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Poet of the Week – 13: Gill Learner


Gill Learner has been writing prose and poetry, on and (mostly) off, since her teens, when she was published in her school magazine and the Warwick County News. After her return to work, post child-rearing, she found little time, but the occasional poem came about as emotional response.

On retirement from teaching Printing Studies at Berkshire School of Art & Design, she returned to writing and her short prose was occasionally accepted by magazines. However, in 2001 she won a limerick competition in the Independent, prizes for which were two weeks on Skyros and, more significantly, membership of the Poetry Society. For years she’d enjoyed reading contemporary poems in newspapers and magazines but had never really thought about writing it; receiving regular doses of poetry kickstarted her muse.

Among her first acceptances was publication in the Poetry Society’s members’ Bulletin – she was so excited that she began choosing her desert island discs! There have been countless rejections since but three other acceptances for the Bulletin, one of which gained the Society’s Hamish Canham Award 2008. Among a handful of other successes have been the Buxton Prize (twice), the English Association’s Fellows’ Poetry Prize, and in 2010 she came second in the Keats–Shelley Prize, ‘pipped at the post’ by our current Poet Laureate, no less! Her poems have also appeared in several issues each of Acumen, Agenda, The Interpreter’s House, South, The North, The High Window, etc., as well as numerous anthologies.

Gill Learner has had two collections with Two Rivers Press: The Agister’s Experiment (2011) and Chill Factor (2016). She is currently working on a third, provisionally entitled Change, for publication in 2021. Gill enjoys reading to an audience and, slowly overcoming her dry-mouthed fear, has been a regular at Poets’ Café for almost twenty years.

Gill Learner writes:

My aim in writing is to express some of the thoughts that buzz in my head which would otherwise, like an unwritten ‘to do’ list, nag me towards insanity. But I feel very strongly that my poems should be understandable and relatable-to, on at least one level, by as many people as possible – ‘accessible’ is the usual word. However, while I’m aware that there are bound to be references which are entirely personal or outside general experience, it is gratifying when readers, especially reviewers, find insights or links that I hadn’t been conscious of.

The question most writers in any genre are often asked is ‘Where do your ideas come from?’. My answer is ‘Anywhere’. Of course, family members, past and present, have been an excellent source, but random other subjects lodge themselves in my mind, sometimes with urgency, more often lurking, waiting for words and phrases to accrete around them. Although I would never claim that my poems are jewels, the nearest analogy is to the grit in an oyster. There are also prompts from magazines or competitions with a particular theme. Sometimes a topic will produce no immediate response but become grit; occasionally, there’s an instant resonance. Either way, I let it lie while jotting down thoughts until I feel ready to begin patching them together.

After the sudden death in July 2018 of my husband of almost fifty-seven years, I couldn’t write for what seemed like ages. Then, within a few weeks, a competition call prompted a poem about a long-ago family holiday; I was hugely relieved that I hadn’t dried up completely. After that came a steady trickle of poems, some in memoriam, which will be central to my next collection, but I have recently made an effort to avoid gloom.

‘Which is the greater art, poetry or music?’ is the question at the heart of Richard Strauss’s opera Capriccio. I hope I am never forced to choose between them as music has inspired a number of poems, particularly about Beethoven. But it is a huge frustration that a composer of, say, a symphony has so many voices to play with while I have only one. I would love to enter a composer’s mind to see how choices of instrument, rhythm and melody are made.

I have often said that a perfect day for me would be writing in the morning and gardening in the afternoon, so have found stimulus in the natural world, also in works of art, and various technologies.

During an interview for an Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre podcast, I was asked if I thought artists needed to engage with political and social matters. My response was that, ideally, poets’ work should reflect the world they live in. Inevitably then, social and environmental problems have triggered ideas.

The rigorous feedback from members of both Reading Stanza, and Thin Raft, the twice-monthly workshop I co-ordinate, is invaluable: any successes I’ve had have usually been thanks to them.


A woman dies. Her husband grieves,
commands the quarrying of stone, fine-grained

and whiter than the moon. Many hundred men
carve it into blocks, polish and build them

into a mound, domed and crowned
with an upturned crescent and a lotus bloom.

Craftsmen embed stones – garnet, opal,
amethyst – patterned into flowers and vines

and texts from the Quran. Here
her bones are locked into a marble tomb

to wait for Shah Jahan.


A woman dies; her husband grieves.
Had a doctor’s skill been near she would

have lived. But the bulk of a Gehlour hill
spun out the hours. So Dashrath takes hammer,

chisel, nails. For more than twenty years,
ignoring mockery, he snicks the rock

chipping at ancient layers of river silt.
At last, one hundred metres on,

at five times his height and wide enough
for a pair of carts to pass, he’s reached his goal –

the mountain’s carved in two.

[From Chill Factor, Two Rivers Press, 2016]


The scented smoke is dizzying, even in Duomo cool.
Padre Benito drones: Dominus vobiscum. A young man
drags his thoughts from the purple flowerings
on the cleric’s face – syphilis, for sure – responds
Et cum spirito tuo. Dare he, a mere student, advise
a dose of mercury? He yawns, shakes his head,
notices two altar lamps swaying in a draught.
The smaller swings higher and yet they are in time.
He presses fingers to his wrist, checks them against
his pulse, sits up with a jerk: what if there were
a clock that worked by pendulum …

At seventy-eight, forbidden by the Church
to leave his home, he sits in a patch of sun, relives
some high-lights of his life: works on harmonic oscillation;
improvements to the telescope; behaviour of the moons
of Jupiter, and his heresy – confirmation that the earth
moves round the sun. He remembers the Duomo lamps,
gropes for a pen, sighs. His son, Vincenzio soothes:
I’ll be your eyes: tell me what to draw. The old man
describes a cog-wheel and two curving pawls which will be
flicked up by a pendulum and also keep it on the move –
the workings of his clock.

[Published in Agenda Vol. 50, nos. 1–2]

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Poet of the Week – 12: Ian House


Ian House was born in Reading during the Second World War. A child of the 1944 Education Act and the grammar school, he read Philosophy, Politics and (a vanishingly small amount of) Economics at St John’s College, Oxford, and then taught English in schools in Derbyshire, Somerset and Yorkshire, experiences which led him to conclude that a Quaker school, with its commitments to peace and equality, would be a place in which staff and students might get on in a sensible way. When the opportunity for a job at Leighton Park came up, he returned with misgivings to Reading. During twenty-four years at the school, he enjoyed a sabbatical term at St John’s College, Cambridge, which revived his brain and doubtless impaired his liver, and an exchange-year teaching in Philadelphia.

On taking early retirement he taught English in adult language schools in Moscow, Budapest and Prague and, on returning to England, began writing poetry. His three collections, all with Two Rivers Press, are Cutting the Quick (2005), Nothing’s Lost (2014) and Just a Moment (2020).

Ian House writes:

Although ‘Spinning Yarn’, Part II of my new collection, is implicitly about the making of poems, there is nothing I desire less than to investigate in prose the reason I write poems. The less I know, I suspect, the better. I observe my ‘practice’, with interest, from the outside. An experience or observation makes me feel, for some unknown reason, that there’s a poem there. I wander around for a day or two, doing the thises and thats of living, unconsciously incubating. Possibly I’m writing the poem to find out why I’m writing it. Certainly, I have no idea, when I start, where it’s going. If I do have an idea, the poem will be stillborn. I write a lot very fast, crossing out and revising, crossing out and revising … then I start over with a few rescued lines and write a lot, very fast, crossing out and revising; I do this three or four times, aware mainly of the physical pleasure of transmission from brain down arm and hand through pen to page. When I sense there’s something that feels like a poem awaiting birth, I put it onto the computer, and tinker with it for an intermittent two or three days and let it totter off. After about seven years I’d be capable of re-reading it without a sense of paternity to see if it has any merit.

At the front of the binder in which I keep the hard copies of my poems there are two sheets of paper. The first says simply, ‘Be Real. Be Surreal. NOT What do I think about it? BUT How does it feel?’ Useful advices I always bore in mind when I started writing seriously in 2001. The second sheet contains several quotations about the sun, the source of all light and sustenance. They include Chaucer’s charming and profound, ‘Up roos the sonne, and up roos Emelye’; Lowell’s beautiful prayer, ‘Pray for the grace of accuracy/ Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination/ stealing like the tide across a map/ to his girl solid with yearning’; crowning all, Whitman’s understanding of the relation of the poet to the sun, ‘Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sun-rise would kill me/ If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me.’ Little wonder that I see the two poems based on Paul Nash’s paintings of sunflowers as central to my new collection. Sally Castle’s sunflower on the cover does indeed burn.

If, on a good day, the sun fuels my poems, Wallace Stevens is their guiding star. The Man with the Blue Guitar makes the high and necessary claim that ‘Poetry/ Exceeding music must take the place/ Of empty heaven and its hymns’. Yet Stevens can ground a poem in the simplest of situations, noticing how ‘The mother ties the hair-ribbons of the child/ And she has peace’ or taking in old age ‘one last look at the ducks’ in the local park. His poems ‘were of a remembered time/ Or something seen that he liked’. And so are many of mine.

One of Stevens’s miracles is that he doesn’t so much describe a situation as create it, charm it into being as in ‘The Poems of Our Climate’:

Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow …

Would that I could get anywhere near that intensity without straining. Or write poems that invite or compel the deep attentiveness of which he writes so movingly in ‘The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm’: ‘The reader became the book; and summer night/ Was like the conscious being of the book.’ Or write a poem of which it could truly be said that it is ‘the cry of its occasion, /Part of the res itself and not about it.’

As well as his example, Stevens has given us handy tips always in my mind: ‘It Must Be Abstract’ (distilling something from the concretes); ‘It Must Change’ (be responsive to the flux of living); ‘It Must Give Pleasure’ (as an artefact in words, not sounding, unless for special effect, like the ‘skreaking and skittering’ of grackles). The poems in the Paul Nash sequence, meditating on the poetic imagination, bear similar titles. All that said, my poems are nothing like Stevens’s anymore than I’m like the mackerel that fed me for lunch today.


~Paul Nash, Solstice of the Sunflower, 1945

blazing yellows and oranges
intenser than all imagining
fierce as a fusion reactor
self-unsparing self-consuming
the sunflower hurtles downhill
freewheeling fertiliser of crops
cutting a swathe
through grass and standing corn
like a top whipped on by the sun
outpouring of nature’s juices
ah sunflower outrunning time
headlong career, suspended
at this moment for ever
leaps the frame and continues

[from Just a Moment]


Unrestrained the shrieks of children
at fleeting abandonments, minor betrayals,
the vastness and urgency
of scraped knees and small losses.

In silent rooms, during polite conversations,
imagine the thickness
of the calluses we have accreted. Listen
to the wind that rattles the shutters.


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Poet of the Week – 11: Sue Leigh


Sue Leigh lives in the Windrush valley in Oxfordshire. She teaches at Rewley House, Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education, and reviews regularly for PN Review. Her first collection of poems, Chosen Hill, was published by Two Rivers Press in 2018. It was described in the TLS as ‘an intelligent and considered collection that pays homage to the act of paying attention’. She has a letterpress pamphlet called Chalk forthcoming from Evergreen Press, which will include the uncollected poem ‘Flora’.

Sue Leigh writes:

I don’t know how poems happen. I love the mystery that surrounds their making. I learn continually about patience and listening, they seem to be at the heart of it.

There are fallow periods which are as important as writing itself. It has taken me a while to understand this.

And there is solitude, this is necessary. Interruption would break the line of thought, craft, feeling – it would be like waking the dreamer from the dream.

I am fortunate to live in a quiet place surrounded by fields. I feel silence all around me – broken at this time of year by the singing of birds.

I spend much time walking. This is often where poems begin. (It has something to do with rhythm, I think.) Outside, there is a sense of lightness, the mind quietens, you can listen. You look at the sky, you inhabit weather. You move through the living world – a world of plants, creatures. You feel part of it.

I write in a notebook every day. I started this practice some years ago and I can’t imagine ever not doing this. Sometimes the notes may be the beginnings of a poem.

I find myself trying, trying again to lay hold of experience, to catch something of that original brightness. But in the dance with language something new emerges and it often catches me unawares. A poem becomes an act of discovery, a small research project into one’s relationship with the world.

I was thinking the other day about why poetry matters, and it seems to me that in these times we are more in need of poetry than ever. Poetry connects us with our deepest selves, but it also connects us with each other. Rather like looking at a painting, reading a poem may enable us to see the world through someone else’s eyes. We understand a little more about our humanity. And that must be a good thing.


To be with the mountain
as if to know one place
might be enough
for a lifetime
to be with it
without intention

then to set it down
to name juniper, heather, deer
precise too about uncertainty
the mind cannot hold it all –
the water in the loch
feels cold, clear

[from Chosen Hill]


I cannot make anything
more lovely than these names

also called bird’s eye, rock rue

meadow cranesbill
blue buttons, gipsy, grace of God

salad burnet

travellers’ joy

lady’s slipper or Virgin’s shoe
(might there be one left)

Venus’s looking glass

early purple orchid
known too as Gethsemane

pasque flower

and the purple rampion,
does it grow still on Silbury Hill

[first published in Oxford Magazine]

Chosen Hill book cover

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Poet of the Week – 10: Conor Carville


Conor Carville was born in Armagh city in Northern Ireland. He went to school at St Patrick’s Grammar School, where the poets John Montague and Paul Muldoon were also educated. After that he studied Law at Trinity College, Dublin. On graduation he moved to London, where he worked as a solicitor in a legal aid practice in Tottenham. In the mid-1990s he left the law and took an MA in English Literature at Goldsmiths’ College and then enrolled as a PhD student at Oxford, under the supervision of Terry Eagleton. While at Oxford he won the Friends Provident National Poetry Prize for an unpublished poet. In 2007 he won the Patrick Kavanagh poetry prize. His PhD was published as The Ends of Ireland in 2012, and his first collection of poems, Harm’s Way, came out from Dedalus the following year. Samuel Beckett and the Visual Arts appeared in 2018 from Cambridge University Press. A second collection, English Martyrs, is published by Two Rivers Press.

Conor Carville writes:

English Martyrs book coverI began what eventually became ‘Bless’, the sequences that closes English Martyrs, in the winter of 2013, just after my first collection was published. That book, Harm’s Way, includes poems written fifteen years before. This time, I thought – hoped – things would go more quickly.

We’d just moved to a new house in South-West London, after ten years living in Elephant and Castle, near the English Martyrs church, after which my second collection is named. The title poem, set in that church, describing its odd wooden sculptures of Thomas Campion, Oliver Plunkett and other saints, was written just before we left, as were most of the other poems in the first part of the book.

After the move I would write very early in the morning. There was a little nook in the eaves, below a window looking North towards Wimbledon Common, about four miles away, though all I could see were TV aerials and chimneys, and the steadily lightening sky. I’d recently read an interview with Toni Morrison, where she’d talked about starting to write in the darkness before dawn, and watching the sun come up as she did. I liked that idea. And I also remembered how John Montague had told me he wrote immediately after waking, to be closer to the dream-life. But the routines of parenting were also a factor: our daughter had started to sleep a little later in the morning. I, however, was still waking up at five.

So it was here I got going with ‘Bless’. The initial line of the first poem in the sequence was the first thing I wrote. It came out of nowhere but caught a mood that I wanted to pursue. It’s a cannibalization of the first line of the film Apocalypse Now, ‘Saigon, shit, I’m still only in Saigon’, with Wimbledon substituting for the Vietnamese capital.

Francis Ford Coppola’s movie was one I’d watched endlessly on video in a shed in an Armagh back-garden in the early 1980s. Like most of my friends I was obsessed with it: the images, the dialogue, the music. The violence. But for me there was something else too – as the camera tracked across the bookshelf in Kurtz’s bivouac, I was introduced to literary modernism: Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Eliot’s The Waste Land. Even now I can’t think of Kurtz without seeing Brando’s oily dome, and when I read Eliot’s lines about Stetson, I think of a bare-chested Robert Duvall in a cowboy hat.

So it seemed a perfectly reasonable idea to begin a long poem, set in suburban London, based on that hallucinatory cinematic epic. It gave me a kind of template that would, I hoped, enable me to write fast and without too much self-consciousness. And so it proved, the poems coming very quickly, often one a day, riffing on scenes from the film, or characters, or some of the themes and motifs that Coppola nicked from Eliot and Eliot from Conrad, Wagner and so many others. Against these I shored my own fragments, especially the myths and totems of my childhood: The Wombles, Bagpuss, The Moomins. By the time I had got to about fifteen poems there existed a kind of molten, slow-moving churn that went on perpetually up in the eaves, attracting all sorts of crap and debris into it, even while I was not at my desk. Holderlin and Axl Rose. Karl Schmitt and Jimmy Savile.

And yet, were I to describe what I had at this point as ‘poems’, I’m stretching the term considerably. They weren’t really poems. Not yet. They were sallies, rushes, convulsions. The main thing was that all together they seemed to be adding up to a world that was sufficiently distinct from, yet familiar to, my own, that I was eager to return to it every morning. In the end it took another five years, on and off (mostly off), to revise, edit and organise the sequence into a finished state. So it wasn’t as speedy as I hoped it would be, and I wrote many poems that didn’t make it into the finished sequence. I publish one of them here for the first time.


Wimbledon, shit … I’m still only in Wimbledon,
and here’s you seated on the sofa growing
stronger by the second. Nowadays
the slice-and-dice of rotors overhead betokens

not the smoking-out of a crack-house, or a Wessex
fossicking its way across the drumlins,
but the Bells or Sikorskis that bring
oligarchs to Chelsea in the Spring. Bless.

Bless them all: Camberwell and Peckham Road.
The South London Press and its small-
ads for jumble. A black Gola hold-all
dispatched one October from Aldergrove,

accompanied by its callow minder, me:
the hold-all that held all: a change of clothes,
a duty-free carton of Embassy Regal,
and my extensive travelling library

of one book, a 21st present that July:
the orange-spined, white covered edition
of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum,
largely unread, even today.

‘You mean to say, you were telling me lies?’
Yes. ‘You mean to say you never read those books.’
No. ‘All those books you save on your phone?’
I have never opened a book in my life.

[from English Martyrs]


Stuffed animal planet,
a dayglo orrery of fur greased
smooth by cuddles and drool.
Mike Kelley in Venice, remember?

And the black yachts shining
on the Riva Ca di Dio.
Or the Coppermill
on Cheshire Street

where Paul McCarthy unleashed
his Dionysian buccaneers,
that bunch of freaks
with their latex masks and makitas

and merkins and codpieces
who clubbed me to the deck
with a jeroboam of mayonnaise
then shot me in the head.

We woke up deep underground
in the tenth and final circle
of the EuroDisney queue
for Pirates of the Congo,

to find a couple of cowboys
spearing bales of hydroponic
with their sizzling tridents,
then shaking them into the bolgia

as if forking straw into a trough.
That snow of burning seeds and pods
strafed our skin like glitterball reflections
and we joined the others in their laughing dance.



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Poet of the Week – 9: Jane Draycott


Jane Draycott’s first two publications from Two Rivers Press were projects of characteristic collaboration and partnership, each published with accompanying images created by TRP’s visionary founding editor Peter Hay: Christina the Astonishing, a meditation with Lesley Saunders on the life of the medieval saint reputed to have flown like a bird from her own coffin, was published in 1998, followed in 2002 by Tideway, a collection of poems about the Company of Watermen and women working on the London river (including work first published in TRP’s Waterlog journal and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem).  Storms Under the Skin, her most recent Two Rivers publication, is a collection of translations from the artist-writer Henri Michaux and is a Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation. Other collections include The Occupant (a PBS Recommendation), Over (shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize), Prince Rupert’s Drop (shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection) and a translation of the medieval dream-elegy Pearl – all from Carcanet Press.

Jane’s interest in dream narrative and elegy has led to developing associations with mental health-care professionals, including writer-psychoanalysts Adam Phillips and Caroline Garland, via the British Psychoanalytical Society, the NHS Tavistock Centre and the Freud Museum London, and to performances for Medicine Unboxed.  Other collaborations have included three projects with the British Film Institute: Essentially British (2008), Psychopoetica (2011) and Poets for Pasolini (2013). Jane teaches for the Arvon Foundation, the Paris Institute for Critical Thinking (PICT) and the universities of Oxford and Lancaster. She is an Advisory Fellow for the Royal Literary Fund and co-producer on their Writers Aloud podcast series.

Jane Draycott writes about Storms Under the Skin:

In 2011 I discovered the poetry of Henri Michaux in Edwin Morgan’s wonderful Collected Translations (Carcanet 1996) and was immediately caught by the wry, mercurial invention and psychological truth of his poetic imagination.  What kind of mind, I wondered, thought like this:

Carry me off in a caravel,
in a sweet and antique caravel …
In the false velvet of snow.
In the breath of a little knot of dogs.
In the nerveless ranks of dead leaves.

The more I read of Michaux’s work, the more I knew that his was a poetics I admired and envied in equal measure – playful, searching and serious, operating with all the strange and seamless logic of dream.  I wished I could write like him. In essence I began translating poems from his collections of the 1930s and 40s partly as an act of advocacy – more people should know about these! –  and partly as an apprentice to his hallucinatory poetic world, treading as closely as I could in the traces of his extraordinary imaginative mind and alert lexical ear.

Born in Belgium in 1899, a friend of Gide and Supervielle and a companion of the Surrealists, Michaux was as self-effacing as he was original, shunning publicity, declining France’s Prix National des Lettres, rarely photographed. Outside France he is perhaps best known for his work produced during his mescaline experiments of the 1950s, but few people this side of the Channel whom I asked seemed to know of his poetry. When I wrote to TRP editor Peter Robinson proposing a book-length collection of translations, I had no idea whether the concept would appeal. I count myself eternally lucky that he said yes and that Michaux could become an addition to the Press’s growing strand of European poetry in translation, joining Geoff Sawyers’ Rimbaud (The Drunken Boat – so finely and unforgettably illustrated by Peter Hay) and Ruth Spiers’ translations of Rilke.

So began my third Two Rivers adventure in what has always felt wonderfully like a collaborative process towards publication – Peter generously editing the growing manuscript, Sally Mortimore steadfastly pushing through the painstaking permissions process, and Nadja Guggi and Sally Castle turning it into a beautifully designed publication finally in 2017.

Seamus Heaney wrote of translation’s value to the writer as an act of refreshment and – in Dryden’s term – of transfusion, of writing by proxy. When I began work on Storms Under the Skin, I was just finishing the manuscript of a collection of my own poems and was indeed in serious need of refreshment. Like writing a new poem of one’s own, each new translation was an attempt to find what pieces of the work would glow in the dark, trying hard to really hear what was there, and to know why that might matter. Discovering the work of Michaux gave me the chance, in the words of Zoran Anchevski’s ‘Translation’ as rendered by Sudeep Sen, to sleep ‘on the pillow of someone else’s dreams’. Two Rivers gave readers the chance to discover just how extraordinary the dreams of Henri Michaux are.


In the warm mist of a young girl’s breath I placed myself
and then withdrew. I have not left that place. Her arms
weigh nothing. Coming to them is like coming to water.
Every faded thing evaporates beside her – only her eyes remain.

Fine long grasses, fine tall flowers grew in our meadow.
So light a burden on my chest, how heavily you weigh there now.
How you press on me, now that you are not here.


Icebergs – no safety rail, no lifebelts –
where storm-tossed ancient cormorants
and the new-dead souls of sailors lean upon their elbows
in the far spellbinding northern nights.

Icebergs, icebergs: religion-free cathedrals
of eternal winter, draped in the ice-sheets
of planet earth. Such height and scale,
such purity of profile born from purest cold!

Icebergs, icebergs: backbone of the North Atlantic,
noble frozen Buddhas in un-contemplated seas,
death’s shining lighthouses that lead the way to nowhere
where the wild cry of silence echoes on for centuries.

Icebergs, icebergs: lone solitaires, lands going nowhere,
needing nothing, far away and vermin-free.
Parents of small islands and of well-springs,
how well I see you now, how familiar you are to me …

[from Henri Michaux, Storms Under the Skin: Selected Poems 1927-1954 trans. Jane Draycott]