Monday, 9 November 2020 at 16:08
Here's a little sonnet trilogy to round off the Californian poems from Djerassi.
Poison-Ivy is well-known, and there's a lot of it over on the east coast. Less well-known are Poison-Sumac and Poison-Oak. There was a fair amount of this about, and something I was always aware of on my walks in Djerassi.
Urushiol is an oily organic allergen present in plants of the Toxicodendron family
such as poison-oak, poison-ivy and poison-sumac. The name derives from the
Japanese urushi, an extremely hard lacquer made from the sap of Toxicodendron
A health warning comes with every Eden.
Though not much else is shared by wilderness,
rural track and quiet suburban garden,
there are some things in common nonetheless.
You’ve poked around out back, disturbed a snake
maybe. More likely the danger in the grass
isn’t a serpent but a plant. It’s Biblical,
of course, but though the name suggests a tree
– poison-ivy, sumac, or, round here, oak –
forget the fruit. The knowledge that you need
right now’s the low-down on that plant. Folk
wisdom counts the leaves: “If there be three,
then let it be.” The jingle is no joke.
Save your skin: to fear of God, add Poison-Oak.
Three-leafed, slick with persistent oil,
this plant looks mild but it’s possessed
by the fiery spirit of Urushiol.
Whose slight unfelt caress is soon a restless
itch. Gets under your skin, boils over flesh;
plays hell, leaves his perverse lover’s rash.
Urushiol, could be some cast-out Old Testament
fiend or unworshipped, bitter, so-sore god:
blisterer, bringer of tetter, demon dementor,
heartless skin-raker, bland-seeming three-leafed sod.
Unholy triad of oak, sumac and ivy:
this Divil’s shamrock’s the very devil to rid;
this harvest of rods, this great three-personed malignity,
fifth-column uneradicated from sea to glittering sea.
Animals are immune, but you can get caught
from a blanket, garden tool, a brush with a cat,
the sole of your shoe, a touch on your jeans, the coat
hung up over winter, a dead plant fuming on the fire.
Genius loci, Zeitgeist of what time you have left here.
Exorcise with spirits before he creeps under your skin!
Stop! No devilry, just an oily organic allergen.
More wonderfully strange how ancients learned to tap
and tame, refine by crafty flame its caustic sap,
transform it to a high hard gloss: japanned.
What alchemy of the word could rival this?
Turn itch to such durable art; rework pain
to frame a blessing from a lash, a curse?
Think now… just how to polish poison into verse
Sunday, 8 November 2020 at 11:43
Here is another photo of one of the figures from the Orpheus Coyote sculpture at Djerrassi, and a couple more poems I wrote during my stay there.
I'd go for long walks very early in the morning, before the mist had burned off, and often had the sense of being watched - coyotes, maybe, in the bush, though more often than not it would be a deer, or some smaller racoon-like animal.
Later, sitting on the verandah, there were often hummingbirds. I'd never previously thought of hummingbords as aggressive, but these Californian ones could be very territorial and sometimes would hover up close to your face. Their beaks are rather long and sharp for getting into flowers, and the overall impression was rather like a huge angry insect with this syringe-lke beak attached to whirring wings.
They rattle brush, startle up – birds flap
and thrum, spiral to flock above the track.
Unsure, you stop, unshoulder backpack,
dig out the hand-drawn map to check
just where is here. Squint. Drip sweat.
The day is loud, urgent with insectivity.
It weaves its gauze, hums through heat, your head,
networks all but distant calls, odd throaty crawks.
Behind this noise, this light, a sense of something
strangely else. Would come as no surprise to hear
the day punctuated by the crack of stick or gun,
or, looking up, to find some sudden tall or longish thing
appraising your meek trespass into being.
Something bright, yet dark with too much sun.
You hear it first, that buzzy whir,
then it’s hanging inches from your face,
wings mechanically a-blur
to keep that plump fuzzy little body
levitated on whisked gravity,
like an insect, or an angel just hanging there,
pleased with its own smart levity,
for some metaphysical joke.
Or some darker syringe-beaked familiar,
getting right into your face,
asking just what it is you think
you’re doing in this place.
Sunday, 18 October 2020 at 18:09
Here's a poem I wrote when I had a residence at the Djerassi Ranch in California. The ranch is up in the Santa Cruz mountains. I spent a lot of time walking there, often along the extensive scultpture trail. A photo I took of the sculpture of Orpheus Coyote was used for the cover of my collection Pilgrim Tongues. I spent a lot of time, especially at dawn and dusk, walking along the scupture trail. Occasionally, I thought I caught a glimpse of a coyote disappearing into brush. Some nights you could hear their howls.
Orpheus Coyote and Other Pieces (1999), wooden sculpture by William King on the sculpture trail, Djerassi Ranch, Woodvine, California.
Coyote is following two sisters on the road and is in love with both of them. When they come to the crossroads, one goes east, the other west. Coyote looks both ways, then takes his lance and throws it high. When it comes down it splits him in two and he goes both ways at once. Kwakiutl myth.
There’s something archaic, vaguely Greek,
like spirits of each woodland place,
in how these sculptures mark this track.
Old country altars open to the wind:
a wayside shrine as the path slips down
to stippled shade, the trout-brown creek.
Then out in sun, and who’d have guessed
what spindles darkly above scrub, mezquite
in this amphitheatre of swaying grass?
Orpheus as Coyote? I liked the thought
of the bard metamorphosed into wily beast
– or had that trickster shape-shifted into poet?
Suddenly, up on his hind legs, that Coyote’s
grabbed some kind of pipe, got it in his paws
and he’s blowing it side-on like a flute.
No banjo, uke, guitar. With these claws?
Coyote can’t hold down those fiddly strings.
Best leave the lyric stuff to some other Orpheus.
Anyway, who wants to hear that mongrel sing?
We’ve all heard his one and only – truly awful – song.
Let him blow. That way he can’t even howl along.
He’s all tall lichened wood, half-way to Pan.
He could be a spirit of the savage places:
satyr, faun, or a wild green man.
And these other critters conjured by that shifty Ace?
Low-down lesser forms that lack his verve,
his sense of the absurd, his cheeky cynic grace?
What other roles are played out here? What beasts?
Bobcat? Deer? Mountain lion? Mere bit-part players,
and the acting’s, well, a little wooden for my taste.
Then, moving round and off the track, you notice
that there is Orpheus with his trade-mark lyre:
a pair of wooden horns strung with rusty wire.
But just who is fronting this metamorphic band?
Is Orpheus conjuring up Coyote? Like he did
the other beasts? Or is it the other way round?
Now, I think I see how these two got twinned.
They’ve both been down that road below – for love
fooled Death. Just one escaped. That poet got binned,
could only go back to his boys in the dark
and the jealous maenads ripping him apart.
If it’s all just a game, the champion’s the guy who plays
the field, both ends against the middle.
You do what you do. No really going back.
But, tale tells how old Coyote’s at a fork in the track:
looks this way, that, then takes both ways at once.
Keep going! Keep going, Poet-Coyote!
Take both roads – Go, Peyote! –
Be yourself and split.
Go! Just never look back
Royal Academy Exhibition 2020
Tuesday, 22 September 2020 at 17:57
My painting of Anlaby Road, from the Hull Cityscapes sequence will be in this year's Royal Academy exhibition.Normally it's the Summer Show, and a great event. This year, as with so many things, Covid has meant a delay and the usual precautions.
The exhibition will now run from 6 October to 3 January 2021.
More details on the Royal Academy website: here
Anlaby Road, Hull, oil on canvas 90 x 121 cm.
(16 Oct. The painting has now been sold.)
The view is from one of the top floors of a high-rise block of flats on the Thornton Estate overlooking Anlaby Road, Hull. The flat belonged to a woman in her nineties, who liked to tell stories of the strange and often outrageous scenes she had witnessed from her eyrie above the often chaotic streets. As with many areas at the back of train stations, there is a definite sense of being on the wrong side of the tracks. But the city changes abruptly from block to block, and the face the city likes to show, with its municipal buildings, department stores and office blocks, is just a little further down the the road.
I started this painting in the summer, but had various problems with how to deal with the spaces to either side of the main road. I abandoned it for a few months and came back to it over Christmas, when I sharpened the edge of the road on the right to a sort of cliff edge, and added the odd bus and car. Though it was now winter, I decided to keep the bright summer light, which perhaps highlights of the urban messiness, or maybe adds a note of cheery, if realistic, optimism. The last touch was the celebratory glass of Stella on the sill.
Below the window on the right is the burned-out shell of the New York Night Club, with Paragon Railway Station car park on the left. I liked the mish-mash of architectural styles, from the mock-Moorish domes to office blocks, from painted bay-windows to dilapidated backs, from scaffolding to overgrown gardens.
Poetry Archive Now / YouTube: Films of "Loop"
Sunday, 20 September 2020 at 14:47
A YouTube film of me reading my poem "Loop" about the last Tasmanian Tiger in captivity, is available on the Poetry Archive Now: Wordview 2020. YouTube doesn't appear to let me link directly to the film, but the search-term "Cliff Forshaw Loop" on YouTube will take you to it and also another earlier, short, more professionally-produced, film of me reading "Loop" intercut with the footage of the loop of film itself:
It comes from a sequence in my collection Vandemonian (Arc,2013) which also appeared in the chapbook Tiger (Happenstance, 2011). Several other poems from that sequence feature on the Vandemonian portfolio page, There you'll also find links to the Arc website featuring Vandemonian as well as links to the earlier film, and an Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio programme about the Tasmanian Tiger to which I contributed. All that is here:
The poem was a Guardian Poem-of-the-Week, chosen by Carol Rumens, and appeared in her anthology Smart Devices (Carcanet, 2019). To read Carol's commentary, see here.
Here's the poem:
(62 seconds of the extinct Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger on film.)
Within the box, it growls, it twists,
scowls through its repertoire of tricks,
ignores the camera — or gurns up close, turns
again, to flop, to gnaw that paw-trapped bone.
It paces out its trap of light; one hundred reps
while hindquarters zither bars of sun;
claws cage’s mesh, hangs stretched
as if to take the measure of itself.
You saw. You see. And what we’ve got is what was shot:
short clips, fragments caught and stitched
together in a loop of black and white.
Nine lives? Not quite. It’s down. It’s out.
It’s on its feet and born again. Like a repetition
compulsion, like… like reincarnated light.
The Real Moby-Dick
Wednesday, 2 September 2020 at 16:57
Rhino horn, coco-de-mer, shark jaws,
tailfins, swordfish swords, sawfish saws,
quadrants, astrolabes, a huge “book camera”,
manuscripts, microscopes, a Concave Mirror
all of Twenty-Four Inches in Diameter,
antiquities, dried reptiles, thermometers,
fossils, rocks, minerals, shells, the Claw
of a Great Lobster, a Tooth-brush from Mecca,
the Leg of an Elk two Foot two Inches long,
a large Sea-Tortoise from the Isle of Ascension,
fowling pieces, a carbine with an extending butt,
perfectly balanced forty-bore hair
-triggered duelling pistols with silver escutcheon
and the motto Ubi Libertas Ibi Patria.
2. Sir Clifford’s Whale
The Lord Paramount of the Seigniory
of Holderness looks down and oversees
these bones brought in by downstairs and scullery
staff from their long exile in lean-tos, sheds,
from their chilly diasporas in glasshouse and stable,
the outhouse earth into which they’d sunk. The head,
big as a Ford Transit, has been garaged under
tarpaulin for decades. But his Lordship’s vision
is more than just this fleshless resurrection
the sun shines through; it is the huge skeleton key
to reunite drifting land with inconstant sea.
His mind ponders how blubber has bubbled off:
how bones are bars detaining nowt; how flesh,
long on the run, winks through, fugitive as light.
What’s suffered a sea-change here’s the coast itself;
turned inside out, all that is solid melts into air.
Even this thing now hugely spine and jaw
is an idea in thrall to the carnival
whose tides hold the whole of Holderness in its maw.
Forget the chance encounters of sewing-machines
and umbrellas on dissecting-tables, once more
Surrealism’s at the service of Revolution
and the elephant in this room, though not yet white,
is moving there from black. Trace its evolution
as the articulated folly of its bones
glides from sea through cetology, from a surgeon’s
prose to a Merman’s Leviathanic museum.
Misrule: now you see it, now it’s gone.
A rabblement of bones has breached the Hall;
something huge and hugely hurt has crawled
in from winter – its great wounded bawl
must have foghorned in another world – and died.
Left here, all we have’s this x-rayed sprawl.
Across the floorboards of this ancient pile,
a pile of pitted uncommon bones are spilled;
up there on pilastered walls, narwhal tusks
masquerade as unicorn horns, meanwhile
the portraits (Elizabethan, Jacobean,
in jousting armour, classically robed,
or a wild Victorian filly riding to hounds)
look down on a wrecked ossuary, smile
slyly at the carcass of this pelagic meal.
Behind Four Walls: corona virus anthology and interview
Friday, 10 July 2020 at 13:59
A poem of mine "Fade" will appear in Together Behind Four Walls,an anthology of poems and short stories in aid of Marie Curie Nurses. All the money raised by the book will go to the charity.
The loose subject of the book is poetry inspired by confinement and contains work by, among others, John Hegley, Roger Robinson, Wendy Cope and Peter Finch.
I was recently interviewed by the editor Francis Powell. You can get it here on Facebook: ttps://www.facebook.com/togetherbehindfourwalls/photos/a.123011326095359/135755064820985/?type=3&theater
If you are not on Facebook, the link to the actual interview is: https://francishpowellauthor.weebly.com/interview-with-cliff-forshaw.html
For further details of the anthology, including invitations for submissions: https://francishpowellauthor.weebly.com/anthology-for-coronavirus.html