The floor is azure blue tile
slick with the residue
of that morning’s watering,
green hose resting
slack between the leaves.
We would come here, safe,
afternoons, and sit, not touching,
humidity in the 90s
and helicopters hovering
a block beyond the Hill.
Though you are here no longer
I reach out to touch your arm,
trace the sweat, the way it beads
around the curve of your skin
From the display of medicinal
herbs, I break small leaves
into the palm of my hand:
yarrow, for internal bleeding,
foxglove for the muscles of the heart.
And when we meet, a year
from now, by chance, the
departure lounge at Heathrow,
the platform at Gare du Nord,
that harbour front café, and,
uncertain whether or not to kiss me,
you hold out, instead your hand,
I will slip into it these remedies
I have long carried, in the knowledge
that, nurtured, love flowers in the darkest place.
from ASLANT Poetry / John Harvey – Photography / Molly E. Boiling
(Shoestring Press, 2019)
You can see a selection of Molly’s photographs 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. Here’s a sample from ‘Christmas Day’:
soon they will shuffle on their coats and shoes and make their way through the quiet streets to early morning mass
It is descriptive, patient and redolent of the slowness of the aged. It has an elegiac quality, both to do with the approaching end of the couple’s lives and the felt out-of-date-ness of church-going. Elsewhere in this poem this mood is enacted in memories of the daughter before she flew the nest, of the mother when she was well, of the lost certainties of life, a time when prayers might mean something. This poem takes its place against other elegiac poems, poems about love, loss, belief, truth and death along with a couple of ekphrastic poems and several finding their origin in jazz.
Another fine poem is ‘Monk at the 5 Spot’. There are two separate threads to this poem: one involving legendary jazz musicians in performance, the other some famous listeners. Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane leap off the page in Harvey’s enactment, their closely observed behaviour culminating in a marvellous image for Monk:
… an angular arpeggio which calls to mind a man stumbling headlong down a flight of stairs, never quite losing his balance
Meanwhile poet Frank O’Hara is at a table with his friends, talking, laughing, drinking, apparently unstoppable. The poem ends with the two threads brought together:
[a] final double handed chord, so sudden, so emphatic, that the crowd, almost as one, catches its breath and even Frank O’Hara is stunned into silence.
The music and O’Hara stop, the poem ends.
To my mind ‘The Curve’, which makes reference to Bridget Riley’s sequence of that name, does exactly what an ekphrastic poem should do – responds rather than describes – you don’t need the painting to enjoy the poem. In this poem Riley’s abstract sequence brings to the narrator’s mind a suburban street evoked as a canyon, an absent daughter ‘dreaming of becoming seventeen’, a train journey in which a painting is briefly returned to and brought in as metaphor:
the light oscillating on the water’s surface patterning across the painter’s canvas
There are memories of the beginning and continuation of love and another strong ending:
then you turn and come back to where I’m waiting small shells like keepsakes tight in the palm of your hand.
It’s a stream of consciousness, just the kind of thing that might go through your mind when you look at abstract art.
There are many good things in these poems: memories as ghosts in ‘Voyage’, the slow build up of the extended metaphor in ‘Bailey’s Mistake (Again)’, the discussion of epitaphs in the eponymous poem, the way Harvey can condense meaning, for example, in ‘The US Botanical Gardens’:
… I break small leaves into the palm of my hand; yarrow, for internal bleeding, foxglove for the muscles of the heart’.
These are real plants to be found in the Botanical Gardens, with a historic symbolic meaning but they stand also directly for the narrator’s own emotional situation (and perhaps for the bodily state of the loved one).
I began with a reference to Harvey’s measured style. Occasionally the close control wavers and the poetry meanders into something prose-like, where too much is said, as in ‘Lester Young’, but this is a minor complaint.
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.
In some ways, the three-day visit daughter Molly and I recently made to Vienna in search of sachertorte and culture – see photo below – was overshadowed by the journeys we made there and back by train.
After an overnight stop at Zurich on the outward leg, we travelled much of the following day through the Alps – vista after vista of snow-capped mountains outlined against the brightest of blue skies. Magnificent! The return journey proved to be something else. Vienna to London St. Pancras in a day: leave for Frankfurt at 6.50am, arriving in Frankfurt at 1.36pm; a snack lunch in the station before the 2.29pm hustles us off to Brussels, arriving at 5.35pm in oodles of time before the final Eurostar departure of the evening at 8.22pm.
What, as they say, could possibly go wrong?
We were leaning nonchalantly against the counter on Frankfurt station, eating ice cream, drinking espresso, when two of the young Inter-railers we’d been chatting to earlier, and also Brussels-bound, suggested there seemed to be a problem with the 2.29, which should, by then, have appeared on the Departures Board.
Oh, probably just late, we thought, no need to worry, but, to be certain, Molly crossed the concourse to enquiries. The official she spoke to was clear: there was no 2.29 to Brussels. It was not a case of it being late, somehow delayed, engineering works, shortage of staff: it simply did not exist. The fact that we had tickets for said train – not just tickets, but seat reservations – was irrelevant: there was no such train. No train, in fact, leaving Frankfurt for Brussels Midi until well past 4.00pm and due to arrive at 8.03pm – barely time to meet the Eurostar departure time of 8.22, even if they were generous enough to grant us the ten minute boarding time that was extended to first class passengers, rather than the usual twenty.
A couple in the same situation phoned Eurostar and explained, but got no satisfactory reply. Each time the train slowed down, we checked our watches and tried to pretend it would all be okay. What was the worst that could happen, after all? A hotel in Brussels and the first train out in the morning?
At Bruxelles Nord, one stop away, we held our breath while passengers disembarked casually, not a care in the world, before finally we pulled out and arrived at Bruxelles Midi on time. 8.03pm. “Run!” the couple opposite us shouted and, leaping from the train, proceeded to race around the concourse like headless chickens in search of the Eurostar terminal, with Molly in close pursuit and me gasping in their wake.
Channel Terminal – there it was. The official examining our tickets did so as if there were no urgency whatsoever; the security officer actually smiled. ‘Why are you so late?” one of the officials asked. There wasn’t time to explain. We were bundled on board and almost before we had time to find out seats the train doors slammed closed. The 8.22pm to London, St. Pancras International, arriving, allowing for time difference, at 9.33pm.
Trains, they’ve got it over planes every time. As long as they actually run, that is. More about Vienna in the next post in a few days time …
I’ve written before on this blog about Aslant, the small but beautifully formed collection of my poems and Molly Boiling’s photographs published by Shoestring Press earlier in the year, but the arrival of an interesting, quite detailed review by Thomas Ovans in the online magazine London Grip gives me the opportunity to do so again.
This is how it begins …
As I begin to write this review it strikes me that one’s reading of a book can initially be influenced by what one had previously been reading. I came to this collection having just enjoyed another book that robustly and self-confidently expressed irreverent and sceptical attitudes that I broadly agreed with. Aslant, by contrast, is a much more provisional, reflective and tender work and represented a refreshing change of tone that I hadn’t known I was more than ready for.
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.
“A sense of mortality seems to hover over much of this collection,” Ovans writes; “a recurring sense of wistful consolation after loss.”
Of the pieces in the central section which take jazz and jazz musicians as their subject – Lester Young, Art Pepper, Thelonious Monk – Ovans writes, “This is wonderfully evocative writing which, I would maintain, conveys something authentic even to a reader who is not a jazz aficionado.”
And he concludes his review thus …
… 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.
And if you don’t already have a copy and feel like following this advice and splashing out said tenner, Aslant can be ordered directly from firstname.lastname@example.org. or from any bookstore – including those worthy souls at Nottingham’s Five Leaves Bookshop – email@example.com. You can even buy it on Amazon.
This beautiful little book – and believe me, it is beautiful – published by John Lucas’ Shoestring Press, makes its first appearance this week, with a launch evening at Nottingham’s Five Leaves Bookshop to set it on its way. That’s this Thursday, 25th April at 7.00pm. Molly Boiling’s photographs will be projected [she also designed the cover] and I’ll read some of the poems. Another Shoestring poet, Stuart Henson, will be reading too. Come along if you’re around. [People have been known to come as far as Derby or Kirkby-in-Ashfield.] Details …
If not, and you’re closer to London, on the following evening, Friday 26th, I shall be reading at The Poetry Café in Covent Garden as part of Hylda Sim’s long-running Fourth Friday series of poetry & music evenings. Tony Roberts will also be reading and there will be music from very fine singer/songwriter. Liz Simcock. Details here …
If you can’t get along to either of those events, copies are available, price £10.00, from Five Leaves Bookshop, Nottingham – 0115 8373097 – firstname.lastname@example.org or from Central Books – 0208 525 8800 – email@example.com or can be ordered from your local bookstore.
To give you a small idea of what your money will get you, here’s one of the poems and an extract from another, with one of Molly’s photographs to finish things off.
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:
Ostend, Spring 1939
I remember the first time I heard a big band
or any kind of jazz at all –sitting across from my mother and aunt
in the splendour of Lyons Corner House
at Marble Arch, feasting on cakes and petit fours
from a glass cake stand tiered like a chandelier
and listening in muted amazement
to Ivy Benson & Her All-Girl Orchestra
swinging their way gloriously
through the fusty afternon.
And then, a little older, parties at my friend Michael’s house, where his Uncle Mac, six foot and sixteen stone, would get himself up in women’s clothes –
skirt, rouched blouse with false boobs,
stockings, suspenders, bright red lipstick and rouge,
and, between jokes I didn’t always understand,
impersonate Sophie Tucker singing Some of These Days and, a family favourite, Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love.
After an enforced quiet year in 2018, I’m doing my best to make up for it in 2019, beginning with two very enjoyable events – one, with Stella Duffy, at Owl Bookshop in north London and another (SRO – almost) at Nottingham Waterstones – which marked the paperback publication of the fourth Frank Elder novel, Body & Soul.
Things continue with appearances at two major crime writing festivals, Bristol and Newcastle, as well as the publication by Shoestring Press in April of Aslant, which features my poetry alongside photographs by Molly Ernestine Boiling (who also designed the cover.)
Here’s the list of events … diaries at the ready …
Saturday, 23rd March States of Independence: a one day celebration of independent publishing, writing & thinking. http://www.statesofindependence.co.uk
Clephan Building, De Montfort University, Oxford Street, Leicester LE1 5XY.
Between 11.00am and 11.45 I shall be reading from Body & Soul and maybe one or two other pieces as well.
Thursday, 25th April
Shoestring Press launch of Aslant, which features my poems alongside photographs by Molly Ernestine Boiling.
Five Leaves Bookshop, 14a Long Row, Nottingham NG1 2DH. 7.00pm – 8.30pm
This is a relatively small venue, please book in advance.
0115 8373097 firstname.lastname@example.org
Friday, 26th April Fourth Friday at The Poetry Café, 22 Betterton Street, Covent Garden, London.
8.00pm onwards. I shall be reading from Aslant, with support from singer/songwriter, Liz Simcock, and one or two other poets from the Shoestring stable.
Saturday, 4th May Newcastle Noir. Newcastle City Library. https://newcastlenoir.co.uk
Saturday Night Showcase: Going Back to My Roots 7.30pm.
I shall be in conversation with the veteran Norwegian writer, Gunnar Staalesen. Two old guys for the price of one!
Saturday, 11th May CrimeFest, International Crime Fiction Convention Mercure Bristol Grand Hotel, Bristol. http://www.crimefest.com
Wearing my Special Guest hat (well, cap) I shall be interviewed by Alison Joseph about some 40-plus years of the writing life. Or however much we can fit in between 3.10pm – 4.00pm in the afternoon.
STILL TO COME [Assuming I last that long … ]
Penzance Literary Festival in July
The Inspire Poetry Festival in Nottinghamshire in September
Two Poetry & Jazz sessions, most likely at Beeston & Worksop Libraries.
Belated best wishes for the New Year with my first post of 2019 in the blog’s rather fine new livery.
After missing out on a number of book events last year, primarily for health reasons, I’m hoping to do better this year, starting with two occasions marking the paperback publication of Body & Soul. Again, a little belatedly, but none the worse for that.
On the evening of Thursday, 31st January, at the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town, North London, I shall be joined by Stella Duffy to talk about said Body & Soul, as well as Stella’s most recent publications, the suspense novel, The Hidden Room, and the Inspector Alleyn mystery, Money in the Morgue, which she completed after it was left unfinished by Alleyn’s creator, Ngaio Marsh.
Then, on the following evening, I shall be flying solo at another of my favourite bookstores, Waterstone’s in Nottingham. Tickets for both of these events are available now.
Move ahead to the spring and two events to launch the Shoestring Press publication of Aslant, which features both my poems and photographs by my daughter, Molly Ernestine Boiling. Any of you who’ve been following her work on http://whyernestine.tumblr.com will have a good idea of what to look forward to.
Molly and I will be at (speaking of favourite bookstores) Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham on Thursday, 25th April, and at the Poetry Café in London’s Covent Garden for Hylda Sims’ Fourth Friday, which will also feature the excellent singer-songwriter, Liz Simcock.
Step forward just one week later and over the Bank Holiday weekend I’ll be up in the north-east at Newcastle Noir. The programme is yet to be officially announced, but it may well reveal that I’ll be paired in discussion with the formidable Norwegian author, Gunnar Staalesen.
It wasn’t until daughter Molly tweeted a notification that another batch of her New Zealand photographs had gone up to view that I remembered a batch of photos that she’d taken during a visit to Hastings in the summer. No sooner remembered than resized and on display – interesting place, Hastings, not all sunshine and shingle.
Continuing what has, in recent posts, become a theme, there was more Thelonious Monk in evidence this Friday just passed when I joined the John Lake Band for an evening session organised by Ray’s Jazz at Foyles flagship bookshop on Charing Cross Road. Though the band didn’t actually play “Evidence”. The first piece I read, a poem called ‘Saturday’ from ‘Out of Silence’ was accompanied by a rocking version of ‘Rhythm-a-ning’ and, towards the end, ‘Blue Monk’ featured both ‘Straight, No Chaser’ and ‘Blue Monk’ itself.
What seemed to be a major incident – possibly, a terrorist attack – fairly close by, resulting in the closing of Oxford Circus and Bond Street tube stations, with customers being locked into stores and armed police deployed in the streets while a helicopter hovered overhead, meant that attendance was not what it might have been, numbers of ticket holders opting – not unreasonably – for the sensible option of sticking indoors. Those that were present, however, seemed to be having a pretty good time – not least the 5/6 year old young lady bopping away down near the front row – and we were, somewhat to our surprise, on the receiving end, not just of applause, but whoops of delight.
You should, as the saying goes, have been there.
And if you’re anywhere in the vicinity of Eastbourne on the South Coast on the final Friday of the year, you can hear us doing it all again – and more. Details here …