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Janus

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)

 

Janus


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.

Launch

Wednesday, 25 November 2020 at 14:11

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The ship is the Admiral Togo, launched from Beverley.

As part of the recent revisiting of poems here's "A Champagne Cork".

A very different version appeared in Slipway (2013).

 
 
 
A Champagne Cork
Over 1,300 ships, mainly trawlers, tugs and minesweepers, were built in Beverley by Cook, Welton and Gemmel between 1901 and 1963. The vessels had to be launched sideways because the River Hull is so narrow here.
It were a good show, a launch.”

His champagne cork comes with old photographs:
here, the town is up for a christening-party
where the shipyard echoes arch and nave, and churchy
buttresses fly from blueprint to rivetted ribs
to the last few spars and stays that corset the ship.

All Sunday best: beneath the slipway slats,
frocks and feathers. “Back then, we all wore hats.”
Daughters, mothers whose babies skippered the bridges
of prams on bobbing high chassis seas, cheeks tweaked
by whiskery uncles flushed with hip-flask whisky.

Snug in its little wooden box, this cork
(he presented its twin to the owner’s wife)
recalls the sleek green bomb cradled in straw.
First job: to mitre these joints; then tasked to score
the glass, ensure the bottle smashed on cue.

The photographer ducked inside black cloth. Flash!
– to catch it all as chocks were sledged out clear
and light rhymed back from the bottle’s brilliant smash.
You can almost see that crowd’s huge cheer
still hanging in the magnesium-bright air.

A greased creak as tons begin to edge.
All that hammered noise and work now eases:
foam-born, slides sideways over wood and tallow.
Lolls, lurches. Booms. Heaves a wave to throw
blunt weight around. Wades in, bullying shallows.

The river recoils, shivers back over shore.
Sky whitens. The crowd’s a stumbling blur.
That side is screams and shouts. This side’s a roar.
Girls clutch at skirts, raise hems to run or squeal:
eels slither through the grass, squirm at their heels.

Back-wash. The hull is rocked as displaced
volumes shoulder back, the weighty chug
slows to a lap; waltzing into a sort of grace,
she settles to a broad-beamed dignity
– “Long gone... They shut up shop in ’63.”

Outside, the day itself now sheds some dark
on those lively long-dead celebrants, their work.
Traffic at the lights for the single-track bridge;
before the Saturday big-shop Tesco trip,
just here, the dump, the bottle bank, the skips.

Below, the river: a duck or two, a swan;
styrofoam crumbs, a freshly-painted narrowboat;
a rusty hull, skewed into a bed of reeds;
a plastic medusa ghosting the algal green,
bagged rainbows smudged around an oily skein.

 
 

Written in Light

Thursday, 12 November 2020 at 17:48

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Here's a sequence based on some old photographs of Beverley. An earlier version (quite different from the poems here) appeared in Slipway (Wordquake, 2013) a Humber Writers' collaborative anthology commissioned for the Beverley Literature Festival, and for which I also made a short film.

Written in Light


1. SUITS

They disappear so slowly, but they go,
legs armed, heavy in worsted, tweed: big bolts
of cloth that flap about these bony boys.

Not doffed, but dropped: flat caps; discarded boots;
the faster lads in shirtsleeves – their oiled quiffs shine
out of the dark – while, breaking lock-step, junior clerks

clock off or get their cards. They’ve drawn a line,
a vein, under the double-entry ledger, its stark
negotiations of page, ruled columns of black on white,

and slowly rush to each now certain future,
unsleeping fast into the fleet and uncaught bright.
These young – already at their fleetingest – attain

the transparency of speed… escape
to the velocity of light.

2. APRONS

Who are these women behind hard stares and pinnies,
scrubbing and squinnying from their whitened steps?
Do they outface their tight-laced betters? (That halo of breath

– the widow at her window’s lacy nets?)
Or is it against the cracked and naked panes
of the barefaced poor their faces are really set?

An aproned line outstares the world, upright and straight
outside the imperially-measured dry-goods store:
stiff collars, ties still peeking above those oblong whites

– moustachioed cadavers stacked in their winding sheets,
or men, wound tight as chrysalises once,
now almost blooming from the strings of their tight trade?

We turn the page, peer through each window that wore
its own boiled-white and starchy pinafore.

3. COLLARS

They pose: high collars, scrubbed, boys full of lives
still waiting to come in from the huge outside
(the chauffeur and Bugatti idling on the drive).

Or these young men intent on their place in history,
the one as yet unwritten, the one they’d write;
that background man with his air of vague mystery.

Pavilions of confident chaps – striped blazers, straw boaters;
these pretty girls – champagne, strawberries and floaty
dresses – now waving goodbye from expensive motors.

Their eyes are all lit with ancient alternatives,
the unheard chronicles to elsewhere, elsewhen. Who knew
– not these, embarking on their historic future lives –

what lay in store? What later – already even – might have led
to how gods as yet unborn would judge these unknown dead?

 
4. HATS

The happy event: floral hats like cake-stands;
the glint of trombone, trumpet, the tubby tuba
– you can almost hear the brass band’s oompah-pah –

the frothy ’taches, the marquee’s foaming pints.
The heads thrown back to aim a laugh at the cloudless sky,
so happy and huge you almost hear it being snapped.

Meanwhile the ragamuffins scarper from the bobby.
Can you hear the hobnails clacking cobbles,
taunts hanging in the echoing alley? Smudge-faced girls

squealing in grubby smocks, their curls in cables?
Far harder to hear these umbrellaed gatherings of crow
-black coats which fall to skirt their booted ankles.

Can’t read their widowed faces. Tight-lipped or veiled:
darknesses balanced on isosceles triangles.

5.ROTARY

Bishops, Vice-Chancellors, Lord Mayors, Privy Councillors,
snug with the certainty of fobs and gold watches,
oil-painted into morocco-bound gilt-edged corners,
warming their robes and chains of high office.

Or barrel-chested by awaiting carriages;
posed on the lawn, sealing the good marriage,
the beribboned children are already pale and fading,
beside the solid house that is no more.

The servants fled and the mansions humbled.
The gables gone and the chimneys tumbled.

The pediments and architraves,
cornices and swaggering stone, cut down to size;
the steeples, and all that rose high razed;
towers sinking into the ground like grave.

6. STREET FURNITURE

The proliferating signage of eight-till-late:
forget the bank’s brass-plated earnest door.
It’s all Wetherspoon’s, Oxfam, pound-shop pop-up, nail-bar,
Barnardo’s, Polsky Sklep, convenience store.

The Workhouse has been put to idleness;
Business has parked itself just out of town,
the library’s in the low-rise leisure centre
where work’s the sweaty penance paid for pleasure.

Those who settled long ago are gone,
they’ve left some standing, mainly fallen, stones,
but mostly it’s just the barely decipherable mound:

earth’s belly, oddly swollen with gods and bones.
With nothing more to live up to, they’ve finally found
their level. It suits them down to the ground.

 

Poison-Oak

Monday, 9 November 2020 at 16:08

Poison-Oak, California

Here's a little sonnet trilogy to round off the Californian poems from Djerassi.

Poison-Ivy is well-known, and there's a lot of it over on the east coast. Less well-known are Poison-Sumac and Poison-Oak. There was a fair amount of this about, and something I was always aware of on my walks in Djerassi.

Poison-Oak

Urushiol is an oily organic allergen present in plants of the Toxicodendron family
such as poison-oak, poison-ivy and poison-sumac. The name derives from the
Japanese
urushi, an extremely hard lacquer made from the sap of Toxicodendron
vernicifluum.

A health warning comes with every Eden.
Though not much else is shared by wilderness,
rural track and quiet suburban garden,

there are some things in common nonetheless.
You’ve poked around out back, disturbed a snake
maybe. More likely the danger in the grass

isn’t a serpent but a plant. It’s Biblical,
of course, but though the name suggests a tree
– poison-ivy, sumac, or, round here, oak –

forget the fruit. The knowledge that you need
right now’s the low-down on that plant. Folk
wisdom counts the leaves: “If there be three,

then let it be.” The jingle is no joke.
Save your skin: to fear of God, add Poison-Oak.

*

Three-leafed, slick with persistent oil,
this plant looks mild but it’s possessed
by the fiery spirit of Urushiol.

Whose slight unfelt caress is soon a restless
itch. Gets under your skin, boils over flesh;
plays hell, leaves his perverse lover’s rash.

Urushiol, could be some cast-out Old Testament
fiend or unworshipped, bitter, so-sore god:
blisterer, bringer of tetter, demon dementor,

heartless skin-raker, bland-seeming three-leafed sod.
Unholy triad of oak, sumac and ivy:
this Divil’s shamrock’s the very devil to rid;

this harvest of rods, this great three-personed malignity,
fifth-column uneradicated from sea to glittering sea.

*

Animals are immune, but you can get caught
from a blanket, garden tool, a brush with a cat,
the sole of your shoe, a touch on your jeans, the coat

hung up over winter, a dead plant fuming on the fire.
Genius loci, Zeitgeist of what time you have left here.
Exorcise with spirits before he creeps under your skin!

Stop! No devilry, just an oily organic allergen.
More wonderfully strange how ancients learned to tap
and tame, refine by crafty flame its caustic sap,

transform it to a high hard gloss: japanned.
What alchemy of the word could rival this?
Turn itch to such durable art; rework pain

to frame a blessing from a lash, a curse?
Think now… just how to polish poison into verse

Track

Sunday, 8 November 2020 at 11:43

Djerrassi Orpheus Coyote

Here is another photo of one of the figures from the Orpheus Coyote sculpture at Djerrassi, and a couple more poems I wrote during my stay there.

I'd go for long walks very early in the morning, before the mist had burned off, and often had the sense of being watched - coyotes, maybe, in the bush, though more often than not it would be a deer, or some smaller racoon-like animal.

Later, sitting on the verandah, there were often hummingbirds. I'd never previously thought of hummingbords as aggressive, but these Californian ones could be very territorial and sometimes would hover up close to your face. Their beaks are rather long and sharp for getting into flowers, and the overall impression was rather like a huge angry insect with this syringe-lke beak attached to whirring wings.

Track

They rattle brush, startle up – birds flap
and thrum, spiral to flock above the track.
Unsure, you stop, unshoulder backpack,
dig out the hand-drawn map to check

just where is here. Squint. Drip sweat.
The day is loud, urgent with insectivity.
It weaves its gauze, hums through heat, your head,
networks all but distant calls, odd throaty crawks.

Behind this noise, this light, a sense of something
strangely else. Would come as no surprise to hear
the day punctuated by the crack of stick or gun,
or, looking up, to find some sudden tall or longish thing

appraising your meek trespass into being.
Something bright, yet dark with too much sun.


Hummingbird

You hear it first, that buzzy whir,
then it’s hanging inches from your face,
wings mechanically a-blur
to keep that plump fuzzy little body

levitated on whisked gravity,
like an insect, or an angel just hanging there,
pleased with its own smart levity,
for some metaphysical joke.

Or some darker syringe-beaked familiar,
getting right into your face,
asking just what it is you think
you’re doing in this place.

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