Winnipeg

Cry me a red, red river
A river of dust and bones
Of hearts that bleed and shiver
From broken and bruising homes

Blow me a kiss of willow
To echo a mourner’s moan
The ache of an empty pillow
Another child’s fate unknown

Cry me a red, red river
To fold me within its bed
And comfort the cares that slither
Through thoughts of unending dread

Bring me a message, finding
Too late what you had to face
My anger a knot, a binding
A coiling of thoughts that race

Cry me a red, red river
Reflecting a distant star
A chorus of souls, a quiver
That calls to me from afar

Paint me a cold moon rising
Surrounded by frozen waste
Still warmed by a hatred, blinding
For victims that leave no space

Cry me a red, red river
From words that no longer mean
An end to the dreams that linger
Its path a forgotten scream

Soothe me to sleep through Winter
To wake in the roar of Spring
With gifts that are carved to splinter
Where birds cannot bear to sing

Cry me a red, red river
And lay there upon this shore
The past where I long to wither
And hold you again, once more

This was written for the Red River Women.

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For Harry Rabinowitz

My grandfather died last week at the age of 100.  Unfortunately, thanks to the French law requiring cremation within six days of death, and to generally poor timing, I, along with several other members of the family can’t get to the funeral.  Only a member of my family could manage to die in the middle of a European football tournament, my cousin’s GCSE exams, immediately prior to the collective insanity of our EU Referendum, and find his funeral being scheduled abroad at the whim of a disinterested foreign bureaucrat, on the day of a national transport strike.  (To explain my mild cynicism, another member of my family was once genuinely late for their own funeral when the hearse got lost… some days my more theatrical relations do seem to be living in a situation comedy.)

As I cannot be there in person tomorrow for Harry at his final send off, I wanted to write something expressing what it meant to me, growing up, to have this person in my life.

“Not everyone can be bothered to charm a child. For someone who loved an audience, Harry was, rare in a musical obsessive, also someone who knew when to be quiet.

I have fond memories of long walks in the woods with a battered basket, hunting for edible mushrooms, my sister getting her wellies stuck in a bog and needing to be rescued, then watching in fascination as he insisted he cook and eat what we had picked. Other adults wringing their hands, forbidding us from partaking, convinced he would suffer the consequences of his own stubborn refusal of natural caution.

I remember piggybacks and very serious games of pooh sticks using the stream at Hope End. I remember visiting Mr Pumblechook, looking for sweets in hollow trees, and I remember my earliest form of musical education, when Harry used to ask me to help him find all the Cs on his piano.

A lot of people knew him as a serious, charming, professional musician. I knew him as the charming joker who taught a shy, seven year old girl to clap polyrhythms and tend bar, and who preferred his favourite music, clothing and even footwear to be loud.

He surrounded himself with laughter, and enjoyed wine, women, and orchestral music wherever such delights were to be had.

Little doubt that he will start organising some sort of a gig surrounded by friends, old and new. Woe betide the third desk violins if they miss the F sharp in the third bar of the second movement. The maestro’s grimace will not balk at halos.”

Harry’s obituaries can be found on the BBC, the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Jerusalem Post, the Classic FM, and the London Symphony Orchestra websites.

Harry’s Desert Island Discs episode can be found on BBC iPlayer Radio here.

Head of State

Alone is his pyjamas
After the sycophants
Are all in their beds
The dictator, silent
Examines his image
By moonlight
Wrinkles and lines
Cratered temples
And soft-joweled planes
Surrounded by wealth
In the marbled rooms
Of a haunted palace
He did not inherit
But strives to display
To best advantage
For diplomatic reasons
Dreaming of leaner,
Keener days
Before he became
A political prisoner
Trapped and tamed
By the violent success
Of his own actions

Bobbing for pips

I am approaching the threshold of my grief
That dismal dawn where words break –
Fast over stale feelings
Like waves on a rock-ridden shore.
This stilled tongue tunes no trills for sorrow,
Sigh-chapped lips, no plosive feasts
But my ragged pen thirsts
For consonants, vowels
Forming words, eyes closed,
Half-asleep, I drift,
Tossed upon the foam
As one who drowns for air
And breathes only memory.

Mandela’s Mandala

My grandmother spoke of a great man
Whose skin colour was a secondary concern
To the taste of his ideas, his morals on her lips
Hands on hips in her folded apron, she showed me
The power of strong rhetoric, tropical thinking
My grandfather chopped wood and remained silent
Unwilling to share his politics with those so young
I watched him split logs with one swing of an ancient axe
Shirt off in the pale, English Sunday weather
I watched my grandmother from my perch on the pondokkie
Swinging my legs as she peeled the potatoes
Split her open and the rings would show no colour
But the shape of her beloved country, through each
Cell of her deep-tanned, well cared for, white skin
A difficult woman, she held her beliefs with vicious tenacity
Preferred to attack what she viewed as injustice
With a verbal barrage that would put Sergeant Majors to shame
She laid bright flowers in an eggcup on the windowsill
In the hope of his freedom and a speedy return
To the country of her birth, her much praised Africa
Whose yellow skies and long heat warmed her
Even across the forty years of chilly English countryside
The dust of an old dirt road clung to her feet
Rising with her sense of South African pride
The day they released his book, she bought ten copies in hardback
This lifelong huntress of bargains for once profligate
Spilling coins without waiting for the price to come down
She gave them to her friends, those chilly, trophy wives
Who nodded their thanks through their layers of paint
But whose plastered on smiles did not reach their powdered eyes
Her own copy was placed on the coffee table, strategically
Next to the woven bowl of blackened bananas – fully ripe
The only way my grandfather would eat them
His eyes skimmed the man’s face each time he reached for
A handful of soft, sweet, wizened fruit
She wore him down, political peace by piece
Until her discussions were moved from the kitchen to the parlour
With all the adults involved while the children lay on the rug
Completing the two Christmas jigsaws of Africa and South America
With camels and elephants slotting into place next to the date palm
Once the borders had taken shape and the cape jutted out
Before finding the pieces of cactus with its sombrero and poncho
Under the corner of the cake plate
And then, when I was still a child, Mandela was free
She showed me the pictures, sat at the kitchen counter
While fish fingers fried in the pan and the calico cat
Stalked the sizzling butter with determined paws
She turned to turn my page and a finger was out of the pan
Onto the floor with the cat jumping after it
That was the first time I did not hear her scolding
Scalded paws scurried away with their prize
As she pointed out the man I had been told would save
My grandmother’s beloved South Africa from itself

Outing, The Absurd

Stuttering pickles, confounded by paint
While floral designs’ floating chaos smells quaint
Old ladies and bug spray, some mothballs to go
Enjoying their day at the end of the show

A nonsense of feelings, of sounds and of taste
Bemoaning new wrinkles, fine hair and all waste
They’re off to the seaside, to sit and slurp tea
Just Harriet, Ethel, Jemima and Fi

The driver had better keep eyes on the road
Or our Ethel has threatened he’ll turn to a toad
While Harriet’s brolly is pleasantly queer
The spiky end’s sharp when it swings past your ear

Jemima’s gone missing, been absent for years
They always invite her, despite tantrums, tears
For Fi still remembers the role Jemi’ played
In keeping her steady in service, a maid

Look out for each other, they’ve done all their lives
Through brothers and lovers, old husbands, new wives
The die has been cast, there’s a pin in the map
And the cats have been fed and the dog’s done his lap

Now the ladies are off for a whistlestop tour
To find dancing and drinks on a pier they adore
We’ll see them again, they have given their word
But they’ve gone in pursuit of amusements absurd

Grammatical batticle

Proper nouns are prim and pristine
They belong to long ago
Shackled to conjunctions, listing
What it is we need to know
Factual they take position
‘Pon the Field of Cloth of Gold
Kneel to hear their King’s ambition
Clutching reins, unsheathing sword
Then look upon their enemy
That vaguest General of old
Whose lines and lines of men we see
As nameless, shivering and cold
Exploits edited by victors
Those who fought and those who fell
Posterity’s unnoticed victims
History that none can tell
I tot them up, these dated figures
Sow their sounds deep in my head
In hope they’ll stay there though the rigors:
Algebra and baking bread
Latin may decline declensions
Greek is up against the wall
But even now, some nouns’ intentions
Hold my mind from days at school

Losing the car at Marble Arch

Pea souper tales of the grey 1950s
With masts in the fog made of railings and glass
Warmth of a carriage with walkways still wooden
The press of the crowd only elbows, not arse

How different impressions can build from a picture
When tickets were paper and seating less sparse
Too dense in the telling, our brains overburdened
The same seven carriages rattle and pass

I sit on the carpet and help with the jigsaw
My grandmother’s fingers too stiff for the card
The story is telling, the fifth time we’ve heard it
She’s losing the car in the fog by the Arch

A day overdue

This was written in response to Stephany’s blog: http://www.myspace.com/jmichaeltodd/blog/546725518

Better late than never
As stiff fingers broke the seal
With Brubeck thumping off the beat
Reminding me to feel

The curve of letters twice a year
In scarlet envelope
Unsigned by hand where paw would bear
A long unfunny joke

The sight of one more valentine
Beyond the reach of flesh
When lover’s long lain underground
With little hope of fresh

Attentions of platonic zeal
And ever kindly meant
A correspondent’s heart to steal
Albeit rarely sent

My childhood mystery’s unfurled
With spirits soaring high
A brother’s love looks after me
Across life’s great divide

Pirouettes

What if things were diff’rent
If I hadn’t made that choice
Realised one potential me
But never found my voice?

Who might have been noticed
If I’d stuck to dance instead
Stayed thin and fairly limber
Training arms and feet, not head?

Would my first rebellion
Have led me to a Vet?
A change of scene, a childish dream
Escape without regret?

Or would life have been over
Twenty-six, a dying swan:
Now teach a bunch of children
To repeat mistakes, anon?

If no Vet, then no sample –
Talking point at interview
One misleading good example
Of something I’d never do?

Would I then have been granted
Any funding from the State?
Told to take the place they offered
And discover, just too late

That this was not what I wanted
As I struggled to fit in
Surrounded by the privilege
Of ignorant offspring?

My experience of teaching
At the tender age of six
Underlining hollow preaching
From a very diff’rent mix?

Would a lack of education
Have encouraged common sense?
Or constraint of situation
Left me sitting on the fence?

Would my schooling have consisted
Of bad habits and the barre
As I fought to hide intelligence
And keep my weight sub-par?

Could I ever have attempted
The exams I sailed through
Would I ever have been tempted
To seek out such pastures new?

Might my travels have been over
Long before I lived abroad
Would I ever have considered
A bouquet my just reward?

Would it matter, my opinion
Would the world have learnt to care
For the views of ballerinas
Who were talkative as air?

If I’d lived my life less boldly
Would I really have been me
Or would taffeta and greasepaint
Have been all there was to see?