Category Archives: Poetry

Song of the Cherry Tomato

The Song of the Cherry Tomato

Welcome me, greet me;
it’s so easy to eat me.

Smell me, feel me,
admire my compact shape.

Then pluck me from my vine,
just as you would a grape.

Stroke me, preen me;
the best way to clean me.

Place me, with my friends,
in a plain, white bowl.

The colours, the arrangements,
are good for the soul.

Paint me, write poems to me,
if such art is your goal.

Or just pop me in your mouth,
and devour me, whole.

While eating some cherry tomatoes recently, I suddenly got the urge to write a poem about them.  I had previously written a poem about tomatoes in general, and it hadn’t worked out  particularly well, but this time I was inspired by the beauty and simplicity of these tomatoes – and how ridiculously easy it was to eat them.  I started out with some ideas about how easy it is for us these days, compared to our ancestors having to hunt, kill, and labour with their hands to provide food for their families.  But the whole thing started to become over-elaborate, until I suddenly got the idea to write it in the “voice” of the tomato.  After that, the poem flowed along quite easily.

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Books do Furnish a Room

Books do Furnish a Room

Penelope Lively borrowed
the above quote from Anthony Powell,
to write about her “relatively meagre”
personal library of 3,300 books.

Of course, she is an eminent,
prize-winning author. She is not
living in my tiny, one-bedroom flat,
where my personal library of 1,100 books
seems far from “relatively meagre”.

I look at my thirty-three bookshelves
– I don’t have any option;
there isn’t much else to look at,
in my tiny, one-bedroom flat.

Those ramshackle, odd-looking shelves,
that I bought “for easy self-assembly”,
that took me half a day to assemble,
and I still ended up screwing the shelves
in the wrong way round.

Those huge, handsome, blonde
shelves I got from the charity shop,
that I thought were so capacious
I would never fill them in my lifetime:
now they are overflowing.

I can’t help thinking that too much of my life
has been consumed in populating these shelves;
that too much of my life has been spent in reading,
instead of the life I should have been leading.

But it’s not the fault of the books,
or the shelves. I don’t want to be unkind;
for, as well as my tiny, one-bedroom flat,
these books have furnished my mind.

In my last post, about second-hand bookshops, I mentioned that I had recently completed two contrasting poems about bookshops.  After those two poems, I liked the idea of writing a third poem, to complete a trilogy of poems about books, and I thought I could write the next poem about my own books and bookshelves.  This was fine in theory, but I then had a few problems in trying to find a starting-point for the poem.  I was familiar with the phrase “Books do Furnish a Room”, and thought I could use that as the title of the poem.  I then looked the phrase up on the internet.  It confirmed that the quotation was from one of Anthony Powell’s novels, but I then came across an article by Penelope Lively, in which she used the quotation to write about her own “personal library”.  As soon as I started reading her article, and saw her description of her collection as “relatively meagre”, I immediately got the idea for the above poem.

 

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Second-Hand Bookshops

Second-Hand Bookshops

For a browser, like me, such bookshops should be
of a size to investigate thoroughly,
in an hour or so; any longer, I know
all sense of self, of meaning, will go.
A feeling of unease turns into fear;
I begin to question what I am doing here.
So many shelves searched, and so many more;
but what, exactly, am I looking for?
Books have always formed my identity,
the act of reading is a necessity,
but I drift, I flounder, in a surging sea;
how shallow my interests appear to be,
as the ocean of books cascades around me.
Don’t know what I want; don’t know what I’ve read.
The waves converge, and cover my head.

Books, and reading, have always been a pivotal part of my life, as have bookshops and libraries.  In my student days at Cambridge, there used to be Brown’s Bookshop, only a few minutes’ walk away from the college.  It was a fairly small bookshop, which used to sell both new and second-hand books.  The second-hand section was at the back of the shop, and I used to relish browsing through it, looking for my next “find”.  It must have been Brown’s Bookshop that turned me into a lover of second-hand bookshops, but I’ve had a few chastening experiences in such shops in recent years.  I visited a friend in Carlisle, who took me to the largest second-hand bookshop in the country, and I found the experience completely alienating and unsettling.  It resulted in generating two contrasting poems, the first of which is the one above.

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Red and Grey

Red and Grey

In the beginning, nature was red
in tooth and claw; life-force fed
on blood and gore.

We all know the tale that was read
to us by our parents; the deadly
battle of the Reds and the Greys.

Channelled from hearsay to history;
how the vibrant, vital Reds,
in the shirts of United,
succumbed to the wiles, the grim,
gruesome guiles, of the Greys.

Outwitted, outplayed, by the over-priced
mercenaries; betrayed, by the dubious
mechanisms of free-market capitalism,
outmanned in midfield, overrun
by sheer work rate, the scintillating
surges, the spontaneous urges
of the Reds were stifled, slaughtered,
by the prosaic purges of the Greys.

Every so often, a rumour is spread
of the long-awaited return of the Reds.
They will regain their kingdom,
or so we are told, like the all-conquering
mythical heroes of old.

Misinformation, I suspect;
we are being misled. Or items
of news that we have misread.
For when I search, in woods, or parks;
striding in sunlight, stumbling in the dark,
in evening twilight, or brightness of day,
I see no Reds; all the squirrels are Grey.

I was recently reading “On Balance”, a highly-acclaimed collection of poems by Sinead Morrissey.  I was reading it in the bath, as usual, in the relaxed state of mind that often seems to generate ideas for poems, and this proved to be the case again.  Some of the main themes of “On Balance” are economic and ecological instability, gender inequality and our inharmonious relationship with the natural world.  I found myself reading a series of poems in which colours featured strongly (one was called “Colour Photographs of Tsarist Russia”), followed by several poems featuring wild animals.  In my relaxed state of consciousness, I probably started mixing these ideas together, and, the next thing I knew, I had the basic idea for “Red and Grey” – so, many thanks to Sinead!

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Denying the Dealer

Denying the Dealer

A hand on my wrist, two eyes fixed on mine.
He was scrawny, dark-skinned, in a loose-fitting shirt.
He’d seen life in the raw, clambered up from the dirt.
“Come ‘ere, mate.” He whispered; looked quickly around.
He had the edge, now; I’d already lost ground.

He showed me his boxes; watches on display.
“Best quality, mate; yours for five quid today.”
Harassed, all my life, by encounters like these;
my heart was now hardened; immune to such pleas.
My demeanour proclaims me a mild-mannered mug;
but in these scenarios, I am more like a thug.

I was firm, unmoved by his confident spiel.
He persisted, still sure of sealing the deal.
He pushed three boxes into my bag, with a grin.
I pulled them out, gave them straight back to him.
He pleaded: his family, his kids, their needs.
I walked off, impassive, taking no heed.
He pursued me, wildly, eyes now confused.
Again the three boxes; again I refused.

He stood, despairing; looked up at the skies.
I’d seen the look of disbelief in his eyes.
“I had you nailed as a mug, and I’m always right.
You were sure to roll over; no hassle, no fight.
You had the full treatment; the best I could do.
You weirdo! What is it that’s wrong with you?”

I started this blog in April 2012, which means that I’ve been publishing a new poem, every two weeks, for over five years now.  It’s not so easy, to come up with a new poem every two weeks.  From time to time, the wells of creativity run dry, and I admit that I am going through one of those periods at the moment.  I plead this in mitigation for the fact that the above poem – Denying the Dealer – bears a marked similarity to an earlier poem, entitled Dodging the Dealer, that I published in this blog on February 7th 2013.  Following on from my comments in my previous post about how much I admired the comic poems and parodies of Wendy Cope, I started looking back through some of my own attempts at comic poems, and came across Dodging the Dealer.  I thought it could do with quite a bit of revision, and, by the time I’d finished, I thought I’d modified it and stripped it down so much that I could justifiably call Denying the Dealer a completely new poem.  Well, almost!

 

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Trend

Trend

i read
the quarterly bulletin
from
the poetry society

first one poet
then another
then another
and yet another

no capital letters
no indentation
no punctuation

just words
and spaces

is this
a trend

it must be
a trend

perhaps i should start
doing it

before they all start
doing it

words in space
humble art

how it was
at the start

I live in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, and often visit Cambridge, to meet friends there, and indulge in nostalgia for my student days.  The city of Ely (the second smallest city in England, apparently) is considerably nearer to Peterborough than Cambridge is, but I rarely go there.  I don’t have any friends who live there, and it’s always been a bit of an unknown quantity for me, despite having a wonderful cathedral that is even more impressive than Peterborough Cathedral.  I finally paid a visit there, a few weeks ago, and found it to be a fascinating place; the only criticism I could make is of the extortionate prices charged in the pubs there for a pint of real ale!  By coincidence, one of the first books I read, after visiting Ely, happened to be by the poet Wendy Cope, who – I found, to my surprise, –  actually lives in Ely.

Wendy Cope is one of my favourite poets, and is famous as a writer of humorous verse and witty parodies.  So, when I received the latest issued of the Poetry Society Bulletin, and found myself reading poem after poem written with no capital letters and no punctuation, my immediate response was to write a parody, as I thought Wendy Cope might do.

 

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Cambridge: Culture

Cambridge (7): Culture

City of students,
professors, high, lofty thought.
Wisdom, sought eagerly,
imbibed as it’s taught.

City of colleges,
bookshops, cobbled alleyways.
City of eccentrics,
steeped in its ways.

Culture at its centre,
philosophy, art;
the vibrant, pulsing
beat of its heart.

A humble student
might even play a part.
I’d fallen in love with it,
right from the start.

This is the last – for the moment, anyway, – in the sequence of autobiographical poems I’ve been writing about my time as a student at Cambridge in the late 1970’s.  Having temporarily run out of ideas for autobiographical scenarios that might be of interest, I thought it might be an opportune moment to try to summarise, in a brief poem, what Cambridge had meant to me.  I still look back at that period with the greatest affection, and think how lucky I was to spend three years of my life as a student at Cambridge.  It’s also nice for me to realise that, living in Peterborough, I’m within easy reach of Cambridge, and still visit it frequently.

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Peach Schnapps

Peach Schnapps

I drink it as a nightcap, so potent,
so sweet, my senses swoon under its sway.
But a drink of such richness,
so delicious, so strong, I know,
deep within, to drink it is wrong.

At first, half a glass, then a little bit more,
each successive evening, my trembling hand
pours a more generous measure,
then more, and yet more. So enticing,
in its guiles, resistance is futile.

I laugh to myself, shamelessly,
openly admit my dependency.
This is my laudanum;
I am with de Quincey.
My belly balloons, voluminously.

When I look in a mirror,
unsurprised, I see
an unsettling image,
staring back at me.
The bald head, swollen cheeks,
dull gaze, sickly grin,
of an ageing, chubby cherub,
unrepentant, steeped in sin.

My eyes close; I slide into ecstasy.
Coleridge and de Quincey swim towards me,
waving and smiling beatifically.
We link hands, we three, condemned to be
doomed souls, sinking, slowly,
in an opalescent sea.

I have had no qualms, in many previous posts in this blog, in stating that alcohol is, for me, one of the pleasures of life.  But the pleasures of alcohol bring with them the attendant dangers of addiction, and I have, occasionally, found it a bit of a struggle to keep “moderation in all things” as my guiding rule.  The above poem resulted from a recent flirtation with the addictive properties of Peach Schnapps; but you will no doubt be relieved to hear that the addiction came to an abrupt end, as soon as I read the small print on the back of the label, and realised that 100ml of the liquid contained 278 calories – mostly in the form of sugar!

 

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Instruments of Pleasure

Instruments of Pleasure

Cherry-stoner, apple-corer,
bring delight, impose order.
In a world of mush and mess,
they cut through cleanly,
ease the stress.

Cherry pulp, cherry flesh,
submit to the simple press,
thumb down on the silver gun;
the stone bursts out, its race is run.
Hard stone removed, at your leisure,
softness, succulence, simple pleasure.

The apple-corer’s humble duty:
a perfect circle, simple beauty.
Hand on top, a firm push;
no need to chop, no need to crush.
It performs its function, equals its station;
pips and core leave the equation.

Cherry-stoner, apple-corer,
bring delight, impose order.

Cherries are currently in season in the UK, and I usually try to incorporate them into my “5-a-day” fruit and vegetable regime around this time of year.  Because I don’t indulge in them during the winter, it always comes as a bit of a shock when I bite into the first cherries of the year, and encounter the large, hard stone in the middle.  This year, for the first time, I found myself thinking of how to extract the stones – instead of just chewing around them, as I’ve always done before.  I went into a large department store, deliberately looking for the appropriate device, and was pleased to find one, and purchase it, fairly easily.  The first time I used the device, I was immediately impressed by its efficacy, and by the explosive force it generated.  It’s basically like a staple-gun, with a steel rod, or plunger, that drives through the centre of the cherry.

The results were so pleasing – being able to eat cherries without worrying about the stones – that I started to think about similar devices for other fruit.  The next time I was in the department store, I bought an apple-corer, and found that equally effective in increasing the pleasure I get from eating apples. It was when I used the apple-corer for the first time that the idea for the above poem came to me.  For someone like me, who invariably finds difficulties performing simple manual tasks, it’s just a joy to find devices like this that work so simply and effortlessly. 

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How it Ought to Be

HOW IT OUGHT TO BE

After months of recalcitrance,
my W.C. now submits,
now obeys me.
My touch on the lever,
the prompt of my hand;
the waters flow
at my command.
The waters pour,
the waters rush;
the wondrous power
of a forceful flush.

Life has never been
like this, for me.
The simple day-to-day
should be easy,
but the simple day-to-day
I can’t get right;
the simple day-to-day
takes perverse delight
in obstructing my way.

This is, in truth,
a small victory.
But this is it;
how it should be.
Pressing the lever,
like turning a key,
to solve problems,
gain mastery.
The spray of the waters,
the surge of the sea;
this is it,
how life ought to be.

I seem to be one of those people who goes through life continually experiencing frustration and difficulty with processes that should be inherently simple.  Opening things, for example: packages, pre-packaged items from shops, bottles, cans, jars. . .  Should be simple, right?  Not for me.  Or unscrewing things, mending things that are broken, assembling things. . .  A set of bookshelves arrived, not so long ago, labelled “For Easy Home Assembly”.  First of all, just opening the packaging seemed to take hours, and then assembling the bookshelves themselves turned out to be a nightmare that lasted most of the day, and resulted in half the shelves being assembled the opposite way round from how they were supposed to be.  Simple tasks, to be done by hand, seem to create massive obstacles for me; and when I started to use a computer and a printer it was a gateway to whole new worlds of frustration and difficulty.

The flushing mechanism on the bathroom toilet started operating sporadically, recently.  Instead of yielding to the inevitable and calling in a plumber straight away, I first of all tried – and failed – to fix it myself, and then tried to survive, over the following few weeks, existing with a minimal flush, once a day.  The overwhelming relief I felt, after finally getting a plumber to come and fix it, was the inspiration for the above poem.

 

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