The Day After World Poetry Day

I was busy yesterday and allowed World Poetry Day to pass me by, so it is too late to offer my customary greeting of

Hip hip hooray!

It’s World Poetry Day!

and I don’t think

Hip hip hooray!

It’s the day after World Poetry Day!

will do. Instead, here is something called

The Poet Peels An Onion

She cannot peel it in the ordinary way
There has to be mythology and blood
(Her knife runs round King Oedipus’s eye)

The outer layer comes off as a whole
(Like the dead leaf that Aristaeus scorned)*
But after that it gets more difficult

The peel is not the end, is not even
The beginning of the end
The onion has to have the final say

The cloves with which she studs it
After peeling are not mere cloves
(But the helmets of the Seven Against Thebes)

Tears come to her eyes
This is what she likes about onions –
At no cost, they can make you cry

*I cannot, for the life of me, remember what this line is about. There is an Antaeus in Greek mythology, but what, if anything, he had to do with onions, and in what circumstances he scorned a dead leaf, I have no idea. If anyone can enlighten me, I would be grateful.

The Last of Summer

The Last of Summer

…such beautiful days
i saw sheep in fields
trees on high ridges against the sky
horses in a field with sheep
i saw water rippling under low bridges
churches of flint down dead-end lanes
old cottages with tiny window panes
long-horned cows that stopped chewing until I had passed –
chickens!

And yet I need my medicines and drugs
and long sleeps and dreams
of things that never happened
and will not happen now

if I could only stay here with the horses
the horses and the healing sheep

The Winter Cherry

I’ve been fiddling with this and having trouble getting it right. This might just be the latest version…

Snow stopped falling long ago.

Only the oldest inhabitants remember

The hard years when snow

Would cut off house from house,

Obliterate the land with cruel beauty,

Freeze even moving waters.

They tell the worst of it in serious voices –

All kinds of hardship, even death.

 

Outside my window this New Year Day

A blossoming winter cherry reminds me of snow;

Reminds me of an old perplexity

Of wanting to remain and yet to go.

Such beauty on my doorstep

I don’t even have to step outside.

I think of coming spring –

Of the lambing.

 

Bury me under the winter cherry, I chant.

It can’t be done, you say; not here.

Then bury my ashes, my ashes will have to do

To let you know

That something kills you more than snow

And I will be under the winter cherry

Feeding the roots

And helping it to grow.

 

Your coat is flecked with something that looks like snow

Look, you say, laughing- snow!

It can’t be snow, I say; it isn’t white;

And you sigh- everything, you say, if you look

For long enough, is white –

I stood under the winter cherry

And a gust of wind threw blossom over me.

If you were buried there, it might be you.

Untitled

It’s so long since I posted anything here, so I am just squeezing this in before Christmas. It isn’t a Christmas poem however- it’s about a dead badger.

 

 

is

As I walked down this hill towards the road

Like one without a care in all the world;

I stopped and looked, then on I strode

In wonder there was nothing to be seen or heard.

 

As far as my ears could hear or eyes could see

There was nothing moving in all the world

No birds, no folk, no creature besides me.

I went over the stile to the metalled road.

 

The road was as unpeopled as the path

Until I turned the bend towards the town

And saw, blocking one entire lane, Death

In the shape of a badger, lying still as any stone.

 

A dead badger, and nothing else around;

Decaying in the middle of the road;

An obstruction to human traffic, food

For smaller creatures picking at its wound.

 

Its stale blood dirtied the tarmac where it had run.

I couldn’t see its eyes, only the belt

Of stored muscle in its lustreless black pelt;

Flies buzzing around it, catching the sun.

 

It was a phoney summer; I’d been expecting rain.

The corpse was there all week in the same spot.

I walked around it, cars swerved around it

Without slowing- the heap of slow ruin.

 

On my return, I climbed over the stile

Back up the quiet hill about a mile

To the isolated cottage. It was a quiet time

But I’d something to tell my friends about back home.

 

Happy Christmas.

Pages of the Sea

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I was involved in the Pages of the Sea workshops and was inspired to write something myself. This is it.

Late Memories

These are of course not memories for most;

Are postcards from that other country- The Past.

The Silence, the medalled men, the Last Post,

The lists of names, the Unknown Soldiers, are dust

 

That runs through our fingers leaving nought

But a smear on our palms, an idle boast

That we too have done our duty, fought

Our battles kindlier than these ghosts.

 

We know now what was wrong with all that- the Lies,

White Feathers, fools who sent our fathers over the top

Into the killing-fields, the no-man’s land, into skies

Of chlorine gas, over ground whose only crop

 

Was body parts and blood, nothing to feed

Lands fit for heroes, men grown too wise

For work and wages, men whose deeds

Could not be spoken of, or seen by unseeing eyes.

 

Of course you wonder sometimes if there’s a point

In learning history, reading the poets-

One way or another the time is out of joint –

Our tongues can find no new words, only quotes.

 

So why should we remember? And if we do

How choose among the dead, the grieved,

The nurses, the spies, the conchies, the few

Innocents who knew nothing of the graves?

 

Can the world ever be free of war?

If we pay the right attention can we make it?

Remember so intently what went wrong before

That we never never repeat the same mistakes?

 

Time will tell and history will judge.

More Old Lies, I think. If there be any judges

Who understand time and history and judgement

I ain’t heard of them- but who am I to judge?

 

It’s the same time, the past, as the future and the present;

The same but different;

Just like our sight of it –

The same, but always shifting.

 

I read down

the list of names

Expecting to find my own

Wade C.G.

Wade F.R.

Webster M

Webster W

Wilson –

No, it isn’t there

No White A

No-one whose face to see or hand to shake

Uncharted

I read these pieces at the private view of this beautiful exhibition last night- such a privilege to be involved. These poems are based on/inspired by Catherine’s pieces about water and words (‘words slip slide, perish’) and migration – the migration of peoples/the migration of cranes.

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                    Water as Metaphor

It’s water and it’s something other than water –

You wash your hands and imagine you’re Macbeth,

Or Pontius Pilate –

And while it’s

Comforting after the slaughter

To imagine that you can be cleansed,

There is a divinity that shapes our end

However we try to style it.

                           Water as life and water as death –

                           Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow

                           Is how the ancient wisdom goes;

 

But as for water washing the words away!

It’s terrifying –

I feel like Miss Muffet eating her curds and whey,

Although the metaphor here’s more highfalutin –

The words slip and slide under the tension

Slip so far from your first intention

That wounds cannot be washed with simple water

And you find yourself needing metaphors

                             Verifying

                             The necessity for putting the boot in

                             Before words tumble down the waterfall

 

             The True Language of Cranes

We cranes, you will be pleased to hear,

Speak English so that you may understand;

What’s more, we use iambic pentameters

Mostly, so you will know this as poetry

Without having to have that pointed out.

Up here, it’s quiet and that suits us fine

(None of us bothers to watch the in-flight movie)

We like to concentrate on what we are doing,

But in a relaxed way, as if this is not difficult at all,

Flying 3000 miles at 20,000 feet.

No movies then, but we enjoy the occasional poem

Many of which are about the weather

So you would probably enjoy them too

Although it isn’t quite the same, as cranes

Have about fifteen hundred words for what you call clouds.

Yes, we like to concentrate on what we are doing –

You might think we are out of harm’s way up here

But it is dangerous enough all the way

From Siberia to south eastern China

(China is always nice, for there cranes are considered auspicious-

Which is much better than being considered delicious-

We are symbols of fertility and long life;

Fidelity too- we try not to spoil that for them)

Yes, it is dangerous enough on these crowded flyways

So we concentrate on what we are doing;

But we take an interest in what’s going on below.

Don’t be alarmed- we’re not going to start

Coming over all wise and knowing more than you;

We’re not anthropomorphic cranes; we’re real ones –

We speak English, in iambic pentameters

Mostly.

 

No, what’s striking is how similar you are.

Here we are, migrating from Siberia to southeast China

Back again six months later

And there you are, moving to and fro all the time,

And it’s dangerous enough for you too, we observe –

Deaths at sea, deaths on roads, but not enough

To make you think you’re better off at home

Where, after all, more deaths take place than elsewhere.

Yes, there are many similarities –

You, like us, don’t want to become extinct

But you don’t appear to have found a nice winter home

Where people think your arrival auspicious

Rather than suspicious.

The Gift of Tongues

Storytelling last night – Spooky Stories for Grown-Ups – with my friends Michelle and Ribs of Hand of Doom Productions. This is the story I wrote for the occasion.

 

The Gift of Tongues

The only thing that Leanne Simpson had learned at school was that life is boring. Lessons were boring; teachers were boring; boys were boring; even girls – talking of nothing but the grades they needed to get to university – were boring. Home, parents, it went without saying, were boring.

Everyone thought she was too clever for her own good.

          -You need to learn to bite your tongue, her form teacher would tell her; You’re so sharp one day you’ll cut yourself.

          -If I bite my tongue I’ll cut myself, Leanne replied; so it sounds the same either way.

Her only friend was Arestra, and together they made a cult of boredom. Arestra, who had no father, and a mother who worked night shifts, insisted that she had no other name but Arestra. She dressed in nothing but black, and had covered the walls and the windows of her room with sheets of black paper. There was nothing cool or attractive about her black clothes – a shapeless, man’s jumper that hung from her skinny shoulders down to her knees was typical. Once she had dabbed Flash bathroom cleaner behind her ears and been told ‘you smell nice’, so she had poured some into a perfume bottle and labelled it

                         Arestra

                   Eau de Mystère

 

Arestra was considered to be a bad influence on Leanne.

They sat in her black room in silence for as long as they could stand it.

           – Shall we make a suicide pact? Leanne once asked her.

Arestra shook her head.

          – No. Too interesting.

It was the coinage of a phrase they came to use constantly.

Leanne knew that this couldn’t go on, that real life would have to begin; but she didn’t know how to end it.

Arestra heard of a piece of music called Vexations.

          – It’s perfect, she told Leanne; it’s by someone called Erik Satie – Erik is spelt with a ‘k’ -and it lasts for 18 hours and 40 minutes, and it doesn’t change. At all. It’s just one thing that is repeated 840 times.

          – How did you hear about it?

          – I did a search- world’s most boring piece of music.

She had found a recording on which the pianist played the motif 40 times.

          – So we’ll play that 21 times and experience the whole thing as Monsieur Satie intended it. This will bore us out of our minds.

          – Yes, Leanne agreed; it will. I really think it will. Aren’t you scared?

They waited until Arestra’s mother had her next night shift.

          – It’s possible that we can do the whole 18 hours without her bothering us. She has a half-hour journey, a 10-hour shift, and then she has to sleep.

So, one Saturday evening in October, they took a jug of black coffee to Arestra’s room and closed the door.

          -Okay; what are the rules?

Leanne had thought about this.

          -We should call this event The Judgement of Boredom. We’ve never done anything this extreme; it’s the ultimate test. We might die of boredom or we might be transformed by boredom.

          -Transcendence! hissed Arestra.

          -Yes; so we have to give this everything. No talking- at all- but at the end of each cycle we make more coffee, use the bathroom-

          -If we need to.

          -Yes, if we need to.

          -I agree, said Arestra. Give me your hand.

She put their hands palm to palm and they looked into each other’s eyes.

          -Oh Leanne. What a friend you are. There can’t be another person in the whole world who would do this with me.

          – You smell nice, said Leanne.

At first Leanne sat still and was quiet. The music sounded like something that would be played at a funeral, but after the first several repetitions became so boring that she could hear nothing in it at all. Her mind was elsewhere, but that elsewhere was no more interesting. After about one hour, she became restless, but Arestra was so still that Leanne dared not move. She wanted to laugh, have a proper fit of giggles, but that too she suppressed. After they had listened to the record twice, she went to the bathroom and washed her face. She noticed that her pupils had shrunk almost to pinpricks. Still neither of them spoke.

Sometime during the third hour, Leanne rose to her feet and threw her head back and with her eyes closed began speaking rapidly:

          -shandalaka kondolon badibuallalla shilto shadakaladikaka

She went on :

          -bomrompapreea dupaknee urumurem.

She went on like this until she stopped and opened her eyes and looked at Arestra.

          -Glossolalia! Arestra hissed.

Leanne looked at her blankly.

          -Glossolalia. Speaking in tongues. What was it like?

          -It was like knowing the meaning of life but I could only say it in those words.

They abandoned the Satie and talked about the meaning of life. Neither of them could say what it was.

          -So what do you think? said Arestra; you said that this would be the judgement of boredom, so what is your judgement?

They answered in unison :

          -Too interesting!

Halloween was the most boring thing in existence. Everybody knew that. It was the epitome of boredom. Pumpkins, tuppenny witches’ hats, skulls. Last year Arestra and Leanne had made themselves sick eating a whole pumpkin each. This year Arestra decided that they should spend the night in the graveyard.

          -Hallowmas, she called it. It’s not what you think, she said, overriding Leanne’s objection that it sounded too interesting. Look at it this way: it’s Hallowmas and the dead walk abroad. Alternatively, we stay there all night and nothing happens. Which do you think is more likely? When we did that Satie thing, we expected it to be boring and it turned out interesting. This will be the other way around.

Leanne agreed and at half past eleven on the night of All Souls’ Eve they walked through the lych gate of the parish church. There had been no burials there for many years and the graves were higgledy-piggledy, with headstones at odd angles.

          -It would be funny, said Leanne, if we were lying here and were crushed by one of these stones falling on us.

          -It would be perfect, said Arestra; they’re the ultimate thing. Underneath this was somebody’s body – you know: Josiah somebody-or-other, seventeen-hundred-and-something, and he’s totally dead now; body all eaten up with worms. But the thing is his headstone is dead too- the words that told you about him have been worn away. Death death death all around.

Leanne lay prone on one of the graves.

          -It’s cold, she said. There’s only this slab of stone between me and the worms.

Arestra stretched herself supine on the grave next to Leanne’s.

          -I wonder if they can sense our bodies. I imagine them salivating underneath us waiting to get started.

Leanne giggled.

          -I bet you’re the only person this Halloween who’s worried about the worms more than the ghosts. It’s cold, she said again; I’m not sure how long I can do this for.

Nevertheless, she lay there motionless, cold and bored.

          – You see, said Arestra; I told you it would be boring. We should be lying here terrified every time we hear an owl hoot or leaves rustling; but in reality we’re talking about worms and how cold it is. If only you could talk in tongues again, something might happen.

Leanne moved her head so that she was looking down at the stone.

          – Can you hear me? she said in a spooky voice; live worms or dead humans, answer me. She pressed her face against the stone and began whispering rapidly.

Arestra said:

          -They’re not listening.

Then she stretched out on the grave again, looking at the darkness, picking out the branches of the yew tree and the clouds. She heard a noise like a shovelful of earth being tossed on the ground. She sat up. At first, she thought what she could hear was the sound of Leanne whispering, but it wasn’t that- it wasn’t coming from Leanne’s mouth, but from below her; more of a scraping or scratching sound. And then she saw, directly below Leanne’s face, a movement of the surface of the gravestone, and then an eruption of broken stone, and then something pushing through, through the break in the stone, the fingers and thumb of a hand – but a hand with no flesh on it, just the bones – reach up and into Leanne’s mouth. Her face was pulled against the stone; her hands were either side of her head, trying to pull it away; her legs and her body thrashed wildly.

Arestra jumped up and leaned over her. She too began trying to pull her head back.

          -Leanne; she screamed; what? O God.

Suddenly Leanne’s head was free. Her mouth and her jaw were loose, and blood was streaming out. Her eyes were wide and bright, as if they were torches. There was some earth and moss about her lips, and what looked like a worm, but it was mostly blood. Her tongue was missing.

Arestra screamed again; she was shaking; her whole body was shaking. She ran for help, back through the churchyard, through the lych gate, back into the streets and the street lights. She waved down a police car. By the time they returned, Leanne was lifeless. That was the end of Leanne Simpson. It took her entirely by surprise. She had never imagined that her life would end like this. Arestra screamed for a while, and then she cried a lot, pulling the heavy black jumper around herself. Now she too was feeling very cold.

Leanne Simpson was dead. It was impossible to discover what had happened. Arestra’s account of what she had seen was so incoherent, and the story itself so implausible, that nobody could believe that. The gravestone was unbroken; it looked as still and old as always. Her tongue was not found. On the other hand, what had happened to her was so shocking, so diabolical, that it could not be explained. For a time it was thought to have been a prank that went wrong. Arestra kept saying “It’s all my fault”, but no more. In the end no solution could be found and the coroner’s ruling was that she had suffered an unnatural death.

Arestra was admitted to a mental health ward and has not recovered or improved. She is cared for now under her real name, which is Pat Green.

Her mother has a new boyfriend. They buy lots of stuff online and have noisy rows. From time to time the authorities remind her of her daughter, but ‘I just make the right noises’, she has been heard to say; ‘and then they leave me alone’. She has become very fat and has had to stop working. She is able to make ends meet on her benefits and a small pension.