Category Archives: Inspirations

The secret of flying

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I am delighted to introduce this month’s poet.  David Underdown and I met a few years ago on a residential writing workshop.

David Underdown (www.davidunderdown.co.uk) has recently come to live in Hebden Bridge. Though a Mancunian by birth most of his life has been spent in the West of Scotland, latterly on the Isle of Arran where he is an organiser of the McLellan Poetry Competition. His two collections, both from Cinnamon, are Time Lines (2011) and, in 2019, A Sense of North. David Constantine describes his poems as ‘watchful’: ‘he gives us a view from (in his own words) ‘a window / we did not know was there’, he makes ‘a halo round the ordinary’’.

 

The secret of flying


The breakthrough is to stop thinking
about aerodynamics. Concentrate
on the immeasurable pleasures
of floating above roofs
and the open mouths of chimney pots

stems of road budding
houses, the rumple of fields
and, beyond, the dark spot of a copse
or how the river feels
up into its tree-lined tributaries.

And later, after that first step
into space
the art of soaring on thermals
of passing over boundaries
a sense of north.

 

Against the tide

Down here the river has widened,
already flooding salt for half the day,
mud-bound for the rest.
The tides wipe clean
the mazy prints of wading birds.
Below the bridge there’s broken masonry,
the pier where the cobbles stop,
and then it’s willow herb and buddleia
all the way to the sea’s flat-line.

Easy to see why you linger
to watch the gulls circle,
catching the hum from the bypass.
If you could, you would turn
and find your way upstream again
past viaducts and fat meadows,
solid farmsteads set round by trees,
and feel, as the land draws in,
the younger waters quicken.

There, where the uplands open out
you would track each beck
up to its marshy watershed
to understand how it started,
the long journey to the sea
and what alternatives there nearly were.
But the tide is turning,
colder wind roughening the water,
staining it dark, draining it out.

 

Shrine

The narrow path is steep
with scents of pine and juniper that lead you on
to where a lintel at the cavern’s mouth
will make you stoop so low
as to leave the outer world behind.
Enter, and all falls away,
though you, a frail and used-up thing,
and hunched, are still in hope,
for once inside the roof is lofty, almost limitless.
From waves of ancient seas, stone lolls in tongues.
And there, within, no god, but a reminder
of what a god might be: a simple table,
faded cloth, gifts that some might misjudge poor,
small money, keepsakes, herbs as grateful prayers.

To be there for an hour, and still,
is more than some can stand, but do
and you’ll leave naked in yourself
as if unclothed of need, and shuffle out
to blink in new-found light
with sun upon your head.

 

Notes for a solitary walk

For M.W. 1951 – 2014

This morning you are walking for her,
a small thing you can do, on a day
of deep green shadows and granite glitter,
that, if she were here, she would love.

Today, as she is not here,
you will not go the usual way
across the burns through stands of birch
where the dog would flex at the scent of deer,

but further, up the glen where even in her lifetime
the last men were still mining the hill.
You will shin up that shoulder of Cioch na’ Oighe
to see the whole Clyde laid out,

just how, if she had ever had the chance,
she would have chosen to arrange it –
the named near hills and the unnamed hills of the horizons
and the spaces of water between.

You will walk south along your home’s spine
for her to count its line of rocky vertebrae
and marvel at the openness
of all these lands of the West.

You will talk to her of travelled roads
and also of oceans you might have crossed
if there had been time, until,
reaching the lip of Coire Lan,

you will leave the broad path and drop down
below Am Binnein to the White Water
that leads (with no time now to stop)
past home to the indifferent sea.

Father’s Day

Vader

 

My father died a few weeks after his 75th birthday in October, 1990.  He had a talent for music: singing in and conducting choirs, and playing the church organ for many years. Here is a picture of him as a young man: a somewhat anxious look, wanting to do a good job of transporting my mother and me safely.

The poem Prelude and Fugue was published in the anthology, Poems from the Readaround, Tarantula Press, 1995.
Prelude and Fugue

I enter and dare a glance at your effects –
straight rows of books in alphabetical order
the white board emptied
pens and pencils (four of each)
manuscript paper and a rubber
on the Yamaha
You were filling in the bass line

Music for a while shall all your cares beguile

You kept some organ pipes in the loft.
You were going to build one.
What happened to those when you moved
into the flat?

Sometimes I turned the pages for you
feet darting across the pedals
When I was twelve I left the choir
and gave up singing

Your black shoes scuffed at the side

The Catholics paid best you said
a bonus for weddings and funerals

Rehearsal for D-Day

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Today in Normandy there are several large-scale and almost 300 local ceremonies to commemorate the D-Day landings 75 years ago. A total of 156,000 Canadian, American and British soldiers landed on the five beaches Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah.

Quite some years ago I saw an edition of the BBC TV series Coast. It was about the preparation for D-Day: it was very moving to see the black-and-white film of farms being emptied, civilians leaving their homes, lost tanks retrieved from the seabed. The programme also mentioned losses through mistakes.

The resulting poem Standing in for Utah is in sonnet form. The first stanza came quite easily, but I struggled to get the second stanza to fit the form. The sonnet typically has a volta, or “turn” after the first eight lines. I liked how I managed to include a physical turn in the second stanza! The poem was subsequently awarded the 2012 RedPage Sonnet Prize in an annual competition.

(Photo credit: Th G Koehler)

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Standing in for Utah
They were given six weeks to pack and leave.
Round and oblong tables stowed in a van:
Hannaford the Butchers. Empty farms grieve
for cows, sheep taken by women and men.
Forty-six square miles behind Slapton Sands,
gravel, dunes, the flooded marshes of Lyme Bay.
A cold, still, grey hinterland that stands
in for Utah, the rehearsal for D-day.
Three thousand people, animals, the year
before sent to live in another place.
Now American boys are sheltered here
and dodging live ammo with sudden grace.
How small, the blue Heritage Coast dots on the map.
Distant that April night when Start Bay was a trap.

Operation Tiger was the code name.
One Tank Landing Ship keeled over and sank
in just six minutes, the wheelhouse aflame.
That boat spewed burning gasoline from its flank.
German Schnellboote fired the torpedo.
Rusted-up lifeboat tackle abandoned;
never told how to use life belts, below
seven hundred and forty-nine men drowned.
This is my ship and I am going back,
Lieutenant John Doyle, skipper, who turned,
against orders. Picked up shapes limp and black;
clinging on to charred life rafts, men who’d burned.
Destiny is shaped by random things, often small:
wrong frequencies, second chances, the place where you fall.

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?

 

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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.

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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

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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.