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A Ballad Footnote – a poem by Peter Robinson

A BALLAD FOOTNOTE

‘that little tent of blue’

Oscar Wilde

~

1

We’re driving east in the winter sun,

its rays, a reddish yellow dazzle.

Reality testing, phenomenal,

they’re splayed about the far horizon

 

and cast on walls a leafless shadow.

Up ahead, the gibbous moon

rises above built-environment neon

waxing in that tent of blue …

 

2

Then round the perimeter of Reading Gaol,

we pick out by its locked front entrance

an agent’s board with the words: FOR SALE.

 

But whether, behind, that remnant glow

or ahead this pallid, chilly distance

weighs and finds us wanting, I don’t know.

~

12 December 2019

Peter Robinson is the poetry editor for Two Rivers Press and teaches at the University of Reading. His TRP publications include Bonjour Mr Inshaw, The Constitutionals: a Fiction, and Foreigners, Drunks and Babies: Eleven Stories.

The Two Rivers Press illustrated edition of The Ballad of Reading Gaol is available here.

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Poet of the Week – 20: William Bedford

TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK—20: WILLIAM BEDFORD

William Bedford has published novels, children’s novels, short stories and several volumes of poetry. He lived in Kensington during the nineteen sixties, working in the City of London before becoming an academic. His novel Happiland was shortlisted for the 1990 Guardian Fiction Prize. His selected poems, Collecting Bottle Tops, and selected short stories, None of the Cadillacs Was Pink, were both published in 2009.

William Bedford writes:

The most important experience in my writing life happened in 1959, when we moved from the east coast of Lincolnshire to USAF Hemswell in north Lincolnshire. My father was the civilian police officer, responsible for seven isolated villages. The Americans were there with their intermediate nuclear missile programme. A group of scientists from the Douglas Company who were working on the fuelling programme were also on the camp. Among their families, I made friendships which have lasted through the decades.

The first serious literature I read – virtually the first books I read – were the great American poets, novelists and dramatists of that generation. By the time I was sixteen, I was reading Lowell, Berryman, Ginsberg, Carlos Williams, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, James Baldwin, Hemingway, Faulkner, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. I also read Shakespeare and the English classics, but more importantly for my own writing Chekhov’s short stories and plays, and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I was obsessed with Ted Hughes, the one contemporary English writer who attracted Alvarez.

The Americans brought their own way of life with them – cars and fridges and televisions we had never seen – an all-night ten pin bowling alley in one of the empty hangars, cheeseburgers and hi-fi systems. Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue was the background music to these experiences, Jackson Pollock the scenery, New York and California the imagery colouring my ambitions.

Though I have written extensively about the farming background of my father’s family, and the east end slums background of my mother’s Sheffield family, the rhythms of American poetry and prose are the deepest influence in what I have tried to write. I never struggled to escape the influence of the iambic pentameter – Eliot and Pound’s ambition – because I came too late to traditional English versification – or at least the dominant tradition until Ted Hughes pointed out the deeper roots of English versification. And in prose, when Saul Bellow begins The Adventures of Augie March with ‘I am an American, Chicago Born’, I immediately fell in love with the declarative tone.

~

WHEN THE AMERICANS CAME

USAF Hemswell: North Lincolnshire 1962

When the Americans came,
they didn’t take to our gardens:
the apple orchard smelling of wild garlic,
foxgloves growing among the runner beans.

‘Do you have vampires around here?’
a visitor from Carolina asked me.
It was a shambles, Wilfred knew that,
nodding wisely as though apologising

for the ill manners of King George,
the clematis purple in the thatched roofing.
But come the softe sonne,
there are oxlips in Fry’s woods,

forget-me-nots in the shallow stream,
lettuce and spring onions for a salad.
It’s certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat*

I tried to tell them. But they weren’t women,
and didn’t care to listen to a boy.
They preferred the red rosehips
we used for making wine.

Danced outside the village church
round the maypole Jack Parnham made.
Now they’re gone,
the wild garlic has returned.

*W.B.Yeats, ‘A Prayer for my Daughter.’

CAMP PERIMETER

for Trisha: October 1962

I bring you Ezra Pound’s poems,
sliding foxily the fox lanes,
cruising

the six o’clock dawn bristle.
But your father opens the door,
stiffening for duty,

ready for war.
The camp is no place for poets.
Military mowers cut the grass.

The air is nuclear.
‘Traitor!’ flares from his mouth. ‘Mad!’
I run for shelter.

‘Love,’ I want to shout. ‘Love.’
The dawn’s red lunatic.

[from The Dancers of Colbek]

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Poet of the Week – 19: Mairi MacInnes

TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK—19: MAIRI MACINNES

Mairi MacInnes (1925-2017) was born in Co. Durham and educated in Yorkshire and at Oxford. Towards the end of World War Two she served with the WRNs. Her first book of poetry, Splinters: Twenty-Six Poems (1953) was one of a series printed by The School of Art at the University of Reading. After marrying John McCormick, she lived in Berlin and the United States. As well as some nine collections of her poetry, she wrote two novels and Clearances, a memoir. She received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, and an Ingram-Merrill Fellowship. She received an Honorary Doctorate in recognition of her lifetime’s work from the University of York in 2014. Two Rivers Press published Amazing Memories of Childhood, Etc., her final collection, in 2016.

Mairi MacInnes writes:

I didn’t think of myself as a writer, no. I wanted to be a writer though. That is, to write well and all the time. I also wanted to be a girl rider in a circus, standing on a horse’s back as it cantered around the ring; but it turned out that to be a writer was better understood, and easier.

Yes, as time went on and I got better at it, it was natural to write in response to events. Writing was a way of dealing with them, even with confronting the opposition, with gestures in words, you might say. It is tempting not to care whether the writing has an effect or not.

I began with a clunking rhyme about the Dawn, illustrated with sun, rabbits, a deer, all in thick colour. The grown-ups were amazed. My brother, harsh critic, said it didn’t scan. From there I went on to a detective story, and so from poem to prose, poem to prose forever. I like writing both. The poetry, if it’s poetry, is subtler, and draws on different spheres, and doesn’t care so much to persuade, and if it works, is much more mysterious and one can be glad in it without self-congratulation.

Sometimes I’ve written draft after draft and got nowhere, to write the final one in my head during the night a long time afterwards. Or something simply writes itself, straight off. That is common. ‘The blood jet poetry’ doesn’t come with the morning post.

But it is the experience that matters, and the writing of the experience, not the author. Surely that is clear nowadays, when the reader is ready to throw the writer out of the window. That’s one answer. The other, from a completely different perspective, is that ‘we love other people’s lives: we need their focus.’ People, with all their oddities, are like us. Writers, therefore, are not only allowed to write what they want – they must. It is a duty they owe to the truth. One hopes the art is the proof of the truth.

People have mostly been kind. Goodness knows, we need our critics, and insight and careful analysis can only strengthen the will to write well. I could do with more criticism. I could also do with less. Hence, I tend to respond with disbelief.

[from ‘Mairi MacInnes in Conversation’ at 80]

~

Hugh Haughton has chosen two of his favourite poems and comments on them here in ‘MacInnes and the Place of Time’:

Mairi MacInnes’s poems work like long-exposure photographs. I love the grainy and ferociously grounded sense they give of specific places, viewed close-up but through the medium of time and the undimmed eyes of a survivor.

Invited to choose two poems from Amazing Memories, I have lit on a pair that dwell simultaneously in two places at once, or which are, as Seamus Heaney puts it, ‘bi-located.’

The first, ‘In York Minster’, dwells in the present on one of the most numinous historical buildings in England, but takes off from a memory of an earlier time in Spain (‘Remember how they said in Aranjuez / in dry Castile that the town trees were prodigies / because there were rivers underground / watering their roots?’) It goes on to reflect on the differences between the places, naming the different rivers in York and insisting the Minster is not a giant tree but ‘only stone, bare stone, magnesium / limestone, not wood.’ Having materially and nominally grounded the building (and the poem) in its actual place, however, the end conjures a magical convergence of the woods of Castile and the Yorkshire stone, viewing the cathedral’s mighty towers as like ‘stone oaks’ and the light ‘filtered as in a wood’ and people’s voices like ‘a rustle of birds in the undergrowth.’ At the close, the two places meet and marry, as she says: ‘I walk in the nave and remember Aranjuez.’

The second poem ‘Waking’ opens vertiginously by conjuring ‘A hole in the air off the isle of Lundy, / a hole in the head on the pillow this night.’ Thereafter it flips back and forward giddily between the dawn view from her bedroom in the present and memories of ‘a cauldron of black and white puffins aflash’ on the little island of Lundy, where she dwells on the birds ‘clumping together in rafts’ and going on to ‘nest on cliffs and in burrows.’ Again, the effect is to be in two places at once, and both aerial and deep-grounded, both with the birds in their nests, and the final shot of the young milkman ‘serving these houses like a messenger.’

In both poems, I find what MacInnes calls ‘Otherness’ and another of her poems describes as ‘other worlds that move / like ships at sea, faintly visible …’.

IN YORK MINSTER

Remember how they said in Aranjuez
in dry Castile that the town trees were prodigies
because there were rivers underground
watering the roots? No rivers run under York:
when they dug a cave under the Minster floor
to pour new footing for the crossing tower
lest it collapse, they found only a drain,
a runnel oozed out of the compressed clay,
runt of the brotherhood Ouse, Seven, Seph,
Riccal, Dove, Foss, Rye, Derwent, Hodge Beck,
that spread upon our plain and keep it green.
If in the crypt you sense that giant trees root here
you err. Above is only stone, bare stone, magnesium
limestone, not wood; and yet the mighty towers
leaf like stone oaks, the window tracery flowers,
the transepts are two boughs, the light on us
is filtered as in a wood, people’s voices
arrive with the rustle of birds in the undergrowth,
and I walk in the nave and remember Aranjuez.

WAKING

A hole in the air off the isle of Lundy,
a hole in a head on the pillow this night,
holes in the air, in the head, one in the other, containing
a cauldron of black and white puffins aflash,
aflash as they whirr and soar and plummet,
each like a well-flung bottle with trailing ribbon of feet
and a red and blue lozenge of a beak
in a white head that’s striped through the eye.

The last hour of night. The windows pale.
Quiet. The milkman hasn’t yet clanked up the path
nor the postman or newsboy come tramping,
the letterbox lid hasn’t yet clacked.
The geese haven’t flown over the gardens,
wings creaking like doors, giving each other advice.
True, the sky has winched a crack
of clear white line over the rooftops,
true that pigeons clatter up from the ash trees
(but now they clatter back).
A blackbird practises one phrase and then another.
Has someone spoken? No one.
Was that the telephone? No.

The puffins lift off from rocks by the sea,
from the floor of the bucket of mind
and the hole in the air off Lundy:
till, as they fling down the sky just this once
again and rashly mount to summit grass,
cramp strikes human legs, with sling-shot accuracy.
Some watcher on the cliffs has got me.
I slip from my bed and hobble the cold floor
(puffins falling through the enormous air),
and, yes, my legs come gradually free,
and words fly out once more
like puffins after winter storms spent on the great sea,
clumping together in rafts: in April
they break camp and whirr to the greening land
and nest on cliffs in burrows, and hatch their young;
and I that after all have no part in their kind
watch the milkman come, still a youngish man,
serving these houses like a messenger.

[from Amazing Memories of Childhood, Etc.]

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Poet of the Week – 18: Adrian Blamires

TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK—18: ADRIAN BLAMIRES

Adrian Blamires was born in Cornwall in 1964, near the Culdrose naval base where his father was stationed with the Fleet Air Arm. He spent his first ten years in various towns in the south of England before a move north to Lancashire. He now lives in Reading with his wife and son. His main career has been as an English teacher in sixth form colleges; he currently works at The Henley College. In 2017 he completed a PhD in Renaissance drama at the University of Reading, where he also taught on the English and Creative Writing programmes. He is the author of two collections of poetry, The Effect of Coastal Processes (2005) and The Pang Valley (2010), both from Two Rivers Press. Eliza’s Entertainments, a Tudor-themed pamphlet produced in collaboration with the artist, Robert Fitzmaurice, was published in 2015.

Adrian Blamires writes:

My mum recently discovered a poem I wrote when I was about ten years old, a rhyming squib on the school Sports Day. I have no recollection of it and haven’t yet been reacquainted with anything other than an unfortunate line about ‘girls’ behinds’ which amused my mum. This poem pre-dates by two or three years my earliest memory of actually writing a poem, a homework task I found excruciating, having nothing to say and no facility for saying it. In the end I decided, for no good reason, to describe a floating bubble. I wrote in free verse – I’d evidently been told that poems don’t have to rhyme – and produced several lines of ‘waft’ and ‘iridescence’ before ending with the word ‘POP!’ in capital letters. It prompted a succinct critique in red biro: 6/10. Sad.

I’m intrigued by my mother’s discovery because most of the poems I’ve written as an adult rhyme. I don’t have any ‘new formalist’ agenda, no sense that rhyme is integral to poetry; I simply struggle (still) to write in free verse. No spire without a scaffold. Out of the initiatory babble and doodle (Northrop Frye’s terms) it’s nearly always a rhyme which catches my ear, my eye, and about which a poem starts to take shape. It’s a choice of instrument, I guess – a period-instrument, perhaps, but one that I hope still lends itself to lyricism in the here and now.

Juvenilia might be on my mind because I’m starting to write poems again after several fallow years. Intensive farming leaches the land, of course, and I’ve been happy enough to wander uncultivated fields, admiring lady’s smock and milk-thistle, only occasionally visiting those marshy spots where old, failed poems despondently lie. But after this phase of mental rewilding, I’m learning anew the pleasure of planting, and even trying out different ways of doing things. Almost inevitably though, the first few shoots have leaves that rhyme.

INTRODUCTION TO VIRGIL

in memory of Gerry Nussbaum

As Gerry read from The Aeneid, Book VI,
His quick fingers hesitated over the braille
(The skiff yet to leave the margins of the Styx),
Having sensed a shift in the lecture theatre,
Always alert to a flaw, a faltering metre.
All eyes followed a paper plane’s slow trail.
Someone stifled a laugh. I still feel the smart,
Each time it descends, that poison-tipped dart.

There’s something more I summon from that hour,
As he continued with his passage – And this is how
It sounds in Latin – a conjuring of vatic power,
The changed voice, an ancient otherworldly boom,
A sonorous authority that held the room:
Virgil himself presenting a shield, a golden bough,
To the boy from Köln, eight years old, whose eyesight fades,
Passing through a throng of six million shades.

[From The Pang Valley]

OS EXPLORER DRESS

Her degree-show dress,
…….never-before-worn,
was based on a map
……….of where she was born.

Green-sewn woodlands,
…….streams of blue thread,
a permitted bridleway
……….in long-stitch red.

‘I was christened here
…….by the River Frome.’
A church with a spire
……….in the contoured combe.

[uncollected]

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Poet of the Week – 17: Kate Noakes

TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK—17: KATE NOAKES

Kate Noakes is a poet and non-fiction writer now living in London, previously resident in Caversham, Reading, for over thirty years. Her seventh and most recent collection is The Filthy Quiet (Parthian, 2019), which received enthusiastic reviews in Poetry Wales, Poetry London and from the Poetry Book Society. Alumna of Reading University, she reviews poetry for The North and cultural website, London Grip, amongst others, and acts as a trustee for London writer development organisation, Spread the Word. Real Hay-on-Wye, her personal take on that famous place, is forthcoming from Seren this year. She is widely published in magazines in the UK, Europe and beyond, and has been asked to read at festivals and reading series all over the country, most notably Poetry at Aldeburgh in 2019. Her content-rich website, which is archived by the National Library of Wales, is at www.boomslangpoetry.blogspot.com. Her poetic subjects vary from the environment, to contemporary culture, and autobiography.

Kate Noakes writes:

The Wall Menders was published by TRP over ten years ago. That doesn’t seem possible, but it is. The theme of this collection is the destruction of the planet, and hopeful suggestions for how to live harmoniously on it in the future. The volume is organised in two distinct sections: the worrisome and the positive. Distressingly, the topic has not gone away, in fact things have become a great deal worse, and my latest manuscript, entitled Goldhawk Road, and which I am busy editing, is threaded with rather bleaker poems on climate change, pollution, species loss and the like. It is hard to remain hopeful a decade later, but I try. My next poetry project concerns the lungs and breathing. I started work on this about a year ago, long before anyone had heard of Covid 19, but not before the BLM quote: ‘I can’t breathe’ came into common parlance as a protest slogan. This book focuses on my personal experience as a lifelong asthmatic and more recently a Covid sufferer (don’t worry, I’ve recovered, or at least I think I have). It’s not as depressing as it sounds, I promise.

The poem I have chosen from The Wall Menders is the title poem. The scenario is a former miner and his son building a drystone wall; the father being glad his son did not have to follow him down the pit. It is a father doing the speaking and not a mother as several critics have mis-interpreted it. That pesky ‘I’ in poems always causes trouble. I have not read this poem for years, until asked to write this piece. I am still rather pleased with its music and description.

THE WALL MENDERS

I see him now as a man:
my boy and I work together
making music of boulder and grit,
passing stones over this growing wall.

We fill the brief space between us
with small notes, flat, sharp,
coming closer in building a barrier
that forgets the contours of the fells.

I see him now in the air
and never-harming rain, a man spared
the heat of the pit. We make
our own small monuments.

We were here and we thought about
scored coping, lunkies for sheep,
made stiles and badger smoots
and paused for breath on the mossy clefts.

I might hear the gush of water
pumped from galleries and shafts,
whispers of re-hiring. But I’m too old
and spoiled by the open.

My boy lacks the skills of prop, board
and pick, spends his days
in this uplifting labour, his voice
quavering between whistle and hum.

[from The Wall Menders]

THE SICK SPRING

Thirteenth March, a Friday with which comes
a most lauded play, Stoppard’s last contract:
Vienna, and a family succumbs,
fortunes and losses in Leopoldstadt.

I am treated to the stalls by a friend
of a friend, a nice man I do not know.
His cancelled cultural holiday ends
with a short email critique of the show.

I give him scenes, chronology, pictures,
timings avoiding history’s clichés;
how I stepped into busy Leicester Square –
with foreboding that hurried me away.

And how I scurried home to a semi-death:
headache, sore throat, cough, and struggling for breath.

[uncollected]