Monday, 20 May 2013

Four gaffes about homelessness

This was written in 2000 for a competition run by the Big issue.  It was highly commended by George Szirtes in the 2006 Norwich Writers' Circle competition, and published in the competition anthology Reverie (p. 30).


The other news of 1963 –
the Skopje earthquake – was a hoot to me,
age six.  I laughed out loud when first I read
of people sleeping in the street, not bed.

In the Guardian
(of all places) by one
who should know better: “How can
homeless people ever complain
of what they see on television?
I mean, where would they find to plug it in?”

“Evangelism,” I was keen to note,
“we do not force down anybody’s throat,
but prayer and any needed explanation
happen as part of rehabilitation.”
The answer was, “To rehabilitate
the homeless, what a job, you’re doing great!”
You’ll know she wrote it drily.  I did not;
but irony was always my blind spot.

A short history
by my then MP
of the Africans’
building traditions
(this was off the cuff,
he hadn’t read enough –
not familiar
with Paul Oliver):
“Of course, a hundred years ago they were still living in trees.”

Monday, 13 May 2013

Music, colour, war

These three poems from the 1990s are all responses to war, a subject I don't deal with much, for lack of experience.  Their publishing history is undistinguished.  'An anthem dated 1925' was self-published, in a poetry address book I circulated to friends in 2000.  The other two appeared in what I call payload anthologies: 'The start of the war' in Guardians of the state, edited by Ian Walton (Peterborough: Poetry Now, 1992), and 'Blue' in Best poems of 1995, edited by Cynthia A. Stevens and Caroline Sullivan (Owings Mills, MD: Watermark, 1995).

In 'An anthem dated 1925', the anthem in question is Faire is the heaven by William Harris.


Nostalgia aches for endlesse perfectnesse,
the Archangels and Angels, the eternall
burning Seraphins, bright Cherubins
with golden wings all overdight, the heav’n
where happy soules have place.  John Rutter sees it
as a cathedral window.  I see autumn:
people dwarfed by a cathedral wall,
stones to the memory, and mortal tongue’s
receding semitones, seven years after
war ended war, the twenties still aware
of gaps, and blanks, and overflying silence.

'The start of the war' is a squib I wrote in 1991, following the invasion of Iraq.


Admit, if only in a graceless mutter,
America had grace enough to take
a mouthful, anyway, of bread and butter
before rushing on to the cake.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, I was duly humbled to learn that a friend of mine was going to Iraq, with a group of peace activists, to survey the devastation.  This was the artist Caroline Dobson (now Caroline Saltzwedel).  Of the images she produced from her experiences in Iraq, one which particularly moved me was Invasion of privacy, from her visit to a bombed-out hospital. My response was this:


Concrete structure, reinforced.
The shelling couldn't break
down the frame.  The lower wards
have creaked back from the ground.
On the top floor, not used, hang
for anyone to see
bits of wall and ceiling, ends
of steel, sky stretching whole
round invaded privacy
again, sky stretching whole,
blue, silent, unearthed.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Through the sky


We emerged on to the tower roof:
sky luminous, pale blue, spring afternoon.
Ely Cathedral faint and far away,
a band of drummers, taut, filling the square,
Cambridge around us, with its grit of churches.
And climbing down the spiral steps we passed
woodwork and ropes hung silent, vertical.

Although it was not in my gift
to clear the Earthward trip from Pluto,
I gave the signal to the lift
at the wrong time for me to do so.
The lift once set in that career
would burn its passengers to ash
from friction with Earth’s atmosphere,
or hit the ground a deadly smash.
I called the passengers.  They gripped
survivor hope against all hopes
with hands that bled and chafed and ripped
stopless on solar system ropes.
Was there still time to show a care
by telephoning and confessing
my guilt before it hit the Chair
at second hand from others’ guessing?
O no, the Chair was off that day
in Mozambique, somebody said,
out of all reach that I might say
on this.  Besides, the line was dead.

Waking from that: new file over the botch
(still live, unclosable); the wake of guilt
receding with the tide; less shed than fade;
I lay not lied; Earth was under a cloud:
a weight, a poor fit, something disallowed.

This was my entry in the Lymm Lines competition in 2006.  I am afraid I cannot now remember the theme of that year's competition.  The poem's most recent outing was to the Fosseway competition, judged by Liz Cashdan -- and she was kind enough to give it a commendation.

The poem reports. with a minimum of poetic licence, on a weekend in March 2006: a climb in the tower of Great St Mary's, Cambridge, followed by the dream about Pluto.  I cannot say what lay behind the dream, beyond the guess that it's likely to have involved anxiety over something.