Friday, 30 November 2012

Chwarae Teg - Fair Play


Today I took a friend to see Gelert's grave and sculpture in Beddgelert. I was told the legend of Gelert as a child. As well as being exceptionally poignant,  it is a story of outstanding unfairness.
   The story, as written on the tombstone reads:
"In the 13th century Llewelyn, prince of North Wales, had a palace at Beddgelert. One day he went hunting without Gelert, "The Faithful Hound", who was unaccountably absent. On Llewelyn's return the truant, stained and smeared with blood, joyfully sprang to meet his master. The prince alarmed hastened to find his son, and saw the infant's cot empty, the bedclothes and floor covered with blood. The frantic father plunged his sword into the hound's side, thinking it had killed his heir. The dog's dying yell was answered by a child's cry. Llewelyn searched and discovered his boy unharmed, but near by lay the body of a mighty wolf which Gelert had slain.
The prince filled with remorse is said never to have smiled again. He buried Gelert here".
The Welsh phrase for "Fair Play" is "Chwarae Teg", and is I think, deeply ingrained in the Welsh consciousness. It certainly is in mine. It must also have been in my parents' too. They taught me to play numerous games, and whether it was ludo or street cricket, their maxim was "play fairly". Indeed my father was very prone to quoting those lines from poem Grantland Rice's poem, "Alumunus Football" -
"For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name,
He writes - not that you won or lost - but how you played the Game."


Thursday, 29 November 2012

Lost Glove

Hope Poetry Gloves - "O wind if winter comes..." from Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind".

Today was one of, if not the, coldest day of the year in this corner of North Wales. The ice was thick on my windscreen and Snowdon Mountain was completely covered in snow. It was the day of my cycling group ride from Porthmadog to Caffi Gwynant and back via Beddgelert. I put on extra layers, including thicker socks. When I arrived at the start of the ride I discovered that I had dropped one of my cycling gloves. By the time I reached the cafe I didn't know whether my hand had warmed up or lost all sensation.
I started to think about all those single gloves that I've dropped throughout my life. Running and walking in the forest I often come across "the dropped glove" and think up stories about its origin and about what the other glove is doing.
A couple of years back an artist based in the Cairngorms had an exhibition using all of the gloves that she had found in the mountains over a period of time. Also, a few years ago I went to see an exhibition by North Wales based printmaker Ruth Thomas. "One winter, Ruth collected a total of 50 dropped and discarded gloves, in a variety of materials from leather to rubber and each one lacking its all-important partner.
"I became fascinated by gloves because they say a lot about the people who wear them, whether it is a little child or a workman,'' she explains. ``There is always a purpose for wearing gloves and it's amazing how many there are lying around when you start looking.

``On a short walk, I could easily find two or three lone ones. Some were lying in the road and had had traffic rolling over them for days, making the fingers splayed and battered. They all have a history and there's something very poignant about that.'' In the case of Ruth Thomas's glove project, the works were given a botanical feel. After entitling her completed collection of glove prints Foxglove, Ruth gave each of them an individual name, based around the Latin term for foxglove,
digitalis .

``I made up scientific names for them all, so a child's glove is called digitalis minor and a lady's glove is digitalis matronalis,'' she explains.

``One, which was found with a finger missing and the other three sticking upright, is called digitalis pseudo-cactus, because it resembles a cactus plant.'',com_zoom/Itemid,28/catid,2/

Collagraph Print by Ruth Thomas
Here is a prose poem by Naomi Shihab Nye
The Yellow Glove
What can a yellow glove mean in a world of motorcars and governments?

I was small, like everyone. Life was a string of precautions: Don’t kiss the squirrel before you bury him, don’t suck candy, pop balloons, drop watermelons, watch TV. When the new gloves appeared one Christmas, tucked in soft tissue, I heard it trailing me: Don’t lose the yellow gloves.

I was small, there was too much to remember. One day, waving at a stream—the ice had cracked, winter chipping down, soon we would sail boats and roll into ditches—I let a glove go. Into the stream, sucked under the street. Since when did streets have mouths? I walked home on a desperate road. Gloves cost money. We didn’t have much. I would tell no one. I would wear the yellow glove that was left and keep the other hand in a pocket. I knew my mother’s eyes had tears they had not cried yet, I didn’t want to be the one to make them flow. It was the prayer I spoke secretly, folding socks, lining up donkeys in windowsills. To be good, a promise made to the roaches who scouted my closet at night. If you don’t get in my bed, I will be good. And they listened. I had a lot to fulfill.

The months rolled down like towels out of a machine. I sang and drew and fattened the cat. Don’t scream, don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t fight—you could hear it anywhere. A pebble could show you how to be smooth, tell the truth. A field could show how to sleep without walls. A stream could remember how to drift and change—next June I was stirring the stream like a soup, telling my brother dinner would be ready if he’d only hurry up with the bread, when I saw it. The yellow glove draped on a twig. A muddy survivor. A quiet flag.

Where had it been in the three gone months? I could wash it, fold it in my winter drawer with its sister, no one in that world would ever know. There were miracles on Harvey Street. Children walked home in yellow light. Trees were reborn and gloves traveled far, but returned. A thousand miles later, what can a yellow glove mean in a world of bankbooks and stereos?

Part of the difference between floating and going down.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The Red Table - Haiku Mind

A round tuit. What does that look like? I know what it feels like when I don’t get around to doing something that I should have done days, weeks, months ago -  frustrated with myself.

For nearly two weeks I have been struggling with a fold-up red table that has become unstuck at one of its main struts. I use it every day, and so have spent many minutes realigning a metal rod through both struts and then replacing the unstuck strut only to have it fall apart the next time I use it.

Today, I opened my copy of “Haiku Mind” to this Gary Snyder poem:

“After weeks of watching the roof leak
I fixed it tonight
by moving a single board”.

I love both the literal and metaphorical interpretations. And so within ten minutes and a small amount of glue the table is mended.
Now what else do I need to get around to…

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

In Praise of Collies

Nel wondering why I've stopped to eat on Moel Siabod
I have measured out my life...not in coffee spoons but in border collies. Since I was twenty I have lived in the presence of collies. They have all shared an intelligence, intensity and curiosity, a deep affection and loyalty while retaining their unique personalities.

Two have been the most amazing pathfinders. Megan was my second collie. I remember taking a compass bearing aimed at the cairn about a mile or so away before setting off across Blackstone Edge in snow . Megan ran a little way ahead, in an unwavering line straight to the cairn. I have trusted her instinct when caught in a white-out while running the Kentmere Round in the Lake District and on many occasions when I thought I would easily retrace my steps through unknown dense forestry.

Megan's strict abiding to paths sometimes led us into bother. When I lived in West Yorkshire our local regular run was the path up to Top Withens, considered to be the inspiration for Emily Bronte's novel, "Wuthering Heights". One morning we set off up to the ruin but decided to run on a good few miles further. On our return a couple of hours later, having reached the top of the path that looks down on Bronte Bridge, I saw that a film crew had set up there. Standing in the middle of the bridge was a woman in crinolines, holding a parasol. This meant nothing to Megan who was racing towards the bridge to cross it, regardless of who might be on it. I looked on aghast as  the woman spotted this wild-eyed and thoroughly bog-drenched collie heading at speed towards her on the narrow bridge. She just had time to catch up her dress and bend herself backwards to give Megan the room she needed to cross. Megan's habit was to then sit the other side of the bridge to watch for me. This she did amidst all the film equipment, while  a dozen or more pairs of eyes, including Megan's, watched my descent to the bridge - not all with love in their hearts.

Nel, my current companion has the same talent for path finding. There is one route that we run in the forest where we live that takes in two lakes - Llyn Hafod y Llyn and Llyn Mair. At two points around Llyn Hafod y Llyn, Nel takes her own short cuts, although I have never run or walked on these paths with her. I call these her Desire Lines.

All of my collies have lived into ripe old age but it hasn't made losing a dog you have loved so long and so well any easier. This is a Found Poem I wrote with the original works cited at the end.

A Small Dog

She was a small dog,
neat and fluid –
She flowed through fences
like a piece of black wind.

But suddenly
she was old
and sick and crippled.

 I’ve made the call.

All day we sat with her
making our farewells.
We ease her out
of that worn-out
with a kiss.

She’s gone
like a whisper.
The easiest breath,
unmitigatedly awful
and not so at all.

And when it was over
we gave in to grief
as though we were rushing
to basins
to bend over.
Hands held
to faces,
we stumbled
and stooped

We try our best.
A good end, we tell ourselves.
The best we could do.
A long life.
A fine life,
and not nearly enough.
“Dog Years – a Memoir” by Mark Doty
“On The Euthanasia of a Pet Dog” by Elizabeth Smither
“Praise of a Collie” by Norman MacCaig

Monday, 26 November 2012

Live in the Layers

In September 2011 a massive felling operation started in the forest where I live. I understand that pine trees are regarded as a crop and that harvest time had approached. However, it was still hard to watch a landscape I was so accustomed to, change so drastically.
During the cutting many of the small paths were ploughed up and widened, and, in my opinion, spoiled. These paths were my familiar running routes and for a long while I couldn’t bear to run on them, to such an extent that some parts of the forest became like a stranger to me. This September I decided that, for better or worse, I would reacquaint myself with the changed forest. My decision was inspired  and supported by these lines from a Stanley Kunitz poem - “live in the layers not on the litter”.

About his own work, Kunitz has said: “The poem comes in the form of a blessing—‘like rapture breaking on the mind,’ as I tried to phrase it in my youth. Through the years I have found this gift of poetry to be life-sustaining, life-enhancing, and absolutely unpredictable. Does one live, therefore, for the sake of poetry? No, the reverse is true: poetry is for the sake of the life.”

Stanley Kunitz

The Layers
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face,
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden
Stanley Kunitz - life-long gardener

I would love to know what "live in the layers, not on the litter" means to you. 


Sunday, 25 November 2012

Snakes - and missed chances

"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated".
I found this grass snake dead by the roadside as I stopped to open the gate into the forest. I took it home and gave it a woodland burial.

I don't know whether D H Lawrence is fashionable or not in the literary world at the moment, and frankly I don't care. He can be quirky and cranky but still there is something in the spirit of the man that I find appealing.
Here is his poem of his that I particularly like.


A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.
In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob-tree
I came down the steps with my pitcher
And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough before
me. He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom
And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the edge of
the stone trough
And rested his throat upon the stone bottom,
And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness,
He sipped with his straight mouth,
Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack long body,
Silently. Someone was before me at my water-trough,
And I, like a second comer, waiting. He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and mused a moment,
And stooped and drank a little more,
Being earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels of the earth
On the day of Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.
The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous. And voices in me said, If you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off. But must I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of this earth? Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him? Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him? Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
I felt so honoured. And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him! And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid, But even so, honoured still more
That he should seek my hospitality
From out the dark door of the secret earth. He drank enough
And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air, so black,
Seeming to lick his lips,
And looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air,
And slowly turned his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice a dream,
Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face. And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders, and entered farther,
A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into that horrid black hole,
Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly drawing himself after,
Overcame me now his back was turned. I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter. I think it did not hit him,
But suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed in undignified haste.
Writhed like lightning, and was gone
Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front,
At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination. And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education. And I thought of the albatross
And I wished he would come back, my snake. For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again. And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life.
And I have something to expiate:
A pettiness.

Missed there's a prompt for some writing!

Saturday, 24 November 2012

When is a Blackbird not a Black Bird - Pantoum

For some time now I have been catching sight of a blackbird that has a flash of white around the tail feathers. Yesterday I decided to look up any information there might be about this phenomenon. The following comes from the British Trust for Ornithology website.

Across the country, people have been seeing Blackbirds with strange white markings. The condition, typically referred to as ‘leucism’, is one of a number of plumage abnormalities to have been reported through the BTO Abnormal Plumage Survey, preliminary results from which have just been published. In less than a month, the survey has clocked up nearly 700 sightings, encompassing more than 35 different species. Three quarters of records have been of leucistic birds and, of these, nearly half have been Blackbirds. Leucistic birds may be confused with albino individuals, but the latter have pink, instead of dark eyes, and only account for 12% of survey records to date.It is not yet clear why Blackbirds appear to be particularly affected. It could be that they are unusually susceptible to the condition. However, being black or, in the case of female Blackbirds dark brown, any light-coloured feathers show up particularly clearly. Indeed, several other species with all-black, or mostly black, plumage have been spotted with white feathers fairly often, including Carrion Crow (49 records) and Jackdaw (40).
from the British Trust for Ornithology January 2012

A few years ago a persistent blackbird came pecking at the window. My old border collie, Gwen was in the final days of her life. I used the old myth about birds tapping windows being an omen of death, to write this poem in the form of a pantoum. 


The blackbird came to call the week she died,
knocking his golden beak against the pane.
Insistent to be heard he left his mark
in streaks of hieroglyphs across the glass.

Knocking his golden beak against the pane,
I thought the storm had sent the wind chimes wild.
In streaks of hieroglyphs across the glass,
I read his ragged black edged calling card.

I thought the storm had sent the wind chimes wild,
but tapping his urgent message was the bird.
I read his ragged black edged calling card.
I knew the time had come to bear the blow

but tapping his urgent message was the bird,
a script time writes and has the final word.
I knew the time had come to bear the blow
like death a deadline desperate to be met.

A script time writes and has the final word,
insistent to be heard he left his mark.
Like death a deadline desperate to be met,
the blackbird came to call the week she died.

The Pantoum tradition as a poem first appeared in France, in the work of Ernest Fouinet in the nineteenth century. Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire made the form fashionable. The Pantoum's name and form derive from the Malayan pantun.  Historically, the Pantoum became popular in Europe and later North America in the nineteenth and especially the twentieth century.

In a Pantoum :

- The lines are grouped into quatrains (4-line stanzas)
- Lines may be of any length.
- Pantoums can be written in free verse, metered or rhyme 
- The final line of the Pantoum is the same as its first line (opinions differ on this)
- The Pantoum says everything twice.
- A Pantoum has any number of quatrains.

Although there is no length restriction to a pantoum, they are generally kept within a few verses - five to seven stanzas.
The pantoum can be very effective for conveying emotional subject matter.

This shows the pantoum's repeating format:

Stanza One – Line1, 2, 3, 4
Stanza Two – Line 2, 5, 4, 6
Stanza Three – Line 5, 7, 6, 8
Stanza Four – Line 7, 9, 8, 10
Stanza Five – Line 9, 3, 10, 1

Ideally, the meaning of lines shifts when they are repeated although the words remain exactly the same: this can be done through punctuation, punning or re-contextualising. Each line means something slightly different in its second context.

The pantoum's repetition and circular quality give it a mystical chant like feeling. Its cut-up lines break down linear thought.

Friday, 23 November 2012

"Help I Need Somebody..."

My laughing Buddha
faces the front door and
helps me remember a sense of perspective

“If you’re carrying more than you can handle today, choose to let some of it go by letting someone else in”.

Today’s NaBloPoMo prompt is to write about what is the hardest word for me to say.
For me, it’s not really a word – I find it difficult to ask for help.

A year or so ago I was given some free-standing wooden shelving for my garden shed. There were five solid wood shelves, and the whole unit was heavy and difficult to manoeuvre. From the cottage to the shed is a distance of about 30yards. The shelving was intact; the screws to secure the shelves were all in place but not fully tightened.

 I was keen to get the shelves in place so that I could better organise the shed. I woke up early and decided to get the job done. I emptied everything out of the shed so that the unit could be positioned where I wanted it. Then I needed to drag the unit across and inside the shed.

 It was obvious to me as I did this that the unit was too much for me to handle alone. At this point I could have asked for help but instead I persisted. I heaved the unit through the shed door and literally backed myself into a corner with it. Then the whole unit decided to collapse trapping my left hand with the whole of its weight. The pain was excruciating – a mixture of pinch and crush. It took a while for me to extricate my hand as I needed to raise the entire weight with my other hand.

 The swelling and bruising was very impressive. I needed help to get it bandaged and for the next two days spent a lot of my time continuing to ask for help.

A poem by Robert Frost

The Armful

For every parcel I stoop down to seize
I lose some other off my arms and knees,
And the whole pile is slipping, bottles, buns --
Extremes too hard to comprehend at once,
Yet nothing I should care to leave behind.
With all I have to hold with hand and mind
And heart, if need be, I will do my best
To keep their building balanced at my breast.
I crouch down to prevent them as they fall;
Then sit down in the middle of them all.
I had to drop the armful in the road
And try to stack them in a better load.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Sacredness of Tears

"There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power.They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love".
Washington Irving
Today's NaBlMoPo is to write about the last time I cried. The answer is that I don't remember. Not because it is a rare occurrence. I attach no judgment to crying or not crying. Like Joni Mitchell says in her song, "People's Parties" - "laughing and's the same release".

Wild Horses in The Rhondda
This is a poem I wrote for my father.

War Paint

I remember your stories told only to me
in the darkness we shared before sleep.
Of souls loving the untamed land,
of feather and bones, and paint made from the earth.

I dreamed then, of wild places, of horses
the colour of prairie rainbows,
a line of warrior joining earth with sky.

The circle of years brought us to barren land. 
We fought, rattling like empty pods,
war paint dripping in the blaze of an angry sun.

Returning home after your sudden death,
you had left one moccasin lying in the dark.
I wept then for the endings I would miss,
and those shared wild places of our separate hearts.


Wednesday, 21 November 2012

A Great Place to Read - Poets House, NYC

Reading has always been something of an obsession. My parents were not avid readers although they read to me and taught me to read before I went to school.When I was ten I went to the local library during the school holidays and chose my books, went home and read them. I returned to the library later that day to choose more. The librarian thought that because I was bringing the books back on the same day I couldn't have read them. She told me to stop messing her about and to make sure I chose books I would actually read. I don't remember if I told her that I had read them. I just remember the frustration of being misread. Thankfully, she didn't put me off libraries.

My father often took me to the local working men's club where they had a library for members. It was from here that I got my first copy of "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist".

I usually have three or four books on the go at any one time, as well as a couple of audio books. I also have a Kindle which is like my travelling library.

Poets House in NYC is an amazing place to go to read poetry. It is free and open to the public. It has a national archive of 50,000 volumes of poetry. The Reed Foundation Library at Poets House includes books, chapbooks, literary journals and the Axe-Houghton Multimedia Archive. It is the largest and most comprehensive independent poetry collection available to the public in open stacks anywhere in the USA.

Library and Reading Room at Poets House, NYC
At Poets House, poets and poetry lovers can read, work on their computers using free WiFi, listen to poetry on tape, watch poetry video, view art exhibitions or attend a workshop or reading. An extensive network of support services includes reference materials, low-cost photocopying and the help of a professional staff. An active bulletin board and material from literary organizations around the country make Poets House a clearinghouse for information about poetry and poetry resources.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

"The End of his Triumph" - Jack Gilbert

Poet Jack Gilbert 1925-2012

I have just learned that one of my favourite poets, Jack Gilbert, died a few days ago. A few years ago he was interviewed by Sarah Fay in The Paris Review. This was the introduction:
"On the rare occasions when Jack Gilbert gives public readings—whether in New York, Pittsburgh, or San Francisco—it is not unusual for men and women in the audience to tell him how his poems have saved their lives. At these gatherings, one may also hear wild stories about Gilbert: he was a junkie, he was homeless, he was married numerous times. In reality, he has never been addicted to drugs, has been impoverished but never homeless, and was married only once. The fascination with Gilbert is a response, above all, to the power of his poetry, but it also reflects the mystique of a life lived utterly without regard for the conventions of literary fortune and fame".

Today's NaBloMoPo prompt was to talk about the opening of my favourite book. The challenge for me would have been to choose that one favourite book. Reading through the interview with Jack Gilbert, I came upon this:

INTERVIEWER: Can you name some of your early influences?

     GILBERT: Almost any book in the library—knights saving ladies, cowboys trying to kill the bad guy. I just devoured books; each new story opened a new vista.

Poets like Jack Gilbert open up such vistas. Here is one of my favourite poems that he wrote.

Failing and Flying
Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It's the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.


Monday, 19 November 2012

Ekphrastic Poetry

 Ekphrasis or ecphrasis is the graphic description of a visual work of art. In ancient times it referred to a description of any thing, person, or experience. The word comes from the Greek ek and phrasis, 'out' and 'speak' respectively, verb ekphrazein, to proclaim or call an inanimate object by name.

Ekphrastic poetry is the conversation between two pieces of art. The writer interprets a work of visual art and then creates a narrative in verse form that represents his or her reaction to that painting, photograph, sculpture or other artistic creation.

This is a poem I wrote from "The Hallucinogenic Toreador” by Salvador Dali

Lost Boy

O lost boy
O blue boy
with your horn.
An army of flies,
a pestilence
heading your way.

Venus is armless,
Bears herself back
into a mist of time
she has no memory of.
How could she
hold on
to any

Do you see it all?
The body in flames
beating its own retreat,
the coloured charms
raining down,
the molten pool?

There is a bridge
on some horizon.
between arches
are gods and heroes.

blue boy,
step across
the abyss
of your heart.
Your future face
is golden.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Falling More Slowly - Insomnia

This is a piece of writing I did for a Refugee Week writing project.

Cloven hooves batter the door, splinters of wood pierce the darkness. A stink of greasy fleece and the pungency of urine underscore the tympanic discord of bone against metal. I herd my unconscious, hurry it until I wake and know I am once corralled in insomniac isolation. Outside, ewes heavy with lambs have come down off the mountain driven by cravings. Their solid skulls knock over dustbins, lids roll like cymbals and potato peelings are strewn edible runes. In the pre-dawn street of my childhood, wandering sheep prophesied a future of sleeplessness.

Since then I have watched countless dawns grow munificent gold with the alchemy wasted, and the promising returns of day short changed by my miserly greed for sleep. Throughout nights deprived of that coinage, I have tuned in to the world Service and via an ear piece, assimilated shipping, weather and monetary forecasts along with the breaking news. This in turn has subliminally enriched my subconscious with vivid landscapes and exotic leading roles. In such times the currency of dreams inflated, and I hoarded it to barter with a reality bankrupted by fatigue.

I have always loved this poem by Robert Frost.

Acquainted With the Night

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right
I have been one acquainted with the night.

Acquainted with the Night 

Lisa Russ Spaar - Editor

This Anthology “brings together Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop, Rimbaud and Sappho, Shakespeare and Shelley—the great poets of the Western literary heritage—on a theme with which each one has been acutely familiar. Lisa Russ Spaar has also unearthed ruminations on the sleepless nights of poets the world over: in a fascinatingly diverse anthology, she has harvested verse from Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Inuit, Vietnamese, Tamil, Yiddish, and Romanian poets, who together present an illuminating display of insomnia’s extraordinary and enduring legacy in widely different cultures through the centuries. As these exquisite poems chart a course from solitude, through anxiety, to epiphany, the reader truly learns what it means to be acquainted with the night”.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Creative Writing and Dementia

I have just got back from a very stimulating training day provided by Bangor University, in partnership with Literature Wales at Ty Newydd, as part of their Creative Writing & Dementia Programme. The training is for creative writers to work directly with care home residents who have been diagnosed with Dementia.

John Killick did the morning presentation and workshop. John is a freelance writer who works with people with dementia by recording their conversations, and with their permission, writes and publishes their words in poetic fashion.

In the evening John presented and read poetry that had emerged from his work with persons with dementia. This was an extremely uplifting and inspiring experience.

 This is a poem I wrote about my grandmother who had dementia in the later stages of her life.

 Last Orders

Those final years
you kept The Colliers Arms,
bartered pale ale
for piano lessons
from the self taught drunk
banging the bar
for one more tuneful pint.

You never relished calling time,
turning out familiar faces,
emptying their dregs,
tables sticky with spills,
spit in the sawdust.

That August,
strident with missed notes,
I stood beside your bed,
turned pages while you read
the score like Braille.
All sense of timing lost,
those soured slops of days.

Friday, 16 November 2012


The International Academy for Poerty Therapy
A while ago I was co-teaching an online poetry course  called Poetic Forms. One of the aims of the course was to introduce the various forms that poetry can take, to read examples of each form and to experiment with writing in the forms. Throughout the course I set myself the challenge of writing a poem in every form that the course covered. One of my least favourite forms was the sestina.

This definition might go some way to explaining why.

 Definition of Sestina - The sestina is a challenging form in which, rather than simply rhyming, the actual line-ending words are repeated in successive stanzas in a designated rotating order. A sestina consists of six six-line stanzas, concluding with a three-line “envoi” which incorporates all the line-ending words, some hidden inside the closing lines. The prescribed pattern for using the six line-ending words is:

1st stanza 1 2 3 4 5 6
2nd stanza 6 1 5 2 4 3
3rd stanza 3 6 4 1 2 5
4th stanza 5 3 2 6 1 4
5th stanza 4 5 1 3 6 2
6th stanza 2 4 6 5 3 1
envoi 2--5 4--3 6—1

It feels a lot like hard mathematical work.

Here is a sestina by Elizabeth Bishop

September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It's time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle's small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.

Tomorrow I am attending a training day/seminar at Bangor University about Dementia and Creative Writing. My grandmother had dementia for the last six years of her life. This is my sestina using the same repeated words as Elizabeth Bishop.

I remember the house
where my grandmother
lived. How I watched her, as a child,
coax into life the old stove

with pages from the almanac,
the smoke in her eyes bringing tears.

I never saw her cry. She kept her real tears                          
shelved like preserves. In her house
she had no need of any almanac
to dictate or predict. My grandmother
who could resurrect a dying stove
had lost her first born child

to diphtheria. For this child
she counted out the tears
like cobbles, hardened for the stove.

Never really spoken of, the house
held onto grief. My grandmother

never used an almanac -

 memory, for her,  made an almanac.                                              
blank. My mother, as a child
remembers my grandmother
as toughened by hard work. Futile the tears
when at sixteen she ran a house 
for seven younger siblings round the stove.

Later we sat at her warm stove
deriding the predictions in the almanac.
Nothing can foretell the way a house
decays from the inside. To a child
she was the upright woman without tears
to waste, she was the only grandmother

 I knew.  My uncomplaining grandmother
busy on her knees or at the stove.
And it was still without tears
that she touched the pages of the almanac,
turned for her by her oldest grandchild,
the chaotic ruins of her mind collapsing like a house.

In the last house that my grandmother
lived she had become a child. The stove
gone cold, her almanac  a distraction for our tears.