Vanishing Acts 1
Poetry Breakfast ~ at home
Tess Jolly is our special guest this month. Tess has chosen the theme ‘Vanishing Acts’ ~ and what a rich seam it has proved to be, with poems spanning a range of moods and times: from the lively and humorous to the dark and sombre, and pretty well everything in between.
Most of the poetry books referenced can be bought online from the Poetry Pharmacy Bookshop page; and you can contact Deb directly with any queries regarding books not listed, which she may have in stock or be able to find for you.
Tess’s first full collection is Breakfast at the Origami Café published by Blue Diode Press. Click here to buy directly from The Poetry Pharmacy.
Tess Jolly’s poems …
NB All these poems, and particularly Tess’s first poem which has very particular spacing, will be best on a laptop or tablet, not a phone. AD
To vanish through the cracks between paving slabs
into the earth, into the drains,
shimmering like a mirage
on the forbidden side of the wood.
We quiver and fly
insectwise, have made ourselves small enough
to crawl through the socket
of this dead gull’s eye,
flutter from a water pipe’s throat.
Drifting down dark twitten, familiar as blossom,
ethereal as the ghosts of lost children,
we’d rather shimmy up columns of light
than lumber on
awash with apologies and awkward excuses
for the space we take up,
the bodies we shoulder like heavy bags.
Wild on our lurching leveret hearts
we’d rather leap
bull’s-eyed into bullet holes,
squeeze through the air
into locks and letterboxes. There we go again
slipping among you like rain
gathering the hems of its silver skirts.
Breakfast at the Origami Café
Blown like leaves through the open door
the regulars settle to ambient music
as waitresses bring coffee and pastries,
hot chocolate frothing with cream.
A mother tenderly folds her daughter
at the waist, demonstrates making a swan.
Her husband invites her to crease
the dotted line of his spine, butterfly-paint
one tattooed side of his back to the other.
In her practised fingers he’s transformed
to an intricate bloom, a keepsake held
in the box she’s flexed from her body.
Scars speckle the exterior; her navel
is pressed into the lid like a rose in paper.
An elderly man sipping peppermint tea
watches her work, then slowly gathers
his skin into the snapping mouth of a fox.
Businessmen put away their phones,
collapse to a fleet of shining airplanes.
Soon turtles, stars, dragons, hats decorate
vacant tables while, outside, the wind
flays trees, warps lamp posts, drags bins
to different places. Nobody notices the girl
sitting alone by the window has vanished.
She must have folded herself smaller
and smaller until there was nowhere left to go.
Printing the Woodlouse
Instead of the poem I’d intended
to offer you some comfort,
the printer yields a single woodlouse
that sits long enough beneath the lamp
to script its tiny shadow onto paper
like a leaf on a snowfield,
then, overwhelmed by so much space,
it scurries towards the edge,
disappears like invisible ink.
Not knowing what else to do
I watch the little blot of skin and shell,
the armoured heart, focus
on dark gaps in the skirting into which
it gratefully slips to curl up tight
in the brick dust, then the only sound
is the machine’s dreadful shunting,
and all I have left to give you
is this sheaf of empty pages.
Tess Jolly’s poetry choices …
This is where we invite our guest poet to choose poems by other poets on the theme they have chosen.
For the hour it takes to write this poem
I’ll believe the pigeon in Brookes library
is my father’s mind, back for a weekend,
delivered to my sister and me
in the shape of his face, his beanie hat,
the quick glint of his silver earring.
My father’s mind hides in plain sight,
waving from a picnic bench in a busy park,
his perfectly timed smile a trick of skin –
another afternoon of swings and slides.
I believe the pigeon is my father’s mind
because no one else has spotted it
perched up there on the light fitting, cooing.
If I have it right, if I know our father,
the pigeon will be gone by morning,
ushered out by some cleaner. And then
for the rest of the week the bird is nowhere
and everywhere we look.
Somewhere Far, The Poetry Business, 2019.
Thank you Joe, for permission to include this poem.
Birthday Card for the Autumn Equinox
She was born in the spring
on the far side of the world
her body encased oocytes
multiple as stars
locked in meiosis
all across the south
apricot blossom fluttered like nappies
or the blank clean pages of calendars
washed in sunlight, locked in whiteness
waiting for a lifetime
of prewash, boil wash, spinning in cycles
a lifetime of petals and corollas
of oocytes and follicles popping
the world turning and ripening
girls and fruit turning golden
women and leaves
equinoctial light falling
on her fortieth birthday
tilts the turning hemisphere
towards unencoded space
she falls out of the light
her 400,000 children scatter into stars
in the dark cracked universe
This poem is reprinted by kind permission of Carcanet Press, Manchester, UK.
The Full Indian Rope Trick
There was no secret
murmured down through a long line
of elect; no dark fakir, no flutter
of notes from a pipe,
no proof, no footage of it –
but I did it,
Guildhall Square, noon,
in front of everyone.
There were walls, bells, passers-by;
then a rope, thrown, caught by the sky
and me, young, up and away,
Thin air. First try.
A crowd hushed, squinting eyes
at a full sun. There
on the stones
the slack weight of a rope
coiled in a crate, a braid
eighteen summers long,
and me –
I’m long gone,
my one-off trick
unique, unequalled since.
And what would I tell them
given the chance?
It was painful, it took years.
I’m my own witness,
guardian of the fact
that I’m still here.
This poem is included by kind permission of Picador.
Our readers’ poetry choices ~
This monthly anthology ~ our Poetry Breakfast ~ is very much a joint effort: it wouldn’t happen without you sending in your chosen poems on the given theme. Email me if you’d like to contribute.
I’ve always loved this one ~ it’s so simple, but those lines: ‘ … a gesture/that aches in the bones …’ ~ get me every time.
I forget which film
(black and white, thirties)
has a crowd scene,
a liner leaving port,
and among the extras
at the ship’s rail
stands an old man
with a rather distinctive hat
and a wistful face,
waving his farewells
to the extras on shore,
with a rather distinctive hat,
by some continuity cock-up
he also stands.
I hope the director
didn’t give him hell
for wrecking the shot,
because no moment
has moved me more.
So many voyagers
since the world began,
leaving one self, one country,
one life, for another,
and never a man
embarks, without looking back
at what stays behind:
the face, translucent
as a sloughed snakeskin,
the thin figure,
fading at the edges
who raises a hand
slowly, in a gesture
that aches in the bones
all the way
to the other side.
Thank you to Sheenagh for kind permission to include this poem.
I sometimes think of my life as both a disappearing act and a solid memory. Rather like Schrödinger’s cat, difficult to get a handle on or place in time. George Szirtes’ poem Growing Up captures this very well, within childhood experience.
The train with the children was lurching on. It was as
If the rails were not straight, as if the world had buckled.
Where was this train going, asked the children. They
couldn’t remember. Their tickets simply said GONE.
Outside the trees leaned backwards.
The conductor arrived. His face was impassive. He
punched their tickets and vanished. The children
leaned back and tried to fall asleep.
Soon it was dawn and mist in the fields. Then came
towns and factories and rain and more towns. The
children felt older, their bones bigger.
It is about time we got off said the children. The train
Stopped. The platform came to meet them. There was
the name of the station.
Names didn’t matter. It was another language. People
hurried past the children like shadows, as if shadows
could cast bodies.
When the children spoke it was a language they
themselves couldn’t understand. We must have be-
come other people we thought.
Perhaps we have been other people all along, thought
the children. Perhaps this station is where we should
They were distinctly older. Perhaps we are our par-
ents, they thought. Perhaps if we caught the train back
we would be children again.
They stopped to buy a coffee. There was a different
word for it. They felt very grown up. Maybe we were
never children, they thought.
But then they spotted their reflections in a shop win-
dow. They were still children. They would always be.
They ran as if blown by the wind.
Thank you to George for kind permission to include this poem.
This so wonderfully expresses a familiar situation, with a word there but not there. It’s not just poets and writers she has in mind of course.
Do you have a window seat on which to sit and drink your coffee?
Sometimes it’s just the daily bread
of thought just the visible
being itself (a cup of coffee
carried to a window seat
where varnished woodwork shines
in the morning light) sometimes
small things reveal to you
how you’re alive and how you live
sometimes there’s no remission
no trumpet no voice of God
in Levantine splendour only
this blur of steam like a breath
and the word lying below it
waiting to be spoken you can’t
quite make it out what is it
humming all day out of hearing.
With thanks to Fiona for kind permission to include this poem.
I grew up with Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh. Among the poems of childhood is this beautiful celebration of spring from When We Were Very Young. It was quickly among my must-learn favourites. I was fortunate in my childhood to be among woods and bluebells, cows and primroses, and this poem poignantly transports me to those idyllic days.
In careless patches through the wood
The clumps of yellow primrose stood
And sheets of white anemones,
Like driven snow against the trees,
Had covered up the violet,
But left the blue bell bluer yet.
Along the narrow carpet ride,
With primroses on either side,
Between their shadows and the sun
The cows came slowly, one by one,
Breathing the early morning air
And leaving it still sweeter there
And, one by one, intent upon
Their purposes, they followed on
In ordered silence… and were gone.
But all the little wood was still
As if it waited so, until
Some blackbirds on an outpost yew
Watching the slow procession through
Lifted his yellow beak at last
To whistle that the line had passed…
Then all the wood began to sing
Its morning anthem to the spring.
by A.A. Milne, from When We Were Very Young, Methuen, 1925 (originally)
I was listening to the BBC’s ‘With Great Pleasure’ when John Betjeman was the guest. Introducing this extract by Tennyson, he said ‘He gives you the east coast’. I had no idea where it was from, but fortunately I was able to ask a friend who was an authority on Tennyson.
In my childhood, we often spent our week’s holiday in Clacton or Frinton, so I know those huge flat shores well. Indeed, when I was very young, I wandered away from my parents and started to walk out towards the sea, which seemed far, far away, and infinite. My parents must have been out of their wits when they spotted me …
The Idylls of the King
… as when the crest of some slow-arching wave,
Heard in dead night along that table-shore,
Drops flat, and after the great waters break
Whitening for half a league, and thin themselves,
Far over sands marbled with moon and cloud,
From less and less to nothing …
by Alfred Lord Tennyson
And lastly, for now,
This was the first of many poems I learned by heart. It was in the early sixties, and its sad nature appealed to me, coping with unrequited love, though the poem isn’t on that theme. It started when I went into the sixth form at fifteen, when, hitherto oblivious to the fairer sex, I crashed mightily in love with a lovely girl. It took me over ten years to get over it.
Much, much later, I was visiting old friends, a couple. Several years before, her father had had a heart attack and died in the middle of their wedding. She asked me if I’d accompany them to the place where it happened. Once there, in beautiful gardens surrounding the reception centre, I spontaneously recited the poem to her.
I’ve chosen three poems this month:
In Memoriam: M.E.E. by R.S. Thomas. I don’t think it is online but you can read it in Poems to Elsi, Seren 2013.
The Art of Disappearing by Naomi Shihab Nye
When they say Don’t I know you?
When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
If they say We should get together
It’s not that you don’t love them any more,
You’re trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.
When someone recognises you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you have’t seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don’t start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.
Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.
from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, copyright © 1995. Used with permission of Far Corner Books.
Where are you going to, walking, walking?
And what is in your pack?
I’m travelling to an unknown land
With my years upon my back.
And what do you hope to find there?
And will you find a bed?
I’ll find me a bank of sweet dark earth
And pull it over my head.
by Gareth Owen from The Fox on the Roundabout, Macmillan Children’s Books, 2001.
Thank you to Gareth for permission to include this poem.
By the way, Pauline Prior-Pitt, Jenny Swann and Char March also requested the poem by Naomi Shihab Nye! AD
Caradoc Coaches, day trip-trap trip-trap
over the bridge to Llanbister, to Lyn Gwynant,
bridges of devils and the coach put put
it goes, so slow, slow as red kites
whooshing the wind to the water
to dip, like the road to elsewhere.
Where I might step from the green bus
and wander off past the shelter’s red painted
Anwen Price is a Slut
to climb up past the peckled rocks there
and as the bus dreeps to the distance
take off my shoes to press my bare feet
my head to the sheep-bitten grass
so tight it is so pillow soft
by Deborah Alma, Dirty Laundry, Nine Arches Press, 2018.
I was reminded of Louis MacNeice by last month’s reading of his poem, Entirely, and thought of his Meeting Point for this month’s theme of vanishing or disappearing. It seems to me to speak of an intimate, infinite love, but one that is all too ephemeral and almost surreal or fantastical, and so likely to disappear. It also puts me in mind of Brief Encounter, another example of happiness that is all too short and intangible …
Time was away and somewhere else,
There were two glasses and two chairs
And two people with the one pulse
(Somebody stopped the moving stairs):
Time was away and somewhere else.
And they were neither up nor down;
The stream’s music did not stop
Flowing through heather, limpid brown,
Although they sat in a coffee shop
And they were neither up nor down.
The bell was silent in the air
Holding its inverted poise—
Between the clang and clang a flower,
A brazen calyx of no noise:
The bell was silent in the air.
The camels crossed the miles of sand
That stretched around the cups and plates;
The desert was their own, they planned
To portion out the stars and dates:
The camels crossed the miles of sand.
Time was away and somewhere else.
The waiter did not come, the clock
Forgot them and the radio waltz
Came out like water from a rock:
Time was away and somewhere else.
Her fingers flicked away the ash
That bloomed again in tropic trees:
Not caring if the markets crash
When they had forests such as these,
Her fingers flicked away the ash.
God or whatever means the Good
Be praised that time can stop like this,
That what the heart has understood
Can verify in the body’s peace
God or whatever means the Good.
Time was away and she was here
And life no longer what it was,
The bell was silent in the air
And all the room one glow because
Time was away and she was here.
A funny one from me:
Antigonish [I met a man who wasn’t there]
Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there!
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away!
When I came home last night at three,
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall,
I couldn’t see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door… (slam!)
Last night I saw upon the stair,
A little man who wasn’t there,
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away …
by William Hughes Mearns from Earth Shattering, Bloodaxe Books, 2007, out of print.
My first thought was of Antigonish by William Hughes Mearns, but then I thought of The Ascension of Christ. The ultimate disappearing act. For accessible and relevant poems in this field I often turn to the sonnets of Malcolm Guite. Malcolm, a priest, is a prolific poet and author with a love of Lancelot Andrewes, C.S. Lewis and Coleridge among others. I find that his sonnets resonate with many, even those who do not call themselves Christians. Click here to find more than the poem: the link includes Malcolm’s thoughts and a recording of him reading the poem.
We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place,
As earth became a part of Heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted,
He took us with him to the heart of things,
The heart that broke for all the broken hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings:
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we ourselves become his cloud of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed.
by Malcolm Guite, Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year, Canterbury Press, 2012.
Thank you to Malcolm for permission to include this poem.
As ever, I thought about David’s poems, and found Terce from a sequence written for a celebration at Lanercost Priory. In his poem he is thinking of the well-known verse from The Elixir by George Herbert:
A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the Heav’n espy.
For nineteen years David was the Rector of St Lawrence, tucked away in the centre of Winchester. He proposed that the church might be more open to those passing if it had glass doors, and so the exceptional glass engraver Tracey Sheppard was commissioned to create a glass screen using Herbert’s words.
Terce 9 a.m.
The East Window
If only we could see through glass
(so even sweet George Herbert disappears)
and then persist in looking,
till the eye can pass through stone
and then through air.
Then the eye within the heart
will see things as they are,
and well supplied from there,
returns (as good George Herbert did)
with only ‘praise’ identified.
Theatre is the ultimate in vanishing acts: exits (as well as entrances), mistaken identities, concealment, disguises. The characters totally engross our attention for the ‘two hours’s traffic of the stage’ ~ and then when the play is over they completely disappear.
In 2016 for the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death I wrote a series of unrhymed sonnets in the voices of various characters in Shakespeare’s plays. In the last act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the stage direction ‘Enter Puck with a broom’.
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
I’m a jester, a prankster, a mathematician –
forty minutes precisely to circle the globe.
Love potions are my speciality, but lovers –
they all look the same to me.
A stroke of genius that ass’s head.
I transformed a hempen homespun weaver, but the plot
unravelled – what a rush to mend it for the nuptials
(when they talked through all of Pyramus and Thisbe).
Now it’s ended and I’m here with a broom
sweeping up flowers and bits of forest,
putting the stage to bed, dowsing the lights:
assistant stage manager, that’s my job.
It was just a jolly romp, in case you hadn’t guessed;
leave open the casement and let the moonlight in.
by Mary Robinson, from Trace, Oversteps Books, 2020.
Mary also suggested Macavity ~ the Mystery Cat, from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, so here’s a little bit of inspired fun to finish off with!
Thank you everyone!
Thank you to everyone who has contributed to this Poetry Breakfast anthology ~ we had so many poems it’s going to run over two sessions, this month and next! Huge thanks to Tess Jolly who clearly inspired us all with her choice of theme, thank you, Tess.
There is no charge for these poetry blogs but they do take a huge amount of time. If you would like to show your appreciation by chipping in to my ‘coffee and paperback book fund’ you can do so here. If you don’t use Paypal you can email me for other ways to do this.
So, please send in your poems for the May Poetry Breakfast, when our guest poet will be that lovely Liverpool poet, Brian Patten. Brian has chosen Intimations of Mortality (with apologies to William Wordsworth) for the theme. It’s an unusual one for the month of May, but then, these are unusual times ~ and he will still make us laugh! Click here to send in your poetry choices by the end of March (or before) please.
Feedback very much welcomed in the comments section, all the way at the bottom of the page.
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