Tag Archives: Travel

Why are we in Vietnam?

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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.

 

And roared for hours at the moon …

water melon

 

As you know, when I’m struggling to get new poems out and there are no workshops booked, I return to the books with their exercises. Exercise 7 in the book Writing Poetry by Matthew Sweeney and John Hartley Williams is called Backwards. Here are the examples from that exercise:

* ‘Eating red carnations by the dozen’
* ‘Singing, she pedalled over the moonlit bridge’
* ‘Back to his underwater home’
* ‘And roared for hours at the moon’
* ‘To stand, staring at the water’
* ‘Then parachuted, roaring, into a bonfire’

The late Matthew Sweeney contributed this exercise: “I woke up one morning with a poem fully formed in my head, but was too lazy to get out of bed and write it down. Then the poem started to evaporate, line by line, but I jumped out of bed and caught it by the toe – I had the last line, The smell and colour of petroleum, and spent the rest of the week working backwards to recover the poem, although it was undoubtedly inferior to the one I had had in my head.”

Well, I always have a notebook on my bedside table, but I rarely wake up with a poem fully formed!

I picked one of the lines and wrote a poem. It ended up being a comment about tourism, which I wasn’t expecting, and it certainly worked as a “warm up” exercise.

 

Wednesday

The old man shuffles up and down the beach
holding up the quartered fruit with one hand,
imploring in guttural sounds Water melon, melon,
a large plastic bag in his other hand.
He turns where the beach meets the shack
renting out parasols. Small white waves
tickle his feet, but he doesn’t smile.

Today the small strip of pebbly brown sand
is almost empty. The tourists have been placed
in shiny white coaches with air-co in the toilet.
This week’s excursion to the castle on the other
side of the bay: gardens, statues, fountains, lakes.
Shuffling through long corridors and state rooms,
the visitors huddle round their guide, see tired faces
staring back at them in monumental mirrors.

The tourists are back in their air-conditioned hotel,
five floors, five stars. There will be entertainment.
The old man has gone away. I’m told he made
a large mountain, a green mountain with red pulp.
I’m told he sat on that mountain all night
and roared for hours at the pale and distant moon.

Leaving Czechoslovakia, 1964

Image

 

I was invited to read at a European Language Day, held at the Instituto Cervantes here in Manchester. I selected poems that all had a European connection, including the poem below.  It was a joy to take part in the evening event. And I very much enjoyed watching and listening to Hungarian dancers in traditional costume, and a young woman singing melancholy songs from the Balkans and Romany songs.

The next morning I did a bit of clearing through photo albums and found a black-and white photo of that red Trabant! The young woman leaning on the driver’s door had only just passed her driving test and advertised for someone to go with her.  In the event her father drove us to Munich from Amsterdam, and after that we were on our own.  Her mother was Czech, so we met a lot of family out there.  The poem was included in Songs for the Unsung anthology, published by Grey Hen. It will be included in my second collection Nothing serious, nothing dangerous which will be published shortly by Indigo Dreams Publishing.

 

Leaving Czechoslovakia, 1964

When we reached the border
in her small red Trabant
our cases were lighter: the pleated dresses,
jeans we’d given to aunts and nieces;
our footsteps behind us on the mountain
where we walked with her family
up towards the border with Poland,
our plimsolls wet, our hair lank from drizzle;
sweet and savoury Knedlicky we’d eaten;
songs we’d sung, drunk on vodka,
already flown, small skittering birds;
the yellow Objizdka sign in Prague diverting us
into the path of a funeral, black plumed horses.
The border guards with their guns gather
around us as we try again to open the boot,
our stiff smiles telling us not to think
of the airmail letters for America
hidden under the back seat.

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.

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.