Category Archives: Travel

Piecework

Credit: Andrew Martin on Pixabay

Today’s poem is another childhood memory, related by a fellow teacher to my friend, poet Kathleen Kummer. I find much to admire and like here: the first line which places it so precisely, the questions in the first stanza, that use of the word ‘goosestep’ in the second stanza, the sensory details – sounds, images, smells. The end rhyme is often subtle, and I particularly like the ending. How our view of a person can suddenly shift through something we learn about them.

Piecework

At the age of two or three in wartime London,
under the table she played alone to the hum
of the sewing machine. Did she ignore the coil,
pastel-coloured, which lengthened with the shadows to fall
over the edge, soon reaching the floor? Or was it
her job to alert her mother when the pink or blue fabric
touched down and risked getting dirty? That this was a lifeline,
she understood: with carrier bags, they arrived
and departed, the strangers who counted out with care
the sixpences, pennies, halfpennies, so much a pair.
Until the table was needed, she built, then demolished,
towers of silver and nasty-smelling copper.

Her mother worked late. She would hear from her bed
the goosestep of scissors through felt or satin, the thread
as it snapped at the end of the long line of shoes, soft shoes
for babies, for feet in mint condition, unused.
Had it seemed like magic the first time the puckered cord
which dangled over the table’s edge was transformed
and became tiny shoes, some with pearl buttons, some
with rosebuds, perfectly paired? That the strangers would come
and take them away, was what she remembered, and her mother
dividing the money, putting some of it in tins for another
rainier day – which is more or less what she told me,
the colleague I hadn’t warmed to previously.

Saturday mornings

Maison de Bonneterie, Amsterdam

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.

Saturday mornings


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.

Eating a Croissant in a Graveyard

St Mary’s, Totnes in Devon

For Easter Sunday I have chosen this poem by my friend Kathleen Kummer. The title is intriguing, the details are precise: we sense they are based on the poet’s own experience. Then there is the reference to that well-known Stanley Spencer painting of the Resurrection. You can see it here

I asked Kathleen about the graveyard. It’s part of St. Mary’s Church, a Grade I listed building in the centre of Totnes, Devon. Perhaps, I could have worked it out for myself: the poem mentions the iconic ‘steep hill’ in Totnes. Kathleen and I have walked up and down it many times, and hope we can do so again soon. Easter Greetings to you all!

Eating a Croissant in a Graveyard

I’m eating a croissant in a graveyard, grassed over.
People come here to rest, eat a sandwich.
(I wish I’d bought something less flighty, like
a scone or an Eccles cake.) The graves
are few and not recent. There’s a table-top tomb,
ideal for a picnic, but respect is shown:
low voices, no chirrup from a mobile phone;
people sit on the wall or the grass. I’m expecting
that Labrador to cock his leg, but he doesn’t.

Across the street, the bustle of the market
just reaches us, and I think of the dead
around me, of how this town was theirs,
that they walked up the steep hill, stopping
to speak to their friends about their simple,
complicated lives. When I close my eyes,
I see them clambering out of their graves,
as in that Resurrection painting
by Stanley Spencer, looking dazed,
but as if their discomfiture won’t last long,
with the green hills they knew around them,
the sky blue and summery. And surely
the warm-hearted townsfolk will welcome the dead.

It’s as if I’ve banished them by opening my eyes.
The place is empty, but for two men
in wheelchairs, parked with their backs to the view.

High Street, Totnes in Devon

Grapefruit – a poem

Credit via Pixabay: Jill Wellington

Such a strange fruit: many children don’t like it. I didn’t. Many years later I acquired a curved knife and I found it a tricky and time-consuming job to properly prepare the fruit. Here is Kathleen Kummer’s poem. It doesn’t specify who the people are, but I imagine it’s a mother, watched by children, that “he” is the husband. It’s an understated poem, but those details are precise and poignant.

Preparing grapefruit

Did she peel it – I don’t remember –
as though it were an orange? Or cut it
in half and make the usual precise
incisions, holding back the pith
like flaps of skin to extract the pulp?

Our eyes were on her hands as she worked
to unravel the strands from each segment of flesh
before it tumbled into the bowl.
Some fell apart, translucent droplets
shaped like tears. How many spoonfuls

would the sick body take of this butterfly food?
Would he sleep? I remember the light from the fire,
its warmth on our faces, in the drawing room
where now the double bed rode at anchor,
before the voyage out.

World Poetry Day – a poem

Credit Skitterphoto on Pixabay – Scheveningen Pier

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.

Credit Cocoparisienne on Pixabay

SS Arcadia – a poem

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!

Photo Credit: by Taken via PIxabay

SS Arcadia

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.

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?

Another spring

Credit: Olga1205, via Pixabay

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.

Another spring

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.

Credit: Couleur, via Pixabay

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.

Valentine’s Day

Credit: Peggychoucair, via Pixabay

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.

Credit: Leo65, via PIxabay

Hiding Place

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.