Sunday, 7 February 2016



I've just been to see the fine new winter exhibitions at Plas Glyn y Weddw in North Wales.  One of the artists is Dickson Kaloki.  He was born in 1985 in the impoverished area of Kitui in Kenya.  Thanks to the charity, Anno's Africa, he has been able to develop his artistic career.  His paintings of Kenyan slums are very striking and unashamed - this is how we live, they seem to say.  He often uses tones of one or two colours, great slabs of colour, and then draws over them with charcoal.

I am struck by one painting of red brown shanty town huts with cctv cameras on a pole, tower blocks rising up in the background.  In the foreground is a seated figure, her torso concealed behind the newspaper she is reading.  There is a coke bottle on the shelf by her, and underneath it a Union flag.  But as I look at the picture I notice that the woman's knickers are down round her knees.  Why?  With a shock I realise she's sitting on an open air toilet, no privacy at all.  The knickers are blue and decorated with a little design - the design of the United Nations logo.

In contrast to this overtly political 'Letter from home' there is a painting of a London scene with bright yellows and greens and two 'Letters from Wales'.  The latter consist of a picture of Caernarfon Castle (vivid  blues and contrasting sand colours) and a view of Porth Dinllaen in unusually soft shades.

Kaloki speaks of "Paint as a memory box, expressing a certain time, place and situation in life". Change the first word and that could be a poet's manifesto too.

Saturday, 6 February 2016


‘Please would you lead a session on African poetry?’

‘Yes, of course,’ I said, inwardly wondering what I was going to do.  The reading group had asked me because its current theme is Africa.

Africa consists of 54 countries (55 if you count Western Sahara, which Morocco doesn’t), of which 21 use English as the official language of government and/or business, and 11 are predominantly Arabic speaking.  There are thousands of indigenous African languages.  I felt like the person on Mastermind who has chosen far too wide a topic.

I wondered about choosing one poem from half a dozen eminent poets in different regions of Africa, but this felt too bitty.  Instead I decided to base the poetry on examples of colonialism, post-colonialism and identity and chose one poet to represent each section. 

Last week we discussed the poems.

For colonialism I chose Natal-born Roy Campbell’s ‘The Zebras’ and ‘The Zulu Girl’.  Roy Campbell’s reputation plummeted when he supported Franco’s side in the Spanish Civil War and it has never really recovered but he did write some fine nature poetry, including ‘The Zebras’:

   ‘The zebras draw the dawn across the plains,
    Wading knee-deep among the scarlet flowers.’

The richness of the (now shrinking) African plains and the beauty of the zebras (now diminishing in 
number) comes over strongly.   

‘The Zulu Girl’ we found more problematic.  It’s a poem that crops up in anthologies but while some people saw it as simply descriptive, to others (including me) there’s a white male voyeurism to the poem and an unfortunate likening of the child to a puppy.  I feel angry that this girl labours in the ‘sweating gang’ hoeing the crops instead of resting to build up her strength to feed her baby.  It reminds me of the unease I felt at seeing John Bell’s sculpture of ‘The American Slave’ (1853) at Cragside in Northumberland some years ago.

For Post-colonialism I chose the Nigerian Nobel-prizewinner Wole Soyinka.  His adult writing life has coincided (and collided) with Nigerian independence since 1960.  I chose his poems, ‘I think it rains’, ‘In the small hours’ and ‘Telephone conversation’.  Wole Soyinka is also a dramatist and this comes out strongly in ‘Telephone conversation’ in which the first person narrator of the poem, an African coming to London, tries to rent a room.  The group found it amusing but also razor-sharp in 
the way the poem satirises the racist attitude of the landlady. 

‘In the small hours’ is set in a smoky surreal bar where the cocktail mixer is a dancing ‘silvery fish’ and ‘the band plays on’.  The ending of the poem is fantastic –

  ‘... Night turns
    Homewards, sheathed in notes of solace, pleats
    The broken silence of the heart’.

None of us really understood 'I think it rains’ but we admired the form with two short lines sandwiching two long lines in the middle of each verse.  In a place where tongues need to ‘loosen from the parch’ the rain takes on a strange allegorical quality.  No wonder there is ‘mirth’ at the end of the poem when the ‘rain-reeds’ finally fall (with all the rain we’ve had recently in Cumbria it is hard to imagine drought).  

My third poet, and one who is very much concerned with identity, was Jackie Kay.  I’ve heard her read at Keswick a couple of times and also been to one of her inspirational workshops.  She was born in Scotland and brought up by adoptive parents in Glasgow.  Her prose memoir Red Dust Road and her associated collection of poems Fiere document her search for her biological parents - her Nigerian father and her Scottish mother.  So with the group I shared ‘Ukpor Market’ in which the poet thinks she is being accepted as a local (Igbo) woman, only to discover that the word the market women keep repeating is ‘a pigeon word / for white woman’.   In her memoir she writes, ‘I spent some of my childhood wishing I was white like the other kids and feeling like I stuck out like a sore thumb; and now, in Nigeria, I’m wishing I was black and feeling like I stick out like a sore thumb.  It’s the first time in my life that I’ve properly understood what it means to be mixed race.’ 

‘Burying my father’ is a poem in which the poet comes to terms with having found her biological father:
   ‘For I must, with my own black pen – instead of a spade –
    ashes to ashes and dust to dust,
    and years before you are actually dead,
    bury you right here in my head.’

We ended with Jackie’s beautiful poem ‘Road to Amaudo’.  Amaudo, which translates as ‘the village of peace’, is not a geographical location and the road is symbolic.  The poem was inspired by the Amaudo charity for mental health care in Nigeria (Jackie is a patron of the charity).  It’s a road where people heft ‘the load / of hope on their backs’ and carry ‘the frail weight of peace / on their shoulders’.  To the poet it is ‘the road to my heart’.

Monday, 18 January 2016


When I first started this blog the list of 12 books (one for every month) was aimed mainly at my ex-students to encourage them to continue reading contemporary poetry.  I always included poetry in my adult and higher education courses.   It was very satisfying to see people who were initially indifferent or even hostile to poetry leap over the appreciation barrier and connect with the work of a contemporary writer.   I’m not sure how many of them look at this blog but I enjoy selecting the titles from the books I’ve read throughout the year.  My hope is that some of these books that have captured my imagination will delight other readers too.

Moya Cannon Keats Lives: Reading this book was one of those “Why haven’t I come across this brilliant writer before?” moments.  A perfect blend of form, language and content from an observant, thoughtful writer.  Not a terribly helpful title but it comes from a wonderful poem about having a conversation about Keats with an Amtrak railway official.

Elaine Feinstein Portraits: a writer with a long and distinguished career.  These sensitive and beautifully crafted poems show she’s known most poets worth knowing in the 20th century.  I had to google some things but it was worth it to be introduced to Mandelstam’s ‘Necklet of Bees’.  Her Polish cleaner gets a word in too.

Annie Freud The Remains: quirky, sexy, funny, sad, beautiful.  The collection is illustrated with Annie’s own paintings and well produced by Picador.  Nice to have an older poet on the New Generation Poets list. 

Philip Gross Love Songs of Carbon:  one of those poets I can’t get enough of.  The language of Love Songs is precise, incisive, strikingly original and surprising.  He’s also king of the line breaks.  This collection is right up to the standard of the T S Eliot prize-winning Water Table (2009). 

Mavis Gulliver Waymarks:  Mavis lives on the Isle of Islay and writes poetry which is accessible and keeps faith with nature.  If you like Kenneth Steven or Ruth Bidgood you will like this.

Frances-Anne King The Weight of Water:  an impulse buy on a visit to Bath.  It was worth buying this pamphlet to repay the Holbourne Museum shop for selling poetry.   The poem ‘Trace’ and the epigraph ‘A momentary identity with the sliding past’ give the key to this mini collection – these well written poems carry a trace of the past, often with a hint of the unexplained or the supernatural.

Zaffar Kunial Faber New Poets 11:  when Zaffar arrived at Grasmere for what turned out to be the Wordsworth Trust’s last poet residency Cumbrians quickly came to appreciate the work of this talented newcomer to the poetry scene.  His modest pamphlet from Faber (pity about them giving him a number and not a title) may be short on quantity but is right up there on quality.  Definitely a new poet to watch.

Paul Muldoon One Thousand Things Worth Knowing: and worth reading.  Paul Muldoon is as usual wide-ranging, serious, playful, completely confident.  His work is challenging and rewarding.  Hear him live if you can (or on YouTube).

Les Murray Waiting for the Past: Les Murray is back on form after a bit of a blip with his (nonetheless good) previous volume.  ‘Under the lube oil’ is about Richard III’s skeleton in the car park and ends with the great line “Ah, William, you marvel of spin.”  Here’s the originality and oblique look at life that is pure Murray.  But I miss the long baggy poems of his youth and their formal experiments.

Naomi Shihab Nye Tenderspot: another recent discovery for me.   Naomi is the daughter of an American and a Palestinian and this selection from almost four decades of writing is a treat for UK readers.  She notices and delights in small things and has a knack of thinking laterally.  Some of her later work is political, or rather politically unpolitical, refusing to take sides or to favour the political over the personal. 

Tomos Tranströmer New and Collected Poems translated by Robin Fulton.  The late Tomos Tranströmer was Swedish and won the Nobel prize for poetry.  This bumper volume includes his classic ‘Schubertiana’.  He uses amazing metaphors and his poetry inhabits a world where nature can morph into dream.  Sometimes surreal, always inspiring.

I’m ending with a book which is a blatant cheat on this list – Ian Bostridge’s Schubert's Winter Journey (see my post of 25 October 2015).  It’s an exposition (and much more) of the poems and music of Schubert’s Winterreise and one of the books I have greatly admired this last year.

Now read on!

Saturday, 2 January 2016


A Happy New Year to you all!

I’ve just returned from a family gathering in the Cotswolds.  It was a world away from the sodden greyness of my home in Cumbria.  I was staying in a converted water mill by the side of a diminutive river Thames – really just a stream flowing from the nearby Thames Head.  The rushing water was a constant undersound to our comings and goings.  We explored the field paths, the river path and the little villages of Somerford Keynes, Pool Keynes and Ewen.  I enjoyed being able to go for cross-country walks without having to spend ten minutes putting on multiple layers, waterproofs, wellies.  It was warm for midwinter, so warm that daffodils were a foot high with tight spears of buds ready to open in a week or two.  Some wild plants were already in flower – celandines, primroses, white dead nettle (lots of those – flowers April to June and autumn according to Keble Martin).  And it was light – a few degrees south, pale skies and that ubiquitous yellow stone.  Years ago when I worked in Oxford and my parents lived in Warwickshire I would dread the winter drives home through the Cotswolds – snow often fell on the high land and drifted against the drystone walls.

The cottage was at the end of a farm track and this part of Gloucestershire is a quiet backwater.   It seemed the epitome of the landscape of lowland England and to me had the atmosphere of John Drinkwater, Edward Thomas, Ivor Gurney, Laurie Lee.  It’s a place bypassed by major routes – Shakespeare travelling through the Cotswolds on his journeys between Stratford upon Avon and London would have missed this area.  His road would have been further east through Oxford.

But it was not always so.  We spent a day in Cirencester, in Roman times the second most important town in Britain, with a population similar in number to the present.  We walked over the grassy humps and hollows of the remains of the large amphitheatre and saw the beautiful Roman mosaics and wall plaster in the museum.   At Cirencester the great roads of imperial Roman Britain intersected: the Fosse Way, Akeman Street, the Ermin Way.  Hardy’s Wessex is south of here but the road map reminded me of one of his poems:

The Roman Road

The Roman Road runs straight and bare
As the pale parting-line in hair
Across the heath.  And thoughtful men
Contrast its days of Now and Then,
And delve, and measure, and compare;

Visioning on the vacant air
Helmed legionaries, who proudly rear
The Eagle, as they pace again
                                       The Roman Road.

But no tall brass-helmed legionnaire
Haunts it for me.  Uprises there
A mother’s form upon my ken,
Guiding my infant steps, as when
We walked that ancient thoroughfare,
                                        The Roman Road.

(Thomas Hardy 1840-1928)

Saturday, 19 December 2015


What to look for in winter

   Frost's glittering tinsel
      jasmine's golden stars
         a hellebore in flower -
            snow's miracle.

© Mary Robinson 2015

After the incredibly mild and wet December (Cumbria is still mopping up) my seasonal poem seems a little inappropriate.  'Jasmine's golden stars' have been flowering in my garden for weeks and my Lenten rose has, over the last few years, morphed into a Christmas rose.

Snow is something of a miracle, the way it transforms everything.  We did have a very short-lived snowfall a week ago which changed the fells from muddy brown to pristine white for a few hours.

The hellebore (Christmas rose) has a Christmas legend associated with it.  A shepherd girl followed the shepherds to Bethlehem but when she arrived she had no gift for the baby.  Standing outside the stable she started to cry.  When her tears fell on the snowy ground they turned into the hellebore, Christmas rose, and provided her with a gift of flowers to take to the child.

Now we reminisce about the snow of Christmases past, and snow is still a common image on Christmas cards.  Snow is not unknown in Israel - I know someone who visited Jerusalem four years ago on an extremely snowy day.  T S Eliot's 'Journey of the Magi' begins with the famous words 'A cold coming we had of it' and a few lines later on the camels are 'lying down in the melting snow'.

The recent United Nations Climate Change Conference agreed to limit the rise in global temperature to less than 2 degrees C.   Let's hope we can achieve it.

Monday, 30 November 2015


 ‘Beeswing!  There is a poetry of place here’ said Jane McKie, commenting on the names of the villages she had passed through on the way to Castle Douglas last week.   I have driven through Beeswing several times but the name never fails to surprise me – such an English word in the Dumfriesshire landscape.  I wondered what minute attention to detail would cause a place to be called Beeswing.  Was there an apiary there?  It could be a name from Tolkien.  I imagine an elfin queen with a cloak made from bees’ wings, like a benign version of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in her famous beetle wing dress.  Or was the name a strange mutation from the Scots?

A quick google put me right.  The village used to have the more prosaic name of Lochend (it is situated at the end of Loch Arthur – a contender for the Lady of the Lake, as the name suggests – more romance).  However it was renamed in honour of the racehorse, Beeswing (1833 – 1854), a phenomenal winner of 51 races out of 63, including the Preston Gold Cup seven times and the Newcastle Cup six times.  She was from the North East of England but her mother was called Ardrossan Mare so that at least is a Scottish connection, though rather distant.  I would like to know why it was this particular village that decided to rename itself after a racehorse. 
Another place name caught my attention last weekend – Kirkgunzeon.  It sounded like a mixture of Scots and Cornish.  I looked up the name and discovered that Gunzeon is a variant (or wayward) spelling of a saint’s name, Winnen (Gaelic Finnen).

All this week I have been reading Robert MacFarlane’s Landmarks.  Each chapter is an encounter with a landscape writer.   A glossary of words associated with that landscape ends each chapter.  These glossaries are a medley of Scots, Gaelic, Welsh, Shetlandic, local dialect, scientific, official and meteorological words, etc. 

What I have noticed in these glossary lists is the way that languages and dialects seep into one another.  For example, MacFarlane includes the word ‘clarty’ (of earth: sticky, boot-clingy) as Scots.  Yet it is a frequently used dialect word in the north of Cumbria where I live.  There’s so much rain that our boots are clarty most of the year.  Did the word travel over the border on the shoes of the Border Reivers’ horses?  He cites ‘Foggagey’ as another Scots word meaning ‘rank, tufted, matted grass’, yet my father in Warwickshire, where I grew up, called such grass ‘foggage’.   ‘Sike’ is listed as Yorkshire for a small stream or ditch yet it is a common place name in Cumbria (eg, Greensyke) and is used by the Cumbrian poet Norman Nicholson in his poetry.  ‘Lode’ is a fen drain in East Anglia but its meaning of a water course must be echoed in the Cotswold river Evenlode.

These glossaries are both fascinating and frustrating.  It’s fun to know that an icicle is an ‘aquabob’ in Kent and a ‘clinkerbell’ in Dorset, but I do think MacFarlane is cheating to include some of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ neologisms, such as ‘twindle’ and ‘heavengravel’.  There are annoying omissions.  He includes several Shetland ‘simmer’ (summer) compounds but not the often used ‘simmer dim’ which describes the wonderful residual light of Shetland midsummer nights.  And some ubiquitous Welsh landscape words are missed out – such as cwm (valley) and afon (river).

MacFarlane admits that the glossaries are a reflection of ‘my own particular interests and affiliations’.  He points out that there are a large number of very localised landscape names which are now falling out of use.   I can see that such names can easily be lost when we travel by vehicle and not on foot, when fields are recorded by number and not by name, when language is mediated by the television or the internet.   He quotes Tim Dee, ‘Without a name made in our mouths, an animal or a place struggles to find purchase in our minds or our hearts.’   Yet a nineteenth century racehorse called Beeswing is immortalised in a small village in the South of Scotland.