Tag Archives: Another life

St. Nicolaas, 5 December 1957

 

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Traditionally, both St. Nicolaas and Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) arrive in ports in the Netherlands on a steam ship towards the end of November. A white horse awaits the holy man who rides through the streets. In the week or so before St. Nicolaas’ evening, children would leave a carrot for the horse in their shoe (few of us wore clogs!) by the fireplace. The evidence that St. Nicolaas and Zwarte Piet had come down the chimney to visit was there the next morning: some sweets, chocolates or a small piece of marzipan in those shoes.

Black Peter is a helper, distributing sweets to the children who’ve been good. However, he also carries a large bag. Any child that has been misbehaving during late November-early December risks being noticed and being carried off to Spain in that bag.

The competition from Father Christmas has become stronger over the last decades. In recent years, there has also been a controversy in the Netherlands about Zwarte Piet and a small UN Human Rights deputation even came to investigate the accusations of racism and colonialism. Some councils and schools now have a white helper (not blacked up) and elsewhere St. Nicolaas visits on his own. The controversy is ongoing with demonstrations, petitions and activism.

On the 5th of December I will be in the UK, on a writing week. I still love marzipan, but I am cutting down on sweets and I have asked St. Nicolaas for a large batch of good, new poems! The poem is from my debut collection Another life (Oversteps Books Ltd).

 
St. Nicolaas, 5 December 1957

We’re crowded in our dining room.
Grandmother has closed her face.
There’s me in pyjamas, smiling.
I’m next to my father’s father.
His heart will give out soon.
I’ve just been given a book;
animal stories with illustrations.

My brother too smiles, because
our mother isn’t there.
She may be in the kitchen
or upstairs, ill, thinking
about walking out on us.
My father has taken this photo.
He too will have closed his face.

Rembrandt van Rijn

Johnnes W

Rembrandt is always big business in the Netherlands, and especially this year: it is the 350th anniversary of his death. Everywhere there are items of merchandise for sale with Rembrandt’s paintings and etchings. I treated myself to a folder and bought birthday presents for friends. One of those was a birthday calendar. The Dutch have a tradition of hanging these inside the toilet, on the door!

I was raised a Protestant and for much of my childhood we lived down the road from the church where my father was the organist. Rembrandt was beginning to make a name for himself as a portrait painter when he did the portrait of Johannes Wtenbogaert. He was the founder and leader of the Remonstrant Brotherhood and preached religious tolerance. The poem was published in my debut collection Another life.

 
Portrait of Johannes Wtenbogaert, Remonstrant Preacher, aged 76

He stands there and we wonder what he thinks.
His head, resting like a deserted swan
in a nest of fine lace pleats. Did he shrink
even once from God’s black skull cap plan?

In a corner, placed to catch the light,
the book we expect is his bible. No,
those pages curling away from top right
are not yet half full, and only we know

this preacher would live till nearly ninety.
Too tired to protest, he faces Rembrandt
who paints a life-like sketch where we can see
the frayed edge of the limp cloth in his hand.

 

Fishbones Dreaming

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Tomorrow it’s a year since the Irish poet Matthew Sweeney died. He was just 65 and died of motor neurone disease.

I took the photo in 2006 when I attended a week-long course with Matthew at the wonderful Almassera Vella in Spain. He was like a dog with a bone about adjectives, but otherwise warm and funny. I learned a great deal that week.

The poem Fishbones Dreaming features in Writing Poetry, a publication in the Teach Yourself series. It’s packed with ideas and good exercises. Matthew wrote it with the poet John Hartley Williams. They both lived in Berlin for a period and were friends. The friendship clearly shows in the bits of dialogue where they introduce the exercises.

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Fishbones Dreaming starts: Fishbones lay in the smelly bin. / He was a head, a backbone and a tail. / Soon the cats would be in for him.

The refrain is: He didn’t like to be this way. / He shuts his eyes and dreamed back.

The poem uses a gradual flashback technique, with the refrain dividing the stanzas: a stanza about being on plate, next to the green beans, a stanza about being in the freezer with lamb cutlets, about squirming in a net, and so on. Till he is darting through the sea, past crabs and jellyfish.

My poem below was written in response. It was published in my debut collection Another life.

 

Friday evening

He leaves work early,
walks past the pub,
unchaining habits,
dropping an old raincoat
into the Ribble.
Preston is still Preston,
magnificent failure.

If he can walk backwards
to the railway station,
he will catch himself
in the windows.
There is his 40th birthday,
never celebrated.
Here are the empty Sundays.
Swans, a football, his parents, baby sister.