Category Archives: Poetry

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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Sleep

Sleep

Clocks do not work properly
at night. I have learnt
to treat my bedside clock
as an untrustworthy ally.
I trek across an arid desert,
an endless duration of hours,
yet the clock tells me
only five minutes have elapsed.
I turn over in bed, look again
at the clock; it tells me
an hour has gone by.

I retreat to my bed at night,
to seek the nourishment,
the restorative powers of sleep.
But sleep is a mystery; it baffles
the best minds of modern science.
It is more than capable of frustrating
my puny efforts to reach it.

Normal laws of physics
do not apply in my bedroom
at night. Time contracts,
stops, stutters, starts again.
Time expands, sometimes infinitely,
sometimes like a band of elastic
that stretches and snaps, suddenly,
like the calf muscles in my legs.
I awake in unbearable agony.

There seems to have been a plethora of programmes about sleep on TV and radio recently.  How much sleep do we really need?  Why are more and more people having difficulty sleeping?  What happens when we are asleep?  Why do we need to sleep at all?  And so on, and so on. . .  I suppose it’s one of those universal subjects we’re recurrently obsessed about, partly because nobody seems to really know the answers to the questions.  Then you have the related subject of dreaming, which is even more mysterious.

I never sleep well when the weather is hot, as it has been recently, and I have been trying to sleep on top of the duvet, instead of between the sheets.  I was awake early one morning, after another unsatisfactory night’s sleep, and I suddenly started getting ideas for the above poem.

 

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Green Water

Green Water

I lie in my bath
of grassy green.

Verdant green,
of youth, not age;

herbaceous green,
of parsley, sage.

The green thrust up
at pavement verge;

the green that grows,
with sway and surge.

A white-topped green,
that bubbles and blinks;

a sagacious green,
that tips you the wink.

A vibrant green,
that glimpses with glee

a harmonious haze
of bath gelee.

I murmur with merriment,
break into a laugh.

I rise, like a giant,
from my Badedas bath.

Long-term followers of this blog will be aware of my liking for luxuriating in a warm bath, reading poetry anthologies in the bath and often getting ideas for new poems in this way.  I normally like to use some sort of bath foam, and have experimented with different commercial brands, over the years.  I remember that, when I was in my early twenties, I became particularly fond of “Badedas Indulgent Bath Gelee”, despite it being considerably more expensive than similar products.  There was something exotic about it; it was supposed to contain extract of horse-chestnut, and I was impressed by the vivid green colour it produced, as well as the stimulating aroma.  I was a fan of the James Bond books at the time, and remember thinking that Badedas was the sort of bath foam that Bond might well have used.  Having forgotten all about it, and not used it for many years, I recently decided to try it again – and have now fallen in love with it once more, as the above poem testifies. (I feel obliged to comment, at this point, that OTHER BATH GELEES ARE WIDELY AVAILABLE).

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Morning Ritual

Morning Ritual

Whey-faced, hollow-eyed,
the Penitent stumbles
into the kitchen; musters
faltering forces, begins
preparations for the ritual.

He wrenches his mind away
from endless recycling
of sins the previous day.

He sips chilled water,
through parched lips
into arid throat,
to wondrous effect.

He detects the first faint flickers,
the incipient signs
of salvation.

Penitent becomes Supplicant.
He intones a prayer;
focuses his belief
in the alchemy
of the ritual into each
methodical movement.

He sprinkles the first drops
of freshly-boiled,
purified water
onto coffee grounds;
watches as they
absorb the moisture,
begin to bubble into life.

He inhales
the hallowed,
holy fragrance.

The blackness of the brew
is befitting;
from darkness came light
in the beginning.

Sip by startling sip,
the black brew seeps
into his soul,
burns away
the bleakness,
bites into
the bitterness
of self-blame.

Sip by startling sip,
the black brew infuses
new spirit, scours away
suppurating sins
of the previous day.

Mesmerized by the miracle,
he mutters a prayer
of thanksgiving.

The journey from penitence
to salvation ends.
The ritual is complete.
The day begins.

I was a callow youth, living away from home for the first time, when I first started experimenting with coffee.  I remember I was on the verge of buying a percolator, which was quite a trendy appliance at the time, when an older, wiser female friend pointed me in the right direction.  “You don’t want to get a percolator” she said “They actually boil the coffee, which detracts from the flavour.  No, all you need to get is a simple jug with a filter; that’ll give you much better coffee.”  I followed her advice, and started to fall in love with the whole process of coffee-making.

Over the years, I’ve dabbled with different concoctions at breakfast-time, but I’ve ended up with a process of the ultimate simplicity: three spoons of ground coffee, into a coffee filter, in a cone placed on top of a pint mug.  Water is then poured from a kettle – just off the boil – directly onto the coffee, which drips directly into the mug.  Sheer heaven!  I can’t imagine life without my morning coffee ritual. 

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Gerund

Gerund

A verbal noun.
How can that
Be right?
To do and to be;
Oh dearie me.
Do be do be do;
So sang Sinatra.
But is it fitting,
Is it right?
Are they strangers
In the night,
Weird fusion
Of Plotinus
And Sartre?

One might say
What ails thee,
Knight-at-arms,
Can you not see it?
Are you dazzled
By the light?
This transcendence
All should hail,
For this is it:
The Holy Grail.

I spent nine years teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) at a language school in London, so I am quite familiar with the term Gerund.  Before I started teaching, however, I probably wouldn’t have been familiar with it.  One of the problems I had, when I started work at the language school, was that I was woefully ignorant of grammatical terms and functions in general, as – unlike most European countries – grammar was not taught in British schools at the time.  I had to make up for my ignorance by trying to learn, pretty quickly, as much grammar as I could, just in order to catch up, and be on a level playing field with most of my foreign students.  It took quite a while before I started to feel more confident in teaching English Grammar, and I encountered difficult classroom situations on the way, when the ability to bluff came in useful.  I still vividly recall a tortuous session when I was grilled on the nature and function of the Subjunctive, by an aggressive, blonde-haired German student.

Some of my EFL memories came back to me when I was working on the above poem; but it is intended merely to poke a bit of playful fun at the potentially paradoxical nature of the Gerund.

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Serendipity (Haiku)

Serendipity

Serendipity
could be synchronicity,
said Wolfgang Pauli.

Serendipity
and my upturned glass of beer.
A drenching. Oh,dear!

Serendipity
and my half-full cup of tea
forever haunts me.

It fell through the air,
onto a head with no hair.
I fled to my lair.

Serendipity;
a word of five syllables,
but no miracles.

I was a teacher of EFL (English as a Foreign Language) at a language school in central London – just off Oxford Street – for a period of nine years in the 1980’s.  One lunchtime, without really thinking what I was doing, I threw a half-full cup of tea out of the window of my room on the first floor.  Seconds later, I heard a cry of rage, and looked out of the window.  The contents of my cup of tea had landed on the head of one of the busy lunchtime shoppers walking below.  The man, who appeared to have a completely shaven head, looked up, saw me looking down at him, shook his fist in anger, and shouted some incoherent swear-words at me.  At this point, the reality of what I had just done finally dawned upon me.  I realised the man was almost certainly going to enter the building and come looking for me, with vengeance in mind, so I took evasive action, and hid in the nearest available toilet.  When I emerged, ten minutes later, and timorously returned to my room, one of the secretaries had scribbled a message on the whiteboard: A MAN CAME IN, LOOKING FOR YOU.  BROWN LIQUID WAS DRIPPING FROM HIS HEAD.  HE SAID, WHEN HE FINDS YOU, HE’S GOING TO KICK YOUR ARSE.

I’ve tried to write poems about the incident, without success, over the years.  It would probably work better as a short story.  Last week I was in a pub with a friend one lunchtime, and inadvertently knocked my glass of beer all over him.  It reminded me of the incident all those years ago, and I suddenly realised that one way of writing about it could be in the form of Haiku – two lines of five syllables, enclosing a middle line of seven syllables.  The poem above is the result.

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Old Scarlett

Old Scarlett
(Robert Scarlett, 1496-1594)

Enter the cathedral. He is still there,
painted onto a wall, above a door.
A bizarre, intriguing figure,
Robert Scarlett – “Old Scarlett”,
immortal grave-digger.

What a story he could have told,
what a life he must have led,
enduring to be so old;
yet living with the dead.
Like a leech, or vampire,
perhaps, sucking their blood,
for sustenance, as food,
a hunger that must be fed.
Unsurprising, perhaps,
his surname means “red”.

He buried Mary, Queen of Scots,
and Katharine of Aragon,
with hundreds of others,
their stories long-gone.
He had an unquenchable
lust for life; aged eighty-nine,
he wed his second wife.

Look again at the painting;
a tiny detail, almost unseen,
gives an edge to the image
of this man who buried queens.
Stocky in build, stout, not lean,
fierce character, pugnacious mien;
a direct gaze, sturdy in the hip,
there dangles from his waist
a slightly sinister whip.

As followers of this blog will know, I live in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, and Peterborough happens to have a notable cathedral, which dates back to Norman times.  I constantly castigate myself for not visiting the cathedral as frequently as I should, but I do like to read about its history, and the local history of the area.  It was while I was reading a book about the history of Peterborough that I first came across Robert Scarlett, who was described as one of Peterborough’s most legendary residents.  Scarlett was born in 1496, worked as a gravedigger, and was employed as sexton by the cathedral.  His main claim to fame is that he buried both Katharine of Aragon and Mary, Queen of Scots after their funerals in the cathedral, but he is also notable for living to the age of 98, and for marrying his second wife – only a year after the death of his first wife – when he was 89 years old!  It is possible that Shakespeare based the character of the gravedigger in Hamlet upon Scarlett.

As soon as I read about him, I wanted to write a poem about “Old Scarlett”, but it wasn’t until I found out that there was a painting of him in the cathedral that I realized how I could actually do it. 

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The Race

The Race

The clocks have been changed
The days stay longer
In their place
Already
I am losing pace

The year begins
To tighten screws
Already
I begin to lose

A quarter of this year
Has gone
The year to me
Hardly begun

No matter
How I come and go
How I struggle
Toe to toe

No matter
How hard I try
To reconcile
To live and die

No matter
How to allay fear
To harmonise
The speeding year

No matter
How it’s dressed in rhyme
Already lost
The race with time

The Easter weekend always comes, to me, as a kind of marking-post in the year.  Winter is over, we are now in the middle of Spring, with Summer fast approaching.  I’m sure it must be a phenomena common to a lot of people, but, as I head towards my late sixties, I seem to be astonished, year after year, by how speedily the year seems to be passing.  I started having the first thoughts about a poem on the subject when we changed the clocks a few weeks ago, to mark the change from GMT to BST, and “The Race” is the final result. 

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Teddy Bears’ Picnic

Teddy Bears’ Picnic

Raggle-taggle music,
straight from a funfair,
roller-coasters in,
as you mope in your lair,
sullenly grooming your
existential despair.

You look out the window:
a shabby white van,
Mr. Softee, the ice-cream man,
Orange Maids, Mivvis,
Strawberry Splits.
Your childhood comes back;
the rough magic of it.
Noddy and Big Ears, Rupert Bear,
Nutwood, the animals living there.

Your sins, deceits,
little white lies,
all swallowed up
By a huge pair of eyes,
silver coins held
in small, grubby hands,
the wonder of
those fairytale lands.
Enid Blyton’s Famous Five,
perhaps, after all,
it is good to be alive.

It smashes into
your self-imposed shell,
frees you from the stress
of your personal Hell,
for you know it betokens
that all will be well,
and all shall be well,
and all manner of things
shall be well.

Long-time followers of this blog will be aware of the fact that I frequently get ideas for poems whilst relaxing in a warm bath, browsing through anthologies of poetry.  I was engaged in this activity recently, when the joyful sound of an ice-cream van suddenly intruded into my musings, and immediately provided the inspiration for the above poem.  Please excuse the fact that the last three lines are a blatant borrowing from Julian of Norwich’s “Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love”.  I have always loved those lines, and have finally found an appropriate place to quote them; besides, T.S.Eliot quoted them in “Little Gidding”, and if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me!

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