The End!

January 16th, 2014

The End: after what I thought was three years but now that I’ve checked I see it’s four. Four whole years of starts and stops, of losing the way and the place and the point, quite apart from the will to live. Or to finish. Or to have any faith in what I was trying to write. For ages I struggled with the ending – I got them all down to the beach and couldn’t then work out why they were there or what they were going to do, and I couldn’t get them back up from the beach either. They’ve been shivering down there for months.

But now: now it’s done. Revised at least nine times, and finally – it’s over.

Another book! When I often thought there wouldn’t ever be another book.

Of course when I say ‘The End’, or ‘it’s over’, none of that is likely to be true. Other people have to read it now and at the very least there’s bound to be a need for changes. But right now I feel so good. As light as a leaf, and twice as supple.

Burning the old year

January 1st, 2014

Naomi Shihab Nye is a remarkable poet, whose work I treasure whenever I encounter it. I posted one called ‘Shoulders’ just over a year ago, which she wrote in response to the Newtown school murders. There’s another I love called ‘Wandering around an Albuquerque airport terminal’. And now I’ve discovered this one – ‘Burning the old year’ – which is perfect for today, the first of a new year, which I’ve partly spent shredding old files. (I’d burn them if I could: much more satisfying, especially on such a drear day.)

I often think it’s the things you don’t do that you regret, rather than the things you do. And that gives the last stanza a lot of resonance for me.

Burning the Old Year
Naomi Shihab Nye

Letters swallow themselves in seconds.
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.

So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems.
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is a stone.

Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.
I begin again with the smallest numbers.

Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,
only the things I didn’t do
crackle after the blazing dies.

Tuesday poem: Ballad of the bread man

December 24th, 2013

Ballad of the Breadman
by Charles Causley

Mary stood in the kitchen
Baking a loaf of bread.
An angel flew in the window
‘We’ve a job for you,’ he said.

‘God in his big gold heaven
Sitting in his big blue chair,
Wanted a mother for his little son.
Suddenly saw you there.’

Mary shook and trembled,
‘It isn’t true what you say.’
‘Don’t say that,’ said the angel.
‘The baby’s on its way.’

Joseph was in the workshop
Planing a piece of wood.
‘The old man’s past it,’ the neighbours said.
‘That girl’s been up to no good.’

‘And who was that elegant fellow,’
They said, ‘in the shiny gear?’
The things they said about Gabriel
Were hardly fit to hear.

Mary never answered,
Mary never replied.
She kept the information,
Like the baby, safe inside.

It was the election winter.
They went to vote in the town.
When Mary found her time had come
The hotels let her down.

The baby was born in an annexe
Next to the local pub.
At midnight, a delegation
Turned up from the Farmers’ club.

They talked about an explosion
That made a hole on the sky,
Said they’d been sent to the Lamb and Flag
To see God come down from on high.

A few days later a bishop
And a five-star general were seen
With the head of an African country
In a bullet-proof limousine.

‘We’ve come,’ they said ‘with tokens
For the little boy to choose.’
Told the tale about war and peace
In the television news.

After them came the soldiers
With rifle and bombs and gun,
Looking for enemies of the state.
The family had packed up and gone.

When they got back to the village
The neighbours said, to a man,
‘That boy will never be one of us,
Though he does what he blessed well can.’

He went round to all the people
A paper crown on his head.
Here is some bread from my father.
Take, eat, he said.

Nobody seemed very hungry.
Nobody seemed to care.
Nobody saw the God in himself
Quietly standing there.

He finished up in the papers.
He came to a very bad end.
He was charged with bringing the living to life.
No man was that prisoner’s friend.

There’s only one kind of punishment
To fit that kind of crime.
They rigged a trial and shot him dead.
They were only just in time.

They lifted the young man by the leg,
They lifted him by the arm,
They locked him in a cathedral
In case he came to harm.

They stored him safe as water
Under seven rocks.
One Sunday morning he burst out
Like a jack-in-the-box.

Through the town he went walking.
He showed them the holes in his head.
Now do you want any loaves? he cried.
‘Not today,’ they said.

(Used by permission of David Higham Associates)

I have used a reproduction of one of Stanley Spencer’s paintings of Christ in the wilderness because I love that sequence, and because this one – the ‘foxes have holes … but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head’ one – seems to chime well with Causley’s amazing poem.

For more Tuesday poems go to the main hub site, where a different poem is posted each week. Further poems can be found on the blogs of the Tuesday poet members in the sidebar.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Anzac Biscuits: an analysis of substance

December 9th, 2013

Some weeks ago I decided to make Anzac biscuits, inspired by a kind neighbour and friend who’d brought me a batch of them in aid of my recovery. Glen isn’t an Australian or a New Zealander, but her Anzac biscuits are nevertheless truly excellent. They are slightly resistant to the bite, but not too resistant, and not too crisp. Not exactly crunchy, either: crunchy is wrong for an Anzac. Not too much dessicated coconut (I don’t really like the taste of that but you can’t leave it out, it’s part of the Great Tradition). A little bit chewy, but not too chewy – more lively than chewy, actually. And that authentic deep background flavour of buttery golden syrup. Altogether excellent: thank you Glen!

(And here for a moment I digress, in case you don’t know about Anzac biscuits. Their origin is yet another historical food disagreement between New Zealand and Australia, like Pavlova, which both countries claim as their own invention. The invented Anzac biscuit history which both countries share is that the biscuits were sent to soldiers in the First World War, ‘ANZAC’ being an acronym for the ‘Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’ who fought at Gallipoli. But it seems that those original and brave men had to make do with rock hard ships’ biscuits, and never got any Anzac biscuits at all. Read all about it here.) Maybe the Anzac biscuit already existed, and then had the name of the ANZACs attached to it. Digression ends.)

So, inspired by their deliciousness, I got out my Edmonds Classics recipe book. (Another digression is now required. The Edmunds recipe book is the biggest selling book ever published in New Zealand: over four million copies have been sold since the first edition of 1908. The book I have, though, is a relatively recent publication: my elder sister has possession of our mother’s edition of the original Edmunds book from the 1950s.)

Then I assembled the ingredients. I had to fight for the last tin of golden syrup in the supermarket aisle, too, grabbing it just ahead of a young man. “Flapjacks!” he offered as his excuse; “Anzacs,” I replied firmly, and he gave way. So then, as the triumphant owner of a tin of golden syrup as well as all the other ingredients, I made the biscuits. And blow me down, if the Anzacs from the Edmonds recipe weren’t classics at all: not in my view. They’re good, I don’t pretend they weren’t, but they did not – could not – match my idea of proper Anzacs.

Too plump.

Too soft.

Too close to the whole look and feel of an American oatmeal cookie.

How confusing is that?

We ate them, of course, and I even made a second batch and gave those away to two Australian friends, who loved them. (Maybe a soft, plump Anzac is an Australian speciality?)  And then I gave in, and asked Glen for her recipe. But when I read it – well, blow me down all over again, Glen’s recipe doesn’t have any bicarb in it!

No bicarb at all? In an Anzac biscuit true to the Great Tradition? Surely that’s not possible?

By this stage of the saga I’d put out a more general call for recipes, and now – for pity’s sake – I have four recipes, all subtly yet significantly different, one from another.

  1. One without bicarb, which I know tastes delicious even though it surely couldn’t be called a true Anzac.
  2. One that produced a soft, cookie-like result. Close– very close – but no cigar.
  3. One that was alluringly close to my memory of a true Anzac, but which veered just a tad too close to an over-crisp result for complete authenticity.
  4. One that had the relative balance of oatmeal and coconut wrong.

So I plan to spend at least some of the holidays testing batches of Anzacs. If I discover perfection (and the true Anzac) along that delicious path, I’ll let you know. And if not? Well, I’ll just start all over again with date loaf recipes, say I smugly, secure in the secret knowledge that I already have the perfect date loaf recipe… Oh, OK, secret no longer, huh? But still perfect.

The “today isn’t Tuesday but this is still a poem, poem”. Aimless love.

November 28th, 2013


by Billy Collins

This morning as I walked along the lakeshore,
I fell in love with a wren
and later in the day with a mouse
the cat had dropped under the dining room table.

In the shadows of an autumn evening,
I fell for a seamstress
still at her machine in the tailor’s window,
and later for a bowl of broth,
steam rising like smoke from a naval battle.

This is the best kind of love, I thought,
without recompense, without gifts,
or unkind words, without suspicion,
or silence on the telephone.

The love of the chestnut,
the jazz cap and one hand on the wheel.

No lust, no slam of the door –
the love of the miniature orange tree,
the clean white shirt, the hot evening shower,
the highway that cuts across Florida.

No waiting, no huffiness, or rancor –
just a twinge every now and then

for the wren who had built her nest
on a low branch overhanging the water
and for the dead mouse,
still dressed in its light brown suit.

But my heart is always propped up
in a field on its tripod,
ready for the next arrow.

After I carried the mouse by the tail
to a pile of leaves in the woods,
I found myself standing at the bathroom sink
gazing down affectionately at the soap,

so patient and soluble,
so at home in its pale green soap dish.
I could feel myself falling again
as I felt its turning in my wet hands
and caught the scent of lavender and stone.

I love Billy Collins’ poetry – its intimacy and apparent simplicity so often strike to the heart of his chosen subjects as well as of his readers. This one is especially immediate, and it’s also particularly resonant for me because I so often feel a burst of happiness – of love or connection: call it what you will – for unexpected objects. And Collins’ affection for soap, which he expresses in the last stanza, is something with which I found an instant happy connection – I’ve developed a love affair with the soap supplied at the peerless Crown & Castle hotel in Orford, and buy it in extravagant quantities whenever I’m there.

So, I hear you, Billy Collins. And thank you.

If you’d like to read more poems go to the main hub site, where a different poem is posted each week. Further poems can be found on the blogs of the Tuesday poet members in the sidebar.

Tuesday Poem: Fall Back

October 21st, 2013

Fall Back, by T. Clear

It’s returned, that hour lost last April,
slipped in at 2am while a half-moon gleamed
in the pine. Hovered while I slept,

unclaimed angel, tick-tock.
But I don’t desire to use it yet —
I want to be selfish, I want to hoard.

I want to tear it into ten-minute bits,
fold one into my wallet for the late appointment,
one in the vegetable bin when lolla rosa

need last until supper. Under my pillow
to extend the dream, in the oven to slow
Quick Yellow Cake. I’ll give one to my son

to get out of jail free. And one
I’ll bury in the garden in eternal plastic,
mark an X with apples. Maybe

I’ll forget it’s there. And just maybe,
in the next century someone will unearth
a ten-minute treasure, spend it lavishly.

© 2010 T. Clear

Therese posted this poem last October and I loved it as soon as I read it – it made me laugh out loud, for one thing, and on further reading I appreciated the imagery and extended metaphors that she’d used in such a light-handed fashion. And it’s such a good idea to hoard that extra hour we get when the clocks change back from Summer Time.

I remember that once, years ago, an American friend and I set off into London to go to a high Anglican mass (don’t ask) and discovered too late that the clocks had changed and we were an hour early for the service. The priest fixed us with what felt like a stern and challenging eye: “And what,” he asked, “will you do with this extra hour that God has given you?” Apart from the fact that it hadn’t been God’s idea to fiddle with the clocks George and I couldn’t answer the question, and we made our mumbled excuses, shuffling off out the door before the priest could make some worthy suggestions.

Well, thanks to Therese, now I know an excellent answer. And this coming Sunday, when our clocks go back again, I intend to lie in bed and invent my own version of her 10-minute sections.

If you’d like to browse through more Tuesday poems you can go to the main hub site, where a main poem is posted each week. Further poems can be found on the blogs of the Tuesday poet members in the sidebar.

Checking occlusion downstream, or don’t wait for the bleep!

August 27th, 2013

Brace yourselves, I have news for you all: being in hospital’s not like it is on the telly. I fondly remember those early episodes of E.R. when George Clooney was in it, and he spent a lot of time running down hospital corridors, often holding a cute yet vulnerable baby, and calling out things like “Have you got the central line in yet?” (I scorn modern hospital dramas, which seem more about the back love stories of doctors and nurses than about the techie medical stuff that made E.R. fascinating. Well, that and gorgeous George: an unbeatable combo.)

Well now. I recently spent more than five weeks in hospital, much of it in Intensive Care or High Dependency units. I had two significant operations, three general anaesthetics, and (for that matter) three sequential central lines inserted and removed. (You have to sort of hang upside down for part of that procedure: seriously weird.)  I was on IV drips for absolutely everything: food, drugs, antibiotics, blood transfusions: ‘Nil By Mouth’ carried to extremes. It is probably the most extraordinary experience of my life so far, and one I’m still trying to understand.

What remains most powerfully is gratitude: I’ve never before encountered such a winning combination of single-minded kindness and professional expertise. The entire staff, from the kitchens to the surgical consultants, were a professional as well as a personal delight.  I’d no idea how high-tech modern medicine is (those bleeping machines! those scientific solutions!) until I encountered it all. And I think the other most lasting pleasure was discovering that almost all the staff (from the kitchens to the surgical consultants) were the children of immigrants. There were several Irish nurses, and some from Australia and New Zealand, but in general the nursing staff’s families were from South East Asia, the Caribbean, Africa, and the Philippines. So let’s raise a cheer for the children of those much-maligned economic migrants, without whom none of our hospitals would function.

I suspect I’m now left with fading memories: only the highlights (and probably some of the lowlights) will remain. (In some ways the whole thing was like an uncut version of E.R., with only an occasional speeded-up moment of horror.) A friend of mine recently had a heart attack at an airport (excellent choice of venue, Richard, the paramedics are right there) and is still in recovery. He says this, and I think it’s true:

“One of the better things about our consciousness is that, in my experience at least, ordeals wither and become fuzzy, indistinct memories. I don’t think that time heals but I do think that it makes space for experiences to shape-shift; they don’t morph into fiction exactly but what remains is the salience of the unexpected and often trivial and the relative absence of the ghastly stuff. Shrinks worry about repression but I think that it’s a blessing.”

Me too, Richard. Me too.

And for the world of Clooney fans out there, here’s a memorable clip:

Next Tuesday’s Tuesday Poem

August 23rd, 2013

The Greeter, by Robert N. Watson

He’s not the Reaper, but he does stop by

To say, to everything that’s ever lived, “nice try.”

I know only that Robert N. Watson is the Neikirk Distinguished Professor of English at U.C.L.A. That fact, and this witty and wonderful poem.

A strange interlude of meta-language

June 16th, 2013

Today I give you three of the greats to whom, this week, I am bowing especially low: Eugene O’Neill, Carol Ann Duffy, and Leonard Cohen. And when I pause to wonder if they would also admire each other I think yes, I believe they would, although we can’t ask Eugene O’Neill any more. But I bet if he’d survived to encounter their work he’d have loved it.

I’m collecting these three artists in one post because I saw O’Neill’s play ‘Strange Interlude’ yesterday (a brilliant production at London’s National Theatre, catch it if you possibly can) and read a terrific article in the programme about the author. (And I heard Carol Ann Duffy on the radio by chance today. And Leonard Cohen? He’s a constant for me.)

(Digression begins. One of the very good things about the programmes at the National Theatre is that they always contain background articles that are worth reading. I remember arriving early for a performance of Tom Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia’ about 20 years ago, and was thus able to study the programme ahead of the performance. This good fortune enabled me to take the intellectual high ground at the interval and explain chaos theory to my companions, all because of an extremely helpful programme article which they hadn’t had time to read. Digression ends.)

The article in the ‘Strange Interlude’ programme is by Hilton Als, and its excellence will be no surprise to anyone who, like me, reads Hilton Als in the New Yorker. His comments on O’Neill’s use of language in dialogue are gloriously illuminating, and Als sets his theories against the background of his first encounter with the O’Neill biographies by Louis Sheaffer, and his own journey to Atlanta years ago to visit his mother. And it was when Als entered “the theatre of [his own] family” that he recognised O’Neill’s play as a “a world of meta-language in the form of soliloquies that contrasted with the ‘real,’ and banal language we used to presumably communicate with others as we talked about everything and nothing at all. Language is a mask….”

At the end of the article Als imagines himself unmasking his own response to ‘Strange Interlude’ in thought-dialogue (meta-language, in other words) to Nina [the play’s main character]. He says: “Nina, I have loved you for a very long time, all the way back in Atlanta when I was still a boy visiting my mother, wondering where love had gone and would it ever come again, and here it was again in O’Neill’s plays which glistened in my mind in the dark night …and you, Nina, splitting the night with your talk and O’Neill’s language, each expressing something about the artist, and his muse, and their respective, family-haunted hearts.”

And what you might be thinking by now, if you grew up inside any family at all, might be something like – well, yes of course. That’s families for you, no question. So?

Well, the “so” for me is that I now understand that this kind of meta-language – the language of hidden truths, of the human heart’s masked memories and desires, the language of love and loss and anguish and delight – that’s the language of poetry and music and song. The language that dissolves masks. And it’s something that both Carol Ann Duffy and Leonard Cohen do, as well as O’Neill.

Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry always seems to me to live without masks, especially in the poem I heard her read today on Radio 3, in a repeat of last year’s ‘Private Passions’ programme. The poem is called ‘Music’. I can’t reproduce it all because I haven’t applied for the relevant copyright permission, and I can’t find the poem on the internet so I can’t provide a link to it, either. (The link to the BBC’s website for the ‘Private Passions proramme, however, is this, which includes the poem as well as a glorious collection of music, and you can listen to it all there for 7 more days.) But here’s an excerpt from her poem, to be going on with.

When the light’s gone,
it’s what the dying choose,
the music we use at funerals –
psalms listed in roman numerals;
solo soprano singing to a grave;
sometimes the pipes, a harp.
Do you think music hath charms?
Do you think it hears and heals our hearts?

And Leonard Cohen? Well, he trades in meta-physical as well as meta-language spades, in almost every song he has written, especially in recent years. Especially this one.


Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love.

Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone
Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon
Show me slowly what I only know the limits of
Dance me to the end of love.

Dance me to the wedding now, dance me on and on
Dance me very tenderly and dance me very long
We’re both of us beneath our love, we’re both of us above
Dance me to the end of love.

Dance me to the children who are asking to be born
Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn
Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn
Dance me to the end of love.

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in
Touch me with your naked hand or touch me with your glove
Dance me to the end of love.

And for your further pleasure, here he is singing it.

At an angle to the universe

June 4th, 2013

I have stolen the title of this blog post from Paul Bailey, who used it in his wonderful review of a new edition of Cavafy’s complete poems in last Saturday’s Guardian. (You can read the review here.) It is, in turn, a quote from EM Forster, who knew Cavafy in Alexandria during World War I and apparently said of him that he stood “absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe”. And that metaphor seems absolutely perfect, for Cavafy in particular as well as for some other writers and artists: Rothko for instance, and perhaps Seamus Heaney. (Trying to think of creative artists to whom it applies reminds me of Alex Danchev’s wonderfully telling way of dividing visual artists between those whose paintings are saying, Look at this! and those whose paintings are saying, Look at me!)

But back to Paul Bailey’s review. I particularly like learning new things about Cavafy, for whom I have a deep and extravagant admiration, and Paul Bailey has given me the pleasure of another image; that of Cavafy setting down a few lines of a new poem on a sheet of paper and putting that in an envelope for later inspection, revision and expansion. It seems that he stored a mass of such envelopes in his apartment, and only opened them again “when he felt capable of bringing the half-poems they contained to a satisfactory end.” So contained, so controlled, so precisely laboured, those apparently spontaneous creations. I love to imagine that lonely and particular process.

The new book that Paul Bailey reviews is C.V. Cavafy: The Complete Poems, translated by the present keeper of the Cavafy flame, Daniel Mendelsohn. (I have his earlier compilation of the Collected Poems.) Bailey’s review commends the detail and scope of his scholarship but also points out some interesting infelicities in his translations, and contrasts one example with a translation by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. That makes me feel relaxed about my own (far less scholarly and knowledgeable) reservations that relate to several poems within the earlier Mendelsohn collection. The thing is, I’ve loved Cavafy’s poetry, and especially “Ithaka”, since I first read a translation of that in a Penguin book called Four Greek Poets, published in 1966. Much later I discovered that those translations were by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, and later still I encountered Daniel Mendelsohn’s version and have never been able to like it as much as the original (well, what I think of as the original) translation.

See what you think. I’ve posted ”Ithaka” before and I will probably find good reasons to post it again several times before it’s read – as I hope it will be – at my funeral.

So here is the Daniel Mendelsohn version:-

ITHACA by C.V. Cavafy
translated by Daniel Mendelsohn

As you set out on the way to Ithaca
hope that the road is a long one,
filled with adventures, filled with understanding.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them,
you’ll never come across them on your way
as long as your mind stays aloft, and a choice
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
savage Poseidon; you’ll not encounter them
unless you carry them within your soul,
unless your soul sets them up before you.

Hope that the road is a long one.
Many may the summer mornings be
when—with what pleasure, with what joy—
you first put in to harbors new to your eyes;
may you stop at Phoenician trading posts
and there acquire fine goods:
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and heady perfumes of every kind:
as many heady perfumes as you can.
To many Egyptian cities may you go
so you may learn, and go on learning, from their sages.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind;
to reach her is your destiny.
But do not rush your journey in the least.
Better that it last for many years;
that you drop anchor at the island an old man,
rich with all you’ve gotten on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.

Ithaca gave to you the beautiful journey;
without her you’d not have set upon the road.
But she has nothing left to give you any more.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca did not deceive you.
As wise as you’ll have become, with so much experience,
you’ll have understood, by then, what these Ithacas mean.

And here is my preferred version:

ITHAKA by C.P. Cavafy
translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

When you set out for Ithaka
ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – do not fear them:
such as these you will never find
as long as your thought is lofty, as long as a rare
emotion touch your spirit and your body.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – you will not meet them
unless you carry them in your soul,
unless your soul raise them up before you.

Ask that your way be long.
At many a summer dawn to enter
-with what gratitude, what joy -
ports seen for the first time;
to stop at Phoenician trading centres,
and to buy good merchandise, mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensuous perfumes of every kind,
sensuous perfumes as lavishly as you can;
to visit many Egyptian cities,
to gather stores of knowledge from the learned.

Have Ithaka always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don’t in the least hurry the journey.
Better it last for years,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth.

Ithaka gave you the splendid journey,
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn’t anything else to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka hasn’t deceived you.
So wise have you become, of such experience,
that already you’ll have understood what these Ithakas mean.