Monday, 8 July 2019

Feeling Foxy - Four Fox Poems


 I was horrified to hear last week that the spectre of fox-hunting had resurfaced over British politics - dragged out of its 19th Century tomb by aptly-named Tory Leadership contender Jeremy Hunt, who had enthused to an audience of hundred-year-old party members about his hopes to overturn the 2004 Hunting Act (its self a lukewarm rule change rather than an outright "ban") and ressurect the discredited activity.  Interestingly, Hunt never bothered to attemp the old lies about conservation - he opted for the honest rationale of "tradition" and described the practise of riding to hounds as they rip a terrified animal to bits as "part of the heritage of the countryside." Presumably he also thinks that muggings and stabbings are part of the heritage of cities?
Predictably, Hunt  - like Theresa May in the 2017 General Election - has since backtracked, faced with an outcry from not only members of the public (85% of whom want hunting banned,including overwhelmingly in rural areas) but from his own party.  I did wonder if his statement had been calculated to gauge the risk such a policy might carry, or to leak votes to his stag-hunting opponent, whose owncampaign is partly funded by a fox-hunter, in a strategy designed to ensure a Boris Johnson premiership while maintaining the pretence of a democratic party contest ather than a coronation - indeed I took to social meda to accuse him of this latter step - but as time has gone by I've come to the conclusion that this expressed support for hunting was apparently genuine, a reminder that for all of their feigned preference for progressive politics, there are some people who are so detached from modern thinking that they and their communities really are just a Parliamentary vote away from dredging up the cruelties of the past and re-establishing a Britain that went out with chimney sweeps and child labour.
The whole disturbing episode prompted me to collect my various poems on the subject of foxes, which I have reproduced below. I have excluded poems in which foxes feature, but not as the "main" thematic focus.  Instead, all are fundamentally foxy poems, inspired by real life sightings of the animals.


MIDNIGHT FOX

Limbs dangle
lazy-elegant,
a raffish mooch,
each furry step slots promptly
into a moonlit loop -

in and out of lamplight,
smooth as a glob of honey
dissolving into coffee
the midnight searcher tries his luck among the backstreets -

East-end terraces tangle into criss-crossed  sprawl,
estaes expand into outgrown concrete crushes,
bottlenecking into pub backyards and warehouse forecourts,
deserted car-parks, scrubland, a grid of lanes where drinkers
straggle out of pubs, prostitutes cross paths, the urban wastelands
and a frosty Wanstead Flats, which veer into the spiderweb of sliproads
pre-empting the M11.
Turning down the High Road, into a block of buildings tightly tucked
into the bricked in ghetto of east London, I am startled by his stare:

Seeing me, his gait assumes rigidity,
a temporary tightening of muscles.
Frozen stiff, this stiffened frame
of burnt-oak,
this nameless midnight wanderer,
mammal of the alleyways,
once more slipped into a casual insouicance
shuffling into shadow.

What I caught last
was not the shapely outline, gingery tint or snow-fluff
tail-tip, as fox fleet-footed out of visibility
but, a souveinir from its shoot-back glance,
two amber eyes half answering,
half questioning.




URBAN FOX

Bullet of russet muscularity,
knee high and up to your eyes in dandelion,
most feline of your kind,
the always searching canid,
sinewy and taut,
prodigal child of the copse:
no sooner had you brushed against a fence
emerging from sedge as if to prove,
“I still exist,”
than the glimpse of you was gone—
a second’s shred in which to see that tail, ash- white copper-coalesced
trailing like a newly lit cigar.




SUBURBAN FOX

An unknown quantity, you flow like a tributary
trickling over stones out of the nettled backstreet -

after the deluge as if post-exile, ear-pricked stealthy shuffler
you trot in nonchalance but with half an eye to suss out danger cocked,
or as a compass in the search for sustenance.  You're a tilted glass of single malt,
a whisker of rural English charm in the urban incongruity of house-heavy east Leeds,
a shadow bleeding ginger on the blackboard of the night as squeezed between
the takeaways and parked-up cars,
you flip flop-footedly across a road which sparkles in the drizzle and on seeing me
nosedive behind a shed, displaying that quicksilver quirk of fight-or-flight survival
that has paved your way through centuries of persecution and will be needed
in this trap of fumes and concrete, cans and glass laid like tripwire
in the single enormous precinct all of England's become.




 EVENING FOX

Ginger plunge
into coppiced copse,
stabbing into bramble,
a whisk of fire singeing darkness
like a shot of almond syrup
in black coffee.

Your Jack-o-lantern crafty dance
sees you rop up in oak woods,
combing alleys behind takeaways,
Pulcinello of the suburbs;
combing cobbled streets
in late summer midnights,
wolf-shaped shadow,
crooked penny glinting in the moonlight.



Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Turn the Page Brontë evening, June 2019

Turn the Page is a bi-monthly spoken word event which takes place at The Book Corner (https://bookcornerhalifax.com/) in the Halifax Piece Hall, hosted by Katie Atkinson and Katie Ashwood, and this month, for the first time, the readings had a common theme, the Brontës. I had suggested this theme a few months ago, and attended with my camera to capture some images of the evening. The videos I took can be found on my Youtube channel -
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCz-mwhbWisTCpRKN335x4pA

 I have added below some of the defining images of the night.

 Co-host and Book Corner bookseller Katie Ashwood:


 Co-host Katie Atkinson, reading a poem by Laura Barnes:


Kevin Byrne of Beehive Poets, Bradford, entertains the troops:


Michael Greavy with one of his poems about the Brontës:








In thoughtful mood, Keiron Higgins delivers poetry by the Brontës :




 Kev Byrne in operatic pose:





 A few snapshots of Kevin's reading: 



 





We were joined by Lexi Tattersall, who performed her own song about Branwell Brontë, which she had written specially for the event:


Luella read a poem composed of lines from Wuthering Heights:


 



which was warmly appreciated by Lexi's dog:





As indeed were efforts by several other readers:



Michael Thornton paid homage to Branwell's chemically-prolific past with a tale of his own decadent youth - though with sherbet fountains as his poison:


While Oliver Standring approached the theme through heartfelt descriptions of the Haworth skyline and horizons, remembered from visiting the town with a loved one:
 
 

 


 And we were treated to  Nick Steel's observations of the Brontës' legacies - including his invitation for a drink with Branwell:




A few random shots from the evening:
















And the star of the show:





See more https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCz-mwhbWisTCpRKN335x4pA

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@BookCornerHX





Lustre and Lifelines - Victoria Gatehouse's The Mechanics of Love





















Victoria Gatehouse's second publication The Mechanics of Love (Smith Doorstop 2019), selected by Carol Anne Duffy as a Laureate's Choice publication, is a worthy successor to her 2018 debut Light After Light (Valley Press 2018), taking in a beguiling variety of subjects, from Sixth Form Science studies, to spiderwebs on wing mirrors, via death, dogs, and Darwin.  It also contains two worthy competiton winners - of the Otley Poetry Competition 2018, and the previous year's PENfro Competition.

And this will be no perfect union, the book begins, in a poem on the unlikely theme of Inosculation - the phenomenon, where two trees effectively grow into each other - but one born of abrasion.  
I first came acrossinosculation earlier this year, and have struggled to find a better description of it than in Victora Gatehouse's tenderly observed lines:

two trees
grown close enough to graze, to chafe
as they shift in the wind, their bark worn thin,

rubbed down to the gleam of the cambium,
the raw lustre of vascular tissue.

Pondering the possibilities of a meld / of cells, a wound healed to a rise and shine, the poem transfigures the trees into imagery of innocent intimacy:


Some call them marriage trees, some say these grafts
once fused and sealed, transmit disease
or claim the heartwood isn't touched , but once

I saw two beeches, interlocked,
initials scratched across the place they joined.


It is the first time I have encountered such a subject in a poem, and one which seems the perfect metaphor for a remedy of togetherness in these increasingly abrasive times.


Victoria Gatehouse is a scientist by profession, and - as in certain poems in her first book - this is responsble, however obliquely, for a number of poems and their backstories within The Mechanics of Love.  The context is not always pleasant - in Sixth Form Science Technician, we revisit a grotesque memory of  collecting pig's blood for inspection with a microscope - but the merging of a scientfic and poetic aspect is satisfyingly eloquent. Here, one of the crinkly paper "Fortune telle fishes" found in Christmas crackers - a barely-there wafer of cellophane / turning over on your lifeline - is described years later through adult eyes:

A scientist now, you could explain
that whisper-thin strip as hygroscopic-
swelling or receding with the level
of moisture in the skin, a material so light
it shapeshifts on a breath

But as with the opening poem, it is the poet in us which has the final say, as:

               ...lay
it on your palm, you'll find yourself wanting
to show you've still got it in you
to raise that Independent flag of a tail.

Even in poems like Ceiling, where the wallpaper of a teenage bedroom is recalled, it is words like stalactites and spiral galaxies which stand out, along with a nod to Dr Who. The worlds of science, zoology and nature again takes centre stage in poems like Web on the Wing Mirror, where:

The morning I drove to the hospital
hedges glimmered and a web,

silver-beaded, spanned the wing-mirror,
a spider crouched tight on the edge. 

The poet imagine the spider grafting all night - constructing the scaffolding and reflects how:

I drove so carefully that day-
slowing each time the wind

forced her silk to billow, to bend
and she hung on in there. 

 

 Another driving poem is the unsettling Indian Blue Peacocks for Sale, prompted by an advert scrawled on sawn-off chipboard seen while driving.  I'd quite like to ring and ask if that's for a chick, the poet says, or a full-grown bird.  The poem, written in a somewhat breathless, stream-of-consciousness style, is both a challenge to the unethical practises of commodotizing animals:


didn't I read
that peacocks need space    more than can be found
in sunless back yards 

and a dig at Darwin, imagining:

how Darwin would turn away sickened
by the thought of females having the power to shape
these tails 

In fairness to Charles Darwin, my understanding of his feeling "sickened" at the sight of peacock feathers (quoted above the poem) was primarily related to his unease at how the beautiful but apparently unnecessary peacock feather appeared to contradict his theory of Natural Selection - and he did, indeed, go on to solve the puzzle, framing the feather as a perfect example of the burgeoning idea of Sexual Selection, but the subject at least provides a platform for some of the poet's most exhillerating, ironic imagery:

imagine how
musters of them might dust-bathe in gutters  roost
on the cold shoulders of pylons    act out their quivering
deep-blue rituals in the piss-reek of alleys of city estates 
creech and signal from the bonnets of parked cars

Meanwhile, another natural subject brings the poet's thoughts closer to home, as  

I watched pale shreds
form a mezzanine above the reservoir,
thought back to the time we abandoned
the car, took the path across the moors,

the hum of the motorway 
receding with each step until we found
the perfect place for a blanket
and afterwards, your hand in ine,
as we slept, a glaze of heather at our backs.


The poem again touches on relations between science and personal understanding, which emerges as a salient theme interwoven throughout this deeply felt collection - most notably in the titular poem, where It ticks me to sleep / the titanium valve in your heart. 

Describing how:

When they opened you up,
hooked cannulised veins

to the heart-lung machine

the author treads a fine and poignant line between the coldly clinical and hard-hitting:

how bood streaked back

from ventricle to atrium,
more turbulent with every year

and the vitality and tenderness of human experience:

Now the deep red
chambers of your heart, secured

against the leak and tonight,
every night, in that pause

between beats - 
titanium, titanium


With its short two-line stanzas, the poem, second place in the Poetry on the Lake Silver Wyvern Competition 2017, evokes a sense of intimacy, but also of suspense, or the fragility and brevity of every moment, as our eyes dart for the next installment, like someone impatiently looking ahead, or or of a consciousness of the intertwining of events - like other poems in the book which deal with human binding in a medical context, The Mechanics of Love is told in a rolling style of verse, where each line - and each new stanza - is part of the same sentence as the one preceding, a moving metaphor for the "sealing" of a heart, and the joining of lives.

Pearl's Daughter takes as its inspiration the dive of an Ama woman / in Ago bay, bare backed and free / from the compressed weight of oxygen is visualized.  The poet embraces the idea of diving for pearls:

Let me rise 
before dawn, join the women who make
dockyards tilt and dip with bamboo flares,
hair bound by tenugi, long knives slipped
into fundoshi at their hips. And let my strong toes
propel me down to thirty feet and my lngs
become the lungs of the sea, bronchioles streaming 
like weed, alveoli blown out to a coral-red bloom.

As with the spider's web, and newborn's cord - this wisp of a thing - / a twist of ochre, a garnet swirl,/  a swell of black, like a fossilised eye, which pulsed between us, bue-white / vigorous, the best I had to give, the poem is graced with images uniting the wider world with the familial:

if I'm to bear a daughter
let her swim before she can walk, let her hair
spread into a thousand salty whispers at her back,
let her pray to the glimmering eye of the shrine
for my return
 
concluding with the imploration:

let her body be a twist of flame the ocean can't douse.

The grandmother remembered for popping her deceased husbad's pills so that they wouldn't go to waste, the dog following his shadow, who is fixated on the moves / of his darker self, the husband, heart intact thanks to the workings of modern science - all these and more form a richly personal tapestry of family snapshots, natural observations, images of love, combining to intricately and beautifully illustrate the mechanics of love.


 




The Jewellery of Rain - The Twentieth Anniversary Year of Anne Micahels' Skin Divers


2019 marks the twentieth year anniversary of Canadian poet Anne Michael's collection Skin Divers (Bloomsbury 1999), a book which, ever since I first discovered it among the shelves of Armley Library in 2006, has enchanted me with its innovative use of imagery and language.  Of all its contents, it is the title poem which has always struck me as its finest. A kind of invocation to the nocturnal outdoors, partly a paean to physical love, partly a hymn to the elements, it shimmers in flowing free verse, setting its magical-realist scene as if within the theatrical circumference of a circus:

Under the big-top
of stars, cows drift
from enclosures, bellies brushing
the high grass, ready foor their heavy
festivities.  

We are soon given the first indication of water, as Lowland gleams like mica / in the rain.  It s a thoughtful, pregnant beginning, a hint of something about to happen; the circus imagery is furthered with the starlight soaking our shoes, as, of course, is the sense of wetness.

Remember, we are "under" the big-top, so the atmosphere is slightly claustrophobic, conditioning us for unfurling theme of intimacy.  So when the staright soaks our shoes, they really are soaking, not just damp. By the time we have gone through the seaweed field ... splashed by crows, we are positively wading!
 

The second stanza starts with personification:

Because the moon feels loved, she lets our eyes 
follow her across the field 

The sense of character digs in as the moon is feminized, and when "she" is seen stepping from her clothes, strewn milk glinting in furrows.  This is a seductive moon, playful and provocative, who, feeling loved ... loves to be looked at, swimming all night across the river.  The moon is proactive, and in charge. She is hypnotic touches things just by looking and touches everything into meaning.


Again we feel
how transparent the envelope
of the body; pushed through the door
of the world. To read what's inside
we hold each other
up to the light. We hold 
the ones we love or long
to be free of, carry them
into every night field, sit with them 
while cows slow as ships
barely move in the distance.
Rain dripping from the awning of stars.


These visions conjure thoughts of love:

Memory's heavy with the jewellery 
of rain, her skirt heavy with buds of mercury
congealing to ice on embroidered branches-
as she walks we hear the clacking surf
of those beautiful bones. Alrady love
so far beyond the body rocked only by way of the body.

This junction, about two thirds through, fuses physical with metaphysical, and avoids sounding too instructive by its loyalty to an ethereal tone:


Time is the alembic
that turns what we know
into mystery. Into air,
into the purple stain of sweetness.

This time, the drift between concrete and spiritual works in reverse: from air and mystery to the birch forest so thick / it glowsat night, smells that reach us / everywhere.  The sexual imagery is colourful - dark and fiery at the same time.
Next, we are sinking into wet / firmament (learning) to stay under, breathing through our skin.  The sex is so delicate, the scenery so deliciously wet, that when we find ourselves in ilver lamella, in rivers the colour of rain it feels a tropical rain, rain befiting of a moon who, in the poet's next sketch, traipses in bare feet, silk stockings left behind  / like pieces of river.

The stanzas are short, almost quipped, enabling an easy navigation - yet nowhere does the writing feel rushed.  There is no apparent structure, but this random style is suggestive of the seamless, loose and watery experience the poet expertly conveys. It is a iscelany of impressions, ostensibly independent forces - moon, stars, bodies, field - melding into a whole.


Skin Divers is a poem about unity, memory, the cleansing spirit of water.  At times it reminds me of John Burnside's Swimming in the Flood.  At other times, it reminds me of the REM song Nightswimming.

Waterworn, the body remembers like a floodplain, sentiment-laden
reclaims its self with every tide.

Note the "sediment"-like "sentiment, and the neat comparson between the skin's rejuvenation and the memory-like water.  There is more aquatic focus as reefs and cordilleras - gathering the word to bone.  Embracing its primal element, the body is at one with the spirit of the water.

It seems the world is governed by these two powerfu forces - water and memory - though as the lovers grow more liberated there is a kind of spring clean for the soul:

memory, browses the closet...

she wipes herhands on an apron stained with childhood, familiar smells
in her hair; rattles, pots and pans in the circadian kitchen

Memory drags possessions out on the lawn
moves slowly through wet grass.

This is about as conventionally recognizable as the poem's imagery becomes: there are few descriptions of practical objects - even the pots and pans could have been plucked out of Little Red Riding Hood or some other eerie fairy tale.

The circus offered fleetingly in the opening stanza appears to erupt at the poem's conclusion, but softly, passionately. As the lovers lurch slapped damp with mud and weeds, yet still warmly summer-steeped, we are treated to a sea-like sensation, as we:

roll over the edge into the deep field
rise from under rain from our shapes in wet grass.










Monday, 1 July 2019

Voices of the Dead - Poetry of Jewish Poet Nelly Sachs


I only recently discovered the work of German Jewish poet Nelly Sachs (1891 - 1970), but already much has struck a chord with me, not least as many of my own relatives were German Jewish, some perishing in the Holocaust, others, like Nelly Sachs, gaining safe passage to new countries.  I have been struck in particular by those poems translated by Michael Roloff, as published in Penguin Modern European Poets (1971).  Nelly Sachs, who won the 1966 Nobel Prize for Literature, produced a poetry redolent with the echoes of both large scale tragedy and personal loss.

The Ages of Night

The ages of night
are embedded in this amethyst
and an earlier intelligence of light
ignites the melancholy
which then still flowed 
and wept.

Your dying still shines
hard violet.

Infused with the imagery of bereavement, and an almost Kantian intuition, so many of Nelly Sach's short poems convey a tangible sense of loss against a timeless background moulded out of stone - seemingly symbolic of both the multilayered archeology of her people's past, and a foundational prehistory of the earth its self:

We stones
When you lift us
You lift the Foretime-
the Garden of Eden-
the knowledge of Adam and Eve
And the serpent's dust-eating seduction.

When you lifts us you lift
in your hand millions of memories
Which do not dissolve in blood
Like evening.
For we are memorial stones
Embracing all dying.

When someone throws us
He throws the Garden of Eden-
the wine of the stars-
The eye of the lovers and the betrayal-

When someone throws us in anger
He throws aeons of broken hearts
And silken butterflies.  

 
Born in Berlin in 1891, the young Leonie Sachs was the daughter of a rubber manufacturer and showed promise as a dancer, but was educated at home on account of her frail health.  The family's life was turned upside down with the emergence of the Nazis, with the young poet losing the power of speech - as recalled in a later poem: When the terror came / I fell dumb. In fact, Nelly Sachsmay not have lived at all if not for the inervention of the Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf, with whom she had begun a correspondence.  It was due to the latter's appeal to the Swedish royal family that Sachs and her mother were granted pasage to the country, a week before they were due to be sent to a concentration camp.
Nelly Sachs arrived in Sweden on the last flight from Nazi Germany, and lived for many years in a two-room apartment in Stockholm, where she cared for her mother, paying ther way through writing translations.  Her wartime experiences would precipitate several periods of mental ill health, and stays in mental hospitals, but between the late 1940's and her death in 1970, she would produce a quantity of acclaimed plays and poetry collections in which the plight of her people were, at times acutely painfully, embodied and explored:

We, the rescued,
The nooses wound four our necks still dangle
befoore us in the blue air-
Hourglasses still fill with our dripping blood.
We, the rescued,
The worms of fear still feed on us.
Our constellation is buried in dust.
We, the rescued,
Beg you:
Show us your sun, but gradually.

In poems like If I Only Knew, the impact of the macro-political  and the communal scars of a people are condensed into the micro-personal:

If I only knewOn what your last look has rested.
was it a stone that had drunk
So many last looks that they fell
Blindly upon its blindness?

Or was it earth,
Enough to fill a shoe,
And black already
With so much parting
And with so much killing.

In his Penguin Modern European Poets Introduction, Stephen Spender has explained how: 'Shoe' signifies those shoes, thousands of which the visitor still sees collected at Auschwitz, the shoes in which children and adults come to the camps and which were collected from them before they entered the gas chambers, the shoes that walked across the desert, the shoe that carried Jews from their contemporary world into theuniverse of their history.

The poet portrays the suffering of 20th Century Jews in the context of their history:

But who emptied your shoes Of sand
When you had to get up, to die?
The sand which Israel gathered,
Its nomad sand?

and speaks to them as from the ancestral past:

O my children,
Death has run through your hearts
As through a vineyard-
Painted Israel red on all the walls of the world.

What shall be the end of the little holiness
Which still dwells in my sand?
The voices of the dead
Speak through reed pipes of seclusion.


Although becoming a Swedish citizen - her possessions were donated on her death to the country's National Library - Nelly Sachs wrote that "I represent the tragedy of the Jewish people," and such was the scale of this tragedy within her own lifetime that its effects would inevitably come not merely to influence, but largely to define, the themes and spirit of her work.  Spender goes on:

The idea of the deaths of millions of people being a subject for poetry threatens a tradition in which tragedy concentrates on the suffering of one symbolic, exalted victim - the crucified hero - with whom audience or readers identify and in whom they recognize their own sense of what is terrible.  For there to be tens of thousands of tragic heroes would be to submerge Oedipus, Hamlet and Lear in massive anonymity; and the anonymous victim is, in Western tradition, no subject for tragedy.  

Perhaps the above is one reason why, though diverting from Adorno's injunction that "After Auschwitz there can be no poetry," the responses of European poets to the Holocaust tended, in the decades immediately following, to be metaphorical, to frame the subject in descriptions of objects, or to focus on liminal and fleeting imagery. The poetry of Nelly Sachs is no exception to this tendency:

The sick butterfly
will soon learn again of the sea-
This stone
with the fly's inscription
gave itself into my hand -

I hold instead of a homeland
the metamorphosis of the world-

 and also turns her gaze on the lingering and resurgent Antisemitism of the post-war years:

Why the black answer of hate
to your existence, Israel?

Certainly, there is beauty to be found in the work of Nelly Sachs:

The Swan

Nothing 
above the waters
and at once on the flick of an eye
is suspended
swanlike geometry
rooted in water
vining up
and bowed again
swallowing dust
and measuring the universe
with air


and the elegiac quality of her poetry is as acute when reflecting on personal loss as on the trauma of a people, as evidenced by these lines named after the Biblical Job, and in memory of the poet's father:

O you windrose of agonies!
Swept by primordial storms
always in other directions of inclemency;
even your South is called loneliness.
Where you stand is the navel of pain.

Your eyes have sunk deep into your skull 
like cave dves which the hunter
fetches blindly at night.
Your voice has gone dumb,
having too often asked why.

Your voice has joined the worms and fishes.
Job, you have cried through all vigils
but one day the constellation of your blood
shall make all rising suns blanch. 




Ultimately, the political turbulence and murderous racism by which the poet's life was so inhuanly interrupted would be the pivot upon which the bulk of her subsequent material would be directed, and it is hard to see the output and legacy of this unique writer, whose visionary tendencies were tarnished by an inescapable familiarity with the trials and tragedies of her age.
In recent times, it has been fashionable to present the poetry of war and tragedy in saccharine or hopeful manner, projecting its progenitors as emblematic survivors, and evidence of beauty among the wreckage. For all the good this may do, it also - when misapplied - serves to blunt brutal realities, especially when the carnage desribed is of an increasingly dim-remembered past, and at a time when the past and continued struggles of the Jewish people are, being minimised, or revised. No such optimism pervades the poetry of Nelly Sachs. Instead, the main body of her work is a living document of the pains of a people, and the ugly lessons of their history.

O the chimneys
On the ingeniously devised habitations of death
When Israel’s body drifted as smoke
Through the air –
Was welcomed by a star, a chimney sweep,
A star that turned black
Or was it a ray of the sun?


O the chimneys!
Freedomway for Jeremiah and Job's dust –
Who devised you and laid stone upon stone
The path of smoke for refugees?

O the habitations of death
Invitingly appointed
For the host who used to be the guest –
O you fingers
Laying the threshold
Like a knife between life and death –

O you chimneys
O you fingers
And Israel’s body as smoke through the air!


Monday, 27 May 2019

Writer's Block - Struggling Under the Cloud of Corbyn

Since June 2017, I have felt disconnected from the UK poetry scene. My own area is becoming more extreme politically, and this is often reflected in the poetry arena. At one time I simply tolerated all political expression in the name of free speech, but over the last couple of years it's got to the stage where the world of open mics and readings feels a one-sided environment, so I don't enjoy many events and tend to stay away.

On the morning of 9th June 2017, I am dumbfounded that so many British voters have chosen to endorse a party led by a man who had befriended terrorists, and whose political machine is engineered by self-confessed Stalinists. I know that many did so in spite of Jeremy Corbyn, some individual candidates having even gone so far as to have disowned their party leader.  But more of a kick in the stomach is the endless reel of triumphant social media posts from friends, many from within the world of poetry, celebrating Labour's almost-victory and citing Corbyn as their reason for voting - splashing grinning selfies, or, worse, supposedly profound philosophical quotes and statements in celebration of their hero's unexpected surge.  Friends who had previously scoffed at the Labour Party's current brand of politics have become, stretched on the unrelenting rack of peer pressure, devoted fans.

Over the succeeding months, swathes of society, including many people who had seemed middle-of-the-road, grow increasingly commited to the Hard Left, and are seemingly indifferent to the alienation of the Jewish community.  Trying to agree to differ, I find myself frozen out by several Corbyn Converts, my reservations met with derision.  An editor ceases to reply to my letters. My observations on online groups are met with scorn. A poet I know produces a tweet mocking concerns over Corbyn's stance on terrorists. Other poets use Theresa May's decision to unite with the DUP as a platform for suggesting fears over Corbyn's friendships with terrorists are unfounded, as if professional cooperation, born of political necessity, with a hard right but democratically legitimate political party is comparable to an obscure backbencher going out of his way to invite rabid Jew-haters who impose the death penalty for homosexuality, and whose publicly, proudly, expressed wish is the obliteration of "the Jews," and the world's only Jewish state, to Parliament. All of this is done with apparent sincerity and moral certitude.
At a reading in late 2017, the conversation between poems turns to Antisemitism in the Labour Party - specifially, how news of this might be dismissed as mere smears.  When I offer my own view, I am greeted by a sour expression, a tut, and an abrupt turn away, my words too true, and the truths I offer too disturbing to the ears of one octogenarian Corbynite, indisposed to hear a single word of criticism levelled at the Dear Leader.

Slowly, the poetry circuit grows more and more homogenous in its Corbynmania. A book is published in his honour.  Mild-eyed, allotmenteering Guardian readers, and quaint former-fencesitters, now explode with gushing admiration for the Magic Grandpa, while the more media-savvy post pictures of Corbyn riding unicorns, or mocked up as a Star Wars hero. One poet I once worked with posts that Corbyn is "a groovy Socialist grandad." Some take to Twitter, where they post foul-mouthed blasts of support; others hear my concerns with thinly veiled boredom. At a reading in Manchester, a man whines out a badly written poem dripping in cliche, and seeming to last for about three and a half hours, devoted to lionizing Corbyn in rhyming couplets; his party are routinely praised at open mics.  Often I try to pluck up the courage to redress the balance and deliver some counterblast against, say, Corbyn's denial of the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, or his being paid by the Iranian regime which hangs men for the "crime" of being gay.  Instead, I sink into my seat time after time, and swish a flat drink around my glass. Never one to avoid a poet's work due to their politics, I nonetheless find myself less and less interested in the products of any brain fixated on such a divisive crusade as that being wrought by Corbyn and his fanatical associates - including those who encourage violence against politicians with whom they disagree. Not wishing to deflate anybody else's free expression, I let the saccharine sycophancy wash over me, again and again, until finally I have enough and, not wanting to be associated with it, bow out of the scene.

I hear of similar problems overseas. A poet in los Angeles tells me how, at reading after reading, multiple poets will stand up and rubbish the idea of Antisemitism - alleging that in today's society it no longer exists, accusing those who suffer it of fabrication. I have stopped appearing at poetry readings, she says.  Safety must come first.  I agree - but the tragedy is as symbolic as it is personal.  And it is a story I have heard again and again, in different variations.  As extremism increases, across the world of poetry, good, valuable voices are being slowly lost, as, like some demented gardener, the tide of political purity goes weeding out the differently opinionated, the diverse, the Jewish. I think back to events I've attended over the previous few years, where comperes literally called for those of particular political persuasions to leave, or when I sat in shock as speakers urged the audience to boycott specific venues or events because people performing there have previously appeared in Israel. Such racism is no longer restricted to dodgy pubs and dark chatrooms.  It has been given implied license via the rise of Corbyn's mob, and shows no sign of abating.

Absence can dull the sting of disaffection, and after a year or so of restricted activity, due in no small part to a wish for privacy following the loss of my father, I make short strides back into my former hinterlands. Attempting to recalibrate my poetic ventures, I head onto social media, creating facebook pages on which to promote the literary initiatives I have been quietly plotting. Briefly thinking of adding friends, I aim instinctively for the profiles of poets, only to discover a tidal wave of bile and unsubstantiated claims, all politically motivated, spewed on the pages of people I had previously liked, admired, trusted.  Some of the most alarming were:

Re-postings of discredited allegations about the funding of political parties - specifically, claiming that Change UK were being paid "by Israel."

A post rubbishing the apparent use of chemical weapons by Syria's President Assad, insisting that the impression of his wrongdoing might be regarded purely as an American plot.

Accusations that reports - and thousands of videos and photographs - of Venezualan protests agaist that country's autocratic, and Corbyn-supported, leader, were faked.

The assertion that Zionism goes against the tenets of Judaism - from someone with no connections to Jewishness or Judaism whatsoever.

Repetitions of proven lies about the Israeli-Palestinian issue, with at least one case of invoking the Blood Libel.

Around this time, I become aware of a push by the local Liberal Democrats to draw attention to a Labour councillor who has shared Holocaust-denying facebook posts, and others of a similarly stomach-churning nature, and find that this man is about to be invested as our area's Mayor. I contact the Lib Dems, and we re-boot their campaign, this time it is successful and the Labour Party rescind the Mayoral nomination (though retain the councillor's services and include him in promotional party videos), but on confiding in Corbyn-supporting poet friends, I find their response is a collective shrugging of the shoulders. Only one shows concern, and in all other cases I find that yet again the emails dry up, the texts disintegrate, the empathy is nonexistent.

I ought not to have been surpised at this cold-shouldering. Such people stood proudly by their leader throughout the scandal of Wreathgate - when he was pictured holding a commemorative wreath for Jew-killing terrorists - a revelation which would shake the foundations of any normal person's faith, but seemed to matter not a jot to the loud-mouthed marchers, student activists, self-satisfied poets, celebs desperate to be relevant, dated rock stars or even the achingly plain "everyday folk" who had flocked to worship at the Church of Corbyn, often without being able to articulate quite why.  I don't believe one should abandon strongly-held beliefs purely due to the attitudes of others. But for me, news of EU nationals attacked in London in the aftermath of the EU Referendum was a more than sufficient final straw to jolt me from my former pro-Leave stance. No matter the pro's and cons, I reasoned, no position on the EU is worth the causing, however inadvertent, of pain and fear to others.  I don't expect every Brexiteer to follow suit, but we ought at least to reflect on how the promotion of goals which seem innocent to us, might affect the lives and safety of others. Such considerations seem to play no part in the minds of Corbyn's fans.  We had only three months to choose a side in the Referendum.  They have had more thn three years to do due diligence on Corbyn. However, the first signs that the cult may have at last begun to crumble emerge this week, with poor reults for Labour in the European elections. No sooner has the Brexit penny begun to finally drop for them also, than some of those who had deified the curmudgeonly Corbyn as "the first politician I've ever believed in," are throwing their toys out of the pram, and can be seen today proclaiming online that "Corbyn Must Go!" and echoing half-hearted calls from some of the party leader's beleagured internal foes for a second Referendum. Predictably, the result is mounting venom, and the imminent internicine struggles are not going to be pretty, as thousands of embittered people begin to turn on one another, leaving the rest of us, who foresaw this grotesque eventuality years ago, bewildered and repelled.   

Meanwhile, my own position remains one of isolation.  The natural response to such political turmoil is political poetry, but I can't write this, and so spend hours staring blankly at the laptop screen, the days drifting by.  All enthusiasm for normal pleasures and interests is sucked out of me, and I am in the Calder Valley in body, but not in mind, or spirit.  Nor will any vestige of normality be miraculously resumed when Corbyn inevitably resigns.  To pin our discontent on the career of one individual is inaccurate and unfair: an entire new political culture has been created similar in part to its anti-Western Soviet forerunners but embodying also many new-fangled attributes born of support for violent movements, hatred for the state of Israel, intolerance of constructive criticism, and a willingness to throw inconvenient minorities under the bus in order to help their leader into Number 10.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

A Poem about Coughing

Currently suffering what I would gladly bet is the single worst sore throat ever endured in the entire history of humanity, I am taking refuge in a number of remedies, some old favourites, some kindly suggested by others, and trying to shake off the lag of lack of sleep, brought about by endless rounds of coughing.


At present my throat feels as if I had recently swallowed a bag of burning nails, and in the midst of these otolaryngological horrors, my mind is not especially attuned to the writing of poetry.  However, I have dug out an as-yet unpublished laryngeal lament from a year or so ago, dedicated not so much to the wider scourge of sore throats, but to the simple, old-fashioned cough.  It pretty much sums up all I have to say on this contentious subject, and I submit it below in solidarity with all others choking under the yoke of microbial misery:


COUGH

Scurrying hubbub
of rough, gritty bugs,
gruff grubs, bristle-barbed,
scraping chin's interior
with fluff-stuffed bushy brushes,
scratching skin and writhing
in a wriggling din of tickling -
noxious mob microbial!
Grisly gang, gut-tugging -
croak-provoking crew
of beserk bordotella,
and belligerent, beserker germs!


Bacterial brigade, withdraw your troops,
retreat into the recess of the throat's
dark tunnels, fade into a vortex
of syrups, dissolve like salt in snow -
most mendacious mouth-mauler,
irksome irritant, throbbing, throat-throttling thug - 

I've tried to be polite but look:
for pity's sake, just sling yer 'ook!