be an angel
Poetry Breakfast ~ at home
Our second visit from the poet and artist, Pauline Prior-Pitt, and I’ll hand over to let Marion Molteno introduce her. Thank you Marion for taking part in our Poetry Breakfast. By the way, Marion’s current project is an exciting online magazine for young people about how they are using their creativity during lockdown. Take a look! Invite your young folk to join in!
Next week’s theme is ‘The valley that you’ve found’ from the Joni Mitchell song ‘Midway’ … because we’re midway through the year! Play with it as you will, and please send me poems to include: it’s your choices that make this happen.
You might like to listen to this while you’re reading and browsing: you’ll see why in the last poem! Here’s Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Bernstein.
I discovered Pauline Prior-Pitt’s wonderful poems thirty years ago when Waiting Women peeked out from between books on education at a conference bookstall. I picked it up, flipped the pages idly, and was instantly hooked. I read it right through that night, laughing in the way you do when someone has captured exactly what you have felt, but so lightly – a butterfly landing, a moment of recognition, then taking off again. I gave it to my daughter when she left home – it’s still one of her favourites.
Then, recently, at the Wenlock Poetry Festival, there she was in person, and listening to her read was like meeting an old friend. She has gone on writing all those years, capturing moments in every stage of being a lover, a friend, a mother, a grandmother, a woman who holds on to those she loves and has to face loss, and who sees it all with the sharpest but also the most loving of observing eyes.
There are now seven slim volumes of her poems, but I wanted my favourites all in one book that I could give to everyone I know. Pauline has indulged me, so here they are. Spread them around. Summon all your friends and invite her to come and read to them. Her poems are airborne anyway, but listening to her fly with them is a treat.
Pauline’s theme for this week is ‘Be an Angel’ which is the title of her collection of poems about women’s lives. Marion has selected two poems for us: Choosing is one which speaks to her daughter, and Lost Keys is one of Marion’s favourites, which she says always makes her laugh!
A man does
what he chooses to do
if there’s time
he does his chores.
A woman does
there’s never time
to do what she chooses.
From Be an Angel published by Longstone Books
He is beside himself with rage.
You hear him, beside himself.
His familiar words.
“Where are they?
Where the Hell are they?”
And then he is beside you
and you must stop, shaving your legs,
solving the problems of the third world,
stop, even in mid-stream,
to look for his keys.
Should you try to escape this time,
smash your way through the double glazing
screaming, “He’s lost his keys.
His keys, lost again.”
Instead you use your quiet voice to question him.
Has he looked carefully in all his pockets.
This annoys him for some reason
and for some reason which has never been discussed
or agreed between you, he is allowed to scream,
“Of course I’ve looked in all my pockets.”
You don’t move, don’t join in the frantic lifting,
the looking behind, the ‘can’t believe they’re not here’ routine.
Though you can’t resist asking if
they’re on the hook next to yours,
which, of course they’re not.
You ask: shelf by the door? No.
By the phone? No. The drawer? No.
In the little basket on the cupboard,
which he drops things into?
(coins, screws, sun glasses, vouchers, nail clippers) No.
Where had he been?
It can only have been yesterday.
What was he wearing when he had them last,
black coat, jacket, anorak, gardening anorak, Mac?
He looked there first of course. “Ah.”
Trousers, which trousers yesterday?
He races upstairs.
Only now do you move,
towards his pockets.
“Found them!” you call.
“In the pocket of your Mac.”
Be an Angel
We hadn’t seen him for weeks.
I’d just sprinkled incense
into the hot pool,
was lying there in starlight
sipping iced nectar
listening to the nightingales.
He appeared out of nowhere
in complete meltdown
bellowing my name.
I stood my ground
without a towel,
“It was only an apple for god’s sake.
And I only took one bite.
Get over it.”
He crept away and I
stepped back into the pool.
It was a fundamental moment.
When I came in from the snow,
across the park out of town,
you stared at me standing:
red woolly hat.
You stared at
my carrier bag
You’ve never been into HMV
looking like that.
You might have been seen
by one of my friends.
And I was with you,
close shaved head.
I walked beside your jeans,
more holes than patches.
At your grandfather’s 70th birthday party
for all the relations,
I danced with you.
And your feather earring.
So I was glad you were there
when I came in from the snow.
If I had known that she would call
here for coffee at half past ten,
I would have cleaned the house, and then
made a delicious chocolate cake
to eat off flowered patterned plates,
ground coffee served in matching cups.
But I am glad I didn’t know.
She came, she saw, there was no show;
the dusty mess the house was in,
the sink of pots, the floor of crumbs,
the ginger biscuits from the tin,
the instant coffee out of mugs.
She hadn’t come to see my house.
She held me close and kissed my lips,
didn’t mind the untidiness.
We sat entranced, in company.
She’d come to share her soul with me.
We spoke of love and poetry.
Deb kindly offered this poem – which is just perfect for this week’s theme! Thank you, Deb. As well as being a poet, Deb is also rightly famous for her Emergency Ambulance (how we loved it at Wenlock Poetry Festival) and has now created the wonderful Poetry Pharmacy, which we are all looking forward to being able to visit again soon.
She stifles a sneeze; from the dust, the dog,
the white feathers that scurry at edges
and the cold remains
of incense and another burnt dinner.
He is sensitive to noise.
He nods at her tea.
He says Didn’t you make me one?
Sorry, she says.
She makes him some tea.
He goes back upstairs;
to writing his novel; this novel,
the third novel, is his great novel.
She thinks, I’d better put another load on.
She puts another load on.
Carrying so much weight,
she hangs up her wings
in the under-stairs cupboard.
She takes up the three-pronged fork
feels the nub and itch of the tail,
and the stubs of horns,
the white feathers, after all,
keep blocking the filter in the hoover
and making her sneeze.
In March I lost a dear friend in Vicky Darling, mother of Julia Darling. She introduced me to this great poem, and I always hear her voice as I read it – especially the emphatic way she said ‘stabbing’. Thoughts after Ruskin, by Elma Mitchell
I came across this poem, On Angels by Czeslaw Milosz, in my role as a shared reading leader, when I chose it to complement our reading of Anne Tyler’s novel, A Patchwork Planet.What I like best of all is the idea in the second verse, of angels patrolling the seams of the night sky. But I like all of it, very much!
Bone Comb 3000 BC by Pauline Prior-Pitt
from high in the dunes
he can see her
down on the shore
kneeling close to the waves
her bright hair tangled
by salt winds
in his hand he holds the bone
he is carving into a comb
its narrow teeth already cut
to the correct length
lacking only the decoration
he has chosen tiny rings
enclosing even tinier rings
needing all his skill
he will finish it
before the hunter’s moon
place it gently in her bright hair
and kneel beside her
close to the waves.
I experience Pauline’s writing as refreshingly ‘young’, clear and yet very deeply human. As a keen observer of life, with a few words she paints scenes that we immediately recognise as ours too: joyful moments or difficult situations with which we may be confronted, in our families, in moving towards old age, and always there is gentleness and subtle humour shining through her words.
Wonderful are her poems describing her love and deep connection to the sea and the island landscape now her home.
Colour by John Hewitt
Moved to the blessing of colour
because of the marvellous whin
and over the clay-fleshed plowland
the young corn braided green,
I name each colour for blessing,
for blessing’s the grace of delight;
the bud, the leaf and the blossom
till I rise to the mercy of white.
I bless the cloud and the seagull,
the blackthorn and hawthorn bless,
the lamb and the farmer’s daughter
in her Confirmation dress.
Loriana also chose this poem. Permission to include it was given by Tony Kennedy, Chair of The John Hewitt Society Thank you Tony.
I do like this short one from John Betjeman:
“Let us not speak, for the love we bear one another—
Let us hold hands and look.”
She such a very ordinary little woman;
He such a thumping crook;
But both, for a moment, little lower than the angels
In the teashop’s ingle-nook.
Alison chose this Emily Dickinson poem for us:
God permits industrious Angels —
Afternoons — to play —
I met one — forgot my Schoolmates —
All — for Him — straightway —
God calls home — the Angels — promptly —
At the Setting Sun —
I missed mine — how dreary — Marbles —
After playing Crown!
When the worst thing happens,
That uproots the future,
That you must live for every hour of your future,
Unorganised, inarticulate, unprofessional;
They come sheepishly, sit with you, holding hands,
From tea to tea, from Anadin to Valium,
Sleeping on put-you-ups, answering the phone,
Coming in shifts, spontaneously,
About wallflowers, and fishing, and why
Dealing with Kleenex and kettles,
Doing the washing up and the shopping,
Like civilians in a shelter, under bombardment,
Holding hands and sitting it out
Through the immortality of all the seconds,
Until the blunting of time.
Ali, Tim and Hilary all chose Billy Collins‘ fabulous poem Questions about Angels – great minds, or what?! I am very grateful to Eileen L O’Malley at the University of Pittsburgh Press for her kindness and encouragement in considering my request for permission to include this poem in our post.
Of all the questions you might want to ask
about angels, the only one you ever hear
is how many can dance on the head of a pin.
No curiosity about how they pass the eternal time
besides circling the Throne chanting in Latin
or delivering a crust of bread to a hermit on earth
or guiding a boy and girl across a rickety wooden bridge.
Do they fly through God’s body and come out singing?
Do they swing like children from the hinges
of the spirit world saying their names backwards and forwards?
Do they sit alone in little gardens changing colors?
What about their sleeping habits, the fabric of their robes,
their diet of unfiltered divine light?
What goes on inside their luminous heads? Is there a wall
these tall presences can look over and see hell?
If an angel fell off a cloud, would he leave a hole
in a river and would the hole float along endlessly
filled with the silent letters of every angelic word?
If an angel delivered the mail, would he arrive
in a blinding rush of wings or would he just assume
the appearance of the regular mailman and
whistle up the driveway reading the postcards?
No, the medieval theologians control the court.
The only question you ever hear is about
the little dance floor on the head of a pin
where halos are meant to converge and drift invisibly.
It is designed to make us think in millions,
billions, to make us run out of numbers and collapse
into infinity, but perhaps the answer is simply one:
one female angel dancing alone in her stocking feet,
a small jazz combo working in the background.
She sways like a branch in the wind, her beautiful
eyes closed, and the tall thin bassist leans over
to glance at his watch because she has been dancing
forever, and now it is very late, even for musicians.
“Questions About Angels” from Questions about Angels © 1995. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.
Billy Collins can be downright funny; he’s a parodist, a feigning trickster, an ironic, entertaining magician-as-hero. . . . Without question, Collins writes with verve, gumption and deep intelligence. Not many poets can infuse humor with such serious knowledge; not many can range so far throughout history and look so freshly into the future. Not many can please so thoroughly and still manage to chide, prod, urge, criticize, and teach.
In the Shower Room by Gill McEvoy
There are angels in this shower room,
carved by a slip of the plasterer’s trowel;
(hospital routine is breakfast, shower, sleep:
searching for angels is pleasant diversion).
Here’s one marked in blue where constant damp
makes mould. One’s on tiptoe on a pedestal,
poised like a bird preparing to lift
and sing in the vast craters of the sky.
Yesterday there were nine immured angels
whispering to other angels,
angels who brush against me as they pass,
whose sigh is like water gently rushing.
I whisper back to them, hear them listening.
(from The Plucking Shed, Cinnamon Press 2010)
Gill, thank you so much for offering this poem: perfect!
Today I’m staying in bed with my book.
And when anyone says,
Are you going to get up now?
And when anyone says,
What’s for lunch?
And when anyone says,
There’s no bread in the bin.
That’s too bad.
And when anyone says,
Three aren’t any clean cups.
What a shame.
And when anyone says
Are you gong to get up now?
Today, I’m staying in bed with my book.
Tomorrow, I’m going out.
Chosen by Ann, from Poetry Breakfast, Much Wenlock. Thanks, Ann,
Yet again Steve comes up with a brilliantly original take on the theme. Thank you Steve – have you thought about submitting your ‘lockdown’ poems to Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry website Write where we are now?
Angels in lockdown by Steve Harrison
no flights from our cloistered gardens
with vows of social distancing, avid weeding
a tidy cell, one weekly Zoom call.
I’ve never called anybody an Angel
nor asked you to be one
suspicious of this seraphim imperative
the just this once pops to shops
for my minor bedevilment.
I’ve hummed along
Like Elvis Presley singing psalms on a Sunday
in Harlem, in Centrefolds and of a morning.
Sore Christmas tonsils stopped me singing at all,
denied the stage somewhere between Kings and Shepherds
throat swollen like the chubby cherubim
absent from the corporation whitewashed walls
of our Methodist chapels.
not much space for them at all
they must have started playing with my heart.
This week has been a total self-indulgence for me and I’m going to carry on till the very end in that same spirit. Another gorgeous painting, Storm, to remind me of the beautiful Hebridean islands I love so much, and another poem from Pauline. This is the poem that started our friendship, it means so much to me and I hope you enjoy it too. And then lastly, the song that has been playing in my head ever since I started work on this post: Jane Siberry, with KD Lang offering immaculate backing!
The actress chooses Romeo and Juliet.
Prokofiev’s music smoothes my sheets
until his dancing knights clash in alarm.
Who ironed Juliet’s sheets, the ones they stained
before they spoke of nightingales and larks?
Does Shakespeare mention ironing at all?
It never plays a central role, just off stage left perhaps
a glimpse of servants pressing folds into their masters’ ruffs.
Cinderella did her fair share for those ugly sisters
and I expect the dwarfs kept Snow White, white.
White is what I’m ironing just now,
a cotton duvet cover stitched with daisies.
Folded in half the edges never come together,
one side is always wider than the other,
It takes at least three records without creases.
I like it when the guest’s someone I know,
well feel as if I know, if you know what I mean:
actors, artists, writers, even politicians.
I hate it if they choose all rock or pop,
love classical or something very modern.
Just nosing round the buttons on his shirt
when Barber’s adagio for strings begins.
She chose it to remind her of her mother.
I have to set the iron down to stare,
the longing and the darkness and my own.
Then I remember Alison of course,
whose ironing board was centre stage,
who pressed her anger into shirts all through Act 1.
Did Jimmy feel the anger when he put them on?
Will sadness seep from mine?
If she can take only one, she’s taking Barber
And for her luxury she chooses a vibrator
with a special solar powered battery.
I’d take knickers and a crate of bottled water
but Sue would say that doesn’t count as luxury.
I’ll need somewhere to lie and read the Bible:
a comfortable, soft embracing place,
a queen size bed, white duvet
stitched with daisies, freshly pressed
by someone off stage left.
from Ironing with Sue Lawley and other poems, published by Spike Press.
So that’s it for another week! Please send us poems on this, or any of the themes by email or you can use the message function at the bottom of the page. You can also follow us using the social media buttons just below.
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