Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Mark Strand: 'A Piece of the Storm'

Snowflake-018 by yellowcloud. Used under Creative Commons license

American (Canadian-born) poet Mark Strand, who among other honours won a Pulitzer and served as the US Poet Laureate, died in November 2014. I was certainly somewhat familiar with his work at this point, but I'm now not sure if it was before or after his death that I read the poem 'A Piece of the Storm'. I think it may have been not long before.

Something reminded me of this poem today and I can't remember what it was. Or maybe it's not a case of remembering. It may have been the snow that isn't falling from the sky and hasn't fallen all winter, here in London. Maybe it was the snow that most certainly fell on the Eastern seaboard. Or it could be the feeling that a poem seems to be nudging at me, waiting to be created.

I loved this poem the first time I read it and I know I will never forget it. The poem itself is like the snowflake, the piece of the storm. It could be about "the lifting and falling away of attention" that sometimes - even much later - leads to artistic creation. It could be about an announcement of divine revelation, a vision of the future. It could be about the tiny moments, the tiny fragments that lead to an enormous change - "It's time. The air is ready. The sky has an opening" - like a Rilkeian "you must change your life." Or it could be, in its plainest form, about the moments before a storm. It is any and all of these, and probably a perfect poem.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Sidney Keyes: 'Remember Your Lovers'

John William Waterhouse, La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1893)

This January I've been caught up with getting back to work, then running off to ski in Italy, and all the life things. I hope to be a serious-ish blogger again soon.

In the meantime, here's a finely wrought, moving and ominous poem from Sidney Keyes. He was 18 when he wrote this - apparently in an exam room, having finished the paper early.


Young men walking the open streets
Of death's republic, remember your lovers.

When you foresaw with vision prescient
The planet pain rising across your sky
We fused your sight in our soft burning beauty:
We laid you down in meadows drunk with cowslips
And led you in the ways of our bright city.
Young men who wander death's vague meadows,
Remember your lovers who gave you more than flowers.

When truth came prying like a surgeon's knife
Among the delicate movements of your brain
We called your spirit from its narrow den
And kissed your courage back to meet the blade - 
Our anaesthetic beauty saved you then.
Young men whose sickness death has cured at last,
Remember your lovers and covet their disease.

When you woke grave-chilled at midnight
To pace the pavement of your bitter dream
We brought you back to bed and brought you home
From the dark antechamber of desire
Into our lust as warm as candle-flame.
Young men who lie in the carven beds of death,
Remember your lovers who gave you more than dreams.

From the sun sheltering your careless head
Or from the painted devil your quick eye,
We led you out of terror tenderly
And fooled you into peace with our soft words
And gave you all we had and let you die.
Young men drunk with death's unquenchable wisdom,
Remember your lovers who gave you more than love.

                                                                             October 1940.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

'Sherlock': A BBC Sherlock Poem

'Dancing Men' from the 2015 Sherlock Holmes exhibition at the Museum of London. Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd

Messrs Cumberbatch and Freeman are just about to return to our screens as Sherlock and John, although this time around they will really be 'Holmes and Watson', in a one-off Victorian episode. I'm looking forward to seeing whether they can come close to the greats - Jeremy Brett, David Burke and Edward Hardwicke.

I've been writing poetry about Sherlock Holmes this year - inspired by many different aspects of the stories and the different portrayals over the years - and a few of the poems were published. So to end the year, here's another poem, this one based on the Cumberbatch/Freeman modern-day series.


after BBC Sherlock

Sherlock's mouth is a typewriter: he's spinning out the tale to the sharp end of his breath.

He'll cut and make it neat with his cheekbones.

Sherlock is downloading your brain to his hard drive.
He is uninterested in your heart, except when it threatens to break the machine, your soul.

Sherlock's pale eyes have narrowed to tiny keyholes.
He may have to kill you, but he will look so good while doing it.

Sherlock is talking to a skull, but he may talk to you if you stick around.
He's the mind of this city, but you keep him from the fall with your words, your light.

 © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2015

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Keith Douglas: 'On a Return From Egypt'

Keith Douglas


To stand here in the wings of Europe
disheartened, I have come away
from the sick land where in the sun lay
the gentle sloe-eyed murderers
of themselves, exquisites under a curse;
here to exercise my depleted fury.

For the heart is a coal, growing colder
when jewelled cerulean seas change
into grey rocks, grey water-fringe,
sea and sky altering like a cloth
till colour and sheen are gone both:
cold is an opiate of the soldier.

And all my endeavours are unlucky explorers
come back, abandoning the expedition;
the specimens, the lilies of ambition
still spring in their climate, still unpicked:
but time, time is all I lacked
to find them, as the great collectors before me.

The next month, then, is a window
and with a crash I'll split the glass.
Behind it stands one I must kiss,
person of love or death
a person or a wraith,
I fear what I shall find.

                                          [? March-April 1944]

'On a Return From Egypt' was published in Poetry (London) in December 1944, six months after Keith Douglas died in Normandy. It appears to be the last poem he wrote, or at least the last surviving poem. At the time he was in England awaiting D-Day and the Normandy campaign. He was to die three days after D-Day, on 9 June 1944.

'On a Return From Egypt' isn't a perfectly finished poem but - unfortunately - it stands as quite a fitting swan song for Douglas. It reprises and sums up many of the images which haunted him and which recur. He had already written about 'the wings of Europe' in the sweeping but very unfinished 'Actors Waiting in the Wings of Europe', and the restless, ambiguous movement of the sea appears again and again in poems such as 'The Marvel' and 'Song'. It is, of course, also about his death.

The really heartbreaking thing about this poem is when Douglas writes about the failure of his endeavours and the end of his time. One wonders what he meant by 'All my endeavours are unlucky explorers'. He had certainly achieved success in poetry and in the military, but perhaps these are not what he wanted. He may have been thinking of his failed romances. Douglas was a restless soul and many people much older and apparently wiser than him don't really know what they want, either. The image of the explorers 'abandoning the expedition' is extremely powerful and the poem really turns on the third stanza. It also reminded me of this quote from Isaac Newton, in both its seeking nature and its innocence: "To myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."

The final stanza also returns to some of his primary concerns - the ambiguous figures, the two sides of a window, a door or a mirror and the passage through. There is a harshly exposed quality to "I fear what I shall find" which helps to make this last word by a very young and gifted poet unforgettable. It's not a perfect piece of work, but it is powerful and utterly real.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Favourite 2015 Collections: Kim Moore, Sean O'Brien, Dan O'Brien

I'm pretty sure I've said before that I'm not much for end-of-the-year lists (I like reading other people's lists, but I'm not that excited about compiling my own.) However, I wanted to give a quick rundown of my three favourite new collections of 2015.

Kim Moore, The Art of Falling (Seren). Kim Moore's poems have both a lightness and a strength to them which is very appealing. They are personal and deeply rooted in her own family and community connections ('My People', 'A Psalm for the Scaffolders') but many of them also have a movingly timeless quality. The centre of this collection is the cycle 'How I Abandoned My Body To His Keeping' which is a spectacular sequence of poems about an abusive relationship. In poems such as 'He Was the Forgotten Thing' and 'On Eyes', the elements of such a relationship are depicted with images that seem to arise from an archetypal place, conveying the physical and emotional pain undergone by the speaker on a very deep level. You can read the poem 'How I Abandoned My Body to His Keeping' here, on Josephine Corcoran's And Other Poems blog/e-zine.

Sean O'Brien, The Beautiful Librarians (Picador). Sean O'Brien's poems live in the company of such great poets as Philip Larkin and WH Auden, but I prefer his wry, loving, sometimes sardonic depictions of British society in poems such as 'Another Country' and 'The Beautiful Librarians'. His poetry has a very strong sense of place but it also breaks the boundaries of place, and his England represents much more than just one country. I was blown away by 'The Lost of England', an epic, reflective, self-deprecating train journey. Sean O'Brien is the kind of poet I don't find often enough in contemporary poetry - really technically assured in a classic way, but also thought-provoking and funny at the same time. You can read the poem 'The Beautiful Librarians' here.

Dan O'Brien, New Life (CB Editions). This collection is a sequel to the 2013 collection War Reporter, and my only caveat is that you should probably read War Reporter first and then New Life - but do read both. New Life carries on Dan O'Brien's unusual collaboration with the war correspondent Paul Watson. This poetry blurs the lines between non-fiction and poetry - it's a dizzying film-reel of the poet's thoughts, the war reporter's thoughts, emails and phone calls, and the nagging sense that the poet and the war reporter are not only two different people, but also aspects of the same person. War Reporter started with the terrible consequences of Paul Watson's photo of the dead American soldier in Mogadishu in 1993, and ricocheted through many other countries and wars. New Life spends time in Syria and the other countries affected by the Arab Spring, but it also explores O'Brien's personal life, Watson's view of the discovery of Franklin's ship Terror in the Canadian Arctic, and many other stories. New Life, like War Reporter, is often graphic and a difficult read, but I found both collections extraordinarily powerful and quite unique in contemporary poetry. New Life is probably my pick for collection of the year. You can read the poem 'The War Reporter Paul Watson and the Room Across the Hall' here, again on And Other Poems.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Ishion Hutchinson: Honoring the Light

Sunset at Sandals, Negril by Gail Frederick. Used under Creative Commons license

I've been reading Jamaican poet Ishion Hutchinson for a couple of years. His first collection, Far District (Peepal Tree Press, 2010) is certainly one of my favourite poetry books of recent years. His sonically gorgeous poems often have a surreal reach, but they are also grounded in places which are sensory, sensual and real-world.

I wouldn't call Ishion Hutchinson's work especially similar to that of the great poet of St Lucia, Derek Walcott, but in this Paris Review interview I came across this, which I'd already been thinking of both poets.

Interviewer: In an interview for the Virginia Quarterly Review, you asked Derek Walcott, "What would you regard as your greatest strength as a poet?" That was a hard question - he said at first he couldn't tell. Do you have an answer yourself?

IH: Derek did answer eventually, and his response is spectacular, he said "I think there are lots of times when I have maybe caught the light in certain passages...the Caribbean light at sunrise and sunset." My answer is, I would hope, in my own way I have honored the same light.

I haven't yet visited the Caribbean - the closest I have been is the Caribbean Sea side of Mexico (the Yucatan Peninsula). But when I read both of these these extraordinarily visual poets, I know that I am seeing the Caribbean light.

I recommend Ishion Hutchinson very, very highly. I hope to write more about him at some point, but in the meantime, here are links to two of his poems I've especially enjoyed. There are many others available to read online.

THUNDER IN APRIL (Ishion Hutchinson)

HOMAGE: VALLEJO (Ishion Hutchinson)

Sunday, 13 December 2015

New Poems Published and 2015 Readings

Norwich, November 2015. Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd

I recently had a couple of new poems published. One of these, 'Beekeeper', appears in the Mexico City-based The Ofi Press and you can read it here:

The other poem, 'Seventeen Steps', appears in Issue 10 of Lighthouse, a journal focusing on new writing by up-and-coming writers - and ah, the rarer delight of being published in print! You can purchase a copy of this issue here:

Both of these recent publications have been poems about (or inspired by) Sherlock Holmes. If this is starting to look like a theme, that's because it is a theme. Watch this space.

Another recently lovely thing was appearing on the list of the Best UK Poetry Blogs of 2015 at Matthew Stewart's highly regarded poetry blog Rogue Strands. You can find me in very good company here, with many other blogs that I would recommend:

Finally, here's a list of the poetry readings I gave/took part in this year. I have a couple at least coming up in 2016, which I think will be another good poetry year.

  • June - London: reading at Red Cross Garden as a poet-in-residence for the London Open Garden Squares Weekend
  • July - Cambridge: reading at The Missing Slate anthology launch event, at the Judith E Wilson Studio
  • September - London: reading at Red Cross Garden for their annual Flower & Vegetable Show
  • October - London: reading with The Quiet Compere at the Hackney Attic
  • November - Norwich: reading at the Lighthouse launch event at the Bicycle Shop

I hope that all poets, audiences and readers had as wonderful a year as possible. 

Sunday, 29 November 2015

A Vision: Keith Douglas and 'Desert Flowers'

Keith Douglas in North Africa during World War II

DESERT FLOWERS (Keith Douglas)

Living in a wide landscape are the flowers - 
Rosenberg I only repeat what you were saying - 
the shell and the hawk every hour
are slaying men and jerboas, slaying

the mind: but the body can fill
the hungry flowers and the dogs who cry words
at nights, the most hostile things of all.
But that is not new. Each time the night discards

draperies on the eyes and leaves the mind awake
I look each side of the door of sleep
for the little coin it will take
to buy the secret I shall not keep.

I see men as trees suffering
or confound the detail and the horizon.
Lay the coin on my tongue and I will sing
of what the others never set eyes on.

                         [? El Ballah, General Hospital, 1943]

I have a habit of relating poems of the past to current events, Sometimes it's the whole poem, sometimes just a phrase. Sometimes I'm sure it's a bit of a leap. But when I do it, it always feels true. And surely the capacity to stand outside time, but within patterns and feelings, is one sign of a great poem.

I started thinking about 'Desert Flowers' again in the wake of the November 13 attacks in Paris. There is so much about this poem that cuts both ways, or all must be the most delphic of all his poems. Flowers are left to remember the dead, for comfort; but in this poem of the Western Desert Campaign in World War II, they are also "the hungry flowers", devouring the body (perhaps the flowers of artillery fire?).

I wonder very much what Douglas was thinking of when he wrote this poem. It makes me think of concepts such as trauma, the reach and limitations of insight, and what we can learn from the dead. Partly because Douglas was still so young when he died, I tend to feel that he was often writing on a subconscious level that he was consciously not able to fully understand. In other words, he wanted to convey something journalistic and real, and his poems did that, but they were also much deeper than he realised. To a certain extent this happens with all good poetry and poets, but Douglas's poems have always seemed to me to have a real core depth, especially for a young writer.

Throughout the poem Douglas seems to be looking for, or invoking, other voices. In the second line he calls on Isaac Rosenberg, the great World War I poet. If you read Rosenberg's great poems, you will find similarities in their approaches - both poets strove for accuracy and detachment, not romanticism. The parallels between the natural world and the human world are harsh and striking: 'the shell and the hawk every hour/are slaying men and jerboas' - and then Douglas adds 'slaying/the mind'. This is where trauma enters the picture for me. The speaker is a man who cannot fully cope with what he is experiencing; this is one reason for detachment. The pressure on his mind, even the threat of mental death, is too much.

There is a hermetic quality to this poem, and 'the secret I shall not keep' is one of the most mysterious images of all. Is it poetry? Is it the ability to transcend the horrors that humanity witnessed in the World Wars, and that it keeps witnessing? The striving after vision in this poem is intense - incredibly intense, almost desperate. As close as he may get to the truth, Douglas suggests, his vision will be imperfect. Here, with 'I see men as trees suffering', Douglas makes reference to the account of Jesus healing the blind man at Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-25). When the man's vision was at first partially restored, before a complete restoration, he said 'I see people, but they look like trees walking about' (Mark 8:24, New World Translation; 'I see men as trees, walking', King James Version). 'I see men as trees suffering' is also a blurred vision, but a terrible one, and wholly evocative of the horror and confusion of the battlefield - or even an act of terrorism. It's the moment after the bomb-blast.

The last two lines, as often in Douglas's poetry, seem to look onwards to his own death. The coin, which has already appeared earlier in the poem, here becomes a clear symbol of passage to the land of the dead, when laid on the speaker's tongue: Charon's obol, or the payment for the ferryman who took the dead across the river Styx.

Strangely, though, Douglas also suggests that this coin will open his mouth, or allow him to speak (or sing). How is this possible if he is dead? I see nothing in the poem to suggest that he is writing about ghostly visitations. I think that Douglas may be saying that when he is dead, his words will have a deeper meaning that they couldn't have in his life. They will become a vision that no one else could have had. And in a sense this is true: we perceive his poems differently because he died so young, in a great war, and perhaps those facts have given his poems deeper meaning and significance. This is how the dead can speak to us, in a manner amplified by their deaths.

This is perhaps where and why I thought of the poem in relation to the terrible events of recent weeks. It is a tragic fact that the dead can be transfigured by their deaths. They take on a meaning that they never had in life. Depending on the manner of their death, others (such as politicians) may also try to give them a meaning that those people would not have asked for or desired in life. And the sad thing is that although the dead speak to us in this way, living humans do not learn the lessons.