Monday, 5 December 2016

Piecework

They sit, six women in the room,
piecing together hangers
for dresses they will never afford,
little plastic squares 
eight, ten, twelve, 
twenty, twenty-four 
strewn across the carpet.



Delivered by the box-load,
four parts to each hanger,
five pounds per three hundred assembled.
Not possible to do it in under an hour 
even with the help of friends.
The TV blares, their coffee cools,
Jade pops out for a fag.
They talk of how they'll cope next week
with all the kids off school
and last Saturday down the pub
and when you could get 
early morning shifts at Raleigh 
or Players, cleaning loos.
Six women, eight hours,
forty-eight hours' labour
and forty pounds to show.
Sometimes they share it
but today it's been agreed that if
they work tomorrow and half Friday
Amber can pay her rent.

©Janet Henderson 5th December 2016

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Triumphal Rood

Hanging
at the chancel step
over-arching nave and sanctuary
Christ in Majesty
draws every eye
forcing reaction,
magnet-like,
this rood-creation of Epstein,
aluminium on concrete,
angels hovering,
feet descending,
hands upturned
to beckon history and hope;
destruction and rebirth
encircle this saviour
Pantocrator
suspended serenely
proud, in majesty.

Living
in this holy space,
coming daily to pray beneath
Majestas
evokes awe at first
and then unease;
no Lamb of Revelation*
this smoothed-over, woundless Christ
offering bloodless welcome, 
initially inviting,
insistent, 
yet vapid 
in giving embrace;
artifice and construct
coil from such sway 
interrogated by the old Celtic way   
of those who live more humbly,
poor in spirit.** 

* 'Then I saw, between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered.'  Revelation 5.6 
'For it is not the Lamb but the suffering Lamb which is exalted, it is not the Christ but the Christ crucified which is the power of God: the Christ lifted up from the earth draws all men to Himself (Jn 12.32, 1 Cor.1.3-4)...[only] as such is He the worship of the church and the world which He has redeemed.' Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers.

** 'Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.' Matthew 5.3

Saturday, 26 November 2016

At Nazareth

How did it start,
this idea of God-among-us?
More natural 
to place God on a throne
amid the thunderclaps
and singing stars.



God's God, after all
and due worship, notice, adulation,
no mere workman
with rough joiner's hands,
or village lass
of water-bearing status.

It was the day
she fetched that second jar,
pausing near the well to catch her breath,
swallowing slight queasiness,
she knew for sure 
she was carrying him.

Not really welcome,
this unexpected baby. 
'A grave misdemeanour'
the Rabbi said.
And what her mother said 
was unrepeatable.

So sudden.
Not yet seventeen and now
a carpenter's wife, a mother
and, though the oldest, not exactly
the daughter her family 
could embrace with pride.

Returning from Egypt,
exhausted, with Joe and child,
she found an unanticipated stigma
hung round the family.
She felt avoided, shunned,
no longer Nazarite.

Yes. The persistent odour
of difference settled
and, strangely, things began
to change. As much 
as some could scarcely bear 
her company, others came:

young Hannah, terrified
she'd fallen pregnant,
Elizabeth, not coping
with her toddler's tantrums,
ostracised by the young mums
who thought her old and stuffy,

Joe's apprentice,
a lad from out of town,
glad to find a couple
sympathetic to ambition
and wider aspirations,
broadened by their time as refugees,

one day, a priest,
a friend of Simeon, bringing
Jerusalem luxuries,
enquiring after the boy,
reminding her of past intimations
of blessing tinged with unease.

'How are the mighty fallen,
the humble lifted up?'
The neighbours prattled,
'Look,' they said,
'how this disgraced girl's house
has become a magnet for

rich and poor,
outcast and pillar of society!'
They all come, and somehow,
one evening, on the rooftop,
find themselves star-gazing
and speaking of God's Word.




©Janet Henderson 26th November 2016

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

The East Coast Mainline




Northallerton platform high up,
exposed.
Trains thunder through, not all of them
stopping.
The wind whips round the small shelter,
chilling.
Morning sunlight dawns sluggish,
delayed.
Newly bought ticket's a barb in  
her glove.

'Two hundred and eighty five pounds
return.'
'To cross London by Undergound,
six more.'
Cost of representing ' The North '
down south.
Train's running late. She sits sipping
hot tea,
dreaming of places she could reach
for less.

Morning coffee on the Amstel.
Dundee.
A weekend break, half board, for two
in Bruges.
Three flights to Exeter and back,
on time.
Scilly Isles, to breathe narcissi.
Alsace 
for the best part of seven days'
retreat.

Today, before they board the train, 
southbound
passengers know they'll surely miss
the start 
of their meeting. They don't complain,
just brace
themselves to wait. Avoiding stress,
resigned,
these commuters conspire t'arrive
cheerful.

©Janet Henderson 22nd November 2016

The Writers' Group

We sit round a table
in the public library
and talk (a little, kindly)
of one who is absent,
three, four, six of us
rushing in out of the rain,
coats and brollies dripping,
cheeks red, files
clutched tightly under jackets,
damp at the edges.

We settle into our plastic chairs,
stretch numbed fingers
and spread our papers,
listening for the tempo
of each other's day,
sensing hopes, small apprehensions,
aware of nervous gestures,
joining in the laughter 
that diffuses awkwardness
and begins to weave bonds.

Shyly the poems come,
the reading diffident at first,
some used to public space,
others shocked, elated
at voicing their own words
at last and feeling them 
evoke response - like watching
a child take to water and swim -  
discovering new-found pleasure as 
as they meet with quiet recognition.

One speaks of a child's delight
in exploration, 
another, a loss so heavy
life struggles to go on,
a third, cherished memories
that make us laugh and breathe, 'ah yes!'
Then come descriptions of a place
where antiquity shines through
and, simply, of a bird
eyeing us from his tree.

In two brief hours
we traverse joys and sorrows,
see through the gaze of a child,
join family celebrations
and meet inhabitants of streets
we've never walked but already know;
we look out from remote island shores
and sit at tables in sunlit cafes,
glimpsing the irresistible
kernel of each poetic urge.

©Janet Henderson 22nd November 2016

Monday, 26 September 2016

Radiance and Memorial at Ely

Climb the stairs,
see the struts and rafters,
flaking paint and wooden beams,
this entangled, behind-the-scenes structure,
rising discreetly
through cathedral grandeur
above city hubbub and fen majesty,
breaking out
into eight sided glory,
light shafting in
from east and west,
north and south
as the day moves
through its paces.
Octagon of splendour
replacing dark, medieval tower
torn down by gravity
and weathering
to worshippers' delight.
They recognised oppression
and release,
knew shadows hid places
sun's rays should expose,
saw clearly opportunity
and celebrated unexpected light
releasing building and people
to a thousand years
of radiance.


© Revd Phil Sharkey 2016 'The All Seeing Eye'

Climb high
and find another piece 
of Ely's story.
This Lantern,
built for bright hope,
now, in a war-wracked summer,
intriguingly enfolds
to itself another tale,
hides it well
in mother church's breast.
As boots ascend
and karkhi legs
brush cobwebbed walls,
irreverent cigarette butt
falling, unnoticed, here,
railway ticket (soon to be missed at station booth)
dropped there,
this great fen ship
receives into her wooden frame names 
etched in pencil - black and red, 
prophetic shades of soil and blood -
signatures of soldier lads
who've come to tea 
and evensong
and a last long look across the fenland 
to the villages of their birth.

Climb to witness
on eight tall shutters this record
of spirited, youthful soldier pals
from dyke-side hamlets
to which scarce few returned,
a secret, sombre memorial
carved in the heady expectation
of a summer's afternoon,
read now in winter gloom
with chilly hindsight;
a hundred years since
clear young lungs
made short work
of eight score stairs and five,
jostled and joked 
at the sudden view
of drains and meres that nurtured them
never before seen from so far above.
No shadow of gas or gangrene or trench,
no care for shell or fire or bullet
yet oppressing mind and soul.


© Revd Phil Sharkey 2016 'Octagon Floodlit'


Each went out to dark or glory,
Ely's Lantern recording
only their names
and, by direction,
the village of their birth.
The fenland offered up her best;
they disappeared
as silently as if marsh mists 
had swallowed up her own,
Saint Etheldreda's great church  
storing the secret
this hundred years,
loyal to sons
whose growing up she oversaw
with ecclesial distance,
whom now she celebrates
with circumspect pride,
holding for history's gaze
a tale of lives too short
and wars unstoppable.

Still, today, the daily prayers
of Etheldreda's community
breathed, as they are, beneath
this frame of lightsome hospitality
implore the throwing down
of dark towers cradling enmity,
search out the wellheads
of hope and charity and peace,
entreating the Divine to spare us
ever again such mockery of youthful optimism.


©Janet Henderson 26th September 2016, revised November 2016 


@ Revd Phil Sharkey 2016 'Nave'


These beautiful photos of the Lantern and aisle at Ely Cathedral were taken by Revd Phil Sharkey and used with his kind permission. I have long admired his wonderful photographs of Cambridgeshire and the Fens which always seem to me to capture the unique essence of the area - one which I grew to love during the years I lived in Cambridge and Wisbech. To contact Phil about his photos, revphilsharkey@gmail.com

If you climb up into the Lantern at Ely, you can see for yourself the signatures that imprinted themselves on my heart and cannot but lodge in the memory of anyone who reads them.

Untimely Funeral

I stand on the path outside the church
surrounded by unwilling mourners
tense with grief,
pain etched on every feature.
They seem shrunken into themselves,
these young people I have laughed
and sparred and tangled with
in school assemblies.
Last week was ordinary.
They'd moaned about exams,
played football, drunk beer, 
told parents half-truths about revising.
Now, suddenly,
life stands questioned, existence uncertain.
This is a funeral not like most.
A young man has taken his own life
and here, today, his friends stand, bereft, 
inheritors of questions that, as yet,
displace the memories. 
How could he? How could he not?
Is this the end? Is this our end?
The dank November air
is charged with a hundred
'If-only'-'Surely-I-should''-
'How-can-he-not-have-said?'-
self-blaming, silent cries.
An occasional, gut-wrenched sob
breaks through, racking up the tension.

Minute by minute they come:
head teacher, looking studiously dignified
in college tie, form teacher distraught, crushed,
best mate he sat with that first day at infant school.
Friends sidle up quietly, embarrassed,
uncomfortable in their strangely formal clothes,
embracing with sudden fervour,
wishing to be anywhere but here,
looking to each other to help them stay.
Fifty, seventy, two hundred,
these are the young 
who have no developed vocabulary for grief,
no tried-out funeral behaviour.
They bring no previous experience,
no coping strategies or comfort rituals.
The rawness of their grief
pierces me, setting nerves on edge,
rendering me by turns fearful and numb,
soaked in the deluge of their despair,
pulled about and wearied
by the energy of their searching.
And lurking somewhere in the crowd,
between the sobs and hugs and brooding,
is rage. 
Pure bloody rage.

The hearse pulls up.
Involuntary intakes of breath and muffled cries
ripple through the assembly.
His father,
stepping from the car behind,
speaks for all, flinging his words
upwards, outwards
at the church.
'This is so wrong.'

©Janet Henderson 26th September 2016


Saturday, 24 September 2016

Beyond

Bed bound man
gazing from a window,
across the field and over the hedge.

Old woman
resident in a home,
the holiday she'll never have.

Patient
wracked by pain,
the release as this surge subsides.

Child
charged to write a poem,
the scene she half imagines but cannot finish.

Musician,
the different, new silence
to which the music will return.

Climber
atop a mountain,
the place where land and sky meet.

D.H. Lawrence,
the hopeful, brave voyage begun,
the next shore, as yet unseen.*

Believer
immersed in story and metaphor,
the unseen worlds outside this one.

Or if faith and trust dim, you may think
you will come to a place
where beyond must cease,
in contravention of all precedent.



Alps and Beyond ©Janet Henderson

* A reference to D.H. Lawrence's Poem The Ship of Death

@Janet Henderson 25th September 2016

Hebron


Hebron, Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Chapel,
Abergele Road, Old Colwyn, built 1861













'Prynhawn da, Mr Williams, 
I see you have your granddaughter with you.'
I clutch Taid's hand
in the approach to Hebron's brown twin doors.
Neat blue hymnbooks
filled with sol-fa notation
placed into our gloved free hands,
we enter to the accompaniment
of Rhosymedre and sidelong glances.
Ducked head for a quick prayer,
'Dear God, please help me not get bored,
please make the sermon short,'
then look around as others are,
scanning for unexpected detail
to be shared and picked over later:
'Did you see Mrs Prosser's hat?'
'Gethin the butcher was late again.'
I'm the only child
and Taid slips me a peppermint.
The Sedd Fawr is filling up
with black-suited men
in stern faces whose job
it is to look into your soul
and wisely nod as the preacher begins.
We stand to strains of O Iesu Mawr,
our voices gathering and swelling,
rich in harmony, transporting us
to mountain splendour
and sunset glory,
to slate-mine dank
and pier head fury
and all the wild, wild world
that Jesus sees and knows and calms.
'Gweddiwn.'
A torrent sweeps over us,
words of protracted, interminable prayer
taking deep root in Taid's waistcoated breast,
finding resonance and echo there,
teasing my mind, half understood, half not,
wanting more, wanting less
this wintry Sunday evening
that lasts for ever,
held now in Hebron's spell
where judgement and outward severity
belie kindness,
and humble prayer overlies gentle pride
in kith and kin.
'I see Mr Williams brought his granddaughter,
but did you see them eating sweets?
She'll have to learn, you know.'

©Janet Henderson 24th September 2016


Thursday, 26 May 2016

A Place to Write

We call it the study,
a small room, book-lined and quiet,
just off the kitchen,
refuge from domestic hubbub
yet connected,
separated only by a curtain.


Here are brought the day's gleanings, 
enchanted moments
and knotty puzzles, 
shimmering wisps of inspiration
snatched up in memory
for later calm reflection,
piled, as it were, on desk
and floor, illuminated
by well-remembered characters
and stories that leap down
from bookshelves and nestle close
to nurture fresh adventure.

Here are learned contemplation 
and the discipline of daily wrestle,
crafting captured scenes into words
that yield up their essence
beneath a window
teased by lilac and honeysuckle
and, in autumn, falling damsons
that beak concentration. 

© Janet Henderson 26th May 2016

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Breakfast with a View




Kittens in the carob tree,
geckos on the wall,
waiters gliding to and fro
responsive to our call.

Bougainvillaea flowering
vivid pink, red, white,
pastizzi, croissants, almond cake
laid out for our delight.

Scrambled egg and sausage,
mushrooms, bacon, toast,
served on terrace with a view
of glistening Maltese coast.

To east of us, Comino,
and Xewkija's* handsome dome,
magic breakfast memories
stored up for taking home.

© Janet Henderson 7th May 2016

* pronounced shoo-key-a

Table Cat

He sits by your table to wait,
eyes lovingly fixed on your plate,
if it's fish, he'll appear in a trice
abandoning hunting for mice.

He's ginger or tabby or black
and seemingly one of a pack,
but, in truth, it's each cat for himself,
tracking down the best morsels by stealth.

He'll woo you with eyes full of love,
wrapt attention trained on your each move,
but the second you lay down your fork
he'll disdainfully turn tail and walk.

He frequents secret harbour-side spots 
then at lunch down he jauntily trots,
warm place in the sun left behind,
whiskers eager to detect a good find.

And that, my dear friend, is your dish,
whether rabbit or lamb shank or fish,
for by charm to steal mouthfuls of that
is the work of a Gozitan cat.

© Janet Henderson 7th May 2016