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A selection of poems by David Hart - Birmingham's Poet Laureate 1997/98

David writes...

I am putting these poems on LitNet in the Spring of 1999. They were written when I was Birmingham Poet Laureate 1997-98 and have not been published in book form.

My several-page poem, An inventory of the near lands of Birmingham and beyond over some bridges, commissioned for the opening of the West Midlands Local History Fair at Highbury Hall, Birmingham, and read on that occasion, March 28th 1998, and again later in the year at the launch of the Year of Reading in the Birmingham Council House, I am publishing separately as a booklet and it is not included in this internet selection. It can be bought for 1.20 incl.p&p from me at 42, All Saints Road, Kings Heath, Birmingham B14 7LL.

I am happy for these LitNet poems to be copied for private use or for workshops etc, but not to be reproduced and sold for profit. Any of the poems used for workshops etc should be acknowledged as having been published on LitNet. Thankyou.

Enquires about the role of the Birmingham Poet Laureate should be addressed to Anu Singh, Birmingham’s Reader Development Officer, based in the Central Library. Her e-mail is anu.singh@birmingham.gov.uk

My own e-mail is davidhart@poetrybham.freeserve.co.uk

David Hart, March 99

PART ONE: COMMISSIONED POEMS

The job is

The job is to tell the truth
but what kind of truth?
There is plenty of time
to grow up to be a child again
if we are lucky
and at the same time time passes
as if we’ve missed it. Minutes
fly by quickly
and hours

- except in certain subjects

and with certain teachers -
and the days go by
and the years,
the holidays come and go
and our birthday
and our next birthday
comes and goes, and tomorrow
we will be our children’s memories.
The job is to tell the truth
but what kind of truth?
Keep your eye on the yak in the sky,
keep your ears on the river called river,
keep your nose in the soup of praise,
keep your tongue round the song,
keep your body as steady as a clown’s
juggling on stilts through the town’s
busyness. Keep in mind the odd thought,
the sky-filled doughnut
that cannot be sold or bought.
The job is to tell the truth
but what kind of truth?
The city is a rainbow dove in a funeral coat.
The job is to tell the truth
but what kind of truth?
This is what its children say
in their poems
about the city:

Birmingham’s fun,
Birmingham’s great,
Birmingham’s what we appreciate...

and

Big match happening tonight
in the NIA,
rapping noise,
Moms shouting,
in and out the ball goes,
nice fans, noisy fans...

and

Lots of litter...
The traffic is bad
and makes
people sad all the time...
I hate the rubbish,
car fumes destroying the city...
Birmingham is like a scrap-heap,
the roads are covered with litter,
the walls are vandalised,
Birmingham, Birmingham, what an ugly sight...
The job is to tell the truth
but what kind of truth?
"Why are we going this way?",
asks the child.
"Because we will be able to see the city
like a table laid with square-headed fish
standing on their tails
and more eyes in their heads
than they know what to do with".
"And why are you listening ?",
asks the child.
"Because I can hear the Romans arriving
with their banners, we are standing
on the agger, they were here".
"Come on", says the child,
"what are we waiting for?"
"The sun in its glowingness
on its way to bed
is throwing shadows of the trees
across the field".
The job is to tell the truth
but what kind of truth?
If the city of poetry is to be really cool,
really wicked,
really bad,
there’s work to be done this year.
The job is to tell the truth
but what kind of truth?
How old and big the world is,
how young and small.

[Commissioned for the launch of the Education Department’s Year of the Arts and read at the Council House, January 13th 98 to the Education Committee and other representatives of Education. Two pupils and a teacher read their poems, which I had selected from the first ‘poetry challenge’ to schools. My poem as printed here was the following day’s slightly revised version and was put on the LEA’s e-mail to all schools].

Aston Villa v. West Ham

3pm April 4th 1998

We will, we will rock you!
We will, we will rock you!
Everyone stands
there is a fanfare
the teams come out,
then it’s 90 minutes
mostly of sighs and groans.

The team in my head

still has Houghton in it and Saunders,
and Paul McGrath
and is captained by Townsend.
But this is the new Villa.
Same old ball.
Bosnich has it.
"Come on, Yorkey, turn!"
Saint Steve is still here and young Hendrie
has the makings of a star.
Southgate sets his eye on the ball
and it’s already in the net
except that it isn’t, it’s a beach ball he hit
on windy sand.
Is this a mirror
of our everyday lives:
the build-up,
the missed chance,
another build-up,
another chance squandered,
more build-up,
the attack kept at bay,
another build-up,
some forward movement,
new expectations,
the pass back,
across, back again, the groan,
the build-up,
the new expectations,
and the move comes to nothing?
At the other end Bosnich has it.
Hendrie shoots over the bar, very close.
I wonder what it’s like
to be groaned at
by us in our thousands.
We have enlisted
for repeated disappointment.
Bosnich has it.
Bosnich is beaten
and is beaten again
but somehow
the ball doesn’t go in.
The few trees through the corner gap
are beginning to green
and beyond them the M6,
the world of nowhere,
the world of coming from and going to,
a perpetual conveyor belt.
Bosnich has it.
Southgate keeps making long passes
to where he seemed to imagine
someone would be.
Bosnich has it.
Then a Southgate pass is exactly right
and Yorke is on to it,
the closest yet
and needs saving.
The crowd is appeased
with such small moments
of excitement.
Alone in his half of the field
the Bosnich ballet.
hat is that event called a goal?
Will it happen ever again?
Pressure counts
with hindsight
and a deflection is a lucky break,
this one off Joachim -
‘The scorer for Aston Villa: Ian Taylor!’
Bosnich flies along the ground
and punches the ball away.
And before long again
we are all on our feet
and the ball
in a blur
is in the net: Yesssssss!
‘For Aston Villa No.9, Savo Milosovic!’

Cheerio, cheerio, cheerio!

Cocky now. And in another heavy shower
the energy
starts to drain out of the game.

Bosnich has it.

Bosnich has it.

On the train back into the city
someone tells a joke
about an old man in the stand.
Beside him there’s an empty seat
and someone has their eye on that seat
which is better than the one they’ve got,
so they go down and ask him about it.
The old man explains, "It’s the wife’s"
only she’s passed away",
and the man who had his eye on the seat says,
"You don’t have a son who wants to come
or a daughter?"
And the old man replies,
"They’re at the funeral".
The match has been a bitter-sweet secret
shared by more than 39,000 of us,
it’s the same week in week out,
this absorbing fuss,
differently the same,

this beautiful game.

[This poem wasn’t exactly commissioned. I wrote to Doug Ellis, theVilla chairman and asked for tickets, saying I wanted to write a poem. He sent tickets and said he’d like to see the poem, and I sent him a copy, to which he didn’t thereafter respond. I wrote the poem as if I’d been asked for it]

A dance to the music of train

Georgina Starr’s Tuberama at the new Ikon Gallery

"Bring all my friends unto me and I’ll strangle them with words"- Procul Harum

"Modern literature from Baudelaire to Beckett has been the voice of passionately religious individuals trying to manage without God. In place of the church they substituted anarchism, eroticism, existential Marxism, psycho-analysis and modernism" - Jeff Nuttall

"The modern illusion concerning painting.... is that the artist is a creator. Rather he is a receiver. What seems like creation is the act of giving form to what he has received" - John Berger

"Oh! How terribly did I long to be a man so as to paint here..... I felt quite angry at being a woman, it seemed such a mistake" - Anna Howitt, painter, after a Royal Society lecture, c. 1840s(?)

"I use art because I’m not exactly sure what it is that I’m doing. If I weren’t an artist but I was doing what I was doing, there’d be nowhere to put the products of the activity; I use the umbrella of art to give it a place. I always get a bit afraid that because I’m not specialising I could carry on for the rest of my life dealing with bits and pieces. On the other hand, we don’t want to let a medium take over and restrict us" - Georgina Starr

"Birmingham isn’t a city with an automatic art audience. And that’s being polite" - Elizabeth Macgregor, Director of the Ikon

At the entrance to the magic
of the semi-dark, at the entrance
to the subdued light that says party,
that says we’re having a shadowy party,
I can hear the bopping dream begin,
in the twilight zone: Yeah! Yeah!

Take a step to the right,
take a step to the left,
let’s do the art warp again.
The train goes all the way
beyond the partition
and back again,
all the way
beyond the partition
and back again,
all the way
beyond the partition
and back again,
one day
shall we
one day
shall we
one day
shall we
get off
you mean get off?
I mean get off
you mean really get off?
I mean really get off.
We’re coming out of the tunnel.
What does that mean?
There’s a blue sky.
But it’s only paint.
What do you expect?
Take a step to the right,
take a step to the left,
let’s do the art warp again.
So many words in the gallery already,
my poem wants to shrink away
in preparation for an uncertain silence
or a seductive mystery,
too many words here, too much sense.
The role-players tell me the scheme they’re in,
the train is all message and no medium, there is
no interface,
only surface
indulging its
own cut-outs.

Take a step to the right,
take a step to the left,
let’s do the art warp again.
I came up to the 1st floor world of art
out of the real fabrication that is Brindley Place,
I came up in the lift to play my part
in this fresh game of artifice.
From the bridge I’d watched a canal boat,
strange, decorated, craft that they are,
I’d been hypnotised by thirty-eight
every-moment-different fountains, I am poor
in spirit compared with these necessities.
Then up to the 1st floor to see a case
for a tube trip in the world of art,
set apart, -

Out there a man wears a leopard skin coat,

he is drinking his coffee amongst the toadstools,

and I have come to the 1st floor of the world of art

to watch the on-screen animations

of the artist’s real life - do I believe it?

I have come into this other world’s light

with its fantasy morality play

while people out there walk their uncertainty

like a wild dog on a gilt lead

between work and home without going mad,

most of them.

Most of us.

I am writing this on an 11 bus.

Take a step to the right,

take a step to the left,

let’s do the art warp again.

"Excuse me, which is the way to Dopple Stadt?"

"Never heard of it".

"I think it’s along the Northern Line, not far away".

"Not along any Northern Line known to me".

"It’s out of the tunnel, under the open sky".

"It sounds to me more like Germany".

"Yes, it is, at the end of the Northern line, you see".

"And I suppose there’s a castle in the air".

"Exactly"

"And doubles of us there".

"Doubles of you and me".

"No more melancholy".

"Until the spell wears off me".

Take a step to the right,

take a step to the left,

let’s do the art warp again.

Ten times chip is pin,

nine times pin is ram,

eight times ram is screen,

seven times screen is font,

six times font is format,

five times format is template,

four times template is digital mouse,

three times digital mouse is disk,

two times disk is rom,

one times rom is rom,

money doesn’t grown on trees,

God created the heavens and the earth,

God save Queen Victoria

and all her Empire,

boys and girls go out to play.

Ten times chip is pin,

nine times pin is ram, -

Take a step to the right,

take a step to the left,

let’s do the art warp again.

It’s old-fashioned representation

for which the whole room is the frame,

no different from the Pre-Raphaelite women’s

portraits

and landscapes

and their dressing-up tableaux animations -

Marie Spartali Stillman’s

Enchanted Garden of Meister Ansaldo,

Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale’s The Uninvited Guest -

there is no breaking out of the frame,

the new Ikon itself

is framed by Brindley Place

as Brindley Place is framed by Ladywood -

where there are no longer nuns

or wood - and this poverty

is framed by the wider city,

there is no escape from the frame,

there is only a greater or lesser untidiness.

 

 

Take a step to the right,

take a step to the left,

let’s do the art warp again.

From the comments books

you can see a vision

of an egg that cracks

so that an exotic bird can be born

or of a deranged cat that licks

the sterile mess

off the gallery walls.

Take a step to the right,

take a step to the left,

let’s do the art warp again.

"Doctor, doctor, I want to be different!"

"I shall prescribe you this bottle of difference".

"All on the NHS".

"And only a tube ride away".

"Easy, easy!"

Take a step to the right,

take a step to the left,

let’s do the art warp again.

Trains don’t tend to run

in our city’s underground currents,

but we have on the upper deck

a statue of Tony Hancock

and an Iron Man.

Take a step to the right,

take a step to the left,

let’s do the art warp again.

[This poem was read as part of a talk at the Ikon Gallery, April 18th 98, in response to one of the two opening exhibitions]

We’ve come across the sea to Birmingham

May 9th 98

We’ll sing our Eurohearts out on the night

our Eurosouls will swing and we’ll get points,

we aim to make those Eurovoters smile -

just watch our total creeping up the board.

In Birmingham we’re going to raise the roof,

the Euroroof will hover in the sky,

pride is the name of this great singing sport

and a pile of euros will not not come amiss.

Whatever Wogan says on UK waves

we’ll have a sharp voice-over of our own

to make some clever Eurojokes on air

and shout our points back to the folks at home.

The English with their funny pees and pounds,

they think they’ll win this singalong again,

but Eurotechnolinkup’s in our groove,

we’ll be the stars of tellyspace, my friends.

We’ll belt you out a fine new Eurosong,

there will be jokes at home but not on us,

we’ll chalk up douze and douze and douze again,

we’ll be on everybody’s Eurolips.

We meant to sing the truth of life and death,

we meant to tell the secrets of true love.

Between ourselves we do not speak of this,

we may not come quite saying what we meant.

We’ll earn our points with swagger and with grins,

our Euroschmaltz will out-schmaltz all the rest,

our steps and Eurosexiness and teeth

will help to blur our words and major chords.

And if by chance or prejudice or whim

we’re flying home with nothing in our bag,

there’ll be another year and years to come,

we’ll be a Eurovictor in the end.

[The Evening Mail asked me for a poem to mark, in advance, the Eurovision Song Contest at the National Indoor Arena, but did not publish it]

 

We hold this to be self evident

G8 Conference, Birmingham, May

We hold this to be self evident

that redistribution of wealth across the world

by the cancellation of long-term debt

so that resources and the means of production

can be held fairly and equally in common

should be on the agenda of the G8 conference.

 

A fair worldwide home

would be better than a dome.

About 240 countries are not represented here

unless they are spoken for by the 8.

A connected worldwide home

would be better than a dome.

Can we not export goodwill rather than arms?

What kind of debt do we build up with weapons?

A peaceful worldwide home

would be better than a dome.

Eight blokes are coming here to Birmingham

who’ll need to eat and clean their teeth and sleep,

who’ll have their private, unofficial thoughts -

man, that’s power, to be one of those 8 here.

A shared worldwide home

would be better than a dome.

Birmingham welcomes the rich world

but all of us in the world are interdependent.

We hold this, Sirs, to be self-evident.

[This poem was written in the week or so before the G8 conference, May 15-17th. The Evening Mail had asked me for a poem for this event, too, but they didn’t print this one, either].

**

With the Thursday day group at the Marie Curie Centre, Solihull

Thursday, May 14th 98

For the first time ever

I seek out the old poems,

the ones I learned at school

or have picked up somehow,

fragments of them anyway,

first lines even, the ones

I’ve carried with me and now

thumbing through books

and through the indices of books:

 

The boy stood on the burning deck -

they all seem to remember it

and then poems I used to read to my children

when they were little

 

Widdy-Widdy Wurky

which they don’t know

but obviously enjoy

and Fourteen angels round my bed,

yes, they know this

then a poem, "a harder one", I say,

by May’s daughter

from her book,

then another hard one, Wildred Owen’s

Anthem for doomed youth

and there are murmurings of

 

If I should die

so I read that one and Stuart says

Brooke was a better poet. Privately

I disagree

and think to ask him why

but the moment passes.

May hands me

her daughter’s book again

and asks me to read a particular poem. I say

"Will you read it?" but her eyes

aren’t up to it,

and it’s another sad one.

Along the way

there have been poems popping up

from around the room

and playground rhymes -

one hour only,

it’s the start of a feast of poetry!

I say, "Can we sing?" and I read The ash grove,

all the verses,

then we sing the first verse,

and it happens as if they’ve all come prepared

- which is exactly how it is, they have,

with lifetimes -

then Shakespeare’s Blow blow thou winter wind

and we talk about rhyming wind with kind.

Was Shakespeare a Brummie? -

well, maybe.

I came with some notion of a sequence

but what’s happening

is far more interesting than that.

I find Betjeman’s Miss J.Hunter Dunn

and read some of it

and they love it. Then Elegy

in a country churchyard, long lodged

in my brain, except I’d forgotten

there were three pages of it. Again

just a few verses. Yes,

they remember it.

There’s fun in the air,

so towards the end

I think to myself

it’s a choice to end with

either Tennyson and Abide with me

as I intended

or the Jabberwocky

which from a page in the book

has jumped out at me.

I stay with

Sunset and evening star

and the hymn,

and am glad, because Stuart

tells us the story of how it came to be written.

I read it all

then we sing the first verse together,

like in church or at football or rugby.

Peggy from Yardley says she will remember me

and I say I shall remember her, too,

some people’s sparkling eyes and conversation

are poetry

and some peoples’ silences are,

there were some silent poems here.

Renate had showed me Denise Levertov’s Agnus Dei

and didn’t know she’d died. God then,

encompassing all things, is

defenceless? Omnipotence

has been tossed away, reduced

to a wisp of damp wool?

We

 

must hold to our icy hearts

a shivering God?

On the way home in the van

the man driving, taking me home

and picking something up

from a patient’s house,

tells me his son wrote a poem

after going to the Normandy battlefields

on a school trip

and the beauty of the poem

brings tears to his eyes.

I have come away

from the group

and from Renate

and from the driver

with far more than I brought.

[At the Day Centre in Solihull I was asked, following the session, ‘If you write a poem, could we see a copy?’. The poem was put on the notice board and has, I think, been published in the Marie Curie magazine but I haven’t seen a copy]

**

The song of the children in the new straitjacket

Please, Miss, can I draw a face

and wonder who I am

when it makes a funny face

back at me? Please

can I draw a boat

and when you ask me where I am

I’ll be far away on the sea? Miss, I’m

feeling happy

and I want to jump about.

We want to be wholly what we are able to be,

not in a straitjacket of any government’s decree.

We have eyes and ears and we can smell and touch,

our lungs are strong and our words can reach

as far as song and as wild as story,

we have pictures inside us that we want to see.

 

Please, Sir, can I learn a song,

then I can make up my own

and carry them all my life

in my song bag? Please

teach me a poem,

my Mum and Dad keep shouting,

I need a poem to hide in.

We need to be wholly what we are able to be,

as far as music and painting can take us.

 

My bum aches, Miss, I need to dance,

I want to be a dancing cow

and then I’ll be a dancing caterpillar,

I was a cow and I’m a caterpillar now.

We need to rearrange our day-by-day

to see who else we are, you see,

we need to try on a poem to see if it fits

and make up a play with lots of parts.

Please, Miss, I want to be here

and I want to be somewhere else,

I want to be an explorer, Sir,

and I need to know how.

[Written for the Gradgrind’s Children protest event - for the arts in education - at the Birmingham Rep, 31st May 98, and printed in the programme and in the special book of poems of the same title]

**

Sue and Joanie’s weeds

It delights me to be the note-taker

in Sue and Joanie’s Leisure Garden,

well hedged in,

to record the weeds:

Ground Elder - but it can be eaten -

Snowberries - but they are food for blackbirds -

Rosebay Willowherb - misty purple, beautiful -

Nettles - but they can be eaten -

Prickly Sow-thistle - the young leaves for salad -

Dock - for when nettles sting -

Darnel - a rye-grass, lolium perenne, gramineae,

we need weeds for the language! -

Blackberries - but you can eat them -

Hops - they will be used for making a sculpture -

Goosegrass - - or Sticklebacks or Sweethearts,

cleaving as they do -

Convolvulus - binds the hedge -

Plantain - for the Anglo-Saxons a healing wort -

Mares’ Tails - but it’s an ancient plant

without which no coal -

Is the Foxglove a weed? What, these finger puppets?

Green Alkanet - little red henna from its roots -

Is Evening Primrose a weed? What of its oil?

Is Spurge a weed? - lovely little flowers.

Creeping Buttercup - "Yes, a weed

by anybody’s standards!"

 

The weeds must be helped to know their place

so that Bill’s fine example can be followed:

Runner Beans

French Beans

Robin’s Eggs

Calabrese

Chard

Corgettes

Perpetual Spinach

Beetroot in amongst Stocks and Sweet Williams,

all hedged in,

and there’s Paul and Sandra’s garden,

where they are restoring

the old pattern of paths,

and there’s Lynn and Jo’s greenhouse

drawing down the city sun.

Some gardens have straight beds,

others have circles, some gardens

border the modest flow of the Chad.

Sheila and Geoff make sure

the communal hedges and verges

are kept neat and tidy.

Someone’s garden has a vine,

someone else’s is full of swedes,

in some there are ponds

with newts

and water boatmen

and pond skaters,

and because of these gardens

how many species of birds?

Fifty? Sixty? A hundred?

Plant four times what you need:

one part for the creatures,

one for yourself,

one for seeds,

and what’s the fourth?

And didn’t a fox dance

on the plastic sheeting

after the rat or the mouse

or the vole or the shrew

that was playing hide and seek under it?

Are we weeds or what in the world?

Ah, to be ordered and tended so lovingly

all in our special and disorderly places

as these ‘weeds and what’ are

and not even to know it.

 

[Commissioned by my friends, Sue and Joanie in the light of the uncertainty about the future of the remaining 80 Westbourne Road of the original 2,000 or so Leisure Gardens around Birmingham, the first of their kind, dating from the early 19thC]


Last modified: November 21, 2000

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