Tag Archives: poems

Mid-December

garden_fox_in_snow

 

At our Manchester Poets Christmas meeting on Friday someone read Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. This poem, along with The Road not Taken, is one of Robert Frost’s most famous poems. Many people who are not poets have come across them.

Here is Questioning Faces, a short winter poem by Frost. It has marvellous precision and economy. It inspired my poem Mid-December. It is based on a real observation: seeing the fox in my rear garden under the light cast by the helicopter. Getting the end-rhyme across the two stanzas was an interesting task.

 
Questioning Faces

The winter owl just banked in time to pass
And save herself from breaking window glass.
And her wings straining suddenly aspread
Caught color from the last of evening red
In a display of underdown and quill
To glassed-in children at the windowsill.

 
Mid-December

Some people might pray for the day
to end, so they can cover glass
panels with ceiling-to-floor lined drapes,
or plain blinds that click into place.
Sitting by the radiator
I count the nights before Solstice,

think of the fox who’s come to stay.
She, padding across stiff white grass,
makes no such distinctions, escapes
gardens, water meadows; her face
now up to the police helicopter
beaming light on the world that is.

St. Nicolaas, 5 December 1957

 

_Groeten_van_St._Nicolaas!__St._Nicholas_and_a_helper,_St._Nick_is_in_a_white_robe,_orange_cap,..._(NBY_1458)

 

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.

Why are we in Vietnam?

9781912876228
Tomorrow is the publication date of my second collection Nothing serious, nothing dangerous. The book is already on Amazon and has been available for pre-publication orders from Indigo Dreams Publishing.

The publishers have selected six accessible poems for the author page, and the author photo is by my nephew Ted Köhler who lives in the Netherlands and is beginning to build up a photography portfolio. The end of November is too close to the festive season for an official launch. That will be here in Manchester, at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation on Tuesday 3 March.

The title was inspired by a Raymond Carver poem called My Boat. Raymond Carver is one of my all-time favourite poets. Someone I return to when I feel stale and in a negative frame of mind.

The poem Why are we in Vietnam? was written on a workshop at the wonderful Almassera Vella, Spain. We were to find any book in the library, open it at random and use a few lines as a starting point for a poem. Then we were to imagine finding a postcard inside the book. Where was the postcard from? What was written on the back? Who had sent it? I picked the paperback because of its intriguing title. It’s by Norman Mailer. I was surprised to find the lines and I imagined there would be an art card inside, a card I’d bought and forgotten about. It’s a reminder how working with “found” materials can easily trigger our creativity. The poem was commended in the 2016 Havant Open Poetry Competition.

 

Why are we in Vietnam?

It has held up the broken leg
of a single bed in the attic.
Everything is dusty now.
Who brought this Panther
paperback into my life?
Then the trail of the blood
took a bend, beat through dwarf alder.
The postcard isn’t of Cezanne’s gardener
seated upright in his chair,
or Venetian gondoliers.
Didn’t want to die in those woods,
wounded caribou…
Green lines, black dots,
small yellow triangles,
Miro’s insects and birds.
Neat black lines for the address,
the black box for a stamp.
To the left white space,
the white space of that Alaska.

 

Never Totally Lucid

Hilary

 

This is my 100th blog piece, and I am delighted I can celebrate this century by introducing you to the work of Hiliary Elfick. We first met many years ago at the wonderful Almassera Vella in Relleu, Spain and have exchanged poems there several times since.

Hilary is an experienced broadcaster and the author of a novel and over a dozen poetry collections and pamphlets. She has performed her work in cathedrals, theatres, bookshops, libraries, schools and literary festivals in many countries, including Africa. Two of her poetry books have been translated into Romanian.

Hilary lives in East Anglia and also in New Zealand (where she is a bush bird guide), and is a frequent visitor to Australia where she recently launched two poetry sequences in collaboration with an international prize-winning Australian photographer, with a third appearing in early 2020. She has a lifelong love of being out in boats on the water.

Three poems are from Hilary’s THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS, published by Grey Hen Press (2019), while The Wedding Ring is from her earlier book THE OUTSHIFT PLACES, also with Grey Hen Press.

 

The Wedding Ring

But the morning before the wedding his father died. Two events
he’d long anticipated and with equal fervour. He would have
ignored the former, but Gilly persuaded him that even a minor
gesture to the event at their own reception might be at least seemly
and, more, something that much later he might be glad that he had
done. ‘I won’t pretend’ he said. ‘I won’t do platitudes.’

His mother came as planned. Under her wide hat her face
impossible to read, as it had been for many years. His sister
hugged him, saying nothing. Only when Gilly’s ring slid on his
finger did something jolt inside him. A ring finger. A ring. His
father ‘d always worn his. Even after everything.

 

Scan0020

 

When you know exactly where you were at the time
i.m. Professor Donald Nicholl

Six foot six he was but never towered.

Your first week. A small lecture theatre,
a wisp of Sobranie from the row in front.

He comes in, begins to speak

then nothing but his voice
and what he says and how he says it.
Sixty years ago. You’re at his feet:

whatever subject this man teaches
whatever he’ll demand
you’ll do it. You’ll be there.

Your first tutorial he asks how Christ came into Britain.
Someone tells him what happened, names, dates, places.
He turns to you and waits. You wait too. Then you tell him:

One man told another.
They put down their nets and followed.

Days later his wife has their fifth, last baby;
he names her after you.

Forty years on when he’s dying you remind him
Socrates said there’s no greater love
than between a teacher and his natural pupil.

Wonderful he whispers.

 
Four Quarters
A Grandmaster sees four moves ahead.

As child, I anticipate the trigger
for a new rage in my mother.

As mother I wake startled
by a cry or too-deep silence,
deep water, roaring roads.

As wife I place your glasses, shoes,
just where your eye might fall,
forgiving the questions I answered
today, yesterday,

tomorrow.

 
Never Totally Lucid

‘The reality of nature …obeys laws…never totally lucid to
our understanding.’ Anni Albers

When is he coming?
Five o’clock.
Is that what you wanted?
No. You gave me that yesterday.
I can’t have.
You did. Look. Here in my bag.

Did he come yesterday?
No. He’s coming today.
I’m not ready.
You have till five. You have time.
Why is he coming? Is it cold in here?
Your skin smells different.

I can’t find it.
You put it in your pocket
I only have this in my pocket.
That’s the one we’re talking about.
Who wrote this?
I did. You asked me to.
Why do I need it now?
You don’t. It’s for tomorrow.
Did I agree to this?
You did.

You make me so angry, you don’t listen to me, you just go ahead.

It was your idea.

What was my idea? When was it my idea?
Yesterday. That’s why he’s coming today.
Who?
James.
I don’t know a James.
Look. Here’s his name. Your handwriting.
Did he come?
No. He’s coming today at five.

Cheerio and Goodbye: going bananas

1024px-Wijk_aan_zee_044

 

To date, over 13,000 people have booked to attend a party on the beach at Wijk aan Zee in the Netherlands on the 31st of October. It all started as a joke on Facebook in August but quickly grew. People paid Euro 19.73 (the year the UK joined the EU) and they were going to wave goodbye to us here in the UK, listening to live music and being served Belgian beer, French wine and Dutch chips and cheese.

I know Wijk an Zee very well: it’s just two miles from the small town where I was born. I spent a lot of time there as a child and adolescent. From the beach you can see the chimneys of the steelworks by the port of Ijmuiden.

Brexit has been delayed and so has the party! The organiser, Ron Toekook, admits that it has not been possible to get the finance sorted for a party this size in such a short time. Money will be refunded, and they will try again early next year.

According to a recent survey, one third of the UK population reports mental health issues as a result of Brexit.  That’s close to 28 million people and I am only one of them.

This seems a good time to share with you my Brexit poem Going bananas. One of the lies told by politicians here in the UK was that the EU wouldn’t allow bananas to be bent! The poem is in the form of an abecedarian. This is an ancient form with each line starting with a letter of the alphabet. Apparently, the first examples were in Semitic and religious Hebrew poems.

 
Going bananas

Aliens’ Office: the first destination on my 1969 arrival, a somewhat
bewildering encounter with Blighty’s bureaucracy in London.
Colombey-les-Deux-Églises it ain’t and I’m in Manchester now, five
decades down the time-line, feeling like a sick parrot, a dead one
even. I was an economic migrant, attracted by English eccentricity.
Four candles? Fork handles? Wit and humour have been turned into the
Groundhog Day of Brexit negotiations. Jack took a fortnight’s leave –
halcyon days in September – and through marriage I acquired an
Irish surname while my husband held two passports, even then.
Je ne regrette rien screech those who voted non in the referendum.
Kafka would have been enchanted by a hard border in the Irish sea.
Languages were my passport, small flags sewn on the uniforms;
my Seaman’s Record Book rests in a box file with birthday cards.
NHS nurses and pediatricians are returning to Europe, even poets I know.
Oui, some of the three million are voting with their feet.
P&O gave the world the word posh: port out, starboard home. The
question of lorries queuing on the M20 still has no answer, as do the
refugee tales of children held in indefinite detention or stuck in Calais.
Schadenfreude is not what they feel in Europe, they’re just bewildered.
Tourist shoppers avail themselves of the sinking pound sterling and the
ugly UKIP man with Union Jack footwear, beery bonhomie, claimed
victory then scarpered sharply right. What kind of victory is it
when I now no longer want to become a British citizen? My neighbours are
xenophobes who, Macron says, will soon need visit visa to enter France.
Yes, the yahoos are among us yanking us closer and closer to the edge,
zealots who prefer the zilch-no-deal, while I cry and pluck my zither.

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.