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Fish Friday

Fish Friday

What cook worth his salt could contemplate

putting such an array on a plate?

 

A dribble of peas, a pitiful puddle;

his mind must be a mushy muddle.

 

The cod in batter is so dry,

it petitions a tear from my eye.

 

And what can be said of the chips?

Triple-fried? Just read my lips.

 

St. Peter risked life on the seas,

for victuals so different to these.

 

This shrivelled, misshapen cod;

a fist in the face of God.

 

How can I bring myself to eat

this farcical Fish Friday Treat?

Regular followers of this blog will know that I frequently write poems provoked or inspired by food and drink.  Recent examples of this are poems about cherry tomatoes and peach schnapps.  The Song of the Cherry Tomato was intended to celebrate the delicious nature of such miniature tomatoes, and the ease of eating them.  Fish Friday, on the contrary, was provoked by one of the most disappointing meals I’ve ever been served in a restaurant.  I’ve always enjoyed eating fish and chips, and have written poems on the subject before.  There’s something about the connections with fish and the Christian religion, together with the habit of eating fish on a Friday, that tend to generate poetic imagery.  I would have liked to have written in a more celebratory tone, but the food that was offered to me on this occasion was so awful that I was left with no alternative.

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The Poem I’ve Rewritten the Most

Airs

 “Airs! Airs! Look! Airs!”
The dumpy woman next to me
tugs my sleeve, insistent.
I must turn in my seat;
try to follow her gaze.

This is a nightmare journey:
trying to travel by train
in England, on a Sunday.
No trains, it transpires,
just this ancient, battered bus,
stuttering through towns, villages;
stopping, incessantly, stopping . . .
Now, it trundles through open countryside.

“Look! Look! Airs!”
What on earth is the woman . . .
Airs? Heirs? Where? . . .
I look. I stare.
Nothing. But wait . . . There!
Stock-still; next second
a pale brown streak
across the shimmering field.
Those ears! Quicksilver motion;
thrilling, so rare . . .

The woman’s eyes shine with delight.
My spirits lift, with sudden insight.

It was back in April 2013 that I completed what was to be the first version of a poem with the title “Airs”.  I went on to post the original version in this blog in February 2014.  Since then, it has undergone innumerable alterations, and I’ve never been completely happy with it; but I think this latest version is probably as near as I’ll come to being satisfied with it.

The genesis of the poem is quite simple.  I was sitting in a crowded bus, travelling through open countryside – it was supposed to be a train journey, but, due to the inefficiency of the train service on Sunday, I found myself on a slow, antiquated bus instead.  The woman sitting next to me suddenly tugged on my arm, and started repeatedly saying the word “Airs!” – that’s what it sounded like, to me, anyway.  It was only after a few minutes of concentrated gazing into the surrounding countryside, trying to follow what the woman was looking at, that I finally realized what she was actually saying – and it’s taken me over four years, trying to express it in a poem.

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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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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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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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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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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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