Sunday 19 October 2014

About 'My Father's Wardrobe' The Saturday Poem in the Guardian

This Saturday my poem 'My Father's Wardrobe' from Fauverie was featured as The Saturday Poem in the Guardian. This poem grew from my admiration of Peter Redgrove's exuberant poem 'Wardrobe-Lady'. I wanted to write my own version of a person conjured through surreal clothes, to portray my elusive father who I only got to know in the last two years of his life.

My poem draws on scraps of information I managed to elicit from my father and from writings by my mentally ill mother about their brief lives together in Paris in the early 50s. It appears he was quite a playboy. After his death I found that one of the places he'd resided when he was older was the Argonautes Hotel in the rue de la Huchette, frequenting the jazz cellars there, and then in the Hotel Notre-Dame, overlooked by gargoyles. In his youth he'd boarded in a pension in St-Germain-des-Prés, where Django Reinhardt was a neighbour.

 "He wears a cathedral cloak with chimera eyes". The uni-horned goat chimera overlooking the quartier latin and Hotel Notre-Dame

 "A carousel turns silently between his knees / and in it a boy is singing on a lacquered foal". The century old hand-cranked carousel in the Champ de Mars.

 The devil chimera from Notre-Dame's south tower, overlooking his quartier

"One tie is an escalator, another a fountain / with Saint-Michel fighting Satan". My father was called Michel.

Sunday 5 October 2014

About 'Caracal', a poem from Fauverie, Carol Rumens' Poem of the Week in the Guardian

Carol Rumens has kindly selected my poem 'Caracal' for her fabulous Poem of the Week series in the Guardian: The poem is from my new collection Fauverie which is set in Paris. At the core of the book is the Fauverie or big-cat house in the Jardin des Plantes Ménagerie. 'Caracal' feaures Black Ears the male caracal or desert lynx who is a resident there. When I wrote the poem he had a mate Anatolia but she wasn't there this summer and I was sad to hear that she'd died of cancer. He was on his own, looking quite lost, as they used to constantly play with each other, leaping into the air and pouncing on each other.

I wrote the poem after a momentous day: I'd finally got up the courage to visit my father's grave in Thiais cemetery on the outskirts of Paris. I remembered the place as an icy city of the dead, as the burial had taken place ealy one morning in late autumn, on a day when fog was thick as embalming fluid, and the cortege to pick me up from the morgue was late because of a fog-caused accident on the périphérique.

So it was a surprise to find that the corner of the cemetery where he lay was ringed by tall chestnut trees and filled with birdsong. A goshawk's cries echoed from tree to tree. I stayed there the whole day. It took ages to actually locate and be sure of his grave because it was unmarked. That in itself was a shock. I couldn't remember that I hadn't organised a headstone. It was fourteen years since I'd arranged his burial. I don't think I'd understood exactly what the documents meant and had somehow imagined that the funeral costs included that, those days and nights that I'd struggled with the business of death in France and in French legalese. I'd never buried someone before.

After the burial I'd gone to the Ménagerie, but that was before they expanded the cages and housed smaller species such as caracals. There was Maurice the lion then, pumas, jaguars, on straw, behind bars. I don't remember writing the poem much, just that I wanted to commemorate my return to Thiais, that it was a sunny magical place in May, not the grey ice-fog memory that had kept me away for so long. I went hunting over the paths around the vast geometrical maze of rented plots for bits and pieces that I could plant in my father's grave, so that next time I would find it. It was obsessive, this collecting of discarded treasures, I felt like a bower bird. I came across the tip of a porcelain white wing and decided it was from an angel at the time, though afterwards I thought it must have been from a dove. I planted some flowers and scratched his initials on wood.

I don't have much idea why the caracal is connected to my father in the poem, except that his fur looks just like the sandy soil of the grave, and that started the poem, also that I'd just seen Black Ears doing a somersault. My father, during his thirty-five years' disappearance,  had lived for a few years in Algeria and they have caracals there. Perhaps that was it. I recorded the goshawk cries on my iPhone so I could check that it was a goshawk later.