Down the hill I walk to silence, To where the Mother And the Father lie, To where they lie in ruin.
Sometimes a stream runs quietly by, Running light through wet black woods, Beside barbed wire that guards, That holds and bars the dull green farms, The fields that yield the lurid meat, Pallid oats and poisoned wheat, The fattened profits of deceit.
Yet sometimes, in my fancy, I see sparks, as if the Father woke To prod a glowing log. I follow them, I laugh, I dance, I dance beneath a melting moon, But then I’m back upon the hill, The silence of the afternoon, The empty trees, the dust Of ruined soil, The vapid monuments to oil.
Although they tell us not to need a home, To live instead inside ourselves, I crave a cottage by the sea, Paint peeling from a door of green, Alexanders in the spring. Then fennel growing through the stones, Sea-sand blown on quarried floors, Wood twisted, bleached and bored by worms, That pokes like bones through drifts of kale. Here too some dismal asters grow, And fronds and thongs of pungent weed, Tossed by westering waves and wind, Which blows the seed in holes and cracks To burst, astonished, into gaudy bloom. All these will make our marvellous living room.
For there, in every echoed cave, the Mother lies, There the Father swims, in every shining wave, There you and I can build a fire, And cook a pot of roots and herbs. We’ll give a mug to all who come, We’ll sit together with the sea, The turquoise band that splits the sky and earth, Not thinking what things might be worth, But sipping slowly on our broth, Braced in wind, our faces wet with rain.
Then the sun again, that chases ragged clouds. The Mother and the Father dream once more, And so with them We spend our days and nights. With books and paints we play, We play to crabs, and crowds of shining rocks, We sing to saints of earth and sky. No one here will pay a tithe To see the slippery conger writhe Below the pier, Or see the murmurous starlings wheel as one Against the orange sun.
Come away, come away. Forsake your days of toil and fear, Come with me, Down to the bay, Down to the sea.
An auto-da-fé1 (“act of faith”) was the ritual of public penance of condemned heretics and apostates that took place when the Inquisition had decided their punishment, followed by the execution by the civil authorities of the sentences imposed (definition adapted from Wikipedia).
I wrote this poem to be read aloud, to be performed. It is not a kind thing – it isn’t calm, it isn’t polite. But it comes from the heart.
1. The ruins
A river bed, stick dry. There above a pale pavilion The purple pennants fly, But limply in the mouldy air, As if asleep. And under there’s a toothless tramp Whose gaping rotten maw Emits a stink so raw, So base and vile, That you recoil. Quick, turn away. Let him lie. Police will move the geezer on, And now you’ll never fathom why You couldn’t ask him How he was, Or even look him in the eye. His wretched dog knows better, Though Buddhists warn us of Attachment, Preach a mantra of detachment, Only toil wins peace, they say.
But in my plot I never mow, I neither dig nor weed, And barely break a sweat, While all around Ripe apples grow. Or when I’m by the tumbling bay, There as well, Six limpets roasted in the shell They’re all I need.
But you, You stoke your pride With sharp black coal, And when it burns I choke on bitter ash. Ash blows all around me now, That sour tang is in the air, It’s in my clothes, it’s in my hair.
And so I stoke my rage With hard black coal, Though I could stroke it With a feather Until it rolls And bats at flies, As a leopard stretches In a sunny glade, Blinks surprised, Then slinks to Watchful shade.
We feed the furnace Every day you see, A plate for you, And one for me, Steaming juicy hot, We love it so, we love the taste, Pin the blame, act in haste, Give a sorry little sigh Send the withered goat to die. A look askance, Is all you need To burn the bitch, To do the deed, ‘Alright mate, The fire’s lit ready.’
Light up the witch.
In hot wind and sour ash Love dies a twisted death. Who might be left, I ask, To hold your hand, To listen to your shaking breath? On Mondays you go back again To see the pale cadaver. Who then will stay to walk Beside your racking fear? The fear you know so well, The doubt that grows, That belts your belly As a deep dark wave slaps Against a ruined pier, And sucks the air from the support. And who is there to show Your crumbling cracks, Your weed-green growth? Who dares to point? To say, There, in that pile of coal, There in that false smile, There, there is the wet ruin Of your soul.
2. The many deaths
So let us stroll together, You and I. Let’s look one look, With sharp bright eye Of rook and crow. Let’s amble down this modest lane Of suffering and hidden pain, Can we sit a while with death, With each last laboured breath? See that bright soul flicker out? No need, it’s just a rat, Poisoned in a musty hole. Like you and I, it dies alone In agony and shaking fear, But never mind: An update on your phone.
In this field, rare flowers once grew That looked like flies, or bees, or frogs. Who cares it’s bulldozed through To make a box for men to look at screens, Or that once the sparrows chirped In every dusty privet hedge, But now they’re quite usurped By silence (Such silence as we have never known). And as you’re taken to the edge, Are you then to look away as With a tearing groan The rotten pier slides beneath the Dark deep green?
A shriek, and nothing more is seen.
Now seas of traffic hiss And swirl around the island blocks, The rocks of marketeers And City types. The morning runners Breathe deeply of particulates, Cycle fast to action points. Weekends in the four by four, We must protect the kids from harm, Take them safely to the tomb, Bury them in brick for hours. Be careful, watch your shoes, You’re no longer in the womb, It’s up to you to choose. To each according to ability, Be prepared to slice some throats, But you should do it with civility. Yours is the path, no help from us, Lunch at your desk, Bathed in blood, Or what’s permitted In the windy pit Between two towers That cast a baleful shade. Discuss the game, work ’til ten. Again, again, no curlew’s call Aching on the mournful mist Of mere or fen befalls thee, Broken child of angry witless men.
Tell me when Did you forget the sound of stroking skin? The sand shivers at the fingers of the unstill sea, A thousand thousand leaves sighing in a tree.
3. Three o’clock
There are tearooms here, In the old monastic close. Another life: a wrought iron chair. One of a dinky little pair, Donated by a sweet old thing. ‘I said, you know, I said’ Jackdaws nest behind the saints. And in the shop A set of gaudy watercolour paints. ‘I said, just nice.’ But that little brush is bristled like An ancient swine. Use the silly tuft To dust the bone You gawk at In the crystal shrine, The dismal relic of a conscience That you long forgot. But not to gild the crumbling monstrance of your heart, Not to limn a crimson line.
The teaspoon rattles, The saucer grinds against the cup, ‘Better than bought, I said’. And then the peace of the dead.
4. The fires
November. Robins guard the autumn lanes Rain drips and drips from leaded panes. A mournful trill grieves ruby hips, Bright drops of blood hiss in the heat, Yellow fat melts off the meat, Full lips burst and bubble, Branches snap and sinews crack, In coils of silver smoke burned black, From fires lit of dampen leaves. And still the rain drip-drips from mossy eaves. Forget the screams Ignore the tortured flesh, Regard instead the brass that hangs From sooty beams around the inglenook, Enjoy the pint of bitter That will, perforce, refresh, And talk of things you own. “So and so’s a heavy hitter Must dash, need the shitter.” Leave a ripe and fruity fart, For there’s no art to find The mind’s construction in the face.
Your man who does, Has murder in his heart. Your tenant too has knives – And just in case You still survive There’s poison, Wrapped in yellow lace, Buried in a little drawer, Hidden in your cleaner’s place.
Do you ever take those walks? Do you watch the berries glisten, Brush against dry hogweed stalks? Do you ever truly listen?
5. The twisted path
You talk your talk, You raise the bar, How fine and kind you are. But you disown so much Of what you cannot clutch In both your shaking hands; Break and destroy The things you fear, Much as a wounded boy Will pull the wings from flies. Thus and thus You spit and whisper lies, For in the tawdry race To take some power You drop your superficial grace And show your secret face. The dreadful mask that horrifies.
This is the quest you need to take: To ask what ails a sickening King. And do not ask which one, when realms Of Sea and Land and Air Are Waste. But just like Percival, the fool, You ride to hounds and do As you are told by older fools, Take some heads and lop some hands. O you so long to be a Knight And do what’s right (as you’ve been told). What will you do in winter When you meet the Sorceress? Can you kiss those yellow tusks, Or will you hold her gift in scorn? As when in snapping frost You find a rose, Wrapped in the freeze, Blood red and torn, And loathe it For believing In the light: So you hate your heart That dared to love.
O go, just go, Down from above, Down to the sea. Revel in idolatry. Spend your money in arcades, Forget all lustre fades, Until one day you wake To cries of gulls and scream, Scream to find the beach Is strewn with bones And there are skulls on spikes. And even then, with all your Hikes on twisted roads, The path you take May be your worst mistake. So sing your songs beside the fire, Rake the coals With bards in musty tents. Drive back to town, and check your rents. And then perhaps, When all your hope is gone When the kids have moved away, And at last you stare at death, You may, In some small silent fashion Find something like compassion, And ask the man with rancid breath What ails him.
Fuck wild geese. Rather a coal tit in a bush That sings “Be dew be dew, be dew” Again And again And again.
I took a bus to Petersfield, It shook so much, And clattered, That the panels quite gave up, And flew like finches, Fast to hard cropped fields.
The destination sign detached, Somewhere near Stroud, And one by one the smoking wheels Spun off down twisted muddy lanes, Unmapped routes to who knows where. I thought of them careering into Caravans, Or box-lined drives, with plaster lions, Before they fell, poor bloody troops, Surprising stoats and badgers.
The grubby windows Cracked and shot. Dirty Diamonds Glittered on the shining road. The seats gave way, and as we fell, Or grasped the metal bones, We watched them twist and bounce And come apart like pop-up cards. A screech from the abyss and then The pipes, the struts, the stairs Exploded like a flock of crows, And roosted in the hedgerows and The passing trees.
When we arrived at Petersfield We were nothing much at all: A slick wet floor and screeching hubs, A pall of smoke and sparks. We staggered from the coughing wreck, Said thank you to our driver. And though he too had lost his wheel (His speech as well it seemed) Somehow he’d kept our cash Clutched tight in bony claws.
I found a cafe in the square, And drank a lonely mocha there. They played the hits from ’84 (I felt I’d lost my soul and more).
As darkness fell I clocked the stares, As one by one, they stacked the chairs. But I knew I’d never yield, Dismembered there in Petersfield.
For seven months, or maybe seven years, I sowed a secret hope. Two perfect leaves it made, my hope, Before the stem turned black For lack of care. But still, I dared to dare That we might find the door To our success, and strip the peeling paint From things, to see the grain beneath.
Two perfect leaves of green it made, my hope, That withered on the rotten stalk. And the little I had left I lost. So now I’m stood alone upon this rock, Waiting for the coming tide.
I wasn’t chained in rusting iron for stealing fire, But still my gut is opened up each day by eagles. Neither was I tied for purity, with knotted ropes, But yet by night those howling monsters Surface streaming from the sea. Every day I stand here bare, With just the east wind, in the black gulley, And this rock that digs into my back, This fucking rock…
Well I can see the end of me In the sea that boils below. For here past shame and lurking horror Meet in crushing waves, And no amount of red valerian, That rockets red from ruined walls, Can make it right when winds blow hard Against the rising tide.
All our ends are here. Scudding on the tops of endless waves, Splashed on the sucking sand, Sluiced through cracks of frozen fire, Sloshed and spat in the black gulley: The spume and washed-up suds of longing.
I would I could be filled with something more Than bitter grouts of yearning, This stinking lees of memory That stings my eyes. And I wish that I could seize the day, Soak the hurting heart in fizzy wine, Souse the soul with golf, And lagers with those grinning lads, Those grinning boys with heads like skulls.
But oh how Queen Anne’s musky lace Recalls warm sheets, And one who rolled towards me smiling, And look how Iris trembles with the wind’s caress, And how she opens to the dreaming sun. Is that a scent of elderflower? It is the song of small birds, Heard as one hurries past a courtyard, Late for a dull appointment, To be remembered at twilight with regret.
And when at twilight owls stir from hollow oaks And mushrooms rise beneath their mossy sheets, We sit in the yellow light of the restaurant saloon (Muffled jazz, three types of butter), We sit in the light of the yellow lamps, And between the pan-seared scallops And the oak-smoked brie. What fun we have with history, Out of our class, up too late, Perhaps a little guilty, A little lacking in respect For the pretence of it.
The red-cheeked matrons’ hearty laughter, The bonhomie of blazered engineers From pampas-dull parades in Basingstoke, Fades away for blackbirds singing down the day, And then the wood wet night, In which, with hooting owls And fingers tightening on my arm, I feel at once a man, And not a fool.
And how I would turn, And how you would turn, And how we would turn to the other.
I heard your voice as I sat on the bright beach, The one that glows in thunder. I heard your voice in the murmur of the waves that whisper ceaselessly, In the dry fronds of palms that rustle as the skin of snakes. And I slept, for once, and waited for your sigh.
Once I heard the poplars sigh of waiting And I ran away with tripping fear. Now I welcome in the roots That quest through bones, That reach through ribs, That wrap my shrivelled heart with woody fingers. My breath will be perfumed As the resin of poplars in the Spring, As sweet as mint in the Medina Dropped in bundles at first light.
Seven years and seven days He searched, When the dark man took Sadbhe From Fionn mac Cummhail, For seven years he split the angry sea And sought behind each knotted tree. For seven years and seven days His sword grew spots of rust. And that is all the growing we should do in grief: The vine we tend Lies black with rot. The horse we ride is Thin as wire. The song we sing is Raven hoarse. The shame we feel Is red as fire.
And yet, and yet, although I sing my raven’s song, Still I walk from here to there, And still I listen to the dew.
I wake, wet with the dew.
In seven thousand years, or more, When the blind white desert is blown away, When runners run to see the morning sun, Rising on the red valerian at Rocquaine, Then the king beneath the hill may ride once more With fresh intent, And find geraniums flowering on the terrace, And one who descends the sandy stair to the yellow beach, One who will turn to him and smile, One who will turn.
Notes: Sadbhe is pronounced to rhyme with ‘Five’. Fionn mac Cummhail is pronounced something like Fiune maCool.
Today I went to hear the birds And I was met by wrens. I couldn’t see their bodies first, The leaves were bright, Their shapes were small, For birds that once Sang bare, And peeped from cracks, Afeared of sacrifice, Are clothed once more In flush of Spring. But once fast flown and Then alit, I could find the shape again (O if I could find the shape again).
They say it has no sense, A bird’s high song, But some mundane response That I project upon. But I tell them another thing For this that sings, that shakes, His beak wide open to the sky His tongue a-quiver, This one sings the song of life, And I hear another, And another in another tree, And then I see them all Without the seeing.
This is the day, the hour, When all the wrens By common cause, Give up their hearts. I know these notes, I play them in my greening bower, I play them on my faery harp, And every trill, and every rill, That races down your flanks, And guides you to the oak, That’s me a-calling From my ferny cave. I am the King, you are the Queen, These things are just, The natural law. See how my feathers shake, Hear how my music soars. Can’t she hear? She isn’t far. She comes, she must, It is commanded, since When I was Taliesin’s bird, And helped the woody druids Say how crops might fare, How milk was soured, And see inside the hearts of men.
For while the shadow of That hyddeous strength, Sax myle and more It is of length, My song is fierce, My call is bright, The way’s not long That leads to light.
Notes: Taliesin – Bard of the 6th Century, who sang at the courts of three British kings – was transformed into a wren. ‘The shadow of that hyddeous strength, sax myle and more it is of length’: Ane dialog (The Monarch, 1553), Sir David Lyndsay of the Mount.
I saw this tweet in my timeline and was saddened. It celebrates a perfect day in a place of great beauty (marred somewhat by all those contrails), but the call to ‘bring on the summer’ abandons anything that might belong to the present. This poem is my response.
Have the half-remembered paths, And crumbling plots of disrepair, Just lost their violets and forget-me-nots?
Have emerald lawns and woody banks Forsworn their daisies and Their shining celandine?
Are woody glades, Pierced by chance beams, Dry of bluebell seas?
Because we forget to breathe,
Because we forget to dream,
Because we forget to love,
We forget to see those little golden flies
dancing in the light
The lapidary shadows of the afternoon, Make gems of every tiny leaf. Shadow stems sway on lawns like Oarweed, One fathom deep in lazy tides.
An armoured and heraldic bug Drops on my lap, Reminding me of what is shared, Our legs, our eyes, our hearts.
So stay with me, And hold my hand a while. Breathe with me, Of breeze-sent blossom, Remember the pleasure of the sheltered wall. Remember how we warmed ourselves, Because the air seemed chill under the cherry: Though we needed no excuse, No reason to look into each other’s eyes.
Could our breath be sweeter, or our hearts fuller Than now?
Summer is another country, many miles away, Where they do things strangely, And they speak another tongue.
I overheard a man talking into his phone and his dialogue punctuates this poem. People often seem to be in control of their lives, at least to me, and this clear evidence of the opposite seemed to be useful. But it came as I was struggling with the past, with rising feelings of panic. The harsh juxtaposition of the one-way phone call and the ineffable is a reflection of that panic.The poem can be read straight through, or just as the man on the phone, or just as the poet.
Another night. Acid reflux, The retching return of fights and flights, “Hello mate, how’re you doing?” Half forgotten.
They switched the electric heater on When I was sick: one molten bar. “Shit, no way, you’re joking right?” It glowed in the blackness.
Panic blossoms, invades my breath. Iodine stung my bleeding knee. “Can’t do it mate, I’m busy.” It stained me yellow.
In the cloister, there were sweet violets By the antic arch to the secret garden. “All right, cheers mate.” Now the way is lost.
The darkness dilutes into the dawn, Which brings a different tyranny. “That was a fucking waste of time.” Another day.
I ‘wrote’ all of these Haiku out of doors. Nietzsche observed that “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking” and while I offer no judgement as to their worth or otherwise, I certainly found them useful to invent in the moment and so for me they worked as ‘great thoughts’ in difficult times.
I was criticised by someone on Twitter who told me that I should loosen up and ignore the 5/7/5 syllable ‘rule’. In one sense he was correct in saying that a syllable is not the equivalent of the Japanese mora. Even in English Haiku forms, there are many variants. However, something about the form of the traditional Haiku appeals. I place value in the adherence to structure, the importance of the ‘cutting word’ and the seasonal reference.