Oh To Be in England….

Painswick Park

I arrived in England in early May, a little later than Browning’s thoughts at the start of his poem but certainly well in time for blossoms and birdsong. In fact, one of the things that I’ve been most enchanted by, staying at my mother’s house close to seemingly unstoppable airport expansion but on the edge of a blessedly still wild field, has been the constant trilling of birds. They go at it all day. I’m fairly useless at recognising the birds who entertain me so, but Mum tells me the loudest and most persistent is the blackbird. I think I’m able to distinguish a thrush too and some days we have visits from a collared dove with its gentle deep-throated coo.

Yesterday, Mum and I went for a walk through our neighbourhood and after stopping by the pond to watch the various water fowl waddle, peck at bread thrown by eager children and sail by, Mum told me about the time before the park was created. She described a large field, untended and bordered by tall nettles, dandelions and buttercups. She said that though it wasn’t at all picturesque, it nevertheless offered a place to sit on a spread blanket with a flask of tea and a few biscuits and perhaps imagine being in a more salubrious setting. A break away from the daily round.

These days, the park is a generous stretch of green, lush with mature bushes surrounding the pond which is home to mallards, Canada geese, moorhens, coots and sometimes, swans. Families play games and feed the birds there everyday. The grass areas are perfect for games of “footie”, there is an actual football pitch over on one side and the playground has been entirely re-modelled with equipment that satisfies 21st century mores around child safety.

I don’t remember at all the pre-park days and when I read its history I learned:

The site was originally farming land until the late 1950s. Its function then changed to a landfill site which in time was grassed over to form a mound. In 1962 the site was handed over to the council and an artificial lake constructed to serve as a holding pool for surplus flood water from the nearby Baguley Brook during severe rain storms. Poundswick Park was officially opened 1968. The lake is stocked with a variety of fish and used by local anglers.

Its opening in 1968 was great timing for me as a mid-teen in the late sixties, in need of a place I could retreat on Sunday mornings, away from the curious gaze and questioning of parents, to sit on a bench and gather myself together from the hangovers I suffered after my Saturday nights out with friends, dancing my hopeful hippy heart out at school dances, illegally entered pubs and discos in Manchester. I have no idea if the pond was home to so many birds then as my eyes were mostly closed, catching up on lost sleep.
Sharing Painswick Park with Mum, when we are are both at such different stages of life, is an entirely new experience for both of us. I don’t think we ever went there together as it came into being when I was past my playground days. We have so much more in common now. Both women past menopause, we have our bodily changes, aches and pains to deal with. We have, each of us, spent many years of our lives with partners who are no longer in our lives. Mum has lots to remember and sustain her from her 68 years of marriage to Dad before he died. I look more to the future as I move on from a divorce after 30 years of wedded not-always bliss. We are learning, once again, the fun we can have together whether it be listening to the music of my childhood or Mum’s era or walking round the pond being entertained by all those birds.

Home Thoughts from Abroad

Robert Browning (1812–89)

I
OH, to be in England now that April ’s there
And whoever wakes in England sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough 5
In England—now!

II
And after April, when May follows
And the white-throat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossom’d pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover 10
Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray’s edge—
That ’s the wise thrush: he sings each song twice over
Lest you should think he never could re-capture
The first fine careless rapture!
And, though the fields look rough with hoary dew, 15
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children’s dower,
Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

What to do with the love poems?

“Pleasure’s a sin, and sometimes
sin’s a pleasure”

—Lord Byron

I’ve just finished reading Edna O’Brien’s short but gripping biography of Lord George Gordon Byron: Byron, A Short and Daring Life. I was thoroughly entertained and rather in awe at the accounts of the man’s lifestyle, his exuberance, certainly his daring in both love and war. I think I was perhaps a bit taken aback though, despite knowing of his reputation as an homme fatale. Byron, to use a contemporary colloquialism, definitely “put it about a bit”. By the age of 36, when he succumbed to an illness (and no doubt the doctors’ treatment of bleeding him which likely weakened him and even introduced further infection) Byron had had dozens of lovers both men and women (some little more than boys and girls). His greatest love may well have been his half-sister, Augusta who bore his child. He was also the object of almost hysterical infatuation from women in London’s high society. He lived through the Regency era when life for the aristocracy in London was far from reserved and pious but full of gaudiness and frippery. There was an awful lot of jumping into the sack, women taking as much advantage of the societal approval (or at least disregard) which seemed to prevail.

Reading all of this led me to think of my lovers. Compared to Byron, I’ve had very few – in his terms I should be embarrassed to admit how just how few! And contemplating the lovers brought up the issue of the love poems. What to do with them when the love has died and been well buried? Byron’s, of course, live on in all their beauty and passion.

[To Caroline Lamb]

Yet fain would I resist the spell
That would my captive heart retain,
For tell me dearest, is this well?
Ah Caro! Do I need the chain?

Mine, for the most part, lurk undetected in the depths of my computer in various Word documents and unseen by anyone past their first flush of mad creation, shared between the “he” and me. (for me, there have been only male attractors). And there, undoubtedly, they will stay. Not strong or universal enough to put out into the world, they are small pieces of my personal history tinged pink with my regret and embarrassment.

Not to say I haven’t written any worthwhile love poems. When a poem emerges, its intention well expressed through structure and imagery, it gains a life of its own and I can fasten its coat and pull on its hat and send it off to find its fortune. Sometimes, these adventurers find new admirers and future homes in journals, books or on poetry websites.

Here are a few.

For my longest and truest (but not forever) Love:

Dream Winter

Sunday mornings,
quilt pulled up to my chin,
I listen to trees lamenting
the memory of sun

and you serve me tea and muffins,
the butter drips, you lick it off my chin
and climb back under the covers
to break our bodies’ fast.
We are not interrupted by children.

Afternoons we walk for hours in the rain
ignoring the storm – as we stumble,
fake the need to catch each other
then fall again into a bed of moss
where rain becomes a distant phenomenon.
Like aging and aching backs.

Winter evenings we share silence.
Each of us living another world inside books,
only occasionally smiling
or letting our woollen socked toes meet
by careful accident.

There is me. And you.
And then I wake.

( Unpublished, 1989)

Dahlia

Huge-headed flower fills my vision
as I sit here with you
in this garden by the sea.
He loves me, he loves me not
would take forever. The dahlia’s petals
curl like tongues, too many.

Instead, I give you the bloom,
take it and know it grew
with light and care,
coaxed from a wizened corm
that held inside the beginnings
of this busy, articulate yellow.

( Unpublished, 1997)

The Artist’s Wife

Wake to an empty space beside you
sheets undisturbed after the nights he spends
with another love, unable to leave
the sensuous lines on a smooth canvas skin.

Languish in the sharp-edged smell of turpentine,
linseed oil or damar varnish.
It hangs in the air for days
through all attempts to let it out:
windows and doors thrown open, or to smother it
with the scents of coffee brewing, muffins baking,
armsful of roses carried into every room

It’s a life of lies
as he tricks you into believing
three dimensions project from every flat surface.
He entices you along forest paths
to the edge of cliffs
and up into the vaulted ceilings of cathedrals.
You believe him. Then its gone
with one sweep of his brush.

He brings these certain inconveniences
but your eyes grow accustomed to noticing the sky
washed with the subtlest violet hue,
the monotone of a rock face splintered
into yellows, blues and greens

and when he does lie beside you he talks
through the screen of night,
paints the fabric that is your life.

(Antigonish Review and Quintet, Themes and Variations, Ekstasis Editions: 1996 )

And more recently, for perhaps my most unfortunate fall into a love trap:

You Are Here

Walking my neighbourhood streets,
unaware I’m in need of direction,
the map addresses me boldly: YOU ARE HERE!
I consider the arrow that points
to a snake of paths.
Houses along the way marked
as little dark boxes.

And now, light and bright,
another small box
with the welcoming smile of a facilitator
and a hopeful semi-circle of chairs.
I sit beside you, follow the Powerpoint: prognosis, radiation therapy,
androgen therapy, prostatectomy…. glass walls
show me an unstained sky
while knowledge grows in me the way mistletoe
invades a tree, takes hold.
No, not here.
I have not a shred of interest
in being here.

I want my place beside you, my head on your chest,
my fingers tracing ribbons on your skin.
Your breath deep and slow, eyes closed.
When I lift my face, look up, sure enough
there’s a big golden arrow pointing to us.
You Are Here.

( Another Dysfunctional Cancer Poem Anthology, Mansfield Press: 2018)

Swallow

Best when the snowflakes are big and slow,
when day has expanded
beneath the tension of a filling sky

until all movement, conversation, the rush of traffic
halts and the world accepts
that sky will shift solid grey
to shimmer, a buzz of frozen air,
then it’s time to open my mouth,
let snow fall in, seal my lips and swallow.

So little to let melt then slide, no more
than a tickle, unlike the small rock
that lodges when my throat closes
on words
that rise and swell
from my belly,
when I go inside the tomb
of a once-upon-a-time lover,
gone but ever present,
who is now nothing to me
but was all.

It snowed overnight and nothing yet
has spoiled its perfection. I remember
how I used to swallow snowflakes.

I lift up my face
wait for the sky to burst.

I ask my question again, “what to do with the BAD love poems? It seems fairly clear to me as I write this that I have answered my own question in this version of my question: bad poems. So, print all, rip and deposit down the toilet? Or go for a little more drama with a small bonfire (perhaps the photos can be thrown on top too). It’s possible there might be an on-line depositary for unwanted, no longer “felt” and yes, bad poems but then they’d have to go anonymously.

Byron, I’m sure, gave no thought to discarding any of his poems and neither have any of his subsequent editors as the tomes on my desk now attend. (The Complete Poetical Works, Volumes I – V, 500 pages each). To be fair, Byron is often referred to as “one of the greatest British poets” and “one of the leading figures of the Romantic Movement in early 19th century England”. I’m not quite up there. I’ll therefore happily strike a match and put it to the papers that no longer speak from or for my heart – maybe I’ll throw in a little dance around the fire just for the hell of it.

Poetry Matters

WHY POETRY MATTERS

The rhythms of poetry, not very different from the rhythms of breathing, reach back to primal feelings, just as surely as its images open windows to the larger experiences that are central to life” – Gary Geddes.

Poetry matters because it helps us to pay attention to the details that might otherwise pass us by unnoticed. The pace of life has sped up and for the most part people no longer take the time to use all their senses to attune themselves to what is going on around them. Poems demand that we slow down, listen to words chosen carefully to convey a special message in images that we can visualize or imagine smelling, touching, tasting. When we tune in to the “small stuff”, the process results in our becoming more open, more aware, more able to respond to the myriad of events, the “larger experiences”, that occur on a daily basis.

Poetry matters because it connects us with our core, to our heart beating rhythmically, our breath going in and out. Like music, poetry serves a basic need in humans: to find satisfaction, pleasure, even joy in joining with a beat. Children know this instinctively and delight in the playful rhythms of nursery rhymes. Children play with sounds and words as they develop language. Many of us lose the focus we all had as children on this innate need for rhythm or we allow it into our lives only in a limited way.

Poetry matters because it is alive! My poetry education when I was at school taught me about the work of numerous poets whose poems were inspiring and important but who were all dead. I am glad I learned about Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Rosetti and so many others. Their work gave me the grounding in knowledge essential to an appreciation of literature. But, now, I’m glad I also later discovered the work of living poets, people who have made poetry a part of their everyday lives. Knowing that so many poets are actively creating new poems every day helps me to connect with poetry, to feel it’s not only “okay” but it’s also essential.