28 November 2014


Around cream teas and apple trees
there blows a rowdy shanty air
from olden days and working quays
and men that tumbled timber there.

There blows a rowdy shanty air
on easterlies off far Quebec
and men that tumbled timber there
from white pine forests onto deck.

On easterlies off far Quebec
the strains of engines hauling logs
from white pine forests onto deck
and voices singing through sea fogs.

The strains of engines hauling logs
the donkey works of strength and skill 
and voices singing through sea fogs
cross ploughing fields to meet Snowshill.

The donkey works of strength and skill
from olden days and working quays
cross ploughing fields to meet Snowshill
around cream teas and apple trees.

* * *
The dance ‘Quebec’ made for a rousing performance at Snowshill, with many of the audience members singing along to the familiar tune ‘Donkey Riding’.

I had in mind to acknowledge the lyrics of ‘Donkey Riding’ in my poem inspired by ‘Quebec’, so once again I approached Mrs T. for performance notes. Mrs T. explained that no one in Happenstance seems to know the lyrics beyond the first verse and chorus. Also, strictly speaking, no lyrics are included in the performance, but since the chorus was sung with such enthusiasm at Snowshill I decided to research the song for the poem.

It turns out that the ‘donkey’ of ‘Donkey Riding’ is thought by some to refer to a donkey engine, used by sailors to load logs on board ships sailing from Quebec and other places. The song itself was sung by the sailors as they worked. There’s more information via links at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donkey_Riding and one version of the full lyrics is available at http://www.traditionalmusic.co.uk/song-midis/Donkey_Riding.htm (I don’t venture beyond Quebec, just in keeping with the Morris dance title).

The form of this poem is pantoum, last written for ‘Isbourne’. To my untrained eyes, ‘Quebec’ seems to involve a lot of spins, as the pantoum has a sense of rotation through its line patternings. And there’s a nod to the figure called ‘ploughing the field’ in the fourth and final verses.


21 November 2014

Sonnet: To Polly

When cold chains clench my wrists through skin to bone
   and fetters grasp my ankles tight so tight
that bloody sores break weeping while I groan
   from day’s beginning to the dark of night;
and when my mind seems riddled with despair
   so endless deep at times I wish that Death
might come and take me quickly to his lair
   for kind ’twould be to snatch my tortured breath;
’tis then I think on thee, my own true love,
   who sighs and waits these seven years for me,
how I’ll fly home an eagle, far above
   those dismal decks that sail the storm-tossed sea;
for time itself grows wings towards the day
I’ll lie in thy soft bosom, there to stay.

* * *
One of the performances by Happenstance at Snowshill was ‘Here’s adieu to all judges and juries’, a transportation song. It’s accompanied by a dance that involves many interesting shapes and some enthusiastic thwacking, before the side ‘[d]rop sticks, hold on to next person’s right shoulder and amble off, like convicts’ from my performance notes, provided by Mrs T.

As the performance itself contains lyrics, I chose to write an inspiration piece, musing on poetry that the prisoner might have written to his Polly while incarcerated in ‘a strange country’, so far from home. I opted to compose a sonnet as this seemed to me the form best suited to expressing the prisoner’s thoughts at this time, the physical and psychological tortures of confinement resolving in the solace of believing that Polly waits for him. The solace part of the sonnet owes much to the original words of the chorus (again, from Mrs T.):

How often I wish that the eagle
Would send me her wings, I would fly
I would fly to the arms of my Polly
And in her soft bosom I’d lie.

I found information on prison conditions in a useful article by Andrew C. Rouse, ‘The Transportation Ballad: a song type rooted in eighteenth-century England’, via http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/41274385?uid=3738032&uid=2&uid=4&sid=21105263784553


10 November 2014

To Snowshill

Mid-October, after noon –
the russet squirrel,

formed by dwindling leaves of horse chestnut,
waves gently
at the tall turquoise tortoise
gliding through her grounds

grey gutters lie piled in parchments,
epics of this fall, spun from
blowing billowing branches,
ships in clear sea sky

urban limes trail bronze treasures,
farm poplars stream shiny coins
and, farther, country oaks tip triumphal tokens
for the woolly folk curled
by gnarled hulls

crows spread black silk sails
on low fallow fields,
drifting higher to homesteads and gardens –
mown lawn, raked round mound,
mellow smoke

at hill’s crest long-limbed pines sweep the heavens,
tossing needles by cantering ponies
roused by whistling winds
on slick flanks

patchworks of meadows lie
blurred in descent,
hedgerows of finches thread
scarlet and amber and gold

slowing through town,
narrow streets of stone houses
cast blank looks at faltering traffic
through blinded glass eyes

haunted hall rises
stern and squarish;
the river carries maple rafts
as it sings the way

fruits tumble merrily
on damp dewdrop grasses,
fields stretch languorously
under the caresses of serene sun

woods enfold the final passage –
ash shake lithely,
a copper beech
brandishes flags

then the crunch of gravel
and a familiar raggedy bird,
winging a welcome
before joining her flock

a swig of hot apple and cinnamon
as harmonicas summon,
bells jingle on patio paving
and the dance begins.

* * *
With apologies for its late arrival (due to career commitments), here’s the beginning to the Snowshill series, an account of the journey from Cheltenham in the turquoise tortoise, aka my wheelchair-accessible vehicle (WAV).

In fact, the tortoise makes for fast travel, especially with the likes of Brother Adrian at the wheel. For most of our trips around the Cotswolds, I must watch ahead for the prospect of bumps and brace myself accordingly. However, occasionally we’re treated to smooth sailing and I enjoy the scenes that fly past the side windows.

I chose to write this poem in free verse to emphasise the blur of sights from Cheltenham to Snowshill, reserving rhythm for pieces describing the dances, to follow. Wikipedia has an interesting article on free verse here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_verse

I tend to feel a little uncertain when writing free verse, without the sense of purpose afforded by adhering to a strict scheme. Often I find I’ve introduced rhythm despite myself, unable to ignore the sounds of words in my inner ear. It takes effort to construct a poem that is words without song.