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Monday, 1 July 2019 at 19:33

Caucasus, Georgia

I've not posted anything for a couple of weeks as I've been away. I was in Georgia, just leaving before the riots in Tbilisi, following Russian pressure on Georgia, and a Russian politician addressing the Georgian parliament in Russian. There is, of course, a ltragic history of Georgia's relations with Russia, but also a more optimistic tradition of Russian writers who were inspired by the country: Pushkin, Lermontov, Tostoy... and one or two, like Mayakovsky, who had more fractious dealings.

The country has a long and complicated history, almost off-stage from Europe, but, in an odd way central to its myths, culture and politics. It's probably the world's oldest wine-producing area, its mountains are where Prometheus was bound, and modern day Kutaisi is the Colchis where Jason and the Argonauts sought the Golden Fleece. It's where Persia, and Ottoman Turkey come up against Orthodox Christianity. It's also worth remembering that Stalin was a Georgian.

For more on this, I recommend Peter Nasmyth's Georgia, in the Mountains of Poetry. The photo was taken in the Caucasus, not far from Kazbegi, just off the Georgian Military Highway, built by the Soviets to keep Georgia under control. This is a few kilometers from the border with the "break-away" region of South Ossetia, which though technically a part of Georgia is now effectively under Russian control, as is the other "break-away" region of Abkazia.




Hotel Transylvania

Tuesday, 28 May 2019 at 19:44

No Text
Here's a sequence I wrote during a residency in Romania in 2011. It appeared in Pilgrim Tongues.
Hotel Transylvania
Fantasy at Borsec, Transylvania. The town’s name is derived from the Hungarian “borvizszék” meaning “Seat of Mineral Water”. Once a famous spa, it is largely delapidated now.
They say there is a spring for the broken-hearted,
a well for the cure of all the sad and lonely,
and that the water at the seventh source
grants solace to spinster and geek alike.
Those who married advantageously,
or for love, need none, but those who are hated
by their children have a crystal fountain.
There is one also for those who are a trial
and a sore disappointment to their fathers.
Here, you see a chalky well for dyspeptics;
another which is a specific against the pox,
unseasonable melancholy and unsociable wind.
The slime from this spring where toads and lizards bask
is balm for those disappointed in cards or politics.
The parish pump dispenses healthful draughts
to all, but is especially beneficent
to those who serve on municipal sub-committees.
It assuages ambition in the ugly and talentless,
and is known to put a smile on the faces
of both the chronically stupid and those who have learned
incompetence from long study of their masters.
A draught direct from this silver rivulet
is enough to lighten the heavy soul.
Those who grouch through late May afternoons
are immersed in this happy brook by the constables
and inundated by the prettiest prostitutes until
they can resist our glee no longer and break
into song. Listen! It has a most cheery burble.
The water at this well contains only water,
but it smiles on rocks which are the dry residue
of bitter tears. Other wells have been analysed
and found to contain trace elements
of alienation, pogrom, Holocaust.
Here is the Lethean Pool for those who wish
to divest themselves of wrong beginnings.
Bathe here and wash away bad memories.
Forget uncaring parents, unwanted childhoods,
the cruel boarding school, yet crueller vacations.
Here less is so much more, once freed
of the purposelessness of mediocre lives,
the house, the baggage, all the impedimenta
of loathed careers, the dead-end jobs and wives

You, who have lived in the mountains, listened to the gossip of birds,
their endless chitter about their neverfound mates;
you who have heard the chink of forlorn goat bells,
the howls of disconsolate dogs and, towards evening,
on the edge of the forest, the ululations of widows and witches
as the wolves leave behind their shadows for the bars and the brothels,
you are at home, here, on the path of the crushed snail,
by the Cabin of Holy Suicides, the Shed of Gall
and Kidney Stones. Walk through the shadow of the Valley
of Bad Breath, under the halo of St Halitosis; be glad to
pray in the Chapel of the Flatulent Shepherd; account yourself
lucky to prostrate yourself at the altar of the Virgin
of Premenstrual Tension, throw yourself under the stilettos
of the Black Madonna of Fashion, the boots of Our Lady of Grunge.


As you pass through vistas of land-art, site-specific
sculpture, hear the echo of installation
artists weeping in their eyries and caverns,
note the gardens of zen gravel, the monasteries
with their libraries, wine-cellars, orchards,
hydroponic terraces for the cultivation
of cannabis and herbal laxatives.
Marvel at the ivied towers of astronomers,
geneticists and geomancers. The temples
dedicated to augury and haruspication.
And remember your ancestors, just where
it is that you come from: those dwellers in villages
of woodsmoke, incest, lice and larceny,
hamlets of grudges passed down the long ages.

Welcome to the Sanatorium!
You do us honour, very Respected Guest!
Allow me, on behalf of all our staff,
from Distinguished Doctors, our great Parisian Chefs,
right down to the lowliest (but all are pretty!) chambermaid,
to welcome you to this our ancient scenic town,
our state-of-the-art hygienic facility
and Temple of Hydrological Medicine.
Here all is modern and yet so picturesque.

Please, enjoy your stay in our humble establishment!
(Though it will be obvious, that no expense
has been spared in pursuit of your well-being.).
All is here, from excellent conference facilities
to mud-baths for the anxious, a cocktail bar for the tense.


We have springs, of course, for those unfortunates
suffering from hardening of the concepts, unsuitable
sentimental attachments or debilitating nostalgias.

The melancholic have their walls diffused
towards evening with playfully erotic light.
In the Caracalla Wing, those making ends meet on a tight
emotional economy may relax in perfumed waters
conducive to the cultivation of abundant attitude.
Sitz-baths may ease those deep in debt to family piety,
assuage survivors of sanctimonious spouses
and the victims of over-rigorous scholarly rectitude.

The library has great watery chairs for academics whose stipends
have been mislaid through unseemly familiarity, lewd
behaviour or simple gross moral turpitude.

In the Yellow Room, neurasthenic poets
may, through vitrines of absinthe and water-lily,
contemplate the faces of their critics
metamorphosed into hydrocephalics,
syphilitics or just plain dribbling idiots.
As is traditional, the Entrée des artistes
is at the back. The garret is famously host
to the consumptive but distingué ghosts
of several former symbolistes
who drank deeply of our Pierian Spring
and rhapsodised the nereids, nymphs and water-sprites
who dallied in these parts. Those same nymphs sing
of Sapphic verse, which was itself once seen
written in water at the Well of Loneliness.

Spurned women, wan, troubled by wandering wombs,
are confined by convention to the lower floors
and the tedium of chancers, impoverished aristocrats,
political emigrés, and would-be belle-lettrists.

At least they can avoid those hateful civil servants,
who have learned to be neither civil nor servile,
and are avid for a second career with their dull memoirs
of justly-forgotten administrations. Meanwhile,

in the hotel the waltzes have now already slowed
and the orchestra is the merest echo.
The dance cards are all being stored away.

We have all overheard the doctors say:
this town can’t cure itself. It needs to go to away,
to another spa, and take their waters.

Windows have shattered. Rain falls
through rooms where birds and snakes nest.

The ceilings and the beds collapse,
the flowered wallpaper scarfs away
to swags of rose and bougainvillea.

The velvet curtains fade with sun,
until the mad or homeless pull them down
for something warm to sleep and piss upon.

For months, some stubbornly remain,
outfacing weather, growing heavier with rain,
until they, too, like all else fall.

Paper petals, leaf-litter, mushed underfoot.
The skeleton of the hotel shines through,
its bones polished by decades of rain.

Wind Rain
rooms nest.
beds lapse,
flow wall away
rose .
less down
arm to sleep upon.
born remain,
out with rain,
all else fall.
mush underfoot.
ones polished rain.

Celebrating Romania

Tuesday, 21 May 2019 at 20:32

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Thanks to my friend Florin Dan Prodan, I've had the good fortune to read at festivals in Romania and I have had several residencies in the country.

Florin has organised a reading in London this Saturday 25 May to celebrate Romania.

Unfortunately I can't be there physically, but I will be in spirit, and in a video, reading Hotel Transylvania,a sequence of poems about Borsec.

King's Cross - work in progress

Thursday, 9 May 2019 at 20:22

Painting Kings X

Following on from the Paragon Station canvas, I've been thinking about people in public spaces and working on this painting of the view over the concourse of King's Cross station.

Just got back to it after a few weeks away from the studio. I think I'm getting there, slowly. The interlaced structure that forms the dome was a problem: how to convey something that seems so organic despite, or perhaps because of, its very complicated computer-designed algorhythms. 

There were many formal problems here, and some very tricky ones still to resolve. I added the passengers in the last few days, and now it's time to think about the light as it's patterned through the lattice onto the brickwork.

I have an idea or two about another King's Cross picture, with some diners in the restaurant overlooking the concourse. I'm not sure this will eventually lead to a sort of railway station sequence, or whether it will be part of a series of people in public places: stations, streets, pubs, restaurants etc.  


Authentic Victorian Mermaid revisited

Wednesday, 8 May 2019 at 20:46

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I recently discovered that "Authentic Victorian Mermaid" was Yorkshire Times Poem Of The Week, posted online 18th November 2018. The poem originally appreared in the collaboration Drift (book and film, HumberMouth Literature Festival, 2008) and my collection Pilgrim Tongues (Wrecking Ball, 2015).


Here's the poem, together with a commentary.

For further Yorkshire Times poems of the week and much else besides:



Poem Of The Week: ‘Authentic Victorian Mermaid’ By Cliff Forshaw
Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent

Authentic Victorian Mermaid

They fetch up here, scuttled to ledges, beached
on pediments, among scrimshaw, harpoons,
a whaler’s bow, a carved baleen seat.

Bony Leviathans ghost hugely through
tall ships, sails; this gallery’s a tail-flick,
the next’s speared by a narwhal’s horn.

Your thoughts turn krill: the floor’s a humpback,
the stairwell spirals up inside a blowhole’s spout;
you’re Jonah in the belly of the beast.

Then boked back up to shore. Strange creatures.
You can’t hear – no sirens sweetly singing – but see
the black nightmare-maid’s screech.

(Check spatulate fishtail, witchy fingers, stitched sealskin.)
You’re face to face with a scary Victorian freak
- snarked on that gob of tiny fish-hooky teeth.


Cliff Forshaw’s extended metaphor is not unpersuasive.

Anyone who’s ever visited Hull’s Maritime Museum will recognise the cavernously organic interiors, the intestinal passages and ribbed staircases.

The reference to Jonah and the belly of the whale is apposite: extruded through the labyrinthine tracts like the krill to which Forshaw also alludes, our traction is more vital than any anodyne one-way shuffle round IKEA, and the floors really do bow and flex like a ‘humpback’, sprung as though in readiness for a ballroom dancing competition.

The museum, and the poem, are extraordinarily diverting.

The poet’s inventory of sea-associated flotsam might be the contents of Moby Dick’s capacious stomach, or it could be a precise summation of Hull’s history, of its municipally-defining maritime endeavours.

The cluttering of nouns and the stuttering metre dividing them, mimic an amble frequently interrupted by the strange visitations bound in cases or ‘beached on pediments’.

The rooms are so dominated by Leviathan presence as to be shaped by them: ‘this gallery’s a tail flick, / the next’s speared by a narwhal’s horn’.

But the details observed on route are the thing, before the hapless narrator is ‘boked’ - in that fine Glaswegian vernacular for vomited - back up to the mundane reality of Queen Victoria Square.

And we can share in Forshaw’s characteristic insouciance as he revels in, and half disdains, the objects before him.

His final triplet is a masterful clotting of metaphors which pull the rug from under an ersatz mermaid.

That the mermaid would have occasioned much jaw-dropping in more credulous times need not entirely obstruct the narrator’s fascinated gawp, here conceived in a demotic which another poet, Tony Harrison, might recognise:

‘You’re face to face with a scary Victorian freak
snarked on that gob of tiny fish-hooky teeth’

Coming and Going

Wednesday, 8 May 2019 at 19:30

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One of my poems "Road Kill" has just appeared in Coming and Going, an anthology of poems for journeys by 103 HappenStance poets, drawn from 14 years of HappenStance Press publications. It's a very handsome production; the editor Helena Nelson writes:

This is a small, fat book, the right size for a bag or a large pocket. A nice gift that will travel well.

Poems for reading on the train
or tram or bus or aeroplane
or barge. Or hovercraft. Or boat.
Poems to help you stay afloat.

You can order it and many other fine publications at:

"Road Kill" originally appeared as part of a sequence in Tiger (HappenStance, 2011) and in Vandemonian (Arc, 2013). There are some other poems from that sequence on the Vandemonian pages in the poetry portfolio section.


What is this stuff with tails? This slump of fur
that mimes the body’s weight, intimates
the slow tug of earth that gets us all. You swerve
to miss these weird speed bumps, glimpse
a forested ridge in the marginalia of the road,
a premonition of mountains in that spine’s hump.

Each is a map to what still lies, lies still
– yet moves – now like a wave, now flat-out:
roadstone’s quake, asphalt fever, that tremor
shivering towards you through the heat-haze,
visions of angels skating on the shimmer.

Blind bend. Horn. The dopplered blare
through ears and car and ribs. Road train.
Chained logs, knee-trembled, hovering on compressed air.

Paragon: a station getting above its station

Wednesday, 13 March 2019 at 17:26

Paragon Railway Station, Hull

I've done a couple of little adjustments to the painting of Paragon. I think it's now done and have started on a new painting of passengers at KIng's Cross - yes, staring up at departure boards as the last trains back to Hull are cancelled; small untidy humans in an architect's fantasy. I love the great monumental station with its makeover shell-like roof playing against the older brick-forms; pity the trains can't match the mathematical perfection of the construction. But meanwhile, here's the Paragon of stations, boasting its perfection on a small scale....

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