Tuesday, 29 December 2015
'Dancing Men' from the 2015 Sherlock Holmes exhibition at the Museum of London. Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd
Messrs Cumberbatch and Freeman are just about to return to our screens as Sherlock and John, although this time around they will really be 'Holmes and Watson', in a one-off Victorian episode. I'm looking forward to seeing whether they can come close to the greats - Jeremy Brett, David Burke and Edward Hardwicke.
I've been writing poetry about Sherlock Holmes this year - inspired by many different aspects of the stories and the different portrayals over the years - and a few of the poems were published. So to end the year, here's another poem, this one based on the Cumberbatch/Freeman modern-day series.
after BBC Sherlock
Sherlock's mouth is a typewriter: he's spinning out the tale to the sharp end of his breath.
He'll cut and make it neat with his cheekbones.
Sherlock is downloading your brain to his hard drive.
He is uninterested in your heart, except when it threatens to break the machine, your soul.
Sherlock's pale eyes have narrowed to tiny keyholes.
He may have to kill you, but he will look so good while doing it.
Sherlock is talking to a skull, but he may talk to you if you stick around.
He's the mind of this city, but you keep him from the fall with your words, your light.
© Clarissa Aykroyd, 2015
Sunday, 27 December 2015
ON A RETURN FROM EGYPT (Keith Douglas)
To stand here in the wings of Europe
disheartened, I have come away
from the sick land where in the sun lay
the gentle sloe-eyed murderers
of themselves, exquisites under a curse;
here to exercise my depleted fury.
For the heart is a coal, growing colder
when jewelled cerulean seas change
into grey rocks, grey water-fringe,
sea and sky altering like a cloth
till colour and sheen are gone both:
cold is an opiate of the soldier.
And all my endeavours are unlucky explorers
come back, abandoning the expedition;
the specimens, the lilies of ambition
still spring in their climate, still unpicked:
but time, time is all I lacked
to find them, as the great collectors before me.
The next month, then, is a window
and with a crash I'll split the glass.
Behind it stands one I must kiss,
person of love or death
a person or a wraith,
I fear what I shall find.
[? March-April 1944]
'On a Return From Egypt' was published in Poetry (London) in December 1944, six months after Keith Douglas died in Normandy. It appears to be the last poem he wrote, or at least the last surviving poem. At the time he was in England awaiting D-Day and the Normandy campaign. He was to die three days after D-Day, on 9 June 1944.
'On a Return From Egypt' isn't a perfectly finished poem but - unfortunately - it stands as quite a fitting swan song for Douglas. It reprises and sums up many of the images which haunted him and which recur. He had already written about 'the wings of Europe' in the sweeping but very unfinished 'Actors Waiting in the Wings of Europe', and the restless, ambiguous movement of the sea appears again and again in poems such as 'The Marvel' and 'Song'. It is, of course, also about his death.
The really heartbreaking thing about this poem is when Douglas writes about the failure of his endeavours and the end of his time. One wonders what he meant by 'All my endeavours are unlucky explorers'. He had certainly achieved success in poetry and in the military, but perhaps these are not what he wanted. He may have been thinking of his failed romances. Douglas was a restless soul and many people much older and apparently wiser than him don't really know what they want, either. The image of the explorers 'abandoning the expedition' is extremely powerful and the poem really turns on the third stanza. It also reminded me of this quote from Isaac Newton, in both its seeking nature and its innocence: "To myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."
The final stanza also returns to some of his primary concerns - the ambiguous figures, the two sides of a window, a door or a mirror and the passage through. There is a harshly exposed quality to "I fear what I shall find" which helps to make this last word by a very young and gifted poet unforgettable. It's not a perfect piece of work, but it is powerful and utterly real.
Wednesday, 23 December 2015
I'm pretty sure I've said before that I'm not much for end-of-the-year lists (I like reading other people's lists, but I'm not that excited about compiling my own.) However, I wanted to give a quick rundown of my three favourite new collections of 2015.
Kim Moore, The Art of Falling (Seren). Kim Moore's poems have both a lightness and a strength to them which is very appealing. They are personal and deeply rooted in her own family and community connections ('My People', 'A Psalm for the Scaffolders') but many of them also have a movingly timeless quality. The centre of this collection is the cycle 'How I Abandoned My Body To His Keeping' which is a spectacular sequence of poems about an abusive relationship. In poems such as 'He Was the Forgotten Thing' and 'On Eyes', the elements of such a relationship are depicted with images that seem to arise from an archetypal place, conveying the physical and emotional pain undergone by the speaker on a very deep level. You can read the poem 'How I Abandoned My Body to His Keeping' here, on Josephine Corcoran's And Other Poems blog/e-zine.
Sean O'Brien, The Beautiful Librarians (Picador). Sean O'Brien's poems live in the company of such great poets as Philip Larkin and WH Auden, but I prefer his wry, loving, sometimes sardonic depictions of British society in poems such as 'Another Country' and 'The Beautiful Librarians'. His poetry has a very strong sense of place but it also breaks the boundaries of place, and his England represents much more than just one country. I was blown away by 'The Lost of England', an epic, reflective, self-deprecating train journey. Sean O'Brien is the kind of poet I don't find often enough in contemporary poetry - really technically assured in a classic way, but also thought-provoking and funny at the same time. You can read the poem 'The Beautiful Librarians' here.
Dan O'Brien, New Life (CB Editions). This collection is a sequel to the 2013 collection War Reporter, and my only caveat is that you should probably read War Reporter first and then New Life - but do read both. New Life carries on Dan O'Brien's unusual collaboration with the war correspondent Paul Watson. This poetry blurs the lines between non-fiction and poetry - it's a dizzying film-reel of the poet's thoughts, the war reporter's thoughts, emails and phone calls, and the nagging sense that the poet and the war reporter are not only two different people, but also aspects of the same person. War Reporter started with the terrible consequences of Paul Watson's photo of the dead American soldier in Mogadishu in 1993, and ricocheted through many other countries and wars. New Life spends time in Syria and the other countries affected by the Arab Spring, but it also explores O'Brien's personal life, Watson's view of the discovery of Franklin's ship Terror in the Canadian Arctic, and many other stories. New Life, like War Reporter, is often graphic and a difficult read, but I found both collections extraordinarily powerful and quite unique in contemporary poetry. New Life is probably my pick for collection of the year. You can read the poem 'The War Reporter Paul Watson and the Room Across the Hall' here, again on And Other Poems.
Monday, 14 December 2015
Sunset at Sandals, Negril by Gail Frederick. Used under Creative Commons license
I've been reading Jamaican poet Ishion Hutchinson for a couple of years. His first collection, Far District (Peepal Tree Press, 2010) is certainly one of my favourite poetry books of recent years. His sonically gorgeous poems often have a surreal reach, but they are also grounded in places which are sensory, sensual and real-world.
I wouldn't call Ishion Hutchinson's work especially similar to that of the great poet of St Lucia, Derek Walcott, but in this Paris Review interview I came across this, which I'd already been thinking of both poets.
Interviewer: In an interview for the Virginia Quarterly Review, you asked Derek Walcott, "What would you regard as your greatest strength as a poet?" That was a hard question - he said at first he couldn't tell. Do you have an answer yourself?
IH: Derek did answer eventually, and his response is spectacular, he said "I think there are lots of times when I have maybe caught the light in certain passages...the Caribbean light at sunrise and sunset." My answer is, I would hope, in my own way I have honored the same light.
I haven't yet visited the Caribbean - the closest I have been is the Caribbean Sea side of Mexico (the Yucatan Peninsula). But when I read both of these these extraordinarily visual poets, I know that I am seeing the Caribbean light.
I recommend Ishion Hutchinson very, very highly. I hope to write more about him at some point, but in the meantime, here are links to two of his poems I've especially enjoyed. There are many others available to read online.
THUNDER IN APRIL (Ishion Hutchinson)
HOMAGE: VALLEJO (Ishion Hutchinson)
Sunday, 13 December 2015
Norwich, November 2015. Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd
I recently had a couple of new poems published. One of these, 'Beekeeper', appears in the Mexico City-based The Ofi Press and you can read it here: http://www.ofipress.com/aykroydclarissa.htm
The other poem, 'Seventeen Steps', appears in Issue 10 of Lighthouse, a journal focusing on new writing by up-and-coming writers - and ah, the rarer delight of being published in print! You can purchase a copy of this issue here: http://www.gatehousepress.com/shop/anthologies/lighthouse-issue-10/
Both of these recent publications have been poems about (or inspired by) Sherlock Holmes. If this is starting to look like a theme, that's because it is a theme. Watch this space.
Another recently lovely thing was appearing on the list of the Best UK Poetry Blogs of 2015 at Matthew Stewart's highly regarded poetry blog Rogue Strands. You can find me in very good company here, with many other blogs that I would recommend: http://roguestrands.blogspot.co.uk/2015/12/the-best-uk-poetry-blogs-of-2015.html
Finally, here's a list of the poetry readings I gave/took part in this year. I have a couple at least coming up in 2016, which I think will be another good poetry year.
- June - London: reading at Red Cross Garden as a poet-in-residence for the London Open Garden Squares Weekend
- July - Cambridge: reading at The Missing Slate anthology launch event, at the Judith E Wilson Studio
- September - London: reading at Red Cross Garden for their annual Flower & Vegetable Show
- October - London: reading with The Quiet Compere at the Hackney Attic
- November - Norwich: reading at the Lighthouse launch event at the Bicycle Shop
I hope that all poets, audiences and readers had as wonderful a year as possible.
Sunday, 29 November 2015
Keith Douglas in North Africa during World War II
DESERT FLOWERS (Keith Douglas)
Living in a wide landscape are the flowers -
Rosenberg I only repeat what you were saying -
the shell and the hawk every hour
are slaying men and jerboas, slaying
the mind: but the body can fill
the hungry flowers and the dogs who cry words
at nights, the most hostile things of all.
But that is not new. Each time the night discards
draperies on the eyes and leaves the mind awake
I look each side of the door of sleep
for the little coin it will take
to buy the secret I shall not keep.
I see men as trees suffering
or confound the detail and the horizon.
Lay the coin on my tongue and I will sing
of what the others never set eyes on.
[? El Ballah, General Hospital, 1943]
I have a habit of relating poems of the past to current events, Sometimes it's the whole poem, sometimes just a phrase. Sometimes I'm sure it's a bit of a leap. But when I do it, it always feels true. And surely the capacity to stand outside time, but within patterns and feelings, is one sign of a great poem.
I started thinking about 'Desert Flowers' again in the wake of the November 13 attacks in Paris. There is so much about this poem that cuts both ways, or all ways...it must be the most delphic of all his poems. Flowers are left to remember the dead, for comfort; but in this poem of the Western Desert Campaign in World War II, they are also "the hungry flowers", devouring the body (perhaps the flowers of artillery fire?).
I wonder very much what Douglas was thinking of when he wrote this poem. It makes me think of concepts such as trauma, the reach and limitations of insight, and what we can learn from the dead. Partly because Douglas was still so young when he died, I tend to feel that he was often writing on a subconscious level that he was consciously not able to fully understand. In other words, he wanted to convey something journalistic and real, and his poems did that, but they were also much deeper than he realised. To a certain extent this happens with all good poetry and poets, but Douglas's poems have always seemed to me to have a real core depth, especially for a young writer.
Throughout the poem Douglas seems to be looking for, or invoking, other voices. In the second line he calls on Isaac Rosenberg, the great World War I poet. If you read Rosenberg's great poems, you will find similarities in their approaches - both poets strove for accuracy and detachment, not romanticism. The parallels between the natural world and the human world are harsh and striking: 'the shell and the hawk every hour/are slaying men and jerboas' - and then Douglas adds 'slaying/the mind'. This is where trauma enters the picture for me. The speaker is a man who cannot fully cope with what he is experiencing; this is one reason for detachment. The pressure on his mind, even the threat of mental death, is too much.
There is a hermetic quality to this poem, and 'the secret I shall not keep' is one of the most mysterious images of all. Is it poetry? Is it the ability to transcend the horrors that humanity witnessed in the World Wars, and that it keeps witnessing? The striving after vision in this poem is intense - incredibly intense, almost desperate. As close as he may get to the truth, Douglas suggests, his vision will be imperfect. Here, with 'I see men as trees suffering', Douglas makes reference to the account of Jesus healing the blind man at Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-25). When the man's vision was at first partially restored, before a complete restoration, he said 'I see people, but they look like trees walking about' (Mark 8:24, New World Translation; 'I see men as trees, walking', King James Version). 'I see men as trees suffering' is also a blurred vision, but a terrible one, and wholly evocative of the horror and confusion of the battlefield - or even an act of terrorism. It's the moment after the bomb-blast.
The last two lines, as often in Douglas's poetry, seem to look onwards to his own death. The coin, which has already appeared earlier in the poem, here becomes a clear symbol of passage to the land of the dead, when laid on the speaker's tongue: Charon's obol, or the payment for the ferryman who took the dead across the river Styx.
Strangely, though, Douglas also suggests that this coin will open his mouth, or allow him to speak (or sing). How is this possible if he is dead? I see nothing in the poem to suggest that he is writing about ghostly visitations. I think that Douglas may be saying that when he is dead, his words will have a deeper meaning that they couldn't have in his life. They will become a vision that no one else could have had. And in a sense this is true: we perceive his poems differently because he died so young, in a great war, and perhaps those facts have given his poems deeper meaning and significance. This is how the dead can speak to us, in a manner amplified by their deaths.
This is perhaps where and why I thought of the poem in relation to the terrible events of recent weeks. It is a tragic fact that the dead can be transfigured by their deaths. They take on a meaning that they never had in life. Depending on the manner of their death, others (such as politicians) may also try to give them a meaning that those people would not have asked for or desired in life. And the sad thing is that although the dead speak to us in this way, living humans do not learn the lessons.
Monday, 23 November 2015
Edmund de Waal, Karen Leeder, Grete Tartler and Isobel Colchester at Paul Celan: The Romanian Context (Kings Place, London, November 2015). Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd
On Thursday 12 November I went to a Paul Celan event hosted by Poet in the City, at Kings Place (a great arts venue near London's Kings Cross station).
It was actually a dual event, the first part of which was 'Paul Celan: the Romanian Context' and featured Edmund de Waal (author of The Hare With Amber Eyes - I finally read it and it's wonderful), Karen Leeder (Professor of Modern German Literature at Oxford, and translator) and Romanian poet Grete Tartler in conversation about Celan. Grete Tartler's opening talk on Celan was wonderful. She drew attention to his various roots - German (language), Romanian (geography and his Bucharest period), Viennese (surrealist context), French (Paris for much of his life) and of course Jewish. Apparently "all Romanians are born poets" is a saying in Romania (I can imagine), but because of his background as a German-speaking Jew, when he went to Bucharest people there were amazed by the quality of his Romanian. (He wrote early poetry, much less known, in the Romanian language). Two beautiful phrases which emerged from this part of the evening described his poetry as "a music of suggestions" and "symphony of origins". Celan had a collection whose title is usually translated as Poppy and Memory, but Tartler called it Moonflower and Memory, which I found equally wonderful.
In the subsequent discussion with Karen Leeder, Edmund de Waal talked about discovering Celan at 17, through a tribute poem by Geoffrey Hill - a mysterious reminder of my own discovery of Celan, at almost exactly the same age, through a song by U2 called A Sort of Homecoming. (Never, ever disdain the origins of your passions. I still love the song.) De Waal, as well as an author, is a potter, and talked passionately about the "texture" and "granular" quality of Celan, a wonderful sidelight for someone like me who has pretty much zero grasp of the world of pottery.
The second part of the evening, 'Paul Celan: Sounds and Visions' was the main event of the evening. Karen Leeder spoke about his life and poems, and Edmund de Waal spoke again about crossover and the inspiration provided by Celan for visual artists. We saw photos of some of his Celan-inspired works, with names such as Black Milk and Lightduress, and the number of pots echoing the number of syllables in a poem - and especially the spaces and silences. "He brings breath and white to the foreground," said de Waal. Celan also wrote about home and homecoming a good deal, but we were acutely reminded that this had resonances of loss and horror for Celan: when he came home one night in 1942, his parents were gone and he never saw them again - the key moment in his life which created a trauma he could never recover from.
There was music by Webern, Berg, Harrison Birtwistle and finally a premiere, Psalm by Martin Suckling (who was sitting two seats away from me), a tribute to Celan's own devastating 'Psalm'. The music was, I admit, avant-garde for my rather conservative tastes, but I was impressed by how Psalm, performed by players from the Aurora Orchestra, created a sort of echo chamber of reaching and loss (there were three quartets placed around the auditorium). Very unfortunately, for me, the real downside to the evening was the reading of Celan's poems. The selection was excellent - many of my favourites, including 'Homecoming', 'Etched away', 'Think of it' and others. However, the readings by actor Henry Goodman went way too far into 'actor' territory, and not in a good way (working for LAMDA, I know well that actors can perform poems superbly). Poems shouldn't be an opportunity for an actor to overact, and the power of Celan's words is such that just love, respect and restraint are needed (that goes for most poetry, actually). Sadly, he injected obvious sarcasm into every pronunciation of "Lord" in 'Tenebrae', and "over the top" doesn't even describe what happened to 'Death Fugue' (shouting in a fake German accent? Really?). I hope some of those who were less familiar with Celan in the audience look for the recordings available online of him reading his own poems, in the original German, in a tentative, trancelike voice.
Paul Celan was born 95 years ago today. It is sad to contemplate the fact that he committed suicide and that he could possibly still have been alive today. It's good, though, to see that a lot of people still love him, or that they're interested at least. I spoke with Grete Tartler afterwards and at the end of our conversation I said "I just really love him. I'm very sentimental about him, actually." She said "Yes, yes! You must be sentimental about him." She certainly understood. I am not quite sure whether she meant that my sentimentality about Paul was obvious, or whether it was a necessary approach for any reader, but certainly in my case, both apply.
Sunday, 15 November 2015
Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd, 2014.
The Island Review recently published three of my poems. As this lovely journal publishes only work by islanders and/or in some way related to islands, it won't come as a surprise that all three poems are about Vancouver Island (where I grew up). You can read them here: http://www.theislandreview.com/poetry-clarissa-aykroyd/
'The Provincial Museum' has actually been called the Royal BC Museum for many years, but it was the Provincial Museum in my childhood and so that name has stayed, for me. 'An Eye, Open' is in some ways a little tribute to Paul Celan. I stole the title from the title of one of his poems, and you can read it here if you're interested: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse/119/3#!/20595433
Wednesday, 4 November 2015
John Atkinson Grimshaw, The Strand, 1899.
I recently re-read The Sign of Four (or The Sign of the Four) by Arthur Conan Doyle - both the second Sherlock Holmes novel, and the second Sherlock Holmes story ever written (in 1890), before the short stories that made Holmes and Doyle really famous.
The Sign of Four has often (not always) been my favourite of the four Sherlock Holmes novels. Since I moved to London, it has taken on more (or other) significances, and especially since I moved to south London over five years ago. The Sign of Four is a real London book and a great deal of it happens in south London - near where I live, no less. There are key scenes which occur around Nine Elms and Millbank, and when I lived in Stockwell (by Larkhall Park) I was quite delighted by this moment:
Sherlock Holmes was never at fault, however, and he muttered the names as the cab rattled through squares and in and out by tortuous by-streets.
"Rochester Row," said he. "Now Vincent Square. Now we come out on the Vauxhall Bridge Road. We are making for the Surrey side, apparently. Yes, I thought so. Now we are on the bridge. You can catch glimpses of the river."
We did indeed get a fleeting view of a stretch of the Thames with the lamps shining upon the broad, silent water; but our cab dashed on, and was soon involved in a labyrinth of streets upon the other side.
"Wordsworth Road," said my companion. "Priory Road. Lark Hall Lane. Stockwell Place. Robert Street. Cold Harbour Lane. Our quest does not appear to take us to very fashionable regions."
For a couple of years I was often in the vicinity of Coldharbour Lane, and it's still not a very fashionable region. I think of The Sign of Four every single time I find myself down there. Such is the power of literature at an impressionable age.
Other scenes take place around Norwood. Conan Doyle lived there for a time, but apparently the evidence suggests that he did not know London as well as you might conclude from the Holmes stories, and that he may have relied quite heavily on maps. This actually makes sense, and it works quite well for the reader. There are some extraordinary set-pieces in the Holmes stories - in The Sign of Four, one that comes to mind is this foggy description on the Strand:
Down the Strand the lamps were but misty splotches of diffused light which threw a feeble circular glimmer upon the slimy pavement. The yellow glare from the shop-windows streamed out into the steamy, vaporous air, and threw a murky, shifting radiance across the crowded thoroughfare. There was, to my mind, something eerie and ghost-like in the endless procession of faces which flitted across these narrow bars of light, - sad faces and glad, haggard and merry. Like all human kind, they flitted from the gloom into the light, and so back into the gloom once more.
There is also a very wonderful pursuit along the Thames, among other scenes. I love the south-London-ness of this book, the sense of staying in the "great cesspool" but moving into something wild and vast - north-of-the-river folk still see south London in this way. A lot of the dark deeds of the Holmes tales take place in south London or the southern outskirts of London.
There is something about the "map" quality of The Sign of Four, and the way it careers around London, which I associate very strongly with my own perceptions of the city. I feel like I carry London in my head - a map, but more than a map. In certain areas, it's as though I can see all the layers superimposed at once - past, present and future times, stories, songs, and more. And wherever I am in London, I feel an awareness quivering from other parts of the city - places I know, people I care about, all moving around and past and through each other. The way Doyle wrote, in map-speak combined with dramatic set-pieces, allows readers to fill in the gaps with their own London. I did this with his stories before I ever visited London, and I have continued to do so ever since, with the real London and with my own perceptions of it from the past and present, all layered and still present to each other.
Does this have a relevance to poetry? Well, I think that poetry is a certain kind of free-association combined with great precision, and to me there is something very maplike about it. The connections which turn into the flashpoints of poems are like transport links and connections around the city, often moving with speed to very disparate parts of London. And the map of any given poem - in physical space, emotional space, and time - builds and superimposes like the palimpsest of London in my head.
And for anyone who's stuck with me to the end of this entry - are there poems to accompany these thoughts? I had thought that this might be a moment to discuss London poems, but instead two great poems about maps and water (on one level, and among other things) came to mind. I have linked to them below. Maps and water are actually both very important to The Sign of Four, so this is appropriate. Beyond that, perhaps you will have to try and trace my train of thought with the clues I have left, and if you can do that, I congratulate you, my dear Watson.
DIVING INTO THE WRECK (Adrienne Rich)
MAPPING THE DELTA (George Szirtes)
Friday, 30 October 2015
Red Cross Garden, Southwark. Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd, 2015
As a follow-up to the Mixed Borders project I took part in this summer, where poets-in-residence did poetry things in and around gardens for the London Open Garden Squares Weekend in June, the Poetry School recently published a pamphlet featuring some of our poems.
The pamphlet can be found here in flicky-book format and in PDF. Among many others by the talented poets who took part, it contains my Red Cross Garden poem 'Restoration'.
Wednesday, 21 October 2015
Fryderyk Chopin - by Maria Wodzińska, 1835
Life seems to have been distracting and distracted of late, and I had to follow a thought down the rabbit hole to find something to write about tonight.
I played the piano pretty seriously for about ten years in my childhood and teens - starting with the spinet or harpsichord, because unusually, my parents had one at home. (It had been my grandfather's, and when my father's family lived in Calgary, the orchestra used to borrow it.) The harpsichord will limit you to Renaissance and Baroque music, as beautiful as it is, and eventually I moved on to the piano.
I was the piano student who had talent but would probably have done better had she practised more. I still did reasonably well, but I can't help wondering if my teacher slightly regretted introducing me to the great Polish composer Chopin in the last few years that I was actively playing. I already knew his music up to a point and was keen to trying playing it. As it turned out, I loved playing Chopin so much that I didn't really want to play anything else. (This wouldn't have been a problem but for the fact that I was practicing for exams where only playing Chopin wasn't an option.) The Nocturnes hit me particularly hard. Some of them were far too difficult for me, but I gave quite a few of them a go, and some with success - along with some Preludes and Etudes.
Fryderyk Chopin is the poet of the piano. It was his medium, like no one else's. There is an extreme purity of emotion in his music which often overwhelms me. It's the tightrope walk between beauty and despair, over the abyss.
My father and I were watching a Chopin documentary together when I was in Canada, and this led to me writing a poem which rather strangely was both about Chopin and about Urbain Le Verrier, the French mathematician who predicted the existence of Neptune. Chopin mentioned Le Verrier in one of his letters. I was already thinking of writing a poem on the subject of Space, which I had been requested to do for my reading with The Quiet Compere (which took place last week in Hackney). Chopin and Le Verrier proved to be the subject of my poem, in the end.
Tonight, I thought I would see if there is poetry about Chopin. There is, but perhaps not a great deal or not specifically about him. But then I found this very moving 'Elegy' by Anne Stevenson about her logical, rational father's passion for the piano. The tension - or the beauty of the balance - between logic and emotion is also something I have been thinking about lately.
Tuesday, 13 October 2015
Nikola Tesla in Colorado Springs, 1899. Photograph by Dickenson V. Alley. Public domain
I was in Canada on 8 October - National Poetry Day in the UK - and with the time difference I slept through most of the happy occasion. However, on 11 October Ink Sweat and Tears published my poem 'Thinking of Tesla on the District Line', as part of their program of poems for the week following National Poetry Day.
This year's theme for National Poetry Day was Light. I wrote the poem some time ago as a little tribute to Nikola Tesla, a favourite scientist, and it seemed to fit the theme well so I sent it off to Ink Sweat & Tears. I don't usually have favourite scientists, and it is fair to say that rather than really being a poem about science, this is a Famous Dead Guy Crush poem. Tesla was a remarkable man. The glimpse of lights from the District line is real, by the way. I think you will find it around Gloucester Road, though I can never remember exactly.
Sunday, 20 September 2015
Nicolas Vigier, Rain in Paris. Public domain
When I first read 'Elegy for a Friend', a sequence of thirteen-line poems by Guy Goffette written for his friend Paul de Roux, I was left overwhelmed and in tears. This reaction came from the pure beautiful power of the poem and its wonderful translation from French by Marilyn Hacker. It probably also had something to do with the fact that elegy has unfortunately been quite relevant in the lives of my family and friends in the past twelve months (not to speak of most of my life, it seems.) But when I started thinking about how I could write about the poem, it took me on a long and revealing journey of its own.
'Elegy for a Friend' has a certain focus on the cumulative effect of words, of events, and of simply living a life, which is perhaps also why it hit me so hard (a couple of years ago, a close friend and I were discussing the fact that 'cumulative' was one of the words of the year, and not in a good way.) Looking back on his relationship with his friend, the poet wishes that certain patterns could have been broken.
Always, still, tomorrow, these paltry
words, thrown off in passing, overflow us.
if we had known
that, would we have stayed
sitting so long in our afflicted bedrooms?
It’s the same story always and we blame ourselves
afterwards for having in the heat of words
and wine allowed dark clouds to rise
on the friend’s brow
Beyond this, on further readings I found myself quickly associating this poem with Ecclesiastes and re-reading it through that filter. The final stanza is, to me, overwhelmingly reminiscent of Ecclesiastes 12: "One day we must depart, no longer knowing/anything of what was at the source/of the fire...", alongside the vivid description of the decline of a human being with age: "before the silver cord is removed, and the golden bowl is crushed, and the jar at the spring is broken..." The conclusions are different: Ecclesiastes 12:13 says "Fear the true God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole obligation of man," whereas the poem is secular and contemplates the meaning of life and art ("written, read and reread/by a blind man dancing in the fire"), but it seems to me that both arise from a similar line of questioning.
I first read 'Elegy for a Friend' some months ago and have been thinking about it - and thinking about writing about it - for some time, whether actively or subconsciously. Recently, in relation to the Goffette poem, these lines by another poet came back to me:
Do you know how it is when one wakes
at night suddenly and asks,
listening to the pounding heart: what more do you want,
I was so convinced that these lines were from Rilke that I leafed through my entire volume of his collected German poems and finally realised they weren't. The lines hadn't come back to me in an exact enough form to Google them accurately, but eventually I remembered enough key words to find them - in this poem by Czeslaw Milosz, 'Farewell' (scroll down to find it).
The connection isn't entirely clear to me: I think there are some stylistic similarities (although the fact that one poem is originally French and the other originally Polish may cloud this somewhat, in translation.) There are echoes of imagery across the poems: the suddenly beating heart, the self-questioning about life, meaning and desire. Milosz also asks: "From life, from the apple cut by the flaming knife,/what grain will be saved", which seems to echo the final lines of Goffette's poem. (Very starkly, Milosz concludes: "Nothing remains.") Milosz's poem is, too, a kind of elegy, though it seems to me to mourn the loss of places, groups of people and moments in time, than a single person.
In the past week, when I re-read the first stanza of Goffette's poem, something started nagging at me, and I had a feeling it had to do with TS Eliot. Granted, when things nag at me and they involve poetry, it's not that uncommon for them to have something to do with TS Eliot. (Also, I had just been listening to Viggo Mortensen read The Waste Land at the British Library, and I met him afterwards, and it's safe to say all of that had a lasting effect.) But eventually, after digging around for a while in a) my mind, and b) the Internet, I finally figured it out. It wasn't The Waste Land: it was a poem I have never loved quite as much, 'The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock'.
'Prufrock' opens with an epigraph from Dante's Inferno, which translates as:
If I but thought that my response were made
to one perhaps returning to the world,
this tongue of flame would cease to flicker.
But since, up from these depths, no one has yet
returned alive, if what I hear is true,
I answer without fear of being shamed.
I suppose I was reminded of this for two reasons, both of which are found in the first poem/stanza of 'Elegy for a Friend'. This section refers to the friends "slipping from the métro to Dante’s/hell without changing faces or/pace", and then moves on to imagery of flame and finally "that shadow/that burns all shadows while it waits for us". I don't know whether or not Goffette intended a direct reference. But I do know that by the time I had tracked down the 'Prufrock' epigraph, I felt as though I had travelled a long journey.
Saturday, 5 September 2015
Sarah Purser, WB Yeats, c. 1904. Hugh Lane gallery, Dublin
I was in Dublin for a few days last week. I used to live there - ten years ago and more - as readers of this blog may already know, but I hadn't even been back for a visit for several years.
This felt like my most successful visit back to Dublin so far. I had an informal to-do list - seeing friends, catching up with family, the seaside, galleries, the theatre (Brian Friel's version of Turgenev's A Month in the Country, at the lovely Gate Theatre), the pub. And I got through everything on that list. Notably, my relationship with Dublin felt happier than for a long time. Dublin still lives in me, in the way that a city where you spent some of your formative years (my early twenties) will do that. I stared at the dank Liffey and the springy Ha'penny Bridge, thought about history in front of the General Post Office, sheltered from the rain in the Winding Stair bookshop, and on Grafton Street I realised that someone there is always playing Hallelujah. I also remembered the time a bus driver flirted with me by paraphrasing Yeats's 'He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven'. (Quoting poetry will always get you points for effort, boys.)
On my last day I went to the Hugh Lane gallery. They were featuring an exhibition based on the Yeats poem 'The Municipal Gallery Revisited', where Yeats revisited friends - Synge, Lady Gregory and others - and great figures of the time, by gazing on their paintings at the gallery. They had pulled out those very paintings he gazed upon and put them together, with the full poem reproduced on the wall and then the specific lines next to each painting. It was extremely moving. Yeats had a way of transfiguring people - of course, he knew some of the strongest and most influential personalities of his time, but through his eyes they became sort of super-cinematic, in the most profound way. So many things inspire me about Yeats's poetry, but perhaps more than anything, no one else can retain and glorify the personal, the public and the symbolic so powerfully. The people in his poems are living breathing friends, enemies and lovers, but they are also archetypes.
THE MUNICIPAL GALLERY REVISITED (WB Yeats)
Around me the images of thirty years:
An ambush; pilgrims at the water-side;
Casement upon trial, half hidden by the bars,
Guarded; Griffith staring in hysterical pride;
Kevin O'Higgins' countenance that wears
A gentle questioning look that cannot hide
A soul incapable of remorse or rest;
A revolutionary soldier kneeling to be blessed;
An Abbot or Archbishop with an upraised hand
Blessing the Tricolour. 'This is not,' I say,
'The dead Ireland of my youth, but an Ireland
The poets have imagined, terrible and gay.'
Before a woman's portrait suddenly I stand,
Beautiful and gentle in her Venetian way.
I met her all but fifty years ago
For twenty minutes in some studio.
Heart-smitten with emotion I sink down,
My heart recovering with covered eyes;
Wherever I had looked I had looked upon
My permanent or impermanent images:
Augusta Gregory's son; her sister's son,
Hugh Lane, 'onlie begetter' of all these;
Hazel Lavery living and dying, that tale
As though some ballad-singer had sung it all;
Mancini's portrait of Augusta Gregory,
'Greatest since Rembrandt,' according to John Synge;
A great ebullient portrait certainly;
But where is the brush that could show anything
Of all that pride and that humility?
And I am in despair that time may bring
Approved patterns of women or of men
But not that selfsame excellence again.
My mediaeval knees lack health until they bend,
But in that woman, in that household where
Honour had lived so long, all lacking found.
Childless I thought, 'My children may find here
Deep-rooted things,' but never foresaw its end,
And now that end has come I have not wept;
No fox can foul the lair the badger swept --
(An image out of Spenser and the common tongue).
John Synge, I and Augusta Gregory, thought
All that we did, all that we said or sang
Must come from contact with the soil, from that
Contact everything Antaeus-like grew strong.
We three alone in modern times had brought
Everything down to that sole test again,
Dream of the noble and the beggar-man.
And here's John Synge himself, that rooted man,
'Forgetting human words,' a grave deep face.
You that would judge me, do not judge alone
This book or that, come to this hallowed place
Where my friends' portraits hang and look thereon;
Ireland's history in their lineaments trace;
Think where man's glory most begins and ends,
And say my glory was I had such friends.
Saturday, 15 August 2015
First, mea culpa, I haven't been writing in here much. My best excuse is that by my standards I have lately been writing poetry quite prolifically. Given that for the past four years I've often wondered if the blog is simply a giant, elaborate, elegant avoidance technique to keep me from writing actual poems - writing more poetry and less blog is A Good Thing. Also, there's just summer (such as it is) and busyness and all that.
On 29 July I spent the afternoon and evening in Cambridge, where I was one of the readers at the Judith E Wilson Drama Studio for The Missing Slate's anthology launch evening. This extraordinarily international journal - based in Pakistan and with staff and contributors from all over the world - has now published a few of my poems and an essay I wrote on poetry in translation. It was a real honour to be asked to be part of the evening, and in such good company. (Also, we all enjoyed the food and literary cocktails, including The Master and a Margarita and Go Set a Scotch Dram.)
The other writers who were reading included Karen Leeder, Martyn Crucefix, Vahni Capildeo, Hubert Moore, Sarah Fletcher, Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese, Fiona Inglis, and Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik. There were translations from German and Polish (and readings in the original languages), poems on everything from the Santiago de Compostela train disaster to the Lampedusa refugee crisis, and much more. Literature editor Jacob Silkstone also reminded us sensitively of the challenges faced in Pakistan by those working in areas such as literature, and paid tribute to Sabeen Mahmud, who was assassinated in Karachi earlier this year.
Before the evening, it was also lovely to spend a few hours walking around Cambridge. It helped that it was a day of summer sunshine, or at least enough of it. As I was sitting on a wall of the river terrace at Trinity Hall, a punter drew up near me, pointed at me and said to his passengers "See that girl sitting on the wall? Her great-grandmother was the first female Nobel Prize winner. Very impressive." I decided to take this as a compliment. Cambridge feels so peaceful and beautiful, it's hard not to be swept away by it. I also found a public piano in a shopping centre and as there was music on the stand, I was able to spend a few minutes picking my way through a Bach Invention I used to play years ago.
The week of the launch, The Missing Slate published another of my poems, 'Berlin'. This one goes back several years - I think I visited the city in 2008 and I'm sure I wrote the poem not too long after that, although I also revised it a few years later. Berlin fascinated me in an unusual way. I think I've travelled quite widely, but I have never been to a city which I could compare to Berlin. It is unique and it's haunted by all that happened there.
Cambridge, July 2015. Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd
Friday, 31 July 2015
Edgar Degas, Rehearsal on Stage, 1874. Musee d'Orsay, Paris
Keith Douglas quite often used imagery of dance and theatre in his poems, as in this mysterious and deliberately fragmentary piece, 'This Is the Dream'. The nature of performance can, I think, be both a distancing technique, and an approach toward another kind of intimacy.
THIS IS THE DREAM (Keith Douglas)
The shadows of leaves falling like minutes.
Seascapes. Discoveries of sea creatures
and voices, out of the extreme distance, reach us
like conjured sounds. Faces that are spirits,
cruise across the backward glance of the brain.
In the bowl of the mind is pot pourri.
Such shapes and hues become a lurid
decor to The Adventures. These are a cycle. When
I play dancer's choreographer's critic's role
I see myself dance happiness and pain
(each illusory as rain)
in silence. Silence. Break it with the small
tinkle; apathetic buzz buzz
pirouetting into a crescendo, BANG. Until
as each scene closes hush the stage is still,
everything is where it was.
The finale if it should come is
the moment my love and I meet
our hands move out across a room of strangers
certain they hold the rose of love.
[? Cairo, October 1943]
Sunday, 19 July 2015
No Direction by Mark Dries. Used under Creative Commons license
One of the most intriguing new collections of poetry that I have read in quite some time is American poet Louise Glück's Faithful and Virtuous Night.
I have been a fan of Louise Glück ever since I read her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection The Wild Iris, perhaps fifteen years ago. Despite having added to the genre myself recently, I'd say that the garden poem is one of the most overdone tropes in literature (or at least English-language literature), and if you are going to do it, you had better do it well. The Wild Iris, a series of garden poems, reaches great philosophical and sensual heights and it contains lines of poetry that I can never forget ("from the center of my life came a fountain, deep blue shadows on azure sea water"). It also performs the feat of multiple/shifting perspectives with especial effectiveness.
This latter technique - that of multiple and/or shifting perspectives - is key to Faithful and Virtuous Night. I might as well confess that it reminded me of the old Choose Your Own Adventure books. My brother and I loved these when we were children - if you were a child of the 70s and/or 80s you may well remember these. The Cave of Time, By Balloon to the Sahara, Survival at Sea and many others... These books had something in common with the text-adventure computer games of the 80s, and they allowed you to step into the world of different characters and situations and to choose the path of your story. We read them over and over again, because some storylines seemed particularly difficult to choose, and we wanted to find and experience them all.
Faithful and Virtuous Night has the curious effect of seeming to tell a story - that of an artist who has been orphaned - or perhaps several stories, but at the same time, the poems don't really seem to be chronological. While I think they should be read together or in each other's light, they could be read in different sequences. It makes me think of the expression "the fall of the cards", which seemingly could refer either to luck (or lack of luck) in a card game, or the cards used in fortune-telling. But is there a main character, and is it Glück or someone else? Is the child in some of the poems a vision (or metaphor) representing aspects of her life, or is it another character, or...? It sometimes seems as though in each poem, the same core persona enters and leaves by a different set of doors, wearing different masks. In 'The Melancholy Assistant', watching snow fall, the speaker says:
The street was white, the various trees were white -
Changes of the surface, but is that not really
all we ever see?
I think this has to be one of the most intriguing and unique poetry collections I have ever read. It is quite beautiful and quite haunting, and you should read it if you want something contemporary but different.
Here are links to a couple of poems from Faithful and Virtuous Night:
ABORIGINAL LANDSCAPE (Louise Glück)
AFTERWORD (Louise Glück)
Saturday, 11 July 2015
We are closed (and do not open tomorrow) by Sten Dueland. Used under Creative Commons license.
The 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, which took place in July 1995 during the Bosnian war, has made me think of the poem 'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford' by Derek Mahon.
A DISUSED SHED IN CO. WEXFORD (Derek Mahon)
'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford' has always seemed to me to be a totally unique work of art, and one of the greatest poems of the last century. Recently it was on the shortlist for the RTE-sponsored A Poem for Ireland competition, and although it lost out to Seamus Heaney's 'When All the Others Were Away at Mass', I think it would have been a worthy winner.
This is the ultimate microcosm poem; millenia of hardworking, suffering and lost human beings are drawn down to a sad little colony of mushrooms in a quiet corner of a small Irish county. The construction of the poem is extremely subtle, I think. It opens with a broader view - "Even now there are places where a thought might grow" and glimpses of a "Peruvian mine" and "Indian compounds". But then the view narrows to such an extent that it's as though you are in the shed with the mushrooms.
A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole.
This is the one star in their firmament
Or frames a star within a star.
Ominously, the shed is actually part of a "burnt-out hotel". Is this a glimpse of some post-apocalyptic near future, or at least some local catastrophe?
As I read the poem there is a sense of advancing down a path, increasing clues as to the true nature of the poem. Words such as 'civil war', 'deaths', 'nightmares', 'regime' and 'firing-squad' multiply. The poignancy of the scene is immense, even before the last stanza, when the nature of its message becomes plain.
'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford' is not just about genocide or man's inhumanity to man; it is more generally about the sadness of human loss and the fact that most human accomplishments, and most individuals, are utterly forgotten. I thought of the poem today, though, because of the line in the last stanza: "Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!" This is a terrible cry, wrenched painfully from the speaker, and seeming to sum up so much of the pain of Europe and the world. It's what echoes in my mind as this extraordinary poem draws to a close.
Sunday, 28 June 2015
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: http://radio.cz/en/section/books/a-certain-parallel-seamus-heaney-and-the-czechs)
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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 "love...is 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
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.