Weekly Poem: Mark Ford evokes memory through poetic form

BY Victoria Fleischer  June 2, 2014 at 2:31 PM EDT
Photo by Mark Hinkley courtesy Coffee House Press.

Photo by Mark Hinkley courtesy Coffee House Press.

“I’ve looked at pictures, slides my parents took afterwards, and remember how gray and cold and dreary England was in comparison to the vibrant colors of Africa,” said Mark Ford. Born in Nairobi, Kenya, Ford only lived there until the age of 4, but the move from Kenya to England stuck with him.

From his memories of that time in his life, the poet crafted a pantoum, “which recreates that sense of memory returning but also moving on slightly from each quatrain. It captures the way that one manages change. You’ve got one foot in the past and one foot in the future and the pantoum enacts that.”

That pantoum, After Africa, wasn’t composed overnight. Ford didn’t sleep for days when he was writing it.

“It was like a jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces all over the place and I couldn’t really figure out how to fit them all together,” Ford explained. “You can write pantoums which are surreal, in which case the syntax doesn’t really matter, lines 2 and 4 don’t really relate necessarily or tell a story. In that poem, I’m trying to tell a story really so that I am bound in.”


Listen to Mark Ford read his poem “After Africa” from his new collection “Selected Poems.”

After Africa

After Africa, Surbiton:
An unheated house, and flagstone pavements;
No colobus monkeys, no cheetahs scouring the plains.
Verrucas and weeping blisters ravaged our feet.

An unheated house, and flagstone pavements,
And snow falling through the halos of street lamps;
Verrucas and weeping blisters ravaged our feet;
But the shavings made by our carpenter, Chippy, were as soft as bougainvillea
                     flowers

Or snow falling through the halos of street lamps.
Everyone was pale, pale or gray, as pale or gray
But the shavings made by our carpenter, Chippy, were as soft as bougainvillea
                     flowers …
Red, African dust spilled from the wheels of our toy trucks and cars.

Everyone was pale, pale or gray, as pale or gray
As the faded carpet on which
Red, African dust spilled from the wheels of our toy trucks and cars.
Real traffic roared outside.

A faded carpet on which
Everything seemed after Africa, Surbiton’s
Real traffic roared outside –
No colobus monkeys, no cheetahs scouring the plains.


Ford has only recently started experimenting with various poetic forms. In his new collection, “Selected Works,” the poet also showcases two sestinas and a villanelle.

“Other poems, one can write quite quickly or quite smoothly, but form is an interesting challenge. I always thought myself capable of doing that kind of thing, so I was quite delighted when I found I could do it.”

Ford explored form in his more recent poems as a way to keep diversity amongst his works.

“One of the things I notice when I’m reading a book of poetry: Am I getting a full kaleidoscope of different kinds of poetry, idioms, forms, styles, moods? That’s something that I am quite conscious of aiming to achieve.”

Will we be seeing more forms from Ford?

“I don’t expect I’ll every try one again. They are very devilish to do.”

Excerpts from Selected Poems by Mark Ford courtesy of Coffee House Press.