Poetry blog: Poems and postcards

Hopscotch by Sommer Poquette on Flickr
15 Jul 2013 @ 8.39 am
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Hopscotch by Sommer Poquette on Flickr
Hopscotch by Sommer Poquette on Flickr

YorkMix Poet In Residence Carole Bromley asked you for your childhood poems and was delighted by their range and style

Snowed under with lovely poems this time. Many apologies if yours is not here. I had to whittle them down to a dozen. A tip for the future (not just here but in most magazines) is to err on the short side. Very difficult to fit in long poems, especially ones which run to two pages.

I had poems from familiar names which was nice and also from new readers which was very nice. At the sorting out stage I had to go back through the emails looking for names. It really helps if you put your name at the bottom of your poem. I hope I assigned them all to the right poets. I’m getting to know the voices now.

Another good tip, by the way, is to go for a different take on the subject. Only one poet attempted to write using her child’s actual words and I loved it. Most were looking back at childhood memories and there were some very successful ones among this group.

One poet observed a mother with real problems and another focused on tokens left by mothers forced to part with their babies. Because they were unusual both poems caught my eye – and, of course, because they were good!

I’ll start with Sarah L Dixon’s tender poem which is based entirely on the words of her little boy, Frank. Great title (the only place where Sarah gets to speak) and beautifully edited and assembled. There is real skill in a found poem like this. It made me laugh and I also found it honest and moving.

Frank Exchange of Views by Sarah L Dixon

You not Big Boy
You not lady
You not woman
You Mummy

I’m Batman
I’m Big Boy
I’m Darth Vader
I’m beautiful

I’m the boss
You no the boss
You Mummy

Stand back
My shut it!

My want cuddle
My the boy
My the winner
My doing a wee in the bath

You put pretty on ears
You look like lady
You not lady
You Mummy

Although the next poem is actually written by a grandmother it has all the immediacy of a child’s experience. It really works because of the writer’s skilled use of sounds to evoke a scene. Only a child’s ear would pick up “the rasp/ of the cow’s tongues on grass”. Terrific poem. And all in eight lines.

When the swing stops by Elizabeth Sandie

When the world stops spinning
and comes back to being right side up

it’s so still you can hear the rasp
of the cows tongues on grass

the gentle plop
of cones on the path

the knock, knock of the snail
in the beak of the thrush.

In the next poem Richard Carpenter takes us back to a childhood memory and, interestingly, writes in the third person. The child’s greed and his viewpoint (seeing the cream bun as a castle) make the poem real and this is helped by the jumpiness of the narrative and the familiar rhyme at the end. Children would love this one. I did.

Jam dollop before embarkation by Richard Carpenter

Three peas; one pod. One dad: two boys.
Mum, sister: perhaps one year older.
The standing boy holds high his boat
of a bun with a large jam crown on top.

Nibble, nibble. Nibble, nibble.
The edges are embossed by clean, white teeth.
Smooth cheeks; no lines. Wide eyes; long lashes
survey his prey for the next line of attack.
His mouth, now serpent wide, engulfs the central cliffs,
then spies the crown of golden jam.
A quick flip.
The crown is gone.
Sister smiles and fingers a stray star
that has landed on his cheek.
The central bastion is devoured: lips are licked.
Yum, yum. Yum, yum.

Son stands in front of dad with arms outstretched
for stars and sugar dusting to be wiped away.
First the brow, mirrored by dad’s close cropped hair,
is gently cleaned with strokes to quell all spooks.
The nose, the cheeks, the lips, the chin
the shirt, are brushed before their flight.
Last; each finger cleared of sticky residue
with loving care and patience;
one potato; two potato; three potato;
Five potato; six potato; seven potato;

Will Kemp sent me a batch of poems and I could happily have published any of them but, in the end, chose this one for its simplicity, economy and skill. Poems about boarding school are rare.

This one reminded me of the best of Hugo Williams who, I see, is on the shortlist for a Forward Prize. I love the real words and the way the form of the poem takes the reader back to the boy’s experience of running out and looking for his mother at the end of term, her “quiet delight” and her greeting. Tender and moving.

St Hugh’s by Will Kemp

The best thing
was that bell
at the end of term:

streaming out
to parked MGs,
Mini Clubmans,

and somewhere
there, my mum –
her sudden look

of quiet delight,
the way she said,
Oh, hello dear –

the words soft,
clear, even now,
forty years on.

I love the next poem which is by Lydia Harris. The implication of that great title is that the speaker is not “neat, like Jennifer” and the poem goes on to list the perfections of the envied and admired friend. It’s humorous but heartfelt with its superb images.

Don’t you love those letters which are “like people in deck chairs/ at the first spot of rain”? I really empathised with the child speaker who revels in running into water from a hosepipe on a hot day and loves the wonderful present but can see that the painted girls on the lid, perhaps like the admired giver, were “not meant for hillsides and sheepfolds”.

If You’re Neat, Like Jennifer by Lydia Harris

you’re allowed a dip-pen
with a brass nib. Her letters sit up
like people in deck-chairs
at the first spot of rain.

Her tongue’s a-fizz against
her teeth, so her s’s and t’s
sound like water from the hose
we run into on hot afternoons.

The box she brings me from Paris,
is moulded to look like a stool
with gilt legs. It has Fragonard girls
on the lid. They dance in silk shoes

not meant for hillsides and sheepfolds.
Jennifer’s words stretch like fingers
in the violet-blue ink she mixes
from powder. They don’t waver.

Simon Currie sent in a delightful poem about a red maple leaf kept pressed “in the back of our Bible”. Do people still do that? We certainly did. I wonder what happened to all those vetches and bird’s foot trefoils I spent the summer holidays squashing in my grandma’s encyclopaedia?

Anyway, Simon uses this idea to explore the way that coming across an object like this can bring back a scene and startle you with a meeting with your childhood self. The leaf will fade but there will always be new leaves “red as the belly of the stickleback” he has caught in a jamjar. Lovely poem. Quite Heaneyesque I think.

Maple by Simon Currie

On the way down to the river,
I push aside exploding balsam
to meet my childhood self
on the way up with a five-point leaf,
pillar-box red, found
floating in dappled water
below the maple tree.

Pressed in the back of our Bible,
it fades as dull as any leaf.
But the tree can shed and renew.
In autumn, its leaves turn red again,
red as the belly of the stickleback
in a jar safe on the loop of string
I hold in my other hand.

Field Maple Acer campestre

Susan Elliot also uses a childhood game as a metaphor. She chooses hopscotch which places the poem in a particular era and the poem is full of the particular. It is set in Porthcawl and captures a vanished world where a friend’s family has the wonder of a fridge that makes ice cubes and the speaker has “a pantry that stored Sunday meat/ for rissoles on Monday”.

I love this picture with the sun “always shining on the ice-cream pavement” and the child wanting to lick the chalk. I might almost have wanted the poem to end on that lovely image but I also like the actual ending which makes the poem not just about hopscotch but also about friendship. It reminds me of Liz Lochhead’s poem The Choosing.

Hopscotch in Porthcawl by Susan Elliot

On the pink and white pavement
we chalked numbers. She could
hop better than me, but we felt equal,
never quarrelled. We were best friends.

My life had been a hotpotch;
hers more seemly, more even.
She had a fridge that made ice cubes.
We had a pantry that stored Sunday meat

for rissoles on Monday. The sun always shone
on the ice-cream pavement. You felt
like licking the chalk. It wasn’t the winning
that counted, just the jumping side by side.

We fished in beach pools too, or
raced each other down her posh road
on roller skates after Christmas.
We had bruised knees and scabby hands.

Life’s a bit like hopscotch, somehow.
You keep hopping up and down,
round and round. But it’s okay
if you have someone to hop with.

In On Not Seeing Micky Mouse Lyn Langford captures something of the confusion of a small child and the way a longed for treat turns out to be not at all what you expected. I like the child’s viewpoint in this one, the way “His house was big and dark/ with hundreds of chairs” and she can’t understand why he doesn’t appear. Again the poem succeeds through real speech and particular detail “Mauldeth Road” etc. Humorous and real.

On Not Seeing Micky Mouse by Lyn Langford

Mum put on her high heels.
We’re going out now
to see Micky Mouse she said
as she plaited my hair.

Mum walked down Mauldeth Road
I skipped beside her.
I’m going to see Micky Mouse
I shouted to the postman.
I’d seen him in comics
now I was going to see him!

His house was big and dark
with hundreds of chairs.
Mum and I sat together and waited.
I looked round
but I couldn’t see Micky Mouse.

Mum looked ahead at something.
I looked behind.
He still wasn’t there.

Stop fidgeting mum said, and watch.
But I was watching. I hoped
he would sit near me.

A long time later mum said
it’s over now. Come on
we’ll go home for tea.

We walked between the chairs
I looked at each one
but he must have gone.

Janet Dean’s poem is a lovely example of the way we can be taken back instantly by smell. You don’t have to have read Proust to know this, though, come to think of it, it was the taste of the “madeleine” that transported him to the past. Still taste and smell are closely linked.

In Janet’s poem the child’s imagination is stirred by the camel coat in which her mother would wrap her as a little girl. It is like a magic carpet taking her to deserts she has never seen. I like the simplicity of the language in this one (as in all the best poems submitted) which somehow captures the child’s voice.

I very much took to the image of the toddler holding onto the mother’s coat “grasping as if it were her skin” and I can feel the “fleshy silken lining cool at first”.

The Camel by Janet Dean

My mother wore a camel coat
all winter,
and well into
It hung on her like
an animal pelt.
Had she spied the camel
through a telescope?

A line of buttons
in a double pleat
ran down the back.
I held it there,
grasping as if it were
her skin.
She could feel my every
step and stumble,
I was safe.

And sometimes, in the afternoon
when I was tired of practising my talking,
she’d wrap me in the camel coat,
its fleshy silken lining cool at first.
And I would doze under the
heavy weight,
dreaming of deserts I had never seen,
brought to me
on the scent of camel.

The child in Louise Larkinson’s poem is somewhat older and able to understand guilt and shame in a family where the mother is a magistrate and the “heavy hand of the law” descends on the child smoking a first cigarette in the rhododendron den.

I chose this one for its humour and for that poignant ending in which the grown child still feels she has been a disappointment. I’m sure a lot of readers would relate to that, myself included.

My only slight niggle with this one would be the exclamation mark which I don’t feel is necessary, even though I see they are in fashion judging by Andy Murray’s tweet. He’s forgiven though. What a wonderful afternoon that was.

Talking of children, I watched most of the match in spite of Matilda (3) and Martha (1). I kept having to break off to provide rice cakes and also bandages for the poorly playpeople.

Here’s Louise’s great poem.

Player’s Gold Leaf by Louise Larkinson

An orange glow
the size of a lentil
was all it took
for the heavy hand of the law
to descend bat like into
my rhododendron den
branding me a criminal.

It was 1953
my mother a magistrate!
Family respectability –
the jewel in the crown.
The shame will kill her.

Mother survived – just,
though the guilt lives on in me
for being a disappointment.

Sarah Wimbush’s poem, Three Little Lambs, is about a very different mother whose neglect of her three small daughters induces guilt and anxiety in the speaker. These children are seen from the outside and we have to work out, as does the narrator, what the reason is for the mother’s behaviour. In a way they have been robbed of their childhood and made into barbie dolls with fake tan and plucked eyebrows.

I found the poem chilling but beautifully written. There is an ominous note from the title onwards. Again simple language does the trick as do clues like “eat a bread roll for breakfast/ dinner and tea, sometimes/ sometimes not”, the eerie obedience of the girls and that killer final couplet.

Three Little Lambs by Sarah Wimbush

Silver, Willow, Tallulah.
Walk with mum from one end of the village
to school at the other,
wearing faux fur coats in winter
and summer

beneath, bodies like Barbies.
Three little lambs
polite – no trouble,

late for school,
late for ballet,
late for their own birthday party,
three little lambs;

sleep where they drop,
eat a bread roll for breakfast
dinner and tea, sometimes
sometimes not

dress in Zara and Monsoon
pluck their eyebrows
fake their tan

twist the cap

And, finally, Hilary Jenkins’ poem, Foundling, which illustrates beautifully how objects can trigger amazing poems. I am assuming Hilary has visited the Foundlings’ Museum at King’s Cross and seen the display of tokens left by mothers so that they might one day be reunited with the babies they had to hand over.

Tragically they were deceived and the tokens never given to the children. John Whale has written a poem, Token, on the same subject in his collection Waterloo Teeth though his poem is from the foundling’s point of view.

It is interesting that Hilary’s poem is very different. She writes movingly from a mother’s point of view and, though she is an observer, I think it is because she is a mother herself that she is able to both look in fascinated horror at this evidence of separation, and to empathise with the terrible predicament these young women found themselves in, doing the only thing they could to provide for their babies.

It was the objects that spoke in this poem, the snipped in half pennies, that “piece of plain red woollen flannel”, the “single sleeve”. A really strong poem. I loved it.

Foundling by Hilary Jenkins

Not a ha’penny but a full penny
snipped in half,
thimbles, brooches, buttons,
beads, buckles, bunches of ribbons,
squares of linen, cotton, lawn,
camblet and fustian, susy,
cherryderry, calamanco, linsy-woolsey,

a piece of plain red woollen
flannel embroidered with a flower,
a note, a bracelet, a handkerchief,
a single sleeve,

identifiers, signifiers, names
and labels, not for the child to learn
who he, she is, but for administrators,
to smooth negotiations
in case a parent -having made good,
remarried, survived – returns
with the other half
of the penny, the matching sleeve
to claim their child, re-named,
dressed in red, blue uniform ,

to make it easier to explain,
after years spent grieving, hoping,
planning, only to find the child,
that baby you left on the step,
your flower pinned to her shawl,
whispering, ‘only for a few months
my sweet, and I’ll come back for you
when things are … settled,’
that child, the matching part of your penny,
has slipped away, hand in hand
with diphtheria that kills
before anyone notices anything is amiss.

Some things cannot be thought about,
some things are better lost in time,
these left luggage labels
still waiting here,
long after the office
has closed.

Your next challenge: postcards

Thank you to everyone who sent in poems. I loved reading them and if yours is not here please send me another for my next theme which is going to be postcards.

Your challenge for this month is to write about somewhere you might send a postcard from. Somewhere exotic if you like, or somewhere closer to home. You might want to try writing one when you’re away on holiday or you might like to think back to somewhere you have been in the past and write a poem back home.

It doesn’t have to fit on a postcard though it would be nice if it did. It just has to be about a holiday destination of some kind or the journey to it. A beach, a mountain, a lake, the talent contest at Butlin’s, a donkey ride at Margate, a tent at Glastonbury, whatever. Go forth and write! (Oops. Now I’m doing it.)

In early August I’ll give you some examples and some tips on writing about foreign parts but in the meantime get out there with your notebook. The sun is shining…

  • Email your poems to Carole at [email protected]. Please attach them as a Word or PDF document, and include your name on each poem
  • Closing date: August 7


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.