Tag Archives: Lawrence Sail

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

Year of the Golden Pig

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Shop Window in Siena, Italy

Wishing you a happy, healthy and prosperous Year of the Golden Pig, with a haiku sequence.

I wrote this after a visit to Little Gidding in August 2001, while on a writing week with the poet Lawrence Sail. Little Gidding is, of course, well-known as the fourth and final of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets. He wrote it after his own visit to Little Gidding.

My haiku sequence was published in Presence #18, in September 2002. The illustration below of the wild boar is by Ian Turner. It’s a photograph of Wild Boar Clearing Sculpture by Sally Matthews, 1987. It was made of mud, cement and brash and situated in Grizedale Forest, Cumbria, UK. Grise dal is Norwegian for Valley of the boars.

 

Little Gidding

following her
across the field
a white butterfly

almost hidden by grass
three wooden crosses

the church bell
covered
in pigeon droppings

pink geranium petals
a droning plane

on the terrace
calling us old, advanced –
the toothless guide

finding the pigsties –
number one boarded up

as we leave
sunlight
on the font

 

Golden Boar

Living below sea level

Living below sea level is the title of Kathleen Kummer’s debut poetry collection (Oversteps Books Ltd, 2012), as well as the title of a short sequence in the book. Kathleen and I met at the beginning of the century on a week’s writing workshop with the poet Lawrence Sail. She had been married to a Dutchman and lived and worked for 14 years in the Netherlands, teaching French and German.

We kept in touch as poets and then became friends. When Kathleen moved to Devon to be nearer her two daughters, I suggested she submit her work to Devon publishers. Kathleen only started writing poetry seriously in her late sixties and had immediate success in competitions and acceptances in quality UK magazines.

I’m featuring Kathleen as this month’s poet, with three poems from the collection. That day is the second poem in the sequence. The cover picture is by Shirley Smith, Society of Wood Engravers.

News item

Let it be hard to write this poem.
Let it be hard to listen to.
Its words should lie flat and grey on the page,
ugly, as befits the vocabulary of war.

He had no alternative, said the surgeon,
but to amputate the festering hand
of the baby, nine months old.
Did you, like me, hear the news over dinner

in a comfortable chair, in a comfortable room,
and wonder how you could go on eating,
go on living? But did, having no
alternative. Let that child, I asked –

without knowing whom I asked it of –
still have a mother and family to rock
and cradle it. For how many lullabies will it need
to sleep, how many bedtime stories?

 

ii That day

A kind of delousing: hours later,
I’m still finding rice and confetti in your hair,
but no trace of the cobalt-blue, vermillion
and burnt umber which dappled your face
and your dark hired suit, as the sun streamed on us
through the stained-glass windows. And that cascade of notes
‘Handel’, you whispered. I was proud of you
for knowing and didn’t let on I knew.

Image (6)

Boat on my windowsill

Forgive me for not using the pine cones you gave me
to light the fire. They look good on the hearth
in a wooden bowl. Among them, I found
a piece of bark, two-sided, V-shaped.
On my windowsill, upside down, it becomes
whatever boat I want it to be:
The Oseberg ship, chattels, carved wagon
on board, moored in its burial ground;
a Viking longboat, cutting through
the Baltic and Skagerrak as though they were butter;
a rowing boat, sturdy enough to take me
out to the ships which stand so still
on the firm line of the horizon; in the coracle,
I’d be snug and safe as a walnut in its shell
for the short crossing to the other side.