Tag Archives: poems

The Herring Eater

 

Herring Eater

The Herring Eater is the centrepiece of a series of 23 inter-related sculptures by the American sculptor Tom Otterness. The tubes and round shapes are typical of his work: cartoon-like and humorous. However, these sculptures called Fairytales by the Sea are not from the children’s playground, but they remind us how these stories have a serious, even bleak, message. Here are Gulliver and creatures held down, tied down, or captive in cages. There is the hangman’s noose.

 

Fairy tale

 

Scheveningen was one of the major ports for the Dutch herring fleet. To this day, most Dutch people love their raw herring with chopped onion served in a white bread roll. There is always a queue at the stall next door to my local supermarket. I am about to close the caravan for the winter. The poem was written earlier in the season.

 
When in Holland

When in Holland do as the Dutch do:
eat raw herring in a white roll with
optional small bits of onion.
Or, like the giant bronze statue
The Herring Eater, already weathered
out on the promenade, head backwards,
holding the fatty fish by its tail.

Next you need to hunt out smoked eel
in the supermarkets. They’re delicious
with a sauce of crème fraiche and jenever.
Flight KL1079 to Manchester arrived on time
and I let the fish go.

A cylinder full of the rushing sea …

 

Mesdag 4

Panorama Mesdag is a cylindrical painting, more than 14 metres high and 120 metres in circumference. It’s a view of the sea, the dunes and Scheveningen village as it was in 1881. It’s the oldest 19th century panorama in the world in its original site.

Ever since getting my caravan in Holland, I’ve been visiting several times a year. When I am standing on the circular viewing platform in the centre, I know I’m just 14 metres away from the canvas. I know it’s all an illusion, but I can hear sea gulls, I get the salty tang, I see clouds pass by and the sun break through.

Mesdag 3

Painting the enormous canvas was a team effort: Hendrik Willem Mesdag with his wife Sientje and various able painters from the Hague. Other panoramas portray violent scenes (the battle at Waterloo, the Crucifixion of Christ). Here it’s visible silence, still as the hourglass (Dante Gabriel Rossetti), the tranquility of everyday life. A few fishermen are messing about with their nets, the boats are beached, the cavalry are walking their horses on the sand, women are chatting in a doorway, a dog lies down quietly.

Before the camping closes and I lock up my caravan, I will go and stand on that viewing platform again and say my goodbyes to Panorama Mesdag. The poem is by my friend Keith Lander.

 

 

Mesdag trieneke

The Mesdag Panorama
after a panoramic painting by Mesdag in The Hague

I’m on a school trip to The Hague
transfixed by the Mesdag Panorama,
especially the seascape stretching away
from the viewpoint on the man-made sandhill,
with fishing boats moored on the vast beach,
a troop of cavalry men in training,
and, joy of joys, a donkey ride.

When no one is looking I climb
over the railings onto the sandhill
and, without looking back, skip away
laughing and tumbling down the slope
towards the beach, the north sea breeze
in my hair, to run behind the military
and have endless rides on the donkeys.

Forty years later, a bored business man
with time to spare before an appointment,
I visit the Panorama and remember
I’ve been there before as a schoolboy.
As I stare at the seascape again I see
the boats on the beach, the military men
and a lost boy waving from the donkey ride.

A glint of wolf

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I am very pleased to introduce our September poet: Stuart Quine. We met almost 30 years ago. I hope you love his haiku as much as I do.

In 1998, after a few years of writing haiku in a three-line form, Stuart Quine started to feel that his haiku were becoming a little formulaic and so began to explore the opportunities of a one-line format without breaks or punctuation.. In addition to their aesthetic appeal, one-line haiku echo Japanese haiku which usually, of course, are written in a single, albeit vertical, line. While many one-line haiku contain an implicit caesura given by their syntax, at their best they can be broken in a number of places thereby enabling a multitude of readings. Haiku is a collaborative poetry with writers and readers working together to bring it to completion. Therefore the success of a haiku is not a matter of how well it conveys the writer’s intention to the reader but rather whether readers can enter and occupy it on their own terms.

Many of Stuart’s haiku have been included in anthologies and journals and he is a former associated editor of the journal Presence. He has also had two collections of haiku published by Alba Publishing (available from albapublishing.com ). Sour Pickle (2018) contains 100 one-line haiku and Wild Rhubarb (2019) contains another 80.

A practitioner of Soto Zen Buddhism for over thirty years he regards his haiku writing as a dao and is a member of the Red Thread Haiku Sangha..

 

hidden and unseen the burgeoning life in buds and bellies

through driving rain the ambulances’ dopplering sirens

round midnight moonlight playing on the piano hammers

a short night shrunk to a dog bark and the clanking of the trams

through the haze the headlights of a hearse

lassitude and languor these days without rain

snagged in machair a gull feather unzipped by the wind

distant thunder the old mouser raises an ear

-not yet, not yet” says the tumbling beck

pagan moon in the shadow of her cleavage a tiny silver cross

winter solstice darkness gathers in the unrung bells

birthcry deep in the night a freight train’s lonesome whistle

like the honed edge of a blade keen is the cold

winter moon a glint of wolf in the mongrel’s eyes

under mistletoe on her lips a tang of tamarind

new year’s day only the rain comes to my gate

 

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.

 

The secret of flying

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I am delighted to introduce this month’s poet.  David Underdown and I met a few years ago on a residential writing workshop.

David Underdown (www.davidunderdown.co.uk) has recently come to live in Hebden Bridge. Though a Mancunian by birth most of his life has been spent in the West of Scotland, latterly on the Isle of Arran where he is an organiser of the McLellan Poetry Competition. His two collections, both from Cinnamon, are Time Lines (2011) and, in 2019, A Sense of North. David Constantine describes his poems as ‘watchful’: ‘he gives us a view from (in his own words) ‘a window / we did not know was there’, he makes ‘a halo round the ordinary’’.

 

The secret of flying


The breakthrough is to stop thinking
about aerodynamics. Concentrate
on the immeasurable pleasures
of floating above roofs
and the open mouths of chimney pots

stems of road budding
houses, the rumple of fields
and, beyond, the dark spot of a copse
or how the river feels
up into its tree-lined tributaries.

And later, after that first step
into space
the art of soaring on thermals
of passing over boundaries
a sense of north.

 

Against the tide

Down here the river has widened,
already flooding salt for half the day,
mud-bound for the rest.
The tides wipe clean
the mazy prints of wading birds.
Below the bridge there’s broken masonry,
the pier where the cobbles stop,
and then it’s willow herb and buddleia
all the way to the sea’s flat-line.

Easy to see why you linger
to watch the gulls circle,
catching the hum from the bypass.
If you could, you would turn
and find your way upstream again
past viaducts and fat meadows,
solid farmsteads set round by trees,
and feel, as the land draws in,
the younger waters quicken.

There, where the uplands open out
you would track each beck
up to its marshy watershed
to understand how it started,
the long journey to the sea
and what alternatives there nearly were.
But the tide is turning,
colder wind roughening the water,
staining it dark, draining it out.

 

Shrine

The narrow path is steep
with scents of pine and juniper that lead you on
to where a lintel at the cavern’s mouth
will make you stoop so low
as to leave the outer world behind.
Enter, and all falls away,
though you, a frail and used-up thing,
and hunched, are still in hope,
for once inside the roof is lofty, almost limitless.
From waves of ancient seas, stone lolls in tongues.
And there, within, no god, but a reminder
of what a god might be: a simple table,
faded cloth, gifts that some might misjudge poor,
small money, keepsakes, herbs as grateful prayers.

To be there for an hour, and still,
is more than some can stand, but do
and you’ll leave naked in yourself
as if unclothed of need, and shuffle out
to blink in new-found light
with sun upon your head.

 

Notes for a solitary walk

For M.W. 1951 – 2014

This morning you are walking for her,
a small thing you can do, on a day
of deep green shadows and granite glitter,
that, if she were here, she would love.

Today, as she is not here,
you will not go the usual way
across the burns through stands of birch
where the dog would flex at the scent of deer,

but further, up the glen where even in her lifetime
the last men were still mining the hill.
You will shin up that shoulder of Cioch na’ Oighe
to see the whole Clyde laid out,

just how, if she had ever had the chance,
she would have chosen to arrange it –
the named near hills and the unnamed hills of the horizons
and the spaces of water between.

You will walk south along your home’s spine
for her to count its line of rocky vertebrae
and marvel at the openness
of all these lands of the West.

You will talk to her of travelled roads
and also of oceans you might have crossed
if there had been time, until,
reaching the lip of Coire Lan,

you will leave the broad path and drop down
below Am Binnein to the White Water
that leads (with no time now to stop)
past home to the indifferent sea.

Father’s Day

Vader

 

My father died a few weeks after his 75th birthday in October, 1990.  He had a talent for music: singing in and conducting choirs, and playing the church organ for many years. Here is a picture of him as a young man: a somewhat anxious look, wanting to do a good job of transporting my mother and me safely.

The poem Prelude and Fugue was published in the anthology, Poems from the Readaround, Tarantula Press, 1995.
Prelude and Fugue

I enter and dare a glance at your effects –
straight rows of books in alphabetical order
the white board emptied
pens and pencils (four of each)
manuscript paper and a rubber
on the Yamaha
You were filling in the bass line

Music for a while shall all your cares beguile

You kept some organ pipes in the loft.
You were going to build one.
What happened to those when you moved
into the flat?

Sometimes I turned the pages for you
feet darting across the pedals
When I was twelve I left the choir
and gave up singing

Your black shoes scuffed at the side

The Catholics paid best you said
a bonus for weddings and funerals

Glad not to be the corpse

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A knock-out title for a poetry book, I should say. Lydia Harris and I met on the Poetry Business Writing School in 2012, the year Smiths Knoll published her pamphlet.
The others are glad not to be the corpse is the first line of a poem with the title
We make a video  on All Saints, North Street for English Heritage.

Many of Lydia’s poems have this filmic quality. They’re typically condensed narratives, with arresting first lines, and slivers of telling monologue or dialogue. They are also a masterclass in choosing titles. Could you resist I couldn’t ask if he was glad he’d married me; Widow to step-son; Lice-infested sea trout; Oxygen mask? The next poem is a delicious example:

The rolls arrive at the Inchnadamph Hotel

She doesn’t say ‘I never should have married you’,
instead tries I’ve cleaned our tennis shoes.
He spots the van through his binoculars,
the rattle on the cattle grid alerts the lad who helps.

The rolls brim with themselves,
two each, in baskets on the tables,
they smell of steam and Morag’s overall,
the early morning shuffle in the bakery.

A twist of butter opens out, floats on cloud.
Perhaps I’ll find a horseshoe charm, a wind-up bird.
She reaches for the marmalade.

I’d like a Harvey’s Bristol Cream, he says.
Tonight, she laughs, at five.

The day’s a swing-boat,
red plush seats, a fringe of gold.
He’s helped her in,
pulled the rope to make it rise.

 
Shortly after we met, Lydia moved to Scotland. She has made her home on one of the northern Orkney islands, a small but vibrant community. Recently, her pamphlet of Westray poems An unbolted door was published. I’m very pleased I can share a few poems from the book here. Lydia’s website is homeabout.co.uk

 

Lydia

 

How to Approach the Pier

With a bowline tied to your monkey-fist,
with your heaving-rope coiled sun-wise,
bow to Faray, engine in reverse.

With your stern door lined up to the ramp,
to starboard, the quarry, slumped
where the stones for the pier were hacked free.

With outlines of Wideford and Keelylang
papered on the skyline. The tide running high
and the wind southerly.

With trails of foam in your wake,
Geldibust to port. With the stanchions easy,
hung with tyres.

With a route pressed to your palm,
in your pouch, the honed spoon
and that knapped flint from Howar.

 

Jeemo Services My Van in January

He keeps spare bulbs in a fridge,
cattle in the byre next door,

spreads shafts and flanges
round the anvil
like the gaming pieces
and spindle whorls from Scar,

the woman who bore them
so long dead
she’s in the sky
over Ouseness at night,
unravelling her skins.

 
From the Box Bed

Our sheets are sails on the sweet hay sack
and we sail to the moon with an ebb and a flow.

Your hands smooth my throat in the starlit room,
there’s nothing to say but the brush of flesh.

My lips drink your breath and the tide is in,
the clock on the wall makes the only sound

but for the air as it leaves your lungs,
sweeter than scallops from the pan,

for where has it been,
inside your skin and I take you in.