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Orpheus Coyote

Sunday, 18 October 2020 at 18:09

Orpheus Coyote

Here's a poem I wrote when I had a residence at the Djerassi Ranch in California. The ranch is up in the Santa Cruz mountains. I spent a lot of time walking there, often along the extensive scultpture trail. A photo I took of the sculpture of Orpheus Coyote was used for the cover of my collection Pilgrim Tongues. I spent a lot of time, especially at dawn and dusk, walking along the scupture trail. Occasionally, I thought I caught a glimpse of a coyote disappearing into brush. Some nights you could hear their howls.

Orpheus Coyote

Orpheus Coyote and Other Pieces (1999), wooden sculpture by William King on the sculpture trail, Djerassi Ranch, Woodvine, California.

Coyote is following two sisters on the road and is in love with both of them. When they come to the crossroads, one goes east, the other west. Coyote looks both ways, then takes his lance and throws it high. When it comes down it splits him in two and he goes both ways at once. Kwakiutl myth.

                 There’s something archaic, vaguely Greek,
                  like spirits of each woodland place,
                  in how these sculptures mark this track.

                  Old country altars open to the wind:
                  a wayside shrine as the path slips down
                  to stippled shade, the trout-brown creek.

                  Then out in sun, and who’d have guessed
                  what spindles darkly above scrub, mezquite
                  in this amphitheatre of swaying grass?

Orpheus as Coyote? I liked the thought
of the bard metamorphosed into wily beast
– or had that trickster shape-shifted into poet?

Suddenly, up on his hind legs, that Coyote’s
grabbed some kind of pipe, got it in his paws
and he’s blowing it side-on like a flute.

No banjo, uke, guitar. With these claws?
Coyote can’t hold down those fiddly strings.
Best leave the lyric stuff to some other Orpheus.

Anyway, who wants to hear that mongrel sing?
We’ve all heard his one and only – truly awful – song.
Let him blow. That way he can’t even howl along.

He’s all tall lichened wood, half-way to Pan.
He could be a spirit of the savage places:
satyr, faun, or a wild green man.

And these other critters conjured by that shifty Ace?
Low-down lesser forms that lack his verve,
his sense of the absurd, his cheeky cynic grace?

What other roles are played out here? What beasts?
Bobcat? Deer? Mountain lion? Mere bit-part players,
and the acting’s, well, a little wooden for my taste.

Then, moving round and off the track, you notice
that there is Orpheus with his trade-mark lyre:
a pair of wooden horns strung with rusty wire.

But just who is fronting this metamorphic band?
Is Orpheus conjuring up Coyote? Like he did
the other beasts? Or is it the other way round?

Now, I think I see how these two got twinned.
They’ve both been down that road below – for love
fooled Death. Just one escaped. That poet got binned,

could only go back to his boys in the dark
and the jealous maenads ripping him apart.
If it’s all just a game, the champion’s the guy who plays

the field, both ends against the middle.
You do what you do. No really going back.
But, tale tells how old Coyote’s at a fork in the track:

looks this way, that, then takes both ways at once.
Keep going! Keep going, Poet-Coyote!
Take both roads – Go, Peyote!

Be yourself and split.
Go! Just never look back

Royal Academy Exhibition 2020

Tuesday, 22 September 2020 at 17:57

Anlaby Road, Hull

My painting of Anlaby Road, from the Hull Cityscapes sequence will be in this year's Royal Academy exhibition.Normally it's the Summer Show, and a great event. This year, as with so many things, Covid has meant a delay and the usual precautions.

The exhibition will now run from 6 October to 3 January 2021.

More details on the Royal Academy website: here

Anlaby Road, Hull, oil on canvas 90 x 121 cm.

(16 Oct. The painting has now been sold.)

The view is from one of the top floors of a high-rise block of flats on the Thornton Estate overlooking Anlaby Road, Hull. The flat belonged to a woman in her nineties, who liked to tell stories of the strange and often outrageous scenes she had witnessed from her eyrie above the often chaotic streets. As with many areas at the back of train stations, there is a definite sense of being on the wrong side of the tracks. But the city changes abruptly from block to block, and the face the city likes to show, with its municipal buildings, department stores and office blocks, is just a little further down the the road.

I started this painting in the summer, but had various problems with how to deal with the spaces to either side of the main road. I abandoned it for a few months and came back to it over Christmas, when I sharpened the edge of the road on the right to a sort of cliff edge, and added the odd bus and car. Though it was now winter, I decided to keep the bright summer light, which perhaps highlights of the urban messiness, or maybe adds a note of cheery, if realistic, optimism. The last touch was the celebratory glass of Stella on the sill.

Below the window on the right is the burned-out shell of the New York Night Club, with Paragon Railway Station car park on the left. I liked the mish-mash of architectural styles, from the mock-Moorish domes to office blocks, from painted bay-windows to dilapidated backs, from scaffolding to overgrown gardens.

Poetry Archive Now / YouTube: Films of "Loop"

Sunday, 20 September 2020 at 14:47

Tasmanian Tiger

A YouTube film of me reading my poem "Loop" about the last Tasmanian Tiger in captivity, is available on the Poetry Archive Now: Wordview 2020. YouTube doesn't appear to let me link directly to the film, but the search-term "Cliff Forshaw Loop" on YouTube will take you to it and also another earlier, short, more professionally-produced, film of me reading "Loop" intercut with the footage of the loop of film itself:

It comes from a sequence in my collection Vandemonian (Arc,2013) which also appeared in the chapbook Tiger (Happenstance, 2011). Several other poems from that sequence feature on the Vandemonian portfolio page, There you'll also find links to the Arc website featuring Vandemonian as well as links to the earlier film, and an Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio programme about the Tasmanian Tiger to which I contributed. All that is here:

The poem was a Guardian Poem-of-the-Week, chosen by Carol Rumens, and appeared in her anthology Smart Devices (Carcanet, 2019). To read Carol's commentary, see here.


Here's the poem:


(62 seconds of the extinct Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger on film.)

Within the box, it growls, it twists,
scowls through its repertoire of tricks,
ignores the camera — or gurns up close, turns
again, to flop, to gnaw that paw-trapped bone.

It paces out its trap of light; one hundred reps
while hindquarters zither bars of sun;
claws cage’s mesh, hangs stretched
as if to take the measure of itself.

You saw. You see. And what we’ve got is what was shot:
short clips, fragments caught and stitched
together in a loop of black and white.

Nine lives? Not quite. It’s down. It’s out.
It’s on its feet and born again. Like a repetition
compulsion, like… like reincarnated light.

The Real Moby-Dick

Wednesday, 2 September 2020 at 16:57

No Text
Things have been rather slow over the last few lockdown months. I got out to Spurn Head over the Bank Holiday and thought, following the recent Filey Brigg sequence, I should add some more coastal poems to the blog. Here is a sequence that first appeared in Drift, (Humber Mouth Festival, 2008). The project included an anthology and a short film, with poems by David Kennedy, Christopher Reid and David Wheatley. It was David Wheatley who pointed out that the only real whale in Moby-Dick was in stately house not far away, and took me to have a look at it. The sequence later also appeared in Pilgrim Tongues (Wrecking Ball Press, 2015).
The Lord Paramount Looks Seawards
The Lord Paramount of the Seigniory of Holderness may claim any cetacean washed up on the coast from Spurn Bight to Flamborough Head. In 1825 a beached sperm whale was taken to Burton Constable Hall, where its skeleton was displayed, inspiring passages in Thomas Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839) and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). In 2007, the reassembled skeleton was exhibited in the Great Hall of Burton Constable.
“… in Yorkshire, England, Burton Constable by name, a certain Sir Clifford Constable has in his possession the skeleton of a Sperm Whale… Sir Clifford’s whale has been articulated throughout; so that like a great chest of drawers, you can open and shut him, in all his bony cavities...” Moby-Dick.
1. A Cabinet of Curiosities

Rhino horn, coco-de-mer, shark jaws,
tailfins, swordfish swords, sawfish saws,
quadrants, astrolabes, a huge “book camera”,
manuscripts, microscopes, a Concave Mirror
all of Twenty-Four Inches in Diameter,
antiquities, dried reptiles, thermometers,
fossils, rocks, minerals, shells, the Claw
of a Great Lobster, a Tooth-brush from Mecca,
the Leg of an Elk two Foot two Inches long,
a large Sea-Tortoise from the Isle of Ascension,
fowling pieces, a carbine with an extending butt,
     perfectly balanced forty-bore hair
-triggered duelling pistols with silver escutcheon
     and the motto Ubi Libertas Ibi Patria.

2. Sir Clifford’s Whale

The Lord Paramount of the Seigniory
of Holderness looks down and oversees
these bones brought in by downstairs and scullery
staff from their long exile in lean-tos, sheds,
from their chilly diasporas in glasshouse and stable,
the outhouse earth into which they’d sunk. The head,
big as a Ford Transit, has been garaged under
tarpaulin for decades. But his Lordship’s vision
is more than just this fleshless resurrection
the sun shines through; it is the huge skeleton key
to reunite drifting land with inconstant sea.
His mind ponders how blubber has bubbled off:
how bones are bars detaining nowt; how flesh,
long on the run, winks through, fugitive as light.

3. Carnival

What’s suffered a sea-change here’s the coast itself;
turned inside out, all that is solid melts into air.
Even this thing now hugely spine and jaw
is an idea in thrall to the carnival
whose tides hold the whole of Holderness in its maw.
Forget the chance encounters of sewing-machines
and umbrellas on dissecting-tables, once more
Surrealism’s at the service of Revolution
and the elephant in this room, though not yet white,
is moving there from black. Trace its evolution
as the articulated folly of its bones
glides from sea through cetology, from a surgeon’s
prose to a Merman’s Leviathanic museum.
Misrule: now you see it, now it’s gone.

4. Pelagian

A rabblement of bones has breached the Hall;
something huge and hugely hurt has crawled
in from winter – its great wounded bawl
must have foghorned in another world – and died.
Left here, all we have’s this x-rayed sprawl.
Across the floorboards of this ancient pile,
a pile of pitted uncommon bones are spilled;
up there on pilastered walls, narwhal tusks
masquerade as unicorn horns, meanwhile
the portraits (Elizabethan, Jacobean,
in jousting armour, classically robed,
or a wild Victorian filly riding to hounds)
look down on a wrecked ossuary, smile
slyly at the carcass of this pelagic meal.

Behind Four Walls: corona virus anthology and interview

Friday, 10 July 2020 at 13:59

No Text

A poem of mine "Fade" will appear in Together Behind Four Walls,an anthology of poems and short stories in aid of Marie Curie Nurses. All the money raised by the book will go to the charity.

The loose subject of the book is poetry inspired by confinement and contains work by, among others, John Hegley, Roger Robinson, Wendy Cope and Peter Finch.

I was recently interviewed by the editor Francis Powell. You can get it here on Facebook: ttps://

If you are not on Facebook, the link to the actual interview is:

For further details of the anthology, including invitations for submissions:

Filey Brigg

Friday, 12 June 2020 at 14:10

Filey Brigg
Here's a sequence I wrote at the time of the huge floods in Hull and along the Yorkshire coast and elsewhere in summer 2007. I'd been out walking with a group, led by the poet and archeologist Peter Didsbury, which brought together writers with naturalists and other experts on various aspects of the environment. During the walk the rain became very heavy, and continued for days. The sequence appeared in the Humber Writers' collaboration Hide (2008) and later in Pilgrim Tongues (2015).
Filey Brigg
Field trip with voices.
1. Under the Cliffs

A tiny stunned green star: freshwater newt
washed out of the cliffs by rain.
“Saltwater shock – needs to rehydrate.”

Drop him in a bottle of store-bought still;
watch as that outstretched skydiver floats
the leg-long half-mile to our feet.

Later, we put back a tiny jade trinket
or a god, dead-still, in a rain-wet niche.


2.Soul Music

Catch wind-snatched boom-box:
spray flicks break across some
crossover flava-diva’s groove.
Keep your booty in neutral,
feet unsure to tap on the tumbled rocks
of what some say’s a Roman quay.

Dogs shake themselves free of sea.
Children taste the fishy fingers of the spray.
The elders stare out where water’s cut by light,
wait a beat, then one scatters ashes
as wind turns, bears off that track’s
slick power-build to its middle eight.


3. Brigg

End of the spit,
dogs, kids, rags of wet tissue:
outfall, shit.

End of chat.


4. Guillemot

What stops the chat
is someone spots that dead bird on a rock.
Then the beach is littered with “Guillemots,
razorbills, and that’s a little auk.”
Twenty, thirty, forty plump twists
of black and white along that stretch.

The naturalist squats to check:
“No broken necks … what you’d expect
if they’d been caught at sea,
ripped free by fishermen from their nets.”

He thumbs feathers back to skin for wounds,
below for shot. Nothing: it’s a mystery.
Photographs one or two in situ,
is on his mobile to the RSPB.


5. Roman Signal Station

Digging down, they found some bones,
but no larger animal skulls or feet,
which they take to mean the meat
was slaughtered elsewhere, carted here
to a garrison of single men.

Nothing else came to light,
except much later tiny bones of mice,
shrews, voles, compacted into pellets,
which must mean that while land and sea
swapped places and the Roman pier just sank,

there was nothing here but that tower
crumbling on the edge of the spit,
and, staring down from its walls through whole dark ages,
only (swoop, shadow, flit) owls, owls, owls.


6. Rain

What’s new and wet’s all still seeping in: drips,
drips, down to beach “…the oolithic shore.”
Pipefish, gutweed, velvet swimming crabs.
We have guys who know it all on hand:

the geologist talks sediment, striations, rock;
the naturalist gives us weed, nerve, feather;
the archaeologist mentions Romans, bones.
We point at stuff, get the low-down, get its names.

I’d like to know about the earth, the sea;
the names of things and how they live;
why the land I live in’s rumpled just so;
where and why the past keeps poking through.

That was the first day of the rains.
Next day, and the next, it kept it up,
worrying gutters, soffits, roof,
insinuating dark patches in ceiling, walls.

Monday morning, woke to floods.
Went out to work, got soaked.
Flooded basements, backed up sewers,
offices sealed off, the server down.

I’d meant to find out how – why –
those birds had fallen from the sky.
Never did, but, looking up, was struck
by just how dark the heavens had become.

The Spaceship

Monday, 1 June 2020 at 07:53

The Spaceship

I've just finished the painting I mentioned in a previous post. I wanted to contrast the concrete modernist structure and texture with its lakeside context. As I worked on it, the reflections became more shimmering abstract patterns. After Easter I could no longer return to the university, and as I worked from photographs and sketches, the painting became more of a composite, constructed from a series of observations over a couple of weeks in early spring.

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