Summer is arriving in Portsmouth – albeit interspersed, still, with the odd determined shower – and with it, our Poem of the Month for June. Dog Roses, by local poet Denise Bennett, takes a tender look at the Jewish Cemetery in Fawcett Road, Southsea. Contained within a series of concise two-line stanzas is a reflection on the painful history of antisemitism in our country, set in the quiet, intimate stillness of a place where many of the local Jewish community were laid to rest. The contrast is illuminated best by the juxtaposition of delicate roses growing along a barbed wire fence. With Denise’s permission, we have included it here.

The Poem

Cutting through side streets

I found, by chance

the small Jewish cemetery,

row on row of grey headstones;

the dead lowered down gently

on land leased for a thousand years.

Remembering how racists had

daubed paint, desecrated graves,

I stand staring through locked gates

in strong sunlight.

Bitterness still blew here

on this hot June afternoon,

the band of scarlet dog roses

caught in the coil of barbed wire

which crowned the wall,

daring anyone to spurn their flesh.

On Love and Pain

Of her inspiration regarding this poem, she tells us: 

I have a clear memory of the image of 'red roses against barbed wire’ when I passed the Jewish cemetery in Fawcett Road, Southsea. The emotions love and pain came to mind; also the poignancy of this image evoked sadness on that summer afternoon.

Denise Bennett, in conversation

What strikes me about this piece of writing is the vividness with which Bennett evokes the sensation of walking through a cemetery on a sunny day. When we think of these places, we tend to think of cooler days; soft evenings; the pathetic fallacy of suitable gloom. There is something disquietingly lovely about the contrast of sunshine with the harrowing knowledge of where it is you tread.

The Jewish Cemetery on Fawcett Road

Fawcett Road runs northwards from Albert Road in Southsea. Established in 1749, and extended thrice during the 19th century, the Jewish cemetery located there has long been a feature of the landscape. Significantly, the purchase of the land for this use is one of the earliest recorded mentions of a Jewish community living in Portsmouth. Its establishment was followed soon-after by the construction of Portsmouth’s first purpose-built synagogue, on the corner of what is now Curzon-Howe road, in 1780.

Having filled up in 1990, the cemetery is no longer in use, but remains an important landmark denoting Portsmouth’s Jewish history. Many of the tombstones feature intricate and beautiful Hebrew inscriptions.

The Poet: Denise Bennett

Denise Bennettis a local poet, born on Festing Road in Southsea. Her first poem appeared in The Hot Potato, the magazine of John Pounds School, Portsea, and she tells us more about this in a September 2021 post on our blog. Denise was awarded the inaugural Hamish Canham Prize by the Poetry Society in 2004, and has penned three fabulous collections: Planting the Snow Queen (2011), Parachute Silk (2015) and Water Chits (2017). With Maggie Sawkins and Dale Gunthorp, Denise co-edited This Island City: Portsmouth in Poetry (2010), in which Dog Roses first appears. Her poem, Cabbage Patch, was also featured on the Writing Literary Portsmouth blog as Poem of the Month in February 2022.

Holly Kybett Smith is a research assistant at the Portsmouth Literature Map. She writes Gothic stories and more of her articles can be found on tor.com.

If you would like to get in touch with us about our poetry selections – to make us aware of yourself as a Portsmouth poet, or perhaps to recommend to us a poem you especially like – please do. We can be reached at Margaret.Bowers@port.ac.uk and Mark.Frost@port.ac.uk