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.
Filey Brigg
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.

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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.

Orpheus Coyote sculpture Djerassi, California


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. 


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.


Djerassi, California.

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
urushi, an extremely hard lacquer made from the sap of Toxicodendron

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,

hen 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

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Orpheus Coyote

Orpheus Coyote and Other Pieces (1999), wooden sculpture by William King onthe 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

No Text

Megiddo Junction

                 Route 66 forks off.
West Bank: Jenin’s just a stone’s throw east,
half-bulldozed, curfewed by the IDF.

Assyrians, Egyptians, Ottomans, British,
all yomped through here. Slid their arms
round Israel’s impossibly tiny waist.

Now the iron corset pinches - Green Line, Intifada -
cinches waist to an hour-glass these lines in sand
run through. One click north, it’s Armageddon:

camel’s hump or monk’s scruffy tonsure.
From the bald patch, look out where Jordan’s
just smudged horizon: the Valley of Jezreel’s

blunt with haze. Down there, all green bits fade.
It’s 40 in the shade. There is no shade.

She unplugs the plastic tappet, glugs water
from its blue-ridged shell. Hot as hell, you unstick
shirt from skin, wipe sweat from inside straw hat.

Nothing said. Displacement activities.
Blind fingers trace words. This rock’s
a palimpsest that’s thirty cities deep…

Lizards skedaddle. Stop. Beadily check
you out; or drop to breathless reps. Press-ups.
Khaki fatigues merge with dust or dark.

Little sun-driven engines discover fissures,
skitter off on erratic missions into stone,
seeking tunnels, caverns, water-courses…

             It all began round here, you think: Big Bang,
             the One True... and then that other thing...

You watch as what slipped skin through rock ghosts back.
Now tiny restless dynamos materialize;
you see saurians play tricks with their stored-up thunder.

Basilisks. Blood cool from rivers underground,
stripped to nerve, low bump, mere lobe,
they outstare, throb with something ancient, limbic.

             Your mind’s on rifts, cracked stone, hind-brains;
             things contrary, strange; cloven or twinned;
             things winged yet featherless; mythic, primeval;

             that crossroads where what slid, crawled, or crept
             met the newly and clumsily bipedal.

Back at the car, you’re already headed north.
A dragonfly shimmers on the aerial’s stamen.
She turns the key; unwinds the road to Nazareth.

No Text

Building Jerusalem

Ten measures of beauty gave God to the world; nine to Jerusalem
and one to the remainder.
Ten measures of sorrow gave God to the world; nine to Jerusalem
and one to the remainder.

The Talmud

Two Voices

You’ve seen that poster? The young Israeli soldier’s
burying his prayer here in the Wailing Wall.
His rifle’s slung at his elbow, stock tipped
from the strap, bow-strung from his shoulder.
These huge stones make us all feel small.

Above and beyond is al-Haram al-Sharif.
Another poster, the Tourist Office’s, makes
that gold mosque’s rising dome the must-see sight.
Up there, Abraham quivered with his knife;
Mohammed ascended a staircase of light.

Temple Mount’s out of bounds to Jews
by their own Holy Law, and off-limits to non-Muslims
these last tense weeks. Security’s real tight,
so I’m sticking out among the Hasidim
in their old country, old century, black and white.

The bus rattles through the sun-struck shtetl.
Last week, another martyr blasted off to heaven
right here – dressed as a Haredi, I heard:
black coat, white shirt, black suit, the broad-brimmed hat.
I’m guessing he already had the beard.

And, undercover of that black black suit,
that newly-laundered winding-sheet of shirt,
doubtless beat a very special heart:
one that knew injustice, indignity, spite,
or grew sour at some subtler private hurt.

One sullen spark, long fanned, may start
God’s love to smoulder in any heart.
One day that love may burst into flame
with such force the soul escapes
its cage of ribs and rips your world apart.

He was raptured up right through this bus’s roof:
this jagged crescent’s a witness to his light.
Small stars now stud the dark where rivets
discovered their holy vocation, shunned the night
and aimed themselves at sky, his moon.

Bedeck the walls, the deck is flower-strewn,
confettiblown: the petals and stems of washers, bolts,
sprays of glass, bouquets of skin; the ecstasy
of flesh dispensing with the need to be;
the jolt of bodies beside themselves in joy.

He came. He went. An exemplary life. He undressed
himself right down to the marrow of his soul,
took nothing with him, bequeathed his companions all.
Yet powerfully persuaded his Mitteleuropäischer guests,
who have come so far, to strip off their Sabbath best,

and dance, here in the hot Middle Eastern sun.
And now even those wallflowers, too shy
to hang up their long black coats, can’t help themselves
– they’re nodding heads and hats and beards.
Soon they’ll be fingerclicking, toe-tapping,

getting down and dirty to the beat.
And on this bus now trembling at the busy stop
as you fumble on the step for change, who knows
what may have caused another drummer’s heart
to quicken while the diesel ticks?

Jenin after shelling by IDF


Other side of that great new Wall,
the deconstructed town (90,000 souls)
half-stands: crunchy rubble, tutting choppers;
street-arabs dodge that tank-track sound.

What’s left is mainly walls. Jenin.
The not-quite-fallen lean
on each other, sketch a corner, put a hearth
in parenthesis, bracket off a bath.

And what’s left of many walls is sky
or a vision of laser-printed saints:
A4 martyrs aimed at Heaven,
an apotheosis bristling AK47s.

One scrawny generation thought
Charles Atlas; now, after pics
show pecs pumped with ironmongery,
bigged up, lumpy

with whole hardware bins of nails.
Hard enough for Allah,
flashgunned brief hours before their fame.
One, from where the new Wall

slices olive groves,
wears that green headband.
God’s élite – no one kicks sand
in this commando’s face.45

Streetside galleries of the Shaheed:
Hamas. Fatah. Jihad – a verse
from the Qur’an bleeds through screen-grabs,
heroic deeds they’ll ink to light.

....ripped-up roots, a lonely boot,
the snap of wasp-striped tape;
fluorescent crews harvesting the red
communal fruit from sticky tarmac.

Faces strobed: the shadow’s veil,
the siren’s call to oxyacetylene prayer.
Something close to history
hanging in newly-stung air.

You’ve seen this face: bespectacled,
studious in the freshers’ photo.
A little out of focus,
fuzzy with an idea of beard.

Or snapped a year or two back:
that graduation trip to Al-Quds,
aka Yerushalayim.

In the background, Al Aqsa:
just like the poster – that blinding mosque,
sun detonating on its golden rim.



Hizbullah, exhilarated, exhaling Allahu Akbar!
as rocket launchers whoosh Katushkas

…over the border, in the olives,
you rely on the nearby Jewish village’s siren,
wind in the right direction…

[South-facing shelters,
the hillside’s tachycardia.
Out of here, all clear, you’ll be lucky
to be breathing walls, your neighbour’s dust.]

… to give you maybe one thousand heartbeats
or one hundred shallow breaths to find
your wife, mother and her granddaughter:
Fatima on the rooftop hanging washing;
Zeinab scooping Leila from the garden

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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