Archive for June, 2011

Tuesday Poem: “A Surprise Parcel”

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

by Adrian Mitchell

Hairy green string
Blobs of purple sealing-wax
Six postage stamps bearing silver holograms
Of the Snow Queen on an icy throne
Muddy brown wrapping paper
Round a soggy heavy oblong cardboard box
When you sway it from side to side
You hear a swishing-swashing sound -
Somebody has sent you a river.

Adrian Mitchell was a lovely man as well as a terrific poet, and I was reminded of both these truths last night at a Poets in the City event, when all three British Poet Laureates spoke (as Carol Ann Duffy said: “You wait 400 years for a woman Poet Laureate and then three come along at once”). It was Liz Lochhead, the Scottish Makar, who referenced Adrian Mitchell’s work, and that set me wondering what he’d have to say, in poetry, about current political events. But the example I’ve chosen doesn’t reflects his abiding political passions but rather, his sense of humour. This absurd, engaging playfulness was central to his character, I believe.

And while we’re talking poetry, why don’t you look at what the other Tuesday Poets are offering: if one of the posts on the sidebar mentions a Tuesday Poem you can be sure there’s a poem in there somewhere.

Poem puzzles

Friday, June 24th, 2011

These have so far defeated me, but I’m sure that all those blog readers out in the world are far smarter than me at puzzle-solving.


And here’s another one:

Foyles Bookshop is having a poem puzzle competition – the five examples are on their website here and the competition closes on 30th June.

Go for it! I haven’t admitted complete defeat – I haven’t thrown in the towel or the pencil – but no matter what strategy I use I haven’t yet solved even one of them. Not even with the half-closed eye technique.

Tuesday poem: ‘Backcountry’

Monday, June 20th, 2011

by Louis Jenkins

“When you are in town, wearing some kind of uniform is helpful,
policeman, priest, etc. Driving a tank is very impressive, or a car
with official lettering on the side. If that isn’t to your taste you
could join the revolution, wear an armband, carry a homemade flag
tied to a broom handle, or a placard bearing an incendiary slogan.

At the very least you should wear a suit and carry a briefcase and a
cell phone, or wear a team jacket and a baseball cap and carry a cell
phone. If you go into the woods, the backcountry, someplace past
all human habitation, it is a good thing to wear orange and carry a
gun, or, depending on the season, carry a fishing pole, or a camera
with a big lens. Otherwise it might appear that you have no idea
what you are doing, that you are merely wandering the earth, no
particular reason for being here, no particular place to go.”

I hadn’t encountered Louis Jenkins’ prose poetry before last week, when the great British actor Mark Rylance won a Tony Award in New York for his extraordinary performance in the Broadway production of “Jerusalem”. And as his acceptance speech, he recited (if that’s the right word in this context) one of Louis Jenkins’ poems – as, I discovered, Rylance had also done when he won his first Tony Award in 2008. So I looked up Louis Jenkins and fell for his work in a heartbeat. It contains that alluring combination of apparent craziness and sanity that builds and contradicts itself so cleverly that at first it seems to encourage laughter, uncertainty and the suspension of disbelief in equal measures and ends up striking a deep and resonant note of truth. I can’t imagine what I’ve done without Jenkins’ work all these years.

“Walking through a wall” is the poem he recited in New York last week, and it’s a humdinger of a poem – worth seeking out, and if you do have a look at Louis Jenkins’ website. But to keep you amused meantime here’s a YouTube recording of Rylance reciting ‘Backcountry” to the Tony Awards audience in 2008. I particularly enjoyed the almost palpable audience reaction in the background building in confusion, near-hysteria and uncertainty as they try to work out what the hell he’s doing. (You can imagine the whispers running through the auditorium: is he mad? could he be drunk? what is happening? To which the answer is simple: nope, none of the above, he’s just reciting a poem by Louis Jenkins…)

One thing – I assume that Jenkins’ poems are supposed to be presented justified right and left – well, try telling that to WordPress. I did everything I could think of, and it wouldn’t work. You’ll just have to imagine the poem in that fashion, and close your mind to that irritating little hanging “cell” that I also couldn’t get rid of …

My thanks (and apologies for the layout blips) to Louis Jenkins for permission to post his poem.

Now maybe you’ll have a look at the Tuesday Poem web page and enjoy the other poems.

The whole world was watching

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

One of the good things about Houston – probably the best thing, in fact – is the amount of oil money that has been spent on its art galleries. The Museum of Fine Arts has not only a wonderful collection of paintings, especially Impressionist and post-Impressionist ones, but they’ve also clearly also bought great curators along with the paintings. The exhibitions are perfectly hung, and supported by excellent commentaries.

Good salads in the café, too. And let me tell you, when you’re in Texas, a good salad ain’t nothin’.

But there’s more, and the more is the best bit: the Menil Collection, a modernist collection that includes a substantial holding of ancient and indigenous art. The main collection is housed in a beautiful wooden building; and there’s the astonishing Rothko Chapel and several other galleries as well. All free, too, thanks to the vision and generosity of the Menil family.

The Rothko paintings are breathtaking, and worth the journey to Houston all by themselves. But the most moving and memorable part for me was an exhibition of Civil Rights era photographs, called “The whole world was watching”. As anyone who grew up in the late 1960s will remember, the phrase ‘the whole world is watching’ was the catchphrase of demonstrators and activists of the times.

The exhibition’s curator, Michelle White, says, “Photography at this moment in history was, in many ways, for the first time being vastly distributed. Activists, from the Vietnam War activists to the civil rights activists, were really harnessing the media for the first time.”

I was still in New Zealand then, at Auckland University, and I remember the effect of images and reports of the Civil Rights struggle in the USA: it created an indelible set of memories, as well as nurturing a passion for justice and change.

The powerful and striking images in the exhibition include marchers on the road from Selma to Montgomery, Dr. Martin Luther King in protest, cotton workers in the Mississippi Delta, prison labor camps in Texas, and the Ku Klux Klan. It’s a compelling and deeply moving collection and I salute the Menil organisers, as well as my own good fortune in being in the right place at the right time to see this.

Tuesday poem: Not my best side

Monday, June 13th, 2011

Not my Best Side
by U. A. Fanthorpe

Not my best side, I’m afraid.
The artist didn’t give me a chance to
Pose properly, and as you can see,
Poor chap, he had this obsession with
Triangles, so he left off two of my
Feet. I didn’t comment at the time
(What, after all, are two feet
To a monster?) but afterwards
I was sorry for the bad publicity.
Why, I said to myself, should my conqueror
Be so ostentatiously beardless, and ride
A horse with a deformed neck and square hoofs?
Why should my victim be so
Unattractive as to be inedible,
And why should she have me literally
On a string? I don’t mind dying
Ritually, since I always rise again,
But I should have liked a little more blood
To show they were taking me seriously.

It’s hard for a girl to be sure if
She wants to be rescued. I mean, I quite
Took to the dragon. It’s nice to be
Liked, if you know what I mean. He was
So nicely physical, with his claws
And lovely green skin, and that sexy tail,
And the way he looked at me,
He made me feel he was all ready to
Eat me. And any girl enjoys that.
So when this boy turned up, wearing machinery,
On a really dangerous horse, to be honest
I didn’t much fancy him. I mean,
What was he like underneath the hardware?
He might have acne, blackheads or even
Bad breath for all I could tell, but the dragon–
Well, you could see all his equipment
At a glance. Still, what could I do?
The dragon got himself beaten by the boy,
And a girl’s got to think of her future.

I have diplomas in Dragon
Management and Virgin Reclamation.
My horse is the latest model, with
Automatic transmission and built-in
Obsolescence. My spear is custom-built,
And my prototype armour
Still on the secret list. You can’t
Do better than me at the moment.
I’m qualified and equipped to the
Eyebrow. So why be difficult?
Don’t you want to be killed and/or rescued
In the most contemporary way? Don’t
You want to carry out the roles
That sociology and myth have designed for you?
Don’t you realize that, by being choosy,
You are endangering job prospects
In the spear- and horse-building industries?
What, in any case, does it matter what
You want? You’re in my way.

The conversation that’s possible between different art forms, and especially the one that flowers between fine art and poetry, is something that has delighted me for years. A kind friend introduced me to this poem by U.A. Fanthorpe years ago, and I’ve had a postcard of Paolo Uccello’s fifteenth century painting of “St George and the Dragon” tucked into my copy of Fanthorpe’s poems ever since.

I love the idea of giving each of the protagonists a turn at speaking: first the dragon, then the princess, and finally the warrior saint. None of their voices is predictable, and the combination of content and tone is so arresting, amusing, and finally so disconcerting.

She was a great poet, I think, and I’m sorry she was pipped to the Poet Laureate post years ago, by Andrew Motion: you’d never have known what she was going to say but you’d always have been sure it would have been witty and surprising.

Posting this poem celebrates not only U. A. Fanthorpe as a poet, but also the Tuesday Poem blog – do go and have a look at what’s there this week, both in the main section and the sidebar, where if a post says “Tuesday Poem’ you can be sure there’s a poem there. All you have to do is click.

Skylarks, and Orford Ness

Friday, June 10th, 2011

Arriving on Orford Ness is like entering another sensibility, or like encountering a parallel universe that turns out to be one you’ve always longed to inhabit. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere so strange, and so hauntingly beautiful.

The three-minute boat trip from Orford harbour across to the Ness isn’t long enough to adjust to the differences, even if you knew in advance what they would be. But as you begin walking in the otherworldly quiet you hear larks all around you, rising from the marshy ground with utter confidence as if they know they are the most celebrated bird in literature. It isn’t every bird that can boast both Shakespearean and Keatsian connections, and it isn’t every bird that sings as larks do with such a piercingly sweet sound.

The ten-mile-long shingle spit of land that is Orford Ness has been a nature reserve since 1993, when the National Trust acquired it.  One of its greatest joys for me is that for much of the year you can visit the Ness only once a week (on Saturdays) because of the many nesting birds that need protection – little terns, ringed plovers, redshanks, lapwings, and of course, larks. The Trust has to manage a delicate balance between protecting the fragile habitats and wildlife and giving access to visitors, and it does that through carefully managed restrictions. And don’t you love the idea of somewhere that you can’t get to easily, or often?

Some, perhaps many, visitors are there because of the Ness’s strange military history. It was a secret weapons testing site first acquired by the War Department in 1913, and heavily used during the 1930s and during World War II, and the now mostly derelict military buildings certainly add to the strange otherness of the place.

But for me it’s the isolation that gives the Ness its appeal. That, and the larks.

We first went there this year, at the beginning of May, and we plan to return at the end of July. I don’t think the second trail will be open by then but we’ll be happy to walk the Red Trail again and stare in an abstracted way at the muddy lagoons and the shingle plants. To get right across to the famous lighthouse this time (originally built in 1792 and still in use). And just to sit for longer in the midst of all that wild peaceful beauty.

David Watson – one of the co-owners of the glorious Crown & Castle hotel in Orford itself – is a brilliant photographer, and he’s given me permission to use this photograph.

You can see other samples of David’s work here. And if you want to find out more about the Ness here’s a link to the National Trust’s website page about it.

Tuesday Poem: ‘The Language of Cat’

Monday, June 6th, 2011

The Language of Cat
by Rachel Rooney

Teach me the language of Cat;
the slow-motion blink, that crystal stare,
a tight-lipped purr and a wide-mouthed hiss.
Let me walk with a saunter, nose in the air.

Teach my ears the way to ignore
names that I’m called. May they only twitch
to the distant shake of a boxful of biscuits,
the clink of a fork on a china dish.

Teach me that vanishing trick
where dents in cushions appear, and I’m missed.
Show me the high-wire trip along fences
to hideaway places, that no-one but me knows exist.

Don’t teach me Dog,
all eager to please; that slobbers, yaps and begs for a pat,
that sits when told by its owner, that’s led on a lead.
No, not that. Teach me the language of Cat.

I’ve only recently encountered Rachel Rooney’s poetry, and it’s been such a pleasure to do that. She has a distinctively cool simplicity of style – such apparently artless artfulness – and her poems are a delight. This one, especially, stays with me because of the amusement value of its precise imagery, and because my attitude towards cats is one of envy and admiration: they’re anarchists, as someone once said, but you can’t help loving them.

This poem comes from her new collection of the same name: ‘The Language of Cat’, published last month by Frances Lincoln – here’s the link to their web page. As you’ll see the collection is intended for children, but don’t let that stop you if you aren’t one – the poems are a delight at any age, I’d say.

Good cover, too. And my thanks to Rachel, and to her publisher, for permission to use this poem here.

You might like to visit the Tuesday Poem blogspot and see what poems the other members have posted this week (and no, it’s not too early in the week to be doing that, and yes, I do know it’s Monday today – but it’s Tuesday in New Zealand where the page originates, although the contributors are based all over the world). Go on, have a look why don’t you?