Members Poems 2006

Winter issue

Theme: Foreign Cities
Judge: Tobias Hill
Many reminiscences and anecdotes here, and only a few (always fewer than the anecdotist imagines) worth repeating to a stranger. 'Fragments' was a word that came up in a dozen entries and generally this was a signal that the poet's own impulse was fragmented, unsure of where to go next or where to end up. Several otherwise interesting poems found themselves with nothing left to say when they got to their endings, or else sold themselves too cheaply in over-emphatic final stanzas. The precious few stood out from the rest like red on a holly. Brian Docherty's 'Walk/Don't Walk' and Mike Horwood's 'Yet More Foreign Cities' I liked for their wit, Caroline Gilfillan's 'The Painter' for the potency of its metaphor, Frances Green's 'Your New York' for its deceptively easy narrative pace. Finally, I liked Alison Jesson's poems, the good and simple 'Balcony in Hanoi' and my favourite, 'Foreigner', which, in little more than a sonnet's length, turns on its volta like a dangerous little mechanism.

Frances Green

 

It's not a place I know – deterred

by imaginings: extravagant right-angles,

outsize sticklebrick

landscapes,

fretworks of fire-escapes departing

a maddening iron-clad maze,

lives compressed at the bottom of

deep, dark siren-tidal streets...

I could go on but it is possible

I have things out of proportion.

 

So, is it also possible that such gigantic

geometric warp and weft can be

unpicked, made homespun?

Because you don't talk about size at all.

Your New York is a place of friends and

familiar navigation: about turning right

onto a sunny sidewalk fresh

from a red-walled drawing-room

toward tonight's restaurant; looking upward

to golden gardens on evening rooftops,

planning another easy tomorrow.

 

And I suppose this is how any city

seeps into the blood, gradually

dissolving its largest claims

into close experiences, building itself

into memories. So if I go, may I

borrow one as my own beginnings?

Forgive me if I take your walk from

East 77th to the Metropolitan Museum of Art;

understand if I look to glimpse

a small blue china hippopotamus, favourite

last of its ancient kind that you

liberated from their gift-shop.

He will be waiting quite certainly –

at one of those right-angles

expecting to be followed –

for another knowing to begin.

 


 

 

Alison Jesson

Whether it is the slap-slap of sandalled feet

of women who bear baskets of dragon fruit,

 

or the creak of bicycles carrying bundles

of greens and limes to market,

 

the road outside my window never sleeps.

Pale apricot sun diffuses morning mist

 

as motor cycles weave through blaring horns,

laden with chickens or pigs, dried fish or fridges.

 

Rickshaw-drivers lounge, waiting to pedal

tourists down other dusty streets.

 

In noon heat, a dog pants in the shadows

and laughing schoolgirls ride past like slender storks.

 

At dusk, families gather round pavement cook pots,

share noodle soup, and talk

 

of dollars, Hondas, mobile phones,

farmers who sell paddy fields for factories.  

 


Caroline Gilfillan
The Painter

 

Mopping his face, the painter accepts

vodka, pickles, speckled sausage.

Climbs the stairs to prop his easel

in four windowfuls of light, where he

 

sits, paint sluggish on palette,

drugged by syrup slip of birdsong,

watching nurse maids shoosh prams

like black sows up and down the road.

 

This man in smock and scarlet cravat

can't know that Warsaw will be drilled

to stumps, that the villa will swallow

families shorn to bone, dragging

 

in hand-carts a grandmother's table, a trunk,

bentwood chairs skittered down a staircase,

a set of engraved herbata glasses

knotted in a scarf with shaking fingers.

 

This man with turpentine tickling his nose

can't know that a husband and wife will remain

in their single room, the children dispersed,

the woman in overall and wrinkled socks,

 

the man thick-fisted, hitched to braces,

rasping the path with a twig broom,

staring as we curse the mosquitoes. Brag about

amber, silver. Plan cheap flights home.


Brian Docherty
WALK / DON'T WALK

 

Travel books are always out of date.

Even if the time lag wasn't inherent.

the writer's Rome, Paris, Sydney,

wouldn't be yours, your snapshots

would never match the glossy illusions

anchoring the book's version of Abroad

 

Once your Student Guide To Wherever,

your Rough Guide or Lonely Planet,

is over five years old, or you get married,

the places described become as fictional

as Isaac Asimov or childhood memories,

not to be confused with any real world.

 

Take your memories, favourite books or films

with you as head luggage, buy a local map,

find the local freesheet, treat lunch as adventure,

remember the traffic is not the wrong way round

and speak s l o w l y, LOUDLY, and clearly.

Welcome to English as a foreign language.

 

You will act like a novice computer user,

Are You Sure You Want To Do This

the implicit or explicit response on buses,

in bars, museums, the hotel dining room.

Breaches of local etiquette may mean

'Englishman' is translated as 'mad dog'.

 

Practice interpreting the local currency

in case they don't speak American Express,

and master the art of tipping naturally,

but if you misread maps & guide books,

wander into a 'scruffy to rotten district',

if you are lucky it will resemble Dalston.

 


 

Mike Horwood
Yet More Foreign Cities

"Nobody wants any more poems about foreign cities..." – quoted by Charles Tomlinson as epigraph to More Foreign Cities

 

... and then there was Kilpisjärvi,

mentioned by few poets, and visited

by even fewer heads of state,

ambassadors to the U.N.

and other assorted foreign dignitaries

whose dignity is legendary in

 

Kilpisjärvi. Where sometimes the sun

doesn't set, where I once met a man with a parrot for a pet,

who explained over several whiskies

that this parrot could talk, and what it said

amounted to this, 'Krii-ard-ak-wot'.

 

He waxed eloquent over this phrase,

who was eloquent in nothing else.

 

It's not every day, nor in every city,

that one meets a man taught to talk

by a parrot.

 


Alison Jesson
Foreigner

 

In the dead hours before dinner she lies inert,

waiting to retie her shoes and stumble

back into the city in search of food.

She has cricked her neck to gaze at Gaudi's curves

followed the guide book, chapter and verse,

lit candles for saints, sent cards

and whiled away minutes in corner cafés,

watching other tourists watching her.

 

She looked through beggars,

avoided back streets, spoke to no one

as she trailed over the surface missing the colours.

The map of her lies neatly folded on the bed.

It shows well-kept avenues with tasteful façades

empty churches, childless parks,

and a maze of dark, uneven lanes,

uncharted, unexplored

 

 


 

 Spring issue

Theme: Neighbours
Judge: Mimi Khalvati
You'd think we had nothing better to do than sit watching our neighbours all day, judging by the number of lace curtains, walls, fences and gardens I've looked through and over. But here are the poems I was looking for – making of neighbours as fresh a theme as any I could imagine. 

Matt Barnard (two poems)
The Gift

Why? We don't know you, though we hear
the rapid knocking of your voice through the wall,
 
and see you walking silently up the High Road
ushering a gaggle of grandchildren before you,
 
Maharani on an elephant swaying through the jungle.
Sometimes, you even raise an enigmatic smile,
 
then carry on, your tumeric yellow sari swinging
beneath a three-quarter-length grey raincoat.
 
And then, one day, for no reason, a guttural eh eh eh
and your hand over the trellis with a margarine tub
 
and a warm plastic bag. This first, then more,
white grub-shaped things, sweetmeats, grey-green sauces
 
that taste hot-cold, sweet-sour, spicy-dry, so many
tastes outside the language of our mouths. Now
 
to explain this: our reciprocation, banana-bread
taken with a look of utter, utter bewilderment. 
 

The Sore Thumb

 

When the water in the bay is flat, and clouds 
    come off the Table
like chimney smoke, we walk along the shore

and up through fields of grasses, and find ourselves 
    near his place,
so white it seems the stone is newly cut.

The breeze there drives the midges away, 
    and the outer isles,
dark bergs from the shore, become the map's 

archipelago. I've heard talk, at wakes and christenings, 
    of a nod and a wink,
that someone knew someone on town planning

subcommittee. These days we see strangers here, 
    German businessmen
who want to try the island life, who smile and wave

at us. But mostly the windows are shuttered 
    and the washing line
is free to glint and clink against its posts.

Last week, though, we caught a rare glimpse 
    on the path down
to the beach. We spotted him in the distance,

his cagoule whipping in the wind, his bald head 
    flashing like a gull's,
and as we passed he paused, and turned

his hopeful face towards us before someone said 
    something appropriate,
that we might slide by as by doe-eyed cattle

at the water's edge, that raise their heads, 
    but never seem to low.

This poem won the 2006 Hamish Canham Poetry Prize


Mark Godley
HD 188753 Ab

A new word for a new world,
for once avoiding dead gods
or anything safely curled
 
cosily in on itself.
Perhaps an everyday noun
at random, like 'machine', 'shelf',
 
'window'? Even that won't stop
the word worriers. What we need
is a clean name that'll drop
 
on us like new kinds of rain.
I leave it to you to choose,
but let it come without strain. 
 

 

Lynne Hjelmgaard 
The Farm

Waking up to a sticking-out horse head happily.
The closeness of his animal body, the neighing and whole
brown beauty of him framed against the barn yard wall.
I cannot tell you the colour of his eyes and when I do think
shepherd he is but a vague shadow beneath a darkened
window standing guard beside his bizarre dog. (One time it
barked at my open door and cowered before me in a
submissive pose). The farm's owners are active participants.
She has her ponies, he has the town hall. Yesterday's
dilemma was water. Village currents turn between bliss-
fully peaceful (the chapel's graveyard, church on Sundays, teas
with the postman) and edgy discomfort (the demonic
thatched cottage which once locked me in its bathroom. I
pounded and pounded until released by my husband who was in
the front yard smoking a cigar). I am a tentative
guest. This hamlet, inhale it, forgive it its bleakness. The
Green – from there I heard a loud humming past midnight. I am
sure a lamb can be many things. (A llama with a bad
back, a goat with black ears, a hairless dog in heat). We're on
the lookout for sheep heads stuck in barbed wire. Will they stay
there till they die? They part like a river when we cross the
fields. A checkerboard patch – one brown, one harvested, one
dark green. Cypress trees line the road backed by hills. Chiming
bells are soft enough to be heard and fade step by step. I hear
galloping hooves, no destination, running manically
back and forth. Oh I fit wonderfully into this frame.


John Weston
Fabliau (or Loony Tunes at the Beijing Opera)



If a man make a better mousetrap than his neighbour, the world will beat a path to his door – Emerson

Our neighbourhood cook Lao Wang was a kind of saint –
arriving every morning on his bicycle
at the moon-gate, with soft felt slippers
and brows arched like the Monkey King, bringing
the spirit of human kindness into our courtyard,
and pretending not to hear the street loudspeaker
parrot its endless hymn to the Great Helmsman.
 
When violence forced us out of the hu-t'ung quarter
to a modern compound, he asked to lodge with us
his pet canary, for fear it would not survive
Red Guard thugs purging the old customs.
If I played my 12-inch record of Mei Lan-fang
keening the tan falsetto from Scattering Flowers,
he'd lean against the door-jamb in a trance.
 
His attitude to mice was not 'St Francis'
but fetched them all the same. On the kitchen floor
he'd anchor a raw sliver of bacon under
an egg-shell balancing on its open edge and
propping the rim of an inverted pudding basin
so the least nibble-tug brought down the trap:
with a squeeze his fist would empty little lungs.
 
Old stray Ginger, who should have been his ally,
mistook one night (catching him dazzled by England's
'66 World Cup game on our cine-projector)
and was all but clean away with the bamboo cage,
until the canary's wild cadenza rose
like a voice from Breaking the Siege.
As the cat succumbed
to a needle penalty shot, Lao Wang cried "Hao!"
 
Hao – the Chinese audience's "Bravo" for a phrase well sung or agesture well executed.

Marianne Burton
Tuesday, April, 1800


Missing C. Poor C.
How I worry about his bowels.
I sobbed when he left.
'Nervous blubbing' W. called it.
 
Baked small loaves, giblet pie,
sat on wall and sewed shifts.
W. up by sheepfold, then wasted
his mind on the magazines.
Mary H. rode over. She looked
very fat and well. Fed her parkin.
W.'s head bad when she left
so I petted him on the carpet.
 
After dinner W. and I walked,
to Rydale, Butterlip How,
Rothay Bridge. Moonlight silver
as mackerel shoal on hill.
 
All in all, a sweet day. Wild flowers 4,
LBs copied 5, pretty prospects 3,
beggars 3, fits of tears 1 (good),
letters from C. 0 (bad).



Summer issue

Theme: Elephants
Judge: Adrian Mitchell

I'd just chosen my six favourite poems when eight year-old Lola called me: "Grandpa, I've found some Elephant Jokes". (We both love elephants, especially the Sultan's Elephant which we stalked through the streets of London.) The best was, Q: "How does an Elephant get down from a tree?" A: "He sits on a leaf and waits for Autumn".

A. C. Clarke
Eliphibian

 
What if the small black dot in the heart of the glop –
which even on tadpole terms seems unlikely to prosper
left out high and all but dry on the hillside
like a troubling child – were to bud in all directions:
the bulbous head blossoming two ears
lavish as palm-heads, the tail springing a tassel,
the folds at the edge of the mouth thrusting out tushes
the snout uncurling a trunk thick as liana
and as the bulk of the thing heaved to its feet
stepping out of discarded frills of jelly
it let loose out of that pink-tipped, pliant bassoon
triumphant blasts as its great feet quivered the grass.
Suppose it twice the size of anything seen
in our diminished days, as if the bones
of a mastodon uncovered on a beach
by the wash of tides were to take new flesh, its hide smooth as
butter, green and glistening as olives...
What if this new-spawned wonder, scattering sheep,
thudded down to the small white tourist town
turning all heads from tea-towels printed with doggerel,
tartan teapots, pottery seals –
the nemesis that all had been vaguely expecting
there in the car park stuffing shrubs into its maw
before it waddled off to give the loch
its newest monster – its wash capsizing small boats
tethered alongside the pier. Cameras clicking:
no-one knowing in the slightest what else to do.

 


Emma Danes
Parenting class

Like the six blind men arguing
over the appearance of an elephant
none of them has seen, we debate
the nature of the child. A dozen women,
arranged across a polite restraint
of carpet, shielded from the subject
 
of discussion by suction-sealed doors
and clinker-built blinds. As though any of us
could see beyond our knowledge of ears, say,
 
or knees of this fictional whole child,
or accept we all are right, and how wrong.
We may as well stop here, I want to say,
 
allow children to be elephants:
unfretted on the wide day, calling
each other beneath the huge arch of the sky.

 


 

Carol Beadle
Dust rises, dust falls

 
The bleak swing of the matriarch's trunk
shocks them. Daughters approach,
surge through mosquitoes,
pace a lament between femur
and scapula, nuzzle the skull
with its family smell,
as if to send love
into death. Then, enough.
 
They sway like galleons into the dusk,
churning up insects snatched
by a wake of birds. Bark consoles them,
water-scent lures them,
cool ways of mud sluiced over shoulders.
Mangoes ripen, the sky grows old.
Dust rises, dust falls.

 


 

 

Kate Sealey-Rahman
Don't tell me elephants can't dance

The elephant that sat, unmentioned, in the far
corner of my uncle's living room,
was not grey, or white (as these creatures sometimes are),
 
it did not brood – fogging up the windows
with thickly exhaled gloom –
rather, it waltzed. On gaily painted toes,
 
it skirted round the usual chat –
traffic, rain, mumbled enquiries as to
the lodger's health – then rumbaed back,
 
until, one afternoon, grown weary with the merry
dance, it stretched its polished trunk straight through
the open door, and waved, in all its rainbow majesty.

 

Rob A. Mackenzie
ZOO



She is only three, yet she has touched
an elephant, something I have never done.
 
She touched the elephant because of me.
I sent her to the nursery, signed
the consent form for the zoo trip.
She knows nothing of this.
 
"The skin", she says, "is rough" – a new word
parroted from someone else,
now a studied is of her elephant. Later she tells me
it was smooth.
 
"Was the elephant warm?" I ask. "The elephant
is warm", she answers,
as if the question and answer mean anything
beyond the experience itself
and its memory – the touch of elephant, the friction
of skin on skin – which I cannot share.
 
To catch up, to be the father
she needs, I can imagine one day, for her,
raising my head before a lion's mouth,
unless handing her a kitten will do.


Matt Barnard
Hey Presto!

When I was a kid
my dad made me animals
from plywood, orange-juice cartons
and the odd old sock.
 
They seemed to appear by magic
like the man who appeared
after a certain time of night,
muttering and smelling of Laphroaig.
 
All through those years
the animals came
until, one day,
I woke to find an elephant
at the foot of the bed
 
shifting his weight from side to side,
and curling his trunk like an ammonite.


Autumn issue

Theme: Identity
Judge: Eleanor Cooke
In a bulging postbag, more than 200 poems looked for an identity – something to distinguish them from the rest – on the subjects of life, labels, love, death, Alzheimer's, and lots of stories. These six fastened in my mind (along with a few more that I'd liked to have included).

Diana Brodie
Otherwise Known

My room feels crowded, stuffy,
and I open windows wide.
The tallest officer stands close
as he stares out at my garden.
He asks the names of flowers
and trees: Sophora, walnut,
sweet chestnut. He points
to the flame-coloured flowers
pressed against the wall –
Fritillaria imperialis, I reply,
otherwise known as crown imperials.
 
It seems someone has died, alone,
whose name I have never heard.
And in another continent.
I do not know, I say.
No relative of mine.
I hope you trace his family,
he had a sister, did you say?
They thank me for my time, drive off.
 
Left on my own, I know. I know.
I pick up the phone, call them,
tell them that I know. I know.

Pippa Little
Unsent Letter Fragment, Document Number 19055437, February 17, 1948, Museum of Immigration

...Franz, I've sewn all your old endearments
Into each and every stitch,
My fingers talking in comfortable rhythm
As the needle moves along the seam, in out, in out.
We're murmuring together as we used to do,
Safe behind the streaming glass
This past month of evenings –
How it rains here! Sly northern rain,
Sometimes I've felt it washing me away
As if I'm made of sandstone.
But no! I'm flesh and blood!
So your Lotte looks like a woman once again
Who might wish to dance or smoke or kiss,
High-stepping in strap heels, swathed
In five yards of damsons, strawberries and limes –
There was a little cloth left over, Franz.
It's in my suitcase, which still smells of home
When I first lift its lid, stranded up here
In the chilly altitudes of my English wardrobe.
It wraps the poems I can never read – you know.
And the stone you found me that last day by the lake,
The pure zigzag quartz in it you said
Looked like mountain ice trapped inside.
I add another year to those without you,
Each one added to my mound
Of mourning stones. And there are stones
In each pocket of this foreign dress.

 


 

Stephen Wilson
Names


London, 1954

On Fridays just before sunset,
mother lit candles for the Sabbath.
We thanked the King of the Universe
for the fruit of the vine, the gift
of bread from the earth, the beauty
of the day coming in like a bride.
At sunrise we woke to a stillness,
washed and reminded ourselves
there was only one God –
begged that our lips be opened,
our mouths declare His praise.
Clad in our best for synagogue
we walked the three-quarter mile,
my father's trilby, my school-cap
raised in unison to ladies passing by.
A silk tallith draped over his shoulders
like the stole on a ball-gown,
Rabbi Rabinovitz unfurled the scrolls,
a silver finger pointing the way –
parchment teaming with tiny black fauna,
each one with a pop-star's quiff:
,dal eht otnu dnah yht htrof hcterts ton oD
.mih otnu mrah yna uoht od rehtien
After the service I ran home through the playing fields of Gladstone Park,
passing ruffians calling – Jew, Jew-boy.

Allison McVety
Portrait

 
My father carried his mother through Yugoslavia
and Greece. Stitched into the lining of his coat
 
and against regulations, she kept him company
through the days he hid in back rooms and under stairs;
 
suckled him on nights huddled in churchyards,
with only the chatter of his pad and key. He folded her
 
into his wallet, where she was rubbed by the grub of pound
notes, discharge papers, a thank-you letter
 
from General Tito. Around her neck, in miniature,
her brother, on a row of cultured pearls: his face
 
crimped by the crease of leather. His eyes show no hint
of my mother, though he has her lips. He is his pre-gassed,
 
pre-shot self. And I am the daughter of cousins, a woman
with no children. I think of losing her in a crowd, slipping her
 
into someone's jacket, an open bag, that sagging pocket
on the train, for her to live another life, our line travelling on.

Sarah Westcott
First Days

I left you at the nursery,
pink-eyed with fisted hands.
 
You blinked at other baby's wails,
lips curled on the cusp of a scream.
 
They lay you in a velour chair,
bobbed fleecy shapes across your face.
 
I rode towards a leaden Thames.
The office glared from yellow eyes.
 
I forgot to log-on, lost my pass.
Under the new suit my breasts wept milk.
 
When I got you home and kissed your neck
we were both already someone else.

Michael Swan
Outside

Good, sometimes
to go outside
and walk round yourself
looking in the windows.
 
There are lights blazing
in rooms you have never seen;
strangers dancing,
reading, quarrelling;
things going on you can scarcely credit.
 
Only
don't stay out too long.
They might change the locks.

 

 

Balcony in Hanoi
Your New York