Short Works – Ross Tomkins

“Trees are poems the earth writes upon the sky, We fell them down and turn them into paper, That we may record our emptiness.” ― Kahlil Gibran

9780262162555However uninspiring the title, Short Works, may appear, this is much more than just a book of poems, translations and short stories. The work nestled within this simple cover, accumulated over five decades, is nothing short of a literary treasure trove. It makes me wonder whether there is perhaps something more to the title Short Works – is this just a literal description of the contents in its rawest form, or does it mean something else? The works are really not short at all. I would go so far as to say they are relatively ‘long’ works. While the reader could easily make short work of reading the book – I myself succeeded in a lazy afternoon – it is clear that the author took more than a little more time in writing the book. Perhaps I’m looking too much into this – but I like to think that the, perhaps somewhat dull, title has a deeper meaning, one which alludes to something of the comedian in the author’s personality.

The first half of this book is a collection of poems, past and present, which speak volumes as to the life of the author. Tomkins’ wonderfully melodramatic and fantastic younger years overflow with the essence of youth, while largely avoiding the embarrassment of childhood innocence. Later years fall into the metaphysical, the metaphorical, and the philosophical. The works clearly span not just decades, but continents, and more than one or two frames of mind, exhibiting a truly unique voice, at times jumbled and jarring, at others fantastically vivid, presenting creatures, settings, times and places that form and reform before your eyes, like images from the screen of Disney’s Fantasia.

The author’s words are at times beautiful:

Under an opal moon
Metallic scorpions scuttle

Toad winks, blinks, and gulps
Wings sticking tattered to damp lips.

At others morbid:

I remember hide and seek
And a dog dead under a bush,
Its pebble-teeth scattering the path,

But always, above all, vivid and resounding.

I was delighted by the section given over to ‘Poems from Poems’ – although I can’t be sure, exactly, what Tomkins means by this. I imagine this section is where translations and found poetry come into play*. I absolutely love constructing poetry from other poetry, it has a charm all of its own, and I like to think that the author shares and has explored this passion. A story does not need to have a meaning before it is written, sometimes, it is in the writing that a meaning is born. This section of the book goes to show just this.

The section of short stories is perhaps the most difficult to pass judgment on – with so much content, how can you give adequate coverage to everything? On the whole, Tomkins’ short stories are well-written – remarkably well-written in fact – concise, intricate, and beautifully flowing. The works really bring character and setting to life, with the imagery exhibited in the poetry brought to a whole new level, delivering a picture the reader can really see. The stories are so open to interpretation, leaving their mark and giving the reader something to think about long after they have turned the final page. The characters, each unique in their own way, have hidden secrets, desires and aspirations that the text can only allude to, a mystery which can only be imagined, a silent, niggling message which can never be fully understood. I love the power of the short story to make you think, fill out the characters and create your own story, within the verbal landscape of the author.

I was particularly taken by ‘The Sands of the Sea’ – although ‘Mr Lippstadt’s Holiday’ was certainly not without its charm – being drawn in firstly by the delicious descriptions of Ferdy’s newly found bookshop. I was delighted by the description of the books as living creatures, hopping from shelf to shelf, following Ferdy on his search, as though desperately excited at the prospect of purchase. The last book, however, is something more insidious, with the elusive work crawling through the bookcases before coming to rest, like some predator, to lie in wait, inconspicuously, silently, on a final dusty shelf.

“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.”

Overall I found Short Works to be refreshing, thoughtful and surprisingly readable. While undoubtedly magnificently written, this book is not self-important or difficult for the sake of difficulty. The poems and short stories alike are sure to delight wordsmiths, and leave the reader with one or two things to think about.

* Explanatory note from the author: ‘What they are in fact are translations in the form of condensations where I hope I succeeded in cutting away fluff and padding to get at the raw heart of the poems – pushing towards the interplay of images and away from the explanatory.’

Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes – Harry Graham

I was rummaging through some old books this weekend and I came across my Grandparents’ old copy of Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes by Col. D. Streamer (Harry Graham).

Have you heard of it? If not, you’re about to. As part of my Obscure Poetry journey I thought I’d share some of my favourite rhymes with you.

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But first, a little background. Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes was published in 1898 and is full of delightfully cruel little rhymes, which are to the point and completely without moral.

The book was described in an editorial by the Times as embodying a world where ‘there are no values nor standards of conduct or feeling, and where the plainest sense is the plainest nonsense.’

Now, on with the rhymes. Enjoy!

Impetuous Samuel
Sam had spirits naught could check,
And to-day, at breakfast, he
Broke his baby sister’s neck,
So he shan’t have jam for tea!

The Stern Parent
Father heard his Children scream,
So he threw them in the stream,
Saying, as he drowned the third,
“Children should be seen, not heard!”

Nb I once read this poem (The Stern Parent) as part of my primary school’s Christmas production. My choice. I don’t think the teachers approved.

Nurse’s Mistake
Nurse, who peppered baby’s face
(She mistook it for a muffin),
Held her tongue and kept her place,
“Laying low and sayin’ nuffin’”;
Mother, seeing baby blinded,
Said, “Oh, nurse, how absent-minded!”

The Fond Father
Of Baby I was very fond,
She’d won her father’s heart;
So, when she fell into the pond,
It gave me quite a start.

Misfortunes Never Come Singly
Making toast at the fireside,
Nurse fell in the grate and died;
And, what makes it ten times worse,
All the toast was burned with nurse.

I remember often reading these as a child, and pretending to find them funny to impress the adults, while all the while puzzling over why having jam taken away was a punishment.

As an adult I’m able to appreciate how bluntly hilarious and ahead of their time they are.

Oh, one more thing, the illustrations are great!

graham-quiet-fun

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” ― Winston S. Churchill

I’m feeling thoughtful today, so it seems like a good time to share my latest piece of Obscure Poetry.

This piece was published in a young writers’ poetry book by a friend of mine back in primary school. She spoke to me after reading my own poem, refreshingly over-the-moon by the fact that we were both young poets, and told me all about hers. ‘It’s a rhyming piece told from the perspective of a dead WWII soldier’ she said – ok, if I wasn’t already interested I most certainly was after hearing this. I needed to see the poem.

It didn’t take long I got my grubby mits on it, and she was even kind enough to let me share it here:

Watching

I watch the millions of crosses in a row
I watch the bright red poppies, in Flanders’ Fields’ grow
I watch the people lay their wreaths with a sigh
I watch, and as they salute I start to cry

I see the crumbling stonework carved with names
I know that terrible war is the one to blame
I hear the gunshots ringing through my ears
Their bitter sound has brought so many to tears

I watch the un-marked grave, it pains my heart
As I think of those men it tears my soul apart
Those soldiers were my friends brave, happy, kind
And as I watch that grave from heaven, I know it’s mine.

She doesn’t seem to think much of her poetic younger self. I, however, am quite fond of this little poem. It’s poignant, sombre, and really quite moving, and, indeed, made all the more so more so by how young she was when she wrote it.

May I remind you that my poem was about a cat. I am suitably humbled.

Tower_of_London_Poppy

“You are a little soul carrying about a corpse, as Epictetus used to say.” ― Marcus Aurelius

Good news obscure poetry fans – I have another #TBT treat for you!

I can’t take all the credit for this one, it was the combined effort of myself and several school friends – the result of one of many days spent the days lurking in the sixth form study room (we were far too unpopular to think of straying into the so called ‘common’ room). I had been set the task of writing a sonnet for an English literature task, and implored upon my school friends to help me.



Ode to a rotting corpse emily_of_corpse_bride_by_starreyley94-d3krr5b

Shall I compare thee to a rotting corpse?
Thou art more gruesome and more horrid yet,
The one for whom the maggots use their sporks
To eat up all the rotting flesh they get.
Sometimes I want to tear your eyeballs out
And often I succeed in doing this,
And all the time I wish that you had gout
By summer you will smell like rotting fish.
But that will not redeem your horrid life.
Nor make your presence any less morbid.
Nor will you ever learn to play the fife,
While rancid lips remain so, so sordid.
As long as there is flesh still on your bones,
I hope to always hear your corpsey moans.


I am beginning to get the impression that I was a strange child…

“All glory comes from daring to begin.” ― Ruskin Bond

Throwback Thursday.

I don’t normally opt into the whole #TBT thing, but this just seemed to perfect to pass up!

I recently came across an old book while unpacking one of the many forgotten boxes of my belongings which occupy our storage room.

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Those of you who live in East Anglia might be familiar with this little gem. This book was published by the group Young Writers, an organisation which runs competitions at primary schools for children to submit poetry and the like. The lucky winners have their work published in a book which is available to buy direct from the organisation.

This edition, from 2000, which no doubt once had pride of place on my parents’ book shelf, includes a poem written by me at the tender age of ten.

Warning: Contains scenes which some may find distressing.

The Prince of Darkness
Black cat snoozing in the sunlight,
You are the prince of darkness,
Coat like charcoal as black as night.
Your eyes are like two red hot embers,
Shining in the darkness.
Your call is like a lion’s roar echoing in
My mind.
You flick your tail to and fro to warn
Off unwanted predators.
Your teeth are like sharpened rows of
Sharpened daggers, sinking into the
Innocent flesh of poor helpless mice.
You prowl the forest all night long
Searching for your midnight snack.

Ominous isn’t it? I especially like the repetition of the word ‘sharpened’, it really emphasises the sharpness of that cat’s teeth.

“I want my kids to have the things in life that I never had when I was growing up. Things like beards and chest hair.” ― Jarod Kintz

I was terribly secretive and mysterious in my last post and said I had something in the pipeline for my next round of obscure poetry, which I’m sure you’re all eagerly anticipating. So I’m very sorry to have to tell you that it failed.

The one that got away was the N+7 method (if you don’t know what that is, look it up, I’m sick of the thought of it) and try as I might I could not I love it as much as I wanted to, in fact, I couldn’t love it at all.

So now I’m back to the drawing board 😦

It’s not all gloom and doom though. Today, despite starting off feeling less than literary, I was inspired, with the help of one or two others, by a truly exceptional sentence: ‘Governance enables the government to govern’ ― It just rolls off the tongue doesn’t it? 

It seems almost inevitable that such masterful words would feed ones creativity, here’s what we came up with:

Governance enables the governed to govern;
Spying enables the spider to spy.
There’s hardly room to groom succession;
Incumbents have virtually no room to try.

And that’s it, I’ve no method to share this time, just the words themselves.

“The generation of random numbers is too important to be left to chance.”—Robert R. Coveyou

It’s been a while since I last shared a little bit of obscure poetry with you. I must sound like a broken record by now but I really have been very busy. I am in the process trying out a new method but I’m finding it difficult to fall in love with the results I’ve been getting so you might have to wait a little while for that one (cryptic, aren’t I?).

Anyway, I recently received an email from a family friend introducing me to a new method of constructing poetry from existing poems. Some of the results are really great, and it will give you an excuse to get some of the poetry books that might be craving some attention down from your shelves.

The method is as follows:

Take poetry books (individual poets and anthologies) to use as your base. You can select as few or as many as your collection allows (the method will also work with a single book, just remove step one).

Step one. Go to www.random.org and get a random number for your range of books.

Step two. Pick out the random book and find the pages for the actual poetry, for example 13–232, enter this range in the random number generator. Take the resulting number and go to that page in the book.

Step three. Get the range of lines on the page (eg 1–24) and enter this range in the random number generator. Go to the random line, et voilà, you have a line for your random poem.

Step four. Repeat until you have the number of lines you want for your poem (however many you like!).

Step five. Use the random number generator to rearrange the lines randomly.

Step six. (optional) Choose an extra line to use as the title for your poem.

Here are some of the examples Ross sent to me:

Slipped in the wet grass
(Merioneth’s bright as billow)
See glorious ages opening to our view
So sang the grains of sand, and while they whirled
to a pattern
So snugly in the depths
Occult. By son of Man, ambiguous name,
By Ignorance and parching Poverty,
To plume a lady’s gear; the motet waits
The lady Geraldine espies
Like the leaves scattered! Pale generating
creatures of clay
And Judas was a terrible chap!
Verde que te quiero verde
And make those flights on the bankes of Thames

This poem has a few German lines and one in French, the translations of which are displayed in parentheses. This example also, as per step six, uses a 14th line as a title:

Those cruel wings
And many a skeleton shook his head
Have passed by cedar, pine and yew
Sanfter träumet und schläft in Armen der Erde der Titan (In the arms of the earth the titan lies dreaming)
Das Leben und lassen wollten sie nicht (The life and they didn’t wish to part from it)
Reif sind, in Feuer getaucht, gekochet (Ripe they are, dipped in fire, cooked)
In a cave’s heart, until a thunderstorm
Without even the encumbrance of a brother
With free long looking ere I die
Ja, schon sagt mir gerüht dein Blick, mir sagt es die Träne, (Yes, I can tell by your emotion, your eyes, your tears)
Trouve, ô Chasseur, nous le voulons (Find, O Hunter, we desire it)
Here on this very campus years ago
There’s no more to tell
I don’t know when it’s likely to get better

The results, I think, speak for themselves. Credit for the previous two poems and the method itself is to poet and author Ross Tomkins, whose book entitled Short Works is now available on Amazon.

Now for my attempt:

For the Garden
To rise from Generation free:
He who was living is now dead
with a bare bodkin?
His present blessings, and to hushed up
Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.
Cascading through the dusty road
a cage for small bikes; rows of potted plants
The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf
I did not fall when I fell down the stairs
To leeward, swing on the heavy spar.
His energies roll back upon his heart,
And by came an angel who had a bright key,
And underneath the spreading tree

I think this method has been my favourite so far. While it might seem a bit complicated at first it really isn’t and you soon get the hang of it. I really enjoyed trying it out and the results so far have been great (I am particularly pleased that I ended up with a couple of rhyming lines in mine). The great thing about found poetry is you can attribute any meaning to the finished product, I get a very different feel from each of the poems listed here, at the very least some sense seems to emerge from the randomness.