Category Archives: Travel

27 June, the day after her birthday

Today would have been my mother’s birthday. The photo was taken at my 60th birthday party which I celebrated in the garden of my friend’s caravan – the one I was to inherit just three years later.

The poem describes a time when my mother was still living independently. As I lived in England, the opportunities to help were limited. I happened to be over in the Netherlands.

27 June, the day after her birthday

I’d left a note on her bedside table
Don’t eat, don’t drink when you wake up.
We walk arm in arm, it’s warm already.
The doctor lives two houses down.
A blue Scandinavian cotton dress,
chunky necklace and earrings to match.
My mother does not look eighty-one.

That blood test done, we sit and face him.
Slightly raised, but no need to worry.
How are you keeping he asks my mother
who smiles, puts on her usual pose, I’m fine,
while I shake my head silently.

She’s leafing through her diary.
It says, Doctor, 8 o’clock.
We’ve been, now it’s time for coffee.
I want to go upstairs to pack.
Before you go, just one question
The matt-green door frame cuts the scene.
I wave, but she frowns at her diary.

Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter

This month’s guest poet is Sarah Mnatzaganian. We first met on a Poetry Business residential workshop a few years ago. Sarah is an Anglo Armenian poet based in Ely, UK. She grew up in rural Wiltshire and in her late teens spent each summer with her father’s family in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem.

Her debut pamphlet, Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter, is published by Against the Grain Press. Sarah’s work has appeared in The North, The Rialto, Poetry News, Poetry Wales, Poetry Salzburg Review, Magma, Pennine Platform, London Grip, Atrium, and many anthologies. She was a winner in the Poetry Society’s winter 2020 members’ competition on the theme of ‘Youth’ and won the inaugural Spelt nature poetry competition in 2021.

In the 2022 Saboteur Awards Sarah’s debut with its ‘wonderfully moving poems’ gained the award for Best Poetry Pamphlet.

Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter

Uncle Hagop planted lemon trees outside his house
where small passionate tortoises collide each spring
with the hollow pock of a distant tennis match.

At night his ripest lemons dropped into a crackle
of leaves. He grunted through the cardamom-coffee kitchen
into the courtyard to fill his hands with fruit.

Auntie soothed the juice with syrup and iced water.
Uncle drank, clacked his tongue and sang, My Heart
Will Go On, his head thrown back like a songbird.

The lemons lay thick last February. My sister filled a bag
for Uncle. She put a smooth yellow oval into his hand
and helped him lift it to his face to smell the zest.

Dad asked the nurse for sugar and a knife. He cut,
squeezed, stirred. See, Hagop, I’m making lemonade
from your trees. Watched his brother smile, sip, sleep.

Egg Time

To my mother, Madeleine

Give me an egg, round as childhood.
I’ll tap its innocent shell; push sideways
through its Humpty Dumpty head to find
a core of molten gold or the dry pollen
of a hardened heart. May this teaspoon
teach my tongue the taste of lunch hour
on a school day when I’m six, hugging
the bump under mum’s dungarees.
How did the morning go? Watching her
butter home-made bread. Reading aloud
while the baby kicks. Back down the lane
for the lonely end of playtime, her love
like albumen around my ears and in
my eyes. Voices water-slow. Whistle
blown from the other side of the world.

Juice

To my father, Apraham

Every time I set spade against turf,
you’re there, cutting grass-topped cliffs
into our borders, neat as the Normandy coast.

You snatch sweat from your face
and ask for Lemon, half a lemon,
squeezed, with water please, darling,
it quenches the thirst.

I silently sing each syllable to myself
in your voice, like no other voice,
licking the ‘l’ in half almost as long as in lemon,
expressing the juice of each word with your verve,
crushing the fruit’s face into ridged glass
and clouding cold water with the sharpness you crave.
Each sucked finger stings.

Now I want to watch your dark throat dance
while you drink.

At the end of my suffering / there was a door

Have you ever hated anyone enough
to ask an iris leaf to turn into a sword
sharp as the new moon, cold as a snowdrop,
irresistible as spring grass growing disorderly,
before it’s mown to match the wishes of one
demanding pair of eyes? Don’t lose focus.

Take one, narrow, curved iris leaf and hold it up.
If the heart you want to penetrate is hard enough
to steal a country and the lives from its people;
if that heart won’t learn the wisdom of the iris,
the snowdrop and the moon – that life is mutable –
then that heart will feel the leaf turn to steel
and, to grant your wish, will stop beating.

The iris will flower blue and yellow, as it should,
for the people returning to their country,
as they should, and there will be no blood
on your hands.

The title is a quotation from The Wild Iris by Louise Glück.

Whistling for Stalin – poem

This w/end my poet friend Kathleen Kummer will be celebrating her 94th birthday. We first met 20 years ago on a writing week held near Cambridge. Kathleen lived and worked in The Netherlands after marrying a Dutchman.

To mark her special day, I’m posting a poem from her debut collection Living below sea level, published by Oversteps Books. The poem first appeared in the original 14 magazine, edited by Mike Loveday.

Whistling for Stalin

Circus performer summoned to the dacha,
you arrived empty-handed, no sign of the treasure
at the tip of your tongue. The signal was given,
you pursed your lips, made them a channel,
floated a tune on a cushion of air,
like a bird in a cage, lusciously trilling.
They sat around in their white, belted tunics,
he and his henchmen, legs stretched out rigid,
but ready to jack-knife to a Georgian folk song.

Did your whistling enliven the poker-face,
make it genial? When he clicked his fingers,
your tune slid back into its voice-box.
How much did you know about Uncle Joe?
When you whistle, you’re bound to sound carefree.

Games – poem

On a rainy Bank Holiday Sunday it’s good to be reminded of old poems and successes. Poems that are accepted for publication disappear into the folder ‘Published’ and into books and magazines that sit together on a shelf. Out of sight, out of mind…


For many years through the 90’s I kept this green A4 certificate with the impressive signatures in a clip frame at the bottom of the staircase. It was a daily reminder that I could write through what was a dark period in my life.

Credit: Public Domain via Pixabay

Games

I watched the old men in the park today
playing bowls, much the same as yesterday.
Smiles all around and gentle teasing by the winners.

I wondered whether at their age
you would have needed stick or hearing aid.
If your hair would turn to yellow-white or grey.

You never tried your hands at bowls, did you?
An old man’s game you called it.
Surely, much more fun than kicking up the daisies?

Tree frog – poem

Credit: David Dixon

Manchester Museum, part of the Victoria University of Manchester is closed for a 15 million redevelopment. It will open February 2023. Part of the Museum is the Vivarium, home to some of the most critically endangered neotropical species. Some years ago, a good friend became a sponsor and, by way of thank-you, she was invited to bring someone along for a ‘behind the scenes’ visit to the Vivarium.

Credit: Katja via Pixabay


The Department is a key player in the education about, and conservation of such beautiful creatures as the Lemur Leaf Frog, Yellow-eyed Leaf Frog, and the Splendid Leaf Frog. It was thrilling to have the small creature sit quietly in the palm of my hand.

Tree frog

Here is the coolness of its orange feet
splayed onto my hand. The slow bulge
of its breathing throat. Two unblinking eyes
the colour of black Morello cherries.

Assisted Passage – poem

Eye, Amsterdam

Over half a century ago I shared a room in an Earls Court hostel with three other Dutch women. P&O Lines Ltd had just taken us on as WAPs (Woman Assistant Pursers) and we were to be employed in various offices while waiting for a ship to become available. I did secretarial work for a Scottish marine engineer, struggling to capture the technical terms – about bulkheads of a vessel that was being built at the famous Cammell Laird yard in Birkenhead.

We have kept in touch all those years, and celebrated in the Eye, Amsterdam with lunch in 2019. The film museum is an iconic building just the other side of the railway station. A short ferry journey is a good way to get there. Our plan for an annual reunion had not taken a pandemic into account and now one of us has health issues. Fingers crossed for September!

Our language skills had got us the job: Dutch, English, French and German. The photo is from S.S. ORCADES where I was Supernumerary, translating the news, and holding daily meetings. Here I am with the small group from Germany and Switzerland.

Assisted passage

You’re on F deck aft, an alleyway
away from your spouse,
also sharing with five strangers.

Time to fold over your memories,
freshly laundered. You don’t need
memories where you’re heading.

You saw the Fire Dance in Dakar.
Days of sea, sun, and sky.
Cape Town with Table Mountain.

Nine grey days of swell.
Freemantle, Adelaide,
Melbourne, Sydney.

Shake a leg, show a leg.
You’ll soon be down under.
Your new upside-down lives.

Tomatoes – poem

Credit: Couleur via Pixabay

Fruit & veg, toms, salad, mayo, salmon, ½ loaf … I’ve not yet managed to write a shopping list in Dutch even when the words are shorter (sla) or similar abbreviations (gr & fruit). It’s too much hard work late on a Thursday evening when I’m sitting with a glass of wine (wijn) and contemplating the moving project: flooring, top-down & bottom-up blinds, two chairs – ordered; research on fridge/freezers needed, also a new GP practice and pharmacist.

Here in the Netherlands the distance is important: the GP must be able to get to your home within 10 minutes. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to register. In Scheveningen (where I spent the winter) three practices did not take on new patients or had a four-month’ waiting list. A tomato a day may keep the doctor away …

Tomatoes

I am stepping away from my life,
my life as short as a haiku.
I have turned biographer,
am writing vignettes,
pale green, the length of celery.

My vignettes may concern
elderly mules with dental decay,
the struggle to remember
maternal aunts. I am numbering
my vignettes 1A, 1B, 1C, 1D –
narrow seats in the small airplane
Aer Lingus would use
on the late Saturday flight.

I could write a vignette
about the plastic dummies
they use in ambulance training.
Today I’m going to focus on pretend
tomatoes. My invisible friend
has started her new diet.

Laughter – poem

Credit: Mike Goad via Pixabay


On Tuesday evening my local Stanza poetry group held it first ‘live’ meeting since the start of the pandemic. It was a hybrid session which worked very well: some poets in the station bar of Stalybridge station, some of us at home in the UK and abroad. I was pleased that I could take part. I have also joined the Groningen Stanza here in The Netherlands which alternates live and Zoom meetings.

I saw fresh rhubarb at the supermarket yesterday which reminded me of another group I used to belong to in Manchester. My third poetry book is dedicated to Elaine, Hannah and Jackie; here is a poem written in a back garden in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester.

Laughter


The laughter swaying across the lettuce,
strong knotted rope in the old Bramley tree.
A grandmother sits quietly in a wooden chair;
she counts knitting patterns in her head.

The dappled shade is a cool alleyway
between her life and her daughter’s world.
Laughter slides away from them, low
down across the grass; it hides
between the rhubarb and redcurrant bushes,
waiting until night time for the moles
to come up and breathe into it.
Yesterday’s laughter a small pile of earth.

(published in Another life, Oversteps Books, 2016).

Changing Places – poems

Carl Tomlinson

It’s a huge pleasure introducing this month’s guest poet Carl Tomlinson. Carl and I met on a w/end poetry workshop some years ago. He was born in Lancashire – where his father’s family had farmed for 150 years. He now lives in Oxfordshire and is a coach and part-time finance director. His poems have been published in magazines, anthologies and online.


From his debut Changing Places I have chosen one poem that has a personal meaning to me: I was living in Southampton in 1976 and my late husband supported our local team. The other four poems are a moving tribute to Carl’s personal land and heritage. The cover picture was taken by him.

Picking sides

FA Cup Final. 1 May 1976. Southampton 1 – 0 Manchester United

Bobby Stokes made me a Red
one Spring day at Wembley.
He broke my heart in a moment
scuffing that shot past Stepney.

Although I wasn’t football mad
you still had to pick a side
and a playground full of Saints fans
said Man United were mine.

Four years after moving South
my accent was still abused.
Flattened vowels lurked in my mouth
and echoed round the school.

All that week I learned their names
eager to share the glory,
but sometimes, as the pundits say,
the Cup’s a fairy story.

Nil-nil at eighty-three minutes,
the telly rings with cheers.
Stokes shoots. He scores. Saints win it.
This was what I’d feared.

Bobby Stokes made me blush deep red
at hymn-time in assembly,
For all the saints, the teacher said.
Every face was turned on me.

Baling

I’d just got my A-levels out of the way
and was spending a week with my Aunt
in the house her grandfather’d built
in the garden behind the farm,
in a place that had seemed like forever, aged eight.
She said “Derek Fitton wants a hand with his hay.”
As kids we had loved helping Grandad,
chasing the baler round Tandle Hill’s haunch
riding the trailer back to the barn
echoing Tarzan calls under the bridge.
We lived with the itching and the seeds in our hair
because that was the way we were made.
It was ten years since the pain of the sale
and I wanted to feel like a farmer again.
Derek was glad of my help that day.
It was fun enough, in a blokeish way.
He gave me a fiver. Later, I drank it away.
The twine cut my fingers, my back complained
the welts sprang up on my arms again.
You wouldn’t know, I guess you’ve never baled
but it’s a different kind of ache when it’s not your hay.

Coming to grief

We were most of the way to Middleton
when I discovered that grief
doesn’t always dress in death.
One of my parents said
that Three Gates Farm –
where six generations had tilled
the last of Lancashire’s silty soil –
was being sold that week.

In the winter of sixty-three
my Grandad made the front page
phoning for a snowplough
because the lane was six foot deep.
Now we were in ‘th’Observer’ again
in the back of the classifieds
along with all the other lots
due ‘Under the Marshall hammer.’

Reading the paper emptied my eyes.
I realised whatever childish plans I’d made
for those fifty acres of gentle land
nudged between mill towns and millstone grit
were to be knocked down
(for twenty-six grand in the end)
in Ye Olde Boar’s Head
by an auctioneer I never met.

And by my father’s teenage need to leave that land
and make his life his own.
And by my uncle’s trying to stay
where I was sure we all belonged.
And by Grandad’s explaining
that even the hencotes would go.
So the scheme to keep one to use as a den,
that went south as well.

The parlour’s long since seen a cow,
there’s nothing like a farm there now
but the breath of beasts on a winter day
and the sweetness of cowshit and hay
surprise that grief back into me.

Inventory

Accounts and correspondence,
attached with failing staples,
complete the detail of a sale
of Live and Dead Farming Stock.

Dead just means inanimate,
not deceased.

Then, in the Particulars, I find the line
that honours my line, and all they left here
‘The land will be seen to be
in a high state of fertility.’

Harvest

“Oh bugger!”, the words thud.
I’ve just put the fork through a spud.

I’m showing our son and daughter
something I learnt from my father
which my Grandad had taught him before.

“You start a bit off, away from the green,
keep the fork away from the tubers,
you want to lift ‘em, not pierce ‘em,
and they’ll not store if you fork ‘em,
they’ll be no good if you fork ‘em’.”

Again the fork sinks, again the soil shifts
and this time a big‘un gets stuck on a tine.
“Oh bugger!” I thud before I’m stood up
and quick as an echo the lad pipes up
with “That’s what our Grandad said
when he put his fork through a spud.”

Three shorts – poems

Credit: Mammiya via PIxabay


1
I discovered Pome only a couple of months ago and am enjoying the poems very much: an interesting range and they are short, even very short. As I understand it, Matthew (Matt) Ogle originally posted the poems some years ago and the project has restarted via Tiny Letter.


Here is an Issa haiku, translated by Robert Hass. Since I am a paid-up member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to House Dust, it speaks to me …


Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house
casually

2
Monostich – a poem or epigram of one single line. The title is important and may be long, longer even than the poem. My recent example from a course I’m doing:


While it rained, we went out and put the poster on trees and lamp posts in the neighbourhood


It needs heart and courage (lebh in Hebrew) to wear a pochet with conviction.

3
Here is a short poem by Carl Tomlinson from his Changing Places. It has a haiku-like quality. Carl is the May guest poet. I look forward to sharing more of his poems with you then.

August


All along the bridleway
some kind of rain
is trying to shake off the wind.
The land feels thinned.