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Ink, Sweat & Tears: vote for a poem

Thursday, 10 October 2019 at 19:49

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A new poem of mine 'Ice', has been shortlisted for the Ink Sweat & Tears 'Pick of the Month' for September 2019. You can vote for my poem - or, in the interests of fairness, one of the others. To see the poems and more information please go to
Voting closes at 9pm on Friday 18th October.

NEW PAINTINGS 1: Fountains, Queen Victoria Square, Hull

Thursday, 10 October 2019 at 19:00

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I've not posted anything for a while, so here are two new paintings. First, the view of the Ferens Art Gallery across Queen Victoria Square, Hull, with its relatively recent City of Culture fountains. It's another large oil (102 x 127 cm) in the cityscape series, I'm thinking now more of people within urban environments... and also moving away from the focus on Hull.

One of the reasons I've fallen behind with the blog is that I've just started a new post as Royal Literary Fund Fellow, based in the English Department at York University. This, together with other commitments, means I'm spending a fair amount of time travelling, often at railway stations. The second of my recent paintings is of King's Cross, though I think York, its station, the university or town, might start to figure in new work.

NEW PAINTINGS 2: King's Cross Station Concourse

Thursday, 10 October 2019 at 18:28

King's Cross Station

I've been working on this view over the concourse of King's Cross Station for a few months on and off. It's a sort of companion piece to, and the same size (102 x 127 cm) as, my painting of passengers at Paragon, the Hull station from which I leave and return to at the other end of the line.

I started this very early in the year. During the time I was working on it, the large TV screen at the end of the departure boards was added. I noticed this almost by accident as I passed through the station in a hurry to get somewhere else. The light also changed dramatically as the days lengthened and cast stronger patterns on the brick. I added the screen and made much more of the light on the brick. The biggest challenge throughout was rendering the almost organic structure - part-tree, part-web - that rises up and spans the roof. 

Now I want to think more about people, singly, in couples, families, or crowds, in public spaces. Perhaps aiming at a sense of flow as people move past and through large urban structures. Maybe more stations, but also streets and parks. 

French Leave 1: Baudelaire

Thursday, 22 August 2019 at 12:09

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I've just come back from a trip to France: a couple of days in Paris and a week in a little village in Burgundy near Chablis, with the obligatory trips to vineyards for tastings.

I've been thinking again about French Leave: versions and perversions. This project of loose translations and variations on French poems started a few years back on a residency at CAMAC at Marnay-sur-Seine, and over the years I've added the odd piece. At the moment it moves from Théophile Gautier (1811 - 1872) to variations on themes in recent work by Michel Houellebecq, and includes work by Gerard de Nérval, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Tristan Corbière, Jules Laforgue, Apollinaire and Raymond Queneau.

A couple of variations on poems by Baudelaire and Rimbaud originally appeared online in the Literateur. Unfortunately that publication has now disappeared, so I'll post them here and add them to the porfolio pages.

It seems apropriate to start with Baudelaire, in a version considerably more wine-stained than the original.

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 2: Rimbaud

Thursday, 22 August 2019 at 12:00

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Here's the second selection from French Leave.

Again, I've taken considerable liberties with the text; this is also much shorter than the original.

For more of my versions from Rimbaud and other European poets, see the Translation portfolio.




A Mixed Bunch of Poet’s Flowers

after Rimbaud’s “Ce qu’on dit au poète à propos de fleurs”

1. Lilies

On the poet’s list one bloom is top,
For trembling by the topaz seas:
O Lily, long the poet’s prop,
O enema of ecstasies!

But in this age of sago pud
And heavy labour on the farm,
Your lilies grow from soul, not mud,
Exuding an oddly pious charm.

Your lines are gilded with lilies, lilies,
Which, day-to-day, are rarely seen.
Farm-folk will find such verses silly:
Why do they tremble? So what’s that mean?

When the Poet takes a shower,
His shirt’s on the line with his meagre kit:
A fluttering common or garden flower,
With yellow deodorant-stained armpits.

2. Roses

And if the Poet decides on roses?
He pens them red, inflated, blown.
O laurel stem! The question posed is:
Where on earth are such roses grown?

The poet snows his roses down:
In bloody great red drifts they lie.
– Imagine the snow-red rosy ground!
Red snow? Red mists this reader’s eye.

French veg is ugly, gnarly, crabby
– Pissed on by weasels, rats and hounds.
French verse abhors the low-down shabby
Tubers prised from stony ground.

O Great White Hunter in the wild,
Tracking prey through the Fields of Pan,
You paint yourself as Nature’s Child
– But botanic ignorance reveals the man.

Sometimes even exotic species
Can’t outweird your mythical blooms:
Stuff that feeds on unicorn faeces,
Or craves the shade of Pharoahs’ tombs.

Your verse turns over good French earth,
And weeds out all its native plants.
The poet’s now a floral flirt
Wearing orchidaceous fancy pants.

3. Green Shoots of Recovery

I know you’re taken by the tropics,
But try to be more down-to-earth.
Add economics to your topics:
Think what those foreign fields are worth!

Time now to praise the great plantations
– Sugar, cotton, coffee, tea.
No need for slavish imitations
Of do-gooder eco pieties

– Screw them and their sanctimony;
Freedom means the Market’s free.
What’s truly holy is the money.
The freshest growth is GNP.

The future’s here and tapping rubber
For Mackintosh’s waterproofs.
The whale at least gives up its blubber;
You blub liberally but stay aloof.

Your antique mythic scenery’s
(Asphodels gathered by Venus and Cupid)
Just creaky stage machinery.
It’s all about the economy, stupid!

Lose the amaranths, such plants
Obscure just what is really plain.
Your mystic visions are worn-out, pants.
The drowsy poppy’s for killing pain.

Tradesman! Colonist or Medium!
Your rhymes now gutter pink and white.
Forget your midnight oily tedium:
Turn on the bud of electric light!

Sing of useful growing profits,
Laud workers set to tasks like ants.
Forget the floral; be the prophet;
Hymn the blooming industrial plant!

Our seasons now have all grown hellish.
This is what the future’s for.
Just describe it, don’t embellish,
The flowery rhetoric’s a bore.

The future’s bright, now listen to it:
Electric wires begin to hum,
Those old-style poets were deaf and blew it;
Think four-stroke metre and banged oil drum.

From your dark poems, new lights must rise:
Illuminate those reds, blues, greens;
Pin swarms of acetylene butterflies;
Write of things as yet unseen.

La Ville Lumière has banished night:
– No Baudelairean Flowers of Evil,
It’s time to rhyme potato blight
With noble rot and the flour weevil.

Lose the muse of bucolic lies,
The dawn’s new chorus trills alarms
As other horrible workers rise
To man the aisles at factory farms.

Progress means increasing yields.
Irrigation! Drain what’s sodden!
Bogs and deserts turned to fields!
One must be absolutely modern!

The Tournament of Shadows or the Great Game: Return to Issyk Kul 1

Wednesday, 24 July 2019 at 21:21

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I've been thinking about those ex-Soviet republics... here's something I started working on last year following my visit to Issyk-Kul in Kyrgizstan. The sequence got massively out of hand as it veered madly towards an appreciation of geo-politics in Central Asia from the time of the Persian Empire and Alexander the Great, through Stalin to Putin. I might revisit it, but meanwhile here's a sort of prologue. The lake - Issyk Kul - was where the Soviets tested nuclear subs and torpedoes. Guess what? They're back.



1. A Lake in Kyrgizstan Summer, 2018

That Central Asian Shangri-La –You sure?
Issyk-Kul: the lake that never freezes.
Usefully secret throughout the Colder War;
we shiver again when Vlad or the Donald sneezes.

So hugely landlocked, a lake left high and stranded
in the rocky shifts of the Tien Shan;
then warlords watering horses, as each demanded
tributes for themselves, or for some distant Khan. 天山

     An epic land? –The Celestial Mountains float:
     bright snow skied high above the pumped-up cloud;
     their peaks rear up beyond each village street,
     oversee this tarmacked stretch of old Silk Road.

     War, migration, trade and geo-politics:
     parked up at the crossroads, the lorry drivers kip.
     China peeks over shoulders, surveilles their sleep:
     sun scales the watchful dragon to the east.

The northern range prickles with Kazakhstan;
more ‘Stans – Uzbek, Tajik – to south and west,
ex-Soviet republics which cut but never (quite) ran.
And just off stage… (you guessed it) Afghanistan.

Oblasts which stood and stand, still blasted, caught
between empires – that old Great Game for the ancient routes
where Mongol hordes and Cossack irregulars fought
to wash their feet in a lake lined with their boots.

     Russians still bathe and drink on the northern shore.
     Forget the deaths, the stings, the ageless hurts:
     the country’s cheap: hospitable though poor
     – they welcome backpackers to their nomads’ yurts.

     We take the back tracks south; for us it’s time
     to head towards our artists’ lakeside camp;
     find yurts from which to paint, or maybe rhyme,
     retreat inside when outside’s cold and damp.

issyk kul 2

Wednesday, 24 July 2019 at 21:17

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This is what I saw from my yurt.....some rhymed notes, rather than an achieved poem here, but maybe a theme to return to.








View from a Yurt

The lake – I hear it lapping from my yurt,
and, on top from where they briefly perch,
coded communiqués from the look-out birds
before they twitter off to base and chicks.

At this altitude things quickly shift;
the mountains are moody, storms can brew up fast.
Birdsong turns to radio silence; rain thrums
its threnody on the mandala of the yurt’s tight drum.

Through the wooden doorway I can see
mountains, sky; and blue shines through the shell
where broken windows frame the scenery
beyond a dilapidated Soviet factory.

They say that here they made their heavy water
– no need to worry, you could drink that stuff –
though the background buzz of Radon Daughters
means what’s naturally occurring’s more than enough.

(I hear, to avoid perceived misogyny,
the new-coined term for these products of decay
‘s the now non-gendered Radon Progeny.
– Time now to think about the way I say…
well… just what it is that I want to say?)

The Soviets also mined uranium,
now that’s a trade requires some care;
the official line’s to play it dumb,
but the Geiger blabs, birds sense the air.

So the Russkies dumped their nuclear waste
    All over bloody Kyrgizstan,
– Rarely troubled to check each place
    Was free from grazing flocks or Man.

The Kyrgiz called in western outfits
    To help mop up this decaying shore
Of all those dumps that Boris left us
    still shooting rays out from their core.

3. Leviathan

In Soviet times, this lake was out of bounds,
a zone they hid between the folds of maps,
where submarine sonar tracked the sounds
of warheads fizzing from the silos’ traps.

Back then, they used this place to test torpedos.
Now, the northern shore’s the touristy bit:
wearing suntans and smiles, tattoos and Speedos,
the Russian’s are back, but in skimpier kit.

Islam’s very liberal here, let’s see:
no veils, some mosques, and vodka still hits the spot;
lakeside is crop-tops, micro-skirts, bikinis.

     (Now there’s a word that takes us back,
     to another world in fuzzy greys and black,
     and then that sudden shock of flesh and flash,

     – Todd AO, Technicolor, South Pacific.
     O sea awash with irony!– those Tests.
     And many hundreds more, both East and West.)

You think it’s over but it’s never quite:
Peace is just the Charm Offensive’s smile,
the one with gleaming teeth which also bite.

Some say it’s all kicking off again
– but the World Cup’s looking good in Russia.
And Novichok, Polonium, Ukraine?
That’s History. What’s the real fuss here?

     It’s Two Eighteen and Lies are News.
     It’s Two Eighteen and…

   Death is back, he holds his breath
   and glides right through the deep and dark,
   then grins up swiftly De Profundis,
   your Requiem’s a cobalt shark.

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