The May 2020 Poetry Roundabout

Poetry Roundabout
May 2020
Coronavirus Lockdown Edition

Edited by John Coutts, Poet in Residence

Lovers of poetry, arise!
Languish no more in lockdown gloom.
The Roundabout – in cyberskies –
Spins on, and still, for YOU, there’s room.

‘Tis now the merry month of May,
When blossoms bloom o’er hill and vale.
Send in your choice without delay.
By speedy electronic mail.

A BIG THANK YOU FOR A GOOD RESPONSE
A big ‘thank you’ to everyone who has sent in poems . Three of our contributors have written new work related to the current lockdown, while others have shared relevant poems which they enjoy. Our translated poet is the great and versatile Alexander Pushkin, who also enjoyed and adapted work written in Scotland…
Thanks too for your comments, which recall the discussions we enjoy when the Roundabout is running at ‘The Smith’. I have had to edit some of these – but I hope I have conveyed the meaning.
Where possible, I have tried to allow a page for each poem, but my IT skills are limited and the plan may not work.
To represent the entire collection, I’m sending – separately – a recording of ‘The seed shop’, by Muriel Stuart, recommended by Bill Adair.
The deadline for our next number is Friday June 5th. More about that later!
Best wishes,
John

Prizewinners!
Anne Clarke wins coffee and cake for identifying ‘Stone Walls do not a prison make’ as the work of the English cavalier Poet, Richard Lovelace.[To ‘Lucasta going to the wars’]

‘The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven’

is a claim made by Satan in Book One of Milton’s Paradise Lost. But is he right? Congrats and a post-lockdown coffee-and-cake to Walter Attwood for spotting the quotation.

 

Thomas Nashe
In Time of Pestilence [1593]

Anne Clarke writes: Attached is Thomas Nashe’s In Time of Pestilence written (as part of a play) when Nashe was 26. He was only in his thirties when he died. I like the way the poem confronts mortality head on without trying to soften anything. Although some may feel only optimistic poems should be published in time of crisis I think there is room too for poems of this kind. It’s a reminder that in the past life was much more fragile than it is now and plague came back in England most summers in places like London, with theatres and taverns closing and so on. But society survived. And there are some wonderful lines ‘ brightness falls from the air’. ‘dust hath closed Helen’s eye’.

ADIEU, farewell earth’s bliss!
This world uncertain is:
Fond are life’s lustful joys,
Death proves them all but toys.
None from his darts can fly;
I am sick, I must die—
Lord, have mercy on us!

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade;
All things to end are made;
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die—
Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye;
I am sick, I must die—
Lord, have mercy on us!

Strength stoops unto the grave,
Worms feed on Hector brave;
Swords may not fight with fate;
Earth still holds ope her gate;
Come, come! the bells do cry;
I am sick, I must die—
Lord, have mercy on us!

Wit with his wantonness
Tasteth death’s bitterness;
Hell’s executioner
Hath no ears for to hear
What vain art can reply;
I am sick, I must die—
Lord, have mercy on us!

Haste therefore each degree
To welcome destiny;
Heaven is our heritage,
Earth but a player’s stage.
Mount we unto the sky;
I am sick, I must die—
Lord, have mercy on us!

 

Abou Ben Adhem
By Robert Browning

William Scott writes

As a pilgrim of 30 years,… I like this poem very much. It is, like not a few things in the Bible, about humility. A troublesome subject for me. Courtesy of Caroline Myss: Entering the Castle -An inner path to God and your soul. [published Simon & Schuster.].I hope to explore this problem further… I may not currently believe in angels but I do like the ‘presence’ of this one.

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold: —
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said,
‘What writest thou? – -The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered, ‘The names of those who love the Lord.’
‘And is mine one?’ said Abou. ‘Nay, not so,’
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still; and said, ‘I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men.’
The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blest,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.

 

Short Ode to the Cuckoo
by W H Auden

Note from Helen Mclaren

I chose this poem as, for the first time in many years, we have a cuckoo calling. We used to hear one every year. The evening of the same day I heard the cuckoo for the first time I also heard, and saw, a pair of tawny owls in my street. I’ve never noted my first cuckoo in my diary but this year I’ve been noting anything interesting or unusual that I’ve seen or heard when out and about on my daily walk or bike ride. Let’s face it, there’s not much else happening.

No one now imagines you answer idle questions
– How long shall I live? How long remain single?
Will butter be cheaper? – nor does your shout make
husbands uneasy.

Compared with arias by the great performers
such as the merle, your two-note act is kid-stuff;
our most hardened crooks are sincerely shocked by
your nesting habits.

Science, Aesthetics, Ethics, may huff and puff but they
cannot extinguish your magic: you marvel
the commuter as you wondered the savage.
Hence, in my diary,

where I normally enter nothing but social
engagements and, lately, the death of friends, I
scribble year after year when I first hear you,
of a holy moment.

 

Jenny Kiss’d Me
by Leigh Hunt

Bill Adair writes; I have always thought that this poem shows how beautiful a very short poem can be.

Jenny kiss’d me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have miss’d me,
Say I’m growing old, but add
Jenny kiss’d me.

 

The Seed Shop
by Muriel Stuart

Bill Adair writes: I first read this poem when I was a teenager and have loved it ever since. You can almost smell the mustiness in the shop and the last line conjures up all sorts of images.

Here in a quiet and dusty room they lie,
Faded as crumbled stone or shifting sand,
Forlorn as ashes, shrivelled, scentless, dry —
Meadows and gardens running through my hand.
Dead that shall quicken at the call of Spring,
Sleepers to stir beneath June’s magic kiss,
Though birds pass over, unremembering,
And no bee seek here roses that were his.
In this brown husk a dale of hawthorn dreams,
A cedar in this narrow cell is thrust
That will drink deeply of a century’s streams,
These lilies shall make summer on my dust.
Here in their safe and simple house of death,
Sealed in their shells a million roses leap;
Here I can blow a garden with my breath,
And in my hand a forest lies asleep.

An audio of this poem can be listened to below:

 

‘The strong sun of love shines for ever.’
By Vladimir Solovyov, translated by John Coutts

John writes: To keep in touch with friends in Russia, and to mark the Orthodox Easter, I put the following greeting on Facebook, in English and Russian.

Easter greetings to friends in Russia! To celebrate Christ’s bright resurrection, I have translated a poem by Vladimir Solovyov. Misha Roshchin introduced me to his work back in 1991. [Misha is a specialist on Islam and the Caucasus at the
Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow]

Your journey has proved a hard test.
You face and your garland are jaded’
Dear friend, you are welcome to rest.
Come in – for the daylight has faded.

Where from? And just where will you go?
Such queries – says love – have no place’
Just whisper the name which you know
And rest in my silent embrace

Time and Death may hold temporal sway
But you must bow down to them never.
All we know in a mist melts away
The strong sun of love shines for ever.

[Vladimir Solovyov, [1853-1900 a Russian philosopher, theologian, poet, pamphleteer, and literary critic, played a significant role in the development of Russian philosophy and poetry at the end of the 19th century and in the spiritual renaissance of the early-20th century]

 

‘Leisure’
William Henry Davies 1871-1940

Walter Attwood writes: We live in strange times…. I am restricted to walking around Balquhidderock Wood and a part of Ladywell Park or the Bannockburn Heritage Centre and the road and footpaths to and from Chartershall. I have set myself a challenge – to see as many of the species as are listed on the National Biodiversity Network website for these areas, a one kilometre circle around the centre of the site….Leaving the busier paths and taking the less well trodden ways and pausing just to listen and look I have experienced spring in a way I have not before, or at least for a long time. If it had not been for the lockdown, I would perhaps have not experienced spring so intensely this year. The number of times I have sung to myself, in a spirit of thanksgiving, ‘How great Thou art’. This is especially true of verse two.

When through the woods and forest glades I wander
and hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees;
when I look down from lofty mountain grandeur,
and hear the brook, and feel the gentle breeze;

Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to thee
how great thou art, how great thou art
Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to thee
how great thou art, how great thou art

Stuart K. Hine 1899-1989

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

Reverie
By Bob Thomson

Bob writes from Florida, USA.

I reside in an independent living facility, which means I have my own apartment but that I take my meals in a common dining room. In ordinary times, the meals are served at table with white tablecloths; we are confined to our rooms. Meals are delivered to our rooms in Styrofoam containers, and we have no choice of food. Longing for the “good old days”–I wrote the following:

I had a dream the other night,
It seemed so very real.
I sat down in the dining room
To have my evening meal.

My table-mates were full of cheer:
We talked and laughed and listened.
The silverware was clean and bright,
The stemware fairly glistened.

I started with a bowl of soup
Served by a friendly waiter
Who promised to return and take
My entrée order later.

A journey to the salad bar
Resulted in the blessing
Of lettuce, olives, beets and cheese
With thousand island dressing.

Then as I viewed the entrée list
My heart began to quicken.
I had the choice–would you believe–
Of beef or fish or chicken!

The options for dessert were great:
Cookies, ice cream or toffee.
I opted for the latter
With a cup of de-caf coffee.

A sharp, loud rapping at my door
Awoke me in my home.
My boring breakfast had arrived
Ensconced in Styrofoam.

 

Holding on to Hope
By Michaela Burns

Michaela writes: I have chosen this poem because despite all that is currently going on in the world, I believe it is important to hold on to any bit of hope we can to see us through.

I’m holding on to hope
That things will improve
They there will be a shift
Some kind of move

I’m holding on to hope
That we will be ok.
That we make it to tomorrow
And cherish another day.

I’m holding on to hope
And see this is a lesson
That maybe the time we have now
Is actually a blessing.

I’m holding on to hope
That I will see you again
Because I miss you like mad
It’s so hard to pretend.

I’m holding onto hope
That I won’t fall through the cracks
Because nothing is forever
And this won’t last

 

The Slip Catching Machine
By Jock Stein

Jock writes: Here is a rather different kind of poem I wrote last month, but as you know cricket, though locked down like other sports, is not unfamiliar to Scotland.

I remember it,
sprawled akimbo,
timbers curved
to scoot each throw
at eager fielders,
keen to sharpen
wits and ways
of catching balls
edged slippery
off careless bats.
I imagine some
strange entity
fires Covid 19
at a restless city,
sees how many
ways the virus
might slip past
a Government
unused to such
pandemics.
I accept that
every slip will
bring the risk
of death; but still,
an oddball virus
might just focus
public conscience,
sharpen wits, to
catch the habit
of due care.

 

CONTRASTING REACTIONS TO A PANDEMIC
Two songs from Pushkin’s Little Tragedy A Feast during the Plague

from Alexander Pushkin: Boris Godunov and Little Tragedies (Alma Classics, 2017) translation from Russian by Roger Clarke
Roger writes: Pushkin’s A Feast during the Plague is his translation of an extract from a play The City of the Plague (1816) by the Scottish writer John Wilson (1785–1854), set in the plague-ridden London of 1665. Pushkin wrote the work at Bóldino while isolated there by a cholera epidemic that was raging across Russia at the time. The songs, unlike the play itself, are very largely Pushkin’s original composition.

When mighty winter, like the head
of a bold army boldly led,
attacks us with her spiky squadrons
of icicles and frost and snow –
the fireplace parries with a crackle,
the festive season’s all aglow.

But now the Plague, that dreaded queen,
is marching on us, feared, unseen,
cocksure of an abundant harvest;
and on our windows day and night
she taps with her great graveyard shovel …
we’re trapped! Who’ll help us in our plight?

Just as on winter’s tricks before,
so on Queen Plague let’s lock our door!
Let’s light the torches, fill the glasses,
and drown our minds in jollity,
and, rousing feast and dance to frenzy,
let’s hail the Plague Queen’s sovereignty!

There is a thrill in waging war,
or treading a dark chasm’s door,
or tossing on the ocean’s fury
mid stormy gloom and seas that drench,
or braving an Arabian sandstorm,
or breathing in the plague’s vile stench.

In anything that bids to kill
there lurks that strangely pleasing thrill
for mortal beings – could this offer
a pledge of immortality?
This thrill if man can find and savour
mid all life’s tempests, lucky he!

So – Plague, it’s you we celebrate!
We’ve no dread of the tomb’s dark gate;
your summons causes us no terror.
Let’s breathe our girlfriend’s fragrant breath,
and drink the foaming cup together –
what if we breathe, and drink, our death!

John Coutts comments: Clearly Pushkin didn’t believe in social distancing.

Scottish Girl’s Song

Time was when our peaceful village
was a happy, thriving place.
Every Sabbath thankful people
filled the kirk to laud God’s grace;
in the schoolroom voices rang out –
ditties by our wee bairns sung;
and across the sunlit meadows
steel blades flashed as scythes were swung.

Now the kirk has lost its people;
school is silent, locked for good;
fields with uncut corn have ripened;
noöne roams the darkened wood.
Derelict now stands the village,
like an empty burnt-out mill.
All is quiet; just the graveyard –
that’s not empty, that’s not still:

all the time they’re bringing bodies;
and with wailing those who live
pray in fear to their Creator
peace unto the dead to give.
All the time they need new spaces,
while the tombs of those who sleep
stand together crowding tightly,
like a flock of frightened sheep.
If my springtime’s cut off early
blighted by a Fate too drear,
you, whom I have loved so dearly,
you, whose love’s my only cheer,
keep away from your dead Jenny,
I implore you; don’t come near;
don’t press my cold lips with kisses;
follow far behind my bier.

Then depart this stricken village;
go away, go anywhere
where you may find rest and comfort
and relieve your soul’s despair.
When the plague is past, then, Edmund,
come greet my poor dust so fond;
Jenny will stay true to Edmund
even in the world beyond.

John Coutts comments: I am ashamed to say that I knew nothing about John Wilson, even though his statue stands in Princes Street Gardens.

 

IN PRAISE OF SAPPHO
By John Coutts

John Coutts writes: Auden’s poem – shared with us by Helen Mclaren –is written in the English version of the Sapphic metre – used and perhaps invented by Sappho, the great lyric poet of ancient Greece . Each stanza has three lines of eleven syllables, and one of five. We know little her life and only fragments of her work survive. Here is my tribute to her, attempted in the same metre

Sappho, dear mistress of long lost poetry,
Lady of Lesbos, so little remembered:
How many verses, flawlessly crafted
Perished for ever.

Though we can find them only in fragments
Faded and brittle, yet we perceive that
Glimpses of beauty can bring you before us:
Sappho entirely

 

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