This poem from my first book Up in the Air was written a few years ago. I think it’s pertinent to our current coronavirus crisis, where once again we find ourselves reliant on brave and selfless public workers. It’s my first – and only – prose poem and I wrote it after watching a TV programme about the Marriott World Trade Centre hotel, which stood beside the Twin Towers. As you can imagine, the hotel was damaged beyond repair, and there was one guest who spoke in tears and amazement about how a firefighter saved his life. I can’t remember much more than that, but it showed how there’s something more important to us than money and power and status. It’s the ability to feel widely, to be open to everything and have empathy. We’re not talking about being wishy-washy, but about sensing the ‘drunkeness of things being various’, as the Northern Irish poet Louis MacNeice would put it. The world is amazing. What makes us special is the fact that we are able to sense and feel it, in all its fathomless complexity.
The first of an occasional series of videos in which I read poems from my book, Up in the Air.
I wrote Weather Map when I was living in a small flintstone folly owned by the National Trust on the edge of a housing estate in London. At the end of the garden was – beyond a tricky pile of thorny scrub – a beautiful and little-known tributary of the Thames, the River Wandle. I had just started going out with the lovely woman who was to become my wife.
So, here is me reading Weather Map. If you like it, leave a comment.
My new poetry book, Up in the Air, is divided into five sections – Air, Love, Water, Air (again) and Image.
The Image section consists of eight poems inspired by paintings, photographs, a display, a poster and a line drawing. In this post I’ll identify some of these pictures and talk about how they inspired my poems.
First off, the paintings.
The section begins with On Justice, inspired by the painting of Margareta van Eyck by her husband Jan van Eyck. The painting hangs in the Groeninge Museum in Bruges. When I saw it, I was mesmerised by the character in the woman’s face. I could see her intelligence and what I thought was a hint of sharpness, possibly even bitterness. My poem (check it out here if you don’t have the book) wanted to capture that, as well as meditate on the failure of even the greatest art to transcend mortality.
The next poem, Self-Portrait, is based on one of Van Gogh’s paintings. There’s a lot going on here, as you can see, plenty of light, colour, chaos and energy. This painting is a gift to anyone’s imagination, so I just let mine run riot.
Exhibition, Merton is a long poem based on the paintings of the artist Jocelyn Merivale. I used to work with her husband, John, and so had the pleasure of studying her paintings in their home. Jocelyn’s main theme was water and especially the sea – but she also painted birds and portraits. Jocelyn died a few years ago and her website is currently down whilst her paintings are being professionally photographed, but below is a close up of Field of Birds. You can see more of her paintings here.
The other poem based on a painting is Looking at it Now. Paolo Uccello’s Saint George and the Dragon in the National Gallery is a masterpiece. But, as with the poem that follows it, Beast (based on a gallery drawing), I wanted to re-imagine the relationship between man, woman, and ‘monster’, to reflect more modern sensibilities.
The Ogrw-Garw Display was an exhibition about one of the valleys in South Wales, created by a friend. The exhibition comprised beautiful photographs of the ancient oak woodland scattered across the mine-scarred landscape. But in the middle of the display was a single black-and-white photo of… a group of school children.
I wrote Ugandan Bestiary after a safari holiday with my wife in 2007. Back home, I studied the photos of the trip, mulling over the animals we’d had the good fortune to see. In doing so, I came up with this series of short, vignette-style poems.
Finally, Christ in the Crowd was randomly inspired by this poster for Jesus Christ Superstar. As they say, inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere.
A big pastime for old men in Hong Kong is keeping songbirds. There’s a large garden in Kowloon, where many go to feed birds in return for songs. I wrote this poem about that garden when I visited it in 2001.
The poem was first published in Poetry File by the Belmont Arts Centre, for teaching in Secondary Schools in Shropshire. I’m posting it today because it’s National Poetry Day.
Isn’t it great we have a day to celebrate poetry!?
Bird Garden, Hong Kong features in my poetry book, Up in the Air:
This incident with an adventurous (or possibly confused) housemartin took place when I was staying in a cottage on holiday in rural France. It was an intriguing place, in the grounds of a very small chateau, whose elderly owner used to stand every morning at one of her parapets with a huge Great Dane beside her. The first night I was terrified someone was breaking in because the electrics tripped out downstairs, making a huge cracking sound. That cottage felt like a different world, and a different time.
in through the blue window
hunched up around
angelic beating wings
circling the rafters
tensing our naked bodies
as we read
and drink coffee in bed –
we curl our morning papers,
prepare to drive the thing out.
this bird is no amateur,
doesn’t panic in a crisis –
no, this bird
is a reader of houses
and sees this one’s ours
so retreats quickly
leaving us with only
of the beat
of his wings
in our hearts.
This was one of several poems I had published in the Belmont Art Centre’s Poetry File programme for teaching in secondary schools in Shropshire. It features in my poetry book Up in the Air, available here: