On Fokkina McDonnell’s ‘Safe House’

The first and only occasion I’ve met Fokkina McDonnell in person was at the tail-end of the last century, at a British Haiku Society conference in Ludlow. At the time, I don’t think I knew that Fokkina also wrote longer poems; gradually though, in the last decade or so, and especially from her blog, available here, and in online Poetry Business workshops during Covid, I’ve become aware that Fokkina is not only a poet per se, but a very fine one at that. It is remarkable and admirable that Fokkina writes poetry in English, even though, because she is Dutch, it isn’t her first language – like many of her compatriots, Fokkina speaks and writes it more proficiently than many for whom it is their mother tongue. Fokkina has spent much of her adult life in the UK, but now lives in the Netherlands again. To be able to write excellent, readable literary works in a second language surely requires not just first-rate linguistic aptitude, but extraordinary cultural awareness and perception also.

Remembering / Disease, recently published by Broken Sleep Books and available to buy here at a bargain price, is Fokkina’s third full collection, following Nothing Serious, Nothing Dangerous (Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2019) and Another Life (Oversteps Books, 2016) and a pamphlet A Stolen Hour (Grey Hen Press, 2020). Fokkina received a Northern Writers’ Award from New Writing North for this latest collection.

It’s a book which is simultaneously challenging and delightful: thematically, subjects-wise and, not least, in its almost-total absence of upper-case and total absence of punctuation. This format seems to be inspired by Andrew McMillan’s poetry, and, perhaps, by the standard presentation of (English-language) haiku and tanka. (The rarer presentation of haiku as single lines, as, inter alia, Stuart Quine near-exclusively practised, might be another influence.) Readers accustomed to Fokkina’s poems will know that she has a great gift for sudden shifts of thought and emphasis which wrong-foot and surprise the reader. Many years’ practice as a psychotherapist must have informed Fokkina’s acute sensitivity to how the brain and heart interact. Her poems implicitly ask questions but usually stop short of providing answers – as with effective haiku, the reader is invited to do some work, in effect to complete the poems. There’s a lightness or playfulness among the trauma which sporadically surfaces; a sense which I can only really explain fully by using the Japanese haiku concept of karumi, which Michael Dylan Welch explores so well in an essay available here. And where Fokkina does apparently provide answers, the reader has to wonder if they are the answers of an unreliable narrator of sorts.

When I asked Fokkina if I could feature and write about one of the collection’s poems here, there were so many I could have waxed about that making the choice was far from easy. The poem below is reproduced with Fokkina’s kind permission.

Safe House

          Where will it be? What will be inside?

you already know    if you are living in this small space    a
cardboard cupboard    that even the best of lives are flammable

          the strawberry box of memories
          Dave Brubeck’s Take Five

at the end of the line someone will be waiting for you
someone to whom you have ties   their shoulders are a temporary

          the picture of the ice cutter from Alaska   a few
          small men on the ice   coloured anoraks

singing is escaping so fast no-one can catch you    Scarlatti as
a rope ladder over the abyss

          photos    a card    her Venetian mask
          a fire blanket in the kitchen

don’t follow the first instruction until you have examined it closely
it may be something metal from which you can only escape by
removing yourself from your limb

          a coffin of white wood
          (bad people would not think to look inside)

the narrow old blue chair that holds you

          a ginger cat   but not called Louis
          that name is taken

the only safe house is time   about 6:30   the long golden shadow
the voice of the person who kept you safe when you were small


The notes at the back of the book say that this poem is ‘after the poem of that title by Andrew Waterhouse’. In fact, the title of Waterhouse’s poem was slightly longer: ‘Safe House at the End of the Line’. It was the penultimate poem in his first and, alas, only collection, in, published by The Rialto in 2000, because he took his own life a year later, aged 42. Waterhouse’s death was a huge loss, comparable to that of the suicide of the American poet Thomas James who, like Waterhouse, left behind just one, brilliant book.

It’s always tricky to know precisely what the word ‘after’ means when a poet says that a poem is after a work of another poet (or artist), and how much the latter has influenced the former. In some cases the connection appears tenuous at most, but in this instance, the links between the two poems are so strong that, before attempting to analyse Fokkina’s poem on its own terms, it feels necessary to detail and explore those links – though before even that, it’s worth noting that the two poets were born and grew up either side of the North Sea – Waterhouse was born in Scarborough and raised in Gainsborough, 40 miles inland from the Lincolnshire coast.

Waterhouse’s poem consists of two sections, entitled ‘where will it be’ and ‘what will be in it’ (without question-marks), which together, with question-marks, make up the subtitle of Fokkina’s poem. Waterhouse’s poem begins, beautifully, with what feels like a fictionalised version of the Lincolnshire or Yorkshire coast: ‘By the Northern Ocean, at the peninsula’s tip / unmarked on the best maps, known only to wise seals / and brightly coloured migrants blown well off course.’ (Those ‘wise seals’ remind me of the seal in Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘At the Fishhouses’.)

The clause ‘at the end of the line’ in Fokkina’s poem echoes the title of Waterhouse’s poem. Other echoes include:

  • ‘coloured anoraks’ (FM) / ‘yellow cagoule’ (AW)
  • ‘strawberry box’ (FM) / ‘Red rooms’ (AW)
  • ‘a ginger cat’ (FM) / ‘the last cat / I stroked’ (AW)
  • ‘the only safe house is time’ (FM) / ‘time’s breakfast’ (AW)

So, what should we make of these allusions? One might intuit that Fokkina is paying homage to Waterhouse and his brilliant poem; her poem is most certainly in keeping with the spirit of the latter, which describes the safe house as a place in ‘the lowlands, / known only by my friends and good relations’. It’s perhaps noteworthy that classical Japanese haiku frequently alluded to other poets’ haiku. More pertinent for me, though, is the impression I glean that Fokkina’s allusions are like those of an auteur, projecting images which recall and correspond with those of other directors’ films. I very much like this impression, and the way in which it enables the reader to reach down into extra depths of what, even examined without reference to Waterhouse’s poem, is a multi-layered, richly rewarding reading experience.

For me, it is essential that, as Fokkina is here, the poet is transparent about the allusion and influence. Crucially, Fokkina’s poem doesn’t state below the title that it is ‘after’ Waterhouse’s poem but in the book’s end-notes, and this gives the reader the opportunity to read Fokkina’s poem on its own terms before any consideration of how it interacts with Waterhouse’s poem.

Now to unravel Fokkina’s poem. What of the title and subtitle? Yes, they provide direct allusions to Waterhouse’s poem, but what is the concept of a safe house?

Without looking it up, it immediately conjured for me a physical safe space for those fleeing terror or violence. Runaway slaves. Maybe resistance fighters against, or Jewish people hiding from, the Nazis. (Fokkina’s nationality alone summons the Occupation connotations, even if it is irrelevant to an interpretation of the poem, except, possibly, as a thread of inherited trauma.) Groups – like the Weather Underground Organization (AKA the Weathermen) and the Black Panthers – which operated in the shadows against other tyrannically oppressive regimes. The millions of refugees from war zones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere. Those seeking sanctuary from domestic abuse, almost always perpetrated by men against women.

Then there is the psychological concept of ‘safe house’ which is ancillary to any of the physical safe spaces. That it is defined as a safe house presumably roots the concept in the metaphor of a child’s feeling of security within a loving and nurturing home environment.

The spare nature of this poem, and how its phrases and clauses collide, at times somewhat hallucinogenically, means that picking a way through it ought to be undertaken slowly and thoroughly.

Quite often, when a poet uses the second person it is a device for masking a first-person narrative. Here, I perceive it to be simply a way of putting the reader into the protagonist’s shoes, like a cinematic camera-angle device for heightening the viewer’s awareness.

With that near-homophonic ‘cardboard cupboard’ at risk of fire, the poem’s opening couplet makes plain the precariousness of the safe house concept – like the scariness of being sought in a game of hide-and-seek, that most metaphorical of children’s games.

The poem then indents with the first of five couplets which are detached from the lefthand margin. One wonders at first whether these indented lines could be interpreted as providing a meta-commentary on the left-justified lines, but then the penny drops: the left-justified lines outline where the safe house will be and the indented ones outline what will be inside it. At least, that’s how the format seems to start, but as the poem continues the two strands become blurred, as if place and contents of place become one, in existential terms.

The phrase ‘the strawberry box of memories’ is rich in itself: is this a box which is (painted) strawberry-coloured, or did it actually contain strawberries? Since the Netherlands is renowned among other things for its all-year-round production of fruit, I’m inclined towards the latter, but I’m often far too literal. (In my mind’s eye I also conflated strawberry fondants and chocolate box, but hey ho.) As with the entire poem, McDonnell, as Waterhouse did, is showing – magnificently – rather than telling, so each reader’s interpretation will be the ‘right’ one.

The reference to Brubeck’s famous 1959 jazz tune, and its unusual 5/4 time-signature, bestows another filmic quality, of the score creeping almost unnoticed into the viewer’s hearing. Here it acts – or could act – as a soundtrack for the first part of the poem, its heterodox 5/4 time being entirely fitting for a poem whose spirit and content is as alarming as it is reassuring. In poetry workshops I attended, Pascale Petit used to ask and remind participants to ‘use all the senses’, including synaesthesia and kinaesthesia, and Fokkina certainly packs a lot of different sensations into this poem – not in a workshop-like manner though, but with the touch and expertise of a poet who truly has the full range of poetic effects at her fingertips.

That ‘at the end of the line’ I take, firstly, to be a railway station in a coastal town and then metaphorically as the idea of being in a backwater – Waterhouse’s poem includes the fabulous line, ‘At the end of a road starved to a track between stationary sheep’. Instantly, I also imagine the sort of flat, featureless, yet danger-filled landscapes beloved of Scandi-Noir writers and film/TV adaptors. The association is apt because ‘someone will be waiting for you’ sounds menacingly ambiguous; a shiver-inducing feeling that the clarification in the next line – that ‘someone to whom you have ties’ – doesn’t quite dispel, since the word ‘ties’ could suggest being bound or beholden to that ‘someone’. The next clause, however, appears to offer reassurance, albeit that it is like a ‘temporary saloon’, a disconcerting phrase. The word ‘temporary’ promises only a fragile respite; and ‘saloon’ has several alternative meanings but it’s difficult to pinpoint one which might be intended more than others in this context.

The second indented couplet takes the reader to another landscape via what might be pictures in a children’s book or a copy of National Geographic. The descriptions are very precise: not just an ‘ice cutter’ but one who hails from ‘Alaska’; and the men are ‘small’, a word given extra emphasis by its effective delayed appearance due to the preceding line-break. Fokkina’s well-judged use of specificity is underlined by the fact that she doesn’t overdo it; the deployment of ‘coloured’ is restrained – the anoraks aren’t necessarily multicoloured and so a semblance of ambiguity is retained. I suspect the fact that Waterhouse used a specific colour for the cagoule in his poem may have been decisive here.

The next stanza ratchets up the tension: ‘singing is escaping so fast no-one can catch you’ is a bold statement, akin to the certainty of the opening stanza, and one which, if the reader just accepts it as fact, is quickly followed by the implicit horror of ‘Scarlatti as / a rope ladder over the abyss’. When I think of Scarlatti, it isn’t his music I think of, but his appearance in Basil Bunting’s ‘Briggflats’, arguably the finest long poem written in English in the Twentieth Century:

It is time to consider how
Domenico Scarlatti
condensed so much music into
so few bars
with never a crabbed turn or
congested cadence,
never a boast or a see-here; and
stars and lakes
echo him and the copse drums
out his measure,
snow peaks are lifted up in
moonlight and twilight
and the sun rises on an
acknowledged land.

But I digress.

How can Scarlatti’s music be, or be like, ‘a rope ladder over the abyss’? I’m not sure, and no matter: it’s a wondrous piece of synaesthesia. An ‘abyss’ is an Ancient-Greek-derived word for a bottomless pit devoid of objects, of course, the polar opposite of a ‘safe house’.

The phrases in the next indented couplet are shorter and more staccato, providing acceleration for the reader before the wordier, more prosaic, imperative content of the next stanza. Signifiers of identity – the ‘photos’ and ‘a card’ – give way to one which protects identity, albeit that it is an implicitly familiar one: ‘her Venetian mask’. At this point, the reader might be puzzled by the sudden female possessive pronoun, the first hint of another person. Is it a mother figure, perhaps foreshadowing the poem’s final line? And then there’s ‘a fire blanket in the kitchen’, offering security against the possible flammability iterated earlier in the poem; an everyday item which is taken for granted in the expectation that the likelihood of ever having to use it is statistically low.

The poem’s middle stanza, the only one with more than two lines, reads as though it’s been cribbed from a bizarre health and safety manual, the straightforward, sensible advice of the first line leading to the weird horror of ‘it may be something metal from which you can only escape by / removing yourself from your limb’. Is this intended to be literal, or is it a psychological theory of detachment? The potential self-immolation is rendered more shocking by the inversion: not ‘removing your limb’, but ‘removing yourself from your limb’. The thought comes then that this could only be done with a knife, saw or other very sharp implement. The reader may be forgiven for wanting to move on swiftly.

Nonetheless, the poem piles on the horror here: ‘you’ may have to hide in ‘a coffin of white wood’ because ‘bad people would not think to look inside’. Again, the specificity is on the nail: the wood is ‘white’, the colour which in old times (in England anyway) was associated with death, long before black took over. And then comes the fear that the ‘bad people’ might, after all, think ‘to look inside’.

Somehow the poem resolves itself in a quasi-happy ending. At last, there is grounded familiarity – ‘the narrow old blue chair that holds you’ – yet it isn’t a person who ‘holds you’ but a piece of furniture, notwithstanding that it is described so accurately as to be one for which ‘you’ have affection. The order of the adjectives is intriguing here. It would be more natural sounding to write ‘the old narrow blue chair’ or possibly ‘the old blue narrow chair’; by putting ‘narrow’ first, the description accentuates the restricted physical space, as if, even in safety, there isn’t, and can’t be, total freedom. The words ‘hold you’ themselves have a double meaning: on the one hand there is the security of feeling held and on the other there is the sense of being held against one’s will.

Likewise, a pet doesn’t provide unfettered comfort: this is ‘a’ – not ‘your’ or even ‘her’ – ‘ginger cat’. (Note again, the specification of colour.) Moreover, in a sub-clause which superficially looks amusing but is, in fact, considerably perturbing, the reader learns that it isn’t the cat which ‘you’ thought it either was or, by your naming of it, could be one with whom you were familiar. The line-break after ‘Louis’ adroitly defers the oddness of ‘that name is taken’.

Unsurprisingly, the conclusion when it comes is equally unsettling: the reader is informed matter-of-factly that the only safe house is time’, but not time per se, but a particular-ish time, ‘about 6:30’. One senses from ‘the long golden shadow’ that this is 6.30 p.m., during the magic hour before sunset, when shadows flicker and appearances change in subtle, unnerving ways. At the end, all that is available to make you feel safe, the poem implies, is ‘the voice of the person who kept you safe when you were small’. However, even that isn’t necessarily the voice itself of a living person with whom you can still interact; it may well be the memory of how their voice sounded, its cadences, mannerisms and stock-phrases, and its lulling ‘when you were small’.

It might be pertinent at this juncture to compare this equivocal resolution with the finality of the ending of ‘Safe House at the End of the Line’, which details ‘a variety / of favourite rocks arranged on shelves, / in chronological order from time’s breakfast / to the approaching abrupt end.’ Of course, knowledge of Waterhouse’s suicide retrospectively hangs very heavily over that last phrase.

For a comparatively short poem, ‘Safe House’ contains not just a wide array of imagery and shifts of tone, but also conveys a multi-layered emotional charge and metaphysical, all but eschatological, journey. The poem’s form – the generous amount of white space as well as the lower-case and lack of punctuation – mitigates against both the implicit and explicit terrors which the poem suggests life itself can hold and which we are each attempting, with our own singular methods, to avoid. Tackling such subject-matter to create a work of art like this requires abundant skill, dexterity and all-round poetic craft and ability.

7 thoughts on “On Fokkina McDonnell’s ‘Safe House’

  1. This is a lovely piece of writing about Fokkina’s work. But I just wanted to say that Andrew Waterhouse had two full collections, one posthumous (and also from Rialto) titled ‘Second’, because that was the name of the file in which he kept his uncollected poems. It is sold out on Rialto’s home page but there are copies to be found if you search around.

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