Poetry blog: Glad rags, wonderful woollies and imaginary hats

2 Nov 2014 @ 9.30 pm
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Carole Bromley asked for your poems about clothes and picks a sartorial selection

One of the poems is a tribute to a loved old pair of trainers. Photograph © Joe Hastings on Flickr
Winter is well and truly on its way. I was wrong about the Bake Off so I’ve moved on to Strictly where my money is on Snakey Jakey.

Just back from an Arvon course at The Hurst in Shropshire which is now like a five star hotel. So beautiful and so inspiring. If you’ve lost your poetry mojo, check it out and book for next year. You’ll never look back.

I packed all the wrong clothes, as ever, lugged warm sweaters on and off trains only to find it was actually very mild but what I lacked was a proper waterproof coat.

And, on the subject of clothes, thank you for a bumper postbag of sartorial poems. Looking through them just now to decide which to take, I was struck by a common theme of clothes as comfort.

Lots of scarves, hats, boots, coats, even a fleece and also lots of pyjamas and dressing gowns. A kind of straight choice between muddy walks and cosying by the fire with a mug of cocoa.

We’d better get used to it. It’s rather a long time till March and the wonderful York Literature Festival and the award ceremony for our poetry competition. Look out for details of how to enter that later this week.

I’ll start off with two youthful poems. The first, by Sarah Wimbush, is a very small but perfectly formed poem about something equally small – the poet’s first pair of shoes. I love the ‘thinginess’ of this one, those tiny details and that lovely closing image.

Gran and me by Sarah Wimbush

Next to earrings I never wear
and Cold Cream Soap
at the back of the Ikea drawer –
my first pair of shoes.

Soft tan shammy leather:
tiny hand-stitches pinch edges
into perfect gathers,
thin-cut strips for laces

shorter than my index finger
pulled together.

The second poem is by Natalie Shaw, a name new to the blog, and I found this delightfully playful in tone with good handling of rhymes that make it bounce along.

Clues like ‘my two E offer’ make this a poem about freshers and I love the cheeky voice and her underhand trick to get her man by asking to borrow his scarf.

Sometimes it gets cold by Natalie Shaw

James Brabazon
I knew you’d come
climb up two floors,
knock on my door
(when I’d asked
to borrow your scarf,
I’d never ever
felt so clever,
not even with my
two E offer)
I looped it round
I breathed in hard
I smelled your smell
I pinged your bell
I didn’t care
it wasn’t fair –
in that dark
you were my shark.
I knew you’d come,
James Brabazon.

Louise Larkinson sent in a poem about the attractions of a young girl (I liked the ‘dustbin lid earrings’ and ‘legs smelling of canteloupes’) observed by a man who realises just in time that she is underage.

I loved the ankle socks stopping him in his tracks. A serious subject lightly handled.

I wasn’t keen on the title. I think something more concrete like ‘Ankle Socks’ might suit the poem better?

Transgression Dislodged by Louise Larkinson

Bushfire hair
passion flower eyes
dustbin lid earrings
rose crystal lips
marmoreal neck
Hepworth torso
acid denim hotpants
legs smelling of cantaloupes –
Until the keep out sign
of her white ankle socks
stopped him in his tracks.

Another poem about childhood came from Will Kemp. I love the tone of ‘Denim Jacket’ with its telling details about boyhood games and adventures and I love the way it opens out at the end into the relationship with the speaker’s sister who was clearly indulging him and actually more interested in pop songs.

Denim jacket by Will Kemp

That blue, the colour of boys,
with pockets for Polos, stolen matches,
and mud stains from the ambush
where I let some Jerries have it
then loosed arrows on the French –
my sister Liz an unlikely King Henry,
demanding we now launched into
I’d like to teach the world to sing.

A more sombre poem now from Yvie Holder in which ‘old pyjamas’ lead us into the world of the dying.

I found the poem very moving, though there is a slight confusion about whose room it is at the beginning which could easily be solved in a second draft. The ending with the ‘tableau/ round the bed’ and the shift of focus to the startled blackbird is beautifully done.

Old Pyjamas by Yvie Holder

She thought she’d been awake all night
when he came by her door, in old pyjamas,

gripping his distended stomach,
said he’d had enough, wanted to leave.

But this was not her room – white walls
framed poppy-picture, lino floor –

but the ward, with summer roses,
red ones they’d picked the last time

from his garden; he’d raised his head, drunk
their scent, flopped back, eyes closed. The vase

still bloomed fresh the day she got there,
just in time to join the tableau

round the bed, where a slice of sun
breezed in, as if to mock those old

pyjamas, and a blackbird’s trill
took fright among the hospice trees.

From pyjamas to dressing gowns. At least, I think that’s what the ‘old friend’ referred to in Lyn Langford’s poem is.

I liked the address to the garment which, come to think of it, might equally well be a much loved dress too old to wear out?

Clever use of words like ‘spots and wrinkles’, ‘I belt you, abuse you’ etc which could apply to clothes and to people.

To an Old Friend by Lyn Langford

You’re always there for me when there’s nothing else.
You come out of the closet at a moment’s notice
when I am low and down on myself.
You take me out on the town, curl up by the fire;
sometimes we dance, sing to Bruce Springsteen.
I neglect you at times, leave you sprawled
on the floor, me wrecked and you the worse for wear.
I belt you, abuse you, confine you for days
and you still hug me tight – now more than ever.
Your spots and wrinkles are many indeed.
Oh, but you look so beautiful with that pink silk scarf,
the fine gold top or the green glass beads.
I have momentary flings with others of fashion
but for me, as always, you’re my one true passion.

Kirsty’s Hat by Kay Wheatcroft has everything I was looking for. Everything told through the hat and the details of its knitting and dyeing.

I love ‘the smell of Scotland’ and the very specific and evocative examples of what that consists of for the speaker, ‘sheep and rock/ wrack and peat’ etc. The internal rhymes are great.

Simple but very effective. Lovely poem.

Kirsty’s Hat by Kay Wheatcroft


Away from home alone
he kept her Fair Isle hat
beneath his pillow

and breathed it in at night,
the smell of Shetland, sheep and rock,
wrack and peat, her mother’s baking
and her father’s fishy beard.

She made the dye from berries by the burn,
lichen from the shore
and as he drifted off he saw her fair hair
flying in the wind and felt her soft skin
in the oily wool.

Next we come to a group of outdoor poems, starting with one about a pair of trainers that come apart on a long hike.

There are not enough poems about gaffer tape, in my humble opinion! (That’s my one exclamation mark. We learnt last week, from Michael Longley who was full of wisdom, that you are only allowed one in every 40,000 words. Good advice.)

Two bits of advice, Richard. Lose the ‘delaminate’ and get yourself down to Milletts.

Hungry trainers delaminate by Richard Carpenter

Five years old but barely broken in;
had been left waiting on the rack
for a decent stretch across the hills,

up steep volcanic slopes, down
rock-strewn Etruscan roads, force
a path through tangled brambles, skip

the stream on slippery stepping stones,
march miles on scorched white lanes
under the late summer sun.

The left, still hungry for further feast –
split and opened wide its lower jaw,
intent to gobble up the miles.

Right joined in with a clenched-teeth grin
so both bound tight with Gaffer tape
before they lost their soul.

Petra Vergunst sent in a poem about a fleece, her ‘cardinal cardigan’. I like the rhymes in this and the picture of a friendship and the forgiving nature of both friend and cosy red garment.

Is smoothen a word? Should it be smooth?

Casting an image by Petra Vergunst

Fleece, protector of my flesh
soft red outer skin
cardinal cardigan
covering my organ tin

My friend who wears the garment too
says they’re like a sheep’s wool coat
oiling, greasing every gesture
zipping up and down in rote

How could we face to share a cuppa
in our flower-laced curtain room
when we cannot approach the teashop
and rasp our rind, disclose gloom

We cherish, cheer at the devices
that lend us undying youthful gloss
that vertebrates and veils and vessels
show our bodies who is boss

Soft and undulating
you smoothen the effect of time
and mould the bodies
that we want to sculpt as ours – as mine.

Still on the subject of the great outdoors, here’s a lovely poem from Peter White about clinging onto a long outgrown rugby shirt. I love the humour, the direct speech and the language in this one.

Not for Oxfam by Peter White

Not that – put it back
in the wardrobe where it’s been
for – is it really thirty years?

what could she care about
the three-games-a-season
office rugby team

that bought those mistaken
grey and crimson reject shirts
because they were a bargain?

She wasn’t there to hear
my 40-year-old lungs gasp
Run, you bugger, run!

as I made my last ever sidestep,
sold my last ever dummy and passed
to the trainee on the wing.

I know it’s a little tight,
I pleaded, but I’m losing weight.
She understood: Yeah, right.

Kathryn Clune sent in a poem on a more sombre note. Starting from a tweed coat, worn eccentrically in August, she takes us into the sad, secret life of the wearer.

I think I might have just called this poem Tweed Coat and I do wonder if it actually starts at stanza three but then my poems always get cut down till they’re about ten lines long so maybe you shouldn’t listen to me! (Oops. Another exclamation mark when I used up my quota earlier). I love the poem, by the way.

The Spaces In Between by Kathryn Clune

The tweed coat in August
Seemed just another instance
Of your eccentricity.
Like the running joke about the washing machine
Which had not worked properly in months;
Whose door was held in place with a cunningly twisted fork.

Sitting in the cafe,
Audience to your pugnacious accounts
Of life’s small absurdities,
We all laughed.
But I thought your manner
Off kilter; half a pace behind.
You lingered in the spaces inbetween the conversation,
Somewhere I could not pin down.

It was October,
A month for tweed,
When they broke down the door,
Struggled through a hallway stacked floor to ceiling
With newspapers and magazines,
A tiny channel unravelling like black twine
Between what had been rooms :
Sink and worktops littered with takeaway boxes;
A bath overflowing hardback books;
Strip of carpet leading
To a desk and a computer,
The window beyond obscured by teetering piles of DVDs.
No one passing could have seen
Where you fell.

In her poem, Winding Wool, Maggie Mackay uses the feel of her mother’s cashmere wrap to transport herself and the reader to a time when they wound ‘long skeins around/ the kitchen chair’s waist’ together.

The garment is used skilfully to give us a picture of the loved one’s past as well as her present. Beautifully done.

Winding Wool with Mum by Maggie Mackay

The touch of any wool, its subtle down,
gold inner warmth, slips through my pores.
Like sunshine through these blinds, it rolls out
from a mass of folds. Then, dyed
with reds and blues and greens and time,
in threads and cloth, it is felt.

Folded here, your cashmere wrap recalls the hours
we spent in peace winding long skeins around
the kitchen chair’s waist. With nods and smiles
your fingers and mine wove patterns, tied knots,
spinning our unspoken strands of love.

Your hands can only slip a squeeze these days
or clutch the chair to rise and clasp the mohair rug.
When you call me darling, I wind straight back to home.

Also writing about her mother, Susan Elliot focuses on smell to conjure up a vivid picture not only of the pink polyester raincoat but of the personality of the wearer.

Like Maggie’s poem, this is a fine example of the use of the senses and writers often forget how evocative feel and smell can be.

The pink raincoat by Susan Elliot

It was a long time after, – or so it felt –
that I thought to look in the pockets:
found a Tesco bill for two apples,
a few bananas, a pint of milk.
Was it war-born carefulness,
or simply all you could carry?
I contemplated a dry-clean, but couldn’t part with the smell,
the memory of my butterfly mother in her pink polyester.

Still on coats, Janet Dean gives us a camel one and a portrait of her mother’s twin sister, painted entirely through objects.

A good example of ‘the thinginess of things’ and I love ‘Flash of red lipstick’, ‘her thick flaming hair’ and that very precise ‘Max Factor powder in a pale green box’. Lovely poem. Fab ending.

Waves by Janet Dean

Camel coat pulled tight around her slim frame.
Leaner, less than her twin, my mother,
whose camel coat made more of her.

Max Factor powder in a pale green box,
rubbed and dabbed until the silver ridges
shone through. Flash of red lipstick.

Slacks and jumpers crackle, crimplene polyester
shades of orange and brown matching
autumn skin.

A tube of Vitapointe on the window sill.
Combing out her thick flaming hair.
Making waves.

I think I may have suggested in my prompt that going through your mother’s wardrobe as a small child and trying on an adult self with her shoes and necklaces might be a fruitful way to tackle the subject.

Susan Castillo has done so in her beautiful poem, Closet (great title by the way). I particularly liked her shoes going ‘clock-clock’, the ‘cave of wonders’ and the ‘midnight satin’.

I think I would have preferred to end on something concrete rather than ‘certain scents and textures’ but I liked the poem very much.

Closet by Susan Castillo

When I was a little girl
my mother’s closet was
a cave of wonders.

In it dresses swirl,
smell of Chanel, caress my face.
One is white lace. Another, midnight satin shimmers
smooth and slick.

On the floor, her shoes point out in spokes
of symmetry, go clock-clock
when I stagger down the hall.

My favourite thing’s a hat
made of brown loops with golden spangles
soft and brittle

Now my mother is long gone.
Still at random moments, certain scents
and textures carry me to mother’s closet
take me home.

And John Foggin is back. He’s winning prizes left, right and centre at the moment so I’m glad he hasn’t forgotten us. John sent in two strong poems, one about a pair of shoes and this one about a hat.

I simply love the way he paints a picture of the milliner’s as he imagines it, right down to tiny details like the ‘pins between pursed lips’. Well aware of the need to use the senses, he even ‘thinks she smells of Parma Violets/ and Cussons talc’.

How evocative of time and place those details are. I also love the conversational tone of this one ‘I would have relished that,/ I can’t say why’.

Thank you to John for sending it in and to all of the above poets and also, importantly, to the poets whose work wasn’t chosen this time.

Do send again. I loved reading your work. Here’s John’s poem and don’t forget to look out for details of the YorkMix/ York Literature Festival Competition coming shortly.

Cloche by John Foggin

a fitting at a milliner’s;
that, I think, I would have liked.
A cramped and jumbled space
and a comfortably fussy woman with small scissors,
pins between pursed lips, and wisps of hair
escaping from a bun.
I think she wears black and a cameo brooch
and a touch of rouge.
I think she smells of Parma Violets
and Cussons talc.
There must be reels, and ends of ric-rac,
bias bindings, velvet ribbon; there are tiny satin flowers,
and hats with floppy brims
on blank-faced Nefertiti heads.
Lots of little drawers, gilt mirrors. And a hush.
And I want a cloche
in soft velour, dove-grey or dusty pink,
and a deep, deep violet band,
and one white linen rose.
I would have relished that,
I can’t say why.

Carole Bromley is married with four children and lives in York. Twice a winner in The Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition, she has two pamphlets with Smith/Doorstop (Unscheduled Holt, 2005, and Skylight, 2009) and a collection A Guided Tour of the Ice House. She has won a number of first prizes, including The Bridport and Yorkshire Open, and her poems have appeared in a range of magazines and anthologies. Carole is a graduate of the MPhil in Writing at Glamorgan University and teaches creative writing for York University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning.