Vanishing Acts 2

Poetry Breakfast ~ at home

No, you’re not seeing double, or experiencing déja vu! This is our second Poetry Breakfast on the theme of Vanishing Acts as we simply had too many poems to include them all in one blog. So Tess Jolly is our special guest again this month. I’m sure you’ll enjoy these new poems.

Most of the poetry books referenced can be bought online from the Poetry Pharmacy Bookshop page.

If you don’t see the book you’d like listed, Deb Alma, at the Poetry Pharmacy, may still be able to get it for you ~ just email Deb here to enquire.

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 of these poems, and particularly Tess’s second and third poems, which have very particular spacing, will be best on a laptop or tablet, not a phone. AD

Swim, they said

so you swam, oh how you swam,
and the water made a drowned city
of the house where you played knock-down ginger,
the White Horse sign swaying in the tide.
Dead-Man’s Alley lashed like a sea-dragon
from the dark end of the cul-de-sac,
encrusted with fragments from the air-raid shelter,
the glistening pear drops you said were nail varnish
when your parents came upstairs to ask.
The letters you almost left beneath your sister’s pillow
were translucent as jellyfish, the ink drained away.
Swim further they said so you swam,
you swam as if your life depended on it
between the stumps of trees that sheltered you
that summer after the exams, when Sultana
could no longer run to the playing fields
and drink from bottles frozen overnight,
when you saw her walk each day towards
a man waiting in a car. After they drove away
there was only your mother hurrying up the drive,
her hair tied in a scarf, soil on her knees and hands.
She should have come an hour ago.
Swim deeper they said so you swam
but now you’ve vanished, the gates are locked,
even your neighbour has hung his last
bag of sweets over the fence and gone inside.



Dating Scan

No skull or rudimentary legs
           ghost the glass.

No white filament of spine
           lights our faces.

She’s panning, panning …
           … for a small grey pebble

sunk to the sea-floor.
           Monkey nut, coffee bean,

my body’s failed hoard.
           The umbilical cord revealed

as Indian rope; the future I’d dared

The day opens and closes
           around me like a curtain.

There’s the sound
           of a woman weeping

but it’s not me –
           I’m too far out to be heard.

So small, so still
           the crescent moon cradled

in vast black water.




                     My voice recoiled
                                       the day Fire leaned from a neighbour’s window,
shook out her red cloths, singing.

                                       Words folded in on themselves
              when Fire burst into my room, rushed across the floor
                               licking my feet like an excited dog,
curled on the bed nursing her offspring.

                   My flickering tongue furled
                                     when Fire drew blackened roots
                                                   from polished banisters, slipped
                         ghosts from the bath enamel.

            When Fire called, when Fire took my hand,
                                                        my song was a burning coal spinning into water,
running out of breath on that last long note.

                                    Then only the reckless gulls opened their throats,
                                            lifted their beaks
                   like touchpapers to the sky’s infinite wicks.



all by Tess Jolly, from Breakfast at the Origami Café, Blue Diode Press, 2020. Click here to buy directly from the Poetry Pharmacy.

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.

The East-West border by Jaan Kaplinski is translated from the Estonian by the author with Sam Hamill and Riina Tamm, and anthologised in Staying Alive, Bloodaxe Books. The poem explores the human consequence of wandering and disappearing land borders.

The two versions ~ Estonian/English, English/Estonian ~ start at about 2.40 minutes in, which might be a handy guide. I love his voice. He could almost persuade me to learn Estonian …

Click here to watch Jaan reading the poem.


And Brian Patten’s wonderful poem is just simply true.

Sometimes it Happens

And sometimes it happens that you are friends and then
You are not friends,
And friendship has passed.
And whole days are lost and among them
A fountain empties itself.

And sometimes it happens that you are loved and then
You are not loved,
And love is past.
And whole days are lost and among them
A fountain empties itself into the grass.

And sometimes you want to speak to her and then
You do not want to speak,
Then the opportunity has passed.
Your dreams flare up, they suddenly vanish.

And also it happens that there is nowhere to go and then
There is somewhere to go,
Then you have bypassed.
And the years flare up and are gone,
Quicker than a minute.

So you have nothing.
You wonder if these things matter and then
As soon as you begin to wonder if these things matter
They cease to matter,
And caring is past.
And a fountain empties itself into the grass.

by Brian Patten, from Collected Love Poems, Harper Perennial, 2010

Maureen Cooper

Reader's Retreat

Thank you to Brian for kind permission to include this poem, and for accepting my invitation to be our guest poet in May. Brian has chosen the theme ‘Intimations of Mortality’ (with apologies to William Wordsworth).

My Way is in the Sand by Samuel Beckett

I learned this poem, written in English and French by Beckett when, in my late twenties, I started learning French beyond schoolboy level. Coincidentally, I met my wife, who is French and was hitch-hiking in England with her sister, at that time, and I recited the poem in French. (Yes, we got married and are now grandparents).

Anthony Wilson quotes it and writes about it here.

Clearances by Seamus Heaney

This is a sequence of eight sonnets in memory of the poet’s mother. One of them is about taking sheets off the washing line and stretching and folding them, and I heard the poet reciting it on Woman’s Hour in the 1980s while I was working on an extension to our house. I was in my mid-forties, a poetry lover, and I’d never heard of Seamus Heaney! On my next trip to London I leafed through a collected edition till I found it ~ and then I learned all eight of the beautiful sonnets. The complete sequence is here.

A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal, from The Lucy Poems by William Wordsworth.

Sixty years ago I was struggling (unsuccessfully) to learn Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata 14 Op. 27 No.2, which you can listen to here. I had the Associated Board of the Royal School of Music edition by Donald Francis Tovey and Harold Craxton. In his inimitable style, in the preamble to the sonata, Tovey remarked that the cumulative effect of these hundreds of triplets may be fitly expressed In Wordsworth’s lines:

A slumber did my spirit seal,
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course
With rocks, and stones, and trees.

So of course I hastened to learn both the first movement of the sonata (easy enough to play but needs a lifetime’s pianistic experience to play well), and The Lucy Poems. I would then solemnly sit down at the piano, recite the lines, and, suitably inspired (I hoped) play.

The Painter of the Lake by Philip Gross

I heard this on Poetry Please (BBC Radio 4). I don’t remember who the presenter was ~ it was several years ago. It well expresses the idea of what we are losing in our environment and our humanity. I can’t find it on the web, but my transcribed version is below, alongside the published version, which is rather different. You will also see comments from Philip Gross below, taken from email correspondence over this poem between Philip, Anna and myself.

Andrew James

The Painter of the Lake

He has appeared here on the shore
as long as anyone remembers
every Sunday afternoon,

a short man, bald,
With misty glasses and a stiff
limp like a war wound,

And a little box of tricks
that folds out to disclose
bright phials and tinctures.

No-one has heard him speak,
though he hums, no particular tune.
He plants his easel and a crowd

begins to gather, shyly:
children, dogs, then half
the village at a little distance.

He slaps a quick grey drench
across the sky. As it weeps
he works his colours in.

Our lake, our two mountains,
he gives them back to us
and what more could we ask?

We love them as they are.
He washes out his brushes
in the lake, which is why

it keeps its blue-green-grey,
year in, year out.
Only today

he has not come. Instead
your Scen-o-Ramic EuroBus
has scattered the goats.

Do you bring news of him?
Is he ill? Oh, if he dies
what will become of us?

by Philip Gross, transcribed from Poetry Please on Radio 4 by Andrew James

The Painter of the Lake


He slaps a quick grey drench
across the sky. As it weeps
he works his colours in,

old man with misty glasses
and a little box of tricks
that folds out neat bright tinctures.

A crowd begins to gather, shyly:
children, dogs, then half
the village at a little distance.

Our lake, our two mountains.
He gives them back to us
perfect. Every Sunday afternoon.

He makes them as they are.
He washes out his brushes
in the lake, which is why

it keeps its blue-green-grey,
year in, year out.
Only today

he has not come. Instead
your coach arrives scattering
the goats. Your faces gaze

from its green-smoked glass
like carp. Our children
find their own reflections

in your hubcaps. But
the painter? Is he ill?
Oh, if he dies

what will you make of us?

by Philip Gross, from Changes of Address: Poems 1980-98, Bloodaxe Books, 2001

Thank you to Bloodaxe Books for giving permission to include this poem.

Oh, how interesting! Two versions of the poem at large in the world ~ presumably a long-ago redraft between the original publication and gathering it in my last-millennium selected Changes of Address

Do I have a preference? I can see the arguments for either. It’s long enough ago that I regard the poem having a life of its own quite separate from me. And if somebody has added to that life by loving it, then that’s how it should be. 

Andrew, do use the version you have in your head. The poem is lucky to have received that kind of hospitality. 

(All of which might be an interesting question to throw out to your poetry-breakfasters … How much does the author own a published poem? Should we take that good advice for parents: love them and let them go? Discuss!)

Philip Gross


Sonnet 87: Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing


Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou knowst thy estimate.
The Charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting,
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving.
Thy self thou gav’st, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me, to whom thou gav’st it, else mistaking,
So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Comes home again, on better judgement making.
Thus have I had thee as a dream doth flatter:
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.


by William Shakespeare

Philip Browning

Poetry Breakfast, Much Wenlock

May I offer this poem? I know it doesn’t really fit because the dolphins don’t disappear or vanish ~ they just never actually appear!

Watching for Dolphins

In the summer months on every crossing to Piraeus
One noticed that certain passengers soon rose
From seats in the packed saloon and with serious
Looks and no acknowledgement of a common purpose
Passed forward through the small door into the bows
To watch for dolphins. One saw them lose

Every other wish. Even the lovers
Turned their desires on the sea, and a fat man
Hung with equipment to photograph the occasion
Stared like a saint, through sad bi-focals; others,
Hopeless themselves, looked to the children for they
Would see dolphins if anyone would. Day after day

Or on their last opportunity all gazed
Undecided whether a flat calm were favourable
Or a sea the sun and the wind between them raised
To a likeness of dolphins. Were gulls a sign, that fell
Screeching from the sky or over an unremarkable place
Sat in a silent school? Every face

After its character implored the sea.
All, unaccustomed, wanted epiphany,
Praying the sky would clang and the abused Aegean
Reverberate with cymbal, gong and drum.
We could not imagine more prayer, and had they then
On the waves, on the climax of our longing come

Smiling, snub-nosed, domed like satyrs, oh
We should have laughed and lifted the children up
Stranger to stranger, pointing how with a leap
They left their element, three or four times, centred
On grace, and heavily and warm re-entered,
Looping the keel. We should have felt them go

Further and further into the deep parts. But soon
We were among the great tankers, under their chains
In black water. We had not seen the dolphins
But woke, blinking. Eyes cast down
With no admission of disappointment the company
Dispersed and prepared to land in the city.

by David Constantine, from Collected Poems, Bloodaxe Books, 2004

Thank you to Bloodaxe Books for kind permission to include this poem.

Mary Robinson



Cumulus Who is that woman in the bathroom
today, the mirror is mist under light
at the top her face comes and goes
like a cat – Cheshire – that man mistakes her
for someone else why does he weep?

Cumulonimbus Nerves sizzling beneath
membrane sparks shooting from fog, flash –
young lovers in moonlight, flash – tossed like a
shuttlecock the crone’s old nakedness under
a nightgown clinging to the wreckage.

Cirrus Something is ruffling the grey
a breeze across wind chimes notes drifting
like threads from a fine-spun veil
she yearns to stay up there wearing the years
lightly scudding along exhilarated.

Altostratus She strains towards the light
eyes clouded through glass she longs
for the mist to swallow the wind
whipping her back she feels herself taken
invisible leaving no shadow behind.

by Carol Caffrey from The Untethered Space, 4Word Press, 2020. You can buy this book directly from the Poetry Pharmacy.

Thank you to Carol for permission to include this poem.

Alex Hiam

In-between People

A story my mother told me.

One late night, amid busking katydids,
she journeyed from Omoba to Aba town.
The emergency? A dying distant relative.

Travelling over a low bridge, lying over
shallow water, she saw ‘them’. Young
and old: splashing, washing, bathing, laughing …

The in-between people, their inky silhouettes.
‘Don’t make a sound,’ her mother said,
‘The living should never intrude on the dead.’

by Catherine Okoronkwo, from Blood and Water, Waterloo Press, 2020

Catherine Okoronkwo

Poet, featured on Poetry Book Society Winter 2020 list

I’d like to suggest The Small Window by RS Thomas which I have in The Everyday Poet, edited by Deborah Alma, published by Michael O’Mara, 2016.

You can watch a short video of RS Thomas reading the poem here.

Also, from the same collection, I’ve chosen ~

Inefficient view of a happy man

I only saw him briefly,
as the train sliced off
a second of his life

to put beneath a pain of glass.
He carried branches
in his arms. On his face

a look beyond
contentment kept him
from sinking in the grass.

by Robert Harper, from The Everyday Poet, edited by Deborah Alma, published by Michael O’Mara, 2016. First published online here.

Thank you Robert, for kind permission to include your poem.

And lastly ~

My Shadow is but a Shadow of its Former Self

It was in Kalgoorlie last year, late one afternoon
the sun scorching my back, when, there at my feet
not a silhouette of anthracite, not a steam-rollered
Giacometti, but a gauze veil. A finely pencilled sketch.

I blamed the tinnies and thought no more about it.
But this summer, while jogging in Battersea Park,
I noticed that whenever I sprinted, my shadow fell behind
and I had to stop and wait for it to catch up.

I have also noticed that when the sunblock wears off
so does my shadow. Am I becoming translucent?
At midnight I play statues on the lawn. The moon
sees through me, but gives the cat a familiar to play with.

I fear that summertime when I will keep to the house
and feel my way around darkened rooms.
Dozing in armchairs, I will avoid the bedroom, where,
propped up on pillows and fading, waits my shadow.

by Roger McGough, from Collected Poems, Penguin, 2004. Thank you Roger, for kind permission to include your poem.

Hilary Tilley

Poetry Breakfast and Talking about Books, Much Wenlock

The first poem that came to mind in response to your call for ‘Vanishing Acts’ was one of my favourite poems ever, and certainly my go-to poem when thinking about death: Rain – Birdoswald by Frances Horovitz.

I love it for what you might call its secular spirituality and its calmness; to know that she wrote it when she knew of her own impending death makes it all the more moving, I think. I find it a tremendously comforting way to think about death ~ that sort of dissolving away ~ and because of that I’ve sent it to a few people when they have lost a loved one, as long as I’m sure that they would appreciate and understand it.  I read it at my mother-in-law’s funeral. A couple of years ago, finding myself not far from Birdoswald, I made a little pilgrimage there ~ it wasn’t raining, sadly!


Rain – Birdoswald

I stand under a leafless tree
more still, in this mouse-pattering
thrum of rain,
than cattle shifting in the field.
It is more dark than light.
A Chinese painter’s brush of deepening grey
moves in a subtle tide.
The beasts are darker islands now.
Wet-stained and silvered by the rain
they suffer night,
marooned as still as stone or tree.
We sense each other’s quiet.
Almost, death could come
inevitable, unstrange
as is this dusk and rain,
and I should be no more
myself, than raindrops
glimmering in last light
on black ash buds
or night beasts in a winter field.

by Frances Horovitz, from Collected Poems, Bloodaxe Books, New Edition, 2011

Thank you to Bloodaxe Books for kind permission to include this poem.


Dying is a bit of an extreme way to disappear, of course … I’m drawn, too, to the idea of escape to somewhere else ~ particularly at the moment!  Another all-time fave of mine is the glorious Heaven-Haven by Gerard Manley Hopkins. I’m not sure quite why such a short and simple poem moves me so much, but it always has ~ is it the cadence, the rhythm? Not that I’m ever likely to take the veil, but still ~ maybe I’ll ask for it to be read at my funeral, by which time I should be out of the swing of the sea …



         A nun takes the veil

        I have desired to go
              Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail,
              And a few lilies blow.

              And I have asked to be
                    Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
             And out of the swing of the sea.


by Gerard Manley Hopkins


I have a feeling you will approve of my next choice, Anna ~ I have lost my bearings by Anna Crowe with its strong pull to the north country. I suppose it’s a poem that is more about going home than about disappearing, but I can sympathise with that feeling of wanting to leave the city behind you, and exchange the sound of planes for the sound of silence.  I wonder if going home might be like disappearing back to your true self, leaving the clamouring of the modern age behind, reconnecting.


I have lost my bearings

A fox barks and the door creaks
as though the wood
remembered the tree it once was.

I write this at a kitchen table
in the city, a plane passing
every minute, day and night.

It is time to go north. I want
to listen to silence and unpick its voices:
the wind that surges through pines

is only one of them, with the burn
that gurgles, chants, or roars in spate;
the buzzard mewing, wheeling overhead,

the oyster-catcher piping her way
across moorland, whisper of bog-cotton
surrendering to the wind. At Sanna

the machair will be bright with orchids.
Do you hear a humming, like fridge-song?
An emerald damsel-fly hovers above the burn.

by Anna Crowe, from Territories: Writing from Innu Assi, Québec and Scotland, published by Edinburgh International Book Festival/Scottish Poetry Library, 2015. Thank you to Anna Crowe for kind permission to include this poem.

Nicky Bennison

Reader's Retreat, Leicestershire Shared Reading

Photo taken by Nicky at Birdoswald

Rope Bridges 

Your land of love consists mainly of rope bridges
criss-crossing the sky like a cat’s cradle, strung
between mountains. For each time you’ve moved on,
‘gotten over’ something, a rope bridge hangs
as testament, the last remaining thread of a thought.
Some are twenty-five years old, woven from dolls’
hair and nettles. Some are wholesome and beautiful:
vines planted on opposite sides of the river
naturally grown to span the gap and weave together.
Some are elaborate, pre-planned, constructed under
high tension and enshrined with laminated photographs.
The latest is rickety and narrow but you’re crossing
in style. I look up from my inflatable raft
to see you gliding above me, passing into a cloud.

by Caroline Bird  from The Air Year, Carcanet Press, 2020. Thank you to Carcanet for permission to include this poem.

Steve Harrison

Poet~at~Home for Poetry Breakfast

Written in Juice of Lemon

Some poems I write in ink
and they get written with a lot
of furrowing of the brow, and often miss
but some I write in juice of lemon
quickly in my heart
and hope that one day someone’s
warmth will iron the secrets into poems
with effortless art.

by David Scott, from Beyond the Drift,  Bloodaxe Books, 2014

Miggy Scott

Circle Dance

This lovely poem is now on one of the walls in the Poetry Pharmacy! AD

Thank you everyone!

Thank you to everyone who has contributed to this second Poetry Breakfast anthology on the theme of Vanishing Acts. Huge thanks to Tess Jolly who gave us three new poems for this month! 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 as soon as you can or by the end of March at the latest, please.

Feedback very much welcomed in the comments section, all the way at the bottom of the page.

Anna Dreda

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