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French Leave: versions and perversions

Sunday, 11 April 2021 at 17:28

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Over the last couple of years I've been working on French Leave: Versions and Perversions which attempts variations on some classic French poems, mainy from the nineteenth to the early twentieth centre. The collection includes verse based on poems by Théophile Gautier, Gérard de Nerval, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, as well as some less famous names. Also included are a few lesser-heard women poets such Anna de Noailles Marie de Régnier, and Renée Vivien. I've also been cheeky enough to include some fictious poets.

Here are my versions of a couple of poems by Baudelaire and Rimbaud. They originally appeared online in The Literateur, which is now sadly defunct. It seems a good time to give them a further short lease of life. I'll also add them to the Translation portfolio pages. First the Baudelaire.

Vin Voudou

two variations on Baudelaire’s “Sed non satiata”

1. Vendange d’outre-mer

Odd goddess, whose skin’s a smoky musk
still redolent of opium and Havana.
You may be some obi-man’s opus, some savannah
saviour’s ju-ju, or child of the Bayou dusk.

Forget your Grands, your Premiers Crus, your Nuits;
for tenue, what lasts long on my tongue’s your mouth.
You are my full-bodied beaker of the South;
you slake, yet provoke thirst better than any Burgundy.

I note the rich robe, as you hold me with your eyes:
the worm goes through the cork, I’m mesmerised
to breathe the botánica’s bouquet and, as I taste

your voodoo vin gris-gris, too late, I’m lost;
my palate echoes with santería; head
with your blanc de noirs, those lives I never led.


2. Déjà-bu

No wine is fine enough; no drug can do
the tricks you (turn and) do, my wine-dark sea,
my nest of mermaids, my girl in every port,
the witchy Circe of this odyssey
who dulls all thoughts of fine Penelope.
My mind’s your glass. You take my stem and twirl.
I’m half a world away: moly, oily swirls
of sea-serpents, sargassos. Shipwrecked, all at sea,
washed up on some calypygian Aphrodite’s
shore, whose wily Calypso I discover to be you.
Have we lived and loved in other lives?
You always my stormy siren. Me, saoul
…drunk, rudderless, compass-less, (compassionless
for that good – still faithful? – wife.) Lost. Déjà-bu.

French Leave and Sea Changes

Friday, 9 April 2021 at 19:27

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My friend the poet Davd Wheatley has put up a few of my lversions of French poems on the Grierson website at the University of Aberdeen, where he teaches. The versions, or perversions, are from French Leave a project I've been working on for some time. Here's a link.

There are also more versions on the Translation pages of this website.

Looking at Esau's Children again, I see the better poems tend to be connected in some way with the natural world, often animals or the sea. They also make some attempt, through stanzas and rhyme or half-rhyme, to engage form, though they usually avoid metre. I think I might salvage a couple more poems from this era. Here's "Sea Changes": it's pretty much as it appeared back then, with the punctuation changed a little.

Sea Changes

The wind wrinkles the sea’s
brow, weaves weeds through the water
where slime hardens to stone. This jetty’s
just frayed ropes and rotten planks, warty

with limpets now. Half-sunk, a waterlogged
dory’s chocked up on a frayed tether.
The low sun turns distance to fogged
film, sky simmering. The weather’s

so weird these past months. The sea
thickens nightly to a muscled slime, twitches
with the low flap of leather wings. At dawn, bees
swarm over drift-wood and drown. Smith’s bitch

ate all her litter. At night, I scan the heavens
for meanings. Old Ma Jones flicks cards. Paul
and the others drink. I’d leave but Stevens
says there’ll be work in the fall.

I don’t know why I feel so bruised.
Migratory birds flit like erratic needles.
Strange winds buffet their plumage.
They take off, and land again, confused.


Thursday, 8 April 2021 at 17:59

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I haven't been able to post anything for quite a while. There was a complication with my cancer treatment: I got an infection and as chemotherapy pretty much knocks out the immune system I had to spend a couple of weeks in hospital with various drains and drips. I'm out now and my chemo and radiotherapy is over though it'll take a while to recover. I still can't swallow and have to feed myself by a tube sticking out of stomach. It'll be a good few weeks before I'm up to eating, but despite a very sore mouth I'm looking forward to some good meals. Very necessary as I lost over three stone in the last couple of weeks and there isn't much of me left.

But this is all much better than the alternative. I've been very tired and not able to do much,however the energy is returning and I've been getting back to work on the poems, though I don't quite feel up to painting yet.

It's been odd, but somehow seemed to fit with the strange times we've been living through with Covid. Good to see that there is some respite from that at last in this country at least. I hope to be able to get out more and travel a little in the summer, though for the moment it seems much wiser for me to keep fairly isolated until I get my strength and immune system up to par. I still have a little further hospital business including an operation to remove a polyp in the colon, which if not already cancerous already is likely to go that way.

Meanwhile here's a very old poem. The poem appeared in Esau's Children in 1991, though I think I wrote it much earlier, perhaps on one of several trips to Greece in the mid or late 80s. It may be even older, as it seems to have a sort of hidden memory of snorkelling in Belize: I was on a Christmas break from working in Mexico in the very early 80s and encountered a moray eel. Very scary. Think of the song "Amore" with the words: "See that thing in the reef / With the big shiny teeth / It's a moray."

Anyway I'm remembering sunny times and adventures in Greece and the Caribbean and looking forward to getting out and about again whenever that seems possible. Here's "Snorkelling", not a great poem (none of the poems in Esau's Children were) but there's something bright about it I like. Many of the poems I wrote at this time tried to capture moments in foreign environments. It was also, I remember, a time I started get much more interested in form, experimenting with rhyme and stanzas to pattern poems much more clearly.


Snorkelling – your vision’s a lit globe,
head gone bobbing through a halo of light
that’s warped by ribbed sand in the ripples’ strobe.
From below, the sea’s silver-backed, a bright

mirror you crashed through into a dumb
domain sound-tracked by creaking sea; the wheeze
of your breath’s an accordion through the pipe,
a gullet whining in an offshore breeze.

Fish blips. Suddenly a glittering shoal
flashes telegraphic needles through dark weed
outcrops. They’re storm clouds being seeded
by an aerial burst of silver foil.

White coral knuckles where the shelf sheers
down to depths packed with a shuffling fog
that confuses distance. Fish disappear
or torpedo out of the blue to goggle

you up close. Your mind hangs in water, but
obscure corners writhe with electric eels,
the punch of fists grinning teeth, cables cut
loose. You gulp back a water bolt. The sun reels.

Suddenly your mask fills with molten light
as you burst up. Stars explode in the spray.
The bit ripped out, you cough salt. The big day
surprises you kicking free from dreams, from night.

Bloat King

Monday, 22 February 2021 at 10:38

Bloat King

Apologies, I've not posted since New Year. I was diagnosed with head and neck cancer just before Christmas, and after various procedures I've been having chemo / radiotherapy five days a week, plus various other tratments and explorations. The cancer in my neck was fairly advanced and it will soon get difficult for me to eat for a while. This means I've had a feeding tube fitted into my stomach. Hope I don't need it, but it's better than starving, and I should finish this treatment around Easter, with the chemo and radio wearing off in the following weeks. Then I'll have another operation, as it seems I have another site to be excised in my colon. I am trying to get as much done in terms of poetry before I get too tired and have managed to finished a long narrative poem about Rimbaud's later life in Africa. I hope I can also get some new painting done and have ideas for something of a departure from my recent cityscapes. Let's see.

So, this does put a new perspective on things, but it's not terrible.The main drag at the moment is that radiotherapy is temporarily (I hope!) wiping out my taste buds: I have little appetite and can't taste what I try to force down. The feeding tube is uncomfortable and it ain't pretty. But this is all much better than the alternative. I am very lucky as the Covid epidemic has meant that in some areas of the country cancer treatment is being delayed. Here I am provided with excellent support from NHS and everyone is very helpful. As Nick Cave sings "I don't beieve in an interventionist God"... but the NHS comes as near to divine intervention as I need. Let me say just how fantastic the NHS has been. Much gratitude to this most civilised of organisations. My partner Mary has also been great. My immune systen is pretty low, so I'm shielding and M has been a rock. We have both managed to get the Covid vaccine. Excellent!

As I say: new perspective. In an odd way, this is welcome. A wake-up call? Maybe, but certainly a strange opportunity to take advantage of. More than ever need to Seize that Day (and then have a good afternnon snooze...). I feel pretty good mentally and emotionally. Though my treatment is very much a full-time job at the moment, I have a renewed zest for getting projects finished. I gave up my RLF Fellowship in the New Year, but hope to return in the autumn, all being well. Until then it's getting whatever I can do. And there's still lots to get on with.

Spring around the corner and I'm waiting for the frogs to start their noisy mating in my pond. Meanwhile, here's an poem from Trans (2005) though written, I think a couple of years before.


Bloat King

Red plastic, leaf-spattered,
salvaged from the pond months after the big wind.
Tipping out tannin stew, weed-slobber, twigs,
at the bottom of the bucket something moved -
a slimy twitch. Felt it shift against the gravid ooze,
saw it quicken, scramble back up on the lip,
kick out against a gob of falling green.

Bloat King in his winter palace:
Nureyev thighs, chest barrelling out
a brocade doublet nubbed with muddied emeralds,
gloved fingers medievally slabbered with rings, cuffed with filthy lace.

Out of last year's dark sloth, its crusty deeps,
eyes bulge, blink off silt,
the slow growth of crystals clicking into place.
That saurian grin slits a throat grown big
with the thyroid's retarded tick.
Cortisone Czar drunk with swollen glands, the seep
of time: a bomb which can explode the world in slo-mo.
Fingers sprawl.
The snot-blown leap
as vigour becomes the feasible miracle,
gone giddy, outstretched on the air's tremble.

He crashes through leaf-fug, chlorophyll,
drags his belly through rustle, bramble,
beats about the bush,
animates it with his transplanted throb.
.... All a falling dream: still torpid, alarm set for snooze.

In the dark,
he'll find his patch of dank.
Squat it out
until it's time to crawl to his stony throne,
match the moon's cold eye in his own.

In the crackly night,
he'll crank it up,
the creaking machine,
the old old song.

A frog in the dark's throat,
fields choppy with froglets,
sargassos of oiled princelings,
distant seas, dynasties of his kind.
He'll call and call new frog-queens to his kingdom.

Time out of mind. Out of mind.


Friday, 1 January 2021 at 08:23

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Happy New Year!

It will be good to leave 2020 behind, but Covid and Brexit remain with us, and one way or another will for a very long time. Let's hope there's something good waiting for us in the wings.

"Janus" seems an appropriate emblem. It's the third and last from my little Snowdonia sequence. All three poems appeared in Trans (2015)



1. Rewind

Whichever way you look right now it’s dark.
You stumble into clouds, the fallen sky.
It skins its knees, it drags its arse
down thorn-raked paths, through gorse.
Mist shades to rain where last week’s gales
have splintered lanes with birch and ash.

A year ago, this two-faced month
was lower-ceilinged still - and dank - a cell.
Dark cottage: stone-walled, slabs harvesting damp.
And, as if a North Wales winter
wasn’t penance enough, tiny windows
dimmed the day right down to 20 watts.

Next door, Victoria was alive, if hardly well;
unamused and living on dry biscuits, beans,
a few weak lux of candle power.
Doorways into gloom, damp rooms,
black-beamed lintels hanging low and hard
to crack your skull against the dark.

And no TV. Under the mountain’s armpit,
incoming snow in Welsh was all a set would get.
Nights on all fours. Climbing up the ladder,
crawling into the crog-loft drunk
- broken headboard, duvet steaming when she stayed -
to crack the frost on a washed sheet’s crease.

Some hippie kid had stuck up stars,
glowing on the ceiling’s slope in dark.
Something to steer close by to sleep;
or puzzle over, on cold clear nights when Moon
looked in and licked a glisten over walls
where, at dawn, damp stood in for dew.

2. Fast Forward

Moody skies and muddy paths;
the other end of this road now but still
these same old horses in the rain, and sheep
- always the same eternal wet Welsh sheep.

Put tongue to fork and choose your road
then lick the miles of blacktop up.
Stick to this way, you’ll pick up speed
attain a virtual invisibility, moving with the light.

Or, cocked and double-bollocked,
reflect on feet, your own, rising from the bath, hinged
on steaming light like stubby wings
or ten-toed crabs, a foot-faced jack?

Check the two-headed joker in your pack.
The footpath’s swivelled signpost lies;
stay here and disappear up your own annus horribilis
or put some backbone into this month:

January finally spined with cold resolution,
this time, it might, just might, slip you a double-headed coin.
Pause at the crossroads, wind at your back
and smirking like coyote, calmly sniff the wind.

This is it. Who dares wins.
Take the coin and throw.
It spins. - And you with it.
This time you’ll really split

- get off your face or head off fortune at the pass -
You take both ways at once.
And go.
And go.

More from Snowdonia

Tuesday, 29 December 2020 at 11:32

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As promised, another poem from the Snowdonia period.

It was a pretty bleak time in an odd, isolared place. Mountains, sheep, abandoned houses.

The RAF practised low-level flying over the area, and my house seemed to be a landmark for jets to aim for, or bank away from.


Staying On

Old sheds, abandoned cars, the penned-in ram;
barbwire, some wind-puffed clouds - their speed mocked by
hillsides of placid ewes and fattened lambs:

kapok-y flocks of scattered cumuli.
Out painting: the squint of low but welcome sun,
next door’s washing on the line, blue sky.

Spatter red for berries; scratch out for thorns.
Smudge huge cow’s arses, brindled creamy-white.
Outline in black, a bull, moon-horned,

head rising in parentheses of light.
Dilemmas hinted at in chiaroscuro;
darknesses sketched, though paint’s still wet and bright.

Sun-spoked clouds. Swift time-lapse shadows:
a film condensing lifetimes on the hill.
Above, a hawk’s seen off by squawking crows.

This stuff you just can’t catch. It won’t stay still.
The sudden rumble... then whoosh from here to Snowden.
Harriers skip dry-stone walls. The sky’s ripped silk.

Cross-wires lock on something beyond the horizon’s
spirit-level. South, mountains; lights where east darkens;
north-west, sea curves like a slivered moon.

Down here it’s just spooked sheep, gro-bags, tin cans;
chipped slate, spilled paint, sawdust, a barking dog;
sump oil, engine blocks and rusting iron;

the ferret sleeping in his stinking cage.
Down by the sea, Bangor’s closed off - some joker
left a package in the public bogs.

The chickens are kicking up a fuss, the cock’s
beady, claws paused from scratching in the junk.
The drain is blocked by leaves. Sunday, the clocks

go (Spring forward, Fall back) ... back.
Shift the concrete lump, inch lid to check
how much coal’s still left in the bunker.

Looks like I’m staying on again, I guess.
See another winter out, shut in
by the tv’s fire, or listening to the rolling news

against the rain drumming on the extension’s
plastic roof, staring at the blanks
of these big canvasses I’ve stretched.

Or, the radio fading late into the night,
waiting for the first sniff of snow in the air,
- fresh primer in a bucket, floor spattered white -

the promise of a studio drenched in light.

Happy Christmas!

Friday, 25 December 2020 at 09:06

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It's been an odd year. The pandemic almost made us forget the impending national social-isolation of Brexit working its mournful way towards us. Here's something I wrote one quite different socially-isolated winter when I lived in North Wales. I'd come to teach at Bangor University. After the contract ended I stayed on, first living in an old miner's cottage in Bethesda, near the slate works, and then further up in the foothills of Snowdonia. It was cold, wet and often snowing. Trying to survive as a freelance writer, I had very little money. Once or twice a week I'd cycle down to Bangor to sign on, load up with provisions, go to Welsh lessons, or just find a warm pub. It was always a hard slog to climb the mountains home. I never really did master Welsh.

I'll post a couple of further poems from this period as this dark year slowly slides away.

This little sequence appeared in Trans (The Collective Press, Wales,) 2005

Three Views from Snowdonia

i. Henge

Wind busy in the kitchen,
ice curling under slate.
Moss, rug-thick up to the hearth,
nettles burning in the grate.

Snow scraps or dirtied linen.
A blouse, a wind-rolled underskirt
- washing fallen from the line -
thorn-frayed sheets, a rock-snagged shirt.

A henge of weathered slabs:
a doorway opens to the sky.
A lintel, neolithic, that can’t quite
frame the mountain; support
its freight of cold and light.
It shoulders past, barges by.

ii. Lane

The five-bar gate
creaks an eight-bar blues
as its hinges whinge
and the bottleneck wind
skids along barbed wire.

It takes the beat of your boots
sodding clay from a field
to stamp another song
along the lonesome lane.

iii. Ponies

Wind-ruffled. Scruffs.
White-diamond foreheads
punked under the mohican’s flick;
rough sleepers’ dusty quiffs;
stringy tails, matty dreads,
newly flecked, dandruffed
with the first few flakes.
- Incoming snow.

Shaggy, stocky, sturdy
- running just shy of wild.
Something in their eyes
that keeps them in loose herds:
a nervy philosophy
of wind and moor and hoof.

And, hair-triggered, one hind leg
always cocked to go.
Mooning between outcrops, silhouettes
where the skyline disappears
in rain or mist or snow.

Or pounding down
to that dip of moss,
churning boggy ground
- away from sheep-bleat, slate walls, lambs,
the wind-crack of polythene, abandoned drums.

And the river, ever busy, letting everyone know
it’s wanted elsewhere, can’t hang about,
just getting on with it, pushing past those drums
marked in bright orange BIOPRO.

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