Keeping on: my kind of poetry. Martin Zarrop

What are days for?

Days are where we live.   

They come, they wake us   

Time and time over.

They are to be happy in:   

.

Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question

Brings the priest and the doctor   

In their long coats

Running over the fields.

       (Philip Larkin: The Whitsun Weddings)

I’ve never liked Sundays very much. In my childhood and into my teens it was a routine of Sunday School and Chapel, and in between, a day of tense silences between my mum and dad who were not made for days of inaction or each others’ unmediated company. 

In those days all the shops were closed on Sundays. As were cinemas. There was no TV. Later, in my decades of teaching, my Sundays were often the days in the shadow of Mondays, days when marking had to be done, was often put off and off and off until it was all ploughed through in an unsatisfactory way, late on a Sunday night.

I sometimes remember that inability to knuckle down to what needs doing;  like now, when for one reason and another I’ve put off writing a post I really do want to write, but tell myself I can’t find the hook, or the way in, or whatever. Mainly I think, it’s because I suspect I’ll make a pig’s ear of it.

.

I suppose the idea of Sundays has bothered me, too, because the idea of days has lost its resonance. Days in my past used to have significance. Mondays were washing days (why?). Tuesdays, Early Closing…shops shut at round about 1.00pm, and that was it if you forgot to buy the bread. Round our way, there was a day when housewifes (there were housewifes, then) queued to buy tripe. Fridays were fish (and chip) days. Saturdays, fathers were at home, and the afternoons were for the match. Saturday nights were cinema nights, and dance hall nights. And then there was Sunday.

Everything changed, I think, in the early 80s, when the Sunday opening laws changed; everything was now open 24/7; after the 60’s most households needed two wage earners, and so on. Though we clung to the notion of the ‘weekend’, days no longer identified themselves in quite the same way. And then, a year ago, we finally accepted that, like the rest of the world, we were part of a pandemic.  And for millions of us, all the days became the same.

Which is, I suppose, a very roundabout way of writing my way into this post, which will be about, among other things, the passage of time, the erosions of memory and history, about loss and, I hope, about hope and salvation. When days are much the same we can lose track of time. I got a letter from the NHS this week; it advises me that I am vulnerable, at risk, and that I am strongly advised to ‘shield’ until March 31. 

It was a bit of a shock to realise that I’d had one of these letters before. A year ago, to be precise. 

I’ve been shielding and self-isolating for a year. It’s my Covid-versary. At the start, you don’t mark the date. I just remember thinking that it would be sorted by the end of April, and I’d go to St Ives to write. And then April became September, except it didn’t. And so on. Can you remember what day its anymore? 

If someone told you a year ago you’ll be isolated for a year you’d probably say but I can’t do that. Much in the style of folk who post on social media that they can’t wait for X or Y or whatever. meaning that they don’t want to. I can’t do that. I’m reminded of Kim Moore’s glorious Trumpet Teacher’s curse

.

a curse on the teacher who says I’m rubbish at music
in a loud enough voice for the whole class to hear

I can’t do that. We believe we can’t cope. We lose someone we love. We lose an occupation. How will we survive? It turns out that you can, that you have to, that you do. I had another anniversary in January. Eight years ago I joined an inspirational fellowship and gave up alcohol. I thought I couldn’t do it, but it turned out I could. The remarkable thing is that, as a direct result, I started to write seriously, and joined another inspirational fellowship of people who write poems. I’ve had a book published every year since. I started to write a poetry blog, and about 750,000 words later, I’m still writing it. It turns out I could do it after all. As can we all, mostly. 

 Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question

Brings the priest and the doctor   

In their long coats

Running over the fields.

To Larkin’s priest and doctor, let me add Mathematician and Scientist, and so finally get round to the real point of this post which is to share my enthusiasm for the work of Martin Zarrop, one of that inspirational fellowship of people who write poems. And I’ll start with a poem which I think is at the heart of his first two books : No theory of everything and Moving Pictures

Moving Pictures 

 May 1945, Clock Cinema, Leeds

They search for the stars

through tobacco haze, follow

each washed out image 

on the screen. Sweaty-necked 

rows of utility suits, 

tiredness slumped against

faded seats. Soldiers march 

as powdered dolls parade

to music, to victory. Dust

dances in the flicker

of the projector’s light.

I want something.

She rummages through her bag, 

tells the boy there’s nothing left.

.

Then give me something else.

A killer’s eye, perhaps, 

or the floating nightmare 

of Donovan’s Brain, conjuring

bubble spells out of a glass jar,

turning men into monsters.

They shall not pass; Gary Cooper  

will meet The End, armed 

with his righteous gun while Mrs Miniver

survives her clapboard blitz

on the Hollywood back lot.

Now, through cracks in an adult wall 

he sees the cock crow its news, hears 

the clipped voice as cameras pan

.

slow as ice across an open pit

of broken extras, jumbled 

contortions of skin and bone, stick

origami folded by bulldozers.

In black and white a woman weeps,

men stare, stone-grey

into the winter soil. 

.

There is no hero, no lipstick.

His head is pulled down 

into mother’s lap.  They wait

for the main feature, the

safe return in glorious Technicolor

of the real world,

Ronald Colman to Shangri-La.

………………………………………………………………………….

I started reading and annotating the two collections some time last November. I would take them with me to hospital when I went for check ups, for consultations, scans, and, latterly, for chemotherapy. This poem is the one that stopped me in my tracks. I remember the shock of those newsreels, too, but the thing is that I only saw them for the first time in the late 1950s, in my teens. They came at the end of a long series on TV: All our yesterdays. These lines brought back the nightmare that wouldn’t leave.

                           an open pit

of broken extras, jumbled 

contortions of skin and bone, stick

origami folded by bulldozers.

The disjunction of that phrase ‘stick origami’, its obscene oxymoron of brittleness and foldings, nailed the sense of sick incredulity it generated. I was in the comfort of our house, watching with my dad. I didn’t know at the time that one of my dad’s brothers was at the liberation of Belsen..though when I finally knew, I began to understand the darkness that seemed to hang about him. Unlike Martin, I wasn’t Jewish, I wasn’t in a strange town, I wasn’t 8 years old. 

The poem beautifully evokes the exhaustion at the end of the war, the tiredness of the audience, the offer of an escape from a grey, utilitarian world as they search for the stars /through tobacco haze. You sense that the cinema is a treat for the mother, and the child needs to be pacified with something else. Which, appallingly, turns out to be something he maybe shouldn’t see, through cracks in an adult wall. Shangri La will never be the same again.

In Moving Pictures, this poem is one of a sequence of thirteen, each set in 1945. Martin explains that  

“the key to the 1945 poems is the title poem ‘Moving Pictures’. It’s the only poem of the sequence to relate to a personal experience. In 1945 I was 8 years old and living in Leeds with my mother who wouldn’t let me be evacuated alone so we left London and rented a house (now demolished) in Banstead Terrace. We went to the cinema regularly and she would take a bag of goodies to keep me quiet. I remember the Pathe News and the concentration camp images but I think it was my mother’s reaction that etched them in my memory. The Clock Cinema building is impressive and still in existence but has now some other function. I keep having to remind myself that ‘the war’ is 75 years into history for young people but it still fascinates me and visiting each month of 1945 seemed a fruitful way of touching on it and the various political issues that are still with us today.”

The sequence includes the execution of the son of Max Planck, the failed Hitler assassination plot, the Dresden firestorm, Hiroshima, the completion of the first supercomputer and the foundation of the United Nations. It’s worth pointing this out, because Martin Zarrop’s poetry, like his conversation, is wide ranging. He’s a polymath and polyhistor, and at the heart of it all, human and vulnerable.  Martin summarises his background as follows:

“I spent my working life as an academic applied mathematician although I gave up physics and chemistry in the 4th form  and graduated with a BA (not BSc) in Maths. My only period working outside academia was during my Trotskyite period (1964-71) at the end of which I worked for just over a year as a journalist until I burned out and ‘defected’. These events have impacted some of my poems. I suppose I was looking for mathematical certainty even in politics! It was ‘all or nothing’; just to do ‘something’ would be a betrayal. In the end, I do nothing politically except occasionally expressing an opinion and getting angry but, of course, I can afford that luxury!

My absence of scientific qualifications (and my non-practical essence!) has never blunted my interest in science, particularly physics, AI, cosmology and the philosophical questions they raise. I keep a close eye on New Scientist as a source of poetry and a tentative title for my next collection is ‘To Boldly Go’. I’m not certain where Covid should raise its head in a new collection. “

This should explain why you’ll come across a fascination with Artificial Intelligence, the Turing Test, the Uncertainty Principle and Schrodinger’s cat amongst many other things in his four collections. However, it’s the more explicitly human/vulnerable/personal poems I want to share with you right now. First, this poem about his father, which reminds me powerfully of Tony Harrison’s Bookends.. the business of how the 11+ and scholarship separated so many of us working class boys, and girls, from their neighbours and parents. What finally separates us, of course, is death. As Martin says in The Father-Thing, another poem about his dad : I would talk to him now/but the language is lost

Tailor

.

I never wanted it

that life of sweatshops,

the taste of dust and steam,

the clatter of machines.

.

There my father was at home,

alive among his workmates,

thimble, needle in motion.

Schmutters: that was his trade.

.

I envied the skill in his fingers,

the blur of metal on chalk

piercing raw cloth

in a rhythm that never slowed

.

over fifty years. I still see him,

hands moving over garments,

Woodbine dangling from lip,

the yellow stain on his shirt.

.

We never talked about work,

never talked about anything.

His ambition for me was cutter-designer,

the Everest I refused to climb.

.

My hands move over white paper

etching the symbols of our separation.

.

Martin explains that “ my father was absent during my early childhood. He was already 29 when war was declared and didn’t reappear until 1946. He came from a large Jewish East End family and his parents were from Poland. His family was pretty noisy and lively and my mother (I felt) rather looked down on them, particularly as they loved gambling (horses, dogs, cards) and couldn’t hold onto money. My father was a ladies tailor, tried unsuccessfully on a couple of occasions to go into business with his father and siblings and couldn’t resist gambling. This was the cause of many parental rows and my mother ended up doling out weekly pocket money to him. He was always asking for a fiver (‘don’t tell mum’) when I visited later in life and this image (‘don’t be like your father’) is deeply embedded in my brain. It was impossible ever to have a proper conversation with him because of these background issues (see ‘The Father Thing’). There are still poems to be written about my parents.”

 Amen to that I say.

Separation is a theme that runs through Martin’s poetry. He’s in his 80’s (though you wouldn’t think so) and of an age like me when  ‘the loss of friends is devastating, particularly when they have been soul mates and walking companions’.  His wife died in 2005, and she’s a constant presence, too. She’s implicit in the rituals of loneliness and loss that he evokes in  ‘Moving pictures’….solitary cooking with a man who hasn’t ever quite embraced cookery. The ‘comfort of a Tesco fry-up’ that is no comfort at all. 

The poem I asked for that illuminates this element of his writing comes at the subject obliquely, delicately, beautifully. It’s about displacement strategies among other things, I think. I’ll let it speak for itself.

Ghost Sonata

I teach piano on a Sunday

to girls who’ve passed 

away before they’ve made the grade.

.

I find it therapeutic, sitting in my chair,

savouring the touch of vanished fingers,

coaxing airs from tarnished keys.

.

We don’t speak much. I listen carefully

and stare through shimmer to a score

that must be strictly followed

.

as my wife insisted. No cutting

corners for a pretty face, she said.

And even though she’s absent

.

and they’re dead, 

I maintain standards.

………………………………..

And finally, from his newest collection Is anyone there? a poem that made me cheer and then laugh out loud. It made me think that this is why I like poetry. Because, ultimately, it’s life-affirming. It’s a collection that’s dedicated to lost friends and loves

    ‘black holes, you become invisible / but you still bend space and time’

It’s a collection that teases away at the idea of consciousness, of intelligence, the intellectual puzzles of the Turing Test, Searle’s ‘Chinese Room’.

It’s a collection colored by the question of its title: is anyone there? A collection full of ghosts, or about ghosts, about what it means to be alive, and how to live when  a loved one has died.

To My Nineties

You’d better get your skates on

or at least your boots

and get out there, old dribbler,

before it’s too late.

.

I may not meet you in the hills

struggling through Kinder peat.

Thirteen miles, fifteen? 

No problem!

.

Or so I thought as hair thinned

and Christmas followed Easter

as if in a time machine

that ate old friends for breakfast.

.

You stand patient near the finish line

as I pull myself up for the final sprint.

Nothing lasts forever, not hips

not brain cells. I need a project.

.

I’ll make you my project.

Wait for me.

…………………………………………

I really would have liked to say so much more, about the poems about hill-walking, say; but sometimes less is more.

I’ll finish with an extract from  ‘So many prayers’ (in Moving Pictures). I fancy I find here a metaphor for poetry, like Eliot’s fragments shored against our ruins. A prayer to push between the interstices of the ancient sunbaked Western Wall in Jerusalem

.

I have scribbled

Peace and Socialism

not much to ask.

The wall towers above me

.

Thanks, Martin Zarrop for being our guest and sharing your poems. The pleasure’s been all ours.

Martin’s Books:

No theory of everything: Cinnamon Press     [2015] £4.99

Moving pictures:             Cinnamon Press     [2016] £8.99

Making Waves:                V.Press                [2019]  £6.50

Is anyone there:               The High Window [2020] £10.00

Bio:

Martin Zarrop is a retired mathematician who wanted certainty but found life more interesting and fulfilling by not getting it. He started writing poetry in 2006 and has been published in various magazines and anthologies.
His pamphlet ‘No Theory of Everything’ (2015) was one of the winners of the 2014 Cinnamon Press pamphlet competition and his first full collection ‘Moving Pictures’ was published by Cinnamon in 2016. His pamphlet ‘Making Waves’ on the life and science of Albert Einstein was published by V.Press in 2019. His second collection ‘Is Anyone There?’ was published by High Window Press in March 2020.

***** If you like, you can buy a copy of Is Anyone There direct from Martin for the bargain price of £9.00 incl. P&P. ***** email him at martinzarrop@gmail.com ****

3 thoughts on “Keeping on: my kind of poetry. Martin Zarrop

  1. Good to see you posting again, John. That’s one nice thing about Sundays! If one can keep track of them! I certainly have difficulty knowing what day it is. Times change, don’t they? Ho hum. Jean xx

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.