apples, bricks &
other people’s poems
Poetry Breakfast ~ at home
Welcome to Poetry Breakfast ~ still at home! I’m writing this with the kitchen fire lit and the wind and rain against the windows. It feels like it might be a long winter, for all sorts of reasons, but I hope these monthly Poetry Breakfasts will give you something to warm your heart. I hope, too, they will remind you of the community that we are still part of, even though we are not gathering together as we used to.
Our guest poet this month is Jonathan Davidson. Jonathan is Founder and Chief Executive of Writing West Midlands, but I first met him when he was also running the West Midlands Readers’ Network. Those managing the Network used to meet every so often around the table upstairs in the bookshop for lively discussion and lots of coffee (and that famous coffee and walnut cake from the much-missed Copper Kettle!). When I was starting up the Wenlock Poetry Festival, Jonathan was the one I turned to for help with all the background stuff that needed to be in place in order to run a successful festival. I couldn’t have done it without him.
Jonathan is also director of the project management company Midland Creative Projects Limited, Joint-Founder of the Birmingham Literature Festival and Chair of the National Association of Writers in Education. On top of all that he writes – beautifully!
Thank you for joining us as our special guest, Jonathan.
‘The Industrial Henge’ by Anna Dillon, the painting featured on front cover.
photo credit: Lee Allen
A NOTE ON READING THIS BLOG!
Everything (I hope!) written in red, or on a red background, is a clickable link to another page – it might be a copy of the poem online elsewhere; it might be background information to a poem or a poet; or to the publisher’s page for a particular book etc. Each link should open up in a new page, so that when you’ve finished looking at it you can close the link and you won’t have lost your place here. Some images will also be ‘clickable’. Do explore and have fun!
Also, this blog is best read on a laptop-sized screen. The formatting should transfer to tablets and phones but my design skills (such as they are) suit the bigger screen, so to see it as I see it, may I suggest: a good chair at the table; a warm fire/shady spot (weather dependent); a very good cup of coffee/tea/glass of wine (remember this is a Poetry Breakfast though!) ~ and a good half hour or so …
Welcome to ~
It’s autumn and I’m working
at picking the last of the small apples.
They’ve grown without check. They glitter
in the slight breeze. It takes a young man
and a tapered ladder and some nerve
to reach them. In the big, wooden shed
the women of the village and one
old man are grading my catch.
I’m the last picker, sent to finish off
because I’m recently fallen in love
and am incapable of doing much else
other than swaying in treetops.
So now I’m nudging the ladder
into the branches and taking two
rungs at a time, holding a basket.
I lever, pivot, lean and stretch-out
to twist the apples from their sprues.
I listen for the soft, short snap of stem
parting company. What I pick I set down
as gently as I can: apples bruise
beneath the skin, unnoticed until
days later they bloom into decay;
and damaged apples are discarded;
the women of the village see to that.
Working, I think of the young woman
I’ve fallen in love with, how we found
the pale scars on her body when we
undressed each other – an accident
as a child; scalding water, nothing more.
I had put my face to her damaged skin,
and drawn in her rain-washed smell,
not realising how this must have hurt,
or how much love it took to let me
see her. And I did not wish that she
was different, I wished that I was.
Apple Picking (read by Jo Bell)https://jonathandavidson.net/a-commonplace-the-everyday-reader/#Apple-Picking
They use a Flemish Bond but set in it
Sufficient blue-flared headers
To make the lozenges
Of language for an eye
To read with ease a hundred years ahead.
A brick arch frames a window for the light
To be let in, and for a door,
A lintel. All are laid
Like script declaimed on Sundays
At faces plain as chimneys on a roof.
The building of a cottage, house or grange,
That finds its height and stands
Against the day, is song.
For hands that speak in courses,
That harden as they weary of the work.
And they are dumb or gone away or dead
Who cut the sweet, pale clay
Of sentences and fired them
In common kilns to make
The narratives that keep us home and dry.
What we read now when walking through a place
Is all that’s left of those
Who squared the quiet day
With chisel, hawk and bolster,
Who held their tongues but spoke vernacular.
Notes: Flemish Bond is one of many patterns in which bricks can be laid, varying the header (short side) and stretcher (long side) for strength and to please the eye. Blue-flared headers are dark blue bricks laid with their short sides outward facing. The colouring comes from being placed close to the heat source in a kiln. Hawk is a square plate on a stick to hold mortar ready to be trowelled onto bricks. A bolster is a heavy-duty chisel used to cut bricks clean in half.
Brickwork (read by Derek Littlewood)https://jonathandavidson.net/a-commonplace-the-everyday-reader/#Brickwork
A note on listening to these audio files: click on the red background and wait for the file to load in a new page. Then press the ‘play’ arrow. You can now come back to this page and listen and read at the same time if you’d like to. The readers are Jo Bell, Derek Littlewood, and Gregory Leadbetter.
Notes: Arvo Pärt (born 1935) is an Estonian composer. His work is minimalist in style and is influenced by Gregorian chant. He left Estonia during the Soviet period.
The Silence (read by Gregory Leadbetter)https://jonathandavidson.net/a-commonplace-the-everyday-reader/#The-Silence
In response to Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten by Arvo Pärt
I like best the silence that is not
Silence but our breathing, the orchestra
Of flesh and thought caught in looped
Arpeggios. But back to the silence,
That comes at the start and finish
And places a hand on our shoulder
Or takes our hands and leads us not
To heaven or hell but into the ever-
Lasting place of unknowing, from where
We struggled out. But back to the silence,
That for us on the surface of the earth
Is nothing like silence, but a continuous
Roar of obligation and dispatch, of coming
And going, and for Benjamin Britten
Was the great bell tolling and then not
Tolling. And that is what I like best;
The silence that is noisy like the bell,
That we go back to, where we came from.
I welcome people recording their audio versions of my poems and I’d be happy to extend this request/offer to attenders at Poetry Breakfast. Details are here. You don’t have to have bought the book, although that would be nice, (and you can get it from Deb at the Poetry Pharmacy as well as in all the usual places.) As you can see from the page I have a lovely selection now, including in Spanish and French, and some by people I don’t even know.
Other people’s poems . . .
Unusually (it is an unusual poetry book) the next three poems Jonathan has selected are by other people. Here are poems from Ann Atkinson, Maura Dooley and Roz Goddard.
How the trees love this weather:
slaked hydraulics pulse on full power,
their trunks, drenched conduits as they lean
into the long moment of their fall.
Water streams the paths, finds new ways
down and lays washed sand in its wake.
Tree roots, spreading like knuckled veins
over the slopes, are terraces of sand and silt.
The music of the gorge is white water,
its constant industry of flow, the brook
full of itself and urgent for the river,
shifting wood, moving rock, carving stone.
At the bridge the water’s hurl is leather brown
and heady – on the road, springs erupt and well
through tarmac, streams find their way easy
through dry-stone walls. The canopy is listening,
its tesserae of leaves held out palm-up
and tapping a morse of rain, more rain – then louder,
loud as the brook’s full-throated song, clattering –
rain, here it is, again and more of it, rain more rain.
From grass-stained eggs we bred eight;
two hens, six fine white cockerels,
they scrambled, fluffing feathers
for a summer and an autumn month.
Now, hands pinked by the wind,
I watch their maned necks nervously.
Yesterday the tiniest learnt to crow,
latched a strange voice to crisp air,
his blood red comb fluting the wind,
feathers creaming, frothing at his throat.
One month till Christmas, the clouds thicken,
he turns on me an icy, swivel eye,
Do you dare deny me?
My neighbour helps me chase them,
snorting snuff, which rests on his sleeve
in a fine white scatter. A wicker basket
gapes wide as he dives for them.
Six filled the woodshed with soft cries.
Their feathers cover stony ground
like a lick of frost.
Snow came in thick as a flock of swans
in silence so deep we felt a prayer.
For weeks the dark music of ground
giving up nickel and iron was white breath.
We kneeled, called down the sun’s halo:
its dogs, arcs, pillars of light. Only the depth
of earth and its voices rose to meet us in frozen
fields, would not stop until we became snow.
As the old year turned, we armed ourselves
at the trackless place with blanket-weed
and lime-wash to suffocate the voices,
lit fires around gooseberry, crab apple, marl pit.
Those who had swords drove them into ice,
as if we could hasten its surrender to water.
Finally, there was a low singing as dawn began
to break, crows drank sideways from snow melt.
READERS’ CHOICES . . .
I have found two pieces for this ‘subject’, the first of which, The White Cliffs by Alice Duer Miller covers the first two parts (and could include the third if the ‘ghost on the stairs’ is Thomas Hardy!!) The second is from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. I could also have chosen Old Chants which includes the following lines:
(Of many debts incalculable,
Haply our New World’s chiefest debt is to old poems.)
Anyway I look forward to seeing what other contributor’s bring to light!!
A red brick manor house in Devon,
In a beechwood of old gray trees,
Ivy climbing to the clustered chimneys,
Rustling in the wet south breeze.
Gardens trampled down by Cromwell’s army,
Orchards of apple trees and pears,
Casements that had looked for the Armada,
And a ghost on the stairs.
Out of May’s Shows ~ Selected by Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
Apple orchards, the trees all cover’d with blossoms;
Wheat fields carpeted far and near in vital emerald green;
The eternal, exhaustless freshness of each early morning;
The yellow, golden, transparent haze of the warm afternoon sun;
The aspiring lilac bushes with profuse purple or white flowers.
My immediate thought about ‘other people’s poems’ lead straight to Clive James’ ‘The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered’ from the collection, The Book of My Enemy. (Also in his Collected Poems, Picador 2016).The theme of ‘Apples’ in women’s poetry often seems to be linked with Eve – hence Pam Thompson’s ‘Once Bitten’ might be suitable (if it’s not too tenuous a link!) I’ve got it in The Virago Book of Wicked Verse, 1992. ‘Bricks’ scuppered me, until I was looking for one of Philip Larkin’s poems about buildings and found his To put one brick upon another. It’s in his Collected Poems, published by Faber with Marvell Press, 1988.I suppose the miracle would be to find all three elements in one poem – I do hope someone does!
They weren’t talking.
because she wouldn’t recognise
the price of apples,
wearily scratched his rib.
It still ached from the fall.
She, heart-sick of gardening,
brooded over the empty promise
of being clothed.
A crack in the sky
and lightning flashed
through parted clouds.
He gazed, and appreciating once more,
her pale, original beauty
tentatively caressed her breast.
“Piss off, Adam,
I’ve got a headache.”
from The Virago Book of Wicked Verse, edited by Jill Dawson, 1992, Virago Press
Look, I’m sorry about that fucking
apple. I was just newly made,
had no role models,
didn’t think beyond the bite.
And god, were we bitten!
Inferior, a possession,
beaten into submission,
when all along
it should have been obvious …
A sperm is not superior to an egg,
and the wombs…
the wombs belong to us
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.
from Be an Angel, published by Longstone Books,
Thank you, Pauline, for giving me permission to include Eve along with Pam’s Once Bitten – and for then offering Genesis, too!
I suggest the last two stanzas of W. B. Yeats’s Lapis Lazuli, which I enjoy for their rhythm and sound.
There is a very tenuous link, – the history held within the composition of bricks and stone.
No apples, but there are plum and cherry trees!
It was a delight to seek out the following poems which I hope meet the criteria for this month. Reading Robert Frost’s After Apple Picking I imagine falling asleep to the scent of apples. I’m sure many others will also have thought of John Drinkwater’s Moonlit Apples. Bricks appear in Philip Larkin’s sad poem No Road, where ‘time’s eroding agents’ touch a nerve. Other people’s poems led me to some very funny parodies, a great collection of which can be found in Poems Not on the Underground by Roger Tagholm. Wendy Cope’s A Nursery Rhyme, is a very clever take on what Wordsworth would have made of ‘Baa, baa, black sheep’.
After Apple-Picking by Robert Frosthttps://audioboom.com/posts/1614921-after-apple-picking-by-robert-frost
The Angle of a Landscape —
That every time I wake —
Between my Curtain and the Wall
Upon an ample Crack —
Like a Venetian — waiting —
Accosts my open eye —
Is just a Bough of Apples —
Held slanting, in the Sky —
The Pattern of a Chimney —
The Forehead of a Hill —
Sometimes — a Vane’s Forefinger —
But that’s — Occasional —
The Seasons — shift — my Picture —
Upon my Emerald Bough,
I wake — to find no — Emeralds —
Then — Diamonds — which the Snow
From Polar Caskets – fetched me –
The Chimney – and the Hill –
And just the Steeple’s finger –
These – never stir at all
Alix asked if there was room for a poem by Emily Dickinson – I guess the answer is – always!
(visit to a cider orchard, Herefordshire)
My mind turns
like a motorised sieve
shifting and sifting facts:
roots, root-stocks, feather-roots;
fruit names: Dabinett, Vilverri,
Chisel Jenny, Michelin;
cider and juice names:
Marcle Ridge, Putley Gold,
Once upon a Tree.
the Hoggs, the Bulls,
the Taylor/Stainer generations.
I’m not a gyro-pallet,
programmed to shift each
at sustained intervals —
so I sit down, quiet by this tree,
listen to apples fattening.
Note: gyro-pallet – a circular pallet that regularly turns sparkling cider/champagne bottles to stop yeast clogging the liquid.
Apples cobble the orchard floor.
At my feet the zebra’d gold of wasps.
The basket on my hip is full.
I rest it on the wooden table
dumped beneath these trees,
its grain split like the bursting fruit.
The bones of the basket are brittle.
The trees are cragged and bowed.
But still each year the wasps come,
lurching from the apples into flight,
staggering upwards in the air.
Thank you, Gill, for sending in these two lovely apple poems!
I notice your next Poetry Breakfast includes the theme of apples and wonder if this sequence of apple poems (The Seedling Poems, first published by David Cooke in The High Window) is of interest. I wrote about a number of varieties of rare Wiltshire apples and the human stories behind their cultivation.
The Seedling Poems by Elinor Brooks
William Dredge of Wishford is not known
to have shaken hands with a tree
thinking he greeted the Prussian king.
George planted steak in his castle grounds
and waited for the beef to grow;
Dredge raised an apple tree whose fruit
flushed red, its richly-flavoured flesh
well-balanced, his fame assured.
has lovely blossoms and bears fruit
at the tips. Its fruits are small.
Shiny, red-flushed, striped,
a hint of strawberry in a good year.
Do not try to train it
up against a wall.
It needs to spread its arms.
Leave it free-standing and see what a harvest you will get.
Mr Latham believed in trees. He planted them
round his school. The senior boys had lessons
in gardening and woodwork. Later in life
they still remembered grafting, planting pips and
spitting them; their tongues sought out
rough tags of russet skin
snagged between teeth.
One seed is all it takes.
Take Mary Ann and the apple pip
she planted the day that she married
Mr Worthy Barnett of Steeple Aston.
It came from the fruit of Prince Albert
standing next to Lady Sudeley. Cross-
fertilisation may have occurred.
The Barnetts raised ten daughters and
one son. And this apple, its flavour
Julia, 33, takes her last photograph in the garden shrubbery, Codford St Peter
Skin reddened with rash,
limbs stiff and brittle,
Julia raises her lens to the apples
before they are picked or drop.
There are bruises on hands
that will pack the fruit,
and the fingers that click
the shutter closed
on this late season crop.
Long after leaf-fall they hang
like Christmas baubles
Goodness – it’s been an epic! Who knew apples and bricks would bring forth so many poems! Thank you, everyone! Though I think we are still missing the magic poem that combines apples, bricks and other people’s poems: an ongoing challenge . . . (You come close, Bert, but it’s a bit of a stretch!)
So – our next Poetry Breakfast will be published on Thursday 12th November and our guest poet will be the much-loved Jonathan Edwards who has chosen the theme: I remember, I remember. (Does anyone else immediately go straight into ‘. . . the house where I was born/the little window . . . ‘?)
Please do contribute: all published poems are accepted, and providing copyright is cleared, they will be included. To aid that process – please email your suggestions to me by Monday 12th October. If you are not sure whether or not your contributions are wanted – let me tell you that if you are reading this, they are!
These themed collections of reader’s poetry choices are free and always will be, but they do take an enormous amount of work! If you would like to buy me a cup of coffee, or put something towards my next paperback you can do so right here: thank you!
Huge thanks to all our contributing poets for permission to include your poems; to everyone who wrote in with poetry suggestions and to all of you for reading this. Special thanks to Jonathan Davidson for being our guest poet. And big, big thanks to Alison and Nicky who proof read these pages for me and even discuss apostophes!
Bye for now, keep safe,
(yes this is still the right email!)
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