National Poetry Day 2018 - Change

National Poetry Day 2018: Change

This was life under apartheid
Change is a given in poetry - poems are where language changes, where perceptions change, and time. I see this sign, above, as a found poem from the Museum of Apartheid in Johannesburg. It reminds me of a poem by Ian Hamilton Finlay, Ovidian Flowers:

Veronica became Temptress 
Hibiscus became Spry 
Arabis became Saucy 
Periwinckle became Restless  
Calendula became Ready 
Begonia became Impulse 
Larkspur became Fury  
Heartsease became Courage 
Candytuft became Tenacity 

(Blue Sail, 2002).  

I used this poem of Finlay's when I worked with a group of young people years ago in a garden. But he's not a poet I'd immediately associate with the theme of change. Those poets are women - Gwendolyn Brooks, Edna St Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson.  I think of Anne Stevenson, Moniza Alvi, Gillian Clark whose bodies of work reflect personal and societal changes. It's an open and broad theme for National Poetry Day offering scope to include the work of many, many poets. 

Freedom was the theme for Thursday 28 September 2017 - National Poetry Day organised by the Forward Arts Foundation. It's been running since 1994, coincidentally the year of the first free South African elections. In the new collection I'm finalising, freedom's often about time. I've been writing about ageing. It goes without saying, getting older focuses the mind. 

Pocket St Anthony

I am now unable to ease a splinter
from my thumb or read the small print

of terms and conditions. Join a flock of sheep,
people say, or post a prayer to St Anthony

down the back of the sofa. Lost time
and stolen time are gathering behind me

darkening the sky. They will come back
as hail, rain, snow, keeping me inside

to watch the breaking sky and scatter me.

(first published in Warwick Review)

But is freedom also about constraints? The tiny poem below is from the same sequence, 'In the Library of  Dust', as Pocket St Anthony. 

Copper bracelet

The shackle, then, is a survivor.
With the crucifix

it outlasts almost everything.

This poem explores literal constraints but reminds me of the widely held idea of creative freedom coming from constraint. 

Some of the most astonishing poems I've read about prison were written by the poet Chris Abani in his collection, Kalakuta Republic, about being imprisoned in Nigeria in the 1980s. The poems of many black American writers, Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks in particular, focus on the struggle for freedom, as does the work of many South African poets such as veteran of the struggle, Tatamkhulu Africa whose poems are featured on the Poetry International website along with writers from around the world. 

What an enormous subject. Is all poetry, perhaps, about freedom. Isn't that what delivers the urge to write? 

2016 theme: Messages

I've been writing a series of poems based on letters, which I found in an old suitcase of mine. Of course I've thrown many of my old letters away, which is a shame because this has been a really interesting source of poems. In some ways they're random because of the subjects in the letters, but what binds them is my decision to keep these particular letters, or collections of letters. 

I also visit a charity shop on Lewes Road regularly and after a local community garden was destroyed by a property developer, I felt a need to send an imaginary message to the Sisters of Mercy, as I might have done when I was at school, a convent in Hampshire, where our messages were prayers or intercessions, to the Virgin Mary, Jesus and various saints. I am no longer a believer, but old habits die hard. 

Letter from my father

When my father left for Brazil, in the days international calls
were rare as telegrams and there was no email, he posted me
a letter containing his will. It lay on my doormat, large, brown,
official, my address an oblong in fountain pen, each word
leaning forward like an old fence in the wind. I thought
he loved travel, but each new flight lifted him higher than the flocks
preparing to migrate and what happens to a heart nearing the limits
of atmosphere? He'd flown so much I think he knew his heart
was giving notice and might decide, anytime, in a bar or jewellers
in Rio, at a beach hotel, or as he fought the Atlantic undertow,
to take off like a warbler, quietly, unnoticed. He'd be stateless,
somehow, by dying on business. Unequipped to express any of this
he sent his will and instructions, to arrive when he was in the air,

heading towards Brazil's amethysts with his unsteady heart.

(Published Magma Magazine, 2015)

Letter from Johnny on the Umgeni to Durban

I've mended her old linen sheets, inherited her arthritis
and the stopped time of her gold watch on its fragile chain.
In my grandfather's open top Sunbeam Talbot she had the look
of Jackie Kennedy, in her scarf and sunglasses - and was thin

as the boys who took her hand and guided her to leatherwork
in a Moroccan souk. In Paris, by the Seine, she's in black and white.
She was always single and on top of her hankies in a bedside drawer,
I found the message from Johnny. He wrote from the boat

on a sticky afternoon in 1950. He doesn't mention the sea's glamour,
spray on his skin, the deck which can't ever be cool enough
for this Englishman. He doesn't mention a woman at dinner,
who was born in Bridport. She would have imagined his mouth

shaping the characters, his hands opening a blue envelope, the skyline,
where there was no land. She might have opened her box
of photos to hear the music that played when they danced, drowning
out the rest of the truth his letter told. But did she hope by re-reading

his words she'd turn the liner around and replace those whites-only
beaches he was headed towards, cheap servants, with queues for meat,
unexploded bombs? How often did she unfold the lined paper, trace loops
and dashes his pencil made, his only intimacy on the single page, be brave?

(Published Mslexia magazine, 2014)

Letter from Graham

I drive you in turn to the train - one at 7,
one at 4, come home to stand in your rooms.

I listen for the end of a laugh, text, "Lovely
to see you" twice over, hang up headphones

you've forgotten, shake out your tunes.
Footsteps in the hall belong to my neighbours.

I smell their coffee and toast. When their dog barks
I'm mute as a suitcase, the bath.

The kitchen table's how I leave it - my glasses
look into a polka dot cloth. I'm surprised

how the house doesn't drum, only the cat
composes her scales. I'm grateful for creases in clothes,

hanging like skins to dry off. After work, I hesitate
with Jane, walk home as the sun's consumed by distant estates.

Cyclists remind me of torches flashing through rocks
on the hillside where that tree smells of piss.

There you are at the top, looking down
past me, past your Dad. The silence I open the door on

is felted wool, still as mug, plate and spoon. I creak
into the chill of the loft, and bring down a folder of letters -

Graham has written from Aberdeen all the love
in the universe from me and my bicycle chain.

(Published The Rialto, 2015)

To the Sisters of Charity

This is the second best road out of town
but where anyone starts leaving is anyone’s guess.
Is it half way along by the bucket and mop shop
or after Al Amin, ‘the trustworthy’, his aubergines
in mourning? Flats are going up next to the Co-op,
last summer tomatoes grew there. A tiger looked out of a wall,
and each passer-by, me included, was a fleck in its stare.
Deities in hard yellow hats are interned
in three floors of scaffolding where hoarding
prevents the poor looking in, on their way to petition you,
Sisters, Daughters, Ladies of Charity at St Vincents,
last place to buy castoffs. Your door chimes on a watercolour –
fir tree, full moon and lake. You sell me black jeans for £1,
chipped Meissen and a prayer card to remind me
of school’s tiniest nun. I cross to the cashpoint
dispensing £10 a time. The tollkeeper stretches a hand –
whatever I give, this road won’t release me.

I’ve dropped socks, broken eggs, Sisters, do you hear my key
pray in the front door, morning and evening,
the sirens and vixens answering? Do you hear
the station announcements, hijacked when the wind’s
in a certain direction? All this lamenting. And now the boy
calling for Will, his howl staggering up the hill,
pacing every side street, slumping under an elm,
where he howls again. I lie in the dark as he leans on a doorbell.
Neighbours join in: “Fuck-off!” He replies: “I’m nineteen”.
What stops him falling to his knees? How can I sleep
with Will on my mind, the boy’s one word song?
Only Will knows where Will is.  I hope he’s awake, like all of us.

(Published Boscombe Revolution, Issue 1)

NPD theme 2015: Light

The round house in Mashau which Risenga has built
on land he bought, close to his childhood home.
It is made of local earth and stone, thatched with
local grass. This is where we stayed in Venda.

National Poetry Day on Thursday October 8 2015 concentrated on the idea of light.

The first poem below was recently published in the Needlemaker's Anthology, written after my last trip to South Africa with Giya for her 18th birthday. 

The figures in the poem are all from Orange Farm, the settlement Risenga's mother lives in and where we stayed on our first trip in 1994, the year of the first elections. 

The night in South Africa is sculptural, especially in rural areas and settlements with intermittent electricity and no street lighting. 

As we drive away from Orange Farm

they walk out of the night, following a fence,
an invisible path, or halting at crossroads
to hold cigarettes for sale, one by one, invisible

until they’re close enough to touch.
The road and night roll together in dust,
releasing people into cities, onto empty verges,

reveal them in twos, alone – a man
made into a giant by the trolley he pulls,
a woman whose child is a curve on her back.

Thin men in tracksuits are dark as the charred
marshlands they cross. They are you and me,
strangers to everyone, alive only in headlamps

                        between here and there.


The light of the southern hemisphere appears throughout Fever Tree (Arc, 2003) and particularly in the title poem which contrasts the light of north and south using the trees that typify the two landscapes. 



A child looking into a crystal ball
can see a belt of yellow -
the colour used on a map
to show a sandy beach.

Everything’s yellow - it’s the light;
the same light which fills her body 
when she discovers
those plastic horses and riders

at the end of her bed,
light which fills the shop mirror 
as she tries on new shoes and jeans.
She doesn’t need to know 

about the guilt that comes with pleasure,
how a candle might be shared 
by a roomful of people. For now, 
the child staring into a crystal ball

is allowed that light, smooth
as a window pane, round 
as the glass bead she rolls
between her thumb and finger. 


Fever tree

In a forest of fever trees there’d be no night.
At full moon, it would glow like a city, 
illuminate every path and nest. 

See how the ants crumble its bark to dust,
carry it underground. In a forest of fever trees, 
there’d be no shadows. Its light is lemon 

like a northern sun. It should be growing 
where there’s snow, alongside silver birch, 
for winter days, and nights which go on too long.



You may hear dogs 
call to each other
but light talks for you; 

the full moon’s shadows, 
a dark path to the loo
among maize and lemon trees.

Wood burns for supper, 
goats settle down for the night 
and you listen to clouds

forced towards you, 
heat gather for tomorrow, 
dust ready to rise 

and settle. Outside, 
the sky shared 
with mountains, 

you celebrate the absence 
of everything 
but the moon on a porch.


My need for light, in common with so many northern Europeans, finds expression in other ways too. The next poems are from Commandments


The islands 

Here light expands the tunnel you’ve become.
A big sky always takes you in.
There’s no one but the Hebrides chattering,
a stone leans towards another; a lover listening.
Birds don’t care if you live or die.
Here a cloud tries to be a mountaintop.
Colours need water and you are water.
Silent Steinways replay each odd and even year.
One day an Annunciation will happen.



Where’s my lover? 

Not in the wind
banging on windows,
or clouds, 
so slow 
to turn pink and grey.

If I whistle
will he rush to me 
over the Downs?

I long for Antarctica’s days,
as queues for bread,
squatters reclaiming wasteland.

Children wait for kisses,
mothers stand by graves
until the Resurrection.

In three hours, 
I meet them all. 

we stare 
into the next minute

hoping land and light
will break our fall
and cushion us, soft as silt.


There's a change in the poems within Woman's Head as Jug. In this collection, light's a way of focusing on what's hidden or unsaid. 



When the power was cut in 1974
the manager lit candles. We carried fabric
to the door for customers to check in daylight.
I learned crepe and twill – my hands explored
the dark for taffeta and gauze. All I earned, I spent.
Browsing pattern books I learned to clothe myself
by knowing nap and seam allowance, how to cut
a yoke on the bias. Start with Simplicity, progress
to Vogue. I thought I was choosing well, an easy tunic
in Liberty Varuna wool – clumps of red flowers on black.
I unravelled the bolt, measured each yard against a brass rule.
The manager handed me scissors. I was afraid to cut.
She snipped the selvedge for me, guided the blade,
wrapped in paper the dress I never finished and still crave.


She’s in that old light again,
inventing sleep without sirens,
the first blackbird cutting through the blinds.


When boots left the path
in that forest,
the canopy hushed.

Each tree held back light,
mote by mote.
Ants stripped the bones.

The city creeps
up mountainsides
towards distant, painted shrines.

Thorns whiffle with ribbon,
a newborn’s sock,
a doll’s lace bra.


Free garlic bread.

Meat Machine and Sizzler,
my DAY OF JUDGEMENT specials.

I stand between two pizzas at the lights,
mascot of binmen filling the void.


NPD theme 2014: Remember

Poems below from various collections on this theme. 


The boy’s found curled like a foetus
by the golf club, disturbed by a JCB,
his skull smashed, alone, facing north.
Sixteen maybe, his feet to the sea.

He’d have run down that hillside so fast
sun on the waves bounced him to us,
out of the camp’s ditches, causeways,
axes and bones, to the foxholes and rat runs

of Whitehawk where friends he outpaced
one spring afternoon are still calling
five thousand years on. Re-united, they climb
to the grandstand. They move through racks

of fake Adidas, gold bracelets, the shove
and fried onions of a bank holiday market
the way flint or a necklace, the rim of a pot,
will find a path up through the earth.


If we'd taped that rainy night in the car
when we sat drinking with the windows down,
staring at the lights of two cottages
on the island opposite, it would play back
nothing but breathing, the door opening
and closing as you checked the children
in the tent, a cork pulled from a bottle,
the Atlantic below, reclaiming another inch
of the peninsula, wind rustling a plastic
rubbish bag, damp matches scraped uselessly
on the dashboard and you tapping a rhythm
on your glass with a pencil - like rigging
against masts, beached above the tideline,
bared of sails and wet with spray.

The coastguard's cottage
(after Montale)

You are watching the couple
with nothing to say to their child. I ask

if you remember being here
two months after our son was born.

Above us the coastguard's cottage moves:
plaster cracks, a skirting board gapes.

On the walls are experiments
with colour, squares of indigo, terracotta.

I could live there. You warn each storm
weakens the cliff a little more.

And my question's forgotten.
Perhaps I was alone feeding

him in the shade of an umbrella.
Have I replayed it wrong or too often?


I hear the wrench my brother smashes
on the garage floor as he tries
to put a Norton engine back together,
the Bells whisky my father slops into a tumbler,
followed by ice, a tap turned on,
my other brother imitating machine gun fire
in the loft where he plays war games.
I hear my mother typing in the new room
making the dining table shudder
as she punches each key, our dog,
Steve, barking at the kitchen door,
Penny, my cat miaow for supper -
and myself on the phone again, straining
for background noise, anything familiar.

After Edna St Vincent Millay
(What lips my lips have kissed and where, and why)

The first was a German boy in South Street, Farnham
a disco at the British Legion, August '68, summer of love.
The most desired was Michel's, in a barn. I slept it off
after a night drinking Calvados as old as me. I was 21.
These forgotten names and faces visit me at random,
emerge from a retro hairstyle, album, coat or move
of the mouth. Nick's reaching for the rack above
my head on the 7.17. In Victoria, I spot Graham
on his way home to Aberdeen. They're my age now.
Does that guy in Brixton think of me in my blue hat?
I congregate with old lovers in a kind of limbo,
resurrected by address books, a taste of Kumquat.
My lips, unsmudged, pink from habit, remember how
I moved, read aloud with a stranger, the Story of O.

Tired of forgetting my thoughts

I decide to carry a net
above my head.

At the end of each day
I go over my catch.

Today - new shoes
the lorry which cut me up

on the M25, a list:
loo rolls, vegetables

bias binding, Ecover
washing powder.

There are thoughts
I’d like to show off.

My keen knowledge
of Greek myths.

But I worry about
the grey men who flop

one after another
over my forehead

refusing to move
or tell me their names.

They’re only interested
in crossword puzzles.

What can I do with them,
and the new thoughts

I never get to know -
abducted as they play?

Doing inquests

They arrive at my house, these dead people
demanding to know where my notebooks are.

“Where are the records of our deaths?”  they ask.
“Try the police, the coroner’s officer,”  I suggest.

“But it was you who knocked on our wife’s,
husband’s, parents’ doors at midday

asking why the man with his head in a noose,
the woman lying in vomit happened to be wearing

each other’s underwear. You demanded the story.
Where’s it gone, then?”  they ask.

“I kept it in my  loft for  seven years then threw
it  away. But I haven’t forgotten you,” I say.

NPD 2013 theme: Water

Herring girl

And as the fish rise to the surface
the water fires with Gaelic songs.

The shoal is eight miles long
and four miles wide. A fleet of drifters

pulls in sheets and sheets of silver
five thousand of us, knife sharp,

on the quayside. I sing
to stand the pain of salt, of men

and herring that escape the nets
carry my songs to sea again,

cast them back as blackthorn flowers
in the spring.

Woman’s head as jug
(after a title by Jane Fordham)

Today she pours the Water of Life – green
walnuts picked in June, beaten with a pestle.

Tomorrow, Melancholy Water tasting of gilliflower,
damask rose, musk and gold leaf.

She steeps pounds of rue for Plague Water,
and to clear ‘mists and clouds of the head’

infuses peacock dung and bruised millipedes
in spirit of lavender. Bending over a bowl

she might empty a reservoir, reveal the valley it invaded.
Her head is fired from the same earth.


I took breaths,
dipped my head underwater –

they were feeding
in the seagrass meadow,

fifty at least,
silver, black and yellow,

tipped at 30 degrees,
mouths to the weed,

the calanque pale turquoise,
lit with rods of sun.

The rest of the shoal
surrounded me, swam on

and I drifted with them
until they made a column

to graze at the surface -
each fish waiting its turn.

Later, the moon filled the bay,
threw itself into the water,

forcing everything to overflow.
I watched from the wall,

so heavy again, the shoal
quickening far below.

Mackerel shoal

The sea boiled with mackerel
inches from the shore -

it was thundery, a glassy July evening,
gulls dived, boys ran shouting with rods.

The shoal had followed her
from a darker, granite coast, hard with snow.

Boys cast lines sparkling with lures,
the beach twitched with blue-grey piles

that turned silver and still. A boat slowed
its engine.  Everything was changed.

The Ropemakers

After stooping through a tunnel washed smooth by floods
our guide switches off the lights and we stand
still as stalagmites trying to guess where he is
from the strength of his sweet, beery breath telling us,
as if he's engineered it himself, there'll never be a crack
of sun or moon in here - where each winter three rivers
once collided and tons of water were forced upwards,
pummelling a ceiling more intricate than any stately home's.
Above, near the entrance, the ropemakers
lived - twisting and plaiting - and after rain or thaws,
had no need of ears, just mouthed and lipread
above the roar, their faces yellow in the candle flames,
paled by daylight only a few hours a week.

The old Anglia can't take it and my parents' plans for driving
through the night give out with the engine in a sheet of rain.
By fluke my father finds a garage, a removals van
filling up, so we're lifted, floppy with tiredness,
into the back to lie on blankets in the dark. No signposts,
no blinding headlights for my father to swear at
when they won't dip, no orange glare at each new town -
just that rattle of a toolbox and roll down door.
They could be taking us anywhere.
My mother promises tomorrow she'll pick us cherries.
My brothers whisper themselves to sleep, but I know
why the ropemakers avoided that hole in the back
of their cave, so opaque, immune to wax and matches -
it could draw you in by accident,
commanding silence while skin slowly covered your eyes.

from Powder Tower, Arc, 1995

The birds sing about water 

The birds carry a river,
their chorus in my throat,
in the dry spring I walk to,
useless tap, slashed water tank.
I stand in a metal tub with a flannel
waiting for them to fill it drop by drop.

The birds carry a river,
lifted from its source, pulled over
our valley to water mangoes, lychees, tea.
It runs over stones in their beaks.
They shake waterfalls from their wings
drumming pools deeper than feet can reach.

The birds carry a river,
sing until Mashau’s roads are rapids.
Fistfuls of pebbles slam on the zozo’s
tin roof. Children lay down bottles,
paint buckets, cans. The malachite
kingfisher shows us how to dive.

The birds carry a river
to a priest growling his prayers,
past mercenaries at the plantation gates.
If they could hide it, lay pipes for it
they would, but the birds carry a river
litre by heavy litre on their heads.

from Commandments, Arc 2007