Poems written in response to atmospheric paintings by the American artist Howard Fritz whose work is now on show at the Torriano Meeting House 

More information about the Howard Fritz exhibition at the Torriano can be found here.  To coincide with this exhibition we have gathered some picture-and-poem collaborations by Howard Fritz & Michael Bartholomew-Biggs which previously appeared in magazines such as Other Poetry and The SHOp as well as in the collections Tell it Like it Might be (Smokestack, 2008) and Fred & Blossom (Shoestring, 2013).  We also include some newer pairings which are on display for the first time and feature poems from Tradesman’s Exit (Shoestring 2009).

The relationship between picture and poem varies throughout this selection.  Some poems are a direct response to elements in the picture and there are no other influences.  In other cases, the germ of an idea for the poem already existed but it was the picture that provided specific images which initiated the actual writing.  Sometimes a ‘finished’ poem was modified after a corresponding painting was discovered.  And sometimes an existing poem turned out to have a perfect and serendipitous match in Howard Fritz’s back catalogue.

One brief disclaimer: Howard Fritz’s paintings are complex enough to admit many more possible responses than the particular fantasies contained in these poems; hence there may be completely different kinds of inspiration waiting for other writers in these intriguing images…


 chairs (1)


He became entangled in a cliché
the moment that he started to erect
the temporary triangle. Bright colours
striped on canvas curved inviting him 
to do it in dark glasses while the sun shone
with Kiss Me Quick pulled down across his face.
The strength of his position hung upon
the gap between two frames of reference
remaining fixed as Euclid’s propositions:
when one prop failed his situation folded
with the weight of evidence and caught him
by his short and curly fingers. Bang
to rights, he still got off by playing on
compassion for a self-made stretcher case.




The part-clothed body in the yellow coupé, 
parked beside the lighthouse,
has pretty ankles and one slender hand has dropped
a half-smoked cigarette below the running board  
to smoulder like a baby beacon.  

The calves that rest across the roadster’s door
underneath the bridge
look bare but could be wearing sheer and shiny stockings 
fastened with suspenders or a pair of garters 
hidden by the pulled-up skirt.

The long-legged body, sprawling in the drophead,
is probably not dead:
the hurdy-gurdy man’s lament is premature
but hawsers holding up the girdered highway
hum along in sympathy.

The doll you picture lolling with her feet up
in the dicky-seat
is out of shot above her hips;  there are no eyes, 
no lips accusing you of cruising easy pickups
in your fancy vehicle.




I could be hiding, howling
behind a canvas screen
instead of playing Elgar
among the broken glass.

The broom to sweep the fragments
smashed the garden window
earlier; and now
it’s gone for evidence.

The curtains won’t stop trembling
in the jagged breeze.
The bow slides like a jemmy
forcing deep vibrations

of defiance; fingers,
artful as a cracksman’s,
pick music, note by note, 
like tumblers in a lock.

Night outside the basement
hides absence of intruders.
Detectives check the neighbours
to imitate enquiries;

they’ll fingerprint the cello 
later, when they’ve dragged it,
keening, from the cupboard,
because it wasn’t stolen.



At The Butcher's Palace Of Varieties

I was never troubled
as a toddler by the drips
from rabbits with small bloody noses
waiting for a turn
to have their skins pulled inside out
like my raincoat in the cloakroom.

I learned to take for granted
contact with both flesh and money
was taboo and caged cashiers
must have each price recited
with panache to match the twirled
moustaches of a ringmaster.

When sawdust disappeared
and rabbits on trapezes vanished
with money-changers in straw hats
then Pantaloon went too 
leaving simply sausages
and Grand-Guignol declined to sideshow
I watch as Mr Hudson 
prepares a pair of Barnsley chops;
he’s like a surgeon in Crimea
with his busy bonesaw.
Meticulous, he trims the fat
as if he’s read Leviticus.

Oddly, it’s his turn
to show a trace of nasal bleeding
above a nice plump lip.  He mutters
what I owe, stiff-mouthed,
a second-string ventriloquist
with nowhere now to throw his voice.



Killing Time at the Flying-boat Museum  
Foynes, Co. Limerick

Silver clippers used to gather here
and thrash along the Shannon’s soft wet runway,
labouring like swans. Their web-foot sponsons
scuffed and skipped the waves until wide wings
could grudgingly begin the westward climb, 
tail-heavy with official subsidies
on British mails to Ottawa and Lagos.
When newsreel boasts of flying boats
assume their near-Imperial importance,
making much of Public Face comes close
to poking fun at facing facts
as hard as, say, a grimly private diagnosis.

Glass and aluminium nostalgia
stops at pre-war prices in the tea-room.
Past the single tables, rain-blurred windows
hint at spectres of departure: porters
walking trolleys to the ramp; the boatmen
shuttling to Canopus; stewards serving
canapés hand-made in tiny pantries.
No ocean’s vast catastrophe of breakers 
can make a separation bleaker 
than the distance to a few tomorrows,
like white houses on an outstretched arm 
of land beyond a river when the bridge is gone.   
Static seeps across the wireless room.
Some gramophone has finished braying Amy, 
wonderful Amy and is scratching round
the centre of a silence as if scanning
wavebands endlessly for SOS calls,
puzzled voices from the far Atlantic
not quite loud enough to understand.

If attenuated warnings whisper
sooner than the ultimatum comes,
those signals ride unstable frequencies
that fine-tuned dials cannot fix.
Like rarest butterflies they won’t be pinned to cards.

All the standard measurements will do
is mask the would-be telltale tremors
in a placid atmosphere
and guarantee a taking by surprise 
as common specimens are netted for the jar.

There’s just the wreck of Echo-Sugar’s engine
left to show for hours of fog-bound droning
waiting to come home. Meticulous
corrections for a wind that wasn’t there
unpicked the holding pattern’s tidy knot
unknowingly to dangling loops whose ends 
were always bound to snag against a mountain.



The British Aircraft Industry, Circa 1966

Donald’s involved in a government contract
about slender deltas and laminar flow;
he’s busy with transforms and multiple integrals –
equations and formulae row upon row.

Gerald is dozing and dreaming of Wimbledon
(his sister gets tickets because of her work);
he’s meant to be checking some data with Ronald
who spots a mistake, wakes him up with a jerk.

And outside the bombers are lined up and ready
to roll down the runway, rotate into flight;
but these are mere prototypes, empty of armament
and no one will raid anybody tonight.

Oswald’s a draughtsman with red hair and glasses
a check shirt and beard and he’s gone a bit soft
on the charms and the shape of the blonde busty tracer
who lays out the spars and the ribs in the loft.

And outside the bombers are lined up awaiting
conversion to tankers – or else to be scrapped
or crammed full of cameras for photo-reconnaissance
ensuring all Russia is thoroughly mapped.
Recently made up to manager, Reginald
wears a black homburg, but you’d never guess
this big honey-bear man in crumpled blue trousers
is head of the office that takes care of stress.

And outside the bombers are lined up and rusting.
These small British cousins of B-52s
relied on their pilots: now governments favour
anonymous bombing – cruise missiles, not crews.


sainsbury copy

Loss Adjusters 

They walk beside disused canals
wearing matching jackets. At the collars
slightly shiny uncut hair 
has curled, untidy as an unkept promise.
Afterwards, behind uncurtained windows,
they resume a sleepless dialogue
on lists of post-disaster redesigns.

A strain-gauge to tell if the building is bulging;
foundations dug deeper to shore up the spire;
conventional spars should replace surface bracing;
make fuel-chamber gaskets resistant to fire.

Partnership or kinship means
they share a common blueprint. One’s left-handed 
so they sidle counter crab-wise
scavenging round tragedies.
Beyond too late, there’s always time
for lodging ever-overdue objections
to tenders that should not have won the contract.

The signals defaulting to safe not to danger;
no lightning rod earthing the main mooring mast;
not enough lifeboats for all the ship’s complement;
the iron bridge girders imperfectly cast.

Why make attempts to make amends
for other parties’ negligence or crimes?
After blaming’s had its day 
in court, no praise awaits portfolios
of hindsights. Sorting should-have-beens,
to salvage just one could-be: this, they must
believe, does more than set a record straight.

No missing bulkheads to weaken the vessel;
fill no more airships with porous gas-bags;
add reinforcement at corners of windows;
let cracks be acknowledged, not hidden by flags.


oil can


Effective Aging
Mathematical theories about maintenance rely on the idea that servicing a machine makes its ‘virtual age’ less than its calendar age.

Regular oiling
of all moving parts is like
putting their clocks back.

But at the same time
the same lubrication keeps
clocks ticking forward .


upperberth fine grain

Blossom Going Solo

Free of both of them.
Free as air
because of both of them.

Inigo who bought the lessons –
dutiful, attentive
always wanting her to have things
as if they were by right
and with no fuss on either side. 
A gentleman is not a showman.

Miles who gave the lessons –
deferential but impatient
in wanting her to do things
until she got them right.
He found it hard to hide frustrations
a showman rather than an actor.
Now his solid presence 
and his big firm hands
always ready to take charge
were missing for the first time
from the other cockpit.

Now she must depend
on what he’d told her
until she learned dependence
on herself.
That’s dual control she murmured.

Now the Avro 504 was hers.
All hers.
The long and upswept wooden skid 
bolted on between the wheels
would stop it nosing-over
when she opened up the throttle.


office 2

Process Of Elimination

whenever I approached his door,
I began indulging in the hope
of finding him not there –
and, you understand, not just not there:
not anywhere.

alien abduction,
spontaneous combustion,
or simple misadventure
leaving me an empty body
halfway down the stairs –
for none of these could I be blamed, 
or blame myself.

Surprise would be my alibi:
for as I willed his non-existence
I knew my will had never yet been proved
to have accomplished anything.
At his threshold
I could focus briefly
on a middle distance
beyond the short and awkward
briar-patch of possibility
that fantasy might turn out true.

And there in open fields
the clichés romped:
I’d have those options
other people had;
to find him gone
would let me find myself.

These rehearsals
of a tidy disappearance
were, I like to think,
a harmless way
of getting through some bad times
till something really happened.