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Two poems by Ava Patel

Smokers

When I smoke,

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;
shoulder blades
wriggle ………….through flesh,
ripe for fresh air.

…….My fingers are cold goldfish
nobody won at a summer fair.

They feel heavier …….than a sledgehammer,

………………….almightier

than a deity— ………….and you—
when you smoke,
my appendix knocks against my abdomen,
keen to finish his joke.

A Heat

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.

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James Harpur on Gated Communities

James Harpur ©Dino Ignani

Gated Communities

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.

~

Portora Royal

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.

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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.]