Poetry

Poetry

It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care to act,
it starts when you do it again after they said no,
it starts when you say we and know who you mean,
and each day you mean one more.

Marge Piercy

Irish protesters against the water charges
Saturday, 19 March 2016 18:30

Poets, presidents and politics

Written by
in Poetry

As we approach the centenary of the Easter Rising, Kevin Higgins, the Bogman's Cannon satirist-in-residence, lets rip at the state of poetry and politics in Ireland. See also Cold Old Fire.

It’s probably best that I nail my underpants to the mast at the get-go as an active participant in the events I describe rather than pretend to be any sort of objective observer. In any case, in these fraught times here in Ireland the objective observers are mostly languishing in the particularly hot corner of Hell to which Dante consigned those who in a time of crisis, such as now, have nothing to declare but their neutrality. Since the late summer of 2013 the apparently stable edifice that was the Irish poetry world has been struck by a number of earthquakes–and several significant aftershocks–which have left the building looking shaky.

First, the death of Seamus Heaney who, whatever your poetic aesthetic or politics, was undeniably a world-class poet who dominated Irish poetry in a way that is rare. Heaney wasn’t just our best poet; he was our second, third, fourth, and fifth best poets as well; and was to a large extent the currency on which Irish Poetry Inc. traded with the rest of the poetry world. His passing was like the retirement of a great player from the team built around him; a few games into the next season the fans, media, and even the chairman of the board suddenly realize how threadbare the rest of the existing lot look without him, and the dread sets in.

The second big happening was the going up in flames last autumn of the fantasy, beloved of many Irish media or arts liberals –our equivalent of those Americans who orgasm at the very idea of a Hillary Clinton presidency–that unlike the French and the Greeks and whoever else, the Irish never protest. Ireland has had inflicted upon it seven years of severe austerity since 2008, much of it to bail out–on orders from the European Union–one bank which, though it only ever had six branches, managed to lose about $10,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country. The spark that finally led to the uprising was the government’s farcical attempt to introduce new, additional water charges while at the same time preparing to sell the country’s water resources and infrastructure to a businessman known to have (ahem) a close and sometimes very financial relationship with the main governing party. Hundreds of thousands marched in hammering rain last November; two vans believed to be connected to the Irish Water company were set alight in the middle of the night in West Cork; and the attempt to install water meters outside each and every house has met with an organized campaign of physical resistance nationwide. It’s been great fun.

Last October I got a Facebook message from Rhona McCord who works in the office of Clare Daly – a United Left member of the Irish parliament (Dáil) best known in the United States for describing President Obama as “a war criminal” – asking me where my poem against water charges was? The resulting poem ‘Irish Air: Message From the CEO’ was a modest proposal of sorts in which the CEO of the newly formed company “Irish Air” outlines how charging the Irish people for the right to breathe is a sensible policy for a happier twenty first century.

To me, there would be no point at all publishing such a poem in a small magazine read only by poets, for at least some of whom the phrase “change we can believe in” brings to mind their dream of one day getting to give Don Share a shoulder rub in the hope that he might in return favorite one of their Tweets. "Irish Air: Message From the CEO" was published simultaneously on Clare Daly’s political website and on the Irish Left Review web site. On the morning of the most recent national demonstration against the charges, Luke "Ming" Flanagan, who represents our area in the European Parliament, posted the poem on his Facebook page and urged people to share. All the evidence is that this poem, which was in effect commissioned by the office of a politician in our national parliament, has been read by many hundreds, more like thousands of people, the majority of whom, I’m sure, would ordinarily think themselves to have no interest in, or use for, poetry. The advent of social media–especially when combined with a sudden challenge to long-taken-for-granted cultural and political status quos–has made the usual literary gatekeepers seem, at times, next to irrelevant, and sent said individuals into a cold sweat panic.

Galway poet Sarah Clancy (born 1973) won the inaugural Irish People's Poetry Prize for the video of her public reading of her poem "And Yet We Must Live In These Times" at the November 1 anti-water charges demonstration. The essential message of this finely delivered poem is that after the past seven years–during which Clancy herself lost her house–that actually, no, we Irish are not "grand" with all of this, however much we might sometimes pretend we are. Clancy last year published her third collection of poems, The Truth & Other Stories (Salmon Poetry). Clancy’s work is often sharply political but, unlike many a protest versifier, her language is always particular rather than clichéd or sloganeering, and the focus remains on the individual humans behind the latest set of miserable official statistics rather than flying off into ideology and bad rhymes.

 The somewhat ironically titled Irish People's Poetry Prize is administered by Dave Lordan, one of the finest poets of this generation (born 1975), who runs the literary website The Bogman’s Cannon which, since its foundation in January, has exploded to become by far the liveliest literary publication in Ireland and the place where the increasingly disloyal opposition to the rackety old mansion that is Irish poetry post-Heaney gather and publicly talk about stuff. People are for or against The Bogman’s Cannon in the way that people are for or against Obama, or, before that, were for or against the Russian Revolution or the execution of King Charles I. If Walt Whitman, Mayakovsky, and John Milton were hanging around Ireland writing poetry today, they’d certainly be emailing Dave Lordan poems to be published on The Bogman’s Cannon.

As I’ve implied, the reaction to this has not been universally positive; it would almost be disappointing if it were. The heads of one or two PhD students at Trinity and Queens University Belfast have exploded; one or two fans of the restrained autobiographical lyric have begun screaming like young ladies from Greenwich, Connecticut who’ve just been flashed by Teamsters; and the esteemed critic Maria Johnston of Trinity College Dublin last week had to go for a long lie down after going into battle on Twitter in support of moderation, respecting one’s elders, and the short well-made personal lyric. She is not expected to make a full recovery. Neither is Cork poet Gerry Murphy, the title of whose 2010 collection was My Flirtation With International Socialism (Dedalus Press). Murphy–a poet who has traded on faux radicalism pretty much all his life–has been jumping up and down on social media describing the tactics of the anti-water charges movement as being reminiscent of “fascism” and, somewhat less importantly, telling me that I should “take a break [from writing poetry] for a month, and then give up altogether.” Just at the moment when the old order got a thoroughly deserved shaking–and may there be more of it–Gerry Murphy and others in and around the Irish poetry world discovered how much they love the political establishment, at whose teat they of course all suckle.

Of course not all the poetry produced by our recently very charged news cycles has been of equal quality; it would be shocking if it were. Young Leitrim poet Stephen Murphy has become a YouTube sensation, with his signature piece "Was It For This?" being viewed almost 27,000 times to date. The poem has been re-Tweeted by, among others, Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams, and Stephen read it at the huge anti-water charges demonstration outside the G.P.O. in Dublin in October. To be sure, worse poems than Stephen’s have been inspired by the water charges issue; someone told me in confidence that if she hears one more bad rhyming poem on this issue that she will seriously consider paying her water bill, in the unlikely event that is that our shambling government actually succeeds at bringing the charges in. There is no excuse though for rhyming (or sort of) as Stephen Murphy does “racketeering” with “profiteering” and the poem is full of an utterly naïve idealization of the rough reality that was pre-Christian Ireland with its pagans and druids, though there’s no denying that this sounded groovy to many, including apparently Mr. Adams. I tried to help Stephen out, as is my way, by re-writing (some would say parodying) his poem and giving it a more definite title, "It Was For This"; this seems to have led Stephen Murphy’s wife to the opinion that I am a bad person, and on that point at least she’s probably right.

By far the worst poem though to make its way into recent Irish political discourse arrived on our computer screens on the terrible morning that was Wednesday, February 11, when our President Michael D. Higgins “released” the text of the only poem he has written since he became president in November 2011, in The Irish Times, no less. His use of the word “released” is interesting in that it calls to mind, among other things, David Bowie’s surprise release a while back of a new single on iTunes. Here is the poem in full:

To those on the road it is reported that
The Prophets are weeping,
At the abuse
Of their words,
Scattered to sow an evil seed.

Rumour has it that,
The prophets are weeping.
At their texts distorted,
The death and destruction,
Imposed in their name.

The sun burns down,
On the children who are crying,
On the long journeys repeated,
Their questions not answered.
Mothers and Fathers hide their faces,
Unable to explain,
Why they must endlessly,
No end in sight,
Move for shelter,
for food, for safety, for hope.

The Prophets are weeping,
For the words that have been stolen,
From texts that once offered,
To reveal in ancient times,
A shared space,
Of love and care,
Above all for the stranger.

It’s difficult to know how to respond to this collection of warmed over banalities and abstractions which seems, or so rumor has it, to have been inspired by the Charlie Hebdo massacre in early January. I will say two things in Michael D. Higgins's defense here: (1) at least he came out against the Charlie Hebdo massacre in this poem, even if only in the vaguest possible way; it is more than can be said for some on the Jihad loving left, and (2) though his poetry may not to date have achieved universal critical acclaim, he has written far better poems than this.

The crucial thing about this poem was not its decidedly anaemic words but the timing of its release. Six weeks earlier President Higgins, who once used my mother’s downstairs bathroom and bought me my first ever Black Forest Gateaux when I was just fifteen years old, had signed the Irish Water bill into law when he could have delayed it by referring it to the Supreme Court. Many were surprised by this, and a good number were angry, because, in the past, now-President Higgins had a flirtation with international socialism that was altogether more serious than that experienced by the abovementioned Gerry Murphy.

On a memorable January morning in Dublin one protester, a Mr. Derek Byrne, shouted “midget parasite” at President Higgins’s car, though he later withdrew the word “midget” as he recognized that it might be potentially insulting to all people of diminutive stature, many of whom would themselves be against water charges. The release of this poem looked like a PR stunt designed to warm the genitalia of your typical Irish junk progressive, who just loves that we have a poet president. I responded in the only way I could, by re-writing President Higgins’s poem for him, re-titling it "Socially Acceptable Vegetables," and publishing it on The Bogman’s Cannon. It was at this point that Gerry Murphy’s beard burst into flames and he began telling me via social media that I should give up writing poetry.

Another recent Irish news cycle poem has been "Queer" by Elaine Feeney–also published first on The Bogman’s Cannon and made topical by our upcoming referendum on same-sex marriage. The poem ironically suggests some possible cures for lesbianism:

“Did they tell you a herbalist
Might be the best option?

(Or a priest)”

Feeney is the also the author of the classic satire, "Mass," which features in her 2013 collection, The Radio Was Gospel (Salmon Poetry), and which savagely mocks the tendency of some in Ireland to see the saying of a Mass, be it for success in your exams, or “your granny’s black lung,” as the obvious thing to do in most situations bar none.

In the aftermath of Heaney a new type of Irish poem is beginning to predominate. And it is not the well-made anecdotal lyric which Irish poets have tended to be so good at producing. Such poems now have a means of entirely bypassing the usual gatekeepers who no longer have any effective way to put manners on us. Though most of them don’t say it publicly, it is believed that the thought of an Irish poetry world increasingly dominated by irreverent corner boys (and girls) such as Dave Lordan, Sarah Clancy, Elaine Feeney, and yours truly makes some arts administrators throw up repeatedly each morning before leaving for work. The nub of their problem is this: the poets of the generation immediately under Heaney are nothing like as consistently good as he was, especially when it comes to the public poem. So there is a desperate rush on to find the next acceptable face of Irish poetry.

This year Ireland marks the centenary of the 1916 Rising, an armed revolutionary uprising by a group that was at least partly self-appointed; had they been around at the time most of our leaders would certainly have not supported the Rising; nor most likely would Mr. Pat Cotter, whom Don Share has asked to edit a special Irish issue of Poetry. Cotter has lately been on social media expressing grave concern that Sinn Féin might be in government after the next election; he will do his best to find for the Irish cultural establishment some poets they can feel safe with. I understand that Dave Lordan has a poem in the issue, which showcases poets born after 1970 and was put together on an invitation-only basis. There will be some good younger poets in there too; but I doubt you’ll get from its pages much more than the occasional hint of the very real ongoing changes I’ve talked about here. It was Pat Cotter’s shambolic attempt, from which he–in the end–had to back down, to censor the literary criticism section of the Munster Literature Centre’s magazine Southword in January which led to the revolt which gave birth to The Bogman’s Cannon. Having him edit such a special issue right now is akin to exhuming from the grave the late great Norman Podhoretz and asking long-decomposed Norm to edit an anthology of poetry of the Vietnam War.

Were he around, Seamus Heaney would be commissioned to write a poem for the 2016 commemorations, and he would do it well. But that time is over. And the Irish establishment, both cultural and political, is quaking in its flip-flops about how it's going to bluff its way through all this. At bottom, they fear for their jobs. If a new and very different government were to take office this year–and it probably won’t–then many of these people’s time at the trough may be over.

 This article also appears in the current issue of The Raintown Review (Volume 13 Issue 1) http://www.theraintownreview.com/

The First Art Critic
Thursday, 17 March 2016 16:42

The First Art Critic

Written by
in Poetry

The First Art Critic

 

I put the sticks in this progression

so they mimic the thorn holes

that let the day come through at night.

 

Their relative sizes show

the order in our tribe: elders,

hunters, those who make homes.

 

The fact I’ve stripped the bark

shows the hardships we suffer

in the ice, how few prey are.

 

The shapes make me feel cold, stabbed,

but show defiance, how we fight the storms,

rebuild our fires, search for summer.

 

Tuk says

they look like little swans.

Red Shift
Wednesday, 16 March 2016 13:07

Red Shift

Written by
in Poetry

Red Shift

by Peter Branson

'Neither a borrower nor a lender be' (Hamlet)

Before this latest mess they badgered us
to use their cards, take out those "Own-your-own
home" loans. Phone call, spam mail or snail, imprint,
TV; end of the day, we fall. Roll up:
"It trickles down, prosperity, so all
do well, d'you see." Ring out that tired theme tune.
Don't tell us when they've taken out their share,
there'll be just bare bones there for you and me.

They bind us to them heart and mind, refine
with clever marketing how we consume,
when, what and where, control our spending lives.
If they could knock them out, they'd steal our souls;
bankrupt, buy out and asset-strip whole third
estate. The bubble burst, it's panic time.
There are no gay Antonios about
to bail you out before their ships come in.

No comfort blanket, see. Not how it's done
these days. Once you're destabilized, may be
too late; the toy balloon, inflated, grasped
by finger tips, released. No siren's raised;
no fire engine, police car or ambulance,
that drop in pitch to signify you've flipped,
blue chip to sheer insolvency, worn out
your credit-rating stations-of-the-shop.

Micawber's hope that "Something will turn up"
simply won't do in this brave virtual age.
They'll goose you while you're healthy, salmon-pink,
try not to drain you dry; gentled you cope.
Red shift: you're irredeemable so can't
catch up. They take the reins: "The deal was all
explained to you before you signed. See there,
small print, the bottom of the page." No change.

They charge-you-till-you-bleed and when you do,
they seize what they already own: buy now -
pay later stuff, your car, your home. You're in
a mental Marshalsea. They're in control.
"I'm being reasonable. Don't take that tone
with me. It's here in black and white. What's that?
You didn't realise? Why? Can't you read?
Those tears won't wash. There's nothing I can do."

 

from Red Shift, e-book from Caparison, www.therecusant.org.uk/#/caparison-e-books/4538998565

I Want To Be The Light
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 07 March 2016 20:27

I Want To Be The Light

in Poetry
Written by

In honour of International Women’s Day, I would like to share with you some new poetry that I have been writing which looks at women from the past, who I have a lot to be thankful for. I have also been exploring issues that women have to tackle day in and day out, not just within society at large but also within their own thoughts and feelings towards themselves.

The first poem is about my search for the foremother of Black British Women’s Poetry, Phillis Wheatley. An African slave educated in America, her collection of poetry was published in London in 1773, and called Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.

they say she was an uncultivated barbarian

Art is not just for oneself, not just a marker
of one's own understanding. It is a map for
those who follow after us - Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Chapter 1

i look for you when i lecture in Boston
i walk the long avenue through budded
trees and snow unsure of my path
i need to see you
for myself     what is left of you
it's cold and bright     busy and noisy
i think the city is getting prepared
for their marathon

you are a memorial
poised in bronze  imagining the stars
you strike the pose i've seen many times
quill in right hand   left hand tucked
under chin   deep in thought

i advance close    look into your eyes
the eyes that claimed the authority
to see for yourself
but you   here   now   are   still
carved  in the way    they saw you
always having    to prove    your worth
prove your humanity

Chapter 3

i take your story like medicine
the facts are there
sometime in 1772
you  as the young African girl walk
into a room in Boston   Massachusetts
to undergo an examination
by (white) men of worth
merchants   governors   pastors

they give you permission to use
your voice    a voice already yours
i'm interested in    how you stand
are your hands begin your back
wringing within your lap
or sticking firmly to your hips

Chapter 5

long i stand in your radiance
this afternoon
my hand    on your hand
with the weight of history
against us   but i see you
i walk on     down the avenue
on my own terms.

 

Our Labour Saving Device

the lay sister sits by the open fire
knitting after another busy day
she longs for space to breathe
her clicking needles keep time with
the clock upon the mantel
and a barn owl swoops between the firs
as the new moon remains hidden
she longs for that moment of release
too old for use then she will take off
her stockings and run barefoot amongst
the fallen blossom    cool petals
clinging to damp flesh
and one heart beating just for her

(A lay sister is a woman who has taken religious vows and habit but is employed for manual labour and nothing else.)

 

Sometimes, women have a difficult time around their own and others' opinions towards their bodies. Self-hate, as well as trying to live up to unrealistic standards that are within the airbrushed media, puts serious pressure on women to fit ‘the standard’. Here I take a serious and not so serious look at my own body. Self-love is a practice, something we as women have to learn and keep re-learning.

i want to be the light

i will roll upwards towards the light
tilting my breasts out and up
pushing out my rounded stomach
i gain a stretch through my thighs
it takes me closer
i will not gather up my broad backside
and try to squeeze tight into a small space
that will never accommodate my size
i want to spread share my flesh
like the warmth touching me
as I arch my back hands behind my head
head turned towards the light opening
my body to the light
i want to be the light

 

On discovering my navel

Just the other day, I caught a glimpse
of it while getting out the bath. I almost
lost my balance as I was unsure what to make of it.

Even from that angle, I could tell it was deep,
a deep cavernous tunnel
burrowing through the centre of my being.
Almost like a gaping mouth forever

open as I clutched the billowing flesh
around it. I'll be honest with you,
I was quite perturbed by the whole affair.
And would you believe that I let out a cry

of Eureka. Yes quite definitely Eureka.
And then I proceeded to name it Norman.

 

In some societies marriage is still the only way out for woman. ‘Out’ being the optimum word as it can be argued in some cases, that this ‘out’ is from one restricted life into another. In the past a woman's worth was defined by her husband's status. Things are changing, but in some societies, a woman is still nothing without a man.

a wall of ocean between

she threw away the two person
turkey carcass that morning
as three waves thundered
their way over a tropical island

he spent the holidays
glued to news reports
how can you watch the destruction
i'm being a witness   he replied

upstairs she placed the red dress
and black heels into a Sainbury's
carrier bag    the whiff of vanilla
reminds her of their wedding

the warnings were there to see
just like the ocean quickly withdrew
from the shore    a curious sight
luring people closer

only to be left exposed
when the water returns
powers over their heads
tunnelling through their homes

she left him on the couch
absorbed in the spectacle
she heard later    more women
than men perished

women waiting on the beach
for their fishermen's return
ready to fillet the fish
ready to discard the bones

Phenomenal Woman, That's Me
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 07 March 2016 09:19

Phenomenal Woman, That's Me

in Poetry
Written by

Sheree Mack, the poet mentioned by Andy Croft in his article on the privatisation of poetry, presents a selection of poems to mark International Women's Day.

Phenomenal Woman, That's Me

by Maya Angelou

‘Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I'm telling lies.
I say,
It's in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I'm a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.’

International Women’s Day is the one day in the year when we actively mark, honour and celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women around the world. Women contribute so much to the day to day working of this world that one day is hardly enough to recognise this. But it’s a start. And we may celebrate this day, but the fight to recognise and equally repay our debt to women in society is far from over. The move towards gender parity has slowed down.

‘The World Economic Forum predicted in 2014 that it would take until 2095 to achieve global gender parity. Then one year later in 2015, they estimated that a slowdown in the already glacial pace of progress meant the gender gap wouldn't close entirely until 2133: see http://www.internationalwomensday.com/Theme

So this year’s IWD campaign theme is #PledgeForParity. How will you mark the day? What will you do to help women advance equal to their numbers?
Visit the link above to pledge your action.

The first poem in my selection comes from Mark Smith who has been campaigning endlessly to support his friend, Aderonke. Aderonke fled to the UK, from her native Nigeria about a decade ago. She was sentenced to death there for being in a lesbian relationship and has witnessed terrible things there, including the murder of loved ones. Despite this, she has been a strong campaigner for LGBTQI rights and in recent times has been awarded the LGBT Positive Role Model National Diversity Award. In addition to this, Aderonke has for two years running been officially one of the 101 most influential people in Britain. She faces a continual struggle to remain in the UK, having lost numerous (and humiliating) court cases. I continue to share her petition, (which has many signatories) in the hope that she shall finally gain political asylum here. Mark’s poem is a mini-tribute to her.

 

An Ode to Aderonke

by Mark Smith

She has passion, love and resilience
though her life requires great persistence.

Fighting prejudices of intolerable measure
she still seeks out the joy of life’s treasures.

Having gained many supporters,
there is a lot she has taught us!

 

The next poem was generously given by Caroline Kemp, a woman who tirelessly provides a voice for people with mental illnesses through her university work, lectures, talks and poetry. The poem explores the difficulties faced by women wanting to write.

Poem for Katharine Mansfield

by Caroline Kemp

'Oh to be a writer, a real writer, given up to it and it alone'.

I see you as the middle child,
Unwilling             Willed out
No favourite        uncomfortable words
Family remarks
'I see you are still fat'
Restless little thundercloud.

And later grown taller
cello fingers head full of words
the river pulled you,
the pine forests called
sultry swooning heavy with heat
in stockings bodices petticoats arm shields and dress
hem lines water damp wet.
A cover of night stars
A morning of birdsong
breast high in the manuka trees,
mimosa clover lily of the valley
pausing in the moment with the giant horse fly
by the clear water.

Splashes splashes of light falling falling
falling through the trees

I dream of your pen tumbling
with ink
slipping easily over paper
feelings rushing
living in the twilight.

And so much loving and hating,
Packets of love and hate hastily doled out.
Virginia grasped it straight away
Lawrence's rainbow
The presence of those eyes,
the mocking lips,
a mask a ghost

I see you in Paris
a hat of cherries    a long cloak     a white fez
a turban over a bold red mouth.

Soon the bacillus would grow.
Pen teeming emotion
A garden party in your head.

Lies    Lies    Lies
How you loved them, breathed them....your truths.
Living a life of half made dreams....such dreams....
The black bird in the corner of your eyes
waiting to alight,
shadows racing across the sky
Grass of bluebells cuckoo song
afraid to stop or settle
quickly
footsteps hurrying on.

The ink spilling
'I feel I shall die soon but not of my lungs'
Your blood buzzing rushing
your heart full of bees....
These truths you told yourself ....

Too soon too soon the bacillus gathering,
growing.

The feeling of the closed door, the locked gate
the twilight, the leaves, the dust.

And at the end too soon too soon
Virginia would mourn
despite the words, the promises,
your miss.
She saw the wreath on your hair,
the cold white flowers.
Another dream....
Leaving always leaving
impatient to be gone
The ink spilling
Leaving leaving
the curtains closed
impatient to be
gone.

With thanks to Claire Tomalin for her fine biography 'A Secret Life'
And the diaries of Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield.

 

Catherine Graham wrote the next poem in response to hearing Lucia Matibenga’s story. Lucia Matibenga is a Zimbabwean politician working with the United Movement for Democratic Change.

Sticks and Stones

by Catherine Graham

Even though you beat me,
you cannot keep me under your table.

You beat me
to put me in my right place
as a woman. My right place is being free.

Free to fight for the right to speak out.
Speak out against injustice, inaction, poverty.

If you believe that pain will
make me put my hands over my mouth,
then you are misled.

I cup my hands up to my lips and drink
to Justice, Equality, Dignity.

For I do not fade like a bruise fades,
I heal like a broken bone.

from Things I Will Put In My Mother's Pocket (Indigo Dreams Publishing)

 

Eliot North submitted a poem in honour of IWD which is taken from a developing collection of poems called ‘Flora Speaks’, a working collaboration with Dr Henry Oakeley, Garden Fellow at the Royal College of Physicians. Henry’s book ‘Doctors in the Medicinal Garden’ has been source material throughout and this poem was inspired by ‘Asclepias tuberosa’ or ‘American Milkweed,’ named after Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and son of Apollo.

Self-migration

by Eliot North

My re-birth will eclipse
Mother’s funeral pyre;

Layers of self stripped
Back and light-bolted,

Biology enhanced
With digital snips.

How I milked my host,
Poison sap to bone;

A snake wrapped around
The wooden staff of life.

You. Do not eat my hope.
These wings are poised

To visit Pine valleys
From Canada to Mexico.

I’ll overwinter there,
My undergarments spun

From the senses, coded
In silken memory.

 

Next up we have translations by Niveen Kassem of two poems by Ghada Al-Samman. Al-Samman is gaining an international reputation, as she continues to write controversially about the Arab world. A prolific writer, she isn’t afraid to speak out, documenting and sharing, in innovative ways, Middle Eastern life and suffering which mostly goes ignored.

Al-Samman's writing shows defiance and determination to challenge the status of women in traditional, patriarchal Arab society. The poems tackle gender inequality in all affairs of life. Taking women's emancipation to a higher level, the poems take off like spreading wings of thoughts, flying in our imaginations like liberated birds, escaping a tradition that enriches and nourishes gender inequality.

Two Poems

by Ghada Al-Samman

1.

Do not bless me coldly
kill me warmly
so we can be loyal for life

rather expiring together slowly
we become patriots in death.

Behold, I now open the box of sins

to recall my share of stars,
of flowers, butterflies and the lies;
I run from the orphanage of women
Who yield kindness and tearfulness

to where I can make my own seasons,
winds, forests and falcons
and demagnetizes my compass needle that leads
only to the directions of you …

2.

When met
the gypsy inside me suddenly wakes
from long slumber of social oppressions.

Nature had spoken,
her delicious river beckons:
‘Come and learn how to swim,’

breathe and your lungs filled with air.

And the wind assures:
‘I am the voice of the unexplored Continents,’

do you miss travelling there……

The Sun declares:
‘Avail the wisdom of birds,’

residing in the nest, a transient ritual.
Only aviation is the absolute truth.

 

The final poem included in this selection comes from Sue Spencer, a former Senior Lecturer of Nursing, now fighting hard to marry her writing and good health together. I think this poem illustrates well the lengths a woman has to go to in order to be true to herself, to be authentic at the same time as changing the world around her. Check out Sue’s blog, https://kindandcurious.wordpress.com/

Finding the path

by Sue Spencer

She thought that to be a trail blazer
you had to create an indelible course,
burning signs into the landscape.

Now she knows that the route
can be determined by subtle,
almost imperceptible chips in the bark.

The way ahead will then be there
for those that know what to look for,
those who can notice nuanced clues.

That way the tribe can grow slowly
and also they will get there in their own time.

 

Women Without Face
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Sunday, 06 March 2016 11:11

Be Someone

in Poetry
Written by

Be Someone

For Christ’s sake,
learn to type
and have something
to fall back on.

Be someone,
make something of yourself,
look at Gertrudo Ganley.

Always draw the curtains
when the lights are on.

Have nothing to do
with the Shantalla gang,
get yourself a right man
with a Humber Sceptre.

For Christ’s sake
wash your neck
before going into God’s house.

Learn to speak properly,
always pronounce your ings.
Never smoke on the street,
don’t be caught dead
in them shameful tight slacks,

spare the butter,
economise,

and for Christ’s sake
at all times,
watch your language.

from The Wake Forest Book of Irish Women’s Poetry.

A Bar at the Folies Bergere
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Sunday, 06 March 2016 10:37

Still Boiling: Two Poems for International Womens' Day

in Poetry
Written by

Knockout

Your gob packed a punch like a fist –
any opponent floored by a come-back.

Like Ali, your one-liners would float then sting
until you punched above your weight;

and were punched by my fist for your gob. Ali,
my girl, it’ s time to knuckle under –be a butterfly.

You talk gobshite, need a jab to stop your jabber.
You’re inside my ring now: I watch you twist it

around your third finger, trying to box clever
staying silent, but I know your twisted thinking

as you watch Countdown – other contenders’
way with words. Face it: you were never one.

But now you’re up and spitting blood,
saying, inside of a ring or out,

ain’t nothing wrong with going down.
It’s staying down that’s wrong. And I’m dumb.

 

Death Certificate, Burnt Oak

Dealing with the paperwork of dying,
the registrar looks dead bored, and, sighing,
he asks for my dad’s place and date of death
and birth, job, names, and last usual address.
As he writes it down, his signet ring gleams
on his little finger. He looks up, leans
towards my mother, and his pen is poised,
as he asks her, as wife of the deceased,
her name, and, at last, her occupation.
‘Housewife,’ she says. A hesitation,
he wrinkles his brow, and, again, he sighs,
taps his pen. ‘Is that all?’ ‘Yes,’ she replies,
and in her voice, there’ s no hint of recoil,
while I said nothing, but boiled. And still boil.

 

Death Certificate, Burnt Oak, was first published in the anthology The Book of Love and Loss.

Aberfan and the Free Wales Army
Sunday, 28 February 2016 12:40

Aberfan and the Free Wales Army

Written by
in Poetry

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster. The injustices that the bereaved families of Aberfan had to deal with on top of their grief were beyond belief. Deborah Price remembers how the Free Wales Army helped the families of Aberfan, and Mike Jenkins memorialises the disaster with a poem.

At 9.15am on the 21st October 1966, in a small mining village that quickly became known worldwide, ‘The Aberfan Disaster’ struck. The unsuspecting Pantglas Junior School pupils and staff were preparing for a normal day. Looming above them was Mynydd Merthyr, the National Coal Board's dumping ground. A deafening roar was heard by many, but there was no time to react. The landslide took out 20 houses and demolished Pantglas, quickly burying it in a debris of slurry and loose rock. Rescuers came from nearby villages to try and help the frantic parents, but to no avail. 144 lives were lost that day, of those 116 were children.

Who was responsible? The NCB of course. Did they have the decency to acknowledge their blame, to bow their heads in shame? That's not how those capitalists work. The raw pain visible on the families' faces packed no punches with those hard-nosed bosses. The NCB's Lord Robens' excuse was that there must have been 'Unknown Water Sources!' What a deceitful response, every map of the area showed natural underwater springs, many directly below the dumping ground. People who had grown up in Aberfan used to play in those once-clear and beautiful waters, when they were children.

The Wilson government found the NCB guilty, but the price they placed on each small head was just £500. The indignity of it! Worldwide, people were less insensitive, donations poured in daily and a trust fund was set up. But another insult ensued. The bereaved families were not thought to be competent enough to distribute the funds. An initial committee was selected with not one person from Aberfan included. The grieving families were outraged. The villagers took it upon themselves to form a Parents and Residents' Association, and their solicitors eventually persuaded bureaucrats to include five representatives from Aberfan. The ten officials who were not from Aberfan accepted highly paid salaries from the fund.

Tensions were running high, applications to the fund were complicated and the Aberfan people were proud. The complacency those families had to deal with was unacceptable, something had to be done. Perversely the barrister in charge was now installed in the newly built offices at Merthyr Town Hall, paid for by The Aberfan Disaster Fund. A demand for £150,000 for clearance of the tips was also paid to the government and the NCB, 'to make the area safe,' they claimed.

The journalist, John Summers, was disturbed by the residents' plight and out of desperation contacted the Free Wales Army. When The FWA heard of the miscarriage of justice, they knew they had to take action. The fact that the families had had to pay for their own children's funerals was abhorrent, whilst using the fund to pay for the clearance of the tips was just another insufferable smack in the face to all of those families who were experiencing enough pain already. They vowed to challenge the authoritarian figures in charge of releasing monies from the fund and make sure that the bereaved families received what they were entitled to.

Dennis Coslett and David Bonar Thomas met with The Aberfan Residents' Committee to discuss immediate action. The following day a press conference was called, the venue was The Morlais Castle public house. More than fifty Free Wales Army representatives, dressed in their uniforms, marched through Merthyr High Street. Flags flying, white eagles adorned their berets, as they proudly sang their battle hymn:

“Behold the Red Dragon Flag,
Is floating across the silver sea,
And the soul of Wales is crying,
In the very heart of me.

Crying Justice, Crying Vengeance,
Pray my sons for strength anew,
For the many that’ll be dying,
At the falling of the dew...

They issued forth an ultimatum to be printed by the many newspapers present:

£5000 must be paid to each family within one week or let the consequences be on your heads. Our first action will be to bomb The Town Hall where the Disaster Fund Committee sits. Next the acting solicitor, then the treasury if we must. If all that fails we'll blow up The County Government Offices and then The Government Offices in Cardiff.

The money came forth within a matter of days. As a result, a memorial for those who died could be erected. The families of Aberfan had waited almost a year for this money. The following was printed in The Daily Telegraph magazine on 6th October 1967:

Families of the 116 dead children are to get £5,000 each, but the rest of the huge Aberfan disaster fund sits at Merthyr Tydfil, where the man who launched it says: ‘Even when all the survivors are dead, still most of the fund will be unspent. Then it will go to the Exchequer.’

The fund was growing fast, there was over £1,800,000, but people were saying that the money was being used to give Merthyr Tydfil a facelift!

Why did the government pay out so quickly after the intervention of the FWA? Well, prior to 1967, the Free Wales Army had been linked to a bombing that took place in the Clwedog valley in March 1966. A forage cap dropped in the area with their emblem on it had thrown suspicion upon them, but nothing had ever been proved. However, the incident had resulted in them being under the surveillance of the Regional Crime Squad.

Further suspicious activities in 1967 saw rumours that the FWA had formed an umbrella group with The Patriotic Front. The Anti-Investiture Front were planning some kind of destructive action in relation to Prince Charles's investiture, which was to be held in Caernarfon in July 1969. This information led to an emergency meeting at Buckingham Palace, which included members of both the Home Office and the Welsh Office. There was sufficient information to treat this as a serious potential threat. Members of the FWA were aware of the government's suspicions and the fact that as a group they were now
considered to be a real menace to public order in Wales.

On the 17th November 1967 the FWA did blow up the Temple of Peace in Cardiff, where an all-Wales conference of Lord Mayors was due to take place. Princess Margaret would have been present. The bomb went off at four in the morning. At 11am the dignitaries arrived and were confronted with a wrecked building.

The following is a quote from Denis Coslett, who was at the forefront of the FWA:

“I think one of the proudest moments in my life was to see those people,
at Aberfan, having that bit of cash. It wasn’t the money for itself they wanted. Their
grief couldn’t be soothed by money. It was just the recognition that it was their children who had paid the price – and no one else!”

Denis was presented with a watch by the parents' association for his help. Fred Gray, who was a leading member of the association, and lost a child himself, had this to say:

“If it wasn’t for the FWA the families would never have received a penny.”

The repayment of the money, in 1997, came about after the opening of public records under the 30 year rule. Iain McLean wrote several newspaper features about the behaviour of the NCB, the Ministry of Power, the Welsh Office, and the failure of the Heath government to hold anybody responsible for the disaster. He sent an article to Ron Davies, in May 1997, looking for the £150,000 to be repaid to the still extant Aberfan Memorial Trust, which maintains the cemetery and the memorial garden on the site of Pantglas Junior School.

The injustices that the bereaved families of Aberfan had to deal with on top of their grief were beyond belief.

 

He loved light, freedom and animals

by Mike Jenkins

No grave could contain him.
He will always be young
in the classroom
waving an answer
like a greeting.

Buried alive –
alive he is by a river
skimming stones down
the path of the sun.

When the tumour on the hillside
burst and the black blood
of coal drowned him,
he ran forever,
with his sheepdog leaping
for sticks, tumbling together
in windblown abandon.

I gulp back tears
because of a notion of manliness.
After the October rain
the slag-heap sagged
its greedy belly.
He drew a picture of a wren
his favourite bird for frailty
and determination. His eyes gleamed
as gorse-flowers do now
above the village.

His scream was stopped in mid-flight.
Black and blemished
by the hills sickness
he must have been,
like a child collier, dragged
out of one of Bute’s mines.

There he is, climbing a tree,
mimicking an ape, calling out names
at classmates. Laughs springing
down the slope: my wife hears them,
ears attuned as a ewe’s in lambing
and I try to foster the inscription,
away from its stubborn stone.

Neptune's Staff
Thursday, 25 February 2016 17:44

Neptune's Staff

Written by
in Poetry

Many-headed monster
encased in thick dark metal
as it sails the silent seas
its existence an outrage
a deep immorality
fathomless in ignorance
and the thought of replacing
this monster with another
more gruesome than ever
as the oceans rise
and refugees flee
and hungry children cry out
seems to stink to high heaven
that can only rebuke us
and say it may cost us
the earth.

 

            Stop Trident March and Rally 12 noon, Saturday 27 February, London, see www.cnduk.org

Two Poems by William Rowe
Monday, 15 February 2016 22:44

Two Poems by William Rowe

Written by
in Poetry

the sound of pigs falling

the sound of pigs falling
has fallen out of words
///dear dead///
some next-level revolution coming
cancels your silence
punching holes in the name of things
which body
from our bodies fall
the people armed
never be
mystical dreams
in other words
exceeds
its representation
poetry is a virus
mutating
right in
front
of your face

 

index

there’s someone
whose need is reversed

the air is full
of the cries of men and women
signals
expunged unexpunged

the air is his book

chained to the morning
already cast early sky ribs
the same thing rising

nothing is missing

Carpetright
Post Office
Boots
JD Sports
O2
Currys
Argos
PC World
Comet
H&M
HMV
Haringey Magistrate’s Court
Haringey Shopping Centre
Gay’s the Word
Aldi
H&M
JD Sports
Fire engine
Fire engine
Carphone Warehouse
T-Mobile
Design Studio
Fire engine
JD Sports
Argos
MacDonalds
W H Smith
Blockbuster
Tesco
Tottenham Hotspur Football Club
Kelmscott Secondary School
Dalston Kingsland Centre
Bus and police cars
Foot Locker
Halfords
Currys
Police Car
Sainsbury’s
Police car
Valens Jewellers
Ozcam Jewellers
JD Sports
Sainsbury’s
Savers
Foot Locker
Carphone Warehouse
Evans Cycles
Jamie’s Italian
Currys
Halfords
Brazas Restaurant National Express bus
Sony Distribution Centre
Palisades Shopping Centre
Bullring Shopping Centre
Pure Gym
Tesco
Addidas
Ealing Broadway Station
Tottenham Centre Retail Park
Jessops
Game
Police car
JD Sports
Argos
Harveys
Mothercare
JD Sports
Debenhams
Burger King
Ladbrokes
Bus
Argos
Betfred
Sainsbury’s
Topshop
Argos
O2
Carphone Warehouse
Phone 4U
Cash Converters
Foot Locker
Boots
Barclays
The Ledbury
MacDonalds
Reading Angling Centre
Greggs
Cyber Candy
Richer Sounds
Money Shop
Diesel
Bang & Olafsen
Swarovski
Tesco Express
Bromley South Station
Argos
Primark
Arndale Centre
Foot Asylum
Bargain Booze
Miss Selfridge
Square Peg Pub
Orange
Reeves
T-Mobile
Austin Reed
Jessops
MacDonald’s
Thomas Sabo
Admiral Street Police Station
Tesco Express
Jamaica Inn
Cabot Circus Shopping Centre
Gas main
Vodafone
Clarence Convenience Store
Clarks
Primark
H Pollock
Salford Shopping City
3 Mobile
Ugg
Meadows Police Station
Job Centre
Macro
Great Harry Pub
Coral
Sainsburys
Life
Canning Circus Police Station
Marks & Spencer
Orange
Patisserie Valerie
Kro Bar
Café Nero
Burton
Pretty Green
Picadilly Museums
Wimpy
Charles Dance Jewellers
No1 Pizza
House of Fraser
JD Sports
Liver Launderette
Belal’s Newsagent
ASDA
ASDA
Bloc Inc
Jessops

something strictly unnameable
happens to the image of suffering
and what this has to do with riot
by previously existing criminals
political and final stone

A Poetics of Struggle: An Introduction to the Poetry of William Rowe
Monday, 15 February 2016 22:26

A Poetics of Struggle: An Introduction to the Poetry of William Rowe

Written by
in Poetry

Steve Willey introduces the 'poetics of negative energy' in two poems of William Rowe, the sound of pigs falling and index, published above.

at the end
of each line
poetry
agitates
inside its own
silence
its all silent pain
force gathers
cusps
it names / what can
no longer be said
of what we have
forgotten
we can’t say

William Rowe’s poetry is a poetry of struggle. It points out and to the limits of expression, not as a confession of personal inadequacy, false modesty, or as a transcendence of reality or even the mediating necessity of speech, but as part of a social, collective endeavour to locate the limits and the impoverishments of now so that they might be negated.

If ‘the sound of pigs falling / has fallen out of words’ (for ‘words’ read language/ for ‘pigs’ read police) then in what direction should we turn our ears so that we may hear this sound, a sound that would signal the falling away of the law, its police-language and its bodies, both institutional and physical? This is one of the questions that Rowe’s essential book of poetry Nation (Knives Forks and Spoons, 2nd edn. 2016) implicitly opens with. Trying to answer this question is what made me want to slice at the words of my own introduction.

Rowe’s poetry does indeed agitate / inside its own / silence. In the white space at the end / of each line there is a poetry of negative energy that wants to press the poem through to a different reality. Not forward in time towards a promise of utopian future, but in ‘other words’, as a disc punched from a two dimensional paper surface spinning down through its three dimensions to ‘some next-level’ where the silence of the dead (addressed by the poem but never represented) might be cancelled. This is not metaphor. This is description.

How many pieces of paper have been used to record, ignore or silence the names of the dead (for silence read the Chilcot Inquiry)? How many pieces of paper are used to send and keep someone in jail? Despite our digital age paper still plays a role in the bureaucracy of state-sanctioned silence. Rowe’s poetry is nothing like this. It wants new relations between bodies and language. At the end of ‘the sound of pigs falling’ are the lines ‘poetry is a virus/ mutating/ right in/ front/ of your face’. It is difficult to disagree. The poem enters us through our eyes which brings our reading body into direct relation with its viral shifting strains, the bodies it struggles to name and provoke: dead bodies; institutional bodies; police bodies; animal bodies; falling bodies; armed bodies; dreaming bodies. This poetry is a construction of new collective forms in the midst of a hostile, nostalgic alphabet, which is Rowe’s definition of ‘nation’.

Rowe’s six-page poem ‘index’ is doing similar work. In a recent and useful review of the poem on Stride Magazine ‘index’ is criticized for its ‘unimaginative’ use of a list of retail outlets and street names to comment on ‘the soulless homogeny of zero-hours commercialism’. It is also reprimanded for its misspelling of shop names which suggests to the critic that the ‘retail landscape’ has been ‘registered second hand’. I suspect Rowe is less interested in using the list form to comment on anything as nameable as the injustice of the zero hour contract, and is much more interested in the name as name, and in what happens to these names in the process of their accumulation. ‘Wimpy’ is a name for suffering. ‘House of Fraser’ is a name for suffering. ‘JD Sports’ is a name for suffering. ‘Jessops’ is a name for suffering. ‘Vodaphone’ is a name for suffering. This poem is an index of suffering, and as the poem notes ‘nothing is missing’, except perhaps a full, direct account of suffering.

Would a more ‘imaginative technique’ be better equipped to find a name to help us recognise the pain these words produce, contain and conceal? These names are scars. They don’t deserve to be spelled correctly. The stupid, sickening boredom of the list is their form, and it has been carefully conceived. It is notable, for example, that commercial enterprises are not the only things indexed. The ‘Job Centre’, a ‘National Express bus’, a ‘Police car’, a ‘Fire engine’, ‘Kelmscott Secondary School’ and ‘Admiral Street Police Station’ also make it onto the list. These are things that were looted or burnt during the riots of August 2011.

It is no accident then that Rowe places the camera retailer ‘Jessops’ at the end of his list. The riot was received and contested through its images as well as produced on the streets. But what does it mean to loot a name? What is the language of the riot? Can the riot redeem an unnameable experience of suffering? I don’t know the answers to these questions but they are ones that ‘index’ and the rest of Nation demand we look up.
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