The Hospital on the Hill

I keep looking back at my posts from January and February last year. Those days before Covid. How little we knew then. I’m sure many others are doing the same, whether it be on social media, or through apps like 1 second every day ( https://1se.co ) . Our lives are lived in full view. Our thoughts, however inane, are captured for future review. Whether this is a good thing or not is for a future post.

The main hospital in Portsmouth is at the top of Portsdown Hill, on the outskirts of the city. After dark it can be seen from miles away, like a vast, recently landed spaceship of concrete and light. Think Close Encounters of the Third Kind without the music and urge to mould models out of mud. In times like these, it is a reminder of what is important, and how fragile our existence actually is. How little time we have. I hope when we finally come out of this crisis, that people take stock, reflect on what really matters, and live their lives accordingly in the future, as much as they can. I know I will.

I also fervently hope that those in this country who have made this crisis so much worse than it needed to be, get exactly what they deserve. There will be spin, of course. There will be attempts to obfuscate, to blame others, but we must not let them. The UK has had one of the worst death rates per head of population in the world. Many health professionals have died due to inadequacies of PPE procurement, whilst companies that have had no experience in the area have been given massive contracts for equipment that was not delivered, or was faulty when it was. Health workers in the sixth-largest economy in the world had to resort to wearing bin bags for protection.

Of course there is the counter-argument of the highly successful and efficient vaccine rollout. But notice how the politicians call this NHS run project the ‘government’s vaccine rollout’ whereas £22bn was wasted on an outsourced ‘NHS track and trace’. Language matters.

Oh, and as an aside, if Brexit is your thing? One country with one of the highest rates of vaccination in the world is Romania. Whereas other EU countries tried to do things jointly, (and the EU made a complete hash of it), they just went ahead and sorted out their own vaccines. As with blue passports (Croatia), we could have done the same. Don’t believe the BS.

Back to QA Hospital. Like every other NHS hospital in the country they have been close-to-overwhelmed, converting non-essential wards to high dependency units, the staff working flat-out, doing what they can, under conditions of extreme stress and exhaustion, and of course with an underlying knowledge that they are at heightened risk themselves from this horrendous disease.

Another aside: Some prat went into the hospital and filmed empty corridors on their mobile phone as a way to prove that the virus was a hoax. All the Covid patients are suffering from a highly contagious disease and are in high-dependency wards. Do you really think they would be in hospital corridors? Idiot. Anyway, I digress.

I was recently asked to provide a poem to be placed in one of the high dependency Covid wards. As someone who doesn’t work in the NHS, but knows plenty of people who do, it wasn’t exactly easy to get it right. The poem I wrote, which appears at the end of this post, has been accepted, along with lots of other poems from staff and other poets. It may not be a particularly good poem, but hopefully it will help someone in some small way with what they are going through.

A third and final aside: The poem mentions ‘grey hulls’. With the hospital being at the top of Portsdown Hill there is, from some windows at least, an excellent view of the city, including the Portsmouth Royal Naval dockyard and Royal Navy fleet.

So now we wait. As we did before. Hopefully this ‘road map’ out of lockdown will work. I remain worried that with plans to open up all schools at the same time and the risk of new virus strains that this crisis still has a long way to go.

In the meantime, all we can do is keep trying to follow the rules and give huge thanks to all those who are working through the storm, whether emergency workers, NHS staff, (including cleaners, porters, back office staff and non-emergency workers without whose efforts the system could not function), other frontline employees such as those working in transport and retail, without whose work, and in so many cases, sacrifice, our year of Covid would have been so much worse. Thank you.

Pieces

Look at all the grey hulls
lined up in the Solent;
A ship needs every rivet
to stop the sea from surging in.

Stop and take a deep breath.
A jigsaw needs every piece,
a book needs every page,
to make any sort of sense.

Here as with everywhere,
this day can never be won,
by standing on our own.
We fall and rise together.

Trapped in layered protection,
around our brittled light,
forgetting who we are,
forgetting how to see.

A smile behind a mask,
is a crack in the bitter dark,
that will widen, as it always does;
these times will one day pass.

Beyond the cliches of politicians
are real words and thoughts and prayers.
I would bring them to you here,
to your exhaustion of despair,

to all that you have witnessed,
to all that you’ve endured,
to all that you have done,
and all that you could not.

I’d remind you that you’re loved.
I’d remind you that you’re valued.
Just because people are too tired,
too busy or stressed to say it,

doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Back on the Radio Again

A quick post to mention that I will be reading my poem Bird in Hand on this month’s edition of The Poetry Place on West Wilts Radio at 4pm on Sunday, February 28th, when the two guest poets will be Claire Booker and Jennie Osborne. Claire is a poet and playwright. Her latest poetry book, ‘The Bone That Sang’ (Indigo Dreams) follows the success of her debut pamphlet ‘Later There Will Be Postcards’. She’s widely published in journals, has had poems set to music, filmed, displayed on buses, and simultaneously performed at six venues in three countries as part of the Solstice Shorts Festival. Jennie has two collections from Oversteps, ‘How to be Naked’ and ‘Colouring Outside the Lines’. She is one of the organisers of Poetry Teignmouth and Teignmouth Poetry Festival, runs workshops, tutors for the Poetry School and is a poetry mentor. Along with my three minutes of fame, there are also open mic readings from: B Anne Adriaens, Ruth Sharman, John Powell, Eileen Ann Gordon, Ray Fussell, Lucia Daramus, Heidi Beck, and Canadian poet Vivian Cruise.

You can listen in online at https://westwiltsradio.com/ Alternatively it will be on the West Wilts website to listen to on a date / time that suits. You can also listen to some of the previous shows via the same link https://westwiltsradio.com/shows/the-poetry-place/

From my Poetry Bookshelf – Vahni Capildeo

I was introduced to Vahni Capildeo by Maria Jastrzebska, (a superb poet who I shall write about in the future), when I was organising one of several annual Poetry of Exile events for Tongues & Grooves, back in the autumn of 2009. I’d set up a poetry film project that was shown on the BBC big screens in Portsmouth and Dover, and made contact with Maria, as part of this.

The Tongues & Grooves event went well (it was one of those overbooked evenings when it could have ended in disaster if a couple of open-mike poets had overstayed their welcome, but we got away with it!) It was rammed and we had people queuing out the door – for a poetry event, in Portsmouth, in November. Maria, Vahni and Iraqi poet Adnan al-Sayegh were the main featured poets.

Anyway, back to Vahni Capildeo. Capildeo was born in Trinidad in 1973 and has lived in the UK since 2011. She has published 13 collections of poetry and has a further two forthcoming. I have a couple of them, Measures of Expatriation, which won the Forward Prize for best poetry collection in 2016, and Undraining Sea, published in 2009.

As an introduction to her work, this quote by David Millar, commenting on Undraining Sea, is as good a place to start.

Vahni Capildeo, to her credit, clearly doesn’t give a fig about fashion or prestige. Her poetry is utterly divorced from that unfortunately prevalent tendency to write poems where the words give way to an (imagined) applauding audience at the next prestigious poetry awards. Her poetry is sassy, sometimes scary; dark, certainly, but there’s light there, too, even sweetness, and much humour; complex, even virtuosic, though she can be simple, in her own unique way. She’s one of the best around, and I applaud her.

Here’s her poem Mercy and Estrangement, from Measures of Expatriation, which can also be found alongside several other of her poems on the Versolopolis Poetry site;

https://www.versopolis-poetry.com/poet/221/vahni-capildeo

(I hope it’s OK to share this here – I only share poems that are already online in open parts of the internet).

Mercy and Estrangement

His heart hurtling towards me
I not caring to catch it
it turns into a bird, turns:
a scavenger bird lightfoot
alights on foam, contests white
as silver tilts white, silver
as refuse seams silver, gawks,
jinks, is radiated by charts
charted inly: magnetic,
unhoming because transformed.
A rill and jitter brought me
—birdform, my heart—to the park
where state translators, laid off,
sat sad for their hospitals
prisons and schools. Laws whistled
infixes between trained ears.
And at our conference,
so many equivalents
for gracias and Verfremdung,
easy change amongst false friends.

This is, I think, a good introduction to Capildeo’s writing. It may not, on the surface, be that straightforward to understand, but repays rereading. Just picking out a few elements of this poem, from the opening;

His heart hurtling towards me
I not caring to catch it

through to the image of the state translators sitting in a park;

Laws whistled infixed between trained ears.

and then the way everything is connected with the last two lines –

for gracias and Verfremdung,
easy change amongst false friends.

I think it’s great. What do you think?

As Jamie Osborn writes about one of her other collections – Simple Complex Shapes from 2015 – Reading the poems can be like feeling our way through a darkened room, with all our senses heightened, and catching occasional glimpses of light that leave us illuminated and disorientated.

These poems aren’t for everyone – I’ve seen some pretty negative reviews on Goodreads for example – but that’s to be expected really with poetry like this, that isn’t always easy to understand on first or second reading. But isn’t that part of the joy of poetry, that there are so many distinct voices, so many different ways of imagination and communication?

I’ve really enjoyed the surprising language, distinct imagery , and varied form used in both Undraining Sea and Measures of Expatriation. Both books have a mixture of poems and prose poems, that speak of migration of individuals and language. To me they speak of alienation, of the claiming and reclamation of words and ideas and of the seemingly random conjunctions that are made when different people and cultures connect.

If you are intrigued and want to find out more, then you can listen to Capildeo reading four of her poems here:

Measures of Expatriation is on my Poetry Bookshelf at Bookshop here: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/my-poetry-bookshelf – If you buy a copy from that link I’ll make about £1.00 commission from your purchase. Not much, but it all helps to pay the site fees!

Undraining Sea is, I think, currently out of print. I’ve checked Amazon and Waterstones and it’s unavailable. I wonder how much my signed copy is worth?

I’ll finish with a quote from Bernard O’Donoghue, about Undraining Sea, the collection that Capildeo read from at the Tongues & Grooves event way back in 2009;

Vahni Capildeo’s profoundly intelligent poems are original in a very unusual way. They are modern, but composed without fear of traditional subjects or language. Every topic springs to life, in a way that is both dis- turbing and beautiful. These are life-enhancing poems that stay with you long after you have closed the book.

The Joy of Spam

Just a quick post today. Like anyone who runs a blog, I am swamped with spam messages. I guess some of them get through – it’s a percentage game. A bit like a bloke I used to know as a student and his chat up techniques. Anyway I digress.

Occasionally these spammers do get a reaction. One made me laugh out loud. I thought I’d share it here, as it might make you laugh as well. A while ago I wrote a post about mental health, and accompanied it with an equally cheerful poem. For some reason this post seems to get a lot of attention from the spammers. Out of all their inane messages, today’s takes the prize;

Thank you for the auspicious writeup. It in fact was a amusement

On a post about depression.

There’s a poem in there somewhere! If nothing else it’s something to make you smile on a grey winter day

From my Poetry Bookshelf – Tomas Tranströmer – The Half-Finished Heaven

I’m new to Tranströmer – The Half-Finished Heaven was a Christmas present from my daughter, and I am still working through the poems. Maybe this post would have been better in a few months’ time, but I thought it would be interesting, at least once, to write about a poet on first reading of their work.

As a starting point, here’s the title poem of this selected poems collection, published by Penguin Classics in 2018;

The Half-Finished Heaven

Cowardice breaks off its path.
Anguish breaks off its path.
The vulture breaks off in its flight.

The eager light runs into the open,
even the ghosts take a drink.

And our paintings see the air,
red beasts of the ice-age studios.

Everything starts to look around.
We go out in the sun by hundreds.

Every person is a half-open door
leading to a room for everyone.

The endless field under us.

Water glitters between the trees.

The lake is a window into the earth.


I think it’s an extraordinary poem, full of seemingly random connections of disconnected images that speak of something much greater. Transtromer is a writer for whom the spaces between are as important as the words themselves. We are asked to fill in the gaps ourselves.

All the poems in The Half-Finished Heaven were translated from the Swedish by Robert Bly, so my view of them is heavily influenced by Bly’s translations. It’s an interesting discussion point when reading poems in translation – how much do we as readers get from the original poet, and how much from the translator? There’s a good post on this by Martin Crucifix in his poetry blog here;

Tomas Tranströmer was born in Stockholm in 1931, and died in the same city in 2015. He published fifteen collections in his lifetime. His work has been published in sixty different languages, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2011, to mixed reviews. See this article in the Guardian for further details;

https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2011/oct/07/tomas-transtromer-nobel-prize-literature-mixed-response

Though there doesn’t seem much to take from Philip Hensher’s criticism in the Telegraph, as reported in the above article – Hensher apparently wrote that …Time has shown every single Swedish winner of the prize to be ‘a little phenomenon of no interest’ outside their own country. 

Teju Cole in the New Yorker was more fulsome with praise – Tomas Tranströmer, who was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, has for years now been one of my ports of refuge…to read Tranströmer—the best times are at night, in silence, and alone—is to surrender to the far-fetched. It is to climb out of bed and listen to what the house is saying, and to how the wind outside responds.

https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/miracle-speech-the-poetry-of-tomas-transtromer#ixzz1ZzhZA4lr

I can see what he means. There are lines in all of the poems in this book that really stand out with their mixture of surreal strangeness rooted in everyday life.

In The Gallery he writes;

That woman keeps buying more and more things
in order to throw them into the jaw of nothing
that wiggles around behind her.

Or there’s this, the opening stanza from After a Long Dry Spell;

The summer is grey now strange evening.
Rain creeps down from the sky
and lands on the field silently
as if it intended to overpower a sleeper.

Another good example is his long poem, (well, long for Tranströmer), Schubertiana. In the Bly translation, the first stanza (there are five in all), starts as follows;

Outside New York, a high place where with one glance you take in the houses where eight million humans live.
The giant city over there is a long flummery drift, a spiral galaxy seen from the side.

The stanza ends with the following long line

I know also-statistics to the side-that at this moment in some room down there Schubert is being played, and for that person, the notes are more real than all the rest.

There’s a film interpretation of some of the lines from this poem by British Director Martin Earle, (it’s a different translation to that by Bly), which I think captures some of the surreality and disparate connectivity of much of Tranströmer’s writing. You can view it via the following link.

I’m certainly enjoying surrendering to the far-fetched language of Tomas Tranströmer and look forward to more late night readings.

What do you think?

Obligatory end-of-blogpost-link – The Half-Finished Heaven is available on my Bookshop here. Any commission I make goes towards the running of this site (so far I am at £1.00 in total, so it’s not exactly a financially profitable enterprise – but isn’t that the way with poetry for most of us!?);

https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/richardwilliamspoetry

Football Poets Part 2

After Bird in Hand was published on the Football Poets website, it got a mention on an article on the Write Out Loud website. Which was nice. The article is primarily about Torquay United’s poet in resident. I wonder if Pompey have one? Perhaps I should offer my services…you can read all about the Bard of Plainmoor here

https://www.writeoutloud.net/public/blogentry.php?blogentryid=112181&fbclid=IwAR0DJ8iAd39J2vkCews7sd1i1YWio5EOBcolmfyNYXh4qJblTUMslTVCJmQ

There’s a link in the article to a recording of me reading Followers, plus three other poems at the Write Out Loud Woking’s monthly zoom open mic – I wasn’t aware it was going to be shown on Youtube – I might have had a shave beforehand otherwise! Not the best readings I’ve ever given, still struggling a bit with technology, but anyway, they are available to view if you have a spare 5 minutes and nothing better to do…I know we’re in lockdown, but still…

Six viewings so far – including one by me, so whoever you are, thank you!

There’s a second Write Out Loud Woking article specifically about the Football Poets website which is definitely worth a read – it’s an interview with one of the founders and covers a brief history of a website that is now archived by the British Library as a site of excellence in 2008. It’s the largest football poetry website in the world. You can read the article here.

https://www.writeoutloud.net/public/blogentry.php?blogentryid=112182

The football poets website is at

New poems there every day – so it’s always worth a look if football and poetry are of interest – I notice that the most recent poem is by Greg Freeman (of Write out Loud Woking, and the author of both the articles referenced in this post) – The Battle of Hastings, as Summarised by Roy Keane – I shall enjoy reading that one later!

Right, back to the day job!

…a quick further update – I have just heard that Bird in Hand has been accepted for the next edition of West Wilts Radio’s poetry programme. It will be going out at 4 PM on Sunday, 28th February. Link to the programme and previous episodes here;

https://westwiltsradio.com/shows/the-poetry-place/

Football Poets

Just a quick post to mention that my poem Bird in Hand is the featured poem on the Football Poets website today. I’ve posted a couple of other football related poems there as well. If you pop over to the site you’ll see loads of other football poetry alongside my three efforts. There are new poems being posted on a daily basis.

This is one of the great things about poetry – there are poems for everyone, no matter what you are interested in – I am sure most genres and subject matters have dedicated sites for you to find across the web

From my Poetry Bookshelf – Brian Turner – Here, Bullet

Brian Turner served for seven years in the US Army. This included a year spent as an infantry team leader for a year in Iraq from November 2003. Here, Bullet comes from that experience on the front-line in the Iraq war and subsequent occupation.

I first encountered Turner’s poetry at a Tongues & Grooves reading in the Florence Arms pub in Southsea. Here, Bullet had recently been published in the UK by Bloodaxe, and Brian Turner was giving readings around the country. It’s a powerful book, and the reading did it justice (this is not always the case – I’ve seen some pretty well known poets perform poorly). I bought my copy at the event.

As an aside, a lot of the poetry collections on my bookshelf have been bought at readings – it’s one of the main ways that poets get to sell their books – about 80% of my book sales have come from events where I have read. Quite a few have been bought on the spur of the moment – if the reading has been good, or if there is a particular poem I wanted to read for myself again. Now I have my own experience of having to shift copies of my own collection, it’s a rare event where I don’t buy, or swop, at least one book.

Back to Here, Bullet. It comes across as being truly authentic, a book that , as with David Jones’ In Parenthesis, ( which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago), could not have been written by someone who did not have direct experience of this particular conflict. Yet there is much more to it than just being a poetic chronicle of one man’s experiences in Iraq.

Here, Bullet is in four sections, with the exception of the first poem, A Soldier’s Arabic, which stands alone as an introduction, both for the soldier in Iraq, and the themes that run through the book. A Soldier’s Arabic begins as follows;

The world for love, habib, is written from right
to left, starting where we would end it
and ending where we might begin.

Where we would end a war
another might take as a beginning,
or as an echo of history, recited again.

As Sarah Brown in the Guardian review states; Turner proves himself an ideal chronicler, eloquent and detached. He avoids the twin pitfalls of embellishment and identification, allowing the particulars of warfare – the “bled-out slumpings / and all the fucks and goddamns / … of the wounded” – to speak for themselves, offsetting and deepening them with descriptions of the “vines of wild grapes”, “shimmering” Eucalyptus trees and minarets against which they’re played out. Above all, he affords dignity to the participants through acknowledgment of their individuality, giving names, recognising relationships, delineating histories. The power of this collection extends far beyond its harrowing subject-matter.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/jan/26/poetry1

You can read four of his poems on the Poetry Foundation website, including 2000 lbs, a visceral description of the impact of a Mosul bombing on some of its victims.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/brian-turn

You can also watch and listen to Turner reading 2000 lbs online here;

When people say that poetry is dull, or too highbrow, or has no contemporary relevance, I want to show them poems like this, and other poems in the book, such as AB Negative (The Surgeon’s Poem), What Every Soldier Should Know and Observation Post #798. Despite their sadness and sometimes harrowing subject matter, they are full of humanity, whether it be for Iraqi civilians, American soldiers, or the history of the country itself. There are no easy answers offered in Here, Bullet , and no easy enemies either.

Whether or not your only experience of war poetry is the work of the World War One poets, then this is a book that is worth exploring. It’s still available to buy – from Amazon of course, alternatively at Bookshop.org here (and yes I do make a few pennies here from any purchase through this link – not a fortune but a little something to help with the running costs of the site!).

https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/my-poetry-bookshelf

I’ll leave you with the title poem of the collection, which I hope is OK to reproduce in full – it is pretty widely shared online;

Here, Bullet

If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta’s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you’ve started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel’s cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue’s explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.