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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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Poet of the Week – 5: Lesley Saunders


Lesley Saunders has been writing poetry for more years than she cares to remember. It was, almost inevitably, a teacher at her all-girls’ school in the 1960s who introduced her to T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden as part of the A-level English syllabus. It was only then that Lesley realised that perhaps poetry had more to give, intellectually and emotionally, to an inquisitive but naïve young mind than she had imagined. She read Classics at university, but the magic of that modernist, engagé poetry strongly influenced her study of Homer, Sappho, Virgil and the rest.

Half a century on, and Lesley is the author of several books of poetry; her most recent collection, Nominy-Dominy, is a praise-song for the Greek and Latin literature she encountered in those early days; it was described in The Interpreter’s House as ‘an inventive and hugely convincing paean to an abiding relationship with the classics’. Book cover of Point of HonourShe has won various awards, including the Manchester Poetry Prize, the Poetry Business Pamphlet competition and the Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in translation. Her most recent books aside from Nominy-Dominy are Point of Honour, a book of her translations of acclaimed Portuguese poet Maria Teresa Horta; and A Part of the Main, a dialogue-in-poetry with Philip Gross in response to the social and political upheavals of 2016.

Having retired from her career as an educational researcher a decade ago, Lesley now leads creative writing workshops – with a regular annual session at Reading Museum and Art Gallery to coincide with the spring exhibition – and undertakes reviewing, editing and mentoring work as well as occasional residencies and commissions.

Lesley Saunders writes:

One of the most reliable stimuli to my work is collaboration, in all its different forms. I’ve worked with painters, sculptors, musicians, composers and dancers, as well as other poets. My first collaborative poetry project was with Jane Draycott; the result was Christina the Astonishing, published by Two Rivers Press, which had recently been set up by Peter Hay. The book has his powerful, beautiful prints interleaved throughout.

I think it’s the combination of trust and resistance that makes working with someone else so beneficial to one’s own vision and craft – by which I mean that one has to feel a basic trust in the other person’s integrity as well as in her/his gift in order to play the game at all; and then the necessary resistance comes from having to engage deeply with that other person’s very different life-world, allowing oneself to be changed whilst not being swept completely away.

I am constantly finding huge pleasure, as well as challenge, in the process. When Philip Gross and I began our dialogue-in-poetry, it was out of my urgently felt need to ‘reconcile myself to others, the present to the past and future…’ in the wake of the Referendum and all its unlooked-for social consequences. We wrote about a stanza a day, back and forth, to each other, responding in the moment to whatever came up, for about three months. At one point I wrote in an aside to Philip: ‘I meant to pay you a compliment, about the knight’s-moves: each new section of the sequence is a bit like a mini-commission – “can you do this? and now this?”.’

We stopped when it felt right to both of us to conclude. And we decided not to go back and edit anything, apart from typos. This was because what happens in collaboration is not the work of two individuals nor even of both individuals, but is somehow a third thing, a creature that has grown in the space-between, impossible to have imagined beforehand. One has to respect its independent reality, and not tinker with it post hoc.

In my life these days, there are three visual artists with whom I am fortunate to have a close relationship – not so much friendship (though that may come into it) but a mutual commitment to an exploration of word and image which manages to be both serious and playful. One of the three, Philippa Dow, is making beautiful calligraphies of many of the poems in Nominy-Dominy; we are promised an exhibition at the National Poetry Society in London in the future ‘when all this is over’. You can see some of her other work here.

I encountered the extraordinary paintings of Rebecca Swainston, an artist who lives in Tilehurst, very recently, at the art exhibition hosted by Reading Museum in the spring term of 2020 – my visit was to be the last outing I had before the restrictions on movement were announced. I was immediately captivated by the haunted, haunting atmosphere of the two paintings on show there, and wrote ‘Symptoms’, published below, in response to one of them the next day. We have just begun writing to each other and sharing work-in-progress. Her work can be viewed here.

And so it goes – serendipity has become a better friend to me, in writing as in life, than waiting around for inspiration.

I’ve been experimenting with prose-poems over the last couple of years, and there are several in Nominy-Dominy. I’ve chosen this one, because so much of what we used to read in our Latin classes was about military conquest, Caesar’s Gallic Wars and all that – from which we learnt the word ‘comminus’, meaning ‘hand to hand [fighting]’; though as a girl I could hardly know what that entailed. The poem picks up the word in a sort of riff on the soldiers’ cult of Mithras and its initiation ceremony:


Hand to hand. Like a man. The grip and creak of knuckles; knowing the precise moment to hold, let go. A blindfolded naked man, a man kneeling with his hands bound behind him, a man crowned, a man restrained from rising, a man lying on the ground as if dead. In our barracks and bivouacs we share the soldiers’ meal, blood and oaths, in Rome as in Dalmatia, in Britain as on the shores of the Black Sea. Foot-sloggers, slingers, sappers, scouts, camel-troopers, tiros and veterans, in the stations of the night and scarred by old wounds we do not speak of what we have seen. If something has happened, it has happened between us. Nama. Shake on it.

[from Nominy-Dominy]


after ‘Green Collar, Rabbit and Cat’ – Rebecca Swainston, oil on gesso panel

Humans are most creaturely when they’re sick,
lying in their own muck and matted hair,
hypersensitive to smells and sudden sounds,

shying from the light. A wild thing comes crawling
out of hiding then, a self of bones and viscera,
twitching muscle, peristalsis, pulsings, pain –

sleep’s impossible for an animal that’s hunted
and held deep in the lair of its own flesh.
The breeze carries bad news, like the scent

of corpses of its own kin and kind. Often
the disease is mild; often it kills.
A girl stills the coney’s rigid quivering spine,

laying her arm along its fur, staying its escape.
The green jewels around her neck shiver
with the fever, and her fawn eyes come undone.


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Launching Point of Honour at an event celebrating the life and work of Maria Teresa Horta in Lisbon, 10 May 2019

Point of Honour – translations by Lesley Saunders of poems selected by Maria Teresa Horta, renowned Portuguese writer and life-long feminist – is the first anthology of her poetry in English. Lesley was invited to participate in a conference held in Lisbon to celebrate the life and work of Maria Teresa, and to launch the book in front of an international audience of writers and academics. She says:

the conference was fantastic: three days of celebration of Maria Teresa Horta’s work – her journalism, her novels and short stories, and her poetry – by feminists and academics from all over the world and culminating with a series of homages by well-known Portuguese literary and political figures.

The launch of Point of Honour was well-received (I even gave a short speech in Portuguese!) and people seem truly grateful that Teresa’s work will be able to reach a wider audience.

Ana Raquel Fernandes, who wrote the introduction to Point of Honour, invited me to spend the weekend at her family’s seaside home in Santa Cruz, so we were able to relax on the beach after the intensity of the conference.

Here are a just a few of the many photos I took:

The Palácio dos Marqueses de Fronteira where the conference opened
The Palácio dos Marqueses de Fronteira where the conference opened
Point of Honour on display in the exhibition of Maria Teresa’s work
The Three Marias in 1974 (Maria Isabel Barreno, Maria Teresa Horta and Maria Velho da Costa), whose ground-breaking work, New Portuguese Letters, was banned by the authorities
The Three Marias in 1974 (Maria Isabel Barreno, Maria Teresa Horta and Maria Velho da Costa), whose ground-breaking work, New Portuguese Letters, was banned by the authorities
Maria Teresa Horta reading a poem she wrote especially for the conference
Maria Teresa Horta reading a poem she wrote especially for the conference
Finally, me with artist and sculptor Francisco Simões, who came to the seminar I gave on my own poetry (at the Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Lisboa the following week). Not only did Francisco present me with a copy of a beautiful book about his commissioned sculptures for the ‘Park of Poets’, but also took care to mention how much he loved the way his painting of the angel had been used in the design of the cover of Point of Honour: Sally Castle, take a bow!
Finally, me with artist and sculptor Francisco Simões, who came to the seminar I gave on my own poetry (at the Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Lisboa the following week). Not only did Francisco present me with a copy of a beautiful book about his commissioned sculptures for the ‘Park of Poets’, but also took care to mention how much he loved the way his painting of the angel had been used in the design of the cover of Point of Honour: Sally Castle, take a bow!
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Translating the poetry of Maria Teresa Horta

Point of Honour is the first anthology in English of the poetry of Maria Teresa Horta, translated from the Portuguese by Lesley Saunders, herself a poet. In the book, Lesley provides a translator’s note which talks about the challenges and the joys of translating – or ‘bringing across’ – the poems. A slightly condensed version is reproduced here.

Book cover of Point of Honour

My first encounter with Maria Teresa Horta’s work was to read, when I was a young woman, the revolutionary New Portuguese Letters, translated into English in 1975 for the anglophone feminist market. Without exaggeration I can say that that book changed my life, and the torch I carried for her has stayed alight for forty years. So when, as a much older woman, I decided to try my hand at translating one or two of her poems, I felt I wanted to meet her. The network of connections that the internet makes possible resulted in a rendezvous in the famous Café Namur in Lisbon. (The French word is relevant here because French was the language Teresa and I shared!) Teresa graciously acceded to my request to make translations of her poems, and the idea of an entire book grew quickly soon afterwards.

It has been a rare privilege to work directly with Teresa, who has been the most patient and encouraging collaborator, whether in explaining the personal or political background to particular poems or engaging in lengthy discussions about the idiomatic meaning of individual words and phrases. But semantic fidelity is not the only criterion by which translations should be judged. I was acutely conscious of the responsibility to try to make poems which would be good in their own right.

What does constitute a ‘good’ poem-in-translation? Part of the answer lies in expanding the notion of ‘semantic fidelity’ in recognition of the fact that words – at least in poetry – do not have a single denotative definition but sit within a capacious semantic field. A word is a ‘knot of consensually agreed aspects and connotations’, as Don Paterson puts it. English is especially rich in synonyms – each, however, with its own ‘immediate circle of strong aspects, relations and associations… [its own] connotative blur’ (Paterson again). So translators have to ask of the foreign word, ‘what are all the shades of meaning that colour this word in its general and specific contexts?’ rather than resting content with its dictionary definition, and then do the same for all possible English equivalents.

The challenge in Teresa’s case is that she is an elliptical, allusive and uncompromising writer, with a strong vision of her own work – it is powerful, political, erotically charged, almost visionary. Readers want to hear that original voice insofar as it is possible, especially as very little of her work has come over into English, and consequently I believe it was my responsibility to translate her poetry as directly as possible, whilst not ending up with literal paraphrases which serve mainly to point readers to something that is not quite there. It has been a fine balance to find.

The other half of the answer to ‘what makes a good poem-in-translation?’ must be its ‘music’ – the sense that comes from, as a result of, the sound of the words. Portuguese has the morphology characteristic of Romance languages, with vocalic word-endings that arise from relatively regular inflections and other grammatical structures. These have created a naturally generous facility for melodic and variegated rhyming. On the other hand, the spoken language, being strongly elided (as well as having many nasalised vowels and fricative sibilants), has a softer, more muted acoustic than other Romance languages: what the eye sees is not the same as what the ear hears. English obviously makes a very different kind of music, visually and aurally. What a translator does with this difference must be a matter of taste, the outcome of tireless experimentation and critical reflection, of instinct and conscious technique. I chose to represent Teresa’s mellifluous and myriad end-rhymes, mid-rhymes and half-rhymes, her stresses and pauses, with sound-and-shape patterns that seemed to me to work in English, rather than attempting the fruitless task of reproducing the original cadence and metric. I could not avoid the fact that, in Paul Muldoon’s words, ‘the poem is inevitably becoming a different thing as it goes from one language into another’.

People often ask me if I speak Portuguese. My response to the other (implied) part of this query is that I believed making a good poem-in-translation would depend much more on my experience as a poet and editor than on my (limited) expertise as a linguist. In some ways it helped that Teresa’s poetic – dynamic compression, parataxis, declamation, the location of white spaces/silence – is quite different from mine, so I was not tempted to turn her poetry into something I might have written. But this difference of sensibility was also a huge challenge, in conserving, or finding, the right degree of ‘strangeness’ in conveying the poems in(to) English. I hope and believe that the residual ‘foreignness’ in these English versions is a true reflection of something essential in the original, an intensity of sensual imagination and a forceful, often rapturous, use of imagery that do not surrender themselves easily to prose explication. I hope and trust that readers will be able to assent to the poems’ compelling inner logic, recognising them as extraordinary works that have been ‘brought across’, though not in any way tamed.

Lesley Saunders

O Voo da Linguagem

(from Poesis 2017)


Ser poeta é corer riscos

Trazer consigo a vassoura

De voar a linguagem


A paixão, a liberdade


As asa são seu


Onde resguarda a saudade

The Flight of Language


To be a poet is to court danger

Is to bring a broom and soar

The language into open air


Its anger, ardour, freedom


The wings are hers

Her calling

To serve and guard saudade

Buy Point of Honour

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Wulf’s Journey

The following poem by Robin Thomas came out of a workshop with theme of Reading Abbey.

Wulf’s  journey

Wulf maketh preparation for his journey

then he made up his mind

to visit the Abbey, leaving

his own dear Besse to twist

the flax and gather the bones.

First he made his way

to the water’s edge, thick as it was

with vetches, lillies and herbs

and there summoned

Blood-eye, the blind

terms agreed with the bote maker

boat maker who lived there

among the glittering frogs

and tail-less adders

‘Maken me an bote’ Wulf said

‘of herb and wasp nests

fastened with eye of fish

and Royal pitch’.

‘Master I will,’ he said,

straightening himself

like a wrought sword, like

a glottal tree.

‘What must I render?’

said Wulf, ‘three golden pins,

two stones from the shore, a dace

and nine withers.’

Night after night laboured

Blood-eye in his earth-sodden

byre to make and to finish

the boat

and by the day of the waif

its shape could be seen.

it glowed like a fleeing eel.

Then did Wulf seek out

and with Edgemon, sword-maker

Edgemon, the deft, deaf

maker of blades

in his dark cavern

under the yearning cliffs.

‘A blade shall ye maken for me’,

‘so I will, master, for you, for

payment of prayer for my father

and his, a noggin of pith and

a basin of scrawl.’

‘Those you shall have’, said Wulf,

on proof of its strength

and lightness of hold’.

he setteth forth on the streyme

Then went forth Wulf, in his boat

on the stream, leaving all

he had known, trusting his boat

to convey him with safety.

Thus was his journey: 

first, he encountered the

divers adversities

watery wolves.  These

he dispatched with his

new-finished blade, then

did he find the teeth in the river,

their insidious grin, the dark

of their threats, but prayer

made them shudder and sink,

But grimmest of all were the serpents

which swam, under the waves,

in their silvery sheen, but these

he ignored, trusting the will of his boat.

his journey continueth

And so he continued, by night

and by day, past monsters

and witches and tygers

and men in their fearsome

accouters, their accurate

spears in their hands, under

weather of lead or scorched

by the sun as if through a lens.

Now, as the boat

rounds a curve in the stream,

a vision of majesty

a vision of majesty, great

to behold

but which words cannot win

into verse.  There,

he reacheth his destination

Wulf ended his journey.