Viva Espana..or “What I did on my holidays”

2017-06-17 09.26.09

For the last five years I’ve made what has turned into a sort of pilgrimage to Relleu, a handsome village of steep narrow streets of stone setts;  a village with a shady square by the huge church. It’s surrounded by limestone ridges that step higher and higher inland. From the top of the nearest you can see the minature high rise nonsense of Benidorm, 20 or 30 kilometres away. For five years I’ve gone to residential poetry courses at the Old Olive Press of Almaserra… which is the home of the estimable Christopher North. I’ve gone to learn from tutors like Mimi Khalvati, Jane Draycott and Ann Sansom… and I’ve loved it.

A bit of a twist this year, though. Not a course, but a retreat, with just four of us writing every day. I’ll tell you more about that in another post, but the thing was that we ran our own workshops, taking turns every morning, and then, in the late afternoons, critiquing whatever we’d written that day, or brought with us. A sort of DIY Poetry Business. I’d forgotten just how much I love teaching, preparing material, setting up a task, listening, watching, guessing where to take it next. But, boy, is it intense! Just the four of you. On a Poetry Bussiness Writing day there may be up to 30 people…certainly 20;  you can hide, or unobtrusively switch off. Well you can’t do that with four. Just saying.

2017-06-15 13.04.20

And, my words, it was hot. Far too hot for walking .. which is usually how I escape from poetry and company in the afternoons of residentials. So I made lunches, and sat by the pool (did I say there is a pool?), and had desultory swims, and dozed. And switched off. It was an oddly detached time. The wifi is intermittent and frustrating, till you just decide to stop bothering about it. So the awfulness of deranged racist murders, the beyond awfulness of a tower ablaze in Kensington, came like rumours of a distant war. The full horror of it all came all in one crash of revelation when I got home last night, when I watched the Panorama documentary. I’m still appalled, and without any words or frame of reference. I don’t know how to respond.

On Sunday night in the street where we stay ..Carre Mare de Deu del Miracle, narrow and steep all the way up to the square and the great doors of the church….. women were strewing leaves and flowers, making altars in their doorways, embroidered cloths, gimcrack crucifixes, plastic dolls and rosaries. The teenagers in the town band were checking their music at Pepe’s bar. As it grew cooler and later, you could hear them play a slow and melancholy tune through the streets. Corpus Christi. In London people were searching for the dead and politicians were turning themselves inside out to lay blame and deny responsibity. A racist lunatic drove a van into a crowd coming out from worship. Auden told us, didn’t he:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

That’s how I felt about myself when I came home. I thought I’d been more alive than usual. I’d been just walking dully along, after all. What can we do but pray for serenity and courage and wisdom, and be true to one another. And remember the good things as well as the dreadful. The good things are just as true. Let me share a good thing. One day we went first to a hot limestone valley and a cave where men and women lived, 3000 years ago; after, we went to Ca Pinet…a bar and restaurant that’s a shrine to international left-wing revolution and struggle. It’s a place where you quickly learn to cultivate a kind of ambivalence. Or, at least, where I did. So, I’ll finish with a poem. My essay : what I did on my holidays.

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Ca Pinet


Morning:  Pla de Petracos; white, dry;

hot and still as a bakehouse;  a cave

high under a limestone overhang

scoured out by an unthinkable river.

Cave paintings in pale scoops of rock.

Shapes like mantises, creatures with arms

like double-handed saws, and things

that might be eyes. Undecipherable.

They meant something by it, the vanished ones.

2017-06-15 13.03.20


Alicia  Fernandez  Gallego, today

I thought of you; I remembered I owe you

a story, remembering your grandfather

who, in the middle of a battle, swopped sides,

legged it, ditched his pack, joined Franco.

Maybe he hoped for better boots, or bread,

or maybe he’d had his fill of Anarchists

who hated Socialists, or Communists

who hated both. Just up to here with dialectic.

ca pinet 1


Early afternoon: Ca Pinet. We are pilgrims,

ardent atheists, here to eat paella

under the gaze – benign, stern, disapproving –

of Allende, Che Guevara, La Passionaria;

under the bloody banners of the Red Brigades,

the Republic’s blood and gold and purple.

¡Solidaridad  con el Partido

Obrero de Unificacion Marxista!

¡NO PASERAN! They meant something by it.

ca pinet 2


The P.A. plays the Internationale.

The olives in the salad are peppery and sharp.

We’re offered wine from a greasy porron.

Someone who’s read Hemingway says:

it tastes of herbs. Another says: of goat, of resin.

Someone says: the paella’s on the dry side.

The Internationale unites the human race.

Rosa Luxembourg looks as though she means it.

A Russian folk song starts up. The day gets hotter.


When it comes to pay the bill, no one’s sure

what to do about a tip. We’ve read our Orwell.

No one complains about the food burned dry.

We leave a tip. Not obviously. We leave.

Alicia  Fernandez  Gallego, I’m thinking of you,

of your grandfather, and also of Jim Connell,

the Belfast boy in Donovan’s who wrote

The Red Flag. 1898. Who sang it

in the pubs of the Shankhill and the Falls.


Jim Connell, who tried to teach the Taigs

and Prods there was just the People’s flag,

just one. Forget the Union Jack, the tricolour.

Ach, he united them alright. Papes and Proddies

as one man gave  Jim a kicking , kicked him

out of Ulster. One side kicked him for the Pope,

the other for King Billy and the Queen –

the wee gobshite, godless Bolshevik.

No Surrender. No Paseran. Nothing changes.

almaserra )ct 2013 052

I shall be away next weekend. I will be leading a poetry workshop in Lewes as part of the South Downs Poetry Festival. 2.00-4.00 on Sunday June 25th. There’s still a few places. I’m very excited. Why not come and watch me being excited…..and you can write poems as well. Here’s a link.  Go on. Spoil youselves.

Looking beyond that, I’m equally excited to know I’ve got some great guest poets signed up for the cobweb, AND there’ll be some ramblings about translating poetry. Until then, be kind to yourselves.






what survives…and a Gem Revisited: Clare Shaw


I don’t need much of an excuse to post images of the gritstone/sandstone Pennines. If I want to go walking, I love the limestone Pennines more, but if I want dark sculpture, then the moors between the old mill towns of West Yorkshire and East Lancashire are where I’ll go. Here’s the Upper Calder valley…Hebden Bridge and Todmorden. Ted Hughes’ first home..and a later one at Lumb Bank.

Home, too, of today’s returning guest. Many of Clare Shaw’s poems (like those of Steve Ely’s ‘Englaland‘) are those of one of the Edgeland’s inhabitants. I’m thinking of the inbetween landscapes of council estates on the edge of Pennine moors, between the dirty glamour of the Lancashire plain and its cities, and the high sour cottongrass and peat and gritstone, and the small towns of the Calder valley, the Ribble valley, the mix of rundown mills, steep slopes, small farms.

I thought I’d not be writing a cobweb strand today….got to be up at 4.00am tomorrow. Off on holiday, and I thought today would be all packing and panic. Instead of which a) I find I’m better organised than I thought and b) Clare Shaw did much more than send me a brief updated biog and two or three new poems I asked her for. She pretty well wrote the whole post. I could not be happier, and here’s why.

The last time she was a guest was in 2015…if you haven’t met her before, you may like to start there, by following this link :

Butyou don’t have to. One thing I wrote then was this:

I first saw Clare Shaw read to a less than full house at The Albert Poets in Huddersfield . Striking,beautiful, tall, with an athlete’s poise and grace, and in black, like a gunslinger. I was bowled over. I’d been roped in to compering duties at the last minute; as far as I remember I described her set as a rivetting combination of Patti Smith/Bukowski/ Dylan/ Morrisey and John Cooper Clark if they had that accent of the Lancashire Pennines where they rhyme ‘hair’ with ‘fur’. She reads with a rare intensity and poise. Gunslinger. Her poems have you unwaveringly in their sights. They’re urgent and full of love. I find it hard to separate the poems I hear at a reading, but this time one stuck in my brain. I wanted to hear it again and again.

This baby
This baby is a hurricane –
it’s the thunder of an underground train.
You can hear it coming from miles away.
You can feel it in the walls, the floor.

It’s the roar beneath the city street;
the earthquake that wakes you,
shaking beds, breaking plates.
This baby dislodges slates –

felled a steeple in Dudley.
This baby could kill.

This baby is news, big news.
This baby makes you huge.
Makes you Africa and Russia,
proud. A high hot-air balloon fat-filled with fire.
You could explode with it.
Stand clear! This woman could blow any minute.
This quick blood-bloom of certain cell
could grow to anything –
snowflakes forming like a wildflower,
a sly-eyed gull; a dinosaur;

a deep bellyful of weed.
This baby is a fallen seed.
The thin grass blade that ruptures the road.
It could open you up –

your stomach, the shape of a book not yet written;
the curve of the first word
of the book you wake speaking,
always forgotten.

It’s like that, this baby –
the light of a star that no-one can see
travelling ten thousand light years
to catch you unaware

knelt as you are in the slow Autumn rain,
heaving with dreams
and your body a poem
on the theme of ‘This Baby’.

Think of a name.

[from Straight Ahead]

Hard to say how much I enjoyed inexpertly typing this poem, feeling it reveal itself letter by letter, typos and corrections and all, hearing the craft of it that I’d missed in the rush of hearing it read. The universality and particularity of THIS baby, the surprise of the rhymes, the lovely juxtapositions of gulls and wildflowers, the immanence of THIS baby. I love, too, the way it makes me think of Sylvia Plath’s ‘high-riser /my little loaf’ ….but THIS baby’s ‘proud’ way beyond the proud of flesh or a risen loaf, a small insidious force that will grow to an earthquake, ‘the thin grass that ruptures the road.’ Everything is exact and crafted and thunderous with energy. It had me in its sights, alright. I wanted to read more. So I did.”’s just over two years since I wrote that, and a lot has happened in the meantime, and as we all know, not all of it good. But there’s a resilience in this world. If I were to devise a coat of arms for Clare Shaw, the motto would not be in would be a line from Larkin. What will survive of us is love. Clare recentlydid something I find unnerving even now. She sent me the manuscript of the new collection she’s been putting together and asked me to give her (detailed) feedback on it. Two other poets have asked me to do that. It’s terrifying…if I have to say why, then you wouldn’t understand anyway. In each case, it’s turned out to be a labour of love. And in Clare’s case, a labour of love about a labour of love. (I’ve just re-read that. As rhetoric, it’s pretty sad, don’t you think? But I mean it. So it stays. Soz) . Poems full of the love of her place and her people. What she’s sent us for today will make that plain.

floodtown for clare

“May 24th 2015: it’s been just over two years since I was last on John’s blog. At the time, I’d just finished my first NaPoWriMo*, and I was working towards the completion of my third collection. It’s taken me all this time to finish the bloody thing. It’s been a packed two years, but then aren’t they all?

(* just a comment, here. If you didn’t follow Clare’s progress on NaPoWriMo in April this year, you missed something astonishing. Maybe there’s a way of finding the poems she posted on Facebook. If there is, then do so. Some, like many in her latest draft collecton, working title Floodtown, are poems for her home of Hebden Bridge, flooded once again this year. The image is what Clare saw from the upper window of her house)


“In September 2015, I started work as the Royal Literary Fellow at the University of Huddersfield. It’s not as grand as it sounds: I spend two days a week helping students and staff with their writing skills. It’s far from creative – I’m working with grammar, punctuation, style, tone, criticality, on essays about the care of ulcers, or the economic development of Hartlepool. But to say I love it is an understatement: pig in shit is more like. To spend two full days wallowing in words, glorious words – tinkering and restructuring, mending, polishing. It’s a far cry from the work I’ve previously done in mental health, self-injury and suicide awareness – but it’s still underpinned by my absolute conviction that everyone has the right to express themselves to the best of their ability. That to do so is not only a lovely thing, but is potentially transformative.


My work in mental health has been tremendously important to me for a long time, and that continues to some degree: since 2015 I’ve delivered training to staff at St Mungo’s and the University of Leeds; and I’ve published more work on self-injury and suicide including “Otis Doesn’t Scratch” (PCCS 2015), a resource for young children affected by self-injury.


But the bulk of my working life now is spent as a poet. I work for a range of organisations: the Poetry School, the Wordsworth Trust, The National Writer’s Centre of Wales, and the Arvon Foundation, individual mentoring clients – anyone who asks nicely / pays well/ offers me an extraordinary and unforgettable opportunity. I’ve had a few of those … one that springs to mind is working with the University of Chester to provide poetry and text for an exhibition and artbook of Tom Wood’s archive photography of patients in the closing days of Rainhill Psychiatric Hospital (to be published later this year).  Here’s one of the poems:


Just look


The shelves tell you half of my story.

They are empty of anything good.


That tin of sweets

with no sweets in it;


if you want me to talk,

just look


to the books

which nobody reads;


to the chess board

with none of its pieces.


Don’t ask me to say how I feel;

ask the carpet.


It is like

it has never been clean.


I don’t need to speak out.

It’s clear at first sight


that the table is angles

and does not count


and the chairs

are as red as sin


and none of the white

has ever been white


and nothing about this has ever been right

and the plant does not fit its pot.



That’s it.


And the corridor flooded with light.


(Whatever you do, read this aloud to yourself. Try different speeds. Read the spaces and silences. Read it reflective. Read it in a rage.. Listen, really listen, to every negative, every not, every nothing, and then think hard about how you want to say that final ‘YES’. Listen to the consonants, the assonances, the near rhymes, the echoes. Listen to that understated craft. Right that’s me done. It all Clare from here on in)




I’ve also been working regularly through this year with the Wordsworth Trust’s “West Coast Schools” project, tutoring thirty-plus Year Seven students in a Catholic school in Workington; and I’m currently teaching “The Poetry of Survival”, an Online International Course for the Poetry School.  Here are two excerpts from a recent assignment which illustrate how my life as a mental health activist and my life as a writer are still intimately interwoven:


“Today, I ran the fourth of six monthly sessions with a group of 11 and 12 year olds in a school on the west coast of Cumbria. It’s a deprived area; and this school is in a particularly deprived town. The kids span a wide spectrum of ability: some struggle with basic writing skills and few of them had any knowledge or confidence around poetry when we started out. It was a long, long, day but I was energised by the evaluations they had filled out at the previous session: “I didn’t know any poetry but now I know more and I like it”; “I like it more than normal lessons”; “I like it because I can express myself and I am more consus of myself” ….


We all need story. Story binds together the disparate moments and facts of our life. It gives us coherence and identity. We are raised with a certain story of ourselves and our families, which is given the status of truth. We may live happily with that story all our lives; or we reach a point where it no longer ‘fits’: in the turmoil of adolescence perhaps, or as a result of a single disordering event later in life – loss of relationship, job, home; rape or assault. The sort of event which, in Susan Brison’s words “shatters one’s fundamental assumptions about the world one’s safety in it” and “severs the sustaining connection between the self and the rest of humanity” (Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self, 2002). It’s a process of liberation and loss: all that we took for granted has been upended, and we can for a time be lost in a dark world in which nothing makes sense or feels safe. And at this point we can come to the possibility that we can tell our own stories and create our own truths. Here lies the saving, sustaining, transforming potential of words – especially poetry.


How do I know which truth to tell? Is it the one which makes me feel better? There’s mileage in that – but I think, more importantly, we should tell the truth which needs to be told. In poetry, some essential story emerges. A story we need to tell. When we work with image, metaphor, association – essentially, the unconscious – that story erupts from us – whether we like it or not. It brings us to a knowledge of ourselves, here and now, in this moment. Not catharsis for its own sake; but a new knowing of ourselves; a new and often deeper story. As the young girl in my poetry class said, we don’t just express ourselves, we become conscious of ourselves. This is me. Through my words, I define myself. I tell you who I am. You listen. You tell me who you are. In the meeting of your world and my world, we both exist.


Through poetry, our connection with ourselves, the world around us, and each other, is re-established”.


I had a rough time a few years ago, and I guess you could say I lost my faith in poetry for a while. In the past two years, I’ve rediscovered it. John has been part of that; and two mutual friends of ours: Kim Moore and Keith Hutson. People with a wildly different but similarly unwavering commitment to language, and an enviable level of energy. Profoundly generous with it too: John, Kim and Keith have all helped me with the task of finishing the third collection, and they should know how grateful I am for their insight and friendship. Another loved and lovely friend, Choman Hardi, in her Anfal sequence in “Considering the Women” – shortlisted for the Forward Prize – exemplified everything that poetry should be: urgent, unflinching, painful and utterly necessary. The cross-pollination of passion, commitment and affection amongst writers  is a wonderful thing: I’m incredibly excited that

Kim and I have recently co-authored a sequence which will be published in the North; we continue to collaborate. In April, we organised and hosted a feminist poetry jambouree as part of a national ‘Persisters: Holding the Line’ event, organised in response to Trump, Brexit, the Tory Austerity government, and other atrocities.  We had hoped that we might attract an audience of say, 25-30 people; as the event started, I stopped counting at seventy. Poetry is alive, and it’s vital.


Gregory Orr’s book “Poetry As Survival” was a happy discovery I made recently after agreeing to tutor the Poetry School course. I won’t try to précis the book: suffice to say, it’s like someone cut me open and read what was inside me. Here are two line from it, which seem very relevant this month: “Trauma, either on an intimate or collective  scale, has the power to annihilate the self and shred the web of meaning that support is existence. Yet the evidence of lyric poetry is equally clear – deep in the recesses of the human spirit, there is some instinct to rebuild the web of meanings with the same quiet determination we witness in the garden spider as it repairs the threads wind and weather have torn”. Here’s a poem which pretty much summarises how I feel.  I wrote the first draft of it on the last day of NaPoWriMo 2015: and it’s a kind of thank you letter to Kim Moore and to all the other writers who brought me back. PS. I finished the collection today. Thanks.

(Clare’s told me that wordpress has screwed up the formatting of the poem that comes next. I’ve re-edited it twice, but it keeps getting screwed. Thhis is the stanza line pattern : 7/7/6/8/8/7/3. My apologies if it’s still wrong…as I’m looking at it now it’s as it should be. I’ll update it one more time)


I came back

to the sound of birds in the morning,
to heavy rain falling. Back to the holding of hands.
I came back from the storm
to shelter. Though they said
there was no way back
I came back in a taxi, by darkness
and no-one could see my face.

I came back from the brink,                                                                                                        from Broadoak. There was screaming                                                                                        inside my ears. I came back running,                                                                                               back from not speaking.
I made the same noise for years.                                                                                                        I came back by grafting, back                                                                                                          with my arms open wide and laughing.

I was brought back by daisies.
I was brought back by doctors.
Saved by a surplus of air
because somebody needed to breathe it;
I came back to the feeling of mud, I forgot
I forgot how to cross the road.

I was not brought back by love.
I was brought back by stone
and by falling. I was brought back
by hitting the floor. I was wrapped in a blanket,
brought back by hurting,
by the sight of my own insides
and I did not like it and I could not stop it
but back is the way I came.

I was brought back by words
though I didn’t believe them,
I came back to a yard in the sun.
I was brought back by pain that I could not escape.
When they stitched me, I could not run                                                                                           I was sweating. I will never forget them.                                                                                         I came back to my mother’s eyes                                                                                                    and the sound of the telly left on.

I came back the long way round
and I did not mind about distance.
I was brought back by violence, my own.
I came back for vodka, I came back for fire,
for your animal breath in my ear.
For the colour of leaves in the darkness.
I came back for your eyes in the darkness;

to houses that did not care.
For tracing the flames with my fingers,
how you parted my knees with your hands
and when the fires had all lost their voices
I came back from the page’s blank stare.
I was brought back to words: moon,
falling. I was right I was right all along.

I came back.
I lived through thunder.
And I did not come back for the sun.


Poetry as survival.  Clare Shaw, thank you so much. What will survive of us is love. There’s so much love in Clare Shaw’s writing. Resilience, too. Sinew. Steel. Poems on the edge. Like rockclimbers, seeing just how far you can go and stay in balance. Fingers crossed that the third collection will find its chosen publisher very soon. In the meantime, if you haven’t read them yet, then you can do no better than make up for lost time and buy the first two collections. Both of them.

Straight ahead: [Bloodaxe 2006] £7.95

Head on             : [Bloodaxe 2012] £8.95

While you’re at it, you could check out another collaboration


Seeing Poetry is a collaboration between acclaimed poet Clare Shaw (Bloodaxe 2006, 2012) and illustrator Louise Crosby.

Louise illustrates poetry by Clare Shaw in comics form. Her illustrations were first designed as single spreads to be shown in exhibitions; these are now being reworked to book format.



That’s me for a couple of weeks. I’m going away to do some writing, and when I come back, I’m off to my very first poetry festival. AND I’ll be running a poetry workshop, so if you’re around Lewes/ Brighton at the end of June I’d be delighted to see you.


John Foggin is a prize-winning poet, with 30+ years of teaching and in-service training experience.

Actors and children understand how the wearing of masks (which can be other people’s voices) can liberate our ways of seeing and feeling. We get stuck in routines of saying and thinking. In this session, we’ll be giving voices to places, things and people, fictional, mythical and historical, and in the process we’ll find new rhythms of writing. You don’t need to be an experienced writer. All you need is to be willing to suspend some disbelief, to use your empathy and imagination.

Forthcoming Dates








“Gap Year” : a collection by Andy Blackford and John Foggin

Gap Year
Gap Year Andy Blackford & John Foggin now available to buy

“Gap Year” is the product of a one year writing exchange in 2014 between me and Andy Blackford, who I toaught in the 6th Form at Middlesbrough High School in the late 60’s and then didn’t meet again for 40 years. It was Andy’s idea that, like Louis Bunel and an artist friend, we would exchange a piece of work (poems, in our case) every week for a year, critiquing and cajoling as we went along. It was Andy’s idea to enter some of the poems for a pamphlet competition run by Sentinel Publications. We were invited to submit a full collection which subsequently won the 1st Prize.

Roger Elkin, the judge, said this about our collection:

Sentinel Writing & Publishing Newsletter

November 30, 2016

We are pleased to announce the results of the SPM Publications Poetry Book Competition (2016) and the comments on the winning collections by judge Roger Elkin

First Prize
Gap Year 
Andy Blackford and John Foggin

This collection of questioning and explorative poetry is offered not as a master-pupil construct, but as a collaborative joint venture – “a harmonious duet” as the submission sample proposed – each poet inspiring the other in a mutual appreciation and understanding of an individual take on the world. And what a wide-ranging read they offer, from the natural world with detailed observation particularly of bird-life, the skies and seascapes, to education and the arts, especially music and painting; to family members and neighbours; to issues central to life, such as love, suicide and death; and to matters spiritual, centring on Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, and the Padmaloka retreat. Occasionally, these worlds of now and beyondness (enigmatic yet centring on the immediate) are transformed into something approaching a nightmare reality in which the concrete is made disconcertingly abstract, and vice versa. Similarly, several poems employ the strategy of using negatives (sometimes cataloguing them) and transforming them to positive commentaries on the human predicament. However, the application of an almost Metaphysical wit, leavened by touches of humour, serves to make the writing subtle and nuanced: sometimes gently lyrical in its musings; and at other times hard-edged and disturbing in its raw perceptiveness. Both states are explored via a wide range of structures; a palette of richly-appropriate diction which luxuriates in colour; startling imagery; and skilful lineation. This is a candid and honest poetic partnership. Its fruits are of the highest order. I look forward to reading more.

We couldn’t be happier. I’m especially happy for Andy…this is the first time he’s ventured into the unpredictable world of poetry comps and publishing. We’re equally chuffed about the finished product, and we hope you will be. As a taster, here are two of the poems. If you want to read more, simply head to the Menu at the top of the page, which will take you to My Books, and a Paypal button. The book will come P&P included.

**** There may be a short delay in posting. I’ll be away in Spain from 12-19 June******


Taken by the tide


I might have sailed with saints into the infinite

Atlantic, lugging their old bone-house burdens,

searching for the furthest place  from man,

which I imagine they supposed

would be the nearest place to God.


And maybe  I’d have stood shuddering

and shriven in the wind and spray,

but before too long I know I’d be mumbling

bladderwrack  and dulse, clubbing gannets,

prising limpets, riving clumps of mussels

off knuckle-skinning rocks; stumbling

down cold sluicing gullies just in time to see

the boats taken  by the tide, or broken

by the storm, or by the will of God.


And I wonder what they sang,

these old fanatic souls, on the strait summits

of mountains whose feet are oceans deep,

and how they died on Sula Sgeir, on Rona,

and if they knew that gulls and fulmars

would nest in the cloister of their ribs.


Tell me they remembered the words

of their mea culpa Masses.Tell me

they were sane. Tell me they held the tune.


[John Foggin]


Christ in the Peter and Paul Fortress

Christ surveys the wondrous cross

and quietly swears. This is my final crucifixion.

He isn’t one for cursing, generally, but this place

would try the patience of a saint.


Clouds of gold hang like bad breath

about the iconostas.

Gold is a melanoma here,

corrupting wings of angels, ears of saints.


It’s as if some prelate

in a rage of lust

has spewed this opulence

upon his mother’s pristine feet.


Ah, the mother: silent, icy, incorruptible.

All this bling and booty

and not a virgin’s sneer to show for it.


Christ, sickened

by such unintended consequences

slips into the confessional.


Casting off his showgirl’s costume

he spins three times and reappears

as Jesus in his cotton grave shift

with its world map traced in gore.


Escaping by a side door

he lopes the fifty metres to the Bastion,

bribes a guard with Judas’ little toe

and makes his way to Cell Thirteen.


An old general sprawls helpless

on an iron bed. Pointlessly

they took his wooden leg away.

He scrawls a message

to his wife of forty years.

The scrap of paper, torn from a Bible,

is no broader than his hand


but he makes the letters big –

she’s almost blind from cataracts.


My dearest love Alyona,

I don’t know when they’ll let me go.

There is no food or bedding.

Please send bread.


He doesn’t mention that the water

in the toilet bowl is frozen and his cheek

is broken from the beating.


Next day the General will be bundled

to another gaol and hanged.


Jesus silently recites a benediction

then drifts, ghost-like, between the bars.

In the shadow of the domes

of gold and lapis lazuli,

he finds he can no longer raise his eyes.

But still he whispers:

Forgive them Father for they know

exactly what they do.


[Andy Blackford]