Poetry progress : from Sheepwash to the Sierra Nevada

The hot summer of ’76, the one everyone remembers; the summer, in the short life of my fictional private eye, Scott Mitchell, between Amphetamines and Pearls and The Geranium Kiss; the summer I drove my green Citroen 2CV down to the south west, to Totleigh Barton, a sixteenth century manor house close to the village of Sheepwash and the River Torridge that was the Arvon Foundation’s first residential writing centre; a week in which to get to know one’s fellow students, share the cooking, lean on the tutors for advice and swop pulp fiction for poetry.

I arrived before most students on the first day and combing the house for the best of the shared bedrooms still available, I came across one in which the occupant, having claimed his space, had set out the small library of books he’d brought with him in a neat line. I can’t remember now what they were, but one quick glance was enough to suggest their owner might be an interesting person with whom to share.

Alan Brooks turned out to be an American temporarily living in London, a rural conservationist and a fine poet, someone who has remained a good and close friend. It was with Alan that the idea for Slow Dancer magazine was formed; Alan, after his return to Downest Maine, who became the magazine’s US Editor through its thirty issues.

The covers of the first few – designed by Nadia Stern – will give an idea of the range of poets we were publishing in this early years.

Just as it’s easy to look back on that meeting with Alan Brooks as being of singular importance in that part of my life concerned with the writing and publishing of poetry, so I can point to my attendance in 1993 and again in 1995 at the Community of Writers poetry programme at Olympic Valley – Squaw Valley as it was then called – in Northern California’s Sierra Nevada, as being of great significance on both counts. In terms of my writing, through example and through suggestion and discussion, I was encouraged to vary the style in which I’d been writing, experiment a little, enjoy the feel of language, rhythm, find subjects in the natural world. In the afternoons we would listen to the staff poets such as Robert Hass, Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, Brenda Hillman reading and talking about their poetry, and it was Robert Hass’s work which affected me most strongly. I can still remember the first occasion on which I heard him read – poems which moved seamlessly between the abstract and the deeply personal, which incorporated philosophical ideas alongside close observations of the natural world, while taking in references to the films of Kurosawa and the blues of Mississippi John Hurt. All of this without missing a beat or losing for a moment the listener’s attention.

The mornings were spent in small workshop sessions headed by those same poets, during which we would read and discuss the poems we had somehow found space and time to write the previous day. Every day. Poems that you left outside the door to be collected in the early hours and photocopied in time for the morning seminar. I doubt I’ve been much happier.

The Community of Writers has recently published Why to These Rocks, an anthology of poems written over a period of 50 years by staff and participant poets and edited by Lisa Alvarez, in which I’m proud to have a short poem – just five lines – Out of Silence – which I think, short as it is, captures something of the essence of the time I spent so happily far from home.

Out of Silence

How the light diffuses round house corners;
redwood walls, the breaking colour of packed earth,
ochre in the mouth.

The red woodpecker testily chiselling sap from a small ash
the only sound in the valley.

Lee Harwood: 1939 – 2015.

I first came across Lee Harwood’s work in the 19th of the excellent Penguin Modern Poets series, purchased in 1971 when I was teaching English and Drama in Andover, Hampshire, and just beginning to send a little work of my own off to small magazines. Sandwiching, as it did, Lee’s poetry between that of the American John Ashbery – along with Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler, the best known of the New York Poets – and the British, but, like Lee, quite strongly American influenced, Tom Raworth, the selection opened me up to a new set of influences, a new range of possibilities.

From Andover, via Stevenage, to Nottingham, source of my first Harwood collection, The White Room, which combined some of the major poems from Penguin Modern Poets – “As Your Eyes Are Blue … “, “Landscape with 3 People”, “When the Geography Was Fixed” – with many others quite new to me and equally beguiling. Poems with stanzas underlined, scribbled down in notebooks, poems asterisked and starred, committed to memory. Poems I hamfistedly used as models, ending up with so many poor imitations. So much so that when I went as a participant to my first ever Arvon poetry writing course at Totleigh Barton in Devon – driving down from Nottingham in the midst of that amazing hot summer of ’76 in my green Citroen 2CV – the work I presented to the tutors at our first meeting must have read like the discards from Lee’s waste paper basket.

Without ever, I think, losing it altogether, that influence lessened with time. Truer to say, perhaps, I found a way of aligning it with that of Frank O’Hara, the two voices strongest at the back of my mind, until that day in 1993 when I first heard Robert Hass reading his poetry – but that’s another story.

I met Lee and we became friends …

Walking with Lee along the front by the sea,
ruins of the old West Pier, shift and change
of house fronts between Brighton and Hove.
Small cups of coffee, thick and black; we go out
for focaccia and cheese and bring them back

… and I was proud to publish three collections of his work with Slow Dancer Press: Dream Quilt – 30 Assorted Stories (1985); In the Mists – Mountain Poems (1993); Morning Light (1998).

Here is one of my favourites of Lee’s poems, “Gilded White”, the opening poem in Morning Light.

The last time I saw Lee we were both reading with John Lake’s jazz quartet at a small festival in Shoreham, not far along the south coast from where he lived. If there had to be a last time, I’m happy this was it, Lee’s voice soft yet clear over the shifting rhythms of the music, so clearly, so identifiably his.

In the September after Lee’s death, I was proud to be invited to read alongside Tom Raworth and others in a celebration of his life and work.

Tom Raworth

Poem : “Leaving Day”

LEAVING DAY

I’m reading a new book of poems by Ruth Valentine
while behind me, though the open window,
wide open because of the heat,
the head of the local comp across the street
hands out prizes for Art, Drama & Design
and the students applaud enthusiastically,
with the occasional whoop and holler,
the sound underscored by the low, spaced
sounds of Morton Feldman’s ‘Two Pianos’
on the stereo.

The poems are fine and spare,
controlled in their sense of loss and pain.
The applause rises to a crescendo.
This music, reads the sleeve note,
is intended to be quiet and is best played
at a low volume

A small group of the students is singing,
sad, perhaps, or happy to be on the point of leaving;
and overhead young swifts dart and sway,
performing parabolas in the heavy air,
testing their wings for what lies ahead.

Wednesday, 21st July, 2021 2.27pm

Poem for Christmas Day

CHRISTMAS DAY

Christmas morning, the sky 
an opaque unhindered grey; 
upstairs, our daughter, 
returned for the holiday,
is in her old room, sleeping; 
her mother’s cough, brittle, 
as she catches her breath on the stairs.

Slow-footed, careful, her grandparents
sleep on in unfamiliar rooms,
soon they will shuffle on their coats and shoes 
and make their way through quiet streets 
to early morning mass.

A timid boy of nine or ten,
let out of school, I hurried past
the Catholic Church on the hill,
copper dome gleaming green,
fearful lest in my haste I forgot,
as the Christian brothers ordered,
to doff my cap in respect
and brought down the wrath
of a watchful God. Remember:
He can see you everywhere.

When I was in kindergarten,
waiting in the corridor for
the teacher to arrive,
I punched Anthony Hipsley 
for squirting his water pistol
at the picture of the Sacred Heart
that hung from the classroom door
and was duly admonished
and made to stand in the corner
to contemplate the error of my ways.

Last night we sat late, listening 
to that motet by Vivaldi, 
the one from the movie,
nulls in mundo pax sincere
in this world there is no honest peace.

Timisoara, you called out earlier
in answer to some question 
already forgotten, a game 
of little consequence born of boredom, 
while the news from Aleppo
plays out, silent, on the screen 
behind us: street after street
of broken houses, ghosts of 
Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki,
Beirut, Grozny, Mosul, Palmyra …

Give me a word for a virtue 
associated with kindness, 
benevolence and goodwill,
beginning with the letter H,
eight letters …

Shadows lengthen in the hall.
Prayers rest, unspoken.

Books in a Good Cause

On Twitter recently, I offered signed copies of the penultimate Resnick novel, Cold in Hand, in exchange for donations to Médecins Sans Frontières – or Doctors Without Borders – an international medical organisation working in conflict zones and countries affected by endemic diseases. The take-up was pleasing enough to send me scouring the shelves in search of other gems with which to broaden the offer.

Here’s the deal: email me at info@mellotone.co.uk, giving a mailing address and letting me know which book you want and if you’d like a dedication as well as a signature. Then, once I’ve confirmed the book is still available, you make a donation (a tenner?) to MSF. and I send you the book. Simple.

And these are the books …

BODY & SOUL
Pegasus Books (US) hardcover edition, 2018.
The fourth and final book in the Frank Elder series

“When he’d said he’d drive in and meet her at the station, she’d said there was no need, she’d catch the bus. Lengthening his stride, he was in time to see its headlights as it rounded the hill; time to see her step down and walk towards him – ankle boots, padded jacket, jeans, rucksack on her back – uncertainty flickering in her eyes seen as she summoned up a smile.
‘Kate . . . It’s good to see you.’
When she reached out her hands towards his, he struggled not to stare at the bandages on her wrists.”

BLUE WATCH
Troika paperback, 2019.
A ‘Young Adult’ novel set in London 1n 1940, during the heart of the Blitz, it follows the adventures of Jack, a fifteen year-old Fire Brigade messenger, and his friendship with Lilith, a young refugee. A good read for anyone of secondary school age and beyond – quite a few adult readers have liked this a lot.

“It was one of those nights when it seemed as if the whole of London was on fire.”

dav

OUT OF SILENCE
New & Selected Poems
Smith|Doorstop, 2014
New poems – well, new in 2014 – along with Peter Sansom’s selection from two earlier collections, Ghosts of a Chance & Bluer Than This.

Driving through Camberwell
the rain slides down black across the windscreen
and as we pass the lights for the third time
you push a cassette into place
the click and hiss of tape and then it’s him:
Rhythm-a-ning. Charlie Rouse on tenor,
Sam Jones on bass, Art Taylor at the drums.
New York City, February, 1959 . . .

… and still some copies of

COLD IN HAND
Harcourt (US) hardcover edition, 2008
The penultimate book in the Charlie Resnick series

At first he thought what he heard as he stepped into the hall was the sound of a car backfiring, then knew, in the same breath, that it was not.

Poem for National Poetry Day

BREAKWATER

She woke, that summer, each day
at four twenty-five precisely;
lay there waiting for the first birds,
their anxious call,
the dawn pearling off the sea.

The last card he’d sent her:
Having a grand time, Mam,
wish you were here
.

She can hear his voice, low
amongst the day’s meanderings,
the shuffle of the busy shoreline
back and forth against the tide.

Today, she’ll clear out that cupboard,
herbs and spices she’d read about 
in some forgotten recipe and never used;
jars to be emptied, washed, restored;
shelves scrubbed clean
within an inch of their lives.

You damned fool, his father had said,
the first time he saw him in uniform.

She’d moved here not long after the funeral:
a walk along the pier after supper,
a cup of something warm,  a few pages
of her book before putting out light.

Tomorrow, perhaps, she’ll take the bus
north along the coast, watch the waves
battering the breakwater at Staithes,
the gulls wheeling past the cliff face
into the wind.

from Aslant, Shoestring Press, Nottingham, 2019

Aslant But Still Standing

ASLANT COVER10

Beautifully produced by Nottingham’s Shoestring Press, Aslant contains fourteen poems – some about jazz, some not – some haunted by thoughts of mortality – in addition to a dozen photographs by Molly Ernestine Boiling. Now Molly has made a neat little video, newly available on YouTube, in which my reading of two of the poems is juxtaposed with a selection of her photographs and just a touch of Thelonious Monk.

You can view it here …

“John Harvey’s poetry is spacious, unhurried, measured, taking its time to unfurl its effect but keeping its hooks in the reader by careful control of pace and by making every word count.

The photos by Molly E. Boiling are abstract conceptions, many based on buildings seen from unusual angles and reflect the poet’s interest in abstract art. They certainly contribute to what is a very attractive book-object.”
Robin Thomas: The High Window

Aslant 14

Aslant 6

Aslant 8

“Aslant places John Harvey’s poems alongside evocative photographs by Molly Boiling which provide sharp-edged images of steps, shadows, girders and corners of high buildings. These pictures often suggest entrances and exits or incidental glimpses alongside the telling of a story. Hence they combine well with Harvey’s poems which usually have a strong narrative and reminiscent thread.

“This is no ordinary book: the well-chosen images and the way they complement some consistently satisfying high-quality poems make it, in my view, well worth a tenner of anybody’s money.”
Thomas Owens: London Grip

Aslant is available from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk  or contacts@centralbooks.com
or, indeed, bookshops anywhere …

 

 

 

 

“After Corot”

PA166_After_Corot
‘After Corot’ 1979-1982, Howard Hodgkin

AFTER COROT

the train turning into the bay
enough to bring tears to your eyes;
reach & fall of your breathing

in the painting everything is
at a distance: cliff, harbour,
sea, sky

only wait
and the light breaks
white on the horizon
as a small boat painted red
hoves into view
and the land slips
another foot into the sea

untrammelled
blue seeps beneath
the edges of the frame
refusing to be bound

the slow rocking of the train
as it rounds the curve

your waking breath

the sea.

an ‘improved’ version of the poem in Bluer Than This, Smith/Doorstop, 1998

 

Fathers’ Day

My youngest daughter, Molly Ernestine, can be no stranger to regular readers of this blog, not least for her photographs, which, in addition to being posted here on occasion, are prominently featured alongside my poems in the recent Shoestring Press publication, Aslant. So, on Fathers’ Day, time, perhaps, to cast an eye towards my older children, Tom & Leanne, who shared their 50th birthday at the end of last year.

First, a little look back …

T & L Scooters

molly728

molly720

and here, older now …

Tom 2

MAKING MAPS
for Tom

Pushing up from Browning
through the Blackfeet Reservation
white crosses at the roadside
in fives and sixes now,
broken-down pick-ups
dead in the back yards
of broken shacks

We grin as ‘All Shook Up’
grinds out from the radio
lean our heads close and
sing as hard as we can

Driving through England
memory surprises me …

You made dams wherever we went
crouched patient over small streams
all the way from Castle to Iceberg
Lake, stopping time with your hands

When the deer breathed down
through the trees to the salt lick
at dusk I reckoned you’d earned it

Storms and rainbows
surrounded us. We drove
through three states,
three thousand miles
and love drove us fast together.

Leanne 1

… later still, Leanne in Paris …

HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN

It seems too much of a cliché,
almost, to tell it,
but there, up on the counter
of the Hollywood Canteen,
there amongst the images
of Marilyn, James Dean,
she pushes back her plate,
lights her cigarette
and right over the juke box
she says, nineteen:

I hate films that end like that,
stuck out on the porch
in the middle of nowhere
with some cute little kid
watching the sun go down –
as if it could ever happen.
Jesus! It’s like your parents
bringing you up to believe
it’s possible to tell the truth,
when one minute after they
let you out into the world
you can see everyone else is lying.
You try being nice out there,
just try it! You won’t last
five minutes and I’ll tell you this:
I haven’t met a single person
since I was sixteen who wasn’t
a bitch underneath, and I just
haven’t the strength to stand
up to them, not on my own,
and that’s what I am.
And happiness, that’s a laugh
and a half, and one thing I’m
sure of, it isn’t sitting out
on a dumb porch into the middle
of nowhere staring into some
technicolour sunset!

She turned her head aside
and closed her eyes
and when she did that
she was as beautiful
as I had ever seen her …

What do you think, she said,
the pancakes with the maple syrup?
You think we should have
the ice cream as well, maybe
the chocolate sauce?

Seeing my face, she smiled.

Here they are, almost up to date …

FullSizeRender 2

And lest you think she’s been forgotten, this is Molly and I enjoying another afternoon watching Notts County. Come on you Pies!

IMG_0114

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Honeymoon

Tom & Helen

My parents, Tom and Helen – Thomas Herbert Harvey and Helen Barton White – were married in the St. Pancras Registrar’s Office, Highgate Road, London, on the 29th of August, 1936; the marriage, as the certificate testifies, being solemnized in the presence of their mothers, Alice Harvey and Louise Barton White. My father’s father – no knowing if he were present or not – is listed as John James Harvey, Railway Engine Driver, and my mother’s father as John Barton White, Dramatic Author (deceased). 

The certificate gives my father’s occupation as a commercial clerk, but lists my mother as a spinster without rank or profession, whereas I had always believed that she would already have been employed at Leonard’s, the dress shop in Kentish Town where she worked, initially as a salesgirl and later manager and buyer, until ill health finally forced her to retire. And there is one other anomaly, though it would not have been evident at the time: my father’s age is given as 30, my mother’s as 32, when she was, in fact, 35, the true date of her birth, 1901, not coming to light until she died.

In those early years of their marriage, the years before the war, it seems they went on holiday to the Continent – as they would have called it – on more than one occasion, beginning with a honeymoon in Ostend, on the Belgian coast, which is where, I believe, this photograph was taken.

Ostende

HONEYMOON

The swimsuit he’d been wearing earlier,
my father, a single strap draped,
Johnny Weissmuller style, over one shoulder,
set aside now in favour of pale slacks,
white shirt, collar splayed open
across the lapels of his blazer;
sitting a little self-consciously
alongside my mother, smart
in her polka-dot dress, white shoes;
the two of them staring back at the camera,
that picture the beach photographer
will display proudly later in his window.

The first time he’d set eyes on my mother,
she’d been standing close against the piano,
perfectly still,her voice small and clear
yet somehow distant, disarming;
the way, as the last notes faded,
silence seemed to fold about her …

Now she sits with her arm resting
on the check tablecloth, her hand
close to his but not quite touching;
the café doors behind them open,
waiter hovering, a tune somewhere playing.
the world waiting …

Those carefree days before the war.

… from Aslant (Shoestring Press, Nottingham. 2019)

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