Pilgrim Tongues (Wrecking Ball, 2015)

Cliff Forshaw - Pilgrim Tongues

Pilgrim Tongues travels from Hull to Vietnam and back, by way of Israel, Transylvania, California and Cambodia. In Hull we meet: the ghost of Philip Larkin; an authentic Victorian mermaid; the huge whale skeleton at Burton Constable; and a stranded honeymooning couple from Baffin Island who arrived on board a whaler. Further afield, we visit the monastery of the burning monk, and move from Angkor Wat to the killing fields of Phnom Penh. We visit a Transylvanian spa where surrealism contends with dilapidation, and are visited by an ancient Roman ghost. We hear the voices of Israelis and Palestinians in conflict and discover what happens to both aristocrats and servants returning from their Pilgrimage to Cythera, the mythical island of love depicted in Watteau’s famous painting. We take a field trip to Filey Brigg, and hike in the Californian sierra where we meet Orpheus Coyote and try to avoid Poison-Oak.

Pilgrim Tongues includes and continues the voyages Cliff embarked on with Wake which, with Selima Hills’s Advice on Wearing Animal Prints, was joint-winner of the Flarestack Pamphlet Prize 2009.

“The use of language is not only impressive but consistently imaginative. The poems push at boundaries [...] they are fresh, innovative and have something real to say. The pieces fizz with energy and challenge the reader to look again.” Jan Fortune-Wood in Envoi

“Forshaw has a marvellously updated version of the Latin poet Propertius’ elegy for his dead girlfriend, a high-class prostitute, who could herself have frequented the smartest cafés, with lovers in her wake [...] His Hull reveries take place in the aftermath of long travels, from which he salvages snatches of vivid speech for his poems (including the refrain ‘Hello Moto!’ from the streets of Vietnam). Some of his finest lines spring from a Far Eastern sculpture [...] the end rhymes ring, the internal rhymes flutter, but within their frame the lines’ varying rhythms move, like a dancer, to freedom.” Alison Brackenbury in Under The Radar

“Traversing oceans from Saigon to Newfoundland to the Humber, a Larkinesque focal point is Hull [...] The writing is energising and unpredictable, and demands to be read and re-read. A complex and far-reaching pamphlet.” Sarah Jackson (on Wake) in The New Writer

For further details and to order, please go to Wrecking Ball press: http://wreckingballpress.com/product/pilgrim-tongues-2/

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Authentic Victorian Mermaid

Hull Maritime Museum

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.

Watteau painting

(from) Pilgrimage to Cythera

In 1961 Michael Levey suggested that Watteau’s paintings, known as Pilgrimage to Cythera or Embarkation for Cythera, intended to depict lovers not arriving, but about to leave the island of love.

i. Embarkation

They teeter on the edge of love,
already almost falling out,
yet looking back as they must leave.

Here was where they found their classic selves,
and knew again their aboriginal twins.
Discovery was all they had been cloven
from – denizens of Peaceable Kingdoms, gardens
of their hidden lives. Too soon,

their New World starts to fade before their eyes,
and once again they are tugged by time and tide,
the mundane gravity of greyer seas and skies,

to reflect on unlived nows and thens as slowly
they return to their other halves (of course, husbands, wives)
– but, much more than that, their own too well-trodden lives.

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iv. Fêtes Champêtres

But what the painter gives us is gentle-folk
stepping into the implausibly rococo barque.
Sea-vines seem to have enwreathed,
turned its planks to golden bark

hewn from the bole of some fabulous tree.
Metamorphosis, a day-long Odyssey.
Step aboard; already you become
what you were always meant to be.

No salty sea-dogs, but got-up local rustics
who can just about sail this delicate ship
to the isle across the newly landscaped lake.
Here’s mythic make-believe, an aristocratic

masque on Milord’s vast and theatrical estate.
This little harbour disguised by bouquets
of wild flowers woven round the Attic statuary
all makes a very serviceable Greek cove.

We moor up close, no need to get
those satin shoes, those cork-heeled pumps,
the hems of fine and rustling dresses, wet.
Plump cupids circle the mast, burly as bees

bumbling into a premonition of heavier-than-air flight.
You disembark, marvel at the clockwork miracle,
note the cherubs, chubbily inflated and lightly
bouncing, tethered above archaic vistas.

Last season they were satyrs, nymphs.
Milady dressed up as a country maid.
The fauns and sprites, assorted gods, were played
by a company brought from Paris at the Duke’s expense.

I heard a thousand louis went on
the Machinery of Grace alone,
a further forty thousand on Aphrodite’s Grove.
Here’s the deconsecrated chapel, the monies

disbursed to be weighed against those sold-off bones.



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All day those stones have writhed with myth,
roots have snaked necks, have had the cheek
to prod gods and kings, crack armies, cities, ships;
mocked Shiva, made him sprout arthritic wrists.

Guides have strung us along all day
through arches, dynasties, over long-fallen walls;
bottlenecks where we've knotted up to squint,
crouched, leaned back to squeeze the backdrop in.

All day the sun has punished us,
banished cyclopeans to pan from corners.
We’ve snapped ourselves where Lara fell to Earth
or Elstree; our minds have crashed right through that set.

In time for sunset, at last we start
to climb the path up to the highest temple.
Where breezes freshen still golden air, we slake
our thirst, rummage in backpacks, stretch, slump, smoke.

Each evening I guess it’s the same communion:
new faces who have read the rough scripture,
heard the whisper of blessings these vespers bring;
now cameras aim where the Wat is dipped in gold.

Crowded on a temple’s stump,
gregarious Stylites watch the sun burn out.
It’s closing time in the gardens of the West.
Down there the East’s already thick with dusk.

Precipitously we’re all benighted.
The way back down's unlit, the temple steps
have blackened, steepened under flip-flops, boots;
feet feel for slippery ledges as we tumble

through hubbub, earth-pull, the jostling dark
now all around. In the tuk-tuk going back,
ignore the hawkers, look up to catch all those other
lonelier planets now yawing into view.

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Than: a god

“Than: a god” – exhibit label, Cham Sculpture Museum, Da Nang, Vietnam
1. Than

Well, here they are, beheaded, some amputees:
godly lepers of the worn-down stone. Defaced,
they need us now – oh so much more than we
need them: they cleave to the sanctuary of this place.

We understand these reliefs, the dancing girls:
those hips, those breasts, they do it for us still.
Elsewhere, down-town, their daughters curl on bar-stools,
bend over pool, pop cleavage behind the eight-ball.

We get the god-sized feet. We understand
their owner’s gone and forgotten these heavy boots,
flown off for good from this clodhopping flesh. We know
that it’s these weighty unknown gods, not us,

who remain here, beyond recall; who are left
forever nameless, earthbound, stony and bereft.

2. Orange

Between Shiva, Ganesh, Uma, Garuda,
a label says this lump of rock’s a god.
Meaning: some kind of god, a god perhaps,
but can’t say which. It’s easy to ignore
these eyeless agents: armless worn-down forms
– such sad gods, these misshapes propped
at corners. Outside, our modern proteans loll
on dogcarts: stunted torsos strapped
to trolleys sprout limbs, clumsy Shivas
anagrammed with double elbows, knees.
Night, I dream defoliants still discover
smiling rocks in hieratic poses. Faces serene
as limbs strewn from Cambodia to the Dee Em Zee
crawl back and dioxins spring a fresh Year Zero.

3. Heavenly Girl

After the lingams, there’s a dancing girl
in her long-gone flesh and strings and strings of pearls.
Her veil’s a nothing of stone, gauzy light
pinned from floating off to Heaven only
where chisel’s fanned to foam, scooped to thread
a suggestive knot around her hips. Tight
enough to keep that far-bound girl
dancing here, for the old, the fat, the lame,
forever shimmering, shimmying, shivering
air and rock, escaping her sandstone frame:
the old dance of the living, the jiving, the piled-up dead.

4. Sight-Seeing: Pagodas

You look down on them at doorway and at pillar:
the kitchen gods and the gods of sky.
Today, I crouched to tie a shoelace, found
a fat little Buddha twinkling in a corner
grinning up at my bowed head.

What harm can it do, entering a pagoda,
to light a stick or two of incense;
hold them between joined palms to the inclination
of your forehead; make a wish; commend
a loved one; or merely think this looks like prayer?

The dog is dreaming in its holy corner.
This place seems worth it. You can spare the bucks:
feel in your back pocket, stuff,
along with a few thousand scruffy dong,
some bank-fresh greenbacks in the box.

Bend to retrieve your Chinese trainers, walk
out past bikes, street vendors [“Hello! Moto!"],
find, as you lose yourself in the seethe of traffic,
your attitude has stiffened to
some kind of awkward reverence.

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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.
Wake, chapbook (Flarestack Poets, 2009)

Pilgrim Tongues includes and continues the voyages Cliff embarked on with Wake which, with Selima Hills’s Advice on Wearing Animal Prints, was joint-winner of the Flarestack Pamphlet Prize 2009.

“Cliff Forshaw is a poet of rooted non-attachments, a nomad of the suburbs and a boulevardier of the wild places. As maps go, Wake is the one that will get you lost, but you’ll thank its author for it, later, or maybe even at the time.” Georgiamsam blog

“Poems in Cliff Forshaw’s Wake thrive on energy and mastery of form, steeped in a scholarly awareness of the history of English poetry. The voice here is distinctive and mercurial – cool, intelligent yet engaged – the spirit of Larkin, perhaps, re-emerging, muscular and revitalised, in the 21st century.” Flarestack Pamphlet Prize Judges.

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