Life Class

My friends and I who run Poets’ Corner Folkestone had the great pleasure of collaborating with The Woodshed Gallery during Open Quarter this month. Amanda Wood and Laura Froude had an exhibition called ‘Drawn From Life and Other Stories’, and they invited me to read something at their opening. This is it.20180627_084634

 

Life Class

1

Writing From Life

‘Say a new word’-
I look at the sea and write
Without watching the page
Ears closed to the caws of birds.
I write with my left hand
I come to the end of the paper
And write in the sand
I look at the word
before it is washed away
But I cannot read it

The things invisible to mortal sight
(Those things we try to name but cannot see)
We look for in the evening light
Or through the blossom on the cherry tree

The ink that scratched the sand has washed away
(And what we cannot see we cannot name)

2

Evasive

The way she is naked in the cold church hall
Her side by the electric heater turning red
The other side still underdone and pale

She is still but you try to capture her in flight

The way she is when she drives you to her home
Dressed in jeans now and a stripy sailor top

The way she is naked with you

Evasive

3

Real Life

She’s only an ordinary person I suppose
The model in the Methodist Church Hall
Extraordinary, unique, of course; but ordinary still.
But she doesn’t look like other things at all-
I’ve painted animals, still lives, landscapes and the sea;
And the shape of her bones, the folds of her skin,
The hair on her body, her uneven nipples,
Eyes, nose, lips, the millimetres that rescue her from beauty,
Her feet.

She doesn’t care how I draw or paint her-
Charcoal markings on white paper;
So what? She earns her fifteen quid an hour;
Every little helps , but still…

I manipulate her image on my laptop
I can make her limbs move, make her fatter,
Thinner, lift things that have fallen, shift
Millimetres to adjust her facial features
Until she resembles Botticelli’s Venus;
Perfect in every detail, every line.

But the one thing that I cannot do is lift
Her eyes and make them look up into mine.

Once I wouldn’t look so close-
The angle of her shoulder
The same as the peak of the sheet
That hides one breast;
The stretch marks and the puckered flesh
A world away from young desire;
The mischief of her clavicles-
Lopsidedness, descent-
Drawn by life and
Hung by it.

Words like lissome, pert and comely,
Nubile, statuesque, attract me.
She is none of these and glumly
I accept her stark reality.

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The Viking Funeral

This is based on a true story

 

The Viking Funeral

1

It’s the way I tell ’em
Says the fellow with the throat-beard
Whose name I had already forgotten
Who had told me a joke I didn’t understand
(The one about asking them not to close the coffin
Until he had found his contact lens)-
Was making funeral jokes what we were here for?

The way that Don Ryan was laid to rest
Is, as people say, another story.
He was fifty-eight or fifty-nine I guess
When his rotten lungs began to kill him.
Sooner or later I heard about the weird
Centuries-old funeral they had planned
(Though planned is wrong- they couldn’t plan for toffee).

He and Bronwen (Bronwen once the singer in the band
And Don’s lover; all too often
Ill herself and crazy)- no, they couldn’t run a whelk stand
Or a piss-up in a brewery; but it cheered
Them to think how they’d sail him out to sea
In a burning ship- a Viking Funeral
For Don the Viking; more glorious in death than in his life.

2

In the event they never had the choice.
When Don died a sister we’d never heard of
Appeared, established herself as next-of-kin
And had him cremated before you could say knife;
Before poor Bronwen had got herself out of bed.
What will I do? she blubbed; he was my life;
He was my life and now they tell me I’ve no rights.

 

The idea itself was crazy, and she so mad
I thought it just as well she had no rights;
Besides, though no-one calls it ‘living-in-sin’
These days, it didn’t say much for Don
That he had left Bronwen no more than her burden
Of grief. Why the heck hadn’t they get wed?
They could have had one of those deathbed marriages- I like those.

But they didn’t, and Don was disposed of
In that hole-and-corner way, and Bronwen
Was left weeping and wailing- like a Banshee
I suppose; not that I know what a Banshee is.
I thought that would be the last I saw of her-
A weeping woman with nothing to live for
Twisting a soaking hankie in her hands.

3

The invitation came in spring. I’d half-forgotten them,
For life goes on – I had plenty of others with rotten lungs to care for
And the dead can take care of themselves;
But when I read Join Us To Say Farewell
To Don Ryan 1954-2012
This Will Be The Real Thing, The Viking Funeral
We Promised Him. Hammersmith Bridge 4pm

I cleared my diary of the living.
It was more necessary to see these Vikings.
So here I am, or there I was, listening
To throat-beard’s meagre jokes; impatient
To bear witness to this spectacle;
Expecting it would add to all my likings
Something sublime, Wagnerian, grand.

That isn’t true of me, you understand (it’s throat-beard;
I’ve not been listening; where did this begin?)
But it’s a true story all the same;
Happened to someone somewhere; lots of people;
Maybe it even happened once to you.
You must meet Reg- where is he? – and I thought
No; it can’t be true; there can’t be a Reg the Viking.

4

Reg carried a staff and wore a cloak of midnight blue.
He had a whopper of a drinking horn strung across his back;
Wisps of white hair below the bald dome of his head.
From time to time he drank from the horn. Reg was the leader of the pack.
Good of you to come he said. There won’t be many more like this;
There aren’t many of us left now. O; why’s that?
Well the Vikings went very pc five or six years ago.

I wondered again if this was a comedy show-
A comedy funeral for comedy Don.
Reg wiped his white moustache of beer- (or was it mead-) froth-
Here they are he said and there they were-
Bronwen in shocking pink with flowers in her hair,
Clutching flowers in her fists. A man in plain clothes
Carrying the bathtub-sized, bedecked with flowers, Viking ship.

He set the ship down and we clapped and took snaps –
Don’s picture was the sail, the rest was flowers –
And then to the water’s edge, where Bronwen scattered flowers
And Reg said some last words to fare him well
And then they pushed it out on to the river
And Reg stood with his staff, cloak billowing in the breeze
And Bronwen wept and threw her last few flowers

And blew kisses and waved and called out to him.
The ship didn’t float out very far-
It bobbed on the water, turned its prow
And came back to the landing-place.
Pushed out again, it returned once more.
Bronwen laughed through her tears and cried
He doesn’t want to leave us.

Poor Don, poor Bronwen, poor Vikings-
None of them want to leave us.