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.

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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