I began writing what I called my ‘plague poems’ on 16 March, directly after leading a writing workshop at Reading Museum and Art Gallery – the last outing for us all before the initial restrictions on movement were announced. It was there that I encountered the extraordinary paintings of Rebecca Swainston, an artist who lives in Tilehurst – I was captivated by the haunted, haunting atmosphere of the two paintings on show there, and wrote a poem ‘Symptoms’ in response to one of them the next day. (You can read the poem on the Poet of the Week page: https://tworiverspress.com/2020/05/01/poet-of-the-week-5-lesley-saunders/)
Since then I’ve continued to find a strong resonance between the strange, estranged world of the pandemic and the uncanny cosmos of Rebecca’s work – even though the paintings are not about the disease. We have been writing to each other often, and sharing our work-in-progress.
Here are three further poems in response to particular paintings of hers:
The frock I’m wearing underneath my frock
is a miracle of construction, a farthingale
whose hoops are fashioned from elastins,
collagens, fibrils, organelles – such fine stuff
for everyday wear, such soft logic, seamless
and sensuous as silk! What you cannot see
is the way its lavish brocade stays me,
keeps me mammalian, wholly caro factum,
empirical, real, a Rosamund of matter –
if I prick my finger, the vivid blood-bead
on its tip is prophetic, remedial, a dose
of prophylactic plasma. The air may be rank
with fighting talk, but the frock I’m wearing
is patched all over with quick salvific roses.
2 May 2020
Woman Holding Up the Sky The gap in unpaid work (activities such as childcare, adult care, housework and volunteering) between men and women… remained large, at 1 hour and 7 minutes a day – ‘Coronavirus and how people spent their time under lockdown: 28 March to 26 April 2020’, Office for National Statistics
In the water it is beautiful,
can swim against the tide,
and with it, be covert,
indiscernible, visible, leap
to twist; see its scales rainbowing,
its fin-flick, its dark, dark eyes.
Now see it in the shallows,
how its body shines with the sun on it.
See its power, length. Don’t
think about the stories of
it mating and spawning, the
incalculable distances it swims,
it in a net, and gasping. No,
remember it for itself, and its colours,
and you, leaning over the edge
of the boat, the bridge, quay,
riverbank, cupping your bare hands
around it, holding it steady for a while.
Claire Dyer teaches creative writing at Bracknell & Wokingham College, runs Fresh Eyes – an editorial and critiquing service – and curates Poets’ Café, Reading’s longest-running poetry platform on behalf of The Poetry Society’s Reading Stanza. Her poetry collections, Eleven Rooms (2013) and Interference Effects(2016) are published by Two Rivers Press, and she has another, Yield, forthcoming in February 2021. Quercus and The Dome Press have published her novels.
Two Spirit Creatures by Bernard Matemara (Zimbabwe)
Reading Museum, Animals in Art Exhibition, 2020
Madejski Gallery, second floor, and here’s my father,
cast in springstone, smooth as his own bald pate.
A man sucked dry by life, in death he has become
an elemental self, transformed not once,
but twice; ego and alter ego filling
the small glass case with presence.
I know him by his hands. They’re garden hands,
spatulate and strong, the kind of hands that mixed
cement and dug King Edward’s up for lunch.
They’re hands he never raised in anger or in
self-defence. He always showed an open palm –
beneath his nails a trace of God’s good earth.
Hilary writes: “This poem was inspired by the brilliant Animals in Art exhibition at Reading Museum after an excellent workshop run, in the Museum, by poet Lesley Saunders.”
Hilary Hares’ poems appear widely in print and online. Her collection, A Butterfly Lands on the Moon supports Loose Muse, Winchester and a new pamphlet, Red Queen, is available from Marble Poetry. Website: www.hilaryhares.com
What if you could give them back
their hats, coats, scarves? Place
a knitted glove onto each small hand.
Return their hair to them, for plaiting
and to entwine daisy chains made
in the meadow amongst the soft buzz
of furry bees. Pull out of the sack the
toy train, hand-carved, and old bear,
a travelling companion − exactly the one,
with a bright blue bow around his neck
frayed from feeling too much love.
Put them all back into the right hands.
Find the shoes, a perfect pair, buckle
the feet, all tucked up in woollen socks.
Fill their cheeks until red and ruddy, make
rounded tums and dimpled legs, scatter
freckles on faces with the touch of summer.
Then place in one gloved hand another,
bigger, a mother. Give them back a father
too, smiling down as button eyes look up
to find his in the glare of the setting sun.
Grasp that hand and step back on board
the train, this one with red velour seats
and a warm welcome from the lady
with the trolley, who offers jelly sweets
and apples and a story book,
about a tiger who came to tea.
Vic Pickup is a previous winner of the Café Writers competition and was recently shortlisted for the National Poetry Day #speakyourtruth competition. In 2018, Vic co-founded the Inkpot Writer’s Group in Eversley where she lives with her husband and three children.