It is 20 years since I visited Little Gidding, as the mid-week trip on a one-week course at Madingley, part of Cambridge University. Our tutor that week was the poet Lawrence Sail. Last Sunday I featured four poems from his collection Guises. That week I also met Kathleen Kummer who has become a good friend. Her poems have featured here over the last few months.
Little Gidding is famous for being the fourth and final poem of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets. Eliot had visited Little Gidding in 1936. The title refers to a small Anglican community in Huntingdonshire, established by Nicholas Farrar in the 17th Century.
I wrote the short sequence of haiku during my visit. It was published in Presence magazine.
Almost hidden by grass
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
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.
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
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
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
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
With my birthday coming up, I am posting a poem that celebrates key experiences in my life. These include visiting Lalibela in Ethiopia in 2007, travelling with the friend who set up the Lalibela Educational Trust, to meet the boy I sponsored and his widowed mother. My parents – a church organist father and semi-professional singing mother – did pass on the creative gene, for sure.
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Taking other routes
My parents never taught me to swim; didn’t take me skating on those Christmas-card frozen canals. I have never been famous, but I have sung in Burgos and Florence, Vespers in St Mark’s. My singing has made grown men cry.
I have not travelled on ferries, floating from one Greek island to another, forgetting the name of the day. I have never stroked a giraffe, nor given birth to a baby boy. But I have picked redcurrants from the back garden, sharing rich crops for over twenty years with small black birds.
In Ethiopia I have a son and I sat with him in his Physics class. And for a few years I was a sailor, snatching a few hours in Sydney, shopping in Hong Kong. I danced in a grass skirt and flew across Alaskan glaciers with the man I loved.
I am pleased to introduce this month’s poet: Judi Sutherland. We met as poets on Facebook a few years ago and I attended a recent online event where she read her poems.
Judi Sutherland has lived and worked all over England and is now based in North County Dublin, Ireland. She writes about the natural world, about home, place and belonging, and things she reads on the internet. She obtained an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway, University of London, in 2012 and was awarded the Margaret Hewson Prize.
Her first pamphlet The Ship Owner’s House was published in 2018 by Vane Women Press (available here: The Ship Owner’s House by Judi Sutherland – The Poetry Book Society) and focuses on north south contrasts, specifically Oxfordshire and County Durham. Vane Women Press is a writing, performing and publishing collective based in the North East of England. It was formed in 1991.
A recent booklet Animals in Lockdown was published as a hand-made edition by Kazvina (Karen Little). Copies can be obtained from firstname.lastname@example.org, and proceeds go to Happy Tails Halfway Home animal rescue.
Here is my selection: the booklet’s title poem and three poems from The Ship Owner’s House.
The Animals in Lockdown
The mountain goats have noticed something’s wrong. Their anxious hooves trot into town tap-tapping on our tarmac. They’ve come to browse verges and hedges, keeping down
the wildness, which they know distresses us. In clearwater harbours, dolphins nose the prows of empty boats drifting at anchor. Songbirds note the silence in the air.
A fox sniffs for contagion, scenting only spring, he knows we’ve gone to earth. He has mixed feelings about this. The dogs who shepherd us on our permitted walks
leave smell-messages for each other, asking ‘Lads, what’s going on?’ And here at home, my cat tucks me into bed each night, checking that I’m safe. All through the night, she listens for my breathing.
Looking for Kites
I went over to Kinninvie because I had heard you were there. I took the straight, whitelined road that wagtails across the fells. There were sheep, carpet-backed, in a row ripping grass, and mottled cattle, cream and brown like chocolate truffles tilting their long horns at the sky. A hawk held steady over a whin bush and I thought I saw you eddy into the wind over a broad, shouldering field. When I turned homewards, the valley was bright with gorse and rapeseed flowers and sunshine flooded the far slopes with summer.
And what scented his fear was this: the fleet chill of clear air rushing, the flap of canvas, the propeller’s halting stutter. Hanging suspended between sky and Crete, and the silver-drab of olive trees reaching up to meet him. I still dream that flight and plunge, the terror and the black; feel the dull indentation of the skull, the buzz of metal plates beneath my scalp. I’m always writing Icarus; afraid to fall, finding life vertiginous. He very nearly died. I very nearly remember.
So, the place I thought was home turned out to be somewhere we were passing through, and we have traded all the grey, red, cream of flint, brick, render, for this buttered stone; beechwoods for bare hills, accents clipped like lawns for vowels as broad as fells. The green-spined lane became a hard grey road, the kites are hawks, and the placid boating river is a rocky fall past a castle keep. Life pitches our tent in a different portion of the desert. We make it ours. I can no longer tell you where my heart is.
My friend and poet Kathleen Kummer will have her birthday soon. We have visited the Dartington Estate in Devon several times: to hear the then Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion read, to listen to music during the Music Summer School & Festival which was established in 1947. Alwyn Marriage of Oversteps Books invited me to read during the Ways with Words Literary Festival. It was wonderful seeing people out on the lawn, resting in deckchairs, or queuing up to get their book signed by famous authors.
Dartington Hall is a spectacular Grade I listed building. The gardens are grade II listed: a sculpture by Henry Moore, a yew tree that is 1500 years old and a row of sweet chestnut trees believed to be about 400 years old. The gardens are a delight in every season. Here is Kathleen’s poem about the gardens.
That summer day
That summer day at Dartington, everything familiar, beautiful: the corrugation of the bark of ancient trees, the sun behind the scarlet maple leaves, the swathes of wildflowers in the glades, warm to the touch the might buttocks of Henry Moore’s reclining figure, the bench, its oak smooth, silver, following the stone wall’s curve, on which we sat. Unexpected, the robin landing next to us, a fledgling, plump, who stayed ten, fifteen minutes until his mother called him. And, in the little wave of sadness which washed over us, because he looked so young, indivisible as water is, this swell of happiness.
This month I am featuring poems by Martin Zarrop. We met some years ago through the Poetry School workshops and are also members of one of the Poetry Society’s Stanzas. I start by congratulating Martin: the 2021 Cinnamon Press Pamphlet competition got 450 submissions. The results came out a few days ago – Martin’s manuscript was in the top five!
Martin is a retired mathematician who wanted certainty but found life more interesting and fulfilling by not getting it. He started writing poetry in 2006 and has been published in various magazines and anthologies. He completed a MA in Creative Writing at Manchester University in 2011.
His pamphlet No Theory of Everything (2015) was one of the winners of the 2014 Cinnamon Press pamphlet competition and his first full collection Moving Pictures was published by Cinnamon in 2016. His pamphlet Making Waves on the life and science of Albert Einstein was published by V. Press in 2019. His second collection Is AnyoneThere? was published by High Window Press in March 2020.
The five poems are all from Is Anyone there? Where Martin’s poems refer to science, they do so in an accessible way, often poignant, often with humour. Like Martin, I first came to Manchester in the early 1980s – a place where now around 200 world languages are spoken. I hope you enjoy this selection.
The aliens are coming. I can see them flicker in the flames as I stare into the coal fire and my mother asks me if I’m happy. Has she been taken over by Martians? I must take care not to fall asleep.
And here I am covered in mud. The invisible predator can’t see me as I try to leave the exam room. Failure isn’t an option but the exit signs are hidden under ectoplasmic goo. The ice cream man ignores my screams.
It is bursting out of my chest cavity, this other me I don’t want to know. Why is my name missing from the credits? Perhaps I didn’t wait long enough for the Z’s. Out in the foyer, zombies are waiting for the next show.
First Impressions Manchester 1980
People talk to you here but not in English and the rain is cold on the grim streets that run for their lives past empty Victoriana, lost empires.
At night, the city strips to its bones, lies unwashed in the glow of fag ends, crushed and dying among claggy debris, northern mouths.
She must be in here somewhere. He turns another page and stares at shapes, the outline of a face and almost smiles. The hair’s not right, he says.
Under his thumb, images move, some not even close to human. This one looks like a centaur, this a lion. He knows how much he wants her but he struggles to join the dots.
Across the table, the astronomer, sympathetic despite the late hour, is accustomed to darker matters. Try this one, he grunts, and opens another star catalogue.
UK’s first double hand transplant awoke from a 12-hour operation with two new sets of fingers (Guardian 23.07.16)
It’s not like wearing leather gloves. This is for real, the weld of tissue, bone to severed stumps; white flesh imbibes the ruddiness of life, then shudders at an alien command –
a finger twitches. It displays no loyalty to donor meat, no tear or thought, no dumb relief not to be ash, no memory of goodbye waves, past loves held close.
The patient chews his nails, flexes each knuckle as if born to it, admires blotches, childhood scars from scraps he never fought, holds out his hands.
To My Nineties
You’d better get your skates on or at least your boots and get out there, old dribbler, before it’s too late.
I may not meet you in the hills struggling through Kinder peat. Thirteen miles, fifteen? No problem!
Or so I thought as hair thinned and Christmas followed Easter as if in a time machine that ate old friends for breakfast.
You stand patient near the finish line as I pull myself up for the final sprint. Nothing lasts forever, not hips, not brain cells. I need a project.
On Friday I had my second vaccination (Pfizer). I have felt ok, a bit tired and feverish. By way of a treat, a good childhood memory.
The “selling fur coats” took place in Amsterdam, in Maison de Bonneterie: a small chain of high-end fashion stores. The building in Amsterdam was designed by a well-known Dutch architect with an interior in the style of Louis XVI (the Sun King of France), an imposing staircase and a glass roof.
It closed in 2014, after 125 years of uninterrupted service to the elegant public. The Amsterdam store is a national listed building and now used as a location for events.
We’ve been waiting in silence. It’s just the three of us. Mother’s away in a city, selling fur coats. The radio crackles, but here comes father with blue beakers, hot chocolate, curled cream on top, and the bread he has baked on his day off.
Tomorrow he’ll be on the balcony playing the organ; we’ll be below. Today he is the son of a master baker. We’ll have the bread with butter and jam, red strawberries, shiny against the golden crust.
It is a great pleasure introducing this month’s poet. Paul Stephenson and I met eight years ago through the Poetry Business’ Writing School, an eighteen-month programme.
Paul was born and grew up in Cambridge. He studied modern languages and linguistics then European Studies. He spent several years living between London and France, Spain, and the Netherlands. He currently lives between Cambridge and Brussels.
Paul was selected for the Arvon/Jerwood mentoring scheme and the Aldeburgh Eight. He has been co-curator of the Poetry in Aldeburgh poetry festival since 2018.
His first pamphlet Those People (Smith/Doorstop, 2015) was a winner in the Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition, judged by Billy Collins. His second pamphlet The Days that Followed Paris (HappenStance, 2016) was written in the wake of the November 2015 terrorist attacks. His book Selfie with Waterlilies was published by Paper Swans Press after winning their 2017 Poetry Pamphlet Prize. Read more at: http://www.paulstep.com
I have selected two poems from Those People. The poems Turkish Delight and The Rub open the pamphlet Selfie with Waterlilies. Here is Paul’s keen eye for the details that matter, his playful language adding an extra dimension to the subject of loss.
Seventy litres: in theory more than plenty for three t-shirts, two shorts, the pair of jeans you’re wearing. Then the question of the tent,
saucepan, small canister of gas, map and bible of Thomas Cook timetables – every single train possibility from here to Ankara. One crisp fifty
thousand lira note, a handful of Swiss francs and wad of American Express traveller’s cheques. Foreign currency kept flat, zipped inside a canvas
wallet with Velcro strap, wrapped tight around the waist. Typical Monday. Your father at work. Your mother out somewhere. Your lift here soon.
I avoid the house I grew up in, keep away from my mother
and father’s birthdays: calendar opposites, June and January.
I steer clear of my brother’s crash, rule out the hot summer
I left school, graduated, went off. I adopt different characters,
mix upper and lower case. I do my utmost to never
choose when I was born. Mine take years to crack.
What you do when you get the call is take it, hear words at dawn before they’re mouthed: You should probably come now.
What you do is shower and dress, skip yoghurt and honey, the baklava breakfast, and walk briskly to the ticket office, hand over your sob story.
Once given a seat today (not tomorrow because tomorrow is too late), what you do is pack, sit on a shell-shocked suitcase poring over a tourist map
mentally-cataloguing Byzantine cathedrals then mosques, till a twelve-seater van for one pulls up to taxi you with stop-starts across the Bosphorous
into Asia. What you do to kill an afternoon on a new continent at the international airport hub is browse briefs and socks, visit the James Joyce Irish pub,
mill about getting sprayed with testers of musk, citrus, bergamot, think nothing of spending sixty three euros and seventy four cents on different nut varieties of
Turkish Delight (which is heavy and must be carried), remember nobody likes Turkish Delight – except him. What you do till they display your gate is stare out
as dusk descends, count the seconds between runway ascents, promise you’ll return one day to be consumed by the vastness of the Hagia Sophia.
Menthol my father, menthol his room, menthol his bed.
My out of sight father, my fast relief father, my warming father.
My dual action father, my targeted father, my daily father.
My caution father, my blood flow father, my enclosed father,
Menthol my father, menthol his back, menthol his beard.
My turpentine father, my paraffin father, my eucalyptus father.
My muscular father, my thin layer father, my recommended father.
My wool fat father, my liquid father, my expiry father.
Yesterday was Neighbours Day here in the Netherlands. The Neighbours Day initiative was started in 2005 by Douwe Egberts, one of the traditional Dutch coffee makers: social contact starts with a cup of coffee. A few years later they were joined by a charity called Oranjefonds. Each year they provide funds, support and advice for a large range of social and community activities, such as Dutch language support for refugees, mentoring, club houses for the old and young.
During the lockdown earlier this year, many new initiatives were started by people volunteering in their own street or local area. A good fit with this annual initiative. My neighbours here on the camping have cut their hedges and have gone home. My day always starts with a good cup of coffee made in a cafetiere. It happens to be D.E. – a firm started in 1753 in a small shop in Friesland, a northern province.
Earlier this year I talked with my brother about events in our childhood. This memory came up.
Getting to know the neighbours
We’re snoozing after lunch in a Sunday afternoon garden. One of our family, still awake, sees silent orange flames rising that side of the opaque glass.
It’ll be a small insurance claim. As evening turns pink, the old Belgian couple walk their Borzoi.
It’s a great pleasure to introduce this month’s poet Keith Lander. We first met early autumn 2004 in the Village Hall, Manchester where the poet Linda Chase was running a weekly poetry course, on behalf of the Poetry School. The Poetry School is the UK’s largest provider of poetry education, offering a wide range of courses at all levels.
Keith Lander was born and grew up in Manchester. At school he studied sciences and went on to gain a B.Sc. in mathematics from the University of Wales, Bangor. This led him into the IT industry where he worked as a software engineer and for several years was a consultant for Siemens in Munich.
He has had poems published in a number of anthologies and magazines including TheNorth, Envoi and Obsessed with Pipework and has been long listed three times for the National Poetry Competition. He has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Manchester Metropolitan University.
The three poems feature the mysterious “Milo” character. You can find all three in the pamphlet Pandemonium, published by Yaffle Press in 2019. For more information about Keith Lander go to his writing website.
This morning Wu Mian of Guangzhou province,
Zen hacker extraordinaire, Milo’s big buddy,
will smash through Mr C’s firewall
using a password provided by Milo.
He’ll be sitting alone in his garden
surrounded by clematis and acacia blossom
listening to the music of the fountain
while reading Lu Chi’s Wen Fu.
A trojan horse will appear out of cyberspace
and release its hidden hoard of phisher men
who’ll slide into the fountain,
hack their way into his heart
and steal his deepest secrets.
In theatre: Milo’s view
Milo tells me I won’t feel a thing.
He on the other hand will be awake
monitoring the situation.
He’s seen the videos on YouTube,
how they stop the heart, cool the body, pump
the blood through a machine. No way is he
going to get trapped in that infernal thing.
So he stays out of the arteries, surfs
from lymph node to lymph node, watches the surgeon
remove the right saphenous vein through a hole in my groin,
peeps gobsmacked as they graft it in place.
And how he cheers when they remove the valve,
the choked old squeaker. How sweet the bovine
replacement smells—green grass, fresh pastures.
He has to cling to a rib while they staple
the sternum back together, but then passes out
when they shock me back to this world.
Milo was right: I didn’t feel a thing.
After a shit life horse-trading with wankers
down back streets of shady deals
he sought nirvana
in a kingdom of ticky-tack and sushi
finding it here, in this place,
with its parity of peace.
The psychedelic visions of his gullible youth
have paled into shades of white.
At last he’s immune to most earthly hazards,
but at night, in his boxroom,
he’s started to have visions
of a black shadow—
Milo in his cave lurking just out of sight.