Apologies. The cobweb’s a day late. It was half written yesterday when the dishwasher started to flash warning signs and to cease work mid-cycle. It turned out after some time that the impeller on the pump was jammed with a bit of broken glass. Or, because you’re keen on poetry, a shard. Anyway, it involved some finicking with tweezers and a lot of mopping. All is now well, so on with the post.
The thing about poetry readings is you pays your money (or, more often, don’t) and you takes your choice. We’ve been to poetry nights where the poet(s) and organisers outnumber the punters; one remarkable one in Bradford where the normally designated pub room was full of sleeping bags…….some may have been occupied. And those where the floor is taken by a manic street preacher who cannot be persuaded that the open mic is not the place for his grievances. The ones where the poetry is buried under an avalanche of jukebox and drunken revelry from an adjacent room. One memorable one where the poetry competed with Morris Men in the street outside. Ones where an audience member grows increasingly puzzled until s/he realises it’s not a Union Branch Meeting after all.
And there are poetry nights that are memorable simply because they make you feel good about yourself, about poetry, about the human condition. It was like that last Thursday at The Albert Poets in Huddersfield, not just because of the quality of the poetry, which was great, but also because there wasn’t even standing room. The Albert’s back room these days houses a pool table, and the poets are now out in the front bar, right by the front door on to the street. It’s an interesting space, and becomes even more interesting when a whole bunch of lovely folk hire a minibus and turn up in numbers. It happened in November when Ian Parks (who will, before too long, be a guest poet) was reading with Steve Ely and Smokestack Books editor, the splendid Andy Croft, and were supported by travelling fans from Mexborough…a bit like football, or music. Apparently, they liked it so much that they came again last Thursday to support Neil Clarkson, Emma Storr, Mike di Placido and Mexborough poet,Mike O’Brien, featured below. You might just see the orange barriers outside the door. The council were digging up the street, with drills and mechanical diggers. Which is always interesting.
And Mike Di Placido displayed, courtesy of Mark Hinchcliffe, one of Ted Hughes’ Mont Blanc pens, about which he’s written a belter of a poem in his collection ‘Crow flight across the sun’. It was a special night. Some of them are.
In and among all this are memories of poetry nights where you heard a poet for the first time, one who reads something that stops you in your tracks, makes you sit up and pay attention. Almost all of the poets who have been guests on the cobweb are in this category. Nearly all the contemporary poetry I own has been bought at readings (including some on residential courses) where I heard these poets for the first time. (most people knew about them already, but that’s not the point, is it?). Ruth Valentine, Steve Ely, Rebecca Gethin, Christy Ducker, Jonathan Edwards, Roy Marshall, Jane Clarke, Shirley McLure…..and so on and so on. Which brings us nicely to today’s guest and (un)discovered gem.
In December I drove over the M62 to Liverpool for the launch of Coast to coast to coast 2, at the Open Eye Gallery on the waterfront near the Pier head. It was a lovely cold night, and I’d forgotten how nice it is to walk, all wrapped up, through mainly deserted spaces like the Albert Dock, and to enjoy light on water. It was like being a student in the 60s again. The world bright, new-minted. I’m hoping to dedicate a post to Coast to coast… in the very near future. Enough to say it’s the brainchild of Maria Isakova Bennett and Michael Brown, and they produce limited- edition, fabric-covered and handstitched pamphlets.
They’re flooded with submissions whenever they invite them, and they attract ‘names’. Their second pamphlet opens with a stunner from John Glenday. There are poems from Suzannah Evans, Stephanie Conn, Paul Stephenson, Rebecca Gethin…
It was a splendid launch, with poets from all over, and one of those readings where I heard lots of poets for the first time. Charles Lauder Jr., Robin Houghton and the one with opening lines that jumped out at me from the page..a poem by today’s guest Ken Evans
“(where no DNA, prints or dental records exist, jewellery helps identification)
What survives is love, and jewellery –”
The whole poem follows shortly, but first, I’ll let Ken introduce himself..it’s a fascinating story of his arrival in this odd world of writing poems.
“I find a lot of people come to poetry through crisis – break-up; divorce; a death; redundancy; an unexpected rift in the weave; an addiction, or the journey from addiction; or simply a mid-life loss of way. This last, though less dramatic, is just as debilitating – a creeping sense of alienation, that won’t be denied.
My own moment came after donating a kidney to my sister who had lupus. An incurable but not necessarily killer-disease, she’d reached the stage of dialysis. Without a donor, it can be a seven-year wait for a good match. Often, twice that. The op. went well, but left me with a collapsed lung (re-inflatable) and a loss of purpose (less easy to breathe air into.)
My job seemed pointless and stressful. While presenting, I started swaying and for an instant, lost all depth of field, so that the person farthest from me in the room seemed as upfront and close as the person in the front row. Unnerving. A cardiogram suggested a small stroke – a TIA (Transient Ischaemic Attack.)
[I’ve spent time speculating about the subtext of the gap that Ken leaves between this paragraph and the next. It’s one of those ‘In one bound he was free’ narratives!
“A kidney short, but an Arvon course up, I was away. A Master’s in Poetry at Manchester University under the brilliant John McAuliffe, Vona Groarke and Frances Leviston (and the then-Writer-in-Residence, Colette Bryce), and I was hooked.
Placings in Poets & Players; the Bridport; Troubadour; the National Poetry Prize longlist; Bare Fiction and the Nine Arches Press ‘Primers’ series – all boosted self-confidence, and made me start to think I’ll have a shot at this poetry-stuff, and I began living for the time I could steal at the keyboard/notebook.
I read all the time – as of course, all workshop-leaders tell us we must: mainly lyric North Americans like Henry Cole, Carl Phillips, Jack Gilbert (all recommended by John McAuliffe.) I also learned of the longer and downbeat, wry conversational line of Karen Solie and Louise Gluck; the density of Jorie Graham and the dazzling Sharon Olds, Brenda Shaughnessy, as well as Kay Ryan’s tauter and shorter lines, while Billy Collin’s apparently effortless way with verse won me over.
In 2016, I won Battered Moons, and published a pamphlet, ‘The Opposite of Defeat, with Eyewear Publishing, as well as making runner-up, in the lovely Jacky Kays’ generous judgement, in Poets & Players.
There you go. And now I’m delighted to share some of his poems with you. Let’s start with the one that caught my eye at that December book launch.
(where no DNA, prints or dental records exist, jewellery helps identification)
What survives is love, and jewellery –
a Deposit Box in a tower-basement,
hennaed by heat, gold and sapphire, ruby,
diamonds burnished to a glitter,
scorched from their settings to outshine
their blackened fixtures.
Limbs, so firm and clasped in life,
burn lightly as a willow-branch, browning
leaves, a wick of fat beneath.
Flames dance upon our face, eyes.
The ring on a finger is an emissary
from a thin wrist of skin and time,
shrunken to a flare of alchemy,
distilled to what remains, the opaque,
a flaming geometry.
Our fire-licked embrace cannot shake
the faithful sleep of a Pompeiian dog,
the Viking amethyst, sunk in taiga,
that heaven, crackling, thirty floors above
our heads, brought down upon
the precious, and our semi-precious
Two things struck me straight away. The first was the texture of the writing, the consonants, the near rhymes that tie it together. It sings out to be read aloud. The second was the unblinking way it opens by borrowing from Larkin, and then subverting my expectations by substituting ‘jewellery’ for ‘love’. And the odd juxtaposition of ‘tower’ and ‘basement’. It all jumped off the page at me. And then I was taken by the notion that gems may have as much provenance as DNA is establishing our identity. It’s an idea that bothers, like grit in a shoe.
The fourth stanza is unnerving in the way it sets up the body as fragile, pliant and flammable. I get an after image of an auto da fe. I have to say that I jumped to the conclusion that this was a Grenfell Tower poem. Ken told me that it predates Grenfell. But Grenfell becomes one more layer of meaning in a poem of layers and strata. It was this poem and Ken’s reading of it that made me ask him to be a guest and send me some more.
Maybe it’s because I’m fascinated by the narratives of early polar exploration that I chose the two that I did. Fire and ice.
(based on Mawson’s diary, Antarctica, 1912)
at the food depot, two oranges on a crate under
the tarp. i can’t eat, even though i crave them.
their colour avalanches in my eyes.
cocaine and zinc-sulphate for snow-blindness.
i love such men that would leave them here.
if I perish, i am my last photograph, bent-double
in a hundred-knot wind, snow flying
from my shovel, skating my tripod legs away.
our last husky ate her puppies, which is normal.
we boiled her friends, the paws being toughest.
snow-bridges cave-in, their thunder is company.
a petrel flew into my sled from nowhere.
young Metz raved and broke a tent pole.
‘veh,’ he said, dying in my blistered arms.
i hired him for his hilarious English accent.
a climber, glaciologist, i thought him an idler.
he soils himself, i need his sleeping bag.
i am too weak, no, too lonely, to bury him.
the yellow lips, the other colour in the landscape.
I chose this for the ‘voice’. Maskwearing is liberating, but it’s harder than it looks to find the rhythms of a ‘voice’ and to sustain them. I like the way the tone is set by two phrases
i thought him an idler / he soils himself,
the way they act like a tuning fork for the rest of the poem. How do you read this narrator? If you were an actor, how would you imagine him? A man impatient of weakness in himself and in others. Something of a moral snob, and determinedly stiff-lipped, laconic, sardonic.
our last husky ate her puppies, which is normal.
I love the way the two points of colour, the intensity of the orange, the sallowness of the yellow, seem to dazzle in a monchrome world It’s a very painterly poem, this, and a carefully managed one. As is the last one for today which attends to the other narrative of polar exploration; Scott and Shackleton and Amundsen have their heroic/tragic/triumphant/epic journeys. We remember them, the gallant frontline troops, and pay less attention to support systems that made their stories possible. We tend to forget the patient work that has to go on for months and months of no sun, no day. Which is why I chose this poem, for it’s shift of perspective, and I suppose, for the dark humour.
At the Amundsen-Scott Research Station
Night came months ago and stayed ever since:
the moon, not waxing or waning, hangs high,
a mothball in a corner of a dark cupboard,
constant as the wind, a feral pet we feed outside,
seal air-locks against to stop the rasping lick:
we know all our moods, better than our own faces
fractured in iced-up port-holes. Each day arriving
minus thirty-eight, wind-chill off the scale.
Our work is talk, sensitive in the silence to each
blip or whirr of our instruments, an exact spot
the needle touches on the dial of the jet-fuel
in our generator. We dream in half-tones,
our only sunset a screensaver, for memory.
After homemade-hooch (no blow at the Pole
to wipe minds white) and a series of box-sets,
we play a game of who we’d eat first if all else
fails. Irrationally, for a lab full of scientists,
the men say the women, the women, the men.
So, there you are. A day late, for which I’m sorry, but I hope you’ve enjoyed Ken Evans’ poems and voices as much as I have, and that you can’t wait to buy his book. As for next week….I don’t know yet. It’s probably the dark days and early nights. It’s good job I’ve never been sent to the Antarctic.
The Cat’s Tail
(In 1923, Inuit Ada Blackjack is the only female – and lone survivor – of an Arctic expedition, marooned for two years on Wrangel Island. Her wages were for medicine for her tubercular son.)
A shag of tobacco for the shaman:
‘beware of knives and fire.’ He may as well foretell ice,
air, for knives are currency here and fire, survival.
Shiann sniffs out fire with his moist nose, as his tail
to the sky predicts our storms; there is only
my own brown eyes for the flashing of knives.
Bears are plentiful and curious; we eat them,
the liver a shared delicacy, though the men say
too much makes for delirium.
Long nights we huddle together, under the skins
of the eaten. The men pay no regard to me.
Only blue-eyed John speaks to me like I’m no child.
Alone on the island, waiting for first snow
to block the gaps in our flotsam shack,
I sew against the unpicking fingers of the wind:
fur hoods for the anoraks, linings for our boots,
a sack to carry the wood we scavenge. I am given a Bible
for self-improvement. The stories terrify.
South, in Alaska, my boy is made better by me here,
he will have a white-man’s life in the capital.
I cry every night to cradle him.
The men hear my moans and shrieks,
fear I’m possessed by spirits of the dead, polar bears,
whales, but here, I concentrate only on the living.
One skin at a time, warmth for the coming winter,
pelt after pelt, I stitch my way home, the smell of snow
in the clouds, a weight at our makeshift door.
We bet on which way Shianns’ tail points each night,
casting smooth pebbles from the frozen bay.
If my wager equals any man’s, John takes my side.
Words falling with the embers to a murmur,
we get under covers. I whisper to Shiann
not to shiver, and to follow the way of my eyes with his tail.
this orange loses zing
as I unwind the peel,
that tea in my cup cools
before I can swallow,
that blood draws back
from my finger-nails
even as they uncurl;
that I never again smile
at sunshine in a room,
that a breeze at an open
window I place a chair
before, slides away.
all the hours boil down
to one – the last
of a party in which
I do not ask the girl
to dance, my taste
for beer is unproven,
my legs won’t walk
her home before her mum
is due, I don’t take wing,
fly to her across the room
a window-pane, drowsily.
She climbs you
like a rope
on your head,
above the water.
in your lungs
as you hold
dive to hold
the thrashing limbs,
waltz her back
to the steps,
lay her out,
cover her lips
your palms, pressed
flat, squeeze hard
on her rib–
cage, her legs slacken off
you press harder
as you always
intended, willing her
full of longing and failure,
a blue bruise
on her chest marking
The Six Sisters of Mahabalipuram
(After the 2004 tsunami, six temples emerge offshore
near Chennai, Tamil Nadu, underwater for over a thousand years.)
A bell on a hill tolls lament, white hotels
upended in a black cave, their horizons
lost, air sucked from the tops of trees.
After the roar, an echo of prayers
in temples, hauled from the wave
that swallowed the sky, a hole left
in the ocean, a sea-garden of worship,
lost since the early-seventh century.
Even the lone shore temple, scoured
of guano, displays a new Ganesh
in one sparkling arch. Crowds shake
with awe at the boats on hills, rickshaws
in palms, a miracle of a sculpted elephant.
Six stupas poke from a new sea-bed,
the six sisters of the coast, the cries
of our unburied daughters, further out.
Stretching back down the path,
a second-hand whirring round
my appointed hour.
A dragonfly hauling summer
like timber in a net
under a helicopter,
over a final ridge,
into a blue valley, an outline
wiped by a shower.
The Swinging of Bells
A bronze flick of a belt, drawn through
his waist loops, a snake gripped,
fangs impotent. He smells warm
from the Audi, his nails uncut.
I lift my dress over my head,
naked as the day he held me in hospital,
church-bells hammer the metal hour.
Breathing hard for what’s coming next,
the burden of my daily portion, a tolling,
four seconds apart, of the bell’s
tongue, rolled back through the swing
of the pendulum. At every vibration
my window dimples, the reach
of his bare arm, in my bedside-light,
a plank brought down on an unwanted
farmyard litter. Afterwards, I move slowly,
though not so slow as to renew his interest,
leave by the gate to cool my back on graveyard
slabs, and smoke the stubs left between
the plots, by the now-departed grieving,
lighter-flame singes the hairs on my arm.
Incantation to a Rain Doll
(‘teru-teru bozu’ is a ‘shining, bald monk’ – a homemade doll hung to ward off rain, familiar in Japanese nursery rhymes.)
White spots grow
on the clean linen
in a cupboard,
mould on bamboo-clips
the traffic-police wear
shower-caps, a queue
in the supermarkets.
Bright tissue doll,
hanging from my window,
call summer back to play,
fruit ripens in plum-rains,
but tomorrow, let it
shine on your dome-head,
your pale monk’s robes,
throw light like a lantern,
teru-teru bozu, holy sparks
to make sunshine.
I ring a golden bell
to call you out to dance,
Sake to dampen your skirts,
and godspeed you down
the river. Tomorrow,
our hoikuen picnic,
don’t call us back inside,
rain on our horizon,
means I snip off your head.
Promise, teru-teru bozu,
hanging from my bedroom sill,
and I’ll sketch-in eyes
to thank you, scribble
you a tongue to taste
our picnic-air, draw you
a nose to smell drying grass
beneath our woven rugs,
teru-teru bozu, my ghost-doll,
Teaching Mum the iPad
A Japanese soldier shames his Emperor to emerge
from hide-out to the ‘70s of ‘Saturday Night Fever.’
A tribesman finds a Coke in the water, a red conch
hissing a warning as he raises it on an altar.
Mums’ finger swipes the screen, this swoosh
What her eighty-six years have evolved for,
All modernity a pointing digit, reserve lost
for a keyboard intoxicant of email alerts, offers.
Her scratchings in the electronic cave leave
her breathless, a nun eating popcorn,
stunned by a code she has entered. Regular meals
fall by the wayside, the TV glowers in a corner cupboard.
Someone in Turkmenistan wants children with her.
She is in need of translation. She needs to open her curtains,
where I am a snake-oil doctor selling bright bottles
with contents-free labels from the back of a wagon
on a dusty prairie. There is nothing in them
material, but a tiny click of hope.
My Mother as Stricken Fighter-Pilot
she wants to go. she knows to go.
the bones in her rib-cage are parachute straps.
from a cockpit, she peers over each wing-tip,
wanting to press Eject, altitude arrived at,
to shoot from the fuselage into the stars.
anaphalactic shock, a reaction to penicillin.
a plume of words, mainly ‘please,’ flame
from her engine-cowlings to the diagnosticians.
‘Chemistry is about atoms and their valency.’
I grieve for her words, ‘let me go. let me go.’
the voice from a mission, a cloud-flitter
with nothing to lose after her fly-past over
the crash-site, smouldering in foreign woods.
no bright stairwell, no shaft of light. if anything,
a drop, the metal, guttering in her bloodstream,
jets below a horizon, a vapour-trail, lingers in
the blue. no Mayday, but her plea, for the nurse
to not pierce a new cap of adrenaline.
peaty light, a December afternoon,
the same seminar each Monday,
after three, knowledge on the desk
in piles. silverfish eat the starchy
glue of book-bindings. I’m chewing
over a thing I read, and this being
university, people are polite, till you,
backlit like a moody 70s album cover,
break the tedium, silver hair a metaphor
I step into without self-consciousness.
the tutor suggests a tea-break.
my heart is not in a tea-bag and silverfish
are not silver, nor even fish. my heart
is beating lumps out of my head; stupid
to think you share a similar angle,
our ironies are different; foolish
to suppose I pan-handle your thoughts,
but I feel something creepy-crawly on the skin
like silverfish, who live for years in the sugary
crevices of books, tiny, undisturbed.
Tracks of the Ninja
beneath his feet
he can chase
kingdom of stamping feet
a shallow-breathing Ninja
on his shoulder
to help in his battle
with the snow-serpent
wrapping the world
in a skin of crystal
every game of
in a smother of white
Ninja meditating on
a pebble skipping a frozen lake
of knee, ankle, calf
the laconic bird-eye
kuro-kiri, the invisible one, shrinks
to a tiny dot
the stillness at his centre
schussing to the end
of the page
loses the property of friction
through fallen fences of white
the moguls of the mind
a frog-hopper foaming-up cuckoo-spit
a Ninja from a woodblock
in a mind-game
with the snow
now you see me
now you don’t
at the base
of the run
in his fists
to his boots
I lie when I say
the deepest flame
is blue, that air
where you walk,
that I don’t cherish
the dent you leave
in my sofa.
That light can’t shine
through the helix
of your ear, that you
don’t stir applause
when you tidy your hair
above your brow; if I say
your eyes are blue, I’m lying
again. They are smoke.
If I say I’m not fixated
on your red toes
in those cork heels,
I lie more, and the way
whatever you say
is perfectly tuned
to a pitch I lean
I lie too, about needing
when my only defence
is to fall hard and see
what the dirt kicks up;
pressed flat to earth,
winded, you draw
a finger round me .
I lie, I lie, because
what I want to say is,
things burn most blue,
where the mix is richest,
flame blackens further
the soot-print of older
fires, now tar-cooled.
Raising a Family
Uber stickers on taxis airbrushed in billows
of pavement breath; trams at Piccadilly clink,
their gentle, playground toot of horns.
Late-night shoppers, lit by windows, step-over
the hard barter of the homeless. Gallery pillars
guard a war collection, beside bars filled
with a weekend crowd, the music and cinema
of today, and laughter, recalled down the years
in the turning-circle of a growing family,
a tyre-tread in soft grass, undusted space
between small picture-hooks.
You are funny they say, heavy with the irony,
as you repeat the old jokes that were repeated
on you, the one’s you swore you would never,
like where you offer a handshake, only to tweak
their nose between your thumb and forefinger
at the final second – hilarious? Never,
yet still you try and still they fall for it, allow
your smudge of silliness, the child indulging
the parent, and you, never
clear as to your role – grown-up, jokester, father –
yet susceptible to the DNA of a warm family,
haloed and revered – you promise never,
this time, really never, to pass on the old jokes.
Dr. No has a Superpower
(‘situs inversus’, the condition of being born with the heart and other vital organs reversed.)
Dr. No lives on,
his heart unfound,
right of centre,
born back to front
like Donny Osmond.
I, too, an invert, mirror-
image of one
I see in the cranny
of an eye, my blood
as I rise from
between the identical
twins of my knees,
to see a double
pacing, the shadow-equal
of my first step, a ripple
from a wide-flung pebble,
a ring of Saturn, an aura
of the original.
If a reflection, a simulacrum,
the wrong-way cast,
grant me just this: the ghostly
superpowers of the inside-
out: to crack, and shatter
and be made whole,
to hate, then fall in love,
to die in war, reincarnate
in the peace, to eat a way
back to a full appetite.
To be opposite:
have lots of sex, then know
nothing about it.
Experience, then lose
it all to innocence,
then pick colours
out in a higher-res.,
enjoy my pension
before I work,
meet mum before I kick,
save dad from
his hand in my hand,
a perspiring bird.
This is Your Flight Attendant
In the event of an emergency a poem will drop
from the compartment above your head.
Place over your ears, breathe normally.
Read your own poem first before attending
to the poem of the person reciting next to you.
Familiarise yourself with the poem’s exits.
In an emergency, adopt the braced poet position,
ready to declaim when pressed. If you smell smoke,
kneel and follow the line of light poems in the aisle.
During turbulence, do not release your poem.
Do not leave your seat, even to perform verse.
Turn off all electronic poems including lap-poems.
Under your seat you will find an inflatable poem
to slip over your head. Pull on the punctuation to inflate.
For more metaphor, use the mouth-piece. Blow hard.
Thanks for listening to the safety poem.
The bar opens in ten minutes.
in a blue bolt-hole, subbed-down to what fits
in an overhead locker. Left behind, paces I won’t take
between cloudy, bedroom walls,
the uncomprehending face of a vibrating mobile,
keys to ignitions I will not turn,
A contact I won’t contact.
My shirt, a burst of enthusiasm, bought by delay
in the lounge, and the dark glasses behind which a film plays
of the hatch opening out, to an egg-shaped light.
I advance up the aisle, step into a sunny yoke
spreading hot across the tarmac.
Behind the Liquid Petroleum Tank
Unlovely. A part I never go. Beyond
the mower’s manoeuvres and too tight
for the swing of a scythe, wilded
by stinger and bramble, blue calendula,
the grass overrun by moss.
One Sunday, I commit. Heavy gloves,
old jacket, newly-sharp secateurs.
A flat football with a map of Wales,
from any number of holidays
when it could have been wet.
A water-gun with faded Star Wars,
the one, if you aimed too close,
sprang tears from an outraged face.
Summer days of militarism. A sock,
blown from the line by a gust.
Sweet-papers, silver as the bright day
they came unwrapped. A digger-truck
with deflated tyres. One pair of your
mother’s knickers, if memory serves.
The Pole of Inaccessibility
(the furthest point from any landfall is known
as the Third Pole, and is located in the Southern Pacific Ocean)
Nothing comes in or out, even the wind
is a trespass, the sun barely tolerated,
a single press-up swallowed each day
beneath a bright muscle-tone of ocean.
Numerics in the jug of an eye, emptying
at 48 degrees, 52 minutes, 6 seconds South
123 degrees, 23 minutes, 6 seconds West:
long notation for loneliness.
A grid reference failing to describe the reach
of a glass door onto a porch, a gateway
to a vestibule, giving way to an atrium,
a threshold further opening to a chamber
domed by overflowing, liquid cupolas,
thin-glaze vaults over blue marble corridors,
ground and gyred, where eyeless tribes
enjoy their vapid, deep Heaven.
Only the waves, rinsing the silver, discarded
panels of left-over spaceships, slap at the silence:
no shout of land, and the taut rigging of the mind.
The Jesus with the Hammered-In Wings
Jesus is the kind of man you warn your kids about,
in that likeness at the entrance
of the Iglesia de San Juan Bautista.
Metal rods have hammered in three wings
to his statue-head, lending Him a look
of lobotomised surprise:
‘The Lord Ascending’, is his title,
with stare-through eyes and a gilt-edged robe
no ordinary fisherman would be seen dead in.
In a front pew, two women in the black
cardigans of God’s eldest, chat
with lately-departed relations.
Their knight-errant husbands in the square
sit in shade, canes out straight before them
like broken lances under a palm-canopy.
Hidden chanting on a loop raises the tone
suddenly, as I stare up to the perfect tongue
and groove of the Canary Pine ceiling,
the eggshell blue of the altar, the same
as the priest’s shirt, ironed by a doting parishioner
one cuff still damp from testing font water.
This need I feel to reduce and distance,
but still a clannish urge to feel the wet
lick of the familial, to belong with people
who share their last inch of palm-sap
from the shelf, ‘tree honey’, to sweeten
green bananas; islanders
who, with work scarce since The Crisis, shrug
at seeing their own fire service start forest fires
to keep in jobs and help their brothers and uncles
in the Construction business; for it is not God’s
work the fire starts in three places at once,
nor His will that after the blackening,
the green arches of laurasilva collapse. If He
is here at all it is in the straggled ash hanging
from charred trees, the blast of unforgiving
heat that swerves, last-minute, melting a boy’s
plastic slide and tractor in the garden to bright,
Dali-esque coins, but which miss his mother’s house
inexplicably: the village sky orange for days, a terrace
of prickly-pears soaking up flames; beyond, the blue
fire-break of ocean, and birds overhead, fixed to thermals.
Rats bursting their skins, raindrops splat
the grey slabs brown, channel in gutters
with their brux and boggle. Under the eaves,
an umbrella hugs a plague-free piece
of pavement. Drenched, I shout,
‘’Scuse me!’ From under metallic flowers,
a voice says, ‘Hey, share my umbrella.’
Tall, in logo’d t-shirt and work-lanyard,
he’s grace, Barbadian, a Facilities Manager
at Bridgewater Hall. I apologise for the weather,
an Englishman. ‘Oh, it’s pretty Caribbean –
for the rainy season.’ ‘How far are you going?’
I ask the rat-catcher, Pied Piper:
‘To the first bridge on the Ashton Canal. You?’
Rats jump my feet, their tails lash my brogues:
‘Just round the corner.’ I would like to walk more,
stay and watch a woman re-apply her lip-stick
in liquefying glass; the saxophonist in a doorway,
the brass bell of his music making a clatter
of our reflections, but home is a fridge singing
a capella, the up and down scales of an old boiler.
Brian Cox Says
By a tilt of my head, the beech leaves
outside my window become my son’s legs
at a bus-stop by the market; a slow lope,
too hot to walk quickly with a rucksack:
a gust of wind lifts a stall-holder’s canopy,
shakes me from myself. The cat’s ears
of a full black bin-liner, in a corner of the yard
and my eye. Turning left, sun dissolves light
on birch-bark striated like snake-skin,
the leaves, movements of a flicking tongue.
Brian Cox on TV says, ‘The world is beautiful
to look at, even more beautiful to understand.’
I keep listening, as a sprinkler tamps the lawn,
each swing tightening the sky a ratchet,
the blue, snappable glass.
The Regimental Learning of the Great Stupendo
I am, in truth, a duck. Aged eleven,
the stop-clock of my feet are set
at ten-to-two, flat as the earth,
pacing a corrective, white horizon,
aiming for one minute to midnight,
or a straight-up noon,
ankle-bones in perfect line.
I tread the rule, curling toes round
the tiny hold I exert, tramping
tramlines of a badminton court,
light from floor-to-ceiling glass,
gym wall-bars drip cold sweat,
a smell of damp towels, of being
uncomfortable in my own skin.
As I trim to the teachers’ regimen,
I dream I am The Great Stupendo,
high-wire artist, pink toes
on the parquet, shorn of pumps,
red bite-marks on my stomach
from the elastic of PE shorts,
the whiff of socks, confinement.
For half an hour after school,
straight as the Romans would have us,
The Great Stupendo learns poise, balance,
anger; his feet with a mind of their own,
walk the wire. He flings his uniform
over his failings, feet out-splayed,
His fight back, zig-zagging, home.
Eating a Nut
no pale seed of Brazil,
lanugo of chestnut,
processed cheese of almond,
tan cranium of walnut,
no morsel of hazelnut,
but solid steel,
a polished hexagon,
ferrous in the mouth,
to bite on a thread, a nut
without a bolt – this is what he ate –
not to impress the girls
(for none were there)
but because he thought
he might, for the fizz
of the unquenchable
on his tongue, the gulp
as he leaps the top-board
where the improbable happens:
how he shat metal
and winked a silver-eye from the mire.
Advice on Men’s Shirts
Always wear the shirt of a late-teen
in your family, for a fabric-softening
of youth, their single crease of resolve,
the pheronome-stink of confidence.
Wear it for a slimmer fit, the sark
veneer of promise, a chemise
of dare and trust, marking all your
time significant and armour-plated.
Wear buttons undone, the sides
billowing in a breeze, gathering
heat through the arms, light
seeping through an insects’ wing.
Wear it for the crackled static
from a tumble-dryer’s planet,
the force-field of magnetised
hairs, a risen valley-mist.
Wear the collar up or down,
enjoy a pinch at the Adam’s apple,
the blood-nicks of rushed shaves,
cutting away to a hurried, next thing.
Leave the cuffs untied,
sleeves rolled or down, whichever.
Jet-lag in Ocean Gardens
A sail tacks into what yesterday was Friday
and is again, today. A cedar gazebo has carved
human heads on beaver tails, a salmon swallow frogs,
a bear has a mosquito between his legs. This means
something to me, if I could stop to think.
By the fountain, there’s a grey lintel engraved in Latin:
Tuum est, ‘It is yours.’ Out on Salish Sea,
seaplane taxis buzz English Bay:
grey ocean and clouded sky blur, no shoreline
between where one ends and where one ends.
In the Museum of Anthropology, we acknowledge
we are on First Nations’ land, a concession;
like the snapper as he steps across my view
of the ocean, holding up his Nikon by way of apology.
My sight-line arrested, scuffs the slide-show
of white light over Greenland, playing in my head.
The small of her back presses
for the cooler touch of the bed,
the piping on a mattress-edge,
her horizon. Blue waves of sheets
twist, uncoil, a sound in her rib-cage
as regular and startling as blood
in the mouth from washing her teeth.
This ocean, like a discussion of fearfulness,
becomes self-perpetuating, roils
with the energy of everyone not sleeping
this hot August night. I reach across
the bedside table, knocking over a lamp.
In a dim-lit aquarium, creatures
fix their grins on the equatorial groove
in the white pill I’m trying to resist,
rested on the book she has lent me
to read, upon hearing her news.
A Light-box Therapy
A white moon in the living room, though our sky is a dark igloo,
carved from blocks of cumulus. This way for days. No thaw.
The light-box on the desk pours dappled enthusiasm on her,
a sleep-walker climbing a stairwell in a glow of D vitamins.
Blue wavelengths invite shallow bathing on their ascending steps.
Our black cat, who knows a thing or two about light, sprints upstairs
to our bedspread, seeking our old radiance. This false Spring,
my wife reborn in a new heat-spot, half-blind, illuminated.
The Red Trouser Suit
Girls stare in white, knee-high, pereline socks,
black patent leather shoes and baggy cardigans.
Unbuttoning a full-length trench coat, I sashay
between Hillman Imps and new Marinas
in a staff car-park, scarlet-red polyester
bell-bottoms hug my hips, platform-boots
clacking on asphalt, matching carmine jacket
with epaulettes: sunshine on a months’ wages.
I feel like Carole King, the pixie-look, though, is pure
Lulu. A sprouting of sixth-formers on a wall shout,
‘Groovy, miss,’ unsure in their blazers. Mr. Castle
patrols, a dinner-guest from ‘The Irresistible Charms
of the Bourgeosie,’ showing at the Compton Cinema.
I go with a man in thirty-inch flares, who believes socialism
inevitable: even kids demo-ing against uniforms and caning.
With a Postgrad. Cert. in Education, I’m a woman
of work, a flame-red trouser-suit sensation.
Men from the flat below are making love, companionably:
the sound like watching Netflix on a laptop, the screen
between their touching knees and hips, one glancing
at the other, to check they’re catching all the series’ in-jokes;
groans too, for a far-fetched sub-plot, nonetheless raising
a smile of recognition in both of them,
together, for an instant.
Or maybe it’s the football
they’re tuned to, and one, more knowing, grunts perceptive
comment on line-ups and tactics, that the other feels worth
repeating, in a lower register of pleasure. They follow
every pass in their stomachs, feel the kick inside
each hair on their soft rears, their perfect touch
receiving, passing back.
Asleep inside the Elephants’ Ear
Inside the elephant ear of night, I crawl
the long tunnel of a mastodon; her ear-hairs
bristle, big as acacia, thorned with ticks.
I feel my way by a pulsing light from her heart:
grass-breath fills the lungs, squeezes me against
the warm bars of her rib-cage, high-arching
as a parish church. Heaving the charged
information-gathering of the hairs aside,
I see red veins through the thinning grey
of the ears, an imaginary dawn, but the hours
only continue along their trunk-swinging
lumber, under the elephant eyes of the stars.
Litter-picking on the Heights of Abraham
A tiny brain of chewed gum lifts from the path, giving a soft, elastic tug
to my yellow litter-picker. In name-badge and blue overalls, I happy
myself in detritus.
From the rubbish, fag-butts splay tobacco starfish at my feet.
Sweet wrappers, the sequin lashes of a drag-artist, wink
at me from dewy hedges.
Torn crisp packets skip silver creases across the Viewing Platform.
The rural from here is just breezy 3-D amazement, sunshine like hot ketchup
on new arrivals, bare out from the cable-car.
A souvenir necklace: I do not turn it in to Lost Property, but bag it for the compressor. The call, later, met with a blank: ‘No, we found nothing
of value, I’m afraid.’
In this control-group of a failed experiment, the blue bottle-tops are placebos:
litter is magic mushrooms, multiplying in my eye; the more I pick, the more is
made known to me.
after Pissarro’s portrait of his daughter, known as ‘Minette’ (1873), Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
Two years from now, she’s dead.
You can’t unknow this. Your eye
is compromised. You can’t view
the scene without thinking the wood-burner
in the background is a thunderhead cloud
swelling at a horizon. A window, off left,
opens on a garden where if she were well,
she could play in the sunlight. On the gallery
wall, a plaque announces her recent future:
- This fact waits in the frame, virally.
The fan in her hands is ghostly, a worm-hole
through which time crawls, a void in the canvas,
three-quarters turned, her stocking-legs
under tiny knees and a black school-shift.
Shy in her condition, she doesn’t confront –
not physically – but that eye is huge,
disproportionate, staring out, white pigment
advancing in accusation, or admonition.
I wonder about her father, the painter.
Does he build her layers with the cool-eyed
stare of art or the essential pain of family?
So much vulnerability, a desire to perfect,
take her suffering, fix forever her image on canvas.
We are all in this, witness to a beauty so tender,
slight, the wooden legs of the chair buckle under
an impossible weight, the claw-feet of the burner
bearing down on her, flames warming.
Sunshine on my way to Work
we are congruent sliding doors soft kissing
of rubberised light we meet a pursing
sweet consonance between two transparencies
converging the pavement tips to pivot point
conjoining elision calving cellular
marbled angles separating
among pavement footfall her perfume a cloud
in a shop-front her coffee an upper lip
light snow on a road sign I am too old
she’s young even for my son’s partner
though something of her lingers her smile
a query clouding formless
unforced we slip the light of opposing generations
I have one thought only to talk to her not about
her job the brother she’s never joining in Australia
the father who turns up only in January
I don’t wish to talk about her housing ladder
her continuing professional development
where she may be five years from this juncture
this pavement it’s not my business or interest
to speculate nor conjecture say to her forty years
clearing the frozen fjord of work with a trowel
means thickets in front of her the fact she will not recall
why she was here why this was a job was important
I would just once this being the sixth time
we cross paths at 8:44 on our divergent paths
like her smile like a fish to rise from depths
splash a tail on the surface lift my eyes
The Walk to the Beach at Ty Newydd
A bridge carries the single railtrack,
curling round the coast from Criccieth.
I duck under the swamp smell, a portal
to a far side, where purple willow-herb,
thrashed down by legs before mine,
shake flickering buttercups.
Fresh-mown silage, samphire spoil:
stare in those heaps without sneezing
long as you might, they yield no light.
Cloud-shoals on the Rhinogs,
the sea, a blue saucepan shine,
heading south into Cardigan Bay.
An oyster-catcher on pink legs,
stabs a beak in the oily syrup.
The bubbled braids of sea-wrack,
a lost tribe, up to their tonsured brows
in sand, worked at by lugworms, who turn
the bracelets for a tidal arm to wear,
wash off, and wear again. I read men’s
suicides’ spike in the Spring: they cannot
stand a world that gets by, well enough,
His wife, matter-of-fact: ‘For you,’
she says in Norwegian, ‘You’re almost
his size.’ A neat pile of faded denim,
his wardrobe at the wake. A flashback
to his love for Albania’s Hoxha,
a pill-box on every beach, turrets out-facing:
heated nights on the merits of the Bowie
of Thin White Duke compared to Ziggy.
Our impasse, over Abba, which should
never even have been a debate,
let alone a running sore, the dialectic
of ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You,’ Ah ha.
The last you’d think, to force his mates
together like this, an invite we can’t refuse,
led via his gym-bag, the stop on the tram
after the ski-jump; kids finding him
on take-off, the blank downcast
stare of his forlorn, brown soles.
A ship-chandler’s rope;
a scaleable tree, a single branch
wirey hair girls ran fingers
through in the Union bar, just
for the hell. His striped jumper –
Dennis the Menace – the half
comic, feet-first plunge, branches
thrashing as they flash by,
a plan kept so close, its’ momentum
only now reaches through me,
as I breathe the worn marks he leaves
in denim, his flight-knees straight for lift,
bending for the perfect landing, to crash
through our teary pub window, friends
scattering like glass, caught in his hair.
Earphones earthed to a field,
dial-up a past that’s engaged,
or gone to Voicemail; a blip,
a halo-sound from magnetite,
hematite, the iron in the ground.
Not for the golden handful of soil,
a swing of the pendant, metal arm,
but for the second before the lip
takes the hook, and chooses
bullion, or ring-pull, or a nail.
Not for the money, or glory,
listening only for something more
than an incline of our own
breathing, the pleasure a fish
feels on breaking the surface.
At the Amundsen-Scott Station
Night fell months ago and stayed ever since;
Not waxing nor waning, the moon is up
as it has been for a month, a mothball hung
in a far corner of a cupboard, constant
as the wind, that feral pet we try to feed
outdoors and not let in. We know all
its’ moods, better than our own
fractured faces in an iced-over window.
Minus thirty-eight, wind-chill off the scale,
we talk of work, how our instruments blip
and whirr, the place of the needle on a dial
in the jet-fuel of our generator. Our dreams
crowd with colour, the sunset a screensaver
we open to remember. At the end of a box-set,
we play a game of who we eat first. Unscientifically,
men want to eat the women; the women, the men.
Getting a Grip
well into the bombing of old cities
soon after a baby is an ashtray for his father
close to when the girl is found strangled
the time of severed heads on battlements,
as a daughter lies in chains in a cellar
rebels throw expectant mothers down wells
almost to the day countries are rubbled
precisely when shooters stalk the mall
the moment of toxins laid in playgrounds,
bloody garrotings on the wi-fi,
I write in order to avoid the terrifying
and this is what gets met with horror: poetry!
That red spine I’d know anywhere.
squeezed in a shelf, a slap on a cheek,
The bold, white font of the title,
in the second-hand section of Blackwell’s:
my tutor’s collection, not remaindered,
half-price, returned and stickered, hidden,
segregated from first-timers: empty,
embarrassed as a bedroom knock.
She being here, Guardian-garlanded, says there’s
no hope, to the ticking wires of my heart. The white flash
of pages, not dog-eared, no coffee-marks, the final indignity,
not even well-read. The spine broken, extracting
marrow. With an eye to the sales assistants
at the check-out, a finger peels away the yellow,
sad disclosure, undoing the confession. I find the right
section, the ascendant line of her belonging, slide
her in, at face value, between Auden, Larkin, the others.
In the café over cake and coffee, the solace of etymology.
The long reach of Latin ‘mundas’, rolls choral centuries
to arrive at ‘mund’ in Old English, to mean palm,
but also protection. There’s some redress to be had by this,
even a small recompense: there’s her hand,
my duelling second, as an assist.
A slew of wet toilet-roll on the shiny floor,
a seeping between my sole and leather-upper.
I blame students who I’ve seen here, thinking
it’s a laugh, when I see the Adidas Gazelle’s
between the silver taps on the basin, a roll
of socks, a right-leg raised, a foot on the side
of the porcelain, lathering and caressive;
his toes, pulled by stroking hands, are red
nipples rising from the hot-tap. I’m looking
and pretending not to, as when someone shakes
drips from their cock beside me, the profane
and prayerful. I can’t pee and washing my hands
feels simulated. He gulps at the spout, my own
ablutions on hold, and with no god to go to. He slips
the shoes on he’ll leave by the bare cupboard
given over for prayer. At the door, half-ajar,
I pass by to where I scroll the hymn-numbers
of HTML, afraid the holy walls will bounce-back
the light, as magnolia.
How Not to See Bears
A butterfly opens and shuts on petals of Indian Paint Brush
the colour of burnt shoulders. Light and a waterfall
topple through Alberta firs. The stream cools with sound alone.
The Parks’ Advice is clear:
Walk in groups of four or more.
Talk to let them know you’re near.
The forest floor is pine-damp, animated by midges. Thirty steps away
a bear brakes on her haunches, recoiling on sight of us on furred,
hydraulic legs, a dense animal stockade.
The Parks’ Advice is simple for when you meet:
Say ‘Hey bear! Use a low soothing voice. Lift your walking poles, look
She lifts her head, sniffs our insignificance. For three tall seconds
her cinnamon ruff shakes pollen from a moist snout. She has our heat,
our beating sides. Birds unstick themselves from trees.
The Parks’ Advice is stark:
Make yourself big with rucksacks. Retreat slowly
don’t make eye contact.
We tread back, damned by snapping twigs, a roll of rocks.
That quivering snout out of sight, we run, white-watering on adrenaline, crash
through bush, gash legs on logs. Enter the needle silence of the dark.
Fresh rain drips from wild raspberries. We damn the moss that squelches under boots. That noise we bend to hear, alert as bugs, is not her stamping feet, but our hearts seeking a back way out of our ribcage.
The Parks’ Advice is harsh: if a defensive attack, fight back; if aggressive, curl up, play dead. Once they know you’re no threat…
Water over rock, diminishes, rises, as if someone is flipping a dial up and down, to play with us. We realise it is not sound but distance we are listening for, not her. We pause, turned meek deer by half an hour lost in woods.
The noise builds, recedes. We stumble into a clearing where the sound converts to wet tyres swishing the tarmac as they roll by, pushing spray up the road, a silver shot of SUV flashes between the spruces.
Reprieve. We flag the next car coming, apologise
for bloodying their baby-seat, our dirty boots on their picnic-cooler,
and wonder at beautiful faces in the dark.
the donor loses conviction a minute
the consultant surgeon: ‘you can still say ‘No,’
even on the trolley to theatre. your call.’
to eyes in sealed windows boring through me
to my haunted other self even now
from the scene I can’t
throwing a shirt back on seconds ago flung off
I can’t down two floors in the mirrored lift
I can’t reversing from the hospital car-park
I can’t back through the one-way system
I can’t in silence questions pounding
I can’t home to home-made breakfast
Then you sister lying waiting patiently
on your own scalpel saying nothing
We pool our unhappiness
to halve it
this will to a tenderness
to our mutual deficiencies.
you enter here
in my footprints
a double negative
inlaid with grit
tight white knuckles grip
I remember gobbing contests at the busstop after school the gob dried before the bus pulls-in chalkslugtrail ‘76 I say im 86 she says Cataracts Angina Heart Attack Hips (both) Cancer (breast) walkings a problem bloods a problem breathings a problem the mole on her face is not a problem benign hiphooray butbyandlarge life is a problemfullstop seethrough box of drugs big as a spaceship keeps her in orbit sometimes she puts her footdown zooms to UrsaMinor andback in the time it takes to forget tomorrow which arrives early to her mind you cannot explain tomorrow is tomorrow to someone who says it is today she says you’re funny quizzicallook like I’m pulling her leg that doesn’t work alongwitheverybloody thingelsegodgaveher we forget to mention theoneissue forgetfulness haha shes funnynamediseases enough yet more die of heartbreak said saul bellow how wrong was he very mum whats that HESVERYWRONGMUM Oh do you remember that summer she says she says tarmac in the high street melted theysoldoutofRibena at the cornershop youre that SimonandGarfunkelThe Boxer song I say hum inaclearingstandsa boxer andafighterbyhistrade andhecarries theremindersofeveryglovethatlaidhimlow she sings and sings why do I laugh when she sings when my heartisbreaking when she sings shes bloody lucid for manyseveralseconds click click click her dental plate on the high notes
Headphones off on the No. 6 Mango Bus to Bakewell
‘I dreamt Voldemort sent me to jail
for wearing Air Max Nike’s. What am I like?
My hair straighteners come off Amazon
in time for Gary’s party. I row with him,
he brings cider as a peace-offering. I nearly
chuck it back. He’s nice, though, Gary. No, he
never hit me with that recorder, that was Tilly.
He only did me with the back of his hand, thank god.
That new dinner-lady looks like that Indian off
‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ don’t you reckon?
you wouldn’t ask her for more chocolate custard
unless you were desperate, would you?
I was born with two thumbs. I had to have an operation.
I told people the scar was where a shark bit me,
we lived in Brighton then, it seemed more realistic,
the sea an’ that. I should’ve put my job application in
today. I don’t want the job, but an interview’s an
interview, I reckon. I missed the deadline. Here’s my stop.’
The Ineluctable Rise of the Forward Slash
‘We’re open 247’: much depends
on a forward slash. 911 is a US
emergency, 9/11, a crisis of the West.
A step-change as big as from him/her
to s/he – delete what’s n/a.
It’s in the c/o your editor/mentor:
do they want apples and/or
pears? Three obliques equal blushes/
embarrassment in Manga. HTML slashes
to separate directories/ files, or to make
commands/closing text. Meanwhile,
our hyphens rust on the sea-floor, hulls
snapped, emitting the bubbles of a lost semaphore.
The Bus from Hammersmith Hospital
Clouds switch sunlight through the stain-glass
windows in the hospital chapel, from sweet-shop
red to a bold-tongued blue. In the Remembrance
Book at the back, Jean, a sister, is written-in,
with the careful notation of grief:
‘We only got to know you the last few years, love Edith,
your sister, and Harold, your brother-in-law.’ As if being
dead is like dementia, they stop knowing you. The pulpit
waits on a chaplain, who is hosting an atmosphere
at somebody’s bedside, an audition in hope.
Two Chinese women slip change from their laps
through their rimpled fingers, their Dad leaving them
by slow fractions. Coins for the bus-driver who knows
their stop. ‘How is he?’ the driver says. ‘Better, thank you.’
They have their fare, exact, each time.
The Next Thing Happening Is
piss hoarded in jars, bar-coded and passed to strangers.
A kind of self-harming, this submission to the demands of an invasive op.,
weeks of tests, stripping away of cannulae, red hairless forearms.
New words, all Greek: enoxaparin, nephrectomy, creatanines,
medical stuff. No-one mentions the ‘what ifs’? That one chance, yes,
however remote, that this donor, ill-starred, won’t make it back.
The surgeon says, ‘I’ve only ever lost one,’ the stiletto-man’s gallows humour.
All I can think is, it must happen again – do the math! So I joke with the kids
ask instead what they had for tea tonight, who they played football against,
how frequent are the buses back, and did they get their homework done?
For who, in truth, wouldn’t want this – brushing the fringe from my youngest’s eyes,
the red sand in a Saharan wind turning the sunset vermillion?
2017 seemed about the hybridisation of language and cultural re-versioning of histories of Sioux Nation poet, Layli Long Soldier, the Farsi-Persian borrowings and re-inventions of Kaveh Akbar and of course, Ocean Vuong. If I tired of being too far over the ocean with North Americans, there was the ferry-hop Irish voices of McCarthy, Mahon, Carson, Grennan and O’Donoghue; or in Scotland, Claire Askew, John Glenday and Burnside.
I’ve a full collection with Eyewear due in Summer 2018, and the poems featured are all from the book, ‘True Forensic.’ I hope to launch in Manchester, and see you there!