The art trail enlivens proceedings by inviting
poets to read in artists’ garden, where bees
work for pollen on lavender and valerian.
I choose a few poems that may chime
with the work of potters, painters,
printmakers and jewellers, but
this year I’ve not shaken off winter’s grip
and my chest is a squeezebox with loosed ties,
tumbling to the floor from careless hands.
Discordant and groaning I’ve wheezed my way
through weeks of heat, so find some quiet shade
away from the studio and watch bees
working for pollen on lavender and valerian,
but it’s hopeless, I can barely give breath
to one whole line let alone the next.
A friend offers to read every alternate stanza
for me to catch my breath, or try,
and we manage like this, but every muscle
of my ribs pulls. My lungs are more folded back
than when I began, and the fresh-picked
mint tea offered by the host is no cure –
I can barely stop straining long enough to drink it
as bees work for pollen on lavender and valerian.
Ian Brinton’s recent publications include Islands of Voices, an edition of the selected poems of Douglas Oliver (Shearsman Books) and a translation of the selected poems of Mallarmé introduced by J.H. Prynne (Muscaliet Press). Forthcoming publications include a translation of the selected poems of Valéry introduced by Michael Heller (Muscaliet Press) and a sequence of poems by Philippe Jaccottet (Equipage). His Paris Scenes by Baudelaire will appear from Two Rivers Press in July 2021.
Wren, robin, dunnock, rat
Mandarin ducks in a raft of eight
great-crested grebe, cormorant
Canada and Egyptian geese
on a winter’s afternoon around the lake –
this strangely vacant campus
the traffic now distant, peripheral.
Shrill coot’s tewk, moorhen curruc
laughing kwarr of black-headed gulls
perched on the underwater bench
and now a pair of dabbling gadwall
the monogamous shovelers
the usurper rose-ringed parakeet.
true litmus of the change
a little egret, out of the water
showing the world its yellow feet.
I feel it in my thighs.
When it rains, my fingertips shrivel,
and when I walk along a beach’s shoreline,
my shoulders burn
to turn themselves inside out;
wriggle ………….through flesh,
ripe for fresh air.
…….My fingers are cold goldfish
nobody won at a summer fair.
They feel heavier …….than a sledgehammer,
than a deity— ………….and you—
when you smoke,
my appendix knocks against my abdomen,
keen to finish his joke.
He thinks I’m a slice of toast.
He brings butter, he brings honey
to the bedroom, looks up at me
through his eyelashes,
the shape of his left iris asking a question.
He wants to coat me, smother me,
does this honey know me?
I swelter in its shroud and stand,
naked and pink, in the middle of the room.
My skin—taut, unyielding—wants
to be stripped away like lurid satsuma peel.
The threads of my hair stick
to the nape of my neck, form rings
around my throat. They smell
overwhelmingly sour, are dark as molasses.
My universe is viscous. It sticks to my teeth
like a piece of toast buttered with tar.
Ava Patel studied at the University of Reading and was awarded a first-class MA in Writing from the University of Warwick. She has published poems in webzines (Runcible Spoon, London Grip, Ink, Sweat and Tears) and magazines (South Bank Poetry, Orbis, South, Dream Catcher). Her debut pamphlet Dusk in Bloom has recently been published by Prolebooks and she runs an Instagram poetry page: @ava_poetics.
Peter Robinson’s poem about Reading Gaol being put up for sale (‘A Ballad Footnote’), with its associations of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment, depicts an eerie, unsettling landscape, depopulated and filled with theatrical light effects – sunset, neon and a moon that is ‘gibbous’, a word that jogs us into thinking of ‘gibbet’ and the condemned convict Wilde featured in his ballad. Robinson’s focus is the gaol, and at a time of national lockdown, the sale of an epitome of lockdowns is an irony that Oscar in particular would have appreciated.
The poem made me think of incarceration in general and how lucky I am during this pandemic to enjoy the space and freedom that was out of reach of Wilde in his enforced confinement in Reading. Unlike his prison yard, my own, here in West Cork, stretches for a statutory five miles over boggy fields almost in every direction; and his ‘little tent of blue’ is a pinprick compared with my daily panorama of grey.
Wilde’s first experience of incarceration actually occurred in 1864 when he was nine years old – not for the ‘gross indecency’ that landed him in Reading Gaol, but for being the right age to be sent to boarding school: Portora Royal in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. There he would have experienced a typically Victorian school regime, centred on the Classics, cold showers and canings; as in Reading Gaol, he would also have seen little tents of blue – through high classroom windows – as well as, by compensation, generous vistas of mud on the rugby pitch. Perhaps Portora was the perfect Prep School for his boarding years in Reading?
As it happened, my father, Brian Harpur, also went to Portora (in the late 1920s) and would have experienced something similar to Wilde’s school regime (sadly my dad was six years too late to play cricket with another Portorian, Samuel Beckett). After his time at Portora, my father remained a loyal alumnus – to such an extent that in 1971 we spent a couple of days of a family holiday there on the vacated school premises. I can still remember walking into what was the ‘guest accommodation’: a line of six iron beds, beautifully made up … in the sanatorium. I half expected Florence Nightingale to read us a bedtime story.
I recently wrote a poem about that holiday, as part of a sequence about my own ‘incarceration’ in a boarding school in Surrey in the 1970s. For me, the holiday is a reminder that lockdown is not just a physical phenomenon, but also a psychological reality in which we are constricted by the roles expected of us, or which we adopt through necessity.
We’re like a troupe of travelling players
the six of us rehearsing holiday roles
as we motor through the Irish midlands
the sky blended with a layer of turf smoke.
At Enniskillen we enter Dad’s old school
out-of-term deserted, a huge sepulchre,
headmaster with a warm off-duty smile
showing us our rooms in the sanatorium
then guiding us like prospective parents
to classrooms, dining hall; conjuring up
Beckett vulpine in his cricket flannels
and Oscar Wilde casting pearls to swine
while Dad slips back some forty years –
me a mere three weeks – to homesickness.
Next day a change of emptiness: Lough Erne,
headmaster’s boat, glare-induced smiles
islands gliding past us on the water
Dad acting the husband without a mistress,
Mum the unsuspecting wife.
Next day sickness strikes, a tummy bug,
and it’s like a scene from Endgame
all six of us in the sanatorium moaning
like mourners, and none of us knowing
this will be our last family holiday,
and all of us knowing.
‘Portora Royal’ is from James Harpur’s book, The Examined Life, published by Two Rivers Press in April 2021.