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?
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.
At a recent workshop I read from Winter Migrants, a collection by Tom Pickard. I saw the title and cover in an email from Carcanet, the publishers, and knew I would have to get the book. A short sequence and individual poems bookend a selection from Fiends Fell Journals.
This is a poetry-diary, or haibun, composed over the decade Pickard lived alone on the wind-blown North Pennines. The two dozen entries cover the period June 2003 – February 2004. They vary in length from a few lines to a page. Here is an example, showing Pickard’s sharp vision and economy of language:
Late at night, without a coat and the wind still raging, an old woman from the cottage hospital in Alston, banging on the deserted mortuary window, demanding entry – convinced she is home.
Water drapes over worn flattened rocks, smooth as curtains.
Birds appear frequently in the Journal – an alert kestrel, a growking raven, snipes, curlews – and in the title sequence – the Solway estuary where winter migrants gather / in long black lines.
This is also from Fiends Fell Journals:
A heron criss-crosses the lashing syke, fast, with sudden thaw,
Seren Books had a brief 50% discount offer, so at the end of July I dashed to the website to make a purchase. In the library at Ty Newydd I’d seen a copy of In a different light,Translations into English of fourteen contemporary Dutch-language poets. Scrolling I suddenly spotted a picture of a giraffe!
Bryony Littlefair was the Winner of the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Competition. Seren Books published her pamphlet last year. In her testimonial Myra Schneider says Her work, with its unexpected imagery and juxtapositions, is witty, ironic, frank, and poignant. Giraffe is a striking debut collection.
There are some intriguing titles: The year she asked for a scrubbing brush for Christmas; Poem in which not everything is lost; Visitations of a future self; The meaning of employable.
The tone of the poems is conversational, but Bryony has a clear eye for the detail. Dear Anne Monroe, Healthcare Assistant celebrates the “quiet beauty” of NHS nurses in Archway where the light is piss-yellow and everyone is angry. In The sadness of giftshops we see the owner’s thin, teal scarf, smattered with small white horses and the way she writes down everything she sells on a plain sheet of A4.
I enjoyed reading Bryony’s pamphlet, including the memorable poem Maybe this is why women get to live longer. Here is a woman in a wrap dress/and brown hair tied loosely at the nape/of her neck, slack as an otter’s tail. This woman is listening to a man with the thick/tufty eyebrows of a politics professor -/permanently raised, as if hung by them/to a washing line -.
The title poem is the last poem of the book, placed opposite Sertraline. It was previously published in Popshot Magazine, and I appreciate Bryony’s permission to share Giraffe with you.
When you feel better from this – and you will – it will be quiet and
unremarkable, like walking into the next room. It might sting a little, like
warmth leaking into cold-numbed hands. When you feel better, it will
be the slow clearing of static from the radio. It will be a film set when
the director yells cut! When you feel better, you will take: a plastic spoon
for your coffee foam, free chocolates from the gleaming oak reception
desk, the bus on sunny days, your own sweet time. When you feel better,
it will be like walking barefoot on cool, smooth planks of wood, still
damp from last night’s rain. It will be the holy silence when the tap stops
dripping. The moment a tap finally starts to make sense. When you feel
better, you will still suffer, but your sadness will be graspable, roadworthy,
have handlebars. When you feel better, you will not always be happy,
but when happiness does come, it will be long-legged, sun-dappled: