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.
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.