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Poetry

I wrote poetry back in the 1980s, then stopped, starting again in 2012. Whereas in the past I wrote mostly free verse, these days I mainly use more formal styles as I enjoy the challenge and discipline this provides, and find my words surprise me more often. Something to do with the collision – and synergy, I hope – between form and content. I’ve started to have a few published, and am republishing those here.

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The widower

The mourners gone, he felt no need

to mark her passing with a stone:

her ashes swirled into the wind

to fly or fall where they’d be blown,

 

as fields and copses called her name

in silence louder than he’d known,

on hillsides permanently changed,

and paths he’d follow now alone.

 

He stripped the house on to the lawn –

wallpaper, sofa, tables, phones,

chairs, carpets, clothes – and burned it all:

a perfect pyre of what they’d owned…

 

and turned his back upon the flames

to pick a single rose she’d grown

then sat and watched its slow decay

for days, within their hollow home.


Published in Acumen vol 88 Summer 2017

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Years

 

Were I to live another ten

I’d reach the very brink of old,

the gorse would bloom ten times again,

 

I’d reconnect with long lost friends

and see my children’s dreams unfold –

were I to live another ten.

 

I’d turn my face to church and mend

my broken faith; in blazing gold

the gorse would bloom ten times again;

 

I’d visit towns like this and spend

my evenings looking in, alone,

were I to live another ten.

 

We’d make love, winter nights, and then

as springtime warmth replaced the cold

the gorse would bloom, ten times again.

 

The years ahead diminish when

I measure what they may not hold:

were I to live another ten,

the gorse would bloom ten times again.

 

Kent & Sussex Folio 2017

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Catherine writes home from the Via Appia

 

After the Romans subdued the insurrection led by Spartacus,

they crucified more than 6000 slaves along 130 miles

of the Via Appia. – Nineteenth century guide book.

 

‘A cold, dry wind blows hollow through the hearts

of travellers from Capua to Rome;

a cross set every thirty paces marks

their haunted progress northward and reminds

them uniformly, order outweighs stone.

 

Uncountable, the undrawn souls consigned

to void, unnamed in epitaph or song…

Conflict is human history’s constant bride;

her dowry underwrites a wedding feast

for which both invitation list and night are long.

 

With fewer wars today, by learning peace

we darkly learn ourselves: is it enough

we see the cruelty in war decrease

and yet sustain it, plainly hidden among

the dancing shadows of our winter hearth?

 

All hurt is felt and meted out by one

and every violence is intimate:

upon each cross a soldier nails a man.

Each night I shrink and tighten, and await

the terror of your voice, your breath, your hand.’

 

Shortlisted and published in the booklet of the 2017 music and poetry collaboration ‘Out of Place’

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1955

i.m. Richard Langridge *

 

Magpies love a rabbit halfway dead

to peck its weeping eyes, disdain the rest

then nonchalantly pause and lift their heads,

hop down and pick their way along the vale

of pain to blind and leave undead, the next.

 

Romans loved rabbits, too: their settlers sailed

with does and bucks, as well as laws and peace.

We love them less we’ve placed them on a trail

where gun-green birds glint in the April sun,

imperious at their casual charnel feast.

 

We met the halfway dead, half hidden among

the dead, as we advanced towards Berlin.

 

I lift the stricken rabbits one by one,

take cover from their blank and aimless stare,

then break their necks and set them down within

the shadowed margins of the coppice, where

last autumn’s leaves lie cold and half decayed.

 

The magpies scatter but they reappear.

 

I’m tired of asking if this horror show

would have me save or kill, or kill to save,

and – as I watch myself deal every blow –

if Romans’ clearer view of dying made

them kinder. Perhaps the feasting magpies know.

 

* Lt. Langridge helped liberate Belsen concentration

camp in 1945. Mixomatosis was introduced to Britain

on his farm in Kent in 1953. Two years later,

he shot himself, by which time the number of rabbits

in the country had declined by 95%.

(This poem was shortlisted and commended in the Binsted Arts Festival 2016, and is on Binsted Arts Festival 2016 website).

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The nurseryman

 

and then the government attacked

and fire leapt from roof to roof

and all the colours bled to black

for days the greatest rainstorm sluiced

the soot from stumps of home to stain

the soil I lost my wife to war

our girl to floods our boy to flames

I fled with only what I wore

I hid in fields in ditches – nights

I named the rose I bred for each

repeatedly and hugged them tight

I walked in circles weeks then reached

this pebbled shore at Dungeness

awaiting boats to France or death

 

(This is on Ink Sweat & Tears)

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Abominations

 

The plates are shifting. Tremors cause the curs

to raise their heads and bark: no sounds emerge.

Each day is hotter – farmers heap their carts

with what they can and drag them past

the rotting bodies of their wives and sons.

Dictators we thought gone, return, no more undone

by light, than those whose fleshy hands direct

the giant machines to fall upon and shake

and topple mountains.

     Governments on which

we were accustomed to depend unleash

regimes of scarcity, the hospice door

is barred, and patients roam the roads or crawl

into a ditch alone, their muttered groans

subsiding one by one, cadavers overgrown

with weeds. Those soldiers who’ve returned tell tales

in monotone of thankless killing; trails

confined by restless shadows; plains traversed

in fear and silence; days of endless thirst.

 

Meanwhile our chiefs prepare new wars against

ambitious nations. Freshly-minted states

assemble moral hordes to re-invade

their neighbours, whole societies implode

and bands of zealots desecrate the land

to desert sliced across by silver strands.

 

Each vote returns the day to dark. Each time

a man gives shelter to a friend he finds

her dead at dawn. Each dressing we apply

infects the wound, and balsam multiplies

the pain. Our psalms and prayers and countless acts

of minor good stack up to no impact

at all against this almanac of stained

abominations stalking our domain.

 

We’ve exhausted every path we knew to please

the gods. We can’t know where this journey leads.

But we do. It takes us from the citadel

out through the gates, unquestionably to hell.

Each verse and chapter must be told again

from the beginning, merely to defer the end.

 

Shortlisted and published in the booklet of the 2017 music and poetry collaboration ‘Out of Place’

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Buzzards

I hear her first – a screech half stolen by

the wind; then glimpse her lift away; flat tail,

white band along the underwing, as sail-

like storm clouds race behind. Again her cry

guides me towards first two then, when they’ve flown,

four buzzards, where there had been one, aloft

above the skylark field, adrift but deft

in their control, each twice as wide as long.

Within a moment they have veered away

atop the wind; my spirit soaring free.

I’ve walked and worked this valley more

than thirty years; complained about the way

the world has changed, but never thought I’d see

four buzzards, where there had been none before.

 

Commended in the 2017 Fosseway Writers Competition.

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The flower preserver

 

Dusk almost hid behind her eyes

as with a voice of quiet tears

she handed me the columbines

her sister’s unforgiving man

had picked, the day he reappeared,

still labelled in his brutal hand:

Our love is stronger than your lies.

 

They bring me flowers to preserve,

my clients: quiet memorials

to love, death, marriage, birth;

to people, moments, days now past –

parched, pastel talismans that pull

like tides upon the heart and cast

their fragile shadows on the earth.

 

I work in silence. When the shop

bell rings I read the blooms and how

they’re brought – a bridal bouquet dropped

with nonchalance, a frail fern leaf

less held than touched, the tightly-wound

ivy and easter lily wreath,

a chaos of forget-me-nots…

 

I give them what they come here for:

a clue to whom they may have been;

a bar to whom they might become.

I can’t preserve, much less restore

that April day, nor all those dreams

we shared under the springtime sun.

I’ve kept the primroses I wore.

 

A slightly edited version of this was runner up at the Shepton Mallet Poetry Competition, 2017

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The wall

 

Long peace with France had softened us,

but life at home was never still.

God knows we fought, often enough,

and hard, about money, the mill,

your family – everything – until

 

we wore each other down, and learned

the art of never being where

the other was; and in return

somehow negotiated air

enough to breathe; and layer by layer

 

we built a wall: on your side home,

the church, community; you made

our children yours and yours alone.

On mine, the town, the milling trade,

the rarest snowdrops ever grown.

 

No other thrill can match the lurch

of coiled desire I felt each year

as new-bred snowdrop stems appeared,

and promised petals – unshed tears –

in unseen whites and greens emerged;

 

nor disappointment match my hurt,

that winter every snowdrop failed

to bloom, dissolving in the dirt,

and loosing suddenly a gale

of silence louder than I’d heard.

 

And then, as though you’d waited long

for this, you stepped across the wall

and stilled my silence, broke my fall,

and gave a plantsman lessons on

the way to shelter plants from storms.

 

James Allen (1832-1906) – the ‘Snowdrop King’ –

a miller and amateur plantsman in Shepton Mallet, Somerset,

grew over 100 snowdrop varieties. But after

decades of intensive breeding, his collection was all but

wiped out by fungal and insect infestations.

A slightly edited version of this was runner up at the Shepton Mallet Poetry Competition, 2017

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Catching the train to work

 

Today the blackbird sings for the first time:

a warp for the robin’s weft; their sonic loom

afloat in the drifted mist, its weight defined

by the delicate silence it’s lifted on.

 

Behind, the door latch gently clicks. Ahead: the dew-

drops pick out daffodils in liquid light;

the green and crimson perfect curve of new

rose stems, appearing overnight;

 

fresh honeysuckle leaves unfurl in rows

of twins on tendrils searching sightlessly;

my neighbour’s newly white-washed cottage shows,

in silhouette, her awkward apple tree.

 

I step into the dawn, and into zone

on overlapping zone of birdsong, cast

from slender branches, garden shrubs, the lone

oak’s healed stub, announcing winter’s passed.

 

A boy walks through this music more than four

decades ago. He feels, but does not see

the far-off ploughman, paused, eyes raised in awe,

transported by the moment touching me.

 

Today’s the magic Leaping Forward Day

which startles us with shoots and song each year:

unheralded, obscurity cedes way

to light, and in this moment, all is clear.

 

Runner-up in the 2017 Fosseway Writers Competition

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Twenty-five years

For Tebo

 

I waken too early, on woodsman’s toes explore

a home that’s still, until our neighbour turns

the news up loud, and you begin to snore

to match the rhythm of the morning trains.

 

Again I discover as though surprised, the sounds

of dawn are sung by modern life not birds,

that we inhabit cul de sacs, not glades,

wear dressing gowns, not bark cloth capes or furs.

 

So coffee and toast, and a view of the low winter sky,

an hour or two at tasks brought home from work:

I read, respond, review, redraft, delay,

and listen out for when I hear you stir.

 

We make pastel love, and when we look outside

a quiet snow has fallen across the town.

The sun shines on the whitened roofs and road.

We smile and put the central heating on.

 

(Published on Ink Sweat & Tears )

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Loss

 

I met you only briefly, twice,

perhaps a dozen years ago

beneath the pinnacles of ice

you feared. I wonder, often: did you sow

those seeds you held, into the melted snow?

 

You stood there slight, but this stood out:

you were a powerhouse of grief;

alone. And certain – way past doubt –

of utter undeception, in whose teeth

you’d lost your grip of comfortable belief.

 

So deep, so deep, you felt distress,

it stayed unburied, near to hand,

from where you vouched your forthright sense

the gods, with arbitrary spite, had planned

to visit drought upon and scorch your land.

 

I screwed my eyes against the glare

of highland light which bathed, and drained

all life, from the deserted square;

I wanted nothing, nothing more, right then

than for you to be healed and whole again,

 

and still, today, I think of you

abandoned – brittle, proud – by grace.

I pray you found a pathway through

the melting snow to reach a burial place

wherein to plant anew; a safer space.

 

(Published by Pennine Platform, 2016)

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Dictator

 

You take me to task because a man has died.

I ask: do you think I can just forget?

Know this: to protect what’s left to protect

I won’t stop short of murder when required.

We won’t return to unreaped harvests, heads

bent over crippled stalks; the awkward shapes

in stiff repose; the thrice-abandoned space

bereft of you, the slaughterers, the dead.

Democracy will wait until I fear

no more the clattered landing of the crow

in silent farmland, nor that salt-sweet smell.

In quiet moments now, the sounds I hear

are not the cries of twenty years ago –

but their foretokened echoes, should I fail.

 

(Published by Pennine Platform, 2016)

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Eyes

For Goya

 

You painted duchesses and kings as who

they were – not whom they wished to be – and gave

them what they wanted nonetheless. You drew

the inner contours of their souls; engraved

in permanence their fleeting light and shade

to share a tincture of humanity

with who would see. With care you weighed and made

each mark in a seditious tracery

of progress. Chronicler and refugee

of war, your inner turmoil matched your times:

from deep within your silence you perceived

and stilled the moment, and with tints and lines

you offer us a glimpse through people’s eyes

of history as its brushstroke touched their lives.

 

(Published by Pennine Platform, 2016)

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El Tres de Mayo

 

The edge of town. A lantern lights the man

about to die. His comrades clasp their eyes.

He kneels: arms spread like sails aloft, he wills

defiance but it’s terror which obtains.

 

The friar murmurs blessings, swears and damns

the French. The waiting chorus moans and cries,

then ‘tirez!’, muskets fusillade; he spills

beside the corpses slumped among the stains.

 

Low fearful wails behind the victims’ hands,

the panicked mumbling of the priest who shrives

the doomed, the terse command, the gunshots – still

they resonate, among the faint remains

 

of ancient susurrus of surf on sand,

dead families’ and lovers’ truths and lies,

muezzin, birdsong, rain on rooftiles, peals

of laughter, angelus and lonesome trains.

 

Each wave, since noise and atmosphere began,

continuously pales but never dies:

each instant as it passes, pares and steals

a half, and then a half, and half again…

 

reducing history from the first big bang

towards a point it will not realise:

attenuated, yet its core prevails,

diminishing, but nowhere vanishing.

 

What’s past is present: faded cryptogram

of sound – no matter if we try to prise

a meaning out of or ignore it – fills

our ears with its abiding, quiet refrain:

 

the edge of town. A lantern lights the man

about to die. His comrades clasp their eyes.

He kneels: arms spread like sails aloft, he wills

defiance but it’s terror which obtains.

 

(Published in the Kent & Sussex Poetry Folio, 2016)                                                  

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    My weather girl

 

Tonight you told us our tomorrow will

be changeable, though starting dry.

You spoke with all the confidence instilled

by science and facts – but I could see

anxiety alive behind your eyes.

 

They spoke of unslept nights, of the debris

and disarray of home where dawn

no longer gracefully unfolds but bleeds

a crimson warning to the day;

of weather fronts where storm clouds follow storm.

 

The data show that winter’s here to stay,

but you persist with your forecast

of early spring, where daffodils display

above the snow, proof of the heat

still stored below. It will not come to pass:

 

your husband’s love affair with self-defeat

ensures that every sign of thaw,

however mild, is just one more deceit

before the sky turns dark again

and elements resume their climate war.

 

His voice, as you drive home in sheets of rain,

reveals he’s turned once more to face

the buffets of the private hurricane

he mocks and dares to do its worst –

from his retreat within the sham embrace

 

of grape or grain. You close your phone and curse.

Your stomach seeps with acid fear,

uncertain if the threatening clouds will burst

upon the night ahead. I share

your dread, and drink my numbness deep and fast,

to be inert when you reach here.

 

(Published in the Kent & Sussex Poetry Folio, 2016)        

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Love

 

I see old friends desert their wives, and ask

‘Why not?’ Looked at from outside and from in

it seems improbable our love would last

this long – yet still we wear each other’s ring.

I often fret our mutual need to cling

to love or marriage is what joins our lives

from year to year – and when we come to sing

of love, it’s love, and not our love, we strive

for. Yet you dread death, but would not survive

my death, you say; and I, in foggy dreams

of widowed freedom, feel the future screw

of pain your absence turns, sharp as a scythe.

Our love is love, and so my heart redeems

a life as long as life allows, with you.

 

(Published in the Kent & Sussex Poetry Folio, 2015)

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The pallbearer

 

Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven

to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling,

but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes,

but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity;

in the habitations of thy glory and dominion, world without end. – John Donne

 

The bell falls quiet; the horses’ shoes collide

with cobbles; music floats; the priest appears.

we measure off our height in equal pairs,

absorb the coffin’s weight and, eyes downcast,

in tentative half-march, proceed inside.

 

June’s brightness filters limpid through stained glass

into a cool obscurity. Song climbs

from choir to fill the space, and all combines

in Dean Donne’s Equal Music, Equal Light,

to ease us, leaving but two questions at the last.

 

What makes a well-lived life good, in our sight?

The mourners praise her as a wife, her art,

the way she raised her children, her kind heart.

Was that enough, how do we set the bar?

Had she done more, might they still more delight?

 

And what is left of us, when what we are

dissolves? A pigeon perches in the beams,

and causes quite a stir, her soul it seems

ascending – mumbo jumbo, surely: wings

as apt to rouse, as raise her to a star.

 

The vicar sprinkles holy water, sings

the final phrases as his curate swings

the censer, then we shoulder her again.

I’d swear she’s lighter now than when we came –

not by the weight of her departed flame –

but since to pray together strengthens us within.

 

 (Published in the Kent & Sussex Poetry Folio, 2015)

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Flax

 

…through generous fields of flax, their overlapping

flowers a gentle gentian; tangled mats

of chamomile among the wheat; to trapped-

in, hedged-in meadows, hemmed by sunken tracks

and spreading oaks, with you – so closer to

the past than I – I felt the touch of those

whose baulks of timber dragged these lanes, who knew

the cloying scent of mayweed, clover, drove

the horses pastured in these intimate

enclaves to till and sow. I wondered how

this path we trod began, saw William on

his horse lean forward to negotiate

his needs: their right to walk and rent and plough

the land he’d won, with those he’d won it from.

 

(Shortlisted and commended in the Ealing Magna Carta competition, 2015) 

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The wind


This moon, two days past its fullest, must be

shining, blue like here, on stumps and

shattered remnants of the copse I

strode through nightly seeking confirmation

of your love.

 

The images and spirits I once dodged,

flinched at: are they shattered too, their

shelter wrenched away – are they thus freed? Or

is their story bitterer still than ours?

 

Did you breathe that mushroom smell, scuff

leaves with your boots as you

scavenged: one pocket for chestnuts

and cobs the squirrels lost, the other

for ceps, and wooden whorls or shapes that

anyone else would miss?

 

Or did you miss all that, as I am now,

away on ventures new: not bound in life

to that small wood as you are in

this memory of you?

 

When the wind came, did you scream and freeze

like Hollywood? Or was it over before

it began – Bang! Breath hurled out

of your lungs to join the assault?

 

Even before, in the time of my nightly walks,

there were things I failed to protect you from – people,

mostly; one in particular. But that

night of the wind – what could I have done but

reach my hand for yours in unfinished

gesture of need and fear?

 

And now the moon shines; nights are colder.

Stumps, jagged and torn – ripped. And silence.

 

(Published in Other Poetry).

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9.23 pm

 

A precious moment splits your smile

From when your face begins to slide.

Eleven minutes splits that breath

From when the ambulance arrives.

 

An hour and forty minutes pass

Before a nurse is at your side.

With tenderness she takes your pulse,

Looks at her watch. And then you died.

 

In measurement of time and space,

Your passing lacks a feather’s weight.
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Abu Rakham

 

Soft

Atlantic

rain

kisses my scalp –

a thousand kisses –

though we are miles from any sea.

 

Frogs fill the night with their

machine-gun love song,

drowning the

mosquito hum.

 

Gentle swish,

benign,

of raindrops on sapling leaves, old

thatch and

fresh grass,

moon only guessed at,

hidden

by motionless cloud.

 

All these – all

you –

people,

asleep on crooked beds,

not hearing the

creak of the wheel, but

turning with it

through sleep and

the changes it brings.

 

Tonight I learned I’ll leave this place:

suddenly I love it.

 

(Published in Other Poetry).

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metromanrandom-graphic

(Metro-man was published in Elbow Room Broadsheet, June 2016)

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