Writing poems in the sleep of reason


I remember one of my uncles, a life-long trades unionist and old-style Labour man. He was an interesting man…he completed his OU degree when he was 80. He’d lived through the 1920s and 30s, and once told me that the cleverest thing the Tories ever did was to introduce the Giro. His argument was that when you were unemployed and drawing benefit, it came through the letterbox in an envelope. He said that when he was a young man in a time of mass-unemployment and poverty, men went to the Labour Exchange to draw the dole. There’d be queues along the pavement…what else was there to do? So there was an audience for the political activists of all persuasions. He said that was how people became politicised (unless they clung tenaciously to their membership of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists Union).

I remembered that story when I was teaching A Level Communication Studies… getting students to critique the concept of Mass Media. I forget where I read it, but I came across an interesting argument to the effect that Goebbels understood the principle of Mass Media..one of his plans was to install loudspeakers on street corners where people would have to gather to listen to radio news. I thought of this when we considered the way the Indian government at one point financed the provision of a television in every village. The overt aim was to expand education and literacy. It’s easy to see how both systems were double-edged, but the point of my uncle’s argument held. No one would receive information in isolation, and so information would be shared and communal…and open to debate.

I’m not dewy-eyed about the vision BUT as someone who spends far too long on Facebook, I have no illusions that I’m using ‘social’ media, or ‘mass’ media. Media platforms now are essentially individuating, nucleating and isolating. If you read the posts on my Facebook page you’d imagine the world was made entirely of left-leaning, pro-feminist poets, runners, birdwatchers and landscape artists. Whereas when I go down to Sainsbury’s for my shopping and make myself read the front pages of the tabloids (and, indeed, the so-called quality papers) all I see is parallel universes where people speak a different language and live in a completely different country from the one I think is mine. We need no longer meet anyone who disagrees with us. I don’t have to make myself check out the Mail and the Express and the rest on a daily basis. But I do.

We can all ‘publish’ with little effort, and accumulate lots of ‘shares’ and ‘likes’ and smiley faces, and almost imagine we’re changing people’s minds. But on my bleak days, and there are many of those of late, I see that I’m at the bottom of a deep dry well, and I can shout all I like, but the only feedback I’ll get is the distorted echo of what I’ve just said. I wrote a very cross poem about this some time ago. It’s not a good poem, but it makes the point well enough:

Je suis Charlie

 (after:  ‘Known to the guards.’  Martina Evans )

in a week of men in black

with guns as big as motorbikes

in Kevlar vests in black boots

in helmets like the eyes of flies

in the chatter of static

and breathless newsmen

recycling scraps of film and tape

and sputtering phone-in

solutions no one wants to listen to

to problems no one can articulate

and Facebook Shares, emoticons

and cursor clicks that tell the world

Je Suis Charlie

in weeks like these

how can anyone say anything

when after all, our number’s up

and all of us are in the lenses

of a million cameras

and all of us are known

to the guards

who have the guns

and the vans and the planes

and can guard none of us from anything

and who will keep us from each other ?


I feel much the same about aspects of the online chatter about poetry…who’s in, who’s out, who’s won and who’s lost, the febrile to-and-fro about the Forward or the T S Eliot or about the effrontery of a white poet who tried to inhabit a black voice. And so on and so on. Meanwhile, children are being starved and burned, mosques are razed to the ground,  a monstrously unstable bigot is the President of the USA, and I’m invited to considered evident nonsense like ‘post-truth’ or alternative fact’ as part of a meaningful discourse rather than a thoroughgoing attack on the very purposes of language.

Yesterday I spent the day with many people I’m very fond of, reading and writing poems, and I found it all very difficult. Why were we there?  What did we think we were accomplishing? Let me rush to say that I have no intention of giving up, but sometimes I need to get it in proportion. And there’s no irony in the fact that when I set out to do that, I’ll turn to poets as readily as to anyone else. More readily in fact.

I’ll turn, say to Bob Dylan, and go along with idea that he articulated the anger and aspirations of a generation at point in history, when he could sing for Civil Rights marchers, and in Washington for Martin Luther King. Songs like The times they are a changing,  The lonesome death of Hattie Carroll,  the Ballad of Hollis Brown. I think I thought, at the time, that the songs were changing the world. Not that they were articulating a change that other people were making by direct action and incredible acts of physical and moral courage. I remind myself that he’d probably have vanished without trace at the time of MacCarthy, because not enough people would have been ready to listen, and in any case, no one would have broadcast him. There were wonderful things written in the Soviet Union under Stalin and later, but they circulated in secret as samizdat.  Thing is, I don’t ever want to forget that Dylan also wrote this:


“It’s a restless hungry feeling

That don’t mean no one no good

When everything I’m a-sayin’

You can say it just as good

You’re right from your side

I am right from mine

We’re both just one too many mornings

And a thousand miles behind”

[One too many mornings]


That’s how I felt yesterday….everything I’m saying, you can say it just as good. Or much better. And who’s listening, and why should they care?  I’m over that for now, but I recognise the irony of writing about the pointlessness of writing. The point is, I think, that Dylan wrote it, and hey, I can’t write it just as good. Which is why I’m borrowing his words.

There’s a demagogue in the White House and millions have marched to protest it. The news media can manipulate that, and they do. They can edit out events, because whoever controls the past controls the future. They can, with apparent impunity, present lies and call them alternative facts. The chattering and privileged classes can have elegant arguments about the concept of ‘post truth’ without ever saying simply that it’s an obscenity. If we don’t hang on to the true purpose of language which is the business of true naming, then we are lost. Auden didn’t bring down Hiltler, but he articulated the essential nature of tyranny that lets us truly name a monstrosity like Donald Trump.

Epitaph on a tyrant

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.


And the poetry he invented was easy to understand.  There’s a line to cling to. Life is wonderfully and terribly complicated and muddled and difficult. Tyrants understand that language needs to be used to simplify, and to reassure the ones they seek to control that they can make the world comforting and comprehensible. Brexit means Brexit. Give us back our country. You know why Corbyn is unpopular…because he keeps saying it’s not simple, it’s not easy, it’s muddled. He must be muddled, mustn’t he? Weak. As opposed to ‘not a tyrant’.

I suspect that poetry is sometimes used in a potent way to suggest that everything will be OK in the long run. There must be thousands of people who know little about poetry, but who have somehow come across this bit of Shelley.




I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”


You know what?  I remember at the age of 15 or so the excitement of realising how irony worked. ‘Look on my works ye mighty, and despair’ . Hitler and Stalin were both dead by then. Which, I thought, proved the point. Tyranny won’t survive. I guess I didn’t read the rest with any real attention. Nothing beside remains. That fallen statue lies in a wasteland of the King’s making. There are no people. Nothing grows. I didn’t see that, maybe, I should look on that and despair; that the past was irredeemable. We read and we hear what we want to hear. Oddly this makes me want to kick out of the despair, and to write. Because if I know anything, it’s that if  I really write…if I really pursue the business of true naming… I may just find that I know things that I didn’t know I knew, or that I would never acknowledge, and I might know the world better. If that speaks to someone else, then that’s a bonus. But perhaps I’m coming to believe that my first reponsibility is myself, and my health depends on speaking truly.

I know this is an incoherent post for a Sunday. Still, I’m inclined to believe that when Matthew Arnold wrote Dover Beach his first purpose was to understand his own spiritual despair…and I’m inclined to think it was in the process of writing that he discovered that there was an answer to that despair.

“The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long withdrawing roar,
Retreating to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.


North facing shingle beach looking out across rough sea and surf, Kingston, Moray, Scotland

One hundred and forty years ago, ignorant armies clashed by night, and the world was a darkling plain. Sounds familiar? So why am I reading it again, and finding a reason to keep writing. Hasn’t it all been said before, and better? Wasn’t Dylan right? Yes and no…there’s a line I can cling to, like a life raft in a cold sea. It’s not remarkable, except that it’s said in a spirit of apparent hopelessness.

Ah, love, let us be true to one another!

Because if we can’t do that, then we are truly lost. And how  can we be true if we can’t say how. Which is why I’ll go on writing, whether anyone reads it or not.


A gem revisited: Jane Clarke



(Before you begin: an apology. I’ve repeatedly rest the poems with the proper stanza breaks, and WordPress doggedly keeps eliminating them. I have no idea why nor how to stop it. So, just in case it does it for the third time, I’ll tell you the stanza breaks for each poem as it arrives)

Jane Clarke was our guest on the cobweb in July 2015. It feels too long ago. Her rightly-praised first collection The River had just been published by Bloodaxe, and I loved it, as so many others do.You can catch up with that post, if you wish, via this link https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2015/07/25/a-river-runs-through-a-polished-gem-6-jane-clarke/

In any case, I’m going to lift part of it to start today’s post. I was riffing on the the significance of landscape and the feeling of belonging in, and to, a place. Jane’s place was, and probably still is, Roscommon, and the water meadows of the River Suck. Anyway, I wrote this:

“ I don’t know what to make of woodlands and forests and greenery. I can make even less of flat places, saltmarsh, estuaries. I’m starting to wonder if it’s because I grew up in relatively (though undramatically) narrow valleys. I live on a hillside where I can look up and down the valley, or across the valley to the opposite hillsides, and beyond to the Pennines. I begin to think that what I’m conscious of is hillsides and gradients and the stone underneath them. It’s as though what I’m aware of is ‘valley’, and that the river is incidental, as though it came from the hillsides and not the other way round.

I’d not considered this until I was reading and re-reading ‘The river’ , the first collection by today’s Gem, Jane Clarke. I began to wonder if growing up by a river among green fields under a wider sky than mine might be a key to poems that are full of time and the passage of time, of transience and spaciousness. I suspect this will not hold water, but maybe there’s a sort of truth in there somewhere. And so we find ourselves by the River Suck, that flows through Roscommon. ‘It was where  /  we’d go to talk, or cry, or be quiet  /  in the company of the current’, writes Jane in her poem, The Suck.

It’s a river, she says, that flows, rolls, that drifts, smooth and slow. The Suck, An tSuca, the origin of whose name is lost (says Wikipedia) in the mists of time, and may be derived from an older Irish word for ‘amber’. Or not. Nobody knows. It flows and rolls and drifts through limestone country to the Shannon. Lakes appear or disappear in rain or drought. Turloughs. Lakes that  swell and shrink as though the earth was breathing. What a lovely word. I don’t know how it’s pronounced. I imagine long vowels. A soft fricative ff, or an even softer glottal. Whatever the truth, the river runs sure, through that stunning first collection.”


Of course it’s not just the physical landscape, and its psycho-topography, but also the landscapes and inscapes of family, and those who farmed it down the years. I think of The Rainbow, and the Brangwens who had lived on the Marsh farm for generations, the way a family may be bound with the land they worked. That feels especially poignant today. Jane’s father Charlie died four days ago. She’d written to me some time ago when she was looking after her Dad who’d had a fall, and said this in passing:

My parents love music – folk music, Percy French, Thomas Moore, anglican hymns and even now Dad regularly quotes Hiawatha, Julius Caesar, the psalms, the bible, Yeats (even though he left school at 14) – must have influenced me without my knowing it all those years. 

That found its way into a poem at some point…I just hunted for and found it. It was on Josephine Corcoran’s poetry blog : And other poems…almost exactly a year ago. This excerpt…. the first three stanzas….is what I thought of:

The Finest Specimen                                     [3 line stanzas]

When I was a child my father wrote the twelve fair days

of Roscommon on the back of a Players pack

and taught me to recite them as farmers used to do.


He showed me where the blacksmith had inscribed

1865 on a gate – the year Yeats was born, he’d say.

There’s one date you have to remember, your great


great great grandfather, the one with the whiskers,

was born the year of the rebellion, 1798,

any family history before that is just imagination.


(previously published in the Fish Anthology 2015)

A couple of days ago, she posted another poem for her Dad on her Facebook page. It ends like this, with a wish, or a prayer:     [it should be in 2 line stanzas]

That I could take him back

to his cobblestones and barn,

his rooks in the birch trees, his nettles

and ditches, limestone and bog.

That I could find the words to tell him

what he will always be,

horse chestnut petals falling pink in the yard,

the well that’s hidden in a blackthorn thicket,

cattle standing orange in the shallows,

a summer evening’s hush.

(From: That I could .,First published in One online journal,with thanks to Richard Krawiec.)

For today, while her Dad was still alive, I asked Jane to choose a poem for us to revisit, (ie one that I used in the first post) she chose ‘Every tree’ from The River.

Every tree                                                  [ 2 line stanzas]

I didn’t take the walnut oil,

linseed oil,

the tins of wax

or my lathe and plane

when I closed

the workshop door.

I left the grip of poverty

on the bench

beside my mallet,

whittling knife

and fishtail chisel

with its shallow sweep.

I quit the craft

my father had carved into me

when I was pliable

as fiddleback grain,

left all at the threshold,

except for the scent of wood,

a different scent

for every tree.


It says what I’ve tried to describe about the nature of work in Jane’s poetry, or, specifically, about the work of hands. I think it’s also about legacies and about moving away, about becoming, about why we can’t go back. And also, perhaps, why we shouldn’t want to. I’d give a lot to learn the art of its quiet economy. The weight that a short sentence can bear. I left the grip of poverty / on the bench. Do you see what I mean about spaciousness? About resonance? It’s lovely.

I also asked if we could  have a new poem or more that she was happy to share. Jane replied: Here are three new poems, attached. Feel free to choose your favourite. They were published in a US Irish Studies Journal in Spring 2016 (New Hibernia Review Volume 20, Number 1, Spring, 2016) so it’s unlikely that your readers will have seen them before.

I can’t choose. So I’m sharing all of them.

The first, The yellow jumper, I liked especially because of the sense of shared riches in a family story that stretches back and back, and the love that’s implicit in the best story tellings. That clinching word in its last line: splendid

The Yellow Jumper                                     [3 line stanzas]

We weren’t married long when I saw

a turtle-necked jumper in Murray’s window –

yellow as happiness, as the flash on a goldfinch’s wings.


I imagined your father wearing it at the fairs,

standing out from all the rest in their greens

and greys. Eighteen shillings and sixpence,


I paid for it on tick, thruppence a week.

For all that he smiled on his birthday,

it remained on the back of the bedroom chair.


One day I folded and packed it in the chest

with the spare candles, letters, photographs

and the other questions I didn’t ask.


I like to think of him there, among pens

of breeding heifers, weanlings and hoggets,

splendid in yellow.


The second poem is in that same tradition of shared memory.


The Pianist                                            [3 line stanzas]

I don’t know how she did it,

smuggled a spinet,



all the way from Beijing.

We didn’t want trouble,

neighbours said we should burn it,


but if you saw how she touched it,

you’d know why we found

a hiding place in a faraway shed.


Like everyone else,

she spent long days in the fields

but come the night,


she’d be gone for hours at a time.

We didn’t ask,

didn’t want to know;


only sometimes we heard notes

carried, as if from the heavens,

by hard frost or on the wind.


What I like so much is the combination of the matter-of-fact …..the plain telling…and the mysterious, the sense of a kept secret, the deliberateness of ‘not knowing’ as though knowledge would be dangerous, or fatal to the music. It’s a haunting poem in so many ways.

The third poem brings me back to the work of hands and trades, but it’s also unobtrusively a poem like Heaney’s Digging ,  and, I suppose, The door into the dark , that connects the work of hands with the work of words in a communion of craftsmanship.

When winter comes                                                   [ 2 line stanzas]


remember what the blacksmith

knows, that dim light is best


at the furnace, to see the colours

go from red to orange


to yellow, the forging heat

that tells the steel is ready


to be held in the mouth

of the tongs and it’s time


to lengthen and narrow

with the ring of the hammer


on the horn of an anvil,

to bend until the forgiving metal


has found its form

in the sinuous curve of a scroll.


Then file the burrs, remove

sharp edges, smooth the surface,


polish with a grinding stone

and see it shine like silver, like gold.


When I read Jane’s post on Facebook last week, I said I’d light a candle for Charlie Clarke; I suppose this post is part of that promise.  And her poems remind me that Larkin’s cautious qualifications and ‘almosts’ miss the point. Because without qualification: what will survive of us is love. Thank you, Jane, for sharing that love.

[With my ‘revisited guests’ I’ve usually let them tell you what they’ve done in the interim before sharing new poems. That didn’t feel quite appropriate. I’ve left it to the end, and let the poems Jane sent me to work their magic. But if you’re meeting Jane for the first time, then you’ll want to know.

In 2016 Jane won the inaugural Listowel Writers’ Week Poem of the Year at the Irish Book Awards as well as the Hennessy Literary Award for Poetry. Jane’s first collection, The River, was shortlisted for the Royal Society for Literature Ondaatje Award, which celebrates literature evoking a sense of place. She has been continuing work on her second collection and has had poems published in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Irish Times, Poetry Ireland Review, New Hibernia Review, Resurgence and Ecologist magazine, Elementum magazine and the US on-line journals, One and Prelude. 2016 reviews of The River were published in The North, Poetry Wales, the Dublin Review of Books, New Hibernia Review, Resurgence & Ecologist and Artemis Poetry. She also continued a series of readings from The River, which took her to Wales, California and Washington DC as well as Sligo, Limerick, Newcastle West, Dublin, Cavan, Roscommon and Limavaddy.

The River [Bloodaxe 2015. £9.95]

The textured language, vivid imagery and musical rhythms of Jane Clarke’s debut collection convey a distinctive voice and vision. With lyrical grace these poems contemplate shadow and sorrow as well as creativity and connection. The threat of loss is never far away but neither is delight in the natural world and what it offers. Rooted in rural life, this poet of poignant observation achieves restraint and containment while communicating intense emotions. The rivers that flow through the collection evoke the inevitability of change and our need to find again and again how to go on.”

Poetry readings, and a polished gem: Ian Harker


Some Sundays I’m scratching around for a hook for the cobweb post, and some Sundays (like today) I’m offered a gift on tailor-made platter. I was playing around with the reasons why I’ll buy books at a poetry reading and not at others. Or why I come away sometimes buzzing with something I can only describe as excitement. Or not. So god bless Facebook for someone’s sharing Lemn Sissay’s succinct musing on the importance of ‘the voice’. This is part of it:

“Authenticity in the performed poem is in the voice – high low mumbled screamed inhibited or expressive –  and the voice is shaped by the words.  I remind myself to read the poem as if I had just written it.  This allows me to feel the text.  The space between feeling the text and speaking the text is vast.  It needn’t be.   It is the role of the poet on stage to close the gap to capture the feeling they had when they wrote the poem.  A performed poem needn’t be outwardly expressive but it must be internally explosive. Believe me. However  quiet the poet is on stage, however inhibited they may be, if they feel their poem the audience will too.   Move and be moved.”

– See more at: http://blog.lemnsissay.com/2017/01/13/100-words-on-your-vocal-in-poetry/#sthash.PXhKyocK.dpuf

And he’s just summed up what I’d have struggled to articulate; I went to three poetry readings in four nights this week, and at each of them I heard poets who ‘closed the gap’, who moved and were moved.

Monday was the Puzzle Poets Live in Sowerby Bridge, where an attentive audience crammed itself into a small upstairs room to be treated to a master class by Ian Duhig. If anything, Ian is an understated reader, quiet though emphatic. But there’s no mistaking the passion; what he writes about is important to him, and he makes it important to the listener. He frames his poems, he gives them context, he shares the processes of their making in a way that makes coherent and accessible a huge range of ideas …a blind roadmaker who he invited us to think of as ‘love’; Franz Kafka and the (apochryphal?) story of a lost doll, and the letters she may or may not have written; England as ashtray land; a character who asks ‘what the fuck’s the Holy Grail?’ ; the Book of Job and one individual against the world; the reminder that ‘by the breath of God, frost is given’; the makers of meaning (all poets and lawmakers, I supposed) ‘whose words they feared betrayed it’. Running through all this was his advice on constructing a pamphlet , or a collection. ‘Don’t overplan…let your poetry surprise you’. What kind of voice were we listening to? One that convinced you that poetry would always become accessible if you listened hard enough. And one other thing. He read and talked for twenty minutes, and then stopped, leaving everyone wanting more. Like I say. A master class. If I hadn’t already bought ‘The blind roadmaker’ I’d have bought it there and then, feeling I’d been invited into its world.



And so to Wednesday in Halifax, at The Loom Lounge, in Dean Clough Mills. Keith Hutson who organises the WordPlay monthly readings in Halifax has done an amazing job of attracting poets from all over the country, but I reckon he surpassed himself on Wednesday, when David Constantine came all the way from the Isles of Scilly….thankfully to  good sized audience. Two of the support readers I already knew, and knew I’d enjoy their readings. Bob Horne treats his poems as actor would a text, I think. Every word gets its appropriate attention and no more. His timing… comic, ironic, reflective, whatever’s required…is always exact and felt. Ann Caldwell reads her work with a quiet conviction, and the authority that comes from knowing what you’re talking about.

At this point I confess, guiltily, that I didn’t know David Constantine’s work. There’s a huge amount I don’t know about poetry and poets. I knew that he’d judged the McClellan Poetry Competition this year, because I entered it, but other than that I had no idea what to expect appart from knowing that he has an amazing cv..He read for 30 minutes and it felt like 30 seconds. What was remarkable to me was the complexity of poems made out of entirely accessible lexis, and the way long looping sentences that turn back on themselves are stitched together by barely noticed slant and full rhymes, by a precisely placed set of rhythms that are exact and reliable, and simultaneously unobtrusive. And I noticed all this because he made me hear them. His control is remarkable…he makes the business of breathing through long sequences seem effortless. I sat and wondered if he’d been an influence on Kim Moore, who also is adept at breathing through sentences that can run over a 5 or 6 stanza sequence. The thing is, I was simultaneously entranced by the performance, as by a skilled instrumental musician AND by what the poems say.  The monologue of the monomaniac; the voices of the Greek chorus and messenger; the adaptation of fado that name checked Ewan McColl’s dirty old town, the Manchester Ship Canal…and never once seemed odd or forced. Do you see what he did? I have never heard or read this poems before, but they’re lodged in my mind. And that’s why I bought the Collected Poems. Because I already knew I would read and re-read them. I’ve not started yet. I have to finish my rationed reading of the Collected U A Fanthorpe. That’ll take another month, but then I can start on David Constantine..and all on the basis of his reading in a cafe/bistro in a monumental former carpet mill in Halifax.

And to finish my ‘week’, the Albert Poets in Huddersfield. I’ve rarely heard a poor reader there, one who mumbles, or faffs about, or does the ‘poet voice’. but from Thursday night’s readings, among many good things, I want to pick out two. One of the guest poets was Tom Cleary, who read a poem about his father, about the terror of being brutally interrogated during the Irish Civil War, about being repeatedly beaten, about the demand that he SPEAK. Now, I can signal that this word is important. I can capitalise it. I could surround it with  white space                speak                     but what I can’t do with written text is what Tom Cleary could do in performance, in the line that dissects the phonics of the word, and then in the performance of those phonic elements inthat one syllable. And then in the silence that he let surround it, so that you had to understand its bleak irony, and the ambiguities of Tony Harrison’s line:

“in the silence that surrounds all poetry”.

When this poem is finally in print I shall buy it. The same is true of a poem that David Borrott read, and equally, it will be because of hearing it as the writer heard it (I believe) in his own mind. David’s poem was written around a childhood memory, an anecdote of being caught by the incoming tide on the mudflats of Southend. Why was it important to hear it in performance? Because the voice is that of a child refracted through the memory of the adult. The child has no language for the enormity of what is happening as the cold sea rises above waists and chests…and makes one anyway. Like Riddley Walker in Hoban’s astonishing novel. All the bafflement of how we got into and out of this near-drowning was there in David’s reading. So, on the evidence of this week at least, there’s no default poetry voice around my bit of Yorkshire, and I understand what Lemn Sissay meant about closing a gap, about moving, and being moved.

Which brings me handily to our guest for this week. Because I heard Ian Harker reading at Mark Connors’ Word Club at the Chemic Tavern in Leeds, and I knew straight off that I wanted him to let us have some poems for the cobweb. He reads with that clarity and confidence that I like, readings that follow the meaning of the poem and let the rhythms work as understated counterpoint or harmony, He can do drily ironic, too. He has great timing. And he means what he’s reading. So here he is:

Ian Harker’s poems have appeared in magazines including Agenda, Stand, Other Poetry, and The North. He has been Highly Commended in the Bridport Prize, and has been shortlisted in the Troubadour and Guernsey International prizes.

His debut collection ‘The End of the Sky’ was a winner of the Templar Book & Pamphlet Award in 2015, and his first full collection, ‘Rules of Survival’, is forthcoming through Templar. I asked him to say a little about the influences that have gone into his poetry…I suspect that what he writes about Paul Durcan put the seed for the introduction to this post in my mind. This is what he says about himself:

“For me, a poem always starts when a voice starts speaking. It usually begins with a first line, or at least phrase. From then on, I try and work in what I admire in other people’s poetry. Much as I dislike him personally (and politically) I can’t get away from TS Eliot – the energy and intensity of his poetry up until ‘The Hollow Men’ is stunning.

Then there’s Louis MacNeice: he gets a bit of a raw deal because of Auden, but in a celestial poetry slam, I reckon Louis could beat Wystan poem-for-poem. I love the way he bends meaning to snapping-point, the way his poems quiver on the edge of sense. That, and the way he brings everyday speech – clichés and jargon into his poems. He picks up language we’ve hardly noticed ourselves using and turns them into poetry. Also his moral energy: he lived and wrote through the worst years of the 20th century, and I think all his poems are really trying to work out what the bloody answer was to so much brutality and crushing of spirit.

Finally (probably most of all) there’s Paul Durcan. I heard him read at Beverley Literature Festival in 2010, and I’ll never forget it. What I adore most about his work is the ways he finds to come at a subject. He’s always completely unexpected, surprising, but by the end of the poem you feel that how Durcan’s written the poem is the most completely perfect way to express just the thing he was driving at. That, and the fact that he can be laugh-out-loud hilarious in one line, then deadly serious the next; in fact he can be both at the same time. (I think this is what I noticed about Ian’s own poems too, when I heard him read in December)

So here we go. Ian’s sent me three poems to share with you. They are all from the upcoming pamphlet. As soon as it’s out, I’ll publicise it on the cobweb. It’s one to look out for. How do I know? because I’ve heard his reading.


Urban legend: Astronauts


They say it sends you crazy –

a range of hills at your back,

the ground ahead not much more

than an ellipse and you’re staring back

at everything you’ve ever known.


And what you thought was black

when you stood in the yard staring up

at the tailfins of meteors

or the appendix scar of Hale-Bopp

or the moon that’s now inches

from the soles of your feet

is in fact a solid wall of starshine

reflecting in the goldfish glass of your helmet

and you feel like you felt learning to swim

when your mom took her arms away

and the human mind is very very small.


I think I like everything about this artful, deceptively simple poem, one that make this reader dizzy with its queasily shifting perspectives, the uncertainty about just where we are and how we got here. The physical dislocation comes along with metaphysical and emotional ones, as the the ground that appeared close turns to a ‘solid wall of starshine‘ which, I suppose, is anything but solid; as the grown-up astronaut becomes a child, and ‘it’ clearly does make ‘you’ crazy’. And, by the way, I’d have given much to have come up with that oddly precise image: the appendix scar of Hale-Bopp…..there was a comet visible in daylight, and its tail as pale as a healed scar. Wonderful.


It struck me that Ian’s poems have that knack of making you see things differently, surprising you into all sorts of reappraisals by unexpected shiftes of perspective..and equally of assuming the voices that allow him to do that. Which is why I especially enjoyed the voice of the next poem.As I alsdo enjoyed the title, and, hard on its heels, the first line…I think of both of them as poential competition winners, ones to snag the unwary reader’s attention.And then the gradual discovery of the narrator’s voice and his subterfuges. Another to read aloud for yourself.


The caretaker compares himself to the happiest man alive


Freddie Mercury employed a butler

to serve cocaine on a silver salver.

Me, however – I’ve been a caretaker

for thirty years, give or take –


I had a spell

as Creative Director

of the Royal Opera House,

Covent Garden –


but now I’ve got to get up at half six

and work one Saturday in four, locking doors,

unlocking doors, switching off lights, moving chairs

for layabout provincial thespians.

But you get free tickets they say down the pub –

not seeing that I got free tickets at Covent Garden

but would give them away to incredulous

Community Support Officers,

who doubtless sold them on eBay.



the Happiest Man Alive

does not have to get up at half six

or work one Saturday in four and does not have to put up

with the square outside full of ladyboys.


How I wish I was caretaker for the ladyboys,

the ladyboys who come every year from Bangkok –

all the way from Bangkok and I would come with them

and move not chairs and water-coolers

but armfuls and armfuls of sequin bodices,

piles of lilies, stargazer lilies making me sneeze

and lashing my new tan with sticky bitter welts –

on my arms, my shoulders, the teeshirt I bought in Dortmund

so that when I go on my break and stand in the rain

smoking a fag people look at me strangely

covered in suntan and pollen and I smile and say

Yes! I am caretaker to the ladyboys

of Bangkok! And I’m on my fag break!

The Happiest Man Alive!


He seems a deliberately untrustworthy narrator..there are characters like him in Camus. What I’m uneasy about is who is being taken for a ride. But if he is a conman, he’s a conman with an absurd dream that makes me smile.

The last poem is more lyrical, but like the previous two, you (I?) can’t be quite confident about the perspective, although I know the voice is urgent.



Blue God

That first summer other boys

were tight shadows,

static at the tips of my fingers

till out of a steel-white sky

that could have been cold to the touch

came you – blue like Krishna.


No one else knew.

No one could see the cobalt stream

from under your shirt. I was hot

in a school jumper but my eyes,

closed like a corpse’s, opened

and found you – dancing

if you did but know it

at the end of the sky,

at all the far reaches.


And everywhere around you abundance –

petals and filigree, water

through dry earth.

And a point of light under your hand

where all the other light started.


Decide who it is who’s talking to you. I’m not sure, and I haven’t heard Ian Harker reading this one. But I want to. At least I can thank him for being our guest on the cobweb this Sunday, and promise we’ll buy the pamphlet as soon as it’s available.





Gems revisited: Maria Taylor


Self indulgent post today….even more than usual. Because it’s my birthday. Which I’m celebrating via my son Mick’s present to me: a redesigned slick new look for the great fogginzo’s cobweb. I hope you all like it as much as I do. I was getting a bit bored with those bookspines every week. Now it seems to be an everchanging panorama of photographs I’d forgotten were on my files. Wow!! And also it’s David Bowie’s birthday. And Elvis’s. And Shirley Bassey’s. (It’s Nick Neale’s and Mick Bromley’s too…you won’t have heard of them, but they’re both very talented, take my word for it).

74! And in the words of Micky Mantle, “If I’d known I was gonna live this long, I’d of took better care of myself“. Anyway, I’m giving myself a birthday treat, because, slightly out of sequence, my special guest today is Maria Taylor, and I can give another airing to some musings on reviewing poetry, I can reprise some of what I wrote about her in October 2015,  and then you can find out what she’s been up to since then. Are you sitting comfortably? Then off we go.

“The first proper review I wrote was for The North, and by a happy chance, one of the collections reviewed was by Maria Taylor. I’ll plunder some of that review for this cobweb strand, with due acknowledement to The North.

I remember I was very nervous about it, and I thought I’d better read some poetry reviews, not only in The North but in other magazines and journals; I have to say that my heart sank. Maybe I was reading the wrong ones, but I was instantly time-warped back to university and the strange language of ‘Lit. Crit.’ It was a register I had to learn, but I hated it. All of it. I was informed, in no uncertain way, that I was not, on pain of derision and contempt, to use the word I. The reasons were never made explicit, but it was made very clear I had to assume an authority I did not have, and to use the word we. ‘We are not sure of the perfect grasp of the conventions of the sonnet’s rhetorical structure and authorial voice in this less than authoritative sequence.’  That sort of pretentious claptrap. We recognise. We are profoundly moved. Never you. The reader is taken on a lyrical journey into darkness. And I would think: how do I know what ‘the reader’ thinks. I only knew (on a good day) what knew. I knew straight off what Tony Harrison was on about. Uz. Uz. Uz. I’m with Caliban. I’ll not thank you for learning me your language, Durham University. ‘We’. It’s an arrogant impertinence. I’ll tell you what I think. You can make your own mind up. We’re not in a fictitious, collusive relationship. It was still going on when, years later, I was marking undergraduate essays. I was told not to write on their work: What do YOU think? You’re not an authority. Just be plain and honest with me. If you don’t understand it, then tell me, and tell me why.

I have no patience with reviews that have an agenda of league tables and pecking orders, or with reviews designed to showcase the writer. Here’s an analogy. I’m addicted to Sunday Supplement restaurant reviews…well, to A.A. Gill’s, anyway, because I like acidulous writing. But you know the kind of thing when it’s bad. Where the reviewer riffs on his/her sojourn in Calabria or some remote upland village in the Tatras…for about 1000 words, and then spares a 100 for a dismissive review of a new Turkish/fusion joint in Notting Hill or Golders Green. Always in London. Or, at a pinch, Edinburgh. Their London. Their world. They sound like second rate Brian Sewells, but without the wit or scholarship that makes you not mind the strangely plummy enunciation. Stuff that, for a lark, I thought. Let me say thanks, right here, for Don Patterson’s new book on Shakespeare’s Sonnets. That’s the voice I want to hear, authentic, idiomatic, partisan and partial. I reckon it gives me permission to write the way I want. You’ll either like it or you won’t but at least you’ll know what I think. And make up your own minds.”

And so, having got that off my chest, let me set about persuading you why you should be as enthusiastic as I am about Maria Taylor, who I first met, like so many others, at a Poetry Business Writing Day, and whose company I have looked forward to ever since. Let me introduce you. Or rather, let her introduce herself:

‘I am Greek Cypriot in origin and was born in Worksop and lived in Notts as a child. My family moved to London when I was 6, after my father found it increasingly hard to find work in the local power stations. We lived in Acton. When I was 18 I went to Warwick University to study English Literature and Theatre Studies, and then onto Manchester University to study for an MA in English. I worked as a Teacher until I had twins at 30. After the twins were born, I found myself going back to poetry. I’d actually studied Creative Writing with David Morley at Warwick, but had strayed off the poetry path. It was partly David’s influence that guided me back to poetry. Since then I’ve been busy writing and reading. I’ve had poems published in various magazines, including The Rialto, Ambit, Magma and The North. In 2012, my first collection Melanchrini was published by Nine Arches Press and shortlisted for the Michael Murphy Memorial Prize. I currently teach Creative Writing at De Montfort University in Leicester. I also have a blog, find me at: http://miskinataylor.blogspot.co.uk/.

[Lets’s also add that she’s review editor for Under the radar, and asked me to contribute a review for that. Told you. Shameless hook].

So what’s she been up to since then?  All my returning guests have been sent the same list of prompt questions. What I really like is that they all come at them in their own way. I was much taken by the fact that Maria wrote me a letter; I see no need to edit it.

“Dear John,

Hope you’re well. I thought I should write my response in the form of a letter, rather than a post. This is more to do with needing structure rather than a return to the past. So thank you very much for asking me back to your wonderful blog.

Not About Hollywood

I sit next to Uncle Tony in the waiting room
who says he’ll be lucky to get six months

and can’t be sure if it’s his blood pressure
or the ghosts in his head that’ll kill him.

He wears a jacket removed from a corpse
with his life savings stitched under tweed,

‘So they don’t get at it,’ he whispers,
they being banks, governments, wives.

My mother’s seen it all. I was born
into melodrama. But we’re still here for him

the way a scratching post is there for a cat.
He talks. We listen to the silences.

Magazines find their way onto our laps
and we lose ourselves in other lives:

premieres, evening gowns, red carpets.
He gets up, humming something staccato.

His step falters. We tell him not to worry
as his name flashes in blood-red lights.

Last year, one of the poem’s featured on the Cobweb, was a poem called ‘Not About Hollywood.’ This poem is now featured in my new pamphlet with HappenStance, Instructions for Making Me. The pamphlet came out this September. At one point the working title of the pamphlet was Not About Hollywood, but Nell Nelson thought that might be a clunky title for a collection as opposed to a single poem. If anything, this year I’ve started thinking more about poems working in collections as opposed to the usual flinging them out. There’s not much I’d change about this poem now, it was published in New Walk and in the pamphlet so I guess it’s a ‘grown up’ poem. It’s gritty and based partly on reality and it’s not a ‘pretty’ poem. Actually, I’d like to write more poems like this!


(I can’t resist adding: so would I. I commented at the time that  “There’s a line that arrests me,  My mother’s seen it all. I was born / into melodrama ; it makes me want to spend time with Maria Taylor’s poems . Over a year later, it still does.)

You also asked me what else I’ve been up to. I’ve had a poetry ‘sabbatical’ this year. This consists of taking stock and placing my energies into the pamphlet. Now it’s out it’s probably time to get back to the important business of generating and editing new poems. After all I am meant to be a ‘poet’ and writing poems is what we do! I’m sure it’s in the job description. This year’s been quieter. I think this is fairly normal, we’re not poetry machines. I currently have notebooks full of ideas that could be sculpted into poems. I do like the ones which come from nowhere, almost fully formed. Those don’t happen often, but I like their spontaneity. For the most part I think poems need graft; you have to spend a lot of time with them. You have to let them do your head in for a while. The rewards are often worthwhile though.

So in 2017, I hope to write lots of new poems that might ‘do my head in.’ This year, and I appreciate it won’t be 2016 for much longer, I’ve been working and teaching more workshops.  I’ve been ill a bit so I hope that will pass in 2017! My proudest magazine moment this year was having a couple of poems accepted by The North. This is mainly because I wrote the two poems after the poems in the pamphlet. That gives me some hope! I know we both love The North. I’m going to give you one of The North poems for your blog, ‘What it Was Like.’

Ok, so onto the poems. Two are from the pamphlet. Regarding said publication – and I know I’ve mentioned it quite a few times already – Matthew Stewart  kindly said that I employ ‘numerous different forms and deals with all sorts of thematic concerns, and yet…it all hangs together.’ I wonder if that’s influenced by reading different forms and styles of poetry. I like to have variety not only in form, but also in tone and subject. So yes, one minute I will be dealing with a horse, the next writing a lyric or cocking-a-snook or having fun with Daniel Craig.  I don’t see why not. When I was a starry-eyed teen I used to read Frances Stillman’s The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary. It was already over 30 years published when I got my hands on a battered second hand copy. Francis said you could write a poem about anything, so I didn’t argue with Francis. My chosen poems for you are: ‘Poem in Which I Lick Motherhood’ , ‘Travelling on the 10:21 with Tom Hardy’ , and ‘What It Was Like.’ Ok, I’ve yammered on long enough! Here are the poems. Thanks again for asking and may your blog continue to flourish!


Poem in Which I Lick Motherhood

I have several children, all perfect, with tongues made of soap
and PVA glue running through their veins.

My boys and girls benefit from eating the rainbow.

I iron children twice daily. Creases are the devil’s hoof print.

I am constructed from sticky-back tape, pipe cleaners and clothes pegs.

There are instructions for making me. Look at the appropriate shelves
in reputable stores.

I am fascinated by bunk beds, head lice and cupcakes.

You will only leave the table when I have given you clear instructions.
So far I have not.

The school-run is my red carpet.

Yes, you’re right, how do I manage it? Though, I didn’t ask you.

Dreaming is permitted from 7:40 to 8:20 am on Saturdays, Bank Holidays
and on mornings when I will be engaged in healthy outdoor pursuits.

My children’s reward charts are full of glittery stars. I am the Milky Way.

Crying is dirty.

One housepoint! Two if you eat up all your peas.

I always go off half an hour before my alarm. In the morning I speak
a complex language of bleeps and bell tones.

Chew with your mouth closed. No. Don’t chew at all. Admire the presentation.

Underneath my ribs is a complex weather system of sunshine and showers.

Heat rises from me and blows across the gulf stream of my carefully controlled temper.

Sometimes I am mist.

(First published in Poems in Which)

(I relished this one…couldn’t resist trawling Google’s unnerving catalogue of terrifying magazines devoted to ‘mothering’ and the cultivation of sel-excoriating guilt in hapless parents. Favourite line in the poem? “Creases are the devil’s hoofprint”. And the wistfulness of the last line. And the guilty laughs all the way through. It’s rather fine to read the next poem hard on the heels of the last one…and particularly of its last line.)

What It Was Like

When the stranger’s baby cries, my body remembers

the shrill, tuneless song of need. It remembers

endless nights of cat and dog rain. It remembers

our road falling asleep, as we forgot to remember us.

That summer, clothes stopped remembering

to fit. We’d look through thin curtains and remember

the sun, mimicked by sodium light. I remember

the feel of warm, sleep-suited limbs, still breathe in

their powdery smell. The stranger I used to be lives

in the present tense now. The baby fidgets on her chest

like a rabbit. Then he’s calm. His blue eyes gnaw

on me for a moment till his head’s at rest,

the frail, dreaming head of infancy that only knows

a need for love and milk, that won’t remember any of this.

(First published in The North)

(for me there’s a moment in this poem that nails the pure egotism of babies, their amoral neediness; I think it’s what the whole poem spins around:

” ‘His blue eyes gnaw on me for a moment”.

That one verb is unnerving, isn’t it?  ‘gnaw’ .  Anyway, on to the last poem, which takes us into a different place, but oddly and equally wistful. Another poem about loss. About all kinds of loss. A very lovely and loving poem.)

Travelling on the 10:21 with Tom Hardy

Hardy calls to his dead wife

at Castle Boterel, St. Andrew’s Tower.

He calls quietly over Wi-Fi,

Can it be you I hear?


Fields fly without answers.

A smudge of rabbit hops away

and vanishes into a grassy tuft.

A horse’s silhouette awaits a rider.

My heart’s a dog-eared Metro.

I hold my book under the table

as if I’m keeping his love a secret.

I am. We’re both out of style

amid a one-upmanship of screens.

His simple question skims the roofs

of expanding towns. It pauses

over a clock’s stopped hands.

(Appears in  Instructions for Making Me, HappenStance 2016)

There you are, then. As I said; a self-indulgent post…a birthday present to myself. Thank you, Maria Taylor for sharing these poems. Thank you all for turning up and helping me blow out the candles. See you next week, when I know you’ll be showing me the newly purchased copies of   Instructions for Making Me [HappenStance 2016. £5.00]

just follow this link for more details


2016: My favourite bits (concluded)..October, November and December

2016: My favourite bits (concluded)..October, November and December



Anthony Costello :The battle of the sexes

A strange treatment onlove, with echoes
of Sirk and Rosselini: anachronistic sex
in a cable car above some alpine state,
a pencil-skirted, platinum blonde … American?
A dark-haired man in suit and tie … Italian?
She considers their fleeting romance ‘platonic’
but, empathetic to his character and need,
hands the gentleman a handkerchief.
She turns her back and he turns his,
as- cut to mise en scène – he masturbates.

As an act of kindness, it seems
enlightened, unlike the attempted rape
of Athena, the shot load of Hephaestus,
her foster-son, on her virgin’s thigh.
Wiped off and dropped to earth
on a scrap of wool, a boy germinates,
who is reared by Gaia and placed,
on Athena’s orders, into the box where
he grows to the length of a serpent:
frightening to death the women who lift
the lid and look inside, the kind of half-man
half-snake that curls around your neck.


John Duffy:   Gravity and the bairn

” I didna ken whaur I was, or what I was daein,

nae mair nor a soukin bairn. H. Hunter, Edinburgh. 1894″

Gravity grips the moses basket,

pins the baby to the sheet –

holds us to the Earth,

cradles Sun and planets.

Brick, stone, cement and wood

shelter this flight of stairs, this room;

stand tensed against that weightiness

and the baby, who knows none

of the words for gravity,

waves arms in the air, kicks off

the quilt, lets the hand teach –

reaches, grasps a toy, lifts and squints:

inside the skull, sparks leap

from lobe to lobe; beneath the skin

nerves, sinews, veins churn,

roots in a springtime meadow.

One day she’ll stand, this bairn,

speak and sing and cry and laugh;

rattle the bars; put down the mighty.



Wendy Pratt: Pluviophile


When it comes; thick and soft

as the pelt of an animal,

I am grounded, brought down

to calm in the smell of damp earth.

We wait like the wet starlings,

under tree cover, their song-work

undone in the shallow hiss

of leaves and rain. I am paused,

smelling the green of the grass,

the hung heads of daffodils,

watching the plough furrows

fill with water. A dog barks

somewhere, on one of the farms,

the spaniel lifts his wet head, waits

as I wait, we are communed,

marooned, standing peacefully,

watching the water make mud

out of soil, movement out of stillness.


Laura Potts:  Yesterday Calling


a gull snaps its wings

and laughs

as I stretch out the past

to the city with its dark heart

and us,

splitting our skins for a kiss.

On the rim of a memory,


we fizz

like silver pins

on that street

or this.

My lover’s words I remember


like globed pearls on tepid stars

the hot dark of torchlight


from the pavement


as he went.


with eighty-six years in my face,

I read books

and play cards

and years have dried up,

slow prunes

in a vase.

But last,

in my crabbed hands his skin,

doused with river lights,

no foul breath of wartime but

a whole lost world of long-kissed nights,

thin films of eyes candled bright

in the lobes of my palms,

the four-medal arms deliberate,



Afterwards, the distant salute of a bomb.


Stephanie Bowgett: Baba Yaga’s daughters

You never could tell us apart,

that one in the mirror and me.

Wolves in the forest howl, yellow as yolk

and Bublik, we know you are one of their ilk;

why else would we languish, pine for you here

in a house that struts on the legs of a hen?

And this is a riddle

I riddle for you:

Why have one girl

when you can have two?

Listen! Our mother is pounding home

grinding stars in her mortar.

She wants you

for a lampshade

on a post by the door,

And we agree, me and the one

you mistake for me. Cornered,

your eyes are wide as a girl’s.

We giggle, kiss your loose lips,

pass you from tongue to tongue

dissolve you like sherbet,

me and my sister, the silver needle,

threaded behind my lapel,

She stitches you up in the hem of my skirt.

Swing there heavy, while I clap,

clap, clap to the balalaika;

arms akimbo, pirouette;

stamp my feet in little red boots

Hold tight, Bublik! One of us you’ll wed

but both of us you’ll bed, and Mother,

oh Mother will never know.

And this is a riddle

I riddle for you,

why have one girl

when you can have two?

In the dark they say,

all cats are grey

So too, my dear, are wolves

So too, my dear, are wolves



Yvonne Reddick :   V. Resteau, Geologist Manqué

His treasures: eyeflash of tourmaline

in a matrix of white,

wink of gwindel crystals

their shade a warlock’s smokescreen,

an iron rose, the weight

of angular petals,

the blood-lustre garnet

a dark vein between us.

I turn them between my fingers

and see a man with my eyes

make the slow climb from Göschenen to Airolo

across the divide between rivers,

the watershed of languages.

He sips a Ticino red at the Ospizio –

nerves steadier, he hauls on

boots and rubberised Mackintosh,

the miner’s lamp still quavering in one hand.

The cristallier unfurls the rope ladder

and my great-grandmother’s grandfather

shins down to the blind-end fissure –

squirms his head and shoulders

into the cavity of mineral fangs.

An hour later, he emerges,

whiskers thick with dust,

face beaming. In his hand,

a dusty lump of spikes.

He returns to Evian

with the worst torticollis

his doctor has ever seen

and du quartz fumé magnifique.

His peeling specimen-label reads

St Gotthard, 1859.

Still, his careful hand

beckons in sepia ink, to the keyhole pass

So there we are; all our guests from 2016. Thank you, each and every one of them, and thanks to you for turning up throughout the year and being an audience that makes the writing worthwhile. I’m already looking forward to the guests of 2017. Hope you’ll join me. xxx

2016: My favourite bits (cont.) ..August and September

2016: My favourite bits (cont.) ..August and September



Andy Blackford:  Flitwing


Padmaloka June 2016


Flitwing Pipistrelle careers into the thickening dark

crazy, restless

lancing boils of dancing flies that burst

in swirls of black confetti


The river dawdles in dementia

lost in reedy mazes

gravid, oleaginous


In the meadow by the bridge

a bullock moans the old complaint

solitary, stubborn

mist brimming to his matted haunch


Flitwing, come and corkscrew with me

through the midgy dimness

We’ll swoop and dart and loop the loop

and tease the glaring owl

our talons plucking oily wrinkles

on the moonstruck fen

and we the manic navigators of the night.




Julia Deakin:  Checkpoint


We come from hell. A history of short measures, rough justice,

public executions. Rules of thumb. From backs bent in fields,

mines and furnaces, we walked miles in rags through becks

clogged with debris, hitching lifts on carts down rutted tracks

or shut for days in cramped, smoky carriages on splintered slats

with cocky strangers leering legally,

to cities ruled by horses

in the hands of drunks, the sound of klaxons, screeching,

oaths and tolling bells obscuring backstreet screams of birth,

crude amputations, barber dentists, TB wheezing up the stairs,

spit and spittoons everywhere, cataracts and goitres rampant,

fingers green with nicotine and ink, the tang of coins fished

from gutters, rivers heaving with the dead. Rain and slime

between our toes came with us into dim rooms close with soot

and sulphur, clogging nostrils picked for smuts flicked into rugs

thick with grit, chairs with dust and hair oil, privies cold

and wet or fetid, just vacated, hands from here unwashed

to hack food with a penknife used for fingernails and hooves

in kitchens home to cats, dogs, beetles, maggots, grubs in fruit

and slugs in greens at tables wiped with cloths boiled with kerchiefs,

bandages and nappies brought from bedrooms shared with mice,

bedbugs, nitcombs, pisspots, plaster peeling onto damp bolsters,

clammy sheets and memories of leeches, layings-out and wakes,

clothes seamed with sweat heaped souring in moth-filled closets

next to pictures over mould and trapped birds in chimney breasts

and hard soap scum in aluminium tubs of cooling water

fanned by draughts from grey net at the streaming windows,

springtails in the rotten frames and in the attic, books and papers

pulverised, riddled rafters, wasps’ nests, pigeon lime.


We’re here now. Gated, lighted. Vaccinated, regulated.

Vacuumed, smokeless, enzyme clean. It’s been

so long, like centuries.


Everything stank. Tanneries and pits and breath.

This is the past. Do not turn us back.


chagall 2



Mark Hinchcliffe:    Pieta

 A fox slowly swayed

down the middle of Cowlersley Lane,

eyes glassy and dazed.


People ran out of their houses

to look

and you brought a bowl of milk.


Dressed in a pink tutu and purple glittery wig,

you knelt beside it as it lay down

in the gateway to a garden.


The people peered into

the darkness of its eyes

as if they looked into a stable

or a volcano slowly burning out,

holding up their hands

to catch the sparks

from its glowing tail.




Roy Cockcroft:   Ninety-three


No one knows exactly where the river ends

And the sea begins,

But there are signs

that things have changed –


After the comfortable dialects

Of dapple and glide,

The river finds new voices –

Herons shuffling around

On smeared branches, coughing

Or going hysterical,

Dredging their vowels

From sluice-gates –

And there’s the slow grinding of rock

In the bed’s unstoppable machinery

And the guarded whisperings of sedge.


And features change –

Boats hang skewed on cable,

Or stretched out,

Exposing their keels on a wet slab;

Fences of reed split water

Into shallow lakes;

Banks are uncertain;

Every day the tide invents a new channel;

And later, when the fog clears,

We notice the wading of submerged roots,

A twist of wire fishing for its own reflection,

Low branches watching for hours

Before they stab.


And now the river has a new name.

And new colours –

Traces of black –

A suspicion of red –

Browns, purples and yellows leaking from ancient storms.


Levelling out, the greasy current slows,

Dithering in blocked drains,

Smelling of salt and ammonia,

Going backwards,

Muttering to itself,

Revisiting the same places.



Tom Cleary:  War Photo


Policemen in black and helmets squat on their haunches.

One sits on his bottom, legs spread, staring through a Perspex face shield.

They look like small boys in costume playing jackstones on the road,

skidding lumps of broken paving over the tarmac.


Beyond them there’s a woman in a striped sweater,

a man in a shirt as white as an advert,

figures with blank Os for heads,

like mannequins in a field to frighten birds.

A screen of metal with a mesh of gauze

hides a delicate blur that might be a child.

And Michael may have been hunched for hours, nursing his camera,

stepping back and sideways to avoid the bricks,

steaming cups of tea between the heels of his mittens.


Then these two women promenaded through holding hands.

One, her face fat with flush,

bundled her raincoat with her handbag under one arm,

and pressed the older woman’s hand to her thigh.

The companion blinked through the flash of her glasses

and surrendered her hand as if it was no longer hers.

It almost looks staged, back-projected from a comfortable suburb

where people had more time to talk

about supermarket bargains and boozy nights out,

Grania’s wedding and a June flight to the Canaries.

2016: My favourite bits (cont)….July

2016: My favourite bits (cont)….July



Stephanie Conn:   Winter


We are cut off from the mainland again;

a pile of unopened letters sits in Donaghadee;

there is flour and salt and treacle in the grocer’s,

bags of coal and paraffin to fill the empty tins,

but the boat keeps close to the harbour wall.

Tide in, tide out and the beam of light,

and a distant moon – waxing and waning.

Still, the bread is baked and the butter churned,

the blocken cured and the rabbits trapped,

mussels are plucked from the island pools

and pickled in jars on larder shelves.

The firewood and driftwood is stacked.

Tide in, tide out and the beam of light,

and a distant moon – waxing and waning.

Inside the lamps are lit and curtains pulled,

while out at sea, the wind and waves confront

each other in torrents of eddies and pools

and the gulls circling above the spume

could be vultures in the thick sea-mist.

Tide in, tide out and the beam of light,

and a distant moon – waxing and waning.

But we know what the darkness brings;

it drags us from sleep into nightmare, lost in fog

we’ll be struck by ship after floundering ship;

forced into the driving rain, where muffled voices call

from their wreck. We’ll run to the shore to save all we can.

Tide in, tide out and the beam of light,

and a distant moon – waxing and waning.

In a place such as this, we are used to the ghosts,

but not to their dying; never to the bodies of young men

washed up on the shore, with their puffed up faces

and gaping sockets where the eyes should be; or the tiny crab

emerging from a silenced mouth to scurry, ever sideways.


Gaia Holmes:  Hygge

hygge (n): A Danish word which, roughly translated, means, the art of building sanctuary and community, of inviting closeness and paying attention to what makes us feel open hearted and alive. To create well-being, connection and warmth. A feeling of belonging to the moment and to each other.


Tonight, with you calm, clean,

smelling of lavender in your new pyjamas

and the fire I’ve been trying to kindle for hours

finally settling itself down to blaze

and crackle and glow,

I light all the candles I can find,

put Tallis on the stereo, sit holding your hand.

Tonight the sea will be too wanton

to carry a ferry.

No one will come and no one will go

and in the morning there will be

no fresh bread or milk

on the shelves of the village shop.

Tonight we will keep the cats in.

Tonight, we will be landlocked and cosy

as rain pelts the windows like little pearls

and bolshy wind rocks the caravan.


Tonight I will feel your knots unravelling,

our bond thickening

as love and thin motets chase the cold

from the corners of the room,

and I will almost forget

that you are dying.

girders 3

Jim Caruth:   Play the harp backwards

Who taught them to sling bridges from wires,

to walk straight-backed as convent girls,

along the narrow girders of high towers,

backs to the wind, never daring to look down.

Clustered in the tenements of Brooklyn

and the Lower East Side, like raucous gulls

lining the white hem of a small island

whose name comes in a half-remembered tongue.

At nights you’d find them in the bars

along the waterfront, reciting a catechism

of names as they listened to the old songs,

while outside snow fell on the desolate streets

and the Hudson heaved like a wounded animal.

When the money ran out, they fingered

the dust in their pockets, staggered home

to small rooms, to dream of a mail-boat

rounding the Head, a town shivering

in the yellow glow of street-lamps.


Yvie Holder:   Milkman


I can’t help

this: all my life

the early song,

first one ringing,

piercing the near-light,

cracking my night-shell,

then another, almost an echo,

like a chuckle, then a love-call

and more and more, scooping me up

out of sleep into life, out to the scent of dew-damp earth

and the clinking rhythms of glass and crate, out into my secret bliss,

my own street chorus, the swirl and the whoop of it –

every dawn my rebirth.

Here, no-one remembers the way things were, no-one knows who I am:

as soon as I wake to the music, the calling, they’re swishing around

in plastic aprons, smothering me at four in the morning,

flushing away my crimson dawns, weighting my limbs

with sleeping-pills. I’m gagged, bound

and buried inside

their antiseptic



I can’t help

this: straining

to break the muzzle in my head,

to breathe, to stretch and touch the pristine air,

sense its pinch on my cheeks, gulp its moist breath, be airborne

among warbling eaves and aerial-staves and silhouette-quavers

on whispering wires, riding the breeze in the morning streets, ascending

to my invisible choirs, my madrigal joy.

2016:My favourite bits (cont.) May and June

2016:My favourite bits (cont.) May and June


More of the best of the cobweb’s guest poets of 2016


Di Slaney: Bildr’s thorp

 He ran from the farm like he was learning to slay,

great grandfather’s hounds snouting his heels

with low battle howls, an invisible axe twirling

through grass downhill to the ditch. The half-

remembered hearthtale of severed hands

hovered somewhere north, somewhere hard

and cold and red, somewhere near a shore

far from here, when boats were more

important than carts and jewels as big as

skimstones pinned the eyelids of the dead.

Nothing was owned or held, only wanted.

Movement was everything and settlement a

rumour of old age few would see, or wish for.

He ran from the softness of straw and the comfort

of cattle. He ran because his mother called him

darling, kept him closer than the hounds and

tighter than the bindings on his fox fur boots.

And as he ran, something small and fierce burned

through his chest until it burst on his tongue,

sprayed through the story of the morning in

one long eulalia, herald warrior in waiting

for a past buried under this rocky mound, safe

behind the ramparts of his father’s steading.

Bob Horne:  My Parents Kept Me

My parents kept me from children who were smooth,

lived behind high walls at the top end of the park,

went to boarding school, came home for half-term

in braided blazers and caps, went out

with the doctor’s dark-haired daughter.

Carried in Jags to each other’s houses,

lunched at the golf club, spent the summers

playing at sailors somewhere hot and south;

drilled in the skill of the straight bat,

while we just slogged at everything.

You never saw them near our terraces,

unmade streets; queuing on light nights

for threepenn’orth with bits at the chip shop.

They didn’t look (but knew we were there)

when they drove in the rain past the bus stop.

One winter we smashed them with snowballs,

forced them back to their iron gates

in a frenzy of venom and envy,

jeered at their feeble retreat.

A peasants’ revolt that altered nothing,

or so says the doctor’s white-haired daughter.


Graínne Tobin:  The Catholic Graveyard in Armagh

Push away the feather quilt,

alert for the small hours review.

Here comes the siren, whoo, whoo,

to rattle your dazed heart.

Now the compulsory tour

of the raw trench where you left her,

wearing her navy dress as waked at home

among chrysanthemums, china cups

and a murmur of rosaries in her own back room.

Neighbours in sequence are addressed

as if they live here: Mrs So-and-So?

Third on the right.  The sister and the father

under their slab in the new vernacular,

polished black marble, inscribed in gold,

carried from China for twelve weeks by sea.

She’s two plots away from the tidiest grave in town.

Fresh flowers always, though it took a year

to find a lad his executioners hid.

In her neat suburb of the dead

you’ll need no A to Zed,

killers and killed housed side by side

when booby trap or bullet

levelled their last breath.

Weeds came up over her while your back was turned.

Geraniums from Cemetery Sunday,

candles in plastic holders and a varnished cross

maintain old decency until granite

can name her true and final death.

old workings2 002


Gordon Hodgeon:   For George, Paternal Grandfather

You never reached your seventy third birthday,
I am struggling to reach mine, so let’s
get a few things straight. Through all my adult life
you’ve been a pain, kept slipping out
the shades, sliding your name into my affairs.
I have been George on conference lists and sticky labels,
on business letters, on hotel bills, once even on a poem.

Sometimes, so weary, I went with the flow,
so folk could go to the grave
thinking I bear your name. No chance of that.
Your only son, our father, wanted it grander,
landed me with that general’s name,
my brother with Lord Clive’s.
Not sure why. Dad read the News Chronicle.

But last Tuesday the ultimate put-down.
I was in hospital and gave my name and d.o.b.
to about fifteen nurses and my carer answered
the same questions to half a dozen doctors.
Then I got moved to my place for the night.
In comes a new nurse, greets me warmly:
“Hello George, I am Amanda, I’ll be looking after you
tonight.” How do you manage it?
Have you nothing better to spend your time on?

Given the state I’m in, quite soon
we might meet up. I warn you now,
just one more trick, I’ll alter every entry
in the eternal register, make sure that
all the angels and devils call you my name,
Gordon, your deserved reward.

But I’ll still love you, Grandad,
love how you have walked with me
all the way, more than sixty years
from Leigh Market to just now
when I stopped walking, stopped
being able to carry your basket.

You fed the children from that grid of streets
when their dads were on strike or had no work;
you lent money, thinking it would not come back,
it didn’t. You ran the Sunday School, you
made a gift to me of well-thumbed books,
Sir Walter Scott, Dickens, George Eliot.
You let me learn your sense of serious fun.
How you tormented the old ladies
reading their teacups, winking at me.

I am just as bad, laugh at my own jokes.
I never was as good at giving, never
as well-behaved, never as upright.
I should have been your namesake,
and now I see why you’ve been nudging,
dropping hints, not about names at all.
I let you down, still you raise me up,
George, Gordon, share this bittersweet,
this lifelong lovefeast cup.