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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Cambridge: The Punt

CAMBRIDGE (5): THE PUNT

This is anything but relaxing;
clinging onto the sides
of this precarious craft,
as it wobbles along the Cam.
My first time in a punt, and,
I swear to myself, my last.

And then it happens,
as I knew it would: a collision,
on this congested course,
and suddenly the wife
of the prize-winning novelist
is in the water.

She shakes the sodden hair
from her face, like a dog,
and swims, not with a dog-like
paddle, but a powerful breaststroke.

She had told me of idyllic times
on Greek islands, when she
and the budding novelist
were young lovers.

Now, her breaststroke
cleaves through the Cam,
as it must have once
done in the Aegean,
in those halcyon days.

Following on from my previous post, this is the next episode from my continuing autobiographical reminiscence of my student days at Cambridge in the late 1970’s.  As in the previous post, it features the wife of the novelist Barry Unsworth, who was later to go on to win the Booker Prize.  It will come as no surprise to readers of this poem that this remains the one and only time I have ever been in a punt!

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Cambridge: Greek Drama

CAMBRIDGE (4): GREEK DRAMA

Six of us, crammed into the intimate
interior of a portakabin; our first seminar
in Greek Drama. We are all unknown
to each other; anticipation, tension
simmers in the small space.

Anagnoresis:
We give our names to the tutor, and
a little, unexpected drama of our own
unfolds. The woman sitting next to me
appears to be twenty years older
than the rest of us. When she gives
her name, there is a slight intake
of breath by our tutor. He hesitates;
says a man’s name, questioningly,
and she is suddenly revealed to be
the wife of a prize-winning novelist.

I have never heard of the novelist,
but feel a thrill of awe. I am sitting
within inches of – I could actually
touch – the wife of one of those
fabled beings: a writer. And not just
any old writer – a prize-winning novelist!

 Hubris:
The novelist’s acolyte; could she
initiate me into the sacred rites?
With her as my guide, could I
enter those hallowed groves,
and walk with the gods?

Hamartia:
Yet she seems so normal,
so human, even slightly gauche;
laughing nervously, shaking back
the fringe that hangs, curtain-like,
over her eyes.

This is the fourth episode of my on-going autobiographical poem recounting my student days at Cambridge, back in the long-ago days of the late nineteen-seventies.  The main character in the poem – the “wife of a prize-winning novelist” – turned out to be Valerie, wife of Barry Unsworth, who was later to go on to win the Booker Prize for fiction, with his novel Sacred Hunger.  Valerie and I became great friends over the following three years, and I was a regular visitor to the family house on Garden Walk, where I also got to meet their three charming daughters.  Later on the marriage broke-up, I moved to London, and, eventually, lost all contact with Valerie and the Unsworths.

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KAB

KAB

The Kurdish contingent congregate
mid-day on Friday, at the corner of my street.
How the Kurdish populace propagate
is a miracle, for they are exclusively
male, and bearded. They meet,
they greet. Glossy leather shoes
adorn their feet.

The Kurdish contingent:
thereby hangs a tale
of innocent illusion,
and myself, in a state
of self-willed delusion.

“Kurdish Association
of Britain”.
So weak, the functioning
of my brain.

For months on end,
I would walk past, and see
the sign on the building: KAB.

That’s handy, I thought;
convenient for me,
next time I need
to call a taxi.

Months passed by,
before I would see
the small-case letters
underneath “KAB”.

“Kurdish Association
Of Britain”.
That took months,
to clarify, in my brain.

In a previous post (Local Knowledge, November 12, 2015) I wrote about my lack of attention to street names, as I walk about my locality, and the difficulties it causes when people ask me for directions.  I am afraid I am showing no signs of improvement, as regards to this.  Indeed, I pay so little attention to the sights around me that I seem to be walking around in a sort of self-obsessed mental fog at times.  Not the best of attributes for an aspiring poet, one might think!  The above poem was written when I finally realized – after a period of months – that the sign outside a building I walked past every day had a completely different meaning from what I originally thought.

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Accident

ACCIDENT

I’d just crossed to the other side
of the road, at the Zebra crossing.
The beeps had just stopped, when
the sudden sound of impact shattered
the air, like a crack of thunder.

I saw the shock on the faces,
the hands flying to the mouths;
heard the screams of horror.
Then, the rush of the crowd;
the mix of human concern,
human curiosity.

I turned my head, in fear
of what I would see. He lay
beside his bicycle, holding
his head, silent. I knew
that, a moment before,
he had been pedalling
across the Zebra crossing;
unique thoughts and feelings
cocooned in that head.
I knew the sudden, nightmare
sensation, as the car had hit
him; the incredulity, that this
could be happening to him.

Twenty yards ahead
of where he lay, a dented car
pulled to a ragged halt.
People rushed towards it,
fuelled by shock and anger.

I watched, for a few minutes.
I could feel, I could see
the brutal import of it all;
as it once happened to me.

I was walking along a public footpath one day, during Summer last year, when a man on a bicycle rode straight into me.  He was going at pretty much full speed, and the force of the impact completely knocked me over.  I fell on my face, my hands and my ribs, sustaining gashes to my lip and my hands that needed several stitches.  I was lucky not to have broken any ribs, but my ribs and chest were severely bruised, and the bruising took over a month to fade away.  The cyclist was thrown off his bike by the force of the impact, but he jumped to his feet, apparently unscathed, and proceeded to berate me, while I lay prostrate, bleeding onto the pavement.  “This is all your fault!”  he shouted at me “I warned you!”  He then remounted the bike and rode away.  I’m convinced he must have been either drunk or on drugs.

So, when a similar incident happened, a few days ago, in Peterborough town centre, it had a real impact upon me.  This time, however, I wasn’t the victim; it was a cyclist, crossing the road at a Zebra crossing, just behind me, and a car – trying to beat the lights – drove straight into him.  As soon as I got home, I sat down and wrote the above poem, while the incident was still fresh in my mind.

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In the Ditch

IN THE DITCH

So I’m standing here, nonchalantly,
next to a bench half submerged in foliage.
It’s also on the edge of a ditch.
I’m watching David Cameron,
and one of his Tory cronies,
as they approach the bench,
clutching packets of sandwiches.
Cameron and crony sit on the bench;
begin to munch their sarnies.
They completely ignore me,
the insignificant prole sitting
at the other end of their bench.
Oh yes, I’m sitting there now, aren’t I;
not standing. How did that happen?
Oh, well. Part of me wants to warn
the ex-P.M. “Don’t sit there, Dave”
I want to say. “It’s dangerous. It’s on
the edge of a ditch, and there are also
HUGE insects, creeping around in the
shrubbery”. But another part of me
wants to leave the Tory twats to their fate.
It’s that part that wins; so I say nothing.

Next minute, one of the HUGE insects
manifests itself. A black beetle; slimy,
covered in scales, with multiple eyes,
claws, and pincers. It’s growing larger,
second by second. Cameron and crony
seem to spot it, out of the corners of
their eyes. Languid, insouciant, they
rise to their feet, still nibbling their
sandwiches. I’m smiling with satisfaction
and schadenfreude. “You need to move
faster than that, mate,” I’m thinking “or the
beetle will get you”. But then I notice
the beetle seems to have lost interest
in the Tories, and has turned its attention
to me. It’s my turn to jump to my feet,
as claws and pincers snap away,
ominously close behind me.
But what’s happening now?! There’s a
grassy verge in front of me, and the grass
is sliding, slipping away from me.
I can’t seem to get any purchase on it.
The beetle is going to get me!
No! Oh, no!

Next second, I’m falling, rolling,
off the side of the bed; my hands
pawing, frantically, in mid-air.
I land on my back, on the floor;
half-asleep, half-awake. I’ve pulled
all the sheets, and the duvet,
off the bed, on top of me. I’m lying
on the dust-covered floor; cobwebs,
spiders, creepy-crawlies, God knows
what else, all around me. All right,
maybe I should hoover the bedroom
floor sometime. It’s pitch-black;
the middle of the night. The bright
red digits of my bedside alarm clock
showing 2.45 a.m. Worse still,
I’m stuck; wedged between
the bed and the otiose wall-heater,
protruding from the bedroom wall.
I can’t lever myself up off the floor;
nowhere for my arms to push.
I don’t believe this! I’ve fallen;
done a sort of forward roll, off the side
of the bed. I’ve never, ever, done that
before, in my entire life! Propelled by
the force of the dream, the insouciance
of the Tory twats, the horror of that
black beetle.

I’ll be sleepwalking, next!

Like most people, I suspect, I can rarely remember what dreams I’ve had during the night, no matter how powerful the dreams may have been.  So the dream described in the above poem is a rare exception.  The poem is fairly self-explanatory, I think; but I have no rational interpretation of what the dream could have meant, and no explanation of why it had such a powerful effect upon me. 

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The Hemingway Toothbrush

THE HEMINGWAY TOOTHBRUSH

The Hemingway short stories:
such simple sentences, but unlike
anything else he had read.
He closed the book; it was time for bed.

He placed the electric toothbrush on its stand,
and flicked the switch. It immediately began
to flash its green light, as it charged up.
He watched the green light flashing
on and off, in its steady, repetitive rhythm,
for a few moments. Then he went to bed.

Five hours later, he got up, reluctantly,
to relieve his ageing bladder. All was quiet
and still, in the darkness of the early hours.
He came out from the bathroom, and saw
the toothbrush’s green light, still flashing,
in its steady rhythm. There was something
imperturbable, reassuring, about it.

He stood, in the darkness of the kitchen,
watching the green light. It was like
Morse Code, he thought. What message
could the toothbrush be sending out to the world?

I am pulsing out this message for you, Nick;
only for you. I care only for you, and your teeth.
You might think you are alone in the world;
that no-one gives a two penny damn about you,
that you are a cold, selfish bastard,
that your life, such as it was, is behind you,
that only dementia and death lie ahead,
that you had too much to drink again, last night.
But none of that matters to me. I want you to know
I am here for you, Nick; only for you.

 He smiled. This is what his world had come to:
a man and his electric toothbrush. He went back to bed.
The toothbrush continued to flash its green light,
sending its message, throughout the night.

Electric toothbrushes have been on my mind quite a lot, lately.  I was having problems with my old toothbrush, just before Christmas, and I finally bought myself a new one just after Christmas.  At the same time, I was reading a collection of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories.  I hadn’t read any Hemingway for many years, and I found myself impressed by the sheer literary art, compressed into simple, declarative sentences.  I was particularly impressed by the earlier short stories, featuring Hemingway’s altar ego Nick Adams.

In short, it was the conjunction of these two occurrences – my concerns about my electric toothbrush and my reading of the Hemingway stories – that led to the above poem.

 

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