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Poem of the Month

By the time The Mersey Sound, the book I shared with Roger and Adrian was published in 1967, I’d already decided to leave Liverpool. At first I thought I might move to London and stayed on and off at a flat in Arkwright Road, Hampstead. The flat was owned by Olwyn Hughes, Ted’s sister, who he’d introduced to me after he’d been instrumental in helping me get an arts council grant, and who became my literary agent for a while. The literary parties I traipsed to in Olwyn’s wake put me off London. I didn’t belong there, and eventually I settled on Winchester, where nothing much seemed to happen, but in the nicest possible way.

I first visited Winchester in the autumn of 1966, when I spent some time with the poet Patrick Waites and his wife Anne at their house not far from the River Itchen. The Mersey was big, deep, and cold; an impersonal river. The Itchen sparkled. It was shallow, crystal clear and flowed beneath willow trees. With its narrow streets, water-meadows, its cathedral, country pubs and lack of any ”scene” the old market town - a city only in name - suddenly seemed the perfect antidote to both Liverpool and London. It was calm and unhurried place, the air itself was hushed. Keats had written his Ode to Autumn in the shadow of its Cathedral, and the ancient city’s secret gardens were still ‘drowsed with the fumes of poppies.’

At the time I was making the final amendments to the manuscript of my first book, Little Johnny’s Confession, and had taken the ms to Winchester to look over while staying at Pat’s. There was a poem in the manuscript called The Lake which I didn’t want to include- it was only there to make up the requisite number of pages, the least bad of the rejects. I sat in the garden of a pub overlooking the Itchen trying to improve the poem, and instead a new one surfaced. Leaving Nothing and Nothing Ahead became the last poem in the collection, and it foreshadowed my leaving of Liverpool for good. The peace I felt writing it beside the river Itchen I knew I could no longer find at home, with what I saw back then as a manic insistence on “doing” something or “being” someone. I didn’t want to belong in the hullabaloo anymore. There’s a poem elsewhere in Poem of the Month called One Another’s Light, one of my personal favourites, that somehow relates to this one, though it was written many years later.

 

Leaving Nothing And Nothing Ahead

 

Leaving nothing and nothing ahead;
When you stop for the evening
The sky will be in ruins,

When you hear late birds
With tired throats singing
Think how good it is that they,

Knowing you were coming,
Stayed up late to greet you,
Who travels between places

When the late afternoon
Drifts into the wood, when
Nothing matters specially.


Brian Patten

 

 

Previous Poems of the Month

Bernard's Poem

It is twelve years since my friend the bookseller Bernard Stone passed away. Below is a poem I wrote for him. I re-found it the other day along with something I’d written about him and the American bookseller, George Whitman.


Amongst the legendary bookshops of the 20th Century two stand out for me. One was George Whitman’s Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, and the other was Bernard Stone’s Turret Books in London. George let young writers sleep in his and Bernard kept them awake and partying half the night in his. Both men were magical and both are gone. George’s ghost still haunts Shakespeare & Co. but Bernard’s has no one shop to rest in. His business lurched from one financial crisis to another, and yet somehow each shop he moved to was mysteriously bigger than the last. The first one was in London’s Kensington Church Walk, a tight book-lined squeeze, an oblong cubby hole from which he conducted his limited editions business. The second, a few shops up the Walk was probably his most famous, and set the tone for the others.

It was a decent sized space, its walls lined with posters and photographs of novelists and poets and its shelves heaving with collections of poetry and little magazines, and the limited editions and pamphlets published by his little press. An incredibly realistic waxwork dummy of Sigmund Freud stood near the window. With its back to the world and disinclined to pay attention to anyone, it stood there quietly peering at a bookshelf of old classics and would inevitably annoy new customers. They’d stand behind the waxwork asking for some book or other, growing more and more agitated when they got no response, and then they’d storm out muttering about the bad mannered proprietor. Meanwhile, Bernard would be elsewhere in the shop dusting a shelf or indulging in another vodka and orange.
Each Saturday you would find Bernard’s shop(s) buzzing with novelists and poets, drunk or half-drunk on the endless bottles of wine Bernard would produce to supplement those they’d brought in themselves. You’d find five or more of them any given Saturday. Lawrence Durrell, Alan Sillitoe, Stephen Spender, Ralph Steadman, B. S. Johnson, Peter Porter, Roger McGough, Christopher Logue, Posy Simmonds, Michael Horovitz, Adrian Mitchell, Adrian Henri, a young Carol Ann Duffy, as well as visiting Americans like Allen Ginsberg and Ted Joans (look him up!)- these were only some of those who’d drop by. Bernard had many friends, inside and outside the world of books, and though books were his first love, the many beautiful young girls who befriended him and often worked in his shops were a close second. There were only a few people who ruffled him. Once when Bernard saw Ralph’s friend, Hunter S Thompson, about to enter his shop he hid under a desk.
There were book launches, poetry readings, birthday parties- any excuse for a party and Bernard was up for it. Sometimes there was hardly room for the punters, though they were just as welcome, and often ended up as drunk as the authors. This is a poem I wrote for his memorial:

 

 

Bernard's Poem

 

The books are all in mourning.
A man who loved each one
Has closed up shop forever.
Bernard Stone has gone.
The highly praised, the poignant,
The mediocre, the bad,
The deep books and the shallow,
The depressing and the glad,
The books that lie in ambush,
The bitchy ones, the gruff,
The anorexic volumes,
The ones that know their stuff-
The dusty books, the rare ones,
The forgotten, the well thumbed,
All are mourning Bernard,
All are feeling numbed.
And his favourite authors,
Harry Fainlight, Durrell, Hughes, the rest,
Are waiting impatiently
Up amongst the blessed.
“There’s a bookshop here,” they whisper,
“Blake’s chosen the decor.
The lease goes on forever.
Your name’s above the door.”

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Aphasia

Aphasia is a condition that makes it difficult for people to understand or learn speech. It causes great distress. Below is a poem that was written for the National Aphasia Association at the request of a friend with an aphasic child. In the poem, I imagine what the child might have said, had it been possible.

 

 

Aphasia

 

I’m seven, and I’m dead bright,
But words give me a fright.
Words are bullies.
Sneaky things. They gabble and lie.
Sometimes trying to understand them
Makes me cry. Words hurt.
Words are all over the place,
They get shoved in my face.
I don’t know why but
Words make me cry.
I wish words were things
You could hug.
Or that they smelt nice.
I wish they came in bottles
Like fizzy drinks, or melted
Like ice-cream. But they don’t,
Words are mean. They bully me,
Lock me away
From what I want to say.
I can’t even ask for help
And I’m only seven
(And a bit).
Words spread nasty gossip.
They must. Otherwise why
Would people think I’m thick.
Words.
They make me sick
Inside.

 

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Three Hundred and Ten Thousand Wounds

Jacqui from York enquiring about the poem below (see Guest book page) reminded me that although I’ve aired it at a reading, I’ve never tried publishing or sharing the printed version. It seems topical, this year being the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, but it was in fact written some years ago. Thanks for reminding me about it, Jacqui! I still think of it as an unfinished draft, but here it is.

 

 

 

Three Hundred and Ten Thousand Wounds

(The Battle of the Somme began 1st July 1916. The exact figure’s unknown, but approximately 310,000 died in the overall battle: 146,000 Allied, 164,000 German.)

Three Hundred and Ten Thousand Wounds.  Image to accompany brian Patten's poem

The teacher was teaching a lesson
About a long ago war,
When a ghost entered the classroom
By simply drifting through the door.
The teacher went on teaching,
She didn’t see the ghost’s shadow pass
Nor see the reflection of its face
On the classroom’s murky glass.

“Look, Miss!” shouted the children.
She looked, but saw nothing there
As the ghost crossed the classroom
And sat down in an empty chair.
“What is it?” asked the teacher,
“Are you playing a trick on me?”
The children all wanted to point it out -
They wanted to speak en masse -
But the ghost put its finger to its lips
And hushed the excited class.

For some reason no one was frightened
Though its flesh was bloody and torn,
And its face was burnt to a cinder
And its eyes were the colour of corn.
It wore an old-fashioned uniform
Of a kind that’s now long gone,
With badges and big brass buttons,
Like those worn at the Somme.

The teacher went on teaching
In a rather perfunctory way.
Her heart wasn’t in the lesson.
The children were too restless that day.
But the ghost wanted to listen -
It wanted to hear what the teacher said.
So many of its young friends
Had been amongst the maimed and the dead.

Then, after a while, the ghost stood up
And decided to be on its way.
It said the battle the teacher spoke of
Hadn’t quite happen as she’d described.
It said that, although it had been summer,
It had taken no time for blood to freeze,
That in the trenches the rats were as big as chickens,
And the maggots were bigger than bumble bees.
Still, it was glad to be remembered
After so many years had passed,
And its three hundred and ten thousand wounds
Had begun to heal at last.

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The River’s Story

All over the country at the moment people are beginning to form groups to clean up local rivers. Wonderful that they do, sad that they have to. To quote The Guardian, “Most rivers, lakes and coastal and ground waters in England will still not meet legally binding EU water pollution targets by 2021 - six years after the initial deadline.” I originally wrote The River’s Story at the request of a teacher for a group of children who were doing a project on pollution.

 

 

The River’s Story

I remember when life was good.
I tumbled down mountains,
Shilly-shallied across meadows,
I laughed and gurgled through woods,
Stretched and yawned in a myriad of floods.
Insects, weightless as sunbeams,
Settled on my skin to drink.
I wore lily-pads like medals.
Fish, lazy and battle-scarred,
Gossiped beneath them.
The damselflies were my ballerinas,
The pike my ambassadors.
Kingfishers, disguised as rainbows,
Were my secret agents.
It was a sweet time, a gone-time,
A time before factories grew,
Brick by greedy brick,
And left me cowering in monstrous shadows.
Like drunken giants
They vomited their poisons into me.
Tonight a scattering of vagrant bluebells,
Dwarfed by those same poisons,
Toll my ending.
Children, come find me if you wish,
I am your inheritance.
Behind derelict housing-estates
You will discover my remnants,
Clogged with garbage and junk
To an open sewer I’ve shrunk.
I, who have flowed through history,
Who have seen hamlets become villages,
Villages become towns, towns become cities,
Am reduced to a trickle of filth
Beneath the still, burning stars.

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The Betrayal

I wrote The Betrayal soon after visiting Wavertree Vale, the Liverpool street in which I grew up, for the last time. Here’s a photo of the street shortly before it was demolished.

Brian's House in Wavertree Vale

My grandparents, my mum, me and Lizzy (an old lady I adored and who slept for a while on a chair in the kitchen when I was about 5 years old) lived third house in from the right. The first house in from the right was occupied by Betty, who was by far the oldest person in our street and quite frightening to look at, with blind milky white eyes and little claw like hands deformed by arthritis. She was sweetness itself. Betty smelt of bay leaves and always had cakes and sugared almonds at hand to attract us children in through her ever open front door, as if we were wild birds. She’d probably been born around 1864, during the American Civil War. The main difference between this photo and my early memories of the street is that there were no tv aerials back then, and the street was lit by gas-lamps, not electric ones.

 

The Betrayal

By the time I got to where I had no intention of going
Half a lifetime had passed.
I'd sleepwalked so long. While I dozed
Houses outside which gas-lamps had spluttered
Were pulled down and replaced,
And my background was wiped from the face of the earth.
There was so much I ought to have recorded,
So many lives that have vanished -
Families, neighbours; people whose pockets
Were worn thin by hope. They were
The loose change history spent without caring.
Now they have become the air I breathe,
Not to have marked their passing seems such a betrayal.
Other things caught my attention:
A caterpillar climbing a tree in a playground,
A butterfly resting on a doorknob.
And my grandmother’s hands!
Though I saw those poor, sleeping hands
Opening and closing like talons,
I did not see the grief they were grasping.
The seed of my long alienation from those I loved
Was wrapped in daydreams.
Something I've never been able to pinpoint
Led me away from the blood I ought to have recorded.
I search my history for reasons, for omens.
But what use now zodiacs, or fabulous and complicated charts
Offered up by fly-brained astrologers?
What use now supplications?
In the clouds' entrails I constantly failed
To read the true nature of my betrayal.
What those who shaped me could not articulate
Still howls for recognition as a century closes,
And their homes are pulled down and replaced,
And their backgrounds
Are wiped from the face of the earth.

 

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Being Sixteen

Here’s a poem I wrote for an anthology Carol Anne Duffy was putting together a while ago. The brief was to write a poem about 1962. It was a good year to recall. By then I’d met up with Roger and Adrian and was editing a poetry magazine called underdog and the world felt brand new.

 

Being Sixteen

Sixteen, Rimbaud and Whitman my heroes,
PS I Love You playing in the loud cafes,
In a Canning Street basement Adrian Henri
Painting The Entry of Christ into Liverpool.

Living in an attic with a broken skylight,
A map drawn by Garcia Lorca open before me.
It seemed there was nothing that was not possible,
Nothing that could not be reinvented.

Ah poetry, at sixteen
Words smelt of tulips and marigolds,
Their fumes made sentences
That the bees stole for themselves.

 

And here’s a much shorter poem from a recent sequence.
Read into it what you will.

 

THE PLACE WHERE THEY ONCE GOT THE LIGHT

Is this what they call a “lamp shop?” I asked.
“There are no signs, and the window is bare."
“That what it’s still called,” said the owner,
“But the light has been moved elsewhere.”

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”Elvis Has Left The Building”

Just heard that Lemmy from Motorhead’s left the building.
Remember him from Hawkwind days... Anyone out there with a guitar, pick it up and roar away...

 

”ELVIS HAS LEFT THE BUILDING”
”ELVIS HAS LEFT THE BUILDING”

Elvis has left the building,
Winehouse has left it too.
(The song goes on though the singers go.
That’s why the Blues are blue.)

Now Lemmy’s left the building.
You’d have thought he’d have gone long ago.
Nina Simone left all on her own -
None announced a final show.

Fury, Faith and Bolan,
Entwistle from The Who,
Brian Jones and Moon the madman,
They’ve all left the building too.

Buddy Holly and John Lennon,
Jim Morrison from the Doors,
Vicious, Cobain, Marley -
None heard the last applause.

 

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A Family Christmas

Here’s a Christmas poem for the family. Change the names, adapt it, or write your own version to read out on the day. Or break it into sections and share it amongst several voices! Wishing all visitors to the site a Happy Christmas and a fantastic New Year.

A Family Christmas
The reason our Cathy’s crying
Isn’t hard to understand,
She tugged at Santa’s beard
And it came off in her hand.
When we dragged her out the grotto
We passed a butcher’s shop.
She saw a row of headless turkeys
And then she cried non-stop.
It’s Christmas! It’s Christmas!
We’re going to have some fun,
Mum is in a panic
And it’s only just begun.
The goose is in the oven,
And so’s the budgie too -
Its cage was opened by mistake
And that is where it flew.
A robin from the garden
Hopped in on to the mat.
It looked just like a Christmas card,
But now it’s in the cat.
There’ll be a thousand mince-pies
And lots of cream to lick,
There’ll be so much of everything
I’m bound to get quite sick.
There’ll be tangerines and walnuts,
Brandy pudding too,
Chocolate-coated angels
And toffees to chew.
Last year I got a boring book
From awful Aunty Jane.
This year I’m going to wrap it up
And send it back again.
For my horrid little brother
I don’t know what to get.
I think I’ll just wrap him up
And send him to the vet.
I’m fed up with his fingerprints
On all the pies and cake.
And the way he thinks my things
Were bought for him to break.
I wish Santa would come early
And stuff him in his sack -
He could take him to the North Pole
And never bring him back.
He could leave him in an igloo,
I’m sure no one would care.
He’d make a rather tasty snack
For a polar bear.
My older brother scoffs at me.
He’s made a nasty trap.
He says if Santa does exist
We’re bound to hear it snap.
I’ve just written off to warn him,
And have explained how to defuse
The electric cable on the roof
My brother says he’ll use.
He’d demobilise the reindeers,
Fry Santa in his sleigh,
He’d do some really awful things
If he could have his way.
But Christmas is a time of love,
And so we’ve called a truce.
Now everyone’s happy...
Except for the goose.

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And Nothing is Ever as Perfect as You Want It to Be

The Collected Love Poems - the updated edition of the earlier Love Poems collection - was out of print for a while but now seems to be available again. Hopefully it can be found or ordered from independent bookshops, but if, sadly, there are none near you, then Amazon stock it.

 

And Nothing is Ever as Perfect as You Want It to Be

You lose your love for her and then
It is her who is lost,
And then it is both who are lost,
And nothing is ever as perfect as you want it to be.

In a very ordinary world
A most extraordinary pain mingles with the small routines,
The loss seems huge and yet
Nothing can be pinned down or fully explained.

You are afraid. If you found the perfect love
It would scald your hands,
Rip the skin from your nerves,
Cause havoc with a computed heart.

Everything you touched became a wound.
You tried to mend what cannot be mended,
You tried, neither foolish nor clumsy,
To rescue what cannot be rescued.

You failed, a
And now she is elsewhere,
And her night and your night
Are both utterly drained.

How easy it would be
If love could be brought home like a lost kitten
Or gathered in like strawberries,
How lovely it would be;
But nothing is ever as perfect as you want it to be.

from The Collected Love Poems

 

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The Ditch

I can’t remember ever having fallen into a ditch. Well, not literally. But I guess there are many different kinds of ditches we fall into from time to time...

 

The Ditch

Every time you see me now
You look at me and say,
“Remember when I dragged you out
That ditch one rainy day?”

You stop everyone who passes by
You point at me and smirking, say,
“When he was drunk I dragged him out
A ditch one rainy day.”

You tell the tale repeatedly
But sadly there’s a hitch-
Life goes on and I’ve gone on,
But you’re still in the ditch.

 

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The Famous Five

Five-thirty in the morning. The sun rising, bird-song as yet unpolluted by the day’s noise. The scent of the wild garlic that lines the path down to the river. It’s the senses, too, that have come out of hibernation, letting one live in the present and simultaneously triggering the past.

The Famous Five

Please speak to me, ears.
Give me the sound of water over stones.
And you too, eyes,
Don’t hang about staring at the floor!
Show me again how in the far-flung fields
The light falls like sheets of gold.
And nose, poor nose, subject of so many jokes,
Bring the scents of my childhood to haunt me:
The smell of privet hedges, the scent of my mother’s dress,
The smell of brick-dust on the bomb-site after rain.
And you, touch,
Let me feel my lover’s breath on my skin,
Falling there like a web of peace.
Tongue, remind me what the earth tastes like.
And while you’re about it tell me the words of the spell
That stops the world from shrinking.
Ears, can you hear that spell?
Eyes, can you see it working?

 

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In Tintagel Graveyard

This poem was written in Tintagel, Cornwall, some time ago. In an old cemetery overlooking the sea, I saw fresh flowers that had been placed on the grave of a nameless boy who had drowned off the coast more than a century ago.

IN TINTAGEL GRAVEYARD

Who brought flowers to this grave?
'I,' said the wren. 'I brought them as seeds and then
Watched them grow.'

'No,' said the wind. 'That's not true.
I blew them across the moor and sea,
I blew them up to the grave's door.
They were a gift from me.'

'They came of their own accord,'
Said the celandine.
'I know best.
They're brothers of mine.'

'I am Death's friend,'
Said the crow. 'I ought to know.
I dropped them into the shadow of the leaning stone.
I brought the flowers.'

'No,' said Love,
'It was I who brought them,

'With the help of the wren's wing,
With the help of the wind's breath,
With the help of the celandine and the crow.

'It was I who brought them
For the living and the dead to share,
I was the force that put those flowers there.'

 

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Mistaken Identity

On the media page (LINK) we have uploaded two short films - different interpretations of my poem, The Minister For Exams. Also, below is a new poem recently published in The Poetry Paper. The Poetry Trust launch the paper annually at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. You can find a flipbook version of it on the web.

 

MISTAKEN IDENTITY

 

I saw you pass the window the other day,
As beautiful as ever, the same auburn hair
And legs the proverbial forever.
I rushed out into the street. Called your name.
You glanced back. Silly me,
Obviously it wasn’t you. I’d forgotten
How thirty years had passed. I apologised,
Said I’d mistaken you for someone else.
But that was not quite true.
What I’d seen is what you’d meant to me,
And still do.

 

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If You Had To Hazard A Guess Who Would You Say Your Poetry Is For?

I did an interview for Greg Freeman’s Write Out Loud recently.
You can find the interview HERE:
Was comfortable doing it because Greg’s questions were considered. Sometimes though, in the past I’ve found questions impossible to answer with anything other than a poem. Here’s an example below.

If You Had To Hazard A Guess Who Would You Say Your Poetry Is For?

For people who have nowhere to go in the afternoons,
For people who the evening banishes to small rooms,
For good people, people huge as the world.
For people who give themselves away forgetting
What it is they are giving,
And who are never reminded.
For people who cannot help being kind
To the hand bunched in pain against them.
For inarticulate people,
People who invent their own ugliness,
Who invent pain, terrified of blankness;
For people who stand forever at the same junction
Waiting for the chances that have passed.
And for those who lie in ambush for themselves,
Who invent toughness as a kind of disguise,
Who, lost in self-defeating worlds,
Carry remorse inside them like a plague;
And for the self-seeking self lost among them
I hazard a poem.

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Sally Slipshod

Sometimes when you go fishing for poems you catch that rare thing- one that makes no distinction between the adult and the child reader. Sally Slipshod is such a poem.
A few earlier poems of the month, Mr Ifonly and Geography Lesson, are other examples. Nice when it happens.

 

SALLY SLIPSHOD

Miss Sally Slipshod lost her memory
One bright sparkling autumn day,
She tried to pick up a burning sunbeam,
Was amazed it got away.
Saw a birch tree; thought it a fountain
Tumbling through the space between
The garden wall and rhododendron
Where the birch tree had once been.
She mistook a child for an angel,
Mistook a rose for its wounds:
The busy world's bald din and clatter
Was transformed to tinkling sounds.
The dawn transformed earth's clods to diamonds,
Wind orchestrated the bars
Of the spiky branches in which clung
The frosty blossom of the stars.
These were the things her memory clung to,
The rest she let fall away.
She saw God's kind face in each spider's;
She knelt among them to pray.
When darkness fell she did not see it;
Saw only light flowing there.
'Your mind has gone wrong,' people told her.
Sally Slipshod did not care.
How could dull people comprehend her?
Ears so sharp they could unveil
The sound of water in a mountain
And from two miles the nightingale.
Miss Sally Slipshod lost the memory
Of all things dark, drab and dull,
And of the prison others made for
All she considered wonderful.

 

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Her Ghost & The Ambush

Two poems from The Collected Love Poems, neither of which appeared in the original volume.
I guess of all my collections this is the book I feel closest to.


HER GHOST

What was it about her that without her
The world grew dull?

The memory of her nakedness,
How lovely she was and how free-spirited,
Is with me still.

Though gone
I cannot get her voice out my ears.
I cannot wipe her smile from my retina.

Friends say it is like any bereavement-
That she will haunt me less and less,
But though some ghosts are like thistledown
Blown away by time

If they had known her they would have understood
How other ghosts are immortal.

What was it about her that without her
The world grew dull?

As sunlight burns off frost
So she burnt off the ice I wore like armour.

 

THE AMBUSH

When the face you swore never to forget
Can no longer be remembered,
When a list of regrets are torn up and thrown away
Then the hurt fades,
And you think you've grown strong.
You sit in bars and boast to yourself,
"Never again will I be vulnerable.
It was an aberration to be so open,
A folly, never to be repeated".
How absurd and fragile such promises.
Hidden from you, crouched
Among the longings you have suppressed
And the desires you imagine tamed,
A sweet pain waits in ambush.
And there will come a day when in a field
Heaven's mouth gapes open,
And on a web the shadow
Of a marigold will smoulder.
Then without warning,
Without a shred of comfort,
Emotions you thought had been put aside
Will flare up within you and bleed you of reason.
The routines which comforted you,
And the habits in which you sought refuge
Will bend like sunlight under water and go astray.
Your body will become a banquet,
Falling heavenwards.
You will loll in spring's sweet avalanche
Without the burden of memory,
And once again
Monstrous love will swallow you.

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Remembering Snow

A seasonal poem, remembering back to when I was a child and sneaking downstairs one night to open the door and step out into the first really big snowfall I’d seen.

Wishing all visitors to my site a wonderful new year!


REMEMBERING SNOW

I did not sleep last night.
The falling snow was beautiful and white.
I dressed, sneaked down the stairs
And opened wide the door.
I had not seen such snow before.
Our grubby little street had gone;
The world was brand-new, and everywhere
There was a pureness in the air.
I felt such peace. Watching every flake
I felt more and more awake.
I thought I’d learned all there was to know
About the trillion million different kinds
Of swirling frosty falling flakes of snow.
But that was not so.
I had not known how vividly it lit
The world with such a peaceful glow.
Upstairs my mother slept.
I could not drag myself away from that sight
To call her down and have her share
That mute miracle of snow.
It seemed to fall for me alone.
How beautiful our grubby little street had grown!

 

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Mr Ifonly

Don’t know what to say about this one. It began life as a poem for children, but grew up along the way.

Mr Ifonly

Mr Ifonly
Sat down and he sighed,
‘I could have done more
If only I’d tried.

‘If only I’d followed
My true intent,
If only I’d said
The things that I meant.

‘If only I’d gone
And not stayed at home,
If only I’d taken
The chance to roam.

‘If only the word yes
And not the word no
Had flown from my lips
All those years ago.

‘If only I’d done
The things that I could
And not simply done
The things that I should.

‘If only a day
Had lasted a year
And I had not lived
In constant fear.

‘Now life’s past me by
And it’s such a crime,’
Said Mr Ifonly
Who’d run out of time.

 

bp

There is a Boat Down on the Quay

The sound of ships foghorns on the Mersey and the rattle of freight trains passing through the darkness were the lullabies of my childhood. At night those sounds comforted me. The sounds of the river in particular. On winter nights especially I would lay curled up in the bed-chair I slept in. I was stationary, safe, cocooned. I’d listen to the laments of the liners and the cargo boats and try to differentiate between the various ships horns and whistles, and try to imagine where the ships were going. It seemed to me to be a time of departures. Here’s a poem I wrote remembering back to childhood and the Liverpool Docks. Maybe it is about early influences and the past resurfacing and bringing back with it a cargo of clues as to why some of us turned out as we did.


There is a Boat Down on the Quay

There is a boat down on the quay come home at last.
The paint's chipped, the sails stained as if
Time's pissed up against them.
I imagine the sea routes it's followed,
Sailing through the world's sunken veins
With its cargo of longings;
A little boat that's nuzzled its way
Into the armpits of forests,
That's sliced through the moon's reflection,
Through the phosphate that clings to the lips of waves.
I knew its crew once,
Those boys manacled to freedom
Who set sail over half a century ago,
And were like giants to me.
A solitary child in awe of oceans
I saw them peel their shadows from the land
And watched as they departed.
What did they think when they peered
Over the rim of the world,
Where Time roared and bubbled
And angels swooped like swallows?
Reading an ancient Morse code of starlight,
Stranded by the longing to be elsewhere,
What secrets did they learn to forget?
I longed to be among them,
A passenger curled up in fate's pocket,
I longed to be a part of them --
Those ghosts who set sail in my childhood,
Those phantoms who shaped me,
That marvellous crew for whom
I have stretched a simple goodbye
Out over a lifetime.



bp

Someone Stole the

Here’s one of my performance poems for children. The idea is that there’s a word the performer can’t pronounce and which the children, being more verbally astute, supply.


Someone Stole the

While I was taking a short cat-nap
someone stole the cat
I should have spun round like a catherine wheel
when someone stole the cat
But I was too slow to catch them,
when someone stole the cat

Now the catamaran can't float,
because someone stole the cat
And the caterpillar can't crawl,
because someone stole the cat
And the cataract can't fall,
because someone stole the cat

It was not me and it was not you
but it is categorically true,
And if you were to ask me
I'd say it was a catastrophe
That someone's stolen thecat

bp

Geography Lesson

Sometimes a poet is lucky enough to write a poem that is accessible to both children and adults alike, and which both will understand on their own terms. Charles Causley was the master of such poems, and one of my favourites by a more contemporary poet is Benjamin Zephaniah’s beautiful, Under This Orange Tree, easily found on the web. Geography Lesson is one of mine that surfaces in anthologies for both children and adults. It was written some time ago, remembering back to a teacher at a Secondary Modern School I attended in Liverpool. He was a stern man, but would always wax lyrical about the places he would visit when he retired from teaching.


Geography Lesson

Our teacher told us one day he would leave
And sail across a warm blue sea
To places he had only known from maps,
And all his life had longed to be.

The house he lived in was narrow and grey
But in his mind’s eye he could see
Sweet-scented jasmine clinging to the walls,
And green leaves burning on an orange tree.

He spoke of the lands he longed to visit,
Where it was never drab or cold.
I couldn’t understand why he never left,
And shook off the school’s stranglehold.

Then halfway through his final term
He took ill and never returned,
And he never got to that place on the map
Where the green leaves of the orange trees burned.

The maps were redrawn on the classroom wall;
His name was forgotten, it faded away.
But a lesson he never knew he taught
Is with me to this day.

I travel to where the green leaves burn
To where the ocean’s glass-clear and blue,
To all those places my teacher taught me to love
But which he never knew.

bp

Poetry Class & Japanese Haiku

Remembering back to sitting in school aged fourteen listening to a wonderful teacher reading us poems and trying to explain the syllable count in haikus, I wrote these two poetry doodles- different takes on the same idea.


Poetry Class

Sat at the back
Of the poetry class
My dunce’s hat
On fire again.

Outside the window
The wild plums
Fall like words
To be savoured 

When school’s out.

 

Japanese Haiku

Liverpool poet
Sits at the back of the class.
Has a small I.Q.

 

bp
Ward Sixteen

I seldom remember dreams. Maybe six or seven times in my entire life have I woken recalling one with any amount of vividness. Yet one morning a few months before my mother died I woke remembering a dream so clearly that I wrote it down as a poem immediately. I called it Ward 16, and published it later in a book called Armada, in a version little changed from my first draft. The poem is about an hallucination, and it baffles me. Again: I wrote the poem months before my mother’s death, before the brain haemorrhage that killed her. She was still in her sixties, and seemingly in good health. Her death was the last thing on either of our minds. In the dream-poem I am sitting at my dying mother’s bedside in an old fashioned hospital ward. It is late at night and there is a small pool of light at the far end of the long narrow ward. An ancient, care-worn angel appears and begins to move among the hospital beds towards her.

I felt uncomfortable having written the dream poem down, a little ashamed of it, as if by the act of writing it I was willing her death on.
I wasn’t. We were close. I think of myself as a pretty down to earth person, not much given to the idea of premonitions. But how could it have been anything else? One of the few dreams I’ve ever remembered in my life coming true within months of dreaming it? She died in a hospital in Liverpool, in a small side room off Ward 16.

 

Ward Sixteen

At 2 a.m. last night, beyond the opaque doors of the hospital ward
In which I kept vigil, a glow appeared.
The duty nurse, bent over her reports, noticed nothing.
There was no sound other than the wheeze and creak
Of human wreckage, of souls adrift in a drugged sleep,
Clinging still to bodies
Washed by tidal-waves of pain.

There was no other light bar the low-watted bulb on the nurse's table.
The ward-door had not opened, yet somehow that glow entered,
Pouring through the substance of the door
as if the door were insubstantial.
I thought it was my tiredness, my own grief at an oncoming separation
That had caused this trick of light, a freak hallucination.

But the glow persisted. It drifted  towards me, flowed
through the beds themselves;
And as it searched among the patients
It took shape, and I froze in awe.
It had become a creature, seven foot tall, hunched and radiant,
Its golden skin the texture of a moth's wing.

It had come, breaking through the thin crust
That separates the mind from angels.
And by its light I saw how,
Through the minute cracks in the surface of the hospital walls,
The horror of dying, like liquid spilt.

Unaware of me, as if it were I who was insubstantial,
It crouched beside the bed in which my mother was lying
And stretching out a hand towards her
brushed all the hours of her life aside as if they were flies.

Under thin lids her eyes moved,
And though from that befuddled cocoon in which physical time was trapped
There came no final leave-taking.
Something beyond doubt eased the terror
That came and went with each breath, that came and went,
Then went, and was gone forever.

How normal the ward seemed a moment later!
Beyond the opaque doors a solitary light glowed.
The hospital’s machinery hummed.
The duty-nurse yawned, not in the least distracted.

 

bp

Why Is The Mute Swan Singing?
A Christmas Carol by Brian Patten

 

 

Why Is The Mute Swan Singing? A Christmas Carol by Brian Patten

How calm the snow, how white it is,
How clear and pure the air,
How perfectly each little flake
Illuminates the atmosphere.

Why is the old fox smiling,
Trotting through the snow?
What is the rabbit dreaming of
In the warren deep below?

Why is the mute swan singing?
Why is the wren so bold?
Why are the wild geese staying
And the spider weaving gold?

How calm the snow, how white it is!
How clear and pure the air!
How perfectly each little flake
Illuminates the atmosphere!

Why are the black crows cawing,
That were once so numb with cold?
From amongst the ice-flecked branches
What can they see unfold?

Why are they so excited
On such a winter’s night,
And why is the stable glowing
With such translucent light?

The kingfisher shakes off rainbows,
The river stops mid-flow,
Buried in the owl’s blood
Is something they all know.

How calm the snow, how white it is!
How clear and pure the air!
How perfectly each little flake
Illuminates the atmosphere!


bp

Cormorants

This is a poem I’ve been trying to write for a while and it’s still a draft. It's inspired by a poem  by Garcia Lorca, Absent Soul, and is an elegy for Bob Bull, a friend who had a boat on the river Dart near where I live. The title is because of the cormorants we’d often see sitting on rocks, and on the branches that overhang the river. We saw them early some mornings going upriver with the tide. They would appear through a blanket of mist, and then vanish back into it as we passed.

CORMORANTS

The river will not remember you
Nor will the cormorants you passed summers ago,
Nor the seagulls nesting on your roof
Nor any of those creatures
Immune to a knowledge of their ending.
The grief that turned the river into lead
Will rise and fall, a barometer of loss,
And in the frost whitened gardens at the Dart’s edge
Fallen seeds will scheme their resurrection.
We will remember you for the short forever left us,
When with lives like mayflies
We follow on in your slip-stream of dust.
Till then you will pass by in broken fragments of clouds
And in the spittle-like foam on the tide’s tongue.
And the winter will come with its cataracts of mist
And outside your old window
Moths will flicker like flakes of snow,
And though your eyes will not see their tribal dance
Nor see the leaves that cling to the stubborn oaks,
Mottled and tattooed with decay,
What was immortal in you will exist still.
And those who loved you best will still find you in the earth’s breath,
And in the robins offering up, spoonful by spoonful,
Their medicinal song, the purest of valedictions.
And out on the river
The cormorants will open wide their wings,
And sillouetted against the frosty sun
Will mimic crucifictions that never were.

draft 21/9/2012

bp

In the Orchard After Midnight

A few months before he died my friend the poet Adrian Mitchell was reading in Devon and stayed over with me. We sat in the small overgrown orchard that backs onto the house, and talked into the night. A few months after his death in December 2008, missing him I went back out into the orchard with two glasses and a bottle and continued our conversation. A few people have asked for this poem after readings, and I’m glad to share it again here.

In the Orchard After Midnight

February’s over - in the orchard after midnight,
Muffled up against the cold, whiskey on the table,
Head back, staring skywards-
I raise a glass to him- two months dead now-

The grass white, crunchy as sugar,
His ghost, moth quiet,
Steps out of nowhere and is beside me.

Blue shirt open at neck, fawn slacks, sandals-
No coat needed against this worldly frost-
He smiles, takes a chair opposite,

Falls through it, grimaces, nods OK, tries again.
“Not used to this being dead stuff,” he says.
Sits finally, breath smelling of ice and apples.

Underfoot, violets turn mauve in the moonlight,
Tendrils of river mist drift through him.
Somewhere an owl takes out its oboe.

I pour him one ghost glass after another-
We down the bottle – who cares if we get smashed now?
Celia’s up in London- can’t see us.

“The stars are bubbling away nicely,” he says.
“It’s God’s soup, spilt out across the heavens,” I reply.
We exchange banter, his ghost and I, the best of mates still.

 

bp

My Olympic Childhood

I was never up to much when it came sports in school. For the kids at Sefton Park Secondary Modern, Liverpool 15, cross-country running consisted of a quick run up the alleyway and around the gasworks, with a short stop off for a fag. Ditto when it comes to writing sporting poems- RMc’s the dab hand at those. But I couldn’t help but be inspired by the Olympics, so here’s

MY OLYMPIC CHILDHOOD

When I was little
I had an uncle who was in prison for fencing.
Under his guidance
I learned to love sport.
I was always ducking and diving,
Always being told to go and run a mile,
Or that I was in for the high jump.
Keen on me learning aquatic sports
Mum would throw me in the nearest available lake
And then she too would run a mile.
Rowing was a speciality.
Our street down by the docks
Was always full of old oars.

 

bp

Late Poems

A perennial question when being asked about poems, especially by children, is ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ The question once sparked an answer about a little shop in Liverpool down by the docks that not many people know about where they have sweet jars full of them. Big bright yellow jars for the happy ideas, small blue ones stuffed with sad ideas. There’s no one answer to the question, but sometimes poems are sparked off by looking at a phrase or object aslant. The other day in a second hand bookshop I saw a book called Late Poems, and it sparked off the poem below.

LATE POEMS

“What time do you call this?”
I shouted when they finally arrived,
“Those sunflowers I got from Blake’s deli
Are burnt to a cinder!

And that brilliant sunset I
poured into a jug this morning?
All the fizz has gone from it!

And how about the roses I was keeping for afters?
Well, the sick worm that flies through the night’s
Been at them. They’re inedible!

They hung their heads in shame,
Those late poems.
I’m not inviting them again.

I want my poems to be on time or before time,
Mad as puppies,
Fresh faced and eager to share in
The fat feast the world is.

bp

On Time For Once

Here’s an early poem from my Collected Love Poems. It’s about someone who was usually late, but one day wasn’t. It’s called

ON TIME FOR ONCE

I was sitting thinking of our future
And of how friendship had overcome
So many nights bloated with pain;

I was sitting in a room that looked out on to a garden
And a stillness filled me,
Bitterness drifted from me,

I was as near paradise as I am likely to get again.

I was sitting thinking of the chaos
We had caused in one another
And was amazed we had survived it.

I was thinking of our future
And of what we would do together,
And where we would go and of how,

When night came, burying me bit by bit,
And you entered the room,
Trembling, solemn-faced,

On time for once.

bp

For Harry Fainlight

It’s 30 years now since Harry Fainlight (1935-1982) was found dead in a field in Wales. Incarcerated in asylums where he received electric shock treatment, and living in near poverty in squats and attic rooms, Harry was a friend and a truly brilliant poet. He only ever published one pamphlet of poems in his lifetime. Ted Hughes got Faber interested in publishing a collection of Harry’s work, but at the time Harry was seeing publishers as vampires sucking out creativity from poets. It’s rumoured he threatened to burn the publishers down and stuffed rags through their letter box as a warning not to publish him. True or not, it’s the kind of behaviour Harry was capable of at his most disturbed. This is one of several poems I’ve been writing attempting to summon up the ghosts of gone friends.

Older now than you ever were
I sit in the orchard and wish you back again:
From the deep well of the self
Once more that raw soul rises-

I’m in my 20s, you in a threadbare coat
Are as ancient as ever. Ah, Harry!
Dear weaver of those conspiracies
I chose never to understand,

You chew on air, wince,
Baffled by the day’s normality.
Only time conspired against you-
Ted, Allen, weavers of your matrix, dust now.

Dear teeth-grinding magus,
A time’s conscience, let’s simply
Be here awhile, in that peace
You so seldom encountered:

The encoded message of bird-song
Drifts from the deep wood,
Rinses out the clogged up world.

bp

The Gates, City Park and The Jew: by Harry Fainlight

Below are three short poems of Harry’s. In The Gates I think he is saying Eden still exists and we can still find it, but we must enter it in a different state of consciousness to the clumsy everyday consciousness with which we go about our everyday lives. The second poem, City Park, was written before the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, and is one of many in which Harry explored a society that criminalised homosexual love. In the third, The Jew, Harry is pondering his own Jewish heritage.

Brian Patten

 

The Gates

In a tree’s sighing
Eden languishes.

Its gates hinging on
A butterfly’s poise;

Clicking shut with the snapping of a twig
Deep within the noonday forest.

 

City Park

Those adolescent dusks through which
the surreptitious matches flared
as whispering initiates
touched cigarettes.
Darkness settling with all the thousand discreet
rustlings of an investiture;
the tiny sigh-hatching noises as desire
opens to the weight of Night
Its giant carnivorous flower....



The Jew

My soul has been mortgaged for a hundred thousand years.
A limb broken and reset again and again throughout history.
It stands in the mist like a building at an unknown address
In an unknown city at an unknown time
Buttressed by a dozen props and yet still barely standing.
An exhausted man who leans all night  against
The back of a chair and yet still remains unsleeping.
Tired as the evening of a planet that looks up to
The skies of morning hoping finally to be relieved.

An old rabbi is dancing about the battlefield - arms and legs
being blown off
Left and right - he just goes on. He's in a different world
entirely.

One Another’s Light

This month’s poem is a favourite of mine, one I feel lucky to have written. Inasmuch as a poem is ever ‘about’ one thing, this is about the loves, friendships and chance encounters that, often without our realising it, have changed the direction of our lives. It is also about the brevity, and preciousness of life. You can hear it read by going to Media page.

 

One Another’s Light


I do not know what brought me here
Away from where I’ve hardly ever been and now
Am never likely to go again.

Faces are lost, and places passed
At which I could have stopped,
And stopping, been glad enough.

Some faces left a mark,
And I on them might have wrought
Some kind of charm or spell
To make their futures work,

But it’s hard to guess
How one person on another
Works an influence.
We pass, and lit briefly by one another’s light
Hope the way we go is right.

 

Brian Patten

You asked, Who will look after the garden while I’m gone?

'I will,' said January.
'I will anchor it to the earth with snowdrops.
I will give it my stone, the garnet.'

'It is mine,' said February.
'I will feed it the memory of all that grows.
I will welcome it with my stone the amethyst and with primrose.'

‘I will coax it with bloodstone and daffodil,’ said March,
Like a boxer battered by winter
I will lift myself from the frosty canvas of the earth to welcome it.’

'With diamond and daisy I will seduce it.
I will soak it in shower after shower,' said April.
'In the yawny earth its seeds will riot.'

'I will make it dizzy with emeralds
And the fumes of the hawthorn,' said May.
'It will know of nothing but play.'

‘And I will adorn it with necklaces of honeysuckle and ruby,’ said June.
‘Their clasps will be made out of the honeybees wings.’
It will dance to my languid tune.’

'I will contain it,' said July.
'I will handcuff it with briar and chrysolite,
Drug it with the scent of roses.'

August spoke from the garden’s still centre.
‘I will weep layer upon layer of sardonyx.
I will teach it the brevity of poppies.’

‘When its bones begin to creak
I will cure it with aster and opal,’
Promised September

I will guide it towards sleep with the cold light of sapphires.
For its lullaby I will provide the swan-song of dahilias,’
Said October.

‘Under the dead weight of chrysanthemums I will bury it,’
Said November.
‘I will give it a headstone of topaz, a rosary of berries.’

'And I will guard its sleep,' said December.
'On a pillow of moonstone
It will dream of holly and the coming snowdrop.'

bp

The Right Mask
One night a poem came up to a poet.
From now on, it said, you must wear a mask.
What kind of mask? asked the poet.
A rose mask, said the poem.
I've used it already, said the poet,
I've exhausted it.
Then wear the mask that's made
Out of the nightingale's song, use that mask.
But it's an old mask, said the poet,
it's all used up.
Nonsense, said the poem, it's the perfect mask,
Nevertheless, try on the god mask,
That mask illuminates heaven.
It's a tired mask, said the poet,
And the stars crawl about in it like ants.
Then try on the troubadour’s mask,
Or the singer's mask,
Try on all the popular masks.
I have, said the poet, but they fit too easily.
Now the poem was getting impatient,
it stamped its foot like a child,
it screamed, Then try on your own face,
Try on the one mask that terrifies you,
The mask only you could possibly use,
The mask only you can wear out.
The poet tore at his face till it bled,
This mask? he asked, this mask?
Yes, said the poem, why not?
But he was tired of masks,
He had lived too long with them.
He snatched at the poem and stuck to his face.
He chewed on it, spat bits out, destroyed it.
Its screams were muffled, it wept, it tried to be lyrical,
It wriggled into his eyes and mouth,
Into his blood it wriggled.
The next day his friends did not recognise him,
They were afraid of him.
Now it's the right mask, said the poem, the right mask.
It clung to him lovingly, and never let go again.

bp
These Boys Have Never Really Grown into Men
These boys have never really grown into men,
despite their disguises, despite their adult ways,
their sophistication, the camouflage of their kindly smiles.
They are still up to their old tricks,
still at the wing-plucking stage. Only now
their prey answers to women's names.
And the girls, likewise, despite their disguises,
despite their adult ways, their camouflage of need,
still twist love till its failure seems not of their making;
something grotesque migrates hourly
between our different needs,
and is in us all like a poison.
How strange I've not understood so clearly before
how liars and misers, the cruel and the arrogant
lie down and make love like all others,
how nothing is ever as expected, nothing is ever as stated.
Behind doors and windows nothing is ever as wanted.
The good have no monopoly on love.
All drink from it. All wear its absence like a shroud.

BP from The Collected Love Poems
St Peter and the Devil
Saint Peter stood outside the Gates of Heaven
With a far-away look in his eyes,
He was thinking of Rachel and Rebecca,
Of their scent and their plump brown thighs.

He stood outside the Gates of Heaven
Oiling the lock and testing the bars
When the Devil strolled up to greet him
With eyes that glittered like sulphurous stars.

The Devil spoke with the voice of Rebecca,
He came dressed in the body of Eve.
He snuggled up close to Saint Peter
And tugged the goat by the sleeve.

“How well do you remember Rebecca?
Does sweet Rachel still heat up the blood?
Are they both as warm and as ripe
As the earth was after the Flood?”

“They’re the same as ever,” said Peter,
He looked at the Devil and smiled,
“They are waiting for me inside the Gates.
You are the one who’s exiled.”

bp

 

 

 

Brian Patten's featured poetry book

Collected Love Poems

Alongside familiar classics from the earlier Love Poems volume, this collection brings together dozens of poems written subsequently, including new poems published here for the first time.

Published by Harper Perennial 2007, ISBN-10: 0007246498,
ISBN-13: 978-0007246496 BUY HERE

Collected Love Poems

 

The Blue and Green Ark
An Alphabet for Planet Earth
CLICK THE COVER TO HEAR BRIAN READING
'THE BLUE AND GREEN ARK'.

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"Taking each letter of the alphabet in turn, and with a wonderful fresh eye and delicate accuracy, Brian Patten evokes images of the many natural wonders about us, from the creatures who swim in the depths of the oceans, to the heavens above us and the galaxies beyond.

This book is a major work of art with an essential simplicity and breathtaking beauty that will appeal to young and old. It is a fitting tribute to our blue and green planet and its precious cargo of life at the passing of a thousand years."

 

 

 

 

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