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Poetry and Art: Claire Dyer on Stanley Spencer, Ai Weiwei, and her poem ‘Of Angels, Porcelain and Paint’

Poetry is often inspired by art, and poems inspire art in turn. This series of posts celebrates this special connection in the words of artists and poets who have been published by Two Rivers Press.


When the call for poems was made by Two Rivers Press for their 2017 publication, Stanley Spencer Poems: An Anthology, edited by Jane Draycott, Carolyn Leder and Peter Robinson, my first stop was The Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham where I spent a wonderful day with Spencer’s work, making copious notes and letting the pictures imprint themselves on me.

What I particularly love about the craft of poetry is the emotional connections the imagination can make between the visual, the heard and individual memories, and when, during my research, I came across Spencer’s ‘Gardening, 1945’, which features a man and a girl, heads down, backs bent, digging up leeks, there was something about the texture of their hats, clothes and the basket the girl is holding that brought to mind Tate Modern’s 2010 installation of Ai Weiwei’s 100 million individually crafted and painted porcelain seeds. And this, in turn, instead of the actual specialists who worked in small-scale workshops in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen, took me to a roomful of angels painting the seeds.

My imagined angels were all-knowing, all-seeing, but unable to do anything to influence or change us – they were about the pure act of giving. And so, when my daughter, who had been my son, was transitioning*, I wanted for her the chance to choose her own identity and destiny without censure or judgement, and so I wrote this poem, addressed to her, about angels painting the porcelain seeds Spencer’s painting had reminded me of, and of my daughter’s right to fashion herself as many identities and destinies as she wishes, by running her fingers through the seeds, making billions of shifting pictures, all uniquely hers.

Claire Dyer, March 2022


Of Angels, Porcelain and Paint

Imagine a room, square windows
letting in the light. Imagine the light

is bright and yellow and falling
across rows of tables in slabs

the colour of butter. At the tables angels
are painting porcelain sunflower seeds –

the husks of sunflower seeds that is –
and, in the falling yellow light,

focus on a pigment each: pink, green,
russet, caramel, grey.

They take breaks at regular intervals,
stretch their necks and talk about the news –

somewhere a war is ending,
another about to start;

how can they survive all this?
And, on one particular, peculiar,

sun-drenched day Stanley comes,
and they give him their creations,

give him baskets brimming
with painted seeds for his collage

of two figures (daughter
and father) harvesting leeks.

He bends Kathleen to her task.
She can smell soap,

her father’s gardener’s skin
is surprisingly clean and,

if you listen carefully
you can hear a torrent of birdsong;

clouds are holding in the rain.
Imagine then you are walking

into the room with the square windows
and the light that’s bright and yellow

and falling, and Stanley says,
You can stir your fingers through the seeds

if you like, make billions of shifting pictures,
all uniquely yours.


From Yield, Two Rivers Press, 2021

A version of this poem appears in Stanley Spencer Poems: An Anthology, eds Jane Draycott, Carolyn Leder, Peter Robinson, Two Rivers Press, 2017

*I have my daughter’s permission to refer to her by her old name, status and gender where appropriate.

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Poetry and Art: Gill Learner on how the art of Stanley Spencer has inspired her poetry

Poetry is often inspired by art, and poems inspire art in turn. This series of posts celebrates this special connection in the words of artists and poets who have been published by Two Rivers Press.

Ever since moving to Reading in 1966, I have been interested in the work of Berkshire’s best-known painter, Stanley Spencer. With my husband I visited the gallery at Cookham, which then had a rather different layout. Some years later, choosing our day carefully as there’s no artificial light in the building, we drove to the Sandham Memorial Chapel and were astonished and moved by the murals depicting life, death and resurrection in WW1 Macedonia.

In 2001 we went to the Tate Britain exhibition of his work. Many of the paintings were familiar: the inhabitants of ‘a village in Heaven’ either performing their usual tasks or transformed into characters from the Bible; the somewhat brutally honest portraits of his partners and himself; and scenes of places in and around Cookham. But the series of enormous depictions of shipbuilders working in Port Glasgow during WW2 were completely new to us. We learned they were commissioned by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee to document civilians’ contributions to the war effort.

Although I was intrigued by the situation Spencer found himself in, I had only just begun writing poetry. It was not until the Cookham Festival Committee organised a poetry competition in 2017 that I came to think about it as a subject. As I’ve always been fascinated by technology and craftsmanship, it was appealing. It was also intriguing to imagine how it must have been for a rural Home Counties man to lodge and work with Glaswegians, and for them to receive him into their homes and workplaces. ‘A long way from home’ didn’t win but I was delighted when it was included in the anthology that resulted from the competition.

When I was putting together ‘Change’, my third collection from Two Rivers Press, I found the poems grouped themselves. There are six sections, all untitled but each preceded by a quotation indicating the general tone: Conflict, Art, In Memoriam (chiefly of my late husband), Nature, Displacement, and Music. There are, however, some overlaps and, while this Spencer poem is in the Art section, it could just as easily have appeared among the poems about displacement alongside, among others, Frankenstein’s ‘monster’, a homeless refugee, and my son’s seduction by the wildness of the Peak District. As it is it faces another poem about a Stanley Spencer line drawing, ‘Roy’.

Gill Learner, February 2022

Gill Learners poem A long way from home

Visit Art UK to view Stanley Spencer’s Shipbuilding on the Clyde paintings

‘A long way from home’ features in Gill Learner’s most recent collection Change, and also in Stanley Spencer Poems: An Anthology, edited by Jane Draycott, Carolyn Leder and Peter Robinson.

Change cover image

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Poetry and Art: Jenny Halstead writes about the artwork she created to illustrate Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Disabled’

Poetry is often inspired by art, and poems inspire art in turn. This series of posts celebrates this special connection in the words of artists and poets who have been published by Two Rivers Press.


Published in 2018 on the 100th anniversary of the poet’s death on the Western Front, Pennies on My Eyes is a collection of Wilfred Owen’s poetry illustrated by Reading-based artists. Here, Jenny Halstead writes about the influences for the artwork she created to illustrate the poem ‘Disabled’ (on page 25 of the book).


Artwork by Jenny Halstead illustrating Wilfred Owen's poem Disabled

The dominant images in my mind were of soldiers marching, whether walking or standing still bewildered, others unable to stand because badly wounded. These were the ‘lucky’ ones who had survived being blown to pieces after going up the line to the front.

In my career as a medical artist I studied the work of Henry Tonks, who trained as a surgeon before re-training in fine art. During WWI he worked with the pioneer plastic surgeon Harold Gillies, and made a large number of drawings and paintings of injured and facially disfigured soldiers, before and during the process of facial reconstruction, injuries caused mainly by raising their heads above the line of the trench. These pastels are largely housed in the Royal College of Surgeons.

I visited the Imperial War Museum, and particularly remember shaky black-and-white newsreel footage: soldiers coming over a rise, one by one passing guns over their shoulders, looking exhausted but nevertheless smiling, if only for the sake of the camera.

The crutches reminded me of a visit to the British Rail Works in Swindon in 1975. My late husband, a palaeontologist had identified a massive 9 metre short necked Plesiosaur found in the works floor while they were digging. So the following year we were invited to their Open Day. They proudly exhibited the shiny new 125 train alongside the amazing 130-150 million year fossil. But at the back of the foundry was an extensive display of WW1 prostheses made in the yard by railwaymen using metal and steel from the trains and leather and padding from the upholstered seating. An efficient use of re-cycled materials.

Jenny Halstead, February 2022


Wilfred Owen's poem Disabled

Jenny Halstead is a long-standing member of the Reading Guild of Artists and founder of the Whiteknights Studio Trail.

Also by Jenny Halstead: An Artist’s Year in the Harris Garden (2013), Silchester: Life on the Dig (2015, with Michael Fulford), The Art & History of Whiteknights (2020, Editor).

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Kate Behrens introduces three poems from her latest collection ‘Transitional Spaces’

Several poems in ʽTransitional Spacesʼ were written during lockdowns.

ʽBreakdownʼ arose from trying to support a friend during that time. The physical terrain in the poem is chalk, with all the implications of that. I wanted the ʽyewsʼ to be ambiguous when the poem is read out loud: mental collapse can involve the disintegration of ideas about who we/you are. The ʽCycladic headʼ came from the real finding of a flint that had elements of those tiny Neolithic Aegean sculptures, ones that reduce the human form to its most essential and enduring components: things of beauty with all unnecessary detail lost. It had felt like some kind of talisman.

ʽNarcissi on Valentineʼs Dayʼ started off as a poem about my late twin: the red-tinged trumpets trembling in the wind had triggered a memory of her when asleep, but I hadnʼt registered that I was writing it on the 14th February. It then turned into a more traditional love poem.

ʽThe Look of Transitionʼ began after I stood by the North Sea in Aldeburgh at night watching the hypnotic monochrome patterns of waves breaking, and the next day, a flatter, dun-coloured and less reflective surface. It was just after a series of deaths of friends and family members, including two brothers, and all within a few months of each other, a time of sharpening perceptions, as so often happens. The rhythms of nature were a comfort, and seemed the only certainty.



You stab at birdsong with disavowals,
muffled as a doped-up dreamer.

Bonelessly writing himself on blue,
a crow seems to spell it out
in the guiltless act of flying.

I offer a flint ‘Cycladic head’
found in a quiet swollen by yews.

It passes through unsteady hands like water.


The slope is thick with spokes and frozen
arms. Silence is a gravitational force

holding the chalk in place,
allowing in one bird whose

single note, tremulous,
stretches through unexplored spaces,

searches like a parched tongue.
The answer’s almost inaudible,

but it comes.


Narcissi on Valentine’s Day

The body’s long-ingested springs
spring in the veins,

though quietened
re-spark darkened blood,

as trumpets of lighter red lift
and suggest

the lilt and tilt of a loved one’s mouth
shifting in dream.


The Look of Transition


This dun unrolling doesn’t reflect us.
Seagulls rest secretive
eyes under hollow bones.
A cut-out boat is tissue-thin,
horizon’s a bent

It waits to ping now
into then.


Night’s waves shelve silvers for blacks,

in rhythms not ours,
and ours.

Alien heartbeats the hours

in failing bodies
(now flashed with graces
darks allow)


Each wave sheds silvers
for blacks,



The pendulum’s swung:
rooks flung over
the pine, back again,

pattern a raucous conversation,
leave a ghost-looping
where questions


Transitional Spaces book coverKate Behrens’ most recent collection is Transitional Spaces, published by Two Rivers Press in April 2022. It follows on from her first collection, The Beholder (2012), Man with Bombe Alaska (2016) and Penumbra (2019). Other poems have appeared in MslexiaBlackbox ManifoldStandThe High Window, Reading Universityʼs Creative Arts Anthologies, Poetry Salzburg ReviewWild CourtNoonThe Arts of Peace (Two Rivers Press) and as Oxford Brookesʼ Poem of the Week.

Read more about Kate’s poetry here.

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Meadow with flares – a poem by Rodney Wood



A cappuccino at the old coffee house,

Caffè Florian in St. Marks Square,

even if it’s extravagant but there are

three musicians playing light classical,

the kitchen is ten minute walk away,

the art and décor are an experience

and waiters are at peace and professional.


This past year it’s not been possible

to get away, unless you’re a celebrity,

so I’ve been pretending I’m on holiday

when really I’m walking to the end

of the garden to leave banana skins

and coffee grounds in the compost bin.

It’s cheap, I don’t need a passport

and no heavy suitcases to lug around.


With an easing of the rules it’s almost

a return to old times on the Great Western

seated with cell phones and masked bank robbers

passing new extensions, different clothes

on washing lines, air that carries a new sort

of promise and not mutations of the virus.


At Reading station I have a flat white,

walk over Christchurch Bridge to Caversham,

find a bench and eat a ham sandwich.

Swifts wheel over the rowing club roof,

a falcon sits like a Buddha on a sycamore

on the other bank, geese make some noise,

four young women put on jumpers and share

a picnic on a tartan cloth, some older

folk on collapsible chairs drink glasses

of wine, one man is under a banner that reads

‘World Record Sitting Attempt’, a girl passes

with black flares and a camera, while dogs

seem generally puzzled at all the action.

My almost Homeric journey over I join

my neighbours who have decided to meet

and share cups of coffee and conversation.

A radio plays ‘Do What You Can’ by Bon Jovi

while Shelly nods her red hair and explains

to me how in 2020 the song raised over

$6 million in a benefit for his home town.

Peter, from across the road, takes pictures


‘To remind me of the flesh and gold of life

because maybe I won’t get another chance.’



Rodney Wood currently lives in Farnborough. He worked in Reading in the ’70s, his son currently lives there and he is a regular attendee of the monthly open mics at South Street.