Sunday Poem – Gordon Hodgeon

Kim Moore

The weather cannot make up its mind today.  I spent most of my morning standing on Walney Island as a marshal for the Walney Fun Run with the wind blowing (although maybe not as hard as it could have done) and pouring rain.  I had waterproof trousers on, which I quickly discovered weren’t really waterproof and my outdoor hiking coat which did save the top half of me at least from the rain. I must admit, I longed to be running around in the wind and the rain- at least you are warm when you are running!

Despite this, I’m glad I volunteered – it’s nice to give something back and I do enjoy seeing the different ways people run, the different ways they react to the marshals.  Most of the runners at the front were completely focused and gave no sign whether they heard us or not.  When I’m…

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Unfinished business

David 2

Who knows where the time goes? A year ago I wrote about ‘Our David’s Pictures’. Tomorrow, it’s our David’s birthday again; he’d be forty four. I’ve found myself writing about him again during this year, particularly about how he died. But a month ago we were redecorating, and I had to move a big old wardrobe. Behind it, neatly wrapped up, I re-found this painting. It’s four feet by two, so it shouldn’t slip in and out of my mind as it does over the years.

A couple of weeks after David’s funeral my good friend Bob Hogarth, the Art Adviser said: why don’t you do a painting of him? Why don’t you paint his life? I set out on a collage of maps of the city, photographs of his childhood, images of a small attache case and a strange ugly ring that he’d left on the top floor of that block of flats behind the Merrion Centre, an old atlas open at a map of Africa. Buddleia. Hydrangeas. I worked on it for a week or so. And then stopped. Just a layer of collage and thinned down acrylics. Every couple of years I’ll have a look at it, and resolve to finish it. But I don’t think I want to. I suspect I understand why.

Anyway, for his birthday, I don’t want to think about endings and finishings. Let me share a beginning with you. It’s a complicated story, but the core of it is that we were at yet another stage of the usually ponderous adoption process, which suddenly accelerated quite wonderfully and frighteningly, and we found ourselves sitting in the small living room of a foster-mum, and our David, who wasn’t yet Our David, four months old and surrounded by love, was having his bath. He wasn’t called David, either. He was Conrad Hamilton Gervaise Irving (no surname), and just Conrad, for convenience. When you adopt a child you’re not supposed to keep his or her given names. Since the truth is that the amazing and enlightened social worker short-circuited every due process that evening, and that we drove home up the M1 with Our David in a carry-cot on the backseat of a Ford Anglia, it didn’t seem so transgressive to keep Conrad as his middle name. David Conrad Foggin. Here’s one more poem. Happy birthday.

This much
I remember:
the small neat creases, the crook of each elbow,
the crook of each knee, the soft place
between your neck and your shoulder,
and the tight whorls of dark hair
tattooing your skull, and the delight,
the wide pink of your open mouth
as you came shedding light and bright water
out of your bath, how you sank
in the fleece of a fat white towel,
and you lay on your back on her knee
and you danced,
how you pedalled and trod on the air,
and how pale the soles of your feet.
You were mangoes, grapes, you were apricots,
all your round warm limbs, your eyes.
How your name made you smile;
how we said it over and over, your name;
how we wanted to make that smile.
And I remember
how we would take you away,
and why your name could not come,
why we must leave it behind,
and how we feared for your smile.

Five poems in five days [5]

Just to prove there’s a life after nostalgia. This came out of a workshop; I had not been thinking of Stanley Spencer. It was maybe six years since the retrospective in the Liverpool Tate. Anyway, thanks to Jane Draycott for the workshop task. Whatever it was.

Resurrection

……with an indrawn breath, with a scratch of air,
the sky went white and crimped. A dry creak like
the turning of a big old key, and one
of leather, twisting, like the axle
on an overburdened cart.
Then the bell sang.
Pigeons clattered out of the tower, like applause;
crows from the elms, a slap of wet sheets in a squall.
Then nothing.
The sky smoothed its brow.
The birds settled.
The sun shone.

Stone drawn on stone sang a slow note.
Laurels and ivy sighed. Subsided.
There were dull thuds
and small shrieks of pried-out nails.

After a time there were voices,
the trying out of tongues and
lips awkward from a too-long sleep.

They said: but

This first appeared in The Interpreter’s House a couple of years ago, and then in‘Running out of Space’  [2014]  For details, see My Books at the top of the page

Five poems in five days [4]

Another Palace Green moment, and one of the few moments in a nondescript three years of uninpiring lectures and tutorials when I felt I was in the middle of something significant and simultaneously peripheral to to the real purposes of life. Thanks due to Dr Von Leyden, then, who really looked like a philosophy lecturer if you were to imagine one, and who decided one warm June afternoon that if we were to continue our deconstructions of Descartes then it were best it were done outdoors in the shadow of the cathedral.Meanwhile the axes of the world were slipping and shifting and the times really were a-changing.

Al fresco philosophy: Durham 1963

He perches, crow-like, on the sandstone plinth;
a spring breeze lifts his trailing sleeves,
embroidered black on black, exquisite
as his logic, or the incised knotwork
of the Celtic cross behind his silhouette.

Out there, beyond cathedral bells –
in Silver Lonnen, Pity Me – they’re hewing coal;
smelting steel in Consett; laying keels
downstream on Wearmouth by a sluggish sea.
On Palace Green we deconstruct reality.

Amber in the sun, the great towers touch the sky;
we wrestle with ontology, Anselm of Canterbury,
how the self arises in the world. Dark birds call
through trees; uncounted angels dance on pins.
Bob Dylan’s singing ‘Blowin’ in the wind’.

While we chop logic, worry at Descartes,
the masons’ ghosts are splitting clean gold stone,
carving chevrons, mouldings,lozenges trefoils;
spinning a spell of stone that soars impossibly
around the infinite: a dream of incense, plainsong, God.

Meantime, the logic is inexorable, beautiful
as proofs of maths are said to be
His steepled fingers, clipped enunciation,
fine ascetic features brook no argument.
I’m wandering. Out there. Where the masons went.

[This poem was first published in Backtracks (2014) For details see My Books at the top of the page]

Five poems in five days [3]

This may be unduly and nostalgically sentimental to some tastes. There would be at least a grain of truth in that. Or justice. But I’ll choose this poem anyway, because it’s 50 years ago, and it’s still one of the most ecstatic euphoric utterly joyous moments of my life, when I got my degree results, reading the small typed notice in a glass-cased board outside the Students Union on Palace Green in Durham….maybe one of the most beautiful spaces in Britain. And yes, there was blossom. I should add, for context, that we had no cellphones or selfies in them days. Also that I didn’t know that the results were out till someone met me down by the racecourse and told me. It was about 6.30 on a June evening.There was no one around. I had Palace green to myself. Sometimes we are, simply, blessed.

June 1964: Dancing in the streets

For the record:
it is still, and warm
and smells of cut grass, and murmurs
with the after-ripples of cathedral bells;
the air is the palest apricot, tastes
of vanilla,and I am dancing
on the holy ground of Palace Green,
and shouting for sheer pleasure,
at the castle walls, the West Towers,
the brimming sycamores full of leaf
and life above the tumbling weir,
and St Cuthbert and all the angels
of Northumbria are singing anthems
and joining in the dance that won’t
keep off the grass where the gulls
rise up and settle like the hems
of neighbours’ curtains.

I want to blow
a sphere of thinnest glass
to keep this moment in,
tiny cherry blossoms, drifting
like pink snow
at every turn.

( This was published in ‘ Running out of space’ [2014] …for details see My Books at the top of the page)

Five poems in five days [2]

This and the next two days’ poems are shamelessly nostalgic. Big Dipper first appeared in The North 48 [2011], and later in my pamphlet Backtracks [2014]

Big dipper

[Every day, its a-gettin’ closer,                                                                                                                                              going faster than a rollercoaster]

I think that things were clearer then.
I doubt they were. There was that bench
that looked across the miles and miles
beyond the valley full of mills, all the way
to Saddleworth, Holme Moss.

I know that it was always winter
when I walked there with the girl
who was small and dark, and fit
beneath my arm as we sat there
in that cold and warmed our breaths
above the fields all chill and scratched
and grey with frost, the town below
all street-light misty.

And I suppose
the stars were brighter then,
the constellations bright as diagrams
and Betelgeuse as red
as the red they said it was.
Not that I noticed then, or cared. Now
I peer for stars, in winter in the North,
the Outer Isles; on late summer nights
in the Aegean; nothing seems so alive
as when I didn’t really take account.

When the Blackpool Pleasure Beach
Big Dipper got pulled down they found,
In the rubble, an earring,
Marlene Deitrich ‘d worn and lost.

I imagine that I see it – a pale star.
I think of fur. Of mingled breath.
Of that small dark girl
who fit beneath my arm.

A cabinet of curiosities…an (un)discovered gem [8]: Yvonne Reddick

I feel like Bleak House’s Esther Summerson this morning. I have a great deal of difficulty beginning my portion of these pages. Maybe because here we are, at the solstice, the skies are grey, there’s a cold wind, our lovely cat died on Friday, I woke up too soon after going to sleep too late, I want some sunshine, I want to eat breakfast outside, I’m feeling sorry for myself………..Well, we flag, from time to time, I guess. And then I think of today’s special guest, and my spirits soar. I should be playing Johnny Nash. I can see clearly now, I can see all obstacles in my way. The ideas begin to dance. Phew. (Does everyone do this, write absolutely anything just to get started, no matter what? Does anyone then not delete/cross it out?)

Anyway, to the point.

Cabinet_of_Curiosities

The last time I saw my guest for today, Yvonne Reddick, she was reading her highly commended and totally commendable poem about Roman soldiers in the streets, or what would be the streets, of 1st Century York. She read with beautiful precision and control, every consonant given its due weight, every pause and check falling exactly right. She always does. None of your dying falls and melancholy poeticism for Yvonne. So that’s one thing I like her for.

The first time I met her was (regular readers, you can now roll your eyes and get it over with) at a Poetry Business Writing Day. After all, that’s where I get all my new poetry and poets.I may be wrong, but I think that was the one where she brought a distinctly eccentric poem to workshop. The title gives you due warning: Holocene Extinction Memorial. Nineteen irregular stanzas, each of which might be an idiosyncratic label in a room full of unnervingly strange exhibits.

‘The Indefatigable Galapagos Mouse from Indefatigable Island wants to be invincible’

‘The Hacaath of Vancouver struggle with smallpox’

‘The quagga hopes Burchell’s zebra remembers her’

I have no idea if she made some of them up, or all, or none; I could Google them but I have no desire to find out. The thing is, she read with such emphatic conviction that I had no choice but to be convinced. I have no idea if anyone else was as taken as I, or even if it was ‘a Good Poem’. All I know is  it was unexpected, and memorable, and that’s not the case with everything you hear in a workshop. It was like the poem equvalent of the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford before it was tidied up and curated into rationality. Like the cabinets of curiosities beloved of the incumbents of Victorian rectories.

pitt-rivers-museum

We can get used to all sorts of fashions and default settings in poetry, getting comfortable with psalms, and sestinas, and free verse, and minimalism, and stanzaic bits of ekphrasis and sonnets, and narratives. Which reminds me of a writing course I went on where elegant lyricim and exquisitely crafted velleities were the name of the game, and, en passant, one lady of letters remarked, languidly enough: ‘The anecdotal, the bus-stop conversation, has its own charm.’ by which I understood that it has no place in serious poetry at all. This set me to think of my own predeliction for narrative in poetry, and my inability to engage with, or be engaged by, self-referential stylistic games with fleeting moments, and the fragility of, say, a lemon. It also made me think of what does engage me. Emotional and intellectual surprise and challenge, That grabs me. I like novels like ‘The name of the rose’, and ‘Tristram Shandy’. I like MacCaig’s outrageous similes. I like the Metaphysicals. I like early Tony Harrison. I like ‘The Waste land’. I like to be out of my comfort zone, put slightly off -balance; I like creative disturbance. And so I came to like Yvonne Reddick’s idiosyncratic take on the world and its multifariousness.

Sometimes we ask of a poet we can’t pigeonhole:  ‘Where’s she coming from?’ Well, how about starting with her biography. Yvonne  grew up between Glasgow, Aberdeen, Kuwait City and Berkshire. She is an academic and writer, currently based in Preston, where she is Research Fellow in Modern English and World Literatures at the Institute for Black Atlantic Research at the University of Central Lancashire. She’s also Visiting Fellow, at the Centre for the Study of International Slavery, University of Liverpool. After reading English at Cambridge, she studied for her PhD and began her academic career at the University of Warwick, where she also published her first pamphlet of poetry., LandForms, which was published by Seapressed in 2012.

One reviewer was clearly taken with the challenge of dealing with what I see as an intriguing erudition. The violence he does to syntax and semantics is a joy worth sharing. Yvonne says she didn’t understand it. Me neither. But it is enjoyable.

‘The binary is itself the uncomfortable site of negotiation, laying waste to and galvanizing its own division and divination
‘ Mostly by stanza, these lines betray navigational lyric, resplendent with lean overtures of isle:’

Well, there you go; decipher as you will. Yvonne’s research has seen her trying to decipher Ted Hughes’s notebooks on horoscopes and necromancy, reading David Livingstone’s beautiful copperplate writing in Zambia, and translating previously unanalysed Congolese writers from French. Deerhart, her next poetry pamphlet, will be published by Knives, Forks and Spoons Press in 2016. You can see now why you should be prepared to be, with me, happily just outside your comfort zone. You should also understand that this is no cut and paste anthologiser of the strange, cryptic and bizarre. Like another favourite poet of mine – Julie Mellor – here’s a researcher who brings an imaginative sensitivity and a careful craftsmanship to her work. And it’s time that was given its chance to persuade you to share my enthusiasm. Here goes.

Dry Bird

I’m called shinbone flute-singer, lyre-stringer,
August dry bird, jar fly.

My body is soundbox, drumskin, motor,
I tap my timbal – a ratcheting vibraslap
revving to a tom-tom.
I brace against the branch; wings and voice strain open –
when I amp it up to a whirring howl
my ballad could burst your eardrum.
My chirring fills woodlands, porches,
your sleepless house!

On windscreens, in gardens,
my kind lie in drifts,
lyric cicadas exhausted from calling.

This one drew me in, first with its sounds and textures -it’s great to read aloud – but also for the recognition of the shock of the NOISE of cicadas on a hot day in a steep sided valley. ‘Exhausted from calling’. Yes. For me this poems nails the sheer senselessness of that daylong racket. This next one takes me into a different climate, and a different voice.

My Grandmother Was A Pink-Footed Goose

I

I squint north –
clouds like the sails
of a goosewinging boat.

I blow on my fists,
feel the scrunched membrane
meshing index to thumb.
Nails press like quills,
as if each finger
could sprout a pinion
and my thumb could end
in a bastard wing.

Where are the flocks?

II

My Mémé was bird-bone hollow, all ribstrakes and flapping bald elbows, flesh slouched over a V of sternum. Shallow breath-râles, knuckly birdleg fingers. Her English evaporated as her mind nested the tumor. The remains: ‘J’ai ces … hallucinations’ of pools and oceans, my father webbing through air, his hands in outspread sheaves of primaries.

Plume-cinder ash when we burned Mémé. The south-easterly hush-hushed it north.
III

A horizon speck
sharpens into focus
as a wishbone V.
Flying at altitude,
geese pant each second,
their heartbeats must blur –
how do they snatch breath to call?

The names of their nest-sites
freeze air as I voice them:
Spitsbergen. Hvannalindir.

Touchdown of lipgloss feet
on saurian legs.
Parched beaks dapping
in algal-green pools.
The mere pours
off watermarked necks.

I wondered if anything could return
from those altitudes –

here are pink-footed geese
crying hark hark.

I think that’s a good place to stop on this undecided equinoctal afternoon, the mere pouring off the watermarked necks, the lipgloss feet, clouds like goosewinging boats, and the glad relief of the pink-footed geese crying ‘hark hark’.

geese

I hope you enjoyed these as much as me. I hope you’re happily just out of your comfort zone.  Yvonne Reddick…..thank you for being my guest.

Next week there’ll be a small informal ceremony. You’re all more than welcome.