Tag Archives: Beautiful Dragons

Topical Iodine

This is the poem I wrote for the Beautiful Dragons project on the elements. I chose Iodine because I had a sharp memory of it, right down to the clinical smell and the trips, alone. to the clinic, where we were sent from school if we had a minor injury. It seems amazing that no-one came with us. I relished these walks, despite a bleeding knee, because it was precious quiet time out of the hurly burly of school.
When researching, I read that this tincture, so loved in the 1950s and 60s, is now obsolete. I am posting this poem at the request of Cathy Thomas-Bryant. The photo is me, aged around 9.

Topical Iodine

Iodine is indicated as an antiseptic and disinfectant in the topical treatment of superficial skin infections caused by susceptible gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria in minor abrasions, burns, or cuts. Archived, may be obsolete.

Blue as school ink with rumours of purple,

medicinal perfume to scent our scrapes,

blossoming on skin, bestowed by crisp nurses.


A bleeding knee was dabbed with sapphire drops,

its sting soon forgiven, as Rorschach blots

spread their magic, dripped into white socks.


How many times I fell in the yard

to exchange dull assembly for a walk alone

through streets silent of school clatter, fizzing rhymes


forming themselves in my mouth, the copper of

rainy pavements leading to sky-blue railings,

stone steps, wedged-open clinic doors:


antiseptic spells, where there were no bullies,

no screaming teachers, but a hushed routine,

lace-ups squeaking on polished floors.


I tried words for size, like tincture and chemical,

words I was too young to spell, though their rhythms

chimed in my ear, saved up like cajoled coins.


My iodine days, those blue forgotten mornings,

now obsolete, half a century away from here,

scented like parma violets, sweet on my tongue.


Angela Topping




angela at school


This poem is included in my new collection, provided my editor likes it, out later this year.


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Beautiful Dragons



Today I was delighted to read at Lancaster Lit Fest, as part of the Beautiful Dragons showcase event. Beautiful Dragons is a wonderful collaborative writing project run by the energetic and passionate Rebecca Bilkau. I was invited to take part in the third one, Heavenly Bodies, which is when Beautiful Dragons first came to my attention. The idea came from Rebecca, and another poet I admire, Sarah Hymas, writing about the same subject at the same time. Each successive project has involved more and more poets.

The collaboration is run in a non-competitive way. Each poet chooses the aspect of the theme they are going to work on and simply gets on with their own poem. There were 88 poets involved with writing about the 88 constellations for Heavenly Bodies, A Constellation of Poetry (2014) and  an astonishing 118 for the latest book, My Dear Watson, The Very Elements in Poetry (2015). I stand in awe of Rebecca’s energy in producing these books from start to finish, including commissioning the poets, chasing them up (probably similar to herding cats at times) and bringing out elegant, beautifully produced books with gorgeous covers and illustrations by Richard Kenton Webb and Una Murphy.

The range of poets included makes for a great mix of different approaches to the theme, and each poet has a completely different aspect, so the books are held together by a thread but the poems are not limited in style or approach, so long as there is a clear link with the theme.

For example, in Heavenly Bodies, I wrote about Perseus, which was fun, writing as a man (well half god, as he boasts in the poem), Melissa Lee-Houghton wrote about Cancer the Crab, Jan Dean wrote a witty poem about Canis Minor, John Glenday chose Lacerta, Oz Hardwick, Lyra, and Bob Beagrie about Vela. Some of us read our constellations poems today, but the main focus was on the new book.

As Janet Rogerson couldn’t be there because of a clash with the fabulous Poets and Players, which she helps to run, I read her stunning and spare poem on Arsenic. Thanks to Janet for permission to feature her poem here:


In 1849, Rebecca Smith was hanged for the murder of eight of her children. Afraid they ‘might come to want’, she poisoned them while breastfeeding. 

Tip a small moon –  hush rhyme of the sky moon-
white powder. One. Like sugar, like salt, like snow.
Up there’s where heaven is. Two. Like milk,
strong toothless hold, hungry you. Three.
Blanket heavy as day old bread. Drink away
your hunger. Four. Take my fullness take all
you want. I’ll boil his milk, full moon on the river,
he’ll come home drunk wanting me. Five.
Long night I’ll feed you, small mouths
pulling and pulling , mornings drowning in milk.
Six. This dress, tightening fire on skin,
soaked hard into winter. Seven.
Don’t cry.
Come home each night and drink. Eight.

This poem is very compassionate. It demonstrates what straights of poverty this mother was living in, with a husband demanding sex and no birth control. One has only to visit the Foundling Museum in London to see the desperation of these mothers who had to apply for a place for their babies, and the staff were instructed to accept only babies whose mother was of impeccable morals. Rebecca Smith was hanged for this crime, but she was taking what she thought was the kindest course of action. The counting of the babies is heart-rending. Janet Rogerson does not waste a single word here.

I’ve also been given permission to feature Gill Lambert’s poem about Calcium. This was another stand out poem for me at the Manchester launch (a night of torrential rain and obscuring roadworks) because I am fascinated by the Wars of the Roses. It chimes with the discovery of Richard III’s poor corpse in a Leicester car park, too. But this is not a high royal figure. but one of the common soldiers who died in Britain’s bloodiest battle.

Towton 25*

Before the battle buried me, and snow
filled every hole my body had to offer,
before Palm Sunday, fourteen-sixty-one,
cleaved a question mark into my skull,
I dreamed of this. In every billet-bed
and whoring house, I wondered not how
I would die, but what would be found.

I never considered bones would testify
my truth. That every tooth God gave me,
would be found, but my brain, with my identity
would dissolve into pulp and drain
into the soil. My personality seep
from my body with my liver and my lungs.

There was never any hint in beer-soaked
nightmares that my name would be lost,
eaten away with my woollen vest, rotted
into rags by years of floods and dust-filled
droughts. I’ve emptied my fertility into the land
where the grass has grown lush but my daughters
and my sons would never come to be.

All that’s left of me is here, labelled.
Numbered, tagged and catalogued – my bones,
battle-scarred and stripped of flesh. Aged
between one decade and the next, I have become
an estimate; there are no details of the woman
that I loved or the friend in whose memory
I remained clear, only to die with him.

*Towton 25 is the name of a skeleton that was removed from a mass grave at the site of the battle of Towton, in 1996.
Gill Lambert gives this unknown man a voice and makes him young, innocent and disbelieving in his own anonymity. The rotting of the corpse is so vividly imagined. I love the line about snow filling every hole his body could offer, and the idea of him spilling his possible children into the soil. Like Rogerson’s poem, every word has been chosen with care and judicious thought.

My own poem for this book was about Topical Iodine, referring to a treatment for minor wounds that is now obsolete. Some poets wrote about the element itself, or its discovery or discoverer. There were as many different approaches as poets.

The books are available from Rebecca Bilkau and are reasonably priced at £7.99. All of the poets who were involved are excited to know what her next idea will be for us to tackle. Today was a lovely event, run informally and collaboratively. It was great to meet some of the other poets again, and encounter some I had not met before. A big round of applause for Beautiful Dragons! Apologies to all the poets I have not mentioned! There were loads of brilliant poems in both books. Impossible to mention every one.





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Heavenly Bodies


This lovely anthology has just come out from Beautiful Dragons Collaborations (£7.99), edited by Rebecca Bilkau. There is a poem inspired by 88 constellations, written by 88 different poets. I thought it might be interesting to discuss how I worked at my choice of constellation, because increasingly these kind of commissions are happening for poets across the range. I think this is a good thing. I learned to write to order through being asked to contribute to children’s poetry anthologies back in the day, when requests would come in for poems on various themes. Sitting down at the desk and forcing myself to have a go, and to find an angle on themes like football, which I had little knowledge of, and topics like magic, which I did, was huge fun and got me into over 50 anthologies for children published by Macmillan, OUP, Walker Books, Collins and so on, and it also gave me discipline.

So when Rebecca invited me to choose a constellation and write a poem in under 30 lines, I was up for the challenge. Some of the constellations had already been taken, but I did feel attracted to Perseus, so I grabbed that one. I’ve loved the Greek myth since I first read it retold for children, when I was about six, I did try to move away from the story to some extent but it kept coming back to me. I would advise poets writing a commissioned poem to read around the subject for a while and jot down any promising pieces of information, which may or may not be used, but give the mind a chance to get into the zone. After the reseach phase, I like to leave things for a while, to sink in and penetrate into the creative parts of the brain.

I tend not to write from an idea but listen to the words when they come into my mind – all very romantic-sounding, I know, but that is how poems first come and tap me on the shoulder. It may be very different from other poets. I had a feeling I wanted to hear Perseus’ own voice. I was intrigued by how unpromising a start in life he had, with his virgin mother imprisoned in a tower and a heavy prophecy laid on him. I had to edit his story down, so couldn’t cover everything.

I wanted my opening to suggest the sexiness of Zeus’ seduction of Danae, so had the rain coming in through ‘the slit/ from a sky of unbroken blue’, to suggest both the window and Danae’s body. Danae and the baby boy were put into a locked wooden box to drown but they were rescued and brought up by a kindly fisherman. I created a rather swaggering,  braggart voice for Perseus, because in the story he seemed fearless and full of energy, rescuing Andromeda, killing Medusa, encountering all sorts of fearsome creatures. My research on the constellation came in handy. I didn’t want to construct Andromeda as a maiden who was easy prey, and when I read that her constellation was nearby, but not part of Perseus’, it gave me a way to suggest her independence:  ‘Andromeda’s always near, but her own person’. I included some of the star names because they were pleasing to the ear and referenced things in his story. I tend to include physicality in my poems because I am quite sensuous in my approach to life, and often enjoy textures and scents. So the image about Medusa’s head ‘dangling/ from my hand like a weighted sack’ seemed to work visually as well as through touch.

Perseus’ story involves a lot of sea travel but in the afterlife, he lives in the sky. This gave me my title, ‘From Sea to Sky’, and my lst line: ‘I, always on the sea, have learned to fly’. When I had finished the poem I had to edit it down to be under 30 lines, which is a great discipline. I ended up rejigging the stanzas a little and tightening it up all over, after showing it to my crit group, which is made up of only six of us, all very different, but all poets I admire. They made some useful suggestions, which I mostly acted upon.

I am very pleased with my finished poem and am in some great company. I am still perusing the poems, but I particularly admire Jan Dean’s witty ‘Above Ard-Na- Bruthaich’, Steven Waling’s ‘Kepler 10b in Draco’, Anja Konig’s ‘Light on the galactic tide’ and no doubt more favourites will emerge when I have had time to read further.

I’d like to thank Rebecca for thinking of me. We didn’t know each other prior to the project and it’s good to have made a new friend, even if it is just in the virtual world.

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