Surfeit of Boxes

I am still in the throes of moving and do not have Internet or phone or TV connection, nor even a desk on which to put my laptop.  So this is written in less than ideal environment while having a coffee at a place with free Wifi.  I just didn’t want be silent for so long.  Needless to say, my current thoughts are very much taken up with packing, unpacking and cartons.

All packed up.

Not neat,

Just jumbled

Out of sight

In forgettable cartons

With reductionist labels.

At first it seemed the avalanche of boxes would be

Unable to contain a life half-lived, a life half-envied,

Detritus of consumption, dresses never worn.

Then, when the flat was laid to waste,

Bereft of colour, longing, personality,

Pale in its nothingness, reduced to so little –

The rich canvas of life together now squeezed

In his and her boxes,

His and her children,

Safely contained

In their separate storage,

To be manipulated,

Torn bleeding apart,

But bled dry.

Those leaking boxes that overflow

And mess up the new spaces

Wherever you put them down.

Not knowing where

To locate

The heart.

Caged Beauty

Soft pad-pad of measured pace,

she saunters up the plank – three, four –

meanders down the slope – five, six –

a pause, a whiff of one’s Siberian neighbour through the fence,

then around the corner on shaggy feet

her relentless pursuit of majesty recommences.


He rests on the hilltop, meanwhile,

so quiet, so strong,

his gaze languorous mid-distance,

surveying his shrunken kingdom.





At 3 precisely the doors lift.

Each enters their separate tomb,

devoid of life or decoration,

where an unhunted, unchosen lump of dead meat awaits.

No need to pounce or devour,

They nuzzle delicately with perfect table manners,

yet denied the pleasure of companionship,

except for the dozens of pairs of eyes

and flashbulb concert outside.


Pictures courtesy of my son.

Book Review: ‘The Expats’ by Chris Pavone

As a serial expat myself and a big fan of thrillers, I had high expectations of Chris Pavone’s debut novel ‘The Expats’ and it did not disappoint.

The story in a nutshell: Katherine is a typical American expat in Luxembourg, dissatisfied with her life, missing her sense of purpose and past career, but unsure what she wants.  Or is she? Her husband Dexter is a good-natured computer geek working on security issues for banks.  Or is he?  They meet an attractive, yet strangely mismatched childless American couple, who seem keen to befriend them. Or are they?  Well, as it turns out, no one is quite what they seem in this page-turner, with more plot twists than I have had coffees.  I woke up during the night and adjourned to the guestroom to finish reading it, which is unusual behaviour indeed. Continue reading Book Review: ‘The Expats’ by Chris Pavone

Facebook Muse

When women update their Facebook status

with paeans of love to their partner, their rock,

I think: ‘Why can’t you tell him that in the kitchen at breakfast?

On a nice cosy Sunday, all snuggly and soft?’


I get it.  It’s all about celebration,

and shouting from rooftops:

‘I’ve found that soulmate, uniquely ideal,

and, guess what,

he’s still nice ten years down the line!’


It’s reaffirmation,

that life can be fairytold,

though graft and tears and disappointment can slime it,

if Prince Charming will share it

and be staunch at your side.


And then I wonder what it says about my life,

that I have no predilection to celebrate or shout.


Passive Fairytale

DisneylandShe was born.

Left home to find herself

And in the process

Found him.


He showered her with love










Thwarted ambitions.


No gain.

Shame fell her way.

Fell her away.

Drained her sap.

Pushed her back

And down and down,

All but drown,

In frozen lake

Of sneering snake.




No more time

And blind chime.

Whatever Happened to … Tawara Machi?

Once a week I will wallow a bit in nostalgia and write a post about a favourite author (past or present), someone who really influenced me as I was growing up.  However, I won’t stick with the obvious choices such as Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Sylvia Plath and all the paraphernalia of the adolescent girl.   At least not at first.  Not until I run out of lesser-known writers, who deserve much wider recognition.  I may not feel quite the same about them now as I did during my adolescence, but I cannot deny they have contributed to me as I am (and write) now.  Today’s chosen author has a double significance, as she is Japanese.  What better way to pay tribute to the courage and resilience of the Japanese people one year on from the earthquake and tsunami?

I discovered Tawara Machi while I was studying Japanese at university.  We were struggling to understand and translate the famous haiku and tanka poems written over a thousand or more years of Japanese literary history, so our teacher introduced us to the contemporary poet Tawara Machi.  A young school teacher and translator of classic Japanese waka poetry, she is credited with single-handedly reviving the tanka form, which had fallen out of fashion compared to its shorter, flashier cousin, the haiku.  In less than six months, her 1987 debut volume of poetry entitled ‘Sarada no kinenbi’ (Salad Anniversary) sold nearly 3 million copies in Japan and gave birth to the so-called ‘salad phenomenon’ of a young writer being crowned as rock star, TV celebrity and serious intellectual all at the same time.

A few nights ago I was searching for a book of poetry to read before bedtime and I cam across an English translation of ‘Salad Anniversary’ by Juliet Winters Carpenter, published by Kodansha International in 1989.   I probably hadn’t opened it in 10-15 years, and perhaps you need to read it as a young person to fully savour the somewhat whimsical and very personal ruminations of a young woman in love.  Yet, once again, these short poems captivated me with their freshness, intimacy, flashes of inspiration. Some have objected that Juliet Carpenter’s translations are a bit too sparse and dry (you can find an exploration of alternative translations here), but I find they capture the succinct charm of the original, and the spirit of that everyday observation that suddenly reminds us of the universal.

I became curious: what had happened to Tawara Machi?  Was she ever able to live up to her early reputation? Well, after quite a bit of digging around on websites of the world, I have discovered the following:

She sold more than 7 million copies of her first poetry book worldwide – almost unheard of for a volume of poetry, let alone a debut volume by a poet writing in a language not widely spoken all around the world.  Somehow, she survived the furore and stayed remarkably sane.  She stopped teaching two years or so after her fabulous success and became a full-time writer, while also hosting her own TV and radio shows, translating from the Japanese classics, being a judge on tanka poetry competitions and so on.  She has published several other volumes of poetry, including one entitled ‘Pooh’s Nose’ (after the birth of her child) and ‘Street Corner of Capitalism’ (about economic stagnation and urban alienation).  You can see and hear her reading some of her recent poems on YouTube. (translations are below in the comments section), or access Quentin S Crisp’s lovely readings of his translations of her poetry as part of a Soutbank Centre project back in 2007.

I am relieved that the story has a happy ending, that her early success (and incredible pressure on her to top that) has not killed off her creativity.  She may never again achieve that cult status, but the quality of her poetry, most critics agree, remains high.  I just think it’s a pity that she is not more widely known outside Japan, although I have to admit so much of Japanese poetry (both classic and contemporary) is extremely difficult to translate, because of its allusive, elliptical nature and constant self-references.

Here are some of my favourite poems by her:

‘Call again,’ you say and hang up/ I want to call again right now.

Late afternoon/ you and I gaze at the same thing /as between us something ends.

Like getting up to leave a hamburger place/ that’s how I’ll leave / that man.

Now that I wait for you no more,/ sunny Saturdays and rainy Tuesdays / are all the same to me.

To live is to reach out your hand/ The baby’s hand/ grabs Pooh’s nose.

Today a voice has joined his smile/ like a black and white film/ changing to colour.

A certain street corner of capitalism/ The tissues one accepts and receives when needed.

(the last with thanks to From Tokyo to the World, spreading the word for Japanese culture)

The News


 I’ve been mired in bad news trickling ceaselessly, babbling brook,

of downgrades and bailouts, unemployment figures, austerity,

revisions of economic forecasts, shelling and bombing, rigged elections-

all the bitter poetry of our times.

You can handle it once.

You hunker down for the bad times, provisions laid, windows boarded,

when hurricane strikes you put your head down, hold hands with your family,

even like the enforced cosiness, the simplicity, the fear now shared.

But when storm after storm buffets your nest? When supplies run low,

And your hell becomes other people?  When temporary becomes fixture

And still there is no deeper change, no molecules reformed or restructured?

Just furtive squeeze made manifest.

The Angel and Edna (Part 2)

Edna did a quick check of his appearance: uncombed, bare feet, dressed in a nightgown that had seen better days, no wings (thank goodness for small mercies!) and a sort of shimmer radiating from his hair.  That was strange, as was the fact that, although he seemed a grown man, he had extremely smooth cheeks and the voice of a choir boy.  What kind of trick was this?

She took the proffered cards and put them willy-nilly in a drawer, while trying to think how to best handle the situation.  Should she call the police?  The man seemed harmless enough, positively helpful.  Perhaps an ambulance, then?  She looked around.  No one else seemed to be in the library at this time. Where were all the dreary old codgers when you needed them?

Finally, when all the cards had been picked up and stuffed into drawers, the angel gave an awkward smile and said, ‘Maybe you could  help me, actually.’

Uh-oh, here it comes.  Can’t be a request for money, no one is ever over-due at this library, so we don’t even have a fine box.

‘I- I  don’t quite remember how I got here.’

Aaah, well, no surprise there!

‘And I don’t know what I am supposed to be doing here either.’

That was honest, at least.  Maybe the attack or seizure, or whatever it was, was beginning to wear off.

‘OK, first things first,’ she said, feeling marvellously in control and ever so understanding, ‘What’s your name?’


But of course!  It must be some delusional mania.  Edna had read about a case like this only a couple of weeks ago in the Britannica 1997 edition.

‘Hello, Gabriel.  My name is Edna.  How can I help you?’

‘I’m not sure.  I feel a bit…. As if a cold wind is blowing all around me… and my stomach hurts…’

‘Well, you’re probably cold and no wonder, in those clothes.  Do you have a coat or something?  What about shoes?  No?  It’s only early spring, you know, still rather chilly outside.’

The man merely gawped at her, so, heaving a dramatic little sigh, she tap-tapped her way to the lost property box and found a long woollen cardigan that had collected dust there for many months.

‘Here, have this.’

The angel seemed to have some difficulty putting it on, as if he didn’t quite know what buttons were for.  If the library had been busy, or if the man had seemed at all sleazy, Edna would have shown him the way out at this point.  But he seemed so innocent, so lost, that she felt sorry for him, so she offered him the best remedy for any ill known to mankind.  A cup of tea.  And she even opened her secret stash of biscuits, for she thought he looked a bit peaky.


She sits in laundry like a queen.

She heaves big sighs like someone slighted.

Each look reproaches

When she approaches.

She makes time fly in bustling beeps.


She yells at children far too often.

She issues orders, nags and rants.

It’s all her way

Or else no way.

She’s sly with arrows, hitting true.


Yet for all her sovereignty, the house is not clean

And administrative tasks fall largely through cracks.

For all her big postures, her actions near miss.

She’s long given up on gainful employment,

Or bringing in money, or useful discourse.


All this I can take, all this I can stomach.

But one thing I cannot and will not forgive:

When she forgets about us and shrugs off her kin,

When she goes off into her world of mad scribbles,

Leaving us poorer, defensive and flawed.

The Angel and Edna (Part 1)

Something quite different today: the beginning of a story that dates back almost 30 years.  Yes, I was a child when I first got the idea for it (and the title – the name Edna has never changed).  I’ve lost the original version and have ended up rewriting it once or twice every decade since.  The ending always varies, and sometimes disappears altogether.  I’ve never been satisfied with the story, have never felt it was complete. Perhaps this is the story of my life?

Edna had her devilish streak of course, but on the whole she resembled the great-aunt she had been named after: trim, prim and efficient.  She didn’t own a TV – instead, she liked curling up with a good or even average book on her sofa.  She cooked twice a week and froze it all in neat little batches.  Occasionally she might keep herself company with a small glass of sweet sherry.  No excesses of any kind.

She also liked going to the library.  Which was quite fortunate, really, since she was the village librarian.  This was no poncey Multimedia Resource Centre, but a good old-fashioned village library that had somehow managed to survive local council cuts, although it was no longer open daily.  It had a play area for children, a cosy seating area for reading the papers and countless dusty reference volumes outlining the delights of the local area, of which there were many.  They had some CDs and DVDs, of course, but no computers, and the returns were still done with card index files.  This was the job that everyone thought was deadly dull, but Edna quite liked the sheer mindlessness of it.

It was precisely those card index files that Edna was re-indexing one quiet Thursday morning, when, under her curtain of hair, she saw two bare feet come to a stop in front of her desk.  She looked up and saw an angel.  So startled was she, that she dropped the card-drawer with an almighty crash and the cards all came tumbling onto the floor.

‘Heaven’s bells and hallelujah!’ The angel jumped.

This was so extreme that Edna had to smile amidst her confusion.  It must be a joke.  A fancy dress party.  Or a poor madman wandering about lost.

‘Can I help you?’ asked Edna in her most professional voice.

The angel smiled beatifically.  He really was gorgeous, with very big, strikingly blue eyes, long lashes, wavy hair right up to his shoulders and rosy cheeks.

‘No, no, let me help you!’