Thursday, 6 July 2017

Pool play


By the time I entered secondary school I was taller than three-quarters of my grandparents, with only my mother’s father overtopping me.  On our first day in The Cardiff High School for Boys, we were lined up in order of height and then distributed to the Houses so that each one could have a ‘fair’ selection for their rugby teams!  At the end of the line, I was the second tallest.  And in case you’re wondering, as I was never exactly willowy, I was placed in the second row in the house rugby team and there I stayed for seven muddy years!

I am working to a point.  If you are tall and solid, the ‘dangling child’ years are limited and what I describe in the short poem that follows was restricted to a painfully short number of 'growing' years.

I can remember sitting on my father’s shoulders, and there exists a picture of me standing on his shoulders during one of our many visits to Barry Island beach.  But the memory that stays with me most concerns flying and the sea.

My especial delight was to accompany my dad into our bit of the Bristol Channel in Barry Bay, then put a foot into his cupped hands and be thrown over his shoulder into the waves.  I could happily have been flung for hours, but physical  (dad's not mine) limited my satisfaction.  All too soon I was too tall and too solid for my dad to pander to my aeronautical desires.

In school too, in gym lessons, demonstrations on the trampoline for example, always used the lighter, smaller, more manageable kids.  Not I.  I needed the teacher to ensure my safety and he was in shorter supply than fellow students.  Still, I would be lying if I said that gym lessons were my favourites, and I was generally quite happy to watch rather than participate.  But the memory of flung flight has never left me.

Sometimes in the pool I see fathers and sons engaging in what for me is only a distant memory.  It was noticing one such couple that was the inspiration for the following poem.

My parents would often tell me about my early love of swimming pools.  When I couldn’t walk but had elevated crawling into a juvenile Olympic sport, I was placed pool side in a swimming pool in Leeds and proceeded to make my determined way towards the water’s edge.  My father swept me up before I fell in, but he rapidly tired of thwarting my ambition to get wet.  He decided, therefore, to allow me to achieve my goal, suffer the consequences and thereby learn just why he constantly picked me up before I got to my destination.

I crawled.  I fell.  I spluttered.  I was rescued.  Lesson learned, I was placed poolside once again.  And proceeded to crawl towards the edge.  I had obviously decided that death was a reasonable price to pay to get to the element that I enjoyed!  As I am typing this more than sixty years later, you can appreciate that my father did not let me drown, in spite of my best efforts then, and indeed on one or two other occasions much later!

A child believes that mum and dad will always be there.  You can be thrown in the air in a blanket held by parents in a grandparents’ house; you can be held upside down by one leg and swung around; you can be held and be pretend-dropped and caught just-in-time - because your parents will make sure that you come to no harm.  It is the safe-danger of parents, like the safe-danger of thrilling fairground rides.

But your parents are not always there.  And belief is tested.  And faith strained.  And assumptions questioned.  Some trust games destroy rather than cement.

So the last two lines of the poem are perhaps a cautionary exploration of the implications of the word ‘play’ in the title.

As always, I welcome comments.


Pool play



A wriggling and excited child,
manhandled by devoted dad,
and tumbling down his father’s frame,
caught upside down in
incoherent glee.

A careful roughhouse,
ending with a tummy kiss,

and rest,

with hands on shoulders,
with bright eyes wet
with dangerous delight.
 

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

An argument is

From time to time, usually prompted by vague feelings of guilt, I do a trawl through my notebook and see if any of the scribblings that I have written and ignored might be worth working up into a poem.  Sometimes it is some of the seemingly most unpromising of my thoughts that I take further.

Many years ago I had an argument with my parents which ended with my stamping off to my bedroom and my telling myself that this time, this time I would never forgive them for what they had done.  I can remember my fury and my sense of injustice.  I can remember details of my room in 25, Dogfield Street, Cathays in Cardiff and, even now I can sort of re-texture my childish anger.  What I can't do is remember what the argument was about!  I can feel the pain, but I can't remember the point!

Although I am argumentative, I do not like arguments.  I feel them too keenly.  Passionate debate is fine: high words and bluster - but real cross words, felt personal disagreement I find hard to take.

Given that, it was probably not surprising that I was deeply moved by part of the Holocaust gallery in the Imperial War Museum.  I mean I was moved by it all, but it was the filmed 'testimony' in the final section where a screen played a film loop of survivors of the camps speaking directly to camera and articulating their feelings that moved me most.

I remember one survivor responding to the questions of memory and forgiveness.  To explain the feelings involved the survivor described the experience via a metaphor of a rock thrown into a pool: at first there is the splash and the ripples spread out, then the ripples subside and the surface of the pool is still - but the rock is still there under the water.  A version of this explanation informs the short poem that I wrote.

Like my childish self, I can't remember the 'real' inspiration for the sketchy notes that I jotted down, and I have to say that the poem itself was recollection written in sun bathing tranquillity!  But though I was, you might say, content when I wrote it, there is an appreciation of unease that informs the lines!

Although the poem is very short, I have tried to compress thought into a wider ambiguity that the chosen words offer.

I think this is the first time that I have used a title as a line in the poem.

I didn't enjoy writing this poem, but I do enjoy reading it.  Which I find interesting.

As always, any and all comments will be welcome.



An argument is




liquid: mirroring.

Ripples from a carelessly thrown stone
gift surface substance.

Reflection momentarily obscures
transparency.

Water smooths.

And there, beneath the glass,
and in plain sight,
the lithos, like a monument,
remains for future
use.

 



Friday, 30 June 2017

Promise

As always, I am endebted to my little notebook for the inspiration for the following poem.  Each time I have my post swim cup of tea I write something, anything in the notebook in the (sometimes) vain hope that I will produce ideas that can be taken further.
     This poem's day's notes started with a diatribe aginast a free-loading past neighbour; went on to berate myself for not writing up my impressions of the firework-crowded evening and night and early morning of Sant Joan, and from there a musing about the necessity I sometimes find to write a little signed and dated note to myself to prompt action.
     As soon as I had mocked myself for needing such a stimulus, I thought to myself that there might be a poem somewhere in the concept!  And so I started makeing more directed notes - and six (small) pages later I had drafted out what I thought might be key ideas towards a final poem.
     As is often the case with something which seems to be flowing in the notes, the actual writing of the poem was much more difficult: and it is always a warning sign when I use a word like 'eschew' in my primary thoughts!
     Anyway, I set to and eventually produced a draft which was essentially like a burning candle: the grease was dripping down the sides all around the central flame, but was not forming a coherent single statement of poetic purpose.  Whatever that might mean!
     The essential idea was one of writing to oneself, and signing and dating that writing to give it more significance and force.  As if a mere desire by itself was insufficient to make something happen, in spite of the fact that you had decided that it was worth doing.  This led on to the idea of 'signficance' - what is or might be important.  I was then taken back to an actual changing of the lino in the kitchen where, when it was taken up, a whole series of newspapers was revealed acting as a sort of crude underlay.  As a child, I was very impressed with the ancient quality of the newsprint (even though, given my age, it didn't need to be very old for me to think it antique) and I can remember looking at adverts and reading news that had absolutely no significance for me at all - it could just as well have been about the Neolithic as far as I was concerned: it was years old, when I had not reached anything like double figures!
     I suppose (I hope) that if I went through the same experience now, I would be able to relate the historic newspapers to my concept of time and I would be able to place things and wonder at the contemporary approach which might not have been substantiated by history.
     I was then taken by the ways in which we try and get outside history and time, by using a date and signature to transcend transcience.
     Essentially, I suppose that I consider myself slightly childish (childlike?) in thinking that a mere date and signature is any more meaningful than a simple scribbled note, but the motivation for this poem was also a concern for truth - which involves belief and faith and also, make believe.
     I'm not sure if this is a positive or negative poem; and I'm not sure what that might mean anyway.  But I am pleased with how the poem has turned out and I am still reading it to discover what I might have meant.
     As always I welcome any participatory response!


Promise




Time was, when, finally,

the lino in the kitchen’d had its day.



As it was taken up

(before the use of underlay)

a cache of newspapers would be disclosed;

brittle as crisps and prone to crumble

into ochre dust, as long past news

became its own grave dirt.



Narratives of those found leaves?

Fleet urgency, now lost and gone

through life’s rolled relevance.



Outside pages - faded wraiths

of Yesterday’s significant events;

unpunchlined jests, that can’t endure

inside the world-big goldfish bowl.



Then . . . passing stories after all?



We live within the social now,

a physical that’s selfie stamped:

what can be pictured - is a truth.



What image should intention make?

That move beyond the present-past

to sculpt the chaos from the dark?



Gestures can pretend to faith:

a shake of hands, or one raised up;

a spit and grasp - time honoured modes

that hold no more significance

than air.



But set it down & sign & date,

on paper cheap or vellum dear,

and it becomes a part of time

and quite apart from it as well.



So, all those (signed & dated) notes

I write to me (to finish work; to send it off;

to contact friends; to get things done!)

among the lines where poems lie;

the scribbled contracts I take on -

are really my jejune attempts

to nudge belief beyond the now

and make believe the future’s real.




Any responses most welcome!



Thursday, 11 May 2017

I watched a pigeon die

I watched a pigeon die.

Having a cup of tea after having a swim (even though it is to my own 'special brew' requirements) is hardly the most exciting thing to do, and yet simply sitting, sipping and looking have provided me with an amazing amount of raw material for use in my poetry.
     When I first went to Turkey I was armed with a sketch book.  I do not, for a moment, pretend to possess any technical artistic ability, but I doggedly sat and drew some sort of picture for every day of my three week stay.  I would love to be able to report that by the end of my time there I was producing fluent, artistic and compelling work, but I wasn't.  My drawings were just as pedestrian at the end of my holiday as they were at the beginning - but I had looked, and I mean LOOKED at things.  Sitting down in front of a mosque, monument, landscape, bottle of after sun (don't ask) or a knife and fork (when I almost forgot to do the daily drawing) made me appreciate the detail of what we usually only glance at.  It was a valuable lesson and one that I apply today.
     I know that as I take my accustomed seat and have my usual cup of tea something will be new and different from what I have seen before.  I look and, if I concentrate, I see.
     To be fair, it doesn't take a highly developed form of perception to realize that with a title like "I watched a pigeon die" there is visual material that should be obvious.
     The dramatic nature of the incident also posed its own questions about guilt.  The title was anticipatory and also accusatory - though I am not sure what I could have really done about it.  I felt that I was in the sort of Christopher Isherwood mode of "I am a camera" recording rather than acting.  My act of writing in my little yellow notebook gives me a distance which allows inaction.  If you see what I mean.
     As you will see from the poem, there is a sort of twist.
     This was a satsifying poem to write.  Though it didn't 'write itself' the strength of the opening line encouraged a direction that guided the production.


I watched a pigeon die.

It limped, theatrical, goitered left leg,
into the sun.  Once found,
it folded, wearily, into itself,
looking, oddly, as though about to lay.
Its head, sleek in the light,
made jerky quarter turns until
it too sank in the feathered heap.

A public path was this bird’s grave:
its headstone was an open gate.

Approaching feet -
                       and what was moribund
took to uneasy wing and landed,
painfully, a few sad foot along.
A Desperate Last Flight, I thought,
and now The End Game plays.
The feet walked on, and once again
the tired bird pushed
from the ground,
                       but this time
made an arching loop,
above the fence, beyond the trees
into the open blue.

And death will be a little late this year.
At least for some.
Or just, perhaps, for one lone bird
whose flapping flight made false
my quick fatality of thought.

Though, there again,
who knows what must occur
beyond our seated sight?




As always with my poems, I welcome any responses!

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Epilogue

Back in Castelldefels after a visit to Cardiff.  Like my last visit to the city this was because of a death.  My last aunt died and I came to her memorial service to read two of my poems and to celebrate her life.
     I realise that this is not the first time that I have experienced the 'death' of a generation - my grandparents and great uncles and aunts died some time ago - but this time I sensed a real and personal loss.  Don't get me wrong, the death of my paternal grandmother was a crushing, catastrophic blow to my young self, and I felt, deeply, the deaths of my other grandparents, but uncles and aunts were the contemporaries of my parents and their loss was somehow more direct and appreciated as a 'loss' as well as a death.  I knew some of my uncles and aunts in a way that was not really possible with my grandparents.  I had conversations with my uncles and aunts that I could never have had with my grandparents.
     The final representative of that generation of uncles and aunts has gone and I added a poem to a sequence called The Visit that I wrote when I came to Cardiff and Newport on the occasion of the death of my father's younger brother's wife.  I don't mean to distance her by that description, but it gives a sense of the geography of family relationships in a genealogical sense.  The funeral memorial service that I attended this time was of my father's younger sister - who was 86 years old.
     We had had many interesting and stimulating conversations over the years, we shared an interest in art, music and literature and, in spite of her debilitating illness that limited her for decades she always managed a wry comment and an ironic smile when we met.
     Her loss was real.  On our last visit she told me, "You have your father's hands" - a simple statement, but one which gave me pause for thought and the inspiration for a poem.
     Having read the two poems which related to my aunt from The Visit in the Lady Chapel of Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff, I felt that my aunt would have approved, and the process also helped me to come to terms with her death and the realization of the death of her generation of the family.
     The following poem is, at the title suggest, an epilogue to the events and my thoughts on the events of a closing chapter of my family.
     I am not sure that my poetry has become darker as I get older, but there is certainly an appreciation that my generation is the next in line!



Epilogue



They    have    all    gone.”



That is the sort of phrase

where shifting emphasis

rewrites the sense

– and all of it applies.



So let’s just choose a metaphor,

and muse within the safety of a scene.





The final pilot’s boat has sailed

and all the coasts and continents

are left for us to chart alone –



            although, it’s right,

that our cartography

has used, as truth, throughout the years,

unauthorized and wild mistakes;

assumption-sucking hopes and fears;

while ignorance and certainty,

help firm the lines we draw and drew.



Sometimes we say (with a wry smile)

“Here there be dragons,”

or maintain a quiet

(dignified and dry)

while tapping spaces

intimating that there’s

nothing, much, to see.



Material?



Fragile.



Precarious.



On parchment, papyrus or paper sheet,

we gaze at inked-in places

dotted on our maps

(italic, bold, Times Roman strong)

unfolded in our smoothing hands



that dare not stretch the page too far



as ripping up such thin, slight plans

leave only tears to hide beside.





As I aways say (and really mean!) I welcome any comments on the poem, as I regard everything that I write as work in progress and am always open to suggestions!
SMR

Saturday, 1 October 2016

mourning denied

Another death of the generation that included my parents prompted thoughts which eventually led to this poem.  It is not about a specific person, but is rather an emotional amalgam of responses to people I have known who have died.
     When I was training to be a teacher a remark that got a cheap laugh was a comment by one lecturer that we would discover that a major advantages of being a member of the profession was the quality of the conversation in the staff room!
     Any teachers reading that might laugh and think, "Well, you obviously haven't been in my staff room!"  But they should pause for a moment and think.  Even with the relaxation of the all-graduate rule for teachers, the majority of your colleagues will have degrees or other professional qualifications.  They are likely to be articulate and to have a reasonable breadth of general knowledge.  They will have detailed subject-specific expertise and will be articulate.  They are, in many ways, an elite!
     I know that many of you will say that knowledge, articulacy and professionalism are not restricted to teachers - and I have vivid memories of people I worked with in vacation jobs during my time in University who were astonishingly accomplished: I particularly recall one administrative desk worker in a now defunct steel works in Cardiff who had the most amazingly wide ranging breadth of general knowledge that I have ever come across; a garage mechanic who had a flawless memory; an almost retired manual worker whose economy of action was almost poetic, and a whole array of people whose kindness, understanding and helpfulness was not only revelatory but also humbling.
     But teaching colleagues are a stimulating, interesting and vital lot!  And you share a common culture of education, a common concern and understanding.  And that is something you only value when you no longer have access to it.
     I am, and I have found many occasions to remind readers that, I am retired.  I have had the good fortune to be able to continue and complete an Open University degree that I started in the 1970s, so I was part of an continuing educational community; I have started a municipal course in Spanish and I am starting another degree in which the first module is Spanish as well.  I have friends in Spain who teach; I am a member of a Poetry Workshop - you can see where this is going.  I am still privileged to have a circle of acquaintances who have a high level of education and are knowledgeable about the world and their place in it.
     There is something very comforting to feel yourself part of a sort of international high culture: the sort of western-white-male dominated idea of civilisation that institutions like the Open University exist to challenge.  But the knowledge of 'famous' poetry and 'classic' books and 'renowned' art and 'great' music makes you a member of what is probably a shrinking circle of educated people who still have a sort of common language based on shared cultural attitudes and knowledge.
     All of the above and a concern that age is something that becomes more pressing when the generation that we thought was old is dying and we are now the ones taking their place informs the impetus of the following poem.  The comforting adults of our youth are dead, or no longer in a position to offer the stability and security that they once represented.  
     But we, the new old generation have a responsibility to keep alive the traits that we observed and which formed our attitudes as we were growing up.  
     And there is something pleasingly selfish and 'right' about keeping memory of what used to be alive, so that in a real sense, we can be the ones to make sure that we can do our bit for the "ragged generation" to make sure that we live a life of "mourning denied" in celebration of what they give and gave.


                  mourning denied



            waiting for death
to tidy up
a ragged generation,
fraying towards indignity

            the modern way can fuel
a heart beat’s tick,
but can’t reveal the look of
arch élan I know once lived
behind those eyes;
or let a giggle bubble up
to spice a culture
cherished, shared

            temptation is to use
a form of past
to shape the verbs –
but while a glimmer
of the life I knew
exists

            I’ll use my memory to curve
a knowing smile
along chapped lips


In this poem I have gently experimented with punctuation and indentation: you will notice that I have kept some punctuation with each stanza but generally omitted it at the beginning and each of each.

I am haunted by a comment that I think I heard first on Radio 4 that, "we now die of what we used to die with" - this poem is a response to that thought too.

Any comments welcome.



Friday, 30 September 2016

Again

This poem has been written as a response to the theme of the last meeting of the Barcelona Poetry Workshop - which was "Crime".
     The central idea of the poem was using a dream that I have had more than once, but not on anything like a regular basis, where I think I've killed someone!  What interested me was not the absurdity of the dream (I hasten to assure all readers that I have never committed murder!) but the lingering and unsettling belief when I woke of there being something real about the whole experience.
     Guilt is a feeling which is always near the surface because in a comfortable modern Western life there is much that you should feel guilty about.  
     The keyboard that I am using to type these words, although designed in the United States of America was "assembled" in China.  By who?  How old were they?  What were they paid?  How many hours did they work?  What rights did the workers have?  Although I formulate the questions and have some information about the conditions that the workers have to endure and am pretty sure that not all of their rights are respected - I still use the machine and, let's face it most of the time I do not give it a second's thought.
     There is no need, of course, to stop at technology.  What food we eat, how we get it and what price is paid for it, is also something which gives you pause for thought.  If Fair-trade chocolate bars and tea bags exist, what does that say about those items which are not marked with the logo?
     I live by the side of the Mediterranean and all you have to do is continue south from where I live, cross the Straits of Gibraltar and continue around the coast of that sea to realise that the fatal differences in the way that countries govern themselves and the catastrophic relationships that they have with other countries that are neighbours produce situations that reflect shame on the way that we live and let die today.
     So, possible guilt is everywhere you look!  It is hardly surprising that a sleeping mind's unconscious thoughts look to find a clear example to focus on.
     I remember as a child watching a series of crime B movies in B&W on our first television and I was constantly horrified at how easy and 'accidental' murder was: a bad tempered push, a trip, a head against a mantlepiece, a death.  The story of the film was in how the perpetrators reacted.  Usually they panicked and the situation became more and more complex with the eventual ending making the guilty pay.  In my youth you did not get away with crime in the films, morality would be upheld: the stolen gold dust would trickle out from a tear in the sack and blow away in the storm; the car would jolt over a rock, the suitcase would spring open and the money scatter behind the oblivious driver; the thieving gigolo narrator was dead all the time!  Justice would prevail.  Must prevail.
     Now, such moral certainties are no more in modern films: murderers get any with it; thieves keep the cash.  What does guilt mean today?
     I don't think my little poem gets into much of the ethical relativism that we are surrounded by today, but I do emphasise the uncomfortable feeling you sometimes get when the concerns of the dream world make their way into a living reality!


Again



I sometimes dream I’ve killed someone.
A man I think it is.  I hope it is –
because, even in sleep,
I cannot bring myself to
contemplate alternatives.

But there, perhaps, I just deceive myself.

I recognize the countryside,
the hedge where I (inexpertly,
I’m glad to say) roll through
the corpse.

The dream then ends.

I don’t wake up.

Scenes change to brighter things.

But when, I think, I truly wake,
I’m haunted by the clinging dread
of sticky, slight, realities.

Worlds merge and drip and
trickle into daylight cracks
that gape like graves.

The tightening circle
of a stubborn thought
denies the pardon’s space.

No one comes,
is ever there,
to brush the spot away.






Once again, let me emphasise that I will be happy to respond to any comments.