email to Patti Smith

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EL Cloppenburg Musem 8xsDear Patti Smith,

I’m currently re-reading M Train because there’s a quote about ‘talent’ a vaguely remember from it that I’m trying to find. After years of underlining and scribbling into books, M Train must have entered my life when I had decided to keep books free of my thoughts, let them be themselves. So I can’t just find the quote by leafing through the pages. It’s actually a bit of a welcome excuse, too, because I guess the M could well stand for Medicine and I must have known somewhere deep inside that I needed that book right now. Not just because I’m experimenting with Memoir writing myself (and it was great company on a recent trip with my mum to her family home, dipping into her childhood). But also because I feel a bit lost, my own version of your Malaise, having allowed my journey to take me to Germany for a moment when, really, I’ve long made the UK my home. Now I’m living in a tiny flat in a tiny town in rural Germany and people around me don’t quite know what to say when I mention that I write poetry. Well, one person so far who understood is Chinese and moved here from Shanghai a few weeks before me with her husband. He creates collages with x-ray photos and writes performance pieces, and she’s a photographer and teaches English on Zoom, using TED talks and National Geographic articles about bees, drones, natural cosmetics.

I’ve not yet reached that quote but I’m sure it’s there where I left it. In the meantime I’m allowing myself to get lost again in your meanderings and am amazed about how much I’ve forgotten since I first read the book. I knew it was beautiful and in a slightly haunting, maybe Sebald-kind of way; but I had forgotten you actually mentioned Max Sebald in it. Which had prompted me to buy After Nature back then. It always seems to me that his writing is much more valued outside of Germany; and the only thing that confuses me about this is that he actually wrote his books in his native German instead of English despite his degree in English literature, years of teaching in English plus living in the UK. But I guess he’s had his own malaise and maybe being at odds with many things of his native German made it the chosen language in which to write about loss and being lost. I knew that he had a link to Immenstadt where my friend Barbara is just organising the first ever solo reading of my poetry. Inspired by M Train I’m thinking that I could maybe explore some of Max Sebald’s traces when I get there, but they are as confusing as his fame. Apparently he’s visited the Catholic Gymnasium St. Maria Stern there from 1954-1956; which is kind of realistic in that it had been returned to the nunnery (after it was taken over by Nazi administration as a field hospital for wounded soldiers) in 1945 and was reopened to teaching in 1954. But from all the accounts I can find it was always exclusively a girls’ school and so I can’t quite picture Sebald in it but will drill down a bit more.

Where I got actually stuck this morning and what prompted me to write this email is your account of checking in at the airport for your flight to Mexico City where you’re invited to talk about Frida Kahlo’s revolutionary life and work at the Casa Azul; I felt so much sympathy reading about that whole mess of being dropped off at the wrong end of the terminal, having to push your way against the current of travellers to your check-in desk where the assistant instead of assisting gives you instructions of how to check in digitally, this then all going a bit pear-shaped and you allegedly a bit agitated (in my case this would definitely be outright irritation at this point) when the screen freezies, you’re asked to move to another computer and that computer jams your boarding pass. Leaving you to question yourself and why you got so ‘steamed up ‘ about the 21st century reality.

Well, I don’t know and maybe it’s not my place to say so but I think you were damn right to get steamed-up. It’s the lack of steaming-up-ness of computers that’s our problem. Their air-conditioned air of frosty service is beneath us, an evolutionary step back and misuse of their and our purpose. I haven’t made it beyond your moment self-critique yet because I don’t think I could bare it if you found fault with your human reaction and defence for the computerised service. And maybe I need to emphasise that I don’t dislike digital technology and can’t imagine life without my tiny MacBook and a good wifi connection anymore. But there’s a place for computers and a place for humanity.

Your writing is so full of the latter – I thank you for that with all my heart!

Yours most sincerely,

Petra

Lion

comment 1
Nature / Place / Poetry

A contrail zips open the unblemished sky 

Milky Way cascades out

like lined up behind the curtain

a river of speckles and sparkles trailing across the stage

utterly found

I wonder where sound stops 

no longer even noticing the drunken laughter 

outside the bar I passed on my way

somewhere before town stopped for the play

of the barred spiral galaxy 

The first shooting star is a surprise

almost too easy 

the second one I send on with my whispered message 

the third one

finally I’m ready to jump on 

It’s not even a riding

more a being-winged across

a diamond field of unborn dreams 

in the hour between midnight my time and yours

Up here fear has died with gravity 

I’m so close to you I can feel your heartbeat 

then realise it’s an unlit star pulsing next to me 

I name it after you and it sparks up 

breathing itself awake 

She made me spell out loud the 24 times I’ve moved homes

Place / Poetry / Travelling

Dew web xs

Their sympathy is soggy summer grass

clinging to my running tights as I’m weighing up

mud     gravity    against this longing      beyond the electric fence

and I’m not a grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side kind

But sometimes I’m not sure whether I’m sleepwalking the hills

or trespassing into dreams with my caked Wellington boots

stumping flat little ribwort flowers or spotted orchids

that I’ll later check on my laptop for their names

English     German     Botanical      Here’s my confession

that although I love the croaky oaks     stilted herons

unpredictable River Danube     I’ve got a solid romance

with my laptop     its deposit of memories and achievements

tax spread sheets     11.3 days of music      recipes

addresses of friends that have long moved elsewhere

The way it holds particles of me neatly compartmentalised

precise atoms in a kaleidoscope offering up patterns

the possibility of something new entirely      never judgement

At the end of the day when rivers will be all that remains

does it matter what each droplet was before?

Soapy dish water     a raindrop that tickled the Alder stump

to push out a new shoot     saliva wetting my mouth

with an appetite for roaming? 

I’ve won the 2021 erbacce prize!!

Poetry

P Rock Aug 2020 xss

The news arrives with 4 exclamation marks

into my inbox where I have to read it 3 times

to understand they’re actually talking about me!!!!

I’m still so blown away and in slight shock

which is why it takes me 2 weeks to share it here.

Hugely honoured by the decision of the erbacce team

You were unanimously selected as the best poet

                 from 12,500+ submissions worldwide…

And now the hard work continues to fulfil that promise

The team have have decided to offer you a contract

to publish a perfect bound collection of your poetry.

P …. for poetry…. perfection always my arch enemy…

#2021erbacceprize

He dreamed he’d beat a drum that’s got no soul

Place / Travelling
He says he don’t have long

his getting out of jail card

won’t last no eighteen months

doesn’t say where to go

‘cause it don’t matter      it’s the going

not the over there      like in summer

there’s only heat risin’ in huffs ‘n puffs

over the city’s sleeplessness

there’s no snow feelings

no memories of starched skin

over barren muscles

‘round them brittle bones

like ivy clutching to your soul

You’ve gotta go while goin’s easy

before ya’ll ask too much

of a tired mind gone timid

To unlockdown

Poetry

To unlockdown     [verb]     (quite passive)

Winter and Covid have entered a pact

they won’t move       Acholi people

would call that stubborn       layella

but I feel all Cable Street about it

something to offer resistance to

in this white out blur winter 20/21

won’t allow them entrance

into that soft chamber of my heart

painfully erected while others stash up

toilet paper     Heinz beans     bleach

I’m stocking serenity     stamps

the jar of salt Simone has sent me

from Salzburg     because not all borders

are sacred

Asked to write about ‘daffodils’ and ‘morning stretches’

Poetry / writing about blogging and blogging about writing

Daffodills xs

I’ve got some back injury

I know     not even a Latin name for it

on top of it there’s also osteoarthritis

meaning my lower back gets tired easily

Women’s stuff     you think

          This is called an assumption     but

          they say everything’s allowed in poetry

Everyone I know with back problems is a woman

fortunately not all women have back problems

that would be an epidemic

          And a generalisation     they are not popular in poetry

          particulars are preferable     like     daffodils

I get angry looking at them     their heads

too big     heavy     yellow     for their thin stem

Still they stand upright as soldiers

          That’s called a metaphor

          many poets are fond of them

         maybe they make them feel like a painter

When I stand upright for too long

my back crumbles as if I could break in two

I do my exercises first thing in the morning

when I feel like an idea scrunched up

into a tight flower bulb     eager to stretch towards light

So I stretch     rotate     swing     pull     push     squeeze

always feeling better after 20 dead lifts

Daffodils don’t last long

it’s the stems that still live

when the flower has long parched

a waxy tissue-paper death

In my language people call them by their botanical name

Narcissus     the proud one

too preoccupied with his own beauty to care about back pain

When it gets bad I resort to my hot water bottle

I make it too hot     the burn cauterises pain

it etched a mark onto the small of my back

flowery henna tattoo like

in medical it’s called Erythea Ab Igne

The other word we use in German

for Narcissus is Easter Bells

I’m thinking Easter Belles

          that’s a pun and some poets hate them because they are funny

Easter is now mostly about chocolate

it used to be about re-birth

before that about fertility

Maybe Easter is also women’s stuff

My man won’t use a hot water bottle

even though he keeps one in the bathroom cupboard

he thinks they are for period pains

In London Easter Belles now come out around Christmas

that’s untimely     out of order

dollops of yellow in bleak midwinter

like the sunny face of a fried egg

In medical language The Change is called climacteric

it can heighten sensitivity to pain

also to brightness     strong smell     high volume

          That’s a fact and facts can sound poetic

          like     the bulb of the daffodil contains toxic alkaloid

          keeping the flower safe from predators     also a substance

          that might have healing properties for breast cancer

          They are celebrated as a symbol of hope

London Bridge a remembering

London / Poetry

That first time you crossed me     on your 33rd birthday

yelling     arms swinging     eyes spinning    like fidget toys

I mistook your cry momentarily for despair     it’s not fair

that I should know that so well     being five months younger

than you     you just know how to keep it moving     like

everyone else     they come to go     flocks of destinations

surround me as swarms of bees never to stay     not even that drift

of sheep     I’m the only constant in your constant passing

absorb your kicking    sweating    spitting     ducked down

between my sisters     willing to be just the bearer of an aurora

of photographers    who won’t notice I’m arching     with a wing span

bigger    flatter    prouder    closer to the water’s surface

than any boobrie beast     The only two times I ever flinched

that muggy evening in June    you’d just crossed    head full

from your poetry meeting     not looking up at people coming your way

missing your chance to be someone’s last kind encounter

with a perfect stranger     The other time you’d already left

the city    not remembering the last time you crossed me

though you did look up at their memorial shrines     felt my shiver

Like you forgot what you wrote down on your 33rd birthday

head full of someone else’s writing     “If only

you knew how terrible it is suddenly to know everything”*

Photo of fragments from Sue Hubbard’s poem ‘Eurydice‘, once written across the walls of the foot tunnel from Victory Arch (Waterloo Station) to the IMAX cinema, London

*Quote from a letter of Frida Kahlo to Alejandro Gómez Arias, 29th September 1927, read in a 2005 exhibition at Tate Modern

Now that you’ve unpacked everything

Poetry

Ammonite

When you finally stop

ironing the jacket

dusting the shelves

darning the hat

eating something

writing a text message

checking your eBay notifications

eating some more

shuffling papers into neat piles

trying out different arrangements

clearing the dish rack

boiling the kettle

drinking something

following his request

to sit in silence for five minutes

your blizzard of thoughts bounces

off the hum of your fridge     away from

the water pipes swishing close by

to the ants     down Earth     beneath your house

the ancestors’ bones     underneath

the nagging question of how deserving

right down to the ammonite’s shells’ memory

twirling     swirling     spiralling     you

into the eye of the tree that saw it all

that held the branch

that held the nest

that held the eggs

now it’s just a knot

in my door frame

framing what exactly

and how deserving?

Let me be your bar of soap

Poetry / relationships

A&P

Because you’ve sent me my new SIM

in the envelope I’d already addressed     stamped

with three inappropriately white Virgin Marys

And because you only wrote three words

that said so much of your contempt

for corporate cunningness     for how much

you’ll look out for me     you even kept

the other SIM just in case     after I’d suggested

to throw it away      then needed it anyway

thank God you’d marked it     in the midst

of your life’s current chaos

And because I’ve just peeled an orange

sticky juice trickling down my fingers

fragrance down my nose    and because

I wonder    again    where it began

at what point in history     someone deciding

to wash their skin    make soap    add fragrance

orange is a smell you hate

And because you love your evening shower

and because sometimes it takes you two    three

five hours to get there     singing to yourself

as you turn on the tap     strip your clothes

step into steam     and because I don’t know

anyone who can shower as hot for as long

eyes closed     orchestra in your head     shea

butter richness cupped gently     wetting it

watching it go slippery     under your touch

stroke by stroke anointing your dripping body

from between your toes up to your hair

everything in between     all the while

singing to an invisible audience in your soul

And because you have me in the palm of your hand

Geeking out about a trip to Groß-Gerau

Place / Poetry

Growing up he garnished many a family gathering

going over gouged-out puns     gospel of gloomlessness

Germans of Granddad’s generation gratefully grabbed

his good-natured gigs     groomed his gumption

to get on stage with god-knows no grace     nor airs

just grinning     giggling     glibbing his way to glory

in grave suit     greasy comb-over     goofy humour

galvanising a nerve     grasping a growing hunger

for a post-GI glamour Made in Germany     His gift

a gala get-away from national guilt     new glue

for the new nation     gobbledygooking in G Major

das-grose-heinz-erhardt-buch

Homage to the German comedian Heinz Erhardt prompted by a writing exercise

**Notes**

* Heinz Erhardt once improvised an-almost 5-minute sketch where every word begins with the letter ‘G’

* Made in Germany is also a reference to one of his all-time popular poems about the ‘maggot’ called ‘Made’ in German language

River Nights

Nature / Place / Poetry

 

She’d always felt unbearably lonely

in those nights of fog     maybe that story

of the lonely man who’d gone missing

they said he must have drowned in the river

As a child fog was a cloud of tiny fairy flowers

fairy flower fog    sprinkling out of the river

Yesterday she saw a white heron    tiptoe

through its water    kissing water’s skin    little

Victorian pecks    and again    and peck    and again

then fog followed    spilled out over the river banks

swallowed the willows    erased the bridge

the car dealer’s show room    train station

as night settled only will-o-wisps were left

to be seen    flickering along     tracks

for pixelated moments    before being hushed away

Her face wet now    hair heavy    her heart

pulled to follow that last light    further

deeper    into a vast breath of fairy flowers

heron waited    wings spread out for her

quarantine-like

Poetry
  
The word lockdown has become blunt
each cut less precise    all the more painful 
that new 10 mile permission zone around me 
severs the one line I’ve got in an unhomely country 
still called home    the line that towed me away
from my other home    The 8pm curfew    a curtain 
keeping out hairy Rauhnächte’s heavy breathing 
from the other world   a ruined church deep in the woods
of tall pine trees    keeping in the sweet illusion 
of control they sold their soul to here    
Someone sends me a line from Rilke in English 
I’ve never heard in German before 
Live the questions now

Quarantine 7

Poetry
 
I can’t help thinking of the storks in the marshland 
behind the row of new builds   they’ve stopped returning 
to their African home    maybe they’ve grown used 
to their icy South German escape    I don’t know why 
it feels significant    why I prefer listening to Radio 4
watch the Queen’s Christmas speech for the first time 
the pomp behind thin lips   commentators found it comforting
I once found a serpentine   it didn’t shine or glitter 
small as my thumbnail   almost as flat   easy to miss 
but for its colour of tree moss    it holds as much wisdom 
as ancient forests  unprompted the Stoke Newington jeweller
pressed the filigree of a leaf into the silver plate he mounted it on 
Much later it turned out to be the same jeweller 
who set your Carnelian   both semi precious stones 

Quarantine 6

Poetry
  
Because they’ve revoked my quarantine exemption 
changes in regulations for anyone from the UK 
after the new strain of the virus    straining logic 
Fear lives in the reptilian brain 
just look at how thick their skin alone 
so I don’t argue back this time    quietly 
reduce my radius to what I can see 
grateful the message came after yesterday’s walk 
across deeply frozen ground    leaves crunching 
underneath my hiking boots like Kelloggs