This is what it feels like…

Cheer up! They said

When the clouds drew near

But whizz not want not

They stalk my sky.

 

Set goals! Be SMART!

On days when minutes

Morph into lead-drops

Shower a move too far.

 

Change your pattern!

But in this kaleidoscope

Glass beads jangle and jar

To delay any recognition

 

And the voice drones, not bitter,

That high-pitched old jingle:

How many ways can we fail today?

Water patterns panorama by Bonnie Bruno, from fineartamerica.com

 

Raymond Antrobus: To Sweeten Bitter (poetry review)

Author picture from raymondantrobus.com

It was poignant and entirely appropriate to dwell in the poetry pamphlet To Sweeten Bitter by Raymond Antrobus on Father’s Day (published by Outspoken Press). For this is a very personal exploration of the father/son relationship, a more ambiguous one than we are used to reading about in the standard gushing outbursts of sentiment on this day.

Then, waking up to yet more tragic news, this time about a terrorist attack on Muslims in London, this slim volume of poetry remains appropriate, for it has a resonance well beyond the personal. This is also poetry about finding one’s cultural identity, about trying to belong and being found wanting, about never quite fitting in, never knowing how to describe one’s self, trying to come to terms with one’s heritage.

Half-caste, half mule, house slave – Jamaican British.

Light skin, straight male, privileged – Jamaican British…

In school I fought a boy in the lunch hall – Jamaican.

At home, told Dad I hate dem, all dem Jamaicans – I’m British.

He laughed, said you cannot love sugar and hate your sweetness…

In Look, There’s a Black Man, Touch Him the poet captures not only his father’s experience of coming to England, but touches on broader issues of immigration and race, people ‘turn me away for showing up the wrong colour’. The men in Scratched Light miss their home and communities, struggle to share their bewilderment and loneliness with others who have been displaced, perhaps even build a transient community of the lost and grieving in the shadow of the Southbank security guards. Not all of the poems are wistful, however. There is humour but also drama and menace in Miami Airport, with the staccato questioning by the border guards: ‘why didn’t I see anyone that looked like you when I was in England?’

Yet when the Jamaican British son returns to the land of his father, he feels just as unsettled and unwanted. He tries to shake off the tourist image. He falls for the misguided idea that following roads marked on a map (with ridiculous English names) will help in Jamaica, where ‘the road itself rebelled and gave up making way for those who’ve forgotten what swung in this wind’. The guilt of the Empire is even stronger in the more overtly political poem Two Days and Two Nights in Kisumu, Kenya, where the poet has gone to teach poetry but fears that English is not the right language with which to approach these children for

our language has not come from the future,

it has crawled from a cave

and rowed to so many shores

that we speak in crashed waves and trade winds.

Ultimately, however, the personal poems are the most powerful in this anything but straightforward account of a father’s legacy, a father lost to dementia quite a few years before death. The collection starts and ends on the hospital bed, with a heart giving out, a son holding hands with a father who has not always been there for him, trying to find forgiveness in his heart. This is a recognisable situation for so many, that there is a danger of reverting to hackneyed sentiments, but Antrobus injects freshness and real grittiness into it. Dementia ‘simplified a complicated man’, confers warmth where perhaps there was none initially. Sometimes the expression of pain is uncomplicated, as in the simple but not at all simplistic short poem When He Died:

I told no one

how old he was

in case

his death

seemed too

inevitable…

More often, there are complicated and contradictory strands of feeling woven in. The title poem To Sweeten Bitter describes the paradox lying at the very heart of this relationship, the deeper grooves a father makes in our lives, the years of hurt and misunderstanding and the attempt to sugarcoat situations. The later poems are clearer in describing an absent father, an abusive father, the threats and shaming he stooped to, that forgiveness was only possible because ‘he promised me one day he was going to die.’ There is also recognition of a mother’s sacrifice, compensating for an absent father. In What Is Possible, we find the touching image of her sitting up all night to thread jewellery to sell in the market, with only the TV for company, while her son complains about the TV disturbing him. Yet as he lies in his bed, he dreams he will fly and grow too big for his bed, he understands the safety and security that his mother has given him, the feeling that all possibilities are still open to him.

The video below is the poet performing his own Sestina for My Father, which is not in the present volume, but deserves to be mentioned alongside it.

Yet this slender book reminds us that, for all the imperfections, for all of the pain, instead of yearning for the father we wish we’d had, we should attempt to understand and forgive the one we were given. Whether present or absent, they shape us far more than we can imagine or accept

where someone I love is the shape

of the missing thing.

 

 

 

Inspiration Is a Capricious Guest

The poet of this afternoon died suddenly at end of night,

jostling to pen a word, yawning bile in the long

run-up to the creep of dawn pebble-dashing the curtains.

Knuckled under weight of forms, proof of income, applications

flung in free tote bags he cannot begin to classify,

he’d like to burn but who has fireplaces nowadays, so instead

he snatches at garbled predictive jottings made in ghostly glow,

leave no strand untwisted, no word untravelled,

no innocence.

Divine dictations long since ceased, words do not meet the ear

ready-formed like birdsong. It’s digging in the garden,

toiling in manure for a speck of solid rock.

 

Linking this up to my favourite poetic forum on the internet the dVerse Poets Pub, with their fortnightly Open Link Night.

Manoeuvres in the Dark

General Downer ordered Captain Pain to wake me up early,

each nail driven flush, head screwed on backwards.

Lieutenant Doubt brought in wedges, Sergeant Fear drilled the holes

in a blancmange of self-esteem curdled by HMV (Her Mother’s Voice).

If Admiral Alcohol could float all our boats,

if Rear-Vice-Sub-Private would only obey,

if Colonel Attitude would finally kick in

to set fire to boot camps, clear the fog

of bullying tactics, stomp on officers’ messes.

 

Meander, sweet nothings, refuse to cower, shouted at,

moved like chess pieces on an invisible board.

Raise your meek bosoms in the rousing language

of nineteenth century phrasing, triumphant with Verdi,

gallant with Radetzky, drunk with Turkish lore.

Military Manoeuvres by Jan Hoynck van Papendrecht, from Artnet.

Season of Bounty

On this first day of summer, I decided to write a poem about the first day of autumn. Don’t ask me why… I usually love summer. All the seasons, in fact. I am linking this up to dVerse Poets Pub Open Link Night #197, where all styles of poems welcome on this occasion.

Ardent berries she folds over

For birds to peck, hedgerows to trim.

A casual fling of hoary mantle

Is all she needs to silence doubters.

Pyres of leaves burnt in her honour,

Lawns raked neat, while woodland damp

Moves in shrubbery unnoticed.

Two mushrooms sulk in rotten greys.

The toad’s eyes wary as in the brambles

A hedgehog sinks in compost nest.

Times of plenty breed unlikely allies.

Someday you and I might still be friends.

Time for a little poetry: Playing Tiddlywinks

I see two girls, now women, who smile at others

Never at me

Who sour with life’s quick cherry passing

Go off like milk in my refrigerator door

One drip in my tea, no guests to pour out for.

 

They reverberate like echoes in the stillness of my parlour.

This is a neighbourhood of cats, no barking

No worries about leaving us alone all day

Often all night too

In hungry expectation.

 

They bring up corpses and track invitations

In the name of reciprocity

Accountancy, curation, careful recitation of moments and pictures

Togetherness invited

Competition launched, jaws that bite

 

Claws that snatch

Rewrite my story, meekness a grievous flaw,

Passivity, worse – stupidity,

Made to pay,

Trampled to shame

With a flick of a finger.

Free picture courtesy of Pixabay.