Sunday, 28 June 2015

Poetry and Beyond in the Czech Republic

Prague, May 2015. All photos by Clarissa Aykroyd

A little over a month ago I was in Prague with my brother - we had almost a week together and also visited the nearby towns of Kutna Hora and Plzeň. It was my first time back in the Czech Republic after eleven years. In 2004 my brother was there working with the World Hockey Championships (er, that's 'ice hockey') and we were there for the same reasons again this year. So hockey was on the menu (including Canada slaughtering Russia 6-1 for the gold medal), as well as fairy-tale-like castles and Art Nouveau buildings, all the meat and dumplings I could eat, and even beer (which normally I never touch because I don't like the taste.)

Poetry is never off the menu, and that's especially so in a country like the Czech Republic. We had a tour one day with a man named Milos Curik, who turned out to be absolutely one of the most interesting people I have ever met. He showed us some beautiful and fascinating hidden corners of Prague, which was a good thing because as lovely as Wenceslas Square and Charles Bridge are, they are insanely rammed with tourists. Milos was part of the Beat generation and knew the American poetic icon Lawrence Ferlinghetti, as well as having met Allen Ginsberg and many others. He'd done everything in his life from organising Velvet Underground concerts in Czechoslovakia to studying funerary art - interspersed with many run-ins with the police during Prague's complex history - and he had evidently done it all with panache. Milos showed us a street where Ginsberg had stayed in Prague and told us about how Ginsberg had written the poem 'King of May' after being honoured as such by Czech students in 1965. (He wrote the poem on his flight from Prague to London.) Milos specialises in arts and music tours of Prague, and told us that later this year he will be showing around some poets on a tour of Prague taking in sights related to Seamus Heaney's visits to the city. (Heaney had very strong connections to Central and Eastern European poetry, and I came across this interesting article:

Here are a couple of photos from that tour. The first is of that street where Ginsberg stayed, a semi-hidden but lovely area near the castle:

This is a table and chairs, attached to a tree, featuring a quotation from Vaclav Havel. There are a number of these in different cities now, known as 'Havel's Place'. Of course, Havel was one of the architects of the Velvet Revolution and was the first president after the fall of Communism, but he was also a playwright and, less famously, a poet.

In Kutna Hora, we saw a cathedral with a very unusual 'tent' roof, went down a silver mine, and emerged subdued from the eerily strange Sedlec Ossuary, or bone church. Over the years, Kutna Hora has attracted many poets, writers and artists because of its spooky, romantic atmosphere, and it now has a poetry festival in September. The poet-author of the Czech national anthem was born in this town. Here's a photo of the cathedral:

Plzeň was a real working town with a very interesting depth of history. I was pretty much forced to drink beer there, because of the Pilsner brewery, in whose icy depths we spent some time. We also saw this remarkable mural featuring many famous figures associated with the town's history. In this detail, the young man on the left in the cape is Josef Kajetan Tyl, who lived in the first half of the 19th century. He was another playwright who was also a poet. (Rather wonderfully, it often seems in the Czech Republic as though everyone is also a poet.) Rainer Maria Rilke apparently acknowledged Tyl's influence.

In Plzeň I was also very happy to see this set of characters in the wonderful Puppet Museum (puppetry is very important to the culture of Bohemia.) They were for a Hound of the Baskervilles puppet show, and yes, that's Holmes and Watson at the top!

With thanks to Czech Tourism

Thursday, 25 June 2015

New Poem Published: 'Sherlock Holmes in Red Cross Garden'

Sherlock Holmes, from The Naval Treaty, by Sidney Paget

The Pakistan-based literary and arts journal/website The Missing Slate, who have previously published my work, have just published my poem 'Sherlock Holmes in Red Cross Garden' .

This poem is, of course, one of the four that I wrote for my recent residency with Red Cross Garden, organised by the Poetry School and the London Open Garden Squares Weekend. It was the first poem that I wrote, since Holmes walked into the garden in a very definite way not long after I first visited it and started reading and thinking about it.

I would call this quite a personal poem, though it's hard to explain how exactly. Sherlock Holmes has accompanied me for so much of my life (since I was seven years old, I think) that he has become a part of me in a way I wouldn't say any other fictional character has (and where Holmes is, there Watson is as well, usually). He's led me down so many literary, figurative and real pathways that whenever he shows up, he remains both familiar and fascinating - and also, a kind of mirror for myself.

When I had written the poem I realised that there was an undertone of anxiety in it which surprised me a little. This is not a Holmes in the best frame of mind, I think. He may be preoccupied with the details of an unspecified case, but Watson isn't wrong when he suspects Holmes's preoccupation goes beyond that. I think he is awaiting a confrontation, to come sooner or later, and he is looking for solace amongst the flowers. "What a lovely thing a rose is" is directly from the story The Naval Treaty, in which Holmes speaks unexpectedly and passionately about the beauty and significance of flowers. It is also a passage which indicates that Holmes was no atheist, which in modern times he is often popularly supposed to be. "There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion," he says. "Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers."

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Mixed Borders (4): The London Open Garden Squares Weekend

On Saturday 13 June I gave two readings of my four poems for Red Cross Garden, at the little bandstand in the garden. There were about ten people at each reading - a few friends, and other members of the public, and everyone's attendance was much appreciated. The weather wasn't amazing (a bit cool, cloudy and breezy, though fortunately the few drops of rain cleared up) but we all know it could have been a lot worse...and the sun came out later in the afternoon.

My four poems were 'The Octavia Hill Rose', 'Bobby', 'Restoration' and 'Sherlock Holmes in Red Cross Garden'. I'm not going to post any of them on the blog for now, but watch this space, as one or two of them will be appearing elsewhere in future and I will link to them then.

I was happy that I was able to write about the garden from a few different angles, and the poems all had somewhat different styles, which seemed to fit. 'The Octavia Hill Rose', about the garden's founder, went into sonnet form, perhaps a nod to the more formal Victorian times she belonged to. The other poems all varied in style, but a poet friend who came to one of the readings told me that at the same time they were all quite recognisably from the same voice, which was lovely to hear.

I hope to continue my relationship with Red Cross Garden to a certain extent - they have asked me if I can read the poems again at their Vegetable and Flower Show later this year, which makes me feel like a real poet in residence. They may also be using the poems in other interesting ways, but these are TBC for now.

Here are a couple of photos from the two readings:

On Sunday a friend and I managed to visit some other gardens in Bloomsbury and the City. Near Barbican, I went to Fann Street Wildlife Garden, where Stephanie Norgate was in residence, and Postman's Park, where Ann Perrin was the resident poet. Later I also made it to Nomura - resident poet Julia Bird had gone home after a long weekend in the manicured rooftop garden, but I certainly loved the views.

Resident poet Ann Perrin in Postman's Park

Resident poet Stephanie Norgate in Fann Street Wildlife Garden

Saturday, 6 June 2015

New Poem Published: 'Qualicum Beach'

Qualicum Beach, 2014. Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd

Shot Glass Journal, who have published some of my short poems in previous issues, have just published my poem 'Qualicum Beach' in their latest issue.

I wrote this poem last year after visiting Vancouver Island's Qualicum Beach, a small town a few hours from where I grew up. Like much of the Island scenery, Qualicum Beach and the surrounding areas are stunningly beautiful. And the ocean does indeed bring a very special type of solace.

Mixed Borders (3): Readings on Sat 13 June at Red Cross Garden

As part of my Mixed Borders residency with Red Cross Garden, the Poetry School, and London Open Garden Squares Weekend, I will be reading in Red Cross Garden (Redcross Way, Southwark, London SE1 1HA) at 2:30 and 4 PM on Saturday, 13 June. The readings will be pretty much identical - I am doing more than one so that different people can experience the poems. Anyone who is in London then and would like to come is very much welcome (it's free!).

Red Cross Garden has proved to be a rich source of material, and I'm happy to say that I have now written a few poems. I went back last week, and a few more pictures are below. There were a very few people in the garden (it was around 7 PM), but it was peaceful and airy, and different flowers were now in bloom. I met a gentleman named Paul, who I think lived in one of the Red Cross cottages or else nearby, who was in conversation with a black cat named Bobby. Paul and Bobby turned out to both be area residents and so I chatted with them for a few minutes - and later I wrote a poem about the cat. It was good timing.

I would love to see a few of you on Saturday, 13 June at 2:30 or 4 PM, for the readings.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Keith Douglas: 'The Knife'

THE KNIFE (Keith Douglas)

Can I explain this to you? Your eyes
are entrances the mouths of caves.
I issue from wonderful interiors
upon a blessed sea and a fine day,
from inside these caves I look and dream.

Your hair explicable as a waterfall
in some black liquid cooled by legend
fell across my thought in a moment
became a garment I am naked without
lines drawn across through morning and evening.

And in your body each minute I died
moving your thigh could disinter me
from a grave in a distant city:
your breasts deserted by cloth, clothed in twilight
filled me with tears, sweet cups of flesh.

Yes, to touch two fingers made us worlds
stars, waters, promontories, chaos
swooning in elements without form or time
come down through long seas among sea marvels
embracing like survivors on our islands.

This I think happened to us together
though now no shadow of it flickers in your hands
your eyes look down on ordinary streets
if I talk to you I might be a bird
with a message, a dead man, a photograph.

                                     [Wadi Natrun, October 1942]

'The Knife', published in Poetry London a few years after Keith Douglas's death, was originally dedicated to Milena Gutierrez, one of the subjects of one of his failed engagements. It has a touch of the swooning romantic which occasionally appears in his love poetry, to varied effect.

This poem has an unfinished quality (even to the extent of seeming to lack an essential word here and there), but beyond the heartfelt emotion and a few unforgettable images, it is the final stanza which really makes it special to me. Those bleak lines are so powerfully evocative of the end of a love affair, and the final lines have that cold, clear prophetic-foreshadowing quality of some of his finest poetry: "if I talk to you I might be a bird/with a message, a dead man, a photograph." 


Monday, 25 May 2015

Alun Lewis: 'Indian Day'

Birds over Gateway of India by Swaminathan. Used under Creative Commons license

INDIAN DAY (Alun Lewis)


Dawn's cold imperative compels
Bazaars and gutters to disturb
Famine's casual ugly tableaux.
Lazarus is lifted from the kerb.

The supple sweeper girl goes by
Brushing the dung of camels from the street
The daylight's silver bangles
Glitter on her naked feet.


Yellow ramtilla stiffens in the noon,
Jackals skulk among the screes,
In skinny fields the oxen shiver,
The gods have prophesied disease.

Hedges of spike and rubber, hedges of cactus,
Lawns of bougainvillea, jasmine, zinnia
Terraces of privilege and loathing,
The masterly shadows of a nightmare

Harden and grow lengthy in the drought.
The moneyed antipathetic faces
Converse in courts of pride and fountains
With ermined sleek injustices.
Gods and dacoits haunt the mountains.


The sun the thunder and the hunger grow
Extending stupidly the helds of pain
Ploughing the peasant under with his crop
Denying the great mercy of the rain

Denying what each flowering pear and lime
And every child and each embrace imply - 
The love that is imprisoned in each heart
By the famines and fortunes of the century.


Night bibles India in her wilderness
The Frontier Mail screams blazing with such terror
The russet tribesman lays aside his flute
Rigid with Time's hypnotic surging error.

The kindness of the heart lies mute
Caught in the impotence of dreams
Yet all night long the boulders sing
The timeless songs of mountain streams.

In 2015, it is one hundred years since the birth of Alun Lewis, one of the Big Three of British World War II poetry along with Keith Douglas and Sidney Keyes. Like Keith Douglas, Lewis died in 1944, while Sidney Keyes died in 1943. All were young, but at 28, Lewis lived the longest by a few years. I have written a little more about him here.

Out of the Lewis/Douglas/Keyes trio (none of whom knew each other, although Douglas and Keyes may have crossed paths), Douglas is - to me - by far the most contemporary. He wrote cold, cutting poetry which in most particulars could have been written in recent years. Lewis and Keyes were more in a backwards-looking Romantic tradition, although Keyes was so young when he died that I hesitate to say which direction he would ultimately have taken with his work.

'Indian Day' is taken from Lewis's collection Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets, the title of which refers to the description of a war horse in the Biblical book of Job. It was published posthumously in 1945. Lewis was posted to India in 1942 and was deeply moved by the striking sights and violent poverty of the country. This was one of the poems which resulted.

'Indian Day' doesn't exactly escape cliches about the subcontinent, especially those that would have been implicated in the colonial gaze of the time. The view of the "supple sweeper girl" is a bit voyeuristic (without being particularly perceptive) and the conclusion that " imprisoned in each heart" isn't that exciting. But this is still a hugely evocative poem with unforgettable lines - "The sun the thunder and the hunger grow" and "Night bibles India in her wilderness" (the latter made me think of another Welshman, Dylan Thomas, who a few years later wrote the words "starless and bible black" in his play Under Milk Wood. The seriousness of the black-covered Bibles seems to me very evocative of nonconformist Wales.)

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Mixed Borders (2): Visiting Red Cross Garden

I visited Red Cross Garden to properly start my poetry residency just over a week ago, on an evening when the weather was only somewhat less unpleasant than it is today. Fortunately, it cleared up for most of the time I spent visiting.

Mary O'Connell, who is the Volunteering and Education Facilitator at Bankside Open Spaces Trust (which administers this garden and other green spaces around the Bankside area), gave me a thorough and interesting tour, pointing out the botany of the garden, its features past and present, and some details about the restoration. Red Cross Garden was first laid out in 1887, and along with its cottages and community hall, it was part of Octavia Hill's social housing work. She believed strongly in the importance of decent housing, access to nature and exposure to culture for disadvantaged people. The cottages are still in use as social housing, and they are charming to look at. The community hall was used for concerts and poetry readings. After the garden fell into disrepair during World War II, it was restored by Bankside Open Spaces Trust in 2005-2006, with many of its original features such as the small bandstand and wildlife pond.

I took a number of photos, some of which you can see below. There are certainly a number of possible angles for poetry - history of the garden and the area, Octavia Hill herself, the work to restore the garden, the botany, and so on. I've written one poem so far, but it is under wraps for the moment. Suffice it to say that a fictional character who has played a major role in my life walked into the garden (as it appeared in my mind after visiting), and it made sense to write about him there as I could see him so clearly.

I'm off on holiday in a couple of days, for about a week, but I will certainly be visiting the garden again soon after that, and writing some more.