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.

On (Eavan Boland and Colm Tóibín, again, on) Elizabeth Bishop

Having savoured Colm Tóibín’s book On Elizabeth Bishop, I then re-read words on Bishop by another great Irish writer, Eavan Boland: the chapter ‘Elizabeth Bishop: an unromantic American’ in her wonderful book A Journey with Two Maps (Carcanet, 2011), available here.

The focus of that book is on Boland’s own poetic journey and how women poets helped her shape her ideas about how she could relate in poems her own experience as a woman, wife, and mother; therefore, her thoughts on Bishop are somewhat subsumed to that purpose. Nonetheless, Boland’s discussion of Bishop’s ‘tone’, as distinct from her ‘voice’, is illuminating. As is her dissection of ‘At the Fishhouses’, from Cold Spring (1955), available to read here: rightly, she notes that, in amongst Bishop’s usual litany of precise visual perceptions, there lurks a “superb meditation on water as an emblem of tragic knowledge”, interrupted by the lighthearted, cameo appearance of a seal: ‘He was curious about me. He was interested in music; / like me a believer in total immersion, / so I used to sing him Baptist hymns’.

While Tóibín highlights Bishop’s paradoxical observation, ‘as if the water were a transmutation of fire’, Boland’s commentary stops short of addressing the last 19 lines of the poem, in which Bishop’s description of the sea reaches a tidal crescendo, culminating in the poem’s brilliant, six-line final sentence:

It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

If a poet took lines like these to a workshop nowadays, the response would no doubt be that the poet should axe at least half the adjectives.

What’s especially intriguing to me in those lines is how Bishop separated the adjectives with commas in the second and last of them, but didn’t in the third. Strict grammarians may say that in a string of adjectives qualifying the same noun, there should always be commas between them; in poems, though that often looks fussy, if not off-putting to the reader. It could be, too, that by not separating adjectives with commas, one can enable them to have a pleasing and surprising compound quality. In this instance, Bishop used commas where she wanted to slow down the reader’s attention. Judging when to do this in poetry isn’t necessarily straightforward. Pacing, though, is a key component of a poem’s efficacy – and it isn’t just a case of deciding which overall form suits the words, and the speed at which the poet wants the reader to absorb them, but also how the pace of the words in each line looks and, moreover, sounds.

I could witter on about how Bishop brilliantly and repeatedly shifted the focus within the poem as a whole without it ever seeming as through its coherence was slipping; however, Tóibín is a much better guide to that than I’d be.

On a haiku by Sheila Butterworth

all day
the drop and roll of acorns
on a tin roof

The benefit of having the Haiku Calendar on my work desk is that the monthly selections quickly seep into my consciousness. This one, one of the three runners-up for October in this year’s calendar, must’ve been written, probably twenty-five or so miles to the north-west of where I am, on a day just like today here in Yorkshire: dominated by a keen south-westerly/southerly breeze; warmish, but fierce enough to shake the trees, specifically to loosen acorns from at least one mighty oak.

It’s a highly sensory haiku. The wind is implicit, as is the sound of the acorns hitting the roof, but the movement of the acorns and the surface of the roof – a tin roof – are clearly outlined, with an engagingly direct simplicity.

Underneath it all, and what makes this haiku really stand out, are the multiple timelines. The reader is told, first, that the action within the haiku has been happening ‘all day’ and, presumably, is still happening now. Yet set against that constant movement is the forensic focus on the journey of the acorns: they ‘drop’ onto the tin roof and then ‘roll’ along it, perhaps along its corrugations – and then almost certainly straight onto the ground, because a tin roof is unlikely to be a flat roof. Once on the ground, there is, of course, the possibility that some of the acorns will, over a much longer timeframe, furnish forth new oaks, in the great cycle of life, and all the biodiversity which oaks support.

It should be noted that the way in which Butterworth uses ‘drop’ as a noun makes the acorns’ movement seem more fluid, and, crucially, more incessant, than if she had used it as a verb – compare her haiku with this possible alternative:

all day
acorns drop and roll
on a tin roof

This version is passable, but Butterworth’s one is much preferable, because it shifts the emphasis of the poem from the all-day nature of the activity squarely onto the acorns’ journey from the tree; it is that ‘the’ which confers the central importance. We know that the acorns’ fall will not last forever, but it is as noticeable as all-day rain, with a similar, though more intermittent and therefore different, drumming sound.

A deeper reading could be, as it is for many autumnal haiku, a metaphorical one: that we too, as readers, will, if we reach that age, experience our own physical change, a slowing-down that leads inexorably in one direction. Whether, like the falling of acorns does, it will eventually lead to rebirth is, naturally, for the individual reader to decide or not.

On (Colm Tóibín on) Elizabeth Bishop

There’s a good case to be made for October being the loveliest month, in England at any rate; though only really when the sun shines and the plentiful golden yellows are at their best, like Samuel Palmer landscapes before your eyes.

It’s also a month of melancholy, too, which suits me just fine. The ideal time to get stuck into some serious reading, which, in turn, will feed into writing. Over the years, early autumn has traditionally been a time when I will make a concentrated study of a favourite poet’s oeuvre, to see how the quality of their output, and the clarity of their thinking, deepened over time. Poets who, either by choice or premature death (yes, I realise that most deaths are premature in some respect), published in a disciplined and selective manner are ideal for this, Elizabeth Bishop for one.

Like everyone and anyone who loves poetry, I’ve long liked Bishop’s poems. Curiously, though, real, devoted love for them has been awakened in me through an apparently unlikely source, Colm Tóibín. His book On Elizabeth Bishop, published by Princeton University Press, is as fine a critical reader’s study of another writer as any I’ve ever read. I find it interesting that it should be a writer known until recently solely for his novels, albeit wonderful ones at that, who has really opened my eyes. I won’t spoil the book for anyone who might be tempted to buy a copy, save to quote just the first sentence of the opening section (‘No Detail too small’), which alone was enough to make me sit up and reflect:

She began with the idea that little is known and that much is puzzling.

Tóibín continues:

The effort, then, to make a true statement in poetry—to claim that something is something, or does something—required a hushed, solitary concentration.

Much more than, say, his late compatriot Eavan Boland did, he gets to the heart of Bishop’s statement-making, her restraint – what’s unsaid in her poetry as much as what is said, especially in comparison to her close friend Robert Lowell – and the exactness of her writing. In so doing, he quotes extensively from Bishop’s stories and correspondence (primarily with Lowell, naturally), but also from another great poet, Thom Gunn, who, like Bishop, chose not to take the ‘confessional’ path blazed by Lowell in Life Studies.

On the strength of just a few pages of the book, I couldn’t resist buying Tóibín’s poetry collection, Vinegar Hill, published by Carcanet. It could’ve been a dreadful vanity project, but, as any of the recent online readings he’s undertaken attests (there are several on YouTube), Tóibín’s humility about his poetry appears genuine and heartwarming. By and large, it’s a very good collection, albeit rather bloated – thinning out by a third, maybe almost a half, could’ve made it brilliant. All the same, I enjoyed and admired it.

Haiku Society of America Haiku Award

Thanks to Chuck Brickley, I’ve recently had the great honour of co-judging, with Kat Lehmann, the Haiku Society of America’s annual haiku competition, named in memory of Harold G. Henderson, who played a pivotal role in helping to popularise haiku in English.

I’ve been reflecting on why it’s such a great honour. The answer is complex. First off, that the HSA should ask me, some schmuck from England, when the easiest thing would be to ask two (North) American haiku poets – I find that immensely open-minded, especially at this time when globalism seems to be in retreat. Secondly, that so many of the English-language haiku poets whom I admire are American. Thirdly, that much of the rich culture which has influenced me as a person, and as a writer, is American – not just the obvious poets like Bishop, Brock-Broido, Kerouac, Lowell, Snyder and Williams, but art film, music and all, right up to yesterday, when I had Jake Xerxes Fussell’s interpretations of old folk tunes from the South on repeat. So, much gratitude again to Chuck.

I hugely enjoyed the process through which Kat and I progressed from our two separate longish shortlists to having a combined shortlist, and agreeing which poems would be the top three (or four in our case) and then which would be awarded hono(u)rable mentions.

Thanks to Kat, it was an altogether much easier and better process than being a sole judge, as I was for the Martin Lucas Haiku Award for 2019. When you are flying solo, you have nobody with whom you can air your thoughts and doubts about particular haiku; moreover, the chances are that, however meticulously you undertake the initial sifting, you will overlook some perfectly excellent poems which might have otherwise grown on you had you given them the chance to do so.

I like to think that the seven haiku which we selected are all excellent and resonant in their individual ways, and that the pleasure we took from reading and discussing them is evident in the commentaries which Kat and I co-wrote.

You can read the winning haiku and our commentaries here.

On Simon Chard

I’ve written about the clarity and excellence of Simon Chard’s haiku before, here, and I make no apology for doing so again. Over the last few years, his haiku have been as consistently good as those of any English-language haiku poet and it’s no wonder that he’s won several competitions, including the Haiku Presence Award for 2014 and the BHS’s David Cobb Award for 2021, here.

Snapshot Press published an ebook – A Fence Without Wire, available here –  of 20 of Chard’s haiku in 2017. Many of his poems reflect the flora and fauna of Dumfries and Galloway where he lives. Since then, Chard has continued to develop his craft and take more risks.

In the latest issue of Presence, #73, one of his three haiku takes what many readers and, I suspect, most editors would deem to be a highly fanciful turn:

bracket fungus
we take the same path
as the goblins

One could criticise the first line for using the generic ‘bracket fungus’ rather than a specific identification, but many bracket fungi look similar to one another so, unless the reader is a mycologist, the wording is totally understandable. One sees the tree or stump to which the fungus is clinging, and senses that the setting is fairly deep inside a wood or forest. The word ‘goblin’, deriving from Norman, came into English in the 13th Century it seems, so one can conclude that belief in goblins is ancient, as ancient as the woodland into which Chard’s haiku leads us. The surprise of the line is softened sonically by ending, like the first line, in an ‘s’. More power to Ian Storr’s elbow for publishing this poem, and good on Simon for writing it.

I was also intrigued by another of Chard’s trio, mainly, but not only, because he includes a place-name and does so prominently:

tinged with pink
first snow

Burnswark was new to me, and a quick search said that it’s a hill near Lockerbie with a rich and fascinating history: evidence of Bronze Age occupation; an Iron Age hillfort; and site of a battle between the Romans and locals in the 2nd Century. To my mind, not enough English-language writers are willing to use the power and associations of place-names in their poems. Does it matter if the reader is initially unfamiliar with the reference? Well, the answer is surely that if they are interested, they will look it up. In this haiku, Chard has the confidence to let the hill’s name stand alone as the first line. Its first syllable has an assonance with ‘first’ in the third line and a pararhyme with the ‘n’ of ‘tinged’. Its second syllable has a near-rhyme with ‘pink’. The three ‘w’s in the haiku, happily positioned on a diagonal add a visual rhyme. The picture painted is of a hill towering over a broad landscape at a crepuscular hour – I see a spectacular sunset rather than dawn, but either is possible – as late-autumn gives way to the harshness of winter. With a syllable count of 2-3-2, it’s a short haiku by any standard. The passive adjectival verb, ‘tinged’, is inspired; it suggests the sunset is either working up to a full multi-red glow or is fading from one towards darkness. However one reads it, the elemental sense is intensely vivid.

On Ted Hughes

On Saturday, fellow poets Ian Parks, Simon Beech, Tracy Day Dawson and I walked the route of Ted Hughes’s paper round up from Mexborough to Old Denaby, as described here. Ian, born and brought up in Mexborough, led us on the route which took in the former newsagent’s where Hughes and his family lived from 1938.

The former Hughes newsagent, Main Street, Mexborough
Blue plaque to Hughes on the former newsagent’s
Manor Farm, Old Denaby

At the right-hand-side of the shop is Hughes’s bedroom window overlooking what was a slaughter-yard back then. It inspired his gruesome poem ‘View of a Pig’, published in his second collection, Lupercal (1960). Like most, if not all, English children of my generation, I studied the poems of Hughes more than anyone else’s, except perhaps Owen and Sassoon, and it was the earthier, meatier poems like this one, and ‘Pike’, also from Lupercal, which we read the most. The poem’s last two lines – with the perfectly-judged anaphora, alliteration and simile – ring across the years from an England long-gone:

I stared at it a long time. They were going to scald it,
Scald it and scour it like a doorstep.

The route took in the possible setting of ‘Pike’:

A pond I fished, fifty yards across,
Whose lilies and muscular tench
Had outlasted every visible stone
Of the monastery that planted them—

Stilled legendary depths:
It was as deep as England. It held
Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old

The route took in Manor Farm, where Hughes went trapping and shooting with his brother. It’s the setting of his poem, ‘Sunstroke’, again in Lupercal:

Reek of paraffin oil and creosote
Swabbing my lungs doctored me back

Laid on a sack in the great-beamed engine-shed.
I drank at stone, at iron of plough and harrow
[. . .]

I should add that Ian has a wonderful poem published today over at Black Nore Review, here, and I’m looking forward to hearing Ian read at Mexborough Library this Wednesday.


On looking into Lupercal again, I came across that odd poem ‘Mayday on Holderness’, such a contrast to Larkin’s ‘Here’ covering the same terrain, which I trod recently. The last three stanzas travel a vast distance:

The crow sleeps glutted and the stoat begins.
There are eye-guarded eggs in these hedgerows,
Hot haynests under the roots in burrows.
Couples at their pursuits are laughing in the lanes.

The North Sea lies soundless. Beneath it
Smoulder the wars: to heart-beats, bomb, bayonet.
“Mother, Mother!” cries the pierced helmet.
Cordite oozings of Gallipoli,

Curded to beastings, broached my palate,
The expressionless gaze of the leopard,
The coils of the sleeping anaconda,
The nightlong frenzy of shrews.

In Larkin Country

I can’t really not mention Larkin, since yesterday was the 100th anniversary of his birth. Last week, I spent a few days in deepest Holderness, the flatlands of East Yorkshire between Hull and the North Sea.

It’s the area celebrated in ‘Here’, the opening poem of The Whitsun Weddings, and which ends in one of trademark, secular-mystical epiphanies:

                             Here silence stands
Like heat. Here leaves unnoticed thicken,
Hidden weeds flower, neglected waters quicken,
Luminously-peopled air ascends;
And past the poppies bluish neutral distance
Ends the land suddenly beyond a beach
Of shapes and shingle. Here is unfenced existence:
Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.

Nowhere is that sense of ‘unfenced existence’ more apparent than along the spit of Spurn, which protrudes three miles into the last knockings of the Humber estuary, much in the same way that Southend Pier does at the end of the Thames.

A field near Spurn
The North Sea from Spurn
The lighthouse at Spurn

From Spurn Point at the end, you can see Bull Sand Fort, a derelict First World War fort guarding the approaches to the Humber. I wonder if it’s what inspired the strange phrase in Larkin’s ‘Friday Night at the Royal Station Hotel’: ‘How / Isolated, like a fort, it is’.

What’s for sure is that Holderness is little changed from Larkin’s time. Since he was still alive when I first became interested in poetry, I somehow think of him as being more contemporary than he is. It seems hard to credit that he was born in the same year as another great writer who inspired me to pick up a pencil, Jack Kerouac, though he, of course, had died long before (in 1969) I came of age. They both inclined to melancholy, and both loved jazz, though Kerouac’s hero Charlie Parker was a figure of hate for Larkin. But I digress. Neither has remained a great, direct influence, but bear repeated, pleasurable re-readings.

On Sickert

I’ve been to see the Sickert exhibition at Tate Britain, having meant to go and see it in Liverpool when it was on show there.

Poster for Sickert exhibition at Tate Britain

Sickert’s long been among my favourite British artists – and artists per se. The exhibition traces his development from his beginnings as Whistler’s protégé in the 1880s to becoming the grand old man of British art as Europe descended into war for the second time during his life. The curators haven’t flinched from questioning the ethics of Sickert’s nudes or his interest in the infamous Camden Town Murder, and outline how his pioneering usage of photographs paved the way for Pop Art. For me, it was especially good to see many of his Degas-influenced music-hall and theatre pictures assembled together; likewise with the ‘conversation pieces’, narrative paintings in shades of brown and muted ochre, which could have illustrated the novels of Bennett or Wells.

Here’s a poem of mine, written six or seven years ago, which focuses on three fine Sickert paintings in the Tate collection, all of which feature in the exhibition, two of them hung side-by-side.

Sickert: Minnie Cunningham at the Old Bedford, 1892, and Brighton Pierrots, 1915
Sickert: Miss Earhart’s Arrival, 1932

Sickertian Reds

Vermilion: the dress and hat of Minnie Cunningham,
vamping, for the Bedford Music Hall’s Friday-night delight,
‘I’m an Old Hand at Love, Though I’m Young in Years’.

Venetian: the suits worn by Brighton Pierrots, trotting out
patter to rows of vacant deckchairs, while poison-gas drifts
and chokes the No Man’s Land beyond Sickert’s Dieppe.

Scarlet: the mac defining a news reporter’s back, hunched
at the front of a vast crowd flailed by rain, waiting hours
for Amelia Earhart’s arrival at Hanworth Air Park, May ’32;

conception month of my parents, who grew up to nurture
such tasty Moneymaker tomatoes, lining them up to redden
on the south-facing window-sill, behind the kitchen sink.

On Ted Walker

Today is an exciting day for me because my essay on the poet (and writer per se) Ted Walker has been published on The Friday Poem, here. I’m very grateful to editor Hilary Menos for finding space for my rambling observations and, moreover, for Ted himself.

The essay took a good deal of reading and research, including a trip down to Lancing back in February (thus the photos); it was, and is, a labour of love. The more I’ve read by and about Ted, the more I’ve grown to like him and respect his considerable achievements. As you’ll see from the essay, he was critically acclaimed throughout his career, yet hardly anyone seems to remember him. My intention was to bring Ted back into the light, so that, with any luck, he might acquire some new readers. If that happens, then I will be very glad.


The summer is invariably a quiet time for me, writing-wise. There are too many distractions for one thing, but, in any case, I rarely get in the mood to write when it’s warm and pleasant outside.

Reading, though, is a different matter. Sitting out in the sunshine with a good book is, of course, one of life’s great pleasures. In the last three months or so, I’ve enjoyed new and old collections by David Cooke, Jonathan Davidson, Tim Dooley, John Foggin, Ishion Hutchinson, Simon Jenner, Anita Pati, Peter Sansom, Anne Stevenson and Sarah Westcott, as well as pamphlets by Amanda Dalton and Greg Freeman which I’ve reviewed.

On my to-read pile, are new collections by Cahal Dallat, Richie McCaffrey, Dino Mahoney, Helena Nelson and some old ones by Ken Smith, plus the Collected Poems of Lorine Niedecker. All of those should keep me busy when I’m off soon, in four of the six school holiday weeks. A few days in Marvell country, Holderness, will also be good for the soul.

It’s been lovely to see the excellent news lately that some of my favourite poets have new collections forthcoming, including Ramona Herdman, Marion McCready, Pete Raynard, Emma Simon and Matthew Stewart.

Meanwhile, the understandably long waits to hear back about various submissions go on and on, so in amongst my fretting about resilience and recalling of Eliot’s words about poetry being a mug’s game, I was chuffed to see, today, that Live Canon posted on YouTube the reading I did for them last year in their still-thriving Friday Lunchtime readings series. It can be watched here.

Public Sector Poetry

I have a poem, ‘Accommodation Strategy’, in the second issue, here, of Public Sector Poetry, which is a rather niche journal for people like me who work in the public sector and also happen to be poets. The events of the last two years have already rendered my poem’s content out of date, but it represents a certain point in time. It just goes to show that local government is rather more fluid and dynamic now than when I started it in an eon ago.