Category Archives: Reviews

Earth Days Numbered

I am very pleased to have a poem in this pamphlet which, along with its companion Counting Down the Days, has just been published by Grey Hen Press. Joy Howard, the editor, has done a great job of producing these two anthologies: allowing older women poets to show their support for the younger generation.

All proceeds from the sales of the two books will go to supporting the work of the UK Youth Climate Coalition. Below is my poem to give you a taster.

Paternoster

Some survivors live on the edge in cars,
dented, rusted ridges, blown tyres,
a towel drying on the steering wheel.
Much of life now is waiting and standing in line,
but Paternoster tells us it was often so in the Old Life.

Strong men searched among the rubble,
found saucepans, leather boots, shoulder bags.
Once a black wooden box called Schimmel
which Paternoster says means white horse.
Papaver grows inside that piano now.

Horses stand by the narrow river, kick sand.
One brown mare is with foal.
Our Friesian cows give us white gold most days.
We are waiting for rain, for a sign.
Men play a game of stone, paper, scissors.

I stroke the flute I made from bone.
I must be careful not to dream.
We trained the rats to smell landmines.
Paternoster remembers grapefruit,
a bitter yellow ball, the colour of sun.

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

Lying in bed with my life – poem

Credit: Myriams Photos via PIxabay

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?

Turkish Delight – poem

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.

Capacity

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.

Passwords

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.

Paper Swans Press

Turkish Delight

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.

The Rub

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.

Winter Migrants

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:

12 February

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.

Heron, Annette Niemeyer, via Pixabay

This is also from Fiends Fell Journals:

A heron
criss-crosses the lashing syke,
fast, with sudden thaw,

its spiky tread sunk
in unscuffed snow

patient
and hungry as death

no inkling of urgency
in its measured step

close, almost overlapping,
at the water’s edge

Giraffe

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!

giraffe-cover.jpeg

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.

Giraffe

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:
a giraffe.