On Friday I had my second vaccination (Pfizer). I have felt ok, a bit tired and feverish. By way of a treat, a good childhood memory.
The “selling fur coats” took place in Amsterdam, in Maison de Bonneterie: a small chain of high-end fashion stores. The building in Amsterdam was designed by a well-known Dutch architect with an interior in the style of Louis XVI (the Sun King of France), an imposing staircase and a glass roof.
It closed in 2014, after 125 years of uninterrupted service to the elegant public. The Amsterdam store is a national listed building and now used as a location for events.
We’ve been waiting in silence. It’s just the three of us. Mother’s away in a city, selling fur coats. The radio crackles, but here comes father with blue beakers, hot chocolate, curled cream on top, and the bread he has baked on his day off.
Tomorrow he’ll be on the balcony playing the organ; we’ll be below. Today he is the son of a master baker. We’ll have the bread with butter and jam, red strawberries, shiny against the golden crust.
Greetings on World Poetry Day! At the 30th General Conference of UNESCO in Paris, 1999, it was decided to mark 21 March as an annual celebration. Poetry has “the unique ability to capture the creative spirit of the human mind”.
I’ve chosen a poem with international connections, a lot of people, fruit – a festive gathering on a Dutch beach. It’s from my collection Nothing serious, nothing dangerous.
On the beach after My boat by Raymond Carver
Bill’s last words were always Have fun, so I will. He was a very good father, Bill, though he wasn’t my father. Liz will be there too. And Mary and Brian, the Como couple. Seville will be there, all the places I ever fell in love with. We’ll be on a beach, a wide sandy beach with small white shells, large white gulls and far off, in the distance, the red container ships, nothing dangerous, nothing serious.
At the flood line broken razor clams crackle under our feet. There is Dick, almost 80, and Miep, their cycles parked up against the metal wire by the marram grass dotted on the dunes. Esther, Peter, Theo, Ancilla on their e-bikes, they love this beach. Skewered fruit, Water Melon Men and the three Irish men I loved, and the others, the artist with one eye has come back from Hungary. Boats will be there, beached. We’re all beached. My UK friends have come by ship, a ship with starched officers, a ship from Southwold that I specially chartered.
I invited J S Bach, Schubert and anyone else whose names I am forgetting. I have been given dispensation – hey, that sounds medical, nothing dangerous, nothing serious, the friends who are no longer friends, what’s rejection, abandonment among true friends. Apples, oranges, enough grapes to count in the new year, fresh figs, plums, peaches, kiwi fruit for sleep, passion fruit. With all that fruit we are fit to count our blessings, our nine lives. Have fun. The tide’s out, and it is a long time before it’s coming back in.
It’ll be St. Patrick’s Day next Wednesday, so I found you a poem with an Irish theme.
Thousands of Europeans were emigrating to Australia and New Zealand under the ‘Assisted Passage’ scheme. I took my Dutch, English, French and German across the Channel and joined P & O Lines Ltd as a WAP (Woman Assistant Purser) in 1969.
The following year I joined SS Orcades. The ship was due to arrive in Australia in time for older passengers to celebrate Christmas and New Year with family who’d moved there. Because of the large number of Dutch passengers, I held a daily coffee meeting – giving information about ports en route, as well as translating and interpreting.
Each morning, I also met with a small group of German-speaking passengers. On the photo, you can just about see my language badges, attached to my uniform with Velcro!
The poem SS Arcadia, from my second collection Nothing serious, nothing dangerous is about meeting my late husband for the first time. May you be blessed with the luck of the Irish!
I was still in my whites, had just rolled down the shutters on shore excursions, orders for birthday cakes, contact lenses lost in the swimming pool.
I was headed down aft, the Tourist Nursery, rehearsals for Hawaiian Night. Oh, I’m going to a hukilau.
It was a moment of whites and early evening sunlight. That Irishman, feet planted wide on shiny boards, who controlled the English bar staff, Goanese stewards.
I already knew that Junior Officers were not supposed to fraternise with Leading Hands.
Can’t you sleep either? After a dark year, many old friends gone, I thought I heard you sing outside the window inches from my ear. Who are you singing for this time of night? Did I dream you?
This is the first stanza of Ruth Padel’s poem Night Singing in a Time of Plague. You can read the full poem on the Poetry Society’s site here. It is a response to John Keats’ poem Ode to a Nightingale. The poem was commissioned as part of the Keats200 bicentenary – a celebration of Keats’ life, works and legacy.
We are close to the first anniversary of the pandemic. The borders of the Netherlands remain closed to visitors from the UK. I have been sleeping less well for weeks now. Here is Kathleen Kummer’s poem, also about the difficulty of finding sleep.
Lying in bed with my life
I am lying in bed with my life. It is one of those sleepless night when I chafe at its bulk alongside me. It will fill the hours with my clan of northerners and sundry others. I shall speak for them all, the living and the dead.
I know the words, which I’m good at repressing when they were my own and unkind. I shout Cut if the scene is unbearable, switch on the lamp to get rid of it, a shame, as I might still have seen my mother’s harebell-blue eyes and the family wearing each other’s hats at a picnic.
The curtain at last turns grey and grainy, and my life rolls up fast with a click inside me. I’m reminded of that when my daughter says I don’t suppose you’ve got a decent tape-measure?
We end the month with a February poem by Kathleen Kummer. I love all the flowers that are included, how the poem touches on that moment of turning. The last two lines carry an extra weight this year.
There had been no hint that it was in the air, no question of even imagining a haze of green round the trees. What flowers there were pointed to winter: hellebores, snowdrops, a few crocuses trembling in the grass, and the camellias in bloom, ice-maidens, translucent, quite at home in the cold. It was February. Coming home in the dark, I paused on the step to the garden, held back by the smell of the soil someone had turned in my absence, moist, as if a god were breathing on it to warm the earth. Then I knew for certain that spring was coming, that, deo volente, I’d be there.
It is a great pleasure introducing this month’s poet. Paul Stephenson and I met eight years ago through the Poetry Business’ Writing School, an eighteen-month programme.
Paul was born and grew up in Cambridge. He studied modern languages and linguistics then European Studies. He spent several years living between London and France, Spain, and the Netherlands. He currently lives between Cambridge and Brussels.
Paul was selected for the Arvon/Jerwood mentoring scheme and the Aldeburgh Eight. He has been co-curator of the Poetry in Aldeburgh poetry festival since 2018.
His first pamphlet Those People (Smith/Doorstop, 2015) was a winner in the Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition, judged by Billy Collins. His second pamphlet The Days that Followed Paris (HappenStance, 2016) was written in the wake of the November 2015 terrorist attacks. His book Selfie with Waterlilies was published by Paper Swans Press after winning their 2017 Poetry Pamphlet Prize. Read more at: http://www.paulstep.com
I have selected two poems from Those People. The poems Turkish Delight and The Rub open the pamphlet Selfie with Waterlilies. Here is Paul’s keen eye for the details that matter, his playful language adding an extra dimension to the subject of loss.
Seventy litres: in theory more than plenty for three t-shirts, two shorts, the pair of jeans you’re wearing. Then the question of the tent,
saucepan, small canister of gas, map and bible of Thomas Cook timetables – every single train possibility from here to Ankara. One crisp fifty
thousand lira note, a handful of Swiss francs and wad of American Express traveller’s cheques. Foreign currency kept flat, zipped inside a canvas
wallet with Velcro strap, wrapped tight around the waist. Typical Monday. Your father at work. Your mother out somewhere. Your lift here soon.
I avoid the house I grew up in, keep away from my mother
and father’s birthdays: calendar opposites, June and January.
I steer clear of my brother’s crash, rule out the hot summer
I left school, graduated, went off. I adopt different characters,
mix upper and lower case. I do my utmost to never
choose when I was born. Mine take years to crack.
What you do when you get the call is take it, hear words at dawn before they’re mouthed: You should probably come now.
What you do is shower and dress, skip yoghurt and honey, the baklava breakfast, and walk briskly to the ticket office, hand over your sob story.
Once given a seat today (not tomorrow because tomorrow is too late), what you do is pack, sit on a shell-shocked suitcase poring over a tourist map
mentally-cataloguing Byzantine cathedrals then mosques, till a twelve-seater van for one pulls up to taxi you with stop-starts across the Bosphorous
into Asia. What you do to kill an afternoon on a new continent at the international airport hub is browse briefs and socks, visit the James Joyce Irish pub,
mill about getting sprayed with testers of musk, citrus, bergamot, think nothing of spending sixty three euros and seventy four cents on different nut varieties of
Turkish Delight (which is heavy and must be carried), remember nobody likes Turkish Delight – except him. What you do till they display your gate is stare out
as dusk descends, count the seconds between runway ascents, promise you’ll return one day to be consumed by the vastness of the Hagia Sophia.
Menthol my father, menthol his room, menthol his bed.
My out of sight father, my fast relief father, my warming father.
My dual action father, my targeted father, my daily father.
My caution father, my blood flow father, my enclosed father,
Menthol my father, menthol his back, menthol his beard.
My turpentine father, my paraffin father, my eucalyptus father.
My muscular father, my thin layer father, my recommended father.
My wool fat father, my liquid father, my expiry father.
Valentine’s Day: a love poem by my friend Kathleen Kummer. She lived and worked in the Netherlands when married to a Dutchman. Poems from her debut collection Living below sea level featured here on 25 June 2018. To celebrate our 20-year friendship, I will be posting more of Kathleen’s unpublished work over the next few months.
Like a holy relic rarely exposed, they lie in a drawer, not handled, let alone read, for half a century, their violet ink on airmail paper, your, my, dried blood on a membrane which is beginning to flake. If touched, it would instantly turn to dust. If read, the dried blood would flow again and burn.
The drawer is hard to close: coarse strands of pain, regret and grief obstruct it. I am able to ease it with the memory of lying with you by the sea, unseen by those who walked through the marram grass, throwing up little showers of sand on us. Nothing has been as soft, as caressing as the sand dunes that summer.
It is a great pleasure to introduce this month’s poet. Alex Josephy and I met last November. We both read at the ‘virtual’ Poetry in Aldeburgh festival, along with poets Sharon Black and Christopher North – all of us with a connection to Europe.
Alex lives in London and Italy. Her collection Naked Since Faversham was published by Pindrop Press in 2020. Other work includes White Roads, poems set in Italy, Paekakariki Press, 2018, and Other Blackbirds, Cinnamon Press, 2016. Her poems have won the McLellan and Battered Moons prizes, and have appeared in magazines and anthologies in the UK and Italy.
As part of the Poetry School Mixed Borders scheme, she has been poet-in-residence at Rainham Hall, Essex, and in Markham Square, London. Alex is a poetry mentor and writes reviews for publications such as Envoi and London Grip. Find out more on her website: http://www.alexjosephy.eu
I have chosen four poems from Naked Since Faversham which show the range of her work. I hope they speak to you, as they did to me.
Stalled between diagonal slats, you’re a dry hull, ridge-backed
as if whittled from a vine stem, forelegs splayed to grip the ledge
you’ve chosen for shelter. Hail made me close the shutters;
that’s when I noticed you, remote in winter torpor. When I woke
you were still here, a cold wedge interrupting the light.
Each time I pass I look for you, imagine how the frost
deepens, fills your hollows; hear no rasp of song, no longing
for green. Cavalletta, little horse, I hope we’ll see the spring.
A Word in Your Ear
Cielo, the heaven of unimportant things: half an hour together
in the usual bar. It’s a light still on when the morning sky
starts to remember blue. Cielo, just look at the shape of it:
five strokes, a hasty dot, slight enough to skim a canvas
on a brush-tip, watery peaks and arcs. That fluent curve –
a sudden smile, stand-offish verticals, and then a hug.
A little bite of something sweet and quick – cielo, cielo, ce l’ho!
warbles the pastry cook. His cielo is yeast that swells the heart
of a brioche, opens rooms of warm air in a bread roll.
At the door I pause to salute the white plastic vessel. Press
the panel, cupping a palm beneath. The blessing flows;
I wring my hands, fold them, gather a fearful breath, hope
for the best. Together we can fight infection. Shed what I’ve carried,
invisible on the wheezy bus. This is a clean hand zone. Trace finger bone
to knuckle, heart line to life line. Catch a whiff of spirit,
hurry through Reception, head for the silver lift.
Take thistledown, hold it in the bowl of your palms. Feel it tingle like Spumante.
No, it can’t mend your heart, but it will float you to the surface of your skin.
Each time you long for your child across the ocean, find a river
or a canal., worn stone steps down to the towpath. Accept
a kingfisher’s quick shot of blue, a moorhen’s buoyancy; how easily
they dive, come up somewhere unexpected, sleeved in a twist of air.
One year ago I received an email in Dutch from poet Elsa Fischer. She had read my second collection and related to the poems about the Second World War. Elsa and I have kept in touch by email. Her poems were featured here on 24 May 2020 – the end of that month we were going to meet in person in The Hague …
A 1,000-piece jigsaw of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Hunters on the Hill is waiting in the hall – a present for a friend. Seeing it there reminded me that Elsa and I have both written a poem inspired by that painting from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. On its website you can see all the works by Bruegel that still exist from their 2018 exhibition.
Jonathan McAloon published a fascinating article on Artsy “The Deadly Truth Behind Pieter Bruegel Elder’s Idyllic Landscapes” (4/2/2019). The winter of 1564-65 was the coldest winter of the century. Europe was living in what’s now called the “Little Ice Age”. It would be so cold that rivers froze enough for local people to have rent-free marketplaces on them. Frozen birds fell from the sky, people could enjoy themselves skating. There were also food shortages, resulting in illness and riots.
Elsa’s poem Hunters was published in the journal Poetry SalzburgReview. Mine is in the pamphlet A Stolen Hour (Grey Hen Press, 2020). We’ve both taken the viewpoint of someone in the landscape.
I’ve come to feast again on Flemish grotesque at the peasant wedding and Shrove Tuesday’s kermis.
To watch the hunters as they bring in the kill, the trails of blood not far from where I stand
for cover. I hear branches and shrubs and ice breaking and feel no pity until the knives release
a medieval agony of entrails, shimmering, steaming, on to the floor of the estaminet.
The heady beer explodes, the pissoir smells. I grab a cue at the billiard table. I am seventeen.
Piercing the cold like the crow’s flight I escape into the northern twilight, away from memories.
In a far corner
It is a clear afternoon. I hear children laughing, the clacking of skittles, skates carving the ice.
I know it is Friday and hear the silence of crows. My bones are strong, my wife is in good health.
I do not yet know that on the hill the hunters with their wet and tired dogs are heading for home.
I think about my wife, heavy with child, her apron as white as the snow under my feet.
I see plumes of breath from my lips, as though I’m a horse with plough. Branches on my shoulder creak, shudder. I’m yoked to this life.
I am grateful to Josephine Corcoran for posting this poem on her And Other Poems site today. You can read the full poem and many other wonderful poems here Josephine had a brief submission window from which she selected those poems that would connect with many people, poems that would lift our spirit in these difficult times.
There’s a blackbird on the wooden fence. It looks left, then right, stretches up and its yellow beak plucks an orange berry from the pyracantha.