer than
in the short winter days of that other year when
the quiet ghost of a drowned baby played
with black hen, spiders, women who prayed
for open roads, escape, a private den.

There was a boating lake once in the park.
We wait for panini, service is slow.
Café in the trees, I say, canopy.
Her earrings sparkle, her eyes are still dark.
It’s from the Greek; “konops” means mosquito.
Paula’s face lights up; her imagination set free.

Congratulations!


Congratulations to Orbis Quarterly International Literary Journal and Editor Carole Baldock. The 200th issue has just arrived. It is a bumper bundle and I look forward to getting stuck in.


Orbis is not just a poetry magazine, it is an international community of poets: each issue carries Lines on lines – brief communications from readers and I particularly like the Readers’ Award. Each issue readers can nominate up to four contributors whose work most appeals. A sum of money goes to the poem(s) that get the most votes and a similar amount is split between the runners-up. I find that I read each poem or prose piece with more attention – to have a rationale for my choices and votes.

I appreciate that my work has been featured in orbis three times. Below are two poems which featured most recently.

Credit: Steven Hill via Pixabay

The fire in Sydney

We’ve been out in the harbour
to get our Lifeboat Certificate.
The only woman, too feeble to row,
I had to steer the lifeboat
alongside SS Oronsay. First time
I didn’t manage to line it up.
Passengers lean over the railings,
watch us circle for a second attempt.

A fire on board has cut the electricity.
Our lifeboat cannot be winched back up.
The small, wizened Australian examiner
stares straight ahead. A passing ferry hoots.
From the galley portholes drifts
the smell of freshly baked bread.
The ferry hoots again. We dare not wave.
We don’t know yet if we’ve passed.

The last dogs

are running along the flood line.
Visitors are leaving for home, vacating the boarding houses; hotels.
A few people sit outside their huts: Parnassia, Shangri-La, Paradise;
grand names for a row of painted wooden boxes
which will be taken apart, then taken away at the end of the season.
The last dogs of the day are running along the flood line.
Gulls are scattering. It’s still warm. Somebody is singing a Beatles song.

FEET – poems


One of the most enjoyable things I did recently was read the manuscript of FEET. Elsa Fischer had asked if I would write a ‘blurb’ for her collection coming out a few weeks from now. Elsa’s poems from her two pamphlets (Palmistry in Karachi, Hourglass) have featured here in May 2020.


erbacce press in Liverpool run an annual poetry competition. In 2012 I was a runner-up and had 12 poems in the quarterly magazine, along with an interview. There were around 6,000 other entries. This year over 15,000 poets worldwide sent a selection of their work. Elsa’s submission was one of three to achieve publication.


Elsa was a young child in The Netherlands during WW2 and her collection includes some poems about that experience. Here is Hunger Winter about the winter 1944/45, followed by the poem Remembrance Sunday.

Veteranendag, Den Haag


Since 2005, the last Saturday in June has become ‘Veteranendag’, a day to honour the more than 100,000 Dutch veterans. There is a flypast and a parade of over 3,500 serving soldiers, several forces’ orchestras, old and new equipment. On the Malieveld, the large green area near The Hague central station, are marquees and vehicles. A good PR opportunity: the army, navy and air force all need recruits …

Hunger winter


To blunt the pangs of hunger
my mother would copy recipes.
In her wartime diary, between salmon
mousse and boeuf bourguignon I find
the birthdays of uncles and aunts,
lists of friends, their ‘phone numbers
in four digits. Crossed out the names
of those who perished. Lines of French
poetry: how dawn had chased the night
the poet would have wanted to last longer.
A list of socks, hats, underwear and who
she knitted for. A monthly record of her
bleeding. Exclamation marks around my
name on a page in September.

Remembrance Sunday


One hundred years old.
And two months, he adds
and in my regiment
the last man standing.
Holding a globe
he points at El Alamein.
That was a good one, he says.
Grins.

Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter

This month’s guest poet is Sarah Mnatzaganian. We first met on a Poetry Business residential workshop a few years ago. Sarah is an Anglo Armenian poet based in Ely, UK. She grew up in rural Wiltshire and in her late teens spent each summer with her father’s family in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem.

Her debut pamphlet, Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter, is published by Against the Grain Press. Sarah’s work has appeared in The North, The Rialto, Poetry News, Poetry Wales, Poetry Salzburg Review, Magma, Pennine Platform, London Grip, Atrium, and many anthologies. She was a winner in the Poetry Society’s winter 2020 members’ competition on the theme of ‘Youth’ and won the inaugural Spelt nature poetry competition in 2021.

In the 2022 Saboteur Awards Sarah’s debut with its ‘wonderfully moving poems’ gained the award for Best Poetry Pamphlet.

Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter

Uncle Hagop planted lemon trees outside his house
where small passionate tortoises collide each spring
with the hollow pock of a distant tennis match.

At night his ripest lemons dropped into a crackle
of leaves. He grunted through the cardamom-coffee kitchen
into the courtyard to fill his hands with fruit.

Auntie soothed the juice with syrup and iced water.
Uncle drank, clacked his tongue and sang, My Heart
Will Go On, his head thrown back like a songbird.

The lemons lay thick last February. My sister filled a bag
for Uncle. She put a smooth yellow oval into his hand
and helped him lift it to his face to smell the zest.

Dad asked the nurse for sugar and a knife. He cut,
squeezed, stirred. See, Hagop, I’m making lemonade
from your trees. Watched his brother smile, sip, sleep.

Egg Time

To my mother, Madeleine

Give me an egg, round as childhood.
I’ll tap its innocent shell; push sideways
through its Humpty Dumpty head to find
a core of molten gold or the dry pollen
of a hardened heart. May this teaspoon
teach my tongue the taste of lunch hour
on a school day when I’m six, hugging
the bump under mum’s dungarees.
How did the morning go? Watching her
butter home-made bread. Reading aloud
while the baby kicks. Back down the lane
for the lonely end of playtime, her love
like albumen around my ears and in
my eyes. Voices water-slow. Whistle
blown from the other side of the world.

Juice

To my father, Apraham

Every time I set spade against turf,
you’re there, cutting grass-topped cliffs
into our borders, neat as the Normandy coast.

You snatch sweat from your face
and ask for Lemon, half a lemon,
squeezed, with water please, darling,
it quenches the thirst.

I silently sing each syllable to myself
in your voice, like no other voice,
licking the ‘l’ in half almost as long as in lemon,
expressing the juice of each word with your verve,
crushing the fruit’s face into ridged glass
and clouding cold water with the sharpness you crave.
Each sucked finger stings.

Now I want to watch your dark throat dance
while you drink.

At the end of my suffering / there was a door

Have you ever hated anyone enough
to ask an iris leaf to turn into a sword
sharp as the new moon, cold as a snowdrop,
irresistible as spring grass growing disorderly,
before it’s mown to match the wishes of one
demanding pair of eyes? Don’t lose focus.

Take one, narrow, curved iris leaf and hold it up.
If the heart you want to penetrate is hard enough
to steal a country and the lives from its people;
if that heart won’t learn the wisdom of the iris,
the snowdrop and the moon – that life is mutable –
then that heart will feel the leaf turn to steel
and, to grant your wish, will stop beating.

The iris will flower blue and yellow, as it should,
for the people returning to their country,
as they should, and there will be no blood
on your hands.

The title is a quotation from The Wild Iris by Louise Glück.

Whistling for Stalin – poem

This w/end my poet friend Kathleen Kummer will be celebrating her 94th birthday. We first met 20 years ago on a writing week held near Cambridge. Kathleen lived and worked in The Netherlands after marrying a Dutchman.

To mark her special day, I’m posting a poem from her debut collection Living below sea level, published by Oversteps Books. The poem first appeared in the original 14 magazine, edited by Mike Loveday.

Whistling for Stalin

Circus performer summoned to the dacha,
you arrived empty-handed, no sign of the treasure
at the tip of your tongue. The signal was given,
you pursed your lips, made them a channel,
floated a tune on a cushion of air,
like a bird in a cage, lusciously trilling.
They sat around in their white, belted tunics,
he and his henchmen, legs stretched out rigid,
but ready to jack-knife to a Georgian folk song.

Did your whistling enliven the poker-face,
make it genial? When he clicked his fingers,
your tune slid back into its voice-box.
How much did you know about Uncle Joe?
When you whistle, you’re bound to sound carefree.

Games – poem

On a rainy Bank Holiday Sunday it’s good to be reminded of old poems and successes. Poems that are accepted for publication disappear into the folder ‘Published’ and into books and magazines that sit together on a shelf. Out of sight, out of mind…


For many years through the 90’s I kept this green A4 certificate with the impressive signatures in a clip frame at the bottom of the staircase. It was a daily reminder that I could write through what was a dark period in my life.

Credit: Public Domain via Pixabay

Games

I watched the old men in the park today
playing bowls, much the same as yesterday.
Smiles all around and gentle teasing by the winners.

I wondered whether at their age
you would have needed stick or hearing aid.
If your hair would turn to yellow-white or grey.

You never tried your hands at bowls, did you?
An old man’s game you called it.
Surely, much more fun than kicking up the daisies?

Tree frog – poem

Credit: David Dixon

Manchester Museum, part of the Victoria University of Manchester is closed for a 15 million redevelopment. It will open February 2023. Part of the Museum is the Vivarium, home to some of the most critically endangered neotropical species. Some years ago, a good friend became a sponsor and, by way of thank-you, she was invited to bring someone along for a ‘behind the scenes’ visit to the Vivarium.

Credit: Katja via Pixabay


The Department is a key player in the education about, and conservation of such beautiful creatures as the Lemur Leaf Frog, Yellow-eyed Leaf Frog, and the Splendid Leaf Frog. It was thrilling to have the small creature sit quietly in the palm of my hand.

Tree frog

Here is the coolness of its orange feet
splayed onto my hand. The slow bulge
of its breathing throat. Two unblinking eyes
the colour of black Morello cherries.