Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Daphne Gloag: Oranges and walnuts (still life by Luis Meléndez)

We always remembered that Spanish still life
of walnuts and oranges. We loved the coherence of its browns
and gold and almost green, the harmonious
light. The boxes held our eyes

with their persuasive geometry. Angles, triangles,
curves – the language of pure form in a world 
of things, of imperfections. You began
to talk about that lone orange almost

out of the picture - the one I’d missed: a reject,
was it, in a society of mellow affluence?
And yet, I said, the atoms of this fugitive fruit
have come from the fire of stars.

© 2009 Daphne Gloag, and used by kind permission of the author
Editor: Belinda Hollyer

Daphne Gloag is a poet whose work I encountered only recently, and entirely by happy chance. ‘Poems in the Waiting Room’ (www.poemsinthewaitingroom.org) is a blessed – and tiny – UK charity that produces leaflets of poems for display in doctors’ waiting rooms, and encourages you to take and keep a leaflet for yourself. How wonderful is that: to find poetry amongst the dishevelled and out-of-date magazines! And that’s where, last month, I found this poem.

I love the apparent simplicity of the poem’s brevity and precision, and I am especially struck by the pace and power of the last two lines: the ‘fire of stars’ imagery is breathtakingly good. I freely admit that I am often charmed by poems about paintings (the first I remember encountering was by another British woman poet: U.A. Fanthorpe’s ‘Not My Best Side’). I love considering the relationship between visual art and poetry, partly because both seem to extend and enlarge the strength of their partner. And in this case I also love an additional contrast, that between the National Gallery’s description of the painting, and Daphne’s interpretation. Here’s the gallery speaking on their website. (I like what they say, and it’s interesting as well as informative – but oh! how different in tone and engagement from that of the poet.)

“In addition to the oranges and walnuts, on the wooden shelf there are chestnuts, a melon, earthenware jugs, a small barrel and some circular and oblong boxes. The jugs probably contain wine, while the barrel possibly contains olives. The round boxes were normally used for cheese, while the rectangular ones were used for sweets, such as 'dulce de membrillo', a thick quince jelly eaten in slices.”

Daphne Gloag worked for most of her career as a medical journalist and editor. Many of her poems have appeared in magazines and anthologies, and several have won prizes and commendations. Three collections have been published: Diversities of Silence from Brentham Press (1994), and A Compression of Distances (2009) and Beginnings and Other Poems (2013), both from Cinnamon Press. The long poem sequence ‘Beginnings’, which takes up half of this last collection, has a cosmological setting but its chief focus is Daphne’s relationship with her late husband, the poet Peter Williamson. ‘Oranges and Walnuts’ was originally intended to be part of ‘Beginnings’ but in the end was published as a separate poem in A Compression of Distances.

This week’s editor is Belinda Hollyer, a New Zealander who lives in London most of the time, and in Key West the rest of the time. Belinda doesn’t write poetry – she thinks it’s far too hard – but she blogs here, and writes children’s books when she can.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Kirsti Whalen: Brave Like

an excerpt

Gaffer toe inside lake water. Not cold in there. Is not. Like. Imagined. Run, he say. Little eel snap snapping at your toes. Water like mud and thick too. Shallow but. Out. Out, Love Little. Out for it. Little run, Little One. Little One, his name for me.

But we are West. Rules snap snapping. This the other side. East of home and West of an older one. Western Springs. Springs cut with digger and. Birds. Brought here, I think. Nested in. They’re big anyway. Those eels. Those. Churning. Bolstered by old bread languid in mud water. They. Cut slip slither grease like under he nail. Don’t.

Not running.

Angry. I think he is. And it is only yet the flash of a green morning. Jetlag made early us. I. Reckless Little. Loves me. Loves me. Cover concern with sticking plaster disinterest. Cover sweaty water echo with black swan long neck saunter.   

Who gives a shit, say he.

Tongue (he) spars with the wet soft cowlick of sixty-cent cone. Breakfast.

I do.

I do. I do want this, I do, so I tuck toes back into grass shoes stepping. Baby, I call him. Like movie star lover. Trying to fit this. Love. He’s not Baby though. Boy. Fiancé. Mine. Man. But. We push. Each other into smallest selves. Contain that. We match in five feet and seven. We want to be bigger so he wrapped a finger. Bruised a knee. Stitch he, to Little. Say Love. Say Love. Love like gravy boats, bed sheets and matrimony.

On coast cut black with iron ice cream is four dollar thin chocolate blank tongue. Like, say Boy. Say love. I ask. Say love. Asking gets to be like begging when asking for. Love. Nestle old car into park by old dunes. Is familiar. Is. Diaphragm muscle tuck and click like CPR dummy. Flack there. In that chest wide open. Breathe it. That. Torn scar of sea. Oxidize. Your skin. Your shucked feet. Black on this sand.    

Boy, he go walking, t-shirt pulled from small body, skin pale sunless. Brother me so freckled they join like tan or aerial light over Indian city. Crowded. Thrumming. I have flown there, across that choice of sky. Very good at running I am. Very accomplished. Have been all places, most of them.

Brother me said. Before. And after we lost the first one and after I ran: sometimes, we do what has worked for us in the past. You. Run.

He stays. His lover gentle and golden beside him. Her hair like switches in this Wester coast wind.

While you’ve been gone, begin she.

Brother me mute her hand with his. Say he to me, there is no such thing as gone. Always. Always catches you.  
My face a saltlick for dull tongues.

Is. Not. Salt. Say I. Is wind. Is spray flung back from ocean.

Take Brother me hand up. Because gently. Gently still he is brother. Little small self inside there still want. Him to yes me. Hand (he). Is not like. Imagined. Warm. Palm is question mark, both are. They ask together.

Published here with permission.
Editor: Saradha Koirala

Kirsti Whalen was announced Runner-up for the Sarah Broom Poetry Prize on Sunday at the Auckland Writers Festival. She read this excerpt from a longer prose poem at the event and told us it was partly inspired by Eimear McBride's 'A Girl is a Half-formed Thing'. Read aloud, the language play and voice take on a life of their own and Kirsti, who initially admitted to nerves, transforms as she performs - seeming to care deeply about every word she's used here; every piece of punctuation. I especially like the lines "Rules snap snapping" as Kirsti herself snaps at the "rules" of poetry in this piece and "love like gravy boats" delights me. There's risk and boldness in this work, but Kirsti has total command over this seemingly runaway language. Lines like "Her hair like switches in this Wester coast wind." and "Diaphragm muscle tuck and click like CPR dummy." are perfect in both imagery and sound.

As well as this piece, Kirsti read a poem imagining the relationship her mother apparently had with Tim Finn in their younger days. Despite the humourous introduction, the poem was filled with poignant images - "pushing up daisy chains" - and Kirsti spoke of understanding someone's past loves as a way to bring them back; keep them near.

The inaugural Sarah Broom Poetry Prize commemorates the life of poet Sarah Broom, who passed away just over a year ago. Kirsti was named one of three finalists along with established poets Emma Neale and C.K Stead, who was the overall winner. The head judge was Sam Hunt - a personal friend of Sarah's - and judging was aided by Paula Green and Sarah Ross.

The judges said of Kirsti's work: Kirsti is a fresh young voice on the poetry horizon line. Her submission indicates she has an astonishing ear for the way sounds soar on a line, the way they dip and fall. Her syntax is bold and on the move, but she is unafraid of neither simplicity nor silent beats. The poems take you into the heart of family from a mother’s x-rays to kitchen dinners to a grandmother’s quince trees. Each poem is brought alive to a startling degree with sensual detail, electric connections, canny ellipsis, judicious repetition. It is a voice that feels original, that is willing to take risks and that exudes a love of writing in every nook and cranny.

Kirsti studies Creative Writing at Manukau Institute under the tutelage of Robert Sullivan and Eleanor Catton. She has written and read poetry since she was a child, and has won both the Katherine Mansfield Young Writers Award and the Bell Gully National Secondary Schools Poetry Award. She has published poems in various journals.

This week's editor, Saradha Koirala, is a poet and teacher from Wellington.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Seán Lysaght: A Jay Feather

A Jay Feather 

                      —for Lynda

I know of a wood that hangs
like a heavy drape
flung over a hill in the midlands.

You can hear jays deep in its folds
tearing like engines
at the fabric of a winter’s day.

Way down in the leaf litter,
beyond where it is normal
or decent for a walker to go,

there must be a fragment of that blue,
that eye through which you dive on a thread,
taking the whole day with you.

--Seán Lysaght, with permission

Some years ago, I happened upon a copy of Erris, by Seán Lysaght, in Kenny's Bookshop in Galway, Ireland. I was looking for a gift to bring home to my stepson, and this fit the bill nicely. Of course, I read it cover to cover on the plane back to Seattle, and was dismayed that I hadn't had the foresight to get a copy for myself.

Upon returning to Ireland the next year, I picked up Scarecrow, and was delighted to discover that Seán lived in Westport, a seaside town in County Mayo in the West of Ireland, which also happened to be my own home port in Ireland. We struck up an acquaintance, and I had the good fortune to be in Westport for the launch of Venetian Epigrams.

In poetry, I am especially interested in how a single poem intersects with life and poets off the page. When I queried Seán about featuring here, he sent me three poems for consideration, and "A Jay Feather" immediately leaped out as the obvious choice.

In my own work in glass art, we've been experimenting with new combinations of blue oil paints to apply to sand-blasted glass, with accompanying discussions on the nature of the color blue, all the while entertained just outside the windows by the Stellar's jays on the suet feeder — jays whose ephemeral feather-presence leave suggestions of blue in their wake.

I've spent hours blending blues in an attempt to replicate the light that shimmers off a blue feather. Seán Lysaght's last three lines embody that quest, captures an entire world in "a fragment of that blue."
The synchronicity of receiving this poem with the ongoing blue-blending struck me as an instance of poetry slipping in its magic, without fanfare, unannounced. Poetry does that, doesn't it? Comes at us from a new angle of light, illuminates our consciousness, brushes a feather across our cheek and if we're lucky, we notice. 
Stellar's jay feathers

Seán Lysaght was born in 1957 and grew up in Limerick. He was educated at UCD where he received a BA and an MA in Anglo-Irish Literature. He subsequently spent several years abroad, in Switzerland and Germany, before teaching at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. He now lectures at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology and lives with his wife Jessica in Westport, County Mayo.
His first collection of poetry, Noah’s Irish Ark was published in 1989, followed by The Clare Island Survey (Gallery, 1991).

Between 1990 and 1994 he lectured in English at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. His work on the life and writings of Robert Lloyd Praeger: The Life of a Naturalist  was published by Four Courts Press in 1998. His verse narrative of the life of Edmund Spenser was published under his own imprint in 2011.

His subsequent collections, Scarecrow (1998), Erris (2002), The Mouth of a River (2007), his translations after Goethe, Venetian Epigrams and Selected Poems are published by The Gallery Press. Carnival Masks will be published in 2013.

In 2007 he received the O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry.

Seán Lysaght

This week's curator, T. Clear, lives in Seattle, where she curates an open-mic series, Easy Speak Seattle. Her work has appeared in many literary magazines, including Poetry Northwest, The Moth, Cascadia Review, Atlanta Review, and Hobble Creek Review. She blogs here.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Jean Sprackland: At Night in the House

At night in the house
     a river runs through her

                              carrying its burdens
the golden barges         the dead griefs and the quick fishes

                                     She lies alone
                                wet at the mouth
                                     and between the legs

and it runs not always placid
                   sometimes angry
                                        rough as old rope

dragging its way
                          between the receding banks
              the old wharves worn smooth
                          by all the moorings made there

the scrolled barges
with their forgotten cargoes
of sugar     tobacco     raw silk

                         and the illicit little night boats
                               tied up swiftly
                      while the moon was behind a cloud

                         the twelve slithery steps
                              cut into the dripping wall

When the river is running hard
                she speaks only its own tongue
                         not the dry-docked language
                                   of other people

                and in places
                   the trees lean in
                        like conspirators
                             and the water is smeared
               with whispers

                             and in places
                                  the bank
                                              melts into the water
                                                       roots and all
                                                       roots and all
                                   even an unlucky heifer
                                          risking the edge for a drink

In the night house
               she is nothing but riverbanks
                             all she can feel is river
                     drawn through her
                                               like a green rope

                      scouring the banks
                                                   with restlessness
           towards open sea
                        taking its freight
                                  of corpses
               and drowned silverware.

Copyright Jean Sprackland -  'At Night in the House',
from Sleeping Keys 
Jonathan Cape
With Permission

Sleeping Keys is a very accomplished collection from a poet who won the Costa Award for poetry a few years ago with her first collection 'Tilt’.  Jean Sprackland is also one of the few poets in the UK to be published by a major international publisher.  Jean is not yet a household name, though she should be.  Her poetry is not only accessible but rich in imagery and resonance, revealing deeper layers at second and third readings.  Jean is currently Reader in Poetry at Manchester University and a trustee of the National Poetry Archive.  Her books have been shortlisted for all the major poetry awards including the TS Eliot Prize.  Her meditation on walking the shoreline, 'Strands', won the Portico Prize for non-fiction.

‘Sleeping Keys’ is on the surface about houses, lived in, abandoned, dreamt of, but also about our ideas of home and belonging.  It’s about locking and unlocking - private and public space.

Doorways are liminal, transitional spaces and have been done to death in poetic metaphor.  But they only hover in the subconscious here.  It's the keys that are central - lost, found, collected, at the centre of family dramas -

‘First week in the new house and a muddle over keys.
She’s back from somewhere with her daughter in her arms,
three months old, electric with hunger.
It’s dark and she can’t raise her neighbour.’

The title poem brings back all sorts of memories.  I still have a tin box in the house, full of keys that might just possibly fit some forgotten lock or other and which I (quite inexplicably) can’t bring myself to throw away.

‘Painted with old roses or tartan and thistle
there’s a biscuit tin like this in every house.’

It's full of keys 'decommissioned and sleeping'.  But there are clues in the poem that more has gone into the past than obsolete keys in unusual locks.
‘Not one will ever spring a lock again
to let him into your space, or yours to him.’

And there is one key that offers admission to

‘A house you will never enter
nor haunt after your death
rooms full only of themselves’

Empty rooms fading ‘to a tinnitus of dust and dead wasps’.

One of my favourite poems is ‘Moving the Piano’ - I’ve had to scrap two old pianos in my life, each with its ‘grubby mouthful of elephant’ and I can still remember the effort, the noise, the smell . . .

‘The frame looked quaint as a spinning jenny.
It stank of old felt and lamentations.’

‘At Night in the House’ grabbed my attention because my home in England is on the banks of a big, wild river and the sound of it permeates my days and particularly the nights.  And the sound of it is something like a thread of memory bringing ‘the golden barges   the dead griefs   and the quick fishes’. In the poem this river is a metaphor for something else - solitariness, reflection, the freight of a life lived, ‘the old wharves won smooth/ by all the moorings made there’, those barges, ‘with their forgotten cargoes’.

The river is a life-force, sometimes angry, sometimes placid, both erotic and disturbing, but always powerful, a source of creativity and passion.  I know very well the ‘twelve slithery steps/cut into the dripping wall’ and the trees that ‘lean in/like conspirators’.   And I have lain in bed, awake, in the darkness of 3am and felt this . . .

‘In the night house
       she is nothing but riverbanks
               all she can feel is river
                     drawn through her
                                like a green rope.

Copyright Kathleen Jones and Jean Sprackland

Kathleen Jones is an English poet, biographer and novelist living in Italy.  Her first full collection 'Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21' was published by Templar in 2011.  She blogs at 'A Writer's Life' and has a website at www.kathleenjones.co.uk

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