Tuesday Poem: “Phoenix Foundation” by Harry Ricketts

Phoenix Foundation
(for Will)

‘Ent-tnt': that was what you used to call
an elephant. You’d say ‘I carry
you’ when you wanted to be picked up.

Each time we read that page in Peter
and Jane
where the farmer is getting
ready for work, you’d shout out ‘Boots on!’

because on walks you wore your red boots.
You had long yellow curls like Little
Lord Fauntleroy, a Leicester accent

thick and ruddy like the local cheese.
Once in the grocer’s in Stoneygate,
an old lady bent down, stroked your hair,

murmured: ‘What a very pretty boy.’
‘Fook off!’ you said, starting at your boots.
She jerked her hand away as though stung.

Years after, I see you running round
and round a room, arms flapping wildly.
You stop. ‘I can’t fly,’ you say, surprised.

But here tonight you’re standing stage right
behind your barricade of drums. Shaved
head, black singlet, sticks raised, you might be

the sorcerer’s lastest apprentice.
The guitars kick in, the blue light spins,
your hands begin to fly.

“Phoenix Foundation” appears in Harry Ricketts’s new collection, Just Then. “El Prado,” another poem from the collection has previously featured as a Tuesday Poem my blog. For me, “Phoenix Foundation” captures the tender relationship between father and son, but without reducing it to sentimentality.The son is innocent, abrasive, naive, and independent. The father is protective, proud, and inspired. I also enjoy the poem’s clever construction : the “Ent-tnt” at the start mimicking the sound of a drum hi-hat; the repetition of the child’s boots. I myself was inspired by Ricketts’s light touch.

The poem is also funny (“‘Fook off!'” yells the little boy to the old lady), and many of the poems in Just Then use humour and understatement. But the book has a lot of variety. Older poems dating back to 1975 play with form and rhyme. There are poems about poetry, reading, sex, departed friends, and boyhood. The most memorable for me were two poems about second-hand books that imagine the previous owners through the books’ inscriptions and book plates. In terms of boyhood, I’ll leave you with this snippet from “Some flotsam”:

Swearing at School

It was as though
if we said the f-
word often enough
it might come true.

The poem is reproduced with permission of the author. For other great poems check out the Tuesday Poem hub.

Tuesday Poem: ‘El Prado’ by Harry Ricketts

El Prado

A damp morning, just a touch nippy
for January. You’re here
in this indoor meadow, this art-house barn,
randy for epiphany,
or at least hoping to be surprised.

So Raphael’s Transfiguration
is certainly dramatic –
in fact, quite literally uplifting.
So why does that boy agoggle
at Christ levitating leave you cold?

Thirty-five years ago with a head
full of Gormenghast, Seventh
Seal, Crow, the Velvet Underground, you’d have found
El Greco’s silver-lit e-
longations ‘really weird’, but not now.

Now what hits home is Saint Barbara
by Parmigianino,
a left profile. Her face shines with youth.
Braided, brown hair hangs on her
right shoulder. She’s holding – what? – a part

of the tower daddy’ll shut her up in.
Her upper lip curves over
slightly. She wears rather a chic pink
number, such an inward look.
She knows exactly what lies ahead.

And here, opposite Van der Velden’s
flesh-heavy Deposition,
Robert Campin’s Annunciation.
Mary’s a blonde, long, straight hair,
bit plump. A nice girl lost in a book

and apparently quite unaware
of the heavenly rays round
her head, beamed down from top left,
or Gabriel patiently
kneeling, wings half-furled, with some pretty big news.

Harry Ricketts is a New Zealand poet, reviewer and cricketer who teaches creative non-fiction and English at Victoria University. His New Zealand Book Council bio states Ricketts “studied English at Oxford University and lectured in Hong Kong and Leicester before arriving in New Zealand to a post at Victoria University in Wellington in 1981. He has edited collections of verse, critical essays, and other works of non-fiction and his acclaimed biography of Rudyard Kipling was released in 1999. His poetry is defined by dramatic and satiric devices and tones, often grounded in personal commentary.”

Ricketts’ most recent book New Zealand Sports Writing was released in June 2010 and features eighty pieces of writing selected by Ricketts that cover a wide range of sports. You can read a full review of the book on Beattie’s Book Blog. ‘El Prado’ previously appeared in The Warwick Review in 2008. For me this poem is quite timely because I am heading to the Prado in just a few weeks. The poem deftly mixes the imagery of art with a whimsical voice that allows the poem to talk to ideas of perception and youth without being heavy. The result: a funny but pointed piece.

You can enjoy other Tuesday Poems on the Tuesday Poem Blog.