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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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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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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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Dear Editor

DEAR EDITOR

Dear Fiona, thank you for your email,
rejecting my poems.
As always, when rejected, I scowled,
felt despair, wanted to howl.

Then I re-read your email;
repressed the anger, the bile,
when I saw your final comment:
““The Great Verses” made me smile”.

Twelve inches make up a foot;
thousands of feet make a mile.
Inching along in my writing,
one of my poems made you smile.

I’ve done little in life, I confess.
Life often seems pointless and vile.
I’ve done something, now. I’ve done this:
one of my poems made you smile.

I’ve always found submitting my poems to literary magazines and journals a frustrating experience.  When I first started out, I would try to read as many of the journals as I could, before submitting poems to them, in the hope that it would give me some idea of the sort of poems they were looking for.  But I soon found that there were so many to read that I was spending too much of my time trying to read them, and it still didn’t seem to help me in my quest to get my poems accepted.  I’ve since found that I seem to have more luck just submitting poems on the off chance, and hoping for the best.

All the writer wants is for his poem to be accepted, and, if it is rejected, to know what the reasons are for the rejection; but that hardly ever seems to happen, as the editors are too inundated with submissions to be able to respond adequately.  I recently submitted poems to a literary website, only to receive a reply stating that, although the editor “. . . found much to admire in the poems”, he regrettably didn’t think them “right” for the website.  I wanted to shout at him, to ask him what parts of the poems did he admire, and what parts did he think unsuitable; but I suppose I should have been grateful to have got a reply at all, as, nine times out of ten, all you get is a blank rejection and “Thanks but no thanks”.

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Genghis

GENGHIS

Strange sights are liable to be seen,
at any time, on St. Martin’s Street.
This very afternoon, for example,
I looked out of my bedroom window
just as an elderly man on a motorized
single-person vehicle – designed,
presumably, for a physically handicapped
person – drew to a sudden halt,
right underneath my window.

Nothing strange about that, you
might say; but wait, just give me
a chance to explain, to elaborate.

I had seen this man before,
several times, in fact, walking
along St. Martin’s Street, but
never before on this
striking-looking silver vehicle.

He is a short, stocky man with a
distinctive, Asiatic appearance.
Narrow, slanted eyes gaze out,
fiercely, from a lined face toughened
and seasoned by many arduous years.
A bristling, dark moustache covers
his upper lip. He wore a furry,
Cossack cap, with flaps
hanging down over his ears.

As I watched, he pulled a half-bottle
of Vodka out of his pocket,
unscrewed the top, and took
a hearty swig. He then kicked
his silver steed into life, and
headed off, along the street,
for all the world looking like
Genghis Khan, on a Mongolian
plain, ready for his next exploit
of rape and pillage.

See what I mean, now?

Last Sunday afternoon, I was listening to an interview, on BBC6 Music, with the American film director Jim Jarmusch.  It was a fascinating interview, mainly about Jarmusch’s love for the music of Iggy Pop and the Stooges, but towards the end of the interview he spoke about his latest film, which features poetry by Ron Padgett.  Jarmusch said that Padgett was his favourite poet, and was a member of the New York School of poets.  I knew a bit about the New York School, but had never heard of Ron Padgett.  I went online, to see what I could find out about him, and soon came across a YouTube video of him reading one of his poems – Nothing in That Drawer.  I can recommend it, for light entertainment value, if for nothing else.  The first line of the poem repeats the title: Nothing in that drawer.  The second line is the same.  So is the third line.  And so it continues; fourteen lines, all identical.  Padgett himself comes across as a droll, very likeable individual.  He explains that he wanted the poem to have fourteen lines to emulate the classic form of the sonnet, and the way he read the poem gave slightly different meanings to each line – although the words were identical.

Anyway, the main point of all this is that the New York School of the 1960’s were known mainly for “freeing-up” formal verse; making it more spontaneous and free-wheeling.  Some of the poems can read like fun, fact-filled personal essays.  The next day – on Monday afternoon – I looked out of my bedroom window, onto St.Martin’s Street, and saw the events described in the above poem.  I just sat down and wrote it, spontaneously; just as if I were – like Ron Padgett – a member of the New York School.  I think it works ok!

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Power Outage

ATAVISTIC

First Man sat, stupefied,
in the sudden silence.
Felt, instantly, the chill,
seeping into the space
vacated by the waft
of warm air from the heater.

He got to his feet, befuddled
by the blackness enveloping him
so abruptly, so completely.

Blackness; underlying everything,
integral to existence,
yet so alien to him now.

It pressed upon him,
muffled him, constricted him
with converging walls,
with unseen objects.

Blind, bewildered,
First Man stumbled
to the window,
but didn’t get there,

for the light had already
returned, and First Man,
now Homo Sapiens again,
was re-admitted
to the golden ease
of civilization.

On the last two occasions when I’ve experienced a power-cut (or “power outage”), I’ve ended up writing a poem about it.  There’s something about the sheer intensity of the experience; how you are suddenly plunged into a completely strange, alien world.  The latest experience occurred at a time when I just happened to be reading a crime fiction novel entitled “The First Man” (by Xavier-Marie Bonnot – I can thoroughly recommend it!)  The “First Man” of the title refers to our primitive ancestors, before the Neolithic Revolution.  When I started writing the above poem, I suddenly realized that an effective way to express the bewilderment and alienation caused by the power-cut might be to use the images of primitive man contrasted with homo sapiens.  This also solved the minor problem of what to use as a title for the poem.  I was simply going to use “Power-Cut” as the title, but then remembered that was the title I had used for the poem I had written on the previous occasion.  I think “Atavistic” is a much more resonant title than “Power-Cut (2)”! 

 

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