It is not with ideas that we write verses … it is with words

Since I’ve been dickering and dabbling with poetry I’ve had quite a lot of ideas for poems, or short stories perhaps. The trouble is that the ideas still leave me staring at a blank screen scratching my head. Here’s two of them. The Devil in disguise (good song title) is walking unnoticed round the streets of Leeds and Bradford exalting in the success of the ‘good’ work he has been doing. His work is done. Everything he set out to achieve has been achieved. He can now relax. But there are unexpected consequence of him taking his (her?) eye off the ball, Second idea. All the tormented labour – slave, child, coerced, trafficked, exploited and abused, that was devoured by the processes that produce the material wealth of the rich and comfortable leaks out of the luxury products, re-embodies and wreaks vengeance on the plump soft unresisting bodies of the rich and complacent. Lovely.

But, a quote from Mallarme “Ce n’est point avec des idées que l’on fait des vers… c’est avec des mots”. It is not with ideas that we write verses … it is with words.

The Garden of Rest

The long hot days lead me to go
and view the garden long unkept,
the uncut grass, the bushes grow
unpruned, unshaped, where weeds have crept.

I sit beside the shimmering pond
beneath the shading cherry tree,
recalling memories so fond,
your picture resting on my knee.

This garden was your love and life,
the passion of your final years.
But now, my dear departed wife,
should be the vale of all my tears.

Still, Spring is here, the flowers grow,
the fresh dug bed is doing fair.
The shrubs I planted should forgo
the cats inclined to dig right there.

You loved the garden more than I,
it filled your every wakening hour.
In fairness I could not deny
your permanent and final bower.

Terry Wassall
26th April 2020


Turning Points

Moments of motion
Changes of direction.
Some turning points are obvious,

But many go unobserved,
Disregarded minor deviations, small shifts
That accumulate and compound over the years
All tending in the same direction.

A mounting surge of myriad small things
Wavelets in the current
Eddies in the flow
A mounting pressure.

Then a dam bursts
A tidal wave of change
Sweeps you to a new destiny, a different fate.

The first drink can end
In the life of an alcoholic
Schoolboy shoplifting can lead
To a life of crime.
Or the boardroom.
A passion for football can end
In rioting on the terraces

The discovery of books can lead to
Dreaming of another life, another world
And leaving home.

Turning points happen on the cusp of possibility
Many futures dimly foreshadowed
One hardens into reality
One door opens, thousands more swing shut
But that door opens onto many corridors
With many more doors.

Life is a succession of the meeting and parting of ways
Of everyday decisions and acts
Most trivial, routine, but some hostages to fortune.
Only hindsight will reveal which was which.
A series of happenstance and circumstance
Possibilities flower, a thousand blooms.
All will wither and die, but one.

That one will propagate
Become a thousand new possibilities
And so the meetings and partings
The eddies and swirls of life go on
Leading to yet another turning point
Fortunate is the person that can see them coming
And ride the wave.

I’m Done (reflections on a dissolute life)

I think I’m done here.
I’ve seen the things I wanted to see
I’ve done the things I wanted to do.
At least, I am reconciled to
Not seeing or doing more.

I’ve broken some hearts,
I think. No one has told me so.
I’ve lived some fantasies,
A threesome, an escape
Running through back gardens
Leaping suburban fences.
Fast cars, fast women,
Slow nights in seedy cocktail bars.

I’ve been made happy and given happiness.
I’ve tried marriage and the relief of celibacy.
I have given and received the healing force of adultery.
For some, a life enhancing liberation,
A beneficial reordering of things.

I could tell you about my life,
To me quite ordinary but perhaps
To others, quite exotic.
But to record it is to seek immortality,
and fail.

Many have already forgotten me
Through death or disinterest.
All memory of me will pass
Disappointingly quickly
But I will be beyond disappointment.

No regrets, no could have done,
Could have been,
No what ifs.
I have been, I have done.
Is the world a better place?
No. But that was never my plan.

I came from a random arrangement of dust
Lived a life without care or conscience
And to that dust I will return,

A dispersion of atoms of no consequence,
drifting and percolating again through the world
Destined to become part of something, or somebody, else
Perhaps become, briefly, consequential again.

So, my patient friend,
Swing your glistening scythe,
Speed me on my way.

Terry Wassall

Players and Masks

All the world’s a stage, said the Stratford Bard
And we, my friends, are merely the players
Dramatis personae, life’s foot soldiers
We write and are written, given our parts
We play the characters and speak their lines.

The drama of the stage has two faces
The twin masks, comedy and tragedy,
Happiness and sadness, laughter and pain.
But the drama of life has many masks,
The masks we hide behind to play our roles.

From inner space we gaze as life unfolds
Watching from behind our masks, and hiding
Our true selves, doubts and insecurities.
Each one alone knows who and what they are
Each wears a mask that shields them from the world.

Player and character are not the same
The clown’s grinning mask hides the broken heart
The harsh, barked, order hides the fearful man
The roles we play hide who we really are
Crouched out of sight behind our public masks.

So as we watch masked others play their roles
We know that someone else peers from behind,
Their true and private selves hidden from view
We play our role as they play theirs but we
All know this show is but a masquerade.

So what if there’s no one behind the mask?
The player is the role, the character
Is the player? Could that be true of us?
Is there a true and private self behind
Our mask? Or the mask what we really are?

We learn to play a part as if on stage
The role we play becomes an iron cage.
The mask no longer hides authentic self
Between the mask and who I am, no gulf.

The mask becomes the mould that sets in stone
The lives we live and thought were ours alone.

Lily Briscoe

Lily Briscoe is one of the main characters in Virgina Woolf’s 1927 novel To The Lighthouse.  The action takes place at the house on Sky that the Ramsey family rent every summer and share with a number of guests, one of whom is Lily, a young artist. Mr Ramsey is a philosopher and Mrs, Ramsey is an archetypal Edwardian upper middle class mother and home maker. The novel covers 10 years spanning the 1st World War. This story is based on Lily much later in her life and imagines how her life may have developed after Woolf left her to her own devices.

Lily Briscoe sipped her tea from the rose petal porcelain teacup and contemplated the cake stand before her. She wasn’t hungry but felt she ought to have at least one of the fancies on offer. She had several hours to kill before the car would take her to the gallery and there would be a dinner to get through before then. All this was rather extravagant she thought but on the other hand the gallery would be making 35% of the sale of her pictures as well as the considerable kudos of hosting her latest exhibition.

On the wall of the suite she occupied in the Dorchester there was a large gilt framed, probably Victorian, oil painting of a seascape, a sailing ship tossed by heavy seas and, through the spume, the shadowy outline of threatening cliffs and a lighthouse, its beam refracted and dispersed by the low cloud and wind driven rain. Since arriving at the hotel she had spent a good deal of her time contemplating the picture and casting her mind back all those years to when she had spent long indolent summers with the Ramsay family at their cottage on Skye. How different things were then. How different she is now.

She was only 19, unworldly, inexperienced, and quite unprepossessing in appearance and the usual expected feminine graces. She was in love with Mrs. Ramsay and, she had eventually to admit to herself, in love with Mr. Ramsay too. Or was it that she wanted to be like them? Mrs. Ramsay’s calm assurance as she spun her web of familial warmth and comfort around them all, and his heroic rational detachment, firmly focused on the external world and the life of the mind. Lily felt she would like to be a mixture of both of them but recognised that in one person there would be a constant battle between such contrasting dispositions. The paintings she attempted while residing with the Ramsays, she had come to realise, had failed because she was confused and unfocused about what she was trying to achieve, what she wanted the pictures to portray. She had been caught between the two contradictory impulses to produce something realistic, objectively true, but at the same time express the existential impulse that shaped the feelings evoked by the subject, its emotion. She gave a wry smile. No wonder she never managed to finish anything, and Mrs. Ramsay had advised getting married and having a family would be achievement enough!

Well, 40 years later, she had still to achieve either of those goals, and felt none the worse for it. After the war, when she had been able to return to her painting, she had let her art be dictated by her emotional sensibilities, her immediate subjective reactions to the world around her, and the desire to escape from the hard-edged reality of the preceding dark years. This had clearly struck a chord, resonated, with the growing art-consuming public and paved the way to her considerable commercial success. As to her rational inclinations, she had unleashed these on the consumers of art, on promotion and marketing, on doing deals and securing contracts. Perhaps the Ramsays, as role models, had led her to be a rather split personality but, in her, they had formed a harmonious and successful business partnership.

Solitary walking (in the lock-down days)

I venture out for my permitted walk.
A tentative glance to the left and right.
Dog walker to the right, all clear to the left.
Decision of direction made, I set off.

Other decisions have already been made,
my world mapped as a patchwork of no-go areas
and permissible paths. Avoid the park, narrow ginnels,
the canal tow path, wide berth to shops and bus stops.

I tread the urban pavements and back streets,
never more than a mile or two from home,
avoiding other humans as if walking through
a leper colony, or crowds of importuning beggars.

My route zig-zags across the empty roads,
To overtake or get past others in my way.
Often a hesitation. Are they crossing? Who’ll move first?
Often a smile, sometimes a wave, a murmured thank you.

As the weeks have passed, mild embarrassment
has given way to a sympathetic recognition.
We’re all in this together, all in the same boat
on a journey of unknown length to an unknown place.

To a future that no doubt will contain echoes of the old ways,
but some lingering habits and lessons of our journey.
In the meantime, we must adjust to a world where
any one of our fellow travellers could be our killer.

The days are long and lend themselves to pleasure

The days are long and lend themselves to pleasure,
The nights are times to rest and take my ease.
The years go by and I enjoy my leisure,
A solitary life spent as I please.

My shelves are full of books I had long gathered
Against some day when there is time to spare.
For long I have been free, from work untethered,
And fill my days by reading without care.

But in the drowsy sleep of early dawn
My mind goes back to stories lived and true.
My placid cast of mind becomes withdrawn,
remembering a distant time with you.

Where is the love and joy of yesteryear,
you on my arm, a future bright and clear?

The Three Sisters

This short story started as a class exercise to write a piece of micro-fiction about 350 to 400 words long. Then, every day for a week we were given a prompt word we had to incorporate in another short paragraph. The prompt words were yesterday, change, forgive, plenty, stalemate and cloud. I wrote something about the experience of writing this in a recent post Creative Writing in Lock Down.

The three sisters were solid and inseparable after their lives in the children’s home. They married but their husbands made an uncomfortable trio of brothers-in-law. Then, one day, one of them was caught kissing the wrong sister. One sister pink with pleasure, one white with fury, and one green with envy.

Pink with pleasure, Colette, and white with fury, Samantha, didn’t speak for the next twenty years. Shortly after, green with envy, Marion, migrated to Australia to be near her husband’s family. They all went their separate ways. Then, out of the blue, Samantha and Colette both received letters from Australia.

Marion’s husband, Jack, had a one-man business servicing light aircraft, the life blood of the outback. A year earlier a plane he was working on fell off its jack and killed him. She’d never got on with his family and decided she needed a change. She planned to come back to the UK. Should they meet? Let bygones be bygones?

Samantha had divorced her unfaithful husband, Malcolm. Colette, having been divorced by her husband for her infidelity, went to live with the now divorced Malcolm. He turned out to be a perfect companion; witty, compassionate, loving, athletic, good around the house. One day he went to work and never came back. In the meantime, Samantha went to live in a  writers’ colony on Eel Pie Island and discovered to her relief she was a lesbian. If she could find a way to forgive Colette they would have a lot to talk about.

And so began a growing correspondence between the three sisters. The word forgiveness was never used but its possibility seemed implicit as the letters became more relaxed and intimate, even hinting at secrets to be told. Marion had sold her house and hoped to be back in the UK and rent a flat in time for Christmas. If they could get together they would have plenty of time to catch-up on the missing years.

Some secrets were shared in the letters. Sam and Malcolm’s relationship had been rocky from the start, her volatile temperament and his infuriating equanimity and refusal to argue. At the time of his adultery with Colette their marriage had been a stalemate for years. Colette’s marriage had also been in the doldrums. Her husband only seemed interested in football and drinking with his mates. So far Marion had kept her secrets to herself.

Marion had always felt dowdy and uninteresting compared with her vivacious older sisters. Moving to Australia had been partly an attempt to escape the cloud of depression she was always under. She wanted to find a life and identity of her own but it hadn’t really worked. Her new life had made her feel even more a characterless cipher. Ironic perhaps that now she was looking for another new start back with her sisters. This time she would be the interesting one, the only one to have committed a murder.

She would hold court in her London flat and gradually reveal to her sisters how interesting she has become, a metamorphosis from the dull little moth she had been to the intriguing woman of depth and dark mystery she now is. In the long lonely days and nights in the outback she had taken to writing an imaginary life as an escape from her real one. Only part of that fantasy had she made real so far. Now she would take her imaginary life to the UK and spin it as her real one. Only later would she tell the truth that lay within it, about Jack and the jack.