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Virtual Eighth

by on 11 June 2021

Milestones – or Millstones?

Virtual Eighth

Poetry Performance, 6th June and On-Line

Review by M. Grierson

It’s a small audience that turns up to June’s online Poetry Performance, perhaps because the vaccine roll-out and the better weather mean that the poetically inclined are heading outdoors to reflect on the world they have been denied over the past year or so. You might say it’s a milestone: which, as chance would have it, is the theme of tonight’s readings. Your MC is the redoubtable Clive Rowland, who once more does sterling work keeping things moving and accentuating the positive. Would it be fair to suggest that, at times, he has his work cut out for him?

First on the bill is Pratibha Castle. They say self-praise is no recommendation, but she fearlessly announces that she will be reading from her forthcoming award-winning debut pamphlet. Fortunately, she lives up to her hype: the poems from A Triptych of Birds and A Few Loose Feathers prove among the best of the evening, and show Castle to be a confident, engaging reader.

Her “Padraig, who drove the snakes out of Ireland” evokes Heaney, with an agricultural reminiscence of the speaker’s father and her association of him with Ireland’s patron saint. “Afterwards” meanwhile reflects on Mammy’s passing with honesty and an attention to the particular, whether that is the London accents of the ambulance drivers who collect her body, or the dead woman’s “fingers like fallen plums”.

Ken Mason follows with “The Horse Chestnut Tree”, whose narrator recovers a conker from Twickenham Green and pots it up to grow at home. It’s more upbeat in tone than Castle’s poems, and certainly hits all the beats. But the contrived rhyming suggests – before Ken confesses as much – that he “struggled with the theme” of tonight’s session.

The sentiment is one that Terry Bedell shares, though rather than force a poem out himself he has found someone else’s to read, namely Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s “After the Children Leave Home”. It’s a stark yet tender piece, concerning the distance that has grown between a couple after they have devoted so much time and energy to raising their children, and Terry reads it feelingly.                            

Carol Wain likewise chooses to read the work of another poet, this time Michael Rosen, though her performance is a little more subdued than the former children’s laureate’s would have been. Perhaps this is down to the pandemic-related subject matter? “Rehab” still manages to find some humour in hospitalisation, with concerns about Rosen’s low blood pressure allayed when nurses bring him a copy of the Daily Mail, and the poet singing M People’s “Search for the Hero” to himself as he struggles to make it to the loo. By “Going Home” this hero has indeed been found, with the poet framing his recovery from COVID-19 as Odysseus’s journey back from underworld. Woven into this conceit are touching reminiscences such as the cucumbers his mother once pickled, while Carol smartly identifies in the healthcare speak of “long-term objectives” the idea of milestones.

Andrew Evzona’s poems mark a more predictable engagement with the theme, his “Reaching Sixty” a straightforward rundown of his schooldays and subsequent career. He goes at some lick and affords each part of his life equal weight, so that means events of potential interest such as his appearances on TV or radio and his improbable support for Sheffield Wednesday are rather thrown away. No such danger with his next poem, “The Day I Met HRH Prince Charles”. You may think the title says it all … but you’d not be allowing for Andrew taking the opportunity to wind up the heir by asking him whether he was going to ride in the 1983 Grand National. For some reason.

Trisha Broomfield is on surer ground when she reads a pair of poems each called “Milestones”. The first, subtitled “A conversation with my body”, offers a pithy commentary on life events from losing milk teeth through period pain and first love to the loss of a parent. The second, subtitled “Our Cotswold Home”, recalls the family cottage that was actually named “Milestones”; in the narrator’s recollection of her young boredom watching Gagarin’s spaceflight, she cleverly captures a child’s concern with the moment rather than the momentous.  

Up next is Robin Clarke, whose “Milestones of Man” is a troll through evolution and civilisation, taking a few judicious leaps from the stone ages to the industrial revolution and beyond. Despite tokenistic cynicism about the superiority of H. sapiens his is in fact a Whig history; though if we have made as much progress as he suggests, then surely it should be called “Milestones of Humanity”? Come on, Robin.

Making a subtler and more organic connection between prehistory and the present is Sally Blandford’s pastoral, “At Polesden Lacy”, where “the flint in the fallen tree roots’ grasp / Links the present with five thousand years ago”. It’s a short but well-crafted poem that inflects observation with reflection to make its point without labouring it.

Closing out the half are a couple of untitled pieces by Barbara Lee. The first, expressing how she felt during the pandemic, is more of an incidentally rhymed monologue than a poem, while the second is practically a CV, listing a range of cultural accomplishments from being a games-maker at the 2012 London Olympics to volunteering at the Commonwealth Games, the Ryder Cup and Buckingham Palace. It makes a meeting with HRH Prince Charles seem positively mundane.

Chat during the interval turns to technical matters – and sadly I don’t mean the intricacies of metre and verse form but the use of Zoom. O! for the days when we can go back to the Adelaide and do this all sotto voce at the bar. At least the discussion affords a glimpse of how much effort Anne Warrington and co. put in to organising Poetry Performance behind the scenes. Not to mention how comfortable the readers are – why, they talk as though the audience wasn’t there.

The second half proper begins with Keith Wait in discussion with featured poet Bob Kimmerling. There’s certainly plenty to talk about: Bob was raised in Kent and Norfolk before studying architecture at the University of Nottingham, and then taking a PhD between New York and Rome. He worked for Norman Foster and Ove Arup, moving to Oslo where he had his own milestone – or epiphany? – with his conversion to Christianity at the age of 22. His faith has informed every endeavour since, establishing an organisation to support Christian ex-offenders as well as the Vineyard Life Church and Food Bank here in Richmond.

He regards his religion as the foundation of his identity, thinking of himself as a Christian first and foremost rather than a father or an architect. So it’s not surprising that he fights shy of calling himself a poet, and also notes that he has been composing for just 18 months. Nevertheless, his keen eye for observation, gleaned not only from architecture but a youthful interest in painting, comes into play in his practice of going for a walk and “seeing whether [he] can ‘see’ a poem”. Bob frequently describes the resultant compositions as “environmental”, inasmuch as they are inspired by his surroundings; but given his emphasis on the work as an expression of God’s goodness, it’s interesting that “environment” doesn’t seem to carry any of the ethical implications of its more common usage today.

This technique also means that the seen world can become loaded with more moral freight than it can bear: I felt this with the poem “Where are you, William?”, in which the titular drinker patrols the Richmond riverside in search of discarded bottles, drinking dregs and then throwing the “empty vessel” into the Thames. Drawn from observation this may be, but as a symbol of humanity’s failed endeavour in the world it does not offer much sympathy for poor William, or evince Bob’s other key principle of writing “from heart to head”.

The slightly stilted syntax of his poems, together with an abundance of adjectives, suggests they aspire to a half-remembered idea of poetry from schooldays. But there is at the same time an energy, and a sensitivity to sound, that transcends this, especially in Bob’s calm and authoritative delivery. At its best, it means that “A passing shower” can recall Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”, and “Each to their own kind” George Herbert’s profound use of the everyday as an expression of God’s love – the latter poem also quietly reconciling evolution and religion. It is a pity – or rather, I.T. is a pity – that there is not more time to hear Bob’s other poems, though I am interested by his discussion of the memoir he is writing, Fishing for Dr Richard. This he describes as a pilgrimage into the life of a late friend and fellow fisherman, exploring their mutual biographies of belief.

Connaire Kensit is the next of the floor spots to read. His “Baby thought” is a response to the first of Shakespeare’s “seven ages”, and appropriately enough its formal cuteness belies the depth and straightforwardness of infant philosophy. In his witty remark about the “fuss obsessive adults make / About the way you pee”, he also offers an incidental indictment of the insistence with which children are gendered. The emergence of identity is picked up again in his next poem, “People like me”, with the poet at pains to point out that the “like” is comparative rather than verbal (don’t worry, Connaire, I’m sure someone does like you). Here, a two-year-old coming into their own as a human being begins to understand that grown-ups and even his older sister “were all a sort of me”. Which is one way of looking at it, I suppose.

Taking another delve into deep time, Anthony Josolyne’s pair of poems ponder the origins of red tape.  If Andrew and Barbara have given us rhyming résumés earlier in the evening, then “A Bureaucratic Milestone/Millstone” is Tony’s op ed in unconvincing couplets. But the conceit is more entertainingly explored in his second poem, “Stone Age Red Tape”, with the titular tape the literal strips of bloody animal skin that had to be removed for our forebears to get on with meatier matters.

In less grisly – or less gristly – fashion, Tony is followed by Heather Montford, who reads a delightful piece penned jointly by her twin grandchildren when they were ten. Among many joyous insights into what they will do when they’re grown up is that their eyes will no longer ache as they won’t have to roll them all the time when their teacher speaks.

Next, Fran Thurling’s “500 grammes of cosmic milestone” commemorates the Winchcombe meteorite that landed in  Gloucestershire in February. This scientific take on what falls to earth is complemented by
the subsequent poem, Judith Blakemore Lawton’s “How the Wrekin came to be” or “The Cobbler and the Giant”, which works a traditional tale into a capable ballad, and brought back pleasant memories of my childhood visits to Shropshire.

She is followed by Steve Harman, whose “I Wonder” concentrates on headstones rather than milestones, and in the vein of Bob’s work seeks the spiritual in the environment around him. Steve pairs this piece with “Maestro”, a directory of possible post-pandemic haircuts; although this strives too hard for its humour, as though in an effort to contrast with the tone of the previous piece.

Someone whose career was itself a veritable parade of coiffures was the late David Bowie, and his album Hunky Dory celebrates a milestone 50th anniversary this year. Not backward in coming forward, Andrew Evzona elects now to give us the Duke’s “Kooks” – and credit where it’s due he at least holds the tune, and certainly better than I could. He also captures Bowie’s … let’s say idiosyncratic performance style.

More measured is Martin Seymour-Smith’s “The Lights on the Water”, a short poem of the Second World War read by Ken Mason. This is followed by Anne Warrington’s “Legacy”, a bravura piece for different voices that is sadly stalled by further faffing with the technology. It wouldn’t matter so much if the end effect were worth it, but the repeated back and forth between participants results only in the sudden appearance of a picture of Robert Mugabe: both anticlimactic and unpleasant. Anne’s poem imagines the former Zimbabwean leader haunted by the voices of his teacher, mother and other figures from his past – “I am all that is said of me” – but is overshadowed by the effort taken to get it said in turn by the different readers.

When Fran, Steve and Anne then read the final poem “Welcome, We’re Here”, I can’t help sneakily sharing the sentiment. Aptly for the last reading of the night, it explores the end of the road in Twickenham, and is voiced by the three benches we find there on the riverside. The punning refrain “It’s on us” is charming – and after the evening’s ups and downs it provides a sedentary and reflective spot at which to end.

M. Grierson
June 2021

Photography by Chris Allen, Noel Leacher, Kezi Smith and Neil Christopher

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