Members' Poems 2011: in every issue of Poetry News, we ask a leading poet for their pick of members' poems on a chosen theme
Judge: W.N. Herbert
I so wanted to hand out a Bad Pun Award for this competition: a crisp fiver to the person who fitted ‘I am a chimera’ into anything halfway decent. But the entrants refused on the whole to lower themselves to my level.
As many realised, one reason for my choice of subject was that the poem itself is a kind of chimera, a fusion of imagination with craft, of accuracy with invention, of the specific with the, potentially, universal. As with its mythological predecessors, the oddity of a poem only comes about because of a kind of necessity: something in the world demands its singularity, and the poet responds by producing a thing of words which – somehow – is alive.
Scientific terminology gave ‘Germ Theory’ by Lesley Saunders (Slough) a powerful sense of exactitude. Other poems cited marvellous theories, but couldn’t match the originality of this: "We wash our hands and wash our hands, / refuse ice in our summer daiquiris. On a window-ledge / little flasks of pandemonium ferment and seethe." Along parallel lines, historical and visual precision brought ‘The Griffins at Wallington’ by Simon Currie (Otley) back to life: "Ozymandias in a northern park, / four heads rest on sober grass / as if, landlocked icebergs, / their bodies bulked below." Then, of course, the chutzpah of quirky originality sometimes astonishes, as in‘Taxidermy for the Giraffe’ by Sarah Davies (Bedford): "Offspring of camel, leopard and tree – / what bastard this, what sport [...] / Have you ever seen the animal, alive, / fall on its knees to drink?"
Knowing where to commit to detail is a skill, as in the bizarre stalker of Rodney Wood’s ‘The Dark Year’ (Farnborough): “The Mad Gasser of Farnborough” who “took his revenge on fish, budgies / and anyone who slept”. Equally, knowing when to leave a detail out, as in the name of monster-haunted ‘Small Town’ by Peter Doyle (Exeter), creates an enigmatic space for the imagination. Some poems had brilliant openings they couldn’t quite sustain, or fell at the last line; others referred to another poem for a key line, leaning where they could have stood alone. Meg Cox's ‘The naming of parts’ (Leominster) shows the way, triumphing over a slightly derivative title, by powerfully and originally imagining the self as a chimera of inherited elements: “When she meets herself by chance / in shop windows or unwelcome mirrors, / she glimpses all her ancestors / pieced into one.” Here the poet discovered the courage of the poem’s convictions. No successful poem is a hobbyhorse, but it may just prove a hippalektryon, tragelaph and manticore: a true chimera.
W.N. Herbert’s Bad Shaman Blues (2006) was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize. Together with poet Yang Lian, he is editing Jade Ladder, an anthology of contemporary Chinese poetry (Bloodaxe, due 2012). He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University.
The Griffins at Wallington
These chimeras were brought
from Bishopsgate for ballast:
an empty collier sailing back
London to Newcastle.
Ozymandias in a northern park,
four heads rest on sober grass
as if, landlocked icebergs,
their bodies bulked below.
No more than emblems,
they face rude frosts,
gaze from blank orbs
that give away nothing.
So odd, they make strangers
appear familiar, ghosts
come back from years ago
to stare them out.
The naming of parts
Most obviously not hers are her hands;
they are her father’s, her grandfather’s,
cricketer’s hands, safe hands,
fat fingers “like a bunch of bananas”.
And now blotched on the back,
like her mother’s more elegant ones.
On Italian cobbles her mother
complained of her poor old feet
and now her daughter has them too,
hidden but painful reminders
(and webbed toes, just one or two).
Footballer’s knees. Her father’s
sisters’ big breasts, her own
distinctive hair colour, out of a bottle.
She’s been told that her grandmother
was tall too – long strong legs –
and wishes she’d passed on her
almond eyes as well, but
her cousins had them.
She never knew her mother’s family.
Which of her body parts are theirs?
Her tendency to fat? Big bum?
Whose long neck? Neat ears?
Or have some of them reappeared
after generations of silence?
When she meets herself by chance
in shop windows or unwelcome mirrors,
she glimpses all her ancestors
pieced into one.
The Dark Year
“The Mad Gasser of Farnborough” in the summer
of ’44 caused as much fear as Herr Hitler’s doodlebugs.
A drum full of gas grew from his back and he wore dark
clothing, a tight woolly hat and lipstick. He saw nothing
good in people and took his revenge on fish, budgies
and anyone who slept. Through floorboards he filtered
the sickening sweet odour of sulphur, arsenic, mineral oil
and acetylene tetrachloride. Victims suffered nausea,
burned mouths, swollen faces, and their bodies were
paralysed. By the time the police came symptoms had
subsided. Armed citizens prowled the streets so he wore
high heels and an orchid in his lapel. After the war he
disappeared into the shadows. People said he was taken
to another world that was produced by Ealing Studios.
Hydras and Gorgons, and Chimeras dire
– William Heath, ‘A Monster Soup’, satirical etching of a sample of Thames water, 1828
We are all sapiens, all cherishable.
Even those of us who drink only bottled water
for fear of what’s hatching in the cut-glass carafe.
Microbiology is a slow science, plenty of time
for the pigtailed bacilli of anxiety to divide and pullulate
like a saucer of leprechauns, escherichia coli, variola,
vibrio cholerae, a tsunami of golden staphylococci
pouring from the standpipe of imagination
that in hours will flood the streets with corpses:
at the Hotel Dieu a man in fancy dress
has suddenly collapsed and underneath his masque
his face is violet blue. A horrified dowager
drops her teacup – she eyes the scientist’s soup
of magnified pathogens gurgling in her taps, the curdle
of volatile iodine circulating through her veins.
We wash our hands and wash our hands,
refuse ice in our summer daiquiris. On a window-ledge
little flasks of pandemonium ferment and seethe.
Twice a week I am whisked through this pleasant town,
shuttling between the compartments of my life.
Mostly, it presents itself arranged as slide shots
of a comfortable, small quietude.
The Railway Tavern, the hardware store, the old town hall,
snap, snap, snap on my carriage window
and gone in a streaming banner
of blurred visions.
Or now, on a slow train, we roll to a stop
along a white picket fence.I imagine living here, on a narrow boat.
The russet rooftops fresh baked under the morning sun,
birdsong condensing from the sky, and I
strolling to buy coffee scented with chocolate
would want nothing, nothing more.
But there is the name.
I have never been here but it has meaning;
an event shocking and incongruous.
I cannot look without it oozes from the sump
of memory like the smell of earth rot
before a storm. As if on this fine day a black squall
boils up from fetid lost places in the bottomlands
and engulfs that light plane flying overhead,
small and fragile.
The people here are unwilling keepers
of fissile perspectives, incalculable half-lives.
I picture them; a community of carers and wardens,
senses taut for the muffled crack, smoke on the wind.
Toiling for years with heavy compounds;
the burden of memory, the mass of context.
Gently attaching gossamer strands of normality,
testing the weight at each anniversary.
Far from home, when every daily commute is a trial,
do they think about a generation for whom all this will be history?
I imagine them in the station bar waiting;
waiting for the small talk of strangers to lead to the big question:
“Where do you live?”S
peaking their shibboleth and pausing the long pause
for the sheer, irradiated tonnage to sink deep behind the eyes
and founder there, hissing.
Taxidermy for the giraffe
Offspring of camel, leopard and tree –
what bastard this, what sport –
four of us to make the beast,
each with our specialty – my Mum the Mum in charge,
old Joan with Singer and with needlehooks,
Elien with her love of symmetry, shapes the skin.
I with my keen eye for vitality
emulate the muscles and the grace
they say is in the original, our aim to make the monster walk again.
Its head is a queen’s.
I order the eyes, garnets, deep in colour
so it appears to look. I wonder again
as when we made the elephant, are we not kinds of gods
and if not gods then women,with our gut sinew thread and our sawdust
which is surely how making God made Man –
if I’m not mistaken in the holy book,
which I may be, though mother, bless her soul,
would tell me stories, in terms of our good craft,
so I would understand without confusion,
the terrible scale of things.
In a far country, are animals we could never dream of,
things of useless beauty, accidents waiting to happen.
Have you ever seen the animal, alive,
fall on its knees to drink?
Judge: Polly Clark
‘Hell is other people,’ said Sartre, and the British section of the underworld is probably a box-edged ‘community’ of seething neighbours, trapped together for eternity. We’re a crowded, territorial people and we like to have people as we mostly can’t have them – at a good arm’s length. I was not surprised therefore that the healthy pile of poems I received revealed the misery that living next-door, over or under other people, can cause. It’s just not natural, after all! What did take me by surprise, however, was the number of oblique takes on the subject that you came up with. ‘Double Take’ by A.C. Clarke (Glasgow) is a touching and elegiac exploration of the idea of separation, rather than closeness, while ‘The Shoe’ by Diana Brodie (Cambridge) plays with the notion of time in relation to a neighbour, and broadens the whole idea of who can be neighbours: ghosts of our pasts, of the places we live, often seem to exist alongside us, revealing themselves unexpectedly. The couple in ‘Mote & Beam’ by Helen Overell (Leatherhead) exist side by side in reluctant compan-ionship, bursting into a moment of mutual caring. In its own words, ‘Moving In’ by Susannah Hart (London) is a ‘deft-handed’ poem, using the subject to talk about something else entirely. I’ve included two poems that tackled the subject of neighbours directly. They are successful because they don’t assume a particular stance. The lonely voyeur with “shrivelled sausage fingers” in ‘Neighbours’ by Julia Webb (Norwich) is filled with sexual envy for the despised neighbours. In Patricia Ace’s (Crieff) poem of the same title, the minutiae of British neighbourliness belies the indifference beneath. It was a delight to read your poems. It’s got me wondering how and why we make good art out of bad reality. Can a poem ever bring back the light that leyandii is blocking? The answer is probably no. But it might, metaphorically speaking, bring you a kitten instead.
Polly Clark is the author of three poetry collections from Bloodaxe Books, the most recent of which is Farewell My Lovely.
We are in our neighbour’s garden. Here’s his shoe.
Three hundred years ago he slipped it off
and today the County Archaeologist encourages us
to guess its size and look for signs of wear.
We inspect other finds laid out on the trestle table:
jettons raised from the bottom of a well,
a fourteenth-century horse’s skull,
old green glass bottles once used for oil.
And the shrivelled shoe, its toe
turned up and stitching plain.
To him, an ordinary thing. But as I touch
the leather, stiff with time, the sepia shadow
of my neighbour’s heel slips in.
Too close for comfort,
they stand nose to nose
with jutted chins,
he mirrors her, lower
open, held in place
with one finger,
his look intent and
all the while
he gives a running
this way, down a bit,
up, left, just there,
and points to his own eye
while she reaches
into hers towards the speck
she cannot see,
her eye watering, her mouth
a ruled line
that opens to an O
when the mote is gone,
she blinks, they step
apart, an arm’s
length and years between
them now, his face
unlined, hers weary, the air
no longer silvered.
Alert to the arrival of ambulance or hearse,
they appear clutching casseroles and condolence
at times of unexpected crisis – sudden loss,
marital breakdown, prolonged illness.
United by postcodes and drying greens,
power-cuts, stairwells and entry-phones,
they share hedges, driveways and tax bands,
the wax and wane of house prices.
Divided by bolting leylandii, cockerels,
dog waste and drum-kits, lawn-mowing at dawn,
the inadvertent toileting of capricious cats,
they watch over your comings and goings.
They know the state of your underwear,
the brick that guards your back-door key,
the undisclosed smoking taking place in the shed,
that your grown-up son is back, lodging upstairs.
We must have you over for a drink they say
but then you don’t see them for months.
Your key hangs untouched on a hook in their hall.
They have your number, but they don’t know it by heart.
See here a toddler’s arm,
the plump wrist creased,
the dimpled fingers curving
as if waiting for the mother
to clasp all six tight in her own.
Hush now, she’d say, it’s all right.
There in the next jar, harshly lit,
hangs another, the mirror image
down to its supernumerary digit.
Whoever labelled them typed neatly
on old-fashioned keys, their medic’s language
precise. No sign of a slip.
What I’m looking at spelled out.
Twice over. Still I fail to grasp.
He was an unwilling tenant in his new lodgings.
He didn’t say as much, but it cost us a lot of grief
to get him comfortably installed. I was worried
about the location. The neighbours were all
much older than him, though Barbara on the left
looked likely to be kindly and William over the way
seemed, from what little we could see, dependable
and solid. The view was some small consolation:
gossipy trees and heaps and heaps of easy
cheerful flowers. I didn’t like to leave him among
strangers, but, deft-handed, you manoeuvred me
away, insisting hopelessly that he would seem
much more at home once the headstone was up.
My shrivelled sausage fingers
grope for forks in greasy water,
eyes to the front, no choice but to look
as I wash up breakfast, lunch.
Half-naked bodies dart across
the rectangular view of next door’s kitchen;
Pink Hair and Music-Pump Testosterone
vie for a place at the gas cooker hood,
A curl of smoke lips the slatted fence,
bottles clunk and rattle into the recycling bin.
I picture life behind the slats:
the steamed up bathroom, a broken couch.
Judge: Ruth Fainlight
I was looking for poems that startled me through their intensity of feeling, their humour, their awareness of the present day and what is happening in the world we all share. I liked the restrained grief in ‘Autumn Peas’ by Ilse Pedler, the description of an old man near to death, “a smaller man when I saw him again, / his clothes one size too big." ‘On Planting Potatoes at Easter’ by Robin Kidson links the Easter ceremony: “Cross, pain, sacrifice, death, tomb, decay, end”, with the planting of seed potatoes that have been nursed all winter and tricked into producing shoots: “probing for the promise of light and summer” [...] “Sow, seed, sperm, sex, egg, birth, shoots, spring, begin.” There are different types of humour in this small selection of poems, from the traditional quatrains of the saloon-bar tale of the bored “home-alone wife” and the roving Gallic onion seller, well-told in ‘The Onion Man’ by Valerie Smith; to the rhyming couplets of ‘Desi New Year’ by Graham Norman, in which a Punjabi husband, marooned in Leicester’s freezing cold, lauds his wife’s cooking as well as her other qualities. And a serious political point about the air pollution and oil consumption involved in transporting vegetables from one side of the globe to the other, as well as the exploitation of land and water resources, is lightly expressed by the rhyming quatrains of ‘Global Veg’ by Simon Currie. ‘Topical Tip’ by Caroline Cook refers wittily back to Andrew Marvell’s “vegetable love” for his Coy Mistress, and its rhythmic qualities and internal rhyme made it a pleasure to read.
Ruth Fainlight has published thirteen books of poems, two collections of short stories, and written opera libretti for Covent Garden and Channel 4. Her New & Collected Poems (Bloodaxe) has just been published.
“My vegetable love should grow...”
and Marvellous to note a mind so elevated
touch upon a thing as lowly for Love’s likeness.
(Hull’s a home to peas and poets.)
Andrew as gardener though – I doubt it.
He who knows his onions knows what Patience means
: veg can’t be hurried – nor can Love
(Ah! The Supremes).
Leeks can be coy as ladies, and the moral
marrow won’t be rushed. Winged chariots
look fine in paintings, but a barrow’s what you need
for wheeling spuds.
“My dear, I get my beans
from a nice little man in Nicaragua.”
Ah, Nicaragua, once the land of the jaguar!
Lady, know what a drag you are?
In land next to lakes in Kenya
the water-table gets teenier,
the people there has-beans too,
left high and dry. For you.
Asparagus grown in Peru,
with profits going to only a few,
gets taken air-miles or overseas.
So why don’t you make do with sprue?
Back here, the processing of peas
is moved across to mainland Europe.
Yorkshire farmers are on their knees:
your bag of frozen spells no hope.
Desi New Year
She’s cookin’ tonight – cookin’ for the family,
been to the market – oye chak de phatte!
Makin’ sarson ka saag – we’re celebratin’ Lohri,
I’m celebratin’ her – she celebratin’ me.
Hit you’ daggah, babe – bom, bom, tap my tilli.
Balle balle! She got ginger – she’s a chillie chillie.
In’t no harvest time in Leicester City
it’s freezing cold man fo’ any Punjabi.
But my missus, – she’s hot, hot, hot,
stirring the spinach in the lovin’ pot.
Plenty for everyone – pass the makki di roti!
Bruah! Tickle my tongue widda garlic chutney.
Sarson ka saag, sarson ka saag. Hoi, hoi!
Big happiness comin’ to the Indian boy!
On Planting Potatoes at Easter
All winter, I’ve nursed the seed potatoes.
I’ve chitted them and tricked their green fuses
To break out into anaemic, triffid shoots,
Probing for the promise of light and summer.
Now it’s Easter, ambiguous Easter:
Time to halt the fooling about, and plant.
Sow, seed, sperm, sex, egg, birth, shoots, spring, begin.
I rub out the weakest shoots: a thumb swish
Roads not taken, gates never opened.
I gouge a bloodless trench into the earthskin,
And lay my seed potatoes to rest there
In sepulchres of rotted excrement.
Cross, pain, sacrifice, death, tomb, decay, end.
At an Easter long ago, a people sowed
Their corrupted seed, and paid the price
In blight and famine, death and flight.
The survivors and the stayers chitted
Their shoots of grievance until they found
The fertile soil of another Easter.
In a city with green hills far away,
Guns shoot, possibilities are denied,
But others are freed to grow towards the light.
Like your man said, this is terrible beauty –
Which would be a good name for a potato.
So, I write the varieties in a verse:
Pentland Javelin, Belle de Fontenay,
Ulster Chieftain, Duke of York, Desiree,
Yukon Gold, Kerrs Pink, Arran Victory,
Harmony, Wilja, Terrible Beauty.
He was a smaller man when I saw him again,
his clothes one size too big,
his face, a pencil sketch
of the original.
He was pulling up withered pea plants,
desiccated pods, twisted and split
discarding wrinkled peas
on the dry autumn earth.
How are you coping?
We’re OK, things take longer.
It’s amazing the time you waste
in a supermarket. I had no idea.
I remember him throwing a straw bale over
his shoulder like a baby,
catching and upending a ewe
in one vast sweep.
He looked down, and the sound of his sigh
was like a puncture in a tractor tyre.
He twisted a pea stalk around and around
his finger, and then let it drop
and we watched as the wind lifted it
as if it were nothing and carried
it on puppet strings across the garden
until it was gone.
The Onion Man
I slam on the brakes
hooting, shouting and swearing
is somebody dead?
a bicycle wobbles
on the crown of the road
the onion-man bringing
his brown-braided load
festooned round his handlebars
draped in long necklaces
round, brown, entwined
he takes off his beret
he puts down his onions
comes in to drink coffee
behind the lace curtains
he smells of stale Gauloise
of garlic and wine
he wears one gold earring
(which tangles with mine)
a string of his onions
will spice up your life
a splash of French dressing
for a home-alone wife
Judge: Sam Riviere
Encountering the people, voices, and occurrences crowding the 138 poems that arrived through my letter box recently, has been a bit like scanning a busy room, if not for familiar faces exactly, then perhaps the fanciable or interesting ones. The poems that stood out here were by poets who I thought promised more; I wanted to see them again. Rebecca Hughes’s ‘My language is not your language’ impressed me with its fluidity, the natural reach of its long lines, and its simultaneous strangeness and everyday-ness. It hops around in an enjoyably unpredictable way and ends with a statement of the sort I love to find in poems: a sad and courageous go at honesty. I liked Will Kemp’s ‘Dear Ugly’ for its offhand inventiveness and restlessness, the sense of acceleration in the narrative, of images breeding images, as well as its smart sense of timing. Dorothy Pope’s ‘I Do Not Collect Owls’ and treats an unusual emblem for friendship with a kind of bemusement while hinting at more perturbing interpretations, as the “parliament” of owls take up their positions. A different kind of threat hovers somewhere in Michael Swan’s ‘Old Friend Seen On TV’. The affection and good-natured dismay at friend Vladik’s appearance broaden the scene just enough to include troubling possibilities, as the voice becomes at the same time more insistent and uncertain. The “friend” in Sarah Westcott’s ‘Doll (Customised)’ appears at first as a kind of Freudian part-object, but this reading is gradually and skilfully complicated by nicely made physical touches, a “swan neck, bolted through // cleanly”, raising questions about our ‘investment’ in people generally. Finally, Gareth Writer-Davies’s caustic ‘Winners And Losers’ frames a falling-out with an oddly amenable bluntness. This is a poem of plain statement, of writing as natural speech, which I find refreshing.
Sam Riviere co-edits the anthology series Stop Sharpening Your Knives and was a recipient of a 2009 Eric Gregory Award. Faber published his pamphlet this year as part of its New Poets scheme.
My language is not your language
Your language is not my language
I break in always a little too soon, and you come to the point so late
I make an appointment for thirty o’clock and we shake on it
I’ll be there and you’ll be there – right?
We point, gesture some more, laugh, and part
His language is not their language
The wind takes his words way up over the wires and his accent is hopping about like a bird
The labourers he is briefing are from Glasgow, Shanghai and Łódź,
The lines will be life from 3 to 3 10, OK?
He mimes electrocution and sudden death, and they all cheer, funny guy
My language is not your language, whatever you say
Our friendships grow not in accurate understandings
But in the tongue’s slips, missed timings, mimes, trips,
And really liking that guy who never came back.
Thanks to your nickname Interesting,
which I’ve never lived down, despite
the psychiatrist telling me to tell myself
I am an attractive man really,
I decided to learn guitar and join
the SAS – flying spy planes over Cuba,
training Sandinistas in Honduras –
hoping signoras would look up
from their fluttering fans to gaze
at the stranger with the wind-swept hair.
But even in the Amazon, canoeing
up-river through cayman-infested waters
to escape Colombian drug barons
wielding hi-velocity semi-automatics,
I came across a ring-nosed tribe
speaking a dialect I took for Esperanto,
but could only discern the words:
Gringo – es el Signor Interessanto?
I Do Not Collect Owls
Asking for trouble, I suppose,
to put the first one, oddly given
by a dinner guest,
on a complex set of shelves
like noughts and crosses
but with thirty-six partitions,
this a gift from someone else.
have been filling up these squares
with owls: candidates of wood
and china, leather, felt and glass,
of alabaster, even silver.
There are twenty-seven owls now
in this assembled parliament
although, as I keep trying to say,
I do not, never have collected owls.
Old Friend Seen On TV
A practical joke.
They’ve put a bag on your head
painted an old man’s face on
and stuck a wig on top.
You’ll take it off
You’ll roar with laughter
and tell us all your plans.
Black pelt in the cupboard dark
at the rail’s end: shiny as a beetle
carapace; huge eye fringed with
horsehair, set under Cleopatra
bangs, winged up in a Sixties’ flick.
Swan neck, bolted through
cleanly, bloodlessly. Dangling
legs, slightly spread as if in sleep
nudging suits and brushing hangers,
soft lips parted to receive
blessings, wine, warm quickenings,
hinged jaw shut –
removable tongue wiped clean,
set in place. Her Cindy Crawford
beauty spot his one concession to taste.
Winners And Losers
who hate each other
are the best
decades of not speaking
in the demise
to the other
that true friendship