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.
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.
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?
It is an enormous pleasure to introduce this month’s guest poet Hilary Robinson. We met many years ago on writing workshops in Manchester.
Hilary Robinson has lived in Saddleworth for over 40 years. Publications include The Interpreter’s House, Obsessed with Pipework, Strix, The Morning Star, Riggwelter, Atrium and Poetry Birmingham and several anthologies including Please Hear What I’m Not Saying (Fly on the Wall Poetry 2018), A New Manchester Alphabet (Manchester Writing School 2015), Noble Dissent (Beautiful Dragons Press 2017), Bloody Amazing! (Yaffle/Beautiful Dragons Press 2020) and The Cotton Grass Appreciation Society. In 2018 twelve of her poems were published in the first joint DragonSpawn book, Some Mothers Do . . . alongside Dr Rachel Davies and the late Tonia Bevins. Her poem, ‘Second Childhood’ was shortlisted in the 2016 Yorkmix Poetry Competition.
Hilary has collaborated with composition students from the Royal Northern College of Music as part of the Rosamond Prize and was involved in the 2016 Leeds Lieder Festival. She is currently collaborating with composer, Joseph Shaw, on an opera to be performed at the Royal Northern College of Music.
In June 2021, Hilary’s debut pamphlet, Revelation, was published by 4Word Press. Hilary has an MA in Creative Writing from Manchester Metropolitan University. The central section of Revelation is a series of poems which explore the aftermath of betrayal in a marriage. From this section I have selected four poems. Nikolai Duffy says that these poems ‘sing with a lyrical precision that is as authentic as it is unflinching.’
And I beheld the last seven years open up before me and they gave up their secrets.
And I beheld my beloved’s face concealed by a fine beard and his feet that were turned to sand.
And I beheld seven office chairs, unoccupied except for two, on which sat my beloved and his shame.
And surrounding my beloved and his shame were all the places they had been while I had slept on in our bed.
And all the places they had been were also all the places he had taken me. And I wept that this was true.
And I beheld his eyes turn to streams as his remorse descended from him. And lo — his arms reached out for mine.
And I tightened my golden belt around my waist, knelt down by his side and said that I forgave him.
Every time he went to the window he saw them. Gangs hired to find us, gangs armed with torches burning even though it was early September and still light. Gangs getting closer.
He’d let everyone down, his partners, clients, staff, his family. Most of all he’d let me down in ways I’d never imagined. Now they were at the end of our drive. Now he’d found a way to stop the fire he’d caused.
It took four of us to prize his fingers from the Swiss Army Knife’s twin blades. I never knew what happened to that knife. I wiped blood from his hand, found the doctor’s home number.
The rest is a history of ashes, scorched earth of a marriage that somehow bore new life after hospital, after ECT, after many hours of therapy. This house still stands.
In the kingdom of glass everything is transparent, and there is no place to hide a dark heart. Vera Nazarian, The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration
To become glass, learn to make yourself fluid as egg-timer sand.
Hone yourself to brittleness with just a little give to accommodate rough winds.
Research your ancestry — try to enter the mindset of silica.
Practise the occasional sharp look, the cutting remark — hide in the shadows.
To become glass, give in — become transparent; melt into the view from this bedroom.
Trying to Take my Husband to the Antica Carbonera
There is no chance I’ll find the Calle Bembo with its kinks, its turns, its lamps hanging above shops of antique Murano beads, its shiny cobbles and those buskers trotting out Vivaldi through the season. No chance I’ll find what translates
where Cath and I ate wild mushrooms cooked four ways and spent so much they brought us Limoncello on the house.
Yet here we are. This is the first Venetian street our feet touch on the way to the Al Codega. The food is perfectly seasoned. Tonight we’re on the roof. I have another angle on this street.
It is a huge pleasure to introduce this month’s guest poet: Hamish Wilson whom I met four years ago when I attended a workshop at Garsdale.
Having taught in schools for 31 years, Hamish moved to Cumbria in 2016 to set up and run The Garsdale Retreat, http://www.thegarsdaleretreat.co.uk, a residential creative writing centre. This has allowed him the time and space to develop his own writing career.
He has had poetry published in two anthologies: This Place I Know – A New Anthology ofCumbrian Poetry (Ed. Darbishire, Moore, Nuttall/Handstand Press, 2018) and Play (Ed. Taylor, Williams/PaperDart Press, 2018) and was shortlisted for the following competitions: WoLF poetry competition in 2017 and 2018 and Write Out Loud’s Beyond the Storm (Poems From the Covid Era) in 2020. He has also had poems in Culture Matters and The Morning Star.
In 2019 he performed Parallel Lives, (a sonnet sequence with live music, film and photography, exploring the creative lives of John Lennon and Dylan Thomas) at The Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal.
Written in 2020, Lockdown Journal is a sonnet sequence which explores his experience of the pandemic between 28 March and 21 April, reflecting on daily life in Garsdale as well as the wider world.
I asked Hamish to select three sonnets from Lockdown Journal as a way of marking the second anniversary of the pandemic.
Saturday, 28 March, 2020
The road is quiet. The weekend bikers who came back with the curlews, have not returned. This first weekend of Covid lockdown’s like a languid bank holiday without the burn
of off-comers. Spring greens on regardless, daffs trumpet; lambs skip, suckle; horned Highland cattle shadow on the fell; lapwings test their stuntman wings, plummet to earth (as planned).
At home, virtual visitors ease the time with supportive texts, puzzles, You Tube vids; parodies of songs, coronavirus rhymes, zoom-conferencing and Happy Hour bids.
The News At Six brings contact nationwide, a thousand UK people now have died.
Friday, 10 April, 2020
Days which bleed to other days still make their mark, Good Friday’s on regardless and they fear we’ll enjoy it with dangerous outdoor larks. We’re shown deserted beaches, seaside piers
which forecast what they hope the weekend brings; ‘Your front door’s safer than a protective mask…..’ cut to bench taped like a crime scene, chained up swings: stay-at-home’s fine-enforced now not an ask.
Up here, where social distancing’s the norm, our walk on Blea Moor fell is not policed – the only drone, a distant train, informs we’re not alone and breaks the blanket peace.
A sky lark ascends, arpeggios on high, coal-black speck of dust in the empty sky.
Tuesday, 21 April, 2020
Larks, invisibly high, white noise the sky, we climb the tussocked sea towards the cairn, the railway shrinks to Hornby, lapwings cry like broken squeaky toys. Spring warmth returns.
In shirt-sleeves, we zig-zag slow to summit, pause to watch a matchbox car surprise the Coal Road, before we reach the sunlit limestone and meet a ram skull’s hollow eyes.
The news is billed as good as we’re prepared with twenty thousand beds to match the needs of future patients in intensive care. The experts tell us now we can succeed
to break the rise in deaths, to turn the tide. Up here, we see our house, our tiny, tiny lives.
Tomorrow is the first Monday of the month when the 4,000+ alarms through the Netherlands are tested. This alarm-and-warning system was set up after the Second World War. The monthly test stopped after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and for a period the sirens were only tested once a year. The government wanted to introduce a warning system by mobile telephone, but this did not prove effective. So, from September 2003 the monthly sounds can be heard for exactly 1 minute and 26 seconds.
The alarms aren’t rung if the first Monday falls on a religious or national public holiday, or on the national Remembrance Day of 4 May. This month, the Dutch people will be reminded beforehand that the sound is just a test.
On Monday I am sending the final manuscript of my collection Remembering / Disease to Aaron Kent at Broken Sleep Books. I have chosen a poem from the new book that includes a siren and want to thank Isabelle Kenyon of Fly on the Wall Press for first selecting it.
I’m scared of the voice that tells me to let go of the wheel it’s an old man’s harsh gritty cold pushing me that time Monday sunny A487 heading for Porthmadog
black figures carry bags home whatever home might mean
silence only sirens calling the dog-end of the year
falling is kind of doing something you can fall sideways head-first backwards I have worked all these years to stay upright running like a rabbit on a metal track
The 10th edition of Poëzieweek (Poetry Week) has just ended. Over 120 activities happened in The Netherlands and Vlaanderen (the Northern, Dutch-speaking part of Belgium). Some of these will continue during the year.
The theme this time was Nature. During any year there are a several ‘book’ weeks in The Netherlands and readers can claim a free book when they purchase up to a given amount. As poetry books are expensive here, the sum of Euro 12,50 was easily reached!
The Dutch-Palestinian author and actor Ramsey Nasr was commissioned to write the poetry gift this year. He is well-known, as he was the Dichter des Vaderlands (the unofficial title for poet laureate) during 2009 – 2012.
The pamphlet with 10 poems is well produced on quality paper. It’s based on the hundreds of letters Van Gogh wrote from his youth until his death in 1890. Under the motto Blossoming and Abundance, the poet has selected and re-arranged Van Gogh’s words. The two blue horizontal lines on the cover indicate caesuras. These return in the text as thin blue vertical lines, showing where Nasr has deleted a word or several phrases from the original text.
I love how Ramsey Nasr has distilled the essence of Van Gogh. It is a very interesting way of using found material. Here are my translations of a few parts of some of his poems.
(3) let us | find a task that forces us to quietly | sit busy with work that is simpler than | tasks that | are useful
i am no better than another | am not like a street pump | from stone | or iron |
i send you | the night | the moon | cypresses |
it cannot | remain like it is now | burn rather than choke | a door must be open or closed something in-between i do not understand
the mediterranean has a colour like | mackerel | you don’t know | if it is green or purple you don’t know | if it is blue for a second later the constantly changing reflection has taken on a pink or grey tinge |
I am delighted to introduce this month’s guest poet Steven Waling. I first met Steven over 30 years ago after I’d moved to Manchester and joined the local poet’s group. Manchester Poets is the successor to South Manchester Poetry Group, started in 1978 by Dave Tarrant and still going strong!
His brief biography says ‘Steven Waling lives in Manchester and is apparently a stalwart of the Manchester poetry scene. His latest books are Disparate Measures 1: Spuds in History, and Lockdown Latitudes.’
From his most recent book Lockdown Latitudes I have chosen three different poems. Steven ‘writes overlooked life into vibrant presence’ says Scott Thurston. It is this quality I particularly admire and love in Steven’s writing.
Jesus Strolls Down Market Street
All he wants is new underwear and a coffee in Starbucks, time to himself to phone his dad and see he’s looking after himself during the lockdown. He sees they’re back again on the corner of Piccadilly Gardens and Market Street, shouting his name like a weapon at random strangers. He sneaks past, hand in front of his face. He’d like to shout in their faces, ask them what the hell they thought they were doing. Not that they’d recognise who he was, and anyway, these days he just gets embarrassed, avoiding the hassle of conflict that won’t get anywhere. Everyone ignores these men in old-fashioned suits sweating in the heat, lifting holy books like clubs to beat the sinful air away. So he goes to buy his pants, dashes into Primark before they clock him. People don’t, he thinks, realise how shy he is. He’d much prefer they found him by accident, when they needed him. Like later in the coffee shop: some old lady confused because they don’t take cash for drinks any more. Someone pays with his own card and when she looks up, they’re gone
Back to his bench to sleep with the pigeons
Night stands at the tram stop over head the moon a
soluble aspirin slowly dissolves into the big black night goes
nowhere the spider in my right eye is flashing again I walk
past the street they’re planting non-aggressive trees spindly roots
spring flowers berries in autumn that won’t disrupt the neighbourhood
kids kick the moon down the road i wait for light rapid transit late
due to police incident keep my distance from the moon its snow
face bending over the quick brown cat crossing the tracks quick quick
Today is dovetailed between yesterday’s National Tulip Day and Blue Monday. NationaleTulpen Dag is an initiative started by Dutch tulip growers 10 years ago. On the third Saturday of January, about 200, 000 tulips are placed on the Dam Square in Amsterdam. These free flowers start the tulip season. This year people will be handed two bunches and are asked to give one to someone else – share the happiness.
Research seems to have pinpointed the third Monday in January as the worst day of the year. There was some easing of the lockdown here in The Netherlands. However, the hospitality and cultural sector are still closed. I’m leaning more towards being blue … Here is my poem about tulips.
Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds
They’ve not yet reached one of the tulips, the central one of this display. You can imagine a window, if you like. Five parrot tulips lean towards the light. Degrees of purpling. The ants appear half-way up the bulb-shaped vase. I’ve left the thin pencil lines indicating a flat surface. Look closely and you’ll see this vase should tumble, fall or slip. Three fingers’ width, water level in the glass. Greying water extracted. The tulips were a present. You can count the ants, if you like.
Note: This is the title of a watercolour painting, donated by the (anonymous) artist to Manchester Art Gallery. The poem was published in my second collection Nothing serious, nothing dangerous (Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2019).
Twice a year, early July, on or close to my birthday, and on New Year’s Eve, I sit down and write a gratitude list. Being alive and kicking: always the first item. It’s a practice I got from the classic Creative Visualization by Shakti Gawain. I have the 1982 Bantam edition, with that special yellowing-pages smell.
The Dutch couple below made the paper. Most days they put a gratitude note in a glass jar. On NYE with a glass of wine and music in the background, they take items out and read them to each other. Of course, it’s often the small things: the colleague who did your work when you were ill, a kind note from someone when you needed it, a hug, waking up with a body that’s just doing its job, a walk in the forest. Ah yes, that was a special moment they say to each other.
Two more things I am grateful for are the acceptance by Broken Sleep Books of the manuscript Remembering / Disease. Here are the names of other poets and writers with a book out with BSB this year.
Matthew Stewart publishes an annual list of Best UK Poetry Blogs on his site Rogue Strands. I was chuffed that this blog is one of five ‘top notch newcomers’. You can read the full list here. Matthew lives between Extremadura, Spain and West Sussex. His collection, The Knives of Villalejo, is published with Eyewear and a recent Poetry News Book of the Year selection.
Here are two short prompts. In the current issue (27) of the online poetry magazine Allegro, editor Sally Long, the opening stanza of the poem by John Grey caught my eye. For Gratitude I’ve chosen the opening stanza of Joy Harjo’s poem Perhaps the World Ends Here.
The woman with the forgiveness is out there in the world somewhere.
The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.
This week I’ve been going through my files and folders with poems, deleting old ones that aren’t going anywhere, finding forgotten ones, losing others because I changed the title but not the filename – you get my drift.
Here’s a sort-of-abecedarian list poem. What would be in your alphabet?
On the bright side, there’s always:
avocados and the alphabet, a bridge over troubled water and chocolate, Fairtrade or not, days which travel at their own pace into evening and other favourite places like Venice, beaches, the glorious counter tenor voice of Andreas Scholl, hairdressers who waited for us, ink to waste, as the poet has it, jazz, all that jazz, kilograms to worry about, lessons that return until learned, maria, martini, marina, nautical miles and naughty but nice. Oh, let’s stop, there is a picnic bench with a view, think of questions, the certainty of death, taxes, rescuers in anoraks, accompanied by sniffer dogs, so we’re fit again to tango, show us a leg or two, uniformed bouncers taking them off, victory which will be ours and whiskey or gin, double measures, that xtra mile we will go. Y, the fork in the road and Frost. ZZZ, a comfy bed for a rest.