Poem: Silver

An owl takes a night flight

Image by Jonny Lindner from Pixabay

Happy #WorldPoetryDay everyone!

I’m really enjoying my online course with the London School of Poetry: “The God In the Forest – Nature Mysticism.” Here’s a poem inspired by our last assignment, with many thanks to our tutor, Seán Hewitt, for an inspiring course:


The night we took our bowls of chocolat
and sat on deckchairs in the soft damp grass,
the murmur of the radio from the house
merging with the purling sounds of spring,
when from the dark a movement drew our eyes.
She swept across the orchard flying low
a barn owl’s eerie, oiled and silent flight,
silver in the full moon’s silver light
from cottage roof to barn roof in one swoop
from rush of air she stilled to standing stone,
regarding us as we sat dazzle-eyed,
worshipping in broken whispers. I
never saw you look like that before
or since that night, you were a boy again
holding your breath in case you broke the spell.
The minute an eternity until
unfurling her imperial cloak she swept
from sight, impassive, other, fading into night.



Poem: Bardez

The ‘fruits’ of my first assignment in the Poetry School London course: ‘The God in the Forest’ – Nature Mysticism. I revised twice – once with tips from the poem’s readers, and once again using a checklist in a textbook. The ending survived both times.

BARDEZ (“Garden, park” Armenian)

Garden with the rosebush in the middle of the lawn, its hybrid roses fresh and pink as love.
Garden where you and grandmother coaxed mint and vine leaves under the London sun, where you dried mint on old tea towels.
Garden where you hooked spiced beef on the washing line for bastourma, darkly spiced with memories of home.
Garden where we launched soggy fireworks fizzing each November Fifth, and swished sizzling sparklers in the steely frost-smelling air. Where
Over the bamboo-weave fence, our neighbours handed fiery samosas for us to try, and we replied, with lamb koftas as tender as our good intentions.

And where much later, I helped you plant unsteady steps along the path to smell the jasmine after rain,
in the garden where you sat last summer, soaking up the sun you couldn’t see,
already on your way, the path cracked and mildewed, grass growing anyhow,
paradise lost.

Making my meter

In my poetry course, we’re looking this week at ‘How Meter’s Made’, the beat in the music of poetry.  And Tamar Yoseloff tells us “there are no rules, only established verse forms, the names of different meters, the way different poets through time have used meter, and ideas on best practice.”

I like the idea of established forms, setting me free to create within a set of rules. And though the whole Wordsworth, Browning, da-de-da-de-da thing holds no charms for me (that’s what comes of studying Victorian poets for months of my degree), I am partial to a delicious sonnet, to blank verse, or a clever villanelle.

This morning, I’ve read Robert Frost’s poem, ‘Mending Wall’. It’s blank verse and he uses iambic pentamenter, (5 beats to a line, emphasis on second beat) but of course he varies it, makes then breaks that rule so subtly that the whole poem sounds like an old New England farmer in front of the fire, nursing a whisky, reflecting, meandering, thinking over his day. He captures a moment, really it’s nothing more than a passing thought, so clearly and honestly, that it comes down to me, through great distance, time and lifestyle, intact and true.

‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’ he begins. And later, in the last third of the poem, he repeats it:

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.


And of course that sets me thinking about the Great Wall of Trump Jong-Un, the malevolent clown whom a playful god has set to reign over the Western world. And another line in the poem, when Frost muses on his neighbour’s insistence on mending the unnecessary wall between them:

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
Move in darkness. Put up your wall. Frost’s imagined ‘elves’ will bring it down.




The Chocolate Song



About this poem:

The Chocolate Song comes from two exercises in rhyme and repetition in Routes Into Poetry, the excellent mini-course from The Poetry School in London.

Based on a poem called  I want to be your shoebox’ by Catherine Bowman. We were asked to write a new children’s rhyme. Or a ‘trail poem’ in which each line begins with the same word and leads to the next related image/idea. The perils suffered by girls from pre-birth to old age – and a child’s idea of what will save them.


Chocolate for girl babies snatched from the womb
Chocolate instead of a busy schoolroom
Chocolate to sweeten the rusty knife’s wound
Chocolate for girl children married too soon
Chocolate when childbirth spells young mother’s doom
Chocolate for young girls whom men abuse
Chocolate applied to a purple-black bruise
Chocolate to cheer up that victim of rape
Chocolate when water is two hours away. Twice a day.
Chocolate for women who have no say
for what their hard-earned coins will pay
Chocolate for cholera, typhus and AIDS
Chocolate to cherish abandoned old age

Chocolate for you and chocolate for me
Chocolate for girls who will never live free
Chocolate for children whose choice is of chains
Chocolate for horror, and chocolate for pain!

April 2017

The Rose Queen

Fading roses have a beauty of their own

Rose, from the Mortalitas series by Fred Shively, 2011.

This poem started out as an exercise in assonance, from the excellent ‘Routes into Poetry’ course, produced by the Poetry School in London. It’s taken a rather tragic turn.


In spring, beauty, resting on its maiden
voyage from the muddy root, pools
in ruby baubles on your thin bare arms,
and rain anoints you royalty.

Warm breeze whispers in your silken skirts;
the sun god scatters diamond dewdrops there.
Jewel-bright spiders diligently spin
you silver veils of gossamer.

As summer unfolds, your velvet robes unfurl
with rare perfume. You flaunt your ruby ruffles,
as courtiers bend reverent heads towards your heart,
their homage is its own reward.

Rich and reckless, you outstare the sun,
Though one by one, your maids of honour lose
their heads. One evening as you take the air
You shed a petal.

Then another.

Autumn’s armies strip you bare,
and take your crown. Raddled, wrecked,
you bow your head and fade to rest.
Till spring revives you to rain again.

Arpy Shively, April 2017

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.


OZHEET: A poem in memory of my grandmother

Yester Elmadjian, my dear grandmother who died in 1995

Yester Elmadjian, my dear grandmother who died in 1995

My beloved grandmother passed away in 1995; 25th October was her birthday.

I wrote this poem as part of my degree work in 2009 when we were learning about ‘glossing’ –  adding a note about the meaning of a foreign or unusual word in the text of a poem.

Gran (‘Medzmama’ or ‘Medz’ for short) lived with us in London for extended periods of time when we were kids. She was gentle, neat and meticulous in her ways. Her whispered Bible readings, prayers and stitch counting often lulled me to sleep.

Made from love and cream silk yarn
(white goes yellow in the sun)
I am a history lesson in
the flickering of a pointed tongue.

Capturing her eyesight’s light,
her whispered count, a stitch in time,
I am the silk web spun to bind
her daughter’s daughter to the maker’s mother’s mother.

On a divan or table top,
I’ll show her status as a wife.
Heavy with hope, gossamer-light,
thread hooked round love and woven tight,
her heartwriting to keep for life.

*Traditionally, an Armenian girl’s dowry or hope chest, often containing handcrafted clothes and household items.