Southsea Postcards’ by Dale Gunthorp: Poem of the Month (September 2021)
Writing Literary Portsmouth’s Poem of the Month feature has so far featured Stephanie Norgate’s ‘Ferries at Southsea’ and Maggie Sawkins’ ‘Learning English at Friendship House’. We’re excited by the opportunity to place a different verse in front of you every month, so that together we can explore this city’s amazing poetic scene. This month we are very pleased to feature one of Dale Gunthorp’s finest poems, ‘Southsea Postcards’.
We are particularly interested in poems that give a strong flavour of the city, its urban spaces and unique natural landscapes – but just as much in those that explore the lives of its inhabitants and communities. Whether the poems we select are funny, moving, heartbreaking, or inspiring, we hope you will enjoy taking a poetic journey with us – meandering through Portsmouth’s fascinating past, present, and future – and using this most mercurial and vivid of literary forms to explore the city’s many, varied, and vibrant identities.
Writing Literary Portsmouth is the vehicle of the Portsmouth Literary Map, a project devoted to mapping, exploring, sharing, and celebrating our city’s remarkable literary energies. See our introductory blog, Welcome to Writing Literary Portsmouth to find out more about everything that we are doing.
Dale Gunthorp, a Portsmouth poet and writer, was born in South Africa, was chased to London by the apartheid police and, after three decades in a city pressure-cooker, escaped to Portsmouth, a place where you could hear what people (and the wind and tides) were saying. She is a retired journalist, former editor at the Commonwealth Secretariat, and author of two novels (Georgiana’s Closetand Looking for Ammu), and a book of subversively erotic short stories (The Flying Hart) (Sheba).
Dale and her partner moved to Southsea in 2005, in search of a kinder environment for their two young daughters, and joined Tongues and Grooves poetry club. As well as making her an integral part of Portsmouth’s vibrant creative scene, this inspired Dale to produce and co-edit (with Maggie Sawkins and Denise Bennett, the first anthology of poems about Portsmouth, the wonderful This Island City. Its poems are widely represented on the Portsmouth Literary Map. Dale continues to write and to contribute to the city in many ways.
This September is Oddfellows Friendship Month, an annual charitable event which celebrates friendship and its role in combatting loneliness. This month’s poem is chosen because of its sideways glance at these themes, and because of the compassion and openness that motivates Gunthorp’s verse.
Your feet are trudging along a cold wet pavement in Southsea while your head trudges through the gloomy numbers your phone says is your bank balance. Then, passing the Co-op, the homeless man’s dog catches your eye, tilts his head to one side, and gives you a dog’s gloopy smile. In a millisecond, the world is full of light and colour.
That is a Southsea postcard.
(Dale Gunthorp, in conversation)
Dale’s poetry is at its finest when at its most impressionistic. ‘Southsea Postcards’ is just such a poem, a testament to the poet’s sympathy and observational skill – a practice of looking and listening that has evidently been honed for many years. The three sections deliver brief, pithy slices of everyday life in ways that imply that this area of the city is an amalgam – of rich and poor, privilege and deprivation happiness and unhappiness, human and non-human – and that this jostling together of disparate forces is the essence of city life. It was published in This Island City: Portsmouth in Poetry (2010), and is quoted here with the kind permission of the poet.
In Wimbledon Road’s little park,
where I know the dogs by name
and their owners by their dogs,
Lulu’s owner said that her granddaughter’s dad
forgot his Parental Contact Order that weekend.
She was glad to have the girl a bit longer
and there were tears behind her glasses.
In the Albert Road fruit and veg shop
where the big woman is thumping tomatoes
onto the scales as if they were potatoes,
an old-young man in sandals complains about sell-by dates.
He takes a blackened banana and wolfs it.
‘Against the law, this stuff, too old,’ he says.
He takes another, adds: ‘Older is sweeter. Like you.’
Outside Waitrose early this winter morning
while the gutters cough and splutter the night’s storm,
five shoppers in sleek coats chat till the doors open.
Just inches from the backs of ten shiny heels,
a mother rat cajoles her shivering infant, to dive
out of sight, quick, through the metal grating
into the swirling drain. Swim, baby rat, for your life.
As Gunthorp’s reflections below suggest, the poem arose out of real experiences, and from a belief in the transformative nature of human connection:
These three [verses] describe real events. Transient encounters which took me, however briefly, out of my imprisoned self. When the world was full of grief, love, pain, fear and joy that was mine-but-not-mine. Which I was a part of, because we – every living thing – are all one family of life.
(Dale Gunthorp, in conversation).
This month’s poem resonates with the previous Poems of the Month, because they are all united by a belief in shared humanity and the value of compassion - to ourselves and others. We are delighted to share this beam of light with you all.