(For My Father), by Keith Armstrong
You picked splinters
with a pin each day
from under blackened fingernails;
shreds of metal
from the shipyard grime,
minute memories of days swept by:
the dusty remnants of a life
spent in the shadow of the sea;
the tears in your shattered eyes
at the end of work.
And your hands were strong,
so sensitive and capable
of building boats
and nursing roses;
a kind and gentle man
who never hurt a soul,
the sort of quiet knackered man
who built a nation.
Dad, I watched your ashes float away
down to the ocean bed
and in each splinter
I saw your caring eyes
and gracious smile.
I think of your strong silence every day
and I am full of you,
the waves you scaled,
and all the sleeping Tyneside streets
you taught me to dance my fleeting feet along.
When I fly, you are with me.
I see your fine face
in sun-kissed clouds
and in the gold ring on my finger,
and in the heaving crowd on Saturday,
and in the lung of Grainger Market,
and in the ancient breath
of our own Newcastle.
Keith Armstrong was born in Newcastle upon Tyne, where he has worked as a community development worker, poet, librarian and publisher. He now lives in the seaside town of Whitley Bay and is coordinator of the Northern Voices creative writing and community publishing project which specialises in recording the experiences of people in the North East of England. He has organised several community arts festivals in the region and many literary events. He was founder of Ostrich poetry magazine, Poetry North East, Tyneside Writers’ Workshop, Tyneside Poets, East Durham Writers’ Workshop, Tyneside Trade Unionists for Socialist Arts, Tyneside Street Press and the Strong Words and Durham Voices community publishing series. He has compiled and edited books on the Durham Miners’ Gala and on the former mining communities of County Durham, the market town of Hexham and the heritage of North Tyneside. He completed a doctorate on Newcastle writer Jack Common at the University of Durham in 2007. His poetry has been extensively published in magazines such as New Statesman, Poetry Review, Dream Catcher, Other Poetry, Aesthetica, Iron, Salzburg Poetry Review and Poetry Scotland, as well as in the collections The Jingling Geordie, Dreaming North, Pains of Class and Imagined Corners, on cassette, LP & CD, and on radio & TV. He also has an extensive record of poetry performance throughout Europe and beyond.
We met Dr Armstrong on our recent visit to the UK, through another Tyneside-based poet, Dave Alton. Dave and Keith were kind enough to introduce us to local bars The Bridge and The Red House – recommended if you’re over that way.
Oh Janis, this poem gives me goosebumps – it could be written by my Mum about my grandfather who lived in Seaham Harbour until he emigrated here in his 60s . Every detail true – from the fingernails to the ships (not building but still, ships) to the gentle strength to the roses and the ashes in the ocean to Tyneside/Newcastle. The only thing Keith missed was the tattoo. Thank you so much. I’ll send the link for the poem to my Mum.