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C.3.3 becomes Sebastian Melmoth ~ a poem from Gill Learner

C.3.3 becomes Sebastian Melmoth
Voilà où mènent les mauvais chemins
~ Oscar Wilde after Balzac

Red grit of Reading has been sluiced away,
coarse garments burned. Slight tremors
in the hands will soon be calmed by foreign air.

The channel isn’t angry but surly,
cradling the boat from wave to wave
enough to stir up coffee, marmalade and toast.

On deck, where seagulls circle and complain,
he witnesses the pallid chalk sink low,
watches for the distant smudge of France.

Breakfast calmed, he goes below again,
folds his coat to pad the wooden seat, lights
a cigarette. Eyes closed, he slides

towards unconsciousness. He semi-dreams:
not yet the ballad of a wretched life, but smooth
young limbs, filet de boeuf, champagne.

Gill Learner has been published widely and won a few prizes. The Agister’s Experiment (2011) and Chill Factor (2016) are from Two Rivers Press, with Change due in 2021. More at

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Poems from Lesley Saunders. Inspired by paintings from Rebecca Swainston

Lesley Saunders writes:

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:

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:

after ‘Dress of Lies’Rebecca Swainston, oil on gesso panel

And the dress… / Branded her soft flesh. Poor girl, / She hurtled up, all fire – Euripides Medea, lines 1183–5, transl. Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish

What reason was there not to adore it,
the dress – its watered silk, its weight;

it shimmered as she moved, silver warp
and rose-pink weft rippling like sunset

on a lake, the fishtail wrapping her ankles.
It clung to her like a second skin, every

mortal cell of her, each pore and hair.
But the dress is hungry, wet turns to fire,

it wants to eat her alive: she melts in its arms,
gum from a blazing pine in the cytokine storm.

17 April 2020

after ‘Woman with Connecting Dress of Cells’Rebecca Swainston, oil on gesso panel

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

after ‘Woman holding up the sky’Rebecca Swainston, oil on gesso

Having travelled the cloudless distances
from the nearest star, barren and metallic,
as far as this summer garden, the sky

has come to rest in the open arms of a tree.
Catching its drift, a woman pegs the fine linen
like clean washing to the line of the breeze

so it will not snag on the backfire of traffic
or be smirched and smutted by too much light
from glass cities left on through the dark – ach,

she’s been doing this since she can remember,
while a child, then another, grew heavy inside her.
Today in her dream-diary she writes the one

about flying, how easy it feels to breathe in,
lift off, begin. All she wants now is the view,
the sky unfurling its florals and blues below her.

29 May 2020

Contact details for Rebecca Swainston here

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Poem in which a fish is not a fish ~ a new poem from Claire Dyer

Poem in which a fish is not a fish

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

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.

Her website is

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Two Spirit Creatures by Bernard Matemara (Zimbabwe) ~ a poem from Hilary Hares

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 Hares


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:


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The longing of Judith Kerr ~ a poem from Vic Pickup

The longing of Judith Kerr

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

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.