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Russia: Minus Twenty-Seven

Sunday, 2 December 2018 at 17:23

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I've been thinking about Russia lately. Of course, it's back in the news with its navy blockcading Ukraine ports, but a longer historical view has been on my mind since I started my Kyrgizstan project in the summer.

What was intended as a shortish poem about Issyk Kul has turned into a chapbook-sized sequence about conquests and empires in Central Asia, going back to Alexander the Great, who founded Alexandria Echate, or Alexandria-the-Furthest, in the Fergana Valley in what is now Tajikstan. That city was probably situated where Khojand is today. In Soviet times it was known as Leninabad.

My sequence takes in the Persians and Scythians, whom Alexander fought, the Mongols, Chinese, and, of course, the Russians, who mined for uranium, and tested torpedos in Issyk Kul lake in Soviet times. The Russians left, and the Americans came and had a base from which they could hop into Afghanistan. For a brief period Kyrgizstan was the only country to have both American and Russian bases. The Russians are back now, and testing in the lake again - nuclear torpedos this time. Putin claims to have developed a super weapon, Poseidon, which could contaminate the US East Coast from a distance. He's going under water, while the defence systems are scanning the skies. This may, of course, be a bluff...

So I've been thinking about the Great Game of Empire. I've also been learning Russian over the last few months (BTW I recommend Duolingo for free online courses. A few weeks before I went to Kyrgizstan I tried various courses, but the Duolingo worked and helped me survive there. I'm intending to go back and do a course in Bishkek - friendly and much cheaper than Russia.- but till then my daily Duolingo slot is keeping things going.)

So I've been thinking about Russia lately and how that place has changed since the couple of times I went there in the early 90s. I'll put a couple of poems up from those trips. The poems appeared in a little pamphlet Minus Twenty-Seven: Three Poems for a Russian New Year (1993) and also in The Dade County Book of the Dead (1995).


Moscow 1993

Security either lolls or struts;
in bad-shaves, camouflage jackets,
calf-high boots with steel toe-caps.
They twirl night-sticks, jerk looped cord tight.
It’s that blackjack’s unexpected flip,
the swing that hooks your eyes and traps
them blind into the palm’s slap.

In the dark cellar bar, whispers in Georgian.
Outside wide-boys, biznizmen
and the hookers’ gaudy flutter
to the crystal casino and upstairs bars. Ascension’s
punctuated by the ping announcing every floor.
The glow of a lamp caught in shuffling doors
as if through the camera’s shutter,
catches mascara, designer clutch, blood-red nails.
Official ladies chatter on the phone
to lipsticked friends on other floors
high up across the cold white city, or pore
over magazines. Each has her cache
stashed in her desk, can fantail greenbacks
to make any change. Wads of cash,
grubby folds of Ones –Washington’s
thumbed to a slow fade, or turned blind with flesh,
tucked into a stocking-top.

Down in the hard currency cabaret,
lithe girls in glittery cache-sexes dance artistically.
Weekends, they no longer interpret history:
the struggles, the yearning to be free.
Mornings, they still turn faces to the wall,
waiting for the doorslam that means they, too, are free.

Outside the wind puts you in mind
of nettles in a rusty can.
Tonight, it’s Holy Communion.
You’ll celebrate pockets of filched perfume,
transubstantiate some stuff that really zings (mixed in
with bootblack, insect repellent,
athletes foot remedy, medicated shampoo)
into the cocktail, most excellent,
you’ve decided after all to call
Momma Yeltsin’s Secret Shame,
or, considering the shoe polish,
Black Russian Number Two.

Again today, you see them:
lost ones scavenging the dump.
Rags picking rags, minds and hearts all tatters.
Hopeless, breaking their balls
for a few shreds of tobacco, a lump
of horse-hair or a bladder’s-worth of sump-oil.

The snow is tired, slushed with tyres and fumes.
Kiosks and hawkers where you go down
with the grim crowd. In the Metro for a moment,
below chandeliers and marble, for feel a part of history,
caught on the dialectic’s pendulum swing;
with the masses marching through the Winter Palace,
or long ago, unmomentous with the rabble,
wild-eyed with plunder yet merely living,
breathless in the hiatus between kings.

Day of the Dead 1

Monday, 29 October 2018 at 18:25

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The year darkens and traditionally the season is associated with the dead. When I lived in Mexico it was common to get a chocolate skull with your name candied on. In his essay "Theory and Function of Duende", Lorca claims "a dead person in Spain is more alive when dead than is the case anywhere else". I think he may have considered the position of the dead in Mexico. In Mexican cemeteries, people leave cigarettes, and tequila on the graves for their dead relatives to enjoy. Here we have adopted the American version of Hallowe'en with its dubious trick or treating. My local shop has a sign saying that, to discourage anti-social behaviour, they won't serve flour or eggs to children.

Here are two poems "All Souls" and "Day of the Dead" which are part of a sequence of elegies I've been working on since my mother's death a few years ago. Both appeared, together with other poems from the sequence, on The Common website.

All Souls

Day of the Dead again;
last night loosed little devils,
bloodied dwarfs, some larger fiends

who tricked and treated
their way along my street,
while inside in the dark

the last few widows
fearing egg-snotted windows
kept worrying at wrappers,

fingers too cold
to melt the chocolate
(sniggers, door knockers)

from a mini-Mars or Milky Way,
rasp the crinkly fishtail of a Snickers.

Day of the Dead 2

Monday, 29 October 2018 at 18:11

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In Mexico, Death is often personified by an elegant female skeleton.
Day of the Dead
La Flaca, La Huesuda, La Pelona

Some twiggy, the skinny, the bony, the one and only
truly chic bald lady. Thin? She’s lean, lankier
than any catwalk slinky; hips mean as a hinge;
so sharp (skirt slashed by flanks like pinking shears)
it’s hard to tell elbow from her scrawny arse.

Who could flog rags to this dead clothes-horse?
Her finger, harder than any granny’s dimpled thimble,
prods, sizes you up for a tux, reserves a box.
You’re so last year. But odd is always à la mode.
And now you’re well stitched up, your seamstress slips
into another dress: the gracious Hostess
has had your name embossed across the stiffie.
No need to RSVP.
Le tout Enfer est invité.


Monday, 29 October 2018 at 16:52

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That time of year again. The clocks have just gone back and the shops are full of Hallowe'en stuff. Here's a poem I wrote many years ago when I lived on the edge of Snowdonia and which appeared in Trans (The Collective Press, Wales, 2005). I've also added it to the relevant collection page. 



All last week, the same old joke
cracked that face up. He swung for us,
the burning Bogey, this pumpkin bloke.

Hacked out chops, no arty fuss,
these little triangles for nostrils, eyes
weren’t meant to last or gather dust.

Set light, the kids strung him up high,
lynched him briefly from a rafter.
Little priests, they swung him like a censer;

the smell of burning wax wafting
up as air hissed through his sawn-off crown,
turned gallows grin to hollow laughter.

All Hallows, we cut him down.
Three nights he glowered in the dark,
then guttered, more malcontent than clown.

Now, suddenly, that gourd’s gobsmacked.
The bite that was incised in light’s
a gurning mouthful of gummy black.

That hackneyed grin hacksawed in white,
the one that made light of death’s
now toothless, gormless by Bonfire Night.


The candle inside’s dead, unlit,
but a visual pun still takes the pith
and disses us with living soot.

At first, I’d thought the kids
had blacked it in, felt-tipped.
Tipped up, inside’s a weird skid-lid,

foam-cushioned right up to the lip,
black padding where the casing’s holed.
But then the night sky seeps

through an opened fontanelle,
and you’re staring through a brain-pan
chinked with stars, a trepanned skull:

the nightlight waxed into a tinny moon;
or a metal plate countersunk in bone,
but inside out and upside down.


All perspective’s suspect. In Holbein,
the anamorphic does the trick,
a tangent turns formlessness to omen.

The Ambassadors’ world is fixed,
measured, ordered by degrees:
categorical, hierarchic.

Against these clear geometries,
the foreground’s strangely deformed, defaced
- soft and shapeless as a new disease?

or thin and hard, reflective as a blade?
What’s smuggled in’s your skull, of course:
(left-field) revealed obliquely in an aside.


... And in Acherontia atropos
you can read your future, make a book.
A flutter on this Death’s Head Moth

shows you how the odds are stacked:
an old movie of an ageless face
flickered through short-winged days.

This moth cannot know what’s on its back.
The sun has never seen its shadow.
Yours is everywhere you look.


Staring through this dark halo,
this tonsured hole in the head, to see
a Möbius pumpkin full of hollow,

some Zen monk’s memento mori,
or merely the fungus that has rimed
these lidless eyes, this lipless smile

with kohl. There’s still a mise-en-abîme
of further skins beneath the skull.
This close, the spores begin to seem

like droplets of commas, dots, ink.
Now powdered anagrams dismember
rictus, smirk, reek and stink.


Outside the season’s ash and embers.
Elsewhere, fruity gourds - watermelons
are sliced into lippy smiles. November.

On the Day of the Dead, in sun,
I got a sugary skinhead grin,
a skull with my name candied on.

These aren’t my kids. In another life,
words end with ‘ohs’ and ‘ahs’: Mexican
names sugared on by a dark-skinned wife.

What’s dead sometimes was never born,
or a belly’s swollen by another man.
Short days, dark nights, mud, ice, rain

- this wasn’t part of any plan.
These aren’t my kids, but without them,
how would I recognize this woman?

Tomorrow, somehow I know, the skin
will blister into tears - tiny, red.
Passing the piano to the bin,

this ex-hardcase, pithy kinsman, blokish pumpkin,
will give, then break - I feel it already-
mush up to my knuckles, as my thumb sinks in.

Prospect Gallery Exhibition Reopens

Friday, 7 September 2018 at 14:21

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The Prospect Gallery has reopened after the summer break, featuring more work from Hull College Access courses, including the Professional Practice strand I've been a part of for the last for or five years. The works in the exhibition will change over the autumn; at the moment four of my large cityscape paintings are on display. All of my work in the gallery is for sale, as are most of the other pieces.

Normal opening times Tues, Wed, Thursday 10am -4.30. The gallery is situated on the front of the Prospect Shopping Centre, 78 Prospect Street, Hull HU2 8PW

Death of a Poet

Friday, 17 August 2018 at 20:45

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I've added this, the last poem from A Ned Kelly Hymnal, to the Vandemonian pages.

It was odd: I'd seen this painting often in Liverpool. I think it was probably first when I was an art student there. Later, after coming back from Australia and writing my Ned Kelly sequence, I came across it again. Is Ned really an Orpheus figure? Or is this just some critic's misunderstanding?



Alternative Ending

Sidney Nolan’s “Death of a Poet”, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

Death of a Poet was what they called it:
head hung in a branch; roughed-up paint;
wristy little vortices where rag
scrubbed board, twisted bark
right through flat mid-blue.
Bush. Heat-struck head hung
against a cloudless dumb forever.
Archaic. Stark.
                          Not hard to see why
(a sniff of lemon leaves, a fierce Greek sky?)
the municipal Victorian neo-classical Walker
saw Orpheus. No lyre. Alternative ending:
his ripped silence after frenzied stalkers
had torn him limb from limb.
Forget downriver. There’s no water;
here’s what became of another him:
head tossed sky-high, caught in trees.

But what we’ve really got here’s dead Ned’s head.
So odd to find, in Liverpool,
his face for once — at last his naked skin.
Yet though he’s out his box, escaped his tin,
and all around the bush is blasted through
to ripolin blue enamel skies
the one thing you can’t see here is his eyes.

Tight shut. Not really him at all.
Death-mask or bust. Kicked the bucket.
Right now he’s just something in the trees,
round as a gourd, shiny on top,
bald as baked clay, a terracotta pot.

Or one that’s bloomed, blown, grown scratchy dry;
breeze-rustled beard ready to fall to scrub,
dead-headed by some passer-by.

Ned Kelly rides again!

Friday, 17 August 2018 at 19:32

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As I mentioned in the last post, I'll be adding material from earlier books to the portfolios over the next few weeks. I've just added the sequence on the death of Ned Kelly to the portfolio pages featuring Vandemonian (Arc Publications, 2013).

The sequence also appeared in A Ned Kelly Hymnal which was published by David Kennedy as an illustrated chapbook (A Paper Special Edition from The Paper / Cherry On the Top Press in 2008).

David Kennedy died last year. He was a colleague of mine at both Sheffield and Hull Universities and a friend. We collaborated on several Humber Writer anthologies.

David, as well as being an important poet and critic, was also good company, kind and thoughtful. A small example: he organised a launch in Sheffield for my collection Trans; when delays with the publication seemed likely, he quickly put together a sample pamphlet so I'd have something to show at the launch.

He is, and will be, much missed.

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