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‘Mixed Borders’ is a joint project by the Poetry School and the London Parks & Gardens Trust to place ‘poets in residence’ at a number of gardens during the Open Squares Weekend – 13/14 June 2015.

I liked the sound of this and opted into the project.  Some 17 spaces will be included, and all of us taking part attended a workshop day in April – where the project was described, gardens allocated, and various exercises undertaken.

As my space, I have been assigned St Dunstan-in-the-East, EC3.  This church, reckoned to be of pre-Conquest origin, had been rebuilt more than once, but was bombed during World War II.   Only the outer walls survive, together with its Wren tower.  The architect is said to have had great confidence in the strength and stability of this tower, and that seems to have been born out.

I hope to add further notes on my involvement with the project as it develops.

Tuesday 28 April.   Went for a preliminary look at the site.   It is tucked away between Eastcheap and Lower Thames Street.   The walls survive to full height, with the open stone tracery of the windows.  This makes the space at once open and enclosed.   There is plenty of ambient noise – traffic, building works – yet also a sense of seclusion, of detachment from all this.  There are half a dozen trees, one of them in blossom, a couple of palms; also a low-profile water feature, giving some focus.  Small areas of garden lie outside the walls, on the north and south sides.

It was lunchtime and there were some twenty people sitting in the April sun, sheltered from a chill breeze, eating rolls or boxed salads, checking phones, not many talking.

There appears to be a useable room at the foot of the tower, and a notice outside about the parish applying for a Faculty to make some alterations and change the use of this small indoor space.

Thursday 30 April.   Made contact with Louisa, from the City Corporation, who has some responsibility for the garden, and am meeting her there next week.

Later, at the Society of Genealogists, I found a copy of a speech, given in 1947 to the Friends of the City Churches, by the Revd. Arthur West, then Rector of St Dunstan’s.  He was taking issue with some new report and its ideas on how to make use of the sites of bombed churches like St Dunstan’s.  Offering his own solution, he says of such places –
“I would have them as ‘havens of rest’, beautifully kept with flowers and grass and trees; open spaces where aged citizens might ruminate pleasantly, workers take al fresco meals, and children fill their lungs with free air.”   I didn’t see any children, and may myself have been closest to ruminating elder, but otherwise that seems quite an accurate vision of how the space has come to be used, sixty years on.

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1st MAY 2015

Over the winter I have had two poems that have been successful in competitions.   For anyone who hasn’t seen them elsewhere, I thought I would reprint them here.

The first was one of the winners in the Poetry News quarterly competition for Poetry Society members’ work.   The theme was ‘Gold’, and the poems were judged by Kei Miller.   The theme was related to an exhibition at the Queens Gallery, and we were invited to read the winning poems at an even there in February.

The origin of this poem was in a view put forward in connection with more than one find of ancient jewellery and metalwork, displaying extremely intricate detail, that some of this work must have been done by children, as only they would have manual dexterity and sharpness of eyesight required.

SMITH

Though other boys would follow flocks and herds,
some forage food along the muddy shore,
I knew the narrow doorways into dark,
could weigh dull stones, judge mysteries of ore.

Others were learning how to ride, to fight,
while I was studying to work with fire,
to conjure out of earth those glowing threads
watching burnt fingers beat out plate, draw wire.

The war-band’s weapons occupy those skills
my master has to temper and anneal
the living blade, yet years in smoke have dulled
his eye for gold, though not for steel.

My eye is bright, my small hands deft, to form
the interlace, set gems, shape filigree,
adorn a pommel on the warrior’s hilt,
the clasps that pin his wife’s fine drapery.

They come to see us work; the ladies speak
of my quick craft, tease me to make reply.
Lords treat the master with a gruff respect.
I read that darkened face, as he limps by.

This poem was published in the Winter 2014 issue of Poetry News, and on the Poetry Society website.

The second poem was Highly Commended in the Torriano Competition this Spring.   The judge of was Martyn Crucifix.   It was written after looking at photographs – mostly of the Second World War – displayed at the Imperial War Museum.

AT THE WAR MUSEUM

Here is the shadow that was always at
our backs, though we were shielded.  We knew
the stories – or the ones they chose to tell
to us, to tell themselves.  Also the silences,

events that no one dared to mention.
These faces look familiar – recall the ones
who brought us up, who filled our world, but here
in uniform, removed to strange locations,

and performing tasks we never saw
them do.  This is the world made strange, furnished
with obsolete contraptions that delivered
death, the well-known places mostly wrecked –

a quiet church you visited last year,
calm as Wren left it, is shown broken, open
to the sky, with shattered monuments;
a library’s hush, all raucous debris, plaster dust –

and if that happened to the books, what of
the people shelved in tidy residential
streets, gap-toothed with rubble, bathrooms
bared, paper hung ripped from private walls?

They had their modes of coping with it all –
swagger and slang, ‘business as usual’, wink
of an eye – that got them through.  Styles
at first quaint to us, and now a foreign language.

Pictures, writings, that seemed so peripheral
at the embattled time, now offer
our most intimate approach to this
alternate world.  While, always, looming

back behind, what they themselves half knew,
an elder dark – of shells and mud, of gas
and blasted stumps, torn flesh and broken minds,
that forged, and warped, the world in which we grew.

As there was no publication arranged by the organisers, the winning poems were published by Martyn Crucefix on his own website.   You can read all the chosen poems there, together with his comments on them.

 

Some poems from previous postings –

PLAYBACK

If given six wood blocks, eight marbles,
and a cardboard box or blue balloon,
coould you, I wonder, still invent
enough new games to fill an afternoon?

I now forget how life is given
to woollen rabbits, balding one-eared bears,
a face is read on every bus;
how to pitch camp between the legs of chairs.

Once I could stage the whole Olympics
with a stadium on the garden path,
a Grand Prix round the front-room carpet
with one shoe-box full of ill-matched cars.

The profits of an education
rarely take account of knowledge lost;
but how much more will be unlearned
before another thirty years have passed?

 

PORTRAIT OF A GREAT-GRANDFATHER

The solemn vacancy of Victorian
photographs – of the unpractised sitter
holding himself stiff, long minutes at a time
during the plate’s exposure.  An open face
stares into middle distance, telling nothing.
Far more expressive are the big hands, awkward
like parsnips bunched and hung across his knees.
Dark shadows round the nails might almost be
black earth ingrained – except that he’d be sure
to scrub them before putting on that suit,
shiny, ill-fitting, tight at the shoulders, jacket
falling loose, the sleeves pushed back in rucks.

The painted trees behind him fade away –
the top line of his head has faded too –
though you can guess his hair receded early,
as my father’s did.  Firm shading still
outlines the long jaw, which they say is mine.
The picture bears no date or place.  He looks
to be apporaching middle-age.  Perhaps
he had it taken for some personal occasion,
like his second marriage; or it marked
a public celebration, jubilee or county fair.
Or was it just a sudden whim, that he was
taken in, persuaded by the flashy apparatus
of an artist able to frame patriarchs
from village labourers like him?

 

FOUR WINTER ANTIPHONS

Come, Arbiter of life, of death,
come in the frost’s fierce touch
to wake us out of summer drowsiness,
arresting rosebuds, curling mottled leaves
to crispness, easing the trees to sleep;
scythe through the misted air
to harden earth, to sharpen choices,
trying the appetite for life.

Come, ruthful Scrutineer
of all the heart’s devices,
come in the inquisition of the wind,
tempered with blowing over icy seas,
to sweep our streets of idle loitering,
search for the gaps, for papered cracks
in our veneer; come keenest sword,
pass between joints and marrow.

Come, Guardian of the burning gates, come
but defend us from harsh punishments
of cold, from black betrayals of the ice,
the slow corruption of extremities,
the sad withdrawal of passion;
from the dulled eye of appetite,
the iron of a frozen heart, deliver us,
from nightmares of a cold, hard bed.

Come, Messenger of radiance, come
with the brilliance of new spun icicles,
drop as the purity of snowflakes
that obscure a leaden sky
with drfiting otherworldliness,
and spread protective wings, to cover
with transfiguring dark all secret promises
of hope, eventual new birth.

 

AWASH

First watery blue
light before the dawn
a faint gleam

shines up the tarmac river
flowing by the gate
vapour drifts off the sea

all night
it has been dripping from the eaves
willow leaves hang damp

their branches waft
like water weed
it feels

as if this picture window
were the side of an aquarium
it would be no surprise

to see fish
drift among the branches
or the whole lawn slithering with eels

This poem started with just the glimpse of a person, from the window of a train, moving slowly through the outskirts of an old industrial town.   In that brief moment, he looked like someone out of my past – something about him, pushing his bike, that seemed to belong to another age.

THE MAN WITH THE BICYCLE

The man with the bicycle is on the road alone.
He wheels it up a short hill in the rain,
the collar of his workman’s coat turned up –
and does he wear a cap – or is that part
of what has been evoked from forty years ago?

He is a stranger – or perhaps a man I know –
patiently climbing on the black, wet road
into the evening light, toward some house
that waits for him, a woman by a window,
maybe some children and a meal cooked ready.

He should ne far too old by now.  He looks
no more than my own age – also too old.  Somewhere
his life goes on, part of another world,
part of myself.  He wheels his bike now,
always, and the woman and the children wait –
his meal kept warm and ready for the table.

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The setting for this poem is the Vigil, which some churches keep, on the evening of Maundy Thursday.   After the service commemorating the Last Supper, a watch in kept before the reserved sacrament, mindful, in particular, of events in the Garden of Gethsemane.   In this case, the location was a small chapel in the back streets of inner South London.

MAUNDY THURSDAY
Could you not watch with me one hour?

We sit in stillness, hearing the unsleeping
city stir beyond the wall.
Keep watch – yet not as one might watch
a bedside in the cancer ward,
over a prisoner sweating blood.

Close breath of candle smoke hemmed
with soft shadows; spring flowers
to counter the austerities of Lent;
behind the veil, laundered and
virginal, a gleam of polished silver.

While some take spiritual exercise
it could be that, along the street, hope
dies a lonely death, fear watches
over sleeping children, listening for
the bruising footfall yet to come.

Troubler of conscience, seized at night
by armed police, battered in the cells,
dragged before interested judges, tortured
and choking on his blood before the day
is out – this story keeps on being told,

though we are happier not knowing,
having no more aptitude to share in terror
than did those who fell asleep that night,
relaxing in a shadowed garden, drowsy
from the congenial supper they had shared.

We keep this vigil year by year, endure
instruction and expend attention, trying
to capture stark emotions, which
we otherwise would pray hard to be spared –
and yet would feel uneasy if it were not done.

When I was setting up the site in January, I started it off with a few poems about New Year and midwinter.  Here is a February poem – not about the same weather as we’ve been having, but seasonal anyway.   It is an early piece which has been heavily re-worked of late.

IN FLOOD

February fill-dyke – ditch and furrow
brim across the sodden land,
blank puddles stand about the fields.
A summer brook that laps round
children’s ankles, surges at strength
stout men could scarcely wade.

We walk the causeway out to the old
bathing place.  The river, flowing
in full spate, doubling its channel,
runs muscular and lithe, faster
than horses, smack at the open weir.

All gates winched high, the flood
bursts into straight ports, that
churn the torrent pouring through,
plunging away, snatching at banks
and branches, swilling down debris.

Even in childhood, August days,
this was a place where tension hedged
our play, paddling in sight and sound
of danger, swimming near currents
that could sweep carelessness away.

The tin huts have been taken down,
the trees cut back and winter bare;
no more secluded places, we can see
everywhere, a landscape shrunk
with age.  Water has changed the height
of bridges, fences, trees; contours
of fields all out of shape.  The streams
roll on at gathering pace, maroon us
here as strangers in an alien place.

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