Daybook 25 March 2017


Years ago my sister, my 15-year old nephew and his girlfriend had come over to visit us in our Andalucian mountain town. One day, we took them riding. The stable owner took one look at my sister and I, and prodded her oldest horses awake. We set off and soon fell far behind the proper riders in the line.

I remember that halfway round the trail, I was marooned in the middle of a grassy knoll, with my sister at shouting distance on the other side. I couldn’t make my horse move towards her (it was busy cropping grass), and she couldn’t make her horse move towards me. We could only shout and signal to each other across the field: “You OK?” We’ve often laughed about that day.

Lately I’ve been remembering our ride. My triplet brother and sister still live near London and I still live in Spain. But Mum, who bound us together in grumbling servitude, recently died. I haven’t been to London for months. Can’t really, unless work takes me there. I want to be there for my sister, I miss my brother. Yet with all of us needing either financial, emotional or physical repair right now, we can’t get together. Can’t get her over here for a much-needed break. Can’t bring or send her little luxuries to cheer her. We can only shout across to each other in hurried FaceTime calls or WhatsApps. “You OK”?

Sunday 26 March

Forgot to set the alarm last night.  Tottered out of bed at 7.45 am, deducting brownie points for lateness, then realised the clocks had sprung forward this morning. Mother’s Day in the UK. Mum, I send you virtually white lilies. And a big tub of purple hyacinths for the dining-room table. And a Mother’s Day card with soppy soft focus roses on the cover and a rhyming tribute inside. “To the best Mum in the world…” You craved these scraps of affection, so we tossed them at you, grudgingly like we did everything you clamoured for.

F…..has put his back out again. So yesterday I took Eds for his morning walk. Up into the pine and eucalyptus wood around the seminary. It’s our favourite walk, almost free of cars or people, I can let him loose to nose-surf along the grassy banks as we wind up towards the church grounds along the wide path striped with sun and shade.

Eds met a new puppy and mounted him enthusiastically several times. The puppy chased him and nipped his ear. So Eds rolled the puppy. And his person and I watched and laughed, in the fresh sunshine. All this joy, and all before breakfast! Dogs can do that for you.

Working on a poem, part of an exercise in assonance. The poems, they take so long, I get discouraged. Some of you post three a week. I know it’s not a competition. But just asking – will I get through to the next round?


Daybook: Saturday 18 March 2017


Ladies who brunch – Photo by Fred Shively, June 2014 Madrid

Daybook: Saturday 18 March 2017

Sat 11 March I am pottering along our sunlit Main Street, a favourite Saturday thing to do. The now-familiar shops and faces, bathed today in golden spring sunshine. This is my home and these are my people, even if they don’t know it.

As I pass the terrace of Café Israel, I catch Carmen’s eye. She’s with her young neighbour or helper, and beckons me over for coffee. Carmen, chain-smoking, small and frail, with her sad clown face. She lived in England for a few years, many years ago. Every time we meet, she brings out these bright scraps of memory, arranges them in the space between us.

“Caymrich…” Ah yes, I say, Cambridge, and we both muse on that for a while. “I prefer to Ockfor.” Oh of course, I say, Cambridge more beautiful than Oxford, no doubt about that. She beams and I beam back. Her companion takes no part, stares out to the street with a wry mouth. She’s doing this for the money; I recognise the look from several of Mum’s helpers.

Yes, after years of moving around, I belong here now. The gardens I pass on my walks with the dog are my gardens; I tend them with my eyes only. Since none of the pretty houses are mine, they are all mine, I choose a different one every day and imagine living there. A poem in here somewhere.

Sun 12 March: I read Philip Larkin’s poem, ‘Seventy Feet Down’. I’m transported to a stormy night at sea…the ‘leather-black waters’, the sea ‘exploding upwards…relapsing to slaver back down’ off landing-stage steps. You can hear it, almost smell it. “Radio rubs its legs, telling me of elsewhere.” Reading the six stanzas is like watching a sequence of quick cuts in a movie.

Working on a poem about a reunion that turned sour…I’ve published it in another post on this site.

Mon 13 March: Choir was a joy tonight as ever. My fellow soprano’s voices soar in the ‘ay vida mia’ of Los Arboles Altos; the ‘muyayayay’ of Bonse Aba. For years, I only wanted to sing oratorio, but some of the most beautiful pieces I’ve sung in the past two years have been African or from Eastern Europe.

For two hours every Monday, I breathe deeply, I sing, I laugh…but I still can’t catch what my delightful colleagues are saying in Spanish. Voices bounce off the hard floor and bare walls. I miss the key words and phrases, the jokes, the ripostes. After years here in Spain, I still feel like I am speaking in cuneiform. And I mind, awfully.

QUESTION: How can you ‘revise, revise’ when your poem’s structure is set on the page already and you want to change but seem stuck in that shape?

In answer, I was writing couplets as part of a poetry exercise this week but they weren’t the best for the poem. So I mooshed all the stanzas together again, and reformed it into two four-line stanzas and a couplet to finish. Much better.

Tuesday 14 March: South African anti-apartheid campaigner and distinguished judge, Dikgang Moseneke, says that journalists should “worship at the altar of truth.” I think poets should too. Not literal truth, “this happened then this happened,” but truth to the feeling, the moment they are trying to share.

Thursday 15 March: Well into Week 2 of getting up early to write for an hour or so. Aiming for two free hours eventually. Routine is the friend of the writer that’s for sure. Though my journal entry is aimless, rambling, and I’m still struggling with the poem. The second stanza is pat. I’m plodding, stating the bleedin’ obvious, getting on my own nerves.

Halfway through my hour, I briefly fall asleep. Realise I forgot to take my thyroxine tablet this morning. No wonder I went down like a tree.

Saturday 18 March: The trouble with creating this great habit of early rising is – you can’t have a lie-in any more. Your brain wakes up like an eager puppy at 6.00 am. So after staring at the ceiling for a while, I get up and go write. I finish my current poem, and do a 10-minute write (thanks Natalie Goldberg!) for a new poem. It’s about connection…

QUESTION: How many poems do you poets out there have on the go at any one time? Just one? Several? How do you work that?

Thanks for reading, I’m enjoying your work too. Have a good week.



Statue of Narcissus, School of Polycleitus.

Photo: With thanks to Egisto Sani, March 2016; Narcissus (Greek Models XVI)


You spring up to greet us, eager, lithe.
Bright eyes, bronzed face, long top lip descending
to a pout. Raven hair, ruffled shirt.
You sit upright, a dancer or a young lord.

And then you start to tell us of the years between.
Cheap myth pours out of that chiselled mouth.
She took my home and kids, bitch done me wrong.
You’re rolling your cigarettes scrawny, tight.

I glimpse that lip lifted, eyes narrowed, waiting to
pounce, in a shabby room stained with dirty sunlight.

March 2017

(Photo: With thanks to Egisto Sani, March 2016)





Daybook – 5th to 12th March 2017


DAYBOOK – 4th to 12th March 2017


When I fell off the hamster wheel of Washington DC work/life imbalance way back in 2003, I vowed that wherever life took me next, there would always be time for coffee. Coffee with a book, a notebook, a girlfriend, a happy husband. Today I managed to find time twice, with two friends I really like. Down-to-earth, rational women who I don’t have to handle, manage, mollify. Is that the test of a good girlfriend, that when you leave you feel better for seeing them, not relieved to be alone again?

I think us Baby Boomers will cultivate girlfriends more eagerly than previous generations. If we’re lucky, we’ll have longer to live than our parents, and more often, unpartnered or childfree lives. We might start writing more about strong female friendships, novels and plays and music, rather than lyrics about yearning for a new man.  Increasingly, I feel more excited about meeting a great girlfriend.

Took Eddie for our favourite weekend woodland walk in the hills around the city’s old castle. March winds, May warmth. The wind roared in the pines and eucalyptus, trees swaying in every direction, lit up copper gold by the setting sun, the whole hillside alive and glowing. Eddie met small dogs and big dogs, and was polite and friendly to all. And I nearly didn’t go.



Started working on a new poem, about a meeting we had with an acquaintance from years ago, now returned from Mexico and living near the city.

I’m working through a nifty and inexpensive course, ‘Routes into Poetry’ by Tamar Yoseloff for The Poetry School, based in London.  I want to stock a basic toolkit for crafting strong, sound poems. This week I’m experimenting with stanza structure. Using couplets to unfold a feeling that grew stronger as he spoke.

Question: Where do I go when I feel a poem is ‘done’? Sometimes by second draft I think I’ve captured the moment. Should I keep working at it, tinkering with it, or are there poems that don’t have to evolve over many drafts?

American poet Wesley McNair, in his excellent ‘Advice for Beginning Poets’, urges us to revise diligently. “Suspect the finished poem. Your evil twin wants your poem to be finished,” he says. So that’s a question.

Another question: Do I have to experience something personally before I can write about it? Did Yeats see a falcon soaring (or a slouching beast) in order to write ‘The Second Coming’? Or Coleridge spend much time in Xanadu hanging out with the man to write ‘Kubla Khan’? So I guess the answer is: no, you can also be inspired by something you read or in our day, see on screen or hear on radio.  The Bröntes touched the heights and depths of human experience from lives far more circumscribed than their imaginations.

I’d put my poetry away last summer, unfinished knitting. It felt too self-indulgent when so many girls and women are suffering and in danger. But this month I held it up to the light again, imagined the patterns I could make, and it made me happy.

So I ‘ve promised myself a reward for a month of writing practice: a subscription to Mslexia, the excellent UK-based magazine for women who write, which includes access to their online forum.  Not that I have to force myself, but I am so twitchy, so averse to entering that quiet place in my head, that I have to bribe myself into the habit. Do you ever feel like that, resisting what you love?  Hope to hear from you but writing anyway.