Category Archives: Inspirations

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

Taking other routes – a poem

Rock church, Lalibela – Heiss via Pixabay

With my birthday coming up, I am posting a poem that celebrates key experiences in my life. These include visiting Lalibela in Ethiopia in 2007, travelling with the friend who set up the Lalibela Educational Trust, to meet the boy I sponsored and his widowed mother. My parents – a church organist father and semi-professional singing mother – did pass on the creative gene, for sure.

Thank you for liking these posts and for following my blog!

St Mark’s Venice – Hermann via Pixabay

Taking other routes

My parents never taught me to swim; didn’t take me skating
on those Christmas-card frozen canals. I have never
been famous, but I have sung in Burgos and Florence,
Vespers in St Mark’s. My singing has made grown men cry.

I have not travelled on ferries, floating from one Greek
island to another, forgetting the name of the day.
I have never stroked a giraffe, nor given birth to a baby boy.
But I have picked redcurrants from the back garden, sharing
rich crops for over twenty years with small black birds.

In Ethiopia I have a son and I sat with him in his Physics class.
And for a few years I was a sailor, snatching a few hours
in Sydney, shopping in Hong Kong. I danced in a grass skirt
and flew across Alaskan glaciers with the man I loved.

My father’s hands

Photo Credit Pavlofox on Pixabay

As today is Father’s Day, I’m posting this poem by Kathleen Kummer. Here she combines the personal and the public, with her reference to the miners’ strikes and the General Strike of 1929.

My father’s hands

For a short time they handled a pencil, maybe
a squeaky one on a slate. Abruptly,
they, they found themselves grasping a pick
in the dark. When the strikes came, obedient,
they downed their tools and, at street corners,
were clasped and breathed into for warmth,
patted the greyhound of a mate waiting
for the pubs to open. They withdrew their labour
from the mine owner once and for all
in the General Strike of 1929.
In the next phase, though, still handling the black stuff,
they weighed it, bagged it, loaded it onto
the back of a lorry. Then it was clay pipes
instead of coal, contorted monsters,
drab, glazed brown, easily chipped.

This is the time from which I remember
those hands, their dull sheen, as if
sanded down, the skin agonisingly tight,
with cracks, near the nails, manicured with a penknife,
not made for tenderness and caresses,
but good safe hands to be held in.

Last night, as I warmed my hands at the fire,
I winced at the memory of his, held so close
to the flames and hot coals, they almost touched
so cold, they could never again be warm.

Animals in Lockdown

I am pleased to introduce this month’s poet: Judi Sutherland. We met as poets on Facebook a few years ago and I attended a recent online event where she read her poems.

Judi Sutherland has lived and worked all over England and is now based in North County Dublin, Ireland. She writes about the natural world, about home, place and belonging, and things she reads on the internet. She obtained an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway, University of London, in 2012 and was awarded the Margaret Hewson Prize.

Her first pamphlet The Ship Owner’s House was published in 2018 by Vane Women Press (available here: The Ship Owner’s House by Judi Sutherland – The Poetry Book Society) and focuses on north south contrasts, specifically Oxfordshire and County Durham. Vane Women Press is a writing, performing and publishing collective based in the North East of England. It was formed in 1991.

A recent booklet Animals in Lockdown was published as a hand-made edition by Kazvina (Karen Little). Copies can be obtained from kazvina@yahoo.es, and proceeds go to Happy Tails Halfway Home animal rescue.

Here is my selection: the booklet’s title poem and three poems from The Ship Owner’s House.

The Animals in Lockdown


The mountain goats have noticed something’s wrong.
Their anxious hooves trot into town
tap-tapping on our tarmac. They’ve come to browse
verges and hedges, keeping down


the wildness, which they know distresses us.
In clearwater harbours, dolphins nose
the prows of empty boats drifting at anchor.
Songbirds note the silence in the air.


A fox sniffs for contagion, scenting only spring,
he knows we’ve gone to earth. He has
mixed feelings about this. The dogs
who shepherd us on our permitted walks


leave smell-messages for each other, asking
‘Lads, what’s going on?’ And here at home,
my cat tucks me into bed each night, checking that I’m safe.
All through the night, she listens for my breathing.

Looking for Kites


I went over to Kinninvie
because I had heard you were there.
I took the straight, whitelined road
that wagtails across the fells.
There were sheep, carpet-backed, in a row
ripping grass, and mottled cattle,
cream and brown like chocolate truffles
tilting their long horns at the sky.
A hawk held steady over a whin bush
and I thought I saw you eddy into the wind
over a broad, shouldering field.
When I turned homewards, the valley
was bright with gorse and rapeseed flowers
and sunshine flooded the far slopes
with summer.

Epigenetics

Certain fears can be inherited through the generations, a provocative study of mice reports. The authors suggest that a similar phenomenon could influence anxiety and addiction in humans.
http://www.nature.com/news/fearful-memories-haunt-mouse-descendants-1.14272

And what scented his fear was this:
the fleet chill of clear air rushing,
the flap of canvas, the propeller’s
halting stutter. Hanging suspended
between sky and Crete, and the silver-drab
of olive trees reaching up to meet him.
I still dream that flight and plunge,
the terror and the black; feel the dull
indentation of the skull, the buzz of metal plates
beneath my scalp. I’m always writing Icarus;
afraid to fall, finding life vertiginous.
He very nearly died. I very nearly remember.

Relocation


So, the place I thought was home turned out to be
somewhere we were passing through, and we
have traded all the grey, red, cream of flint,
brick, render, for this buttered stone;
beechwoods for bare hills, accents clipped like lawns
for vowels as broad as fells. The green-spined lane
became a hard grey road, the kites are hawks,
and the placid boating river is a rocky fall
past a castle keep. Life pitches our tent
in a different portion of the desert. We make it ours.
I can no longer tell you where my heart is.

That summer day – a poem

Dartington Hall, Devon

My friend and poet Kathleen Kummer will have her birthday soon. We have visited the Dartington Estate in Devon several times: to hear the then Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion read, to listen to music during the Music Summer School & Festival which was established in 1947. Alwyn Marriage of Oversteps Books invited me to read during the Ways with Words Literary Festival. It was wonderful seeing people out on the lawn, resting in deckchairs, or queuing up to get their book signed by famous authors.

Dartington Hall is a spectacular Grade I listed building. The gardens are grade II listed: a sculpture by Henry Moore, a yew tree that is 1500 years old and a row of sweet chestnut trees believed to be about 400 years old. The gardens are a delight in every season. Here is Kathleen’s poem about the gardens.

The Tiltyard, Dartington Hall Gardens

That summer day

That summer day at Dartington,
everything familiar, beautiful:
the corrugation of the bark
of ancient trees, the sun behind
the scarlet maple leaves, the swathes
of wildflowers in the glades, warm
to the touch the might buttocks
of Henry Moore’s reclining figure,
the bench, its oak smooth, silver,
following the stone wall’s curve,
on which we sat. Unexpected,
the robin landing next to us,
a fledgling, plump, who stayed ten, fifteen
minutes until his mother called him.
And, in the little wave of sadness
which washed over us, because
he looked so young, indivisible
as water is, this swell of happiness.

Horses of a different colour

Anthology, publ. Dempsey & Windle

It was a lovely surprise to get this anthology ahead of schedule, so I could read it before leaving for the Netherlands. Dempsey & Windle organise an annual competition, with options to enter single poems as well as a batch of 10 to win publication of a pamphlet. The anthology has poems by the winners of both categories, as well as the highly commended and longlisted poems. I was glad to have my tribute to a poet friend included. On Thursday 10 June in the evening there will be a reading on Zoom with a number of poets reading. Contact Dempsey & Windle for the link.


This poem by fellow poet Rod Whitworth has it first publication in the same anthology. Rod and I met several years ago on writing workshops. I admire its economy and delicacy. It’s not surprising it gained a 2nd prize.

Demobbed

Go on. Hold his hand. You’ll be all right.
I looked at the man in the new suit
they’d told me was my dad and I walked
at his side, hands in my pockets.

We stepped into the street, his right hand
steering Megan’s pram with ease and command
past Cropper’s with the pigeons, and I walked
at his side, hands in my pockets.

Down Platting Brew, round the curve
over the culverted brook and a hard shove
to the road to Daisy Nook, me walking
at his side, hands in my pockets.

Past the milk farm – Whitehead’s –
and the field with the pond and reeds,
the greying April snow. I walked,
my right hand warm in his left hand.

The day we switched off the machine,
I told him they’d arrested Pinochet,
though he was past cheering, and he lay,
his right hand cold in my left hand.

Bitterne Park, Southampton – a poem

Last year Amanda Steel of Printed Words produced her first charity anthology Words to Remember. It includes fiction, non-fiction and poetry, some of it related to cancer. I was glad to have these two poems accepted for the anthology.

Printed Words has its own Facebook page. Even with the lockdown last year, the anthology has done well, and Amanda was able to make donations to two cancer charities: Marie Curie and Cancer Research UK. Amanda Steel is on https://amandasteelwriter.wordpress.com

Bitterne Park, Southampton

The blackout curtains
don’t let the sun through.
I wake to the small sounds
that come with morning:
squirrels jump around the oak tree
at the heart of our cul-de-sac.
A bus strains up the hill.

At the Triangle, the bank opens
and the smiley greengrocer
limps his vegetable crates outside.
On the river Itchen
John strokes his beard, thinks
about brewing tea.

It is meant to be an ordinary day.
But this month is a long-distance runner,
this month is a marathon.

On the other side of the narrow bridge,
a woman is taking two large black bags
into a charity shop. Suits and shirts,
all washed, dry-cleaned, ironed.
She had forgotten the silk ties.
Now they’re rolled up, placed
in a see-through Biza bag
that once held duty-free cologne.

May

Living one day at a time
will be like walking
through a tunnel, away
from being held by memories.
The smell of petrol, choking.
Cars driving close and fast.
The red rear lights in pairs,
an illusion of safety and warmth.

Do not turn round now, back
towards that day when you viewed
daffodils through a thin black
veil from a car at walking speed.
Decide to live this day.
Summer will slowly creep in,
its light, colour, the company
of bold blue, orange, pink,
the grass that will keep growing.

Item – a poem

Photo credit Stux via Pixabay

This week I am featuring another one of Kathleen Kummer’s poem. It’s short and the neutral title belies the heart-breaking content. The poem is addressed to her adult son.

Item

You left behind: your silver spoon –
there are days when I stir my coffee with it;
the drawing of yourself with the Mona Lisa eyes;
I sometimes wonder how you got the chestnut avenue
from that angle, and I’m suddenly happy, as though
you’d just sauntered in from school and were upstairs
moving your table, shouting down you were hungry;
all the photographs of you – if I flicked the pages
fast enough, would those in the top right-hand corner,
at least, spring jerkily into life?

Item: a bank account – didn’t you need
the money? Your sisters; me. People hope
I don’t mind them asking about you. As if
in a language I’m learning, I say, no, I don’t mind.

Journey – a poem

It’s a great pleasure introducing this month’s poet Pat Edwards. We met on Facebook and then discovered we both have a book with Indigo Dreams Publishing.

Pat is a writer, reviewer and workshop leader from mid Wales. She also offers a poetry feedback service on her site Gold Dust. Her work has appeared in Magma, Prole, Atrium, IS&T and many others. Pat hosts Verbatim open mic nights during more ‘normal’ times and curates Welshpool Poetry Festival. She has two pamphlets: Only Blood (Yaffle, 2019); Kissing in the Dark (Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2020).

Today is Mother’s Day in many countries. Pat’s dedication for Only Blood reads ‘For Mum and Dad if only we could all try again.’ Here are three poems from Only Blood, followed by Journey, from Kissing in the Dark, in Pat’s honest and compassionate voice.

The year Mum died

She is cutting tiny pieces of foam rubber
to comfort-cushion her feet in pinch-painful shoes.

There’s that look in her eyes, the one I don’t yet understand,
that gives away the cell-division in her breast.

She has a box of keepsakes I’m allowed to sift through:
the silver clasp for keeping sixpences together;
the golden compact that clicks open to reveal a mirror;
the trace of bronze powder that smells like ladies.

Here in 1963 amongst the fullness of her skirt,
I am barely five and only know I love her.

Gems

I want to find my mother’s jewellery,
to lift the lid on a tin box
of paste and pearls;

to find drop earrings that glint,
necklaces that lie on collar bones,
a charm or two for luck.

I want her wedding band,
brooches that once fastened scarves,
all the souvenirs and sentiment.

But I bet the first went to pay the gas,
the second to buy the weekly shop,
the third towards a gambling debt.

Gee-gees

Teenage me always knew when he’d put on a bet.
The channel would get changed,
there would be an urgent tension,
tight as a fist.

We’d sit saying not a word,
for fear speaking would fracture us.
Then, in the closing furlongs,
I’d know for sure.

Dad would bounce on the edge of his seat,
building from a hushed Come on my beauty!
to blatant demand of it.

We would both urge the horse
across the finishing line,
jockey standing in his stirrups,
cracking the whip.

Then the relief.
Let’s get your hair done.
I can buy you a new coat.
As if I was my mother.

Journey

I draw a blue-black line under my eyes,
trace it across the tattoo on my left arm.
I watch it slide down the veins of my leg,
to settle in a grey graffiti pool by my feet.
That’s quite some journey I say out loud,
so the man on the train looks up from
his screen and glares at me like a priest.
My thin mouth flashes a penance smile
back at him and he absolves me I think.
That’s quite some journey I say silently
so the man in my dream looks up from
his book and smiles at me like a friend.
My full mouth offers him a lover’s kiss
which surely changes something I think.
I draw a blue-black line under everything.