NaPoWriMo Day#7

Today’s brief was to turn to newspaper headlines for inspiration; however, the suggestion was to take a light-hearted news article rather than writing about Covid-19. (Perhaps just as well since five of my poems so far have touched on that topic.) I quite liked the headline “People are dressing up in ballgowns and tiaras to take their bins out“, so I’ve entitled this one ‘Bins and Ballgowns’. PS To counteract the rather banal content, I’ve used iambic pentameter – surely a metaphor for the poem itself …

Bins and Ballgowns

On pointy heels, she wobbles down the path.

Her odd attire makes passing strangers laugh.

We must stay home in constant isolation

And not ignore the PM’s information;

But two weeks in, she’s tired of wearing leggings.

Designer clothes hang in her wardrobe, begging

To come out and have a little airing,

And now, she thinks, she really is past caring

What others think – she’s going to do this her way!

So she’ll dress up in style for this week’s bin day.

Her satin ballgown trails upon the floor –

At least her neighbours know she isn’t poor!

Her dress alone cost almost half a grand;

Whilst at her throat, a diamanté band

Proclaims her taste – there’s nothing too outré:

She’ll celebrate good breeding while she may.

Of course, the bin bags in her outstretched fingers

Are made by Harrods – snobbishness still lingers.

Keeping standards up is such a pleasure:

One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.

NaPoWriMo Day#6

Today’s resource was the online journal, Ekphrastic Review, which chooses a different painting each week and invites readers to submit their own creative responses in the form of poetry or prose. (Last August, they published a short story I wrote, inspired by the painting ‘Frenzy’ by the Polish artist Wladyslaw Podkowinski.) The prompt for today was Heironymous Bosch’s famous (and bizarre) triptych, ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ and we were asked to write a poem from the point of view of one person/animal/thing from the painting. (If you’re not familiar with it, google it.) I chose to write about Adam, shortly after the Creator has presented him with Eve (seen in the left hand panel of the triptych), and so I’ve called my poem,

Adam Finds His Earthly Delight

It seems that, as I slept,

My ribs were counted

And one of them deemed fit for transposition:

That solitary bone – just one of many –

Took on flesh

And warmth

And softness.

*

She sits here now,

Her voice a laughing river,

Her eyes two stars,

Her form an unknown country

With hills and mounds

And secret hiding places.

*

Her hand in mine,

We walk this world together;

My skin on hers,

We rise and fall together.

*

Flesh of my flesh;

Bone of my bone:

Without me, she would have no life,

But I cannot live without her.

NaPoWrimo Day#5

Today’s brief was very specific: there was a list of twenty different things I had to try to include, (some of them being writing things that make no sense!), plus a link to T S Eliot’s poem, ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’. For those of you who may not be familiar with T S Eliot, he was an American poet (1888-1965) who moved to England at the age of 25 and spent the rest of his life there, writing poems, essays and plays and being a respected literary critic. His poems are modernist in form and content, which means they are often very perplexing. (I studied ‘The Waste Land’ for A level, and it’s a collection of numerous quotations from or allusions to other works; apparently, the original poem was much longer, but then Eliot edited it down to the bare bones to make it harder to understand!) I currently teach ‘Prufrock’ to Year 9 students, who quite often struggle to understand the abstract concepts or the way in which unexpected adjectives are used to describe everyday nouns. The following is my homage to ‘Prufrock’, hence the title.

Prufrock’s Isolation

Let us stay, then, you and I

Within this isolation forest with a ceiling sky

Where arguments spring up around our feet

Like flowers, wreathing round our fragile souls;

Let all our words become hot coals –

Some spark of heat to end our apathy,

To energise, to combat lethargy.

O, let us end this weary isolation!

I smell your fear; I taste your sorrow –

Will there be food for us to buy tomorrow?

The streets outside are filled with empty spaces

The streets outside are filled with absent people

The ghosts of those who walk like hazy shadows

Flit through the empty streets and feel the silence

Their tendrils slipping fog-like

In and out of empty streets that have no voice, no purpose

And Boris Johnson sits in Downing Street

Encased in sterile gear from head to feet

This isolation coffin closes in

Its walls now shrink, compressing hair and skin

And bone into a compact ball of fear and loathing

And so this crumpled ball of stark humanity

Is swallowed by the tiger of profanity

And colours dance before my blinking eyes

And newsfeeds scream their worrying statistics.

The smell of sweat and fear and unwashed feet;

The taste of long forgotten tins of soup;

The dry, cracked skin from washing hands too often  –

All these and more are now our new existence.

The world has changed and we have no resistance.

I smell your fear; I taste your sorrow –

Will there be food for us to buy tomorrow?

But maybe there will be a hope and future:

The sun will shine once more on parks of children

And people litter streets with thoughtless actions;

Down ginnels dark and narrow, drab and twisting,

Humanity will celebrate the end of isolation,

And muggings will resume and theft and arson;

And we will celebrate that we have ‘freedom’.

Pollution will revive and grow much stronger –

“But,” we will say, “we choose to mar our planet.”

Rejoice, o man! For this forced isolation

Has only served to show us the importance

Of hurtling on our own terms to our final destination.

“Now sit thee down” and have a virtual cuppa

For all have sinned – maxima mea culpa.

The frozen butterfly of optimism

No longer flutters freely: wings iced over,

It stares with lifeless feelers, seeing nothing

And symbolising death for many thousands  –

The selfish folk who gather on the beaches,

Dispensing dangerous germs with wine and peaches,

May never know how many deaths they’ve caused

Because they thought they would not stay indoors.

I flit; I fly; I am the butterfly of doom –

My spirit soars, my body in this room.

On fairy wings I sprinkle fire and brimstone

On those whose selfish ways say no to isolation.

The Addicted Writer seeks her retribution.

There is no time for taking tea and toast

For I have measured out my life in Insta posts.

The squealing silence grates upon my nerves –

Like grated cheese it melts into my bones.

The tins of soup gaze at me in a way far too reproachful.

“We’re still in sell-by date,” they say, but I am ever watchful.

(Can someone really die from eating mouldy produce?

Are out-of-date fishfingers a form of child abuse?)

And I shall open up a tin of butterbeans.

Can I, dare I eat the soup?

The butterfly of doom unfolds its wings

Whilst overhead Corona virus sings.

NaPoWriMo Day#4

Today’s prompt was to write a poem based on images from a dream. A few months ago, I had two bizarre dreams in the same night, and those dreams are now the basis of a two-part poem.

Dreams

I.

1. I took the bunch of keys

And unlocked the door.

A tiger snarled at me.

I shut the door again quickly.

2. Behind another door,

A peacock spread its

Wings: colours kaleidoscoped

In shimmering beauty.

3. I remember little of the other doors –

What lay within each sealed wooden envelope;

Only that there was a sense of wonder,

A fizz of excitement

As I chose each key and unlocked

The depths of my imagination

II.

The cat yawned.

Green stars flew out of his mouth

And the world changed.

Bodies filled the kitchen;

A quest was set in motion;

And I pretended to be a waitress.

Saturday prose

Fear not – I’m still doing NaPoWriMo and have just written Day 4’s poem, but I’ve also allowed myself the luxury of writing a short story based on a writing prompt from my local writers’ group.

The prompt I chose (out of four possibles) was a tube of superglue – just in case you’re wondering why my story takes the turn it does. it’s written from the perspective of an adult looking back at her schooldays and it’s called

Stuck in the Midlands With You

Guilt was the glue that held our relationship together.

When people ask me why I hung around so much with Helen Edwards when we were in high school, I never tell them the truth. “We lived near each other,” I’ll say; or, “We both liked the same band”. The real story is far more sinister, but I can’t keep on living a lie.

I was an anxious child at eleven years of age, fearful of everything and two weeks into secondary school still without a proper friend. I didn’t fit in, you see: I was small and skinny and clever, and the girls who were popular all had the right shoes and the right bag and the right make up – yes, some of them wore mascara to school at that age – and an easy confidence which enabled them to sashay around in their unflattering uniform as if they were strutting the catwalk in the latest designer outfits.

The boys in my year group were an unruly bunch – they were still suffering from the immaturity that made them think flatulence was funny or that pulling up a girl’s skirt to see her knickers was an acceptable mating ritual; and when I was forced to spend my hours lunch break with them in the school playground, my misery knew no bounds. By the end of the first week, I’d developed the art of hiding round the back of the science labs, as far away as possible from the raucous games of football and the shouting and screaming that seemed to be the expected form of communication.

That’s where Helen found me. I was standing a few feet away from the wall, bouncing a tennis ball back and forth in a complicated game I’d devised for myself. “Can I have a go?” she asked. I flinched, not liking the idea of anyone else invading my private world.

In the end, I let her join in – not because I wanted her there but because she simply refused to go away. She ruined the game too, claiming that my rules were far too complicated and that my final challenge – back to the wall, legs apart, bouncing the ball and then twirling around in time to catch it as it rebounded – was ridiculous. I could tell she thought she was doing me a favour by replacing ‘double bounce, on the wall, clap and catch’ with ‘left-handed throw’, but it just wasn’t the same. I spent most of the next week trying to avoid her, but she always found me.

And in fact, it was her fault that the whole incident happened. Luckily she was in a different class to me – we weren’t set for subjects until the following year so we were taught in mixed ability groups, chosen by surname: I was an ‘A’ and she was an ‘S’ – and I didn’t have to do any lessons with her. She was always waiting outside my classroom door at break and lunch time though … After a while, I wondered if she left her lessons early on purpose – just to make sure of catching me.

Anyway, on this particular day, she didn’t even wait for me to come out of the classroom – she just stormed in while everyone else was leaving and decided to help me pack away so I could get out faster. (I’d started tidying my desk fastidiously in the hopes that it would keep me in the classroom and away from her for a few more minutes.) Completely ignoring my established routines and rituals, she grabbed a handful of the felt tipped pens I was lining up in alphabetical order and stuffed them randomly into my pencil case. I was so traumatised by this anarchic behaviour that I panicked and dropped my ruler – and then Helen stepped back and trod on it and I suddenly found myself in possession of two pieces of ruler. What was worse, was that the ruler had cracked unevenly, leaving me with one part that was much longer than the other. I almost cried with despair.

For the rest of lunch time, I was too upset to speak to Helen. I had prided myself on my perfect school equipment; and the thought of those two bits of plastic made me physically ill. I still have an uneasy feeling in my stomach even now when I think about it.

It must have been about five minutes before the bell went when Helen had her bright idea. “You could Sellotape the pieces back together,” she said.

I knew that Miss Jones, my form teacher, had a roll of Sellotape in her desk, but I didn’t want a taped-together ruler that looked like one of Doctor Frankenstein’s experiments. What if she had something better than Sellotape though? I was pretty sure I’d seen a tube of glue in her drawer when I stood by her desk as she was hunting for a red pen the other day.

My mind was made up. I would go to the classroom now and ask Miss Jones if I could use her glue. Relief flooded me; the solution brought a smile to my face.

Annoyingly, Helen followed me back into school. “Where are you going? Why aren’t you talking to me?” She was still asking her inane questions as I reached my form room.

Her eyes widened as I opened Miss Jones’ drawer. “You can’t touch the teacher’s stuff!” she hissed.

My fingers closed around the tiny tube – I knew I had been right; but was there enough in here to do the job?

Taking the two pieces of ruler out of my bag, I laid them on Miss Jones’ desk. This should only take a few seconds, I told myself, but although I squeezed the tube as hard as I could, nothing seemed to be happening.

“You have to pierce the end with something sharp,” Helen told me. I hadn’t realised she was an expert in household repairs. She wrested the glue from my hands and studied it. “There should be a pointy bit on the cap. … Here.”

She handed it back and I took it from her gratefully, realising this was the only time in my life I’d actually been pleased to have her around.

Flushed with success, I squeezed again, expecting a tiny dribble to drip onto the piece of plastic I was holding in the other hand. To my horror, what looked like the entire contents of the tube suddenly squirted out in a joyous bid for freedom – right onto Miss Jones’ chair.

Frozen in shock, I gazed at the clear liquid, wondering if I could dip the broken end of my ruler in it before it started to set. Helen looked at me unsympathetically. “You’ll get in trouble for that.”

She was right. My careless accident would be viewed as an act of vandalism. “Don’t tell,” I begged.

She looked at me slowly, Machiavellian wheels already spinning in her brain. “Okay,” she agreed, “but you’ve got to start being nicer to me. I want you to be my best friend.”

The bell sounded before I could reply. As the rest of my classmates streamed in through the door, Helen slipped away quietly, and I slunk to my seat. With any luck, no one would notice I had already been in the room when they entered.

Moments later, Miss Jones appeared and made her way towards her desk. I felt my heart start to flutter. Would she notice the mess on her chair?

Apparently not, because she sat down on the gluey substance without even noticing it and began to take the register.

It was only later on, when she tried to get up from her chair and start writing on the board, that I realised the full implications of my mishap. Try as she might, Miss Jones couldn’t extricate herself from her seat. The veins stood out on her forehead as she exerted every last ounce of energy, but she was well and truly stuck.

Looking back, I realise that I should have said something, but I was so mortified at what I’d done that I couldn’t speak. The superglue had effectively moulded my lips together so that all I could do was watch in horrified silence as she pulled and tugged, growing increasingly more frustrated by the minute.

One by one, the rest of the class began to catch on. The quiet whispering became a louder murmur as pupils turned to their neighbours, nudging them excitedly and speculating about what was wrong until finally, with one last, superhuman effort, Miss Jones wrenched herself free from the chair, leaving most of the seat of her trousers behind her.

I don’t think she realised what had happened because she strode confidently to the board, turned to face it and began writing down simple equations – all the while affording Class 1A a spectacular view of the frilly pink knickers she was wearing on that particular day.

The boys started the sniggering, but the girls joined in pretty quickly too. Before long, most of the class was laughing hysterically while poor Miss Jones kept on writing, every now and then turning around to glare at us for being noisy. It was only as she returned to her desk that she caught sight of the remnants of trouser material stuck to the chair and knew that she’d been inadvertently flashing us for a good ten minutes.

Miss Jones went home early that day and was “off sick” the following week. In the meantime, my year group had a special assembly in which the headmaster castigated us all for the malicious trick that had been played on one of his teachers and threatened to cane the culprit – once he caught him. I stole a quick glance at Helen when he said this, but she was sitting demurely, making her face look as ignorant as everyone else’s – she might have been annoying, but she knew how to keep a secret.

So that’s how Helen and I became best friends. For the next five years, she stuck to me like that damned superglue, boring me to death every break and lunchtime with her eternal anecdotes about her guinea pigs and her horse riding lessons. She didn’t even take the hint when the boys in our year group started growing up and became worthy objects of affection: I had to invent after school flute lessons just so I could meet up with Martin Jenkins in one of the music practice rooms at the end of school instead of walking home with her.

We parted company after O levels: I was going on to do A levels at the girls’ grammar school in Kings Heath and she had an apprenticeship lined up in hairdressing. We promised to keep in touch but we never did – I suppose that was one of the benefits of living in a pre-internet, pre-mobile phone era.

I never did mend my ruler.

NaPoWriMo Day#3.5

Since the school holidays are finally here, I’ve managed to write the poem I wanted to yesterday (Day 3) but didn’t have time for, due to working from home, creating English language resources.

I said yesterday that Wilfred Owen was adept at using half rhymes, eye rhymes and near rhymes in his poetry, and so today I decided to pay homage to Owen by parodying his poem ‘Exposure’. So, for any English teachers out there, or for any students studying AQA English literature, this one’s for you …

Isolation

 (With apologies to WILFRED OWEN)

Our brains ache, in the merciless land of isolation . . . 

Wearied we keep awake because the streets are silent . . . 

Vodka and gin confuse our memory of the salient . . . 

Worried by silence, children whisper with anticipation,

       But nothing happens. 

Watching, we see celebrities teaching maths and gym; 

The twitching agonies of dads who only grumble; 

All day, incessantly, the flickering TV rumbles; 

Far off, in Tesco they’ve run out of milk and jam. 

       What are we doing there? 

The poignant misery of home life makes us sweat . . . 

We know isolation lasts; germs breed; and washing hands too much 

Is cracking skin. At least the melancholy march 

To school no longer blights our lives and that is sweet, 

       But nothing happens.

Sudden successive bulletins of news streak the silence. 

More dead than Spain: the number rising fast today,

With countless casualties that cough, burn up and die. 

We watch the UK government’s apparent nonchalance, 

       As nothing happens. 

Pale shapes with fingering stealth go hunting for more loo roll — 

They queue for hours, buy up forgotten treats, and stare, hard-faced, 

At pensioners; the nurses on their breaks are dazed 

By people’s selfishness – where are the police patrols?

      —Why aren’t we crying? 

Slowly our ghosts drag home: clutching our spoils of war: 

Once-crusty farmhouse bread, now past its sell-by date; 

The tins of butterbeans; Dolmio sauce; and don’t

Forget sardines – all food we wouldn’t have touched before.

       For good cuisine is dying. 

Yet we believe we will still see the sun again; 

That parks and schools and pubs will once more fill with noise. 

For that inevitable day we wait; and on the news, 

We look for signs this virus is abating – 

       Yet more are dying. 

Tonight, we’ll stand outside our homes and clap our hands, 

Applauding NHS and other worthwhile workers. 

And then we’ll go once more inside, our minds on Walkers,

To eat our feelings and ignore our misery pangs. 

       Still nothing happens.

NaPoWriMo Day#3

Today’s prompt was to take a rhyming dictionary and find as many rhymes or near rhymes as I could to write my poem. Now, I don’t have a problem with poems that rhyme: some good poems rhyme and some don’t; but I really don’t like the idea of forcing in rhyming words for the sake of it. However, the reference to near rhymes made me think of Wilfred Owen, a young man who wrote some very powerful anti-war poetry in 1915 when he was recovering from shell shock after fighting in the trenches in World War 1. Owen plays around beautifully with language and his half-rhymes and near-rhymes lend a sense of uneasiness to his poetry whilst still enabling it to flow – something that reflects the unsettled state of Owen and many of his fellow soldiers at the time. Most people are probably familiar with ‘Dulce et decorum est’, and other poems to look out for are ‘Exposure’ (currently one of the poems for English Literature GCSE with the AQA board) and ‘Strange Meeting’ (which my English teacher read to the class when I was 14 and I’ve loved it ever since).

My aim was to channel Owen – which I certainly haven’t done in this poem, so will keep trying. However, you could say I was inspired by him to write a poem that reflects the general unease of the population during this time of isolation – I’m playing with language but I’m also trying to tap into some of the very real feelings and anxieties of people in government-imposed quarantine.

Isolation

Outside, the streets are silent.

The world holds its breath, waiting

to see if this violent

disease is just a siren –

should we expect something more malevolent?


Inside, there is no peace, no quiet:

children and animals continue to riot,

raising their voices in a discordant choir.

Burning up with cabin fever, I feel quite

Delirious. My throat is on fire.

A sudden spasm of fear

Twists my gut, bringing me near

To total breakdown. Does no one care?

I scroll down my phone. My social life is deserted:

Online chat leaves me disconcerted.

I wander through empty rooms in the desert

Of my existence – and loneliness hurts.

A momentary burst of noise

Sends me to the window, expecting boys

Or gangs caught up in a fight;

Instead, outside in the night,

Cheers and whistles echo support for the NHS in their plight.

For now, the streets are empty of violence.

The applause over, the whisper of silence

Hums like a thousand tiny violins.