Wednesday, 3 June 2020


Two things have set me thinking particularly about music and poetry.  One was listening to BBC Radio 3's re-broadcast of Horatio Clare' Bach Walks and the other was reading a tribute to the poet, the late Joanna Boulter, in the new issue of Artemis Poetry.

I met Joanna when she came to Carlisle in the autumn of 2006.  I was on the committee of 'Small Presses, Big Voices' which organised regular poetry readings at Tullie House Museum (credit should go Malcolm Carson and Mick North who really did the work).  On that dark, dreary November night, Joanna and other writers from the renowned Vane Women writing collective gave us a great reading.  I had recently read and greatly admired Joanna's Twenty Four Preludes and Fugues on Dmitri Shostakovich (Arc 2006), which I think is a classic of poetry written about music.

My first serious encounter with Shostakovich's music had occurred a short time before.  I had listened to his eighth string quartet at a concert in Caldbeck.   The profound and tragic quartet had a powerful effect on me.  Instead of socialising with friends in the interval which followed I went for a walk along the river.  I felt a strong need to be alone and think through what I had heard.  I later discovered that the quartet had a public interpretation (it was written when Shostakovich was visiting the still-devastated city of Dresden in East Germany and dedicated to the 'Victims of Fascism and War') and a private interpretation (an autobiographical quartet full of personal allusions, expressing the composer's deep emotional turmoil).

When Joanna came to Carlisle I had hoped that she would only read from the Shostakovich collection, but perhaps she thought that would be a bit too gloomy so she read some of her other work as well.  This week I have re-read the collection and again admired the wonderful way she found poetic equivalents for musical forms.  She accomplished this in a variety of ways, using forms such as the vilanelle ('Fugue of a cinema pianist') and pantoum ('Canon: Ascendente Modulatione').  'Mirror Fugue' is a double poem on facing pages, where the lines are reversed and the poem is transposed from third person to first person.  'Fugue on DSCH' plays with the letters as Shostakovich played with the musical notes that made up his name: the poem opens 'Don't symphonies cause havoc!' and ends 'Dmitri Shostakovich composes himself'.

I asked her how long it had taken to research and write the book - eleven years was the answer.

Recently BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Horatio Clare's Bach Walks in which the writer followed in the footsteps of J S Bach who, as a young man, walked from Arnstadt to Lübeck to learn from the organist and composer, Buxtehude.  Buxtehude was the organist at the Marienkirche, which was damaged during the Second World War.  I went to Lübeck in 2001, visited the church and later stopped to listen to a violinist busking in the street.  My German friend said that many of the buskers in the German cities had been professional musicians in Eastern Europe until the collapse of the Soviet Union.  After I had visited Lübeck my impressions coalesced into a poem. 


Instantly I recognise the Holsten Gate
from the photograph: here it is in the brick
with its double-coned hat, built for an invasion
which never happened,  sinking harmlessly
into the Baltic marsh like a salt merchant's overloaded wagon.

When attack came it pitched from the sky.
In the twin-spired Marienkirche the bells
lie where they fell, fractured, tearing the brick
flesh of the floor,  spilling the sound hoard of centuries.

Two hundred and thirty six miles to Arnstadt, 
less to the Polish border.  Lübeck's osmosis
draws the displaced, as the plates of time and place
grind over each other.

In the street trodden by Bach
a violinist busks, plays Paganini's caprice,
highest notes a hair's breadth
within hearing.

Compelled to listen to this youth in a wraith's body,
seeing the curve of cheek bones beneath the cobweb skin,
the shadowed sockets, the crumbled
concrete dust on his clothes,
we stand, as the colours of music flame
and my heart's bell hung in its ribbed cage
falls burning.

from The Art of Gardening 
© Mary Robinson 2010

For more about Joanna Boulter go to

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