Monthly Archives: May 2012

Barbecue

I worked, for a number of years, at one of those joint RAF/US Air Force bases hidden away in the depths of the Cambridgeshire countryside.  As soon as you set foot inside one of these places, it’s as if you’re suddenly transported to the United States.  Burger King, Donut Land, Chicago Pizza, baseball stadium . . .  All around you are US Air Force men and women, walking, marching, jogging, and – if it’s a nice day – you can bet there’ll be a barbecue or two taking place.

Over the years, I began to get bored, and slightly irritated, by the constant stream of impromptu barbecues that were organised for any and every occasion, and at the slightest hint of warm weather.  So I speak, now, as one who is virtually immune to any of the attractions a barbecue can offer.  Nevertheless, there is something magical that happens, at the start of the Summer, when one starts sniffing the unmistakeable aromas of barbecues wafting around suburban streets.  Having trudged, grim-faced, under leaden skies for long enough, people suddenly seem to unwind, relax, and start loping lazily around – almost as if their limbs have been lubricated by the oozing juices of a grilled ribeye steak.  It was this kind of atmosphere I was trying to capture in my “Barbecue” poem.

Barbecue:

Air suffuses with burgers,
and onions.
Oil oozes and dribbles
from lips.
Sky hazes
with golden refulgence.
Limbs ease; languid motion
of hips.

Skin glows
with pink acquiescence.
Bee hovers
over flower, then
dips.
Into the shimmering silence,
a distant lawnmower
rips.

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Cider

The first really hot day for quite a while.  Fierce sun in a cloudless blue sky.  The sort of day when one’s thoughts – well, mine, anyway – turn to chilling-out with a cool, refreshing glass or two of beer – or cider.

I have a fondness for cider, born from many years of familiarity – despite the occasional unfortunate experience like the one described at the start of my “Cider” poem.   I prefer to drink good quality, “real” cider, as opposed to the white, fizzy liquid contained in large plastic bottles.  Most of the cheap white stuff has no known connection to cider apples; even so, I must admit that I have been know to imbibe it, in times of penury.

The names of a number of different varieties of cider apple are strewn throughout my “Cider” poem.  This was an idea I got from Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “John Barleycorn”, where the names of  different public houses occur on almost every line.  I may not have used this device as dextrously as Carol Ann – but, then again, she is our Poet Laureate.

Cider:

Somerset Redstreak flashing
into me, wreaking havoc.
Leaving me sprawled, insensate,
on a Bristol tavern floor.
My first encounter.  Too near
to its raw, cloudy,
unfiltered source?  I had asked,
in my innocence,
for “A pint of Scrumpy”.

I learned to approach the Fair
Maid of Devon more courteously.
Years passed.  Stembridge Clusters.  Such
pleasures.  Such flavours.  Breakwell’s
Seedling.  Slack-Ma-Girdle!  Bad
times, making do.  Ersatz
fizzy white excrescence.  Plastic
bottle.  Better times.  Broxwood
Foxwhelp.  Kingston Black.
Pure, fierce fruitiness
bursting from its core.

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A Day in May

I heard the actor Samuel West reading Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” on Poetry Please (Radio 4) the other day.  I thought it was a beautiful reading, reminding me how great a poem it is, and revealing completely new aspects to it.  I realised, for the first time, certain similarities the poem has with “Kubla Khan”, the great poem by Coleridge.

I’m not going to print out the Keats poem here – it’s universally available in anthologies and online – I just want to  briefly mention links between it and my poem “A Day in May”.  Keats was, of course, sadly too familiar with sickness and ill-health.  One of the main strands in the “Ode” is the contrast between the world of delight conjured up by the nightingale’s song, and “The weariness, the fever and the fret . . . Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies . . .”  There is an idyllic section, in the fifth stanza: “. . . flowers are at my feet . . . The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild . . . And mid-May’s eldest child, The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine, The murmerous haunt of flies on summer eves.”

Recently recovered from a bout of illness myself, I wanted – like Keats – to contrast the self-obsessive world engendered by sickness with the delights of the natural world that are only accessible to the healthy.  I also wanted to use the month of May as a symbol of rebirth and renewal.  It so happens that I was born in May, and I intended to allude to that, as well.  I came to the conclusion, however, that it was pointless to try to shoe-horn such a reference into the poem, when it seemed to work perfectly well without it.

A Day in May:

A new day to encounter; a new day in May.
After weeks of deluge, a hazy blue sky.
Fleecy, cotton wool clouds scud by,
adorning the heavens, delighting the eye.
Laughter of children; new-born lambs play.
A new day to encounter; a new day in May.

When in sickness, poor health, you cannot see life’s wealth.
Can only see what sickness discloses of the self.
Can only cry, with the sad tears of a clown,
whose stuttering act is breaking down.
Can only live a life overladen with fear.
Rumblings and ravings are all you can hear.

So now, post-sickness, it is so good to stare:
the brightening firmament, the seeds in the air.
So good, to breathe freely; watch swallows on high
cavort, ‘neath those cotton wool clouds in the sky.
On a day of such bounty, not much you can say.
Just smile, be thankful, for a new day in May.

 

 

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Coffee

In an earlier post – “Plums and Croissants” – I spoke about the relative scarcity of poems celebrating the simple pleasures of food and drink.  In my own small way, I am doing my best to remedy this deficiency, and the following short poems on the subject of coffee are examples.

Coffee is vitally important for me, at the start of the day – and I mean real, good quality coffee, not “Instant” (although I am advised that you can get quite good Instant Coffee, these days).  In the second poem, there are allusions to coffee having almost magical properties, and its transformative effects do tempt me, at times, to regard it as a magical potion.

The Day Begins:

Some talk to trees, or flowers.
I talk to my coffee machine.
I give it thanks for its daily duty:
ushering me from insensibility.

The blackness of the liquid is befitting.
From darkness came light, in the beginning.
Consciousness is stirred, unwilling,
to awareness vibrating with meaning.

Air resonating with my blessing,
the day begins.

Coffee – the Morning After:

My coffee is black.  I pour it
slowly, slowly, jug to cup.
Slowly, slowly, never looking up.
Slowly, slowly, mesmerised;
how it oozes, how it slides.

Black as treacle, black as coal.
Black as a death star in a black hole.
Black as Tartarus; as a cancer cell.
Black as the deepest pit of Hell.

But as I sip it, slowly, hot as I dare.
Slowly, slowly, with infinite care.
It works its wonders.  It banishes night.
Oh!  Its benison, burning bright!
Oh!  Its spirit, its soul, is white!

 

 

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Personal yet Universal

My mother died, a few years ago, at the age of eighty-nine.  She had a long, happy life; but the last few years were marred by failing sight – due to the onset of “Age-related Macula Degeneration”.  Writing poems about one’s mother always incurs the danger of them being “too personal” and of no interest to anyone else.  And yet, what could be more universal than the mother-son relationship?

In the two following poems, I hope I have avoided the traps of sentimentality and personal reference.  The first poem is partly about her religious beliefs (she was a devout Roman Catholic), and the second one is about her encroaching blindness.

God in the Garden:

My brother and I clasp my mother’s hands,
as we walk in the afternoon light.
Her eyesight is fading; still she confirms:
“This is what Heaven must be like!”

Every Summer, we bring her to gardens.
Sheer pleasure, guaranteed, without fail.
She delights in the flowers, the fragrances.
A great gardener herself, but now frail.

Warm Summer breeze ruffles the trees.
Squirrels tussle in playful fight.
A smile of pure rapture creases her face:
“This is what Heaven must be like!”

Her lifelong faith in God still upheld,
now the end of life’s journey is near.
My brother and I have no such belief.
She approaches her fate with no fear.

Children’s laughter vibrates in the air.
A thrush sings with all of its might.
She sighs with contentment; repeats the refrain:
“This is what Heaven must be like!”

It was in my early teenage years
that God disappeared from my life.
No more of those silly, superstitious fears;
sceptical rationalism was rife.

A smile of wonderment on my mother’s face:
“This is what Heaven must be like!”
My brother and I exchange glances.
I only hope, for her sake, she is right.

Darkness Visible:

One morning, sipping her breakfast cup of tea, she claps a hand over one eye, says:

 “If I cover this eye, like that,
out of the other there’s nothing; just black.”
She repeats the action.  Sighs, sits back.
“There’s nothing.  Nothing there; just black.”

We, her sons, are horrified.
Want to run from this; want to hide.
She shrugs.  She is resigned.
It’s nothing malign, or unkind.
Just the fallible workings of fate,
which is blind.

 

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Barnsley Bitter

Having mentioned, in previous posts, that I come from South Yorkshire, I now have to be specific and say I was born and brought up in Barnsley.  Yes, that’s right, the place famous for having produced – among others – Michael Parkinson, cricketer Geoff Boycott, miners’ trade union leader Arthur Scargill, cricket umpire “Dickie” Bird, comedian Charlie Williams, and, as it happens, a well-known poet called Ian McMillan.

My poem “Barnsley Bitter” is, partly, a reminiscence of my teenage years, familiarising myself with the pubs of Barnsley and the locally-produced ale – the Barnsley Bitter of the title.  A feeling of bitterness can also be detected, referring to the way the town was stripped of its main industry by the ruthless policies of the Thatcher government.,

The years have rolled by, and when I go to visit family and friends in Barnsley now I see a place transformed from how I experienced it as an adolescent.  Many things have changed for the better, although it still struggles from the loss of its mining heritage.  As for me, the gloomy conclusion of the poem is not really justified: despite enjoying the pleasures of alcohol more than most, I stoutly deny being an alcoholic.

Barnsley Bitter:

Barnsley was still a mining town
when my first pint of bitter went down.
A pale blonde nemesis, by the name of Thatcher,
was earning her corn as an aspiring milk-snatcher.

A man’s drink, was Bitter.  It washed away the dirt,
rinsed off the pit-dust, slaked your thirst.
Dimly recalled now, the pub, the bar there.
A bit like Manet’s ‘Bar at the Folies Bergere’?

Busty barmaids, iconic bottles of Bass.
Too-revealing self-portraits, mirrored in glass.
Jostling hubbub; lights shining bright.
Darkness outside; town built on anthracite.

Blessed amber fluid.  In its head of white bubbles
I drowned my anxiety, forgot all my troubles.
It liked me too much, this Lethe-born brew.
I floated, ecstatic, but deep within, I knew.
By the time the third pint had been drunk,
my fate was sealed.  Like the town, I was sunk.

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Sex and Humour

Time for another of my poetry pastiches, perhaps?

John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647-80), became notorious as a leading member of the group of rakes and “court wits” surrounding Charles II.  In Samuel Johnson’s words, he “blazed out his youth and health in lavish voluptuousness” and died at the age of thirty-three.  In the 2004 feature film “The Libertine”, the part of Rochester was, unsurprisingly, played by Johnny Depp.  His early death was also, however, lamented by lovers of literature, as he had become one of the foremost poets of the age.

The Oxford Companion to English Literature comments: “He wrote more frankly about sex than anyone in English before the 20th cent., and is one of the most witty poets in the language”.  “A Song of a Young Lady to Her Ancient Lover” is one of his best-known poems, and exemplifies his wry wit.  For my pastiche version, I simply inverted the main idea behind the poem; so mine is the “Song of a Middle-Aged Man to his Young Lover”.  Poems about sex are comparitively rare in our language, and even rarer are those imbued with humour.  I hope Rochester would at least have tolerated the attempt at humour in my pastiche.

Here is Rochester’s original:

A Song of a Young Lady to Her Ancient Lover:

Ancient person, for whom I
all the flattering youth defy,
long be it ere thou grow old,
aching, shaking, crazy, cold;
but still continue as thou art,
ancient person of my heart.

On thy withered lips and dry,
which like barren furrows lie,
brooding kisses I will pour
shall thy youthful heat restore
(such kind showers in autumn fall,
and a second spring recall);
nor from thee will ever part,
ancient person of my heart.

Thy nobler part, which but to name
in our sex would be counted shame,
by age’s frozen grasp possessed,
from his ice shall be released,
and soothed by my reviving hand,
in former warmth and vigor stand.
All a lover’s wish can reach
for thy joy my love shall teach,
and for thy pleasure shall improve
all that art can add to love.
Yet still I love thee without art,
ancient person of my heart.

And my pastiche:

A Song of a Middle-Aged Man to His Young Lover:

Beauteous maiden, you and I
the dizzying gulf in years deny.
The hectic flush of youth I cherish;
I dread the day when it may perish.
Pray, continue as thou art,
beauteous maiden of my heart.

Thy tender bosom’s lissom tips
will blossom, ‘neath my practised lips.
Your pulse vibrates, your juices flow,
your skin attains a roseate glow.
Thus, lovemaking becomes an an art,
beauteous maiden of my heart.

I bring to our love consideration
unknown to a younger generation.
My expert hand, my seasoned skills,
will vouchsafe pleasure, banish ills.
All this, and more, I will impart,
beauteous maiden of my heart.

 

 

 

 
 

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Act of Nature

With most of my poems, I attempt to adhere to conventional rhyme and metre, but occasionally there are subjects that defy the limits of such formal constraints.  The unconventional behaviour of my nextdoor neighbour – as described in “Act of Nature” – turned out to be an example of this.  The only kind of pattern or shape I could impose on the poem was that derived from counting syllables; but I suppose the end-result is more of a “prose-poem” than anything else.

As for the behaviour of my neighbour, as they say in my native South Yorkshire: “There’s nowt as queer as folk”.

Act of Nature:

Seen through my upstairs window
one glorious midsummer evening:
the man nextdoor – stocky, bald-pated –
standing, motionless, in the
cleft of a hedge.

Human cat, eyeing his prey?
Is he a spy, observing his neighbours?
Harmless naturalist, observing
innocent creatures’ behaviour
in the hedge?

A wanton flutter of breeze
ruffles the leaves, finally reveals the 
obvious, surprising truth: he is
pissing, intensely focused,
into the hedge.

I know little about the
man; but I do know he lives alone, and
has a fully-functioning toilet
in his bathroom.  Why, then, do it
in the hedge?

The mystery, now revealed,
becomes newly-obscured.  Is this perverse  
act a secret ritual, performed
nightly?  What is it that drives
him to the hedge?

The leaves enclose the scene.  I
have to imagine the patter of piss
on the leaves; the majestic, golden
arc of it.  The growing, dark
patch of earth.

The act ends suddenly, with
the pulling of the zip.  He steps away,
with accusatory glare around.
I withdraw, guilty, somehow,
witnessing it.

We return to the mundane.
Who knows the reasoning behind it?  And
who cares?  The earth will accept this gift
of irrigation.  The leaves will
gladly glisten.

 

 

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Plums and Croissants

Thinking about France and the French – with the final round of their general election due tomorrow – brought my poem “Croissants” to mind.

I’m surprised by the relative dearth of poems celebrating the simple pleasures of food and drink.  One of the few poems in this category is “This is just to say”, by the American poet William Carlos Williams (1883-1963).  Its originality and simplicity have earned it a place among the most popular poems of the last century.

This is just to say:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

I make no claims for my “Croissants” poem being anything like as original as “This is just to say”, but I did think the same sort of simplicity was fitting, to celebrate a simple pleasure.

Croissants:

Name derived from shape
of lunar light, but
their virtues are solar;
embody warmth, a bright
golden haze of optimism.

The oven is open.  A cozy
glow gentles the morning air.
Black coffee nestles
in the cup.

They flake and crumble
in the mouth.  Soft, subtle
pastry eases its way;
deliquesces with
the coffee.  Enfolds,
cajoles, comforts you into
the cares of a new day.

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Cricket at Adlestrop

Following on from the “Bathtime Reading” of my last post, I am now in danger of giving the impression that I spend most of my time luxuriating in a warm bath; but the bathtime theme of my poem “Cricket at Adlestrop” is purely coincidental.

Edward Thomas’s poem “Adlestrop” invariably features in listings of the most popular English poems.  It is a pastoral vision of the countryside and, simultaneously, a moment in time, captured with perfect clarity.  One can see the steam-train, idling at the “bare platform”; hear the birds singing.  An inbuilt feeling of nostalgia is deepened by our knowledge that Thomas was killed at Arras in 1917.  My pastiche is meant as a humorous, oblique tribute.  The world it hints at is that of a multi-ethnic modern city; far away from the rural railway station of the original.

Adlestrop:

Yes, I remember Adlestrop –
the name, because one afternoon
of heat the express-train drew up there
unwontedly.  It was late June.

The steam hissed.  Some one cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
on the bare platform.  What I saw
was Adlestrop – only the name

and willows, willow-herb, and grass,
and meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
no whit less still and lonely fair
than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
close by, and around him, mistier,
farther and farther, all the birds
of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

And my version:

Cricket at Adlestrop:

 

Yes, I remember the result.
It was the hottest day
of the year.  I sweltered
in a hot bath – illogically.

The radio crackled.  The soap
slipped through my hands
into foam-filled water
while I changed wavebands.

What I heard
was Bangladesh – only the name
of the winning team.  Australia,
incredibly, had lost the game.

And for that minute a car horn blared
close by, then a louder
claxon, and another.  All the cars
of all the Bangladeshis of Peterborough.

 

 

 

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